Present Day Benefits of Climate Policy

This interview was originally published at Triple Crisis

Alejandro Reuss: This is Alejandro Reuss, co-editor of Triple Crisis Blog and Dollars & Sense Magazine. We have with us today James K. Boyce, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and director of the Program on Development, Peacebuilding, and the Environment at the Political Economy Research Institute. Welcome, Jim.

James K. Boyce: Thanks, Alejandro, happy to be with you.

Alejandro Reuss: Great. So, with the United Nations Climate Change Conference underway now in Paris, undoubtedly climate policy is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Now, we often hear climate policy debates framed by the question of whether the current generation will be willing to sacrifice their standards of living—by reducing energy use and achieving emissions reductions—for the benefit of future generations. You’ve criticized that sort of framing of climate issues.

James K. Boyce: That’s right. I mean, that framing is almost ubiquitous. One of the reasons why these international negotiations have proven so difficult is that if everybody believes that this is going to be a painful thing to cut our carbon emissions, then they all want somebody else to go first. It’s like a global free rider problem—no one wants to be the one who cuts emissions more than someone else because they’ll bear the pain and everybody else farea in the game. I think that framing of the problem has been a huge obstacle to progress, and it’s not true. In fact, it is, on the contrary, true that we can design climate policies that in fact benefit the majority of people here and now, in the present generation. So instead of always wanting somebody else to go first, if we designed the policies right, everyone will want to go first, and I think that’s a critical piece of the conversation that needs to be lifted up.

Alejandro Reuss: Well, one of those benefits that you’ve talked about and written about is called “air quality co-benefits” of climate policy. So what are air quality co-benefits, and why are those important?

James K. Boyce: Well, when we burn coal, oil, and natural gas, the fossil fuels, we not only release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is the most important of the greenhouse gases propelling climate change, but we also release a lot of other really nasty stuff: particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, a host of air toxics- things that are hazardous to people here and now when we breathe them. And by cutting down on our use of fossil fuels we’ll not only help to protect the climate for future generations, by reducing CO2 emissions, but we’ll also help to improve air quality for the present generation, and those improvements can be really substantial. In fact, people who’ve tried to calculate how much, in terms of dollars, the public health benefits of cutting carbon emissions would be find magnitudes of benefits that are as big, or even in some cases bigger, than the dollar values that have been put on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So we’re talking about big benefits here, even in a country like the United States which has relatively good air quality regulation.

My grad student Brandon Taylor and I, for example, recently did some calculations on the clean air benefits—the public health benefits—that would come from implementing one of the climate bills that’s been introduced in the current session of Congress, the Healthy Climate and Family Security Act, that was introduced by Congressman Chris Van Hollen from Maryland. And Van Hollen’s bill would put a cap on carbon emissions, auction off the permits, give the money back to the people, and reduce the use of fossil fuels by 80% by the year 2050. And we estimated that over that period, between now and 2050, implementation of that bill would save about 700,000 lives in the United States. That is to say it would avert 700,000 premature deaths—that’s about what, 250 times the number of people who died in 9/11? We’re talking about a lot of preventable mortality that could be averted by moving forward in the clean energy transition. When you then look at countries like China or India, where the air quality problems are even worse, the co-benefits—the public health co-benefits—of a clean energy transition, are that much greater.

So I think this is something that really needs to be part of the conversation. When we’re talking about cutting back on the use of fossil fuels, we’re really talking about making cleaner air for everybody on the planet today, and improving public health, preventing premature deaths, preventing respiratory diseases, cancers, heart problems, asthma, a host of other illnesses that are related to air pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

Alejandro Reuss: Just to follow up on that point, probably a lot of our listeners will have thought about the so-called export of pollution, that is to say the relocation of high polluting activities and processes from high-income countries like the United States to elsewhere in the world, and the insulation of people in high-income countries—especially affluent people in high income countries—from the effects of pollution arising out of those activities from which they benefit. And yet, the argument that you make really says, well that may be true but still there’s a lot of benefit to be gained even in countries like the United States from an air quality and public health standpoint.

James K. Boyce: Yea, that’s absolutely right, I mean you can’t export burning gasoline in your automobile, you can’t export emissions from burning coal, oil, and natural gas to generate electricity—those things are going to be in your own country, and we’ve still got a lot of that here in the United States. And despite having relatively strong air quality legislation under the Clean Air Act, we’ve still got thousands of premature deaths every year that are attributable to burning fossil fuels. So, the only way to really drive down those public health costs is to transition away from what really, when you think about it, is an awfully primitive technology. It’s digging up poisonous stuff that’s been buried under the ground for millions of years and burning it to generate heat and power. Really, I think people are going to look back on that in a hundred years and say, “Boy, people were sure primitive back in the 19th and 20th and early 21st century” if that’s the way they were generating their power, where we now know that in fact it’s possible to generate energy very cleanly, at very low cost, by tapping the sun, the wind, geo-thermal sources of power, and so on. So I think we’re not only talking here about trying to improve for people yet to be born, we’re talking about improving the environment for ourselves.

Alejandro Reuss: Very good. You’ve also written a lot about climate policies like a carbon tax, or auctioned carbon permit system, and argued that those could be designed in a way that would yield net income benefits to most people. Now again, in the sort of current discourse, the idea is, well, you’d impose a carbon tax or some other price on carbon, and that would hurt most people in the pocketbook, in particular lower-income people who tend to spend larger percentages of their incomes on fuel and the like. So how is it that most people would end up benefitting from such policies, properly designed?

James K. Boyce: Well this is another really important part of the conversation because the fact that a carbon price is one of the most important instruments to achieve reductions and emissions by making fossil fuels more expensive, is again part of the reason why people think, “Oh, it’s going to be painful for us to reduce our use of fossil fuels because we’re going to have to pay more for these things.” Well it’s true we’re going to have to pay more but the important thing to realize is that money doesn’t disappear from our economy. When consumers pay more for oil, coal, natural gas, and everything that’s produced and distributed using them, for electricity, for gasoline for their cars, etc., right? That money doesn’t get shipped to Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t get buried in a tin can in your backyard, it doesn’t get shot to the moon—it gets distributed somewhere, and the question is: who gets the money? In effect, by putting a limit on the amount of carbon we’re burning, we’re converting the atmosphere for something that was free, that you didn’t have to pay to use, into something that’s limited and we have to pay to park carbon in that limited atmospheric space.

And the question then is, well if we’re going to pay, who should get the money? Who does that space belong to? Who owns the parking lot, so to speak, the atmospheric parking lot for carbon emissions? And I would submit that it’s not owned by the corporations, it’s not owned by the government, it’s owned by all of us in common and equal measure. And consistent with that principle then, the money that’s collected by auctioning permits, or by charging a carbon tax, ought to go back to the people as the rightful owners of the resource we’re paying to use. And if you did that, what would happen is that people who have smaller carbon footprints, as they’re called—who don’t burn as much fossil fuel—or mainly low income people because they can’t afford to burn as much fossil fuel. A lot of low income people in this country can’t even afford to drive a car- they certainly don’t have 4,000 or 8,000 foot houses that they’re heating, they certainly don’t fly off in airplanes to take vacations in sunny places in the middle of the winter, right? They don’t burn as much carbon, and so they’re carbon footprints are relatively small compared to the more affluent people who have bigger houses, bigger cars, fly around in airplanes, etc., etc. By putting a price on carbon, everybody pays in proportion to their use of the scarce resource, that limited ability of the atmosphere to absorb emissions, and by recycling that money to the people as equal per-person dividends, everybody gets paid back the same amount regardless of the size of their carbon footprint.

So what that means is that people who have smaller carbon footprints come out ahead, and people who have bigger ones come out behind. And when you do the math, what you learn is that the majority of the American people would actually benefit through a recycling of the money: the low income households would come out ahead, middle income households, the middle class, would be kept whole, so their real incomes wouldn’t suffer by virtue of the rising prices of fossil fuels, and the wealthier households would end up paying more than they get back. But you know what, they can afford it.

Alejandro Reuss: I think that one of the reactions that people have when they hear a description of that policy is a favorable reaction to the clarity and the simplicity of it: you pay in proportion to the carbon emissions that are embedded in what you consume, and then you get back an equal share of what everyone pays into that pool. Now, suppose though, you have people who are differently situated, say that some people maybe who live in an area where the electrical utilities are all using coal-fired plants, and it’s a kind of emissions that’s very difficult for them individually to avoid. You know, if they need to use electricity they end up using a fairly high-carbon intensity kind of electricity. Is there an argument in favor of, say, putting people, in effect, in different pools where, well, if you’re stuck in that kind of area paying for a high-carbon intensity electricity, that you ought not to be penalized for that. Maybe what you pay in is proportional to other carbon emissions embedded in other forms of consumption but you’re sort of given a pass on that kind of thing. What would you think about arguments pro and con on that kind of adjustment to this sort of policy?

James K. Boyce: Well you’re raising an important point, Alejandro, which is that there are some regional and interstate differences in carbon footprints based, above all actually, on the composition of the electricity supply. So, states like Oregon or Vermont, that don’t use much fossil fuel for electricity, people have lower carbon footprints at a given level of income than people in, say, Indiana or a number of other Midwestern states that use more coal for their electricity supply, so that’s an important issue.

Now, on the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for keeping the policy simple, and even in a state like Indiana which has the most carbon-intensive electricity mix, when you calculate how carbon pricing would affect the households, the majority of households in Indiana would come out ahead if the money’s recycled as a dividend. But it would be a slimmer majority in Indiana than it would be in, say, Oregon.

So for that reason I think it’s desirable to think about other elements of the policy that could specifically try to channel resources to states like Indiana, to the most coal-intensive states, partly to assist those states in driving forward the clean energy transition and to cushion the impact on consumers in those states, and partly because in some of the coal-heavy states you’ve actually got jobs which are linked to the present energy infrastructure and we need to make sure that as we transition to a clean energy economy we don’t penalize the people who’ve been working in the old energy economy, but instead we make sure that they’re able to take advantage of the expanded employment opportunities that come with the building-out of our clean energy infrastructure.

So one way to do that would be to channel 75%, let’s say, of the carbon revenue back to the public as dividends, but to have 25% of it be held as money for public investment, because overall in our economy, about 25% of the investment is public investment—investments by federal, state, and local governments. So, if we do that, which is what Senators Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington State, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, actually proposed in an act they introduced back in 2009, called the CLEAR Act, if you do this, they proposed to channel 75% back to the public as dividends, 25% for public investment in clean and renewable energy, what you can do then is allocate that public investment in ways that takes these regional differences into account. And I think that’s not a bad idea.

Alejandro Reuss: Well, to sort of bring this back around full circle to really where you started, I mean you talked at the beginning of this interview about the ways in which this narrative of sacrifice, you know, of the pain of enacting serious climate mitigation policy as being something that has politically hamstrung the objective of taking serious steps on climate. What do you see as the potential for a real, significant impact of a reframing the way that people think about this, away from present sacrifice and toward the potential for present benefits? What do you see as the potential in relatively short order for this altering the prospects for serious climate mitigation policy in the United States and in other countries?

James K. Boyce: Well, I think we already see rising awareness around the world and within this country, really across the nation and across the political spectrum, of the fact that climate change is real, that burning fossil fuels is a major contributor to the problem, and that we need to do something about it. So, the political will to do something about it has been building.

What I think’s been holding it in check has been in no small measure the idea that, “Ah gee, but even though we ought to do something, it’s really going to hurt and should we really do it? Should we do it if the Chinese aren’t doing it, should we do it if we don’t know for sure how much the planet’s really going to warm up, etc.?” All these reservations about doing something have held progress back.

So I think bringing out the ways in which we can design climate policy to achieve clean air benefits, which by the way means not necessarily just having carbon reductions happen regardless of where they’re emitted, but also to target the reductions to the places, the industrial sectors and the most heavily impacted communities, to make sure that we get significant reductions in emissions in those places where the air quality and public health co-benefits are likely to be greatest, right? That’s one way to try to break through that resistance, and the other way is to design the policy so that the revenue generated by pricing carbon actually comes back to the people—so people end up, in most cases, financially better off in pocketbook terms, than they would have been without the policy.

Once the public, I think, grasps that not only is this a good thing to do for future generations, for our children and grandchildren and those that will come after them, but it’s actually a good thing for us too—I think at that point we have a foundation for really moving forward on a policy, and a policy that can command bipartisan support. Because it’s not really a matter of red states vs. blue states or Republicans vs. Democrats. It’s not a matter of bigger government or smaller government. It’s a matter of getting the price on carbon to reflect the fact that burning this stuff comes at an environmental cost to the present and future generations, and making sure that that policy is implemented in a way that far from hurting the public today, is going to benefit us.

Alejandro Reuss: Well, Jim Boyce, thank you very much for talking with us today.

James K. Boyce: Okay, Alejandro, very nice talking to you and good luck with all of your work.

Alejandro Reuss: Thanks so much.

James K. Boyce:  Okay, take care.

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  1. Liberal

    OT: just saw that Coursera is offering a course on the financial crisis co-taught by…Timothy Geithner.

    1. JEHR

      Yes, indeed. I notice that in the syllabus the fraud and corruption that caused the Financial Crisis of 2008 is described as “Bad Behavior I, II, & III” and “Government Failure I & II” and “Bubble Thinking.” Amazing how their topics never come close to the criminal and illegal behavior that really caused it! What a waste of time to take such a course by a guy that was instrumental in letting it happen.

      We at NC have already taken that course and I’m sure it doesn’t look anything like Geither’s course.

  2. wbgonne

    These are interesting ideas but I’m not sure who the target audience is. Despite decades of denialist propaganda, most people know AGW is a serious problem and most people would be willing to make some sacrifices to address it. The problem is not with the majority of the people, the problem is that the political systems around the world have been hijacked by financial elites who don’t care what is right or what the people want. The financial-political elites want the status quo because they benefit inordinately from it and they fear that all responses to AGW will enhance populism and democracy and thereby undermine their grip on power. Which is probably correct. So the corporatists incubate reactionary feelings in just enough people to ensure political cover for their oligarchic endeavors. IOW: these people aren’t looking. to be convinced, they aren’t willing to be convinced, they are unpersuadable. The best arguments in the world will be rejected out-of-hand. Not to suggest that well-meaning expositions like this are without value, but I think they will go nowhere as long as the ostensibly democratic political systems remain in the vise-grip of the oligarchs. Now one might suggest an appeal directly to the oligarchs — how they can maintain their money/power even as AGW is addressed — but it appears to me the thread won’t fit in that needle.

  3. Brooklin Bridge

    Note the “cookie policy” in the corner of the video display box. At least they are up front (until you try and read it) but Ugg, always more rent extraction in the form of data all the time, 60/60, 24/24, 7/7, 4/4, 12/12, leap by leap.

  4. Paul Tioxon

    Finally, a voice of common sense amidst the ignorance around fossil fuels. Before the climate change threat was considered by many environmentalists, because the day of wrath for that was so far in the future back in 1970 on Earth Day, the obvious problem with air pollution was that is was killing us and making us miserably sick. The obvious cost of asthma, heart diseases and various respiratory infections brought on by particulate matter from the smokestacks of industry, power plants and even household chimneys and car exhaust pipes was well known and understood and feared resulting in the Clean Air Act, as well as other anti pollution acts to preserve water and soil. It was common sense to not defecate into what you drink from. It was not particularly partisan, but cut across city and rural areas, blue collar and suburban communities. We all have to breathe the same air, drink the same water and eat from the same farms. We were all in it together.

    Today, it is no different. COP21 is as much about the present as it is about 2050 or 2080 or 2525. The pictures coming out of China, in case you missed it, from their capital in Beijing, are almost beyond belief. Their factories and roads have been mandated by authorities to close down due to an air pollution emergency.

    In case you have missed my previous posts about killer smog, look up the London Killer Smog of 1952 where thousands died as they burned their coal to stay warm. It is for this very reason alone that COP21 is looking to be a place where the reality of energy production is meeting the reality of deadly air pollution. See satellite photos of the 2013 East China Smog blanketing 600 million Chinese!

    In 2010, due to the CCP’s acute aware of political instability that was rising due to massive air pollution from coal fired power plants, along with factories and auto and truck exhaust, $45bil was invested in new solar photo voltaic factories. The immediate result was a flood of solar panels, also for import, which drove the world wide prices for solar electricity down. This event producing dumping of cheap solar panels, especially in the USA which killed the domestic manufacturers, in particular, Solyndra. Since then, the USA along with Canada has instituted anti-dumping tariffs on Chinese solar imports. Additionally, foreign capital investment is being hampered by the absolute refusal of top executives and other experts to relocate into this disgusting, deadly environment with their families. The CCP knows the trouble that this is causing and has a real politik view of joining with the USA at the Paris COP21 conference. Already, the presidents of our country and China have met and are in agreement to make significant reductions in carbon emissions. While the future is on the mind of American environmentalists, the immediate present crisis of daily air pollution events, that are stretching out in length to a week or more, are driving the policy for green energy in China.

    Without resorting to do gooders or eternal verities, the crisis is real enough for action. The bigger problem is the organized opposition on the right, where 90% of big oil’s campaign contributions go to the republicans and the cult of the environment of the pristine purist of the left, where the cliche line is always, “But it’s not enough to solve the problem!” If only life were a problem to solve.
    “McKibben is not alone in criticizing Clinton’s energy policy for sounding like too little too late.

    “It’s just plain silly,” said James Hansen, a climate change researcher who headed Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies for over 30 years. “No, you cannot solve the problem without a fundamental change, and that means you have to make the price of fossil fuels honest. Subsidizing solar panels is not going to solve the problem.”
    Unfortunately, not just for McKibben and his blowhard scientist pal, it is too late for us all. That is because the climate change has already begun, started not by Obama and Hillary, but back in 1750 with the beginning industrialization in England with France, Germany and the USA, inter alia, all burning coal, oil and nat gas for centuries. My state of Pennsylvania alone where King Coal ruled for nearly a century, over 10 BILLION TONS OF ANTHRACITE COAL was mined and burned somewhere. And that does not count all of the other types of coal, lignite, metallurgic coal and oil and all of the other states and industrial nations up until now. The sum total of carbon emitted is from the early adopters of industrialization and that ship has sailed. The climate disaster has already started. I am not sure anyone can say just how much the devastation can be mitigated, but it will not be avoided.

    China, India, the USA and the EU are the main actors and they are all making dramatic moves, including Hillary’s 1/2 billion solar panels and electric cars in 10 years proposal. That is not silly. Policy is not medicine, there is not going to be a therapeutic dose on a planetary scale that needs to judge insufficient. Especially when absolutely nothing was being done, and all of the first baby steps were being politically suppressed by the organized polilitcal opposition from the likes of the Koch supported Heartland Institute. That $4mil/yr disinformation machine fought for cancer denial lobbying for cigarettes and now promotes climate change denial in Paris, as if China and India are even mild aware of these American cockroaches.

    There is a massive counter offensive to immediately shut down the coal industry as it relates to power generation. Cutting off its financing and transferring those dollars and yen and euros to solar and wind is one of the big tasks of this conference. There are simply not enough factories to make enough panels to generate all of the electricity we currently use and will use increasingly. Until they are built and fossil fuel plants can be safely decommissioned without plunging us into the cold and darkness, there is no need for the mealy mouth blow hards shoring up the right wing crack pots with their whiney complaints about things not going fast and far enough. They don’t have to be going at all! I lived through the death march of the dismantling of a solar power movement from 40 years ago that is just come back to life in a meaningful way. If you want to see some political success and some say in the way the world is run, get behind more solar panel plants, more wind turbines, and chaging the building codes to mandate low energy loads, net zero buildings and new construction with mandatory solar panels on the roof. Zoning and building codes will do more for getting us there quickly than complaining that good efforts are not enough. The first step is never enough, nor the first mile. It is years of initial building out of manufacturing capacity followed by a decade or more of actual installations.

  5. rusti

    Really, I think people are going to look back on that in a hundred years and say, “Boy, people were sure primitive back in the 19th and 20th and early 21st century” if that’s the way they were generating their power, where we now know that in fact it’s possible to generate energy very cleanly, at very low cost, by tapping the sun, the wind, geo-thermal sources of power, and so on.

    I can’t really agree with this. The bounty that started flowing out of the ground from the Pennsylvania Oil Rush in the 19th century was an unimaginable source of energy. Even with all the top universities in the world pouring money into battery research more than 150 years later we still haven’t found a viable way to replicate that kind of energy density and portability. But it leads naturally to this point:

    but instead we make sure that they’re able to take advantage of the expanded employment opportunities that come with the building-out of our clean energy infrastructure.

    This is a grand opportunity to provide a huge number of people with jobs where people actually contribute to their communities. There’s a wide range of skills needed for design and deployment of new technologies and I imagine being a wind turbine installer or light rail technician is a hell of a lot more pleasant than being a coal miner. Not to mention that as an engineer I think it would be infinitely more fun to work on designing energy systems that didn’t use the primitive recipe of pumping flammable stuff out of the ground, burning it and using the atmosphere as a sewage tank.

  6. Carla

    rusti, I want to be encouraged by your optimism. Given the current political situation, whom do you see actually being able to seize this grand opportunity? How do we get from here to there?

    1. rusti

      I spend a lot of time thinking about this question but I am not sure I really have a good answer because I’m a lot more well-versed in technical subjects than politics or history so I don’t really have a good frame of reference for what it takes to build a movement that inspires a broad segment of the population.

      There are a few things holding back renewable energy from widespread adoption right now. One huge problem in my opinion is the framework in which the utilities operate and renewables contend. There are endless online arguments and regulatory battles over things like Net Metering for rooftop solar when it would be a hell of a lot more efficient on a cents per kilowatt-hour basis to pool our resources and have utility-scale solar. A similar story is playing out where wind advocates argue about the cost per kilowatt hour and often refuse to face the simple reality that even if wind is the cheapest thing when the wind blows, the overall system costs aren’t necessarily cheaper all the time. Rather than doubling down on rhetoric, it would be nice if everyone could agree that there’s a collective interest in getting electricity from wind rather than say, natural gas, and write policy accordingly.

      It’s even worse for the transport sector where the technology gap is much larger than with fossil alternatives. The Tesla Model S has a curb weight of like 5000 lbs with an absolutely obscene number of small cylindrical battery cells. This is an absurd solution from a resource standpoint compared to building out better infrastructure for dynamic charging (overhead lines, wireless, or even in-road conductive charging have been demonstrated for heavy vehicles). Or better yet find ways to make it appealing and safe to bike or take the bus.

      Another problem is of course the fact that Carbon has such an incredibly broad “externalized cost” base that even in the face of overwhelming evidence of AGW we’ve collectively dragged our feet in artificially nudging the underlying economics with a sensible carbon tax. If you can introduce this on a wide enough scale to artificially improve the competitiveness of renewables then a some of those fledgling companies on the brink will start to spread their wings. Not just for energy production but novel ideas for transport, efficiency, demand response and storage.

      If you follow a site like Green Car Congress you will see a ton of absolutely wonderful ideas from research projects and startups, of which many probably lack scaleability or efficiency for widespread adoption, but each with valuable lessons to teach. You can also fan the flames of innovation by frontloading long-term R&D with the University system in a much higher degree than is done today. Progressives generally don’t like the idea of socialized costs and private profits, but I’m willing to look the other way so long as implementation isn’t just a hidden subsidy for existing industry incumbents with little incentive for real change. If existing DOE programs (and EU Horizon 2020 projects) were given budgets on the scale of the military industrial complex, I suspect we’d be a good bit of the way towards a carbon-free economy by now.

      Most of these problems seem to stem from an extreme focus on the individual, and the solutions wind up being pretty poorly suited to the strengths of renewables. If someone can sell the idea of collective effort rather than everyone shoring up their own castle for the coming storm the results could be pretty impressive. Not just for the technology but because there will be a huge demand for labor to implement and maintain the infrastructure that should be built. Maybe a resurgence of the left rather than the clowns in the Democratic party and those who have taken the reigns of Social Democrat parties here in Europe could generate a broad base of support. Or maybe I just read too much NC.

      1. different clue


        My power company ( DTE Energy) has something which permits a hybrid between individual and mass-policy-action approaches. Those of DTE’s customers who want to pay an extra fee are told (and I take it on faith) that their pooled extra-fees will be used to build mass-quantity renewable power installations . . . wind and etc. So this allows a lot of individuals to converge around pooled paying for large ( and maybe scalable?) live-action demonstration renewable powerplants.

        How many other utilities have a feature like this?

        1. rusti

          I hadn’t heard of that arrangement before but I imagine there are similar variants elsewhere. Here in Sweden the grid operator with the natural monopoly sends one bill while you choose another company to buy your energy from. So you can pay a premium price for “Clean energy” or some combination of hydro/nuclear/wind, even though that’s not really the way it works if everything is running over the same network.

          Both of these schemes stink of Greenwashing to me and provide the veneer of action without much in the way of accountability. I’d rather just set a clear regulatory framework for operators that mandates how they’re going to have to play if they’re going to sell energy. If they can’t turn a profit under these rules, nationalize the energy system.

          1. different clue

            I am too lazy or busy or maybe energy-deprived to do the physical checking to see if the renewable-targeted-premium I pay actually goes to building physical renewable electricity yielding plants or not. If the money does no such thing, then it would stink of swindle, actually.

            But if all the collectively aggregated renewable-energy-facility investment premium fees actually go to build wind/water/etc. electricity plants which would otherwise not have been built, then where is the greenwash? Every little windplant payed for and built by this method is a beachhead from which the renewable energy forces may be able to break out and conquer fossil-enemy territory when the conditions permit.

            But then, State of Michigan has also passed and imposed a set-percent-renewable requirement as well. So there is the beginning of regulatory framework.

            1. rusti

              I still pay the premium for “Green” energy too, but view it as a ramped up version of the supermarket collection jar for eradicating poverty. Tossing a few quarters might help some people some of the time, but it’s more about making us feel good about ourselves than actually inferring systemic change.

              When California or Michigan or the US Government impose real regulatory requirements, that is an effective tool to make a difference if they’re suitably ambitious and not easily manipulated. No wonder the EPA or CARB are painted as public enemies by moneyed interests.

  7. mark

    However, Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes a sobering analysis of the challenge of supplying adequate energy to the world in 2050. In his article, “On the Future of Global Energy” in the current issue of Daedalus (unfortunately not online), Nocera begins with the amount of energy currently being used on a per capita basis in various countries and then extrapolates what that usage implies for a world of 9 billion people in 2050. For example, in 2002 the United States used 3.3 terawatts (TW), China 1.5 TW, India 0.46 TW, Africa 0.45 TW and so forth. Totaling it all up, Nocera finds, “the global population burned energy at a rate of 13.5 TW.” A terawatt equals one trillion watts.

    Nocera calculates that if 9 billion people in 2050 used energy at the rate that Americans do today that the world would have to generate 102.2 TW of power—more than seven times current production. If people adopted the energy lifestyle of Western Europe, power production would need to rise to 45.5 terawatts. On the other hand if the world’s 9 billion in 2050 adopted India’s current living standards, the world would need to produce only 4 TW of power. Nocera suggests, assuming heroic conservation measures that would enable affluent American lifestyles, that “conservative estimates of energy use place our global energy need at 28-35 TW in 2050.” This means that the world will need an additional 15-22 TW of energy over the current base of 13.5 TW.

    So where will the extra energy come from? Relying on figures from the World Energy Assessmentby the United Nations Development Program, Nocera looks at the maximum amounts of power that various non-fossil fuel sources might supply. Biomass could supply 7-10 TW of energy, but that is the equivalent of harvesting all current crops solely for energy. Nuclear could produce 8 TW which implies building 8000 new reactors over the 45 years at a rate of one new plant every two days. Wind would generate 2.1 TW if every site on the globe with class 3 winds or greater were occupied with windmills. Winds at a class 3 siteblow at 11.5 miles per hour at 33 feet above the ground. And hydro-power could produce 0.7-2 TW if dams were placed on every untapped river on the earth. Nocera concludes, “The message is clear. The additional energy we need in 2050 over the current 13.5 TW base, is simply not attainable from long discussed sources—the global appetite for energy is simply too great.”

    1. rusti

      I think the premise of 9 billion people consuming energy like an American is a bit dubious. Finding a seemingly-endless energy source that allowed us to rapidly ramp up to be a Terawatt-hour civilization resulted in a lot of retroactively idiotic choices, like a bunch of poorly-insulated suburban homes with two Ford F-350s parked outside that never get used for hauling. Failure to reach this “ideal” doesn’t mean you can’t help people in Chad or Haiti build much better lives for themselves.

      Also, you’re using “energy” and “power” interchangeably, but the distinction is extremely important.

        1. different clue

          And here is just one little article from this website I just found . . . to give an idea of the brain-expanding originality of thought to be found in these articles. Sometimes Steve Baer writes like an old curmudgeon but that is okay because he is old . . . and has seen many false starts and blind-alley-ambushes put in the way of solar living. So here is the link.

          1. rusti

            Thanks for the links. I hadn’t heard of Steve Baer before, but I’m a sucker for the sort of elegant solutions that he seems to invent and develop.

            The article sounds a bit conspiratorial to me though, even if I can understand how spending decades promoting solar technologies with limited success due to a combination of societal apathy and cronyism would make someone that way. The DOE has tens of thousands of employees, and I suspect the vast majority of them would be happy to see a fossil-free energy system. The same holds true in the automotive sector where I work. Most of us grunts on the ground don’t have our fortunes tied to the current incumbents and will happily work towards a new goal starting on Monday if there’s still a paycheck to be had.

            1. different clue

              Yes, by now parts of his mind have become conspiratorialized. It hadn’t yet happened decades ago when he wrote the book Sunspots which I referrenced just a little bit further upthread. I was a little dismayed to see that unecessary diversion into conspiracy tangent myself where it wasn’t necessary at all. But one can pick those parts out and focus on the elegant energy solutions and energy thinking, which has only been more and more refined over time.

              I will continue reading all his new articles and make hard copies of them and try buying that other book Sunspots Two which I just yesterday heard of. His company is called Zomeworks and I suspect he still discusses there the energy things he sells without the politics entering into it.

  8. different clue

    In the book Storms Of My Granchildren by that blowhard NASA climatologist James Hansen . . . in the middle of the book he writes something about an approach to nuclear power which I had basically never heard of. If I had the book with me I would type by hand the relevant two paragraphs.

    Basically, there is something called “Fast Reactor” because the neutrons from nucleii fissing move fast enough to destabilize impacted neighbor nucleii into fissile nucleii which then fiss, emitting fast-moving neutrons which then destabilize impacted neighbor nucleii into fissile nucleii which then etc. etc. etc. He claims that this “Fast Reactoring” permits the destabilizing and subsequent fissioning of 97 per cent of all the theoretically possible fissionizably destabilizable nucleii in the fuel sample. He further claims that the scant amount of radioactive products remaining have half-lives short enough to where they are mostly decayed in a few hundred years . . . and they are heat and nuclear-corrosion-yieldingly low enough that they can be mixed-encased in meltable-into-glass material. This is called vitrification.

    He further claims that the so-called “Fast Breeder Reactor” was really a “Half-Fast Breeder Reactor”, moving the neutrons along just half-fast enough to created extractable plutonium. My theory on why it was called the Fast Breeder Reactor instead of the Half- Fast-Breeder Reactor was to make it sound “better” and more benign than it really was. Its real secret-agenda reason for existing was to produce bomb-grade plutonium which would be extracted in “reprocessing plants” and made into plutonium cores for bombs. So of course the anti-NukeWar movement worked against the “Fast Breeder Reactor” and against “fuel reprocessing”. But since it was misnomered the “Fast” Breeder Reactor” instead of the “Half-Fast Breeder Reactor” ( which it really was . . . half-fast, I mean . . . ), the anti-NukeWar community will condemn any reactor method called “fast”. So perhaps we can de-confuse ourselves and eachother by re-naming the reactor design of which Hansen writes. Perhaps we can call it the Full Fast Reactor or the Full Speed Reactor or something.

    He thinks huge fleets of these reactors is the only low-carbon way we are going to produce the huge amounts of electricity which the people of China and India and elsewhere WILL Have, reGARDless of how they get it. And renewables will Not not NOT deliver the amounts of electricity people are bound and determined to have.

    So perhaps this-here Fast Neutron Burns-It-All Reactor is worth serious attention and maybe deployment? I saw a Nova program once about the successful testing of this design by the Argonne National Laboratory and its subsequent belligerent destruction by government order. I could find it in a web search once, but now I can’t . . . . as Big Digital brings the internet ever closer to its dream of being the Infocommercial SuperSewer.

    1. polecat

      well..human societal inertia, being what it is, will NOT allow for any substantial mitigation on climate change……the changes are already baked in, and with climate being a chaotic system, things will happen that we won’t be able to foresee, regardless of any computer modeling. I think adaptation is where we, as a society, are headed..powering down to provide people w/ basic living conditions, using local and regional resources, without all the extraneous crap that most of us think is important……….. but we’re going to experience some major convulsions getting there, because of said human inertia! Where each of us fit in that scheme will be a crapshoot.

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