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Archive for the ‘energy’ Category

An update on Coal’s Decline

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Whatever you want to call the coalition of folks working to get our country off of coal–committed activists, radical environmentalists, or just smart people worried about the future–these folks have been working hard, for years, to end our reliance on coal powered electricity generation.

The country has of course benefited from our coal development. But knowing what we know, the great problem of epistemology, it is irresponsible to continue burning coal: it is toxic to our planet’s air, water, and the health of everything that relies on air and water.

So how are these efforts going? Recently, the retirement of two Chicago coal-fired plants was announced, a major win in a decades long fight. This victory has prompted a bit of self-evaluation in the crusade to get our electricity freed from coal.

Clean Technica has an update on how the movement is coming.

A confluence of factors is making it very difficult for owners of coal plants — particularly old coal plants — to compete. A combination of high domestic coal prices, low natural gas prices, new air quality regulations, coordinated activist pressure, and cost-competitive renewables are making coal an increasingly bad choice for many power plant operators. Along with the 106 announced closures, 166 new plants have been defeated since 2002.

So just how much of an impact have these factors had on coal closures? Bruce Nilles, director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign sent along these numbers:


  • 106 coal plants, 319 units
  • 42,895 MW (13% of fleet)
  • 150 million MWh (8% of fleet)
  • 162 million tons/year of CO2 (9% of fleet)
  • 921,417 tons/year of SO2 (16% of fleet)
  • Average age: 55 years old
  • (For plants with available data – Data from Clean Air Task Force): 2,042 pre-mature deaths, 3,229 heart attacks and 33,053 asthma attacks prevented each year (about 15% of total health impacts from fleet).  All together these plants retiring will save about $15.6 billion in health care costs.

This is no way to imply that the effort on behalf of climate change is winning. As producers are moving away from coal in some parts of the country, plans for new coal plants (“clean coal”) are progressing. And much of this generation is being replaced with natural gas, which has its own questions.

But it is important to take a step back from time to time and acknowledge that despite what the big political stories of the day might be, progress is being made.


Written by Christopher ZF

March 7, 2012 at 10:46

as the Politics has shifted, the dangers have remained the same

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It wasn’t that long ago that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum understood that burning fossil fuels was bad for the Earth. Coal and gas were understood as the root cause of climate change, they polluted our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. As a result, the idea that we should consume fewer hydrocarbons was widely accepted, the science of climate change was accepted, and moving towards a diversified, clean, home-grown energy portfolio was a plan everyone got behind.

But something else was also happening in that time of climate harmony. It was understood that alongside decreased consumption would come decreased production. We were running out of cheap sources of oil and gas in the United States anyway.

Fast forward to today. Consumption of coal and gas are still root the cause of climate change, they are still polluting our drinking water and our oceans and our skies. The science behind climate change has only gotten more sound. And yet, the bi-partisan acceptance that we should move to a clean energy future has eroded. Heck, even President Obama is calling for increased production of oil and gas. So what changed?

Technology. We could all get along on energy when we all thought we would be producing less. Now we can get a whole lot more of that out of the way, expensive hydrocarbon bounty that was just not worth it in the past–the “unconventional sources.” And if we can recover more oil, if we can successfully drill deeper and further and in more remote places, if we can continue to make money off oil and gas, then the arguments against consuming fossil fuels become much less impressive.

So the argument shifts, the new era of technology makes energy security and energy jobs and domestic production the holy grail of the political energy sector, on both sides of the aisle, and relegates what has not changed, the very real and potentially catastrophic environmental threat of continued dependence on fossil fuels, to the background.

For a clear, thoughtful, reminder that we are indeed reverting, read America’s Fossil Fuel Fever, by Michael T. Klare, at The Nation.

Advocates of the new techniques claim that the environmental risks are overshadowed by the greater benefit of economic gain and national security. “Even while the environmental argument rages,” Yergin wrote in the Washington Post in October, “oil sands are proving to be a major contributor to energy security” by lowering the nation’s dependence on Middle East oil. Increased domestic production, he adds, is generating jobs and reducing the nation’s dollar outlays for imported petroleum.

These arguments have great appeal and are attracting support. But they are deeply flawed. While highlighting some benefits to the nation’s security and well-being, they overlook detrimental outcomes of equal or greater significance.

The most important, of course, is the impact of these trends on global warming. By shifting the emphasis from renewables to fossil fuels, we can expect a significant increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—from the consump-
tion of oil and gas and from its production. The consumption aspect is well understood: all fossil fuels contain carbon and this carbon is released when the fuels are burned, so any increase in fossil fuel use will result in increased GHG emissions. But the production aspect requires closer attention. All drilling activity requires energy, which produces GHGs; producing unconventional oil and gas, however, usually requires far more energy than drilling for conventional fuels and so emits a correspondingly greater amount of GHGs.

The most dangerous climate argument: Look at the Numbers, then Just Give Up.

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Robert Samuelson can’t see the forest because he’s only looking at the oil (that was a boreal forest/tar sand joke). In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Samuelson has decided that Obama’s decision to reject Keystone XL is insane. Actually, that it was an act of “national insanity.” His arguments are unconvincing, or at least unoriginal, but worth spending a second or two on. Here are the four key arguments:

1. “Getting future Canadian cooperation on other issues will be harder.” Seriously? You think Canada is suddenly going to spur its allied relationship with the US? Somehow, I doubt that.

2. “It threatens a large source of relatively secure oil.” How? You just said that this oil will be developed, so, not really.

3. “Combined with new discoveries in the United States, [this oil] could reduce (though not eliminate) our dependence on insecure foreign oil.” Probably not. Anytime there is an oil-based argument for reducing our dependency on foreign oil, it’s not going to happen. History is very clear on this. The only solution to reducing foreign oil consumption is reducing oil consumption.

4. “Obama’s decision forgoes all the project’s jobs.” I guess I can’t argue with this. But can continue to ask, at what cost are we willing to take jobs? That’s not a decision, but it’s an important question.

These, though are the small potatoes in comparison to the dangerous defense of Keystone XL that Robert Samuelson makes. The above arguments are just the easy Republican talking points that flutter in the breeze of political rhetoric. Here is the real danger in arguing for Keystone XL:

First, we’re going to use lots of oil for a long time. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that U.S. oil consumption will increase 4 percent between 2009 and 2035. The increase occurs despite highly optimistic assumptions about vehicle fuel efficiency and bio-fuels. But a larger population (390 million in 2035 versus 308 million in 2009) and more driving per vehicle offset savings….Second, barring major technological breakthroughs, emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, will rise for similar reasons. The EIA projects that America’s CO2 emissions will increase by 16 percent from 2009 to 2035. (The EIA is updating its projections, but the main trends aren’t likely to change dramatically.) Stopping Canadian tar-sands development, were that possible, wouldn’t affect these emissions.

This argument is numbers based, and sounds reliable and hard to dispute. But don’t be fooled, this is scary business. It acknowledges that there is a reason to worry about greenhouse gas emissions, but disregards that worry because it is all inevitable. Variations of this argument are everywhere, and they cast aside climate change with a simple brush of the hand. It says, simply, “you cannot do anything about emissions, so do not try; instead, since we are already knee-deep in the muck, why not sink up to the neck.”

And such carelessness needs to be identified. Especially when, on the same day, the scientists are telling us how bad it is.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 20, 2012 at 13:42

EPA Maps nation’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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Maps are always awesome. And the EPA has unveiled a new one that is very interesting. It is an interactive map that providing emissions data from across the nation.*

*It is not actually total. The data is self-reported, and thus not comprehensive. But still fascinating.

Look up your house, find the nearest power plant, and see what its CO2 output is. Below is my neighborhood on the West side. The three plants here are our local emitters, but not too bad: the High Bridge Natural Gas plant, and the 2 dot represents St. Paul District Energy and the St. Paul Cogeneration plant.

Know where your local energy comes from? Know how many GHGs they are emitting? Live near one of the top 10 emitters? Check it out. It’s quite a fascinating tool.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 12, 2012 at 09:21

don’t hurt the cute little up and coming oil industry.

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This is adorable.

In a City Journal article titled The New Authoritarianism, authors Fred Siegel and Joel Kotkin argue that the liberal left has been branching into a new model of governance that is, obviously, Authoritarianism. Needless to say, I disagree.

But that’s not the point. They make their case and you can read it if you are interested. But in the future they see if Obama wins this year’s election, the authors claim: “In the post-election environment, the president, using agencies like the EPA, could successfully strangle whole industries—notably the burgeoning oil and natural gas sector—and drag whole regions into recession.”

The burgeoning oil and natural gas sectors? Honestly? That’s the most preposterous phrase I’ve read in months. And I read about Rick Santorum. It is such a ridiculous comment that it almost seems quaintly adorable. They continue by pushing the EPA regulations will “sharply raise electricity rates in much of the country” fallacy.

Anyway. The authors paint a “nightmare scenario” that would be a “constitutional crisis” if Obama wins. Because, you know, if the opponent wins, the nation will be destroyed for ever and ever and ever. As usual.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 10, 2012 at 12:58

To President Obama: Be the Climate President I thought you would, please.

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I planned on waiting to write this post until closer to the November election, but it’s on our mind now, and the with the Keystone XL decision due on February 21, it’s seems appropriate.

So, to President Obama: Hello. I’m a supporter. I’m a faithful liberal democrat, whose vocational concern is mitigating climate change, and who places climate and environmental policy as one of the top 3 issues in my political worldview. If we don’t put the Earth at the top of the list, well, we are doing a disservice to our species’ survival. Not a politically popular position, but as important a value as there is.

When you made the change from Candidate Obama to President-Elect Obama, I wrote the following:

It’s starting to feel more and more like what happens with the Keystone XL will reflect whether that impulse was right. I know I wasn’t the only one who had such an impulse. It seem’s so optimistic now, but after the campaign, that is where you led us environmental folks.

And then, you did not push on Nancy Pelosi’s energy and climate legislation when you had the opportunity. Instead, health care reform was prioritized, and passed. I get that. But was pretty bummed. I doubt you could have known health care was going to take the entire time you had the super-majority. But you missed a lot of opportunities while getting that watered-down health care bill passed.

It is true, though, you have been a pro-environment President. To pretend otherwise is to miss the facts, to obscure the forest for the trees. Even yesterday your administration made an important decision to protect the Grand Canyon by banning uranium mining. You have increased fuel-efficiency standards, protected and enhanced the Endangered Species Act, and overseen many environmentally friendly decisions in the three years you’ve been in office.

But climate change mitigation is not the same as protecting the environment. Environmental decisions are critical and necessary. But that’s not good enough. The continued permits for exploring in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the continued mountain-top removal, the failure to move climate change mitigation to a policy level priority through the legislature, these are climate failures.

And now Keystone looms. A Climate President, and I perhaps rashly addressed you as such three years ago, would find a way to move the nation, and the world, towards decreasing our Greenhouse Gas emissions. Because that is what is necessary to confront the actual threat of climate change. The science is clear, and you have said all along that you respect science. Not enough to put through EPA director Lisa Jackson’s regulations to hinder emissions. Not enough to choose climate change as the primary driver of your legislative majority. But still. You’ve called for clean energy, you’ve called for robust energy portfolio relying on renewables, you’ve called for serious action on climate change. And yet, we are still pumping out more CO2 than ever.

I know the system. And that you cannot just enact a series of climate friendly decisions and expect the nation to change its energy ways, stop everything and turn course. Of course not. This country is deeply embedded in a fossil-fuel energy system, and getting out of that system is going to be very, very hard. But now that it is clear that any action will have to be made in spite of the Congress, not with the Congress, maybe it’s time to take a step against the threat of climate change. Don’t worry about November, either; I agree with David Roberts: this isn’t even going to be that big of a deal come election time.

I know you recognize the reality and the danger and the scientific necessity to start somewhere on Climate Change. Hopefully, you recognize that KXL provides a pretty good staring point.

Thanks. Have a good day. The Relative Comment.

Written by Christopher ZF

January 10, 2012 at 11:51

the simple argument: we need water.

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Sometimes the most important way to understand a problem is also the simplest. In that light, here’s a problem. The world has a fixed water supply and we are not using it well. The availability of clean water is becoming more and more limited for many reasons, of which a major part is energy use. Make the problem simple:

The greatest use of freshwater in the U.S. is to cool electric power plants, comprising 41 percent of the total. Most is withdrawn from lakes and rivers. Of today’s two main power production options — coal and gas — gas uses less than half the water, emits almost no air pollution, and releases less than half the carbon dioxide of coal. Wind power, which is expanding quickly across the U.S., uses no water and produces no emissions.  By reducing demand, energy efficiency also cuts water use and CO2 emissions.

That’s a problem, and it cannot be argued. It is complicated severely by the reality of climate change. But even if one does not accept climate science, this is still a major, global, human, environmental and social problem. Providing water for the current human population, let alone the generations that will (hopefully) thrive on the planet for next several millenia, requires actual changes at every level, including moving toward energy sources that are not water intensive, i.e. coal, nuclear, and gas.

This is as simple as environmental concern can get: We need water.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 30, 2011 at 12:06