207 Comments

Great post on the necessity of an “all of the above” approach to decarbonization. I find it very telling that in an academic context (where I currently spend most of my time) this is really a matter of settled science.

I’m absolutely guilty of having wanted to pick the technologies that fit my meet my political preferences (and deride those that fit the preferences of my political opponents) but truly we are not in a position to leave some of our tools in the shed. There is indeed a clear role for energy with high levelized costs and for energy with low levelized costs, for CCUS and DAC and nuclear, etc.

I think it’s also refreshing that regardless of the political debate, the triple threat of BIL, IRA, and the Manchin permitting reform bill clearly demonstrate that policymakers know this also.

Expand full comment

Some policymakers. Unfortunately senators from wealthy states like Vermont have no interest in solving the problem (I like to think it's because Vermont will economically benefit from climate change as people move north and bid up land prices there, although that's probably too cynical).

Expand full comment

True, although the electricity market extends far beyond state borders. It’s much less important what Vermont chooses for its electricity mix than, say, Texas or Pennsylvania or New York, etc -- both from a production perspective as well as a demand perspective. And not surprisingly, my limited experience is that policymakers in purple states are doing a better job at preparing for an “all of the above” transition than their blue neighbors.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

To your point, Vermont doesn't get to choose its electricity mix because it's part of the New England ISO and it gets the mix of generation technologies that are chosen across the New England region. Saying Vermont has a generation mix is sort of like saying Burlington, VT has a generation mix. You can certainly draw the chart, but it's basically meaningless.

Individual states and even localities can provide support or erect barriers to help or impede build-out of specific technologies, but the economic and regulatory environment that drives the generation mix is mainly regional. Build-out that gets blocked in one state or locality will just move to a neighboring area.

Expand full comment

“is sort of like saying Burlington, VT has a generation mix”

Fun fact Burlington has a municipal power company with its own power plant.

Expand full comment

Thank you for saying this more eloquently than I could!

Of course, there’s no guarantee that technologies blocked in one state will flourish just across state lines. But the fear of missing out from federal and private investment in emerging technologies to neighboring states is absolutely driving a lot of the state attention on H2, CCS, etc.

Expand full comment

Hey, Blue Maryland gets ~40% of our power from a nuclear plant so we're doing our part.

Expand full comment

PECO (SE Pennsylvania), as far as I can tell, is about 55% nuclear and another 10% non-combustion from purchase contracts. Unsure whether that's NY and upstate PA hydro, wind, or PV.

Most of the rest is gas.

So my EV is doing its bit.

Expand full comment
founding

Is Maryland expanding nuclear generation or expanding renewables or expanding gas?

Expand full comment

We fumbled a plan to build another nuclear reactor (the european-american joint venture didn't pan out and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission wouldn't let a European company do it solo), but we're expanding wind, solar, natural gas, and battery/storage stuff.

Expand full comment

It was more like the law specifically excludes non US companies from owning and operating US nuclear plants and Congress refused to change the law.

Expand full comment

Worth noting that despite the attempts to add a second reactor to Calvert Cliffs, I think there's reason to believe even if the NRC/Federal regulation allowed more stuff Maryland wouldn't expand Nuclear. There's been lots of politicians who vaguely disapprove of nuclear and a lot of the big environmental groups pushed to make shutting down Calvert part of the recent climate bill (which did not happen). I worked in the state legislature when the bill passed which did nothing to support nuclear and working with Senator Pinsky's (lead climate guy in the senate) staff I got the impression that he mostly agreed with the advocacy groups about shutting down Calvert. Obviously that didn't happen, nor did he ever formally propose it, but still worrying nonetheless.

Expand full comment

If its 'settled science' can you show me a single industrial grid in the world that has decarbonized with > 30% renewables share?

Also, India is building new nuclear plants at $2k/kw nameplate capacity. LCOE is a terrible metric, but use even that model with India costs and you will get some insane figures. After that, adjust LCOE assumptions of a 40 year lifespan to something more reasonable like 80 years for a modern plant, and the LCOE gets even more ridiculously cheap.

Expand full comment

We need to think about a two-part strategy. First we need to to get activists and pundits to understand the logic of taxing the externality of CO2 emissions. Then comes getting the public and politicians to see the logic of the policy where it's more of the old fashioned political economy problem of concentrates, visible costs and diffuse, invisible benefits.

Expand full comment

I mentioned this below but I don't see a realistic scenario that involves a carbon tax in the short-term. Especially at a time when energy prices are spiking, a carbon tax is a recipe for backlash.

Expand full comment

What about the opposite? Renewables subsidy? Non-carbon-use deduction? Or even regulatory actions that act as breaks (unfortunately with distortionary effects like car efficiency standards?

Expand full comment

What you're describing is pretty close to the present policy landscape!

Expand full comment

Just to give people some hard numbers, energy generated per mole of carbon dioxide emitted for the full combustion of some fuels in oxygen: methane: 802.31kJ, n-octane: 634.32kJ, carbon: 393.52kJ.

Natural gas is mostly methane; gasoline averages out as roughly n-octane; coal is very close to being pure carbon.

This gets you a decent estimate at a 4:3:2 ratio of energy per emission for gas : oil : coal. In fact, gas and oil are marginally better than that (gas is about 3.9% better; the composition of oils varies too much to get a number at this level of precision), but both have more emissions in production and refining (gas leaks and emissions in refining), so that tends to balance out.

If you know a bit of chemistry, the explanation is that the enthalpy of formation for water (less the enthalpy of formation for the two carbon-hydrogen bonds you have to break) is almost exactly half the enthalpy of formation of carbon dioxide (-393kJ/mol for carbon dioxide, -241kJ/mol for water vapor and about -37kJ/mol for two carbon-hydrogen bonds, ie half the enthalpy of formation of methane) - which means that four hydrogens in a hydrocarbon will generate about the same energy as one carbon, so the key thing is the carbon:hydrogen ratio in the fuel, which is 1C:4H in methane, 1C:2H in long-chain hydrocarbons and 1C:0H in carbon, ie coal.

Expand full comment

It was my understanding that there would be no math...

Expand full comment

Just remember that coal is about twice as bad as gas and that oil is near-enough halfway between the two.

If you want to know why, it's because coal has no hydrogen in, gas has lots of hydrogen in, and oil has some hydrogen in. If you want to know more, then the words "enthalpy of formation" are in the explanation.

Expand full comment

Ha, it all made sense to me and I'm totally onboard with ya. But, like, we need more jokes...

Expand full comment

If you want to convert these from energy per mole to kg of CO2 per kWh, you divide them into 158.4.

CO2 emissions per kWh:

Methane (natural gas): 0.197kg

n-octane (gasoline): 0.249kg

carbon (coal): 0.402kg

Petroleum, ie crude oil, is higher emissions than gasoline, but different oils will get different numbers - somewhere a little over 0.26kg/kWh range is likely to be about right.

One kilogramme of carbon dioxide is 22.73 moles. A joule is a watt-second, so if you want kWh (the usual units for electricity), that's 3,600kJ. 3600/22.73 is 158.4.

Note that these are the simple heat energy from combustion - if you're converting that to electricity, then transmitting it, then using it, then the actual work you'll get will be much less because of inefficiencies and losses.

The EPA has 2.23 lb (1.01 kg) for coal and 0.91 lb (0.413 kg) for natural gas for electricity generation (in 2020), but note that is for electricity, not heat, ie after the energy loss from the actual process of converting the heat into electricity.

Expand full comment

Having a regular commenter with technical chops rocks

Expand full comment

Very old and rusty ones! I got the numbers out by a factor of a thousand the first time (got my J and kJ mixed up). It's a long time since I did anything with enthalpies of formation, but the actual math is very straightforward - there's nothing more complicated than multiplication and division in there.

But it's really useful to be able to check these sorts of basic things yourself - you get reassured a lot that the stuff you can't check is correct.

Expand full comment

Thank you!

Is emitting methane better than the equivalent amount of n-octane/carbon?

I remember reading in various places that methane is worse, and reading in https://climateer.substack.com/p/climate-science a mantra like "Zero emissions. Pretty darn soon. Methane first."

Am I misunderstanding this?

Expand full comment

That’s emitting methane directly into the air, for example if it escapes from an oil well. The conversation above is about burning it to make electricity, in which case the methane is (hopefully) completely consumed and what escapes to the air is CO2 and water vapor.

Expand full comment

Makes sense. Quoting from last week's NY Times' Climate Forward newsletter:

> Gas is often called natural gas, because, like all fossil fuels, it’s derived from nature. But it would be more accurate to call it methane gas, because methane is its principal ingredient. When burned to produce heat or electricity, gas is cleaner than coal. When it escapes unburned, though, it heats up the atmosphere super fast. A lot of methane leaks from pipelines and tanks.

I wonder if the objections/misunderstanding against natural gas, that aren't just mood affiliation, is this -- that the impact from the total leaked methane is greater than direct carbon emissions. It would be in the economic interest of the fuel operators to minimize leaks, so my guess is that the comparison is bad. But I don't know for sure.

Expand full comment

"Gas is often called natural gas, because, like all fossil fuels, it’s derived from nature."

Sigh, no, it's called that to contrast with the (now-banned) coal gas, which was manufactured from coal and had a large amount of toxic carbon monoxide in. If you've ever heard someone comment about sticking their head in an oven, it's because that was a suicide method back in the coal gas days (turn on gas, do not ignite it, stick head in gas oven).

Methane is about 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, so leaks of 4% of gas would make it as bad as coal in the immediate term. A quick google suggests that 1.5% leakage is a typical value for the US.

However, that would still be better than coal: methane in the upper atmosphere combines with oxygen to form CO2, so has a typical lifespan of about 20 years; CO2 persists for hundreds of years (depends on the exact amount of net-negative emissions, but the natural carbon cycle would take several hundred years to lower CO2 levels to pre-industrial levels). So methane emitted now will not be a problem in the 2050s, while CO2 emitted now will be a problem in the 2150s.

Expand full comment

My impression was that the bigger problem was actually leaks from oil wells where it wasn’t economical for the operator to pay to recover it, but I’d be curious to see some numbers. They did put a price on methane emission in the IRA so hopefully that will help. https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/how-secretive-methane-leaks-are-driving-climate-change

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

Renewables becoming such a political battlefront has made being pro or anti nuclear also another dumb culture war.

Like, progs hate nuclear because they want 100% renewables. Cons love nuclear because it's an own-the-libs form of clean energy that isn't renewable. It's so exhausting.

Expand full comment

Can Desantis own the libs by building some nuclear power plants? Get Fox to interview some (young, attractive) hypocritical protesters. Get Desantis in a hard hat on a podium behind a banner that says “In Florida we BUILD”. “Traditional values and traditional power” (atomic, since tradition=baby boomer’s childhood).

Expand full comment

I realize that, to most folks in this discussion forum, DeSantis is nothing more than a typical, MAGA, reactionary troglodyte. But,

https://www.palmbeachpost.com/story/news/local/2022/05/04/solar-advocates-cheer-ron-desantis-veto-florida-net-metering-bill/9569445002/

Expand full comment

I'm definitely pro nuclear, but I'll admit I'm a little reticent about putting nuclear plants on the Hurricane Highway.

Expand full comment

South Florida already gets a bunch of power from nuclear.

From Wikipedia:

“Turkey Point was directly hit by Hurricane Andrew on August 24, 1992, destroying two raw water tanks and portions of the fire protection systems, draining another raw water tank, partially disabling the fire protection systems, causing severe damage to various non-nuclear structures, and cracking the smokestack for fossil-fueled Unit 1. The smokestack later had to be demolished and rebuilt. It also suffered a total loss of offsite power, requiring the use of the onsite emergency diesel generators for several days. No significant damage was done to the plant's nuclear containment buildings. The plant was built to withstand winds of up to 235 mph (380 km/h), greatly exceeding the maximum winds recorded by most category 5 hurricanes.”

It’s just an engineering problem.

Expand full comment

Georgia and South Carolina tried this approach and have not done terribly well with it (no thanks to the NRC, imo), those poor South Carolinians are going to be paying for a nuclear plant they don't have for generations.

Expand full comment

"Cons love nuclear because it's an own-the-libs form of clean energy that isn't renewable."

How true is this, outside of comment sections? I don't see GOP state governments investing heavily in nuclear or adding new plants or prioritizing safety reform.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

As I remember it, in Georgia, the 2020 Democratic candidate for public service commissioner was much more skeptical of and antagonistic toward the Plant Vogtle nuclear project than the Republican candidate was. But yeah I think overall this is still a pretty niche issue.

Expand full comment

In fairness, that was *after* 10 years of massive cost overruns that were going to be passed onto ratepayers instead of penalizing the utility which (helped to) botch the project in the first place, if the utility commission allowed it.

Expand full comment

But in defense of nuclear, building new nuclear plants face cost overruns because there is an extremely well-funded anti-nuclear movement that fights every plant tooth and nail

Expand full comment

I have beaten this drum until it was a shattered wreck: that is completely untrue.

I’m not going to elaborate any further, lol, but you’re free to go find any of the exchanges surrounding the Jamaica nuclear pilot article a year or so ago. Same username back then. Probably 8 other exchanges on the topic since then as well.

Expand full comment

And I'm right. Indian point is getting closed because of these nuts. New plants face never ending regulatory battles because of this coalition.

Denying that there is a powerful group of environmentalists who hate nuclear is similar to denying the Republican Party wants to restrict abortion access.

Expand full comment

You are denying the existence of the mollusks?!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clamshell_Alliance#Activities

Expand full comment

The only two new nuclear plants permitted and built in like the last 40 years are in Georgia and South Carolina, if that means anything.

Expand full comment

Your definition of "built" and mine do not mean the same thing, lol.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

There is a system of local utilities in Utah working to build six modular reactors.

https://www.bondbuyer.com/news/a-utah-power-agency-bets-on-first-of-its-kind-nuclear-project

Expand full comment

What do you mean it’s not renewable?

Expand full comment

It’s not really recyclable. All you can do is blend the nuclear waste with a bunch of empty, shredded 2-liter soda bottles and use the product to make cool-looking running shoes that’ll wear out before you’ve got 300 miles on them.

Expand full comment

No I mean nuclear fuel can be reprocessed - I think it involves a fast breeder reactor. It’s what the French do.

https://www.heritage.org/environment/commentary/recycling-nuclear-fuel-the-french-do-it-why-cant-oui

Expand full comment

Well, if you read my comment again, and squint a bit, you might see the barest outlines of a joke.

Or maybe not.

Expand full comment

I think the dominant "own the libs" strain from the cons is to simply not care about AGW at all since the libs really do.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

Do progressives really hate nuclear? Are there any numbers on it?

Expand full comment

Farhad Manjoo was not going to write a column that said "actually yes nuclear is good and a fully renewable approach may not be optimal" -- he was always going to land on the progressive side of the argument.

Expand full comment

Yes, and 40 seconds of googling yielded this: https://news.gallup.com/poll/392831/americans-divided-nuclear-energy.aspx

As a progressive who is concerned about climate change I am disappointed!

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

IMO, it's a pretty complicated topic to interrogate with a question like the one in that poll.

My problem with nuclear power is that it's too expensive and too inflexible to economically follow load to complement renewables. OTOH, I'm very supportive of research on advanced designs and also of targeting subsidy money at existing plants to keep them running depending on the circumstances.

If you look at it from a policy angle, democrats have a solid history of supporting nuclear power when it matters. The only two nuclear power plants the US has broken ground on in the last 40 years were funded by loans that Obama approved. Biden and the dem congress approved huge funding for nuclear research and for giving nuclear power access to production and investment tax credits.

Finally, funding for marginal existing nuclear plants that was contained in the IRA is what saved diablo canyon and will likely save other economically marginal existing nuclear plants (there's also talk of restarting a closed plant in Michigan thanks to IRA).

Expand full comment

Democrats do not have a good record on this front. Indian Point was killed.

Building new nuclear plants may not make sense but Democratic anti-nuclear activists aggressively work to close existing plants, which is pure ideology

Expand full comment

I agree to a point, but in the end, these decisions are all about plant economics.

Sure, with Indian Point, the environmentalists made a lot of noise, but they would have lost the battle had it not been for the sustained low wholesales prices the plant was getting for its output because of competition from nearby gas plants.

Diablo Canyon is an even better demonstration of this. The environmentalists were winning the day and shutdown was a done deal. Then higher natural gas prices and the IRA subsidies for existing nuclear showed up and completely reversed the economics of keeping the plant open. All of a sudden, Newsom forgets all his anti-nuke friends and decides to support keeping the plant open.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

I think there's definitely a strain of environmental purism on the left that really hates nuclear, often an older strain that retains bad memories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, and may also be scarred by the Cold War in having disdain for anything with a nuclear connotation.

Expand full comment

Yes, they have been fighting to close Diablo Canyon here in California for example. It is squishy centrist Dems that have been coming around on nuclear, which is why the IRA and the bipartisan energy bill both contained support for advanced nuclear.

Expand full comment

Investing in these long shot technologies is my day job. I agree you just have to try a bunch of stuff and you won’t really know for decades what works. But at least the money and the talent is there now and things are happening. FWIW I’m more bullish on hydrogen than nuclear but hey I might be wrong. I can see the appeal in cold cloudy countries, but even they have the option of running transmission to the nearest sunny country.

Expand full comment

Very easy to be bullish on H2 with all the federal investment! I think your analysis is correct in the mid-term, though obviously nuclear has distinct advantages of its own. Only time will tell if the market will value those advantages appropriately!

Expand full comment

Coming from a cold cloudy country north of yours (I presume) why should we trust that power would be sent our way if the power is tight for your own use? (See conditions that led to Texas blackouts, it was very cold all the way northeast well)

Expand full comment

I assume the power would go to whatever ISO is willing to pay the marginal cost which, if broad swaths of the country were pushing max capacity at the same time would go very high.

Expand full comment

I'll be honest, I have no idea who the intended target audience for this piece is. Basically noone serious in the field of renewables disputes that you need gas as a backup for the next five to ten years! You might be able to switch to hydrogen afterwards or massively invest in biomass or something, but the necessity for a backup is absolutely not disputed. This very much seems like "making up a guy to get mad at".

The problem with CCS, on the other hand, is more of a political one. We absolutely do need CCS to work in the future, because our progress has been much too slow the last few decades and we can't reach our climate goals without sucking like five percent of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Even the IPCC acknowledges that. The problem is that as of right now, CCS is a VERY unproven technology that is 20 years away at least. (Sort of like those small nuclear reactors everyone is talking about.) So it's hard to rely on it, because we don't know when we can actually deploy it on scale.

But lazy politicans love to use the prospect of CCS in the future as a pretext for taking not enough action in the present. This happens all the time in Europe. "I know that our ten-year plan doesn't actually reduce nearly enough emissions, but that's okay, we'll just do carbon capture in the future." That's why a lot of climate and energy experts are actually rather sceptical about carbon capture, because right now, all it achieves is climate action delay.

Expand full comment

Pretty common view in Ireland. This is the Minister for the Environment in Ireland saying we should use more wind instead of an LNG terminal: https://m.independent.ie/news/environment/leo-varadkar-defends-meeting-lng-developers-as-eamon-ryan-insists-the-gas-terminal-should-not-proceed-41716141.html

Expand full comment

But that doesn't mean that he is against using gas per se right? Isn't Ireland building new gas power plants? As far as I understand it, the argument goes that Ireland doesn't need an LNG terminal given the supply routes from the UK and its own domestic production. (Which sounds risky to me)

Expand full comment

Well he said wind as the alternative rather than other gas. His Green Party is against fossil fuels in general.

Expand full comment

5-10 years. Try 20-40 years minimum.

Expand full comment

You seem to be missing a very important factor related to carbon sequestration. We don’t need new technology or fancy methods to do carbon sequestration. We already have a way to do so that is easily scalable and cost effective.

We need to replace conventional farming methods with regenerative farming methods. With regenerative farming the excess C02 is pulled from the air via plants and then used to build topsoil. This is doubly important because conventional farming methods have been destroying topsoil at an alarming rate, and without topsoil we can’t grow food.

Regenerative farming practices do this by restoring the natural liquid carbon pathway that plants and soil microbes have. Basically plants take sunlight and carbon and then trade it to soil microbes and fungi who in turn help the plants by providing nutrients and other services (like pest and disease fighting).

Regenerative farming does this through a combination of methods. Primarily through combining no till, cover crops, rotational grazing along with reducing or eliminating synthetic fertilizer, herbicies, pesticides etc.

For example, we’ve caused lots of environmental damage by removing animals from farms and off to feed lots. Instead bring those animals back to the farm. Use rotational grazing methods were the animals are densely packed but only on the section of land for a brief time (the same way herds of bison would have moved on the plains.

Likewise you should never leave soil bare. You need to put cover crops in to protect the soil and feed the microbes and store carbon by building the topsoil.

Tillage breaks up the soil structure and the fungi networks that are so crucial for building soil. Likewise synthetic fertilizers disrupt the natural liquid carbon cycle because plants get their nutrients from the synthetic fertilizer instead of working together with natural soil microbes to build the soil. And of course pesticides and herbicides also destroy soil microbes.

It’s been estimated that if the entire world switched to regenerative farming practices we could absorb all the excess carbon created since the start of the industrial revolution. Plus you would be creating healthier nutrient rich foods (nutrient density drops greatly under conventional agriculture practices).

Expand full comment

Those are great, and we should do them, but they are not permanent sequestration. Reversion to poor soil management practices or climate changes could push it back out again.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

That's with anything right? Basically any good practice can be reversed later If people act irresponsible

Expand full comment

Yes, so the true permanent removals don't depend on good practices. Like geological sequestration where the CO2 mineralizes. By default it stays put.

Expand full comment

Without other technology NG backup will be forever as the economics fall off a cliff as VRE penetration gets very high.

CCS on backup power won't be viable even if it is on mainline power. Too much CAPEX for not enough use.

Expand full comment

Given this, are there specific things that we're not doing/funding from a policy standpoint? The devil is in the details of course, but It seems like there's been a decent amount of policy and funding support for CCS in recent legislation. What's missing?

Expand full comment

Cost is a problem, but at least in the US there are considerable regulatory hurdles. Every state has a different interpretation about who owns pore space (or they don't have an interpretation at all and that needs to be decided). The type of well that needs to be constructed to inject CO2 for sequestration requires special permitting, and the EPA office that manages permitting is understaffed and underfunded. And of course, there are questions about long-term liability -- who is responsible for maintaining the site in 15 years and what happens if an operator goes under.

My organization just put out a report on the regulatory hurdles facing the state of Pennsylvania, actually!

https://teampa.com/2022/09/team-pennsylvania-foundation-releases-road-map-on-carbon-management-and-hydrogen-development-in-pennsylvania/

Expand full comment

The EU and the US have invested billions in CCS research over the last twenty years, so I'm not sure the problem is really a political one. All the researchers I've spoken to agree that doing Carbon capture is just really freaking complicated.

- The technology is just way too expensive currently to do it at scale.

- Retrofitting power plants with CCS technology is doable, but (again) expensive, and diminishes their efficiency. Also, it's kinda dumb because the hope is to get rid of big fossil-fueled plants anyway. So CCS might also lead to lock-in effects, which is dangerous.

- Direct carbon removal from the atmosphere is extremely interesting, but even more complicated and thus even more in its infancy.

- Storage is also complicated. If you're doing carbon capture on an industrial scale, you need a loooooot of storage space to put it in. But that space has to be secure for thousands of years, and someone has to watch after those storage spaces. Which brings a lot of logistical (where to find that space?), legal (who is to blame if a seaquake destroys a storage space 200 years later?) and financial (who pays for the upkeep?) problems with it. Think of all the problems that nuclear waste storage has, but on steroids.

So putting all your hopes into CCS is kinda dangerous right now. It makes total sense to do research on the topic, because again, it's pretty certain we'll need it a few decades down the road. But you can't spend your money twice. Every dollar you put into CCS is a dollar less put into solar and offshore wind, which is a proven, economically sound technology that can be rapidly built on scale. So you really need to think hard about how much resources to invest.

Expand full comment

Thousands of years? If we indeed went zero carbon and maintained that over time, then who cares if some GHG escapes 200 years from now? It's hard to imagine that would cause catastrophic warming. It's not like long-term safeguarding of nuclear waste.

Expand full comment
deletedSep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

“…ideally such tax should also be applied retroactively to historical emissions to be used for aid to the poorest countries in hot areas…”

No, that’s a bad idea. The point of a Pigouvian tax is to change market behavior, and that cannot be done retroactively.

Expand full comment

Absolutely fair to say as a matter of moral behavior, maybe people should consume less. But policy questions need to consider public opinion and frankly a lot of American's will turn against reducing emissions if it means they can't drive an SUV. That's why policy should aim to reduce emissions in a way that's popular. The reaction to new electric Hummer's creating more emissions than a sedan shouldn't be stop people from buying them, but should be increase the renewables % in the grid and throw money at people to buy electric hummers (or any other electric vehicles). Optimal in terms of reducing emissions in theory? No. Optimal in terms of reducing emissions in practice? Yes.

Expand full comment

Matt said it well on the "political will" line: it's a weasel phrase that masks what's really being asked, and that's the will to sacrifice. They really need to be forced to say upfront that we're being asked to do things like give up cars, give up meat, and give up consumption in general. If they were regularly confronted with the heavy backlash that would come with it, they should then be more willing to admit that expanding clean* technologies dramatically is the better and more feasible way forward.

*As an aside, I really despise the term "renewable" as it's often used. We don't necessarily want energy sources that repopulate themselves, what we want are energy sources that don't use fossil fuels. Renewable is an ugly four syllables and nine letters, while clean is a (heh) clean five letters and one syllable.

Expand full comment

Couldn't agree more with your asterisk! I hate the term, not least because I feel like its 50% used to just exclude nuclear. I remember learning about energy sources in like 10th grade and thinking it was weird that in a world of climate change nuclear gets lumped in with the other "dirty" fuels while wind, hydroelectric, and solar get their wonderful "renewable" pedestal. Seems odd that the distinction made is weather (intentional misspell) the source of the energy is found in endless supply on earth, especially when you could just say the materials for creating solar panels are finite. Not to mention things like hydrogen, geothermal, CCS, etc. don't fit very neatly into the framework.

Expand full comment

Yeah, and conversely, biomass can be described as renewable, since the fuel can reproduce itself, but that's not what the people that use the term want to say. And what I think they want to say is "shorthand" for solar and wind. (I scare quote that because it's still four syllables, but now twelve letters and two spaces! Though using an ampersand or a slash could reduce that!) With hydroelectricity often getting omitted due to the harms it can do to salmon.

Expand full comment

I agree and one of my problems with that sacrifice mentally is that in general, activists tend to expect people who are not like them to make big sacrifices.

Expand full comment

Yup and lay people notice this. Take the obvious example: travel. Environmentalism is positively correlated with liking to travel.

Environmentalists talk a lot about how we need to reduce car usage. They almost never talk about eliminating or dramatically reducing the # of cross-continent flights.

Why? Because many environmentalists don't have kids and live in big cities, cars are a waste. But saying you can't visit other continents is a real imposition.

The sacrifice that appeals to them is one they won't have to pay. Left-Nimbyism is the other example. NYC, SF and LA fight development tooth and nail. But allowing development in these cities would help the climate. It would involve a sacrifice for them so they say no.

Expand full comment

The resistance to NPIs for COVID from a large portion of America should dissuade any notion that people here will go along with any major, long-term sacrifices to their material well-being and standard of living.

Expand full comment

I think some basic axioms we have to accept for fighting climate change are:

1) People will not pay higher direct taxes (e.g., carbon tax)

2) People will not accept a degradation in living standards to fight climate change but will probably accept most *changes* in technology (e.g., EVs, induction stoves, heat pumps)

3) People in less developed countries desire increasing living standards and we have a moral obligation to assist that within the context of dealing with climate change

Expand full comment

One point to make on the need for direct air capture is that while it's a task for later this century, it's pretty clear we'll need to go beyond Net Zero and go Net Negative for some time to bring the climate back to something closer to pre-industrial normal.

As far as seasonality goes, we haven't even considered how we could reshape demand to take advantage of the peaks and troughs of very cheap but seasonally variable renewable generation. Would it be economically viable to run aluminium smelters 9 or 10 months of the year if the electricity was super-cheap for those months? Or bake bricks? Could California desalinate seawater when their energy is at its cheapest?

Yes, all of those cost money, but so does nuclear, and SMRs will be similarly expensive for decades to come (anybody who thinks otherwise is more than welcome to take a long bet with me on the topic).

Expand full comment

Another speculation is that the *free* energy could be used for electrolyzers (to make some hydrogren). They're cheap to make, but energy intensive to run, and tanks of hydrogen can be stored.

I think you'll see time-of-use pricing change everything dramatically. There will be demand management on EVERYTHING. On an individual level, you'll see more smart-home power management. (i.e. your car charges when electricity is cheap, your washer runs when electricity is cheap, your thermostat does temperature management in a range based on when el...)

And more importantly, you'll see huge changes at businesses. Google will balance more workloads between data centers based on where in the world electricity is free right now. Are you willing to be a flexible on when you run your "once every 24 hours" cloud compute jobs for a 50% savings? I sure am.

Expand full comment

I was leaving out hydrogen as “unproven new technology”, though it seems like we’re going to have quite a few large-scale electrolyzers running off VRE well before we have any SMRs operating in the USA, Europe, Japan or South Korea.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

"Because massively overbuilding renewables would not only cost a lot of money but wastefully consume vast tracts of land, it seems like a better idea would be to use long-term batteries. If you had really big batteries that stored electricity for a long time, you could simply store surplus power in the high season and unleash it in the low season."

In the spirit of focusing the energy debate on numbers, not adjectives (https://bit.ly/3LJLFUZ), Iet's look at some of the literature we have on this trade-off.

Perez et. al, 2020 find that "while unconstrained, intermittent renewable generation will achieve very low [cost] targets-they are already below grid parity-transforming PV into the firm, effectively dispatchable resource needed by world economies will be very costly if done with storage alone, even when considering the most aggressive future cost projections for storage. Overbuilding renewables can reduce the storage requirements to the point where true below parity firm generation will be attainable." (https://bit.ly/3SE0YRq)

Concretely: in Minnesota, 0% overbuilding of panel requires so much storage to deal with seasonal intermittency that cost of power shoots up to 28 cents/KWh, compared to 5 cents/KWh today. By contrast, 50% overbuilding (implying you'd throw away a third of the summer surplus) drives the cost down below grid parity, 5 cents/KWh. (The mix assumed here is 55% solar / 40% wind / 5% natural gas). (https://bit.ly/3SE0YRq) They've observed the relationship between overbuilding and cost across other geographies (https://bit.ly/3ULxov9).

The reason this happens is that 1.5x overbuilding of panels allows you to use 10x less storage (https://bit.ly/3SDZ3fG). That's the tradeoff.

This is just one study. I'm it has limitations (it's not clear whether the growing marginal cost for summer-surplus panels is factored into the cost figures above), and I'd love for folks to chime in with other evidence. The key claim here that solving seasonal intermittency via storage requires such profound amounts of storage that it will never be cost-effective.

But I do think it's worth a response!

Expand full comment

Topics this important should get a multiple post treatment. Matt’s article is basically an articulate restatement of the obvious. It avoids the interesting questions that would deepen my understanding of climate:

1). How much solar and wind must one overbuild to achieve a given reduction in fossil fuel peak generation?

2). How expensive is this overbuilding?

3). How many degrees would the planet warm if we just deployed existing technologies at scale and still used fossil fuels for shipping and aviation? How effectively could seawalls and air conditioning mitigate this?

4). How much carbon can we remove from the atmosphere by planting trees?

There are probably consensus answers to these questions. I understand it’s commercially important that Matt publish every weekday. Matt has the chops to write an excellent Atlantic style feature every week or four intriguing blog posts on different topics. I would prefer the former, especially because Matt is running out of topics and doesn’t have much new to say about housing.

Expand full comment

There 3 PhD thesis in there at least. For 4), in practice a trivial amount, as mature forests are in equilibrium and possible CH4 generators for decomposing biomass. Many other reasons to reforest though.

Expand full comment

I don't think Matt needs to do this. A division of labor is fine. Matt can write a generalist overview post and for readers who want to dig deeper he can refer them to David Roberts' Volts posts and podcasts.

Expand full comment

The only two name writers I trust to think sensibly are Matt and Nate Silver. Douthat is interesting for conservative provocations, but ultramontane Catholicism is not my thing.

Expand full comment

You don't trust David Roberts on climate issues? His general politics are too left for me, but I find his climate stuff absolutely top rate.

Expand full comment

I feel the same way, including not being onboard with his more lefty/woke politics.

OTOH, his podcast coverage of the Inflation Reduction Act w/Jesse Jenkins was probably the best anywhere, especially from a climate perspective.

Expand full comment

He is rather myopic on renewable only. Otherwise good.

Expand full comment

I haven’t read him. Who is he? How do I know he’s good?

Expand full comment

https://www.volts.wtf/

Because I said so. :-)

Expand full comment

One of THE main advantages of a tax on net emissions is that it is neutral between more of existing technologies and to-be-developed new technologies while being guaranteed NOT to waste a lot of money on high cost technologies. Another is that it generate fiscal resources for useful things like assistance to lower income folks to offset the income effects of higher energy prices and and making energy saving investments like in heat pumps, AND resources for the growing costs of public investments in mitigation of fires, floods, and sea level rise.

Presumably, but more speculatively, a tax on net emissions may also stimulate better regulatory change.

Expand full comment
founding

One point Noah Smith has convinced me of is that because *research* on new technologies produces huge positive externalities for everyone who ends up using it once it becomes cheap, it’s important to subsidize this research - and perhaps even more important than a carbon tax. If the research costs more than any individual user will ever pay in carbon tax, then no one has the financial incentive to figure out the solution that is *eventually* cheaper, and so we get stuck with the choice between moderately expensive green tech and fossil fuels plus tax.

Expand full comment

I think a carbon tax is useful as a mop up / backstop to ensure stuff gets implemented when it is commercially viable. It helps the project justifications going the right way without a massive regulatory hammer, but it is not enoughnto commercialize the technology in the first place, or possibly to drive the biggest hitters.

Expand full comment

Let's not make this an either/or. The level (actually the trajectory) of the optimal tax on net emissions of CO2 depends on the costs of developing the new technologies which also depends on the regulatory environment. And of course no one can KNOW what the future will bring. But let's get started.

Expand full comment

I'm far less concerned about a carbon tax being optimal than being predictable. It's there to help all the little investment decisions that don't rise to the level of visibility that gets special treatment.

Expand full comment

It ought to be as predictable as it can be. In practice I can't imagine that when periodically it was re-optimized it would jump around a lot. But yes, if there were a huge breakthrough in geothermal energy in 2035, reducing the tax on net CO2 emissions might be the best thing t do.

Expand full comment

Absolutely. Sometimes I fail to say that because it's already part f the conventional wisdom (and true about all kinds of research, but probably not enough. Also one nuance to my ambivalence to direct subsidies to specific technologies would be that "research" on some at scale technologies can be done only with subsidies.

Expand full comment

If I’m not mistaken, the SEC mandating carbon accounting is doing a lot of the work of a carbon tax (that is, getting investors to prioritize cleaner technologies and getting industries to seriously look at abating their Scope I & II emission) with none of the political downsides of imposing new taxes. Even in a state like Pennsylvania with a diverse energy mix, the RGGI project to impose a carbon tax on power generators and invest money in greener projects has been met with fierce resistance. And not just from conservative lawmakers.

Expand full comment

Hopefully those SEC rules will be struck down in the courts, or at least go away under the successor to the Biden Administration. It’s not their place to regulate such matters, nor do they posses the competence to do it properly.

Expand full comment

Nothing wrong with a bit on the margin. I'd agree on competence to push very far.

Expand full comment

I'd argue that they need to receive the competence, not invent it.

Expand full comment

I'm probably wandering way beyond MY competence on this issue.

Expand full comment

If I were investing in a business, I would want to know it’s scope 1-3 emissions. That’s a completely valid business metric given climate commitments and market and public incentives for decarbonization.

Expand full comment

"...given climate commitments and market and public incentives for decarbonization"

What commitments? What incentives?

Expand full comment

I’m responding in good faith. 193 countries made commitments to decarbonization at the Paris Climate Accords. $94 billion in public sector financing globally was announced at the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh last Friday. That’s not counting tax incentives and grant programs for renewables, nuclear, CCUS, hydrogen, etc & etc that were part of BIL and IRA.

Expand full comment

"I’m responding in good faith"

Curious that's your preface. No matter.

Many, many countries made commitments to the Paris Agreement. The United States was not one of them. US firms are not bound to the Agreement as a matter of law, the recent machinations of the SEC notwithstanding.

Forgive me that I do not know as much as you do about the Global Clean Energy Forum in Pittsburgh. [Can we please just call it the "GCEF in P" or "GCE, F-Pittsburgh" or something?] But you mentioned "public sector financing globally." Are you discussing the idea that the SEC should promulgate rules about compliance with foreign financing of decarbonization? If so, what is their authority to do so?

Expand full comment

Good for the SEC. The intellectual work of figuring out what the optimal tax trajectory on net CO2 emissions is need to be done to guide regulators that can influence technological application and public investment decisions. [We don't want the SEC to get investors to prioritize CO2 emissions reductions too much, either.] Lets do it. no downside. I just do not think regulation and moral suasion will be enough.

Expand full comment

Good post.

It is annoying how renewable proponents hype the cheap marginal cost while ignoring the need to overbuild to avoid peaking and contingency plants.

Anyway, my view is that if this is really a crisis, then every option needs to be on the table. But that’s not what’s happening - people claim there is a crisis but then will oppose anything but their own narrow preferences.

Finally, I don’t think enough is said or done about the grid. If we are going to rely on intermittent power sources (renewables), then we need robust regional and national interconnects to account for weather and to provide resiliency.

Expand full comment

The people who would oppose this are:

1) Those that deny any need to fight climate change.

2) The anti-growth/anti-human environmentalists who really just want most of humanity to go away.

3) The environmentalists who want everyone to drop everything else and focus 100% on fighting climate change right now, and won't settle for anything else.

4) The environmentalists who are theoretically okay with the 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach, but for strategic reasons don't want to entertain CCS because they think it will slow current progress down in cutting emissions.

Between all of those group, you probably have well over 50% of the population, unfortunately.

And the first 3 groups are basically lost causes.

Based on all that, we probably just need to focus on group #4 and all the apathetic-but-not-necessarily-opposed folks.

Expand full comment

Unless #1 is at least 40% of the population on its own, I don't think those four groups are over 50% of people.

Expand full comment

According to Pew Research 46% of American adults believe that climate change policies don't help the environment. That's not quite "deny any need to fight climate change" but I'd say it is, unfortunately, pretty close. A kind of defeatist "nothing helps so why bother" seems to be very close to the majority opinion in the US.

Expand full comment

howdy Slow Boring climate tech nerds. If you feel like reading more about innovation in clean energy -- specifically, off-shore wind turbine technology innovation -- here's a nice interview with a developer at Sandia working on a new turbine design. (Hope this link is accessible: https://www.techbriefs.com/component/content/article/tb/pub/features/qa/46629?oly_enc_id=6799H0362467F0Z). In addition to explaining the new design, he goes through the cost-effectiveness calculations, limitations in how the industry currently designs and builds off-shore wind farms, and how they are consulting with a wide range of industries to optimize this design. Nerd out!

Expand full comment

Excellent comment, unless you're actually Megan McCardle in which case this is a terrible comment. :-)

Expand full comment

Gift of Fire on Medium (https://medium.com/@tgof137), my favorite "blogger" that I'm not sure anyone else has heard of, has a great series of posts that implicitly make the same point about the need for both flexibility and technological innovation:

He begins with some great posts about the scale of the challenge facing renewables:

https://medium.com/@tgof137/heres-what-it-would-cost-for-the-united-states-to-go-100-solar-1b7c34e6fcef

https://medium.com/@tgof137/pumped-storage-hydropower-wont-save-the-planet-4ac56db6fb78

https://medium.com/@tgof137/france-and-germany-real-world-comparison-of-nuclear-vs-solar-and-wind-1a32b40788a4

That inevitably leads to nuclear, but even here there are problems because of the limited amount of uranium and where that is likely to lead us:

https://medium.com/@tgof137/heres-what-it-would-cost-for-the-us-to-go-100-nuclear-463d1e2488bb

Anyway, my chemistry and physics knowledge isn't remotely good enough to critically evaluate his pieces, but I wanted to point others his way because I think he does such a great job of writing clearly about these issues:

P.S. Should add that I originally discovered Gift of Fire because he wrote the most comprehensive/best written articles I found debunking the anti-vaxxers:

https://medium.com/an-idea/how-safe-is-the-covid-vaccine-5a61d7d6d91a

https://medium.com/@tgof137/bret-weinstein-and-a-web-of-lies-81abf9b7df8f

https://medium.com/microbial-instincts/debunking-steve-kirschs-latest-claims-97e1c40f5d74

https://medium.com/microbial-instincts/are-covid-vaccines-causing-declining-birth-rates-f9a60c7c3f5a

Anyway, really just wanted to give this guy a shout because I think he is worth reading.

Expand full comment

I had a quick look. His methodology is too crude. You really need to look at the hour by hour performance of a system whereby the renewables are distributed over the entire North American continent and supply and demand fluctuate. For Australia it works out to be about 120GWh is required for almost 100% renewables and if you scale that up for the US that gets you to say 1600GWh (-although should be better for the US because of higher population density). You could get that kind of storage by being able to “borrow”10kWh each from 160 million EVs for a small fee, which seems within the realm of possibility by 2050.

Expand full comment

Sadly, when you make that last point to the really annoying anti-market greens, they get mad and claim that you’re letting the big bad utilities off the hook for needed investments.

“Why build the storage capacity twice at the citizenry’s expense?” gets you, “You’re right, don’t build the cars!”

(I literally had this exchange last week)

There’s just no helping wide swathes of the environmental movement; our progress would literally be better if a goodly chunk of them were basement-dwelling gaming addicts, or dead, lol.

Expand full comment

I dunno: I read the 100% nuclear post and it was really underwhelming. Facile & polemical.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

I'd like to push back on the argument that the land use issues from overbuilding renewables are insurmountable. We don't need that much land all told, fractions of a percent per state, and there's a lot of land that would suffice.

For instance, there's an analysis from Conservation Gateway[1] of available land in Virginia that meets the criteria for grid-scale solar generation (near a high voltage transmission line, inexpensive to lease, available in large tracts, not in a conservation area, etc). Virginia needs about 0.5% of the state to become solar farms to meet their targets, and nearly 20% of the state is suitable for solar farm development.

Obviously not all of that land is being sat on by people willing to lease it, and there are good questions about whether we want certain kinds of farmland turned into solar farms and whether we're okay with taking down second growth forest or not in the process. But that's a large margin for figuring that out! I'm independently working on something similar for New York with a few colleagues, which is why this is top of mind for me.

Totally agree that we need to figure out how to make the overbuilt panels economical (otherwise, nobody is going to pay to lease that land in the first place!) but I'm feeling confident that the hydrogen generation / battery technologies / molten salt pits or whatever will become viable by the time we've built enough solar to be there. It's going to take a few decades.

[1] http://conservationgateway.org/ConservationByGeography/NorthAmerica/UnitedStates/virginia/Pages/solar-siting-va.aspx. Some colleagues and I are independently working on something similar for New York.

Expand full comment
founding

How does 0.5% of land area compare to the footprint of, say, housing, or highways, or anything else we might be familiar with?

Expand full comment

The Princeton Net Zero America project estimates a much larger footprint for renewables: "The most cost effective of our net-zero scenarios spans an area that is equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee put together."

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/20/podcasts/transcript-ezra-klein-interviews-jesse-jenkins.html

That's dominated by wind power; if solar only, it would be much smaller. And the *actual footprint* of the wind would be smaller, because we're talking wind turbines spaced out over a lot of ground. But still, not a trivial amount of land would be involved.

Expand full comment

I thought this part of the discussion was pretty lame. I felt like Jenkins answer to this question was designed to shock everyone, which is fine, but also a tad midleading.

He quoted a maximalist number without mentioning that we could get to 80% or 90% renewables for like 4 or 5 times less land. Also, I believe that number didn't consider offshore wind or solar on buildings.

In a way, I'm fine with the exaggeration because it's important not to minimize this stuff. OTOH, inflated estimates like this are getting repeated everywhere by defeatists and interest groups claiming the problem is too big to solve with renewables.

Finally, while I respect Jenkins overall, I feel like he's a bit too fond of nuclear power than the facts or record supports. I'm fine with everything Biden (and Trump) have done on nuclear, but I'd give it probably 50/50 odds of coming through in the end.

Expand full comment

Max: Just posted another comment promoting this guy (because I think his writing is generally so good), but Gift of Fire on Medium seems to have a different take on the amount of land needed:

https://medium.com/@tgof137/heres-what-it-would-cost-for-the-united-states-to-go-100-solar-1b7c34e6fcef

Curious where you think he gets it wrong.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

You didn't ask, but I see three main issues.

1) His land use estimate for wind is larger than anything I've ever seen. He doesn't consider offshore wind at all and he doesn't consider that the land under a wind farm can still be used for grazing or farming.

2) He mentions putting solar on existing structures but just in passing. I think models have shown that building and parking lot solar can provide something near half the total need.

3) His analysis is sort of all-or-nothing. We're decades away from having to deal with the issues of 100% renewables at our current build rates. If he did his math for 80% renewables or even 90% renewables the land needs are much less dramatic.

Also, his comment about nuclear at 100% being an equally good option to renewables at 100% is questionable because I don't think he factored in the cost of having to overbuild nuclear by almost 2x to cover the challenges of load following with nuclear.

Expand full comment

“…the land under a wind farm can still be used for grazing or farming”

Solar farms, too:

https://solargrazing.org/what-is-solar-grazing/

Expand full comment

It is immoral to force cows to graze in darkness. Please support the PETA by sending money. https://www.peta.org. /S

Expand full comment

If Democrats are so smart about tradeoffs, why was Diabo Canyon even considered being taken down? Why has the international left been against building nuclear? I think it's actually still up in the air how captured Democrats are by anti growth environmentalists, and it seems clear to me that Diablo Canyon is only open because of a last minute energy crisis the Democrats did not forsee because that's just not something on the top of their minds.

Expand full comment
Sep 27, 2022·edited Sep 27, 2022

IMO, in the end Diablo Canyon was saved by the nuclear subsidies in the democrats' Inflation Reduction Act.

Environmentalists have some sway at the margins, but these decisions seem to be driven first and foremost by plant economics and local grid conditions. We see this play out over and over again all across the country. If the economics are marginal for the plant, the environmentalists win and it gets shut down. If the plant economics are solid, the plant stays open.

Originally, Diablo Canyon needed several billion in subsidies for the owners to be interested in keeping the plant open. I believe that was on top of the cost of the new cooling towers. Higher nat gas prices came along and made the economics better, but still not good enough for the math to work. Finally, IRA came along and its nuclear power subsidies were enough of a boost to save the plant. Once the rest of the math worked, Newsom was fine giving the plant a waiver on the cooling towers.

Expand full comment

I guess I wonder then, without IRA, does CA shut down that plant and 10% of its electricity in this energy environment, or does it find the money somewhere else? Because it seems pretty bad for that plant to be closing right now.

And say that the timing didn't line up and we closed it a year ago, and CA just burned a bunch of coal to meet its energy demand. Doesn't that look horrible for Democrats who are supposed to care about the environment? Shouldn't their finger be on the opposite side of the "margin" here?

Expand full comment