Monday, June 26, 2017 Blog

Courtesy lessons from France. The demise of coal. The rise of solar. To nuke or not? That is the question. A tax we can live with. A highway we can’t. Only connect. Historical cats.

by Andy Hollis


It may be the lingering serenity of a great trip to France, but there seems to have been an abundance of good, or at least cautiously encouraging, news over the past two weeks.  First, some impressions of our delightful, but all too limited, French experience.

France is not a small country.  It’s about the size of Texas.  But it doesn’t seem to suffer from the American affliction of bigness.  The roads are small, except for the Interstate-like Autoroutes.  The cars are small, probably because of the small roads, limited parking and the high price of gas.  The restaurants are small.  The grocery stores range from medium-sized to microscopic.

France uses about half as much electricity per capita as the U.S. does.  The average household consumes around 6,000 kilowatt hours annually, compared to 11,500 in the U.S.  But it gets even better…  The average French (wo)man produces about one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American.  (Somewhere around six tons of CO2 per year, compared to 17 tons per year.)

Smaller houses are one reason. An average French home is about two-thirds the size of an American house.  Smaller cars and higher gas prices are another. And then there is nuclear power.  About 75 percent of electric power in France comes from nuclear plants.  (More on this in a minute.)  Does this translate into a lower quality of life?  Non, au contraire, in my view.  But spend a week or two in France and draw your own conclusion.

Now, la deviation…  The average French driver is noticeably more courteous than the average American driver.  Is this because the French are generally more courteous than Americans?  Non.  It’s because the road widths require drivers to constantly assess and accommodate the needs of their fellow motorists.  Thus, the conclusion:  Small roads produce more attentive, more competent, nicer drivers, and the results are much more pleasant and safer driving experiences.  On the last point, despite – I say, because of – the over-engineering of U.S. roads, the traffic fatality rate in the U.S. is twice that of France.

I call the dominant American transportation engineering principle “driver as machine,” where the car is granted, temporarily, its own personal strip of asphalt and is constrained exclusively by a speed limit, with the sole obstacle to high speed travel being traffic congestion.  (More on that in a minute.)  So, any interference by another driver, (who may, for some incomprehensible reason, be driving slightly slower than the speed limit), elicits a response of anger and aggression – a sustained honk, a rude gesture, tailgating… the basic elements of road rage (and, as noted, higher accident rates.)

In rural France, a car will often pull over slightly to allow a faster driver to pass or accommodate a wide truck, tractor or bicycle.  In short, the driver is required to interact in a more humane way with other vehicles on the road.  And most drivers, French and otherwise, rise to the challenge.  (I have noticed this in most other countries I’ve travelled in, but France provides a better cultural analogue than, say, Nepal.)

So, what is the take-away?  Our roads need to be redesigned – and downsized – so that we behave like human beings rather than lunatic automatons with hair trigger tempers wielding metal weapons weighing one to two tons or more.

With this rambling introduction, on to the news, which I will try to tie artfully to my trip to France.

This article from the Wall Street Journal reports that the decline of coal has cost jobs not only in Appalachian coal mining communities, but also in places where coal-fired power plants have been replaced by natural gas plants, which is pretty much across the country.  (I wrote about the perversity of conventional measures of economic health (GDP) a few months ago.  Here is another example.  These job losses will be counted as reductions to GDP, but the health benefits of cleaner fuel will not show up anywhere, until they reveal themselves as additional GDP reductions due to lower health care expenses.)

Wall Street Journal: Coal’s Decline Spreads Far Beyond Appalachia

The main point is that coal is rapidly being replaced by cleaner carbon-based fuels like natural gas and, as this article from Bloomberg notes, by carbon-free, renewable energy technologies like solar.

Bloomberg: Solar Power Will Kill Coal Faster Than You Think 

From the Bloomberg article:

Solar power, once so costly it only made economic sense in spaceships, is becoming cheap enough that it will push coal and even natural-gas plants out of business faster than previously forecast.

That’s the conclusion of a Bloomberg New Energy Finance outlook for how fuel and electricity markets will evolve by 2040. The research group estimated solar already rivals the cost of new coal power plants in Germany and the U.S. and by 2021 will do so in quick-growing markets such as China and India.

Reinforcement of this point comes from Climate News Network, which reports on the release of oil giant BP’s annual review of the energy sector.

Climate News Network: Energy major warns of falling fossil fuel demand

The assessment predicts declining fossil fuel demand, for all the right reasons.

The relentless drive to improve efficiency is causing global energy consumption overall to decelerate,” says Bob Dudley, BP’s chief executive… And of course the energy mix is shifting towards cleaner, lower carbon fuels, driven by environmental needs and technical advances.”  (My emphasis)

Finally, the coup de grace…  This next article, from Inside Climate News, points out that, despite all of this, the economy is humming along.  This is the holy grail of the transition to a cleaner, more efficient energy future – the “decoupling” of economic growth from harmful, polluting emissions.

Inside Climate News: U.S. Power Plant Emissions Fall to Near 1990 Levels, Decoupling from GDP Growth

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s power generators have been on the decline, even as the economy has grown—providing evidence that contradicts pro-coal arguments promoted by the Trump administration.

report released Wednesday by the consulting firm M.J. Bradley & Associates finds that climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the country’s power generators declined between 2005 and 2015 as the companies shifted away from coal and toward renewable energy sources and natural gas. Preliminary data from 2016 suggests that emissions dropped further last year, putting them at or near the same level they were in 1990. Meanwhile, the report notes, gross domestic product (GDP) has grown steadily over the same period.  (My emphasis)

“The decoupling of economic growth from emissions growth is really encouraging,” said Dan Bakal, director of electric power for Boston-based sustainability advocacy group, Ceres, which sponsored the study. “You can achieve these reductions while growing the economy, and trying to reverse these trends would be an uphill battle.”

But here is the $64,000 question – How much cleaner and efficient can our economy become?  How fully “decoupled” can fossil fuel consumption be from economic growth?  Is it possible to have economic activity with NO carbon-based fuels?  According to this article from the New York Times, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson believes it is, based on an in-depth analysis he and his colleagues conducted two years ago.

New York Times: Fisticuffs Over the Route to a Clean-Energy Future

Here is an excerpt:

Could the entire American economy run on renewable energy alone?

This may seem like an irrelevant question, given that both the White House and Congress are controlled by a party that rejects the scientific consensus about human-driven climate change. But the proposition that it could, long a dream of an environmental movement as wary of nuclear energy as it is of fossil fuels, has been gaining ground among policy makers committed to reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. Democrats in both the United States Senate and in the California Assembly have proposed legislation this year calling for a full transition to renewable energy sources.

They are relying on what looks like a watertight scholarly analysis to support their call: the work of a prominent energy systems engineer from Stanford University, Mark Z. Jacobson. With three co-authors, he published a widely heralded article two years ago asserting that it would be eminently feasible to power the American economy by midcentury almost entirely with energy from the wind, the sun and water. What’s more, it would be cheaper than running it on fossil fuels. (My emphasis)

This sounds like great news.  But, as hopeful as this sounds, I’m writing this email on the way back from France, in an airplane that I’m pretty sure is a long way from running on solar power.  According to the Times, a group of scientists has produced another study refuting Professor Jacobsen’s conclusions.  From the article: 

And yet the proposition is hardly as solid as Professor Jacobson asserts.

In a long-awaited article published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — the same journal in which Professor Jacobson’s manifesto appeared — a group of 21 prominent scholars, including physicists and engineers, climate scientists and sociologists, took a fine comb to the Jacobson paper and dismantled its conclusions bit by bit.

The authors take issue primarily with the time frames Professor Jacobson assumes for the development of critical, new technologies, like large-scale energy storage, that are necessary to expand the deployment of “intermittent” energy sources like wind and solar.  The short story is that these scholars predict that it will take much longer to move beyond carbon-based fuels.  Why does this matter?  Because every year of delay in phasing out fossil fuels brings the planet closer to catastrophic impacts from climate change.

If we can make this transition from fossil fuel to renewables and efficiency quickly, we will be in reasonably good (or, at least, not catastrophic) shape.  If not – if Professor Jacobson is wrong – we need an interim plan.  At this point, there is only one power source that is both largely carbon free and can (relatively) quickly generate the quantity of “baseload” energy the world is currently demanding – nuclear.

This next article from Reuters reports that the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Laszlo Varro, warns that the current wave of nuclear plant decommissioning makes meeting climate targets, like those agreed to in Paris, more difficult.

From the article:

Nuclear is now the largest low carbon power source in Europe and the United States, about three times bigger than wind and solar combined.  But most reactors were built in the 1970s and early 80s, and will reach the end of their life around 2020. 

The alternative being to accelerate, faster than the 21 scholars who dispute Professor Jacobson’s analysis believe is possible, the development of renewable energy sources and the infrastructure necessary to deploy them. Mr. Varro argues that either direction will require major changes in national energy policy:

Governments who chose the renewables route would have to consider upgrading power grids and invest in power storage to offset the variable nature of renewable generation, while those choosing nuclear would need to offer financial support as Britain has done for its plans, Varro said.

Wind and solar generation was expanding rapidly, but the pace needed to increase to meet climate stabilization goals. “At the moment it is not quickly enough,” he said.

Reuters: Rapid nuclear decommissioning threatens climate targets, says IEA

South Carolina is the poster child for the problems inherent in building new nuclear power plants.  The joint venture between SCANA and Santee Cooper is wildly over budget and woefully under-constructed.  Plant contractor Westinghouse has declared bankruptcy, and their parent company Toshiba is on the ropes.  The bottom line is that nuclear power is expensive and the technology is far from perfected.  And, of course, waste disposal remains an unresolved problem.

This is the Scylla and Charybdis of climate policy – continue along the renewable route, at a pace that is clearly a fraction of what is necessary to prevent disaster, or recommit to nuclear technology, with all its warts and blemishes.  It is my view that nuclear offers the more certain path to bridge the gap between fossil fuels and full deployment carbon-free energy sources like wind and solar.  (I will note the obvious – there are widely divergent opinions within the environmental community, and beyond, on this point.)

One obstacle to a more rapid transition to clean energy is the fact that the market fails to incorporate the “externalities” of pollution from fossil fuels.  That is, fossil fuels are artificially cheap because the purchaser doesn’t bear all the costs of use.  These externalities include health impacts from particulate pollution (heart disease, lung cancer, mercury poisoning and such) and the current and future impacts of climate change (increased flooding, more intense storms and droughts, etc.).  Fortunately, there is now strong and unambiguous support for correcting that.

In this editorial from the Washington Post, former Secretary of State George Schultz and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, representing the business-based Climate Leadership Council, explain why the solution is to impose a tax on carbon and then rebate the proceeds to taxpayers.  (This is called “tax and dividend.”)

Carbon-based fuel, and goods and services that require a lot of energy, will cost more, reflecting their relative contributions to climate change.  Products that are produced more efficiently (local food, for example) or with renewable energy, will cost less.  Goods that are imported from countries without similar systems would be subject to border tariffs that reflect their “carbon intensity.”

Washington Post: This is the one climate solution that’s best for the environment — and for business

The authors write:

Our carbon dividend strategy has four interrelated elements that account for its strength: a gradually rising and revenue-neutral carbon tax; carbon dividend payments made equally to all Americans, to be funded using all the carbon-tax revenue; rollback of costly command-and-control regulations that were implemented because the environmental costs of carbon fuels have not been incorporated into their price; and border adjustment to ensure a level playing field and U.S. competitiveness.

A carbon tax set at $40 per ton would achieve substantially greater reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions than all of the regulation now on the table. The application of a border carbon adjustment that levied a tax on the carbon content of imported products would incent other countries to adopt carbon pricing, increasing its impact and preventing free-riders. So the carbon dividend approach is best for the environment.

This is a truly important mechanism, and most impressively, it is supported by many of the largest companies in the world, including, as this article from the New York Times reports, Exxon.

NYT: Exxon Mobil Lends Its Support to a Carbon Tax Proposal

Exxon Mobil, other oil companies and a number of other corporate giants announced on Tuesday that they are supporting a plan to tax carbon emissions that was put forth this year by a group of Republican elder statesmen.

The group, the Climate Leadership Council, unveiled a “conservative climate solution” in February that would fight global warming by taxing greenhouse gas emissions and returning the money to taxpayers as a “climate dividend.” The underlying idea is that, by making energy derived from fossil fuels more expensive, the free market will move more quickly and effectively toward renewable energy and other low-carbon solutions.

Given Exxon’s past complicity supporting “fake climate science,” there is some skepticism about the company’s endorsement of the carbon tax. 

Some environmental groups did not accept that explanation on Tuesday. “Exxon is signing on to this carbon tax proposal because they know it’s dead on arrival” in Congress, said Jamie Henn, a co-founder of He added that protection from liability would be important to Exxon, which is under investigation for its past statements and actions on climate change.

Regardless, the program has the potential to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels, which is unambiguously beneficial.

I said at the beginning of this email that there was a lot of good news, and I’ll reiterate that.  Whether Professor Jacobson’s analysis is overly optimistic or not, these articles reveal that the technology necessary to move away from carbon is coming faster than almost anyone predicted.  Economic growth is decoupling from greenhouse gas emissions.  And there is a policy path forward to a sustainable energy future, (including a carbon tax), even if it is not entirely clearly marked or obstacle-free.  I can’t think of better news than that.

Speaking of paths forward, the subject of infrastructure was much in the news.  The biggest announcement of the week was that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted a permit for South Carolina’s section of I-73, the interstate from Detroit to Conway.  With a cost of more than $3 billion, I-73 stands as the mother (or father) of all highway boondoggles.  Chris DeSherer with the Southern Environmental Law Center sums it up well in this article by Sammy Fretwell with The State:

I-73 would cost anywhere from $1 billion to nearly $4 billion, but upgrades to the S.C. 38-U.S. 501 corridor could be done for $147 million-$428 million, they (opponents) say, citing a 2011 study the Conservation League commissioned.

“This would have one of the largest ecological impacts in the state’s history from a transportation project,” law center attorney Chris DeScherer said of I-73. “To me, the big mystery is why not upgrade what we have and accomplish the same objective? It would be cheaper and on a more realistic timeline.’’

 Critics say the public shouldn’t pay for a new freeway when basic road improvements are needed across the state, including the Columbia area.  “This is one of those times where creative thinking and open minds could deliver a project that makes more sense for everyone,’’ DeScherer said.

The State: Boondoggle or wise investment? Permit for multi-billion dollar Myrtle Beach road renews fight

Unfortunately, in the case of I-73, like the proposed extension of I-526 to John’s Island, creative thinking and open minds have been in short supply.

In Charleston, however, there has been a rash of creative thinking about transportation.  This article from the Post and Courier reports on the recent transportation planning process and, with stunning accuracy, identifies the need not for bigger interstates, but for a denser, more connected road network.

Post & Courier: Connectivity, lack of infrastructure main issues behind Lowcountry traffic

From the article:

“Connectivity is one of your toughest challenges because of the wetlands,” said Mike Rutkowski, senior associate of transportation for project consultant Stantec. 

“It’s hard to make those connections, but we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to ask it of the development community.” 

I would add that it’s also difficult because of NIMBY opposition.  Everybody hates traffic congestion, but everybody wants to live on a cul-de-sac.

Back to France for a second.  Even in the tiniest villages, there are NO dead ends.  Every road is connected.  I jogged around Arles a few evenings and found that even the smallest alley eventually fed back out to the network.  (Take a look at Arles, or any French town, on Google Earth.)

Without belaboring the point, a dense, connected street network is the only way to reduce congestion.  It provides trip options for cars; it makes bicycling and walking more practical, and it supports public transit.  There should never be another development built on the coast, or anywhere, without a dense road network that connects seamlessly to the larger system.

Speaking of transit, William Hamilton, Charleston’s transit advocate par excellence, noted in the same Post and Courier article that more studies aren’t going to improve things, and that we have to start doing stuff.  Here’s his point:

Two years ago, a $1 million study of transit alternatives to Interstate 26 concluded that the best option for moving people between Summerville and Charleston is a new rapid transit bus line.

In November, Charleston voters approved a half-cent sales tax that will generate up to $1.2 billion over 25 years, $600 million of which is earmarked for a Bus Rapid Transit line and bus system improvements. 

“A busload of new residents arrives in the Lowcountry each day, many in Dorchester,” Hamilton wrote. “If we don’t stop talking about transit and start building it, every one of those people will end up fighting for space on our roads.” 


I’m out of space, so I’m leaving some great things for next week.  But I have to include one final item from the Washington Post.  It’s an article on cats and where they came from.  Those of us who “own” a cat occasionally speculate another planet…  But no. It turns out cats began to (allow themselves to) be domesticated 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent.  Amazing!  They waited until we invented agriculture and then took advantage of the spoils.  (Mainly rats.  It’s pretty clear they don’t need us for anything else.)

Washington Post: Long before they conquered the Internet, cats took over the world 

The team analyzed mitochondrial DNA, which is passed through the mother and better preserved, from remains spanning 9,000 years and locations across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. One lineage was rooted in the Fertile Crescent, where humans who were still figuring out agriculture more than 10,000 years ago probably realized that some local wild cats were friendly and useful, Geigl said.

Enjoy your cat, if you are owned by one, and have a great week!


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