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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Jock Gill: Climate crisis requires us to become carbon negative

This commentary is by Jock Gill, of Peacham, an internet communications consultant who served in President Bill Clinton’s Office of Media Affairs. He is town energy coordinator in Peacham.

Vermont, and the developed world in general, has failed to come to grips with the fact that, even if we could reach zero emissions in the next 30 years, the present official goal, it would be too little too late. Worse, this goal simply ignores the real source of our climate crisis: as of November, 411 ppm carbon dioxide is already in the atmosphere. The basic fact is that the only viable solution to our climate crisis requires us to become carbon NEGATIVE in the very near future, perhaps less than 20 years. That is, we must find ways to draw down more than we emit or we will suffer from serious climate degradation/disruption.

Think of it this way, if we emit more than we draw down, it will be impossible to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, much less get it back to a healthy 300 ppm.  This is not rocket science.

The logic here is this: If too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere are the  fundamental problem driving the climate crisis, then eliminating emissions does nothing to address the core problem. All that eliminating emissions does is to make it easier to draw down the excess greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Eliminating emissions has to be on the critical path, and is essential, but far from sufficient. We must both draw down and eliminate emissions. A tall order.

Vermont could, for example, study the working projects in Sweden and Finland that use the gases from pyrolysis to heat water for carbon negative district heating. This is a win-win-win approach Vermont could take that would support a switch to hydronic heating as well. Importantly, this is a “show me, don’t tell me” solution that is already working today.

In Sweden and Finland, biochar producers are not just creating charcoal products, but also exporting the heat produced by the process to feed local district heating systems. By siphoning the heat from this process, local energy producers are able to create a remarkable virtuous circle with a new source of energy to warm local homes. ”

In a word, the work in Sweden and Finland is creating carbon negative heating. That is, the Finns and Swedes are sequestering carbon that would otherwise return to the atmosphere.

Other possible feedstocks for pyrolytic district heating that could be investigated are sewage sludge and grass mowed to keep the fields open and create some economic activity for farmers.

I can imagine local town heating plants that could provide underground 1) hot water for heating, 2) electrical services; and 3) fiber optic communications to participating buildings. In essence, such an integrated approach would be a three-way microgrid. Perhaps such a “town power station” could also include some photovoltaic and batteries for year-round back up. For the record, Green Mountain Power believes that local microgrids are the future for local energy systems.

Or, what if we discard the notion of renewable energy credits (RECs) altogether? Perhaps RECs are at best a first order approximation? We clearly want green energy.  RECs create brown energy — not what we want. We might want to look at the ability of all producers to sell electrons to others as a next step beyond selling RECs. We will also have to incentivize people connecting their EV batteries to the grid (V2G) — after all it is their private capital that acquired the rolling batteries. I see no way the RECs work well with EV batteries — especially if the goals is green electrons.

I have to ask where is the drive in Vermont to drawdown excess greenhouse gases? Where are the policies, incentives and education supporting drawdown and the innovative new ideas we require to address our climate challenges?

This is no time to think small. As they say, go big or go home.

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