California: Good Luck With Your "Climate Leadership"

In the phrase of one-time U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the states are "laboratories of democracy."  With the age of Trump now upon us, and several progressive-leaning states vowing resistance to his agenda, we are about to find out a lot more about how that works.

Consider the arena of carbon emissions and climate change.  All indications are that the incoming Trump administration will be backing off from efforts at the federal level to achieve emissions reductions as a means of affecting the earth's climate.  But there's nothing to stop one or more states from trying their hand at this game.  And, over at the New York Times, they are all excited that the state of California appears ready to carry on the climate fight on its own.  The headline of the December 26 article is "California, at Forefront of Climate Fight, Won't Back Down to Trump."   

California — a state that has for 50 years been a leader in environmental advocacy — is about to step unto the breach. In a show of defiance, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and legislative leaders said they would work directly with other nations and states to defend and strengthen what were already far and away the most aggressive policies to fight climate change in the nation. That includes a legislatively mandated target of reducing carbon emissions in California to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Dare we be so impolite as to ask, what can they hope to achieve, and at what cost?

On the subject of "what they might achieve," the Cato Institute has put out a handy "Carbon Temperature Savings Calculator" to enable us to determine the avoided rise in world temperature resulting from any given reduction in carbon emissions.  Now, you might say, this Calculator can't be anything but hocus-pocus, because there does not exist any validated empirical relationship between CO2 emissions and world temperature.  You would be right about that.  But Cato didn't just make this thing up.  The Calculator is based on a model for the relationship between CO2 emissions and world temperature called MAGICC, which has been cooked up by a government bureaucracy called the National Center for Atmospheric Research, with funding from EPA (of course).  Here is a link to the government website describing the MAGICC model.  In other words, these are the government's worst-case numbers, created in the effort to scare the bejeezus out of us over how much temperatures will rise as a result of carbon emissions.  Surely, the same model that can tell us how much temperatures will rise as a result of increased carbon emissions can also be used to tell us how much temperature rise will be avoided from reduced carbon emissions.

To apply the Calculator, you need to select what percent of CO2 emissions you would like to eliminate, as well as your preferred "climate sensitivity" (in other words, by how many degrees will world temperatures increase for a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere?).  For percent of CO2 emissions eliminated, you can select 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, or 100%.  Let's go for 100% -- send them back to the stone age!  For "sensitivity," you can choose among 1.5 deg C, 3 deg C, or 4.5 deg C.  Let's go all the way to 4.5 deg C.  The Calculator will not break this down by state, but only gives an answer for the full U.S.  And the answer is, with those extreme assumptions, 0.062 deg C of temperature rise avoided by 2050, and 0.173 deg C of temperature rise avoided by 2100.

But how much can California achieve on its own?  Given that California is about a tenth of the U.S. in population and energy usage, we can get an estimate of what California alone can achieve by elimination of its carbon emissions by dividing the full-U.S. numbers by 10.  (Math geeks among the readers will recognize that this linear assumption will in fact considerably overstate the effect that California alone can have, since the relationship between atmospheric CO2 and temperature is thought to be logarithmic rather than linear.)  Anyway, divide by 10 and you find that, assuming that California eliminated all of its carbon emissions, and with "climate sensitivity" of 4.5 deg C, California will save the world from about 0.0062 deg C of temperature increase by 2050, and 0.0173 deg C by 2100.

Now suppose you think that California will never really be able to achieve more than about 60% reduction in carbon emissions, and that climate sensitivity is more like 1.5 deg C.  (I would say that 1.5 deg C is still way too high.  After all, there is no actual empirical proof that climate sensitivity to atmospheric CO2 is anything other than zero.  But whatever.)  On those assumptions you have California affecting world temperature through its climate policies by 0.0021 deg C by 2050, and 0.0045 deg C by 2100.  Whoopee!

Now let's look at the cost.

California is already a leader in the U.S. in getting a high percentage of its electricity from the big so-called "renewables," wind and solar.  According to this chart from the California Energy Commission, in 2015 California got 6% of its electricity from solar, and 8.2% from wind.  Oh, and its average electricity rate in 2015 was 15.62 cents per kwh, versus a U.S. average of 10.31 cents per kwh, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency here.  Cause and effect?  That's hard to know.  

But we can look to places that have driven the percentage of electricity generation from wind and solar up to much higher levels.  For example, there's Germany.  Germany began its so-called Energiewende ("energy transformation") in 2010, and by 2015 had gotten the portion of its electricity generated from the big renewables up to a whopping 31%, according to a chart here from the EIA.  A chart here from Clean Energy Wire puts the average residential German electricity rate at 28.8 cents per kwh.  Cause and effect?

And at 31% of electricity production, the intermittent renewables are pushing up against the limits of what they can contribute without resorting to a series of far most costly additions to the electricity system -- additions like massive excess capacity, backup, storage and additional transmission.  Consider this piece from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Germany's  Energiewende : the intermittency problem remains," by Christine Sturm in May 2016:

Given that Germany’s electricity grid did not collapse [as production from intermittent renewables increased to 31%], one might declare the intermittency problem as solved. Unfortunately, this ignores two essential aspects of the Energiewende that explain how Germany solved the intermittency problem until now. First, the problem of generating electricity on cloudy and windless days could only be managed because utilities were obliged to cover these intermittencies by maintaining and running fossil power plants as backup source, in an uneconomic mode. Second, Germany’s electricity generation on windy and sunny days often exceeds by far the grid’s balancing abilities, forcing the power surplus into the adjacent grids of neighboring countries, and obliging other countries to compensate for German intermittencies. These solutions are neither sustainable nor possible in a carbon-free economy. Moreover, whether bold Energiewende-like concepts will be successful or not essentially depends on our ability to really solve the intermittency problem.

So even to get to its 31%, Germany has had to rely on the indulgence of its neighbors to take power off its hands on days when too much sun and wind would otherwise overload its grid.  How do you get to 50%, or 60%, and with a reliable system that works 24/7/365?  As I detailed in this post back in August, a demonstration project by a utility in Korea attemted to get a majority of electricity production from wind, and found it needed about four times excess capacity, plus full fossil fuel backup, plus massive amounts of battery storage.  And they still only got to 42% of electricity production from wind over a full month-long period.  And the system cost about 10 times as much as a conventional system.

So, good luck California!  Unless you can come up with some kind of technological innovations in electricity delivery that no one has thought of yet, if you really want to get to 60% reductions in carbon emissions you are likely to face electricity bills at least three to five times what others in the U.S. face.  And maybe ten times!  But you can console yourselves that you have made world temperatures 0.0045 deg C cooler than they would have been by 2100.

Something tells me that in the real world California will never actually go through with this.  Or are they really that dumb?