Success at COP21! Now What?

Success at COP21! Now What? | by John Brian Shannon

Sincerest congratulations are due to COP21 (Conference of the Parties) for inking a remarkable agreement to limit global warming to 2 degrees by 2050/2100

It’s a global achievement, one that saw 200 countries come together in a unified purpose to protect our Commons

By agreeing to unprecedented GHG emission targets at COP21 in Paris, world leaders have shown the man-made problems that we alone have created are not above our ability to solve

Our leaders are bigger than our problems — and that is a very comforting sign indeed!

COP21 Paris logo
Following the successful COP21 event, what are the next steps, and which steps will give us the ‘most bang for the buck’ as we pursue our CO2 reductions?

We’ve Got Our CO2 Targets. Now What?

As laudatory as all of that sounds, it begs the question, “Now that we’ve agreed on strict GHG limits, how do we actually set about achieving those limits?”

Listed in the order of maximum effect, irrespective of convenience or cost, the following proposal must rank among the least costly ways to achieve our COP21 targets within the timeframe specified.

ONE: Eliminating coal-fired primary power generation by 2020

By far, coal-fired power generation is the largest single contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and aside from the obvious heavy CO2 load, many toxic gases are produced due to the impurities found in raw coal.

Things like mercury, heavy metals, sulfur and nitrogen when burned, become very toxic and scatter soot and noxious gases over hundreds of square miles, downwind from each coal-fired power station. Gases such as sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and particulate matter (soot) are incredibly damaging to human life, livestock and wildlife, and to agriculture.

Not only that, but billions of dollars of damage to exterior metal and concrete occurs every year due to the effects of coal-fired acid rain hitting everything from bridges to skyscrapers to outdoor art installations.

Read: Harvard Medicine | Full Lifecycle of Coal – Epstein et al

Almost worse, is the heavy water usage (to control coal dust migration and to lower the burn temperature at coal-fired power generation facilities) which average 1100 gallons per MegaWatt(MW) of electricity produced.

For the record, natural gas-fired power generation requires 300 gallons of water per MW, while nuclear power generation uses 800 gallons of water per MW and solar power and wind power generators use 0 gallons per MW.

Water used by power plants
Missed at COP21 — Water usage by power plants.

Another serious problem in regards to coal burning is the disposal of millions of tons of toxic fly ash, which is the ashes left over from burning millions of tons of coal annually.

Each year, millions of tons of toxic fly ash must be cooled, transported tens or hundreds of miles away, and then buried deep underground far from aquifers.

TWO: That’s not to say that the coal industry should die. Far from it. Some of the purest liquid fuels on the planet are already made from coal by employing the Fischer-Tropsch (catalytic) process. Such fuels are known as CTL fuels (Coal-to-Liquid) fuels and are noted for their almost clinical purity

Some countries, notably South Africa, have been blending the very clean-burning CTL fuel (30%) with conventional petroleum-sourced gasoline (70%) since the 1950′s in order to create an exceptionally clean burning gasoline (petrol) for use in cars and trucks. That mixture lowers CO2 and other GHG emissions by more than half with the potential for 50/50 CTL and gasoline blends in the future!

In addition to that, the aviation fuel ‘coal oil’ that is produced from South African coal — is purer and therefore, cleaner-burning than conventional petroleum-sourced ‘kerosene’ aviation fuel.

Over 2% of the world’s CO2 emissions are produced by general aviation. By switching to coal oil blended with conventional kerosene, global aviation emissions would drop by half, or better.

We could decrease our automotive and aviation emissions by half thanks to coal! and instead of witnessing the death of the coal industry, we would witness a coal renaissance!

THREE: All coal-fired power generation over 1MW should be switched to natural gas which upgrade is known as Coal to Gas (CTG). It’s already a mature business model in the U.S. where many coal-fired power plants have been converted to natural gas in order to meet increasingly stringent air quality standards

The benefits of this are quite obvious. All of the infrastructure is already in place to deliver the electricity from the existing power plant to demand centres.

Natural gas-fired power generation (thermal) operates similarly and can use the same facilities as coal-fired power generation.

Natural gas burns up to 1,000,000 times cleaner than lignite coal (brown coal) and up to 10,000 times cleaner than the highest quality black coal (anthracite coal).

The news gets even better for aquatic life as natural gas uses only 300 gallons per MW — and there is no dirty, black, coal-dust-laden water pouring into ditches, streams and rivers downstream from coal mines, coal-fired power stations, and along the thousands of miles of railway tracks that transport coal.

The bigger the natural gas market, the lower the per unit price for natural gas. Until now, natural gas-fired power generation has been used to add expensive ‘peaking power’ to the grid as it can ramp up quickly to provide additional power during peak demand sessions, such as happens when many air conditioning units suddenly switch on in the afternoon.

However, as more coal power stations have converted to natural gas, the (Henry Hub) spot price for natural gas has lowered accordingly. We’re now seeing natural gas prices falling to historic lows (under $2.00) due to increased baseload demand.

FOUR: As great as it is to add biofuel to transportation fuels in order to help them become (much) more clean-burning, all ethanol that is obtained *from corn* must be stopped by 2020

By a significant margin, corn is the worst plant to grow in order to produce biofuel due to the obscene water and pesticide use required to grow corn.

Corn must be replaced with a less demanding crop such as sugarcane. In Brazil, sugarcane is grown for sugar (primarily) and biofuel (secondarily) and the technology has advanced to the point where even the leaves and roots of the plant (the ‘stover’) are used to produce biofuel via the cellulosic biofuel method.

In Brazil, by law, a minimum of 24% of each gallon of gasoline must be bio-ethanol sourced. Costa Rica and some other Latin countries have advanced bio-ethanol programmes and likewise show corresponding drops in vehicle emissions.

Other crops, such as sweet sorghum are even more promising than sugarcane and are only a few years away from making a massive impact as an ethanol feedstock.

By banning corn for biofuel use and replacing it with sugarcane or sweet sorghum, water usage levels would fall by billions of gallons per state, annually. Pesticide use, land management and other environmentally costly processes would be dramatically minimized.

Every gallon of gasoline that is sold in the world should have a 50% biofuel or CTL component and it should be noted that CTL fuels are just as clean-burning as ethanol derived from biofuel crops such as sugarcane or sweet sorghum.

FIVE: The shipping industry produces over 2% of the world’s emissions only because old ships burn incredibly toxic bunker fuel — while newer ships burn clean natural gas. Regulating global shipping to upgrade to natural gas can dramatically lower emission levels across the industry

If these bunker-fuel-burning ships (‘old clunkers’) are no longer allowed in the world’s ports, they will be useless to their owners and will be sold for their scrap metal value.

By recognizing that our use of coal must change by 2020 we can employ natural gas in place of coal for our primary power generation — while adding CTL fuels and 2nd-generation biofuels to our transportation fuel — for a ‘cleaner burn’ to meet our electricity and transportation energy needs while easily meeting our GHG emission reduction goals.

COP21: INDC’s or Deep Decarbonization Pathway?

Originally published at This Is Eisenhower | by John Brian Shannon

coal fired power generation
COP21: Can nations meet their short term CO2 emission targets & the longer term United Nations INDC & Deep Decarbonization Pathway (DDPP) to 2050 targets? File photo: Coal fired power generation. Image Credit Alfred Palmer

COP21: Examining the case for nations to meet reasonable CO2 emission targets by adopting a two-track plan to lower CO2 emission levels, while still adhering to the longer-term INDC model as suggested by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and COP21.

Example: U.S.A. bans coal-burning by 2020

  1. Conversion of all existing coal-fired power plants to natural gas (such conversions are now a mature industry)
  2. CO2 emissions from those converted power stations would drop by half
  3. Eliminating the non-CO2 pollutants and particulate emitted by coal burning — some of which are very toxic to humans, livestock, and agriculture, and damaging to exterior concrete and metal
  4. A total solution to the fly ash disposal problem
  5. Water usage falls from 1100 gallons per MW to 800 gallons per MW
  6. As natural gas becomes a baseload energy, gas prices would stabilize
  7. Healthcare costs would fall
  8. Agriculture costs would fall
  9. Infrastructure costs related to exterior concrete spalling and metal pitting would fall
  10. More coal available for export

Significant progress towards tapering U.S. emission levels would occur by 2020 from a single (and simple) regulatory change.

All of the natural gas-fired power generation extant in America after 2020 would need to continue producing electricity (especially to provide power at night) as more solar and wind power capacity is added to the U.S. grid. Utility companies that invest in natural gas power plants prior to and even after 2020, could therefore be assured their investments would remain as an important partner in the primary energy generation mix.

In addition to the foregoing, the U.S. government should still submit an INDC for 2030 and also submit a non-binding Deep Decarbonization Pathway (DDPP) to 2050 plan.

In that way, the United States could facilitate relatively rapid progress on short term CO2 emission reduction targets/non-CO2 related externalities — and continue to work towards meeting the (long term and non-binding) DDPP targets that are fine-tunable over the coming decades.

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Solar & Wind Catch Up With Coal & Gas

Solar And Wind Catch Up With Coal and Natural Gas Across The Globe

In some regions of the U.S., the cost of utility-scale solar electricity rates are *cheaper than the cost of the fuel alone* for natural-gas plants.
In some regions of the U.S., the cost of utility-scale solar electricity rates are cheaper than the cost of the fuel alone for natural-gas plants. Image courtesy of understandsolar.com

As solar panel prices have decreased by more than 80 percent in the past decade and wind turbines have also seen dramatic price falls, both types of renewable energy have become much more competitive.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels received $583 billion in 2014 globally in subsidies — even as renewable energy continues to receive a much lower level of subsidies ($124 billion in 2014).

Renewable Energy & Natural Gas powered Electricity Grids

Originally published at JBS News by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Clean and Clean-Burn: Energy, the way it should be

Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.
Planetary energy graphic courtesy of Perez and Perez.

Of all the energy that is available to us, solar energy is by far the most available and the most evenly distributed energy resource on planet Earth.

Wind and Solar + natural gas = Synergy

  • Solar is available all day every day. But not at night.
  • Wind is available day and night, but it can produce variable power levels as the wind blows over the landscape.
  • Meanwhile, offshore wind turbines produce constant power, spinning at constant speeds for years at a time — except when an operator locks the blades during large storms or during the annual maintenance inspection.

Both solar power and wind power face varying levels of ‘intermittency‘ — which requires the use of ‘peaking power plants‘ or ‘load-following’ power plants — to meet total demand.

‘Catch my Fall’ — All electrical power generators are inter-dependent

How electricity grids use different power generators to meet total and constantly changing electricity demand.

In the case of renewable energy, the negatives include some variability in the total output of solar power or wind power generation due to temporary cloud cover or storms. At such times, natural gas-fired generation can ramp-up to cover any shortfall.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. Some gas-fired power plants are called peaking power plants which quickly ramp-up to meet output shortfalls. In fact, peaking power plants (which are almost always gas-fired) were created to meet temporary shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

Also in the case of renewable energy, another negative is that the Sun disappears at night and solar panels stop contributing to the grid. And unless you have offshore wind turbines to make up the shortfall, onshore wind turbines may fall short of total demand. So at night, you need reliable power to make up shortfalls in primary generation.

Note: This is a common and daily energy grid practice whether renewable energy is involved or not. To cover this situation load-following power plants were designed to meet larger output shortfalls. In fact, load-following power plants were created to meet larger, daily, shortfalls — and were in widespread use long before renewable energy ever hit the market.

In the case of natural gas, the negative is that gas is subject to wild price swings, thereby making gas-fired generation very expensive. Which is why it evolved into peaking power plants, less often in the load-following role and almost never as a baseload power generator.

The other negative associated with natural gas is of course, the fact that gas turbines put out plenty of CO2. That we can deal with. Unlike coal, where the CO2 portion of the airborne emissions are almost the least of our worries — as coal emissions are loaded with toxic heavy metals, soot and other airborne toxins.

How can we deal with the CO2 emitted by gas-fired peaking power plants?

As gas-fired peaking power plants typically fire up anywhere from a couple of dozen hours annually, to a few hours of every day (usually to cover the additional load of many air conditioners suddenly switching on during hot summer days, for example) we aren’t talking about a whole lot of CO2.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) of gas-fired CO2 emissions via tree planting

  • Peaking power plants operate for a few hours per year. We’re not talking that much CO2.
  • Load-following power plants operate for many hours per year. More CO2.

But still, each mature tree absorbs (a low average of) 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere and keeps it in storage for many decades. Some trees, like the ancient Sequoia trees in California, are 3700 years old and store 26 tons of CO2 each!

And, as anyone who has worked in the forest industry knows; Once that first planting hits maturity (in about 10 years) they will begin dropping their yearly seeds. Some trees like the cottonwood tree produce 1 million seeds annually for the life of the tree. American Elm trees set 5 million seeds per year. More trees. Always good.

It’s an easy calculation: “How many tons of CO2 did ABC gas-fired power plant output last year?”
Therefore: “How many trees do we need to plant, to cover those emissions?”

Simply plant a corresponding number of trees and presto! gas-fired generation is carbon neutral

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired peaking plant contributes and planting enough trees each year to cover their CO2 contribution, it could allow them to become just as carbon neutral as solar panels or wind turbines.

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired peaking power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a relatively small number — per local power plant.

By calculating how many tons each gas-fired load-following power plant contributes and planting enough trees annually to cover their CO2 contribution they too could become just as carbon neutral as solar panels or wind turbines. Many more trees, but still doable and a simple solution!

The total number of trees that we would need to plant in order to draw gas-fired load-following power plant CO2 emissions down to zero would be a much larger number. But NOT an impossible number!

So now is the time to get kids involved as part of their scholastic environmental studies, planting trees one day per month for the entire school year.

Let the peaking and load-following power plants contribute the tree seedlings as part of their media message that the local gas-fired power plant is completely carbon neutral (ta-da!) due to the combined forces of the gas power plant operator, the natural carbon storage attributes of trees, and students.

Up to one million trees could be planted annually if every school (all grades) in North America contributed to the effort — thereby sequestering an amount of CO2 equal to, or greater than, all gas-fired generation on the continent.

It’s so simple when you want something to work. Hallelujah!

Baseload, peaking, and load-following power plants

Historically, natural gas was too expensive to used in baseload power plants due to the wildly fluctuating natural gas pricing and high distribution costs, but it is in wide use around the world in the peaking power plant role, and less often, in the load following power plant role.

Renewable energy power plants can be linked to ‘peaking’ or ‘load-following’ natural gas-fired power plants to assure uninterrupted power flows.

Peaking power plants operate only during times of peak demand.

In countries with widespread air conditioning, demand peaks around the middle of the afternoon, so a typical peaking power plant may start up a couple of hours before this point and shut down a couple of hours after.

However, the duration of operation for peaking plants varies from a good portion of every day to a couple dozen hours per year.

Peaking power plants include hydroelectric and gas turbine power plants. Many gas turbine power plants can be fueled with natural gas or diesel. — Wikipedia

Using natural gas for baseload power

Natural gas has some strong points in its favour. Often it is the case that we can tap into existing underground gas reservoirs by simply drilling a pipe into naturally occurring caverns in the Earth which have filled with natural gas over many millions of years. In such cases, all that is required is some minor processing to remove impurities and adding some moisture and CO2 to enable safe transport (whether by pipeline, railway, or truck) to gas-fired power plants which may be located hundreds of miles away.

It is the natural gas market pricing system that prevents gas from becoming anything other than a stopgap energy generator (read: peaking or load-following) and almost never a baseload energy generator.

Let’s look at local solutions to that problem.

Waste-to-Fuels

Several corporations are working with local governments to find innovative ways to capture landfill gas to produce electricity from it.

Increasingly, landfills are now installing perforated pipes underground which draw the landfill gas (so-called ‘swamp methane’) to an on-site processing facility. It is a low-grade gas which is then blended with conventional natural gas to create an effective transportation or power generation fuel.

Waste Management Industries is a global leader in the implementation of this technology, using its own landfills and municipal landfills across North America to produce over 550 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 440,000 homes. This amount of energy is equivalent to offsetting over 2.2 million tons of coal per year. Many more similar operations are under construction as you read this.

Aquatera gives us another great example of how to turn a mundane landfill site into a valuable and clean Waste-to-Fuel resource.

Durban, South Africa, a city of 3.5 million people, has created a huge Waste-to-Fuel landfill power plant that provides electricity to more than 5000 nearby homes.

Durban Solid Waste (DSW) receives 4000 tons of trash per day which produces some 2600 cubic metres of gas daily.

The GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant arrives in 4 large shipping containers, and once connected to the gas supply pipeline it is ready to power nearby buildings and to sell surplus power to the grid.

One GE Clean Cycle Waste-to-Fuel power plant unit can generate 1 million kWh per year from waste heat and avoid more than 350 metric tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the emissions of almost 200 cars.

Blending Conventional Natural Gas with Landfill Gas

As conventional natural gas is expensive (and much of the cost is associated with transportation of the gas over long distances) when we blend it 50/50 with landfill gas, we drop the cost of the gas by half. Thereby making blended natural gas (from two very different sources) more competitive as a power generation fuel.

By blending conventional natural gas 50/50 with landfill gas; We could produce baseload power with it — but more likely than that, we could use it to produce reasonably-priced load-following or peaking power to augment existing and future renewable energy power plants — rather than allow all that raw methane from landfills to escape into the atmosphere.

Best of Both Worlds — Renewable Energy and Natural Gas

Partnering renewable energy with natural gas in this way allows each type of power generator to work to their best strength — while countering negatives associated with either renewable energy or natural gas.

Renewable power generation and lower cost natural gas can work together to make coal-fired electrical power generation obsolete and accelerate progress toward our clean air goals.

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Natural Gas, Fuel of the Future or Methane Menace?

by John Brian Shannon
Originally published at johnbrianshannon.com

While Natural Gas has been touted as the ‘bridge fuel towards a clean energy future‘ three major drawbacks have caused concern in recent months. The first is, of course, the negatives surrounding natural gas fracking which has been well covered by the media and I’m not going to repeat all that has been said on that account.

Rather, I will concentrate of the largely unreported issues of massive methane leaks escaping natural gas well heads, called ‘fugitive emissions’ and the practice of ‘flaring’ at natural gas wells.

Over a 100-year timeframe, methane is about 35 times as potent as a climate change-driving greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and over 20 years, it’s 84 times more potent.

Natural gas drilling could emit up to 1,000 times the methane previously thought, possibly significantly increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of the production of natural gas, the study shows. — Climate Central

There’s no doubt that natural gas has the capacity to be a cleaner fuel than coal and the various fuels that can be obtained from crude oil such as gasoline and diesel. But it isn’t.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is two-fold. Problem number one is methane leakage at natural gas wells, and problem number two is the ongoing practice of natural gas flaring at well heads, distribution centres and gas processing facilities.

Methane emissions from improperly sealed natural gas wellheads, combined with natural gas flaring near well heads, dramatically lowers the advantage of ‘clean’ natural gas as compared to ‘dirty’ coal and crude oil.

Natural gas as a means to produce electricity is being hailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as the fuel that can act as a “bridge” between carbon-heavy coal and zero-carbon renewables, helping to reduce humans’ impact on the climate. 

The idea is that burning natural gas involves fewer greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. The IPCC in its Working Group III report says natural gas as a bridge fuel will only be effective if few gases escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production and distribution. —

Natural gas has the potential to be 1 million times cleaner than coal or crude oil based fuels if gas industry best practices are employed. But the present situation is so bad that (low carbon) natural gas airborne emissions are almost on par with (high carbon) coal and crude oil airborne emissions — once you factor everything into the equation.

A typical natural gas drilling rig. Credit: EPA

Why not properly seal the well heads?

Cost. Many gas drilling and extraction companies would like to hermetically seal their well heads to lower the death and injury rates of their workers due to raw gas exposure, to enhance overall gas recovery, decrease the waste of an incredibly useful fuel — and to lower emission levels thereby enhancing the reputation of gas as a 21st-century clean energy solution.

The reason companies won’t spend the extra ($100,000 on average) per well head (to fully encase the pipe in concrete slurry) is that shareholders don’t want lowered dividends. Nor do companies want to become less competitive as compared to the ones that don’t seal their well heads. To put this in some kind of perspective within the gas industry, some gas drilling/extraction operators have hundreds of well heads, while others only have tens of well heads.

At the end of it all, it turns out that improperly sealed natural gas wells and natural gas flaring are negating almost all of the benefits of super clean, natural gas — as compared to coal and crude oil sourced fuels.

Feel free to facepalm now.

Why not stop flaring at natural gas well heads?

Every natural gas well head must deal with pressure variables and with the normally-occurring contaminants found in natural gas. This is done onsite in a process known as flaring which is an incredibly toxic way of dealing with the problem of temporary pressure spikes and natural gas contaminants.

Flares burn off excess methane at an oil and gas field. Credit: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Contaminants in raw natural gas

Raw natural gas typically consists primarily of methane (CH4), the shortest and lightest hydrocarbon molecule. It also contains varying amounts of:

The raw natural gas must be purified to meet the quality standards specified by the major pipeline transmission and distribution companies. Those quality standards vary from pipeline to pipeline and are usually a function of a pipeline system’s design and the markets that it serves. In general, the standards specify that the natural gas:

  • Be within a specific range of heating value (caloric value). For example, in the United States, it should be about 1035 ± 5% BTU per cubic foot of gas at 1 atmosphere and 60°F (41 MJ ± 5% per cubic metre of gas at 1 atmosphere and 15.6°C).
  • Be delivered at or above a specified hydrocarbon dew point temperature (below which some of the hydrocarbons in the gas might condense at pipeline pressure forming liquid slugs that could damage the pipeline).
  • Dew-point adjustment serves the reduction of the concentration of water and heavy hydrocarbons in natural gas to such an extent that no condensation occurs during the ensuing transport in the pipelines
  • Be free of particulate solids and liquid water to prevent erosion, corrosion or other damage to the pipeline.
  • Be dehydrated of water vapor sufficiently to prevent the formation of methane hydrates within the gas processing plant or subsequently within the sales gas transmission pipeline. A typical water content specification in the U.S. is that gas must contain no more than seven pounds of water per million standard cubic feet (MMSCF) of gas.
  • Contain no more than trace amounts of components such as hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, mercaptans, and nitrogen. The most common specification for hydrogen sulfide content is 0.25 grain H2S per 100 cubic feet of gas, or approximately 4 ppm. Specifications for CO2 typically limit the content to no more than two or three percent.Maintain mercury at less than detectable limits (approximately 0.001 ppb by volume) primarily to avoid damaging equipment in the gas processing plant or the pipeline transmission system from mercury amalgamation and embrittlement of aluminum and other metals — (from Wikipedia)

All of these contaminants are burned off during flaring. The problem is that it is a very incomplete burning cycle, one that is millions of times dirtier than the exhaust that exits your car tailpipe. Indeed historically, there have been many cases where people — or even large numbers of cattle or other livestock — living downwind of flaring stacks have died from breathing the partially burned gas.

Legislation is the obvious solution, but how?

If one state legislates against fugitive emissions from well heads and against the practice of natural gas flaring — all of the gas wells in that state will simply be capped and all gas-related economic and energy activity will cease within that state. That’s how competitive the gas industry is.

In North America for example, if the United States legislates against fugitive emissions and natural gas flaring, the flight of capital and natural gas companies to Canada would result in a huge economic boom for Canada and a dramatic loss for the United States. The reverse is also true.

The Only Solution is a Continental Solution

Therefore, there can only be one solution to the problem — and that is a continental solution to fugitive emissions and to natural gas flaring — whether this is done under the auspices of a Free Trade Agreement or as a standalone convention, it is high-time for such legislation to be passed.

It doesn’t need to be a policy masterpiece nor does it need to be technically perfect. It needs to stipulate one uniform standard that applies to all natural gas drilling/extraction/refining and transportation systems.

Above all else, it needs to be done. Now.