There Are Solutions to Climate Change

Posted by: John Carey on October 5, 2007

When it comes to climate change, many people have moved quickly from denial to despair. This isn’t a new observation, by any means, but I’m struck by how, even as opposition fades to the idea that humanity is warming the globe, the opponents of taking action are falling back on the argument that the technology simply doesn’t exist to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One recent example is what Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in a recent column: “But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: we simply don’t have a solution for this problem.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20226462/site/newsweek/page/0/

Samuelson clearly isn’t watching the same flowering of innovation that I am seeing.

I tend to be a pessimist and cynic by nature. But one of the remarkable things about America is its entrepreneurial inventiveness—and its ability to turn smart ideas into new technologies and industries. One prime example is the rebirth of a Big Solar industry. In contrast to the more common solar panels, Big Solar uses mirrors in the desert to heat water to make steam—and potentially, thousands of megawatts of power. The surprising twist is that these power plants will soon be as cheap as a new coal plant, and cheaper than a nuclear plant. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_42/b4054053.htm

But that’s only part of the larger story. I had a visit recently from Gregory Kats, managing director at Good Energies Inc, which invests in cleaner, more efficient energy. Kats points out that there are “enormous untapped opportunities” to use less energy and cut global warming causing emissions. Take buildings. Buildings now use 75-80% of all U.S. electricity—and 35-40% of the total energy in the country. Kats sees a host of technologies that could cut that electricity use by up to 70%. One example: electro-chromatic glass that can switch from letting heat in to keeping it out. http://www.sage-ec.com/

Another technology is the ice-storage air conditioner. Think about air conditioning and electricity demand for a moment. People crank up their air conditioners on hot afternoons, creating a huge spike in demand. To meet that demand, utilities have to fire up gas or even diesel-fired power plants. That power is really expensive, and can create a lot of emissions. If Big Solar takes off, acres and acres of mirrors could supply that demand. But until then, renewable power can’t help much. That’s because the wind typically dies during the hot afternoons.

So the idea is to shift some of the demand to times when people now use little electricity—at night. An ice-storage air conditioner uses cheap nighttime electricity to make ice, then uses the ice to cool the air during the hot afternoons. There is a small (about 5%) loss of efficiency in adding ice to the cycle. But that’s more than offset by the efficiency gain from running the air conditioner during the night, which is cooler. Plus, nighttime electricity is generated more efficiently than peaking power. “Put it together and there’s a 35% reduction in carbon dioxide from this,” explains Kats. See more details at: www.ice-energy.com.

These are just a few of the hundreds of ideas. A smarter electricity grid saves millions of dollars and thousands of megawatts of power. Technological advances are coming fast in the solar panels that convert sunlight directly to electricity, making it possible to envision houses and office buildings festooned with rooftop panels making their own power – and feeding into the grid. Plug-in hybrid cars can charge up with cheaper, more efficient nighttime electricity—and also feed back power into the grid during the day to meet demand, reducing the need for expensive peaking power.

Even without mandatory carbon emissions limits or other incentives to use less carbon, American ingenuity is blooming. The pessimists who say that there are no solutions to climate change or U.S. energy dependence are just wrong.

Reader Comments

J A Ginsburg

October 6, 2007 7:45 AM

We need a energy policies (national, local and global) that embrace the mix: There is no one answer to solving global warming. There are many. Large scale solar is great, but it's still the central power paradigm that requires major upfront investment and an extensive grid to distribute. So Yes to large scale solar and wind. And Yes as well to distributed generation that creates a two way "smart" grid, reducing vulnerability (a big homeland security plus).

Yes as well to - as Amory Lovins puts it - "negawatts": energy saved through conservation. This isn't about setting the thermostat to just-above-freezing in winter. It's about better insulation, capturing and utilizing "waste" heat, designing energy-miser lighting systems and windows. It's about savings to the consumer, investment opportunties and lots and lots and lots of jobs. (And did I mention homeland security?)

Yes, too, to electric cars. And Yes to cheap parking lots near commuter rail and more commuter rail, both intra and inter-city. Having to drive less reduces GHG emissions and the savings, by every definition, are immediate. You don't have to buy a new car to do better.

Big yes for ittty bitty micro fuel cells the size of credit cards, capable of powering a laptop for dozens of hours (on the horizon...). Imagine if you could buy lighting that could either plug into the wall or be powered by a little replaceable fuel cell. That would take a load off the grid...

Yes to hydrogen fuel cells, too. Especially if the hydrogen could be produced using, say, wind power. An "intermittent" power source would become a storable and ship-able one.

Newsweek's Samuelson writes:
"...In the United States, it would take massive regulations, higher energy taxes or both. Democracies don't easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems. Examples abound. Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, we've been on notice to limit dependence on insecure foreign oil. We've done little..."

"We" (the people) have *wanted* to do a lot. But our democracy has been subverted by a special-interest-ocracy. It is hard to compete against subsidies that lock us into dreadful policies for years to come, whether for ethanol (considering only tail pipe CO2 emissions -- nevermind all the carbon inputs in production and distribution -- ethanol generates just 4% less CO2 than gasolline per energy-equivalent of a gallon of gas, according to data from Argonne Lab) or the Bush administration's recent pitch for a public fund to build nuclear power plants in developing countries in an effort to curb global warming (!).

If ever there were an issue desperate for leadership, it's energy policy. I would love to hear the presidential candidates define an energy policy that embraces a mix of technologies and provides a clear set of metrics by which to evaluate them: GHG-reduction / environmental impact, consumer-savings, business-savings (if a business spends less on power, they have more to invest elsewhere; savings also improve competitiveness), jobs, and, yes, homeland security.

And now that we've solved Power, let's talk about Water...

- Janet (http://www.germtales.com)

Kevin (www.sarasvatiproject.com)

October 23, 2007 8:35 AM

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Had the United States developed a sound energy policy when the first gas lines formed in the 70's we would be living in a much different world today. It didn't so we have what we have. On the other hand, had a cleaner, cost effective replacement fuel for petroleum been developed and made widely available the economy would have surely collapsed and that would have been far too painful to have been allowed.

Necessity, however, is the mother of invention and innovation. Yes, solar, wind and other renewable energies are cost intensive in the early stages of development as was every other life changing development such as the automobile and even electricity generation itself. Who could have known the effects those two industries would have had on the environment today, a hundred years ago? It is what it is and now the mindset is on how to resolve the issue in a way the neither collapses the economy, our lungs or makes Arizona beach front real estate.

Among the many efforts proposed and being developed to address the most pressing issues of our time, one has the ability to do so on a number of different fronts. Yes, it's cost intensive yet the benefits far outweigh the initial cost and sets the stage for a long term resolution without collapsing the economy.

The Sarasvati Project lays the groundwork for a new paradigm in sustainable development for a great many people in the world with a multi-disciplined approach which incorporates new technology and innovative uses of existing technologies. It even addresses Janet's concerns about water, not for all but for some. (www.sarasvatiproject.com)

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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