7 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for March 10: Climate’s a hot issue in Arkansas; New Senate ‘gang’ gathering on energy?
Arkansas is rapidly emerging as ground zero for climate politics, as advocates from all sides swarm embattled incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln.
Lincoln’s approval rating “” at an all-time low of 27 percent “” has made her one of the most politically endangered Democrats in the Senate. Last week, Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter jumped into the race, posing a serious challenge from the left to the conservative Democrat.
As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Lincoln has a lot of sway over offsets and other farming provisions included in the climate bill.
She’s come out strongly against a House version of the legislation, which she’s said is a complete “nonstarter” in the Senate.
Last month, she co-sponsored legislation introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) attempting to veto an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that greenhouse gases endanger human health and welfare. The ruling compels the agency to begin regulating emissions in sectors across the economy.
“She’s running a strategy to present herself as a conservative Democrat, and part of her message on that is her opposition to the cap-and-trade bill,” said Jason Tolbert, editor of the conservative Arkansas political blog The Tolbert Report.
In the first television advertisement of her campaign, Lincoln touted her opposition to a “cap-and-trade bill that would have increased energy costs for Arkansans.”
The Obama administration signaled a fresh commitment to moving a climate bill this year, bringing together a bipartisan group of 14 key Senators and top cabinet officials for a White House meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
“He wants us to move, figure out where we can come together and do as comprehensive bill as we can,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).
In opening remarks, according to Senators in attendance, President Obama took the idea of an energy-only bill – the preferred approach of moderate Democrats – off the table, saying he wanted a “comprehensive” bill that includes a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
“He wants to do it this year, that’s for sure,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)
The meeting was called as Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) near the release of their revamped climate bill.
Those three senators have dropped the idea of an economy-wide cap in favor of imposing different emissions curbs on different industries. The legislation would also provide new federal assistance to nuclear power plants, carbon sequestration, storage projects at coal plants and offshore oil exploration – proposals aimed at attracting Republican support.
Kerry spoke in general terms about their proposal, which they expect to release by the end of the month. Congress, said Kerry, is “now down to dealing with specific language” in the bill.
Most members say they have yet to see specific language, although the three Senators have spent the past few weeks in a flurry of meetings about the proposal.
China’s State Grid is building a massive demonstration project for integrated renewable energy and power storage in the provincial city of Zhangjiakou in Hebei, state news agency Xinhua reported.
The ability to store large amounts of energy is critical to the development of renewable power because of the intermittency of energy sources like solar and wind. Industry players at companies such as Suntech Power Holdings Co. (STP) call storage an integral piece of the renewable-energy puzzle.
As China moves to increase its renewable-energy targets in its next five-year plan, which will be announced later this year, the development …
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the International Monetary Fund, said the organization is devising a “green fund” that would help rich nations meet their Copenhagen pledge to raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to tackle the effects of climate change.
Under such a fund, IMF quotas could be used as a basis for contributions to help burden-sharing, Strauss-Kahn said. The fund could serve as a “bridge” while rich nations negotiate their contributions to climate-change mitigation under the Copenhagen agreement, he added.
“Launching such a scheme would entail a major political effort. But the potential pay-off is enormous — for Africa and the world,” the IMF’s managing director said in a speech at the university of Nairobi in Kenya today. “Now is the time to put new ideas on the table.”
The fund would help African nations tackle the increase in drought, flooding, food shortages and disease that will likely be caused by climate change and may spur progress on negotiations towards a global agreement on curbing emissions. The IMF increased its quotas last year in order to add more than $250 billion to global liquidity following a request from the Group of 20 leaders.
“Early progress with financing for climate action will help to unlock support from developing nations for an ambitious global deal on climate change,” said Richard Gledhill, global leader of the climate change practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “The key challenge will be to structure commitments in such a way as to leverage investment from the private sector and from the carbon markets.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts as many as 250 million Africans may be exposed to water shortages by 2020 and some countries may see harvests fall by 50 percent.
On Dec. 10, billionaire George Soros asked the richest nations to use $100 billion of foreign-exchange reserves to finance emissions-reducing projects in poor countries.
The reserves would go into investments in rain forests, agriculture and land use that will lower carbon-dioxide emissions, the financier said during negotiations involving 192 nations in Copenhagen.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu took the podium early (instead of at lunch) at IHS-CERAWeek today because “I have to go back to Washington,” he said briefly. His talk at the energy conference was very much that of a college professor, complete with graphs and charts.
“The U.S. has the opportunity to lead the world in a new industrial revolution,” Chu said, but a cleaner one that will help keep U.S. in the lead with technology.
He then followed with a defense of why he believes the data shows man-made climate change is real, including data on two different kinds of carbon in the environment. The ratio between Carbon 14 (which has a certain radioactive footprint) and Carbon 12, which comes from extracted hydrocarbons, has shifted such that there’s more Carbon 12 in the mix.
He gave a shout-out to natural gas, noting how it would be much preferable to coal for power generation. But he emphasized finding ways to “store” wind power via compressed air or water pumping so it can be used during peak power hours, with natural gas power playing the role of back-up.
Chu also touted research into improving the impact of burning coal, mentioning a new DOE announcement of a $154 million investment with NRG Energy (which owns many of Houston’s power plants) for a “clean coal” power initiative.
During a very quick Q&A, IHS-CERA director Dan Yergin asked how hard Chu found it to push innovation at the DOE, given his background in cutting-edge research. Chu said he was encouraged to find much of America’s top scientific talent — both old and young — to be very interested in energy issues. So the talent and enthusiasm is there.
On nuclear power Chu said he thought it’s “part of the solution but not the entire solution.” About 20 percent of U.S. power comes from nuclear, a ratio the country would like to “maintain and possibly grow” he said. That’s why the administration has added more money to its nuclear loan guarantee program. Once several new reactor projects are built on time and on budget, Chu expects the government to step back and let the industry work on its own.
His final nod to the largely oil-and-gas-centric audience: “Oil is an ideal transportation fuel, so it will be with us for decades,” he said. “But having said all these things, we still have this climate issue and we’ll need to use oil in a cleaner way.”
The Export-Import Bank voted yesterday to ramp up financing for renewable energy and impose new reviews of large fossil fuel projects as part of a broad new climate change strategy.
Bank President Fred Hochberg is expected to announce the new carbon policy today when President Obama joins the institution’s annual meeting. The strategy, with a centerpiece $250 million loan guarantee program for renewable energy projects, is the first of its kind among export credit agencies.
“Just having a carbon policy is farther than any export credit agency in the world,” said Export-Import Bank spokesman Phil Cogan. “That’s pretty significant.”
The move is part of a 2009 settlement resolving a lawsuit involving Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and several cities. The suit alleged that the agency — which provides loans, guarantees and insurance to subsidize U.S. exports — provided more than $32 billion to fossil fuel projects without considering the impacts of global warming under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
But it also comes as other global lending institutions like the World Bank look for ways to balance the work they do with a new international emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out support for fossil fuels.
For the most part, environmental advocates say the agencies are failing to make fundamental changes to steer the world away from dirty fuel and toward zero- and low-carbon energy development.
Activists reacted with particular fury to the Export-Import Bank’s policy, arguing it does nothing to curb the carbon emissions the agency is responsible for creating, and may even create new avenues to support the financing of coal projects….
Under the plan, the Export-Import Bank vows to adopt a “rigorous enhanced due diligence process for all high carbon intensity projects.” Officials plan to categorize projects based on their carbon intensity levels. “High” intensity proposals producing between 700 and 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt will be required to meet certain standards, like using the “best appropriate technology.”
Coal gasification, oil-fueled power plants and coal plants that are developed with the capacity to include carbon capture and storage technology would not have to meet any additional requirements. And for the most inefficient, subcritical boiler plants, the agency plans to require offsets to reduce the project’s carbon intensity level. The standards allow for the possibility that a project might be denied because of its climate change impacts, but set no threshold nor give any description of what might trigger a denial.
Doug Norlen, policy director for the environmental nonprofit Pacific Environment, noted that the Export-Import Bank rarely finances coal projects. He maintained that the new carbon policy barely addresses the agency’s enormous oil and gas portfolio. Moreover, he said, the coal provisions appear to open the door for financing new power plants rather than protect against the possibility.
“They are avoiding their responsibility to curb their mainstream portfolio of fossil fuel emissions and potentially setting up a stalking horse for future expansion of emissions through future support of coal,” Norlen said.
Cogan, when asked if he envisioned the Export-Import Bank financing a coal-fired power plant under the new policy, said “it depends,” based on the criteria laid out in the policy. He also said the agency simply can’t shift away from fossil fuel lending.
Solar executives are worried that the United States’ decentralized energy policy may make it impossible to achieve market dominance.
When Tom Rooney, CEO of Silicon Valley’s SPG Solar, returned from a business trip to Beijing last month, he was struck by how far the United States has fallen behind, simply by staying still.
“It dawned on me that most people in America don’t have a clue about how far behind we are,” he said. “It’s a little disappointing that as one of the largest buyers of panels in the U.S., we are barely taken seriously in China.”
The United States is now the fifth-largest buyer of solar components, Rooney estimated, behind Germany, Spain, Canada and Japan. In 2008, the United States installed 342 MW of solar, compared to 1,500 MW in Germany and 2,300 MW in Spain, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. Of that demand, China and Taiwan filled almost half, while U.S. production was 414 MW.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu echoed the industry’s concerns Monday at Stanford University, but didn’t offer much hope of a policy fix. Instead, he offered up the Energy Department’s loan guarantees and funding of research centers at universities (ClimateWire, March 9).
“America has the opportunity to seize the day,” he said. “Do we want to be leaders or followers?”
It may be too late to choose, Rooney said. The Chinese are reaping the economic benefits (and environmental consequences) of their investments in Beijing. And they’re wondering why they have so few American customers.
“In Beijing, people are scratching their heads, saying, ‘What’s going on with these guys?'” Rooney said. “From Florida to California, we’re such obvious end-users. Within five years, we would be by far the No. 1 market in the world, and we would have the technological bully pulpit in terms of steering the future technologies. Now we’re just riding the coattails of countries that are first, and with no leadership comes no say-so in the next generation of technologies.”
Apples and Wiener schnitzel
The United States’ fragmented energy policy is why Germany — with solar potential similar to Alaska’s — is the world leader in installed capacity, Rooney said.
“In Germany they have more national policies, whereas here we have hundreds, maybe thousands, of utilities and public utility commissions,” he said. “In the U.S., we do it one little community at a time, and there is no national impetus to get it done. It’s the ability to act monolithically” that provides the greatest economic benefits.
But other observers doubted Germany’s success could ever be replicated in the United States with broad national policies. California alone has more than 30 utilities that would have to translate a feed-in tariff to work with their own size and design. A national renewable energy standard would be more likely to work, but also poses obstacles, said Sue Kateley, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association.
“I see it as a good thing, but it’s fraught with how do you do it,” she said, citing a recent bill in the Arizona Legislature that would have altered its renewable energy standard to include nuclear power. “The concept of ‘We need to have a national initiative to get more renewable energy on the grid,’ that’s really important, but how you do it is the complicating part.”
One thing the federal government could do with little fuss or fanfare is clarify policy to explicitly allow local feed-in tariffs, she said. A recent report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory offers several paths for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make it easier for states to avoid conflict with federal rules governing wholesale electricity sales.
“You wouldn’t even need legislation for that,” Kateley said. “FERC could just issue a rule.”
Kateley pointed out that Germany doesn’t have an investment tax credit, so its feed-in tariff is commensurately high. As well, its relatively low solar potential compared to the United States means that even if more megawatts have been installed, the actual generation — and ratepayer obligation — is still low.
“Comparisons to Germany should be done very carefully,” she said.
Japan and South Korea are scrambling to tap into international lithium reserves as the metal becomes more valuable for electric car batteries.
Along with China, Japan and South Korea hold 98 percent of the world’s lithium market, but the countries are now hoping to corner the market. China has lithium on reserve, as well as an untapped source in its salt lakes.
South Korea has set aside $12 billion for lithium acquisition this year and worked out a deal with Bolivia to tap into that country’s massive reserve. The country even declared it will extract lithium from seawater by 2015. Still, the Samsung Economic Research Institute wrote that Seoul was trailing in the lithium race and advised the government to divert more funds to resource diplomacy.
In Japan, meanwhile, Mitsubishi Corp. and Sumitomo Corp. are looking to get the rights to extract lithium from the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia, which could hold the world’s largest deposit. Toyota Tsusho will buy a 25 percent share in Argentina’s lithium-potash development.
South Korea’s salt-water announcement could change the market, though scientists say cost-effective extraction technology is several years away. Japanese scientists worked on the process for three decades, but found it too expensive without booming demand.
Experts are split about whether the current reserves of recoverable lithium can satisfy the market for metal, which is also used in laptop and cell phone batteries. There is currently 4.1 million tons without Bolivia’s stores, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. South Korea believes that seawater extraction will keep those reserves from running out too early
Minuscule tubes coated with a chemical fuel can act as a power source with 100 times more electrical power by weight than conventional batteries.
As these nano-scale “fuses” burn, they drive an electrical current along their length at staggering speeds.
The never-before-seen phenomenon could lead to a raft of energy applications.
Researchers reporting in Nature Materials say that unlike normal batteries, the nanotubes never lose their stored energy if left to sit.
The team, led by Michael Strano of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, coated their nanotubes – cylinders just billionths of a metre across – with a chemical fuel known as cyclotrimethylene trinitramine.
“One property that nanotubes have is that they conduct heat very, very well along their length, up to a hundred times faster than in metals,” Dr Strano told BBC News.
“We asked what would happen if you perform a chemical reaction near one of these, and the first thing we found is the nanotube will guide the reaction, accelerating it up to 10,000 times.”
The team used a laser or an electric spark to set off the reaction in a bundle of coated carbon nanotubes, filming the results using a high-speed camera.
U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell 2.9 percent in 2008, according to a draft report that U.S. EPA opened for public comment today.
The emissions decline was attributed to falling carbon dioxide emissions as energy consumption fell in the face of record-high oil prices and an economic recession. Total emissions for the year were about 6.9 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent, an increase by 13.6 percent from 1990.
EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory also calculates CO2 emissions removed from the atmosphere by sinks like forests, soil and vegetation. Since 1990, the country has seen a 3.4 percent increase in the CO2 absorbed by forests and land use, largely due to an increase in the rate of carbon accumulation in the forests, the report says.
Fossil fuel combustion remained a primary source of CO2 in the United States, accounting for 94 percent of CO2 emissions in 2008.
The inventory is prepared by EPA in collaboration with other agencies as part of U.S. obligations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.