Future Long-distance Transportation: Trains versus Hyperloop?

As I rode Amtrak trains up the scenic California coast from San Diego toward Santa Cruz, I wondered about what long-distance travel here might look like in a couple decades. Will “car culture” prevail, as gas guzzlers, hybrids, and growing fleets of self-driving cars jam the highways criss-crossing Western United States? Or will airplane flights become increasingly popular and uncomfortable? Or as climate change begins to hit home and droughts heat up, will people try to avoid these greenhouse gas-emitting (and federally subsidized) modes of transportation and even avoid long trips altogether?

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner train.

I took this photo from my comfortable window seat on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train.

Of course, airplanes and automobiles aren’t the only game in town. Many people frequently take trains between southern California and the Bay Area, and the trains yesterday were full of people heading north. It currently takes ten hours to traverse the distance from Los Angeles to the Bay Area, and if the state’s high-speed rail is completed according to plan, by 2029 one could make the trip in sleek bullet trains in just two and a half hours.

Here's another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak's Coast Starlight train.

Here’s another photo, this time from the observation car of Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train.

On the other hand, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, has popularized the Hyperloop concept. This system would hurl groups of two dozen people at faster airplane-like speeds in low-pressure tubes—like the old pneumatic tubes used by banks (and human-sized tubes in the Futurama cartoon)—in as little as one fifth the time of high-speed trains. Engineers could be building the first Hyperloop pods well before the final tracks in California are laid.

High-speed rail, the Hyperloop, and self-driving cars all have their advantages and shortcomings, but my feeling is that trains will be the way to go, at least until the 2040s. I may be biased, as I’m a big fan of trains. But let’s consider the issues of practicality, budgets, and timelines.

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

Conceptual design rendering of a Hyperloop capsule (Credit: SpaceX).

The necessary technology for high-speed rail is already available. American engineers could build on the innovations of European, Japanese and Chinese train systems. It will be difficult to cross some mountainous areas in Southern California, but if the Hyperloop comes to pass, it will be built through a similar corridor and will face similar challenges. But engineers don’t really know how the Hyperloop could work yet, either like expensive Maglev (magnetic levitation) technology or floating on pressurized air like air hockey pucks, and many years of testing remain. They don’t even know where they might build the first Hyperloop either; it might come to Slovakia before California.

The high-speed rail project has notoriously gone over budget, as it’s now at $68 billion, twice original estimates. Legal and political disputes have plagued it as well. (Furthermore, Southern California lost out when state authorities recently decided to build the first segment of the route from San Jose, rather than Burbank, to the Central Valley.) But the Hyperloop concept is still in its early stages, and its budget estimate of only $6 billion is wildly unrealistic and has been rightly criticized by economists.

High-speed rail has dropped behind schedule, but now that people are actually in the process of building it, I think it will be completed near the current timeline, within 15 years. (It reminds me of the James Webb Space Telescope, which experienced many budget overruns and delays, but now NASA’s sticking to its final larger budget and launch date of 2018.) If the Hyperloop, on the other hand, were shown to be successful elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine Musk or someone else even starting to build it in California before then.

The technologies involved in developing self-driving cars, either for taxis or personal use, are farther along than the Hyperloop, but they’re not ready yet. Scientists predicted last year that, like trains and the Hyperloop, self-driving cars could drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But these estimates assume that many Americans will jump on board these smaller vehicles and trust their software. This study also assumes no “rebound effect,” but if the cars are as good as hyped, it’s reasonable to expect that people would drive more, using more energy than before.



Finally, maybe it’s just me, but self-driving cars seem kind of strangely anti-social. Instead of expending so many resources to build thousands of cars driving in unison on the same highway, wouldn’t it be simpler to design a more efficient public transit system with already available technology? If you really like your car, you can drive it to the train station!

Book Review: “Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster”

First the ground shook violently, and then a succession of towering waves smashed the island of Honshu. As people sought shelter and braced themselves during a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami—the worst and deadliest experienced by Japan in a century—they had no idea what was yet in store for them. The rest of the world was transfixed as well by the unfolding events when on 11th March 2011, four years ago this week, multiple reactor cores at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had meltdowns and threatened millions with radiation exposure. Today, scientists continue to assess the effects on public health and ecological damage, while the nuclear industry still reels from the worst disaster since Chernobyl.


Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, published last year by Dave Lochbaum, Edwin Lyman, Susan Q. Stranahan, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzes these events and their implications and consequences in detail. Japanese are still recovering from the disaster, and the rest of us are still coming to terms with it as well, making necessary a thorough accounting of it, Tokyo Electric Power Company’s (TEPCO) handling of it, and the nuclear industry’s response. This investigative and well-researched book manages to accomplish that. [Disclosure: I am a member of the UCS Science Network.]

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Center

Lochbaum and Lyman are both senior scientists and nuclear energy analysts for UCS, while Stranahan was the lead reporter of the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. They appear to have written the book for a US audience, as they include investigations of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors in the US similar to Fukushima’s.

The authors describe the tumultuous week of 11th March 2011, as TEPCO workers with little information about what is happening inside Units 1-4 of the plant, scramble to contain the meltdown and prevent additional radiation spreading to a larger zone and getting into the air, water and land. (Residents who weren’t evacuated were told to stay indoors but remained in danger.) First flooding occurred throughout the plant, backup power generators available turned out to be inefficient, there was insufficient water to keep the reactors cool, workers couldn’t enter buildings as they had already exceeded their allowable radiation exposure, an explosion delayed recovery efforts and scattered more radioactive material, and spent fuel pools turned out to be as dangerous as the meltdowns themselves.

As they note in the first chapter and elaborate upon later in the book,

If a natural disaster could trigger a crisis like the one unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi, then, one might wonder, why aren’t even more safety features required to prevent such a catastrophic event from occurring? The short answer is that developers of nuclear power historically have regarded such severe events [“beyond design-basis” accidents] as so unlikely that they needn’t be factored into a nuclear plant’s design.

Lochbaum, Lyman, and Stranahan give a blow-by-blow of the worsening disaster, at times perhaps going into too much detail or giving more background than all but the most interested reader would want to follow. The writing style sometimes was a bit dry as well, though there were plenty of dramatic moments as well. For example, a particularly moving scene occurred when Katsunobu Sakurai, the mayor of Minamisoma, a devastated coastal community just outside the twelve-mile (twenty-kilometer) evacuation zone, took a video pleading for assistance from anyone. “With the scarce information we can gather from the government or TEPCO, we are left isolated,” Sakurai said. “I beg you to help us…Helping each other is what makes us human being[s].” He posted the recording on YouTube, which was viewed by more than two hundred thousand people, and then relief finally poured in.

The authors also describe debates and disagreements between TEPCO and NRC officials, such as about which of the four most damaged reactors and spent fuel pools were at risk of releasing more radiation and which presented the most pressing danger, as they could not focus on all four units at once. They also disagreed about an appropriate evacuation zone, as the NRC eventually recommended a larger zone, and about what officials should tell the public and US citizens in the area.

Following the disaster, antinuclear protesters resisted re-opening plants or continuing construction on new ones. As nearly three fourths of the Japanese public supported an energy policy that would eliminate nuclear power, on 6th May, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced, “Japan should aim for a society that does not depend on nuclear energy.” The Japan Times stated in an editorial, nuclear power “worked for a while, until, of course, it no longer worked. Now is the time to begin the arduous process of moving towards safer, renewable and efficient energy resources.”

The NRC outlines four or five levels of nuclear power reactor “defense-in-depth,” where first an event occurs, then it could be followed by core damage, radiation release, and exposure to the public. Safety measures at each level are intended to prevent the accident from worsening to the next level, but each level has more and more uncertainty. More importantly, beyond design-basis accidents could exceed all levels of safety measures at once.

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

Credit: International Nuclear Safety Advisory Group (INSAG)

It turns out that in the US, there are numerous Mark I boiling water reactors similar to the ones in Japan. They have similar safety measures as well, as the international nuclear industry generally has the same regulations in both countries. Following Fukushima, some analysts argue that many nuclear reactors throughout the US could be vulnerable to floods, fires, and earthquakes, and people are not sufficiently prepared for such events. For example, 34 reactors at 20 sites around the US are located downstream from large dams, and “the threat posed by the failure of those dams was not taken into account when the plants were licensed.” The authors highlight a particular example: the three-unit Oconee Nuclear Station in South Carolina is especially at risk. The Prairie Island nuclear plant southeast of Minneapolis is another. People think that “it can’t happen here” in the US, but apparently it can, so that leads to the critical question, “how safe is safe enough?” This is a complicated question, and it remains unanswered.

The Japanese continue to recover from the real and figurative fallout at Fukushima. Four years after the disaster, while scientists assess the damage and recovery, sailors sue TEPCO after radiation exposure, the NRC can’t decide how to proceed, and scientists study possible contamination to food supplies and the ecological toll. The thorough analysis in Fukushima remains extremely relevant today, and those interested in the risks and challenges of the nuclear industry will do well to read it.

My Views

In my opinion, the authors could have included a little more discussion about nuclear energy in the context of energy policy and implications for it as we move to a carbon-limited economy. But this was beyond the scope of the analysis in their book. In the US, in spite of Three Mile Island, Browns Ferry, and other accidents or near-accidents, nuclear energy remains a primary energy source. Many countries oppose nuclear energy, while others such as France, Russia, China, and South Korea, have many plants and have more in construction.

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

Source: NRC, DOE/EIA

At this point, it might not be possible to transition to a low-carbon economy in the US without including nuclear energy as part of the transition. In the long term, I believe that solar and wind power have the most potential with the least risk, and countries such as Germany have shown that it is possible to ramp up investment in wind and solar in a short period of time. Who knows–maybe fusion energy may be a possibility in the very long-term future, but as I’ve noted before, the ITER experiment is behind schedule, over budget, and has management problems. Finally, we must focus on energy demand, not just supply. We should work on making our cities, industries, transportation, and communities less energy intensive, and it will be worth the effort.

Innovating Regulatory and Business Models in the Electric Industry (because climate change)

At a Climate and Energy Law Symposium at the University of San Diego on Friday (7th November), scientists, policy experts, lawyers, and business leaders gathered to discuss trends driving changes in the electric industry and regulatory and business responses to them. It was a rather sunny and hot day for southern California in November, perhaps highlighting ongoing climate change and the need to adapt the regulatory framework, market rules, and interactions between electric utilities and customers. The symposium was titled, “Innovative Regulatory and Business Models in a Changing Electric Industry.”

The symposium seemed to lean more on the business and legal side of things rather than the policy and science side, so I was out of my element, but I’ll try to write about some of the interesting things I learned there. USD also publishes the San Diego Journal of Climate & Energy Law, if you’d like to read more about related topics.


In one of the morning sessions, Jamie van Nostrand from West Virginia University spoke about drivers of electric industry innovations including climate change mitigation and adaptation—for example following the experience of Superstorm Sandy. The electric industry is adapting to the rapid expansion of photovoltaics and solar panels in recent years and is preparing for the growth of “distributed energy” stored in small, decentralized grid-connected devices. (These images of rooftop solar and smart-grid technology are courtesy of NREL and DOE.)


These were common themes throughout the day, especially the growth of solar and the proliferation of distributed energy resources. Although Sky Stanfield (at Keyes, Fox, & Wiedman LLP) stated that the increasing number of grid-connected solar installations has been mostly in the residential sector, as you can see from this recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, solar PV is growing exponentially in residential as well as commercial and large-scale sectors in the US.


Of course, some countries, such as Germany, have surpassed these levels. Germany now generates as much as ~30% of its electricity from renewables, mostly from solar and wind power. The government’s goal is to double that amount by 2035, and they’re on track to successfully do so. However, in the meantime, they need to address issues of adapting the electrical grid and constructing new grid-storage capacity—issues also faced by the US electric industry.

Distributed energy, such as with rooftop solar panels, has the potential to allow individuals and communities to have more power (no pun intended) and influence with respect to utilities. Distributed generation could not just decentralize but also even democratize electricity systems, although that seems a little overoptimistic to me (see this article in Grist). Some states have witnessed opposition to distributed generation and to “net metering,” in which an electricity consumer who generates on-site electric energy (such as with solar panels) can offset part of their electricity bill. Some people have portrayed that as “free riding,” and Troy Rule (Arizona State Law School) showed this anti-net metering advert, which is ridiculous and funny as propaganda.

So what’s next? Kevin Jones (Vermont Law School) talked about five environmental pathways for an improved electric grid in his book, “A Smarter, Greener Grid,” including things like distributed energy technologies and optimization, electric vehicles, and areas to improve energy efficiency. Dian Grueneich, a former Public Utilities Commissioner, outlined proposals for “California’s Electricity Policy Future: Beyond 2020.” This included updated net-metering policies so that individuals and communities could more easily share a solar project’s electricity output. More importantly, she argued for a inter-agency policymaking structure that integrates electricity with climate, water, air quality, and transportation goals.

For all their talk of “innovation” (or even “disruptive innovation”!), I can’t say I left feeling like these people are transforming the electric industry in a fundamental way; they’re just gradually adapting to worsening climate change, which means more people with solar panels and making grids less vulnerable to Sandy-like storms. They’ll have to adapt to much more than that, judging from the conclusions of the newest IPCC report.

But what do Californians, industries, and policy-makers really need to do to mitigate, and not just adapt to, climate change? The symposium, which included speakers from and was sponsored by San Diego Gas & Electric, made inroads but only touched the surface of this question. The final person to ask a question during the final Q&A period referred to this issue, but her question remained unanswered and was postponed to the reception, where alcohol would be served.

Californians and the Environment

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonprofit, nonpartisan thinktank based in San Francisco, recently conducted a survey of Californians’ views of environmental issues. This is particularly important in light of the ongoing drought in the southwest and the upcoming elections in November. According to the report (available in PDF format), the results are based on the responses of 1,705 adult residents throughout California, interviewed in English and Spanish by landline or cell phone, and they’re estimated to have a sampling error of 4% (at the 95% confidence level). I’ll describe what I see as their most interesting results, and if you want more information, I encourage you to read the report.

Global warming: A strong majority say they are very concerned (40%) or somewhat concerned (34%) about global warming. Approximately two thirds of Californians (68%) support the state law, AB 32, which requires California to reduce its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, but the partisan divide (Democrats at 81% vs Republicans at 39%) has grown on this issue. 80% of Californians say that global warming is a very serious or somewhat serious threat to the economy and quality of life for California’s future. Only 45% of people are aware at all about the state’s cap-and-trade system, which took effect in 2012, but after being read a brief description, Californians are more likely to favor (51%) than oppose (40%) the program. Under a recent agreement between the governor and legislature, 25% of the revenues generated by the cap-and-trade program will be spent on high-speed rail, 35% on other mass transit projects and affordable housing near transit, and the rest for other purposes.


Energy policies: overwhelming majorities of adults favor requiring automakers to significantly improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the U.S. (85%) and increasing federal funding to develop wind, solar, and hydrogen technology (78%). Strong majorities support the requirement that oil companies produce cleaner transportation fuels and the goal that a third of California’s electricity come from renewable energy sources. But residents’ support declines significantly if these two efforts lead to higher gas prices or electricity bills. (This is unfortunate, because gas and oil companies are heavily subsidized in the US, and maybe our gas and electricity bills are too low.) Most residents (64%) oppose building more nuclear power plants, as they have since the Fukushima disaster.

The survey includes other contentious issues: 54% of Californians oppose hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for oil and natural gas extraction. But a majority (53%) support building the Keystone XL pipeline.

Water policies: Asked about some of the possible effects of global warming in California, majorities say they are very concerned about droughts (64%) or wildfires (61%) that are more severe. 35% say that water supply or drought is the most important environmental issue facing the state today (which is 27% higher than the fraction in a 2011 survey), and this is the first environmental survey in which air pollution was not the top issue. In another measure of concern about drought, strong majorities of residents (75%) say they favor their local water districts requiring residents to reduce water use. The CA legislature is discussing a $11.1 billion state bond for water projects that is currently on the November ballot, and a slim majority of likely voters would support it (51% yes, 26% no).

If you’re interested, the PPIC has useful information and publications on water policies and management of resources: see this page and this blog post series. Water policy analysts argue that in the Central Valley, where most agricultural water use occurs, the failure to manage groundwater sustainably limits its availability as a drought reserve. In urban areas, the greatest potential for further water savings lies in reducing landscaping irrigation—a shift requiring behavioral changes, not just the adoption of new technology. Finally, state and federal regulators must make tough decisions about how and when to allocate water during a drought: they must balance short-term economic impacts on urban and agricultural water users against long-term harm—even risk of extinction—of fish and wildlife.

People’s Climate March

This is a different topic and has nothing to do with the survey, but I want to use this opportunity to plug the People’s Climate March, which will be taking place on Sunday. (This website can direct you to events in your area.) One of the biggest marches and rallies will be in New York City, where the UN climate summit will soon be taking place. Even Ban Ki-moon will be participating! For San Diegans, you can find information about Sunday’s downtown events here. Californians also organized a “People’s Climate Train” to take activists and participants by train from the Bay Area through Denver and Chicago to New York, where they’ll be arriving tonight. Finally, I recommend reading this well written piece by Rebecca Solnit on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and the need to raise our voices on Sunday.

The Physics of Sustainable Energy

I attended a conference this weekend called “The Physics of Sustainable Energy” at the University of California, Berkeley. It was organized by people affiliated with the American Physical Society, Energy Resources Group, and a couple other organizations. Most of the speakers and attendees (including me) seemed to be Californians. I had some interesting conversations with people and attended some great talks by experts in their fields, and here I’ll just give you a few highlights.

First though, I want to make two general comments. I did notice that only ~20% of the speakers were women, which is worse than astrophysics conferences, and it’s too bad the organizers weren’t able to make the conference more diverse. (There were a few people of color speaking though.) Secondly, I think it’s excellent that people (and not just in California) are actively involved working on solutions and innovations, but I think we should be careful about an technophilic or technocratic emphasis. This was a conference for physicists and engineers though, and energy policy and communication with the media and policy-makers, for example, were mostly beyond the scope of it. I was struck by the apparently close ties with industry some speakers had (such as Amory Lovins and Jonathan Koomey); to some extent that’s necessary, but I was a little concerned about potential conflicts of interest.

…On to the conference. Ken Caldeira spoke about the global carbon balance. When accounting for CO2 emission per capita from fossil fuel use and cement production: the US is worst (50kg CO2/person/day), followed by Russia, China and the EU. California emits half as much as the rest of this country, but 2/3 of the difference is due to a fortunate climate (it doesn’t get very cold); according to an audience member (Art Rosenfeld?), “we’re mostly blessed with good luck as well as some brains.” Daniel Kammen (one of the organizers) then talked about developing a framework for energy access for all. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR4 in 2007): “warming will most strongly and quickly impact the global poor.” Kammen described the concept of “energy poverty”: 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity today, and that will still be the case for a similar number in 2030, with more having unreliable/intermittent access. There appears to be a strong correlation between electricity access and human development index.


It seems that many people are working on interesting research & development on renewable energy sources. Jennifer Dionne spoke about the “upconversion” of solar cells, which includes thermodynamic, electronic, and photonic design considerations. The upconversion process improves cell efficiency by at least 1.5× (see Atre & Dionne 2011), and it often works well at optical near-infrared wavelengths. (She pointed out that of energy from the sun, 5% is in the UV, 43% in optical, and 52% in infrared. And if you’re interested in what those proportions are like for different types of galaxies, check out my recent paper.) Then Chris Somerville spoke about the status and prospects of biofuels, the production of which is currently dominated by the US and Brazil. The combustion of biomass has challenges for providing low-carbon energy: depends on tilling of soil, land conversion, fertilizer, transportation, and processing. I’m concerned about deforestation and effects on ecosystems as well as the effects on food/crop prices (remember the food riots in 2007-2008 and the rising cost of corn/maize?). In my opinion, Somerville didn’t sufficiently address this, though he did argue in favor of miscanthus and other biomass rather than the use of corn. John Dabiri spoke about the advantages of vertical-axis wind turbines (called VAWTs, see the figure above), in addition to the ubiquitous horizontal-axis variety. VAWTs have a smaller structure size and cost, simpler installation logistics, and are safer for birds and bats as well. Currently only four countries get >10% of their electricity from wind (Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, followed by Germany with 9%), but this can be easily improved.


This flow diagram is pretty nice, and it describes current energy use in the US (presented by Valerie Thomas). And Daniel Kammen, in a paper on the relation between energy use, population density, and suburbanization, shows the spatial distribution of carbon footprints (where the units are tCO2e, or total carbon dioxide equivalent per household).


Tilman Santarius give a nice talk about energy efficiency rebound effects, which is closely related to my previous post, where you can find more information. He discussed the interactions between energy efficiency, labor productivity, human behavior, and economic growth, and he distinguished between rebounds due to an income effect vs a substitution effect. In any case, average direct rebound effects appear to be around 20-30% (Greening et al. 2000; Sorell 2007), in addition to a 5-10% of indirect rebound. In other words, around 1/3 of income savings due to energy efficiency is lost because of an increase in energy demand. He also talked about the psychology of rebounds, including moral licensing (such as Prius drivers who drive more) and moral leakage (people feel less responsible). It will be a difficult task to try to separate energy demand from economic growth.

There were many other interesting talks, but I’ll end with the issue of climate adaptation and geoengineering. Ann Kinzig described how the combined risk of a phenomenon is the sum Σ p (event) × impact (event). Mitigation seeks to reduce the probability p while adaptation seeks to reduce the impact. Climate change will have impacts on food, water, ecosystems, and weather events, and decision-makers in urban areas can try to prepare for these (see this website). Kinzig also spoke about historical case studies of failed adaptations by people in the Hohokam (Arizona), Mesa Verde (Colorado), and Mimbres (New Mexico) regions, and the dependence on societal hierarchy and conformity. Alan Robock spoke about the risks and benefits of “geoengineering”, which involves gigantic projects in the future to address climate change, such as space-based reflectors, stratospheric aerosols, and cloud brightening (seeding clouds), and basically involve using the Earth as a science experiment with a huge cost of failure. In particular, he studies the many problems of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet. (Some people have supported this idea because of the supposedly benign effects of volcanic eruptions in the past.) He discussed the potential benefits of stratospheric geoengineering but compiled a list of 17 risks, including drought in Africa and Asia, continued ocean acidification, ozone depletion, no more blue skies, military use of technology, ruining terrestial optical astronomy, moral issues, and unexpected consequences. For more on Robock’s research and for other useful references, go here.


The Future of Fracking in California

I attended an interesting forum at UC San Diego on Thursday, and this post is based on that. It was titled, “The Future of Fracking in California: Energy, Environment and Economics,” and the speakers included: Taiga Takahashi, Associate in the San Diego office of Latham & Watkins; Mark Ellis, Chief of Corporate Strategy for San Diego-based Sempra Energy; and Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ll just summarize some of the more important points people made (based on my incomplete notes), and you can decide what you think of them.


Taiga Takahashi described the legal situation in California vis-à-vis hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Governor Jerry Brown supports “science-based fracking” that is protective of the environment. Brown also touts the economic benefits, including the creation of 2.8 million jobs (though this figure was disputed). In contrast, the CA Democratic party supports a moratorium on fracking. The bill SB 4 on well stimulation was passed in September requires the state Department of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to adopt regulations regarding water well testing and other tests of air and water pollution. New regulations will be developed by January 2015 while an environmental impact study will be completed six months afterward (my emphasis). Fracking restrictions are mostly similar to those in Colorado and much better than those in Pennsylvania. Takahashi argued that a “consensus approach” on fracking regulation in CA could be reached, which would include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the state, and industry.

Mark Ellis is a representative of industry. Sempra Energy is a major natural gas utility that owns San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas. Ellis argued that the “shale revolution” (his term) has made gas cheap relative to oil and thereby reduced prices. Gas is used mostly for power, since many are making a switch from coal to gas, as well as in industry and residential areas. There are also opportunities for using gas in transportation, such as with compressed/liquefied natural gas (LNG). Sempra is expanding production and building pipelines from Texas and Arizona to Mexico. Ellis argued that the “shale revolution” is being or could be replicated in other places, such as the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Russia.

Andrew Rosenberg spoke about a couple recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports: “The Curious Case of Fracking: Engaging to Empower Citizens with Information” and “Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate,” written by Pallavi Phartiyal, him, and others. He brought up many issues, such as the use of pipeline infrastructure vs trains and the relation between fracking, chemical plants, and oil. Importantly, fracking is a many-step process (as you can see in the figure at the top of this post), which includes water acquisition, chemical transport and mixing, well drilling and injection, a wastewater pit, onsite fuel processing and pipelines, nearby community residences and residential water wells, and waste transport and wastewater injection. The most important point he made is that we as a society must decide when particular actions are worth the risks, and to what extent those risks can be mitigated with regulations. There should be as much transparency as possible and plenty of opportunities for public comment. It’s important to close loopholes in federal environmental legislation; disclose the chemical composition, volume, and concentration of fracking fluids and wastewater; we require baseline and monitoring requirements for air water, and soil quality; make data publicly accessible; and engage citizens and address their concerns. (My views were mostly in agreement with Rosenberg’s. Full disclosure: I am an active member of UCS.)

After the speakers, there were a few comments and questions. I was surprised that this was the only time during the forum that climate change issues were raised. The issue of water usage was discussed as well, because of our ongoing drought. (In related news, Gov. Brown and the state Legislature just passed a drought relief package.) It also was clear that Sempra and other companies wouldn’t voluntarily make changes unless industry-wide regulations were applied; Ellis argued that singling out particular companies is counter-productive. It’s possible that there will be new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on water and air pollution in the future.

The fracking debates in California continue. For example, the Los Angeles City Council is taking steps toward a fracking ban, and a rally against fracking is being organized at the Capitol in Sacramento in two weeks.

Jevons paradox: a problem for energy efficiency?

I’d like to discuss an issue that probably isn’t sufficiently studied or addressed. If the Jevons paradox is relevant for today’s energy consumption and efficiency problems (or to other resources), then it is certainly worth further investigation.

The “Jevons paradox” (which I briefly mentioned in a previous post) is the idea that improved energy (and other material-resource) efficiency ultimately tends to lead not to conservation but to increased consumption. It’s named after the English economist William Stanley Jevons, who in his book The Coal Question (1865) observed that the coal-powered steam engine made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption and depleted reserves, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. He argued that increased efficiency in the use of coal as an energy source only generated increased demand for that resource, not decreased demand, as one might expect. This was because improvement in efficiency led to further economic expansion.

Jevons was wrong about a few points: he failed to foresee the development of energy substitutes for coal, such as petroleum and hydroelectric power, or that coal supplies would take a long time to be exhausted. But the “Jevons paradox” appears to be a very important insight that has lately become a popular issue again (see for example, this New Yorker piece). In addition, some consider it an extreme version of the “rebound effect”, in which there is a rebound of more than 100% of “engineering savings,” resulting in an increase rather than decrease in the consumption of a given resource. In other words, savings from efficiency are used for additional consumption, thus cancelling the savings. In light of recent efforts to improve energy efficiency, the significance of Jevons paradox effects has understandably generated considerable debate (such as here and here).

If the Jevons paradox and rebound effect are real, then this has important policy implications. It does not mean that efforts for improving efficiency in homes, businesses, and vehicles are wasted, but it does mean that those efforts by themselves won’t reduce energy consumption and carbon emission. Major environmental problems like climate change cannot be solved by purely technological methods in a “free market”. In addition, cap-and-trade systems might not be as successful as hoped in terms of reducing emissions (for example, see this critique of California’s cap-and-trade program, which allows carbon offsets). There is no simple solution, but energy efficiency goals should be combined with other strategies and policies for reducing demand for fossil fuels, such as a carbon tax, requiring utilities to generate a higher fraction of their electricity from renewables, requiring automakers to increase fuel economy standards, etc. Some of these would be less popular with particular industries because it would be a bigger break from business-as-usual, but business-as-usual is clearly worsening climate change (and other resource-related environmental problems, such as involving water resources and pollution). Any effective strategy must cut carbon emissions deeply enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which means at least 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. The transition to a low-carbon economy will be a difficult one.

US Energy Policy (part 2)

Since President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’d like to write a bit more about energy policy, which may come up during the address in the context of the Climate Action Plan that was initiated last summer (when the picture below was taken). In addition, some new energy policies that are being advocated would create new jobs, especially in manufacturing and government sectors, whose employment rates haven’t improved much yet during the recovery from the economic recession.


The president can call on Congress to do its part to pass laws that will complement his Climate Action Plan. Some of the recommendations below would be difficult to achieve in the current political climate, but it’s important to at least demonstrate the political will and public commitment to improve energy and climate policies.

1. President Obama could urge Congress to extend tax incentives for renewable energy technologies, in particular for solar electricity and wind power, which have already expired for the latter. These could at least be extended to 2020. This may be politically feasible, considering that some conservatives are now in support of renewable energy. This is also popular: wind and solar power increased nearly four-fold in the US over the past five years, and nine states currently generate 10% or more of their electricity from wind and solar power. The technology already exists to have dynamic electricity grids that are designed to handle variability in supply (such as due to unexpected weather) and demand, making it possible to transition to an increasing reliance on renewables and less on fossil fuels. (See this report for more info.)

2. President Obama could lay the ground for eventually rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline (see also our earlier post). He said last year that it would be approved “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” We have to wait for a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before a final decision will be made.

3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. These limits, which are required under the Clean Air Act, could be applied to existing plants as well. In order to meet the carbon pollution reductions outlined in the Climate Action Plan, 25% cuts in carbon pollution will be required.

4. The president could outline new energy efficiency policies for homes, automobiles, businesses, and industries. For example, the industrial sector is responsible for about 1/3 of all U.S. energy use. Energy-efficient building designs and investment in high-efficiency combined heat and power systems can reduce these energy demands. For cars and trucks, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards should be enforced by the EPA and Department of Transportation. In addition, a June 2012 study by the Blue Green Alliance finds that the new round of CAFE standards will create an estimated 570,000 full-time jobs throughout the US economy by 2030. The president could also urge Congress to expand investment in public transportation infrastructure that was begun in the The Recovery Act; this too would create thousands of new jobs.

US Energy Policy (part 1)

After traveling for a few weeks, I’m back in San Diego, and I’d like to discuss US energy policies.

Currently, about 85% of our energy in the US comes from fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas; a similar proportion of energy comes from fossil fuels worldwide. Most of the rest of the energy in the US comes from nuclear power, while only a negligible contribution is drawn from renewable sources. Energy consumption is continuing to grow (though not as rapidly during the economic recession), and this growing demand is primarily being supplied by fossil fuel production.

Smoke rises from chimneys of a factory during sunset in the Siberian town of Achinsk

While we’ve talked about the relation between energy policy and climate change in previous posts, note that it’s also related to water policy. With the current drought in the US, it’s critically important to reduce water consumption. However, conventional coal power plants consume massive amounts of water, while natural gas and nuclear power also require significant amounts. The best are wind turbines and solar panels, which require almost no water at all.

There has been some opposition to US energy policies. For example, environmental groups (including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council) announced in a letter a few days ago that is breaking with President Obama and opposes his “all of the above” energy policy: “With record-high atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rising threat of extreme heat, drought, wildfires and super storms, America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil…[A]n ‘all of the above’ approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America’s future.”

Current fossil fuel-focused energy policies involve many contentious issues. For example, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” technologies have made it possible to extract oil and gas from shale and other tight rock formations, but they involve blasting large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground and they create more environmental degradation, especially water and air pollution, than other energy sources. The extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada has also been criticized, and the Keystone pipeline, which would transport this oil through the US, has faced massive protests. In addition, the coal industry has advocated for so-called “clean coal” technologies, but these do not appear to be as clean or viable as they’re touted to be.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear that we need to focus on demand, not just supply, and to increase energy efficiency. Many strides can be made to improve energy efficiency in industry, power plants, homes, and automobiles (and more investment in public transportation infrastructure would help too). With expanding economies, rising standards of living, and population growth, it will become increasingly important to reduce energy consumption whenever possible. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a list of energy efficiency policies that are being or can be implemented. (However, energy efficiency also raises the issue of the Jevons paradox, but we can discuss that later.)

In the future, for energy policies to be more sustainable, we will have to
decrease reliance on oil and gas and shift to cleaner renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar power. However, we also want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible (with larger reductions in the future) so as to minimize the effects of climate change. In order to build renewable energy infrastructure, energy will be required, raising questions about how we can achieve sustainable energy policies nationally and internationally without consuming too many fossil fuels in the process. These questions don’t have easy answers, but it does seem clear that in the short term, we should focus on energy efficient technologies and on making wind and solar energy economically competitive with fossil fuels.

Climate change: part 2 (the reckoning)

Now that we’ve talked about how climate change is happening and carbon emissions are increasing rapidly (in the previous post), let’s discuss what’s being done and what can be done to address this global ecological crisis.  I hope this isn’t too heavy for pre-holiday fare.

In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, an international organization of climate scientists) released an important report. They argued that climate change is “unequivocal” and that the “dominant cause” has been human actions in pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Moreover, even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2°C by the end of this century, which would have serious consequences including sea level rises, arctic ice melts, heatwaves, major changes to rainfall, and extreme weather events.  If crucial steps aren’t taken, “tipping points” and thresholds will soon be reached and climatic changes will be irreversible.

It is also important to note that the most vulnerable and poorest peoples–who are not responsible for the crisis–are the most likely to be affected by climate change.  Numerous islands and coastal regions are already being threatened.  Developing nations are unable to cope with extreme weather (such as the recent typhoon in the Philippines), droughts, and water and food shortages.  Climate change is an environmental justice issue, though ultimately it will affect us all and our future generations.


A month ago, an important climate summit, the 19th “Conference of the Parties” meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 19), occurred in Warsaw. International representatives from nearly 200 countries discussed these issues and attempted to continue to negotiate for a new global climate accord by 2015. In addition, developing nations were seeking compensation for the “loss and damage” that they will almost certainly face, while rich countries (which produce most of the carbon emissions) were avoiding taking blame, making commitments, or allowing any statements in UN climate documents that could be used against them in the future. It became so bad that over 800 members of environmental groups and NGOs (including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, the International Trade Union Confederation, 350.org, and the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance) staged an unprecedented walkout of the talks. In the end, very little was achieved, though a deforestation agreement was made and plans were made for the following meeting next year in Peru.

How does the US fit in all this?  Unfortunately, the US is among the countries avoiding making serious commitments to address climate change and rising carbon missions.  President Obama finally laid out a climate action plan earlier this year, nearly 25 years after NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen testified before Congress about evidence for global warming. The plan includes a number of sound policy measures and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020, especially with new EPA standards for power plants.  This is a good start, but even with this, we’ll still likely reach 3°C warming.  Far deeper reductions are needed (such as with a carbon “fee-and-dividend” system, which we can discuss later). Furthermore, environmental justice must be a part of the plan (see this Union of Concerned Scientists blog post), since the burden of the impacts of climate change fall disproportionately on low-income communities and communities of color.