Monday, April 11, 2016

Time is running out for a conversion to sustainable technologies


Trying to digest the remarkable news that 350,000+ people have plunked down a grand to get on a list to buy a car that won't be made for two years, and that they stood in a line to do it, I found myself watching a video of Elon Musk announcing his $135,000 Model X SUV.  It is pretty easy to see why this guy gets that many to part with their money to just buy a place in line.  Musk talks with the sort of ease and confidence of someone who has had a string of successes and knows what he is doing.  In the world of the Producer Classes, this is the prime requirement of a leader.

This, friends, is probably the most interesting subject of all.  History has shown that political revolutions are usually murderous failures.  The main reason is that one subgroup of the Leisure Classes is likely to be very much like the bums they replace.  The Roman Senators of 46 a.d. were probably a lot like USA Senators in 2016—vain, greedy, and clueless.  They are essentially conservative—they don't want things to change because mostly, they want more of the same.  The Producer Classes, on the other hand, want to change things very much and in the last 300 years, they have succeeded magnificently.  Whether the subject is communication, transportation, food production, or energy production and utilization, the methods and objects created by Producers are dramatically better than a few centuries ago.   As I like to say, aero engineers are not in the habit of wondering exactly what their "founding fathers" like Wilbur Wright thought about airplane construction.

So yes, Musk is a Producer and yes, Producers actually CAN change the world.  In fact, they are about the only ones who can.  And over the years, there have been some strategies for change that have worked a lot better than others.  Musk has chosen one of the best and he is executing it extremely well.  The basic plan is this:
  • The first products will be very expensive to make.  Therefore, you must get high prices for something no one has ever purchased before.
  • The best way to get high prices for a new product is to get premiums for soft features.  The most obvious is aesthetics but appeals to the human as a social animal who wants to be a responsible members of the larger group will also work quite well with something like an electric car.
  • Once you have figured out how to make something must-have with the trendsetters, the next step is to leverage this accomplishment by mass-producing a much more affordable version.
This strategy doesn't always work but it certainly has for Musk.  People now wonder if he can make so many cars.  Well, he does own the former NUMMI plant in Fremont California that at one time made 500,000 Toyota Corollas and Geo Prisms a year.  Some of the folks who made that operation work are probably still in the neighborhood.  He's already built his battery giga factory and it will soon start ramping up production.  Musk is a man on a mission.  And yet, these things take time.  It's one thing to say you want to have 30% of the passenger fleet electrified by 2025, but in the world of Producers, nine years in the future is next week.  Not only will Musk and Tesla have to sell 500,000 a year—all the other car makers will have to sell that many too.

Considering that with the possible exception of Musk, no one really knows how to sell these things so selling a half million cars is a TALL order.  Yes it will be easier once Musk has shown the way but it is still a LOT harder than it looks.  Musk builds brilliant cars.  He takes great joy in making something ridiculously interesting—not to mention crazy-fast.  People like buying products from someone who is out there trying to build something that is, as Steve Jobs would put it, insanely great.  And when electric cars become mainstream, the "revolutionary" who made it happen will be this Producer who first made them cool.

The follow is an article that highlights the massive problems of converting out of coal-fired electrical generation.  This is an industry that moves MUCH more slowly than the automobile business.  We should have been getting on with the conversion at LEAST a decade ago and yet we are still building brand new coal-fired plants.  Talk about not getting it.

The Clean-Energy Deadline Is Sooner Than We Think

Mark Buchanan, MARCH 29, 2016

Everyone knows that at some point, if we want to contain climate change, we'll have to stop building polluting power plants. New research suggests that moment may come much sooner than we realize.

In some areas, the world is making progress toward reducing harmful emissions. Earlier this year, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy reported that the use of coal-fired plants for electricity generation in the U.S. fell to the lowest level in 60 years. Some of the biggest U.S. coal mining outfits have filed for bankruptcy. Electricity from coal looks set to become increasingly rare in China as well. That's good news for anyone hoping that humanity might still manage to reduce carbon emissions enough to avoid warming the Earth's climate past the two degrees Celsius that scientists see as dangerous.

Even so, trends globally aren't so encouraging. Developing nations plan to build a lot more fossil-fuel generating stations, and global carbon emissions are still increasing. Electricity generation still contributes about one-fourth of all human-created greenhouse gas emissions. The crucial question, then, is whether we will manage the transition to zero carbon production in time -- and how much time we have.

A new study by researchers from Oxford University's Institute for New Economic Thinking offers an answer. In short, we have only a year or so to stop investing in new fossil-fuel power stations. After that, the expected emissions from those plants over their economic lifetime will commit us -- barring other exceptional changes -- to shoot past the 2 degree limit. This means we face crucial choices right now.

The trouble, as Alexander Pfeiffer and colleagues point out, is the amount of emissions already built into the system. Electricity infrastructure lasts a long time: Some thermal plants in the European Union are as much as 50 years old, and we should expect new plants to be used over a similar period of time. So the stock of existing plants, and any new construction, has repercussions for emissions decades into the future.

Climate Change

Climate dynamics add to the inertia. Once put into the atmosphere, carbon dioxide lasts for centuries, contributing to warming all the while. It's the total stock of carbon in the atmosphere, not what we happen to be emitting now, that matters most. Even if we reduce emissions quickly, the stock will decline much more slowly.

Taking these inertias into account, and using data from the IPCC on global carbon budgets and various scenarios for plausible future emissions and technology changes, Pfeiffer and colleagues analyzed how long we can go on building new fossil fuel power plants if we want to have a decent chance -- say, 50 percent -- of staying within the two degree limit. To that end, they introduced the concept of the “two degree capital stock" -- the total amount of electricity generating capital we can create before we've locked ourselves into dangerous warming.

By their estimate, if we don't shift all new electricity generation investment to zero-carbon technology by the end of 2017, we will face a number of unpalatable alternatives. They include accepting the likelihood of warming beyond the two degree limit, shutting down and writing off lots of the world’s energy assets or putting our hopes on carbon-capture technology that does not yet exist.

Pfeiffer and colleagues don't mean to be doomsayers. Their aim is to help policy makers get a more realistic view of the time available for making the shift to clean energy. National commitments to phase out fossil fuel power generation tend to focus on targets for emissions reductions. The EU, for example, aims to cut 40 percent by 2030. But emissions at any moment aren't directly linked to the atmospheric carbon stock that causes warming, nor do they reflect the future trajectory of carbon emissions implied by existing infrastructure.

Policy makers need to think a lot more about the repercussions of the fossil fuel power plants currently being planned, as well as associated coal mines and oil and gas fields. What we do today will affect the options available to us for decades to come. more

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