Zero Emissions a Heavy Lift, but Do-able

December 23, 2020

More on the recent Princeton study looking at pathways to zero carbon by mid-century.

Now a mountainous body of scholarship and real life experience indicating we can do this, but time is short.

New York Times:

If the United States wants to get serious about tackling climate change, the country will need to build a staggering amount of new energy infrastructure in just the next 10 years, laying down steel and concrete at a pace barely being contemplated today.

That’s one conclusion from a major study released Tuesday by a team of energy experts at Princeton University, who set out several exhaustively detailed scenarios for how the country could slash its greenhouse gas emissions down to zero by 2050. That goal has been endorsed by President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., as well as numerous states and businesses, to help avoid the worst effects of global warming.

The study’s findings are at once optimistic and sobering. Reaching “net zero” by 2050 appears technically feasible and even affordable. There are ways to get there that rely solely on renewable energy, as many environmentalists prefer, or that lean on other technologies such as nuclear power or carbon capture. Each approach carries different social and economic trade-offs.

The researchers identified a common set of drastic changes that the United States would need to make over the next decade to stay on pace for zero emissions. That initial groundwork has to start pretty much immediately.

Some examples:

  • This year, energy companies will install 42 gigawatts of new wind turbines and solar panels, smashing records. But that annual pace would need to nearly double over the next decade, and then keep soaring, transforming the landscapes in states like Florida or Missouri.
  • The capacity of the nation’s electric grid would have to expand roughly 60 percent by 2030 to handle vast amounts of wind and solar power, which would mean thousands of miles of new power lines crisscrossing the country.
  • Car dealerships would look radically different. Today, electric-vehicle models are just 2 percent of new sales. By 2030, at least 50 percent of new cars sold would need to be battery-powered, with that share rising thereafter.
  • Most homes today are heated by natural gas or oil. But in the next 10 years, nearly one-quarter would need to be warmed with efficient electric heat pumps, double today’s numbers.
  • Virtually all of the 200 remaining coal-burning power plants would have to shut down by 2030.
  • Today, there are no cement plants that bury their emissions underground, and there are no facilities sustainably producing hydrogen, a clean-burning fuel. By the mid-2020s, several such plants would need to be operating to prepare for wider deployment.

“The scale of what we have to build in a very short time frame surprised me,” said Christopher Greig, a senior scientist at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. “We can do this, we can afford this, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to get it done.”

Mark Jacobson of Stanford had a reply to certain features of the Princeton Study – citing in particular cost figures for renewable energy (too high, he says) and nuclear (too low). Jacobson also criticizes contemplation of Carbon Capture and Storage technology, which he says is futile, given the additional (fossil fuel) energy needed to capture and store greenhouse gases.

Mark Jacobson in Clean Technica:

First, most scientists believe that if we want to avoid 1.5 oC global warming since the early 1900s and its catastrophic consequences, the only practical way is to eliminate 80% of energy and non-energy emissions by no later than 2030 and 100% by or before 2050. Neither the Paris Accord nor the other proposals listed at the beginning are nearly so aggressive enough to accomplish this goal. Second, a careful look at the policies of world leaders indicate that, while they include WWS and storage, they also include either natural gas, carbon capture, direct air capture, biofuels, and/or nuclear power. Thus, these leaders propose an “all-of-the-above” policy, where they will try everything that special interests claim help solve the climate problem but really can’t. This policy is often disguised under the term,”climate neutrality.” The term sounds good and creates political majorities, but it also extends technological path dependencies on fossil and nuclear business models. Even worse, the “all-of-the-above-climate neutrality” policy does not address air pollution or energy insecurity at all; instead, it worsens these problems.

As famously stated once, mediocrity is the enemy of greatness. In this case, mediocrity is the enemy of the solution.

So, why does “all-of-the-above” not work?

First, natural gas results in enormous carbon dioxide, methane, and air pollution emissions, both during its mining and use. In addition, it is a limited resource, is used significantly in centralized power plants, is often mined then shipped across country boundaries, and has mining and water pollution risks. As a result, natural gas damages climate, human health via air pollution, and energy security, so it fails to solve any problem. A current example from Europe illustrates the absurdity of current policy related to natural gas. Europe and Germany are currently constructing the Northstream II natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. This contradicts all agreed objectives and is economically and ecologically nonsensical. However, it was agreed upon as a concession to special interest groups within the framework of “climate neutrality.” 

Second, carbon capture (removing carbon dioxide from smoke stacks) and direct air capture (removing carbon dioxide from the air) fail on their face on multiple levels. First, they reduce absolutely no air pollution. Instead, because they require energy to run, they require more mining and burning of natural gas or coal to provide that energy, thus they increase both mining and air pollution. Since they increase rather than decrease the use of fossil fuels, they hasten all the energy security risks of fossil fuels. Because they are inefficient and costly at reducing carbon from smokestacks or the air, the money they use to do that could more easily be used to build a wind turbine or solar plant to replace a coal or gas plant, thus reduce more carbon from the air while simultaneously reducing air pollution and mining. Finally, what happens to the carbon that is captured? Well, today, most is piped to an oil field to make the oil less dense to get it out of the ground more easily. Half the captured carbon is lost back to the air through this process. There is no proof that the rest of the carbon stays in the ground. Recently, EU politicians have been raving about “blue hydrogen”, in which the CO2 produced during the production of hydrogen using natural gas will be captured and stored. Such technologies are often promised by companies in the oil and gas industry as “the miracle weapon for achieving climate neutrality,” for which they request generous state subsidies.

Third, biofuels and biomass are billed as climate saviors. Biofuels are burned as a replacement for gasoline or diesel in vehicles. Biomass is burned as a replacement for coal or natural gas to produce electricity. Because biofuels and biomass are both burned, they create similar levels of air pollution as the fossil fuels that they replace. The land use required for biofuels is enormous. Photosynthesis is only 1% efficient. Solar panels are 20% efficient. Thus, a solar panel needs 1/20th the land as a biofuel to produce the same energy. On top of that, an electric car uses 1/4th the energy as an internal-combustion engine car to go the same distance. Thus, a battery-electric car running on solar energy uses 1/80th the land as an ethanol-fueled car. Further, biofuels require huge amounts of energy, fertilizers, and water to process and transport. Some studies find that the carbon consumed in producing a biofuel is similar to that of the gasoline or diesel it replaces. Similarly, whereas several forms of biomass (e.g., forestry residues) produce less carbon than coal or natural gas for electricity generation, others (e.g., municipal solid waste) produce much more. Even the forms of biomass that produce the least carbon still emit many times more carbon than wind energy. In fact, wind and solar reduce orders of magnitude more air pollution while using less land and reducing much more carbon than biofuels or biomass.

Fourth, new nuclear power has zero chance of helping to solve the urgent climate, pollution, and energy security problems described. New nuclear plants take 10 to 19 years between planning and operation. This includes the times to obtain a construction site, a construction permit, an operating permit, financing, and insurance; the time between construction permit approval and issue; and the construction time. This compares with planning-to-operation times of new wind or utility PV of 1 to 3 years. Thus, with an average new nuclear time of 15 years, not a single new reactor planned today could be built by 2030, when we need 80 percent of all emissions stopped. This applies to proposed Small Modular Reactors, the first of which is estimated to be commercially available only by 2030, and this will likely be delayed as well.

On top of that, new nuclear plants (including Small Modular Reactors) cost around 5 times that of a new onshore wind or utility PV farm. Thus, we for the same money, we would obtain one-fifth the energy with nuclear and 7 to 18 years later. 

Moreover, nuclear has multiple energy security problems. 1.5% of all nuclear reactors built to date have melted down; multiple countries have developed nuclear weapons secretly under the guise of civilian nuclear energy programs; nuclear radioactive waste must by stored over 250,000 years and has exposure risks; and nuclear has underground uranium mining risks for lung cancer. WWS technologies do not have any of these risks. Finally, nuclear is not carbon free. It results in significant carbon emissions during the 10 to 19 years between planning and operation; it requires significant energy for refining uranium and building the plant over many years, and it emits direct heat and water vapor, a greenhouse gas, to the air during its operation. Overall, it emits 9 to 37 times the carbon-equivalent emissions per unit energy produced as a new wind turbine.

In sum, an all-of-the-above policy is a mediocre policy that will not help solve the global warming, air pollution, or energy security problems we face because it will siphon scarce resources needed for the real solution to these problems. It will also siphon precious time, which we have very little of.

9 Responses to “Zero Emissions a Heavy Lift, but Do-able”

  1. Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

    Really beginning to dislike M Jacobson which is a shame.
    Nuclear proliferation.
    Most of the worlds population are in states with bombs. Ergo, proliferation is a straw man, too late.
    Most nuke power plants are poor bomb material makers.
    A nuke plant is not required to make a nuke bomb anyway.
    Any state that wants a bomb can try, by any method to produce it regardless.
    And the world cooks!

    To Peter Greenperson, the real people of Crock, Merry Xmas and wishing you all a GOOD new year.

  2. Gingerbaker Says:

    “Really beginning to dislike M Jacobson which is a shame”

    That is a shame. Maybe you should re-examine your grievances against him. Nuclear just ain’t going to happen. In a world where 40% of Americans can’t afford a surprise $400 expense, no nuclear is a good thing.

    • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

      Shall answer that. It is a big enough ask to convince the world to save itself without the forces of light pushing fantastical dogmas, dangerous fantasies. Also, pointing out future problems in renewables is bad propaganda and provides arguments for the shtsphere.
      As for the richest country in the world having an obscene wealth gap, that is another problem. The poor can’t afford it is still promulgated on renewables. Remember, not a lot of years ago, PV so expensive it was STUPID to consider!

      Above is specific to proliferation, wanna comment on that?
      Happy festive season!

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Iran would be my answer to that. North Korea.

        The tech needed for nuclear power plants is used to develop nuclear bomb capability by these two crazy radical autocratic regimes alone. A recipe for disaster.

        • greenman3610 Says:

          “peaceful” nuclear programs very often evolve into weapons capability, history shows this.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Iran enriches uranium, ‘approaching’ weapons grade, with centrifuges. Nuclear plant not required. Dunno about N Korea, and suggest no encouragement be given them to do anything nuclear. Meanwhile, the civilized (??) nations of the world aka developed, expand their nuke power capacity and reduce AGW gas pollution. Those few that don’t have it need to start. Until a better solution arrives, the choice is that or cook.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Nuclear just ain’t going to happen.

      Not in the US, but a fiat government like China could do it. They don’t have all that pesky democracy or jurisdictional overhead to deal with.

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Sure hear you on that.
        Love the comment by ex Brit politician big NGO Millibrand (?). Non democracy leaders would say “the people are not ready for freedom yet ..Blah blah.” Now they say “democracy, what a shit show, you have got to be kidding”.
        Not planning on changing country type personally.

  3. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Tim Cook: “We’re focusing on autonomous systems.”

    Skynet, here we come.

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