With the latest round of contentious international climate treaty negotiations getting under way in Durban, South Africa, it’s worth revisiting what would be required to meet ambitious targets set for greenhouse gases in California, a state that already has pledged meaningful action.
There’s a new peer-reviewed study of California’s plans, published in the current issue of Science, that largely echoes points made in a study by the California Council on Science and Technology issued earlier this year showing the scope of what would have to happen and the limits of known technologies.
Some details on the new study are below. But first it’s worth checking in on realistic paths to climate progress with a reliable guide — Nate Lewis, the head of the federal energy innovation hub on fuels from sunlight and a chemist at the California Institute of Technology.
Lewis is not only involved with cutting-edge research on next-generation technology, but has contributed to various assessments of options for achieving targets in that state and the nation, including the California Council study.
A few weeks ago, we had a long Skype chat about California’s much discussed plan to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
His conclusion, which I see as robustly supported by peer-reviewed work (including the new paper), is that California could get roughly halfway to that goal in a perfect world – one without impediments such as higher costs, nimby fights and resistance from consumers and industries wedded to fossil fuels.
But even in that perfect world, Lewis says, citing the reviewed literature, fundamental leaps in basic energy sciences would be required to get all the way – and the nation and world are not investing at anywhere the level that would be required in the related sciences and in development and demonstration of promising technologies.
Looking beyond California to the nation, Lewis cited a National Academy of Sciences report he co-authored with 40 experts in energy technology on a path to getting more than half of the country’s electricity from renewable sources by mid-century:
Everybody agreed that if we were going to get more than half of our electricity in our country from renewables by 2050 we were going to have to do things that we simply don’t know how to do today at all and fundamentally change the way we use, generate and consume energy [relevant section here]. That’s completely in agreement with the California report. And it’s different than people who would tell you that we have all the technology we need and we just need the political will and let’s be done with it. That’s not what any technically knowledgeable panel concludes.
Here’s a bit more from Lewis on this point, with more below:
It’s notable that Lewis said this in a chat recorded weeks ago, well before publication of the new Science paper — “The Technology Path to Deep Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts by 2050: The Pivotal Role of Electricity.”
Joe Romm, the senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who writes the Climate Progress blog, proclaimed awhile back that I pulled a “Charlie Sheen” when I blogged on the California Council study that Lewis participated in. (Romm removed the Charlie Sheen headline from his post soon after it was published, but it lives on.)
One thing Romm forgets (or chooses to ignore) when he tries to rebut me is that I’m not debating him; I’m consuming his arguments, along with output from a host of people directly involved in energy research and analysis.
Even with all of the potential flaws in peer review, I’ll take such sources any day over other input. If you take “80 by 2050″ arguments seriously, don’t take my word for it in weighing the merits and flaws of Romm’s call for massive deployment with a sprinkling of RD. Listen to Lewis, and — more important — read the reports he cites.
In considering California’s energy challenge, the required breakthroughs of deepest concern to Lewis are:
- the need for a transportation fuel that is produced with no emissions of greenhouse gases (his research focus),
- the need to deal with the reality that any very low emissions path for California will require doubling the state’s production of electricity (without emissions) even after an aggressive, sustained push to conserve energy. (This doubling is required because so many energy services now supplied with fossil fuels would have to be electrified.)
Among other issues, doubling the state’s electricity supply by 2050 while cutting emissions is only possible if there is some way to compensate for the inevitable large fluctuations in solar or wind supplies using some large source of electricity — but one that produces no emissions.
Keep in mind, of course, that for any of this to influence trajectories for climate in this century, whatever energy revolution is pursued in California would have to be echoed from Texas to Ohio and eventually to China and India.
Here’s more from my chat with Lewis:
I asked Lewis if California is a worst case or best case for carbon dioxide cuts compared to the rest of the country, given its success in energy thrift in recent decades. His response? It’s both.
I asked him to characterize how important it would be to bolster the country’s “intellectual infrastructure” even as work is done to update our energy infrastructure. He said:
You cannot get to where we need to go with just what we know how to do today. Which means we need to learn to not only evolve faster, better, cheaper what we know how to do today, we also need to do things we don’t know how to do today. That doesn’t mean you don’t start now doing what you know how to do. It does mean that you shouldn’t have your head in the sand and know that 40 yards away you can’t get from here to there because the Grand Canyon is in between and you never built a bridge.
So if you really cared about meeting the target, if you really cared about making sure hat the odds were stacked in your favor, if that’s what you really cared about, you would be deploying, you would be lowering costs and you would be having multiple options to figure out a way to do the stuff that we don’t know how to do so that we would succeed. If you don’t care about succeeding and you just care about pushing your agenda then you would leave out that last key step and I’m not willing to bet the Earth on leaving it out.
When I asked what level of public investment in R and D would be appropriate to the task, he answered:
If you look at the percentage of revenue devoted to R and D by industries that have to run fast or die… it’s between 10 and15 percent…. By that measure we should be spending $150 billion a year on energy R and D to run fast or die. You can say maybe the private sector should be spending two thirds of that. That still leaves $50 billion a year. Maybe that’s too high. Cut it by two, you’re $25 billion a year on R and D. That’s roughly comparable to the National Institutes of Health, which I think is the right measure.
We don’t even spend $2 billion on clean energy R and D in our country. Unless we get the number up to something like $20, 30 or $50 billion a year, based on tried and true business practices, we are very unlikely to be able to meet the technology pace of change that would be needed.
I also asked him to characterize the views of those opposing any action to constrain emissions. He replied with an allusion to “Dirty Harry“:
This is much more a question of, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” with the Earth. If you want to roll the dice you do what you’re doing. And I think it’s pretty interesting that the people who call themselves by label, quote, “conservatives,” are the big gamblers here. And the people that want to see the planet the way we got it from our parents and theirs and keep it the way it is are called the nonconservatives in this particular debate.
I’ll close out with a bit more on the news Science paper. There’s more on California’s (and the world’s) energy options in an audio interview conducted by Science’s news staff with one of the authors of the new paper, Snuller Price, an energy and climate policy analyst at E3, a consulting firm in San Francisco.
In the interview (transcript here), Price describes the scope of the challenge created by the massive electrification of nearly every energy sector this way:
Even after the amount of energy efficiency that we’re talking about, California would still need to build [the equivalent of*] one and a half to two new nuclear plants every year through 2050. To put it in perspective, California only has two nuclear plants.
A direct challenge to Joe Romm’s “deploy, deploy, deploy” mantra comes in Price’s answer to a question about priorities from the interviewer, Kerry Klein. Here’s her question:
So, this is all centered around these goals that have to be implemented by 2050. So, right now in the year 2011, almost 2012, what do we have to do right now?
Here’s Price’s answer:
So, the most important thing that we have to do right now, and it is quite urgent, is continuing to invest in research and development. If you think about the scale of the amount of new electric generation we need, it’s truly massive. And this is the decade to really improve the technology and get the costs down to a level where we can really keep it on a sustainable, long-term path, so getting the costs down of renewable energy, figuring out how we can do energy efficiency and retrofits more cost effectively. Basically, we have to get the learning done so that the prices are reasonable, before we have to buy in bulk.
Just in case Romm and Robert Collier, the “leading journalist and climate expert” heavily cited in Romm’s California post, are tempted to criticize Price as an energy Charlie Sheen, they should note that his co-authors on the new study include several analysts at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the federal research hub that Collier called “the Vatican of energy efficiency work.”
3:31 p.m. | Updated above |
*Snuller Price wrote to say that he said, or intended to say, “the equivalent of” one and a half to two nuclear power plants in the interview with Kerry Klein quoted above (from the Science transcript). He added, “For what it is worth I’m not a big fan of massive deployment of new nuclear using the existing technologies because of waste, accidents, and proliferation.”
For what it’s worth, I’m not, either, although I very much support intensified development of the neglected next generation of plants, and of keeping existing ones operating safely and not shutting them down prematurely.