The Monsters of Growth Shock Rise: Conflict in the Ukraine, Global Food Crisis, and Spending 500 Billion Dollars to Permanently Wreck the World’s Climate

nasa_p1089035

(Immense Russian wildfires burning through the thawing tundra’s carbon pool during summer of 2012. The bar on the lower left denotes 50 kilometers. From end to end, the burning zone seen is about 500 miles in length. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada.)

The radio and television today blares with the news but never the causes:

US meat, coffee, almond and milk prices to sky-rocket. Ukraine invaded by the Russian petro-state. Exxon Mobile to partner with Russian Rosneft and invest 500 billion dollars in extracting oil and gas from the increasingly ice-free Arctic.

What has caused all this? In a term — Growth Shock.

What is Growth Shock?

It’s what happens when any system grows outside of the boundaries of its sustainable limits. In the current, human case, its primary elements are overpopulation, renewable and nonrenewable resource depletion, climate change, poisoning the biosphere and wasting livable habitats, and a vicious system of inequality in which an amoral elite loots and pillages the lion’s share of planetary resources while driving increasing numbers of persons into poverty, hunger, and vulnerability to environmental/ecological collapse.

In the more immediate sense, human burning of fossil fuels is now intensifying droughts and extreme weather around the world. This is negatively impacting agricultural production. In addition, military aggression on the part of Russia has destabilized one of the world’s largest food producers — Ukraine. But these causes and effects are all a part of the larger structure of an ongoing Growth Shock crisis. The most recent and more intense iteration of a series of events that began in the 1970s and continues today.

In my own writing, I have described the forces of Growth Shock as four monsters (overpopulation, resource depletion, climate change, institutionalized human greed) and, like the Diakiaju of Pacific Rim, they continue to grow stronger and to devour increasingly large chunks of our world.

In the context of our intensifying Growth Shock, conflicts can rapidly escalate as resources grow scarce and various nations, powerful individuals and corporate entities jockey for dominance in the context of increasing limitation and peril. But it is important to note that unless the underlying condition that caused the crisis — what is now likely the most terrible manifestation of Growth Shock ever witnessed by humans — is addressed, then there are no winners. No dominators that survive to flourish in the end. No remnant that sees a prosperous future. Only an ongoing string of worsening conflicts, disasters and temporary victories leading to a terrible and bitter ultimate defeat.

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The Special Interests of a Corporate Petro-State, its Dictator and its Oligarchs

So many of you are probably wondering why Russia suddenly invaded Ukraine? Why the West is taking an increasing stake in this country that, until recently, rarely showed on the international stage?

The reasons currently given by US officials certainly appear noble. We should not allow one country to simply invade, bully and rig the electoral process for another. We should not allow a single nation to flaunt international law and behave in a manner that better fits an age of anarchy and brutality. We should not permit these things from the member of the international community with broad responsibilities and obligations that is Russia.

These are moral and, indeed, appropriate frames for the current conflict. As they are appropriate rhetorical responses to international bullying. But we would also be wise not to ignore the underlying drivers — food crisis and overwhelming political power of fossil fuel special interests.

If anything Russia is now little more than a dictatorial, nuclear-armed petro-state, run by corporate oligarchs and a brutish strong man in the form of Vladimir Putin. A man who has ruled this country for a period now going on two decades through a combination of bullying, trickery, and poll fixing. The kind of character many conservatives these days seem to appreciate…

At 2.2 trillion dollars in GDP each year, its economy is comparable to that of the UK — sizable, but not an equal to economic powerhouses US, China, Germany or Japan. But what the Russian petro-state lacks in economic girth, it more than compensates for in two very destructive and destabilizing items — nuclear weapons and fossil fuels. It also retains a rather sizable and effective military — one whose forces are capable of projecting power and toppling governments throughout both Europe and Asia. One that retains its ability to rain nuclear Armageddon on any nation of peoples around the globe.

And this set of powers is increasingly being used to advance the special interests of the corporate, dictatorial state that is today’s Russia.

But it is Russia’s vast oil and natural gas wealth, the single-minded and narrow interests of its rulers, and the dark impetus that is global climate change that have likely combined to spur Russian’s current aggression.

Food, Fossil Fuels and the Compost Bomb

Burning Rings of Fire

(The tundra compost bomb explodes into burning rings of fire that illuminate the Russian night during 2012. The fire rings seen here are each between 10 and 100 kilometers across. Image credit: NASA. Image source: Burning Rings of Fire.)

For the very natural gas, oil and coal that Russia uses as a mainstay for its economy are now in the process of wrecking its future prospects and propelling it to ever more desperate and violent action.

To understand why, one simply has to think a little bit about permafrost and frozen ground.

A majority of Russia’s land mass sits on a pile of permafrost ranging from 1 to more than 10 meters in depth. In the past, this frozen substrata underlay many of Russia’s fields, cities and towns, forming a kind of frozen bedrock. But over the past few decades, the permafrost began to rapidly thaw under the radical and violent force that is human-caused warming. At first, this event was thought to weigh in Russia’s favor. The newly thawed permafrost would become more productive farmland, many assumed, and the added warmth would extend Russia’s growing season.

But few apparently accounted for the speed and violence of human-caused climate change. What happened instead was literally a firestorm. For the thawing peat retained a combustibility roughly equivalent to brown coal. Even worse, it contained pockets of highly flammable liquified organic carbon and methane. Over top this volatile layer were the great boreal forests and the vast grasslands of the Russian land mass. During the periods of summer drought that emerged as human caused climate change amplified at the end of the 2000s, these forests and grasses were, increasingly, simply piles of kindling growing atop a meters thick layer of volatile fuel.

By 2010, climate change brought on a series of record droughts and heatwaves extending far into the Arctic that set both permafrost thaw and lower latitude regions ablaze. As a result, Russia suffered agricultural losses unlike anything seen in its past. Fields and towns burned. The productive regions burned. Russia was forced to close its agricultural market for exports. World food prices hit all time record highs and the food riots that followed were enough to topple regimes and alight civil wars throughout the world’s most vulnerable states.

Through the summers of 2013, Russia suffered amazing fires in its thawing tundra lands. These blazes were, at times, intense enough to require the calling up of its military and the mobilization of up to 200,000 people simply to fight the fires. Heat and moisture from the thawing tundra spilled out into the Jet Stream and amplified the storm track. By 2013, record drying and burning in the tundra lands turned to record floods in the Amur region of both China and Russia. A tragic song of flood and fire.

Song of Flood and Fire

(Massive wildfires burn over Yakutia as an immense rainstorm begins to form over the Amur region of Russia and China. The fires and deluge would together ruin millions of acres of crops during 2014. Image credit: Lance-Modis. Image source: A Song of Flood and Fire.)

It was a string of climate change induced disasters that produced blow after telling blow to Russian agricultural production.

Meanwhile, around the world, similar droughts, floods and severe wind storms were ripping through the world’s croplands. By early 2014, the world food price index was again on the rise. By February, the index had climbed to 208, a very high level that would put those countries and populations at the margins at risk of increasing poverty and hunger all while potentially destabilizing any number of nations.

Ukraine — The Breadbasket of Europe

Perhaps the irony is lost on Russia that the very fuels — oil, gas and coal — that it views as an economic strength are also the source of its increasingly marginal food security and the ongoing and growing devastation of its lands. But Russia, its strongman, and its corporate oligarchs likely haven’t overlooked the fact that Ukraine is one of the world’s largest food producers. In a world where food is becoming increasingly costly and scarce, this particular commodity may well be more important than even oil, gas, or coal.

Ukraine possesses 30% of the world’s remaining richest black soil. It regularly ranks within the top ten producers of both wheat and corn. It is the world’s top producer of sunflower oil. The reach of its agricultural exports extends to the UK, Europe, Japan, China and into Russia itself. If Russia has a food crisis, it will be to the Ukraine that it turns to first. Moreover, the current Russian dictator must see an imperative not to rely overmuch on the US or its other economic rivals for food.

So it is in this context — a one in which climate change is causing Russia to flood and burn, in which climate change is now beginning to take down global agricultural productivity, and in which the Ukraine could well be seen as the Iraq of world food production (one of the only countries with the ability to radically increase production) — that we must also view both the Ukrainian revolution for independence and the Russian armed invasion as a response.

Russia Already Taking Hold of Some of Ukraine’s Most Productive Farmland

Centuries ago, during the dark ages, bad winters drove waves of tribes out of the frigid northern lands and into the then fertile fields of Rome and Europe. History, it seems, is not without its rhymes. For now, a fiery human-driven thaw and climate change appears to be having a similar impact on the Russia and Ukraine of today.

For the lands already under Russian occupation and threat of invasion (Eastern Ukraine primarily) are also some of Ukraine’s most productive wheat and corn growing zones. These lands under threat of additional Russian incursion, if added to the already occupied and planned to be annexed Crimea would compose the bulk of Ukraine’s agriculture.

Russia’s invasion, thus, must be seen as a direct looting of Ukraine’s lands and productive capacity for Russian and, by extension, Putin’s self interest. A set of interests likely inflamed by Russia’s own declining state of food security.

Climate Change and Why This Fight Must Be Against Fossil Energy, Not for It

Unfortunately, this conflict, like so many others, falls under the ominous shadow of the global fossil fuel trade. A shadow that grows ever darker as the crises imposed by human-caused climate change become more and more dire.

In the context of what could cynically be termed American interests, the fossil fuel giant Exxon recently partnered with Rosneft, an oil corporation Putin and his oligarchs essentially looted from a political rival, to invest 500 billion dollars in drilling and exploration in the Russian Arctic. The zones included in the deal involve the highly unstable clathrate and natural gas stores of the Arctic Ocean. And considering the massive sum invested, one cannot overlook the likelihood that the ESAS’s store of up to 1400 gigatons of natural gas clathrate have now been targeted by global fossil fuel interests for burning. Such an exploitation would result in the near tripling of the current human atmospheric carbon loading — all by itself and without the added inputs from coal, tar sands, or other oil and gas reserves. In other words — corporate insanity in the mad pursuit of profits for a few supremely wealthy and powerful individuals. In this case, a breed of greed-driven insanity that falls under the specter of an increasingly violent and expansionist Russia. One driven to hunger for resources by the land and crops destroying influences of the fossil fuels it continues to seek to exploit.

Here is Growth Shock in its most brazen form when wealthy oligarchs, dictators and corporations collude to profit while ruining the productivity of the lands upon which even they rely. And it is this terrible state that cannot be allowed to continue.

The US, therefore, could strike a blow against both Russian aggression and climate change game over by sanctioning Russian-backed Rosneft, disallowing any American corporation from conducting business with them or any other Russian petroleum entity and going further to say that they will sanction any other global corporation with ties to Rosneft. Use of the power of the dollar and of the global monetary system, in this way, could strike a blow against both the greed that underlies the current Growth Shock crisis and against the maniacal continued and expanding exploitation of extraordinarily destructive fuels.

If the US wishes to continue to bring Russia to heel, it will also use the carrot of access to US grain and food shipments as well as providing partnership arrangements with US alternative energy and sustainability-based corporations in exchange for a peaceful withdrawal from the Ukraine. To help Russia save face, it could provide these offers in a less public fashion or in a way that is not personally insulting to Putin.

Little to No Time Left, But the Crisis Presents a Fleeting Opportunity

In broader context, the deteriorating global food situation, the deteriorating global climate situation and the maniacal quest by fossil fuel companies to access and burn an ever-growing volume of oil, coal and natural gas has reached a critical stage that simply cannot continue for much longer without entirely ruining the prospects for human civilization and, likely, much of life on Earth. The Russia and Ukraine conflict is an opportunity to begin a full attempt to change course and to bring the, now very large and growing, forces of our Growth Shock crisis to bay. If we do not, the window of opportunity may well be closed and we may well have consigned ourselves to ever-worsening conflict under a situation of ongoing resource destruction, destruction of modern civilization’s food base, a situation where the powerful are ever more enabled to take from the weak, and a situation in which a hothouse extinction eventually snuffs out most or all of those that survive the ensuing collapse.

Links:

Growth Shock

Smoke From Massive Siberian Fires Seen in Canada

Burning Rings of Fire

Climate and Frozen Ground

Lance-Modis

A Song of Flood and Fire.

World Food Security in the Cross-hairs of Human-caused Climate Change

Climate Change Pushes FAO Food Price Index to 208 in February

The Economy of the Ukraine

Rosneft Warns West over Crimean Sanctions Woos Japan

Rosneft

Putin — the New Global Shah of Oil

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New Weapon Emerges in Fight Against Fossil Fuel Dominance and Escalating Climate Change: A Wind Turbine That Achieves Grid Parity While Eliminating Intermittency

Last year, Republicans fought tooth and nail to block and delay the only federal funding program for wind energy — the Production Tax Credit. Their energy brinksmanship and political hostage taking forced a delay of a critical renewable energy investment decision until the last minute even as US wind capacity surged to 60 gigawatts and is attributed to increasing US economic growth by .25% in the 4th quarter while adding over 80,000 new jobs. This cynical political action, on the part of republicans and other opponents to renewable energy, resulted in an unconscionable stalling of new installations in early 2013 even as extreme weather and climate change continued to batter countries around the globe.

By comparison, US fossil fuel companies still enjoyed billions of dollars in subsidy, tax incentive, land use donations, and direct investment support from the federal government, risk free. To this point, it is worth considering the following info-graphic provided by the Environmental Law Institute:

energy subsidies -- black, not green

They were the true beneficiaries of a government funded welfare system for energy sources, that year after year, continue to worsen our weather and climate — resulting in escalating physical and financial harm in the US and around the globe.

But even as new wind installations lag due to a toxic brew of investment uncertainty conjured up by republicans, new alternative energy technology continues to undercut prospects for long-term fossil fuel market dominance. In particular, a new wind turbine, this one produced by GE, breaks a number of key market barriers to wind energy adoption in both the US and around the world.

GE achieves grid parity and energy storage with new turbine.

GE achieves grid parity and energy storage with new turbine.

The systems, pictured above, include GE’s 1.6-100 and 1.7-100 wind turbines.

These turbines include two revolutionary advancements that put it toe-to-toe with traditional fossil fuel and nuclear generation sources in both capability and cost. First, the new turbines achieve a staggering 20-24% efficiency gain. This puts prices for these turbines at less than coal for new generation construction.

Other alternative energy systems have recently made similar gains, with solar and wind plants increasingly available that provide energy at, near, or lower than the cost of new coal. But the crowning blow of this new system to fossil fuel dominance lies not just in its staggering efficiency gains. The system also includes distributed storage.

Each turbine is equipped with a battery system that stores excess energy generated during times when the wind is blowing. This new capacity levelizes transmission to the grid during times of high energy production. It also enables the wind turbine to store the excess energy for later use. As a result, the capacity factor of an individual turbine jumps from around 30% to 54%. It also allows wind producers with the new turbine to directly compete with fossil fuel based energy sources in the highly lucrative frequency regulation business.

Fossil fuel cheerleaders have often derided the intermittency and lack of storage potential in renewable energy sources, claiming this was an impenetrable barrier to broader adoption. Now, these new turbines render that argument mostly moot. Higher net capacity factor for advanced wind and lower costs than traditional fuels results in an increasingly serious market challenge to dirty energy sources. Now, if we can just get a few friends in the US government to provide the funding these systems merit, then we might begin to make some serious gains in both net carbon emissions and a more permanent US energy independence.

As noted above, republicans are doing their best to block such critical advancements. And, it seems, they and their fossil fuel allies are seriously threatened by continuously advancing renewable energy technology. As of June, republicans and their oil company backers pushed to de-fund the US ARPA-E renewable energy research program providing critical funding for advancements such as the one produced by GE. Apparently, republicans are bound and determined to prove their theory of dysfunctional government by creating the level of dysfunction they so often criticize while at the same time support fuels that ruin humanity’s future prospects.

Links:

Next Generation Wind Turbines are Cheap, Reliable and Brilliant

Virtually all Federal Incentive for Wind Energy Comes From a Single Program

Republicans in the House of Representatives have pushed to increase US coal burning, approve the Tar Sands Keyston XL Pipeline, remove energy efficiency standards, and to slash US government (ARPA -E) R&D funding for new renewable energy technology by 80 percent. Fully 55% of all Republicans in the US Congress deny that human caused warming even exists.

The Price of Fossil Fuel Subsidies

US Energy Experiences Natural Gas to Coal Whiplash; Natural Gas ‘Bridge to Sustainability’ Collapses Yet Again

Ugly Coal

(A Coal Plant Dumping its Toxic Brew into the Atmosphere. Image source: Climate Crocks)

Natural gas was supposed to act as a bridge to sustainability. Fracking and increased drilling were supposed to reduce US reliance on high-carbon coal. But in 2013, coal consumption is again rising. So what the hell happened?

In short, history repeated itself and energy markets have experienced yet another natural gas to coal whiplash….

Natural gas is an inherently volatile energy source. As prices rise, new sources are sought out, new technologies applied to its extraction and, if depletion barriers are overcome, a surge of new supplies are brought to market. Then, as the wave of new supplies comes to dominate, prices crash. Rushing in to take advantage of the falling prices, the utility companies engage in a generational shift to natural gas electricity production. This increasing consumption of natural gas has two effects. It puts a bottom on natural gas prices and it reduces coal-fired power generation by becoming more competitive on the basis of price. A result of these changes is that US CO2 emissions fall. But, due to the market whip-lash effect of natural gas, these reductions are only temporary.

On the supply side, as natural gas prices fall, less and less producers are able to make a profit. The rate of drilling that drove both the boom and the glut slows to a trickle. This happens even as utilities and other natural gas users demand more of the low cost substance. As a result, prices begin to rise. But since drilling rigs are now allocated elsewhere and natural gas producers are cautious to return to aggressive drilling, supply doesn’t keep pace with demand. Eventually prices rise to the point where natural gas is again, less competitive with coal. Utilities, to preserve their balance sheets, shift back to black rock fuel and carbon emissions again rise.

The 2013 Whiplash

In 2013, US energy markets and related CO2 emissions are now experiencing just this kind of whiplash. After falling to a low price of around $2.60 per million btu, natural gas has been trading in a range between $3.60 and $4.25 since May of this year. And the effect on energy markets has been profound. The result, as Joe Romm implied in his allegorical article ‘Bridge Out’ is that the entirely ephemeral natural gas bridge to sustainability has again disappeared. According to Romm’s excellent article:

Coal’s share of total domestic power generation in the first four months of 2013 averaged 39.5%, compared with 35.4% during the same period last year, according to the Energy Information Administration [EIA]…. By contrast, natural gas generation averaged about 25.8% this year, compared with 29.5% a year earlier.

In the words of another brand of popular fiction: what the frack?

The long touted bridge to sustainability has, yet again, failed. And we find ourselves increasing consumption, yet again, of the worst emitting fuel source — coal. As a result, US carbon emissions are, after about four years of decline, expected to rise in 2013. The US Energy Information Agency projects that the US will emit 2.4% more CO2 than it did last year. But, should the coal surge continue through end of year, this carbon emissions backslide could be even worse than predicted.

Natural Gas: Unreliable Bridge, Bad Help

Sadly, even the reduced CO2 emissions that came, in part, as a result of a temporary shift to natural gas generation also brought with it a terrible cost. Fracked wells drove the most recent boom and bust whip-lash cycle. They were a rapidly depleting, temporary measure to increase production, and these costly wells emit far more methane than their contemporary counter parts. Some studies have even noted that methane leaks via the fracking process make natural gas a more harmful than coal when net carbon emissions are taken into account.

Perhaps worse, the fracked wells also threaten underground and surface water sources from both cracks in the casing pipes and toxic effluent at the numerous and proliferating drill sites. Further, water use in fracking is voracious and, in many cases, adds another burden to fresh water supplies.

Water stress is rising across the United States with fossil water in the Ogallala rapidly depleting even as the US West suffers year after year from a widening climate-change induced drought. With fracking threatening the purity and safety of dwindling supplies, numerous cities and one New Mexico county have banned the enhanced extraction process in an effort to protect municipal water.

In the end, high cost natural gas fracking efforts have managed a temporary reduction in US CO2 emissions at the cost of rising methane emission and harm to water supplies. The flood of new gas also likely delayed or replaced some efforts to transition to the more effective pollution reducing sources of wind and solar. Finally, the price whip lash inherent to natural gas production has returned markets, yet again, to rising coal use.

The term for this is bad help. Very bad help. In short, no fossil fuels represent a solution to climate change or enhance sustainability. They are all dirty, dangerous, and depleting.

To this point, I’ll leave you with the trailer to the must-seem Gasland II:

Drill Baby, Drill and Climate Change Game Over: US Oil Production Hit Record Growth In 2012

Fracking in Pinedale

(A Fracking Operation in Pinedale, Wyoming. Image source: here)

According to this report in the Wall Street Journal, US ‘oil’ production surged by 14 percent in 2012 to nearly 9 million barrels per day (this figure includes natural gas liquids, hence the quotations, actual crude oil production was about 7 million barrels per day).

This surge in production was fueled, primarily, by a broad application of hydrolic fracturing technology to enhance the rate at which oil and related fuels are squeezed from the ground. Little in the way of new discoveries have resulted in this enhanced flow of climate fire-juice. Instead, new technologies have been aimed at the old, tired, or difficult to reach sources in order to squeeze more from the ground.

It’s a tough gamble for oil and gas companies. The reason is that a massive investment in new drilling rigs and an ever increasing number of fracked wells is required to sustain this large pulse of new oil. By end of 2012, more than 43,500 wells had been drilled, and, perhaps more importantly, a record 19,000 wells were fracked over the same period. All this drilling and fracking activity costs a lot of money. So a price of oil above 95 dollars is required to sustain most marginal operators.

Tellingly, with a slight fall in world oil prices over the past spring, the rate of new wells drilled had dropped and is projected to fall below 2012 numbers by about 1,500 to around 42,000 by end of 2013. US natural gas production has already leveled off due to lower prices and a large portion of this rig count drop includes the lag due to lower natural gas prices. But traditional oil well drilling is also sliding off. So the new focus is primarily on tight oil and oil shale fracking.

Fracking is an energy and water intensive process that costs much more than a traditional oil well. It also results in increased risks of ground-water contamination. So communities across the US have been forced to choose between oil and gas extraction, and keeping their water supplies safe. There is also a longer-term choice on global climate, which we’ll discuss more in detail below.

As noted above, marginal prices need to remain above 95 dollars per barrel for the highest cost operators to make a profit. Embedded in this high marginal price for shale oil is the fact that most fracked wells have a high depletion rate. The result is that flows from these wells drop off dramatically over time. So more and more wells need to be fracked each year to keep overall flow rates high. The end result is that fracked well production creates a net cliff in fracking dependent oil in a 10-15 year time-frame. New basins of fractured oil will, therefore, need to be accessed to keep flow rates high.

Nonetheless, the US is likely to continue to see higher rates of oil production over the coming 5-10 years due to this fracking boom. But at the cost of much more expensive oil and ever-increasing damage to the world’s climate.

Fracking Climate Change Game Over

Oil fracking is a form of enhanced oil extraction. As such, it enables a more rapid extraction of existing oil reserves and, to  a degree, opens reserves that were previously uneconomic to extract. Since less than 1/3 of current fossil fuel reserves can be burned while still maintaining a vague hope of keeping warming below the dangerous 2 degrees Celsius threshold by the end of this century, the race to drill and frack more wells and increase oil production is a race toward climate change game over.

Fracking also results in large methane seeps from fractured wells. These seeps are not included in fossil fuel reserves, yet they still end up in the atmosphere. And since methane is, over 20 years, 105 times more potent than CO2 as a warming agent, this extra emission is a very bad additive to an already warming climate.

The net result is we’ve tapped a more carbon intensive technology to burn more oil faster. In metaphor, we’ve decided not to jog, but to sprint headlong toward the climate cliff.

At current emissions rates and emissions growth rates, the world says farewell to any possibility of preventing a 2 degrees Celsius warming by century’s end sometime around 2025.

Links:

EIA

Record-breaking 19,000 New Wells to be Fracked in 2012

Slower Pace of Drilling Likely For US and Canada During 2013

When Burning is No Longer Moral: A Call For Fossil Fuel Abolition

CO2kills

(Image source: Here)

Science has provided more than enough evidence to show that burning fossil fuels is an increasingly dangerous activity. Recent reports reveal that we are 565 gigatons of fossil fuel carbon away from crossing the dangerous climate tipping point of 2 degrees warming. Burning all current, proven, fossil fuels would result in dramatically more carbon entering the atmosphere. Five times the number needed to keep the very worst climate impacts in check: 2,795 gigatons.

But the oil, gas and coal companies keep seeking ways to expand that, already dangerously over-sized, base of fossil fuels resources. They tap expensive and dirty energy like the tar sands. They break the ground via fracking to bring more high-carbon oil and gas to the surface. They attempt to make economical the exploitation of billions of tons of methane hydrates. Pushing endlessly to exploit more, more, more.

As this mad effort to continue burning fossil fuels indefinitely into the future expands, a political war is waged to suppress any alternative energy source. Republican political lackeys to the oil, gas, and coal giants, at every turn, attempt to limit, reduce, or deny the development of non-carbon or low carbon energy. They fight to keep companies from paying the costs for externalizing the damage caused by fossil fuel extraction and the resulting carbon emission. They fight any limit to carbon exploitation — be it a carbon tax or a cap and trade policy.

Perhaps worst of all, is the ongoing effort by oil, gas and coal companies to deny that carbon emission causes any harm whatsoever. Efforts that have included attacks on scientists who have raised the warning of an increasingly dangerous climate change. The mad logic behind these attacks is simple. The fossil fuel companies obviously care nothing for humanity’s future. Instead, they care only for their immediate profits.

An Insane, Amoral Path Toward Harm

Cigarettes and tobacco killed my grandfather. Will fossil fuel burning and resulting climate change kill my grandchildren?

Exploiting all current fossil fuel reserves is enough to raise world temperatures 6 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century. Amplifying feedbacks from the environment will push that temperature increase to 12 degrees Celsius by 2300. There is a high likelihood that a 6 degree Celsius temperature increase will do in my grandchildren. And 12 degrees Celsius removes the possibility of a habitable world.

2,795 gigatons of carbon locked in current reserves, while enough to push Earth out of the habitable zone, isn’t all the potential carbon locked in unconventional reserves of fossil fuel around the world. In fact, as much as 10,000 gigatons of carbon reside in unproven, but possible reserves. Even worse, at the current rate of burning we pass the ‘safe’ 565 gigaton threshold sometime around 2028. Unfortunately, carbon emissions aren’t level. They are increasing.

All these factors — the huge and increasing rate of burning, the amount of carbon currently on the books of the world’s fossil companies, the comparatively small amount we can still burn to maintain reasonable hope for a safe climate, and the massive volume of potential fuels that could be exploited — represent a terrible crisis. Yet every policy, every media effort, every campaign by the fossil fuel giants pushes us ever more rapidly into trouble.

They have us on an unconscionable, amoral path toward certain and ever-increasing harm.

Exploitation, Slavery, And Profit-driven Monstrosities

A blogger recently described a conversation he had with an oil executive. In this conversation, the oil executive claimed that if we didn’t have oil we would instead have slavery.

It’s worth taking a few moments to let this concept sink in. It’s also worth considering what it reveals about the person from which it came.

Slavery is, perhaps, the greatest injustice humankind has ever inflicted upon itself. It takes many forms from serfdom to outright trading of human beings for profit. Many of the most advanced civilizations have existed and boasted strong economies without the exploitation of human beings as slaves. And the notion that slavery doesn’t exist today because of oil, gas and coal is equally asinine. Human rights groups have increasingly warned of a growing trade in human beings since the 1990s. And we have also witnessed a ‘soft’ form of slavery in the exploitation of very low wage workers forced to live in shanty towns by mega-corporations around the globe.

Slavery isn’t something that strengthens economies. Conversely, it weakens them. In the 1860s US, the North boasted a highly developed economic system primarily devoid of slave labor. Meanwhile, the south was mostly a poorly developed slave-labor based agrarian economy designed to support the affluence of a tiny number of land-owner elite. The North won the war, largely due to its highly developed economy. The south lost, not because of battlefield failures, but because of an inability to match the North’s superior logistics, innovation, and industry. And though northern industry may have been fueled, in part, by coal, current forms of alternative energy are far more powerful and efficient than US coal and wood burning in the 1860s.

The notion that slavery would be necessary in the absence of oil, gas, and coal is one that comes from a mind that elevates the concept of exploitation and denies the notion of sustainability. In both slavery and fossil fuel use exploitation is a critical component. Extracting fossil fuels exploits the Earth’s resources. Burning fossil fuel externalizes damage by exploiting the Earth’s atmosphere and, in doing so, exploits the prospects of future generations. And slavery is a simple and extreme form of exploiting human beings. But exploitation isn’t necessary for prosperity or economic development. Instead, it can often ruin both.

What exploitation does do very well is maximize profits while relying less on effort or innovation. And this is where the hard truth comes in. Exploitation all too often serves to fuel the advancement and acquisition requirements of greedy, narcissistic individuals who lack the capacity to see beyond the confines their own tiny orbits or to gain much sense of the harm they may be causing.

Finally, oil, gas, and coal executives too often pretend that the energy sources they supply are the only viable forms available. In 2013, a time of expanding access to renewable forms of energy, this notion is as wretched and antiquated as the 19th century assertion that slavery was necessary for American prosperity.

Alternatives, Equality Necessary For Human Advancement

If the world can run on 100 dollar per barrel oil, then the world can certainly run on far less expensive sources of wind, solar and biofuels. Contrary to what some doomers say, these new sources could very well result in greater economic development and prosperity than the fossil sources of energy that tend to cause so much costly external harm. Further, the diffuse nature of these energy sources leads to more equal economic structures. Profits concentrate less and tend to be more spread out. In such cases, history shows that prosperity tends to spring up in a virtuous self-sustaining cycle.

This truth has already born out in many of the most advanced corporations and economies around the globe. Apple runs on 75% renewable energy. Ironically, Apple also often competes with oil companies for highest profits. But Apple’s methods of profit generation — innovation and diligence — contrasts with the oil company model of exploitation and political manipulation. One company represents a promising future, the others a catastrophe. Germany powers itself on 25% renewable energy. Denmark has reached over 30%. California, the largest economy in the United States, generates 33% of its electricity from renewables. Even China seems to understand the stakes. After years of suffering from water scarcity due to coal pollution, in 2012 China produced more new energy capacity from wind than it did from fossil fuels.

This ongoing and growing trend is not slavery, it is an opportunity for liberation.

The Time For Abolition is Now

With renewable energy achieving economic viability at the same time fossil fuels threaten to wreck the climate, now is the time for a strong movement to abolish the use of fossil fuels and to hasten transition to sustainable energy. The small carbon budget remaining to us is cause for urgency and the continued expansion of dangerous fossil fuel use is reason enough to act now.

In the 18th and 19th centuries brave abolitionists stood against those still supporting slavery. They paved the way to freedom and dignity for millions and they set in place the conditions for which a nation would be liberated from its own terrible legacy. In this day, we need a new form of abolitionist. One brave enough to stand against the might of the fossil fuel giants and to fight for a future in which the hope of a livable world remains. A world that husbands the prosperity of future generations rather than sacrificing them on the alter of fossil fuel company profits.

The time for abolition of these dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels is now.

Links:

350.org

Burning One Third of Current Fossil Fuel Reserves is Enough to Wreck Civilization. So Why, Oh Why, are We Tapping Methane Hydrates?

We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation and suffering. We’re going to do some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more mitigation we do, the less adaptation will be required and the less suffering there will be. –John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

According to a recent report by Price Waterhouse Cooper, burning 1/3 of the remaining fossil fuel reserves is enough to push world CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm. This concentration would almost certainly bring world temperatures more than 2 degrees above the 20th century average — a level that scientists agree would result in powerful climate feedbacks and terrible impacts to human civilization, likely wrecking many of the world’s most powerful and diverse societies. This is the terrible outcome we see from burning just 1/3 of the world’s current fossil fuel reserves. Burning them all puts the world on the path to a devastating and unlivable 1000 ppm or more.

Yet world fossil fuel reserves is a moving number. Each year, new sources that were considered inaccessible are tapped. So, next year, new discoveries will add to the total. And the year following. And so on. Even worse, worldwide efforts by advanced societies to tap a massive fossil reserve of methane called hydrates is now underway. Methane hydrate is a frozen reserve of methane and water that lies locked hundreds or thousands of feet below permafrost or on or beneath ocean sea beds. Altogether, they represent a carbon store as much as two or three times the size of the world’s current accessible fossil fuel reserves.

Japan, Russia, and now the United States are experimenting with new technologies aimed at extracting these massive methane reserves. Recently, in Alaska, Conoco Philips, funded by Department of Energy grant money, partnered with Japanese hydrate extraction experts in an attempt to tap frozen methane beneath Alaska’s North Slope. In a process that involves injecting CO2 into underground formations to displace frozen methane, this partnership is attempting to prove viable a new extraction technology that may result in the additional burning of more than a trillion tons of fossil fuel.

The cost of this extraction is still prohibitively high. But, if tar sands, fracking and other unconventional extraction techniques are any guide, the oil industry will spare no expense to extract and burn as much of this fuel as possible. And, if current marketing and lobbying campaigns by the oil and gas companies are successful, then alternative energies will be squelched, necessitating the burning of this expensive and environmentally explosive fuel.

Though some CO2 may be sequestered in the extraction process, an additional volume of methane will be released as well. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. But the real issue is the fact that burning this methane in addition to all the other conventional fossil fuels would create enough global warming to wreck human civilization many times over. This is an unconscionable result. Which begs the question: why are we trying to tap this methane? Why are we continuing to make our situation worse and worse when we should be deploying alternative energy technologies as fast as is humanly possible? We need to avoid 450 ppm CO2 like the plague and we need to rush back to 350 ppm CO2 as fast as possible.

We had a climate-change driven storm earlier this month. It was powerful and freakish. It flooded New York City’s subway system for the first time ever and left more than 40,000 Americans homeless. But Sandy will seem but a weak trifle compared to the impacts coming our way. So, why, oh why would we continue to make them worse?

Links:

http://www.pwc.com/en_GX/gx/low-carbon-economy-index/assets/pwc-low-carbon-economy-index-2012.pdf

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/11/1176411/adaptation-mitigation-misery/#comment-560691

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/11/methane-hydrate-alaska-north-slope-climate-change_n_2113828.html

Are Renewable Energy Sources Set to Outcompete Fossil Fuels?

A flurry of news reports heralding a new oil and gas age for the US glosses over a dark and difficult to deal with fact. The cost to extract both of these non-renewable resources is increasing. Tight oil and gas fracturing, claimed to be an energy savior for the US despite a plethora of problems including well casing leaks, contaminated water supplies, methane leaks, surging investment costs, and high costs to bring the fuels to market, are expected, by many sources, to be the ‘new future.’

In short, the ‘new future’ looks a lot like the old past, but much more expensive and coming on the heels of a long string of global warming impacts. For gas, the cost of the tight sources is over twice that of traditional wells, costing around $5 to extract a unit of tight shale gas. For oil, tight shale supplies require as much as $90 dollars per barrel to produce. These high costs are nearly twice as much as the often derided and vilified ethanol, which requires $50 dollars per barrel to produce without subsidy.

But the massive oil and gas marketing campaign to put out renewable energy’s electric fire continues apace. This week showed a flurry of glittery and optimistic oil and gas reports coupled with the typical volley of hit pieces aimed at everything that replaces oil from the Chevy Volt to your friendly neighborhood wind farm. The usual suspects all repeated their shrill and desperate chant of ‘the Volt is dead’ a month after Volt sales reached new records and costs to produce each vehicle were dropping fast as sales numbers increased.

Misinformation painting the Volt as uneconomic was belied by these numbers and a recent report showing that the Volt only costs consumers 3 cents per mile to drive. A regular ICE vehicle at $4 per gallon gasoline and 30 miles per gallon fuel efficiency costs 13 cents a mile to drive, more than four times as much. How does the Volt achieve such a feat? Get rid of as much oil input as possible and move to a, far more efficient, battery and electric motor configuration.

Perhaps these lower costs are the reason owners rank the Volt highest in customer satisfaction.

The Volt is dead! Long live the Volt!

But despite all the positive attributes of this powerful, new American technology, a large section of the media is now bent on killing the vehicle. At every success a new negative spin is generated. For example, as the Volt broke sales records last month, hundreds of blogs and articles parroted the fact that GM was offering discounts on the car as a sign of weakness. The same papers and blogs, many months before, criticized the Volt for being too expensive. So which is it? Similar negative information has been spewed about wind, solar, and biofuels. The only solution heralded by these ‘news’ sources appears to be fossil fuels, whose rather large and long string of negatives these news sources wholly ignore. Which ultimately begs the question, who pays the check?

Attempts at fossil fuel dominance and public opinion shaping ranged long and far throughout traditional media and in politics. Overall, it was a typical, banner week for the increasingly rickety fossil fuel based economy. But despite all this misinformation which one blogger recently to compared to the reign of ‘the Dark Lord,’ there were a number of glimmers of hope peaking out through all this misinformation.

As mentioned above, Chevy recently discounted its revolutionary Volt by as much as 10,000 dollars or offered leases for $299 (not $159 as claimed in the misinformation media), spurring new sales and raising the possibility that total Volt sales would reach 30,000 by end of September. Overall, this is far better than the earlier launch of the, equally derided and vilified at the time, Toyota Prius during its first two years. In addition, even as prices for the Volt are going down, quality is going up. The EPA estimated battery range for the vehicle has climbed from 35 miles to 38 miles resulting in a combined average mileage of 98 mpg. This gives most Volt users about 1000 miles of travel between fill-ups which means savings on top of savings for owners.

In addition, US alternative energy coming from solar, wind, and geothermal, as a percentage of electric power, has grown from 3% to 6% within the last four years. Total alternative energy from electric power adding in hydro-electric and geothermal is now over 15%, more than nuclear energy as a proportion of electricity generation. And since the primary contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is electricity generation (coming from coal and natural gas generation and extraction), this leap in alternative energy capacity is a help in dealing with the problem of climate change.

Perhaps most important is level costs and falling prices. Wind and solar energy are very stable energy sources, making it easy for investors to predict outcomes. Not so with natural gas, which is one of the most volatile energy sources available, making it a baby for those who love to game the market. And as time has gone forward, costs for wind and solar continue to drop. Wind is now less expensive than everything but the least expensive natural gas plants. And solar is now less expensive than new nuclear energy and combined cycle gas and coal plants that could be retrofitted for carbon capture at even greater prices. In fact, over the past 18 months, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 65%, leading to a boom in panel sales around the world and in the US even as modest subsidy support for the new energy sources may be withdrawn.

The same can certainly not be said for fossil fuels. Natural gas is driving some companies to the edge of bankruptcy due to the rising cost of extraction and a glut on the market, caused, in part, by rising alternative energy usage. In addition, oil just saw its most expensive year on record. And people are beginning to awaken to the vast external costs and harm of coal use, with opposition to new plants rising in the US and around the world.

Across the globe, countries are taking notice of the alternative energy sea change. During a period this spring, Germany produced 50% of its energy from solar panels. That number is expected to rise to as high as 70% by next year. And as one of the only bright lights in Portugal’s ailing economy, it has managed to install enough renewable energy to make up 45% of its entire electricity grid. Going forward, this energy capital will help to stabilize and improve an otherwise troubled economy by reducing its dependence on imported fuels. Similar stories are being told across Europe and in places in the US. North Dakota produces 20% of its electricity through wind. California and Texas are following suit.

A view of the total installed capacity for US wind energy can be seen below (As of August 2012, the number broke 50 gigawatts installed, a 3.1 GW addition in just 8 months!).

The EU has installed 100 gigawatts of wind capacity and China boasts over 60 gigawatts of installed wind energy capacity. In total, nearly 50 gigawatts of new wind energy capacity will be installed during 2012. Solar energy is now surging to catch up, with total solar energy installations to reach 30 gigawatts in Germany alone this year. The US now boasts 6 gigawatts of solar energy and growing and the world is now adding nearly 30 gigawatts of solar energy capacity each year. This combined installation of 80 gigawatts wind and solar each year is a significant leap forward for alternative energy and is starting to prove its ability to outpace fossil fuels as a primary energy provider.

A sad fact is that, without the harmful media and political campaign being waged by US oil, gas, and coal special interests, the US could be even further along in developing domestic energy sources independent of foreign influence or climate damaging pollutants. Recent opposition to the production tax credit by oil money soaked republicans in Congress now threatens thousands of US alternative energy jobs and will likely further slow development of wind and solar energy production capacity within the US. This removes a key feed-in to US manufacturing and cedes more leadership to competitors overseas — primarily Europe and China. But the republicans, who run on the false mantra that they believe all ‘government subsidies are bad,’ never saw a fossil fuel subsidy they didn’t like and are fighting tooth and nail to keep the oil and gas industry’s incentives of 40 billion dollars intact even as they campaign on expanding subsidy support to this already subsidy bloated industry. But the republicans have been unable to stop what is a growing US and world-wide trend, only delay it, much to the harm of their native country.

(Romney and the republican strawman, Solyndra, on campaign trail together)

The renewable energy boom in the US has also led to a benevolent side effect — an increase in US manufacturing, installation, and alternative energy service jobs. Overall, green energy supports three times the number of jobs when compared to fossil fuels. As a result, more than 8.5 million people work in an alternative energy or energy efficiency related profession, according to Business Week. Look at the map below to find the nearest wind energy component manufacturing facility. Most likely, it is in a city or state near you:

All these facts combine to make the alternative energy sector a growing challenge to the established fossil fuel special interests. And, for this reason alone, we are likely to continue to see a stream of misinformation and demonization of the alternatives coming from fossil-fuel associated sources. But the next time you hear someone say the words Solyndra in a political context, bash wind or solar, or demonize the Volt, it’s important to know where that message originated — those casting their lot with the dirty, dangerous, and depleting fossil fuels.

Links:

US Drought, Extreme Weather, High Food and Fuel Prices — How Fossil Fuel Dependence is Wrecking the US Economy

According to reports from the Wonkblog, the ongoing US drought knocked .2 percentage points off of US GDP growth during the second quarter. This figure is probably very conservative when you consider the massive impacts and total costs of this ongoing and expanding drought.

The historic drought has, so far, cost America more than 77 billion dollars, or about .5 percent of annual GDP. And with NASA, the WMO, and many other climate organizations now establishing a link between this year’s extreme drought and severe weather, the intransigent and carbon emitting fossil fuel companies, who continue to seek dominance for their dirty, dangerous, and depleting products, not mother nature, are primarily to blame.

If all this lost money were spent on job creation measures, it would support about three quarters of a million well-paying jobs. Such an investment would result in a big bump for US employment and overall prosperity. But that possibility is now gone as the money has been absorbed by damages.

Yet drought isn’t the only avenue through which fossil fuel related damage has come to the American economy. Other severe weather events have combined with the current drought to create the most extreme year for natural disasters ever in the US. This record year follows a series of increasingly damaging years since the 1980s. The damage just keeps happening year over year, even as it is increasing overall.

This year, total damage to the US economy due to weather disasters is currently well in excess of 100 billion dollars and the damage is still ongoing.

Moving on from extreme weather, we can shift to other harmful fossil fuel related impacts to the US economy. The first is the ever-growing cost of liquid fuels caused by a combination of growing demand and the depleting nature of a fossil resource. Overall, fuel costs have averaged higher than $90 dollars per barrel for 2012, the cost necessary to make fracked ‘tight oils,’ like those produced by the Bakken, profitable. At 18 million barrels per day for the US, the daily cost of this consumption is nearly 1 billion dollars or around $350 billion dollars per year, more than four times the cost of oil in the early 2000s.

Food also suffers from high energy prices and the stresses of drought. And with food prices rising due to increased energy costs, the public takes another hit of about an extra 50 billion dollars. The extra food costs due to drought were already counted in the 77 billion dollar figure, but they are worth mentioning again.

Even leaving out other costs from externalities such as the cost of deaths and adverse health effects coming from coal, the costs of foreign wars as a result of the necessity for a stable liquid fuel supply chain, and the costs of damage to US water supplies due to fracking, the total cost of harm caused by fossil fuels currently amounts to about 400 billion dollars for this year alone or about 2.5 % of GDP.

A very heavy blow. It represents the difference between the struggling economic growth we are seeing now and the much more rapid rates of growth during the 1990s when the weather was less severe and when fuel costs were much lower.

We can no longer provide a rationale for a continued economic growth when the basis for that growth is assumed to be the damaging and depleting fossil fuels. The very fuels which will make the droughts continue to be more frequent and more severe, which will continue to make the weather more damaging, and which, sooner than we expected, will drive the seas to rise and threaten many of our major cities. The very fuels whose cost, averaged over time, will keep going up as they become more difficult to locate and extract.

These fossil fuels, which are the source of so much harm, have now come to the point where they are no longer economical.

Links:

Earth Alone

Romney Gunning to Kill US Wind, Solar Industries, Enforce Monopoly of Dirty, Dangerous, and Depleting Fuels

Today Mitt Romney held a speech on the border of Texas and New Mexico where he laid out his plans for the US’s energy future. And if two words come to mind from his proposals they are these: Robbery and Ruin.

Just yesterday, Romney received more than $10 million dollars in campaign contributions from the coal and oil industry. Money he is trying to hand back many times over in special perks, subsidies, and give-aways to his big polluting backers.

First, Romney proposes to take public lands from the people of the US and hand it over to states who would then be encouraged to give these land rights, free of charge, to oil, gas, and coal companies. He would take a resource in the public trust, one of America’s great treasures, and hand it over to what amounts to a group of corporate looters. The ghost of Teddy Roosevelt must be turning over in his grave as Romney offers up this sacrifice to his corporate masters. For it would result in public lands being transformed from something like this:

Into something like this:

 

Romney’s second big giveaway is to cut taxes for the highly profitable oil companies again. I say again because it was the same thing Bush did when he was elected back in 2000. And it is also ironic to see a massive influx of Bush energy advisers finding places of prominence on Romney’s energy team.

This year, oil companies already received more than 2.3 billion dollars in subsidies and tax assistance. This public support after having recorded over $137 billion dollars in profits. But Romney seems to think that greed is its own virtue and has decided to give another 2.4 billion away in additional tax breaks. This 5 billion dollars in tax-payer support each year would come on top of record profits from the highest oil prices ever and the great American land giveaway described above.

But Romney’s plan goes still further. Romney would cut regulations that keep coal companies from dumping massive volumes of mercury into the air and water. Coal companies have often complained that the public health protection measure is too expensive. But what Romney and his coal backers don’t reveal is that the added pollution kills more than 30,000 people each year. For Romney and big coal, profits are far more important than lives. So the protections for Americans must go.

In general, all these policies draw support from a vast and ongoing denial over the damage caused to the United States by an intensifying climate crisis. Just this year alone, over $100 billion in damages will likely be inflicted on the US economy by a number of climate-related disasters. Romney’s push to double down on big oil and big coal will only worsen the damage that is still to come.

Romney’s plan is first a dire insult to American interests in the form of a giveaway to a destructive industry. Romney’s plan is second a harm that results in added toxins spewed into the atmosphere and an ever-decreasing likelihood of dealing with the ongoing climate crisis.

But the crowning black jewel to the whole dark and devastating Romney energy policy is this: attack the wind and solar industry.

Romney plans to bring down all competitors to oil and coal through direct policy measures. He is gunning to devastate the wind and solar industry by removing the production tax credit even as he pushes to further subsidize the heavily polluting oil and coal industries. His plan would gut US innovation and progress in wind and solar energy. It would cede leadership in a 2 trillion dollar alternative energy market to China and Germany. And it would result in the loss of tens of thousands of US jobs. Worse, it would remove the prospect for creating hundreds of thousands more jobs in the future and shackle us to an energy source that is bound to abandon us during our hour of greatest need.

Republicans and Romney often deride industries that require subsidy support. However, the oil and coal industry still receive subsidies after more than 150 years of operations. The level of subsidies they receive is far higher than those of the burgeoning alternative energy industry. Typically, for a new industry to effectively get off the ground it needs a higher level of support than a traditional, established industry. And considering that the oil industry has become so profitable through its effective cornering, total dominance and monopolization of all transportation markets, giving it any subsidy at all simply amounts to paying tribute to a tyrant. It is unnecessary, wasteful, and encourages the worst behavior.

Yet this is exactly what Romney and Ryan are pushing to double down on. And they would lay the slain carcass of the alternative energy industry at the feet of their fossil fuel masters.

Given the intensifying climate crisis. Given the depleting and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. Given the need for America to create sustainable jobs in a sustainable industry. And given the fact that if we fail to lead in the alternative energy revolution, others will in our stead, it is absolutely necessary that the American public reject Romney. Reject Ryan. Reject robbing from the American people for the profit of special interests and reject policies that will ruin our future. And, last of all, reject the vicious and anti-American agenda of the oil and coal company barons who stand behind them.

The Economic Advantages of Running A Wind Farm

Over the past few years, much misinformation has been distributed by fossil fuel interests wrongfully denigrating the value of wind and solar energy. Outrageous claims have included the notion that wind and solar energy contribute to global warming. That the energy sources are uneconomical and overly expensive. That they require fossil fuels to support them because they are intermittent. That they can never contribute more than marginal capacity to the grid. And that operators and owners cannot profit from these energy sources.

In this article, we will focus on wind energy, debunking these false claims and demonstrate that wind energy is far more valuable, flexible and resilient a resource than coal, oil, or natural gas.

Zero Cost Fuel

All energy sources require infrastructure to harness the fuel. Billions every year are spent on oil and gas rigs. Coal mining requires massive digging machines and processing equipment. And all forms of fossil fuel require generators to turn fossil resources into electricity or mechanical energy.

For wind energy, this process is simplified. Energy is generated at the source. In short, a turbine is a mining, transportation and generation operation all wrapped into one. From the point of view of a utility, this vastly simplifies the process of electricity generation by removing the fuel extraction and the fuel transportation operation in one step. Wind generators do not require a constant train of freight filled with coal or natural gas to keep their turbines spinning. All that is required is, well, wind.

The result is that wind facilities free themselves from the burden of having to manage fuel costs. And since fossil fuels can be very volatile, this liberation makes them much more stable economically. A wind facility that is competitive with fossil fuels today, will become ever more profitable over time. This is due to the fact that the sunk cost of construction and maintenance are the only two cost-sets wind operators need to worry about. And because these costs can be planned for and forecast, the potential for risk is drastically reduced.

In many cases, levelized costs for wind turbines assume a 20 year life expectancy. However, as an infrastructure, these turbines have the potential to last 30, 35, 40 years or more. Well constructed and maintained turbines may come close to tripling initial life expectancy. In these cases, wind power becomes vastly less expensive than fossil fuels. And all these benefits come from having zero-cost fuel available at point of source.

Rising Capacity Potentials

Fossil fuel-funded articles have often derided wind for its intermittency, noting that it would be unwise to have wind contribute more than 5 or 10 percent to any power grid. However, this flies in the face of current realities on the ground. Iowa, for example, now receives an average of 19 percent of its energy from wind generators. North Dakota receives 22 percent. This is not name-plate capacity, but electricity flowing to grid. Colorado and Oklahoma now also receive more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind.

Overseas, the potentials have also proven higher than warnings may have indicated. In Denmark, the entire country received more than 26 percent of its energy from wind in 2011. Portugal, Spain, and Ireland each produce over 18 percent of their electrical energy through wind.

Capacity factor, the difference between nameplate capacity and amount of energy generated has remained at around 30 percent. New turbines have also become more efficient. And systems using higher towers and larger blades are able to tap steadier winds at higher levels. But many regions without ideal wind patterns have seen new wind development. The fact that capacity has not fallen, however, shows that advances in technology can continue to expand the area in which turbines can operate economically while further enhancing returns in regions with more ideal wind resources. Capacity factor would certainly rise for the US should we begin to build more wind farms off-shore, where winds are both stronger and more reliable.

Because fears about limited capacity and intermittency haven’t risen to the level of hype, many countries are now exploring expanding wind production further. Denmark, for example, is pushing to have 50% of its energy provided by wind power before 2020. When one considers that 37% of US energy is currently provided by coal, a 50% contribution from wind to Denmark would render most concerns about the ability of this renewable source to overcome intermittency and capacity problems moot.

Intermittency: More Bark Than Bite

As alluded to in the paragraphs above, many states and countries have already been able to overcome intermittency challenges to establish wind generation contributions to total energy as high as 26%. Overbuild, diversification of the power grid, flexible grid management, multiple regions operating wind turbines, and improvements in turbine technology all aid in the management of wind energy. Some of these practices were already in place for traditional utilities, so the changes haven’t been as disruptive to operations as first expected. Other new practices increase the overall resiliency of the grid and the reliability of power sources as well.

A common claim by renewable energy detractors has been that wind power facilities require an ‘alarming level’ of stand-by fossil fuel generation capacity. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is not one documented case of a fossil fuel plant being idled for the single purpose of substituting for wind systems. Because of grid overbuild, idle sources often exist and these can be brought on line as need be for any emergency. The same is true with wind and solar resources as it is for fossil fuel resources.

Most utilities hold to the standard of planning for weather events and managing wind’s capacity factor. And this has served to make wind far more reliable than previously expected.

More Economic Storage Becoming Available

A recent article in Wired Magazine highlighted a revolutionary new energy storage technology. Eccentric Genius Danielle Fong has invented a revolutionary compressed air energy storage device. The device is currently being produced and sold by Light Sail Energy. The Light Sail storage device overcomes the obstacles of previous compressed air devices by spraying a fine mist of water vapor into the compression chamber. Water stores far more energy than air, so the water/air medium allows for a much higher energy storage capacity by volume at much lower temperatures. And this drastically increases the efficiency of such energy storage while reducing costs. The result is the efficiency factor for Light Sail’s compressed air is 70 percent, roughly double previous compressed air storage systems ratings of 35 percent.

This storage technology advance provides utilities with a new tool to further erode the barriers posed by intermittency constraints.  It will also likely provide a basis for continued innovation in this area.

Costs Now Competitive With Fossil Fuels

Often, fossil fuel special interests will deride wind energy due to the fact that it receives a small degree of subsidy support from the US government. For these interests, this is the height of hypocrisy. For there are few interests within the United States as highly subsidized as the fossil fuel industry. Over the past decade, oil interests alone have received over $45 billion in subsidies. And despite record profits, the industry has deployed powerful lobbying groups to make certain they remain on the taxpayer’s dole year after year. Just last year alone, oil and gas interests received over $4 billion dollars in federal subsidies and incentives. This does not include the massive level of state and foreign interest support these industries receive.

On the other hand, wind energy does not enjoy similar support. Its subsidy program is reviewed most years and is sporadically included or excluded depending on political winds, economic pressure, and the whims of governing bodies. Last year, wind received $1.6 billion dollars in supports. But this year such funding may not materialize.

Despite the unevenness of federal support for wind energy, new wind installations for last year were 6.1 gigawatts, only second to natural gas installations. Furthermore, the cost of wind energy per kilowatt hour has fallen to levels putting it in the range of traditional power sources. Levelized costs for wind energy plants under construction are 96.8 dollars per megawatt hour. This is less than new coal, nuclear, and biomass. The only energy source that costs less for new installation is natural gas. However, natural gas includes a number of external costs including climate change, damage to water supplies via fracking, and through the burning of a resource that may have harmful health impacts (Marcellus Shale gas has been shown to be radioactive in a number of studies). And as mentioned above, these levelized costs assume turbine life-spans of 20 years, which with proper maintenance can be extended much longer.

Fossil Fuels’ High Risk of Volatility

One other point to consider is the fact that natural gas prices are now on the rise. Much drilling in gas basins has been put on hold as drilling companies struggle to maintain solvency. Just last week, ATP filed for bankruptcy after being unable to maintain operations under an ongoing regime of natural gas glut and low prices in the US. Drilling rigs have been shifted, instead, to oil. With so few rigs operating and with the depletion rates for the new fracked wells so high, it seems likely that prices will whip-saw back into a much higher range over the next few years. This volatility will likely reduce the profitability of natural gas generators and harm the prospects of any utility who is overly reliant on this resource.

Coal, now an international commodity, also suffers from similar problems. Sky-high demand has been cutting into profits for coal-burning facilities around the world. Further, requirements to reduce emissions of both carbon dioxide and the plethora of other toxic chemicals contained in coal are pushing prices even higher. The fact that new build wind is already less expensive than new-build coal should give a good idea as to trends in this area.

Electricity — Future Fuel for Ground Transport

One would not think that wind could compete directly with oil as a source of liquid fuel. But with the increasing availability of electric and hybrid electric vehicles, this is indeed the case. Utilities using wind energy can boast of the fact that they provide clean electricity to electric vehicles at a cost equaling about 70 cents per gallon. This is less than five times the cost of traditional gasoline, drastically belying the notion that oil is an economic fuel source. And with most electric and plug in hybrid electric vehicles able to make 99 miles or more on an equivalent gallon of electricity, the cost, in practice, is actually more than 15 times less even for a comparable ‘economy’ vehicle. Again, the removal of harmful externalities reduces climate change damage and health care costs as well.

Benefits For Stable Communities, Long-Term Growth

Overall, it is sad to see so much effort being spent in this country by interests bent on demonizing and destroying such a valuable new energy source. In short, these attacks harm not only those who would profit from this new energy source, but the health and well-being of the American people as a whole. Utilities, states, and municipalities falling prey to this harmful stream of misinformation will pay the price in increasing environmental and health costs to their communities and constituents. Increased costs for repairing electrical grids after major storm events. And increased costs for generating energy due to the inherently volatile and depleting nature of fossil fuels.

Links:

http://www.eia.gov/forecasts/aeo/electricity_generation.cfm

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-26/u-s-wind-turbine-installations-rose-31-in-2011-awea-says.html

http://www.wired.com/wiredenterprise/2012/07/danielle-fong/

http://cleantechnica.com/world-wind-power/6/

http://arstechnica.com/science/2012/08/wind-accounts-for-one-third-of-new-energy-generating-capacity-in-us/

http://blog.ewea.org/2012/07/denmark-50-wind-powered-electricity-by-2020/

http://mediamatters.org/research/2012/05/25/myths-amp-facts-about-wind-power/183968

Earth Alone

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Earth. A lonely world in a vast universe. And all around us, in our solar system, and even in the places barely visible through the lengthening vision of our telescopes, are dead worlds. Barren worlds. Hellish hot worlds. Strange giant gas worlds. Frozen worlds. But none hospitable to the rich variety of life all around us.

There is poetry here. It is the poetry of beauty. Of singular wonder. Of a gift or of the great good fortune that we ended up here, the only place we could have come to be. It is also the poetry of loneliness and desperation. For if anything happened to this world. For if the world changed even just a bit. It becomes far, far less likely that we would continue. Change a little more and the chances for life existing on Earth grow slim indeed.

Massive things in motion

In many ways we are beholden to the enormous natural forces that surround us. There is much we cannot control — the fall of an asteroid, the explosion of a supervolcano, a gamma-ray burst all would result in changes that are likely beyond the scope of human beings to adapt or overcome. But there is also much we can control. And there are many things we can do to reduce the likelihood for harm coming to our world at our own hands.

Overshoot

There are 7 billion human beings living here. This is seven hundred times the number of hunter gatherers the world supported 10,000 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, sustainability experts set a cautious growth limit for humans on Earth at around 6 billion. Even at the time of the first reports, 4 billion human beings were causing major stresses to the world environment. Species loss was accelerating, resources were beginning to deplete, forests were disappearing, and pollution was creating greater and greater impacts. Loss of ozone was already a threat and reductions in the use of pesticides were needed to protect key species. It was also becoming clear that human emissions of CO2 more than a hundred times that emitted by volcanoes was starting to warm our climate.

Some sustainability experts, like the authors of the ground-breaking book Limits to Growth, made appeals for building a livable path forward. A transition to technologies that did less harm. A transition to ways of living that produced less children. A transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. The hope was to sustain civilization. To prevent overshoot. To preserve a world hospitable for human life. But few people listened and few of the policies were enacted. Now, we are in a situation where resources are rapidly depleting, arable land is shrinking, and the climate is growing increasingly hostile. We live in a world of social, political and national unrest. We live in a world of resource wars. A world where the number of refugees from extreme weather exceeds the number of refugees from warfare.

These instance are all signs of overshoot — a situation where the human stresses to Earth are beyond what is sustainable for a livable world. A situation where resource depletion exceeds the natural world’s ability to replace those resources. A situation where the rate of pollution, primarily of CO2, exceeds the ability of sinks to absorb it. A situation where the pollution sinks are filling up and starting to become sources.

The Global Footprint Network makes yearly estimates of how many planets would be needed to support human consumption. And their estimate is that currently 1.5 Earths would be needed to sustain our recent activity indefinitely. Looking forward, under business as usual, Global Footprint estimates that 2.2 Earths will be needed by 2050. Since there is only one Earth, this level of overshoot cannot be sustained indefinitely. And pushing Earth too far beyond its limits results in irreversible damage and a contraction of the world’s carrying capacity to .8, .5, .3 or even zero Earths. Overshoot for too long means we could, potentially, remove ourselves from the planet.

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source: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/

Sustainability

Returning to sustainability means both change and reduction. And, perhaps, this is why it is so unpopular. A drunk or a drug addict doesn’t like to be told he or she needs a change in behavior. And we have grown drunk on growth, addicted to fossil fuels, hooked on over-consumption, stuck in population growth without restraint.

To change to sustainability means more cooperation and less competition. It means more moderate winners and far less losers. It means holding the robber barons to account. It means reducing and removing fossil fuel consumption. It means eating less meat. It means more renewable energy and more localized communities. It means more democratic rule and less hierarchy. It means more freedoms for women to control their family size and when they have children and less oppression of and violence against women. It means more compassion and less selfishness from leaders.

Making a change to sustainability will be a hard lesson to learn. It is even doubtful that we are up to the task. But the stakes couldn’t be higher. If we fail, if we choose the path of hubris, then we risk losing our civilization, so much of life, and perhaps even our world. It is difficult to make an appeal to humanity’s better angels. But if the angels are listening, please fly to send word!

 

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