February 19, 2011

CEOs see energy efficiency as a moral issue

A recent Harris Interactive poll conducted among Fortune 1000 companies found that nearly 90 percent of Fortune 1000 senior executives feel a moral responsibility to make their companies more energy efficient. According to the study, respondents felt it was their moral responsibility to cut energy use, beyond the ethical imperative to follow regulatory requirements.

Of the group surveyed, 13 percent said environmental concerns were their main motivator to save energy. Yet more than 60 percent identified cost savings as their biggest energy-saving motivator.

To me, the best news from the study was that 75 percent of the respondents said that saving energy has gained importance within their organizations over the past two years.

US CO2 emissions down

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its annual draft report on emissions. It shows that they decreased 6 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions came from electricity generation and transportation. Combined, those two sectors accounted for about 70 percent of all manmade emissions in the US. In the case of transportation, nearly 54 percent of that is from personal vehicle use. So if you think turning the lights off, hopping on your bike or living closer to work won't make a difference, think again.
The reduction puts 2009 on par with 1995 levels. It's still a far cry from the 8 percent below 1990 levels the European Union is aiming for by 2012. In fact, the US's 2009 emissions are still 7.4 percent above 1990 levels. 

There are two main reasons greenhouse gas emissions decreased. No, it wasn't people biking to work (yet). One is the economic downturn. '

On a better note, the other main cause for the decrease in emissions is a decrease in coal use and a concurrent increase in using natural gas to generate electricity. The changing fortunes of coal and natural gas were due to changing prices, with costs of coal rising and natural gas decreasing. If ever there was proof that one way to fight climate change is ending subsidies for coal, this is it.

Republicans defund hurricane tracking

The Republican leadership has decided that accurate weather forecasting and hurricane tracking are luxuries America can no longer afford.

The GOP's bill would cut $1.2 billion (21 percent) out of the president's proposed budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

More than $700 million of the president's proposed budget for NOAA is tagged for overhauling our nation's aging environmental satellite infrastructure. Satellites gather key data about our oceans and atmosphere, including cloud cover and density, miniscule changes in ocean surface elevation and temperatures, and wind and current trajectories. Such monitoring is integral to our weather and climate forecasting and it plays a key role in projections of strength and tracking of major storms and hurricanes—things most Americans feel are worth keeping an eye on.

The United States needs these satellites if we're to continue providing the best weather and climate forecasts in the world. The implications of the loss of these data far exceed the question of whether to pack the kids into snowsuits for the trip to school. The concern here is ensuring ongoing operational efficiency and national security on a global scale. In some cases it can literally become a question of life and death.

When a hurricane makes landfall, evacuations cost as much as $1 million per mile. Over the past decade, NOAA has halved the average margin of error in its three-day forecasts from 250 miles to 125 miles, saving up to $125 million per storm.

Environmental satellites are not optional equipment. Today's environmental satellites are at the end of their projected life cycles. They will fail. When they do, we must have replacements ready or risk billions of dollars in annual losses to major sectors of our economy and weakening our national security.

Tar Sands Pipeline dangers

In a new report released yesterday, NRDC and several partner groups demonstrate that tar sands oil is more difficult and dangerous to transport than conventional crude. Known as DilBit, short for diluted bitumen, it's thick as peanut butter and more acidic, highly corrosive, and abrasive. Yet the NRDC report says that pipeline developers and operators are using the same designs, operating practices, and materials to transport DilBit that work for conventional crude.

Those practices might have contributed to the deterioration of the steel pipeline outside of Marshall and its rupture last summer -- a disaster that's now considered the worst oil spill in Midwest history and caused more than $500 million in damage. If changes aren't made, the result could be more accidents, spills, and polluted waterways, says the report, which calls for a moratorium on pipeline development until stronger safety measures and regulations can be developed.
"Because people in the United States hadn't had any experience with raw tar sands oil, they didn't know how dangerous it can be," said Anthony Swift, an NRDC tar sands expert and co-author of the study, prepared with the help of two other national environmental organizations and the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit group that works with the pipeline industry to increase safety.

February 15, 2011

CFOs underestimate return on energy efficiency

The Guardian reports that most CFOs at large businesses are significantly underestimating the returns from energy efficiency investments.

On average they thought that straightforward energy efficiency projects – like heating and lighting upgrades, energy saving policies and staff training – would deliver an internal rate of return (IRR) of 20%.

We took a close look at 1,000 energy efficiency projects... and found that companies can expect to see an IRR of 48% on average and payback within three years. In the retail sector, according to our figures, the average IRR from energy efficiency projects leaps to 82%. Few other investments get anywhere near these rates of return.

Click here to read the paper

Business reduces natural gas use to zero

Just as the heating season got underway in earnest, Bill Pauling spotted a guy looking over the natural gas meter at his downtown Montevideo, Minn., grocery store with a quizzical look on his face.

"I couldn't figure out what the guy was doing," said Pauling, owner of Bill's Supermarket.
The guy was Xcel Energy's meter reader. He couldn't figure out why the store's meter showed zero gas usage for the prior month. He was there to see why.

Pauling should have seen it coming. This was the second time in recent years that the store's natural gas supplier has sent a meter reader on a special visit.

Investments in energy conservation really do pay off, according to Pauling. There are entire months during the heating season when his 13,000-square-foot store is heated only with a heat exchange system. It captures "waste" heat that was otherwise vented outside from the store's refrigeration and cooling equipment.

"We just capture BTUs that we would have normally thrown out the door," said the store owner.
The waste heat from the electrical equipment is now the primary source of heat for the store. Natural gas is a backup, needed only when outside temperatures fall to 5 degrees or lower, he said.

Eight years ago he invested in new refrigeration equipment for the store's frozen and perishable goods. He obtained low-interest financing -- 6 percent at the time -- through an energy conservation program offered by Xcel Energy to engineer the system.

Pauling was also able to cut his electrical usage significantly by replacing the old system with more energy-efficient compressors, and fewer of them. Then he spent another $50,000 to install the heat exchange system.

As promised, he expects the system should pay for itself in about 10 years. He said his heating costs have dropped by anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a year.

Pauling has made energy conservation a priority. He's added energy-efficient lamps, and when he needed a new roof, he installed a white membrane roof that reflects sunlight and reduces his summer cooling needs.

"Every time I do something, I try to upgrade that as much as possible," he said.

EPA Benefits

The Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency the necessary tools to protect our families from mercury, arsenic, smog, particulates and carbon dioxide that can cause asthma and lung disease – especially in children.  Weakening these standards would allow more pollution in the air we breathe and threaten our children's health. Here is a short summary showing how this landmark law affects our country and protects our health.
    160,000 Lives Saved Last Year In the year 2010 alone, clean air regulations are estimated to have saved over 160,000 lives. More than 100,000 Hospital Visits Avoided Last Year In 2010, clean air standards prevented millions of cases of respiratory problems, including bronchitis and asthma. It enhanced productivity by preventing millions of lost workdays, and kept kids healthy and in school, avoiding millions of lost school days due to respiratory illness and other diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution. 60% Less Pollution in Our Air, Strong Economic Growth and Lower Electricity Prices Since 1970, the Clean Air Act has reduced key air pollutants that cause smog and particulate pollution by more than 60%. At the same time the economy more than tripled. And Since the Clean Air Act Amendments in 1990, electricity production is up and prices are down. In 2009, electric utilities delivered 33 percent more electricity to U.S. households and businesses than in 1990, while nationwide electricity prices were 10 percent lower. Benefits Far Out Weigh Costs Over its forty-year span, the benefits of the Clean Air Act – in the form of longer lives, healthier kids, greater workforce productivity, and ecosystem protections – outweigh the costs by more than 30 to 1.

Egypt - Energy and Food

In 2006 Egypt spent about $10.8 billion a year subsidizing oil & gas products, according to the International Energy Agency.  Each Egyptian is thus writing a $135 yearly check to subsidize its fossil fuel insustry.  In a country where 19.6% of the population lives on less than $1 per day and the average family spends 40% of their income buying food this is an unsustainable policy.

Egypt can transcend its chronic poverty and become an energy world power.  If Egypt were to build solar power plants in an area similar to the Aswan hydro-electric dam it would produce the energy equivalent of all of the Middle East oil exporters combined.

February 7, 2011

Coal Subsidies

President Obama pledged in his State of the Union address that he would eliminate the subsidies we pay to oil companies.

"I'm asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don't know if you've noticed, but they're doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's."

Perhaps he should also look at eliminating the subsidies we pay to coal producers. According to a study by the Environmental Law Institute, the coal industry received $17 billion in subsidies between 2002 and 2008. 

Meanwhile, the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal are staggering. 
Around $1.5 billion of our federal taxes are associated with damages to miners' health such as the notorious black lung disease.

"What is the true health and environmental cost when mining machines rip off mountaintops and chuck the rubble into streams? What was the cost of acid rain? What's been the healthcare cost of 47 tons per year of mercury from burning coal," the Sierra Club asks, "that put 300,000 fetuses at risk for neurological damage each year?"

The coal industry was responsible for 2,237 megatons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent greenhouse pollution in 2008, 38 percent of the United States footprint. The cost of this "market externality" is between $60 and $600 billion every year, given expert estimates for the cost to human civilization of manmade climate change.

It is time to end subsidies that destroy our health and the health of all life on our planet. As President Obama suggests, it is time to take the money we've used to invest in yesterday's energy and invest it in the clean, renewable energy of the future. 

Credit for Production of Nonconventional Fuels ($14.1 billion)- IRC Section 45K. This provision provides a tax credit for the production of certain fuels. Qualifying fuels include: oil from shale, tar sands; gas from geopressurized brine, Devonian shale, coal seams, tight formations, biomass, and coal-based synthetic fuels. This credit has historically primarily benefited coal producers. 
Characterizing Coal Royalty Payments as Capital Gains ($986 million) – IRC Section 631(c). Income from the sale of coal under royalty contract may be treated as a capital gain rather than ordinary income for qualifying individualsx 
Exclusion of Benefit Payments to Disabled Miners ($438 million) – 30 U.S.C. 922(c). Disability payments out of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund are not treated as income to the recipients. 
Other-Fuel Excess of Percentage over Cost Depletion ($323 million)- IRC Section 613. Taxpayers may deduct 10 percent of gross income from coal production. 
Credit for Clean Coal Investment ($186 million)- IRC Sections 48A and 48B. Available for 20 percent of the basis of integrated gasification combined cycle property and 15 percent of the basis for other advanced coal-based generation technologies. 
Special Rules for Mining Reclamation Reserves ($159 million) – IRC Section 468. This deduction is available for early payments into reserve trusts, with eligibility determined by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Solid Waste Management Act. The amounts attributable to mines rather than solid-waste facilities are conservatively assumed to be one-half of the total. 
84-month Amortization Period for Coal Pollution Control ($102 million) – IRC Section 169(d)(5). Extends the amortization period used in calculating the deduction from the generally applicable 60-month period available for other types of pollution control facilities. 
 Expensing Advanced Mine Safety Equipment ($32 million) – IRC Section 179E. The costs of qualifying mine safety equipment may be expensed rather than recovered through depreciation.
Black Lung Disability Trust Fund ($1 billion)- As industry excise tax payments did not sufficiently cover early benefits payments, the BLDTF was given "indefinite authority to borrow" from the U.S. General Fund, and bailed out for $6.498 billion, 13 percent of which is relevant to the 2002-2008 period. 
Financial support for the World Bank and other international financial institutions that finance fossil fuel use and extraction. Since 1994, these institutions have provided $137 billion in direct and indirect financial support for new coal-fired power plants. 
U.S. Treasury Department's backing of tax-exempt bonds and federally subsidized taxable Build America Bonds for use in the electric sector. $81 billion in tax-exempt debt was issued between 2002 and 2006 for electric power, most for coal plants. 
U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service provision of loans, loan guarantees, and lien accommodations to public power companies that are investing in new or existing coal plants. 
Tax credits, loans, and loan guarantees through the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2009, DOE issued $5.9 billion in loan guarantees for advanced coal projects.

Americans overwhelmingly oppose attempts to block EPA

You wouldn't know it from listening to reports from our media, but more than three out of four Americans (77 percent) – including a clear majority of Republicans (61 percent) – oppose efforts in Congress to block Clean Air Act updates for carbon, smog and other pollution, according to a national opinion survey by Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) International for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Americans want the EPA to do more, not less.  Almost two thirds of Americans (63 percent) say "the EPA needs to do more to hold polluters accountable and protect the air and water," versus under a third (29 percent) who think the EPA already "does too much and places too many costly restrictions on businesses and individuals." 

Americans do not want Congress to kill the EPA's anti-pollution updates.   Only 18 percent of Americans – including fewer than a third of Republicans (32 percent) -- believe that "Congress should block the EPA from updating pollution safeguards," after being told:  "Some members of Congress are proposing to block the Environmental Protection Agency from updating safeguards to protect our health from dangerous air pollution, saying they will cost businesses too much money."
You can find the full report here.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton is ignoring Americans' support for the health protections from pollution and pushing a proposal that would allow power plants and other big plants to dump unlimited amounts of dangerous carbon pollution into our air. 

"The enactment of Chairman Fred Upton's bill would strip away Clean Air Act protections that safeguard Americans and their families from air pollution that puts their lives at risk. The protections against the health harm from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution are essential to public health and must be preserved." - Charles D. Connor, President and Chief Executive Officer
"The public health community is very concerned about the long-term health consequences of global climate change…Blocking EPA's authority to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could mean the difference between chronic debilitating illness or a healthy life for countless Americans." - Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), Executive Director
"TFAH is incredibly concerned that the proposed legislation will eliminate current protective measures that address the health impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas pollution…The science says carbon pollution is bad for our health.  Rolling back EPA's ability to protect the public from this threat literally has life and death stakes." - Jeff Levi, PhD, Executive Director
"Failure to allow the EPA to safeguard our air directly threatens thousands of people with asthma and other chronic illnesses, including children.  With one out of 10 children in the United States affected by asthma, we don't have to look farther than our own neighborhoods to see the suffering and actual risk to life caused by polluted air.  Nothing could instill fear in a parent like a child unable to breathe." - Gary Cohen, President 
"Nurses understand and have seen first-hand in our nation's emergency rooms, hospitals, and communities the devastation caused by air pollution. The public's health should not suffer while members of Congress put corporate profits ahead of the public's health." - Brenda Afzal, MS, RN, Climate Policy Director 
"We express our profound distress about the House Energy and Commerce Committee's legislation that would limit the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to set clean air standards to reduce air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.   
The broader health implications of blocking clean air standards for green house gas emissions include respiratory diseases such as asthma, allergies, cancer, cardiovascular disease and stroke, heat related morbidity and mortality, mental health stress, neurological diseases, vector and water borne diseases, and weather borne morbidity and mortality...Our policy makers must understand that any bill that prevents the EPA from doing its job of protecting our air and water and through the Clean Air Act is a threat to public health and an additional cost that America's health cannot afford." - Barbara Sattler, RN, Dr.PH, FAAN.
"The legislation proposed by Rep. Upton and Sen. Inhofe would allow polluters to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the environment. The legislation introduced today ... undermines protection of nation's clean air and continues to leave the United States vulnerable to the adverse health effects of climate change. This legislation would encourage polluters to emit carbon pollution into the air that adversely affects public health and increases global warming." - Dean E. Schraufnagel, MD, President

Floods in your future?

Governor Patrick told us back in March that the flooding we experienced in the greater Boston area was the result of “two 50-year storms in the course of two or three weeks.” Standard probability analysis would suggest that the likelihood of experiencing two 50-year storms a couple weeks apart would be a once in 2,500 year event.  Does that mean we can relax and go back to business as usual? 

Perhaps the local weather records can shed some light on that question. The weather records from Hanscom Air Force Base since 1957 show that during the period from 1957 to 1990, we had only one day with more than 4 inches of rain (that was in 1962). 

Since 1990 we've had 7 days with 4 inches or more of rain. That means that over the last 20 years Lexington has been 12 times as likely to experience an extreme precipitation event or a superstorm, compared to the previous 30 years of data. 

The two storms we had in March of 2010 dumped 25% of our total annual rainfall on us in just 7 days, including one day when we had 4.3 inches of rain. That works out to 13 times more rain than the 7 day average. 

As we learned in March, our storm water drainage systems haven’t been designed to accommodate these increasingly frequent storms that can dump over 10% of our annual precipitation on us in one day. The consequences of intense storms directly affect our lives, causing flooding in our basements, inundating our storm water system, incurring emergency response costs and even disrupting our water supply. 

You may be surprised to learn that the increased frequency of intense storms is the direct result of a warmer climate. As the climate warms, the warmer air in our atmosphere holds more moisture. Scientists calculate that the 1 degree of warming that has already occurred causes an increase in the amount of water vapor in the air of 4%.  

A 4% increase in atmospheric water vapor over the US is the equivalent to adding all the water from Lake Superior to the air over the US. And what goes up must come down. And when it does come down, that precipitation is coming down in increasingly intense superstorms - which can cause devastating floods. 

Extreme flooding events aren’t only confined to the area surrounding Lexington. One of the primary effects of global warming has been to increase the frequency of intense storms and extreme flooding events around the world.

In the last twelve months we've seen the worst flooding on record for Pakistan, Tennessee, Brazil, Columbia, Australia, and now Sri Lanka. Pakistan still has millions who are homeless. Australia has an area the size of Texas under water. Flooding two weeks ago has resulted in over 665 dead in Brazil and over 300,000 homeless in Sri Lanka. 

So what does this mean for Lexington, Massachusetts? Unfortunately the answer is more flooding. 

The weather patterns in Lexington have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. It is time to begin planning to address these changes if we are to ensure that we have the proper infrastructure and systems in place to deal with this new reality. 

February 4, 2011

Building a Better Future

President Obama announced a goal to reduce commercial building energy use by 20% over the next 10 years. Here’s the announcement from the White House. 

“In his State of the Union, the President laid out his vision for winning the future by investing in innovative clean energy technologies and doubling the share of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. Alongside that effort, the President is proposing new efforts to improve energy efficiency in commercial buildings across the country. The “Better Buildings Initiative,” outlined today at Penn State University, will achieve a 20 percent improvement over the next decade, saving companies and business owners tens of billions of dollars a year.”

“The plan will spur innovation by reforming tax and other incentives to retrofit, creating a new competitive grant program for states and localities that streamline their regulations to attract retrofit investment, and challenging the private sector to invest in building upgrades through a new “Better Buildings Challenge.”

The President has asked President Clinton, who has been a champion for this kind of energy innovation, to co-lead the private sector engagement along with the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, headed by Jeff Immelt, the CEO of General Electric.”

From NPR - SCOTT HORSLEY: President Obama admits energy efficient buildings is not the sexiest sounding path of the future, but on a day when much of the country is shivering in subfreezing temperatures, cutting the heat and electric bill might have some appeal.

Commercial buildings consume about one-fifth of all the energy used at the U.S. Mr. Obama says a 20 percent gain in efficiency could save those businesses some $40 billion a year.

President BARACK OBAMA: Making our buildings more energy efficient is one of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to save money, combat pollution and create jobs right here in the United States of America. And that's what we're going to do.

You can read the rest of the report from NPR or listen to it by clicking here

February 1, 2011

Global Warming Polls

An Atlas of Pollution

Latest data published by the US Energy Information Administration provides a unique picture of economic growth and decline. China has sped ahead of the US as shown by this map, which resizes each country according to CO2 emissions. And for the first time, CO2 emissions have gone down.