We often see calls for the elimination of all petroleum products, including natural gas. As long as coal and biomass – which emit two-to-four-times more carbon than natural gas – are major components of electricity generation, it makes no sense to eliminate natural gas. Why would we blow up one of our cheapest, cleanest bridges toward the energy evolution when we are just starting to set foot on that bridge?
Evolving the global energy system, like any truly massive global endeavor, will require expenditure measured in many trillions of dollars and extraordinary quantities of steel, concrete, copper, cobalt, rare Earth elements and other resources. If implemented to any significant degree, the work will unquestionably continue far beyond 2050 to address a climate problem that is arguably poorly constrained and based upon models built upon models, which yield exceptionally broad error bars with proportionately exceptional costs.
So, what should we do that won’t bankrupt the whole world and that we wouldn’t regret if the Climageddon faded away?
Every country’s energy needs and solutions are different. Below is an incomplete list of energy/climate-related options that could be implemented fairly quickly and relatively inexpensively, compared to completely overturning the whole global energy system. Whether you think the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has grossly underestimated the coming Climageddon, or if you consider CO2 to simply be plant food, most of these approaches could be considered “no regrets” options for a cleaner world.
Coal and Biomass
Replace coal and biomass with natural gas wherever possible.
The Americas are rich in natural gas, but Europe and Asia are not, requiring them to burn coal or biomass with that associated two-to-four times the CO2 per British thermal unit that natural gas emits. Coal also emits major amounts of lead, mercury, arsenic and other toxic elements. Increasing wind and solar, will require baseload power when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Gas is presently the cheapest, most available option in the Americas, especially with Allam Cycle generation linked to carbon capture, utilization and storage noted below.
Stop burning trees and virtuously calling this “green”: More than 60 percent of Europe’s alternative energy is from burning biomass (trees). Biomass creates more CO2 per BTU than the dirtiest of coal. That doesn’t even count the energy consumed and emissions generated cutting trees in the Americas, then shipping, chipping, drying, pelletizing, drying, transport, shipping across the Atlantic, and transport for burning, only then to produce all that CO2 and carcinogenic smoke.
Wind and Solar
Wind and solar infrastructure and equipment should be designed for reuse or safe recycling, to minimize disposal.
While not dangerous intact, solar panels, when broken by a trash compacter, release a range of toxic elements, like lead, arsenic, cadmium and chromium, into our drinking water. Meanwhile, landfills are being clogged with used windmill blades. Recycling is presently hit-and-miss and reuse does not presently appear be a design consideration. Better engineering aimed at proper reuse and recycling is needed. Aside from major mining, processing and fabrication material shortage issues, energy storage is the really extreme challenge to compensate for the power intermittency of wind and solar.
Expand research on energy storage.
We often hear that the levelized cost of power from wind and solar is lower than fossil fuels (this is at the source of the power). The enormous and largely unspoken cost of wind and solar is in the energy storage needed to compensate for supply intermittency. Setting aside child labor and toxic processing, batteries are immensely material consumptive and incredibly expensive.
Assuming 100-percent delivery efficiency, the world’s largest storage battery complex, the $90 million Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia will provide about six minutes of power at $15 million dollars per minute or, if directly scaled, $64.8 billion for a three-day emergency supply to back up intermittent supplies when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.
With water and vertical relief, pumping large quantities of water uphill and letting it flow through turbines when needed is a useful approach. Thermal storage by heating molten salt, or heating large bodies of rock and spinning up large flywheels might prove effective in some settings, but scaling of these approaches to feed a city is challenging. Research on other methodologies is needed.
Fusion and Nuclear
We should make fusion research a national/global priority – a new “Moon Shot.”
Fusion shows the potential to be the ultimate renewable power source, producing virtually no pollution or radioactive byproduct. Recent advances should provide encouragement for substantive increased funding for fusion research.
We should also expand research on next-gen nuclear power generation and build them away from faults and oceans. Nuclear is the obvious stopgap for baseload power, either alongside or instead of natural gas, if fusion or wind/solar power storage are not massively implemented.
However, nuclear waste remains a major issue. Next-generation nuclear plants offer the promise of less radioactive and shorter half-life waste. These plants will take a long time to approve and to build. However, if all CO2 emissions stopped today, it would likely take more than 300 years to diminish significantly. Long-term fixes are appropriate for long-term issues.
Hydrogen, Ammonia and Biofuels
Clean hydrogen requires huge energy consumption that might be directly applied elsewhere. Aside from very specialized applications, hydrogen should become a priority only when ample post-coal electricity exists to cover global needs.
Ammonia allows for safer, somewhat pragmatic transportation of hydrogen (cryogenics and embrittlement of metals makes H2 transportation challenging), but it consumes a lot more energy than it yields in producing the ammonia, as well as releasing the hydrogen at the other end. At present, ammonia is best reserved for special purposes, or a time when power supplies are so great that no coal is being burned.
We should stop subsidizing ethanol. Otherwise, call it what it is: a farm subsidy that consumes 110-120-percent more energy than it yields and emits CO2 at every step in production.
But, we should expand biofuels research to address the question: Will they really emit less CO2 and not use a lot more energy than they produce in the full-cycle versus the fuel they replace?
Efficiency and Resiliency
This is another of those “no-brainer” options that seem elusive, because building contractors look for the cheapest options in construction instead of building in better insulation: We should build for thermal and electrical efficiency and add resiliency for weather events.
Again, often for cost considerations, we install electrical appliances and equipment that are not nearly as efficient as they could be. If tax incentives are to be offered on anything in the energy sphere, thermal and electrical efficiency should be rewarded in all new construction or retrofit work.
Also, turn off lights and devices, wear sweaters in winter, wear less in summer. This is even more of a “no-brainer.”
Included in our “building it better” endeavors should be the protection and expansion of wetlands and replanting rainforests. The mangrove swamps, wetlands and rainforests of the world are huge reservoirs for CO2 and the wetlands and swamps help protect our shorelines from storms and slowly rising sea-level.
Also, sea-level rise is slow. Large buildings become obsolete in 100-150 years. They should be relocated uphill as they become obsolete. And, don’t rebuild in areas already at or below sea level or subsiding: Our friend Brad might be a good actor, but rebuilding in New Orleans 18 feet below sea level is a bad idea.
Along those lines, don’t build homes, condos or resorts on transgressive beaches. There should be no storm insurance for someone building a home on a sand-starved transgressive beach face.
Other easy-to-implement, relatively inexpensive ways to lower our CO2 emissions include:
● Hydro and Geothermal
Embrace hydro and geothermal power wherever technically and financially feasible Wherever these resources are easily/cheaply accessed, they should be employed as baseload to back up wind and solar intermittency.
● Natural gas and CCUS
It is not the fuel, but the emissions. Build Allam cycle power plants with subsurface CO2 storage. These plants burn natural gas but have no smokestack. The CO2 is used as a high-density critical fluid to propel turbines and is then pure CO2 is expelled into a pipeline for subsurface storage, deep within the earth. Four of these plants are being built: two in the United States, one in Canada and one in the United Kingdom. This trend should expand wherever possible.
● Incentivize removal of fugitive methane emissions.
Support pipeline construction to access stranded natural gas to eliminate flaring wherever possible. Incentivize elimination of fugitive methane emissions. The stick that goes with the carrot of incentives should be fines for long-term excessive methane release (the definitions of “long-term” and “excessive” will be the sticky bit).
● Expand CCUS at major point sources.
If concentrated CO2 is captured at major point sources like power plants and other industrial facilities, the nature of the fuel ceases to be the issue. However, if burning coal, the toxic elements like mercury, lead, and arsenic must also be captured.
I’m sorry, but direct CO2 capture is inefficient virtue signaling. While the apparent intent is laudable, capturing 0.04 percent CO2 directly from the atmosphere consumes a remarkable amount of energy to very little net effect. Hundreds of these plants operating full-out would not keep up with the present rate of CO2 emissions increase around the globe, much less actually reducing atmospheric CO2.
Lastly, avoid simple, incredibly expensive, knee-jerk “emergency” policy. Don’t blow up the energy bridge while we will still be crossing it into the next century.
Pick your favorites or add to this list. Then, push your political representatives for sensible, fiscally viable, integrated national and global energy policies. At the very least, they should implement a number of the items on this list. Regrettably, most of these potential policies are stunningly absent, even though this is precisely what we pay our policymakers to do.