For today’s article Cleantechies and I are willing to shed some light on an interesting initiative that comes from Seattle. Carbon Washington is a local revenue-neutral carbon tax campaign. I interviewed their team.
As I posted earlier, in Murray, et al v. EPA , plaintiff Murray Energy Corporation seeks to enjoin EPA’s Clean Power Plan rule even before it has been issued as a Final Rule. The Clean Power Plan proposes to regulate the carbon emissions of existing power plants under the Clean Air Act.
Last week, the states of New York, State of Connecticut, State of Delaware, State of Maine, State of New Mexico, State of Oregon, State of Rhode Island, State of Vermont, State of Washington, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, District of Columbia filed notice of their intention to participate as amicus curiae
In June, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Ohio and Wyoming also filed an amicus brief in this case.
Assuming that the northeastern states support the Clean Power Plan, it sets up a sort of “Blue v. Grey over Green” battle, with the western states thrown in as well.
There was also an interesting decision in the D.C. Circuit last week, lifting a stay on the EPA’s Cross-Border Pollution Rule. But, additional issues remain to be resolved in the DC Circuit case, so there will likely be more action on this critical rule.
Expanding public transportation and infrastructure that promotes walking and biking throughout the world’s cities could save $100 trillion and cut transportation-related carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2050, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Urban transportation accounted for roughly one-quarter of all transportation-related emissions in 2010, the report said, and these emissions could double by 2050 as growth continues in major cities in China, India, and other developing countries.
This chart compares projected urban transportation-related emissions in 2050 under two scenarios: “business as usual,” shown in red, and the “high shift” scenario, shown in green. Under the “high shift” scenario, countries make major improvements in urban mass transit and infrastructure that promotes walking and biking. Transportation-related emissions from 2010, in black, are shown for comparison. (Image source: UC-Davis, ITDP)
If China alone were to develop extensive bus rapid transit and commuter transit networks, its predicted transportation-related emissions in 2050 could be cut by 40 percent, the analysis found.
The U.S. — currently the world’s largest contributor to urban transportation-related emissions — is seeing declines in that sector as population growth slows, vehicle fuel efficiency improves, and people drive less. But those emissions cuts could accelerate sharply, to half the levels currently predicted for 2050, if urban mass transit were improved.
Redirecting funds from road construction, parking garages, and other infrastructure elements that encourage car ownership to public transportation would save trillions in public and private dollars, the analysis found.
Researchers have developed a new method for mapping global carbon emissions for individual cities on an hourly basis — a major improvement over previous techniques, which quantified greenhouse emissions less accurately and at coarser scales, according to researchers at Arizona State University.
The maps are derived from worldwide databases of population, power plants, and national fuel use statistics, and they encompass 15 years of data. Among other findings, the analysis revealed increased emissions in China, India, Europe, and the northern U.S. in 2010, after the peak of the global financial crisis.
Annual fossil fuel emissions for two years on either side of the global financial crisis. The top map is the year 2006; bottom map is 2010. Red and orange indicate above average emissions, and green indicates below average emissions. (Map credit: Gurney lab, ASU)
The researchers say this reflects faster recoveries from the crisis in those regions compared to, for example, the southeastern U.S., where emissions lagged in 2010.
The results of the analysis match ground-level emissions measurements, confirming the accuracy of the maps, the researchers say. They hope the research can be used to help craft — and enforce — future emissions policies.
Implementing policies to curb carbon emissions dramatically cuts health care costs associated with poor air quality — in some cases, by more than 10 times the cost of policy implementation, according to new research published in Nature Climate Change.
Policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions are as effective as laws targeting polluting compounds like ground-level ozone, also known as smog, and fine particulate matter, the MIT researchers say. An analysis of three climate policies — a clean-energy standard, a transportation policy, and a cap-and-trade program — found that savings from avoided health problems could recoup 26 percent of the cost of implementing a transportation policy, and up to to 10.5 times the cost of implementing a cap-and-trade program. A cap-and-trade program would cost roughly $14 billion to implement, whereas a transportation policy with rigid fuel-economy requirements could cost more than $1 trillion, according to the analysis.
Policies targeting specific sources of air pollution, such as power plants and vehicles emissions, did not lead to significantly larger benefits than cheaper policies, such as a cap-and-trade approach, the study found.
It seems like an odd “butterfly effect”—a plane shot down over Ukraine could boost energy efficiency? But it is not as far-fetched as it seems.
“Fuel switching”—changing power plants over to natural gas from coal—is one of the compliance paths for achieving the carbon emission reductions in the EPA’s proposed existing power plant carbon emissions reduction rule. Fuel switching is expected to be a popular compliance path because power companies are already taking advantage of the economic attractiveness of cheap natural gas (vs. coal) to convert their power plants. Natural gas conversions have been a significant contributor to the 15% decrease in carbon emissions since 2005.
When the Ukrainian crisis first emerged this spring, discussions in Washington turned to accelerating natural gas exports in the event that Russia was either unable (due to sanctions) or unwilling to sell its NG to Europe. The Energy Information Agency predicts that increased exports of natural gas will lead to lead to increased prices for natural gas domestically. (See page 6 of the report).
If the cost of natural gas increases, the comparative economic attractiveness of fuel-switching versus energy efficiency will change as well. Energy efficiency applications that were previously not cost effective or more costly than fuel switching become more attractive. As a result, states are likely incorporate more energy efficiency into their compliance plans than relying exclusively or largely on natural gas applications to achieve their emission reduction goals.
Two new reports from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) summarizing energy usage trends for the first part of 2014 were released last week.
The first was EIA’s Electric Power Monthly, which provides data on electricity usage through the end of April. The second was EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, which provides usage data in all sectors (including transportation and heating) for the first quarter of the year.
In a nutshell, renewables are growing quickly, but not as quickly as carbon emissions. During the first four months of the year, renewables provided 14.05% of all electricity generated nationwide. That’s a level that wasn’t expected to be seen until 2040. No longer can anyone say that renewables provide an insignificant portion of our energy needs. No one expected them to proliferate this fast.
During that same period, wind power grew past the 5% threshold, contributing 5.15% of US electricity production. At the same time solar doubled its contribution compared to the previous year, increasing 108.9%. Solar surpassed geothermal for the first time in April and is now contributing almost 0.5% of the total US electricity supply. Solar is gaining on second place wood and wood-derived fuels, which has remained steady for several years. If the present trends continue, solar should take the #2 spot among renewables in the next year or so.
This year has also seen non-hydro renewables (biomass, geothermal, solar, wind) overtake conventional hydropower.
Nuclear power generation increased by 0.7% over this time frame, though its contribution to the overall total actually fell. This illustrates the fact that overall generation increased, at least during the first three months of the year. This could be explained in part by the very cold winter experienced in many parts of the country.
Turning to the more comprehensive energy picture, we see similar trends. Domestic production of renewable energy, including biofuels, grew by 4.36%, to the point where it now accounts for 11.41% of all domestic energy supply. Likewise, renewables consumption grew by 3.52% over the previous year, accounting for 8.81% of all energy consumption.
In the biofuels sector, ethanol grew by 11.74% and biodiesel grew by 10.85%
So much for the good news. The bad news is that consumption of fossil fuels increased by 5.17% in the first quarter of 2014 compared to the same period in 2013. Coal rose by 8.91%, natural gas by 7.43%, and petroleum by 1.07%. As a result, CO2 emissions rose by 5.48% compared to the same period in 2013 and by 10.52% when compared to the first quarter of 2012.
Breaking this down by sector, one can see a long term trend of decreasing energy use in the industrial sector, with pronounced spikes in both the residential and commercial sector, during both the winter and summer seasons. This suggest that the more extreme weather we have been experiencing has been causing higher energy usage in a positive feedback loop that contributes to even more climate instability. It would be nice to think that these anomalies are just flukes, but there is much to suggest that this is the new normal, which means we’ll have to work even harder to actually reduce emissions.
A top Chinese climate adviser signaled Tuesday that the country planned to set a new cap on carbon emissions by the end of the decade, which would be the first such effort from the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The comments by He Jiankun, chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change, came a day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration proposed the first-ever carbon limits for existing power plants. (See related story: “Four Key Takeaways from EPA’s New Rules for Power Plants.”)
The adviser, speaking at a conference in Beijing, said that the cap on emissions starting from 2016 would come as part of China’s next five-year plan. “The government will use two ways to control CO2 emissions in the next five-year plan, by intensity and an absolute cap,” he said, according to Reuters. China is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. (See related interactive map: “Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints.”)
He did not provide specifics about what the target would be, and the comment was not an official announcement. But the way some media outlets interpreted the remarks became a story in and of itself, as The New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin noted that the Guardian and USA Today mistakenly billed the comments as a “pledge” from China to reduce emissions. Reuters later issued a corrected version of its original story, changing the attribution from “China said” to “a senior government adviser said.”
Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, said that He Jiankun is “effectively one of the most senior advisers” to the climate minister at China’s National Development Reform Commission, “one of the most powerful ministries in China.”
Schmidt said, “As with many things in China, these officials don’t speak unless there’s some emerging consensus in the government that this is a position that they’re trending toward. I think it’s a very positive sign that this kind of debate has taken hold.” (Take the related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Energy in Asia.”)
The United States, which ranks second in world carbon emissions, has committed via the Copenhagen Accord to reducing its emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.
The rules proposed yesterday would require U.S. states to reduce pollution from power plants by 30 percent from 2005 levels over the next 15 years. States will be able to create their own plans for how to meet the targets.
The carbon reductions at stake with the power plant goals are extremely modest from a global standpoint, but have been widely seen as momentous action on climate change from the Obama administration, which has been unable to push major climate legislation through Congress. (See related story: “One Key Question on Obama’s Push Against Climate Change: Will It Matter?“)
Sarah Ladislaw, a director and senior fellow of the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said last week that U.S. action on climate change was critical to shoring up confidence from other nations as the world prepares for international climate talks in Paris next year. She said, “It’s really about the United States and China trying to show—and actually define—what leadership is on this issue.”
The next round of climate talks under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change began this week in Bonn, Germany.
NRDC’s Schmidt said that ahead of next year’s climate talks in Paris, key emitting countries including the U.S., China, and India are expected to announce their climate targets beyond 2020. “In that context,” he said, “there’s a very intense debate in China about when its emissions will peak, and at what level.”
Energy efficiency advocates have argued for years that energy efficiency should be a first fuel – considered before others in portfolio planning. Today, they appear victorious with the release of the US’ first-ever carbon dioxide restrictions for existing power plants.
The draft rule places energy efficiency in good position to be a top choice as states create strategies to meet the standard. Energy efficiency is not only inexpensive, but also politically palatable, say analysts.
“In addition to being the cheapest, cleanest and fastest way to cut down on carbon pollution, energy efficiency investments are strongly supported by the American people regardless of party,” said Peter Altman, director of NRDC’s Climate and Clean Air Campaign.
The proposal – likely to be finalized in about a year – gives states the flexibility to determine how they will meet the goal of reducing carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030.
As guidance, the EPA offers four building blocks that it found effective in analyzing action already underway in several states. One of the four is energy savings of 1.5 percent annually. The others include making fossil fuel plants more efficient, using more low emitting power like natural gas, maintaining nuclear power and continuing the renewable energy expansion now underway.
States already have been leading the way for years in reducing carbon emissions through energy efficiency and renewables, according to the EPA. The agency noted that 47 states have utilities that run demand-side energy efficiency programs, 38 have renewable portfolio standards or goals, and 10 have market-based greenhouse gas emissions programs.
“Together, the agency believes that these programs represent a proven, common-sense approach to cutting carbon pollution—one in which electricity is generated and used as efficiently as possible and which promotes a greater reliance on lower-carbon power sources,” the EPA said in releasing the plan.
Ernest Moniz, US energy secretary, said that the draft rule gives states “unprecedented flexibility to meet their obligations within an all-of-the-above set of options, tailored to each state’s needs and opportunities. A flexible approach will keep electricity affordable for American families and businesses, spark homegrown clean energy innovation that creates jobs, and increase energy efficiency to save families money.”
The plan can lead to $37.4 billion in savings on electric bills in 2020, if states use energy efficiency as the key approach to reduce carbon, according to NRDC. The group foresees a surge in energy efficiency-related jobs for electricians, roofers, carpenters, insulation workers, heating/air conditioning installers and heavy equipment operators, as a result of the carbon rule.
NRDC analysis of electricity bill savings if 13 states use energy-efficiency driven carbon reduction plans
The EPA also predicts that an efficiency-driven approach will lead to cost-savings. By 2030 the EPA expects electricity bills to be about eight percent lower than they would been without state action.
“The real story here is about economic opportunity,” said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. ”Based on our recent study, we project that if states choose the efficiency path in the proposal, they would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and lower energy bills across the country by tens of billions of dollars a year.”
Bennett Fisher, CEO of Retroficiency, said that the decision by the EPA positions building efficiency to play a critical role.
“With 30 percent -50 percent of energy use routinely wasted, building efficiency represents a highly cost-effective, reliable and scalable way not only to reduce carbon emissions, but also boost our economy by saving businesses and consumers money,” Fisher said.
He added that “the EPA got it right when it put the onus on each state to determine its own carbon reduction strategy. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. To achieve these carbon reduction goals, tomorrow’s grid will need to optimize energy usage every minute of every day based on the best resource available at that time – be it clean generation sources, load shifting solutions, or permanent reductions through energy efficiency. Regional and local factors such as weather, building portfolio stock and energy prices all influence and inform the best approach.”
Stacey Davis, senior program manager of the Center for Clean Air Policy, noted that the rules also are likely to boost combined heat and power.
“The good news is that EPA has put forward a flexible approach that will encourage greater efficiency in how we use electricity. The guidance also allows states to take advantage of other domestic clean energy sources like natural gas and renewables—not just end-of-pipe control measures. One option that shouldn’t be overlooked is combined heat and power (CHP)—a technology that can lower energy costs for industrial, commercial and institutional energy consumers. For manufacturers, lower costs mean increased competitiveness,” Davis said.
CCAP recently released a study that highlights the role that CHP can play in lowering compliance costs.
The states must file the plans by June 30, 2016 (although a two year extension is possible under certain circumstances.) But even before that, the proposal undergoes a 120-day public comment period and further EPA review. A final rule is expected out in one year.
The EPA draft rule is here.
What’s your take on the EPA draft rule for carbon reduction?
This article is published under a cross licensing agreement with EnergyEfficiencyMarkets.
U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement of new limits on carbon emissions from the nation’s existing power plants is nearing, but the political messaging battle over what is likely to be Obama’s most significant action on climate change already is heating up.
The pending rules from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are widely expected to set emission-reduction targets for existing power plants and allow states to craft their own plans for how to meet the standard. Those options could include increasing efficiency, retrofitting existing plants, and boosting the production of energy from renewables and natural gas.
The EPA released the proposed rules for future power plants last fall. But new rules for emissions from existing plants—which account for 39 percent of energy-related U.S. emissions—could have a much greater impact. The stakes are huge for the coal industry, which accounts for three quarters of those power sector emissions and stands to be hit hardest by new standards, and for states such as Kentucky and West Virginia that depend heavily on coal for power generation. (See related story: “Clean Coal Test: Power Plants Prepare to Capture Carbon.”)
The stakes also are huge for Obama, who has little chance of pushing major climate legislation through a divided Congress but has vowed to take meaningful action against emissions that raise carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. (See related story: “Can the Senate Force Approval of the Keystone Pipeline?“)
The announcement expected on Monday will come less than a month after the White House released a sweeping assessment of climate change’s impact on the United States. The report echoed scientists’ warnings that climate change is increasing the risk of extreme weather, food and water shortages, health problems, and other society-changing impacts. (See related story: “Federal Climate Change Report Highlights Risks for Americans.”)
Unlike the scientific community, U.S. politicians and interest groups are deeply divided over climate change and questions of how much government should do to address it. Many Democrats, environmentalists, and others support Obama’s move, while many Republicans and pro-business groups say the new carbon restrictions amount to an expensive overreach in regulation.
That chasm has been on full display this week in Washington, where interest groups and analysts have used a barrage of reports and briefings to praise or criticize the likely parameters of Obama’s plan.
“Show of hands: Who is *not* releasing a report sometime in the next week about EPA’s carbon pollution rules for power plants?” Ken Ward Jr., a reporter for West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette, wrote on Twitter last week.
A leading voice in favor of Obama’s plan is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental organization whose own antipollution plan is widely seen as a template for what the administration will propose.
During a briefing the NRDC held Wednesday, David Goldston, the group’s director of government affairs, said that the coming restrictions aimed at reducing carbon emissions represent “the pivotal battle on climate change for U.S. domestic politics. Really for the first time, climate is going to be front and center as the national issue.” (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)
The NRDC said that by 2020, the new standards could cut carbon pollution levels 35 percent below 2005 levels, prevent thousands of premature deaths from respiratory disease, lower consumer electric bills, and stimulate investments of up to $121 billion in energy efficiency and renewables.
As the NRDC team spoke, the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce was releasing a considerably darker assessment of the expected EPA standards, using NRDC’s proposal as a basis. The chamber predicted that the new rules would cost the U.S. economy more than $50 billion in productivity because of “spending in pursuit of regulatory compliance rather than economic expansion,” result in 224,000 job losses, and add up to $17 billion in consumer costs each year for the next 15 years.
“Our analysis shows that Americans will pay significantly more for electricity, see slower economic growth and fewer jobs, and have less disposable income, while a slight reduction in carbon emissions will be overwhelmed by global increases,” Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said in a statement. It was a reminder of the skepticism that conservative and business groups have expressed over whether other nations—particularly China, which is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions and is burning increasing amounts of coal—will follow Obama’s lead in restricting such emissions. (See related story: “How Much Is U.S. to Blame for Made-in-China Pollution?“)
The chamber argues that the costs for companies to comply with the new regulations, along with higher energy prices and lost jobs, will reduce productivity, particularly in the southern Atlantic states, because of the “need to replace large portions of coal generation.”
The NRDC anticipated the chamber’s announcement in its own briefing. “Even in the business community, there are a lot of companies that support moving ahead with carbon standards,” said Peter Altman, director of the NRDC’s climate and clean air campaign. “The U.S. Chamber does not speak for the United States business community.”
He noted that several companies have defected from membership in the chamber because of its stance against emissions regulations.
Churning Out Sound Bites
Other organizations have put out statements along predictable lines.
The industry group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has bashed Obama’s plan in advance by saying, “We crunched the numbers. There’s a lot the NRDC isn’t telling you.” The coal group has joined other industry-aligned organizations in claiming that new standards on carbon will hurt the economy and raise consumers’ electric bills.
On the other side, organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Clean Air Task Force have argued that the new standards will offer an economic boost by encouraging investment in clean energy and efficiency, along with desperately needed action on emissions that will help address climate change and reduce health impacts from air pollution.
At least one analysis from the research group World Resources Institute (WRI) suggests that the dire predictions over the impact of the pending rules could be overblown. WRI and others say that several states will be able to meet the new standards via measures that already are in place.
For example, nine states in the Northeast, as part of a regional cap-and-trade program that sets overall limits on carbon and then allows states to trade permits to pollute, have committed to cut emissions by 45 percent during the next year and by another 2.5 percent a year after that until 2020. And for the ten states that WRI analyzed—including coal-reliant Pennsylvania and Ohio—achieving “moderate to ambitious carbon reductions” would be within reach if those states boost efficiency, add renewable and natural gas capacity, and upgrade existing coal plants. (See related story: “California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?“)
Passion Surrounds Debate
“Moderate to ambitious” seems like an almost suspiciously bland characterization when compared with some of the other superlative assessments of the plan’s potential from both sides. In a conference call Wednesday organized by the environmental group Earthjustice, Alan H. Lockwood, professor emeritus of neurology at the University at Buffalo who has written about the effects of coal burning on health, called the regulations “the most important public health measure of our generation,” while the Clean Air Task Force said they are the Obama administration’s “single most important climate initiative.”
The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, on the other hand, said that Obama’s plans are “threatening to tip our country over the edge” economically. Perhaps most colorfully, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin said earlier this month that because of the plan, “a lot of people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum [are]going to die.”
Such comments reflect the passion surrounding a debate that almost certainly will be fueled by Obama’s announcement of the new emissions rules. The EPA will consider public feedback on the proposal for a one-year period, and then states will have another year to put together their implementation plans after the final rule is issued in 2015. (See related story: “Has Obama Kept Climate Promises Since Last State of the Union?“)
The NRDC’s Goldston said he expects challenges to the new rules in Congress, at the state level, and in the courts. “We are prepared for all those battles,” he said.
It’s one thing to own your utility and have a commitment to renewable energy, but it’s another thing to deliver. The municipal utility in Palo Alto, CA, set an ambitious target of 33% renewable energy by 2015 and to ultimately deliver a carbon neutral electricity supply. They will reach 48% renewable power in 2017 and met the carbon neutral goal starting last year.
Learn more about the strategies one municipal utility pursued to drive down its carbon emissions and acquire solar energy in this interview with Jim Stack, Senior Resource Planner of the Palo Alto Utilities, recorded via Skype on Feb. 27, 2014.
How Can a Utility be Carbon Neutral?
The foundation of Palo Alto’s energy supply is hydropower, making up as much as half of their total electricity generation each year. But other renewable energy supplies the other half, at a time when most utilities have targets of 25% renewable or less. The chart illustrates how Palo Alto plans to get 23% of its energy from solar, 11% from landfill methane recovery, and 12% from wind power in 2017.
The carbon neutral target, while impressive, doesn’t mean that no fossil fuels are used. The statement means that on an annual, net basis, the cities electric customers produce no carbon emissions.
Building on Low-Cost Solar
The drive toward renewable energy and a carbon neutral energy supply was aided by dramatically falling costs for solar energy. When the utility went out for bids in 2012, it found solar producers willing to sell the utility power for 7¢ per kWh, a price that’s remained relatively steady since then. Low cost solar energy has meant that the city’s nationally recognized green energy purchasing program, with 20% customer participation, eliminated the price premium because clean energy was no more expensive than traditional power.
Having Control Matters
“If you were a customer of an investor owned utility, you’d be much less likely to see a program like [Palo Alto’s] put in place simply because investor-owned utilities have a much more traditional business model focused on profits and the bottom line,” says Stack.
Local control was a key to the success of the pursuit of a low-carbon energy system in Palo Alto. They aren’t hampered by regulators and the city’s bond rating means the municipal utility can also access lower cost capital than investor-owned utilities.
Municipal ownership has one big drawback, however, making the transition to renewable energy that much more impressive. The city can’t access the 30% federal tax credit for solar energy projects that private developers can. While they can still sign contracts with these developers to deliver solar, they miss the economic opportunity of direct ownership.
Keeping it Local
Palo Alto hasn’t been able to develop as much power in town as it would like, confesses Stack. As a mostly built-up urban environment with high land costs, and in a very sunny environment, local solar energy costs nearly twice what it costs to buy from projects nearby. All their renewable power comes from California, however, within a two hour drive of the city.
The city does have programs focused on local distributed generation and energy efficiency, however. Already, 6.5 MW of solar energy has been installed on local rooftops (serving about 4% of peak demand). The utility intends to use its feed-in tariff, community solar, and other initiatives to increase local solar to 23 MW, serving 15% of peak energy demand and 4% of total sales.
Can it Work for You?
Stack says there’s nothing stopping other municipal utilities from moving in the same direction. Renewable energy is less expensive than just about anything else and offers long-term price stability.
For communities without municipal utilities, he suggests lobbying for voluntary green purchase programs, community solar, and working on developing community-based renewable energy projects.
For more information on Palo Alto Utilities, see the section on Palo Alto in ILSR’s 2013 report showing 8 ways cities can boost their economy with local renewable energy: City Power Play.
Article by John Farrell, appearing courtesy Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change is attracting a lot of attention because of its headline grabbing claim that cellulosic ethanol made from crop residues produces higher carbon emissions than gasoline. (See related blog post: “Corn Waste for Biofuel Could Boost Emissions, Study Says.”)
Professor Adam Liska of the University of Nebraska Lincoln, who led the study, is absolutely right to focus on soil carbon in the lifecycle of corn based biofuels (taking crop residues off the ground, Liska concluded, keeps them from trapping carbon in the soil and allows that carbon to escape into the atmosphere). (Take the quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Biofuel.”)
Regrettably, the narrow framing of his analysis set the debate up as a choice between pursuing cellulosic biofuels or calling off the whole project and driving home in our gasoline-powered cars. The real solution is biofuels that reduce carbon in the atmosphere while protecting the carbon in soils.
Oil remains the problem, not the solution
As Peter Frumhoff’s blog last year makes clear, oil is the primary climate problem in the transportation sector. So just because we find that oil-saving solutions are not easy does not mean we can afford to stick with the status quo. Instead of writing (yet another) obituary for cellulosic biofuels, we should use this new research to improve and refine our quest for clean fuels.
Based on our analysis, there are real opportunities to make low carbon biofuel from agricultural residues such as corn stalks (also called corn stover and shown in the image). These non-food-based biofuels are a key element of our overall strategy to cut oil use through efficiency, electrification, better biofuels and other oil saving solutions described in our Half the Oil plan. When we assessed the scale of the opportunity to use agricultural residues as fuel we paid very careful attention to protecting soil carbon, excluding residue sources that would lead to losses in soil carbon or increases in erosion. (See related story: “Squeezing Gasoline from Plants.”)
Preserving soil carbon: An agricultural issue not limited to biofuels
There are a lot of problems caused by the way corn is grown, not least of which are the problems corn farming causes for water quality. If the future of biofuels is just growing ever more corn, and harvesting not just the grain, but the whole stalk as well, we are going to make bad problems even worse.
In the near-term, use of residues must be accompanied by changes in crop rotations and incorporation of cover crops (some of these practices are discussed in this fact sheet). To their credit, Liska and his team mention this crucial opportunity to replace lost soil carbon, though it is not getting much attention in the press. (Share your thoughts: “What Breakthroughs Do Biofuels Need Now?“)
While agricultural residues raise concerns about soil carbon, other cellulosic feedstocks are major soil-carbon winners. Perennial bioenergy crops store a great deal of carbon in the soil. The emphasis Liska’s work places on soil carbon points to the other large potential opportunity for bioenergy to play a productive role in agriculture, which is to shift from an emphasis on corn to perennial grasses and other crops that build soil carbon, improve water quality and deliver other benefits even as they can provide a low carbon source of biofuel.
Residues do address the food versus fuel and land use issues
Much of the enthusiasm for using crop residues for fuel is to limit competition between biofuel uses of corn and other uses (primarily as animal feed) and also to avoid expanding the global footprint of agriculture at the expense of forests. Nothing in this analysis refutes that crucial motivation. That’s why it’s important to take the lesson of Liska’s analysis that a status quo approach to corn farming is not sustainable, and to make sure we avoid the soil carbon loss his analysis describes.
The fine print
As I mentioned, it’s important to be mindful of the narrow focus of this study. Two key factors that fell outside the study boundaries have a major bearing on the final implications:
- The paper neglects the lifecycle impact of an important electricity coproduct. By Liska’s own admission, a portion of the crop residue used for biofuel can be burned to produce electricity, saving emissions that would otherwise be generated, in some cases, by coal. The effect of this electricity offset, according to Liska’s calculations, could be enough to reverse the conclusion that corn stover biofuel can’t meet the 60 percent reduction in carbon pollution required by the U.S. government’s standard.
- Time is another crucial factor, and the five or ten year period examined in the study is pretty short.. I have had a long-running argument (beginning on this blog, and continued in the letters and replies in the International Journal of Lifecycle Assessment) ) with some other experts on the need to be transparent in choosing a time interval for biofuels lifecycle analysis. In that case I was arguing that using a 100-year timeframe obscured the real magnitude of land use emissions, particularly when making comparisons with other studies that were based on a 30-year timeframe. In this case Liska made a controversial choice to focus on just a five- and ten-year timeframe, which amplifies the impact of soil carbon emissions changes. There may be good reasons to focus on five to ten years, but the paper would have been stronger if it had included a discussion of how the results changed over 30 years or even a century, together with whatever argument the authors have for considering five to ten years the right timeframe to consider.
After making these two technical corrections I doubt that the emissions from soil carbon would disqualify corn stover-based cellulosic ethanol from qualifying as a cellulosic biofuel under the Renewable Fuels Standard, and the overall emissions would certainly be lower than gasoline. However, that doesn’t make protecting soil carbon any less important. The broader point is that when studies like these highlight challenges on the road to cutting oil use, we need to meet the challenges rather than turn back, because the status quo is not a smart option for either transportation or agriculture.
Although greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at an alarming rate, governments are beginning to embrace carbon-cutting initiatives, while technological advances are sharply reducing the cost of deploying solar and wind power, according to the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The working group report on climate mitigation, released in Berlin, said that global CO2 emissions have risen about 2.2 percent a year this century — twice the rate of the last few decades of the 20th century — and that holding temperature increases to 2 degrees C (3.6 F) can only be achieved through an intensive push over the next 15 years.
But the report also said that the political will to reduce carbon emissions seems to be rising around the world, and that shifting the global energy system from fossil fuels to zero- or low-carbon sources would reduce economic growth by only about .06 percent per year. “The loss in consumption is relatively modest,” said IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri. “The longer we delay the higher would be the cost.”
The texture of the soil that microbes live in determines how much carbon they release after deforestation, with sandy soils sending the most carbon into the atmosphere, according to research led by Yale scientists.
Subterranean microbes regulate carbon emissions from soil, and drastic changes to the microbial community, such as those that follow deforestation, can allow more CO2 to escape into the atmosphere and exacerbate global warming.
The texture of soil, rather than such factors as temperature or nutrient concentrations, was the most important factor governing the release of CO2, the researchers found. Muddy, clay-like soils provide the most stable environment for microbial communities, likely because they’re better at retaining nutrients than loose, sandy soils.
The team used the findings to map areas in the U.S. where soil microbial communities would be most affected (red) and least affected (yellow) by deforestation, which could help inform land management practices.