Is Coal Really “Peaking” in China?

Better Technologies Needed for Emissions to Start Falling

“While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.” So concludes a recent blog post from the Sierra Club’s Justin Guay and Greenpeace International’s Lauri Myllyvirta, the latter of whom recently published an analysis suggesting that Chinese coal consumption dropped in the first half of 2014:

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Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print

Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs

Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.

That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.

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How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise

Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector

When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers. 

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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High-Efficiency Planet

Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?

When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result. 

“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”

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The Power of Nationalism

The Romantic Roots of the Antinuclear Energiewende in Germany

The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.

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The Low-Energy Club

Sierra Club Report Calls for Universal Electricity Access at 0.15 Percent California Levels

In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources. 

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Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature

Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.

But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment. 

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Patent-Free Innovation

Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech

Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.

Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.

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Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones

The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids

“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”

This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”

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Nuclear Is Cheaper Than Solar Thermal

New Vogtle Plant Costs Half As Much as Crescent Dunes Solar Facility

I’m a big fan of TIME reporter Mike Grunwald and often think that he and Breakthrough are among the only people who really understand that Obama’s signature climate policies are not fuel economy standards or power plant regulations, but the tens of billions invested in clean energy technology and innovation. 

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Making Fossil Fuels Irrelevant

Why Raising the Price of Fossil Fuels Is A “Waste of Effort”

On Monday, under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, President Obama proposed regulations requiring significant reductions in greenhouse gases produced by each American state. Using 2005 as a baseline, states, on average, will be required to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. If the courts allow it, a year from now, those regulations would go into effect and about two years from today, on June 1, 2016, the states would be required to tell EPA how they will achieve those reductions. The president's move is long overdue, but remains a significant step. It says that global warming is an established scientific fact and American public policy and law will now turn to the long-term goal of mitigating climate change. 

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Why Innovation Should Be at the Heart of Climate Policy

An Interview With Matthew Stepp of CCEI

As a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Matthew Stepp was frustrated by the fact that the major climate change policies under debate – carbon pricing, electric vehicle subsidies, feebates – weren’t enough to deeply cut carbon. He was also skeptical that the climate advocacy’s vague call for movement building could change the political economy calculus.

At the Breakthrough Institute, where Stepp was a Generation Fellow, he found others who shared his frustration and were attempting to outline new policies that could effect technological change. Four years later, and Stepp is now the leader of the first think tank in Washington, DC, that is dedicated to spurring clean energy innovation, much like what was accomplished with the shale gas revolution

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Growth of Biomass Far Outstrips Growth of Solar and Wind

Absolute Growth of Biomass in US 2X Higher than Wind and Solar

If I asked you to think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs, or massive hydroelectric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bioenergy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.

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Can Any Tech Stop Asia’s Coal Future?

Solar, CCS, Nuclear, and Natural Gas Not Scaling Fast Enough

Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.

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Five Energy Challenges Confronting India

Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty

On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.

It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.

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Preaching to the Climate Converted

Why Showtime's "Years" Is Unlikely to Reach Non-Believers

In the first episode of the $20 million Showtime series on climate change, Years of Living Dangerously, which aired last Sunday, we meet a 46-year-old evangelical Christian named Nelly Montez. Montez was laid off from a local meatpacking plant that closed due to a drought. Every week she and other women march around the plant, praying for rain. The actor Don Cheadle, one of the show’s celebrity correspondents, asks Montez if she attributes the drought to anything. She says, “I think it’s biblical.”

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Welcome New York Times Readers

An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute

Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute Ted Nordhaus gives the lead quote for the New York Times's analysis of President Obama's new rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels. The emissions cuts are less than some environmentalists were pushing for, but signals the administration's hope to reclaim climate leadership:

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Our High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor. 

According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.

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Energetic Africa

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

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In Defense of ‘Picking Winners’

To Reduce GHG Emissions, We Need Government-Led Innovation

Virtually all economists working on climate change agree that we should price GHG emissions. Doing so creates an incentive to reduce emissions without the government directing specific technology adoptions or activity changes, that is, without “picking winners.”

Nearly as many economists agree that we should subsidize basic R&D. Doing so accelerates the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to avoid even higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t subsidize all basic R&D regardless of how nutty the idea or indirect the connection to GHG reduction. We should subsidize the best ideas, that is, we should pick winners.

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Hydropower for Me But Not for Thee

Why Poor Nations Deserve the Large Dams From Which the West Has Benefited

One of the great divides between the rich and poor worlds is the access to electricity. As Todd Moss has noted, consumption of electricity by a standard single-family American refrigerator is ten times the consumption of electricity by the average Ethiopian. An equally great divide is the use of hydropower. In most rich countries over 80 percent of economically-viable hydropower potential is tapped; in Africa, the comparable figure is under 5 percent. Many African countries are, accordingly, giving high priority to developing hydropower as a source of cheap, clean energy. But to tap this energy, they need assistance from external private and public partners. Historically the World Bank and other international finance institutions have played a major role. President Obama’s major initiative with Africa, “Power Africa,” envisages a major role for hydropower. 

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Ivanpah’s Land Footprint

World's Largest Thermal Project Requires 92 Times the Acreage of Babcock & Wilcox "Twin Pack"

The opening of the world's largest solar power station provides an opportunity to take stock of our energy options. Comparison of large solar and small nuclear holds some important lessons for constructing a future that is both energy-rich and decarbonized for around 10 billion people.

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The Poverty of the Energiewende

How Low Homeownership Makes Germany's Antinuclear, Pro-Renewables Policies Regressive

I recently had an interesting opportunity to spend a week in Berlin talking to many people about Energiewende, one of the most radical and far-reaching initiatives any affluent economy has undertaken in recent years. The term Die Wende has a gradation of meanings, from a gradual turnaround to a sudden U-turn, and before it became associated with energy, its most common use in German conversations was in reference to the demise of East Germany in 1989. That was, of course, a true U-turn, from dogmatic communism to absorption by liberal Germany. Energiewende cannot be a near instant U-turn — no complex technical infrastructure can be changed that rapidly — but Germany’s new energy goals are bold and truly transformative. Their implementation is also proving to be less than admirable, indeed the process is becoming rather burdensome. Yet most of the people I talked to in Berlin seemed unconcerned, and many were even incredulous or politely hostile when I suggested (always mindful of Andersen’s wise tale) that the king may not be fully clothed.

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When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

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The Nuclear Power Imperative

Breakthrough Senior Fellow Richard Lester on the Need for Next-Gen Nuclear

Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear? I’ll come to my own views on this question shortly. But first I want to make a few comments about other people’s views.

In recent months, some prominent and previously antinuclear environmentalists have been declaring their support for a larger nuclear role, citing the risks of climate change for their change of mind.

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Brighter Nights in Africa

$300B Required for African Nations to Achieve Universal Electricity Access by 2030

How long the night the dawn will break. Such is the saying – often quoted as an African proverb – attesting to the virtues of patience and perseverance. However, it also serves as an allusion to Africa’s gaps in infrastructure, particularly for electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. As the well-known satellite photos of Africa at night show, very little of sub-Saharan Africa’s vast expanse is illuminated, so the nights are long indeed.

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Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

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Der Kohle-Boom

Germany’s Nuclear Phase-Out & Rising Coal Consumption

In September 2012 Germany's Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing the following: “If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”

Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany's new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase-out's most vocal proponents.

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Baucus Proposal A Promising Start, But Neglects Existing Nuclear

Current Fleet Supplies 60% of Domestic Zero-Carbon Energy

Last month Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus released a proposal to replace 42 existing energy tax incentives with two “technology neutral” tax credits, one for electricity fuels and the other for transportation fuels. By embracing natural gas and new nuclear power, Chairman Baucus’ proposal could contribute to a pragmatic climate strategy. But the plan could go even farther by extending incentives to the existing nuclear fleet, where an anticipated decline over the next two decades poses the largest threat to emissions reduction efforts. 

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The Coal, Hard Truth

China's New Coal 6 Times Higher than Wind, 27 Times Higher than Solar in 2013

The new year brought some deserved celebration of the advance of renewable energy in China, as the government announced nearly 8 gigawatts of wind power additions and 3.6 gigawatts of new solar installed during 2013. But as I’ve previously pointed out, it is important to keep this laudable progress in perspective compared to the still staggeringly large annual increase in new China coal power capacity.

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The Revolution Won’t Be Distributed

Most Renewables Deployment Centralized

If you read the environmental press, clean tech media, or even the New York Times, you might conclude that America is on the cusp of a distributed generation (DG) revolution. “Solar power and other distributed renewable energy technologies could lay waste to U.S. power utilities and burn the utility business model to the ground,” wrote leading environmental news site Grist last April. “Renewable-energy technologies like solar and wind power,” the Times wrote, are now “challenging the traditional distribution system.”

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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Virgin’s Richard Branson Defends Nuclear

Sir Richard Urges People to Watch 'Pandora's Promise'

Few would question the environmental credentials of Britain’s business magnate Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group. As founder and chief benefactor of the Carbon War Room, Branson has long advocated carbon pricing, energy efficiency measures, and transforming business as the answer to global warming. Add to that list the expansion of nuclear energy.

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Weighing the Benefits and Trade-Offs of Natural Gas

A Conversation with Michael Shellenberger & NRDC’s Kate Sinding

Below is an excerpt from the conversation. You can view the complete video, as well as an 11-minute highlight video and responses from other experts here.

MODERATOR:  Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program.  Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.  

Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his co-author Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists. Welcome to both of you. 

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Mark Bittman Gets It Wrong On Gas

How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution

Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.

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Bury, Burn, or Recycle?

Zero-Waste Greens Oppose Incineration on Grounds of Consumption

For communities short on landfill space, “waste-to-energy” incineration sounds like a bulletproof solution: Recycle all you can, and turn the rest into heat or electricity. That's how it's been regarded in much of Europe, where nearly a quarter of all municipal solid waste is burned in 450 incinerators, and increasingly in the United States, where dozens of cities and towns are considering new, cutting-edge plants.

But leaders of the international zero-waste movement, which seeks to reuse all products and send nothing to landfills or incinerators, say incineration falls short on the energy front and actually encourages waste. Many “zero wasters” — including groups such as Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA — have become ardent opponents of the technology, contending that proponents have co-opted the carefully crafted zero-waste label by suggesting that burning to produce energy isn't actually wasting. 

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Nuclear Has One of the Smallest Footprints

From Fuels to Building Materials, the Atom is Antidote to Sprawl

When evaluating the footprint of nuclear, writers and analysts tend to focus on its near-zero carbon emissions. Yet, there are many other areas where nuclear power consumes fewer resources than other electricity-generating technologies. In fact, when compared to coal, natural gas, and renewables, nuclear is the most land efficient, energy-dense source of power, with the lowest use of building materials per unit of energy generated per year, and one of the least expensive in terms of levelized costs. Evaluating these different aspects of its footprint demonstrates that nuclear is one of our most viable solutions to readily decarbonize the economy.

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Trash, Trees, and Taxes

The High Environmental & Economic Costs of Germany's Energy Transition

Germany’s renewable energy transition, the “Energiewende,” has long been a subject of scorn among conservatives, who have argued that it is a massive ratepayer-subsidized boondoggle that has harmed Germany’s economy and imposed significant regressive costs on poor and working class energy consumers. But the last several months have seen growing skepticism about the Energiewende from the center-left as well. Both Der Spiegel and the Wall Street Journal have published lengthy investigative pieces raising troubling questions about the costs and the environmental benefits of Germany’s headlong pursuit of an all-renewable energy future. Even left-leaning Dissent Magazine recently published a long expose about the failure of the Energiewende to reduce carbon emissions, concluding that Germany’s enormous investments in renewables, together with plans to phase out its nuclear fleet, would cost the nation a generation in the fight against global warming.

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Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950

US Saved About 54 Billion Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Switching to Cleaner Energy

A new analysis finds that the vast majority of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with America’s carbon intensity decline since the mid-1900s can be attributed to the increasing shares of two energy sources: nuclear fission and natural gas. These two fuels have done more than any others to displace coal, and have saved the country 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. By comparison, in 2012 the entire world energy sector emitted 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

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Mark Bittman’s Renewables Delusions

Debunking the New York Times Columnist’s Recent Attack on Nuclear Energy

Nuclear provided America with about 180 times more energy than solar last year, and is one of our cheapest, safest baseload sources of zero-carbon energy, and yet New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman insists that solar and other renewables are better positioned than nuclear to replace coal. This post debunks Bittman's column. 

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Subsidies for Solar Two Times Higher Than for Nuclear in California

Golden State Spends More on Solar than Nuclear on Per-Kilowatt Basis

California has spent two times more on subsidies for solar than nuclear, measured on a per-kilowatt basis, according to a new Breakthrough analysis. The finding challenges a new analysis from DBL investors, which compares nuclear to solar subsidies without accounting for the fact that nuclear generates far more electricity than solar. Comparing subsidies on a dollar-per-kWh basis is more appropriate because it gives a sense of relative effectiveness of subsidies at providing services to society, in this case electricity provision. 

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Preaching to the Choir

Is Bill McKibben's Anti-Keystone Chorus Doing More Harm Than Good?

On a cold March afternoon in 2007, Bill McKibben made an important strategic declaration about his growing campaign to fight global warming.

"It's important now to get everyone in the choir to sing at the top of their lungs," the environmental author and activist told a packed auditorium at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College.

After describing the imminent dangers of climate change, and the urgent need for a mass social movement capable of averting them, McKibben had been accused by an audience member of "preaching to the converted."

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Decentralized Renewables Won’t Fuel Modern Cities

Why We Can’t Ignore Fundamentals of Power Density

The 21st century will almost certainly witness a transition to an overwhelmingly urban human population, and – hopefully – a low-carbon energy system. The former scenario, however, will have a significant impact on the latter because a fundamentally urban species cannot be powered locally.

The continued, and essentially unabated, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may at times render considerations of the requirements of a decarbonized energy system appear somewhat self indulgent, but I must ask the reader to indulge me, and at a little length.

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Germany’s Green Energy Bust

Energiewende by the Numbers

Through much of 2012, the Energiewende, Germany’s pioneering effort to construct an energy system around renewables while simultaneously phasing out nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions, was on a roll. Plunging prices and eye-popping production figures for wind and solar power seemed to fulfill all the visionary prognostications. Germany shrugged off the shuttering of nearly half its nuclear plants without a backward glance: not only did it not suffer the predicted power shortages, it boosted electricity exports. Renewable power pushed market prices down and threatened to drive gas- and coal-burning power plants into bankruptcy. The press and the green blogosphere celebrated passed benchmark after shattered milepost, including the day in May when, according to Treehugger.com’s headline, “Half of Germany Was Running on Solar Power.”

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A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

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Mugged By Reality

Nordhaus on the Smarter Environmental Agenda

In 2007, when Ted Nordhaus, the co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute, published his first book (Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility) he became simultaneously one of the most despised and one of the most revered figures in the U.S. environmental movement. The book, coauthored by Michael Shellenberger, was a seething indictment of the sort of traditional environmentalism that prizes renewable energy, condemns fracking and nuclear plants, and threatens global apocalypse should we fail to address climate change. Five years later, he hasn’t backed down. What follows is an edited interview based on two recent conversations with Nordhaus.

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Making the World Safe for Coal

The History of the Antinuclear Movement

The antinuclear movement has historically drawn from a number of wellsprings, from fears of radioactive fallout caused by nuclear missiles, to parallels between Nazi Germany and the science of nuclear energy, to paranoia over radiation as the ‘most serious agent of pollution.’ The success of such antinuclear campaigns in the 1970s has guaranteed a legacy of increased use of coal for decades to come, as proposed nuclear plants across the Western world were cancelled and replaced by coal plants.

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How to Advance Nuclear

Support Grows for Safer, Cleaner, and Cheaper Reactors

The last few years have seen a growing number of liberal and environmental heavyweights publicly call for more nuclear energy to deal with climate change. Today, the pro-nuclear ranks include Bill Gates, Al Franken, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama. Also on the list are superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs, the novelist Ian McEwan, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. There are former environmental leaders, including former Greenpeace Executive Director Stephen Tindale, and former Friends of the Earth trustee Hugh Montefiore. And there are prominent scientists including Gaia hypothesis ecologist James Lovelock, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, much-cited climate scientist Tom Wigley, and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.

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Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ Shows Why We Need Nuclear

Renewables Can't Go It Alone

Germany’s massive investment in distributed and renewable electricity, known as the Energiewende (energy transition), is often heralded as the shining example for climate change action. Many use it as evidence that wind and solar photovoltaics are mature, scalable, off-the-shelf, cost-effective, and market disruptive technologies. Germany's impressive wind and solar deployment in recent years has been used by activists in the environmental community, as well as governments, to argue against the need for investment in other zero carbon energy sources, particularly nuclear and other centralized forms of energy.

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Clean Energy Stagnation

Growth in Renewables Outpaced by Fossil Fuels

The world was moving faster towards reducing its reliance on carbon intensive energy consumption in the 1970s and 1980s than in the past several decades. In fact, over the past 20 years there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, the data tells a far different story.

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How Fast Are The Costs Of Solar Really Coming Down?

Recent Gains Do Not Promise Sustained Growth

The case for solar energy as a near term alternative to fossil energy hangs largely upon the view that the costs of solar energy have come down rapidly in recent years and will continue to do so in the coming years. But a close examination of where and why solar costs appear to be declining casts doubt on those claims. Solar module prices have dropped substantially in recent years. But much of the decline in recent years has been due to Chinese overproduction and dumping. Installed costs of solar systems have come down dramatically in Germany. But a significant portion of the cost declines experienced in Germany that the rest of the world hopes to emulate are from non-module “soft” costs. As Germany’s rooftop solar installation industry has scaled up, costs related to permitting, installation, and supply chains have declined, but these cost reductions have not proven transferable across national borders. 

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Can the British Decarbonize?

Targets Require Complete Coal-to-Gas Switch in a Decade

If the United Kingdom is going to hit its short-term targets for the emissions of carbon dioxide, then it is going to have to accelerate its rates of decarbonization observed since the passage of its 2008 Climate Change Act by a factor of four. Since the passage of that Act the rate of decarbonization in the UK has slowed dramatically from the rate observed during the pervious decade. The enormous magnitude of the task called for in the Act has been overshadowed by a debate of the setting of targets for the decarbonization of energy supply, targets which are already implied by the 2008 legislation and thus unnecessary.

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China’s Solar-Panel Boom and Bust

How a Mad Dash Into a Burgeoning Sector Turned Into a Scramble for Support

If one city epitomizes China’s role as cheap manufacturer for the world, it’s Wuxi, a sprawling metropolis of more than 4.5 million people a short bullet-train ride northwest of Shanghai. Out beyond the old town, with its ancient temples and canals, much of modern Wuxi is a massive industrial park, a seemingly endless grid of wide, straight roads fronting squat factories bearing the names of international brands: Epson, Nikon, Panasonic.

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‘Pandora’s Promise’ Stirs National Debate Over Nuclear

"The Most Important Movie about the Environment Since ‘An Inconvenient Truth'’’

Following a strong critical reception at the Sundance Film Festival, the new documentary “Pandora’s Promise,” which opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, is sparking national debate over whether to embrace nuclear energy to address global warming.

“Life is about choices, and we need to make one,” writes Michael Specter in the New Yorker. “Being opposed to nuclear power, as [Richard] Rhodes points out [in the film], means being in favor of burning fossil fuel. It’s that simple. Nuclear energy — now in its fourth generation — is at least as safe as any other form of power.”

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How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

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San Onofre Nuclear Closure to Boost State Carbon Emissions by 8 Million Tons

Replacement Electricity Equivalent to Adding 1.6 Million Cars

The retirement of two nuclear reactors at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in Southern California, announced Friday, is expected to increase state carbon emissions by at least 8 million metric tons annually, the equivalent of putting 1.6 million new passenger vehicles on the road, according to a Breakthrough Institute analysis.

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No Solar Way Around It

Why Nuclear Is Essential to Combating Climate Change

Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.

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The Green Nuclear Conversion

'Pandora's Promise' Cuts Through Misinformed Fears

Kamakura, Japan—Chances are pretty high, based on prevailing public opinion, that you will think my wife and I are a tad crazy, maybe even guilty of child abuse. During the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is a couple hundred miles from where we live, we stayed put while thousands of others fled the Tokyo area and many foreigners left Japan for good. Not only that, we buy as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible from Fukushima Prefecture, the Connecticut-size jurisdiction where the plant is located (we even specially order boxes of Fukushima produce) while millions of others in Japan take extreme care to consume only food from the far west and south of the country. And yes, our whole family, including our 12- and 10-year-old sons, eats Fukushima food. We’re convinced it’s perfectly safe, and we like helping people whose products suffer from an unjust taint.

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Energy Efficiency: Beware of Overpromises

Rethinking Energy Efficiency's Privileged Place in Climate Strategy

Over the last decade, energy efficiency has come to be seen as a fast, cheap and even profitable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the efficiency of buildings, vehicles, appliances and industry plays “a key role” in climate mitigation scenarios created by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As governments face political opposition to costly climate policy measures, energy efficiency offers a tantalizing promise of a win-win for both the environment and the economy.

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Planetary Emergency? Then Go Nuclear

Anti-Nuclear Greens Aren't Serious About Climate Change

Last week we published an oped in the Wall Street Journal that began like this:

Over the last several decades, the cost of electricity from solar panels has declined dramatically, while the cost of building new nuclear plants has risen steadily. This has reaffirmed the long-standing view of many environmentalists that it will be cheaper and easier to reduce global warming emissions through solar electricity than with new nuclear plants. But while continuing price declines might someday make solar cheaper than nuclear, it's not true today. Yet the mythmaking persists.

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Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power

Going Green

No technology is more enshrouded in myth than nuclear energy. The urgency of addressing global poverty and reducing emissions demands that we consider this technology without ideological blinders. The basic facts of the technology — both good and bad — must be confronted. This Breakthrough Institute Frequently Asked Questions is backed by primary sources and addresses the toughest questions asked of nuclear.

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The McKibben Doctrine

How Deep Green Politics Undermine Climate Action

In the two decades since he first wrote about global warming, Bill McKibben has become the most visible environmental activist in the United States, pioneering new methods of social protest, and redefining the way environmental groups practice politics. Today he is at the center of the US climate movement.

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Environmentalism’s Merchants of Doubt

Anti-Nuclear Sentiment Brings Coal-Fired Future

After clear warnings from scientists more than 20 years ago, the issues of human-caused climate change and fossil-fuel-dominated energy should be on the way into the environmental history books. Sadly, they’re not, which is why we need a new global movement of nuclear support.

A bit like the CFC/ozone dilemma, we should by now be enjoying disputes about just how the success came about, and focusing attention on more challenging sources of emissions.

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Europe’s Climate Fail

Why Cap and Trade Had No Impact on Emissions

After the European Parliament voted down a proposal to prop up its flagship emissions trading scheme (ETS), most observers finally admitted what has been obvious for a while: the program is contributing little to accelerating the decarbonization of the European economy. However, a few eternal but confused optimists see the program as working just fine. Here are a few thoughts in response to that bit of pushback.

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It’s Not About the Climate

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part One

Over the last few decades, humans achieved one of the most remarkable victories for social justice in the history of the species. The percentage of people who live in extreme poverty — under $1.25 per day — was halved between 1990 and 2010. Average life expectancy globally rose from 56 to 68 years since 1970. And hundreds of millions of desperately poor people went from burning dung and wood for fuel (whose smoke takes two million souls a year) to using electricity, allowing them to enjoy refrigerators, washing machines, and smoke-free stoves.

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Amory Lovins’ Atomic Blunder

Peddling the Soft Energy Illusion

Do the math: simply repeating 2011’s renewable installations for three additional years, through 2014, would thus displace Germany’s entire pre-Fukushima nuclear output.

Or so claims Amory Lovins in a new piece about renewable energy in Germany. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the level of nuclear power in Germany will recognize this claim is utter nonsense within about two seconds. However, since Lovins appears incapable, or unwilling, to do the basic arithmetic, let’s do it here. A couple minutes on Google can find a summary of German solar and wind installations in 2011:

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Green Hypocrisy on Nuclear

Dismissing Zero-Carbon Energy, Paul Gilding Handicaps Climate Fight

All of the evidence in Gilding’s piece is pulled together to support his premise of imminent renewable revolution as part of global mobilization against climate change, while any and all countervailing evidence is blinkered out. He references the headline from a Bloomberg article regarding new renewables in Australia now being cheaper than coal. This headline’s claim and the work underpinning it was demolished in a critique by me and Tristan Edis of Climate Spectator, both of us (but the latter in particular) being supporters of renewables having a role in the changes to come. But Gilding took the Bloomberg piece at face value, along with everything else. His article managed to talk about winning the climate crisis seemingly on the back of wind and solar. There was no mention of biomass, energy storage or, you guessed it, nuclear power. So I picked up Gilding’s book with trepidation to check his treatment of nuclear power in Chapter 12. It began promisingly:

I’m simply advocating a careful rational discussion about the opportunities open to us, and an intelligent debate about the alternatives, in the context that a failure to change will have consequences.

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The Keystone Distraction

How Environmentalists Got Lost in a Dangerously Misguided Battle

Climate activists amassed an impressive army to march on Washington against the Keystone XL pipeline and the dirty oil it would bring from Canada to U.S. refineries and world energy markets. In this fight, however, a relatively small volume of carbon-dioxide emissions is at stake -- the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that those from Keystone amount to a mere 0.2 percent of the “carbon budget” that scientists say we need to shrink in order to avoid catastrophic warming.

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A Dam Shame

The Renewables-Only Hallucination

We’re losing the race against global warming. Worldwide coal production increased about eight times faster than solar- and wind-power generation last year. China added more new coal plants in 2011 than are running in Texas and Ohio, even as it leads the world in wind-power capacity. Meanwhile, the United States is only modestly cutting carbon emissions by transitioning from coal to natural gas, which is still a carbon-rich fuel.

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The Solar Energy Bubble Bursts

Why Germany’s Solar Miracle Failed

My recent post about the costs of Germany’s policy of subsidizing solar energy inspired predictable attacks by true believers in a future powered by solar energy. I was criticized for citing the German magazine Spiegel, a center-right popular magazine. Well, I cited Spiegel for certain facts, and if you don’t believe Spiegel, perhaps you will believe the reputable environmentalist writer Mark Lynas, whose sources are German government statistics. (And if you think Lynas is discredited because he supports GMOs and nuclear energy, even as he thinks global warming is real and dangerous, then you cannot be reasoned with.)

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EDF: Lock In Soft Energy, Not Coal-Killing Gas

Why We Can't Leave Emissions Reductions to Establishment Greens

In response to our last blog post about how celebrity fracktivists have reversed the longstanding support of national environmental organizations for a coal-to-gas switch, the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy communications director Keith Gaby wrote us to say we had taken Fred Krupp's position on gas out of context.

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Germany and the Solar Revolution

The Slow Death of Green Ideology

During the Cold War, the radical anti-capitalist left (a group quite distinct from mainstream capitalism-taming liberals) was perpetually searching for a country that would prove by example the viability of socialism, defined as government ownership of all industry and major enterprises. The socialists in the West who had not already soured on the Soviet Union mostly turned against it by the mid-1950s, following revelations about Stalin’s atrocities. From that point until the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the dwindling numbers of true believers claimed to find a successful socialist experiment in one country after another:  Mao’s China, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Castro’s Cuba, even, for a time among, some Western militants in the early 1970s, North Korea. They didn’t deny that these countries had certain, ahem, problems—police-state repression and mass exoduses by fleeing citizens, among other minor defects. But they wanted to believe that, whatever its faults, the utopia du jour proved that you could successfully run a modern economy along the lines of Marxist-Leninist theory.

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Fracktivists for Global Warming

How Celebrity NIMBYism Turned Environmentalism Against Natural Gas

Over the last year, celebrities such as Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Robert Redford, Mark Ruffalo, Mario Batali, Scarlett Johansson, Alec Baldwin, and Matt Damon have spoken out against the expansion of natural gas drilling. “Fracking kills,” says Ono, who has a country home in New York. “It threatens the air we breathe,” says Redford. 

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Breakthrough’s Nordhaus vs. EDF’s Krupp

Krupp Declares Opposition to Expanding Natural Gas Production

Shale gas is the "killer app" in the fight against coal, Breakthrough chairman and cofounder Ted Nordhaus argued in a recent debate with Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp. The goal of climate policy must be to advance a zero-carbon revolution. Krupp called for more regulations and carbon pricing as well as opposition to expanded gas production.

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Debunking Rhodium

Natural Gas, Not Renewables, Drives Historic Emissions Declines

Natural gas has been rapidly replacing coal power in recent years, driving down U.S. emissions faster than in any country in the world. But to some renewable energy advocates who have long prophesied that solar and wind are on the cusp of replacing coal, such a reality can't possibly be happening.

Such appears to be the case with the Rhodium Group, which claimed recently that non-hydro renewables like solar, wind and biomass are responsible for 58% of recent US decarbonization, compared to only 38% for natural gas.

How does Rhodium claim that solar and wind had a greater impact than gas, even though the EIA shows that gas increased last year ten times more than wind, and nearly one hundred times more than solar? By using improper assumptions, and inventing a bizarrely indirect way of measuring what matters.

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Amory Lovins’ Efficiency Fantasy

Why Rocky Mountain Institute’s Energy Solutions Don’t Add Up

In selling their vision of a world running on efficiency and renewables, Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute have ignored a substantial body of research demonstrating the importance of rebound effects. A new analysis from the Breakthrough Institute shows how the growing expert consensus that energy efficiency rebound is real and significant substantially undercuts RMI’s projected gains from efficiency measures and makes their proposals of limited relevance as far as climate policy is concerned.

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Tech Breakthroughs Needed to Address Global Warming

New Analysis Concludes Socolow/Pacala Wedges Underestimate the Energy Challenge

Carbon dioxide emissions need to be reduced far more and far faster than previously thought if a global temperature rise is to be kept under 2 °C, according to a report in Environmental Research Letters. The researchers say that scaling up existing technology won’t be good enough to meet the goals. Instead, we need new technological breakthroughs.

 

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Obama’s Climate Legacy

Delivering on an Innovation Agenda

With Tuesday's State of the Union address, liberals are wondering how President Barack Obama will set the tone for major progressive priorities in his second term. By giving climate change a prominent mention in his second inaugural address last month, Obama has raised expectations of delivering on a green agenda over the next four years. Nevertheless, many environmentalists remain deeply disappointed over the failure of cap-and-trade legislation and the president’s hedging on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. They are as skeptical that he has the conviction to lead a fight against climate as they are of his willingness to battle intransigent Republicans in Congress.

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Shellenberger on Colbert Report

Breakthrough Cofounder Talks Climate, Nuclear, and Frankenstein with Stephen Colbert

Michael Shellenberger, president and cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, made the case for a new environmentalism on the Colbert Report last week.

The new environmentalism is defined by its embrace of technology as essential to human progress and overcoming environmental challenges such as climate change.

“That’s why we wrote this book — it’s called Love Your Monsters. It comes from this idea that we should treat our technologies like our children, like our creations,” Shellenberger explained. “When they fail us — when they disappoint us — you don’t abandon them, you improve them. You make them better.”

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Against Technology Tribalism

Why We Need Innovation to Make Energy Clean, Cheap and Reliable

The following is a speech delivered at the Energy Innovation Conference in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2013.

About once a month we at the Breakthrough Institute get an email or, as often, a carefully hand-typed letter, from someone who politely if sternly informs us that they have invented the solution to all of the world's energy needs. This incredible technology, they explain, has none of the problems that plague other energy technologies. It's so cheap as to be almost free. It emits zero pollution. It's safe. And it's totally reliable.

Unfortunately, they explain, the investors they've shown their design to just don't get it. They are writing in the hopes that we might get it — seeing as we’re committed to paradigm shifts and all — and help them to secure modest up-front financing required to demonstrate this miracle for all of the world to see.

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A Squandered Opportunity

Germany's Energy Transition

My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.

Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).

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Europe’s Climate Fail

How Renewable and Carbon Capture Policies Brought Back Coal

A few years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology was seen as the best way to clean up coal and cut carbon emissions. And Europe was seen as the expected leader in the field. But instead, reports the science journal Nature, Europe has fallen behind North America in the race to create systems that separate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases.

And what’s worse, Europe is increasingly turning to coal, the most polluting of all sources of electricity. In some European countries, reports The Economist, the amount of coal-generated electricity is rising by up to 50% a year, at annualized rates. Ironically, some experts say CCS is the only way to eliminate coal emissions.

 

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Obama’s Climate Cunning

Gas, Clean Tech, and the Path Ahead

The New Year will not mark a clean slate. Congress and the president will re-convene their hostilities. And while the impasse will prevent legislative action to fix the level greenhouse gas emissions, the president is nevertheless preparing a more insidious attack on climate change.

Re-election to the White House is giving President Obama the oomph he needs to tackle the effects of global warming — a topic that has been legislatively off-limits. To achieve his objectives, Obama is remaining persistent and is pursuing a high-tech, clean-tech economy in conjunction with his administration’s recently enacted environmental regulations.

“Addressing climate change is urgent,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, Calif. “Energy transitions take a long time and we need to get started.”

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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Let Them Eat Solar Panels

The Hypocrisy of Western Greens on Energy Poverty

Imagine the United States sending low-calorie food aid to Ethiopia in response to the global obesity epidemic. Absurd, right? Even if global waistline trends are worrisome, Ethiopians didn't create the problem. Such a policy would be futile since it would have no noticeable impact on the global aggregate.

Worse, while obesity may be a very real concern, Ethiopians are understandably more focused on undernourishment. The United States should aim instead to increase caloric intake in that part of the world. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even tackle the obesity problem at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.

Sadly, that is pretty much what the United States does on energy. In response to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. government put restrictions on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that is a principal tool for promoting investment in poor countries. A recent rule, added in response to a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, imposes blind caps on the total CO2 emissions in OPIC's portfolio, which ends up barring the agency from nearly all non-renewable electricity projects.

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Why Renewables Need Gas

Our Hybrid Energy Reality

Does renewable energy need to be backed up by fossil fuels? The answer is yes, at least until large scale methods of energy storage are invented. However, the question is one that I would argue is uninformative. A more relevant question is: Can renewable energy supply electricity when demand is at its highest?

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Announcing Energy Innovation 2013

Clean Energy: Ready for Prime Time?

Clean energy is at a crossroads. Thanks to public investments in the United States, Germany, China, and elsewhere, solar, wind, and battery technologies have improved significantly and become cheaper over the last five years. Yet renewables are still not as cheap as fossil fuels. Moreover, many of these investments, including wind's crucial production tax credit, are at risk of expiration or have already lapsed. Meanwhile, innovations in the production of natural gas are displacing coal, generating billions of dollars in consumer energy savings, and becoming the energy leader that few foresaw.

What then is the future of clean energy? Congress remains deeply divided over renewables, but President Obama has defended his clean tech investments and says energy innovation remains a high priority. Senate Energy Committee Chairs Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) have expressed optimism that they can reach bipartisan agreement on new energy legislation. And natural gas and nuclear energy — two long-standing clean energy outliers — have received renewed attention due to possible inclusion in a clean energy standard. Never before has a clear-eyed assessment of emergent clean energy technologies been more important.

The Breakthrough Institute and the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation are excited to invite you to join us for Energy Innovation 2013, our third annual conference taking place the morning of January 29, 2013, at the JW Marriott down the street from the White House.

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How Solar Panels Became Cheap

Larger Factories and More Efficient Panels Were the Key

We hear a lot about energy research and development. Perhaps that's because it's the one sort of policy that Republicans and Democrats generally agree on. But there's a different kind of research that I'd like to see get a lot more attention and funding. I'm talking about research into what various kinds of energy policies actually *do* to shape the technical possibilities open to humanity.

In my time researching energy, most of the people who actually care about where we get our energy from have committed to an energy source, be it oil, gas, traditional nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, or thorium. Then, they go looking for policies that would benefit their technology. I've also run into a lot of people who believe in inexorable laws of change in energy, whether that's decarbonization or the inevitable rise of natural gas or nuclear power. And I've run into a lot of energy experts who believe in a fairly simple relationship between research money going in and technologies coming out.

Unfortunately, none of these three groups of people is likely to produce very good energy policy. To put it in more mainstream terms, we've got a lot of energy pundits and very few energy Nate Silvers, who put reality (i.e. good data) ahead of ideology and intuition. Don't get me wrong: everyone in energy loves them some data, but few people are interested in using it the way Silver does.

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Why Urban Density and Renewables Don’t Add Up to a Climate Solution

Alex Steffen’s Faulty Arithmetic

The argument that increased urban density has very significant climate benefits has been well made by Edward Glaeser, David Owen and others. The US writer Alex Steffen has joined the ranks of those with books out arguing for promoting density, with the view that we simply cannot reduce emissions enough through low carbon energy alone. Urban density will do the trick. He appears to believe that cities can reduce energy use by 90%, but only seems to provide hand waving explanations of how this is possible.

However, a statement he made in a recent interview to The Atlantic is reflective of a common problem with solutions to climate change: the unwillingness to do basic arithmetic. He says:

For example if you have a more distributed energy system, you can have the energy system in one neighborhood go down, and energy systems in other neighborhoods remain unaffected. By distributing things, you make it possible for disaster to strike, and not have everything go down if something fails.

Now, presumably Steffen doesn’t have neighborhoods being powered by small modular reactors or gas plants with CCS in mind. So, he must somehow believe that neighborhoods can be powered entirely by local renewables, with perhaps some yet to be invented storage technology providing back up. A fundamental problem is that his vision of high urban density and localized energy production are in conflict.

Consider New York City. This city certainly fits the category of high urban density. However, think about what would happen if New York tried to power itself entirely from renewables within city limits: constant blackouts. This is a simple consequence of its high population density and the laws of physics. An author such as Steffen who claims to have thought deeply about climate change, urbanization and energy really ought to be aware of this. So, why can New York not power itself from local renewables?

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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Germany’s Lost Decade

Nuclear Shutdown Whets Germany's Appetite for Coal

Germany appears intent on doing three things faster than almost any developed country: expanding renewable power, closing nuclear power plants, and building new coal power plants. The first two are much praised by those who drink the Energiewende Kool Aid, while the third is often treated as some kind of myth by the same people. Germany’s Environment Minister however recognizes it is not a myth, but appears to believe in magic instead.

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The UK’s New Zero-Carbon Energy Alliance

How Climate Change is Bringing Together Nuclear, Wind, and CCS Industries

The energy debate is shifting. With wind, nuclear and CCS (carbon capture and storage) trade associations in the United Kingdom issuing their first-ever joint statement, the political tectonic plates of climate change have begun subtly to move.

But it is a risky strategy. Many of those who defend wind power from attacks by Nimbies and rightwing Tories are ardent opponents of nuclear power, for example.

The three trade associations clearly risk losing core supporters by this temporary pooling of lobbying resources.

But the fact they are taking this risk is a sign that all three see vastly greater danger in the current attacks in the media and the Conservative Party against the entire decarbonization agenda.

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