Should We Pursue a Rapid Conversion to Renewable Energy, or Continue On with Business-as-Usual?

As I travel around I find that most people I chat with about this question do not have much awareness it’s many components. This essay is an attempt to shed light on some of these so the answer to the question will be easier to see. I will start with some basics.

Climate scientists are saying ”The green-house gases that we are releasing into the air by burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil, are very likely causing the climate to change due to the global warming they facilitate. The changed climate will likely have devastating consequences for life on Earth”. But then there are some popular and outspoken individuals who claim the scientists are wrong. These contrarians are saying in effect “Burning fossil fuels is not causing the warming. The climate is always naturally changing, and there is nothing we can do about it.”. Just working from these two opposing statements, how can we decide what direction we should go with our energy future? For an optimal answer, we need more information, so let’s look deeper into the issue.

The Bad News From the Scientists:

After analyzing vast amounts of collected data, climate scientists say they have found solid evidence that over the last 130 years or so, since the start of the industrial age, the Earth’s average temperature has gotten warmer. And there is strong evidence in the data that the warming is mostly due to human activity. Additionally, they have found the speed of warming has been faster than any seen in the geological record for thousands of years.

From this evidence, nearly all of the thousands of climate science experts world-wide, over 97% of them, agree that this episode of human caused global warming and climate change, and how fast it is happening, is a major threat to us, and all the other life on our planet.

Some scientists say the disrupting effects have already started, as seen in the greater number of weather extremes and unusual conditions being experienced nearly everywhere, with more violent storms, more flooding, worse droughts, more wild fires, etc. Polar ice is melting at unprecedented rates, the oceans are getting more acidic, sea level is rising, plants and animals are creeping farther north or higher up the mountains, and numerous other signs. Some recent reports say the 14 warmest years in the recorded history have all occurred in the last 15 years. And that in 2015, the Earth experienced the warmest year in recorded history. And then 2016 beat the 2015 record.

(From here on in this essay I’ll call the issue “GW/CC”, for global warming and climate change).

They Say There is Hope:

However the scientists say there is hope we can deal with GW/CC. In the past millions of years major climate changes have happened due to natural unstoppable forces. But nearly all of the thousands of climate experts say this GW/CC episode is happening due to human activities, primarily from the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. These are called fossil fuels because they were formed millions of years ago as decaying plants and animals turned into carbon. When we burn the fossil fuels, the carbon is released and becomes CO2 in the atmosphere. The added CO2 traps more heat from the sun, over-heating the planet. Methane from some of our other activities is also a potent global warming gas.

The good news from the experts is that if we could cut back enough on the release of these gases, we could greatly reduce the GW/CC problem. Obviously one of the main ways to do this is to transition away from burning so much fossil fuel, and replace it with carbon-free sources of energy, often called “renewable energy”. Another is to become much more efficient in our use of energy. Another is to substantially reduce the leakage of methane we are causing.

The Contrarian‘s Position:

For various reasons the contrarians do not agree with the climate scientists. I would go into some of the credible scientific evidence they use to deny GW/CC, but there isn’t any. That is, it is all just made up pseudoscience (fake science). They try to mislead and misinform us because they know the solutions to GW/CC would cause a major hit on the profits of the big fossil fuel industry, of which most of them are connected. So one way they fight back is to sow a lot of doubt about the GW/CC science, which gives people who don’t want to change how they live an excuse to not act on GW/CC. ( And I won’t go into detail here about that either, but you can read my other essays for an in depth discussion at https://agw-cc.com/ ).

I personally buy the science, and agree we should start transitioning to renewable energy ASAP. However I also think that the value of converting to renewable energy as soon as possible stands on it’s own merits, regardless of the GW/CC issue. Even if the science is wrong, there are so many both near and long term advantages to renewable energy over fossil fuels, it would be a mistake to not pursue it as fast as we can. And it would put us in a lot better shape whether GW/CC happens or not.

What are the advantages of converting to renewable energy aside from reducing global warming and climate change?

For one thing it makes economic sense. There are people who think renewable energy is not affordable”. But they are wrong. Wind and solar energy are already cheaper than coal fired and natural gas energy in many areas. And the costs of wind and solar are coming down fast, while the cost of coal and natural gas is going up as their hidden costs get exposed and are required to be more directly paid.

Also there have been several articles about possible petroleum fuel shortages, which could make the price for them sky-rocket. One said in effect that as the easier-to-produce conventional petroleum is used up, it will take more and more fuel to produce new fuel from the remaining unconventional petroleum. It takes some of the fuel produced from petroleum, like gasoline, diesel, and kerosene, to produce more gasoline, diesel, and kerosene. And that eventually the fuel producers would need the entire amount of fuel they just produced to produce more fuel. That would result in no fuel left over to run our cars, or for farm equipment, trucks, trains, or for jet fuel. Ethanol made from corn is similar to that. Some studies say it takes more fossil fuel energy to produce ethanol than there is energy in the produced ethanol. In contrast, easy-to-produce renewable fuels will never run out.

Then consider that we won’t have the on-going costs of refueling wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, and other renewables, the fuel is free. We would have just the job-producing first costs to build and deploy them, along with some minimal operational costs. Renewable energy also would mean more stable future costs because of no fluctuation in fuel prices.

And it would be a reliable domestic energy source far into the future. A recent study concludes there is more than enough wind energy off the east coast of the US to supply all the energy needs of all the east coast cities.

Also know that the energy invested in building some renewable energy projects, like a wind farm, is recovered in only about 6 months, from there on it is a “plus”. The energy invested in building coal and natural gas power plants takes many years to recover, if at all.

And a recent “life cycle cost” study finds that renewable energy is much more efficient to produce. One unit of energy invested in a coal power plant yields 9 units of electricity. One unit of energy invested in wind farms produces 44 units of electricity. And one unit of energy invested in solar farms produces 26 units of electricity.

Also solar and wind farms are relatively small and dispersed. So a natural or man-made disaster at one of them would not bring the whole system down, unlike centralized fossil fueled power plants.

Another positive aspect of converting to renewable energy is there would be no more of the awful despoiling of the Earth from mining, mountain top removal, drilling, pipeline and coal sludge leaks, and air pollution associated with the production, transport, and burning of coal, oil, and natural gas. In contrast, renewable energy facilities can be easily dismantled, the area restored, and materials recycled, when their useful life is finished.

Then consider that if we were using a nearly “harmless” energy source such as renewables to allow us live a more pleasant life, we wouldn’t have to feel as guilty about it.

And then the development and deployment of new renewable energy technology would stimulate our economy, and many new solid jobs would be created from it. An older study estimated that investing in renewable energy development would yield about three times more new clean jobs than existing dirty fossil fuel jobs lost. In fact that is already happening, the study was correct.

Also consider that if fossil fuel energy sources didn’t have so much of their costs hidden, called “external costs” which are not directly paid for in the cost of the fuel, the positive economics of renewable energy would be much clearer. Some researchers say that the real cost of a gallon of gasoline is closer to $15.00, which we pay indirectly without knowing it. The hidden costs of burning gasoline, diesel, oil, coal, and natural gas come from dealing with the cleanup of oil spills and coal ash storage failures, health problems from breathing polluted air, contamination of drinking water, damage from gas pipe line explosions and oil train wrecks, wars and foreign involvement needed to keep the world’s oil flowing, guarding against terrorist attacks on the concentrated fossil fuel infrastructure, disaster preparedness, the costs of stabilizing an uncertain energy source, etc. And then there are the big disasters that are likely coming, such as the mega storms, fires, flooding, droughts, famine, and fighting that climate change will cause.

What are waiting for? Let’s get on with it while there is still time.

We need to throw as much support as we can towards more development and deployment of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal, etc. We must fight any more expansion of fossil fuel extraction and it’s transport infrastructure, and insist that capital be poured into renewable energy development.

We also need to reduce our personal consumption of fossil energy in our daily activities. Some studies show the average carbon emissions per person in the USA has been about 20 metric tons per year. The world-wide per-capita average has been about 4 metric tons. It is obvious from these figures who has caused most of the problem, and who has the capacity to most easily fix it. We need to get our carbon emissions way down to an environmentally sustainable level, at least an 80% reduction. It is doable.

On a small scale, a few pioneers have been able to make that 80% reduction in their own households by “doing the green thing”. In my case I took it on as an interesting do-it-yourself project. I installed some solar thermal panels for hot water, enough to get hot water completely free 10 months of the year. I installed some solar PV panels to charge a small battery bank for supplemental (and backup ) power. I can run my TV, computer, refrigerator, and other small items off-grid with it. I arranged to buy my grid electrical power from wind farms. And I also use that wind generated electricity to run a heat pump to help heat my house, which I supplement with a wood pellet heater. I enrolled in a “peak time rewards” program where I get rewarded for reducing my grid power usage during high load periods.

I also got a lot more efficient with the energy I do use with energy efficient appliances and lighting, and I keep the use of them to a minimum. My small hybrid car (Toyota Prius C) can get better than 50 mpg on most trips. A plug-in hybrid car I drove for awhile was getting 80 mpg on short trips. I recently bought a low cost used electric car (Nissan Leaf) for local trips, and do most of it’s battery charging with some solar panels and inverters I rigged up.

Other things helped: I tightened up my small house, added more insulation, and installed a white metal roof on it when it needed a new one. I eat mostly simple foods, and not much meat. I minimize purchasing frivolous stuff, get a lot of “bang for the buck” from what I do buy, and recycle what I can when I’m done with it. I retired early from full time work, so no regular commutes, and now work mostly from home. I do a lot of bike riding for fun, and it keeps my weight way down for better health. I even built a 3-wheeled electric bike that does 35 mph and goes 40 miles on a charge, it would be great for commuting.

There was no loss of any quality of life from what I did by employing green technologies and strategies, in fact it got better in many ways. I can’t say if I’m saving any money or not, but that wasn’t the point. There are other ways to measure the value of something than just monetarily.

There would be a lot more needed to solve the GW/CC problem than just what I did, but at least it shows that nearly anybody can do things which would help get us started down the right path. Simply changing routines to be more efficient would be helpful. Solar panels for hot water are no big deal to install in many situations by hanging a few of them on a sunny south wall, and they have a short pay-back period. Grid-tied PV solar panels are being set up on home roof-tops, car ports, and back-yards everywhere, as well as on commercial, educational, and institutional buildings.

In some states, just a few clicks at certain web sites can convert you over to wind generated grid electricity (like http://www.clearviewenergy.com/ but watch out for scams ). Household size battery packs are now available to help provide grid stability. Another way utilities can reduce the gap from dark days or a lull in winds is to use “demand response,” which involves paying commercial, industrial, and even residential customers to reduce electricity demand during those hours.

For transportation, much more efficient vehicles are readily available. Going from a 20 mpg SUV or pickup truck to a 50 mpg hybrid car makes a big difference in CO2 emissions, electric powered cars for local trips even more. Bio-fuels made with clean processes are becoming available for freight and agriculture uses, and the costs are reasonable compared to fossil fuels when external costs are factored in.

Of course building up the nation-wide renewable energy system that we need will be a major endeavor, requiring a huge expansion of renewable energy generation capacity and infrastructure. But we need to avoid letting the government pick and choose how to do it, we need to let the free market work. The government’s role is to establish goals, along with fair and effective rules for the markets to work within.

However here is a possible scenario, at least to get us started right away, as most of the technology already exists:

A vast increase in the number of renewable energy collection devices like wind turbines and solar PV will need to be deployed in appropriate locations. Large scale energy storage systems, like pumped hydro, flow batteries, solar-thermal storage tanks, will be needed to deal with the short term variability issues of solar and wind. Load scheduling will help reduce peak demands. For the cold season, farm crops like edible beans for biomass, grown during the summer, harvested in the fall, and directly burnt during the winter would count as both energy collecting and energy storage.

Also new long distance HVDC electrical transmission lines to move the energy from where it is produced to where it is needed will be required. There are several HVDC lines already planned for the USA (but are encountering bureaucratic obstacles). Some new smaller, safer modular nuclear reactor power stations may also be needed to supplement renewable energy power and for emergencies, and should work well on the new HVDC grid. Small natural gas “peaker” plants and home generators, which can power up on short notice, will probably be needed for awhile to help get thru dark and/or calm days. Probably some petroleum fuel will still be needed for defense, industry, and emergencies, but could be tolerable if we reduce our routine use of them enough.

Studies show that if we start right away it is economically feasible to make the needed changes on a national scale and get enough of it in place within 25 years to be effective, which is about all the time we have. To help get things going, in addition to what we can do ourselves, we need to get our elected representatives to create and pass legislation so the economic advantages of renewable energy would be more apparent. That should include doing away with the $20,000,000,000 a year in tax advantages the fossil fuel industry gets, which would help level the playing field.

Some experts say we should also require a more direct payment of all the other hidden costs of burning fossil fuels, by putting in place a rising-rate carbon emissions tax. They say we pay to have our other wastes, like trash and sewage, be properly dealt with, so why not the carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels? The tax would address the external costs of burning fossil fuels that we pay thru other means. Some say that all the revenue from the tax should be returned directly to the tax payer, with each getting an equal amount back. That way those who reduced carbon emissions would make out, as they would pay less carbon tax than they got back in refunds, and so would start seeing a financial benefit right away. Those who didn’t reduce carbon emissions would come up short in their refunds, which would prod them to become more efficient. The carbon tax would enable and encourage natural market forces to reward efficiency and innovation.

All this would spur new economic growth right away from the development and deployment of the new clean energy systems we will be wanting sooner or later anyway. And who knows what other wonderful new things might come from it. It would be like what the space race did for us in stimulating the development of computers, satellite navigation, wire-less communications, etc.

Lets Get On With it.

Fixing GW/CC will require big changes in how we think and operate. And because so much of what we do now is unsustainable anyway, things will change whether we like it or not. Our task is to try to steer the changes in a direction that we can live with.

Still you might think that expecting the USA to go full speed with the conversion to renewable energy and have it in place within 25 years is not likely to happen with all the obstacles in front of us. But once we start backing off on fossil fuel use, and begin to seriously deploy renewable energy, more people and financial interests will get involved when they see the value of changing how we do things. It would be a snowball effect, starting out small, but building up rapidly.

We have plenty to gain if we start right away making the changes needed, and nearly everything to lose if we do nothing and let GW/CC happen as expected. Right now we have a unique opportunity that may not come along again, … to use our collective skills, resources, and concentrated efforts to avoid a likely major world-wide disaster, rather than just let it happen to us. We can fix the problem if we want to bad enough. We need to rise above ourselves, and work for the greater good. We need to keep the environment livable for the future generations we are leaving this planet to, and for all the other creatures we share this planet with. Lets get on with it.

by JRB

updated 04/01/18

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