Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Top Climate Scientist: Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future

Top Climate Scientist: Tax Fossil Fuels to Save Younger Generations' Future, 4 October 2016, by Nadia Prupis

This article summarizes a paper recently published by James Hansen and eleven others (original paper at  Hansen (a well-known climate scientist and activist) and his co-authors are concerned with the long view: the consequences of our present climate and energy policies for future generations.  The goal of holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C is rapidly slipping out of our grasp, and the Paris climate accords are "unlikely to bring about substantial change", according to Hansen.  As a result, "negative emissions" technologies that remove CO2 from the atmosphere will likely need to be employed at a very large scale in the future to keep the climate within safe bounds.  These technologies are unproven, however, and even if it is possible to deploy them on a sufficiently large scale, they will likely be extraordinarily expensive.  Hansen's recommendation, to deal with this situation, is to "make the price of fossil fuels honest" – "stop subsidizing them", and "make them pay their cost to society", so that we can "phase out carbon emissions over the next few decades."

My take: These ideas are not new, but they are clearly stated here, which makes this article (and the paper by Hansen et al.) a welcome contribution.  Our actions now create obligations and debts for future generations; if they want to keep the climate within historical bounds, they will have to take drastic, expensive action, and the longer we delay now, the more drastic and expensive that future action will have to be.  Many climate projections now assume that "negative emissions" technologies will exist in the future that will offset our future emissions (the Paris accords assume this, for example), but of course those technologies do not presently exist, and our best estimate is that they will cost hundreds of trillions of dollars to implement in the future.  The fact that we do not presently have a tax on carbon emissions should properly be viewed as a subsidy; it means that fossil fuel prices are not "honest", in that they do not reflect the negative consequences that burning of fossil fuels has for everyone on the planet (a "negative externality", in economic jargon).  Instituting a carbon tax is therefore really removing a subsidy and creating a level playing field among energy technologies – something that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians should all be able to agree makes sense.  The alternative is to pass on an enormous problem to our children and our grandchildren – a problem so large that it will define their entire world.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Is blue the new green? Wave power could revolutionize the renewable-energy game

Is blue the new green?  Wave power could revolutionize the renewable-energy game
Salon, 27 August 2016, by Diane Stopyra

This article discusses progress in wave power: technology to capture the energy in ocean waves, turning waves into a renewable energy source just like solar and wind power.  And there has been progress.  The U.S. Department of Energy has just announced a $40 million grant to develop an open-water wave energy test facility (the first in the U.S.), and new wave-energy systems in Hawaii and Australia have been generating energy and making headlines.  The energy potential of waves is vast; the article says that waves along the U.S. coast could power 200 million homes (a DoE estimate), and the world's oceans could supply more energy than total human energy requirements (an IPCC estimate).  Although it also cites some prominent setbacks – the closure of Pelamis, the first commercial wind farm, after only two months of operation, for example – it nevertheless says "we could be on the cusp of a tidal change", and encourages the reader to "imagine no need for coal, fossil fuels, nuclear generators, solar arrays or wind turbines" because wave power could supply all of our energy.

My take: This is complicated, so I will write a bit more than usual.  First of all, I am in favor of research on wave power.  $40 million is a drop in the bucket to research what might turn out to be an important technology.  My preferred overall energy policy, staring into the teeth of climate change, is "Forward in all directions!" (the slogan of 3 Mustaphas 3).  In other words, research every promising technology, from wave power to nuclear, fusion to CCS (carbon capture and sequestration).  That said, I am deeply skeptical that wave energy will ever be more than a tiny contributor.  It might seem straightforward – just a simple mechanical engineering problem! – but our attempts at it have failed for more than a hundred years.  As the article notes, seawater is highly corrosive, and has a way of destroying moving parts quite rapidly.  It is also quite difficult to build something designed to absorb wave energy, but that is robust enough not to be destroyed by big storms; big waves contain a truly staggering amount of energy, all directed toward mangling the wave-power device that stands in their way.  The simple, sad fact is that the new crop of wave power experiments will probably fail, just as all previous experiments have.  It's a lovely idea, but there are good reasons it has never been commercially successful.

I would also note that the potential energy stats quoted by the article are misleading.  The DoE estimate quoted is a theoretical maximum potential (if every bit of every wave's energy were captured); the same DoE document gives a technical maximum potential (how much we think we could ever conceivably capture) that is less than half as large.  Similarly, the IPCC estimate quoted includes all wave energy across the whole ocean; but they make clear that the energy available near coastlines, where it would actually be practical and economical to harvest it, is much lower and is quite unevenly distributed around the world (see the map on page 88 of the referenced IPCC report).  This means that while some coastal areas (the Pacific coast of the U.S., for example) look fairly good for wave power, other areas (the Atlantic coast, for example) are much less promising.  And of course to get the power from where it is generated offshore to all of the homes that it is supposed to power would require electrical grid capacity and technology well beyond what we have today, and would entail very large long-distance transmission losses.  These are non-trivial problems.

The other problem, which the article doesn't touch on at all, is the environmental impact of wave power.  Imagine what our coastlines would look like if we actually built wave-power generators all along them, encircling all of the continents.  What would that do to marine life – to whales, to fish, to dolphins?  What would it do to human activities that depend on the oceans, from fishing to shipping to sailing? What would it do to sediment transport, to beaches, to water clarity?  What would it do to nutrient cycling in the ocean, which is driven by waves, and what effect would that then have on marine biological productivity?  We don't have enough information right now to know, but it seems safe to guess that the impacts would be very large – one cannot fill the coasts with large mechanical equipment, and remove a large fraction of all the wave energy in coastal areas around the world, and think that there would not be a staggeringly large impact, it seems to me.  I think this is the final nail in the coffin for wave energy on large scales.  It may make sense to develop it in local areas where the potential wave energy is particularly high, however, and in any case we don't know enough about the environmental impact to pull the plug on it yet.  Just enough to be very pessimistic.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

B.C.'s climate plan: What you need to know

B.C.'s climate plan: What you need to know
The Globe and Mail, 19 August 2016, by James Keller

This article details the latest developments in British Columbia (Canada) regarding the government's efforts to combat climate change.  BC adopted a revenue-neutral carbon tax in 2008, and that tax was scheduled to rise annually in order to create increasing pressure for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  In 2012, however, the price was frozen at CAD $30/ton (about US $23/ton), and there it has stood ever since.  Perhaps as a result of that, emissions in BC are climbing, and it is now acknowledged that BC will miss its previously set emissions target for 2020.  An expert panel formed by the BC government recommended last year that the carbon price be unfrozen again, and that specific greenhouse gas reduction targets be set for 2030 and 2050, so as to make progress on climate change goals.  The BC government has just announced their new climate plan, and it implements neither of those suggestions; it calls for the carbon price to remain frozen, and for a weaker emissions target than recommended by the panel (no target at all for 2030, in fact).  The new climate plan does include plans to decrease methane leaks, similar to what the U.S. is presently planning, and a number of other measures intended to reduce emissions.  Nevertheless, the reaction to the plan in the environmental community has been uniformly negative, with the Sierra Club calling the plan "fraud".

My take: This is deeply, deeply disappointing.  The whole world has been watching British Columbia's experiment in carbon pricing, because they are one of a handful of places to institute a broad-based carbon tax rather than a cap-and-trade scheme or taxes only on specific products or activities (such as a gasoline tax).  Indeed, the Carbon Tax Center ( calls BC's tax "the most comprehensive and transparent carbon tax in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world".  BC has thus been a leading light for the movement.  And initially BC's experiment seemed successful; emissions went down, and economic activity did not seem to be harmed – perhaps it even benefited.  Nevertheless, their carbon price was frozen for political reasons, and now their emissions are climbing again as the market responds to the shift in incentives.  I had hoped that the recent political turnover in Canada, from Harper to Trudeau, would facilitate a renewal of BC's commitment to their carbon tax; but apparently not.  Those of us pushing for a meaningful carbon tax in the U.S. and around the world should look closely at BC as an example of how politics can interfere even after a tax is passed; we should devote more thought to the problem of how to safeguard a carbon tax from political interference after passage, I suspect.  I've written before about the political difficulties of implementing a carbon tax; see here and here.  This article provides a clear case study in these difficulties.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How a new source of water is helping reduce conflict in the Middle East

How a new source of water is helping reduce conflict in the Middle East
Ensia, 19 July 2016, by Rowan Jacobsen

"The desalination era is here." A fascinating article that describes how Israel has embraced desalination on a large scale, resulting in a water surplus in the heart of a drought-ridden region (thanks also to aggressive conservation and reuse programs far beyond those in other countries).  Technological advances have improved desal's practicality and efficiency greatly, and 55% of Israel's water now comes from desalination.  Furthermore, Israel is starting to collaborate with neighboring countries to spread the technology throughout the region.  It is often suggested that water shortages due to climate change will cause conflict and war (as seems perhaps to have happened in Syria). But this article suggests that it can also be a goad toward greater co-operation and interdependence that could lead to peace.

My take: Overall this seems like excellent news.  If we can use desalination to take the pressure off of our overstressed freshwater sources – many of which are already in decline due to excessive withdrawals and/or climate change – that is all to the good.  What worries me about the desalination boom, which this article doesn't really discuss, is that it will substantially increase energy demand, undermining our efforts to get off of fossil fuels.  The article says desal is about 1/3 as expensive as it was in the 1990s, and I guess that implies it is also more energy-efficient than it used to be; nevertheless, if countries bigger than Israel start relying on desal on a large scale, it will increase energy demand enormously.  If achieving water security in the age of climate change requires a massive buildout of desal plants, that may spell big trouble for our energy policy and our greenhouse emissions.  Nevertheless, efficient and practical desalination is a key technological advance needed to get us through the coming century, and it is heartening to hear that progress is being made on it – and that that is leading to co-operation among nations.

Nuclear subsidies are key part of New York's clean-energy plan

Nuclear subsidies are key part of New York's clean-energy plan
New York Times, 20 July 2016, by Vivian Yee

My previous post discussed one angle on the "intermittency problem" posed by solar.  This article exposes another angle on the same basic issue.  New York plans to get half of its electricity from renewables – mostly solar and wind – by 2030.  But if the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing, that means that there will be half as much energy feeding into the grid as when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.  This poses a problem.  When the sun is shining, the cost of solar is getting remarkably low – so low that it undercuts other sources of power, rendering them unprofitable.  But those other sources of power can't all be shut down; they are needed when the sun is not shining.  The need for this "baseline power" that is available at any time means that as solar and wind increase their market share, something must be done to keep the baseline power economically viable.  As renewables grow, we can let the dirtiest baseline plants fold – i.e., coal plants.  But we can't let them all fold, even though they will all be rendered unprofitable due to the glut of cheap solar power during peak times.  In particular, if we close nuclear plants (which are zero-emissions), we will just burn that much more natural gas, or perhaps even revert back to burning coal after all – and then we won't meet our climate goals.  New York's response to this situation, as the article details, is apparently to subsidize the nuclear plants to keep them economic, but of course this is politically uncomfortable given the public's dislike of nuclear, as well as Exelon's near-monopoly position on New York's nuclear power.  It smells like a corporate giveaway, and the politics of it have been handled poorly by the state, too.

My take: The problem is real.  Cheap but intermittent renewables undercut the prices necessary to sustain the baseline power plants that we need, for the foreseeable future, to meet our power needs.  Various solutions to this problem have been proposed, from charging solar generators an extra fee (effectively penalizing them for their intermittency), to subsidizing baseline plants so they remain economically viable; none is very satisfying.  The most natural solution would be to let the market set prices freely throughout the day; prices near the solar peak would plummet toward zero, whereas prices off-peak would skyrocket (because the baseline plants would have to pay for themselves only by selling power during those off-peak times).  This solution is generally seen as so undesirable that it is not seriously considered, since it would render both solar and non-solar plants economically precarious, and would probably raise overall energy costs considerably.  So.  New York will probably receive a lot of flak for giving money away to Exelon to support nuclear plants that aren't profitable on their own; but it is worth contemplating the reality of the energy market and asking what alternative solution you would actually prefer.  If the nuclear plants close, that will be the final nail in the coffin for any hope of New York meeting its climate goals, since they supply about a third of all NY's power.  Instead, we simply must find a way for solar and nuclear to "play nice" even though solar undercuts nuclear in cost.  As with the problems examined in the previous post, these sorts of issues are why many analysts have trouble imagining intermittent renewables providing more than 50% of our power without major technological advances in batteries or long-distance transmission.

Why home solar panels no longer pay in some states

Why home solar panels no longer pay in some states
New York Times, 26 July 2016, by Diane Cardwell

Energy policy analysts have been pointing out problems looming on the horizon for quite a while now.  As solar's share of the energy market increases, various stresses are created that are difficult to cope with.  One problem is that you begin to have a glut of energy when the sun is shining strongly, while developing a deficit at other times.  This article shows that this "intermittency" problem is beginning to rear its ugly head.  Utilities in high-solar-adoption states, such as PG&E in California, are changing their pricing models to charge consumers much more for off-peak power while paying them less for the power their solar panels send in to the grid during peak times.  Consumers are discovering that their solar installations are no longer cost-effective and may never pay for themselves as a result.  The same dynamics are playing out in Spain and Europe now, and are impacting states from Hawaii to Arizona.

My take: It is important to recognize that this is not the result of greed or backwardness on the part of the utilities; it is a simple consequence of the law of supply and demand.  If the utilities did not decrease the price paid at peak solar times, they would be unable to sell all the power generated at those times.  Conversely, if they did not raise the price at off-peak times, demand would outstrip the available supply, and brownouts or rolling blackouts would inevitably result.  Fixing these issues is not simple.  Power could be transported from areas with too much to areas with too little; but since day and night each cover half the globe at any given time, the distances involved are very large and power grids are not nearly up to the task at present (not to mention that large losses due to long-distance transmission would result).  Power could be stored in batteries to be taken out later when the sun isn't shining; but the battery capacity needed to get a large region through a long period of overcast skies (much less a single night) is staggeringly large.  Both of these options are immensely expensive, and these costs ought to be considered part of the cost of solar power, since it is solar's intermittency that creates the need for them.  In short, today's technology gives us no good solution to the intermittency problem in general.  This will limit how much market penetration will be possible for solar (and for wind, which has similar intermittency issues).  Many analysts predict that about 50% is the maximum we could handle; the rest of our energy simply must come from "baseline" sources that can be turned on whenever they are needed: coal, natural gas, oil, and nuclear.  As this reality becomes more clear, we can expect subsidy programs such as generous feed-in tariffs to evaporate, as the article illustrates is already happening in many markets (even though we are still very far from 50% market penetration of renewables).  As the article says, "Energy experts predict a bumpy transition."  I'll write about another angle on this problem in a future post.

If carbon pricing is so great, why isn't it working?

If carbon pricing is so great, why isn't it working?
Ensia, 12 July 2016, by Peter Fairley

Carbon pricing is often touted – by the IMF, by CCL, by me – as the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and get climate change under control.  Various carbon-pricing schemes are already in effect around the world, from "cap-and-trade" in Europe and the Northeast's RGGI to a carbon tax in British Columbia, and carbon pricing is under consideration in several more countries, including China and Brazil.  And yet the carbon-pricing schemes we have seen so far have generally been failures, with prices on carbon so low as to be "virtually valueless" – usually below $15/ton, whereas it is estimated that $44/ton would be needed to achieve the Paris climate goals (as an average global target, I think?).  This discrepancy is, the article argues, because "carbon pricing is as politically inexpedient as it is economically efficient".  For cap-and-trade, this manifests in many ways: too many allowances allocated, too much acceptance of questionable carbon offsets, too much complexity and hidden exemptions.  Carbon taxation schemes avoid most of these pitfalls, and BC's tax of $23/ton has led to some emissions reductions, but the price remains too low, and taxes are more politically difficult to achieve than cap-and-trade schemes.  Despite its success, BC's tax is unpopular and has been frozen since 2012; since Canada, with its very high emissions and dirty tar sands oil, is estimated to need a price of $124/ton to meet its ambitious Paris pledges, it is hard not to see the BC scheme, too, as a failure.  As a result of this, support is growing for a more regulatory approach to climate change.

My take: I love Ensia.  This is a really thoughtful and interesting article that challenged me as a staunch supporter of carbon pricing.  I would not say that it actually changed my mind; I see so many serious problems with the regulatory approach to climate change that a carbon tax simply seems non-negotiable to me.  As Sherlock Holmes said, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  This article should give pause to all carbon tax advocates given the serious doubts it raises about the viability of carbon pricing.  However, those doubts are only about its political viability.  The article raises no objections regarding the effectiveness of carbon taxation when properly implemented; indeed, the tax in BC is acknowledged to have reduced emissions substantially while perhaps even increasing economic growth in the region – until it was gutted.  So my belief that a carbon tax is the solution remains undiminished; but my worries about the politics of getting there have increased.  CCL's proposed fee-and-dividend scheme would start at a low price that would ratchet upward over time, which I imagine is a nod to political expediency since the necessary price could never pass at the outset.  But BC's experience with a very similar scheme sounds a cautionary note: every time the price went up, there was a new round of kvetching, and soon the political pressure to freeze the increases was irresistible, and so the target price was never reached.  I don't know what the solution is.  Mostly I think our politicians need to be pushed to do what is necessary by a groundswell of public opinion that overwhelms the denialists and the special interests.  Which is why I support CCL.  But boy, this article depressed me.