Energy and Global Warming News for April 13th, 2010; Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags; Renewable energy helps fuel Dow above 11,000

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"Energy and Global Warming News for April 13th, 2010; Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags; Renewable energy helps fuel Dow above 11,000"

Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags

The lawyers and engineers who dwell in an elegant enclave here are at peace with the hulking neighbor just over the back fence: a vast energy plant that burns thousands of tons of household garbage and industrial waste, round the clock. The Vestforbraending plant in Copenhagen, the largest of the 29 waste-to-energy plants in Denmark. Their use has reduced the country’s energy costs.

Far cleaner than conventional incinerators, this new type of plant converts local trash into heat and electricity. Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago.

In that time, such plants have become both the mainstay of garbage disposal and a crucial fuel source across Denmark, from wealthy exurbs like Horsholm to Copenhagen’s downtown area. Their use has not only reduced the country’s energy costs and reliance on oil and gas, but also benefited the environment, diminishing the use of landfills and cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.

With all these innovations, Denmark now regards garbage as a clean alternative fuel rather than a smelly, unsightly problem. And the incinerators, known as waste-to-energy plants, have acquired considerable cachet as communities like Horsholm vie to have them built.

Denmark now has 29 such plants, serving 98 municipalities in a country of 5.5 million people, and 10 more are planned or under construction. Across Europe, there are about 400 plants, with Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands leading the pack in expanding them and building new ones.

By contrast, no new waste-to-energy plants are being planned or built in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency says “” even though the federal government and 24 states now classify waste that is burned this way for energy as a renewable fuel, in many cases eligible for subsidies. There are only 87 trash-burning power plants in the United States, a country of more than 300 million people, and almost all were built at least 15 years ago.

Instead, distant landfills remain the end point for most of the nation’s trash. New York City alone sends 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in places like Ohio and South Carolina.

“Europe has gotten out ahead with this newest technology,” said Ian A. Bowles, a former Clinton administration official who is now the Massachusetts state secretary of energy.

Still, Mr. Bowles said that as America’s current landfills topped out and pressure to reduce heat-trapping gases grew, Massachusetts and some other states were “actively considering” new waste-to-energy proposals; several existing plants are being expanded. He said he expected resistance all the same in a place where even a wind turbine sets off protests.

Europe Urged to Share Power Across Continent

Renewable energy in Europe should be generated and distributed on a continental scale to make the greatest contribution toward reducing greenhouse gases, according to a report that raises significant challenges for a fragmented region.

The report, to be released Tuesday, was compiled by the European Climate Foundation, a group financed by philanthropic organizations, using studies carried out by McKinsey, a consulting firm.

Among its recommendations is a gigantic power cable that would link solar farms in Spain with energy-hungry countries like Poland. Such a link could ship huge volumes of so-called clean electricity, but it could face political opposition in countries like France.

The report underscores how various renewable power sources, including wind from the North Sea, will need to be linked on a transcontinental grid to generate a secure and reliable supply of alternative energy to substitute for fossil fuels.

Such a grid would probably be easier to build in countries that span continents, as in the United States and China. In Europe, power grids remain largely confined to countries, with limited cross-border connections.

The report, to be presented in Brussels to the European Union energy commissioner, G¼nther Oettinger, and the climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, said that cross-border connections would need to change if clean power was to be distributed more widely.

“Transmission must develop from a minor trading and reserve-sharing role to one that enables significant energy exchanges between regions across the year,” according to the report.

The addition of a huge interconnector crossing France could help French utilities export more nuclear power, but it also could cut into those exports by providing customers with an alternative source of electricity.

Climate treaty realities push leaders to trim priority lists

As prospects for a binding global climate treaty this year have evaporated, leaders and environmental advocates have focused their efforts on reaching agreement on a few top priorities, including preserving tropical forests and helping developing countries cope with climate change.

The U.N.-sponsored climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, in December are increasingly viewed as an interim step to a final deal. Many heads of state and activists had hoped that they could produce a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The climate pact’s first period ends in 2012.

Instead, negotiators have begun to focus on what U.N. Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth calls “the building blocks” of a global climate strategy.

In an interview Monday, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that it was overly ambitious to include everything from emissions targets to technology transfer provisions and funding for preventing deforestation. “We cannot expect all of this in an agreement covering all issues. But what I hope is we are able to make some progress on some issues.”

U.S. special envoy for climate change Todd Stern said the administration was focused on bringing essential elements for an eventual treaty “to some level of closure” by the end of the year. “There’s a bunch of work to be done,” he said.

Connie Hedegaard, who led the climate talks in Copenhagen last year and serves as European commissioner for climate action, said that focusing on those priorities could help win over the leaders of some developing countries. “Why don’t we focus on content: specific actions, specific deliverables,” Hedegaard said. “Then they could see there’s something in it for them.”

The divide between rich and poor countries was evident over the weekend in Bonn, Germany, where delegates from 175 nations met for a working session to lay the groundwork for this year’s talks. The procedural debate, on questions such as whether to include the U.S.-brokered Copenhagen Accord in the ongoing U.N. talks, became so contentious it prompted committee chairwoman Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe to comment Sunday, “If we can’t agree on this, then we may have problems when we really start negotiating.”

White House Rhetoric May Signal Climate-Bill Surge

With the bruising health care debate over, President Obama’s top economic adviser left little doubt last week that energy and climate has taken its place atop the administration’s agenda.

During a 30-minute speech (pdf) at a Washington energy conference, Larry Summers, the head of the White House’s National Economic Council, used lofty rhetoric to warn of the long-term consequences if Congress fails to follow through this year on a sweeping overhaul of how the nation generates and uses energy.

“Read the history of great nations,” Summers said. “Read how they succeed and read how they fail. Their ability to mobilize to solve problems before they are absolutely imminent crises is what determines their longevity.

That’s why this task of economic renewal is so important broadly. And that’s why I believe it is so important that we move for economic reasons to pass comprehensive energy legislation.”

Summers, a former Treasury secretary and president of Harvard University, went on to outline ways a climate and energy bill can help the U.S. economy grow, from creating short-term jobs to reducing uncertainty and increasing confidence for new private-sector investments.

“Ultimately, economic policy choices, like investment decisions for a family, involve seeking opportunity and involve minimizing risk,” Summers said. “If you think about the risks to our ecology, the risks to our security, we minimize those risks with comprehensive energy policy. And if you think about the opportunity to lead in what is really important, we maximize that opportunity with comprehensive energy legislation. That’s why energy is so crucial a part of President Obama’s economic strategy.”

Advocates for U.S. action on climate change welcomed Summers’ remarks, saying they saw in them an important message from the Obama administration. With the health care bill signed into law, key White House players are turning their attention to an energy debate that will demand considerable heavy lifting if an energy and climate measure is going to have a chance to pass the Senate and reach the president’s desk before the midterm election.

“It was very important symbolically that the rest of the White House, beyond Carol Browner and CEQ, is getting engaged in this battle,” said Dan Weiss, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, referring to Obama’s top climate and energy adviser and the Council on Environmental Quality.

Renewable energy helps fuel Dow above 11,000

The benchmark Dow Jones Industrial Average closed above 11,000 for the first time since stock markets began their nosedive 18 months ago. And the rebound in investor and trader confidence seems to be taking renewable energy and clean technology stocks with it.

An uptick in the price of a barrel of oil, the coming 40th anniversary Earth Day celebrations and renewed focus on energy and climate legislation in Congress could once again be sparking market enthusiasm, at least for the short term, market watchers are speculating.

But the upturn could prove short-lived as some banks and investment firms remain wary of the sector’s long-term performance, warning their clients of shrinking public support for subsidies and an end to government stimulus spending globally.

The Dow settled at 11,005.97 at the closing bell Monday. That’s just 0.1 percent higher than Friday’s closing level, a rise of only 8 points. But it represents the first time the stock market index broke the 10,000 range since the bankruptcy of Wall Street icon Lehman Brothers Holdings sent the entire financial system into a tailspin more than a year and a half ago.

Solar company stocks, in particular, have been performing well at the close of the year’s first fiscal quarter. That’s despite ominous news of rapidly shrinking subsidies that have been the real engine of growth for the industry. Several large European nations have been announcing steep cuts to their feed-in tariff programs, through which governments guaranteed higher subsidized electricity prices for solar power generation, in a bid to plug huge budget deficits.

Among U.S. firms, First Solar saw its shares rise by 2.3 percent last week, and the stock bounced up again by more than 3 percent in trading Monday. Holdings in the largest solar company in the United States closed yesterday at almost $128 per share, from about $124 at the beginning of the day. The stock rose to nearly $130 in the first half of the day before settling back.

MEMC, a wafer supplier, rose by more than 5 percent last week and bumped up again by nearly 2 percent Monday. Competitor LDK Solar’s share price rose by 11.9 percent last week and rose almost 4 percent higher still yesterday. Analysts cite rising prices for their products as reason for the strong performance.

“Prices are expected to further increase in 3Q10,” Credit Suisse analysts said in a new report.

Up in the Air

Joe Bastardi, who goes by the title “expert senior forecaster” at AccuWeather, has a modest proposal. Virtually every major scientific body in the world has concluded that the planet is warming, and that greenhouse-gas emissions are the main cause. Bastardi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in meteorology, disagrees. His theory, which mixes volcanism, sunspots, and a sea-temperature trend known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, is that the earth is actually cooling. Why don’t we just wait twenty or thirty years, he proposes, and see who’s right?

This is “the greatest lab experiment ever,” he said recently on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show.

Bastardi’s position is ridiculous (which is no doubt why he’s often asked to air it on Fox News). Yet there it was on the front page of the Times last week. Among weathermen, it turns out, views like Bastardi’s are typical. A survey released by researchers at George Mason University found that more than a quarter of television weathercasters agree with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” and nearly two-thirds believe that, if warming is occurring, it is caused “mostly by natural changes.” (The survey also found that more than eighty per cent of weathercasters don’t trust “mainstream news media sources,” though they are presumably included in this category.

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13 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for April 13th, 2010; Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags; Renewable energy helps fuel Dow above 11,000

  1. Seth Masia says:

    Re: Bastardi: Al Franken used to compare the climate debate to an impending heart attack. “If five doctors told you you were going to have a heart attack and you need to go on a diet and stop smoking, you wouldn’t say ‘I don’t believe you because you can’t tell me precisely when my heart will stop.’”

    And if you decided to find a doctor who advised “Wait and see,” you’d deserve the heart attack.

  2. cervantes says:

    And if the guy who advised you to “wait and see” wasn’t a doctor, but a licensed practical nurse . . .

  3. Russell Thomas says:

    Walmart is a leader and it asking to reduce trash from packaging consumer products. It cuts shipping costs.
    Urban lifestyles are the problem from the UHI effect to trash and waste.

  4. Ananda says:

    Response to NY Times: “Europe Finds Clean Energy in Trash, but U.S. Lags”, 4/12/2010
    Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives: http://www.no-burn.org

    For decades the tobacco industry told us that cigarettes were safe. Now the waste incineration industry wants us to believe they are coming clean?

    Despite the latest spin, there is nothing better about burning garbage today, whether in the U.S. or in Denmark (1). Attempts to peddle “waste to energy” haven’t gained wide acceptance around the world because people are aware that incineration:

    1. Remains a serious threat to public health. Burning garbage is a primary source of cancer-causing dioxins and other pollutants that enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain.

    2. Produces more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than coal power. Current atmospheric carbon loads cannot safely bear additional emissions from incinerators and landfills.

    3. Is a massive waste of energy. Due to its low calorific value, burning garbage to produce energy is highly inefficient (2). Conversely, recycling recovers three to five times more energy than incineration produces.

    4. Creates an economic burden for communities. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent subsidizing the construction and operations of incinerators. For a fraction of this cost, investments in recycle, reuse and remanufacture, create significantly more business and employment opportunity.

    5. Represents the destruction of valuable resources and jobs. Zero waste practices create over 10 times the number of jobs than burning or burying the same waste. Over ninety per cent of municipal waste can be recycled, re-used or composted, to create thousands of good, long-term jobs.

    As part of their marketing, incinerator lobby groups have even recruited the same “expert” witnesses that once testified for the tobacco industry. Fortunately, citizen groups today are not easily deceived by such masquerades and are familiar with real solutions.

    The next time the NY Times looks at gleaning information from industry websites, I would encourage you to diligently question the source.

    Ananda Lee Tan
    North American Program Coordinator
    Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives
    1958 University Avenue, Berkeley, Ca 94703
    Phone: +1 510 883 9490 Ext 102
    Email: ananda@no-burn.org
    Website: http://www.no-burn.org

    Footnotes:
    1. According to Eurostat in 2007, Denmark produces the highest waste per capita (over 1762 lbs. per person each year) in the EU – clearly an unsustainable level of waste generation. Additionally, over 80 % of what is burned in Danish incinerators is recyclable/compostable.

    2. State of the art incineration plants in Denmark achieve only 25% energy efficiency with heat and power

  5. mike roddy says:

    Plasma torches may be a player here someday. They pulverize trash with only trace pollution, and hydrogen is captured to produce fuel to make electricity. Byproducts include gases and inert concrete aggregate: at 13,000 degrees, there’s nothing else left. The torches use a lot of electricity, but the hydrogen produces 3 times more. There are several plants in the prototype stage. I worked on this a few years ago, but it’s farther along now.

    I agree that incinerators are not the way to go for trash, but this is different.

  6. Bob Wallace says:

    From the article…

    “Dozens of filters catch pollutants, from mercury to dioxin, that would have emerged from its smokestack only a decade ago. …. The plants run so cleanly that many times more dioxin is now released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues than from incineration.”

    Ananda’s response…

    “Burning garbage is a primary source of cancer-causing dioxins and other pollutants that enter the food supply and concentrate up through the food chain.”

    These two claims are not in opposition. One talks about burning garbage, the other about burning garbage but using filters.

    And let me ask – “Produces more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than coal power.” – what’s the sequestered/recycled carbon ratio?

    Remember, some things such as plastic bags started out as petroleum so the CO2 created when they are burned de-sequesters carbon. The carbon in plant material came from the atmosphere so there is no net increase in ‘above ground’ carbon.

  7. Neil says:

    @Bob — there’s a common myth that the CO2 in the atmosphere that is originally of plant origin (“biogenic”) is climate-neutral, because, as you say, it is simply recirculating. But this ignores the significant residence time of such carbon. When you burn wood (or paper), you are releasing in minutes carbon which the tree took years, or even centuries to sequester. The net effect is an increase in atmospheric CO2 emissions. And all CO2 in the atmosphere traps heat the same. But to answer your question, Covanta estimates that 65% of the CO2 emissions from its incinerators are of fossil origin and 35% biogenic.

    @Mike — the sunny predictions of plasma torch operators haven’t come true. They produce only a fraction of the energy they consume; and even extreme high heat doesn’t solve the problem of heavy metals, which can’t be destroyed outside a nuclear reactor; or dioxins, which re-form as stack gases cool. In any case, by far the best thing to do with trash is recycle it — it makes no sense to invest so heavily in destroying resources.

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    Neil – there is a difference between the carbon that we recycle between atmosphere and plants, and the carbon we extract from the ground and add to the above ground cycle.

    Might burning biomass increase the momentary level of carbon in the atmosphere?

    Yes. But if it helps reduce carbon extraction then the net result is likely desirable.

    Does all biomass come from slow-growing plants only to be rapidly burned for an increase in atmospheric carbon?

    No. Many rapidly growing plants have enormous root structures which sequester carbon as they grow. And the grow/harvest/burn/grow cycle means that more and more carbon is returned to beneath the planets surface with each growing cycle.

  9. Jeff Wishart says:

    @Ananda – You seem to be making the same mistake as Ms. Haight in the article. Firstly, nobody is suggesting that materials that can be recycled (intelligently) shouldn’t be. So let’s incinerate that straw man immediately. However, it’s simply delusional to think that there will be a time in the near future when we will have wide-scale, zero-waste businesses and households.
    Your points, in turn:
    1. @Bob correctly points out that the new incinerators are not producing dioxins like you fear. The technology has improved.
    2. Since the incineration releases CO2 where CH4 would otherwise be emitted, this is actually better for the atmosphere and anthropogenic climate change.
    3. Again, nobody is arguing that recycling shouldn’t be done where appropriate (many allegedly recycled materials sit in warehouses).
    4. I think you would have to admit that these communities in Denmark seem to feel as though the cost-benefit analysis is favourable towards the modern incinerators. So your assertion would require a lot more evidence to be credible.
    5. Throwing out numbers like “10 times more jobs” certainly demand evidence. Why didn’t you put some in another footnote?

    If the Danes are not recycling enough, there is no reason to follow their model. But surely you can see that the waste that cannot be avoided (even you admit that municipal waste can only be recycled up to “over 90 percent”, i.e. not 100%) should be incinerated if the plants are clean, CHP is utilized, and the methane emissions avoided. It’s simply massive overstatement to call incinerators “the devil”.

  10. mike roddy says:

    Neil-

    Plasma people claim that heavy metals and dioxins are entombed in the obsidian-like slag that remains in the plasma vessel after firing, and are not in the gases. They got approvals on that basis. And energy ratios are improving. However, if it were cost effective they would have been deployed by now. The niche may end up as an emergency solid waste disposal system rather than an effective energy source.

    You’re certainly right about the biological carbon cycle, though- here’s something I wrote on the subject- http://www.tinyurl.com/yc8ncuq, background at http://www.tinyurl.com/ycxfsqu.

  11. Bob Wallace says:

    Further – from the linked article…

    “They have arrays of newly developed filters and scrubbers to capture the offending chemicals — hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, dioxins, furans and heavy metals — as well as small particulates.

    Emissions from the plants in all categories have been reduced to just 10 to 20 percent of levels allowed under the European Union’s strict environmental standards for air and water discharges.”

  12. prokaryote says:

    Record Atlantic SSTs continue; very active hurricane season foreseen by CSU and TSR
    http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/article.html

  13. Neil Seldman says:

    Neil Seldman is co-founder and president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is the author of “The U.S. Recycling Movement 1945-95,” and “Wasting in the U.S. 2000.”

    Environmental questions are not the primary concerns of many in the U.S. who oppose garbage incineration. While environmental concerns usually wake people up, the economic and financial issues are paramount.
    Cities and counties cannot afford the cost of building waste-to-energy plants, which typically cost $650 million per plant. With 20 years of bond payments this would amount to $1.3 billion, plus operating costs.
    The difference between Denmark and the U.S. is that we have landfills giving us time to carry out more recycling and composting that are 10 percent the cost of incineration. Plus the raw materials returned to industry and agriculture, create jobs, (about 5 to 10 more jobs vs. incineration in just processing, and much more in manufacturing).

    Oakland for example has created 1,000 jobs in the past 10 years by investing in recycling and composting instead of incineration. Their tax base has expanded through these jobs and small businesses. Jobs are created as value is added to the raw materials.

    The country’s modest 33 percent recycling rate supports over 1 million jobs. Another 1 million jobs are waiting if the country doubles its current diversion rate. This is easily doable in the next 5 years, simply by adopting and adapting the best state-of-the-art practices.

    That is why cities and counties are building resource recovery parks to keep materials local. Half the materials in the waste stream if properly processed have active markets within a 50-mile radius of cities that generate the materials.
    In World War II the country had to make do with local materials or do without. There are 500 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) and construction and demolition debris that we cannot waste without severe economic pain. Los Angeles, for example, recovers 94 percent of its construction and demolition materials. New rules, economic incentives and equipment used there and in other cities and counties could be applied throughout the U.S.
    If the incineration industry does not tie up waste streams for 20 years it cannot survive. But recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion are emerging so quickly, and are so much more economical than both incineration and landfilling, that the industry is desperate. Hence the investment of millions by the industry in donations to Congress, state legislatures and local councils and commissions to gain subsidies and exemptions from pollution regulations. But it won’t work to overcome the huge costs to build and operate incinerators. Every local community that has investigated the issue is saying no to new incinerators.
    Even when a facility works, as in Montgomery County, Md., it needs $40 million a year in subsidies to cover costs above revenue from energy sales and tip fees. Citizens pay a surcharge of from $200 to $400 per household.

    We should – given the space, time and budgets we have – make the transition from waste management to resource management.