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Al Gore and the wedges game

Whether they realize it or not, policymakers dealing with energy and climate issues are now deeply engaged in the wedges game. What is the wedges game? It is a useful way of thinking about how to replace energy technologies that produce greenhouse emissions with less-harmful alternatives.

Princeton professors Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala first introduced the concept several years ago, and it has really taken off. The basic concept is this: we have an industrial society built on a shaky foundation of fossil fuels that must be replaced. There is no one technology that can substitute directly for fossil fuels, but by combining technologies and new lifestyle choices, we can ramp down our emissions to a safe level. Each option is termed a "climate stabilization wedge" because it will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stabilize the climate.

Wedges include solar power, wind power, more efficient appliances, green buildings, coal-plant carbon capture and storage, public transportation, auto fuel efficiency, nuclear power and so on. Socolow and Pacala have turned their idea into an actual role-playing game that is being adapted for use in schools.

The wedges game certainly has all the elements of a fast-paced, exciting game: you have to keep the atmospheric CO2 concentration under 450 ppm, but your society is now on track to double its carbon emissions in the next 50 years. If you fail, your planet may lose its Arctic ice cap, which is likely to tip the climate into runaway heating mode and destroy human civilization. If it were just a game, it would be lots of fun, but unfortunately, it is very real.

Richard Richels, a senior engineer at the Electric Power Research Institute, thinks that the wedges idea is useful for helping people to understand that there is no silver bullet solution to the climate-energy crisis. However, Richels is concerned that letting participants just choose the wedges they like best does not consider real-world cost factors. "You've got to get the economics in there," he said. "If the train is really going to leave the station on this issue, the price of the ride is going to have to be affordable." But who determines what is affordable and feasible?

We can find an answer to that question by comparing the public impact of two recent studies that assess the feasibility of different kinds of climate wedges. In early February, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) released a study showing how the energy efficiency and renewable energy wedges together can reduce US emissions enough to meet the goal of keeping CO2 under 450-500 ppm.

Two weeks later, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) released an assessment of carbon reduction wedges for the utility industry that snipped out only tiny slices for increases in efficiency and renewables, while chopping out big fat wedges for new nuclear plants and coal-carbon capture and storage. Both the EPRI and the ASES studies focus on emissions reductions that can be achieved by 2030.

While the EPRI study was covered in the New York Times and elsewhere, the ASES study was covered by only two news organizations, The Daily Camera out of Boulder, Colorado, and Truthout.

Neither the EPRI study nor the ASES study considers the economic costs of its scenarios in a comprehensive way. Each relies instead on the independent judgment of experts in their fields about what is achievable both technically and economically.

The difference in their assessments of renewable energy is striking. EPRI allows renewable energy to grow from today's 1.6 percent to only 6.7 percent of our electric energy portfolio by 2030. ASES says it can grow much more - to 40 percent by 2030.

I emailed Charles Kutscher, editor of the ASES report, to ask him why he thinks the EPRI report downplays renewables so heavily. His answer is worth quoting in full:

There is an old saying that the challenge in predicting the future is that it 'isn't what it used to be.' EPRI sees a mix of fossil, nuclear, and renewables that does not depart greatly from what we have today. To them the future is basically what it used to be.

In his book, 'Energy Autonomy,' Hermann Scheer lists a number of technological and economic assumptions that many people mistakenly embrace. One is 'the functional priority placed on existing energy supply structures.' As he puts it, 'This premise turns the status quo into the standard for determining how much renewable energy can be tolerated.'

In support of this premise, EPRI used very low cost estimates for carbon-free alternatives to renewables. For example, slide presentations on the EPRI web give a levelized cost of electricity for nuclear power as under 5 cents per kWh. Back in 1996, the California Energy Commission estimated the cost of nuclear power at 11.1 to 14.5 cents per kWh.

Kutscher also pointed out that the coal-carbon capture and storage program EPRI relies on so heavily for emissions reduction is an unproven technology. Not a single coal plant has been built anywhere in the world that uses the complete capture and storage process. The first US pilot plant that can capture CO2 from coal burning, called "FutureGen" is due online in 2012, but the safety and reliability of long-term storage of CO2 underground has yet to be demonstrated. Kutscher says that EPRI has also low-balled the cost of this technology, accounting only for the cost of capturing the carbon and not for storing it.

So who determines what options are most affordable and feasible? Up until now it has been the utility industry in conjunction with the oil, coal and gas producers. But today there is a revolution in the air.

When Al Gore testified in Congress on March 21, he brought up the idea of decentralized power from renewable energy, and he called for policy changes to make it happen. Here's what he said:

We ought to have a law that allows homeowners and small-business people to put up photovoltaic generators and small windmills and any other new sources of widely distributed generation that they can come up with and allow them to sell that electricity into the grid without any artificial caps, at a rate that is determined not by a monopsony - that's the flip side of a monopoly.

You can have the tyranny of a single seller; you can also have the tyranny of a single buyer, and if the utility sets the price then it'll never get off the ground. But if it's a tariff regulated according to what the market for electricity is ... then, you might never need another central station generating plant.

In the same way that the Internet took off and stimulated the information revolution, we could see a revolution across this country with small-scale generation of electricity everywhere. Let people sell it! Don't reserve it for the single big seller.

You can click here to watch this portion of Gore's testimony.

If we are going to play this wedges game, and it's looking more and more like it's the only game in town, then we have to play it fair. What Al Gore laid out in his full testimony was the rules of the game, starting with the goal, which he says is to freeze carbon emissions at current levels immediately, followed by a program to generate 90 percent reductions by 2050.

The details of Gore's testimony can be boiled down to various ways of leveling the playing field. Gore may not want to run for president, but he's looking like a pretty good umpire. Let the game begin!

Al Gore's Ten Point Plan for Global Warming, presented to both houses of Congress on March 21, 2007:
  1. Immediately freeze carbon at the existing level; then implement programs to reduce it 90 percent by 2050.

  2. Reduce taxes on employment and production, instead taxing pollution (especially CO2). These pollution taxes would raise the same amount of money, but make us more competitive by encouraging employment while discouraging pollution.
  3. A portion of the revenues must be earmarked for low-income and middle-class people who will have a difficult time making this transition.
  4. Negotiate a strong global treaty to replace Kyoto, while working toward de facto compliance with Kyoto. Move the start date of this new treaty forward from 2012 to 2010, so the next president can start to act immediately, rather than wasting time trying to pass Kyoto right before it expires. We have to try to get China and India to participate in the treaty. If they don't immediately participate, we have to move forward with the treaty regardless, trusting that they will join sooner rather than later.
  5. Impose a moratorium on construction of any new coal-fired power plant not compatible with carbon capture and sequestration.
  6. Develop an "electranet" - a smart grid that allows individual homeowners and small businesses to create green power and sell their excess power to the utility companies at a fair price. Just as widely distributed information processing led to a large new surge of productivity, we need a law that allows widely distributed energy generation to be sold into the grid, at a rate determined not by the utility companies, but by regulation. The goal is to create a grid that does not require huge, centralized power plants.
  7. Raise CAFE standards for cars and trucks as part of a comprehensive package. Cars and trucks are a large part of the problem, but coal and buildings must be addressed at the same time.
  8. Set a date for the ban of incandescent light bulbs that gives industry time to create alternatives. If the date is set, industry will meet this challenge.
  9. Create Connie Mae, a carbon-neutral mortgage association. Connie Mae will defer the costs of things like insulation and energy-efficient windows that cut carbon but are often not used by builders or renovators because they add to the upfront costs of homes, only paying for themselves after several years of energy savings.
  10. The SEC should require disclosure of carbon emissions in corporate reporting.

- From the AlGore.org web site.

Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."

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