Guest blog by Marc Elpel, September 27, 2014
The Climate Change argument has shifted from theory to reality, and we are now facing the initial impacts of increasingly erratic storms, floods, droughts, and forest fires. We are responding to the crisis with united apathy, as if saving ourselves isn’t worth the trouble. Sometimes the problem seems too big to tackle. We are so dependent on fossil fuel vehicles, for example, that it seems nearly impossible to do anything about it in any meaningful timeframe. Most of us cannot afford a $75,000 Tesla to commute to work, nor can we cover the upfront financial commitment to “go solar” at home. We wait for the promise of high-efficiency cars and cheap solar power, but we otherwise do nothing while news reports grow more dire every day. And yet, we can offset all carbon emissions from automobiles at a ridiculously affordable price. It is really a question of priorities: would you pay 12¢ to change the course of global warming?
As a country we are set in our ways. We have our cars, and our lifestyles are based on commuting and travel. Climate change reports inform us of the problem, but we still need to commute to work, so we continue pumping gas, and the climate issues continue to compound. Since we have not stopped driving, I set out to answer the question ‘What is the “carbon cost” of a gallon of gasoline?’ In other words, if we have to use gas until we have a better option, what is the environmental impact of the carbon in the gas, and can I do something about it?
Through miracles in chemistry, each gallon of gas (weighing about 6.3 pounds) creates approximately 20 pounds of carbon, and 7 pounds of water. The carbon numbers change depending on various factors, including type of fuel, octane rating, and calculation approximations. For calculations we will use 20 pounds of carbon per gallon.
Carbon cost as represented by web sites selling carbon offsets run approximately $5 to 6 per thousand pounds of carbon . Using $6.00 per thousand pounds, we find the cost per gallon is 20 pounds carbon times $6.00 per 1000 pounds, or $0.12 per gallon. At 12 cents per gallon of gas we offset the carbon burned driving “carbon neutral.” With a national average gas price of $3.65 per gallon, 12 cents represents 3% of the cost per gallon.
In 2012, USA annual gas usage was 133 billion (133,000,000,000!) gallons. At 12 cents surcharge per gallon, we would have $16 billion in carbon offset money available for reforestation and purchasing renewable energy. While this money could be applied to all forms of carbon reduction, we can look at applying all of that amount to solar installations to see how far it goes. Note that this analysis can be performed for wind or hydroelectric… the numbers shift slightly but conclusions remain the same.
Utility scale installed solar power cost has dropped to $2.10 per watt . Using $16 billion annually from a 12 cent surcharge on fuel, we could purchase 7,600,000 KW of installed solar, for an annual production of 13,832,000,000 KWH of power! (See reference  for calculations between installed watts and kilowatts per year.) The average household power usage in the US is 10,837 KWH, so in one year we can switch over 1.2 million homes to clean solar energy. Each year, we could switch another 1.2 million homes to solar if the $16 billion in revenue stayed constant. If we leverage the money by paying half of the install cost for utility companies we can expand that number to 2.4 million households per year or approximately 2% of the homes in the USA converted to solar each year. Within 10 years, with no other actions taken, we will have converted ~20% of the entire country’s residential power needs to solar (or wind, or hydroelectric…)!
As we try to deal with climate change, politicians debate whether we “can afford” the costs of the environmental impact. They argue we will lose our competitive edge in world markets if we go green. And while they debate the important issues of more efficient vehicle standards and new power regulations, we continue down the road to our demise. So what about the 12 cent cost? Can we afford the 12 cents? For individuals who fear the extra gas cost, this 3% can be made up (and more!) by slowing down 5 MPH. The fueleconomy.gov web site states: “You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.24 per gallon for gas”. If you can’t slow down, then carpool once per month and you offset the usage as well. Combine trips to the store, or commute off hours when traffic is less. Offsetting a 3% surcharge means going from 29 to 30 MPG… an almost undetectable change in driving habits.
The economic impacts of offsetting our gas usage will lower our dependence on foreign oil and will generate jobs in building and maintaining renewable energy utilities. Funds can also support private solar installations and help individuals bring their power bills to zero. Funds used in planting trees will enhance open space and parks used by all, while lowering summer temperatures in our towns and cities, further reducing climate change caused by coal fired electric generation. One might even argue that lowering our oil needs by installation of more renewable energy will ultimately lower the price per gallon, making fuel less expensive in the future. And ultimately, back to where we started, immediately responding to global warming will reduce the enormous financial cost otherwise required to respond to climate change impacts.
Solving the climate change impact from transportation does not require waiting for better cars – we have a solution available today to immediately mitigate the real time impact of our gasoline addiction.
Place a carbon surcharge of 12 cents on each gallon and use the proceeds to invest in renewable energy. As a country, tying the environmental cost of gas to its use allows us to react today and reinvest in a greener future. Cities (such as Los Angeles) can implement this ahead of the federal government, immediately using their transportation challenges to solve their local power and environmental needs.
We may not all be able to trade in our vehicles for clean transportation today, but as a society we can take this simple action and dramatically change our future.
America has some of the cleanest cities in the world as we as individuals, and as a society, clean‐up after ourselves. We have recycling policies and incentives, and core charges to ensure old batteries stay out of landfills. Yet while we would not consider dropping garbage as we go, when faced with the largest manmade ecological disaster of human history, we spew our carbon without regard to the pollution we leave behind. Initially we did not know – or did not understand – the impact and consequences of our emissions. Now that we do, is it not worth twelve cents to save the planet?
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