A recent Gallup opinion poll shows a few interesting patterns in public opinion about energy policy options in the United States. While opinion polls are difficult to interpret and often do not gauge the depth of public sentiment – people tend to over-report their enthusiasm for environmental protection when they do not have to pay for it – this one is interesting for a few reasons. A grain of salt, and here goes:

- Support for energy conservation instead of more energy production is growing. 57% of the respondents now prefer energy conservation. This is a clear increase from the low of 48% in 2011, though we are still 7 percentage points below the high of 64% in 2007.

- Among all Americans, 59% prefer investment in renewable energy to fossil fuels. The really interesting observation, however, pertains to differences between age groups. Among Americans between 18 and 34 years, 80% prefer renewables. Among 55+ years, the corresponding number is only 49%.

Part of this could be youthful enthusiasm, but the large difference between age groups is also an encouraging sign. First, younger Americans live in a media environment that seems to be more favorable to renewables than before (to be honest, this is based on a gut feeling). Second, renewable energy is becoming more competitive and employing more and more people. Third, 80% is such a high number that support among young conservatives must also be relatively high.

Public opinion is not enough to turn the tide, but it could be one part of the solution. These are encouraging signs.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is usually in the news to share more bad news about the possible consequences of climate change. While the organization has always had a working group on mitigation, this group’s contributions have rarely been considered as important as those focusing on climate science and the effects of global warming. That’s a shame since we are not going to solve this global problem just by talking about consequences. We may even have to do something to make our economies and societies more sustainable.

It’s great to see that the mitigation aspect of the IPCC work on the Fifth Assessment report, to be released in October 2015, is more oriented toward solutions. The draft summary for policymakers has now been released and is being discussed in the media. The message of the report is clear:

“Many RE technologies have demonstrated substantial performance improvements and cost reductions, and a growing number of RE technologies have achieved a level of maturity to enable deployment at significant scale (robust evidence, high agreement).”

“Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters, but differences between regions and fuels exist (high confidence).”

In plain English, (i) renewable energy is ready to conquer the world but (ii) the fossil-fuel industry will continue to fight ambitious climate mitigation measures.

In the United States, the energy policy debate has often lost sight of these two important facts. The policy elite spends a lot of time talking about secondary issues, such as shale gas and “energy independence,” instead of focusing all their energies to pave the way for a clean energy future through the aggressive deployment of renewables and equally ambitious energy conservation measures. This is not surprising, given how much political clout the fossil-fuel industry has on Capitol Hill and in many state capitals.  Independent energy policy analysts should step up their efforts to end this digression and re-focus the debate on more relevant issues. The more time we lose counting how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the more expensive it will be to stop disruptive climate change.

Greenpeace Energydesk has published a great report on China’s increasingly ambitious efforts to deal with the huge environmental and health damage that coal burning causes:

” If implemented in full, the measures announced to date could put China’s emissions almost in line with a 2 degrees trajectory in 2020. And more action is still expected.”

Another key line from the report:

“Over half of global CO2 emission growth between 2002 and 2012 was due to increased coal burning in China.”

The promising scenario would be driven by action in twelve Chinese provinces accounting for 44% of the country’s total coal consumption. These provinces are mostly located along the coast and in the northern parts of the country. Another 17 provinces are considering measures to constrain or reduce the burning of coal.

The big question, of course, is whether or not these policies are actually implemented. In general, non-implementation and non-compliance with announced environmental measures plagues the world, and China is no exception. However, there are a few reasons to be optimistic. Coal’s effects on China’s population and, therefore, the economy, are nothing short of catastrophic. With an increasingly wealthy and educated workforce, I suspect that it makes no economic sense for China to continue these high levels of coal consumption.

A potential slowdown in China’s coal consumption puts the ball back to the court of the rest of the world. Can other emerging economies, especially India, grow prosperous without relying on more and more coal? Can the United States kick the coal addiction for good? We have a lot of work to do – let’s go and do it now.

Stretching the concept of “international relations” just a little bit to increase the number of readers, here are some thoughts on the desperate electricity situation in the city of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India:

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2014/04/accountability-in-public-service-provision-lessons-from-a-film-festival.html

Some new thoughts on how we should study climate policy here:

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2014/03/how-should-we-study-energy-and-climate-policy-critical-insights-from-an-isa-roundtable.html

Renewable energy continues to conjure images of immaturity and novelty, and I even once heard an aspiring energy analyst say that “solar power is the energy of the future, and may always remain so.” But novel is renewable energy? How recent is the idea that humans can use renewable sources to generate the energy needed to power a convenient and prosperous lifestyle?

Alexis Madrigal, a senior editor at The Atlantic, answers these questions in his meticulously researched book, Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (2011). I realize I am reviewing this book much too late, but for some incredible reason I only found it last week. I was immediately hooked and pretty miserable when I realized I had finished the book. Yes, it was that good.

Simply put, the book shows that serious attempts to use modern sources of renewable energy have a long history in the United States. Small-scale hydroelectricity powered a prosperous New England manufacturing town early in the 19th century, solar water heating was all the rage in pre-World War II America, a massive wind turbine generated power in Vermont in 1941, and entire “solar homes” were popular for years after the end of the war.

Madrigal’s case studies are impossibly captivating, and his ability to derive policy implications for contemporary renewable energy advocates from the historical record is equally impressive. Madrigal makes a compelling case for the role of politics, technological learning, and cultural factors in the past successes and failures of renewable. Perhaps most powerful is his critique of the appropriate technology movement, which refused to consider renewable energy a part of the modern industrial society, instead dooming the cleanest of all energy technologies into commercial irrelevance and technical stagnation. It has been a long time since somebody has made me think so hard about my own assumptions and ideas about renewable energy.

I expect and hope this book to become a standard reference for anyone who wants to understand the role and development of technology in our society. In this day and age, this should be a pretty large group of people, too.

It has been a quiet summer for climate policy here in the United States, but yesterday brought a new development: President Obama announced rules for new power plants. The proposed rule, which could enter into force in the fall of 2014 if it survives the inevitable legal challenges from the power utilities and coal mining companies, is that new large (small) natural gas plants must not emit more than 1,000 (1,100) pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour, while coal power plants must also achieve the 1,100 pound limit.

For natural gas, this is not a big deal because the fuel produces much less carbon dioxide than coal. But for coal, the new rule is tough. The only realistic way to bring CO2 emissions down to 1,100 pounds per megawatt hour is carbon capture and storage, but this technology is currently experimental at best. Accordingly, some commentators have called the rule the first move in Obama’s “war on coal.”

How important is this tough new rule? At current natural gas prices, it would be nothing worth discussing. It is remarkable that new coal power plants today are not economically competitive, even if one ignores their severe negative effects on health and the environment. Unless natural gas prices increase significantly (major decreases in coal prices are not in sight), new coal power plants are not a winning proposition in the United States.

But if natural gas prices do increase, then Obama’s rules could be important. Since natural gas is the main competitor for coal in power generation, an increase in the price of natural gas — perhaps because estimates of the cost of extracting shale gas prove too optimistic — could bring coal back in the game. But not under Obama’s new rule.  Increases in the price of natural gas would favor alternatives, such as wind and solar power. This would be great news for the country and the world. So, Obama’s new rules are a form of insurance. They do not have much effect unless natural gas prices change, but they could save us from a coal renaissance in that contingency.

The other question about the rule is whether or not it really signals a war on coal. I am skeptical. Tough rules on existing power plants would have real and immediate effects on electricity prices across the country, and this “nuclear option” would give Republicans a potent political weapon. Moreover, the whole idea of regulating carbon dioxide emissions hinges on the Clean Air Act, which was never designed to address climate change. If the coal industry is willing to fight against rules for new power plants, their response to tough rules for existing plants would be so much more aggressive.

President Obama is formulating policy in an environment characterized by three basic facts. First, climate change is not any kind of a priority for the public. Second, there are powerful interests who oppose limits to carbon pollution. Finally, the President must accept constitutional limits to his authority. Against this backdrop, Obama’s new rule should be recognized as a useful step forward. At the same time, we all should remain very depressed about the fact that this step is worth celebrating.

It is not very often that I find the products of conservative think thanks worth discussing, but today seems different. I swear I am not entirely sure how I found my way on Examining the Social Cost of Carbon, a post by Paul Knappenberger, who apparently is an associate director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute. In the post, Mr. Knappenberger argues that it is disingenuous of the Obama administration to impose a social cost on carbon due to uncertainty about the effects of carbon dioxide on the society (the post also has some more specific arguments about climate science, which I am not qualified to comment on, and normative claims suggesting that America’s carbon price should not consider the damage of climate change outside the United States, which are not worth commenting on):

“The social cost of carbon is a poor concept from the start. It is an ill-conceived, one-sided supposed measure of the damages associated with climate change resulting from human emissions of carbon-containing greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane). Or, rather, it is a measure of the damages predicted to occur by a collection of computer models — computer models which themselves largely fail at capturing the climate evolution during recent decades.”

I have serious reservations about the Obama administration, and I would love to join the bashing just for fun, but this is a funny argument. Suppose we had no carbon price. That would be the same as if we had a carbon price of zero. This non-policy is also a policy. It can only be justified with respect to some model saying that carbon dioxide emissions are harmless. So, the social cost of carbon is not a “poor” but “fundamental” concept. Without such a concept, systematically approaching the complex challenge of climate change would be next to impossible.

The greater point is that uncertainty is itself not an argument for inaction. If there is uncertainty, damages could be either lower or higher than expected. Policy should consider both the expectation and variance of an estimate, without an implicit or explicit status quo bias.

Another post of mine on the Duck of Minerva:

How Much Would the World Pay for Biodiversity? Nothing, Really

Want to provoke some controversy and start a heated debate? All you need is to mention Germany’s Energiewende. The term refers to the ambitious project to power Germany with sustainable energy (if you thought the Manhattan Project or the Apollo project were something, you are just not thinking big enough). Through the rapid and extensive deployment of renewables, Germany is trying to simultaneously achieve a 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases and a 60% renewable energy share by 2050, while dropping nuclear power.

Die Energiewende is the most important “big push” energy policy out there, but many other countries have implemented similar programs in the past and now. France went nuclear through an aggressive public construction program, China’s massive wind deployment was directed by the government, and India’s national solar mission is aiming at a rapid expansion of solar power during the next decade.

Debates about these policies often seem hopelessly confused. Although everyone has an opinion, proponents and opponents often speak past each other. Most importantly, there are no unified the criteria for evaluating the success or failure of a policy. Consider the following:

  • From a national cost-benefit perspective, big push policies often seem hopelessly inefficient and sometimes inequitable. Surely, a carbon tax would have been a better solution?
  • But, big push policies can trigger the kinds of global transformation that a nationally equivalent carbon tax would not have. Would we be talking about a solar energy revolution if Germany had not heavily subsidized solar, instead imposing a relatively low carbon tax to pick low-hanging fruit? Maybe. Maybe not.

These two viewpoints are difficult to reconcile for two reasons. First, the scale of the analysis is different. What makes no sense at the national level may be a global blessing. Second, the relative importance of costs versus benefits is different. Since big push policies are formulated in a messy and violent political process, they usually fail the cost-effectiveness criterion by a wide margin. This gives ammunition to their opponents. But, proponents point out, it is not as though aggressive, rational, and dynamic carbon pricing based on a global climate treaty is just around the corner.

My own suspicion is that this debate is going to remain unresolved for quite a while. First, no reliable method exists to fully quantify the global costs and benefits of Die Energywende and all that. It’s just not possible. We can sharpen our arguments by debating individual aspects of these policies, but that’s about it.

Second, the whole idea of an energy transition is ultimately a normative concept. Some people don’t want to sacrifice 0.5% of their income to increase the odds of a solution to climate change by a bit. Others would sacrifice 5% without wincing. I guess it should be pretty clear where I personally fall on this.

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