Energy and Global Warming News for February 26: Goodbye, Hummer; Olympics going for the green

Goodbye, Hummer

The world might be saved: It looks as if the Hummer is destined for the junkyard. The plan by General Motors to sell the muscular brand to a Chinese company went up in a puff of exhaust smoke on Wednesday after government officials in China said that they had never received the necessary application for approval and thus couldn’t grant it.

We suspect the deal collapsed because the Chinese Communist Party “” which rarely shows much shame “” is worried about China’s image as the most polluting nation on the planet. If true, that is good news.

There may be other good news. While some policy analysts have called “” sensibly, in our opinion “” for steeper gasoline taxes to encourage American drivers to embrace fuel efficiency, some economists have been skeptical. They acknowledge that drivers might decide to drive less and take public transportation more. But they warn that most could not afford to quickly dump their gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient cars.


Yet given time, it seems, people change their ways. Americans drove 3.4 percent fewer miles in 2008 “” when gas prices shot up to a peak of $4 a gallon nationally “” than in 2007. And many who had bought the Hummer when a gallon of gas cost $2 decided that they couldn’t afford to tool around town in a small tank that would run, on average, around 10 miles on a gallon.

By last year, even as gas prices drifted downward, only about 9,000 Hummers were sold in the United States. That was a steep drop from 71,000 in 2006. In the spring of 2008, G.M. announced that it could not keep the sinking brand. The company is weighing two long-shot bids, but it is more than likely to wind down the brand.

Gasoline is back around $2.50 a gallon, and Americans are falling back on some of their old bad habits. Still, the Hummer’s tale is a vivid example of the power of gas prices to change Americans’ ways. It also suggests that, given the proper incentives and disincentives, all the world’s nations can embrace a greener future.

Vancouver Olympics going for the green

Reporting from Vancouver, Canada — As is normally the case for top city officials during the Olympics, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has a car and driver assigned to shepherd him through the whirl of the Winter Games.

But the 45-year-old former organic farmer, who earlier ran the Happy Planet juice company, has shown up for most Olympic events as he always does: on his battered but serviceable mountain bike, suit pants tucked into his socks.

Since he became mayor in December 2008, Robertson has doubled Vancouver’s bicycle infrastructure budget, set landmark electric-vehicle-charging standards for new buildings, and expanded the city’s “car-free” days.

It was probably a foregone conclusion that any city with Robertson at the handlebars was not only going to host a green Olympics, but would try for the gold.

The 2010 Winter Games, the Vancouver Organizing Committee announced, will generate fewer greenhouse gases during the seven years it took to organize and put on than what was emitted in only a few weeks in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy.

The 2010 Games also will be the first in history to achieve a “carbon neutral” status for not only the Games, but also the travel of the 7,000 athletes, coaches and officials.

To do it, the city is relying on renewable hydropower for 90% of its electricity and the most ambitious set of green building standards ever achieved at Olympic venues, along with a fleet of hydrogen-powered SUVs and buses, heat from a curling rink’s refrigeration plant to warm an aquatics pool and heavy dependence on mass transit — there is no spectator parking at venues.

Honda launches new hybrid CR-Z in Japan

Honda launched its new hybrid yesterday in the hope it would appeal to young consumers who want a green car with style.

The CR-Z will go on sale tomorrow in Japan and will enter U.S. and European markets by midyear.

The two-door hatchback looks more like a roadster than a traditional hybrid, and Japanese prices are relatively affordable (prices elsewhere have not yet been set). The car gets an average of 36 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on highways. It will come in three drive modes: sport, normal and economy.

This is Honda’s fourth hybrid model, following the Insight and hybrid versions of the Civic and Accord. The company hopes the car’s design will broaden its market and “enable customers to experience a new kind of excitement,” according to a press release. Honda hopes to sell 1,000 vehicles a month

A Utility Will Help Homeowners Go Solar

TXU Energy, a Texas utility with two million customers, is making it possible for homeowners in the Dallas area to lease or buy rooftop solar-power systems in one of the first programs of its kind.

The energy provider said Wednesday that it had signed a deal with SolarCity, a Silicon Valley start-up that finances and installs residential rooftop arrays, to manage the initiative.

“Our vision is to supply solar power to millions of homes and businesses,” said Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s chief executive. “The only way to achieve this is by partnering with companies that are providing power today. If we can partner with energy providers, adoption will happen much faster.”

Homeowners will sign up for the TXU Energy Solar Program through the utility, and SolarCity will design and install the solar-panel systems. Under the lease program, the owner of a three- to four-bedroom house would typically pay about $35 a month after tax incentives, according to TXU Energy.

SolarCity retains ownership of the photovoltaic arrays and responsibility for their maintenance. The solar-power system could be bought outright for about $26,000, TXU Energy said.

SolarCity will pay a referral fee to TXU Energy for each system leased or sold.

“We’re launching this new solar program because solar energy is gaining interest among consumers,” John Geary, vice president for innovations at TXU Energy, wrote in an e-mail message.

The program will initially be limited because of a small solar rebate program offered by Oncor, a company that operates utility infrastructure in Texas. (The state has a deregulated utility system with separate electric infrastructure companies like Oncor and electricity retailers like TXU Energy)

Oncor offers a rebate of $2.46 a watt up to $24,600 for a residential solar installation. Money is currently available to include about 400 homes in the program, according to TXU Energy.

Mr. Rive said Texas’s abundant sunshine, high air-conditioning costs and huge subdivisions make the state a natural solar market.

“It’ll start off small, but over next five years, Texas could become one of the largest solar markets in the country,” he said.

Dow brings 2 green projects to Mich.

Michigan will see an influx of jobs and investment dollars thanks to two new “green” initiatives from Dow Chemical Co. and its partners.

Dow Kokam MI LLC, a joint venture between Dow and South Korean firm TK Advanced Battery LLC, will work on a facility in Midland to construct lithium-polymer batteries, as well as a facility to power electric vehicles. A second project between Dow and Oak Ridge National Laboratory would develop a facility to work on carbon fiber for wind turbine blades.

The first plant would work on batteries for electric vehicles and is expected to operate for at least 15 years. The company estimates it will create at least 320 full-time jobs by 2014. Besides an investment from Dow Kokam, the project received a boost from $3.4 million in annual Michigan Business Tax breaks from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The carbon fiber facility is being built with the help of a $5 million investment from the Department of Energy. Dow will also look for funding from the Center of Energy Excellence, which funds alternative energy projects in the state.

MEDC praised both projects for bringing jobs to the state and diversifying Michigan’s economy.

Incentives to rise for home solar arrays

At least 10 times a day Andrew Kin clicks onto the Internet for the pure joy of watching his electricity meter run backward.

The 30-year-old business consultant placed an array of rooftop solar panels on his Westwood duplex last fall, and thanks to a website provided by his installer he has watched his monthly electricity bills drop, in real time, from $50 to about $10.

“I make up a little chart every day,” Kin said. “This past week was sunny, so I was electricity neutral about every other day, which I’m excited about.”

Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign legislation that will make it possible for more Californians to sell the electricity they produce back to their utilities at retail prices.

The legislation, written by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), doubles to 5% the overall amount of energy that California’s investor-owned utilities must buy back.

Previously, state law required electric companies to sign so-called net-metering contracts for up to only 2.5% of their load.

Solar advocates said the net-metering boost would allow consumers to recoup their investment faster, which is critical to California’s goal of installing a million rooftop arrays by 2017.

California regulators back Lisa Jackson

A troika of California regulators — state leaders of efforts to regulate greenhouse gases — are coming to the defense of EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson.

The head of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Energy Commission and the state’s Public Utilities Commission wrote California Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, defending EPA’s right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

“We believe that EPA is proceeding in deliberate and legally defensible fashion to meet the demands of administrative necessity and to avoid the absurd results that some critics fear,” they wrote.

In an interview, CARB chairman Mary D. Nichols said that while she and other state regulators are still hoping Congress passes climate legislation, the timeline for climate regulation Jackson outlined this week shows EPA can curb greenhouse gases in a way that will not prove burdensome.

“We wanted to make sure that our two senators were aware of the fact that our concerns are being heard by EPA,” Nichols said, noting that Jackson indicated the agency will target big greenhouse emitters before small ones, and won’t start until 2011.

Murkowski pushback

Administration officials are pointing out some of the consequences if Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is successful in blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) office suggesting Murkowski’s resolution aimed at the EPA could complicate its efforts to impose stricter fuel-economy standards on cars and light trucks. In the Feb. 19 letter, the agency’s chief counsel O. Kevin Vincent explains that because NHTSA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard is tied to the EPA’s greenhouse-gas rule for motor vehicles, it would be problematic if Murkowski’s resolution stopped EPA from moving ahead.

“In sum, while passage of the Murkowski Resolution would not directly affect NHTSA’s independent legal authority, it would have serious, adverse consequences for the Nation’s economy, its energy independence and security, and public health and welfare,” Vincent writes.

The agency is obligated under law to issue new vehicle rules by April 1, so that automakers can meet the standards when producing model year 2012 cars and light-trucks.

Murkowski’s spokesman Robert Dillon said while agency officials “might miss their deadline” if the senator’s resolution passes, they could just apply the standards to the next model year of cars and light-trucks. “NHTSA can easily promulgate new rules,” he said.

In the meantime, student protesters targeted an energy industry-fundraiser for Murkowski Wednesday night, wearing “No Dirty Air Act” surgical masks.

Where Will the U.S. Get Its Electricity in 2034?

Cleaner coal, nuclear, solar, wind: these are some of the options for power generation to feed the U.S.’s electric power requirements. That need is expected to grow by 30 percent during the next 25 years, according to the Energy Information Administration, even with a slew of energy-efficiency measures and improvements to the grid infrastructure that delivers the electricity. But the primary source of electricity in 2034, according to a new projection from consulting firm Black & Veatch, will be natural gas. It is the fossil fuel with the least greenhouse gas impact on the atmosphere””burning it releases 43 percent less CO2 than burning coal””and looks set to increase its share of the electricity market, even with looming regulations to restrain climate-changing emissions. And there’s this boost, too: new, vast reserves of natural gas found in places like the Marcellus Shale Formation, which stretches from West Virginia to New York State.

By 2034, according to Black & Veatch, nearly half of U.S. electricity will come from natural gas combustion turbines or combined-cycle units, whereas conventional coal-fired generation will shrink to just 23 percent (although few of the power plants will be shut down). Nuclear will grow to provide nearly 150,000 megawatts of electricity as renewables jump from just 54,000 megawatts today (excluding hydroelectric dams) to more than 165,000 megawatts in 2034.

China has no emissions cap plan for now — state media

China’s chief climate change negotiator says the country has no plans to cap its greenhouse gas emissions for the time being, state media reported today.

Su Wei, who led China’s negotiating team at the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen in December, said yesterday that China “could not and should not” set an upper boundary on its greenhouse gas emissions right now because the country’s economy is still growing, so its carbon emissions must be allowed to increase.

The country is currently the world’s biggest carbon polluter.

Su said China is still committed to making its economy more energy-efficient. Its government has pledged that the country will reduce its carbon intensity — the measure of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of gross domestic product — by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 based on 2005 levels, and Su said that pledge will be a binding part of China’s next two five-year economic development plans.

The country submitted plans to fight climate change to the United Nations but described them as voluntary, and has not formally endorsed the Copenhagen deal