Taking action on the climate

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I regularly find myself being yelled at by academics for promoting a climate roadmap leading to where we want to end up.

Academics and I often have different action paradigms, theories of action. I find that most professors I speak with have gotten upset to some degree when I discuss where we want to go with regards to the climate, and how we could do that. This includes many of the most senior IPCC scientists. I have huge respect for them, and don’t mind that they blow a fuse when confronted with the disparity of what they are predicting against what could happen which we want to happen.

The academic / scientific paradigm, which is clearly a correct one, is to predict the future and tell others about it.

My brain-science paradigm is to focus brains’ attentions on where we WANT to go, where we could get to if we perform well, and keep the focus there.

When I learned to drive in snow in Boston, the first thing they told me was, “When you get into a skid, DON’T look at the tree you want to avoid, or you’ll hit it. DO look down the road to where you want to go. “ It’s brain science: The unconscious part of the brain, which controls actions, takes us where we’re looking, no matter what commentary the conscious part of the brain is having about what we’re looking at / thinking about.

Have you seen those pictures of a car wrapped around a tree where the tree is the only tree in 1000 feet? Those pictures made sense to me after that snow-driving lesson. The driver was looking at the tree he was trying to avoid. Maybe his spouse was yelling, “DON’T YOU SEE THAT TREE??? DON’T HIT IT!”.  And his spouse was correct in saying that, and saying it passionately.

Being correct has its costs sometimes. Our academic gloom sayers are similarly correct in talking about an unlivable world, and saying it passionately.

May I get more arrogant for a moment?

CCL isn’t just getting a carbon tax through Congress, we’re also working with great respect, and huge effectiveness, to have the Paris climate summit be an agreement for a steadily increasing price on carbon. Although it was barely reported, there was almost total agreement out of Lima for that outcome. We didn’t confront, didn’t scare, just presented a pathway. And the experts all agreed that’s the path they want. www.pathwaytoparis.org .

The important thing that a steadily increasing carbon price accomplishes is that investors’ attention then gets focused 20 years down the road where they can see clearly that there’s no future investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, and that profits will be in renewable energy. And by starting at a low level, investors aren’t scared beyond clear thinking in the short term. No other policy does that.

So I honor the academics’ fears, and I suggest you honor them too. That said, as a human with a human brain, if you want effective action, then keep your attention on the point in the road where you want to end up. And learn to be at peace with your spouse yelling at you to pay attention to the tree.

How can wind and solar fulfill 80 percent of total energy in 25 years?

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A common response to the climate roadmap by experts is “It’s just not possible.”

Their objections are general, not quantitative, so here is a physics 101 style explanation. That means that we take the simplest possible solution, and then add complications one by one.

  1. To replace FF we need to replace its energy with (clean energy + efficiency). We’ll add efficiency improvements later (when that costs less than new clean energy, of course). To start the analysis we’ll set efficiency to “unchanged”.
  2. Clean energy consists of a combination of wind, solar, nuclear, CCS, biofuels, and numerous others that are only locally interesting. As physics-101 students, well pick one, do the analysis, and later optimize with the panoply. We pick solar as a starting case because we can extrapolate its growth curves, doubling every 2 years for 10 years. Society appears to accept solar, and the costs are going in the right direction (down). Later in the exercise we’ll optimize–replace solar with others when and where they cost less than solar.
  3. Solar probably won’t make it in Alaska. In other words, almost anything else will be cheaper than solar in Alaska, maybe  they’ll use wind and biomass.
  4. Split the problem into two phases: 0-50% solar and 50-80% solar. After the 80% stage, in 25 years, we can assume that abundant new solutions are developed, and new problems as well. If tech innovation totally fails us, then solar stays at 80% and we use CCS, nuclear, wind, and biomass for the last 20%.
  5. 0-50% phase (15 years): Carbon fee goes from $0 to $1.30/gallon of gas.
    1. Very little storage needed. Off-grid locations will place a high value on storage, so the technology gets a running start. Compressed air (isothermal, 95% efficiency using foam or spray) storage is looking very strong in 2014. If storage technology totally fails, we can use NG peaker plants for the 3% of the year needed until they’re not needed–with little impact on total emissions.
    2. Cost: competitive with NG in much of the world. Low crude prices now will probably raise NG prices in the US because of reduced fracking.
    3. Area: In the US, the area required to replace all FF, if no wind or biofuel is added, is the same as we now use to grow corn for ethanol (40 million acres).
    4. Transportation: US mileage standards are doubling by 2025; it’s easy to imagine 25% BEVs, 30% hybrid vehicles, and electrification of 30% of trains in 15 years. The current grid of charging stations across the country spreads to most gas station locations. Airlines would be at 15% carbon-neutral jet fuel (bio or solar-manufactured).
    5. Heating: in 15 years it’s easy to imagine 30% of heating systems being converted to heat pumps, most with ground source.
  6. 50%-80% phase (10 years): Carbon fee goes from $1.30 to $2.20/gallon of gas.
    1. Storage capacity is gradually expanded from hours to days by expanding storage tanks and building more excess capacity.
    2. Cost: expected to reach pennies per watt
    3. Transportation: with charging and H2 stations common, increasingly heavy equipment becomes either electrical, H2, or methane-from-H2; By the end of 25 years, 80% of jet fuel is carbon neutral
    4. Heating: all new heating systems are heat pumps, most with ground source.
  7. Add wind energy where it is lower cost than solar: storage requirements decrease in most locations
    1. Wind generation costs decrease more slowly than solar, so the benefit of wind increases with distance from the equator because solar output decreases and variability increases as the sun goes lower.
  8. Add nuclear in countries with strong governments and lots of cash
    1. Modular nuclear reactors could become common by 2030, allowing easier replacement of the last 20% of FF
  9. Add efficiency improvements wherever they cost less than the lowest cost clean energy source.

We end up with an incremental solution which costs much less than we are spending on fossil fuels now, and which saves 13,000 lives per year in the US alone due to reduced pollution.