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Resources on Coal & Climate Crisis
Aug 2, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Coal is at the heart of two intertwined issues important to PHEV advocates:

  • Can we develop a transitional strategy to power vehicles (and many other human activities) with renewable fuels?
  • How clean will our power grid become and how can we reduce greenhouse gases from energy production?

During this long presidential campaign season, some candidates are saying "no new coal plants that aren't capable of capturing CO2." That way, if it ever becomes feasible to "sequester" CO2 underground, presumably we'll have power plants that are ready. Others say sequestration will never be practical or affordable, and we should simply say "no new coal plants, period. Let's invest our research and incentives in renewables that don't emit CO2 rather than hope we can capture and store it. It's a critical discussion, because coal plants operate for 50 years or longer. (Our view is very straightforward: if the entire world woke up and were willing to make the huge adjustment in being willing to pay something less than twice as much for our energy than we now pay, we could make the most rapid transformation ever seen and avoid the worst consequences of global warming.) Here are some resources and the subject:

Many Presidential candidates favor coal-to-liquid for fuel, which is twice as bad in CO2 emissions as petroleum, and even if carbon sequestration ever becomes possible, is still worse than petroleum. (See the extraordinary chart from the Environmental Protection Agency reproduced by The New York Times at­2007/­05/­29/­business/­29coal.html in an article that surveys the candidates' views. If you can't access that story, see the chart at Treehugger­files/­2007/­05/­america_to_the.php.

CLIMATE & ENERGY OVERVIEW CalTech Chemistry Professor Nathan Lewis is doing extraordinary research. See a photo of him with our car last June at­photos-people. He also presents the scientific issues in global warming in very broad and useful ways. "Powering the Planet" (12 pages in Engineering & Science Magazine is a good overview. He's doubtful on how much carbon sequestration is possible. Though he tends to favor liquid fuels over batteries, he is open to the discussion....It's a 10MB PDF at­periodicals/­EandS/­articles/­LXX2/­lewis-web.pdf.

Joseph Romm (author of one of the books above) writes Climate Progress, a great blog. He posted this entry on July 27, 2007, writtne by NASA's James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies our "top climate scientist" (for more about Hansen, see­calcars-news/­282.html from February 2006. At that time, Hansen said,""The plug-in hybrid approach, as being pursued by CalCars, seems to be our best bet for controlling vehicle CO2 emissions in the near-term." See also­endorsements.html.)

Hansen on "Who Killed the Electric Car?"­2007/­07/­27/­hansen-on-who-killed-the-electric-car

California had a regulation that would have required automobile manufacturers to produce a small percentage of cars without emissions by such-and-such date, and a larger percentage later. Automakers despised this rule, and decided that they had enough clout to ignore it, arguing that it was impractical. Environmentalists seemed to conclude that they were overmatched. Rather than go to the mat, they decided to play ball with the automakers, to try to work with them, accepting promises that the automakers would do everything that they could to improve vehicle efficiencies and reduce emissions.

The glee with which the automakers tracked down the trial electric cars that they had produced, and crushed the cars into small cubes, must have been palpable. Profit margins on large SUVs were much bigger. Automakers soon forgot their promises about better gas mileage, instead using technical efficiency improvements to make vehicles bigger and accelerate faster.

So who killed the electric car? The automakers? Government officials? All of us who let them get away with it? That vehicle story continues, as plug-in hybrid-electric cars are perhaps the best bet for a path toward a vehicle fleet with sustainable fuel requirements.

However, my reason for bringing up the electric car story is some similarities to the coal story, which is even much more important.

Coal interests are at least as powerful as the automakers. If coal interests have their way, the damage to the planet from coal will greatly exceed that caused by automakers. Their approach is similar to that of the automakers. They have bought influence with law-makers in Washington. They have convinced energy experts, even those with an environmental bent, that they, the coal interests, will win if the parties "go to the mat".

Specifically, they want to continue to make more coal-fired power plants, claiming that the technology to capture and store CO2 will be ready in a decade or so, and promising that when it is ready they will convert the power plants to capture and sequester CO2. This would require not only technology to capture this enormous stream of CO2, but also a pipeline carrying the CO2 to a place where it is safely stored. If you are willing to accept their promise to do that, I have a bridge connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn that I will sell to you for a very good price. Even if you believed them, in the meantime, for a decade or likely longer they would be pouring out CO2 into the air at a rate that would destroy the effect of other efforts to slow climate change.

If we want to save the planet, creation, with all of its creatures, somebody is going to have to go to the mat with the coal interests.

Do not let anyone tell you that there is no viable alternative to increased coal use. If the rules for utilities were changed such that they made bigger profits by selling us less energy by helping users improve efficiencies, rather than bigger profits by selling us more energy, that alone could avoid need for more power plants for the time needed to develop CO2 sequestration technology. Not to mention the potential for renewable energies to contribute, or the potential via changed building codes, lighting and appliance standards, etc.

Of course it is sensible to allow a trial power plant to be built of the sort intended to eventually include carbon capture and sequestration. But there is no way that anything more than a trial should be allowed. These plants are gargantuan. There is no guarantee that they will even make sense, once carbon is properly priced. Scandinavia provides a good example (B.E. Johansen, The Progressive, July 2007): Denmark, e.g., has remade its energy infrastructure. While in the 1980s it had 15 large power plants, it now has several hundred smaller ones, thus closer to homes and offices with reduced power loss during transmission. Much of the energy is renewable. Energy efficiency has been promoted, so the average Dane uses less than half the electricity used in the U.S. In the process, their economy has become strong.

We recommend you read the multi-part presentations by Michael Hoexter on what he calls "The Renewable Electron Economy."­

EVs/PHEVs/V2G AND CLEAN ENERGY You'll find EVs and PHEVs and V2G (vehicle-to-grid technology) included in this executive summary of a new book due out this fall -- called Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. It's produced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, and the executive summary is available now at­carbonfree. Here's the July 30 press release

Landmark Energy Policy Study Points the Way to U.S. Energy Future without Fossil Fuels or Nuclear Power Protecting Climate Will Require Essentially Complete Elimination of U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions by 2050

Takoma Park, MD - At the G-8 summit in Germany in June 2007, President Bush promised to "consider seriously" the European Union goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions sufficiently to limit global temperature rise to about 4 degrees Fahrenheit. A new study concludes that the United States could eliminate almost all of its carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2050. It also concludes that it is possible to do so without the use of nuclear power. The landmark study, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, was produced as a joint project of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

"A technological revolution has been brewing in the last few years, so it won't cost an arm and a leg to eliminate both CO2 emissions and nuclear power," said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, author of the study and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "We can solve the problems of oil imports, nuclear proliferation as it is linked to nuclear power, and carbon dioxide emissions simultaneously if we are bold enough."

The "Roadmap" concludes that the United States can achieve a zero-CO2 economy without increasing the fraction of Gross Domestic Product devoted to lighting, heating, cooling, transportation, and all the other things for which we use energy. The fraction was about 8 percent in 2005. Net U.S. oil imports can be eliminated in about twenty-five years or less, the study estimated.

"The climate crisis has put the earth in the intensive care unit," said Dr. Helen Caldicott, President of NPRI and a physician who has long advocated elimination of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. "We must respond to this acute clinical crisis and act today to save the planet, without resorting to nuclear power, which will aggravate our problems. Dr. Makhijani's report is essential reading for all who care about our future."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that a global reduction of 50 to 85 percent in CO2 emissions is needed to limit the temperature rise to less than about 4 degrees Fahrenheit. If emissions are allocated equitably, in view of the greater historical and present emissions of the United States and other Western countries, the Roadmap estimates that the United States will have to eliminate 88 to 96 percent of its CO2 emissions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty that the United States has ratified, places a greater responsibility on developed countries to reduce their emissions in view of historical and present inequities.

According to the Roadmap, North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, South Dakota, Montana, and Nebraska each have wind energy potential greater than the electricity produced by all 103 U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. Solar energy is even more abundant - solar cells installed on rooftops and over parking lots can provide most of the U.S. electricity supply. Recent advances in lithium-ion batteries are likely to make plug-in hybrid cars economical in the next few years.

"Plug-in hybrids should become the standard-issue car for governments and corporations in the next five years. That demand will make prices come down to the point that it can become the standard car design in the next decade," said S. David Freeman, President, Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners and former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. "The health benefits of eliminating fossil fuels and greatly reducing urban air pollution will be immense. Dr. Makhijani's study also shines a light on how we can liberate our foreign policy from oil imports."

Mr. Freeman was the Director of the Energy Policy Project of the Ford Foundation at the time of the Arab oil embargo in 1973. That project's report (A Time to Choose: America's Energy Future), which he, Dr. Makhijani, and others co-authored, became the foundation of U.S. energy policy in the mid- to late-1970s.

"What is really innovative about this Roadmap is that it combines technologies to show how to create a reliable electricity and energy system entirely from renewable sources of energy," said Dr. Hisham Zerriffi, Ivan Head South/North Chair at the University of British Columbia and an expert on distributed electricity grids. "The United States must take action now in order to lead and this Roadmap lays out specific steps that it should take. The study is also remarkable in that it provides backup plans and recommends redundancies that are important for avoiding major missteps on the road to an economy without zero-CO2 emissions."

The study recommends an elimination of subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels, and also for biofuels like ethanol when they are made from food crops.

"Ethanol from corn is inefficient and, at best, has only a marginal effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions" said Dr. Makhijani. "Even at current production levels it is causing inflation in food prices in the United States and hardship for the poor in Mexico and other countries. Biofuels can be made much more efficiently, for instance from microalgae, on land not useful for food."

The study recommends a "hard cap" on CO2 emissions by large fossil fuel users (more than 100 billion Btu per year). The cap would be reduced each year until it reaches zero in 30 to 50 years. There would be no free emissions allowances, no international trade of allowances, and no offsets that would allow corporations to emit CO2 by investing in outside projects to reduce emissions. The emissions of smaller users would be reduced by efficiency standards for appliances, cars, homes, and commercial buildings.

Copies of the 23-page executive summary of the report are available at­carbonfree. The full study will be available for download in August 2007. It will be published as a book by RDR Books in the fall of 2007.

Available for download: Executive Summary of Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy [PDF 450kB]

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