’s Jeff Bezos can save America’s largest source of clean power. Here’s how.


“These big companies have huge, sometimes much bigger, influence on supply chain decisions than governments do.” — Michael Shellenberger

Does the above headline look hyperbolic to you? I think it’s true — and we can help make it true by joining a long list of prominent scientists like James Hansen and Kerry Emanuel to sign the petition urging Amazon to save Ohio’s clean power. Consider the consequences if Amazon amends its 100 percent renewable electricity goal to include nuclear. Amazon’s goal would then function as a Clean Energy Standard (CES), not just a renewable goal (RPS). As it stands, nuclear is excluded from Ohio’s 12.5% RPS — as well as federal renewable subsidies. If Amazon redefines their corporate goal to include nuclear that will open a badly needed discussion: “Does humanity need to decarbonize, or to build more renewables?”

Jeff Bezos is one of America’s most-respected company leaders. When he explains why Amazon decided to focus on serious decarbonization people everywhere will listen. Certainly Ohio politicians will listen to a fast-growing company that’s bringing jobs to Ohio. And I think Apple, Facebook and Google will pay close attention when Jeff Bezos puts the Amazon brand on CES policies that support nuclear + solar + wind. More people should know that Jeff Bezos is one of the backers of Breakthrough Energy Ventures which intends to invest in promising advanced nuclear fission. Bezos has also invested in the nuclear fusion startup General Fusion.

I think that respected companies can change public policy much faster than working only through Washington DC. By adopting CES policies they exert leverage on public opinion while giving state leaders political cover to resist the powerful renewable lobbies.

You probably know people who work at Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook. Ask them whether they think our goal should be to  decarbonize, or is it just to build more and more renewables? They can promote discussions inside these companies. They can raise questions at TGIF or similar (perhaps that’s too much to ask, but it would be very interesting to hear Larry explain why Alphabet doesn’t support nuclear in their clean data center portfolio).

Please donate at Environmental Progress and please sign the petition! The more people who sign the petition the more that signals to Jeff Bezos that there are a lot of people who care deeply about serious decarbonization. Associating the Amazon brand with clean, reliable nuclear will be positive for Amazon.

Decarbonization: Is California Exceptional?

Image: Mother Jones

If you ask a random citizen of the state “Is California decarbonizing faster than the rest of the U.S.?” they are likely to reply “Of course, California is the leader!” This accepted wisdom was reflected in the recent Mother Jones article by Gabriel Kahn [@gabekahn] Did California Figure Out How to Fix Global Warming?.  

All of these advances have undercut a fundamental tenet of economics: that more growth equals more emissions. Between 2003 and 2013 (the most recent data), the Golden State decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 5.5 percent while increasing its gross domestic product by 17 percent—and it did so under the thumb of the nation’s most stringent energy regulations.

As the chart above shows, California is decarbonizing, but how exceptional is California’s performance since 2000? In reality, California’s results are not exceptions, but representative of the nation. For the same 2000 to 2013 period discussed in the Mother Jones article, here is a graphic showing California and U.S. greenhouse gas emissions decreases as a function of GDP [thanks to John Fleck for graphing the IEA, BEA and Census Bureau data].

Image: John Fleck [@jfleck]
And here’s John Fleck’s graphic showing how California’s per capita emissions compare to the US as a whole.

Image: John Fleck [@jfleck]

From the time series graphs it’s hard to judge whether California’s results are better or worse than the US average. Mike Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD] aggregated the EIA 2000-2013 decarbonization data to demonstrate that the nation reduced emissions more than California. This doesn’t account for emissions that California exported to other states (e.g., for power generation) or other nations (e.g., China for the embedded energy in imported goods).

Image: Michael Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD]

Mike has also been analyzing the favorable tail wind provided by crashing natural gas prices. Low gas prices have hidden from the consumer the true cost of subsidizing (non-large hydro) renewables. The US has been enjoying historically low natural gas prices. The lows are an anomaly caused by the local oversupply of U.S. shale gas. The oversupply situation is local to the US because it’s difficult to export natural gas. There are long lead times and large capital investments required to expand gas export infrastructure. Once the excess supply can be freely exported the US natural gas market will clear much like crude oil. Then US consumers will be paying a lot more for natural gas.

Image: Michael Shellenberger [@shellenbergerMD]

For his hypothesis that California has outperformed on decarbonization Gabe Kahn mainly credits politicians backing mandates and subsidies for wind and solar. Missing is discussion of all of the factors that contributed to the reduced emissions intensity. Nationally the two biggest contributors have been the Great Recession (falling demand) and fuel-switching from coal to gas. The Breakthrough Institute published a 2014 report Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal: New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013. US emissions intensity fell largely due to fuel-switching:

Changes in generation shares at the regional level, however, strongly support the conclusion that fuel-switching from coal to gas, along with falling electricity demand in the wake of the Great Recession, account for the vast majority of the decline in emissions. Moreover, the shift from coal to gas accounts for a significant majority of the decline in the carbon intensity of the US electrical grid since 2007.

Comparison of CA low-carbon sources
Image: James Conca [@JimConca]

Study the above 2014 chart. The biggest elephant in the room (not discussed by Gabe Kahn) is the serious negative impact of activist attacks on the state’s nuclear plants. The premature closing of SONGS cost the state almost all the gains of twenty years of building subsidized wind and solar — California’s decarbonization rate took a big step backwards.  James Conca explains:

In one fell swoop, the unnecessary closing of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego wiped out the low-carbon energy equivalent of almost all the wind and solar installed in California, reversing the state’s 20-year progress in low-carbon energy. Wind and solar are the only low-carbon energy sources growing in California. Geothermal, biomass and hydro have been flat for 10 years.

Going backwards: the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) was prematurely closed January 2012. Now the same activists are trying to shut down California’s only nuclear power station Diablo Canyon — which is quietly producing every day about 1.6 times the output of all of California’s solar power. It will be impossible for California to achieve zero-carbon by closing rather than building new nuclear plants. In California Gets Coal for Christmas: SONGS Closure Produces Extra 18M Tons of Carbon Dioxide James Conca reviews the reality:

A state-funded study by the California Council on Science and Technology found that only significant nuclear, or obtaining as-yet-undeveloped carbon capture technologies, can solve California’s energy demands and emission goals in this century (CCST SummaryCCST Report to 2050). We geologists know how unlikely carbon capture and storage is, and we should keep trying, but we can’t bet the house on unknown technologies.

The California’s Energy Future report that Jim references is a very good piece of work. See my report on the 2013 Travers Conference at UC Berkeley for updates on the study. You can help by supporting Save Diablo Canyon.

So how is California doing relative to our two degrees target? Poorly – and most people don’t appreciate how incredibly challenging it is. Two years ago Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated that a global compounded decarbonization rate of 6.2% per year would just get us to zero-carbon by 2100. California’s 7.5% over thirteen years is way short of 6.2% compounded — it is not much better than the dotted line in the this PWC chart, and not nearly good enough. When was the last time we saw nations decarbonize rapidly? It can be done.

Image: PWC Price Waterhouse Coopers


Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”

How can you tell if political leaders are serious about decarbonization? If you see policy discussions like this:

“UK energy policy today seeks to deliver solutions to the so-called energy ‘trilemma’ — the need for a system that is secure and affordable as well as low carbon… One thing remains certain — the scale of the engineering challenge remains massive and the need for whole-systems thinking remains critical… all the easiest actions have already been taken”

The captioned report was submitted October 2015 by the UK Royal Academy of Engineering: “A critical time for UK energy policy”, subtitled “what must be done now to deliver the UK’s future energy system”. I can’t comment on the extent to which this message was digested by the UK leadership. But I take the fact of the commissioning and publication of the report as a positive sign. I’ve seen nothing approaching this quality from any other government (if I could read Mandarin perhaps I would have seen such discussions in China).

Reading this report made me simultaneously hopeful and depressed. Hopeful because there is such clear thinking going on in the UK. Depressed because this is so extraordinarily rare. Instead I typically see intense media coverage of the latest ramblings of professor 100% Mark Z. Jacobson, nicely deconstructed by Blair here. Let’s close on the optimistic view that in Berlin, Paris and Washington there are intense daily conversations that sound like this fragment from the Executive Summary (red = my emphasis): 

The following actions by government are needed as a matter of urgency: 

  • Undertake local or regional whole-system, large-scale pilot projects to establish real-world examples of how the future system will work. These must move beyond current single technology demonstrations and incorporate all aspects of the energy system along with consumer behaviour and nancial mechanisms.
  • Drive forward new capacity in the three main low carbon electricity generating technologies — nuclear, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and o shore wind.
  • Develop policies to accelerate demand reduction, especially in the domestic heat sector, and the introduction of ‘smarter’ demand management1.
  • Clarify and stabilise market mechanisms and incentives in order to give industry the con dence to invest.

In undertaking these actions, government must build on partnerships with all industry stakeholders and communicate clearly and honestly with the public the likely consequences of the necessary evolution of the energy system. Each of these points is expanded on below. 

It is also worth noting that, in developing energy policy, the whole system must always be considered. Electricity, heat and transport, although quite different in their characteristics, are all part of the UK’s energy system and are equally important, with complex interactions between them: targets will only be met by addressing all aspects of the system.

Why does China achieve most of its energy goals?

Chinese provinces map

Hypothesis: China tends to achieve in the energy and infrastructure sectors because it thinks carefully about how it will achieve a goal before committing to that goal. I know of only two strategies for reliably achieving goals:

1. “Sandbagging”: i.e., set really easy goals.

2. Bottom-up planning: consider in detail how you will go about achieving a goal before you commit. In particular, budget the resources needed to achieve the goal.

My thesis is that China does a lot more of #2 than typical Western democracies. Kyoto is an excellent example of setting goals with no plan. Those are meaningless goals – simply political gestures.

Please critique.

Carbon Caps & Demand Reductions vs. Better Technology:

Today there is another Twitter discussion featuring “We need carbon limits and demand reduction” vs. “Better technology to improve rate of decarbonization”. My thumbnail summary is the result of “Caps and Limits”, in particular Kyoto which Feels Good while fossil continues to dominate:


And this is the result of better technology (France decarbonizing electrical generation via nuclear in 20 years):

Why this is true is explored in depth by the Hartwell Paper and Kyoto Wrong Trousers.

PWC: Heading for 4°C, pledging for 3°C, talking about 2°C

Globally we are out of time – now need to increase decarbonization rate by factor of five. From PWC: Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 | 2 degrees of separation: ambition and reality

The PWC 6th annual Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 (LCEI) tracks the rate that G20 countries are decarbonizing their economies. Globally we are achieving only 1% pa vs. the 6.2% pa we need to meet the 50% chance of 2°C or less. PWC has published an important contribution, very well-explained and illustrated. If you are in a big hurry, then at least look at the 2.7 minute video (with transcript).

We need an Energy Miracle — Here is How to Create that Miracle

Fact #1: Fossil Fuels continue to dominate global energy


Fact #2: Globally we are out of time – now need to increase decarbonization rate by factor of five. From PWC: Low Carbon Economy Index 2014 | 2 degrees of separation: ambition and reality

These two charts should make it clear that what we have been doing to eliminate fossil fuels is not working. This week we have seen more of the same non-functional, heat-but-no-light activity signified by a Feel-Good Climate March. Many of the marchers carried Anti-Nuclear signage. No doubt these are nice, sincere people. These are not serious people – they are not serious about climate change.

Harvard's Joseph Lassiter is serious about climate change. He is Professor of Management Practice in Environmental Management at Harvard Business School. Among his specialities is low carbon energy policies. He has just published the perfect response to the climate march feel-gooders. In this short essay Dr. Lassiter makes the essential points which I'll summarize as:

  1. Fossil fuel continues to dominate while both IEA and EIA forecast continuing fossil growth.
  2. We need an energy miracle.
  3. “That miracle comes in the form of “New Nuclear” power plants.”
  4. “The barriers to rapid progress in New Nuclear are not technical, not even economic. The barriers are in the outdated nuclear regulations that scare off private investors and in the nuclear industry-regulatory culture that accepts timelines measured in decades as normal. The world needs a New Nuclear miracle today.”
  5. “The US, EU and Japan have the technology infrastructure and the dynamic, startup companies to bring New Nuclear to the table quickly.”

Quoting Lassiter directly:

Entrepreneurs in the US, EU and Japan have the ideas. China and India and every other developing economy have the clear and compelling need. But to convert these new ideas into real alternatives, the world’s governments need to act. They must redesign their nuclear regulatory practices and provide physical facilities for prototype evaluation that will let private capital take on the tasks of technical innovation, experimentation, and rigorous stress testing, even as the eventual permitting authority remains with public regulators. Innovation and regulation must proceed hand-in-hand, but regulators must allow entrepreneurs to pursue their innovations with a relentless urgency that matches the severity of the unknowable threats that the world faces from global warming and ocean acidification.

Please read the entire essay, then send the essay to your elected representative, telling her that you expect to see legislation to reform nuclear regulation and also government support for the rapid development of New Nuclear. Thanks heaps to John Morgan @JohnDPMorgan for referring me to the Lassiter essay.

Renewables are making no progress against coal

No doubt you’ve heard that Friends of the Earth recently announced their primary objection to nuclear power is now because it is too slow to build and too costly.

I would like to introduce FOE to the data embodied in Roger Pielke Jr’s graphic. I’ve modified Roger’s chart to illustrate the only energy policy that has succeeded to rapidly displace fossil fuels at utility scale. My crude green slope indicator highlights the period when France, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, United States, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and others built their nuclear power fleets. The absence of further progress since 1995 shows the stark reality of how little has been achieved by the billions dollars of taxpayer wealth that has been spent on renewable subsidies since Kyoto. The following chart contrasts the speed and scale of the nuclear build with the  slow build of the whole suite of “renewables” (many thanks to  Geoff Russell & The Breakthrough for one of my favorite charts).

Roger’s short Breakthrough essay is the source of the original chart:

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.

If you are keen to learn what makes for effective decarbonization policies, then you are likely to also enjoy Roger’s The Climate Fix. For an Executive Summary of the concepts see A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy.

How can the developing world escape poverty without climate change calamity?

This article is the result of some very interesting discussions below a recent TEC article on the potential of coal, nuclear and wind/solar to supply the rapidly growing energy needs of the developing world. In that article, I estimated that nuclear is roughly an order of magnitude less scalable than coal, but more than double as scalable as wind/solar. These estimations were challenged by both nuclear and wind advocates and, as such critical discussions often do, have prompted much closer investigations into this issue. In particular, data pertaining to the near-term prospects of nuclear energy in China, the nation accounting for fully 43% of nuclear plants currently under construction, has been analysed in more detail. — SCHALK CLOETE

Schalk Cloete’s superpower is the ability to execute and explain exactly the analysis required to penetrate a difficult, controversial topic. And there are a few others – you know who you are. 

Schalk’s recent article Can Nuclear Make a Substantial Near-Term Contribution? supports answers to my “most important questions”: How can we help the large fast-growers to make the transition from fossil to clean energy? For discussion, let’s focus on three key nations:

  1. China
  2. India
  3. Africa

The reason I posed this in terms of three different developing countries is because the support & partnership that the rich countries can offer is different in each case. 

  1. China is already putting more resource than any other nation into building up their nuclear deployment capability. Even so, China can benefit hugely from without-limit contributions of capital, science, and engineering know how. I left regulatory know how off that list, though there may be possible contributions there. As it stands today the US NRC is probably mostly a hinderance to the deployment of advanced nuclear – not because of the NRC staff, but because of the budgetary straight-jacket imposed by the US Congress (make the ‘customers’ pay for everything up front).
  2. India is improving their nuclear deployment capability at a slow, deliberate pace. But India too could benefit from external technology contributions. Remember that India was cut off for decades from western nuclear tech as punishment for their indigenous nuclear weapons development.
  3. Africa needs affordable energy-machines that are suitable to their infrastructure and operational capabilities. If Africa does not have access to affordable and suitable nuclear they will have no real choice but to build more and more coal and gas.

Cumulative CO2 avoidance potential over lifetime of investment (Gton CO2)


Our affordability challenge is that we need to offer clean, reliable electricity at the best price per ton CO2 avoided. So what can compete economically with coal and natural gas? If you study Schalk’s chart for a few minutes I think you will conclude, as I have, that we need to pull out all the stops to accelerate deployment of mass-manufactured “nuclear batteries”. By “batteries” I mean simply that no-maintenance energy-machines that can be rapidly installed by underground burial, connected to the grid, then left alone for up to four decades until the maintenance crew arrives to replace the “battery”, trundling the original off to the factory for refueling. 

China is training-up to build and staff Western-style plants like the AP1000 – which China will be building internally on Chinese-owned IP. That is not going to happen very soon and at scale in Africa. While my guess is that India will need some time to develop their skill-base and supply chain. Sadly, Greenpeace has succeeded in preventing availability of the simple plants that Africa wants to purchase. Given the reality of the nuclear supply chain, it will be close to two decades before vendors are manufacturing and installing plants suitable for most low-tech nations.

Africa isn’t waiting for someone to make a clean generation option available to energize their growth. Currently seven of the ten fastest growing economies are in Africa. Sadly the massive scale of African urbanization and growth is going to be enabled the same way it happened in Europe, N and S America – building relatively cheap coal and gas plants as fast as they can be built. That trajectory will end very badly unless we get serious about what happens next. We can create a happy ending if, inside the next two decades, we achieve the capability to produce affordable nuclear plants that can be installed and operated without losing two additional decades developing a deeply-trained nuclear workforce and local supply chain. By 2015 Africa’s urban population is expected to triple [UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision].

It’s obvious that these SMR designs must be substitutable for the fossil thermal machines that got built in the first phase of dirty industrialization. It will be a lot easier and cheaper if the first-stage dirty plants are designed for such an evolution: rip the dirty heat out, stick the clean heat in.

There’s heaps more to be learned by studying Schalk’s essay, so get on over there. If you find any flaws in his work, please contribute to the dialogue there on TEC (I am subscribed to those comments).

Footnotes from Shalk’s essay: why China’s nuclear avoidance potential is actually greater than the above chart.

[1] It should also be mentioned that the Chinese tariff system favors wind over nuclear by paying a fixed feed-in tariff of $83–100/MWh to wind and $70/MWh to nuclear. Another important factor to consider is the reduced value of wind relative to nuclear due to the variability of wind power (see my previous articles on this subject here and here). Wind power also requires expensive high voltage transmission networks to transport power from good wind locations to population centres, something which is creating substantial challenges. Thus, if the playing field were to be leveled, the difference between nuclear and wind scaling rates should increase substantially.

Clean energy stagnation

Long before climate policy became fashionable, global energy consumption data shows that from 1965 to 1999 the proportion of carbon-free energy more than doubled to more than 13 percent. Since then, 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, this stagnation suggests how policies employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective.

Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute, Roger Pielke Jr is one of the very best science communicators. An illustration is this short Breakthrough essay which shows that Kyoto and all the hype has not produced the decarbonization we need. And certainly not the results the renewables advocates want us to believe. Roger concludes with this:

The data shows that for several decades the world has seen a halt in progress towards less carbon-intensive energy consumption, at about 13 percent of the total global supply. This stagnation provides further evidence that the policies that have been employed to accelerate rates of decarbonization of the global economy have been largely ineffective. The world was moving faster towards decarbonizing its energy mix long before climate policy became fashionable. Why this was so and what the future might hold will be the subject of future posts in this continuing discussion.

Read the complete essay. If you are keen to learn what makes for effective policies, then you are very likely to enjoy Roger’s The Climate Fix. For a short introduction see A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy.