Category Archives: Blog

The fundamental (and somewhat existential) source of climate change – and how we might overcome it

With the news that this past July was the hottest month on earth since record keeping 140 years ago, satellite images of the Amazon and State of California burning, the most powerful hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean east of Florida, carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere rising again to near record levels after a brief leveling, and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s stirring call to action while staring down both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, climate change has been a hot topic in 2019. While the scientific community remains nearly 100% aligned that global warming is driven by the burning of fossil fuels, a relatively small, yet powerful, group of naysayers fights the science. Who are these very powerful people, and why do they fight? One common characteristic – they are mostly baby boomers = the generation of Americans with an insatiable appetite for consumption and a strong resistance to change.

Fig, 1 – US Household Wealth Distribution

First a disclosure – I am a boomer. Baby boomers are defined as the generation of individuals born just after the end of World War II, from 1946 through 1964. That would put us between 55 and 73 years old this year. As of 2016, this generation has over 74 million members and makes up 22.9% of the population of the United States. (Note that President Trump at 73 years old falls into this generation.). Further, I am a conservative white male, and while I don’t feel excessively wealthy, I am certainly better off than most. I own a nice home, my wife and I go on far too many vacations, we own two new cars, and we spend an inordinate amount of money on cafe lattes at Starbucks. I am a registered Republican, and, until recently, believed strongly that the fiscal conservatism and pro-market focus of the Republican Party outweighed their anachronistic social beliefs. Worse yet, I owe my standard of living to fossil fuels, having spent over 40 years working in oil and gas and power generation. I would likely not be as well off as I am today without this country’s, and this world’s, need for fossil fuel.

I do not feel guilty for where I am or how I got here. Fossil fuels have been critical for economic growth and improving the life of the average American. However, I am ready to admit that the world is changing. The damage to the planet from the burning of fossil fuels is irrefutable. Fortunately, renewable sources of energy are now viable and cost effective alternatives with new onshore wind and solar developments less expensive than running existing coal plants. How quickly America adopts these alternatives will be critical to how the world looks in the future. But change inevitably generates resistance, and the larger the change, the larger the resistance. Let’s take a look at the baby boomer generation, the group that has, or believes it has, the most to lose from this change.

Baby Boomers possess about 54% of all US household wealth and 57% of affluent household wealth (see Fig. 1), account for 42% of consumer spending, buy more cars than any other age demographic, account for 80% of all spending on luxury travel, and earn 47% of all income in the United States (see MarketingCharts,com and Basically, baby boomers control about two times the wealth in this country as compared to their percentage of the population. On the flip side, 45% of baby boomers have no retirement savings, and of the 55% who have some retirement savings 28% have less than $100,000. The bottom line – baby boomers have made and continue to make a lot of money, but spend it. And what do they like? Big cars, big houses, expensive vacations, cruises, beef, single-use packaging, etc., all of which generate a large carbon footprint. In a very interesting analogy, physicist Geoffery West points out that the average lifestyle in America (counting food, transportation, computers, air conditioning, etc) requires more watts to support than what is required by a blue whale. If baby boomers require about twice the average, we’re talking about 150 million blue whale equivalents in the US.

Demographically, baby boomers are 72% white, compared with 50% of all births last year. Politically, they are quite conservative with the difference in percentage between those identifying themselves as conservative vs liberal at approximately 23% (see Fig. 2). And Republicans are much more likely to be the naysayers mentioned above than Democrats.

Fig. 2 – Trend in Conservatives Minus Liberals

Although not a one-to-one relationship, there is certainly a correlation between “old white Republicans” who spend lots of money and deny climate change and baby boomers.

Mea culpa. What have I done to impact climate change? Not as much as I could, but I’m moving in the right direction. In addition to trying to inform the public with my OWOE website and blogs, I am professionally involved in some cutting edge technology developments to reduce the cost of renewable energy, I have traded in one gas powered vehicle for a Tesla (please see my blog), and I am contemplating installing rooftop solar panels on my house.

Now the good news. Baby boomers have a built-in sunset provision. The Paris Agreement of 2015 attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions to achieve a balance by 2050 and limit the average temperature increase to 1.5 deg Celsius. Of course, by 2050 the baby boomers will lie between 86 and 104 years old. That means that the vast majority of us will be either dead or in a rest home, both of which result in a very low carbon footprint (and one of which will eventually result in some carbon returned to the earth). In fact, if you do some simple math and assume that each baby boomer will be replaced by one average next-gen consumer when he/she dies, even with no other reductions in average carbon dioxide emissions due to technology improvements or behavior, and ignore population increase, US carbon dioxide emissions will drop approximately 20% and be at about the 1970s level by 2050 (see Fig. 3). Which means that one strategy that could be very effective is simply to wait us out. OK, boomer. Couple this with a continuation of the rapid improvement in renewable energy technology and the tendency of younger generations to adopt new technologies more quickly and, maybe, humanity has a chance.

Fig.3 – Trend in US CO2 Energy Related Emissions and extrapolation for passing of baby boomers

Don’t get too worked up over the President’s actions against the environment

Every week seems to bring another attack by the Trump Administration against laws and regulations that have been instituted by prior administrations to protect the environment and fight climate change. The most recent is the campaign to deny California the right to set stricter automobile emissions standards than federal limits. It has caused yet another uproar among environmentalists and liberals and glee among climate change deniers and conservatives and will undoubtedly lead to many years of legal battles. But what is reality? In fact, this move, and all the others, are just meaningless actions that do little more than pander to the Administration’s fossil fuel campaign contributors and excite the hardcore Republican base ahead of the upcoming elections. The reality is that technology and market forces are driving the world inexorably and at an increasing pace toward a renewable energy future, despite the last-ditch efforts of the President and his supporters. Let’s look at some of the higher profile actions.

Continue reading Don’t get too worked up over the President’s actions against the environment

How good is the OWOE blogging staff?

SA Shelley, WH Luyties: OWOE is a small site, with just a few dedicated and experienced staff who follow energy technologies, economics and policies. Occasionally, OWOE bloggers dare to forecast energy developments that tend to be contrarian, and, much to everyone’s surprise, they have been very good at forecasting trends correctly and ahead of much larger analytical organizations. Are we that good at more quickly analyzing publicly available information along with some insight and soft analysis? Or do we have access to the dark arts such as whiskey and voodoo?

Continue reading How good is the OWOE blogging staff?

Do Renewable Portfolio Standards Increase Electricity Rates?

I live in California. That gives me a front seat to virtually every new initiative and trend related to saving the planet, whether it is about turtles and plastic straws, banning single-use plastic bags, electric vehicles, or green energy. Although not the first state to adopt a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), California has been one of the most aggressive in its timetable for replacing fossil fuel based electricity with carbon-free. In 2018, California updated its RPS to the requirement to achieve 60% of electricity sales from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2045. Of course, California’s aggressive push toward renewables has triggered a wide range of reactions. For example, Michael Shellenberger of Environmental Progress has been pushing the idea that California’s electricity rates are significantly higher than the rest of the US (see Figure 1) and rising significantly faster because of its dependence on renewables. His culprit is renewable energy and his solution is to keep nuclear plants open. In contrast, Roger Sowell, who blogs about renewable energy issues, argues that California’s unique climate, geography, and large population make such differences to be expected.

Continue reading Do Renewable Portfolio Standards Increase Electricity Rates?

Still a Tesla basher? – It’s time to drive a Model 3

By W. H. Luyties, editor OWOE. It seems that bashing Tesla is the favorite topic for the financial news media. Whether it’s a story about Tesla’s profitability, production woes, product quality, lack of a real market, impending competition from “real” automakers like Volkswagen, or the behavior of Elon Musk, the message is clear – Tesla is all hype with no substance and destined to fail. Apparently, the only question is when. In the present world of “fake news”, social media “bots”, and a news climate that only values the bad, how does a normal person wade through all the BS and make a good decision on what car to buy? Well, I have the answer…just go drive a Tesla Model 3. Until you have the experience of driving a Tesla, you won’t truly understand how it has changed the concept of an automobile.

Continue reading Still a Tesla basher? – It’s time to drive a Model 3

The latest push for fossil fuels – rhetoric or reality? Part 1 – Coal

By W. H. Luyties, editor OWOE. With the election of Donald Trump as president of the US and control of all 3 branches of the government in the hands of Republicans, who have historically been strong supporters of fossil fuel interests, one lightning rod topic has been the push to increase coal and oil production in the US. This has energized both proponents of fossil fuels, who see an opportunity to possibly save their industries (coal) or increase production (petroleum), and opponents, who fear the environmental consequences of such a change. But is this a real threat to the global move away from fossil fuels, or is it simply rhetoric to energize a political base? Continue reading The latest push for fossil fuels – rhetoric or reality? Part 1 – Coal

Net Metering: A brilliant concept whose time has passed?

There is no doubt that the practice of net metering for residential solar photovoltaic systems has been a key enabler of the rapid growth of rooftop solar generation in the United States (see OWOE: How does net metering encourage private investment in home solar systems?). But has it outlived it usefulness? Or, has it even become a barrier to greater renewable penetration into the marketplace?

Net Metering (Illustration by Andy Warner)

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The Transportation Transformation and its Impact on the Oil Industry

Almost a year and a half ago OWOE blogged “What about transportation?” in which we took a brief look at the challenges facing a renewable energy transformation of the transportation industry, which accounts for approximately 30% of US energy use. In what has been a relatively short period, the answer to that question has become much clearer. Let’s take a look at what’s happened since then.

Tesla Model X

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Is this the final nail in the coffin for the “Nuclear Renaissance” in the US?

The nuclear power industry in the United States has had a history of wild swings from optimism to pessimism to fatalism. After the first wave of over 100 nuclear reactors that were planned in the 1960’s and 1970’s was completed, there has been a span of 2 decades without a new reactor being built. Then, starting in the early 2000’s, a new feeling of optimism arose as the nuclear industry, electric utilities, the US government, and even some environmental organizations realized that nuclear power could be the solution to the world’s global warming problem. And with the high cost of fossil fuel (at a time before fracking technology drove natural gas prices to historic lows), most in the industry believed that new nuclear plants could be built quickly and be cost competitive with other new power sources. These plants would incorporate new technology and advanced safety features, would be governed under new streamlined government regulations to avoid costly design changes mid-construction, would apply lessons learned during construction of the earlier plants, and would have access to competitive financing with federal loan guarantees. This was considered the beginning of the “nuclear renaissance”. Between 2007 and 2009, 13 companies applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for construction and operating licenses to build 31 new nuclear power reactors in the US. Today, plans for virtually all of those reactors have been cancelled, and nuclear power generation reached a peak in 2010 and has since been declining (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Nuclear Plant Generation History

Continue reading Is this the final nail in the coffin for the “Nuclear Renaissance” in the US?

Peak Oil vs Peak Coal

Last month’s OWOE blog “Did the World Hit Peak Oil in 2015 and Nobody Noticed?” generated some interesting discussion. One follower raised a very good question regarding whether we have compared the fate of the oil industry with the fate of the coal industry in terms of the effect of oil and gas as disruptive technologies. Since it’s been some time since we touched on coal, now is an ideal time to use this question as a lead-in to the broader subject. The simple answer is “yes”, as the relatively recent rapid decline in coal production and usage has been a demand driven phenomenon caused by many of the same issues as we are seeing with coal. If we look only at the US, peak coal occurred in 2008, as illustrated in this figure from the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

US Quarterly Coal Production
US Quarterly Coal Production

Continue reading Peak Oil vs Peak Coal