by Tom Evslin
We don’t need to settle for either reliance on Russia or high energy costs. Both problems can be solved while reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.
We must have both energy independence and a responsible climate policy. The good news is that we can have both without imposing soaring energy prices on those who can least afford them. An “all of the above” energy policy, better infrastructure, and permitting reform will enable a transition to zero net greenhouse gas emissions, no dependence on murderous regimes for energy or critical energy components, and lower energy prices.
Although climate change has always been part of human history, it is likely that, if the concentration of greenhouses gasses in the atmosphere continues to grow significantly, climate will change faster than we’re prepared to deal with new precipitation patterns, changed growing zones, and rising sea levels.
However, the cost of Europe’s premature abandonment of its own gas and oil resources and early shutdown of nuclear power was clear when energy costs on the continent skyrocketed even before the Ukraine War. Now that economic problem has become a literal matter of life and death with most European countries unable to do without the imports which finance Putin’s war and nearly helpless against his threats to cut off their energy supplies.
Although the US is fortunate to be a net exporter of oil and gas, we have dangerous energy dependencies of our own. Critical metals for electric cars, batteries, and other components of a greener economy are mostly imported, many from hostile places. Almost all our solar panels are made in China. We import uranium from Russia.
The electric grid in the US is ancient and obsolete. It is not dependable enough for an economy transitioning to electrically delivered energy. It is not engineered to be fail-safe. It is in the wrong places to deliver renewable energy from where it is generated to where it is consumed. It is starting deadly fires. Similarly, some gas pipelines are old and leaky; and we don’t have the pipeline capacity to move natural gas from where it is in abundance to where it is needed to displace coal and oil. The problem is so acute that the New England had to burn carbon-intensive oil and even more polluting coal to generate enough electricity to keep the lights on this past winter. A few years ago Russian tankers were offloading Siberian natural gas near Boston while US gas just 300 miles away was stranded for lack of pipelines,
Like most of Europe, the US has shut down carbon-free nuclear plants whose lives could have been extended. We have not set up a permanent depository for nuclear waste. Vermont used to be an exporter of carbon-free electricity; now, thanks to the shutdown of Vermont Yankee. Vermont imports electricity generated from fossil fuel in neighboring states.
It takes forever to build anything in the US. Major projects like new power and pipelines, railroads, power plants, wind farms, and solar installations often take as long as twenty years. Permitting requirements are overly detailed; endless injunctions often string out for decades after permits gave been issues. When legal appeals are exhausted, illegal protests raise costs and delay projects even further. Commercial rivals of projects are very skilled in rallying “environmental” opposition to almost anything – including renewable energy projects – and misusing the concerns of those who’d rather have a project built in someone else’s backyard.
The Good News
As late as 2007, more than half of US oil was imported. Now, thanks to new technology, we are net exporters of oil and gas. We cannot be blackmailed by Russia or Saudi Arabia. We are even able to provide some supply to our European allies. Even better, because the price of natural gas in the US is a fraction of what it was fifteen years ago, it is largely displacing coal. Natural gas emits only half the CO2 that coal does per megawatt of electricity generated and none of the other deadly pollutants that come from coal. The transition from coal to natural gas was driven by economics, not government mandates. As a result, the price of electricity in most of the US has declined in absolute dollars as coal was phased out and the US has more than met the emission reduction targets assigned to it in the Kyoto Treaty (which we never signed).
The cost of solar panels has come down 90% in the last decade and their efficiency has improved. Wind turbines have also become less expensive. Renewables are providing significant amounts of electricity. The pairing of renewable but intermittent sources like wind and solar with on-demand natural gas generation has made it practical to deploy much more renewable energy than we would have been able to otherwise.
The cost and performance of batteries has improved to the point where they are practical, in many cases, for electric cars and even trucks. Electric cars are in so much demand that dealers can’t keep them in stock and incentives to buyers are not necessary. There is danger that use of electric cars will outpace the growth of renewable electricity to charge them and the ability of the electrical grid to deliver that energy reliably.
Small, even safer nuclear power plants have been developed and are being deployed in other parts of the world. The US has no problem building nuclear power plants safe enough to power submarines and surface ships in wartime conditions.
The latest UN climate report says that warming will stop almost immediately when net zero emissions have been achieved. The old science was that warming would continue for at least decades and possibly centuries after the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere stabilized. The implication of this change is that we do have time to take reasonable sustainable actions to reduce net emissions and don’t need to make an emergency economic and social crash landing.
So What Do We Do?
- “all of the above” energy sourcing to drive down the cost of electricity while increasing the supply. Reduced electric rates are the best possible incentive for people and businesses to electrify. Continue the deployment of renewables where they are cost justified – which they are in many cases given new technology. Build small nuclear plants as part of a new regionalized grid. Keep existing nukes open until replaced by other carbon-free sources. Open the Yucca nuclear waste depository. Enable responsible production of natural gas; free market economics will result in that gas replacing the remaining use of coal and diesel fuel to generate electricity.
- Build the energy infrastructure back better.The electric grid must be much more decentralized and reliable to support more dependence on electricity and deployment of renewables and small-scale nuclear. As much of the grid as possible should be underground for reliability and reduced maintenance costs. Burying utilities including electricity and fiber for broadband should be considered as part of every road repair or building project. The US could lead the world by transitioning to the first direct current grid since Thomas Edison’s days with an enormous saving in transmission and conversion energy loss. A side benefit is losing all the inverters and other bumps in the line we use for converting alternating current to the direct current needed not only by electronics and battery charging but also by more and more appliance motors.Energy infrastructure includes oil and gas pipelines. Gas pipelines are needed now so that the abundant gas in the Pennsylvania can get to New England and other parts of the nation which need it and reduce both costs and emissions. These pipelines will eventually be used to transport green hydrogen so are not a short-term investment. Oil pipelines, especially those which have already been permitted, are needed so that US and Canadian oil can flow more readily (cheaply) to domestic markets and especially for shipment to world markets which we don’t want to have dependent on Russian supply.The well-studied Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste has been stalled for decades by politics. Time to open it.
- Assure that we mine our own ample supply of uranium and the rare earths like chrome, nickel, cadmium, and lithium needed to build a greener economy now, not after 20 years of appeals and protests.
- Continue building pilot projects for green hydrogen, geothermal, and various kinds of energy storage as well as continued research into new battery architectures, nuclear fusion, and mechanical carbon sequestration.
- Continue and expand the forestry effort which is already funded by the bipartisan infrastructure bill that the President signed. Trees take an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere (natural carbon sequestration) and store it as a useful carbon supplement in the ground. Taking a pound of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere obviously has the same effect as avoiding a pound of emissions. Improved forestry worldwide is probably both the most effective and cheapest alternative we have for reducing greenhouse gas.
- Implement permitting reform and stop delays to approved projects! We have more time than we thought we had to reduce emissions, but we don’t have forever. There is a huge urgency to reducing the world’s dependence on energy from ill-intentioned suppliers and assuring our own energy independence. Getting to yay or nay on a project should always be possible for a well-prepared applicant in two years, preferably one. Once a permit has been duly granted, anyone who seeks injunctive delay of the project must be required to post bond for the full cost of the delay they are seeking. If they win the appeal, they get their money back; if not, it is forfeit. Illegal actions and vandalism to stop an approved project must simply not be tolerated no matter how many Hollywood celebrities show up in support. Protecting legal projects is one of the many things for which we need a well-financed and well-trained police force.
New powerlines, pipelines, wind and solar facilities, nuclear plants and mines for rare earth need to built and operable in the next few years. We can do this. We can reduce emissions, maintain and improve our own energy independence, and end the world’s dependence on Russian and middle eastern energy.
The author, an author, entrepreneur, former Vermont state cabinet officer, lives in Stowe. He founded NG Advantage, a natural gas truck delivery company. This commentary is republished with permission from his blog, Fractals of Change.