The hydrogen dud – it won’t be powering your car anytime soon

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Energy can be used to do different things. Electricity is useful for lighting and computers. Heat is useful for cooking and warming your house. And gasoline is useful for transportation. However, we need to stop using fossil fuels.

Solar and wind and nuclear can provide electricity with relatively low carbon emissions. However, electricity isn’t that useful for transportation. Some proposed solutions include batteries, biofuels, and hydrogen (usually as a fuel cell). There are some big hurdles to all three; today I talk about the issues with hydrogen.

It’s a tempting solution because when hydrogen is burned as a fuel (or recombined with oxygen in fuel cells), the only byproduct is water. Technically the heat can cause chemical dissociation and other pollutants to form (like NOx), but let’s ignore that for the sake of this argument.

Hydrogen doesn’t just happen; it has to be produced. Most of the hydrogen produced today is made from natural gas. This is because it is cheaper to rearrange natural gas molecules than to make hydrogen from water. Nevertheless, proponents of wind and solar energy expect that these technologies can produce all our electricity and contribute hydrogen for transport and heating. But hydrogen might not be the way to go.

As it stands now, the energy consumption to produce hydrogen outweighs the benefit. Hydrogen vehicles can use 80% to 220% more energy than fossil fuel vehicles. Hydrogen also isn’t very energy dense. That means to use it in a personal vehicle, you need to compress it, liquify it, or use a fuel cell. All of these processes are energy-intensive and make transportation much more expensive.

Then you actually have to build the network of fuel stations. But think also, how does the hydrogen get to a fuel station? It can’t really be produced on-site without the increased costs of many inefficient machines. It can’t really be piped there, because hydrogen molecules are much smaller than hydrocarbons and escape the piping network relatively easily while also altering the pipeline’s material properties.

Neglecting the land footprint required to produce the extra electricity, we still need to build more solar panels or turbines. The US produces a lot of electricity, but only 4.4% comes from wind or solar. If all of the US’ transportation energy needs were also met by electricity, we would need 64% more energy coming from electricity (Note: this could be less if we use the electricity directly). That means solar and wind are covering 2.7% of our current need.

USEnergyFlow2011

Furthermore remember that the US should have stopped burning fossil fuels yesterday. No new fossil fuel infrastructure should be built anywhere in the world after 2017, so the US as a wealthy (and exploitative) nation should have stopped years ago. Bottom line, hydrogen will not play a role in transportation unless huge technological advancements are made.

Ultimately we need to change the way we use energy. In transportation, personal vehicles are not ever going to be eco-friendly. We need cities that are walkable and bike-able and have good electric public transit. Freight and passenger transport between cities should be transitioned to electric trains. They won’t need batteries or blacktop or fuel stations and won’t emit pollution. These changes are necessary, but they will only happen if we recognize the opportunities and make them happen.

Further reading:

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Stop pretending you care.

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All technology can kill people. Sometimes directly, but usually indirectly. And almost always at very low rates. Engineers and scientists work to identify these rates so that companies and society can prioritize resources to do the most good. However sometimes public opinion demands attention to areas that are not, and should not be, priorities.

risk flowchart

When you look at any issue deeply enough, most of the damage is due to small effects adding up. It’s not from a single incident. I could make arguments about gun use or airplane safety or chemical exposure or tobacco use or a million other technologies, but let me just look at a few issues that relate to energy consumption.

Coal is a major killer in our electricity supply. Nothing is completely safe, but coal has the highest deaths per kWh. The CO2 emissions are causing climate change and the non-CO2 emissions are causing respiratory problems and premature deaths. However, the public wants cheap electricity and 1,000,000 premature deaths spread worldwide annually aren’t as newsworthy as an explosion at one plant.

Japan is reeling from their change in energy policy after Fukushima. Maybe 100 people are expected to die prematurely due to radiation exposure from the event, but somehow that rate of risk hasn’t been demonstrated to the population. Since there has been so much fear-mongering about radiation, Japan has increased their use of fossil fuels in the electricity supply by 50%. The extra use of fossil fuels in Japan will kill more people each year than the entirety of the Fukushima accident.

In the US, more than 30,000 people die each year from motor vehicle accidents. All nuclear radiation accidents worldwide (from power production and medical use) added together total around 5,000 deaths. But do people recognize these risks?

I challenge you. If you value human life, start caring. Look at the real risks and start contributing to making the world safer. Recognize that newsworthiness has almost no correlation with real dangers. Use less electricity, acknowledge driver error is the cause of most accidents (and it doesn’t always happen to other people), vote for policies that actually make people safer.

How to ACTUALLY lower your energy consumption – heating

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There are many ways to reduce your impact, but today I’m going to talk about heating your home or apartment or living space.

The amount of power required depends on several factors. Most important are the temperature difference between inside and outside, the leakiness of the house, and the efficiency of the heater. The equation looks like this:

power = temperature difference * leakiness / heater efficiency

Clearly, there are three ways to reduce the needed power. Reduce the temperature difference, reduce the leakiness, and increase the efficiency.

Temperature difference

The temperature difference depends on the temperature set by the thermostat and the temperature outside. You can’t control the weather, but you can change your thermostat setting. The figure below shows a month of temperatures and thermostat settings. If the setting is 60 deg F, the green area is the indicator of power needed to heat the house. If the setting is 70 deg F, the green and blue areas are needed (a 58% increase).

Corvallis, OR high and low temperatures for January 2015 (data from NOAA)

Corvallis, OR high and low temperatures for January 2015 (data from NOAA)

The easiest way to reduce your needed power is to put on a sweatshirt and lower the thermostat. Maybe 60 deg F (saving 37%) leaves you too cold; you can still save 19% by reducing the temperature to 65 deg F. Remember, the point is to keep the room warm for humans. If you’re at work, turn down the home thermostat. Programmable thermostats start at just $25 and some utilities even offer rebates to make them free. Alternatively, make sure your workplace doesn’t heat itself when no one is there.

Leakiness

This is the rate that energy escapes the house through walls and windows. It depends on the temperature difference too. There are many programs (like this one in Oregon) that can evaluate your house for leakiness. Adding insulation can save up to 40% of your heating costs by reducing heat loss.

Heater efficiency

Let’s say you have a natural gas powered heater. The gas is combusted and the heat is exchanged to the air in your house. Some heat is lost in the exhaust and some energy is needed to blow the air around your house. Maybe 90% of the energy released from the natural gas is heating your home.

If you have an electric heater, 100% of the energy is released to the house. However, this is only half the story. Remember, some forms of energy are more valuable. If natural gas was used to make the electricity, maybe 40% of the gas’ thermal energy was converted to electricity. So if your electricity mix is heavily fossil fuel powered, it’s more efficient overall to have a natural gas heating system in your house.

However, heat pumps offer a much better “efficiency”. In a heat pump, electricity is used to move heat from outside air or the ground into the house. Heat pumps can be around 300% to 400% “efficient.” Many people would avoid the use of the word efficiency here, but our equation still works. This works since electric energy is more useful than thermal energy. So if you switch to a heat pump, even coal fired electricity is better than a home fossil fuel heater.

Reduce your footprint

The best options for reducing your heating consumption are to turn the thermostat down, stop leaks from your house, and switch to a heat pump. Often there are incentives and/or groups to help you increase energy efficiency in the home. You can save money and save energy.

Further reading: Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air by David McKay (Ch 21 Smarter heating)

Radiation is all around us

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Many people might fear radiation, but there is no reason to. Everybody experiences small doses. Even exposures during nuclear accidents and clean-up are relatively low. While ionizing radiation has been linked to causing cancer many other substances, some naturally occurring, are more dangerous. Let’s look at some basics.

Ionizing radiation

Radiation is all around us. All light is radiation. When people talk about radiation protection, they really mean “ionizing radiation” protection. Ionizing radiation is any radiation that has high enough energy to ionize (eg. eject an electron from) an atom. Ionizing radiation can include high energy UV rays and X-rays, but in nuclear engineering there are two main categories of radiation.

  • Charged particles
    • Alpha – a helium-4 nucleus stripped of electrons (positively charged)
    • Beta – a high energy electron (or positron) usually emitted from a nuclear reaction
  • Neutral particles
    • Gamma rays (and x-rays) – high energy photons usually emitted from a nuclear reaction
    • Neutron – a free neutron usually emitted from a nuclear reaction

Charged particles interact all atoms, so they do not penetrate very far into solid material (eg. skin). The main risk to humans is only if the charged particles are taken into the body (eg. ingested or inhaled).

Neutral particles, however, can travel much further in even solid material. When they do interact, charged particles are created which then can cause damage internally.

Biological effects

The unit of absorbed dose is the rad. It is defined as 0.01 joules absorbed per kilogram of the absorbing material. It depends on the energy deposited, but also the material. Dose rate is also important; it is measured in rads per unit time.

Ionizing radiation interacts on different length scales, certain radioactive atoms can accumulate in specific organs, and different organs respond differently to radiation. This means that the biological effect of a dose, or dose equivalent (measured in rem), can be as much as 100x the dose (measured in rad) though usually just 1 to 3 times higher. The goal is to estimate the effect of radiation on humans, so the dose equivalent allows different interactions in different areas of the body to be represented as one number. That said, dose equivalent rate (rem per time) is also important in estimating detrimental effects.

Background radiation

We all experience some exposure to background ionizing radiation. Cosmic rays rain down from the skies and the ground emits radiation from uranium and radon. This varies based on where one lives. We even ingest some naturally occurring radioisotopes like carbon-14 and potassium-40.

In addition to natural background radiation, we also experience some man-made background radiation. These include sources like certain medical treatments and nuclear weapons testing.

Here are some data for the average American in 2009.

  • natural background: 310 millirem
  • medical: 300 millirem (this is the average; most is received by those with health issures)
  • nuclear weapons testing: 0.5 millirem
  • total: 624 millirem

It should be pretty clear that natural background and medical treatments are the main sources to which Americans are exposed. Even in the spent fuel pool of a nuclear power plant, radiation doses can be surprisingly safe.

credit: what-if.xkcd.com/29/

credit: what-if.xkcd.com/29/

Fast Reactors

Fission sometimes occurs when certain unstable atoms (eg. U-235) collide with a neutron. This collision can split the atom into two smaller atoms and several more neutrons. If the freed neutrons split other unstable atoms, a chain reaction can occur. In power reactors, the goal is to sustain this chain reaction so that a stable amount of heat is released.

However, neutrons can travel at different speeds. Neutrons from a fission reaction are usually very energetic (around 1,000,000 eV). In typical light water reactors (LWRs), these fast neutrons are either absorbed in U-238 or bounce around in a moderator (water). As the neutrons bounce around, they lose energy as the water molecules gain energy. Once they are “thermal” (around 0.025 eV), the neutrons are 1000 times more likely to split the U-235 than at “fast” energies.

credit: world-nuclear.org

credit: world-nuclear.org

All of today’s commercial reactors exploit the thermal neutron reactions. Another way to release heat is to exploit fast neutrons. That means some different advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages

  • fast neutrons can “burn” long-lasting actinides resulting in better fuel utilization and less long-lasting waste
  • new fuel sources include current LWR waste, depleted uranium, and thorium
  • extra neutrons per reaction opens possibility of “breeder” reactors that create more fuel than they use

Disadvantages

  • fast reactors are expensive compared to thermal reactors
  • higher enrichment is necessary possibly raising proliferation risk
  • sodium (liquid metal) as a coolant presents new risks and challenges
    • alternative: helium (gas) as a coolant presents its own challenges
  • reprocessing would be required

Many nations have experimented with fast reactors. The US program was canceled in 1994 but before that, the experimental EBR-II (19 MWe) produced more than 2 TWh of electricity from 1963 to 1994. France attempted a commercial project called SuperPhenix, which ran from 1985 to 1998. It was shuttered due to problems with corrosion and excessive costs. Russia, India, China, and Japan have fast reactors still in operation.

Further reading: http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Current-and-Future-Generation/Fast-Neutron-Reactors/

Are CAFE standards really working?

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A recent article reports that, “The auto industry beat out domestic greenhouse gas emissions standards by a “wide margin” in 2013, with cars getting an average of 1.4 more miles per gallon than required.” And that:

  1. The fleet’s mileage per gallon increased from 23.6 mpg in 2012 to 24.1 mpg in 2013.
  2. By 2025 CAFE standards dictate that vehicles get 54.5 mpg.

Bad statistics

In the first statistic, both passenger cars and light trucks (including vans, pickups, and SUVs) are included. The second statistic matches only the passenger car CAFE standard. For passenger cars in 2012 and 2013, fuel efficiency was 27 mpg and 27.3 mpg. Furthermore, this is the measured fuel efficiency. The CAFE standards for those years were 32.8 and 33.6 mpg for passenger cars.

How does the claim that “the auto industry beat standards” make any sense? It turns out that the EPA expects real conditions to be 25% worse than their testing conditions (see the footnote in this figure).

credit: epa.gov

Futhermore, automakers have other ways to meet the standards than actually decreasing tailpipe emissions. One credit is given for a car having flex-fuel capability even if the buyer only uses fossil fuel. When consumers do use high ethanol blends, they can expect lower fuel efficiency. Automakers can also get credit for over-compliance in one year and apply it to another year. These and other credits are intended to allow flexibility for companies to comply, but seems to allow automakers too much leeway.

Impact

The article also suggests that projected CAFE standards from 2012 to 2025 will save 12 billion barrels of oil, $8000 for each driver, and prevent 6 billion tonnes of GHG emissions. However, there is no context.

The US uses 7 billion barrels of oil each year. That means the standards will save us 1.7 years of oil consumption. This seems pretty good, but remember that these calculations are already taking into account the expansion of hybrid and electric vehicles.

$8,000 for each driver is an estimate. It’s based on the oil saved, but the price of oil can change. Not only that, but the CAFE standards will indirectly change the price of vehicles. And if it is ultimately cheaper to drive, more people will be able to afford to drive (if not in the US, car ownership seems likely to increase in other countries).

US emissions are about 6 billion tons of GHGs each year, so the standards will save us a year’s worth of emissions. Not bad, but again not nearly enough since transportation in the US over that time period will still amount to nearly 16 billion tons of emissions.

Real solutions

These solutions are less likely to become public policy, but more necessary to reduce emissions.

There is huge potential in carpooling. Since the actual goal (energy-wise) of a vehicle is to transport people, having two people in your car for every trip essentially doubles your real fuel efficiency.

Car sharing also has the potential to reduce costs. Since fewer cars are needed, manufacturer footprints will decrease. Combined with carpooling could provide a more flexible option to public transportation.

Public transportation itself is useful, but truly effective only if an area is densely populated. Luckily, many of the world’s people are migrating to cities. This will allow walking, biking, and public transport to displace private vehicles.

Driving, especially in the US, ultimately has to be made more expensive. Low-income assistance might be necessary, but there is huge potential in reduction of emissions. As fuel or car fees become more expensive over time, people will adopt the solutions above that best fit their situation and lead us to more sustainable lifestyles.

Costa Rica – green or greenwashed?

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There has recently been some news articles about Costa Rica’s reliance on fossil fuels. This one claims Costa Rica hasn’t depended on fossil fuels for the last 75 days. This one is a little more careful and corrected its language to show that only the electricity system has been free of fossil fuels since the end of 2014. However the author still avoids giving info about the rest of Costa Rica’s energy system.

credit: nathab.com

credit: nathab.com

While the media is trying to show that progress on addressing climate change is prevalent, the truth is that even countries that show promising progress (Costa Rica, Iceland, etc.) are far from achieving fossil fuel independence.

Costa Rica is relatively lucky. They have a mild climate that mostly negates the need for heating and cooling. They also have large hydropower resources (providing 68% of their electricity) as well as further geothermal potential. However hydro still has many detrimental effects including displacing indigenous people, disrupting ecosystems, and flooding large areas that then emit CO2 from decaying plant matter.

Of the energy consumed in Costa Rica (0.2 quadrillion BTUs in 2012), only 44% is even generated within the country. The rest is imported. Most of these imports are petroleum products used to fuel the transportation system. Costa Rica has avoided growing biofuels since two of their largest sectors are agriculture and ecotourism. Hopefully electrified transport options will expand, but that still means they will need to nearly double the amount of electricity they produce to really stop fossil fuel use.

Another big carbon emitter? Tourists flying. Costa Rica gets nearly 12% of its GDP from 2.52 million people visiting the country each year. 40% of those are Americans. Using a flight emissions calculator, the impact of just Americans visiting Costa Rica is 1.0 million tonnes CO2 per year. Compare that to Costa Rica’s 7.5 million tonnes CO2 per year (mostly from internal transportation). Tourism flights alone probably increase fossil fuel emissions due to Costa Rica by 30%.

Costa Rica aims to be carbon neutral by 2021. Apparently they can continue to emit non-zero levels of CO2 and still be neutral if they continue their reforestation projects. While laudable, neither fossil fuel use or reforestation can continue indefinitely. And if tourism declines, as is necessary without a major new technology, where do government incentives to conserve forests come from?

Costa Rica has implemented some great polices and they are moving in the right direction. It is still a good conversation piece for talking about energy, but we need to acknowledge that transitioning from fossil fuels will not be easy. Most countries have different strengths (wind vs. hydro vs. solar) for generating electricity, but transitioning transportation away from fossil fuels will be extremely hard for everyone.

Thorium – opportunity or enabler?

Note: This post will be a brief summary of the thorium fuel cycle for power production. It will be expanded in later weeks (I will post the link within this article).

Thorium power is based upon the use of Th-232; an isotope which occurs naturally. It is a fertile isotope which means that it can be used to create the fissile (or fissionable) isotope U-233 by absorbing a nucleon. U-233 is largely responsible for the heat generated in a thorium reactor as opposed to U-235 and Pu-239 for a typical light water reactor (LWR).

credit: snorgcontent.com

credit: snorgcontent.com

Benefits

  • no enrichment needed – after the initiation of the closed fuel cycle, no centrifuge facilities or laser enrichment is necessary because thorium ore has no fissile component
  • greater abundance – thorium is 3 to 4 times as abundant as uranium, which means more opportunity to supply reactors
  • thermal breeding is possible – reactors that use thermal neutrons experience less material damage compared to other generation IV reactors that require the use of fast neutrons
  • better anti-proliferation properties – less Pu-239 and U-235 are created and no enrichment is needed which means it’s harder to collect enough material to create a weapon; high gamma emission also makes handling U-233 difficult
  • better waste properties – less plutonium and other actinides means that the wastes generally has shorter half-lives
  • less waste – ideally, the entire amount of thorium is “burned” as opposed to 5%-10% of typical uranium fuel

Drawbacks

  • need fissile material (U-235 or Pu-239) to start the cycle – after the first irradiation, the resultant U-233 is used
  • high gamma emissions – this makes remote handling necessary while also making weapons use difficult; it also means certain components are more vulnerable
  • unproven – very few facilities have experimented with thorium, so it will be expensive to research and need to clear more regulatory hurdles
    • also, the chemistry for reprocessing is different from uranium fuel cycle requiring more research
  • U-233 is fissile – that means it can be used in weapons; it’d be hard, but possible (the US has already done it)
  • liquid fuels – all LWRs operate with solid uranium oxide fuel; new fuel materials mean new challenges
    • while it’s possible to use solid thorium oxide in LWRs, it’d be much harder
  • recycling is necessary – this will add costs and increase the opportunity for countries to use U-233 for weapons

DST – is it time to change how we change time?

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Daylight Savings Time (DST) is simply a standard where a region all moves their clocks forward in the summer in order to have more sunlight hours after a typical workday. The idea for DST was conceived by people who enjoyed their after-work daylight hours. They simply wanted to spend more time bug collecting or playing golf after they finished working.

But DST was not adopted by nations until war time. The hope was that countries could save coal by avoiding heating and lighting residences since people would get home with more daylight. The motivation was to save energy. After war time many nations stopped using DST, but much of the US and Europe adopted it more permanently in the 1970s due to worries over energy crises.

credit: wikipedia.org

credit: wikipedia.org

I originally thought that DST had something to do with helping farmers, but they tend to advocate against it. Summer nighttime entertainers also didn’t like the time change since they have to push back showtimes to when people go to bed. But some industries enjoyed the new opportunity. Bottom line, some people like it and others don’t. The debate was so strong in some places that laws were passed “to make public display of a clock showing any time save Eastern Standard punishable by $100 or ten days in prison.

Ultimately, it’s unclear whether DST actually even saves energy. It might have worked when a large amount of electricity was used for lighting, but these days lighting is far cheaper and not as significant a factor. And since energy is so cheap, most people just use more energy in the mornings at home and less in the evenings. The net effect varies by the geography and society. DST also may increase health risks. The first six days after a change, as people readjust to their new time schedules, might be more dangerous.

So what should we do?

These ideas will probably never happen, but it’s fun to speculate.

First option, let’s just stop using DST. This might avoid the health detriments and allow us to measure a before and after to see if there are any energy benefits.

Second option, let’s just never stop using DST. We just had our “spring forward” so in the fall, we just don’t “fall back.” Again, we probably avoid health detriments and can test whether energy is saved.

Third option, we adopt a continuous time spectrum instead of time zones. Cities would operate under the same time “zone” since every 13 miles driven due east or west would only change your local time by one minute.  Almost everyone has GPS in their phones, so if you travel between cities your phone clock would automatically adjust. Direction software would account for the time change between destinations just like they account for traffic. Plane and train ETAs already adjust for time zones. The transition would be smooth. The only difference is if you on the west coast call your friend on the east coast, you don’t know if it’s exactly three hours later or only two and a half. This idea could cause more health problems since people would stress about the initial change even though they wouldn’t really be affected. Then five years into the change, everyone could talk about how it was better when they were young.

Fourth option, we stop DST and society adopts a work week with fewer hours because people realize how much money they waste on junk. People enjoy more daylight hours throughout the whole year and get more sleep. Health outcomes improve because people spend less time working and more time in the sun, doing leisure activities, and sleeping. Energy consumption decreases because people buy less crap and sleep more reducing home energy use. It’s a win-win.

How would you change DST?

Divestment 2.0 – what comes next?

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Divestment (and the threat of divestment) has a long history as a strategy for shareholders to effect change in a company’s behavior. Previous campaigns include divesting from: Apartheid in South Africa, violence in Sudan, tobacco products and advertising, sweatshop labor, and the use of landmines. Most recently, divestment has been adopted by students concerned about climate change.

The thought process for divestment goes like this:

  • Certain companies are in the business of causing damage or injustice.
  • Schools, governments, and churches have investments that might include these companies.
  • If these institutions divest, the companies will experience:
    • public scrutiny
    • lower stock prices
  • To stop fiscal losses, companies will stop destructive practices.

What are some concrete examples?

Apartheid

The poster child of divestment is the work done against South African Apartheid. The exact role and effectiveness of divestment in the end of Apartheid is debated. It may not have impacted stock price, but it certainly raised awareness of the issue. The demands to companies were simple and achievable; they could continue business elsewhere, but not in Apartheid South Africa (usually a small fraction of their business). Due ultimately to a number of reasons, companies stopped operating in South Africa and Apartheid was ended. But what about other campaigns?

Tobacco

In the 1990s, activists turned their sights toward divesting from tobacco companies. It makes sense to target tobacco producers because the product doesn’t really have any upsides; it kills many people and increases the health costs of others. The campaign’s result? 32 schools have divested from tobacco companies. And while total users and per capita cigarette use has declined in the US, it doesn’t seem like divestment had a direct impact on the decline.

credit: also.kottke.org

credit: also.kottke.org

Divestment probably did raise awareness and indirectly contribute to some regulations, but 14% of Americans still use tobacco products. Worldwide, the rate is about the same. And in 2010, the top 6 tobacco companies made $35,000,000,000 in profit. Tobacco companies are still lucrative even though their products cause only damage.

Divestment may have even inadvertently made the problem worse by removing the problem (tobacco use) from those arenas (universities and medical schools) most likely to recognize and do more about it. Like with most injustices- out of sight, out of mind.

Fossil fuels

Which brings us to fossil fuels. 26 schools and numerous other institutions have already divested. Proponents of divestment suggest that publicly-owned companies with large fossil fuel reserves are over-valued because they cannot sell and burn all their fossil fuel reserves without dramatic consequences for life on Earth. They argue, “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” Climate change will impact everyone, especially the poorest around the world. The moral imperative is concern for the well-being of both humanity and the rest of life on Earth. But is divestment the best strategy to limit fossil fuel use?

First off, around 100% of the human population use fossil fuels. There are people still living hunter-gatherer lifestyles and off-grid organic farmers, but the outliers are very few. Around 80% of our total energy comes from fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and gas are cheap and useful; the US, Europe, and others have used them to gain dramatically richer lifestyles. They are not our only option for wealth, but unlike tobacco products that have only drawbacks fossil fuels have benefits too.

The obvious problem with fossil fuels is that they release carbon dioxide and other pollutants when burned. If carbon capture and storage (CCS) becomes cheap enough, the main reason for divestment disappears. I’m still skeptical that cheap CCS is a good idea, but this moral ambiguity doesn’t exist for Apartheid or selling tobacco. They are and will continue to be bad ideas. (Fossil fuels have other drawbacks, but they became a target for divestment only after concern for climate change heightened.)

Divestment may achieve heightened awareness of the climate change, but seems unlikely to directly affect companies that offer benefits. Opportunists will gladly take over any shares that are put on the market by schools and governments. And unlike the Apartheid divestment, companies cannot assent to the demands of activists. Any CEO that even considers keeping most of their company’s reserves underground would be fired faster than hydrogen in a balloon.

Other strategies for campus activists

Where does that leave us? As more activists question the strategy of divestment, it’s important to ask what strategies can replace it. Politically active students and protesters are a healthy component to society, but can we use that energy for more effective change?

One option might be working towards implementing a Green Revolving Fund. Energy efficiency is a good place for schools to start because the money saved can be reinvested in more energy-related projects. Less fossil fuel energy is consumed and the most effective projects are implemented first. Projects can in-part be solicited from and completed by students. This widens participation in social justice issues and creates possibilities for project exchange between schools and other institutions.

Another option would be to advocate for institutions to adopt a self-imposed carbon fee. This might be a harder sell for student groups, but I think they like a good fight. Experimenting with a carbon fee is very important. Activists often suggest that divesting “leads by example,” but what the world really needs is to bring externalities into the economic system. Universities and students (or even small cities) could figure out the best way to implement a carbon tax, so that we’ll be ready when the time comes to adopt the policy at larger levels of government. There would be decisions over where in the process to charge the fee, how fast the fee increases, what to do with the revenue, etc. Involving more disciplines would give more students real world experience and the opportunity to work for social good.

There are certainly other ways to address climate change on campuses, but I find these two ideas more promising than making demands that can’t be met because they still raise awareness about climate and energy issues. Maybe divestment is about more than raising awareness, but I think we can get more people excited and protesting and productive by shifting strategies.

If you want to read other persuasive pieces on divestment: