The Washington Post’s recent article on the “The rise and fall of the U.S. wind industry, in one chart” showed the correlation between the federal wind production tax credit (PTC) and annual installations of wind. When the credit is allowed to expire, installations plummet. When it is renewed, a boom period ensues. This has resulted in an uneven, “saw-tooth” pattern of wind growth that among other things generates anxiety about the future of the market. How, might you ask, does this compare to China – where wind capacity doubled for four of the last six years? Here’s one chart:
I like this New York Times piece describing a scientific experiment and its clashes with regulation about geoengineering because it highlights the unavoidable relationship of policy, scientific exploration, the economy, and the environment. “Mitigating climate change” has traditionally been separated into two tracks: finding less polluting sources of energy and fixing the negative effects we are witnessing. I would argue that the latter is treating the symptoms while the former is treating the cause, but a combined approach is likely where we will end up (think treating diseases in medicine). Both, however, sit at the intersection of technology development, economic benefits, environmental externalities and government regulation and while “clean energy” has traditionally received the majority of the media and political attention, I think geoengineering will begin to play a bigger role in the future.
In a summary of the article, entrepreneur Russ George claims he was conducting a scientific inquiry while simultaneously helping fishermen from an island off British Columbia. He added about 100 tons of iron to the ocean and studied the increased growth of plankton which is hoped to subsequently improve the salmon population for the fishermen. He did this with no government oversight and may have breached regulation regarding geoengineering.
What strikes me about this article is the following:
(1) George’s actions have disrupted an ecosystem that people may assume was previously in its natural state. I think (though I don’t know for a fact) that the region is probably suffering from the effects of overfishing, reduced fish population and a disruption of the local food chain. Can he argue that he is just helping restore the ecosystem to its initial balance?
(2) 100 tons sounds like a whole lot of iron, but let’s put this in context of the ocean. A quick Google search tells me that iron powder has a density of about 3 grams per cubic centimeter, or 187 pounds per cubic foot. That means that George dumped about 1070 square feet of iron. That might sound like a lot, but now let’s say that George and his team scattered iron in square region that is a quarter mile by quarter mile and one mile deep (to be conservative). That space has a volume of 9,199,872,000 square feet of water. The iron is less than 0.000000116th of the volume of water.
(3) Despite being such a small fraction of the water volume, it is going to have an effect on the ecosystems (remember, the whole point was to spur plankton growth). Though studies of eutrophication (nutrient enrichment) definitely exist, I would argue that we know only a small fraction of the ultimate effect of this action. Recall that there was time when we did not know that smoking cigarettes was bad for health or that CFCs contributed to ozone depletion.
(4) Of course, it is not even the 100 tons of iron that is the problem but the matter of an entity making changes to the environment that have future implications for all inhabitants that we do not fully understand. George claims he is helping a group of fisherman, but is this a slippery slope where the next “necessary” thing we do (to spur economic growth, etc) hurts the planet more than it helps? I am suddenly and startlingly reminded of the current political debate about air emission regulation for power plants.
So in full disclosure, I don’t know very much about geoengineering yet, but I plan to post more as I learn more. In the meantime, I am excited to read this book, Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, which explores the argument of geoengineering.
The Obama administration is keeping quiet about climate policy leading up to the election, refusing to answer whether it will pursue a cap and trade policy if re-elected and remaining startlingly silent about global climate change. The Romney campaign believes that actions by President Obama have slowed economic growth, is not certain “what the nature of the threat of climate change is” and claims that energy efficiency is a clever ploy by the Democrats to enact expensive policy. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide, but I think it’s worth talking about what climate policy we do have and how the standards for both stationary and mobile sources came about in Washington.
To take a step back and put the recent rulings and debate in the context of the United States climate policy, I am going to provide a bit of history, a brief lesson in congressional legislation, and some personal commentary about what it all means. I welcome your opinions, feedback, and questions about this discussion in the comments section of this post.
This week, MIT will host a presidential energy debate with senior advisors for the two candidates — Joseph Aldy (Obama) and Oren Cass (Romney). This post is part of a ScienceWonks series to raise awareness of the debate and critical issues facing our nation’s energy future.
Rhetoric about “getting tough” with China on trade is heating up during this election season as both parties try to articulate credible strategies for kick-starting the struggling U.S. economy. Not surprisingly, some of the most prominent recent examples of U.S. administration trade actions against China have been in the increasingly profitable clean energy sector, which totaled $263 billion globally in 2011. The U.S. is right to watch what China is doing on energy policy – and should continue to advocate for a level playing field – but perhaps in China’s impressive support for this industry there are also some lessons for a comprehensive U.S. national energy strategy. In this post, I will debunk some of the myths and miracles of China’s energy policy, making a case for U.S.-China cooperation (and healthy competition).
I return this week with a summary of an article written by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and former director of ARPA-E Arun Majumdar, both from the current administration’s Department of Energy. This article was published as a Perspective in Nature earlier this month, and provides an overview of the state-of-the-nation in terms of energy technologies (opportunities and challenges). A couple points that I found particularly interesting are highlighted here:
- The IEA projects that the world’s energy demand will increase to 17 billion tonne oil equivalents under “new policies” and 18 billion tonne oil equivalents under “current policies” scenarios (from 12 billion tonne oil equivalents in 2009). While 1 billion tonne of oil equivalents is a substantial amount, the difference between new policies and current policies strikes me as a relatively small fraction of total demand. So if demand is projected to increase so drastically, efforts towards sustainable generating sources are hugely important.
- “In 2011, about 2.690 billion tonnes of oil were consumed; of this, 1.895 billion tonnes of crude oil and 0.791 billion tonnes of refined products crossed national borders.” (Kennedy School of Government). This speaks to my earlier point that oil is a global commodity and that increasing domestic oil production is a matter of market participation, not of national security.
- The potential for reducing the weight of vehicles by an additional 20-40% in the next 10-20 years without sacrificing safety is possible. For every 10% weight reduction of a vehicle, an improvement in fuel consumption of 6-8% is expected (NREL). This strikes me as a huge opportunity! A car that achieves 25 miles per gallon could get about 33 miles per gallon simply by weight reduction? That’s 116 gallons of gasoline saved per year (12,000 miles driven per year), or nearly 2000 gallons of gasoline saved over a car’s 15-year lifetime. At $3.893/gallon (the average price of gas for Massachusetts this week), that’s a savings of $450 per year, or $6,773 over the car’s life.
- Creating a nationwide infrastructure for CNG, comparable to the 160,000 gasoline stations in the United States, would be prohibitively expensive (NACS). I think it is easy to forget just how ingrained in society gasoline is. Talking to some colleagues last week, I was surprised at everyone’s quick judgment of electric car range, and how just a battery could not possible suffice for their needs. In America, we live in a society where a vehicle is often a necessity and not a luxury, but for many thousands of people in the world, a vehicle even with a limited range could improve their ability to work, travel, and educate their families by a huge amount. Is there a place in developing countries for lower-range vehicles? Are the economics of batteries and the infrastructure of electricity in place for this to happen?
- “The cost of retrofitting existing pulverized coal plants to achieve 90% CO2 capture with the technology available is estimated to require capital expenditures that approach those of the original plant (NAS). In addition, 20-40% of the plant’s energy would be diverted.” This, for me, succinctly puts CCS in perspective, at least for the near term. Without a price on carbon, generators do not have incentive to scale CCS technologies. If they did, the levelized cost of electricity for these generation sources would increase by more than a factor of two, seriously changing the game for renewable producers.
- In 2009, nuclear energy accounted for about 14% of the world’s electricity generation. This fraction dropped to 12% due to policies from Germany and Japan by 2011 (BP, NAS, IEA). The events at Fukushima have played a significant role in the future of nuclear power, but it remains to be seen the long term political impact of the disaster. Governments of countries such as South Africa continue to propose nuclear power plants and are succeeding in implementing this relatively inexpensive form of clean energy. Safety concerns are valid, but completely writing off the potential of nuclear power is something that I believe governments should not be permitted to do.
Finally, a word of wisdom from Secretary Chu and Dr. Majumdar: “The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; we transitioned to better solutions. The same opportunity lies before us with energy efficiency and clean energy.”
Of course, the additional commentary in the above bullets is mine and I encourage you to check out the article for more great analysis.
A story I heard recently on NPR really got me thinking about the image of climate change in the public. The story centered on the efforts of public health officials to change the discussion about climate change from one focused on the environmental effects of increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to one centered on the increased health risks such a change will bring about. Health officials feel (and have found through studies) that the prospect of increasing heat waves, more smog leading to a greater incidence of asthma, greater frequency of deadly storms, and an increase in the range of infectious diseases is more compelling to the American public than the emblematic polar bear on a shrinking block of ice. The health slant makes the effects of climate change more personally relevant to the public and inspires compassion. Others interviewed for this story, though, expressed skepticism. This idea of rebranding climate change got me thinking about whether we should just eliminate the ‘climate change’ from GHG mitigation measures.
The terms ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Global Warming’ have long inspired strong feelings and partisanship, which has hindered governmental efforts to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite the political aversion to climate change, the US has actually succeeded in making some serious cuts to carbon emissions. These climate change successes have come under the guise of increasing energy efficiency, economic drivers, and other environmental concerns. In particular changes such as the shift toward natural gas for power production (incentivized by new power plant emission rules promulgated by the EPA and the abundance of cheap natural gas) and a decrease in miles driven (because of higher fuel costs, the recession, and changing demographics) have resulted in lower emissions without having to argue the scientific proof for human caused global climate change. In an upcoming post we will also be discussing the proposed change of the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for automakers to achieve an average fuel economy of 34.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The drastic changes proposed to the CAFE standards came about through a Supreme Court decision on whether CO2 emissions should be regulated by the EPA (more on this in an upcoming post by Shreya Dave). Although the CAFE standard update resulted from a concern over CO2 emissions, it was not the product of a widespread discussion over whether the government should enact measures to control climate change.
The success of climate change policies and GHG mitigating measures without an overt discussion of the validity of human induced climate change makes me wonder if the makeover the climate change agenda needs is the removal of the term ‘climate change’. If by focusing on popular issues such as energy independence, decreasing energy costs in households, and decreasing criteria air pollutants there is the side benefit of a decrease in greenhouse gases, why not avoid the climate change argument and focus on these more politically palatable issues? Yet, in the back of my mind I recognize that this solution may be too good to be true. It is becoming more evident that we need significant decreases in greenhouse gas emissions to avoid some of the most serious effects of climate change. Can such cuts be achieved while avoiding making climate change the central issue? I don’t know the answer to this question, and perhaps it is moot as long as the public does not overwhelmingly support action to counter climate change. Nonetheless, I applaud the advances the US government and public have made to decreasing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions regardless of the motivation.
Because I am working on a longer piece (sneak preview: rulemaking in the EPA and the new vehicle fuel efficiency standards), I am going to leave you with this well-informed Atlantic article about ARPA-E, the DOE funding agency born from the 2008 stimulus bill that enables funding of research, development, and innovation in energy technologies in a manner parallel to the Department of Defense’s DARPA.
Though liberal leaning, it is heartening to see evidence of continued support for energy technologies from both the Republicans and Democrats and for both to put investment in research in the context of long-term American viability rather than a short-sighted election stunts.
For more information about ARPA-E and its programs, I encourage you to check out its official website.
In April 2012, natural gas caught up with coal as a fuel for electricity generation in the United States. Natural gas and coal each contributed about 32% of the kilowatt hours produced (and subsequently consumed), at about 96 million megawatt hours. One year before, in April 2011, natural gas contributed 71 million megawatt hours compared to coal’s 124 million megawatt hours. The graph below shows the seasonal cyclic trend of fuel consumption for electric power generation in the United States, and the consumption of coal and natural gas converging right at the end (Source: EIA).
What does this mean for the United States? Well, in some ways, this is great news for emissions. We emitted 5 million tons CO2 fewer this April than we did last April while generating virtually the same amount of electricity (based on EPA reported emissions factors found here for coal and here for natural gas).
The reason for this fuel switch is not simply emissions, however. The reason for this fuel switch, most simply, is rooted in the lifetime cost of electricity generation. For the first time in history, it is cheaper to generate electricity from natural gas than from coal (equipment, fuel, maintenance included). This graph, from the Hamilton Project, shows how the price of electricity from natural gas is around 4 cents per kilowatt hour, whereas coal hovers above 6 cents per kilowatt hour.
So we know that it appears to be a smart business choice for generators to get into natural gas, but the game has suddenly changed for competing renewables. As that graph also shows, wind, nuclear, and solar – with backup, to even the intermittency playing field – all cost significantly more than natural gas. Achieving grid parity, a target that seemed almost reachable a year ago for wind and some solar technologies is practically out of sight. (These graphs were both borrowed from this Technology Review article).
So with that introduction comes the question that I’ve been thinking about all week. Do I truly support natural gas?
I ask this question with a long-term perspective, not as a blanket comment against the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracking. This inexpensive source of cleaner energy has hit the headlines over and over in the past twelve months, but I want to consider its role in a global energy ecosystem with a critical view as well. At the end of the day, it is still a fossil fuel despite its superior emissions qualities.
So, after thinking about it, my answer is yes. The right combination of technology readiness and market factors facilitated a transition that was fast, efficient, and game-changing. Regulation may lag a little time-wise, but (hopefully) will ensure that environmental damage is considered and controlled. This is a nicely packaged example of how we, as humans, continue to innovate ourselves in a direction that is sometimes difficult to predict, forward-thinking, and market-driven. This op-ed from the New York Times shares some of my sentiments.
I also think back to the stories of different fuel sources (probably available in many places but I first read it and recall the version told in this book by Peter Tertzakian) and the cyclic nature of their existence. Candles and lanterns were the primary consumer of fuel in the 18th century, bringing the onset of the 1751 great sperm whale rush which adversely affected the population of sperm wales significantly. As the cost of sperm whale oil increased due to a greater demand and a more limited supply, it gave way to kerosene as a predominant fuel. Kerosene is still used in many parts of India, African countries, and other developing economies, but was also replaced by electric light bulbs and electricity infrastructure. Though this infrastructure is still moreorless the same, we have just witnessed a transition from coal to natural gas as the primary electricity-generating fuel in the United States.
And although regulation has a very important place in the operating practices of natural gas extraction, this transition was not achieved by a mandate to use natural gas or not use coal. It was a result of a series of decisions that made sense for oil and gas companies, electricity generators, and everyone in between. So while I hope to see even cleaner energy become widespread in my lifetime, natural gas is changing the face of energy today, and I am very happy about it.
Last week I brought some numbers to the energy plan proposed by the now-confirmed Republican nominee for President of the United States. Today I take a look at President Obama’s energy claims and promises.
The fundamentals of Obama’s energy plan are as follows:
- Encourage safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by reevaluating the permitting process.
- Develop domestic oil and gas production to increase America’s energy independence.
- Provide consumers with more efficient cars and trucks to combat gasoline price volatility.
- Improve the energy efficiency of residential and commercial buildings.
- Establish a Clean Energy Standard in order to double the share of electricity from clean energy sources.
- Continue investment in clean energy technologies through programs such as ARPA-E, clean energy hubs, and encouraging federal organizations to become first adopters.
Pretty comprehensive, but it’s probably no surprise that I have some comments. First, the Obama administration is quick to point out that the US domestic production of energy sources is the highest that it has been in more than a decade. I would like to remind you that no Presidency acts entirely in isolation. This is something that a campaign likes to remind you when hard times hit, but quietly forgets when good things happen. It’s true that, according to the Energy Information Administration, US crude oil production increased in 2009 more than it had since 1955 (on a percentage basis), but the lead time between permitting and production for drilling and production can be anywhere between 3 months and 4 years. That means, at least some, if not a fair bit, of the production that is occurring during the Obama’s administration is thanks to former-President George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, representatives from the oil and gas industries claim that regulations imparted by the Obama administration have discouraged the development of federally-owned lands. They claim that the additional regulatory burdens are the reason that the number of new wells drilled in 2010 is less than half of the new wells begun on public land in any year in the past decade (Greenwire 2012).
And yet, the new wells drilled represent only one third of the total number of permits issued in 2010. In previous years up to 75% of the permits issued were used, suggesting that there are other factors at play. These factors include the cost of opening new wells, the low price of natural gas, and improvements in technology that make existing wells more productive. Proponents of the Obama regulatory reform point to a lower price of oil as the main reason for this downturn. (This excellent piece from Greenwire is my source and outlines these points in more detail.) Permits are an integral part of domestic energy production and unnecessary regulation is burdensome on the economy, but the private companies that operate these wells make their decisions based market factors as well as long term strategy; it is a complex system.
Both candidates seem to think domestic production is a priority. And while US production may be up now, new drilling appears to be going down. No Presidency acts entirely in isolation, so who is going to take responsibility for what happens next?
July 1st marked the beginning of European and American embargoes on Iranian oil exports. Since then the sanctions have been effective at squeezing Iran because, in the past, the European Union has been the largest importer of Iranian crude and condensate products. In recent years total Iranian production has hovered around 4 million barrels per day, but dropped in July to around 2.8 million barrels per day.
In an effort to avoid shutting-in huge production volumes, and risk damaging mature and fragile reserves, Iran began to store it’s excess production volumes in it’s tanker fleet. This was only a temporary solution. With the fleet quickly bumping up against its storage capacity of approximately 42 million barrels, Iran has resorted to sneakier alternate strategies. The New York Times reported in July that some Iranian tankers are receiving fresh paint, and many ships belonging to the National Iranian Tanker Corporation (NITC) are flying “flags of convenience,” in an effort to disguise the origin of the crude onboard. These counter-efforts seem, at a minimum, to be keeping any additional pressure off the Iranian government; production saw a slight increase in August.
The West’s reasoning for imposing the sanctions is to strong-arm Iran into abandoning its uranium enrichment program, but Iran is insistent on pursuing its nuclear program and may be able to partially circumvent the embargo. And, as a recent article in The Economist points out, such embargoes often end up punishing the poorest in society, while those in power stay the course. The motivation behind the sanctions might be defensible, but their effectiveness at manipulating Iranian nuclear policy isn’t yet clear. It will be interesting to see who blinks first.