Category Archives: Renewables

Posts about renewable forms of energy including solar, wind, geothermal, tidal, hydroelectric, and biomass

Renewables surpass coal in the US in 2019

The Guardian reports:

Solar, wind and other renewable sources have toppled coal in energy generation in the United States for the first time in over 130 years, with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating a decline in coal that has profound implications for the climate crisis.

Not since wood was the main source of American energy in the 19th century has a renewable resource been used more heavily than coal, but 2019 saw a historic reversal, according to US government figures.

Coal consumption fell by 15%, down for the sixth year in a row, while renewables edged up by 1%. This meant renewables surpassed coal for the first time since at least 1885, a year when Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and America’s first skyscraper was erected in Chicago.

As always with fighting climate change, it’s not enough to be moving in the right direction; we need to move toward decarbonization quickly enough to prevent climate change from getting out of control. Accelerating, completing, and replicating the US abandonment of coal must be a durable worldwide project.

Why divest from fossil fuels?

Campaigns at universities especially can benefit from this document, prepared for the University of Toronto:

The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment: Update, by

Contributors to original brief: Milan Ilnyckyj, Emily Barrette, Stuart Basden, Tim Berk, Tamara Brown- stone, Mie Inouye, Neal Lantela, Amy Luo, Monica Resendes, Jessica Vogt, Miriam Wilson, Cameron Woloshyn, and Jon Yazer

Contributors to update: Milan Ilnyckyj, Anne Ahrens-Embleton, Jacqueline Allain, Lila Asher, Jody Chan, Ben Donato-Woodger, Joanna Dowdell, Rosemary Frei, Graham Henry, Katie Krelove, Amanda Lewis, Ariel Martz-Oberlander, and Monica Resendes

Options for energy storage

One challenge with renewable forms of energy like wind and solar power is that the power output from such facilities is intermittent. One way to address the problem is to store power from times when it is being produced in excess for use at times when the quantity demanded is high.

This article describes a number of such energy storage options, including ‘Green Power Islands’ along with systems based on pumping water, compressing air, and storing heat in molten salt.


Two tasks for 2012

The politics of climate change are pretty dismal right now. Canada is doing as little as it possibly can to combat the problem. The Obama administration in the United States is tied up doing other things, and regional initiatives like the Western Climate Initiative seem to be falling apart.

Given these challenging circumstances, it seems like a twofold strategy is justified for the year ahead.

First, it makes sense to work on rebuilding a political coalition calling for climate action. This is a complex undertaking that will involve everything from working to improve the electoral odds of parties and candidates who support climate action to raising the visibility of promising policy mechanisms like fee-and-dividend schemes.

Second, it makes sense to keep working to block projects that are triply-stupid, like the Keystone XL pipeline. When we build infrastructure that keeps us locked into a fossil fuel based economy, we are being wasteful in three connected ways. We are building infrastructure that will need to be scrapped when the world finally gets serious about stopping dangerous anthropogenic climate change. We are increasing the level of damage that climate change will do, both in terms of money and in terms of human suffering. Finally, we are forcing ourselves to build more appropriate energy infrastructure more quickly later.

By blocking inappropriate projects, we can avoid that triple waste. We can also show the world that there are at least some people in countries like Canada who are interested in protecting human lives more than in reaping oil profits.

It will probably be another difficult year, full of disappointments, but that is why it is necessary to keep applying ourselves to the problem with energy, creativity, and integrity.

Objection: problems with Kyoto

Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.

This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto

To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.

The challenge of climate change

If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.

In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:

  • (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
  • (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
  • (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.

Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.

Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:

  • build the wrong thing (at great expense),
  • suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
  • and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).

There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.

IPCC presentation on climate and renewables

Renate Christ recently gave a good presentation on climate change and renewable energy (PDF) on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The charts on page 4 and 5 are especially stark. The first shows the huge extent to which the global energy system remains dominated by fossil fuels. The second is a re-affirmation of the chart on this page showing the relative size of different fossil fuel reserves, and showing how reserves of coal dwarf those of oil and gas in terms of how much climate change they can generate. It also shows how large portions of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are of an unconventional variety, such as shale gas and oil sands crude.

Climate change and Dick Cheney logic

There is a certain odd sense in which the ethics of dealing with climate change resemble the doctrine former American Vice President Dick Cheney supported toward terrorism.

Cheney thought that the possibility of terrorists gaining control of weapons of mass destruction was so worrisome that it was worth undertaking enormous efforts – and making considerable sacrifices – to stop it. The basic moral logic behind this is that it is unjust for an innocent person to die in a terrorist attack, and that governments should take action to prevent such injustices from occurring.

The biggest problem with this strategy may be the ways in which the same sorts of activities that could help to prevent terrorist attacks also have sharply negative and corrosive effects on society at large. They include things like torture, constant surveillance of everybody, unchecked authority for the security services, and so on. Doing these things probably reduces the odds of terrorism, at least in the short term, but also ends up making society rather worse.

The moral logic of dealing with climate change is similar to this Cheney terrorist logic insofar as it also recognizes that innocent people suffer an injustice when they are harmed or killed because of dangerous climate change. Climate change is also a problem that governments can take action to mitigate.

Rather happily, the kind of actions this involve tend to be things that have positive secondary effects. The key action required to prevent dangerous climate change is the abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. In addition to limiting the accumulation of greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere, moving beyond fossil fuels promises to reduce geopolitical tensions by limiting the economic importance of volatile regions like the Middle East (which would also reduce the temptation for outside powers to meddle in those regions). It would also reduce the level of toxic air pollution in the atmosphere, and involve the spread of more efficient technologies in areas like buildings and transport. Moving away from fossil fuels also avoids the land destruction, habitat loss, and water pollution that accompanies activities like hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil sands production.

When it comes to climate change, we have the opportunity to stave off a substantial injustice while achieving other desirable outcomes at the same time. Hopefully, those opportunities will be seized.

Climate change and layered uncertainty

One of the trickiest things about making projections about climate change is that what it will end up being like is intertwined with the question of how a number of other important trends develop. For instance, there is the question of how long conventional reserves of coal, oil, and gas will last. Related to that is the question of whether prices of those conventional fossil fuels will increase considerably with scarcity, fall as they are eclipsed by new forms of energy, or something different. Tied to those questions is the unknown future development pathways of all the world’s major economies. Will rapid growth continue in China? If so, what implications will that have for climate and energy? What will the pace of development and deployment be for renewable energy, particularly given different potential policy approaches.

It is possible to imagine many possible global trajectories. In some, climate change impacts prove serious earlier. In others, effects only emerge later. In some, those effects are concentrated in some geographic areas. In other scenarios, different parts of the world experience the largest changes.

We will not be able to ‘wait and see’ how major trends develop, before making our choices about how to deal with climate change. Rather, we need to choose in the face of layered uncertainty. Given that inevitable situation, I would argue that the only prudent approach is to pursue a set of strategies that would prevent disastrous outcomes from occurring, regardless of which predictions prove accurate on various important questions. We cannot, for instance, simply assume that renewable energy, or nuclear energy, or some other energy source will automatically become inexpensive and widely deployed enough in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We must also be prepared for scenarios in which conventional fossil fuels become scarce more rapidly than expected, unconventional sources prove uneconomical or slow to deploy, and prices rise substantially.

Avoiding disastrous outcomes requires pursuing a resilient approach that can deal with surprises. It requires investing in numerous technologies and approaches, with the knowledge that not everything will work and the humility to recognize that we cannot know in advance which technologies will be successful and which will not be. That means driving investment and innovation in every major energy source that has the potential to serve humanity’s energy needs in a low-carbon or carbon-neutral way. This clearly includes renewables and nuclear fission. It also includes biomass for stationary power generation and biofuels for vehicles. It includes basic research into promising but speculative technologies like nuclear fusion and space-based solar power. It includes continued and expanded work on energy efficiency.

In addition to all of those things, we need to stop assuming that the world of the future will basically be like the world of today. It may not be the case that energy use will be at the same level fossil fuels have allowed us to reach, either in absolute or per-capita terms. It may not be the case that the most energy-intensive aspects of our current lifestyle will be able to continue. At the same time, there are many benefits that could be realized though the transformation of our energy systems. Fossil fuels produce large quantities of deadly air and water pollution. They also contribute to conflict and geopolitical instability.

If we succeed in moving from a world that runs on dirty, climate-altering fossil fuels to a world that operates much more efficiently using energy that largely comes from renewable sources, we will have achieved one of the most remarkable and positive transformations in the broad sweep of human history. We will also have set humanity up to endure indefinitely, without undermining the relatively stable climate that has accompanied and facilitated the emergence of human civilization. Exactly how we can do that remains unknown, but it will require us to confront layered uncertainty and develop portfolios of effective strategies that allow us to progress to that goal.

Google’s electricity use

Google’s total energy use: 260 megawatts.

That’s about a quarter of the output from a large nuclear reactor. For all they do, it doesn’t seem like all that much.

It would be cool of them to build enough renewable energy generation and storage capacity to serve their own purposes, however. It would be quite feasible, with modern wind turbines capable of generating about two megawatts each. They could use a combination of wind, concentrating solar, solar photovoltaic, geothermal, and so on. They could balance supply and demand using options like pumped hydroelectric storage, demand management, and multi-lagoon tidal systems.