1) First, a very specific policy question about a near-term reality. As Michael Brune notes, a third of the existing coal capacity in the US could be retired in the next decade. What mix of sources (including efficiency, broadly construed) should replace those kilowatt-hours? What policies or actions would you promote towards that end?
2) Second, a general question. As Ted and Michael hinted at, the responses here indicate a split in how they're thinking about climate policy and how most of you responded. They are arguing against a "civil rights"-style climate campaign in favor of a Cold War-like approach. Can meaningful climate action be achieved without grassroots pressure? Is public support really the answer?
Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful essays. I'm looking forward to the discussion.
I find the attempt to contrast a strategy based on grassroots pressure with one based on analogy to the Cold War a bit odd. The Cold War was the ultimate source of public support for a host of ambitious policies. What is the analogue to that today? I don't see it, at least in the near to medium future -- the public cared about the Cold War in a way that it simply doesn't about energy. The only potential analogy would be to a massive public push to address the federal deficit (in the medium but not near term), possibly in response to a crisis; that could mobilize some support for a carbon tax, but not for approaches driven by government spending. The alternatives (which are not mutually exclusive) are a grassroots effort, which several people have pointed to, and an elite-driven one, which no one has. Others here understand grassroots politics better than I do, but I must admit that I'm skeptical, at least for as long as the public has other pressing priorities. I also wouldn't ignore the elite-driven model, which explains a lot of progress on global trade. (It isn't like trade deals are made in response to massive public demand.) But the prospects here are also tricky, in substantial part for the same reasons as the U.S. political system has turned against trade liberalization: elites no longer command the trust that they once did. (This, by the way, is also a problem for grassroots efforts based on concerns about climate change.)
As for the next decade, I'll reinforce a point from my initial essay: the first priority should be to replace retired coal-fired power plants with anything but other traditional coal-fired power plants.(I'll wait to see the analysis of how to retire one-third of U.S. coal plants in the next decade before I say anything about whether I think that particular target is wise.) Those replacements would either be zero-carbon, which would be great, or natural gas, which would allow them to be easily replaced with zero-carbon sources later. Ideally, the replacements would be renewable, nuclear, or CCS-based, which would provide a platform for zero-carbon technology development and learning. Incentives for renewables are likely to come at the state level (probably through renewable energy standards) and possibly through the federal tax code, while incentives for nuclear would need to come from some as-yet unidentified compromise in Washington. I'm skeptical about CCS plants for as long as there's a severe federal budget squeeze.
I'd also like to throw a third issue into the mix. Several participants clearly want to realign the climate agenda with the jobs one as a central part of their strategies. I'm not averse to pointing out that smart action on climate and energy will create new jobs, if only to counterbalance the well-known fact that it will also cost existing ones. As some of you know, though, I'm wary of going too far in this direction, both on economic grounds and on political ones. Where are those of us who are skeptical of this angle going wrong?
As for Michael Levi's question, the Sierra Club has commissioned research that shows that by 2020, we can reduce the amount of power produced by coal by one-third or more. We expect to release this study within the next month or so.
But don't just take our word for it. In a letter to Senator Reid this summer, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers said, "As EPA implements new regulations for smog, soot, mercury, etc., over the next few years, we expect that these regulations (combined with the age of the fleet) will force as much as one-third of U.S. coal plants to close." In late June, PSEG, the energy services company Public Service Enterprise Group wrote, "the various initiatives under development are estimated to put 20 GW to 150 GW of existing fossil capacity at risk of retirement."
What's happening here is that many of the pollution costs of burning dirty coal are now being internalized. That is, when utilities are forced to make a decision to either invest in upgrades to minimize a coal plant's pollution or to shut down that plant and invest in cleaner energy resources, it is expected that many utilities and regulators will choose the latter. For example, in a July 2010 report (attached) that examined just two federal rules - those governing air toxics such as mercury and another to limit soot and smog - Bernstein Research estimated reductions in coal-fired generation from these two rules of over 10% in just the next 4-5 years. Industry analysts ICF International estimates more than a 25% reduction under "modest regulation" between now and 2015-2016.
I agree with most of what Michael Levi says. However, if a meaningful amount of US coal capacity is to be retired (and it's important to distinguish between capacity and energy since 90% of US power sector coal CO2 comes from 50% of the coal capacity - the newer, bigger plants that are unlikely to be retired anytime soon even with health based regulation), it is important that we think about policies that will avoid the obvious default replacement -- natural gas without CO2 scrubbing. Since half the molecules of CO2 we emit today will be with us several centuries from now, it's highly likely that we need to move the system, over a multi-decade period, to zero emissions if we want a shot at stabilizing CO2 concentrations at manageable levels. Natural gas replacements would chop CO2 in half or more relative to coal, but then that's the end of the drop and the beginning of a plateau. Do we want to create another generation of better-but-still-not-great-for-CO2 incumbent generators defending their turf? It looks like that's where we're headed.
What policies would change this picture, and lead us to an affordable fleet of near-zero carbon, declining cost energy?. For starters:
1. EPA regulation of CO2 for BOTH coal and natural gas new plants, requiring 90% carbon removal.
2. Support for early deployment and iteration of advanced near-zero-carbon technologies such as more efficient solar, renewable storage, advanced coal gasification/CCS, small modular reactors, as I discuss in my piece. See also our report at http://www.catf.us/resources/publications/files/Coal_Without_Carbon.pdf and our recommendations to the Obama administration on CCS scale up, http://www.coaltransition.org/filebin/pdf/Final_CATF_Recommendations.pdf
3. How the innovative replacements are encouraged beyond early commercial demonstration needs a lot of good thinking. Michael Levi is right that the money isn't exactly likely to gush out of DC in the next few years. Straight "renewable portfolio standards" and "feed in tariffs" may elicit a lot of zero carbon resources but at very high cost, as experience in the US and EU has shown ($73 billion in commitments in Germany for solar yielding 5.3 Megawatts of plain vanilla PV -- on an energy basis, about ten times the cost of new nuclear capacity); better targeting of money to encourage more innovative iterations of technologies will be necessary.
In short, I agree with Michael Levi's essay that we can do some marginal good in the short term (10-20 years) with fuel switching and current-generation renewables pretty easily, but we can't take our eye off the zero-emissions target. We've got to start on the innovation process today if we want big-step, cheaper options 20-30 years from now.
Finally, I'd like to throw into the mix my own left-field question: how much will what we do in the US matter? More than 90% of the CO2 emissions growth will come from the developing world, after all; by contrast, US and European energy demand will likely be modest or declining. I personally think the US has a big role to play in the energy innovation process, as we've described in previous reports linked in my piece, but I wonder what others think.
TED NORDHAUS and MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER
First, we'd like to thank the Climate Desk for hosting this conversation, and thank everyone for agreeing to take part. Before moving on to points of disagreement, it's worth noting the significant points of agreement. Nobody here is suggesting that the world has the low-cost low-carbon energy technologies needed to replace fossil fuels. Everyone seems to agree that a stepwise increase in public innovation funding is needed. There is a widespread recognition that controversial technologies like nuclear will be important parts of the solution. And most here seem to recognize that carbon caps or carbon pricing will not deliver either the technology innovation nor the emissions reductions needed to stabilize emissions
Armond Cohen underscores the importance of thinking globally. The world will double or triple its energy consumption between now and 2050. New energy consumption will overwhelmingly be fossil unless, as Steve Hayward notes, clean energy becomes a lot cheaper. The old assumption that developed nations would "go first" in reducing emissions and then developing ones would follow was wrong (and, in hindsight, presumptuous). Not only did developed nations like Europe not reduce their emissions, major developing nations like China and India have rejected emissions caps. But while developing nations are unwilling to sacrifice their economic growth for climate there is every reason to believe they would be happy to power it through cheap low-carbon alternatives
When we lose sight of this big picture we can get bogged down by far less important questions. Some, for instance, still hold out hope that the EPA will significantly regulate carbon emissions. But there is little evidence that the Obama Administration intends to undertake the difficult, divisive, and risky legal and regulatory battles that would be required. Nor is there much reason to believe that those regulations—which many expect will, at most, require modest improvements in efficiency by older coal plants—would have a noticeable impact either on emissions or on innovation.
It is ironic, as Mike Brune points out, that regulating traditional pollutants through the Clean Air Act may have been a more effective strategy in shuttering of old coal plants than either cap and trade or proposed EPA carbon regulations. And by all means, godspeed and good fortune to the Sierra Club and other local activists preparing to take up that fight. They will no doubt find more public support by appealing to bipartisan concerns with toxic pollution than by restarting the polarizing climate wars
At the same time, there is less here than meets the eye. Shutting down one third of the U.S. coal fleet sounds impressive but, as Armond notes, the plants on the chopping block are the least efficient in the fleet, with many operating at just 50 percent capacity. If replaced by natural gas, closing all 30 percent of the dirtiest plants would deliver, at most, a 7 to 10 percent reduction in coal fleet emissions
Misunderstanding the iron law of climate policy, Michael Levi argues that the public will spend something to reduce emissions. And indeed, ratepayers may very well be willing to spend a bit more on electricity to shut down old, inefficient coal plants in exchange for substantial, immediate, and well understood public health benefits. What they are unlikely to do is sign up for substantial, open-ended increases in energy prices in order to change behaviors (of individuals and firms) in the name of avoiding uncertain climate impacts decades hence.
Levi is closer to the mark when he observes that elite opinion may matter most. It confuses things to compare things like starting and funding clean tech businesses, developing smart growth programs, and establishing new building efficiency standards to a guerilla insurgency or civil rights movement, as David Roberts does. The problem is not that the effort to address climate was driven by elites but rather that the elite consensus was wrong. It assumed that carbon pricing and pollution targets could do everything from reduce emissions to accelerate innovation to create green jobs.
The good news is that the old consensus appears to be, finally, starting to change.
I'll get to substance in a moment, but I think it's important that we be a bit more precise about what we're saying -- poorly chosen words create fights where they need not exist. (We have enough real disagreements without inventing more.) In particular, I'd say that "most here seem to recognize that carbon caps or carbon pricing" ALONE "will not deliver" the various things that we'd like. That word "alone" is extremely important. It's worth noting that most here also seem to recognize that technology funding alone won't be anywhere close to enough.
On the international front, can we please stop pretending that anyone serious has been asking China or India to take on emissions caps? Those countries never "rejected" them; they were not a serious issue in the first place.
Finally, on the matter of the "Iron Law": Ted and Michael's introductory essay says that the law is about "the unwillingness of governments to sacrifice economic growth for global warming", which is what I took issue with. Saying that it actually describes the unwillingness of individuals to "sign up for substantial, open-ended increases in energy prices in the name of avoiding uncertain climate impacts decades hence" is quite the shift. I never said that carbon pricing was in the cards; I just said that the "Iron Law" wasn't a strong reason why. And, while I support increased government investment in energy innovation, it's worth noting that it's also far from obvious that that policy will be growth-enhancing. Government spending on energy innovation, particularly without a strong market, may itself violate the Iron Law.
Ok, on to substance. I'm gathering from the exchange so far that one of the big areas of near-term debate among those who want to do something about climate is going to be natural gas. (Full disclosure: My program received a small unsolicited donation earlier this year from a company with significant shale gas interests.) Armond argues that switching to gas would "create another generation of better-but-still-not-great-for-CO2 incumbent generators defending their turf"; Ted and Michael point out that replacing the dirtiest 30% of coal plants would reduce electricity emissions by 7-10%. My point was a bit more subtle: I'm arguing for a significant near-term emphasis on gas not primarily because of the immediate emissions reductions but because gas plants will be easier to eventually displace with zero-carbon sources (and because promoting gas will be much more politically feasible in the next couple years, last night's episode of CSI notwithstanding). Yes, it may create a new generation of incumbents, but they will be far less firmly established, because they will have sunk a lot less capital. (Gas capacity is much cheaper than coal capacity.) For the next few years, the alternative may not be zero carbon, but, rather, a new generation of coal incumbents that will be even harder to displace (because they won't be as vulnerable to, for example, stricter rules on local pollutants.)
On Armond's last question: It think he's spot on. The United States has a lot to contribute to low-carbon innovation. At the same time, it needs to be honest about where its comparative advantage is and is not. The United States won't invent everything by itself; it needs to cooperate (government-to-government, but also, critically, at the commercial level) with countries like China that bring other things to the table. Jim Fallows explores one element of this in a new cover article in the Atlantic; three colleagues of mine and I take a broader look at the same challenge in the new issue of Foreign Affairs.
I've enjoyed this exchange so far. Thanks to all for your comments. I'd like to respond to some of them here, and will add my own thoughts to the original questions in a later post.
First, let's focus briefly on the numbers. Michael and Ted wrote, "The world will double or triple its energy consumption between now and 2050." Where does that come from? I hope it's not the International Energy Agency (IEA), because even the IEA doesn't believe the IEA anymore. Certainly, we'll see significant growth in energy use, but let's not overstate things. Even if the world population goes from 6.8 billion to 9 billion by 2050 and the developing world dramatically increases energy use, it's difficult to see how energy use will double, much less triple. For starters, it's doubtful there's enough oil, gas or even coal for that to happen. But with that projected growth in energy consumption would come corresponding increases in water, minerals, forest products etc, and we don't have the capacity to meet those levels. Energy consumption will certainly increase, but not to the degree Ted and Michael suggested.
There was also some confusion about my estimation of how much coal use will decrease over the next decade. In my essay I wrote, "At least one-third of existing coal plant generation could be retired and replaced with clean energy within this decade." Armond correctly noted that "it's important to distinguish between capacity and energy since 90% of the US power sector coal CO2 comes from 50% of the coal capacity". But then Ted and Michael then misunderstood my statistic, assuming I was referring to capacity and not coal generation.
Let me clarify, because this is important. We are talking about reducing coal generation (not just capacity) by 1/3 by 2020. This means we are talking about cutting coal use by one-third and coal's CO2 (currently at about 2 billion metric tons) by one-third within a decade, or by about 650 million metric tons. If 50% of that coal is replaced by natural gas, which has less than half the CO2 per unit of energy, then the overall cut in greenhouse gases will be 485 million metric tons, or a nearly 25 percent reduction in coal fleet emissions. At that time, the rest of the coal fleet is more effectively controlled for soot, smog, mercury, as well as coal ash and water use, and the health care costs of burning coal drop by nearly $100 billion just for soot and smog alone. The politics of energy will surely shift in the US, and clean energy will be much better positioned to displace coal - and other fossil fuels - moving forward.
Let me also address two other points on nuclear power and coal gasification/CCS. About nukes, Ted and Michael wrote, "There is a widespread recognition that controversial technologies like nuclear will be important parts of the solution." This one made me chuckle, because at least in my paper I said no such thing, but also because nuclear power expansion is incongruous with Ted and Michael's main assertion: that we need to invest in low-cost technologies in order to displace fossil fuels and save the planet from runaway climate change. Say what you want about nuclear power, but you can't call it cheap. There's a reason why Wall St. is reluctant to finance nukes in the U.S. without loan guarantees. Even if we ignore the persistent problems nuclear power poses regarding mining, radioactive waste, safety and proliferation dangers,the cost to build nuclear plants is high, and rising, compared to other forms of energy.
The same is true for coal gasification and carbon sequestration. One example: the Duke Edwardsport plant that the Sierra Club opposed but others supported will not capture a single molecule of carbon. But the cost to build the plant has doubled, and there is a criminal investigation underway about misdeeds between Duke and the PUC. Is this a good deal for ratepayers? Every billion dollars we invest in nuclear power or so-called "clean coal" is a billion dollars much better invested in energy savings and clean energy. Clean energy will create more jobs, cut air, water, and greenhouse gas pollution, and make our country more competitive. As for costs, just look at the trends: efficiency is cheap and always has been. The cost of new coal plants and nuclear plants is rising, and the cost of solar and wind is dropping. Which side of the equation do we want to get on?
Two quick points in response to the exchange so far -- I'll add more in response to Michael Brune's latest soon.
The sheer scale and inertia of the systems we're trying to change, the limited time frame for action, and the hair-raising long tail risks involved make this like no other collective endeavor in human history. There are no good historical analogues -- not the civil rights movement, not the space race, not the Cold War. This is all of them together, and bigger.
Wonks and pundits often become wedded to particular policy prescriptions and predictions of what will and won't succeed. In particular, there has been some magical thinking among the carbon price uber alles set over the last few years (which I have decried). But it would be unwise to exchange that monomania for another one. I agree with Michael Levi that neither carbon pricing nor technology funding is likely to be sufficient on its own. More generally, it's hard to know in advance what will work, if anything. (Failure, after all, is a distinct possibility.) The bias at this point should be toward trying more things. Will grassroots activism make a difference? EPA regulations? State RES programs? Utility reform? A national transmission grid? Nuclear loan guarantees? Feed-in tariffs? Smart growth? Who knows.
The size, complexity, and urgency of the problem argue for a strategy built around diversity and resilience: spread out, rack up some small wins, build up networks, and accumulate political power along the way. If I had my druthers, everyone involved in the effort would be a bit more agnostic about policy and a bit more religious about power -- the slogging, vicious, messy work of pushing beyond symbolism to real influence.
Second, a note about the so-called Iron Law. Michael & Ted use Roger Pielke Jr.'s Iron Law to argue that raising the price of dirty energy can't work, since the public won't sacrifice economic growth for uncertain benefits. As Michael Levi notes, however, the iron looks more elastic the closer it's examined.
Stated as an absolute, it's obviously wrong. The public has an illustrious history of supporting, in some cases demanding, policies that are a drag on economic growth. Motivated minorities have secured farm subsidies, trade barriers, regulatory loopholes, and many more policies which impose higher costs on the public in exchange for benefits that are uncertain or, more often, concentrated in a very few hands.
Consider, to take an example, that energy efficiency is currently going for around 4 cents a kwh, while coal electricity is around 10 cents a kwh. By opting for so much coal and so little efficiency, the public appears to be breaking the Law, only in reverse -- paying extra, sacrificing economic growth, for environmental disbenefits.
The public may balk at perceived costs, of course, but that's very different than saying the public is a collective version of the economist's mythical self-interest maximizer.
It's possible to rephrase the Law to make it undeniable (but also uninteresting) , as Michael and Ted did in their follow-up. It's also possible to render it unfalsifiable, as Pielke Jr. did on NPR this week, saying the Iron Law is as follows: "while people are willing to bear some cost for environmental objectives, that willingness has its limits." This is like saying, "I can run, but only so far." Call it my Iron Law of Jogging. Note that it doesn't tell you much about how far I can get.
The real force of the law, at least as Michael & Ted deploy it, is to grant technology a deterministic role in human affairs, minimizing the influence of social and political factors. On this view, as articulated fairly bluntly by Steve Hayward, sociopolitical reform is futile while clean energy prices are high and will be unnecessary when clean energy prices fall.
In fact, though, the public's interaction with costs and benefits is fairly complex, distorted by market failures and subject to all sorts of crude heuristics and cognitive blind spots. (There's a rich social science literature on the subject, largely devoid of iron laws.) Mitigating these market failures, cognitive failures, regulatory failures, and failures of economics will require social and political reform. No matter how much we yearn for it to spare us from the frustrating ambiguities of social struggle, technology is not a skeleton key.
TED NORDHAUS and MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER
Argue all you want about the Iron Law, what should be clear now is that whatever tolerance political economies around the world may have for raising energy prices and slowing economic growth does not begin to approach the levels that would be necessary to price carbon high enough to actually drive substantial emissions reductions or deploy low carbon technologies at any meaningful scale. Fossil fuels are remarkable sources of energy -- energy dense, easily deployed, well-suited to provide baseload power, and still reasonably abundant in one form or another in most parts of the world. Present day alternatives, by contrast, cost too much and can't effectively serve the demands of modern energy economies. The U.S. Energy Information Agency estimates that wind energy costs 50% more than coal or gas. Solar costs two to five times more. And those estimates don't include the costs of storage and long range transmission that would be necessary for those technologies to replace coal and gas at any significant scale.
Even where political economies have actually been willing to raise energy taxes very significantly -- fuel taxes in Europe represent the equivalent of a several hundred dollar per ton tax on carbon -- such measures have had very marginal impact on fuel use or the adoption of new energy or transportation technologies. Most European nations have substantially lower per capita fuel use than the United States, but those differences actually predate the imposition of much higher fuel taxes. Indeed, if anything is remarkable about the European experience, it is how inelastic energy use has been to both regulatory and pricing policies over the last four decades.
Now perhaps one can chalk all that up to a lack of political power, as Dave Roberts does. But a more likely explanation for the failure of EU economies to diverge significantly from business as usual energy use and carbon emissions is that lacking reasonably cost effective and scalable technological alternatives, pricing and regulatory measures targeting emissions will fail. Denying the fundamental technological challenges facing decarbonization efforts will only result in further failure. Even if Mike succeeds in using pollution regulations to shut down half of U.S. coal capacity and a third of U.S. generation, unlikely as that is, it is wishful thinking that it will be replaced primarily with wind and solar energy. More likely, it will be replaced with gas, as Michael Levi suggests. But we should not confuse such developments with anything other than business as usual.
In the coming decades, the U.S. will almost certainly close down inefficient older coal plants, use more gas, and become more energy efficient. Environmental consciousness will continue to rise. The budgets and political influence of the environmental movement will continue to grow. And none of it will have much effect on the basic trajectory of America's energy economy. The United States has been moving from coal to gas for four decades now and that trend will almost certainly continue, as political opposition to building new coal plants increases, the regulatory costs of running older plants rise, and new supplies of natural gas are developed. America may still waste a lot of energy but since 1970, the energy intensity of the U.S. economy has actually declined faster than that of any other developed economy in the world.
Indeed, economies around the world have been slowly decarbonizing for two centuries. Energy intensity has declined at about one percent a year over that period and carbon intensity about half that. Those trends have been driven by technological, economic, and political changes alike. We've developed ways to generate power -- still mostly fossil based power -- that are better, cleaner and cheaper. The structure of our economy has changed dramatically, with the rise of the information and service economies and the decline and outsourcing of our industrial economy driving declining energy intensity. And rising post-material values have led to political demands for cleaner energy and less pollution which have in fact resulted in higher regulatory costs for dirty energy and substantial subsidies for clean energy. It is unlikely that efforts to increase the regulatory costs of coal as envisioned by Brune, accelerate the development of gas as envisioned by Levi, and promote low cost energy efficiency as envisioned by Roberts will do much to significantly accelerate those trends over the next several decades. Nor will the variety of other policies that Roberts proposes to throw against the wall -- renewable energy standards, feed in tariffs, a national grid, smart growth, the list is endless -- lacking vastly better technological alternatives.
Climate stabilization requires a step change transformation of the global energy economy that present day technologies simply don't allow. But even in the wake of the collapse of the current framework for dealing with the problem, climate advocates continue to learn all the wrong lessons, recycling old strategies and inventing new ones that don't account for the basic technological challenge. Regulating or pricing carbon and subsidizing renewables can't work without much better technology and no amount of new accounting or social and political innovation is likely to change that.
I appreciate a nicely done polemic as much as the next guy, but I'm not sure who here fundamentally disagrees with you. A long-term strategy for dealing with climate change will require technology push (not just market pull), people aren't prepared to tolerate really high carbon prices, Copenhagen won't save the world, etc—it's not all that controversial. That said, neither carbon pricing NOR big government spending on technology have much political hope in the next couple years. So what would you recommend we do between now and 2012? And if the climate for federal spending and/or regulation doesn't change by then, how about through 2014? Or do you have some politically realistic ideas for getting a big energy technology spending boost through the House?
Perhaps Mike has provided us a good way to wrap up this discussion: What would you recommend we do between now and 2012?
Specifics greatly appreciated. Bonus points for new ideas.
Several points in Michael Brune's posting require a response; hopefully this discussion will further illuminate the importance of energy innovation and spreading our low carbon technology bets over a variety of technologies, including decarbonized fossil fuels.
First, on global energy demand, Michael Brune writes:
Michael and Ted wrote, "The world will double or triple its energy consumption between now and 2050." Where does that come from? I hope it's not the International Energy Agency (IEA), because even the IEA doesn't believe the IEA anymore.
This is a curious statement, since the IEA's latest forecast, issued last week, in fact envisions almost precisely a doubling of global energy demand but by 2035, not 2050.
Michael Brune goes on to state:
Certainly, we'll see significant growth in energy use, but let's not overstate things. Even if the world population goes from 6.8 billion to 9 billion by 2050 and the developing world dramatically increases energy use, it's difficult to see how energy use will double, much less triple.
Actually, it's not so difficult at all. It's about increasing developing world income, not so much population. China annually consumes an average of about 62 Gigajoules per capita of energy today, and India less than 20 while Western Europe is at about 160 and North America at almost 300. Does Michael really want to bet that the Chinese and Indian people will not aspire to -- and achieve -- in a couple of generations something approaching a European level of consumption?
And while it would be nice to think that a substantial portion of this demand could be avoided through an increase in energy efficiency, even in the IEA's aggressive climate scenario, future demand is reduced by energy efficiency policies by only 17 percent over the "business as usual" case. This is a highly ambitious aspiration, given that the poster child of energy efficiency policy, California, has achieved through 25 years of policies only a 10% reduction off US average electricity demand per capita, according to a Stanford study requested by the California energy commission -- and this from a per capita consumption baseline about five times that of China! (Michael also suggests that we'll run out of fossil fuels before this additional demand can be met by them, a notion that, while popular in some circles, is highly contested, to say the least.)
These are more than just number games. If we really need to get to zero emissions in a few decades globally in order to have a hope at stabilizing global temperature at something like 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, as recent climate research suggests, a doubling or tripling of demand is a huge deal. It would mean we need something like 30 Terawatts of carbon free energy. That's about twice the level of all energy consumed on the planet today.
Since achieving merely one terawatt of those 30 carbon-free Terawatts would require 25 times more wind power than we have today *, or three hundred times current global solar capacity, or, for that matter, three times our current global capacity of nuclear plants, it's pretty clear that fossil fuels are likely to part of the picture for quite a while -- suggesting developing the CCS option at scale is likely to be pretty important, at least for prodigious amounts of natural gas we are likely to use, as the Sierra Club has conceded and supported. It's also clear that at least current generation renewables, with their substantial land use demands, intermittency challenges (which, even at current penetration levels in California and parts of Europe have required substantial numbers of new gas power plants to fill in when the wind isn't blowing -- a cost which is typically not counted against the renewables), and very high cost (at present, solar PV is at something like four times the cost of new nuclear power in the United States), are going to have a hard time filling out most of that 30 terawatts. We are going to need lots of innovation, and every scaleable option we can imagine; we aren't anywhere close to a zero sum on the carbon math and technology choices, as Michael seems to suggest.
[And, about those existing US coal plants. Simple math suggests that eliminating 30% of US coal generation through new non-climate regulation, as Michael predicts, would probably require retiring more than two thirds of the capacity -- because the production is concentrated in a minority of the (newer and less expensive to operate) capacity. I wouldn't hold my breath for that one, but I would want to make sure we had a viable CCS retrofit option.]
Michael dismisses nuclear and CCS as too expensive. He argues we should go only with wind and solar, where costs are coming down, and, as the Sierra Club has elsewhere suggested, natural gas, to decarbonize the energy system. (But, in fact, that option doesn't get us close to zero without CCS being demonstrated and applied). That might be fine (although a stretch) if we had a 20% or even 35% CO2 emissions reduction target. And, ultimately, Michael may even be right that we can fill the 30 terawatt carbon void with only wind and solar and perhaps tidal energy and some kind of biofuels that haven't been invented yet, but, for the scale reasons discussed above, few think that's a wise bet. Nearly every study of this topic assumes a significant -- even if diminished -- role for coal and natural gas in the world's electricity sector in the coming half-century. Not to develop a viable CCS option in this context would be foolish. Creating that option is what the first-of-a-kind Edwardsport plant is about, and the other CCS demonstration plants we have proposed. It would also be a mistake to not explore intermediate nuclear designs like small modular reactors and advanced nuclear designs, such as Thorium-fueled reactors.
Michael correctly points out that these first-of-a-kind technologies are expensive, and prone to cost overruns, but history suggests that is true of nearly every energy technology in its early stages before scale deployment and "learning by doing" drive costs down. (It's worth noting that despite wind and solar cost decreases after a couple of decades of global deployment subsidies, they are still twice to four times the cost of new natural gas fired power, yet Michael argues for their continued preferential deployment. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as he does not preclude similar early stage support for other technologies. And, for reference, studies of recent projects in Japan and Korea indicate that costs for nuclear power plants there have dropped by 25% or more in recent years, reflecting efficiencies in design and construction experience). We need more options, and we need to start yesterday.
I'm with Dave Roberts on this one. The climate lift is almost unimaginable, and we don't know what will work -- either in policy or technology. We're going to need lots of experiments in various technology and policy bins -- commensurate in scale to the current experiment we are inadvertently conducting on the global atmosphere. Very few people who have studied this issue closely share Michael Brune's confidence that we can achieve deep decarbonization goals with the current green energy toolkit alone -- even if global demand were to stay flat, which it won't.
TED AND MICHAEL
The question in our view is not what we will do over the next couple of years, when the political conditions are unlikely to be particularly favorable to any kind of action on climate change but rather what we will do in longer term, as the sands of political fortune inevitably shift. The national environmental movement has spent two decades and the better part of two billion dollars attempting to pass cap and trade. Even where the proposal has fared better politically, in the EU, it has failed to have any appreciable impact on emissions. Who knows, we might make some incremental progress on technology innovation or fly ash or green finance in the next Congress. Or maybe we won't. But the political prospects for a technology centered strategy ought not to be judged by the politics of an incoming Congress that has been poisoned by a decade of climate warfare. The larger question is whether, when opportunity for real action presents itself, we will again squander our social and political capital on caps and other policies that we don't have the technology to achieve or strike a different course that might create the necessary conditions, political, economic, and technological, for progress.
Accepting Michael and Ted's injunction to not lose sight of the long view, nonetheless a reasonable short term (2012) domestic agenda that could be embraced by a variety of interests might:
1. Put US coal and gas plants, new and old, on a glide oath to reduce their CO2 emissions over a two decade period, accompanied by early demonstration dollars for a variety of zero carbon coal technologies, funded by a per-ton fee on mined coal.
2. Turn the Pentagon loose on the innovation problem, with a mandate to procure first-of-a-kind commercial low carbon energy technology for its electricity needs from a portion of its existing energy budget.
3. Take a machete to any existing artificial barriers that impede business-to-business cooperation between US, Indian and Chinese companies to cooperatively innovate on low carbon technology -- and think seriously about how the government might support these partnerships without gumming them up.
4. Regulate domestic methane emissions from coal mines, landfills, oil and gas operations and other industrial sources -- and push for the same to occur in our existing (and quite functional) air quality treaty with the EU, Canada and Russia whose main protocol is currently under revision. (Methane creates smog as well as warming).
This conversation has sprawled a bit, so I want to focus in one more time on the broader question of innovation. The history of technological innovation shows that it occurs when multiple conditions are in place:
-- Technological push: this is the R&D that Michael and Ted are so keen on, and they're absolutely right that we need more of it. (Though it's worth pointing out that publicly funded research is not the only way to create tech push.)
-- Market pull: demand for technology spurs deployment, which is where the bulk of real innovation takes place. Market pull can be created by raising the prices of, or removing subsidies from, competitors, or through policies like an RES or feed-in tariffs. The federal government can play a role as well, as it has many times in the past, through procurement policy (e.g., NASA's massive purchases of solar panels during Apollo)
-- Institutional ecosystem: the research centers, laboratories, and government agencies with the institutional capacity to be able to do the research effectively, along with market institutions that enable the tech to spread
-- Resources and capabilities: learning-by-doing is impossible without an educated labor force, a stable legal system, infrastructure (i.e., a robust electricity grid), and basic knowledge (e.g., resource maps of where wind, solar, or geothermal resources are located).
Early on, technological push and institutional ecosystem are important; as technologies develop, market pull and resources/capabilities become more significant. But all of them are necessary at every stage. It's not clear to me, or the tech experts I've talked to, why Michael & Ted are so insistent on valorizing one at the expense of the others.
The question of how to assemble the puzzle is only partly about policy, and as much or more about politics; it is a deficit of power, not of clever policy ideas, that's impeding progress. If wonks were in charge, we could put the pieces in place in just the right proportion, in just the right order. But wonks don't rule the world and the process of driving innovation will inevitably be messy, compromised, and fitful. As I wrote previously, climate hawks would do well to focus in the near term on gaining and deploying power, winning incremental victories wherever they can and building the bottom-up political push that's been missing. Success will come, not when the occasional Republican finds a clean energy policy idea intriguing, but when all Republicans are frightened to vote against it.
Michael & Ted write that "the sands of political fortune inevitably shift," which I suppose is how it looks from the lofty heights of post-partisanship. But there's nothing inevitable about it. If it happens, it will be through the efforts of those on the ground getting their hands dirty as part of the movement Michael & Ted disdain. There is no winning without fighting.
(For more details on the Shellenberger, Nordhaus and Hayward plan, see the Post-Partisan Power report.)
Correction, Nov. 18, 2010: Armond Cohen originally miscalculated the wind-power expansion required to generate one terawatt of energy. Generating one terawatt would require 25 times, not four times, more wind power than is available today. (Return to the corrected sentence.)