All posts by Zane Selvans

The What and Why of Carbon Budgets

If you’ve been paying much attention to the climate policy discussion over the last few years, you’ve probably heard mention of carbon budgets, or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions budgets more generally. Put simply, for any given temperature target there’s a corresponding total cumulative amount of greenhouse gasses that can be released, while still having a decent chance of meeting the target. For example, the IPCC estimates that if we want a 2/3 chance of keeping warming to less than 2°C, then we can release no more than 1000Gt of CO2 between 2011 and the end of the 21st century.

The IPCC estimates that if we want a 2/3 chance of limiting warming to less than 2°C, then we can release no more than 1000Gt of CO2 equivalent between 2011 and the end of the 21st century.

The reason the IPCC and many other scientist types use carbon budgets instead of emissions rates to describe our situation is that the atmosphere’s long-term response to GHGs is almost entirely determined by our total cumulative emissions. In fact, as the figure below from the IPCC AR5 Summary for Policymakers shows, our current understanding suggests a close to linear relationship between CO2 released, and ultimate warming… barring any wild feedbacks (which become more likely and frightening at high levels of atmospheric CO2) like climate change induced fires vaporizing our boreal and tropical forests.

Carbon Budget vs. Cumulative Warming
Figure SPM.5(b), from the IPCC AR5 Summary for Policymakers.

What matters from the climate’s point of view isn’t when we release the GHGs or how quickly we release them, it’s the total amount we release — at least if we’re talking about normal human planning timescales of less than a couple of centuries. This is because the rate at which we’re putting these gasses into the atmosphere is much, much faster than they can be removed by natural processes — CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time, more than a century on average.    We’re throwing it up much faster than nature can draw it down.  This is why the concentration of atmospheric CO2 has been marching ever upward for the last couple of hundred years, finally surpassing 400ppm this year.

So regardless of whether we use the entire 1000Gt budget in 20 years or 200, the ultimate results in terms of warming will be similar — they’ll just take less or more time to manifest themselves.

Unfortunately, most actual climate policy doesn’t reflect this reality.  Instead, we tend to make long term aspirational commitments to large emissions reductions, with much less specificity about what happens in the short to medium term.  (E.g. Boulder, CO: 80% by 2030, Fort Collins, CO: 80% by 2030, the European Union: 40% by 2030).  When we acknowledge that it’s the total cumulative emissions over the next couple of centuries that determines our ultimate climate outcome, what we do in the short to medium term — a period of very, very high emissions — becomes critical.  These are big years, and they’re racing by.

Is 1000Gt a Lot, or a Little?

Few normal people have a good sense of the scale of our energy systems. One thousand gigatons. A thousand billion tons. A trillion tons. Those are all the same amount. They all sound big. But our civilization is also big, and comparing one gigantic number to another doesn’t give many people who aren’t scientists a good feel for what the heck is going on.

Many people were first introduced to the idea of carbon budgets through Bill McKibben’s popular article in Rolling Stone: Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. McKibben looked at carbon budgets in the context of the fossil fuel producers. He pointed out that the world’s fossil fuel companies currently own and control several times more carbon than is required to destabilize the climate. This means that success on climate necessarily also means financial failure for much of the fossil fuel industry, as the value of their businesses is largely vested in the control of carbon intensive resources.

If you’re familiar with McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece, you may have noticed that the current IPCC budget of 1000Gt is substantially larger than the 565Gt one McKibben cites. In part, that’s because these two budgets have different probabilities of success. 565Gt in 2012 gave an 80% chance of keeping warming to less than 2°C, while the 2014 IPCC budget of 1000Gt would be expected to yield less than 2°C warming only 66% of the time. The IPCC doesn’t even report a budget for an 80% chance. The longer we have delayed action on climate, the more flexible we have become with our notion of success.

Unfortunately this particular brand of flexibility, in addition to being a bit dark, doesn’t even buy us very much time. If we continue the 2% annual rate of emissions growth the world has seen over the last couple of decades, the difference between a budget with a 66% chance of success and a 50% chance of success is only ~3 years worth of emissions. Between 50% and 33% it’s only about another 2 years. This is well-illustrated by some graphics from Shrink That Footprint (though they use gigatons of carbon or GtC, instead of CO2 as their unit of choice, so the budget numbers are different, but the time frames and probabilities are the same):

Carbon-budget1

Like McKibben’s article, this projection is from about 3 years ago. In those 3 years, humanity released about 100Gt of CO2. So, using the same assumptions that went into the 565Gt budget, we would now have only about 465Gt left — enough to take us out to roughly 2030 at the current burn rate.

There are various other tweaks that can be made with the budgets in addition to the desired probability of success, outlined here by the Carbon Tracker Initiative.  These details are important, but they don’t change the big picture: continuing the last few decades trend in emissions growth will fully commit us to more than 2°C of warming by the 2030s. 2030 might sound like The Future, but it’s not so far away.  It’s about as far in the future as 9/11 is in the past.

It’s encouraging to hear that global CO2 emissions remained the same in 2014 as they were in 2013, despite the fact that the global economy kept growing, but even if that does end up being due to some kind of structural decoupling between emissions, energy, and our economy (rather than, say, China having a bad economic year), keeping emissions constant as we go forward is still far from a path to success. Holding emissions constant only stretches our fixed 1000Gt budget into the 2040s, rather than the 2030s.

If we’d started reducing global emissions at 3.5% per year in 2011… we would have had a 50/50 chance of staying below 2°C by the end of the 21st century. If we wait until 2020 to peak global emissions, then the same 50/50 chance of success requires a 6% annual rate of decline.  That’s something we’ve not yet seen in any developed economy, short of a major economic dislocation, like the collapse of the Soviet Union.  And unlike that collapse, which was a fairly transient event, we will need these reductions to continue year after year for decades.

Growth-rates2

The Years of Living Dangerously

We live in a special time for the 2°C target.  We are in a transition period, that started in about 2010 and barring drastic change, will end around 2030.  In 2010, the 2°C target was clearly physically possible, but the continuation of our current behavior and recent trends will render it physically unattainable within 15 years.  Barring drastic change, over the course of these 20 or so years, our probability of success will steadily decline, and the speed of change required to succeed will steadily increase.

I’m not saying “We have until 2030 to fix the problem.”  What I’m saying is closer to “We need to be done fixing the problem by 2030.”  The choice of the 2°C goal is political, but the physics of attaining it is not.

My next post looks at carbon budgets at a much smaller scale — the city or the individual — since global numbers are too big and overwhelming for most of us to grasp in a personal, visceral way.  How much carbon do you get to release over your lifetime if we’re to stay with in the 1000Gt budget?  How much do you release today?  What does it go toward?  Flying? Driving? Electricity? Food?  How much do these things vary across different cities?

Featured image courtesy of user quakquak via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

2015 Community Energy Fair

CEA 2015 Community Energy Fair

10am to 4pm
Saturday, June 20th, 2015
Scott Carpenter Park
SW corner of 30th and Arapahoe
Boulder, CO (map)
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Fun & Games, Speakers, Exhibits,
Something for the Whole Family!

CEA Energy Fair Flyer

Join our community in celebrating clean energy and the Summer Solstice at CEA’s first Community Energy Fair!

For the Grownups:

  • Nationally-Known speakers: Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism Solutions; Chuck Kutscher, National Renewable Energy Labs; Ken Regelson, EnergyShouldBe.org; and Leslie Glustrom, CleanEnergyAction.org.
  • Exhibitors: highlighting local clean energy and energy efficiency oriented companies and organizations.
  • Picnic Table Talks: Informal discussions with an array of different advocates and experts in energy policy and technology.  Have a burning question?  Get it answered!
  • Alternative Vehicle Demonstrations: Take an electric car for a spin or try out a family cargo bike.  We may even have a fuel-cell based vehicle from NREL.
  • Silent Auction: fundraiser for CEA, with lots of great schwag donated by local businesses!

For the Kiddos:

  • Ride the CEA energy bike, and see just how much work it takes to power a light bulb!
  • A “Capture the Coal Plant” family field game.
  • Carnival games and art activity booths.
  • Connect with other youth working on climate change.

For more information or to volunteer at the Community Energy Fair, email our organizing team at energyfair@cleanenergyaction.org.  If you would like to become a sponsor or exhibitor at the fair, please fill out this form online, and select your desired sponsorship level.

Note that all sponsors of CEA’s 2015 Community Energy Fair must be committed to maximizing energy conservation & efficiency, and achieving a renewable energy-dominated electricity system in Colorado no later than 2030.

Meet GRID Alternatives: Solar for Everyone

Get to know GRID Alternatives

Monday, May 18th, 2015
6:30-8:00pm

Boulder Main Library
Creek Meeting Room
1001 Arapahoe Ave.
Boulder, CO 80302

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Join CEA and Empower Our Future in getting to know GRID Alternatives, Colorado, a nonprofit organization that makes renewable energy technology and training accessible to under-served communities. GRID uses a model similar to that of Habitat for Humanity, training volunteers in how to install distributed solar PV systems. Along with these volunteers, GRID brings together community partners and job trainees to implement solar power and energy efficiency for low-income communities, providing energy cost savings, and valuable hands-on experience, while expanding solar access throughout the state.

If you’ve ever thought you might want to learn how to do rooftop solar installations, or if you’re passionate about making sure that the developing renewable energy economy is accessible to everyone,  come learn more about GRID Alternatives.

Learn more about them and their work over on their website.

Presenters:GRID_logo_fullcolor_Colorado
Emily Birk, Outreach Manager
Kristina Sickles, Development Director

Tell Colorado to Regulate Downstream Fugitive Methane

Don’t Let Colorado AQCC Pass This Gas!

9:30AM Thursday, March 19th, 2015
Sabin Room, Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment

4300 Cherry Creek Drive South,
Denver, CO (map)
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This Thursday, March 19th the Colorado state Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) will be considering whether or not to regulate climate-changing downstream fugitive methane emissions.  Right now they’re only hearing from the oil and gas industry.  We need them to hear from citizens that care about stabilizing the climate too!

AQCC needs to hear from you NOW!

They will decide Thursday whether downstream fugitive methane warrants further study. If they say no, then this opportunity is lost, perhaps for a long time.

The meeting will begin at 9:00 AM, in the Sabin Room at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South in Denver. This agenda item will likely begin at 9:30 AM. There will be an opportunity for public comment after the staff presentation.  Add your name to our petition!

Tell Colorado to Regulate Downstream Fugitive Methane

Dear Commissioners,

I believe that reducing fugitive methane emissions from our downstream natural gas infrastructure is a modest but worthwhile strategy for reducing the climate impacts of our energy system. Measures to reduce fugitive methane emissions can and should be aggressively pursued by the state of Colorado, in order to reduce the climate impacts of producing and delivering natural gas.

I am pleased that the AQCC adopted rules to control emissions from upstream operations last February. When the AQCC handed down those rules, it directed staff to investigate what measures would be appropriate to take in minimizing downstream fugitive methane emissions. I am concerned that much of the information coming before you this week appears to be sourced directly from the industry we are asking you to regulate. I urge the AQCC to move forward with a comprehensive and independent plan to control downstream emissions.

We need strong oversight of the oil and gas industry throughout the supply chain, and we need to set a precedent of regulating their emissions specifically because of their climate impact. We need the AQCC to initiate an independent assessment of the emissions control options on the table, through its own investigatory and rule-making processes.

Thank you for your consideration.

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Decoupling & Demand Side Management in Colorado

Utility revenue decoupling is often seen as an enabling policy supporting “demand side management” (DSM) programs.  DSM is a catch-all term for the things you can do behind the meter that reduce the amount of energy (kWh) a utility needs to produce or the amount of capacity (kW) it needs to have available.  DSM includes investments improving the energy efficiency of buildings and their heating and cooling systems, lighting, and appliances.  It can also include “demand response” (DR) which is a dispatchable decline in energy consumption — like the ability of a utility to ask every Walmart in New England to turn down their lights or air conditioning at the same time on a moment’s notice — in order to avoid needing to build seldom used peaking power plants.

For reasons that will be obvious if you’ve read our previous posts on revenue decoupling, getting utilities to invest in these kinds of measures can be challenging, so long as their revenues are directly tied to the amount of electricity they sell.  Revenue decoupling can fix that problem.  However, reducing customer demand for energy on a larger scale, especially during times of peak demand, can seriously detract from the utility’s ability to deploy capital (on which they earn a return) for the construction of additional generating capacity.  That conflict of interests is harder to address.

But it’s worth working on, because as we’ll see below, DSM is cheap and very low risk — it’s great for rate payers, and it’s great for the economy as a whole.  It can reduce our economic sensitivity to volatile fuel prices, and often shifts investment away from low-value environmentally damaging commodities like natural gas and coal, toward skilled labor and high performance building systems and industrial components.

The rest of this post is based on the testimony that Clean Energy Action prepared for Xcel Energy’s 14AL-0660E rate case proceeding, before revenue decoupling was split off.  Much of it applies specifically to Xcel in Colorado.  However, the overall issues addressed are applicable in many traditional regulated, vertically integrated monopoly utility settings.

Why can’t we scale up DSM?

There are several barriers to Xcel profitably and cost-effectively scaling up their current DSM programs.  Removing these impediments is necessary if DSM is to realize its full potential for reducing GHG emissions from Colorado’s electricity sector.  Revenue decoupling can address some, but not all of them.

  1. There are the lost revenues from energy saved, which impacts the utility’s fixed cost recovery.  If the incentive payment that they earn by meeting DSM targets is too small to compensate for those lost revenues, then the net financial impact of investing in DSM is still negative — i.e. the utility will see investing in DSM as a losing proposition.  Xcel currently gets a “disincentive offset” to make up for lost revenues, but they say that this doesn’t entirely offset their lost revenues.
  2. Even if the performance incentive is big enough to make DSM an attractive investment, the PUC currently caps the incentive at $30M per year (including the $5M “disincentive offset”), meaning that even if there’s a larger pool of cost-effective energy efficiency measures to invest in, the utility has no reason to go above and beyond and save more energy once they’ve maxed out the incentive.
  3. If this cap were removed, the utility would still have a finite approved DSM budget.  With an unlimited performance incentive and a finite DSM budget, the utility would have an incentive to buy as much efficiency as possible, within their approved budget, which would encourage cost-effectiveness, but wouldn’t necessarily mean all the available cost-effective DSM was being acquired.
  4. Given that the utility has an annual obligation under the current DSM legislation to save a particular amount of energy (400 GWh), they have an incentive to “bank” some opportunities, and save them for later, lest they make it more difficult for themselves to satisfy their regulatory mandate in later years by buying all the easy stuff up front.
  5. It is of course the possible that beyond a certain point there simply aren’t any more scalable, cost-effective efficiency investments to be made.
  6. Finally and most seriously, declining electricity demand would pose a threat to the “used and useful” status of existing generation assets and to the utility’s future capital investment program, which is how they make basically all of their money right now.

Revenue decoupling can play an important role in overcoming some, but not all, of these limitations.  With decoupling in place, we’d expect that the utility would be willing and able to earn the entire $30M performance incentive (which they have yet to do in any year) so long as it didn’t make regulatory compliance in future years more challenging by prematurely exhausting some of the easy DSM opportunities.

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