A surprisingly subversive look at what the coming energy transformation will look like

The Conference Board of Canada, usually described as a business-friendly think tank, has come out with a report that is refreshingly honest, and even a bit subversive — especially if you pay extra attention to some sidebars, consider what the authors deliberately left out, and are at least a little familiar with the science of power consumption and generation.

The full report, which is behind a freewall — it is downloadable for the cost of supplying your contact information — concludes that converting Canada’s economy to a carbon-free energy mix won’t actually cost all that much. But what I find more interesting is that much of the report’s details support the notion that even optimistic predictions are unnecessarily (small-c) conservative. This suggests the authors (Len Coad, Robyn Gibbard, Alicia Macdonald, and Matthew Stewart) are trying to serve two audiences: the captains of industry who are their patrons on the one hand, and the folks who will do the real heavy-lifting during the coming transition period on the other.

The report’s main thrust is calculating the economic impact of impending carbon taxes, which are scheduled to come into effect next year. You don’t need to worry about the precise numbers, which are all really not much more than barely educated guesses. The important part is even the more aggressive scenarios (like taxes rising to $200/tonne,  several times even the highest of the carbon taxes now in effect) show that the country won’t fall apart.

Overall, the economic impact of eliminating most fossil fuels from the power generation mix is significant—but not overwhelming. The total impact on GDP, at $7.2 billion, is comparable to the output of a relatively small Canadian industry.

So that’s good news.

The even-better news is how much the authors of The Cost of a Cleaner Future: Examining the Economic Impacts of Reducing GHG Emission have managed to misrepresent about the likely future, either deliberately or disingenuously.

First, there is scant mention of the role of either energy efficiency or electrification on future power demand, even though both of these factors are critical to any useful understanding of what’s to come. First, Moore’s Law is pretty much still in effect and something similar continues to hold sway over how much energy we need to do most of what passes for work these days. Not to take into account expected declines in demand thanks to more efficient technology is bizarre to say the least.

Even more puzzling is the failure to address what happens when you switch from running your economy on fossil fuels to running on electricity. The bottom line is you lose a lot less energy to waste heat. Much effort has been made by others to anticipate this effect and the outcome of those calculations. As Mark Jacobson  and Mark Delucci have demonstrated repeatedly, switching to an economy based on wind, water and solar will actually mean demand will fall, not rise, even when you take into account population and economic growth. The difference is actually about 30%. Some have taken issue with Jacobson’s numbers, but even if he’s missed something (which I doubt) and his estimates are off by a bit, the idea deserves at least some mention in a document that pretends to be running sophisticated model of future energy needs.

Instead we get lines like “To eliminate fossil fuels from the grid, over 20 gigawatts of installed generating capacity will need to be replaced.” If Jacobson is right, we’ll actually only need 14 GW. That’s significant, and if you’re a jurisdiction like Alberta or Saskatchewan, now relying on coal, oil and gas for  70-78% of your electricity, every gigawatt is going to count.

Coad et al. also seem to be stuck in old-school thinking when it comes to what generating electricity means from an industrial point of view. They write:

Acceptance of large-scale projects: Substantial investment in large-scale hydro, nuclear, wind, and transmission projects will be required in all parts of the country. Large-scale projects typically attract their share of controversy, and acceptance of these projects among environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the public is necessary.

Yes, some large-scale projects will be built. Cities are hungry beasts. The controversial Site C hydro dam in northern B.C. will almost certainly overcome the opposition it now faces because there’s just to much potential energy sitting there for it not to be used — mostly by Alberta, which will need something to replace all the coal it’s now burning.  But nuclear? Doubtful, unless we can come up with economical options for fancy  new thorium reactors. The more problematic aspect of this vision is the idea that centralized electricity generation has a major role to play in the future. It probably does, but only to an extent. Decentralized, small-scale generation in the form of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and geothermal are widely understood to be more likely candidates.

All of this means things will probably be even less disruptive, create even more jobs, and cost even less to the economy, than the report foresees. And what they foresee isn’t that dark to begin with. There are hints that the authors know this. Sprinkled throughout are references and asides that cast doubt on the conventional thinking they ostensibly embrace. For example, there’s a sidebar devoted to debunking (politely) the idea that closing the coal-fired power plants in Ontario is responsible for the recent hikes in electricity bills in the province. In reality, the causes are many and the situation is much more complicated than that. For one thing, “the province has ended up with far more generation capacity than it needs.”

There’s also a fair bit of speculation about the bigger picture, especially when the more dramatic scenarios are explored:

The fact that the GDP hit is so small relative to the lost investment in this pathway provides an interesting insight. It suggests that the investments being given up in this pathway were contributing relatively little to GDP in Canada, as most of the forgone investment would have been spent on imported goods and services.

…if we broaden the scope beyond just looking at the required investments and assess how behavioural and policy changes can impact the results, it is evident that deep emissions reductions are possible at a much smaller cost.

Indeed. Even the Conference Board of Canada is telling you to stop worrying so much about giving up fossil fuels. How about that?

The grid is smarter than you think

The most charitable comment I can come up with for the just-released Department of Energy Staff Report to the Secretary on Electricity Markets and Reliability is the refusal of the authors to use what is surely a candidate for Most Overused Term of the Year: resilience. Not that resilience isn’t important, but it’s to their credit that the staffers responsible for telling Secretary Rick Perry sort-of what he wanted to hear understand that reliability is really what it’s all about.

After all, if there’s one thing that defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear power like to remind us more than anything else, it’s that the sun only shines during the day and the wind only blows some of the time. It’s a mantra meant to sear into our brains the idea that renewable electricity isn’t reliable. And as much as the Staff Report tries to skirt the issue by eliminating the findings contained in a leaked earlier draft, it still manages to conclude that the nation’s grid is more reliable now than ever:

Overall, at the end of 2016, the system had more dispatchable capacity capable of operating at high utilization rates than it did in 2002.

The New York Times put it this way:

The Energy Department report concedes that the nation’s electricity system remains reliable today, even with a sharp rise in intermittent wind and solar power, in part because natural gas generators and existing hydropower can easily fill any gaps in renewable generation.

Joe Romm has a good summary of how the authors “botched” their task of spinning the report in favor of fossil fuels, and how Perry manages to misrepresent the findings by recommending subsidies for coal and nuclear plants.

But none of this should come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the evolution of grid management. The fact is that computational capacity to anticipate minute-by-minute power-load shifts has increased dramatically in recent years. Add to that relatively modest growth in demand and the move away from large, centralized sources of electricity in favor of smaller, distributed, local sources, and you have a grid that can easily handle whatever nature and humankind can throw at it. And this is all going to continue to be the case in the case in the future, only more so. Even during this week’s total eclipse, the grid was easily able to accommodate the large drops in solar’s contribution to the network by drawing on gas and hydro.

Technology has a way of creeping up on you if you’re not paying attention. One day you’re trying to unfold a road map, the next the car is driving itself across the state.

The “bridge” fuel that wasn’t

Among those who spend their working lives and/or spare time worrying about climate change, there are many subjects that still provoke heated debates, so to speak. Chief among them is the wisdom or folly of turning to natural gas as a “bridge” between the carbon-intensive oil- and coal-dominated present and the clean renewable future that we all know is coming sooner or later. The opponents just found their case a little bit stronger thanks to another controversial issue: nuclear power.

Natural gas is, as anyone with a basic grasp of the fundamentals of greenhouse gas forcings can tell you, only  half as good at warming the atmosphere as coal. So replacing coal-fired plants with natural gas alternatives should get us half-way to cutting our emissions to zero. Right?

Well, not quite. Natural gas is almost entirely methane, which has 20 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a century, and several times that in the near-term. And as all operations involving natural gas also involves some release of methane directly into the air, the effect of that methane has to be added to the calculations used to compare the emissions impact of each fuel.

Let’s say for argument’s sake an operator could get “fugitive” emissions of methane down to 1 or 2 percent, which is quite possible, though much lower than what is probably the industry norm these days. Consider also that gas-fired plants are more efficient than coal. So the best-case scenario is gas will cut the effective warming of gas by 30 to 40 percent. Whether that is sufficient given the amount of time we have left before triggering irrevocably serious climate change is also a matter of some debate. After all, we know we need to get to zero, so why pour scare resources into switching to one alternative only to spend even more in a decade or so to switch again?

But all this is only relevant when comparing gas with coal, which supplies only about 40% of the American electricity mix. What about nuclear power? Its carbon footprint is measurable, but tiny compared with coal. So if you replace a nuke with a gas-fired plant, you’ve increased your emissions budget from near-zero to 100% of whatever the non-nuclear alternative was.

Geoffrey Lean at the Telegraph asks “Is shale gas killing nuclear power?” Several nuclear power plants in the U.S. are being replaced by gas, undoing a significant portion of whatever minor advantage gas presents in the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Add to this the complicating factors of the cooling aerosols associated with coal, and natural gas is starting to look more than a little problematic.

Yes, natural gas can provide real carbon-emissions reductions in some situations. It’s relatively easy to install, the technology is well understood, and it’s a fossil fuel, so the status quo doesn’t feel so threatened. But the math suggests it isn’t going to do the trick.

Republicans with cooler heads

Barring a miraculous revival of the fortunes of Jon Huntsman, Republicans this year will, for the first time, elect a presidential nominee who does not believe that humans are responsible for global warming. How did things get this bad?

The Climate Desk team found a few of the last Republicans among the party’s leadership who break with this new orthodoxy and spliced their heresies together in this video.

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Change is the one constant

Fill in the blanks:

It is customary in the popular media and in many journal articles to cite a projected _________ figure as if it were a given, a figure so certain that it could virtually be used for long-range planning purposes. But we must carefully examine the assumptions behind such projections. And forecasts that ________ is going to level off or decline this century have been based on the assumption that the developing world will necessarily follow the path of the industrialized world. That is far from a sure bet.

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Another blow to the natural gas alternative

ResearchBlogging.orgA letter in Climatic Change looking at the life-cycle greenhouse warming potential of natural gas raised a lot of hackles a little while back. If, as the authors posit, replacing coal and oil combustion with gas-fired turbines could actually accelerate global warming rather than slow it down, then we have a serious problem, given the investments being made in gas.

Much the skepticism about that study could be traced to the background of the lead author, Robert Howarth, who happens to have a history of opposing gas fracking. Of course, Howarth’s scientific credentials, or his activism, have no real bearing on the math that produces some very daunting numbers about the practical impact of drilling for gas and burning it. But it is unavoidable that any scientist who dallies even tangentially with political activism will run into problems convincing skeptics that he or she hasn’t got some ulterior motive. So what this debate needed is an unimpeachable scientific authority to weigh in.
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The narrow mind of Greenpeace

Way back when I was just a novice environmentalist, Greenpeace seemed like a good idea. It published a decent newsletter, was drawing attention to otherwise neglected issues, and, while understandably suspicious of technology, seemed to have more than a grudging respect for science as a tool to preserve those things worse preserving. It was one of the few NGOs that received what little I could afford to donate to charitable causes. I don’t regret supporting them in the 80s, and not just because I shared the group’s desire to save the whales.

I still want to save the whales. I no longer support Greenpeace.
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The last word (for now) on shale gas

Debating the merits and dangers of fracking shale gas has become a major obession of those who worry about energy and the climate. Yale’s e360’s latest contribution comes in the form a forum that includes a wide variety of perspectives pro and con.

For me, the wisest observation, and the one that really trumps all others, comes from Kevin Anderson, who directs the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research’s energy program:

… the only responsible action with regard to shale gas, or any “new” unconventional fossil fuel, is to keep it in the ground — at least until there is a meaningful global emissions cap forcing substitution. In the absence of such an emissions cap, and in our energy hungry world, shale gas will only be combusted in addition to coal — not as a substitution, as many analysts have naively suggested.

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