A Non-Carbon Future: Part 1 - What are the Options?

A Non-Carbon Future: Part 1 - What are the Options?

This is the first of a two-part column on the subject of a non-carbon energy future, a subject that is much discussed in energy circles and will continue to be. Part 1 outlines some of the reasons for this and then looks at the alternatives now being talked about, plus whether economic measures will be the deciding factor in which alternative might be followed. Part 2, which will follow in a few weeks, takes a look at how we talk about non-carbon energy, the discourse of “clean,” and presents a detailed analysis of what each non-carbon alternative means at the level of fundamental ideas. I hope by this essay to suggest questions and issues about non-carbon energy that deserve further examination. The future, after all, tends to be built on the basis of ideas we have in our heads from decades earlier.

Why Non-Carbon?

What is the long-term future of global energy? A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the climate impacts we will soon be facing leaves no doubt about what the answer should be. The energy transition that the world has entered needs to be aimed at a fully post-carbon, or non-carbon, future.

Today, true enough, it is common to invoke “low carbon” as the goal. This could include  natural gas (replacing coal and oil) as a bridge and possibly other fossil energy with carbon capture and storage (CSS). Yet these, ultimately, contain the endpoint of zeroing out carbon emissions altogether (bridges take us to the other side). I will therefore assume, for the purposes of this essay, that the long-distance goal will be an ever-decreasing use of carbon energy at a pace that remains uncertain. So the question becomes: if a non-carbon future does constitute the world’s energy destiny, what will it look like? What form might it actually take, and will this form be amenable to universal use?

There are many who feel this, too, has been settled. I encounter such bright-minded people in my work, at my public talks, on the campus where I teach. Their view appears regularly in many venues, in discussions of the Paris Climate Agreement, in venues no less venerable than The New York Times and Financial Times. They assure me that the future, if not exactly in hand, is nonetheless clear: wind and solar power will be the solution, as soon as prices fall far enough and large-scale, affordable power storage arrives. The world will flow to these sources like rivers to the sea, impelled by the gravity of climate impacts and economic reality. Any hurdles, such as profiteering fossil fuel companies and their political servants, will eventually be eliminated by the greater forces at work.

Whether we might agree with this view or not, it is proving quite powerful. It is the guiding vision of green parties everywhere and, lately, it has become the policy of the world’s fifth largest economy, California. In many places, it has even become a badge of membership for the left, no less than climate denial has been for the right in some places. All of which means three things:  the renewables-only view must be taken with full seriousness; it must also be seriously examined; and, finally, it should be expected to have competitors.   

These are not minor or merely academic matters. It is more than apparent that concerns over climate, human health, environmental degradation, and global poverty all converge with immediate bearing on the question of non-carbon energy. More than two-thirds of global carbon emissions come directly or indirectly from carbon energy. This means not only coal, oil, and gas, but traditional biomass as well, which the poorer third of humanity continues to depend upon. The news about climate change continues to get worse, with a new report by the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) concluding that some of the worst effects may well arrive much sooner than previously thought, as soon as 2040. Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 people on planet Earth breathe polluted air outdoors or indoors or both, and this leads to 8 million of these people dying each year—the equivalent of every man, woman, and child in the UK perishing in less than a decade. Poor air quality, environmental damage, and energy-related poverty combine to be the major threat to nearly half of all the world’s children.

Such figures can become numbing. Before they do, though, we can see the conclusion they reveal. Whatever the advantages to carbon fuels—and, having built the modern world, they are indeed potent and persuasive—it has become untenable to support the long-term continuation of their use at near-current levels. As our perception of their impacts has grown, so has proof of their damage. If they have built modern society, and if we have made them less destructive over time per unit used, none of this alters their role in death, disease, and degradation today, a role that has expanded with their expanding use in emerging economies around the world, from Chile to Indonesia. The greater value of these fuels today, as even major oil companies now realize, is their necessity to power their own eventual demise.

So a future largely, if not entirely, run on non-carbon energy does indeed seem like a type of salubrious fate. But this does not mean that it has a foregone shape and composition. It doesn’t. Any dry-eyed look at what is happening with non-carbon energy worldwide will reveal this beyond any doubt. In fact, the non-carbon future is nothing less than a battleground of ideas. This is because it involves far more than a struggle over technology, even with health and prosperity added in. It defines, in fact, a deep-seated clash between visions of society, political power, and the organization of human life.

Two Basic Positions

Today there are two fundamental positions. One of these, noted above, argues that the only truly clean, safe, and affordable future is one built solely with renewable sources, especially wind and solar, but also hydropower (except where it results in ecological havoc), biofuels and biomass, plus wave and other sources once they become commercial. A second view favors a final landscape of renewables plus other non-carbon options, above all nuclear, including fission and possibly fusion. Position 1 does admit forms like hydrogen, fuel cells, and flow batteries, as long as their carbon footprint is tiny or zero. Position 2 embraces all of this as well, but, again, reserves a major role for nuclear.

The overwhelming focus, therefore, is on electricity. This makes fairly good sense from  one perspective. Modern society has developed the greatest number of energy sources for the generation of power. Moreover, nearly 70% of the increase in primary energy between now (2018) and 2040 is forecast to be in power generation, according to at least one well-regarded source (“primary” = fuels and sources extracted from nature). Key to the renewables-only vision is a smart-grid system that allows for greater reliability from variable sources like wind and solar that are weather-dependent. But there are two areas of energy use that these positions, particularly the renewables-only vision, don’t easily accommodate, air transport and heating. The first will require profound innovations to be possible by non-carbon energy at the commercial level, while the second demands a range of such advances but on far larger scales due to the essential use of heat for buildings (all kinds) and in every type of industry.

Position 2, the nuclear + renewables vision, obviously overlaps Position 1 to a considerable degree. But due to the politics surrounding nuclear, it is often treated as separate and incompatible. Anti-nuclearism, whether stated outright or veiled by other arguments, defines a border wall between these positions. A presumed intermediary position, which grudgingly accepts a need for nuclear, most often treats this source as a necessary evil or, in more elegant phrasing, a “regrets solution,” to be phased out as soon as possible (1).

It needs to be said that the nuclear dimension in Position 2 is quite different from what now exists in western countries and the image most people have in mind. Rather than large-scale plants hovered over by hyperboloidal towers, it includes reactors of many sizes, diverse and flexible in technology and use. This means micro, floating, and small modular reactors (SMRs, as they’re known) up to medium- and full-scale power stations. Next generation reactor types, able to provide baseload and load following (power levels adjustable to accommodate changing demand) supply, integrated with renewable sources, are emphasized. Further down the road, fusion reactors may be added (not all agree on this), though whether they’ll replace their fission-based relatives isn’t clear. Renewables in this future landscape will emphasize not only solar, wind, oceanic, and hydro, but also geothermal power and heat, a source that tends to be marginalized in Position 1 by the focus on wind and solar.

Energy Transitions

In the clash between these two futures, what will determine the outcome? Economics! say eager voices, on both sides. But this is almost certainly wrong. No major energy transition in history—even the shift from wood/charcoal to coal during the Industrial Revolution—has been powered by prices and costs alone. As Vaclav Smil has concisely expressed it, such transitions can be rapid for individual nations, but for large regions or the globe as a whole, they require many decades because of the many factors involved. Even aside from the role of political authority, energy transitions have depended on the productive advantages of a new source (its energy benefits), its abundance and access, technological advances that make it feasible to use, social and personal impacts, public psychology, cultural realities (of energy use).

The idea that all of this will simply bend to the wind of “economics” is less than convincing. Claims that untold masses will rush to solarize their houses and businesses when relevant power prices reach parity with other sources haven’t made it happen. Even where such prices, aided by both state and federal support, have fallen below those from natural gas (very cheap in the US, due to oversupply), where an initial investment can be paid back in less than 5 years, no sign of a huge surge in installations has appeared (2). California, in an attempt to force the matter, has now mandated the installation of solar panels on all new homes, to much applause from the renewables community. Yet there is an argument that such moves risk seriously damaging the industry’s reputation if panels do not perform well or as promised or they introduce unwanted responsibilities, e.g. in terms of monitoring and maintenance, purchasing power agreements, and the like. Such mandates can also alienate people who would otherwise be late adopters of such technology and find themselves with no choice.  

None of this is a reflection on solar power per se, of course. It has much more to do with attitudes towards new technology, in other words ideas, opinions, personality, lifestyle, and in this case, political ideology as well. As some readers may know, the study of technology adoption has simplified all this complexity into a bell curve chopped into 5 stages (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards), with a yawning chasm separating early adopters and early majority—that is, between enthusiastic technophiles and the true mainstream. Though much talk has proposed that solar in the U.S. is even now in mid-leap over the chasm, the truth can be seen only by a look at some numbers. An helpful map by the Solar Energy Industries Association provides data on the sales and installation of solar systems for all 50 states. What does it show? California in 2017 (population ~39M) had no less than 863,000 installed; New York (19M) had 103,000; Texas (29M) had 42,000; Idaho (2M) had 2,400; and Alabama (5M) a whopping 197. The fact seems fairly solid that there are enormous differences in penetration rate across the country. California may indeed see rooftop solar soon enter the measurable mainstream, but not the sunny states of Idaho or Alabama.

Economics Isn’t the End All Determinant

Emphasis on market economics is troubled for other reasons too. Government support for long-term energy R&D is surely needed at high levels for a non-carbon future to appear sooner than later. But there are few signs anything like this will happen. Let’s be serious: wealthy nations are rich enough to invest far more in such R&D than they do. This means every potentially promising non-carbon technology, including all types of renewable energy, advanced batteries, next generation nuclear fission, and nuclear fusion (not a complete list). All could be well-funded were energy given the priority that anxieties suggest it so richly deserves.            

But by almost any measure, wealthy nations have sought an energy future  on the cheap. Nowhere is this more evident than the U.S., whose federal budget for energy R&D peaked in 1978 at about $12 billion (2012 dollars) in the wake of the oil crises, then fell to where, by the 2000s, it comprised the smallest part of government R&D spending. It remains at a pitiable fraction of 1978 levels today. Still more, all of the money ever spent by the US government on energy since 1945 would barely amount to a pencil dot next to the hundreds of $billion of cost overruns for major defense programs in just the last decade.

Much of this returns to the realm of ideas and the privilege granted to “economics.” Energy has been conceived as a matter of commodities and thus, whether in the form of natural resources or technology, should be largely left to the marketplace to sort out. The word “should” is an important qualifier, of course. More than a tiny amount of double-speak has been involved. No energy source, whether petroleum or hydropower, has ever been left entirely to the market. Even under conservative governments, the unique and critical importance of energy to modern society has been recognized and a variety of federal supports, some obvious, others more hidden, have been provided.

This goes for deregulation as well. The market solution argument views electricity as a commodity, like gasoline or apples, that should be liberalised. We have been hearing this gospel for several decades now, with no small amount of righteous fanfare about better efficiency, benefits of competition, and the inevitability of lower prices. But little of this has actually happened, at least on a consistent basis. In the US, where deregulation has been left up to individual states, efforts took place mainly between the late 1990s and early 2000s. State governments have decided to deregulate, partly deregulate, deregulate and then re-regulate, or never deregulate their power markets, as they see fit. A map showing this variety indicates that as much as half the U.S. remains regulated. Moreover, even where liberalisation has presumably gone furthest, government involvement has never left. Most states put in place renewable portfolio standards, requiring that a certain percentage of available power come from renewables (there is also a 30% federal tax credit for homeowners who install roof solar systems). Congress and some states have also provided incentives for oil and gas producers, as well as coal mining, new hydro, and, far less often, geothermal and nuclear power (for non-carbon generation). The economic situation, in other words, is far more complex than it should be for such a fundamental necessity as electricity.

The point of this rather simplistic discussion is that energy markets, including those for non-carbon power, are highly variable, often messy, and, from a decadal viewpoint, dynamically uncertain. Local and national governments can and do make changes to them all the time. It wouldn’t be offensive to the truth if we saw such markets as ongoing experiments or trial-and-error projects. Even the term “deregulated” (“liberalized”) has no fixed meaning in the real world of policy. Could power markets be altered or mended in the near-term to try and accelerate all non-carbon sources, for example via a combination of carbon taxes and added value for zero carbon generation? Absolutely. We shouldn’t at all rule out changes like this in coming years. But neither should we expect it to completely turn the tide.

In the meantime, it seems ironic that so many who favor a non-carbon future adopt the market solution argument for getting there. Using markets to solve social problems was installed by the Reagan-Thatcher era and killed the first movement for advancing renewable sources, which came as a result of the 1973-4 oil crisis. As Donald Trump has shown, the argument can be turned against non-carbon energy just as easily as in favor of it. Economics was never the reason wealthy nations turned toward solar and wind technology. And going forward, it will not work as the lone rationale in the decades ahead. There are far more important reasons for such a future to be built.





(1) This is not in the least to devalue the many excellent policy ideas in the Drawdown program, particularly those outside the energy domain.

(2) In my own state, Washington, 2017 actually saw a 15% decrease in solar installations, this happening in a year when price reductions were as much as 47%.



Image credit: David Santaolalla via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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