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[1THING] Blog: Archive for April, 2013

[ E.P.A. declares Regional Administrator for Region eight Office in Denver ]

(Denver, Colo. – April 30, 2013) E.P.A. acting administrator Bob Perciasepe today announced President Barack Obama’s selection of Shaun McGrath as regional administrator for EPA’s regional office in Denver. E.P.A. Region eight includes Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming and 27 Tribal Nations.

“Shaun McGrath has a proven track record and broad experience leveraging environmental results in both the private and public sector,” said Perciasepe. “His leadershi…


[ Be Green for Mother’s Day… ]

Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 12th. This year show your mom how much you appreciate her with a planet-friendly gift that will please mom and Mama Earth. Here are a few ideas:
Make Mom Queen for the Day
• Maybe your mom needs a nice bubble bath. How about some Bath Fizzers from White Rabbit Beauty or bubble bath from Every Day Shea, a bottle of eco-friendly wine, and some reading material?
• Treat your mom to artisanal, organic, and fair-trade chocolates that’ll keep her taste buds and conscience happy.
• Take mom to a Certified Green Restaurant. Find one near you at dinegreen.com.
• Pamper Mom with a basket of organic hair or skin care products-no parabens, synthetic colors, fragrance, or preservatives.
• Treat Mom to an earth-friendly spa day. The Green Spa Network can help you choose a spa that offers and promotes earth-friendly products, services, and business practices.
Gift Mom the Gift of Green
• Surprise Mom with a simple greenhouse or terrarium to house her favorite herbs, vegetables, succulents, or flowers.
• Choose Organic, fair-trade bouquets or a potted plant.
Give Mom a Green Gift
• Buy Mom a membership to her favorite environmental organization, state park, local audubon society, local museum, zoo, or aquarium that supports environmental initiatives and education.
• Give her a bucket filled with non-toxic cleaning products. Include a small homemade card offering to help her with the household chores. An alternative is The Little Cleaning Box! It comes with a variety of cleaning product samples and every 90 days, a new box comes!
Give Her a Jolt of Java:
• Buy a membership to a coffee CSA through CoffeeCSA.org. You can even pay to plant a tree on a small coffee farm as an extra gift!
• Soothe her with a selection of organic, fair trade teas, from Green, Earl Grey and Irish Breakfast to specialty loose teas such as Darjeeling First Blush from Equal Exchange.
Give Green Greetings:
• Give mom a recycled or electronic greeting card, or make a card out of old magazines and wall calendars.
• Give a card made of plantable seed paper; bury it and when the paper biodegrades, the seeds grow into wildflowers.
Give Her the Farm:
• Membership in a farm co-op will bring farm fresh produce to eco-friendly mom’s dinner table every week throughout the summer growing season. A farm co-op membership for Mother’s Day allows mom to choose pesticide-free, locally grown, organic produce each week throughout the summer growing season.
Green Inventory the House
• Do a green inventory of the house for Mother’s Day and make changes to improve its green rating. String up a clothesline, purchase and install new light bulbs, find a suitable container from the household stockpile and decorate it to serve as Mom’s new scrap collector for her composting bin, install power strips, or buy her a stack of reusable cloth shopping and produce bags.


[ If It’s Good for Schools, Will It Be Good for Energy? ]

Power lines

Improving the nation’s power grid is a huge task. Is “Race to the Top” the right model? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. But is duplicating “Race to the Top” the way to get a new energy grid up and running?

If you don’t keep track of education policy, Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s signature schools initiative, with $4 billion in federal grant money awarded to states in a competition for the best education reform plans. In effect, the plan offers a carrot rather than a stick to states that implement broadly-backed reforms such as “common core standards,” new data systems for measuring progress, and overhauls in how teachers and principals are judged.

Since the Obama administration views Race to the Top as a successful approach, it’s no surprise that the president proposed budget includes $200 million for a similar program to improve the nation’s power grid. Overall, the nation’s electricity grid is aging, and without significant improvements it won’t be able to keep up with current demand, much less make full use of renewable and other new technologies.

So the goal is worthy – but so far the plan is short on specifics. Here, in fact, is everything the president’s budget says on the subject:

Challenges States to Cut Energy Waste and Support Energy Efficiency and Modernize the Grid. Modeled after a successful Administration approach in education reform designed to promote forward-leaning policies at the State level, the Budget includes $200 million in one-time funding for Race to the Top performance based awards to support State governments that implement effective policies to cut energy waste and modernize the grid. Key opportunities for States include: modernizing utility regulations to encourage cost-effective investments in efficiency, including combined heat and power and demand response resources, and in clean distributed generation; enhancing customer access to data; investments that improve the reliability, security and resilience of the grid; and enhancing the sharing of information regarding grid conditions.

Even putting the bureaucratic prose aside, this is obviously going to need to be fleshed out quite a lot before anyone can judge how effective it will be. But here are a few questions based on the education world’s Race to the Top that are worth considering:

Do the states have enough skin in this game? There’s no question that education is a state government responsibility. State and local governments put up the lion’s share of the money for public schools, set the standards, hire the teachers, and face the voters when things go wrong.

The electricity grid, by contrast, isn’t something state governments run directly. It’s something states regulate, with most of the money and the management handled by private utility companies. And it’s more questionable whether voters hold states accountable for the grid. Race to the Top could directly affect decisions made in schools. With the power grid, state policy is one step removed from those actually doing the work.  The impact may play out differently.

Is there enough of a consensus on what needs to be done? While Race to the Top could be controversial, generally speaking it promoted ideas that many  governors and educators already accepted. States had to implement certain policies even to participate – for example, states couldn’t have any laws preventing them from using test scores to evaluate teachers. Even so, some states, like Texas and Virginia, passed on the federal competition in order to implement their own school plans. And of course, the debate over the state role in health care reform, where many states resisted participating in different elements of “Obamacare,” shows what can happen if states don’t buy into a federal program.

There are certainly models to follow here – the Energy Department’s Strategic Plan for Grid Modernization presents a compelling example. But have governors bought into these plans on what can and should be done about the grid?

Is this enough money to make a difference? In education, Race to the Top dangled a tasty enough carrot in front of state governments to make it worth their while to change policies and develop plans to participate. New York state alone got $700 million in federal money. But $200 million in energy grants spread out over multiple states isn’t going to go very far. The task before us is massive. Some 30 percent of the grid is 40 to 50 years old, in a network that connects more than 15,000 power plants, 220,000 miles of high voltage lines, and another 5 million miles of distribution. Private utilities spend about $5 billion a year on upgrades, and it isn’t enough. New Jersey’s PSE&G alone has proposed spending $3.9 billion over 10 years to strengthen its system after Hurricane Sandy. Overall, the Electric Power Research Institute estimated we need up to $476 billion to modernize the grid nationwide.

Maybe the $200 million could be effective if focused on crucial sticking points in state government policies. But we still need to leverage those changes to encourage the necessary private investment in the grid.

The idea of a “race to the top” for the energy grid is certainly appealing. There’s no question we need new and compelling methods to get states and utilities to the starting line. But it still isn’t clear whether the federal government is envisioning a dash or a marathon – or whether states will want to run the race at all.



[ Reshaping Flight for Fuel Efficiency: Five Technologies on the Runway ]

The Boeing Dreamliner 787, poised to retake the skies soon, was one approach to more efficient flight. But aviation is looking to geared turbofan engines and radically new shapes and materials for deeper cuts in fuel consumption.


[ Greenhouse Gas Emissions: EPA Cries Foul on Keystone, Gov. Forecasts Fall Short ]

Two news items surrounding greenhouse gas emissions moved over the past week. One on the trajectory of said emissions from government number-crunching. The other on what the proposed Keystone pipeline might mean for emissions.

We start with Keystone. On Monday the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in [pdf] on the Keystone XL pipeline project. Its conclusion? ”Insufficient information.”

A Hole in Proponents’ Arguments for the Proposed Pipeline

Remember the draft supplemental environmental impact statement* on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would allow crude from Canadian tar sands to flow to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries? Prepared for the State Department, which must OK the project because it crosses an international border, the draft statement concluded with music to the ears of the pipeline’s proponents: “The proposed project … would [pose] no significant impacts to most resources along the proposed Project route.” (See my post for more on the draft statement.)

After it was released on March 1, interested parties and agencies had 45 days to submit comments on the draft and the pipeline, which has become one of the most contentious environmental issues in Obama’s presidency. That public comment period ended at midnight on Monday, and among the reported tens of thousands of comments (some say over a million) that poured in during the comment period was a seven-page reaction from the Environmental Protection Agency submitted just under the wire.

The agency’s assessment in short: “Based on our review, we have rated the [draft supplemental environmental impact statement] DSEIS as E0-2 (‘Environmental Objections – Insufficient Information’).”

Need help on the government-speak? E0-2 or Environmental Objection #2 refers, as indicated, to an objection on environmental grounds because of “insufficient information” or because, as not indicated, the EPA has “identified new reasonably available alternatives that are within the spectrum of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS, which could reduce the environmental impacts of the action.” Did you get all that? If not, basically EPA is saying that it doesn’t buy the State Department’s assessment because it failed to consider all the options.

One Sticking Point: Estimated Emissions from Tar Sands Oil

A major EPA objection to the impact statement concerned the State Department’s assessment that the pipeline itself, as a conduit for transporting bitumen from Canadian tar sands, would have little impact on greenhouse gases. The stated reasoning for such a conclusion: Even if the pipeline were not built, the tar sands oil production would be largely unaffected as other means of transport (e.g., rail, other pipelines) would be used to bring the heavy crude to market.

EPA was not convinced:

“We note that the discussion in the DSEIS regarding energy markets, while informative, is not based on an updated energy-economic modeling effort. The DSEIS includes a discussion of rail logistics and the potential growth of rail as a transport option, however we recommend that the Final EIS provide a more careful review of the market analysis and rail transport options. … recognizing the potential for much higher per barrel rail shipment costs than presented in the DSEIS. This analysis should consider how the level and pace of oil sands crude production might be affected by higher transportation costs and the potential for congestion impacts to slow rail transport of crude.”

EPA also noted that the State Department’s evaluation of pipeline alternatives is not “sufficient to enable a meaningful comparison to the proposed route and other alternatives.” In addition, the agency reported that it would like to see a more rigorous analysis of the existing pipeline corridor, as it avoids not only the Sands Hills aquifer (which was one of the sticking points of the first proposed route) but the Ogallala aquifer as well. (See related interactive map of the route: “Keystone XL: Mapping the Flow of Tar Sands Oil.”)

What’s Comes Next?

So what happens now is more hurry up and wait. The release of the draft environmental impact statement and the conclusion of the public comment period following that release means that the preparation of a final impact statement can now officially begin. That “Final Supplemental EIS,” said State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell, would include “additional analysis and incorporate public comments received on the Draft SEIS.” As for all those many public comments, State has promised to publish each and every one. ($ub req’ed) There’s no word yet on when.

And remember all this is for just the environmental assessment. In all, eight federal agencies [pdf] will need to weigh in on the project before State renders its decision.

Whither U.S. CO2 Emissions?

While we’re on the subject of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. it is relevant to note that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has begun releasing its Annual Energy Outlook for 2013. One item published last week was the forecast for U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions through 2040. This projection along with EIA’s past projections between 2004 and 2012 is illustrated below.

CO2 Forecasts Plus Copenhagen Commitment

AEO: Annual Energy Outlook, from EIA’s archived forecasts issued in a given year and its latest, AEO 2013 (Additional info here.) U.S. commitment in the Copenhagen Accord [pdf]

There is certainly good news here. Since 2004, the EIA’s estimate for future U.S. emissions has consistently fallen for each projection. As discussed previously (see here, here and here), this decrease can be attributed to a number of factors including the global recession, fuel-switching away from coal and petroleum and toward natural gas, decreasing energy intensity, milder winters, and so on.

But lest we get carried away congratulating ourselves, the news from the EIA’s 2013 projection is not all roses. While U.S. emissions have been falling since the economic downturn of 2008, EIA projects they will begin a modest upturn in 2017 that will continue through 2040.

And even given the sizable (some might say remarkable) decrease in our projected emissions over the next few decades, as compared to earlier projections, the current forecast falls quite short of the emissions reductions President Obama committed to as part of the Copenhagen Accord [pdf], as illustrated in the above graphic. (See also here.)

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons EPA is concerned about the potential emissions from tar sands. Of course the State Department’s answer could be that if EIA just keeps ratcheting down its emissions projections, maybe we’ll meet our emissions commitment without even trying. So why worry about a little bit of extra greenhouse gas emissions (on the order of about 19 million metric tons annually, according to EPA estimates) from tar sands? Why indeed.


End Note

* Because of a previously proposed route for the pipeline, which had its own environmental impact statement (which was ultimately rejected), the statement issued in March is a “supplemental” environmental impact statement [pdf]. A final supplemental statement will be issued after more analysis and review.


[ For Military, a Solar Energy Solution Lightens the Load and Could Save Lives ]


The great military book is from early China, The Art of War. There is no art of soldiering. You heavy up, go for a walk, look for trouble for a few hours. Or days.

 Pete Newell is a U.S. Army colonel. Soldiering doesn’t change, he says. Technology does.

 “The average weight on a soldier’s back,” says Newell, “is some-where around 104 pounds. 27 of it [is] batteries.”

Colonel Newell is the director of the Rapid Equipping Force – REF – a think tank, hardware store, tech lab for combat soldiers. A perfect solution to a soldier problem – a Humvee redesigned against IEDs, for instance, might take years.

 REF tries to find pretty good answers that already exist, or are about to exist. “What we’ll describe is, ‘Find the first, best, fastest solution we can,’” explains Newell.

 Here’s an example, something REF helped develop to answer a soldier problem – again, with IEDs. And if you wonder what all those batteries are for – well, Newell says, “It’s called the Thor III.”

 Thor. It sounds heavy. 

 “The piece of equipment itself weighs 25 pounds,” explains Newell. “Over a three-day patrol, a platoon of 28 soldiers will have three of these systems because of the bands that they operate at.”

 Thor is a signal jammer. Everybody adapts technology, including the people trying to kill us. A favorite tactic: a hidden bomb with a cellphone trigger. Wait for the soldiers to get close, call the number…boom. If you’re going out on patrol for three days, you want a Thor III, batteries included. If Thor is working, the bomb triggers will not.

 Newell says it takes 238 pounds of batteries to run Thor III for 3 days. “So, [that’s] 238 pounds distributed across 28 bodies, on top of the weight for the system and the weight of all the other stuff they’re carrying.”

 Colonel Newell is a former brigade commander, awarded a silver star and a unit commendation for leadership at Fallujah, the biggest fight in Iraq.

 He knows soldiering, but when he took over REF three years ago, he didn’t think about energy. “I would tell you that I really did not see that as a major task for the Rapid Equipping Force,” he says.

 But combat outposts – remote, battlefield camps for 20 to 150 soldiers – use a lot of fuel. The convoys to supply them are magnets for bombs and snipers. They’re the Army’s single greatest vulnerability in Afghanistan. It’s also true for a single soldier – heavied up, and walking patrol.

 The Thor III is a REF solution. Too heavy, too power-hungry…but it works right now with existing technology, until they design something better.

 Still, in January, at REF headquarters at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, the colonel was more excited by something else. He pulled out a solar panel. “These are solar recharging blankets and you’ve probably seen them before. So this is a 10-watt blanket and it’s about two feet by three feet, the size of a poster.”

 It folds neatly, it weighs 12-ounces, and it comes in camo. Its 10-watts of power is enough to fully charge two smart phones in an hour.

 Nine months ago, Newell says, this was the best thing he could find on the market for being developed.

 Then he put aside the poster-size charger and showed me what looked like a camo napkin.

 “This is a 10-Watt solar blanket,” he explains. “This weighs 3.8 ounces. So, within nine months, we went from what we thought was really, really, really good to a 28% efficient solar cell, and reduced the size down to a third of what it was before.”

 REF just bought two kilowatts of these cells for $2 million – $100 per watt. That is way too expensive for normal use, but it’s a tenth what the cells would have cost a year ago.

 And in another two years, Alta Devices – the Silicon Valley company that makes them – hopes to have the cost down to $10 a watt.

 Meanwhile, soldiers are going to be using these, and if they come to trust the mats, maybe some of those 27 pounds of batteries can stay back at base.

 For all the technological wonders, REF’s social tech impressed me most.

 The fuel-eating combat outposts I mentioned earlier – REF is prototyping a radical redesign. They put one up at a gunnery range by Fort Bliss, Texas, and got two-dozen soldiers to live in it for two weeks.

 And then REF hired a leading Silicon Valley marketing firm, IDEO, to run a three-day exercise to try to understand what the soldiers had learned, and what they would change.

 It’s the kind of thing very big tech firms do – because it works. REF thinks of the soldier as the customer. Among changes the soldiers suggested: an emergency intercom system. REF is working on it.

 REF directors – Colonel Newell and those before him – spend a lot of time with high tech firms and venture capitalists, and at the best engineering and business schools, trying to understand how to be very, very agile.

“Stop trying to solve the problem,” the colonel advises. “Spend your time trying to understand what it is you’re supposed to be doing. The problem will eventually solve itself.”

 Colonel Newell left his post at REF last week. He’s retiring from the Army. The Department of Defense has just decided to change REF’s status from interesting experiment to permanent agency. We’ll see how that works.

 But I was in the Army long ago, and even at Fort Bliss for a while. It wasn’t this smart.

Alex Chadwick is the host of the public radio series, BURN: An Energy Journal, from SoundVision productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace, produced with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


[ Cement Manufacturer Agrees to Reduce Harmful Air Emissions at Colorado Plant ]

WASHINGTON- The E.P.A. (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that CEMEX, Inc., the owner and operator of a Portland cement manufacturing facility in Lyons, Colo., has agreed to operate advanced pollution controls on its kiln and pay a $1 million civil penalty to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA).
“Today’s settlement will reduce harmful emissions of nitrogen oxides, which can have serious impacts on respiratory health for co…


[ Europe’s Carbon Market Crisis: Why Does it Matter? ]

In a blow for global efforts to mitigate climate change, the European Union’s eight-year-old carbon market is collapsing. Is this the death knell for cap and trade, or a useful lesson?


[ Renewable Energy Not Growing as Fast as Necessary, Reports Say ]

The sun sets behind the turbines of Elk River Wind Project in Kansas. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

The sun sets behind the turbines of Elk River Wind Project in Kansas. Photo by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic.

On the road to more sustainable, clean energy, the ride has been bumpy. That’s the message to two reports this week—one from the International Energy Agency and one from the Pew Environment Group—that measured progress on transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Renewable energy has stalled, both analyses point out, for a few different reasons. A big one was the global recession, not helped by enduring low cost of fossil fuels compared to cleaner alternatives. But chiefly, it’s a result of a lack of global investment in new energy research to bring down the cost of still-expensive technologies like solar, wind, biofuels, hydropower and geothermal. That reality makes it harder to imagine a way the world can limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C (2.6 degrees F) by this century, a threshold climate scientists have set to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Who’s winning and who’s poised to own the clean energy future? Here’s a look at the top five takeaways from the reports:
1) The U.S. is losing the race. Last year, China’s investment in clean energy sources rose 16 percent to $101 billion, landing it in first place. Virtually every other leading country, from Germany to Italy to Spain—did the opposite and scaled back investment. But none more than the U.S. No matter how you slice it, from government research to production tax credits, U.S. investment has fallen, down 37 percent in 2012. Solar and wind are expected to contract this year. As a result, the United States, which has long held the top ranking has now slipped to number two.
2) Watch out for South Africa. It’s still in ninth place globally, but that’s a big boost from last place among G-20 developed countries just a year earlier. Committing $5.5 billion to large scale solar and wind projects, the government upped it’s year-to-year investment by 20,500 percent.
3) It’s not all bad news. Despite lackluster investment, deployment of solar and wind power is still growing. Last year, the use of solar around the world increased 42 percent; wind grew by 19 percent. It’s mostly a result of emerging economies like Brazil and India catching up to where the U.S. and Western Europe have been for half a decade, but the capacity is being added as those countries’ energy demand quickly rises.
4) Wind dominates solar. While both are lumped together as neck-and-neck renewable sources, wind energy eclipses solar energy by more than double. Last year, wind power globally produced 280 gigawatts (GW) of energy, compared to solar’s 104 GW. China, again, is responsible for the most, followed by the U.S. and Germany.
5) CCS is still a pipe dream. The technology known as carbon capture and sequestration, which would bury greenhouse gasses deep underground, still hasn’t gotten on its feet. It was once billed as a silver bullet to stop putting gasses into the atmosphere, leaving energy analysts to project the world would need the capacity to trap 260 million tons of gas by 2020. With only 13 CCS demonstration projects around the world—and none in commercial operation—we’re barely a quarter of the way there.

[ Inside the Wind Power Industry’s Report: 10 Geeky Facts ]

We’ve known for months that 2012 was a huge year for wind power in the United States, so the headline from the wind industry’s big annual report released last week – that wind power grew by 28 percent – was a little stale.

But poring over the 108-page document – provided to us on a review basis by the American Wind Energy Association, so no link, sorry – did reveal a healthy list of interesting and sometimes eyebrow-raising factoids for the wind geek to ponder. Check out our 10 favorites below.

1. Turbine Total: There were 45,125 turbines operating in the U.S. at the end of 2012, providing 60,007 MW of cumulative installed capacity.

2. Power on the Grid: All those turbines churned out 140 million megawatt-hours of electricity in 2012. That was 3.5 percent of U.S. electricity production, a big jump from the 2.9 percent wind provided in 2011. And remember, many of those turbines that were spinning at the end of the year didn’t have a full year of production – so even if there were no new installations, production would rise in 2013.

3. Public vs. Private: 59,161 megawatts of the installed U.S. wind capacity is on private land. Just 816 MW – 1.4 percent – is on public land.

4. Small Farms and Big Farms: A lot of wind projects are just a single turbine – 48 of the 183 built last year. Another 15 projects consisted of two turbines. Remove those from the total, and the remaining projects averaged 108 MW.

5. Generational Change: The 6,751 turbines installed in 2012 had an average capacity rating of 1.95 MW. In 1990, the average rating was 250 kW.

6. Ever Higher: Some 2,0000 turbines – around 30 percent of all turbines installed in 2012 – had hub heights over 80 meters (262 feet) and more than 1,000 turbines soared at least 100 meters (328 feet). In 2011, only 10 percent topped 80 meters.

7. GE Dominates: 3,003 of the turbines installed in 2012 were from GE, with second-place Siemens a long way back at 1,116, followed by Vestas at 812. Cumulatively, GE is responsible for 24,085 MW of the 60,007 MW installed, far and away the leader.

8. Who Owns the Wind: NextEra Energy Resources is far and away the leader in “managing ownership” of U.S. wind farms, with 9,814 MW of capacity, just shy of one-sixth of all the capacity in the country. Iberdrola is second at 5,446 MW.

9. Who Uses the Wind: Xcel owns or contracts for 4,897 MW of wind capacity, tops among the nation’s utilities. And in 2012, San Antonio’s CPS Energy became the first municipally owned utility to contract for more than a gigawatt of wind.

10. It’s a Republican Thing: The top eight and nine of the top ten U.S. congressional districts for wind are held by Republicans. Leading the way is Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer’s 19th District in Texas, taking in Lubbock and Abilene in windy West Texas, with 4,829 MW of installed capacity. That’s 8 percent of the nation’s total.

—Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.