What’s a sensible US strategy for climate change and peak oil?

climate changeIt does not have to be mysterious anymore what the US, and by implication, the world can do about climate change and peak oil. It is to deploy the appropriate amount of wind, solar, and electric transportation. With this strategy, we have the knobs for all the results we want: less and less carbon dioxide, and reduced need for oil. What more do we want?

Naturally, we must answer two key questions:

  1. How much would it cost?
  2. How do we deal with wind and solar intermittency?

It used to be that wind cost too much and solar cost way too much. Those days are gone. Now wind costs about the same as new coal plants (which is to say, as little as anything to make electricity), and solar costs (depending on local sunlight) only about half again more. (Of course, in less sunny places, solar prices go up significantly. This is why you hear so many different economic numbers quoted for solar. Small systems are also significantly more expensive than large ones, although most of this is the cost of middle-men and not hardware.)

There should be little resistance to implementing a great deal of solar, starting in sunny places, because:

  1. It will sustain continued cost reductions in solar (which have been documented over about 30 years as about 20% per doubling in production); and
  2. Solar electricity, by being produced during the day, is worth more than wind-electricity, which is produced usually over 50% at night (this means the economic disparity between the two is actually marginal in terms of customer value).

We have few solar and wind intermittency challenges in America and other developed countries, because we have a power grid capable of filling in for solar and wind when they are not available. That will work to about 20% of our electricity (which is a lot, even enough to power all our light duty vehicles, if they were electric).Electric vehicles

Electric vehicles and mass electric transport are key to moving away from fossil fuels. Electricity is cheaper than gasoline as a “fuel” (one dollar a gallon is about the same as 10 c/kWh, the retail
rate in most places), so we would get an immediate economic benefit, if we had the batteries. Everyone knows that batteries are still a challenge, and we ought to move forward with their development expeditiously.

In parallel, we ought to also expedite the development of alternative electric storage methods for the period after we can use existing backup. That may be about twenty years from now, so we have time if we work hard.

What will this cost? Those with other preferences often try to portray it as breaking the bank. This is far from the truth. The economics of wind and solar are similar to existing options, now, and will get better with further development. Conventional fuel costs will rise if we wait for further resource depletion. How can we quantify that avoided cost? Or the avoided climatic costs of GHG reduction?

In fact, a major cost of the transition away from carbon fuels is simply the rapid rate of building a replacement set of power plants for the existing ones. It’s not that the electricity from the new plants costs that much more. It’s that we will be building a huge number of solar and wind plants in a short time. That’s the unusual cost of this transition. But how can we avoid it, unless we imagine that conservation by itself is going to get us there? That isn’t going to happen.

Wind, solar, and electric transport are the core technologies for solving climate change and peak oil. They will work in the US, and would work worldwide. The rest (efficiency, geothermal, tides, waves, biomass, others) are icing on the cake. They will be there, but they will not be the kernel.

Why does it matter to have this discussion? Because until we crystallize at least an outline of a plan, as a society we won’t be able to move forward.

Ken Zweibel