Solutions to The Funnel: Carbon Reduction Schemes

The title of my old Blogger site “The Future is Insight”, where this first appeared, worked on many levels- it played off of my belief in hybrid technology being a necessary step towards our future, the fact that introspection and mindful planning are critical to our future, and to the fact that the future is literally in sight for those that are willing to see it. The ranks of that latter group are growing and its constituents are becoming more outspoken with the continuing onslaught of hard data on the reality of global warming. Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and the resulting Global Peace Prize hav created immense momentum in the scientific community and allowed Glowbal Warming to begin to “mainstream” as a theory.  The Funnel mentioned in the title is a visual from The Natural Step that is used to show the current state of rising demands of energy sources and natural resources (consumption) combined with the steadily decreasing availability of the resources, and the Earth’s ability to handle that consumption without significantly losing its holding capacity (Gaia Theory).

A year or so ago, I picked up some magazines to help productively pass some of the downtime when traveling. One of those is the Sept. 2006 issue of Scientific American, devoted entirely to the scientific realities of a future that is significantly less dependent on carbon fuels. One of the most striking quotes comes from the first article, where Gary Stix states emphatically “The debate on global warming is over”. With carbon dioxide now past 400ppm -the highest level in 650,000 years- the reality is indisputable, and the trends are pointing to 500ppm by 2050. The ‘uncertainties’ of climate change that are touted by skeptics-including our federal government- are now relegated to issues like when the polar ice sheets will melt, not if. Stix sets the stage and his poignant article is followed by several action orientated articles on what we need, and more importantly, can do about it. 2 Princeton professors, Robert Socolow (mechanical engineering) and Stephen Pacala (ecology) detail a very well researched and workable plan focusing on taking huge bites (1 billion tons of carbon) out of our carbon emissions to freeze and/or improve our carbon situation by 2050 in a manner that is conducive to economic growth ala Hawkin’s Natural Capitalism. The steps needed to achieve these goals – the steps that must be achieved to avert the unthinkable- are immense. Some seem impossible like Zero deforestation and a 100% switch to no till farming by 2050, to wishful: 700 fold increase in PV usage, to very attainable: doubling the effeciency of the world’s auto fleets from 30 to 60mpg and increasing the effeciency of coal power plants by 50%. They lay out 15 ways to take a 1 billion ton wedge out of our emissions, and any 7 of them will attain their goals so it can be very workable-but any of these are huge undertakings that can make the Apollo Program or the Manhattan project look like science fair projects if for no other reason than we can’t do this alone-it will be a worldwide venture. And we can’t even agree to help out Darfur…

While I strongly encourage everyone to track down a copy their selves, I will highlight the main articles, delving slightly deeper as needed and of course provide some commentary (the ‘nuclear option’ article had me going…) as I work thru the issues for myself. More than anything else this issue of Sci Am put vast amounts of relavent, up to date data into one document from very reliable sources (MIT, Berkley, Princeton…) giving me verifiable facts to help me continue to connect the dots in my own gord let alone in trying to talk to others about it.

The first of my Sci Am article commentaries will focus in on John Heywood’s article in the Sept 06 issue of Scientific American “Fueling our Transportation Future”. All stats, unless otherwise noted, will come from his article; since he is a professor at MIT and I work in a warehouse we’ll call that a good thing.

First the Doom and Gloom-25% of total worldwide CO2 emissions come from transportation. Let that sink in a minute… Good. A quick Google search leads me to believe that the average Big Rig truck gets about 4-6 mpg. Ugh. That is too dark, so for now let’s focus more on light duty trucks and cars. Here in the US we are using about 150 billion gallons of gas per year-that works out to about 1.3 gallons per person per day (not sure if that is drivers or persons-Heywood is a scientist so lets take him literally). Ew. By 2050 China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil will be upping their living standards immensely-and that will add a few billion more drivers to the mix-figure world consumption of gas goes up by a factor of 10. Holy sh*t. Tell me why we aren’t messing with the CAFE standards until 2020 again? Did I mention we have more cars in the US than registered drivers? I digress.

First let’s talk Bio-fuels. GM and the Bush Administration would love to have you believe that Ethanol makes everything ok-put some E-85 in your Tahoe and just keep driving. Balderdash! Even with the immense ramping up in the biofuels segment right now the projections have them only hitting 10% of total transportation fuels by 2026, saving about 5 billion barrels (42 gallons) of fuel a day. Sounds great right? Without efficiency gains total demand will have gone up by over 200 billion barrels a day by then. Plus Ethanol only cuts emissions by about 25%. GM isn’t just greenwashing their dipping their sponges in horse manure first. This isn’t even touching on he incredible moral problem of using food crops to make fuels for an over indulgent society. A year after I originally wrote this, UN experts began to refer to a Bio Fuel ramp up of this scale as a Crime Against Humanity. Alarmist? Not when you start digging into the reduction of global Ag land combined with rapibly increasing populations.

OK, biofuels are out as a savior for Global Warming. Heywood mentions 4 ‘new’ technologies that he feels will impact efficiency.

  • The direct injection turbos This is already out as seen in the Mazdaspeed 6. Efficiency and emissions increases on these are in the categories of the savings of switching to bio fuels (not even a drop in the bucket) and they cost as much as a hybrid option-so I am calling this a non-solution.

  • Low emissions diesel. Heywood puts this on a timeline of 5 years to market with 15 years until 33% of new cars make use of it. Honda {this is a great article-their FFV that will run on anything from pure ethanol to regular unleaded is hot} thinks they can do it in 2. Am I excited about this? Yes (but-more on that later)-diesels get 30% more mileage (about the same as most hybrids) and do so with about 30% less Co2 emissions. In the past that has come with lots of N02 and other nastiness, but the Tier 3 standards have them cut by 82%. Big Fan. However, 30% doesn’t put much dent in that nasty 200 billion number.

  • Gasoline Hybrids. Heywood puts this at 5 years to market-I must be missing something as my Insight rolled off the line 5 years ago, but again he is stressing market competitive which is probably true. He gives them 15 years until they get 30% of the market, and is probably right unless GM and Ford wake up or go bankrupt. I have written thousands of words on this already so I will be brief: 30-100% increases in mileage and PZEV ratings. Huge Fan!

  • Hydrogen. 15 years for a market competitive vehicle, and 25 years for 30%. I find this as overly optimistic as I find his numbers on hybrids pessimistic-how are the vehicles going to be competitive if there isn’t anywhere to get ‘fuel’. And hydrogen is not a fuel source-it is a carrier, a virtual battery. So we still need to make the energy somewhere and we don’t have enough electricity now. Same goes for making hydrogen using natural gas. Once the solar economy is going and we all have PV and wind turbines at our houses I will be on board with this. I like the concept, but loathe the R&D dollars it is taking away from real solutions.

Nothing really new so far except for the nice (and sobering) timelines for market penetration on new automotive technologies-basically people keep cars for a long, long time. How many circa 1980’s cars do you see every day on the road? Alot.

I think Heywood missed something Big. He mentions plug in hybrids in passing-but I see them as the silver bullet or at least the gun to fire it- as it is the 4th technology that we need to stack to get us out of this mess. Check my math here. A Plug in Prius gets 130 mpg- a 2.3x improvement over a 50mpg Prius (which is already a 80% improvement over a 30mpg Malibu). Now lets put on our “what if” hats. What if the Prius was a diesel hybrid getting 65 (30% more than 50 [a diesel-hybrid Insight would be getting over 90 with me driving and not the EPA]) mpg-run the math and you get over 150 MPG. And then what if you ran it on B100 with a 78% reduction in CO2 emissions with pure biodiesel. Instead of talking about 30% we are talking about taking a mid size sedan that currently makes 30mpg (a non hybrid, Prius sized sedan) and increase it 500% and reduce the C02 emissions by 78% for each gallon you do actually use. And the electricity you need to charge one of these systems over night is available from a 2 panel PV system, about $500 plus an inverter to hook it to the grid, with 8 hours of sun you will essentially completely offset the electrical use of your car. In sunny California your PV system is offsetting several of your neighbors too.

What Heywood’s article did for me was to drive home with a 10lb sledge the point that there is no silver bullet-we need to stack ALL the technology at our disposal to make the kind of impact that we need to. He finishes with the stress for drastically improved and coordinated regulatory and fiscal incentive program to get consumers and producers to move. He proposes, and I still love, the Fee-Bate plan of taxing the heck out of the worst offenders (I recommend a gradient system starting at 40mpg and going up quickly until you get to the Hummers) and giving that money in incentives to the vehicles getting over 60mpg and to significantly increase funding for Mass Tranist for those unable to afford the whiz bang hybrids. This makes it budget neutral so we can still fight wars of aggression to protect our oil… He also recommends a higher fuel tax to fund R&D-both would have Big Impacts on shrinking those timelines. Given that the recent energy bill didn’t even cut the subsidies for Big Oil we have alot of grassroots work to do here until we can move policy.

I liked being green better when I felt that planting 600 sq ft of prairie was a Good Thing. And it is-I am just scared as hell for my kids after these articles.

So our transportation is 25% of our carbon emissions-what about the other 75%? Let us embark on chapter 2 in my series on topics presented in the Sept ’06 Scientific American. Next up will be Eberhard K. Jochem’s (a Swiss professor of Energy Economics) article on Energy Efficiency. Why? Bang for the Buck. Again stats, unless otherwise noted, come from his article.

Here at the Mia and Rob household we are vegetarians. The reasons are legion, but the biggest for me is the environmental impact of meat (shocker!). See it takes about 10 times more calories to make a 16oz steak than a pound of beans-and do you know how many meals you could get from a pound of beans? I don’t either, but more than a you can off a phat steak. The whole deal breaks down to physics (I guess everything does) and the degradation of energy converting from one form to another. The same thing happens in all forms of energy, including the electricity you put thru your home. Say you have a nice smelly, polluting, coal energy plant supplying your electricity (chances are you do) and for arguments sake makes 500 megawatts. Due to friction and heat losses, by the time it gets to its end users that 500 megawatts is down to roughly 300 megawatts. Now you and everyone else in your city goes to turn on their toaster or whatever, the energy available to actually do the work drops to about 150. Crap! Run the math more exactly and you get a loss of about 66% with the two conversions of energy-and that gets worse the farther you live from the power plant. And this is even before you as a consumer get a crack at it! This is why it is critical to reduce our energy use at the end-because the savings are magnified immensely over savings in energy production. Finally some good news!

Enter the Green Building. As my faithful will remember, here in our little WI hamlet we have now passed legislation that all new commercial and government buildings will be built to LEED silver standards-typically at an increase in efficiency of about 30%. This month’s meeting I have got residential standards on the agenda and we will be debating LEED-H vs. Energy Star. As our community is still growing this is huge. We are progressive in this regard, but by no means cutting edge. Check out the Swiss Re Tower in London. This breathtakingly beautiful building saves 50% over a conventional building’s energy, by using natural ventilation and lighting, passive solar heating, and to cap it off it was built with materials that can be easily recycled should the need arise. Loves it! Construction was completed in 2004, and it joined a growing world wide community of green buildings. Less spectacular due to its focus on function over form is the Szencorp Building in Melbourne Australia. Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover, this fantastic bit of architecture boasts a 70% increase in efficiency with gee-whiz items like a dehumidification system that both cools and dries the building and ceramic fuel cells to provide both electricity and heat. Using fuel cells on site reduces the energy lost due to transport, and its constant steady supply negates the need for large battery banks while making energy at twice the efficiency of a coal fired plant. Nice. On a more residential scale, simply nothing beats the Earthship for that Uncle Owen charm. If you can get past the fact that Stormtroopers may barge in at any moment to look for some missing droids, you can enjoy the sublime knowledge that your new home has virtually zero emissions, and no energy inputs other than your food and communications channels. It creates its own heat, collects and filters its own water, and processes its own (human) waste on site. It is very, very hard to live lighter on the land than in one of these. I may never live in one of these, but an hour or two cruising their site will expand your knowledge of integrated building systems 100 fold and if we ever move, I will incorporate many of the systems into our new home-those cisterns are gorgeous!

The technology for green buildings is here-now. But if you think the time it takes for an efficient car to reach market impact level was long-building life is measured in decades not years. So in instances like my village where we are experiencing massive growth, green building can have a huge impact, but in established communities with existing structures, retrofits are in order to save energy without incurring massive construction costs. First up is the ubiquitous Compact Fluorescent Bulb. Energy savings of 40-70%, life cycles of 10 times longer, and costs that will be paid back 10 fold in its life time… its no wonder these little beauties are so popular with the Eco aware. The trendy LCD computer screen is another, and much hipper option. Not only do they produce significantly less heat, but they cut electricity usage by 60% and are much more recyclable. How much impact can swapping out some appliances have? When backed by no nonsense regulations, alot! There are 150 million fridges in the US (Once China ramps up they will have a billion)-by updating them all to 2001 standards vs the old one in 1974 will save 40 gigawatts of power. Putting that number in perspective imagine one of those giant wind turbines like you see in California. Then imagine 15,999 more right next to it. Sobering isn’t it? If your refrigerator is older than 10 years-recycle it as soon as possible and buy a new energy star model. It will pay for itself in 4-5 years and will most likely keep your food fresher too. Do me a favor and avoid the one with the TV built in it ok?

This last fact was brought to you for the explicit reason of giving the importance that governments play in molding our energy future. Convincing 150 millions families to buy an energy star fridge next time is impossible-mandating it is relatively simple and drives innovation. Simply put: Global Warming is huge. Each one of us has a vital role to play in the choices we make every day, but Congress, or if not them then the states like California, must take the lead and set standards to drive innovation and, frankly, to save the Earth as we know it. The kicker is we have nothing to lose-energy is expensive and saving it makes incredibly good economic sense. Start-up costs can be prohibitive, especially for the lower income who need the savings most and this is were rebates are critical. This can, and is working across the world. Being born in the most affluent country on the Earth has given us power beyond our ken-and with great power comes great responsibility.

Time for my fourth response to the Sept Sci Am issue on Energy’s Future. Next up I will be commenting on John M. Deutch’s article “The Nuclear Option”. Again to put things in perspective, we need to think about Princeton’s Carbon Wedges of Inconvenient Truth fame. We are freeing carbon way, way faster than Gaia can trap it and global energy needs are rising at increasing rates. Something has to give.

In fact the problem is SO big, that even renewables and efficiency increases may not be enough. Numerous environmentalists, notably James Lovelock of Gaia Theory fame, have gone on record promoting Nuclear as the only option to prevent almost certain catastrophic climate change. Nuclear technology is here now, emits all but zero carbon, and financing and government institutions are familiar with it so there is no learning curve. Nuclear Energy currently supplies 20% of our energy here in the US-replace that with Coal plants and we are talking carbon emissions from 134 million cars more cars.

For all these reasons and more, Deutch proposes a massive ramp up in nuclear power initiatives over the course of the next few decades. How big? Seeing as you’re at your computer I feel it is safe you are sitting down so I spill it. 1440 new plants worldwide. We currently only have 104 on US soil right now, and the entire globe only has 442 (NEI). Jesus. Seeing as its been several decades since a significant safety incident, I will give the NEI a bow on that, but WTF are we going to do with all that waste? One thing about the NEI-you have to credit their sense of humor. Like when they are telling you about the spent nuclear fuel and keep describing it as ‘little ceramic balls the size of your fingertip’-like they are cute or a toy or something. Or when they are describing the 40,000 metric tons of waste that we have accumulated so far in our brief 40 year stink with nuclear power. “It would only cover a football field to a depth of about 5 yards”. And then kill everyone within several dozen miles. For the next 10 million years. I digress…

Ok waste is really, really bad. But it can be dealt with. Well, sort of. It can be dealt with the way that you deal with your cat that died-you can bury it out back and hope that some dog won’t dig it up and no one sees you doing it. But there’s Yucca Mountain right? Sure! And it has been stalled for a decade while all those metric tons of cute ceramic balls sit in above ground storage facilities. 1440 new plants would produce enough waste to fill a Yucca sized facility (assuming we could get it based the NIMBY’s) every 3.5 years. Deutch glosses over this fact. To me it is a deal breaker. Carbon is bad-like some dynamite going off in your neighbor’s garage bad, nuclear waste is bad-like Hiroshima bad. Part of sustainability is to not pass your problems onto future generations- the Cherokee Seventh Generation philosophy. Nuclear Waste will be around for my grand kids for the next millionth generation. That is more guilt that I can stomach. Screw Guilt: Its is Morally Wrong.

But snapping my collar and walking away into the Green Future on blind faith and my morals is not going to save the 2 wedges worth of carbon-that’s 50 billion tons-that Deutch’s 1400 nuclear plants will. Every since reading this magazine I keep repeating the single biggest take away: Global Warming is Huge-a bigger problem than I ever imagined. The time for being high and mighty has passed. Enlightened pragmatism must now reign. Old Nuclear is categorically unacceptable. But nuclear technology has not sat idle for 50 years. There are new, better ways.

So that is why I, like Lovelock, am now cautiously pro nuclear. Burning fissionable material emits no carbon-and our societies abuse of the Carbon Cycle is the single largest issue facing the world today. That is the pragmatism part. Now for the enlightenment. In the late 70’s we changed the way we deal with nuclear waste in this country. See in the ol’ days we reprocessed the spent fuel to send it back thru another reactor. This by no means makes the end result inert, but we are generating usable energy twice from the original fuel, and in the end have significantly less waste to deal with. Worldwide countries that currently reprocess their waste, like France, have the ability to reprocess over 80,000 tonnes over the next 50 years. That is not enough, but it is a big start. The South African Designed Pebble Bed Reactors have even more potential. Self contained waste when spent, smaller scale, and incapable of runaway reactions make them very intriguing to me. Smarter Nuclear must be on the table if we are to make it through The Funnel intact.

Restarting nuclear incentives, while raising fees per kWh (currently at .01 cents per kwh-who approved that?!?!) for waste disposal to the point that would both encourage both momentum for reprocessing again in this country, and would make investment in PV and Wind R&D more lucrative. The hole we have dug for ourselves with our carbon addiction is so big, and so deep, that we need to use every tool in our box to dig our way out. Just like in transportation, the green alternatives need time to get online. Time that we may not have. Nuclear energy can buy us that time. Time to educate the citizenry on efficiency. Time to create better ways to generate energy. Time to mend the rifts in the Earth that we have made.

Lovelock’s Gaia Theory states that the Earth acts like an organism in many ways. One of those ways is that she, like ourselves when we get the Flu, will drastically alter her homeostasis until things settle back to normal. I pray we have not pushed Gaia too far.

While I found these article sobering to the point of depression at times, I also found significant areas for hope. We do not need massive technological improvements. We do not need miracles. We just need a watershed in public opinion, and then public policy to reallocate the current bountiful world resources to avert disaster in the next 50-100 years. This is why the UN Scientist and Mr. Gore earned the Global Peace Prize. Their efforts in motivating the Grassroots are where the front lines of this fight are now drawn. The solutions will be made in millions of individual households as we each choose to value the needs of posterity as equal to our own; as each of us chooses to Be the Change.

We can do this.


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  1. […] Solutions to The Funnel: Carbon Reduction Schemes […]

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