This is an optimistic book about a gloomy subject - the need to reduce fossil fuel usage to fight global warming. We have technological substitutes available for oil, gas and coal now - at comparable market prices. Slowing global warming is no longer a technical problem (if it ever was). It is structural, institutional, social, and political.
Increasing efficiency on a large scale requires massive infrastructure replacement – ideally as existing infrastructure wears out. We have an opportunity to do just that, because most U.S. energy consuming infrastructure lasts fewer than thirty years; those parts with longer lifespans happen to be nearing the end of them.
We own products for the services they provide. Keeping food cold or frozen is the goal of owning a refrigerator; surrounding it with a quarter ton of metal is a side effect. Reduce materials and embedded energy in consumer goods, while they provide the same service, and we indirectly save before we make one factory more efficient.
Low impact methods for building construction include Super-Adobe - an earthquake safe, low-labor earth technique. Pumping that earth into place takes less energy than normally required for materials in conventional buildings. Other means include bamboo, straw, recovered lumber, sustainable plumbing, flooring, roofing, site grading and sustainable skyscrapers.
Green grazing, and semi-organic methods of no-till farming for row crops can eliminate nitrogen fertilizer. They can reduce use of other fertilizers, herbicides pesticides, water and heavy machinery – and farm costs too. Both cultivate glomalin in the soil – which sequesters carbon and turns agriculture from a net carbon source to a net carbon sink.
Techniques such as drip irrigation in agriculture, pigging and other dry processing methods in industry, one quart toilets and ˝ gallon per minute showers can greatly reduce water consumption. Utility companies can install neighborhood rainwater capture and greywater recycling devices – at a lower cost than expanding conventional plants.
Better computer manufacture techniques include water/chemical conservation in chip making, silk screen printing circuit boards, epoxy packaging, and LCD monitors. The Wuppertal institute developed a new more efficient means of providing refrigeration services. Computers are the newest appliance type, refrigerators the oldest. Similar savings are possible for the rest of the spectrum .
Methods to reduce packaging include substituting flexible for rigid ones, and discarding unneeded layers. In wholesale and industrial packaging we may add more extensive reuse to these, since larger reusable returnable packages save labor and shipping costs as well as packaging material. This saves the fossil fuel consumed to make packages, and shipping energy too.
Newsprint for newspapers could be replaced by advanced e-ink e-readers with higher screen resolutions than newspapers. Common sense means such as smaller margins, full duplex printers, reuse boxes could reduce home and office use. Electronic document handling and storage let offices use less paper - as opposed to mythical paperless office. Pulp mills and paper manufacturers could then reduce the impact of paper manufacture through various water and chemical conserving techniques. Fiber for paper could be provided from agriculture rather than lumber – probably kenaf. A smaller, more easily capturable paper stream, combined with longer higher quality agricultural fibers could result in a higher collection and recycling rate.
Furniture can be designed to last longer by combining sturdy, long lasting structural elements with separate replaceable visual elements. Bamboo, strawboard, hemp or bamboo fiber, and other material with lower energy and ecological impacts can further save energy by replacing much of the metal, plastic, and wood commonly used.
Increasing fiber lifespan, combined with clothing lines, such as Natura Linea (based on classic lines and color schemes) that let sturdier clothing stay in fashion longer can increase lifespans – reducing annual energy use. Fiber choices, reduction of water and chemical use in manufacturing can further save energy. Better cleaning technology lowers energy and chemical use in fabric care.
Constructing transportation infrastructure consumes energy. Ultra-light rail combined with car sharing can reduce passenger transportation infrastructure - even in suburbs. Modern containerization would let standard rail replace most long distance trucking. Telecommuting, and high speed light rail could reduce the use of short distance flights – which account for a high percentage of air slots.
Reducing pollution saves lives, but can lower energy use too. Lowering water pollution reduces pumping and heating energy, and recovers energy intensive chemicals. Reducing air pollution includes eliminating dust particles that lower operating efficiency, basic housekeeping, and fewer emergency releases that account for much air pollution and many plant stoppages.
Recycling is the final step in an essential process: provide consumer goods that last longer, and are easier to repair. Substitute material and processes with lower ecological footprints for those with larger ones to provide the same consumer services. Then do the same at the factory. Reduce pollution from such production. And then recycle the greatly reduced waste from this.
Insulation, decreased refractory thermal mass, and housekeeping improvements (such as repairing leaks) can reduce process heat energy. Efficient properly sized variable speed motors with the right mechanical and electrical interfaces can cut motor consumption, as can the “fat pipe small pump” principle. Other segments, including facility support may be reduced by various means. Specific industrial examples include the Alex-Tronix Controls solenoid which saves up to 99% of irrigation energy.
Ultra-light rail uses less energy than automobiles and buses, (and can replace most short flights). We had electric cars suitable for almost all U.S. drivers in 1997. Hypercars could serve the remainder. Heavy rail moves freight many times more energy efficiently than long haul trucking. Operational improvements could reduce air and water travel consumption, and in pipelines too.
We could construct new homes to European passive house standards. Existing homes can save less, but still substantially, by weather sealing insulating attics, floors, and ducting, and installing modest window forms of window insulation. Efficiency in appliances that use water, electricity and fuel can cut much of remaining demand.
Reflectors, high quality bulbs, and worker control of lighting to levels they prefer reduce light use. Superwindows prevent summer heat gain, winter heat loss and serve as light sources. Heat exchanging ventilators reduce climate control costs - as do operable windows. Commonsense techniques such as insulation, efficient appliances and monitoring energy use provide additional savings.
Combined efficiency measures could save ~73% per capita over thirty years. Lower demand would let sources that don’t suffer thermal combustion losses (such as wind) supply all our electricity - bringing per person savings to ~83%. We would phase in efficiency improvements at a low incremental cost as we replaced old infrastructure. As more expensive renewables supplied remaining demand, total energy costs (including efficiency improvements and new renewable sources) would remain the same.
Climate change will cause hydroelectricity from existing turbines to drop. However, we can add turbines to some current dams, and build new small hydro plants. Thus we can keep production at around today’s level, preserving one of the few fully dispatchable renewable electricity sources. Hydropower is available when we want it, not a variable source, and comparable in price to fossil fuels.
In the U.S., undeveloped potential for commercially priced geothermal electricity is a tiny percentage of total demand. It is well worth producing though, because – like hydropower – geothermal power is a fully dispatchable resource, and again comparable in price to fossil fuels.
Wind can inexpensively supply a fifth (or more) of the electricity for a grid without storage. Storing a small quantity of the output will make wind partially dispatchable at an additional cost still competitive with natural gas. Partially dispatchable wind could provide up to half the U.S. electricity supply. If storage was less costly, wind could provide more electricity than current needs.
The rest of our electricity needs to be fully dispatchable. Electricity storage is expensive. Commercial solar thermal power plants produce electricity for about twice conventional costs; concentrating mirrors produce heat to drive turbines. We can store heat more cheaply than electricity; storage to make solar thermal fully dispatchable brings total cost to around three times fossil fuel sources.
Mixing different sources could hold the cost of generating reliable renewable electricity to slightly more than fossil fuel based generation. But, such reliability requires high voltage D.C. power lines – to transmit electricity long distances, safely across grids. Delivered, high quality renewable electricity could cost about double conventional power – less than from new generation nuclear reactors.
Solar cells can currently compete where grid connection is impractical or expensive, with peak power costs in certain very limited locations, and as replacements for extremely expensive facings on some tall buildings. Without storage, they constitute a variable source (as much less expensive wind power does) for all on-grid connections; at current prices the potential is real, but tiny.
Renewable electricity sources – wind, geothermal, hydropower, and the transmission lines they require all create environmental hazards. But they are small compared to pollution, hazards, and toxic wastes from fossil fuels (plus mining and drilling), even before considering global warming consequences. There is no kilowatt fairy, no BTU bunny; everything has environmental costs.
Combined heat and power may not prove the best use for scarce biofuels in a fully renewable system, but is likely to be an excellent way reduce waste and meliorate emissions during a transition. Cogeneration may prove an economical alternative way to use hydrogen - if we ever develop inexpensive renewable electricity, but fuel cells remain expensive.
Evacuated tube collectors let solar energy provide a portion of climate control and hot water heating at prices comparable to fossil fuels, now - even in cloudy climates. With efficiency measures in place we could afford to increase that percentage; the reduced cost per Btu due to efficiency measure would make up for the higher costs per Btu from solar sources.
The concentrating mirrors that drive electrical turbines can also directly produce heat for industrial use. Industrial process heat must be produced where it is used, which eliminates cloudy climates. Most industrial demand is for heat above the temperatures commercial concentrators provide. Taking these limits into considerations still leaves a potential of about one sixth demand.
No-till and other sustainable farming methods could let us produce additional biomass for energy from waste, unused croplands, and land currently devoted to timber farms. Properly done, this need not displace wilderness, compete with food production, nor strain scare water resources. Integrated into a sustainable agricultural system it could even build soil and contribute to biodiversity.
Some studies show biomass energy consumes more fossil fuel than it displaces. Most show at least some net gain. Energy farming by organic or semi-organic no-till methods will reduce both chemical and heavy machinery use – resulting in a very high net energy output. Processing means and efficiencies also vary; energy farming produces significant net energy when done right.
After population growth and fivefold efficiency improvements, we model 2050 energy demand at 37 quads. Potential supply exceeds that by 2%. Additional possibilities as margins of error include additional renewable electricity substituting for fuel in some industrial processes, minor amounts of natural gas, and that projected renewable supplies are based on comparison to unrealistically low fossil fuel prices – such as $35/bbl oil.
We have to reach peak oil some day; those who say “soon” or “now” may be right. Improved efficiency and the renewable alternatives that would solve global warming would also phase out oil. We can’t stop contributing to the climate crisis without decreasing fossil fuel use faster than oil production will drop - just as a side effect.
Public investment can break chicken/egg deadlock problems – like solar cells, where demand is low because costs are high, and costs are high because demand is too low to support full mass production. Invest intelligently in diverse approaches; rewards from successes will outweigh total investment many times. Mix short term practical projects (such as improved catalysts) with visionary blue sky possibilities (such as skyhooks). Sometimes the low hanging fruit is as sweet as it looks. Sometimes the wild and crazy big ideas produce the best results.
We also need to adapt to the amount of warming we have locked in and cannot avoid. To compensate for clean water losses (one of the worst consequences), we need to improve desalinization technique. We should fully fund our public health system, restore wetlands, improve levees and develop our ability to mitigate, recover from epidemics, storms, floods, droughts.
The carbon lobby suggests adaptation without mitigation. Helpfully, I suggest that the primary adaptation is to make up lost agricultural production. Dome over much of the world, or live on leaves, pond scum and insects. Otherwise, research how a small labor force can dispose of many bodies quickly. I emphasize the practical difficulties of Soylent green style solutions - since the carbon lobby displays no obvious moral standards to prevent them eating human flesh.
Answers to miscellaneous objections not addressed elsewhere.
We could power the U.S., the most carbon intensive society on the planet, via carbon neutral techniques at a comparable price to today’s energy - allowing for population growth, and using existing technology. For economic growth over and above population increases, R&D potential in the field of alternate energy can more than match potential technical changes in other area.
We have described a complete physical transformation of our society – buildings, the objects we put in them, industrial and transportation infrastructure as well. Physical and social changes on this level are too big to tackle simply as an environmental problem. To win, environmentalists will have to work with other social movements as part of a coalition that seeks broad progressive change.
No one denies that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming up to the level humans need to survive. Deniers hypothesize some mysterious cut-off past that point. If they want to argue for alternative primary causes, the burden of proof is on them. It is not the responsibility of mainstream science to demolish every wild evidence-free denier speculation - although so far this has been done.
Cybertran, in addition to being a commuter transit vehicle, has a high-speed version that can compete against airplanes for flights up 500 miles. Avoiding waits for landing strips, runway, gates, and other time air travel consumes aside from the actual flight lets a 150 mph train compete in actual travel time with much faster planes.
Joseph J. Romm effectively compiles in one place data demolishing the whole idea of a "Hawthorne Effect" - the hypothesis that comfort, and physical working conditions have little affect on productivity, that productivity increases stem from perceived managerial attention. The effect has never been confirmed, and was not demonstrated in the original studies.
So called standard accounting overlooks and misallocates costs, and costs businesses money. About 25% of accounting in the U.S. is now done via Activity Based Accounting; however ABC accounting is very sensitive to what drivers are used to allocate costs; energy, water and other flow costs still tend to be assigned to labor drivers – which perpetuates the problems we have covered.
Throughout this book we have concentrated on phasing out fossil fuels. But between a quarter and a third of human caused global warming is due to other greenhouse gases and the destruction of sinks. When examined closely we will see that most of either can be controlled by actions required to control fossil fuels or fit naturally with other actions we should take.
By reducing the dirtiest fossil fuels first, while phasing in efficiency improvements we can lower greenhouse emissions by more than half in first ten years, and by more than 80% within twenty. Fortunately wind and efficiency can completely replace coal for electrical generation early on, and transportation can be off oil within twenty years.
Housekeeping – no real point in summarizing.