Posts tagged “climate change”
Back in 2007, Google assembled a team of engineers to investigate the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. The effort ended in 2011 with the conclusion that it can’t be done with existing technology. Two of the engineers on that team wrote about their efforts in Spectrum IEEE.org. Some excerpts from that article:
Google’s boldest energy move was an effort known as RE<C [Renewables less than Coal], which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do. The company announced that Google would help promising technologies mature by investing in start-ups and conducting its own internal R&D.
At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.
As we reflected on the project, we came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we need a fundamentally different approach.
So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.
We’re glad that Google tried something ambitious with the RE<C initiative, and we’re proud to have been part of the project. But with 20/20 hindsight, we see that it didn’t go far enough, and that truly disruptive technologies are what our planet needs. To reverse climate change, our society requires something beyond today’s renewable energy technologies. Fortunately, new discoveries are changing the way we think about physics, nanotechnology, and biology all the time. While humanity is currently on a trajectory to severe climate change, this disaster can be averted if researchers aim for goals that seem nearly impossible.
The key is that as yet invented sources have to be cheaper than fossil fuels. The problem is that existing scalable low carbon energy sources (nuclear and renewables) are all more expensive than fossil fuels, which I’ve been pointing out for years. They make a stab at explaining why wind and solar are more expensive but trust me, their explanation will largely fall on deaf ears when presented to renewable energy enthusiasts who either don’t want to hear it or are incapable of comprehending it. They argue that subsidies for renewables and nuclear to compete with fossil fuels are essentially a financial penalty to fossil fuels which simply shift their use to another part of the planet (export of oil, gas, and coal, along with manufacturing jobs).
An article in Grist about the same study had a different headline: “How solar can become the world’s largest source of electricity.” From the study:
The hi-Ren requires cumulative investments for power generation of USD 4.5 trillion more than in the 2DS, including notably PV but also wind power and STE (Solar Thermal Energy).
The study also notes that, in theory and given enough time, power systems that don’t burn fossil fuels should eventually pay for themselves with fuel cost savings (which is also a trait of nuclear). See Figure 5 below.CONTINUE»
On Monday, September 22, I took part in the Climate Group’s annual kick-off of “Climate Week NYC.” We heard from political leaders like Secretary of State John Kerry, Executive Secretary of the UNFCC Christiana Figueres, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and Ban Ki-moon the Secretary General of the UN. ASP helped arrange Secretary Kerry’s climate speech, which is worth reading in its entirety.
As someone working on climate policy in Washington, I’ve heard from these speakers on these issues before. Their leadership is important; we cannot effectively address climate change without political action – but it is not novel.
Likewise, when the UN climate summit meets at UN headquarters on Tuesday, September 23, the over 120 heads of state will prove significant in providing the national leadership that will set standards and provide direction for how to address climate change in both UN negotiations and at their national level.
This is the 4th installment in a series that examines data from the recently released Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. The previous posts covered the world’s growing fossil fuel consumption:
- World Sets New Oil Production and Consumption Records
- The US and Russia are Gas Giants
- King Coal Deposed in West, but Reigns in East
Today I examine the implications of that growing fossil fuel consumption by looking at carbon dioxide emission trends. The key points in the report include: CONTINUE»
The Best Path Forward on Coal?
This week the Wall Street Journal is running the latest set of answers from their “Experts Panel.” Four questions were posed to the energy panel, and I chose to answer three of them. (The 4th was about solutions to the drought in the Western US — which I don’t feel qualified to answer). The first question I answered was “What’s the best way to move forward on coal?” – and my answer was published yesterday: The Case Against Burning Coal. That was followed up with a podcast “debate” between former Shell President John Hofmeister and myself on coal’s future: Time to Stop Burning Coal? WSJ Experts Debate.
I suppose the topic of climate change will always be polarizing. One side believes that fossil fuel consumption threatens our very existence while the other sees climate change as a huge scam that threatens to destroy economic progress. Of course there are many shades of gray between these extremes, but those with the most extremist views are generally the loudest voices.
Today I hope to engage some of those loud voices with a rational, fact-based discussion. CONTINUE»
Another Courageous Punt
I hadn’t planned to write yet another Keystone XL pipeline article, but I have gotten a lot of questions since the recent announcement by the Obama administration that they are still unable to make a decision on the project. I agree with the Washington Post’s assessment of the situation, that this is now into absurd territory.
At this point I don’t think the project will be approved by this Administration, although it could be approved by the next. I think this is a simple political calculation by President Obama, that by foot-dragging and delaying he is keeping his environmentalist allies at bay, but without all of the political fallout around Democratic Keystone XL supporters should he simply reject the pipeline.
This is one reason I would make a terrible president. I can’t play games like this. You make a decision. It can go one of two ways. You can say “I am going to make a stand along with my environmentalist allies who voted me into office and reject a continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.” That would be a courageous stand, albeit one more steeped in symbolism than in measurable climate impact. More on that below. CONTINUE»
I’ve gotten four email alerts related to the Keystone XL pipeline from my local chapter of the Sierra Club. They talk about wolves, water quality, and toxins, but other than one reference to the Boreal Forest storing 11 percent of the world’s carbon, they make no mention of climate change. Here’s a sampling:
Russell, can you help? Wolf mothers and cubs are already cowering from helicopters dispatched to shoot them – all in the name of protecting tar sands mining sites.
The image has already been seared into my memory: wolves shot dead from helicopters to keep them away from the mines. I don’t want to see more of them dead, and I’m sure you don’t either.
Wolves are already at risk of being shot, but if Keystone XL is built, their quiet refuge in Canada will be all but decimated.
Sometimes the written word is easy to misinterpret. More than once I have written an article to find that some minor point I made became the focus, or that the point I was making was just lost. Most of the time that’s my fault, but sometimes it’s because an editor wanted to spice up the title and make it a bit more controversial. In that case, that can inflame the reader before they even begin to read, and they either make comments based on a misleading title, or they read the article with significant bias.
I think there is a risk of misinterpretation with today’s article, so I want to spell out my intent up front. This should not be read as a defense of ExxonMobil or their business practices, because that’s not what it is. It’s an attempt to get the reader to understand how they think, and why they do some of the things they do. Importantly, you may not be able to understand their actions given your view of the world. It’s not because they are simply denying reality so they can keep making money, they just don’t see the same things you see. Here is my attempt to explain that.
A Carbon Asset Bubble?
The 2009 Copenhagen Accord on climate change stipulated that if the worst impacts of climate change are to be avoided, we have to stop taking fossil fuels from the ground and burning them. Doing so has been increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the past two centuries. Former Vice President Al Gore has been but one high profile voice advocating for leaving those fossil fuels in the ground, which would create a big problem for fossil fuel companies whose value is based on their fossil fuel reserves. Gore outlined his position last year in a Wall Street Journal editorial The Coming Carbon Asset Bubble. CONTINUE»
Shareholders Quiz ExxonMobil on Climate Risks
Last fall I devoted a lengthy post to the notion that future policies to address climate change expose investors in companies producing fossil fuels to a bubble in asset valuations. So I was particularly interested to see that ExxonMobil (XOM) issued a report this week responding to specific shareholder concerns along these lines. Although the term “carbon asset bubble” did not appear in XOM’s report, the latter’s references to carbon budgets and the risk of stranded assets in a low-carbon scenario were aimed directly at this emerging meme.
Unsurprisingly, ExxonMobil’s management reassured investors that, “none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’.” Wisely avoiding past tendencies to question interpretations of climate science, the company’s analysis appears to be grounded in mainstream views of climate change. It focuses on the costs and achievability of an extreme low-carbon scenario, and on the resilience of the company’s portfolio under various climate policies.
You Can’t Get There from Here without Breaking the Economy Again
XOM’s analysis is based on the company’s latest Outlook for Energy, an annual global forecast broadly similar to the main “New Policies” scenario of the International Energy Agency (IEA). It has fewer similarities to the IEA’s “450″ scenario that underpins carbon bubble claims. The company expects energy demand to grow at an average of about 1% annually over the next three decades–faster than population but much slower than the global economy–with increasing efficiency and a gradual shift toward lower-emission energy sources: Gas increases faster than oil and by more BTUs in total, while coal grows for a while longer but then shrinks back to current levels. Renewables grow fastest of all, producing about as much energy in 2040 as nuclear power does today. As a result of these shifts global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peak around 2030 and then decline gradually.
Today I continue coverage of my recent visit to the Athabasca oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta. I was there as a guest of the Canadian government, which hosts annual tours for small groups of journalists and energy analysts. I will be covering multiple aspects of oil sands production in a series of posts.
In last week’s post — Oil Sands and the Environment – Part I — I discussed greenhouse gas emissions, impacts on wildlife, and I touched upon water usage. I also detailed some of the work of Pembina Institute (PI), which is working to improve the environmental conditions as the oil sands are developed. Today’s article will discuss the tailings ponds, water consumption, impacts to water quality, and impacts to indigenous people.
There are two primary ways of extracting bitumen from the oil sands. In situ production involves injecting steam into the ground to heat up the bitumen which is then pumped out of the ground. Surface mining is done when the resource is fairly close to the surface. During my trip we visited one in situ producer – Cenovus Energy – and one surface miner – Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL). These methods will be discussed in greater detail in next week’s post. CONTINUE»