Low Hanging Fruit: A Very Healthy Diet for The Planet Earth

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Michael Mann has an editorial on Scientific American’s site putting the well known 2.0C limit in perspective for the upcoming climate talks in Paris.

Mann makes a number of important points in his essay (read it here: Meeting a Global Carbon Limit Is Cheaper Than Avoiding One) but there is one point that I want to underscore.

The key factor is that there are technological innovations and economies of scale that emerge only in the course of actually doing something.

Here’s the thing. Let’s say you were suddenly in charge of one trillion dollars of money that could be used to address climate change. What would you spend the money on? Here are some suggestions.

1) Build machines that take CO2 out of the air.

2) Invest in the “next generation” of nuclear reactors.

3) Purchase a huge amount of deforested land and re-forest it.

4) Divide the money up among numerous research groups to develop as yet unknown clean energy technologies that may save us.

All those things are potentially good ideas, and we should probably think about doing all of them at some level. But that is not how you should spend your trillion dollars. The way you should spend your trillion dollars is to underwrite the cost of converting as many homes and businesses as you can to using passive geothermal heating and cooling, and to install photovoltaic on the roofs. Some of the money could also be used to switch internal combustion engines over to electric. Why do these things first? Because they are low hanging fruit. The results would be immediate. A home that uses passive geothermal will use about half, or less, of the fossil carbon for that purpose. A home that has fully deployed PV panels on the roof can cover the electricity for all of that home’s commuting costs and run the heating and cooling system, and a few other things, for much of the year. And so on. As long as our landscape is characterized by buildings with roofs that serve mainly to convert sunlight into heat, we can buy out that sunlight, harness it, and move towards a greater percentage of clean energy very very quickly.

At the same time, of course, we do want to do research on new technologies, perhaps even carbon capture (though I think that should be way down on the list). But there is so much we can do with existing technologies addressing existing needs. As Mann put it, “The obstacle is not a physical one—it is one of political and societal will.”

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12 thoughts on “Low Hanging Fruit: A Very Healthy Diet for The Planet Earth

  1. A standard HVAC package in the USA costs about 18,000.

    Lets round down to 15,000 per home to do your suggested retrofit.

    That means you could retrofit 66.67 million homes.

    Now you may be right and do the retrofit might be the best thing.

    However, I think that inventing a form of energy which is non-carbon producing and cheaper than oil, coal or natural gas would result in way more bang for your buck.

    Because once you had that invention – everybody would naturally switch over to it to produce energy – homes, business, power plants, here in the USA and abroad.

    So I would do the R&D first and then the retrofitting.

  2. First, there’s no need for a complete revamp of HVAC in most homes. Adding insulation to the walls would make a big impact. Estimates I found for this run from $2,500 to $5,500 in a typical American home, depending on latitude. (And there is no requirement to pay for it all out of the fund, since it should pay for itself over time.)

    Second, there are other ways to cut carbon. Energy Star appliances, for example. The fund could pay to incentivize their installation. Tenants of office buildings could be funded to find ways to cut energy use — for example turning off lights and computers after business hours.

    Third, we already have non-carbon sources which are at or near cost parity with fossil fuels. But you knew that already.

  3. Back in the 70s there was a whole program to convert homes to gas furnaces from the old oil burning ones. As I recall it worked brilliantly to cut home fuel oil costs (this was in the days wen an oil truck would come to your house and you’d fill up). The gas powered furnaces were 1/4 the size, because in many older homes the oil furnaces / boilers were converted from coal (my own house was like that — the oil boiler was this huge, room-filling thing in the basement that had a no-longer-used coal hopper next to it. The gas burner was the size of a small table. Freed up a lot of space).

    So allocating funds for retrofits seems like a good idea as you get the effects you want right now.

    I’d add that even replacing some roofs with not just solar panels but anything other than that tin stuff they use all over the South would be better, and putting in double-pane windows everywhere. Whenever I travel to Florida I look at the houses and think there can’t be a more inefficient way to cool buildings — everywhere I went it was hot inside unless the A/C was going, and I kept thinking that the stone architecture I see in Spain and Morocco would be a much better solution.

    Also: office buildings. Those glass towers are basically greenhouses. (See: Hancock Tower in Boston). I could think of a lot of ways to cut the energy use of those structures with a trillion dollars — even planting grass on the roofs of a lot of Manhattan buildings would probably go a long way.

    As to longer term projects, I might allocate a few billion here and there for good public transit. Many cities once had such transit systems — Rochester, NY for instance had a subway. I see no reason why you couldn’t map out some expansions in say, Chicago, LA (replacing the old rail system they had) and in cities like Dallas, outer New Orleans, Memphis, Indianapolis, Salt Lake City — I’m sure we could all think of others that could use that kind of thing. The key bit would be to treat these things as systems. For instance, you’d want passenger rail links between Chicago, Indianapolis, and then connecting Indianapolis to St. Louis directly. And completing (or rather restoring) the line from Bakersfield to LA. Stuff like that. Every other developed country I have been to — and even some developing nations like Morocco — has rail links from airports that are direct to where you want to go.

    Even in the Northeast, building real inter-suburban rail in New Jersey would take the load off of several highways and cut maintenance costs; on top of that you’d lose the carbon emissions (I am thinking of a line connecting stations along the I-287/ 280 corridor).

    All these would be decade-scale projects, but I mention them because they are just that — the kinds of things you could do in 10 years or less.

    R&D is great, but the problem is it’s a bit too much of a gamble (though it should certainly be done). That is, you have a gap between invention and adoption that can last a long time. So even if someone successfully builds a fusion reactor tomorrow, it will be decades at least before they are everywhere. Remember that we still use coal and that technology is several centuries old, 100 years if you count just coal fired electricity.

  4. I would put much of my bet down on developing affordable energy storage for both residential and commercial applications so that we can balance the variable wind and solar inputs. Without that storage, we will continue to be stuck with base load gas and coal fired generators.

  5. I see the above solution as very American. It’s socially skewed and prioritizes homeowners with roofs and backyards. Utility-scale communal measures can benefit everyone. A recent set of proposals from the Danish business organization Dansk Industri pointed out that large-scale solutions made better social economic sense than “individual solar installations and local storage.”

    (For det første er der bedre samfunds- økonomi i en energiproduktion i større skala end i fx individuelle solcelleanlæg og lokale lagringsløsninger.
    Giv Energien Videre
    Nye energipolitiske visioner og udfordringer 2020-2030 p.20)

    It also ignores that low hanging fruits also are a matter of available resources. Rooftop solar has certain obvious advantages. One of them is that it doesn’t necessitate the use of additional land. But in some locations, other kinds of solar generation make more sense. And in some locations, wind is preferable. It should also be taken into account that wind and solar aren’t just different technologies, they’re complementary. And a grid that can tie different technologies and geographical areas together reduces the need for storage and baseload capacity.

    Finally, while I agree that we need to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, we also need to avoid an as cheap as possible or biggest bang for the buck strategy. Any strategy should also include the implementation of expensive, immature technologies that could show promise if they were scaled up.

  6. Cosmicomics, yes, very good point. I’m not suggesting this particular low hanging fruit because I am culturally American, but rather, because I am in America, where I see the power industry as being singularly unhelpful, and often opposing clean energy. If a good percentage of American homes and businesses became part time suppliers of electricity and demanded less this would put the utilities over a barrel, and require renegotiation or restructuring of how al that works.

    A key problem in the US is that much of this is done at the state level. Energy interests have fifty independent targets in their efforts to develop anti-regulation or anti-clean energy legislation or policy. Imagine the European Union with fifty countries divided into two very different political camps and with the legal basis for NOT cooperating stronger than the legal requirement to cooperate.

    I question the large vs. small scale differences. This is in a way an implied point of what I’m saying in this post. PV panels on buildings, as they work now, pay for themselves in short order. This can’t be argued against. they produce clean energy. Using this approach changes the efficiency of other approaches.

    That rooftop solar makes sense does not obviate other strategies that make sense, and visa versa.

    The problem with comparing strategies is that all of the comparisons are provisional, not proven, and the effect a given analysis will have is not based on the qualities of the analysis, but on the sociopolitical positioning of the analysis. And, of course, many analyses are biased. On to of this, there is a cultural phenomenon that emerges where individuals or organizations fall into the trap of thinking their favorite solution is the best and therefore all others are not merely “not as good” but rather “bad, dont’ do them.”

    For these reasons I reject nearly all such comparative analyses, no matter how scientific they may seem, during the low hanging fruit phase. After we have picked a lot of the low hanging fruit we will need to start comparing solutions to see which way to go. But by definition, low hanging fruit solutions do not require comparison because they are all good, all pay for themselves, all easy to do. So just do them.

    On the biggest bang for the buck comment, exactly. Also, the truth is, that our ultimate goal is not to make cheap or efficient energy. It is to make energy that does not use fossil fuel. Sometimes that is going to be expensive.

  7. I put 15,000 watts of photovoltaics on the garage roof. I’m planting trees down by the pond. The house is already well insulated. I would love to put a few wind turbines on the roof, but can’t find a willing vendor. That reduces my family’s footprint, but it doesn’t address how to get all that excess C02 out of the atmosphere. Truly, I would farm coccolithophores and planktic foraminifera for the calcium carbonate if i could.

  8. #6

    Thanks for the reply. While deferring to your knowledge of the specifics of American power industry policy, I would still claim that small and large-scale comparisons can be meaningful, perhaps to a greater extent for a technology like wind, where size is essential, than for solar, but there are solar technologies that need to be large scale. And I think it’s too often overlooked in exchanges like this that even the best technologies will fail to perform if they’re not properly sited. I would also claim –and I don’t think we would disagree here – that chosen energy solutions generally should be cost-effective and shouldn’t make social inequality worse. The production price of Danish power is among the cheapest in Europe, but our electricity bill is high because 59% of it is taxes that help finance our social welfare system. The more privatized our system becomes, the fewer there are to pay for a system that benefits all. In the U.S. I would fear that the combination of rooftop solar and storage would benefit those who can afford it while transferring grid and other costs to those who can’t. (At the same time I accept that this would weaken the power of the utilities, but I don’t think that would be the only effect.)

  9. #8
    Solar is a good rooftop technology. Wind isn’t. The vibrations can destroy the roofs the turbines are mounted on. The towers aren’t tall enough to reach good wind resources – if they’re available in your area. They’re affected by turbulence, which means that they can’t rely on the stable winds that turbines need. Please do some research before you decide on buying something. The following might be helpful:


    http://www.wind-works.org/cms/index.php? id=398&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=137&cHash=bce4d8017b9a204d47f82fec725f72d7


  10. Mainly spot on Greg.

    My general is top three priorities: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy. Maybe fourth is ‘develop’ things in the lab for deploying tomorrow and fifth would the research for the day after tomorrow.

    Out of the $1T, therefore, might spend some $10Bs on R&D — with perhaps 80-90% going to deployment.

    A key point: economies of scale and the virtuous cycle. Putting resources into deployment will contribute greatly to lowering the costs/easing of tomorrow’s deployments. Much innovation actually occurs only through the real world lessons/experience.

    And, many of the key innovations (such as rooftop leasing for solar …) are business innovations that only bubble up as deployment faces challenges.

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