Can the U.S. build a clean, green economic machine?

Can cleaner sources of energy not only power our economy but also drive a recovery from the Great Recession? That’s the question confronted by policymakers across the U.S.—and by debaters in the Intelligence Squared series hosted March 8 by New York University.

The list of political proponents of a clean, green energy economy is long, ranging from President Obama down to John Fetterman, the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And the anecdotal evidence thus far seems strong: 2,600 manufacturing jobs in Colorado as a result of Danish wind turbine-maker Vestas—plus the farmers in that state who reap profits from the wind blowing over their fields while continuing to grow crops like wheat. Or the green jobs growth in China, Germany or California.

“Green jobs are the largest source of growth in California [with] job growth 10 times higher than in any other sector,” former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger told the second annual Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy summit on March 1. “China has made the decision, backed by billions of dollars, that green is where the economic action is going to be. China is an ancient culture with new ideas. We cannot let America be a young culture with old ideas.”

But the list of economic counter-examples is also long, including the offshoring of the steel industry that laid Braddock—and all of the Pittsburgh area—low, jobs-wise. In fact, the Rust Belt might also be called one of the downsides of cleaner air: If you want to avoid local air pollution, a simple solution is to shift the coal burning responsible for it far away—as outlined in an infamous memo from Lawrence Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank. And, faced with diminished economic prospects, clean energy companies—EvergreenSolyndraRange Fuels—have recently begun laying off American workers.

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate: what is clean energy exactly? And what creates jobs?

The answer to the former depends on who you ask, but it certainly encompasses renewable energy sources such as dams, hot rocks, solar and wind, and may include sources like nuclear or cleaner-burning natural gas. Or even “clean coal.”

Clean coal is an oxymoron akin to family vacation or jumbo shrimp,” argued pundit Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green Energy’ and the Real Fuels of the Future at the debate on March 8. “If everything is clean energy, then nothing is.”

Setting aside that question for the moment, consider the question of jobs. Not only is there the issue of the quantity of jobs created by any given industry but also the quality. So perhaps there are more jobs in installing or cleaning solar panels than in making them in the first place, a process that tends to be automated. But are those good, high-paying jobs? The kind of jobs to replace the often unionized, say, autoworker jobs that vaulted immigrants and Americans alike into the ranks of the middle class in the 20th century?

At present, there are three engines pumping out American jobs: construction, innovation and services. Rebuilding the American energy infrastructure would ultimately drive job growth in all three, from building new nuclear power plants to retraining auto mechanics to work on electric cars. And there’s the export market to think about: most of the growth in energy infrastructure will take place in the rest of the world, noted private equity investor Kassia Yanosek of Hudson Clean Energy Partners. “Clean energy will drive exports, which are critical to future growth.”

And that growth depends on manufacturing—because any energy revolution would require a lot of hardware. But if ET (energy technology) follows IT (information technology), most of that manufacturing may be done elsewhere, like China, just as Apple’s iPhone is conceptualized in Cupertino but assembled in China. And if we lose manufacturing, we might, in the end, lose innovation.

“If pilot scale manufacturing goes away, which is closely related to [research and development], R&D will suffer,” says ARPA–e director (and mechanical engineer) Arun Majumdar. “That is a big danger and we should do all we can to keep at least that manufacturing—if not more—here in the U.S.”

That said, large equipment like a wind turbine tends to be manufactured close to where it will be used, simply because it’s difficult and expensive to transport large, heavy pieces (think of all those wind turbines not fitting under highway overpasses). And that uncovers another facet of the clean energy debate: any energy source starts to look dirtier and dirtier the bigger it gets.

So there’s the mounting opposition to wind farms from Cape Cod in Massachusetts to the Columbia River valley in Oregon. There are the ongoing lawsuits about the endangered desert tortoise holding up solar thermal power plant development in the Mojave Desert. There’s the furor over Big Corn, which has received at least 40¢ per gallon in subsidies since 1978 to ferment the 200-proof “corn whiskey” that now amounts to some 10 percent of the nation’s fuel supply, 13 billion gallons of ethanol in all. And there’s the fact that burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, which is still a lot of CO2 as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

“If the goal is to reduce CO2 emissions to 1 billion tons by 2050, today, right now, CO2 from natural gas use is 1.2 billion tons,” said Steven Hayward, think-tanker at the American Enterprise Institute at the Tuesday evening debate. “It’s above the target for every source.”

No energy source is without its flaws, but there are economic, environmental and military reasons to avoid spending $1 billion a day on imported oil, among other spurs for an alternative energy revolution. “National security is very dependent on energy security,” noted Steven Chu at an address to the ARPA–e summit on March 1. “Energy we create at home is wealth creation at home.”

And America needs all the wealth creation it can get. “Americans are not a people who sit out a revolution,” former Colorado governor Bill Ritter noted in the debate at NYU. “There is a revolution upon us now, a clean energy revolution and it’s global. Will we lead or will we follow?”

Posted in Alternative Energy, Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Environment, Global Warming | Tagged , , , , , , ,

The Problem of Scale

It’s the essential challenge of our attempt to wean ourselves from old, reliable fossil fuels for energy:

From the dust-blown steppes of Inner Mongolia to the waters off Shanghai, China installed more wind turbines in the first half of 2010 than any other country — 7,800 megawatts of potential power production, or more than the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In fact, in northeast China alone, autumn and winter winds now produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, roughly 5.5 percent of the total power generation in the region. That’s up from 534 million kilowatt hours just five years ago.

But despite this rapid progress, wind energy still only generates a tiny fraction of China’s electricity. Indeed, even with aggressive government backing and green energy mandates, such “new energy” — including wind, solar, nuclear power plants, and biomass — accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s electricity production, compared to more than 70 percent provided by coal, which produces roughly 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every metric ton of the dirty, black rock burned. And as China’s economy continues to expand at a dizzying rate for the foreseeable future, wind and other renewable sources of energy will not even be able to keep pace with new demand, meaning fossil fuel burning will continue unabated.

This is hardly unique to China. In the U.S., electricity produced from the breeze has increased 13-fold in the past decade, yet still only provides 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity — compared to just under 50 percent provided by burning coal. Even Denmark, which has done more than any other country to boost wind power, struggles to integrate an intermittent generating resource into a grid whose customers expect the lights or the television to come on whenever they flick the switch.

As the world attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels — a result of the converging desires to combat climate change, improve energy security, and create green jobs — renewables such as the sun, wind, water, and hot rocks will play a larger role. So will energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, that are cleaner than the current favorites, coal and oil. The question is: Can any of these resources — or even all of them put together — begin to approach the scale needed to transform the world’s energy supply?

And even if the world’s economies can muster the resources and willpower to wean themselves off fossil fuels, how many decades will it take? And can we move fast enough to stave off the potentially calamitous effects of climate change?

Read the rest on Yale e360.

Posted in Alternative Energy, Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Environment, Global Warming | 1 Comment

Can the world handle 2 billion cars?

brilliance-granse-minibus

TECHNOLOGY DIGESTION: Chinese automaker and state-owned enterprise now builds the "Granse" minibus pictured here based on the "Granvia" minibus by Toyota the company used to build as part of a joint venture with the Japanese automaker.

Maybe, maybe not. But we’re certainly going to find out. The blossoming love affair between middle class Chinese and cars means we can expect hundreds of millions more of the infernal combustion machines in coming years.

But a world of 2 billion cars is also a world with a different climate, more sprawl, more mining and certainly more conflicts over resources (whether oil or lithium). Is that a world we want to live in, whether the cars are electric or not?

China has invested heavily in infrastructure to make the country car-friendly: roads, bridges, tunnels—an orgy of construction that happens to double as a stimulus plan. A pristine four-lane toll highway leads out of the city of Shenyang in northeastern China and every other Chinese city of size, most empty except for a few trucks and official convoys speeding past in their specially licensed black sedans. But within a few years, the lanes will be crowded with cars and the next cycle of road-building will begin. Beijing started its second ring road in the 1980s and completed its sixth—stretching 187 kilometers around the sprawling capital—in 2009.

Predictable results have followed: traffic jams that stretch for kilometers, sprawling suburbia and rising fuel prices. The vice mayor of Beijing was recently “exiled” to work in Xinjiang province after a debacle of some 30,000 vehicles being registered in a few weeks in December in anticipation of a curb on new auto registry. But the capital’s roughly 4.8 million vehicles have turned the city’s roads into sinuous parking lots and a haze covers the cities of China—a combination of the smoke of a million coal fires and all the vehicles’ exhaust obscuring the skyline with smog’s airlight, turning a Beijing sunrise from rosy to peach.

Posted in Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Global Warming

What a blizzard in Brooklyn means for global warming

brooklyn-blizzard-2010Not much.

What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?

Snowpocalyspe. Snowmaggedon. The brrrrizzard of 2010. And other moments in this year’s environmental history:

The Earth in 2010

Did I mention there was a tornado in Brooklyn this year too?

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What to do about coal ash?

Here’s a little video I did two years after the “Christmas coal ash spill” in Tennessee. The long and the short of it is we still don’t know what to do with all the ash leftover after our coal burning. And, unlike CO2 and other air pollutants, coal ash doesn’t get a lot of attention. But all of our pollution controls are, essentially, moving the problem of pollutants from our air (via smokestacks) to our water (via leaching from coal ash).

Posted in Clean Revolution, Electricity, Energy, Environment

The Clean Revolution

carbon-capture-and-storage-at-mountaineer-power-plant

Clean Coal?

I continue to work at a snail’s pace on my book (more literally my book proposal) on the slow-creeping tide of change in our energy supplies. I’m not just talking the current fad for wind farms and solar panels on rooftops, but an incremental but monumental effort to replace fire—mankind’s oldest technology, possibly—with some other way of harnessing energy for our needs. This is the work of decades if not centuries. After all, it took millennia for the harnessing of fire to bear full fruit in the form of the coal-fired power plant or an internal combustion engine.

Anyway, thoughts, suggestions, help welcome. The “green” revolution is dead, long live the clean revolution!

Posted in Alternative Energy, Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Environment, Global Warming | Tagged , , , , ,

Life in Denmark

danish-village

An impossibly quaint (where are the gnomes?) thatched roof village at the northern end of the island of Samso. It's a major tourist trap, even for Danes, in summer.

The world descended on Copenhagen these past two weeks—and ordinary Danes don’t like it. Beyond the snarled traffic and foreigners gazing mutely into their palms to try to figure out what coins are worth, there’s all the protesters disrupting orderly Danish Christmas lunches.

Yes, these are traditional opportunities for Danes to get drunk in the early afternoon. But there is a silver lining, according to my sources, since all the police in Denmark are in Copenhagen you can be pretty secure driving drunk in the rest of the country.

I suppose that’s a consolation for all the other inconveniences.

Did I mention drunk Danes stole my Earth Journalism Award?

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A vote for me is a vote for the Earth

vote-badges

Vote for me! Image: (c) iStockphoto.com

Or at least Earth journalism. That’s right, I’m up for an Earth Journalism Award in Copenhagen this December, but I need your help to win.

(a) You can go to the Earth Journalism Awards site and vote for me directly.

(b) You can log in to Twitter and vote for me again by tweeting my story. It’s like democracy in old New York!

(c) Then you can log in to Facebook and vote for me yet again (!) by becoming a fan of my story. Now we’re talking real democracy…

And you don’t have to feel bad. I’m not making (too many) empty campaign promises. I gain no monetary reward from victory (merely a handshake from Rajendra Pachauri). And my story is about carbon capture and storage, which just might be the only hope for restraining the burgeoning amount of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. It’s a win-win-win (which is why I recommend the triple vote.) As the saying goes: vote early… and often.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What we talk about when we talk about environmentalism

david_biello

david_biello

This little electronic missive is to plant a stake in the ground as well as serving as the proverbial cri de coeur: here I am, sucking up electricity on some servers somewhere and taking up the real estate that might otherwise be squatted by mine enemies. So, expect the occasional post, and a little bit of lightheartedness. The kind of thing I can’t do over at my day job: Scientific American.

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