Climate & Energy

Reframing the energy debate, part 1

Time to stop using the phrase ‘renewable energy’

This is the first in an occasional series on reframing the energy and climate debate. I welcome all ideas on how we can improve our language in what is now the central front in the war to protect the health and well-being of American families and all future generations. The phrase "renewable energy" is often used by the media and conservatives to give lip service to clean energy sources -- by lumping them all together in order to trivialize them or diminish their individual potential. For instance, the "bunch of bland old guys" had just one bullet for renewables (and one for efficiency), thereby making them equivalent to expanded domestic oil and gas production, expanded nuclear production, and "clean coal." Progressives, I think, should stop using the phrase "renewable energy" entirely. It is lazy and fits into the conservative frame of renewable energy sources as individually insignificant. We should go out of our way to specify them, since several of them have come of age.

Gore's plan is more than 100 percent feasible

We can do more than he calls for, but I would settle for Gore’s objective

Everyone is talking about Gore's proposal to decarbonize electricity over the course of 10 years. Without considering transmission and storage losses, Gore's estimate of $1.5 to 3 trillion would require capital costs of under 37 to 74 cents per annual kWh. Taking those losses into consideration, cost would have to be more in the 28 to 56 cents per kWh range. (Note again these are not cost per watt of capacity. These are costs per annual kWh. They are levelized costs translated into capital numbers.) Jon Rynn and I have a worksheet in process on costs to 95 percent decarbonize economy, rather than 100 percent decarbonizing the grid. But it does include 99 percent decarbonizing the Grid, including a 30 percent redundancy to handle annual variations. The bottom price with the most aggressive improvements we looked at came to 66 cents per annual kWh. That comes out to $3.54 trillion, about $540 billion more than Gore budgets. But because biomass has proven so devastating ecologically, and so disastrous to the poor we assume very little use of biomass. Also we phase out nuclear as well as fossil fuels, something I'm pretty sure Gore does not. More nuclear and biomass not only reduce the amount electricity that needs to be generated, but it also reduces the need for storage losses. So Gore's plan does pencil out at the high end with 100 percent fossil-fuel free electricity at under $3 trillion. If you follow our plan you would probably see the grid more like 90 percent decarbonized in first 10 years. But you would also see 85 percent of truck freight shifted to mostly electrified trains, construction of light rail, and massive reductions of emissions in residences, commercial buildings, and industrial use. So we reduce emissions by more than Gore's proposal, and reduce oil use significantly too, something Gore's plan would not do. So not only is Gore's plan feasible over a 10 year period, much greater reductions are feasible than Gore calls for over a 10 year period. Gore remains, as he as always has been, a mainstream centrist. That so much of the environmental community and netroots chooses to back away from it as "almost feasible" or "a moonshot," that is, as too radical, says something about their timidity.

Newt's got a song

Will Washington buy his brand of snake oil?

One of the all-time great episodes of The Simpsons is "Marge vs. the Monorail," written by Conan O'Brien. The EPA fines Mr. Burns for dumping nuclear waste, leading to an unexpected cash windfall for Springfield. Marge suggests spending the money to repair the town's tattered infrastructure. But just as her proposal is about to pass, a fast-talking charlatan named Lyle Lanley arrives and sells the ever-gullible people of Springfield on a plan to build a monorail, climaxing with the monorail song (sung to the tune of "Trouble" from The Music Man). As the monorail plan passes, Marge remains unconvinced: Marge: I still think we should have used the money to fix Main Street. Homer: Well, you should have written a song like that guy. Now Newt Gingrich is ready to march into the halls of Congress to deliver his petition on opening up more of America's public lands to oil and gas drilling. He even still has floor privileges, so you can almost imagine him marching through the House with Republican leadership trailing behind, chanting drill, drill, drill. But drilling wouldn't solve our problems any more than the monorail solved Springfield's. Fortunately, we couldn't ask for a less-beloved figure to be trying to lead the American people in a sing-a-long. Would you believe he's nearly as unpopular as Dick Cheney?

Dude, where's my coalition?

Progressives discover there is no coherent energy movement to take advantage of this moment

I talked with lots of people inside and outside the green movement at Netroots Nation, and one theme arose again and again. Everyone agrees that the energy issue is more salient every day, in virtually …

FERC releases reports

Feds note electric rate increases and high construction costs for nuclear and coal

An interesting new report [PDF] from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeks to explain why electric prices are currently increasing so dramatically. They lay most of the blame on rising fuel costs and rising commodity costs (copper, steel, etc.), which is certainly contributory, but in my opinion deceptive, since it suggests that -- but for commodity volatility -- things could be hunky-dory again. This implicitly diminishes the fact that we're entering a build-cycle in the power fleet, and thus fails to understand all the chickens now coming home to roost in the power sector. That said, it still makes for an interesting read -- even if one disagrees with the causes. The reality of rising power prices and even higher prices on forward markets is something that we must understand -- and for which we must start thinking through the consequences.

Speaker for yourself

Grist talks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi about climate and energy politics on the Hill

For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), any action on climate change hinges on Barack Obama winning the White House this fall. Only the bully-pulpit of the presidency can hope to overcome the deep pockets of …

Gore and more

Chatting with Al Gore and Jim Hightower at Netroots Nation

Our partners at were able to snag a few quick interviews with notable Netroots Nation attendees Al Gore and former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, author, radio host, and activist Jim Hightower. Here’s what Gore had …

Howdy, Ontario

A big addition to the Western Climate Initiative

Ontario officially joins the Western Climate Initiative as a full partner. Sweet. Some Americans may not fully realize the significance of this. So for my fellow Yankees (and with apologies to readers north of the border) ... Ontario is the California of Canada in the sense that it has more people and economic activity than any other province. On the other hand, Ontario is the Michigan of Canada in the sense that it has a huge auto manufacturing base. And yet Ontario is also the New York of Canada in the sense that it is the seat of the country's biggest city, major banks, and cultural headquarters. And finally, Ontario is the Washington, D.C. of Canada in the sense that it is home to the nation's capitol. So it's a big deal. Ontario adds nearly 12.9 million people to the Western Climate Initiative. In combination with British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec -- already members of WCI -- nearly 80 percent of Canada is now under a hard carbon cap. In political terms, this means that prime minister Stephen Harper and the province of Alberta (the Texas of Canada) will now have to go off and play by themselves. It's a giant poke in the eye to Canada's lax federal leadership on climate change. And it's terrific news for the WCI states too. Ontario has a GDP comparable to the combined economies of Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Utah. And it means that the WCI is now home to nearly 85 million North Americans.

League of Conservation Voters endorses Obama for president

The League of Conservation Voters announced today that they’re endorsing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, citing the freshman senator’s policies on climate change and clean energy. “When you look specifically at the twin challenges of …

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