Energy and Global Warming News for April 1: US fuel rules spur hybrids, auto engine efficiency — “biggest step the U.S. government has ever taken” to cut CO2

US fuel rules spur hybrids, auto engine efficiency

Industry will build cleaner-burning diesel cars, plug-in hybrids and more efficient gasoline engines to achieve the 42 percent increase in fuel efficiency madated by the U.S. government for 2016.

The initiative mandated by Congress and toughened by the Obama administration over the past year represents the first meaningful increase in fuel mileage targets since their introduction in the 1970s. It also will be the first federal effort to regulate tailpipe emissions.

These standards are The biggest step the U.S. government has ever taken to cut CO2. Here are more details


New standards drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department to be unveiled in Washington on Thursday will be phased in starting with the 2012 model year.

They will raise fuel economy gradually each year to a fleet average 35.5 miles per gallon for 2016 models. That is up 42 percent from the current 25 mpg.

Higher mileage requirements aim to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 900 million metric tons and save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of vehicles built through 2016.

That is equivalent to taking 58 million cars off the road for a year, President Barack Obama said on Tuesday in an address on energy policy initiatives that include higher fuel mileage goals and plans to expand U.S. offshore oil and gas drilling.

“Overall, this is a huge step forward. It’s the biggest thing this government has done to reduce consumption of oil and curb global warming pollution,” said Ann Mesnikoff, transportation expert at the Sierra Club.

Brian Carolin, senior sales and marketing vice president for the North American unit of Nissan Motor Co, said the new rules present each company with challenges.

“All of these regulations are tough,” Carolin told Reuters in an interview at the New York auto show. “Ford has their own road map to get there. We will have our own unique solution.”

Industry insiders say U.S. and overseas carmakers have to pull all their levers to meet the new Obama fuel standards, which for each company is an average of their fleet performance.

Consumers already have choices that come close, meet or exceed the 2016 standard, mainly from the gasoline-electric hybrid designs.

The 2010 Prius hybrid sedan made by Toyota Motor Corp averages 51 mpg in city driving and 48 mpg on the highway, according to EPA. The Ford Motor Co Fusion hybrid gets 41/36 mpg and the Honda Motor Co Civic hybrid achieves 40/45 mpg.

All electric cars or those designed to run predominantly in electric mode are also part of the mix. Nissan plans to launch the Leaf in December and General Motors Co is getting ready to roll out the Volt.

Fuel efficiency rules aimed at advanced vehicles

The Obama administration is setting tough gas mileage standards for new cars and trucks, spurring the next generation of fuel-sipping gas-electric hybrids, efficient engines and electric cars.

The heads of the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday were signing final rules requiring 2016 model-year vehicles to meet fuel efficiency targets of 35.5 miles per gallon combined for cars and trucks, an increase of nearly 10 mpg over current standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The EPA, which received the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions in a 2007 Supreme Court ruling, will set a tailpipe emissions standard of 250 grams (8.75 ounces) of carbon dioxide per mile for vehicles sold in 2016, or the equivalent of what would be emitted by vehicles meeting the mileage standard. The EPA is issuing its first rules ever on vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

President Barack Obama, previewing the plan Wednesday, said it marked a reversal “after decades in which we have done little to increase auto efficiency.” Obama said the standards would “reduce our dependence on oil while helping folks spend a little less at the pump.”

Each auto company will have a different fuel-efficiency target, based on its mix of vehicles. Automakers that build more small cars will have a higher target than car companies that manufacture a broad range of cars and trucks. The standard could be as low as 34.1 mpg by 2016 because automakers are expected to receive credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in other ways, including preventing the leaking of coolant from air conditioners.

For the Smart Grid, a ‘Synchrophasor’

Move over, smart meter “” and make room for the synchrophasor.

It might sound sound like a device out of a Start Trek movie, but a synchrophasors is actually a metal box about the size of a mailbox (this kind) that sits in an electricity substation “” the junction point for transmission lines. It measures conditions on those lines “” like power flows, voltage and some more exotic characteristics of electricity, like frequency and phase angle “” and reports the information back to a computer at a grid control center.

The hope is that synchrophasors, when deployed by the hundreds, will increase the amount of energy that can be reliably transmitted on the high-voltage grid, which will be necessary if North America is to integrate more wind and solar power.

Of course, much of this sort of monitoring is already commonly done. The difference is, most existing devices report once every two to four seconds, which is an eternity in the world of the high voltage grid. The synchrophasors will report back 30 times a second.

Better yet, it will report back with a time stamp, which it will generate by listening for a GPS signal, so that all the reports can be synchronized and computers at the control center can be clear on the sequence of events. Hence the term “synchrophasor.”

With more frequent sampling, grid operators will be able to see disturbances as they begin to develop, and take compensating actions, like shifting the location where power is being added to the system, according to Roger Harszy, the vice president of real time operations at the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator, the largest grid organization in North America in terms of square miles covered “” and the second largest in terms of customers supplied.

The Midwest I.T.S.O. said earlier this week that it had received a promise of $17.3 million from the Energy Department to pay for half of a $34 million program to install 150 to 200 of the devices.

(Synchrophasors cost only $2,000 to $3,000 each, but connecting them and building a computer system to handle the data is more expensive.)

The Energy Department is using Recovery Act money to seed synchrophasor projects around the country. It said last November that it was giving the Western Interconnection, which covers the area from the Rockies to the Pacific, $53.9 million for the devices. Several dozen are in service now but the long-term plan is four thousands of synchrophasors spread around the United States and Canada.

When deployed, they will be a bit like traffic cameras at major intersections, allowing controllers to get a sense of the overall system. For the Midwest I.T.S.O., this is a step up from the situation in the summer of 2003, when major transmission lines in the system were out of service, and operators did not know it. The result was a massive blackout.

If there is a blackout, synchrophasors could also determine which failures came first, and which were merely effects of the first failures. Establishing the sequence of events was a nightmare for the investigators in the 2003 blackout, because while individual parts that shut down “” like circuit breakers “” had individual data loggers, the clocks on them were not coordinated, making it hard to establish where the disturbance began.

But engineers hope the main use of synchrophasors will be preventive, not forensic. “Bringing in this type of technology, the speed of the data coming in will give our operators the ability to see issues emerging,’’ said Mr. Harszy.

Lawrence Berkeley to build biofuels-development unit

Private biofuels companies, garage tinkerers and federal researchers alike will be able to test their ideas in a new facility for advanced biofuels work to be developed in San Francisco’s East Bay area.

The Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will spend about $18 million in federal funding on the planned Advanced Biofuels Process Development Unit, DOE announced today.

“With this investment, we will vastly increase the capacity to test new innovative approaches on a larger, integrated scale,” Cathy Zoi, DOE’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy, said in a statement. “Scaling up these clean energy technologies is crucial to addressing climate change and building a strong, domestic clean energy economy.”

DOE said the new center, to be built with stimulus funds, will be “a publicly available facility where researchers can integrate process steps and test innovative technology pathways.”

The department maintains publicly accessible scientific facilities for a range of specialized uses, many of them dedicated to advanced physics work. It said this would be the only publicly available facility for this kind of biofuels research.

Universities, national laboratories and industry innovators are the intended users of the new center, which is expected to include facilities to test biomass pretreatment approaches, enzyme production, fermentation for various biofuels, and purification treatments.

DOE said potential sites for the facility are being considered, and it is scheduled to open in 2011.

Second radioactive substance found at Vermont Yankee

Five days after announcing they had found and stopped the source of radioactive tritium leaks at Entergy Corp.’s Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, state health officials confirmed yesterday they have detected a second, more persistent type of radioactive material in soil near the facility.

Levels of cesium-137, a material that takes more than twice as long as tritium to lose its radioactivity, were between three and 12 times higher than would be expected. For that reason, health officials said in a statement it “appears likely the Cs-137 comes from Vermont Yankee reactor related sources.”

Though cesium-137 is not found in nature, small amounts of it can be found around the globe due to atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl reactor in the former Soviet Union. Exposure to both cesium and tritium are linked to a higher risk of cancer.

Vermont Yankee spokesman Larry Smith said the new finding did not surprise plant executives, adding that the radioactive cesium will be removed along with the tritium when soil is removed from around the plant’s buildings. Smith agreed with a recent statement by William Irwin, radiological health chief at the state health department, who said the cesium likely came from leaking fuel rods that posed a problem decades ago at many nuclear plants.

Meanwhile, Vermont legislators have started drafting legislation that would force Vermont Yankee to set more money aside for the decommissioning of the plant after it stops operating. Though Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) has previously vetoed two similar bills, the circumstances have changed, now that the state Senate has rejected a proposal to allow the plant to keep running beyond 2012.

Mexico City drastically reduced air pollutants since 1990s

This megalopolis once had the world’s worst air, with skies so poisonous that birds dropped dead in flight. Today, efforts to clean the smog are showing visible progress, revealing stunning views of snow-capped volcanoes — and offering a model for the developing world.

As Mexico prepares to host world leaders at a U.N. climate-change conference later this year, international experts are praising the country’s progress. Many say its determined efforts to control auto emissions and other environmental effects of rapid urbanization offer practical lessons to cities in China, India and other fast-growing countries.

International officials say steady improvement of Mexico City’s air could bolster President Felipe Calder³n’s bid for a leadership role among developing countries seeking to address global warming.

“We have seen a lot of improvement. It is very clear,” said Luiz Augusto Cassanha Galvao, a senior environmental officer at the Pan-American Health Organization. “On a scale of one to 10, they were at 10, and now they’re at five.”

Mexican officials have attacked the root causes of pollution that plagues many large urban centers with spiraling growth.