I’ve been looking over the set of bills proposed for the current Massachusetts legislative session. There are more of them, all dealing with aspects of greening energy supply and transport. And Governor Baker’s S.10 is very welcome. (By the way, I don’t see any counter-proposals from those who don’t like the Governor politically, so, I’d say, they have no right to complain.) Adaptation to climate in Massachusetts is a serious thing:
and there will be many uncomfortable choices we’ll be facing soon, both pocketbook choices and choices of social equity. Indeed, many of the bills have environmental justice and social justice aspects. I’m all for that, as long as these are put in perspective.
It’s 2019. While Massachusetts has a Global Warming Solutions Act, it’s far from perfect, putting up an imperfect target of 2050 and, even then, deliberating excluding whole classes of emissions, such as waste-to-energy facilities. Even accepting it as a great goal, even if the impacts upon Massachusetts are controlled by many and varied parties all over the world, the Commonwealth currently has no believable roadmap for achieving those goals which are, after all, a law. This is especially true relating to transportation and to heating of homes. The world’s bullseye for containing emissions — a long shot — is 2030. Some say even that’s too late, given we’ve made so little progress, and governments and communities are faced with buying fossil fuel infrastructure and retiring it early, well ahead of the end of its depreciation lifetime.
All the evidence year after year is that the rate of impact from climate change is accelerating. What Massachusetts faces is the discomfort and significant cost of purchasing homes — at a substantial loss to their owners, and loss in tax base for their towns — on the coasts and inland which are too risky for their inhabitants, their towns, and the Commonwealth to permit their owners to continue to live there. This is called managed retreat (see also). And I see nothing, other than S.10, which begins to address this. And S.10 is modest.
I also don’t see on the energy side a developed appreciation for What’s Happening Out There. Climate change is important. It is the issue. Environmental justice or not, social justice or not, if this problem is not solved, none of the progress that has been made in 150 years of social advancement will matter: “All the good you’ve done, all the good you can imagine doing will be wiped out, just wiped out ….” (Van Jones). But, and these aspects are good, that’s not the only dynamic for which Massachusetts needs to plan.
Have you looked at solar and wind costs to generate a KWh of electricity recently?
They are tearing through the floor, especially onshore wind but, soon to be followed by solar. Why? Because Mr Market is seeing that their plummeting costs are not fantasies — Forbes writes about this all the time these days — they are a result of a differentiating technology, and that, yeah, there’s a pony in the barn. Solar and wind, supported by and supporting expanding energy storage, are going to Eat the Lunch of everyone in the energy industry. And this is happening with the fiercest antagonist to these technologies occupying the United States White House, with many supporting opponents numbered among the Republicans of Congress. Imagine what they will do with tailwinds?
But, there’s a problem. Massachusetts residents do not like to live near wind turbines or even large solar farms. Some complain that solar farms cause leveling of new growth forest — even if new growth forest does little or nothing to sequester CO2 — and impact habitat. And they just don’t like the looks. Massachusetts residents who say these things are really complaining about the low energy density per unit area which solar and wind have. That’s true. Fossil fuels have a high energy density. Nuclear power has a high energy density. Hydropower has a reasonably high energy density, but you can’t just find it anywhere. If you want to supply energy needs with wind and solar, you need a lot of land. Massachusetts isn’t a big state. Accordingly, if you want to supply energy needs with with and solar, you need to build them close to where people live. That’s better, in fact, because then you don’t need to run ecosystem-destroying transmission lines through forests.
If this is unacceptable, and you don’t want CO2 emissions, there is no choice but nuclear power or hydropower. As I noted, there’s only so much hydropower, and there needs to be cooperation among the people who live in states the transmission needs to cut in order to get access to it.
Nuclear power, as presently practiced, has a large cost problem. There are measures being pursued to fix that, but it’s not clear how soon these will be available. We need nuclear power that’s modular, with small units, that can be combined into arbitrary sizes, that can be toggled on and off as needed, that’s air-cooled, where each of the units are portable. We need nuclear power in commodity chunks. The industry chose not to do that in the 1960s and they have suffered with their choice ever since. Modular units can just be trucked away intact if they are broken or need their wastes scrubbed. If a unit fails, the generation doesn’t all go down because there are many more companions generating. Having cooling water is an ecological and climate problem — many reactors need to go offline if their nearby cooling rivers dry up in droughts — so air cooling is a natural response.
But nuclear power isn’t popular.
Facts are, unless Massachusetts residents opt for onshore wind turbines and big solar, both backed by substantial storage, all located near residentially zoned areas, they are going to end up with natural gas as their energy supply. It’s dense. It can be hidden.
But, if they do, the future of Massachusetts not only lacks a clean energy future, it also has a future of a rustbelt. That’s because natural gas will eventually be the most expensive energy source. Coal and oil will be long gone. Conventional nuclear power is too expensive even now because they suffer from a negative learning curve. Everyone will be using wind and solar, backed in places by storage, but as everyone adopts these, the storage will be needed less and less.
What will be Massachusetts’ fate?
With expensive electrical energy, not only will companies not want to do business in Massachusetts because their energy supply isn’t clean, an increasing criterion over time, due to shareholders and customers, but it will be the most expensive energy anywhere. It will get worse. The companies supplying Massachusetts don’t live in isolation. Selling natural gas anywhere will become more and more difficult, and some and eventually all of those companies will go bankrupt. To maintain energy, Massachusetts will need to buy those assets and run them, perhaps by giving them to someone else to run, but this will be expensive, and this will go on the tax base. That will be an additional disincentive for companies to build and work in Massachusetts, and for people to live in Massachusetts.
In addition, there will be the inevitable costs and charges from climate change. These Massachusetts does not have complete control, but to the degree it doesn’t champion means for zeroing emissions and using 100% zero Carbon energy, it will stifle its significant voice encouraging others that this is a feasible model. That voice can do more to nudge the rest of the world in the zero Carbon direction, much more than anything Massachusetts will do by zeroing its own emissions. These costs will ultimately fall on the Commonwealth’s books and, so, upon the taxpayers, whether they live it or not, whether or not the ability of the Commonwealth to pay is supposedly constrained by law. Solvency is a powerful reason for overturning laws.
So, from what I see, either Massachusetts residents learn to live next to onshore wind and big solar farms, or they choose new nuclear power — and we don’t know how long that’ll take — or they choose natural gas, with the economic downsides I have just described.
I don’t think many in the progressive and environmental movements in Massachusetts have thought about these tradeoffs. They somehow think demand can be reduced so these tradeoffs are not necessary. They are not thinking quantitatively, or, for that matter, factually. It appears to me many of them have an agenda to pursue, and evidence just gets in the way. This is not serving the Commonwealth.
Climate reality is an elixir which exposes the truth. Whether it’s Thwaites Glacier or the slowdown of the Gulf Stream, or excessive precipitation, Massachusetts will need to deal with these.
Fortunately, should Massachusetts residents change their minds, onshore wind turbines are very easy and inexpensive to construct, as are big solar farms. And flooded properties are cheap to buy up.
What kind of future do you want, Massachusetts? Do you want to plan, and help it be a good one? Or do you want to bury your head in the ever eroding sand?
“Climate change is coming for your assets”