Address the Climate Crisis

 

10/26/2021

Frank Merritt

Climate Change

            There is now overwhelming evidence, and an overwhelming scientific consensus, that climate change is real and is caused primarily by greenhouse gas emissions due to fossil fuels.  Over the last 150 years, humans have been digging up and burning fossil fuels, and we are now adding 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year.  This has already increased the CO2 content of the atmosphere by over 50%.  CO2 traps heat that would otherwise be radiated into space, and consequently warms the Earth.

 

            The danger of this has been well understood by scientists for the last 50 years and clearly apparent for the last 30.  The Earth has now warmed by 1.1ºC since 1850, and by 2100 this change will increase by about a factor of 4 if no action is taken.  The 2021 IPCC report[1,2] is a “Code Red for humanity”; by 2050 we will certainly pass 1.5ºC,  and will also pass 2.0ºC unless major changes are made this decade to bring CO2 emissions to net zero by 2050.  We have seen the clear evidence of climate change in the U.S. for many years, but especially in the recent summer of 2021-- in the record-breaking high temperatures, in enormous forest fires in California and Colorado, in the destruction and flooding from Hurricane Ida, and in the worsening drought and water scarcity in the west and southwest.  It is important to realize that climate effects will continue to worsen until we have eliminated, not merely reduced, the CO2 emissions that are driving this change.  And we have little time left to prevent even more serious long-term damage to our climate.

 

            The situation is critical now in part because (a) the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is now at a level higher than at any time in the last 2 million years, (b) the rate of increase in temperature and in CO2 levels is historically unprecedented, and (c) we are approaching several critical points where feedback effects could significantly accelerate these changes.  For example, the thawing permafrost will release large quantities of frozen CO2, and the reduced albedo (reflectivity of the Earth) due to diminishing ice coverage in the arctic and upper northern hemisphere will increase the absorption of sunlight by the Earth.  These effects make the increasing temperatures more severe and harder to control.  Our climate is already in uncharted territory, and there is a significant risk that rising temperatures and sea levels will be even worse than the current forecasts.

 

            The challenge is to eliminate CO2 emissions without endangering the reliability or low costs of electrical power.  This can be done by first building vastly increased renewable energy sources (wind and solar), and by expanding the U.S. electrical grid to allow long-distance transmission of electrical power between existing regional networks.  The Clean Energy Jobs Act recently passed in Illinois is a major step in providing the former.  The Biden infrastructure plan addresses both of these priorities nationally.  These are the first and most critical steps, and need to begin immediately.

 

            It is extraordinarily difficult to reverse the damage that has been done to our climate, since atmospheric CO2 persists for thousands of years.  It may be possible to begin this during the latter half of this century, after net CO2 emissions are eliminated, but the process will be very slow and expensive.  This makes it imperative to bring CO2 emissions down as fast as possible, and to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.  The U.S. needs to be a leader in this effort.

 

  1. "A Code Red for Humanity", from the Sierra Club.

  2. 2021 Report by the IPCC, Summary for Policymakers, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

10/24/2021

Frank Merritt

Climate Change Mitigation (2021-2030)

         In order to stop the steady rise in global temperatures, it is necessary to eliminate emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHG) from fossil fuels, bringing the net rate of GHG emissions to zero.  There are 3 major efforts that are an essential first step, and must be well underway by the end of this decade.  These are: 

a) building new wind and solar power facilities at a much faster rate, with storage systems as needed,

b) expanding the U.S. electrical energy grid by building high-voltage transmission lines which can efficiently transport energy over long distances (~2000 miles), and 

c) electrifying ground transportation – cars, buses, and trucks.

 

            At present, the major sources[1] of U.S. power are natural gas (NG), which supplies about 40% of total U.S. electric power, with coal, nuclear, and renewable sources each supplying about 20%.  Wind and solar make up about half the renewable sources, with hydropower accounting for most of the rest.  The original Biden infrastructure plan[2] has the goal of reducing GHG emissions in 2030 by 50% below the 2005 levels.  This would mean expanding wind and solar by a factor of 3 – 4, much higher than the rate over the last decade.  This may require constructing new storage facilities in many regions, depending on the type of renewable energy and the existing power sources available.  At this writing, negotiations in Congress are still underway, and it remains to be seen what the final infrastructure plan will cover.  This page will be updated when more information is available.  (The Illinois Clean Energy and Jobs Act (CEJA), recently passed by both houses and signed by Pritzker, is an important step toward accomplishing these goals.  It will be described in a separate note.)

 

            The U.S. has more extensive sources of renewable energy than most countries, but they are not at all uniformly distributed[3].  Solar power is more available and efficient in the South, Southwest, and California; wind power is strong in the Midwest, but many regions have poor prospects for either of these.   In order to make renewables most efficient, we need to construct long-distance high-voltage transmission lines that can carry large amounts of power across thousands of miles.  This can be done with existing technology, and should be led by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission[4].  The resulting national grid should not only bring power to every region, but also reduce the cost of electricity (since markets will be vastly expanded) and make the energy production more stable (since wind is always blowing somewhere).  These expansions and improvements are also addressed in the Biden plan.

 

            While these changes are underway, it is just as important to replace gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones, which produce better performance, less maintenance, and no emissions.   The Biden infrastructure plan has the goal[5] that 50% of new car sales in the U.S. will be electric by 2030.  Other countries such as the U.K. have even loftier goals, such as 100% of new cars being electric by 2030 or 2035, and many auto manufacturers have already committed to these goals.

 

            Each of these three programs is essential. Electric vehicles are important because the transportation sector accounts for 35% of CO2 emissions. The production of electricity is just slightly less at 31%, but this  sector is even more important because electricity will allow us to replace carbon-emitting processes in other areas, such as transportation, industry, construction, and heating.

 

            All of these can make major improvements in reducing carbon emissions in this decade, but alone they are not enough to get us to net zero CO2 production by 2050.  Other steps, and the R&D that is now going into them, are described in the next section.

 

            Regardless of whatever actions we take, CO2 levels and temperatures will continue to rise over the next two decades; we can only hope to reduce the rate of increase.  We also need to take actions to deal with the effects of climate change in vulnerable areas, by building sea walls, modifying construction codes for new buildings, improving disaster preparedness, conserving water, etc.  These are also included in the Biden infrastructure plans.

  1. Sources of U.S. Power, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EAI).

  2. The Build Back Better Act, Fact Sheet.

  3. "Decarbonizing the U.S. Economy with a National Grid", by Steve Cicala, pages 78-87 of “U.S. Energy & Climate Roadmap”, by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

  4. Ibid., pp. 84-87.

  5. Clean Transportation Fact Sheet, from the White House.

10/26/2021

Frank Merritt

Climate Change:  R & D for 2031- 40 Deployment

            We will run into problems[1] when renewables produce more than 60% to 80% of total electric power, depending on the region, because renewable energy is intermittent.  We will need additional power when “the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining”, or in general when the demand exceeds the instantaneous power produced.  This means we will need sources that can ramp up to produce the needed power.  There are only 3 leading contenders for this, and these are:

a) gas-powered plants coupled with carbon capture and sequestration, where the CO2 produced is captured and then injected deep underground in areas where it will be absorbed before escaping, 

b) new nuclear power plants, including new designs of small modular reactors which can run on fuels such as thorium, producing less waste and lower radioactivity, and 

c) massive electric storage systems which can store enough power to supply an area for several days.

 

A national electric grid, capable of carrying electric energy to every state, will significantly reduce the demands on renewable energy and storage.  

            For (a), we have plenty of natural gas-powered generator plants; the problems lie in capturing and storing the carbon.  This is a primary concern and research target of the fossil fuel industries[2], since the process might enable them to keep operating longer.  The problem is that such plants continue to bring carbon from the deep earth into our biosphere; they cannot capture all the CO2, and estimates of the efficiency of the capture process vary widely[3].  These might help to reduce CO2 emissions over the next 2 decades, but they are unlikely to ever bring us to net zero emissions.

            For (b), we require a new generation of nuclear power plants with major changes.  They must be able to ramp up and down fairly quickly (which current nuclear plants cannot do), and must eliminate the danger of the kind of critical failure experienced at Fukushima.  These are both features of new Small Modular Reactors[4], and also new reactors which use fuel elements of Thorium[5], Natrium[6], or other elements which do not have a critical mass, which produce radioactive wastes that are less dangerous, and have shorter half-lives, than those of uranium.  Several of these have been approved for construction this decade.  New nuclear reactors may be essential for regions, in the U.S. and elsewhere, that do not have sufficient renewable energy sources.

            For (c), there have been amazing developments over the last 2 decades in lithium-ion batteries, and that is what has enabled the production of affordable electric cars[7].  Large-scale battery storage capacity is already expanding rapidly[8,9], and research is continuing to increase the lifetimes, to decrease the costs, and to produce lighter batteries of different materials[10].  There are also a number of other systems for massive storage systems, now under development[11], using compressed air in underground caverns, molten salts, etc.

 

            There is active research and development in all 3 of these areas: carbon capture, nuclear energy, and storage systems.  It is essential for this research to continue, and for prototype systems to be tested and deployed, over the next couple of decades.  The most cost-effective solution for decarbonization in any region will probably involve a combination of 2 or 3 of these, depending on the energy requirements and potential resources in that region.  The construction of a new national electric grid will greatly reduce the requirements for any of these systems, since it will allow the areas with most renewable resources to provide electricity to areas that have fewer renewable options.  This will also reduce the price of electricity by vastly expanding the marketing area for any renewable power station.

 

            It has been argued[12] that the conversion to clean energy could destabilize the grid.  It seems obvious that existing fossil fuel plants will only be shut down after renewables are running, and only after lengthy studies have been made to establish continuity and reliability of power.  If this requires massive storage systems or extensions of the electric grid, we will have to keep some natural gas plants operating or in reserve until these systems are established.  This requires some degree of standard planning and monitoring, but is no reason to delay.

 

            Also, we must remember that the goal is to decarbonize the entire planet, not just the U.S.  Many regions around the world have neither the renewable energy resources nor the technical and industrial resources that the U.S. has.  We need to do the R&D and provide the technical assistance that may be needed to export these products and methods over many parts of the world, and we will certainly have help and collaboration from other countries with advanced industries and research programs.  This work is likely to be the greatest and defining challenge of the 21st century. 

 

  1. Limitations in Existing Regional Grids, from the Washington Post.

  2. Carbon Capture in NG Plants, from Exxon Mobile.

  3. Doubts About Carbon Capture, from Stanford University.

  4. Small Modular Reactors,  PBS News Hour.

  5. New Thorium Reactor in China, Nature.

  6. New Natrium Reactor in Wyoming, Office of Nuclear Energy.

  7. U.S. Grid Storage Factsheet, University of Michigan.

  8. Increases in U.S. Energy Storage, EIA.gov .

  9. Grid-Scale Energy Storage, Yale University.

  10. Batteries For Grid-Scaled Storage,  Science Daily.

  11. Types of Grid-Scale Storage Systems, Wikipedia.

  12. Concerns About Renewable Energy Transition, Inside Climate News.