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

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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

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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.