Carbon dioxide emissions from US power generation have declined by over a quarter since 2005, according to a recent report from the US government. The largest part of this reduction is from reduced demand, with switching around among fossil fuels that are less vs more dirty and adding non carbon sources combine to make about the same difference. Like this:
The following graph shows the total generation and the total CO2 output of the US electricity generation system, comparing 2007 and 2017. Solar and wind don’t show up in 2005, but are a nice little chuck in 2017 (progress but too slow). Combined, non-carbon (still with nuclear as the largest part) went from 28% to 38% at the expense of fossil fuels. Within fossil fuel, there was a husge shift from coal towards natural gas. What we need to do now is to stop switching to methane, and start switching only to wind and solar. Right now.
We, we humans, need to stop releasing fossil carbon into the atmosphere well before 2100 or we are doomed.
The main reason we are not heading headlong into that project, getting it done right away, is because of the fossil fuel industry combined with a deep seated self-hate on the part of Republicans, who would rather end civilization and make all of our children suffer than to do something an environmentalist might suggest.
The road to decarbonization is the same as the road to electrification plus the road to making all of our electricity with something other than coal, oil, methane, and the like. This could involve a certain amount of liquid fuel that is generated using wind and solar power, and magical bacteria or something, perhaps with a mix of plant material or other bio-sources.
There are easy ways to do part of this fast. For example, building wind farms is easy and produces piles of electricity. Same with solar. “But wait wait,” you say. “Those sources are intermittent, we can’t…” But I say to you, if this is your first thought, you are out of date (or are a Republican?). Solar and wind are indeed intermittent, but we can still use them as the backbone of our power system. This is a problem, but not one that can’t be figured out and has been, in fact, largely solved using a number of approaches. And, that is off the topic of this post.
We can also put solar panels on our roofs to a much greater degree than we do now. It has been estimated that a reasonable, not overdone but pretty thorough, deployment of PV panels on the roofs of America would cover about 40% of our in-building electrical needs as they stand now. This added to the eventual (though expensive, yet easy) deployment of heat pumps and total electrification of everything in those buildings probably averages out (the heat pumps reduce energy demand, the electrification increases demand for electricity as compared to gas or oil).
There are other types of low hanging fruit as well, such as increasing efficiency, telecommuting.
But what about the hard to do stuff, the major uses of energy that can’t be changes so easily?
There is a new review paper out in Science that discusses this. The paper is:
If you click on that link, you might be able to see the paper, as I think it is OpenAccess.
The paper identifies the following areas as tough nuts to crack:
It identifies the following technologies as helpful:
Hydrogen and ammonia fuels
Direct solar fuels
The paper also identifies “highly reliable electricity” and energy storage as key areas of further development.
I do not see any major surprises in this paper, but that is because it is a review paper. I think it is a useful read to help organize one’s thinking on the transitions we will attempt, should the Republicans allow it, over the next decades.
Earlier today, Minnesota Gubernatorial candidate Rebecca Otto released her energy transition plan. It an ambitious plan that puts together several elements widely considered necessary to make any such plan work, then puts them on steroids to make it work faster. To my knowledge, this is the first major plan to be proposed since the recent dual revelations that a) the world is going to have to act faster than we had previously assumed* and b) the US Federal government will not be helping.
Here’s the elevator speech version: Minnesota residents get around five thousand dollars cash (over several years), monetary incentives to upgrade all their energy using devices from furnaces to cars, some 80,000 new, high paying jobs, and in the end, the state is essentially fossil fuel free.
About half of that fossil fuel free goal comes directly from the plan itself, the other half from the economy and markets passing various tipping points that this plan will hasten. The time scale for the plan is roughly 10 years, but giving the plan a careful reading I suspect some goals will be reached much more quickly. This means that once the plan takes off, Minnesotans will have an incentive to hold their elected officials accountable for holding the course for at least a decade.
The central theme of the plan is to use a revenue-neutral carbon price, which is widely seen by experts as the best approach for cleaning up our energy supply. The simple version of the carbon price works like this: Releasing carbon is saddled with a cost, way up (or early) in the supply chain. So you don’t pay a gas tax or any kind of energy tax, but somewhere up the line the big players are being charged for producing energy reliant on the release of fossil carbon. They, of course, have the option of producing electricity from wind and solar.
The campaign notes, “Rebecca’s Minnesota-Powered Plan doesn’t raise taxes a single penny. It levies a carbon price on fossil fuel companies, and pays 100% of the revenue back to Minnesota residents, so we can take charge of our own energy.”
That money is then distributed to any citizen who wants it (of course they will all want it), evenly, across the board. So, in theory, your cost of living is a little higher if dirty energy producers are in your own personal supply chain, but lower if they are not, and in any event, you are paid off to not care. The point is, if you personally eschew fossil carbon releasing products or energy sources, you get the payoff and someone else is paying for it. That would apply to both individuals and companies, because companies can often make those choices. For example, a school bus company would be more likely to replace an old dirty bus with an electric bus rather than a propane bus. (Just yesterday, an electric bus set a record, going over 1,000 miles on a single charge! Electricity is some pretty powerful magic.)
The Otto plan has a twist. While 75% of the carbon price is distributed evenly and directly to all citizens, 25% is distributed as refundable tax credits intended to cover 30% of the cost of clean energy improvements that use Minnesota companies. This may include solar panels, heat pumps for heating and cooling, insulation, new lighting, etc. New or used electric cars count. So it all goes back to the people, but some of it is directed to support the energy transition for individuals and families.
(A “refundable credit” is a tax credit that you still get even if you did not pay enough taxes to use it, so people of any income will be able to access the clean energy benefits.)
The conservatively estimated potential cash gain for a typical Minnesota family is laid out in this table from the Otto campaign:
That is for one year. As the plan matures, a decade down the line, we can assume the carbon price component will diminish, but the household payback for being off fossil fuels will increase, and, guess what? The plant gets to live and your children don’t have to live in as much of a dystopian future!
The clean energy technologies that will need to be deployed mostly already exist, and most of them can be processed and supplied right here in Minnesota. Indeed installing PV panels and car chargers, or efficient heat pump based furnaces, etc. is the kind of job that can not be outsourced to some other country, because your house is here so the work gets done here! It is estimated that some 80,000 long term high paying jobs will be generated from this infrastructure redo. That will in turn increase revenues to the state and quite likely, will spell surpluses, some of which are likely to be tax rebates or other sorts of payoffs to the citizens of the state.
A quick word about the Coal-Car Myth. Some will read about this plan and say, “yeah, but … if I drive an electric car and stuff, that electricity is even worser because it is made with dirty coal and stuff.” (Yes, I make the Coal-Car Mythers sound a bit dull because, at this point, you’d have to be a bit dull to still be thinking this). First, know this: There are circumstances under which burning coal to make electricity to charge a car will be more efficient than running a gasoline car. To conceptualize this, imagine two engineering teams in a competition. One is to make an energy plant using coal, the other is to use an energy plant using only 6 cylinder Ford motors. The winner builds the plant that is more efficient. The team using the thousands of internal combustion engines will lose. Second, know this: It is simply not the case that all of our electricity comes from coal, and every week there is less and less of it coming from coal. Electric cars have the promise, by the way, of outlasting internal combustion cars on average. So, over perhaps half the lifespan of a given electric car, what might have been a tiny increase in efficiency for a small number of electric cars (the rest start out way more than tiny) will become a great efficiency. It is time to switch to electric cars in Minnesota.
You can expect opposition to this plan from the likes of the Koch brothers, who are currently spending just shy of a billion dollars a year, that we know of, to keep fossil fuel systems on line and stop the clean energy transition. I asked Rebecca Otto what she expected in terms of push back. She told me, “Investing in clean energy means investing in our communities and taking charge of our own energy, instead of subsidizing big oil. Hence, big oil will be the stumbling block, as this will affect their bottom line over time.”
I asked Rebecca why this is something that needs to be handled by the states, rather than at the national level. She told me, “The crippling dysfunction in Washington is persistent and we need to act now. Oil companies are spending billions of dollars to rig the system against clean energy solutions. We need to break their stranglehold on our democracy and put people, not oil companies back in charge.”
She also noted that “we also have a moral imperative to do something and the federal government has become paralyzed by big oil propaganda and political spending. The states could become laboratories to begin to tackle climate change. And whoever does is going to reap the economic benefits from the job creation. These jobs pay 42% higher than the state’s average wage.”
Economists say the carbon price is the best way to make the energy transition happen. Regular Minnesotans benefit the most, the Minnesota economy benefits, and the environment benefits. This is a good plan. I endorse it.
This plan, which you should read all about here, has also been endorsed by the famous and widely respected meteorologist Paul Douglas, by Bill McKibben of 350.org, St Thomas scientist and energy expert John Abraham, and by climate scientist Michael Mann.
I’ve got more to say about this plan and related topics, so stay tuned.
Here’s a video of Rebecca Otto discussing energy from the roof of her solar paneled home, with her windmill generating electricity in the background. Apparently, she walks the walk!
*You may have seen recent research suggesting that we have more time than previously estimated to get our duck in a row with clean energy. That research was misrepresented in the press. A statement made by one of the authors clarifies: “..to likely meet the Paris goal, emission reductions would need to begin immediately and reach zero in less than 40 years’ time.”
The big complaint people have about renewable energy, or at least, the big complaint that has some merit, is that renewables, such as wind and solar, are intermittent and to varying degrees, unpredictably intermittent. This makes it hard to match demand for electricity to supply. Some aspects of this argument are overstated. For example, a steady supply (the same potential power all the time, every minute of the day) can be a bug as well as a feature. If every electron of electricity we used came from nuclear power plants, there would be a problem because our demand fluctuates and you can’t vary the output of a nuclear plant. Some of the arguments are inaccurate. For example, it is not true that a nuclear power plant produces the same exact amount of electricity all the time. Nuke plants often reduce production unexpectedly. If there is some sort of problem, they partly shut down. And, of course, the shut down for refueling. So they are not perfect.
The problem if intermittent and less than ideally predictable supply can be addressed a number of ways. One is big huge batteries, which are costly and otherwise problematic. There are various other storage methods using water and air and things that can hold heat or “hold cold.” And so on. Then, of course, there is the grid. If it is sunny one place and cloudy a different place, electricity can be shunted between.
Still, we often see arguments suggesting that these methods of matching supply and demand of electricity are problematic in one way or another.
Here is the abstract and the statement of significance from the paper:
This study addresses the greatest concern facing the large-scale integration of wind, water, and solar (WWS) into a power grid: the high cost of avoiding load loss caused by WWS variability and uncertainty. It uses a new grid integration model and finds low-cost, no-load-loss, nonunique solutions to this problem on electrification of all US energy sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) while accounting for wind and solar time series data from a 3D global weather model that simulates extreme events and competition among wind turbines for available kinetic energy. So- lutions are obtained by prioritizing storage for heat (in soil and water); cold (in ice and water); and electricity (in phase-change materials, pumped hydro, hydropower, and hydrogen), and using demand response. No natural gas, biofuels, nuclear power, or sta- tionary batteries are needed. The resulting 2050–2055 US electricity social cost for a full system is much less than for fossil fuels. These results hold for many conditions, suggesting that low-cost, reliable 100% WWS systems should work many places worldwide.
The large-scale conversion to 100% wind, water, and solar (WWS) power for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) is currently inhibited by a fear of grid instability and high cost due to the variability and un- certainty of wind and solar. This paper couples numerical simu- lation of time- and space-dependent weather with simulation of time-dependent power demand, storage, and demand response to provide low-cost solutions to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of WWS across all energy sectors in the con- tinental United States between 2050 and 2055. Solutions are obtained without higher-cost stationary battery storage by pri- oritizing storage of heat in soil and water; cold in water and ice; and electricity in phase-change materials, pumped hydro, hy- dropower, and hydrogen.
I’m still absorbing the paper. I’m informed that the authors of this paper know what they are talking about. People I know in the clean energy biz have been saying for some time that they are pretty sure we can do this, and this study seems to support the idea. Even if this is not perfect, it seems that we can be close to using primarily renewables with some contribution from nuclear, and some adjustments in how we use energy. The key message of this work: It is not hopeless, we can save the world! Will we?