Climate & Energy

Eliminating fossil fuels is friggin' cheap, pt. 2

Some numerical comparisons

My last post argued that based on the figures Scientific American projected for a slow, partial phaseout of fossil fuels, we could do a full, fast, near-total elimination for between 170 and 240 billion dollars a year -- somewhere less than a third, possibly even less than a quarter, of our military budget. I'd like to offer some other comparisons to put those numbers into perspective: We spent $840 billion buying fossil fuels in 2004, according to page 72 of the 2006 Annual Energy Review (10 Meg PDF). So a 95% reduction in U.S. fossil fuel use will pay back a $170 billion annual investment by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio, and a $240 billion a year investment by well over a 3 to 1 ratio. Yes, the time value of money reduces this a great deal -- but you still end up with a return exceeding that of the stock market during the bubble. Another comparison: we sometimes talk about needing a commitment equal to what it took to win WWII. U.S. war spending grew from less than 2% of our national GDP just before Pearl Harbor, to around 5% immediately after, to around 37% at the peak of WWII defense spending. Yet in the scenarios under discussion, we advocate spending between 1% and 2% of the 13.3 trillion dollar U.S. GDP to fight global warming. So we are not talking about anything like a WWII-level commitment economically. And we don't have to shoot anybody, or get shot by anybody, or drop any bombs. It's about green jobs, clean air, and a cure for our fossil fuel addiction. I think the politics are doable. If the public backs this strongly enough, they can walk right over any of the fat cats who try to get in the way.

Eliminating fossil fuels is friggin' cheap

A third of our military budget could cure our carbon addiction

Scientific American's grand plan to provide a bit over a third of U.S. energy from solar sources provides insight into what it would cost to phase out all or most U.S. greenhouse emissions. Bottom line: a lot less than current military spending. The total cost of the SciAm plan: $420 billion over the course of that 40 years, or slightly over ten billion dollars per year -- less than current fossil fuel subsidies, less than the new subsidies "clean coal" would require. The authors suggest phasing out fossil-fuel powered electricity over the course of forty years, using a solar dominated electricity grid. They suggest Compressed Air Electricity Storage (CAES) and thermal storage to compensate for the intermittent nature of solar electricity, and High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines to move solar electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed. However, we can't wait 40 years, and we especially can't wait 40 years for a 35% reduction in emissions. So suppose we tripled the investment, and spent over the course of 20 years. That would be about $1.26 trillion, or $63 billion a year over twenty years -- a rounding error in the Pentagon budget. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The "Grand Plan" saves a lot of money via slow implementation, giving the technology time to develop. Implementing it more quickly, with less mature technology, would cost more, probably requiring more solar thermal and less photovoltaic power (unless PV prices drop a lot faster than SciAm projects). So we can double to ~$2.5 trillion, or $126 billion per year. This is still a fraction of our military budget.

Nearly all of world’s oceans tainted by human activity, says study

Human activity has tainted all but 3.7 percent of the world’s oceans, and 41 percent of the world’s waters have been heavily impacted, says a new study in Science. A graphic map illustrates in all-too-clear terms that the briny deep has taken a terrible toll from 17 human threats, including climate change, overfishing, fertilizer runoff, coastal development, and shipping pollution. Only a few small areas near both poles remain relatively pristine — though, according to one coauthor, “they are not untouched.” In addition, a separate study in Science found that low-oxygen dead zones off the U.S. West Coast were unprecedented …

Aussie musician Xavier Rudd chats about coming to America and greening his tour

Xavier Rudd. Photo: James Looker When Australian musician Xavier Rudd was 10 years old, he realized that he could reuse an old vacuum-cleaner hose as a didgeridoo. Talk about a career rooted in green values. Since then, Rudd has moved on from vacuum-cleaner hoses to guitars, harmonicas, banjos, lapsteels, and even real didgeridoos — but his environmental ethics remain the same. The singer/songwriter/one-man-band is an avid supporter of several environmental organizations and often incorporates socially conscious lyrics into his bluesy roots music: His White Moth single “Better People” — which opens “People saving whales/And giving your thanks to our seas/My …

The subsidy tease, part III

A solar grand plan

This post is by ClimateProgress guest blogger Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. ----- A recent issue of Scientific American featured a "Solar Grand Plan." Its authors described a way for the United States to obtain nearly 100 percent of its electricity and 90 percent of its total energy, including transportation, from solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal resources by end-of-century. Electricity would cost a comfortable 5 cents per kilowatt hour. U.S. carbon emissions would be reduced 62 percent from their 2005 levels. Some 600 coal and gas-fired power plants would be displaced. The federal investment would be $400 billion over the next 40 years ($10 billion a year) to deploy renewable technologies and suitable transmission infrastructure. If that future seems too good to be true, then look at two other studies during the past 13 months that have reached similar conclusions: one sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society (PDF), the other by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. All three concur that energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies can satisfy the nation's demand for power without additional nuclear or fossil-fueled power plants. If $400 billion seems unaffordable, consider: It's less money than the federal government already has spent on the Iraq war, only a third of the $1.2 trillion that some experts now predict the war will cost, and only a sixth of the federal government's current annual subsidies for fossil and nuclear energy. And if a Solar Grand Plan seems politically implausible, read the newspaper. Last November, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said we have until 2020 to make major changes in greenhouse-gas emissions. Two weeks ago, the chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell told his staff that world oil demand will outpace supply within seven years. That means rapidly rising oil prices, more recession (the last five recessions in the U.S. were preceded by high oil prices), more power for oil-producing nations like Iran and Russia, and more likelihood of international conflicts. The more practical -- and certainly the more survivable -- of these two futures is the Solar Grand Plan, an aggressive national effort to rebuild the economy on a foundation of efficiency and sustainable energy supplies. To get to that future, national energy and climate policy must have a few key ingredients.

Researchers develop energy-generating clothing

We like the idea of harvesting energy from our own movement, but wearing a knee brace just sounds too clunky. But now U.S. researchers publishing in Nature have developed a way to generate electricity from nanofibers woven into fabric. If the technology goes mainstream, we’ll be able to generate energy just by getting dressed — which, of course, we do every day. Except on Nude Friday.

John McCain and climate change

How strong is McCain’s commitment to fighting global warming?

The following post was first published on Passing Through, The Nation‘s guest blog, where I will be posting all month. Though recession and war are probably higher on the public’s immediate priority list, there is no challenge of greater historical consequence facing the next U.S. president than the climate crisis. It is vitally important that the next chief executive enter the Oval Office committed to decisive and sustained action. He or she will need a firm grasp of the developing science, the political obstacles, the economic trade-offs, and the technological opportunities. John McCain. Photo: Jim Greenhill Does John McCain have …

Happy birthday

The fourth IPCC report is still going strong a year later

I was at a meeting earlier this week and was talking to one of the coordinating lead authors of the recent IPCC working group 1 report on the physical science of climate change. He remarked that he was quite surprised that how little substantive criticism the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had received since its release just about one year ago. The reason, he thought, was that the skeptics were "in the room" with the writing team. What he meant was that the scientists writing the report knew that the denial machine would go over the report with a fine tooth comb looking for any "gotcha" mistakes to use to discredit the IPCC. Because of that, the IPCC report was extremely carefully worded so as to make virtually every statement in the report bulletproof. In fact, it is quite amazing to me that essentially none of the IPCC documents produced over the last 18 years has been found to contain any substantive errors. The trolls, of course, will come out with their litany of "errors" that the IPCC contains (I suspect a few will appear in the comments to this post), but when you look closely, the trolls are almost always misrepresenting the IPCC's statements. In fact, that's the most common attack on the IPCC: make the claim that the IPCC said something ridiculous (which it didn't actually say), then disprove that ridiculous statement, and then use that as evidence that the IPCC's reports cannot be trusted. "The IPCC says that 2 + 2 = 5, but that's just hogwash. We know that 2 + 2 = 4. Thus, climate change is a hoax." Yeah, right.

California bill would require climate change to be taught in schools

Science textbooks approved for California public schools would have to cover climate change, and science teachers would be required to put warming in their curricula, under a bill approved by the state Senate and heading to the Assembly. Says state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who introduced the bill, “This is a phenomenon of global importance and our kids ought to understand the science behind that phenomenon.” Critics of the bill had the usual concerns: children shouldn’t be indoctrinated with environmental propaganda, climate science is uncertain, the skeptic voice wouldn’t get fair time, blah blah blah.