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US energy policy is stuck on reliance on natural gas.  Most Americans understand that by the middle of the century most of our energy will have to be supplied by renewables – wind, water, and solar – but we seem content to use natural gas for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, this is not a realistic policy.

We’re running out of time.  Writing in ROLLING STONE, environmentalist Bill McKibben warned that humans can only emit 564 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and still have a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius (the threshold for catastrophic consequences).  Nonetheless, last year we pumped a record 36 gigatons into the atmosphere; at this rate we’ll exceed 564 gigs in about a decade. Writing in the Washington Post, Brad Plumer observed that if we are serious about averting horrific climate change, “[Then] the world can use natural gas for only a brief period before transitioning to carbon-free power. Global gas consumption would have to peak by 2020 or 2030.”

What will it take to get us to move aggressively to sole reliance on renewable energy?

First of all, it has to be feasible to move to water, wind, and solar.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of evidence that it is.  Speaking on “The David Letterman Show,” Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson touted his plan to move the US off of fossil fuels by 2050.  Jacobson’s Solutions Project has developed a detailed plan for each state.

The narrative differs depending upon where you live.  The Solutions Project has a plan for California, where 95 percent of our electricity would be generated by renewables by 2050.  In the most recent California energy estimates renewables generated 17 percent of our electricity (in-state – we import some energy).  Today, more than 60 percent is developed using natural gas.  

Fortunately, California state policy is behind our transition to renewables: by 2020, California plans to generate 33 percent of its electricity from wind, water, and solar.  Recently, Pacific Gas & Electric, the second largest California public utility, announced that it has “delivered 22.5 percent of its power from eligible renewable resources in 2013 and is on track to meet the state’s clean energy goals for 2020 and beyond.”  

California’s problem is that it isn’t moving aggressively enough.  If our natural gas consumption peaks 10 years from now, that suggests that by 2030 more than 50 percent of our electricity should be generated by renewables.  (For example, we’d close our one nuclear facility, at Diablo Canyon, which produces about 9 percent of our electricity.)

There are four factors that affect this transition.  The first is focus.  California has to set a more aggressive goal and focus on accomplishing it.  At the moment, we’re arguing about hydraulic fracturing, “fracking.”  Most Democrats support a moratorium, but Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, doesn’t.  At issue is development of California’s massive Monterey Shale field.  

This conflict mirrors what’s happening in the US, in general.  Fossil-fuel companies want us to extract more oil and gas and use it to generate power.  But the more we do this, the higher our carbon-emissions will be.

That leads to the second factor, capital.  Even though conversion to renewables makes economic sense, in the long run, it will take a lot of capital to get there.  If tomorrow, California shut down our one nuclear facility we would have an electricity problem.  Even though it doesn’t take that long, comparatively, to install solar and wind farms, we would have to build them and the transmission lines to move electricity to where it is needed.

The multi-billion dollar question is where the capital going to come from. So far, Californians have responded with a lot of creatively.  Many families, including my own, have installed photovoltaic panels on their houses. But we need the private equity market to get more involved – as it did to promote the Tesla electric car.  

The final two factors involve government.  California needs to take the necessary steps to have our public utilities promote renewable sources of energy and energy conservation.

And, at all levels of government, we need to remove incentives for fossil fuels and promote incentives for renewables.  In 2013 the big five fossil-fuel companies (BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, Exxon-Mobil, and Shell) got $2.4 billion in tax breaks. A Pew Research report found, “The subsidies that most increased CO2 emissions per U.S. government dollar spent include those for coal, oil, and natural gas… if the subsidies that increased CO2 emissions were to be eliminated, U.S. government expenditures would have been, on average, $12 billion less per year… over the 2005 through 2009 period.” Meanwhile, incentives for renewables are languishing.

It’s realistic to switch to renewables now.  But Americans have to make this a top priority and convince our leaders to do the right thing.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Once When We Didn't Want Wealth Concentrating (15+ / 0-)

    among the super rich and dominating the economy, we taxed income of various kinds in a steeply progressive fashion such that it wasn't worthwhile to offer huge compensation, inheritances etc.

    And it worked, the bottom 80% acquired most of our family wealth for a few brief years till we decided we liked aristocracy better after all.

    Same principle for atmospheric carbon; if we don't want carbon concentrating in the atmosphere, we have to either forbid it or tax it at steeply progressive rates so that it's more worthwhile to energy producers to put capital into renewables.

    Taxing seems a lot easier to achieve than prohibition especially at this point in time.

    And since energy can also be produced by consumers, we need incentives to encourage family renewable generation too.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 06:43:30 AM PDT

    •  inequality even has climate impacts (9+ / 0-)

      A distressingly common scare tactic that gets traction is the idea that the poor wouldn't be able to afford power.

      This is of course an economic problem, not an energy problem, but the fact that Americans have gone in for hurting poor people makes it harder to gather support for change.

      And of course, the reality is that currently, switching to renewables does not have to cost more.  I decided to switch to 100% renewables (through contract.  Electricity is in effect a service, a lot like phone or cable, and I buy my electricity from renewable power providers) and an electric car (Nissan LEAF).  At the end of the day, my household budget shows that I am on net saving money relative to the generic power from PG&E and the gas car.  

      Note:  I typically drive fewer than 90 miles a day (the range of my LEAF, and the more distant destinations have charging stations for those trips.)

      •  I have a friend here in Arlington Texas who got (5+ / 0-)

        tired of losing all the Natural Gas Special Use Permit battles at City Hall and went the other route. She converted her home to solar and bought an electric car she can charge using the solar generated power. The candidate I work for,  David E. Cozad who is challenging Joe Barton for the U.S. Congressional Texas 6th seat just traded his vehicle for an electric car yesterday. He leased because he expects the technology to improve rather rapidly in the next three years.

    •  Well said Sir. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FaithChatham

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 03:09:27 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  There is a difference between "Tax Loophole" and (0+ / 0-)

      "Incentive".  The tax code used to encourage folks to pay employees, pay into retirement funds to retain employees, pay to train and educate employees, retool your company, invest in research and development and to keep the infrastructure updated required to produce and deliver your product to the consumer. These things kept our nation strong and competitive in the world market. When Reagan came in and passed massive tax cuts without retaining any incentives we immediately saw an exodus of domestic investment and loss of American jobs, productivity, and aging infrastructure. There was (is) no incentive to invest at home. Taxes are not our enemy. No, we don't enjoy paying them but we also don't enjoy going without what is necessary which taxes are intended to provide.

  •  It's time to switch all subsidies and tax breaks (16+ / 0-)

    away from the fossil fuel industries to renewables.

    That's going to happen eventually, and if done properly and at the right times, it would provide an economic bridge to the time when renewable energy production has a clear economic advantage over fossil fuels.

    One message that we need to get out is that in the not too distant future, renewable energy will be an economic winner for the nation.  When environmental costs are considered, it already is, but within ten years renewable energy will be the best option, even for those who don't care about the environment.

    If current world growth rates in production of renewable energy can be sustained, we will reach the 95% mark well before 2050.  It just requires a continual growth rate of between 13% and 15%, and the world has exceeded this in recent years.

    "Trust only those who doubt" Lu Xun

    by LookingUp on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 07:12:54 AM PDT

    •  The only right time other than in the past is NOW. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Roger Fox, LookingUp, Eric Nelson

      This nation lacks the political will to switch to sustainable energy because fossil fuel industry profiteers prefer to spend on lobbyists, massive campaign contributions and even larger contributions to dark money super pacs than in investments to retool and convert this nation to make us strong and secure.

  •  All roads lead to Rome (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FaithChatham, Eric Nelson, LookingUp
    California has to set a more aggressive goal and focus on accomplishing it.
    California has a referendum system.  The state renewable mandate could be raised by statewide referendum.  Even if that didn't succeed, it's possible that the effort would put pressure on the Legislature.

    Counties and cities in California could also pass renewable mandates which are higher than the state mandate.

    Are there any specific efforts to push county boards and city councils to raise the total mandate?

    -7.75 -4.67

    "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

    There are no Christians in foxholes.

    by Odysseus on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 01:49:30 PM PDT

  •  Put your money where your mouth is. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FaithChatham, LookingUp
    That leads to the second factor, capital.  Even though conversion to renewables makes economic sense, in the long run, it will take a lot of capital to get there.
    There are several different ways to find capital.

    California is one of the states which has a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) law.  The essential mechanic here is that a county or city will finance building residential solar projects, which are then paid back over time through a special tax assessment on the property.

    PACE solves the issue that many people don't have the ability to save a lump sum big enough to pay the install price for solar.  There has been some shortsighted push back against PACE from the mortgage industry.

    Alameda County
    Main article: Solar power in Alameda County

    Using a 20-year property assessment known as PACE financing, Berkeley had a successful pilot program from 2008 to 2009 as the first city in the country to allow residents to obtain solar power without any initial payment. In the plan, property owners paid as much in increased property taxes as they save in energy costs, allowing them to install the panels for free at no cost to the city. Thirty eight projects are being installed for the pilot stage of the program.[40] PACE financing has spread to 28 states, but is on hold in many due to objections by Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, including in Berkeley (which has not continued the pilot as a result). Legislation has been introduced to require acceptance of PACE financing.[41]

    Another option is crowdfunding.  Solar Mosaic is one project.   There may be others.  Join and put your money to work.

    However, that still leaves tension between utilities and the renewable community.

    In the end, it may come down to activist investing.  All publicly traded companies are takeover targets.  Buying a majority of the shares and holding shareholder votes to force specific corporate actions may be the only way to break through certain forms of obstruction.

    -7.75 -4.67

    "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

    There are no Christians in foxholes.

    by Odysseus on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 02:05:57 PM PDT

    •  I think that utility barriers to conservation (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LookingUp

      must be outlawed. In Texas wind power generated energy is tied to the price of natural gas. That removes the financial incentive for people to convert to wind power. It is an industry self-serving law enacted to ensure that Texas Energy Futures (parent company of TXU Electric) and the natural gas producers get their cut no matter what!  Somehow those who tout the most about the importance of a free market economy seem to be those who move the fastest and engage the largest cadre of attorney's and lobbyist to ensure that they are protected from a free market economy!

      •  Texas has a complicated relationship with wind. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        FaithChatham

        Texas set the bar low, and cleared it easily.

        The RPS mandated that electricity providers (competitive retailers, municipal electric utilities, and electric cooperatives) collectively generate 2,000 megawatts (MW) of additional renewable energy by 2009. The 2005 Texas Legislature increased the state’s total renewable-energy mandate to 5,880 MW by 2015 and a target of 10,000 MW in 2025.
        [...]
        *The Texas RPS has been so successful that its 10-year goal was met in just over six years.* Wind power development in Texas has more than quadrupled since the RPS was established. Due to its competitive pricing, available federal tax incentives and the state's immense wind resources, wind power is expected to remain competitive with coal- and gas-fired plants.
        Emphasis mine.

        One key feature of the Texas energy market was that "Wind is always dispatched".  This meant that wind was a preferred provider above nearly all other modes.  I don't know if that policy is still in place, but it has led to some fascinating market dynamics.

        Wind generation from West Texas is anti-correlated with the ERCOT demand due to the seasonality and volatility of the weather [16]. In West Texas, the wind has a tendency to blow more in winter, spring and fall seasons, rather than in summer,which is the peak demand period in ERCOT, especially with the air-conditioning used heavily during summer time. This causes a negative electricity price impact during the off-peak  periods despite the transmission constraints. The negative electricity price in ERCOT indicates that the market has no other choice but to absorb that cost transferred from the taxpayers for taking wind power during off-peak periods.

        -7.75 -4.67

        "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."

        There are no Christians in foxholes.

        by Odysseus on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 02:39:03 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Capitals attraction to wind is growing (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LookingUp, Odysseus

      Winds price points are the lowest for new construction. 3.3-6.5 cents per Kwh. Solar is on par with a fission nuke, ( I forget exactly) 11 or 12 cents Kwh.

      I'm hoping that 2014 will the see the start of the Atlantic Wind Connection, a 360 mile long marine HVDC cable 10-20 miles of the shore from NJ to Virginia Beach. Initial capacity will be about 7 gigs, thats about 1700 GE 4Mw turbines.

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 03:41:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Waiting until 2050 is too late (0+ / 0-)

    Peak oil is upon us. Waiting until there are NO MORE petrochemicals is economic suicide. Converting now to renewables is vital for the survival of human beings. People talk about saving the planet. Maybe it would make more sense if they switched from using "saving the planet" which implies birds and bees, flowers and trees and glaciers" got real and admitted that it really is about saving our children and grand children and their friend's generations. (I don't have children but saving my classmates grandchildren).

    It is also about having food. It is about having energy to bring food to market and to farm and it is about having energy to purify water, etc. It is about HUMAN survival. It is much more than just having water for landscaping and flowers along our drive way.

    •  Unfortunately 2050 is very optimistic (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus

      to reach 100% renewables. Tho IMHO very doable. Lets see how far we get sin the next 15 years.

      .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

      by Roger Fox on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 03:44:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I hope we have 15 years (0+ / 0-)

        The research by NASA and others indicates that peak oil in the USA is probably only about 10 years out at our current rate. Producing natural gas here to export it will not make us "energy self-sufficient."  It also means that we bear the environmental cost of the production and storage and transportation! In the DFW Metroplex we worked hard to lower the emissions from automobiles with several programs - inspection and incentives to take older automobiles off the road. Because of the escalation of natural gas production in our communities, the gains from all that hard work were offset by the emissions of natural gas production related traffic and processes! We bear the health impacts and they export the product!

  •  ITs amazing the IEA (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LookingUp, Odysseus, FaithChatham

    seemingly has come in line with its solar & wind projections compared to the NAS & NREL.

    IEA is now finally admitting that we can get 100% from renewables. So all 3 basically are saying we can integrate 20% renewables without storage or grid work.

    Since Solar thermal is now a reality, with the 1st 500Mw plant now online in Az., and we have about 20 gigs of pumped hydro storage powered by coal, that can be powered by wind & solar in the near future, and plans are afoot in NJ to use an old mine for closed loop hydro storage, I think its clear the storage and the grid work needed to get past 50% can be started in the coming years.

    Nice diary, TnR.

    .................expect us......................... FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 03:52:43 PM PDT

    •  You are right. It can be done. (0+ / 0-)

      Other countries are converting more rapidly than we are. The "suitcase crew" (lawyers, lobbyist and PR firms) and the checks are the reason it hasn't already been done here! O&G production is operating more and more like a PONZI scheme. The cost escalates and the production decreases but they keep cooking the books to get cash to keep drilling, etc. Without the governmental subsidies many of the big ones are broke. They'll keep up the suitcase cadre because they need the subsidies,  In Texas a few years ago over $4 Bil was cut from the Public School system and resulted in massive firing of teachers and overcrowding in the classrooms. The number of under performing schools tripled in two years. The cut came when the O&G industry took over $6 bil in tax breaks for horizontal drilling/fracking.
      Texas School Children LITERALLY bore the cost of drilling and fracking in Texas so that the oil company top brass and stockholders made a profit. It was an artificial profit... which came because of Legislation.  

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