Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Global warming -- U.S. sources

This post explains what global warming source data is and why you might be interested in it in a U.S. context.

Global warming -- or anthropogenic global climate change, to be more exact -- is one of the most critical contemporary environmental problems.  It's also one that the Obama administration has promised to do something about.  It's safe to assume that in a couple months, various proposals are going to begin to fly.  What data do we have that would bear on these proposals?  Over those months, I'm going to go over some of the material here.  It's a good excuse to refamiliarize myself with it, since the last time I worked with it was in 2003.

I'm not going to address the science at all, or engage in any way with global warming denialists.  The evidence that this is a real and important problem is unequivocal at this point, and anyone wanting more information on it should check out the IPCC, or if they prefer a group blog, RealClimate, or if they prefer more chatty, individual blogs:  Deltoid, Stoat, Rabett Run, Only In It For the Gold, or More Grumbine Science.

The questions I'm going to look at bear more on politics and infrastructure.  Where are the largest sources of the problem?  Who owns them?  How can people get information that helps them figure out their local power structure, if it comes down to local or state politics rather than national politics?

Global warming is caused by releases of greenhouse gasses, primarily carbon dioxide, CO2.  The overall U.S. estimates of human sources of these gasses are in the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory.  Looking at its Executive Summary, the total sources for 2006, the latest year available, were about 7000 Tg Co2 equivalents.  (Don't worry about the units for now; just think of it as 7000 something.) Where did that come from?  2,300 was from electricity generation.  1,850 was from fossil fuels burned for transportation.  860 was from fossil fuels burned for industrial use, 330 residential, and all other types of sources were smaller.   That means that roughly a third of the problem is from electric power plants, a quarter is from cars and other vehicles, and about a tenth from large industrial uses.  Those three together make up more than 70% of the problem.

And those three types of sources are susceptible to infrastructural / political intervention.  Affected industries' preferred defenses involve either saying that the market should decide, or diffusing responsiblity to consumers -- as if individual volunteerism like replacing light bulbs or turning down the thermostat a few degrees or driving a few less miles could really have enough of a cumulative effect to matter.  (These actions can help, yes, but in the end you need to change infrastructure.  I may get into that in a future post.)  But no one builds a large power plant without governmental involvement; it's not really a market decision.  The miles per gallon of car fleets is already regulated.  And individual, large sources respond to pressure from organized communities.

Electricity generation is clearly the largest single piece.  What is the picture for current sources?  Here's the best map I could find, for 2005:

That map is from eGRID, one of the best U.S. databases available when it's up-to-date.  You may not be able to read the legend, but the black color is coal, the worst fuel from a greenhouse gas perspective.  There's a few major things to notice.  First, large hydro, the blue color, already dominates the areas where it's available.  Nuclear, in red, has a substantial presence, but no more is going to be built any time soon.  California and New England are already starting to diversify.  The Mountain West and midwest isn't, but the emissions are comparatively small there in any case.  The most immediate problem areas are Texas and the Illinois/Indiana/Ohio/Pennsylvania corridor.

The political situation in Texas may not be the greatest, but Texas has abundant potential solar and wind energy resources, and my guess is that it's going to take advantage of them.  The corridor is where I think local or state action might be most important.

What kind of information might assist in that action?  Well, with a database like eGRID, people can identify which actual plants, owned by which companies, are producing the majority of the problem.  And then there's a number of different outcomes people can push for -- shutting down coal plants and building renewable energy plants are only the most obvious ones.  One type of early intervention can be made through efficiency improvements at existing power plants.

Imagine a set of ten coal-burning power plants, all alike.  If you want to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 10% and keep the same electricity generation, one way to do it is to shut one of them down and build a renewable power plant with the same output.  But another way is to increase the efficiency at which the plants convert coal into electricity by about 10% so that you can shut one of them down and not build anything.  We're going to want to eventually shut the coal plants down and replace them, of course.  But putting in new equipment, such as more efficient turbines, can be cheaper and quicker for the initial stages.

A database like eGRID has information on every individual electric generating plant in the U.S. -- power generated, greenhouse gas emissions, and even some information on how up-to-date the equipment is.  Using it, people can change the problem from a big, fuzzy one involving "large power companies" into one in which they know where their power is being generated, where the greenhouse gas sources are, and which source contributes what.  That suggests points of potential pressure.

Perhaps that pressure won't be necessary -- perhaps a national cap-and-trade program will be implemented, and the problem will magically be solved by pseudo-market means.  (I have my doubts about that, too.)  Perhaps the data won't really be useful to local or state groups, or will be insufficient.  Perhaps they will be useful to national policy people, although they have their own researchers for summarizing this kind of thing. But the particular tool of public access to data is the area that I know something about, so I'm going to assume that it's going to be useful to someone.

The next post in this series will be about eGRID.

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