Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama on Energy and Climate

Here is the portion of President Obama's State of the Union Address devoted to energy and climate, followed by my reaction:

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. And in a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we're seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard. Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert's words, "We reinvented ourselves."

That's what Americans have done for over 200 years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we've begun to reinvent our energy policy. We're not just handing out money. We're issuing a challenge. We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

At the California Institute of Technology, they're developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they're using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if -- I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. (Laughter) So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's.

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.

Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all -- and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.
I guess I have mixed reactions.  Firstly, I'm delighted that this section was the first substantive area discussed in the speech, once the general platitudes were over.  I take that to mean the President is serious about still trying to do more in this area, despite last year's failure to pass any kind of climate plan.

I find it sad that there was no explicit discussion of the incontrovertible scientific fact that we are destabilizing our climate with our energy system.  Elsewhere in the world, this can be discussed frankly, but in the US, out of deference to half the political spectrum being in total denial, the elephant in the room cannot be named.   There are aggressive goals for converting the energy system to "clean energy" with no discussion at all as to why that might be necessary.  I understand why the President did this: he needs Republican votes to pass anything and there's no point in antagonizing them.

Realistically, money for research, more tax credits for renewables, PHEVs, etc are about all that can be hoped for (and in any case are the most important things at this stage - we have to build alternatives out to reasonable scale before it will make political sense to tax the residual carbon emitting energy sources).

My reaction to the 80% of US electricity being "clean" by 2035 is how?  What on earth are Republicans going to agree to that could plausibly set us on that path?  (Btw, see Michael Levi for discussion of what "clean" might mean here).  Here's the EIA's reference case for electricity generation by fuel (from the early release of the 2011 Annual Energy Outlook):

That looks pretty plausible as what will happen if we continue more-or-less on our present course.  If you score the NG at half clean, as Levi suggests, that implies that we will be at 43 1/2% "clean" by 2035.  To get to 80%, we'd have to almost completely wipe out conventional coal generation and massively expand nuclear and/or renewables (or "clean coal" technology that basically doesn't exist right now).  I'm all for it, but at the moment I'm completely skeptical of the ability of our political system to respond anything like that energetically and rationally to our situation.

I guess we'll have to wait and see the details of what the administration is thinking.

As to the million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, that sounds more plausible.  GM is now thinking of expanding Chevy Volt production to 120000 in 2012 (and even 2011 capacity from 10000 to 25000 - praise the Lord!).  If we are willing to go along with GMs marketers and call the Volt an "electric vehicle", and if the administration keeps the tax credit high enough to sustain the demand, then GM alone could build a sizeable fraction of the million vehicles.  And of course, there's the Leaf, the electric Ford Focus coming along, Tesla's etc.  It seems like a doable goal - aggressive, sure, but doable.


A Siegel said...

Agreed ... distressing that Climate Change and Peak OIl didn't merit mention.

Is our "Sputnik moment" due to jobs?

Alexander Ac said...

Do not forget the DEBT:

Who and how will pay the debt?

tstreet said...

A recent study concluded that natural gas may be as carbon intensive as coal when one considers the full cycle from production through burning. "Half clean" may be stretching its degree of cleanliness.

Notice the President used the term "clean" and not "renewable". He did that because it is much easier to fudge the numbers with the word "clean" as it is debatable what is clean.

Global warming and peak oil are existential threats. If Obama realizes this, he is showing cowardice and doing a disservice by not making this point.

Obama points to a future where we will "win", whatever that means. Perhaps he thinks we will outcompete the Chinese. That is not going to happen as they already have the engineers in the pipeline to ensure that impossibility.

Underlying all this is perpetual economic growth while at the same time reaching a clean energy feature where America wins.

Obama is just an enabler of the delusion that we can do it all. On top of this, he pledges to shrink government during a recession.

This is all impossibly magical thinking cubed.

Unknown said...

I am not surprised by what he stated, after all here in America" the land of the Entitled". Everything should be about us not the environment. I need a job so therefore if the environment suffers, who cares.

I find it amazing that in the US we all interact with energy every day of our lives but most people know nothing about it. All that they know is that when they turn the key the car starts and when they flip a switch the lights come on, and that is about all they know or even care to know.

What we need is more education of the masses to get them to start lowering the amount of energy they use so that we don't need to produce as much energy.

Mr. Sunshine said...

I teach solar power following a 40 year engineering career and probably put far too much time into thinking about the liquid fuels situation, which, at the the scales taken for granted today is simply mind boggling. While the Chinese "get it" - they built the 1000 mile long grand canal, after all, over 2,000 years ago, long before fossil fuels, and have millennia of experience in running a country without oil - the OECD/western model simply will not adapt rapidly enough to survive at a mass scale, for "the masses." At least, that's the conclusion I keep arriving at. Obama doesn't address this since it would be pointless.

The Department of Defense is aware of it, and actively planning for it. They've just opened a 1500-building simulated city the size of San Diego to train for urban warfare - you know, like the one we're fighting in the desert wastelands of AF.

The energy plan since Cheney is called "the military." Stuart's building what Nicole Foss calls his "lifeboat" - so am I. I don't expect anything from the Federal, State or even local levels of government but eyewash and, when that runs out, police. If I'm right, I'd prefer Obama continue the eyewash...

porsena said...

The Atlantic carried an excellent story on 'clean coal' by James Fallows in the last (December) issue.

Though coal is another elephant in the room, it attracts less attention than renewable energy and is almost as taboo a political topic. After covering the need for stabilizing emissions, Fallows points out that coal combustion will be with us for the foreseeable future. Almost half of US electricity in generated from coal and the figure is 70% for China. Innovation in the last few decades tells us that major advances in combustion technology for coal are likely to represent just small changes in overall emissions. Any reductions in this area are likely to be offset by growth in the use of coal.

Despite government support and funding, Fallows says that the US has lost the lead in clean coal technology due to the difficulty of getting new projects into implementation. Wile it takes a decade in the US just to license a new power plant, The Chinese can put one up from scratch in a couple of years.

There's no way that 80% of US electricity will be clean by 2035. That's a pipe dream based on the possibility of retrofitting existing plants with technology that's unlikely to work well at most of them. The only US coal generating station with carbon sequestration is located in Texas, where the recovered CO2 can be handily re-injected for enhanced oil recovery. Similar solutions in most of the rest of the country will be in unworkable at anything like an acceptable cost.

I'd love to think 80% clean electricity is on the horizon. The problem is the continuing reliance on coal-fired generation (43% in the graph above). I'm one of those who think that 'clean coal' is largely an oxymoron. All that CO2 has to go somewhere.

Stuart Staniford said...

Mr Sunshine:

Just to clarify - my judgement is that the odds society will become so disorganized in my lifetime that it will be helpful to survival to live on an old farm are no higher than 5-10% (with most of that risk coming from a large scale cyberwar). I moved here not as a lifeboat but because I wanted a higher quality of life, with a better house, a better cashflow spreadsheet, and more proximity to nature, for myself and my family. So far, it's working out great on those terms.

I guess, in fairness, I get a little additional peace of mind when spending a lot of time thinking about societal risks, from knowing I'm now in a slightly more resilient position than the average person. But it's not a major driver.

jdl75 said...

Major disappoinment

Obama clearly is a politician type and hasn't understood ANYTHING about the issue.

First of all top priority shouldn't be on "clean" energy production, but on energy CONSERVATION.

Considering the starting point, and especially for the US, gaining watts (producing negawatts) is MUCH EASIER than producing new clean watts (ok kW/H) to replace/complement the existing "dirty" ones.

R&D is not going to find a miraculous "energy producing machine", does he at least realize that ? (ok fusion, yes ...)

TOP PRIORITY for the US should be :
- increase the gas tax (making it partly directly redistributed as proposed by James Hansen if necessary, with monthly government check directly based on the tax accounting : something clearly new aded to the price signal and providing a direct feel of energy consumed by the nation monthly)

- similar taxes on other fossile fuels

- insulation (and stoping heating or cooling like crazy, seasons are a fine thing)

- transport ? not sure, major potential efficiency gains are there in the cars fleet (and necessary to go electric), and public transport were it doesn't work doesn't work

- major shift in communication with proper balance between peak oil aspects and climate aspect. PO alarmism shouldn't be refered to using "energy security" anymore, but called for what it is, and hence the TOP FOCUS on energy conservation/efficiency gains.

But for sure I don't expect much

Add to that that CCS typically is atrociously stupid, at least 30% or 40% energy and associated ressources lost, mining pollution increased by so much. Hydrocarbons aren't TRASH, they are very valuable materials, stop refering to them as "commodities" use "RAW MATERIAL" instead.
CCS is the prime example of BAU easter island mindset, technological statue.
ALL R&D and projects on that should be stopped right NOW.

jdl75 said...

correction :

(and necessary to go electric)
(and not necessary to go electric, ie lighter smaller, less powerfull ICE cars can also produce a lot of negawatts, and electric cars also need to be lighter less powerfull to make sense anyway, they cannot be current cars except electric, full stop)

And of course don't forget that the tax aspect is fully in line with the US pure self economics interests (survival at this point after so many suicidal years).

But then again, I clearly don't expect much anymore, a bit sad !

jdl75 said...

Moreover what he doesn't understand is that energy conservation (besides direct financial benefits such as lowering trade balance deficit) are much more prone to create jobs than this "clean energy" non sense, no energy is clean, just deal with it.

Insulating houses & buildings can create more jobs than buying Danish or Chinese windmills payed by tax payer wind feed in tariff, exactly the same for PV.

Time to wake up guys, really, hurry up !