An Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle warning fellow conservatives off continued climate denial, lest the GOP be left out of climate change policy decisions altogether as public opinion swings behind the scientific consensus. There’s still plenty of FUD and straw man partisan BS in its language, but the fact of climate change and the farce of painting it as some kind of hoax is called out loud and clear.
The NRDC has a plan that would allow the EPA to regulate GHG emissions from existing power plants, without either capitulating to the power sector, or banning coal outright immediately (which would be politically… uh, difficult). The trick is to use fleet-based target, as we do with vehicle emissions standards. The natural (regulatory) unit is the state, so each state could have its own carbon intensity targets or degression pathway, tailored to its initial generation mix. The carbon intensity would decline over time, eventually squeezing coal out of the mix, and could allow energy efficiency improvements to count toward the goal, at least initially. It really amounts to a kind of back-door cap-and-trade for the power sector, and it can be implemented by Obama, all on his lonesome, without any help from the intransigent congress. The hard part here will be setting stringent enough long term targets. 40% reduction by 2025? 90% reduction by 2050?
The Union of Concerned Scientists has gone through the catalog of America’s coal plants, and found hundreds of mostly small, old, polluting, inefficient generating units that just aren’t worth operating any more, even on a purely economic basis. They looked at several different sets of assumptions, including different natural gas prices going forward, a price on carbon, whether or not the competing natural gas fired generation would need to built new, or whether it existed already with its capital costs paid off, and whether or not the production tax credit for wind ends up being renewed. In all of the scenarios considered, they found substantial coal fired generation that should be shut down on purely economic grounds, above and beyond the 288 generating units that are already slated for retirement in the next few years. They also found that some companies — especially those in traditionally regulated monopoly utility markets in the Southeast — are particularly reluctant to retire uneconomic plants, and suggest this may be because they can effectively pass on their costs to ratepayers, who remain none the wiser.
A couple of months ago I finished reading Jan Gehl’s book Cities for People, and I’ve seen Boulder differently ever since. I’m both more frustrated with it as it is today and more excited about what it could be in 20 years. Where before I might have been diffusely irritated by or in love with a place, I’m now explicitly aware of details that enhance or degrade its functionality for humans. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It’s short, it’s filled with pictures, and unless you’re a die-hard motorist or collapsitarian neo-primitivist, I think you’ll find its case persuasive. You can watch him give a talk about the book in NYC on YouTube too, if you want another preview.
Gehl is a Danish architect who’s lived and worked in Copenhagen for the last 40 years, designing urban spaces for human beings. His first memory of the bicycle is riding away from the city as a small boy with his father, all day and all night, to escape the Nazi occupation. In his childhood, Copenhagen was dominated by pedestrians and bicycles. By the time he’d become a young man, the city was being occupied not by an invading army, but by automobiles. He was trained as a modernist architect, in the tradition of Le Corbusier’s isolated towers surrounded by parklands and freeways — a tradition Gehl almost immediately rebelled against — but in the 1960s, few wanted to hear about cities for people. Somehow, human and humane cities were not part of society’s vision of The Future. A devastated continent was being re-built in the modernist mold, and re-designed to accommodate cars, but by the early 1970s citizens across northern Europe had begun to question that vision. A lot of the resistance to transforming Europe’s cities into automobile friendly spaces didn’t come from environmental concerns as we see them today. Rather, re-making cities to work well for cars ended up degrading the quality of urban life dramatically. Jane Jacobs said we’d either erode our cities with cars, or the cars would suffer attrition at the hand of good cities. Then the first OPEC embargo highlighted the economic risks associated with oil dependence. We chose erosion in the US, but many European cities chose attrition. Energy economics, the quality of urban life, and environmental concerns together were enough to convince these nations to re-consider their Modernist visions of the future, and they revolted against the automobile invasion.
The NY Times looks at the trade-offs between requiring or encouraging helmet use, and actually getting people to ride bikes. American Bike Advocate Sacrilege, perhaps, but I agree: if we want cycling to be mainstream everyday transportation, the helmets and the spandex are going to fall by the wayside, and that’s fine. Promoting helmet use in the US has become a rational astrology: a norm we conform to no matter whether we believe it to be justified, because the social consequences of deviance are too large.
NRDC blogs about a new study on federal use of discount rates in calculation of carbon costs, which suggests we grossly underestimate the present value of reducing emissions. Did you even know that the feds had put an internal price on CO2? They behave as if it costs $21/ton to emit. But that’s based on a discount rate of around 3%, which is the highest rate OMB suggests using for inter-generational costs. Part II of the very detailed NRDC post is here.
Minneapolis is Xcel’s home town, and a much bigger market than Boulder. The city is now talking about allowing their franchise agreement to lapse, in order to pursue more aggressive renewable energy policies than state law will allow if they’re served by the monopoly utility. The article gives a nod to Boulder’s votes over the last two years to explore the alternatives to franchise agreements, including the formation of a municipal utility. It’s great to see another much larger city looking at its options, and as far as pushing the overall utility business model to change, it’s great to see this happening within Xcel’s service territory. There’s a threshold out there somewhere, beyond which the current arrangement is no longer stable, and even the utility will start begging for something different. The faster we can get there, the better.
A presentation from Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, exploring Why Rooftop PV is so much cheaper in Germany than the US. Their feed-in tariff started out quite generous, and has declined predictably over the last several years, which has resulted in the rooftop PV market growing enormously, while installers have been forced to dramatically reduce costs. To the point where today, it’s about half the cost per-watt-installed to get PV in Germany that it is in the US. The physical hardware is the same price, but the process is much easier, and the businesses involved in it much leaner. Good old fashioned German engineering at work, but in the policy realm.
NREL took a nice long look at different ways to design feed-in tariffs (PDF) in July of 2010, based on the past decade’s worth of experience, both in the EU and several US states. It’s 144 pages long and aimed at policymakers… so, not exactly light reading. But if you really want to know how these things work (or fail), it’s great.
I just finished reading Renewable Energy Policy by Paul Komor (2004). It’s a little book, giving a simplified overview of the electricity industry in the US and Europe, and the ways in which various jurisdictions have attempted to incentivize the development of renewable electricity generation. The book’s not that old, but the renewable energy industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, so it seems due for an update. There’s an order of magnitude more capacity built out now than ten years ago. Costs have dropped significantly for PV, but not for wind (according to this LBNL report and the associated slides). We’ve got a much longer baseline on which to evaluate the feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards being used in EU member countries and US states. I wonder if any of his conclusions or preferences have been altered as a result? In particular, Komor is clearly not a fan of feed-in tariffs, suggesting that while they are effective, they are not efficient — i.e. you end up paying a higher than necessary price for the renewable capacity that gets built. This German report suggests otherwise, based on the costs of wind capacity built across Europe. Are the Germans just biased toward feed-in tariffs because they’ve committed so many resources to them? NREL also seems to be relatively supportive of feed-in tariff based policies, but maybe this is because the design of such policies has advanced in the last decade, better accounting for declines in the cost of renewables over time, and differentiating between resources of different quality and utility.