Saturday, October 29, 2011

An important article

Jane C Long, of the Lawrence Livermore Lab, has published a column summarizing a very important new analysis of energy approaches in Nature.

The analysis itself is also available online.

The upshot: There needs to be a 50-year strategic energy policy, not a piecemeal approach. There are important considerations that result from interaction between green power sources during the roll-out or deployment period.

Those of us in the energy education business now need to absorb this, and think about it, and teach something a little different.

Importantly, the interactive effects are different for different regions. So, because California has little coal-powered electricity, each unit deployment of wind power may add some emissions from a corresponding unit deployment of base load natural gas. In a mid-western state, the natural gas would naturally reduce emissions, from the coal fired plants that currently provide the base load.

I think the difficulty that results from this is that the result is a negation of the carbon tax and/or cap and trade approaches. Those are essentially Coasian economic approaches that allow free reign in terms of technology. What this report is telling us is that there are important coordination issues between technologies in any green energy roll-out strategy. Since free market economics is essentially technology-neutral, we got ourselves a problem, Houston.

Arguably, free-but-Coasian energy markets can take care of this problem too, if investors and planners have enough knowledge of future carbon penalties. Capital depreciation is an important consideration. Wind turbines are good for 20-25 years before a major refurbishment is called for, not the forty or fifty years of this analysis. They might be deployed in one region for 25 years, then taken down, refurbished and redeployed elsewhere, an efficiency even within the confines of the strategic vision outlined by this plan.

Since it remains to be seen whether or not the US will opt for any carbon reduction mechanism, all of this is speculative. It's only in states like California that are ahead of the game, where problems like this are being worked out, that this is even a reasonable kind of thinking at this point. The rest of us need to think as much about adaptation as mitigation, especially those of us that teach.

I'd give us a fifty-fifty chance of figuring it all out in time.

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