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
"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"
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.