U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue attacked President Obama’s domestic agenda Tuesday, criticizing Democratic efforts on climate change, health care and oversight of the nation’s financial system.
And he pledged to use the chamber’s might in November’s elections to take on the president’s allies in Congress.
Donohue, speaking at the chamber’s annual State of American Business event, called health care legislation pending in Congress “a prescription for fiscal insolvency and an eventual government takeover of American health care.” He was equally critical of the climate change bill passed by the House last year, saying it “would tie economic activity in knots and eliminate jobs from one end of the country to another.”
The chamber will carry out “the largest, most aggressive” campaign in its 100-year history as it works to influence the outcome of mid-term congressional elections and stop legislation it views as harmful to the economy, he said. “As Americans choose a new House and senators this fall,” Donohue added, “the chamber will highlight lawmakers and candidates who support a pro-jobs agenda and hold accountable those who don’t.”
Turns out climate policy has some tipping points.
Failure to set and meet strict targets for greenhouse gas emissions cuts over the next 40 years could put long-term goals – such as limiting planetary warming to 2ºC by 2100 – permanently out of reach.
That’s the conclusion of one of the first analyses to explore the relationships among energy use, mid-century targets and long-term policy options, published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study establishes the notion of “feasibility frontiers,” the point at which end-of-century goals become unobtainable or increasingly unlikely unless specific mid-century benchmarks are met.
The study also for the first time establishes odds of hitting specific long-term targets. If energy demand remains high, for instance, it finds that even if the world’s governments manage to cut global emissions in half by 2050 and then do everything possible to limit emissions from 2050 on, society has only even odds of limiting global temperature increases to 2º, a goal noted in the recent Copenhagen Accord.
These so-called “mid-century” benchmarks must be hit, in other words, to preserve options for future generations. The study was published by scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, and the Energy Research Center in the Netherlands.
“The long-term target discussion, as important as it is, is less important than the interim,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist and policy expert at Princeton University who was not involved in the study but is familiar with the research.
Another example of a long-term goal is a cap on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which today are rising as a result of human activity. The science is not clear what level poses a threat, but some research suggests concentrations must remain at or below 450 parts-per-million to prevent drastic climate change. Some advocacy groups seek a goal of 350 ppm, a level the atmosphere surpassed during the Reagan administration. Preindustrial levels were 287 ppm; today’s readings are closer to 387.
But emissions today are on a path toward 550 ppm or beyond. If a 50 percent emissions cut is deemed too expensive for today’s economies, and emissions instead remain flat for the next few decades – no easy feat in itself – the chances of holding atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at 480 parts per million or less evaporate. Even a future with 550 ppm CO2 becomes – depending on various energy assumptions – difficult or extraordinarily expensive to achieve, according to the analysis.
“There’s a cost to preserving options,” said NCAR climate scientist and lead author Brian O’Neill. “What is the value of preserving an option you may want to exercise in the future?”
Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University, said the paper is notable for showing that climate policy has tipping points that work much the same way such thresholds work in various Earth systems. Tip an ecosystem or planetary process – such as the atmospheren – too far in one direction, and it may suddenly and irreversibly “flip” into an altered state that precludes any notion of going back to the unaltered version.
These feasibility frontiers work similarly. Fail to make specific targets by mid-century, O’Neill said, and no amount of effort will bring long-term goals in range.
The authors preclude any pie-in-the-sky solutions such as radical behavioral change or unproven technologies such as geo-engineering and nuclear fusion.
Other scientists call the work groundbreaking for the urgency it lends to a task that has so far eluded the world’s leaders: translating long-term goals into short-term action.
The discussion about near-term targets, Oppenheimer said, is the next step in both climate modeling and policy. “The policy decision has always been one step behind the reality, and what Brian’s doing is really looking over the horizon.”
As more countries focus on the next few decades, Oppenheimer said the task, oddly enough, becomes easier. “A lot becomes possible. The world opens up in terms of where we need to go, how ambitious we can be, how ambitious we need to be,” he said. “You want to send policy makers a message that their emissions decisions really need to fit within a certain box.
“This is the next step in a longer discussion.”
And it puts the cost of failure in plain language, added Yohe, who was not author of the study but is familiar with the research.
“There are thresholds here as well,” he said. “You might find yourself running into a wall where you thought there was a door.”
“These guys have said if you wait too long, or if you don’t do ‘x,’ the cost of even trying to achieve ‘y’ is just going to go through the roof,” he added.
“That’s a currency that everybody talks about.”
Tesla Motors, the maker of high-performance electric vehicles, is working with Panasonic, the battery and consumer electronics giant, to develop its next generation of batteries. The partnership is intended to help Tesla lower the cost of its batteries and improve the range of its vehicles.
Last month Panasonic announced two high-energy batteries for electric vehicles. These new batteries store as much as 30 percent more energy than its previous lithium-ion batteries, and this increased storage could, in theory, increase a vehicle’s range by a similar amount, thereby addressing one of the main problems with electric cars. Tesla’s Roadster currently has a range of 244 miles and takes three and a half hours to charge with a special charger.
The other major challenge with electric vehicles is the cost of the battery packs. Tesla isn’t announcing the potential cost savings with future batteries, but JB Straubel, Tesla Motor’s chief technology officer, says battery costs have been steadily declining at about 8 percent a year.
Tesla plans to incorporate Panasonic’s cells into its battery packs, and will work with Panasonic to develop cells fine-tuned for use in cars, Straubel says. To do this, Tesla will draw on data gathered from the 1,000 cars it has made so far, which have been driven for over a million miles. Tesla currently gets its batteries from a variety of manufacturers.
Those driving Tesla cars won’t immediately see the added range from the new high-energy battery cells, Straubel says, since there is a lengthy process for validating the performance of new cells. What’s more, the actual range increases can vary. (For example, electronic controls keep a battery from completely discharging to help improve safety and reliability–complete discharges can harm some battery materials. The way the battery is controlled depends upon its chemistry and other details of the cell design.)
One of the new cells in particular will require extensive testing, since it relies on silicon-based electrodes. In theory, silicon electrodes can hold much more energy than the carbon electrodes they replace, but silicon electrodes tend to swell and break apart. They’ll need to be tested to make sure these problems have been overcome.
The approach Tesla is taking with Panasonic is different from that of other automakers, such as Nissan and General Motors, that are developing electric cars and plug-in hybrids (which run extensively on electric power). Tesla uses small cylindrical cells of the type used inside the battery packs in laptops and other consumer electronics, while the other automakers are turning to larger, flat battery cells developed specifically for use in cars. Straubel says that the fact that the manufacturing process for cylindrical cells is well-understood from many years of experience helps drive down costs and improve performance and reliability.
But flat batteries developed specifically for cars may ultimately prove better for electric vehicles, since they are designed to last longer, says Menahem Anderman, an automotive battery industry analyst. Also, because the flat batteries are larger, fewer cells are needed, reducing the number of things that can go wrong inside battery packs. Tesla uses thousands of cells, whereas other automakers can use just a couple hundred.
There’s also the question of safety. The new flat batteries typically use chemistries that are less volatile than those used in laptops, making it easier to ensure they don’t catch fire or explode. Indeed, the lithium-nickel chemistry that Panasonic uses in its high-energy cells can be even less stable than the materials in conventional laptop batteries. Tesla has worked around this by implementing special safety features inside its battery packs.
Straubel says that, for now, the manufacturing experience with cylindrical cells outweighs the potential advantages of flat cells, but as Tesla and Panasonic collaborate, they may eventually turn to flat cells.
Panasonic’s partnership with Tesla is part of a larger strategy to dominate the market for advanced automotive batteries. Panasonic is already a leading manufacturer of batteries for hybrid vehicles, which typically use nickel-metal hydride batteries. Together with Sanyo, a subsidiary it acquired at the end of last year, it provides nickel-metal hydride batteries to several major automakers, including Toyota, Honda, and Ford, and has an agreement to develop batteries for Volkswagen. In November, a joint venture between Toyota and Panasonic started manufacturing lithium-ion batteries for the plug-in hybrid version of the Toyota Prius.
Change, we have learned, is hard. The closer we come to meaningful solutions to our dependence on oil and global warming, the more fiercely opponents of change resist.
We can have the technology and know-how to repower America with energy from the sun, wind and other clean, renewable sources that don’t harm the environment, never run out and could create millions of good, new jobs. We could put solar panels on rooftops and wind turbines off our coasts, and tap the heat beneath the earth’s surface. We could drive highly efficient electric vehicles and crisscross the nation with transit and rail lines that provide good alternatives to driving. We could slash the energy we waste each year and make our economy much more efficient.
In Texas we have the greatest solar resource potential in the nation. Texas helped create a boom for wind power, and it can do the same for solar. Solar power has environmental, economic and health benefits that Texas can harness and transition itself into a clean-energy leader.
These solutions will curb global warming, cut our dependence on fossil fuels and build a vibrant economy on a foundation of green jobs.
Texas has reduced its global-warming pollution by 2 percent since 2004, largely in part to its growing wind-energy industry. But the trail to a clean-energy future is long, and Texas is just starting to saddle up.
To really make a break from our polluting past, we must finally require our oldest, dirtiest and least efficient coal-fired power plants to stop polluting with impunity.
Coal is the dirtiest of all fuels, and coal-fired power plants are America’s largest single source of global warming pollution.
Texas has some of the oldest and dirtiest coal plants in the country, leading our state to rank first nationwide for most pollution from power plants. San Antonio’s J.T. Deely Station is the ninth dirtiest of Texas’ 117 power plants, emitting 7.7 million tons of CO2 every year.
Nationwide, more than three-quarters of all coal plants were built before Ronald Reagan became president nearly 30 years ago. Amazingly, these coal-fired clunkers still do not meet any standards for global-warming pollution. But that should change in just a matter of months “” unless the Senate swoops in and repeals the very parts of the Clean Air Act that require coal plants to meet modern pollution standards.
After a 2007 Supreme Court decision, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules to require coal plants and other big smokestack industries to meet standards for global-warming pollution when new plants are built or existing plants make large upgrades “” an important first step.
Unsurprisingly, the National Chamber of Commerce, the coal industry and other powerful special interests have taken their fight to Congress. They want to pull the rug out from under the EPA and stop the agency from taking this or any step to require coal plants and other big smokestack industries to meet performance standards for global-warming pollution. Unfortunately, they were successful in the major energy bill passed by the U.S. House in June.
When it comes to moving America to clean energy, the effect of these changes is like pressing down the accelerator of a car while simultaneously riding the brake. The House bill includes powerful incentives for shifting to clean energy technologies, but it also will allow “” and even perversely encourage “” companies to keep their oldest and dirtiest power plants operating for years, if not decades, to come.
Moving to clean energy means leaving dirty, old, inefficient technology behind. It’s time to take back control of our energy future and build an America powered by the heat of the sun and the movement of the wind and waves.
We urge EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to use the authority granted under the Clean Air Act and finalize the agency’s proposed rule to cut global-warming pollution from dirty coal plants.
Under a $300 million federal rebate program that started last month, consumers can trade in their energy-sucking appliances for more efficient models, but there are other ways to save money while making a home more energy efficient.
Most utilities, states and even some local governments offer their own programs to give homeowners a break when they buy new appliances, insulate, or install alternative energy sources like solar or wind power. The federal government also recently increased its two tax credits to help pay for more efficient heating, cooling and water-heating equipment, as well as wind, solar and geothermal systems and fuel cells.
The programs run the gamut with some states funneling hundreds of million of dollars into certain programs and through utilities, said Justin Barnes, a policy analyst at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, or DSIRE.
”The tricky part is finding all these programs,” Barnes said.
The DSIRE lists all available incentives and rebate programs by state on its web site at www.dsireusa.org.
The greening of American homes saves consumers money, protects the environment and helps stimulate the broader economy. By adding more insulation to the attic and walls, for example, homeowners can cut their heating consumption up to half. And whether homeowners tackle projects themselves or hire professionals, that spending helps retailers, manufacturers and ripples through other industries.
Of course, homeowners may still have to shell out thousands of dollars to make energy efficient improvements, and that might be a tough decision in lean times.
”They care about putting food on the table, paying the mortgage and college tuition,” said Steven Nadal, executive director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE. ”This is not a top priority in a lot of households.”
So far, the effects of the federal tax credit has been minimal on Tom Higgins’ business in Boulder, Colo. Homeowners just don’t have access to the cash they once did, the owner of Superior Home Improvements/Siding said, and he believes the government should double the credit cap to $3,000 from $1,500 to motivate consumers.
”The concept is well received, but it’s still not enough,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s been great success with New Jersey’s Clean Energy Program administered through the state’s utilities, said Tom Testa, owner of Home Energy Diagnostics in Bloomfield, N.J. Since the program’s launch in 2003, its funding and publicity have increased.
”There are a lot of younger people calling because they want to do the right thing,” Testa said, ”and then I get calls from Wall Street types who want the best return on their home improvements.”
Megan Blank can’t wait to see her heating bills this winter. Last year, she spent $500 a month to heat her three-bedroom house in Bloomfield. She had Testa perform an energy audit last February after putting up with cold drafts for seven years.
”We had to walk around with sweaters on top of sweaters,” Blank said.
Testa discovered there was no insulation in the walls and only a tiny bit in the attic of the 1940s house. In May, Blank had professionals insulate the attic, basement and walls. The total cost to retrofit her home was $5,300, but the state utility program is picking up about half that tab because Blank will cut her energy consumption by at least 25 percent.
Utilities have long been the big funders of energy efficient programs, pouring about $3 billion a year into them, according to the ACEEE.
But some states have also been leaders. Seventeen states offer rebates on energy-efficient products, 16 of them give personal tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements and eight exempt sales tax on certain environmentally friendly products like dishwashers, ceiling fans and programmable thermostats, according to DSIRE.
Cities and counties are also playing key roles. In Maryland, for example, both Howard and Prince George’s counties offer a property tax credit on solar panels and geothermal heating systems. That’s on top of a geothermal and solar energy grant program the state offers.
These programs are all part of a larger public push to protect the environment, from Copenhagen to Cincinnati (which offers tax abatements for green homes). The revolution is happening one Energy Star appliance at a time.