Tackling global warming is a war level, survival level event. Our military knows this. Everyone with a lick of sense knows it. A Democratic administration and Congress could address the problem at a level appropriate to the existential threat we face.
I am ashamed that the United States is, temporarily at least, not part of the Paris Agreement. However, I think we could realistically exceed the Paris goals, and I think we must. I think global energy accumulation, the process normally known as global warming or climate change, is already worse than you have been told, not because somebody is lying to you but because most serious researchers have careful, prove-that-twice, intellectually conservative mindsets. I have an untested theory that climate researchers have overlooked a growing reservoir of added energy which can’t be measured with a thermometer. If I’m right we have less time than the worst estimate you have seen. And if it’s not as bad as I think, but we do all we can anyway, we lose nothing except some money. We will have a vastly less destructive society than before. It’s OK.
The gases which capture increasing measures of solar energy in the earth’s systems come primarily from generating electricity and from transporting people and objects from place to place. Power and transportation. There are lesser causes which I will not address here.
Power generation is the number one source of energy-capturing gases. Step 1 for addressing this would be to cover every roof, and roof every parking lot, in the United States with solar panels. The spaces are already dead. Nothing additional has to die or get destroyed. There are approximately a zillion acres of roofs and parking lots. We could turn waste space into productive space. Parking lots would come to be shady in the summer and dry in the rain. What’s not to like?
I mean this literally. Every roof, or at least every roof with an east, west, or south facing exposure. Pretty much every roof. Private homes. Commercial buildings. Schools and governments. I would exempt churches as long as they’d promise not to use any electricity. Every parking lot. Individual parking places where possible. Yes, at taxpayer expense, if need be. This is war. You just can’t see the bullets.
I don’t care how far from the equator these roofs and parking lots are, or how cloudy. I’d do it in the Pacific Northwest. For crying out loud, I’m talking rooftops and parking lots. Solar panels run for free, for a long time. After amortizing the energy required to produce and install them, any output greater than zero would be a net gain. And I bet before we got them all up somebody would have figured out how to capture more power under clouds than we are now. Geeze, you can get a sunburn under clouds. People are clever. They’ll figure out a way to catch that energy.
There would be a curve while production ramped up on solar panels, but this is war. Think of the production of tanks and aircraft during World War II. We need to get cracking: the world is about to put us in our place. We are running a hundred miles an hour; the bridge is out.
I don’t know if solar panels everywhere we could possibly put them plus other renewable processes would generate enough electricity to meet our needs, but I know this for absolute sure: It would get us a lot closer than we are now. If we chased it from both sides, renewable generation and energy efficiency / waste reduction, I bet we could break even before it was all over.
Just one example: Parking lot lights. I can see Kansas City, Excelsior Springs, and Richmond, MO from here at night. 50 miles away, 15 miles away, and 5 miles away respectively. The light I see is wasted energy produced by wasting other energy. It is provably, emprirically wasted energy: there is no human being alive who obtains any benefit from sending that light out where I can see it. Waste. All that energy contributes to warming the planet we live on. It’s time to get smart.
The Solarization Project will require skillful, physically capable workers everywhere in the country where there are roofs or parking lots. In other words, everywhere people live. There will be more work for blue-collar workers than all the unemployed or underemployed blue collar people in the country. Miners, just to take one currently popular example, are almost all physically strong and have high mechanical aptitude, appreciably higher than the general population according to recent research I saw, A nationwide solar installation project could easily put every unemployed miner in the country to work mining sunshine and still go on advertising for help. Finding enough workers will be a limiting factor in how fast we can accomplish this.
We’ve had worse problems.
Needless to say, a distributed renewable generation system will require a distributed smart grid to handle it. That’s OK too. Our existing grid is a mishmash of new, old, and drooping down gravel roads on locust poles. There are probably as many underemployed geeks in the country as there are underemployed ladder jockeys. They can design the new grid and build the physical plant for it. If we’re halfway smart we’ll design it inside a virtual capsule which makes it more robust and hack resistant.
It seems inevitable that a nationwide project at the outer limits of established technology would attract inventive people and spur invention and manufacturing of peripheral improvements to the technology. I would expect widespread economic growth and activity to accompany any serious attempt to halt or drastically reduce global climate change.
Although I have only spoken so far of solar, we already have wind generation at work, and room to increase it. I have mixed feelings about wind; I dislike covering wild lands with windmills. Windmills require vastly more maintenance than solar systems. However, humans build things. Seeing windmills dotted across the prairies and mountain ridges would beat dying because the overheated ecosystem could no longer feed us. The same reasoning applies to tide generation.
I don’t even know what or how many other power production systems are in development or running in somebody’s garage right now today. I suspect there are some. The government should aid and evaluate such research. Remember, we are at war with our own past ignorance here; it is reasonable to spend some money.
Obviously, power storage technology would evolve. It already is. We can almost surely store power better than we do now, but we’ve got means available to us today that will work for a long time. We should encourage and assist with invention but don’t have to wait for it. This isn’t some Clean Coal Chimera. We can do this with off the shelf technology.
There is a sizable amount of energy storage research and development going on. If inventors were pretty sure that somebody was going to get rich thinking up the better battery or pump-back system, I bet they’d be right. Somebody would. The need is there.
Second to energy generation, transportation is a major source of the energy-capturing gases we are adding to our atmosphere. In addition to pollution and global warming gases, our current transportation system is an amazing combination of wasteful of space, energy, and time; deadly and injurious to users; and a source of war and conflict worldwide.
Heat engines – internal combustion engines, whether they burn gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hydrogen, whatever – are inherently inefficient. Typical engine efficiencies in modern cars are in the 25% range. Finely tuned racing engines approach 50%. The largest and most efficient diesel engine in the world peaks at 51.7% thermal efficiency.
Electric motors routinely run at above 80% efficiency. Well designed applications often exceed 95% efficient.
Any sensible transportation system would rely on electric rail for long distance transportation and electric local vehicles for short hop and local transportation.
I lay out such a system, and some thoughts about getting there from where we are, in my essay Rational Transportation.
Global climate change / stored energy increase is the biggest problem in human history. Humankind literally must figure out a way to reduce the net increase of energy-storing molecules in the atmosphere to zero. Zero net increase. Can we do that? I’m not sure. The closer we get, though, the longer we can hope to keep civilization. We need to put absolutely all we can think of toward solving this problem.