Many people have read in the news about how the United States is tapping into unprecedented natural gas reserves through the process of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, where highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals are inserted to fracture shale rock which releases natural gas.  Drilling can have environmental impacts such as contamination of ground water, air quality risks, migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, and surface contamination from spills and flowback. 

Or they’ve read about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project that is seeking approval to move oil extracted from Canada’s tar sands down through the western United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast.  There is evidence that extracting oil from the sands are increasing levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes far beyond natural levels.

The latest news in accessing exotic forms of carbon comes from Japan, where their government announced that they’ve successfully extracted natural gas from methane hydrates, also called clathrates, buried beneath the sea bed.  Clathrates are an ultra-concentrated frozen mix of water and gas.  A cubic meter of clathrate contains 164 times as much methane as a cubic meter of methane gas.  Extraction of methane hydrates opens up the possibility for a catastrophic release of gas in the form of accidents during the extraction process.  Even releasing a small amount of clathrates could contribute significantly to climate change.

Governments and corporations worldwide need to stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars searching for new fossil fuel reserves and discovering ways to extract ever more unusual forms of buried carbon.  And we need to stop giving them incentives to do so.  Yes, it is hard to want less and do less, but for the sake of our planet’s health we need to curb our global appetite for fossil fuels.  Let’s start by lowering our carbon footprints.  Then we need to agree to leave fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

According to a detailed estimate, we need to leave four-fifths of global fossil fuel reserves untouched for a good chance of preventing more than 2°C of global warming.   The worst part is we have already identified more underground carbon than we can afford to burn between now and the year 3000.  Now is the time to implement a low carbon lifestyle.  We should do it for our planet, ourselves and for the sake of future generations.

Published in carbonfree blog
Friday, 08 March 2013 13:43

Global Energy Focus on Renewables

Those of us living in the United States can easily get wrapped up in the domestic energy picture, but it is important to stop and take a look at how renewables are doing in other countries too.

If you peruse a list of countries by 2008 emissions, the top emitter of carbon dioxide is currently China, followed closely by the U.S.  China accounts for 23.5% of world emissions, and the U.S. is responsible for 18.27%.  However, the good news is that China’s renewable-energy industry is currently on the upswing due to supportive government policies and generous subsidies; so much so that they’ve achieved the height of the world’s wind and solar industries.  We’ve all heard the phrase, “Everything is made in China.”  The U.S. does import many goods from China, but a report released this week titled, “Advantage America” analyzed trade between the two countries in solar, wind and smart-grid technology and services in 2011. 

The analysis, by Bloomberg New Energy Finance and Pew Charitable Trusts, showed $6.5 billion in renewable energy technology and services traded between the U.S. and China.  But the U.S. sold $1.63 billion more to China than it imported. 

It’s good to see both countries making such strides in renewable energy.  Oftentimes, the countries are perceived as being in competition with one another, but a more accurate picture would be that they are interdependent.  The bottom line is that both countries should be doing as much as possible to focus on renewables, especially considering they’re the top two carbon dioxide emitters on the planet.  And the global interest and investments in renewables doesn’t stop there.

Saudi Arabia, a country with the world's second largest oil reserves, is beginning a green revolution.  This week, Saudi King Abdullah revealed ambitious plans to develop renewable energy programs that will produce 54,000 megawatts of electricity by 2032 as part of a strategy to save 1.2 million barrels of their oil per day for export.

King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KA-Care) is a strategy paper set up by King Abdullah in 2010 to develop alternative energy sources so the country won't have to burn millions of barrels of oil a year on power generation.  KA-Care outlines the preliminary phases of the kingdom's agenda for its energy future and focuses on thermal solar, photo-voltaic solar, wind, geothermal and waste-to-energy.  Much of the desert landscape in the Persian Gulf is well suited to solar energy production; a fact that has not escaped the Saudi’s neighbor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

The UAE, with 8% of the world's proven oil reserves, has also embarked on a major renewables program, which focuses on nuclear and solar energy production.  By taking a look at the global energy picture, we see that even those countries with vast fossil fuel resources recognize the finite limitations of their reserves and the importance of investing in sustainable energy projects, which is great news in the fight against climate change.  Every country on the planet contributes to global warming, and every country will have to do their part in order to pave the way to a sustainable energy future.

Published in carbonfree blog

Most of the time, we do not take into account the complete costs to producing or consuming a good or service.  This is because we focus on the explicit costs.  For example, if we were to bake a loaf of bread, we would take into account the cost of the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, water, milk, and butter.  Perhaps we would even calculate our labor time to make the dough and the cost of running the oven, but would we account for the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere for the delivery truck that delivered the baking supplies?  How about the CO2 emissions from the power plant burning fossil fuels to generate the electricity to run the oven?  The problem is that we are not required to bear the full cost of production.  Some of the costs to bake that loaf of bread were shifted to society as a whole. 

Even if we did not bake the loaf of bread ourselves, we’re still shifting costs to society as a whole just by consuming it.  Our cars burn gasoline to drive to and from the grocery store, and regardless if we walked or biked, gasoline was likely also burned to deliver the bread to the grocery store in the first place.  Sure the delivery truck paid for the gasoline, but many companies do not pay for the carbon emissions their operations generate.

We need to make some drastic changes to avoid the ills of global warming, which we are beginning to see affect our daily lives, but the logistics of transforming our world’s energy system can be intimidating.  The first thing we need to do is get off fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources.  Easier said than done, I know.  It will be a complex and time-consuming process converting power plants, vehicles/transport systems, homes and commercial buildings.  Unfortunately, time is not on our side here.  We really need to reduce carbon emissions 80% by 2050. 

So then the question becomes how can we transition the world’s energy infrastructure to sustainable sources by mid-century?  One of the ways suggested is to implement a tax on CO2 emissions that begins low and gradually increases.  There should be no mystery either about how much and at what intervals over time the tax will rise.  Then people, businesses and governments can plan their fossil fuel exit strategy.

The revenues the carbon tax generates should be directed into subsidizing renewable energy innovation and overhauling energy infrastructure. 

Ideally, the carbon tax should be global.  Again there are logistical challenges to this climate change solution.  The key is that we need a systematic and practical process.  Isn’t it time we started taking responsibility for the full costs of production and consumption?  Society is bearing the cost as a whole, and society as a whole needs to be part of the solution.

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This Sunday approximately 35,000 protesters gathered on the National Mall to march past the White House and demand action on climate change.  The Forward on Climate Change march was said to be the largest climate rally in U.S. history.  Protestors organized by groups such as Sierra Club and 350.org’s aim was to urge President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project and set limits on carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants.  Last year, the EPA proposed limits only on new plants.

For quite some time, Congress has remained gridlocked on the issue of climate change.  President Obama has promised to tackle the problem on more than one occasion, but perhaps we the people should consider the effect we can have on bringing about meaningful change.  Top down efforts are certainly necessary, but we should all be supporting more bottom up efforts as well.  After all, that’s how broad changes have been achieved before. 

Take for instance the Civil Rights movement.  The White House and Congress were encouraged to overcome their extensive political reservations and bring about true change on the issues of racial equality and voting rights only after a strong grass-roots movement led at the local level by activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed public opinion and made it politically unacceptable to do nothing.

There are other examples of successful grass-roots movements, but the core message is that we have to begin leveraging our bottom up power.  This weekend’s rally was a great start.  Let’s build on the momentum and begin organized, local activism, especially in the districts and states of those members of Congress that are hesitant to act on global warming. 

We cannot expect President Obama to do all of the work on combating climate change.  Everyone can do their part at the local level and even in their own homes.  Let’s also lessen the demand for energy.  We live in such a blessed country, but using less energy and being more efficient is in everyone’s best interests.  Here are some good ways to start reducing your carbon footprint, and then you can also go carbon neutral and offset the rest.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) delivered the yearly update of the High-Risk Series report to Congress this week, which officially elevated the threat of climate change.  The report contains the greatest threats the government faces in carrying out federal programs, and the GAO is responsible for identifying items such as flaws in the defense contracting process and health care program fraud.

This year the GAO believed it had to highlight the risk from climate change despite some members of Congress’ dismissal or outright denial of global warming.  Regardless if some in Congress do not like the move, the GAO is supported by the information coming from the National Academy of Sciences and even from the federal government's own global change research program.  The GAO did, however, sidestep the issue of what is causing climate change.  Instead they focus on urging lawmakers to prepare, and most of all, budget for more disasters.

The number of disasters in 2012 was above 90, a record number.  The federal government’s exposure to the increasing number of disasters from extreme weather brought about by global warming includes owning hundreds of thousands of buildings, the operation of defense installations, financial disaster assistance to local governments, and managing crop and flood insurance programs.

Even if the lawmakers cannot agree on climate change, the fact is that a wide variety of disasters are on the increase and Congress has not planned or budgeted for them.  The time for ignoring the issue is past.  Hopefully Congress will heed the warnings and begin addressing our country’s part of global warming in a meaningful way.  If they do not, the issue may be taken out of their hands.  President Obama said in this week’s State of the Union address that, “I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.”

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Ever wonder how large facilities in your state are doing regarding greenhouse gas emissions?  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began collecting greenhouse gas emissions data in 2010 under the congressionally mandated Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reporting Program.  In February 2013, the EPA's program released its second year (2011) of emissions data, which provides public access to emissions data by sector, by greenhouse gas, and by geographic region such as county or state.

The 2011 data includes information from facilities in 41 source categories that emit large quantities of greenhouse gasses.  New this year is data collected from 12 additional source categories, including petroleum and natural gas systems and coal mines.

Highlights of findings from the 2011 data include:

  • Power plants represent approximately one-third (33 percent) of total U.S. GHG emissions, making them the largest stationary source of GHGs in the country
    • 2011 emissions from power plants were roughly 4.6 percent below 2010 emissions, demonstrating an ongoing increase in power generation from natural gas and renewable energy sources
    • Refineries represented the third-largest source of GHG emissions, which increased by a half of a percent over 2010 data
    • Overall emissions reported from the 29 sources tracked in both years were 3 percent lower in 2011 than in 2010

Transparency is critical to a better environment and the key to conquering climate change.  If companies, communities and individuals take a look at how large facilities are doing in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and compare the latest data to national averages, perhaps we can find ways to cut these emissions and begin to curb global warming.  Being better informed is also good for the businesses as they may identify opportunities to conserve energy and thereby save money.

Check out how individual large facilities in your state, county, and even zip code perform.  Access this data through the Facility Level Information on Green House gases Tool (FLIGHT), which is a web-based data publication tool, or dig deeper through the EPA’s online database Envirofacts that allows information searches via zip code.

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Last week in President Obama’s inaugural speech he addressed the most serious threat our planet has ever faced, climate change, when he said, “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

It is exciting and hopeful to hear our nation’s leader pledge to put us on the path to conquer global warming and combine it with the economic recovery the US so badly needs.  Now we need to back up these words with some actions.  What can we do to lead a green industrial revolution?   

Well we’re already seeing some promising actions from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD).  Did you know the DOD is the largest single consumer of energy in the world?  The agency spends approximately $20 billion on 3.8 billion kilowatt hours of electricity and 120 million barrels of oil per year.  That’s a lot of energy, and sometimes fossil fuels are bought from countries hostile to U.S. interests.  So the U.S. military is turning its eyes to renewable energy.  Fortunately they are not starting from scratch; they currently have about 80 megawatts of installed renewable energy capacity.  However, the good news is that a report released this week by Pike Research forecasts this number to quadruple to 3,200 megawatts by 2025.  The research firm quantifies the increase in renewable energy use to a predicted almost $1.8 billion in 2025 of U.S. military spending on renewable energy programs, including conservation measures. 

All of this green spending can have lasting positive effects on the industry overall.  For example, as the demand for solar cells increases, it encourages the building of more solar cell manufacturing plants.  Due to economies of scale, the cost of producing solar cells can decrease, and the new lower costs are passed on to the private sector.  Additionally, the solar industry, because of large sales from the U.S. military, has more funds available to conduct research and development into better and cheaper solar cells, which can drive down the price permanently.

It is encouraging to hear and see the U.S. take steps towards leading a green industrial revolution.  Is there more that can be done?  Absolutely!  But we have to recognize these constructive efforts as they are brought to light.

Published in carbonfree blog
Wednesday, 23 January 2013 11:00

Rising Sea Levels and Sustainable Desalination

Depending on where in the world you live, it might be easy to forget that the environment is more than just the air we breathe or the land under our feet.  It’s important to keep in mind that the oceans also are being affected radically by climate change.  The oceanic problems are too numerous to list.  However, this week we are taking a closer look at one issue that people in different parts of the planet face, rising oceans as the polar ice caps melt and more saltwater.

Those of us that live in the United States might not be aware how rich we are in freshwater sources as say countries in the Middle East that are very arid environments.  Obviously those countries have other resources that we lack, but water is essential to life.  Our planet may be covered in a great deal of water, but much of it is unusable to humans in its natural state because of the high salt content. 

Did you know that salt is expelled from seawater when it freezes?  Although some brine is trapped, the overall salinity of sea ice is much lower than seawater.  So the seas are rising as previously permanently frozen parts of the planet melt.  This means that not only is there more water, but it’s becoming salty as it melts.

Desalination is any of several processes that remove some amount of salt and other minerals from saline water.  Unfortunately, it is quite an energy intensive process.  Last week, a new renewable energy desalination project was announced in Masdar, Abu Dhabi, which is in the United Arab Emirates.  The project seeks to transform seawater into useable, freshwater on land by building a commercially viable and renewable energy-powered desalination plant by 2020.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region of the Middle East is comprised of the Arabian Peninsula countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman.  The GCC formed in 1981 and uses about half the world’s desalinated water. 

Of course, accessing renewable energy is not the only impediment to sustainable desalination.  Another effect of global warming is oceanic acidification that contributes to massive algae blooms.  These algae blooms can shut down a desalination plant.  There are other unwanted components that might be present in seawater such as radioactive material from warships and nuclear power plants which would need to be removed before the water could be used safely.

Despite other lingering issues, it is still worth asking the question, “Can these enormous desalination plants powered by renewable energy help mitigate some of the issues we face from rising sea levels?”  The answer is, “Every bit helps.”  But don’t start thinking it’s a magic bullet since none exists.  We still all need to do our parts in reducing our carbon emissions and footprints.  However, it is good news that desalination can be a sustainable and environmentally responsible industrial solution and worth noting that low cost, low impact renewable energy technologies do exist.

Published in carbonfree blog

The United States is one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world.  What can our country do for the good of the planet with this role?

One thing the U.S. federal government does every few years is engage hundreds of experts to evaluate the impacts of climate change, now and in the future.  The resulting National Climate Assessment report, which was recently released, showed that America's current efforts to reduce carbon pollution are too little to avoid dangerous climate change.  Last year President Obama announced new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards for cars and light trucks such as minivans and sport utility vehicles.  Let’s build on this historic progress to limit carbon emissions.  There are several ways that the president and federal government can make a real difference in the fight against global warming.

The Clean Air Act is a powerful tool that our nation’s leaders could be leveraging more fully.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with using the Clean Air Act to issue rules to reduce greenhouse pollution.  This farsighted law has reduced damaging air pollution for forty years, saving many lives.  The EPA has already used it to protect public health and welfare from six extensive and harmful pollutants including: ozone, particulate matter, sulfur and nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and lead.  Now is the time to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by setting a national pollution cap for greenhouse gases.

Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA has also proposed higher emission standards on coal-fired power plants.  These standards need to be fortified, finalized and implemented posthaste.  Why stop with power plants?  There are other places where higher greenhouse gas emission standards can be successfully applied to help save our planet such as oil refineries, cement plants, and even the airline industry.

Another way to help the environment would be for President Obama and the State Department to decline approval on the Keystone XL pipeline, which proposes moving oil down from Canada through the western United States to refineries along the Gulf Coast.  There are no guarantees that the pipeline won’t spring leaks.  Furthermore, there is evidence that extracting oil from the sands are increasing levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes far beyond natural levels.  Denying approval would show that America is committed to transitioning away from a dependence on fossil fuels.

Of course, it’s not all up to the federal government.  We can all do our parts to speed the transition to a clean energy future.  First we can encourage our elected officials to take the climate change actions recommended above.  Second we can reduce our own carbon footprints.  Consider lowering the heat or air conditioning depending on the season, using a clothesline, rake, hand mower and other manpowered devices, composting, forgoing meat at least one day a week and riding a bicycle.  Lastly, we can all find simple ways to be part of the solution such as planting trees and offsetting remaining carbon emissions.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed this week that 2012 was officially the warmest year on record in America’s contiguous 48 states, based on 118 years of temperature records dating back to 1895.  Despite this fact, news coverage of climate change actually declined in 2012.  According to The Daily Climate, worldwide climate coverage decreased by two percent between 2011 and 2012, which represented the fewest number of published stories since 2009.

Last year the US was experience droughts in more than just rainfall.  During the presidential election there were accusations of a “climate silence” until Superstorm Sandy devastated the East Coast in the days leading up to the election.  In President Obama’s acceptance speech he said, “We want our children to live in an America that isn't burdened by debt, that isn't weakened by inequality, that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

However, President Obama’s statement has not reassured everyone that he and Congress are going to make any meaningful efforts to tackle carbon pollution and climate change.  In fact, the League of Conservation Voters and a coalition of 70 environmental organizations recently wrote an open letter to President Obama, which encouraged him to spotlight climate change during his second term.  A quote from the letter includes, "Cutting carbon pollution at home and rejecting dirty fuels will establish America’s leadership and credibility, enabling [President Obama] to create clean energy jobs in the United States while forging an effective international coalition to cut global carbon pollution."

Whether or not President Obama and Congress heed the global warming warning signs, the bright spot is that local governments are undertaking real strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change right now.  ICLEI USA, a network of local governments working to address climate and sustainability challenges, recently highlighted 20 communities across the continental US that are leading the efforts to plan for the future and respond to extreme weather.  Some particularly prominent examples by local governments include:

  • Atlanta, GA – Urban heat island effects worsened by hotter seasons. Addressing the problem with a climate action plan, including cool roof/pavement standards and 10,000 new planted shade trees.
  • Chicago, IL – Responding to extreme heat and flooding with the milestone Chicago Climate Action Plan and the most installed green roof square footage in the country.
  • Eugene, OR – Ravaged by major wildfires and mega-dry conditions.  Mitigating these issues by increasing water conservation, reducing hydroelectric power demand and planting drought-resistant trees.
  • Miami Dade Count y, FL – Known as the most vulnerable city in the world to sea level rise as demonstrated by severe flooding.  Urban planning now addresses sea level rise and disaster response, and they’re also investing millions in flood mitigation projects.
  • New York, NY – Suffered $19 billion in damage from Superstorm Sandy.  Taking positive action with a $2.4 billion green infrastructure plan, restoring barrier wetlands, and initiating a climate risk assessment requirement for new developments.

It’s wonderful to see these steps being taken towards a more sustainable future.  It would be even better if federal leadership ensues, taking their cues from local governments.  Media silence or not, climate change is here and further delayed action will only result in catastrophic results.  The time is now to secure a low carbon global economy and thereby the planet for current and future generations.

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