Obama on climate change: big talk, not much action

The President’s climate change program offers nothing new to impact carbon emissions.

On June 25, President Obama announced a goal of curbing greenhouse-gas emissions 17% from 2005 levels by 2020.  The key program to accomplish this is “…establish carbon pollution standards for both existing and new power plants.”

This would be the first-ever federal effort to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity generating power plants, the source of about one-third of such carbon emissions in the U.S.  The main strategy is to reduce the use of coal, in favor of cleaner, less carbon emitting fuels, mainly natural gas.

Obama is only a decade behind!  In the past decade (see charts), the electric utility industry has already reduced its coal usage by over 1/3, from 51% of total electricity generation in the U.S. to 37% in 2012, as reported by the Nuclear Energy Institute .

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Natural gas has taken up all of the slack, because natural gas fired plants are physically smaller, can be situated near customers in large cities, have much shorter regulatory approval cycles, and because horizontal deep fracking drilling has made natural gas plentiful and cost effective, now and in the future for North America. Over 90% of the new capacity for electricity currently in the approval process in the U.S.  is for natural gas fired plants. Natural gas’s portion of total electricity will continue to rise, with or without regulation by the federal government.

President Obama’s plan includes other measures meant to reduce emissions, including $250 million in federal loan guarantees for cleaner fossil-fuel energy projects; new fuel-economy standards for heavy trucks; and greater cooperation between the U.S. and major economies including China, India and Brazil. These proposals are either too small to have a meaningful impact, or they lack any specific proposals that could achieve meaningful results. Big talk, but little results will come.

Mr. Obama’s proposals don’t require congressional approval. One can expect legal and congressional challenges to regulating carbon emissions from power plants. But the electric utility industry will continue its progress away from coal, with or without those regulations.



Superstorm Sandy’s urgent message: “Backup electricity”

The images and stories from Superstorm Sandy are too reminiscent of Katrina. Flooded communities. A fractured infrastructure that cannot help thousands of citizens for days. The storm passes but local, state, and FEMA responses, while well intentioned, don’t stop shortages of electricity, gasoline, food, and transportation.

The key lesson is that all of the needed emergency infrastructure runs on electricity. And we can’t depend on the grid in an emergency.  My three point plan for off-grid electricity won’t eliminate hardships, but it will speed the recovery process by days.

Can We Get More Gasoline for Storm Victims?First, require cell towers to have power backup. It can be solar, hydrogen cells, or fuel based. Since cell phones provide the most critical communication system, lets require providers to ensure availability and tax the cellular users to pay for it.

Second, require gasoline retailers to have generator backup. Even with fuel onsite, if they dont have electricity, they can’t serve the public. Too much gasoline is sitting in tanks and not helping the public.

Third, use FEMA dollars to equip local public facilities, especially schools and shelters, with backup generators. The fuel source may be tailored to local requirements. In an emergency, people need a safe, warm place to stay immediately, when their home is damaged.

Lets not wait for another catastrophe to upgrade our infrastructure. We don’t know where and when it will happen, but there is no reason to be unprepared. Off grid electricity is the key strategy for minimizing personal hardships and saving lives.


Time to Rethink Solar Subsidies

Solar prices have dropped by more than half in the last five years. Solar purchase or feed-in subisidies over the past decade were created by the governments of Japan, Germany, Spain, and other countries. America’s combination of state subsidies, especially California, combined with the U.S. tax credit for solar, have also contributed to accelerating the solar learning curve. In the latest Solarbuzz survey, 34% of solar module purchases are below $2.00 per watt, with the lowest retail prices about $1.06-1.10 per watt for silicon modules and $0.84 per watt for thin film modules. The long sought $1 per watt price point has been reached.

Unfortunately for the solar industry, record low natural gas prices have moved the ‘grid parity’ target lower again. And, the global recession has pinched all of the economies that were funding fast solar growth, resulting in greatly reduced or eliminated solar subsidies and reduced demand growth.

Where to go from here? Dieter Helm’s new book The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong- and How to Fix It offers some interesting alternatives. He argues for a carbon tax on all energy sources (not a cap and trade system). A carbon tax would favor solar but also encourage natural gas as a medium term solution over coal and oil. It would be a new source of revenues for struggling government budgets. And it would generate a source of money to fund a broad range of new technology to help solar, such as better energy storage, and reduced solar installation costs.

Green activists won’t like his proposals. Neither will proponents of a expanding a regulatory approach to limiting fossil fuels. So it just might be the right approach for the next policy phase in evolving the world’s electricity fuel sources. And help restimulate the solar market in a time of economic slowdown.

Angst over gasoline prices

U.S. gasoline prices are back in the news, as prices head toward $4 per gallon, and no indication they will stop there. With reduced demand in the winter months, it seems that investors and speculators are adding a high risk premium to world oil prices.  News programs speculate on what the government or President should do.

Angst at the pump

Don’t wait for the government! Here are 5 things you can do now.

1. Form a carpool.  You just doubled your mileage.

2. Buy a hybrid, diesel or 4 cylinder vehicle, new or used. You’ll get to work in the same amount of time. If everyone gave up their V8s, fuel consumption would drop over 50% and gasoline prices would plummet.

3. Buy your gasoline from Sinclair or similar U.S. refiners who own domestic oil. Your dollars get recirculated in the U.S. economy and encourage domestic investment in more capacity, eventually lowering prices.

4. Get a flex-fuel conversion kit.  CNG or ethanol can save money now and when gas prices drop, you easily switch back. This is already the standard in places like Brazil.

5. Public transportation. Don’t buy any gasoline at all!

Speculators represent 2/3 of the trading in oil futures. Right now, they don’t think you are ready to change your gas-guzzling, ride-by-myself-in-my-SUV habit. As soon as you show them differently, they will trade oil short, as fast as they have driven up prices.