Last week I had an interesting experience at a seminar in Colorado discussing energy trends.
I was struck how those on the left and right struggle to communicate with each other on these issues. That was reinforced when I saw a recent editorial by Al Gore, a former Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president, that made the argument on climate change and our transitioning energy economy in these terms:
The destructive impacts of the climate crisis are now following the trajectory of that economics maxim as horrors long predicted by scientists are becoming realities.
More destructive Category 5 hurricanes are developing, monster fires ignite and burn on every continent but Antarctica, ice is melting in large amounts there and in Greenland, and accelerating sea-level rise now threatens low-lying cities and island nations.
Tropical diseases are spreading to higher latitudes. Cities face drinking-water shortages. The ocean is becoming warmer and more acidic, destroying coral reefs and endangering fish populations that provide vital protein consumed by about a billion people.
Worsening droughts and biblical deluges are reducing food production and displacing millions of people. Record-high temperatures threaten to render areas of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, North Africa and South Asia uninhabitable. Growing migrations of climate refugees are destabilizing nations. A sixth great extinction could extinguish half the species on earth.
Sigh. I believe that the climate is changing. Heck, here in Idaho Falls you can grow things in your garden that you couldn’t when I was a kid. But, this kind of “the world is going to hell in a handbasket language” is a real turnoff to me on the right side of the spectrum.
Here is the reality. Higher world temperatures mean water will be even more and more precious in our state. We will likely see a trend toward more wildfires. Our farmers and ranches will have to adapt to shifting conditions as to what they can grow where.
Overall, Republicans nationally agree that climate change is a issue, A recent poll done for the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation found 60% of Republicans believe that man is impacting the climate. Roughly two-thirds of millennial GOP identifiers think that it needs to be addressed.
Here’s how I think climate change and the even more relevant shift in energy use and production need to be discussed with right-leaning audiences here in the Rocky Mountains.
First, “sky is falling” language comes off as kind of silly. A rising sea over time will cause problems for island nations, the barrier islands along the east coast and many coastal cities. But, taller levees and relocating communities are not the equivalent of the collapse of civilization. Not every big storm can be linked to rising carbon levels (the most loss of life from a hurricane in the U.S. was from one that hit Galveston, Texas, more than a century ago).
Second, the economic case on energy is far more persuasive than claims of climate disaster. The reality is that coal production and coal use is on a long-term decline. The issue is cost. Coal is mostly used to produce electricity. It is today more costly than power from hydro, natural gas, wind or, even, solar. That is why utilities all over the country are shutting coal plants down. We are lucky in Idaho because we don’t have coal mining as many of those mining communities are being hammered.
Third, Idaho today produces 85% of our power from hydro, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar sources. That is a key advantage. Colorado, for instance, is far more dependent on coal and natural gas for electricity. It means our electrical costs are lower than much of the country. We can also appeal to companies from massive Amazon to many smaller high techs that want to locate in places where they can minimize their carbon footprint. Idaho has a story to tell that is attractive to business.
Fourth, Idaho is and can be an energy innovator. The Idaho National Laboratory is set to host the first test of the University of Oregon-developed NuScale small modular reactor, which cannot melt down, its fuel can be recycled and its power output can be scaled by adding multiple small, cost-effective reactors.
It is a cool and innovative carbon-free energy source. Solar and wind are relatively cheap but are dependent on daylight and wind speed. Battery storage is becoming a cost-effective method of storing power until needed. Idaho needs to embrace power storage. I am particularly intrigued by expanding use of low-head hydro turbines. Imagine if Idaho’s multitude of canal companies dove into the power generation business using the flow of Idaho’s many canals. That could generate another source of income for Idaho’s agricultural community as they own most of the canal companies.
Fifth, transportation is going to become more and more electrified. Today’s Tesla 3 and equivalents are great for those who have a lot of cash. The cost of a “fill-up” is a fraction of what gas costs and Idaho has a pretty wide-ranging charging network for travelers. You can today drive an electrical vehicle from Boise to Los Angeles.
But, I am also intrigued by electrical buses. Idaho’s school districts each year spend a small fortune on fuel and maintenance for their multitude of school buses. Imagine instead Idaho’s schools using electric buses that are charged at night and generate savings of $20,000-30,000 per year per bus. Electric vehicles don’t have a regular engine to maintain: the issues are predominately lower cost items like tires, brakes and windshield wipers. With costs to purchase coming down, this is an idea worth exploring.
The United States is going through an energy shift. Right and left in states like Idaho can forge common ground on a wide array of issues if they set aside inflammatory language and focus on practical solutions.