The Post ed board strikes out on clean energy
The Washington Post had two editorials dealing with climate change yesterday, “Nuclear haste” and “How D.C. can better deal with climate change”, that showed they don’t understand how a renewable-focused energy portfolio would work and that they are hopelessly naïve when it comes to how DC can help fight climate change.
The first offender? Nuclear baseload power
Here’s the Post’s take:
Can the world fight global warming without nuclear power? One major industrialized country — Germany — is determined to find out, and another — Japan — is debating whether to try. Both illustrate how hard it would be.
To date, nuclear is the only proven source of low-emissions “baseload” power — that is, electricity that’s always on, day or night, powering round-the-clock elevators in Tokyo or office buildings in Munich. Yet both Germany and Japan are poised to prematurely shutter their large nuclear sectors, giving up all of that guaranteed, low-carbon electricity generation in an anti-nuclear frenzy, on a bet that they can multiply their generation of renewable electricity within a decade or two.
Here’s the problem: in any economy with a proportion of renewables anywhere even close to the amount required to prevent the worst of climate change, “baseload” power is not a virtue, but a vice. In a renewable-centric energy portfolio, energy sources that take days to start up or stop and can’t adjust their output easily are simply out of place.
Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are what is known as “intermittent” power, varying in strength based on how sunny it is, windy it is, or what have you. Too much intermittent power stacked on top of too much baseload and you can have way too much energy at times with nothing to do with it — a giant waste.
Instead, what is needed is a smart grid with “dispatchable” power that can be easily ramped up or down quickly based on how productive renewables are at the moment. There is some progress toward storing large amounts of renewably-produced energy in molten sands or synthetic natural gas, but for the moment, the best source of dispatchable is regular old natural gas. (Grist’s David Roberts has a much more thorough explanation of the interplay between these three types of energy and why Germany is ditching the concept of baseload power). Obviously we’ll need to move away from all fossil fuels, but it’s a necessary step for the overhaul from baseload to renewable/dispatchable.
Now, the Post has a point in that fossil fuel use has risen in the short term in Japan, where the shutdown of nuclear plants was in response to a disaster rather than the result of a conscious long-term plan. Ideally, we’d want to phase out fossil fuel baseload plants (coal in particular) first and only eliminate nuclear once renewables held a large share of the portfolio.
Ultimately, you can get to a low-carbon economy via a nuclear-dominated energy portfolio or one with high amounts of truly clean renewable energy, such as geothermal, wind, and solar, but to my eyes, the two strategies are basically incompatible. France has already tried the first; I for one am glad another country is proceeding with the second.
Offense number two: carbon pricing nirvana
The Post’s ed board also came against D.C. council member Mary Cheh’s (D-Ward 3) proposal for cutting the District’s carbon emissions. The editorial mainly complains that the city’s climate policy is too complex. After criticizing Cheh’s attempt to remove a tax disincentive for local solar power production, the Post writes:
Ms. Cheh’s bill would also require stores to keep their doors closed while their air conditioning is switched on. Preventing such waste is obviously appealing. But the best way to lower emissions is to put a price on carbon or to set top-line goals without prescribing precisely how businesses must achieve them. This allows businesses to make their own decisions about the most efficient ways to save energy.
The fight against climate change requires government to intervene, creating incentives for cleaner energy. But in that process, it’s easy for government to get too involved in deciding how we derive and use energy. If city leaders worry that the District isn’t moving toward green energy fast enough, they should first press for a more aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme or to modify the city’s renewables mandate.
This is a great example of the nirvana fallacy, a logical fallacy of comparing an actual option against an obviously better, but implausible alternative, discrediting the plausible option in the process.
Clearly, pricing carbon is a desperately needed step to take away the unfair advantage fossil fuels have by polluting for free. And a regional agreement would be necessary to reduce the amount of carbon leakage that happens from “regulatory arbitrage” (think going over the state line to buy cheaper gas or cigarettes).
But, umm, what magic wand is the council supposed to wave to get an “aggressive regional carbon-pricing scheme” in place? Pressure from the city’s leaders is very unlikely to push other states to do much of anything. If it weren’t, DC might have, oh I don’t know, real voting rights.
Regulations like requiring stores to keep their doors closed in the summer might not be as ideal as a carbon tax, but if we just sit around debating what the perfect policy response would look like, we’re going to end up roasting. Imperfect action now beats the hell out of Washington Post ApprovedTM solutions that either are never implemented or get put in place decades down the line after irreversible tipping points in climate change are already reached.