How to Engage Trump Supporters on Sustainability

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Last week’s US election was both a shock and a disappointment for many people around the world. It’s important to think about what happened and why. There are important lessons to learn for all, including those of us working for a more sustainable society.

What’s clear is that there are a lot of people in America who are struggling, people whose lives had fallen outside of the traditional scope of the compassionate liberal vision, with its focus on “underrepresented minorities.” As ironic as it seems, this election was decided by primarily white, working class voters, who had come to feel that they were underrepresented. Donald Trump spoke to these people. Whether or not he will help them remains to be seen, but when a person is suffering, what they want first is to be seen and heard.

The reason this matters in the sustainability fight is, that for these voters, the issue is not one they felt they could afford to pay attention to. When a man who is barely scraping by, has to drive 50 miles each way to a minimum wage job in a beat-up old pickup truck to feed his family, all he wants to know is how much will gas cost. Not only can he not afford a Prius, he wouldn’t want one. He needs that pickup to do odd jobs with, collect firewood, and find other ways to make ends meet.

Many of these people have lost the good-paying jobs they once counted on, in areas like manufacturing and the energy sector. These jobs were often swept away by changes in technology, as well as by global trade. Robots, ATMs, self-checkout lines, and soon, autonomous cars and trucks continue to squeeze out livelihoods, as does the export of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries. Environmental concerns have also been cited, in slowing down coal production, for example, though cost competition from natural gas has been a far bigger factor. Laying all this at the feet of the president is a bit unfair. Most of these decisions are made by company executive, sometimes because their products are not competitive.

Democrats are angry and scared, but calling these people names, or painting them with the flaws of their candidate will not be helpful. All that can said definitively is that they felt strongly enough about the need for change to overlook those faults.

The biggest block of Trump supporters was rural, while the smallest came from big cities.  While demographers talk about the migration to cities and planners are looking at how make those cities sustainable as the potential salvation of our planet, there are still plenty of people—enough to swing an election—still living in the past century, for whom this is a corner they haven’t gotten to yet.

Many of these supporters come from areas that lack diversity. They have not had the opportunity to go to school with or become friends with children from other backgrounds while growing up. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue of racism here, or in any way excuse it, but those who have had firsthand experience of other groups tend to be more tolerant. There is also the question of education, and perhaps even more disturbing is the impact that the right-wing media echo chamber (e.g. Fox News, Limbaugh, etc.) have had by spreading false information couched in inflammatory rhetoric.

These are the patterns and trends that now potentially block the path to a sustainable future. On the plus side, these folks obviously love their families, care about their children’s future and their own health. Many of them surely love the land and are sad to see it  being despoiled. If provided with the facts of the situation, they will see that a flourishing, sustainable future is in all of our best interests.

Exxon Teams up with Fuel Cell Energy to Capture Carbon from Natural Gas Power Plants

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - A few years back, there were major investments being made by the DOE and other parties to develop carbon capture and storage (CSS) solutions for coal plants. At the time, the goal of those systems was to bring down the emissions level from coal plants to a level comparable to cleaner natural gas. To do more than that would have been prohibitively expensive. Many of those efforts, notably the FutureGen, after a long and complex history has now been sidelined, primarily because of cost. But, despite the fact that renewables have made unexpected strides and some scenarios show them providing as much as 80% of electric demand at some point in the future, CCS technology should not be considered irrelevant.

First, in places like India and China, where substantial amounts of coal will still likely be burned for decades to come, CCS will be needed to mitigate the impact. But even in places like the US, where coal is rapidly disappearing, the bar has now been raised. Instead of applying CCS to bring coal plants down to the level of natural gas, it is now being considered as a way to bring natural gas-fired plant emissions down to the level of solar and wind.

Major fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Shell are making substantial investments in CCS, in the hope that ultra-clean natural gas plants will continue to operate, not just as a bridge fuel, until something cleaner comes along, but as a source of energy demand that will provide them ongoing revenues for decades to come. According to Shell’s scenario planning, natural gas will continue to provide 25% of electric power right through the end of the century. While solar and wind command most of the attention, it’s difficult to see an economy the size of ours getting by without some level of natural gas for the foreseeable future. If we are to meet our commitments under COP21 however, those plants will need to be essentially carbon-free.

That puts an announcement that came out this past week into context: Exxon-Mobil announced a joint research effort with Fuel Cell Energy, to attempt to bring a very promising, and potentially affordable means of capturing carbon dioxide from natural gas power plants, while actually producing additional power in the process.

Fuel Cell Energy has been working for some time to exploit a unique feature of their molten carbonate fuel cell which allows it to take in carbon dioxide instead of air and concentrate that CO2 while still producing power. This offers the promise of an affordable carbon capture system. While originally conceived as a solution for coal plants, they found common ground with Exxon-Mobil who has been developing a portfolio of options to sequester emissions from the natural gas plants that they hope to keep supplying in the years ahead.

Last week’s announcement marked an increased commitment on the part of the two companies to move towards the development of a pilot scale demonstration.

Isn’t There Something We Can Do With All That CO2?

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - There can be no question that our energy supply is undergoing profound changes, driven first by concerns over peak oil that have been superseded by concerns over greenhouse gas emissions. Renewable supply has surged to the point where the idea of a future entirely free of fossil fuels now seems possible. Last year in the U.S., non-hydro renewables contributed more than hydro for the first time ever, with the total expected to exceed 14% of all electric generation in 2016. While that is hardly the lion’s share, it can no longer be described as the “tiny fraction” it once was.

Electric cars are still a tiny fraction, and no one is expecting gasoline or diesel to evaporate from the scene anytime soon. But on the power generation front, people are having existential conversations about the future of coal.

The dirtiest of all fossil fuels, coal has been targeted from the outset, the greenhouse gas issue only adding to previous concerns about mine safety, acid rain, mercury, mountain top removal, and more. But there is still a lot of it around and, because these concerns were never properly priced into it, it is still cheap.

Here in the US, coal consumption grew strongly from the 1950’s until it began to decline in 2007. The industry prevailed upon the government to invest in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), which would extract some portion of the CO2 from an exhaust stream, pressurize and liquefy, and then inject it underground. This was the premise behind FutureGen, which had apparently come back from the dead last year, only to be shut down again when the DOE withdrew funding. The technology is expensive to build, extracts a significant energy penalty in parasitic losses, and is unproven from a long-term environmental impact perspective.

The story may not yet be over. Given the continued commitment to coal burning in China and India, and their growing concern over emissions, it is possible that funding for this technology might pick up again. In the meantime, though, other approaches continue to emerge.

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