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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

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U.S. Energy Information Administration: Reference Projection

EIA released its 2015 reference case for electricity generation between 2000 and 2040.  The upshot: while they expect natural gas and renewables to continue their growth in the U.S.’s overall energy portfolio, coal is still very much in the mix in 2040.  From a climate perspective, if their reference projection becomes reality, we easily pass 2C warming by 2100.

Their reference projection “reflects current laws and regulations—but not pending rules, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan“.  So it is no surprise that current laws and regulations result in passing the 2C threshold (or the GHG emissions which would actually lead to passing the 2C threshold).  The EPA’s Clean Power Plan isn’t in effect yet – and it will take time to analyze changes to actual generation once its final form does take effect.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 1_zpsuiinhtg0.png

Figure 1. EIA’s Reference Case analysis and projection of U.S. electricity generation (2000-2040).

The good news is renewables’ share grows during the next 25 years.  Again, there’s no surprise there.  Nor is it surprising to see natural gas’ share also grow.  If you look at the left y-axis, the absolute share of renewables exceeds that of natural gas.  The bad news (from a 20th-century climate perspective) is that coal remains 34% of the electricity generation in this scenario.  That news is tempered by the fact that in both absolute and percentage terms, coal use is lower during the next 25 years than the last 15 years.  The absolute numbers are most frustrating from a climate perspective.  In 2040, this scenario projects >1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of coal generation.  Absent additional policy measures, that value remains largely unchanged during the next 25 years.  How do we address that?  Well, beating people over the head with scientific consensus claims hasn’t worked (and won’t in the future either): the American public know what causes global warming, once you get past self-identity question framing.  Once you interact with Americans on familiar terms, they’re much more willing to support global warming-related policies than many climate activists want you to believe.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 2_zpsxotnkmbd.png

Figure 2. EIA’s renewable generation by type.

The EIA projects wind penetration to continue as it has for the last decade – almost doubling in absolute terms in the next 25 years.  We need that deployment and more to make a serious dent in GHG emissions.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 3_zpsvigp121n.png

Figure 3. EIA’s six cases in their 2015 annual report.

You can see how different assumptions impacts EIA’s 2040 projections of electricity generation in 2040 compared to the 2013 historical case.  Don’t hope for high oil prices: renewables constitute more than 1 trillion kilowatt hours in that case, but coal also grows to nearly 2 trillion kWh!  Putting dreams aside, I don’t think those coal plants will all be running highly efficient carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

We still need RD&D for multiple technologies.  To do that, we need policies that prioritize innovative – and yes, risky – programs and projects.  The government is the only institution that can reliably assume that level of risk.  If we want to avoid 4C or 6C, we can; we need innovative policies and technologies today to stay below those thresholds.

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Some Short Notes on the US-China Climate Deal

The US-China climate deal announced in December 2014 generated big news.  It was yet another diplomatic success for the Obama administration and John Kerry’s State Department.  Nothing I say below takes away from that success.  In terms of climate action success, the deal ranks pretty low to me.  I’ll quickly summarize what I understand of the deal and then share why I think it isn’t a significant climate deal.

The Deal

Here is a quick summary (emphasis mine):

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, pledged in the far-reaching agreement to cap its rapidly growing carbon emissions by 2030, or earlier if possible. It also set an ambitious goal of increasing the share of non-fossil fuels to 20 percent of its energy mix by 2030.

Obama announced a target to cut U.S. emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – eight years after he leaves office — the first time the president has set a goal beyond the existing 17 percent target by 2020.

The bolded portions highlight the agreement’s big news.  China agreed to a carbon emissions cap and the U.S. pushed its emissions reduction target out 5 years and increased the target by ~11% below 2005 levels.

Those are good goals.  Are they sufficient goals?  It depends on what you consider sufficient.  I consider goals that will actually achieve the stated climate target of <2C warming by 2100 as sufficient.  These goals won’t achieve that target.  But then, as I’ve written for some time now, I don’t think we can set goals that achieve the <2C by 2100 target.  There are technical and political hurdles that we chose not to surmount during the past 30+ years.  Why won’t this agreement achieve that target?  Let’s take a quick look from the same International Business Times article:

China completes a new coal plant every eight to 10 days, and while its economic growth has slowed, it is still expanding at a brisk rate exceeding 7 percent.

The scale of construction for China to meet its goals is huge even by Chinese standards. It must add 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero-emission generation capacity by 2030 — more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total electricity generation capacity in the United States.

And to meet its target, the United States will need to double the pace of carbon pollution reduction from 1.2 percent per year on average from 2005 to 2020 to 2.3 to 2.8 percent per year between 2020 and 2025.

Who out there truly believes that China can deploy 800 GW of zero-emission generation capacity in less than 15 years?  Remember before you answer in the affirmative that China’s deployment of coal-fired plants exceeded anything in history and that coal remains an extremely cheap energy resource.  All the other technologies currently cost more in terms of deployment.  What incentives does China, as a developing nation, have to spend more money for intermittent power sources?  They’re more interested in growing their economy, as the U.S. is.  Speaking of the U.S. – I emphasized part of that quote quite purposefully to highlight the scale of the issue.  China must, in 15 years, deploy as much generation infrastructure as exists in the entire U.S. today.  Our infrastructure took decades and decades to build out.  China needs to do the same thing, with more expensive infrastructure, in 15 short years!?  I will be among the first to congratulate China if they accomplish this daunting task and I don’t think China should shy away from working towards it.  I just don’t think they have a realistic chance of actually accomplishing it.

What about the U.S.?  We need to more than double the decarbonization rate of our economy to achieve our emissions goals.  Remember that most of the decarbonization achieved since 2005 was due first to the Great Recession and second to the natural gas boom.  The Great Recession is finally behind us, though effects linger.  The natural gas boom?  It’s currently experiencing strong headwinds as OPEC pushes the cost of oil down to the $50 range from the $100-110 range last year.  It’s economically unfeasible to frack for natural gas with $50 per barrel of oil.  While the natural gas industry won’t collapse (at least I hope it doesn’t), it won’t support additional decarbonization for the foreseeable future either.

I believe we are well on our way toward 3-4C warming by 2100 and must plan and act accordingly.  This deal, while diplomatically ambitious, is not climate ambitious enough to drive us away from those thresholds.

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Climate and Energy Links – 31Aug2014

Some goodies I’ve marked but don’t have time to go into detail on—

The recent slowdown in near-surface global temperature rise has been tackled by many researchers.  This is what research science is all about: proposing hypotheses to explain phenomena.  None of the hypotheses offered can, by themselves, explain all of the slowdown.  They are likely co-occurring, which is one reason why pinning the exact cause is so challenging.  The most recent is that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is transporting upper-oceanic heat to intermediate depths, where satellites and surface observations cannot detect it.  This theory is in line with separate theories that Pacific circulation is doing much the same thing.  I myself now think the Pacific is probably the largest contributor to heat transport from the surface to ocean depth.  GHG concentrations remain higher than at any point in the past 800,00 years (or more).  Their radiative properties are not changing – which means they continue to re-radiate longwave energy back toward the Earth’s surface.  That energy is going somewhere in the Earth’s climate system because we know it isn’t escaping to space.  This process is hypothesized to last another 15-20 years – whether in the Pacific or Atlantic or both.

Some decent science gets written sloppily by an outfit that normally does  a pretty good job of writing: meteorological organizations across the world continue to say there is a relatively high chance that 2014 will feature an El Niño.  Unfortunately, that’s not exactly how it’s reported in this article:

After initially predicting with 90 per cent certainty we’d see an El Niño by the end of the year, forecasters began scaling back their predictions earlier this month.

Number one – that’s not what forecasters predicted and the difference is important.  Forecasters predicted that there was a 90% probability that an El Niño would develop.  Probability and certainty are two very separate concepts – which is why we use two different words to describe two different things.  You’ll notice the forecasters didn’t predict either a 100% probability or with 100% certainty an El Niño would develop.  90% probability is very high, but there remained a 10% probability an El Niño wouldn’t develop.  And so far, it hasn’t.  It is still likelier than not that one will develop, but the chances that one won’t develop are higher now than in June.  A number of factors have not yet come together to initiate an El Niño event.  If they don’t come together, an El Niño likely won’t form this year.  But a blog devoted to climate science and energy policy should know how to write about these topics better than they did in this case.  Oh, and to all the climate activists who bet the farm an El Niño would definitely form this year and prove all those skeptics wrong … you look just as foolish as the skeptics screaming about their closely-held beliefs.  Scientists in particular should know better: wait until groups make observations about El Niño.  Predicting them remains much trickier than weather forecasting.  Because the next time you shout wolf…

On another note, a cool infographic:

Which means 50% of the U.S. population scattered across the entire rest of this big country is trying to tell urbanites how to lead their lives.  Something about tyranny and devotion to small government comes to mind…


This is certainly a small piece of good news.  Now the reality check: these numbers need to be orders of magnitude higher to keep global temperatures below 2C above the recent mean.  Furthermore, they need to be higher in every country.  China’s deployment of renewable energy dwarfs the U.S.’s and even that isn’t enough.  This is good, but we need much better.

More of this while we’re at it: dialogue between people and climate scientists.

Okay, that’s it.  I have my own paper to write.  Back to it.

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UN Continues to Issue Irrelevant Pleas for Climate Action

The United Nations will issue yet another report this year claiming that deep greenhouse gas emission cuts are within reach.  As reported by Reuters (emphasis mine):

It says existing national pledges to restrict greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial times, a U.N. ceiling set in 2010 to limit heatwaves, floods, storms and rising seas.

“Deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming to 2 degrees C … remain possible, yet will entail substantial technological, economic, institutional, and behavioral challenges,” according to the draft due for publication in Copenhagen on Nov. 2 after rounds of editing.

Substantial is an understatement.  To achieve a better than even chance at keeping global mean annual temperatures from rising less than 2 degrees C, emissions have to peak in 2020 and go negative by 2050.  Technologies simply do not exist today that would achieve those difficult tasks while meeting today’s energy demand, let alone the energy demand of 2050.

The following quote points toward understanding the scale of the problem:

Such a shift would also require a tripling or a quadrupling of the share of low-carbon energies including solar, wind or nuclear power, it said.

That’s actually an underestimate of the required low-carbon energies.  Because again, achieving <2C warming will require net-negative carbon, not just low carbon.  But let’s stick with their estimate for argument’s sake.  Low-carbon technologies currently provide 16% of the global energy portfolio.  I’m not entirely certain the tripling quote refers to this 16% or not for the following reason: “traditional biomass” (wood and similar materials) represent 10% of the global energy portfolio, or 63% of the low-carbon energies.  We’re obviously not going to use more of this material to provide energy to the global energy-poor or industrial nations.  Wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal together account for 0.7% of the global energy portfolio.  That is a key figure.  How many news stories have you seen touting wind and solar deployment?  All of those small utility-scale plants globally account for less than 1% of total global energy.

So perhaps the UN is referring to the 16% figure, not the 0.7% figure, because even quadrupling it yields 2.8% of total global energy.  But what I just wrote is then even more valid: we need enough new solar, wind, and nuclear deployment have to not only match 15.3% of today’s global energy, but 45% of today’s global energy.  How much new low-carbon energy is that?  A lot of new low-carbon energy.  The US alone would require either 1 million+ 2.5MW wind turbines or 300,000+ 10MW solar thermal plants or 1,000+ 1GW nuclear power plants (more than the total number of today’s nuclear plants – globally).  And this doesn’t include any requirements to update national transmission grids or CCS deployment or sequestration topics.  As I said, the scale of this problem is vast and is completely glossed over by previous and it looks like current UN reports.

Look, the reasons to decarbonize are valid and well-recognized.  Emissions are driving planetary changes at rates that occur only very rarely in geologic history.  Those changes will accelerate throughout the 21st century and beyond.  Yet this remains the obsessive focus of most climate activists.  The problem remains how to achieve deep decarbonization – what policies will facilitate that effort?  The fact remains that no economy has decarbonized at requisite rates – and that includes economies that historically widely deployed nuclear and biomass energy.  The UN continues to issue reports that are wildly out-of-date the day they’re issued.  They do themselves and the world’s population no favors by doing so.  We need new methods and new frameworks within which to define and evaluate problems.

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Coal Plants: Colorado and the US

Colorado has a renewable energy portfolio standard for energy utility companies:

Investor-owned utilities: 30% by 2020
Electric cooperatives serving fewer than 100,000 meters: 10% by 2020
Electric cooperatives serving 100,000 or more meters: 20% by 2020
Municipal utilities serving more than 40,000 customers: 10% by 2020

The standard started with a ballot measure that voters approved in 2004 and was subsequently strengthened by legislative action twice.  The dominant utility in Colorado is Xcel Energy, based in Minneapolis, MN.  Despite spending money to defeat the initial ballot measure and the two following standards to generate first 10%, then 20%, and now 30% renewable energy by 2020, Xcel would have, did, and will meet the standards.

As with most topics, implementing high-level policies turned out differently than many RES supporters envisioned.  After the 2004 ballot measure passed, Xcel convinced the Public Utilities Commission that it needed to build a 766MW coal plant in Pueblo, CO.  CO consumers overwhelmingly objected to the planned plant for a few reasons: nobody was in desperate need of those MW, the plant’s cost (which ended up being over $1 billion) would be passed directly onto those same customers who didn’t need excess capacity, and they wanted Xcel to focus on renewable energy plants (wind and solar).  Since the PUC approved the plant, it hasn’t run at capacity.  There’s no surprise there.  Costs definitely went up on every customer in Xcel’s service region, whether they received Comanche energy or not.  This is the primary problem with private and investor utilities: the easiest way to make money is to force consumers to pay for expensive infrastructure.  And as I stated above, Xcel will easily meet its renewable energy standard.

How did Pueblo fare?  Well, that’s a new part of the story for me.  A local utility serviced Pueblo, which Black Hills Energy bought, who opted to replace nearly all its cheap coal capacity with natural gas essentially overnight.  This meant ratepayers are footed some more big infrastructure bills all at once.  In fact, Pueblo’s residential rate per kilowatt-hour has risen 26 percent since 2010.  What portion of Comanche 3’s electricity made it to Pueblo?  None of it.  Instead, the northern half of the Front Range uses that energy – the same place that wouldn’t allow Xcel to build a coal plant due to pollution and cost.

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Climate and Energy Links – Jul 2014

Some things I’ve come across recently:
New mega-map details all the ways climate change will affect our everyday lives.  We’ll need more resources like this to help personalize climate change effects.  With personalization will come motivation to act.  It’s not a panacea, but a good start.

Is your state one of the 10 most energy-efficient US states?  Mine (Colorado) isn’t.  More context: the US is good at buzzwords, but lousy at implementing policies that increase energy efficiency.  Although it’s a good thing that China is currently ranked #4 globally – they’ll have much less legacy infrastructure than the US and other developed nations to upgrade in the future.

This might be news to some: climate models that did the best at portraying natural ocean cycles the best also did better than their peers when projecting the recent surface warming pause.  What most people don’t understand is that each climate model run portrays one individual potential outcome.  That said, scientists don’t claim that individual models make perfect predictions.  The recent warming trend is well within the range of available projections.  Many skeptics, of course, gloss over this important detail when they falsely claim the models are no good.  How much time do those same skeptics spend on financial projections, anyway?

This has the potential for misinterpretation and misuse: climate worriers don’t, on average, use less electricity than those who don’t worry about the climate (at least according to a very small UK study).  They use more.  This will continue the claims of hypocrisy by skeptics, and perhaps justifiably so.  My net utility use is 14% to 17% of the average American’s 903 kilowatthours (kWh) per month: 125-150 kWh per month during the past year.  That’s in a modern home with AC, computers, and smartphones.  People can use much less than they currently do with a modern lifestyle.  They just don’t prioritize it.

Continuing on the theme of energy efficiency and waste: we waste 80 billion USD per year due to inefficient electronic devices.  Wow.   And it doesn’t have to be that way: simple measures could save billions of dollars if we implemented them.  Priorities.

Random thought: poverty-wage employers always ask if people would be willing to pay more for products if they paid their employees living wages.  I haven’t come across an easy rebuttal: were customers asked if they were willing to pay more for products if they paid their executives millions of dollars with guaranteed golden parachutes?  Guess what most people would rather support?  That’s right, the folks in their communities, not executives in their fenced off country club homes.

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What will 2040 US GHG emissions be

if this graph is anywhere close to accurate?

 photo Electricgeneratingcapacityadditions2000-2040-EIA_zpsa9ed57ae.png

That projection of electric generating capacity additions does not get us to stated emissions goals (e.g., 80% or 90% of 2005 levels by 2050.)  We can easily observe that out-year EIA projections probably are not very accurate and that’s a fair point.  I doubt, for instance, that this graph takes the EPA’s recent proposed rule into account.  The next 5-10 years is probably close to what will happen, however – close enough that any difference will not significantly impact say 2030 or 2040 emissions.

Note the vast difference between natural gas/oil additions for any single year between 2000-2005 and total renewables during any other year.  The only year that comes close to the same size for renewables will be 2015, but that still only amounts to 1/3 to 1/2 the natural gas additions ten years ago.  In order to achieve stated emissions goals, renewable additions will have to double every year between now and 2040.  That’s because new additions have to replace the oldest coal plants first, followed by oldest natural gas plants, and also meet increasing future demand, and generate enough energy during peak production periods to exceed peak consumption periods (not the same times of day).

Additionally, if we want to keep global mean annual temperature increases <2C, the projected natural gas additions have to tail off to zero (not stay constant) because they still emit GHGs.  And if all of that weren’t challenging enough, we must remove carbon from the atmosphere that is due to historical combustion and leakage.  But the basic story of this graph remains: this projection will not enable us to achieve stated emission reduction goals.  This graph is therefore useful in helping us understand what policies are working and what needs to be done in order to approach our emission goal.  For instance, renewables appear to enter a period of no growth in the 2020s.  That is probably unrealistic, but what policies should we consider to boost their deployment above 2005-2010 levels during the 2020s and on into the 2030s and beyond?  How about finance policies for starters?  How about long-term federal and state guarantees?  If we enact the EPA’s proposed power plant rule in most any way close to how it is currently structured, the 2020s and 2030s will likely look very different from this.  That rule could be a good start toward meeting future goals (just not 90% reduction by 2050 or <2C warming; more like 30% reduction by 2050).


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