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The Solutions

Coal

Coal is 36% of the carbon emissions problem in the United States and it is not going to go away by itself. It is not at or near peak. There are currently 320 gigawatts of coal fired power generating capacity in the United States. Displacing this capacity is a large but doable undertaking. Dr. Amory Lovins (video), an expert in energy efficiency, believes we can shut down as much as 75% of these coal-fired power plants with careful adherence to state-of-the-standards of energy efficiency (www.rmi.org). He points out that if all of the states in the U.S. do what the top ten states have already accomplished in terms of energy efficiency, 62% of coal's electrical generating capacity would not be needed (negawatts). There is a lot more energy efficiency that can be realized in all the states.

In the video above, Amory Lovins uses the term “micropower” which is defined as cogeneration (making electricity and useful heat together in factories or buildings) plus renewables (excluding large hydroelectric power plants). With the approach of peak natural gas, cogeneration will fade but renewables can and should expand strongly. The U.S. generates only about 6 percent of its energy from micropower, as its laws strongly favor and protect fossil fuels and large centralized power stations. Micropower provides from one-sixth to more than half of all electricity in a dozen other industrial countries. Micropower in 2006 delivered a sixth of the world’s total electricity (more than nuclear power) and a third of the world’s new electricity. Micropower plus “negawatts" provides upwards of half of the world’s new electrical generating capacity.

U.S. state laws, in particular, favor centralized thermal power (coal, other fossil fuels, and nuclear). Specifically, state laws determine how each energy source is paid and charged for the power that is generated on site. Currently these laws strongly favor large utilities and not micropower sites such as home owners or businesses. These laws must be changed in order to expand the building of wind and solar or other sources of alternative energy on a large scale.

These two solutions (efficiency and alternative energy) must be implemented concurrently and aggressively to displace coal. We have to do this while we still have conventional sources of petroleum and natural gas to facilitate the process.

Remember we cannot make use of the more unconventional means of recovery of oil, as using those reserves would take us past the tipping points for catastrophic climate change. We have to make the switch NOW. As Jim Hansen (video) has carefully explained, coal fired power plants must be stopped worldwide within the next 20 years, if we want to stabilize the climate and have a chance of returning to safe levels (below 350 ppm) of atmospheric carbon. That is the analysis, not just from computer models, but from the paleo record.

If it were not for the coal industry lobbyists we could have been far along on the path to replacing coal. Coal, after all, supplies only 50% of our electricity needs. We can displace at least half of this with wind and solar. Half of a half is only 25%. Denmark already generates about 20% of their electrical energy with wind alone and maintains a stable grid. Spain and Portugal (11%), Germany and the Republic of Ireland (6%). In the morning hours of 8 November 2009, wind energy produced covered more than half the electricity demand in Spain, setting a new record, and without problems for the network.

In theory we could generate a much higher percentage of our total energy from intermittent sources. Our interconnected electricity grid already has reserve generating and transmission capacity to allow for equipment failures; this reserve capacity can also serve to regulate for the varying power generation by wind plants. Beyond this level, there are few technical limits.The proportion is determined by the combination of back-up storage, generating capacity of dispatchable power and the size of dispatchable loads. The dynamic matching of supply to demand will eventually be managed by what has been referred to as a smart grid.

The load matching with smart grid strategies will function with a different logic than the archaic grid system designed almost 100 years ago in use today. Our outdated grid strives to make use of continuous power from generators that cannot be readily shut off, such as nuclear or coal fired power plants. Dispatchable loads in this environment are turned on at off-peak hours (usually at night) to keep the grid stably burning the excess capacity. The smart grid will run with a different logic. Dispatchable loads will be powered when the wind is blowing or the sun is shinning. The end consumer will be largely oblivious to the process. With today's computers and a smart grid, this is very feasible and should be much less wasteful than our current grid, which takes the brut-force-and-ignorance approach of burning a base of power continuously all day, all night. Thus the strategy will shift, but the goal achieved is the same: a smoothly running grid.

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Alternative Energy Generating Capacity Needed

Coal's current maximum generating capacity is 360 gigawatts. If we displace at least half of this with efficiency, we should plan to replace the other 160 gigawatts of the U.S. coal fired power plants with wind, solar, or perhaps nuclear (video) over the next 10 to at most 20 years to salvage the climate.

As this video shows, nuclear waste in the U.S. is currently stored at each nuclear site in water cooled storage tanks. That is the truth, not the fantasy. Were the pools of water containing the nuclear waste ever breached or attacked, these vulnerable tanks would quickly go critical, contaminating whole regions of the country. IF Bill Gates has a real plan for safe nuclear power or IF thorium reactors (20 years out) actually eliminate the unresolved nuclear waste disposal issue, then maybe we can utilize nuclear. Western Europe including France and Sweden dump their nuclear waste in Siberia. Only a small fraction (10 - 15%) of nuclear waste can be reprocessed through a hazardous and difficult enrichment process. Note that nuclear waste from existing nuclear power plants must remain safely isolated for 6,000 generations. That is a long time for your average engineer to keep track of something so dangerous. In fact, recent tritium leaks from aging nuclear power plants in New England demonstrate that we have difficulty keeping track of nuclear power plant blue prints over 50 years, let alone over 1,000's of years. Nuclear power plants are extremely expensive to build and impossible to insure. Unless the Federal government provides loan guarantees to banks and indemnification for utilities, nuclear cannot move forward in the United States for very good reasons. Senators Kerry and Lieberman put such artificial protections for future nuclear power plants into their proposed 2010 energy bill.

We have better and safer solutions. Legislatively, a strengthened version of the bipartisan Cantwell-Collins bill also placed before the Senate in 2010 would be a much better choice. It involves a carbon tax.

Wind power is another better and safer solution. Wind is ready for prime time now as it is competitive in terms of cost, especially if we add a carbon tax. What would it take to replace the 160 gigawatts of electrical generating capacity from coal with wind power alone? To replace half of coals's peak electrical generating capacity with wind power alone, we have to build 3 times or about 480 gigawatts of wind because the wind does not blow all the time.

This is actually surprising doable. Let's crunch the numbers. In 2009, 10 gigawatts of wind power was added to the grid in the United States. Wind turbine manufacturing capacity has been growing an average of 47% for the past 3 years (67% in 2007, 60% in 2008, 20% in 2009). Below is a chart that delineates the growth of wind generating capacity, if wind power manufacturing in United States were to grow at a steady rate of 40% per year for the next 8 years.

        Expansion of Wind Generating Capacity Over 8 Years

           Year    Added Wind Turbines   Total Wind Capacity U.S.    

  •   2009           10.00  gigawatts           34.00 gigawatts                    
  •   yr + 1         14.00  gigawatts           48.00 gigawatts                     
  •   yr + 2         19.60  gigawatts           67.60 gigawatts                      
  •   yr + 3         27.44  gigawatts           95.04 gigawatts                    
  •   yr + 4         38.42  gigawatts         133.46 gigawatts                     
  •   yr + 5         52.78  gigawatts         186.24 gigawatts                    
  •   yr + 6         75.30  gigawatts         261.54 gigawatts                    
  •   yr + 7       105.41  gigawatts         366.95 gigawatts                     
  •   yr + 8       147.57  gigawatts         514.52 gigawatts                    

After 8 years, the generating capacity of wind would be about 500 gigawatts. That would be enough to replace coal powered generating capacity that was not eliminated through efficiency, i.e. negawatts. This would be an all-out effort, but doable. In calculating the cost recall that once a wind turbine is built there is no additional cost for fuel. Wind is free. Also, there is no unresolved 6,000 generation waste storage and monitoring problem, as there is for nuclear. The price tag is difficult to pin down completely because it depends on commodity prices, economies of scale and technological developments. The total price tag could range from $500 billion to about a trillion.

Let's place this cost in perspective. The Chinese are planning to spend a similar amount ($660 billion over the next 10 years) to ramp up their wind and solar energy generating capacity. The U.S. has spent $704 billion (as of Feb, 2010) on the Iraq war. The coal industry spent about $350 billion to mine and burn coal over the last 10 years. With an escalating carbon tax of $40 to $65 dollar per ton and 1 billion tons of coal burned yearly, we can underwrite the transformation to renewables. The carbon tax will level the playing field so all competitive forms of alternative energy have the opportunity to thrive. We can plan to facilitate the ramp up of roof top solar, solar power plants and the smart grid. If we do some combination of all of this, we are going to have a lot of energy sloshing around on windy, sunny days by the year 2020.

Let's provide a way for local communities to make money! Farmers, ranchers and towns in windy areas of the country could have a steady supplemental income from wind turbines located on their land. No one is sure what these farmers will be growing while the climate zones are still shifting, but they will manage if we can prevent runaway climate change. It will still take to the end of the century to stabilize atmospheric CO2 below the 350 ppm, but we will have set the process in motion.

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2 - Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
3 - The Challenge
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