More Fuels from Hell or the Renewable Grid? Stark Energy Choices for the Next Decade

Continuing to burn and extract fossil fuels comes at a terrible and rising risk for pretty much everyone. Thankfully, the capacity to reduce our dependence on these fuels from hell and transition to far less environmentally harmful energy sources is available like never before. But whether or not we make that choice as a society will depend on the actions of both political and economic leaders as well as individuals in the U.S. and around the world.

Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake Ever Seen and Fossil-Fueled Storms

In Oklahoma, the filling of fracking wastewater injection wells is applying a huge stress to the bedrock. There, the new presence of billions of tons of water is changing the way the land bears weight even as it lubricates existing fault lines. This change, in turn, is setting off earthquakes of never-before-seen intensity, not only in Oklahoma, but in many places across the central U.S.

usgs-map-fracking-earthquake

(USGS map of a fracking-related earthquake that struck Oklahoma City on Friday. Continuing to frack in the central U.S. will likely produce increased risk for such quakes even as it provides greater access to climate change-worsening fossil fuels. Image source: USGS and Arstechnica.)

On Saturday, one of these quakes reached a 5.6 magnitude near Oklahoma City, injuring one person, damaging a number of buildings in the historic section of town, and causing stock losses at local grocery stores. As earthquakes go, this was a moderate-intensity event, but it was the largest such event that Oklahoma City had ever seen. There is a reasonable and growing concern that the fossil-fuel extraction activity that is fracking could produce far worse — especially if sections of the New Madrid Fault Line to the east in Missouri become stressed.

Farther south, concerned residents in Louisiana, after suffering a 500-year rainfall event linked to climate change that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over the state in just a few days, are attempting to block oil exploration leases in the Gulf of Mexico. This heavy weather is being born in a world in which increasing rates of evaporation are intensifying droughts in some regions and sparking powerful rainfall events in others. This type of extreme weather will continue to worsen so long as we keep burning fossil fuels.

500-year-rainfall-event-louisiana

(A 500-year rainfall event that dumped 6.9 trillion gallons of water over Louisiana in August — one of numerous climate change-related 500-year flood events hitting the U.S. in 2016 — helped to raise concerns and spark protests over the opening of new drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico. Image source: Weather Matrix/Jesse Ferrell.)

Louisiana residents are starting to get worried, and with good reason. Now, hundreds of Louisiana protesters are valiantly attempting to prevent the opening of new fossil fuel leases that could free up another 30 billion tons of carbon-based fuels for burning. If such oil was discovered and brought to market, it would effectively add three more years to the lifespan of global fossil-fuel burning at a time when a rapid cessation of such burning is necessary to preserve anything remotely resembling a livable climate. Similar protests along the East Coast spurred the Obama Administration’s choice to close oil exploration leases in the Atlantic for at least the next five years. Sadly, thus far, no such positive outcome has occurred for the Gulf. After the recent exploration rights auctions, the production of these harmful fuels is one step closer to market.

A Huge Opportunity For the Alternatives

Fracking-related earthquakes in Oklahoma City and oil-lease protests as an upshot of climate concerns by citizens are just two events in a larger tapestry of conflict over the use of dangerous and volatile fossil fuels. As this conflict rages across the globe, new energy sources are starting to make inroads. In particular, wind and solar power during recent years have gone mainstream as electrical power generation sources. In the U.S. so far during 2016, more than 90 percent of new installed electricity generation capacity has come from wind and solar combined. On the current path, these two energy sources will account for ten percent of total U.S. electricity production by 2021, a more than five-fold increase in ten years.

Moreover, a recent report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) finds that it is technically possible for the largest grid in the world (occupying the eastern U.S.) to receive fully 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2026. These potentials do not include recent and projected advances in battery storage technologies, which provide an opportunity to further expand wind and solar generation by helping to make these clean energy sources less variable.

nrel-scenarios

(The National Renewable Energy Lab recently reported that the eastern U.S. could get 30 percent or more of its grid electrical power from wind and solar by 2026. Image source: NREL and Vox.)

Improvements in renewable energy cost and continuing technological advances have helped to drive this expanded access. In almost all major markets, wind and solar are competitive with fossil fuels on price. Utility renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) now range as low as 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour while homeowners who install solar are often able to save money and recoup investment costs in as little as five years. In addition, the fact that wind and solar does not result in damage to water supplies, rising earthquake risks, various fossil-fuel related health hazards (related to air and water contamination), or the greenhouse gasses that have so wrecked our climate, adds another huge cost benefit to civilization at large — a strong justification for the continued subsidization of these fuel sources (as well as the obvious justification that fossil-fuel subsidies should be cut).

In the end, the action by political parties, economic leaders, voters, and individuals will determine which path we take over the next ten years. If solar and wind energy are suppressed by fossil-fuel interests strong-arming local and state governments (as they were in Nevada), if Republican climate change deniers continue to be elected to Congress or capture the Presidency, if economic leaders around the world continue to support government subsidies for fossil fuels, if capitalists continue to use financial market levers to suppress renewable energy industries, and if individuals do not take the increasingly available opportunities to reduce their fossil-fuel energy consumption and make the energy switch, then fossil-fuel burning will continue to increase over the next ten years and related harms will continue to ramp up.

However, if everyone makes the choice to start doing something about these rising problems now, then we have an opportunity to make a big leap forward, to make our civilization more resilient to climate change, to reduce climate harms, and to rapidly set out on a path toward a much-needed energy transition. Ultimately the choice of seeming ease in continuing to use fossil fuels is really one of seriously increasing pain. We need to make the other choice. And we all need to start doing it now.

Links:

Fuels from Hell

USGS

Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake Ever Seen

New Madrid Fault Line

Gulf Coast Residents Crash Oil Lease Auction

Facebook Weather Matrix

U.S. Solar Market Insights

Eastern U.S. 30 Percent Renewables by 2026

NREL

G20 Baulks at Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies

Hat tip to June

Hat tip to Colorado Bob

Hat tip to DT Lange

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23 Comments

  1. Witchee

     /  September 6, 2016

    I have been watching since 2008 when the clusters of little earthquakes in Oklahoma caught my attention. Since I was not a scientist I was quite free to conclude that it had a great deal to do with waste water injection and fracking. I look at the USGS quake map every day- lived in CA for a long time and have always been fascinated, and the weirdness of quakes in the middle of the plate was certainly an attention getter. 2.9, 3.1, even 4.1- all pale in light of a 5.6. And it is not in the same old place either.
    One thing about the bedrock in the center of the country- it rings like a bell when it shakes. You can’t disconnect, and you don’t know where the stresses go. It is like pulling one thread without knowing where it is connected- you will eventually find out, when your sleeve falls off.

    Reply
    • Well, it’s pretty messy. Part of the issue is that new fault lines are in the process of forming and that these waste water wells are helping to generate those faults. Crustal rebound is also adding stress to the region. So fracking pressure is cumulative to a natural process and the two combined significantly increase the threat of quakes in a region that was pretty quiet until recently.

      Reply
  2. June

     /  September 6, 2016

    This legal fight is in Western Colorado. FERC has sided with the co-ops, but Tri-State, the wholesaler, is appealing the ruling. What happens on appeal could have ramifications for other co-ops nationwide.

    A Battle Over Bringing Local Renewables To Rural Electric Co-ops

    Boughey explained that co-ops’ contracts commit them to buying 95 percent of their power from Tri-State. Much of that power comes from large, centralized power plants, often fired with coal. The co-ops are allowed to generate the other 5 percent of their own. The contracts ensure that each co-op pays its fair share of fixed costs — for maintaining transmission lines, or paying off power plants. If one co-op buys less from Tri-State, thereby reducing its revenues, other members will have to make up the difference, Boughey said. Their costs could rise.

    But Patterson says DMEA’s [local co-op] members believe local power generation is key to keeping rates low in the long-run. With the cost of coal becoming increasingly uncertain, and the cost of renewables like solar falling, it makes sense for the co-op to develop the resources in its own backyard. “We’ve been trying to negotiate with Tri-State on this without success,” Patterson said.

    http://insideenergy.org/2016/09/02/a-battle-over-bringing-local-renewables-to-rural-electric-co-ops/

    Reply
  3. Jimbot

     /  September 6, 2016

    Dear RS,

    Thank you for the excellent offering of the highly relevant topics in this essay. A couple of thoughts occurred to me after I read it.

    Regarding Fracking:

    While the earthquakes are a serious issue, the bigger issue to my ( non-scientist ) mind is the possible path to atmosphere for methane being created by all the rock fracturing. There seems to be some evidence that this could be occurring in the form of anomalously high readings from the fracking zones.
    Not to mention the aquifer pollution ( probably extinction-level poisoning from the “chemical cocktail” being pumped in to them I imagine ). This could also be more serious in the long term than the earthquakes. For the next several millenia perhaps.

    Regarding Renewables, Fossil Energy, etc.:

    You discuss changing the source of the Supply of energy, which I agree is necessary. My impression is that the greater potential in the short term could possibly come from changes in the Demand side overall. I think I have seen estimates as high as 50%. This would take a massive public education effort and retrofitting initiative but could be achieved and would save future Source build out requirements. One example for instance would be re-insulating houses as much as possible and converting forced air installations to heat pumps ( which would increase the load on the grid but lower overall residential heating demand, one of the largest fossil fuel uses ).

    Possibly the Supply and Demand initiatives could be phased in in an integrated, measured fashion.

    Reply
    • We’ve been working on demand for decades. And we’ve added a lot of efficiency which has helped the matter somewhat. Education could also help a great deal. But I think if you want to hit fossil fuel demand as hard as possible, you’ve got to start adding in a rapidly ramping rate of renewable energy adoption to the equation. And it’s possible to do that now.

      Reply
      • Marcusblanc

         /  September 6, 2016

        There is a lot that can be done by governments to push demand down further, energy efficiency is often called a cinderella subject, because of the vested interests against it. Much is now being done, as RS says, but we need to do more. I saw this article on the significant achievements of the EU. Pity we are leaving, really!

        https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/06/eu-energy-reduction-target-six-years-early-greenhouse-gas-emissions

        The UK’s mainly right wing press had a field day when regulations on vacuum cleaners, light bulbs and numerous electrical items were introduced, over many years. Turns out it was pretty successful, both the EU initiative (although note the effect of 2008 in the story) and the accompanying smear campaign.

        Having said all that, we need to throw the kitchen sink at this one. There are many things more we could do to buy time, if we could collectively find the will.

        Reply
        • A carbon tax would be nice…

        • The fact of the matter is that working on fossil fuel demand reduction and adding in renewable energy sources go hand in glove. The two sets of policies are self-reinforcing and we need both sets to achieve the kinds of greenhouse gas reductions that are necessary. Renewables are a crucial part of that equation because they allow us to replace a growing portion of fossil fuel burning with zero emissions energy sources.

  4. martinmackerel

     /  September 6, 2016

    It is important to remember that the 90% solar and wind number is nameplate capacity. Those technologies have “capacity factors”, which account for the fact that they can’t produce all the time. The best wind CFs are 60% or so, solar 30% or less. Also, looking just at one quarter is cherry-picking a little. By expected kWh/year production, 2015’s installs of wind and solar will probably be about half of all 2015’s installs.

    Also, your PPA number is off by a factor of ten. From that report, PPAs are between 3.5 and 5.0 cents/kWh. (Chile even had one recently at 2.91 US cents / kWh.)

    Reply
    • 1. The approx 90 percent capacity figure was for the first half of the year, not the first quarter.
      2. The first quarter saw new renewables at near 99 percent of overall new capacity.
      3. At these rates of adoption, capacity factor starts to become moot. And it’s always been a bit overstated in any case — full of the kinds of cherry picking you mention above.
      4. PPA includes a 2.5 cent per kwh for wind which you should see above in the article.

      Reply
  5. Well said. We certainly need to make the right energy choice asap, and lose the fuels from hell altogether. And crucially, for a fighting chance of staying below 2C, we (esp. we in the developed world) also need to reduce energy demand. As Kevin Anderson has convincingly explained (imho), we need to do that first, in fact, since it’s just not possible to de-carbonize the electric grid fast enough.

    Forgive me, as this recent Anderson talk has been posted here before, but it’s a good one:

    Reply
    • Shawn Redmond

       /  September 6, 2016

      Would you notice that 1 degree was already implicit in the system when the date was about 1956. An increase of 1.5°C was implicit by around 1965. 2°C was implicit by about1978. So 2°C was already in the pipeline towards the end of the 1970s. Today we are under the illusion that reducing our emissions will still keep us under 2°C! http://www.apollo-gaia.org/Harsh%20Realities.pdf

      Reply
      • Sorry – I don’t notice that. By what measure is anything implicit, in this context? In short, what are you talking about? I’m not saying 2C is easy or even likely, but if you have evidence that it’s not possible please do explain.

        Here’s Anderson and Bows 2010 paper. Worth a read.

        “Beyond ‘dangerous’ climate change: emission scenarios for a new world”

        (link taken down due to multiple repeat posts)

        Reply
      • wili

         /  September 7, 2016

        Shawn, Wasell can be a very effective and powerful communicator of GW science. But occasionally he lapses over into trying to do some actual GW science himself and so, not surprisingly for an amateur at a very complex science, gets some things a bit off, iirc. In specific, the climate sensitivity numbers he comes up with seem to be a bit beyond what others have found, and he seems to get them through some fairly simplistic thought experiments, basically.

        But it is, of course, important to keep in mind that we have locked in a good bit of heating a number of years ago. I’m just not sure whether these are the exactly right numbers. Can others throw light here? RS?

        Reply
        • wili

           /  September 7, 2016

          Sorry, that was supposed to be ‘Wasdell’ as in David Wasdell of the Apollo-Gaia organization that Shawn linked to.

        • Hansen’s climate sensitivity numbers in the range of 5-6 C warming per doubling of CO2 or equivalent forcing is pretty much the high range of the well-supported sensitivity sciences. They’re strong figures, in my view, due to their basis in long range paleoclimate over multiple climate ages. And I think that we should consider them, at the very least, on the grounds that caution is a better guide when it comes to responses to uncertain outcomes with terrible and very long lasting consequences.

          Wasdell uses end ice age numbers to get a sensitivity that is well beyond Hansen’s range and is highly unlikely to prove accurate. I don’t think you’ll find many hard core scientists who have expertise in climate sensitivity and who take such figures seriously. To this point, we should be clear that IPCC consensus science has been quite accurate in predicting the present rate of warming (if not in fully resolving all the various zigs and zags — which would be a high order indeed).

    • wili

       /  September 7, 2016

      Thanks, David, for this Anderson video. I’m a big fan of his. I don’t think I’ve seen this one yet.

      Reply
  6. wili

     /  September 7, 2016

    Wow! RS is on fire! Three excellent posts in a row! How are we supposed to keep up with this pace??!!

    Really, though, these are very impressive and very important threats, and you cover them well. Let us know if there are ways we can help you directly or indirectly.

    Reply
  7. wili

     /  September 7, 2016

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160905114519.htm?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook

    “New genus of bacteria found living inside hydraulic fracturing wells”

    Reply

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