Mission Possible: Reducing Carbon Emissions

March 20, 1998

By Paul Preuss, [email protected]

In an appearance well timed for Earth Month, Mark Levine, director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division, was a featured speaker last Monday at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society in Los Angeles. During a crowded morning press conference and a subsequent panel discussion, Levine addressed the role of new energy technologies in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Commenting on the large turnout, Levine, a chemist, said, "Of all scientists, physicists are perhaps most closely attuned to the connection between their discipline and energy efficiency."

Levine's remarks were based on a major study released last fall, of which he was a principal author along with Marilyn A. Brown of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Titled "Scenarios of U.S. Carbon Reductions: Potential Impacts of Energy Technologies by 2010 and Beyond," the study was conducted by five Department of Energy national laboratories and served to buttress positions taken by U.S. representatives at the United Nations Frame-work Convention on Climate Change held last December in Kyoto, Japan.

The agreement that resulted from the Kyoto conference would require a seven percent cut in U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases by 2010.

"What's the likelihood the U.S. will ratify it?" Levine was asked. "Without an outside event, the chances don't look good," he replied. "But if both political parties and the American people got behind the goal, it is certainly possible that we could have both rising productivity and reduced energy consumption, and do it at a relatively low--if not exactly a zero--cost."

Levine pointed to the decade following the OPEC oil embargo of the early 1970s as proof that productivity can rise while energy consumption remains flat. From 1973 to 1986 the U.S. consumed about 74 quads (quadrillion British thermal units) of energy each year; during the same period the Gross National Product increased by 35 percent. The U.S. could return to a period of sustained productivity, Levine said, while significantly reducing, instead of continuing to increase, the release of gases that contribute to global warming. The savings in energy efficiency are likely to offset the costs of implementation. Nevertheless, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will inevitably result in profound economic changes, with some winners and some losers.

Carbon emissions are an important indicator of efficient energy use. To reach 1990 levels of carbon emitted into the environment by the year 2010 will require a reduction of some 390 million metric tons a year. A simultaneous attack on several fronts is essential to accomplish this, Levine said.

"Some 70 percent of the reduction could come from simply switching electric power generation from coal to natural gas." Other reductions would come from using wind power to generate electricity, from burning biomass such as agricultural trash in co-generation plants, from extending the life of nuclear power plants, and from new and restored hydroelectric facilities.

"But to get this to happen in the power sector, we are going to need incentives," Levine said. "A tax on carbon would work, but that doesn't seem politically likely." Levine suggested a system of "feebates," in which utilities would pay a fee for fuels (coal, specifically) that emit higher-than-average amounts of carbon, and get a rebate for lower carbon fuels.

"What happens to the coal miners?" someone asked. Levine answered that mitigation of intolerable adverse impacts would be essential. If a thousand coal miners a year were put out of work, the cost to compensate and retrain them would still be less than a billion dollars.

The final thrust of the attack on carbon emissions must come from new technologies, said Levine. "It will be very difficult, and costly, to avoid a resumption in emissions after 2010 unless we increase public and private investment in energy technology R&D." While new technologies can play a role in reaching near-term goals --notably DOE's Energy Star labeling program for efficient appliances--technology's biggest impact on energy efficiency will come by 2020 and beyond.

One area in which Berkeley Lab has made particularly important contributions is in building technologies, including compact torchiere-style bulbs that are already commercially available. These lamps put out as much light but much less heat than popular but dangerous halogen torchieres, and do so with much less electricity. If all halogen torchieres in use were replaced by the compact fluorescent bulb, Levine noted, the energy savings would be 35 terawatt-hours--or some $2 billion a year.

Another technology now on the market is a new method of plugging leaks in heating and air-conditioning ducts by injecting airborne sealant. "We buy furnaces that are 90 percent efficient, and then we send 30 percent of the heat right into the air," Levine said. Leaky ducts, which can add hundreds of dollars a year to a home heating bill, represent an annual waste of energy equivalent to the gasoline burned by 13 million automobiles.

The degree to which American businesses and private citizens will embrace the available energy-saving technologies and those on the way is uncertain, Levine admits. "But change is inevitable if Americans don't want to be forced to limit their travel, turn down their thermostats, and decrease manufacturing as we enter the new century."

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