How do we decarbonize?

Decarbonization can’t come from partisan commitment to one and only one policy. The science and economics prove that a market-driven combination of electrification from renewable sources, supplementation with nuclear, strategic research into groundbreaking “miracle” solutions like fusion, a small amount of carbon sequestration and geoengineering, and a whole lot of will power is the realistic pathway to a sustainable future.

Decarbonization can’t come from partisan commitment to one and only one policy. The science and economics prove that a market-driven combination of electrification from renewable sources, supplementation with nuclear, strategic research into groundbreaking “miracle” solutions like fusion, a small amount of carbon sequestration and geoengineering, and a whole lot of will power is the realistic pathway to a sustainable future.

Summary

How to decarbonize appears to still be a contentious issue, whereas if we move past the “this, not that” arguments that plague the politics of the carbon transition, reasonable thinking leads to an approach that doesn’t require magical thinking or an over-commitment to any single technology. We don’t need a miracle technology — all we really need to do is to commit to massive electrification. Vested interests, however, want you to continue to believe in miracles because it means we can lean back and wait for the miracle to happen.

The actual miracle is that solar and wind are now the cheapest energy sources, electric cars are better cars than those we already have, electric radiant heating is better than our existing heating systems, and the internet was a practice run and blueprint for the electricity network of the future. Regardless of the minutiae of how we do it exactly, the beginning and the first half of decarbonization will most likely look the same: a commitment to solar and wind, batteries, electrification of homes, heat pumps, electric vehicles, ground-source geothermal and research into better biofuel sources and biofuels from waste, as well as research into better, cheaper, safer nuclear.

A carbon tax isn’t a solution; at best it will just accelerate solutions. It’s likely that un-subsidizing fossil fuels will be just as effective. By the time we have the political stomach for a carbon tax, the cheapest solutions will be electric vehicles, electrified homes, and wind and solar anyway.

 

We haven’t shown any inclination to drastically cut our consumption in the 40 years since Jimmy Carter asked us to wear sweaters.

 

Efficiency is great, but, like a carbon tax, it still isn’t a solution. Overwhelmingly, the largest efficiency wins aren’t LED lighting, double-glazed windows and heavier building insulation (each which is good but not nearly enough), but rather the electrification of cars and trucks, the electrification of our homes, and eliminating thermo-electric losses from the burning of fossil fuels to create electricity.

Nuclear power vs. renewables doesn’t become an issue during the first half of the transition to mass electrification, and by then nuclear might be too expensive (compared to wind and solar).

Coal or natural gas with carbon sequestration is expensive and won’t scale to the size of the problem. We know fracking leaks and that sequestered CO2 will leak too. The mere fact that compressed CO2 is much larger by volume than the oil and gas that come out tells us the simple story that we don’t have enough holes to stuff it into. Additionally and specifically, natural gas is a bridge to nowhere; fossil fuels already burned that bridge.

Renewables are disrupting fossil fuels, and if the US does not win that technology game it will no longer be the leading world power. No one is looking forward to that existential crisis.

In partnership with ARPA-e of The US Department of Energy, Otherlab built the most comprehensive interactive visualization of our energy economy. Leveraging a wealth of publicly available data collected by national agencies such as the EIA, DOT, and others, this tool helps to examine various future energy scenarios and inform our technology and policy decisions. This particular graphic illustrates the economy-wide, climate-positive benefits of a near wholesale shift to electrification in the economy- our cars and trucks, our homes, our businesses, and our industry. An interactive version of the tool can be found at  www.departmentof.energy  and you can download a detailed pdf version of this graphic at  https://www.dropbox.com/s/i5uqmlaw12744wc/MassiveElectrificationSankey.pdf?dl=0

In partnership with ARPA-e of The US Department of Energy, Otherlab built the most comprehensive interactive visualization of our energy economy. Leveraging a wealth of publicly available data collected by national agencies such as the EIA, DOT, and others, this tool helps to examine various future energy scenarios and inform our technology and policy decisions. This particular graphic illustrates the economy-wide, climate-positive benefits of a near wholesale shift to electrification in the economy- our cars and trucks, our homes, our businesses, and our industry. An interactive version of the tool can be found at www.departmentof.energy and you can download a detailed pdf version of this graphic at https://www.dropbox.com/s/i5uqmlaw12744wc/MassiveElectrificationSankey.pdf?dl=0


How do we decarbonize?

Decarbonization sounds difficult and intimidating, and people still seem to hope for something magical to absolve us all of this challenge of climate change. While we don’t have every single decarbonization option on the table right now, we have most of them, and reasonable and applied efforts will render the others tractable. Much of what needs to happen is already in full swing: the shift to electric cars and plummeting costs of wind, solar, and batteries.

 

The actual miracle is that solar and wind are now the cheapest energy sources, electric cars are better cars than those we already have, electric radiant heating is better than our existing heating systems, and the internet was a practice run and blueprint for the electricity network of the future.

 

For no particularly good reason, many people would like to make the decarbonization conversation binary: “this, not that.” The nuclear vs. renewables debate borders on religious. If nothing else, this piece is written to describe the gross high-level choices as a way of seeing that it’s not a binary choice: we sit before a smorgasbord of options, and we need to prioritize how to fill our plate.

There are good reasons (mostly cost) that some of the options at the smorgasbord will take a larger share of the decarbonized end game (I’m talking about you, solar). Similarly, there are good reasons that we’ll continue to hedge on higher-risk solutions (I’m talking about you, fusion) as their potential, if they work, is too high to ignore. Ultimately, this informs how one prioritizes solving climate change: we should prefer the things we know now will work and are cost-effective over those things we think might work, and obviously junk those things we can tell already will never work.

I’ll focus specifically on the energy side of climate change (carbon emissions) as that’s my specialty. That’s about 80% of the problem. The other ~20% is agriculture, land use, waste, and industrial processes¹. This 20% is dominated by the methane emissions of the meat sector, the industrial processes that produce most steel and cement, refrigerants being lost from our refrigerators and air-conditioners², and landfill³ and land-use (clearing and deforestation).

The short version of how we’ll decarbonize is through massive electrification–of all transportation as well as heat for buildings and industry — and that electricity will come from wind, solar, hydroelectric, and nuclear. I’ve written about massive electrification in much greater detail in my earlier article: The Green New Deal: The enormous opportunity in shooting for the moon.

The mid-length version is that in reality, how that electrification happens depends on local population density (urban vs. suburban vs. rural), climatic region (hot climate, cold climate, temperate climate) and cultural and local resource influences. Locations with relatively low population density, mild climates, and good solar resources (like Australia, California, New Mexico, and Texas) can almost completely solve the challenge with well-managed solar alone. High-population-density cold climates and hot climates will probably need to lean more heavily on nuclear power, or some version of imported energy, which could be renewably generated hydrogen⁴ or biofuels.

Once we have that detail, we need to decide on a high-level strategy for how to create the non-carbon energy and have an understanding of how we are going to use it. This is the supply and the demand question of energy. That is what we’ll discuss in this piece.

The Options:

Roughly speaking, the supply choices presented as debatable extremes can be defined as:

  1. All renewables, all the time

  2. Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear

  3. Fossil fuels with massive carbon sequestration

  4. Miracle technology saves the day

  5. Deprivation and efficiency

  6. Apathy with geoengineering

  7. Carbon tax

It’s hopefully obvious that no one solution will be the entire answer, and we’ll use some of everything, but we present the extreme version of each in order to be able to argue why there is a fairly obvious pathway to success.

1. All renewables, all the time?

All renewables can work⁵, but this strategy relies upon nascent storage technologies to align the demand with the variable supply. Renewables will also need to pervade our built environment due to the scale of energy our modern lifestyles enjoy — this was true for the ancient Greeks also, whose entire town planning and architecture were centered around making maximum use of (passive) solar energy. To power all of America on solar, for example, would require ~1% of the land area dedicated to solar collection. We currently dedicate 1% to roads and 0.5% to rooftops, so this is not impossible, but it will undoubtedly become a pervasive part of the fabric of our lives.

Figure 2: Summary of global renewables potential. There is ample solar and wind, a lot but not really enough biofuels (photosynthesis), and a small amount of hydroelectricity, geothermal, wave, and tidal.

Figure 2: Summary of global renewables potential. There is ample solar and wind, a lot but not really enough biofuels (photosynthesis), and a small amount of hydroelectricity, geothermal, wave, and tidal.

There is enough wind in the world to supply the entire world’s energy needs. Solar supply exceeds even that by many times and is by far the largest renewable resource. In reality, wind is a second-order effect of solar energy anyway — the sun differentially heats the oceans, atmosphere, and land, and these thermal differences create the wind. This wind, in turn, makes waves; while there is, in fact, a lot of energy in the waves of the deep ocean, there is very little nearer to shore. Even if we captured all of the waves hitting every coastline on the planet, that’s not enough to meet humanity’s demand for energy. The ocean is a fragile ecosystem and capturing large portions of wave energy would negatively affect the oxygenation of the oceans, among other effects.

In theory, we could supply all of our energy with biofuels. The total photosynthetic output of life on earth is about 90TW — that’s about five times humanity’s total power consumption of ~16TW. Unfortunately, given the inefficiency of combustion (25–50%), we would need to burn nearly everything that grows every year to do it and with horrible ecosystem consequences and air quality compromises.

Geothermal energy is great, where it is near the surface and easy to get. The reality is that it can only supply a small fraction of our power supply. The killer application for geothermal is via ground-sourced heating and cooling: using the earth as a source of constant temperature for heating and cooling our buildings. This ground-sourced heat isn’t what many people think of when they think geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is the energy generated in the earth’s core — which is part radioactive decay and part latent heat from the creation of the earth from space dust. Ground-sourced heat takes advantage of the fact that the ground about six feet beneath us holds a relatively constant year-round temperature of 50–60 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s better to use that temperature to cool our houses rather than trying to cool 100-degree desert air. It's also easier to bring 60-degree water up to 75 degrees to heat our houses than it is to heat freezing cold winter air.

 

Renewables will also need to pervade our built environment due to the scale of energy our modern lifestyles enjoy — this was true for the ancient Greeks also.

 

So clearly, renewables can do it for us, with solar as the biggest player, followed by wind. Fortunately, they are largely complementary since they are available at different times of the day. A small amount of wave power and geothermal power will help in localities with those particular resources. Ground-source heat will be useful nearly everywhere to aid our HVAC systems. Biofuels, while not really capable of solving the whole energy challenge, will be critical for things like long-distance flight and some of the more challenging transportation options requiring a high-density liquid fuel. Biofuels can also go a long way, if not all the way, to help bridge the seasonal storage problem since storing energy for 6 months at a time is a very difficult technical and economic proposition for batteries. The seasonal storage problem is the challenge that we use more energy in winter (light and heat) than we do in the summer and that this inconveniently happens at the time of year with the least solar energy.

2. Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear?

Nuclear, nuclear, nuclear can work, but 50 years of debating about it have passed and we still haven’t agreed on the best way to deal with proliferation and waste issues. It’s not too cheap to meter⁶; in fact, it is likely more expensive than renewables if we fully account for dealing with the associated waste and security.

While it has lots of boosters⁷ ⁸, it has similar numbers of detractors⁹ ¹⁰ ¹¹ and it’s worth reading the most vocal of them.

We don’t have enough fissile material to last forever¹² — estimates vary between 200 and 1000 years depending on what portion of the supply it will meet, and whether we stick with light water reactors (that don’t produce weaponizable by-products) or whether we move to breeder-reactors that do. Arguably we can increase this runway by extracting fissile material from seawater¹³ but that isn’t exactly simplifying things.

The reality is that nuclear has been a very reliable source of ‘baseload power,’ though experts argue just how important that is¹⁴. I for one am a strong advocate that we need less baseload power than people think, and perhaps none at all because of:

  • the inherent storage capacity of our electric vehicles

  • the shiftable thermal loads in our homes and buildings

  • commercial and industrial opportunities to load-shift and store energy

  • the potential capacity of back-up biofuels and batteries

Scaling up nuclear power quickly could be very difficult. Yes, nuclear plants come in massive sizes, with a typical plant outputting GW of electricity. In fact, the 60-ish nuclear facilities and 100-ish reactors in the US already deliver roughly 20% (~100GW) of all the electricity that is delivered (~450GW.) The problem is that the plants take decades to plan and build. In 2016, Watts Bar unit 2 was connected to the grid, 43 years after construction began¹⁵. It was the first new reactor in the US since 1996¹⁶. Only a relative handful of new plants are being planned. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) itself projects nuclear capacity in the US to decline through mid-century¹⁷.

We could build the plants faster. We could make them cost less by changing the regulatory environment. We could develop next-generation technologies. We could use mass production techniques and economies of scale to lower their cost. That’s a lot of coulds. It is unlikely that we’ll collectively achieve the conviction to build a lot more nuclear power before solar, wind, renewables and batteries prove themselves to be more cost-effective. Japan shut down its plants. So did Germany. China is cooling on the technology. This is not because nuclear doesn’t work (it does) but because the socio-political-ecological-economic question marks that surround nuclear make it a hard, long road. To bet big on nuclear at this point is to bet against the grain. The Department of Energy (DOE) itself has set targets of 5c/kWh for rooftop solar, 4c for commercial solar and 3c/kWh for utility-scale solar by 2030 (download the DOE: Solar Energy Technologies Office Fiscal Year 2019 Funding Program¹⁸). It’s difficult to imagine any energy source competing with these costs.

On the other hand, I doubt for one principal reason that we’ll ever eliminate nuclear entirely in the US: it’s a national security and strategic question. It makes sense to have a nuclear power industry if you are going to have a nuclear armaments capacity. They serve each other. I don’t see a moment in the future when we’ll completely disarm, so I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine the US pulling out of nuclear power. For this reason, I believe it’s most likely that in order to address climate change, we’ll mildly increase nuclear (fission) power capacity in the US, but it won’t become the dominant energy source.

3. Fossil fuels with massive carbon sequestration?

It is highly unlikely that fossil fuels and carbon sequestration can work at massive scale. The simplest version of the argument against them is that when you pull fossil fuels out of the ground they mix with oxygen (that’s what combustion is) and in so doing they become much larger (and also a gas). Even if you squeeze them back down into a liquid, which costs you yet more energy, the volume is much larger (around 5X) than the volume that came up. We simply can’t stuff it back in the hole from whence it came. Those holes we also know to leak¹⁹.

The economic argument against sequestration is that renewables are already competitive with coal and natural gas in most energy markets, and the added expense of carbon sequestration is not going to help fossil fuels compete. As my long-time colleague and collaborator in zero-carbon technology Pete Lynn says, “the expense of carbon sequestration may well be the death knell of fossil fuels.”

Put bluntly, the existing fossil fuel industry has an enormous interest in having people believe there is a pot of carbon-free gold at the end of this rainbow. There almost certainly isn’t. We have made a small amount of progress on capturing emissions at the exhaust pipe of power plants where they are concentrated. By using additional energy (created with fossil fuels), we then capture, concentrate, and pressurize that CO2 into a liquid that can (in theory) be injected back into the ground. Each of those steps costs yet more energy. The CO2 will and does leak from out of the ground.

By injecting this CO2 into the ground we can force more fossil fuels back up; in fact, most of the CO2 that we have sequestered so far has been used to help with “enhanced” oil and fossil fuel recovery. This should temper enthusiasm for most of these headlines about sequestration which are cover-stories for what is really going on: the perpetuation of fossil fuel reliance.

We haven’t made progress in capturing the more diffuse emissions of CO2 — such as that from the tailpipe of your car, or from the furnace in your basement, or the range in your kitchen. Those emissions are so diffuse (at the ends of the 4.4 million miles of the US’s natural gas pipeline distribution network and our 260 million tailpipes) that it is unimaginably difficult to collect it and render it into a form that doesn’t end up in the atmosphere.

 

The existing fossil fuel industry has an enormous interest in having people believe there is a pot of carbon-free gold at the end of this rainbow.

 

Natural gas sounds benign. It almost sounds organic, granola, kale. It isn’t. Coal gets more air-time as the evil-doer, but natural gas is where the front-line of the battle for climate change really is. It is an unsafe, collapsing bridge to nowhere. Carbon-captured natural gas plants are the new panacea for some²⁰, but they gloss over fugitive emissions²¹ from mining the natural gas (fracking) and they gloss over where we will store all that CO2. There are any number of other underlying problems with mining natural gas as well, such as water table pollution and seismic instabilities. (For the record, I would advocate for one of these plants to be built and tested and truly understood for its full-cycle of emissions and environmental effects, but strongly believe it isn’t the giant answer its proponents would have it be.) While natural gas might turn out to be economic for some brief blip, it certainly doesn’t scale well enough to solve the giant climate challenge. It is unlikely to compete with the future costs of solar and wind. Also remember that any precious capital going to these projects is not going to the things that we know to be zero carbon like solar, wind, electric vehicles, and heat pumps.

Direct air-capture of carbon is an enticing notion (see “CO2 Conversion and Utilization” by Chunshan Song²² and “Sucking carbon out of the air won’t solve climate change” by David Roberts²³). It is energetically difficult because you have to sort through a million molecules to find the 400 that are carbon, then convince those 400 to become something they don’t naturally want to be: a liquid, or better yet, a solid. That sorting and conversion costs energy. Even if we make it work reasonably, we’ll have to install zero-carbon energy just to run it, which is sort of like using zero-carbon energy to run society anyway, except more expensive and more complicated. I’m willing to give it a chance and believe we should fund the research, but let’s fund it reasonably and with skepticism, and understand that it’s a miracle technology that we’d like to have, but don’t technically need, and probably can’t afford.

4. Miracle technology saves the day?

Miracle technologies²⁴ include fusion, next-generation nuclear fission, direct solar rectification, deep offshore wind power, synthetic meat, high-efficiency thermo-electric materials, ultra-high-density batteries, a hydrogen economy, industrially scalable synthetic-biology-based materials, direct air capture of carbon at very low cost, and miracles we can’t yet imagine. All of these miracle technologies would, in fact, help with various components of decarbonization and we should invest in them as research topics; with good management, some of them might come to fruition. However, it would be unwise to bet our future on miracle technologies, as our timeline for climate change solutions is too short. If we are planning the 50 years after the 20 crucial years immediately in front of us, then these certainly are a healthy part of sensible national research priorities. Let’s just not bet the planet on them in the short term. Just as our analysis of direct air-capture showed previously, we can get most of the way to decarbonization without any miracles, and the miracles are “nice to haves,” not “must haves.”

5. Deprivation and efficiency?

This last choice isn’t really a choice, because you can’t deprive or efficiency your way to a total solution — and even if you could, we haven’t shown any inclination to drastically cut our consumption in the 40 years since Jimmy Carter asked us to wear sweaters. The focus on efficiency as a solution has its intellectual history in the oil crises of the 1970s. At that moment in time, the problem was weaning the USA off foreign (particularly Middle Eastern) fossil fuels, and efficiency improvements were enough to achieve American energy independence²⁵. The emphasis on efficiency ever since is defensible, and bipartisan, as almost no-one can defend outright waste, and most everyone agrees that double-glazed windows, more aerodynamic cars, more insulation in our walls, and better machinery will make things easier and better. They all do. But we’ve conflated two types of efficiency for too long. You can make a big car more efficient with a more efficient engine, or you can get a smaller car that is more efficient because of its smallness. Most efficient of all is a small, efficient car that you don’t drive very much.

For most machines, “efficiency” usually means thermodynamic efficiency: how efficiently a car engine turns gasoline into motion, how efficiently a power plant makes electricity from fossil fuels. Thermodynamics states machines can only get more efficient to a point called the Carnot limit. Practically, this limits the efficiency of machines powered by fossil fuels to 25–60%. Electrical machines do not suffer the same fate which is why wholesale electrification of the economy is the biggest efficiency win of all. (Small fossil fuel machines, like cars and trucks, are about 33% efficient, large ones, like airplanes and power plants, are about 50% efficient. Their electrical equivalents are about 3 times and 2 times more “efficient”.) Moving to electric cars, electric heat pumps, and electric everything else will lower the amount of energy required by the US economy by more than half. Furthermore, these substitution technologies are actually better for consumers than what they replace. Electric car owners are not going back to fossil fuel cars once they’ve sampled a quieter, more spirited, more reliable electric car. People with heat-pump-driven radiant hydronic heating systems will never go back to forced air heating with its associated noise and respiratory problems. It then just becomes a question of how to make and deliver and store the electricity that drives this better future.

Efficiency is still never a bad idea, but it’s not a solution. Electrification of everything is the biggest efficiency win, after which smaller things (smaller houses, smaller cars) and more insulation are the big wins.

6. Apathy and geoengineering?

This is obviously not a decarbonization strategy. This is a manage-the-carbon-in-the-atmosphere-in-another-way strategy. Many of the early arguments for studying geoengineering²⁶ were that we should know how just in case the world does turn out to be apathetic on climate change and transforming our energy economy. The logic goes that we might then desperately need geoengineering and we should know how to do it properly; therefore, let’s investigate. We now know multiple paths to geoengineering climate change — most of them amount to managing the incoming flux of energy from the sun. In my office, we occasionally day-dream crazy geoengineering schemes; giant wave-driven propellers that fertilize the oceans with deep-water nutrients that create biomass that will sink to the bottom and store carbon, for example. (Yes, all geoengineering ideas start off sounding crazy like that.) In an ecosystem as complex as that of earth, they all will have unintended effects that could be good, or bad. The problem, of course, is that geoengineering can make us dependent-on then always-needing geoengineering in the future. If it works, and we do it, we’ll take the pressure off the rest of the solutions proposed above.

The problems are many and perhaps obvious:

  • Who sets the temperature? Low-lying islanders and people who love coral or northern Europeans who might benefit from a bit more climate change

  • Once we become dependent, and the CO2 concentration goes through the roof, can we keep civilization stable enough to do it forever? Once started, you can’t really stop.

  • We don’t really know all of the unintended consequences environmentally, climate-wise, socially, and politically.

It is a good idea to study geoengineering schemes, and it does help us understand earth systems better, but this is also not a realistic permanent solution, and likely only a fraught band-aid.

7. Carbon tax?

It is probably worth addressing a carbon tax as a solution. I initially wasn’t going to include it because it isn’t a technology fix, it’s a market fix meant to motivate all of the other solutions to compete. It is ideologically pure for some people who believe the market will fix everything and solve every problem. It is ideologically damned by others because it is a giant market-manipulation.

 

By the time we have the political will to implement a carbon tax, renewables will probably already be cheaper than fossil fuels.

 

A high enough carbon tax would make all of the fossil fuels more expensive than at least some of the other solutions, and then a perfectly rational market would use those solutions. That’s probably true-ish. Who ensures the tax is high enough though? Who does the tax go back to? The government? Refunded to the people? How is it collected and at what point?

It is difficult to say the idea of a carbon tax is bad; it isn’t. It’s much more difficult to know exactly how to implement it. It is probably just as effective to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies²⁷, which in many markets would tip the scales in favor of alternatives anyway. As mentioned previously by the time we have the political will to implement a carbon tax, renewables will probably already be cheaper than fossil fuels.

Back in the real world.

If these simplified choices are our smorgasbord, then some combination of all renewables, all the time with moderate nuclear, nuclear, nuclear is the likeliest solution, and hopefully, some miracle technology saves the day if we invest in the right R&D in sufficient quantity and get a little lucky.

We should focus on biofuels and waste conversion (trash and sewage) instead of fossil fuels with massive carbon sequestration to meet the liquid fuel demands we will still have. Things like long-haul aviation and shipping are difficult without a high-energy-density fuel, and the good news is that our food waste, sewage, and agricultural byproducts are more than enough to produce diesel and gasoline type liquids for these purposes. We should accept that deprivation and efficiency, while useful in lowering total energy need, doesn’t work as a net-zero carbon strategy and that it will distract capital from the replacement technologies.

We won’t solve climate change with 80mpg vehicles that still emit CO2, we’ll solve it with electric cars powered by zero-carbon wind and solar. The biggest efficiency happens merely by committing to massive electrification, which likely more than halves the total primary energy we use²⁸.

 

Don’t be fooled by those who will profit from confusion — ideas like natural gas as a bridge fuel. We have the technology we need, today, to solve climate change.

 

If we can agree on the assertions above, then we can let the market decide the balance of the solution and avoid a needless and counterproductive debate about which there will be more of. This allows for a miracle in carbon sequestration or fusion or something even more incredible to emerge, but not all our eggs are in that one miraculous basket. Right now the sensible money is on very large amounts of solar and wind, both of which have had a precipitous cost drop since 2000. Nuclear’s price hasn’t fallen and is notoriously difficult to calculate because it’s unclear how the security expenses associated with the fuels and wastes fits in an all accounts ledger. Even so, it’s a safe bet that we’ll do more nuclear than we do today, it will become cheaper, and we’ll grow more accustomed to it as we more responsibly deal with the waste. With this clarity, we can move forward with a realistic solution to climate change without the high-degree of time and capital waste that is things like corn biofuel programs and coal with carbon sequestration.

The Australian energy market is already one where it no longer makes any sense to use fossil fuels at all²⁹. Many of the more remote energy markets (like Hawaii) increasingly have the same dynamic where solar and battery combinations beat out fossil fuels. Yes, these two places are sunny examples, but as renewables continue to dramatically come down in cost this will become true almost everywhere.

 

For the rest of us, the best place to engage is by making sure our local regulations are compatible with solving climate change.

 

Don’t be fooled by those who will profit from confusion — ideas like natural gas as a bridge fuel. We have the technology we need, today, to solve climate change. If carbon-free isn’t already the cheapest form of energy, it’s very very close to it, and soon will be. The biggest barriers remaining have the same origin: inertia, the stubborn insistence of the incumbent way of doing things. This manifests as fossil fuel subsidies and massive misinformation campaigns. It’s also buried in old ways of doing things, like the state-sponsored utility monopoly. The utility business model is to get the state to guarantee low-interest rates to build large projects and have the populace pay for it. That model needs to be challenged and upset so that every household can become a generator and a consumer of electricity as well as part of the national grid-scale battery. Let’s give the households the same low-interest rate that the utility gets; that would lower the cost and increase the speed of the carbon-free transition.

The old way of doing things is embedded in legislation and thinking everywhere: building codes that aren’t friendly to solar, electrical codes that artificially increase the cost of solar and home and vehicle electrification, net metering regulations, road rules, gasoline taxes and speed limits, homeowner association charters, and tax incentives. We will solve climate change if we don’t let the bureaucratic crud and mental laziness of 100 years of writing regulations for a fossil fuel-based economy get in the way of a verdant decarbonized future for our children. For most people, this last point is where you can make the biggest difference on climate change. A few driven tech nerds will make the electric cars, air conditioners and electric furnaces, solar power plants, and bio-reactors of our future. For the rest of us, the best place to engage is by making sure our local regulations are compatible with solving climate change. We certainly can’t deliver the change required on schedule if we are waiting for Town Hall to issue us the permits.


Footnotes and links:

¹ https://www.c2es.org/content/international-emissions/

² https://globalcoolingprize.org/the-ac-industry-conundrum/

³ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/030626199390059X

⁴ I continue to be asked by people “what about hydrogen?” Hydrogen is part and parcel of electrification. It takes electricity to produce hydrogen via hydrolysis. The hydrogen is then a battery or storage mechanism. The hydrogen battery then discharges its energy through a fuel cell which converts it back to electricity. This is to say if we can make a hydrogen economy work it’s because of electrification of everything anyway.

⁵ https://cleantechnica.com/2018/02/08/new-jacobson-study-draws-road-map-100-renewable-energy/

⁶ https://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2016/06/03/too-cheap-to-meter-a-history-of-the-phrase/

⁷ “Power to Save the World” by Gwyneth Cravens

⁸ “Whole Earth Discipline” by Steward Brand

⁹ “Nuclear: Why Even Think About It” by Kelly Vaughn

¹⁰ “Fourteen Alleged Magical Properties That Coal and Nuclear Plants Don’t Have and Shouldn’t Be Paid Extra for Providing” by Amory Lovins

¹¹ “Nuclear Energy Debate” with USA Today editors and Amory and Hunter Lovins

¹² https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-long-will-global-uranium-deposits-last/

¹³ https://newatlas.com/nuclear-uranium-seawater-fibers/55033/

¹⁴ https://energypost.eu/dispelling-nuclear-baseload-myth-nothing-renewables-cant-better/

¹⁵ https://www.google.com/url?q=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watts_Bar_Nuclear_Plant&sa=D&ust=1558394928464000&usg=AFQjCNFg0rnvBopJpKG1YfJJOmPeT1FUpw

¹⁶ https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=nuclear_use

¹⁷ https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=nuclear_use

¹⁸ https://eere-exchange.energy.gov/FileContent.aspx?FileID=d2f56f78-decb-4cc1-9a88-0f6241708508

¹⁹ https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180621141154.htm

²⁰ https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/6/1/17416444/net-power-natural-gas-carbon-air-pollution-allam-cycle

²¹ http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6398/186

²² https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/bk-2002-0809.ch001

²³ https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/6/14/17445622/direct-air-capture-air-to-fuels-carbon-dioxide-engineering

²⁴https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/ugc/articles/2017/03/19/bill-gates-an-energy-miracle.html

²⁵ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Independence

²⁶ https://www.technologyreview.com/s/416809/why-geoengineering/

²⁷https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0305750X16304867

²⁸ https://medium.com/otherlab-news/decarbonization-and-gnd-b8ddd569de16

²⁹ https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/study-fossil-fuel-generation-has-no-business-case-in-australia#gs.2v9mnr