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On Mark Bittman Wrong On Gas: How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution

Cornell isn't dubious. The particular study by researchers at Cornell is dubious.

September 30, 2013    View Comment    

On Mark Bittman Wrong On Gas: How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution

Thanks Bob, the point I'm trying to make with the bridge argument is that energy transitions have always been and will continue to be the result of broader social, economic, and technological drivers. Look at what is happening with today's transition from coal to gas. A confluence of broad societal conditions had to come together – most importantly the commercialization of cheap gas production technologies, but also recent federal regulations and strong public demand for dealing with climate change – for it to happen. The coal industry is up in arms, sure, but there are larger forces at play. This has been the case for all prior energy transitions, whether from whale oil to kerosene or the increase in nuclear power beginning in WWII. There will always be discomfort and there will always be losers. There is no reason to believe that an eventual transition away from gas, or to carbon capture-equipped gas, is not possible. As I wrote for Ensia a few months ago, one way to do this is to ensure a revenue stream from increased gas development toward the development of zero carbon energy systems:

"Although the transition to cleaner, cheaper, more energy-dense fuel has many historical precedents, it is not inevitable, nor does it occur spontaneously. Natural gas has seen unprecedented growth in the U.S. as a result of technological innovation that led to its cheap and abundant production. It has had enormous positive economic impacts. But in order to fulfill its critical role in the transition to lower-carbon and improved energy technologies, natural gas must be recognized by policy makers and energy planners as a moment in the process of energy modernization and innovation, not the end point. One way to ensure this is to reinvest a portion of the enormous revenues from expanded gas production into zero-carbon energy innovation."


September 30, 2013    View Comment    

On Trash, Trees, and Taxes: The Cost of Germany's Energiewende

Hi Michael,

Your assertion that the uptick in coal in recent years is purely a result of the country’s shutting down of nuclear is dubious. Yes, most of the increase in coal use can probably be attributed to the decline in nuclear, but there has also been an increase in coal due to more intermittent wind and solar on the grid. Germany’s energy policy gives wind and solar generation first priority access to the grid. Large influxes of wind and solar typically force natural gas generation, not coal generation, offline due to gas’s higher marginal cost. Grid operators have filled the gap by building more coal capacity or burning more coal in existing plants. So the picture is not as simple as you make out and wind has not led to a one-to-one displacement of CO2 as you imply.

That said, we’re not arguing against wind or that wind has driven an increase in CO2 emissions. Wind and solar have clearly displaced some carbon emissions and Germany would be more carbon intensive if wind and solar hadn’t increased over the same period that nuclear has been declining. What we argue in our piece, and what I think is more important than arguing about how much carbon wind has displaced, is that by rejecting nuclear Germany has locked itself into an electricity sector that will be no cleaner in 2020 than it was in the year 2000.

At the planned current rate of expansion, when the last German nuclear plants shut down in 2022, renewables will be generating about 38 percent of electricity. With no more nuclear power in operation this will be the total share of zero-carbon electricity, but that’s almost exactly the same share of zero-carbon electricity Germany produced in 2010, when its share was 38.8 percent (22.4 percent nuclear and 16.4 percent renewable). This has been dubbed Germany’s lost decade.

But it’s more like a lost generation given that the policy of favoring renewables over nuclear has been in effect for 13 years and counting. In 1999, a peak year of power generation for nuclear, the share of zero-carbon electricity was 36 percent, with nuclear contributing 31 percent. Thus, over a twenty-three-year period of expanding renewables and closing nuclear plants from 1999 to 2022, Germany will have managed to decarbonize a meager 2 additional percentage points of its electricity.

And while I appreciate you pointing out that the countries with the most aggressive wind deployment have seen emissions reductions (you would need to do more analysis to prove causation here, rather than correlation), the countries that have experienced the fastest rates of decarbonization of the electricity supply are those that have rapidly ramped up nuclear power. For instance, between 1971 and 2006, France and Sweden, which both pursued nuclear power aggressively, achieved the fastest average rates of decarbonization of energy supply of any OECD nations (-2.0% and -2.5%, respectively – see link below). So while wind definitely contributes to modest decarbonization and CO2 emissions reductions in most cases, by locking out nuclear Germany has removed from the table the technology that has the best track record of meeting climate goals.

September 20, 2013    View Comment    

On Trash, Trees, and Taxes: The Cost of Germany's Energiewende

Hi Josh,

Breakthrough Institute is funded entirely by individuals and philanthropic organizations. We do not recieve funding from the natural gas industry. Please don't spread misinformation.

September 16, 2013    View Comment    

On Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950

Thanks, I fully agree that not including energy intensity in the analysis misses a big piece of the emissions mitigation puzzle. I considered doing a similar partitioning for energy intensity, but decided against it for this analysis because it's much more difficult to disentangle the various drivers of energy intensity declines. Drivers include sectoral shifts (e.g. away from energy intensive manufacturing), proportion of GDP spent directly on energy, and energy prices. This paper by Robert Kaufmann provides some insight on how to decompose energy intensity:

September 6, 2013    View Comment    

On Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950

The post does address emissions from oil. As you said, the share of oil in the total US energy mix hasn't changed very much in the last 60 years. Oil energy – as a share of the total – has been remarkably stable through the years. This is indicative that the makeup of the transportation sector – which is the largest consumer of oil products – hasn't changed very much in the last 60 years. Since oil's share of total energy hasn't changed very much, it hasn't contributed to very much of the change in economy-wide carbon intensity of the US. This is why it doesn't show up in my graphs above. Changes in oil, along with hydro, biomass, and biofuels, are all represented by the little grey sliver in the third graph. These energy sources have been quite stable as a share of total energy consumption.

September 5, 2013    View Comment    

On Greens Should Support Coal-Killing Natural Gas, Like They Used To

Michael, thanks for the question. The shale gas revolution "debate" has been dominated by extremes: loud radical voices on the left (Josh Fox, celebrities against fracking, etc.) and the industry perspective on the right. There is a dearth of rational, moderate discussion on this topic. Natural gas has done more than anything else to drive emissions down in the US. In our view it is part of a longer transition to a zero carbon future. Curtailing it completely – as those on the far left would have us do – would almost certainly mean more coal. We're trying to surface this and other trade-offs.

To answer your question: our audience is the general public: those who know a little about the shale gas revoltion but are inundated with extreme arguments either from the left or right.

July 18, 2013    View Comment