We are coming to the end of the fossil fuel era. It has lasted for only 200 years, but the carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of fossil fuels has pushed the earth toward an environmental catastrophe. The need to switch to other forms of energy is upon us.
We have only a decade or at most two to convert
our coal fired power plants to alternative sources of energy.
One era is ending and another is about to begin.
Let's have at it.
We are a "CAN DO" nation but we have lost our rudder. The rest of the world is on the move. The Chinese are investing more than $660 billion over the next decade in clean energy. Their citizens and their government alike abhor the pollution that has come with their economic growth. They are fully aware that they are in a race against time to protect their economy from climate collapse. Korea is investing close to 2% of its GDP each year over the next 5 years in clean energy technology. Japan is aiming for a 20 fold expansion in their installed solar capacity by 2020. They are all on the move. Where are we?
The people of Sweden are perhaps the closest to becoming a fossil fuel free society. They are now aiming to eliminate the use of petroleum by the year 2020. Their sustained efforts prove that the elimination of fossil fuels can be achieved without crashing the economy. Sweden has used a carbon tax to implement their policies since 1991. It works. Denmark used a carbon tax as well and it worked for them. Japan and many countries in the EU tried to use cap and trade (video) as a means to reduce carbon emissions. It failed for a number of well documented and pertinent reasons which we will discuss shortly.
How are we going to achieve our own clean energy economy? Let's look at the emission charts.
Let's examine each source of carbon emissions and figure out how to replace these with alternative energy.
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Petroleum is 44% of the problem in the United States. Production from conventional petroleum sources has reached its peak (Chapter 4). Price instabilities and a lack of availability will remove this commodity from the greenhouse gas equation in the next 20 to 30 years. Unconventional or extraordinary means of recovery of petroleum from oil shale, tar sands and deep ocean reservoirs cannot be allowed to continue unabated as carbon emissions from these sources would produce irreversible and catastrophic climate change (Chapter 4).
The steep rate of decline (4-5% per annum) projected for petroleum is important to the the timing of the transition to alternative energy sources. To wean ourselves from fossil fuels is going to take an extraordinary effort. To achieve that, we will need energy. We need to make the leap before the old petroleum economy is gone. That means that we have to jump now while we still have the resources to fuel the transition. The longer we wait, the more difficult this transition is going to be.
Remember the Catch 22 for reforestation? We need to plant trees, but the hardiness zones are shifting so rapidly that the trees we plant may well not tolerate the change. We want to avoid a similar dilemma for the alternative energy transition. How do we need to use petroleum to fuel this transition? We have wind turbines and solar panels to haul and install. That will take petroleum until we have built the electrical generating capacity to displace it.
An escalating carbon tax on all domestic and imported fossil fuels, as well as on imported goods made in fossil fuel based economies, is required. We can use that tax to finance the rapid transition to sustainable forms of energy. We will also need international treaties regarding the ban on extraordinary means of recovery of petroleum from oil shale, tar sands and deep ocean reservoirs. We have to prevent these sources from pushing atmospheric carbon dioxide farther than it can safely go.
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Natural gas accounts for 20% of the U.S.'s fossil fuel emissions. It is the cleanest burning of all the fossil fuels. If we manage the phasing out of coal and petroleum over the next 20 years, we will be well on our way to an energy solution. However, it is not entirely certain how long the natural gas reserves (video) in North America will last. A new technique called "hydraulic fracturing" has increased the estimates of these reserves.
"U.S. natural gas reserves have definitely increased by about 30 percent and “probably has doubled,” Energy Secretary Dr. Steven Chu said in a speech at a conference in Washington hosted by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“That’s a big deal because it will be a transition fuel as we go to renewables,” Chu said.
The reason for this combination of optimism and uncertainty is that the reserves of natural gas that can be recovered from shale deposits using the drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing is “yet to be proven.” Specifically, these shale gas wells tend to be short lived. Traditional sources of natural gas in North America were thought to peak around 2020. It is not clear, but the fuzzy estimates of the new methods of recovery might extend this peak out to a range of 2023 to 2030. Utilizing this limited commodity to replace petroleum in vehicles would only hasten the peak.
Furthermore, Dr. Chu's enthusiasm over these natural gas reserves must be viewed with some level of skepticism, as hydraulic fracturing (The Daily Show, video) is using undisclosed chemicals (many of which are known toxins, powerful carcinogen or both) that will be of profound concern to fresh water supplies across the nation for generations to come.
Note that natural gas is important to the energy transition equation. This is because gas fired power plants are dispatchable, i.e. they can be quickly turned on and off as needed. This is also true of hydroelectric power. Coal fired power plants cannot be switched on and off quickly, as their ramp rate is too slow. This characteristic of natural gas power plants will be important to stabilizing a grid that relies heavily on intermittent power sources such as wind. We are going to need natural gas until we have fully implemented the smart grid (video), brought solar online, as well as ramped up the energy storage options necessary to keep the grid running smoothly. We can use natural gas to help bootstrap the process and allow us time to perfect and mature the new grid along with advanced energy storage solutions before we phase out natural gas. Given this scenario, it does not seem prudent to squander our limited reserves of natural gas in order to keep gas-guzzling vehicles going. Clearly, to avoid implementing the energy transition into a time of increasingly diminishing commodities, we need to act quickly.
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