The Good News — 56% of New Energy Installed For First Half of 2014 Was Renewable; The Bad News — 40% Was Natural Gas

New installed Capacity 2014

Good news and bad news. But first, the good news…

For the first half of 2014, a total of 56% percent of newly installed electricity generation capacity within the US came from wind and solar energy sources. In total, that’s more than 3,300 gigawatts of new power from non carbon emitting energy generation for the first six months of 2014 alone.

Solar energy, in particular, saw a major increase from 2013 — jumping 47% in new installed capacity over the same period last year. In total, the US now boasts more than 15 gigawatts of solar energy generation capacity — racing to catch up to US wind generating capacity that now stands at nearly 62 gigawatts.

A majority of new solar power generation came from utility-based projects. But strong new additions in residential solar power also buoyed total additions. The massive leap in new solar capacity was spurred by rapidly falling panel prices combined with much more robust avenues for those seeking to install solar — at the individual, agency, and utility scale. Municipal and institutional solar power generation also saw a substantial leap with government buildings, libraries, schools and churches taking the solar plunge.

Wind showed a substantial recovery from the first half of 2013, which only saw 2 megawatts of new wind after conservatives in Congress spear-headed an assault on the renewable energy production tax credit in an attempt to stymie new alternative energy sources. The blood-letting pushed wind off a track in which it was gaining between 5-10 gigawatts of new power generation annually during 2008 to 2012. Due to falling wind prices and rising gas and coal prices, however, wind appears to be staging a comeback to previous rates of adoption.

Overall, it’s an excellent start to a year that will almost certainly see more major new alternative energy resource additions.

Natural Gas — A Bridge to More Carbon Emissions

As for the bad news, 40% of the new generation capacity came from natural gas…

Natural gas has been promoted as a ‘bridge to clean energy.’ But the fact that each new natural gas plant installation extends the life-time of US carbon emissions is a black eye on this green-washed claim.

It’s true that natural gas emits less carbon when burned than coal. But the ground-water endangering fracking process also leaks a portion of the fracked gas into the atmosphere as methane. And methane is 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over a 20 year time-frame. Adding in the effect of methane leakage makes fracked natural gas as bad or nearly as bad as coal when taking into account the total industrial cycle heat forcing.

In addition, as noted above, continuing to construct natural gas plants now locks the US into an economic commitment to keep burning natural gas far into the future. In this way, on this path, our economy will continue to emit large volumes of carbon well past mid century. And given an immediately imminent and dangerous hothouse warming crisis, we simply can’t afford to keep emitting for so long.

In essence, we should be pushing to have all new energy capacity come from renewables even as we work to shut down existing carbon-fired power plants as rapidly as possible. And the already existing carbon-based infrastructure is massive — composing nearly 430 gigawatts of generating capacity for natural gas and 304 gigawatts for coal. We should be looking at ways to rapidly reduce this massive, carbon-emitting monstrosity. Not continue to add more to it.

In fact, a new research study found that by adding new natural gas capacity, CO2 emissions were increased as the potential for new renewable energy additions were crowded out by competition and as the life-span of fossil fuel based infrastructure was extended. In essence, these common-sense findings are a strong argument for no new fossil fuel based additions at all.

Some of our more rational government officials have paid lip-service to the notion that the US should take a leading role on climate change. And this is a very valuable sentiment. However, real leadership does not involve adding new fossil fuel capacity or seeking new fossil fuel resources. True climate leadership is based in rapidly phasing out the burning of fossil fuels entirely, not locking them in for decades of continued use.

Links:

New US Power in 2014: More than Half Renewable So Far

Memo to Obama: Expanded Natural Gas Worsens Climate Change

US Power Generating Capacity Additions During First Half of 2014

Study: Effect of Natural Gas Supply on Renewable Energy and CO2 Emission

 

 

Oily Spectre of Climate Silence Casts Long Shadow Over American Politics

For more than a century, the fossil fuels industry has exerted extraordinary influence over American politics. This has been true since the boom days of Standard Oil and continues today. At first, this influence was only destructive in that it created a privileged, monopolistic status for a single, albeit important, industry. Yet, today, the destructive nature of oil, gas and coal special interest influence over American politics is coming home to roost.

This year saw three major events that made seriously addressing the problem of human-caused of global warming mandatory to America’s future prosperity. The first was the revelation by a growing number of climate scientists that extreme weather, increasing in frequency and severity since¬† the 1980s, was directly linked to human-caused global warming. This revelation came during a year when the US experienced its most extreme weather ever recorded, its hottest year ever recorded and its most damaging fire season ever recorded. The second event, linked to the first, was a massive and ongoing drought, the worst in 55 years, that halted Mississippi river traffic, devastated the US corn crop, and now threatens US winter wheat. The current drought came at a time when the US West is experiencing its fifth driest period in 500 years and on the heels of a devastating drought just last year in Texas and Oklahoma. Scientists also linked the current drought to global warming — showing in climate models how drought grows worse and worse as human caused global warming intensifies.

But the third and probably most important event was, likely, one that most Americans ignored. This year, Arctic sea ice area fell to its lowest level ever recorded and is, according to many scientists, within a decade of melting out entirely.

These three events sent a climate shock-wave around the world causing NASA scientist James Hansen to state that we are experiencing a ‘global climate emergency.’ It is an emergency that risks violent and freakish events. It is a crisis that will almost certainly lead to the devastation of US agriculture, long term. And it is a crisis in which rising sea levels are more and more certain as the years advance.

Yet both the cause of this crisis — our incessant burning of fossil fuels — and its solutions — reducing and eliminating fossil fuel consumption — as well as the crisis itself remain largely off the political radar. Even worse, in a horrific display of ignorance and pandering to fossil fuel special interests, Mitt Romney proudly proclaimed he doesn’t believe in human caused global warming. Given the insurmountable pile of scientific evidence, he may as well have proclaimed he doesn’t believe in gravity.

But the actions of President Obama have also been far from comforting. Just this week at the Presidential debate Obama got into a rhetorical pissing contest with Romney over whether or not he had increased drilling. And though Obama was correct to assert that drilling had increased under his watch, contesting with Romney over who promotes drilling the most sends a very bad signal at a time when US fossil fuel use needs to start scaling back if we are to prevent a decades-long agricultural catastrophe that would make the Dust Bowl years seem but a prelude.

It is important to note that Obama does vigorously support solutions to the climate crisis. That he has developed wind, solar, electric vehicles and biofuels more than any other president in modern memory. He pushed CAFE standards to 55 mpg, a level Romney has vowed to repeal. Renewable energy production has doubled under Obama’s watch and US carbon emissions are beginning to decline.In addition, largely thanks to Obama’s policies, US energy independence is within reach for the first time in two generations.

In policy, he is decidedly not in the oil, gas and coal companies’ pockets. And for this reason alone, it appears that most of these companies are fighting tooth and nail to make certain Obama is not re-elected. A dirty ‘energy vote’ website and campaign has been started and oil companies are both implicitly and explicitly campaigning for a Romney Administration entirely willing to deny global warming reality in support of more oil, gas, and coal exploitation even as he cuts wind, solar, EVs and efficiencies. Millions and millions of dollars in campaign donations and in SuperPAC advertisements just keep flooding in. Furthermore, a constant stream of misinforming advertisements appears on public TV stations and the internet in a bid by oil, gas, and coal companies to keep the public misinformed.

Perhaps the only corollary to this type of public misinformation campaign is what occurred with cigarettes back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. As scientific evidence mounted showing tobacco products resulted in a drastically elevated risk of lung cancer, cigarette corporations funded advertisements to re-brand themselves, to misinform the public of health risks, and to prevent any government action to inform the public of risks or to curtail smoking in public places where second-hand smoke could harm non-smokers. Eventually the public interest won out. But it took massive and ongoing efforts to surmount the resistance put up by cigarette manufacturers.

But the damage caused by an unrelenting use of fossil fuels will be far, far more harmful than that caused by cigarettes, should oil, gas, and coal special interests continue to dominate both the political debate, the public media sphere and, most importantly, the energy policy creation process. And it is important to note that the power of these fossil fuel corporations is much, much greater than that of the cigarette companies who preceded them. The companies operate on a global scale and many have revenue streams larger than entire nations. We would have to go back to the slave trade, which was a primary contributor to the first US civil war, to find an industry with such wide-ranging political power and influence.

So it should not be a surprise that the American political system, which has been removed of all protection to special interest influence by the extremist conservatives of the Supreme Court in The Citizen’s United decision, is wracked and distorted by fossil fuel special interest money. So we should be more deeply concerned that so heavy a pall of silence over the ongoing harm caused by human global warming has settled upon Washington and casts such a long shadow on the current US election. It is the reason we find Obama forced to contest a political opponent junked up on fossil fuel campaign money in the darkness and in the quiet over an issue so important to both US and world prospects.

Many have blamed the Obama campaign for not speaking out. But this blame is misplaced. The people we should blame are the oil, gas, and coal companies who have poisoned the discourse, who have funded climate change denial at every level, and who are, at every level, trying to gag politicians and prevent them from speaking out on the most important issue of the 21rst century. They are the cause of the current crisis. They are the ones deliberately altering our politics in a blatant attempt to prevent responsible action. And they are the ones forcing this terrible code of silence upon US media and politics even as they attempt to turn the candidates into puppets for their interests.

Chevy Volt Breaks Monthly Sales Records Again

America’s most customer-loved automobile broke a new monthly sales record this August. According to GM, sales figures for the Chevy Volt exceeded 2,800 vehicles for August. The Volt’s previous best sales month was March at 2,289 vehicles.

So far this year, the Volt has sold over 13,000 automobiles in the US and is on track to sell nearly 20,000 by the end of this year. Worldwide, the Volt has already sold over 25,000 vehicles in 2012.

In 2011, the Volt was the highest-rated vehicle for customer satisfaction. This despite a wide-ranging political attack by republicans and oil-special interest sources to discredit the vehicle.

The Volt’s revolutionary engine system allows the vehicle to travel for 40 miles in an all-electric mode before switching to gasoline assisted driving. Many Volt drivers report making it more than 1,500 miles between fill-ups in day-to-day driving.

If large portions of the US vehicle fleet were made up of cars like the Volt, it would drastically reduce oil imports. Just a 30% market penetration of plug-in electric hybrids could cut US oil consumption by as much as 2.5 million barrels per day. That’s more than twice the domestic oil produced via Eagle Ford and Bakken combined.

In addition, the Volt emits far less in the way of greenhouse gasses. According to the EPA, the Volt emits 84 grams of carbon per mile averaged over its lifetime. In comparison, a similar-sized combustion engine sedan emits four to five times as much carbon over its lifetime. Considering that personal vehicle transport accounts for 20% of CO2 emissions, a world-wide adoption of vehicles like the Volt could cut total emissions by as much as 15%.

This beneficial reduced fuel demand, however, is likely to eat into oil company profits. Which is probably one reason why the Volt has drawn flack from certain media and political circles. Increasingly, these sources have towed the oil industry line in messaging, both denying global warming and simultaneously attacking any replacements for fossil fuel energy. This destructive attempt at market domination would result in vast harm to technological progress as well as call into question the future health and even continuance of civil society should the worst impacts of climate change emerge.

So one should take any such dissuasion with a grain of salt. These aspersions hold no value and result only in harm to US interests and world climate security.

Natural Gas: Better Than Coal, But No Solution to Global Warming

The good news? CO2 emissions for the US have fallen to levels not seen since 1992.

This is amazing progress and is due to a number of positive steps taken by the US since 2007 when CO2 emissions peaked at 6 billion metric tons per year. Since that time the US has enacted efficiency policies and provided incentives to increase electricity production from wind and solar energy sources. We have added 500,000 barrels per day of biofuels production and we have cut coal use by 20%.

Wind and solar energy installations have multiplied to such an extent that states like Colorado, at times, have seen as much as 50% of electricity production coming from alternative energy sources.

Now for the bad news: the cuts to coal burning in the US, a major factor in lessening US CO2 emissions, have come in large part due to an increase in supply of low-cost natural gas.

It is worth noting that natural gas is far less toxic an energy source than coal. Coal pumps masses of poisons, including mercury into the air and water supply. It also emits two times the level of CO2 when compared to natural gas. Sadly, the result for US coal has been that, though plants have idled here, much of our coal is being shipped overseas to places like China who burn it instead. So what would seem to be a net decrease in carbon emissions is merely a shifting of carbon emissions to another place on the globe.

Natural gas is also still a significant carbon emitter. And the process by which the gas is extracted, increasingly, relies on a fracking technology that pumps extra methane into the atmosphere. Methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a global warming source and many studies have shown that volumes coming from fracked wells are significant.

But perhaps most importantly, increasing use of natural gas risks continuing fossil fuel dependence at a time when it is absolutely necessary to begin reducing carbon-based energy use overall.

The International Energy Agency, the world’s premier energy watch-dog, noted:

“Natural gas is not the answer to this problem. Gas-fired plants may emit only half as much carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour generated than coal-fired plants, but by 2025 the amount emitted will be higher than the average for the entire electric system.”

Natural gas dumped on the US market may have the net effect of crowding out renewable energy sources at the exact moment when it is necessary to rapidly build them. Gas has been labeled the ‘crack cocaine’ of the utility sector. Prices tend to be volatile. During boom times, like now, utilities tend to gobble up all the low cost gas they can find, going on a binge of overbuilding gas generators and neglecting other, more stable, energy sources. Over time, demand increases, drawing up the boom’s slack. Eventually, demand pushes up against supply and prices skyrocket. The result is that utilities are left with a glut of natural gas infrastructure and idle plants as they scramble for other energy sources. And the most readily available substitute for gas happens to be coal, completing the crash phase of a vicious and destructive energy cycle.

This crack-cocaine, high-low effect can have some pretty terrible economic consequences for utilities, especially if they fail to predict the booms and busts.

Some have said that the shale gas boom is different. But, already, new gas supply has leveled off and prices have stabilized. With demand for natural gas still rising, it seems likely that costs will rise over the next few years. The potential exception is that enough renewable energy infrastructure could displace the need for natural gas, continuing to push prices down.

And this brings us to a serious problem. If we are to adequately address the issue of climate change we must have mechanisms in place that prevent low-cost fossil fuels from flooding the market and increasing CO2 emissions. To this point, despite the fact that US CO2 emissions have fallen, world CO2 emissions keep rising every year. A shift to natural gas in the US will only serve to increase the overall world production of CO2. So policy measures that increase the cost of carbon, to reflect its damage to the climate, will need to be put in place lest we rapidly find ourselves in a situation we can’t back out of.

Boom and bust natural gas, for this very reason, is a false path to reducing CO2 long-term. It results in net increases in emissions and continued dependence on the very fossil fuels we need to ween ourselves from.  And it threatens to undermine the more stable and economically viable long-term energy sources like wind and solar.

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