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Ken Caldeira: Natural Gas Is ‘A Bridge To A World With High CO2 Levels’, Deployment Is To R&D As Elephant To Mouse

By Joe Romm on March 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm

"Ken Caldeira: Natural Gas Is ‘A Bridge To A World With High CO2 Levels’, Deployment Is To R&D As Elephant To Mouse"

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Ken CaldeiraEarlier, I wrote about a paper co-authored by climatologist Ken Caldeira.  A key point of the study is that we can’t slow projected warming with natural gas, you need “rapid and massive deployment” of carbon-free power.

I asked Caldeira about the implications of his work for the right mix of clean energy deployment vs. R&D

I have long been a big supporter of greatly expanded R&D for new near-zero-emission energy systems, but R&D is not a substitute for early deployment.

We will learn by doing. We need to do what we know how to do. We will learn a lot by doing that, and we will learn more (and different sorts of things) with a targeted R&D program. R&D cannot substitute for deployment, but R&D can made deployment cheaper and more effective. An R&D program without a deployment program is a sterile exercise.

Most technologies will be more expensive than the monetized costs of coal. What is the motivation to research and develop something if there is no plausible marketplace for the fruits of that research and development effort?

Caldeira elaborated on these points:

Whether it is prices or standards, we need drivers to deployment. Markets for near-zero-emission energy technologies will spur a lot of R&D in the private sector. There is also a role for public R&D, but public R&D cannot substitute for drivers for deployment.

Put it this way: I think we need both policies that drive deployment and public support for clean energy R&D. It is at least conceivable that drivers to deployment could spur the innovation we need to build the near-zero-emission energy and transportation systems of the future. However, it is inconceivable that public R&D alone can achieve that goal. So, if we had to choose one or the other, drivers to deployment or publicly funded R&D, I would pick drivers to deployment. However, we don’t need to make this either or, and we can do both.

In terms of dollars, the real cost is deployment. Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars, while R&D costs might be in the tens of billions. We are talking about the elephant and the mouse.

I have tended to think that when we get truly serious about avoiding catastrophic global warming, we’ll want to spend at least 10 times as much money on deployment as R&D, as I’ve written before (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“ —and yes we need to do those simultaneously, the repetition was always meant to represent the relative spending levels).

But Caldeira is probably right than when we are spending the requisite trillions of dollars on deployment, “Markets for near-zero-emission energy technologies will spur a lot of R&D in the private sector.” I certainly agree with him that if one were forced to choose, one would pick the “drivers to deployment” — prices or standards (preferably both of those). BUT that is a forced choice only folks who don’t  understand climate science or clean energy technology the way Caldeira does would ever think of making.

I also asked Caldeira about his view of natural gas as a bridge fuel. He replied bluntly:

I see natural gas as a bridge fuel; unfortunately, it is a bridge to a world with high CO2 levels, melting ice caps, acidified oceans, etc.

Energy demand is going up exponentially. Dependence on fuels with fractionally lower emissions in the context of exponentially increasing overall demand is a recipe for increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So, if the goal is turn the Earth’s climate into something like what it was when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, natural gas is a good way to get there.

If we are serious about solving this problem, we cannot be further entrenching a fossil fuel industry that depends on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Dependence on natural gas is a delaying tactic. I just don’t understand the logic: “We will delay building the energy infrastructure that we need to solve the energy-carbon-climate problem, and build CO2 spewing natural gas plants instead, but you should be thankful that these engines of global warming aren’t as bad as what we could have built.”

The goal is not to do something that is fractionally less bad than what we are doing now; the goal is to deploy energy systems that can actually solve the problem.

Power plants, with retrofits, last 75 years or longer, so we are already building the energy infrastructure of the second half of this century. If that infrastructure is not based on near-zero-emission energy systems, we’ll find ourselves back in the Cretaceous, except this time we’ll be the dinosaurs.

These comments should be no surprise to anyone who follows Caldeira’s work.  Back in 2009 he had written to me about the error-riddled book SuperFreakonomics, which had grossly mischaracterized his views:

I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies”….  It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.

Here’s a video of Caldeira discussing the paper:

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23 Responses to Ken Caldeira: Natural Gas Is ‘A Bridge To A World With High CO2 Levels’, Deployment Is To R&D As Elephant To Mouse

  1. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Phasing out coal in US power plants is meaningless if then export that coal to China. We are energy junkies seeking to extract every last joule of fossil fuel energy.

    We are putting profits now against the welfare of future generations, perhaps even the continued existance of mankind.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      I agree with you, Rabid. Here’s the problem, though: most Americans would much rather believe the end times as forecast by Nostradamus, the Book of Revelation, or the Mayans.

      How we break through this is the sticky wicket. Many reporters and school administrators are acutely aware of the severity of the problem. Only thing is, that awareness is trumped by somebody waving a few hundred dollar bills at them.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    “Whether it is prices or standards, we need drivers to deployment. Markets for near-zero-emission energy technologies will spur a lot of R&D in the private …

    We are talking about the elephant and the mouse.”

    Or a chicken n egg…

  3. Brooks Bridges says:

    “Reinventing Fire” gives concrete examples over and over that Joe’s “deploy, deploy,deploy” is incredibly effective. In fact you want to tear your hair out when you see how much could be done so easily if we had the will. And businesses could be quickly be so much more profitable so easily, even without subsidies.

    We are indeed living in the Age of Stupid.

    One mundane example: anything involving pumps and piping e.g., swimming pool circulation systems. Simply using bigger and straighter pipes allows MUCH smaller pumps using MUCH less energy. Cost of bigger pipes is less than bigger pumps and energy costs can be 4 or 5 times lower. Making pipes straighter in a brand new system is a matter of planning. No R&D required.

  4. Peter says:

    The need for energy is growing at a voracious rate. The mania to drill, dig pump, frack will grow and continue for the foreseeable future. For our present consumption based economy to grow- it needs energy like a huge bloated monster- and that energy will continue to be mostly fossil fuels.

    Will be so stupid as to continue to ignore the warning signs, so we end up like the extreme hot house world of the Cretaceous?

  5. WyrdWays says:

    Caldeira is right to say that natural gas is still putting us the road to ‘the Cretaceous’, but quite possibly wrong to imply it may be a slightly more circuitous route. His phrase ‘fractionally lower emissions’ implies that natural gas is less of a bad boy for global warming than coal.

    It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the methane leakage from drilling/transporting/using natural gas (and especially shale gas) puts it on a par with coal – or possibly even worse. Methane is more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, short-term, and leakage rates are being measured at 4-10% from natural gas distribution systems.

    So natural gas could be like substituting coke for crack – so just say NO!

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, Ken Caldeira, for making the correct call about gas. Many of us agree with you, and are aware that it’s going to be a tough fight.

    That means we do not need warriors who are opening negotiations just as the fight is beginning. We need warriors who are willing to show a little heart, for Christ’s sake.

  7. John Tucker says:

    He is correct, gas was a colossal mistake.

    China has announced it has double the shale gas reserves the US has.

    China boasts of shale gas reserves

    The Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources said there was an estimated 886 trillion cubic feet of natural gas deposits in onshore shale reserves

    The country aims to start developing shale by 2015, though there are no commercial shale gas developments yet in China.

    ( http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2012/03/02/China-boasts-of-shale-gas-reserves/UPI-24511330691737/ )

  8. Anderlan says:

    If Amory Lovins doesn’t believe we can draw down fossil carbon without gas, I have little hope also, because that dude believes anything is possible.

    That being said, policy should definitely ignore gas entirely, and put a rising signal on fossil carbon. It’s impossible that the signal could rise fast enough that gas didn’t end up being some sort of bridge of some length.

    Not that anyone should like gas or be satisfied, guilt-free, or happy about it. No one should like any fossil fuel at this point.

    • Anderlan says:

      Of course, I’m imagining that we can get a price signal implemented, and I’m also imagining that the market is perfect, without sticky, irrational actors, neither of which is looking very likely.

      So, pretending that we here do have some power over new infrastructure spending of course I totally agree there should be no new gas infrastructure built, just like there should be no new coal infrastructure built. We should all hate fossil energy.

      What Myrhvold has noticed is old, depressing news to those of us who’ve been paying attention. The geological record tells us that carbon warming begets more carbon warming, and it doesn’t stop until an outside force pushes back against it enough so that glaciation puts the planet back into a position where CO2 can go down *at all*.

      We are screaming for mere integrity, to quit contributing to the problem, even if it’s only our extreme-future descendants who reap the final benefit. Billionaires like Myrhvold are extremely rooted to this world and this area in time, so they don’t see Foundation-like time ranges, but I’m glad they’re waking up to the implications for the next 100 years, at least. We need the help.

  9. Luc Binette says:

    OK, with this article, I finally got what Romm meant before when he was writing or quoting: “An R&D program without a deployment program is a sterile exercise.”

  10. SecularAnimist says:

    Ken Caldeira wrote: “Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars”

    Guess what. Those trillions of dollars in “costs” will be trillions of dollars in PROFIT for somebody.

    • Absolutely correct. And it’s also important to remember that we’ll be spending trillions of dollars anyway to supply energy services, we’ll just be redirecting many of those dollars to low emissions sources. The net change in total societal costs will be small (a few percent at most, and probably less). The IEA’s recent reports have been excellent at estimating capital requirements and total societal costs for achieving 450ppm. For example, see:
      IEA. 2010. World Energy Outlook 2010. Paris, France: International Energy Agency, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). November 9. [http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/]

  11. Lou Grinzo says:

    I can’t express how pleased I am to see someone of Ken Caldeira’s stature delivering this message this directly. It’s been painfully clear to me for some time that a full embrace of natural gas in the US would be a nightmarish mistake, as it would lock us into a level of carbon intensity that’s far too high.

    Of course, if you watch commercial TV in the US you’d think natural gas is purer than triple distilled unicorn flatulence, and is a short cut to dirt cheap transportation and electricity, as well as energy independence.

    Our situation with natural gas right now in the US is a nearly perfect test of our maturity and ability to think beyond the very short run. On the one hand we have the media and paid advertising telling us how “clean” NG is, and we have very low real world prices; on the other we have scientists and climate communicators screaming about the dangers of repeating with NG the same mistakes we made with coal and oil. If the US avoids this horrific path I will be even more shocked than relieved.

  12. fj says:

    Yes, very nice explanation. These types of simple but very important descriptions of what is going on are very important.

  13. David B. Benson says:

    Ken Caldeira is right. Unfortunately, wherever wind turbines go in natgas burners are sure to follow; used as the balancing agents for the intermittent wind derived electricity production.

    • Joe Romm says:

      Fortunatey that’s just a small use of gas leveraging a much bigger use of carbon free energy.