Mt. Reinier, Washington. LNV 2015
Today 82% of man-made Green House Gases (GHGs) originate from CO2 released by burning oil, coal and natural gas. More than half of the ‘dirty fuels’ are used to power transportation and generate electricity. Although we have the technology to switch to clean and renewable fuels, we lack the ideological, political and economic will to clean the mess of GHGs once and for all.
Composition of Greenhouse Gases (EPA 2012)
It doesn’t have to be that way. Technology in place today makes eliminating gasoline from cars and carbon from electrical power plants are the ‘low-hanging fruit’ in the push to clean the atmosphere.
Source of Greenhouse Gases (EPA 2012)
Over half of the CO2 in the atmosphere is generated by gasoline engines and coal-fired electrical plants (58%). Both technologies can be supplanted. However, vested interests are opposed including some of the governments that represent them. The problem is that clean renewables will make the bottom fall out of the oil market making the top oil producing sites in the world—the ‘usual suspects’—staunch opponents:
- The cold war rivals—US and Russia; and
- The Middle East.
Together the US, Russia and the Middle East pump 40% of world oil. A similar story is told by the other dirty fuel. China and the US produce 60% of world coal (with China taking the lion’s share):
Nations Producing Coal—China’s share is 4x larger than the US and dwarfs all other producers.
While we have the capacity to switch from dirty to clean fuels an overarching fact that stands in the way: Switching to clean fuels will create winners and losers. Among the losers are the most powerful nations and multinationals on the globe. Thus, while adopting renewable and clean energy sources will bring about the long-awaited ‘peace dividend’; getting there will disrupt the existing world order.
In this rubric the history of the 20th century was written in oil and blood. A hegemony that has existed for 100 years was put in place when internal combustion engines replaced horses as ‘beasts of burden’. Back then automobile manufacturers, steel, glass, plastics, rubber and petroleum industries gained ascendancy while horse breeding, feeding and stabling fell out of profitability. A series of world crisis unfolding over the next two decades coincided with an unprecedented transfer of wealth and power from the old order to the new upstarts (1915 – 1935). These crisis included World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II. This was the start of a new age with a new name: The American Century.
Today—in an analogous way—dislocations triggered by switching from carbon to renewable fuels will shake the foundations of the existing global order. For example, expect the price of crude oil to be pushed below the support level for extraction, shipping and refining. As nations the world over end dependency on foreign oil and coal they will make gains in self-reliance powering local economies by simply generating clean fuel at home.
Empowering the many over the few, switching to a new world order may not prove as disruptive this time around. If the greatest advantage of using renewable fuels turns out to be ending dependance on foreign fuels, and a cadre of producers, then local cultures and economies will be the big winners. As transportation and electrical generation are replaced by a lighter, smarter, more efficient and responsive infrastructure each locality will be put in a position to innovate and reap the rewards of their own inventions.
As consequence of strategic assets no longer shipping through the Persian Gulf, for example, the US Fifth Fleet can sail home. Not just the military infrastructure, but the entire oil refining-shipping-storing-delivery systems can be decommissioned. As locally produced energy sources come on stream super tankers can go the way of dinosaurs. As pipe lines and super-tankers become obsolete, deep sea shipping can lower CO2 by innovating hi-tech sails for capturing wind power.
Switching away from carbon will entail a massive re-allocation of resources stripping away power from the most wasteful elements returning the smallest benefits to society.
1. The First Shoe to Drop: Electric Vehicles (EVs)
The good news about EVs is that production is fast approaching the tipping point where manufacturers of gas guzzling cars must build EVs, or give up market share.
For the average citizen long concerned with finding a way to make a difference—to have a say in the global discourse over clean and renewable fuels—industry is presenting a new way to ‘vote with their feet’. People can make their next automobile purchase an EV writing on the wall the arrival of the next age.
Private cars today burn 75% of all oil consumed by transportation—generating 20% of atmospheric pollution. While eliminating cars altogether would achieve great reductions in CO2, the same result can be produced by switching from gas guzzlers to EVs. The social and environmental advantages of adopting EVs are crystal clear:
- End demand for world oil—ending dominance by the few top producers.
- Deliver fuel savings to the consumer—beginning at 50%, then ramping to 100% as photovoltaic technology makes possible electrical generation and storage at home and at work.
- Use technology as a multiplier—improving smart grids, solar panels, batteries, battery chargers and braking systems all increase the efficiency of EVs.
- Trigger government subsidies—use national taxation policy to accelerate local production of renewables.
North America already produces sufficient levels of electrical power to service the entire automobile fleet running electric. The remaining 25% of oil consumed by transportation—by trucking, air, marine, and rail—can be lowered incrementally using as a template the path followed by the automobile fleet. For example, late in 2015 Boeing introduced a 737 burning 20% less fuel than the 1990 model. Of course, industry watchdogs will have to remain alert for the ‘Volkswagen Syndrome’ of misreporting fuel efficiencies. Yet, late in 2014 Volkswagen introduced the Gulf EV model traveling 83 miles between charges—about 4x the charge necessary for commuting to work. Running 100% electric it steers clear of the fuel emissions mis-reporting scandal.
These kinds of innovations applied to land, sea and rail transportation will tip the scales to the point where carbon taxing can leverage the competitive advantage of clean industries taking the last step in eliminating dirty fuels altogether.
- 100% reduction of oil used by automobiles; followed by reductions in all other forms of transportation.
- 20% of air pollution in cities eliminated at full EV adoption.
- Tax breaks shorten the time to full adoption.
- Cvs last twice as long; have lower operating and maintenance costs.
- Powering EVs is expected to cost half the price of gasoline. Domestic electrical generation and storage holds the promise of dropping electric energy costs to 0 after the system is installed.
- Alternative fuel optons—Iceland: all cars & fishing fleet run on hydrogen produced by locally generated geo-thermal power.
Summary: Achievable Today—Reduce Transportation GHG to 25% of 2012 levels
The table shows how total GHG emissions from transportation can fall by 75% after:
- Adopting EVs;
- Adopting electric and hybrid engines for land, water and rail transportation.
- Updating air transport technologies.
All gains are possible with existing technology. The barriers to implementation are ideological, economic and political.
Waigaoqiao coal-fired electrical generation in Pudong, Shanghai, China breaching emission standards in 2014. Photograph: Imaginechina/Corbis
2. The Other Shoe: Clean Electrical Power Generation (CEG)
The other industry sector presenting opportunities for large scale CO2 reductions is electrical power generation by coal, gas and oil. Here barriers to change are also ideological, political and economic. We have the technology, yet lack the will power to implement it.
Comparing electrical production in two North American neighbors—Canada and the US—returns surprising results. The world-leading US economy is 10x greater than Canada’s. Yet, when it comes to electric power generation, Canada generates 10x more clean energy than the US!
Of course, Canada is a nation of ‘northern cities’—and this also applies to Russia—where hydro power is abundant while hours of sunshine are severely constrained in winter. On the other hand, the US—and this also applies to China—is a nation of both northern and southern cities. Thus, while Northern regions aim to match Canadian levels of hydro electrical production, Southern regions should be poised to advantage solar power instead. This emerging spectrum of renewable energy production strategized by region should be a viable option presenting globally, not just in North America.
Late in 2015 US congress extended tax breaks for solar and wind energy to 2022. The change will add enough clean energy to power 8 million homes, doubling existing capacity from just two renewable sources. As a consequence US wind and solar are expected to supply 15% of national energy needs within five years. However, these gains will accrue in the Southern regions begging the question about new small and large scale hydro electric generation in Northern regions: Is there a need to invest national treasure in resolving environmental remediation—and returning salmon—around hydro electric power plants?
BEIJING MONRING — PHOTO: CHINADIGITALTIMES
Using Canada’s 2012 power generation matrix as a yard stick for achieving 65% energy from clean renewables, the US and China show just how far all economies must travel to achieve clean air:
The table above shows how atmospheric pollution from electrical power generation can drop to 5% of 2012 levels by combining today’s capacity for generating electricity from hydro, photovoltaic, wind and other renewables.
Note how the numbers for Renewables and Coal & Gas are inverted for Canada and the US. Canada produces 65% of its energy from renewables; while the US produces 67% of its energy from coal and natural gas. On the one hand, the North American neighbors are really mirror opposites. The clean energy of one is matched by the dirty energy of the other. On the other, China—producing twice as much electrical generation from renewables as the US—has a 70% dependance on dirty fuels. The US is the undisputed leader at 87% (Note here that burning coal emits twice as much atmospheric pollution per unit of energy produced as burning natural gas).
Coal-burning electric power plant in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, USA. PHOTO: James Jordan 2009
Since nuclear plants transport radioactive waste into future generations they represent another type of ‘dirty fuel’. For example, in China a plan to build 400 nuclear reactors to support 400 million homes may seem like the right way to provide clean power over the next three decades. Yet, radio active waste risks becoming the new equivalent of the Christmas Red & Orange Smog Alerts issued in 50 different urban centers in China in 2015.
Solar panels at 2.3-megawatt floating solar power station, on Sakasamaike Pond in Kasai, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Photograph: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg
3. Morphing the Smart Grid
Electrical distribution systems can play a major role in lowering atmospheric pollution. Producing fuel where it is consumed saves 6% loss in transportation and storage.
China and the US may claim Canada has a geographical advantage for generating hydro electricity, yet smart grids can make it so that a cocktail of clean energy sources out-perform the burning of dirty fuels. Both China and the US have southern cities where 20% of residential and business power needs can be generated using photovoltaic technology available today (i.e. solar panels on site).
Scaled up, an array of private solar panels extending over an entire electrical distribution grid is large enough to turn the ‘smart grid’ into a significant generator of solar energy. Efficiencies will vary by region. Yet, even northern cities will see a surplus of solar energy in summer when levels at hydro electric dams tend to run low. Besides, surplus energy can also be stored locally—used to charge car batteries scattered throughout the gird.
Smart Grid Advantages (SGAs):
- Local power generation—Solar panels on private property feed the smart grid saving 6% energy lost in transmission and adding surplus power.
- Photovoltaics—In southern cities solar panels achieve 20% of domestic and business energy needs. The number of photovoltaic installations is expected to double by 2020.
- Geothermal heat-exchangers—Can provide 17% of the domestic energy requirements at all times of the day, at all times of the year, feeding the smart grid off-peak in nearly all geographical locations when solar/wind/hydro production is low.
- Wind power—The UK produces 5% of its electricity with off-shore wind turbines.
- Surplus generation—can be stored in customers’s car batteries also scattered throughout the smart grid.
Morphing the electrical distribution grid into a gigantic system for collecting power from an array of renewable sources saves the 6% distribution losses and gains net energy from customer generation.
MOUNT BAKER, Washington State, USA—at a distance air pollution makes the white snow look brown.
4. The Air Pollution End Game
By targeting the low-hanging fruit in Green House Gas emissions we can cut over 70% of the 2012 air pollution levels using 2012 technology. From there cap-and-trade tax policy can take all man-made GHGs to zero.
The best news about reducing air pollution is that we are burning the candle at both ends: market analysts are already reporting that the break down of OPEC in 2015 is combining with losing market share to clean renewables to drive crude oil prices down. The bottom of the oil market clearly in sight making the end of global dependency on oil achievable in the 5 to 10 year range.
By whatever name—climate change, global warming, the green house effect or carbon footprint—for the first time in modern history we are in a position to end atmospheric pollution from burning ‘dirty’ fuel sources—i.e. coal, oil and natural gas.
In turn, this brings into focus our ability to end pollution on land and water arising from urbanization, industry, and agriculture. Clean air, clean land and clean water will save human lives and make us richer.
A health effect combines with a peace dividend and a growth opportunity to make adoption of clean and renewable energy the needed change for ushering the next modern age. Their sum total will finally deliver on the ultimate promise of modernism: human kind living in harmony with nature and one other.
5. Top Advantages of Eliminating GHGs
- Save 50% of global oil consumption by converting the car fleet to EVs, also eliminating 25% of air pollution in cities.
- Obtain 65% of energy from renewables (hydro; solar; thermal; wind; tidal; biomass; etc.). Hold nuclear at 15% and ‘dirty’ fuels at 20% before taking them down to zero.
- Morph the ‘smart grid’ to collect surplus renewable energy from each customer site.
- Reap peace, health and economic dividends by ending use of dirty fuels.
6. Reaping the Peace Dividend
Ending the demand for oil and coal imports around the world, and adopting carbon taxes to cap carbon and oil production, will bring unexpected results. The Cold War adversaries and the Middle East emerge as the three competing regional conflicts poised to sunset once there are no oil dollars to fight over. Among the remaining top 10 geo-political producers—Latin America, China and Canada—ending dependence on foreign coal and oil will also end the conflicts of the past century. Renewable clean power will shift dominance from the strategic interest of the few to the well-being of entire populations around the globe.
Savings will accrue as reductions in healthcare costs; lower incidence of cancer and lung disease; as well as a stand down in military forces. Longer life expectancies will be balanced with growth in clean renewable fuel sectors creating a peace dividend. Scrubbing the air of soot will reduce maintenance costs for streets and buildings as the dawn of local & clean renewable energy production raises national levels of productivity, boosts regional economies and grows the personal wealth of individuals.
Power is power. The future is C-O-O-L.