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November 07, 2005

Electric Boogaloo

Driving is far and away the biggest source of climate-warming emissions in the Pacific Northwest.Wa_co2_from_fossil_fuels  Together, motor gasoline and highway diesel account for about 40 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels in BC, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  (In Washington, the figure is 36 percent -- click on the graph for details.) Nothing else we do comes close to matching the amount of CO2 that we emit when we drive.

Which would make one think that reducing emissions from driving is the highest priority for reducing our impact on the global climate.  Given the disproportionate amount of CO2 from driving, that sounds reasonable, right?

Only I'm not sure that it's true.  In fact, if I had to choose one area of the northwest's energy system to focus on, I'd probably choose the one that is, comparatively speaking, the most climate-friendly:  electricity.

Most of the Pacific Northwest's electricity comes from hydropower dams.  Now, obviously, the dams that staple the region's streams and rivers have their problems; they're largely responsible for the decline of the region's iconic salmon runs.  However, while hydropower isn't always climate friendly, the dams in the northwest are fairly climate-benign, as energy sources go.

But we've pretty much hit the limit on hydropower generation in the Northwest.  Annual hydropower generation varies with the weather, but the long-term average has been roughly stagnant for a couple decades. There simply haven't been many new additions to hydropower capacity recently: all of the good sites already have dams on them. So these days, new production comes from other sources; and while a few new wind farms have gotten a lot of press, we've been largely meeting rising demand for electricity by burning more natural gas and coal.

And coal is a real problem.  Coal emits more CO2 per unit of usable energy than anything else the nation's energy portfolio.  At this stage, anything we can do to keep coal in the ground has got to count as one of the best ways to help stem the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels. 

Now, the thing is that there's very little coal-fired electricity in the Pacific Northwest itself; the Centralia power plant in Washington is the only major coal-to-electric plant In the region.  But there are quite a few large coal-fired plants Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah -- plants that also power growing demand throughout the US West.  Arguably, the most climate-friendly policies we could pursue in the Northwest would...

  1. help us use electricity more efficiently -- which would reduce the demand for imported coal-fired electricity; and
  2. help us generate more electricity renewably -- which could help us export more electricity outside the region, offsetting electricity generation from coal-fired plants.

Of course, I think this line of thinking poses something of a dilemma: is it really possible to convince people that the best thing to do for the climate is to use less of the one energy source that -- in this region, anyway -- poses the least threat to the climate?

Posted by ClarkWD | Permalink


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I think you're right on the money, Clark: the crucial action is at the margin, not at the average. On average, the carbon intensity of the Northwest's electricity is the lowest of any region in the U.S.

One refinement I'd offer is that in the spring, when we have a surplus of hydropower because of snowmelt, the generation displaced by the Northwest's exported electricity probably avoids natural-gas-fired generation in California, rather than coal-fired generation in the Interior West. Other times, it probably averts coal-burning.

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman | Nov 7, 2005 3:45:20 PM

Regarding the first paragraph, are you referring to all CO2 emissions, or just those produced locally? What are your sources for these numbers?
I'd bet the goods that we buy that are shipped from all corners of the earth and the resource intensive foods (mainly meat) in the american diet represent more CO2 than driving.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 7, 2005 10:06:53 PM

>>I'd bet the goods that we buy that are shipped from all corners of the earth and the resource intensive foods (mainly meat) in the american diet represent more CO2 than driving.<<

I'll take you up on that bet.

What's the wager?

Posted by: Dan Staley | Nov 8, 2005 8:45:10 AM

Anonymous --

Good question. The numbers in the text only respresent fossil fuel use within WA, OR, ID, and BC; the chart is only Washington state in 2001. And that's obviously a problem, as I discuss in the post: some of our electricity comes from out of state at some times of the year, which means we're effectively importing coal -- or, rather, outsourcing our GHG emissions.

But for manufactured goods and long-distance transport, the issues of net imports and net exports are even trickier than for electricity.

My intuition, from years of doing this stuff, is that *locally sold* diesel, tanker fuel, jet fuel, and other heavy-transport fuels are a pretty good proxy for total energy from long-distance transport. That is, if a truck comes here from out of state carrying goods, it delivers its load here, fuels up, picks up another load, and carries it out of state. The fueling up within the state of Washington is a reasonably good proxy for total transportation energy -- maybe a bit low in Washington and a bit high in Idaho, but not too far off for the region overall.

For embodied CO2 from manufactured goods, you'd have to compare imports with exports. Up until recently, we were probably net energy exporters as a region because we produced a lot of aluminum -- which is a *huge* energy hog -- and pulp/paper/wood, which are also pretty energy intensive. My intuition (again, I haven't looked at this in enough depth to be sure) is that since most of the smelters closed, we're small net energy importers of "embodied industrial CO2". Maybe. But on net, it's nowhere close to highway fuel use.

As to meat -- We estimated in 2002 that total methane from human activities accounted for about 11 percent of GHG emissions from the region, split between meat, dairy, and landfills. That doesn't account for all emissions from meat -- but it's just a fraction of the amount that comes from driving.

So I'm with Dan: I think the emissions from driving are big enough that they eclipse any other single source of emissions that we're responsible for, either inside or outside our bioregion.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Nov 8, 2005 10:04:33 AM


In my zeal to delete some duplicate comments and spam I may have accidentally deleted one or two authentic comments. Typepad certainly makes it easy to screw that up. My sincere apologies to the authors of those comments!


Posted by: Eric | Nov 8, 2005 1:28:14 PM

Clark -

Why would you "choose the one that is, comparatively speaking, the most climate-friendly: electricity."

It seems to me the best way to cut CO2 is to stop it at the strongest source.

However, one could focus on powerplants because of their size. Put in the right power plant, whether it be run by whatever sort of cleaner energy, and there will be a positive difference in C02 production.

Cars, on the other hand, are a much bigger can of worms dealing with people, and lots of them, which makes everything more difficult.

Was this any part of your thinking or did you have other reason(s)?

What I would always like to see people to concentrate on is the small things. Aerators for faucets, low-energy light sources, etc. Aggregate resource conservation has amazing potential.

Posted by: charles | Nov 8, 2005 1:44:03 PM

Here's another aspect to think about: the convergence of the electrical grid and transportation. Outside my home in Seattle an alternative fuel vehicle using zero petroleum for fuel goes by every 20 minutes. What is this wondrous vehicle? Metro's electric trolley bus. I think we should we be looking more at electricity along with biofuels as the transportation fuel of the future. And, the major reason we should be pursuing efficiency and renewables is to be able to provide electrical transportation fuel in a sustainable fashion.

Oregon's Climate Trust has paid for truckstop electrification; substituting electric grid power for diesel idling. RailPower is making Hybrid Switcher Locomotives powered off a large bank of batteries (currently recharged by a small diesel but perhaps in the future could be plugged into the grid for recharging). And of course there is the work of CalCars that is promoting the concept of a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) with the world's first PHEV Prius. PHEVs are basically like some current hybrids but with larger batteries and the ability to re-charge conveniently, so local travel of 20 to 40 miles is electric, yet the vehicle has unlimited range.

Felix Kramer of CalCars describes a PHEV as "like having a second small fuel tank that you always use first. You get to fill this one at home with electricity at an equivalent cost of under $1/gallon. How much under depends on your car and your electric rate. You refill from an ordinary 120-volt socket, with energy that's much cleaner, cheaper and not imported."

If a PHEV is also a flex-fuel vehicle, then you are getting 200-400 miles per petroleum gallon.

PHEVs charged at night take advantage of idle generating capacity and wind-generated electricity that tends to increase at night. Various models by EPRI, Argonne Labs and others show that PHEVs using nighttime power would result in large reductions in emissions even with the national grid providing power (50%-60% coal).

Several cities including Seattle are looking at signing on to the City of Austin led Plug-in Partners national campaign to demonstrate that a market exists for flexible fuel PHEVs.

So what are the implications for the Northwest? By coincidence Felix Kramer will be driving his 100+ MPG Prius+ PHEV prototype through Seattle on Monday November 14. He’ll be downtown at 12:30 at a press conference hosted by Seattle City Light and the Apollo Alliance (details still being worked out), then at 2:00 at South Seattle Community College West Seattle Campus Automotive Bldg and then on Tuesday November 15 to Wenatchee for the Advanced Vehicle Initiative conference.

Posted by: Rich Feldman | Nov 8, 2005 3:54:32 PM

Charles --

In a nutshell: our electricity generation portfolio is comparatively climate-benign. But coal fired power plants in Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, etc. aren't; in fact, nationwide coal-fired power creates more CO2 than gasoline.

So the more we conserve here, the less coal-fired power we import to meet rising demand, and the more hydropower we export -- which could offset coal-fired power elsewhere.

In a deleted comment, Jerermy Brown made the point that we should focus on the cheapest CO2-reduction buys first. I agree. I also happen to think that those are more likely to be found in the electric power system, rather than in transportation.

And as a general rule, you're absolutely right about faucet aeraters and the like. You get bigger energy savings the farther "downstream" you go -- with aerators, you save hot water, but also heat wasted in the pipe, and the heat wasted in the water heater, and the waste in transmitting gas or electricity to your heater, and all other "upstream" waste. The benefits of small changes in end consumption are magnified all the way through the energy production system.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Nov 8, 2005 3:57:59 PM


Interesting point about the local fuel uses as a proxy for remote uses. That might hold for the within the U.S., but I wonder if it works given the U.S. trade deficit with Asia? That cheap-made-in-china-plastic-crap at Walmart results in a lot of CO2 in asia and to ship to our ports and haul to the store. This area is also pretty high tech but our computers (very energy intensive) aren't made here. More externalities.

As for the meat issue, in addition to the methane/CO2 from the cows, I was thinking of the petrol-heavy farming of the 14lbs of grain needed to produce one pound of beef, the filtering and pumping of 500 gallons or water per pound of beef, shipping the it from the midwest, additional packaging, additional cooking. I don't have numbers for this, but it adds up quick when the american diet contains on average half a pound of meat a day ( from http://www.usda.gov/factbook/chapter2.htm ). The proxy idea doesn't work as well here, since we're shipping apples to them :)
The PNW also consumes a lot of salmon, from Alaska mostly? As you know, farmed fish is also very resource intensive, consuming more non-farmed fish by weight than it produces, and also lots of water filtering, etc.

Oh and what about coffee? :) (ok I won't go there)


Maybe I lose touch with our regions car usage since I don't drive much and when I do I'm driving relatively CO2 neutral vehicles (electric scooter, BD car). Personally my main CO2 generating activity is my computers... Anyway I don't know of settling any potential wager, it's too hard to account for everything.

Posted by: anonymous | Nov 9, 2005 12:22:47 AM

Anon -

Point taken. I still think that for a fair analysis of embodied CO2 of our imports, you'd have to balance it with exports. And that makes the analysis trickier. It's hard to know how to balance aerospace and timber exports, say, with the stuff we get from Walmart, or the metal in the cars that take us there.

On cattle: We've got ~5 million head of cattle in BC, OR, ID, and WA, split roughly 2:1 beef to dairy. So much of our meat and dairy is produced within the region, as is much (though certainly not all) of the cattle feed. So I'm not sure that, on net, we're outsourcing huge amounts of CO2 to the midwest to grow meat; the in-region cattle production is already in our estimates.

That said, meat is certainly a CO2-intensive food -- which is one reason I eat very little of it.

Posted by: Clark Williams-Derry | Nov 9, 2005 10:08:13 AM

Clark, the bio-diesel advances are truly exciting. Living in Bellingham, which seems on the way to becoming the center of bio-diesel developments, I wonder how soon we'll see:
(1) bio-diesel fueling power plants, instead of petroleum diesel or natural gas;
(2) a bio-diesel hybrid car (what's taking them so long?);
(3) one or another of the petroleum giants taking over the bio-diesel manufacturing process and, along with Monsanto, controlling the production of corn, soybeans and safflower.

Posted by: Bob Simmons | Nov 11, 2005 5:03:47 PM

Yeah Right (anonymous),

Actually, the USDA table that you link to says Americans eat 1/6 pound of beef per day (~60 pounds/year) and 1/2 pound of "meat", including chicken and fish.

Alaskan salmon is almost all wild-caught, I believe. The main salmon farming operations are in B.C. It's relatively easy to find wild-caught salmon. But I don't know the CO2 comparisons between fishing boats and coastal salmon-farming operations...

Midwestern grain-fed beef is a travesty. But rather than tell people they shouldn't eat beef, why not tell them there is a better alternative: grassfed, pasture-raised local beef. If you can't buy grassfed beef direct from a local farmer (as you can in Corvallis and at many other farmers' markets, I'm sure), Oregon Country Beef is probably available in most communities. There's still the issue of cow farts, but this eliminates the wasteful grain production for feed as well as excess shipping. And it's healthier (www.eatwild.com).

Dave Hockman-Wert

Posted by: Dave | Nov 16, 2005 12:17:27 PM