Obama’s 80 Percent Clean Energy Goal: Who’s He Kidding?


Arguably the central provision of President Obama’s State of the Union address last night was the proposal to generate 80 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean energy sources by 2035 — including nuclear energy and CCS coal technology. Getting there will take a miracle, the same sort of pie in the sky thinking that allowed our president to also present the daft notion of  giving 80 percent of Americans access to high speed rail by 2035. This in a country that last built a great rail station over a century ago.

Both ideas, of course, fit neatly into the necessary big box of ideas that can generate the innovation, imagination, inspiration, and transition-era job growth that rebuilds the American economy, and especially the “be all you can be” contract with its people.

But neither is likely to happen. To achieve either goal will take a sharp shift in the political geography on the right and the left, as well as much larger public investments in innovation and financing than the country has been willing to make to date. In an era of fierce and fast-paced transition prompted by the new markets of the 21st century, Americans have expressed time and again their resistance to doing anything more than staying firmly in place. I’ve begun to call our predicament the “amber alert” because we’re so determined to wrap our personal gains and communities in amber.

Republican governors in the Midwest, for instance, want to give back the federal high speed rail construction money made available last year, and are governing against the clean energy investments that have helped turn solar, wind components, and lithium-ion battery manufacturing into the fastest growing new industrial sectors in Ohio and Michigan.

Let’s quickly evaluate the 80 percent electrical generation goal. To achieve 80 percent clean energy generation essentially means replacing at least 500 gigawatts of conventional coal-fired generation with cleaner alternatives. In essence, the U.S. would have to nearly completely rebuild its electrical generating infrastructure, which last year had about 940 gigawatts of electricial generating capacity. By 2035, according to DOE projections, electrical generating demand in the U.S. could grow to 1,200 gigawatts. Today less than a quarter of electrical generating capacity is supplied by nuclear power, hydro, wind, and geothermal in the U.S or roughly 225 gigs.

To date the nation has indicated no proclivity to launch a crash program for clean energy investment. The $100 billion provided in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, now threatened by the Republican House majority, is merely a down payment. In fact, the largest energy investment in the nation is being made to drill, mine, process, and transport the unconventional oil and gas reserves being tapped in the middle part of the country.

Moreover, while the right discounts the science of climate change and expresses skepticism about the costs of clean energy subsidies, the grassroots left is digging in to fight clean energy projects of scale. Opposition campaigns are occurring in at least 35 states and focus on every available alternative — wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and nuclear. Here in Benzie and Manistee counties where I live in northern Michigan, a $330 million proposal by Duke Energy to build 112 wind turbines is the focus of a fear-based opposition campaign that includes scientifically unfounded assertions that the turbine blades generate dangerous sound waves that can cause farm animals to spontaneously abort.

The country that is responding to the new energy market opportunities of the 21st century is China, which commands nearly all of those very same markets. I just returned from a long reporting trip to China for Circle of Blue, the first-rate independent news organization that covers the freshwater crisis. (See pix above of Ordos, Inner Mongolia) I serve there as senior editor. I visited the largest clean energy industrial park in the world in Gansu Province, as well as some of the largest steel plants, solar farms, and coal mines.

China has set a goal to drive their clean energy diversification program for electrical production — wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, IGGC — from 200 gigawatts currently to over 630 gigs by 2020. The breakdown by 2020 looks like this: wind (150 gigs), solar (20 gigs), nuclear (60 gigs), hydro (400 gigs).

Still, because of China’s rapidly growing demand for energy — total energy consumption has tripled since 1995, reaching over 100 quadrillion BTUs this year from 35 quads 15 years ago — coal will still be responsible for more than 70 percent of total electrical supply, a little less than it is today.

All that energy supports the world’s largest markets for steel, glass, cement, energy, cars, residential construction, nuclear and coal-fired power plant construction, hydro dam construction, highways, high-speed rail, and a dozen other critical products  of modern society. China’s transportation infrastructure has surpassed the United States, as have its grade school students, now the best in the world.

Americans note that China’s political economy is founded on a system that has no veto power. The country acts on what it decides regardless of public opinion. But you have to wonder whether there are facets of that system that are more fit for the time. China also produced 70 million new jobs in the last decade and the incomes of 400 million people are rising, in contrast to diminishing job numbers and steadily declining incomes in the U.S.

President Obama set out worthy goals last night to light at least a spark of national motivation to fix America. But moving forward on any idea of real significance is so difficult he declined to lay out even the most modest specific steps. You wonder whether a quarter century from now a U.S. president will still be able to say, “And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.”

— Keith Schneider

Memo to Hu and Obama: Water and Energy Choke Points Merit Time at the China-U.S. Summit


Washington’s foreign policy community is all aflutter anticipating the meaning and outcome of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s three-day summit with U.S. President Barack Obama, which starts today. But while the two heads of state focus on resolving what pries them apart, both nations share a dangerous confrontation within their borders over energy demand and water supply—offering a matchless opportunity for new kinds of cooperation on policy, technology, business, and trade.

The collision between rising energy demand and declining freshwater reserves, unfortunately, is not on the summit agenda this week. It’s only a matter of time before it is. Large expanses of both countries are being buffeted by new dimensions of water scarcity that impede development and economic opportunities.

There is powerful evidence that China’s dry and energy-rich northern and western provinces, for instance, do not have enough water to both build the modern manufacturing cities that Chinese authorities envision and develop the nation’s immense reserves of coal and natural gas.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., water scarcity is pitting energy developers against ranchers and farmers on the northern Great Plains, now emerging as the largest domestic oil production zone outside of the deepwater rigs off the Gulf Coast. Diminishing water reserves are putting the well-being of major American cities—Phoenix, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and others—at risk.

In contending with energy demand and water supply trends that are moving in opposite directions, the United States has the opportunity to share its energy efficiency and production technology with China, which, in turn, can offer the U.S. proven water conservation policies and practices.

Choke Points Shared By Both Countries

During the last seven months, Circle of Blue dispatched reporting and science teams to 18 American states and 15 Chinese provinces, producing Choke Point: U.S. and the upcoming sister project, Choke Point: China, which starts online publication on February 15. The purpose: to understand how both countries are contending with the tightening choke points between energy demand and water scarcity.

The major finding of Choke Point: U.S. is that the fossil fuel industry is busy replacing conventional supplies of petroleum and natural gas, produced from underground reservoirs, with “unconventional” fuel reserves, produced from deep shales and tar sands. In essence, much of America’s new supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline, and natural gas are generated from operations that resemble mining as much as they do ordinary drilling.

For the first time in a generation, U.S. oil production is steadily climbing. The new reserves, though, require much more water and generate more climate-changing carbon emissions than conventional oil and gas production. They also occur in some of the nation’s driest regions—Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Confrontations between agriculture, municipalities, state governments, and the oil industry are occurring and are sure to get worse.

The second major finding of Choke Point: U.S. is that, with the exception of energy generated from wind and from solar photovoltaic panels, almost every new “cleaner” energy alternative—including nuclear energy—requires more water for production and cooling than the conventional coal- and natural gas-powered energy sources they are meant to replace. The worst energy-water mismatch is in the production of biofuels, which were once seen as a promising replacement for petroleum-based fuels. Generating one gallon of fuel from irrigated corn, for instance, takes 650 gallons of water. Generating one gallon of gas from oil takes one gallon of water. Solar thermal power that is conventionally cooled consumes more water than a coal-fired or a nuclear-powered plant.

The U.S. Department of Energy has forecast the need to increase energy production 40 percent by mid-century. But unless there are significant changes in approach, meeting the demand for 40 percent more energy will come at an extraordinary price to the nation’s air, water, land, and quality of life. Rising energy demand and diminishing freshwater reserves are two trends in dramatic collision across the country. Moreover, the speed and force of the collision is occurring in the places where growth is highest and water resources are under the most stress: California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountain West and the Southeast.

A Confrontation That Grows More Dire
Energy-water stress points of the same magnitude also are occurring in China. China’s rising energy demand, the fastest in the world, is colliding with its rapidly declining supply of fresh water. China, among the world’s driest countries, has roughly 163 trillion gallons of water available for all uses, according to a study released in December 2009 by McKinsey’s 2030 Water Resources Group. About 63 percent is used by farmers, down from 85 percent in 1980, according to China’s Water Ministry. Municipal and domestic use has been stable at around 12 percent, and industry uses 23 percent; 80 percent of that to operate and cool China’s 10,000 coal-burning generating units in 550 power plants.

But by 2030, according to the McKinsey study, the demand for water in China’s rapidly growing economy will reach 215 trillion gallons, 52 trillion gallons more than is currently available. The increase in coal production and consumption is projected to account for most of the increase. The amount of water consumed by China’s energy sector will reach 70 trillion gallons, or 32 percent, while agriculture’s share will fall to 51 percent, according to McKinsey.

The China Water Ministry described the situation in a report earlier this year: “Rising water consumption associated with socio-economic development increasingly strains China’s freshwater ecosystems, challenging traditional water resource management.” In effect, the most critical economical and environmental question in China today is whether there is enough water for the nation to continue its stunning modernization.

Answering that question, of course, has stunning ramifications for the United States and every other nation that has business and diplomatic commerce with China. Both nations have proven knowledge that is readily available to loosen the tightening energy-water choke points. Now would be a good time to put it on the negotiating table.

Keith Schneider is senior editor for Circle of Blue, where this article first appeared. Reach him at keith@circleofblue.org.

In Tianjin, China and the U.S. Look A Lot Alike

Tianjin construction site

On opposite sides of the Pacific, leaders of the world’s two biggest economies and carbon polluters are plainly thinking about clean energy to power up their economies and cool the climate.

In Washington, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced their intention to extend vehicle efficiency standards that went into effect in April in order meet a national goal of 60 miles per gallon average fuel economy by 2025.

President Obama, in an interview in Rolling Stone magazine promised to keep pushing the clean energy and climate action envelope. And in his Saturday national radio address, the president attacked the Republican campaign plan to scrap clean energy incentives.  “We can go back to the failed energy policies that profited the oil companies but weakened our country,” the president said. “We can go back to the days when promising industries got set up overseas.  Or we can go after new jobs in growing industries.”

China Making Clean Energy Progress But Coal Dominates
Meanwhile in Tianjin, where China is hosting its first U.N. climate conference this week, Chinese officials also are touting clean energy initiatives. They include mandatory building standards established five years ago that are lowering energy demand, new offshore windfarms that supply as much power as big coal-fired power plants, new cities built on principles of energy efficiency and conservation, and a national commitment to lower the levels of carbon pouring into the atmosphere.

What distinguishes China from the United States is that there’s no political opposition getting in the way. China’s national policy vector is very plainly pointing in the direction of incorporating more clean energy technology, and energy efficient practices into its economy. The U.S. gear at the national level, with Republicans campaigning on a message attacking climate science, the Senate unable to act on a comprehensive bill, and investors unsettled by the roiled politics, is in danger of slipping into reverse if it hasn’t already done so.

What makes the countries similar, though, is how far each needs to go and what both countries are willing to do to really make a dent in reducing global carbon emissions. That, of course, has been the central issue confronting negotiators at UN climate meetings for several years, and it’s the single biggest issue in Tianjin.

Very briefly, while both nations are investing considerable sums in clean energy development, China and the U.S. also are tightly hugging the existing fossil fuel economy as essential to national stability and well-being. The consequences of that are considerable for the environment and the rest of the world.

The U.S. produces and burns 1 billion tons of coal annually, uses almost 7 billion barrels of oil, and last year produced 5.8 billion tons of carbon emissions. China meanwhile, according to state economic agencies, will mine and combust around 3.15 billion tons of coal this year, consume more than 3 billion barrels of oil, and produce around 6.3 billion tons of carbon emissions.

Soaring Energy Demand In China, Off The Chart Emissions
While U.S. energy demand and carbon emissions are slipping as a result of the Great Recession, China’s energy demand is soaring. By 2020 according to government projections, China will use 4.2 billion tons of coal – which accounts for 80 percent of its emissions.  And even if China meets its 40 to 45 percent reduction in “carbon intensity” by 2020,  an analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council projects that China’s carbon emissions will essentially double by the end of the decade.

Tianjin climate negotiators, aware of the stakes and stymied by the pace, press ahead here to draw a bit closer to global agreements on financing for developing nations to pursue clean energy, conserving forests, reducing the effects of climate change, verification and transparency, and other issues. The annual global climate summit in Cancun, Mexico approaches at the end of November. The new UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, said yesterday there is a dire need to show the world’s citizens that the negotiations are making “visible progress.”

Essentially what she meant is that negotiators need to change the vector of a grim situation. She commended NGO groups for generating grassroots support, including 350.org, which is holding its Global Work Party on Saturday at thousands of sites in nearly 200 countries.

Indeed, there’s time, bushels of good ideas, and a tide of public will to act. The NRDC and Environment America calculated that reaching the 60 mile per gallon mileage standard in the U.S. by 2025 would save consumers $101 billion in 2030, cut oil use by roughly 1 billion barrels, and reduce heat-trapping carbon pollution by 470 million tons, the equivalent of taking nearly 70 million vehicles off the road.

And here in China, before the Tianjin climate meeting opened, leaders in the Guangzhou, the nation’s third largest city, said that they were spending $37 billion on 34 projects to reduce fuel consumption, increase energy efficiency, and lower climate emissions. The projects include advances in public transit, replacing low efficiency lighting with LED technology, and generating a sizable share of the city’s power with green energy sources.

— Keith Schneider

Michigan’s Building Boom in Electric Vehicle Battery Manufacturing

HOLLAND, Mich. — In February 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which among other things provided $2.4 billion to encourage development of a domestic industry to make lighter, more energy-dense lithium-ion batteries to power electric vehicles.

Two weeks ago, on July 15, the president flew to this small city on the shore of Lake Michigan to attend the groundbreaking for a $303 million, 650,000 square-foot battery plant operated by Compact Power, a subsidiary of LG Chem, a Korean company, and to see other evidence of the stimulus bill’s influence in Michigan. He did not have to travel far.

There are 17 new plants in production, under construction or approaching groundbreaking in Michigan’s nascent vehicle battery sector, according to the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Two of them, representing an investment of $523 million, are in Holland, a city of 34,000.

Read more from my piece in The New York Times today here.

The auto-related re-industrialization of Michigan, much of it founded on clean car technology, represents one of the important hopeful signs of a potential recovery for the state. Moreover, the economics of this nascent transition is based on environmental principles. Vehicles are designed to be more efficient, cleaner, electric, and a bit more right-sized for the era. Michigan’s got lots of trouble but this one corner of the economy shows promise.

For those more interested in the trend, I’ve reported and published quite a number of other pieces on the green industrial trend here in Michigan.

March 31, 2008
Coal’s Soaring Costs, Wind Power’s Friendly Breeze

January 15, 2009
Obama’s Plan: Clean Energy Will Help Drive A Recovery

March 16, 2009
Michigan Unlikely Home For Solar Powerhouse

May 29, 2009
Michigan’s Sun, Wind Sprout New Clean Energy Jobs Sector

July 16, 2009
It’s Economy in Shambles, Midwest Goes Green

May 27, 2010
Michigan: Where U.S. Clean Energy, Emissions, Efficiency Policy Really Count

August 3, 2010
In Michigan, A Bet on Clean Energy Begins to Take Shape

— Keith Schneider

Copenhagen’s Fallout: Senate Drops Climate Action From Energy Bill

Senate Drops Climate From Energy Bill

Until December 2009, the idea of acting to cool the Earth was on a roll. High points included 2007 Nobel Prizes for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s breakthrough science and for Al Gore’s astonishing work to elevate global warming to an international priority, They also included Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential election, and the formation of global online grassroots activism led by  350.org and TckTckTck, a project of the Global Campaign For Climate Action.

But that month more than 100 heads of state gathered at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen and failed to reach agreement on binding international measures to limit carbon emissions and secure the planet’s safety. Nowhere has the fallout from Copenhagen’s grim result been more visible than in the U.S. Senate.

Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (in pix above with Sen. Kerry on left, and Carol Browner) emerged from a meeting with Democratic colleagues and announced that the new comprehensive climate and energy bill he promised last week would not include specific measures to limit emissions that are warming the Earth.

A much less ambitious bill will be introduced next week, said Sen. Reid, that focuses on a response to the BP Gulf disaster, improvements to energy efficiency, converting vehicle fleets to natural gas, and other narrower energy measures.

The introduction of such a bill would appear to have the effect of squandering the work of the House, which passed a cap-and-trade bill in June 2009 that set a national cap on carbon emissions and required companies to have permits for such emissions. It also would appear, if political polls are accurately forecasting severe Democratic losses in the fall, to kill any chance of capping carbon emissions in this Congress, the next, or even over the next decade.

For the foreseeable future climate action in the U.S. will be ad-hoc, piecemeal, uncoordinated, and not nearly as effective as it could be with a comprehensive legislative approach. If warming temperatures, failing industries, economic malaise, and energy insecurity is your idea of a good time, then this era of American inaction is just what the doctor ordered.

Weeks Of Work By Climate Activists
It’s not that people aren’t trying. The Senate decision to focus the new bill solely on energy came after weeks of intensive work by climate advocates to build a case for emissions limits in and outside Washington, organizing demonstrations at the grassroots, meeting with Senate staff, and raising the issue in the media. Since May, following the explosion and oil blowout in the Gulf, President Barack Obama also had campaigned for climate action in meetings with Senators of both parties, in public appearances outside Washington, and in a televised Oval Office address in June during which he called for a new “national mission” to achieve energy independence and safeguard the environment.

The effort, though, was impeded by opposition messages that asserted, with scant basis in fact, that limiting carbon emissions would severely raise energy prices and living costs, and by the prevailing politics of stasis on climate issues that define the era. Lawmakers in Australia, Japan, and Canada are having similar difficulties getting strong climate bills approved. The Copenhagen summit was a study in how pride and posturing trumped economic and ecological urgency.

“Many of us want to do a thorough comprehensive bill that creates jobs, breaks our addiction to foreign oil, and curbs pollution,” said Sen. Reid at a hastily called news conference today.  “Unfortunately at this time we don’t have a single Republican to work with in achieving this goal. For me it’s terribly disappointing and it’s also very dangerous.”

In The Face Of Record Heat, No Action
Indeed, Sen. Reid’s announcement came the same week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that 2010 is the hottest year on record, and on the same day that China said it would enact domestic carbon trading programs starting next year to help meet its target of reducing the nation’s carbon pollution.

“It should be a wake-up call that the same day Republican opposition kills a carbon price in the Senate, China announces it will put a price on carbon in 2011,” Joshua Freed, the director of clean energy program at the Third Way, a centrist think tank, told the Washington Post.

Appearing at the news conference with Sen. Reid was Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is widely regarded as the Senate’s most important advocate for reducing carbon emissions. Sen. Kerry promised to keep trying to find an opening to introduce and pass climate legislation in the Senate. “It’s not dying. It’s not going away,” he said. “We’re going to try our best to find a way to do it in the next few weeks. If we can’t do it in the next weeks, we’ll do something that begins to do something responsibly in the short term. But this will stay out there, and we’ll be working on it. We’ll be asking you to talk to your senators and move them to understand why we have to get this done.”

President Obama dispatched Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, to join Senators Reid and Kerry in making the announcement. Her assessment of a large portion of the problem was characteristically direct and unvarnished: “”As we stand here today we don’t have one Republican vote,” she said.

Democrats Not United in Support, Republicans United Against
Still, neither Reid nor Kerry were able to marshal consistent support from Democrats either. New West Virginia Democratic Senator Carte Goodwin, who this month replaced the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, announced even before he arrived in Washington that he would not support measures to limit carbon emissions. Other Democrats, most notably Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, also periodically expressed opposition.

Advocates of climate action expressed equal measures of frustration and resolve to keep trying today. “It’s deeply disappointing that Big Oil, Dirty Coal and their allies in Congress continue to stand in the way of creating a clean energy economy that creates jobs, makes America more energy independent and protects the planet,” said Gene Karpinski, the president of the League of Conservation Voters. “The twin challenges of building a clean energy economy and addressing global warming are too important to fail.  The fight to create new clean energy jobs and solve the climate crisis will continue — in this Congress, in the states and at the EPA.”

“Due to Republican leaders inaction,” said Daniel J. Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, “China will continue to expand its clean energy industry and jobs. We will spend $1 billion each day on foreign oil. And power plants will spew billions of tons of pollution.”

— Keith Schneider