It’s REPLACING fossil fuels, not eliminating fossil fuels

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Think: “Eliminate fossil fuels”. What do you see? Shivering in the winter and sweating in the summer? Cars with 100 mile range? Wind-up airplanes? we’re back to the stone age?

Now think: “Replace fossil fuels”. If you’re like me, you see glistening solar panels, streets with quiet cars and trucks, clean air, and low utility bills because the energy is coming from the sun, rather than a Saudi prince (nothing against the Saudis by the way).

The brain is a prediction machine, and when you hear the beginning of the story, the brain automatically guesses how the story will end. Think about a news story–when I hear the beginning of a story on NPR I can’t stop myself from predicting how the story will end. That’s just what the brain is designed to do. So when the story starts, “Eliminate fossil fuels…”, the end of the story is pretty predictable. When it starts “Replace fossil fuels…” we see a very different story, although the intent was the same. And the actions that come from that mental picture are very different.

The cost of replacing all the fossil fuel energy consumption in the US with an equal amount of solar and wind is something like $17 trillion, according to Prof. Mark Jacobson of Stanford. To put that in perspective, that’s $2800 per person each year for the 20 years we’d probably want to spend doing the transition. In fact, electricity is about 2x more efficient for almost everything than burning fossil fuels. Electric cars, for example run on 3 cents per mile of electricity (Chevy Volt), compared to 14 cents per mile of gasoline (for my 30 mpg Camry).  So make that $1400 per person. That’s 1/5 what we pay on average for health care.

Can we afford to replace fossil fuels? YES!
Do we want to eliminate them? Just ask if we want to replace them. Don’t ask us to eliminate them.

It’s brain science.

What will the world look like in 25 years if we DO tackle climate change head-on?

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Senator  Elizabeth Warren asked for essays about “What the world would look like in 25 years if we don’t tackle climate change head-on?” http://my.elizabethwarren.com/page/s/climatechangequestion

A more important question that has not been discussed is: What will the world look like in 25 years if we DO tackle climate change head-on?    Brain science tells us that the brain acts powerfully to achieve a future, but avoiding a catastrophe doesn’t work so well. Here’s my narrative. Enjoy!

In 25 years after tackling climate change head-on we will have greenhouse gas emissions down by 80%, and the climate recovering. This is initiated by a 2014 gradually increasing carbon tax, and investors then running to invest in wind and solar generation around the world. As fossil fuel use disappears, asthma disappears, oil dictators disappear, and employment soars as money previously sent to oil magnates in Texas and Saudi Arabia now stays local and is used in construction and research.

As global investors shift their $1 trillion per year from finding and developing new fossil fuel reserves to constructing new wind and solar capacities, the construction of new renewables in the US increases rapidly, and we go from 2014’s 5% wind and solar to 10% by 2016. The cost of renewables continues to decrease, and a carbon tax causes the cost of fossil fuels to increase even faster than the 10% per year we see now. Soon much of the global $5 trillion per year spent on fossil fuels is invested in building renewables, and we get to 25% renewables by 2020. Then the payback time for rooftop solar is 3 years, and the return on utility scale solar is 20%, and trillions of dollars of global investment is rushing to fill the opportunity to replace fossil fuel production and earn reliable 10% returns while they can. By 2025 we’re at 65% renewables, and storage and smarter grids are becoming common, having been perfected by Germany, which is staying 10 years ahead of the US in developing renewable technologies.

Developing countries mostly abandon grid power for microgrids powered by renewables by 2017, and by 2025 have abandoned most of their legacy and corrupted fossil power for reliable renewable power sources that rely on local sun, wind, an biomass, not imported fuel.

This leaves us with a global economy independent of oil dictators, with Russia no longer dominating Europe with natural gas imports. The polar icecap recovers, and the extreme storms and droughts we have seen after 2005 dissipate to previously normal levels.

What triggers this tackling of climate change? A gradually increasing carbon tax that signals to scared investors that the future lies in renewables, not fossil fuels.

Restoring the climate: A trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step

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There is enormous debate about climate change, its causes, who to blame, and its solutions. I’m passionate about Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) because I believe the adage: “A trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step”.

The first step to restoring the climate is a massive build-out of clean energy, starting now. That build-out requires massive capital, and that capital flow requires that investors feel safe making the investment. And a predictable, gradually increasing carbon tax is almost universally accepted by economists and investors to be the tool to create that sense of safety, predictability which investors need to change course from fossil fuel investments to wind and solar.

Even though wind and solar are more profitable and more predictable than fossil fuels, investors feel uneasy with the unpredictability of subsidies and regulations, so they stay the course.

Global fossil fuel energy use totals 13 terawatts (10,000 gigawatts). To replace this power at $8/watt (new wind capacity in the US costs about $1.70/watt today and yields 25% utilization) could cost $100 trillion dollars. That sounds like a lot of money. However globally we spend >$5 trillion per year to purchase fossil fuels and find new sources. If we only shifted our fossil fuel spending to building renewables, in 20 years we’d have built enough capacity to replace our fossil fuel consumption. And that investment pays for 20-30 years–it doesn’t literally go up in smoke.  Of course renewables costs are still falling, and fossil fuel costs are still rising, so in 15 years we could be at 80% renewables, at which time we’d know how much storage and other infrastructure will be really needed.

A trip of a thousand miles begins with the first step. The first step for restoring the climate is to get investors to invest massively in clean energy, which for now is wind and solar. Join or start a local citizens climate lobby group. citizensclimatelobby.org

Climate Action: Is the Future Based on Prices or Certainty?

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After studying the markets a bit I take the radical position that the critical issue for climate is certainty, not actual prices. Now that discussion of a carbon tax, or “carbon disposal fee”, as I like to call it, is quickly gaining ground, there is growing discussion about how to set the level of the tax or fee.

Prices have huge impact in the near term, as we’ve seen with the utilities’ swing to and from natural gas based on the price changes caused by fracking. Seen from our grand-kids’ perspective though, that swing may be just a blip, probably not even noted, unless fracking’s environmental problems are big.

Peoples’ long term investment decisions are much more based on hunch, since the real future cannot be predicted, especially when there’s a major transition coming.  Those hunches cause  hundreds of billions of dollars to be invested in particular areas—and the infrastructure build by those long-term investments, based on hunches, have huge effects on those living and working 20-50 years later. In the case of climate it’s the difference between using up our fossil fuel reserves and dealing with a 4-6 degree warming, which is where the oil companies expect we’ll go, versus quickly switching to renewables and restoring a healthy climate by 2070, as we’re committed to achieving.

Interestingly, large companies “know” that a price on carbon is coming, as the NY Times article said, yet the uncertainty has most of them still betting that the future will look like our oily past, and who can blame them?

The part of the brain that produces hunches is all past-based, based on myriad sensory input most of which we’re never aware of. But it’s from our past. If the future is going to be different, and our scientific narratives assure us that the world will change radically one way or another, then those hunches from the past will serve us badly.

So how do we shift peoples’ hunches about the future?

Our new moon shot: Restore a healthy climate by 2070

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We can restore the climate of the 1980s by 2070. It won’t require a miracle or big sacrifices, just the will and policies to do it. Top climate scientists confirm this is possible.

Restoring the climate requires that we switch to carbon-free energy by 2030-2050, as described by Stanford’s Prof. Mark Z. Jacobson, and let the ocean continue absorbing the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted.

In 1961, President Kennedy declared: “We will send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”  At the time we had just sent a man into space for 15 minutes. We did not have the rockets, the navigation or the life support systems for a moon trip and most people, including my parents, thought it was complete folly.  Seven years later we had developed and demonstrated the technology — ahead of schedule. We had a clear ambitious goal and a deadline, and we rose to the occasion.

We can do that again with the climate.  Shifting the world’s energy from fossil fuels to renewables could be accomplished before 2045, with CO2 levels peaking about 430 parts per million. That is up from 280 ppm a hundred years ago, 400 ppm now, and our goal of 350 ppm, which is considered to be a safe level and last seen in 1988.

Scientists and skeptics agree that about half the CO2 emitted globally has been absorbed by the oceans already, and expect that half of future emissions will be absorbed over the next 25-35 years. The oceans will continue to acidify, and the only way to slow that is to reduce emissions. We might even decide to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere to hasten a restored climate. If so, there are dozens of companies working on it and we have dozens of years to perfect some creative methods.

The shift to renewables would be accomplished mainly by using wind and solar power.  Only wind and solar are ready for utility scale now at the low costs we need. The market will decide which alternative sources, such as biofuels or nuclear, may become cheaper and better over time.

Wind generation has been growing at over 25% per year for the last six years. It provides 3% of our country’s electricity now. If we maintain that growth rate, it will provide 50% in 2025. This would be something like 2,000 modern 5-megawatt turbines per state. Solar provides 1% of our electricity now, and is growing at over 50% per year. If we keep up that pace, it will produce the other 50% of our electricity by 2025.  China is already building panels at ten times the US rate, so catching up to and even surpassing their production is plausible. Efficiency improvements will provide at least a 30% reduction in our requirements. For example cars are slated to double their mileage by 2025 and LED lights are now ten times more efficient than old incandescent bulbs.

Twenty years is plenty of time to develop the missing links such as batteries, smart grids and domestic manufacturing capability. Compare that to the 5 years we spent building the 300,000 aircraft that helped us win WW II, using 1940’s technology, or the 7 years developing the technology for the moon program with 1960’s technology.  We now have Google, computers, 3D printers, and millions of highly educated engineers connected by the internet.

The looming issue is the rapidly growing CO2 emissions in China and India. China is working hard to slash its fossil fuel consumption and severe air pollution–since 2012 China has been building more new wind capacity than new coal and the New York Times reports that China is expected to reduce its net coal imports to zero by 2015. India’s neighbor, Bangladesh, has set an example by installing solar roofs at a rapid pace, without subsidies, thereby skipping the development of expensive and unreliable utility and fossil fuel infrastructure. They already have 2.5 million solar roofs powering LED lights, phones, refrigerators, and TVs.  This is fifteen times as many as California has now. As solar panel production soars, its cost plummets — it is below the cost of fueling kerosene lamps in most developing countries, and will soon fall below the cost of utility electricity in the cities. For that reason, India is now starting work on the world’s largest solar plant—4 gigawatts.

Switching to renewables will create many local jobs in the US, while costing some fossil fuel jobs. It will stabilize energy prices because the sun and wind are free and the technology costs are steadily decreasing. It is shown to improve network reliability because with thousands of solar panels and wind turbines, the loss of a few has little effect.

Two policies are critical to achieving our rapid transition to renewables: First is instituting a gradually increasing carbon disposal fee, aka a carbon tax, as recommended by almost all economists. Political expediency requires that the fee be revenue-neutral, returned 100% to households and corporations. This fee will send a convincing message to corporations and investors that society is placing a value on its future, and that smart investments from now on will be in clean energy. The second policy is promoting investment in clean energy. Fossil fuels still receive six times more subsidies than renewables and they attract more than twice the investment. If you ask companies that are installing renewables, you’ll find that their limiting factor is acquiring capital, despite good returns. That will change when investors see that we’re committed to and headed to a future of a healthy climate.

Tell your children, President Obama and your representatives the legacy you want to leave: A healthy climate by 2070. That is our moonshot. There is room for small government fans and everyone else to contribute in this game.

Peter Fiekowsky is a physicist, business owner, and volunteer for Citizens Climate Lobby.

Brain science is solving climate change?

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Brain science can show us how to take the powerful collective action needed to solve climate change. 

We’ve studied climate science for 30 years and have not taken the powerful policy actions needed to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. It’s time to stop doing the same thing over and over, expecting a new result.

Brain science, called neuroscience, or neuro-cognitive science by its practitioners, tells us interesting and very useful things about creating new behaviors. Collectively we need new behaviors to stop using fossil fuels and become a clean-energy society.

This blog will explore the domain of using neuroscience to solve climate change in a way that will empower our leaders, citizens, and media to make a healthy climate the future that we’re rapidly achieving. It will also include lots of inspiring technical facts that point to paths we can take to having a healthy climate.

Here is a taste of where this is going:

The kind of speaking which allows for brand new thinking, new actions, new results is different than the speaking which wins another war or another political campaign. Different parts of the brain must be activated for new thinking as compared to honing existing skills or knowledge. For example, although fear can be an effective trigger for winning wars and political campaigns, something like peace of mind is needed for true creativity, as is needed for the first-time-in-history changes needed to restore the climate.

Come back as we learn what to do and how to do it.

Spoiler alert: It’s working. The collective action needed to achieve a healthy climate is finally beginning in Congress, and in the media.