Monday, November 16, 2009

The Climate Conundrum

I haven’t spent much time in this forum discussing the national energy policy/climate change conundrum in Washington, but it’s not because I don’t think it’s important. I want to be careful about wading into such emotionally and politically charged waters without a clear heading. It doesn’t quite pack the politically divisive punch of free-health-care-for-gay-illegal-immigrants-seeking-to-get-married, but the proposed legislation may drive many important business and political decisions for decades to come. Also, concepts like cap and trade are so doggone complicated that I’m having trouble getting my mind around it.

The Financial Times’ Sheila McNulty published a post last week that hits on some of the important points that are being overlooked in the debate and offers some different perspectives. One of the things she hits spot-on is that we can significantly lower our carbon output overnight with very little expense by better utilizing the existing capacity of natural gas-fired power plants in this country. These plants are terribly underutilized, as utilities opt to burn coal because it is economically cheaper than gas. Natural gas, however, emits about half the carbon of coal and significantly fewer noxious pollutants, so shifting a large portion of power generation from coal to existing natural gas would lead to a significant immediate decrease in carbon emissions. Obviously, the process to get to that end might be complicated, but it doesn’t have to be expensive.

This is not a long-term solution toward creating a zero-carbon regime, but it is an easy and meaningful near-term change to stop the bleeding. Another relatively inexpensive way to lower power consumption and thus carbon emissions is a greater emphasis on efficiency. The “low hanging fruit” abounds, but the concept has been lost in the fighting. Neither of these ideas is sexy, but they will work.  Unfortunately with the various constituencies battling it out from the extremes, the energy/climate fight becomes a noisy, static-filled mess.

Most baffling to me is the position of many renewable power advocates. Intellectually, I understand their position that the U.S. should focus entirely on renewable energy sources and that embracing natural gas would be giving in to fossil fuels. I get it, but I think it’s wrong. Renewable energy needs all the friends it can get, especially now that it’s not commercially scalable. I worry that those in the green movement are blinded by their long-term vision that that they are willing to give up tangible progress to further their long-term goals. To me that makes them worse than the polluters. It looks like some renewable power advocates depend on the continued use of coal to make the climate situation worse so they can better advocate for renewables. Environmentalists and coal: what strange bedfellows politics make.

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