Hope and climate change

by John Quiggin on June 24, 2013

According to various reports, Obama is making a speech today (Tuesday) in which he will announce limits on carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These limits can be imposed by regulation, and are justified by court decisions requiring the Environmental Protection Authority to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

Going from realistic hope to wishful thinking, a sufficiently positive reaction on this might give him the nerve to block the Keystone pipeline. But strong action on power plants would be enough for me – it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

{ 103 comments }

1

Glen Tomkins 06.24.13 at 10:29 pm

Nothing can redeem the sequester. You have to forgive a politician a lot on the ideological purity of public policy he or she may be reduced to accepting. But political ineptitude is simply irredeemable.

2

wickedmurph 06.24.13 at 10:39 pm

I’m not a huge Obama fan, but I’m pretty sure the sequester was a murder-suicide by a bunch of fundamentalist nutcases, rather than political ineptitude on the part of Obama.

3

Sandwichman 06.24.13 at 10:42 pm

Expect to be disappointed, John. Judging from the pre-announcement write-up on the White House blog, President Potemkin will announce a hodge podge of feel good, do nothing initiatives to be watered down and frittered away in subsequent skirmishes with the Congress.

4

bob mcmanus 06.24.13 at 10:56 pm

But political ineptitude is simply irredeemable.

Assumes facts not in evidence.

Baby steps in the carbon footprint do not reassure me ay all. A regulation ensuring carbon-based power-plant energy prices would always be more higher than alternate “clean” energy prices would be a small step in the right direction. Set the limits prohibitively high, make them effective immediately, put the US in brownout and make solar roofs free from the gov’t.

An recent Alaska picture is freaking scientists out. We don’t have decades.

Back to No Future …Alyssa Battistoni in Jacobin argues for catastrophism

When faced with desperate circumstances, it can seem that the only sensible course of action is to abandon grand projects and do what seems most immediately possible.

It’s not always the wrong approach. The problem is when it’s held up as the only one: legislative incrementalism has been fetishized to the point where it’s the default for all serious, reasonable politics. But climate change flips the logic of serious and reasonable. Climate change is often framed as a problem stemming from inadequate attention to the future, but it’s our immense faith in a brighter future that makes the untenable present possible.

5

hix 06.24.13 at 10:58 pm

Lets see if the limits are high enough to put anyone out of the market who is not out anyway. Natural gas is too cheap for old inefficient coal powerplants to stay in business anyway. If he does the right thing and anounces limits high enough to shut down all coal powerplants, the cost will be quite low for now.

6

Sandwichman 06.24.13 at 11:02 pm

“to be watered down and frittered away in subsequent skirmishes with the Congress.”

I should have said “half-hearted skirmishes.” This “administration” has one and only one priority: plugging leaks.

“How to solder, how to stop a leak – that now is the deep design of a politician.” John Milton

7

novakant 06.24.13 at 11:18 pm

Redeem himself?

F@ck that – lock him up him in The Hague together with Blair and Bush.

8

Rich Puchalsky 06.24.13 at 11:26 pm

I recently worked on a project to identify the worst 100 greenhouse gas polluting companies (from fixed sites) in the U.S. It will be interesting to see whether what he says would materially affect them.

9

nvalvo 06.24.13 at 11:34 pm

@6… well, there are a lot of power plants near the top of that list.

10

john c. halasz 06.24.13 at 11:38 pm

Change, you can believe in. But hope costs serious money. You got any?

11

Matt 06.24.13 at 11:47 pm

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways, but effective action on climate change would be sufficient, for me, to redeem his presidency. None of the other things we are fighting about will matter unless there is a livable planet on which to fight.

It’s necessary but far from sufficient for the rich nations to reduce emissions. China now emits more CO2 than the US and EU combined. Coal use in China is not expected to peak before 2030. India would like to follow China’s example but fortunately (?) dysfunction has kept coal production and use growing more slowly than planned. Are there hopeful signs that effective action from the US would spur parallel action in developing nations?

12

Rich Puchalsky 06.24.13 at 11:53 pm

Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that companies that own coal power plants weren’t at the top of the list. They are. Top three are American Electric Power, Duke Energy, Southern Co, and top 5 are rounded out by the U.S. government (which owns TVA coal plants) and Berkshire Hathaway (which owns MidAmerican Energy, which owns PacifiCorp, which together own more coal-fired power plants).

13

MPAVictoria 06.25.13 at 12:09 am

” it’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace”

Sadly action is unlikely under the current government. I can’t say I really blame those who work in the industry either. People need to eat and it is not like we have provided them with a plethora of good alternative career choices.

14

Tom Hurka 06.25.13 at 12:26 am

CO2 emissions from the oil sands are trivial compared to those from coal-fired power plants. Putting serious limits on those — maybe feasible now given shale gas — would be vastly more beneficial than blocking Keystone, which in any case would only mean the oil sands product goes somewhere else.

15

Chaz 06.25.13 at 12:27 am

“Obama is making a speech today (Tuesday) “

This hurts my brain. Obama (and I) lives in the US where today is Monday, and he is not making the speech until tomorrow. I was almost able to forgive you since you are writing from Australia (I guess?), but by Australia time Obama won’t be making his speech until Wednesday, and either way it’s tomorrow! What is this madness?!

Anyhoo, regulating power plant emissions would be huge. Shoulda been 4 years ago so he’s still a bad president, but this would make him at least better than average. I wonder how strict they’ll be–will they force many plants to shut down? I would! I guess the legal authority is just whatever the EPA “scientifically” (it’s inevitably a political decision, however informed by science) deems necessary. EPA’s probably scared stiff that the Supreme Court will make up some reason why their rules exceed their authority/aren’t necessary if they go “too far”, but how far is too far is impossible to predict. I say push hard, and assume the Supreme Court will try to pare the rules back but not throw them out entirely (that would contradict their previous ruling, and the pope is never wrong). Since they’ll be pared back, go so far that even the pared back rules will be strong!

When I say strong I mean the rules should be way harsher than the effect of the EU carbon pricing and way harsher than we would go for in a comprehensive American system. Since power plants are the only ones targeted, they need to emit even less to make up for not restricting other contributers. But above all, hit them hard so that the power generators can assume a comprehensive cap and trade system would be a better deal for them. Then let them and the coal senators push for such a program.

I also agree with the people worrying about China et al. I think we should be applying tariffs to all imports based on the global warming impact associated with those goods. That’s very hard to estimate for a finished good produced in another country, so the estimates would be very rough. And the rougher they are (the less the foreign government/company cooperates with investigators), the more we should err on the side of caution and make the tariff higher! This would require a new bureaucracy to make the assessments (Dept of Commerce I guess). It would also contradict lots of treaties, which is the excuse Obama and co. will trot out not to do it, but that’s stupid. Pass the the carbon tariffs and force the WTO to accept them (or pull out, effectively killing it off). I don’t care one bit if this disrupts trade with China. This is a separate matter from the measures Obama will hopefully announce tomorrow, but domestic restrictions can help achieve this goal. The more domestic producers have to follow carbon regulations, the more they’ll demand measures to impose the same costs on their foreign competition.

16

Tony Lynch 06.25.13 at 12:35 am

“Redeem himself”? – Kind of like a friend of mine who considers Hitler’s anti-vivisection stand to have redeemed him.

17

Glen Tomkins 06.25.13 at 12:42 am

bob mcmanus,

The sequester has about the same chance of turning out to be some genius 11th dimensional chess move as I have of being elected President. Maybe it won’t end in much more disaster than it has already caused, but that will only happen if the Rs prove even more incompetent than past performance would suggest. That’s a tall order.

18

Lee A. Arnold 06.25.13 at 12:53 am

It looks like a move by gov’t fiat that is meant to cause political controversy in the U.S. and it will. The nutty House will go ballistic. I would guess that the Administration’s political calculus is that two more Dust Bowl years for U.S. agriculture may awaken more people just in time for the 2014 mid-term elections. (In the rather mild, so-called “medieval warming period”, which may have been only a northern hemispheric problem, the paleo-evidence is that the western half of the U.S. was a sand-dune desert. So the U.S. may have a very costly regional climate problem that is already beginning.)

I have a question, for anyone. The climate mitigation denialist speeches always end with the certitude that mitigation would be an economic disaster. You see this from Monckton through Lomborg to Lindzen, the MIT climatologist who claims to respect science, yet seems to have swallowed a faulty assumption about the state of economic science. Of course it is nonsense: climate mitigation can be a win-win, “no regrets” scenario that has negative cost, i.e. positive benefit. My question is, has else anyone noticed that this knee-jerk economic certitude is the same sort of mental malfunction that animates the austerians against fiscal stimulus to end the current depression? Both stories appear to be part and parcel of a more general idiocy that is related to emotional preconditions about other people’s individual preferences. It seems to be outside any rat choice explanation, looking instead more like the cultural risk theory of Mary Douglas. Is there anyone looking at this?

19

P O'Neill 06.25.13 at 1:31 am

Lee

We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population, which is found to act even in the most vicious societies, increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food therefore which before supported seven millions, must now be divided among seven millions and a half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress. The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to earn the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage, and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, that population is at a stand. In the mean time the cheapness of labour, the plenty of labourers, and the necessity of an increased industry amongst them, encourage cultivators to employ more labour upon their land; to turn up fresh soil, and to manure and improve more completely what is already in tillage; till ultimately the means of subsistence become in the same proportion to the population as at the period from which we set out. The situation of the labourer being then again tolerably comfortable, the restraints to population are in some degree loosened; and the same retrograde and progressive movements with respect to happiness are repeated.

Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

20

PJW 06.25.13 at 1:58 am

Clever headline. Wish I’d thought of it.

21

Lee A. Arnold 06.25.13 at 2:39 am

P O”Neill @19 –I am trying to follow your reasoning. But I never heard the austerians to be Malthusians. While the climate anti-mitigationists seem to be technological optimists (when they are not being technological pessimists). I was struck by Lindzen’s comments at the Heartland Institute in 2009 (the video is on YouTube) that “warmism” has “always been a political movement, though it took me a while to realize this”, and it is “a vehicle for a post-modern coup d’etat or illicit profits”. These sudden comments puzzled me for a while, coming in the middle of a talk about climate, from a supposed scientist. Then I realized it is the same sort of stuff that accompanies the austerian fear of “Keynesian” fiscal stimulus because it will lead to further “socialism”. A fundamental characteristic of both the austerians and the climate anti-mitigationists is to take a position at the “individualist” pole of the individualist/collectivist axis on Mary Douglas’ cultural grid. It is purely emotional; there is no science or history required. How else can we explain Reinhart & Rogoff’s 90%-debt-cliff debacle? If so, our problem may not be a fight between pure capitalism and pure socialism, or a fight about the meaning of uncertainty in complex ecosystems. The problem may be that around one-third of the population has, quite simply, unnecessary fear: they misconstrue how most other people’s personal preferences are formed, perpetuated, and changed.

22

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 2:40 am

The real problem is super-urgent problem not recognized as such by a plurality of the electorate meets real politic. I don’t expect anything very effective. He will probably make it a little less profitable to runa coal plant -presumably a few plants nearing the end of their currently planned service lives may be retired a few years early. I expect we will just as hypocritical as John’s native Australia, and export the coal we no longer want to burn. Then we will claim the emissions from our coal exports belong on the importers books -not ours.

I expect a timid proposal well short of the scale needed, but I expect that evn so it will generate a humongous amount of political heat.

And I expect a lot of noise will be made claiming that spending a few dollars to expand research will allow us to have our cake (limitless cheap energy), and eat it too -if only we have faith in our good scientists/engineers/venture capitalists….

23

mpowell 06.25.13 at 3:58 am

Arnold @ 18: It’s really not that difficult to see that abandoning a cheap method of producing energy that has long term negative consequences in favor of more expensive, cleaner standards is highly unlikely to improve global living standards unless environmental impacts are taken into consideration. There is a tendency to assume that investment in clean energy will create ‘green jobs’ but this really relies on the assumption that first, there are major structural problems with the economy (probably true, at least in the sense of poor monetary management) and that two, a carbon tax or whatever will fix these structural problems (why??). Of course, climate change denialists are going to overstate the economic impact because the purpose of being such a denialist is to advance your political view, not advance the discussion.

24

Matt 06.25.13 at 4:36 am

There is a tendency to assume that investment in clean energy will create ‘green jobs’ but this really relies on the assumption that first, there are major structural problems with the economy (probably true, at least in the sense of poor monetary management) and that two, a carbon tax or whatever will fix these structural problems (why??). Of course, climate change denialists are going to overstate the economic impact because the purpose of being such a denialist is to advance your political view, not advance the discussion.

The ‘green jobs’ argument is interesting. Supporters tout higher employment numbers for renewable electricity. Detractors say that using more people to produce the same amount of energy is an additional cost rather than benefit for everyone who uses electricity but isn’t employed to produce it.

I’m not sure that renewable energy is actually going to employ more people after the initial construction frenzy. Old coal plants aren’t all that efficient in their use of human labor. Constructing new renewable energy projects employs large numbers of people, but neither the factories nor the maintenance of projects once constructed employ that many people per megawatt hour of output. And with PV hardware costs falling so fast, installation costs (labor intensity!) are now a major target for reduction.

Last year I read a story about a small coal plant closing and the jobs lost, and I compared the permanent positions per megawatt hour at the coal plant to those at a big utility scale solar project. The solar project actually had higher specific productivity (lower employment per megawatt hour generated) once built, despite its low capacity factor. And that’s even neglecting that the mined inputs to a coal plant are consumed daily, while the mined inputs to a solar plant are used for years and then largely fit to recycle.

25

derrida derider 06.25.13 at 4:49 am

No, mpowell, the point is that a carbon tax/emissions quota system raises money for the government – money which would have had to be raised anyway. The question then is NOT whether this form of taxation is economically damaging (it is) but whether it is more damaging than the taxation it replaces. And proponents of the “no regret” principle – that is, that a carbon tax would do little harm even if the climate delusionists were miraculously correct – assert, with some good arguments on their side, that it isn’t really.

Of course doing it all by bans and regulation raises no money for the government so any resultant economic damage is just pure loss. You can then only justify that approach if you believe both that the tax approach is less politically feasible (dubious, IMO) and that the delusionists are wrong. But it’s very much a second-best method.

The thing about price mechanisms is that they really, really work. Short of a First Five Year Plan approach that inflicts truly massive damage to peoples’ lives it takes a long time to transform an economy and the consequent social attitudes. However if the history of capitalism teaches us anything it is that such transformation will happen when there are large and sustained price changes.

26

Lee A. Arnold 06.25.13 at 4:50 am

mpowell #23: “It’s really not that difficult to see”

Rather impossible to prove, though. It would not be a cheap method of producing energy if it did not already have a huge installed base (or “path dependence”). In addition, subsidies to the fossil fuel industry including automobiles top $100 billion annually in the U.S. alone (Worldwatch, 1997). Nearly equal some projected U.S. costs of mitigation. On the other side of it, do they think that the money that goes to “more expensive standards” somehow disappears from the economy? Or that slipping in the adjective “GLOBAL living standards” lets them sneak around the equity issue? There is no evidence that clean energy will not become cheaper. No doubt it is necessary to avoid taking “environmental impacts” into consideration, if that means they must account for, e.g., the costs of desalinizing water and pumping it to the western half of the United States. But then again, this is exactly like the debate over fiscal expansion in the econ crisis. Facts don’t matter. This is a debate animated by some people’s fear of how some social preferences are to be decided for the future.

27

Rich Puchalsky 06.25.13 at 4:52 am

“The ‘green jobs’ argument is interesting. Supporters tout higher employment numbers for renewable electricity. Detractors say that using more people to produce the same amount of energy is an additional cost rather than benefit for everyone who uses electricity but isn’t employed to produce it.”

Been over this one many times. The cost of employing people is presumably included within the cost of the electricity. If the renewable electricity is close in cost to the non-renewable, but produces more employment, then it’s better. Why? Because in a society in which you only get paid if you have a job, people need employment.

Electricity that is similar in cost to renewable but has less associated employment must have greater resource use — less of the money goes towards labor, more goes to the costs of e.g. getting coal out of the ground. That’s not a cost that does anyone any good other than the electricity produced from it.

28

john c. halasz 06.25.13 at 5:22 am

Tom Hurka @14:

This comment is really a remarkable exercise in bad abstraction and supercilious ignorance. In the first place the Alberta “tar sands” oil reserves amount to 170 billion barrels at current prices and technologies and it is at once the dirtiest and one of the most expensive sources of petroleum distillates. (If you don’t understand that, look up petcoke). And, through a stroke of irony, shale oil in ND has cut off its access to limited transport and refining capacity in the upper Midwest. Hence, unless the Keystone XL is built, further investment in the Alberta tar sands will dry up and further exploitation will cease, (as just about every analysis, except the Obama State Dept. report, itself outsourced to energy industry consultants, agrees). So, no, the tar sands oil won’t be going “somewhere else”, if transport to sea ports and thus the international market price is unavailable, since anything else is economically unviable. (The idea that rail transport will be used as an economical alternative to pipelines was already a feature of the 2011 report; since more than a year has passed, we have an empirical test of that proposition, 30,000 barrels of Alberta bitumin, compared to over 300,000 barrels of ND shale oil transported by rail. Yeah, there’s a big difference in mark-up between light sweet crude and the heaviest, sourest crude on the planet).

And as for gas fracking, aside from the innumerable, as yet not fully scoped environmental hazards involved, and the absurdity of using scarce fresh water resources of evanescent energy production, and the likelihood of quickly declining yields and the corresponding need for ever more expensive investment in ever diminishing “plays”, the plain fact of the matter is that no one actually knows how much methane leakage is occurring at well-heads, whether conventional or fracked. (Two recent local studies found 4% and 7%: anything over 3% is worse than coal from a GHG POV). So the idea that NG is a “bridge fuel” because it is cleaner burning at the end point amounts to an urban myth.

A progressively ratched-up carbon tax-and-rebate scheme would be a first step, though by no means sufficient unto itself. But maybe clearing up the intellectual smog surrounding these issues is a pre-requisite.

29

Matt 06.25.13 at 5:26 am

Rich, agreed that your analysis follows from the premises.

I don’t think a quasi-steady state of renewable electricity being close to that of non-renewable is likely to persist. Cost of production has dropped faster than most people expected. The price of wind and sun are never going up. The expenses to tap those forces more efficiently are largely one-time, like those to develop a new drug, and like drugs they eventually fall out of patent and can be manufactured free of licensing charge by all producers.

In various regions the anti-renewable arguments has quickly shifted from “solar and wind can’t produce enough energy to matter” to “cheap but intermittent solar and wind are undermining older dispatchable technologies — low price isn’t everything.” It’s a remarkably belated but rapid development of the ability to identify and speak against externalities.

30

Sandwichman 06.25.13 at 5:37 am

Report from the Corner House: “Energy Alternatives: Surveying the Territory” See especially the box on “Productivity and Efficiency” on page 33.

http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/energy-alternatives

31

maidhc 06.25.13 at 9:30 am

There have been a couple of attempts to get the Alberta tar sands oil to China by building a pipeline across BC, but they have gone nowhere because of local opposition. So instead they are going to get the Americans to pipe the oil all the way across the US to a tax-free export zone in Texas where it can be refined and shipped to China. The economics will look better in a few years when the Chinese open up the new canal across Nicaragua.

32

Consumatopia 06.25.13 at 11:15 am

If the renewable electricity is close in cost to the non-renewable, but produces more employment, then it’s better. Why? Because in a society in which you only get paid if you have a job, people need employment.

It also might mean renewable energy avoids the resource curse.

33

floopmeister 06.25.13 at 11:18 am

Obama has been a disappointment in all sorts of ways

He’s only a disappointment if you believed all the hype to begin with.

Me, I’ve been with Perrin since the first of the ‘hopey-hopey change!’ speeches:

http://crookedtimber.org/2008/07/22/book-review-savage-mules/

34

floopmeister 06.25.13 at 11:26 am

Perrin’s angry, ‘scattergun’ and unfair, of course – but he was a refreshing voice amongst the general hysteria back in Dec 2008 (and seems more prescient all the time):

Ha. According to “pragmatic” liberals, most noxiously Tim Wise, it’s much too soon to pick at the Anointed One. Sure, he’s loading his cabinet with well-known commodities like Hillary Clinton, while retaining the services of Robert Gates; but who knows what behind-the-scenes magic Obama is fomenting. It could all be a clever ruse, a necessary cover for whatever progressive moves the Savior-elect has in mind.

Yes, there are actual adults who seem to believe this scenario, or at least want those who remain skeptical to buy it, so debating these fantasymongers would be a waste of time — assuming they were keen to debate. Most that I know of don’t want to hear anything negative about Obama, and I seriously doubt this will CHANGE three months, eight months, two years into his administration, much less when his re-election campaign cranks up. Based on available evidence, the most critical these people will get will be some resigned sighs, shrugged shoulders, and bleats about working within the system, taking what you can get, etc.

In other words, either get with the winning team or shut the fuck up.

http://dennisperrin.blogspot.com.au/2008_12_01_archive.html

Beyond all that, I hope something does come of the ‘rediscovery’ of the reality of climate change…

35

floopmeister 06.25.13 at 11:27 am

Damn italics (should be all three paragraphs, of course).

36

Trader Joe 06.25.13 at 11:42 am

@28

“And as for gas fracking, aside from the innumerable, as yet not fully scoped environmental hazards involved, and the absurdity of using scarce fresh water resources of evanescent energy production, and the likelihood of quickly declining yields and the corresponding need for ever more expensive investment in ever diminishing “plays”, the plain fact of the matter is that no one actually knows how much methane leakage is occurring at well-heads, whether conventional or fracked. (Two recent local studies found 4% and 7%: anything over 3% is worse than coal from a GHG POV). So the idea that NG is a “bridge fuel” because it is cleaner burning at the end point amounts to an urban myth.”

The above comment first posted at @28 is very good and needs to be empasized. The common view that “coal=dirty” and “nat gas=clean” is a spin created by the power companies to show their clean energy chops. I’m not going to bat for coal, but nat gas isn’t nearly the perfect fuel people want it to be.

It may be the next best near-term alternative, but realistically some combination of renewable and nuclear are the only plausible way of replacing the 35% of the power grid that is charged with coal…most of which is base load.

The above comment on China and Emerging Markets was also on point – the polution content of emerging economies is far outstripping the savings potential of the already industrialized. This shouldn’t discourage the effort, but its not a problem that lends itself to unilateral efforts – Obama could move the needle more by influencing China to improve by 1% than improving the US by 2%…..alas he probably lacks the clout to do either.

37

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 2:13 pm

I’m not as worried about methane leakage, because I take a longer view, and the methane decays ona roughly twelve year timespan. So if our fracking frenzy raises atmospheric methane levels but decreases CO2 levels because it substitutes for more carbon intensive fuels, after a couple of decades we will be ahead. And I’m a firm believer that people are going to have to witness/bear some serious effectives before we can go beyond quarter measures.

Matt: “The price of wind and sun are never going up.”

I think we may be disappointed there. Clearly in the narrow site specific sense, the cost to generate X megawatt hours on a specific site should continue to go down. But as penetration increases, so does the cost of integration, and (especially for wind) the best sites are developed first. And we will increasing have to bear the integration costs of variable sources. These include all sorts of mitigation measures -demand-response (throttling back some usages when power isn’t abundant),
large scale storage, and long range transmission, are all going to be in the cards. And I don’t think any of them will be cheap once they have to be done at scale. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for slowing the rate of transition -the costs of delay are so are much greater. But, lets not create unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be.

38

Trader Joe 06.25.13 at 3:32 pm

Omega
“I’m not as worried about methane leakage, because I take a longer view, and the methane decays ona roughly twelve year timespan. So if our fracking frenzy raises atmospheric methane levels but decreases CO2 levels because it substitutes for more carbon intensive fuels, after a couple of decades we will be ahead. “

Fair enough, that’s the air part of the equation – but that still leaves massive water usage, soil erosion, destruction of the water table, injection of supposedly inert chemicals into the ground and earthquakes as problems created by modern NG production…it seems to me that its possible NG is “cheaper” than coal on a BTU basis because the price isn’t forced to fully account for its potential long-term costs.

I agree with your point to Matt on alternatives – particularly wind. Ocean based wind turbines are regularly pointed to as a potential “game changer” for the tecnology but the transmission and storage issues remain substantial.

39

hix 06.25.13 at 3:53 pm

As long as my government thinks the best policy is to subsidice small scale solar installations on rooftops in the north (while not paying susidies for large scale installations which are just as usefull and much cheaper), burning plants, off shore wind and coal at the same time, while ignoring gas, im all for pushing gas. A switch to modern gas turbines from old coal can do half the job in electricity generation at very low costs, in particular in the US with the low prices. Thats a lot more than we get in Germany with a expensive zero emission+expensive and environemntal underwheliming biogas. A mix that costs us 0,4% of gdp
and growing a year.

Solar has come a long way. Thin film modules now trade at 400€. So large scale installations at locations close enough to the equator now look fabulous too combined with the low capital costs at the moment.

Heck, even we could produce solar energy at decent prices now if we would let the government build large scale installations on agricultural land in Southern Germany.
Our eco ideologous have settled for a different plan. We do not pay any susbdidy at all for large scale installations on agricultural . Nevermind that we do pay huge subsidies for biogas, which requires to use a multitude agricultural land and has a negative environmental impact. Wed need more agricultural land than we have to produce all energy this way. Nevermind that space is not an issue at all a 30*30 km area could produce all energy for the entire country. Nevermind that we pay subsidies that ensures10% of our agricultural land is not used at all. Nevermind that rooftop installations cost much more and have hardly any advantage, give a higher subsidy to those small installations, because big is always evil. Government ownership is not even up for debate, despite the great financing costs at the moment.
Nope, if the government gets involved, its through cheap credit for private equity firms that build off shore wind.

40

Ronan(rf) 06.25.13 at 4:27 pm

“He’s only a disappointment if you believed all the hype to begin with.”

Indeed, they must be the most obnoxious first couple since the Washingtons

41

hix 06.25.13 at 4:42 pm

One more time more coherent. When we look at real life nations, there is not a single one which has implemented a climate change avoidance strategy in electricty production that is more environmental friendly than a simple all natural gas solution. However some, Germany the most notable example have implement climate change strategies that cost a lot more than an all natural gas solution. This leaves nuclear out of the calculation, which is messy to estimate due to non co2 externality guessing. We have done some very stupid expensive things and ignored many solutions that would have a large impact at low costs. My post does not even cover half the stupid things we did, or energy use outside electricty generation and im very angry about it. Natural Gas has low capital costs and works very well with a net dominated by wind and solar. So there is not much of a danger to get locked into a bad path either.

42

Bruce Wilder 06.25.13 at 4:42 pm

Realism is really tough with respect to peak oil / climate change / overpopulation / ecological collapse. The difference between Right and Left is a difference about where to focus denial and technological optimism.

Obama isn’t a well-meaning fumbler; he’s evil. That may be the most difficult point of realism to absorb. The Republican Clown Show™ is a variant Greek Chorus that gets its scripts from the same central office that supplies every episode of the Obama Tragedy Hour.

No matter what, the largest part of effective CO2 restraint would require energy conservation. We have to radically reduce the amount of energy we use.

There’s a lot of unwarranted technological optimism among the center-Left, about the prospective relative costs of “alternative” energy, which hide the dependence of alternative energy schemes on the foundation of the petroleum economy. Our ability to adapt depends on wise use of the tailend of the petroleum economy, which is what this natural gas “boom” is. And, there’s no awareness, no panic, when there should be.

Radical conservation is feasible, but would entail many changes in “lifestyle”, which the Right despises and rebels against, as much as it pretends to despise the one-world-government and centralized control, which managing the global climate would entail. By temperament, I expect many on the Right will fall back on adaptation and climate-engineering, as denialism loses its glow.

I’d like to think humans were capable of consciousness raising and visionary, enlightened self-interest might triumph in the end, but we are clinging to myopic incrementalism and rebellious resistance, as the twins of political contention, when both are badly out of touch with reality.

43

Michael Collins 06.25.13 at 5:10 pm

[I]t’s really up to Canadians to stop the oil sands menace.

When faced with an insoluble mess, it’s time to turn to the “fantasy roleplaying character invented by a kid who goes to mock United Nations camps instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons.”

44

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 5:24 pm

And of course we have climate used for extortion:

Whereby those who can threaten to ruin it for the rest of us, extort as much as they can.

I could easily imagine a rogue military power (North Korea -USA if certain elements take over?) telling the rest of the world -pay us mega-tribute -or we will produce and release millions of tons of the following super-greenhouse gases….

45

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 5:25 pm

Looks like that href didn’t work:
http://www.eia-international.org/explosion-of-super-greenhouse-gases-expected-over-next-decade
The title was:
Explosion of Super Greenhouse Gases Expected Over Next Decade

46

Dr. Hilarius 06.25.13 at 5:30 pm

Recently, I’ve had contact with oil/gas firms wanting to obtain mineral rights for fracking. My elderly mother inherited 160 acres of Colorado grazing land (turn of the 19th century homestead). The terms offered by these firms are interesting for what they won’t do. Price is negotiable but environmental protection is not. All three firms promised to clean up the site post-exploration in the sense of not having debris left. One was willing to erase bladed roadways and pay for crop damage (hah! no crops there in a century). But when it comes to water pollution or soil contamination the only promise is to “operate in accordance with state and federal regulations.” Which don’t exist. Nor were they willing to disclose exactly what they would be pumping into the ground.

I politely thanked them for their interest but told them my plan is to create a prairie dog sanctuary. Dead silence.

47

Chris Mealy 06.25.13 at 5:49 pm

I’m too lazy to look up the Pew data or whatever, but judging from the giant SUVs everybody drives I’m guessing hardly any Americans give a damn about the climate. I don’t know how much any president can be expected to do. It’s like being an abolitionist in the 1820s. The best you can hope for is some sneaky 11-dimensional chess.

48

alkali 06.25.13 at 6:03 pm

A lot of Green Lantern theory of presidential power on this comment thread.

49

Lee A. Arnold 06.25.13 at 6:55 pm

Exactly.

50

Rich Puchalsky 06.25.13 at 6:59 pm

“A lot of Green Lantern theory of presidential power on this comment thread.”

Nonsense. The EPA has ruled, and the Supreme Court has approved, that it can regulate greenhouse gas sources under existing law. In fact, the EPA is *required* to by existing law. Regulations are firmly within the area of control of the President.

51

Sandwichman 06.25.13 at 7:09 pm

“Coal stocks jumped after President Obama’s speech on climate change, in which he laid out a sweeping initiative to limit carbon emissions from all power plants in the U.S.”

“Said Obama: ‘My first announcement today is, you should all take off your jackets.'”

52

Sandwichman 06.25.13 at 7:20 pm

Bruce Wilder wrote: “We have to radically reduce the amount of energy we use.”

Yes, there is no way to finesse this with “green alternatives” or “decoupling” of GDP growth from energy consumption. When you disaggregate GDP growth what you get is a measure of absolute increase of energy consumption (a quantity) driven by relative improvements of energy efficiency (a ratio). Talk of ‘decoupling” relies on blurring the distinction between quantities and ratios. Again, see the Corner House paper I cited above and the box on page 33.

http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/energy-alternatives

53

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 7:25 pm

hix: “Heck, even we could produce solar energy at decent prices now if we would let the government build large scale installations on agricultural land in Southern Germany.”
I fear the same kind of effect here. The cheapest by far PV, is utility scale plants, -especially in the US where the so called soft-costs -mainly permitting and inspections are so high. But also because we are too picky about our structural and electrical standards as applied to PV (certainly wrt what the Germans are doing). But, environmentalists and progressives absolutely hate utilityscale plants. Mainly they don’t like ownership by corporate or quasi-corporate bodies. I’ve been having this argument on numerous websites of late. With so much of our energy use in the industrial sector, residential rooftop just won’t cut it alone, we need a very healthy utilityscale sector.

54

Rich Puchalsky 06.25.13 at 8:01 pm

I’ve only had a brief time to look over the newly released climate action plan, but most of it looks vague and insufficient.

From here:

That said, what Obama is announcing today is not an immediate limit to how much carbon pollution coal-burning power plants can emit. During his State of the Union address, the president told Congress that if it didn’t act to curb carbon emissions, he would do so. Which in a way was like a kid loudly announcing that he had decided to do his chores. You see, Obama is legally mandated to act on curbing carbon emissions, following a court’s determination that carbon dioxide is a pollutant. The EPA has been expected to develop a new limit on emissions for years, but, so far, only a proposal to limit emissions from new coal plants had been proposed. A lawsuit hoping to force the agency to act was postponed last week once it became apparent that Obama planned to finally tackle the real problem: existing plants.

What Obama is announcing today is a timeline for setting that standard. Specifically, he is asking the EPA to work with states and stakeholders for a proposal by next June and a final rule by June of 2015. (He also hopes that the rule for new plants will finally be finished by this September.) Meaning that, if everything goes right, we could have an as-yet-unspecified reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning plants in only two more years.

That’s pretty much the minimum possible that he could have done. Just enough to preempt the lawsuit; no change until 2015 — or later, since the rule will be challenged.

55

Matt 06.25.13 at 8:44 pm

Matt: “The price of wind and sun are never going up.”

I think we may be disappointed there. Clearly in the narrow site specific sense, the cost to generate X megawatt hours on a specific site should continue to go down. But as penetration increases, so does the cost of integration, and (especially for wind) the best sites are developed first. And we will increasing have to bear the integration costs of variable sources. These include all sorts of mitigation measures -demand-response (throttling back some usages when power isn’t abundant), large scale storage, and long range transmission, are all going to be in the cards. And I don’t think any of them will be cheap once they have to be done at scale. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for slowing the rate of transition -the costs of delay are so are much greater. But, lets not create unrealistic expectations about how easy it will be.

The best sites are developed first, but the better turbines are developed later. So far turbines are improving faster than better sites are being exhausted: capacity factor is slightly up for new US installations against those of a few years ago. Wind operation and maintenance costs per megawatt hour are also down. Offshore wind does not seem to be doing so well on costs, but there’s a long way to go before onshore is so crowded in the US that offshore looks reasonable. Building new transmission lines is expensive, but they also last a long time, so for any land-based energy project (renewable or not) they only amount to a fraction of a cent per kilowatt hour over the infrastructure’s lifetime.

Electricity storage is the real wild card. At present it is very expensive. There does not appear to be any “fundamental” reason that batteries should stay so expensive; the mineral inputs for some designs are very cheap. The fabrication may be intricate but it’s also repetitive, just like for any other mass produced product. Silicon, aluminum, and glass are not dramatically cheaper today than they were 10 years ago, but silicon PV modules are; I could imagine the same happening with batteries.

Let’s suppose for the moment that bulk electricity storage does not quickly come down in price. Rooftop solar offers the most dramatic “beneficial negative externalities” that can disrupt the fossil fueled electricity business. In some regions rooftop solar already has an unsubsidized instantaneous production cost lower than retail electricity from the grid. Self-consumption of rooftop solar power appears as demand reduction to the grid, little different than if you’d changed your lifestyle or bought more efficient appliances. If you use self-produced power you’re not taxed on it or paying for distribution over the grid. Distribution costs drop very little when demand drops, though it allows deferring distribution capacity upgrades, so the fixed infrastructural costs are either going to be spread over fewer kilowatt hours (if they are rolled into the unit price) or start appearing as a fixed charge independent of consumption. Either way, costs go up for all grid customers but non-solar-using customers see a larger relative increase. This encourages further demand reduction through behavioral changes, efficiency measures, or installing one’s own solar production, and the cycle continues. The difference is not in electricity source, but location: central large renewable installation that rely on the grid to get to end-users are just as affected as coal plants. But by happy coincidence most grid-reliant generation capacity is the fossil fueled stuff that we want to use less of. Even in the absence of feed-in tariffs or special tax credits, rooftop solar installation raises the systemic costs of legacy electricity and encourages a variety of responses that further reduce CO2 emissions. It’s truly an externality of beauty, like if riding a bicycle not only reduced your spending on gasoline but raised gas prices for everyone else.

Finally, note that switching from fossil fuels to wind/PV/hydro means a dramatic reduction in primary energy use even if you don’t use any less electricity than before. Fossil fueled and nuclear power plants are heat engines. 100% conversion of fuel energy content to electricity is impossible, and higher than 50% conversion is difficult; US coal plants typically achieve 1/3 conversion. Wind/water turbines and PV panels tap kinetic energy and photons instead of thermal gradients. Replacing 1 kilowatt hour of American coal electricity with 1 kilowatt hour of PV electricity eliminates 2 kilowatt hours of primary energy wasted as heat at the central plant on top of the 1 kilowatt hour of electricity observable to the end user. The efficiency gap between internal combustion engine transportation and electric transportation is even larger than 3 to 1. Bruce Wilder says “We have to radically reduce the amount of energy we use,” but it turns out that’s an intrinsic effect of switching away from heat engines rather than a campaign of conscious restraint that must be added on top of the switch to renewables.

56

Layman 06.25.13 at 9:33 pm

@55

I understand the difference between anecdotes and data, but offer my own experience with solar. I installed a 10.5 kWh solar array on my roof in Phoenix in May of 2009. I drew 18,505 kWh of energy from my utility co in the 12 months prior to installation. In the 3 years since, I’ve drawn an average of 9,000 per year – largely in the evenings and during the peak summer hours when the A/C is running overtime. My arrangement with APS is that I feed overproduction into the grid and get credits for that which offset what I draw on a 1:1 basis. My average annual credit is around 6,000 kWh. Thus my conventional electricity usage has dropped from 18K kWh to about 3K kWh per year.

Having the system has raised my awareness of our usage, and we’ved adopted a lot of conservation behavior in order to maximize the value of the system.

As a result, I’m paying about $425 per year for electricity, and $120 of that is a standard billing charge I pay even in months when I use no net energy at all. I’m saving about $2500 per year in electicity bills.

The system cost a total of $58K to install. Half of that was rebated to me by my utility company. Federal and state tax credits dropped my net cost to $19K. So, for me, it’s a 7-year payback. I assume that APS has some ROI as well, since they offered the rebate – presumably that comes in the form of avoiding additional generation expenditures. Without the rebate or the tax credits, the system is a hard sell; but with them, it’s a no-brainer. I’m not sure why we aren’t mandating solar, especially in places like Phoenix, with 300+ days of sunlight per year shining on millions of flat-roofed buildings…

57

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 10:17 pm

Matt @55
Rooftop solar can often lead to a need to upgrade local grid capacity. If a customer decides to go to near netzero, unless his load is heavily concentrated when the sun shines, he needs roughly 5X his usage to make up for the low capacity factor. So there are times when 4 or more times his average consumption is flowing the other way. This can be more than his local wires and distribution transformer can handle. So investment by the utility company is required.
Currently net billing is available in most places for small customers, but many utilities are fighting to end that. Some is just pure greed (they want to generate your power and make you pay for it). But some reflects real costs that accrue to the grid operator as penetration levels increase.

I don’t see lots of small systems on rooftops as the way reach where we need to go. Installation costs per watt are much higher than for large ground mounts. Some of these costs (excessive paperwork and inspections etc.) can probably be rolled back, but needing to do custom small designs is inherently more expensive. Since we need many hundreds of billions of dollars of investment to even begin to replace fossils, we would be well served to look towards the cheapest cost per watt.
I also doubt batteries -and especially battery chemistries that one would want to have in a residential garage or basement as the likely best form of energy storage. Most likely most storage will be built in utility-scale facilities spread over the grid.

58

Sandwichman 06.25.13 at 11:12 pm

I have nothing against solar or wind but until you can discuss them coherently in the context of transforming the global political economy of energy, you might as well be discussing unicorns and mermaids, boys.

http://www.thecornerhouse.org.uk/resource/energy-alternatives

59

hix 06.25.13 at 11:22 pm

58/10,5= 5,5. If prices are the same as in Germany, 1,8 or less nowadays. This should be very profitable now without any subsidies beyond the de facto feed in tarif. 15000/10,5=1428 Despite more conversion efforts. Hum, i was expecting more. Maybe the performance ratio would also be better now.

60

Sandwichman 06.25.13 at 11:27 pm

unicorns…

61

Watson Ladd 06.25.13 at 11:49 pm

@hix: Are we forgetting that France produces 80% of its electricity with no CO2 emissions?

62

Katherine 06.26.13 at 12:00 am

Mainly they don’t like ownership by corporate or quasi-corporate bodies.

You have solved the problem in your own complaint about it. I know it’s a radical idea, so bear with me, but how about considering large scale solar energy projects that aren’t run by corporations?

63

Cranky Observer 06.26.13 at 12:10 am

= = = Bruce Wilder @ 4:42 pm
[…] There’s a lot of unwarranted technological optimism among the center-Left, about the prospective relative costs of “alternative” energy, which hide the dependence of alternative energy schemes on the foundation of the petroleum economy. Our ability to adapt depends on wise use of the tailend of the petroleum economy, which is what this natural gas “boom” is. And, there’s no awareness, no panic, when there should be. […] = = =

It is impossible to deny that there is truth in what you say. However, I don’t plan on committing suicide or un-engendering my children, and human beings have proven to be pretty adaptable and tough under very difficult circumstances (usually when pushed to it). So perhaps it is best to do what we can, and push as hard as we can for more as we go along?

Cranky

64

Cranky Observer 06.26.13 at 12:15 am

= = = Layman @ 9:33 pm
I understand the difference between anecdotes and data, but offer my own experience with solar. I installed a 10.5 kWh solar array on my roof in Phoenix in May of 2009. I drew 18,505 kWh of energy from my utility co in the 12 months prior to installation. In the 3 years since, I’ve drawn an average of 9,000 per year – largely in the evenings and during the peak summer hours when the A/C is running overtime. My arrangement with APS is that I feed overproduction into the grid and get credits for that which offset what I draw on a 1:1 basis. My average annual credit is around 6,000 kWh. Thus my conventional electricity usage has dropped from 18K kWh to about 3K kWh per year. = = =

That’s great, and I think we as a nation should be doing more of this even in areas that don’t have anything close the high insolation rates of Phoenix. That said, having worked in the dispatch center and in the economics group of an electric utility [1]: what happens when a dense cloud cover moves over your entire region? I’m guessing your power doesn’t shut off, which means that someone/something is providing nighttime, peaking, and backup power for the distributed solar. What is the effect on the cost (including return on capital) of that secondary system as more distributed units are installed? Calculation isn’t that simple.

Cranky

[1] Noting for the record that only about 1/3 of the US now receives its electricity service from classic regulated utilities; the rest being under the bizarre semi-competitive regime of the power acts of 1994 and 2004.

65

Neil Levy 06.26.13 at 12:18 am

@58. “you might as well be discussing unicorns and mermaids, boys.”

It is the “boys” that I find most depressing about this comment.

66

Pascal Leduc 06.26.13 at 12:49 am

Lets not forget Hydro electric power. Not only is it capable of generating large amounts of power but it also generates that power independently of the weather. In fact as long as you set the average power consumption of the damn to just below the water replenishment rate you can use it as a massive battery, generating power when other sources falter.

Here in Quebec 92% of all power is hydro power with only 3.5% from some kind of fuel. We generate enough to sell just over 13% of this electricity to the states. Its a nice windfall for us and helps finance the extremely low rates we pay ourselves.

67

Marc 06.26.13 at 12:58 am

I’d thought that people on the left prided themselves on being “reality-based.” Obama hinted, very strongly, that he would be blocking the Keystone pipeline. He announced a lot of other actions that environmentalists were very positive about.

And people here, apparently blinded by animus towards Obama, dismiss it all as meaningless. It isn’t just Republicans who have talked themselves into a bubble where they can’t admit error or acknowledge progress.

68

Chaz 06.26.13 at 1:05 am

@Pascal

Dams have already been built on pretty much all of the good sites in the U.S., plus a bunch of bad sites. Anything left wouldn’t generate nearly enough power to justify the construction, or would cause unacceptable environmental damage. I think that’s true for pretty much all developed countries. Might be some potential up in northern Canada if anyone wants to build the transmission lines.

69

ezra abrams 06.26.13 at 1:14 am

Green Jobs
Legalizing Heroin would create all sorts of jobs.
The point is, we should totally dissociate jobs and the environment.
Jobs are something the economy should provide; if it is broken (as it is) we should fix that.
Saving the environment is a separate thing that we have to do, like providing for widows and orphans. It doesn’t matter if green jobs are or are not created – I mean, if there is no planet, what does it matter ?

70

Rich Puchalsky 06.26.13 at 1:26 am

“Obama hinted, very strongly, that he would be blocking the Keystone pipeline.”

And he could have just blocked it. But we’re supposed to be grateful for this “hint”.

He’s doing the bare minimum that he can do in order to preserve his political stance in relation to the U.S. system. That’s good for him, but I don’t see any reason why anyone else needs to congratulate him for it. On the contrary, the bare minimum is quite harmful. As best as I can read it, he just put off doing anything about existing coal fired power plants until, probably, 2016.

“you might as well be discussing unicorns and mermaids, boys.”

Sandwichman — I think that if you want to recommend the paper you’ve linked to, you’d be better off not using language that’s so dismissive in comparison to the language it uses. You’re not really representing the complexity that they insist on very well.

71

Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 1:28 am

ezra abrams wrote, “The point is, we should totally dissociate jobs and the environment.”

Satire, I presume?

72

Matt 06.26.13 at 1:33 am

Rooftop solar can often lead to a need to upgrade local grid capacity. If a customer decides to go to near netzero, unless his load is heavily concentrated when the sun shines, he needs roughly 5X his usage to make up for the low capacity factor. So there are times when 4 or more times his average consumption is flowing the other way. This can be more than his local wires and distribution transformer can handle. So investment by the utility company is required.

The owners of the distribution system are going to push back against upgrades just to help out solar users who are giving them less revenue (or at least no more revenue) than other customers. I suspect that the public will be on the utility’s side on this one, when it becomes “you’re paying more so your rich solar-loving neighbor can pay less.” That’s why I focus on solar power purely for demand reduction, not net metering, tax credits, or FIT, because I think that will be hardest to stymie and therefore the most scalable, even if it doesn’t grow as fast.

Of course as I mentioned before, solar even used for pure demand reduction tends to drive up costs faster for non-solar users (more expensive to supply quickly changing loads, more expensive to keep the same infrastructure but pay for it across fewer kilowatt hours). The same dynamic is at work making conventional grid delivered power more expensive and solar more attractive, but harder to stop than capping participation in net metering or cutting direct financial incentives. If you squint a little it’s like rooftop solar users placing a carbon tax on conventional electric generators, distributors, and users.

73

Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 1:40 am

Rich Putzalsky “you’d be better off not using language…”

S’man clutches breast, staggers around room in circles, falls to floor, legs kicking in air. arms and legs extend and stiffen, flail and then drop to the ground and lie motionless. Uses no language.

74

Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 1:50 am

Correction: the arms and legs extend, flail and then stiffen.

75

Layman 06.26.13 at 2:08 am

@57, @64, @72

I concur that rooftop solar is primarily a demand reduction strategy. Net billing is only useful as long as there are customers for the excess capacity generated by solar users; or alternatively if the excess capacity can be stored. And my peak demand & nighttime usage require either stored excess capacity or another source. You can’t solve this problem through rooftop solar alone, but it seems to me that rooftop solar will be part of any sane solution. At least, that’s what the unicorn told me…

76

Omega Centauri 06.26.13 at 2:34 am

I you scale rooftop solar strictly as demand reduction, then you can only generate a small fraction of your use with it. So a 15% reduction in anual demand, thats not going to get us carbon free.

Katherine @62. I suspect the closest we are going to come to that is REITs for solar (-assuming we can get congress to act?). Solar Mosaic -or its ilk will have to grow by several orders of magnitude to reach that scale. Meanwhile, the world is deploying solar at scarely over half of the size of its current PV manufacturing capacity. A huge opportunity cost. In the next couple of years, we need to push PV in any and all forms as hard as possible. Not put up roadblocks to big projects, because we hope the panels will end up on someones roof otherwise.

Plus today, most rooftop solar is third party owned. My neighbor’s SunRun system is owned by a big corporation (against my advice -he should have bought it outright). So today the major options largely are (1) Corporate owned on rooftops with the building/roof owners buying the power under a PPA. Or (2) large corporate solar farms selling power to the utility under a PPA.
Self financed -or financed by non greedy do-gooders like Solar Mosaic, are a too small part of the picture.

77

Matt 06.26.13 at 2:53 am

I think that rooftop solar demand reduction can go well beyond 15% for a few reasons. One, it sharpens users’ observation of electricity consumption, so that people who install solar are likely to substantially reduce use beyond the portion that is substituted from rooftop supply. (Layman’s experience, where solar + grid consumption was half of grid consumption alone prior to solar installation, does not appear atypical.) Two, as I keep saying, as solar penetration increases it raises grid electricity prices throughout a region, encouraging even non-users to reduce consumption. Three, oversized installations that sometimes produce a useless surplus of electricity, in exchange for providing a larger fraction of total consumption during less than optimal illumination, are currently cheaper than building storage for just-big-enough solar installations yet have some of the same central generation displacement effects as coupled solar and storage.

78

john c. halasz 06.26.13 at 3:24 am

@73-74:

A command performance. Bravo! (Yeah, I know that explaining the joke kinda ruins it, but, hey, it’s been done to me, right here on these boards, so I thought I might pass on the favor…).

But, at any rate, to amplify B.W.’s point about “conservation”, (perhaps beyond his intention), it doesn’t simply amount to renunciation and cutting back on “desired consumption”. It means developing a much more energy and resource efficient infrastructure and capital stock. Which is a tall order, since it also means destroying the “value” of much infrastructure and capital, both as physical structures and as the pile of financial asset claims laid upon them, while at the same time, generating massive new investments in alternatives. Land transport, for example, will have to be electrified, (since that is 3x more thermodynamically efficient), but also rail and mass transit will have to largely replace personal vehicles, (since we shouldn’t have to be waiting on exotic, novel battery technologies, which will inevitably have additional resource requirements, and since producing vehicles to be used for a hour and a half a day is itself massively redundant energy and resource consumption). I got into trouble on these boards a while back with JQ on this issue, but, quite frankly, JQ’s idea of energy and resource accounting was all wrong. And, indeed, full dress energy and resource accounting, (as well as social cost accounting), isn’t something that is widely understood or well practiced. One can add on many other sectoral cases, such as “industrial” farming or housing tenure or recycling of industrial components. But if we’re to preserve anything like the benefits of a technically advanced production economy, (let alone diffuse those benefits to the RoW), then the way we go about it will have to be fairly radically rebuilt over time. And we’re already way “behind the curve” and have maybe a generation left before all our gooses are cooked.

The good news is that the quantitative “standard of living” is not the same thing as the quality of life, (which reification is something that entitled, i.e. credentialed, left-liberals often have a hard time recognizing). It’s not just that “more is less”; it’s that there is more in the less.

As for Obama’s speech, though I haven’t fully caught up on the jourmalism as yet,- (since I have a hard time directly listening to him for long, since , as Yves Smith put it, the signal to noise ratio is so low),- apparently he touted the advantages of NG over coal. As usual, always going with the flow. At least that will help mitigate our CA deficit problem, since nothing else will do.

79

hix 06.26.13 at 3:51 am

Since solar costs are mainly capital costs, the required return is crucial. A pure capital investor would consider electricty price volatily the major risk. A government can think different – the pv installation can be considered a hedge against societies conventional energy source price increase risk. So the risk free return rate is sufficient – about 0% real right now over the lifetime of a solar plant. (Thats sort of my disingenuis calculation why government owned solar is so cheap at the moment, suppose that also works for individuals who have a small solar allocation, but those wont set return demands).

80

Rich Puchalsky 06.26.13 at 3:57 am

“Rich Putzalsky”

I generally think that derisive spellings of people’s names is a grade school thing, but I guess to john c. halasz that’s a command performance. Who knew?

At any rate I think that I’ll let Sandwichman tell jch that there’s a certain problem with his “developing a much more energy and resource efficient infrastructure and capital stock.”

81

John Quiggin 06.26.13 at 4:17 am

” So far turbines are improving faster than better sites are being exhausted: capacity factor is slightly up for new US installations against those of a few years ago.”

In fact, it’s now profitable to replace/upgrade 1990s turbines (good sites but outdated designs) with new models, even when the old ones are working fine. (saw this on Renewable News the other day, Google will probably find it)

82

John Quiggin 06.26.13 at 4:22 am

A lot of complexities arise from the fact that pricing models developed on the assumption of a coal based system interact in strange ways with renewables. The shift away from centrally planned order-of-merit systems to market based bidding systems makes these problems more intractable.

But, by the time the problem of decarbonizing electricity supply is reduced to one of reorganizing pricing systems, we will have already done most of the hard work.

83

Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 4:51 am

Rich P, “I generally think that derisive spellings of people’s names is a grade school thing…”

Yes! That was my point. You get a gold star.

84

Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 5:25 am

J.Q.: “A lot of complexities arise from the fact that pricing models…”

That may be true. But complexities are trivial compared to the rather straightforward issues regarding ratios and quantities. There are only three variables that matter: final consumption of materials (including fuels), final consumption of goods and employment. Employment matters because it mediates the distribution of the final consumption of goods.

As Jevons pointed out nearly 150 years ago and as I have tried to point out repeatedly for the past two and a half years, the “economy of fuel” and the “economy of labour” are (allegedly) governed by the same principle but the socially-desired outcome for each of the two is the opposite. That is to say we want total fuel consumption to decline so we can conserve resources but we want employment to increase to accommodate population growth. The answer to this “complex” problem I get from Brad DeLong and Amory Lovins is to “solve” it independently for energy consumption and for employment and simply ignore the fact that energy and employment are inseparably joined at the hip. Just look at the historical data and tell me where you find the evidence for decoupling total energy consumption and aggregate waged employment.

As Thomas Pychon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

What happens when we start asking the right questions?

85

Lee A. Arnold 06.26.13 at 5:49 am

What is the basis of the argument that total energy consumption must negate efforts toward energy efficiency and renewables?

86

John Quiggin 06.26.13 at 6:43 am

The Jevons argument doesn’t work in the way Sandwichman wants it to. It applies for an exogenous increase in energy efficiency, not for one that is mandated.

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Matt 06.26.13 at 6:50 am

As Jevons pointed out nearly 150 years ago and as I have tried to point out repeatedly for the past two and a half years, the “economy of fuel” and the “economy of labour” are (allegedly) governed by the same principle but the socially-desired outcome for each of the two is the opposite. That is to say we want total fuel consumption to decline so we can conserve resources but we want employment to increase to accommodate population growth. The answer to this “complex” problem I get from Brad DeLong and Amory Lovins is to “solve” it independently for energy consumption and for employment and simply ignore the fact that energy and employment are inseparably joined at the hip. Just look at the historical data and tell me where you find the evidence for decoupling total energy consumption and aggregate waged employment.

The answer to the paradox seems to be that it is founded on a false premise. Neither economy of fuel nor labor lead to full demand rebound through something like the Jevons Paradox. It would be nice for employment, but it isn’t so. Surplus of labor does not magically create its own market demand, any more than the abundance of seawater or basalt have ever created a commensurately gargantuan demand.

Do international comparisons of energy and employment count? Trinidad and Tobago consume more than twice the primary energy per capita as the United States. Oman consumes about the same. The United Kingdom consumes less than half. Unemployment rates respectively are 6.6%, 7.6%, ~15%, and 7.8%. Oman has markedly worse employment despite similar energy consumption, while double-consumption Trinidad and Tobago does only slightly better than the US and half-consumption UK does barely worse.

Economic growth cannot be and will not be maintained indefinitely at any fixed positive percentage rate. Even smallish values like 1% lead to physics-violating absurdities in only a few thousand years. The total fertility rate is already below the replacement rate of 2.1 in half of the world’s nations. How many above-replacement nations are there where it is still rising? The bad news is that Earth’s natural services are already oversubscribed and it’s going to get worse. The good news is that nothing grows forever, not even human population.

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Katherine 06.26.13 at 10:04 am

Katherine @62. I suspect the closest we are going to come to that is REITs for solar (-assuming we can get congress to act?)…Plus today, most rooftop solar is third party owned.

Without meaning to be rude, you are very noticeably coming at this from an exclusively USian perspective. Understandable, given that the post is about Obama and the US. But when you start talking about ‘the world’, there are a multitude of different possibilities.

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Sandwichman 06.26.13 at 10:36 am

Matt: “The answer to the paradox seems to be that it is founded on a false premise.”

Thank you! That is (almost) absolutely correct. That is why I included the parenthetical “allegedly.” Both Marx and Keynes refuted the principle. But pay close attention because “a false rumour is a real social fact” (Baczko). Whether true or false, the Jevons Paradox and the dogma that “the use of labor-saving machinery creates more jobs than it destroys” are inseparable. They are two ways of looking at the same body of evidence and theoretical propositions. They are either both true or both false — or both contingent and mutually so. No cherry picking.

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been at this a long time. The good news is that the Jevons Paradox is not an “inevitability.” It remains, however, a possible outcome of deliberate policy choices. In that sense, I think J.Q. has stated the case backward. The “Paradox” would result from policies that pursue both energy efficiency and economic growth (to replace the jobs eliminated by labor-saving technology), as conventionally defined (cue the glib “redefinitionists” who seem to think that the material throughput basis of GDP is “optional”).

So, yes, the Jevons Paradox is founded on a false premise but it is a false premise that conventional economic thought is also founded on. “A false rumour is a real social fact.” Paul Krugman, Bruce Bartlett and others (even Megan McArdle) have been edging away from the false rumor recently in response to the “news” that labour’s share of income is declining (for the last 35 years) and that unemployment remains stubbornly high. But they haven’t yet realized the full implications of admitting the contingency of the automatic reabsorption of displaced labour argument.

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John Quiggin 06.26.13 at 11:42 am

“Because we are more aware that our advances in the intellectual sphere often spring from the unforeseen and undesigned, we tend to overstress the importance of freedom in this field and to ignore the importance of the freedom of doing things. ” (emphasis added

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Layman 06.26.13 at 1:03 pm

@77

Right. The absence of net billing shouldn’t necessarily cause rooftop solar to scale down. At the right price, you’d design the system to maximize your energy savings, which in my case (and with panels from 2009) means cutting utility consumption in half. Newer panels are more efficient and cheaper. A dedicated rooftop solar program – with public funding and / or incentives – could make a big difference and act as an economic & employment stimulus as well.

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Omega Centauri 06.26.13 at 2:37 pm

Matt. I’m a much bigger booster of solar than to want it to demand reduction only. We need it to become the prinicple power source ASAP. I’m just pushing back on the claims that it will be easy and cheap.

I don’t see acquiring PV as changing peoples attitude towards energy. For the thoughtful and pro-green types like you and I, sure we start asking, how can I further decrease my net usage? Can I get it to zero, even though my system is undersized? But, where I live most PV is bought(contracted) so that people can continue to use energy in a profligate manner -and not be made to suffer from PG&E’s higher usage tiers (which can be 3times the rate that low users pay). I don’t think the typical buyer is a green-minded intellectual anymore -at least around here. And we dominate the country PVwise, I saw a survey of the top ten utilities for rooftop solar, and PG&Es installation number was the same as the next eight utilities combined.

Katherine. Yes I am thinking primarily as a USAin. This isn’t only due to the fact that I live there, but that I think given the strength of the misinformation forces in the US, that we are the crucial tough nut that must be cracked in order to retain a livable climate. Significant parts of Europe already seem to be in the early stages of the transition, -over here -and even worse in Canada pro- fossil fuel forces have a near stranglehold on the media and on government. In my mind the crucial battles will be fought in the large holdout countries.

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Billikin 06.26.13 at 2:53 pm

As regards the sequester, what political ineptitude? Irresponsibility, yes. By Obama and the Republicans, and some Democrats. But we have yet to see the political endgame of the sequester. It is still possible for someone to win it.

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Billikin 06.26.13 at 3:01 pm

@ Lee Arnold

I do not believe in economic certitude, only in the certitude of economists.

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Matt 06.26.13 at 7:35 pm

I don’t see acquiring PV as changing peoples attitude towards energy. For the thoughtful and pro-green types like you and I, sure we start asking, how can I further decrease my net usage? Can I get it to zero, even though my system is undersized? But, where I live most PV is bought(contracted) so that people can continue to use energy in a profligate manner -and not be made to suffer from PG&E’s higher usage tiers (which can be 3times the rate that low users pay). I don’t think the typical buyer is a green-minded intellectual anymore -at least around here. And we dominate the country PVwise, I saw a survey of the top ten utilities for rooftop solar, and PG&Es installation number was the same as the next eight utilities combined.

Having a solar system with third party ownership may somewhat reduce the electricity user’s interest in reducing consumption. I’m hoping that third party ownership is the catalyst that gets installation costs down somewhere reasonable. If Americans could match the low labor costs of German installation (!) there are a lot more places that would already be past grid parity. The screwy tax incentive system gives back a percentage of system cost, including installation, rather than targeting something meaningful like energy production. Since third party owners are reselling electricity production at long term fixed rates or below grid rates, they have an incentive to optimize for long term production costs instead of initial tax rebates. It seems like that should mean figuring out how to install a couple of standard system sizes with minimal time and effort.

It’s possible that demand reduction, beyond demand substitution, is only something that will happen with early adopters. But it’s also been noted in large commercial organizations that deploy alternatives or even just ask their utility company for renewable power — making an expensive energy investment seems to get people over the threshold of awareness so that they look for cheaper demand reduction methods as well. Relevant data should be available from Hawaii soon. I think that rooftop solar penetration there is already well past the green early adopters, even though it’s a small electricity market as American states go. Australia seems like another good place to look for data: they’ve got more than a million rooftop solar systems and fewer than 8 million households.

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Omega Centauri 06.26.13 at 9:36 pm

I do think the big third party installers are generally more efficient than the hoards of mom & pop installers. But capturing the tax rebate for investors is still key. The biggie here is not so much physical installation costs, as the so called soft costs, including customer acquisition, that run well over a buck a watt (more than the panels plus inverter combined!).

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Matt 06.26.13 at 10:09 pm

I was going off the memory of the paper “A Roadmap for Reducing Rooftop Solar Costs by 50%.” It looks like my memory is flawed. Eyeballing the chart, it looks like US solar labor costs are roughly 3 times those of Germany. The text accompanying the graph hammers repeatedly on permitting as more expensive and less standardized in the US relative to Germany, and this appears true as far as it goes. But the nebulous “overhead” category is the single largest expense in the US chart, and almost invisible in the German chart. The text barely addresses this elephant other than to explain it is separate from permitting paperwork.

The large customer acquisition costs in the US seem like poor choices made by solar installers themselves, perhaps encouraged by the tax rebate model. Help, help, someone’s making me spend all this money on advertising, and he’s located in the executive suite.

If permitting and overhead are brought down to German levels in the US but the rest remains unchanged, it looks like a rooftop solar system would still be about 40% more expensive in the US. Probably a good deal on balance, given better insolation in large areas of the US, but quite different from the executive summary claiming that the US can reach cost parity with Germany just by simplifying and standardizing regulations.

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Omega Centauri 06.27.13 at 1:46 am

The cost of acquisition is partly a catch 22. I think a big part is a saleman spends a couple of hours working on an interested prospect, then the prospect balks on price. Sometimes its just plain unrealistic expectations and fears on the part of the customer. The salesman has promised net-zero, but the customer figures as long as they are on the grid the utility will screw them, and demands a full off-grid solution. Of course that is much pricier than a grid connected net-zero, and the customer thinks the guys trying to cheat him. I’ve also seen quite a few people going door to door soliciting business.

Another rooftop issue, what if your roof needs replacing during the lifetime of the system? That means unmounting than remounting. So if you don’t have a longlifetime roof, it may not be sensible to put solar on it. And I think in many areas this could be more than half the houses.

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Antoni Jaume 06.27.13 at 11:17 pm

Omega Centauri 06.25.13 at 2:13 pm

« I’m not as worried about methane leakage, because I take a longer view, and the methane decays ona roughly twelve year timespan. So if our fracking frenzy raises atmospheric methane levels but decreases CO2 levels because it substitutes for more carbon intensive fuels, after a couple of decades we will be ahead.»

Do you take in account that methane is a stronger GHG? And its elimination is by conversion to carbon dioxide and water? So the effect of methane is never less than the effect of the same quantity of carbon.

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Omega Centauri 06.28.13 at 2:11 am

Yes. Antoni. We get worried about leaks of methane that are small in carbon mass compared to CO2 emissions. But after a couple of decades the net effect is reduced manyfold, by the oxidation into CO2. I don’t advocate deliberately emitting short term GHGes. But, it is a mistake to tackle them first, because the resulting delay in warming will just serve as an excuse to delay tackling the big boy.

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Trader Joe 06.28.13 at 1:39 pm

OC @98
I was replacing a roof last year and looked into solar as a concurrent project and that’s the moment I learned about the headaches of zoning, permitting, and homeowners association covenants. The long and short of it is though the roof went on in about 48 hours, I’m still working my way through how best to install solar and what type of system I can get approved.

Homeowners convenants are proving to be one of the largest hurdles. Many covenants were written long ago when the concern was about people putting gaudy satelite dishes and antennas on roofs and solar installations weren’t a thing to think about…changing or amending a covenant (or worse, getting a variance) is a more intractable problem than most are willing to undertake.

Clearly not a technical barrier, but a legal barrier which in some ways is worse because the equitable solution is so obvious, but getting people to open their eyes and see it is not.

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Omega Centauri 06.28.13 at 1:56 pm

Trader Joe, A few states have enacted laws that prohibit homeowners associations from blocking solar. Action is needed at the state/county/city level. An emerging solution might also be community solar, where multiple households put solar on a favorable site, and get shares of the power credits. This could also allow houses without suitable roofs to be able the access the benefits. Unfortunately this too requires some action by government.

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john c. halasz 06.28.13 at 8:25 pm

@99:

Yeah, I noticed that one too, but didn’t bother to respond, because large holes in reasoning are scarcely unusual on these boards. Apparently OC’s “solution” amounts to increasing the use of accelerants in order to finally put out the fire.

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