Thursday, January 31, 2008

Renewable tax credits in Senate stimulus bill

Congressional Round-up: A Senate version of the economic stimulus package, with the addition of green jobs and renewable tax credits, was approved 14-7 by the Finance Committee yesterday. It could go to the floor for a vote any time now, so call your Senators right way at (202)224-3121 and tell them to vote for it. The short-term extension of renewable tax credits is sorely needed because they are due to expire the end of this year. While about 30 Senators are pushing for multi-year extension of the tax credits, to assure investment continues to grow, Energy Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said this is a good start. Clean energy bonds are part of the bill, as well. The House version does not include renewable incentives. (E&E News PM, Sierra Club)

Boxer introduces bill to override EPA on California
Senate Environment Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill Wednesday to overturn the EPA’s refusal to grant California a waiver to enforce its tailpipe-emissions law. S. 2555 directs the EPA to grant the state’s request. Co-sponsors include Democratic Presidential Candidates Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, as well as Sens. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), Susan Collins (R-Me.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sheldon Whitehouse (R-R.I.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Me.) If your senators aren’t both on this list, call them right away at (202)224-3121 and urge them to sign on. So far, 17 states have either passed or are in the process of adopting it the California law, so they too are blocked by the EPA decision. (Sierra Club)

Big Coal runs ads in key primary campaign states
Elections: As state regulators and environmental groups object to new coal plants, an organization backed by the coal industry and electric utilities is responding by running a $3.5 million campaign in key primary and caucus states. Americans for Balanced Energy Choices spent $1.3 million in advertising in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina to put coal in a more favorable light. The message is that coal can be clean, it is needed to meet the country's energy needs, and more plants should be built. The ads talk about low-sulfur coal, carbon sequestration and better environmental controls and sometimes are vague about carbon emissions versus other pollutants. (Washington Post, Greenwire)

Enviro groups give guidance on how to vote Super Tuesday
Who ya gonna vote for for state rep? It could make a big difference as we depend more heavily on state legislatures to push ahead on renewable electricity standards, clean car bills and carbon emissions targets, filling the void left by the feds. Get some guidance on them and congressional candidates from your local chapter of the League of Conservation Voters or Sierra Club, both of which endorse candidates. In Illinois, where many of my readers live, a journalism grad student at Northwestern’s Medill School, Josephine Lee, has written a story about the endorsements here, including a list of those who received both groups’ approval. Also you may want to check back to my post in early January to see presidential candidates' views. (see archives at right, click on last item on January list).

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Under fire, utilities canceling coal plants

News Update: Because of regulatory uncertainty and opposition from environmental groups, electric utilities are backing away from plans to build new carbon-spewing coal-fired plants. Coal now powers about half our electricity and is the dirtiest form of power. Last year 53 plants were stopped or put off. Regulators denied permits in Washington and Kansas. TXU in Texas cancelled 8 of 11 planned plants as part of a purchase agreement. Xcel Energy in Colorado closed 2 coal plants and is substituting natural gas, wind, solar and nuclear, with a goal of cutting 10% of CO2 by 2015. And TVA is building a nuclear plant instead of coal in Tennessee. Still, some new coal plants are on track in states like Indiana, Mississippi and New Mexico. Environmental groups urge no more coal plants until there is a viable “clean coal” option. (Source: Associated Press)

Diesel-electric hybrid buses picking up in American cities
Only 2-3% of municipal buses on the road are hybrids, but 22% of bus orders were for hybrids, the 2007 survey by the American Public Transportation Assn. found. Washington, D.C., ordered 900, New York City 850, Philadelphia 480 and Minneapolis-St. Paul 300. The mostly diesel-electric hybrids are priced at least $100,000 above standard diesel buses. But fuel economy was measured 27% higher in Seattle and 34% higher in NYC, says the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Federal money is available to pay for up to 90% of hybrid buses, compared with 80% for conventional buses, according to the non-profit Advanced Energy. Some smaller cities testing the buses include Ann Arbor, Mich., Asheville, N.C., and Evansville, Ind. (Sources: USA Today, Greenwire)

Now you can google ‘renewable energy R&D division’
Google has announced it will spend tens of millions of dollars this year and hundreds of millions during the next decade on clean energy, both for its own facilities and to create a niche in renewable R&D. Aware that $2.4 billion in venture capital went into the sector in 2007, Google is ready to throw its brainpower and creativity behind renewable energy, especially solar, wind and geothermal. Its goal is reduce use of coal in the U.S. It’s better to work on breakthroughs and help lower the cost of renewables to consumers than buy offsets for questionable projects, the company said. (Source: Greenwire)

Geothermal energy in U.S. will double with Western projects

When 86 geothermal projects in the American West are completed, geothermal capacity will more than double to 6,300 megawatts, enough to light 6 million home, according to the Geothermal Energy Assn. The projects are benefiting from a combination of state renewable electricity standards and federal production tax credits. The association pressed Congress to extend the tax credits, due to expire the end of this year. (E&E News PM)

Ultimate outsourcing – modules for hotels made in China
British budget hotel chain Travelodge is putting up what is says is the first recyclable hotel. The 120-room structure will be made from pre-built steel container-like crates shipped from China that are stacked and bolted together. In the future, the hotel chain would like the Chinese to decorate and furnish the rooms as well. This hotel can be disassembled and moved and could be a model for sporting events and festivals, Travelodge said. It takes 12 weeks to assemble and could be removed after the event is over. (Source: PlanetArk)

(Coal plant photo courtesy of Flickr and Bruno D. Rodriguez)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Extreme weather events were up in 2007

Xtreme Weather Watch: There was an increase in extreme weather events last year worldwide, mainly winds and floods, reflecting the threat posed by global warming, says the UN-backed Centre of Research on Disaster Epidemiology. Eight of the 10 worst disasters were in Asia, including Cyclone Sidr. Asia and West Africa are already having more severe and frequent floods, following predictions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Weather disasters cost $62.5 billion in damages in 2007, up from $34 billion the year before. About 200 million people were affected, half of them in China. (PlanetArk)

Southern California was slammed by 7 days of snow and rain last week, stranding thousands of motorists in a mountain pass and causing power outages, avalanches and at least 1 tornado. Nearly a foot of snow fell in the Los Padres National Forest, northwest of LA, in the first of 2 back-to-back storms. In the second storm, this weekend, 2-4 inches of rain fell, raising the risk of mudslides in areas denuded by last year’s wildfires. Last Thursday more rain fell in one day than in the entire year in many places, but officials said they did not think it would do much to relieve a severe water shortage. (, LA Times, AP, North County Times, PlanetArk)

Severe winter storms, the worst in decades, swept across southern China late last week, killing at least 50, leaving cities without electricity, and halting travel for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. A half-million migrant workers, hoping to get home for Chinese New Year, camped outside the train station in Guangzhou for days, before most gave up. Hunan province had its heaviest snow in half a century. and more was expected. The extreme winter weather has so far caused $3 billion in losses, officials said.(AP)

Devastating floods in Mozambique displaced tens of thousands of people, engulfed farms and destroyed bridges and roads. The heavy rains started earlier than predicted and, with water levels already high, floods could turn out to be more severe than in 2000-01, which was the worst in memory for the African country. Helicopters and boats rescued about 60,000, mostly from roofs and trees, as another 7,000 awaited rescue last week. (PlanetArk)

For more on climate change and weather, check out the Forecast Earth blog at the Weather Channel,

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Electric cars are just around the corner

Weekly angst: Cars are here to stay. We’ll never get everyone on the train or bus. And as the world population grows, and poor countries get richer, there’ll be many more cars on the road. So the only way to seriously cut greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions is to change the way cars are built and powered.

A real break with the past requires electric cars, eventually powered by zero-carbon hydrogen. That’s several years in the future – maybe a decade. But electric cars, the plug-in variety with batteries you plug in at night, will start hitting the road very soon (a few are already there.) And when they do, you can bet competition will heat up. It’s already simmering.

Two leaders are Israel and, yes, China.

Israel said last week it will support a large-scale project to put electric cars on the road as early as next year. An Israeli-American entrepreneur, Shai Agassi, is working with Renault/Nissan to test such a car (and supporting infrastructure) in the tiny country, where gasoline costs more than $6 a gallon. He sees small European countries like Denmark, where gas taxes are high, as ideal places to market the cars. Small is good, because these cars can run some distance on electricity alone, before they need recharging or a gasoline engine to kick in.

The Israeli cars will be able to go 124 miles on a charge. Usually the batteries will be recharged at home at night, when electricity is cheapest. But service stations will be able to recharge or change out the batteries. The cars – from Renault and Nissan – will be subsidized, with a monthly fee for service. Operating costs are expected to be half that of a gasoline-powered car.

The prediction is that several thousand will be on the road next year, with 100,000 by the end of 2010. (In Israel, about 10% of the cars are replaced each year.)

The company sees this concept as a money-maker and is eyeing the Chinese market as well. Chinese auto company Chery apparently is interested.

China has plans of its own
Shanghai, which may well become the Detroit of the 21st century, has a program to experiment with a variety of clean technologies, according to “Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future,” a new book by Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran.

Gang Wan, head of the program, had worked at Audi and decided it didn’t make sense to try to catch up with foreigners’ head start on the combustion engine. Instead he is looking at electric, hybrid gasoline/diesel-electric, compressed natural gas and hydrogen fuel cells to power automobiles.

Hoping to have 1,000 clean cars and buses on the streets of Beijing for the Olympics, the project’s longer-range goal is for mass production of hydrogen fuel-cell cars by 2020. General Motors has signed on to help with both the fuel cells and the filling stations that will be needed.

China has many advantages in producing fuel cell technology, according to “Zoom.”
• It doesn't have the extensive investment in internal-combustion engines or the infrastructure of gas stations the West does, so there will be little resistance.
• Its giant dams produce enough excess hydropower to fuel 37 million cars by 2010 and 56 million by 2020.
• The potential market in China alone is huge.
• The government can mandate the changes.

Maybe you’ll drive one of these
Most auto companies have a plug-in in the works. A few will be ready in the next year or two. Here are a some examples:
• Chevrolet’s Volt is scheduled for a 2010 launch. GM will road-test it this year. The plug-in Volt goes 40 miles on a battery charge, with a gasoline engine as back-up.
• Toyoto says it too will build a plug-in hybrid by 2010, for use by governments and corporations. The general public will have to wait a bit longer. And Toyota is testing a fuel-cell car, which has traveled 350 miles on a tank in Japan. A newer version can go 466 miles, the company said.
• Fisker Automotive’s plug-in Karma is an $80,000 luxury car, which goes 50 miles before a small gasoline engine generates electricity to recharge it. Fisker says Karma is ready to be mass produced.
• Italy’s Pininfarina, aims for a 2009 launch of its small 4-seater electric car. It goes 155 miles before recharging and the company says it could produce up to 15,000 a year if the demand is there.
• Tata Motors in India is partnering with Chrysler to make an electric version of its mini-truck, Ace, for sale in the U.S. Tata is working with other foreign partners on hybrids and fuel cells. (Tata is the car-maker that just released a $2,500 car in India, putting car ownership within reach for millions.)
• Subaru’s G4e (Good4Earth) is a plug-in electric commuting car and can go 124 miles on an overnight charge. Quick-chargers, located at supermarkets and other public places, will give an 80% charge in 15 minutes. If the car is plugged in at night, the energy per mile could be 1/10th that of gasoline fueled cars.
• AFS Trinity has the Extreme Hybrid, a retrofitted Saturn Vue, which can go 40 miles on electricity and then on gas.
• General Motors is test-driving its Equinox fuel-cell cars in 3 cities. The car probably won’t reach mass production for 10 years, GM says.

Cutting GHG emissions

Switching to plug-ins could do a lot to help the environment. The Electric Power Research Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council say mass use of plug-in hybrids could cut greenhouse gases by more than 450 metric tons a year by 2050, the same as removing 82.5 million cars from the road.

But Honda CEO Takeo Fukui predicts the future for the auto industry is in fuel cells, which produce no carbon. He sees the plug-in hybrid as a battery-powered car with an unnecessary fuel engine and tank.

Fuel cells, which use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electric power, are 2-3 times more efficient than the internal combustion engine, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers. They have no moving parts and the only byproducts are heat and water. Of course, with new technologies, new companies can horn in on the majors' act.

And infrastructure is no small matter in the United States. About 12,000 of the country’s 170,000 filling stations will have to be converted to serve up hydrogen, GM says. No doubt there will be a lot of resistance.

For more on green autos, check out greenauto blog.

(Sources: “Zoom,” New York Times, E&E Daily, Greenwire, PlanetArk, AOL Auto, Chicago Sun-Times,
(Picture courtesy of Flickr and

P.S. Debates silent on global warming

You may have noticed there have been virtually no questions about global warming in the presidential debates. The League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club helped end the drought with petitions from 200,000 of us. Tim Russert asked the first climate change question in the last debate. In fact he asked two. Now it’s time to call CNN and tell Wolf Blitzer to ask about global warming in this Thursday’s debate. Call (404)827-1700.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Rep. Dingell: Cap-and-trade unlikely this year

Congressional round-up: House Energy Chair John Dingell (D-Mich.) told E&E Daily this week that passing a global warming bill this election year is “on the verge of impossible.” With all House seats up, the election will be a “terrible distraction,” said the octogenarian, who will take the lead in drafting a House cap-and-trade bill. He indicated he is likely to include pre-emption of stronger state legislation. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) chair of the Energy and Air Quality subcommittee, said cap-and-trade will produce new jobs, spur new technology and produce a flood of exports. Ranking minority subcommittee member Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), however, sees a loss of jobs and costs to the economy. (Source: E&E News PM)

Stimulus package not likely place for renewable credits
With the expiration of tax incentives looming for solar, wind and other renewable energy, trade groups and environmental organizations see an opportunity for inclusion in an economy stimulus package. But Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus said this week that is unlikely. He agrees the incentives need to be extended, or investment and renewable energy projects will slow down, but sees it in a separate package of bills. Senate Energy Chair Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said the credits need to be extended soon, but that the stimulus package is not the best vehicle. (Source: E&E News PM)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Antarctic ice no longer safe

News update: Ice sheets in Antarctic, once thought to be unaffected by global warming, are melting at an increasingly rapid rate, says a study in Nature Geoscience. It was known ice was melting on a peninsula jutting toward South America, but not elsewhere on the huge ice cap that contains 90% of the world’s ice. A warming circumpolar current is thought to be causing the problem, as it eats away at the ice 200 yards below the ocean’s surface. The annual Antarctic ice loss, at 132 billion metric tons a year, is getting close to that in Greenland in scope, the researchers said The melting suggests sea levels could rise much higher than expected. East Antarctic has so far been unaffected and surface temperatures on the continent remain stable. (Source: Washington Post)

Western governors eye efficiency to avoid 100 new plants
The Western Governors Assn., made up of 19 states and 3 Pacific islands, is encouraging energy conservation in homes and commercial buildings to save 48,000 megawatts of power, 1.8 trillion gallons of water and $53 billion over 15 years. In a new report, they call for stronger building codes, separating utility sales from profit, and increasing incentives for energy efficiency. If the states adopt the recommendations, the need for new power could be cut 75% in 15 years, the equivalent of 100 power plants. (Source: Greenwire)

Germany leads world in renewable energy growth
Renewable sources provided 14% of power consumed in Germany in 2007, up from a little under 12% in 2006. Wind was responsible for much of the increase, the German Renewable Energy Federation said last week. But plans to reduce government support may slow growth in the future, as happened with biofuels last year. (Source: PlanetArk)

UK to build five towns that have zero carbon emissions
Britain plans five carbon-neutral “eco-towns” of 5,000-20,000 homes, that will be powered by wind or solar and designed to minimize car and water use. By 2016, all of Britain’s new homes will have to be carbon neutral. (Sierra magazine)

Mini-cities in Florida, New York have common green destiny
Developers are building two sustainable cities outside Disney World in Florida and Syracuse, N.Y. Both named “Destiny,” the cities aim for LEED certification from the U.S. Green Buildings Council. In N.Y., plans include a renewable energy plant, horizontal elevators to take people around the car-less city and a monorail to the Syracuse airport and downtown. In Florida, on the cite of the old Yeehaw Junction (maybe you’ve seen the turnpike signs), plans include an eco-industrial park for clean-energy businesses, canals and lakes for drainage, solar panels and a reservoir to catch rainwater. Jobs close to home will be a key. (Source: Greenwire)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dems put climate change high on agenda

Congressional round-up: Action on Global Warming is among the Democrats’ top three House goals for this election year, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said this week. It was listed along with the economy and national security/terrorism as main issues for Congress to address. (E&E Daily)

Dem leaders will try again for renewable energy incentives and a renewable electricity standard (RES) like the one that stalled in the Senate in December. The incentives are high priority because most expire at the end of the year and without them, the wind, solar and other clean-energy industries would falter. Last time wind incentives were allowed to lapse, it caused a downturn in business. It is unclear what vehicle might carry the incentives – possibly an economic stimulus package. (E&E Daily)

Auto industry champion Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) wants to exempt auto companies from the proposed cap-at-trade bill now in Congress, he told reporters at the Detroit Auto Show. The auto industry is doing its part to cut greenhouse gases under the Energy Bill passed in December, he said. CAFE standards in that bill will require cutting CO2 tailpipe emissions 40%, he said. Dingell, as chair of the House Energy Committee, will have a lot to say about the legislation. He also agreed with the EPA’s denial of a waiver to let California and 12 other states curb tailpipe emissions more than the federal law requires. (E&E Daily)

Seas levels may rise more than 5 feet

News update: Worldwide sea levels could rise twice as much this century as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted, increasing more than 5 feet rather than 32 inches. Researchers studying what happened the last time the Earth was hot – about 100,000 years ago – said Greenland was the same temperature IPCC predicts for the next 50-100 years. In the interglacial period, seas eventually rose 20 feet above current levels. The findings were published in the journal Nature Geoscience. (Source: Reuters PlanetArk)

Economic problems could push climate change to back burner
Turbulent financial markets and geopolitical tension in 2008 could mean less attention to global warming, the World Economic Forum warned last week. If the global economy weakens substantially, climate solutions may be delayed, making it harder to solve problems in the future, said WEF in advance of its meeting in Davos this month. WEF named systemic financial risk, supply chain disruption, energy and food security as the 4 key issues this year. Extreme weather linked to climate change topped the list for environmental risks. (Source: PlanetArk))

China, Australia say no plastic bags in supermarkets, stores
China last week banned the use of plastic bags in supermarkets and shops, effective June 1. Shoppers will be urged to use cloth bags and baskets. Chinese people use about 3 billion such bags per day. The country uses 37 million barrels of oil per year for these bags and other packaging. Australia also called for a ban in supermarkets. NYC, which uses 1 billion bags, voted to require large stores to set up bag recycling programs. San Francisco banned plastic bags after a recycling effort didn’t work. (Source: PlanetArk)

Southern California could be hub for geothermal, solar energy
Southern California holds great promise for clean energy. Because of low-level volcanic activity near the sea, geothermal power is available 24/7, so CalEnergy Operating Corp. plans to develop enough to power a quarter-million homes. And applications have come in for 34 solar plants in the dry, expansive desert. If all were built, they could generate enough power for 8 million homes. (Source: Greenwire)

When it’s oil versus polar bears, guess who loses out?
The Interior Dept. has delayed a decision on listing polar bears as an endangered species. At the same time, it will go ahead Feb. 6 with a sale of leases to drill for oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea, home to 10% of the polar bear population. Hmmm, says environmental groups. If the designation for the bears had been announced by the legal deadline this week, oil leases would have to meet protections under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears, around 40,000-50,000 years, could be reduced two-thirds by 2050 because global warming is melting of their habitat. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) opposes designation of the bears as endangered. (Sources: Greenwire, San Francisco Chronicle)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Tornadoes in January? No way!

Xtreme weather watch: Chicago hit 65 degrees, Grand Rapids 63 and Madison 50 last week, as record-breaking temperatures across the Midwest brought a string of rare January tornadoes to Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin and Arkansas. The Sheriff of Kenosha County called it “absolutely mind-boggling.” Indiana suffered torrential rains and flooding. “We’ve never seen anything like this in January,” a state policeman said. (New York Times)

It snowed in Baghdad for the first time in 100 years Friday. The light snow, which also fell in west and central Iraq, melted almost as soon as it fell but still caused a spectacle. Winter is generally mild but last week was unusually cold, with temperatures at night 10 degree below normal. The director of the meteorological department said climate change was possibly to blame. (PlanetArk, AP, BBC, AFP)

Several African countries were engulfed by floods last week. Rains started in Zambia and Zimbabwe, where more than a million are expected to be displaced. The floods destroyed crops and drowned livestock, then moved on to Mozambique, where hundreds of families had to flee their homes. About 34,000 were evacuated from the Zambezi Valley. In Mozambique, 6 were reported dead – 4 by drowning and 2 by crocodiles. Floods are common in the rainy season, April-November, but these rains caught officials off-guard. (PlanetArk)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Ethanol's unintended consequences

Weekly angst: A glass of beer costs more in Germany because the price of barley doubled in two years. Mexicans rioted last summer because they couldn’t afford tortillas. A key ingredient in soap is getting scarce because it’s now used to supplement feed for cattle. All these are unintended consequences of the growing demand for corn ethanol.

Corn is currently the grain of choice for the boom in biofuels, though soy, palm oil and sugar are in play. Corn ethanol is subsidized, can be made cheaply and has a strong lobby in the U.S., where the crop is now bigger than at anytime since before WWII. Corn enthanol production has grown 80% in 2 years and takes 24% of the nation’s corn crop. So corn prices have gone up from $2 a bushel to an average of $3.35, spiking to $4. The price is at an 11-year high. There are 111 ethanol plants here and another 235 in construction or on the drawing board. If all are built, they would use half the U.S. corn crop, leaving less for consumption by people and livestock.

All this happened before the Energy Bill was passed in December, calling for 36 billion gallons annually by 2022, 15 billion of which could come from corn. Production is now about half that, at 7 million, but growing rapidly. The bill specifies that after 2016 a higher and higher percent must come from “advanced” ethanol, like cellulosic, which is better for the environment. But it looks like we’re in for a big increase in corn ethanol over the next 8 years and beyond.

And that presents all kinds of problems:
1. Rising food prices
2. Little change in greenhouse gases
3. More toxic fertilizer and pesticides
4. Use of scarce water resources
5. Deforestation and loss of biodiversity

Rising food prices
Corn prices have doubled since September 1906. As farmers shift to more profitable corn, soy, wheat, barley and other crops have become scarce and expensive. Inflation for food is now forecast at 7.5% a year during the next 5 years. And there is growing concern for the very poor of the world who will be unable to afford the basics. Every 1% increase in food staple prices will result in a 0.5% loss in caloric intake, the World Bank says.

Environmental damage
Corn uses fossil fuels to fertilize, grow, harvest, manufacture and transport corn ethanol, so when all is said and done the lifecycle reduction in greenhouse gases is minimal at best. Corn absorbs less nitrogen than other plants, so it runs off into rivers, including the Mississippi, where it adds to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, hurting the fishing industry. The Sierra Club successfully sued plants in Iowa and Indiana that were making neighbors ill from toxics in the air and water.

Using precious water
Corn ethanol requires 3.7-5 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of fuel. Many regions of the country are already water-starved and can ill afford to share their drinking water with thirsty biofuel plants.

Deforestation and loss of biodiversity
As ethanol crops become more profitable, more grassland and rainforest is turned into farmland, reducing biodiversity in its wake. This is happening in Indonesia, where palm oil is used for ethanol and in the Amazon where sugar cane is the dominant source. One of the unintended consequences of Europe’s biofuels mandate several years ago was that economics led them to outsource farming to developing countries. Clearing rainforests and transporting fuels back to Europe negated the GHG benefits of biofuels over gasoline.

Is cellulosic ethanol the answer?
Cellulosic ethanol is better for global warming but it now costs twice as much to make as corn ethanol. But producers say the energy bill will act as a catalyst and help bring down the price.

Switchgrass is expected to be the main cellulosic feedstock in the future. It produces 5 times the energy it uses, and the lifecycle emits 94% less CO2 than gasoline, according to Reuters.
Other advantages:
• It is not used for food or feed, so won’t pressure prices
• It can be grown on marginal land
• It helps sequester CO2 in land because its root system remains after harvest
• It requires less irrigation and fertilizer
Other potential sources of cellulosic ethanol include corn waste, wood waste, sugar cane waste and poplar trees.

Range Fuels recently broke ground in Georgia for the first plant to make commercial cellulosic ethanol from wood waste. It is one of 6 companies to get a grant from the Dept. of Energy and expects to make 20 million gallons a year initially and 100 million eventually. Range is owned by Sun Microsystems’ co-founder, Vinod Khosla.

POET, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, expects to make commercial levels of cellulosic ethanol from corncobs by 2013.

Several other cellulosic plants are in the planning stages, including one in northern Michigan that would use timber and wood byproducts, and another in Florida that would use sugar cane waste and woodchips.

(Sources: Reuter’s PlanetArk, Greenwire, Associated Press, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Union of Concerned Scientists,

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Next president's views on climate change

Weekly angst: Global Warming is not the hot topic it should be at campaign appearances and televised debates (blame the moderators for that). But many of the candidates have clearly stated their positions. Let’s look at the key issues and see where the 4 most viable candidates in each party stand.

Hillary Clinton:
80% cut by 2050 (from 1990 level), with allowances sold at auction
Barak Obama: 80% cut by 2050 (from 1990 level), with allowances sold at auction
John Edwards: 80% cut by 2050 (from 1990 level), with allowances sold at auction
Bill Richardson: 90% cut by 2050 (from 2006 level), with allowances sold at auction
John McCain: supports mandatory cap-and-trade, was lead author of a bill asking 65% by 2050, no comment on auction vs. free credits.
Mike Huckabee: supports mandatory cap-and-trade (no specifics), no comment on auction vs. free
Rudy Giuliani: opposes mandatory cap-and-trade
Mitt Romney: would consider only if global

25% by 2025
Obama: 25% by 2025
Edwards: 25% by 2025
Richardson: 30% by 2020, 50% by 2040
McCain: opposed 10% RES in 2005, opposed cloture on 2007 bill
Huckabee: 15% by 2020, but include nuclear power and clean coal
Giuliani: opposes
Romney: no position

40 mpg 2020, 55 mpg 2030
Obama: 56 mpg 2026
Edwards: 40 mpg 2016
Richardson: 50 mpg 2020
McCain: supports, but no specifics
Huckabee: 35 mpg 2020
Giuliani: opposes standards
Romney: opposes as stand-alone

phased-in requirement that new plants capture carbon
Obama: would consider moratorium if mandatory cap doesn’t slow construction
Edwards: moratorium for plants that don’t capture and store carbon
Richardson: New plants can't emit more carbon than advanced natural gas plants
McCain: supports use of conventional coal
Huckabee: supports conventional coal
Giuliani: supports conventional coal
Romney: supports conventional coal

supports if can cut carbon pollution 20% below gasoline
Obama: supports if carbon pollution 20% below gasoline
Edwards: opposes investment
Richardson: opposes investment
McCain: no position
Huckabee: supports
Giuliani: supports
Romney: supports

focus on renewables, but don’t rule out
Obama: focus on renewables, might pursue if waste and safety problems resolved
Edwards: no more nuclear plants
Richardson: should be part of the mix
McCain: should be part of mix
Huckabee: safety concerns mostly unfounded
Giuliani: convinced, based on consulting, that plants can be secure
Romney: develop more aggressively, re-process spent fuel like French

Reduce 20% from projected levels by 2020
Obama: Reduce intensity 50% by 2030
Edwards: Reduce electricity consumption 15% by 2018
Richardson: 20% increase in productivity by 2020
McCain: supports – no target
Huckabee: supports – no target
Giuliani: opposes mandatory standards
Romney: supports – no target

Global Warming and specific solutions need to be a greater part of the campaign. It’s up to us to ask questions of the candidates to let them know how important this is to us as voters – and to ask for a change of position when we think a candidate’s stance is too soft. For more on the candidates’ views, go to
(Sources: League of Conservation Voters, candidates’ Web sites, New York Times, Los Angeles Times)

Taking stock of where we are

2007 year of acknowledging Global Warming: top stories

* The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
releases 4 reports that clearly establish there IS Global Warming and it’s already doing damage.
* Arctic summer ice is less than half what it was in 2006, Greenland loses 19 billion tons more than its previous record and West Antarctica shows large-scale melt, leading top NASA scientist James Hansen to predict we may have passed a “tipping point.”
* Extreme weather hits many parts of the world, including the U.S. where record droughts cause water shortages in the West and Southeast. Wildfires ravage California, and floods swamp Texas, as well as Britain and much of Asia. Australia has the drought of the century and parts of Europe suffer a searing heat wave. In August, 100 all-time heat records are broken around the world. 2007 is the warmest year ever in the Northern Hemisphere.
* China becomes the 800-pound gorilla, likely passing up the U.S. at top emitter of greenhouse gases and building 1-2 new coal plants a week. Demand for oil helps raise prices to near $100 a barrel.
* New Australian prime minister signs the Kyoto Protocol, leaving the U.S. the only industrialized country not to commit to reducing GHG by 2012.
* The U.S. Supreme Court rules that GHG are pollutants under the Clean Air Act and can be regulated by the EPA. But the EPA denies California a waiver to regulate tailpipe emissions, effectively blocking 16 other states.
* The Bush Administration prevents the international conference in Bali from setting specific goals for worldwide carbon cuts.
* Congress passes corporate average fuel ecomony (CAFE) standards of 35 mpg by 2020 and a 5-fold increase in biofuels by 2022, but fails to get enough Senate votes for renewable electricity standards (RES) and tax credit shifts from oil to renewables.
* Cities and states take matters into their own hands, as New York City announces a bold climate plan to reduce GHG 30% by 2030, including a proposal for fees on cars driving into traffic-strangled Manhattan. Chicago awaits unveiling of its massive Climate Action Plan, which will focus heavily on retrofitting buildings to conserve energy. Various states set their own goals, join regional cap-and-trade agreements, and pass RES laws. The Northeast and West lead.
* A worldwide explosion in demand for corn ethanol and other biofuels leads to more deforestation and rising food prices.
* The Energy Independence Act of 2007, a bi-partisan bill by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.) passes out of committee, a milestone because it advocates specific GHG cuts and a cap-and-trade system.
* The Nobel Peace Prize rewards IPCC and Al Gore for their work on Global Warming.

2008 watch: What the U.S. needs to do now to make a difference

*Elect a president
who not only cares about Global Warming but will take strong action and lead – both the country and the world.
*Elect a Congress that will act on Global Warming on behalf of the people and planet – not on behalf of Big Oil, Big Coal and other fossil fuel interests. We need 60 votes in the Senate.
*Extend incentives for alternative energy sources, like wind and solar, so they will grow far beyond the puny 2 or 3% of our power they are now. Commit to research on innovative sources of clean energy. Pass an RES bill to force electric power companies to begin using renewable resources.
*Test carbon capture and get it into commercial production as soon as possible. So far, it’s the best way to have “clean coal” and coal is likely to be with us awhile. Stop building new coal plants until they can be clean.
*Work with the rest of the world to quickly set targets for cutting greenhouse gases after 2012, transfer clean-energy technology to developing countries to stop the fossil-fueled boom, stop deforestation, and be much less wasteful.
*Force the EPA to protect, not prostitute, the environment.

News in brief

States sue EPA for denying their right to cut tailpipe emissions

16 states sued the EPA Jan. 2 for refusing California a waiver to restrict CO2 emissions from cars and trucks. The action affected other states as well, because under the Clean Air Act they can adopt either federal or California pollution standards, and many had passed and were waiting to enforce the California tailpipe rules. The EPA’s rationale was that the new federal Energy Bill, mandating 35 mpg fuel economy by 2020, trumps any state tailpipe laws. The California restrictions are stricter than those in the Energy Bill. EPA staff reportedly said California would likely win a lawsuit to reverse the EPA administrator’s decision, but that an auto industry suit would have lost if EPA had granted the waiver. California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown called the decision “shocking in its incoherence and utter failure to provide legal justification.” Joining California in the suit were Ariz., Conn., Del., Ill., Mass., Maine, Md., N.J., N.M., N.Y., Ore., Pa., R.I., Vt. and Wash. The timing of the decision (Dec. 19), right after President Bush signed the Energy Bill, raised suspicion a deal was cut with the auto companies to give them the lesser of two evils. (PlanetArk, Los Angeles Times)

Huge Global Warming teach-in will focus nation on climate
After nearly two years of preparation, Focus the Nation will sponsor a nationwide teach-in at more than 1,000 colleges, high schools and other institutions Jan. 31, to get young people more involved in solving the climate change problem. More than 10,000 volunteers will participate in what the group calls “the biggest teach-in in history.” They’re still looking for teachers, principals and students to take part. Lesson plans are available at To get involved or learn more, go to (Source: Focus the Nation)

Low-emission locomotives introduced last month in Texas
Union Pacific put 98 low-emission locomotives into service in December with a $75 million grant from the state of Texas. Multiple diesel engines are turned on and off depending on the load, with an estimated 30% saving in fuel, according to the railroad. Also, nitrogen oxide (a GHG) and particulate matter would be reduced as much as 63%. (Source: Greenwire)

Xtreme weather watch

2008 will be slightly cooler than last year
but still in the top 10 warmest years since 1850, British researchers forecast last week. The cooling off is due in large part to a very strong La Niña, England’s Met Office and experts from the University of East Anglia said. A warming trend remains and once La Niña subsides, temperatures should sharply increase, they said. (PlanetArk)

A ferocious Arctic storm pounded California over the weekend, with another storm expected Tuesday. Heavy rain and hurricane-force winds caused power to go out for 1.3 million people in Northern California, as well as some in Oregon and Washington. Thousands in Southern California were told to evacuate canyons where mudslides could be a problem after last year’s fires. The Sierra Nevada mountains were expected to get up to 10 feet of show. Winds gusted up to 70 mph on the Golden Gate bridge and a levee broke in Nevada flooding hundreds of homes. (Associated Press, SFGate, LA Times)

China is suffering its worst drought in a decade, leaving millions short of drinking water and destroying crops. Authorities had to release water from the huge 3 Gorges Dam to help cargo ships stranded in the Yangtze. Worst hit is the usually humid south. China is often plagued by floods and droughts, but meteorologists blame global climate change for increasingly extreme weather. (PlanetArk)

Erratic rain has damaged Brazil's coffee crop. Premature rains, followed by an unusual dry period and then a delayed rainy season has cut the 2008-09 coffee crop 15%, the Costa Rican Coffee Institute said. If the drought had lasted a week longer, the damage would have been even greater, they said. (PlanetArk)

Kudos to Rick Telander, sports columnist in the Chicago Sun-Times, who used his whole column Friday to write about Global Warming. He reached a new audience that isn’t usually paying attention. The sports tie-in was that it affects activities like fishing, hunting and skiing. But clearly he’s alarmed by what’s happening and wanted to help spread the word.