Breaking the Ice on U.S. Clean Energy Opportunities

On Friday, March 12, we held a briefing on jobs and opportunities in clean energy markets.

Today, the President signed an Executive Order creating an Export Promotion Cabinet of top officials and an Export Promotion Council, a private-sector advisory body. This Executive Order serves to highlight once again how important American exports and competitiveness are to economic recovery and continued US economic strength.  While much hand-wringing has occurred over the potential for climate and energy policy to hurt the ability of U.S. firms to compete in international markets, the opportunity of such policy to enhance the competitiveness of U.S. businesses has received less notice. The irony is that even as the planet warms, the United States may be left standing out in the cold if it doesn’t choose to lead in the development of next-generation energy technologies.

As Simple as it Can Be

One of the major criticisms of cap and trade in general (and of some of the leading bills in Congress in particular) is that it’s too complicated.  In fact, of the things one can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, cap and trade is not only the most effective and cost-effective, it is also relatively simple.  Cap and trade simply means that the government sets an overall limit on greenhouse gas emissions, issues tradable allowances (permits to emit), and allows emitters the flexibility to decide how to reduce their emissions and whether to buy or sell these allowances.  Since greenhouse gases are emitted from thousands of different activities throughout the economy, setting up specific command-and-control regulations for each emitter would be extremely complicated, if not impossible.   As we learned from our experience with reducing acid rain, cap and trade programs are much easier to implement.  Some people assert that a carbon tax would be simpler, but they obviously don’t fill out tax forms and haven’t been lucky enough to pore over the thousands of pages of the U.S. tax code.  

Hearing on DOE R&D budget request

Research and development (R&D) is an essential component of any climate change policy, in that new technologies are needed to cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. And so in this vein, we were very interested to see Energy Secretary Steven Chu defend DOE’s increased R&D funding request for Fiscal Year 2011. Much like his “Daily Show” appearance last year, Chu proved that he has the pizzazz to match his Nobel Prize... Of particular note during his testimony for the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee was the discussion of energy innovation hubs and how Yucca Mountain would affect nuclear expansion.

The issue of innovation was a prominent topic of discussion during the hearing, with the Secretary outlining several new Administration priorities. Chu explained how developing innovative sources of clean energy will allow us to develop new technologies and new industries, creating domestic jobs that can’t be outsourced. To help get the ball rolling, Chu wants to see the creation of three energy innovation hubs modeled after Bell Labs and MIT Radiation Labs that developed radar, and the Manhattan Project. The hubs will combine scientists and engineers to advance highly promising areas of energy science and engineering from the early stages of R&D all the way to commercial viability. Complementary to these hubs, Energy Frontier Research Centers would be university-based and link small groups of energy and basic science researchers across the country to develop new materials and technologies. And finally, Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy (ARPA-E), modeled generally on DARPA which brought us the wonders of the internet, would finance high-payoff, high-risk projects to help push for the development of new energy technologies that could radically alter how we get energy.

The most controversial topic at this hearing was the future role of nuclear power. We’ve blogged before about nuclear power and the significant role it’s projected to play in decarbonizing the U.S. electricity sector. (For an overview of nuclear, check out our Climate TechBook brief on Nuclear Power.) Committee members from both sides of the aisle peppered Secretary Chu with questions about the Administration’s position on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. Chu reiterated that the withdrawal of Yucca Mountain would have no impact on the Administration’s plan to expand nuclear power. He argued that Dry cask storage can provide safe on-site storage for decades after long-lived nuclear power plants are retired, so we have time to find long-term solutions for dealing with spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

For the long-term, Secretary Chu is interested in better options for the storage, processing, and disposal of spent nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. As we posted before, a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is to provide recommendations for a safe, long-term solution for used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. Secretary Chu is interested in what the Commission recommends. According to the Secretary, we know more now than we did when the Nuclear Waste Policy Act was passed and Yucca Mountain was selected as the site for disposal.

Secretary Chu noted that Yucca Mountain was designed to store waste materials for 10,000 years, though it may not be able to do that. Depending on future weather patterns and the levels of precipitation, Yucca Mountain may not be an ideal option. Increased rainfall would increase the likelihood of water reaching the waste materials via fissures, which could then contaminate the surrounding environment. Secretary Chu noted that salt domes, a different type of geological formation than Yucca Mountain, have been radioactively dated to be around 10 million years old, and would create a “seal” around the nuclear waste so they could make for suitable long-term storage of nuclear waste that we don’t ever want to access again. Presumably, the Blue Ribbon Commission will provide useful insights into this and other issues.

Based on Wednesday’s hearing, innovation and nuclear power are going to be a key component of the DOE’s R&D budget this year. As we frequently note on this blog, achieving large-scale reductions in U.S. and global GHG emissions can be done at the lowest cost by exploiting a portfolio of commercially available and emerging technologies.

Climate Change: "Unequivocal"

The following first appeared as a "Letter to the Editor" in today's Washington Post.

In his Feb. 21 op-ed column, "Global warming advocates ignore the boulders," George F. Will concluded, incorrectly, that the Earth isn't warming. Mr. Will referred to climate scientist Phil Jones, who said that the planet did warm from 1995 to 2009 but not "at the 95 percent significance level." But Mr. Jones also cautioned that 15 years is too short to expect statistical significance. That is why climate norms -- such as the "normal" daily temperatures that forecasters show on the local news -- are 30-year averages. The Post's readers might be interested to know, therefore, that the global warming trend from 1980 to 2009 -- a little over 1 degree Fahrenheit -- is statistically significant at the 99.9999 percent level.

Climate scientists have always stated clearly that it takes decades to detect a change in the climate, so why focus on just the last 15 years?

From its own reading of the peer-reviewed literature, the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "It is unequivocal that the climate is changing, and it is very likely that this is predominantly caused by the increasing human interference with the atmosphere. These changes will transform the environmental conditions on Earth unless counter-measures are taken."

Separating IPCC from Climate Science

This week, the National Journal Experts Blog asks: Can a U.N. probe calm the climate science storm?

In considering what should be done in light of recent revelations about aspects of the IPCC report, it is critical to distinguish between two different issues.  One has to do with the IPCC itself.  And yes, it is clear that here reforms are in order. The IPCC needs to clarify what sources can be cited in its reports, that all sources are properly verified, and that these guidelines are enforced.  Because of the important role the IPCC report plays in international discussions, the standard for accuracy and reliability of everything it issues must be very high. The independent review announced by UNEP and a transparent discussion about these issues at the next IPCC plenary is a necessary and welcome step.

The second issue relates to our basic understanding of climate science.  Here I think the answer is equally clear.  None of what we have recently heard or read changes the basic scientific consensus that human activities have increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that these greenhouse gases have raised temperatures (and the more we put into the atmosphere, the more temperatures will increase), that sea level has risen and ice cover declined as a result, and that unless we act now to slow future emissions, we should expect these changes to get worse over time.

The body of scientific evidence behind these concerns has developed and grown over decades of research.  It is reflected in assessments by the National Academy of Sciences going as far back as the 1970s.  And it is reflected in the IPCC’s physical science assessment, which remains above reproach three years after its release.