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By Robert Rapier on Nov 30, 2015 with 12 responses

Energy on the Edge: Understanding the Challenge

Energy on the Edge

Along with the OPEC meeting that takes place late this week, the biggest story in the world of energy is the Paris Climate Change Conference (Conference of Parties 21, or COP21) that runs through the end of next week. This conference is put on by the United Nations with the goal of producing a global agreement that will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Implementation of strategies that will help mitigate potential impacts of climate change are also on the agenda.

Decarbonizing our energy systems by encouraging greater usage of alternative energy — a frequent topic of this column — is one of the common themes in the fight against rising greenhouse gas emissions. Next weekend a new episode of National Geographic Channel’s Breakthrough series covers progress being made on this front. “Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge” debuts Sunday, December 6, at 9 pm ET on National Geographic Channel and covers some of the latest advances in alternative energy.

Ahead of the premiere, National Geographic Channel contacted me and extended an invitation to join the conversation by answering the question “Do you think that by tapping into the new alternative energy sources we can reverse most of the damage we have done to our environment?” But first I think we need to step back and make sure we understand the problem. Failure to correctly characterize a problem makes it much more difficult to address that problem. So let me first offer some context on the question.

Emissions on the March

Even if you are a climate change skeptic, there is no question that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been climbing steadily since shortly after the Industrial Revolution began and coal consumption started rising. Once the petroleum age started in the mid-1800′s, emission levels began to grow at exponential rates. This has resulted in an increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide from about 280 parts per million (PPM) before the Industrial Revolution to the current level of about 400 PPM. Further, emissions continue to grow unabated. This should concern even the climate change skeptics.

Why has this happened? Primarily because fossil fuels were historically the cheapest and most convenient energy options. As countries attain higher standards of living, that has generally gone hand-in-hand with increasing consumption of fossil fuels. But scientists have recognized for decades that this isn’t a free lunch. Fossil fuels have made life more convenient, but they have also resulted in environmental damage.

Attempts to phase out fossil fuels with binding agreements — a major goal of this week’s Paris conference – often pit developing countries against developed countries. Thus, despite many years of attempts to negotiate agreements, as well as high profile campaigns to restrict carbon emissions, the reality is that today carbon dioxide emissions have never been greater:

Global CO2

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol established legally binding obligations for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Following the Kyoto agreement, emissions in OECD countries — effectively the world’s developed countries — continued to rise for a decade. But higher energy prices helped slow that advance, and emissions in developed countries began to decline in 2007 and are now 8% below the 2007 peak.

But one of the major challenges is that over the past decade carbon dioxide emissions in non-OECD countries — the world’s developing countries — have been rising sharply. Since the year 2000, carbon dioxide emissions in non-OECD countries are up 92% and are now well above the emissions of developed countries. In fact, emissions in developing countries have grown far too rapidly to offset the modest declines in developed countries:

Global CO2 OECD

In order to halt the growth in global emissions, the emissions from developing countries must be reined in. But developing countries argue that developed countries built their economies on a foundation of cheap fossil fuels, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to do the same? Further, the legacy emissions — that is the vast majority of the current carbon dioxide inventory in the atmosphere — belong to the developed countries. Thus, developing countries argue that they shouldn’t be punished for this. As if to illustrate this point, India has already announced that they oppose any deal that would have them phase out fossil fuels by the year 2100. They see coal as their cheapest path to development, and are therefore resistant of making pledges.

This brings us back to the original question of whether alternative energy can reverse the damage that has been done. If we consider that question to mean “Can alternative energy reverse the rising tide of carbon emissions?” — then we can at least put some parameters around an answer.

It is clear given the growth trajectory in the previous graphic that developing countries (like China and India) will be driving emissions for many years to come. To reverse the direction of emissions without crippling development in the developing countries (a non-starter for these countries as India emphasized), we will have to develop solutions that are not only technically viable, but that are cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Further, alternatives must be cumulatively capable of scaling up to displace large amounts of fossil fuels, and they must be convenient if consumers are going to willingly opt for alternatives over fossil fuels.

Is it a tall order? Absolutely. Too often we focus on the technical viability of solutions without proper consideration for economics or scalability. We have had alternatives to fossil fuels for hundreds of years in some cases. We have to recognize that technical viability is only one component of the equation. When economic viability isn’t there, fossil fuels will continue to be used despite alternatives.


Alternative energy is one of my greatest interests, so I am looking forward to National Geographic Channel’s “Breakthrough: Energy on the Edge” next Sunday. In previewing some of the video clips, it seems they do discuss both the technical and economic aspects of the problem. All too often we are inundated with press releases touting various breakthroughs in alternative energy. But these breakthroughs will not be capable of addressing the problem if they aren’t cost effective. Hopefully that piece of the puzzle is also adequately and realistically represented.

Link to Original Article: Energy on the Edge: Understanding the Challenge

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  1. By Russ Finley on November 30, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    1) Alternative = renewable or not fossil, hydro, nuclear, or corn ethanol?
    2) Renewable = alternative or wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, corn ethanol?
    3) Green= not environmetnally destructive? It’s a matter of degree.
    4) Clean = nuclear, wind, solar, gerthermal, corn ethanol?
    5) Low Carbon = not fossil fueled?
    6) Non-fossil fueled
    7) Sustainable = renewable = alternative?

    I’ve noticed that the lay press switches between the above adjectives when talking about energy. Alternative = non-fossil fueled? Corn ethanol is mostly made with fossil fuel, and has been around for decades, so, is it no longer considered alternative? Which ones describe nuclear?

    Hard to have rational discussions when the audience has to guess what the terms mean..

    1) Solar, Wind, Geothermal, biofuels, nuclear, hydro
    2) Solar Voltaic, Solar Thermal, Onshore Wind, Offshore Wind, Corn Ethanol, Soy Biodiesel, Cellulossic Ethanol, Palm Biodiesel, Gen II, II, IV nuclear
    3) All of the above including nuclear are the lowest carbon sources,

    Is sustainable a synomym of renewable, and if not , what source is sustainable? Does solar have to provide enough energy to mine and refine the ores it is made from, and to recycle and manufacture it to be called sustainable? Has any energy source ever proven to be sustainable or is it a hypothesis?

    • By Ronald Lindeman on December 1, 2015 at 9:22 am

      I remember the same discussion more than on the Climate Progress Blog more than 5 years ago. When people use the words Alternative Energy, what does that mean, that real energy are fossil fuel energy? Is Alternative Energy like Alternative Medicine, not really vetted to truly work or not? non carbon energy sources, like nuclear, wind power stations, photovoltaic are all real energy sources. I myself use the phrase wind power stations for wind power instead of some people using windmill, there is no mill anywhere. And also wind turbine, there is much more there than the turbine. I used the phrase wind power plants, but they are less than a plant like an industrial plant. So wind power stations.

  2. By Forrest on November 30, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Define the problem- to much CO2 in atmosphere

    Solution- decrease CO2 emissions man made or other and/or reprocess atmospheric CO2.

    Plan of action- CO2 emissions tax, deregulate low polluting technology and remove current barriers of new technology per usual pick and choose government interference, facilitate standards to coordinate national and international energy development, subsidize ultra low polluting power generators and fuel to poor countries, investment dollars awarded to highest rate of return for CO2 emission reduction upon global market, rate tax expenditures and promising technology by independent accounting agency bonded to ensure loss of political and personal cronyism influence. Public is informed by same agency of cost, effectiveness of programs, waste, and progress of real environmental improvement per satellite telemetry.

    So, take the bars off of open market solutions, measure real world emissions, and tax what you don’t want. Corn can be utilized upon choice of most lucrative and efficient markets, crude oil can be pumped within efficient pipelines, auto manufactures have maximum latitude if developing higher efficiency autos, manufactures can quickly go to market without the usual boatload of government oversight costs.

    Home natural gas refueling of vehicles may become popular if safety record is acceptable. Small CHP power and heat generators could progress for private home use. Cars such as the Elio can make it to market with huge environmental benefits. Nuclear will have a clear runway to progress as will hydro, wind, and solar. Natural gas combined cycle power plants will suffer zero permitting costs and time delays. Deregulate power generation market with the imposed CO2 emissions tax.

  3. By Forrest on December 1, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Bill Gates is pushing international community to dovetail efforts with increase in government spending of R&D and to utilize the private sector capability. That would be a positive force and probably the most powerful effort to meet needs of society. To date all the projections of doom per GW is based on static state of art energy technology. This is never the case. Invention and technology has a habit of making liars out of prognosticators. It is folly to demand solutions of CO2 emissions based on projections of current technology. One must spend precious resources, especially capital, upon the conservative plank with the highest returns. This will sustain high living standards and job growth. So, to label coal as evil or dirty is just political hype nonsense. Same with solar and wind being labeled “the” solution. The energy market place is terribly complex and should not be mandated by fools. Better to do research and provide that research with support funding to open markets that can make it happen. Better to deregulate to afford maximum flexibility of problem solvers. As Robert’s post suggest, we need low cost energy solutions for developing economies, that can lower natural or man made emissions of CO2 and create jobs. We need a replacement for cheap low tech coal combustion for power production. Solutions may diverge entirely from complex and expensive grid energy. My guess, better to utilize micro grid and supply power close to consumer. Better to utilize pipeline distribution of high btu needs of society per the natural balance, storage, and low cost delivery. Utilizing expensive grid for btu needs of society is unwise per the cost, complexity, and fragile nature. Fuel cell power may play a very big role. Remote power generation may best utilized per hydrogen production. Nuclear best utilized to meet demands metro markets.

  4. By Forrest on December 1, 2015 at 8:41 am

    Robert is right. Our nation is set upon a most foolish path that appears to be empowered by politics. Were overly concerned of fly poop within the pepper expensive improvements to GW when developing nations have a raging bull gorging all improvements. The political mantra “we will lead and they will follow” is just plain nonsense offered as an excuse. Asia is building 500 coal power plants this year alone as we pat ourselves on the back for regulating a few dozen out of existence at great cost to utility payers. By the way these plants a magnitude better for emissions. They’re no immediate solutions to low carbon fuel. It will take time and sensible application of taxpayer money. Meanwhile the nation is at the breaking point of debt load. We have higher priorities as the U.S. needs to double its’ power and influence to affect change even climate change. We needn’t forget of pushing and developing low carbon solutions just we need to tamp down, for example, the idiocy of inflating misdirected XL pipeline politics. Leadership needs to quit acting like Community Agitators and put nation on sustainable path.

    Terrorism dovetails with this as their black market oil wealth should be the primary focus of deflating their influence. Problem is were upon a economic path of being anemic ourselves while terrorist enjoy sustained wealth. We should be exploiting oil wealth and allow the sector maximum opportunity to become efficient. This is proving to be step one in global climate and safety concerns.

  5. By Ronald Lindeman on December 1, 2015 at 9:35 am

    The most common plan to reduce the carbon dioxide put in the atmosphere by humans is 1) energy efficiency, 2) decarbonize the electrical grid, 3) fuel switching mainly to the decarbonized electrical grid. The plan is listed in the order of importance, energy efficiency is the least expensive way to reduce carbon fuel use. Many energy efficiencies will even finance themselves over time. A good source for that is Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy-McKinsey and Company. It came out in 2009, and cost at that time 1000 dollars if I remember right, now it is a free download. Very good discussion on why energy efficiency should be first and possible carbon use reductions.
    A point I would make is that a carbon tax would help all 3 of those parts of the carbon fuel use reductions. A carbon tax would allow energy efficiencies to become cost effective faster, a carbon tax would cause the utilities to use less carbon fuels in the electrical grid and a carbon tax would promote fuel switching faster. We tax now 6 trillion dollars in an 18 trillion dollar economy. We need to have carbon tax instead of sales, property and income taxes at the state level of taxing. Less state sales, property and income taxes, more carbon taxes.

    • By Ronald Lindeman on December 1, 2015 at 9:37 am

      Another very good source to explain the 3 point plan is ‘Pathways to Deep Decarbonization.’

      • By Forrest on December 1, 2015 at 3:22 pm

        It’s a mistake to think in terms of fuel and tax “bad fuel”. GW science is a measure of CO2 emissions. The physics do not care if they are man made or natural. The CO2 molecule is the same. So, tax CO2 emissions and allow trading of CO2 credits. Think of a company with potent CO2 sequestration equipment or process. Award their invention with markets that will pay for their carbon credits. Maybe a dirty coal plant needs a few more years of operation and will pay a premium? Think of a forestry company banking on huge investment to reforest large land tracts and sell CO2 credits. How, about a logging company that harvest rotting insect infested woodlands and utilizing wood per pellet mills or ethanol fuel? Logging declining trees per lack of tree growth and to capture valuable timber that would otherwise go to waste and generate CO2 and methane. These all are potent and attractive developments to suppress GW. Lumber mills must be the easiest way to capture carbon. Firewood must be the greenest of power per the ability to harvest waste wood for valuable energy and avoid decay of rotting woods that emit CO2 and methane. Same for termite infested trees. Some cellulosic ethanol processes have been rated negative carbon. Most waste process are. Ethanol can not only power light vehicle fleet but large trucks as well. The grid holds no magic to quell GW. Pipelines of hydrogen and fuel cell is more capable, easier to manage, and more robust.

        • By Ronald Lindeman on December 2, 2015 at 8:22 pm

          On some level, trading in CO2, but much of it has been corrupted by dishonesty. coal plants that were to be closed anyway, were opened up to get the credits, and a whole list of problems. Hydrogen has been found to not work very well or cheaply. You need to update sources.

          • By Forrest on December 3, 2015 at 7:07 am

            Science is wholly corrupted by dishonesty per desire for wealth, funding, career, politics, and popularity. Historically, it always has been, more so today. A real eye opener to the GW science and solutions is to follow the ethanol debate and science of its’ rating. If this is typical GW science I hold no faith in much of it. The assumptions made appear to be the input to super scientific computer modeling that achieves desired results. EPA is no better either. For example the petrol industry came up with ILUC penalty for agriculture to produce fuel. Also, the food debate. Their is plenty of “science” that support the claim and just as much oppose. Reading the reports that savage ethanol fuel, it’s easy for anyone with science or engineering background to spot junk science. But, the issue is political and goes into mainstream unchallenged and accepted. One top scientist claimed the corn plant should not be rated for CO2 as the plant would be in the ground anyway. Another scientist claimed the sun energy upon the corn plant as additional energy to make ethanol. EPA utilizes old data and ILUC penalties for carbon rating. The ILUC assumption never proven upon history, yet penalizes corn by 40%. The biology of root growth and sequestration goes unrated. The biology of ground just reverts to penalty per nitrogen, yet the technology of modern farming removes most of the Nitrogen emissions as does the reformulation of the fertilizer. The science of soil microbiology upon farmland is indicating the soil is just as powerful for CO2 conversion as the corn plant that gets maximized with low till farming and removal of some organic matter. Consider no other energy sources get penalized by indirect biological change. Consider it is impossible to calculate international land change per all the change ups to planting and land use not the lease is the dishonest reporting and corruption. What would the rating of petrol be if we assumed the fuel source supported terrorism and needed a stronger military? Or that the fuel supported tyrants or cronyism?

  6. By Russ Finley on December 1, 2015 at 9:47 pm

    Clearly cellulosic and algae based fuels are examples of technically viable but not economically viable sources. Corn ethanol is not as clear cut. Because consumption is mandated, it is partially insulated from market forces. And the other costs of corn ethanol (elevated wholesale corn prices and environmental costs via expansion of agriculture) are hidden at the pump.

    If wind and solar really are cheaper than any other source, and fully capable of scaling up to match all fossil fuel consumption on their own as enthusiasts keep claiming, no country like India would balk at using them to reduce emissions and save money. They have roles they can fill as fuel consumption reduction devices, which given the right circumstances, are economically viable, but they can’t scale all the way simply because the price of trying to do so eventually becomes too high, which is also true for nuclear.

    • By Forrest on December 2, 2015 at 5:29 am

      Second and third generation biofuels are about on par with solar. Expensive and low production. However the country has deemed the energy sources too valuable to throw to waste bin and have instead pulled the energy source to commercial production. Their is a steep learning curve to commercial efficiency and much to improve when maintaining such production. R&D efforts continue to make the job easier. So, these energy sources even wind has a long way to go to offer premium energy use and control. Corn ethanol has proven itself top tier value and paved the market place to make cellulosic, waste, and sugar ethanol that much easier. We must acknowledge petro runs the show for fuel markets and has maximum power to mess with competition and they do. The beauty of RFS per Bush administration is to insulate or protect an infant fuel source from such shenanigans. Also, we should take note of the science and the huge discrepancies of rating corn ethanol per science based on whom the benefactor lies. Now, tell me how GW science is any different? It’s all based on politics, power, wealth, and cronyism. Science is corrupted no differently than Union school teachers upon Public Ed wealth.

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