Monday, May 31, 2010

In Oregon, Student Governments Call for a Future Beyond Coal

This is the first installation in a two-part post series on the Beyond Coal movement in the Pacific Northwest, with a focus on youth engagement. This first in-depth post looks at the Oregon campaign to replace the Boardman Coal Plant with cleaner energy sources by 2014 at the latest. This summer Oregon’s Public Utility Commission has the chance to help propel the state toward a clean energy future by rejecting a plan to keep Boardman open for at least another ten years. Oregon youth have responded with a state-wide campaign to show students support transitioning away from Boardman by 2014 or sooner.

It began in January, when Portland General Electric (PGE) made a big announcement: the major Oregon utility, partial owner and sole operator of the Boardman Coal Plant, proposed a possible timeline for phasing out reliance on Boardman. That was the good news: after months of work on the part of climate activists, PGE had finally acknowledged the risks of associated with their coal-fired coal plant. The bad news? The soonest transition date proposed by PGE fell woefully short of what’s needed to protect Oregon’s environment, our economy, and ratepayers being subjected to the risks of coal dependency. Under PGE’s proposed “2020 Plan,” the Boardman Plant would remain open for a minimum of ten more years.

Media outlets in the Northwest were a-flurry with the news that PGE wanted to decommission its coal plant. Laudatory news articles and editorials poured in, the vast majority framing the issue as one of the PGE responding to public concerns by doing the right thing for the environment. Unfortunately, few stories in the mainstream media probed deeply into the validity of claims PGE made to justify their preferred timetable. Most news sources accepted PGE’s arguments at face value, never asking the essential question of whether a private utility that answers to Wall Street investors should be trusted to essentially regulate itself.

PGE’s analysis flawed, students take action

Yet while the media grew infatuated with PGE’s 2020 Plan, environmental groups and Oregon students decided to act. “This state is my home,” said Tyler Gerlach, a freshman at Linfield College, ”and I’m unwilling to stand by and watch the people that live here be trampled on by a utility company.” We knew the 2020 Plan wouldn’t accomplish what’s needed for both the environment and ratepayers. The 2020 Plan hinged on state and federal regulatory bodies both granting PGE a waiver for pollution prevention upgrades the utility is required to install in 2015. A point largely forgotten by the media was that under the 2020 Plan, if pollution waivers aren’t granted, the utility will go back to the original plan of burning coal at Boardman until 2040 or longer.

If PGE simply made the transition away from Boardman in 2014, it could avoid passing the cost of pollution controls on to ratepayers and eliminate a huge source of carbon on a timescale consistent with Oregon’s pollution reduction goals. Meanwhile, keeping the plant open until 2020 would commit Oregon to at least another decade of burning coal at Boardman, with the costs of burning coal only likely to get higher over time. “2020 is just way too long,” said Katie Taylor, an OSPIRG student organizer at Lane Community College, in an interview with the campus paper The Torch. “I think 2014 is a reasonable deadline.”

PGE’s own studies show 2014 is the transition date that’s best for ratepayers, except in scenarios assuming very high future natural gas prices. In the company’s Integrated Resource Plan, PGE assumes natural gas prices far out of line with projections of third-party bodies like the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. It’s one of several flawed assumptions in PGE’s 2020 Plan: the utility also fails to consider more than one means of replacing Boardman (building a new natural gas unit), and does not adequately account for the fact that federal action on global warming would increase the costs of burning coal. It wasn’t surprising PGE would try to tweak the numbers to give the result most convenient for Wall Street shareholders with an interest in keeping Boardman open. What was more disappointing was that the media seemed poised to let the utility’s assumptions go unquestioned.

Giving Oregon students a voice

Early in the year, youth activists from the Cascade Climate Network, Sierra Student Coalition, and OSPIRG met to forge our strategy for calling PGE out on its claims. Though students had provided critical input on decisions regarding coal in Oregon over the last several months, we knew what would be needed was an even more organized student voice that could unify campuses across the state in favor of transitioning away from Boardman by 2014. Our idea was this: by passing student government resolutions at different campuses, we could show that the bodies elected by students to represent their interests were ready to push for a speedy transition away from Boardman.

Unwilling to settle for only those schools already well-connected to Oregon’s Beyond Coal movement, our team of organizers set out to contact as diverse a list of campuses as possible – from large public universities, to small private schools, to community colleges. To our knowledge, nothing like this had been attempted on this scale in Oregon before: by asking student governments from a large sampling of schools to act in unison on a single issue, our campaign was breaking new ground.

Yet the majority of campuses seemed eager to give students a new voice on this issue. The first batch of resolutions sailed in within weeks. “Boardman threatens our climate, air quality and health,” said Zachary Kitamura, a freshman at Pacific University, which was one of the first schools to pass the resolution. “Ten more years of coal is too long.”

The momentum continues

Our list continued to grow, and soon we picked up our first high school. The student government at McMinnville High School passed its Beyond Coal resolution after students there decided to launch their own resolution campaign, complete with petition drives and a visit to lobby the principal’s office. At the campaign’s conclusion, this public high school in semi-rural, conservative-leaning Yamhill County had joined colleges and universities in declaring its student body’s support for moving beyond coal by 2014. “Boardman is going to close eventually anyway,” said Lindsy Gjesvold of McMinnville High School, explaining her support for the 2014 plan. “Let’s do it on a timescale that makes sense.”

The McMinnville High victory came just in time for an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) public hearing on pollution permits for the Boardman Plant. By the time of that event, our list of student government resolutions had grown to six. It was enough to lend new weight to the student voice at the hearing. Around thirty youth activists turned out in person to that hearing, where citizens concerned about Boardman’s pollution packed two rooms with a total of around 100 bodies. DEQ staff were visibly impressed, and our presence at the hearing apparently made an impact. Just a couple weeks later, the DEQ announced it wouldn’t rubber-stamp PGE’s request for a pollution waiver.

Meanwhile, at Linfield College a fight was brewing. Students from the campus environmental group had brought up the Beyond Coal resolution, only to meet with unexpectedly strong opposition from a faction that convinced the senate to vote down the resolution on the first attempt to get it passed. Long story short, a web search by a student at Linfield revealed the senator heading up the opposition was the son of the Vice President of Transmission and Distribution Services at PGE. The discovery set the stage for a campus-wide campaign to get the Linfield senate to re-consider the Beyond Coal resolution, and this time do the right thing for their student constituents.

What followed at Linfield was one of the most impressive campus-wide advocacy campaigns I have witnessed at a small private college, made more impressive by the fact that students pulled it off during the busiest time of the year. The environmental group at Linfield set out to educate the student body about the risks of coal to our environment and economy, collecting over 150 student signatures asking the senate to pass the Beyond Coal resolution. Linfield students researched PGE’s assumptions in-depth, and pointed out flaws to the senate. In the week before the final vote, senators received a barrage of emails from constituents asking them to pass the resolution. The Beyond Coal buzz spread so far that one student studying abroad emailed the senate from an Internet cafe in Mexico City. Within four weeks, grassroots organizing at Linfield had done its job: at the last senate meeting of the term, the Linfield student government voted near-unanimously to ask PGE to transition from Boardman by 2014.
During the second half of May, the campaign continued accumulating victories that included passage of Beyond Coal resolutions by two of Oregon’s largest colleges – Portland State University and Oregon State University. Our list now includes student governments at ten schools, among them major public universities, community colleges, several private universities and colleges, and a high school. Passing student government resolutions may not sound as flashy as banner-drops and lock-downs, but the result has been to give Oregon students a more organized voice in regional energy decisions than perhaps we’ve ever had before. With the backing of campus governments representing thousands of Oregon students, we’ll go to decision makers with more credibility than could be achieved in any other way. It’s just in time too, because one state commission is poised to decide whether PGE’s 2020 Plan gets the go-ahead.

Oregon Public Utility Commission is a key player

This summer, the Oregon Public Utility Commission (OPUC) will review PGE’s 2020 Plan and decide whether it’s a good deal for ratepayers. This state-level body is charged with looking at utilities’ plans to check that they make sense for customers, deciding whether ratepayer money is best spent the way each utility has proposed. OPUC can put the brakes on PGE’s plan to keep Boardman open another decade; to do its job right, the commission needs to look carefully at PGE’s assumptions and decide if the its questionable assumptions are reasonable. If PGE has biased its analysis to make replacing Boardman look more expensive than it is, then approving the 2020 Plan is a bad deal for ratepayers.

“It is in the best interest of Oregonians to close the Boardman Plant by 2014,” said Tyler Gerlach of Linfield, ”and OPUC is supposed to look out for our best interest, not that of a private corporation.”

On college campuses across Oregon, student governments looked at many of the same issues OPUC will consider with regards to PGE’s 2020 Plan. At Linfield College for example, the personal connection to PGE of one senator meant the senate was fed all PGE’s talking points – which later were discredited by in-depth research by Linfield students. In the end, the Linfield senate and student governments around the state decided to trust third-party energy analysts above the claims of a utility with an inherent interest in keeping its own coal plant open as long as possible. One after another student governments have rejected PGE’s assumptions and called for a transition away from Boardman by 2014, not just because of environmental concerns but in the interest of PGE’s ratepayers. Wall Street investors will benefit if PGE can postpone the closure date of their coal plant as long as possible – but with coal only likely to grow more expensive, ratepayers stand to lose out.

Ten elected student governments are standing with the long list of environmental, consumer, health advocacy, and faith groups calling for a timely move away from Boardman Coal. By 2014, Oregon’s only in-state coal plant must be replaced by cleaner sources of energy. The state can then move on to ending ties to coal plants located outside state boundaries. To meet the charge of protecting Oregon ratepayers, commissions like the OPUC must reject PGE’s 2020 Plan. By doing so, they can follow in the footsteps of student governments across Oregon that have already spoken up.

Read more!

Friday, May 28, 2010

House Passes Competitiveness Bill After Near-Collapse

By Teryn Norris
Cross-posted from Americans for Energy Leadership

Today, the House of Representatives passed the flagship U.S. competitiveness and innovation legislation, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 (full text and summary), by a vote of 262 to 150. The House Science & Technology (S&T) Committee press release is here and a full breakdown of the vote is here, including 245 Democrats and 17 Republicans in favor, 0 Democrats and 150 Republicans opposed.

The passage comes after the proposal was blocked twice within the past two weeks on the House floor, triggering significant alarm among the science and technology community. The first incident on May 13th involved a "Motion to Recommit" attached to an anti-pornography amendment, introduced by S&T Committee Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX), which forced many members to vote to send the bill back to committee. The second incident on May 19th occurred when the bill failed to reach the two-thirds majority required under procedures that were used, despite the inclusion of the anti-pornography amendment and a cut in the authorization level by nearly 50 percent.

Today, House S&T Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) used a rare procedure called a division of the question, which allowed separate votes on various parts of the amendment included in the May 13th Motion to Recommit. This effectively allowed the House to pass the bill with a standard majority vote, and the original bill was passed with a few amendments, including total authorization at five years and approximately $86 billion. This authorizes the continued doubling of budgets for the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy Office of Science, and National Institute of Standards and Technology, and includes new authorization levels for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, Energy Innovation Hubs, the higher education component of the RE-ENERGYSE proposal, and more.

"I am disappointed that my Democratic colleagues resorted to using a procedural tactic to defeat Republican changes that would have saved over $40 billion and restored the original COMPETES priority of basic research," said Representative Hall in a statement. "While I am glad we were finally able to reauthorize many of the important research and education programs in this bill, the bill that passed today spends too much money, authorizes duplicative programs, and shifts focus away from the bill's original intent."

The revival of America COMPETES constitutes a victory for science and technology advocates, however, Senator authorization and eventual appropriations will be significant challenges. Regardless, the rare procedural tactics necessary to overcome such partisanship and over-dramatized budget concerns -- even with such high-profile competitiveness legislation that will drive significant technology innovation, high-tech job creation, and long-term economic growth -- represents a clear and alarming example of how U.S. technological leadership could be increasingly threatened in the years ahead, as I noted in a recent article. Building the economic and political case for a strong national innovation system backed by major federal investment, and directly challenging the anti-government and neoliberal orthodoxy that continues to limit effective innovation policy, must gain renewed urgency if we are to build upon today's outcome.

Read more!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Collapse of Competitiveness Policy?

The Collapse of Competitiveness Policy
By Teryn Norris
May 26, 2010
Published by The Huffington Post

Last week, the flagship federal legislation for U.S. competitiveness containing broad support for science, technology, and advanced education - called the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010 - collapsed in Congress after it was blocked from passage through the House, despite already being significantly weakened.

Enter the age of American polarization, where bread-and-butter competitiveness and innovation policy is subject to hyper-partisan politics and obstructionism, even in the face of rapidly rising global competition. America COMPETES, which was originally passed with strong bipartisan support under President Bush, may be yet one more casualty of today's extreme political polarization, which according to one major study is at the highest level in over a century.

But beyond the issue of partisanship, this is an alarming wake-up call to how anti-government sentiment and neoliberal economic ideology - which seeks to discredit the role of federal investment in promoting technology innovation and growth - could combine forces and seriously damage our national innovation system in the years ahead.

The United States was a driving force behind the global expansion of prosperity and security in the 20th century, due in large part to our technological leadership. The collapse of America COMPETES is one of the clearest and most alarming examples in recent history of how this leadership is being threatened - not by some foreign entity, but from within our own country. How did we get to this point, and what lessons might this incident hold?

The Rise and Fall of COMPETES

The America COMPETES Act was originally passed in 2007 with major bipartisan support in response to the National Academy of Sciences report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. It is widely recognized as the most authoritative assessment of U.S. competitiveness in the past decade, commissioned by Congress and developed by a committee of the country's leading experts in science, technology, and business.

"Having reviewed trends in the United States and abroad, the committee is deeply concerned that the scientific and technical building blocks of our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength," they concluded. "This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security."

Read more!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Entrepreneurs Wanted: Must be willing to think big to transform energy for the poor

A guest post by Hugh Whalan

When Apple transformed the music industry with the iPod and iTunes, and when Google revolutionized internet search capabilities, it was a win for everyone – consumers got better products and the companies providing them became rich.

There are billions of energy-poor consumers in desperate need of exactly this kind of industry transformation. The sheer size and growth potential of the market has the potential to create the next generation of huge energy companies – as large as BP, Shell and Exxon – which are focused on providing small scale energy solutions to the billions for whom this is the best solution.

The opportunity for the entrepreneurs who will build the next generation of energy mega-companies can be summed up with three simple points:

  1. Those at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP), people earning $1-$6 dollars a day, already spend a lot on energy. More than $US433 billion each year according to the World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI estimates energy is the second largest market in the BOP markets –bigger than the transport, health, ICT and water sectors combined.

  2. Studies show that the average BOP consumer would use more energy if they could afford to. This means that as the poor come out of poverty and as the price of each unit of energy drops, the market will continue to grow.

  3. The energy resources currently meeting BOP consumer demand are overwhelmingly archaic and inefficient (e.g. kerosene, dung, firewood, and charcoal).
In summary, the BOP energy market is huge, will continue to grow quickly and has underserved customers. It’s the kind of market that screams for innovation, and the stuff of dreams for entrepreneurs. Some entrepreneurs are already well on their way to addressing this market failure by providing cheaper, greener, and safer options for BOP consumers. Some examples include Barefoot Power’s efforts with solar, Husk Power’s mini power-plants, and E+CO’s investments in green energy technology companies.

I hope they all become billionaires because the more entrepreneurs who see the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, the better. More entrepreneurial attention will result in more innovation and competition, which leads to better service and products for paying consumers. For the billions relying on kerosene, firewood, and charcoal, I guarantee you, this cannot come too quickly.

Hugh Whalan is the CEO and co-founder of Energy in Common, a non-profit allowing individuals to make micro-loans to fund green energy entrepreneurs in developing countries.

Read more!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

House Fails Again to Pass America COMPETES

Originally published at

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives failed in its second attempt to pass the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act, a flagship bill for U.S. competitiveness containing broad support for science and technology innovation, including funding authorization for energy innovation and education programs.

The bill, which was re-introduced on the floor again today after getting derailed last week, was blocked by a minority of House Republican members despite the uncontroversial and bipartisan nature of the legislation. It was brought forward for a vote under the House’s suspension process, which forbids further amendments but requires a two-thirds majority, which the bill failed to meet on a vote of 261-148 (full breakdown available here).

The second failure comes despite major cuts to the authorization level to alleviate budget concerns – down from a five-year, $85.6 billion authorization to three-years and $48 billion – and inclusion of the anti-pornography amendment that derailed the effort last week. “I understand the concern of many of my colleagues about the overall size of a five year authorization, and this reduction is my sincere attempt at compromising on an issue that is very important to me," stated Representative Bart Gordon (D-TN). "The bill before us today includes an overall funding reduction of almost 50 percent from H.R. 5116, as introduced.”

The America COMPETES Act was originally passed with strong bipartisan support in 2007 to authorize recommendations from the comprehensive National Academies competitiveness study, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.” The COMPETES Act was part of President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, and in 2007 it passed with unanimous consent in the House in less than an hour. It requires re-authorization this year to continue and faced relatively insignificant hurdles in passing the House Science & Technology Committee in late April (29-8 vote), with over 750 organizations offering their endorsement.

Advocates point out that the majority of U.S. economic growth in the 20th century resulted from technology innovation, and past federal investments in science and innovation led to the creation of the Internet, microchips, the aerospace and biotechnology industry, and more. “The path is simple,” stated Chairman Gordon, "research leads to innovation; innovation leads to economic development and good paying jobs. Creating good jobs is the goal of this bill, and it is what our country needs right now.”

Nevertheless, according to The Hill, “Republican House members remained unsatisfied with Democrats' research bill. The GOP issued a statement of policy just before the vote that slammed Gordon's effort for failing to incorporate all six of their revisions, especially those that some members believe would reduce or eliminate "numerous new and unnecessary" programs.”

Read more!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Australian Progressives to Rudd: Time for a Clean Energy Investment Strategy

By Devon Swezey, originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

Fed up with the Australian government's failure to enact strong clean energy policy, a broad coalition of Australian academics, environmental organizations, and clean energy advocates have written an open letter calling on Austraila Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to include major federal investments in clean energy technology in the new federal budget.

The letter, organized by Beyond Zero Emissions, comes as a response to the failure of the much-compromised Emissions Trading Scheme, which was pilloried as a giveaway to fossil fuel industries and ineffective for driving clean energy deployment. Instead, the letter calls for a new approach to climate and energy policy in Australia.

"The time has come for the Rudd government to take an ambitious nation-building approach to climate policy. Labor should commit to a renewable energy project with the scale and vision of a Snowy Mountains Scheme for the 21st Century," says Beyond Zero Emissions Executive Director Matthew Wright, referring to the massive hydroelectric system that was the largest engineering project ever to take place in Australia.

Wright says that the federal government should be spending at least as much on clean energy as it is in it's new national broadband plan, which is expected to invest $42 billion over the next 8 years.

Former Breakthrough Generation Fellow Leigh Ewbank has helped spearhead this initiative over the last year. Last month, he wrote an op-ed calling for such a project in Australia's national broadcaster, ABC, and has also helped organize the effort as Director of Public Policy for Beyond Zero Emissions.

With climate policy in disarray here in the United States as well, leading environmental organizations and progressives would do well to look to our friends in Australia for a new model to move away from compromised and politically unsustainable emissions trading and toward major public investments in clean energy innovation and infrastructure to create a prosperous clean energy economy.

Here is the full press release of the letter:

Frustrated by Rudd's ETS Backflip, Thousands Call for Massive Federal Budget Investment in Renewable Energy.

MELBOURNE - Frustrated by the Rudd Government's inaction on climate change, a broad coalition of prominent Australians and organisations representing hundreds of thousands of people have signed an open letter calling for the government to massively increase renewable energy investment in tomorrow's federal budget.

Notable signatories include:

  • Progressive online campaign organisation Get Up!, boasting over 350,000 supporters
  • Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics
  • Leading climate scientist Professor David Karoly
  • Guy Pearse, Research Fellow at the Global Change Institute and author of High and Dry
  • Major national environmental organisations Friends of the Earth, Environment Victoria and Greenpeace Australia
  • The Australian Youth Climate Coalition, with a membership of over 50,000
  • Renewable energy advocate the Alternative Technology Association
  • Renewable energy industry group the Australian Solar Energy Society
  • The independent think tank The Australian Institute
  • The Electrical Trades Union Victoria
  • Over 30 community-based climate groups from around Australia.

"The time has come for the Rudd government to take an ambitious nation-building approach to climate policy. Labor should commit to a renewable energy project with the scale and vision of a Snowy Mountains Scheme for the 21st Century," says Beyond Zero Emissions Executive Director Matthew Wright.

"There is a critical need for public investment in large-scale renewable energy projects and climate-friendly infrastructure. These projects are the best way to reduce Australia's emissions and protect the nation from dangerous climate change," says Matthew Wright.

"Most Australians would be shocked that the Rudd government is investing up to 28 times more money in the broadband rollout than in renewable energy and climate-friendly infrastructure. With a funding differential like this, it's reasonable to presume that our Prime Minister considers slow internet a greater moral challenge than climate change."

Wright says, "Public investment in sustainable infrastructure should match the investment in the National Broadband Network at a bare minimum."

Read more!

Clearing the Clean Energy Innovation Threshold

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute

The latest from the Brookings Institution's Mark Muro is a perfectly succinct summary of how one should judge the coming Kerry-(Graham?)-Lieberman Senate climate and energy bill, reportedly scheduled for release this Wednesday:

What is clear, though, is this: To get to a good bill senators need to deal properly with the revenue--whether from offshore oil drilling or pollution allowance auctions or whatever else is in the bill. And to do that they need to make sure a huge chunk of it gets applied to clean-energy research and development. Get that right and much else needn't be perfect. Blow that, and the bill is likely not worth it.

... The bottom line is this: Putting a price on carbon, or regulating emissions, ... while absolutely necessary, will not be sufficient to address the nation's climate problem and will, importantly, not put the U.S. in the position to seize the extraordinary opportunities that will come with rebuilding to global energy economy. Also necessary, as we keep saying, will be a major drive to promote large-scale technology breakthroughs. No matter how you measure it, U.S. government investment in clean energy R&D remains grossly inadequate. Right now clean energy R&D accounts for only around $3 billion a year. But if we're going to see real progress in de-carbonizing the present economy and creating the next one this number should be closer to $15 billion and probably as much as $25 billion per year.

So that's the target: $15 to $25 billion a year is "the number"--the critical investment threshold for federal clean energy investment that must become a core benchmark for evaluating any and all federal climate, energy, or indeed appropriations deal making.
Mark notes the rumors and reports of the still-not-yet-public drafts of the K-G-L bill do not bode well for the bill's ability to clear this critical clean energy innovation threshold...

Mark also notes that if Congress still insists on moving forward with more offshore drilling -- a key pillar of the political dealmaking behind the Senate climate bill push -- the new revenues from oil and gas production should be directed towards clean energy innovation investments as well. Here's Muro:
The price of drilling's inclusion should clearly be not just strict new drilling safeguards, but a hard link of drilling to clean technology innovation as well. That is, Senate dealmakers should in effect embrace the outline of a recent GOP plan to put hundreds of billions of new oil and gas royalties into a fund to accelerate clean energy innovation that would help make clean energy cheap and truly help wean America from its carbon dependency.
While the political inevitability of new offshore drilling sure looks to have vanished since Breakthrough's Yael Borofsky and I outlined the same concept about a month ago, the larger point still stands: IF we drill, the money had better be put to good use, and that means investing in our clean energy future.

Read Muro's full post at the New Republic here.

See also:

  • The Innovation Consensus: $15 Billion for Clean Energy R&D
  • After "Drill, Baby, Drill," Obama Should Embrace Another GOP Energy Plan
  • "Jumpstarting a Clean Energy Revolution with a National Institutes of Energy" - Breakthrough Institute featured policy report
  • Read more!

    Thursday, May 06, 2010

    In Search of Energy Innovation Role Models

    A guest post by Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow and former Sun Microsystems Cheif Sustainability Officer, David Douglas. Cross-posted from his blog, NearWalden

    We have compelling reasons to drive for clean, cheap energy, but we lack the technology to get there today. Threats of climate change, national competitiveness and energy security (OK, "clean, cheap, domestic energy") all contribute to the urgency of this innovation challenge. Given the scale of the challenge, coupled with the dire consequences of not succeeding, it is only natural that we'd look for reassurance and guidance from historical success stories of large-scale innovation.

    Most frequently mentioned are the Apollo Project ("land a man on the moon by the end of the decade"), and the Manhattan Project ("develop nuclear weapons before our enemies"). They are attractive because they had urgent time tables, required outside-the-box innovation, and most importantly, as measured by their stated goals, were wildly successful. They provide some confidence that we (or maybe even just the President) need only to make the decision, and it will happen!

    Many have also pointed out the flaws in these analogies. Characterizing them as self-contained projects that didn't require deep changes to our national infrastructure, economy and behavior patterns, many have cautioned that we need to be careful viewing these as models for economy-wide energy transformation (for a good discussion check out the intro to "Technology Policy and Innovation" by Mowery, Nelson and Martin).

    As an alternative, Prof. John Sterman at MIT has pointed to the Civil Rights movement as a better analogy, especially related to the climate change . While it offers some important lessons of the interplay between shifting public sentiment, leadership and government policy, it doesn't offer us any guidance on how to address the underlying energy innovation challenge.

    While we could start a process to catalog the problems of every historical precedent, its probably simpler to step back and observe that as a nation we've never before consciously undertaken an effort:

    • to overhaul something that touches every part of our economy
    • on a fixed schedule
    • lacking the required technology

    So we're left with looking for guidance from imperfect matches, which is OK as long as we understand that's what we're doing. And since we're in uncharted and dangerous waters, I believe its still important to take any help we can get.

    Tom Friedman has talked about needing a "Million Manhattan Projects", capturing the need to invest in a many technical approaches in parallel. And this mental framework nicely complements the work done by many groups to analyze historical US innovation successes in agriculture, health and IT (again, see Mowery, et al for a good summary). In other words, lets not think of this as a single thread from R&D to production, but a number of parallel threads, each of which needs to be optimized.

    Interestingly, this mindset brings us back to WW II, where the US government pursued a wide array of approaches to different innovation challenges. An amazing collaboration with the auto companies produced new airplane designs, which were produced at record rates. A public-private-university collaboration housed at MIT developed RADAR, fundamentally altering the effectiveness of German submarines. Partially backed by public funding, Goodyear created the first high-volume, low-cost synthetic rubber. And with the US military as a driving customer, Merck and other private pharmaceutical companies massively improved the effectiveness of penicillin, while ramping production over 100 times previous levels. What's nice about these example is that they each use a different model of public-private partnership, and that they run the full lifecycle from R&D through large-scale production.

    And, of course, we return to the Manhattan Project, which, viewed through this lens, is no longer an innovation strategy unto itself, but is a specific approach to one innovation challenge in a broad portfolio of approaches and challenges.

    The suggests an interesting approach to our situation, where we have a large number of separate technologies, each with their own innovation lifecycle. Instead of looking for a historical analogy to the whole problem, we can take each technology and look for historical guidance on how to move it forward. We can look at solar, wind, smart grid, CCS, electrical storage, nuclear, automotive power, jet power, etc, and for each one examine the state of the technology, public and private investment, and hurdles to broader production and adoption. We can look for similar historical situations and what worked or didn't, or we may decide that some are without historical precedent.

    The result wouldn't be a million Manhattan Projects, but maybe something like two Manhattan Projects, four Polio Eradication Campaigns, three IT Revolutions, a WW II Aircraft Miracle, and a few hundred thousand Internet Startups, four of five of which might hit the big time.

    Through this process we can approach the type of roadmap that Weiss and Bonvillian describe in Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution. With such a roadmap our policy and public investments can become more direct and organized, and we will have a better framework for measuring our progress. In an upcoming post I'll give some examples of how this might look.

    Read more!

    WEBINARS: District Energy: Efficient Heating and Cooling using Waste Energy and Renewable Resources

    Register for free webinars here:

    District energy systems have been around for over a century, quietly providing heating to city centers, universities, and hospitals across the US. Today this once sleepy energy technology, is enjoying a renaissance as rising energy costs and climate change highlight the need for efficient, low-carbon, energy systems. Already well established in Northern Europe, a newer generation of district heating (and cooling) systems are tapping into waste energy streams and using renewable resources to dramatically reduce carbon emissions and stabilize energy costs. American cities and towns are now looking to unlock the potential of district energy, but barriers remain.

    Please join Fluid Market Strategies for this two part webinar series on district energy, presented by friend of, Josh Hilsdon.

    Both webinars will be presented from Helsinki, Finland, where Hilsdon currently resides and is home to on of the world’s largest district energy system. Hilsdon will introduce the basic technology of district energy, give examples of district energy systems in the US and Europe, and touch on a broad range of system designs. The second part of the series will focus on the use of renewables in district energy, and discuss the use of forest biomass in particular.

    District Energy: Solving Modern Energy Challenges (Part 1)
    Thursday, May 6, 2010 9-10 a.m. PT / 12-1 p.m. ET Click Here to Register

    Renewables in District Energy: Sustainable Heating and Cooling for Communities (Part 2)
    Tuesday, May 11, 2010 9-10 a.m. PT / 12-1 p.m. ET Click Here to Register

    If you are not able to attend the webinars they will be recorded and available for viewing at:

    Read more!

    Wednesday, May 05, 2010

    A Vision to End Energy Poverty

    By Hugh Whalan – Guest Blogger

    What is energy poverty?

    Energy forms the foundation of almost every economic development outcome – powering education in classrooms, refrigerating vaccines, pumping clean water, allowing for study or work after dark. Everything relies on energy. Think about what you do in the morning, and how many times you flick a switch, or press a button and expect something to work. We do this dozens of times a day, without thinking about it.

    For more than 2.4 billion people, that kind of access to energy is nothing but a dream. These people spend hours each day collecting firewood, and the fuels they do have access to - like dung, charcoal and kerosene – are either polluting or expensive, or both. This is energy poverty. The energy poor spend more on energy, and get less for it.

    Graphic source: World Health Organization

    Indoor air pollution caused by these fuels kills more people each year than malaria; the trees cut down for firewood lead to deforestation; and the greenhouse gases released by burning these fuels contribute to climate change.

    Why is energy poverty the most important development need of today?

    Energy poverty is only starting to receive the kind of attention it warrants. The International Energy Agency recently stated that the UN goal of halving world poverty by 2015 would only be met if energy was expanded to a further 700 million people.

    Graphic source:

    I think the challenge, and the opportunity for energy is bigger than that. We live in a world projected to hit 9 billion people- with most of this population being born into poverty. Along with this population comes greenhouse gas emissions - 95% of the increases in greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades are projected to come from the developing world. These greenhouse gases will drive climate change, which is expected to disproportionately affect the poor and hinder efforts to alleviate poverty. Through this lens, climate change is intimately connected to poverty.

    It’s a vicious cycle, where energy poverty creates a reliance on polluting fuels which not only penalize the poor, but also contribute to climate change which further entrenches poverty.

    Aerial imagery of the Haiti-Dominican Republic border shows the clear toll of deforestation fueled by energy poverty. (Image source)

    By addressing energy poverty effectively, there is a good chance we can alleviate poverty, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve access to education, health services, clean water, and other development outcomes.

    How do we address energy poverty effectively?

    I believe the answer lies in green energy and the free market.

    The fact that there are 2.4 billion people without access to modern energy – living with virtually the same energy resources as our cavemen ancestors 125,000 years ago - is something I see as one of the largest market failures in the world today. It is a market failure because these people are paying customers receiving substandard quality and service.

    A vision for addressing energy poverty.

    Enter the 21st century green energy entrepreneur. This green energy entrepreneur sells energy products such as LED lamps, solar home systems, clean burning cook stoves, solar powered drip irrigation systems and biogas digesters. These systems cost more upfront than traditional energy resources like kerosene and charcoal, but a fraction of the cost over a longer period of time. All of these systems pay for themselves through energy savings and increased revenue generation in a matter of months, not years.

    To make these systems affordable to everyone, the green energy entrepreneur works with microfinance institutions which act as bankers to the poor. Similar to the way that we in the West often would not be able to afford a car without a car loan, or a house without a mortgage, these microfinance institutions provide loans for these green energy systems.

    All of a sudden, even the poorest, those earning $1 -6 a day, are able to purchase green energy in a way that accommodates their subsistence income patterns. Within 10 years, market failure is well on its way to being corrected, and green energy entrepreneurs are creatively setting about reaching those parts of the population not yet reached. More than a billion people have received access to some form of modern energy and green energy businesses form one of the largest industries in the developing world, only smaller in size than agriculture. It becomes standard to see green energy in even the most remote and poor households.

    A result of this shift to green energy is that developing economies spend far less on fossil fuel based resources, and widespread access to energy means children can study after dark, businesses have longer opening hours, indoor air pollution is no longer a major killer, women waste far less time collecting firewood, and clean water is commonplace. A response to poverty becomes one of the most effective forms of greenhouse gas mitigation in history.

    One step at a time.

    Energy in Common (EIC) is a social enterprise I launched with co-founder Scott Tudman with the aim of allowing individuals to participate in correcting this market failure. We allow individuals to provide tiny green loans to the poor. As a result of our lenders, dressmakers, bakers, restaurant owners, and masons have safe, affordable, reliable access to modern energy – helping them to alleviate poverty and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You can get started with a loan as little as $25.

    Once a loan has been repaid to you, our team of people at EIC analyze the carbon data over the period of your loan and add up the amount of emission reductions created. These emission reductions are then sold to lenders (like you) as carbon offsets, which means you can buy the very carbon offsets that you helped to create. This allows you to reduce your carbon footprint too. That tax-deductible purchase then goes straight back into finding and helping even more entrepreneurs – and so the cycle begins again.

    We aim to expand green energy access to over 15 million people within 5 years. In the process, we intend to bring resources and attention to the problem of energy poverty. You can find our website at and you can lend at

    Guinean students study under the lights of the Conakry airport parking lot in June. (Image source: Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press, via DotEarth)

    See also: More posts on 'energy poverty' from

    Read more!

    Round One of the EPA "Coal Ash Bowl" Goes to Big Coal

    By Matt Wasson, originally posted at Huffington Post

    Yesterday, the EPA issued their long-awaited proposal for new rules on how to regulate the disposal and storage of coal combustion waste (CCW), the byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

    _DSC0072Since December of 2008, when more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash spilled into the Emory River from a breached impoundment at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, environmental and industry groups have been waiting with tense anticipation to see how the Administration will approach regulating this highly toxic waste.

    As it turns out, they're still waiting. The EPA actually issued two proposals which, as James Bruggers of the Louisville Courier-Journal reported, can be simply (though far from completely) summarized as follows:

    One approach would eventually phase out coal ash storage ponds. The other would would allow ash ponds, but only if they have plastic liners.

    The EPA will decide which of those approaches to adopt following a 90-day public comment period that began yesterday. While EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson heralded the action as "the first-ever national rules to assure the safe management and disposal of coal ash," reporters like Bruggers and Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette saw EPA's announcement as more of a "punt."

    Environmental groups had a mixed reaction, expressing enthusiasm for the EPA's overall 563-page analysis, which, despite Jackson's apparent ambivalence, provides enormously compelling scientific evidence that should favor the more stringent proposal for regulating CCW under hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. But groups also expressed some frustration at the Obama Administration's unwillingness to follow the EPA's analysis to its logical conclusion.

    But whichever path the EPA ultimately chooses, Big Coal scores thanks to an issue that was entirely excluded from the scope of both proposals: the virtually unregulated practice of dumping CCW into abandoned mines.

    To mix a metaphor, in the great 90-day EPA Coal Ash Bowl that began with a punt, the environmental and public health team is down a star player and Big Coal has the ball on the 50 yard line. It ain't over, but it's gonna be a rough game.

    Dumping coal ash waste into abandoned mines- "Beneficial" for whom?

    The industry backlash against any regulation of CCW disposal has long centered on the issue of "beneficial use," which typically implies using CCW to manufacture wallboard and other construction materials.

    According to its promoters, minefilling is a "beneficial use" because CCW is alkaline and, at least the theory goes, dumping it into abandoned mines will neutralize the acidic mine drainage from active and abandoned mines.

    The problem with this theory is that there really isn't any good science to back it up. A study on the water quality impacts of minefilling published by the Clean Air Taskforce in 2007 provided an excellent test of how "beneficial" the dumping of CCW into mine pits actually is. As explained in a more recent and comprehensive report by Earthjustice: two-thirds of all the mines studied, the introduction of coal combustion waste resulted in more severe, long-term water quality contamination than had ever existed at these sites from the mining operation itself. Furthermore, as a practical matter, dumping large quantities of CCW directly into water tables in highly fractured sites under massive quantities of mine overburden makes the prospect of cleaning up resulting contamination far more daunting than halting leakages from conventional landfills and ash ponds.

    The pressure on the administration from industry to not designate CCW as a hazardous waste was intense because of the stigma it would put on the use of CCW for "beneficial use" purposes. The unprecedented extent of that pressure from the coal industry was underscored in a letter to the White House signed by 239 public interest organizations from across the country in April. According to the letter:

    Industry groups that oppose mandatory federal standards have had nearly 30 meetings with OMB [Office of Management and Budget] on this rule - more than ever before on any single topic. These groups continue to present unfounded claims of power plant closures and exaggerated cost estimates as "fact," thereby fomenting widespread but unwarranted fear of EPA regulations.

    Wait... The coal industry presented exaggerated cost estimates to foment unwarranted fear of EPA regulations? Well I never!

    That pressure was clearly effective in that, even if EPA chooses to regulate CCW under the hazardous waste provisions, it will not be labeled "hazardous" so as to avoid the dangerous connotations implied by the label.

    But the industry pressure was equally effective in taking regulatory control of minefilling out of the hands of EPA scientists, who are no doubt well aware of the bad science underlying the practice and who are generally very serious about their job of protecting public health. In fact, the EPA already weighed in on the issue:

    We believe that certain minefilling practices have the potential to degrade, rather than improve, existing groundwater quality and can pose a threat to human health and the environment.

    It's statements like this that apparently disqualified the EPA from regulating minefilling, which instead will be subject to a subsequent rule-making process headed up by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM). No timeframe was mentioned for when that rule-making would be initiated.

    Putting OSM in charge of developing minefilling regulations, even with input from the EPA, is a huge victory for polluters for a number of reasons. First, the OSM is led by Joseph Pizarchik, nick-named "Coal Ash Joe" by community organizations in Pennsylvania for his unwavering support of minefilling when he was director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation in that state. Second, the "scientists" at OSM are a very different breed than those at the EPA.

    OSM scientists are generally trained in "reclamation science" at one of the big mine engineering programs at schools like West Virginia University and Virginia Tech. The fundamental premise of reclamation science can be summed up in a statement from Dink Shackleford, past executive director of the Virginia Mining Association, who often said: "We have a chance to improve on God's creation." The science of mining and reclamation starts with a fundamental premise that must not be questioned- that no matter how toxic the pollution, how much mountain we blast away, that we can engineer nature back to as "good as new" or even better.

    Viewed through this distorted lens, replacing the remarkably diverse and productive Appalachian hardwood forests with a barren plain covered in exotic grasses dotted with a few pines becomes an ecological benefit because it "improves forestry;" burying the headwaters of streams in millions of tons of mine waste is an ecological benefit because it "helps regulate stream flow;" and the virtually unregulated dumping of mine waste into abandoned mines is a "beneficial use" of coal ash.

    There is a lot at stake for the coal industry in how minefilling is regulated because, according to the Earthjustice report, the cost of disposal in minefills is 89-95% less than the cost of disposal in engineered landfills. Also according to Earthjustice, about 25 million tons of CCW - 20% of total annual production - is disposed of in abandoned mines. While the EPA estimates that minefilling accounts for just 7% of CCW disposal, Earthjustice explains that the discrepancy is because, "industry and state regulators are hiding CCW dumping in mines behind the labels 'beneficial use, or 'recycling.'"

    This minefilling loophole will become all the more important as EPA rules make regulated disposal of CCW more expensive. As the financial incentives for utilities to exploit this loophole become stronger, the pressure on the Obama Administration to delay action on minefilling, or to implement weak regulations, will become even more intense. Given that current regulations in most states for CCS minefilling are considerably weaker than regulations on disposal of household garbage, minefilling could quickly become the predominant method for CCW disposal.

    How Does Minefilling Affect Health and the Environment?

    The lede and photo from a story in the Miami Herald from November, 2009, helps put the health hazards associated with coal ash into perspective:

    Victims of Toxic Coal Ash dumping by AES Corporation in 2003 and 2004"When I was pregnant, I was dizzy, vomiting and could barely walk," said Maximiliano's mother, Anajai Calcano, 20. "My tooth cracked and fell out. Then my baby was born like that, without arms. Nothing like that had ever happened here before."

    By "before," Calcano means before a U.S. power company's coal ash arrived at a nearby port, sitting there for more than two years.

    The story goes on to tell how citizens of Arroyo Barril in the Dominican Republican are suing a Virginia-based energy company for a variety of health problems they say resulted from the illegal disposal of coal ash on the shore of the town. The phrase "health problems" hardly does justice to the godawful deformities found in children born of mothers who had abnormally high levels of arsenic in their blood, one of many toxic metals associated with coal ash. Those "health problems" ranged from cranial deformities to missing limbs to organs outside their bodies.

    The situation in Arroyo Barril is an extreme example, but it illustrates the general problem of toxic metal contamination of both air and water near coal ash disposal sites. The composition of coal ash includes a high concentration of toxic metals found in coal including arsenic, selenium, chromium, lead and thallium. While conventional disposal of CCW in wet impoundments has had demonstrable impacts on water quality, the practice of minefilling makes the problem of groundwater contamination far worse. According to the Earthjustice report:

    The unique geologic characteristics of mines maximizes the risk of contamination from coal ash dumping. Mining breaks up solid rock layers into small pieces, called spoil. Compared to the flow through undisturbed rock, water easily and quickly infiltrates spoil that has been dumped back into the mined-out pits. Fractures from blasting become underground channels that allow groundwater to flow rapidly offsite. Because mines usually excavate aquifers (underground sources of water), the spoil fills up with groundwater. Unlike engineered landfills, which are lined with impervious membranes (clay or synthetic) and above water tables by law, coal ash dumped into mine pits continually leaches its toxic metals and other contaminants into the water that flows through and eventually leaves the site.

    There are many cases where water contamination has already been found, according to the Clean Air Taskforce study of 15 minefilling operations in Pennsylvania.

    So what's next?

    To be fair to the administration, the EPA specifically referenced a 2006 report on minefilling from the National Academy of Sciences as one of the documents that should guide the rule-making on minefilling. The recommendations of that report, as summarized by Earthjustice, include:

    • Generators should pursue safe reuse of coal combustion waste ash before minefilling;

    • Disposal sites must be investigated to determine the quality and location of groundwater, groundwater flow paths, the potential for coal ash to react with minerals or groundwater, etc.;

    • Coal ash must be kept out of groundwater;

    • Monitoring must be designed to detect movement of coal combustion waste contaminants;

    • Deeds must record and fully disclose that coal combustion waste was disposed at the mine site;

    • Bonds must be adequate to clean up any groundwater damaged by coal combustion waste disposal;

    • Public input must be solicited in the development of national regulations and permits issued pursuant to those regulations.

    If all of those recommendations were turned into regulations, the problems associated with minefilling would be largely alleviated. But the success of industry in stripping the EPA of regulatory oversight of minefilling provides little confidence that the administration will ignore that pressure when it comes to developing regulations on minefilling.

    An even greater concern is that the industry will successfully delay rule-making on minefilling for another decade, the way they were able to delay disposal regulations for years until the TVA disaster woke people up to the hazards of unregulated coal ash storage. If their delay tactics are successful, the financial advantages of minefilling will make it the predominant method of coal ash disposal within a matter of years.

    And if the momentum generated by the TVA disaster to regulate coal ash disposal is lost, it's terrifying to think what the next disaster will be that would be needed to motivate agencies to action in the face of enormous industry pressure. As Lisa Evans, an attorney with Earthjustice who has tracked coal ash issues for nearly a decade, told the media in January:

    Minefilling coal ash is a slow-motion and invisible counterpart to the TVA catastrophe. There, the destruction was unleashed in a matter of minutes. For communities with water poisoned by the country's hundreds of coal ash mine dumps, the damage has been gradual and largely unseen, but it also presents a grave threat.

    People in coal mining regions have suffered pollution of their water and air for decades, and with the EPA finally beginning to crack down on mountaintop removal mining and the disposal of mine waste into streams, what a tragic irony it would be if pollution from valley fills was replaced by even greater pollution from minefills. That's the way it's headed, and it's going to take the involvement of thousands of Americans to counter the coal industry's powerful pressure to keep regulations weak or nonexistent.

    This is no time to sit on the sidelines - there are 89 days in the EPA's Coal Ash Bowl, and your help is needed now.

    [UPDATE: The link to take action above, "your help is needed now," is not yet set up by the EPA - I will update again as soon as the EPA gets it straightened out]

    Read more!

    Tuesday, May 04, 2010

    Cape Wind: Never Again

    Originally published at the Breakthrough Institute

    Al Gore has called on the U.S. to "commit to producing 100% of electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon free sources within ten years." But the ten-year hard-fought battle to secure approval for Cape Wind shows that we cannot come close to meeting even a fraction of his goal if we do not appreciate the scale of energy challenge and the incredible pace of clean energy innovation and deployment required to truly reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

    First, let's put Cape Wind in perspective. A $1 billion dollar project, America's first offshore wind farm will consist of 130 turbines that can produce roughly 1.6 billion kWh of electricity annually, enough to power three-quarters of the homes on Nantucket and surrounding islands. But on a national scale, this iconic project will only meet about 0.04% of the total (forecasted) U.S electricity demand in 2010, expected to be about 3,784 billion kWh.

    According to a New York Times infographic (below), should all the offshore wind projects planned for deployment in Atlantic waters come into service, they would add between 2,261 and 2,426 MW of new wind power capacity in total, producing just about 0.1% of 2010 U.S. electricity demand (annual output calculations for offshore wind farms here and elsewhere in this post assume an average capacity factor of 35%).

    Screen shot 2010-05-03 at 3.46.46 PM.png

    But that's just the United States. Electricity demand is rising globally, particularly in developing nations, and is expected to double by 2030 to about 28,140 billion kWh. This breakneck growth belies an even harsher, more humbling reality about the scale of the energy challenge. It would take approximately 3,000 Cape Winds to meet forecasted U.S. electricity demand in 2030 (which could rise to 4,801 billion kWh), and it would take more than 17,550 offshore wind parks the size of Cape Wind to meet global electricity demand in 2030.

    The U.S. is far from the only country taking strides into offshore wind, but the reality for rapidly developing nations like China who recently deployed its first offshore wind farm as well, is no less daunting. In April, China installed its first 102 MW of offshore wind. Recent reports suggest China plans to invest $100 billion towards a goal of 30,000 MW of offshore wind power by 2020. Should China achieve this benchmark, offshore wind could account for about 1.3% of its total electricity demand in 2030.

    Just to achieve its stated offshore wind goals, however, China would need about 300 more identically sized offshore wind projects, and even that ambitious objective would still leave China far short of meeting 100% of electricity demand from low-carbon sources.

    Ultimately, the challenges to deploying wind energy, including offshore wind, at a scale significant enough to meet growing energy demand and meaningfully reduce global carbon emission are formidable. Despite concerted efforts by world leaders like Denmark, Spain, Germany, and the U.S. to increase wind capacity, Vaclav Smil notes in Energy in Nature and Society (254) that as of 2008 wind accounted for just half of one percent of all electricity generated worldwide. And while he explains that global wind power potential could be as high as 72 terawatts (TW; 1 TW = 1 million MW), "only a very small share of that could be captured," noting that practical wind development potential could be as little 6 TW - that is less than half of current global energy demand and a fraction of the more than 30-40 TW of energy likely needed to fuel the global economy by mid-century.

    What these comparisons should make abundantly obvious is not simply that Cape Wind is a drop in the bucket in the effort to meet our growing energy needs - individually it represents an enormous victory - but rather that anyone serious about confronting the scale of the climate challenge should be firmly resolved that the Cape Wind experience should never happen again. Never again should it take nearly a decade just to get a clean energy project with so many calculated benefits approved, let alone constructed.

    If we seriously intend to reduce carbon emissions and transition to a clean energy economy, and if we want to succeed in making Cape Wind more than just a symbolic victory, the time has come for climate change advocates to ensure that this is the last time that a new zero-carbon energy source faces such prolonged NIMBY opposition.

    And yet, we may see a similar situation unfold in the effort to increase nuclear power capacity. In February, Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to encourage the construction of two new 1,100 MW nuclear power plants in Georgia, set to be the first new nuclear power plants constructed in 30 years. If everything goes according to plan, including final approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commissions scheduled in 2011, Vogtle 3 and 4 are expected to be fully operational in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

    Nuclear power already accounts for almost 20% of total U.S. electricity demand and as a low carbon power source, has the potential to account for even more. But as the new Vogtle reactors demonstrate, nuclear power plants are expensive, take the better part of a decade to deploy, and face environmental resistance due to persistent concerns about waste.

    Given the scale of the global energy challenge, zero-carbon energy projects like Cape Wind and the Vogtle nuclear power plants must be the number one priority for anyone who claims to cares about mitigating climate change. And yet we lack an organized movement to push for and ensure the rapid deployment of viable clean energy technologies. While Cape Wind advocates battled NIMBY arguments left and right, the bulk of the environmental movement watched tacitly from the sidelines touting climate and energy bills that would do little to improve the clean energy deployment environment.

    If anything both Cape Wind and the Vogtle plants make abundantly clear why we have to tap into our greatest power as humans - our ability to be massively innovative. Only by harnessing the human creative potential can we hope to spur the massive technological revolution necessary to change our energy infrastructure and help us adapt to a warming world.

    Read more!

    EPA Proposes Regulatory Options for Coal Ash

    New Rules Would Provide Varying Levels of Protection for NC's Waterways
    An update from our friends at Appalachian Voices...

    CONTACT: Donna Lisenby, Upper Watauga Riverkeeper....828-262-1500

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled two options today to regulate coal ash waste from coal-fired power plants, amid concerns by environmental groups that one of the options would not be strong enough to protect North Carolina's waterways.

    The competing alternatives would provide varying levels of protection to the state's water resources, and could take years to implement.

    "Coal ash impoundments have been minimally regulated in the past. These proposed new rules are a long overdue, positive first step towards helping to protect our water and our communities," said Donna Lisenby, Upper Watauga Riverkeeper.

    The announcement comes eight months after an independent analysis confirmed that all thirteen of the North Carolina's coal ash ponds adjacent to coal-fired power plants were leaking toxic pollutants into groundwater. Data research conducted by the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper revealed 681 instances where levels of heavy metals and other pollutants ranged from 1.1 to 380 times higher than North Carolina's groundwater standard.

    "The time has come for common-sense national protections to ensure the safe disposal of coal ash," said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "We’re proposing strong steps to address the serious risk of groundwater contamination and threats to drinking water and we’re also putting in place stronger safeguards against structural failures of coal ash impoundments. The health and the environment of all communities must be protected."

    [Aerial photograph of the December, 2009 coal slurry disaster in Kingston, Tennessee. The breached wet coal ash impoundment pond is at center with the TVA's Kingston coal plant above and massive slurry spill below. The Emory River can be seen next to the disaster site. Photo is copyright Antrim Caskey]

    The Subtitle C proposal would designate coal ash as a hazardous waste, while Subtitle D would regulate coal ash under a non-hazardous waste designation.

    With a hazardous-waste designation, wet coal ash ponds—also known as surface impoundments—would be phased out, a process that would be monitored by the states and by the EPA. Dry ash storage units would require the installation of composite liners, with retrofits of all units due within five years after the rule is finalized.

    Subtitle C would also enable the EPA to enforce federal regulations to ensure these requirements are carried out.

    Under Subtitle D, or non-hazardous regulation, the EPA would require wet coal ash impoundments to be retrofitted with a composite liner, rather than being phased out. If the disposal site chooses not to comply, the regulation would prohibit receiving additional coal ash, and require the closure of the unit within five years. The closure process and post-closure groundwater monitoring would be self-implemented, with no federal or state oversight.

    Both designations would leave in place the rule allowing coal ash to be recycled in what are called beneficial uses, such as drywall, concrete and other construction materials. Both options would also prohibit coal ash disposal in unlined landfills, although disposal in old mining sites would still be allowed.

    The announcement comes after the EPA failed to meet self-imposed deadlines in the past concerning the designation of coal ash as a hazardous substance.

    "Regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C is clearly justified by the science and will better protect water resources from toxic coal ash impacts," Lisenby said. "The industry-backed option of regulating coal ash as household waste under Subtitle D is not sufficient to keep arsenic, lead, chromium, cadmium and other toxic heavy metals from contaminating water."

    The proposals will be turned over to the public for a 90-day comment period and one or more public and stakeholder hearings, after which the EPA will announce a decision.

    "I would want communities to know that I believe, that EPA believes, it is very important to get on with this regulatory process," said Jackson. "There has been lots of discussion already. We've heard from elected officials, from members of congress, from state governments, from private industries. I'd like to hear from public citizens about what they think is the most effective rule."

    In December of 2008, one billion gallons of toxic coal ash burst through a dam near a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Kingston, Tenn., polluting the Clinch and Emory Rivers and launching the safety of coal ash into the national environmental debate.

    The public can make comments on the coal ash regulations, docket #EPA–HQ–RCRA–2009–0640, at


    See also:

  • EPA's announcement of new coal ash regulation options

  • More on the aftermath of the Kingston Tennessee, TVA coal ash impoundment collapse from

    Read more!
  • Monday, May 03, 2010

    Global Temperature Continues to Rise: A Primer on Climate Baseline Instablity is pleased to publish this guest contribution from Prof. Greg Bothun and Stephanie Ostrander (research associate) of the Department of Physics at the University of Oregon.

    Global Temperature Continues to Rise: A Primer on Climate Baseline Instablity

    G. Bothun and S. Ostrander Dept of Physics, University of Oregon

    The issue of whether or not humans are inducing significant climate change or merely adding noise to an intrinsically noisy system remains to be clearly resolved, precisely because the data that defines the climate system is noisy. Recently, many climate change blogs have issued the statement: Global Warming Stopped in 1998. That sentiment derives largely from the visual impression of the most recent data on global average temperatures as displayed in the familiar (or infamous) hockey stick diagram. Such diagrams, like the one presented below, apparently show that global average temperatures peaked in 1998 and have been slowly declining since:

    The above waveform represents the mean average LAND surface temperature anomaly using a 30 year baseline (e.g. 1961-1990) from which to derive the anomaly (the value on the Y-axis). The last bar in this diagram is for the year 2008. Taken at a prima facie level, yes, the highest amplitude year was 1998 (the same year of a very strong El Nino) followed by a rapid fall off in 1999 and 2000 and then a steady increase to reach the 2005 sub peak, from which the last three years have decreased amplitude.

    But how seriously should this kind of data/diagram be taken as either evidence for or against "global warming"? Before presenting alternative waveforms that likely better represent the situation, let's take a step back and objectively ask if there is much value in the hockey stick methodology. Among the many potential problems are the following:

    • The Y-axis in these diagrams is always plotted as a temperature anomaly. That is, the temperature of an individual year is compared to the average temperature over some baseline. In climatology it is convention to use a 30 year period to define a climatic norm. The diagram above uses the period 1961-1990 but of course, one could use any other 30 year period as well. Because our climate baseline is never flat in any multidecadel period (see below), there is no correspondingly flat baseline that can be used. Thus the form of the Figure above depends on the choice of climate baseline.
    • The entire concept of the "average temperature of the land surface" may have very little physical meaning. In addition, how does one measure this? How many thermometers have to be used? Where do you put the thermometers? Do the thermometers used in 2008 have the same level of precision as those used in 1860? Legitimate questions of the overall integrity and internal consistency of this 1850-2008 single valued temperature measurement are present.
    • Has the 20th century data been reliably corrected for the obvious effects of significantly increasing urbanization?

    Here, we focus only on the first point above - the instability of the climate baseline. The figures below, constructed from data available at the National Climatic Date Center, show the two principle sea surface temperature (SST) multidecadel oscillations that have been empirically determined (the physical cause of these SST oscillations is not yet understood though many theories exist). The two oscillations are known as:

    • The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)
    • The Atlantic Mean Oscillation (AMO)

    As clearly seen in the Figure below, these two oscillations are not in phase and thus allow for 4 different combinations (+PDO,+AMO),(-PDO,-AMO),(+PDO,-AMO),(-PDO,+AMO) to occur over a century timescale. This might argue that your climate baseline should be 100 years long and not 30. We will employ that definition of climate baseline soon.

    The Figure below depicts the precipitation conditions of the United States as they manifest themselves in these 4 phases of climate drivers. This figure is generally nowhere to be found in dicussions about climate change but it clearly shows that the national climate pattern, as defined in terms of precipitation, is clearly very sensitive to the relative PDO and AMO phases. In essence, the US has 4 different climate periods when looked at on century timescales. Currently we are in a phase of +PDO +AMO which generally results in sustained droughts throughout the Western United States and the northern states of the Great Plains. Drought is also seen in much of the American Southeast as well. Climate data since 2000 confirms persistent drought in these locations.

    Clearly the United States has a large variation around any "average national climate".

    One way to reduce the effect of baseline noise or baseline features is to use the combined Ocean + Land data as ocean temperature anomalies are less sensitive to baseline variations. That data is shown in the figure below. Of particular relevance in this figure is that the 1998 peak is relatively suppressed and there does not appear to be a noticeable down turn in recent years compared to the corresponding figure for Land data only. So the qualitative visual impression of recent trends in "global temperature" changes a bit if one considers the Land + Ocean data as opposed to the Land only.

    Of course both Land and Ocean temperatures are also influenced by El Nino/La Nina cycles and within a particular AMO/PDO phase, there can be several such cycles. As shown in the figure below (which uses a baseline period of 1971-2000) there have been between 15 and 17 individual El Nino cycles since 1950. Each cycle has a different duration and the time between cycles is not uniform. In general, an El Nino cycle occurs every 3-5 years but the behavior of the system in the early 1990s is particularly odd as there was a 5 year period of essentially continuous (but weak) El Nino with no La Nina event in between. Note that this year, 2009/2010, is currently in the strongest El Nino cycle since the 1997/98 event. Again the point of raising the El Nino/La Nina cycle is to show that we have a secondary timescale involved in our climate baseline.

    Finally we present here, perhaps for the first time, a new waveform for global average temperatures. One of problems with using global average temperature is the lack of any real physical meaning to that quantity in the context of actual climate. That is, weather/climate is strongly seasonal in its behavior and while one can find seasonal representations of the hockey stick (as published by the Hadley Centre in Britain), what we present below is a plot of monthly anomalies where the anomaly is defined against the 100 year timescale of 1901-2000.

    We begin by showing just the raw data which is current as of February 2010. Each plotted column represents one month. This representation is not very informative but does contain two interesting pieces of information:

    • There are sometimes years in which the annual anomaly value is strongly influenced by 1 or 2 aberrant months for that year, even though the rest of the months were fairly normal. This can be especially seen in the period from 1970-1980 in which there are several very cool months.
    • Starting around 1987 virtually every month since then has shown a positive anomaly. This is very statistically significant compared to the rest of the data and at least qualitatively confirms that individual months are warming, with respect to their 100 year average

    The most meaningful representation of the data likely comes when one smoothes the data and in the case represented below, the monthly anomalies are smoothed over an El Nino/La Nina cycle.

    When represented this way, it seems clear that the El Nino/La Nina cycles are superposed on a steadily increasing slope that commences somewhere in the 1980-1985 period. Using the same logic that underlies the claim that global warmed stopped in 1998, as applied to this diagram would find that it also stopped in 1982, then again in 1985, and then in 1991, 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2008. In other words, we see continuous evidence of "mini-peaks" (or local maxima in the parlance of time series language) in the anomaly data which are simply smoothed over and missed when one plots annual data.

    The current period is most likely a local minimum with respect to the last peak and one just need wait another 12 months or so, when we will return to increasing global monthly anomalies which then will be about +1 degree C in amplitude.

    Note finally that this data is using a 100 year baseline which is serving to somewhat suppress the actual amplitude of the positive residuals. The main point of this article, however, is not to determine the statistically best way to define the maximum amplitude of global rises in average land temperature, but rather to point out the significant fluctuations in the baseline due to the 4 phase AMO/PDO system and the El Nino/La Nina cycle will cause local maxima and minima in any time series data involving average temperatures.

    On the basis of this data it would seem that we oscillate between a local maximum and a local minimum (on timescales of a couple of years) while the underlying trend is upwards and certainly not downwards. Consistent with that conclusion is the recent data from NOAA and NASA that March 2010 was the warmest March ever within the time period shown above. When other factors are considered on the future amplitude of temperature increases, such as the water vapor feedback loop and the methane release of the Arctic permafrost, the argument that global warming peaked in 1998 will prove to be both erroneous and silly.

    Read more!