How to Solve the Climate Change Problem

Article By : Glenn Weinreb

To reduce CO2 emissions, we need to reduce the cost of green energy to a level equal to coal, oil and natural gas. Here's how.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Report projects United States CO2 emissions from all energy sources will remain approximately constant over the next 30 years. In other words, the U.S. is not reducing CO2 emissions toward zero. This is based on current government policy and the fact that consumers buy the cheapest solution. Other countries are similar. An optimist might consider the EIA economists to be pessimistic, and ignore them. However, they are right.

News reports often indicate that solar and wind power costs less than carbon-based electricity. This is typically true when building both systems start from scratch. However, that is not what we do. Instead, the carbon-based system is already built and paid for, and we add solar or wind power, at additional cost to consumers. In other words, adding green to existing carbon typically fails economically against continuing carbon sources. That’s why economists’ predictions are so dour.

A government can force consumers to pay more for greener electricity via intervention, such as renewable requirements. However, this is seldom sized to have a significant impact, as we can see from EIA’s CO2 emissions projection.

Projected CO2 emissions.

Get the carbon out

Decarbonization primarily involves constructing solar farms and land-based wind farms; the quantities built each year are determined by government intervention. To get to zero carbon, a nation could enact a decarbonization law. For example, it could: mandate the amount of decarbonization that occurs each year over several decades; mandate that intervention be sized to support annual decarbonization targets; limit consumer cost increases caused by intervention to ensure projects are acceptable; or require that lowest cost projects be tackled first.

For a discussion on how this might work, see A Plan to Get to Zero CO2 Emissions. A detailed decarbonization plan is primarily a list of solar farm and wind farm construction projects. To generate this list, lawmakers could specify how candidates are scored and selected, as discussed in Develop Your Own Decarbonization Plan.

Decarbonizing most power is easy

How much does decarbonization cost? The U.S., for example, could decarbonize about 85 percent of electricity (about 36 percent of energy) without causing more than a $0.02/kWh electricity price increase. It could do this by building more PV solar farms, more land-based wind farms and more transmission lines. The remaining 64 percent of energy involves oil, coal and natural gas primarily used to power vehicles and manufacturing. While the bulk of electricity is easy to decarbonize, it is not clear how to decarbonize this remaining 64 percent of energy, at low cost.

If green energy was cheaper than carbon-based fuels, then consumers worldwide would switch to save money, and banks and bond markets would lend money to companies that build the power plants that make the green energy. If green energy was cheaper, market forces would solve the climate change problem for us.

Decarbonization lab

To make green energy cheaper, the world needs to spend billions of additional dollars on R&D. To manage this money, governments should consider setting up decarbonization laboratories tasked with solving the climate change problem. These laboratories could develop ways of making green energy cheaper than carbon-based sources, and share their work with others.

More specifically, given additional R&D funding, one could:

Decarbonize transport

EIA estimates CO2 emissions from U.S. transportation to be constant over the next 30 years, not reduced to zero. This is because gas cars cost $0.30-per-mile, 300-mile electric cars cost $0.47-per-mile, electric cars are not expected to become cheaper than gas cars anytime soon, and people buy cheap convenient cars. What might an additional billion-dollar transportation R&D program look like?

We discuss this in How to Decarbonize Transportation. In short, engineers develop cars powered by hydrogen, ammonia and swappable EV batteries. If multiple car manufacturers worked with the same standardized swappable EV battery, then drivers could swap in less than a minute, and work with lower-range batteries that also cost less. Also, drivers could keep several batteries to support their solar-powered homes at night. Developing an EV battery standard would cost little, and potentially have a large impact.

Nuclear power inevitable

Significant use of nuclear power is inevitable since it is the lowest-cost way to manufacture many materials, via direct heat from a nuclear reactor. However, nuclear power does not need to be deployed everywhere. Instead, countries receptive to nuclear, such as China, can use it to take market share away from nuclear-averse nations who manufacture at higher costs. For example, green liquid ammonia could potentially replace oil since it can be converted to electricity via a fuel cell, or through combustion. Those comfortable with nuclear power could use their reactors to make large quantities for export, at competitive prices.

Many nuclear-averse nations will favor importing green materials, over building nuclear reactors at home. For a discussion on how nations who are receptive to nuclear power might use it to decarbonize the world, and gain wealth, see How to Solve the Climate Change Problem for $100B.

Google’s R&D strategy is to get behind the smartest people for a given project. Governments could do the same with climate change by identifying individuals who have published over 100 peer-reviewed papers on energy-related topics, then ask, “How do we spend billions of dollars on R&D to solve the climate change problem?”

Deploying green infrastructure over multiple decades is likely to cost tens of trillions of dollars worldwide. Subsequently, spending additional billions on R&D to reduce this cost is reasonable, as discussed in Gov’t Needs to Think Big.

If countries want to decarbonize, they should consider enacting laws specifying annual decarbonization goals. That would drive the construction of solar and wind farms along with transmission lines. A list of construction projects would constitute a decarbonization plan.

Decarbonizing most electricity is easy; decarbonizing further, at low cost, is difficult. Therefore, more R&D is needed. Managing this, nations can set up decarbonization labs to develop green energy cheaper than carbon-based sources, and share developed technology.

And to direct R&D, nations can rely on their most prolific researchers.

To reverse climate change, consider:

  • Decarbonization Law
  • Decarbonization Plan
  • More R&D

This article was originally published on EE Times.

Glenn Weinreb is the CEO and Owner of GW Instruments (www.gwinst.com), a manufacturer of data acquisition hardware and software. He founded this company in 1985 while an electrical engineering student at MIT. GWI’s products are used by scientists and engineers to interface sensors to computers for purposes of measurement and control. GWI designs hardware, has it manufactured by a firm in the USA, and then sells worldwide through a network of distribution channels. He developed GWI’s products and therefore has much experienced designing analog and digital electronics, writing software (embedded systems, Windows/Macintosh application software, website) and doing mechanical design. He is experienced with raising venture capital (from Sigma Partners), setting up distribution, management, sales/marketing, web design, and manufacturing.

 

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