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Climate Crisis: WeCanSolveIt Omits PHEVs; Jeffrey Sachs/Andew Revkin/Joe Romm Don't
Apr 7, 2008 (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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One of our ongoing objectives has been to position plug-in cars -- and the broad solution of electrifying transportation -- as key way to globally reduce greenhouse gases. With some notable exceptions, many climate crisis leaders have simply offered a laundry list of steps that jumble together more efficient fossil fuel cars (hybrids), impractical (hydrogen fuel cells) and misdirected (today's biofuels). Often they justify presenting a hodge-podge by saying "we're not picking winners" -- at a time when existing incentives and policies reinforce solutions that are big losers for climate change!

Below you'll find:

  • What the organization Al Gore founded, The Alliance for Climate Protection, has come up with
Related links to exchanges and comments from:

JAMES HANSEN ENDORSEMENT: Back in February 2006, we hoped recognition of plug-ins' role would grow after PHEVs got strong backing from one of the world's leading experts on global warming, James Hansen, director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies: "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. Vehicle emissions are the greatest challenge that we must overcome to stabilize climate."­group/­calcars-news/­message/­282

Since then, automakers are coming around, though too slowly. Support remains spotty among environmental groups. The CleanTech community gets it, as do many elected officials and opinionmakers; we hope at some point the US Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement­climateprotection/­agreement.htm will get more specific.

ALLIANCE FOR CLIMATE PROTECTION REMAINED A QUESTION MARK: We wondered what might emerge from the campaign Al Gore founded, the Alliance for Climate Protection (to which he donated his Nobel Prize award). Gore has mentioned PHEVs, and we got to talk with him about them back in Oct 2006­calcars-news/­559.html . Since then, we've been among those who've been waiting for the sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth" -- solutions, beyond moderate individual steps such as those proposed at the film's website­sgw_actionitems.asp .

Last week, the Alliance launched , a $300M/three-year effort to promote awareness of solutions. We welcome the campaign and its inspiring messages, especially the ones that say we can solve it with current technologies. Yet while recognizing it's a work in progress, we continue to be disappointed.

GOOD PICKS: In a section called "Adoption of Renewables," the campaign doesn't hesitate to identify the most consequential technologies in three areas.


  • CUTTING FUEL COSTS ON THE ROAD: Here's ACP's take: CO2 emissions from cars and trucks account for about one-third of all energy-related global warming pollution in the United States. Cars bought in the United States last year averaged only 20 miles per gallon (mpg), which is less than half the gas mileage available on the most efficient cars today and about the same as a 1908 Model T. We can do better than a car introduced 100 years ago. With American innovation and technology, we can offer all cars with much better fuel economy and the same level of safety and features we expect. And the opportunities are not just available for cars: heavy-duty trucks, which transport about 60% of the goods we buy and use 39 billion gallons of fuel every year, can also become more efficient. Effective gas mileage standards and support for innovative technologies will keep our transportation system moving while greatly decreasing our environmental impact.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS? The subject line is about cost and the topic is all about fuel economy. It assumes continued reliance on fossil fuels and aims way too low. It doesn't connect with what it said about those renewable fuels specifically described -- all of which are electricity generators! The best way to use them is with plug-in vehicles. What's so complicated about that? We hope that WeCanSolveIt will take the next step and urge citizens to join the campaign to fuel most transportation miles from electricity as soon as possible and use car batteries to store intermittent renewable electricity.

We remain puzzled about why those who see the urgency of substantial fossil fuel reductions in the next decade fail to make the mental leap to promote and incentivize transportation solutions that do just that. Maybe the answer can be found in the following three stories, that show illustrate the consequences of a mindset that assumes it's just a slightly more efficient "business as usual" until we get "breakthroughs" permitting quantum changes.


ANDREW REVKIN: Last Sunday, Revkin, who has covered global warming for more than two decades, wrote an "Ideas and Trends" story in The New York Times Week in Review: "A Shift in the Debate Over Global Warming."­2008/­04/­06/­weekinreview/­06revkin.html . The story's four pie charts display energy losses by sector (from Lawrence Berkeley Lab). The smaller two, industry and residential/commercial buildings show 20% of energy lost. Electricity generation shows 66% of energy lost -- mostly in heat from coal and natural gas, and including up to 10% in transmission lines (refuting common assumptions that "wheeling losses" are much higher).

The pie with the highest energy lost -- 71% -- is transportation. The caption says it all: "Needed: lighter vehicles with more efficient engines. Plug-in hybrids, using electricity generated from carbon-free sources, could drastically reduce energy loss and emissions."

In the story, Revkin quotes economist Jeffrey Sachs on solutions, including a survey of solutions and a call for "large-scale public funding of research, development and demonstration programs." Here's what Sachs says, followed by a rejoinder from Joseph Romm, former Energy Department official, author of "The Hype about Hydrogen" and "Hell and High Water."

JEFFREY D. SACHS, Earth Institute, Columbia University Keys to Climate Protection Scientific America April, 2008­article.cfm?id=technological-keys-to-climate-protection-extended Consider three potentially transformative low-emissions technologies: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), plug-in hybrid automobiles and concentrated solar-thermal electricity generation. Each will require a combination of factors to succeed: more applied scientific research, important regulatory changes, appropriate infrastructure, public acceptance and early high-cost investments to "ride the learning curve" to lower costs in the long term. A failure on one or more of these points could kill the technologies.
Plug-in hybrid automobiles pose similar puzzles. Basic questions remain about the safety, reliability and durability of the batteries they require, as well as the need for extra investments in the power grid to support them. Early models may have high costs, lower convenience and uncertain performance.

JOSEPH ROMM, cited in Revkin's story, takes the opportunity in his a must-read post at his Climate Progress blog­2008/­04/­06/­welcome-ny-times-readers-to-the-debate-of-the-decade-
to address head-on the approach implied by Revkin and Sachs, which he says fails to recognize that today's technologies can have a major near-term impact. (He doesn't directly respond to Sachs' "PHEV puzzles," which have been addressed many times.) He explores the ways those who call for breakthroughs perpetuate the status quo -- some intentionally, most unintentionally.

Of course, the amount of Research and Development funds for renewable energy is criminally small. Yet that's only part of the point. Romm's posting and the comments that follow make clear that in particular, PHEVs and solar-thermal can of course benefit from R&D -- but they are now available for other Ds: Demonstration and Deployment. We have only to look at the past year's contracts for solar thermal and the announced plug-in plans of automakers to recognize that reality.

See also the many responses at Revkin's DOT EARTH blog: the first is before the print story appeared, the second is after.­2008/­04/­02/­the-technology-gap-in-the-climate-debate/­#more-217­2008/­04/­06/­how-to-spark-an-energy-quest/­#more-216

FINALLY, DON'T MISS LAST WEEK'S MAJOR DRUBBING OF ETHANOL: Time Magazine's story spreads over the entire cover of its US and Asia editions the headline: The Clean Energy Myth"­time/­covers/­0,16641,20080407,00.html . The title inside is "The Clean Energy Scam: Hyped as an eco-friendly fuel, ethanol increases global warming, destroys forests and inflates food prices. So why are we subsidizing it? The story by Michael Grunwald, which goes beyond the conventional critique of corn ethanol to shows how sugar ethanol leads to destructive deforestation and how cellulosic ethanol may in some cases not be all that green, is at­time/­magazine/­article/­0,9171,1725975,00.html .

Perhaps this view will become the new received wisdom -- it's quoted in today's NYTimes column by economist Paul Krugman, "Grains Gone Wild," who cites "the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels," and points out, "Oh, and in case you're wondering: all the remaining presidential candidates are terrible on this issue." The article at­2008/­04/­07/­opinion/­07krugman.html is currently the second-most emailed story at today.

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