Secretary Chu: climate science solid, with uncertainties

Phil Carson | Feb 19, 2010


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.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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Why are people still questioning whether or not the earth has been warming over the past few decades???  The science is absolutely clear on this issue.  The only question remaining should be whether or not the warming trend is due to man or due to the earth’s natural cycle.  That said, I personally do not care why the earth is warming.  We know that coal and oil generation cause air quality issues which cause human health issues, so we should be focused on moving away from that technology. And if we can use alternative/clean energy sources for generation and get away from our dependence on foreign fuels then our country will be better off....we will be healthier, jobs will be created, win for everyone. JR

Sec. Chu & Climate Change

Dear Sir,

I almost fainted when I read the article.  Obama is going to spend BILLIONS of our dollars and turn the economy upside down based on science that has UNCERTANTIES? Luckily, the Chinese and Indians recently told US and the UN what they thought we should do with our Carbon Limits. Call me old fashion, but until most, if not all of the uncertainties are removed, spend the money on real science and remove the uncertainties so we solve the right problem the first time.  If it can be solved.  Let’s not forget that the World could be going through a naturally driven cycle with nothing to do with CO2. As we have all learned as of late, there is a lot of science refuting the "junk science" that has been the basis of all of their claims over the past few years of global warming and its consequences.  Sorry, Al.  I hate to say it but a lot of people stand to make a lot of money because of the claim of global warming.  Something that doesn't get talked about much is that not all of the consequences of Global Warming are bad. Something else that doesn't get talked about much is that the costs to mitigate the effects of global warming (if it exists) might be far LESS than the cost to actually reduce carbon emissions.

The fact is that the polar bear population is EXPANDING, polar caps go through stages of expanding and contracting, the Himalayan ice caps and not in danger of disappearing and the South American rain forest is shrinking, not because of global warming -as we have been let to believe- but because the South Americans are burning it down for farmland.  History has shown that the earth had been much hotter and colder than it is now.  Who knows what the RIGHT temperature of the earth is supposed to be?  There is evidence that the Earth has been COOLING for the past 10 years - nobody talks about that.  But, faced with all of these uncertainties, they still want to spend my money to solve a potential non-problem.  The mid-term elections can't come fast enough so we can start to put a damper on the Obama Administration and their Socialistic programs. 

The only positive thing that I have heard come out of the Obama Administration is his support for new Nukes, but I am just cynical enough to wonder if that is lip service and for some reason - we won't ever quite get there.  We need the Nukes for clean, reasonably priced energy, all of the solar based "Green Energy" (wind, hydro, solar, biomass, etc.) that everyone in government keeps talking about is never going to amount to a significant source of energy for an advance country line the USA nor is it going to provide "good quality jobs" for many of our workers.  Our manufactures are already out-sourcing component manufacturing. 

In closing, many of the big utilities and OEMs have sold out to Obama and his non-energy plan in hope of currying favor when and if the new rules come out.  I can only hope that many of the States currently suing the DEP over carbon emissions are successful.  The Power Generation Industry should take a lesson from what happened to the big pharmaceutical companies and Obama Care.  It is never fun getting thrown under the bus.


Doug Lemmo