Carbon Crusaders

What’s at stake today
November 5, 2008, 2:17 am
Filed under: Global Warming, Politics

I doubt that a post on this blog is going to sway many votes, but, just in case, I think it’s important to point out the vast difference between the two candidates on the environment. While John McCain would (almost by definition) be better for the environment than George W. Bush, Barack Obama’s plans (if enacted) would represent a sea change for the fight against climate change, green tech, and our energy future.

This isn’t to say that Obama would be perfect on the environment. He has a long history of supporting corn-based ethanol, a very problematic fuel which uses more fossil fuel to produce than it saves. Further, he is on the record supporting “clean coal” production, which is still largely an oxymoron (because plans such as carbon capture and storage are still controversial and uneconomical). Further, on the most widely known environmental problem today, climate change, Obama and McCain have similar plans: A national cap-and-trade plan to limit carbon emissions. On the surface, then, the choice doesn’t seem that dramatic.

The devil, however, is in the details. There are two main differences between their climate change plans:

First, by 2050, Obama would reduce emissions by 80% of 1990 levels. McCain stops at 60%. Second, Obama would use a market-based auction to allocate permits that power CAT policy, while McCain would simply give them to polluters, providing huge annual handouts to a favoured few at everyone else’s expense.

There is a significant difference between auctioning permits and handing them out. Giving companies who pollute permits for free essentially rewards them for polluting, as the companies who pollute the most will have the most permits. While there is an incentive to reduce emissions and thus be able to trade permits to others, there are no costs associated with failing to reduce emissions. Forcing an auction is often politically  difficult, because powerful business lobbies are invariably opposed to significant new costs. However, the failure of Europe’s first Emissions Trading Scheme (in which permits were handed out, the cost of carbon permits stayed low, the EU emissions continued to rise, and businesses made profits from their permits) demonstrates that there must be sticks as well as carrots in order for a cap-and-trade plan to work.

The second major difference is related to green tech and our energy future. Both candidates want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the differences between their plans couldn’t be bigger. John McCain’s focus is on greater fossil fuel production in the United States (offshore drilling), importing oil from friendly nations (Canada, even though the oil market is global), and a pointless $300 million prize for whoever comes up with a good electric car battery (pointless because they would make tons of money from the battery anyway). Obama has a much larger vision, however. He proposes rebuilding the American economy through a $500 billion investment in renewable energy, hybrid vehicle tax credits, “green collar” jobs, and energy efficiency. This Keynsian approach would (theoretically) build the framework for decades of economic growth in the same way that FDR’s New Deal built the framework for the post-WWII economic boom. While this plan is undoubtedly ambitious and costly, a drastic change is necessary to truly become energy independent and reduce the scope of climate change.

This election may mark the turning point in the global fight against climate change. If Barack Obama is able to accomplish half of what he proposes in the next four (or eight!!) years, the United States will be a much cleaner, efficient, and sustainable country. Nothing less than our environmental future is at stake in this election.

A solution to the intermittency problem
October 25, 2008, 12:41 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

One of the biggest challenges to increasing the level of renewable energy use in the United States is the fact that the most promising, nationally scalable energy technologies-solar and wind-are inherently unreliable. Solar panels obviously need sunlight to work, rendering them useless at night. Similarly, wind turbines are useless when the wind stops blowing. This poses a significant problem for the prospects of green energy, because an unreliable energy source  cannot be used for baseload or peak power without somehow storing the energy.

Normal energy utilities use power plants for two purposes: As baseload and peak sources of energy. The cheapest, most fuel efficient plants run constantly, providing the minimal demand within an energy grid. At times of peak demand (such as weekday evenings), utilities turn on additional, backup plants (which are usually the older generation, as they cost more to run) in order to meet demand. Currently, renewable energy does not fill either of these roles. Instead, it is used primarily as a supplement, feeding energy into the grid when it’s producing it. However, this minor role for renewables means that it will remain largely a niche market, with reliable coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants continuing to dominate the energy market. If renewable energy is ever going to become the dominant power source in the United States, it will have to be able to replace either baseload or peak power (or, preferably, both). In other words, renewables must be capable of producing a steady, reliable flow of electricity in order to actually replace fossil fuel and nuclear energy generation.

One potential solution to this problem has been the creation of large batteries, which would store energy when it is being generated and release it onto the grid when it is needed. While theoretically possible, batteries of this scale don’t exist, and adding batteries to the grid would likely tack on significant costs to renewable energy. While the government could potentially step in and subsidize these costs, developing and  implementing a battery system would likely take years.

This problem, however, has another possible solution. The New Republic’s Bradford Plumer, citing a Stanford study, argues that

between one-third and one-half of yearly averaged wind power from a network of interconnected farms can actually be used as reliable, baseload electric power, the way coal is used now. For any given turbine, the wind’s not always blowing, but given a sufficiently high number of turbines, the wind’s always blowing somewhere. (Also, if you connect a bunch of distributed wind farms to a single point and then connect that point to, say, a faraway city, you can keep transmission losses to a minimum.)

If you build enough wind turbines and connect them all together in a national smart grid, which would move the energy to wherever it was needed, wind power could actually replace the baseload dirty energy generators. The electricity grid would have to be modernized, of course, but it’s already pretty clear what needs to be done for that to happen. Solar power could supplement the grid during the day, and the sunnier west could potentially provide peak power to the east coast during the evening (due to time zone differences).  While this solution isn’t perfect, and some sort of battery system might have to be implemented in order to reliably generate green peaking power, it’s becoming easier to picture what a green energy system would look like in the United States.

New member of the MMS team
October 15, 2008, 11:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Hey everyone,

My name’s Ben Axelman, and I’m the newest member of MakeMeSustainable. I just graduated from Tufts and I’m interning at MMS as a research assistant, further investigating green/clean energy sector issues. I’ll be updating the blog pretty regularly now, and I hope you’ll find my posts interesting. Feel free to leave comments, and I’ll be sure to respond to them. Thanks for reading!