Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Renewable water woes

Solar thermal technology use large mirrors to focus the suns rays to create steam that drives generators to produce electricity. They make the most economical sense when built at utility (megawatt) scale. A number of projects are on the drawing board for construction in the deserts of the U.S. southwest.

Because these facilities achieve very high temperatures, they must be cooled. And therein lies a dilemma. Water-cooled systems are the cheapest method for cooling. They enable many solar thermal technologies to compete economically with other energy sources. But water is a very valuable commodity out west.

The challenge: can these systems be built and operated sustainable? (GW)

Alternative Energy Projects Stumble on a Need for Water

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. — In a rural corner of Nevada reeling from the recession, a bit of salvation seemed to arrive last year. A German developer, Solar Millennium, announced plans to build two large solar farms here that would harness the sun to generate electricity, creating hundreds of jobs.

But then things got messy. The company revealed that its preferred method of cooling the power plants would consume 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, about 20 percent of this desert valley’s available water.

Now Solar Millennium finds itself in the midst of a new-age version of a Western water war. The public is divided, pitting some people who hope to make money selling water rights to the company against others concerned about the project’s impact on the community and the environment.

“I’m worried about my well and the wells of my neighbors,” George Tucker, a retired chemical engineer, said on a blazing afternoon.

Here is an inconvenient truth about renewable energy: It can sometimes demand a huge amount of water. Many of the proposed solutions to the nation’s energy problems, from certain types of solar farms to biofuel refineries to cleaner coal plants, could consume billions of gallons of water every year.

“When push comes to shove, water could become the real throttle on renewable energy,” said Michael E. Webber, an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin who studies the relationship between energy and water.

Conflicts over water could shape the future of many energy technologies. The most water-efficient renewable technologies are not necessarily the most economical, but water shortages could give them a competitive edge.

In California, solar developers have already been forced to switch to less water-intensive technologies when local officials have refused to turn on the tap. Other big solar projects are mired in disputes with state regulators over water consumption.

To date, the flashpoint for such conflicts has been the Southwest, where dozens of multibillion-dollar solar power plants are planned for thousands of acres of desert. While most forms of energy production consume water, its availability is especially limited in the sunny areas that are otherwise well suited for solar farms.

At public hearings from Albuquerque to San Luis Obispo, Calif., local residents have sounded alarms over the impact that this industrialization will have on wildlife, their desert solitude and, most of all, their water.

Joni Eastley, chairwoman of the county commission in Nye County, Nev., which includes Amargosa Valley, said at one hearing that her area had been “inundated” with requests from renewable energy developers that “far exceed the amount of available water.”

Many projects involve building solar thermal plants, which use cheaper technology than the solar panels often seen on roofs. In such plants, mirrors heat a liquid to create steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. As in a fossil fuel power plant, that steam must be condensed back to water and cooled for reuse.

The conventional method is called wet cooling. Hot water flows through a cooling tower where the excess heat evaporates along with some of the water, which must be replenished constantly. An alternative, dry cooling, uses fans and heat exchangers, much like a car’s radiator. Far less water is consumed, but dry cooling adds costs and reduces efficiency — and profits.

The efficiency problem is especially acute with the most tried-and-proven technique, using mirrors arrayed in long troughs. “Trough technology has been more financeable, but now trough presents a separate risk — water,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, a London research firm.

That could provide opportunities for developers of photovoltaic power plants, which take the type of solar panels found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. They are typically more expensive and less efficient than solar thermal farms but require a relatively small amount of water, mainly to wash the panels.

In California alone, plans are under way for 35 large-scale solar projects that, in bright sunshine, would generate 12,000 megawatts of electricity, equal to the output of about 10 nuclear power plants.

Their water use would vary widely. BrightSource Energy’s dry-cooled Ivanpah project in Southern California would consume an estimated 25 million gallons a year, mainly to wash mirrors. But a wet-cooled solar trough power plant barely half Ivanpah’s size proposed by the Spanish developer Abengoa Solar would draw 705 million gallons of water in an area of the Mojave Desert that receives scant rainfall.

One of the most contentious disputes is over a proposed wet-cooled trough plant that NextEra Energy Resources, a subsidiary of the utility giant FPL Group, plans to build in a dry area east of Bakersfield, Calif.

NextEra wants to tap freshwater wells to supply the 521 million gallons of cooling water the plant, the Beacon Solar Energy Project, would consume in a year, despite a state policy against the use of drinking-quality water for power plant cooling.

Mike Edminston, a city council member from nearby California City, warned at a hearing that groundwater recharge was already “not keeping up with the utilization we have.”

The fight over water has moved into the California Legislature, where a bill has been introduced to allow renewable energy power plants to use drinking water for cooling if certain conditions are met.

“By allowing projects to use fresh water, the bill would remove any incentives that developers have to use technologies that minimize water use,” said Terry O’Brien, a California Energy Commission deputy director.

NextEra has resisted using dry cooling but is considering the feasibility of piping in reclaimed water. “At some point if costs are just layered on, a project becomes uncompetitive,” said Michael O’Sullivan, a senior vice president at NextEra.

Water disputes forced Solar Millennium to abandon wet cooling for a proposed solar trough power plant in Ridgecrest, Calif., after the water district refused to supply the 815 million gallons of water a year the project would need. The company subsequently proposed to dry cool two other massive Southern California solar trough farms it wants to build in the Mojave Desert.

“We will not do any wet cooling in California,” said Rainer Aringhoff, president of Solar Millennium’s American operations. “There are simply no plants being permitted here with wet cooling.”

One solar developer, BrightSource Energy, hopes to capitalize on the water problem with a technology that focuses mirrors on a tower, producing higher-temperature steam than trough systems. The system can use dry cooling without suffering a prohibitive decline in power output, said Tom Doyle, an executive vice president at BrightSource.

The greater water efficiency was one factor that led VantagePoint Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, to invest in BrightSource. “Our approach is high sensitivity to water use,” said Alan E. Salzman, VantagePoint’s chief executive. “We thought that was going to be huge differentiator.”

Even solar projects with low water consumption face hurdles, however. Tessera Solar is planning a large project in the California desert that would use only 12 million gallons annually, mostly to wash mirrors. But because it would draw upon a severely depleted aquifer, Tessera may have to buy rights to 10 times that amount of water and then retire the pumping rights to the water it does not use. For a second big solar farm, Tessera has agreed to fund improvements to a local irrigation district in exchange for access to reclaimed water.

“We have a challenge in finding water even though we’re low water use,” said Sean Gallagher, a Tessera executive. “It forces you to do some creative deals.”

In the Amargosa Valley, Solar Millennium may have to negotiate access to water with scores of individuals and companies who own the right to stick a straw in the aquifer, so to speak, and withdraw a prescribed amount of water each year.

“There are a lot of people out here for whom their water rights are their life savings, their retirement,” said Ed Goedhart, a local farmer and state legislator, as he drove past pockets of sun-beaten mobile homes and luminescent patches of irrigated alfalfa. Farmers will be growing less of the crop, he said, if they decide to sell their water rights to Solar Millennium.

“We’ll be growing megawatts instead of alfalfa,” Mr. Goedhart said.

While water is particularly scarce in the West, it is becoming a problem all over the country as the population grows. Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, predicted that as intensive renewable energy development spreads, water issues will follow.

“When we start getting 20 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent of our power from renewables,” Mr. Kammen said, “water will be a key issue.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Once the windmills start turning, it will rain much less"

China is now the world's leading energy producer. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the percentage of coal in China's total energy consumption dropped from 95 percent in 1952 to 68.7 percent, and that of petroleum increased 14.6 percent. The combined proportion of hydroelectric, nuclear and wind energy went up by 11.7 percent. Moreover, China's wind energy production, which has doubled for the last three years, ranks as fourth largest in the world.

Just how far can they/will they go with their commitment to wind energy? Some observers are concerned that in their zeal to deploy wind turbines as fast as possible -- a laudable goal given China's historic dependence on coal -- that issues around the quality of the turbines and siting could surface in the future. (GW)

China sees unfulfilled potential in the wind

By Calum MacLeod
USA Today
September 28, 2009

CAMEL MOUNTAIN, China — Among the many people with concerns about the enormous wind turbines being built here, count Jing Xiuwan.

"Once the windmills start turning, it will rain much less," says Jing, 56, a farmer. "Everyone is worried."

That's a myth — a common one in China. Yet the Chinese government and industry groups have legitimate worries about a wind power grid that they say has expanded too fast and with too little regulation.

China, the world's third-largest economy, has made green energy a priority.

The country has doubled its capacity for wind-generated power every year for the past four years, and President Hu Jintao pledged last week to turn to more sources of renewable energy in coming years.

However, many wind farms have been built far from populated areas or transmission grids, making their output largely useless for now. The China Electricity Council, a national industry group, says 28% of the country's wind power equipment sat idle at the end of 2008.

China's Cabinet declared last month that it would find ways to curb overcapacity and duplicated construction in the wind sector.

Coal provides 80% of China's electricity and much of its pollution. China's fast economic growth in recent decades has put the country ahead of the USA as the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas from coal.

Wind power provides 0.4% of China's electricity supply, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.

That compares with a little more than 1% in the USA, according to the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade group.

Wang Yuxuan, an environmental scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing, says the potential for wind power in China is virtually limitless.

"In terms of both theory and resources, it is possible for China to meet all its electricity needs by 2030 from wind power," says Wang, part of a team from Tsinghua and Harvard universities that released a report this month on the possibilities for wind-generated electricity.

China would have to maintain its steep subsidies for wind power plus invest a total of $900 billion over the next 20 years, the report said.

The shift could cut 30% of China's carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, the report predicted.

Other experts are more skeptical. A study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences estimates that wind-powered electricity will reach 10% of the total supply by 2030, says Li Jianlin, a wind power expert at the academy.

"Connecting the wind farms to national electric grids is very difficult and expensive," he says. "Also, most of our wind farms are located in remote areas where the (power) grid is weak."

The facility at Camel Mountain may enjoy better prospects, because it is the first wind farm near Dalian, a relatively prosperous coastal city that hosted a meeting this month of the World Economic Forum.

In contrast, the Helanshan wind farm in northwestern Ningxia province is more typical — it lies far from China's booming cities in a windy, but isolated, area.

"We're located far from the main (power) grid. So at first, our electricity supply was weak and our costs high, but recent adjustments have improved our distribution," says Li Gening, who works at Helanshan.

Many projects have been built on sites with less consistent winds and are less productive, says Anders Brendstrup,a Beijing-based executive at Camco China,a clean energy company.

In windy Inner Mongolia, several projects that were slated to be connected to the grid next year will be delayed until 2013, he says.

The popular misconceptions about the wind farms may be easier to solve, Wang says.

She compares the concerns over the wind farms' impact in China to worries in the West that they "will hurt birds or be noisy."

"Wind farms will not influence rainfall," she says. "Our government should tell the farmers not to worry."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Humanity must stay within the defined boundaries of Earth's natural processes

Gaia is firing some serious warning shots about the state of the atmosphere. Her timing seems to be just in time to remind world leaders how serious the situation is before they convene at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December to decide on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. (GW)

Ancient glaciers are disappearing faster than ever

By Michael McCarthy
The Independent
September 24, 2009

Satellite laser measurements show change in environment for the first time

Melting ice is pouring off Greenland and Antarctica into the sea far faster than was previously realised because of global warming, new scientific research reveals today.

The accelerating loss from the world's two great land-based ice sheets means a rise in sea levels is likely to happen even more quickly than UN scientists suggested only two years ago, the findings by British scientists suggest.

Although floating ice, such as that in the Arctic Ocean, does not add to sea-level rise when it melts as it is already displacing its own mass in the water, melting ice from the land raises the global sea level directly. At present it is thought that land-based ice melt accounts for about 1.8mm of the current annual sea level rise of 3.2mm - the rest is coming from the fact that water expands in volume as it warms. But the new findings, published online today in the journal Nature, imply that this rate is likely to increase.

High-resolution satellite laser measurements have shown that along both the Greenland and Antarctic coastlines, the glaciers and ice streams which for thousands of years have slowly carried ice into the sea are now rapidly thinning, meaning they are speeding up in their flow. In both cases, the increased flow rate is extending back far into the ice sheets' interior.

This is happening all the way around Greenland, even at the high northern latitudes, and around much of Antarctica, especially in West Antarctica and around the Antarctic Peninsula.

Areas around the Greenland coast are hotspots of glacier thinning - in some cases the glacier surface level is dropping at a rate of half a metre per year, while in others it is a remarkable rate of a metre and a half.

It is the first time that a comprehensive view of the rate of thinning - and thus ice loss - all the way around the coast has been made possible. It has been put together by Hamish Pritchard and his colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Bristol, by analysing millions of measurements from Nasa's high-resolution ICESat (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite).

Launched in January 2003, ICESat examines changes in the world's ice and land masses. The satellite's lasers have measured the surface elevation of the Earth's ice sheets with unprecedented accuracy - and thus picked up how they are changing.

"The fact that the changes are so large is alarming, and you wonder how far they will go," Dr Pritchard said. "The thinning effect must be relatively recent, as it is so strong that it could not have been sustained previously without the glaciers melting away."

The scientists compared the rates of change in elevation of both fast-flowing and slow-flowing ice. In Greenland, they studied 111 fast-moving glaciers and found 81 thinning at rates twice that of slow-flowing ice at the same altitude. They found that ice loss from many glaciers in both Antarctica and Greenland is greater than the rate of snowfall further inland.

In Antarctica, some of the fastest thinning glaciers are in the west, where the Pine Island, Smith and Thwaites Glaciers are thinning by up to nine metres per year.

"We were surprised to see such a strong pattern of thinning glaciers across such large areas of coastline - it's widespread and in some cases thinning extends hundreds of kilometres inland," Dr Pritchard said. "This kind of ice loss is so poorly understood that it remains the most unpredictable part of future sea level rise."

Humanity must stay within the defined boundaries of several of the Earth's natural processes or face catastrophe, a group of leading environmental scientists warns today. The scientists, who include James Hansen of Nasa, the world's leading climatologist, suggest in the journal Nature that nine Earth-system processes are among the planetary boundaries: climate change, ocean acidification, interference with the global cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus, freshwater use, changes in land use, atmospheric aerosol loading, chemical pollution and rate of biodiversity loss.

For three of these - the nitrogen cycle, the rate at which species are being lost and anthropogenic climate change - they argue that the acceptable boundary level has already been passed. In addition, they say that humanity is fast approaching the boundaries for freshwater use, for converting forests and other natural ecosystems to cropland, for acidification of the oceans and for the phosphorous cycle.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Rube Goldberg approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Carbon-trading is being proposed as one of the most potentially effective means for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. One reason for its appeal among industrialized nations is its "free market approach". The belief that markets will provide the best solutions to the climate change problem is problematic at best.

Many (myself included) are rightfully suspicious of a scheme whose design is open to manipulation on a number of levels and would prefer a more straightforward approach to the problem. A carbon tax that would be used to investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies is a preferred path. (GW)

The possibility of carbon-trading fraud elbows into Senate debate

Joel Kirkland

E&E Daily
September 25, 2009

A year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers touched off a global crisis, concern that wild financial speculation and trading abuses would undermine a U.S. greenhouse gas emissions market has put the "trade" part of the proposed national cap-and-trade program on trial.

Distrust of commodity traders and suspicion about the motives behind Wall Street's brassy support for a sprawling global market are fueling skepticism on both the political left and right that trading emissions allowances can curb the economic cost of addressing climate change.

In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee on Tuesday, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission sought to allay concern on Capitol Hill that policymakers have been too slow to push unregulated financial trading onto commodity exchanges and under federal oversight.

"The law must cover the entire marketplace, without exception," Gary Gensler assured lawmakers. Agriculture committees in the House and Senate are poring over the Obama administration's plan for regulating over-the-counter (OTC) derivative contracts, such as commodity "swaps" traded by financial brokers.

The freewheeling financial dealing eluded regulators and was blamed for runaway energy prices and unscrupulous trading practices in recent years. From the perspective of the Senate's toughest critics of using a cap-and-trade program to combat global warming, the size and scope of a potential carbon market look too much like those of the market that created mortgage securities and credit default swaps that collapsed the housing bubble.

"Cap and tax is going to be a recipe for green-collar crime, for greed and for abuse," declared Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) last week. "I'm very concerned that any 'cap and tax' scheme is simply going to benefit the same Wall Street elite who got us in this financial mess we're in today."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, echoed Barrasso's comments at a Sept. 15 hearing. She warned that a new trillion-dollar carbon allowance and offset credit market will be "securitized, derivatized and speculated by Wall Street like the mortgage-backed securities."

The House in June adopted a cap-and-trade bill meant to ratchet down carbon dioxide emissions. The White House and groups supporting the concept say the market-based approach is an efficient way to control the cost of meeting mandatory emissions limits.

Under the program, the government sets an emissions limit and distributes tradable credits to electric utilities, industrial plants and other major emitters. If a company exceeds its emissions cap, it must buy additional carbon allowances on an open commodity market, where prices fluctuate. A coal-fired power plant that can't cut its emissions can also purchase "offsets," which support clean-energy projects that need financial capital. That global market for carbon allowances is valued in the trillions of dollars.

Supporters point to the cap-and-trade program adopted in the 1990s for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that cause acid rain. Public health benefits have been high, and at a far lower cost than anticipated.

But a deep well of skepticism has emerged in the Senate about whether the same environmental program should be applied to a far bigger carbon market.

"I assure you, with trillions of dollars roaming around, there are hucksters all over this world that can figure out a way to benefit," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) told his colleagues on the Senate panel, suggesting offsets bought by U.S. companies could end up financing fraudulent environmental projects in other parts of the world.

The most efficient solution or a vehicle for manipulation?

Corker likens the cap-and-trade plan to the Rube Goldberg cartoons of the early 20th century. Goldberg drew complicated, byzantine machines designed to do simple tasks.

But alongside the rhetorical flourish that colors the debate are ongoing policy discussions among U.S. regulators at the CFTC and Securities and Exchange Commission about how to put controls on energy commodity trading before carbon credits become the next big asset class for Wall Street investors. If trading proliferates and little-understood financial products are created to carry carbon contracts, the concern is that carbon prices could go through the roof.

Congress is expected to tee up financial regulatory reform after health care. Strengthening oversight of energy futures and derivatives that trade on electronic platforms, and not regulated exchanges, is seen as a big first step to boost confidence in regulators and close regulatory gaps before they emerge.

Following the U.S. Treasury Department's lead, CFTC and SEC officials say they intend to tighten the screws on fraud and market manipulation, but still keep the door open for Wall Street and money managers to put financial heft behind a carbon credit trading market. Off-exchange electronic trading could be where a lot of that trading is done.

Gensler has reiterated support for ensuring that all standard commodity futures contracts trade on regulated exchanges such as the New York Mercantile Exchange, including carbon futures and options contracts, and as is the case with sulfur dioxide credits traded under the acid rain program. In addition, regulating dealers of over-the-counter derivative contracts would open customized financial products to regulatory scrutiny. He also targeted electronic trading platforms, saying "standardized" contracts should go through regulated clearinghouses that can decide if a contract is too risky for the parties and the market.

"If we're just a cop on the beat on the one side, then there really is a public policy concern or gap," Gensler said at a meeting in New York last week on the regulatory regime for a future carbon market. "But if we're able to police the whole market, then you have more opportunity to have standardized and customized contracts."

Senate Republicans with a strong resistance to carbon commodity trading aren't the only ones who are worried. Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), both staunch supporters of addressing global warming by putting a price on carbon emissions, also have voiced concerns.

But side by side with those doubts by key players in Congress is an all-out push by financial services companies for regulatory flexibility.

This secondary market is expected to develop quickly once a cap-and-trade program is in place. Investors would buy and sell carbon futures, options and specialized carbon swaps on the same trading platforms used in the giant energy sector.

Concerns about money chasing money

One concern is about money chasing money, causing roller-coaster price swings in the carbon market.

On Tuesday, Gensler told the House panel, "We should eliminate exclusions and exemptions from regulation for OTC derivatives." But in discussions about a carbon market, the regulator has sided with financial industry and utility lobbyists pushing for exemptions for custom-tailored contracts, which would be used to hedge against long-term carbon price increases or to set up an offset development contract.

Jack Cogen, president of Natsource and chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association, which represents 170 big industrial emitters and financial services companies, has pressed regulators not to exclude futures and derivatives -- just the type of contracts that some in the Senate argue put the entire market in jeopardy. He has urged policymakers not to force banks out of carbon trading and to ensure carbon trades in all corners of the financial markets.

Banks are necessary to stand in the market as an intermediary, buying and selling allowances and creating cash liquidity, Cogen says. Other contracts would manage price risk. He asserts that regulators have plenty of tools to protect against market manipulation, including the ability to enforce a limit on the volume of carbon contracts a single trader can control in a particular market. Cogen, however, has urged regulators to be flexible in setting those trading limits for a global carbon market.

"Forcing banks or other non-emitting sectors away from carbon markets would remove the very source of financing necessary to build new, more efficient and cleaner manufacturing centers and power plants," Cogen told CFTC regulators recently.

Cogen said opening carbon to a variety of markets would dampen the potential that carbon prices will be tied too closely to energy commodity prices, which have been highly volatile in recent years.

"The climate price is highly correlated with energy, except when it isn't," he said in an interview. "That's why you need separate markets."

Carbon markets are expanding fast, both in the United States and in Europe. Trading on the voluntary Chicago Climate Futures Exchange, for example, more than doubled in contract volume since the first half of 2008. Trading volumes are also rising quickly on Climate Exchange's London platform.

The ramp-up in trading has helped to trigger additional efforts in Washington to control carbon prices. Investor-owned utilities are pushing for a "price collar" to control the upside of price swings, and they also are pushing for the allocation of more free allowances to coal-fired power plants. That might lower the number of allowances in the trading mix just enough to help stabilize prices, they assert.

A lingering wariness could affect the Senate vote

"It's still possible to come up with sensible legislation that has a well-designed cap-and-trade system," said Robert Stavins, a professor of business and government at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

The financial meltdown last year and unemployment resulting from the economic recession have exacerbated the uneasiness. "Those problems naturally cause everybody in society to be more wary of markets," Stavins said. But he, along with an army of advocates for opening a carbon market to financial speculators testifying before the CFTC and Congress in recent weeks, warned against regulatory overreach.

"When a single horse has escaped from the barn, it doesn't mean you kill all the horses," he said. "It would be inappropriate to close down the financial markets."

Supporters of the cap-and-trade approach assert that well-designed legislation and regulatory oversight would safeguard a carbon market from hucksters and illegal trading practices. They contend that the loudest critics raise the specters of Enron-style market manipulation and excessive financial speculation as straw men they can easily slay and as handy excuses to oppose legislation.

"One of the things that really struck me was the amount of discussion about market manipulation and market oversight," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, at the CFTC meeting in New York, referring to discontent expressed in the Senate.

Critics come from both sides of the spectrum. Lawmakers who don't trust markets and those who are not expected to favor any global warming bill, regardless of what it says, warn that the trading half of the equation could send the economy into another tailspin if not regulated properly.

"It's worth pointing out that this whole issue is very key to what actually might happen or not happen," Claussen said.

"We have the securitization of carbon credits in Europe already, working efficiently," Joseph Mason, a financial market expert at Louisiana State University, testified to the Senate. "My only problem is hanging a substantial amount of U.S. economic growth on those innovative products."

Saturday, September 26, 2009

"The campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies"

Guardians of the energy status quo (a.k.a. fossil fuel industry leaders and a number of conservative commentators) fear the inevitability of a global green economy and they're running scared. Facts don't support their arguments against the need to immediately deploy energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that will help mitigate climate change and create green jobs.

So they resort to lies. They lied about the reality of climate change. They lie about the feasibility of renewable energy technologies. Now they have stooped to spreading falsehoods about the economic burden that would result from the adoption of green energy strategies.

Economist and New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman calls them out. (GW)

So, have you enjoyed the debate over health care reform? Have you been impressed by the civility of the discussion and the intellectual honesty of reform opponents?

If so, you’ll love the next big debate: the fight over climate change.

The House has already passed a fairly strong cap-and-trade climate bill, the Waxman-Markey act, which if it becomes law would eventually lead to sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But on climate change, as on health care, the sticking point will be the Senate. And the usual suspects are doing their best to prevent action.

Some of them still claim that there’s no such thing as global warming, or at least that the evidence isn’t yet conclusive. But that argument is wearing thin — as thin as the Arctic pack ice, which has now diminished to the point that shipping companies are opening up new routes through the formerly impassable seas north of Siberia.

Even corporations are losing patience with the deniers: earlier this week Pacific Gas and Electric canceled its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in protest over the chamber’s “disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality” of climate change.

So the main argument against climate action probably won’t be the claim that global warming is a myth. It will, instead, be the argument that doing anything to limit global warming would destroy the economy. As the blog Climate Progress puts it, opponents of climate change legislation “keep raising their estimated cost of the clean energy and global warming pollution reduction programs like some out of control auctioneer.”

It’s important, then, to understand that claims of immense economic damage from climate legislation are as bogus, in their own way, as climate-change denial. Saving the planet won’t come free (although the early stages of conservation actually might). But it won’t cost all that much either.

How do we know this? First, the evidence suggests that we’re wasting a lot of energy right now. That is, we’re burning large amounts of coal, oil and gas in ways that don’t actually enhance our standard of living — a phenomenon known in the research literature as the “energy-efficiency gap.” The existence of this gap suggests that policies promoting energy conservation could, up to a point, actually make consumers richer.

Second, the best available economic analyses suggest that even deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions would impose only modest costs on the average family. Earlier this month, the Congressional Budget Office released an analysis of the effects of Waxman-Markey, concluding that in 2020 the bill would cost the average family only $160 a year, or 0.2 percent of income. That’s roughly the cost of a postage stamp a day.

By 2050, when the emissions limit would be much tighter, the burden would rise to 1.2 percent of income. But the budget office also predicts that real G.D.P. will be about two-and-a-half times larger in 2050 than it is today, so that G.D.P. per person will rise by about 80 percent. The cost of climate protection would barely make a dent in that growth. And all of this, of course, ignores the benefits of limiting global warming.

So where do the apocalyptic warnings about the cost of climate-change policy come from?

Are the opponents of cap-and-trade relying on different studies that reach fundamentally different conclusions? No, not really. It’s true that last spring the Heritage Foundation put out a report claiming that Waxman-Markey would lead to huge job losses, but the study seems to have been so obviously absurd that I’ve hardly seen anyone cite it.

Instead, the campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies.

Thus, last week Glenn Beck — who seems to be challenging Rush Limbaugh for the role of de facto leader of the G.O.P. — informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that Waxman-Markey would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. Needless to say, no such study exists.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mr. Beck. Similar — and similarly false — claims about the cost of Waxman-Markey have been circulated by many supposed experts.

A year ago I would have been shocked by this behavior. But as we’ve already seen in the health care debate, the polarization of our political discourse has forced self-proclaimed “centrists” to choose sides — and many of them have apparently decided that partisan opposition to President Obama trumps any concerns about intellectual honesty.

So here’s the bottom line: The claim that climate legislation will kill the economy deserves the same disdain as the claim that global warming is a hoax. The truth about the economics of climate change is that it’s relatively easy being green.

Friday, September 25, 2009

United States “is a developing country in terms of rail”

A number of countries view high-speed trains as a viable (and environmentally preferable) to alternative to airline travel for many popular travel routes. Properly designed and run high-speed rail often competes favorably with air travel in terms of cost and convenience.

Unfortunately the U.S. is woefully behind in this arena and over the years our investments in transportation have focused on the automobile. Now that we understand the virtues of rail travel it's more than likely that we will be importing the technology necessary to get us up to speed (pun intended). (GW)

Siemens Fills Need for High-Speed Trains in Russia

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — In the last years of the cold war, the ultrasecret research institute that had designed the Soviet Union’s nuclear submarines received an unusual request: could it build a high-speed train?

The Soviet Union, despite its dependence on railroads, had fallen far behind Japan and Western Europe on high-speed transport. That the order came to the Rubin design bureau suggests that Moscow viewed catching up as a matter of national security.

The result of the little-known program was a slate-gray, round-nosed locomotive called the Sokol, Russian for falcon, that petered out soon after the Soviet Union did. The prototype achieved a top speed of only 143 miles an hour — hardly breaking a sweat by high-speed standards.

But the fall of the Falcon created an opening for Siemens.

This December, high-speed trains designed by the German conglomerate and adapted for Russian winters will ply the rails between St. Petersburg and Moscow. But Siemens hopes their final destination will be the last laggard of the high-speed age: the United States.

For years, businesspeople and politicians have dreamed about America entering the high-speed era, but Amtrak has been plagued by budget and service problems and the closest Americans have come to high speed is the Acela, which rarely runs at what Europeans call high speed.

Now Siemens and its competitors are hoping all that has changed. The economic stimulus passed by Congress in April includes a five-year, $13 billion high-speed rail program. Siemens is one of four makers of high-speed trains, none of them based in the United States, that hopes to take advantage of it.

Siemens executives said the tilt toward political acceptance of high-speed rail in the United States presented a remarkable business opportunity — assuming the systems get built.

The United States “is a developing country in terms of rail,” Ansgar Brockmeyer, head of public transit business for Siemens, said in an interview aboard the Russian test train, as wooden country homes and birch forests flickered by outside the window. “We are seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

To position itself to compete in the United States, Siemens has placed employees from its high-speed train division at its Sacramento factory, which produces city trams.

Siemens’s new train — the Sapsan, Russian for peregrine falcon — is a candidate for the high-speed link planned between San Francisco and Los Angeles that may open in 2020. Alstom, the maker of the French TGV trains, and Bombardier are also contenders. Japanese bullet train designs by Hitachi, which are lighter but less secure in a low-speed crash, the only type of collisions survivable, are another option.

The technological breakthrough of the Sapsan is that the train has no locomotive. Instead, electric motors are attached to wheels all along the train cars, as on some subway trains. (Passengers sit in the first car too.) Its top operating speed is 217 miles an hour, though in tests this model has reached 255 miles an hour, or about half the cruising speed of some jet airplanes.

In Russia, it took a decade of on-again, off-again talks before Siemens signed a deal with the state railways in 2006 amid a general thaw in relations between Germany and Russia.

Here as elsewhere, high-speed trains will compete with airlines. The 401-mile trip from downtown Moscow to downtown St. Petersburg will be 3 hours and 45 minutes. The average flying travel time is five hours, including the trips to and from the airport, check-in and security clearance.

The four-times-a-day service will trim 45 minutes from the fastest train service now. To achieve this, the Russian state railway spent $485 million upgrading the track and $926 million for eight Sapsan trains and a 30-year service agreement, at today’s exchange rates.

In other countries, high-speed trains have roundly beaten planes on price, overall travel time and convenience at ranges up to 600 miles between major cities. After high-speed trains between Paris and Lyons became well established, for example, commercial flights all but disappeared. And in the first year of operation, a Madrid-to-Barcelona high-speed link cut the air travel market about 50 percent.

In the United States — where the Department of Transportation has identified 11 high-speed corridors, including Los Angeles to San Francisco — high-speed rail would also compete with intercity car travel.

In Russia, it has a more peculiar competitor. With its vast distances and dismal roads, Russia has a long tradition of train travel, but Russians prefer to travel on overnight sleeper trains. (The highway between St. Petersburg and Moscow is at places a potholed, two-lane track.) Tea cups rattle on their saucers in the coal-heated compartments and beds are made with fresh linen.

The German trains, in contrast, are sleek strings of self-propelled, aluminum-skinned cars. But they will travel far below their 217 m.p.h. operating speed.

Pulling out of the St. Petersburg station on the test run, the Russian conductor kept the Sapsan throttled back at a modest 90 miles an hour as it rattled over older track in the city, making the typical clickety-clack noise of a train. High-speed rails are welded together and silent. It was like driving a new Porsche over a rutted road.

Out on refurbished track, the train accelerated to 150 miles an hour, the threshold until additional track improvements are made. As yet, not all the ties are as rigid as they should be, and the overhead electrical wires wobble as the train speeds by underneath. Sometimes electricity arcs in fire bolts.

Still, Russia has arrived in the high-speed club that includes Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Britain, Spain, Taiwan, Korea and China, which joined in 2007.

On the test run, over a stretch of the St. Petersburg-Moscow track, a birch forest blurred outside the window as the train revved. In one village, an old woman in a kerchief stopped in her tracks and pointed in surprise as the silver, rocket-shaped train sailed past at 150 miles an hour.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Social forestry"

Twentieth century visionary Buckminster Fuller had very simple and pragmatic advice for solving the world's most pressing problems (I'm paraphrasing a bit here): Look to see what needs to be done that no one else is doing...and do it! You might be surprised at what one individual can do and/or catalyze by taking this advice and running with it. (GW)

Meeting India's tree planting guru

By Amarnath Tewary
BBC News
September 19, 2009

An Indian civil servant, SM Raju, has come up with a novel way of providing employment to millions of poor in the eastern state of Bihar.

His campaign to encourage people to plant trees effectively addresses two burning issues of the world: global warming and shrinking job opportunities.

Evidence of Mr Raju's success could clearly be seen on 30 August, when he organised 300,000 villagers from over 7,500 villages in northern Bihar to engage in a mass tree planting ceremony.

In doing so the agriculture graduate from Bangalore has provided "sustainable employment" to people living below the poverty line in Bihar.

'Lack of awareness'

Mr Raju has linked his "social forestry" programme to the central government's National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) which is also designed to provide employment to poor people.

I told the villagers that they would get 100 days employment in a year simply by planting tress and protecting them
SM Raju

Under NREGA - initiated in February 2006 as the government's most ambitious employment generation scheme for poor people - the authorities are bound by law to provide a minimum of 100 days of employment a year to members of families living below the poverty line.

About 44% of Bihar's population fall into this category.

"The scheme has brought benefits to thousands of families since its implementation," said a recent International Labour Organisation report.

But Mr Raju says that Bihar - being the poorest and most lawless state of India - has not been able to spend the allocated NREGA funds.

"This is because of a lack of awareness among officials about the scheme," he said.

The poor monsoon this year has led to lower agricultural outputs, while flash floods in some northern districts has made the situation even worse, he said.

"So the idea struck to my mind, why not involve families below the poverty line in social forestry and give them employment under this scheme for 100 days?

"Under the scheme, each family can earn a minimum of 10,200 rupees ($210)."


The civil servant immediately made a blueprint of his idea and got the support of senior state officials.

In June Mr Raju released a comprehensive booklet of "dos and don'ts" and distributed it to village heads and district officials.

His initiative meant that NREGA funds were fully utilised - in the past this has not always been the case.

"I told the villagers that they would get 100 days employment in a year simply by planting tress and protecting them. The old, handicapped and widows would be given preference," he explained.

Every village council has now been given a target of planting 50,000 saplings - a group of four families has to plant 200 seedlings and they must protect them for three years till the plants grow more sturdy.

"They would get the full payment if they can ensure the survival of 90% of the plants under their care. For a 75-80% survival rate, they will be paid only half the wage. If the survival rate is less than 75%, the families in the group will be replaced," the guidelines say.

Under NREGA rules, each worker has to be paid 100 rupees ($2) per day for 100 days in a year.

Increase in funds

Mr Raju even came close to planting one billion saplings on a single day.

"I started preparing for this and motivating villagers by announcing the date as 30 August," he said.

"The target for every village panchayat (council) was to plant 6,000 saplings from 6am to 6pm to achieve the target of one billion. At the end of the day, we found out that we were just just short of the target, but it was still a world record," the beaming civil servant said.

Significantly, his scheme has even stopped the migration of poor labourers from the area in search of employment elsewhere during monsoon time.

"We never thought we would get employment for planting tress and protecting them," said Paigambarpur village head Indra Bhusan, whose community - like many others - planted over 30,000 saplings mostly on both flanks of the 14km embankment which criss-crosses their village.

The saplings planted are both fruit and non-fruit trees. The non-fruit seedlings have been planted on the banks of the embankment and on state and national highways - while fruit bearing trees are planted inside the villages.

This year the central government has given more money to the scheme.

Meanwhile, the Bihar civil servant is busy collecting the facts and figures to get his feat listed by Guinness World Records.

"Bihar has edged out Pakistan from the record book," he said flashing a confident smile.

"Its all become possible due to villagers. I owe them a lot."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Corporate personhood"

It's rather frightening to me that some Supreme Court justices are convinced that businesses are just like you and me and therefore deserving of the same rights granted by the Constitution. This fact is important to keep in mind as we prepare for the crucial climate change talks in Copenhagen later this year. (GW)

The Rights of Corporations

New York Times
September 22, 2009

The question at the heart of one of the biggest Supreme Court cases this year is simple: What constitutional rights should corporations have? To us, as well as many legal scholars, former justices and, indeed, drafters of the Constitution, the answer is that their rights should be quite limited — far less than those of people.

This Supreme Court, the John Roberts court, seems to be having trouble with that. It has been on a campaign to increase corporations’ legal rights — based on the conviction of some conservative justices that businesses are, at least legally, not much different than people.

Now the court is considering what should be a fairly narrow campaign finance case, involving whether Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, had the right to air a slashing movie about Hillary Rodham Clinton during the Democratic primary season. There is a real danger that the case will expand corporations’ rights in ways that would undermine the election system.

The legal doctrine underlying this debate is known as “corporate personhood.”

The courts have long treated corporations as persons in limited ways for some legal purposes. They may own property and have limited rights to free speech. They can sue and be sued. They have the right to enter into contracts and advertise their products. But corporations cannot and should not be allowed to vote, run for office or bear arms. Since 1907, Congress has banned them from contributing to federal political campaigns — a ban the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld.

In an exchange this month with Chief Justice Roberts, the solicitor general, Elena Kagan, argued against expanding that narrowly defined personhood. “Few of us are only our economic interests,” she said. “We have beliefs. We have convictions.” Corporations, “engage the political process in an entirely different way, and this is what makes them so much more damaging,” she said.

Chief Justice Roberts disagreed: “A large corporation, just like an individual, has many diverse interests.” Justice Antonin Scalia said most corporations are “indistinguishable from the individual who owns them.”

The Constitution mentions the rights of the people frequently but does not cite corporations. Indeed, many of the founders were skeptical of corporate influence.

John Marshall, the nation’s greatest chief justice, saw a corporation as “an artificial being, invisible, intangible,” he wrote in 1819. “Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly, or as incidental to its very existence.”

That does not mean that corporations should have no rights. It is in society’s interest that they are allowed to speak about their products and policies and that they are able to go to court when another company steals their patents. It makes sense that they can be sued, as a person would be, when they pollute or violate labor laws.

The law also gives corporations special legal status: limited liability, special rules for the accumulation of assets and the ability to live forever. These rules put corporations in a privileged position in producing profits and aggregating wealth. Their influence would be overwhelming with the full array of rights that people have.

One of the main areas where corporations’ rights have long been limited is politics. Polls suggest that Americans are worried about the influence that corporations already have with elected officials. The drive to give corporations more rights is coming from the court’s conservative bloc — a curious position given their often-proclaimed devotion to the text of the Constitution.

The founders of this nation knew just what they were doing when they drew a line between legally created economic entities and living, breathing human beings. The court should stick to that line.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Thumbs down on geo-engineering

The head of the European Union climate change unit has accurately pegged ambitious geo-engineering proposals for what they really are: red herrings that divert attention (and potentially) resources away from real solutions to climate change. I've posted a few stories on geo-engineering in recent months -- "hard" geo-engineering proposals ranging from seeding the oceans and clouds to positioning mirrors in space to reflect solar energy away from the Earth.

A better bet is to investigate "soft" geo-engineering solutions like biochar (pictured above). (GW)

EU climate scientist casts doubt on geo-engineering

22 September 2009

Scientists should not meddle with the Earth's complex climate by experimenting with futuristic geo-engineering options when softer approaches are available, Frank Raes, head of the climate change unit at the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, told EurActiv in an interview.

Sophisticated geo-engineering programmes - including mirrors to reflect the sun's radiation or plans to "fertilise" oceans - have already been imagined to try and manipulate the Earth's climate in case global warming gets out of hand.

But Raes dismissed what he described as "hard engineering," such as launching rockets to release dust particles into the stratosphere to create a cooling effect by blocking sunlight from entering the atmosphere.

"It's a temporary cure and doesn't solve anything, and the second thing is that we don't know the earth system enough to start playing with it," he said.

Moreover, he warned that some countries have already started to influence the climate by considering large-scale reforestation programmes in desert areas.

Dark tree coverage absorbs sunlight previously reflected by sandy deserts, heating up the system, he explained. The climate benefits of removing CO2 from the atmosphere only kick in years later when the trees have grown, he added.

"We have to stay very careful about how to use afforestation and deforestation so that we really have a benefit for the climate," Raes said.

As international climate negotiators are now considering how to introduce a mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, called REDD, EU researchers are working closely with policymakers to evaluate the climate impact of different mechanisms and to create reliable methods to monitor deforestation via satellites, he added.

As an example of a "win-win" soft geo-engineering approach, Raes singled out biochar technology, which turns agricultural waste into charcoal to enhance soil, while the gases can be used as fuel. The process thus avoids releasing the methane which would be freed if the waste were left to rot naturally in the fields, as well as CO2 emissions which result from burning it, he explained.

"That's something that is certainly of interest for developing countries that still live from agriculture and have a lot of agricultural waste," Raes said.

Nevertheless, the researcher said it was the job of scientists to research even the most extreme ideas around, even if to show that they are in reality too expensive or risky. The EU is also doing earth modelling to test how different geo-engineering approaches would impact upon the entire earth system: not just the atmosphere, but the oceans and the biosphere as well, he said.

"We'd rather go with what I call geo-renovating," Raes argued. "It is about discussing very sophisticated ways of solving the problems of climate change and air pollution rather than resorting to hard geo-engineering," he explained.

The scientist argued that climate policymakers are currently ignoring the impact of regular pollutants like ozone and black carbon particles. He pointed out that action to reduce their emissions could bring immediate benefits for the climate, whereas CO2 remains in the atmosphere for a long time.

"They have a strong impact on the climate and they are discussed in another forum, by air pollution policymakers, whereas the climate change people talk about CO2 emissions and the energy system," Raes stated, calling for the two agendas to be integrated.

Nevertheless, the researcher said that the climate negotiations are now finally being informed by science. He said recommendations from the UN's scientific body (IPCC) that we should not overstep CO2 concentrations above 450 ppm to keep global warming at a maximum 2°C were now widely used, "at least by the European negotiators".

Frank Raes was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tradio waves

Filling a niche in the air/spacetime between the neighorhood yard sale/flea market and the Internet-based eBay/Craigslist is a new and relatively low-tech phenomenon that has come to be known as Tradio -- people trading goods in real time via the radio. Tradio emerged out of need and may be a more accurate barometer on the state of local economies than Gross Domestic Product or the Dow Jones Index. (GW)

On-air yard sale speaks to tough times

In Ohio, listeners try to sell what they can on Tradio

By P.J. Huffstutter
Los Angeles Times
September 20, 2009

FINDLAY, Ohio - Chris Oaks hunched over a studio soundboard at WFIN-AM, ignoring the cramp in his lower back and the flashing lights from the phone lines.

He listened to the voice in his headphones: a man calling in to sell a pair of air conditioners for $60 each.

“I need the money more than I need to stay cool,’’ the man said.

Oaks nodded.

“I hope you’re not selling all that you have,’’ he said as the temperature outside hovered in the mid-90s. “You may need one.’’

For more than seven years, Oaks, 42, whose uniform is a rumpled plaid polo shirt and faded jeans, has broadcast radio want ads over the expanse of Ohio farmland.

Called Tradio, short for trade radio, the broadcast has taught him a lot about life on the farms and blue-collar factory towns dotting the rolling hills, although he’s often left with more questions.

Every weekday at 11 a.m., he spends 30 minutes offering hope and the chance to make a few bucks off old gifts, heirlooms, furniture, and other items. His smooth voice carries for 100 miles in every direction.

“It’s amazing how much you can find out from someone in 30 seconds or less,’’ Oaks said. “You learn to piece things together through the hints and guess at the rest.’’

He never wanted the job - he wanted to be a radio newscaster. Who wanted to be in charge of some garage sale?

“I remember the program director at the time explained to me the basics,’’ Oaks said. “He told me, ‘Now, don’t take this too seriously.’ I said: ‘We’re selling goats. It would be impossible for me to take it too seriously.’ ’’

Night-vision scope, fresh day lilies, Siberian husky-Lab mix to give away, chickens, a used toilet, a men’s three-speed bicycle for $25. “It’s got them brand-new tires I just stuck on her, with them fancy sidewalls on it,’’ the caller said.

Oaks listened and moved on.

“Welcome to the program,’’ he boomed across the miles of farmland. “It’s Wednesday Tradio, 419-425-1346 or 888-458-1FIN. You know the rest. Help me out, please. You’re up.’’

It’s one marker of the recession that Tradio, with a few thousand listeners a day, is the second-most-popular show on WFIN, following a morning talk show. Oaks had no figures on the growth of the radio want ads but knows these are hard times. People are selling what they can to raise money.

“Three or four years ago, there used to be some days where the phones were dead,’’ he said. “Now, we can’t get everything in.’’

Findlay, the home of WFIN’s Tradio, was once a center of oil and automotive-parts manufacturing, but the industries shifted and jobs have trickled away.

The county’s unemployment rate rose to nearly 11 percent in July, nearly double from the previous year.

“There are some people who look down their nose at the show,’’ Oaks said. “They think it’s only a certain section of the public that tune in. Poor people. . . . They’re like how I used to be. I was wrong.’’

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Our taxing energy problems

Continuing our discussion of taxes: the next time someone complains to you about the subsidies wind energy and other renewable energy technologies receive and their inability to compete with fossil fuels and nuclear energy in the "free market" you may want to direct them to the recently released study by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) that is described below.

According to the report over the years -- especially during the George W. Bush Administration -- federal support for fossil fuels has dwarfed that received by renewables.
Renewable energy advocates have suspected as much for some time but found the data to support their suspicions is well hidden and difficult to pin down. Be assured that the ELI report will not end the debate. Oil industry representatives are already challenging its assumptions and conclusions. (GW)

Tax Code Mocks Federal Energy Intent

By Emily Badger
Miller-McCune online
September 18, 2009

From 2002 through 2008, the U.S. federal government spent about $72 billion subsidizing fossil fuel industries, much of those benefits embedded in arcane tax codes written in another era, for a different kind of energy economy.

That number is more striking, according to a study released today by the nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute, when paired with the subsidies government has funneled toward renewable energy. Only $29 billion was directed to renewables over the same period, and more than half of that toward corn ethanol that many scientists now think may do more harm than good to the environment.

Traditional renewables — wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass energy — received just $12.2 billion of government nudging, a figure that hardly jives with stated policy goals of the U.S. to "green" the country's economy.

"Part of the reason we picked this time frame is that 2002 is after people were well aware of the need for the development of renewable energy," said Daniel Schramm, an ELI fellow who contributed to the study. "And government was on notice, at least in its public pronouncements, claiming that it was now going to be focusing on renewable energy."

As for whether or not that has happened: "Well," he added, "the graph speaks for itself."

The ELI project, presented at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, attempted to corral the federal government's myriad explicit and hidden subsidies into a single graphic (also shown below) translating broad energy priorities into dollar bills.

"Definitely the data that we quantified is meant to ask that question: Should we allocate resources differently going forward?" asked Lisa Goldman, an ELI staff attorney. "And how should we do that?"

The study stopped short, though, of recommending what policymakers should do about the question. The most obvious answers — but the most difficult to execute — may be found where the ELI researchers traced the largest subsidies: to decades-old U.S. tax provisions.

The largest single subsidy in the report involves the Foreign Tax Credit and a provision dating to the early 1950s that allows oil companies to claim royalty payments made to foreign countries as income tax paid to those countries, and therefore tax credits back home — "an accounting fiction," according to the report. The FTC is meant to ensure that corporate and individual taxpayers aren't taxed twice on the same income both overseas and in the U.S.

To promote the development of foreign oil, the State Department encouraged state-owned oil and gas outfits overseas to reclassify royalties as income taxes, thus allowing U.S. oil and gas companies to pass on the cost to the U.S. government in the form of a tax credit. It's a minor distinction in terms but a significant one, in dollars, from a tax deduction, which logic suggests it actually is. U.S. oil and gas companies are now paying "income taxes" abroad that are dramatically higher than standard tax rates oil-rich countries set for other businesses. Saudi Arabia, for example, charges U.S. oil and gas companies an income tax of 85 percent; the non-petroleum income tax rate is 20 percent. (And the royalty regime in the U.S. is a little goofy too.)

"In fact, they are taxing the way we told them to," said John Pendergrass, an ELI senior attorney. And the way we told them to back in the 1950s.

Over the 2002-2008 period, that policy amounted to a subsidy of $15.3 billion — money essentially paid by the U.S. government to bolster the very foreign oil officials say we want to wean ourselves from.

Other tax benefits included in the study date as far back as the 1910s.

"At the beginning of the 20th century, it may have been a wholly appropriate public policy to do everything possible to encourage investment in oil and gas and coal," Schramm said, "because at that time, you have the dawn of the age of the automobile and the development of the electrical grid for the country. Of course we wanted this stuff, and no one had a full sense of the environmental externalities that were associated with these types of fuels."

The climate — literally and figuratively — has changed dramatically since, suggesting the government may be applying a carbon-based tax code to what many hope will become a carbon-free economy. The ELI report also found that most subsidies benefiting renewables stem from energy bills initiatives with expiration dates, while those benefiting fossil fuels are written into tax code as permanent provisions, making them that much harder to dislodge.

"There's this idea that once something is put in the tax code, it's very difficult to take it out; it becomes accepted as part of the normative baseline of what tax law should be," Schramm said. "So especially these provisions that have been around for 100 years, they're entrenched, and they have an entire sector of the economy that is entrenched with them. Pulling it out is like removing an organ."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Towards a more equitable resource-efficient economy?

In my home start of Massachusetts many residents have recently effectively blocked or seriously delayed the development of wind farms along the ridge lines in the western part of the stare and in the ocean waters in southeastern Massachusetts. In many instances, opposition to these renewable energy projects is primarily based on aesthetics -- people object to the way they look. Meanwhile we continue to import virtually all of the energy needed to drive our economy and power our laptops and high-definition televisions.

One wonders if our attitudes towards wind projects would change if we were directly taxed for the coal, oil and natural gas that we import from around the world? (GW)

World forum calls for natural resource tax

September 17, 2009

To combat soaring consumption of natural resources, the World Resources Forum (WRF) is calling for a global strategy to frame a new economic model that would directly tax raw materials instead of products and labour.


According to the World Resources Forum (WRF ), Europe is the world's most "eco-efficient" region in terms of material intensity, which is measured in economic output per unit of domestic natural resources extracted. Africa lies at the other end of the scale, producing the smallest economic output per domestic unit extracted.

However, WRF notes that "Europe's share in worldwide resource extraction is 1.5 times higher than the share of the African continent, and Europe is increasingly importing natural resources from other world regions".

While Europe's resource extraction has only grown by 3% since the 1980s, WRF shows that its raw materials are increasingly being substituted by imports from other parts of the world. Metal ores or biomass for biofuels are imported from Latin America, for example.

WRF's scenarios for future natural resource extraction show that "without additional policies to limit resource use, used domestic extraction within the EU remains roughly constant until 2020," but is accompanied by growing imports of material-intensive products.

This means that "the material requirements of the European economy will increasingly be met through imports from other world regions, causing shifts of environmental pressures related to material extraction and processing away from Europe towards resource-rich countries".

The World Resources Forum 2009 (WRF ) will tomorrow (16 September) adopt a declaration calling for a new global strategy governing the use of natural resources.

The forum will call for goods and services to be "dematerialised" and employment opportunities to be "maximised", as well as demanding international equity and per capita welfare improvements.

The draft declaration argues that while traditional environmental policies have in some cases been quite successful regarding water pollution in rich countries or recycling and removing dangerous goods from the market, for example, these policies are "toothless" when it comes to fighting the depletion of natural resources.

New economic framework

The draft declaration stresses that "politically defined economic framework conditions have to be adjusted to protect global ecosystems" and preserve resources for future generations. Such conditions should include incentives to make planned transitions immediately, instead of waiting for catastrophes to force the changes, it adds.

There are no incentives or policies in place to create a "sufficiently resource-efficient economy," notes the draft, while current markets are "blind to the environmental costs of growth" and hamper major increases in resource productivity. This is largely because market prices do not include environmental externalities and information is not made available to the relevant innovative stakeholders, it adds.

Tax resource use, not labour or end products

Adjusting the fiscal framework is "the most fundamental and urgent pre-requisite for approaching a sustainable future," the draft states.

It calls for subsidies that increase resource consumption to be eliminated, and highlights the need to shift away from taxing labour to taxing raw materials. This would have the "side effect of creating new jobs and redistributing income to developing countries where many of the resources come from," WRF notes.

Going even further, the declaration suggests that instead of applying VAT to end products, "it may be more effective to tax natural resources at the point at which they are removed from nature or where they enter the industrial metabolism".

'Dematerialising' goods and services and introducing low impact production systems will also require "radically new infrastructures, goods, services, processes, systems and business models," as traditional environmental technologies are no longer enough to decouple the meeting of human needs from the use of natural resources, WRF underlines.

Europe urged to measure resource use

Michael Warhurst of Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE), an environmental NGO, deplored that Europe "has no targets" for reducing resource use, while "new policies are not assessed for their potential to increase our resource efficiency".

In a joint report with the Sustainable Europe Research Institute, FoEE is calling on the EU to measure its resource use and adopt new policies, such as higher recycling targets, to increase resource efficiency.

They suggest that Europe should measure its use of materials in particular, but also its land and water use and greenhouse gas emissions, taking account of the impact of Europe's consumption on the rest of the world in terms of imported resources.

Next steps:
16 Sept. 2009: Final call for action will be formulated at the World Resources Forum 2009 .

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lessons from Gotham

New York City has conjured up many provocative images throughout its history. However "green" and "sustainable" are probably not among the first words that come to mind when thinking about this great city -- unless, of course, your name is Michael Bloomberg.

Recently the world turned an auspicious corner when cities surpassed rural areas as the primary place where people live. Many viewed this development as an ominous sign for the future of humanity.

On the other hand, writer David Owen thinks that -- given the inevitability of megacities -- New York may hold lessons that could lead to the salvation of the human species. (GW)

Green Metropolis

A New Yorker writer examines that civic paragon of green living: New York City.

Danny Heitman

Christian Science Monitor
September 16, 2009 edition

Review: Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability By David Owen. Riverhead Books 357 pp., $25.95

David Owen, a staff writer for The New Yorker whose interests include global ecology, has examined numerous communities across America and discovered one that strikes him as a model of environmental efficiency. That community is New York City, and in Green Metropolis, his latest book, Owen tells readers what green-conscious citizens can learn from Gotham’s example.

Owen realizes, of course, that the Big Apple isn’t the first place that comes to mind when most people think of reducing their carbon footprint. Noisy, crowded, and covered largely by concrete, New York seems instead to be the very antithesis of environmental stewardship.

Anticipating his critics, Owen concedes that when calculated by the square foot, “New York City generates more greenhouse gases, uses more energy, and produces more solid waste than any other American region of comparable size.”

But plot those same negative effects by resident or household, says Owen, and Manhattan gets the blue ribbon from Mother Nature.

“New Yorkers, individually, drive, pollute, consume, and throw away much less than do the average residents of the surrounding suburbs, exurbs, small towns, and farms, because the tightly circumscribed space in which they live creates efficiencies and reduces the possibilities for reckless consumption,” Owen writes.

Because car ownership in Manhattan is so inconvenient, New Yorkers often use public transit or walk, which conserves gasoline and promotes good health. “The average Manhattanite consumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-1920s, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T,” Owen tells readers.

New York has achieved its efficiencies because people live closely together – the principle of urban density so loudly touted by champions of the modern “smart growth” movement. If New York City’s 8 million residents lived in the same density as the quaint Connecticut community that Owen calls home, they’d “require a space equivalent to the land area of the six New England states plus Delaware and New Jersey,” he notes as a caution against the dangers of suburban sprawl.

New York’s low per-capita energy use and its embrace of public transit and walking are practices that “the rest of us, no matter where we live, are going to have to find ways to emulate, as the world’s various ongoing energy and environmental crises deepen and spread in the years ahead,” Owen adds.

Such thinking, the author acknowledges, goes against America’s long antipathy towards urban life, perhaps best expressed by Thomas Jefferson’s description of big cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

While he doesn’t share Jefferson’s dim view of urban morality, Owen doesn’t see New York’s ecological virtues as evidence of great civic piety, either. The city’s smart growth, in fact, seems more the result of geographical and historical accidents. Being surrounded by water, for example, Manhattan was forced to confine its sprawl. And because the city developed so long before automobiles, it wasn’t able to remake itself to truly accommodate car culture.

Such providence makes New York a difficult model to duplicate, and one of Owen’s consistent themes is that when it comes to environmental stress, cities are far from equal. He points to Los Angeles as a poster child for “metastatic outward growth” and complains that the commuter-centric city of Atlanta “has probably been the source of more bad transportation policy than any other in America.”

Owen’s focus on cars as an agent of sprawl tends to exclude other factors that spur the growth of suburbs. He makes only passing reference to quality of life issues – such as education, crime, and street noise – that drive city dwellers away from the urban core. And as Robert Bruegmann told readers in his book, “Sprawl,” migration from city centers is not unique to modern America, but rather a historical reality that goes back centuries, long predating the rise of the auto.

But it’s hard to quibble with an author who takes such pains to point out his own imperfections. Readers of Owen’s lighter books, such as the essays of domestic life he gathered in “Around the House,” already know that his chief charm is an abiding gift for self-effacement.

That quality is also evident in “Green Metropolis,” which begins with Owen’s confession that for all his professed devotion to urban density, he left Manhattan many years ago for a larger home in nearby Connecticut, becoming a part of the very problem he bemoans. He also confesses to a persistent affection for driving and big-box stores.

Owen offers a few suggestions as to how all Americans, even those of us in the ’burbs, might “apply the Manhattan template to our own lives, to the extent that we can.” But ultimately, “Green Metropolis” is important not for the answers it yields but the questions it raises – questions that should be part of the ongoing dialogue about the health of our planet.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A renewable energy 'blueprint' for New England

I just returned from the European Union Offshore Wind Conference that was held in Stockholm, Sweden. The event attracted more than 3,000 participants -- the vast majority of whom I would characterize as 'practical enthusiasts'. At least three panel discussions focused on the grid. And with good reason.

This past March the European Wind Energy Association increased its offshore wind target to 40 gigawatts by 2020. Meeting such a target puts pressure on a variety of players/stakeholders including regional/national supply chains, port facilities operators, builders of installation vessels and of course, transmission grid operators.

A number of panel discussants argued that while all of these issues are important, planning must center around the capacity of the grid to accept this new influx of clean energy. (GW)

Study for New England Governors Shows Region Has Significant Potential to Develop Renewables

September 15, 2009

States Draw on ISO New England's Power Planning Expertise to Help Develop
'Blueprint' for Future Power Grid Development

HOLYOKE, Mass.(Business Wire)

At the request of New England's six governors, ISO New England Inc., the operator of the region's bulk power system and wholesale electricity markets, recently released the results of a months-long study evaluating renewable resource potential in the region and beyond, as well as the economic and environmental impacts of that development.

This technical analysis was used as a basis for the initial draft of the New England Governors' Renewable Energy Blueprint, prepared by the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE) and recently shared with the six New England governors for their consideration. Through this process, regional policymakers hope to identify the available sources of renewable energy-both here and in neighboring regions-and determine the most effective means to encourage development of those resources across New England's power grid.

"ISO New England is pleased to provide its expertise and contribute to the region's efforts to take a wide-ranging look at possible next steps for regional power grid development. I share the New England governors' confidence that the region`s past collaboration and planning successes will serve us well as we evaluate future resource scenarios," Gordon van Welie, ISO New England President and CEO, said.

The six New England governors earlier this year asked ISO New England to lend its technical support and power system planning experience to simulate the effects of various levels of renewable resource additions on the power grid. The study also identified the conceptual transmission development that could be required and estimated the costs to support interconnection of the resources envisioned in each scenario. In addition, the study looked at the impact of each scenario on wholesale electricity prices.

In recent months, a team of ISO New England engineers and economists has been analyzing more than 40 scenarios to integrate renewables, primarily large-scale wind resources onshore and offshore, into the region`s electric grid by 2030.

Summary of Economic Study Results

The objective of this study was to evaluate a hypothetical future power system under a number of scenarios. The study focused primarily on wind development, but also considered other resources such as demand resources, plug-in electric vehicles, expanded imports, and energy storage.

Though the study did not offer specific recommendations for resource or transmission development, key findings from the analysis include:

Significant amounts of potential wind resources could be added to New England's system provided appropriate transmission expansion is in place, with offshore wind resource integration offering the most cost-effective use of new and existing transmission. The study considered and tested a wide range of additional wind resource integration scenarios, from 2,000 to 12,000 megawatts. A separate, ongoing ISO New England wind integration study is looking at operational issues surrounding large integration levels.

For all of the scenarios considered, new transmission investment would be required to move energy from renewable resources to consumers throughout New England.

Annual wholesale electric energy prices would be generally lower with the addition of renewable resources that have low or no fuel costs, such as wind, or when overall electricity use is reduced, as is the case when high levels of demand resources are added to the system.

Lower levels of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide result when low-carbon-emitting-resources are added to the system or when older fossil-fueled generators are either retired or repowered with more efficient combustion technologies. The study assumed retired units would be replaced by new, natural gas combined-cycle units and repowered units would become measurably more efficient by incorporating new natural-gas fired technology with portions of the existing unit`s infrastructure.

"We have an abundance of native renewable resource potential in New England. Before the states now are the questions as to how much regional renewable development should be pursued and at what cost," said van Welie. "Tapping into these available resources can create potential benefits but would require new transmission to move power from where it is produced to where it is consumed. The concepts outlined in this study provide New England with an improved ability to compare and contrast the options before it, both within the region and beyond our borders."

About ISO New England's Economic Study Process

As a part of its regional planning process, ISO New England each year studies stakeholder proposals to explore opportunities that may improve power system
efficiencies and produce economic benefits. Under study in 2009 is the request by NESCOE, acting on behalf of the governors, to identify the economic and environmental impacts for a set of renewable development scenarios. The states developed the study assumptions with technical input from the ISO. The study was conducted to support the governors' efforts to develop a renewable energy blueprint.

Created in 1997, ISO New England is the independent, not-for-profit corporation responsible for reliably operating New England's 32,000-megawatt bulk electric
power generation and transmission system, overseeing and ensuring the fair administration of the region's $12 billion wholesale electricity markets, and managing comprehensive regional electric power planning.