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A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic – and our economy is the reason why

A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic – and our economy is the reason why

Over the past two centuries, millions of dedicated people – revolutionaries, activists, politicians, and theorists – have been unable to curb the disastrous and increasingly globalised trajectory of economic polarisation and ecological degradation. This is perhaps because we are utterly trapped in flawed ways of thinking about technology and economy – as the current discourse on climate change shows.

Rising greenhouse gas emissions are not just generating climate change. They are giving more and more of us climate anxiety. Doomsday scenarios are capturing the headlines at an accelerating rate. Scientists from all over the world tell us that emissions in ten years must be half of what they were ten years ago, or we face apocalypse. School children like Greta Thunberg and activist movements like Extinction Rebellion are demanding that we panic. And rightly so. But what should we do to avoid disaster?

Most scientists, politicians, and business leaders tend to put their hope in technological progress. Regardless of ideology, there is a widespread expectation that new technologies will replace fossil fuels by harnessing renewable energy such as solar and wind. Many also trust that there will be technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for “geoengineering” the Earth’s climate. The common denominator in these visions is the faith that we can save modern civilisation if we shift to new technologies. But “technology” is not a magic wand. It requires a lot of money, which means claims on labour and resources from other areas. We tend to forget this crucial fact.

I would argue that the way we take conventional “all-purpose” money for granted is the main reason why we have not understood how advanced technologies are dependent on the appropriation of labour and resources from elsewhere.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Solar Energy Is Renewable, But Is it Environmentally Just?

Solar Energy Is Renewable, But Is it Environmentally Just?

Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The solar industry has been soaring over the past several years. The US is now home to some two million solar installations. Solar energy now provides about a fifth of California’s power and it makes sense that environmentalists champion the industry. Almost a third of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, so renewable energy sources like this are crucial.

But in a new book, our next guest shows that while “the net social and environmental benefits of solar are uncontested— more jobs, higher quality of life, and much less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions— the industry supply chain still poses problems for specific communities, ecosystems and landscapes.”

So that’s what I’m here to unpack today with Dustin Mulvaney. He is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose University and his new book that he’s here to talk about today is called Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice. Thanks so much for being here, Dustin.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: So, I want to start by talking to you about the conception of solar power. You maintain obviously in this book that solar power plays a really important role in fighting the climate crisis, but you also take a critical look at the political economy of solar. That’s something that’s often missing from environmental movements, because solar has what you call in the book a green halo. It’s sometimes exempt from critical examination. What do you hope that this book will achieve within that broader climate conversation?

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

What My Friends on the Left Need to Know About the Green New Deal

What My Friends on the Left Need to Know About the Green New Deal

“Nowhere has our public discourse failed us more egregiously than on the environment and climate change,” I wrote last year while reviewing the first sketches of a proposed Green New Deal. It’s since become a buzzword, but until now it remained only vaguely defined.

Now Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has significantly upped the ante. Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal is very specific, earmarking $16 trillion over 10 years to initiatives from “reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030” to reauthorizing the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps to “coming together in a truly inclusive movement that prioritizes young people, workers, indigenous peoples, communities of color, and other historically marginalized groups.”

The opening to the Sanders campaign’s new page on the Green New Deal encapsulates the candidate’s view of the issue:

The climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, but we must act immediately.

Sanders and I wouldn’t disagree that his plan represents a sea change in the way our government, society, and economy interact. The plan is gigantic. I want to fill page after page with factoids about how big it is, but just a few will suffice:

  • The proposal’s total cost is $16 trillion, over 20 times the cost of the New Deal (in today’s dollars, just under $700 billion).
  • If the proposal succeeded in creating 20 million jobs, it would raise the percentage of the workforce employed by the government to around a third, double what it is now.
  • Remember that goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030? We’re only at 15 percent now, meaning almost the entire U.S. energy system would be overhauled.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Is Global Warming an Existential Threat? Probably Not, But Still a Serious Issue.

Is Global Warming an Existential Threat? Probably Not, But Still a Serious Issue.

During the recent presidential debate, a number of candidates suggested that global warming represents an existential threat to mankind, and thus requires dramatic and immediate action.

Governor Jay Inslee has been particularly generous in the use of this term, but he is not alone.  Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said the same thing, as have several media outlets and environmental interest groups.

Some of these folks also claim that the window for action on climate change is closing–Jay Inslee suggests that the next president will be the last able to take effective steps.  Others suggest 10 or 12 years.

But are these existential threat claims true?  That is what we will examine in this blog.
An existential threat is one that threatens the very existence of mankind.    Something that is a simply a challenge or an inconvenience is not an existential threat. An existential threat must have the potential to undermine the very viability of human civilization.

As described below, global warming is a serious problem and its impacts will be substantial—but in no way does it seriously threaten our species or human civilization.  And with reasonable mitigation and adaptation,  mankind will continue to move forward—reducing poverty, living healthier lives, and stabilizing our population.

What do current climate models tell us?  These models are run under specific scenarios of emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (see figure).   In one, RCP8.5, we simply continue doing what we are doing, with escalating use of coal and oil.  Not much renewable energy.    Many believe this scenario is too pessimistic.  Much more reasonable is RCP 4.5, which has modestly increased emissions through 2040, declining after 2050.  I suspect this one will be closer to reality.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Going 100% renewable power means a lot of dirty mining

Going 100% renewable power means a lot of dirty mining

Preface. Everyone talks about oil spills, but what about the dirty mining that will have a huge polluting footprint on the earth, and potentially destroy the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery among other side-effects? Renewables aren’t cleaner and greener than fossils, and require a hell of a lot of fossils to mine the ore, deliver it to a crusher, blast furnace, and fabrication, all accomplished with fossils. 

***

Sadasivam, N. 2019. Report: Going 100% renewable power means a lot of dirty mining. Grist.org

For more than a decade, indigenous communities in Alaska have been fighting to prevent the mining of copper and gold at Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a crucial source of sustenance. The proposed mine, blocked under the Obama administration but inching forward under the Trump administration, has been billed by proponents as necessary to meet the growing demand for copper, which is used in wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. Similar stories are playing out in Norway, where the Sámi community is fighting a copper mine, and in Papua New Guinea, where a company has been mining the seabed for gold and copper.

Weighing those trade-offs — between supporting mining in environmentally sensitive areas and sourcing metals needed to power renewables — is likely to become more common if countries continue generating more renewable energy. That’s according to a report out Wednesday from researchers at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney in Australia. The report, commissioned by the environmental organization Earthworks, finds that demand for metals such as copper, lithium and cobalt would skyrocket if countries around the world try to get their electric grids and transportation systems fully powered by renewable energy by 2050. Consequently, a rush to meet that demand could lead to more mining in countries with lax environmental and safety regulations and weak protections for workers.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Can Renewable Portfolio Standards make RE Work?

Can Renewable Portfolio Standards make RE Work?

Guest post by Geo who is a geologist working in Alaska

People want energy to be cleaner (i.e. emit less carbon dioxide). One way to do this is to use regulations to force either greater efficiency, or a switch to cleaner fuels.

A good example would be Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the United States. They were first enacted by the United States Congress in 1975, after the 1973–74 Arab Oil Embargo, to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks (trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles) produced for sale in the United States. The idea was that slowly, across the board, the mileage of all cars and trucks produced in the U.S. would gradually increase. Over time this would result in cleaner air, and reduced oil usage. And perhaps save consumers money…

And it more or less worked as advertised. Standards were raised, and efficiency increased, largely without additional cost. U.S. cars are twice as fuel-efficient today as they were 40 years ago, saving car owners millions of dollars, and reducing air pollution. Arguably a win-win.

Figure 1: EPA “Light-Duty Automotive Technology, Carbon Dioxide Emissions, and Fuel Economy Trends: 1975 through 2017,” EPA-420-S-18-001, January 2018.

A slight nuance was added in some markets. Certificates for high mileage vehicles could be traded, so that some manufacturers could continue producing low mileage vehicles. For example, under California’s Zero-Emission Vehicle (ZEV) Regulation and those of states that have adopted California’s standard, vehicle manufacturers are required to earn or purchase credits for compliance with their annual regulatory requirements. This means that a certain number of electric cars must be sold to balance any low mileage vehicles.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

UK climate emergency is official policy

UK climate emergency is official policy

Heathrow’s expansion is now in question. Image: By J Patrick Fischer, via Wikimedia Commons

Major changes in the government’s policy on fossil fuels will be vital to tackling the UK climate emergency that Parliament has recognised.

LONDON, 3 May, 2019 − The United Kingdom has taken a potentially momentous policy decision: it says there is a UK climate emergency.

On 1 May British members of Parliament (MPs) became the world’s first national legislature to declare a formal climate and environment emergency, saying they hoped they could work with like-minded countries across the world to take action to avoid more than 1.5°C of global warming.

No-one yet knows what will be the practical result of the resolution proposed by Jeremy Corbyn, the Opposition Labour leader, but UK politicians were under pressure to act following a series of high-profile strikes by school students in recent months and demonstrations by a new climate protest organisation, Extinction Rebellion (XR),  whose supporters closed roads in the centre of London for a week.

The Conservative government ordered its MPs not to oppose the Labour resolution, and it was passed without a vote.

Zero carbon by 2050

Hours after the MPs’ decision, a long-awaited detailed report by the government’s official advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, was published. It recommends cutting the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. The current target is 80%.

The report says the government should accept the new target immediately, pass it into law in the next few months and begin to implement policies to achieve it. The committee says that will mean the end of petrol and diesel cars on British roads, a cut in meat consumption, an end to gas boilers for heating buildings, planting 1.5 billion trees to store carbon, a vast increase in renewable energy, and many other measures.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Mainstream to jetstream

Mainstream to jetstream 

A couple of decades ago, renewable energy was almost an outlier: the new kid on the block. But now, solar and wind are not just mainstream: in both developed and emerging economies, they are the preferred option when it comes to power generation.

A powerful synergy of enabling factors and demand-side attributes is propelling solar and wind to compete against, and win, in competition with even the most cost-effective and flexible hydrocarbon-fuelled sources of power. Renewable energy is now the preferred choice when it comes  to reliable, affordable, and environmentally responsible energy.

A new report on global renewable energy trends from Deloitte Insights charts the astonishingly rapid disruption of traditional energy systems and markets that renewables are causing as the cost of photovoltaic and windfarm power plants continues to fall.  

Clearing the way

Longstanding barriers to the greater deployment of renewables have faded thanks to three strong attributes: rapidly approaching grid parity, cost-effective and reliable grid integration, and technological innovation. Solar and wind can now beat conventional sources on price while increasingly matching their performance. Moreover, the integration of renewables is actually solving grid problems rather than exacerbating them. Wind and solar are now competitive across global markets even without subsidies.

Onshore wind has become the world’s lowest-cost energy sources for power generation, with an unsubsidized levelized cost of US$ 30 -60/MWh, which falls below the range of the cheapest fossil fuel , natural gas—which weighs in at around US$ 42 – 78/MWh. Except for combined-cycle gas plants, the levelized costs of all conventional sources and nonintermittent renewables have either remained flat (biomass and coal) or increased (geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear) over the past eight years, while the cost of onshore wind and utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) plants have dropped by 67 and 86 percent respectively as the cost of components has plummeted and efficiency has increased—trends that are expected to continue.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Hydropower dams and the ways they destroy the environment

Hydropower dams and the ways they destroy the environment

Preface. Hydropower comprises 71% of renewable energy worldwide.  Nations like the U.S. and Europe have dams that have reached the end of their lifespan, so more are being torn down than built. In the U.S. 546 dams were removed between 2006 and 2014.

This contains excerpts and paraphrasing of three news stories

  1. 11 Jan 2019 the costs of environmental damage and dam removal need to be added into calculations for whether to build a dam or not
  2. 19 November 2014 NewScientist article by Peter Hadfield “River of the dammed“,about the Chinese Three Gorges project
  3. 2012: the greenhouse gas emissions of hydropower

***

Moran, E. F. et al. 2018. Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Before developing countries build more dams, they need to take the following into account when estimating the cost

  • Deforestation
  • Loss of biodiversity, especially fish species
  • Social consequences, such as the displacement of thousands of people and the financial harm done
  • That climate change, especially drought, and evaporation from higher temperatures, which will lead to less water stored for agriculture and electricity
  • The cost of removing a dam is extremely high, so high dams wouldn’t be built if this cost were included.  Many new dams in Brazil and other nations will have a short lifespan — just 30 to 50 years

Hadfield, P. 2014.  “River of the dammed“. NewScientist.

Dams typically last 60 to 100 years, but whether Three Gorges can last this long is questionable given the unexpectedly high amounts of silt building up. Since fossil fuels are finite, as is uranium, to keep the electric grid up many see building more dams for hydropower as absolutely essential. Hydropower is also one of the few energy resources that can balance variable wind and solar as well.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Climate Change Mitigation: Is it a Good Idea to Sweep the Carbon Under the Carpet?

Above: our paper recently published in Nature Energy. Our conclusion is that, in terms of energy returns, renewable energy in the form of solar or wind is much better than carbon capture and storage for mitigating of climate change. Sweeping the carbon underground is not a good idea. 

We have a little problem: for more than thirty years, the climate scientists of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been telling us that if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — mainly CO2 — we are in dire trouble. And we have done very little, nearly nothing. As predicted, we ARE in dire trouble.

There is some element showing that things may change: the polls indicate that more and more people are starting to understand the mess we are in and the action of the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg is making waves in the memesphere. We may be awakening from a 30 years slumber to discover that we have to hurry up and do something. But what?

Not that we lack plans: every IPCC report released includes plans on what we could or should do to avoid the worse. We have to follow a steep trajectory of de-carbonization while, at the same time, maintaining a vital minimum supply of energy to society. But how to do that?

The most common idea floated in these discussions is to use Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). It is straightforward: instead of releasing into the atmosphere the CO2 emitted by a power plant, you pump it underground, sequestering it in a porous reservoir, maybe one that, earlier on, had contained gas or petroleum.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

One of the great misconceptions of our time is the belief that we can move away from fossil fuels if we make suitable choices on fuels. In one view, we can make the transition to a low-energy economy powered by wind, water, and solar. In other versions, we might include some other energy sources, such as biofuels or nuclear, but the story is not very different.

The problem is the same regardless of what lower bound a person chooses: our economy is way too dependent on consuming an amount of energy that grows with each added human participant in the economy. This added energy is necessary because each person needs food, transportation, housing, and clothing, all of which are dependent upon energy consumption. The economy operates under the laws of physics, and history shows disturbing outcomes if energy consumption per capita declines.

There are a number of issues:

  • The impact of alternative energy sources is smaller than commonly believed.
  • When countries have reduced their energy consumption per capita by significant amounts, the results have been very unsatisfactory.
  • Energy consumption plays a bigger role in our lives than most of us imagine.
  • It seems likely that fossil fuels will leave us before we can leave them.
  • The timing of when fossil fuels will leave us seems to depend on when central banks lose their ability to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates.
  • If fossil fuels leave us, the result could be the collapse of financial systems and governments.

[1] Wind, water and solar provide only a small share of energy consumption today; any transition to the use of renewables alone would have huge repercussions.

According to BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy data, wind, water and solar only accounted for 9.4% 0f total energy consumption in 2017.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

How State Power Regulators Are Making Utilities Account for the Costs of Climate Change

How State Power Regulators Are Making Utilities Account for the Costs of Climate Change

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham

The electricity powering your computer or smartphone that makes it possible for you to read this article could come from one of several sources. It’s probably generated by burning natural gas or coal or from operating a nuclear reactor, unless it’s derived from hydropower or wind or solar energy. Who gets to choose?

In many states, it’s up to the utilities, the companies that bill you for electricity. Costs often weigh heavily in their decisions. But deciding which costs to consider is a very subjective process.

If your utility accounts for the toll taken by climate change, like Xcel Energy in Colorado does, your state electricity regulator probably makes the company do that. This approach is one behind-the-scenes way that a growing number of states are addressing global warming.

As scholars who study the intersection between policies that deal with climate change and energy, we have studied the rules that govern electric utilities across the nation. Our new report sheds light on where state regulators have the ability to make rules that mandate action on climate change.

States, Electricity and Climate Change

Every additional ton of the greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity contributes to climate change. This carbon pollution has many negative consequences, both to the physical world and also to global social and economic systems.

But utilities don’t always tally the costs of these consequences. Because dealing with climate change is astronomically expensive, we believe that this should change.

Utilities still largely rely on coal, natural gas and nuclear energy to keep the lights on. These companies rely on older technologies in part because those facilities are already built and, to a degree, because of how much it costs to start up and shut down power plants. What’s more, fossil fuels have generally been cheaper than other energy sources until somewhat recently.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Why All the Uproar Over the Green New Deal?

Why All the Uproar Over the Green New Deal?

Pulp mill, Longview, Washington. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Same ol’ same ol’ battle: The more things change, the more they stay the same

On August 21, 2009, The Wall Street Journal reported that “…many scientists say deep emissions cuts are necessary … to prevent … dangerous consequences of global warming,” and also reported that,  “Getting from here to there would require a massive economic shift.”

There’s likely been no better summary of the Green New Deal’s basic rationale. 

In just a few words, the Journal succinctly stated a dangerous trend of rising emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, identified the scale of action necessary to putting a lid on the danger, and did that 10 years before the Sunrise Movement caught the attention of newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

The details on either the science or economic side of the responses to the Green New Deal can be dazzling, and we’ve seen a virtual explosion of debate across topics that will be discussed in the following pages. 

But, then as now, the heart of the massive economic shift deemed necessary by the evidence from science is a shift away from financing fossil fuels, with an accompanying shift to financing of renewables. Any such shift of “massive” scale was always going to rock some politically influential boats, so an offensive aimed at defeating it was revved up full bore. At bottom, it has long been and still is a competitive scramble for money.

Before the Green New Deal: The Old Battle Informs the New

In fact, an attack against renewables was kicked into gear years ago, and the current anti-Green New Deal brouhaha  is just a rehash of an old campaign to defend the capital and capitalists aligned around combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas. 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

March 28, 2019 Book review of Bryce’s “Power hungry: the myths of green energy and the real fuels of the future”

March 28, 2019 Book review of Bryce’s “Power hungry: the myths of green energy and the real fuels of the future”

Preface.  This is a book review of: Robert Bryce. 2009. Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.

This is a brilliant book, very funny at times, a great way to sharpen your critical thinking skills, and complex ideas and principles expressed so enough anyone can understand them.

I have two main quibbles with his book.  I’ve written quite a bit about energy and resources in “When trucks stop running” and this website about why nuclear power and natural gas cannot get us out of the peak oil crisis (after all, natural gas and uranium are finite also).

This book came out in 2009. As far as his liking for nuclear power, perhaps Bryce would have been less enthusiastic if he’d read the 2013 “Too Hot to Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste” by W. A. Alley et al., Cambridge University Press.  And also the 2016 National Research Council “Lessons Learned from the Fukushima Nuclear Accident for Improving Safety and Security of U.S. Nuclear Plants: Phase 2”.  As a result of this study, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Science Magazine concluded that a nuclear spent fuel fire at Peach Bottom in Pennsylvania could force up to 18 million people to evacuate. This is because the spent fuel is not stored under the containment vessel where the reactor is, which would keep the radioactivity from escaping, so if electric power were out for 12 to 31 days (depending on how hot the stored fuel was), the fuel from the reactor core cooling down in a nearby nuclear spent fuel pool could catch on fire and cause millions of flee from thousands of square miles of contaminated land.

Bryce on why the green economy won’t work:

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Oil Industry Ponders Getting ‘Dragged into Low-Carbon Future’ While Claiming it ‘Stepped up’ on Climate

Oil Industry Ponders Getting ‘Dragged into Low-Carbon Future’ While Claiming it ‘Stepped up’ on Climate

fossil fuel refinery

The fossil fuel industry’s faith that the modern world economy will be powered by its products for the indefinite future is usually unwavering. But cracks in that faith recently appeared in Houston at the top annual oil industry conference, known as CERAweek.

The trade publication Platts S&P Global noted that “talk of oil at CERAWeek felt a bit more lackluster this time around,” according to several attendees. Various pressures — from climate-anxious investors to competition from renewables — apparently are tempering the oil and gas industry’s usual optimism.

Perhaps also contributing to the mood was Norway’s announcement, just a day before the conference began, that its sovereign wealth fund was divesting from over 100 oil and gas exploration companies around the world. This news led to headlines like “World’s largest sovereign wealth fund to scrap oil and gas stocks.” Its fund managers were clear this decision wasn’t out of concern for the climate, but instead to make sure they didn’t lose money on risky oil and gas investments. 

Only a few years ago, however, CERAweek was brimming with industry bravado, in which oil company CEOs mocked renewable energy sources and made claims that the oil industry just wanted to lift poor people out of poverty.

At the 2014 conference, attendees even heard Gina McCarthy — the Obama-appointed head of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time — promise that “[c]onventional fuels like coal and natural gas are going to play a critical role in a diverse energy mix for years to come.”

Oil and Gas ‘Crisis of Confidence’

Embed from Getty Images

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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