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The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels rose to a new record level of 30.6 billion metric tons in 2010.  This is a full 5% higher than the previous record set in 2008.  Growth in China and India accounted for a large portion of the emissions growth last year.

Most troubling is the level of greenhouse gas emissions that are already "locked in" based on power plants that are currently operating or under construction.  These power plants alone will produce 80% of the greenhouse gas emissions that had been projected for 2020.

The IEA and many climate scientists estimate that global carbon emissions must be kept below 32 billion metric tons per year in order to avoid a rise of 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures.  A rise in temperatures above 2 degree Celsius could result in severe heat waves, droughts, floods, and rises in sea levels.  Staying below 32 billion metric tons per year by 2020 means that emissions over the next 9 years cannot rise as much as they rose between 2009 and 2010.

John Howley 
Woodbridge, New Jersey

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Germany has announced that it will shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022.  The country has already suspended operations at seven of its oldest nuclear power plants following the disaster at Fukushima in Japan.  Those seven plants will now remain offline permanently.  Six more nuclear plants will be shut down by 2021, and the remaining three plants will be shut down by 2022.

The German government says that this decision advances four priorities: Germany's standing as a top global economy, an affordable and sufficient energy supply, climate protection, and independence from energy imports.  It appears, however, that the real impetus for the decision was political.  Large portions of the German public wanted to abandon nuclear power after Chernobyl, as Italy did, and the latest nuclear disaster in Japan pushed public opinion over the brink.

The big question is:  How will the fourth largest economy in the world meet its power needs without nuclear power plants? 

Nuclear power supplies 23% of Germany's electricity today.  Even assuming zero growth in demand for electricity over the next 10 years, replacing almost a quarter of the German electricity supply will not be easy . . . or cheap.   Renewables such as solar and wind supply only 17% of German electricity today, and that has been achieved only with extensive and expensive government subsidies.  Replacing nuclear power with renewables will require not only more investments in renewable generation, but also investments in a smarter grid and storage to match these intermittent sources with demand.

Keep in mind that tripling the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources over the next 10 years will only replace the electricity lost from nuclear plants.  It will do nothing to reduce the 60% of electricity that now comes from coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.  And if Germany is unsuccessful in replacing nuclear with renewables, it will be forced to replace nuclear with dirty fossil fuels.

Proponents of shutting down the nuclear power plants say that Germany can do it all.  They claim that greater efficiencies will not only stop the growth of electricity consumption, but will actually reduce consumption by 10% over the next 10 years.  They claim that new investments in renewable generation, storage, and a smarter grid will create jobs and make Germany a world leader in important new industries.  And that a decade from now, Germany will have a competitive advantage because half or more of its electricity will come from renewable sources that have zero ongoing fuel costs.

I hope they succeed.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tried to take all sides of the climate change debate yesterday by acknowledging that climate change is real, agreeing that human activity contributes to it, and then withdrawing New Jersey from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that tries to reduce it.  He argued that RGGI imposes unnecessary costs on consumers, but when pressed to quantify how much consumers will save by his actions, the Governor conceded that consumers should not expect much in the way of savings.

Huh?

Under RGGI, 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states have agreed to require power plants that burn fossil fuels to buy pollution allowances for their carbon emissions.  Utilities that cut their emissions below a specified cap may sell or trade their excess carbon allowances in online auctions held four times a year.  Proceeds from the auctions -- about $860 million so far -- can be used to finance renewable energy initiatives.  The program has provided $29.6 million for 12 large-scale energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in New Jersey alone.

Governor Christie acknowledged that humans are causing climate change.  “I’ve always said that climate change is real and it’s impacting our state,” he said.  But the Governor said that RGGI is not an effective solution.  He asserted that New Jersey is reducing emissions by using more natural gas and less coal to generate electricity, not because of RGGI.  He also said that he opposed building any new coal-fired power plants in New Jersey.

The nine other states that remain in RGGI reiterated their support for the program in the wake of Governor Christie';s decision.  New York State officials called the initiative “extremely successful” in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping finance clean energy projects.  The Commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement that “investment of RGGI auction proceeds in energy efficiency improvements is leading to savings for thousands of New York residents and businesses and to the creation of thousands of high-quality jobs.”

Governor Christie's main argument against RGGI is that it imposes unnecessary costs on consumers.  "RGGI," the Governor said, "does nothing more than tax electricity, tax our citizens, tax our businesses, with no discernible or measurable impact upon our environment.”  But when Governor Christie was asked how much consumers could expect to save as a result of his decision to withdraw from RGGI, he replied, "I don’t want to overplay that because we’re not talking about a huge difference."

Huh?

John Howley 
Woodbridge, New Jersey

 
 
President Obama has directed federal agencies to buy alternative fuel cars and light-duty trucks, with the objective of buying only alternative fuel vehicles by 2015.  The Obama Administration launched this initiative by leasing more than 100 electric vehicles.  Energy Secretary Steven Chu said this initiative will help meet the President's goal of putting 1 million alternative fuel vehicles on the road by 2015 and a 30% reduction in the US government's dependence on petroleum by 2020.

This is not the first time the US Government has attempted to initiate demand for alternative fuel vehicles by mandating purchases by government agencies.  The first Energy Policy Acts (EPAct) of 1992 and 2005 require federal fleets with 20 or more vehicles to lease or purchase alternative fuel vehicles for at least 75 percent of all new light-duty vehicle acquisitions, and to use only alternative fuel in such vehicles unless granted a waiver. 

Executive Order 13423, signed by President George W. Bush in January 2007, added the requirements that federal agencies also: (1) increase overall alternative fuel use by 10 percent annually; (2) reduce petroleum consumption by 2 percent annually through 2015; and (3) purchase plug-in hybrid electric vehicles when available at a reasonable cost.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that federal agencies had mixed results in meeting these existing mandates in in fiscal year 2007.  While all the agencies met or exceeded the requirement to acquire alternative fuel vehicles, they did so by including vehicles that were not subject to the requirement.  The GAO also found that neither the Department of Energy nor the other individual agencies reported their compliance with the requirement that they use only alternative fuels in such vehicles, even though they are required by law to make such reports.  In fact, the GAO found that in fiscal year 2006, most agencies fueled their alternative fuel vehicles with 100% gasoline, and the GAO found no evidence that this practice had changed in fiscal year 2007.

The GAO was not able to confirm assertions by many agencies that they had met the objectives of increasing their alternative fuel use by 10 percent and reducing their petroleum use by 2%.  According to the GAO, "persistent data problems call these results into question."  In addition, the GAO noted that it will be difficult for agencies to meet these objectives because of the limited availability of alternative fuels in some markets.  Lastly, not a single federal agency acquired plug-in hybrid electric vehicles during fiscal year 2007 for the simple reason that they were not commercially available.

The Obama Administration is working to improve execution on the existing and new federal mandates.  Last year, the General Service Administration (GSA) doubled the size of the federal hybrid fleet, helping the government reduce its petroleum consumption by 385,000 barrels per year.  In the announcement earlier this week, the GSA promised to coordinate with federal agencies to establish fueling and recharging stations the new fleets will require.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey
 
 
New wind power generation in the US grew 40% per year from 2005 to 2009, far outpacing new electricity generation from natural gas or coal.  But increasing supplies of natural gas are driving down prices, causing private equity investors to shift their focus away from wind power and into natural gas-fired power plants instead. 

Last year, in 2010, the US added only 3,657 megawatts (MW) of new wind generation capacity, down from 9,645 MW of new capacity in 2009.  In contrast, natural gas-fired capacity grew by 6,309 MW and even coal-fired capacity grew by 5,217 MW.  Construction of new wind power generation is expected to drop again this year because of competition from cheap natural gas.

In addition to price competition from natural gas, wind also faces the challenge of uncertainty over the future of renewable energy tax credits given the current budget debates in Congress and the continuing weak economy.

Wind still has a few things going for it.  Many states have renewable energy mandates that require utilities to acquire a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.  Wind remains one of the most cost-effective ways to comply with those mandates.  Turbine prices are also dropping which makes wind farms more competitive with natural gas.

John Howley
Woodbridge, New Jersey