Energy and Global Warming News for November 19th: GM makes clean energy investment; Scientists isolate gene that boosts plant root growth

On heels of IPO, GM makes clean energy investment

Against a backdrop of what could be the largest IPO in US history, Chevrolet yesterday announced plans to invest $40m in carbon offset projects across the country over the next three to five years.

The projects, ranging from generating solar energy at schools to capturing methane gas at landfills, are expected to reduce eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions — roughly the annual emissions produced by the 1.9 million Chevrolet vehicles to be sold over the next year.

“GM has made great progress in reducing our environmental impact, but we know we can do more,” General Motors chief executive Dan Akerson said in a statement. “Chevrolet’s investment is an extension of the environmental initiatives we’ve been undertaking for years because the solution to global environmental challenges goes beyond just vehicles.”


Parent company General Motors timed the announcement to the day it made a triumphant return to the stock market. GM said on Wednesday it would increase the size of its initial public offering because of high demand, marking what many are calling a significant milestone for a company that has seen its share of bailouts and bankruptcy.

“It is a way for us to communicate that we are not the same company,” Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president of marketing, said during a conference call with reporters Thursday.

In another bright spot, Chevrolet just won two major industry accolades when its highly-anticipated gasoline-electric hybrid Volt was named both Car of the Year by Motor Trend, and Automobile of the Year by Automobile magazine. Today, the Volt was named Green Car of the Year at the L.A. Auto Show.

The company said its $40m offset investment would be made through third-party organisations including the nonprofit Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

GM is also turning to a team of all-star advisors to help the company shape the program’s portfolio, including Bob Sheppard, vice president of corporate programs at Clean Air-Cool Planet; Derik Broekhoff, vice president of policy at Climate Action Reserve; Mark Kenber, deputy CEO of The Climate Group; Snehall Desai, a sustainability strategist; Janet Peace, vice president at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change; and Eban Goodstein, director for the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College.

Ewanick said in the conference call the company would look at projects that had a multiplier effect and called on communities across the country to advance local projects in which Chevrolet could invest.

Inaugural Campus Conservation Nationals Saves 550,000 kWh

Lucid Design Group’s Building Dashboard Network is primed for social media savvy folks to dial down their energy usage. So it is no surprise that Lucid has provided its product to various universities. To take it to the next step, Lucid just hosted the first Campus Conservation Nationals, a competition involving 40 universities across the country to cut back on water and energy use in dorms.

If there’s one thing college kids love more than rivalries, it’s Facebook.

Enter Lucid with its social media-enabled platform complete with widgets to engage nearly 120,000 students. The results were impressive for a first time competition. Interest in the program was greater than Lucid had anticipated, and some schools had to be turned away. Many of the universities had run these programs before, yet there were more savings to be had. About half saw a 5 to 35 percent reduction in energy use with more than 550,000 kilowatt hours saved in total. The diversity of groups that got involved and the strategies used to encourage participation offer roadmaps for large organizations to tackle their own energy reduction goals.

The competition only tracked dorms because that is where students have the most influence on energy use, compared to a cafeteria, for example. But it wasn’t just students who were on board, according to Andrew deCoriolis, Manager of Public Programs for Lucid Design. Facility staff, residential life staff and others were also involved. Whether it was a building manager or a student group who first decided to join, ultimately the different constituents had to come together to make it work.

While students encouraged each other to shut off lights and laptops, facility managers adjusted temperature setting when asked and shut down partial hallway lighting. There was also everything from 5K fun runs and bingo to trivia nights and energy savings being part of freshman orientation.

Early surveys have found that for the schools that saved, the behavior changes will stick with the participants beyond the three-week competition. And for the schools that didn’t save, it wasn’t always because they weren’t trying. In some cases, one building threw off the average of savings from other dorms, and deCoriolis admitted there was a lot of noise in the data, and in some cases, there might be only so much that students could do to affect energy savings.

Even so, saving abounded. DePauw University was the winner with a nearly 24 percent reduction from nine buildings. Appalachian State University was second with just over 20 percent across 19 buildings and University of British Columbia was third with nearly 17 percent savings in six dorms.

Moving forward, deCoriolis said that the competition might be more tailored, allowing schools to just compete against other certain schools (Bowdoin is looking to take on Bates and Colby, while St. John University was mostly concerned with beating NYU in this year’s competition — and it did by catching the No. 6 ranking while NYU was 12).

But this type of rivalry is not just for the sophomore set. Lucid Design is already in the planning stages to pit different business units at Yahoo take each other on. Google is also considering running a competition. DPR Construction is also considering having its San Diego headquarters go toe-to-toe against some other regional offices.The three weeks of smack talk and turning off lights is fun in nearly any setting, but it is the conversation that can happen around these programs that are truly valuable. “It turns people from occupants to active managers,” said deCoriolis.

Rooting Out CO2: Scientists Isolate a Gene That Boosts Plant Root Growth

Changes to a single gene in a model organism in plant biology, Arabidopsis thaliana, have been found to promote faster-growing and larger root systems””an application that could help researchers engineer bigger, better crops capable of sequestering more atmospheric carbon. The gene and its operations are described in the November 11 issue of the journal Cell.

Bigger root systems mean more climate-warming carbon could essentially be buried, because plants build their roots using atmospheric carbon. From the roots, carbon can be transferred into soil where it can remain for millennia.

Plants engineered to have bigger root systems could also help address food shortages and aid in efforts to grow crops in a warmer, drier climate. Evidence suggests that plants with larger root systems are more drought-resistant.

There could also be benefits to the biofuel industry. Faster-growing root systems could allow new plants to take hold more quickly, including perennial grasses like switchgrass and Miscanthus, which are considered viable feedstocks for next-generation biofuel.

“With switchgrass, for example, frequently you cannot harvest the first year’s crop because it takes a long time for the root system to establish,” says study author Philip Benfey, a professor of biology at Duke University and director of Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy. If plant genetic engineering could reduce that waiting time, “that would be a huge boon for farmers,” he adds.

Tissue growth in plants is a complicated process involving many genetic factors. But when Benfey’s group set out to discern which factors most influenced root development, they had a good idea where to start looking. In Arabidopsis, as in most plants, there is a specific zone near the tip of the root where stem cells transition from a stage of proliferation to one where they differentiate into specific tissue types. In this zone cells change from a state of rapid division into one in which they drastically increase their volume by elongating””the first stage of differentiation. “We knew the location existed, but what we didn’t know was how the process was controlled,” Benfey says.

Based on previous work, the researchers had reason to think it was controlled by transcription factors””proteins that control the expression of certain genes by binding to DNA at specific locations to induce (or block) the transcription of information from DNA to RNA. Also from previous work, they knew the genes whose expression within the transition zone was higher than elsewhere in the cell (indicating that they were being “turned on” for this specific purpose). “We focused on genes that turned on right at that transition,” Benfey says, “and among those genes, we focused on transcription factors.”

By studying Arabidopsis plants for which the genes for these transcription factors had been selectively knocked out, the group identified a single transcription factor that when inactive resulted in longer roots. They dubbed the gene that codes for it UPBEAT1 (UPB1). Further study revealed that UPB1 regulates the expression of three genes, called peroxidases, which themselves control the distribution of two chemicals, hydrogen peroxide and superoxide, in the root. The precise balance between the two compounds controls the transition from cell proliferation to differentiation. “It appears that UPB1 is a pretty key regulator of this process,” Benfey says.

Benfey notes that these bigger, faster-growing plants are not the result of the insertion of a novel gene, but rather a decrease in UPB1’s normal activity. “We’re not talking about transgenic plants here,” he says. In practice this means they wouldn’t be subject to the extensive regulations governing the use of transgenic plants, and would thus be much cheaper to put into the field.

Practical application is still several steps away, however. One of the first orders of business is to see if this finding can be applied to other crops besides Arabidopsis.

Benfey is confident. His company, GrassRoots Biotechnology, has acquired the patent for UPB1 , and plans to use it to further explore root development, with the goal of producing even more advanced biofuel crops. He thinks UPB1 is the first of “probably several” genes that have similar functions. “When we understand them well and can control them, we should be able to regulate root activity,” just like modern agriculture has successfully altered activity aboveground, he says.

It’s Heating Up: Global Investors Join Forces Calling for International Policies and Action on Climate Change

With just over one week before governments meet in Cancun, Mexico to discuss a new international climate change treaty the message from the world’s biggest investors is loud and clear: take action now or suffer economic disaster.

In a signed statement [pdf], 250 investors from the United States, Asia, Australia, Brazil and South Africa, representing collective assets of US$15 trillion, have called for governments to take a look at the numbers detailing why the devastating impacts of climate change could result in global GDP cuts of 20 percent per year.

The statement also explains that current investment levels in the low-carbon economy fall short of the estimated amount needed to prevent greenhouse gas emissions from moving past the scientific tipping point.With private funds waiting in the wings to see whether this low-carbon economic boom is a fad or a reality, the statement stressed the need for governments to back climate change through policy.

This, the investors claim, will create confidence and spur continued growth which, in turn, will unleash the giant potential of low-carbon markets.

Particular attention was directed toward the United States which has yet to pass a federal climate change bill, slowing the investment potential and placing the country way behind other nation’s clean energy investments. This year, in the third-quarter, the US invested US$4.4 billion in clean energy which is just over half of Europe’s US$8.4 billion and less than one-third of the US$13.5 billion that China invested.

To avoid economic disaster and ignite investment growth to affect real climate change the statement has called for both developed and developing governments to create the following policies:“¢ Short-, mid- and long-term greenhouse gas reduction targets.“¢ Energy and transportation policies to vastly accelerate deployment of energy efficiency, renewable energy, green buildings, clean vehicles and clean fuels.“¢ Strong and sustained price signals on carbon emissions and well-designed carbon markets.“¢ Phase out fossil-fuel subsidies, as agreed to by G20 leaders in 2009.“¢ Adaptation measures to reduce unavoidable climate change impacts.“¢ Corporate disclosure of material climate-related risks.“Investors need greater policy certainty from governments. Deferring climate change agreement adds to investor concerns that climate change risks and costs are not taken seriously. The Cancºn talks provide an opportunity for all concerned governments to take leadership on this important issue and start framing an agreement needed to create a sustainable investment environment,” said Donald MacDonald, trustee, BT Pension Scheme, and chair, Principles for Responsible Investment.

Fred Olsen dumps 450MW offshore wind farm

One of Scotland’s leading wind energy developers has pulled out of the Crown Estate’s Scottish offshore wind programme to concentrate its efforts on land, in a move that will raise questions about the industry’s ability to meet its ambitious targets.

Fred Olsen Renewables (FOR) confirmed today that it has ceased working as the preferred developer for the 450MW Forth Array wind farm off the east coast of Scotland, following a strategic review of its wind farm portfolio.

Forth Array is part of the Crown Estate’s Scottish Territorial Round, and would have included up to 90 turbines, as well as cabling and a new sub-station. Construction had been planned to start in 2013 and completed in 2018, with first energy being produced in 2016.In a statement, FOR’s UK managing director Nick Emery said the review had determined onshore wind would provide a more efficient use of its time.

“As an independent power producer we have concluded that the most efficient use of our development resource is in our onshore portfolios, where historically we have had considerable success,” he said. “Crystal Rig Wind Farms I and II, for example, provide almost 10 per cent of Scotland’s operational wind capacity.”

However he added that the wider Fred Olsen Group will continue to support the offshore market through its supply chain companies, and FOR will continue to progress with the Codling offshore farm in Irish Waters.

A FOR spokesman additionally told BusinessGreen the company wanted to focus on viable medium term projects and the construction of Forth Array was considered too long term. FOR now wants to invest in new onshore projects and extend existing wind farms in Scotland.

He failed to disclose how much money FOR had invested in the project to date, but insisted it was not a significant sum because development was still in early stages. He added that there will be no redundancies, as employees who had been working on Forth Array would be redeployed elsewhere in the firm.

The fate of the Forth Array site now hangs in the balance. A Crown Estate spokeswoman said it was too early to determine if the site could be retendered, and the Crown Estate is now reviewing its position.

“One of the difficulties with the Scottish sites is that they are developer chosen sites, unlike Round 3, so there’s less flexibility,” she said.

The news is likely to reignite questions about the ability of renewable energy developers to meet ambitious targets to produce 15 per cent of energy from renewable sources by 2020 in the UK.

The Scottish Government has even more ambitious targets for 2020, for 80 per cent of its electricity demand to come from renewable sources.The news could also spark fears that Fred Olsen’s decision is the start of a trend offshore wind developers abandoning their projects.However, a spokesman for the Scottish government denied the decision would severely impact its goals.

His comments were echoed by trade association Scottish Renewables. Jenny Hogan director of policy said: “This is essentially a business decision, with Fred Olsen choosing to concentrate on installation and support services to other developers as well as its massive onshore wind portfolio across Scotland, rest of UK and Europe. “Let’s not forget that there are still over 10GW of offshore wind projects planned for Scottish waters.”

FOR were one of nine successful developers within the Scottish Territorial tendering process, in which 10 Exclusivity Agreements were awarded in February 2009.

The Crown Estate hopes to award leases to the remaining developers, allowing commencement of formal consenting processes, when the Scottish Government completes its Strategic Environmental Assessment of offshore wind.

Forestry loophole could sink global emissions deal

The move towards a global deal at Cancun rests on closing a little-known loophole that has seen developed countries discount emissions from logging plantation forests, according to the EU’s chief negotiator.

After the failure to agree a binding deal on global emissions at Copenhagen last year, developed countries are coming under pressure from the UN to ensure progress is not further stalled at the upcoming two-week talks, which start in 10 days’ time.

An agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012, is unlikely to be agreed before the Cape Town summit in 2011, after recent talks at Tianjin, China, followed the same trajectory as Copenhagen.

However, Artur Runge-Metzger, EU representative for Cancun, told Reuters that a Kyoto replacement would be impossible without solving the problem of how to incorporate emissions from tree felling, which are unaccounted for under the present Protocol.

Countries that have signed up to the Kyoto Protocol can exclude emissions from trees felled that are then used as paper, timber and in the rapidly growing biomass market. However, countries are allowed to count carbon stored by growing trees as credits.

“It is a big issue, particularly when it comes to determining your emissions reduction targets, and particularly for some countries which have a lot of forests,” said Runge-Metzger. “It was a kind of loophole and a weakness of the Kyoto architecture and there’s a need to address that.”

Bringing forestry under any emissions deal could also have repercussions for protecting the rainforests, with more projects expected whereby landowners in developing countries are paid to safeguard existing forest or restore degraded land.

“All the issues we are discussing here, you will have similar issues when it comes to tropical forests, and the issue of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation,” he added.He said a possible deal could result in a scheme entailing mandatory reporting with some cap on credits and a target for logging.

Analysts champion US carbon markets despite exchange closure

Analysts have insisted the American carbon market is alive and kicking, despite plans to scrap the pioneering Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX).

CCX’s parent firm, Intercontinental Exchange, last month confirmed it will close the doors on the Chicago-based pilot project at the end of this year, blaming a lack of government legislation and the failure of Congress to pass an energy and climate change bill that would have allowed the formation of a national emissions trading scheme.Media reports in the US have suggested CCX’s closure is the final nail in the coffin for President Obama’s plans for an emissions cap-and-trade scheme.

“Economy-wide cap and trade died of what amounts to natural causes in Washington,” Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, which supported the proposals, told Fox News.

But in Europe, analysts have insisted the US carbon market can continue to develop, arguing that the closure of the CCX will have little impact on either US or European markets.

“[There are] no implications for the EU and UK,” Emilie Mazzacurati, head of carbon research for North America at Point Carbon, told BusinessGreen in an email.

“The parent company of CCX, Climate Plc, recently acquired in full by ICE, still owns the very successful ECX [European Climate Exchange] and the ECX is operating normally,” she said.

She added that the closure of CCX is “by no means” the end of carbon trading in the US, pointing out that regional programmes in the US would continue operating, including the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) in the north-east US, and another initiative spearheaded in California and incorporating large Canadian provinces, which is slated to start in 2012.

“This is not even the end of trading for Climate Plc in the US,” she added. “Their regular exchange, the Chicago Climate Futures Exchange (CCFE), continues to operate normally.”

Mazzacurati also observed that CCX credits had recently traded for “pennies” and that the exchange was coming to its natural end, as it had only ever been set up as a pilot project. The main benefit of the programme had been to teach early adopters about carbon trading, she said.

“The effects on carbon markets globally are null, except for the fact that the CCX shutting down highlights the failure of the US Senate to pass a cap-and-trade bill,” she concluded.

Mazzacurati’s comments were echoed by Allesandro Vitelli, director of strategy at IdeaCarbon, who similarly predicted the closure of CCX would not impact any other market because it was a voluntary programme, detached from other schemes.

“CCX is a voluntary scheme and not interlinked with any other markets, so the targets are not very demanding,” he told BusinessGreen, adding that a lot of the offsets on the exchange “do not represent the most environmentally strong reductions”, such as credits issued against no-till farming projects where farmers leave soil undisturbed.

A Call to Action on Ocean Acidity

States bordering water bodies that are becoming more acidic from the absorption of carbon dioxide should list them as impaired under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency declared in a memo this week.

Carbon dioxide emissions are considered a threat not only because of their heat-trapping properties in the atmosphere but also because of their ability to change ocean chemistry. The world’s oceans act as a sponge for carbon dioxide, and as the gas dissolves in seawater, it changes into carbonic acid.

More acidic seawater harms shellfish by inhibiting shell formation, a problem already observed at oyster farms along the Washington State coast. Ocean acidification is also seen as a major threat to the world’s coral reefs.

The E.P.A.’s declaration, which also urges states to gather data on ocean acidification in their coastal waters, is a result of a successful lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. Under the Clean Water Act, states that list bodies of water as impaired must take action to curb the pollution responsible for the impact.

In the case of ocean acidification, such declarations could conceivably compel states or the federal government to act to limit carbon dioxide emissions.

“It gives the green light to states to go ahead and assess whether their waters are being impacted by ocean acidification and designate them if they are,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Step two would be some kind of approach to controlling the pollution that’s causing the problem, which in this case would be carbon dioxide.”

Several precedents exist for using provisions of the Clean Water Act to curb air pollution, like controls placed on mercury emissions from power plants, which have been linked to mercury contamination in fish.In its memo, the E.P.A. acknowledged that ocean chemistry was observably changing because of human activity and that ocean acidification was “likely to negatively affect important marine ecosystems and species including coral reefs, shellfish and fisheries.”Many coastal states have little or no information on the impact of carbon emissions on ocean water quality, however, the agency stated. Information on the precise threat that growing ocean acidity poses to marine life is also lacking, the memo said.