A Harvard University historian of science says that with sufficient political cooperation between governments, it’s possible to generate enough power from renewable sources to meet all of North America’s electricity needs. And that could sharply reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that are linked to climate change.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Naomi Oreskes said that this can be accomplished by focusing on three major areas: integration of electricity grids, feed-in tariffs, and demand-response pricing.
“I’ve got a joke now where I say to people that I’m going to talk to you about something really exciting now: it’s grid integration,” she said with a laugh. Her tone turned serious as she admitted that it’s sometimes difficult to discuss this topic because it doesn’t sound exciting.
If grids were better connected, it would enable B.C. or Quebec hydroelectric power to replace coal-fired power in other provinces and some states. According to Oreskes, research by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Mark Jacobson at Stanford University, and a group at the University of Colorado Boulder shows potential for an even greater impact.
“Imagine now that we have Mexico in the mix as well, and you’ve got all that fantastic solar capacity in the southwest United States and Mexico,” Oreskes said. “They’ve done the modelling to show that there is enough power between hydro, wind, and solar to fully power North America so long as you have grid integration to solve the intermittency problem. That’s actually a very exciting result, because this technology already exists.”
Oreskes was in Vancouver earlier this month to deliver the spring Wall Exchange lecture at the Vogue Theatre. It was sponsored by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.
Feed-in tariffs are payments to people who generate their own renewable energy—perhaps through wind, solar, tidal, or geothermal sources—and flow it back into the grid. The utility, in turn, resells it to another customer. The B.C. Liberal government has refused to implement a feed-in tariff for B.C. Hydro, citing its “efforts to minimize electricity rate increases”.
In Massachusetts where Oreskes lives, the state government limits how much renewable energy that ratepayers can feed back into the grid. She called this "crazy" in light of the threat of climate change.
“We should be encouraging everyone to maximize their distributed-energy potential,” she stated. “There’s a huge amount of untapped potential that’s being blocked by regulatory limits on how much distributed energy people can feed in.”
Demand-response pricing involves adjusting electricity prices depending on overall usage. This offers incentives to people to use power in off-peak periods. B.C. Hydro usually applies “postage-stamp rates”. This means that all customers pay the same rate regardless of where they live, but there are exceptions where some are being subsidized.
After describing these structural issues required to promote the use of more renewable energy, Oreskes quipped: “My slogan is, ‘I can change my light bulbs but I can’t change my electricity grid.’ ”
Oreskes tracked climate-denial movement
Oreskes and another historian of science, Erik Conway, coauthored the widely praised 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues From Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. It was adapted into a documentary feature directed by Robert Kenner.
The book and the film identify a group of American physicists—Fred Singer, Russell Seitz, William Nierenberg, and Robert Jastrow—who played a leading role in creating doubt about climate change, even though they weren’t climate scientists.
“We followed the trail that these men had laid starting from their work at the George Marshall Institute back in the 1980s and found this shocking, rather startling story of serial denialism—denying the scientific evidence related to a whole set of diverse issues that we traced back to tobacco,” Oreskes said. “We were most interested in the question of how prestigious scientists lend credibility to these activities.”
Nowadays, she said, it’s increasingly difficult for climate-change deniers to find credible scientists to back up their claims. She acknowledged that Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is “about the only one left in America”, before adding that he’s “the exception that proves the rule”.
“If you ask the experts—people who do the research, who actually collect the data, who are acknowledged as experts in the field—99.9 percent of those people will tell you climate change is real, it’s happening,” Oreskes stated.
ExxonMobil is under investigation
In the meantime, ExxonMobil and other fossil-fuel companies have come under criticism for concealing what they knew about climate change.
It's prompted attorneys general in some states, including New York and California, to launch investigations. Oreskes said that she's an historian, not a lawyer, so she wouldn't comment on whether companies or other groups broke any laws by denying the potential impact of climate change.
"Many of the strategies and tactics they used were very similar to the strategies and tactics that the tobaccy industry used," she stated. "And many of the same people, think tanks, public-relations groups, advertising groups who worked with or were consulted by the oil and gas industry are the same as the think tanks and p.r. groups that were used by the tobacco industry."
A recent book by New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, exposed how Charles and David Koch went to extreme measures to promote their libertarian political views.
Mayer documented how the Kochs retained private investigators to look into the activities of their critics.
So has Oreskes ever felt that she has come under surveillance by anyone who dislikes her research? "It's funny you asked," she responded, "because if I were to say to people that I thought I was being surveiled or surveyed, people would think I was paranoid. People would think you're a crazy conspiracy theorist. So it's amazing that Jane Mayer has actually documented that some of our worst imaginings...may actually be true."
Oreskes noted that U.S. scientists as well as climate change researchers at the University of East Anglia have come under surveillance. But she said that she doesn't know if she's been targeted in a similar way.
"The only thing I can say for a fact is I did have a huge email crash a few years ago which, when I went to the computer experts at my university—they did think that someone had tried to hack into my email," she said. "Of course, that would not be surprising because we know what's happened to many climate scientists."
Other than that, she added, "I'm not aware of any nefarious cloak-and-dagger activities."