Will the Future Be Electric?

Should anybody be optimistic about the climate crisis? Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben reviews a new book, Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future by Saul Griffith, an engineer and inventor. The title of the review is “The Future Is Electric”. Here’s McKibben’s summary of Griffith’s playbook: 

Electrification is to climate change as the vaccine is to Covid-19—perhaps not a total solution, but an essential one. [Griffith] begins by pointing out that in the United States, combustion of fossil fuels accounts for 75 percent of our contribution to climate change, with agriculture accounting for much of the rest. . . . The US uses about 101 quadrillion BTUs (or “quads”) of energy a year. . . .

Our homes use about a fifth of all energy [or 20 quads]; half of that is for heating and cooling, and another quarter for heating water. “The pride of the suburbs, the single-family detached home, dominates energy use, with large apartments in a distant second place,” Griffith writes.

The industrial sector uses more energy—about 30 quads—but a surprisingly large percentage of that is spent “finding, mining, and refining fossil fuels.” A much smaller amount is spent running the data centers that store most of the Internet’s data . . .

Transportation uses even larger amounts of energy [40 quads?] —and for all the focus on air travel, passenger cars and trucks use ten times as much.

The commercial sector—everything from office buildings and schools to the “cold chain” that keeps our perishables from perishing—accounts for the rest of our energy use [10 quads?].

If we are to cut emissions in half this decade—an imperative—we’ve got to cut fossil fuel use in big chunks, not small ones. For Griffith, this means leaving behind “1970s thinking” about efficiency: don’t waste time telling people to turn down the thermostat a degree or two, or buy somewhat smaller cars, or drive less. Such measures, he says, can slow the growth rate of our energy consumption, but “you can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to zero”:

Let’s stop imagining that we can buy enough sustainably harvested fish, use enough public transportation, and purchase enough stainless steel water bottles to improve the climate situation. Let’s release ourselves from purchasing paralysis and constant guilt at every small decision we make so that we can make the big decisions well.

“A lot of Americans,” he insists, “won’t agree to anything if they believe it will make them uncomfortable or take away their stuff,” so instead you have to let them keep that stuff, just powered by technology that does less damage.

By “big decisions” he means mandates for electric vehicles (EVs), which could save 15 percent of our energy use. Or electrifying the heat used in houses and buildings: the electric heat pump is the EV of the basement and would cut total energy use 5 to 7 percent if implemented nationwide. LED lighting gets us another 1 or 2 percent. Because electricity is so much more efficient than combustion, totally electrifying our country would cut primary energy use about in half. (And simply not having to find, mine, and refine fossil fuels would reduce energy use by 11 percent.)

Of course, replacing all those gas-powered pickups and oil-fired furnaces with electric vehicles and appliances would mean dramatically increasing the amount of electricity we need to produce overall—in fact, we’d have to more than triple it. We’ve already dammed most of the rivers that can produce hydropower (about 7 percent of our current electric supply); if we’re going to replace coal and natural gas and simultaneously ramp up our supply of electricity, we have three main options: solar, wind, and nuclear power, and according to Griffith “solar and wind will do the heavy lifting.”

That’s primarily because renewable energy sources have become so inexpensive over the past decade. They are now the cheapest ways to generate power, an advantage that will grow as we install more panels and turbines. (By contrast, the price of fossil fuel can only grow: we’ve already dug up all the coal and oil that’s cheap to get at.) According to Griffith’s math, nuclear power is more expensive than renewables, and new plants “take decades to plan and build,” decades we don’t have.

It’s a mistake to shut down existing nuclear plants that are running safely—or as safely as current technology allows—and it’s possible that new designs now on the drawing board will produce smaller, cheaper reactors that eat waste instead of producing it. But for the most part Griffith sides with Mark Jacobson, the environmental engineering professor at Stanford whose team showed a decade ago that the future lay with cheap renewables, an estimation that, though highly controversial at the time, has been borne out by the steady fall in the price of solar and wind power, as well as by the increasing efficiency of batteries to store it.

Griffith devotes more attention to batteries than almost any other topic in this book, and that’s wise: people’s fear of the “intermittency” of renewables (the fact that the sun goes down and the wind can drop) remains a major stumbling block to conceiving of a clean-energy future. Contrary to these fears, each month brings new advances in battery technology. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the super-cheap batteries being developed that use iron instead of pricey lithium and can store energy for days at a time, making them workhorses for utilities, which will need them to replace backup plants that run on natural gas.

Griffith is good at analogies: we’d need the equivalent of 60 billion batteries a year roughly the size of the AAs in your flashlight. That sounds like a lot, but actually it’s “similar to the 90 billion bullets manufactured globally today. We need batteries, not bullets.”

This renewable economy, as Griffith demonstrates, will save money, both for the nation as a whole and for households—and that’s before any calculation of how much runaway global warming would cost. Already the lifetime costs of an electric vehicle are lower than those of gas-powered cars: Consumer Reports estimates they’ll save the average driver $6,000 to $10,000 over the life of a vehicle. Though they cost a little more up front, at least for now, the difference could be overcome with a reasonably small subsidy. And since most people buy a new car every six to seven years, the transition should be relatively smooth, which is why in August President Biden and the Big Three automakers announced their plans for 40 to 50 percent of new sales to be electric by 2030.

That’s still not fast enough—as Griffith makes clear, we’re already at the point where we need every new replacement of any equipment to be electric—but it’s likely to happen much quicker with cars than anything else. A gas furnace lasts twice as long as a car, for instance. And putting solar panels on your roof remains an expensive initial investment, partly because of regulations and paperwork. (Griffith notes that in his native Australia such “soft costs” are less than half of what they are in the US.)

Happily, he provides the formula for success. The federal government needs to do for home and business energy retrofits in this decade what Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae did for homeownership in the last century, except this time accessible to all applicants, not just white ones: provide government-backed mortgages that make it affordable for everyone to acquire this money-saving and hence wealth-building capacity, and in the process jump-start an economy that would create vast numbers of good jobs. “A mortgage is really a time machine that lets you have the tomorrow you want, today,” Griffith writes. “We want a clean energy future and a livable planet, so let’s borrow the money.”

In short, Griffith has drawn a road map for what seems like the only serious chance at rapid progress. His plan won’t please everyone: he has no patience at all with NIMBY opposition to wind turbines and transmission lines. But I don’t think anyone else has quite so credibly laid out a realistic plan for swift action in the face of an existential crisis.

Global Warming ➜ Heat Dome

From professor of atmospheric science Michael Mann for The New York Times:

. . . Though we’re only one week into official summer, the characteristically cool Pacific Northwest has turned into a caldron of triple-digit temperatures, with Portland, Ore., and Seattle reaching record highs of 115 and 108 degrees, respectively. That’s unseasonably hot — for Phoenix.

The western United States is currently under the influence of an epic heat dome, an expansive region of high atmospheric pressure characterized by heat, drought and heightened fire danger. It’s being called a once-in-a-millennium event . . .

[However,] all bets are off when one accounts for human-caused warming. It no longer makes sense to talk about a once-in-a-century or once-in-a-millennium event as if we’re just rolling an ordinary pair of dice, because we’ve loaded the dice through fossil fuel burning and other human activities that generate carbon pollution and warm the planet. It’s as if snake eyes, which should occur randomly only once every 36 times you rolled a pair of dice, were coming up once every four times.

Might a heat dome have developed out West this past week without climate change? Sure.

Might it have been as extreme as what we’re witnessing without climate change? Almost surely not.

If we step back a bit, we see a disturbing pattern. With this latest heat wave, Canada observed its hottest day on record: 116 degrees in British Columbia. Less than a year ago, the United States set its own record — the highest temperature reliably recorded on the entire planet, in fact — with a 130 degree reading in Death Valley . . .

Yes, the dice have been loaded, and not in our favor. If climate change were a casino, we’d be hemorrhaging cash. Wildfires, heat waves, floods and superstorms, many exacerbated by climate change, collectively cost the United States nearly $100 billion in 2020. As the climate advocate Greta Thunberg so poignantly put it, “Our house is on fire.”

We’ve long known that a warming climate would yield more extremely hot weather. The science is clear on how human-caused climate change is already affecting heat waves: Global warming has caused them to be hotter, larger, longer and more frequent. What were once very rare events are becoming more common.

Heat waves now occur three times as often as they did in the 1960s — on average at least six times a year in the United States in the 2010s. Record-breaking hot months are occurring five times more often than would be expected without global warming. And heat waves have become larger, affecting 25 percent more land area in the Northern Hemisphere than they did in 1980; including ocean areas, heat waves grew 50 percent.

These changes matter because extreme heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, causing more deaths on average than hurricanes and floods, combined, over the past 30 years. Recent research projects that heat stress will triple in the Pacific Northwest by 2100 unless aggressive action is taken to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

Some still refuse to acknowledge the dire warning that Mother Nature is sending us. They say the science is too unsettled to take action. But uncertainty, if anything, is a reason for taking even more dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions. Uncertainty is not our friend. And the current heat dome is an excellent example of why.

The heat wave afflicting the Pacific Northwest is characterized by what is known as an omega block pattern, because of the shape the sharply curving jet stream makes, like the Greek letter omega (Ω). This omega curve is part of a pattern of pronounced north-south wiggles made by the jet stream as it traverses the Northern Hemisphere. It is an example of a phenomenon known as wave resonance, which . . . is increasingly favored by the dramatic warming of the Arctic.

By decreasing the contrast in temperature between the cold pole and warm subtropics, the amplified warming of the Arctic causes the jet stream to slow down and, under the right circumstances, like the ones prevailing now, settle into a very wiggly and rather stable configuration. That, in turn, allows very deep high pressure centers, like the current heat dome, to remain locked in place over a region, as it is over the Pacific Northwest.

Those climate models that the critics claim are alarmist do a poor job of reproducing this phenomenon. That means that the models do not account for this critical factor behind many of the persistent and damaging weather extremes we’ve seen in recent years, including the heat dome.

But there is a way out of this nightmare of ever-worsening weather extremes, and it’s one that will serve us well in many other ways, too. A rapid transition to clean energy can stabilize the climate, improve our health, provide good-paying jobs, grow the economy and ensure our children’s future. The choice is ours [i.e. humanity’s].

A Suggestion for Fixing America

Two professors writing for Foreign Policy see a way to simultaneously repair our country’s politics and economics (I’ve left out some of their analysis). Whether or not it succeeded, it wouldn’t hurt:

According to the Brookings Institution, Biden won 509 counties to [the other guy’s] 2,547—that’s over five times as many won by [the Republican]. But here’s the kicker. Biden’s counties constitute 71 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, [the loser’s] less than 30 percent. Surely we must somehow factor this into how we think about why people vote the way they do? How does growth, or the lack thereof, determine elections?

What we see in U.S. politics today is the death and dissolution of a particular social coalition that dominated politics and economics and underwrote social peace for three generations; call it the carbon coalition.

The carbon coalition was an encompassing political coalition, built on a set of agreements negotiated between 1932 and 1950, that distributed the income generated by the industrial economy among groups within society. In the auto and steel industries, the most dynamic of that era, United Auto Workers and General Motors signed the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, which tied pay to productivity. This created a path to prosperity for two generations of workers in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, to bring rural areas into the coalition, the urban middle class paid higher prices for food and accepted permanent agricultural subsidies so that farmers could enjoy higher incomes. These agreements drew together labor, business, and farmers; the North and the South; the Great Plains and the Great Lakes into one settlement. This broadly inclusive distributive coalition in turn softened the sectional and partisan divisions that had roiled U.S. politics almost continuously since the 1890s.

. . . This political coalition was in fact entirely dependent on a particular growth model: an extremely fossil fuel-intensive agro-industrial economy.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the United States’ postwar economy was a massive machine that transformed oil, coal, and natural gas into income and food. Consider the following: In 1971, automobile production directly and indirectly provided 1 of every 6 jobs in the U.S. economy. Most of these jobs were unionized, or, if not, most workers enjoyed wages and benefits that spilled over from union agreements. Then add to these jobs others created by the interstate highway program, by the oil and gas industry, and by the retail sale of gasoline and the repair and maintenance of automobiles. And then throw in jobs in aviation, shipping, and agriculture, which became increasingly energy intensive due to the use of diesel-fueled equipment and through the use of natural gas to manufacture artificial fertilizer. Finally come jobs in plastics and petrochemicals.

The carbon coalition distributed the income generated by the carbon economy. Elections determined those distributions. That model is now dying and indeed, given climate change, must die. The politics it made possible are dying too.

The carbon economy has been in decline for decades, but the [political effects are only now becoming visible.

The center of economic dynamism and wealth generation in the United States now lies in knowledge-intensive (or at least high-value-added) industries, some of which, like pharmaceuticals, are research intensive and some of which, like various forms of media, are creative.

Although this knowledge economy is diverse, these activities share one overarching commonality: None require (much less depend on) fossil fuels. Indeed, their survival over the long haul depends on successfully switching out of carbon completely. Productivity in these activities doesn’t come from more energy and bigger machines applied to faster assembly lines but from improvements in our ability to manipulate, analyze, and monetize information.

The economy that drives U.S. GDP growth today is already post-carbon. And though many of its activities are energy intensive (server farms consume more than more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity use; financial services consume more electricity than any other industry in New York City), the energy they consume can come as readily from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas. This isn’t the case for the internal combustion engine, for the steel from which its constructed, and for the oil extraction, refining, and distribution systems that support it. Nor is it true for an ammonia plant or for cement or aviation. Farmers cannot substitute solar energy for artificial fertilizer.

The U.S. economy is thus now divided in two: a growing and potentially sustainable post-carbon economy that can adapt to the realities of climate change and a carbon economy in decline that is unsustainable. . . .

Americans no longer live in the same economy.  Rather, they live in two incompatible models of economic growth. Those who remain embedded in the carbon economy quite rationally want to defend and rejuvenate that model. In contrast, those who have found a spot in the post-carbon economy largely embrace the future. . . .

Today, the firms and sectors that make up each of the two growth models fund elections and determine the strategy of their parties.

The post-carbon coalition dominates the Democratic Party. This coalition brings together a West Coast variant composed of high-margin agriculture (think wine), Big Tech, entertainment, and digital and high-end services and an East Coast variant based largely on financial services. These post-carbonites embrace some variant of the Green New Deal, which identifies the climate crisis as the most critical issue the country faces and offers a coherent policy response.

The carbon economy coalition that dominates the Republican Party includes export agriculture, carbon extraction, refinement and production, steel and other declining traditional industrial sectors, as well as low-wage and low productivity services (think Walmart over Accenture). This fragment of the original carbon coalition remains committed to defending and rebooting the carbon economy; this is what “Make America Great Again” means. . . .

The United States’ two coalitions cannot be brought together. Indeed, they are existential threats to each other. And on a population scale, each electoral coalition has more or less the same number of potential voters. As a result, elections are decided by thin margins in a race to the death. . . .

For almost half of U.S. states, the Green New Deal, which is—sotto voce—at the center of Biden’s platform, spells the end of their existing strategies—think fracking, refining, plastics, mining, logging, and so on. And for the other half of the states that support the deal, scaling back its objectives to attract support from the carbon coalition threatens the post-carbon coastal communities. . . .

There is only one way to fix this mess. The post-carbon coalition has to bribe what’s left of [the carbon coalition] to make [a] transition. Non-coastal, largely Republican states must be the epicenter of the green transition and be the recipients of most of the investment. After all, they have the most assets to turn around and the most to lose if they are not compensated. If all they are offered is “you decarbonize/we keep the money,” then all they will give back is more [right-wing radicalism].

There are clear parallels in U.S. history, such as the massive bribe that the urban sector began paying to farmers in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and two generations of generous farm bills . . . thereafter. Yet the bribe this time must involve more than a subsidy; it requires exiting the carbon economy. For it to work, green investment must extend well beyond energy capture (solar and wind farms) and downstream into industries that are powered by alternatives. Massive investments in electric vehicle production, for instance, to support a rapid turnover of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet with U.S.-built cars and trucks, are required. . . .

Elections in the United States are not being fought over rival principles and certainly not over median voters. They are contested over which parts of the country will grow and how and who will pay for it. Recognizing this is the first step to fixing the deeper problem of the carbon transition for the good of all Americans.

Science, Schmience

From Paul Krugman’s newsletter:

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. . .  I’ve sometimes regretted having gone into economics, a field in which getting the story right all too often offends powerful players, who in turn intervene to prop up zombie ideas that should have died long ago.
 
But I also realized some time back that politics can and will intrude into any area of scholarly research where some people have strong motivations for getting the story wrong. This has obviously been the case for climate research, where an overwhelming scientific consensus has had to struggle against a whole industry of climate denial, which is almost entirely supported by fossil-fuel interests and has effectively taken over the Republican Party.
 
In fact, in some ways the climate scientists have had it worse than the economists; mainstream Keynesian economists (which is pretty much what I am) get a lot of abuse, but as far as I know none of us has had politicians trying to criminalize our work, the way Ken Cuccinelli, now a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, did to climatologist Michael E. Mann [ten years ago].
 
I used to think, however, that climate change was a subject uniquely vulnerable to anti-science propaganda and intimidation. After all, the effects of greenhouse gas emissions are invisible and gradual, taking decades to unfold; it’s always possible to mock the science because it happens to be snowing today, while accusing the scientists of taking jobs away from salt-of-the-earth coal miners.
 
Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that easy to politicize a science, to claim that all the experts were part of a vast conspiracy, in an area in which experts’ predictions could be validated and the conspiracy theorists revealed as phonies in a matter of weeks.
 
But I was wrong.
 
Epidemiology, like climatology — or for that matter economics — involves trying to model complex systems, so that no prediction ends up being exactly right. And the chains of cause and effect are long enough that the consequences of bad policy take some time to become completely apparent: Florida began reopening in early May, but Covid-19 deaths didn’t spike until July.
 
But we’re talking about weeks, not decades, and the story of the coronavirus is as clear as such things ever get.
 
Experts warned that a rush to resume business as usual, without social distancing and widespread use of face masks, would lead to a surge in new cases. The usual suspects on the right dismissed these concerns, insisting either that Covid-19 was a hoax or that its dangers were being greatly exaggerated by scientists who wanted to bring down Dxxxx Txxxx. Sunbelt states decided to believe the skeptics, not the scientists — and the result was a huge, deadly viral surge.
 
So that put an end to the politicization, right? Wrong. Not only are Txxxx officials still pressuring health experts to minimize the dangers, the top communications official at the Department of Health and Human Services accused his own agency’s scientists of “sedition.”
 
The moral here is that there’s no such thing as a safe subject when you’re dealing with people who have a totalitarian mind-set — and that is, in fact, what we’re dealing with. I suspect that in the early days of the Soviet Union plant geneticists imagined that they were working in a low-risk field; I mean, who would politicize that? In the end, however, thousands of them were sent to labor camps or executed for questioning the theories of Trofim Lysenko, a quack who somehow became one of Stalin’s favorites.
 
The fact of the matter is that we’re now struggling over where there’s even such a thing as objective truth. And staying out of politics is no longer an option for anyone.
 
Unquote.
 
I wouldn’t say we’re struggling over whether there’s objective truth. It’s real. What we’re struggling with are people who don’t respect it (like the chairman of the Republican Party who claimed that Biden’s record on the virus is worse than Txxxx’s). But Prof. Krugman is right about not staying out of politics. Voting — and supporting candidates in other ways — matters.
 
Which reminds me. Has anybody seen my Biden/Harris lawn sign? It still hasn’t been delivered. Maybe the crooked Postmaster General arranged for it to be confiscated?

Politics and Markets One More Time

Around 40 years ago, I bought a book called Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems. It was written by Yale professor Charles Lindblom. I read about half of it before putting it aside. I don’t know why I stopped reading, because I thought it was excellent and intended to finish it. Instead, I treated the book like a kind of talisman. For some time, I kept it on my desk at work. It was there so long that someone asked me if I was still reading “that book”. I suppose I didn’t have the mental energy to finish it, but having it around was nice. Maybe it reminded me of my aborted attempt at an academic career.

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A few days ago, I thought I might go around the house and find books I’ve always thought about reading but never did. An obvious candidate was a biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson called Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Just like Politics and Markets, I read about half of it years ago and have often thought of finishing it. Unlike Politics and Markets, however, Emerson still had a decades-old bookmark showing where I stopped reading (it wasn’t even at the start of a chapter).

I’m now reading Politics and Markets again. I was immediately impressed.

This is how the 1977 edition above begins:

Relentlessly accumulating evidence suggests that human life on the planet is headed for a catastrophe. Indeed, several disasters are possible, and if we avert one, we will be caught by another. At present rates of population growth, another century will put 40 billion people on Earth, too many to feed. If industrial production grows at present rates during the next century, resource requirements will multiply by a thousand. And energy emission, some scientists say, will over a longer period of time raise Earths’ temperature to a level unsuitable for human habitation. All this assumes that a nuclear catastrophe does not spare us the long anguish of degeneration.

However fearful one may be that the fallible and dilatory intelligence of the human species will somehow either end human life or reduce it to unbearable squalor, the decline of the human condition is not inevitable. It is for us to decide whether we will continue to reproduce at disastrous rates, plunder the planet of resources, or burn ourselves from the face of the earth through either thermal pollution or a few quick blasts. The world is man’s doing, not something done to him.

Assuming that men and women wish to give some thought to their futures, what are the fundamental politico-economic mechanisms they can employ in order to maintain — indeed greatly enlarge — the humane qualities of life on Earth? That is the question of this book. Some will doubt that political and economic mechanisms matter. They will say that man’s future hinges on a moral regeneration. Or science and technology. Or inner awareness. Or a new form of family or other small-group association. Or organic foods — the list is open to nominations. This book is for those who believe that politics and economics will turn out to matter.

Well, some good news is that world population isn’t climbing as fast as people expected in 1977. It was 4.2 billion back then. Now it’s 7.8 billion, but the rate of increase is going down. It’s projected that there will be 10 billion of us by 2077, not 40 billion. And since the fertility rate is expected to keep dropping, world population may actually decline in the next century (even without the help of killer viruses, nuclear wars, giant meteors, etc.).

Along with population, resource requirements continue to grow, although some experts believe that we won’t run out of the things we need, since as resources become scare, they’ll become more expensive and we’ll find substitutes (I don’t know what the substitute for oxygen or water would be).

The bad news, of course, is that the “energy emission” that “some scientists” were worried about in 1977 is now out of control. If you want a scary update, see Bill McKibben’s article “130 Degrees” at the New York Review of Books site:

What [the 10 to 15% drop in emissions during the pandemic] seems to indicate is that most of the momentum destroying our Earth is hardwired into the systems that run it. Only by attacking those systems—ripping out the fossil-fueled guts and replacing them with renewable energy, even as we make them far more efficient—can we push emissions down to where we stand a chance.

As for “nuclear catastrophe”, it’s easy to think that the danger subsided with the end of the Cold War. That’s not the message from “The New Nuclear Threat”, an article by Jessica Matthews in the same issue of The New York Review of Books (I’ve subscribed for a long time — the subscription is almost worth the price):

In part because of effective deterrence, fear of their destructiveness, and a growing taboo against their use, and in part because of dumb luck, nearly a century has passed without nuclear weapons being used again in conflict. . . . But we are not safer today—quite the reverse. . . . A second nuclear arms race has begun—one that could be more dangerous than the first. . . .

The single step from which profound policy change could flow, domestically and internationally, would be formal endorsement by the five original nuclear powers—the US, Russia, the UK, France, and China—of the Reagan-Gorbachev principle, jointly articulated by the two leaders at their 1985 summit. It states simply, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” International adoption would simultaneously indicate the nuclear powers’ recognition of the rising dangers of nuclear conflict and the need to move toward nuclear forces around the world that are structured for deterrence, not war fighting. . . .  Eventually, these eleven words could underlie the next generation of arms control negotiations, strengthen the global nonproliferation regime, and help short-circuit a second nuclear arms race.

I don’t know if Prof. Lindblom’s old book might help with any of this. I’ll let you know if I finish it.