February 20, 2020

Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?

Henry II, who is alleged to have said this shortly before the murder of Thomas Becket, must have had a “resistance” faction in his court much like that in the Trump administration. Ordinarily powerful leaders don’t have to be explicit about what they want to happen; most of their staff spends most of its time trying to figure out what the boss wants and doing it without being told. Giving the boss credible deniability has long been grounds for promotion. This is true in corporations, charities, and governments.

But much of the ranks of the US government is left over from prior administrations and wants to do the exact opposite of what the boss wants and would like to implicate him, not give him deniability. That’s why IMO we have the strange spectacle of the President tweeting for lenient treatment of a former henchman. Normally henchmen get favored treatment without the leader having to say a word. I think Henry II must have had the same problem or 1) Beckett would not have defied him 2) he wouldn’t have had to ask for Beckett to be terminated.

The Chronicle of the Kings of England has another version of Henry’s statement: "Will none of these lazy insignificant persons, whom I maintain, deliver me from this turbulent priest?" Sounds a lot like the self-pitying tone we often hear from Trump.

You just can’t get good help in the swamp.

February 18, 2020

Live on WDEV

This morning (Feb 18)  at 11AM ET I'll be on WDEV (96.1 FM, 550 AM) in VT with Bill Sayre discussing tree-based strategies for CO2 reduction and the surprising new IEA report that emissions have flatlined among other things. Streaming at https://wdevradio.com/stream/. It's a callin so you can question and opine as well.

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

February 17, 2020

“Defying expectations of a rise, global carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2019” – IEA

The world's "all-of-the above" approach to reducing CO2 emissions is working!

According to a press release from the International Energy Agency, the world’s official scorekeeper for energy stuff, global CO2 emissions from energy flatlined in 2019 despite almost universal expectations that they would continue a rapid increase absent a severe recession, a pandemic, or drastic actions by governments around the world. 2019’s reported emissions are below the level the UN IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) says we have to achieve in 2020 in order to be on track for warming only in the range of 0.3 to 1.7 degrees Celsius in this century, their most optimistic scenario. Needless to say, this news is as pleasant as it is surprising.

How did this happen?

There has more rollout of both renewables and natural gas than almost anyone had predicted. That’s partly because natural gas prices are much, much lower than most predictions. Nuclear is making a comeback. Coal is being displaced faster than expected

CO2 emission from energy in the developed world decreased by just as much from 2018 to 2019 as it increased in the developing world, 0.4 million metric tons (Mts).  The developing world rolled out new coal facilities as well as natural gas, renewables (a little), and nuclear (especially in China); the developed world retired coal facilities. Relatively mild weather worldwide in 2019 meant less winter heating and less summer cooling than in 2018.

In the developed world, winds and solar displaced coal for 110Mts of savings; natural gas replacing coal was directly responsible for 100Mts of savings, and new nuclear generation, especially in Japan which had shut down its nukes after Fukushima, saved 50Mts. The worldwide leader in CO2 emission reductions was… drum roll please… The USA, thanks both to renewables and natural gas. Abundant natural gas also helps renewables, which produce intermittent but clean electricity, replace coal, which produces reliable but dirty baseline power. Often the only way to maintain grid reliability after shutting down a coal plant is to know that there are backup gas plants ready to fire up on a moment’s notice when the wind doesn’t blow and/or the sun doesn’t shine.

What does it mean for climate change?

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume the UN IPCC models are accurate in predicting what level of emissions will lead to what level of global warming by 2100.  The IPCC spells out four scenarios called Representative Concentration Pathways (RPCs) for emissions and then predicts the range of expected warming under each of these.

RPCs

As you can see, RPC 2.6 has the least emissions. We have to dip into the RPC database to find that 34 Mts of CO2 are predicted from the energy sector under RP2.6 for 2020 (there is no prediction for 2019). There were actually, according to the IEA, 33Mts; and so we’re one year and one million metric tons ahead of schedule.

The IPCC chart below shows the range of warming expected under each scenario.

Tempsnip

The IPCC says that, under RPC2.6, it is highly likely that warming in this century will be between 0.3 and 1.7 degrees Celsius, well below the apocalyptic levels predicted under the other scenarios.

[The IPCC charts and predictions above come for the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report.]

What next?

2019 is only one year. 2020 may well see a further reduction because of the coronavirus cutting into energy consumption; but that will hopefully be a statistical fluke. Although we are ahead of RPC 2.6 for the moment, staying on track for RPC 2.6 requires large further reductions in emissions and/or taking large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere by reforestation, improved plant sequestration, and perhaps mechanical removal.

The IEA report shows that an "all-of-the-above" approach is succeeding in controlling emissions while making room for growth in the developing world. It tells us we have no need to panic, that progress is being made and further progress is possible, even likely, without drastic lifestyle changes or draconian controls on individual behavior. But it also tells us that progress is not guaranteed.

For the next decade, the largest reductions will come from completely phasing out coal. Natural gas is essential to that and nuclear very important as well, especially in the developing world. We don’t want to stop fracking for natural gas unless we want to stop the progress towards emissions reduction which is happening. We don’t want to allow NIMPBYism to make the construction of renewables, nuclear plants, transmission lines, and gas pipelines impossible. We do want to make cheap American natural gas available worldwide. We do want to accelerate the rollout of nuclear, especially in the developing world. We do want to continue making wind, especially offshore wind, and solar cheaper to deploy.

The IEA report was a surprise. We have much still to learn from it.

 See also:

Plants to the Rescue

The Ideal Green Solution

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

February 13, 2020

New Hampshire Results Are Bad News for Bernie

Conventional wisdom was that the combined support for Warren and Sanders represented a solid left-wing block which would eventually belong to one of them. It’s stunning that, as Warren lost support, it apparently did NOT go to Sanders. The total centrist vote (Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden) was much higher than the combined Sanders-Warren vote. This is in a state that went 60%+ for Bernie four years ago.

More than half of the people who voted for him last time did NOT vote for him this time. The Warren voters are NOT his for the taking, nor does he appear to be the second choice of disaffected Biden voters. Klobuchar has come on fast and many people would like to see a woman president.

IMO she’d be a good one. I'm contributing to her again today since she'll need to move very fast towards super Tuesday.

February 10, 2020

Vermont Is Already Carbon Neutral

Vermont’s forests may already be taking more greenhouse gasses (GHGs) out of the atmosphere than all our cars, trucks, furnaces, generators, cows, etc. are emitting.  However, the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) - the one that calls for us to go much more quickly to electric cars and heat pumps than we are doing, gives us no credit for the carbon our trees put back in the soil, it just dings us for GHG emissions. The legislature is looking at spending even more money to achieve a goal that may already have been achieved.

Here are the numbers: Vermont Greenhouse Gas emissions in 1990 were 8.65 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents (MMTCO2e) . [Since CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas, all emissions are turned by formula into CO2 equivalents.]  According to the Comprehensive Energy Plan, we are supposed to get to 60% of the 1990 level or 4.87 MMTCO2e by 2030 and from 5% to 15% of the 1990 level by 2050. Since we were at 9.76 MMTCO2e in 2016, the last year reported, we must cut emissions by about half, 4.9 million tons, in the next ten years to make the 2030 target. That isn’t going to happen, of course, which is what the students are demonstrating about.

But Vermont isn’t really adding 9.76 MMTCO2e of GHGs to the air each year; far from it.  4.46 million acres of trees cover 75% of Vermont. Each acre of forest takes between 2.9 and 5.8 tons of CO2 out of the air annually, a process called CO2 sequestration. Our trees are sequestering between 13 and 26 million tons of CO2 each year. There is dispute over where in the range of GHG removed per acre our forests really are; but, at even at the low end of the range, our net annual GHG effect is a reduction of 3.24 million tons; we’re already more than carbon neutral (not even counting cropland which also removes some GHGs)!

Even at the low end of estimates for tree-greenness, we are only net emitting 3.75 million tons so we are much closer to neutral than the students may think we are.

Can we declare GHG victory and keep our cars and furnaces? Can we avoid millions and millions in subsidies and more taxes on fossil fuels? Not so fast. The Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan only counts emissions, not reductions like those trees make.  If we are going to fulfill that plan, which is a legislative mandate although so far toothless, we must reduce emissions without getting any credit for CO2 sequestration.

The CEP establishes interim goals for 2025 to assure that we reach the 2030 and 2050 CEP goals:

  • Reduce total energy consumption per capita by 15%
  • Meet 25% of the remaining energy need from renewable sources
  • 10% renewable transportation
  • 30% renewable buildings (I think they mean 30% of building thermal needs met by renewables)
  • 67% renewable electric power

Note that there is no goal for increasing CO2 sequestration even though increased sequestration can have more effect on atmospheric GHG levels than reducing emissions at a much lower cost per ton of net GHG improvement. If you believe that increasing atmospheric CO2 is putting life as we know it in terrible danger, then you want to reduce the level as fast as you can. The goal is not reduction of emissions or deployment of renewables; those are means and not an end. The goal is reduction in GHG concentration in the atmosphere. It turns out we can reduce atmospheric GHG much more quickly and cheaply by planting trees on uneconomical farms than with electric cars and heat pumps. But our own rules don’t let us count removing CO2 as progress towards our goal. They force us to be ineffectual and to raise costs for Vermonters. You might even suspect that these rules were written by people who have a stake in which means we use towards the goal of GHG reduction.

Our neighbors in heavily forested Maine are wrestling with the same issues. “Maine may already be ‘carbon neutral’” says a headline in the Maine Examiner. But, unlike Vermont, Maine’s plan does allow them to count increased forest sequestration towards their goal of reducing GHG.

According to the Press Herald: “Scientists also provided the first concrete estimates on how much carbon the state’s forests pull from the atmosphere each year, a critical factor in developing plans to meet Gov. Janet Mills’ commitment to make the state carbon neutral by 2045. Net forest growth and durable wooden goods made by the forest products industry are effectively offsetting three-quarters of Maine’s carbon emissions, scientists from the council’s technical advisory committee reported.”

The Vermont Legislature should change the Comprehensive Energy Plan to count the forest and the trees as Maine does and to give us an incentive to reduce net GHG emissions in the most effective way possible. Instead the legislature is debating how to put more teeth into and add expense to a plan which is not working and cannot work because it depends solely on emission reduction and ignores carbon sequestration.

[note: the original version of this post understated the range of annual carbon sequestration per forested acre and the total CO2 removed annually by Vermont trees. With t he correct numbers, it is clear that Vermont actually is carbon negative so I revised the title to sat that.]

See:

 Carbon myopia in Montpelier (on VTDigger)

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

February 04, 2020

UVM and Middlebury Can Reduce Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions Tomorrow

According to a story in the Times of London, students at Oxford were occupying a quad and refusing to leave until the college divested $10 million of its endowment invested in fossil fuel. The bursar Andrew Parker wrote “I am not able to arrange any divestment at short notice. But I can arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect. Please let me know if you support this proposal.”

When a protest organizer suggested he was being provocative, Parker wrote: “You are right that I am being provocative but I am provoking some clear thinking, I hope. It is all too easy to request others to do things that carry no personal cost to yourself. The question is whether you and others are prepared to make personal sacrifices to achieve the goals of environmental improvement (which I support as a goal).”

So far no takers.

At UVM students are also demanding immediate divestiture from fossil fuel investments. But UVM has an alternative which Oxford doesn’t because UVM is located in Vermont and is served by VGS (formerly Vermont Gas System). VGS is the first utility in the country to have a tariffed offer for Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) – a non-fossil-fuel alternative to the natural gas which comes from wells.

Renewable natural gas is made by capturing naturally occurring methane emitted from decomposing waste materials at dairies, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants. This methane is a powerful greenhouse gas if released to the environment. The net effect of using RNG can be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions below the level which would have occurred even if the university turned off its furnaces entirely since it replaces the current practice of releasing methane from food and waste into the environment.

A customer of VGS can simply call the utility and order any blend up to 100% RNG. Since RNG is chemically identical to fossil natural gas, no new equipment is needed, furnaces work normally, and RNG can be ordered by VGS and delivered to customers through their existing hookups. Note that the infrastructure which delivers this RNG is infrastructure students don’t want to invest in; but this shouldn’t bother UVM students in this case since that infrastructure is already installed to their campus. There is no obstacle to UVM using nothing but renewables for heat and hot water tomorrow (literally tomorrow) except that RNG costs more than fossil gas. Climate protestors are asking that Vermonters pay more to heat their homes and drive their cars. Shouldn’t protesting students be willing to do their share?

It’s not all or nothing. Even if UVM ordered only a 10% RNG mix (much cheaper), they’d be cutting their GHG emissions from heat and hot water by 10% - tomorrow!

Middlebury College is working with a farm nearby to take delivery of RNG through a new pipeline being built by VGS from the farm to the campus. Is this pipeline the kind of infrastructure its students and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, who is a professor there, don’t want the college to invest in? The RNG will be available beyond Middlebury through VGS pipelines; the very pipelines 350.org helped delay and made more expensive. Currently, BTW, those pipelines serve Middlebury with fossil natural gas, which is much cleaner than the dirty #6 oil the college used to burn. But, if Middlebury doesn’t want to continue burning fossil fuel while it waits for the pipe from the farm, all they have to do is call VGS and order RNG for delivery tomorrow. Not sure what they’re waiting for.

[Note: although I founded a company which delivers natural gas by truck and am still an investor in it, I have no financial interest in what fuel UVM and Middlebury choose to burn. Like bursar Parker, I just want to provoke some clear thinking.]

January 31, 2020

Trees Are the Right End of the Stick for CO2 Reduction in Vermont

Each acre of farmland which is turned into a woodlot removes 5.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for the next 20 years (numbers adapted from the UN IPCC Report).  This is atmospheric carbon reduction equivalent to taking 1.25 cars off the road or installing 2.5 air source heat pumps. Since we currently have a surplus of dairy land, woodlot conversion should be a major part – perhaps the major part - of Vermont efforts to be “carbon neutral”.

Photosynthesis breaks down CO2 into oxygen and carbon, which is stored in the woody parts of the tree, the roots, and the soil. Fields which are grazed or grow corn or hay also convert CO2; but, as the grass or corn is eaten or decays, the carbon is recombined with oxygen and released into the atmosphere; and so there is little, if any, net reduction in atmospheric CO2.

Listings of the prices of Vermont farms show that, at the low end, farmland can be purchased for less than $1000/acre. Any program to buy up this land would obviously start with the cheapest and least productive land, especially farms which are already out of business. Planting trees in cleared soil costs less than $100/acre. Since there are more dairy farms in Vermont than there is demand for their milk, dairy farmers would benefit either from being able to sell their land or from the fact that other farmers have sold. If farms with runoff problems are replanted in trees, Vermont lakes will benefit as well and the cost of lake cleanup will be reduced.

It costs at least ten time as much per ton of annual CO2 reduction to use electric car incentives as it does to convert to woodland.

Details: $1100 pays the capital cost of sequestering 5.7 tons annually in a newly planted woodlot. Current incentives from Green Mountain Power to buy an all-electric car are $1500 (plus another $1000 for low income people).  The feds will pay up to $7500; Vermont has an incentive only for low-income purchasers. We, the ratepayers and taxpayers, shell out $9000 to non-low-income GMP customers to convince them to replace their fossil-fuel cars with electrics (which they might have done anyway). Even if we assume that all the electricity used by these cars is generated without consuming fossil fuel (certainly not true!), completely removing the average car from the road avoids emitting only 4.6 tons of CO2 year. It costs about $1950/ton to remove a ton of annual emissions with electric cars incentives; it costs $194 to remove a ton by planting trees on underused dairy land.

It costs 10.5 times as much per ton to reduce CO2 by installing “cold climate” air source heat pumps as it does to convert to woodland.

Details: This one is really complex but a recent study commissioned by the Vermont Public Service Department shows that the average residential heat pump installed in Vermont cost $4500 and saved the use of 217 gallons of fuel. Turns out that air-source heat pumps don’t do much when it’s really cold so people still need to use their oil furnaces for much of their load.

Vermont’s current plans for atmospheric CO2 reduction rely almost entirely on switching energy sources and discouraging the use of some forms of energy while incenting the use of others.(see  2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan). We are not on track to meet the goals of this plan and so many are proposing increased energy taxes and draconian governmental controls.  We can actually achieve greater reduction by converting some of our million acres of cropland to timber at much, much lower cost and without making transportation and home heating more expensive for Vermonters.

If you think, as many do, that increasing atmospheric CO2 is an existential problem, then you should want Vermont’s reduction program to be as cheap and effective as it can be. If you think that the dangers of climate change or human contribution to climate change is negligible, you should want us to only do things for carbon reduction which are both cheap and have benefits beyond their effect on climate.  Because we have underused farmland, we have an opportunity other states don’t. Our greener new deal should be more trees, not more taxes.

BTW, I think afforestation (planting trees in places where they aren’t) can probably be done mostly if not completely with private funds (blog coming). The cost of electric car incentives is all born by taxpayers and utility ratepayers; the cost of heat pumps is split between incentives at the cost of other ratepayers and building owners.

See also:

Plants to the Rescue

The Ideal Green Solution

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got (about electric cars)

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

January 27, 2020

Why Republicans Should Vote in Democratic Presidential Primaries This Year

I usually (although not always) vote Republican. Unhappily, I voted for Donald Trump after working against him in the primary. Don’t want to vote for him again; but might have to. My vote in the general election won’t matter in solidly-blue Vermont. But my vote in the Democratic primary here on Super Tuesday, March 3, does matter.

You shouldn’t be discouraged from voting in your state’s primary because you think a candidate you don’t like is going to get a majority of the votes in your state. According to Democratic Party rules, delegates will be apportioned by the percentage of vote each candidate gets in the state primary (with a minimum of 15%). Even if Sanders wins Vermont, which is likely, other candidates still might get delegates.

If Vermont did not have an open primary which allows voters to select either party’s ballot on primary day, I would register as a Democrat in order to cast this important vote. Reregistration is necessary to vote in critically important California, which is a Super-Tuesday state and whose results will influence much of the rest of the primary season.

Three reason why Republicans and Independents should vote in the Democratic primary:

  1. The Democratic nominee may well become president;
  2. There should be a palatable alternative to Trump;
  3. Recognition that the Democratic nomination will not be determined solely by the extreme left may help arrest the leftward lurch by all of the Democratic aspirants.

Haven’t made up my mind whom to vote for and won’t early-vote because I need as much information as possible before deciding.

I’m not going to do what cross-voters are often accused of: vote for the worst possible candidate in order to help “my side” (that would be Warren IMO). I don’t have a side except what I think is best for the country and neither party is representing that very well right now.

Won’t vote for the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump (Sanders IMO).

I will vote for the person I think will be the best president. In contention now for my vote are Bloomberg, Klobuchar, and Biden. Even if one of these or one of the other D candidates wins the nomination, not sure yet whom I’ll vote for in the general. That’ll depend on the campaign itself.

These are the states with open Democratic primaries (list from Wikipedia).

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Massachusetts (Primaries open for "unenrolled"/unaffiliated voters only)
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • New Hampshire
  • North Carolina (Primaries open for unaffiliated voters only)
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio (Affiliate with a party by voting in its primary)
  • Oklahoma (Only Democratic primary is open to Independent voters)
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota (Only Democratic primary is open to Independent voters)
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Utah (For the Democratic Presidential Primary)
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington (State)
  • Wisconsin

See also: I Voted for Donald Trump

January 23, 2020

piddle and Buttbook

Piddlepoint
Bennie, our new puppy, reminds us that dogs have used social media for years. Boys tend to leave peeps at piddlepoints more than girls; but girls do lurk and smell the peeps. Little wonder; all the trivia of dog life is posted there: what pooch had for dinner; her current state of estrus or his state of randiness; pissy comments on all of the above.

Buttsniff

Buttbook has a lot of the same information but more individualized. Not only how one sniffs; not only how one smells; but also how one reacts to having his or her butt sniffed. These are important clues to important questions like is one ready for a new relationship.

Just like the odorless social media we humans use, it’s not all about sex on piddle and Buttbook either. Dominance is important. So is just plain gossip. Piddle is about communicating virtually beyond the limits of leashes and across the time gulf of different walking schedules. Buttbook is for instant status when a judgment must be made in seconds.

Do you think they discuss us on piddle and Buttbook? I asked Bennie but he isn’t telling.

January 21, 2020

Plants to the Rescue

Plants made our current atmosphere and plants can keep it balanced.

When plants first showed up on earth about 3.5 billion years ago, carbon dioxide made up more than 20% of the atmosphere. There was no significant oxygen in the air so none of us animals existed. Cyanobacteria and then plants used sunlight to extract carbon from the CO2; in the process they released O2 and we animals evolved and began to convert some of that O2 back to CO2. The influence of the plants has been much greater than our influence. Since humans have been around, the air has been about 20% O2 and .04%CO2.

image from images.newscientist.com

The chart above is from newscientist.com. The numbers on it are largely observations as opposed to theory or “scientific consensus”. The UN report on climate cites these numbers as do many who feel the report overstates the dangers of climate change.

The green arrows show that in 1750 as the industrial age began, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about the same from year to year because the amount of that gas emitted by respiration, rotting, weathering of rock, and release from the sea was roughly balanced by the amounts of CO2 recaptured by photosynthesis and ocean absorption.

As of 2004 human activity (see the red arrows) added 32 additional gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of CO2 each year to the emissions from 1750. Interestingly, plants have stepped up their activity by sequestering an additional 10 gigatons of CO2 annually (remember CO2 is fuel to them) while the ocean is also absorbing net 10 gigatons more as it stays in balance with the air above it. That still leaves an imbalance; and so in 2005 total CO2 in the atmosphere was increasing by about 15 gigatons/year (the squiggle “~”  in front of “15” mean “about”)  . That number is probably about 18 gigatons/year now due to increased human activity.

Let’s assume we don’t want the composition of the atmosphere to keep changing because we’ve gotten used to things the way they are and let’s assume that we stabilize human emissions about where they are now or in a few years. All we need is for the plants to remove an additional 18 gigatons of CO2/year and sequester it as carbon in the soil and we will have completely neutralized the human contribution. That’s not unreasonable to work towards since they are already processing more than 450 gigatons/year and since they are already increasing their production without any help from us. Since plants grow faster when they have more fuel, an additional upside of plants using our excess CO2 is that the amount of food crops per acre will increase. Also soil with more carbon in it requires less irrigation and fertilization. What’s not to like?

Nevertheless, if we just wait for plants to evolve to establish a new equilibrium (which they always have done and will do eventually), we will be doing a pretty big science experiment with the effects of atmospheric CO2 on climate. Last week I wrote about an initiative at the Salk Institute to develop Ideal Plants® which have woody roots that increase the amount of carbon left in the soil when the plant is harvested or dies. We can also speed up the evolution of plants adapted to the increases in atmospheric CO2 which have occurred since 1750 and get these new plants disseminated; I’m sure there are people working on this.

We have made progress in reducing CO2 emissions both by replacing coal with natural gas and by adding renewables to our energy mix. There is no reason why that progress should stop. Although the news is dominated by deforestation, developing countries are reforesting. The green hills of Vermont were denuded 100 years ago for sheep farming. As counties come out of poverty, which they are doing rapidly, they are probably not going to shun air condition, cars and meat; but they are likely to reforest when they don’t need to burn every scrap of wood for fuel. If we reforest with greener trees which store more carbon, all the better.

Joanne Chory is the leader of the Salk Institute Harnessing Plants Initiative. In a podcast, she says:

“… I have a wake-up call for anybody out there who thinks they’re working in an area related to climate change, but we have to also draw down some of the CO2 we’ve already put up there, and the only way to do that, that I can see, is by capturing CO2, and plants are going to do it way better than any machine. And people will say, ‘What can I do? Should I drive an electric car?’ Well you can drive an electric car, that’s a nice idea. But I can tell you this fact: if every car in the United States became an electric car today, it’s not making a global impact with the amount of CO2 we put out. So you still have to just suck it out of there somehow, and the only way I can see of doing it is by having a number of different approaches that involve nature and humans acting together.”

See also:

The Ideal Green Solution

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got (about electric cars)

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

January 16, 2020

Preparing for Electric Vehicles

Before electric vehicles are in widespread use, we need to solve the problems of how to get electricity to them and how to pay for the roads they run on. So far these problems haven’t mattered because there are so few e-vehicles. In Vermont we are very well-positioned to deal with both problems.

Electric vehicles will replace their gas-powered predecessors for the most old-fashioned of reasons: they are about to be cheaper to manufacture and buy and they can also be cheaper to maintain and operate. The problem of battery range, very real today, is a technical problem which will be solved. Moreover, the aging baby-boomers, not to mention those of us who are even older, need assisted driving features which are almost impossible to implement with gasoline engines.

But how is electricity going to get to all those batteries? Do we need massive new sources of electricity (renewable or otherwise)? Do we have to rebuild the electric grid so that the energy we’re used to picking up at the gas station can be delivered to our home chargers?

And who is going to pay for the road and bridge building and maintenance currently funded from the gasoline tax? Electric cars still need roads to run on. Good road marking is essential to self-driving cars. But, if you’re buying your fuel from your electric utility, you’re not paying any gas tax. What happens when gas tax collections are cut in half and then in half again?

The problem of getting people to buy electric cars will solve itself. We must start working on the problems which wide-spread use of e-vehicles will bring. These are issues which the Vermont State legislature ought to be looking at this session with leadership from Governor Scott who is a “car guy” and wants to promote e-vehicle use.  Here’s what we can and should do in Vermont right now.

Assure that electric utilities offer and promote time-of day pricing so that e-vehicles will be charged up off-peak. If a substantial amount of charging is off-peak, there will be little to need to build new electric transmission and distribution lines since the need for these lines is always determined by peak demand. Similarly, there is plenty of generation capacity available during off-peak periods so little new generation should be needed. Even where we must build new lines or generation, the cost of that building will be negligible per kilowatt so long as we smooth out the peaks and have all-night usage of any new capacity.

Off-peak pricing is NOT yet another subsidy to electric car owners; it allows anyone, even those without e-cars, to participate in the grid-wide savings that come from smoothing out the peaks of demand and filling in the valleys. It will be cheap and easy to offer off-peak pricing in Vermont because, during the last recession we go got a huge Stimulus grant which allowed us to install smart meters everywhere. The meters are there but we haven’t taken much advantage of them except to automate meter reading and aid in locating outages. The utilities currently have off-peak rates, but they don’t offer much incentive and are not promoted.

It is somewhat absurd that Vermont electric utilities are using ratepayer money to provide incentives for buying e-cars rather than saving money for all the ratepayers and making e-car fueling cheaper by encouraging the use of time-of-day rates.

Redirect the energy efficiency charge (EEC) on electric use by those who have e-cars to the Transportation Fund to pay for road maintenance. Most residential users in Vermont pay an EEC which amounts to more than an 8% surcharge on the usage portion of their electric bill. This money goes to an organization called Efficiency Vermont except in Burlington where it goes to Burlington Electric. The revenue from the EEC is supposed to be used to REDUCE electricity usage in Vermont and thus save ratepayers money. Electric vehicles will INCREASE electricity use so there is no sense in giving Efficiency Vermont a bonus because of INCREASED usage. Putting the EEC payments from households (and some businesses) with electric vehicles into the Transportation Fund is a way for e-car owners to pay their share of road maintenance without having to pay higher electric bills.

Governor Scott proposed in this State of the State Address that EEC money be used to aid electrification of the vehicle fleet. Assuring that there will be well-maintained roads even as gas tax receipts dwindle is a great way to prepare for electrification to succeed.

Whether you believe that a transition to e-vehicles is essential for environmental reasons or not, that transition is going to come. Being prepared is very green.

See also:

What’s a Smart Grid and Why Does It Matter?

Time of Day Pricing for Electricity

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got

January 13, 2020

Appeasement Doesn’t Work

Somehow those who agree with me that it was a good idea to kill both Osama bin Laden and ISIS leader Abu al-Baghdadi are now saying it was wrong to kill Qassem Soleimani:

  • Iran may retaliate. Al-Qaeda and ISIS also vowed revenge after their leaders were killed. Bad guys have followers and supporters. Nevertheless, you either fight them or surrender. That was one of the great lessons of the twentieth century. Appeasement doesn’t work; it led the Second World War. We have already lost the Third World War if we are afraid to take lethal action against someone actively killing Americans.

 So far Iran has only made a cautious token response and has managed to kill hundreds of its own people in funeral riots and the panicky shooting down of a civilian plane full of Iranians and Canadians of Iranian descent. President Trump has been uncharacteristically diplomatic in accepting the Iranian “de-escalation”. Of course, there could still be a descent into war; but what would have happened if Soleimani has lived to continue his jihad against America? Iranian leaders are now less likely to miscalculate American determination when they realize that their own skins are at risk – not just the foot-soldiers of their Iraqi, Yemeni, or Lebanese proxies.

  • Ordering the attack on Soleimani was illegal under international and/or US law. It’s hard to take this argument seriously from anyone who didn’t object to killing bin Laden and al-Baghdadi far from any battlefield, without consulting Congress, and without the permission of the countries which were harboring them. Neither of these two bad guys was a threat any longer.

The argument amounts to saying that you can only take out someone who kills Americans once their career is over and they are in hiding.  Think how many more people would be alive today if we’d been able to kill bin Laden and al-Baghdadi before their forced retirements. Our timing was better with Soleimani. Would’ve been even better to get him earlier but we chose not to.

Trump muddied this argument with the unnecessary claim that we specifically knew Soleimani posed an “imminent” threat. His death was justified based on what he had already done and his rush from Syria to Iraq to talk with the Iraqi leader of the siege of the US embassy was clearly dangerous for Americans there. Perhaps he and the Iraqi were still discussing how “imminent” the threat should be.  It was good discussion for us to terminate.

 

  • We’ve unified the people of Iran and Iraq against us. Last week we saw huge anti-American marches in Iran. These marches were evidence of nothing since Iran is a totalitarian state and kills its citizens for going to the wrong rally. This week the people who were risking their lives to protest against the Ayatollah before we killed Soleimani are again risking their lives to protest against leaders who are both incompetent enough to shoot down a plane which had been cleared by their own air traffic control and dishonest enough to deny they had done so for three days.

The Iraqi Parliament did vote to advise the Prime Minister to request the withdrawal of our troops. But the Parliament didn’t have a quorum because the Sunni and Kurdish members defied the threats of the Iranian-backed militias and boycotted the session.

The Iraqis who were demonstrating against Iranian influence two weeks ago (and whom Soleimani ordered the militias to slaughter) are back demonstrating for independence again. Some want us gone, as well; fair enough. The first demonstrations Al Jazeera showed on the night of Soleimani’s death were in Baghdad and were celebrations by those who were protesting Iran’s influence.

  • Soleimani was a high-ranking official of the government of a real country, not just the leader of a self-proclaimed caliphate. Does that give him immunity to kill Americans? Is his excuse that he was just giving orders, not carrying them out? His position just makes him that much more dangerous. We cannot tolerate terrorist behavior from anyone. For much too long, we have allowed Iran and Soleimani to pursue asymmetric warfare against Americans and others, mostly through their proxies. The life of an Iranian general is certainly worth no more than the lives of the many, including Americans, he has killed.

I’m afraid, really afraid, that many Americans including my friends are opposing this very just and timely action because they are afraid that, if Donald Trump gets credit for doing anything right, he’ll be reelected.

I would also like to be able to vote for someone else. It would have been great to see one of the Democratic candidates distinguish her or himself by praising an action which was clearly, I think, in America’s interest.

The isolationist-wing of conservatives (especially on Fox News) have been even more vitriolic in attacking Trump for ordering Soleimani’s removal than the left. This is eerily reminiscent of the time after the German-Soviet nonaggression pact when both the left and America-first right opposed America taking sides in World War 2. They were both wrong then and they are both wrong now.

We owe it to ourselves and our diplomats and troops in harm’s way to ignore politics and oppose appeasement.

See also “We’ve got your back” beats “Thank you for your service”

January 09, 2020

The Ideal Green Solution

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies has a simple solution for reducing atmospheric levels of  CO2 without undoing civilization as we know it or denying people in developing countries the right to live as we do. Although Salk believes that climate change is an unprecedented threat, their solution is worth pursuing even if turns out that CO2 emissions are no threat at all. Here’s how they describe it:

“At the Salk Institute, we have developed an innovative and scalable approach to tackle climate change using an answer that has been hiding in plain sight: the plants that surround us.

“Plants have evolved over time to be the perfect vehicle for carbon capture and storage. Through photosynthesis, they remove CO2 from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen and biomass.

“The Harnessing Plants Initiative will optimize a plant’s natural ability to capture and store carbon and adapt to diverse climate conditions.

“Plants take in CO2 and store carbon in their roots.

“Suberin—also known as cork—is a naturally occurring carbon-rich substance found in plant roots. It absorbs carbon yet resists decomposition (which releases carbon back into the atmosphere), enriches soil and helps plants resist stress.

“By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk's plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin.

“The Salk team will use cutting-edge genetic and genomic techniques to develop these Ideal Plants.®…”

“Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola. [nb. these crops are planted from new seed every year so Salk’s plan to license the plant genes to seed distributors is a fast and self-funding way to get the Ideal Plants out into the world quickly.]

“In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.   [nb. emphasis mine. Better yields will incent farmers to buy and plant these seeds and reduce the land, fertilizer, and water needed to grow a given amount of food.]

“Plant ecosystems in the earth’s oceans, rivers and wetlands have the capacity to store far more carbon than their land-based relatives.

“Restoring aquatic systems will allow seagrasses and coastal plants to thrive and store more carbon while also reinvigorating fisheries; rejuvenating coral reefs; and aiding in coastal restoration efforts.”

There are, of course, many others besides Salk claiming to have a solution to global warming (and using the threat of warming to raise funds). Salk has not yet proven that their approach is practical; it does sound too good to be true.. There will be objections both because this solution relies on genetically modified plants (GMOs) and because, if it all works as advertised, we can make a thoughtful and less hysterical transition from fossil fuels without massive government intervention or huge economic dislocation.

The Salk Institute has earned the right to be taken seriously. It was founded by Dr. Jonas Salk using the money he earned from inventing the first practical polio vaccine. Over its history its faculty have been awarded six Nobel prizes, three Albert Lasker Awards, and numerous other accolades. It has made groundbreaking discoveries, particularly in genetics.

Last week I blogged that I am receiving over $6000 in useless rebates because I bought a partially-electric hybrid car. My car does very little to reduce CO2 emissions and I was going to buy it even before I knew about the rebates so they didn’t influence my behavior. Since I felt guilty, I said I’d donate the rebates to charity.  They will go to the Salk Institute where I think these rebates really may do some good.

Vermont, which wants to do something about the threat of climate change, should consider how our agricultural college (UVM) and our going-out-of-business farms can be used for experiments in Ideal Plants which benefit from increased atmospheric CO2 (reuse is better even than recycle). Better use of our money IMO than feel-good incentives which mainly go the affluent and is more likely to have world-wide effect if successful than any tiny reductions we can make on our own. Imagine if we could pioneer Ideal Marijuana!

[Note: this Friday, the 10th, at 11am ET I will be talking about plant-based CO2 reduction with Bill Sayre on his radio show on WDEV 96.1 FM, 550 AM. The show is streamed on the web at https://wdevradio.com/stream/.]

See also:

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

January 03, 2020

“We’ve got your back” beats “Thank you for your service”

We should never send troops – or diplomats - into harm’s way unless we are willing to defend them. Defending them means both firing back when fired on and preventing attacks in the first place. Defending our troops and diplomats requires disproportionate – not tit-for-tat – response. They are not pawns to be traded-off for pawns on the other side. It is entirely appropriate if killing an American private costs a general his life. General Qassem Soleimani had many American lives on his hands; by his own boasts, he was ready to take more.  It’s fortunate that we were able to end his bloody career with the only apparent collateral damage being a few of his partners in crime.

The America troops in Iraq are there lawfully. Their presence was requested by Iraq (they may be unrequested now by an Iranian-fearing government in Iraq). The US Congress authorized their presence both in an open-ended war against terror resolution in 2001 and in a 2002 resolution for war in Iraq. The troops are funded by annual appropriations passed by Congress.

Iran and Iranian proxies have been steadily testing America’s resolve. They shot down an unarmed drone; Trump decided not to retaliate saying no Americans were harmed. They blew up much of a Saudi refinery; neither Saudi Arabia or the US retaliated. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), nominally Iraqi militias but under the effective control of Iran, have been firing missiles at US bases in Iraq. A little over a week ago, they managed to kill an American contractor and injure several other Americans.

Turned out the redline against harming Americans was not drawn in sand. The US responded with airstrikes which killed 27 members of Kataib Hezbollah, a PMF militia. Interestingly, Congresspeople seemed not to object to this response – just pawns for pawns.

PMF militias then attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, something they wouldn’t have done without the support of Iran and couldn’t have done without the acquiescence of the Iraqi government. An attack on an embassy is the same as an attack on the sovereign territory of the embassy’s owner; it is an act of war. If you are as old as me, you remember that the Iranian regime went unpunished for occupying the American embassy in Tehran and holding American’s hostage. I’m sure Soleimani remembered that.

We reinforced the embassy as we should have. We refrained from shooting more than teargas at the militia storming the gates. Soleimani rushed in from Syria. He was either met or accompanied by Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces. The Pentagon said they were planning an attack on American interest; that’s not very hard to believe even without specific intelligence. Incredibly we knew exact details of the visit including when the convoy would be isolated on an airport road. We acted both to prevent future attacks and to make clear that even high-ranking generals responsible for American deaths are as vulnerable as their troops to our retaliation. It was an opportunity we had to use.  We did.

The President has the authority to protect American troops on a mission approved by Congress; he did that. There was no time to consult with Congress and the possibility of leaks would have endangered the mission, the troops, and the diplomats. He does owe Congress a full report.

The argument that this will make the world more dangerous because it angers the Iranian leadership is absurd; they already hate us; they are already dedicated to our destruction. We have been the “Great Satan” since the days of Jimmy Carter. Hopefully, and it’s only a hope, they will moderate their behavior when our response punishes more than just Iranian surrogate pawns.

We owe it to our troops and our diplomats to view this action and our actions in the coming days in a non-partisan way. Doesn’t matter whether you love Trump or hate him; doesn’t matter how impeachment or the next election is affected; what matters is what’s best for American and what will best protect American lives.

We can withdraw our troops and diplomats from Iraq. That’s what Iran wants but it is a far better alternative then leaving them there and refusing to defend them both reactively and proactively. We cannot let any Iranian “revenge” go unanswered. We must continue disproportionate response when Americans are harmed or threatened anywhere in the world. This is how we say “Thank you for your service!”

January 02, 2020

Undeserved (and Useless) Rebates I Got

I just qualified for over $6000 of rebates which didn’t change my behavior in any way. You are paying me to do what I would’ve done anyway.

My old car had over 100,000 miles and was beginning to require frequent expensive repairs. Time for new wheels.

I decided to look at plug-in electric hybrids (PHEVs), which can run on gas or electricity, for a few reasons:

  1. future cars are going to be almost all electric for automatic driving as much as emission reasons and I like to be an early adopter.
  2. many years ago, I installed lots of solar panels to power a ground-source heat pump; the heat-pump caught fire and burned up and I’m not replacing it because it seems to be a technology dead-end. Now we generate a lot more electricity than we use. Plugging in a car is a good use for the extra kilowatt-hours.
  3. I have too much range-anxiety to go all-electric at the current state of battery technology.

Chose a BMW 530xe with lots of safety gadgets like heads-up display, adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping, blind-spot radar, and night vision which I both like and find I need more as I age. While we haggled over discounts, floor mats, and trade-ins, the sales lady said: “Don’t forget the rebate.”

“What rebate?” I asked. I knew there is a rebate for pure electric cars; didn’t know that there are also federal, state, and utility rebates for plug-in hybrids. But there are; they are smaller than the rebates for pure electrics but lots of dollars. An all-electric BMW qualifies for a $7500 rebate; my PHEV qualifies for $5836. Frankly, even if the $7500 were appropriate, the amount for my car is ludicrous. If I’m lucky, I’ll use 25% less gas because of my partial use of electricity; but I get almost all the rebate.

The amount of the federal rebate is based on the price of the car; the more luxurious the model, the bigger the rebate I get. That’s backwards, too. The more expensive the car I choose, the less I should be subsidized since I obviously “need” less subsidy to buy a car.

This is a subsidy to the manufacturer, however, since it makes it easier for them to charge a differential for electric cars. Note that Tesla, which has exhausted the federal subsidy available to its buyers, is now actually building a cheaper electric car in order to appeal to a larger market. I would argue that the subsidy may actually be counter-productive because it is a disincentive to the manufacturer to quickly enter the mass-market with an affordable electric car.

There is an income test for the Vermont state rebate and I don’t qualify. Good. If there is a subsidy, it should go those who need it and whose behavior is most likely to be changed by it.

Stowe Electric will rebate $450 ($850 for an all-electric) plus a $250 kicker for moderate income. Don’t blame the utility for this policy; they must satisfy the PUC which has to follow Vermont’s climate goals.

The subsidies don’t end here. To the extent that I buy less gas, I’ll pay less than my share of highway tax to keep the roads usable. I’m also subsidized for the power my solar panels generate even though I’m putting it into my own car.

The more you think it is important to change behavior to avoid human-caused climate change, the more vigilant you should be about inefficient subsidies presenting themselves as a just-do-something panacea. Every proposed subsidy needs to be examined to see who really benefits. Is it mainly the affluent? Is it mainly a manufacturer of a particular product? A project promoter? The early winners in the US from climate-change concerns include ethanol producers (a whole food chain), electric luxury car producers, and utilities which get to increase their rate bases (and therefore their income) by adding expensive power sources and even home appliances to their asset base. Existing subsidies need to be re-examined to see if they are effectively serving their stated purposes.

“OK, Tom,” you say; “enough whining about the fact that federal taxpayers and your fellow Stowe Electric customers are subsidizing your car. You didn’t have to apply for the subsidies if you think they’re wrong!”

Good point. The practical side of me says my taxes are helping to pay for everybody else’s subsidies so I should take my share. In this case, though, we’ll give the subsidies to charity   because I know I would’ve bought the same car regardless and I want to be able to complain with a clear conscience about what I think is a poor use of the people’s money.

[later note: decided to give the money to the Salk Institute for its work in developing plants which sequester CO2 in the soil]

Happy New Year.

See also:

The Ideal Green Solution

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

 

October 31, 2019

Time for California to Act Local

Action needed to save lives, homes – and the environment

California’s current climate is extremely hospitable to fire; it’s been that way for thousands of years. The iconic Sequoias actually require fire to release seeds from their cones.

Other California vegetation has also adapted to yearly dry and wet seasons as well as years-long droughts punctuated by torrential rains. The brush in California grows promiscuously when it rains. In the dry season it goes into a dry dormant state and turns brown. In the dormant state it is incredibly flammable. Fires happen in the fall, as they are now, because it is the end (driest part) of the dry season. In the winter of 2017, a long drought ended with heavy rainfall. In the winter of 2019 there was more heavy rain. The good news is that California’s reservoirs got refilled and its aquifers partially recharged. The bad news is that a lot of fuel for wildfire grew during those two years.

All of the above would have been true if California were unsettled or even if no humans existed. But we humans have made the situation much worse – at least for ourselves.  We’ve made three compounding huge mistakes: we’ve allowed power lines that run through flammable areas to become aged and vulnerable; we’ve built new communities where they’re most exposed to fires; and we’ve prematurely extinguished many small fires, which were nature’s way of preventing too much accumulation of fuel. The Camp Fire last year killed 88 people, destroyed more than 18,000 structures, and cost an estimated $15 billion, according to the Center for Climates and Environmental Solutions. It was ignited by a spark from PG&E’s electric grid.

Once this year’s fires are out, it’s time for California to remedy past mistakes.

Upgrade the Damned Grid Now! PG&E, the state’s largest utility, has 81,000 miles of above ground distribution line. Some of that needs to be buried at $3 million or so per mile – ironically much cheaper to do after a fire when there are no structures in the way. Vegetation control is needed wherever overhead lines run through vulnerable areas. Worn out equipment and poles on both transmission and distribution need to be replaced. PG&E admits it is behind on vegetation control. The Public Utility Commission has not imposed any safety fines on them in the last few years – obviously part of the problem. PG&E is saying it will be ten years before they can make the grid safe enough so that they don’t have to shut off power every time the Santa Ana wind blows; somehow they didn’t recognize that problem earlier. Ten years is not acceptable!

But who is going to pay for a fast upgrade?

Californians already pay twice as much for electricity as people in neighboring states. The high rates are because of subsidies which state law requires the utility to pay for renewable power, conversion of homes to electric heat, and electric cars. Declare a moratorium on all subsidies paid by CA electric utilities until the grid is 100% upgraded. PG&E had revenue of $12.7 billion last year. Diverting the half of that now being used for subsides will make over $6 billion available for overdue maintenance without the need for a rate increase. Are you worried about climate change? Remember that the fires last year released as much carbon dioxide as is produced ALL of California’s electricity generation. Think of the exhaust from cars stuck in evacuation traffic jams. And think of all the diesel-powered generators used during blackouts. Mainly think of the people who died in the fires. California must act locally to protect the environment.

The state can bond for fire prevention with the proceeds to be repaid from NOT having to fight as many fires in future years. Insurers with exposure in the area might find it in their interest to help prevent future fires.

No NIMBY! There will be people whose property needs to be used for utility upgrades. They must be fairly compensated. There will be people who don’t like the sight of a new utility tower; they can’t be allowed to slow the reconstruction effort. Permitting for the projects should be fast, fair, and final. No years of appeals after the fact.

Don’t allow new structures in vulnerable areas. California requires solar panels on new housing construction but allows that construction to take place in areas at high risk of fire and without adequate vegetation clearance for fire-proofing. Each night on the news we see sad stories of people who rebuilt after one fire only to be burned out again; that’s as bad as the coastal homes that get rebuilt in the same vulnerable place after each hurricane. As the grid is upgraded, areas can be reopened for development.

Do allow precautionary and controllable burns. The excess fuel which accumulates without them is a danger. There will be less resistance to these necessary burns when there are not structures situated in harm’s way where they shouldn’t be.

Even after a crash effort – let’s say two years, there will still be wildfires in California; that’s the way the local climate is. But the frequency of fires, their impact on people and the environment, and the need for blackouts can all be greatly reduced – if California acts local.

See also California Shows How Not to Deal with Climate Change

October 28, 2019

California Shows How Not to Deal with Climate Change

Its policy has cost hundreds of lives AND damaged the environment

Suppose you were in charge of California and you believed strongly that humans are making the climate hotter. You know that your state is already plagued by droughts and is forest-fire prone. You are willing to have your residents pay twice as much for electricity as residents of neighboring states in order to fight climate change. What would you order the utilities to do with the extra money they collect from ratepayers?

California made the wrong choice. It’s ratepayers do pay twice as much as their neighbors in nearby states; but California chose to spend the extra money on politically popular programs to subsidize renewable energy projects rather than maintaining its aged electrical grid. It chose to subsidize electric cars for affluent people rather than first upgrading the lines that bring power to those cars. It insisted that new homes have solar panels but allowed them to be built in flammable forests which are now being set ablaze by over-burdened and under-maintained utility lines.

California utilities are under a mandate to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020 and 60% by 2030. The utilities are also under mandates to subsidize rooftop solar, build electric charging stations, and subsidize electric cars.  They apparently had no mandate to make their network safe and protect the environment from wildfires. They spent ratepayer money where the state told them to spend it.

Last year’s wildfires in California released as much carbon dioxide as is emitted in a year generating electricity in the state, according to the US Geological Survey. Hundreds of people died in these fires. The destruction of communities was enormous. This year the grid is still apparently sparking fires despite massive precautionary shutdowns by the utilities. People with electric vehicles can’t charge them so they can’t follow evacuation orders. Gasoline cars are idling in huge evacuation traffic jams. When the grid shuts down, hospitals and businesses fire up diesel generators. California spent the extra revenue to become LESS green.

California Governor Newsome says:  “It’s about dog-eat-dog capitalism meeting climate change. It’s about corporate greed meeting climate change. It’s about decades of mismanagement.”  But the utilities are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission. According to The WSJ, PG&E, which is bankrupt from last year’s fires and which is responsible for most of this year’s blackouts, received no safety fines from the PUC over the last several years. I have no idea how competent the utility management is; but the PUC should know. It’s hard to fault management for following state law and regulation; they can be faulted for not being brave enough to forcibly point out the lethal dangers in deferred grid maintenance and new housing development without new infrastructure to support it.

“We have to do something,” is what many climate change activists, especially the children, like to say. But what we do and in what order is critically important. Money that’s allocated to one project is implicitly denied to another. When there is a clear and present danger – for example 100-year-old power lines through dry timber, safety is the first priority. Building new electrical homes and buying electrical cars before updating the grid to deliver electricity safely turned out to be both dangerous and bad for the environment.

I don’t think it’s what Gov. Newsome meant but the capitalist beneficiaries of the politically correct green policies were the renewable energy industry. PG&E is bankrupt. The ratepayers aren’t getting reliable electricity; people are dying; and carbon emissions are increased. The more important the emergency, the more important it is to think before acting.

See also:      Time for California to Act Local

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

A Convenient Urgency

October 02, 2019

What Should We Do About the Threat of Climate Change?

Short answer: Do things which will be positive regardless of how much human activity is contributing to the danger of rapid change. Here are some examples:

Develop plant species which thrive in and use increased levels of CO2 and add carbon to the soil. Since we have increased atmospheric CO2, we should use it to economic and environmental advantage. All green plants use CO2 as a fuel so more fuel means more growth. Greenhouses often triple the amount of CO2 in their facilities to double plant growth. More carboniferous soil means less need for fertilizer and irrigation. Throughout botanical history, plants have adapted to the then current CO2 level. We can hasten this adaption through selective breeding. Since many crops are now grown from annually  distributed seed, we can start removing and using the “excess” CO2 almost immediately. See The Ideal Green Solution for how the Salk Institute is developing plants that do a better job of sequestering CO.

Continue the successful replacement of coal with natural gas. The US, which never signed the Kyoto treaty, has nevertheless exceeded its Kyoto goals for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and leads the world in that respect. This happened not out of virtue but from the simple fact that fracking and horizonal drilling have made natural gas cheaper than coal. The US wins twice since our energy cost of manufacture goes down and CO2 is reduced by half. Replacing propane and oil with natural gas reduces CO2 by 26% and also cuts cost. Yes, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but it is also the most effective way to reduce CO2 in the short-term that we have and its pays for itself. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. [note: I founded a company which trucks natural gas, so I do have an interest in its use.] We do want to continue to reduce the release of fugitive methane in natural gas extraction and transportation and, I think, rule out flaring natural gas as part of the oil-drilling process. Methane is a GHG although most of its anthropogenic source is agriculture and its presence in the atmosphere is not increasing.

Build power lines, at least in the Northeast, south from cheap, clean Canadian hydro sources. This is not a call for subsidy. Private money is available to build these. Permitting sanity is a prerequisite, however, or these will be blocked forever

Reform our permitting process. No matter whether we choose to build more wind turbines, more solar farms, more transmission lines to bring hydro or renewable power to where it’s needed, pipelines so natural gas can replace coal and oil, nuclear plants, or some combination of the above, we can’t get these projects done in real-time. In the US any major project takes more than twenty years just for permitting and appeals. A combination of NIMBY, opposing commercial interests, and anti-growth people can be formed to delay any project almost indefinitely with judicial appeals and illegal but tolerated obstruction. All affected parties should get their say during permitting; once a permit is granted, anyone who causes delay should pay for the cost of that delay. If someone stops construction with an appeal, he or she should post bond for the cost of the appeal. Of course. if the appeal is successful, then the appellant should not be liable for the cost.

 If we find ourselves on a “wartime” footing because of a climate emergency, we’ll run roughshod over objections as happens during war. Better to reform the process now, avoid a warlike emergency later.

Start putting existing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain and pre-permit one or two of the newer designs for safe nuclear power plants. Progress in nuclear energy hasn’t stopped just because we’ve virtually stopped building plants. New designs cannot melt down even if they lose power. The siting mistakes in Japan are well understood. We may or may not need nuclear in the US, but we should be prepared to build safely and quickly.

Continue basic research on solar, wind, energy storage and clean coal. But let the deployment of each of them and traditional energy sources stand on its own economically without subsidy or mandates

Realize that future worldwide emissions will be governed by what people moving from poverty to affluence do. We are not going to convince them they don’t have the same right to warm (or cool) houses that we do, shouldn’t eat meat as we do, or drive cars like ours. They want to cut their forests down for building lots and farm land just like we have. We are not willing to size down to energy poverty and regrow our primal forests although we can be less profligate; we must use the margin and capital our affluence gives us to help them enjoy affluence within available resources. We won’t be able to mandate their avoidance of carboniferous fuels; we may be able to invent ways in which that we can all be affluent on the same planet (see above for some suggestions). BTW, we are not trapped in a Malthusian nightmare of exponentially increasing population; escape from poverty is cutting birth rates. World population is projected to be stable by 2100. We don’t need an infinite growth in resource availability, just enough to bring the rest of the world up to our standard of living. The development of carbon-gobbling plants and increased use of natural gas both aid progress from poverty and help prevent the use of more coal for energy during that progress.

Don’t panic. Panic makes for bad decision making. Here’s a few examples:

  • The adoption of mandates for corny ethanol which turns out, all in, to have a worse carbon footprint than oil, costs more, and ruins small engines.
  • Germany shuttering of nuclear power after Fukushima which has caused Germany’s carbon footprint to grow despite its huge investment in renewables.
  • European incentives for diesels which get better gas mileage than gasoline-powered vehicles only to find that the nitrous oxide emitted was even worse for the atmosphere than the CO2 Now Europe is banning diesel cars.
  • Incentives for rich people to buy Teslas, BMWs and other high-end electric cars.

You don’t have to be very cynical to understand that people use panic to get you to do things which benefit them and which you might not do if you had time to think about it.

Debate the causes of climate change as well as possible strategies for avoidance and/or remediation. Even if there were scientific unanimity that human emissions of greenhouse gasses is causing rapid warming, there is no consensus on whether it will become irreversible, how long we have to avoid catastrophic effects, or even which strategies give the best return on resources spent. Nor do we know how much we are going to have to spend on mitigation like moving people from newly uninhabitable places to newly habitable ones. If we are concerned about a hundred-year time frame, burning wood makes sense assuming the trees are replanted. If we’re looking at ten years to climate Armageddon, burning wood is catastrophic because it emits more carbon dioxide than coal per BTU or kWh of energy produced. We need healthy debate or ill-thought-out measures are likely to cause more harm than good and cause the existential crisis they were meant to prevent.

As for the scientific consensus, it changes over time as facts emerge. For example, in 2001 the UN panel of experts predicted twice the amount of global warming between 1999 and 2020 than has actually happened. They have quietly lowered their predictions of the rate of warming by about half but also loudly lowered the threshold of warming they consider dangerous from 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit to 2.7 above the preindustrial baseline. Doesn’t mean they’re wrong now; does mean that no one fully understands the chaotic complex dynamics of sea, air, land, and biosphere.

Measure! Measure! Measure! No matter which strategies we adopt to reduce the possibility of runaway climate change, we must know if we’re being effective. We know accurately enough how much solar energy is reaching the earth, but we don’t know how much is being radiated back into space. That measurement is harder because it varies from place to place. Deploying a fleet of already developed RAVAN CubeSats (tiny satellites with carbon nanotubes to measure radiation accurately) is one way to do this essential measurement.

Debate is healthy and needn’t mean inaction. As you can see above, there is plenty we can be doing which will be beneficial no matter how much of a contributor to climate change we eventually discover anthropogenic sources to be.

More on climate at blog.tomevslin.com/global_warming/.

See also:

The Ideal Green Solution

September 23, 2019

A Convenient Urgency

“’We need to create fear!’ That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change… Al Gore asked me to help him… to show a worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.”

The quote above is from Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Rosling says he considers Al Gore a hero (nb. I don’t).  “I agreed with him completely that swift action on change was needed, and I was excited at the thought of collaborating with him.” However, Rosling decided not to work with Gore.

“I don’t like fear.” He cites two incidences where his own fear led him to mistakes. One mistake caused many deaths. “Fear and urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought- through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.

“And I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case data showing that climate change is real…. Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.”

“I insisted that I would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenario and – worse – continuing the line beyond the scientifically based predictions would fall far outside Gapminder’s mission to help people understand the basic facts. [nb. Gapminder is an organization Rosling founded which uses great bubble graphics to illustrate complex data]. It would be using our credibility to make a call for action. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts… until I finally closed the conversation down. ‘Mr. Vice President. No numbers, no bubbles.’…

“… the future is always uncertain to some degree. And whenever we talk about the future we should be open and clear about the level of uncertainty involved. We should not pick the most dramatic estimates and show a worst-case scenario as if it were certain… We should ideally show a mid-forecast, and also a range of alternative possibilities from best to worse… This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to stop listening.”

“…When people tell me we must act now, it makes me hesitate. In most cases, they are just trying to stop me from thinking clearly.”

Me too! “You must act now” were probably the first words out of the mouth of the first huckster on the planet. In the climate field it has led to the scam of corny ethanol, European cities banning the diesels they just gave people 20 years of incentives to buy (for climate reasons in both cases), and subsidies for rich people to buy electric cars they probably would have bought anyway (just a few examples). That’s not to say that all action to reduce energy consumptions and emissions is bad; it’s just to say we shouldn’t be panicked into anything ever.

If you are an advocate for climate action, you don’t want to sound like a huckster. People turn off when they think they’re being conned. You also, according to both Rosling and me, don’t want to fall in love with your own worst-case assumptions. That makes it impossible for you to join in the compromises which just might solve the problem you’re trying to solve.

Rosling concludes “Climate change is way too important a global risk to be ignored or denied… But it is also way too important to be left to sketch worst-case scenarios and doomsday prophets [nb. and marching children].

“When you are called to action, sometimes the most useful action you can take is to improve the data.”

For more on Factfulness, see:

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

September 16, 2019

Factfulness: Malthus is Wrong – Fortunately

Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in 1798 that any increase in food supply would lead to increased population but that the increased population would decrease the food supply per person so there would be no benefit to increasing the food supply. The food supply cannot be expanded infinitely so eventual starvation is inevitable. In various guises this Malthusian view of the world informs much of current thinking even though the date of Armageddon keeps getting pushed back.

Fortunately, according to Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Malthus is wrong. Many causes of infant mortality have been eliminated in most of the world. According to Malthus, the population in those places should be exploding. According to Rosling and UN demographers, the exact opposite is happening. The higher the percentage of children who survive, the slower the population grows. The UN predicts the world population will be stable by 2100.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is the behavior of women when birth control (which didn’t exist in Malthus’ day) is available and when most of their children survive. Women who are confident that their children will survive have less children. Even though most of the world is not affluent, it is no longer at the lowest level of poverty. In most of the world public health, mainly clean water and vaccination, has drastically reduced child mortality. In that same most of the world, despite a few counter examples, women get almost as much schooling as men and both genders get more schooling than they used to. Basic nutrition is available.

The poorest 10% of families in the world average five children per woman; the remaining 90% average just two children. In that happier 90% of the world, population growth is limited by choice, not by death as it is the remaining 10%. Isn’t that a great sentence to be able to write? BTW, according to Rosling, improvement is continuing – especially in Africa. Focus is needed on the remaining 10%, of course, but progress is happening almost everywhere.

Malthus saw progress as impossible because of a negative feedback loop – more survival meant more people and exhaustion of limited resources. Progress is very possible when there is a positive feedback loop; higher survival rates mean slower population growth and eventually a stable population. That’s huge.

The implication of coming stable population is enormous. Assuming population will continue to grow exponentially is like assuming we’re on a ship sailing towards the edge of the sea: we’ve got to turn around no matter how difficult that is or we’ll die. Knowing that population will stabilize is like discovering that there is land beyond the horizon: we must survive until we get there, of course; but we can maintain our course. Most of our public discussion of pending food shortages or climate change assume the apocalyptic Malthusian view. Think how many more options we have knowing that view is false.

There’s still a resource problem, however. Most of the world has a low birthrate and, partly as a consequence, affluence is increasing quickly. Those who are leaving poverty behind want to have as many cars, as much meat, as big houses, and as much tillable land as the minority who’ve already reached affluence. The demand on resources is increasing much faster than population. Many, including Rosling, believe that the world will become very inhospitable for humans if everyone is responsible for as much greenhouse gas emissions as rich people are responsible for today. He believes that it is unreasonable to solve this problem by denying affluence to those who don’t have it and that we affluent must reduce our resource use.

I’m more confident than he is that we can solve the equation by making more resources available and using available resources more efficiently rather than degrading our own lifestyles; but, either way, since population is becoming stable, the problem can be solved. Fortunately Malthus was wrong!

For more on Factfulness see:

 

A Convenient Urgency

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Also see:

“There Are No Facts About the Future”

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