Wednesday, August 29, 2007

UK Liberal Democrats Call for Carbon Neutral Britain

Last week, I argued that the right national target in the fight against global warming should be complete carbon neutrality. Apparently the UK's Liberal Democrats party has the same target in mind!

Calling for a "100 per cent carbon free" Brtain by 2050, the UK's Liberal Democrats party unveiled a series of proposals yesterday aimed at transforming Britain into an international leader in the fight against the climate crisis.

"Pollution doesn’t respect national boundaries," said Liberal Democrat party leader, Menzies Campbell. "Climate change is a global problem that requires an international solution. Britain should not be a bit player in finding that solution; we should be leading the pack."

The Liberal Democrats, the UK's third largest political party (wikipedia entry here for ignorant yanks like me), will debate the proposals, outlined in a paper called "Zero Carbon Brtain - Taking a Global Lead," at their party conference in Brighton next month.

The plan calls for:

  • Major improvements to the rail network and the construction of a high speed rail line, paid for by tolling lorries [trucks] on motorways

  • A commitment to 100 per cent carbon free, non-nuclear electricity by 2050

  • The use of green taxes to make the polluter pay, using the revenue to cut income tax

  • Introducing ‘green mortgages’ to enable people to make their homes more energy efficient

  • "With these policies the Liberal Democrats have become the first major British party to map out the route to a carbon neutral Britain," Campbell said. "And the first to plan the way towards a cleaner global environment too."

    "This ambitious objective for zero-carbon Britain would put us in the global lead in tackling climate chaos," said Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary and Member of Parliament, Chris Huhne.

    "Just as crucially," Huhne said, "we have set out plans that are the first attempt of any British political party to tackle carbon emissions from every part of the economy: transport, energy, housing, offices and factories. The time for talk has passed; we need action."

    Well at least one yank is wondering (again) why we don't have instant run-off voting/preferential voting here in the U.S. (as they do in Australia) - or at least some system that allows viable 3rd parties.

    The Liberal Democrats, a left-leaning social liberal party and Britain's third largest political party, routinely receives around 20% of the votes in general elections, and while the UK's first past the post" system under-represents them in parliament, the Lib Dems, as they are often abbreviated, still captured 62 seats in the House of Commons (about 10% of the 659 seats in the House).

    In the U.S., we can only dream of a strong third party with seats in Congress that has the strength and position to take up a bold position on climate change, call for a carbon neutral America, and begin to shift the tenor of national and congressional debates on the climate crisis.

    Without a strong two-party system that leaves little room for viable third parties, we in the U.S. will have to focus our attention on the two main political parties and do our best interject our rallying cry of a carbon neutral America into the mainstream.

    Bravo to the Liberal Dems for taking a bold stand and setting an example for other political parties across the world! I'll raise a glass of gin to you chaps tonight...

    EnergyCures, clean energy awareness campaign by E+Co

    E+Co recently launched a call-to-action campaign, Energy Cures, motivating people to stop the inherent cycle between poverty, dirty energy and its drastic affect on the environment by investing in these clean energy entrepreneurs of developing nations. Believing that market-driven businesses are a solution to meeting the energy needs of over 2 billion people in an environmentally-conscious way, E+Co and their Energy Cures Campaign establishes sustainable communities, stimulates impoverished economies, and preserves environmental resources.

    E+Co, is a U.S. based non-profit financial services organization whose mission is to empower local small and medium enterprises that supply clean, modern and affordable energy to households, businesses and communities in developing countries. E+Co has mobilized over $157 million, provided modern energy to over 3.6 million people, supported almost 3,000 jobs and offset 2.2 million tons of CO2. Over the past 13 years, E+Co has proven that it is possible to invest in local businesses that develop and deliver modern, clean energy in villages and cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America that allows for economic development, protects the planet and helps people escape the cycle of poverty.

    More on

    Monday, August 27, 2007

    Book review: The Clean Tech Revolution

    The Clean Tech Revolution premiered earlier this summer, so I know I’m a bit slow reviewing it. It initially wasn't my idea of breezy summer reading, but I have to say it was a pretty fast read.

    Authors Ron Pernick and Clint Wilder hail from Clean Edge, a clean tech research and publishing firm. Their writing is not too technical, not too bland. At times I thought some of the topics were a bit over-generalized, but the clean tech movement is a fast-moving beast and the book is a good primer for learning the basics.

    “Clean tech” is boiled down to eight essential areas: Solar power, wind power, biofuels and biomaterials, green buildings, personal transportation, smart grid, mobile technologies, and water filtration. Each chapter concludes with a recommended list of ten companies to watch, and the book ends with a chapter on how companies can successfully market clean tech (hint: don’t lead with “Save the Planet!”).

    Although I’m not a newbie to clean energy, I am a beginning investor in it. Here are some points that I found most compelling:

    • Solar energy business is an electronics business. Electronics giants in the solar industry - like Sharp, Sanyo, and SunPower - are likely to be the big winners, rather than the energy giants like BP and Shell. For example, Sharp has targeted 20 percent of its revenue from its solar division by 2010. Semiconductor equipment manufacturers like Applied Materials are other good prospects.
    • Wind turbine manufacturers are looking at nanotechnologies to strengthen and improve the durability of turbine blades and gears, especially with a worldwide shortage of steel. GE, Mitsubishi, NRG, and Vestas are exploring these new technologies. In general, the authors are "very bullish on wind power now."
    • Pernick and Wilder are really excited about plug-in hybrid vehicles. While we need improved batteries to store the electricity to power the car in its initial all-electric mode, the infrastructure (the grid) is already there. They expect Toyota to have the first plug-in on the market. Companies like Germany's OScar and the Society for Sustainable Mobility are tapping into engineering brains around the world to create a fuel-efficient, next-generation plug-in hybrid vehicle. It's the collaborative, open-source process that many of us are familiar with on the web, but now taken a step further.
    • The creation of a smarter electric grid could also take advantage of an open-source process. Rather than a grid that is thrown together piecemeal as it is now, the authors argue that a more thoughtful, purposeful grids should be designed as the Internet was designed. It should anticipate disruptions, redirect spiking currents, and automatically power down noncritical appliances (like dishwashers) during peak demand. Organizations like the Electric Power Research Institute (whose business members generate more than 90 percent of the electricity in the U.S.) are working towards open standards and guidelines for how a smart grid would operate.
    • The U.S. military is a major developer, user, and driver of clean tech. The Pentagon committed $30 million to doubling the efficiency of solar cells, and the U.S. Air Force is the largest consumer of green power in the country. The military's constant and growing need for lightweight and efficient mobile technologies could help drive portable, clean technologies along even faster. Pernick and Wilder recommend watching companies like 3M (called a "nanotech powerhouse" by the Motley Fool) and SkyBuilt Power (self-described "Dell of renewable energy systems").
    • I admit that water filtration does not come to mind when I think of clean technologies. But with increased population, global warming impacts, and the global water market only trailing electricity and oil in market size, the need for clean drinking water is going to become more critical and more profitable. Keep an eye on California-based Energy Recovery with its super-efficient water treatment process.
    I recommend the book as a good starting point for investors, techies, students, and advocates of clean energy.

    The 11th Hour

    Leonardo DiCaprio's “The 11th Hour” is a feature length documentary concerning the
    environmental crises caused by human actions and their impact on the planet. The 11th Hour documents the cumulative impact of these actions upon the planet's life systems and calls for restorative action through a reshaping of human activity.

    DiCaprio states, “With the onset of global warming and other catastrophic events, environmentalism has become a broader unifying human issue. We as citizens, leaders, consumers and voters, have the opportunity to help integrate ecology into governmental policy and every day living standards.”

    With the help of over fifty of the world's most prominent thinkers and activists, including reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, physicist Stephen Hawking, and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, “The 11th Hour documents the grave problems facing the planet's life systems. Global warming, deforestation, mass species extinction, and depletion of the oceans' habitats are all addressed, and their causes rooted in human activity. The combination of these crises call into question the very future not of the planet, but of humanity.

    However, the most powerful element of “The 11th Hour is not a portrait of a planet in crisis, but the offering of hope and solutions. Scientists and environmental advocates such as David Orr and Gloria Flora paint a portrait for a radically new and exciting future in which humanity seeks not to dominate the earth's life systems, but to mimic them and coexist. “The 11th Hour calls for a future now within our grasp that is both sustainable
    and healthier.

    The film was directed by sisters Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners. They state, “We made this film as call to action, especially to young people. They are the ones who have the power to reshape the future. We must begin now.” They have established,, as a place for people to gather and effect change.

    “The 11th Hour” begins wider national release on August 24th.

    (If you can't see the above video, please click here for the trailer)

    Wall Street looks at energy efficiency to boost profits

    Today the Wall Street Journal featured a special section on energy efficiency. The paper reports that business is increasingly looking at reducing energy use as a way to improve the bottom line.

    "Now, with oil, gas and electricity prices soaring, companies are beginning to realize that saving energy can translate into dramatically lower costs. And that means higher profits and happier shareholders -- not to mention a cleaner planet," write Leila Abboud and John Biers. "So, companies are beginning to pour more money into making old equipment energy-efficient or upgrading to cleaner models. And they're starting to streamline their operations to cut down on waste."

    "Even companies with longstanding energy-saving programs are redoubling their efforts in light of rising fuel costs and greater pressure from the public to address global warming."

    Abboud and Biers cite a recent International Energy Agency study that found energy use in heavy industry could be reduced by 18% to 26% by applying available technologies, a savings is equivalent to one to one-and-a-half times Japan's annual energy consumption. Light industries like retailing could cut energy use by up to 50 percent.

    The authors point to several examples:

    * STMicroelectronics, Europe's biggest semiconductor maker, has saved a net $1 billion from 1994 through 2006 through improved energy efficiency at its factories. The projects cost about $300 million.

    * Wal-Mart will meet a target to reduce energy use by 20% in existing stores by 2012

    * Heineken will use 15% less energy in 2010 than it did in 2002

    Green Drivers Spot Clean Fuels with Earthcomber

    What's the biggest challenge for anyone using alternative fuels? Obviously, where to fill it up! Here's a new service to help drivers who are going green, go the distance.
    Earthcomber, a wireless mobile information network, recently launched a free scanning service so travelers can spot alternative fuel at nearly 4,000 locations across the US.

    This means that anyone using a mobile phone, PDA, Blackberry, or iPhone can quickly determine at any point on their journey where the closest location is to get refueled.

    The list includes the following:

    • BioDiesel
    • E85 (Ethanol)
    • LPG (liquified petroleum gas)
    • CNG (compressed natural gas)
    • Hydrogen
    • Electric (hookups to recharge electric cars and hybrids)
    How to get it: go to http://mobile/earthcomber/com

    Earthcomber works with regular computers, BlackBerrys, web-enabled cell phones, iPhones, Palm and Windows Mobile devices.

    The alternative fuels are listed under the “Transport” menu.

    Earthcomber currently is popular with travelers for finding ATMs, restaurants, local events, churches, shopping, amusements and more. It also is a platform that users share to find special interest locations ranging from Frank Lloyd Wright buildings to movie locations to ghost towns.

    Because Earthcomber spots events and personal interests, it can be an easy navigation tool for eco-conscious individuals. It works with or without GPS, allowing people to set their location with an easy on-screen menu.

    Friday, August 24, 2007

    Putting Aside Percentages - the Right Target in the Fight Against Global Warming is Carbon Neutrality!

    A new rallying cry for the climate solutions movement: "A carbon neutral future for ourselves and our children!"

    When it comes to fighting global warming, there tends to be a lot of different percentages and years thrown around: California is planning to reduce global warming pollution 25% by 2020; Oregon's legislature adopted 10% below 1990 levels as the state's 2020 objective; bills floating around Congress push targets ranging from a mere return to 1990 pollution levels by 2020 to a cut of 80% by 2050.

    Lost amidst all of these percentages and years, those of us committed to building a movement for solutions to the climate crisis have struggled to find a rallying cry.

    In an effort to 'mainstream' the currently-most-aggressive legislation in Congress, the nationwide Step it UP day of action rallied behind a call for Congress to 'Step it UP!' and cut carbon emissions 80% by 2050. Step it UP was arguably quite successful in this goal: co-sponsorship and support for the Boxer-Sanders and Waxman climate change bills, which call for an 80% reduction, has been building and all of the major Democratic 2008 presidential candidates have now adopted the 80% by 2050 target as part of their platform (with some upping the ante with a call for a 90% reduction).

    Step it UP 2, scheduled for November 3rd, plans to reiterate the 80% by 2050 target while adding a few new planks to the call for action.

    But amidst all this talk of percentages, is the '80% by 2050' target that has become the de facto rallying cry for our movement the 'right' target? Will it be enough to get the job done and solve the climate crisis? Will it be an adequate rallying cry to inspire a popular movement?

    Now that the 80% by 2050 call has become mainstream, it's time for a serious discussion about whether or not its' time for a new, more inspiring, more aggressive rallying cry.

    Carlos Rymer recently posted an excellent discussion on what the 'right' target is, scientifically speaking.

    There's a strong argument to be made that even an 80% reduction by 2050 will be too little, too late, to give us better-than-even odds of avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate change. I don't know about you, but I'm not willing to bet the future of the world, to bet my future and my children's future on coin flip odds!

    Carlos concludes that a 95% reduction by 2030 is probably necessary in the developed world, in order to do our part to reduce per-capita emissions to an appropriate level.

    I think Carlos is right on in calling for a more aggressive target, and as he concludes at the end of his post, a call for 95% reductions is, practically speaking, the same as a call for 100% reductions, or complete carbon neutrality.

    David Roberts over at GristMill agrees, and proposes a replacement rallying cry:

    "Children born today should live to see a U.S. that produces no climate pollution."

    Scientifically speaking, a call for complete carbon neutrality - no more human caused global warming pollution than human efforts to absorb and sequester global warming pollution can remove from the atmosphere - is a much more sound target than an 80% reduction by 2050. We ultimately need to model our energy and industrial systems on natural systems: what we put in the atmosphere must not exceed what we can safely remove from the atmosphere - through reforestation efforts, for example.

    A call for complete carbon neutrality is also a more inspiring and aggressive rallying point than the 'wonky' call for 80% reduction in global warming pollution by 2050.

    Jefferson Smith of the Oregon Bus Project, the MC for the April 14th Step it UP! rally in downtown Portland, Oregon, got plenty of laughs out of the mouthful that slogan presents:

    "What do we want?" he shouted, to which the crowd, at his jocular coaching, responded: "An 80% reduction in global warming pollution!"

    "When do we want it?" "By the year 2050 or preferably sooner!"

    This was followed by plenty of laughs at the inadequacy of such a lengthy and wonky 'rallying cry.'

    But self-effacing jokes aside, this dilemma isn't something we should laugh off lightly.

    Building the strength and momentum of a powerful climate solutions movement will require an inspiring and aggressive rallying cry, something people can latch on to, something with emotional (not merely intellectual) appeal, something that will help redefine what is politically possible. Unfortunately, I don't think the '80% by 2050' call for action fits those criteria (at least not any longer).

    So let's put aside the percentages and the target years. Let's put aside the wonky mathematics. We can leave the targets and the years to the policy wonks who will attempt to translate our powerful call for a climate neutral future into concrete policy proposals.

    Instead, let's pick up a rallying cry that appeals to the heart, a rallying cry that inspires, that motivates and that shifts the discussion of what is politically possible!

    As David Roberts says, "I want my kids to live in a country that does not pollute the atmosphere with [greenhouse gases]. You don't need to know any math to understand that."

    [Photo Credit - Step it UP!/John Quigley/Spectral Q]

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Warnings from a Warming World: Hurricane Dean Breaks Records, Third Most Intense Storm at Landfall

    Hurricane Dean sets several records as many ponder the connection between Global Warming and stronger hurricanes

    Hurricane Dean made landfall early this morning as a fierce category five storm, slamming into the southern end of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula with 160+ mph winds and lashing rains.

    The major hurricane has set several records and, like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, caused many to take a closer look at the connection between global warming and more intense and devastating hurricanes.

    Here are the key records that Dean either broke or otherwise affects:
    1. With a minimum central pressure of 906 millibars, Dean was the ninth most intense hurricane ever observed in the Atlantic basin (for comparison Hurricane Katrina's minimum pressure was 902 millibars).

    2. That 906 millibar pressure reading was at landfall, making Dean the third most intense landfalling hurricane known in the Atlantic region and the first Category 5 storm at landfall since 1992's Hurricane Andrew.

    3. When measured by minimum pressure, six of the ten most intense Atlantic hurricanes--Wilma, Rita, Katrina, Mitch, Dean, and Ivan--have occurred in the past ten years.
    As with any single weather event, it is impossible to blame Hurricane Dean or any other singular storm on global warming directly. However, if recent trends towards more intense storms are true - and they are at least consistent with scientific predictions based on basic thermodynamics - recent massive hurricanes could be a sign of things to come, as global warming continues to warm ocean temperatures, fueling stronger storms.

    Chris Mooney at Huffington Post and the Daily Green has published two excellent posts (one short, one longer) about what we can and can't say about global warming and Hurricane Dean:
    Now we see why the ancient Mayans built their cities inland from the coasts.

    Early this morning, Hurricane Dean slammed the Yucatan as a still-intensifying Category 5 storm with sustained winds upwards of 165 miles per hour. Dean required some troubling readjustments of our hurricane records, and as a result, we may hear some serious chatter today about the relationship between these intense storms and global warming.

    For that reason, the purpose of this post is to lay out what we can and can't reliably say about Hurricane Dean. The upshot is this: We have to be careful what we claim and how we claim it, but even so, Dean fits into a worrisome pattern.


    We can't blame any one hurricane event on global warming directly. Nevertheless, the information above is certainly consistent with the idea advanced by some scientists that global warming is causing an intensification of the average hurricane. We're apparently seeing the strongest hurricanes recur in the Atlantic with a higher frequency than before -- or at least, than we've ever been able to measure before.

    Measuring systems weren't as good in earlier eras, you see -- a fact that makes our records somewhat impeachable. A "record" is only what's recorded, after all. And so skeptics will inevitably quibble with our imperfect data and challenge it. There might well have been a storm much stronger than Dean 200 years ago -- we just don't know.

    Nevertheless, if you look at the data we have, Dean fits into a very troubling pattern and context. Moreover, the present data, with all their admitted imperfections, aren't all we have to go on. There's also the theoretical expectation that hurricanes ought to intensify, for basic thermodynamic reasons, as global warming adds more heat to the oceans. Add together this theoretical expectation with the new records today and, well, anyone would be justified in feeling pretty worried by Hurricane Dean.

    Dean was also the strongest hurricane anywhere in the world so far this year -- and by far the strongest at landfall. We can only hope that somehow, the damage is lighter than expected as the storm tears across the Yucatan today and then prepares to cross the Bay of Campeche and make a second expected landfall in mainland Mexico.

    For a further and more detailed discussion of Dean in its Atlantic and global context, see my "Storm Pundit" post at The Daily Green, available here.
    [An obvious hat tip to Chris Mooney. (Image source: Weather Underground)]

    Monday, August 20, 2007

    Before We Get Drunk on Ethanol, Let's Make Sure We Get It Right

    Not all biofuels are created equal: in fact, depending on how they are produced, biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel can be environmentally destructive, raise the price of food, and even hurt efforts to tackle global warming.

    Biofuels - ethanol and biodiesel - present a potentially important (partial) solution to concerns about global warming and our over-reliance on oil. However, to paraphrase a great LA Times op ed on the ethanol craze, alcohol is best enjoyed in moderation, and the same goes for these alcohol-based biofuels.

    So before we all get drunk on ethanol, we'd better take a close look at the benefits and potential drawbacks of biofuels and make sure we get it right.

    The Benefits - In Pursuit of Energy Independence and a Safe Climate

    Biofuels offer the potential to displace foreign oil and depleting fossil fuels with a more sustainable and domestic fuel while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Still, depending on how they are produced, ethanol and biodiesel require considerable fossil fuel inputs - diesel for tractors, natural gas for fertilizers, fuel to transport the feedstocks, and typically fossil fuels to produce the biofuels at a biorefinery. So while the biofuel itself may be made from renewable crops and contains only carbon that was absorbed from the atmosphere during the growth of the plants, the total net benefit of biofuels after taking into account inputs is far from carbon neutral nor fossil fuel free.

    Exactly how much net benefit there is to biofuels depends largely on the production methods and feedstocks and has been the subject of much debate. While some have repeatedly made the case that conventional biofuels - corn-based ethanol and soy or rapeseed-based biodiesel - take even more fossil fuels to produce than the offset, the consensus has been that conventional biofuels offer a moderate reduction in fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions - on the order of a 10-30% reduction when compared to conventional petroleum-based gasoline and diesel.

    Next-generation biofuels produced from cellulosic feedstocks - a fancy term for a wide variety of generally inedible plant matter including wood, straw, and grasses as well as agricultural wastes like corn stalks and rice hulls - are an exciting prospect and could maximize the potential for biofuels to offset oil and fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

    Making ethanol or biodiesel from cellulosic feedstocks can be a much more energy efficient process than conventional corn or soy-based biofuels, can be made from inedible crops and even agriculture, forestry, or urban waste materials.

    However, next-generation, cellulosic biofuels are currently in the early stages of commercialization. The first pilot and commercial scale cellulosic biofuel refineries are under construction or on the drawing boards these days and how long it will take to fully scale up and commercialize the emerging biofuel technology remains to be seen.

    Up in Smoke - How Slash and Burn Agriculture Wipes Out the Climate Benefits of Biofuels

    Land use changes - most notably the loss of tropical forests - account for about 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions - roughly the same as both the total annual emissions from the United States or China.

    That's right: slash and burn agriculture can be just as large a threat to the climate as China's rampantly growing economy or the hundreds of millions of cars plying American highways!

    So if we're going to start replacing oil with biofuels, we'd better not be trading one problem - rampant oil consumption - for another equally devastating problem - accelerating the conversion of tropical rainforests into farm and grazing lands.

    Unfortunately, that's exactly what we're beginning to see, with massive swaths of tropical forests, savannas and grasslands - all productive carbon 'sinks' - being slahed, burned and replaced by biofuels plantations. Massive expansions of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, soy and sugar plantations in Brazil, and jatropha plantations in China's forested Southeast have all been proposed to feed the growing global demand for biofuels.

    Slashing massive swaths of forests to clear the way for biofuel plantations clearly amounts to a devastating ecological loss. These tropical and semi-tropical forests are some of the most biologically-diverse habitats in the world and have already been devastated by traditional timber and agricultural demands. It's no wonder the Worldwatch Institute has called China's biofuels expansion "an ecological disaster," and the same can be said for similar biofuel expansion plans across the world.

    But even beyond the massive loss of biodiversity and habitat when forests are converted to biofuel plantations, the destruction of these forestlands also wipes out any global warming benefits of biofuels.

    According to a new study published in Science last week ($ub req., see this New Scientist summary) the climate benefits of ethanol and biodiesel are completely wiped out by tropical deforestation.

    When you destroy forestlands, grasslands, savannas and other wilderness, much of the carbon stored in the ecosystem's living matter ends up in the atmosphere - burned, decomposed or otherwise oxidized. Additionally, forestlands represent an important carbon sink, 'breathing' carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it as trees and other plants grow.

    The loss of these important natural carbon 'scrubbers' more than makes up for the moderate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from burning biofuels instead of gasoline or diesel: according to the study, it would take up to a century for the benefits of biofuels to recoup the initial loss of the tropical forestland and the emissions associated with slashing and burning the land to make way for biofuel plantations!

    "We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change," says Renton Righelato, co-author of the new study.

    Furthermore, the study concludes that the climate benefits of biofuels are trumped by reforestation efforts, even in temperate climates. "You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land," says Righelato.

    The study's authors found that reforestation would store and sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels produced on the same amount of land instead of gasoline (see bar chart below).

    [Graphic: the carbon savings from burning biofuels instead of gasoline (top six bars) compared to the carbon emissions resulting from clearing tropical forestland for biofuel plantations (red bar) and the carbon savings from reforestation efforts (bottom three bars). Figures are expressed as metric tons of carbon equivalent saved or emitted per acre devoted to biofuel production or reforestation. (Source: New Scientist)]

    No Free Lunch When Fuel Competes with Food

    We all know the old adage: there's no such thing as a free lunch. Well, when fuel competes with food, everyone's lunch gets more expensive (as the LA Times accurately observes).

    The vast bulk of global biofuels production utilizes edible feedstocks like corn and soy. As demand for corn to make ethanol has soared, corn prices have shot up, nearly doubling in the past year. Record high prices are encouraging a record acreage of corn planted in the United States - the highest in 63 years - and prices for other foods are on the rise as farmers plant corn in acreage they have otherwise planted wheat or soy.

    Prices for all kinds of food have soared in the first half of 2007 (see chart below) and the LA Times op ed reports that grocery-store food prices rose 8%. It's unknown how much of that hike is attributable to corn, and rising fuel and fertilizer costs are certainly a major factor in rising food prices, but soaring demand for corn for ethanol production is certainly playing a significant role as well.

    [Graphic: Food prices on the rise in 2007. (Source: McClatchy Newspapers)]

    Middle class Americans may be able to shrug off higher prices at the grocery store, but increasing food costs hit lower income folks harder.

    And if low-income Americans are feeling the crunch, things are even harder in the developing world. When you get buy on just a few dollars a day, doubling corn prices are no small matter. Rising corn prices have already launched public outcry and even riots in Mexico, which depends on imported American corn for tortillas and other affordable, nutritious stables.

    Producing biofuels from inedible cellulosic feedstocks could provide a solution to this fuel-or-food dilemma, although producing energy crops like switchgrass - an excellent biofuel feedstock and native North American grass that once dominated much of the Great Plains - on limited agricultural land could continue the competition between biofuels and foodstuffs.

    Clean Green Fuels? - Other Environmental Effects

    Industrial farming to produce biofuel feedstocks, particularly corn, consumes large amounts of water and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. Many of these chemicals seep into waterways, polluting the water and providing nutrients for algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen and kill everything else. A 'dead zone' the size of Connecticut and Delaware put together has repeatedly formed in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by algae gorging on chemical fertilizers carried into the Gulf by the Mississippi river.

    Additionally, farmers ordinarily rotate crops annually to avoid soil exhaustion, but high corn prices encourage them to plant corn in the same fields year after year. This high-intensity farming accelerates the loss of topsoil and depletes soil nutrients and the only way to make this work is to pour on more fertilizers, further exacerbating problems.

    Finally, while ethanol may be "cleaner burning" when it comes to many pollutants and is a better fuel additive or "oxygenate" than toxic MTBE, burning ethanol in high concentrations could increase certain air pollutants. A recent Stanford University study argued that E85 - a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline - produces so much ozone, a key ingredient in smog, that if it were used in Los Angeles instead of gasoline, it would raise ozone-related deaths 9%.

    Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater - If We're Smart, Biofuels Still Have a Role to Play

    Given all of these concerns about increased use of ethanol and biodiesel, should we just bag the whole idea and move on to something else? No, I would argue.

    When it comes to confronting the climate crisis and ending our oil addiction - two massive problems - we're going to need all the tools we can get. Biofuels, if done right, still have an important role to play in reducing our reliance on oil and our contribution to global climate change.

    I present the above concerns about biofuels because understanding the potential pitfalls, problems and limitations of biofuels - both conventional and next-generation - will be crucial to developing the standards that are necessary to ensure that biofuels can help make a dent in our oil addiction and help solve the climate crisis without exacerbating other environmental problems.

    We should focus on developing cellulosic biofuels that rely on readily available cellulosic biomass in existing waste streams - timber slash and mill residues, urban wood wastes, agricultural residues, etc.

    These feedstocks offer the least environmental impacts, do not compete with food crops, and according to this study (pdf) are available in large enough quantities to be worth pursuing - roughly 3/4 of a billion dry tons each year, or enough to produce around 75 billion gallons of ethanol or biodiesel if estimated yields from next-generation biorefineries prove correct.

    That is enough biofuel to provide about 1/3rd of all the energy consumed by cars and light trucks in the United States.

    Additionally, unlike producing ethanol from corn, which typically requires large amounts of coal or natural gas, converting cellulosic biomass to biofuels requires little or no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, cellulosic biorefineries should be able to utilize the lignin portion of the biomass left over after the cellulose is removed to produce all of the energy inputs for the refinery process and even produce electricity for export (potentially offsetting electricity from coal or natural gas).

    Getting on the Right Path - Time for a New U.S. Biofuels Strategy

    To be done right:

  • Biofuels should not come from edible feedstocks, including corn, soy or wheat.

  • Biofuels should preferably be produced from readily-available, existing waste streams of cellulosic biomass.

  • If produced from an energy crop, sustainable harvesting practices should be employed, the crops should be grown on existing farmland and should be planted as part of a regular, sustainable crop rotation so as to not compete with foodstuffs.

  • The full, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of all biofuels should be considered, including (and especially) emissions from land use changes. Under no circumstances should a biofuel feedstock be utilized that results in the clearing of rainforest or other wilderness areas or results in a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Employing these kinds of standards in our public policy would necessitate a dramatic shift away from heavily supporting corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

    It would necessitate the creation of environmental sustainability standards for the U.S. biofuels industry and would imply a ban on imported biofuels from countries that do not adopt satisfactory sustainability standards on their own domestic biofuels industries.

    It would require a focus on commercializing next-generation cellulosic biofuel technologies and exploring the most sustainable feedstock sources and harvesting/collection methods.

    So, given all of the concerns about biofuels, why aren't any of our elected officials calling for a change in direction for the U.S. biofuels industry? Why do we continue to subsidize the corn ethanol industry to the tune of several billion dollars a year? Why do all of the presidential candidates pay at least lip service to corn ethanol, even those like Hillary Clinton and John McCain that have been openly critical of corn ethanol in the past?

    Well, the political power of agri-giants like ADM and Cargill and the importance of corn-growing Iowa in presidential elections are certainly standing in the way of a sensible biofuels policy. It's hard to find another explanation for an energy policy that is so clearly designed to do little to actually solve any of the problems it's supposed to solve while so clearly benefiting narrow but politically powerful special interests.

    The latest Senate energy bill continues this trend with a massive 36 billion gallon/year by 2022 biofuels requirement, 40% of which will likely come from good old corn-based ethanol, necessitating a quadrupling in the U.S. corn ethanol industry! (To be fair, the bill does require that 60% of the standard is met with next generation biofuels...)

    It's time for a change in American energy policy when it comes to biofuels. It's time to actually have an energy policy when it comes to biofuels, and not a massive agricultural subsidy program disguised as an energy policy.

    Let's heed the warnings of climate scientists, ecologists and rioting Mexican peasants: the path we're on right now means biofuels exacerbate the climate crisis, amount to an environmental disaster, and drive up prices for food around the world.

    But there's another path, a path where sustainably-harvested, next-generation biofuels coupled with a dramatic increase in fuel efficiency and the adoption of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles makes gasoline a thing of the past.

    It's time to get ourselves on the right path.

    [A hat tip to Glenn Hurowitz at Gristmill]

    Wednesday, August 15, 2007

    Massachusetts Ski Resort Installs Own Wind Turbine

    Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort is now the first ski area to make it's own electricity with clean, renewable wind power

    After a ski trip in January 2006, I was struck by the thought that every ski resort in the country should be generating some of their own power by installing small wind turbines at their windy, mountaintop ski areas:
    Imagine if you had a piece of property that sat in a very high wind area with average wind speeds of 15 miles per hour (at 10 meters) or better blowing every day. Now also imagine that you ran a business on that property that consumed quite a bit of energy and had a not very green reputation to boot. Let's also add that there are significant financial incentives available in your state for renewable energy installations that could help finance over half the cost. Now why wouldn't you want to install a few wind turbines?

    Well that's exactly the question that owners and operators of ski resorts around the country ought to be asking themselves.
    Well, as I reported back in January '06, someone had a similar idea and actually ran with it, only on a much larger scale than I had proposed: Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, a ski area in Massachusetts just flipped the switch on a 1.5 megawatt GE wind turbine that will power their operations, according to a press release I received today.

    The dedication ceremony for the "Zephyr" wind turbine, held today, was the culmination of a three-year project to erect a 1.5 megawatt GE wind turbine taller than the Statue of Liberty, according to the press release.

    Other ski resorts, like Aspen, Vale and Whistler, have made major purchases of renewable energy credits to offset the electricity they consume, but Jiminy Peak is the first to actually generate their own clean, renewable energy.

    Brian Fairbank, president and CEO of the resort and the driving impetus behind the effort to harness the wind, said a combination of wind power and resort conservation will reduce the resort's energy costs by 49.4 percent in 2007-08. The $3.9 million wind turbine project, which Fairbank said was “the most complex financing project of my life,” is nonetheless expected to pay for itself in seven years.

    The wind turbine requires a wind speed of 6 mph to operate and can work in winds gusting up to 55 mph. During periods when the mountain doesn't need the electricity, it will be sold back to the power company. “When the wind is howling at 2 a.m. and we're all asleep, we'll continue to make electricity for the grid,” said Fairbank.

    The turbine will generate approximately 4,600,000 kWh each year, just over 60% of the approximately 7,500,000 kWh Jiminy Peak consumes a year.

    According to the company, rising electricity prices were a major motivator to install their own wind turbine. Electricity prices were 50% higher during the 2005-2006 ski season than the previous year, Jiminy Peak reports. "Wind power will provide Jiminy with significant annual stabilization of cost on electricity," the company says, "and will allow Jiminy Peak to project a portion of their electricity costs for 25 years into the future. Due to the significant wind resource here at Jiminy, the wind power is the most economical energy stabilization measure for the resort. "

    “Although the wind turbine is up and running, we're not done yet,” said Fairbank. “While this is a giant step forward to helping to preserve the environment, Jiminy Peak will continue to improve upon its energy conservation and continue to strive to take better care of the mountain ecosystem.”

    [Image: The Zephyr turbine perched on Jiminy Peak]

    The Zephyr project is part of the resort's ongoing Forever Green program of environmental sustainability and responsible business practices.

    In the future, Fairbank plans to educate other businesses, especially other ski resorts, on how the answer to reducing their carbon footprint is literally blowing in the wind.

    Jiminy Peak plans to offer tours of the wind turbine site on Sept. 21 and 28, and Oct. 19 and 21. Zephyr will also be open and staffed during the mountain's annual fall festival on Oct. 8-10.

    The company has set up a website with information and images about the Zephyr wind turbine and other green efforts the ski resort has undertaken.

    Let's hope other ski resorts take heed. While a massive, 1.5 MW turbine presents some difficult logistical and financing challenges, it may be the most cost effective way to generate your own wind power. However, installing smaller 10-100 kw turbines could be an easier way for ski resorts to take advantage of the high winds that howl passed their ski lifts. Imagine 10 kW wind turbines perched atop the top of each ski lift...

    Tuesday, August 14, 2007

    What to Do About Global Warming: A Basic Framework for a Good Cap-and-Trade Proposal

    David Roberts at GristMill has been writing a series of thoughtful posts on the potential actions the 110th Congress may take to address climate change. As he recognizes in this post, we're now moving beyond simply demanding that Congress do something about global warming and have start thinking about what we want that something to look like. If we can't articulate some simple principles, we risk having growing momentum and calls for action co-opted to pass a weak, ineffective climate bill that fails to get the job done at the same time that Congress declares victory and tells us to pack up and go home.

    As David writes, "We need the grassroots to be engaged, pushing back against the many half-ass measures on offer, lobbying on behalf of good measures." And to do that, to engage with the incredibly 'wonky' and complex yet enormously relevant topic of cap-and-trade proposals, people need some simple guidelines to help them see if a climate proposal is a good one or not. We need a few simple points we can latch on to, encourage our legislators to keep in mind and build pressure behind.

    To that end, David recently outlined the general elements of what makes a good cap and trade system. Obviously there could be different priorities - Step it UP! 2 has a different, broader-focused list - but these are what both David and I agree are the key elements to a strong cap-and-trade proposal worth supporting:

    1) Auction rather than give away emissions permits for free.
    Free allowances are a windfall for polluters, forgo an excellent revenue source (that can help offset the costs to low-income energy users and spur clean energy investment ... see point 2 below) and undermine the price signal for polluters that's the whole point of putting a price on carbon.

    2) Spend revenue wisely to spur development and deployment of clean energy and reduce impacts on low-income and vulnerable citizens.
    Putting a price on carbon will raise energy prices and will do so in a regressive manner: those with lower incomes pay a much more substantial portion of their income to energy costs and will be hit hardest by higher energy bills. The regressive nature of a cap and auction policy can be remedied by pumping auction revenues back into reducing payroll or income taxes for low-income citizens - I would suggest an expansion of the earned income tax credit, for example. The remaining revenue should either be used to fund incentives and R&D in clean energy technologies, or to fund a flat, per-capita tax rebate/reduction for everyone. The former will help further reduce energy bills by decreasing the costs of the clean technologies that will help transition to a low-carbon energy future and the latter will be a politically popular way to help sell the whole concept, building support by producing tangible benefits to voters. Both also help further offset the regressive nature of a carbon price.

    3) No 'safety valves' that undermine the integrity of the cap.
    A 'safety valve' or cap on emissions allowance prices undermines the integrity of the cap and destroys the price signals necessary to incent investment in low-carbon technologies, sacrificing the goals of the legislation to protect polluters.

    These are simple guidelines and principles for what an effective cap and trade program would look like. To David's list, I'll add one more crucial point:

    4) Targets that get the job done.
    This probably means a target of 10-20% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. We've got to cut emissions hard and fast in the United States to a) do our fair share to curb rising global emissions and b) gain credibility with the rest of the world, particularly China and India, as we try to lead an international effort to cut global emissions at least in half by mid-century. That will mean getting developing nations to agree to develop in a less carbon-intensive way and to adopt mandatory caps on their emissions, a tough sell unless we're leading the way with credible, strong actions at home.

    To summarize, as David does, "auction permits, spend the resulting revenue wisely, and don't short-circuit the system with safety valves.

    We can all remember that, right?" Oh, and don't forget (as David unfortunately does) that we need targets that will actually get the job done - 80% by 2050 - or the whole thing's pointless anyway.

    Monday, August 13, 2007

    An Interview with Docter James Hansen

    [It's Getting Hot In Here has a great interview with Dr. James Hansen, widely regarded as America's top climate scientist. Dr. Hansen discusses a moratorium on coal-fired power plants, the role of 'clean coal' technology, and youth participation in the climate solutions movement. Special thanks to Whit Jones and the It's Getting Hot In Here community for putting together this interview...]

    Last weekend Iowa native Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute made a homecoming trip to the Hawkeye state to join the March to ReEnergize Iowa and deliver the keynote address at the final rally. See the complete transcript of his speech here and read about the rally in the Des Moines Register.

    Dr. Hansen echoed his call for a moratorium on coal and increased youth participation in the preservation of our future. The It’s Getting Hot In Here community generated a list of questions that were delivered to Dr. Hansen and his responses are included below. Please be sure to leave your thoughts and responses in the comments section.

    1) In the span of your career, public opinion on global warming has shifted dramatically, have we reached the tipping point necessary to effectively combat it?

    That is unclear. Although there has been a recent widespread increase in awareness, it comes at just the same time as an energy crunch due to a booming global economy (especially emergence of China) that is causing a sudden surge of increased coal use. If this is not nipped in the bud, we could lose the ball game.

    2) In one of your recent email dispatches (pdf), you made a bold statement by calling for a moratorium on coal without carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology. Does the attention and recognition paid to CCS technology divert money and energy from clean energy and efficiency technologies?

    It certainly should not. CCS technology is still somewhat of a mirage. As of yet there is no “clean coal” in reality, and commercial availability is probably at least 10 years away with current efforts. If a requirement is placed that coal can only be used if it is truly clean, that will cause a sudden stop in any increased use of coal. Efficiency and renewable energies are likely to be the big winners from such a constraint, at least for a decade and perhaps forever. CCS may be so expensive that it will cause a big change in the attractiveness of coal. Coal is presently very cheap, partly because it is often subsidized and because it almost never has to pay for the environmental damage it does, including mercury pollution of lakes and oceans.

    3) What role do you see for youth in bringing forth a moratorium on coal?

    The damages of dirty coal will be visited mainly on the youth of today and on the unborn. This is true especially for the climate changes that will be put “into the pipeline” to appear in future decades, but also for effects of water pollution such as brain damage due to mercury in fish, and the mess that is left behind on bull-dozed mountains.

    4) What was the major issue on campuses when you were a student? Were you involved?

    The Vietnam war. I was a post-doc by the time students really got heated up. They took over buildings on the Columbia University campus. No, I was not involved. It doesn’t fit my personality, I prefer working on science problems. I have had to force myself to get involved in the present case. It seems to me that the most useful thing that I can do is try to contribute to the court cases against inefficient vehicles and coal-fired power plants.

    5) If we remove subsidies from carbon-intensive energy sources and manage to put a price on carbon, won’t CCS coal be priced out of the market?

    Perhaps, but only if there are alternatives, much of which would probably be energy efficiency. Much more than half of the energy that we use is wasted. So if coal is priced out, that would be great. Imagine the cleaner atmosphere and ocean, and all the good high tech jobs that would be needed to replace that energy source. There are a lot of jobs associated with energy efficiency, as well as renewable energies.

    6) Do you think CCS Coal technology will be essential for a low-carbon future for countries like China? Is it problematic, practically, ethically and scientifically, to transfer this technology to China when it is basically untested here?

    It will surely be tested here and elsewhere. It can be tested there, as well as here. It is not like this is a dangerous technology that is going to explode and kill people.

    7) In light of the fact that the impacts of fossil fuel use extend beyond the greenhouse effect, to what extent should we address the life cycle costs, such as mountain top removal mining and exploitation of impacted communities when confronting global warming?

    Absolutely, it is very important to look at the life cycle costs, especially for things such as ethanol. Germany is finding that the huge subsidies they gave coal are now coming back to haunt them. Some villages are sinking a few feet — there are tens of billions of dollars of future costs due to land subsidence. These costs will be born by today’s youth, and the unborn.

    8) Traditional media has failed to reach youth with the message that fighting coal is necessary to preserve our future, what do you think is the role for new media.

    Well, one problem is that the media always focuses on today. It shortchanges the young and future generations. I don’t know how to fix that.

    Step it UP 2: Bigger, Badder and In Search of a Leader!

    Announcing Step it UP! 2, November 3rd, 2007. The sequel will be even bigger and badder than the original - but only with your help!

    On April 14th, 2007, hundreds of thousands of citizens joined forces to send a loud and clear message to Congress: "Step it UP, Congress: Cut Carbon 80% by 2050."

    Students joined seasoned activists alongside everyone from soccer moms to hippies at over 1,400 different rallies and events held across the United States as part of the national Step it UP! 2007 day of action.

    At city squares and village greens, on the tops of mountains and along threatened coastlines - there were even events underwater (check out this slideshow) - concerned citizens all across the country came together in what became the largest day of environmental protest since Earth Day 1970. We came together to draw a line in the sand and demand action to address the climate crisis.

    Step it UP! 2007 gathered national and local media attention. We engaged our elected officials - many of whom made the Step it UP pledge alongside us - and we got a response: all of the 2008 Democratic candidates for president have now adopted the Step it UP! platform of an 80% cut in global warming pollution by 2050. Bills in both the Senate and House would make that call for action a reality and are gathering support and sponsorship.

    Most of all, Step it UP! helped build a citizen movement for global warming solutions. And as Bill McKibben, founder of Step it UP! points out, "A movement needs to keep moving, and calling for real leadership is the next logical step."

    That's why Bill and the Middlebury College students who successfully organized and kicked off Step it UP! in April are at it again: last week, they announced Step it UP! 2: Who's a Leader', a second round of nationwide protests, rallies and actions scheduled for November 3rd, 2007.

    November 3rd is just about one year before the pivotal 2008 elections - an election that will make our break our efforts to tackle the climate crisis and build a sustainable energy future - and the goal of Step it UP! 2, as McKibben summarizes, is "to find out who is simply a politician, and who’s ready to be a leader.

    Here's Bill McKibben's invitation to all of us take one Saturday this fall to join with our fellow citizens to make Step it UP! 2 even bigger and badder than the first version! This is a citizen movement, built from the ground up by you and me, and it's up to us to make Step it UP! 2 a success in each of our communities. Let's keep on movin' on:
    Dear Friend,

    There are occasional moments in history when we desperately need leadership, and this is one of them. If we’re going to deal with global warming, then we need to go beyond politicians who say the right words and find champions who will actually do the tough work to transform our energy economy.

    And you could play a key role in bringing those leaders to the fore. This is an invitation to take one Saturday this fall and use it to build a movement, a movement strong enough to finally put this issue on the table where it can no longer be ignored.

    Here’s the idea. On November 3, a year before the next election, we’re asking people to organize rallies large and small in their communities. Each one should take place in some spot that commemorates great leaders of the past. People have already committed to climbing New Hampshire's Mt. Washington and gathering in Chicago's Lincoln Park. Others will gather at the Rhode Island church where John F. Kennedy was married, or in front of a site honoring Navajo elder and activist Roberta Blackgoat. But we need hundreds more, gatherings in places that bear the names of national leaders or of locally celebrated men and women who did the right thing in a moment of great need. You’ll know the person that makes sense in your city or town—they don't need to be saints, just true leaders, the kind who, faced with the great issues of their day, didn't punt or compromise.

    Once you've got your rally registered on our website, we'll help you gather a crowd, and invite the politicians from your neck of the woods. We want to ask every Senator and Representative, and every candidate for those offices, to come to these rallies, along with state and local officials. Once they're there, we'll present politicians with the four "1 Sky" priorities prepared in the last few months by climate campaigners across the country. They are: an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, 10% in three years (hit the ground running), a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, and a Green Jobs Corps to help fix homes and businesses so those targets can be met. Basically, we want to find out who is simply a politician, and who's ready to be a leader.

    We know these gatherings will be effective. In April, with the help ofthousands of people (most of them brand new to organizing) from across the country, we organized 1,400 rallies in places that showed how climate change would affect our lives. Those events were key in putting the demand for real action--80% cuts in carbon emissions by 2050--square in the middle of the Washington debate. But a movement needs to keep moving, and calling for real leadership is the next step.

    Don't worry if you've never organized anything before--you're not putting together a March on Washington, just a gathering of scores or hundreds in your town or neighborhood. It needn’t be slick; homemade is just fine. Put your imagination to work: what would Lincoln do? How would Dr. King take on this challenge? This is a celebration of leadership, and a celebration should be joyful—as focused on the new economies and communities we can create as on the threats we must avoid.

    These rallies will be local, but they’ll also have national impact. The website will help draw people to your action, and then on Nov. 3, we'll be gathering pictures and video from around the country so that by nightfall we'll have a good online slideshow of how America feels. We'll do our best to make sure that every candidate is firmly on the record about their plans. By the time the day is done, you'll have helped change the political landscape.

    The best science tells us we have barely a decade to start the fundamental transformation of our economy and to lead the world in the same direction or else, in the words of NASA's Jim Hansen, we will face a "totally different planet." (He went on to say that the "1 Sky" priorities "describe just the kind of trajectory we need" to start solving the problem). A decade's not very long—we've got to get going.

    I know you’ve already done the obvious things, like changing some of the lightbulbs in your house. Screwing in a lightbulb is important; screwing in a new federal policy to deal with climate change is crucial, especially if we’re ever going to regain enough credibility to help lead the world toward a stable climate. November 3 will be a powerful day, and you can play a vital role. Please sign up on the website to start or join an action—and thank you so much for caring enough to be a leader yourself.

    Bill McKibben and the team

    P.S.One more thing. Please forward this invitation as far and wide as possible, to anyone you know who might possibly be interested. We’re not really an organization, and we don’t have lists of names—we depend on people like you to take the initiative.

    So what are you going to do in your community? Let's Step it UP one more time, keep gathering momentum, carry it through Focus the Nation in January 2008, the primary elections in the spring and on through next summer and the 2008 elections. Nothing less than the future of the world as we know it hangs in the balance!

    Wednesday, August 08, 2007

    House Passes Clean Energy Bills Including National Renewable Energy Standard

    The House passes crucical clean energy legislation, but challenges still await in the form of a contentious conference committee and a possible presidential veto.

    This past Saturday, the House of Representatives took a crucial step towards creating the sustainable energy future we’ve been calling for with the passage of two important clean energy bills.

    The first, H.R.3221, the "New Direction for Energy Independence, National Security, and Consumer Protection Act" is a package of energy efficiency provisions, clean energy R&D spending and other energy policies. Weighing in at almost 800 pages long, H.R.3221 has been a project of more than a half-dozen committees for the past few months. It finally made it to the House floor Saturday and passed with a vote of 241-172.

    The second bill, H.R.2776 is a package of tax incentives, loan guarantees and other financial incentives for clean energy, and is known as the "Renewable Energy and Energy Conservation Tax Act of 2007. The bill includes expansions of several popular and effective incentives, including the federal production tax credit, the solar investment tax credit and community renewable energy bonds. H.R.2771 passed 221-189.

    The nearly $16 billion in clean energy appropriations in the two bills are funded by eliminating oil and gas company tax breaks and closing loopholes and correcting mistakes in current tax and royalty laws.

    A summary of both clean energy bills can be found at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's website.

    Perhaps the biggest, and most surprising, victory of the day was the passage of an amendment (pdf) sponsored by Representative Tom Udall (D-NM) that establishes a national renewable energy standard (RES) requiring utilities across the country - other than public utilties and electric cooperatives - to get at least 15% of their electricity from clean, homegrown renewable energy sources by 2020. In a compromise that helped secure the RES amendment's passage with a 220-190 vote, up to 4 percentage points of the 15% standard may be met by energy efficiency investments. It should be noted that states will retain the authority to implement higher standards and that those already in place will be protected.

    While the passage of the RES amendment and the two clean energy bills is a major clean energy victory, this was only the first of three battles bills must face before being implemented.

    The Senate, unable to get the necessary support to overcome a filibuster, did not include a renewable energy standard in its energy package this past June, nor was it able to pass a tax package proposal similar to H.R.2771. Additionally, the House failed to muster support for an increase in CAFÉ standards - an increase in fuel efficiency requirement to 35 mpg by 2020 for cars, SUV’s, and light trucks - that was included in the Senate energy package.

    The differences in the two packages will need to be debated in conference committee, when the House and Senate energy packages are merged. When the package goes to conference, CAFÉ and RES are going to be important talking points. Democratic leaders will try to include both provisions and protect the tax package while Senate Republicans have called the RES a "deal-breaker" and even some House Democrats have opposed increased CAFÉ standards, including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair John Dingell, who has jurisdiction over the issue.

    An opinion piece in the LA Times explains the situation perfectly:
    "In june, the senate passed an energy bill loaded with creamy peanut butter. On Saturday… the House approved an energy package that’s pure chocolate.Cookies If we could get these two together without removing their tastiest ingredients, the nation would be in for a history-making treat."
    Like the Energizer Bunny, it seems the energy debates will keep going and going and going through the fall, and the fate of these provisions now lies in the hands of House and Senate leaders who will participate in the conference committee.As if surviving conference not a big enough challenge, the final battle for crucial clean energy legislation will be against our President, George W. Bush, who has threatened to veto the energy package when it comes to his desk. The President is opposed to the provisions in two House energy bills that would end tax breaks for the oil and gas industry to pay for clean energy investments.

    We need rid America of our reliance on fossil fuels and build a new, sustainable energy future. If the best elements of both the House and Senate energy packages can survive conference and veto, this will be a historic first step towards that future.

    Though the RES amendment had to be weakened to ensure necessary support - the targets were first dropped from 20% to 15% and then up to 4% of that was allowed to come from energy efficiency before supporters could secure the necessary votes - the completed energy package is a promising step forward, and certainly worth celebrating.

    The tides are beginning to change. The tenacity with which activists have attacked climate change is beginning to show serious results.

    Let your Representatives and Senators know you support a strong energy package, one which includes both an RES and increased CAFE standards.

    We have the opportunity to truly shift the direction our country is headed in. The energy bills passed by the House and Senate won't be the end of the story, but they are a crucial step forward. Congress wont be back in session until September 4th, so take this time to make your position known.

    [A hat tip to Mattew Maiorana]

    Tuesday, August 07, 2007

    Warnings from a Warming World: World Meteorological Organization Reports on Extreme Weather Events

    The first half of 2007 was full of extreme weather events of the kind climate scientists predict will be more frequent as global warming progresses.

    Weather and climate are marked by record extremes in many regions across the world since January 2007, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported today. Today's press release describes a catalog of extreme weather and climate events experienced across the world in the first half of 2007, from hurricanes and cycles to torrential floods.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report noted an increasing trend in these kind of extreme weather events during the last 50 years, and the IPCC report predicts that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent as global warming progresses.

    According to the WMO, January and April 2007 recorded what was likely the highest land surface temperatures those months have ever seen since record began in 1880. January was a full 1.89°C (3.4°F) warmer than average and April 1.37°C (2.47°F) warmer than average, according to the WMO.

    Several regions also experienced prolonged heat waves and torrential rains leading to flooding, while devastating cyclones and hurricanes made landfall in several regions, including the first ever recorded cyclone in the Arabian Sea (Cyclone Gonu, pictured making landfall above right).

    The WMO report below catalogs extreme weather events recorded across the world during the first half of 2007:

    Heavy rainfall, cyclones, hurricanes and wind storms

    During the first half (June-July) of the Indian summer monsoon season, four monsoon depressions (double the normal frequency) caused heavy rainfall and floods in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Many stations reported 24-hr rainfall exceeding 350 mm (13.8 in). These monsoon extremes and incessant rains caused large-scale flooding all over South Asia, a situation that continues even now, resulting in more than 500 deaths, displacement of more than 10 million people and destruction of vast areas of croplands, livestock and property.

    Cyclone Gonu, the first documented cyclone in the Arabian Sea, made landfall in Oman on 6 June with maximum sustained winds near 148 km/h (92 mi/h). Gonu moved through the Persian Gulf making a second landfall in the Islamic Republic of Iran. In Oman, the cyclone affected more than 20,000 people and was responsible for more than 50 fatalities.

    Heavy rains during 6-10 June ravaged areas across southern China. Flooding affected over 13.5 million people with more than 120 fatalities due to floods and landslides.

    In England and Wales the period May to July in 2007 was the wettest (406 mm/16 in) since records began in 1766, breaking the previous record of 349 mm (13.7 in) in 1789. The extreme rainfall in June, with 103.1 mm (4 in) of rain recorded in 24 hours during 24-25 June in northeast England, was followed by a similar event with 120.8 mm (4.8 in) of rain on 20 July in central England. Both events resulted in extensive flooding across parts of England and Wales. At least nine people have died and damage is estimated at more than US$6.00 billion.

    With 126 mm (5 in) (normal for 1961-1990: 71 mm [2.8 in]), Germany experienced its wettest May since country-wide observations started in 1901. In sharp contrast, the previous month was the driest April since 1901 with an average of 4 mm (0.16 in) (7% of the 1961-1990 normal).

    A powerful storm system affected much of northern Europe during 17-18 January 2007 with torrential rains and winds gusting up to 170 km/h (105 mi/h). There were at least 47 deaths across the region, with disruptions in electric supply affecting tens of thousands during the storm. Initial estimates of losses were reported as 3-5 billion Euros.

    The worst flooding event in 6 years hit Mozambique in February. An estimated 30 people were killed and 120,000 evacuated from the central Zambezi basin. Additional flooding and loss of life was attributed to the landfall of tropical cyclone Favio on 22nd February.

    Abnormally heavy and early rainfall in Sudan since the end of June has caused the Nile River and other seasonal rivers to overflow, resulting in extensive flooding and damaging more than 16,000 houses.

    In May a series of large swell waves (estimated at 3-4.5 meters/10-15 feet) swamped some 68 islands in 16 atolls in the Maldives causing serious flooding and extensive damages.

    In early May, Uruguay was hit by the worst flooding since 1959. Heavy rainfall in portions of Uruguay produced floods that affected more than 110,000 people and severely damaged crops and buildings.

    An increase in intense tropical cyclone activities in the North Atlantic since about 1970 has also been observed.

    Heat Waves

    Many European countries had their warmest January on record. January temperatures in The Netherlands were the highest since measurements were first taken in 1706, averaging about 7.1°C (44.8°F) (2.8°C/5°F above 1961-1990 average) while in Germany the temperatures were 4.6°C (8.3°F) above the 1961-1990 average.

    In many European countries, April was the warmest ever recorded with the temperatures reaching more than 4°C (7.2°F) over and above the long-term mean in some areas.

    In May a heat wave affected areas across western and central Russia breaking several temperature records. In Moscow, temperatures on 28 May reached 32.9°C (91.2°F), the highest temperature recorded in May since 1891.

    In India, a heat wave during mid-May produced temperatures as high as 45-50°C (113-122°F).

    Two extreme heat waves affected south-eastern Europe in June and July, breaking the previous records with temperatures exceeding 40 °C (104°F). Dozens of people died and fire-fighters worked around the clock fighting blazes devastating thousands of hectares of land. On 23 July, temperatures hit 45°C (113°F) in Bulgaria, setting a new record.

    Recognizing the severe health impacts of heat waves, the WMO and the World Health Organization (WHO), are at an advanced stage of preparing Guidance on the implementation of Heat Health early Warning Systems (HHWS).

    Extreme Winter Weather

    An unusual cold winter season brought winds, blizzards and rare snowfall to various provinces in South America with temperatures reaching as low as -22°C (-7.6°F) in Argentina and -18°C (-0.4°F) in Chile in the beginning of July.

    On 27 June a winter weather front moved across South Africa bringing the country’s first significant snowfall since 1981 (25 cm/9.8 in of snow in parts of the country).

    Climate Change and Extremes

    According to the most recent climate change scientific assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the warming of the climate system is "unequivocal."

    Eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature. The linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13°C/0.23°F per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years.

    Paleoclimatic studies suggest that the average Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the second half of the 20th century were very likely higher than during any other 50-year period in the last 500 years and likely the highest in the past 1,300 years.

    The IPCC further notes that there has been an increasing trend in the extreme events observed during the last 50 years, particularly heavy precipitation events, hot days, hot nights and heat waves.

    Climate change projections indicate it to be very likely that hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.


    This information is based on inputs received from several WMO Members and with the collaboration of the NOAA National Climatic Data Centre (NCDC), USA, Germany's National Meteorological Service, the Deutscher Wetterdienst (DWD) and the Met Office, UK. It includes an indicative but not exhaustive coverage of the observed weather and climate extremes. More comprehensive information on weather and climate anomalies observed in 2007 will be provided towards the end of the year.

    Monday, August 06, 2007

    Illinois and North Carolina Pass Renewable Energy Standards - Half of All States Now Have RES Policies

    Illinois and North Carolina recently joined 23 other states in enacting renewable energy standard (RES) policies. Delaware also doubled it's existing standard last month while Missouri adopted a non-binding renewable energy goal.

    25 states now have RES policies with four states enacting new standards in 2007 and two others adding new renewable energy goals (see map below), making 2007 a big year for RES policies.

    More on each state below...

    Illinois: 25% by 2025

    The Illinois General Assembly on July 26 passed energy legislation that includes a renewable energy standard (RES) of 10% by 2015 and 25% by 2025, according to the American Wind Energy Association's newsletter, WindEnergyWeekly (subscription req.).

    The bill passed the House 80-33 and the Senate 40-13 and Governor Rod Blagojevich (D) is expected to sign it soon.

    Although the Illinois RES applies to all utilities, the state has a competitive electricity sector and about half of the state's electricity customers are supplied by “alternative retail electricity suppliers” (ARES), which are not yet covered by the RES.

    At least 75% of the standard must be met with wind resources and eligible resources must come from within Illinois initially and may come from Illinois or neighboring states after 2011.

    “We are thrilled Illinois has passed a bold RES,” Wind on the Wires Director Beth Soholt told Wind Energy Weekly. “We congratulate all our Illinois colleagues who worked tirelessly to pass the aggressive renewable energy and energy efficiency package. Wind developers are lined up around the block to invest billions of dollars in Illinois, and they finally have a green light.”

    With the Illinois energy market the fifth largest in the country, it is estimated that the RES will require more than 4,000 MW of new renewable energy to be delivered to bundled customers, WindEnergyWeekly reports. The new standards is also expected to spur renewable energy development for competitive market customers as well.

    North Carolina: 12.5% by 2025

    The North Carolina Senate on August 2 voted 47-1 for final passage of Senate Bill 3, WindEnergyWeekly reports. The bill includes a renewable electricity standard (RES) of 12.5% by 2021 with energy efficiency eligible to meet up to 40% standard being met with efficiency.

    While the North Carolina standard is not as aggressive as standards recently adopted by other states, North Carolina is the first southeast state to adopt a renewable energy standard policy, setting an important precedent within the region.

    "This [RES] sets an example for other states in the region to follow,” said Jane Preyer, director of the North Carolina regional office of Environmental Defense. “Despite its merits, the legislation has shortcomings, and the job is not over."

    Environmental Defense noted that SB 3 will reduce the state's carbon dioxide footprint by at least 13 million metric tons by 2018, which is equivalent to taking more than a million cars off the road, it said.

    In addition to the RPS, the legislation calls for simplified net metering and interconnection rules to remove regulatory barriers for new renewable energy generation and extended state tax credits for investments in renewable energy technologies to nonprofit entities such as churches.

    The legislation next goes to the desk of Governor Mike Easley (D) for his signature.

    Delaware: Doubles RES to 20% by 2019

    Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner (D) on July 24 signed a bill that doubles the state's renewable energy requirement from 10% to 20% by 2019, according to AWEA.

    Under Senate Bill 19, the required level starts at 2% renewables in 2007, increasing every year by between 1% and 2% until it reaches 20% in 2019.

    WindEnergyWeekly reports:
    The bill also specifies a minimum percentage of solar power needed to meet the overall standard. The solar requirement starts at 0.03% of each utility's electricity sales in 2009 and increases to 2% of sales by 2019. The requirement is structured to encourage the utilities to buy renewable energy credits (RECs) from Delaware homeowners and businesses that install solar power systems. A related bill, Senate Bill 8, specifies that utility customers retain ownership of the RECs associated with their net-metered renewable energy systems, so utilities must buy the RECs from the customers. It also allows utilities to stop offering net metering when the total customer-owned capacity equals 1% of the utility's peak load.The governor also signed Senate Bill 35, which doubles the funding for the state's Green Energy Fund. The fund helps to stimulate the local renewable energy sector by providing grants for renewable energy installations, technology demonstrations, and research and development projects.

    Missouri: 11% by 2020 goal

    Missouri Governor Matt Blunt signed legislation to increase the use of renewable energy from sources such as wind, hydroelectricity, solar power, hydrogen, and biomass on July 10th, reports.

    Senate Bill 54 creates renewable energy targets for utilities of 4% by 2012, 8% by 2015 and 11% by 2020. Utilities are expected to make "good-faith" efforts to reach these targets and are expected to report on their progress to the state utility commission.

    The bill directs the utility commission to give utilities multiple credits towards the goal for renewable energy generation within the state.

    The legislation also requires the Office of Administration to ensure that at least 70% of the new vehicles purchased for the state fleet are flex fuel and allows municipal landfills to accept yard waste in order to create bioreactors to produce methane gas.

    Additionally, SB 54 enacts net metering and interconnection standards allowing utility customers to install net-metered on-site renewable energy systems up to 100 kW in size.

    "This legislation furthers my commitment to Missouri's Green Power Initiative by increasing energy production in our state while practicing responsible environmental stewardship by increasing the use of renewable energy," Gov. Blunt said.

    2007 a big year for Renewable Energy Standards

    North Carolina marks the 25th state in the nation to enact a renewable energy standard policy, meaning half of all states and well-over half of the United States population is covered by a state renewable energy standard.

    In addition to the 25 states with RES policies, Vermont, Virginia and Missouri have non-binding renewable energy goals on the books (see map above).

    New Hampshire, Oregon, Illinois and North Carolina all passed new RES policies in 2007, while Colorado, New Mexico, Minnesota and Delaware all expanded existing RES policies, doubling them or more.

    A bill that would have established a 10% by 2025 RES policy also passed the Indiana House of Representatives 77-20 in April, but the bill failed to pass the state Senate [as far as I can tell, anyway].

    While stopping short of adopting a percentage target or goal, Arkansas also adopted legislative language this year that requires utilities to “consider clean energy and the use of renewable resources” as part of their resource plans. The legislation also gives the state PSC the option to allow cost recovery on clean energy if it is determined to be in the public interest. This language is similar to the language found in renewable energy goals adopted this year in Virginia and Missouri.

    Finally, Congress may very well send a federal renewable energy standard to the President's desk this year. The House of Representatives passed a 15% by 2020 federal RES policy along with a package of clean energy bills on Saturday, August 4th, the first time the House has ever passed an RES policy.

    The fight for a federal RES is long from over though, as the RES must still survive conference committee with the Senate, who failed to pass an RES in their energy package, as well as a possible presidential veto of the energy bill the RES is attached to. More on all that soon...