Biden's Energy Proposal Means a Return to Earth's 'Sweet Spot'
Biden’s Energy policies will help regain the Earth’s vital sweet spot.
The Climate Balancing Act
Without atmospheric greenhouse gases (ghg), Earth would be a Martian-like -18 0 C. It is the level of ghg — mostly carbon dioxide (CO2) — that determines global temperatures. Ice ages occur when atmospheric CO2 concentrations are below about 200 parts per million (ppm), while melting ice caps swamp the planet at 400 ppm.
During the past 800,000 years, Earth’s CO2 concentration was 200-280 ppm, the sweet spot for human evolution, flowering plants and bountiful agriculture. Maintaining that sweet spot is essential to civilization. In this Anthropocene era of global warming, the CO2 concentration has steadily risen to exceed 400 ppm. At 413 ppm in 2020, CO2 was at its highest level in 20 million years — and is certain to be between 540 and 900 ppm by 2100. The other ghg (methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons) raise atmospheric concentrations by another 10%.
Even if CO2 concentrations are miraculously stabilized today at 413 ppm, the planet will flood, replaying events during the Pliocene era 3-5 million years ago, the last period when CO2 breached 400 ppm. Surface temperatures were 5.4 - 7.2 o F (3 - 4 0 C) higher than now. And seas were a calamitous 25.1 meters (82 feet) higher, the Artic and nearly all Antarctica transformed to open water.
Lacking aggressive ghg emission controls, sea level is certain to be 2-3 meters (6.5-10 feet) higher in 2100 and continuing to rise, according to KNMI, the authoritative Dutch meteorological agency. Forced relocations of 50 million coastal inhabitants is expected by 2040 and between 190 - 630 million by 2100 — with worse to come. The U.S. alone will need to relocate 14 million displaced by rising seas by 2050.
Regaining the planet’s historic sweet spot requires 1) eliminating ghg emissions, and 2) R&D on technology for capturing sufficient ghg from the air to reduce atmospheric concentrations to about 300 ppm. President Biden’s infrastructure proposal embodies both goals while mobilizing global support. The first step is zeroing-out U.S. emissions. Electric vehicles and building heating (and weatherization) are important, but key is raising the renewable energy share of electric generation from only 12% to 90%. That technology is mature and economics are compelling: utility-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) and onshore wind turbines, for example, now deliver cheaper (and emission-free) electricity to grids than the lowest cost fossil power plants, combined cycle (CC) methane (natural gas). Stunningly, renewable electricity is just one-half the cost of that same CC plant whose flues are fitted with state-of-the art carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.
Onshore wind turbines and PV farms are increasingly familiar to Americans, with over 40% of Iowa’s electricity, for instance, now from wind. A powerful incentive is lease payments of $7,500 to $15,000 annually to individual farmers from a typical 2.5 MW turbine perched amid crops ($289 million nationwide in 2019).
Grid upgrades are needed, but the primary challenge is intermittency, when cloudy or still days cause renewable-generation gaps. Batteries, nuclear and pump storage can help, but one heavily researched solution drawing on meteorological data is to retain one-third of existing methane power plant capacity (comparable to about 10% of total US electric generation). That would continue the current industry arrangement where specialized methane-fired “peaking” power plants fill episodic supply shortfalls. To prevent emissions, hydrogen extracted by pyrolysis on-site from the methane being delivered via existing pipelines could fuel the peaking plants, the powder carbon by-product sequestered. Another option is on-site production of hydrogen through electrolysis powered by renewable electricity — so-called “green” hydrogen, whose only emission is water vapor. Either option would permit closing the balance of methane-fired and all coal-fired power plants while cancelling the 200 planned new methane power plants embraced by the Trump administration, saving $100 billion.
Hydrogen fuel from electrolysis is the more mature technology, lauded as a substitute for methane in agriculture, transportation, industry as well as electricity generation. The company Fertiberia near Madrid, for instance, is constructing a 100 MW PV farm to produce emission-free green hydrogen through electrolysis as feedstock for its ammonia fertilizer plant. And a green hydrogen pilot project to produce, store and generate electricity is underway at a huge power plant in Utah.
Pyrolysis exploits the existing methane production and transport infrastructure, but gas leaks and flaring need to be entirely eliminated, reversing Trump policy. Producers in the Texas/New Mexico Permian Basin, for instance, leak and flare as much natural gas as Norway consumes in a year. Moreover, the short economic life of fracking wells and cost of plugging them ($300,000 each) has induced an epidemic of irresponsible abandonments and leaks in states like New Mexico and North Dakota.
Every Crisis is an Opportunity
Jobs capping wells and eliminating leaks will just be a down payment, because generating and managing renewables is labor intensive: a $1 million investment there creates 7.49 full-time equivalent jobs versus only 2.65 FTEs in fossil fuels. Global warming is a crisis. But Biden’s infrastructure proposal also recognizes it as an opportunity to create an American economic resurgence centered on high-wage, high skill jobs in cutting edge industries.
George Tyler is a former deputy assistant treasury secretary and World Bank official. He is the author of books including Billionaire Democracy and What Went Wrong.