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Interactive: Meeting Obama’s 2035 Clean Energy Goals

In order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve America's energy security, President Obama has laid out a goal for the U.S. to generate 80 percent of its electricity from "clean" energy sources by 2035. To replace coal, which is currently the dominant source of electricity, we would need to rely on other energy sources. By Obama's definition, "clean" energy options include burning natural gas and combining carbon capture and sequestration with current coal-burning operations (but recent research shows that burning natural gas may not reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as previously thought, compared to burning coal). 

This interactive graphic shows how much of any one resource the U.S. would require in order to meet the 80 percent clean energy goal, if we were to rely on only one clean energy technology. The graphic demonstrates how difficult it would be to meet the 80 percent goal by expanding the use of only one clean energy source, and points to the need to pursue a portfolio of clean energy sources.

This graphic does not indorse any particular energy source over others, but is instead only intended to illustrate how substantial the contribution from any of these would be to replace traditional coal power. 

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Comments

By David (Fort Worth)
on August 17th, 2011

How is natural gas a clean energy source, exactly? Otherwise, I like the presentation.

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By Sherbeam Wright (Oakland, CA)
on August 17th, 2011

I would echo David’s question. Natural gas is touted in some circles as the next best ‘natural’ resource, but I’m not sure if that is just because it’s better than coal.

Thanks for breaking it down into an infographic!

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By Alyson (Climate Central)
on August 17th, 2011

Even though natural gas is a fossil fuel ”” meaning it contains carbon and emits carbon dioxide when it is burned ”” it is a cleaner burning fossil fuel than coal. In other words, to produce a unit of energy, burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than burning coal (this has to do with how gas or coal reacts during combustion/burning).

In fact, as the interactive points out, most people assume that burning natural gas produces only half the amount of greenhouse gas emissions (which is mostly carbon dioxide, in this case) as burning coal does.

So, even though burning natural gas emits greenhouse gases, it is “cleaner” than coal because it emits fewer gases than coal. According to President Obama’s goal for 2035, natural gas is included as a clean energy source, so I included it in this interactive.

Thanks for the feedback,
Alyson

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By Byron Smith (Edinburgh)
on August 17th, 2011

Treating natural gas as cleaner than coal is an oversimplification. If you are just looking at the point of combustion, then it is cleaner, but if the whole life-cycle is taken into account, then a recent study suggested that shale gas is worse than coal (considered over a 20-year span), and further studies/rebuttals since then seem to suggest that perhaps they are closer to equal. The reason for the discrepancies have to do with different assumptions, but the crux of the matter is that there are fugitive emissions of methane from all natural gas extraction, transport and refinement. The scale of these emissions is disputed, but even on the most optimistic assumptions, they are significant, particularly since unburned methane has something like 100 times the climate effect of CO2 molecule for molecule over a twenty year period (it is closer to the oft-quoted figure of 24 times the effect of CO2 over a century, since CH4 naturally breaks down in the atmosphere into CO2). Thus, treating natural gas as a clean energy source is a complex claim, particularly for a nation as heavily reliant on nonconventional sources of gas as the US has rapidly become.

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By Alyson (Climate Central)
on August 18th, 2011

Byron,

It’s true that only counting the emissions from burning natural gas is simplifying the situation. Climate Central has written about some of the recent studies showing that methane leaks during natural gas extraction (and “fracking” in particular) are significant. As you point out, researchers still disagree on how much extra methane is getting into the atmosphere and how much this may also contribute to climate change in the coming decades. Some officials say that better regulations on natural gas drilling and extraction would minimize these leaks. If reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a goal of the new 80% goal, then reducing methane leaks should go along with increasing the number of natural gas-powered plants.

To that end, all of the above options, including building new dams, solar panels, and wind farms, have extra greenhouse gas emissions associated with them, when you consider how they are made, transported or installed. In these other cases, however, over the entire lifetime of the technology, emissions are significantly less than from coal.

Alyson

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By David (Fort Worth)
on August 18th, 2011

“According to President Obama’s goal for 2035, natural gas is included as a clean energy source, so I included it in this interactive.”

Okay, that makes sense. So I disagree with the president and his advisors on this one, not you. smile Thanks for your reply, and keep up the good work!

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By Mark Renfrow (Dallas/Texas/75214)
on August 18th, 2011

Alyson,

I saw this linked through from Grist. I am a little confused. Is the chart a depiction of energy production or emission production? It seems it’s an energy production chart and goal. The emissions production part has been accounted for by the words “clean energy”. How clean, is in no way represented in this chart, yes?

One could surmise that picking the natural gas path would reduce CO2 by 50%. Whereas, picking wind and/or solar would reduce it much further.

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By Fred (Pittsburgh, Pa. 15208)
on August 18th, 2011

If we include the carbon footprint to extract natural gas then we should also look at the carbon footprint to mine coal.  Today, coal mining is mostly done with bulldozers, draglines, and trucks.  Then the coal is transported long distances by barge or by train.  Granted these two methods of transport are very efficient but when you look at the volume of coal transported, there must be a huge carbon footprint for the deisel fuel used in the mining and transport of coal.  I’ve never seen the comparision made but I would venture to say that coal has a very significant carbon footprint of its own just to get the coal to the generating station.

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By Carl (Atlanta, GA 30310)
on August 18th, 2011

What about adding conservation to the mix; new LED lamps as an example. Replacing the street lights with LED’s, the traffic lights with LED with solar charged battery backup, LED office lamps (50% energy reduction), that alone should take out a lot of coal plants, and don’t forget that a full renovation of an office building reduces energy usage by about 55%.

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By Alyson (Climate Central)
on August 18th, 2011

Mark,

The graphic shows energy production, and doesn’t say anything specific about emissions. But your question touches on what is certainly a criticism of such a general “80% clean energy” goal. There are varying degrees of “clean” (although the options in the graphic are cleaner than traditional coal) so how much emissions drop over the next few decades very much depends on which resources we use instead of coal.

The 80% goal doesn’t include an emissions goal, but if we picked an emissions reduction target, we could do similar calculations to figure out how much we might rely on each of the above resources.

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By Mark Renfrow (Dallas/Texas/75214)
on August 18th, 2011

Alyson, thank you for the clarification.

As a fan of RPSs or RESs, what Obama has done is define a legitimate RES for the country. 80% renewables.

Unfortunately, he or any other politician wont propose legislation to make it into a RES rather than rhetoric.

As the saying goes…not one of us is as dumb as all of us. We just lap up the promise and forget to call them on the lack of reality.

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By Shaun (92395)
on August 18th, 2011

Meeting these goals could wreak havoc on ecosystems across the United States if we are not careful.  Wind turbines kill up to 14 birds per MW each year.  And solar would requires thousands of square miles of mostly pristine wildlands.  Maybe we should be focusing policy initiatives on distributed generation—rooftop solar etc.

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By Holly (Knoxville)
on August 18th, 2011

How is nuclear considered clean? How, after Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, can we say that nuclear is even a viable alternative at all? The carbon reduction is not worth all the birth defects and genetic mutations. Nuclear waste never goes away, so that’s not a waste that we want to be increasing our production of. Also, was all the coal it takes to power nuke plants taken into consideration?
Furthermore, climate change increases the risks that may cause nuclear disasters. As the climate gets worse, nuclear will become less safe. Tornadoes, hurricanes and floods are all predicted to be on the increase. All of these may cause nuclear disaster.
So let’s just take nuclear off this chart and all go read Bill McKibben’s Eaarth.
And: This chart doesn’t even take into consideration the absolute, undeniable requirement that we begin to CUT our energy usage and limit our consumption of unnecessary things.

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By J4zonian (San Pablo, CA)
on August 18th, 2011

Shaun,

Your first sentence is absolutely right. We have to pay attention to emissions and not some cheatable “80% clean energy goal”, because it is 100% certain that using that goal will keep us from making substantial, and necessary, changes. Just like Obama and his ilk keep changing the starting goal post of the year to base Kyoto-like cuts on.

My calculations (sorry, too involved to show here and no single source on the net) show that windmills kill about .04%, that is, four hundredths of one percent of the birds killed by human-made ‘structures’. That includes buildings, communication towers, cars, etc. What it doesn’t include is what kills the vast, overwhelming number of birds we kill and causes the overwhelming number of extinctions we cause—habitat destruction and pesticides and other chemical pollution. So the .04% figure is a vast, vast, vast overestimation of the damage windmills do. Funny, you never hear conservatives crying about all those other bird murders; they seem to find their compassion for birds only when faced with the horrific possibility of having a windmill go up somewhere in the world. All the other things they’re very much in favor of. I’ve been having this wind generator argument for years, yet never, NOT ONCE in all that time, has any conservative or anti-wind person ever expressed concern for birds in relation to cell phones, cars, palm oil plantations, rainforest burgers, or organophosphates. Hmmmm.

Solar is similar. It will not require ANY pristine land or reduce our wilderness by a single square foot. New York City and Philadelphia alone (combined) have 100,000 acres of roofs suitable for a combination of solar panels, water collection and food production. That doesn’t even include parking lots, and this and other cool wind-powered or solar car chargers could be combined with those systems and a smart grid to make cars portable batteries for the grid. www.grist.org/list/2011-08-18-skypump-lets-you-fill-er-up-with-wind.

Some large-scale wind and solar plants will be required; for the most part those can be on already-degraded land, which we already have in abundance because of the awful devastations caused by fossil fuels, nuclear electricity and weapons, and industrial lives. Putting PV or CST solar or wind farms on those spots will actually be a step toward healing the land there. And the land under large-scale wind farms can be used for any other things at the same time—parks, grazing, farming, gardening….

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By Peter (Evanston IL 60202)
on August 18th, 2011

How about geothermal?

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By Steve (Austin, TX)
on August 18th, 2011

While the gas comments above are appropriate, I’d point out that new gas-fired electricity is going to be around 60 percent efficient using combined cycle generation—compared to coal at 30 to 35 percent. 

So comparing carbon emissions and saying gas emits 50 percent less carbon is not so.  Per Btu (heat), yes.  But per kilowatt-hour (electricity), no.

Gas compares to coal much better than that. Carbon emissions for gas used for electric generation would be equal to around 25 percent of coal’s for the same kilowatt-hour output.

That comparison still assumes centralized generation.  With cogeneration, one can also use waste heat from the electric generator to warm space, heat water, provide industrial process heat, or drive building cooling systems.  This method is called onsite cogeneration or combined heat & power (CHP), and can be up to 80 percent energy efficient.

Much analysis of natural gas misses this very large demonstrated efficiency potential, relative to coal and nuclear . The latter two power sources are necessarily centralized, therefore located far from the end user so the cogeneration potential is lost, and they are only about 30 percent efficient..  Plus transmission line loss is another 10 percent or so.

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By J4zonian (San Pablo, CA)
on August 19th, 2011

No Peter, I don’t think geothermal plants can be placed under or around wind farms.

Seriously though, geothermal can be a locally important but small part of our energy. And there are other sources that may be useful in similar ways: biogas, tidal, wave power, hydro where it doesn’t interfere with crucial ecological systems, etc.. But we need to put our attention, money, political will and exertise into wind, solar (including solar water heating, passive heating and cooling, solar cooking, PV, CST, etc. local organic permaculture, reforestation…    Tying these together in a distributed smart grid dramatically improves reliability and peak coverage.

CCS, so-called non-dirty coal doesn’t exist and it’s unknown whether it could reliably sequester anywhere near enough carbon to break even. It can’t possibly meet major parts of our goal in time to matter and in the presence of sure bets is too much of a risk to take.

Nuclear—are you kidding? After TMI, Brown’s Ferry, Chernobyl, Fukushima… and hundreds of other accidents you’ve never heard of? The secrecy required should alone be enough to rule it out for those who value democracy, but waste impossibilities, limited fuel supplies, the danger of having reactors, let alone shipping waste in every direction in an age of chaos and terrorism… insanity. And unnecessary and counterproductive insanity, besides.

Hydrogen is not an energy source; electricity is easier to start and probably better all around. Natural gas is a fossil fuel and emits large and ongoing amounts of CO2. We can continue with it a little beyond coal and oil but must stop burning things for energy very soon. And supplies that are gettablle without huge environmental destruction are limited. Tar sands and shale oil are yet more ridiculous scams that barely breaks even and have tremendous CO2 costs that we simply can’t afford. We need to stop them right now and concentrate on those sources that will actually help.

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By Rick (Cambridge MA)
on August 19th, 2011

What if we asked… what percentage of US homes would need solar panels?

What about increases in efficiencies between now and 2035.  We’ve averaged anywhere from 0.5-3% increases in efficiency per year since the 1970’s.  Even barring any major efficiency breakthroughs, an overall increase in efficiency of 1% would mean that we’d be looking at more than doubling the average 15-20% efficiency we get today.  So those 4 million acres might only need to be 2 million acres in 2035 solar output…

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By nan rollison (Stafford, Virginia 22554)
on August 19th, 2011

Solar and wind arrays can take up valuable public land and impact wildlife and recreation.  What about this mix of options:

a) Assess and retrofit every residential and commercial building in America w/ a mix of on-site, locally-generated geothermal, solar, wind, high efficiency, and other energy efficiency measures.  This would put every building company and construction worker back to work immediately.  How to pay ?  PACE and other innovative financing options, partnering with Fortune 500 companies like the Google/Solar City effort.  Starts to fix climate change and puts people back to work.

b) All new builds are built to PassiveHouse and other super energy-efficient construction standards. Builders in Massachusetts are building beautiful homes with monthly energy costs of $50 to $75.00. A small 1,000-ft PassiveHouse design can be less than that per month.  That’s a huge benefit for homeowners. McMansions are out, small is in—makes more sense from both economic and demographic trends.

c) Get state and county governments to incentivize relocating new construction in already built areas so that our local forests and farms that produce our oxygen, rainfall and food and sequester carbon dioxide are not lost , and require more taxes to try and mitigate damage caused by their loss.

c) Every state, federal and local government purchase as much electric and/or hybrids for their transportation fleets as possible. Volvo has created a hybrid garbage truck - we are we on desiging low emission commercial vehicles in America?

d) Every county government work w/ their state and federal partners to identify, design and protect connected natural spaces that can help stem the degradation and/or loss of forests, grasslands, water sources, reduce flooding and taxpayer-funded repair costs. Get builders to cluster building sites, reduce footprint, and set aside portions of the property to connect to other natural areas.

d) make mass transit free - Too costly ?  What’s the cost comparison to constant highway funding, pollution, extreme weather response, loss of natural areas that produce air, water, food, recreation, wildlife, jobs, revenue.

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By Raveendran Narayanan (NYC. NY)
on August 19th, 2011

” 26 years R.&D. indcating ALL Energies are BEST. In the name of CO2 many are making Dollars in Millions. Many iceshelves collapsed during Winter. 2008 was Minimum Solar year. Winter of 2008 Wilkins Iceshelf collapsed. Is it CO2 & Scun?
26 years Oceans analysis indicating that dumping of concentrates back to Oceans & Seas by M.E.Desalters are the root causes of Climate Change because Mushrooming of Desalters started during 1985.
The problems can be corrected by capturing concentrates thereby build more Icemasess & cool down Planet EARTH

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By john (minneapolis, MN)
on August 19th, 2011

I’m with Rick and Carl. We can’t be the green equivalent of Dick Cheney and only look at the supply side.

Europeans use about half the energy per capita that Americans do; Latin Americans (many of whom rate higher on overall happiness studies than Americans do) use about one quarter. So we are wasting lots of energy that is not making us happy, even in the short run.

So cut the pie down to a quarter of its size or less, and suddenly filling in whats left with a quick increase in wind and solar does not seem so difficult.

At the beginning of WWII the US had the 7th largest navy in the world, somewhere below Argentina. In a very short time, we became by far the largest. If we can do such mobilization to kill people, we should be able to do it to save the freakin’ planet. This is much more of an existential crisis than either of the world wars.

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By harbinger
on August 22nd, 2011

carbon dioxide is not a problem, neither is coal. Use what you have.

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