Plus: A staggering stat about China
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OCT 6, 2021

Happy Wednesday from Seattle! Thanks to everyone for your reactions to Cipher's inaugural edition last week.

We're not quite done with our first Newsmakers. Today, we have a second, bonus installment from our exclusive interview with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, this time diving deep into hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear power.

Then, we have a chart on China's industrial emissionsplus, a staggering stat to go along with it.

Don't forget: Send me your best energy-related photosand ideas, tips and moreto

Let's dive in!

As Congress writes big climate laws, contentious tech stirs debate
As the world digs into the technologies that could help society tackle climate change, controversy is inevitably emerging in key areas.

Environmentalists, and some of their Democratic colleagues in the U.S. Congress, are concerned that hydrogen and technology capturing carbon from polluting facilities could prolong the use of oil and gas products and not actually fight climate change.

I posed that sentiment to U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm in previously unpublished footage of Cipher’s inaugural Newsmakers interview. Her answer:

"I think that we should use every possible technology to decarbonize as quickly as possible. We can't turn off the spigot of oil tomorrow. We can't turn off the spigot of natural gas tomorrow. We have to work with the existing sources of energy, but decarbonize them, even as we double, triple the amount—actually quadruple the amount—of solar that we've got to put out there."
Discord over technology preference has been simmering for years among all facets of our society that otherwise generally agree climate change is a crisis that we must urgently tackle.

It’s a complex debate for sure, but to boil it down, it goes like this: One viewpoint advocates for wind and solar power to fuel nearly all of our economy to the exclusion of other clean technologies.

Another viewpoint posits that we need an energy mix that includes renewable energy alongside other clean technologies like nuclear power (long controversial among progressives), carbon capture tech and—more recently—clean hydrogen.

This discord is coming to a head now because Democrats control Washington and have the power to move policy. Progressive leaders on Capitol Hill, led by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have been vocal supporting the first viewpoint.

President Biden and the rest of his administration have staked their position firmly in the latter camp, particularly because renewable energy on its own can’t clean up some sectors of the economy like manufacturing. Clean hydrogen and carbon capture, both of which don’t exist commercially (yet), are examples of the type of tech that could help clean up the manufacturing of ubiquitous materials like steel and cement.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a pivotal vote for the Democratic Party, is also pushing for carbon capture technology for natural gas and coal plants (the latter is unlikely to be economic in any case).

The Senate-passed infrastructure bill has billions in funding for nearly all types of cleantech, reflecting the viewpoint pushing a broader clean-energy mix: wind, solar, electric cars, clean hydrogen, carbon capture and nuclear power.

Recent studies by BloombergNEF and Princeton University have shown how vastly different zero-carbon energy mixes could take shape. Wind and solar are poised to grow rapidly in nearly all scenarios, though carbon-capture tech and nuclear power could play larger roles depending on how politicians and investors steer government support and money.

In fact, BloombergNEF found that an energy mix relying heavily on carbon capture could be less expensive than one relying heavily on clean electricity and hydrogen produced from renewable energy. Importantly, however, its report didn’t include all costs, including fuel costs, which could make the carbon capture scenario comparatively more expensive.

It’s imperative that technologies like carbon capture tech, nuclear power and hydrogen do, in fact, cut carbon emissions as envisioned.

Most carbon capture projects started over the past three decades have failed, according to a new peer-reviewed study. That study doesn’t say such a track record means society should stop trying but instead offers ways to improve projects’ viabilities going forward.

For its part, hydrogen is a ubiquitous material that could be used in many different energy applications such as manufacturing and energy storage. In the wake of the pandemic, support has suddenly skyrocketed for it, particularly "green" hydrogen made from water and renewable electricity and also "blue" hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon capture technology.

But questions have been raised about the cleanliness of "blue" hydrogen, given the track record of carbon capture generally and because gas’s main ingredient, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas.

"It will be part of our energy transition, if we make sure that there is not methane leakage from the natural gas," Granholm said when asked about blue hydrogen. She said she prefers green hydrogen, but that if you can "remove the methane pollution from the natural gas fueling of blue hydrogen, then you will have come a long way toward creating another dispatchable zero-carbon energy source."

As for nuclear power, it undeniably provides a majority of America’s carbon-free power, but worries linger, chiefly: where to store radioactive waste and the time it takes to build new plants.

Granholm said the department will soon launch a "consent-based siting process" to store nuclear waste, which means that communities willing to take it will receive compensation while the department works to support advanced reactors that create less waste.

On that front, Granholm is worried about the clock winding down to the net-zero emissions goal by 2050: "For me, the biggest challenge on nuclear is that a new plant takes a lot of time, and we just don't have a lot of time."

Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

"Global Energy Crisis Is the First of many in the Clean-Power Era" Bloomberg
My take: This is a goodand dauntingoverview of the challenges we face with the energy transition, but the headline and lede don’t emphasize enough the role of the pandemic in causing the current energy crises. That aside, this covers a lot of what I wrote about in my August column about high energy prices and climate action, which is proving to be unfortunately prescient.

"How Do Thousands Prepare for a Climate Summit? With Difficulty" The New York Times
My take: What a hot mess. But, to quote Tim Gunn, "make it work."

"The Net Zero Trap" Foreign Affairs
My take: Ah, yes, committing to a marathon but not training for it will not end well. Countries committing to net-zero goals in 2050 but not putting in place laws to help them get there will also not end well.

"UK green energy surcharges set to switch from electric to gas bills" Financial Times (paywall)
My take: This is a concrete example of how the International Energy Agency hopes most consumers will be shielded from higher energy prices. Its net-zero report earlier this year found that although fossil-fuel prices rise, far fewer people are depending on fossil fuels (i.e., they’re now driving an electric car, not a gasoline car), so they’re not affected by higher prices. There’s no time to waste, per this quote from the article: "If the government doesn’t achieve the switch over the course of the next five years or so, consumers won’t achieve big enough savings from switching from a gas boiler to an electric heat pump to convince them to make the upfront investment," said consultant Josh Buckland at firm Flint Global.

"Carbon tax fight brews among Democrats" E&E News (paywall)
My take: The following quote from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) says a lot about corporations’ stated support of a carbon tax and the actual negotiations over big climate policy: "I just heard about that. That has not been in the equation at all." Although this story came out last week, it’s notable for two reasons: 1.) A (now former) Exxon lobbyist described him as "kingmaker," and Exxon says it supports a carbon tax. 2) More broadly, corporations across the spectrum have been saying for the past few years they support a carbon tax. But they’re clearly not knocking down lawmakers’ doors to get it included in any actual real legislation.

"Canadian pipeline group shuts down" The Globe and Mail
My take: Trade associations usually launch like a lion but close like a lamb, but their demise is still a sign of the times. Domestically, look at America’s Power, a coal trade group. It spent $10 million lobbying in 2008 upon its launch to fight climate policy. Its total now is under $200,000.

More of what I'm reading:
  • "U.S. states push to surpass world emissions norms on aviation" Reuters
  • "Energy Prices Spike as Producers Worry Over Pandemic and Climate" The New York Times
  • "EU countries warned to ‘not overreact’ to energy price surge" POLITICO
  • "Kerry’s plan to cut emissions from jet fuel, steel and cement" Bloomberg
  • "Exxon Sees Green Gold in Algae-Based Fuels. Skeptics See Greenwashing." The Wall Street Journal
  • "Microsoft’s million-tonne CO2-removal purchaselessons for net zero" Nature
China’s industrial emissions surpass all of Europe
Source: IEA This pathway reflects the targets China declared in 2020, under which carbon emissions peak before 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Other includes aluminum, chemicals, paper and more.
Here’s a staggering stat that drives home the need for new technologies cleaning up our manufacturing sector: The carbon emissions of China’s steel and cement industries exceed the entire emissions of the European Union’s energy system, according to the International Energy Agency’s new report out on China.
Bonus footage: Granholm on hydrogen, nuclear power and more
Decade of solar
John M. Lawlor, Jr., a Cipher reader and college professor residing near Womelsdorf, Pa., shares a photo of his 11-year-old solar panels and writes: "They are still producing at the original level. Moreover, they've generated almost 129,000 kWhkilowatt hours I didn't have to buy to from a supplier; and, saved carbon to the amount equivalent to a 110-ton coal car. Finally, it's provided a nice, secure place for birds and bees to make homes under it. It was very expensive 11 years ago to do this even with state and federal incentives, but the cost has dramatically dropped."
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