A personal exploration of climate, risk and actions
Nerd, entrepreneur, adventurer, father, and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger, baker and cook. Aspiring yogi. Lifelong learner. Lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest of the USA with Joanne, and the demanding feline Mr. Lucky Stripes.
Obligatory lawyer words: I'm just a climate nerd with an opinion. Although I work for Microsoft, please don't confuse my personal statements here with the company's official position.
One tends to think of energy poverty as a developing nation problem. It’s true, after all, that the vast majority of those without access to energy (759M people) are in developing countries like Nigeria, Pakistan, the DRC, Ethiopia and India. For context, the entire generating capacity for sub-saharan Africa is approximately 58GW, spread across a population over a billion people. Annual electricity consumption is about 488 kWh per person, or about 5% of the United States. 600M people have no access whatsoever.
But is it just a developing country problem?
Dr. Nock challenged listeners to think about energy poverty in a different way. Are you energy poor if you live in a developed country? What if you spend a significant portion of your pay check on the power bill? Put on extra sweaters instead of turning the heat up in the winter? Or, as we have seen recently, suffer the extreme effects of a heat wave due to the high cost of electricity for cooling? Maybe even end up hospitalized, or dead.
Renewable energy, especially solar, is frequently put forward as an answer to energy poverty in the developing world. Off grid solutions promise to decentralize generation, and bring power to places that utilities can’t or won’t serve. Renewable energy also offers a route to weaning the developing world away from fossil fuels, coal especially.
In the developed world, rooftop solar is often seen as a way to reduce the power bill. However, some in California say that rooftop solar households are disproportionately wealthy and white, and have put the burden of the cost of the energy transition onto the shoulders of the poor. “Utilities are cynically playing the equity card”, they claim. The numbers seem to back them up, as wealthy households reap the double benefits of subsidies, and reduced utility costs.
Transitioning to a clean, renewable and global energy economy holds out huge promise. Let’s make sure we get the equity part of that promise right, and lift the neediest up at the same time. After all, if 1.1 billion poor Africans live in countries that are burning coal and oil to generate power, it won’t matter what we here in the west do. The planet will still get hotter.
“It’s warmer in parts of western Canada than in Dubai,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. Lytton, a small Canadian town in British Columbia at 50°13′52″N, became one of the hottest places on the planet last weekend. A town in Canada. Let that sink in.
Here’s a novel idea from Harvard’s investment manager to allow short sellers to deduct carbon emissions associated with the companies that they’re shorting from their portfolios. Do we need an emissions market? Or could the financial markets do the job?
Most people know that the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle, in use, is lower than that of an internal combustion vehicle. Except in the rare case that the electricity used by the vehicle is all generated from coal-fired stations, all of the literature confirms this. But what about the emissions impact of manufacturing an all-electric vehicle compared to an internal combustion engine? Well, that turned out to be a bit of a rabbit hole.
The first thing to know is that neither the automobile industry, nor the research models themselves, report data on emissions solely created during manufacture. Argonne Labs (part of the US Dept of Energy), has a comprehensive model called GREET (The Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Technologies Model) which seems to be the gold standard for all research at this point. GREET has been in development since at least 1999, and models everything to do with vehicular transport. It specifically separates the world into a fuel-cycle model, and a vehicle-cycle model, and what we’re after is the vehicle-cycle, which includes everything from raw materials sourcing, to manufacture, end-of-life, and recycling if applicable.
There are two challenges with GREET.
The output is a “levelized” model. What this means is that it produces a number which is emissions generated per distance travelled. Even though the emissions we are interested in are generated during manufacture, GREET apportions them over the expected life of the vehicle. It tries to answer the macro question of vehicle emissions, rather than helping us to understand the manufacturing emissions cost.
The model itself is incredibly detailed. Although it contains a (large) database of assumptions for all kinds of vehicle types, these will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. It cannot know, for example, where one manufacturer sources electricity versus another. Only the individual corporations will know that.
GREET is a useful framework. It is being maintained actively by Argonne National Labs and was most recently updated in 2020. Researchers have published papers which claim to use the models, but also (necessarily) make gross assumptions about sources of materials and fuels. The independent research, therefore, can’t tell us much either.
Some of the manufacturers themselves do appear to use the framework. For example, if you read Ford’s 2020 CDP disclosures you will find that they reference the GREET 2019 model in their calculation of Scope 3 up-stream emissions footprint. They simply do not report the results for individual vehicles, but rather report on emissions in aggregate. However, GM and Fiat-Chrysler‘s filings show that they use completely different methodologies at this point, at least for disclosure.
For me, this is an unsatisfying answer. It does illustrate, however, the complexity of analyzing scope 3 emissions, and the challenge that lies ahead in understanding the true emissions associated with products we purchase. It also begs for a consistent methodology to be used across industries.
What happens if carbon dioxide removal (CDR) strategies are unsuccessful? Many net-zero ambitions count on being able to “abate” CO2, either through carbon dioxide capture technologies, or offsetting actions such as planting trees. Neil Grant and Dr. Ajay Gambhir from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College, London have modeled the impact of CDR failure. Eye opening.
The energy industry is building zero carbon capacity, and this will be a key factor in the effort to decarbonize global supply chains. Should we expect to see the entire grid become zero carbon? That’s probably unrealistic, for now.
For starters, there will always be a need for a reliable energy source that can be turned off and on at will. Large scale energy storage solutions, such as massive battery systems, will get us part of the way there. However, unless new technology, or new nuclear installs, bring us the instantaneous generation that fossil fuels offer it’s unlikely fossil fuels will go away completely. We will need fossil fuel or nuclear generation, and then appropriate abatement strategies.
In addition to the reliable energy source need, the grid itself is constructed around a paradigm of centralized generation, and then transmission to substations, and then homes. It’s a forward feed system that presumes we will truck fuel to generation sites, generate power, and then distribute the power forward for consumption. The impact of this is that generation tends to be placed close to consumption sites, in order to minimize transmission losses. But you can’t truck the wind, or the sun, to a convenient place to generate power. The other challenge is reverse flow. Feeding energy bi-directionally into the grid from what are today’s consumption sites creates a whole new set of problems. It’s likely the grid itself will need to be updated.
It was a scorcher here yesterday. Record temperatures, and set to achieve them again today. And for the record, these are not normal, or even normal variance. @weatherprof provides this insight:
You might have seen the World Economic Forum Net-Zero Challenge: Supply Chain Opportunity paper back when it came out in January. It’s worth a read if you missed it. Their analysis showed that 8 supply chains accounted for over 50% of emissions globally. The dirtiest was food; the business of agriculture, processing, packaging, and getting food for us all to eat in supermarkets, and on our tables. Farm Progress, a web-site focused on farming industry news, writes about how some farmers are approaching carbon markets. That’s a positive step toward decarbonizing this important supply chain.
Last week’s piece on batteries generated questions from readers. Specifically two:
What about the environmental impact of disposing of the battery?
What is the carbon impact to manufacture an electric vehicle (EV)? How does it compare with a conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine (ICE)?
Let’s start with the Battery Disposal and Recycling. I’ll have more on the supply chain footprint for vehicles in a future post.
Battery Disposal / Recycling
The short answers are that we haven’t needed to dispose of or recycle EV batteries at scale, yet; and we also can’t do it yet, at scale.
Batteries which reach end-of-life as automotive batteries haven’t actually reached “end of life”. Most have between 50% and 80% of their useful capacity left. However the batteries become slower to charge, slower to deliver power impacting performance of the vehicle, and reduce the range. So the batteries are currently being given a “second life”. Manufacturers are using them in applications, like storage walls and utility grid storage.
Currently, according to this IEA report from 2020 (page 183) we have the global capacity to recycle 180,000 tons of batteries annually. In the same report, the IEA forecasts the demand will grow by a factor of 50 by 2030, and by a factor of 650 by 2040. So, it’s not a concern for today, but it will be tomorrow. A lot of voices are being raised about this right now. The Union of Concerned Scientists has written calling for public policy to be established, National Geographic has written a lengthy piece about the need to build recycling capacity, and the BBC has also recently reported on battery recycling.
We haven’t needed to do it because EV’s are relatively new to the market, and because the batteries are lasting longer than anticipated. Tesla, for example, warranties their batteries for 120,000 miles. However, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk himself, the batteries in the Model 3 are good for 1,500 charge / discharge cycles which he estimates to be between 300,000 and 500,000 miles.
And the last point, of course, is that we should have confidence that recycling capacity will come on line at scale. Not only does it make sense environmentally, but at $45k/ton cobalt (to name just one of the minerals required) is simply too valuable to discard it.
Last thought: warranties and recycling / end-of-life policies will likely vary by manufacturer. When considering the purchase of an EV, also consider the manufacturers battery disposal policy as you make your decision.
How much energy does using the internet really consume? According to researchers Jonathan Koomey and Eric Masanet, not as much as we’ve been led to believe. Meanwhile, if you want to know what your own personal browsing is costing, Microsoft PM Pierre Lagarde has a handy post, and scripts that you can use to find that out.
If you prefer to consume content via podcast, then I recommend The Energy Gang, and newcomer The Big Switch. The Energy Gang focuses on business issues associated with decarbonization, and the Big Switch walks through current and historical case studies associated with the energy transition. The Big Switch season 1 is about transforming the grid. Recommended!
Microsoft is now a principal partner for COP26 in Glasgow, this fall. Said Microsoft President Brad Smith, “Building a pathway to net zero will take all of us working together and technology will play an important role in enabling it. Through Microsoft’s partnership with COP26, we look forward to engaging across public and private sectors to establish the conditions, measurement and markets that can help us all accelerate progress in the fight against climate change.” This is a super outcome, and I’m personally excited that my employer is taking this step.
In related news, Microsoft President Brad Smith has also come out in favor of SEC mandated climate disclosure rules. As Smith observed, “…carbon accounting and measurement and recording and reporting is something that at one level can be mandated by governments, but governments are not necessarily in the best position to figure out how to get it done. And the more [the business community] can do that, the easier the rest of this can come together.”
Biochar is the new name for charcoal, apparently. According to this report, it’s becoming a darling of tech companies wanting to invest in carbon abatement strategies. Microsoft, Shopify and Stripe are all investing in biochar schemes.
Electric vehicle critics will often tell you that the environmental cost of the batteries is the “dirty little secret” that nobody is telling you about. The claim is that the manufacturing impact of the batteries is so high that we might as well just keep burning gasoline. The origin of this statement is an early and flawed study from 2017.
Let’s examine their claim in more detail.
Battery technology is advancing rapidly. You can see this in the price curve. In December of last year, Bloomberg NEF reported the first instances of vehicle batteries priced at below $100/kWh. At $100, most analyses show EVs priced equivalently to internal combustion engines. For comparison, a decade early that price was $1100/kWh. That means that 10 years ago, the price of the 53 kWh battery in Tesla’s original roadster was over $50,000. It’s no wonder those early Roadsters were so expensive!
The assertion made by the EV industry is that the increased environmental impact of manufacturing the vehicle is offset by the decreased impact of using the vehicle. Is that true?
To figure out the answer to that question, we need to know the CO2e impact of running a conventional vehicle vs an EV. Then, let’s add in the CO2e impact of the battery pack, divided over the expected lifetime of the battery, and we should have our answer.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the manufacturing impact of a conventional vehicle and an EV is roughly the same, excepting that the EV has the added impact of the battery pack. It’s not entirely true, because the conventional vehicle has a higher carbon cost to build than the EV (without the battery), but for the sake of simplification, let’s assume that they are the same.
My previous vehicle, a 2015 Ford Fusion, averaged about 23 mpg in actual usage. Ford rated it for 28 mpg, but I tracked my gasoline purchases over the lifetime of the vehicle, and it was roughly 23 mpg. I may have a bit of a lead foot. Gasoline combustion produces an estimated 18.95 lbs of CO2e per gallon used. Annually, I drive around 10,000 miles, which means that car was producing 8,226 lbs of CO2e annually.
My new vehicle, the Tesla Model Y AWD, is rated by the EPA for 28 kWh / 100 miles of driving. The Tesla should use about 2,800 kWh of electricity to drive the 10,000 miles I drive in a year. Now all we need to know is the CO2e costs to generate the electricity. According to the EPA, in the United States, the electricity industry as a whole produced an average of 0.92 lbs of CO2e per kWh of electricity generated. So, assuming that my power utility emits the same CO2e as the EPA average electrical utility, my CO2e costs will be 2,576 lbs. More on that in a minute…
18.95 lbs / gal
0.92 lbs / kWh
Annual operating emissions comparison
So for me, my old Ford emitted 5,650 lbs more CO2e annually than my new Tesla does.
Now let’s get back to that battery pack. Recall that the manufacturing CO2e impact of a battery is about 75 kg CO2e / kWh of capacity. So manufacturing the Tesla’s 75 kWh battery will emit about 5,625 kg of CO2e, which converted to lbs is 12,375 lbs. And then we have a simple calculation.
Years to "break even" = Battery Manufacturing CO2e / Annual CO2e savings.
So, for me, it will take about 2.2 years before the manufacturing impact of the battery is recovered completely.
My Utility is PSE
I buy my energy from Puget Sound Energy here in the King County, WA area. PSE’s generation mix is roughly 1/3 renewable, 1/3 coal, and 1/3 gas.
2.2 lbs / kWh
1.0 lbs / kWh
0 lbs / kWh
1.06 lbs / kWh
Compared to the national average, PSE is actually a pretty dirty utility. My Tesla driving will generate 2,968 lbs of CO2e annually. And my emissions “payback” will extend to 2.35 years. What a calamity!
Fortunately, PSE has a green energy option, which we have chosen for our household. For an extra $.01/kWh (about $15/mo) we buy an energy mix which is generated 95% from solar and wind, and 5% from biogas. Biogas has about the same emissions profile as NG, which means that the PSE clean energy option produces about 0.05 lbs CO2e / kWh. Some folks consider biogas neutral environmentally, but let’s leave that for another day. In any case, my new Tesla’s CO2e footprint using PSE green energy is now reduced to just 140 lbs CO2e annually, and the “pay back” time for the battery is now just 1.5 years.
Over the 5 years I owned the Fusion, I estimate my emissions at about 41,000 lbs CO2e. I expect the Tesla to be a third of that. Automobiles have a lifetime of about 200,000 miles. Over 200,000 miles the Ford will emit 165,000 lbs CO2e. And if I own the Tesla that long? 15,000.
Your numbers will vary, but the calculation is not hard to do. And no matter how you do the numbers, there simply is no case that the environmental impact of EV battery manufacture outweighs the benefit of not burning gasoline to run a vehicle.