We Must Reduce Energy Use, Not Just CO2 Emissions, To Prevent Catastrophic Global Warming

playing with fire
Playing With Fire (image by charles chan, CC 2.0 license)

An article in Sunday’s Science Daily reports on research showing that more than half of the Earth’s warming since the dawn of the industrial age is due to the heat released from our energy use, not atmospheric warming due to the greenhouse effect.

While the greenhouse effect is still a significant contributor – and will become more so as GHG levels in the atmosphere rise – simply the heat released when burning fuels is also being stored in the atmosphere, as well as in the earth, sea, and arctic ice.

The researchers have calculated that the heat energy accumulated in the atmosphere corresponds to a mere 6.6% of global warming, while the remaining heat is stored in the ground (31.5%), melting ice (33.4%) and sea water (28.5%). They point out that net heat emissions between the industrial revolution circa 1880 and the modern era at 2000 correspond to almost three quarters of the accumulated heat, i.e., global warming, during that period.

Their conclusion is that simply capturing our CO2 emissions, will not prevent global warming. We have to actually reduce the amount of heat we are releasing into the world via our energy use – which mostly involves burning things, and therefore generating waste heat.

The good news is that solar photovoltaics, wind power, even solar thermal generate much less, or even negative, waste heat than either conventional energy sources, or nuclear energy. And of course energy efficiency is the cheapest and most cost-effective mitigation we have at our fingertips.


China’s Coal Plants Getting Less Dirty, How To Rebuild The Built Environment, Who To Follow on Twitter

Smokestacks (image by shoothead, CC 2.0 licensed)

Some good news from China this week, and a blueprint for addressing the huge amount of energy used, and GHG’s generated, by the built environment:

No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

Menlo Park Climate Action Plan Research

Menlo Park Train Station
Menlo Park Train Station

Just about two weeks ago, my friend Matt Harris, an architect with a green building practice, sent me an email:

The City of Menlo Park has this Climate Action plan and they are looking for community input. Would you be interested in formulating some kind of response that would of course include our plug for passive house initiatives. Maybe we can get them to include some passive home or even passive building information or plans or guidelines in the Climate action plan. They have already cited “commercial buildings” as a target energy hog in the city for action in the action plan.

So we’ve been working on this. We got together last weekend to come up with a strategy, then Matt wrote the first draft while I was in Finland last week. I did some editing this weekend, and now he’s got it again.

I wanted to share some of the information I discovered while researching our recommendations for the plan.

Here’s the first set – an annotated list of sites from which I got a lot of great information and inspiration both for this project as well as my high-level goal of having all homes built in California be zero-net energy by 2018.

Aggressive Home Efficiency

  • Architecture 2030 – The Architecture 2030 challenge includes the following goal for 2010: “All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 50% of the regional (or country) average for that building type.”
  • California Public Utility Commission Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan – The CPUC plan includes four “Big Bold strategies” strategies for significant energy-savings, two of which are: 1) all new residential construction in California will be zero net energy by 2020, and 2) all new commercial construction in California will be zero net energy by 2030.
  • Passive House Institute (Germany) – Already familiar to regular readers, the Passive House Institute, Darmstadt, Germany, a research institute dedicated to residential energy efficiency and systems, has shown that actual built structures can achieve 80-90% heating and cooling energy reduction based on their design guidelines. Over 9,000 “passive house” structures, including single family, multi-family, and apartment buildings, have been built in Europe that perform at or near energy goal
  • Passive House Institute (U.S.) () – The U.S. affiliate of the German Passive House Institute
  • Many green building standards have set zero (or near zero) net energy use for residential buildings as a progressive goal for structures and building codes in the near future, including the Leadership in Environmental and Energy-Efficient Design (LEED) standard’s residential rating system, Architecture 2030, and Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated Checklist residential rating system / Green Building Guidelines for New Home Construction. Several California municipalities have adopted local building codes inspired by Architecture 2030 that exceed the 2005 California Building Energy Efficiency Standards:

I’ll keep you updated on our progress on getting these changes into the Menlo Park Climate Action Plan. It’s exciting to consider that Menlo Park could be on the forefront of the effort to get to zero net energy in ten years!

Ten Energy Predictions For The Next Decade

Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1)
Snow on the San Gabriel Mountains (photo by Jerry Thompson1, CC 2.0 license)

On December 30 of last year (six days ago), my wife and I were in Pasadena, CA visiting the Greene and Greene exhibit at the Huntington Library. It was one of those glorious and rare smog-free days in the LA basin. The air sparkled, you could see for miles in every direction, and mountain range after mountain range was visible – all the way out to the snow-covered San Gabriels. Nowadays, the air is only ever this clear around the Christmas holiday, when the freeway traffic is substantially reduced and a lot of factories shut down for the week. It got me thinking about how the future – say ten to twenty years hence – may be unrecognizable in both dramatic and mundane ways. For example, smog-free days may no longer be rare in LA, once the economy has shifted off fossil fuels. (I suspect the traffic will remain, unfortunately!)

Like LA’s typical skies, the energy future is murky in the short term – this year and 2010 – and I’ll leave those predictions to others. But the big trends – sustainability, carbon fighting, and technological breakthroughs – enable us to make better sense of the mid- and long-term. Therefore, In the spirit of the New Year, the incoming administration, and the tipping point that the world has come to about climate change and sustainability, here are ten things I believe are very likely to happen in the next ten years.

  1. Residential solar PV will be cost effective in most U.S. locations (via a combination of price reduction, new design thinking, much more efficient homes, and a carbon tax on fossil fuels).
  2. Home energy storage – via batteries, hydrogen reforming, fuel cells, or other technology – will be available and installed in 10% of new homes in California, for when the sun don’t shine.
  3. More than 10% of new homes in California will be zero-net energy.
  4. 50% of new residential construction in California will be zero-net energy “ready.”
  5. The current LEED standards will be considered obsolete.
  6. More than 20% of peak grid electricity will come from excess capacity from residential solar PV.
  7. There will be general consensus that efficiency and frugality alone will not provide enough CO2 mitigation to prevent major climate change – we will need a technological solution to actually reducing atmospheric CO2 or artificially cooling the earth.
  8. There will be a mid-priced carbon fiber, plugin hybrid passenger car in production that gets more than 75 miles per gallon. The company making it will be the “next GM.”
  9. 10% of the cars on the road will be powered by 100% renewable energy and will be essentially non-polluting.
  10. New technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere will be available, powered by excess solar capacity.

What do you think? Am I off base here? Too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your thoughts, challenges, and predictions for 2018.

Zero-net Energy Series Coming Up

Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series on “zero-net energy” residences (related to predictions 1-6 above). This area is about to explode. We already have all the technology, and some people have the experience, to build “zero-net energy ready” houses cost effectively. And although there’s currently a premium to get to zero-net energy, over the next ten years this premium will go to zero, and probably it will be cost-effective to get to positive-net energy – where the house is generating more energy than it needs! Talk about a world-changing situation – it really is possible to have energy too cheap to meter, but it’s going to come off our roofs, not from a nuclear plant or one of those imaginary fusion reactors.

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

Windmill and old houses in Schipluiden
Old Windmill (image by waterwin, CC 2.0 license)

The results of this study on solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, by Stanford professor Mark Z. Jacobson, are somewhat surprising, given the drumbeat from many areas on both nuclear and biofuels as necessary for the salvation of the world.

Jacobson analyzes 12 energy sources for their beneficial impact on global warming, air pollution, and energy security – the ten electricity sources are solar-photovoltaics (PV), concentrated solar power (CSP), wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave, tidal, nuclear, and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology; the two liquid fuel options are corn-ethanol (E85) and cellulosic-E85.

An article in Science Daily summarizes one of Jacobson’s conclusions:

Jacobson said that while some people are under the impression that wind and wave power are too variable to provide steady amounts of electricity, his research group has already shown in previous research that by properly coordinating the energy output from wind farms in different locations, the potential problem with variability can be overcome and a steady supply of baseline power delivered to users.

As the bottom line in the study, Jacobson writes:

In summary, the use of wind, CSP, geothermal, tidal, solar, wave, and hydroelectric to provide electricity for BEVs [battery electric vehicles] and HFCVs [hydrogen fuel cell vehicles] result in the most benefit and least impact among the options considered. Coal-CCS and nuclear provide less benefit with greater negative impacts. The biofuel options provide no certain benefit and result in significant negative impacts. Because sufficient clean natural resources (e.g., wind, sunlight, hot water, ocean energy, gravitational energy) exists to power all energy for the world, the results here suggest that the diversion of attention to the less efficient or non-efficient options represents an opportunity cost that delays solutions to climate and air pollution health problems.

Note that the study ranks the various energy alternatives without regard to cost. That’s going to be controversial. Jacobson says:

Costs are not examined since policy decisions should be based on the ability of a technology to address a problem rather than costs (e.g., the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 prohibit the use of cost as a basis for determining regulations required to meet air pollution standards) and because costs of new technologies will change over time, particularly as they are used on a large scale.

In the real world, costs do have a major impact, especially given that we do not have a Clean Air Act regarding carbon today. This is why it’s so important that the price/kW of solar panels, for example, is dropping and will continue to drop.

In fact, when you leave cost out of the equation, is it surprising which energy sources came out on top? Let me know your thoughts.

Encourage Obama To Name a Secretary Of Food

Beatiful kale,not from a factory farm (photo by terren in Virginia, CC 2.0 licensed)

Nicholas Kristof in his NY Times op-ed today urges Obama to appoint a Secretary of Food:

A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.

The interests of big agriculture – the “factory farmers” – are really opposed to the interests of people. The “food” they raise wastes energy, causes huge environment damage, makes us unhealthy, and even leads to antibiotic resistant diseases.

On the other hand, real family farmers, who grow non-factory food on relatively small farms, are good for us, good for the environment, and good for our health.

If you feel this is a good cause, check out the online petition at www.fooddemocracynow.org, which calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary — and names six terrific candidates, including Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska and Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer and researcher in Pocantico Hills, NY.

For more on food policy and its relation to health, environment, and policy, check out Michael Pollan’s “Open Letter To The Next Farmer In Chief” in the October 12 New York Times Magazine. Eye-opening and inspiring, like all of his work.

Watch Out For Unintended Consequences

Mojave Desert scene in Joshua Tree National Park.
Image via Wikipedia

In their editorial Green Energy vs. Actual “Green” Energy Basin and Range Watch point out that there are lots of opportunities for making a big mess of the environment while trying to save it. The focus of this site is the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts in Nevada and California, the targets of many new solar projects. “There are over one million acres of public land in the six states that are being considered for sacrifice.”

Most of these projects require a lot of water, and all require “clear cutting” the desert to prevent weeds and pests.

How ironic that this so called “green revolution” has taken the irresponsible direction of so much environmental destruction. Why not just use the countless rooftops and vacant space of the millions of developed urban acres in the southwest? Could it be that urban environmental planning is considered too costly? We are baffled by this because it defeats the purpose of green.

As we make the changes to our economy and our energy infrastructure that we have to make, we have to take care of our existing resources, such as the great deserts. For no other reason than we don’t really know everything about them. For example, it’s been learned recently that:

Desert plants and soils store carbon better than most northern forests. Desert plants are masters of storing carbon. CAM (“crassulacean acid metabolism”) plants are plants that use certain special compounds to gather carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis.

Don’t want to lose that while trying to eliminate carbon from our energy system, do we? We have a lot of carbon already in the atmosphere that needs sucking up. What else is this desert flora and fauna doing for Earth that we haven’t learned yet? Do we want to take the chance of upsetting yet more of the balance? We need to take a lot of care as we move forward with whatever large-scale energy projects we undertake.

I recommend this article, and I’d be interested to hear your thinking about how to avoid bad consequences while achieving energy independence.

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What’s My Car’s CO2 Footprint In Units of Newly Planted Trees?

Nurse log, spruce or fir, central Colorado, wi...
Image via Wikipedia

Did you ever wonder what reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 1 million metric tons means in everyday terms? The EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator can help you understand just that.

It can be difficult to visualize what a “metric ton of carbon dioxide” really is. This calculator will translate rather difficult to understand statements into more commonplace terms, such as “is
equivalent to avoiding the carbon dioxide emissions of X number of cars annually.”

For example, one passenger car emits about 5.5 tons of CO2 in a year, and that’s equivalent to the CO2 produced through the energy use of about 1/2 a home in a year, or the CO2 sequestered by 141 tree seedlings grown for ten years. That’s a lot of trees!

If you’re interested in more in-depth calculations on how forests take up CO2, this paper (PDF) by J. Doyne Farmer, a professor at the Santa Fe Institute, discusses the Forest Guardians, now the Wild Earth Guardians, CO2 carbon offset calculation.

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Biofuels: Balancing The Equations

mostly-hidden frog grendelkhan
Algae-covered Frog

The biggest energy stories in August were about fuel cell-related breakthroughs and big solar projects. But the world of biofuels had some big news percolating as well. The beauty of biofuels, of course, is that they provide us with that extremely energy-dense liquid that we already know how to use (that is, gasoline, diesel, and ethanol), by sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere using solar energy.

In this post I highlight some of the biofuel-related items that caught my eye in the past few weeks, from algae that make diesel from atmospheric CO2 and sunlight, to harnessing bacteria and microbes as our refineries. This is just a small slice of the activity going on in biofuels, of course. Just as in solar PV, and batteries, and fuel cells, and wind, and alternative energy investing, there’s an ever-increasing flood of news every week. If I’m missing one of your favorites, please let me know in the comments!

Continue reading “Biofuels: Balancing The Equations”