World climate defense—the U.S. is not helping

CaliforniaGeo 12-10-19

There are 197 nations other than the United States who committed to the Paris Accords of 2015.  Even though the Green New Deal and Greta Thunberg have become well known for de-carbonization, the U.S. has maintained that energy “independence” is still a worthy policy goal.

False Independence-

Historically, a number of critical moments have left the U.S. over a barrel (of foreign oil) and each time, sabers rattled on this side of the Atlantic, including the well known quote of “How did our oil get underneath their sand?”  But today, renewable energy sources of electricity and thermal energy make this kind of hegemonic arrogance unnecessary. 

Independence means that we would not have to import carbon from other nations, thereby eliminating our vulnerability from their influence or control.  There are three problems with this.  

First, digging or pumping more carbon to the surface on our own and burning it is a retreat from efforts to preserve climate and is the opposite of what we once promised we’d do under the Paris Accords.  

Second, the ambitious hopes and plans of fossil fuel companies to frack their way to increased riches includes building liquified natural gas terminals that will send methane overseas to buyers who will burn it elsewhere–still a climate threat to all.  (The fossil industries would profit while the world suffers environmental and physical destruction we will all continuously pay for.

Third, none of this is necessary.  Renewable energy sources are growing in utilization and markedly dropping in price.  We have been net energy independent for quite some time.  For example, the greatest dollar export in calendar 2011 was refined petroleum products sent to overseas markets (fuels, solvents and chemical feedstocks we couldn’t use or that brought the fossil giants better profit, even with the costs of transport).  Incidentally, all these large, mature fossil-based industries still receive federal tax subsidies as if they were fledgling start-ups.  Finally, transportation (our biggest oil consumer) is steadily electrifying.   

What’s happening now-

Electric generating plants burning coal are disappearing every month, not by policy edict, but by economics.  They are too expensive to run and are too slow and expensive to build from scratch.  Utilities who use them want to run them to the end of their previously planned operating life, trying to make ratepayers or state governments pay for any shortened duty cycle.

Renewable electricity from solar PV and wind, right-sized with grid-scale battery storage, continue to drop in price.  If we really put a realistic price on what carbon costs us overall in pollution while it’s extracted, consumed energy and pollution while it’s transported, combustion emissions and the respiratory health costs to humans, and carbon’s contribution to drought, migration, stronger storms, and their damage—we would have outlawed carbon by now.

Targeted punishment-

An October 2019 push by the Trump Administration to lease new thousands of acres of federal land inside California for more fracking is all about preservation of the carbon business model.  The hypocrisy of this move is found in September’s discovery by Trump’s EPA that California’s record pollution in the South San Joaquin Valley area deserves federal sanction.  Their tortured logic is that because air pollution is heavy in California locations, that’s grounds for opposing the recent agreement between the state and auto manufacturers for tougher vehicle mileage standards.  If California won’t buckle to Trump’s EPA by accepting greater auto pollution, the feds say they will hold back highway funding, statewide.

Big Tobacco’s comeuppance, repeated-

We are now witnessing a lawsuit by Massachusetts that has met with Supreme Court approval to proceed with discovery to begin pre-trial work.  The case seeks to expose documents  showing that Exxon-Mobil’s own science team predicted decades ago that combustion of their product would increase global warming with the consequences we are now witnessing.  The crux of the issue in legal context is that they knew the hazards but did nothing about it.

A generous comparison with tort law is that Exxon was negligent in their behavior because it is and has been harming others.  An additional possibility is that because they channeled Big Tobacco’s PR campaign of denial and deflection of any hazard from use of their product, this may constitute fraud.

The rise of electrification-

Although all the fossil industries have received nothing but aid and comfort from the Trump Administration, smaller jurisdictions than the federal government have unified separately to reduce carbon for defense against climate change.  A growing number of cities are banning the use of natural gas in new buildings, and a serious return to electrification is being suggested to help get away from carbon emissions.  

An emphasis on renewably generated electricity yields the only energy source that can be generated in perpetuity, without pollution.  It can power all the traditional lighting and plug loads common to our society.  Importantly, it can also power heat pumps, whose output is heating, cooling, and hot water.  Heat pumps concentrate and transfer existing thermal energy; they don’t consume water, and perform the majority of these tasks with a single piece of equipment.

The most efficient and longest lasting of the heat pump family is the geothermal (or “ground source” type).  It doesn’t interact with normal or extreme temperature air surrounding a building.  Instead, its underground heat exchanger piping at five-to-600 feet below provides a consistent thermal medium that can be tapped or recharged like a battery.  Thermal energy can be withdrawn or deposited in either heating or cooling operation.

Many buildings are now better insulated, glazed, and less porous, so heating and cooling systems can be smaller and less consumptive.  Electric resistance heating now exists only in older water heaters, on cooktops and within ovens—not in heating systems.

Nearly all U.S. states have “Renewable Portfolio Standards” that mandate achievement for specific percentages of carbon-free electricity.  California is an ambitious example, stretching for 33% in 2020 (reached in 2018) and 50% by 2030.  The longer range goal is 100% renewable electricity by 2045.

California’s energy goals are remarkable for a different reason.  Our 1970s young governor was nationally derided as “Governor Moonbeam” for his (then) radical ideas, including the paradigm phrase, “Small is Beautiful.”  He created his Energy Commission at a time when electricity consumption was growing 7% annually and the Rand Corporation’s think tank predicted a need for one nuclear power plant every 20 miles along California’s coast.

Since then, even with a massive population increase, California has remained flat in per capita electricity consumption.  At the same time, the rest of the nation has grown by 50% in per capita consumption.  Our Title-24 regulations have become nationally known as the gold  standard in appliance, lighting, and machinery efficiency and have been widely copied and adopted by other jurisdictions, saving consumers billions of dollars on their energy bills.

In 2016, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric announced they would not seek license renewal for their two Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors in 2024 and 2025.  They predicted a savings of 5.1 billion dollars by expanding renewables and grid battery storage.

Trends and technology point the way toward better defense against carbon and global warming, even if Washington will not act boldly and Donald Trump still fights to preserve incandescent light bulbs.  The U.S. has put more carbon in the air than any other country.  It’s time for us to be a bigger part of the climate solution than we have been since pulling out of the 2015 Paris Accords.