#1: From First Principles
Laying out a plan for climate change where the numbers actually add up.
One of the biggest challenges of our generation is climate change. What’s been interesting to me though, is that despite how long climate change has been discussed and studied, there doesn’t seem to be a clear plan for how to actually solve it.
Ideas are thrown around without much scrutiny like: “we need to boost wind and solar”, or “we need to build more nuclear power plants”. If we need wind and solar, how many wind turbines do we need? If we need to electrify buses, how much will that save?
If it turns out that we need solar farms equivalent to the size of Hawaii, you might say, that’s a challenge, but it’s do-able. If it turns out we need solar farms equivalent to the combined size of Texas and California to make a real impact, then perhaps we should start looking for other solutions sooner rather than later.
Everyone accepts that we should “turn off our lights to save energy” but how much impact will that actually have? The media will publish a story about how much better buses are than cars one day, but then publish another story about how little impact cars are compared to ships the next. The answer to whether or not nuclear is necessary to an emission free world changes depending on which expert you ask.
Even more curious are statements like “we need to invest in innovation and technology”. Which technologies do we need to invest in? Which areas are most promising, and need the most investment? Which areas are lacking behind?
This is all frustrating and confusing.
My goal is to lay out a concrete plan for getting to an emission free economy with the technologies we have today. The focus will be on producing a plan where the numbers actually add up. For instance, if solar panels can only deliver 10% of our energy needs, then we still need to find something to supply the other 90%. Declaring “Solar” as the solution to climate change would be unproductive at best and harmful at worst.
A secondary goal is for readers to leave this series with the tools to properly evaluate statements made by media or governments about how serious a “problem” is or how promising a “solution” is.
This is a passion project for me. My background is in software and machine learning. I do think these have a large role to play in the challenges ahead. However, I don’t really have a background on environmental sciences or energy, besides a college level understanding of Physics 101. In these matters, I am merely re-explaining things I’ve learned from people much smarter than myself, in a way I think is more accessible.
My goal is to lay out a plan for how to transition to a carbon free economy where the numbers actually add up.
Where do we even start?
Let’s start by making some simplifying assumptions:
Let’s assume lifestyle changes will not move the needle in any significant way. This isn’t to say we can’t develop policies or technologies that reduce our carbon footprint. But simply trying to convince people to not travel for the sake of the environment won’t do anything. The COVID-19 crisis cost millions of lives, and trillions of dollars. Despite all this, emissions for 2020 dropped by 5%. It’s actually much more reasonable to assume that humans as a species will emit more CO2, not less. As developing countries develop, there will be increased demand in all the carbon-intensive luxuries people in developed countries enjoy.
Failing to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 will be really expensive. A lot of things I’ll discuss here will increase prices for consumers. For instance, the average electric car costs more than the average gas car. But the increase in cost will almost certainly be less than having to one day raise the city of Miami a few feet off the ground. While I’ll discuss economics, that will not be the main focus.
So where do emissions come from?
Our World in Data has a great visualization of how much greenhouse gases are emitted by each sector. This breakdown will guide our discussions moving forward. The biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions come from 4 major sectors:
Energy (73.2%): When you burn fuel to power your car, you’re converting Chemical energy (gasoline) to motion energy (driving) and emitting CO2 in the process.
Agriculture, Forestry & Land Use (18.4%): When a tree is cut down and left to rot, it releases its stored CO2 into the atmosphere. Cow manure releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere.
Industry (5.2%): When limestone is converted to lime which is used to make cement, CO2 is released as a byproduct.
Waste (3.2%): When stuff decomposes in a landfill, methane and CO2 is released.
This naturally gives us our starting place for where to focus to reduce our greenhouse emissions: our energy system.
Revolutionizing our Energy System
So what do we need in an energy plan?
Starting from first principles:
Any reasonable climate change solution will need us to transition our energy consumption from CO2 emitting sources to non CO2 emitting sources.
Energy production must be greater than or equal to energy consumption. Otherwise, we end up with blackouts and power outages.
Any plan proposed needs to get us to net zero emissions by 2050. Every molecule of CO2 emitted warms the planet. Unless we get to net zero emissions, the planet will keep warming.
What I really want to show is how far we can really get with the technologies we have today. Think about our migration to renewable energy in 3 components:
Done: The part of our energy system already running on renewables. Existing wind, solar, hydro power is an example.
In Progress: The part of our system that emits CO2, but we know how to move to renewables with technologies we have today. For example, the shift from gasoline to electric cars. 99% of cars today still emit CO2, but at least we know the solution for this.
Blocked: The part of our system that emits CO2, but we don’t know how to move to renewables, without massive breakthroughs in technology that may or may not happen. Steel manufacturing is an example. We still don’t know how to make steel without emitting CO2.
If the world we are in looks like this:
Then, the future doesn’t look so bleak. But, if the world we live in looks more like this:
Then we’ll know we need to invest much more in innovation, since we actually don’t have the technologies yet to get us out of this mess.
For much of this series of posts, I’ll be working with numbers. The numbers won’t be exact, but they will be enough to gain an understanding of problems and evaluate potential solutions.
For example: If someone claims “biofuels are the future of renewable transportation”, but the amount of energy needed to power our cars is “100”, and the most ambitious biofuel plan can only get us to “5”, then the numbers don’t really add up.
The current US energy system
Energy can be seen from two sides: production and consumption. When oil companies mine and produce petroleum, they are acting as a producer of energy. Then when your car ultimately burns the petroleum to drive, it’s acting as a consumer.
There is one form of energy that is worth discussing: electricity.
Electricity is kind of a producer and consumer of energy. Electricity doesn’t naturally exist in nature, and thus, human ingenuity is required to create it from other sources. Electricity can be seen as a consumer of energy when it’s created by coal plants (coal -> electricity), and it is a producer of energy when it’s used to power your smartphone (electricity -> smartphone).
Think about electricity as a high quality, easily distributable, intermediate form of energy. This diagram from the U.S. Energy Information Administration is a good summary.
The Petroleum, Natural gas and Coal sections on the left hand side are all carbon emitting sources of energy, and are also often used to produce electricity. Electricity therefore, isn’t “clean” or “dirty”, it’s how the electricity was created that matters.
A notable take away from this: a significant amount of electricity that we produce is lost (Electrical system energy losses). We will discuss why this happens and how to reduce this as we grow the amount of electricity we produce.
The Energy System Roadmap
So, the moment we’ve been waiting for: how do we fix our energy system? I’ll lay out a high level plan.
There are two sides to the problem, and two sides to a solution. At the center of it all is electricity.
So our roadmap will basically be as follows:
Electrify our energy production with renewable sources
The only real forms of emission free power comes from converting renewable sources of energy into electricity. This is the side of the problem that gets a lot of media coverage and awareness. In general, this will involve things like creating more solar, wind and nuclear energy.
Electrify our energy consumption
This side of the problem gets much less attention because (I think) it’s a more nuanced problem. If we magically produced infinite, renewable electricity for everyone in the world, but your car is still gas powered, we are still producing emissions. It’s very hard to figure out how to make burning gasoline emission free, (but surprisingly, it’s not impossible, which we will discuss later). Therefore, the way we consume energy will also have to be electrified. Unfortunately, it’s much harder than just buying a Tesla.
Spoiler alert: As we dive deeper into this, it will become obvious that: without significant innovation, certain ways we consume energy cannot be moved off of fossil fuels.
Lets visualize it
Over the next few posts, I want to take this diagram by the EIA:
and start changing it by suggesting actionable changes like “install X number of solar panels per capita”. The goal is to replace the coal, natural gas, and petroleum sections on the left with renewables.
I had to recreate the diagram from the EIA with my own diagram, so I can actually make changes to it and keep everything in proportion.
Hopefully we can see that by making changes to how to supply and consume energy, we can end up with an energy system that looks like this:
These changes will not be easy, but, the key is, they will be possible with the technology we have today.
What we don’t want to discover is that even with our best effort, without major breakthroughs in technology, the energy system of the future still looks much like the energy system of the present.
What NOT to do
Before concluding I’d like to frame this “Energy Plan” in the context of another plan you might have heard of that I think insufficient, and potentially even harmful to achieving net zero emissions.
The “Reduce carbon emissions” plan
Proponents of this suggest that we should be aiming to reduce carbon emissions by making things more carbon efficient (produce less CO2). Better fuel efficiency for petrol cars fall into this example.
Remember: the ultimate goal is not to reduce CO2 emissions in the short term. It’s to stop emissions entirely in the slightly longer-term. Intuitively, it feels like, if we reduce CO2, that’s a step towards zero emissions, but let me give you an example for why this might not be true.
The average lifecycle of a new car is 15 years. This means, on average, if a gas powered car rolls off the assembly line in 2020, it will continue producing emissions until 2035. The average consumer is not likely to dump their gas powered car for a new electric car, even if that new electric car is cheaper overall. In essence, every car we sell today that isn’t electric, “locks us in” to 15 years of emissions. This isn’t to say better fuel efficiency standards are bad, but we can’t stop there.
If we focus purely on making existing carbon based products more efficient, that would reduce our overall carbon emissions, but could make it even harder to transition to a completely emission free world.
A Quick Summary
Here’s a summary of where we are so far:
To reduce greenhouse gas emissions we need to first focus on our energy system, which contributes over 70% of total greenhouse gases.
Our energy system is made up of producers and consumers.
Our plan is two fold: Take steps to 1. increase electricity production (producers) from renewable sources and 2. electrify our energy consumption (consumers).
Join me in the next post where we’ll discuss how to define and measure energy, which gives us the tools to start quantifying the scope of the challenge ahead.
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