Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Earth Day Cold Turkey

I was perusing the 2010 Earth Day website and ran across its online petition in support of comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Aside from the expected references to green jobs, energy independence and solving climate change, I was struck by the tone of the declaration, which called for "sending a powerful message to the polluter lobby: we've had enough of dirty power, the time for change is now." I might have had a different reaction to this on another day, but for some reason it occurred to me today to wonder what would happen if the energy industry immediately capitulated to this demand. What would it mean if every power plant burning coal, oil or natural gas shut down today and remained idle? The short answer is chaos and social collapse, but let's take a quick look at why.

Before getting into the underlying numbers I can't resist the opportunity to point out that this kind of language is an understandable consequence of the decision by the Supreme Court to label greenhouse gases as "pollution." Pollution is inherently awful and emotionally energizing, while emissions are, well, more complicated and nuanced. Unfortunately, while the risks that go with climate change pose very serious problems, the solutions are not nearly as simple as the solutions to the kinds of pollution that we've been accustomed to dealing with under the legislation and regulations that the first Earth Day and its anniversaries helped to trigger. I admit this distinction has become a lost cause, but no one should be surprised by the passion and vitriol concerning greenhouse gas emissions that has resulted from this choice.

So what if we took the Earth Day petition at face value and bypassed the whole decades-long transformation that cap & trade, a national renewable electricity standard, and various other pending emissions regulations would set in motion? What if we simply shut down every fossil-fuel-burning power plant today? After all, we have all these new wind turbines and solar panels--record amounts of which were installed here last year--and we still have thousands of hydroelectric dams and 104 nuclear power plants. Together they produce vast amounts of electricity, and surely with a bit more efficiency we could make do with that, while building more wind, solar and geothermal capacity as fast as possible to keep the economy growing. Well, as it turns out, all renewable sources plus nuclear generated a bit over 1.2 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) last year. That's certainly more than the entire electrical output of many other countries. According to data from the Energy Information Agency, it exceeds all the power generated in 2008 in Japan, or in France and Germany combined. Unfortunately, it's also less power than the US has generated in any year since 1966.

On the face of it, that's not a fair comparison. Although we still have plenty of room for improvement--energy efficiency remains one of the most promising sources of emissions reductions available--the US actually uses energy much more efficiently today than it did in '66. One measure of that is energy consumption per dollar of real GDP. On that basis, it takes just half as much energy to produce the same output as it did when "Eleanor Rigby", one of my favorite Beatles songs, debuted. If we adjust for energy:GDP, then 1979, with its net generation of 2.25 trillion kWh, looks like a more appropriate basis of comparison to the economic work that our current zero-emission power output could do. The problem is that the US population has grown by 84 million people since then, and our economy, expressed in constant dollars, is more than twice as big as in '79--even after last year's contraction. It might even be worse than that, because we've electrified a lot of things that were previously run directly by some sort of fuel, so that slashing our power output by 70% wouldn't just cut our economy by half; it would probably force us to choose among some very high-priority uses for power that might not include the PC or other device on which you're reading my words. To say that electricity rates would have to go up dramatically is an understatement, and we haven't even accounted for the intermittency of wind and solar, which can't replace baseload coal power or on-demand gas-fired power.

There's no need to stretch this highly-simplified scenario any farther. Like it or not, we can't yet live without the power we get from all those nasty fuels we're still burning, and the day when we can is not just around the corner. After all, the wind, solar and geothermal power sources we've focused intensely on expanding accounted for just 2% of the electricity we used last year. Double them, and then double them again (10 years?) and that's still only 8%, compared to the 69% we got from fossil-based generation last year. The Senate climate bill that's expected to be released in the next week or so might well move us in the direction that the signers of today's Earth Day petition want, but that evolution can't happen nearly as fast as many of them have been led to expect.

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