Monday, January 29, 2007

Climate Change Conversations with ExxonMobil, Part 1: Reaching a Tipping Point?

A strange thing happened to me last Friday: I participated in a conference call that put humble bloggers like yours truly in a conversation with Ken Cohen, the Vice President of Public Affairs for ExxonMobil, the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.

The topic of the day? ExxonMobil's position on climate change and public policy solutions, which the oil giant's VP for Public Affairs apparently felt it necessary to take an hour and fifteen minutes of his busy schedule to clarify for the members of the blogosphere (a full list of participating bloggers can be found at the end of this post).

And what is Exxon's postition on climate change these days?

"We believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken,” Cohen said during the conference call.

Mr. Cohen even came suprisingly close to endorsing a particularly policy approach - the carbon tax - over another - the cap and trade approach currently favored by most policy proposals (including several bills currently introduced to the 110th Congress, as well as the proposals of the United States Climate Action Partnership, USCAP, and it's industry and environmental member organizations).

"Most economists who have looked at this issue would come away saying a carbon tax makes the most sense," Cohen said. "It’s the most efficient policy, the most sector-neutral. It doesn’t favor or disfavor one part of the economy over another."

That's right, Exxon now seems to be singing a different tune on climate change than they have been as recently as several months ago.

Mr. Cohen argued repeatedly that this was not, in fact, a new position, but rather that Exxon's position on climate change has been consistently misunderstood. Cohen maintained that Exxon's opposition to the Kyoto protocol specifically has been mistakenly equated to an opposition to any action seeking to address climate change.

However, it seems to me that even if this is the case, Exxon has had ten years since the Kyoto Protocal was negotiated to clarify it's position on climate change, and considering that the world's largest publicly traded company certainly has access to the best PR firms in the world, either they did a very poor job of correcting this misunderstanding, or they didn't consider it important enough to correct.

Either way then, it is still quite significant that Exxon is now taking this opportunity to publicly clarify its position on climate change, and to bloggers at that.

I'll get into the details of Friday morning's discussion with Mr Cohen in a post to follow sometime tomorrow, but first it's worth taking a moment to unwrap the significance of the simple fact that this conversation even occured...

A Tipping Point?

The fact that ExxonMobil spent an hour and fifteen minutes discussing climate change mitigation solutions with a group of bloggers is a clear sign of a rapidly shifting political landscape.

  • In 2005, ExxonMobil gave $5.7 million to 39 groups that, according to a 2006 British Royal Society report, 'misrepresent the science of climate change,' including the American Enterprise Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The British Royal Society report was echoed by a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists released earlier this month, which further details Exxon's funding of organizations employing tobacco lobby-style tactics to spread disinformation and confusion regarding climate change science or solutions. According to the report, ExxonMobil has funneled nearly $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of 43 advocacy organizations that seek to confuse the public on global warming science.

    (To be fair, Mr. Cohen also pointed out that Exxon has funded a variety of organizations, including those engaged in research into climate change mitigation technologies, including Stanford University's Global Climate and Energy Project, the US EPA's "Smartway" Transport Partnership and others).

  • In the first quarter of 2006, ExxonMobil quietly issued their latest policy and science research funding figures, showing that they had now stopped funding these organizations, a decision Cohen said was reached sometime in 2005, but not publicly announced at the time (a major PR mistake if you ask me!).

  • In the beginning of 2007, ExxonMobil is now saying that they they "believe climate change is a serious issue and that action must be taken."

    After Friday morning's conversation, I'm not at all convinced that ExxonMobil will become a valuable ally in the push to enact comprehensive climate change mitigation policies. But the simple fact that they are apparently no longer actively standing in the way of action is a huge step forward, in my opinion.

    It is a sign that ExxonMobil now clearly understands that a position of denial concerning global warming is simply an untenable position. They've apparently seen the writing on the wall: climate change policies are inevitable.

    Be it this year, the next, or even the one after that, the United States will soon join most of the rest of the world and enter into a new carbon constrained age by enacting policies capping or taxing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon now knows that the policy debates occuring today are not to be trifled with and that they had better attempt to get their input in and shape the policies to their benefit.

    And Exxon's new-found interest in climate change policy solutions isn't the only sign of a shifting policital landscape.

    Last Monday, the heads of 10 major U.S. corporations teamed up with four leading environmental organizations to form the United States Climate Action Partnernship, calling on Congress and the president to support mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions "at the earliest practicable date." The group included the chief executives of Exxon's competitor, BP America, as well as GE, Duke Energy, DuPont, PG&E, Alcoa and others [full list on the USCAP website].

    The corporations have joined together with Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and the World Resources Institute. USCAP has put forward a series of policy recommendations designed to cut U.S. annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 to 30 percent below today's levels in just 15 years, with the ultimate goal of a 60-90% reduction over today's emissions levels by 2050 (this is based on the scientific consensus that we must stabilizeatmospheric CO2 levels at 450-550 parts per million to avoide global temperature increases in excess of 2 degress C (3-4 degrees F) and the dangerous climate change that will result).

    Then, on Tuesday, President Bush issued his State of the Union address, in which he finally acknowledged, "the serious challenge of global climate change."

    Sure, it was just a throw away line in his speech (although it did elicit a spontaneous standing ovation from many in the audience, which in turn elicited a priceless smirk on President Bush's face). Just like Exxon deserves little praise for it's new position on climate change, the president deserves little credit for including this one line in the address (why should we praise them for finally admitting what practically everyone else has been saying for years? Actions speak much louder than words Mr President - and Mr. Cohen).

    However, both subtle shifts in position are significant indications that we are now reaching a tipping point on the path to climate change action.

    As Tom Yulsman of Prometheus: the Science Technology Weblog, another participant in the conference call, writes:
    An earthquake occurs when enough strain builds up along a fault line, causing the ground on opposites sides to suddenly break free and shift violently. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed a steady build up of strain along the fault line marking the divide between the science of global warming on one side, and public, corporate and political perceptions on the other. The scientific evidence clearly linking human activities to a warming climate has been pulling hard on the fault for years, causing some creep but no major release.
    Over the past year, we have seen that faultline strain more and more, and now, perhaps, we are seeing the first signs of tremors.

    Is a true earthquake soon to come?

    A New Media Age

    The fact that Exxon had this conversation with bloggers and not the mainstream press is also significant (as of yet, I have not seen any mainstream press focused on clarifying Exxon's climate change position).

    Perhaps Time Magazine was right when they selected 'You' as the 2006 Person of the Year, citing the growing influence of web-based, people-powered media like blogging!

    You know we live in a new and decidedly more democratic age of media and communication when an executive of the world's largest company sees fit to not only take notice of the blogosphere, but also actively seek out bloggers to talk to (representatives of APCO Worldwide, a global PR firm, set up Friday's conference call and contaced the bloggers who participated in the call).

    If this is a tale of David and Goliath, than perhaps we haven't yet slain the giant, but we've certainly made him take notice of our little slingshot. Our blogs have now given us a big enough megaphone that, collectively, we can bend the ear of the world's largest companies, a not unsignificant change from a short three or four years ago.

    Participants in ExxonMobil Conference Call (and their Blogs):

  • Yours truly (of course): WattHead: Energy News and Commentary
  • Tom Yulsman, Prometheus: the Science Policy Weblog
  • Susan Smith, Environmental Law Prof Blog
  • Stuart Staniford, The Oil Drum
  • Maria Surma Manka, Green Options
  • Ken Cohen, Vice President of Public Affairs, ExxonMobil
  • Pam Franklin, Online Marketing Strategist, APCO Worldwide

  • Stay tuned for Part Two, where we'll get into the details of 'he said, she said'...

    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    VYCON Enters Strategic Alliance With MGE UPS SYSTEMS, to Provide Green Tech Alternative to Battery Back Up Systems

    VYCON, , a leading company in the development and manufacture of advanced, green tech, high cycling energy storage flywheel systems, today announced a strategic alliance with MGE UPS SYSTEMS, Inc. to provide an environmentally friendly, clean energy alternative to traditional Uninterruptible Power Supply systems.
    Initially, the offering will include MGE's Comet and Galaxy PW models which will be integrated with VYCON's VDC flywheel system. The VYCON VDC is a flywheel based energy storage system that provides a stable, reliable, low-maintenance, extended-life DC voltage source for critical power applications. The VDC, which can be seamlessly paralleled for higher power requirements, can completely eliminate the need for maintenance-laden batteries in traditional UPS applications by providing sufficient ride-through for short duration power outages or until a standby engine-generator can come on line.
    "This alliance represents an important opportunity for both companies," said Tony Aoun, President and CEO of VYCON. "MGE is a market leader in the UPS industry and working with them will allow us to bring highly reliable green technology to a greater number of companies around the world. As MGE customers are requesting higher reliability and environmentally beneficial systems, MGE will now be able to provide customers with a solution for both concerns through our VDC system."
    Herve Tardy, VP Marketing of MGE UPS SYSTEMS North America added: "We were very impressed by the VYCON VDC flywheel system and are looking forward to working together to offer our customers a reliable, maintenance free system without the environmental and cost implications of batteries."

    Friday, January 19, 2007

    Senators Boxer and Bingaman Put Utilities On Notice: Utilities that Rush New Coal Plants Now Won't Get Bigger Emission Breaks Later

    [The following is an open letter from Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the two key committees that would hear bills addressing climate change and global warming emissions:]

    Many leaders of American industry are coming around to the view that global warming is occurring and that Congress will address the problem. In contrast, a few companies are considering major investments in old technologies for burning coal that would both endanger the climate and jeopardize the financial position of their investors and shareholders. As members of the U.S. Senate, we have both worked on legislation designed to combat global warming and to reduce greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels. Although our approaches have differed slightly, we both agree that global warming is real, that we need to act rapidly to pass legislation, and that we are committed to working together to achieve that result as soon as possible. Global warming is an enormous threat to mankind, and the United States can, and must, be a leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    One of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions comes from burning coal to produce electricity. While ultimately our goal should be to move toward efficient use of renewable energy sources, we recognize that currently coal is America's most abundant domestic energy source and will be a critical resource for many years to come.

    Fortunately, several technologies are available and under development to facilitate our ability to continue using coal in ways that are both financially sustainable and address its climate impact. Power plants that rely on technologies such as coal gasification, for example, will ultimately allow carbon dioxide emissions to be captured and stored at a much lower cost than coal plants using old-fashioned technology.

    The bills that we and our colleagues have worked on anticipate that coal-fired power plants will need to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps most important, companies building new coal-fired power plants today should acknowledge that over the 50-year lifespan of such plants, reduction of global warming emissions will become mandatory - probably sooner rather than later. Building a new coal plant without taking into account global warming is neither good for the environment nor smart financially.

    We have been dismayed to watch some companies unveil plans to spend billions of dollars to build new coal-fired power plants using old technology that cannot capture global warming emissions. Apparently part of the motivation for building these plants is that the companies mistakenly believe that these new plants will garner "grandfathered" emission allowances under some future law.

    Such plans assume that future legislation will freely award the majority of such allowances to the biggest emitters, and, therefore, increasing pollution through new plants will reap large sums of emission allowances. This flawed thinking will be a tragedy for the climate because of the additional carbon dioxide emissions this old technology creates.

    It also is a dangerous business strategy for the utilities' investors and shareholders, who are putting money into technology that will be obsolete the very day it goes into service.

    As the new Senate committee chairs engaged in the fight against global warming, we think it is important for investors to understand that there is little chance that the majority of such allowances will be allocated without cost and exclusively to large emitters of greenhouse gases.

    In fact, companies that appear to be inflating their emissions right before legislation is passed are likely to find themselves in a position of having to make even larger emissions reductions than companies that do not attempt this strategy.

    We do not envision that any successful legislative proposal will contain a provision that would allow those building traditional coal-fired power plants to economically benefit from coming in "under the wire" and being considered part of the emissions baseline - in fact, the opposite is likely to occur.

    Any company planning to spend billions of dollars on new coal-fired power plants, and any investor in such a company, should think carefully about how to spend their funds so as to be part of the solution to climate change, not a part of the problem.

    Jeff Bingaman chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and Barbara Boxer chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Their e-mail addresses are Senator_ and

    This letter was much needed! My boss, Rachel Shimshak, and allies at the National Resource Defense Council have been pushing the idea of a bipartisan letter from the key sponsors of the climate change bills in the Senate and House - i.e. Boxer, Bingaman, McCain and Lieberman - and as many others as possible putting utilities on notice that any new coal-fired power plants built in an attempt to get in 'under the wire' of upcoming climate change regulations would NOT be grandfathered into the bills (as was the case in the Clean Air Act).

    Apparently, either the right people in the Senate Democratic Leadership heard the idea, or they had a similar one themselves and chose to issue this letter. It would have probably had more impact if it could have been a bipartisan letter, with more signatories, but this is still a very clear notice from the chairs of both key Senate committees that will be relevent to the upcoming debates on climate change regulation.

    Thank you Senators Boxer and Bingaman.

    Now if we can only ensure that Boxer's bill, or a similar one, is the one that finally moves. Bingaman's bill is pathetically lenient and won't accomplish enough to really save us from the brunt of climate change consequences. The McCain-Lieberman bill is a bit better, but is still more focused on economic and political rationale than scientific ones. When it comes to climate change, there's no point in a bill that isn't based on the science. Why try to rein in our emissions if we're not going to do it quickly enough or seriously enough to stabalize atmospheric CO2 emissions at a low enough level and avoid anything more than a 2 degree C temperature increase (and the associated consequences)?!

    Monday, January 15, 2007

    Solar Gets Simpler

    From the RH Top 10 Predictions for 2007: Maturing industry means easier times for people making the switch.
    Solar will get easier in 2007, which will be a step up from where it’s been. Aside from the pain of spending $20,000 upfront to buy the system, a solar enthusiast like Berkeley, California-based photographer Joseph Homes, for example, jumped hurdle after hurdle to get the equipment. Among other headaches, he had to schedule six installation phases between the roofer and the solar installer, navigate three different panel-rating systems to figure out which panels to buy, field inspections from the county, and buy costly homeowners’ liability insurance.
    Solar’s complexity, costs, and risks have deterred all but the most determined. But 2007 may finally be the year that solar gets easy to install. With the end of a worldwide shortage of solar-grade silicon in sight, competition is expected to heat up, and the solar industry is preparing with a buying spree. System integrators—which match customers up with the right panels and other equipment—and installers could be attractive fodder for manufacturers looking for ways to place more panels on rooftops.
    Attention-grabbing acquisitions signaled the start of this consolidation last quarter, when SunPower bought PowerLight, the largest commercial solar integrator in North America, and when German firm Conergy bought Swiss solar integrator Voegelin. Neal Dikeman, a partner at Jane Capital Partners, expects plenty more deals like this in 2007.
    “It’s not going to stop; a lot of these integrators are in play,” Mr. Dikeman says. “We’re going to enter a [period of] competition in the next years, so you’ve either got to get bought or get bigger.”
    Companies ripe for the picking? Several players say it’s the industry’s “worst-kept secret” that Solar Depot is on the market. Innovative integrators like SunEdison and Energy Innovations, groSolar, and Akeena Solar would also make tasty targets.
    All the buying will mean consumers may soon be able to deal with a single company, instead of handling the modules, inverters, financing, and installation separately. That would make for a simpler experience, and maybe even convince mainstream buyers to take the plunge.

    Monday, January 08, 2007

    SolarCity Completes Commercial Solar Power Installation for SpaceX

    SolarCity, a provider of comprehensive solar solutions, has completed phase one of a commercial solar power system for Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX). The move marks the company's entry into the Southern California commercial solar market.
    SolarCity installed an initial 29 kW roof-mounted solar array at SpaceX's El Segundo facility in only four-and-a-half days, and expects it will quadruple the system's size in subsequent stages. The SpaceX solar system uses unique patented hardware, which mounts quickly and requires no roof penetration.
    Dennis Jones, facility manager of SpaceX, said that the SolarCity solar system is a practical, forward-thinking measure to help offset the company's power load. "Solar power is a clean, responsible and cost-efficient way for SpaceX to conduct operations," said Mr. Jones. "SolarCity's quality, low- impact installation quickly provided a return on our energy consumption, and reserved us the ability to scale-up afterwards," he said.
    SolarCity is one of only a handful of solar providers worldwide actively installing non-penetrating roof mounts. "SolarCity's design engineers prepared a full seismic and wind load analysis to ensure that the system met city measures of El Segundo," said SolarCity's chief executive, Lyndon Rive.
    "California is a leader in residential and commercial solar, and companies of all sizes are increasingly realizing that solar power makes a responsible, economical business decision," Mr. Rive said. "SolarCity will continue expanding its SoCal operations in the coming months to help service the growing pool of residential and commercial customers throughout the state and beyond."

    Sunday, January 07, 2007

    Taking Control of Your Electricity Bill - Smart Metering Programs Expanding Across U.S.

    [From the New York Times:]

    Ten times last year, Judi Kinch, a geologist, got e-mail messages telling her that the next afternoon any electricity used at her Chicago apartment would be particularly expensive because hot, steamy weather was increasing demand for power.

    Each time, she and her husband would turn down the air-conditioners — sometimes shutting one of them off — and let the dinner dishes sit in the washer until prices fell back late at night.

    Most people are not aware that electricity prices fluctuate widely throughout the day, let alone exactly how much they pay at the moment they flip a switch. But Ms. Kinch and her husband are among the 1,100 Chicago residents who belong to the Community Energy Cooperative, a pilot project to encourage energy conservation, and this puts them among the rare few who are able to save money by shifting their use of power.

    Just as cellphone customers delay personal calls until they become free at night and on weekends, and just as millions of people fly at less popular times because air fares are lower, people who know the price of electricity at any given moment can cut back when prices are high and use more when prices are low. Participants in the Community Energy Cooperative program, for example, can check a Web site that tells them, hour by hour, how much their electricity costs; they get e-mail alerts when the price is set to rise above 20 cents a kilowatt-hour.

    If just a fraction of all Americans had this information and could adjust their power use accordingly, the savings would be huge. Consumers would save nearly $23 billion a year if they shifted just 7 percent of their usage during peak periods to less costly times, research at Carnegie Mellon University indicates. That is the equivalent of the entire nation getting a free month of power every year.

    Meters that can read prices every hour or less are widely used in factories, but are found in only a tiny number of homes, where most meters are read monthly.

    The handful of people who do use hourly meters not only cut their own bills, but also help everyone else by reducing the need for expensive generating stations that run just a few days, or hours, each year. Over the long run, such savings could mean less pollution, because the dirtiest plants could be used less or not at all.

    The vast majority of utility customers know only the average price of the electricity they used in any given month. But wholesale prices for electricity are set a day in advance, usually on an hour-by-hour or quarter-hour basis. Power companies and utilities are keenly aware of the pricing roller coaster, but they typically blend the numbers into a single monthly bill for their customers.

    For most Chicagoans, the average summer price last year was 8.25 cents a kilowatt-hour. Although Ms. Kinch and her husband at times paid as much as 36.5 cents a kilowatt-hour — the peak price on the humid afternoon of Aug. 2 — they paid less than their neighbors over all. On 38 days, some of their power cost less than a penny a kilowatt-hour.

    Other consumers who know the hourly price of their electricity have actually been able to get paid by utilities for power they did not use. In New York City last July, for instance, when there was a blackout in Queens, residents of one building on Central Park West voluntarily cut their demand as much as 42 percent and sold the capacity back into the electricity market so that it could be used where it was more needed.

    Certainly, such situations are a big exception. The fact that most people have no idea how much their power costs has emerged as a sticking point in the ongoing effort to restructure the nation’s electricity business, which the federal government is moving from a system in which legal monopolies charge rates set by state regulators, toward a competitive system where the market sets the price.

    But how does efficient pricing emerge in a business where access to information is so lopsided? A market, as defined by the courts, is a place where willing buyers and sellers who both have reasonable knowledge agree on a price; in the electricity markets, the advantage lies distinctly with those who make and distribute power.

    Under either the traditional system of utility regulation, with prices set by government, or in the competitive business now in half the states, companies that generate and distribute power have little or no incentive to supply customers with hourly meters, which can cut into their profits.

    Meters that encourage people to reduce demand at peak hours will translate to less need for power plants — particularly ones that are only called into service during streaks of hot or cold weather.

    In states where rates are still regulated, utilities earn a virtually guaranteed profit on their generating stations. Even if a power plant runs only one hour a year, the utility earns a healthy return on its cost.

    In a competitive market, it is the spikes in demand that cause prices to soar for brief periods. Flattening out the peaks would be disastrous for some power plant owners, which could go bankrupt if the profit they get from peak prices were to ebb significantly.

    But as awareness of “smart meters” grows, so does demand for them, not only from consumers and environmental groups but also from government bodies responding to public anger over rising power prices. In Illinois, for example, the legislature passed a law in December requiring the program Ms. Kinch joined four years ago to be expanded from 1,100 customers to 110,000.

    The law also required that Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago utility, hire a third party to run the program. It chose Comverge Inc., the largest provider of peak-load energy management systems in North America.

    The smart metering programs are not new, but their continued rarity speaks in part to the success of power-generating companies in protecting their profit models. Some utilities did install meters in a small number of homes as early as three decades ago, pushed by the environmental movement and a spike in energy prices.

    Today, the same set of circumstances seems to be prompting a revival of interest, and even the utility companies seem resigned to the eventuality of such programs. Anne R. Pramaggiore, the senior vice president for regulatory affairs at Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, said that in the past, interest in hourly meter was transitory.

    “We really haven’t dealt with these issues for 30 years,” she said.

    But a sustained effort to install more meters is likely now because of what Ms. Pramaggiore called a “fundamental change” in the energy markets. Rising fuel costs and environmental concerns are — once again — front and center.

    When consumers know the price of their electricity in advance and can tailor their use, even minor changes in behavior can lead to lower home utility bills and less reliance on marginal power plants, said Kathleen Spees, a graduate student in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon.

    “Small reductions in demand can produce very large savings,” said Ms. Spees, who analyzed prices charged within the PJM Interconnection grid, which coordinates the movement of wholesale electricity for 51 million people from New Jersey to Illinois.

    Consumers who cut back on power use at peak times can do more than just avoid high prices. They can make money, as people in the building on Central Park West learned last summer.

    Peter Funk Jr., an energy partner at the law firm Duane Morris who lives in the 48-unit co-op, persuaded his neighbors three years ago to install a single meter to the Consolidated Edison system and then to operate their own internal metering system. That made the building big enough to qualify for hour-by-hour pricing.

    When the next day’s prices are scheduled to soar, the building superintendent and a few residents get e-mail messages or phone calls. “We have an orderly plan all worked out to notify people” so they can reduce their power use during the designated times, Mr. Funk said.

    The residents save more than just the money on power not used during peak periods, when pricing has been as high as almost 50 cents a kilowatt-hour. During the blackout in July, when parts of Queens were without electricity for up to nine days, the building cut demand as much as 42 percent and sold the unused capacity for about $3,000.

    That money helps the building offer a valuable benefit: On most weekend mornings, electricity for residents is free.

    Saturday, January 06, 2007

    How to Live With $5.00 Gas - Japan a Model of an Energy Conscious Society

    [From the New York Times:]

    In many countries, higher oil prices have hurt pocketbooks and led to worries about economic slowdowns. But here in Japan, Kiminobu Kimura, an architect, says he has not felt the pinch. In fact, his monthly energy bill is lower than a year ago.

    A reason is his new home fuel cell, a machine as large and quiet as a filing cabinet that sits in front of his house and turns hydrogen into electricity and cold water into hot — at a fraction of regular utility costs. But even with the futuristic device, which is available for now only in Japan, Mr. Kimura has not let up on the other shortcuts that leave him unscathed by last year’s oil squeeze.

    Energy-efficient appliances abound in the many corners of his cramped home. There is the refrigerator that beeps when left open and the dishwasher that is compact enough to sit on the kitchen counter. In some homes, room heaters have a sensor that directs heat only toward occupants; there are “energy navigators” that track a home’s energy use.

    And then Mr. Kimura, 48, says there are the little things that his family of four does to squeeze fuel bills, like reusing warm bath water to wash laundry and bicycling to buy groceries.

    “It’s not just technology, it’s a whole mind-set,” said Hitoshi Ikuma, a specialist in energy issues at the Japan Research Institute. “Energy conservation is almost an obsession here among government, companies, regular citizens, everyone.”

    Japan is the most energy-efficient developed country on earth, according to most specialists, who say it is much better prepared than the United States to prosper in an era of higher global energy prices. And if there is any lesson that Japan can offer to Americans, they say, it is that there is no one fix-all solution to living with oil above $50 a barrel.

    [Image: Japanese homes use less than half the energy, on average, of an American home. Click to Enlarge. (Source: New York Times]

    Rather, as Mr. Kimura shows, it is a combination of many things, from the most advanced technologies to the simplest frugality in everyday life — and an obsession with saving energy that keeps his family huddled in a single heated room during winter.

    Japan tops most global comparisons of energy efficiency in wealthy nations. Its population and economy are each about 40 percent as large as that of the United States, yet in 2004 it consumed less than a quarter as much energy as America did, according to the International Energy Agency, which is based in Paris.

    Japan’s obsession with conservation stems from an acute sense of insecurity in a resource-poor nation that imports most its energy from the volatile Middle East, a fact driven home here by the 1970s shocks. The guiding hand of government has also played a role, forcing households and companies to conserve by raising the cost of gasoline and electricity far above global levels. Taxes and price controls make a gallon of gasoline in Japan currently cost about $5.20, twice America’s more market-based prices.

    The government in turn has used these tax revenues to help Japan seize the lead in renewable energies like solar power, and more recently home fuel cells. One way has been a subsidy of about $51,000 for each home fuel cell. This allowed Mr. Kimura to buy his cell last year for about $9,000, far below production cost. His cell, which generates one kilowatt per hour, provides just under half of his household’s electricity, and has cut his electricity bill by the same amount, he said.

    The device works by converting natural gas into hydrogen, which the fuel cell then uses to generate electricity. Heat released by the process is used to warm water.

    [Image: Kiminobu Kimura of Tokyo uses a home fuel cell, a machine that resembles a filing cabinet and sits in front of his house. (Source: New York Times]

    The first two fuel cells were installed in the prime minister’s residence in April 2005. Since then, some 1,300 have been sold, according to the trade ministry. The ministry forecasts that as sales pick up, production cost will fall to about $5,000 by decade’s end. Experts say that Japan is far more willing to embrace new technologies than the United States, where opposition to hydrogen storage tanks in Tarrytown, N.Y., forced General Motors to scrap an experimental filling station for fuel-cell cars last year.

    Higher energy prices have also created strong domestic demand in Japan for more conventional and new energy-saving products of all sorts. That has spurred the invention and development of things like low-energy washing machines and televisions and high-mileage cars and hybrid vehicles, experts say. Japanese factories also learned how to cut energy use and become among the most efficient in the world.

    Companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries are now reaping the benefits in booming overseas sales of their highly efficient electric turbines, steel blast furnaces and other industrial machinery, particularly in the United States. The environment ministry forecasts that exports will help turn energy conservation into a $7.9 billion industry in Japan by 2020, about 10 times its size in 2000.

    “Japan has taught itself how to survive with energy prices that are twice as high as everywhere else,” said Kouichi Iwama, an economics professor at Wako University who advises the Japanese Parliament on energy policy.

    But with a few exceptions like cars, many of Japan’s efficient consumer products have yet to make their way overseas, according to corporate executives. Partly, that is because while more energy-efficient, they are also more expensive. But another reason is that many appliances here are designed for Japan’s conservation-conscious lifestyle, which includes things like smaller homes and a lack of central heating.

    Mr. Kimura says he, his wife, and two teenage children all take turns bathing in the same water, a common practice here. Afterward, the still-warm water is sucked through a rubber tube into the nearby washing machine to clean clothes. Wet laundry is hung outside to dry or under a heat lamp in the bathroom.

    “In Japan, it’s natural to think about saving energy,” Mr. Kimura explains. “We learned not to waste from our parents, who had learned it from the hardship of the war and after,” he said.

    The different approach is also apparent in the layout of Mr. Kimura’s home, which at 1,188 square feet is about the average size of a house in Japan but only about half as big as the average American one. The rooms are also small, making them easier to heat or cool. The largest is the living room, which is about the size of an American bedroom.

    During winter, the entire family, including the miniature dachshund, gathers here, which is often the only room heated. Like most Japanese homes, Mr. Kimura’s does not have central heating. The hallways, stairwell and bathrooms are left cold. The three bedrooms have wall-mounted heaters, which are used only when the rooms are occupied, and switched off at night.

    The living room is kept toasty by hot water running through pipes under the floor. Mr. Kimura says such ambient heat saves money. He says the energy bill for his home is about 20,000 yen ($168) a month. Central heating alone would easily double or triple his energy bill, he says.

    “Central heating is just too extravagant,” says Mr. Kimura, who is solidly middle class.

    The government has tried to foster a culture of conservation with regular campaigns like this winter’s Warm Biz, a call to businesspeople to don sweaters and long johns under their gray suits so that office thermostats could be set lower. It has also encouraged development of energy-saving appliances with its Top Runner program, which has set goals for reducing energy use.

    Products that meet the goals are awarded a green sticker, while those that fail get an orange sticker. Japan’s trade and industry ministry says consumers heed the stickers, pushing manufacturers to raise the energy efficiency. The average air-conditioner now uses two-thirds less electricity than in 1997, and the average freezer 23 percent less, the ministry said.

    The savings add up. The average household here used 4,177 kilowatt- hours of electricity in 2001, the most recent figure, according to the Jyukankyo Research Institute in Tokyo. In the same year, the average American household consumed more than twice that, or 10,655 kilowatt hours, according to the Energy Department.

    “The Japanese use less energy, there’s no doubt about that,” said Alan K. Meier, a scientist specializing in energy efficiency at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “Some of it is more efficient appliances, but these are only part of a different lifestyle and one that’s more energy-conscious.”

    Wednesday, January 03, 2007

    Propelled By Voters, Wind Power Picks Up Speed in Washington State

    [From the Puget Sound Business Journal:]

    When Columbia County resident Tanya Patton wants to get a library book for herself or one of the four children she home-schools, she has to visit the nearby Dayton Library during the 21 hours the library is open during the week. Even with limited hours, keeping the library going has required endless rounds of bake sales, book sales, raffles and other fundraisers from Patton and other supporters.

    But the library soon will get significantly more funding, thanks to a boost in the county's property tax revenue generated by the new Hopkins Ridge wind farm [pictured above]. Patton led a campaign to form a new county library district that will share resources with the city library, which may allow the library to extend its operating hours or put its catalog online for the first time.

    Across large swaths of Eastern Washington, wind farms are generating tax revenues as well as electricity, pumping additional money into county coffers. As more wind farms are built, their construction and the taxes they generate may have a profound impact on the economic landscape of rural counties.

    Three new wind farms -- Hopkins Ridge in Columbia County and Wild Horse and Big Horn in Klickitat County -- were completed in Eastern Washington within the past year, bringing the state's total to six.

    Those three facilities more than double the state's wind-energy production, generating enough power to serve three-quarters of the households in Seattle. They will also generate about $3.6 million a year in property taxes during their first 10 years in operation, according to Renewable Northwest Project, a Portland-based coalition of environmental and consumer groups and energy companies.

    And the wind-energy trend is gaining speed, thanks in part to Initiative 937, which will require large utilities to increase the renewable power they generate. Another half-dozen wind farms are under construction, ready to break ground or in the permitting process.

    Others may follow, since significantly more wind power will likely be required to meet the goals of I-937. The Democratic Congress also appears poised to extend the production tax credit that makes wind power competitive with energy from other sources.

    But the industry faces significant challenges, including a lack of transmission capacity to carry power from Eastern Washington or even Montana and Idaho, the areas with the highest potential to generate power, to Western Washington, the area of highest power demand.

    The industry, and individual wind-power developers, also have plenty of critics. Some residents of Eastern Washington consider wind farms visual blight. David Bowen, chair of the Kittitas County Commission, said he's gone to public meetings about proposed wind farms and heard residents say that constructing the projects would mean reducing the quality of life in Kittitas to serve the Puget Sound area's energy needs.

    Audubon Washington supports wind-energy development, but the organization also wants the state to study wind-farm siting to reduce impacts on wildlife. Audubon Washington and other groups say proposed wind-farm projects need to be evaluated to ensure they won't kill large numbers of birds and bats.

    For better or worse, construction of wind farms seems likely to continue for several reasons. While the Northwest's massive hydroelectric dams have provided cheap and abundant electricity for decades, much of that power is spoken for, and new electricity sources must be found to accommodate growth. Concerns over global warming and pollution make renewable power sources such as wind farms more appealing than such options as coal-fired power plants. Some utilities, such as Bellevue-based Puget Sound Energy, the owner of the new Hopkins Ridge and Wild Horse projects, are embracing wind energy. And many customers and lawmakers support renewable power for reasons such as environmental and energy-security concerns.

    Voter support for renewable energy was evident with the November passage of I-937 [see previous post], which requires large electric utilities to get 15 percent of power from renewable sources -- other than existing hydroelectric dams -- by the year 2020. Wind energy will likely make up a significant chunk of that.

    Although some of the 15 percent will come from solar, biomass or biogas and other sources, wind energy will be a substantial part because wind power is cheaper to produce than solar. Today, only about 1.3 percent of the state's electricity comes from wind. Some of the wind energy produced in Washington, such as electricity from the Big Horn project in Klickitat County, is sold to other states such as California.

    The three new wind projects completed within the last year represent significant chunks of capital. According to Renewable Northwest Project, they represent $840 million in total project investment and capital costs, about 743 short-term construction jobs and 39 to 50 permanent jobs. In addition to the roughly $3.6 million the projects will generate in annual property taxes over the first 10 years, the turbine owners are paying landowners between $1.2 million and $1.85 million in royalties. A landowner can get between $2,000 and $5,000 per turbine per year.

    Some of the economic effects are being felt even before the property tax revenue is being collected. While Hopkins Ridge was being built, workers bought goods and services in the surrounding community, said Jennie Dickinson, executive director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce.

    "The hotels were full of workers, and the state of Washington has a lodging tax that can be used for tourism promotion," Dickinson said.