There is as yet no national plan for approaching climate change. And, of course, there is no global design. Such a plan would by necessity penetrate and transform almost all aspects of life. Not just energy, the immediate imperative, but also agriculture, forestry, industrial ecology, fishing and aquaculture. Starting with energy, following is my attempt to chart a path forward for the next ten years. This is not a plan for a model climate solution for the United States. This is a practical path presenting a successful way forward from existing reality and prospects, to put us on the path to mitigate the effects of accelerating climate change. It is a plan unfolding in three domains:
- national summary plan;
- making energy users energy owners as part of the renewable energy transformation;
- understanding the global context of our greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing a global convergence leading toward sustainable emissions levels and social and ecological justice for all.
Path toward an ecological civilization
Together these three domains represent a path toward building a global ecological civilization from our unsustainable and self-destructive industrialism. It is predicated upon the understanding that humanity has become a self-conscious participant in the global co-evolutionary processes of sustainability, where life changes in response to changes in the ecosphere from the minor to the cataclysmic, to help create conditions favorable for all life. Industrial excess can lead to a countervailing and healing response.
The next ten years provides the opportunity to take steps to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change. ‘Business as usual’ and ‘pollution as usual’ will ultimately unleash geophysical global changes that will create a hot house, ice free planet, mega drought and superstorms with sea levels forty feet higher. It’s important to understand that such changes are non-linear and subject to sudden and catastrophic change, as global climate finds a new and very unfriendly equilibrium for humanity and almost all life. The accelerating pace of climate disasters may happen faster and faster. We really do not know what happens in unstable systems. We may have more time than we think, or much less. The climate has proven to be stickier than some models and predictions, but events unfolding at slower than worst case speeds is precisely why now is the time to act.
What is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back? What is the last pound of carbon dioxide or methane we emit that leads swiftly to global geophysical changes? For example, we may be witnessing the beginning of the failure of the global ocean thermohaline conveyor. The Gulf Stream moves enormous amounts of lighter warm water north east toward Greenland and Europe while heavier cold water sinks and heads south west keeping Europe temperate. Warming northern ocean water, and now huge freshwater Greenland ice melt, can disrupt the flow. Scientists have found eight different indicators that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is slowing down and historically is subject to dramatic change. This is just one clear and present danger. Another is melting permafrost arctic on land and warming ocean floors melting and releasing many gigatons of sequestered methane, a most powerful greenhouse gas capable of making human greenhouse emissions irrelevant in practical terms.
Once unleashed, a series of these changes can lead to a hot house climate that persists for thousands of millennia before a return to a temperate planet, and create a reality like a Mad Max future for the scattered and desperate survivors. Or perhaps the future will also feature cities with vertical farming to sustain a global population of one billion or less after the great dying, if we manage to avoid nuclear holocaust as part of mass migration of the desperate and wars for food, water, crop land and renewables. These are the stakes. Time to act with celerity.
Climate change is bearing down quickly, like the 85 foot whale bearing down in 1820 on the whaling ship Essex at 6 knots, smashing the ship’s bow as First Mate Owen Chace watched in horror. He was one of the survivors after 89 days at sea in small boats, 1000 miles from land, where only 5 of 20 survived through cannibalism. Owen Chace wrote, “Humanity must shudder at the dreadful recital of what came next.”
The three domains for planning
First, are the familiar national summary plans: build so many gigawatts of solar, wind and storage, improve efficiency, install electric vehicles charging units and improve the transmission grid. Plans are the domain of energy wonks whose nature and meaning has little relevance to ordinary citizens, beyond thinking if it’s needed or not, and how does it affect my backyard? Such plans are a dime a dozen. The intention here is not the limit of what could be done, but what must prudently be done to help stave off catastrophe.
Second, are the very real local consequences and opportunities for all energy users at all scales. Traditional utility systems based on handfuls of giant fossil fuel and nuclear plants are in the process of being replaced by a ubiquitous number of renewable energy generation and storage devices, from very large to very small home-scale. Trillions of dollars are being invested in this transformation. What are the opportunities for energy users to become energy owners? We will explore the opportunities for ownership by individuals and groups of all sizes and a variety of types. This will include not just homeowners and business owners and the relatively well-to-do, but also apartment dwellers of modest means. We will examine a number of financial tools that allow the pursuit of renewable energy and storage to become a tool to boost asset ownership for all energy users, that allows people to do both good and well.
Third, is the global context of what is done both nationally and locally. What is the real level of our personal, neighborhood, town, city, state and national contribution toward climate change? How can we measure it, using free online tools and how can we mitigate climate change to transform our future opportunities? The common global measure is a personal one. It is based on metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions (based on all greenhouse gases) per person per year. Your individual contribution becomes the basis for average carbon emissions from the local to the national to the global level.
How can we calculate this? What does it mean? What is the necessary global convergence on sustainable norms for all that will be the basis for ecological sustainability and building an ecological civilization? How can our actions become a long term plan for the benefit of our communities and for the local and global pursuit of social and ecological justice, and why does this matter?
From a storm of pledges to real action in three domains
We are awash in a welter of state and national pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by differing amounts over various time frames ranging from ten to thirty years, to fifty to eighty years. A dozen states, and more to come, have chosen Net Zero by 2050. But that is intention, not meaningful action. Pledges are not plans. They are more aspirational intentions for future actions than detailed committed plans for getting from here to a greenhouse emissions-free future.
The context of our lives, while we make pledges, is a deepening realization that an onrushing global climate catastrophe is upon us. Superstorms, massive wildfires, thousand year floods year after year, drought, global heat waves, mud slides, tornadoes, strange arctic cold in the south and winter heat waves in the north are already our evening weather news.
A renewable energy era emerging
I build solar farms. Technology is moving very quickly. I began in 2021 using 380-400 watt, single sided photovoltaic (PV) panels. By the fall of 2021, we are using dual-facing 530 watt panels with shells or crushed limestone on the ground to reflect sunlight onto the backside of the panel. These 530 watt dual-facing panels sell for about the same price with substantially higher output. There is rapid technological progress in energy storage flow battery systems for fixed storage to eventually supplant lithium batteries with cheap common materials like iron and saltwater. Millions of batteries in electric vehicles will become an enormous storage resource.
Abandoned coal and natural gas plants connected to key grid transmission lines are becoming hubs for energy storage that can combine batteries, super capacitors and flywheels to provide short and long-term grid balancing energy.
Wind, tidal, geothermal, air and water-source heat pumps, micro-grids, green hydrogen produced by renewably powered electrolysis, high voltage DC transmission (HVDC), grid computer control and optimization technologies are all rapidly increasing in efficiency and efficacy with dropping capital costs. I have no doubt, given the enormous amount of available land, roofs, parking lots, that each state could meet its share of renewable generation and storage on the basis of existing technology, which improves monthly and generally continues to drop in capital cost.
An essential national U.S. program for the next ten years
National U.S. plan
What is essential in the next ten years is to implement programs that will (at a minimum):
- Increase the rate of renewable replacement of fossil fuels from 35 gigawatts a year in 2020 to 60 Gigawatts a year for ten years, or 600 gigawatts, a modest intensification of what is already well underway. This could at least replace all of the existing U.S. coal capacity of 256 gigawatts and establish a high renewable electric transition path, according to Princeton’s Net Zero Energy study. Ford, for example, just announced it is investing $11.4 billion dollars in new plants in Tennessee and Kentucky to build electric trucks and cars, as well as batteries to run them, while creating 11,000 new jobs. This is the future unfolding.
- Provide financial and technical assistance to poor nations to follow a renewable path, as the 600 gigawatts increase alone does not necessarily address the crucial issues of social and ecological justice that must be part of a renewable energy transformation and a global convergence on sustainable norms.
- Introduce national renewable portfolio standards mandating the installation of 60 gigatons a year for ten years and beyond that to move year by year to 100% renewables.
- Remove and naturally sequester carbon from the atmosphere to at least equal carbon dioxide displacement by renewables, to return the atmosphere to pre-industrial carbon levels of 285 ppm.
- Slash methane emissions from existing operating and abandoned natural gas wells and coal mines.
- Build the transmission and EV vehicle charging infrastructure to support the 100% renewable energy transformation. This is partially paid for by the current Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills.
- Implement national energy conservation programs to reduce energy demand by at least 10% or 40 billion kilowatt hours per year, or 400 billion kilowatt hours over ten years. This includes city wide retrofit programs based on infrared scanning, appliance replacement, and air-to-air heat pump installation with existing fossil fuel systems left to serve as a backup.
- Mandate replacing fossil fuel oil and gas heating with renewably powered electric heat pumps, which is 300 — 400% more efficient than combustion because of the second law of thermodynamics.
- Aggressively pursue simple efficiency measures like insulation and sealing cracks. This can slash energy needs and increase the efficiency advantages by 600 — 800% or more. The goal for a renewable energy transformation must be by an order of magnitude (e.g. 10 times or 1000%) for a noticeable improvement in energy efficiency.
- Achieve efficiency that must be driven by a combination of: mandated standards; zoning; efficiency utilities delivering not power but energy savings technologies to end users; and first-runner programs, pioneered in Japan, where more efficient products set a mandated market standard.
- Include programs for national carbon sequestration by natural means to equal annual carbon displacement by renewables.
- Make national renewable regulation of solar, wind, energy storage and energy transmission uniform and easier.
I spend too much of my time and energy with a welter of state, utility, town and city regulations that are often obscure, ever changing, and hostile to solar. For example, one town’s electrical inspector won’t certify electrical systems before the cables are interconnected to the utility transformer upgrade we have paid for, while the utility will not install the transformer until the electrical inspector certifies the system.
Making energy users energy owners
Trillions of dollars will be spent to build the renewable energy infrastructure. There is a clear opportunity for all energy users to become owners of a significant fraction of the renewable energy infrastructure. This is more than purchase or lease-purchase by homeowners of rooftop solar and energy storage. A combination of municipal, cooperative, association and community solar ownership can finance new hardware or purchase hardware after tax equity is exhausted in year six. The purchase to be financed by a fraction of the stream of savings or income from the renewable energy systems.
Real ownership is different from now widespread for-profit community solar efforts where developers sell power at a 10 to 20% discount from current rates to energy users. Real ownership means equity and the right to sell your interest in the renewable energy system.
Scale of end user ownership
Energy user ownership can range from ownership of large scale solar and wind to power a large city, to a group of neighbors financing a community solar project with a local credit union. Cooperatives and associations can be both large scale or small scale. Ownership of offsite wind and solar can allow renters of all income levels to participate in ownership. Performance of low income members of community solar groups is good. Most people prioritize paying their utility bills unless in dire circumstances.
At the beginning of retail electric competition in the 1990s, in New Hampshire I wrote the first draft of the first in the nation bill for municipal electric utility aggregation for the collective purchase of energy. This has spread nationally and has now become, in multiple states, an avenue for renewable energy purchase.
Municipalities, coops and associations do not have to get into the solar development business. Energy users can work with experienced solar and wind developers. Finance can come from a variety of sources.
- Local commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions that increasingly support solar and wind non-recourse loans.
- A large number of solar finance companies that will support solar development through non-recourse loans.
- Low interest own, city or state revenue bonds based on the income from the system.
- Federal or state green banks that support renewable development.
- Tax leveraged finance, for example, to purchase micro-grids when a micro-grid builder has the tax appetite exhausted from the Solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC), currently 26%, in year six. The purchase is financed on the basis of a portion of the current stream of income from energy sales.
- Renewable energy hedges, where energy user groups enter into a hedge agreement based on a strike price with a remote developer of wind or solar where prices moves are correlated, for example rising or falling based on the price of natural gas. If the price for energy sales is above the strike price, the developer pays the difference to the energy user. If the income is below the strike price, the energy user sends the difference.
Ownership of solar assets by energy users will, over time, represent an enormous transfer of assets and the opportunity to influence the development of market rules in the interest of renewable development and energy users.
Climate action in global context
The global context for ecological survival is for a rapid global convergence on all human greenhouse gas emissions to a total of less than 21 billion gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Statistica’s latest global data as of early 2021 is 36.44 billion metric tons in 2019. Historical trends are not good. In 2000, global emissions were about 25.12 billion metric tons. Total carbon dioxide equivalents is also a squishy number based on the equivalent climate effects of different gases. Methane, in particular, is a much more chemically reactive gas and a much more powerful, but shorter lasting, atmospheric contaminant. Estimates of carbon dioxide equivalence range from 28 times that of carbon dioxide, to a more realistic 84 times that of carbon dioxide, since it persists in the atmosphere for a little more than ten years. A normally functioning global ecosystem should be able to maintain a roughly even carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere through natural means, based on roughly 21 gigatons of carbon emissions equivalents per year, sequestering and recycling carbon in oceans, soil and biomass. But as carbon dioxide acidifies, the oceans and ecosystems are damaged and global recycling is damaged.
Translated into global personal goals per person, per year for total green carbon equivalent in soon-to-be 8 billion people, is 2.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year. In Australia emissions are 17 tons, in the United States it is 16.2 tons and Canada is 15.6 tons, compared to a global average of 4.8 tons. China is 7.1 tons. For much of the unindustrialized world the situation is quite different. In Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic emissions are a tiny 0.1 tons per person, 160 times lower than the USA, Australia and Canada. In 2.3 days, a typical American or Australian emits as much as the average Malian or Nigerien in a year.
The global population keeps increasing, from 1 billion in 1800, to 7.9 billion in 2020, albeit at a currently slowing rate, now at 1.1% per year.
The global challenge
The global challenge is the responsibility of the big polluters for swift efficient renewable transformation combined with aggressive removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, through natural means, to be sequestered in biomass and soil. This means a combination of: replacing fossil fuels with efficient renewables and actions ranging from reforestation on the scale of trillions of trees; coastal aquaculture to create kelp plantations that both sequester enormous amounts of carbon from ocean to be used as fuel, food, and chemical feedstock; improving the amount of carbon to be sequestered by plant roots through genetic engineering; and improving the efficiency of photosynthesis to remove more carbon. For example, in 2021 a Seattle based company called Nori paid Tori Hill, a Maryland corn, wheat and soybean farmer, $115,000 dollars for 8,000 tons of carbon stored in Hill’s soil. The potential is that if he increases carbon storage by one ton per year for each of his 10,000 acres, he could earn $150,000 dollars per year.
Farm carbon sequestration should be combined with agricultural solar (AG Solar) where PV panels on vertical fences between rows with dual sided panels, like those designed by Next to Sun in Germany, or solar awnings above plant rows or pasture that I am installing on Massachusetts farms. For example, on Michelle Larson’s farm pasture in Massachusetts where she breeds and raises thoroughbred race horse foals. AG solar allows full agricultural use of the land where each six acres can also produce about 1.5 megawatt hours of solar energy.
In the future, farms will sequester carbon by agricultural techniques to enrich the soil, produce solar energy and use that energy to power electrolyzers to generate hydrogen that can be used, for example, to power combustion turbines to provide electricity to help provide peak load to the renewable grid. Hydrogen combustion turbines produce just electricity and water vapor if they also use the oxygen from the electrolyzers in sealed combustion to avoid creating Nitrous Oxide from nitrogen in the air and can also capture the water vapor for irrigation uses.
There are about 900 million acres of agricultural land in the United States. Based on 6 acres of farmland per megawatt AG solar, this means a potential of 150 million megawatts, which dwarfs the existing 1.1 million megawatts total of utility scale electric generation in the U.S. AG solar on just 6 million acres of farm, or less than 1% of existing farm land, meets our energy needs. It’s important to understand that the capacity to install solar and energy storage on a small percentage of farmland, on roofs, over parking lots, in backyards and open land exceeds the requirement by many orders of magnitude. Similar numbers apply to wind, with wind capable of installing enormous capacity offshore. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates onshore wind capacity is 12.125 million megawatts, which similarly dwarfs the existing electricity capacity. Wind offshore capacity is similarly huge at 10.8 million megawatts. We have myriad choices for a 100% efficient renewable energy system.
The next ten years is the time for taking effective action in three domains: a national summary plan, making energy-users energy-owners as part of the renewable energy transformation, and understanding the global context of our greenhouse gas emissions. Success may put us on the path to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Failure is to invite global catastrophe. The choices are ours to make. Now is the time to act individually and collectively. Effective action in the next decade will set the global stage for global transformation to an ecological civilization rooted in social and ecological justice, a global convergence leading toward sustainable emissions levels and social and ecological justice for all.
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