The urgency to begin CO2 reduction via efficiency
If what you want to do is solve global warming, the core strategy is energy efficiency. Efficiency may have displaced more than half of all the new growth in electric consumption last year alone. It is already adding more capacity to the U.S. electric resource than all fossil and renewable fuels combined. It has done so for almost forty years, at least. So raising it enough to eliminate the new growth and some of the existing growth is not only fairly practical, it is cheaper than keeping the old coal plants operating.
Electric efficiency programs require some modifications of conventional electric ratemaking, or a legislative decision to take the programs out of the hands of the utilities, which only two states have attempted (Oregon and Vermont), with great success to date. A speedy transition to a climate solution requires some fairly complex regulatory issues be addressed carefully and thoroughly. It’s enough for now to say that we know how to do this, but we don’t have a broad-based understanding of the principles in most of the states where they are needed.
In addition to end-use efficiency programs, we have a new round of appliance standards going into effect in the next couple of years, and we have a very large untapped potential for combined heat and power, essentially capturing waste heat from existing industrial facilities. The CHP potential and the end-use efficiency potential combined are easily enough to allow us to achieve the 2 percent average annual net reduction goal for 10 to 20 years. Beyond that, we will have a completely different world, where PV and solar thermal generation will probably be cheaper than new coal, a whole lot more will be known about climate change, and fossil fuels in general will probably cost a whole lot more than they do today.
There is no need for nuclear power or carbon sequestration, because neither of them are cheaper than new coal without any carbon controls. Efficiency and wind are. If you become willing (and stupid enough) to pay for new nuclear or carbon sequestration, someone will tell you that the cost-benefit relationship for efficiency and renewables just got even more favorable, and those resources should be used first. I expect Grist readers will include a lot of these someones.
My interest is in the near term, because nothing matters to a climate impact reduction strategy as much as net reduction in CO2 emissions starting ASAP. If we make a net reduction today, that reduction cuts an emissions stream for the entire period we need to stabilize atmospheric emissions. The rate of emissions is really irrelevant — what matters is the cumulative atmospheric level. Although it will necessarily take decades to control global atmospheric levels, we have nothing that makes it possible to do so this decade except energy efficiency technologies, and a few other things which can nibble around the edges.
Because energy efficiency is available in such a large quantity, and will produce such large economic benefits, it will increase enthusiasm for doing more. And because the near term reductions have such a high premium in a long-term strategy, we must do better than we’re doing now.
Addressing the massive efficiency potential in the electric sector will set the stage for doing so in the natural gas sector, which may be easier in the long run, and the petroleum sector, which will be harder, unless we run out of oil. Doing so in the United States will provide a level of leadership on the global scene which many of us remember was once a point of national pride. We have the technology and industriousness to be a “can-do” nation. Hand-wringing and lame excuses are not becoming — nor, in this case, are they helping the economy at all.
If we raise all state electric utility efficiency programs to the level several have presently achieved, and couple that with a serious effort to capture combined heat and power opportunities, we have an electric sector global warming solution under way. This is economically justified by today’s electric costs and resource options, and will save an enormous amount of money compared to doing nothing. An electric sector efficiency response could easily save over $100 billion annually within five or 10 years, compared to meeting new growth in electric consumption with new coal plants.
If we consider the near-term pressure on electricity prices — in the context of what new coal plants cost today, and the context of higher plant utilization, and the context of the CAIR rule reduction on plant efficiency due to retrofit scrubbing — it is hard to deny the urgency of getting efficiency right.