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Colin Chilcoat

Colin Chilcoat

Colin Chilcoat is a specialist in Eurasian energy affairs and political institutions currently living and working in Chicago. A complete collection of his work can…

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How Much Would Zero Emissions Cost?

How Much Would Zero Emissions Cost?

In 2014 global carbon emissions totaled 32 gigatonnes (Gt). If you’re counting, that’s roughly 32 Gt too many. Yes, zero, near-zero, or net-zero is what we want, and soon is when we need it. Failure to achieve such goals by the end of the century will irreparably damage our planet and leave us dangerously susceptible to new and harsher climate conditions, at least according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The United Nations agrees, though several countries openly reject the target. Paris 2015 should produce some positive momentum, but anything legally binding is unlikely to materialize.

In an effort to better understand the zero goal, let’s try to put a price on it. More specifically – and for simplicity – how much would it cost for the world’s highest per capita emitter, the United States to achieve zero or near-zero emissions? To be clear, the following focuses on energy-related gas emissions, which are mostly CO2 and account for about 84 percent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Related: This Development Could Revolutionize Renewable Energy

Last year, US energy-related CO2 emissions were 5.4 Gt – relatively unchanged from the year before, though up 2.5 percent since 2012. By sector: electric power is responsible for roughly 38 percent of total emissions; transportation is second at 34 percent; and residential, commercial, and industry emissions account for 28 percent. By fuel: Petroleum is tops at 42 percent, followed by coal and natural gas at 32 and 26 percent respectively.

Of course, there is no simple solution to the problem at hand, but there is a simple idea: remove fossil fuels from the picture, and across all sectors. Note: that includes point-source systems equipped with carbon capture and storage, which – while not without their merit – are an unnecessary stopgap. It also means saying goodbye to petroleum-powered transportation as we know it. Related: We Are Witnessing A Fundamental Change In The Oil Sector

According to Stanford University scientist and professor Mark Jacobson, 100 percent renewable generation is possible now and attainable by 2050. In fact, he’s developed a plan for all 50 states – and he’s put a price on it. The proposed 7,131-gigawatt Wind, Water, and Sunlight (WWS) system carries an upfront cost of $14 trillion and will create nearly 7 million long-term jobs (net 3 million), while addressing emissions from the three most polluting sectors. Considering market differences – and relative to GDP – the cost is comparable to a recent French study on the same topic.

As its name suggests, the WWS system is primarily wind, water, and sunlight. Specifically, 2050 US end-use all-purpose load is met with approximately 50 percent wind (onshore and offshore), 3.5 percent water (wave, tidal, hydro), and 45 percent solar (utility-scale PV, rooftop PV, and concentrated solar power). Such an energy profile will require the construction of over 500,000 new wind turbines and more than 50,000 new utility-scale solar projects of varying size and type. The overall footprint is equal to 0.43 percent of US land area – 1.7 percent will be required for wind installations, though the land will remain open to other uses.


Source: Jacobson Related: Audi’s Fuel Breakthrough Could Revolutionize The Automotive Sector

Consider the savings. End-use efficiency improvements and electrification across all sectors will reduce end-use power demand by a mean of 35.5 percent. Total, mean avoided pollution and mortality costs are in the realm of $600 billion per year. Avoided climate costs save another $265 billion per year. On an individual level, the average consumer can expect to save roughly $261 per year in energy costs and nearly $1,500 per year in health costs.

The barriers to zero emissions and to the WWS system in particular are many, though hardly economic – WWS technologies, including battery electric vehicles, are competitive today and costs will only decrease toward 2050. To be sure, it’s not a matter of if, but when. Barring a massive realignment of political and social will however, it’s going to be a while.


By Colin Chilcoat of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Peter on May 04 2015 said:
    Dear Colin,

    I have very much enjoyed reading your article and concur fully with its conclusions. But there are a few flaws in it. First of all, wind energy isn't totally emission free because... these turbines have to be built. Where do all the metals and plastics come from? Since we're talking about 500.000 turbines, we're talking about thousands of tonnes of copper, steel, nickel, composites etc.

    But I agree, this is just the smallest flaw. The biggest isn't related to the article itself but to us humans in general. As you mentioned, the Paris goals will never be ratified and the clock is ticking. We refuse to see the truth because we're only concerned about cost or short-term profits. We've become parasites on this planet and we will eventually destroy it. It'll be the first mass extinction caused by living creatures themselves. Nature will survive, as it has always done. Whether we as a species will survive is another matter.

    The only radical and practical solution that wouldn't bear such a high cost, is drastic birth control. We're already 4 billion too many on this planet and our population is growing at an ever bigger rate. All children that need food, water and energy and who will eventually produce tonnes of pollution during their life. Then again, convincing people to have a maximum of one child per couple is another eutopia... I'm pessimistic.

  • Colin Chilcoat on May 04 2015 said:

    Thank you for your comment. You're certainly correct that the construction of 500,000 turbines and even more PV panels will require a massive amount of metals, rare earth minerals, etc. The transition will not be free from emissions, but the hope is that the then zero carbon economy is a net positive in the long-term, which you also recognize.
  • Ivan Idso on May 04 2015 said:
    I didn't catch anything about efficiency savings. Americans have to reduce their consumption, at least to a more reasonable European level. Cafe standards and cfl and led light bulbs have had a huge impact on energy use without negatively impacting our quality of life. There are other opportunities too if we, as Americans, decide to take this seriously and pull out all the stops. We can do it and make America number one again... but I don't think we have the fortitude to.
  • Elaisa on May 09 2015 said:
    Is everyone asleep and brainwashed? Stan Meyer disclosed methods to provide primary energy and transport power at zero marginal cost (except for equipment
    maintenance), and lower equipment cost than petro powered engines, when the cost of pollution controls are considered. His process was granted a US Patent,
    which is now expired, so anyone can use these zero cost, zero pollution solutions.

    Before you casually dismiss his life's work as a scam, look into it. Methods of providing cheap (essentially free) energy have been systematically suppressed
    (by the Network of Global Corporate Control) since the disclosures of Nikola Tesla at the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, in New York in 1891 (not a typo).

    A short list of people who have disclosed ways to provide zero pollution, near zero marginal cost (no fuel, just equipment maintenance) energy, research the following: Nikola Tesla, T. Thompson Brown, Tom Bearden, Troy Reed, John Searl, Bruce DePalma, Stanley Meyer, Daniel Dingel, John Bedini, Peter Lindemann,
    Edwin Gray, Paramahamsa Tawari, Mehran Keshe, Randell Mills, Roman Akula, William Alek, the Disclosure Project and others. And that's the short list.

    The evidence is comprehensive and overwhelming, if you do the research.

    So, who and why? Who would deliberately suppress cheap clean energy solutions?
    Who profits from the current energy situation?
  • Elaisa on May 09 2015 said:
    Oh, I get it! This is a OIL forum controlled by oil interests. So, my previous comment exposing the truth will not be "approved" for posting.
  • rbblum on May 10 2015 said:
    One of the only forecasts that has been most reliable is the one for the night: darkness (along the equator)

Leave a comment

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