Secretary Chu: climate science solid, with uncertainties
Global warming doubters have had a field day recently with the unconscionable shenanigans behind the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has strengthened the hand of U.S. politicians opposed to carbon caps in national energy policy.
With Congress set to deliberate over national energy policy and the Democrat's loss of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, the pushback on global warming has appeared to threaten any carbon cap element of pending legislation.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu pushed back on the pushback Friday, when he appeared in Aurora, Colo., which Energy Central calls home. The visit was a joint appearance with Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in an event dubbed the "Colorado Energy Jobs Summit," sponsored in part by Third Way, a progressive organization seeking nonpartisan solutions, and the University of Colorado.
Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and, most recently, former head of the Lawrence Livermore Berkeley National Laboratory, delivered a quick review of climate science as well as the uncertainties related to projected outcomes.
The smart grid connection? U.S. national policy towards the electric utility industry clearly is driven by grants and incentives for electric utilities to "get smart" for efficiencies that represent a near-term response to anticipated jumps in demand. Further, national policy on major national interconnections (think Tres Amigas) as well as regional ones to integrate large-scale renewable energy sources and regulatory changes also presuppose legitimate concerns over carbon emissions.
"Do we really know this stuff?" Chu asked rhetorically. "Yes, we do."
In minutes, Chu essentially demonstrated the correlation between a) 800,000 years of atmospheric CO2 levels (pulled from ice cores at the poles) that have hovered below 300 parts per million (ppm), b) the last few decades in which those levels have spiked far beyond historical averages to 400 ppm and c) the CO2 output of the past century. One example of a real-world check on these correlations is satellite measurements of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which have rapidly shrunk in the past two decades, Chu said.
Chu added that there remains "big uncertainties over where we're going" in terms of global temperature rises and timeframes. The rise could be as little as two to three degrees Centigrade and as much as six degrees, and it remains unclear how temperature will rise over time.
And that, in Chu's view, frames the philosophical question that modern society must address: if we know that temperatures will rise, causing the sea level to rise, with parallel shifts in seasons, and the effect will be to uproot coastal populations and drive massive dislocations in agricultural production and other, unknown outcomes, do we take action now to affect the cause?
The short-term answer, if one focuses on the potential rise in the cost of electricity and its ripple effect throughout the economy, clearly is "no," in many minds. The longer-term view, which Chu clearly shares, is that constraints on carbon emissions can be the driver for clean energy and technology leadership in the United States, with its own positive, economic effects.
"We will live in a carbon-constrained world," Chu said. "We can do nothing and hope for the best. Or we can move first and engage the American innovation machine."
Chu shared graphic data on the United States' drop in clean technology leadership and argued that a national effort to regain that leadership would yield significant economic and political gains.
For electric utilities engaged in making the smart grid a reality, questions over transmission siting and cost allocation were touched upon in Friday's presentation.
In a recent Energy Central webcast, several utility executives bemoaned the political and economic difficulties in linking the nation's three major grids (the purpose of the Tres Amigas project in eastern New Mexico). Inter-state siting and cost allocation issues threaten to derail resolution, they said. The same issues plague basic local and regional transmission siting issues for the mandated integration of large-scale renewable energy sources. These utility executives favored a federal "backstop authority" that could break local and regional deadlocks.
Chu noted that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the authority to designate transmission corridors but that locally generated lawsuits have challenged those designations, resulting in long delays. Udall spoke of "national will" in getting the job done. Carrots were mentioned, sticks were not.
And that's one problem I have with "town hall"-style meetings -- they rarely generate bold policy statements. The devil's in the details and those discussions typically don't take place in public.
Finally, for now, because I can hear the sickles being sharpened: this administration will have to push back hard on the pushback to reassert the drivers for a rational, national energy policy. Acceptance of the science of global warming -- and a mistaken focus on the uncertainties inherent in science versus the philosophical decisions to be taken on risk management in this regard -- has taken a huge hit, and understandably so. Thus supporters of the administration's outlook will have to do as great a job explaining the benefits of long-term, precautionary gambles as detractors have in promoting the short-term benefits of taking no action.
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