“CLIMATE CHANGE” IS NOT A PROBLEM THAT CAN BE SOLVED. Now that I have your attention, let me explain. To solve a problem, one must define the problem. Only then can you develop alternative solutions that can cost effectively be implemented. The term “climate change” does not define a problem, as it’s too broad and offers too much room for misinterpretation. On this specific issue, most scientists would probably say this: Increasing worldwide CO2 levels are disrupting climate patterns. If unchecked, humans will be negatively impacted in the future. Anything above that statement is political fear-mongering. No scientist, for example, is saying that our planet is going to be destroyed if we don’t do something in 12 years. They are saying that people may be displaced due to sea level changes and there will be economic and other costs associated with changing temperatures.
With estimates as high as $4 trillion to convert our energy grid to renewable energy, it is valid to question whether we going to spend more money to fix the problem than the problem itself will cost. However, I recognize that’s not a question that can be asked without fear of retribution.
So, here is a discussion on five primary ways to reduce worldwide CO2 levels.
1. Control population growth. Humans exhale CO2 and need energy to survive.
2. Reduce consumption of fossil fuels.
3. Reduce energy used in homes, transportation and manufacturing by incentives.
4. Implement methods that absorb or capture CO2.
5. Use nuclear power and use renewable energy sources when they will actually reduce CO2 levels.
Population growth is on a path to solve itself. Worldwide population is projected to cap at about 10 billion people. In most nations, women are having fewer children. Negative population growth is a concern for some nations.
Burning fossil fuels releases CO2. However, we have incorrectly defined the problem statement as “we have to eliminate fossil fuels” instead of “we have to reduce overall CO2 levels.” We also must recognize that fossil fuels are the backbone of our economy and are responsible for saving millions of lives through increased food production, heating, cooling, jobs, etc. Fossil fuels keep our energy costs low and keep us energy independent as a nation. China controls the natural resources including the rare earth minerals needed for complete reliance on renewable energy sources. We do not want to be dependent on China for our energy needs, so we must use our fossil fuels to keep electricity affordable and reliable. CO2 levels have been reduced by 30 percent since 2005 largely by using more natural gas. That trend must continue and pipelines for providing gas must be built.
Reduce Energy use. The only “green energy” is the energy that’s not used. Calling any energy source green or clean is an oxymoron because all energy sources have negative environmental consequences. For example, the practice of buying solar panels from Chinese factories powered by coal, shipping them here by boat and then disposing of them after 25 years produces almost as much CO2 as it saves. Batteries needed for solar energy to be reliable have negative environmental and health impacts and generate large amounts of CO2 to produce. Proper incentives for energy conservation will save more energy than renewable generation sources will produce and place less disruption to the energy grid. Geothermal heat pumps, for example, could save consumers 25 percent or more on their electric bill and most importantly reduce the need for peaking power plants because geothermal heat pumps do not use heat strips when it’s cold. Government programs to replace old trailers and dilapidated homes will save more energy than the billions we are spending to install solar farms that only produce energy when the sun is shining.
Focus on life cycle CO2 and absorption methods. The focus on eliminating fossil fuels and increasing renewables is producing counterproductive results. For example, a 1 megawatt (MW) solar farm requires 5 acres of land and costs $2.5 million. Taxpayers and ratepayers are subsidizing 30 to 70 percent of that cost. This is counterproductive because about 24,000 trees will absorb the same amount of CO2 per year that a 1MW solar farm will reduce. Twenty-four thousand trees can be planted on around 25 acres and cost $75,000 or less to plant. We are incentivizing customers to destroy forest land to build solar farms because we have defined our goal as the need to increase renewable energy instead of reducing CO2. We are incentivizing renewable energy and causing market disruptions that are shutting down nuclear power plants that produce reliable, CO2 free energy at a low cost. We are incentivizing renewable energy and will be passing on trillions of dollars of costs to rate paying consumers because we have improperly defined the solution as the need to generate 100 percent renewable energy instead of what is the best way to reduce overall CO2.
Our ill-defined problem statement is driving policies that are increasing electric costs with minimal impacts to worldwide CO2 reduction. Cost effective solutions will only be implemented when we properly define the problem.
(Contributing columnist Dennis Turner is an engineer who lives in Camden, S.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.)