March 2017 Amherst Bulletin Column: Perspectives on climate solutions

March 2017 Column: Perspectives on climate solutions

    Last week the final text of my energy jobs bill was officially filed, so it is a good time to write an initial summary of the big picture on climate and energy.

    I have spent a long time trying to figure out what the solution to climate change might be, and how I can help the most. I decided that running for state representative was the way to do that, and that’s because I think Massachusetts can almost single-handedly solve the problem.

    The U.S. still uses 1/3 coal and 1/3 methane (“natural gas”) for electricity generation. Other large countries are similar or even worse. And then most building heating, industrial processes, and transportation are powered by either methane or some form of petroleum (gasoline, propane, etc). To solve climate change, we need to stop using all of those and use clean-energy sources instead.

    When I say “solve” climate change, what I mean is “avoid catastrophic climate tipping points,” the kinds of dramatic and sudden shifts that climate scientists warn us about, wherein Europe could be plunged into an ice age or the like. We are already at a point where our economy and public health are being damaged by more intense storms and by warmer and higher oceans, and people have already died because of global warming. The longer we wait, the more people will die.

    But the real “deadline” in my view is the 10- or 15-year time frame that we have to make a transition to clean energy and be fairly confident that we’ll avoid those climate-tipping points.

    The reality is that we will only make that transition when clean energy is cheaper than fossil energy. That’s where Massachusetts plays a unique role – we can invent technologies that will make clean energy dramatically cheaper, and let clean energy out-compete fossil fuels in the free market globally.

    Already, utility-scale solar projects can be cheaper than natural gas in terms of energy capacity, but the energy they produce is intermittent, which makes them much more expensive on the whole. We need really cheap energy storage. My bill aims to help with that by creating a battery-testing facility to bring new technologies to the point of commercialization.

    We also need to transition the way we power transportation, either through electric cars, or through solar fuels (artificial gasoline that’s made by sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and is therefore carbon-neutral). In either case, we need new technologies to make these systems cheap enough.

    But there is one parallel reality, which is that to make this transition quickly enough in the U.S. (and to spur the creation of cheaper technologies for the long-term) we’re going to need to pay more for energy in the short term. That could be due to regulations that cause a transition to more expensive clean technologies, in which case the extra cost would simply be a loss.

    Or, we can put a direct price on carbon pollution, meaning the government would capture all of the additional cost and could reinvest it into the economy: this is the goal of carbon pricing, another component of my bill. In Massachusetts, by doing this “fee and dividend” we keep more money in the state and therefore create jobs, so there is a double benefit to our economy.

    And there is one more reality. We already have too much CO2 in the atmosphere to avoid serious impacts from global warming, so we’re going to need to do carbon sequestration as well: sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere and storing it permanently. That process will probably be energy-intensive, so we can’t start until we have very cheap clean energy. If you are interested in learning more about the specific technologies that may play a role in the transition to clean energy (liquid flow batteries, artificial photosynthesis, advanced atomic power, lithium-sulfur batteries, and ocean current power), click here for an overview of the technical aspects of potential climate solutions.

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Photo and book images by Violet Kitchen, Picturing Policy posts by Violet Kitchen and Kaley Davis.