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Tag: "energy"

What’s the Matter with Minnesota?

[ 83 ] May 11, 2017 |

Minnesota welcomes you sign at the state border

One of the most distressing things about modern politics is the Upper Midwest going hard right. The only states Clinton carried in the region were Minnesota and Illinois and she did poorly in the former, which was not too long ago one of the most liberal states in the U.S. But the home of Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone is moving right very fast with a state legislature now controlled by Republicans in both houses. We are seeing the results in policy, such as the energy bill under consideration there.

Clean energy and environmental advocates are concerned that several provisions in a Minnesota Jobs and Energy Omnibus bill would remove regulatory oversight of programs, shift power from experts to legislators and potentially kills jobs in a growing sector.

The legislature is still debating the omnibus bill as the official adjournment of the session approaches on May 22. A floor vote is expected as early as today.

“It’s been an incredibly disappointing session, with anti-environment proposals and rollbacks and anti-clean energy efforts on all fronts,” said Margaret Levin, state director of the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. “We’ve been certainly challenged to make sure citizen input is protected and basic standards for water, air and public health are left intact.”

Many provisions in the omnibus bill would “undermine strides in growing the clean economy and in combating climate change,” she added.

Attacks on science and the administrative policies that oversee air, water, health and climate — and taking decisions out of the hands of agency scientists and putting them into the “political arena” — “mirrors” what is happening at the federal level under the Trump Administration, Levin said.

In an email, Hamline University political science professor David Schultz says the legislature is attempting to “take away rule making authority” from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and making the process so cumbersome that “nothing can be done.”

The legislature’s “entire approach also runs against established judicial doctrine and opens the state up to significant litigation,” Schultz added.

The answers as to what’s wrong with Minnesota is the same as most places–resentment, racism, the decline of industrial work in some traditionally Democratic parts of the state such as the Iron Range. But if we have to fight for decency in Minnesota, not to mention fighting for the decent policies that state has long enacted, instead of fighting in other states that aren’t traditionally so friendly to liberals, we have an even longer fight than we think to get this nation back.

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From Coal to Solar

[ 59 ] April 24, 2017 |

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I’ve long been mystified at the hostility of dirty energy companies transitioning to clean energy because it would seem that the rational move would be for an energy company to figure out how to profit from new forms of what they already produce. But of course I also know that people are motivated by greed and hate and so not only is wind and solar energy a threat to coal and oil, but that’s hippie energy and screw those people. Nonetheless, it seems only a matter of time before the transition to clean energy becomes overwhelming, if for no other reason than market forces. So as horrible and criminal as mountaintop removal is, at least you see one Kentucky coal company turning these mountaintops into big solar production sites.

Berkeley Energy Group this month announced plans to put coal miners back to work by building the largest solar project in Appalachia on top of a closed mountaintop strip mine near the town of Pikeville. The Eastern Kentucky coal company is partnering with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has helped develop 9,000 megawatts of renewable energy, to bring jobs and clean energy to the region.

Mining employment in the area has plummeted from more than 14,000 jobs in 2008 to fewer than 4,000 today, owing to mine automation, competition from natural gas, and environmental controls on dirty coal emissions.

Even if Trump’s administration and Congress roll back clean air and water rules, most experts agree that coal-mining jobs are not coming back, particularly in Appalachia where production costs are relatively high.

But there is vast potential for the region to reclaim its ravaged landscapes for use in generating solar energy, if federal policy continues to offer incentives. Solar resources in Kentucky, for instance, are favorable enough to power nearly 1,000 homes for every two acres of solar panels.

Of course, we aren’t talking about thousands of jobs here. And I would like very much to see the United Mine Workers of America work to organize these energy jobs as well (one could argue IBEW should have the rights here, but really, I don’t care much about boundary setting). But this is a logical start for any corporation with land that could be making money by producing clean energy.

Clean Energy Advances, Despite Our Idiot in the Oval Office

[ 79 ] April 7, 2017 |

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Obviously the Trump administration is doing whatever it can to reinforce dirty energy and the monstrous global corporations that support it. But despite his bluster, he ain’t bringing back coal jobs in West Virginia. Everybody knows that, even people in West Virginia. Well, everyone but Trump. Anyway, the news on clean energy advances is actually pretty good.

Global investment in clean energy fell in 2016 — and that’s largely a good thing.

The world spent less money to build even higher amounts of renewable electricity compared to 2015, according to a report released Thursday. That means wind, solar, and other technologies are becoming cheaper, and in many places they’re now cost-competitive with coal and natural gas.

Companies and governments added a record 138,500 megawatts of new wind, solar, biomass, waste-to-energy, geothermal, small hydro and marine sources in 2016, the report found. That’s up 8 percent from the 127,500 megawatts added the previous year.

If it is costing less to produce more renewable energy, this is a very, very good sign for all of us. Even those who hate hippie energy. Clean energy, not counting enormous hydropower dams, now make up 11.3% of the world’s electricity, up from 10.3% a year ago.

Reroute the Pipeline

[ 23 ] November 2, 2016 |

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The obvious solution to the North Dakota pipeline protests is just to reroute the thing so that it stays far away from the reservations. This is not rocket science, even if it is largely completed outside of North Dakota. If it costs a little more to do this, then OK. Luckily, the Obama administration is looking into this option, which seems the most likely solution to me.

Coal and Poverty

[ 21 ] October 31, 2016 |

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I am as anti-coal as anyone else. It’s a terrible energy source if you care about the future of the planet. However, there’s no question that there’s a good reason why people burn coal, especially if you are poor–it is cheap and relatively abundant. The use of coal was central to the Industrial Revolution and continues to be for newly industrialized nations. That doesn’t mean it has to be that way–certainly we could be investing huge amounts into clean energy in newly industrializing companies to forestall this.

But that said, it’s really a cherry picked argument to say that coal actually doesn’t help the poor in the short term.

More coal doesn’t help people living close to the grid

The report notes that approximately 15% of people in energy poverty live close to existing electric grids, but there are a variety of barriers blocking their connection. For example, the poor consume relatively little electricity, so the costs of connecting them may exceed the resulting profits. The power lines used to connect them also result in high energy losses and power system instability. The poor also have little political influence in many developing countries. As the report concludes:

This means that for energy-poor families living close to the grid, building new power generation capacity – coalfired or otherwise – will not help them get connected. Instead, access will require financing the upfront costs of new connections, and rationalising tariffs to reflect the true costs of supplying power.

More coal also doesn’t help people in rural areas

Approximately 84% of energy-poor households live in rural areas further away from the grid. For this group, decentralized stand-alone and mini-grid solutions are much quicker than waiting to build a new centralized power plant and distribution lines. A single power plant can take a decade between planning and ultimate completion, while distributed wind turbines or solar panels can be deployed much more rapidly, as Elon Musk explained in ‘Before the Flood’:

So more coal only helps the capitalists? I mean, you might argue that coal is not the most efficient way to provide this electricity in terms of getting up the fastest. But that doesn’t mean that coal isn’t useful, especially on a smaller scale.

It then goes on to an unfortunate use of Bjorn Lomborg of all people to “show” that China’s poverty reduction in recent decades wasn’t really because of coal use. Um, OK. To be fair, China’s rise was due to a lot of factors. But very cheap energy built by a government that couldn’t care less about pollution was a big part of it.

At the end, the author notes that coal causes lots of pollution and the poor bear the burden of that. True enough but then that’s not really the argument here, right? In the short term, coal helps the poor. In the long term, it probably doesn’t. Finally, the real point:

Wind and solar are already becoming cheaper than coal

Not only are wind and solar better for the poor in terms of ease of deployment, clean air, and slowing climate change, they’ve also become cost-competitive.

South Africa, for example, is the cheapest place in Africa to generate coal-fired power, yet electricity from its new 4.7 gigawatt Medupi advanced coal plant will cost … 17% more than the electricity generated from South Africa’s 2 gigawatt of new onshore wind power. In India, the minister responsible for power development recently stated: ‘I think a new coal plant would give you costlier power than a solar plant’ (Climate Home, 2016). The statement is supported by the extremely low bid prices for recent solar procurements in India (Kenning, 2015). Renewable energy investment in the emerging world now outpaces that in developed countries (McGrath, 2016).

Renewable energy also has low operating cost and zero fuel cost, while fossil fuel costs are variable and susceptible to price spikes. And renewable energy creates more (and safer) jobs than coal.

Coal companies and their allies often argue that we need to burn their products to lift the poor out of poverty. For example, Matt Ridley has claimed:

those who advocate no support for coal are effectively saying that the adoption of renewable energy is more important than alleviating African poverty

In reality, there are better, faster, cleaner alternatives to help deliver electricity to the energy-poor. Those who argue to the contrary often do so to advance their own agendas.

That is starting to happen, but there’s no good reason to prevaricate about the role coal has played and continues to play in poverty reduction and rapid industrialization. Once again, these things would happen with far less damage to people and nature if wind and solar were built instead of coal. But the article as a whole is far from compelling in refuting the arguments for coal. The argument needs to be that “Yes, coal is an effective way to move people out of poverty but that the long-term damage makes it a terrible idea. Instead, let’s engage in the rapid buildup poor nations’ industrial capacity through renewable energy.” Fudging the facts about coal doesn’t help.

Declining Clean Energy Investments

[ 47 ] October 12, 2016 |

Cattle graze near wind turbines that are part of Babcock & Brown Infrastructure Group's Gulf Wind Project on Kenedy Ranch south of Kingsville, Texas, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 23, 2009. The $787 billion stimulus legislation signed by President Barack Obama includes at least $14 billion in tax breaks for wind and solar electricity and establishes a grant program to help finance projects. When completed, this wind farm will have 118 turbines with a total output of 283 megawatts (MW). Photographer: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg News

Climate change, only the greatest problem facing the world, has received nearly zero attention in the presidential campaign. So it’s easy to forget about it! But the fact that investment in renewables is seriously down worldwide is a very bad thing.

Investment in renewable energy and smart energy technologies totaled $42.2 billion in the third quarter, down 31 percent from the previous quarter and down 43 percent from the third quarter of 2015, a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance said.

Asset finance of utility-scale renewable energy projects fell 49 percent year-on-year to $28.8 billion in the third quarter.

“These numbers are worryingly low even compared to the subdued trend we saw in Q1 and Q2,” Michael Liebreich, chairman of the advisory board of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, said in a statement.

Chinese investment fell by 51 percent compared with the third quarter last year to $14.4 billion and Japan’s investment was 56 percent lower at $3.5 billion.

In many countries, electricity demand growth is also lower than government forecasts.

“My view is that the Q3 figures are somewhere between a ‘flash crash’ blip and a ‘new normal’,” Liebreich said.

If more transactions emerge, Q3 figures could be revised upwards, but with Q1 and Q2 data down an average 23 percent from the equivalent quarters last year, clean energy investment this year could end up well below last year’s record of $348.5 billion.

Of course, markets change and you can’t take a quarter or two and assume this is a permanent change. But we need not just growing electricity demand to come through renewables, but also the replacement of fossil fuel energy structures with new investments in wind and solar. If that’s not happening and declined investment is something like a new normal as the analyst states, that’s a very bad thing for the planet and all the species who live on it. Including us.

Embrace Wind Energy or Drown

[ 96 ] July 13, 2016 |

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A new Siemens wind energy project in west Texas and eastern New Mexico will produce 324 megawatts of energy, enough to fuel 180,000 American households. That’s a lot of energy. This is the kind of wind energy investment we need from all quarters to fight against climate change without completely decimating our quality of life. You’d think Republicans would join in this fight, in no small part because there’s a lot of money to be made in wind energy. But, as per the norm in the Republican Party, Donald Trump continues to deny the existence of human-caused climate change, calling it “bullshit.” Meanwhile, Trump’s properties in Florida will be underwater in the next few decades. You’d think the insurance rates would get Florida-property owning elites to care, if nothing else. But ideology trumps reality once again.

Coal Outside Appalachia

[ 43 ] July 11, 2016 |

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I write a lot about coal here and one thing that repeatedly strikes me is how Appalachian-centric writing about coal remains today. There are of course historical reasons for this, but given how sharply production has shifted out of West Virginia and Kentucky over the last couple decades, public attention has really lagged. Here’s a couple of stories about coal in other parts of the country.

First is this Times exposé of the complete disaster of a clean coal plant in Mississippi that has suffered from its first moments from everyone involved having incentives to slow down the work so they can maximize govenrment money and because all the financial risks were shifted to the state’s taxpayers. From the get-go, it was a complete disaster. The silver lining here might be that finally policymakers give up on the idea that clean coal can be a thing. Because it can’t.

Meanwhile, story after story about the decline of coal in West Virginia talks about the transition of the industry to the West, especially Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, but hardly any stories actually follow the industry out there to examine its impact. This High Country News story details how coal jobs have rapidly declined in the West, really hurting towns relying on it and with no safety net. The latter point is typically of a whole history of the West’s boom and bust natural resource economies, with the remains of once prosperous mining towns scattered around the region.

Double Clean Energy Funding

[ 13 ] June 3, 2016 |

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The White House wants to double clean energy funding. Of course, doing so has to pass a Republican Congress seeking to torpedo it because it’s love of oppressing gays is far greater than it’s desire to govern.

The Trump Energy “Plan” and the Election

[ 281 ] June 2, 2016 |

Sargent is right on here.

Believe it or not, Donald Trump has now made a very important policy statement. Introducing what he billed as an “energy plan,” Trump promised to “cancel the Paris Climate Plan.” Unlike so much of what comes from Trump on policy, this is a genuinely clarifying moment, with potentially enormous long-term implications.

The near-term political consequences of this will — or should — be that there is now no chance whatsoever that Bernie Sanders will do anything at all on his way out that could imperil party unity in a way that makes a Trump victory more likely. I don’t believe Sanders has any intention to do that, by the way, but this should theoretically render it an impossibility in his mind, because it dramatically increases the stakes for a relatively smooth resolution of the Democratic primaries. Indeed, I believe it’s likely Sanders will see it this way, too.

To get all the details on Trump’s full energy plan, read Brad Plumer’s piece. Trump would pursue a mostly standard-issue GOP agenda of “fewer regulations and more fossil fuel production.” More important, with some reporters wondering what Trump’s actual views are on global climate change, he clarified them: He is utterly indifferent to its existence and would roll back the main things we’re currently putting in place to deal with it.

Trump said that the current environmental challenges that the Obama administration is trying to tackle are “phony.” He added that he would “rescind” the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which would curb carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants, and is key to the U.S.’s ability to meet its commitments as part of the global climate deal. He would withdraw the U.S. from participation in that global accord.

As I’ve reported before, there are complexities that could make it harder than expected for a Republican president — even one as masterfully competent and strong as Trump — to roll back the Clean Power Plan and/or withdraw from the Paris climate deal. But it’s possible that Trump could accomplish one or both of these, which would be a tremendous setback.

The idea that Sanders voters could even conceive of voting for Trump is completely insane. That they would consider voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson is only slightly less idiotic. I know people have an unreasonable and unquenchable hatred of Hillary Clinton. Even though Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton share many of the same policy points and are not that far apart on most others, they see Clinton as literally Satan and Bernie as a heavenly savior to the nation. That’s completely nuts on both ends. But fine, hate Hillary Clinton all you want to. The other choice is Donald Trump. Once again, the other choice is Donald Trump. If you believe in Bernie Sanders then you probably believe that climate change is one of the greatest threats facing America today, if not the greatest. And Hillary Clinton has not really made climate change one of her most important issues. But you know that she is going to follow up on Obama’s commitments on this issue. So you might think, like Bernie, that that Paris climate deal doesn’t go far enough. That’s absolutely true. But it’s also the best we have right now. So the choice is going to be a) Hillary Clinton, who will at least keep us on the same path in terms of preparing to do something about climate change even if it’s not enough or b) Donald Trump, who is totally down with doing even more to cause it.

How is your vote in November not an obvious choice?

Is Big Oil Finally Getting Smart on Renewables?

[ 16 ] May 24, 2016 |

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I have long been flabbergasted that more corporate in the fossil fuel industry didn’t realize there was tons of money to be made in renewables and that grabbing hold of those resources early on would mean lots of profits in the long run. Now that the price of renewables is dropping rapidly, maybe some fossil fuel companies are finally going to get smart.

So has the fossil fuel industry finally woken up to the dangers posed to their futures by a move to a low-carbon world, or is this all “greenwash” – relatively insignificant investments designed to shake off critics?

Or does it just make good business sense for Big Oil to do this at a time when oil prices are low, renewable projects look like steady long-term investments, and green businesses can be snapped up on the cheap?

Some of the moves certainly have serious amounts of cash behind them. Total of France, for instance, announced two weeks ago that it planned to spend nearly €1bn on buying 100-year-old battery manufacturer Saft. Chairman and chief executive Patrick Pouyanné said the deal would “allow us to complement our portfolio with electricity storage solutions, a key component of the future growth of renewable energy”.

There’s other good news presented in this piece as well. But of course there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical:

Even Exxon Mobil, often dismissed by climate change activists as the most conservative oil company of them all, has recently unveiled plans to investigate CCS more fully in a new partnership with a fuel cell company.

But some of the sums being invested are quite small: the Shell New Energies, for example, has a capital expenditure budget of just under 0.5% of its total. And oil companies do have form for shouting loudly about moving into renewables only to beat a hasty retreat.

BP in particular was pilloried for promising to go “beyond petroleum” – then running down its alternative energy division. Shell used to have a very big solar business, but this was scaled down several years ago.

Environmentalists are increasing the pressure on oil companies by accusing them of trying to slow the march to low-carbon energy, if not of being the climate-change deniers some were of old.

There are even claims that Big Oil has been deliberately infiltrating renewable energy lobby groups so that it can push its agenda of keeping gas, in particular, as a “transition fuel” of the future – something the companies deny.

So we will see. Someone is eventually going to make a whole lot of money in this industry. Whether it’s the current players in fossil fuels remains to be seen.

Tofu Power!

[ 71 ] May 16, 2016 |

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Tofu, is there anything you can’t do?

In a dark and steamy room in Indonesia’s tofu heartland three men sweat over bubbling cauldrons, churning creamy beancurd with wooden paddles before draining it by hand and slicing it into silky cubes.

Tofu has been cooked this way for generations but today, innovative villagers on Java island are producing something extra from the simple soybean – cheap, renewable energy, piped directly into their homes.

Around 150 small tofu businesses in Kalisari village, many run from the family home, are benefiting from a pioneering green scheme that converts wastewater from their production floors into a clean-burning biogas.

Where families once relied on sporadic deliveries of tanked gas or wood for stoves, tofu producers like Waroh can access this cleaner fuel anytime with the flick of a switch.

“The advantages are huge, because we produce the gas with waste,” Waroh, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP as he boiled tea over a steady blue flame coming from his kitchen stove.

Experts say harnessing power from unconventional sources like tofu holds enormous potential in Indonesia, a vast energy-hungry nation heavily reliant on fossil fuels.

There’s another benefit too because large-scale tofu production is pretty gross:

The Kalisari project has also helped to reduce damage caused to the local environment from tofu production.

Thousands of litres of waste water drained from raw tofu was once pumped daily from factories around the village into nearby rivers, befouling waterways and contaminating rice fields downstream.

“The environment here was very polluted,” Kalisari local government head Aziz Masruri told AFP, gesturing to a river fringed by wooden tofu workshops. “It stank, and it was affecting our agriculture.”

Things have steadily improved since the cloudy, foul-smelling liquid was diverted from rivers to large blue tanks, where it’s transformed into biogas. Farmers have reported better rice yields, while the river is clearer and less smelly, Masruri said.

I suppose this doesn’t really deal with the long-term water depletion, but is certainly better in the short-term.

Also, tofu is just a great food. I swear, people who don’t like it think that it is just eaten plain. Do you eat plain pasta or rice? Unlikely. It’s really at its best paired with pork, but obviously it’s a great meat substitute too, though I think ideally paired with something else kind of meaty like eggplants or a hearty mushroom.

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