Tag: United States Environmental Protection Agency

Cutting CO2 emissions – who leads the world!

The U.S. leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions — so why aren’t we talking about it?

On the 31st July, I republished a TomGram from William deBuys that showed some pretty frightening aspects of climate change in the South-West USA.  Then there was the video on the 10th August, last Friday, that spelt out in very clear ways how the world is in a new, unfamiliar place.  It would be so easy to think it’s all going to hell in a handbasket.  So a change of tone.

There was an article on Grist by David Roberts about the US leading the world in cutting CO2 emissions.  David kindly gave me permission to republish it on Learning from Dogs.

U.S. leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions — so why aren’t we talking about it?

By David Roberts
Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change.We have cut our carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in recent years — 7.7 percent since 2006. U.S. emissions fell 1.9 percent last year and are projected to fall 1.9 percent again this year, which will put us back at 1996 levels. It will not be easy to achieve the reductions Obama promised in Copenhagen — 17 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2020 — but that goal no longer looks out of reach, even in the absence of comprehensive legislation.

Why isn’t this extraordinary story a bigger deal in U.S. politics? You’d think Obama would be boasting about it! Turns out, though, it’s a little awkward for him, since several of the drivers responsible are things for which he can’t (or might not want to) take credit.

Awkward: that whole recession thing

First off there’s the Great Recession, which flattened electricity demand in 2008. It has never recovered — in fact, in part due to 2011′s mild winter, it has even declined slightly:

US electricity consumption, 2000-2011

Click to embiggen.

For obvious reasons, boasting about the environmental benefits of the recession is not something Obama’s eager to do.

Awkward: frack-o-mania

The second big driver is the glut of cheap natural gas, which is currently trading at the 10-year low of about $3 per million British thermal units. This is absolutely crushing coal, the biggest source of CO2 in the electric sector:

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40% for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50%. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30%.

Here’s U.S. electricity generation from 2000-2012. Look how dramatic coal’s recent plunge is:

EIA: electricity generation by source, 2000-2012

Click to embiggen.

In April, coal and natural gas both contributed 32 percent to the U.S. electricity mix — equal for the first time since EIA started collecting data in the ’70s. This is, as Alexis Madrigal emphasizes, an extraordinary shift, unprecedented in the history of the U.S. electrical system.

It’s helpful to Obama to be able to point to cheap natural gas when people accuse his EPA of killing coal. And it’s helpful in his effort to claim “all of the above.” But fracking’s potential environmental and health impacts has quickly made it a flash point with his environmental base (and his Hollywood base), so it’s at the very least a fraught subject.

Awkward: Kenyan socialist EPA sharia tyranny

A less significant driver of the switch from coal to natural gas is the EPA’s long overdue rollout of new or tightened clean-air rules on mercurySO2 and NOx, and CO2. Those rules may do more work later on down the line when/if natural gas prices rise again, but for now the best analysis [PDF] shows that natural gas is doing most of the work killing coal. Nonetheless, EPA regs have proven a source of potent right-wing attacks on Obama and he’s probably not eager to call undue attention to them.

Thus: silence in the political world

So: given the fact that the decline in emissions is driven, at least in the conventional narrative, by an explosion in fossil fuel production, a recession, and a series of EPA regulations, it’s not hard to see why Obama isn’t eager to put it front and center. It’s got a little something for everyone to hate.

And of course the right isn’t eager to talk about it either, since conservative dogma tells us that there’s no way to grow the economy and shrink CO2 emissions at the same time … and yet, uh, that’s what’s happening. At the end of 2012, our economy will be much larger than it was in 1996, yet its carbon emissions will be the same. If conservatives acknowledge that it’s possible to loosen the link between climate pollution and economic growth, they’ll have to explain why we shouldn’t do a whole lot more of it.

Still, while the story has remained largely sub rosa in political media, there are several overlooked details that paint a happier picture than the conventional one above. There’s more to this story than natural gas and recession.

Happy: Coal’s getting its ass kicked by activists

First, it isn’t just natural gas and EPA taking coal out — it’s the kick-ass anti-coal movement! Fighting tooth-and-nail, plant-by-plant, it has blocked new construction and shut down over 100 existing plants.

Beyond Coal: 112 down

The campaign has been so disciplined and successful that it’s drawn the support of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who does not typically invest his own money in feel-good symbolism. He expects accountability and he’s getting it. Like the man said, “Ending coal power production is the right thing to do.”

Happy: Clean energy is happening

Renewable energy still represents a small portion of U.S. electricity generation, but that fact obscures its outsized impact. The U.S. doesn’t need to add a ton of renewables for things to start shaking loose.

Here’s growth over the last decade:

EIA: renewable energy share, 2001-2011

Click to embiggen.

One thing that jumps out is that renewables are growing much faster in some places than others. South Dakota now gets 22 percent of its electricity from wind, Iowa 19 percent. The top two states in total installed wind are Kansas and Texas. The top two for wind jobs are Iowa and Texas. That’s three red states and a deeply purple one — a wedge separating clean energy from the climate culture wars. That portends accelerating changes in the political economy.

Also driving changes in political economy: 29 states and D.C. now have mandatory renewable energy standards.

FERC: renewable energy standards, 2011

Click to embiggen.

Installed wind and solar have doubled in the U.S. since Obama took office. Costs for solar are plunging like crazy and onshore wind power may be competitive with fossil fuels without subsidies by 2016. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory says the U.S. could get 80 percent of its power from renewables by 205o. Given that “official” projections of renewable energy growth have been consistently beneath the mark, it’s not unreasonable to think we may be underestimating future growth.

And renewables don’t have to get that big to start making waves. The sun shines most when the most electricity is being used — “peak demand” — so it serves to sharply reduce peak prices. Turns out that’s where utilities make a lot of their money. U.S. utilities are being forced to crank off coal plants when peak prices drop and then crank them back on afterwards.

It is no fun to turn coal plants on and off — it’s slow, laborious, and kills their economics. More and more, utility managers are turning toward upgraded, smarter grids and more flexible, responsive “mid-load” plants (i.e. natural gas). By hacking off peak prices, renewables will make the dynamics even worse for coal, well before they reach a large proportion of total electricity.

So renewables are a bigger part of this story than they appear, and getting bigger.

Happy: Demand is leveling off long-term

It’s not just the recession that’s bringing down U.S. energy demand — the leveling off of demand is a long-term trend. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects energy use will grow quite slowly through 2035:

EIA: energy demand to 2035

Click to embiggen.

And this is almost certainly conservative: EIA doesn’t model policy changes, underestimates the role of technology, ignores rising fossil fuel prices, and is incapable of predicting cultural shifts.

For instance, few projections anticipated the sharp decline in driving in the U.S., which has been driven (ahem) as much by cultural and demographic factors as by economics.

Or consider the dramatic progress in energy use in buildings, which was also not anticipated by EIA. From Architecture 2030 comes this graph, which compares the EIA Annual Energy Outlook (AEO) projections on U.S. building stock from 2005 with the ones from 2012:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, 2005 vs 2012

Click to embiggen.

The growth in U.S. building stock is slowing (in part — but only in part! — due to the recession), but growth in building energy consumption is dramatically slowing, thanks to advances in energy efficiency technology. EIA now expects CO2 emissions from the building sector to decline by 2035. That’s a pretty big change from going up by over 50 percent!

And that’s just with straight-line projections. If “best available demand technologies” are deployed, it looks like this:

EIA projections for building energy consumption, best available tech, 2005 vs 2012

Click to embiggen.

It’s within our reach to reduce the CO2 emissions of the building sector almost 22 percent! Given that building standards are one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement on energy these days, it’s not crazy to think that we’ll get closer to the latter projections than the former.

And the EIA projections for building energy consumption, Architecture 2030 notes, do not incorporate “sustainable planning applications or passive heating and cooling, natural ventilation, daylighting, or spatial configuration and site design strategies,” all of which are gaining in popularity and sophistication.

In short, there’s reason to think the demand-side story is similar to the supply-side story: official projections are dramatically underestimating potential.

Worry, but be happy

To sum up: yes, the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession played a big part in U.S. climate emissions declining in recent years. And either of them could reverse in years to come. But they are not the whole story. There are real transitions underway — seedlings that can be watered and fertilized.

As Brad Plumer notes, America’s modest progress to date still leaves the world on a pathway to climate catastrophe. But it also shows that projections are not destiny. Things can change, and quickly.

Let me just pick out two sentences from near the end, “But they are not the whole story. There are real transitions underway — seedlings that can be watered and fertilized.”

It serves as a very good reminder that many people are voting with their feet, so to speak, and making a difference.

Make your voice heard.

Center for American Progress Action Fund plea to all Americans

Friends,

For the first time in history, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to limit industrial carbon pollution from new power plants. This important action will slow the growth of the major pollutant responsible for global climate change. These new limits will have far-reaching public health impacts.

It’s up to all of us to demonstrate strong public demand for clean air: Make your voice heard now in support of carbon pollution limits for new and existing power plants

Power plants dump more than two billion tons of carbon and other toxic pollutants into the air each year—nearly 13,000 pounds for every man, woman, and child in the United States. With the proposed standard, though, a typical new coal-fired power plant would have to reduce its carbon pollution by 40 percent to 60 percent. Natural gas power plants should be able to comply with this standard without additional controls.

President Barack Obama has endorsed limits on carbon pollution from motor vehicles, which will ultimately reduce tailpipe emissions by six billion metric tons over the life of the program.

More than 120 health organizations have urged the government to reduce “the threat to public health posed by climate change and to support measures that will reduce these risks.” These health groups include the American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, American Thoracic Society, and others.

I proudly served as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency for eight years, and I know from experience how vitally important it is that citizens who support proposed public health standards that reduce pollution make their voices heard. Certainly, many of the companies emitting the pollution and other interests that oppose clean air standards will do so.

During the first month available for public comments, more than one million Americans took action to express their support for cleaner air, but we need your voice today!

Will you join us and more than one million Americans calling for cleaner air? Make your voice heard—click here to submit a favorable comment to the Environmental Protection Agency today! Thanks again! 

Sincerely,

Carol M. Browner
Distinguished Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress Action Fund

Just in case you want a reinforcing viewpoint, please do read this article from the Key Correspondents (KC) team website.

Coal-fired power damages health and the environment

Coal-fired power generation damages people’s health and contributes to climate change, according to a new study by academics at the University of Pretoria.

The study shows how coal-fired power stations run up large costs as a result of coincidental but often unavoidable side-effects electricity generation.

These ‘externalities’ include the creation of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur oxide, mercury and a wide range of carcinogenic radio-nuclides and heavy metals during the combustion process.

The Business Enterprises department of the University of Pretoria conducted the study for Greenpeace Africa and Greenpeace International at Kusile power station in Emalahleni in September 2011.

According to the report: “In the generation of coal-fire power, the objective is electricity production, yet, as a side effect, emissions are also produced.

“Various epidemiological studies found that the mentioned pollutants contribute to the incidence of mortality.”

The study also measures the cost to the environment by determining the amount of potentially damaging emissions from a power station.

According to the report, Kusile power station emits 30m tons of carbon dioxide per year, on an annual consumption of 17m tons of coal.

The analysis provides strong evidence of the need for Eskom, the largest energy provider in Africa, to invest in alternative renewable energy sources and for the government to support such investment initiatives.

But Eskom is building more coal-fired power stations to add to new power stations in Kusile and Medupi in Lephalale, Limpopo, with the support of the Department of Energy.

Building new power plants also requires the construction of new coal mines and the expansion of existing coal mines.

There are fears that coal fired power plants like Kusile in South could severely contribute to climate change.

Just re-read that sentence above that spoke of Kusile power station, “Kusile power station emits 30m tons of carbon dioxide per year, on an annual consumption of 17m tons of coal.

So, please, if you are an American who cares for the future of your children and grandchildren, take action.

The potential for the USA!

A powerful ‘good news’ story.

I am republishing in full a recent report from the Earth Policy Institute.  It underlines how wringing our hands in the face of so much doom and gloom, while perfectly understandable, can hide the fact that mankind can and does change, frequently for the better.  This EPI report is a tad ‘dry’ but still a great read.  As an incentive, let me show you the final sentence, “If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate.

Here’s the full paper.
NOVEMBER 02, 2011
U.S. Carbon Emissions Down 7 Percent in Four Years: Even Bigger Drops Coming
Lester R. Brown


Between 2007 and 2011, carbon emissions from coal use in the United States dropped 10 percent. During the same period, emissions from oil use dropped 11 percent. In contrast, carbon emissions from natural gas use increased by 6 percent. The net effect of these trends was that U.S. carbon emissions dropped 7 percent in four years. And this is only the beginning.

The initial fall in coal and oil use was triggered by the economic downturn, but now powerful new forces are reducing the use of both. For coal, the dominant force is the Beyond Coal campaign, an impressive national effort coordinated by the Sierra Club involving hundreds of local groups that oppose coal because of its effects on human health.

U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 1950-2010, with Projection for 2011

In the first phase, the campaign actively opposed the building of new coal-fired power plants. This hugely successful initiative, which led to a near de facto moratorium on new coal plants, was powered by Americans’ dislike of coal. An Opinion Research Corporation poll found only 3 percent preferred coal as their electricity source—which is no surprise. Coal plant emissions are a leading cause of respiratory illnesses (such as asthma in children) and mercury contamination. Coal burning causes 13,200 American deaths each year, a loss of life that exceeds U.S. combat losses in 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The campaign’s second phase is dedicated to closing existing coal plants. Of the U.S. total of 492 coal-fired power plants, 68 are already slated to close. With current and forthcoming U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air quality regulations on emissions of mercury, sulfur, and ozone precursors requiring costly retrofits, many more of the older, dirtier plants will be closed

In August, the American Economic Review—the country’s most prestigious economics journal—published an article that can only be described as an epitaph for the coal industry. The authors conclude that the economic damage caused by air pollutants from coal burning exceeds the value of the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants. Coal fails the cost-benefit analysis even before the costs of climate change are tallied.

In July 2011, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a grant of $50 million to the Beyond Coal campaign. It is one thing when Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, says that coal has to go, but quite another when Michael Bloomberg, one of the most successful businessmen of his generation, says so.

The move to close coal plants comes at a time when electricity use for lighting will be falling fast as old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs are phased out. In compliance with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, by January 2012 there will be no 100-watt incandescent light bulbs on store shelves. By January 2014, the 75-watt, 60-watt, and 40-watt incandescents will also disappear from shelves. As inefficient incandescents are replaced by compact fluorescents and LEDs, electricity use for lighting can drop by 80 percent. And much of the switch will occur within a few years.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that residential electricity use per person will drop by 5 percent during this decade as light bulbs are replaced and as more-efficient refrigerators, water heaters, television sets, and other household appliances come to market.

Even as coal plants are closing, the use of wind, solar, and geothermally generated electricity is growing fast. Over the last four years, more than 400 wind farms—with a total generating capacity of 27,000 megawatts—have come online, enough to supply 8 million homes with electricity. (See data.) Nearly 300,000 megawatts of proposed wind projects are in the pipeline awaiting access to the grid.

Cumulative Installed Wind Power Capacity in the United States, 1980-2011

Texas, long the leading oil-producing state, is now the leading generator of electricity from wind. When the transmission lines linking the rich wind resources of west Texas and the Texas panhandle to the large cities in central and eastern Texas are completed, wind electric generation in the state will jump dramatically.

In installed wind-generating capacity, Texas is followed by Iowa, California, Minnesota, and Illinois. In the share of electricity generation in the state coming from wind, Iowa leads at 20 percent.

With electricity generated by solar panels, the United States has some 22,000 megawatts of utility-scale projects in the pipeline. And this does not include residential installations.

Closing coal plants also cuts oil use. With coal use falling, the near 40 percent of freight rail diesel fuel that is used to move coal from mines to power plants will also drop.

In fact, oil use has fallen fast in the United States over the last four years, thus reversing another long-term trend of rising consumption. The reasons for this include a shrinkage in the size of the national fleet, the rising fuel efficiency of new cars, and a reduction in the miles driven per vehicle.

Fleet size peaked at 250 million cars in 2008 just as the number of cars being scrapped eclipsed sales of new cars. Aside from economic conditions, car sales are down because many young people today are much less automobile-oriented than their parents.

In addition, the fuel efficiency of new cars, already rising, will soon increase sharply. The most recent efficiency standards mandate that new cars sold in 2025 use only half as much fuel as those sold in 2010. Thus with each passing year, the U.S. car fleet becomes more fuel-efficient, using less gasoline.

Miles driven per car are declining because of higher gasoline prices, the continuing recession, and the shift to public transit and bicycles. Bicycles are replacing cars as cities create cycling infrastructure by building bike paths, creating dedicated bike lanes, and installing sidewalk parking racks. Many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York, are introducing bike-sharing programs.

Furthermore, when people retire and no longer commute, miles driven drop by a third to a half. With so many baby boomers now retiring, this too will lower gasoline use.

As plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars come to market, electricity will replace gasoline. Ananalysis by Professor Michael McElroy of Harvard indicates that running a car on wind-generated electricity could cost the equivalent of 80-cent-a-gallon gasoline.

With emissions from coal burning heading for a free fall as plants are closed, and those from oil use also falling fast—both are falling faster than emissions from natural gas are ramping up—U.S. carbon emissions are falling.

We are now looking at a situation where the 7 percent decline in carbon emissions since the 2007 peak could expand to 20 percent by 2020, and possibly even to 30 percent. If so, the United States could become a world leader in cutting carbon emissions and stabilizing climate.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of World on the Edge.

Copyright © 2011 Earth Policy Institute