Let’s back up and take it from the top. The global climate emergency is the inevitable outcome of the technology options we have chosen. We got where we are because we bought the products our manufacturers offered us. Our public utilities bought scads of coal-fired and gas-fired power plants. The equipment purchased by our factories was designed to run on fossil fuels. The cars we buy as consumers are designed to be powered by gasoline or by diesel fuel. Our airplanes are designed to run on aviation fuel. The heating systems in our homes and offices are designed to run on natural gas or heating oil. And on and on. One consumer purchase at a time, one capital purchase at a time, we put ourselves in the situation we are in now. We have limited ourselves to the burning of fossil fuels because those are the fuels our technology purchases require.
We know this. It’s old news. And it points us toward the solution we need. We will migrate to a new energy economy in the same way – one capital purchase at a time, one consumer purchase at a time.
If there were no urgency to this, we could take our time. But a cap on atmospheric CO2 of 3,500 billion tonnes is considerably safer than a cap of 4,000 billion tonnes, which in turn is far safer than a cap of 4,500 billion tonnes, and so on. We are in a crisis situation. We need to move forward sensibly and aggressively. And we will need the spur of public policy to help us act together, as a nation, so that we can resolve this crisis before it turns into an unmitigated disaster.
Let’s walk through each of the major strategies by which we will re-equip our energy sector with a full complement of climate-safe technologies.
A New Portfolio of User Technologies
One must begin not with the technologies that supply energy but with the technologies that use energy. As users, we will change our behaviors and our purchases in four major ways. We will raise our efficiency standards, so that we don’t need as much energy to accomplish our existing aims. We will choose new technologies for heating and cooling our buildings. We will choose new technologies for powering our vehicles. We will choose new technologies for running our factories.
1. We Will Be More Efficient. In every area where we depend on energy, we will become more efficient: our appliances, our buildings, our vehicles, and our manufacturing processes will all become more efficient. There are enormous savings here. As a general rule of thumb, $1 invested in efficiency reduces future energy expenditures by $3. We make money for ourselves by becoming more efficient.
Most Americans don’t realize that this is primarily a matter of getting the rules of the game defined properly. California got this right years ago. Reward public utilities for helping their customers use energy more efficiently; don’t reward them just for building more capacity. Result? California uses electricity more efficiently than any other state, 7,200 kilowatt-hours per person per year. Our national average? 12,500 kilowatt-hours per person per year.[i]
Vehicle efficiency standards are essential. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for automakers (CAFE standards) have already made a significant difference, and if applied even more aggressively, they will generate further gains.
Industry has abundant opportunities. United Technologies Chief George David spoke up for efficiency in the Wall Street Journal. “Too much in the mind of the public is this idea that conservation means deprivation. You’ve got to be cold at night, shut off the lights, stuff like that. That’s simply not true. There’s enormous energy savings potential in the conservation agenda where you do it by efficiency.” Mr. David’s company dropped energy consumption by 19% over a decade in which it doubled in size. “All America,” asserts David, “can drop its energy consumption by 20% in a decade easily.”[ii]
2. We Will Free Our Buildings from their Dependence on Fossil Fuels. American building standards are badly out of date. We allow developers to undermine the common good with every new structure the build. A badly under-insulated building forces its occupants to consume wastefully high quantities of energy. As a homeowner, it pains me that I don’t own the heat in my home, I merely rent it. My indoor heat escapes to the outdoors much too quickly in the winter; outdoor heat penetrates all too swiftly in the summer and puts my air conditioner into overdrive.
Had the walls of my home been insulated to European passivhaus standards, my furnace would be unnecessary and most likely I wouldn’t need an air conditioner either.[iii] Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson writes of a well-known success story in Aspen, Colorado. “Amory B, Lovins’ house runs on the same amount of energy it takes to fuel one conventional light bulb.”[iv] The three secrets of an energy efficient building? Insulation. Insulation. Insulation.
Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies has a fifty thousand square foot building that is designed to produce as much energy as it consumes.[v] Passivhaus design provides for full air exchange between the indoors and the outdoors roughly every four hours. Heat transfer ductwork helps bring fresh air from the outdoors up to (or down to) the temperature of the indoor air.
In a clean energy future, each new building will be properly insulated from the start. It will be warm enough in the winter not to require a furnace and cool enough in the summer not to require air conditioning.
The bigger nut to crack is America’s inventory of older buildings. If we are to halt global warming, we will have to remove every furnace, stove, and hot water heater that relies on natural gas or heating oil. That’s a very tall order, and a very intimate problem. Almost every homeowner in the nation will be asked to be part of the solution. How is this to be done sensibly and effectively? There’s a lot of brainstorming ahead.
Three main themes will shape our retrofit approach. We will want to weatherize our homes as effectively as possible. Parts of our house were recently weatherized, with foam insulation applied both to our attic and the crawl space below our study. In another year, I imagine that we will have foam insulation added to our exterior walls. Our energy demands will fall substantially. But weatherization is a pricey strategy. Most homeowners will require financial assistance of some sort.
Second, we will want to replace our furnaces with heat pumps. A furnace that runs on natural gas produces less CO2 than a heat pump powered by coal-generated electricity, but a heat pump powered by renewable electricity is the best choice of all.
Third, we will often want to supplement heat pumps with on-site geothermal wells. Geothermal wells let us take advantage of constant underground temperatures not all that far below the surface. A geothermal well delivers a constant temperature coolant to a heat pump all year, easing its cooling load in the summer and its warming load in the winter.
Let’s imagine a five year timetable for all new structures. No natural gas furnaces will be permitted in new residential and commercial properties built from 2016 on. Get the job done with insulation and heat pumps and geothermal wells.
Let’s imagine a thirty year timetable for all retrofits, residential and commercial. By 2041, let’s be done with natural gas furnaces and heating oil furnaces and natural gas water heaters. Let’s make this possible with weatherization, with heat pumps, and with geothermal wells.
Let’s brainstorm our hearts out so that we can find a smooth and owner-friendly way of moving the process forward. It is not an easy thing to challenge ourselves to retrofit our homes no matter how urgent the cause. We will want everyone to be comfortable that we have figured out the smartest possible methodology.
3. We Will Free Our Vehicles From Their Dependence On Fossil Fuels. Let’s imagine, just for a moment, that it is 2040 and that America’s last gasoline-burning cars are being pulled from service. How shall we honor the day? Here’s an idea.
Dearborn, Michigan, is home to the Henry Ford Museum and its trove of exhibits – one-horse shays, cars, locomotives. If Americans once drove it, the Ford Museum displays it. One of its treasures is a Newcomen steam engine, thought to be the world’s oldest, placed in service in the mid-1700s. It is a behemoth of an engine, powered by coal, originally used to pump water out of English coal mines.
When the nation’s last gasoline automobiles are finally retired, let’s stage a grand lottery for the owners of all these vehicles. Let’s choose two winners – one man, one woman. And let’s honor both winners in three signal ways. Each will drive a farewell victory lap at the Indy 500. Each will drive a farewell victory lap at the Daytona 500. And each will have their cars enshrined as exhibits at the Ford Museum, placed alongside the Newcomen steam engine. Think of it! The First and the Last, on display together at the Henry Ford Museum, bookends to humanity’s age of fossil fuels. Could anything be more fitting?
Now to the practical matter of creating clean energy vehicles so that today’s gasoline and diesel and aviation fuel vehicles can be properly retired.
One begins by acknowledging the multi-faceted character of this challenge. “Vehicle” is a very broad term. It takes in cars, pickup trucks, vans, SUVs, motorcycles, motor scooters, stepvans, eighteen-wheelers, agricultural tractors of many kinds, construction vehicles of many kinds, fork lifts, speed boats, ocean liners, ocean freighters, small aircraft, jet aircraft, railroad engines, buses, streetcars, and on and on. Service requirements vary enormously among all these types. And yet the goal is ultimately the same – replace all the power plants that require gasoline or petroleum-based diesel fuel or petroleum based aviation fuel with power plants that don’t. And replace the fossil fuel distribution system of today with a new energy distribution system that doesn’t use a drop of petroleum, a whiff of natural gas, or an ounce of coal.
It will take some time to get all the pieces right, but if we put our minds to it, we ought to be able to get the job done by 2040. No one knows, yet, just which strategies will be the best. At a high level, one can anticipate certain rules of thumb being applied. Long-trip vehicles will have first claim on liquid fuels – jet aviation, ocean freighters, eighteen-wheelers. Short-trip vehicles will be easily powered with electricity. For most vehicle types, supply abundance will affect manufacturer decisions about the type of power plant to use.
There is one educated guess that we ought to be able to make right now. (And Congress may soon agree.) Corn ethanol will never have a major role. Corn’s ability to convert solar energy into liquid fuel for vehicles is far more limited than ethanol’s proponents have been willing to acknowledge. If it were possible to capture every photon of solar energy that falls on an acre of farmland and convert it into ethanol, a single acre’s worth of sunshine would give us 300,000 gallons of ethanol each year.
In the real world of corn cultivation and ethanol distilling, the average ethanol operation grosses 400 gallons of ethanol per acre. Ethanol skeptics believe that it takes 300 gallons worth of ethanol to produce the final 400 gallon yield, so the net yield per acre may be as low as 100 gallons of ethanol per year. If this rule of thumb is roughly right, then corn ethanol’s net yield is but one three-thousandth of ambient solar energy. (100 ÷ 300,000 = 1/3,000th) Hardly a promising ratio! Photovoltaic panels convert solar energy into electricity with a conversion ratio of ten percent or better. Compare the two ratios – ethanol with a gross solar conversion ratio slightly higher than one tenth of one percent; PV panels with a gross solar conversion ratio of ten percent. We would get a hundred times more energy per acre from our corn farmers if we hired them to cover their fields with photovoltaic panels. (Not that this would be a rational use of good farmland!)
Suppose we did this. And suppose we used all that electricity to catalyze liquid hydrogen, at current efficiency rates of twenty-five percent. (It takes four kilowatt-hours of electricity to extract one kilowatt-hour’s worth of liquid hydrogen.)
We would get twenty-five times more liquid fuel per acre if we went after hydrogen than we now get by pursuing corn ethanol.
These will not be easy research challenges, but we will make the research effort more successful if we pay close attention to solar conversion ratios. Technologies with high conversion ratios will always trump technologies that have woefully low solar conversion ratios.
4. We Will Equip Factories to Run on Clean Energy. America may not be the manufacturing force that it was, but government figures show industry consuming more energy than residential and commercial users combined. Most of industry’s needs are presently met with natural gas, oil, and coal.
It isn’t fair to industry to say that public policy is going to ask it to reduce its overall carbon dioxide emissions, and then let it go at that. Industry needs to hear the truth. Global warming cannot be halted without ending the use of fossil fuels. We face a climate change emergency and an ocean acidification emergency, and the only effective way to respond to those twin emergencies is to end our reliance on all technologies that consume oil or natural gas or coal. Industry needs to know this, and industry needs to know that public policy will in fairly short order make that requirement clear to everyone.
Capital plans for a post-fossil fuel future will be quite different than capital plans for a reduced-emission fossil fuel future. We need to lay down the right marker for industry so that its leaders can plan wisely and invest responsibly.
A New Portfolio of Source Technologies
Every user of energy requires a dependable source of energy. Electricity users require clean electricity. They require a competently designed and deployed grid, and they require a competent management structure to finance and supervise that grid. Liquid fuel users require a sufficient supply of liquid fuels. And users of heat energy require a sufficient supply of heat. We have our work cut out for us.
5. Tomorrow’s Electricity Will Be Generated By Clean Energy. In a clean energy economy, the demand for electricity will almost surely be somewhat higher. And almost all of it will have to come from sources that have not yet been deployed.
It is essential that we set aside our habits of carelessness and address this issue seriously and thoughtfully.
For starters, we know that we need to get tomorrow’s customers and tomorrow’s suppliers talking together at the same table. How much electricity is tomorrow’s vehicle sector likely to demand? How much electricity will tomorrow’s homes and office buildings demand? What about industry – what sort of electricity need will it want to meet? Many of these estimates will be tied to guesses about future technology decisions, so it won’t be easy to pin anything down. What counts is the vigor and foresight of the larger conversation.
Electric utilities should also be pushed to prepare for a future in which the options of coal and natural gas have been completely taken off the table. Our public utilities have been reluctant to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis; it is time to invite them to be partners in shaping a competent solution strategy for ending global warming altogether.
And it is time to enlist them in figuring out how we as a nation will create the electric generating capacity we need.
We face a series of technology questions. We need to think as clearly as we can about the future potential of several different power generation technologies. Wind power. Photovoltaic energy. Concentrating solar energy. Geothermal energy. Wave power. Nuclear energy. The tethered kite version of wind power. And others.
For each of these scenarios, America needs to know both the technology potential and the economic prospects.
No one can answer questions like this without better information than we now have. The only way to generate answers quickly is to deploy all the options as energetically as we can for the next five or ten years. Only through experience can industry leaders and the nation learn which technologies will give America its best mix of long-run capabilities.
As this conversation evolves, it will surface a host of siting issues. Every gigawatt of capacity has to be put someplace. Wind towers belong in windy regions. Concentrating solar facilities belong in sunny regions. Geothermal generating plants belong in areas of high geothermal potential. And so on. In the larger picture, America has more than enough land. Forty percent of the nation is presently used for farming, so allocating perhaps half a percent of the nation’s land to wind and solar is well within reason. But how, site by site, is this to be achieved? The conversation needs to begin early, and it needs to be conducted responsibly and well.
6. Tomorrow’s Electric Grid Will Support Clean Energy. Oilman Boone Pickens likes to say that today’s electrical grid is an “accidental grid.” It wasn’t planned, it just grew, in small pieces, enmeshed within a crazy quilt of local management authorities. It distributes, on average, 10 terawatt-hours/day of electricity, and no one knows, yet, how large a grid the nation will need in a clean energy future. No one knows what sort of management structure ought to be responsible for the grid of tomorrow. No one knows exactly where tomorrow’s energy will be generated. Experts aren’t even sure whether tomorrow’s grid should be designed around alternating current or direct current.
All we know for sure is that today’s management structure isn’t up to the task. And we know that today’s crazy quilt grid isn’t up to the task. What we have now isn’t ready for the clean energy future of tomorrow.
Grid design issues present America with a major challenge and a major opportunity. If we look forward into the future, perhaps we will decide that an entirely different way of managing the grid is in America’s best interest. Or perhaps we will decide that each piece of the overall grid needs its own migration path toward a smarter and more responsible future.
There is a lot of work ahead. And all of it needs to be done on behalf of the national interest.
7. Liquid Fuels Will Be Clean Energy Fuels. All we know at the moment about liquid fuel is that we are compelled by circumstances to phase out our reliance on petroleum and find an ample set of alternatives. (As some readers may not realize, the burning of liquid fuel that has been synthesized from recently grown crops has no effect on total atmospheric CO2. The burning of biofuels merely puts back into the atmosphere the CO2 that was recently removed by photosynthesis. The CO2 from biofuels is climate safe.)
As many as a dozen different technology strategies for producing liquid fuel have been mentioned as possibilities. Ethanol, biodiesel, and hydrogen options presently receive the most press, but dark horse possibilities cannot be ruled out.
Ethanol from corn has a political following but no realistic chance of meeting the nation’s liquid fuel needs. Cellulosic ethanol seems promising, but no one has yet shown that it can be dependably produced in large quantities. Crop-based biodiesel is somewhat more promising than corn ethanol, but crop-based liquid fuels all suffer from the same solar conversion inefficiency issues. In time, scientists might master the process of extracting diesel fuel from greenhouse-grown algae. Once someone proves a method for generating several thousand gallons of diesel per acre per year, industry will sit up and take notice. Today’s manufacturers of diesel engines will benefit greatly should this benchmark be reached.
Liquid hydrogen as conventionally produced has something of a cost problem. It takes four kilowatt-hours of electricity, just now, to extract one kilowatt-hour worth of hydrogen from water. If someone like MIT’s Dan Nocera[vi] can show us a better and cheaper way to extract hydrogen from water, we might just get the liquid fuel answer we need.
No clear winner has yet claimed the stage. But someone will, because our economy simply cannot operate properly without a reliable source of liquid fuel energy. A smart nation will invest aggressively in a dozen different possibilities for the next few years, in order to give all options a shot at proving their commercialization potential.
8. Heat Energy Will Be Clean Energy. Compared to the markets for electricity and liquid fuels, the markets for heat energy may seem mundane. Even so, heat energy has a vital role.
Industry will always require process heat. If it cannot be obtained from oil or natural gas or coal, it will have to come from somewhere. Where might industry turn in order to satisfy its full demand for process heat?
The broad term “biomass” covers a range of possibilities. Think crop waste. If tomorrow’s process heat is to come from crop waste, will our nation’s farms generate enough crop waste to serve the appetites of the nation’s industries? And still have enough crop waste left to restore the health of the soil? We might not have enough biomass to satisfy all the needs of industry.
Think biodiesel, from greenhouse-bred algae. If crop waste isn’t up to the task, can we create process heat by cultivating algae and stewing them up into delicious batches of biodiesel? How many square miles of algae greenhouses might we require? Will the biodiesel industry be able to cover all the nation’s liquid fuel needs, and still have capacity left over to supply industry with fuels for generating process heat?
Think liquid hydrogen. Clean electricity can be generated in vast quantities if required, and a portion of the nation’s electricity output could be used to catalyze liquid hydrogen.
As specialists in these matters already know, anything that industry burns in the pursuit of process heat should be asked to play a dual role, first as a manufacturing resource, then as energy for generating electricity.
The crucial first step is a simple one. Give industry the right signals. Let everyone know that we have phase out fossil fuel energy entirely. This isn’t just a matter of cutting back; this is a matter of creating an entirely new family of technologies at the fastest responsible rate.
A Dignified Exit for the Energy Industries of Yesterday
The renewable energy we need is available, in abundance. Sunshine is free; it doesn’t have to be purchased from petro-dictators. The challenge is to capture it effectively and efficiently, and convert its raw energy into several different forms so that all the parts of our economy can continue to function properly.
As American industry moves forward on all fronts toward a clean energy future, the demand for fossil fuels will decline and then disappear. It is never to early to begin the conversation about how the communities most affected can make a successful transition to a post-fossil fuel future.
It will not be a swift transition. The true ramping down is still a couple of decades away, and it will not wrap up for good until the early or mid-2040s. Hiring freezes and early retirements will ease the transition. Pension benefits, though, will require some attention. Will retirees have the pension protection they currently expect, if the fossil fuel industry disappears after 2040? A wise and competent nation honors and supports its retiring fossil fuel workforce, even as it moves forcefully toward a clean energy future.
[i] Author’s analysis, using figures for 2007 from http://www.census.gov/popest/states/tables/NST-EST2007-01.xls and http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/sales_state.xls, Total Electric Industry section, Excel lines 1960 through 2011.
[ii] Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2007.
[iii] See Wikipedia, Passive House article.
[iv] Steven Mufson, “One Man’s Long Battle To Get U.S. to Kick Oil.” Washington Post, July 25, 2006.
[v] Yale Today. Summer 2005.
[vi] Type http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2008/oxygen-0731.html into a browser, or do a Google search on Nocera, MIT, and hydrogen.