Posts Tagged ‘Greenhouse gases’

EPA Putting the Lid on Coal-Fired Power Plants

Monday, April 16th, 2012

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new greenhouse-gas standards for power plants, following through with the authority conferred by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling declaring carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act.  The new regulation effectively bans new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and sequester carbon dioxide.  Advanced natural-gas plants would meet the standard without mitigation, while existing power plants would be grandfathered in.  The regulation would require new power plants to emit no more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt‐hour of electricity generated.

What are the implications?  It is clear that the short-term impact will be minimal: cheap natural gas derived from plentiful shale deposits is already overtaking coal as a source of power.

An average coal-fired plant generates more than 1,700 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt. The majority of natural-gas fired plants – and the bulk of power plants currently under construction – emit less than the new standard, approximately 800 pounds per megawatt.

Environmentalists praised the proposed restrictions, while the coal industry warned that the change would lead to higher electricity prices.  “Today we’re taking a common-sense step to reduce pollution in our air, protect the planet for our children, and move us into a new era of American energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.  “We’re putting in place a standard that relies on the use of clean, American-made technology to tackle a challenge that we can’t leave to our kids and grandkids.”  Currently, there is no consistent national limit on the amount of carbon emissions that new power plants can release.  According to an EPA fact sheet, the agency was obliged by the landmark 2007 Supreme Court ruling “to determine if (the emissions) threaten public health and welfare.”  In December of 2009, the EPA formally confirmed that greenhouse gases “endanger the public health and welfare of current and future generations.”

Older coal plants have already been going offline, thanks to low natural gas prices and weaker demand for electricity. Nevertheless, some accused the Obama administration of clamping down on low-priced, domestic energy sources and said the regulation raises questions about the seriousness of the president’s pledge for an “all-of-the-above” energy policy.  “This rule is part of the Obama administration’s aggressive plan to change America’s energy portfolio and eliminate coal as a source of affordable, reliable electricity generation,” said Representative Fred Upton, (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  “EPA continues to overstep its authority and ram through a series of overreaching regulations in its attacks on America’s power sector.”

“There are areas where they could have made it a lot worse,” said Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, a coalition of power companies.  Nevertheless, “the numerical limit allows progress for natural gas and places compliance out of reach for coal-fired plants” not planning to capture carbon dioxide.  Steve Miller, CEO and President of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a group of coal-burning electricity producers, was more negative about the proposal.  “The latest rule will make it impossible to build any new coal-fueled power plants and could cause the premature closure of many more coal-fueled power plants operating today,” Miller said.

Writing for Reuters, John Kemp, Senior Market Analyst, Commodities and Energy notes that “Because natural gas is currently so much cheaper than coal, the agency projects gas-fired units will be the facilities of choice until at least 2020.  ‘Energy industry model ling forecasts uniformly predict that few, if any, new coal-fired power plants will be built in the foreseeable future,’ according to the proposed rule.  The key word is ‘foreseeable’.  No one can predict the economics of natural gas as far ahead as 2020, let alone 2030.  Recent development of abundant gas reserves through fracking may have caused prices to plunge, leading to a ‘golden age of gas’, but just seven years ago the industry was gripped by panic about gas production peaking and thought America stood on the brink of needing to import increasing quantities of expensive gas.”

Jeff Goodell of Rolling Stone writes “So this new rule is, at best, a baby step in the right direction.  As always with the climate crisis, physics is moving much faster than politics.  Just yesterday top scientists warned that global warming is close to irreversible now. In the biggest sense, we’re still doing next to nothing to confront this crisis.  Global carbon pollution is rising faster than ever, and the weather – to say nothing of future our future climate – is getting wilder.  The urgency of our situation just underscores the need for an economy-wide price on carbon, or cap-and-trade system, which would impact all major emissions sources and actually limit the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere, rather than just speeding the shift from coal to gas.  Still, this is an important moment, a small sign of progress.  Goodbye, Mr. Coal.  Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Rooftop Gardens Blooming in the Big Apple

Monday, February 20th, 2012

Green roofs are springing up in the concrete jungle of New York City – plants growing on waterproof membranes on top of buildings – in all five boroughs.  Considering the potential to reduce greenhouse gases, increase energy efficiency and capture storm-water runoff, this movement is understandable.  “Most of this work is small in scale so far, but it should get us all thinking,” said David Smiley, assistant professor of architecture and urban studies at Barnard College.  Green roofs are perceived as especially useful in New York because they absorb up to 70 percent of the rainwater that would otherwise drain away.  The city – built on islands and bounded by two rivers — has long struggled with excessive runoff after heavy rainstorms that overwhelm the drainage system that overflow with raw sewage.  Con Edison, the city’s energy supplier, pioneered urban greenery in 2008 by planting thousands of sedum on the roof of its building in Long Island City, across the East River from Manhattan.

“We’re slammed,” said Marni Majorelle, who founded Brooklyn-based Alive Structures to teach New Yorkers how to convert their rooftops into gardens.  “There’s a growing demand for green roofs from homeowners and developers. I see it as part of people’s plans – so many architects now include it.  It’s a new chapter for New York.”  According to a 2008 New York Times report on green roofs, New York City has 944 million SF of rooftop surfaces, but records of how much is used as rooftop gardens are limited.  It lags behind Germany and other American cities such as Chicago and Seattle, where – as Dwaine Lee, a green infrastructure professional, said – green roofs were have been planted for years.

New York is starting to catch up.  “It will keep growing, because the cost is coming down and the manufacturers of roofs are getting into the game,” said John Coogan, of OCV Architects, which creates roof spaces, predominantly next to non-profit-making organizations in affordable housing units.  It designed its first green roof in 2004 and has completed a dozen more spaces since.  Some believe that green roofs are just the tip of the iceberg.  Architect Vanessa Keith envisions an array of innovative ways to retrofit buildings – from roof ponds for cooling to electricity-generating water walls.  “Perhaps the current dilemma, rather than being seen as a death sentence or a depressing indictment of wasteful society, can provide an opportunity to rethink and retool our existing way of life,” she said.

Several New York urban farmers are innovating with their rooftop gardens For example, there is the nearly one-acre Brooklyn Grange, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, Gotham Greens, and the aeroponic growing system.  An affordable rental building in the Bronx plans to open with a new rooftop commercial greenhouse, and the Brooklyn Grange will open a new farm on the Brooklyn waterfront to grow food and capture storm water, thanks to a grant from the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

To encourage building owners to convert rooftops to food production, the New York City Department of City Planning (DCP) released a proposed zoning text amendment that would exclude rooftop greenhouses on top of commercial buildings from the lot’s floor area ratio (FAR) and height limits.

The city has proposed that 1,200 acres of commercial rooftops be made available for urban farmers to build greenhouses.  “City law imposes restrictions on how tall buildings are allowed to be in different areas, which is one reasons why rooftops stay empty — developers often build to the maximum height possible,” said Sarah Laskow of Grist. “The planning department’s proposal would allow buildings to add rooftop greenhouses above regular height restrictions.  And according to a study from the Urban Design Lab, that would mean 1,200 acres of empty, flat rooftops would be eligible for green penthouses.”

Urban farms – especially those on rooftops – have many green features.  They insulate buildings; they absorb various gases that doesn’t belong in the atmosphere; and they help prevent rainwater runoff and pollution.  These rooftop farms would be “required to incorporate rainwater collection and reuse systems, which will help the city mitigate the pressure that big rainstorms puts on the sewer system.”

Experts Agree (Sort of): 2011 Was One of the Warmest Years on Record

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Depending on who you listen to, 2011 was either the 11th warmest on record — that’s according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the 9th — according to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration — NASA.

According to scientists at NOAA, 2011 broke records for climate extremes, as much of the United States faced historic levels of heat, precipitation, flooding and severe weather.  This was driven in part by La Niña events at both ends of the year that impacted weather patterns in the United States and around the world.  NOAA’s annual analysis of U.S. and global conditions, conducted by scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, reports that the average temperature for the contiguous 48 states was 53.8 degrees F, 1.0 degree F above the 20th century average, making it the 23rd warmest year on record.  Rain from coast to coast averaged near normal, despite record-breaking extremes in both drought and precipitation.

Kathryn Sullivan, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator, described 2011 as an “extraordinary year.”  “It was extraordinary regarding major weather and climate disasters in particular in our country, from tornadoes to droughts to floods and extreme storms,” she said.  “America endured an unusually large number of extreme events causing damages totaling more than $55 billion dollars.”

By contrast, NASA research counters that 2011 was the 9th warmest year since records were first taken in 1880.  In fact, since that year, nine of the 10 warmest years on record have been in the decade since 2000, a rise in global temperature is evident. The only of the 10 warmest years that was not during the past decade was in 1998. Meanwhile, 2010 is still the warmest year on record overall.  The data was gathered from more than 1,000 meteorological stations across the globe.  NASA estimates that over the next few years we’ll see a year that will top 2010’s record breaking temperatures.  “It’s always dangerous to make predictions about El Niño, but it’s safe to say we’ll see one in the next three years,” James E. Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said. “It won’t take a very strong El Niño to push temperatures above 2010.”

According to NASA scientists, 2011 demonstrated a continuing strong trend linked to greenhouse gases.  NASA noted that the current warmer temperatures are primarily sustained by increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is created by a variety of human activities, such as coal-fired power plants to fossil-fueled vehicles to human breath.  At present, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceed 390 parts per million (ppm), compared with 285 ppm in 1880 and 315 by 1960, according to NASA.

Writing in The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen says that “In 1880, when the study’s temperature record-keeping begins, the concentration of carbon dioxide was 285 parts per million. Today it is more than 390 parts per million and rapidly rising. Many top climate scientists, including NASA’s James Hansen, have argued that a level not exceeding 350 parts per million is necessary ‘if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.’”

Rising Greenhouse Gases in the Air to Bring Stormy Weather

Monday, November 28th, 2011

The three gases that contribute the most to global warming rose to their highest levels ever, according to the United Nations (UN). Carbon dioxide, the most significant heat-trapping gas, rose 0.59 percent to 389 parts per million molecules of air, the UN’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said.  Methane rose 0.28 percent to 1,808 parts per billion; and nitrous oxide gained 0.25 percent to 323.2 parts per billion.  Rising greenhouse gas emissions threaten to “close the door” on limiting global temperature rises to two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) during this century, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“Even if we managed to halt our greenhouse-gas emissions today, and this is far from the case, they would continue to linger in the atmosphere for decades to come and so continue to affect the delicate balance of our living planet and our climate,” WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud said.

Even worse, greenhouse gases rose faster in 2010 than the average over the past 10 years, according to the annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin.

Unfortunately, the report is bad news for the earth. Climate change will make droughts and floods like those that have battered the United States and other countries in 2011 more frequent, according to a new report, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The report, that follows a two-year process, suggests that researchers are far more confident about the prospect of more hot weather and heavy rains than they are about how global warming is impacting hurricanes and tornadoes.  The new analysis highlights a broader trend: The world is facing a new reality of more extreme weather, as policymakers and business are beginning to adjust.

Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the report’s reviewers, said it highlights why climate change is more than just a gradual rise in the global temperature reading.  “The fact is, a small change in average temperature can have a big impact on extremes,” Meehl said.  “It’s pretty straightforward. As average temperatures go up, it’s fairly obvious that heat extremes go up and (the number of) low extremes go down.”

“The time is now for this report,” said University of Illinois climate scientist Don Wuebbles, citing recent studies linking climate change to extreme weather.  “Scientific studies such as a report in the journal Nature have linked the deadly 2003 heat wave in Europe to climate change.”

CO2 levels are currently 389 parts per million, an increase from approximately 280 parts per million 250 years ago. According to WMO Deputy Secretary-General Jeremiah Lengoasa, CO2 emissions are to blame for about 80 percent of the rise.  But he noted the delay between what is emitted into the atmosphere and its impact on climate.  “With this picture in mind, even if emissions were stopped overnight globally, the atmospheric concentrations would continue for decades because of the long lifetime of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Representatives from a majority of the world’s nations are gathering to try to agree on how to avoid the worst of the climate disruptions that experts say will result if concentrations hit 450 parts per million.  At the present rate, that could happen within several decades, although some climate activists and at-risk nations say the world has already passed the danger point of 350 parts per million and must be undone.  According to the WMO, the 2.3 parts per million increase of CO2 in the atmosphere between 2009 and 2010 shows a speeding up when compared with the average 1.5 parts per million increase during the 1990s.  Since 1750, the WMO says, atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have jumped 39 percent; nitrous oxide has gone up 20 percent; and methane concentrations soared 158 percent.  Fossil fuel-burning, loss of forests that absorb CO2 and fertilizer use are the primary culprits.

Earlier this year, BP released data showing that global carbon dioxide emissions grew at their fastest rate since 1969 in 2010, as nations recovered from economic recession.  According to the WMO, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere rose by 1.4 percent last year from 2009 and 29 percent since 1990.  The WMO measured the global amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, gathered from monitors in more than 50 nations, including natural emissions and absorption processes – known as sources and sinks – as well as human activity.

The WMO noted that methane is increasing following a brief period of “relative stabilization” between 1999 and 2006.  “Scientists are conducting research into the reasons for this, including the potential role of the thawing of the methane-rich Northern permafrost and increased emissions from tropical wetlands.”

President Obama Proposes Significant Increase in CAFE Standards

Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

President Barack Obama and the nation’s predominant automakers have agreed to increase new vehicles’ fuel mileage.  The major way to accomplish this is to reduce the size of vehicles.  By 2025, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) must be 55.4 mpg for cars.  That’s up from the 2009 Obama mandate of 35.5 mpg by 2016.  The CAFE standard for 2011 is 30.2 mpg, with light trucks having slightly less burdensome standards.

The Obama administration says the new standards will save drivers $8,200 in fuel over the life of a car.  Between now and 2015, Americans will save $1.7 trillion on fuel costs, eliminate six billion metric tons of carbon dioxide pollution and use 12 billion fewer barrels of oil.  Environmentalists applauded the new standards.  According to President Obama, “This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.”  Joining the president at the announcement were executives of Detroit’s Big Three automakers: GM, Chrysler and Ford.  GM and Chrysler were bailed out of insolvency by the Obama administration with taxpayer money.  The government still owns 27 percent of GM; the United Auto Workers, an ally of the Obama administration and which supports the revised CAFE standards, owns 46.5 percent of Chrysler.

The tiered standards are expected to yield approximately $50 billion in net benefits over the life of model year 2014 to 2018 vehicles.  Additionally, it will result in significant long-terms savings for vehicle owners and operators.  President Obama, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) worked closely with truck and engine manufacturers, fleet owners, the State of California, and environmental groups – among them, Navistar, Volvo, Chrysler, and Con-way – to garner support for the new standards.  “While we were working to improve the efficiency of cars and light-duty trucks, something interesting happened,” said President Obama.  “We started getting letters asking that we do the same for medium and heavy-duty trucks.  They were from the people who build, buy, and drive these trucks.  And today, I’m proud to have the support of these companies as we announce the first-ever national policy to increase fuel efficiency and decrease greenhouse gas pollution from medium-and heavy-duty trucks.”

Waste Management CEO David Steiner said the rules will help his company meet a  goal of reducing emissions 15 percent by 2020.  The company will save 350 million gallons of fuel over the life of their vehicles.  FedEx CEO Fred Smith said that commercial vehicles account for 20 percent of all transportation emissions.  “Today’s progress is a win for the transportation industry, for the environment and for all Americans as we seek to decrease U.S. dependency on oil,” Smith said.

According to the White House,  the revised heavy-truck rules will cost owners as much as $8 billion in additional technology, but “will save American businesses that operate and own commercial vehicles approximately $50 billion in fuel costs over the life of the program.”  The majority of fleet operators, according to the EPA, are likely to recover their up-front costs within a year or two.  Under the new program, heavy-duty vehicles are divided into three major categories: combination tractors (semi-trucks), heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, and what is referred to as “vocational” or special-purpose vehicles such as transit buses and garbage trucks.  More specific targets within each of these categories are based on each vehicle’s design and purpose.

American Trucking Association (ATA) president & CEO Bill Graves said the new regulations are “welcome news to us in the trucking industry.  Our members have been pushing for the setting of fuel efficiency standards for some time and today marks the culmination of those efforts.”  He said that in 2007, the ATA endorsed a six-point sustainability program that included a proposal to set “technologically feasible” efficiency standards.

The new rules do not mean that President Obama has given up on his backing of electric vehicles.  Writing on the Climate Spectator website, Jessie Giles says that “While there has been some suggestion that Barack Obama’s new measure to double fuel economy targets for cars in the U.S. might be bad news for electric cars, at Better Place our assessment is that this will in fact be important for increasing the adoption of zero-emission vehicles.  The agreement to increase the CAFE standards is good news, not just in terms of taking steps to stretch our limited oil resources further and helping to reduce our carbon emissions.  Critically, it will also help to increase the adoption of zero-emissions vehicles such as electric cars.  Now, the twist: manufacturers must meet the CAFE standards on a sales-weighted basis – that is, the average fuel economy of all the cars sold by that particular car company.  What’s the easiest way of achieving the new standards on a sales-weighted basis?  It’s by increasing the proportion of electric cars in the manufacturer’s sales mix. It’s far easier to increase this proportion of electric cars than it is to make improvements in the current fuel consumption of every single car in the rest of the portfolio, where years of product development have produced incremental, but relatively minor improvements.”

Save the Planet; Prevent Commercial Mortgage Meltdown

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

The “CRE Solution” could create green jobs while averting commercial building foreclosures.  A total of $1.4 trillion worth of commercial real estate loans are coming due between now and 2014, with the majority on small- and medium-sized buildings that are either under water or very nearly there.  Writing for the Huffington Post, Daphne Wysham says that “crisis breeds opportunity. It turns out that buildings are responsible for about half of America’s emissions of greenhouse gases.”  Wysham, a fellow and board member of the Institute for Policy Studies, is founder and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, as well as founder and co-host of Earthbeat Radio, which airs on 54 stations in the United States and Canada.

According to Wysham, “Here’s the crazy truth:  With a national effort to boost energy efficiency, we could actually meet the building sector’s greenhouse gas emissions target set by the Obama administration for the next few years, put 1,300,000 million workers – 600,000 of them construction workers, 20 percent of whom are unemployed – back to work and dodge the next wave of mortgage meltdowns.  We could make a painless downpayment on our emissions reductions goals, while giving some of our beleaguered businesses a tax break and saving money we’re now squandering on wasted energy.”

Architects and researchers from Architecture 2020 have devised what they call the “CRE Solution”, which would allow small business and business owners in danger of default a multi-year tax break if they retrofit to improve energy efficiency.  “The more energy efficient the building becomes, the greater the tax break,” Wysham said.  “Commercial building owners could trade or sell these tax deductions to investors, who would be invested in putting our highly skilled construction workers back on the job, retrofitting these properties.  For the $6 billion in tax breaks the federal government would provide for this purpose, Uncle Sam would receive $10 billion back in net federal tax revenue, while state and local governments netted $5.25 billion.”