High in the Rocky Mountains, the town of Aspen, Colorado is home to the Aspen Institute and the annual Aspen Forum. Every year, scholars, leading professionals, and influential people from all over America, gather at an altitude over 7,500 feet to discuss and debate ideas. This year (2009), the topic was “Powering the Planet: Energy for the Long Run”. The forum lasted 4 days, from March 25-28, and touched on subjects ranging from climate change to efficiency, to the future of energy technology and policy. Just a few of the people who appeared at the conference include: Lisa Jackson – Admin of the EPA, James Rogers – CEO Duke Energy, Chris Flavin – President of Worldwatch Institute, Bill Ritter – Gov. of Colorado, and Ernest Moniz – ex-associate director of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The Forum consisted of a series of a panels and talks, each with their own sub-topic and a board of experts in the field, with designated moderators who would guide the talks and take questions from the audience. Some talks focused exclusively on renewable energy, others on transportation, economic policy, ocean acidification, home energy, or the future of energy.
One of the most popular subjects under scrutiny this year was carbon emission. Roughly 40% of US emissions comes from the energy production industry, and 30% from the automotive industry. Targeting these two sectors is the easiest way to reduce our impact on climate change. So what can we do?
On the topic of the energy sector, Nora Mead Brownell, Director of the Leaf Clean Energy Company, said “We need to leverage the assets we have. This means introducing technology that utilizes the smart grid and empowers customers.” Also, new business models are needed to more efficiently distribute power to costumers, and to provide the proper incentives to energy companies. “We reward the wrong things.” said Nora.
Smart grid was a term tossed around frequently during the forum. What exactly makes a power grid smart? It has to do with software and energy automation. Most people don’t know that 80% of the energy your dishwasher uses is drawn during the drying cycle. If dishwashers were programmed to run at night and pop the door open so the dishes could air dry, a significant amount of energy could be saved. A smart grid “knows” at what times power consumption is at its peak, and plans accordingly. It would also inform the customer about energy prices at different times during the day so they could make the proper adjustments to their schedules and consumptions habits. One company that we visited and reviewed recently called Coulomb Technologies, maker of Charge Point, is already creating and installing tools that link into the grid and make it more smart. These tools are limited to Electric Vehicles for the moment but are on the right track. In order for the grid itself to truly be smart more devices will need to join in and begin talking to each other.
Of course the main issue in the energy production industry, is the use of coal and natural gas. Coal is the largest carbon emitter, but recently natural gas has been used to offset coal. The problem here is that natural gas still produces a carbon footprint equivalent to 75% of coal. James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, had this to say on the topic of natural gas, “90% of power plants built in the last 10 years in the US have been natural gas. Its like the crack cocaine of the power industry.”
This is true because natural gas is a fast and easy way for companies to offset their carbon footprint, but it is only a short term solution. To truly de-carbonize our energy sector, we need to drastically rethink where we choose to draw our power from. This means considering clean energies like solar, wind, and nuclear, as well as more efficient means of production (combined heat and power is one strategy used in Europe).
The next target is the automotive and transportation sector. Petroleum (crude oil) is by far the largest culprit in carbon emissions in this sector. The United States is the largest users of oil per capita of any country in the world, at an amount of around 70 barrels of oil per person per year. It has been questioned whether or not we have reached peak oil, and what significance this event has. Clearly, we cannot continue to consume oil at the same rate we have been doing for so long and live the same lifestyle. We must either find new sources of oil domestically, or make changes to our infrastructure. Ultimately we need to innovate more sustainable sources of energy all together.
According to Randy Udall, director of Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE) in Aspen, “Peak oil is a blessing”. He believes rising gas prices due to peak oil will force the public to wake up to climate change and the benefits of alternative fuels. Here at Cleantech Authority we agree and have written a piece on solving climate change that outlines how solutions could be achieved.
The underlying issue is: what is going to replace oil when it’s all gone or too expensive to produce? Much of the world’s easy to reach oil has been taken and used up, many times inefficiently and incompletely. The only sources that remain require offshore drilling, a costly and timely expenditure (as we have seen with the recent BP disaster), or crude oil alternatives such as oil shale which involves costly mining and retorting techniques. Some solutions to this are electric vehicles, ethanol (corn fuel), and biodiesel. These solutions would have to be implemented on a massive scale throughout the country to really make an impact and many argue that ethanol and biodiesel are not as sustainable as they claim. Right now, the transportation sector is not properly equipped to make any significant transition away from crude oil without a massive expenditure. The problem stems from issues in policy, innovation support and funding.
Presdient Obama’s current goals to cut carbon emission are to obtain a 14% reduction by the year 2020. What are the necessary steps to reach this goal?
- Decarbonize our electricity. This means retiring and replacing coal power plants with cleaner forms of energy.
- Maximize the efficiency of energy through the use of a smart grids, better and more widespread power distribution, and innovative technologies.
- Decrease consumption of petroleum in the transportation sector by switching to clean fuels and more efficient vehicles.
- Implement better legislative and business models that will facilitate a green economy.
We must make an attempt to accomplish all of these steps, and we must execute swiftly. In Aspen, Ernest Moniz stated, “The issue is urgency. Right now we are behind.” It’s at places like Aspen and other high reg
ions of the Rocky Mountains and glacial mountain ranges that the true consequences of global warming are being seen felt. To learn more about these changes we highly recommend watching this NOVA special called Extreme Ice.
And how true these words are. Many of the technologies needed to make the necessary changes already exist, but as a society we have been lax in implementing them. There are still people out there who profess that global warming is a hoax and don’t believe in the serious consequences of carbon emission to our species. Climate change is a slow process, and no one knows for sure when a tipping point will be reached. Many believe the tipping point has been passed long ago.
When scientists take core samples from ice glaciers for example, they are able to see CO2 signatures dating back for hundreds of thousands of years. Over this period of history, global CO2 levels have nominally been between 200 and 300 parts per million (ppm). CO2 is higher now than it has ever been, at an amount of 385 parts per million, and that is a result of man’s influence on the planet. According to Yale scientists, the optimum CO2 level to maintain the planet at conditions consistent with human history would be below 350 ppm.
The carbon emission of America and the rest of the world is like a grand experiment on a global scale in which no one knows what the outcome will be, but most assume will be devastating. Can we simply stand by and wait to witness the results ourselves? Even the most conservative estimates put ocean level rise at three feet within the next 100 years. For every one foot the ocean rises vertically it comes in shore 10 feet due to tides and wave action. Millions of people around the world live within one or two feet of sea level; places like Florida in the US will be devastated, not to mention major segments of India and Asia.
The time for change is now. We have the knowledge and the skill to restructure energy use in our country, the only ingredient left is the will.
Sources: Yale University. “Carbon Dioxide Levels Already In Danger Zone, Revised Theory Shows.” ScienceDaily 9 November 2008. 2 April 2009 http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2008/11/081108155834.htm.