The EPA is on board… how about each of the states? The Clean Power Plan

BIG NEWS: US EPA Plans to CUT Carbon Pollution from Main Source: Fossil Fuel-Fired Power Plants
A-coal-fired-power-statio-011

Under Section 111 of the Clean Air Act, the EPA has authority to lay out distinct approaches for new and existing stationary sources of air pollution. Section 111 (b) is the federal program to establish standards for new, modified, and reconstructed sources. The EPA has proposed Carbon Pollution Standards [Clean Air Act Section 111(b)] for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants and will release final rules this coming summer. Section 111 (d) is a state-based program for existing sources, in which the EPA sets guidelines and then the states develop programs to meet these guidelines and achieve the needed reductions. In June of 2014, the EPA proposed the Clean Power Plan [Clean Air Act Section 111(d)] under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The Clean Power Plan is described as a commonsense plan to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants. The Clean Power Plan “will maintain an affordable, reliable energy system, while cutting pollution and protecting our health and environment now and for future generations.” The agency’s proposal is flexible; states and businesses with forward plans to more efficient, cleaner power fleets can integrate these to meet state- or region-specific goals.

Why? Power plants are the largest concentrated source of carbon dioxide emissions in the US, making up approximately 1/3rd of domestic GHG emissions. There are currently no limits on national carbon pollution levels. And if you didn’t know… carbon pollution is a GHG, which is contributing to increased global temperatures! In combination with a warmer world, soot and smog are dangerous to our health! FYI: “Fossil fuel-fired power plants are responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s sulfur dioxide emissions, 13 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, and 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels” (EPA Air Emissions). And methane is released with incomplete combustion and from leaks during transport (Just in case you were more worried about GHGs other than CO2… you should be!).

$$$? By 2030, the EPA predicts a reduction in carbon emissions from the power sector of 30% (about 730 million metric tonnes of carbon pollution) and in smog pollution of 25% from 2005 levels with implementation of the Clean Power Plan. The EPA argues the climate and health benefits will far outweigh the costs of the plan. “The Clean Power Plan has public health and climate benefits worth an estimated $55 billion to $93 billion per year in 2030, far outweighing the costs of $7.3 billion to $8.8 billion.”

Setting State Goals: Each state’s goal is different, based on the unique mix of emissions and power sources. The formula for the state goal = (CO2 emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants in lbs.) divided by (state electricity generation from fossil-fuel fired power plants + certain low- or zero-emitting power sources in megawatt hours). For example, VT does not have fossil fuels fired power plants and therefore no goals are proposed… Woo hoo VT! Check out other states here: http://cleanpowerplanmaps.epa.gov/CleanPowerPlan/

How to Achieve Goals: The EPA suggests 4 methods to meeting the goals: 1) Increase efficiency at coal plants with upgrades 2) Switch from coal-powered plants to less carbon-intensive plants 3) Expand investments in renewable energy 4) Increase energy efficiency in homes, buildings and industries.

Backlash: Many states feel the EPA is overstepping its authority and few have sued. If the states do not submit a compliance plan or apply for an extension by the summer of 2016, the EPA will impose a federal plan to those states. It is likely that federal plans will result in higher electricity costs for consumers (Inside Climate News 2015).

So it’s time to get everyone on board! But, is this where we should focus our efforts? The IR waves that CO2 absorbs has already reached band saturation and we’ve learned that other GHGs (like methane) will have a greater impact on warming. But, these fossil fuel fired plants have plenty of other emitted pollutants that we need to curb. The US seems to be a bit behind on cleaning up our emissions, but we have to start somewhere, right?
Sources:
Most info from EPA website and factsheets: <http://www2.epa.gov/carbon-pollution-standards/clean-power-plan-proposed-rule&gt;
Info on emission sources in US (EPA Air Emissions): <http://www.epa.gov/cleanenergy/energy-and-you/affect/air-emissions.html&gt;
Inside Climate News: <http://insideclimatenews.org/news/26022015/why-states-rejecting-epas-clean-power-plan-could-face-bigger-rate-hikes&gt;

We’re getting more efficient at capturing and storing carbon – collective sigh of relief thereby subject to reclamation

Chalk it up as yet another battle won by human ingenuity in the war against foresight. Chemists at UC Berkeley, assisted by other scientists from around the world, have brought humankind one step closer to large-scale greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation through a new breakthrough in carbon-capture and storage (CCS) technology. The breakthrough is a metal-organic framework (MOF) appended with diamines – nitrogen-containing molecules with two amino groups often used as monomers in polymer-chain development – that efficiently adsorbs carbon dioxide throughout a range of temperatures.

The new MOF with appended diamine before (left) and after (right) binding carbon dioxide. Enlarge photo for detailed caption and credits.

For those unfamiliar with it, CCS refers to a number of geoengineering technologies for carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change. It’s worth clarifying an important distinction here: CCS denotes methods that separate CO2 from point source emissions (usually power plants) and store it far underground; since the majority of these methods do not result in net negative carbon emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) technically does not consider CCS an official Carbon Removal Method (CDR – yay acronyms!)…That is, unless biomass is included to first fix CO2 from the atmosphere, said biomass is then burned for energy, and the carbon is separated from the emissions and stored underground. Then it is BECCS (Bio-energy with Carbon Capture and Storage) and CDR worthy (net negative emissions). Clear as mud? Good. Just remember that 1) CCS is akin to bottling the consumptive flatulence of humanity and burying it in bedrock before the vapors are allowed to kill us all quite slowly and 2) the new MOF is a significant advancement in CCS technology, regardless of whether the method in question addresses only point source emissions or is housed in a larger net negative emissions procedure (e.g. BECCS). Why, you ask? I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK!

The full chain of current carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods.

The full chain of current carbon capture and storage (CCS) methods. Image from the Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage (SCCS) group – www.sccs.org.uk.

Recall when I stated the new MOF efficiently adsorbs CO2 “throughout a range of temperatures”? Turns out that last bit is key. Current CCS techniques rely on pumping emissions through water containing organic amines, where the CO2 binds to the amines, and then the liquid is heated until the gases are released at 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit. Anybody that knows anything about inefficiency knows it when they read it and that process, my friends, is inefficient. Approximately 30 percent of the power generated by a given plant goes back into utilizing CCS under the current process, not including the additional costs of transporting and storing the captured carbon emissions. As Jeffrey Long, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry and faculty senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and senior author of the paper in Nature describing the new MOF, notes, “Carbon dioxide is 15 percent of the gas coming off a power plant, so a (better) carbon-capture unit is going to be big. With these new materials, that unit could be much smaller, making the capital costs drop tremendously as well as the operating costs.” The new MOF is a solid material that can just as effectively remove CO2 at room temperature as it can in the hot confines of a power plant flue. To add to this increased efficiency, the process can be reversed and CO2 released through a temperature increase of only 122 degrees Fahrenheit (versus the 176-230 degree increase needed in the liquid process).

The mechanism underlying the more efficient MOF is that when the diamines bound to the metal (manganese) atoms react with CO2, a metal-bound ammonium carbamate species is formed that completely lines the MOF’s interior channels. Then, at a sufficiently high pressure, one CO2 molecule binding to an amine catalyzes a chain reaction that enables other CO2 molecules to polymerize with the diamine “like a zipper running down the channel”. In addition, the initial adsorption pressure can be manipulated depending on how the diamines are synthesized to accommodate different environment temperatures (flues, submarine chambers, even the International Space Station…and potentially THE ATMOSPHERE ITSELF?! [That is conjecture and I own it]) and CO2 concentrations as low as 300 ppm.

One final note: the new MOF has also lent us further insight into the mechanism by which plants fix CO2 due to the functional and structural similarities between its magnesium-based framework and the photosynthetic enzyme RuBisCO. That’s right, folks, successful unpacking of that little tidbit will leave you with the sense that mankind is another small step closer to autotrophic glory, though man remains a giant leap away from being a plant (ho hum).

Sources

Nature Paper: Thomas M. McDonald, Jarad A. Mason, Xueqian Kong, Eric D. Bloch, David Gygi, Alessandro Dani, Valentina Crocellà, Filippo Giordanino, Samuel O. Odoh, Walter S. Drisdell, Bess Vlaisavljevich, Allison L. Dzubak, Roberta Poloni, Sondre K. Schnell, Nora Planas, Kyuho Lee, Tod Pascal, Liwen F. Wan, David Prendergast, Jeffrey B. Neaton, Berend Smit, Jeffrey B. Kortright, Laura Gagliardi, Silvia Bordiga, Jeffrey A. Reimer, Jeffrey R. Long. Cooperative insertion of CO2 in diamine-appended metal-organic frameworks. Nature, 2015; DOI: 10.1038/nature14327

University of California – Berkeley. (2015, March 11). New material captures carbon at half the energy cost. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 23, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150311185834.htm

IPCC AR5: Mitigation of Climate Change (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/)

IEA: Industrial Applications of CCS (http://www.iea.org/topics/ccs/subtopics/industrialapplicationsofccs/) and Combining Bioenergy with CCS (http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/bioenergy_ccs.pdf)

The Clean Energy Fund and the Eventual Heat Death of the Universe

I remember a time when the environment seemed simple to care for. Captain Planet, snipping the plastic soda rings so seagulls didn’t choke on them – these messages seemed straight forward and filled with the rosy optimism of the ‘90s. But lately this optimism has been rather hard to find, and environmental messages are anything but straightforward. From learning that banning bottled water (like the University of Vermont did in 2013) may end up being worse for the environment, to the fact that environmental organizations invested in the use of “carbon neutral” plantation charcoal to power steel production in Brazil which was recently revealed to dramatically increases carbon outputs as wood is then often sourced from native forest – the world seems fraught with:

  1. very challenging environmental challenges
  2. a complicated web of tangled “answers”, in which sometimes trying to do the right thing leads to the very opposite

Personally, optimism comes from the vast time scales of the universe. Entropy and the eventual heat death of the universe, (in all seriousness) gives me hope. When I hear about current biodiversity loss potentially amounting to a mass extinction event, I consider the ~3.5 billion year history of life on this planet and trust that, considering the five previous mass extinction events – life, in some form, is likely going to be okay. Mars used to have vast oceans, but with a weak magnetic field the water was likely wicked away by solarwinds, while Earth has a strong, protective magnetic field which keep our oceans (however warm they may get) in place. Though regardless, our planet will only be habitable for another ~4 billion years or so. Either we will (as a species, and as potential guardians of Earth life/history/knowledge) overcome many challenges and figure out a way to survive a changing climate in the short, long, and geologic-long term, or we won’t. And if we do, eventually the universe will (as far as we know) expand out into emptiness until there is no more movement in the cold reaches of the vast, ever-expanding universe.

While understandably not an optimistic view for everyone, in the face of the overwhelming inevitable, I always feel galvanized for action in the present moment. Maybe Earth won’t be around in 4 billion years, but that still gives us a lot of time for a lot of things. It seems advantageous and increasingly necessary, then, to throw oneself wholeheartedly into working towards maintaining (or returning to) a climate where we and all we rely on, can continue to exist such that we can continue to learn, create, witness and grow.

Which brings me a whole lot closer to home. At the University of Vermont, I am currently the graduate assistant for the Clean Energy Fund. In 2005, a group of students coalesced with the common vision of the University of Vermont running on clean, local energy. They drove the formation of the Clean Energy Fund,and from 2008 to the present, undergraduate and graduate students at UVM pay $10 every semester to support the fund. This generates about $225,000 annually, and is entirely dedicated to funding projects and initiatives that explore a wide range of clean energy opportunities brought forth by the community, supported by the community and funded by the community.

Projects can range from physical infrastructure to feasibility studies, and funding is utilized for the installation of solar panels, for the creation of seminars and lecture series, for workshops and student groups, for projects that address anything from biomass to bicycles. Most importantly, the Clean Energy Fund was designed and continues to operate as a fund created by the students at UVM to address and explore the questions of: what is clean energy, and what does it look like on the UVM campus?

In the Davis Center on March 23rd and 24th, the University of Vermont is hosting the Power from the North conference. Partially funded through the Clean Energy Fund, the conference is an exciting opportunity and is designed to

“bring together leading policy makers, energy professionals, and academics from both sides of the international border to consider the increasingly important Quebec-Vermont/New England electric energy relationship. The conference will “tell the story” of this evolving relationship, examine its social, economic and environmental consequences, and ultimately inform present and future decisions regarding energy production, distribution and use in the Quebec-New England region, including the role that Quebec might play in de-carbonizing electric systems in Vermont.”


The Clean Energy Fund itself is ever evolving, and I find a great deal of optimism to be found in a student initiated and community inclusive pool of money set aside to specifically foster and explore creative ideas and answers to complex and challenging environmental questions. This grassroots effort of addressing sustainability on campus has inspired and incurred a wide range of projects and possibilities and presents a unique capability within UVM to create many facets of clean energy on campus. At least for the next 4 billion years or so.

Energy-Related Global CO2 Emissions Flatlined in 2014

In 2014, energy-related global CO2 emissions flatlined. While this has occurred in the past, what was remarkable about 2014 is that for the first time, global emissions of carbon dioxide were either halted or reduced when there was no economic downturn. The International Energy Agency (IEA) just announced on March 13th that global CO2 emissions from the energy sector totaled 32.3 billion metric tons of CO2 in both 2013 and 2014.

What accounts for this occurrence? The IEA credits changing energy consumption patterns in China and the 34 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).  China cut its coal consumption by 2.9% in 2014, plans to close its dirtiest power plants in order to meet its planned peak in coal use by 2030, and generated more energy from hydropower, solar, and wind than before. Due to these changes, CO2 emissions in China dropped 1% in 2014, even though their economy grew by 7.4%. Go China!

In the 40 years that the IEA has been collecting data on CO2 emissions, there were only three times when CO2 emissions remained the same or decreased compared to the previous year. All three of these times were connected to global economic downturns. The first was in the early 1980’s due to the oil shock and the U.S. recession, and the second and third were due to the financial crises of 1992 and 2009. In 2014, not only was there no downturn, but the global economy actually grew by 3%.

CO2vsGDP

CREDIT: IEA, FINANCIAL TIMES

In the U.S., energy-related CO2 emissions have decreased during seven of the past 23 years, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The most recent emissions data for the U.S. is for 2013, which show an increase from the previous year, though emissions were still 10% lower than emissions in 2005. On another good note, the carbon intensity of the U.S. economy (CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP) has been decreasing over the past 25 years.

Steven Cohen, the Executive Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, described that our globe is starting to see the benefits of renewables, but these may not be permanent: “The decline in oil prices and the massive increase in fossil fuel use in China and India will push in the opposite direction in 2015,” he said. “We still need to develop a transformative renewable energy technology that is less expensive than fossil fuels and can match the reliability and convenience of fossil fuel technology… Our goal should be to drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.” Though I certainly agree with him, it’s interesting that one main reason why global emissions flatlined is because China decreased their coal consumption. China is growing and industrializing rapidly, so I wonder if it will be possible for China to continue this decreasing trend.

The Executive Director of the IEA, Maria van der Hoeven, said that while this data is very encouraging, “this is no time for complacency and certainly not the time to use this positive news as an excuse to stall further action.”

This coming December, France will host the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Even before this conference, there are already pledges in place to reduce total CO2 emissions around the globe. China has pledged to peak in CO2 emissions by 2030, the EU has pledged to cut total emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and the U.S. will “cut net greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025” according to the IEA.  Christiana Figueres, the top UN climate official, described that these pledges, along with a deal that could come out of France in December, will “not get us on the 2 degree C pathway.” But a deal could possibly get us off the 6 degree C and lead to a complete decoupling of GDP and CO2.

I find this news very encouraging, mostly because it is the first time there has been a stabilization or decline in energy-related CO2 emissions when there was no global economic crisis. However, this is really only one data point for one year, so I’m wary of drawings any conclusions. If a similar occurrence takes place over the next few years, and a trend starts to emerge, that would be pretty exciting, and I would be more convinced that GDP and CO2 really can be permanently disconnected.  I’m also curious to see whether this decoupling will have any effect on the conference in France- maybe it will motivate countries and help them see that making changes really can make a difference in global CO2 emissions.

Sources:

Climate Central: “Energy Bombshell: CO2 Emissions Stabilized in 2014”:

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/co2-emissions-stabilized-in-2014-18777

International Energy Agency: “Global energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide stalled in 2014”:

http://www.iea.org/newsroomandevents/news/2015/march/global-energy-related-emissions-of-carbon-dioxide-stalled-in-2014.html

Climate Progress: Record First: “Global CO2 Emissions Went Flat in 2014 While the Economy Grew”:

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/03/13/3633362/iea-co2-emissions-decouple-growth/

Information about the OECD: http://www.oecd.org/

Information about the December conference in France: http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en/cop21-cmp11

Obama Veto of XL Pipeline & Senate Override Fail

keystone

After seven years of battling over the Keystone XL Pipeline, a trans-boundary oil pipeline through the US and Canada, Obama finally vetoed the proposal on February 24th. The thirty-six inches wide, buried pipeline would have covered eight hundred and seventy-five miles from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska. Weeks after the veto, the Senate already tried to override the veto, showing just how big the struggle around climate change directly reflects issues of political struggle and power in our country. The Senate failed to override the president’s veto after a long and tumultuous battle. I am too cynical to say the XL pipeline is over and gone; however, Obama has finally addressed climate change as an issue that needs to be in the political forefront, which could be seen as a tipping point for climate change consciousness in the US. The final vote for the Senate override was 62-37, only a little short of two-thirds – too close for comfort.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has recently been the most publicly debated environmental issue in the United States and Canada regarding big oil interests, energy use, and climate change. The XL Pipeline proposal has been pressing throughout Obama’s career, concerns mainly based on fears of boosting carbon emissions and big construction in highly sensitive environments. From bi-partisan conflicts in the US to indigenous injustices in Canada, the pipeline has been a hot topic for many different people. Regardless, over half of Americans have been in favor of the pipeline and continue to be in favor, to the Republican party’s delight.

The veto and failed override have stirred up another round of debate between Republicans, Democrats, and environmental activists alike. Jed Bush (please tell me he is not running for president) was quoted saying, “The Keystone Pipeline is a no brainer, President Obama should just stop playing politics and sign the bill.” On the other hand, Bill McKibben was a bit more optimistic when he told the times, “Hopefully the ongoing legislative charade has strengthened [Obama’s] commitment to do the right thing.” Every bit of optimism counts, right?

Now the White House is awaiting a final recommendation from the State Department, and republicans will probably continue to fight the veto and push forward with Keystone XL. Back in January, Obama said he would decide on the veto based on the technical review of the pipeline’s environmental impacts from the State Department. However, the study “concluded that blocking the pipeline would not make much difference to overall carbon emissions: the Canadians would find other ways of transporting to refineries the bitumen-heavy crude extracted from the Alberta tar sands” (The New Yorker 2015). But the president still VETOED the proposal which shows that the voice of climate change activists are getting louder and the government is starting to listen.

Sources:

The Symbolic Politics of Keystone XL by John Cassidy

http://www.newyorker.com/news/john-cassidy/the-symbolic-politics-of-keystone-xl

NPR on Senate Override

http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2015/03/04/390732040/senate-fails-in-bid-to-override-obamas-veto-on-keystone-xl-pipeline

More information on the Keystone XL Environmental Impact Statement

by The US State Department

http://keystonepipeline-xl.state.gov/documents/organization/221135.pdf

A New Take on Water Power

Portland, Oregon might be on the brink of a revolutionary new source of energy. They are in the midst of creating a new system that captures energy as water flows through the city’s pipes with Lucid Energy, a Portland-based startup company. This creates hydropower without any of the negative environmental effects of dams (fastcoexist.com). Dams often cause huge ecological changes to the waterways surrounding them, and tend to stint aquatic life populations. This new system works through a series of small turbines in the pipes that spin in the flowing water, and that energy is sent into a generator. A simple yet amazing idea, and the fish will like it too!

The massive amounts of electricity generated through the system will make it much cheaper to provide clean drinking water to the city, and the excess energy can be sold to create a new source of revenue (fastcoexist.com). In Portland, one major city pipeline currently uses Lucid’s pipes. The system can’t generate enough energy for the whole city as of right now, but is currently useful in powering individual buildings and offsetting the city’s total energy bill. The pipes need to be set up in a way where the water can flow naturally down the pipes with gravity, as to not use additional energy to pump the water through (fastcoexist.com). Because of this, the pipes might not be feasible for all cities existing infrastructure, but many nonetheless.

Another plus of this new system is that there are very few arguments against it. Weather is not a factor like it is for wind and solar power. The pipes consistently have water flowing through them. Additionally, since they are underground, the “eyesore” argument often used against wind turbines and solar panels doesn’t apply either. The pipes also have a new, crucial feature: they can monitor water flow. This is extremely important in preventing pipe bursts, which can waste millions of gallons of water. These sensors an also monitor water quality, assuring the safety of the water to drink (fastcoexist.com). One of the only factors not touched in the article I read was the costs of installing these pipes, which is obviously an immediate deterrent for may cities even though the long term benefits would be great.

In a time where fresh water management is becoming more important than ever, insuring the sustainability of our water supply is vital. These pipes have a lot of potential to improve our situation, especially in places such as California where 20% of total energy use goes into the water supply, and even more is projected with the new installation and use of desalination plants (fastcoexist.com). Overall, more awesome ideas coming out of Portland. I’m excited to see where this project will go!

Screen Shot 2015-03-10 at 11.02.54 AM

Sources:

http://www.fastcoexist.com/3041300/portlands-new-pipes-harvest-power-from-drinking-water

More info at:

http://www.lucidenergy.com/