Global decarbonization is likely to cost tens of trillions of dollars over multiple decades. Those costs can be reduced through R&D.
Climate change is in the news and many individuals want to decarbonize. Still, carbon emissions are increasing worldwide. Here we consider how to resolve climate change at the lowest cost, and with broad political support.
Why are we not decarbonizing?
Decarbonization in the US is favored by 95 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans. When Republicans are in power, their majority do not want to decarbonize. And when Democrats are in power, their proposals veer from decarbonizing at lowest cost; which causes Republicans to rabbit. For example, residential solar costs three times more than solar farms. Subsequently, residential solar subsidies do not sit well with conservatives. To gain broad support, liberals need to work with fiscal conservatives who also want to decarbonize.
Increase R&D with goals
Global decarbonization is likely to cost tens of trillions of dollars over multiple decades. Those costs can be reduced through R&D. However, if one increases R&D by billions of dollars a year, to save trillions, one needs to specify goals for scientists and engineers. Below are examples.
Set up a National Decarbonization R&D Laboratory
To manage the above R&D, the U.S. should consider establishing a National Decarbonization Laboratory tasked with resolving climate change by making green energy cheaper than fossil fuels.
Reduce costs with green energy zones
To reduce the cost of decarbonization, new laws are needed that:
Most communities do not support the above laws since they find them intrusive. However, one could apply these laws to green energy zones where communities opt-in. After they join, land-owners have the right to build solar/wind, an agency has the authority to demand right-of-way and other steps. Many communities would not participate; however, others would consider it an economic opportunity.
In summary, green zones use regulation to reduce decarbonization costs, they trade jobs for government intrusion and gain political support by being optional.
Initiate power transmission upgrades
One still needs to transmit electricity from green energy zones to metropolitan areas, and obtaining the right-of-way for land is often difficult. Subsequently, an empowered agency is needed to replace existing power wires with new wires that transmit 10 to 200 times more electricity, on a widened tract of land. A power line with three smaller cables is shown lower-left; and a larger bundle that caries 50 times more electricity is pictured to its right.
Understand decarbonization costs
When tackling climate change, one must look at decarbonize costs. This is seldom discussed since the math often gives one a headache. We demonstrate below.
Currently, 40 percent of U.S. electricity is generated without emitting CO2, and if this increased 5 percent per year for 10 years, then 90 percent would be green in year ten (40% + (10yrs x 5%). If today’s wholesale electricity cost $0.04/kWh, and renewables cost $0.07/kWh, then price after one year would increase by $0.002/kWh to $0.042/kWh ($0.04 + $0.0005) x 95% + $0.07 x 5%). This increase amounts to $7.5 billion for the entire U.S., which has a GDP of $21 trillion (3.8e12 kWh/yr x $0.002). This increase works out to $91 for each family of four ($7.5B x 4 people / 330M population), and applies to all electricity, which means the family sees this as a cost increase in goods and services, in addition to their own electric bill. Residential demand is 20 percent of total electricity; therefore, their house electric bill would increase $18 for the entire year ($91 x 20%).
One might consider the above calculation misleading since we are mixing 5 percent of costly green with 95 percent of traditional electricity. However, this is the mathematics of decarbonization. Also, one might consider the $0.07/kWh cost of green electricity high since some sources are lower. We use a higher value here since communities seldom decarbonize at lowest cost. Also, we increase carbon-based electricity $0.0005/kWh/yr since its fixed expenses, such as a mortgage, are being spread out over less output, as carbon-based electricity is replaced with green.
Climate harm increases
An astute observer might notice the $91-per-family cost goes up by approximately $91 each year as one mixes in additional more-costly green electricity. For example, cost is $91 higher than today after year one, $180 higher than today after year two, and $806 higher after 10 years.
Voters are likely to tolerate $91 today; however, they might be uncomfortable with $806 ten years from now. Evidence of climate harm also increases each year, meaning voters’ tolerance of decarbonization costs are also likely to increase.
To keep tolerance ahead of costs, one can tackle lowest cost projects first. In other words, begin with projects that have the lowest cost-per-ton-of-CO2-avoided. That translates into increasing the rate at which we build solar farms and land-based wind farms by a factor of about five, and then building for 10 years. Alternatively, residential solar and ocean-based windmills are relatively expensive, and are therefore less helpful when decarbonizing at lowest cost.
In summary, one can tackle lowest cost first, then tackle the more difficult steps later when evidence of climate harm is greater, and voters’ tolerance of decarbonization costs is higher.
Government requires decarbonization, yet does not pay for it
Most communities are not inclined to decarbonize, especially at the rate required to get to zero within a few decades. This is due to several reasons, one of which is economics. If a company incurs more costs, it becomes less competitive. To decarbonize, one needs federal law that requires communities to increasingly obtain electricity from sources that do not emit CO2. This is referred to as a “renewable requirement”.
Getting to zero in 30 years probably involves a federal law that requires government economists to size renewable requirements to decarbonize 1/30th of emissions in year one, followed by 1/29th in year two and so on.
One might consider subsidizing additional infrastructure with tax credits. However, these often expire after a period of time, and they increase the deficit. Alternatively, passing costs onto consumers is sustainable and facilitates support from fiscally conservative lawmakers.
We are looking at adding solar farms and wind farms to already-paid-for carbon-based power plants. The carbon plants provide electricity when windless and cloudy. Government does not pay for the new solar and wind farms since companies fund construction with borrowed money, and repay loans with revenue from electricity sales.
Hence, one could decarbonize without taxpayer money, without subsidies and without reduced tax revenue.
The Decarbonization Act of 2022
The US needs a decarbonization law that reduces CO2 emissions to zero within several decades, and is supported by both political parties. Let’s call it “The Decarbonization Act of 2022”.
To succeed, supporters need a bipartisan workgroup consisting of economists, energy experts, conservative lawmakers, decarbonization experts and innovators. Below are several possible candidates:
A bipartisan workgroup is needed to draft a federal law that decarbonizes to zero over several decades. The panel would likely consider more R&D, optional green energy zones and fiscally conservative renewable requirements.
Such an approach would set the stage for resolving climate change.
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.