Getting America Unstuck: Starting the Conversation

The Carbon Tax Fantasy

We live in an historical era that’s powered by fossil fuels. If we’re okay with that, what sort of future are we headed toward?

We face two natural stopping points.

One natural stopping point can be caused by the exhaustion of the Earth's fossil fuel resources.

The other natural stopping point can be caused by a climate so overheated that crops won’t grow and humans all starve.

Sticking with fossil fuels till we hit either of those natural stopping points would plainly be a bad idea. Odds are high that we'll be stopped by an overheated climate long before we'll be stopped by an exhaustion of fossil fuel reserves.

We need a plan. We need to take control of our future.

And that means we need a plan for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, through a combination of will power and innovation.

If we get ourselves off fossil fuels fast enough, we won’t have to crash into the natural stopping point given to us by an Earth so hot that crops won’t grow and everyone starves.

But there’s a catch. Creating an effective plan isn’t all that easy.

Why? Is it because the Bad Guys want to keep us hooked?

No. That’s an obstacle we already understand. The more serious obstacle is of our own making.  The Good Guys – the people who say they want to save us from fossil fuels – have yet to define the path that truly ends our dependence on fossil fuels. 

They’ve been assured by countless economists that the future we want will materialize around us automatically if only we “put a tax on carbon” and “trust the market.”

It’s dangerous nonsense. And yet it’s widely believed. And it gets in the way of everyone recognizing the true nature of the challenge we face.  

The journey ahead - properly defined - is a Technology Change-Out Journey.

"Technology Change-Out" is very straightforward.  It tells us what we have to do and it gives us a framework for focusing our urgency.

We should NOT allow ourselves to become mice searching for the cheese in some random economist’s Pricing Theory maze.

We are human beings who have a Technology Change-Out Journey to complete. And what counts is fleshing out the mental map by which we find our way.

What DOESN'T count is taking seriously the carbon tax chimera.

We should tell ourselves this:

“From here forward, whenever we have a choice between two technologies for meeting an energy need, we must always reject the option that requires fossil fuels and commit ourselves instead to the option that does not require fossil fuels.”

My wife and I built our house in 1994 – in Annapolis – and at the time had no idea just how serious the global warming problem already was. We ended up with a hodge-podge of technology choices. For heating our first floor we had a gas furnace in the basement, and for cooling our first floor we had an air conditioner sitting outside. For heating and cooling our second floor, we had a heat pump outside and an air handler in the attic.

In our kitchen we had a gas stove. In our basement we had two 40 gallon hot water heaters, both electric. Our washer and dryer were both electric. And we paid no attention to the kind of electricity we were buying from BGE.

Now our house is entirely off fossil fuels, and this has been true since mid-2015.

First we replaced our gas stove, mainly because we wanted to breathe cleaner air.

Then in 2015, when our gas furnace showed signs of dying, we signed up for a geothermal heat pump instead of another gas furnace. The geothermal option was pricier, but the incentives eased the pain significantly so we went ahead with it. At the end of June 2015, the natural gas line to our home was shut off.  Permanently.

What happened to our BGE bill? Over the following twelve months, we paid about $250 more for electricity. Meanwhile, our payments for natural gas fell from $650 to $0.  On an operating cost basis, we’d come out ahead, saving $400 a year.

Meanwhile, through BGE - our Maryland utility – we signed up for an all-wind electricity contract, at a cost of 9.4 cents per kilowatt-hour.  And BGE also collects a transmission charge, and would, regardless of who our electricity supplier might be.

Bottom line: Martha and I have stumbled into the future. We have a modern home that’s comfortably heated and cooled and uses no fossil fuels whatever.

In 2004, we took our first step toward burning less gasoline by purchasing a Prius. We bought our second Prius in 2011. And then in 2018 we went all the way, trading in our first Prius on a Tesla Model 3. Now most of our driving is powered by electricity, and whenever we recharge our Tesla at home, we know the electricity has been generated with wind power.

Since we don’t have a garage, our home charging station sits out front, near the curb. I like to think of it as a leprechaun’s phone booth, but that notion has yet to catch on with Martha. Or anyone else.

Charge a Tesla with ordinary household current and each hour it’s plugged in adds 5 more miles of charge to the battery. Our home charging station pumps 44 miles into the battery each hour. Stop at a Tesla Supercharger somewhere along the highway – there are hundreds and hundreds across the US – and it pumps in more than 8 miles a minute of new charge. It slows down a bit as the battery fills up, but normally we spend no more than 20 minutes plugged in. It’s enough time for a pit stop and a light lunch, so we hardly feel slowed down in our travels. And the cost per mile is cheaper too.

With several long distance road trips under our belt, we’ve put more than 21,000 miles on the car in a little more than a year.

Yes, the front-end cost of a Tesla is higher than the front-end cost of a Toyota Prius.

But the yearly service costs of owning a Tesla?  Almost zero. For a Prius? Anywhere from $1,000 a year to $3,000 a year. And the per-mile driving cost is also higher in a Prius.

If you want to visualize what it would mean to take all the homes in America off fossil fuels, just take what we’ve stumbled into and multiply our example by, say, eighty or a hundred million homes, and that will give you a rough vision of the journey by which this nation takes all its housing stock off fossil fuels.

Geothermal heat pumps won’t be a common solution (except possibly for new subdivisions). For everyone else, regular outdoor heat pumps will work well, and they’ll cost far less.

As I try to visualize the process by which every gas stove in America disappears, by which every natural gas hot water heater disappears, every gas furnace disappears, every heating oil furnace disappears, and every gas-heated clothes dryer disappears, I reach back to my memories from ten years of cab driving in Denver, and the adventures I had as an elected union officer for roughly nine hundred drivers.

And I ask myself a simple question: “If I were trying to pitch nine hundred cab drivers on the need to leave fossil fuels behind, how would I go about it?” Most drivers, actually, are renters, not homeowners, so they’d have been indifferent. But the homeowners would have paid close attention.

And, almost to a man, or to a woman, I know what they’d say. “Give me a sweetener, so I don’t go broke doing this.” And they’d be right. It took a sweetener to get my wife and me to sign on for a geothermal heat pump.

Then I try to imagine the “carbon tax scenario,” in which the price of natural gas rises every year. Sure, at the end of the year there’s a rebate, but the idea is that an ever-rising price will inevitably push homeowners away from fossil fuels and the furnaces that burn them.

So let's play this out. Six years in, maybe seven years in, as carbon taxes climb higher and higher, homeowners all across America start saying, “Time to switch. Time to trade in my natural gas hot water heater, my gas stove, my gas furnace.”

And sixty million homeowners, at roughly the same time, decide they’re ready to switch to heat pumps and electric hot water heaters and electric stoves.

Imagine.  Normal replacement rates will produce about five million furnace changeouts a year, give or take. But thanks to the rising prices created by carbon taxes, the nation would get a massive and totally unwieldy spike in demand. Forty million, fifty million replacements all in the same year. 

America can’t possibly handle that big a spike in demand. Nor should it be asked to handle the crash in demand that would follow the spike. The carbon tax theory – as it would play out in the real world – will inevitably trigger a spike and crash approach to the replacement of fossil fuel technologies.

The spike will be unmanageable because there won't be enough installers.  

In other words, the Carbon Tax Scenario is just dumb. It's so dumb that every cab driver in the country would figure out what’s wrong with it, in a space of about ten minutes, even if the country is filled with economists who haven't thought through the actual dynamics their hare-brained scheme would unleash.

We have to have a plan that works in the real world, which means in a country of a hundred million homes, we have to make sure that five million gas furnaces get retired every year until there aren't any left. 

And we have to do roughly the same with all the country's gas stoves, all the country's gas hot water heaters, and so on.

That’s the real world way in which the journey to a clean energy future moves forward.

Switching out gas-fired appliances for electric-powered appliances, every single time a gas-fired appliance wears out - that's one of the central themes of the journey to a world in which no one needs fossil fuels.  Any longer.  

First, it will have to be illegal to sell new gas hot water heaters from here forward.  To sell new gas furnaces, from here forward. To sell gas stoves, from here forward. Why? Because we already have perfectly serviceable electric-powered alternatives.  If you really like gas stoves, learn just how much control you can get with an induction stove top. It's just as good as gas, and way more patriotic.

And, second, if the clean energy replacement is inherently more costly – as will sometimes be the case – then homeowners in the lower income portions of the workforce will need incentives. The pocketbook costs of Doing The Right Thing will always have to be as affordable as Doing the Wrong Thing would have been.

So. Two key themes define our path forward:

Mandatory Changeouts from yesterday’s Dirty Energy Technologies (ie gas-fired appliances) to the future's Clean Energy Technologies.

And Incentives. So that doing the Right Thing is always as affordable as Doing the Wrong Thing would have been.

There’s a theme here, and by now you’ve surely picked up on it. The journey to a clean energy future succeeds provided: That we phase out every single technology that requires us to use fossil fuels.

In parallel, we commit ourselves to phasing in a complete portfolio of technologies that don’t require any fossil fuels.

 

Bill McKibben tells us that the fossil fuel companies are to blame for global warming, and that we have to make them halt their drilling.

I love McKibben but he clearly hasn’t spent enough time hanging out with cab drivers.  If somewhere along the way he’d picked up a bit more of the realism that ordinary folks have, he'd push harder on all the technology changeouts that go into freeing us from fossil fuels.  Completely.  And forever. 

There’s only one real world way to slow down the oil companies. We slow them down by getting rid of the tech gadgets that require us to buy their product, and by adopting gadgets that deliver the same services without requiring fossil fuels. 

Do that, over and over again, and after a bit we simply won’t need to buy their product any more.

I don’t know why McKibben hasn’t framed humanity’s energy journey in these terms, because this way of framing the journey is the only way that gets us across the finish line.

So. Salute McKibben for his passion and his vision. 

But then grab his passion and use it to motivate our shared journey of phasing out all the technologies that require fossil fuels.  Home and office technologies. Industrial technologies. Transportation technologies. Energy generation teechnologies. 

Jim Hansen tells us that we can call into being the future we need by putting a tax on carbon. Has he visualized the chaos this will cause, when suddenly a rising carbon tax brings sixty million homeowners into the market for heat pumps?  All at the same time? 

The technology changeout journey we’re on has to be thorough. It has to match the commercial rhythms of producers.  And it also has to match the capital budget rhythms of the buyers.

We can’t get buy-in from the American people on this journey if we allow ourselves to be distracted by economists. It's the people who design and manufacture our energy technologies that have put us into our dependence on fossil fuels, and they will also be the ones who develop the new technologies that free us from our dependence on fossil fuels.   

Stop listening to Jim Hansen on carbon taxes. He’s shooting us all in the foot.

Stop listening so reverently to Bill McKibben about divesting from oil companies. It's not nearly as relevant as switching your own home from a gas stove to an electric stove.

Pay attention instead to the folks with clean energy technologies to sell – heat pumps, geothermal heat pumps, electric cars – and figure out how their efforts can be supported.

It’s the clean technology people that will bring us the future we need.

And the nation's legislators - also crucial to bringing us the future we need -  have to step up in two key ways.

First, they need to outlaw the purchase of dirty energy products (e.g. gas hot water heaters) whenever clean energy alternatives are readily available in the market. 

And second, they need to fund the R&D that shows us how to escape from those fossil fuel technologies for which we don't yet have good alternatives. 

We're got a lot of gas-fired technologies we need to get rid of.  And a lot of clean energy technologies we need to adopt. 

The journey to a clean energy future is a technology change-out journey, and that's the theme we should all be championing. 

Everything else is just noise.

 

Steven Howard Johnson.

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