Among other good news on the climate change front this week, renewable energy is projected to exceed gas by 2016. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), by 2016 global electricity generation from wind, solar, hydro and other forms of renewable power will eclipse that from natural gas – and should be double that provided by nuclear plants.
The IEA points to a surge in renewables led by emerging economies such as China, which accounts for 40 percent of the projected global growth in renewables between 2012 and 2018. Although this is positive, we’re not out of the woods yet if we want to avoid the 2 degree Celsius increase threshold that scientists predict could lead to permanent changes to ecosystems. China still relies heavily on coal, and not just for electricity generation. The country also depends on the fossil fuel for steel production and making fertilizers, which generate large amounts of greenhouse gases. Even aggressive expansion of renewables and nuclear power leaves China using coal for up to half of its total energy needs by 2050.
In the U.S., a boom in shale gas production is stunting efforts to expand renewables. European growth of renewables has also slowed. But the new economic powerhouses of China, India and Brazil are leading the charge, which sweetens the overall global renewable picture.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the future is rosier than it seems. On the surface, these projections paint a picture where natural gas fills in for a decade or two while we build a low-carbon future based around renewables. That is certainly a likely scenario, but it requires the support of long-term policies in many countries to encourage sufficient investment in renewable power plants.
The problem is that policy uncertainty leads to building gas-fired plants that have a lifetime of three to four decades. This makes it difficult to phase out fossil fuels on the timescale needed to avoid dangerous global warming, which requires major cuts from 2030 onwards. In fact, the IEA itself warned in its 2011 edition of World Energy Outlook that fossil-fuel plants due to be built over the next five years are already likely to lock the planet into 2°C of warming.
So how can we fix this problem? Energy analysts say we need long-term assurances to investors that renewable plants being built now will deliver a better economic return than those fired by coal or natural gas. It’s a weakness of U.S. President Barack Obama's climate plan, announced earlier this week, which lacks the long-term targets that could be set if Congress would pass new legislation.
The stakes are high. We need significant changes in existing proposals for policy. Otherwise the chances are slim that we’ll avoid surpassing the 2 degree Celsius increase threshold climatologists warn will alter the lives of billions of people.
For decades, fossil fuel companies have enjoyed the benefit of master limited partnerships (MLPs). A MLP is a business structure that acts like a corporation with its corporate stock trading on the open market, but is taxed as a partnership rather than at the corporate tax rate. This allows investors to buy and sell their shares in the public markets, and project developers to access cheaper capital through the markets. It’s an attractive tax benefit to be a MLP; an advantage that is inaccessible currently to renewable energy investment.
Since the 1980s, Congress has enabled investors to bundle energy projects like oil and gas pipelines and other fossil fuel developments from companies that extract, process or transport “depletable” natural resources and exempted them from corporate income taxes. The word “depletable” specifically excludes renewable energy.
U.S. Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, introduced a bill last year that would give wind, solar and other renewable projects the same tax benefit. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act was re-introduced this week by a bipartisan group of senators.
In order to effectively combat climate change, renewables need to be priced at, or better yet, lower than fossil fuels. It’s easier to sell shares to individuals and institutional investors such as pension funds when renewable projects are set up as MLPs. Widening the pool of potential investors adds new competition, which could lower the cost of financing projects, and in the end reduce the cost of renewable power.
Is leveling the playing field for wind, solar and other renewable projects the magic bullet to renewable energy investment? No, but it is a step in the right direction. The Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act is actually part of a broader toolkit, one that the federal government has used successfully in the past to develop domestic energy resources. Tax benefits such as the Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit remain essential tools within the renewable energy industry.
Other tax reforms the industry and its supporters say will help level the playing field with fossil fuels include allowing renewable companies to organize as real estate investment trusts (REITs) and letting renewable tax credits be claimed by more types of investors. In December of 2012, a bipartisan group of 29 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to the President calling for changes to both MLPs and REITs.
Even with bipartisan support in a deeply divided Congress, the bill faces some serious obstacles. A 2011 Congressional Research Service report estimated that extending MLPs to renewable energy companies would cost the U.S. Treasury about $2.8 billion between 2010 and 2014. At the moment, the broad political momentum in Congress involves eliminating loopholes and exemptions in order to raise revenue and lower tax rates. The report suggests that if leveling the playing field is the endgame, the alternative is closing the tax loophole for oil and gas companies.
Personally, I want to stop global warming and move into a sustainable energy future. Let your Congressional Representatives know you want them to support the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act.
Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, temporarily stalling renewable energy production. When that happens, what fuel source fills in the energy gap? Traditionally the answer was coal, but due to increased supply and low prices, the answer of late has been natural gas. Coal is certainly the dirtier of the two fossil fuels, but natural gas is not a perfect choice either. The increased supply in natural gas was achieved through the process of hydraulic fracturing (called fracking), which can be harmful to the environment.
Last spring natural gas prices fell to all-time lows of $2 to $3 per thousand cubic feet in the United States. This spring natural gas prices are on the rise. In fact, they’ve doubled to just over $4 per thousand cubic feet, but the bottom line is natural gas is still pretty cheap. Experts say prices in the $4 or $5 range won’t affect the increasing use of the fuel by consumers and the energy industry since the price was $8 just a few years ago. In Europe and Asia prices are even higher; think $10 to $14.
According to a Citibank research report, “Gas and renewables could in fact be the making of each other in the short term.” Expect renewables to cost about the same as conventional fuels in many parts of the world “in the very near term.” Mark Brownstein, an associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, noted that the price of renewable energy has declined substantially in recent years, and that’s expected to continue, making them even more competitive. As demand for renewables builds, it will in turn “drive demand for more gas-fired” power plants to be used as backup.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) missed an April 13 deadline to issue much-anticipated new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants. Proposed a year ago, the rules were first to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from new plants. Once a limit is set for new facilities, the EPA is legally obligated to address existing plants, which pose the true climate threat at the moment. The US’ power plant fleet is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe said last week that the agency expects to propose new rules on greenhouse gases from existing plants in fiscal 2014.
The draft rule for new power plants sets a limit of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity. That cutoff point would be easy for natural-gas-fired plants to meet, but not conventional coal plants. Already, power companies build natural gas plants almost exclusively because of the low price of gas.
There is speculation that the EPA’s indefinite delay on the new rules limiting carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants is due to second thoughts at the EPA and the White House over the single standard. The EPA is said to be contemplating setting two standards, one for coal plants and the other for natural gas, which might make the new rule more legally defensible in an attempt to avert the inevitable legal wrangling that goes on whenever the EPA sets a new rule including limitations.
Environmental groups argue that separate standards make little sense. “Setting a separate standard for coal- and natural-gas-fired plants would greatly weaken the standard’s ability to ensure a transition away from building high-carbon electricity-generation sources,” said economist Rachel Cleetus of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Natural gas may be the interim answer as we build our renewable energy infrastructure and then the backup once we move to a sustainable energy future. For the sake of slowing down climate change, the EPA needs to set the rules on new electricity generation plants posthaste. Then they should tackle existing power plants without delay. Global warming won’t wait.
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.
Local Ford Dealership to launch first ever green initiative to offset carbon footprints
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., January 31, 2013 - Simi Valley Ford will be launching its first-ever green initiative called the Drive to Save the Environment Campaign.The dealership has partnered with the Carbonfund.org Foundation to help offset the carbon footprint for the next 2 years of every new Ford vehicle that is sold during this campaign.The two and a half month long event will kick off on February 1st and go through Earth Day, April 22nd.
For every vehicle sold during this campaign-- from compact cars like the Ford Fiesta to the larger, F-150 trucks, Simi Valley Ford will purchase 2 years of carbon offsets by making a donation to support Carbonfund.org’s carbon emissions reduction projects. Whether it’s planting trees, pulling plastic out of the ocean, recycling or investing in renewable energies, the dealership has made a commitment to help reduce the carbon footprint in CA for all of the vehicles sold over the next 80 days.
“We at Simi Valley Ford are concerned about the future of our planet, so by partnering with a green organization like Carbonfund.org, we are hoping to help raise awareness to this growing issue. We are also excited to allow our customers the opportunity to drive ‘emissions free,’ simply just by buying a car,” says Mike Shell, Fleet Manager, Simi Valley Ford.
After Hurricane Sandy, a recent survey shows that 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is caused by our daily carbon footprint emissions. Most people are unsure of how they can do their part to help reduce emissions, so Simi Valley Ford wants to help raise awareness on climate change, while promoting Ford’s green initiatives at the same time. The dealership is working with several green organizations to help promote this campaign and raise awareness in the community.
“Simi Valley Ford is taking a real leadership position by neutralizing the first two years of carbon emissions from every new Ford vehicle sold during their Drive to Save the Environment Campaign. It’s this type of forward thinking and pro-activity in the fight against climate change that we encourage among our business partners and supporters,” explains Eric M. Carlson, President of Carbonfund.org. “We’re very honored to participate as a partner with Simi Valley Ford for this inaugural campaign.”
Simi Valley Ford has set a goal to sell 300 new vehicles between February 1st and April 22nd.They invite any and all local and national companies to join them in helping to reach their goal. This is the first time the dealership has launched this campaign and hopes that it will grow exponentially year to year, not just in CA, but also to Ford dealerships nationwide.
About Ford Motor Company
Ford Motor Company, a global automotive industry leader based in Dearborn, Mich., manufactures or distributes automobiles across six continents. With about 172,000 employees and 65 plants worldwide, the company’s automotive brands include Ford and Lincoln. The company provides financial services through Ford Motor Credit Company. For more information regarding Ford and its products worldwide, please visit http://corporate.ford.com.
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.
According to a recently released report by the World Wildlife Fund, 58 of the United States’ Fortune 100 companies set goals in 2012 to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or use more renewable energy in their operations. However, oil and gas companies are lagging far behind in this movement. Eight of 11 domestic energy companies on the Fortune 100 have not set internal energy goals.
This is in direct contrast to 68 of the planet’s 100 largest companies who recognize the impact of global warming and are making investments in greenhouse gas reductions and renewable energy goals. Sadly, energy companies represent the lowest participation rate of any industry worldwide. The few exceptions are Hess and Chevron who have both set renewable energy and greenhouse gas targets, and ExxonMobil who set a greenhouse gas target.
Why have three quarters of the nation's industrial companies voluntarily set some sort of environmental target? There are a variety of potential reasons including: policy pressures, public relations or perhaps even the forward thinking that sees renewable energy’s potential to someday be less expensive than, or at least competitive with, oil and gas.
And why haven’t most oil and gas companies voluntarily set environmental targets? It may be because the very products they put on the market directly contribute to climate change. There is also a lack of urgency to act; little pressure comes from investors or policies. An example of a type of policy that was successful in the past is the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, which worked by making large companies publically accountable for which potentially toxic chemicals they use and where they are released. Then the information is posted on the EPA’s website for anyone to see.
The planet would really benefit from a similar policy focusing on oil and gas company emissions, or better yet, a broader climate change policy such as a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade program. There are other options that could pave the way towards a cleaner energy future. The federal government could require that a certain percentage of electricity come from renewable sources and offer further tax incentives for wind and solar production. Many companies are setting their own internal goals, but for others such as the majority of the oil and gas industry, they’re not going to do anything about increasing efficiency and reducing their carbon footprints until someone makes them.
Wind turbine blades currently have some challenges that impact their cost effectiveness. First, most wind blades are made of fiberglass, and the molds to manufacture these blades cost millions of dollars to acquire. Transporting the massive manufactured blades also poses a challenge as they cannot be assembled on site. Furthermore, fiberglass places limitations on the size of the rotor diameters, which means the turbines are smaller and heavier so they are less able to capture wind at lower wind speeds in places such as the US Midwest.
The US Department of Energy's advanced research projects agency (ARPA-E) project aims to address these limitations by researching and developing architectural fabrics in lieu of conventional fiberglass. These tough, flexible fabrics would be tension-wrapped around a metal frame and specially designed to meet wind blade operations’ demands as well as allow for easy maintenance. The project will span three years and be comprised of a team from US electrics company GE, Virginia Tech University and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
If successful, these advancements in blade technology will enable larger, lighter turbines that allow tapping previously unsuitable moderate wind speed markets. The new approach also has the potential to overcome earlier manufacturing and transportation limitations since the wind turbine components can be built and put together on site. According to GE, this new blade design could reduce blade costs 25%-40%, making wind energy as economical as fossil fuels without government subsidies.
Expanding wind capabilities and lowering its costs as an energy source represents forging a course towards a clean energy future.
The anemic U.S. economy could get a boost from a surprising source. A study released last week calculated that 70,000 new jobs could be created by the Atlantic Wind Connection over a 10-year span as the offshore wind industry grows. The project includes installing an immense transmission backbone along the East coast connected to a chain of offshore wind farms, and is supported in part financially by Google Energy. The aforementioned jobs would be created by manufacturing, building, operating and maintaining wind turbines, and an additional 40,000 jobs would be needed to serve the supply chain.
The 110,000 jobs directly created by the industry and supply chain do not take into account 50,000 jobs that could be generated from the additional economic activity effect. That is when workers in the area use local businesses to meet their daily needs such as grocery stores and housing.
The project entails construction of a 380-mile power line from Virginia to New Jersey that enables up to 7,000 megawatts of electricity to be produced from offshore wind farms. That’s enough electricity to power over 2 million homes in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Backers of the Atlantic Wind Connection commissioned the study by information and analytics company IHS Inc. which concluded that large-scale wind development along the Atlantic seaboard would also have a combined economic impact for the states of $19 billion and increase local, state and federal government revenues by $4.6 billion.
Wind energy generates more than just renewable energy; it creates actual jobs too and during a time when the nation’s flagging economy badly needs them.
The desire for renewable energy world-wide is on the rise according to a pair of recently released studies commissioned by wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas. Eighty-five percent of global respondents want more renewable energy in the market, says the Global Consumer Wind Energy Study. And 49% of those surveyed would be willing to pay more for renewable energy. The survey also illuminated that 45% believe climate change is one of the big three challenges facing the globe.
The survey polled 24,000 respondents in 20 countries and also found that 62% would buy products from companies who use wind energy. Almost three quarters of consumers indicated they would feel more positive if companies used wind as its primary source of energy.
The second study examines what companies do voluntarily for renewable energy production. Bloomberg New Energy Finance writes the Corporate Renewable Energy Index, which found that global investments in renewable energy capacity are overtaking those of fossil fuels; $237 billion compared to $223 billion. Furthermore, companies are increasingly committing to renewable energy. They purchased 40% of renewable energy last year.
The trend of businesses planning for climate change is not news to readers of our blog. However, it is encouraging to see companies actually making investments in renewable energy. It only makes sense as it lowers their risk. So these studies point to both consumers and corporations demanding more renewable energy. Isn’t it time governments join the trend too? The scale goes from smaller to larger effects when consumers, businesses, and governments work together to lower global carbon emissions. We are looking forward to a clean energy future powered by renewable energy sources.