Thursday, July 18, 2013

If we just look at climate change, we should do these things. If we take climate change out of the picture we should still do these things

Massoud Amin, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Control Systems Society’s Technical Committee on Smart Grids, has a must-read opinion piece up at Nature (unfortunately behind a pay wall though you can get most of the same information from this interview). He lays out a highly persuasive case based on both economic benefits like greatly reducing the number and duration of power outages (which are currently estimated to cost the US economy between US$80 billion and $188 billion each year) and environmental benefits like reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 12–18% by 2030.

Two things in particular struck me as I read this. The first was that Amin could make his argument strictly on economic terms and strictly on environmental ones. There's an obvious parallel here with fixing choke points in our freight rail system, an infrastructure improvement that would pay for itself two or three-fold in areas like transportation costs, highway congestion and wear-and-tear on roads and bridges. Our inability to take action is so entrenched that we can't take significant steps to address climate change even when there's a overwhelming non-environmental case for moving forward.

The second thing that hit me was the cost Amin gives: around $400 billion, or $21 billion to $24 billion a year for 20 years. That is a great deal of money in absolute terms but when you start looking at the various costs associated with climate change-- sea level, ocean acidification, droughts, extreme weather -- you get into the trillions fairly quickly (you might well hit a trillion in Florida alone).

What follows is very back-of-the-envelope, but based on the US share of carbon emissions, it looks like, if you make all sorts of simplifying assumptions, the smart grid impact would be around 2.5% of global totals. In gross terms, ignoring all other economic benefits, smart grids are not a particularly cheap way of reducing carbon emissions (in net terms they actually pay for themselves, but put that aside) but $400 billion for a two and a half percent reduction doesn't seem that high.

The climate change debate is often framed as a choice between saving the planet and saving the economy, but when you look at the proposed solutions, they either don't seem to put that much of a drag on the economy (carbon taxes, moving away from coal) or they actually pay for themselves (infrastructure improvements) while the potential economic damage of climate change dwarfs the combined costs of all of the proposed solutions.

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