Dispatches from the clean energy revolution

March 16, 2014

The analogy between the energy revolution and the information revolution is far from perfect.  Energy technology transformation may well be slower, weighted down as it is by Titanics of sunk capital and powerful incumbents with strong incentives to forestall change.fast forward green

But the revolution is clearly underway.  4 recent items:

1)      The Minnesota Public Utility Commission issued a Value of Solar Tariff that includes, among other things, the federal government’s estimate of the “social cost of carbon.”  Solar’s worth more because it’s better… because you don’t have to pay for it with disaster relief and mass extinctions and stuff.

2)      Amory Lovins has a good rundown of how a growing number of states and countries are running their power systems on a high percentage of renewable power.  The idea that renewable energy penetration is inherently limited by intermittency is becoming obsolete.  (Energy demand is intermittent, but no one is suggesting we can’t deal with that.)  The need for “baseload” coal and nuclear is waning fast.   Resource diversity, better forecasting, distributed storage, dispatchable renewables, and demand response are all being used to integrate larger and larger percentages of renewable power — and that’s before you even get to the big storage solutions. Per the savant of Old Snowmass:

“After all, half the world’s new generating capacity added each year starting in 2008 has been renewable; solar cells are scaling faster than cellphones, probably surpassing windpower’s 2013 additions; and Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects solar power to compete with retail grid power in three-fourths of world markets in another year or two. The first part of the renewable power revolution—scaling production—is already well underway. Next comes the interesting part: ensuring that all the moving parts mesh properly.”

3)      Austin Energy signed a long-term deal for 150 MW of solar from a big PV station for $.05 per kilowatt-hour.  5 cents.  A nickel.  Seriously cheap.  Greentech Media reports:

Bret Kadison, COO of Austin-based Brazos Resources, an energy investment firm, said this was “a highly competitive solicitation….This is below the all-in cost of natural gas generation, even with low fuel prices and before factoring in commodity volatility and cost overruns.” He also points out that the original RFP was for 50 megawatts, but the utility ended up buying 150 megawatts “in a red state where hydrocarbons dominate the political landscape.” Kadison suggests that “one of the biggest cost reduction drivers that allowed solar to reach this parity came from the massive reduction in financing costs.”

4) It’s happening…. if we’ll just give it a chance, as a group of young American leaders including Oscar-winner Jared Leto urged Secretary of State John Kerry to do in a letter opposing the Keystone XL pipeline.  They called on Kerry to summon up the courage and moral clarity he used to help end the Vietnam War, when he asked Congress, “How can you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”   Say the whipper-snappers to the Secretary:kid fist

“As young American leaders, we are confident in our ability to engineer solutions over time, and we enthusiastically support the Obama Administration’s commitment to advancing these solutions. The urgent climate imperative now – what our generation asks and expects of yours – is to give those solutions time to grow. We must not squander our precious time and capital now on making the problem intractably worse, especially when we are so bullish on the opportunities to make it better!”

Read the letter here.


“The Petro States of America” in Businessweek

February 27, 2014

Are we still living in a democracy?  Or an oilgarchy, a petrocracy?  The Keystone XL decision will be a pretty good indication.

Mark Hertsgaard makes the case powerfully today in BusinessWeek, describing why it’s tough for the President to do the right thing on the pipeline:

…[T]here’s a deeper explanation for Obama’s caution on Keystone that rarely gets acknowledged. He is the president of a petro state, a country that ranks as an OPEC nation in all but name. And in a petro state, saying no to Big Oil is never easy.

The whole piece is well worth a read, here.Saving democracy

Over the long haul, delivering climate solutions will turn out to be one of the most effective things we can do to restore democracy.  We can build a powerful, virtuous circle:   implementing solutions, reducing fossil fuel dependence, eroding the concentrated economic and political power of fossil fuel interests, and opening the door for more and better solutions.

But first we have to make it through the short haul.  We have to prevent near-term investments like KXL that would lock in fossil fuel dependence and dangerous emission levels — betraying the promise of a clean energy economy that’s rapidly dispelling fossil-funded doubts about its viability.

And to do that, we can’t wait for a patient virtuous circle of solutions and democracy.  We have to assert some democracy.  Like this.

Candidate Obama said it’s time to “end the tyranny of oil.”  The pivotal question now is whether President Obama will use his sole discretion to stand up to that tyranny, or submit to it.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Further thoughts on oil and democracy here:  All Oil is Foreign,

…and on fossil fuels and American values here:  What’s American Energy?  Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

And Climate Solutions offers a new marketing tagline for the Nissan Leaf:  Pull up at the gas station.  Pump up your tires.  Clean your windshield.  And Leaf!


As the Pipeline Turns: Obama’s inescapable drama

January 28, 2014

“Keystone: A central cohesive source of support and stability; lynchpin; crux; principle” — The Free Dictionary

No one would have written it this way. No one, that is, except a writer.no xl

The Keystone XL decision – a permit for a pipe – turns out to be the moment of truth for the most powerful person in the world, the leader of the nation with the greatest responsibility for the climate crisis and the greatest capacity to deliver solutions. And it arrives at the last hour, or certainly the last Presidency, when we can change course before we become locked in to catastrophic climate disruption.

Thoughtful voices worry that Keystone is the wrong fight, that it’s “only symbolic,” that it has eaten up too much time and attention at the expense of battles that might have delivered more substantive results. They are being too literal-minded. Keystone is a well-chosen pipeline in the sand on climate, and a source of momentum and inspiration for climate action generally.

Part of the power of this battle is that – unlike, say, national climate legislation or ratifying an international treaty – it is the President’s decision alone. One of the toughest nuts to crack on the way to climate solutions is that responsibility is everyone’s, so, as a practical matter, it often ends up being no one’s. Keystone is a focused moment of accountability on the single human with the greatest power to effectuate solutions – the person whose evasion of the challenge would make all other efforts seem pointless.

To his enormous credit, the President put the Keystone decision squarely where it belongs: in the context of the imperative to stop aggravating the climate crisis. Now we will find out whether he has the integrity to do what is right and necessary when the decision is his.

But Keystone isn’t just symbolic – a gratuitous test of Presidential will, or an organizing stunt. The pipeline is an enormous piece of long-lived capital infrastructure that would mainline one of the world’s biggest carbon pools to the world’s hungriest energy markets. It is both a powerful symbol and a honking concrete example of exactly what we must not do if we are to avert climate calamity. As the IEA has repeatedly warned, we cannot keep feeding the climate beast with capital and hope to slay it. An up or down decision on a permit to build this pipeline is an excellent test of whether we got that memo.

This is a bare-naked question of whether the President will observe the most central principle for climate action – the Keystone, as it were, for solutions: Will we stop making it irrevocably worse, now, before it’s too late?

But ultimately, the most important reason Keystone is a (not the) right fight is because we’re having it. And lo and behold, that turns out to be the first condition for winning. We have slipped and slithered and dithered and dodged for well over a quarter century since it became clear that we had a five-alarm fire on our hands. And yet only now, in the context of Keystone XL, is climate emerging as a fight with the level of intensity it deserves, the passion needed to overcome the raw economic power standing between us and solutions.

One may very well be able to make a hypothetical case for why another defining battle would have been better. But that’s just it: this one’s not hypothetical.

The President says we should just all settle down – that both sides of the Keystone battle are overblowing it. But calmness in the face of calamity is part of what’s killing us.

No matter: as much as the President may wish his climate legacy would not be defined by the Keystone XL decision, that’s not his call anymore. It was the climate movement’s.


Go figure: Giant dirty oil pipeline is a climate problem

December 19, 2013

Keystone XL could dramatically increase climate pollution.  So suggests an important new study from the Stockholm Environment Institute, available here.

The authors have identified and fixed a critical flaw in how the question of net climate impact is generally analyzed.  They’ve shown that big capacity additions in global markets have price effects that tend to sustain and expand demand and therefore production over time.  Intuitively, this seems straightforward, but many economic models miss this effect.

In a sane world, this would not be news.  The pipeline is designed for the express purpose of mainlining up to 830,000 barrels per day of extremely carbon intensive fuel into global energy markets.  It should hardly be surprising or contentious that climate-wise, it sucks.Dog bites man

And yet the President raised the question in his historic June climate speech, promising to reject the permit for Keystone if it “significantly exacerbates the problem of climate pollution.”  At the time, the State Department’s scandalously flawed draft EIS had already given us reasons to worry that he would arrive at the wrong answer.

This part of the President’s speech was a big surprise – the pundits said he would avoid KXL like the plague.  But we still don’t really know what he meant.  It’s been a bit of a Rohrschach test for climate advocates.

Eric de Place at Sightline thought it means we’re toast.  This freaked me out, because Eric’s a flippin genius.  However, I remain hopeful – if only by sheer will – that the President’s climate test on KXL will turn out to be a watershed, and a good one.  Just the fact that he made climate impact a dispositive test is huge, a genie that can’t be rebottled.  Regardless of what he meant or how he intends to apply the test, it establishes and highlights a vital principle for climate action:  first, we have to stop making it irrevocably worse (the Keystone Principle).  (The principle has conspicuously not been applied to other critical federal actions, like environmental review of coal export, or coal leasing.)

The claim that KXL will not meaningfully increase climate pollution rests first on the assumption that the Alberta tar sands will be fully exploited, with or without the pipeline.  This has been roundly and repeatedly refuted.  But what bugs me most about it is the implicit fatalism.  The tar sands are one of the largest global carbon pools that must remain in the ground if we are to stabilize the climate before it spirals out of control.  Assuming that they will be fully vaporized is simply capitulating to climate disruption, and to the fossil-fueled tyranny that keeps us careening toward this cliff with no accountability, no policy, no democratic control of our institutions.  It seems like an innocent analytical assumption, but it amounts to ratifying Jim Hansen’s dire warning:  Game over.

Surely that is not what the President meant when he posed this test, toward the end of his rousing climate speech, in which he effectively said for the first time, Game On.  When he talks about Keystone now, his message is basically, “Settle down.”  He complains that everyone is overblowing it:  the proponents vastly overstate its economic benefits, while opponents exaggerate its climate impacts.  He seems irked that this has become a defining test of his resolve on climate.   He gets cover from liberal opinion leaders like Eric Chait, who contend that Keystone is the wrong fight.

Like Joe Romm, I strenuously disagree; I think it’s a fair and appropriate and vital test.  Keystone is both a conspicuous example and a powerful symbol for the single most important and immediate thing we must do to execute a winning climate strategy:  stop making long-term fossil fuel infrastructure investments that make the problem not just worse, but completely intractable.

But whether Eric Chait or Joe Romm or even the President himself thinks Keystone is the ideal test of his commitment to responsible climate action is now completely beside the point.  The emerging climate movement made it the real-world test.    The only question left is whether the President will pass or fail it.


Dear John: Don’t make it worse

May 11, 2013

Talk swirls about some kind of “deal” for the Keystone XL Pipeline.  I don’t see it.

Political “realists” say Congress is incapable of passing a serious climate policy, period.  That assessment becomes more valid every time the “realists” echo it, so I’m not going there.  (I was expelled from their ranks long ago.) But a construction permit for a pipeline is nowhere near enough leverage to remove the obstacles to national climate policy.  As a political matter, the President’s opponents want to have the Keystone fight more than they want to win it.Maple syrup not dilbit

And it hardly seems necessary or wise to “trade” Keystone XL for regulation of climate pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act.  We already won the latter in the Supreme Court and the President as much as announced his intention to move forward in the State of the Union address.  Sure, there’s a range of ultimate outcomes on the CO2 rules; but by the time we know how hard the Administration will really push for strong CO2 regs, this year’s Keystone decision will be long gone.  If it’s supposed to strike some kind of political “balance,” it’s only on paper – the real political (economic) constituencies for the pipeline and power plant emissions are different.

Moreover, there’s a principle at stake (the Keystone Principle).  It’s neither scientifically defensible nor morally acceptable to continue using scarce capital and time to invest in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.  Regulating climate pollution from power plants is a vital step forward, and potentially a very big one.  But in no world where we actually step up to the climate challenge does it justify a big, irreversible step in the wrong direction, like Keystone.  There’s no symmetry, no justice there — just political games, and losing ones at that.

I was proud to join a big group of Heinz and Goldman prize-winners – including a bunch of personal heroes – in making the case to Secretary of State Kerry this week. We wrote:

May 8, 2013

The Honorable John Kerry, Secretary of State  

Dear Mr. Secretary,

As recipients of Heinz Awards for our work in environment, energy, and public policy, and the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism, we write to you with an urgent appeal to affirm America’s commitment to climate solutions by rejecting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  

We are deeply honored and humbled to have been recognized for our achievements. But we are acutely aware that despite your best efforts and ours, the climate crisis is now upon us. After a year of unprecedented weather extremes and disruption, this is no longer only about impacts in the future. It’s about social, economic, environmental, and moral consequences, now.

We do not lack for viable solutions. Public and private leaders in America are demonstrating that energy efficiency, clean energy, transportation choices, and a range of other strategies are practical and economic. We are using them to build healthier communities and stronger local economies. We can say this with confidence: sustainable, broadly-shared economic opportunity is possible as we make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and efficient energy systems.

But we cannot make the transition overnight. It will take many decades of patient commitment and investment to complete it. And while “winning” a safe climate future is a long game, we can lose it very quickly — within President Obama’s second term. Continued investment in capital-intensive, long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure like Keystone XL will “lock in” emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. This is the hard bottom line of the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that without an immediate shift in energy infrastructure investment, humanity would “lose forever” the chance to avert climate catastrophe.

Critics of the effort to stop the pipeline suggest that this is not “the right way” to deal with climate. It is certainly not sufficient, and it would arguably be unnecessary if we had a responsible national and global climate policies. You fought for such policy as a Senator, and we desperately need one. But stopping the pipeline is necessary to ensure that the problem remains solvable — that we don’t become irrevocably committed to emission trajectories that guarantee failure before we mobilize for success.

There is a strain of fatalism among some opinion leaders regarding Keystone (characteristic of prevailing attitudes toward climate generally): “Canada will develop the tar sands no matter what we do.” “We’ll get the oil from somewhere, so it might as well be North America.” “They’ll just find another route.” These objections are neither analytically defensible nor morally responsible. We can’t do everything to address climate disruption, but as the world’s biggest economy and the largest historic emitter, we can and should do a great deal. As a nation with unparalleled capacities for innovation and entrepreneurship, we can do even more. Facilitating accelerated investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is flatly inconsistent with this responsibility, and with the diplomatic effort to build our standing as an international leader and facilitator of global cooperation to tackle the climate challenge.

Keystone XL is a big, literal, conspicuous example of exactly what we must not do if we are genuinely committed to climate solutions. It is a fundamental element — a “keystone” if you will — of the industry’s plan to expand production of this carbon-intensive fuel from 2 million barrels per day to 6 million bpd by 2030. And as significant as its direct consequences are, Keystone XL is much more than a pipeline. It is a test of whether we will indeed, as the President said in his inaugural address, “respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

The human consequences of unchecked climate disruption are almost unimaginably grave. We cannot continue to ignore — or, worse, aggravate — these consequences by considering decisions like Keystone outside of this moral context. Approving the permit would amount to affirming moral evasion, at exactly the moment that you and the President have argued so passionately for moral engagement.

We believe in the power and promise of climate solutions. We know they work; we know they are economically viable; and we know we can implement them. We believe it’s time to look our kids and grandkids — the prospective victims of still-preventable climate disasters — in the eye and say, “We will do what must be done to protect you. We will make this better.”

But they won’t believe us until we stop making it worse. That’s why we urge you in the strongest possible terms to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

With hope and determination to build a healthy future, and the deepest respect for your leadership,

Sincerely,

KC Golden, Policy Director Climate Solutions, 2012 Heinz Award in the Public Policy Category

Lois Gibbs, Executive Director Center for Health, Environment & Justice 1990 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

John Luther Adams, Composer 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jane Akre, Independent News Group, LLC 2001 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

P. Dee Boersma, Ph.D Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science University of Washington, Department of Biology 2009 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Ralph Cavanagh, Energy Program Co-Director Natural Resources Defense Council 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Terrence J. Collins, PhD, Hon FRSNZ Teresa Heinz Professor of Green Chemistry Director, Institute for Green Science Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Chemistry 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Anne H. Ehrlich, Senior Research Scientist Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Paul R. Ehrlich, Bing Professor of Population Studies Stanford University, Department of Biology 1995 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Thomas FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council, Inc. 2008 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jerry F. Franklin, University of Washington, College of Forest Resources 2005 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Maria Gunnoe, Community Organizer 2009 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner 2012 Wallenberg Medal Winner

James Hansen, Columbia University, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences 2001 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Richard J Jackson, MD, MPH, Hon. AIA Former Director, CDC National Center for Environmental Health Professor & Chair, Environmental Health Science UCLA Fielding School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Hilton Kelley, Executive Director & Founder Community In-power and Development Association, Inc. NPA Regional Health Equity Council: Chairman R-6 National Partnership for Action (NPA) to End Health Disparities Member National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Member 2009-2011 2011 North American Goldman Environmental Prize Winner

Joanie Kleypas, Marine Scientist 2011 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Elizabeth Kolbert, Journalist 2010 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Peggy M. Shepard, Executive Director WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Inc. 2004 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

Jack Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor on Environmental Health and Human Habitation Director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment Harvard University, School of Public Health 2012 Heinz Award in the Environment Category

George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center 1997 Heinz Award in the Environment Category


The Keystone Principle

February 15, 2013

The big President’s Day rally on the National Mall is more than a Keystone pipeline protest.  It’s a statement of principle for climate action.

After a year of unprecedented destruction due to weather extremes, the climate fight is no longer just about impacts in the future.  It’s about physical and moral consequences, now.  And Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement.  It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption:  Stop making it worse. stop making it worse 2

Specifically and categorically, we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure that “locks in” dangerous emission levels for many decades.   Keystone is a both a conspicuous example of that kind of investment and a powerful symbol for the whole damned category.

It’s true that stopping a single pipeline – even one as huge and odious as Keystone – will not literally “solve” climate disruption.  No single action will do that, any more than refusing to sit on the back of a single bus literally ended segregation.  The question – for Keystone protestors as it was for Rosa Parks – is whether the action captures and communicates a principle powerful enough to inspire and sustain an irresistible movement for sweeping social change.

Stopping Keystone nails the core principle for climate responsibility, by preventing investments that make climate disruption irrevocably worse.  Again, it’s not just that burning tar sands oil produces a lot of emissions; it’s that long-term capital investments like Keystone (and coal plants, and coal export facilities) “lock in” those dangerous emissions for decades and make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable.

Now, if you are a fossil fuel company, “locking in dangerous emissions” means locking in profits.  It is your business strategy, precisely.  For the rest of us, it’s a one-way, non-refundable ticket to centuries of hell and high water.  We must not buy that ticket.

This is the Keystone Principle.  It emerges from multiple lines of scientific and economic research, most notably the International Energy Agency’s 2012 World Energy Outlook, which starkly warned that the chance to avert catastrophic climate disruption would be “lost forever” without an immediate shift away from fossil fuel infrastructure investment.

But it doesn’t take a supercomputer to confirm that the Keystone Principle is basic common sense.  It’s step one for getting out of a hole:  Stop digging.  A comprehensive strategy for global climate solutions called “Design to Win” put the point succinctly:  “First, don’t lose.”   The choice is clear and binary:  Do it and we’re toast.  So don’t.

In contrast, the many things we must do to advance positive climate solutions – clean energy, more efficient cars and buildings, better transportation choices – are full of grey areas.  Implementing them is inherently slow, incremental, and subject to tradeoffs based on economic and other factors.  Should new fuel economy standards make cars 80% more efficient or 90%?  Over what period of time?  The answers are judgment calls, not moral absolutes.  But when it comes to stopping Keystone and other fossil fuel infrastructure investments, the choice is stark, clear.

“Climate solutions” are millions of Yeses and many shades of green, over a long period of time.  But they also require a few bright red Nos, right now.  These Nos are, you might say, the “keystone” for responding to the climate crisis, as in “something on which associated things [like, say, all efforts to avert catastrophic climate disruption] depend.”  No amount of clean energy investment will stave off disaster unless we stop feeding the fossil fuel beast with capital now.

Most importantly, as we enter the era of climate consequences, the Keystone Principle has moral power.   Many lives were lost, and millions disrupted, by Superstorm Sandy.  Most of the counties in America were declared disaster areas last year due to drought.  Last month, parents in Australia sheltered their children from “tornadoes of fire” by putting them in the ocean.   This is what climate disruption looks like.

Now that the faces of the victims are regular features of the daily news, what will we say to them?  And what will we say to our children – the prospective victims of still-preventable disasters?  Defying the Keystone Principle is like saying “Sorry, you’re out of luck.  We will use our laws, our time, and our money to make it irretrievably worse.”

President Obama has begun to carefully edge away from the moral bankruptcy of this position.  As he said in his inaugural address:   “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

But no one will believe him, or us, until we stop making it worse.  That’s what Keystone is about.  It’s not just a pipeline.   It’s a principle.


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