Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cutting Energy Use

I posted recently about the idea of "regression" - moving away from using so much energy, so that a transition to renewable sources can be made more easily.

How would we do this? How could our society use less energy - in particular, less fossil fuel based energy? This question depends on where one lives, obviously. You need to first understand the energy mix where you live. It's also important where your electricity comes from.

I think there are some pretty low-hanging fruit here in BC. I've posted about lots of them in the past. Have a look at my "energy pie" post, for instance. That's where it's obvious where some major gains could be had. The biggest gains would come from sharply reducing fossil fuel use in the transportation sector.

But clearly, our provincial government is not thinking along these lines at all. And, to be quite honest, neither are most municipal politicians, or probably most citizens. We've just had the new Port Mann bridge open, with 10 lanes - the widest bridge in North America - to enable more oil-based transportation. We will shortly be getting into replacement of the Massey Tunnel - and the plans there are for the same: a huge bridge for cars and trucks. New West is tussling with all the surrounding communities to try to convince them that a 6-lane Patullo is a bad idea, but it's swimming upstream the whole way. At the same time, the Tsawassen First Nation (who apparently have bought into our society's obsession with growth and the automobile) is building two new mega-malls which will be completely dependent on car-based consumers. Then, to top it all off, we're facing a referendum on TransLink funding, which is really being set up to fail. This would be, to put it mildly, a disaster of epic proportions. To be quite blunt, we need to back off on the car-dependence, big time, and invest heavily in public transportation - make it fast, convenient, and cheap.

If you are wondering what you can do about pushing for a more sustainable future, I'd argue that this area is the most important, and the most open to public input. Get out there, activists! I hear Get On Board BC is having an AGM soon, they're looking for help in working for a positive result on that TransLink referendum.

The next big fossil fuel user is heavy industry. That means: mining, cement-making, forestry, pulp mills, paper mills, smelters, etc. These businesses are very sensitive to energy prices and you can bet that they will do everything in their power to reduce costs of doing business. A carbon tax drives efficiencies in this sector, but the tax will be frozen at $30/tonne for the next 4 years. Obviously, it needs to go much higher - probably 2-4 times in the next decade or so - but this is likely not in the cards any time soon. This is, unfortunately, not an area in which Joe Public can do much. This is the jurisdiction of the Province, with lots of input from Big Business. Apparently, the carbon tax will be applied to any LNG burned in the province - which is good news, because the new plants will likely require onsite thermal gas plants to produce the electricity required to compress the LNG for shipping.

Residential energy use is, unfortunately, not an area where we can make big gains, here in urban BC. It is, though, where you can spend a little money to "do your bit", although if you rent, or live in an apartment or condo, you probably can't do much. Any money you spend will be "conscience money", because you likely won't see much of a payoff - the Lower Mainland has such a mild climate and our electricity rates are so low, that the return on investment of changes like these take a long time to realize. But if you want to contribute, think "energy star" all the way: your fridge, your furnace, augmenting or replacing baseboards with a heat-pump ("ductless mini-split"), improving your home's insulation and windows, etc.

What that energy-pie graph doesn't show, though, is the energy embodied in your diet. This is quite large, actually, estimated at 15-20% of your total footprint. You can make surprisingly large reductions by avoiding all beef and fish. You don't have to go totally vegetarian, or even avoid dairy or go organic, for a really sizable effect. And, of course, eat local and in-season. That's good for local farmers.

So there you have it: reduce car use, eat less meat, and help get the "yes" vote out in the upcoming TransLink referendum. Not much, is it? Until the government gets its head out of the sand, that's all we can do.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Big Bad Subsidies

The argument goes like this: our Big Bad Government gives away Tons of Money to Big Bad Oil Companies, and that if only they would give that money to Little Renewable Companies instead, we'd be on our way to green nirvana.

In today's episode of Green Myth Busting, let's have a detailed look at that claim.

Well, it's really pretty hard to find numbers on how much our various levels of government subsidize fossil fuel extraction. I recently came across this, though.There's a link in there to Canada, with a report and with actual data. So I had a look. In keeping with the theme of my blog, I'm just going to look at what affects me here, locally, in BC. So that is, BC provincial subsidies as well as the Federal ones.

[coal subsidies in BC, from the OECD report on Canada]

So, BC taxpayers hand over $25.2 million in subsidies (and I'm including supporting Geoscience BC, which is a non-profit) to fund the production of coal. From the BC Government's own statistics, that works out to about $0.91 / tonne of coal produced. 

I should note that 70-90% of this coal is of a metallurgical grade: it is used to make steel. It is high-grade, and too expensive for most buyers to burn for electricity generation. And, since I've already noted that we can't have solar panels or wind turbines without steel, is it fair to target these subsidies? 

Also note that the lion's share of the subsidies is in tax breaks from the Feds, and it's important to note that some of these tax breaks ("accelerated capital cost allowance", "flow through share deductions" ) would also be given to other businesses. Like windmills, for instance. So are these really subsidies that we should be getting angry about? Anyways, on we go, assuming "yes" to both those questions...

Here's the table for petroleum. Now we're into some bigger money. But, most of the tax breaks are federal, and those are mostly to the benefit of Alberta producers, who produce 99% of the oil in Canada. So I suppose I should really only count 1% of those Federal subsidies as going to BC. Then, I've subtracted out those subsidies that go to consumers in the form of fuel tax exemptions. Fair? That would make BC subsidies about $27 million in total, or about $3.40 per barrel of oil produced (here in BC).

[petroleum subsidies in BC, from same OECD report]

...and finally, let's look at natural gas. BC produces about 35% of the natural gas in Canada, the rest is in AB. So again let's split the Federal tax credits along these lines, shall we? That gives us about $180 million in subsidies, or about a nickel per cubic foot of gas produced.

[subsidies to natural gas production in BC and yeah, you know where it's from]

Right. So there you have it:

a buck per tonne of coal,
$3.50 per barrel of oil, 
a nickel per cubic foot of gas.

Works out to about $230 million, here in BC. I am not at all sure that this sum of money would bring about green nirvana. Supporting wind or hydro power here in BC is not without controversy. For electricity sources, a typical subsidy would be a guaranteed feed-in tariff, that would be a few cents per kWh or something. In fact, we can look this up since BC Hydro is the single buyer of 99% of the electricity in this province.

Let's do that math...if 1 bbl oil has the approximate energy content of 1600 kWh, our $3.50/bbl subsidy works out to about $0.002 per kWh. Note that this is very, very much smaller that BC Hydro's current "standing offer" of about $100/MWh for clean energy. $100/MWh is about $0.100/kWh, in other words, BC Hydro currently subsidizes clean energy at a rate 50 times higher than we subsidize oil.

Conclusion: We are already subsidizing clean energy at a rate 50x that of oil. It has not brought about green nirvana. The problem isn't lopsided subsidies favouring fossil fuels. The problem lies elsewhere, with the clean energy sources themselves, which are much more expensive than hype would have you believe. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Our civilization is defined by the oil molecule

That's my husband's favourite saying.

Replacing oil (and by extension, all fossil fuels) is desirable because:
1. using them releases CO2, which is causing global climate disruption, and
2. it is becoming steadily more difficult to find cheap fossil fuels

However desirable it may be, however, it's pretty obvious that replacement will not be either easy or cheap.

Judging by history, bringing online a new energy source (example: coal) and having it displace an older one (example: straw/wood) will take many decades. The bigger the scale of the replacement required, the more complicated, expensive, and time-consuming it is. And the scale of our fossil-fuel use is truly staggering. If you look at history, there have been several occasions when we moved from one source of energy to another: from wood/straw to coal, from coal to oil, from oil to natural gas (still ongoing!) and now into "renewables".


Interestingly, these transitions have all been remarkably recent. Coal came online in 1840 (and still has 50% "market share"), oil in 1915, natural gas in 1930. The natural gas transition, of course, is still going at full speed (think: shale gas - of which there is plenty on the planet). The penetration rate of each new wave is lower (it takes longer), because the scale required for penetration has gotten much larger. Modern renewables are in their infancy, and cannot be expected to scale up to any appreciable energy share for many decades yet.

Each new generation of energy source relies heavily on the previous ones. Each new source requires brand new infrastructure (ex. intermittent solar and wind require massive buildouts of new power lines) that requires using the old power sources to put into place. This is why it is not possible to "get rid" of, for instance, coal. We will be burning coal for many decades into the future. Coal is required to make steel, which is a major ingredient for windmills. And for the machinery required to mine silicon, which goes into solar panels.

This makes it very difficult to imagine what a "sustainable" civilization might look like. Everything around us - modern digital technology, transportation, agriculture, pharma, construction, mining - is based on coal/oil/natural gas, and many of these things simply cannot be done on the required scale by renewable electricity alone. To take one key example: one needs pure carbon to make steel. Today, that carbon comes from coal. Making steel creates a lot of CO2. (In the past, charcoal was used, which is partly why Britain has no more forests. ) Without steel, we would not have our modern society. No internal combustion engines, for instance.

We are trapped in a CO2-generating civilization, and there is no easy route out. Renewables cannot be brought into existence, cannot be maintained and repaired, without continuing along the fossil fuel path for many decades.

The only way out is via regression - cutting energy use drastically and rethinking our commitment to steel, digital technology, and the internal combustion engine. But this is a discussion we are not having. We all want to believe that the next technological improvement will save us, enabling our lifestyle to continue.

Regression means capping our energy use, which can only come about on the scale required by government action. That's what a carbon tax does. It will make steel much more expensive, it'll make car ownership much more expensive, it'll make owning a new cell phone every 3 years impossible. It will make new infrastructure like electric mass transit more expensive. And yes, it will make "renewable" energy much more expensive, too. And that scares people - and no wonder. What about all the jobs?

But we are locked in for the next few decades - and they will get rough as climate disruption starts kicking in. It may well be that the economic consequences of climate disruption are such that we will  no longer be able to afford our energy-hungry society, in which case, the regression will be imposed on us.

Best start planning for that.

Remind me: why are we tinkering with the ALR again?