Editor’s Note: While Tim Profeta is on vacation, Jeremy Tarr, policy associate in the Climate and Energy Program at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, will author The Climate Post. Tim will post again August 28.
The Climate Post will also take a break from circulation August 7 and will return August 14.
A new report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers finds that for each decade of delay, policy actions on climate change increase total mitigation costs by approximately 40 percent. The cost of inaction—letting the temperature rise 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels instead of 2 degrees— could increase economic damages by about 0.9 percent of global output.
“To put this percentage in perspective, 0.9 percent of estimated 2014 U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is approximately $150 billion,” according to the report. “Moreover, these costs are not one-time, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.”
The report is the first of several announcements by the Obama administration on climate change. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced initiatives to curb methane emissions, which accounted for about 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas pollution in 2012. The Energy Department recommended incentives for modernizing natural gas infrastructure, and it plans to establish efficiency standards for natural gas compressors as well as improve advanced natural gas system manufacturing.
The same day, several companies and nongovernment groups committed to support a new Food Resilience theme in the president’s Climate Data Initiative. The initiative leverages data and technology to help businesses and communities better withstand the effects of climate change. Companies like Microsoft are helping to organize data sets and tools in the cloud that will enable the assessment of vulnerable points in the food system, such as the effects of climate change on our food system and the reliability of food transportation and safety.
Hearings Fuel Debate on Clean Power Plan
During public hearings in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heard testimony from the public on its proposed Clean Power Plan, which would limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.
In Washington, D.C., many utilities and industry groups were critical of the plan’s climate benefits and called on the EPA to conduct further economic analysis before issuing its final rule in June 2015. In Atlanta, others said the plan did not account for steps they’ve already taken to reduce emissions.
“This rule is flawed,” said Mississippi utility regulator Brandon Presley (subscription). “States like Mississippi, who have fought to pull themselves up and get a program to help customers reduce energy costs and reduce energy consumption, kind of get slapped away from the table.”
In their testimony, many environmental groups sought greater emissions reductions from the power sector as well as increases in renewable energy generation and programs that reduce electricity demand. Some members of the public, like retired coal miner Stan Sturgill of Kentucky, agreed with these groups’ request for tougher restrictions.
“Your targets to reduce carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 are way too low and do not do enough to reduce our risk of climate change,” said Sturgill, who suffers from black lung and other respiratory ailments. “The rule does not do near enough to protect the health of the front line communities from the consequences of this pollution. We’re dying, literally dying, for you to help us.”
The EPA is asking states to meet carbon emissions targets that would result in a 30 percent reduction in power sector carbon dioxide emissions from 2005 levels by 2030. States are given flexibility in how they achieve the targets.
Representatives from 13 western states met last week to discuss the EPA’s proposal and to begin considering the advantages of working together in response to the rule.
“We’re in the process of determining what makes sense for us, including working with other states in a regional market,” said Camille St. Onge, spokeswomen for Washington’s Department of Ecology.
United States Imposes Energy-Related Trade Constraints
The U.S. Commerce Department placed proposed new import penalties on solar products from China and Taiwan. These penalties come on top of anti-subsidy tariffs imposed on some panels from China last month.
The new proposed penalties, still to be confirmed, aim to curb the sale of low-cost solar panels and cells, a practice known as dumping, from other countries in the U.S. market. If confirmed, they would impose duties as high as 165 percent on some solar companies in China and 44 percent on those in Taiwan. The Commerce Department has issued only preliminary findings, but final rulings are expected from the Commerce Department later this year.
The move has China’s Commerce Ministry saying Washington’s actions risk damaging the solar industry in both countries.
“The frequent adoption of trade remedies cannot resolve the United States’ solar industry development problems,” an unnamed Chinese official told Reuters.
In the United States, reactions to the news were mixed.
“Today’s actions should help the U.S. solar manufacturing industry to expand and innovate,” said SolarWorld Industries America President Mukesh Dulani. “We should not have to compete with dumped imports or the Chinese government.”
But Rhone Resch, CEO of the U.S.-based Solar Energy Industries Association, condemned the decision, saying the answer lies in a negotiated solution.
Chinese companies supplied 31 percent of the solar modules installed in the United States in 2013 and more than 50 percent in the distributed solar market.
On Tuesday, the United States and the European Union issued new economic sanctions on Russia, citing the country’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis. The sanctions ban the export of energy-related technology for use in Russian oil production from deepwater, Arctic offshore and shale oil production rock reserves. However, exports of technology for gas projects to the country, which holds the world’s largest combined oil and gas reserves, will continue.
Climate change, extreme weather and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from new and existing power plants were the focus of a confirmation hearing for Janet McCabe, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.
In the hearing—at which lawmakers took jabs at one another on the impacts of climate change and criticized McCabe’s recent comments on extreme weather causes—the acting assistant administrator for air and radiation told the committee that if confirmed she would evaluate the full consequences of the EPA’s current and pending rules. She pointed to her work as a state regulator in Indiana, highlighting her sensitivity to the economic impact of environmental regulations.
“I come from Indiana, where people rely on coal,” she told the committee (subscription).
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has not announced when it will vote on McCabe’s nomination, which still requires approval by the full Senate.
Just a day earlier, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the draft rule for existing power plants, which is scheduled for release by June 1. “We are going to make them cost-effective, we are going to make them make sense,” McCarthy said at a conference. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to be so flexible that I’m not going to be able to rely on this as a federally enforceable rule.”
Flexibility for states was emphasized by McCarthy who insisted the EPA will give states the tools to curtail emissions that drive climate change and that the proposed rule will not threaten electric reliability or shutter large numbers of facilities.
EPA officials have met with more than 200 groups about the upcoming rule. Last week, the White House began its review of the rule—the final step before the EPA can publish it and gather formal comments from the public.
EIA Energy Outlook Predicts Decrease in Oil Imports
Net U.S. energy imports declined last year to their lowest level in more than 20 years, meaning U.S. net imports could reach zero within 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
The finding is the first in a staged release of the EIA’s complete Annual Energy Outlook 2014. Future releases—running April 14 to April 30—will look at matters ranging from the implications of accelerated power plant retirements and lower natural gas prices for industrial production to light-duty vehicle energy demand and the potential for liquefied natural gas to be used as a railroad fuel.
“In EIA’s view, there is more upside potential for greater gains in production than downside potential for lower production levels,” the report said. It noted that U.S. oil production should hit 9.6 million barrels per day by 2020.
Global Renewable Energy Investment Down as Tax Credits Resurface
Global investment in renewable energy fell 14 percent in 2013, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance. The drop in investment was attributed, in part, to energy policy uncertainty and the falling cost of renewable energy technology. The latter factor may seem counterintuitive but one of the report’s lead editors, UN energy expert Eric Usher said that the fall in the cost of the clean energy technologies, particularly solar, had “left some governments thinking that they had been paying too much and reviewed their subsidies.”
Even with investment down, the shift toward low-carbon sources hasn’t slowed. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Renewables accounted for 8.5 percent of power generated worldwide last year—up from 7.8 percent in 2012. Liebreich told Mother Jones that proprietary data about future investments suggest annual clean tech installations worldwide are likely to jump 37 percent to 112 gigawatts—a record level—by 2015.
Further incentives for renewables may be in the offing. Last week, the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved a draft bill that includes some 50 temporary tax breaks, including one for renewable energy. The bill includes provisions for wind energy through an extension of the U.S. Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit, which was responsible for jumpstarting much of the last decade’s U.S. wind energy development. Provisions were also included for biofuel.
Congress is expected to pass the bill by the end of year, allowing businesses and individuals to continue to claim tax breaks on their 2014 taxes.
Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map, a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), warns global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions set an all-time high in 2012, throwing the world off its path to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius by 2020. These emissions rose 1.4 percent in 2012 to 31.6 billion tons—though the U.S. posted its lowest emissions (down 200 million tons), curbing them to mid-1990 levels.
“Climate change has quite frankly slipped to the back burner of policy priorities,” said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “But the problem is not going away—quite the opposite. This report shows the path we are currently on is more likely to result in a temperature increase between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C but also finds that much more can be done to tackle energy-sector emissions without jeopardizing economic growth, an important concern for many governments.”
The release of the report came as nations gathered in Bonn, Germany, for a second week of talks aimed at a global climate pact—taking effect in 2020—to limit carbon emissions to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels. The report lays out four policy priorities to put the world back on track: a partial phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, reduced natural gas venting and flaring in oil and gas production, limited use and construction of inefficient coal power generation and enactment of targeted energy efficiency measures in buildings, industry and transport. The policies, the report said, would stop the growth of energy-related emissions by the end of the decade.
Energy Programs in Question after Senate Farm Bill Vote
This week, the Senate approved a five-year farm bill aimed at reducing food stamps and expanding farm subsidies that are designed to help farmers through extreme weather such as droughts and floods. Attention now turns to the House, which is expected to begin debating it’s version of the bill this month. The two versions include very different provisions for clean and renewable energy programs.
Although the Senate bill does include mandatory funding for clean and renewable energy programs—the Rural Energy Assistance Program and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program—the total allotted comes to 31 percent less per year than the total provided under the 2008 Farm Bill, which was extended through September 30 as part of fiscal-cliff compromises. With the House bill, all funding for the energy programs is reauthorized at reduced and non-mandatory levels.
“The House bill would allow the programs to continue on paper with an annual appropriation, but provides no mandatory funding to operate the programs,” said Andy Olsen at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. That could result in some “very gutted programs,” he noted.
Estimates of Shale-Based Resources Rise
New analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) provides estimates for global shale gas and oil resources in the U.S. and 41 countries. The update of a two-year-old study by the EIA, nearly doubles the number of formations that have these technically recoverable resources.
It finds that more than half of the identified shale oil resources—roughly 345 billion barrels—outside the U.S. are in Russia, China, Argentina and Libya; China, Argentina, Algeria, Canada and Mexico hold the most shale gas resources. The U.S. holds the second largest concentration of shale oil resources behind Russia and ranks fourth in shale gas resources after Algeria.
“As shale oil and shale gas production has grown in the United States to become 30 percent of oil and 40 percent of natural gas total production, interest in the oil and natural gas resource potential of shale formations outside the United States has grown,” said EIA administrator Adam Sieminski, noting that the EIA report shows “a significant potential for international shale oil and shale gas.”
After months of negotiating, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., reached an agreement to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff.” Featured in the measure is an extension of a renewable electricity production tax credit for wind, geothermal and some biomass projects, which gives credit for each kilowatt-hour of energy they produce.
Highly contested prior to the bill’s passing was the credit’s impact on the wind industry. The credit, which offers 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind power production, had already expired when the deal was reached Tuesday. Its pending expiration had resulted in layoffs at United States turbine parts manufacturing plants as developers placed new projects on hold, though wind-turbine installations are predicted to exceed natural gas fueled power plants in the U.S. this year.
The tax credit has been expanded to cover wind projects that begin construction in 2013—not only projects that are up and running. Lawmakers also extended credits for residential energy efficiency improvements, plug-in vehicles, energy-efficient new home construction and the production of various biofuels—including one that treats algae as a qualified feedstock.
Then, there are a few smaller items some might have missed in the new law. Among them: a $2-per-ton subsidy for coal produced on Native American lands and a credit for electric scooters. Also, electric and natural gas industries kept dividend tax rates on par with capital gains taxes.
Climate Records, Missteps
Even as many cities tied or broke weather records in 2012, climate-related coverage in the press waned, according to independent data collected by the nonprofit The Daily Climate. In fact, it dropped 2.4 percent from 2011. Among the surprises: stories linking climate change to weird weather and sea-level rise were up.
On Jan. 1 California looked to its own climate record when it began enforcing its cap-and-trade program, AB32—the first of its kind in the nation. If the program is deemed successful—cutting pollution without harming the economy, The National Journal reports, “there is every reason to think that it will pave the way for more state and national action on climate change.” The Washington Post worries about a number of things that could go wrong with the program. Among them is the issue of “leakage”—decreased emissions within California but increased emissions in other states.
The announcement of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson’s departure is expected to refocus attention on the Obama Administration’s direction on issues such as climate change and energy strategy. Among one of the most immediate: legal challenges as regulators prepare to release final rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants under the Clean Air Act. The agency may also face legal challenges from environmental groups who want it to propose air pollution standards for oil and gas drilling. EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe is expected to fill Jackson’s shoes, at least temporarily. Steven Cohen argues in The Huffington Post that the EPA, under any leadership, must make “the leap from environmental protection to environmental and economic sustainability.”
Energy Boom, Arctic Drilling Perils
Even amidst a drilling boom, ThinkProgress reports Americans paid more for gasoline in 2012—on average roughly nine cents more than in 2011. Tensions with Iran and refinery constraints were cited as factors in the increase. In 2013, AAA predicts prices to remain high—just not as high as in 2012.
Meanwhile, an oil rig that ran aground off the coast of Alaska has renewed debate about Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic this summer. This accident is the latest in a string of issues Shell has faced in its efforts to drill in the region. While the vessel was carrying more than 100,000 gallons of petroleum products, there has been no indication of a leak. As work to remove the rig continues, the web is abuzz with speculations about what this could mean for the future of Arctic drilling.
Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a break from circulation next week. It will return May 10.
Nearing record highs in March, gasoline prices have dropped for most of April across the U.S. and on average are cheaper than they were a year ago. As pump prices ease, federal prosecutors are turning up the heat in the BP oil spill case, arresting an ex-engineer accused of obstructing justice by deleting potentially damaging e-mails. And as the feds begin arrests, local reactions in the Gulf among individuals and businesses harmed by the spill are mixed, with oyster leaseholders “overjoyed” by the BP settlement, while shrimp processors are challenging some features of the deal. While watermen and women digest the settlement, Gulf of Mexico fish near the spill—such as grouper and red snapper—are showing telltale signs of sickness associated with oil exposure.
Across the world, a new pact by Russia and Italy has opened the Arctic to drilling. Some say an Arctic oil rush could damage ecosystems; others worry about the special challenges an oil spill in the Arctic would pose. Meanwhile, a new study says climate change is posing “significant challenges to the survival of some of the Arctic’s unique marine species.” And the European Space Agency’s CryoSat satellite is providing data on Arctic ice thickness—offering a more complete view of rapidly melting ice.
Climate Change Threatens to Alter Agricultural Landscape
Last weekend marked Earth Day, and some critics say the environmental movement has lost its mojo, while others were critical of President Obama’s Earth Day address after he failed to directly mention climate change. Later in the week, however, President Obama told Rolling Stone climate change will be a central feature of the presidential campaign. “I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way,” he said.
Beyond climate politics, a warming world will increase the cost of corn, according to a new study. The study warns that unless farmers plant more heat-tolerant varieties, corn prices will be subject to greater volatility. Another study suggests that scrapping corn ethanol subsidies and converting much of corn country to pasture for management-intensive grazing would reduce agricultural land-use emissions by 36 percent. Meanwhile, corn growers are speaking out about the “grave threat” climate change poses to their livelihoods.
While Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster is still fresh in many people’s minds, Ukraine recognized the 26-year anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion this week by unveiling a new, safer shelter over the damaged reactor. Others, such as Britain, continue to debate building new nuclear facilities.
Renewables Gaining Momentum with Farmers
Renewable energy makes economic sense, at least in Virginia, according to a new study. Across the country, Americans are split on whether to get rid of U.S. subsidies—with 47 percent favoring the idea.
More and more farmers are turning to renewables and earning the name “new green pioneers,” harvesting fuel cells, biogas, cogeneration and solar arrays to lower costs. While farmers embrace alternative energy despite time and risks, the solar energy industry has created a new plastic film that sprays on like an adhesive, enabling solar power to be harvested inside buildings and not just by way of conventional rooftop panels. Yet, the discovery of Native American bone fragments is throwing the large Genesis solar project into question.
Wind is not doing much better than solar, with a measure to extend production tax credits stalled in Congress despite bipartisan support. Uncertainty as to whether Congress will extend the credit is making it more difficult for developers to advance and fund wind projects. Offshore, the U.S. and Great Britain have announced plans to develop floating wind turbines in deep water where conventional technology cannot reach. Because the turbines do not require deep seabed installation, the technology is expected to be cheaper than current offshore wind projects. Despite the vagaries of renewable power, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on nations to double the amount of power produced from renewable sources by 2030.
Before Congress headed home for spring recess, the Senate, with a rate vote of 100, approved President Obama’s new round of sanctions designed to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The president’s decision was based on an analysis of current oil supply and the likely effect of further sanctions on prices. The Senate also shot down the president’s bid to reduce subsidies to oil producers.
Oil prices have climbed this year amid lingering tensions with Iran, with the price of gas now averaging around $3.92 a gallon—and experts are warning more increases are on the way. The U.S., France and other nations are considering the release of some emergency oil supplies to stop further rises in prices. Experts are skeptical about the impact tapping the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve would have on prices. Reuters reports that with this decision, timing is everything.
Back home in their districts, legislators are using oil prices to fuel campaign rhetoric. Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, is finding photo ops at the pump, pumping $100 into his Chevy Suburban. Meanwhile, La Tarndra Strong, who manages a trucking company in North Carolina, said high fuel prices are slicing her razor-thin margin.
Officials Eye Cap-and-Trade Revenues for Transit
In California, some officials are eyeing revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade system to get drivers out of their cars. The cap is envisioned as a financial backstop to the state’s high-speed rail plan. Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget indicates that cap-and-trade could provide up to $1 billion in revenue. Building high-speed rail up and down the Golden State could be just one plan for cap-and-trade monies. Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez advocates using revenues to boost clean tech, while State Sen. Kevin de León wants to see at least 10 percent of the revenues be put toward greenhouse gas reduction projects in disadvantaged communities. Some farm groups, meanwhile, are vying for funds to go to supporting agricultural practices that cut greenhouse gases.
Further north, Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire signed legislation helping to shield drivers from liability who lend their cars as part of the nation’s burgeoning car share movement. Whereas some companies such as Zipcar and Car2go provide fleets for sharing, person-to-person programs use software to link individuals who want to rent out their cars to people who need a short-term lift. But most automobile insurance companies currently cancel the policies of drivers who are part of this growing “collaborative consumption” movement.
Nuclear Worries Continue as Wind Farms Appear on Horizon
Federal investigators have kept a troubled Southern California nuclear reactor closed as they investigate why tubes carrying radioactive water are decaying rapidly. Concern is mounting in nearby coastal cities—fueled by Fukushima fears—prompting some to call for the plant’s permanent closure. Germany accelerated its timetable for moving off nuclear in response to last year’s tragedy in Japan. Two plants to be built in Britain are the latest to fizzle. But phasing out nuclear may not boost renewables.
The U.K.’s Shetland Island could be home to the world’s most productive wind farm after receiving approval to move ahead with construction Wednesday. In the U.S., an offshore wind turbine in Virginia may be the first in the country. Five states have reached an agreement to speed the approval process for offshore wind farms in the Great Lakes.
Apple unveiled plans for the nation’s largest private fuel cell energy project. The project will power a data center using hydrogen extracted from natural gas.
Scientists Dissect Causes of “Weather Weirding”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that March’s “meteorological madness” with record-setting highs was due mostly to freakishly random factors, with only a small assist from human-induced climate change. IPS calls this “extreme weather” the new normal, and there may be more crazy weather in our future. The changes are causing some scientists to look to the ice.
Stopping climate change would cost consumers pennies per day, a new U.K. study concludes.
Leaked documents purportedly from the nonprofit Heartland Institute include efforts to cast doubt on climate science. The site DeSmog Blog received the documents from an anonymous informant calling himself “Heartland Insider.”
The Heartland Institute gave mixed responses to the documents, calling them both “stolen” and “fake,” but only specifically calling one document, titled “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” a “total fake.”
Nonetheless Think Progress confirmed that two of the main projects mentioned in the documents are real, including an effort to develop curricula for K-12 education that would cast doubt on climate science.
New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin said the Heritage Institute is using a double standard in being outraged about this leak, while celebrating the “Climategate” leak of emails from researchers.
Climate researcher Judith Curry of Georgia Tech—who has been branded a “heretic” by her colleagues for raising questions such whether there’s actually a consensus on climate change—said one of the most interesting things about the Heartland Institute is that it has been “so effective with so little funds.”
Last month, the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, directed by well-known climate skeptic Bjørn Lomborg, announced it will shut because the Danish government cut its funding.
New Budget to Boost “Clean Sources” of Energy
With the announcement of the Obama administration’s proposed 2013 budget, the President called again for an end to $40 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas companies over the next decade. However The Hill said this is “largely a political statement” because Congress is unlikely to support the end of these tax breaks.
The budget request calls for doubling the share of electricity from “clean sources.” It would increase funding for renewable energy, nuclear power, and technologies to reduce emissions from coal, including a 29 percent increase for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, bringing its budget to $2.33 billion.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators approved plans for a new nuclear power plant for the first time in 30 years, to be built in Georgia. Work is proceeding, with hopes of having the reactors—a new type never used in the U.S.—running by 2016, but the plant is encountering opposition.
The proposed U.S. budget includes no money for the U.S. Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program, which gave funding to now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra.
Despite the uproar about Solyndra, an audit of the loan guarantee program found that the investments were actually safer than Congress had expected. Nonetheless, the audit recommended changes to loan guarantees to improve management and oversight.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu warned more recipients of loan guarantees may go bust, but that they have always known there are “inherent risks in backing innovative technologies.”
Feed-In Tariffs’ Fate
Feed-in tariffs and other subsidies for renewable energy are in turmoil as countries rearrange their systems. The U.K. is changing to a dynamic tariff that adjusts as the cost of solar panels falls, to avoid a bubble in installations and ballooning costs for the program.
Germany is expected to cut its solar feed-in tariff—and some analysts said the cuts could be deeper than expected. Two different proposals from the Ministry of the Environment could both hurt the industry; in retaliation, three German states reportedly said they’d block these measures.
The United States has lagged behind Europe and East Asia in implementing feed-in tariffs, but two new places in the U.S. are considering starting such programs: the state of Iowa and the city of Palo Alto, in California’s Silicon Valley.
Weather Trumps Turbines
A headline about a new study in the U.K.’s Daily Mail reading “Wind farms can actually INCREASE climate change…” received a lot of attention, but the Guardian argued the claim has now grown into a myth.
But even if turbines can affect microclimates, a new study suggested powerful hurricanes could topple offshore wind farms planned along the United States’ Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.
The infrastructure built over the next five years could “lock in” enough emissions to push the world past its target for limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) latest annual update of energy trends, World Energy Outlook.
The Agency is “increasingly pessimistic” about the prospect for dealing with climate change, said deputy executive director Richard Jones.
To stay below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, the world has a budget of greenhouse gases it can emit, equal to about 1 trillion tons of CO2. Infrastructure already in place, or in the process of being built, will emit about 80 percent of that, the IEA estimated.
Unless there is a binding international agreement soon to ensure a swift transition to low-carbon infrastructure, “the door to 2 degrees will be closed forever,” said IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol. So, investment in cleantech can’t wait until economic good times, argued the Guardian’s Damian Carrington.
This transition away from fossil fuels will require that annual subsidies for renewable energy continue rising, reaching $250 billion by 2035—four times today’s level—the IEA estimated, but this would still be considerably less than today’s fossil fuel subsidies.
The IEA foresees oil prices remaining high for decades to come, with a tight market with risks of price spikes if there is a cut-off due to war or soaring prices if there is insufficient investment in oil fields.
Because of these climate and security risks, Birol argued, “We have to leave oil before it leaves us.”
Solar Trade War?
The boom in Chinese production of low-cost solar panels has hit U.S. manufacturers hard, making it difficult for them to compete.
Another group of U.S. solar manufacturers and installers banded together to form the Coalition for Affordable Solar Energy to oppose the complaint. This led China’s largest solar power plant developer to shelve plans for a $500 million U.S. project.
Despite China’s large exports of solar panels, they’re also using many at home—and may install as much solar capacity as the U.S. this year.
Carbon Tax Approved
Australia will impose a large tax on carbon emissions, after the country’s Senate passed the legislation. The tax will kick in next July, and the country is pursuing linking its carbon market with others in New Zealand and Europe.
The system will be tax-and-dividend in which households will be compensated for higher energy prices, with payments of about 10 Australian dollars per week scheduled to start in May, before the tax hits.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands from Canada to Texas faced its biggest opposition yet with a revival of protests in Washington, D.C., in which thousands of protesters encircled the White House.
Oil historian Daniel Yergin argued opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline is misguided because if the U.S. doesn’t buy the fuel, China will.
Either way, the large store of tar sands in Canada could reshape world oil markets, said the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which represents large exporters such as Saudi Arabia, but does not include Canada.
After a unanimous vote by the California Air Resources Board, the state adopted the most comprehensive cap-and-trade system in the country, a key part of a 2006 global warming law that had yet to be implemented. The system will cover 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the state, and allows businesses to counterbalance up to 8 percent of their emissions by buying offset credits.
The state is making itself a guinea pig for climate legislation and hopes to inspire other states to follow suit—a precedent the state has set with other environmental legislation.
At first, most of the emissions credits will be given out free, but it’s expected by 2016 to be a $10 billion market.
After the economic crash of 2008, the growth of clean energy slowed—and the outlook for the rest of the decade is single-digit growth, according to analyses by IHS Emerging Energy Research and others. A major factor has been that cash-strapped governments have cut back on subsidies that helped drive the growth in renewables.
The U.K. reshuffled its renewable subsidies, taking away from onshore wind and hydro power, and giving more to tidal and biomass power plants. Scotland—which sets its subsidies separately from the rest of the U.K., and which boasts some of the world’s best wind and tidal resources—also made subsidy support adjustments.
Industry experts fear the U.K. may soon slash solar subsidies by half—after already cutting them earlier this year—so they are encouraging people to install solar systems now.
But the World Wildlife Fund argues that high growth of renewables is still possible, and the U.K. could get nearly all of its energy from renewables by 2030.
In the U.S., solar industry jobs grew about 7 percent in the past year—much faster than job growth in the whole economy, but only about a quarter of the rate that the industry had expected, according to the Solar Foundation’s newly released National Jobs Census.
In Europe, “business as usual will not be an option for most energy utilities,” according to McKinsey analysts who argued that energy demand is reaching a peak, and existing technologies could drastically cut consumption. In response, utilities should look to other services to keep their revenue up, such as selling solar panels, insulation, or central control units that track and manage a building’s electricity consumption.
One company is already trying to make such products cool. Nest Labs, a well funded start up founded by former Apple employees, have created a thermostat that studies your habits to help adjust the temperature to save energy.
Climate Change Conundrum
Climate change could exceed dangerous levels in some parts of the world during the lifetime of many people alive today, according to research papers published in the journal Nature.
University of Washington Professor of Philosophy Stephen Gardiner argued in Yale Environment 360 that humanity’s institutions aren’t up to the ethical challenge presented by environmental change. As these problems get worse, he argues, we might see apush for technological fixes such as geoengineering.
Some scientists are looking into such methods, and a U.K. group had planned a test flight of a balloon tethered to a hose—the kind that could shoot reflective aerosols into the atmosphere, scatter sunlight and potentially cool the planet. But that group postponed its test until spring to allow “more engagement with stakeholders”—which New Scientist argued is crucial.
Skeptic Changes Mind
A study led by a self-described climate change skeptic—physicist Richard Muller of the University of California, Berkeley—released results from a re-analysis of temperature records. The “biggest surprise,” Muller said, was how closely his study matched earlier assessments, such as those by NASA and the U.K.’s Hadley Centre. Muller’s study had been hailed by climate change skeptics since it took seriously many of their criticisms.
But in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Muller said “global warming is real,” and argued no one should be a skeptic about this warming any longer.
China is already the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, but now it is making a move to become a major solar energy consumer as well, with a nationwide feed-in tariff to pay people or businesses a subsidy for electricity they produce with solar panels. This follows on the heels of the country’s wind energy feed-in tariff in 2009, which led to explosive growth in their wind industry.
China had a mishmash of solar incentives before, but the new policy will give a clearer signal to the market and “encourage more companies to participate in the industry,” said an analyst from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
China’s latest five-year plan, released in March, set the goal of using 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and a solar feed-in tariff has been expected for months—so in anticipation many solar installations have already gotten rolling, and a flurry of projects may soon qualify.
Fast and Steady Wins the Race?
China, Germany and the U.K. have the most stable and consistent clean energy policies, which helps boost investment, according to a new report by Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors.
However, on the same day as China’s announcement, the U.K. put into place a cut in its solar power subsidy for installations over 50 kilowatts, “effectively ending solar farm development” in the country, Business Green argued.
There was a stampede of projects trying to get completed before the deadline, but some are planning more large installations nonetheless. Also, it turns out a loophole in the solar feed-in tariff would have allowed large projects to still get high subsidies—but the government is now moving to close that.
The U.K. had planned to raise subsidies for other clean energy—but it is delaying the raise in the feed-in tariff for anaerobic digesters.
Besides the U.K., a number of other European countries—including Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic—hacked away at their solar subsidies before, and now the Australian state of Western Australia has also eliminated theirs.
The Canadian state of Ontario, on the other hand, is trying to protect clean energy projects by changing regulations to make it harder to cut clean energy subsidies.
Meanwhile, solar installations have been rising fast worldwide as the price of solar panels has fallen about 20 percent in the past year. But manufacturer’s margins are also falling, so it is not clear how much longer these price trends can continue.
Ethanol Subsidy Survives—For Now
It came down to the wire, but the U.S. Congress passed a deal to raise the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline, and Obama signed it into law.
But the deal did not include a near-term cut of ethanol tax breaks, as some had expected, which would have netted an estimated $2 billion in additional revenue.
However, it is likely the ethanol tax break will not be renewed, in which case it would cease at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, ethanol producers are pushing for a change in regulations to allow more ethanol to be blended into gasoline, allowing gasoline to be E15—15 percent ethanol—compared with E10 today. Last month, experts testified to Congress that the higher ethanol content may damage some cars’ engines, and more tests were needed to ensure E15 is safe.
Making the Smart Grid Smarter
There have been many proposals for making our electricity grids and appliances smarter to help them use less electricity at peak times and shift use to off-peak hours of the day.
However, if many people’s appliances all switch on suddenly when the electricity rate drops, an MIT study found, the spike in power use could bring down the grid. But smarter tuning of how electricity rates go up and down during the day could avoid the problem.