Filed under: alt-future, California, climate change, futurism, livable future | Tags: California, climate change, Mark Jacobson
Wow, the last three weeks were not fun, but that’s not what this entry is about. I’m back, and regular entries are resuming until the next little crisis kicks up.
Don’t worry, nobody died. I just spent three weeks reading an environmental impact report (EIR), or rather, an EIR-shaped document, that was apparently designed to give carte blanche for CALFIRE to use hundreds of millions of dollars to do stuff in the name of fire protection, to give them a bureaucratic cloaking field so that they could avoid the consequences, and to do all this before they’d even figured out what they wanted to do. It would be a great program (I mean, don’t you want to believe the nice authoritarian white males who tells you that you must trust them to be safe, and not to think about all that stupid environmental stuff?)–except that there’s increasing science that says that most of what they want to do won’t actually make anyone safer.
Anyway, I was part of a group responding to it, and it took three weeks to read hundreds of pages of document (it was actually thousands of pages too short, considering they want to treat about one-quarter of the state), and writing our responses. It’s one of the rare documents I’ve read where I had to stop reading after a few hours, because my stomach hurt so badly that I couldn’t stand to continue that day. A bunch of us felt that way. Lovecraft’s quote from “The Dunwich Horror,” “As a foulness shall ye know Them,” kept echoing in the fevered recesses of my cringing brain. That, incidentally, is why I’m not linking to the EIR. If you want to feel our pain, I’ll put a link in the comments.
But that’s the last three weeks, and enough of that for the moment. Onto something completely different: a deeply decarbonized California.
Before I go on a short spurt of summer optimism, let me assure you that I haven’t abandoned all pessimism. At this point I’m trying to get a sense for what will hit California in the coming decades. Over the last few months I’ve written about the High Altithermal version, where California rewilds itself in a fairly chaotic fashion under extreme climate change. That’s one future, but it’s a long term one. Another potential future is that we somehow, against all human nature, manage to get to 100% renewable energy by 2050 or sooner. That’s the future California I’m going to start exploring heree I think it’s a lot weirder than we realize.
With that way-too-long introduction, onto California’s electric future.
“The main barriers to getting to 100 percent clean energy are social and political, not technical or economic.” That’s what Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson told some members of Congress last November, and I tend to think he’s right: getting off fossil fuels appears technically feasible, as I’ll show below. At this point, our problem with fossil fuels appears to be social, cultural, and political. Still, what we’re talking about a 30 year-long transformation of current civilization that’s on the scale of, well, what we’ve done to California over the last 50 years or so. The pundits consider that kind of change so radical as to be politically infeasible. You be the judge.
Dr. Jacobson put out a website, http://thesolutionsproject.org/, that shows how all 50 states can individually get all their energy from wind, water, and solar power. He believes that California could get all its power for transportation, electricity, heating and cooling, and industry, from the following combination:
- Residential rooftop photovoltaic solar (PV) 7.5%
- Solar PV plants 26.5%
- Concentrated solar thermal power plants 15%
- Onshore wind 25%
- Offshore wind 10%
- Commercial and government rooftop PV 5.5%
- Wave devices 0.5%
- Geothermal 5%
- Hydroelectric 4.5%
- Tidal turbines 0.5%
Jacobson also assumes, among other things, that we will need 44 percent less energy, due to the increased efficiency of using electricity and not losing energy through burning stuff.
In comparison, here’s what California used in 2014:
- Coal 6.40%
- Large Hydroelectric 5.50%
- Small Hydroelectric 0.90%
- Natural Gas 44.50%
- Nuclear 8.50%
- Oil 0.00%
- Biomass 2.50%
- Geothermal 4.40%
- Solar 4.20%
- Wind 8.10%
- Unspecified Sources of Power 15.00%
One more table. To compare the two, I lumped the appropriate categories and did some math. My basic formula was, using Jacobson’s percent (J)and the 2014 California mix percent (C): (0.56J-C)/C. The point of the 0.56 is that Jacobson assumes we’ll get by with 44 percent less total energy due to the efficiencies of not burning anything. Here’s how California’s energy budget would change to go total Jacobson:
Adjusted Proportional Difference between Jacobson and 2014
- Coal -100%
- Hydroelectric (all) -61%
- Natural Gas -100%
- Nuclear -100%
- Oil 0%
- Biomass -100%
- Geothermal -36%
- Solar (total) 627%
- Wind (total) 142%
- Wave and Tidal N/A (grows from zero to one percent)
- Unspecified Sources of Power -100%
That’s not so scary, is it? Why would anyone think this would be infeasible? Let’s look a little deeper.
The first thing is that everything will run on electricity, from kitchen stoves to long distance transport. You might think that natural gas bakes better cakes and browns meat better, but you’re burning largely methane. You know, the stuff that leaked out of Porter Ranch? The gas that’s a worse greenhouse gas than CO2? Sorry. In a deeply decarbonized future you’re going to be stuck sauteing on an electric stove and grumbling the entire time, and stuff just won’t bake right until you adjust your recipes.
Still, electrifying a home isn’t that hard, so why complain? Slap a rack of solar panels on the roof, screw a bunch of storage batteries to the garage wall, and you’re set, right? Not really, but that’s the easy stuff. It’s harder for an apartment building to go solar, even if the landlord is cool with becoming the power supplier for all her tenants. Cars can go electric, but what about trucks, buses, bulldozers, even the 4WD vehicles all those field botanists need to survey all those sites for new solar plants? What about road trips into the mountains? How do you recharge while you’re camping? All these systems still need to be developed. Jacobson’s website has a timetable for how these new inventions are supposed to roll out up to 2050 (along with a lot of other calculations I’m ignoring for now–check out his websites if you’re trying to understand my overly simplistic summary).
It will be a weird future: I don’t know what will replace jets, military equipment, heavy construction equipment, or any of the other huge gas guzzlers. Will cargo ships sport kite sails and huge decks of solar panels? Will giant wind turbines sprout from every former oil rig? Will we see zeppelins flying the rich around while the rest of us ride the train, and botanists survey the desert on muleback? A lot needs to be invented really soon.
On the environmental side, we’re talking about a 6-fold growth in solar, from less than 1/20th today’s energy mix to over half of the smaller energy mix in Jacobson’s proposed future. While I’m not that concerned about the growth rate (solar doubled last year, as I understand it), I am very worried about where we’re going to put all those panels and solar thermal plants. According to some of the data he posted, he’s thinking of over 2,794 km² of total solar plant area 0.6% of the state, of which about 1,159 km² were for photovoltaic and the rest for solar thermal plants, 330 of them. This is something the California Native Plant Society has dealt with for years, trying to get solar developers–the honest ones at least–to put their big solar farms on degraded farmland and similar brown fields, rather than on wilderness, as at Ivanpah. Ivanpah, you may remember, is a 16km² solar thermal plant that’s had a lot of problems, from frying birds and itself to not sending out the electricity its contracted to send. Building all that solar is a hard problem, made worse by the fact that many of my fellow CNPSers rightly think that huge solar plants are a blight on the landscape (as are wind farms), and don’t want any of them built where they can see them. This kind of short-sighted NIMBYism is another problem. It’s not that I don’t sympathize, it’s that we’re stuck picking among least bad options, as the status quo is unsustainable. Are solar panels as far as the eye can see preferable to severe climate change? That’s the choice we’re asked to make, except that solar panels are immediate and visible, while climate change takes centuries.
Shall we talk about where to put the 31,495 wind turbines? That’s 24,922 onshore, the rest offshore. Actually, this isn’t so bad, as there are already 13,000 wind turbines in California, mostly in Tehachapi, San Gorgonio and Altamont Pass. Wind turbines take a big toll on bats and birds, but (probably) we won’t have to turn every windy ridge into a animal shredder.
So that’s just a first look at the power structure. What about everything else? Of course, newer homes will have to built to hold solar panels, so a new building casting shade on its neighbor could cause a lawsuit, rather than grumbling. This will affect urban design, since we may well have to accommodate different kinds of vehicles and heavy equipment. There will be a push to make cities more walkable and bikable, which may well make them even more expensive than they are now. Conversely, some of those old, dead 1950s gas stations in small towns all over California might get rebuilt as battery exchange stations, revitalizing the businesses around them. Little towns like Mariposa and Lone Pine might suddenly require huge power infrastructure, as tourists going into Yosemite and Death Valley require a charge before they head for the park. Or are we going to put giant recharging stations in our parks?
But that’s just what happens if we follow Jacobson’s plan, and simultaneously decarbonize and electrify California. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to be the only thing going on. California’s future is more likely to a mosaic of multiple futures smashed together and fused. These other futures include:
- Continued CO2 and equivalent emissions, due to business as usual, as defended by the petrochemical industrial complex, one of the biggest industries on the planet.
- Various and sundry earthquakes and megastorms. As I noted in the California in the High Altithermal series, when these hit is as important as where, but they add huge random unknowns to California’s future
- Surface water decline, groundwater depletion, and water politics. This is the land of the Cadillac Desert, after all, and within a few decades, we’re pretty much going to run out of groundwater, lose a lot of agriculture, and depend increasingly on runoff as our snowpack gets smaller every year. Did you know that at Donner Pass, more precipitation has fallen as rain than as snow for the last three years? I found that out last Saturday. If water gets too short, I predict mass emigration in coming decades, even if Oregon builds a border wall to keep us weedbacks in our place.
- Politics, which we can’t escape. For example, there appear to be moves afoot to institutionalize pay to play schemes in development, where developers buy “mitigation credits” (whatever those are) instead of actually mitigating for the damage they cause. And there’s water politics. And gas politics. And environmental politics. And consumer politics. And NIMBYism. ad nauseum infinitum. Too bad Mark Twain isn’t around, because he’d have a field day with us now.
All of these possible futures will collide, and the resulting mosaic of twisted and broken ambitions will be the future of California. I’ll deal with the other futures in coming posts.
What did I miss?
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