Sputnik and China: US Response to Tech Rivalry

Sputnik, science, r&d


Back in April, I outlined President Biden’s new American Job Plan. Granted, the $2.3 trillion plan was more of a wish list than a proposal; given the 50-50 split in the Senate and the narrow majority in the House, it has no chance of being approved. However, the proposal was important in how it outlined the priorities of the new administration. In that blog, I photo-coded the sections that I consider to be climate change-related, whose budget totaled $1.35 trillion. Below are the two key paragraphs from that blog:

In Tables 1-3, I have highlighted the entries that can be associated with climate change, and which I will speak to specifically in future blogs. Of course, the whole effort addresses a multitude of overlapping issues; none of the items can be exclusively associated with one of the entries of my earlier Venn diagram. Rounding up from the sum of the estimated costs for all of the entries, we come to $1.9 trillion. With the addition of the $400 billion for in-home care, we reach the plan’s quoted $2.3 trillion. The sum of the highlighted, climate-related items comes to $1.35 trillion, 70% of the total cost.

At this stage, the plan is a proposal, not a legislative commitment. In this sense, it is similar to the Paris Agreement (great intentions but little enforcement/implementation power). Right now, the size and the scope of the plan make it vulnerable to cherry-picking by both supporters and opponents. Serious questions remain in terms of timing (the plan is supposed to take the rest of the decade) and payment (suggested distribution over the next 15 years). The soonest, most important commitment in terms of timing is the promise of carbon-free electric power delivery by 2035.

The next logical step was to wait for this wish list to be parceled into smaller, more manageable sections—a strategy that would give each piece a much better chance of passing through into law. About a week ago, we saw the first significant progress in this process with the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021:

Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Bill to Bolster Competitiveness With China
The wide margin of support reflected a sense of urgency among lawmakers in both parties about shoring up the technological and industrial capacity of the United States to counter Beijing.

WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation on Tuesday that would pour nearly a quarter-trillion dollars over the next five years into scientific research and development to bolster competitiveness against China.

The measure, the core of which was a collaboration between Mr. Schumer and Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, would prop up semiconductor makers by providing $52 billion in emergency subsidies with few restrictions. That subsidy program will send a lifeline to the industry during a global chip shortage that shut auto plants and rippled through the global supply chain.

The bill would sink hundreds of billions more into scientific research and development pipelines in the United States, create grants and foster agreements between private companies and research universities to encourage breakthroughs in new technology.

This has not passed into law yet. The proposed law still has to be approved by the House with a simple majority. I sincerely hope that the House does not erect obstacles to this happening and that the president signs it.

As we see in the NYT piece above, the legislation’s success in the Senate was largely a result of its being framed as a measure to protect the country’s security and industry from China’s success. I thought back to 1957. The Soviet Union managed to launch Sputnik, the first satellite, into space as I was finishing high school in Israel. The US Senate reacted with new legislation, which was presented similarly:

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the people of the United States by successfully launching the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik. During the Cold War, Americans until that moment had felt protected by their technological superiority. Suddenly the nation found itself lagging behind the Russians in the Space Race, and Americans worried that their educational system was not producing enough scientists and engineers. Sometimes, however, a shock to the system can open political opportunities.

On the day Sputnik first orbited the earth, the chief clerk of the Senate’s Education and Labor Committee, Stewart McClure, sent a memo to his chairman, Alabama Democrat Lister Hill, reminding him that during the last three Congresses the Senate had passed legislation for federal funding of education, but that all of those bills had died in the House. Perhaps if they called the education bill a defense bill they might get it enacted. Senator Hill—a former Democratic whip and a savvy legislative tactician—seized upon on the idea, which led to the National Defense Education Act.

There had been strong resistance to federal aid to education, but as public opinion demanded government action in the wake of Sputnik, the Senate once again moved ahead with its education bill. Knowing that opponents in the House remained resistant, Senator Hill conferred with another Alabama Democrat, Representative Carl Elliott, who chaired the House subcommittee on education. Meeting in Montgomery, they devised a strategy for getting the NDEA enacted. They framed the debate around the question of whether federal funds should go to students as grants, as the Senate preferred, or as loans. Opponents in the House denounced the notion of grants as “socialist.” When the House prevailed on loans, the rest of the Senate’s version of the bill swooped through to passage. In fact, the grants versus loans debate had been a ploy. Senator Hill and Representative Elliott realized that having voted the same bill down repeatedly in the past, the House had to have something on which it could win.

The National Defense Education Act of 1958 became one of the most successful legislative initiatives in higher education. It established the legitimacy of federal funding of higher education and made substantial funds available for low-cost student loans, boosting public and private colleges and universities. Although aimed primarily at education in science, mathematics, and foreign languages, the act also helped expand college libraries and other services for all students. The funding began in 1958 and was increased over the next several years. The results were conspicuous: in 1960 there were 3.6 million students in college, and by 1970 there were 7.5 million. Many of them got their college education only because of the availability of NDEA loans, thanks to Sputnik and to Senator Hill’s readiness to seize the moment.

The 2021 Innovation and Competition Act has the potential to have a similarly strong impact on both education and research and development (R&D), globallye. Once the bill passes into law, I will elaborate on these possibilities, including how they may benefit research aimed at facilitating climate change mitigation and adaptation.

One of the main factors that facilitated such rare bipartisan support for this legislation is the feeling (and the fear) that allowing the Chinese to increase its R&D efforts while we decrease our own, constitutes a real danger to our national security.

Tables 1 and 2 below use data from recent OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) compilations to explore this issue (I am using the Wikipedia source for Table 1 because it also includes data for countries that are not members of OECD). Table 1 shows the 10 largest spenders on this issue and the percentage they spent on R&D.

Table 1R&D as % of GDP and per capita of the 10 largest spenders in 2019

Country Expenditures on R&D

(Billions of US$, PPP)

% of GDP (PPP) Expenditure on R&D per capita (US$ PPP)
US 613 3.1 1,866
China 515 2.2 368
Japan 173 3.2 1,375
Germany 132 3.2 1,586
South Korea 100 4.6 1,935
France 64 2.2 944
India 59 0.65 43.4
UK 52 1.8 762
Taiwan 43 3.5 1,822
Russia 39 1.0 263

Table 1 shows the expenditure in terms of PPP (Purchasing Price Parity). For comparison, the 2019 GDP of China, measured in nominal US$, was $14.3 trillion; in PPP adjusted currency, that amounts to $23.5 trillion—larger than that of the US for the same year (per definition, the US nominal and PPP exchange rates are the same). In other words, in relative terms, China is spending significantly more on R&D than the US does.

Table 2 steps back to look at the US and China’s changes in expenditures over the last 10 years.

Table 2R&D of US and China as a percentage of GDP

Year China US
2009 1.665 2.813
2010 1.714 2.735
2011 1.780 2.765
2012 1.912 2.682
2013 1.998 2.712
2014 2.022 2.721
2015 2.057 2.719
2016 2.100 2.788
2017 2.116 2.847
2018 2.141 2.947
2019 2.235 3.07

Looking at both tables, one might be tempted to question the assertion that China is so far ahead of the US in dedicating resources to R&D. However, the data are all given as percentages of the countries’ GDP. In nominal US$, the GDP of China for the period 2009 – 2019 increased from $5.1 to $14.3 trillion, a growth of 180%. The US GDP over the same period went from $14.4 to $21.4 trillion, an increase of 49%. That means even though China’s percent of expenditures on R&D looks approximately constant in Table 2, its GDP over this period grew more than three times faster than that of the US, while its share of expenditure on R&D grew at roughly the same ratio.

Interestingly, we can also see from Table 2 that the US R&D expenditures were slowing down from 2009 – 2016 but they experienced a significant increase from 2016 – 2019, under the Trump administration. That said, we’d need to do some additional research to find out whether this increase was comprehensive or went almost entirely toward military research.

Once the new legislature is approved by the House and signed by the president, I’ll delve more into its possible impact on expenditures for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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Electricity Through Fusion: Hope vs. Reality

I am finishing writing this blog on D-Day, Sunday, June 6th. This commemorates the day the Allied forces invaded Normandy on their way to liberating the rest of Western Europe from the Nazi menace. On April 13, 1945, they reached Farsleben—near the city of Magdeburg, in what’s now the German state of Saxony-Anhalt—and liberated me and my family. Today also happens to be an election day in this state. Many eyes around the world are focused on this election as an early indicator of the strength of the right-wing, anti-immigration party, AfD, ahead of the national German elections in September.

Due to pandemic precautions, this year’s celebrations of D-Day will be muted, similarly to those from last year. I hope that you will use the occasion to go to my last pre-pandemic D-Day entry (June 11, 2019) for my take of this important day. By the time that you read this blog, two days from now, we will all know the results of the German election in Saxony-Anhalt. Meanwhile, I am lighting a memorial candle to all the soldiers that took part in the invasion and wishing that these election results will not remind me too much of those from the early 1930s.

That aside, this blog post is about science. It will be the last blog in this series about factoring in electricity while calculating our energy use and the resulting carbon emissions.

I teach the same two general education courses almost every semester. One is focused on climate change on Earth, the other explores cosmology: what do we know about our universe and how do we know it? I emphasize the connection between the two topics. Per definition, the combination of the two covers a lot of territory. Stars are generally organized into galaxies. Rough estimates say there are about two trillion galaxies in total, with a “typical” number of more than a billion stars per galaxy.

Stars are defined in terms of conditions in their core that facilitate the fusion of hydrogen to helium, the act of which releases an enormous amount of energy. In other words, fusion runs the universe, including our existence. Our experience with fusion on Earth has mainly related to our use of our sun’s energy—which facilitates life here. We have also witnessed fusion’s destructive potential in the form of the hydrogen bomb. However, since the end of WWII, there has been an effort to recruit its enormous energy potential for peaceful and productive objectives to support human activities on this planet.

These activities have accelerated since we started to realize that our current main sources of energy are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere in a way that—in the not-so-distant future—will raise the temperature of this planet to unlivable conditions. We can look at the inhospitable surface temperature of our close neighbor Venus (around 425 oC = 800 oF) for a reminder of the most extreme possibilities. The only remedy is to replace our “dirty” energy sources with non-polluting ones. The ultimate hope in this transition is fusion energy.

Several years ago, I discussed the basic physics of fusion and the results of our attempts to utilize it in our energy transition (December 12, 2017). I strongly recommend that everyone reading through this blog revisit that earlier post on this topic (sorry about the extended homework in this blog). Meanwhile, I am borrowing one paragraph from that entry for those of you who don’t want to do all that work:

The ultimate solution to our energy problems is to learn how to use fusion as our source of energy. Since immediately after the Second World War, we have known how to use fusion in a destructive capacity (hydrogen bombs) and have been earnestly trying to learn how to use it for peaceful applications such as converting it into electrical power. It is difficult. To start with, if we want to imitate our sun, we have to create temperatures on the order of 100 million degrees Celsius. Before we can do that, we have to learn how to create or find materials that can be stable at such temperatures: all the materials that we know of will completely decompose in those circumstances. Figure 1 illustrates the facilities engaging in this research and their progress. We are now closer than we have ever been to maintaining a positive balance between energy input and energy output (ignition in the graph) but we are not there yet.

Today, I want to look at the largest coordinated global effort to learn how to fit fusion into the economy in a way that is both efficient and affordable. These qualities will help ensure its place as an important component in our energy transition. There is a facility dedicated to this study, called ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor), which means “the way” in Latin. I mentioned ITER in the 2017 blog when I examined the rate of progress of energy transition efforts.

I am bringing all of this up so I can amplify the importance of both knowing that electricity needs to be calculated as a secondary energy source (including the multiple alternative names that we discussed in the last two blogs: Scope 2, heat rate, and, here, the distinction between Q-physics and Q-engineering) and understanding how to make those calculations. Grant Hill wrote an insightful piece a few weeks ago for WHYY, a Philadelphia educational channel of PBS, that addresses how crucial communication can be. I have emphasized some pieces that I find especially important:

A fusion experiment promised to be the next step in solving humanity’s energy crisis. It’s a big claim to live up to

It’s called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, ITER for short. Still under construction in the south of France, the huge doughnut-shaped test reactor is often labeled the world’s largest science experiment, and the next step in the journey to fusion energy.  (The Latin word “iter” means “way” or “journey.”)

ITER is a product of diplomacy. In the 1980s, two longtime foes, the United States and the former Soviet Union, came together with a common mission: to harness this seemingly magical power source for something other than mutual annihilation. By then, the idea of working together was a more novel concept than fusion power itself.

ITER’s design wasn’t finalized until 2001, but its approval carried a big punch: a promise to create 10 times more energy than it consumed. At that point, 35 countries had joined the project to split the cost (and benefits) of such an achievement. The final price tag is still up for debate. If you ask ITER, the bill will run around $25 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy puts it at nearly $65 billion.

ITER’s made a bold promise: to produce 10 times the amount of energy it consumed. Even though ITER was only a test reactor that would never actually connect to the grid and produce electricity, such a result would be a record-smashing number for fusion reactors compared to its predecessor, a reactor called JET in the U.K. That one couldn’t even break-even — meaning it produced less power than it consumed.

ITER’s remarkable energy-production upgrade is thanks to the reactor’s scaled-up design. When it comes to doughnut-shaped fusion reactors called tokamaks, such as ITER and JET, size is a limiting factor. It is ITER’s enormous magnitude, nearly 240 feet tall and weighing 23,000 tons, that allows the organization to make such big claims. And the ITER organization has done so, frequently touting its 10-times power gain number, often called the Q ratio.

But when Krivit needed to double-check some figures for a book he was writing, a closer look at the Q ratio ITER promised revealed something concerning, he said.

“I assumed that everybody knew the rate of power that went into these reactors. But the scientists that I spoke to said, ‘Well, actually, we don’t measure the rate of power that goes into the fusion reactors.’ And I’m going, `What are you talking about?’” Krivit said. “We all thought that the rate of power that you talked about from the JET reactor was a comparison of the power coming out versus the power coming in. And they said, ‘No.’ That power ratio doesn’t compare the rate of power coming out versus power coming in. It only compares the ratio of the power that’s used to heat the fuel versus the thermal power that’s produced by the fuel.”

In reality, the Q ratio only speaks to what happens deep inside the reactor when fusion occurs, not the total amount of energy it takes to run the whole operation, or the actual usable electricity the fusion reaction could produce.

According to Henderson, physicists and non-physicists think of Q differently.

“For me to put in 50 megawatts of power, I need to pull from the grid about 150 megawatts. And so an engineer would say, ‘Well, Mark, wait a minute, you know, you’re pulling 150 megawatts from the grid, you convert it to 50 megawatts, it gives me 500 megawatts out, but then those 500 megawatts are going to heat water that turns a turbine that then generates electricity that would put back to the grid roughly 150 megawatts,’” he said. “So from an engineer’s perspective, if ITER was a [commercial] fusion reactor, it would be giving a Q-engineering roughly of about one.”

A Q-physics ratio of 10, but a Q-engineering ratio of one. Henderson doubted whether actual engineers who work on fusion sites correctly understood this difference, let alone the public. But it’s an important difference, nonetheless.

“That means the ITER reactor is effectively a zero-power reactor,” Krivit said. “If the design works as expected, we’re going to get the same rate of power coming out as the power going in. Zero extra power that would be available to use for any practical purposes.”

Since we are starting to pay not only for our electricity energy use but also for the carbon emissions that result from that electricity’s production, it is high time that we include secondary energy sourcing in our educational objectives. We need to know both the monetary and environmental costs of the electricity that shapes the world we live in.


*Update: it looks like my candle worked—the right-wing, anti-immigration party, AfD, lost resoundingly in the German state’s election!

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Utilities: Calculating our Carbon Footprints

I have used Table 1 in the last few blogs (starting on May 11th) to show the carbon intensities for the various sources of energy that we use in large buildings (greater than 25,000ft2) in NYC. From there, I’ve shown how to convert that energy use to carbon footprints, which are important because a new law mandates that they decrease significantly over the next few years.

Table 1 – Carbon intensities used in NYC to calculate carbon footprints

carbon intensity

I used first principles from elemental chemistry to calculate the carbon intensities for Scope 1 fuels, such as oil and gas. Last week, I showed that the process of calculating these data for electricity is more complicated. Electricity is Scope 2 energy, meaning that it has to be converted from chemical energy (in this case, by our utility companies) before we can use it. Physics tells us that this conversion cannot run at 100% efficiency. When NY counts our carbon footprints, it does so by measuring the carbon emissions that our utility generates in order to supply us with electricity.

The distinction between Scope 1 fuels and electricity is important because the conversion process is one of the most important indicators in this energy transition we are going through (October 15, 2019). Figure 1 demonstrates the electricity intensity for developed countries like the US. The graph ends before the relatively recent growth of electric cars, which are just starting to have a major impact on our energy use.

electricity intensity

As we know from last week’s blog, in order to calculate the carbon intensity of electricity, we need to know the composition of energy sources that our utility is using and the heat rate of each of these fuels. Table 1 quotes the EPA’s projected carbon intensity for NYC in the year 2024, when the punitive monitoring of our carbon footprints (in large buildings) begins. However, in truth, we have no idea what the carbon intensity of electricity production will be in 2024. For that, we’ll need regular data input from our electricity suppliers—either via a list of their energy sources and each fuel source’s heat content, so that we can calculate the carbon footprints ourselves—or as a statement included with our electricity bills that directly supplies an accurate account of their carbon footprints.

Here are NYC’s main utility companies:

NYC Electric Service:

Con Edison (All 5 boroughs, except for the Rockaways)

Most of New York City is powered by Con Edison, which provides power to nearly 10 million people in NYC and Westchester County. To serve its NYC customers, Con Edison has more than 94,000 miles of underground cable and 34,000 miles of overhead wires pumping electricity from substations to homes and offices. The power New Yorkers use comes from a variety of energy sources including sustainable sources such as wind and solar power. To easily start or transfer your services with Con Edison, click here.

Public Service Enterprise Group (Queens, Rockaway Peninsula only)

While Con Edison provides power to all 5 boroughs, it does not serve the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. Roughly 34,000 customers in the Rockaways use power distributed by the Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), which also handles electricity distribution on behalf of the Long Island Power Authority. To start, stop, or transfer electric service on the Rockaway Peninsula, visit the PSEG site.

NYC Gas Service:

Con Edison (Manhattan, the Bronx, Northern Parts of Queens)

In addition to providing electric service to most of New York City, energy giant Con Edison also provides natural gas service to residents of Manhattan, the Bronx, and Northern Queens. If you live in these areas, you’ll have the convenience of using one provider for both your electric and gas service. Set up or transfer existing service using the same link provided above for Con Edison electricity.

National Grid (Brooklyn, Staten Island, Rest of Queens)

National Grid is a multinational electric and gas utility providing services to the UK and parts of the northeastern US. In New York City, National Grid provides gas service to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and most of Queens, including the Rockaways. To start or transfer your natural gas service with National Grid, please go here.

As we see above, Con Ed not the only electricity supplier in New York City but it is the most important one. Here’s what Con Ed says regarding their energy sources for electricity supply:

Con Edison is committed to advancing a clean energy future. We do not own coal fired power plants and 76% of Company-owned generation capacity was sourced from solar and wind in 2019.

Additionally, Con Edison supports New York’s ambitious goals to transition to a low-carbon, clean energy future, which include but are not limited to, 100% carbon-free power by 2040 and 70% renewable electricity by 2030. The fuel mix delivered through our energy systems is not controlled by the Company and is allocated by the New York Independent System Operator.

CECONY [Consolidated Edison Company of New York] Fuel Mix Allocated by NYISO

      • Natural Gas 51.1%
      • Nuclear 37.5%
      • Hydro 7.4%
      • Other 1.3%
      • Oil 1.1%
      • Wind 1%
      • Coal 0.3%
      • Solar 0.2%

Con Edison Owned Generating Capacity (Total 3,463 MW)

      • Solar 64.1%
      • Natural Gas 21.4%
      • Wind 12%
      • Petroleum 2.5%

Con Ed doesn’t decide on the percentages of various fuels in the CECONY mix. A different organization, NYISO, is in charge of those matters. That said, Con Ed does offer a choice between two different mixes, one more sustainable than the other (albeit, a bit more expensive).

When we calculate the carbon intensity of the CECONY feed, the only relevant aspect is the percentage of fossil fuels in the mix. Natural gas is responsible for 51% of the output, whereas oil and coal are minor additives that, in this case, we can neglect. I don’t have the individual heat content of Con Ed’s natural gas use, so I will take the 2019 average for the US: 8000 Btu/kWh.

This value gives us an energy conversion of:

(3412Btu/8000 Btu) *100 = 43% conversion efficiency

Bringing Con Ed’s electricity carbon efficiency to:

0.0531*0.51/0.43 = 0.063 kgCO2/kbtu

This comes out to be considerably lower than the corresponding value in Table 1 (0.0847 kgCO2/kbtu). The heat rate from natural gas is changing and NYC has more than one utility that supplies electricity, so it’s hard to determine where the number in the table came from.

For more transparency, utility companies should produce carbon intensity calculations on a yearly basis—or, at least, when they change the composition of the fuel or change the conditions of the energy conversion. Likewise, electricity meters should be modified to accept the changing values of the carbon intensities and a scale should be added for the carbon footprints.

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Electricity Generation: Carbon Intensity and Composition

Two years ago (June 18, 2019), I discussed higher-education carbon emissions. This included the lists that organizations such as the Sierra Club made to rank campuses across the country by their emissions. We split emissions into three categories:

Scope 1 – Direct emissions from owned or controlled sources

Scope 2 – Indirect emissions from the generation of purchased energy (exclusively targeted at electricity)

Scope 3 – All indirect emissions (not included in Scope 2) that occur in the value chain of the reporting company, including both upstream and downstream emissions

Scope 3 is an essential category because carbon emissions—and human behavior in general—are not always neatly packaged into easily measured organizations such as college campuses or large buildings. It includes other major emissions contributors such as driving and flying.

Lately, I have used my blogs to explore the new NY laws that legislate carbon emissions in large buildings, including the timelines they establish for emissions reduction in these buildings and their fines for noncompliance. I looked at how they measure these emissions through energy use, keeping track of the characteristic carbon intensity specific to various energy sources.  Last week, I focused on Scope 1 emissions, using natural gas as an example. Today’s blog continues this effort by extending the discussion to electricity use. It’s a much more complicated aspect than the Scope 1 calculation but it is key to successful mitigation of anthropogenic climate change. I have repeatedly discussed (You can put “electricity use” into the search box here to find my relevant blogs) how the shift from direct Scope 1 energy use to electricity use is one of the most important indicators of the current energy transition (think of electric cars as an example).

Let’s start the discussion with a relatively simple target that ties into last week’s blog. Last week, I looked at the carbon emissions from natural gas; this week, I’m looking specifically at the emissions from natural gas that is used exclusively to drive electricity generation. Table 1 shows data from the EIA (Energy Information Administration).

Table 1CO2 emissions from US electric power production

emissions, electricity production

The first thing to notice in Table 1 is the units. Instead of the kg of CO2/ kbtu of energy that I have used in previous blogs, the EIA provides the data in pounds per kWh. As with last week, I will focus here on natural gas, converting the units so that we can compare the results with the corresponding values in Table 2.

In 2019, the carbon intensity of the CO2 emissions from the US burning natural gas to produce electric power was 0.91 lb/kWh. We convert that in the following way:

0.91(lb/kWh)*(0.45kg/1 lb)*(1 kWh/3.413 kbtu) = 0.12 kgCO2/kbtu

Now that we have a shared set of units, we can see that in 2019, in the process of producing electricity, the US emitted more than double the EPA’s target carbon intensity value in Table 2 (a value that we confirmed in last week’s blog, based on first-principle chemistry).

Table 2 – Carbon intensity factors

carbon intensity

The reason for this major change in carbon intensity is that electricity is not a primary energy source; it is a secondary energy source. The power companies use Scope 1 primary energy to produce heat that runs a turbine, which actually produces the electricity (and creates Scope 2 emissions). This process cannot run at 100% efficiency. I went into depth on this particular conversion in an earlier blog (October 22, 2019). The Energy Information Administration (EIA) gives secondary energy another name: “heat rate” —that is, the amount of heat generated by the primary energy source that is needed to produce a given amount of electricity, as expressed in kWh.

The EIA provides an explanation, with a couple of examples:

To express the efficiency of a generator or power plant as a percentage, divide the equivalent Btu content of a kWh of electricity (3,412 Btu) by the heat rate. For example, if the heat rate is 10,500 Btu, the efficiency is 33%. If the heat rate is 7,500 Btu, the efficiency is 45%.

Figure 1 shows that there have been some recent changes in the conversion efficiency within the three main fossil fuels that power companies use to generate electricity.

fossil fuel, heat, electricity, generation

Figure 1

We can see that—while there is almost no change in efficiency for coal or petroleum, there has been a major change with regards to natural gas. The main driver of natural gas’ improved efficiency is the increased temperature of the conversion.

Next week, I will narrow these considerations to my local environment in NYC.

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First-Principle Chemistry: Carbon Intensity

My last two blogs (May 4th and 11th) dealt with the challenges inherent in a new law that mandates carbon footprint reduction within large buildings in New York City, where I live and work. As with many other laws, there’s a penalty for noncompliance. The key question, of course, is: how do we know if we are complying? This quandary brings into doubt the efficacy of the law. According to the City, this problem is solved by a requirement that each report be signed by an energy expert, who can identify excessive levels and advise us on how to reduce our carbon emissions. Of course, since we are the ones who would have to pay the fine, it would be helpful if we knew how to find these numbers ourselves so that we could judge whether or not we need an energy professional in the first place—if it turns out we don’t, we need a better system.

Several years ago, the City passed a law that required large buildings to submit reports of their energy use. At the time, the penalty only applied if the building neglected to submit such a report. The energy report was supposed to provide the data from which the carbon emissions could be calculated, via carbon intensity factors—which I referred to in the last two blogs and am reposting again in Table 1. Once we have these data, the calculation is relatively simple: in your energy report, you state your energy sources and the quantity of energy that you used over a set period of time. You then multiply that quantity by the appropriate carbon intensity factor (as shown below) to find your total carbon emissions (in kg of carbon dioxide). Finally, you divide this number by the building’s square footage and check the result against the law’s limits.

The problem is that most of us have no idea where the numbers in Table 1 come from.

Table 1 – Carbon intensity factors

Carbon intensity factors originate in the chemical composition of the fuel. My job in this blog and next week’s follow up is to show the connection. Today, I’m looking at the relatively simple case of natural gas; next week’s blog will focus on the more complicated—but very important—case of electricity.

To quantify the connection between the chemical composition of a fuel and its carbon intensity, we need a bit of context in terms of the language of chemistry. When I teach these calculations to my students, many of them have no background in chemistry. I devote some time to the essence of the language. If you are challenged on this level but determined to learn more, you can “hire” your high-school kid, or if needed, the kid of your neighbor (properly compensated) who is taking or has taken a chemistry class to be your chemistry Tsar. Table 2 shows a typical chemical composition of natural gas.

Table 2 – Example of the chemical composition of natural gas

natural gas, chemistry* The gross heating value is the total heat obtained by complete combustion at constant pressure of a unit volume of gas in air, including the heat released by condensing the water vapour in the combustion products (gas, air, and combustion products taken at standard temperature and pressure).

As we can see in Table 2, natural gas is almost pure methane (CH4). For simplicity’s sake, I will assume here that it is pure methane. Next week, I will delve into how to handle the traces of other chemicals that show up in such tables.

The calculation, shown below, describes the simple chemical reaction of burning methane (reacting it with oxygen—O2). I also include the energy conversion from Btu to Calories:

CH4 + 2O2 → CO2 + 2H2O + 210 Cal

1 Btu = 0.252 Cal

Converting kbtu to Cal:
1 kbtu = 1000 Btu
1 kbtu = (1,000 Btu) * 0.252 Cal/Btu = 252 Cal

One more definition that might be useful here is that of a mole. According to Encyclopedia-Britannica:

Mole, also spelled mol, in chemistry, [is] a standard scientific unit for measuring large quantities of very small entities such as atoms, molecules, or other specified particles.

The concept lets us calculate the interactions between molecules, expressed in chemical reactions, and macroscopic quantities, measured in grams.

Back to the chemical equation:

Burning 16g (1 mole) of methane (CH4) produces 44g (1 mole) of carbon dioxide (CO2) + 36g of water (2 moles of H2O) + 210 Cal of energy.

That means that production of 210 Cal from burning methane is associated with 0.044 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. So, the carbon intensity of methane is:

0.044kg CO2/210 Cal = 0.0002096 kg/Cal = 2.1*10-4 kg CO2/Cal
= (2.1*10-4 kgCO2/Cal)*(252 Cal/kbtu) = 0.0529kg CO2/kbtu

That’s identical to the value in Table 1.

Unfortunately, most gas bills in the US use units of therms. Among all physical indicators, energy is the one that is expressed with the largest variety of units (mostly for historical reasons). Therefore, when we are trying to quantify energy use, one of the most demanding tasks is to correctly apply the needed energy conversions.

In the case of natural gas, the approximate conversions are:

1 therm = 100,000 Btu = 25,000 Cal = 100 SCF (Standard Cubic Feet)

SCF is often used to express the quantity of material—your gas bill reflects both the amount of energy (therms) and the volume of gas you are using (SCF).

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Carbon Emissions Calculators and Ways to Improve Your Score

Last week, I looked at a new NYC law that lays out a mandated schedule for buildings larger than 25,000ft2 to reduce their carbon footprints. I also gave an example of an exercise that I give my students, which shows how to calculate your own energy use and carbon footprint and correlate them with the emissions of larger groups of students, NYC, the US, and the world. I mentioned that a previous law had already mandated buildings declare their carbon footprints to the City—calculated on the basis of their energy use. The new law includes heavy fines for non-compliance, so—while I may teach how to estimate our carbon footprints based on first principles—the important part is how the City counts those emissions.

A special NYC site that contains more information on the new law condenses this issue into one important question, which gives us a look at their method of quantification: How much carbon comes from each type of energy?

The building emissions law sets specific emissions factors for the 2024-2029 limits. It also requires that emissions factors applicable for the 2030 limits be set by rule no later than January 1, 2023.

For the 2024-2029 limits, the law sets electricity as the most carbon-intensive energy source per unit of on-site energy. These coefficients, except for district steam, align with the coefficients used in the EPA’s Portfolio Manager and the EPA eGRID 2016 coefficients, shown in the table below:

Owners will also have the option to calculate electricity carbon intensity based on time of use. Further details will be specified in Department of Buildings rules.

The practice of correlating the connection between energy use and carbon footprints  provides a good starting place for my students, as they calculate these carbon intensity factors from the chemical composition and the nature of the delivered energy.

Imagine that you want a quick way to find your own carbon footprint and some quantitative recipes and suggestions for how to reduce it with as little “suffering” as possible. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) website provides carbon footprint calculators, which are a good place to start.

Example of a simple online carbon-footprint calculator

Meanwhile, the ENERGY STAR site provides some of the most extensive and recognizable information regarding how you can limit your carbon footprint without sacrificing the conveniences that enrich modern life:

ENERGY STAR® is the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency, providing simple, credible, and unbiased information that consumers and businesses rely on to make well-informed decisions. Thousands of industrial, commercial, utility, state, and local organizations—including nearly 40% of the Fortune 500®—partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to deliver cost-saving energy efficiency solutions that protect the climate while improving air quality and protecting public health. Since 1992, ENERGY STAR and its partners have helped American families and businesses save 5 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, avoid more than $450 billion in energy costs, and achieve 4 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions. Over the lifetime of the program, every dollar EPA has spent on ENERGY STAR resulted in $350 in energy cost savings for American business and households. In 2019 alone, ENERGY STAR and its partners helped Americans save nearly 500 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and avoid $39 billion in energy costs.

One section in my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now | Momentum Press) is called, “Trivialities Add Up.” It details the energy involved in the flashing clocks on VCRs (the book came out in 2011), making ice,jj and appliances that stay plugged in for immediate access. The TV that I discuss there draws 40 watts of electricity. I estimate that, as of 2011, the US spent around 9.8×1010 kWh/year on electricity for this particular “luxury.”

My campus moved all classes online in March 2020 due to COVID-19 and our plans for the coming fall semester are still uncertain. Our campus is not completely empty of students but it is close; most have shifted to using their internet at home. Last summer (July 7, 2020), I described my students’ efforts to compare energy use before and during NYC’s lockdown to evaluate the school’s normal student-dependent energy use. The effort continues. One important aspect of this study has been locating network-connected electronic appliances that never turn off completely. Not surprisingly, there are many of them.

The two sites below describe energy use of many of these gadgets

Energy Use Calculator

Hopefully, in the near future (before the campus returns to in-person learning), we will be able to analyze the cost of at least leaving these gadgets in some sort of hibernation using the “Kill A Watt” power meter.

Let’s assume that an average individual private office space is 200ft2 in size, with one desktop computer rated at 200 watts—or 5 watts on “standby” or “sleep” mode. Given the pandemic, no one has visited this office or touched this particular computer for more than a year. If we calculate the energy this computer is using while left on standby, we see that we are wasting 0.005 kw*360*24 = 43 kWh of energy over that one-year period. Using the carbon intensity factors of electricity shown in the beginning of the blog, we can convert this energy waste into the idle computer’s carbon footprint for the year:

(0.08469 kg CO2/kbtu)*(3.412 kbtu/kWh)*43 = 12.4 kg CO2.

If we want to know by square foot, 12.4 kg CO2/ 200 ft2 = 0.062 kg CO2/ft2. This amount composes 1.5% of the emissions we will allow by 2024 (see last week’s blog). This may seem like a small amount but it serves nobody! While it is certainly better than leaving the computer running at full capacity the whole time, perhaps we can find an option for turning it off completely if no one is expected to use it for months at a time.

You can find much larger savings by following some of the suggestions provided in the following two sites:

Bob Vila

You turn off lights when you leave a room, combine errands to stretch a tank of gas, and run only full loads in your dishwasher. Yet even if you’re following the basics of home energy conservation, whether to save the earth or just save some cash, there’s still more you could be doing. In fact, chances are you still have a few bad energy habits that are leading to higher utility costs…

All those electronic gizmos that make modern life so convenient have a downside: They quietly suck energy even when not in use. Indeed, these so-called “vampire” or “ghost loads”—reflected in every small, unblinking red or blue light on your home electronics—may account for up to 10 percent of total energy use in a typical household. The most common culprits include cordless telephones, answering machines, computers, printers, televisions, and cable boxes. Turn them off or unplug them when not in use to save precious energy—and dollars.


Heat Follows Cold
If it’s 98 degrees outside but (thanks to central air conditioning) a comfy 72 degrees inside your house — and you open a window, the heat from outside will jump right in through the window and keep jumping in until it’s just as hot inside as it is outside. Like water, heat constantly seeks equilibrium; heat moves to cold until everything is the same temperature.

Since you probably spend much of your summertime reminding the kids not to leave the doors open, you already know that opening a window when the AC is on is a dumb thing to do (unless you have an evaporative cooler, discussed below). But open windows and doors are just the largest and most obvious avenues for mingling indoor and outdoor temperatures. The smaller avenues, like gaps around light fixtures in your ceiling, are much less obvious and usually ignored, yet these are often the ones that matter the most.

There are a lot of little things that we could all do to save both energy and money. I will expand later on the issue of using energy-specific carbon intensity factors to calculate carbon footprints.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy | Leave a comment

From Commitments to Penalties: Measuring Carbon Emissions

  carbon footprintSince President Biden’s inauguration, I have looked a lot at carbon emissions and what we are doing to minimize them. As an educator and a New York City resident, I am especially invested in this change. Not only do I teach about climate change but New York has passed a new law that mandates a reduction in carbon emissions in the coming years.

Until now, I have looked a lot at promises—at multiple levels—to convert to a carbon-free life and economy by mid-century. In most cases, these promises have lacked any provisions for enforcement, meaning I have treated them with a high degree of skepticism. Those instances that do include such measures have attracted a great deal of attention, including my own. One such example is New York City and State, whose new, concrete legislation has a significant enforcement component. NYC requires that all buildings larger than 25,000ft2 have carbon emissions limits. The legislation includes the methodology for finding and reporting carbon emissions, as well as the timeline and penalties for noncompliance. The methodology is based on the types and quantities of energy used by the building. To convert energy use to the law’s carbon emissions targets, you need to use “carbon intensity factors” (which I will explain in a future blog). Each energy source needs to be analyzed individually, as their carbon intensity factors can change, depending on their chemical composition. Of course, once the electrical grids are fully converted to carbon-free electric power (The Biden administration’s target is 2035), these restrictions will no longer be needed. Instead, facilities will need to be competitive on price and resiliency levels.

Calculating carbon footprints consistently is essential for instituting policies on any level but it can also be very difficult. I have all of my students try it so they have a better understanding. Here are some examples with global implications:

  • Measurements vs. calculation of carbon footprints during the COVID-19 pandemic (see my April 13, 2021 blog).
  • Critical adjustment of land mitigation pathways for assessing countries’ climate progress. This assessment was required to evaluate the global impact of all the commitments made by the signatories to the Paris Agreement. It also provided the baseline for adjustments to those commitments to better achieve the goal of reducing the increase of global temperature to below 2o. In the process, the authors found a large discrepancy in calculating carbon capture through adjustment of land use. Many countries and companies rely on forests to offset their emissions by using a cap-and-trade process but there is no set standard for measuring just how much carbon the forests catch, meaning that the calculations can vary widely.

As for New York City, the new emissions law is really interesting:

New York City’s Local Law 97 (Carbon Emissions Bill)  

What does it require and when?

Local Law 97 sets detailed requirements for two initial compliance periods: 2024-2029 and 2030-2034 and requires the City to clarify the requirements for future periods through 2050. Buildings over 25,000 gross square feet must meet annual whole-building carbon intensity limits during each compliance period based on building type or prorated for mixed-use buildings. Certain building types including city-owned buildings, affordable housing, hospitals and houses of worship will have alternative compliance options if they cannot hit the carbon intensity limits. To comply, building owners must submit an emissions intensity report stamped by a registered design professional every year starting in 2025 or pay substantial fines.

Table 1 – Carbon emissions intensity limits by building/space type

What happens if I don’t comply?

The City has set steep fines for buildings that do not comply. Buildings must pay $268 per metric ton that their carbon footprint exceeds the limit, annually.  There are also fines for not submitting a report and for submitting a false report.

How does my building emit carbon?

At first glance many may ask how does a building even emit carbon dioxide? Does one need to bring some “carbon meter” to the building to measure carbon emissions.  As most of you know, that is not how building-based carbon emissions are measured.

Carbon emissions, or the “carbon footprint” of a building is measured by totaling the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere during the production of the energy that is consumed by a building to heat, cool, light and power the activities of its occupants.  These emissions are typically the result of fuel combustion and can occur on-site as a result of an oil or gas boiler or off-site at a power plant that burns natural gas to generate electricity. The carbon emissions intensity limits set by Local Law 97 include onsite and offsite emissions in a single limit so reductions in lighting, heating, cooling and plug loads all contribute to reaching the goals.

How do I measure my building’s carbon intensity and know if it’s in compliance?

This is actually more complicated than you would think.  The US EPA’s free Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool is a good place to start.  All buildings over 25,000 square feet should have submitted their Energy Star Benchmarking data to the City by May 1, 2019 for Local Law 84 compliance. Energy Star Portfolio Manager, the tool required by the City for building owners to store and submit energy data for LL84, is able to convert a building’s energy use into carbon emissions.  However, it should be noted that the emissions displayed in Energy Star is slightly different from how it will be measured by Local Law 97, but it is a good starting place to see how your building compares to the 2024 and 2030 limits. Just make sure you are using the same units. Energy Star typically displays emissions in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (KgCO2e) and the law lists the limits in metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (mtCO2e).

Once you’ve found your total carbon emissions in Portfolio Manager, you’ll need to calculate your carbon emissions limit to find out if you comply or not. To calculate your emissions limit, find your type of building in the table above and multiply the limit by the gross square footage of your building. This is the carbon emissions limit for each compliance period. If your total is higher than the limit, you are not in compliance. To calculate your annual fine, first convert your building’s carbon footprint from Kg to metric tons by dividing by 1,000, then multiply the difference between the limit and your actual carbon footprint by $268.  If this sounds too complicated, call an expert like CodeGreen for help.

The new law builds on a law from 2019 (Local Law 84) that already requires buildings to submit information about their energy use, as well as their carbon footprint. The City can then determine whether it meets the standards set in Table 1. These submissions must be signed by a registered design professional and failure to achieve those standards by the set time will result in heavy fines.

The law recognizes that everybody is on a learning curve in this process so it strongly advises flexibility in accommodating this fact as the planning and energy-saving attempts begin.

Below, I describe a simpler process that gives my students the sense of an energy audit and a way to understand carbon footprints. In this case, I am not using carbon intensity factors for exact numbers, but, instead, looking at the simplified chemical reactions of each of the energy sources. I often give this version to students who have never studied chemistry. This kind of exercise gives the students an important connection to their calculations—one that demonstrates the origins of the carbon intensity factors, which can otherwise seem arbitrary.

Individual and collective energy audit and carbon footprint calculation

Energy audits and carbon footprints are common assignments in all levels of my energy courses. Here’s an example:

The individual audit is based on the following categories: food, heating, electricity use, cooking, water heating, and transportation. They track the caloric values of their food and use their energy and gas bills to find data on electricity, natural gas, oil, and gasoline, all expressed in units of Cal/person-day. (Students can use btu instead of calories, as long as their units are consistent throughout the project.) Students must calculate the total amount of energy they have used, by which they calculate the carbon emissions of their energy source.

I have made some simplifications in these calculations. We assume that:

  • All food consists of the simple sugar glucose
  • Natural gas consists of pure methane
  • Electricity is powered by burning natural gas at 30% efficiency
  • Public transportation produces no carbon emissions

Since air conditioner and heating use are seasonal, students are asked to average winter and summer bills. I also provide all relevant chemical equations and explain how to read and use them.

One group consisted of four students with various backgrounds. Two of them occasionally use a car for transport; the others do not. The carbon footprints of the four students, in units of kg/(person-day), came out to be 15.9, 13.1, 9.4, and 5.1, respectively, meaning the average was 10.9 kg/(person-day). The standard deviation, calculating from the sum of the squares of the differences between the individual carbon footprints and the average, divided by the number of students:

standard deviation

The standard deviation came out to 4kg/person-day. In other words, the “standard” notation for the average carbon footprint of this group came out to 10.9 ± 4 kg/(person-day), of carbon dioxide.

The students also calculated the average energy use and carbon footprints of NYC, the US, and the world as a whole, using data from published sources. These came out to:

NYC = 16.7kg/person-day

US = 51.9 kg/person-day

Globally = 11kg/person-day

We discussed the possible differences in these numbers but it was rewarding to see how the group’s average coincided with the global average.

The City’s law relies heavily on the US EPA (Environmental Protection Administration) calculations of energy use and carbon footprints. This is known as the STAR program. Next week, I will expand upon this program and on various suggested ways to minimize both energy use and the associated carbon footprint.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, law, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The First One Hundred Days

President Biden has now been in office for 98 days. We look at the first 100 days as an important marker of a president’s accomplishments:

The 100-days concept is believed to have its roots in France, where the concept of “Cent Jours” (Hundred Days) refers to the period of 1815 between Napoleon Bonaparte’s return to Paris from exile on the island of Elba and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, after which King Louis XVIII regained the French throne.

When did the first 100 days become a key benchmark for a U.S. presidential administration?
In the United States, no one talked that much about the importance of a president’s first 100 days—until Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. He took swift action to calm the nation’s crippling financial panic (cue the Emergency Banking Act and the “fireside chats” that became Roosevelt’s signature) and began rolling out the programs that made up his New Deal, including 15 major pieces of legislation in the first 100 days. FDR’s extraordinary productivity translated into enormous popularity, and he set a first 100-day standard against which all future U.S. presidents would (perhaps unfairly) be measured.

Well, Napoleon’s first 100 days was a period of intense activity and Roosevelt used his to work with Congress to bring an end to the Great Depression. Both of these historic examples are well documented, and we know what happened next in each instance. In this case, however, we have no idea what will follow.

President Biden focused his first 100 days on trying to tackle the same set of interrelated problems that I illustrated in a Venn diagram in my August 4, 2020 post. These include COVID-19, climate change, population growth, jobs, and equity. As we’ve seen from this latest transition of power, any lasting change will have to come in the form of legislation—a difficult proposition right now. The political landscape required to address any one of these issues is challenging, to say the least, and especially so in this intensely polarized time. To his credit, President Biden has already started to take on each of these topics: he has suggested increases in progressive taxes to fund remedies for inequities, he has met the job crisis with climate- and infrastructure-related job creation; he is updating immigration policies to address populations (in and out of the US), and, obviously, his team is working very hard on the COVID-19 pandemic.

In keeping with the theme of this blog, since Inauguration Day, I have focused primarily on climate change. Earth Day comes toward the end of a president’s first 100 days and President Biden took the occasion to signal his administration’s commitment to climate action. In a move to regain world leadership of climate change mitigation and adaptation, he (virtually) convened a group of world leaders and asked them to not only renew but upgrade their Paris Agreement commitments. He called for leaders to lower their countries’ carbon (and carbon equivalent) emissions in the coming years and to indicate what specific steps they are taking now toward those new commitments.

President Biden wanted this summit to occur ahead of the COP26 UN conference that is scheduled for November 1-12 this year in Glasgow, Scotland. COVID-19 is still striking almost everywhere, so we don’t know yet whether it will be held virtually or in person. Originally, that meeting was supposed to mark the updating of the Paris Agreement commitments but President Biden clearly wanted to reestablish America’s participation in and leadership of the Paris Agreement framework. Many of the countries were happy to have the US back (although some of them remained a bit skeptical):

President Joe Biden brought the U.S. back into the global fight against climate change on Thursday, pledging at an international summit he convened to halve emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030 and double climate aid to developing nations.

Poor countries made clear at the summit that they expect money from wealthier nations in exchange for accelerating their own efforts to curb warming, while China and India stuck to plans to continue growing their own carbon emissions before making any cuts, dismaying environmentalists who say the world remains on course toward catastrophe.

Biden announced in opening remarks for the two-day summit that the U.S. will reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 50%-52% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade — significantly boosting a commitment made under former President Barack Obama that was scrapped by former President Donald Trump.

Of course, the hardest part comes after the two-day meeting:

President Biden’s summit meeting on climate change ended on Friday with the United States promising to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and help other countries do the same. But the real test will be Washington’s ability to steer the rest of the world toward cleaner energy fast enough to avert catastrophe.

The limits of America’s influence were clear. Australia, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia made no new pledges to cut down on oil, gas or coal. Some countries said that they were being asked for sacrifices even though they had contributed little to the problem, and that they needed money to cope.

Away from the summit, the Chinese foreign minister demonstrated the difficulties the Biden administration faces in working with the country most crucial to lowering global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the new administration made it clear that it can back up its new commitments—both with executive orders and control over mechanisms that can distribute billions of dollars toward climate change mitigation and adaptation:

WASHINGTON — Federal officials, showing how rapidly the Biden administration is overhauling climate policy after years of denial under former President Donald J. Trump, aim to free up as much as $10 billion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect against climate disasters before they strike.

The agency, best known for responding to hurricanes, floods and wildfires, wants to spend the money to pre-emptively protect against damage by building seawalls, elevating or relocating flood-prone homes and taking other steps as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters.

The president has signed an extensive set of related executive orders:

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Wednesday signed a sweeping series of executive actions — ranging from pausing new federal oil leases to electrifying the government’s vast fleet of vehicles — while casting the moves as much about job creation as the climate crisis.

Mr. Biden said his directives would reserve 30 percent of federal land and water for conservation purposes, make climate policy central to national security decisions and build out a network of electric-car charging stations nationwide.

President Biden used the Earth Day summit to encourage new commitments but the results were mixed:

This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis,” Biden, a Democrat, said at the White House.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the new U.S. goal “game changing” as two other countries made new pledges.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who visited Biden at the White House this month, raised Japan’s target for cutting emissions to 46% by 2030, up from 26%. Environmentalists wanted a pledge of at least 50% while Japan’s powerful business lobby has pushed for national policies that favor coal.

Canada’s Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, raised his country’s goal to a cut of 40%-45% by 2030 below 2005 levels, up from 30%.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro announced his most ambitious environmental goal yet, saying the country would reach emissions neutrality by 2050, 10 years earlier than the previous goal.

For instance, some of the media coverage bordered on sarcasm when covering the commitments of China, Russia, and Brazil:

Xi also announced that China will start to phase down its use of coal in 2025 and “strictly limit” the increase of the most carbon intensive fossil fuel for the next few years. He also said the country would “strictly control” coal-fired power plant projects.

But in his remarks to the summit, Bolsonaro highlighted the country’s recent pledge to end deforestation by 2030, and alluded to a desire for international aid to help the country do so.

“There must be fair payment for environmental services provided by our biomes, to the planet at large, as a way to recognize the economic nature of environmental conservation activities,” he said.

The Russian leader said that initiatives by Russia would set it up to become carbon neutral “as soon as by 2025.”

“I would like to reiterate that Russia is genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation … to look further for effective solutions to climate change, as well as to other vital global challenges,” he said.

Contradicting these announcements, Mr. Bolsonaro significantly reduced Brazil’s environmental budget only a day after the Earth Day conference, a move that devastates any hope of follow-through on these new commitments. According to Congressman Rodrigo Agostinho, leader of the environmental caucus in Brazil’s Congress, “After years of ever tighter budgets, the latest cuts threaten to completely paralyze environmental agencies.”

To be fair, Prime Minister Modi, President Bolsonaro, and other leaders of developing countries probably have other things on their minds than what some may see as a virtual US photo opportunity. We are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic. On Saturday, the headline story in the NYT print edition focused on COVID-19’s dire impacts on Brazil and its digital and Sunday print editions added similar information about the situation in India. Hopefully, the upcoming COP26 will feature a more complete set of written, updated global recommitments.

One good thing that has come from these activities is that they have sparked a conversation about the shape that the world might take as a result of increased commitments to reduced fossil fuel consumption. In the US, for example:

In several recent studies, researchers have explored what a future America might look like if it wants to achieve Mr. Biden’s new climate goal: Cutting the nation’s planet-warming emissions at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

By the end of the decade, those studies suggest, more than half of the new cars and S.U.V.s sold at dealerships would need to be powered by electricity, not gasoline. Nearly all coal-fired power plants would need to be shut down. Forests would need to expand. The number of wind turbines and solar panels dotting the nation’s landscape could quadruple.

As I have mentioned repeatedly, it will take a lot of patience to convert these discussions and suggestions into lasting legislation. The Republicans’ only official response to the American Jobs Plan so far has come in the form of a plan that quarters the budget—it dedicates most of that money to fixing roads and bridges, and completely ignores the other issues that I included in my Venn diagram. Traditional infrastructure is not inherently a bad thing to spend money on—it just doesn’t address the larger network of problems:

U.S. Senate Republicans on Thursday proposed a $568 billion, five-year infrastructure package as a counteroffer to President Joe Biden’s sweeping $2.3 trillion plan, calling their measure a good-faith effort toward bipartisan negotiations.

The proposal, which falls below even the range of $600 billion to $800 billion that Republicans floated earlier in the week, focuses narrowly on traditional infrastructure projects and broadband access.

The Republican plan would not result in higher taxes but be fully paid for with user fees on electric vehicles and other items, unspent federal funds and possible contributions from state and local governments.

Keep safe and stay tuned.

Posted in administration, Biden, Climate Change, coronavirus, Sustainability, US | 1 Comment

Earth Day 2021

Earth Day, birthday

Earth Day is in two days. It’s a big day. Among other distinctions, it is both my wife’s birthday and that of this blog (this is now 9 years!). From a climate change perspective, this year’s celebration is special because we are less than three months out of an administration that denied and ignored the existence of and our contributions to the phenomenon. In contrast, the new administration considers climate change one of its most important challenges. For his first Earth Day in office, President Biden has demonstrated this by inviting 40 heads of state to a (virtual) meeting to outline a joint commitment to renewed global climate change mitigation efforts.

The key items for discussion are:

  • Galvanizing efforts by the world’s major economies to reduce emissions during this critical decade to keep a limit to warming of 1.5 degree Celsius within reach.
  • Mobilizing public and private sector finance to drive the net-zero transition and to help vulnerable countries cope with climate impacts. 
  • The economic benefits of climate action, with a strong emphasis on job creation, and the importance of ensuring all communities and workers benefit from the transition to a new clean energy economy.
  • Spurring transformational technologies that can help reduce emissions and adapt to climate change, while also creating enormous new economic opportunities and building the industries of the future.
  • Showcasing subnational and non-state actors that are committed to green recovery and an equitable vision for limiting warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, and are working closely with national governments to advance ambition and resilience.
  • Discussing opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change, address the global security challenges posed by climate change and the impact on readiness, and address the role of nature-based solutions in achieving net zero by 2050 goals.

Next week, I will discuss the meeting’s results, in terms of concrete efforts and new goals. This anticipated meeting has drawn a unique response from many of the major players in the American business community:

310 businesses and investors with a footprint in the United States have signed a powerful open letter to President Biden indicating their support for the Biden administration’s commitment to climate action, and for setting a federal climate target to reduce emissions.

The letter was published as the world awaits the Biden administration’s announcement of a 2030 emissions reduction target, or Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) pursuant to the Paris Agreement, in the lead-up to the Leaders’ Summit on Climate.

Below is the first part of the letter:

We, the undersigned businesses and investors with a major presence in the U.S., applaud your administration’s demonstrated commitment to address climate change head-on, and we stand in support of your efforts.

Millions of Americans are already feeling the impacts of climate change. From recent extreme weather to deadly wildfires and record-breaking hurricanes, the human and economic losses of the past 12 months alone are profound. Tragically, these devastating climate impacts also disproportionately hit marginalized and low-income communities who are least able to withstand them. We must act now to slow and turn the tide.

As business leaders, we care deeply about the future of the U.S. and the health of its people and economy. Collectively, our businesses employ nearly 6 million American workers across all 50 states, representing over $3 trillion in annual revenue, and for those of us who are investors, we represent more than $1 trillion in assets under management. We join the majority of Americans in thanking you for re-entering the U.S into the Paris Agreement and for making climate action a vital pillar of your presidency. To restore the standing of the U.S. as a global leader, we need to address the climate crisis at the pace and scale it demands. Specifically, the U.S. must adopt an emissions reduction target that will place the country on a credible pathway to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

We, therefore, call on you to adopt the ambitious and attainable target of cutting GHG emissions by at least 50% below 2005 levels by 2030.

This is an impressive (and welcome) message, especially as it presents a major contrast to the concerted lobbying efforts of the fossil fuel industry. Colleges and universities are not far behind the business community in demanding enhanced mitigation efforts either. They too have called on President Biden to lower carbon emissions.

The letter above references America’s original commitments from the 2015 Paris Agreement. As I mentioned earlier this month (April 6, 2021), President Trump declared the US’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement only a few months into his term, a move which (ironically) went into effect the day after President Biden was elected. On the day of President Biden’s inauguration, he signed a commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement. Per that commitment, America promised to lower carbon emissions by 17% compared to 2005 levels by 2020 and by 26 – 28% compared to the same levels by 2025 (March 14, 2017 blog).

Well, we are now in 2021, one year after that first milestone, and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Figure 1 shows where we are; happily, it looks like we are right on target.

emissions, greenhouse gas, CO2, CO2 emissions, carbon dioxide

Figure 1

The UNFCCC details the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) commitments of all of the signatories, including the US.

The business community’s letter urges President Biden to use his April 22nd meeting to double our commitments, re-exert American leadership on the issue of climate change mitigation, and actually “make America great again.” Next week we will all find out the president’s response.

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The American Jobs Plan & Power Generation by Source

Last week, when I discussed the new $2.3 trillion “American Jobs Plan,” I listed the costs of items that directly address climate change mitigation. The second most expensive item was the $174 billion program for electric vehicle incentive. A few years ago, I wrote a set of three blogs (March 1226, 2019) that examined the sustainability of electric cars. I concluded that these cars are only as sustainable the electric grids that feed them. The Biden administration knows this is true. On another occasion, President Biden declared his intention for US electrical utilities to be carbon free by around 2035. Since the approximate lifetime of an electric power plant is about 20 years, this timeline would mean that every new power plant we build now must be carbon free. This week, I am trying to figure out where we stand on this issue—both on international and national levels.

Figure 1, taken from the International Energy Administration (IEA), shows the changes in the installed power generation capacity from the beginning of this century, extrapolated to 2040 based on IEA’s 2019 Stated Policy Scenarios.

power generation capacity IEA

Figure 1 – Power generation capacity by type

EIA summarizes the projected data in Figure 1:

The expansion of generation from wind and solar PV helps renewables overtake coal in the power generation mix in the mid-2020s. By 2040, low-carbon sources provide more than half of total electricity generation. Wind and solar PV are the star performers, but hydropower (15% of total generation in 2040) and nuclear (8%) retain major shares.

If the world is to turn today’s emissions trend around, it will need to focus not only on new infrastructure but also on the emissions that are “locked in” to existing systems. That means addressing emissions from existing power plants, factories, cargo ships and other capital-intensive infrastructure already in use. Despite rapid changes in the power sector, there is no decline in annual power-related CO2 emissions in the Stated Policies Scenario. A key reason is the longevity of the existing stock of coal-fired power plants that account for 30% of all energy-related emissions today.

Figures 2 and 3, taken from the American Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook 2021, show the expected electricity generation in the US, over approximately the same period.

electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 2

According to Figure 2, renewable energy production is projected to dwarf both nuclear and coal by 2050, with natural gas trailing close behind. Within that renewable label, solar and wind both see significant increases.

US electricity, energy, source, solar, gas, renewables, coal, nuclear

Figure 3

Interestingly, Figure 3 shows that the extrapolated competition between natural gas and zero-carbon power stations sources depends a lot on the available supply of natural gas. In other words, reducing the availability of natural gas could be an excellent mitigation policy. Unfortunately, no one else seems to be investigating this option.

None of these scenarios predict that the US will successfully reach zero-carbon electricity generation within President Biden’s timeline. However, both the internationally declared scenario in Figure 1 and the low gas supply scenario in Figure 3 predict that sustainable, carbon-free power will soon be on its way to dominating electricity production in the US.

However, recent results by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), show that even the American Jobs Plan’s proposed pace of slowing carbon emissions might not be fast enough. COVID-19 almost immobilized the world and there are predictions that there was resulting decline in carbon emissions around 7% over the last year. Unfortunately, we have not seen any sign from direct measurements of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere that their levels have been significantly affected. Figures 4 and 5 show the results, followed by some possible explanations from NOAA.

global monthly C02 emissions

Figure 4Global monthly mean of carbon dioxide

global methane, emissions

Figure 5 – Global monthly mean of methane

According to NOAA:

The economic recession was estimated to have reduced carbon emissions by about 7 percent during 2020. Without the economic slowdown, the 2020 increase would have been the highest on record, according to Pieter Tans, senior scientist at NOAA’s Global Monitoring Laboratory. Since 2000, the global CO2 average has grown by 43.5 ppm, an increase of 12 percent.

The atmospheric burden of CO2 is now comparable to where it was during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period around 3.6 million years ago, when concentrations of carbon dioxide ranged from about 380 to 450 parts per million. During that time sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra.

Methane in the atmosphere is generated by many different sources, such as fossil fuel development and use, decay of organic matter in wetlands, and as a byproduct of livestock farming. Determining which specific sources are responsible for variations in methane annual increase is difficult. Preliminary analysis of  carbon isotopic composition of methane in the NOAA air samples done by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, indicates that it is likely that a primary driver of the increased methane burden comes from biological sources of methane such as wetlands or livestock rather than thermogenic sources like oil and gas production and use.

“Although increased fossil emissions may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels, reducing fossil methane emissions are an important step toward mitigating climate change,” said GML research chemist Ed Dlugokencky.

The NOAA results are certainly worrying but they are still preliminary at this stage. Of particular concern are the methane results. As a reminder, the radiative forcing per molecule of methane is 20 times bigger than that of carbon dioxide. In other words, not only must we work to significantly reduce methane emissions, we must also pay special attention to them into our mitigation plans.

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