"Bear Any Burden, Pay Any Price"

The title comes from "The Kennedy Doctrine", the name gven to Kennedy's Inaugural Address about assuring the survival of liberty. Exactly how much are people really willing to pay to "Save the Planet"? Enough? Or will they drop the demand when they see the bill?

It's fun having a blog nobody reads. I post stuff up, re-read it and realize it's crap and rewrite. I did my third rewrite of this the other day and realized it's becoming meandering crap. I wanted to have this theme of the three things you can do about the three main fossil fuels, but it's becoming clear to me my "turn off natural gas on a neighbourhood level" thing is a whole topic in its own right: one nobody else is covering, no environmental activist is proposing. I undoubtedly need to break that out as a whole separate essay, and this space will be undergoing radical editing in the near future. Be advised you may be unable to find this current version in soon, if you should wander in here.

Continuing on with my, ah, "Carbon Trilogy", from my last two posts which recommended not protesting the Tar Sands infrastructure, and then not protesting any other oil development, I move on to the positive by recommending what you should do to Save The Earth from greenhouse gases.

A full answer to that would undoubtedly be another trilogy: this one of 400-page books by Vaclav Smil, like the one I recommend at the bottom. If there's anything that his "Energy Transitions" hammers into you, it's that changing the energy infrastructure for seven billion people will be a huge, long-term, very expensive process with thousands of details.

Our "fortitude" for this change has not been well demonstrated yet. Most "green" activities that the public shows enthusiasm for are pretty cheap. Politicians, except for Mr. Kennedy above, rarely make speeches about how much they expect society to pay for their their proposals. It's rare indeed for a political speech to amount to, "We understand this will cost every household thousands of dollars per year, and we are bravely committed to that price."

Those who make the large decisions in our society are primarily driven by money concerns, that is, what we-the-public will buy. They don't take initiatives that people won't use. The classic story about the problem is from, of course, the humour paper, The Onion, shown at left/above.

People say they want "vibrant cities" ("vibrant", municipal politician's favourite word, means "pedestrians visible all the time" and "solvent street businesses") but they would rather live in single-family-detached housing that is somehow close to that high density without being part of it. They want fossil fuel usage reduced, but to still live a high-energy lifestyle personally, with fresh bananas from the tropics by boat, and flights down to those tropics by aircraft.

I keep coming back to George Monbiot's book, "Heat" because he explicitly says in the opening that he is looking for technologies that allow de-carbonization of energy without anybody sacrificing lifestyle. Because they won't.

We have to both (1) find technologies that de-carbonize for a fraction of most people's income sacrificed, and (2) get everybody to make that fractional sacrifice. People will certainly sacrifice something out of environmental appeals; but will it be enough?

Many of the public have signalled their willingness to pay some hundreds of dollars per year for intangible values like organic and cruelty-free food, products from non-sweatshop factories, and so on. Many have spent thousands more already on hybrid and fully-electric cars. Much of what comes below, however, will basically take a thousand or three dollars from your disposable income every year, with few benefits except emotional satisfaction. There's limits to what people will pay for that. We need to either stretch their limits, or lower the cost to them.

I write today because an article exactly on this point just appeared in Vox magazine, "Utilities have a problem: the public wants 100% renewable energy, and quick", bemoaning that the public just wants utilities to magically make their electric power carbon-free,when that's just not technically possible without decades of infrastructure construction.

Wonderfully, they sensibly hired a marketing firm to survey this and it gives us a current planning figure for that public tolerance - at least when it comes to their electric power bills.

The graphic is lifted from that Vox story and is another link to it (graphic will be removed upon request, Vox). It turns out that public enthusiasm for this advance drops from 87% down to 51%, barely able to win a vote if there was one, at the point where your electric bill jumps up by 30%.

That metric is the key. 30% more may be enough for some utilities to switch to wind, solar, hydro, even nuclear; others, not. What will happen, however, is whatever people will pay for, and demand. We will de-carbonize the world energy system when people are willing to pay enough for it.

I have three solutions below: one virtually kills coal, the next most of oil usage, the last natural gas. They call cost money, though some plausibly claim to actually save it in the long run; even those cost a lot of money up-front.

If people will spend the money - directly by their own purchases, or indirectly by accepting higher utility rates and tax rate, the rest is a "simple matter of engineering". Give us engineers a lever and a sufficiently-tall stack of bills to rest it on, and we will move the Earth.

So we have to take the point of the Vox story to heart:

#1: To Kill Coal, Accept Higher Electric Bills

What's difficult about this one is that it is fully invisible. When you get a virtuous T-shirt or virtuous car, you have the satisfaction of enjoying your new purchase, it is tangible. You can even show it off, brag to your friends about your virtue. Clean electricity, on the other hand, just comes out of the socket the same as dirty energy. Only your knowledge of how the upstream plant works is different. It is a commodity, every watt and identical product to every other, however they were made.

We have curious price-sensitivities. If something is a complete commodity, we can be picky down to the last percent about its price. Wal-Mart took over whole markets because they save you five bucks every hundred-dollar shopping run, so, too bad for the Mom & Pop stores on Main Street. People liked their Main Streets and "vibrant" sidewalks, but not enough to pay an extra $5 every few days for them. Ditto with "Buy American", as successful Chinese factories can tell you. I pick the example because "$5 every few days" at Wal-Mart is maybe $500 per year. Clean electricity may well cost more than that, so people will have to value it more than "Main Street" or "Buy American".

At left/above, 100MW gas-powered plant

Clean electricity won't be cheap. It's not just that extraction of power from the wind and sun is "low density" energy, with more infrastructure needed, there will be huge new needs for long-distance power transmission - estimate for the North American continent run upwards from a trillion dollars, or nearly $10,000 per household. That is, the new grid itself could raise typical household electric bills by many hundreds of dollars per year, even if wind power turns out to cost the same as coal. If that sounds high, rememember it's only about a buck per person per day. The grid and the new power plants together might be a few bucks per person per day for all the 400 million of us in North America. (Canada and the USA have a single power grid, in financial/engineering terms.)

Changing the grid, by the way, is a truly continental strategic decision. One plant alone shutting down coal or natural gas to go with solar or wind will not trigger it. We have to make a major decision to spend that trillion so we can have thousands of renewables-based plants, all able to share around power when the wind is not blowing somewhere, or the sun not shining. Once that strategy is made, however, the money will still have to come from people's power bills.

At right, 100MW solar-powered plant, much larger.
The central buildings, alone, are larger than the gas plant above.

It will probably be more than that 30%, though, at least for a few decades while major changes are all being constructed. Definitely so if we "strand" assets by shutting down power plants with decades of life left, one of the reasons Professor Smil is certain it will take a number of decades. It could still be over 50%. Accept this and let your politicians and utility know it. Only when enough poeple do will change come.

At present, the survey-answers have told their utility that they will pay 30% more, and and just barely 51% of them will pay that much. If the utility sees it will take 50% more, they won't move. They'll start a publicity campaign to make you feel better about what technologies they do have, encourage some conservation, and other tricks to move the public-opinion needle without actually building new plants. Politicians will be no more brave. Because the real signal isn't the claim you want renewable energy: it's your willingness to pay for it.

It will require a sales job, and most such break it down to a daily price you can feel ashamed for NOT paying: another $730 per year per house is just two dollars a day. Come on: you won't kill off coal for less than the cost of a coffee per day?

Electricity from renewables will nearly kill the coal industry. Power generation is its major market, though smelting and steel-making will keep a few mines open until we signal that we're willing to pay more for every single steel product; a higher price increase, probably, than the 25% tariffs currently bedeviling steelmakers trying to sell to Mr. Trump's USA.

Coal. Done in for a few bucks a day! Savour your triumph for a moment, then get your wallet back out.

#2 Killing Oil: Switch To Electric Cars. And Light Trucks. And Buses. And Trains. (And new fuels for ships and aircraft)

Most oil is used for transportation, so this means "killing gasoline and diesel". Everybody knows about the virtues of electric cars already, though you may have forgotten all the carbon needed to bring you every product you buy, especially your food, on trucks and ocean ships. Light trucks for delivering bread around town can go electric, but the big semi-trailers cannot. We could divert some cargo to trains, and make the trains electric with a lot of cable-laying, but not all. For ships, large trucks and airplanes, we may have to go into hydrogen-powered engines. Again, prices will go up. For nearly everything! You'll have to signal a lot of concern and willingness-to-pay to solve it, before anybody will invest money or change the nature of ships.

The capitalist system does not run on faith. It will not build your Field of Dreams. They have to know you will come before they build it.

Ships may actually be the toughest ones. They can hardly get electricity from cables. Their engines are the most-efficient ways of turning carbon into motion, as it happens; no heat-engine is as efficient as a modern large-scale diesel. Turning them all nuclear like aircraft carriers makes going nuclear for power generation on land sound safe and easy; the world has some 50,000 cargo ships today; that's a lot of small nuclear reactors. About the only thing that comes to mind is compressed hydrogen gas. There are a lot of hydrogen-fuel advocates. They wanted cars to go to hydrogen fuelling, but the battery solution is winning right now. The hydrogen crowd may, however, have the consolation prize of ships, aircraft, and large, long-distance trucks.

Even sharp increases in cargo costs could be quite bearable by the public; it is usually not much of the cost of the overall product. There's an illustration of why "globalization" of products has worked so well. It's that the $25 charge that your electronics superstore charges to deliver your new big-screen TV from their store to your house is more than it cost to deliver it from the Asian factory to the big-box store, including the Asian truck and rail, the ship, the North American rail, and truck. So you can double that $25 for trucks, rail and ships and your $899 TV just went up to $924. (Cherry-picking, I admit. Low-value products like those bananas have a far larger relative cost for moving them. Banadas might go up by 30%, not just 3% as with the TV.)

Buses and the light-trucks that deliver most cargo and services inside cities appear to be not so large a problem. The solution is already well under way in China, as detailed in this article from the World Economic Forum, following a Bloomberg report. The difference is that inside cities, there can be many opportunities to recharge, as both kinds of vehicles stop frequently. The Bloomberg analysis showed that while electric buses are far more expensive up-front, they have lower operating costs and will be about the same ticket-price over the long run - and being large, bus companies can get the long-term financing to make that happen immediately. Hence China, no climate heroes with their very dirty coal plants, are switching to them at a staggering rate. We should push our transportation departments to do the same, and accept some costs to subsidize it. In this case, the high costs will not last long; this revolution will pay for itself once it gets started.

Aircraft were the despair for George Monbiot in his book, "Heat", on the practical problems of decarbonization. Alcohol-based biofuels are bad in aircraft because alcohol combines with water when -40C temperatures at altitude condense it. And biodiesels with fat/oil bases tend to get lumpy at the same temperature. These objections may be overcome with clever chemistry. But whatever the solution, you can be certain the cost of your air ticket will go up. So they will only switch when they are sure people will pay that premium.

#3: Killing Natural Gas: Demand Utility Projects to Convert Communities to Heat Pumps

The willingness to pay more for electricity will get rid of some natural gas, which is increasingly used for power generation, but most is spent space-heating our homes and offices with natural gas furnaces. Were we to heat with electric heat entirely, the price would at least triple.

There is a very clever scientific trick for heating a space with much less electricity, however. A Heat Pump is, conveniently, three to four times more energy-efficient at space heating than a simple electrical resistance heater. They work like refrigerators, which pump heat out of the refrigerator cabinet and to a radiator on the back. Heat pumps use the same principle (that compressing gas heats it up) to pump heat from outside the house (either the air or the soil) and into it.

For most houses and offices, heat pumps, along with better insulation and draft-plugging, are actually cheaper than heating with natural gas - over the very long run. Their cost is that you spend ten or twenty thousand dollars up front to install the heat pump. Then you save a small amount on fuel and your investment, plus interest even, is paid back..over decades.

You'd think this would be a small decision, even a $20,000 heat pump installation a minor point in a $400,000 house purchase. Especially since people are now buying "high efficiency" furnaces that cost $8000 and more. Alas, an extra $10,000 is still $10,000, and heat pumps are very unpopular.

Part of the problem is that the gas utility does a lot of up-front spending as well, and only passes it on to you over the same 20 years and more: they have to run gas pipes under every street in your town, and a small pipe up to your house. That's very expensive, too, and it means your whole town has a separate piping network for what, just as I write, we have been reminded is an explosive.

The switchover from gas furnaces to heat pumps is the hardest social problem, because it should really be done in groups, by neighourhoods. For starters, all new housing subdivisions developed should receive no gas pipes, and all new construction of in them should have 100% heat pump houses that don't need those gas pipes. The reaction of gas utilities can be predicted, and they are wealthy, politically-powerful entities.

Retrofitting old houses would also best by done by neighbourhoods, as defined by the gas network. Whatever group of homes get their gas from a given tap on a major gas trunk line. In the real-world map at left/above , the heavy black lines are the gas mains for a neighbourhood. A close inspection of the network will show that connections that cross major roads into the local network are only at three places, circled in blue. Close those three valves, and the whole area loses gas service, and the utility can quit maintaining those pipes. If you don't go in neighbourhoods, the utility has the complaint that it must raise prices on those who do not go to heat-pumps, since now a minority of customers must still bear the full cost of the pipe maintenance for the neighbourhood.

So you have to convince a money-making utility to accept that they are a sunset industry with no new customers - and that they have to work with regulators to shut down their whole business, one neighbourhood at a time.

They will not go quietly into the night. It will require money and determination to force them.

Eliminating the natural gas industry is not the lowest-priority, either. It's put forward as a clean fuel that needs only half the carbon emissions to produce the same energy. That would be great if methane (what "natural gas" almost entirely is, the rest is ethane) were not 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas, for decades, as CO2 itself. That means that if 1% of the methane escapes, anywhere between the wellhead and your furnace, and the total climate effect of the combustion is:

50% (of the CO2) + 1% (is methane) x 80 = 130%

of the harm done by heating your house with coal; so our modern efficient, gas furnaces are worse than coal furnaces from the early 20th century.

The industry claims their leak-rates are very small. I have no proof to the contrary, but colour me very suspcious. I'm pretty sure they are actually the worst climate offender of the three basic fossil fuels. I spent a career trying to make the pipes down the same streets not leak water. We figured we lost at least 8%, and if so, we had one of the lowest water-leak rates in the industry.

I was recently delighted to find that there is a major heat-pump project practically in my own backyard: the Haida Gwaii, the islands near Vancouver Island.

A community called Skidegate, about 2500 Haida people, installing heat pumps in all their 350 homes. This was such a large order that the supplier, Fujitsu, sent a rep to the island to "find out what was going on". They were so thrilled, Fujitsu threw in large-scale heat pumps to handle their rec centre and community hall, for free. They believe they will be seeing savings of about $100/month/household; if so, they could see a payback in barely ten years. More and more installs will bring about lower prices and better technology, so pushing forward more such projects with subsidies and regulations is surely an obvious national strategy.

That works for rural locations, at least, not already in the sunk cost, indeed the grip, of a natural gas utility. As heat pumps prove themselves in such projects, perhaps we can start to discuss the strategic decision to stop adding in new natural gas delivery infrastructure. That's the real decision: you don't actually have to use heat pumps; you just don't get don't get "free" natural gas service to your house lot any more, so gas-heat is not an option. You can use a heat pump, or have propane delivered, or chop wood, perhaps combined with a "Passivhaus" design so energy-efficient you barely need heating at all. You just can't buy natural gas any more, unless you have a tiny LNG terminal in the parlour.

It's impossible to imagine that happening without a government changing development rules. It could literally happen at the municipal level. It would be something to see some small town bell the cat and forbid any more gas mains be laid down.

It's funny as I think of it that there are people making great and passionate efforts to forbid an oil pipeline passing through rural locations where acres of spill could be cleaned up without coming near a human. At the same time, nobody is even discussing using proven, affordable technologies to forbid any more pipelines full of explosives that blow up buildings be used in front of houses with their kids in them.

We could start shutting down new natural gas infrastructure in a few years of ramping up for it: building whole new factories to make heat pumps instead of gas furnaces; changing house-building to an (even) higher heat efficiency standard, and building up the construction industry to install heat pumps as part of the house building job.

Canada's existing strategy revolves around a "carbon tax", which is a good start, it certainly targets coal, that being pure carbon. If they could adjust it to be more about "total climate impact" so that my natural gas "130%" calculation made natural gas even worse than coal, it would be a better start. Alas, carbon taxes suck at killing oil: fifty dollars per tonne of carbon only raises the price of gasoline by a few cents per litre, which will have no effect on consumption at all.

Fortunately, even the existing economics are favourable to electric vehicle conversion, and the key development there is more likely to be further improvements in batteries, than any economic stimulus.

In general, however, my central point remains: fossil fuels were and are a cheap way to get energy, and a wonderfully compact way to store it. That economic utility means that switch away from them makes us all poorer in every way except environmental improvements, and pretending that it will be easy and free is self-delusion. We need to accept that a clean-energy world will have to switch some of our money - everybody's household budget money - away from other things and towards more-expensive energy, much of which will show up in higher prices for nearly every product and service. The industries that don't want their products to be more expensive and less-popular will fight tooth and nail, and they will fight by loudly reminding us all that the cost comes from our pockets.

We have to be able to reply that we know and we accept it.

Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2018. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.
(Except my own Calgary map,above, which is public domain).