"There isn't one solution to Global Climate Change … there are 101 solutions,"
according to authors Guy Dauncey and Patrick Mazza
Reading Stormy Weather is an inspiring and invigorating experience that we wanted to share with our readers in the excerpts that follow. In dozens of short segments, the authors outline practical and do-able steps for changing from a fossil fuel economy to new technologies — solutions for citizens organizations, governments from town to federal, businesses and organisations, energy and automobile companies, and, of course, for individuals.
The overall message is that we don't have to let the climate situation deteriorate as we pump carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. We have dozens of choices for change, from policy and tax structure to technical innovation. It's time for each of us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
"There is broad agreement within the scientific community that amplification of the Earth's natural greenhouse effect by the buildup of various gases introduced by human activity has the potential to produce dramatic changes in climate. Only by taking action now can we ensure that future generations will not be put at risk." – Statement by 49 Nobel Prize winners and 700 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 1990.
What can be done?
The Kyoto Protocol calls for a 5.2% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2012. Back in 1990, the International Panel on Climate Change scientists said we needed an immediate 60% reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions below 1990 levels in order to stabilize their concentration in the atmosphere.
Jerry Mahlman, director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, NJ, says, "It might take another 30 Kyotos over the next century to cut global warming down to size."
We have seen what the consequences are likely to be if we don't get our greenhouse gas emissions under control. The atmospheric lifetimes of most gases are long (CO2 = 100+ years, N2O = 120 years, Cf4 = 50,000 years), so the gases that are already up there and the gases we continue to release will have impacts on the world of our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for years to come.
If it were not for the stubborn resistance of the US government and the intense lobbying by the fossil fuel interests on the Saudi and Kuwait delegates, the countries that met to negotiate the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 would probably have signed onto a far bigger reduction, perhaps 12 to 15%.
The British government has committed itself to a 20% reduction by 2012, and several other European nations think the same way. The French government has committed to produce 21% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010. As we were going to print, we heard that Holland is considering an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2040.
The chief reason for the US government's resistance is that many senators and congressmen owe their election success to campaign contributions by the coal, oil, and auto corporations. These corporations have stuck their heads in the sand and want the good times to keep rolling.
The same corporations have funded bodies such as the Global Climate Coalition that have spent large sums of money persuading the public and politicians that there is no scientific agreement about climate change, and no need for reductions.
The public has been made to believe that addressing climate change will cost an economically crippling sum of money, and the whole mind set around making a transition out of fossil fuels has become negative and intransigent. The self-confidence of the American people about tackling challenges and realizing dreams has vanished and been replaced by a rather whiny insistence that nothing should change. The fact that the world's oil supply is also about to start declining is ignored, because it interferes with this attitude.
As soon as you step out of the negativity, however, and start meeting people who are involved with solar and wind energy, hydrogen, organic farming, sustainable forestry, electric vehicles, the greening of cities, green architecture, and so on, the excitement is palpable.
They argue that we achieved a successful energy revolution 100 years ago, when oil, electricity, gas, and automobiles became dominant within a 20-year period from 1890 to 1910, and that a new energy revolution will be good news all-round, for jobs, investment, the economy, and the environment.
They point to the revolution in computers, which has fundamentally changed the world economy in just 20 years, as an indication of how fast economies can change when we set our minds to it. So let's get going with the clean energy revolution!
Natural gas and nuclear energy
"Ignoring climate change will be the most costly of all possible choices, for us and our children." — Peter Ewins, British Meteorological Office
All over the world, people are switching to natural gas. The switch is generally supported because gas contains less carbon than coal or oil, per unit of energy burned. Surely, people say, this is a good thing.
Throughout this book, however, you will find scant praise for gas. The reasoning is solid.
As well as CO2 emissions, the production, processing, and distribution of gas also produces "fugitive" methane emissions. Natural gas is 75-90% raw methane and escapes are inevitable.
The industry has worked hard to eliminate escapes and repair leaky pipelines, but the US data still show a considerable quantity of methane emissions. Compared to countries like Russia, where older gas pipelines are notoriously leaky, the North American natural gas industry is squeaky clean; but that does not change the figures. Coal and oil production also cause methane escapes, but nowhere near as much.
Methane has an average atmospheric life of around 12 years, after which it breaks down into other gases, chiefly CO2. Over 20 years, it is 62 times more powerful than CO2. When you include the fugitive methane emission, gas begins to lose its advantage.
Using CO2 and methane emissions data from the US Energy Information Administration, it becomes apparent that over 100 years, gas is 38% cleaner than coal, but only 7% cleaner than oil. Over 20 years, which is what counts if we are trying to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, it is 30% better than coal, but 9% worse than oil.
In 1998, the US obtained 21% of its primary energy from natural gas. Twenty-one percent was consumed in people's homes, 14% in commercial businesses, 45% by industry, 15% by electric utilities, and 3% in vehicles. If all these uses were converting from coal, the 43% saving in greenhouse gas emissions would be significant.
The reality, however, is that most people are either converting from oil, or creating new demand, causing a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, 96% of new electricity plants are planning to use gas–but coal-fired plants are not being closed down. The gas is being used to meet new demand, not to offset existing demand.
This is not the only problem with natural gas. First, gas is not like oil. It cannot be shipped around the world in tankers without first being converted into liquid natural gas (LNG) by refrigeration to -160 degrees C, which requires expensive new plants, which also require energy.
Second, the world's proven resources of natural gas in 2000 were 5,146 tcf (trillion cubic feet). At the current rate of consumption (83 tcf a year), this will last 62 years. At the rate forecast for 2020 (167 tcf/year), it will last 31 years.
Unless the world shifts to LNG technology, however, global reserves are irrelevant. What matters is North American reserves, which can be shipped by pipe. The US, Canadian, and Mexican natural gas reserves in 2000 were 258 tcf. The US consumes 22 tcf/year (rising to 35 by 2020), Canada 3 tcf/year, and Mexico 1.3 tcf/year.
At this rate of consumption, North America's reserves will be exhausted by 2010. Is it any wonder the price keeps rising? There are new rigs searching for gas everywhere, but production is not keeping up with consumption.
With 96% of the USA's new electricity planned to come from natural gas, producers will find it hard to obtain even half the gas they need. The price will continue to rise, and future supplies have become a major concern for the industry.
Third, natural gas generates public concerns about pipeline explosions, local air pollution from gas-fired plants, and the devastation of wilderness areas where gas exploration is under way. In Russia, the industry is investing billions to ship gas from the Yamal Peninsula north of the Ural Mountains on the understanding that global warming will melt the Arctic icecap and make it possible for the gas to be extracted. This really is the devil's bargain. Gas is not a solution to global climate change unless it is stripped of its CO2 at the wellhead and reformulated into hydrogen, with the CO2 being stored safely away underground.
What about nuclear energy?
The world's nuclear plants generate 17% of the world's electricity, but the industry has not sold a plant in North America since 1976. The nuclear salesmen see climate change as their last hope. Nuclear energy does not create CO2 emissions, except during construction, so on the surface of things, it might seem like a good option. Dig deeper, however, and the problems appear. There are still safety concerns awaiting the inevitable human error. No one has found a solution to the problem of long-term nuclear waste storage; if the pharaohs of Egypt had developed nuclear power, we would be guarding their wastes today, and for another 96,000 years. Investors won't touch nuclear energy because of huge unknowns around the cost of decommissioning, so any development would have to be taxpayer-financed. In the US, the nuclear industry has already received $145 billion in subsidies, compared to $5 billion for solar and wind energy. In Canada, it has received $16.6 billion. Finally, if nuclear energy was to displace coal, a similar investment in efficiency could displace twice as much CO2. Whichever way you look at them, new nuclear plants don't appear to make sense.
Develop a distributed grid
"We are on the verge of a significant transformation in the electric industry that 50 years from now will look as important as Edison's invention." — Terry Esvelt, Bonneville Power Authority
The distributed grid promises to revolutionize the way in which utilities collect and distribute power.
It is a hot summer afternoon in the year 2005, and you have just installed a 4 kw plug-in solar system on your roof, costing you $5,000. Back in 2000, it would have cost $32,000, but the price has dropped four-fold thanks to economics of scale from large-scale mass production, and you have received a $3,000 tax credit from your utility's Public Benefits Fund.
Your solar system is connected to the grid through net metering, and you have bought a domestic flywheel that spins in a vacuum at 20,000 revolutions a minute to store your surplus. Your utility buys and sells power by the millisecond on the spot market and pays the highest price when demand is highest–such as this afternoon.
Buying solar energy from customers like you helps the utility to meet its peak demand, avoid outages, and postpone expensive investments in new generating capacity. Your flywheel contains a computerized microcontroller, and when the price hits a pre-agreed threshold it discharges its energy into the grid, while you are lazing in your hammock with a glass of iced tea.
It's called the distributed grid, and it is promising to revolutionize the way in which utilities collect and distribute power. Large central power plants will still exist, but they will be assisted by millions of smaller solar, wind, fuel cell, diesel and gas-fired microgenerators that sell their power into the grid at the optimum time via computerized telecommunications. The utilities will optimize their power flow by storing surplus energy in flywheels, or in fuel-cell systems such as Regenesys, which use electrolytes to store 5-to-500 megawatt hours of electricity, enough to supply a small town for hours at a time.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration is planning such an energy web to replace its mainframe model of power production. In New York, the State Energy Research and Development Authority is planning to aggregate customers' back-up generators to meet spikes in energy demand. In Spokane, Avista Corporation is test marketing a fuel cell that will enable business and residential customers to plug in and join the distributed grid. From 2002, Plug Power will be selling their GE HomeGen 7000 residential fuel cell that runs on natural gas or propane, and can meet 100% of a household's electricity needs from a box the size of a domestic fridge.
Solutions for energy companies
Introduce net metering: Net metering enables a customer to send surplus energy from a solar, wind, or microturbine generator back into the grid and get paid for it as the meter spins backwards. Different states have introduced different policies; the best allow all energy technologies and all customer classes to qualify, place no restriction on the volume of energy that can be sold, and allow customers to balance their credits with their debits over a whole year.
Remove the barriers: A US Department of Energy report examined 65 distributed power projects, and found that 89% of them experienced significant barriers at the hands of utilities, which often caused delays. A solar PV grid project in British Columbia said "it was like pulling teeth" trying to get the local utility to support them. Be part of the future, not of the past.
Introduce smart meters: Imagine an indoor electricity meter that gives you a coloured digital read-out of your real-time power consumption, not just for the house as a whole, but for each room, or even each function. It tells you what the spot price of energy is, carries out pre-arranged switch-offs to save power when it is expensive, receives messages from your utility, allows your utility to bill you without making an expensive personal visit, and gives you a monthly read-out of your CO2 emissions. Puget Sound Energy has tested Internet-based Silicon Energy thermostats in 100 Kent, WA, homes, enabling the homeowners to monitor and adjust their heating systems while they were away. Early trials suggest a possible 10% saving on energy bills.
Encourage businesses to buy their own microgenerators: The average computer is designed to withstand a power outage lasting no more than 0.008 seconds. For companies, a power outage can carry an enormous financial cost, making the purchase of an on-site power generator a good investment. First National Bank of Omaha, the seventh-largest credit card processor in the US, has installed a fuel cell power system from Connecticut-based Sure Power in its Omaha processing centre that provides "6 nines" power (99.9999% reliable). In Bensonville, Il, McDonalds has a state-of-the-art, gas-fired, 75 kw Parallon microturbine for use during peak hours when electricity is expensive, that will save them $35,000 a year. If other customers followed suit, it would save the local utility from having to invest in new generating capacity. In Wakefield, RI, the South County Hospital installed a 200 kw PC25 fuel cell that produces one-third of the hospital's electricity during peak hours, saving them $60,000-$90,000 a year. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is installing a 250 kw fuel cell energy plant in its headquarters building.
There's nothing like leading by example.
* The Watershed Sentinel wishes to thank the authors, New Society Publishers, and the Friends of Cortes Island Watershed Sentinel Fund for the opportunity to publish these excerpts from: Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change by Guy Dauncey and Patrick Mazza, June 2001; ISBN 0-86571-421-5, 284 pp., $27.95. To order directly from the publishers, add $4.50 shipping and send cheque or money order to: New Society Publishers, Box 189, Gabriola Island, BC V0R 1X0 Ph: (800)567-6772; www.newsociety.com
[From WS June/July 2001]