Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Are We Living a False Reality? Bill McKibben Writes Big Fossil's Obituary.

Canadians, especially western Canadians, still see our country as a petro-state rich in oil and gas. Bill McKibben, of 350.org, says technology has already put that dream to rest. If he's right, we're in for an economic shock of seismic proportions.

Alternative energy technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years and, while it wasn't part of our national conversation during the Heavy-Oil Harper era, the rest of the world was paying attention.

I was somewhat surprised, pleasantly so, when in August, 2014 the world's largest private bank, UBS, wrote to institutional investor clients advising them to get out of conventional power generation utilities. The bank's experts concluded that it would soon "be cheaper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy to power their cars and store surplus energy in their own buildings - even without subsidies." On the heels of the UBS report, Tesla unveiled its breakthrough home power storage system, the PowerWall. This was the indispensible missing link in making the bank's projections reality.

Writing in Foreign Policy, McKibben summarizes what's been going on with the developments in technology and why it may buy mankind, indeed all life on Earth, some critical extra time, which we're going to need more than most of us imagine.

"The action happened not in Paris, but in the streets and in engineering labs over the last half-decade and has changed the equation markedly since the failed talks at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. Those talks weren’t just a failure, they were a fiasco — the world’s leaders came together and then came apart, with bizarre and frantic improvised meetings that produced a one-page memorandum with no targets or timetables. No nothing, except a vague pledge to keep the planet’s warming below 2 degrees Celsius. It made Munich look like a diplomatic masterstroke.

"Paris will go better. Not well enough to save the planet, but maybe just well enough to save our chances of saving the planet. Here’s why.

"First, engineers have upped their game. It’s been remarkable to watch the sudden acceleration of renewable technology in the last five years. We aren’t talking technical breakthroughs — we’re talking quantum improvements in manufacturing and installation: Germany’s smart decision to lead the renewables revolution led to Chinese manufacturers learning how to make cheap panels, which in turn led to tomorrow’s hoped-for technology becoming today’s no-brainer. The price of a solar panel has dropped over 80 percent since 2008. That’s the key destabilizing economic fact of our moment.

"And it means that much is possible we couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago. Developing countries are suddenly starting to leapfrog the fossil fuel age or at least demonstrate it can be done. Bangladesh — Henry Kissinger’s original “basket case” of a developing country — will be the planet’s first fully solarized nation by 2020 or so. Its well-developed micro-credit networks are now funding 60,000 or 70,000 rooftop solar arrays a month, spreading electricity to places where a hundred years of fossil fuel could never reach. In Rwanda, a single newly inaugurated solar farm boosted Rwanda’s grid capacity by 6 percent — and it was designed, built, and connected in a single year. In India, solar power plants beat coal-fired stations for new contracts — they’re cheaper, even if you don’t include all the externalized costs of fossil fuel (which in, say, Delhi include irreversible lung damage for half the city’s children)."

"...the promises laid out in advance by various nations already tell us what the scoreboard will read come Dec. 11, though some details remain to be hashed out. Instead of a world that will become 5 degrees warmer — our post-Copenhagen trajectory — we’ll come out of Paris with promises from individual nations that, when you add them up, would warm the planet 3.5 degrees if they were kept.

"That’s historic, that’s remarkable — and that’s also a disaster. A world that warms 3.5 degrees would not be a world with civilizations that resemble ours. In fact, even the longtime negotiating goal of 2 degrees (the only thing that participants in Copenhagen actually agreed on) is clearly too high. We’ve heated the planet 1 degree so far since the industrial age began, and the U.N. said in November that that has produced a world where 4.1 billion people have been affected by extreme weather disasters over the last 20 years. So far this fall we’ve seen the highest wind speeds and the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in a storm in the Western Hemisphere. We’ve seen two rare cyclones plow into Yemen — and they came a week apart, dropping the normal equivalent of 10 years of rain in a few hours. We’ve seen — well, I could go on. The point is, 1 degree has been enough to melt most of the summer sea ice in the Arctic, fundamentally destabilize the Antarctic ice sheets, and make the oceans 30 percent more acidic. And we’re hoping for 2 degrees? And aiming for 3.5?"

"...After Copenhagen, the scoreboard read: Fossil Fuel Industry, 50; Planet and Physics, 0. Call that halftime.

"After Paris, the score will be more like 60-30. Reality is beginning to catch up, but it’s not halftime anymore. We hope it’s the end of the third quarter, but there’s reason to believe it’s actually much later in the game. 2015 looks set to be the hottest year ever recorded and October the hottest month we’ve ever measured — indeed it smashed the old record by such large margins that nervous climatologists called it “stunning,” “shocking,” and potentially the start of a new, even more dangerous, phase for the planet’s temperature.

"So that’s Paris. We won’t win the climate fight; we won’t even come close. But at least we’ll know the score — and we’ll know how much we have to do in the next few crucial years."

McKibben offers us a pretty grim, sober assessment of how much and how little we can expect from the Paris climate summit. Reminds me of Churchill's line: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning."

There's no chance we're getting out of this unscathed much less unchanged.  Our readiness to accept, if not actually embrace change will determine how harsh the future will be for our kids and grandchildren. The sooner we act, the more effectively we act, the better it will be for them.


Toby said...

Mound, just to cheer you up, many years ago I attended a lecture on Global Warming at the Vancouver Planetarium. While the talk centered around various pollutants and carbon dioxide in ended with the caution that the ultimate cause of GW may be heat. Yes, simple heat from all of us humans going about our daily routines adds up.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this is the same old utility engineer who pointed out Toby's gross misunderstanding of electric car efficiency.

"Tesla unveiled its breakthrough home power storage system, the PowerWall. This was the indispensible missing link in making the bank's projections reality."

How so?

You have drunk the Kool-Aid of a razzmatazz self-promoter, one Elon Musk. Such backup battery systems have been available for decades. This one is merely physically smaller due to Li-on cells and has been placed in a handsome styled box. There are, however, rules for how you attach these things to the electrical system, for solid safety reasons, e,g. not electrocuting linemen trying to repair a supposedly dead powerline.

The Tesla Home Battery has a storage capacity of 3.3 kWh. Now check your utility bill and see how much you used last month. A good average per single-family dwelling would be 600kWh a month. So you have battery backup for 1/200th of a month in the event of an outage, less in winter. Frankly, do what we do round here, buy a Honda generator and be sure. Death from freezing is not pleasant during a prolonged outage.

Look, I'm solidly in favour of reducing our GHG, but breathless prose on a not very innovative battery setup, getting it all wrong on efficiency, etc. is not the way forward. It betrays a solid non-understanding of the way things (actual engineering objects) work.

Solar panels seem like a much better bet to work in parallel with the grid. Now pray it never snows on your roof and curtails the solar cells' output. And then pray that the terrible quality of the cheap Chinese panels improves because the EU has been suing their manufacturers. Be mindful of their actual longevity and need for replacement.

Can we be practical about all this? Read up and really understand before proselytizing? Google is there with a pretty good search engine. You just have to use some commonsense in evaluating claims instead of believing anything that supports your deepest hope, because that's highly unlikely to be true. And the con artists are always there to assure you you're making a wise choice and grand investment in your future.

The Mound of Sound said...

Are you sure that's not 3.3 kw/hour, not 3.3kWh per month?

I accept that you're a utility engineer but I find the report of the world's largest private bank, UBS, a little more persuasive. Sorry.