Low-Carbon Fuel Rules

California is about to add to its record of leadership on clean energy policy with its innovative Low-Carbon Fuel Standard that goes into effect January 1. We highlight the program and its likely impact on alternative energy sources for transportation today at MIT TechReview.com in “Low-Carbon Fuel Rules”. As the tagline states, “California is about to implement a standard to boost cleaner fuels and punish the rest.”

One point is that California’s LCFS may not deliver the knock-out blow to Canada’s carbon-intensive tarsands that many climate change activists continue to hope for. Gasoline and diesel fuel refined from the tarsands’ asphaltine bitumen may escape being banned if its producers emphasize energy efficiency according to UC Davis’ Daniel Sperling.

Another observation I’ll be following up is the cohesiveness of the biotech industry. In the face of regulatory innovations such as the LCFS that would disadvantage corn ethanol production and advantage cash-hungry innovators developing more carbon-smart advanced biofuels, the latter seem to be quietly defending the status quo.

Then there’s the California standard’s nuanced approach to diesel, which is not addressed in the TechReview piece but which Carbon-Nation spotlighted last summer. The short take is that the LCFS mandates separate and equal reductions in the carbon footprint of the gasoline and diesel fuels sold in California. That approach eliminates the possibility that diesel use will be incentivized as an alternative to gasoline. The reason? California regulators believe that even today’s ‘clean diesels’ release more than their share of soot, which is a major cause of premature mortality and also a potential contributor to climate change in its own right.

We explore the climate challenge and opportunity posed by soot in the September issue of Discover magazine. See “The Easiest Way to Fight Global Warming?”

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Obama Ratchets Up CAFE to Match California’s Standards

President Obama gathered auto executives, auto workers, environmentalists, and top federal and California officials at the White House this week to unveil a new consensus on fuel economy standards. His plan will harmonize the federal government’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards (better know as CAFE) with tougher tailpipe standards for CO2 poised to take effect in California and 17 other states.

Obama traded up, according to close Detroit observer Jim Motavalli, who writes in  the New York Times’ Wheels blog that the new-and-improved CAFE is “roughly equivalent to those proposed under California’s tailpipe greenhouse-gas program.” As Motavalli and others noted, automakers had no choice but to join Obama and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s  march to higher efficiency, with the feds holding their much-tightened purse-strings.

CAFE will start rising in 2012 and reach 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2016, with a fleetwide average of 35.5 mpg. That’s quite a jump from the current standards of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 for trucks. It’s quite an acceleration from the CAFE boost approved by Congress and President Bush in 2007, which would have not have reached a combined average of 35 mpg until 2020.

This is very good news for technology developers. As your author documented in early 2008, the 2007 upgrade would have required minimal implementation of next-generation technologies — such as advanced electric drivetrains and light-weight composite parts — that will be required to put personal transport on a path to sustainability.

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Sarkozy Keeping Nuclear Atop France’s Energy Pile

french-president-nicolas-sarkozy-at-flamanvilleFrench president Nicolas Sarkozy was in Normandy last week at the construction site of France’s first new nuclear reactor in two decades, highlighting plans to commence a second new reactor and,  according to Paris-based daily Le Monde (Google translation here), calling nuclear energy a key part of the country’s economic recovery plan. The move is evidence of further diversity in how countries are seeking to shape their energy futures via recovery plans, as President Barack Obama negotiates with Congress to keep renewable energy atop his plan and Canada’s latest budget pursues a heavy emphasis on carbon capture and storage.

A who’s-who list of French corporate heavyweights angling for a piece of Sarkozy’s action leaves no doubt that government dollars impact industrial strategy. French state-owned power giant Electricité de France (EDF) is building the reactor at Flammanville that Sarkozy visited last week, using the third-generation EPR reactor designed by French nuclear technology firm Areva. But Sarkozy says a second EPR to be built further up the Normandy coast at Penly will unite EDF and France’s number two player in electricity, GDF Suez; Reuters reported today that French oil and gas firm Total also wants a “double-digit” stake in the project.

Continue reading “Sarkozy Keeping Nuclear Atop France’s Energy Pile”

Canadian ‘Stimulus’ Targets Carbon Capture & Nuclear

canadian-prime-minister-stephen-harper

Canada’s Conservative government unveiled a budget yesterday with an energy balance distinctly different from that contemplated by President Obama in his economic stimulus package. “Green Causes Left Out of Budget” is how the Toronto-based National Post headlined its coverage of the Canadian budget proposed yesterday. Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hebert writes that environmentalists may be the only “constituency, friendly or hostile to the Conservatives, that will not get a piece of the multibillion-dollar stimulus package.”

Whereas Obama’s $819-billion stimulus package proposes to give renewables a big boost, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s C$33-billion (US$27-billion) ‘Economic Action Plan’ would leave unchanged Canada’s EcoEnergy support program for renewable energy. Canadian Wind Energy Association president Robert Hornung predicts the program may run out of cash before the end of the coming fiscal year, blunting the industry’s ability to draw investment amidst a superhot U.S. market:

“Our ability to compete with the United States for investment in wind energy projects and manufacturing opportunities will decline as a result of this budget. At a time when the United States has made measures to support renewable energy deployment a key component of its plans to stimulate the US economy, Canada is moving in the opposite direction.”

Continue reading “Canadian ‘Stimulus’ Targets Carbon Capture & Nuclear”

Clim’ City Animates the Climate Challenge

clim_city2French science center Cap Sciences takes flash-based learning to new heights in a free online game launched this week: Clim’ City (click Le Jeu to play). At present this climate change adventure is for those of you who read French or set learning to do so as a New Year’s goal. But here’s to hoping that Bordeaux-based Cap Sciences gets an English version out quick because this educational game is a beautifully crafted and ingeniously programmed device for learning the contingencies and costs that lie ahead on the road to a low-carbon energy future.

The action in Clim’ City takes place on a small map of an imaginary town animated by commuters driving here and there and all manner of agricultural, industrial and even entertainment operations (including a ski hill) energetically going about their business. The goal is to reduce the “Clim’s” carbon footprint and thus avert the town’s demise by tweaking the way its actors produce and consume energy.

Playing such games turns information into knowledge. According to the international Association of Science-Technology Centers’s program International Action on Global Warming, the gamers at Cap Sciences hope players will do some informed pondering of such questions as:

Why is global climate change accelerating? What kind of climate can we expect by the year 2100? What human activities contribute most to the emission of greenhouse gases? And how is it possible to reduce these emissions?

In my first stab at Clim’ City I have converted the town’s carbon-belching coal-fired power plant to biomass. To do so I was forced to first launch a forest management program, which really brought home the fact that collecting biomass to generate a meaningful amount of energy is, in itself, a substantial and complex task.

My powerplant conversion also came with an opportunity cost, drawing down my limited supply of government, corporate, and individual action points. In the words of International Action on Climate Change, this was a powerful reminder of the “sociopolitical constraints” facing decision makers today.

I’m not deep enough in to Clim’ City to know whether mine is going to make it. If accounts in the French press and blogosphere are to be believed there’s a good chance it won’t. This is a tough game and failure appears likely — at least early on — which imparts a healthy dose of realism.

But even if the Clim’s get cooked under my leadership, I can’t help learning.

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This post was created for the Technology Review guest blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies

Saying Adieu to the Mighty UCTE

By summer the Union for the Co-ordination of Transmission of Electricity (UCTE), whose 240,000 kilometers of high-voltage lines connect 26 European countries, may cease to exist. Europe is not giving up electricity. Electrons will still flow on the world’s largest interconnection of power grids. Rather, the 57-year-old UCTE will be subsumed within a new and broader organization designed to, among other improvements, make Europe’s grids renewables-ready: the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E).

CEOs from 42 transmission system operator companies in 34 European countries unanimously decided to create the new association last month. Whereas UCTE was limited to ensuring the interoperability of largely self-sufficient national grids, ENTSO-E is to play a proactive role in coordinating grid development to create a truly European grid that can operate on a larger scale. This is exactly what’s needed as Europe increasingly seeks to widely distribute electricity generated from concentrated renewable resources such as wind power in the North Sea and Baltic Sea and Mediterranean solar power.

Moving power across regions implies a European-scale supergrid, while the European Commission (EC) has struggled simply to add small interconnections between the states. Last month for Spectrum Online I profiled the EC’s latest desperate attempt to overcoming inertia in transmission expansion: recruiting high-profile volunteers to sell the interconnections.

One of those volunteers, Władysław Mielczarski, the Polish electric power engineering expert whom the EC recruited to unstick projects connecting Poland to Lithuania and Germany, minced no words in describing his best efforts to get things as no substitute for European institutions dedicated to grid planning. “If we’re going to do a professional job on interconnection,” said Mielczarski, “we must have professional people working full time, and we must have more support from the commission.”

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This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Should Carbon Capture Capture Carbon Credits?

Click image to see IEA's Nobuo Tanaka zeroing in on CCS at Poznan
Click image to see IEA's Tanaka on CCS at Poznan

International climate change negotiators gathered in Poznan, Poland to draft a follow-on to the Kyoto protocol appear to have rejected the talks’ most controversial proposal: giving a big boost to carbon capture and storage (CCS), whereby carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power plants is trapped deep underground. The proposal was to award carbon credits to developing countries that installed CCS equipment — credits that they could then sell to industrialized nations or companies — but this morning opponents successfully tabled the proposal until next June, according to climate policy blog Climatico.

Countries pushing the credits-for-CCS proposal included Japan, Norway, Australia and Canada. All are major coal consumers eyeing CCS to meet their own greenhouse gas reduction targets and/or oil and gas producers that could dual-purpose captured CO2 for enhanced oil recovery. Japan and Canada also figure among the nations furthest behind in meeting emissions cuts mandated by the Kyoto protocol, and could be big buyers of CCS-generated carbon credits.

International Energy Agency executive director Nobuo Tanaka had also added his support (see video). Tanaka calls credits a means of accelerating development of capture and sequestration technologies, which the IEA sees as crucial to control emissions in countries such as China that will remain heavily dependent on coal for decades to come. “These technologies need all the financial help they can get,” says Tanaka.

But the idea remained red-hot among the climate activists swarming Poznan this week as it unites a controversial technology with an already controversial program. They see carbon sequestration as a potentially risky technology that could delay the transition from coal to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy. Meanwhile the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which manages the awarding of carbon credits to developing nations, attracts scorn from those who see carbon trading as a numbers game by which countries will avoid making real emissions cuts.

Many question whether emissions cuts certified for millions of dollars worth of credits under the CDM wouldn’t have occurred anyway — whether they offer ‘additionality’ in the UN lingo flowing in Poland this week.

The UN acknowledged possible problems after spot-checking a leading CDM certification firm and identifying a series of “non-conformities” in its auditing practices. The firm, DNV Certification AS, was suspended but insists it is addressing the concerns identified to regain its accreditation.

Poznan’s ministerial-level talks start tomorrow and should wrap up Friday. Unless they pop CCS back onto the agenda the credits proposal will be stalled until next June’s followup meeting in Bonn. That meeting is a prelude to the big game that will define global energy policy: final negotiations and, if all goes as planned, the signing of a ‘Kyoto II’ treaty in Copenhagen next December.

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This post was created for the Technology Review Editors Blog: Insights, opinions and analysis of the latest in emerging technologies