A nice surprise

The IEA says CO2 emissions went flat in 2019.

I found a press release from the IEA in my mailbox:

Despite widespread expectations of another increase, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stopped growing in 2019, according to IEA data released today.

After two years of growth, global emissions were unchanged at 33 gigatonnes in 2019 even as the world economy expanded by 2.9%. This was primarily due to declining emissions from electricity generation in advanced economies, thanks to the expanding role of renewable sources (mainly wind and solar), fuel switching from coal to natural gas, and higher nuclear power generation. Other factors included milder weather in several countries, and slower economic growth in some emerging markets.

As late as last December, the central expert prediction  was for 0.6% growth. That’s a difference of 200 million tonnes of CO2 (or 54 million tonnes of carbon, or in my proposed unit, 27 cheopses. (1 cheops = the volume of the Great Pyramid at Giza = 2.5 million m3).

Now OF COURSE the figure is provisional, and the IEA don’t venture past the decimal point, so they are still technically right if it’s 33.1 or 32.9. We need confirmation from the full data in March, and from other teams of analysts like Grantham. Still, for now it’s the best figure available. Industrial emissions are not rising but flat.

To the rational Benthamite policymaker, the correction makes no difference. Flat emissions are still a path to collective suicide; postponing the date of final collapse by a year or whatever is not significant. We need to cut emissions, hard. To keep under 1.5 degrees C of warming, emissions would have to fall by 15% a year, starting in 2020. The IEA’s small correction does not change our policy problem materially, nor soothe our collective failure.

In human psychology, it’s very different. “Going up a little” and “not going up at all” are interpreted in different ways. The latter may be a turning point; the former is not. Perhaps we are primed by evolution to watch out for these: an exhausted prey animal giving up, or an adversary in some contest. Or ourselves. At all events, that’s how we choose to write plays, novels and histories.

In 2020, emissions may go higher again, or stay flat, or decline. Which one it is will determine our retrospective labelling of the 2019 result. If they decline – and in contrast to the 2015-2016 false start, keep declining – we will retrospectively call 2018 the peak and 2019 the turning point: the most important one in history.

The evidence is not quite neutral on this. There is a small clue in the timing. Until very late in the year, the 2019 data pointed to an increase. The drop came in the last quarter. An economic slowdown in China and India? Possibly. But it was not big enough to cut world growth from a normal 2.9% for the year. Perhaps the coal collapse in Europe and the USA sped up, and/or electricity demand in developing countries slowed as they converge with the OECD norm of stasis. If the structural factors outweighed the cyclical ones, we are on track to a modest decline in 2020. It is not silly to hope (and if you are so inclined, to pray) for this.

Footnote: the “higher nuclear power generation” highlighted by the IEA was mainly down to Japan finally restarting some of the nuclear reactors closed after Fukushima. This was a once-off and can’t be repeated. 2020 will be back to normal, with a few reactor openings in China almost balanced by closures of old ones elsewhere (pdf, Figures 6 and 7). To a first approximation, nuclear power is irrelevant to resolving the climate crisis. What we have is a useful addition to the low-carbon side of the ledger, that’s about it.

 

 

“Things not seen” in 2020

Seven reasons for hope on our climate.

You all know the reasons to be depressed about the climate. The Davos élite listen respectfully to Greta’s hellfire sermon, but don’t sign up to the 12-step programme. Carbon emissions continue to rise (+ 1.3% in 2019), as does the CO2 concentration at Mauna Loa (415 ppm two days ago). China and India keep opening new coal power stations. 95% of new cars sold have polluting combustion engines. Australia is on fire. The Murdoch press and the Kochs keep spreading their poisonous disinformation. We are all doomed!

Maybe, and maybe not. You need to get into the weeds for signs of hope. But they are there if you look. My hope list falls into two groups: economics and technology, and politics and culture. For each factor, I add a completely subjective confidence factor for a significant impact in 2020. YMMV.

Continue reading ““Things not seen” in 2020″

Nail, meet wood

Update: building in engineered wood is taking off

Remember the satisfying thunk when you strike a nail squarely with a strong hammer blow and the nail sinks an inch into wood? Few metaphors are as sound and accurate as “hitting the nail on the head”. Forgive the boast, dear readers, for a post Mike O’Hare and I made here five years ago proposing more building in wood as a way of cutting carbon emissions. There is a nifty new technology (engineered wood beams and panels) that makes it much easier; trees fix carbon, and using the wood in structures extends the sequestration for decades.

Dave Roberts at Vox has a long new post up  making essentially the same points. With more recent data, he has better and higher estimates than ours of the potential savings in carbon emissions. The other news is that things are beginning to move, as wood is transitioning from a handful of bespoke prestige projects to routine use in large buildings.

I thought the trendsetter would be New Zealand, which is heavily forested and has innovative wood structural engineers. But it’s small (4 million population), remote, and does not export much timber. No, it’s Canada; specifically British Columbia, the centre of the large Canadian forestry industry.

A mundane timber-framed 18-storey block of student rooms, Brock Commons, in Vancouver. The concrete stairwells are presumably required for fire safety.

BC has changed its building code to allow 12-storey wooden buildings routinely, and its code has been copied in the rest of Canada. Three are 500 mid-size wooden buildings under construction across the country. The new standards have spread to China and now much of the USA. US building codes are a local or state responsibility, but they often rely on common models, which now allow engineered wood.

The caveat to the RBC paean is that to get the full benefit, the forest management has to be based on forests that are (1) sustainably managed (2) second-growth. In BC, the timber building movement runs into nuanced criticism from defenders of the splendid old-growth forests. There is no inherent conflict here: engineered wood can perfectly well use fairly small pieces of lumber, such as those you get from smaller second-growth trees (in parts of Europe, eighth-growth), or 40-year thinnings, glued together in factories into panels and beams of the required size. But the lumber industry is what it is, and greater demand poses a threat to old growth worldwide unless its appetite is restrained by firm government and honest regulation. This will be a battle in the Pacific Northwest, and an even bigger one in tropical Africa and South America.

Endnote 1: the inventor of cross-laminated timber

Dave Roberts credits Austrian Gerhard Schickhofer, a professor at Graz Technical University. Alpine forestry is necessarily conservative; prevention of landslides and avalanches has priority over wood yield, and you don’t see clear cuts. Hillside trees tend to be small. This environment encourages a frugal approach to wood use, and lamination is a natural extension.

Endnote 2: Notre Dame

As you all know, the roof of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burnt down in a huge fire in April last year. The roof above the vaulting was supported by massive oak beams, so many that they were known as “the forest”. There were no firewalls or sprinklers in this huge drafty space, an ideal system to keep the flames supplied with oxygen. The rebuilding fund has money: but what to do about the roof?

A very French grand débat has started over this. Suggestions include the wacky (a rooftop open-air swimming pool, an all-glass roof). Nobody will listen to our views but it’s fun to join in anyway.

The baseline restoration scheme is “just as it was before”, including the 19th-century iron central spire. Taken literally, this requires replacing the Forest with new oak beams. Where do you find the trees? The oak forests of France have shrunk since the 12th century, or the 9th when the acorns that generated those beams fell. There are fine oaks like these planted by Colbert to replace those he cut to build warships for Louis XIV – trees that have preservation orders on them. Even in a good cause, felling a thousand of them is not on.

What makes the problem more tractable is that the Forest was not generally open to visitors before the fire. It should be culturally possible to innovate. I’d go for a technically modern roofspace, using a steel space frame or engineered wood, and preserving some of the surviving blackened timbers as a memorial. The space could be made partly usable for religious or cultural purposes, assuming you could put in lifts.

Annals of nudge: British company cars

A small change in UK tax may tip large effects.

This post would be wonky if I could be bothered to do a deep dive into the rococo tax rules for company cars in the UK. Try this. But for once the tl;dr is enough.

For reasons I do not, like Cervantes (footnote), care to go into, the British tax code makes it attractive for employers to offer company cars to middle-rank employees as a perk. The company owns or leases the car and lets the employee use it for private travel and work alike. The employee pays tax (Benefit-in-Kind, or BiK) on the imputed value of the benefit for personal use, on a scale.

The typical split looks like this:

  • Company – ownership; book and residual value of the car; depreciation; insurance; breakdowns; maintenance; road tax; choice of the list of available cars, sorted by status.
  • Employee – fuel; BiK tax; choice of car from the restricted list, according to status.
  • Some employers offer fuel too, which is taxed as a separate BiK.

The result is that 35% of new cars are company ones, about 830,000 of them a year. Add to this the true fleets (rental companies, police, etc), and a remarkable 57% of new cars (pdf) are bought by companies, not individuals.

The story is that the shell-shocked British government has found the time to introduce a reform, from April 2020. This will make the BiK use tax more strongly dependent on emissions. It’s a steep progression now, from 9% to 37%. The rate will now fall to nil for BEVs.

Bank of America /Merrill Lynch have done the math and issued a shiny report with lots of pretty graphs (not public, but they sent it to CleanTechnica). The method is confusing, and the analysts do not provide a summary of costs to the company as opposed to the employee. As far as I can see, the takeaways are:

  • For employees, the BiK changes and cheap electric fuel make for very large savings in choosing a BEV or PHEV – up to 22 times less outlays for a Tesla 3 (£659) against a BMW 3 series petrol (£15,137) over three years, a common life of a company car.
  • For employers, the low maintenance costs of EVs are still outweighed by the higher purchase price, so that the total three-year cost of ownership (TCO) of the BEV or PHEV is still somewhat higher than that of a comparable ICEV for 10K miles a year. The significant savings to the employee mean that the total joint TCO is similar. The TCO becomes significantly lower (12% – 32%) for a high-mileage fleet use of 20K miles, including fuel costs.
  • The employer can now in many cases offer a higher-value package to the employee for less outlay with EVs, appropriating (unless they are dumb or unusually altruistic) a large share of the tax break. (My inference, not BoA’s.)

Here’s the cognitive beauty of this setup, which makes it a great nudge: nobody is acting under sticker price illusion. The employee doesn’t pay any part of the purchase price, and has no reason to consider it. For their employer, the analysis is done by professional HR and finance people who are automatically looking at TCO. (By this I understand purchase price plus all running costs and depreciation; Bank of America confusingly exclude the first.) Their decisions have to be justified by the data. Company secretaries and lawyers will start muttering about “fiduciary responsibility” if the Board does not pursue the cost saving. The effect is supercharged if the employer leases rather than buys the vehicles. Car TCO is just a significant side-issue for most employers. For leasing companies, TCO is the heart of the business. They will very soon be offering EV contracts cheaper.

It’s a pretty safe prediction that the company car market in the UK will shift strongly to electric vehicles from next April. That’s before taking account of competitive new models like the VW ID.3, improvements in the charging network, further moves towards ULEZ zones in city centres, and censorious pressure from teenage children inspired by Greta. The new sales will probably stimulate emulation sales to envious neighbours, some with their own Greta fans.

Does this extend to true fleets? Police have their own use requirements and are culturally conservative. Rental car companies are less so. However, they are in a rather similar position to standard company-car employers, in that it’s the renter, not the owner, who gets the benefit of the low fuel costs. The number of renters who ask for an EV is still, I would guess, quite low from lack of familiarity. But this too will change, more slowly.

The incentives here are specific to the UK and the same effect won’t be seen in the USA. But there are still many US fleet operators who are likely to be more receptive to TCO pitches than Joe Average in the dealer’s lot. That’s how electric buses are taking over, in site of the sticker premium.

Oh, yes, RANGE hiss hiss. The distance from London to Edinburgh is 402 miles: Brits see this as a major two-day expedition calling for a week’s planning with furrowed brows, as historian John Keegan puts it. A 250-mile Tesla 3 Standard meets all reasonable range needs in Britain. Distances in the US West are of course greater – but the population of Wyoming is 577,000, barely more than Sheffield (553,000). It’s absurd to let the needs of a handful of rural Real Western Men determine the framing of transport policy in a country where 80% of the population lives in cities, towns and suburbs and the average commute is 16 miles.

The EV revolution is happening, much faster than most people think. This chart leaves out e-buses, which have 90% of urban sales in China , and e-tuks, which putter below the statistical radar, but are >1.5m in India alone. For cars, the growth in sales in 2018 was a not exceptional 65%. It will be lower in 2019 because of a large hiccup in China, but the trend is unstoppable.

Footnote

The immortal opening sentence of Don Quixote:

En un lugar de La Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo, de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.

A bad climate chart

Bad in two senses. From a recent post by Kevin Drum with the scare headline “The World Is Giving Up On Climate Change”, a chart from the reliable FT:

Looks terrible! But Kevin truncated the FT chart – the 2019 bar label has the important subscript “H1”. (FT article, paywalled – trust me, I got a sneak view somehow, and it’s definitely there.) The all-year total won’t be great, but it will be fairly close to last year’s ca. $290 bn.

Why would Drum, normally a thoughtful and careful blogger and a chart maestro, make a silly mistake like this? I suggest it’s motivated reasoning. Drum has locked himself into the untenable positions that the energy transition requires large and very unlikely changes in lifestyles, that existing technologies are too expensive, and that the only hope is massive R&D to find something much cheaper. These three positions are nonsense (see for example Jacobson, Blakers, Breyer (pdf), or for the tl:dr capsule, me). To defend an untenable position, you grasp at straws. Look, the FT says renewable investment is collapsing! Only it isn’t.

The chart does tell us a less dramatic, but still real, bad news story. Renewable investment was growing fast until 2011, then the boom stopped and spending has been stuck on a plateau. The effect has been mitigated by the continuing falls in the prices of wind, solar and storage. Lazards give a 10 year decline to 2019 in the costs of wind in the USA as 70%, of utility solar 89% (13th survey of generation costs, pdf, page 8); they don’t supply a trend for storage, as the use cases are so varied, but do note a fall in costs. Price trends are global. So annual renewable installations have been growing in GW terms, only not as fast as they should.

This is not what Econ 101 would lead us to expect. When a technology steadily gets cheaper than its rivals, the rate of adoption should speed up, as investment shifts from higher-cost incumbents to cheaper newcomers enjoying economies of scale and learning. Following the classic logistic curve, the rate of substitution eventually slows as you near saturation, but renewables are only near that today in a few small countries (Norway, Denmark, Costa Rica).

We have to ask: what happened around 2011 that flipped renewable investment from growth to stagnation?

It certainly wasn’t a halt in technical progress or a global recession
– the GFC was essentially over by then. I can see only one
candidate: the victory of austerity policies over Keynesian ones.

This was driven by ideology over good economics, and supported by some very sloppy analysis (as with Rogoff’s debt limit argument). The austeriacs won because their message was congenial to financial elites, and required cuts in public spending and transfers to the working classes. As in the 1930s, the victory was temporary, and a new wave of populist right-wingers (Trump, Johnson, Abbott) rose to power who don’t care at all about financial orthodoxy. But it was for a while complete enough to secure a rollback in the incentives that had enable the rapid growth in renewables of the 2000s. Germany led the way with the EEG “reform” of 2012, and was followed by Spain and the UK. Renewable investment only restarted in Spain last year, with a socialist minority government and a determined environment minister.

This is not a complete explanation, and does not account for the Chinese  cutbacks, which came as late as 2018. Xi is probably not a fan of Alesina and Rogoff, and Chinese policy firmly supports growth and full employment. However, fears of the unsustainability of renewable subsidies can also arise in a controlled economy. In the USA, the self-blocking design of the Constitution and the spectacular incompetence of the Trump Administration have limited the rollback to largely symbolic changes like the waters regulation.

There is another suspicion, which fully applies to China. The fossil fuel industries are large and effective lobbyists for their businesses, to which the renewable transition is an existential threat. It would be astonishing if their minions did not use the austeriac arguments to hand, with superficial academic credibility, and playing to the prejudices of the policymakers they are dining with. Some fossil fuel tycoons – notably the Kochs – reinforced political lobbying by shoring up congenial academic research, notably the Kochs’ support of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in, importantly, Washington. And is Harvard squeaky clean here, with its massive investments in fossil fuels and a lax policy on donations?

Don’t forget that the fossil people had and have a large direct interest: the subsidy rollback was specific to renewables, and the old subsidies to fossil fuels, buried deeper in the tax code, escaped unscathed. The change was a reverse Pigovian tax, a public policy in favour of pollution.

Someone joked that there are two theories of history – cockup and conspiracy. Cockup is the default, and works for some major events like the French and American Revolutions and the start of the First World War. But conspiracies are sometimes real and effective, as the careers of such luminaries as Lenin, Hitler, the Kochs, and bin Laden attest: all the way back to John of Procida, the likely mastermind of the Sicilian Vespers in 1282. I have a pet theory that the seizure of Brill by the Dutch Protestant Sea Beggars in 1572, nominally following the closure of Dover to them by the English to placate Spain, was in reality a deniable black op of Francis Walsingham’s.

I can’t prove the hypothesis that the energy transition was kneecapped by a conspiracy of fossil fuel lobbyists using bogus austerity arguments. But it’s worth investigating.

If that’s so, a suitable sanction for the perps could IMHO be life in a gulag, somewhere like here.

Antarctic icecap. Photo credit

Disproportionate you say? What’s proportionate for the crime of procuring genocide for hire?

Just rewards

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry at last recognizes John Goodenough and his revolutionary battery.

The Nobel Prize committee for chemistry took their time but finally did the right thing:

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2019 was awarded jointly to John B. Goodenough, M. Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino “for the development of lithium-ion batteries.”

Yours truly has been agitating for this since 2017. I’m sure far more influential voices than mine have been making the case, though I’m still quite proud of the letter I sent them (reproduced in the post), and repeated last year.

It’s particularly gratifying that John Goodenough is still alive to receive the prize. He is amazingly fit and still working, but at 97 nothing can be taken for granted.

Many chemists, including him, are trying to find a better battery formulation, but so far, your mobile phone (revolution one) and future electric car (revolution two) still run on the battery he and others invented over 30 years ago.

If human civilisation gets through this mess, he and his colleagues will be on the short list of unlikely heroes and heroines who gave us a chance.

Thank you, John, Stanley, and Akira, from all of us.

My climate strike

Joining the striking kids in Malaga

Lu and I joined the children’s climate strike in Malaga yesterday.

Can you spot the odd man out? Photo by Lu

The photo is slightly misleading in that the majority of the protesters were older, with a surprising number of Seniores. A decent if not startling turnout, and all very good-humoured.

Our information-rich poster. Translation at the end. Bus by Playmobil. Hollin is soot – the streaks are the real thing from my wood-burning fireplace. The QR code links to a paper in Nature Communications, but only one other participant took a photo of it. No media in sight.

I did quite well on photos otherwise: several dozen. Very markedly, there was disproportionate interest from middle-aged women. I assume it’s the placenta reference: it doesn’t connect in the same way to young nulliparae.

If I were Francisco de la Torre, the 77-year-old PP mayor of Malaga, would I be worried enough to reconsider my policies? For instance on slow-walking the buying of electric buses? I doubt it: we weren’t enough, nor sufficiently focused. A lot depends on whether Greta’s army, or its parents, will get down to the plank-boring work of political organization. The Occupy Wall Streeters notoriously failed to make this transition. But I might be more worried by the middle-aged women, the kind that go to meetings, who may now be circulating photos of my poster and others on their FB feeds.

Continue reading “My climate strike”

Financing hydrogen iron

A wonkish plan for problem industries in the energy transition.

We know how to make the electricity supply renewable. We know how to make land transport electric. Both are on track. But there are four problem industries where things are not so clear.

These estimates are not all for the same year and not strictly comparable, but they are good enough to make the point that to reach net zero emissions, the four sectors (together 20% of global fossil emissions) cannot be ignored.

The challenges are distinct but they have common features.

  1. Very plausible technological pathways exist to decarbonise. But these are not mature, and for the moment they are far more expensive than BAU.
  2. There is no guarantee or strong expectation that technical progress will ever eliminate the cost barrier, in contrast to electricity and land vehicles.
  3. The industries are typical of modern capitalism: they are international and oligopolistic, with a lot of trade, a handful of large companies, and a myriad of small ones.
  4. Their products and services rarely have plausible substitutes. (We shall see later on why this matters).

Points 1 and 2 mean that the issue for public policy is not R&D (pace all the Democratic presidential hopefuls) but early deployment.

Recall how we got to cheap wind, solar and batteries. It wasn’t a carbon tax, since that does not exist anywhere in the pure form. Partial cap-and-trade exists in the EU, but it has only just started to bite, after giveaway initial allocations. It was done by subsidies for early deployment to create economies of learning and scale:

  • In the USA, tax breaks for wind, solar, and electric cars; renewable obligations at state level.
  • In Europe and China, tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory privileges for electric cars.
  • FITs and ringfenced auctions for wind and solar generation in Germany, other European countries, China and India.

The costs of FITs have been large in the past, though the cumulative liability (in Germany for instance) has now almost stopped growing as the few surviving FITs are near market rates. Well worth it of course, especially if you aren’t a German consumer.

The same principle holds for our four problem industries. Carbon taxes are politically toxic, and a coordination nightmare in globalised industries. So what’s the workable second-best kludge?

I’d like to float a possible solution. I’ll take steel as the example. The principle extends to the others ceteris paribus.

!

Dominion backs V2G

A big US utility subsidises school buses as grid batteries.

As a rule I don’t post much on renewable technology. The news is of a steady flow of small, unremarkable, incremental improvements that keep making wind and solar energy ever cheaper. It’s the prices that do it. But every so often, something bigger happens. I think it has here:

Dominion Energy Virginia has published a bullish plan to convert 50 school buses in its territory to electric buses by 2020. That’s just the start, as the company plans to add 200 more per year to hit its target of 1,050 fully electric school buses by 2025.
The company has a request for proposals in the works for electric vehicle manufacturers with plans to open the application to school districts in its Virginia territory this Friday, September 5th, 2019. […]
Dominion is excited to use the buses as vehicle to grid (V2G) batteries, and what’s even better is that the company has stepped up to pay the difference in price between traditional diesel buses and the fully electric buses in order to gain access to this new V2G resource.

V2G – vehicle-to-grid – is the idea of using electric vehicle batteries as storage for the grid. If it works, the potential is vast.
In 2018, there were 5.1 million electric cars on the roads worldwide, and 460,000 buses. (IEA Global EV Outlook 2019 ) Taking 30 kwh as a representative battery capacity for cars (Nissan Leaf) and 320 kwh for a representative electric bus (BYD K9), we have a total EV battery capacity of ~300 Gwh. The global light vehicle stock is about 1 billion, so EVs only represent 0.5% of it. But the growth rate is staggering – over 50% per year. The IEA suggests a global EV stock of 130 million in 2030 in its New Policies scenario (reflecting current policy ambitions), not much more than 10% of the stock allowing for market growth. We would then have a global vehicle battery capacity of ~7,800 Gwh, with plenty of upside.

Suppose we can tap a mere 10% of this for V2G. That’s ~780 Gwh. The Bath County pumped storage dam in Virginia, still the world’s largest (though not for long) has a storage capacity of 24 Gwh. V2G at scale would make a serious dent in the firming problem for very large-scale wind and solar. And it’s a very cheap solution compared to pumped storage or grid batteries: the owners of the vehicles will have bought the batteries anyway, and would not need to be paid much to lend them to the grid with appropriate guarantees and at minimal inconvenience.

A schematic illustration how this would work using Dominion’s school buses (my timetable guesses, not their estimates). On a working day:

  • 0000h – 0630 h: charge bus batteries in garage to 100%
  • 0630h – 0930h: morning school run, buses return to garage with average 33% charge
  • 0930h – 1600h: charge bus batteries in depot to 100%; available for V2G but not used much
  • 1600h – 1900h: afternoon school run, buses return to garage with average 33 % charge
  • 1900h -2400h: interruptible charging; >33% of bus battery capacity available for V2G to meet evening demand peak.

That’s for the 200 school days a year. For the other 165 days, the buses just sit in the garage, working exactly as grid batteries.

The scheme depends on the fact that any bus operator will buy a number of identical buses, but these will follow a mixture of longer and shorter routes. On the shorter ones, the buses don’t exhaust the charge. Given that Dominion is subsidising the purchases, they will be able to insist on as much over-capacity as they want.

There are several takeaways from this news. Continue reading “Dominion backs V2G”

Holes in the ground update

Warren half-way supports my pumped storage plan.

Some random blogger, last month, arguing for a large US investment in pumped hydro storage:

Picking with a pin, a 100 GW initial programme looks reasonable. […] it will cost a ballpark $60 bn. […] Where should the dams go? As a climate justice measure, it has to be Appalachia, since that is where most of the unemployed miners are and will be.

Candidate Elizabeth Warren, adopting Inslee’s climate plan with bells and whistles, earlier today:

We’ll provide dedicated support for the four Power Marketing Administrations, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Appalachian Regional Commission to help them build publicly-owned clean energy assets and deploy clean power to help communities transition off fossil fuels. And we’ll expand investments in smart energy storage solutions and cybersecurity for the grid.

Pretty close. The only thing the Appalachian Regional Commission can usefully spend money on is pumped storage, so Warren’s plan would buy some. However, her plan lacks specificity, numbers, and immediacy. “If you build a Bath County dam here, it will create 1,000 jobs for five years”. She achieves this elsewhere:

I’ll also invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, including ensuring that every federal interstate highway rest stop hosts a fast-charging station by the end of my first term in office.

See the difference?

China is currently building 30 GW of pumped hydro, on top of the existing stock of 19 GW, a shade under the USA’s 24 GW. The programme includes one 3.6 GW megaproject at Fengning which will knock Bath County from its three-decade reign as the world’s largest. Another 6 GW has just been added to the pipeline, taking the future total to 55 GW. The USA is being left in the dust and should aim at a bare minimum to match this.

The ambitious rollout is steered by China State Grid, the huge national high-voltage transmission monopoly. Warren’s plan leaves out a national grid too, merely rebranding FERC, weak tea by her high standards. But it may be good politics. Steering new funding to existing public bodies can be got through Congress by reconciliation. A national grid and electricity market would need primary legislation, a very scarce resource in the Warren (or Sanders or Biden) Presidency.

FWIW, if I were an American Democrat and primary elector, I would focus less on the details of the rival climate plans, and more on the ability of the candidates to get anything done. The plans will converge, as there are few serious ideological divides among Democrats equivalent to those on universal health care. The nearest is on nuclear power. Sanders rules it out; Biden will spend on research; Warren ducks. Fair enough, as the practical question is merely how much money to throw away on new reactor designs that will never be built commercially at any scale. Nuclear is a side-issue, not worth wasting political capital on. It’s more important who the new President would appoint as Secretary for Energy.

Footnote

For aficionados, there’s an interesting machinery-of-government angle. One part of the DoE’s job is minding the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear waste. These are thousand-year headaches, with no tolerance for mistakes, and highly technical, though they only create major policy issues irregularly. That is why Obama appointed top-flight nuclear physicists as Secretaries. This inevitably creates a pro-nuclear bias in the other side of the job, energy policy. Warren (&c) might consider hiving off the nuclear stewardship job to a distinct non-Cabinet agency with considerable professional autonomy, like the Fed, and a real scientist in the Chu or Moniz mould as head. The Cabinet-level energy and climate czar would have plenty of other things to do, leading a multi-trillion-dollar GND.