Archive for the ‘Power Plants’ Category

Treasury Department Quietly Kicks Coal to the Curb

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Back in June, the administration released details of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. One aspect of the plan is to tilt public financing towards clean energy and to end U.S. government support  for the public financing of new coal plants overseas.

The Department of the Treasury recently issued guidance on implementing that part of the president’s plan. The guidelines are intended to level the playing field for clean energy alternatives and to promote low-emission power generation. The plan accomplishes this goal by ending U.S. support for coal plant funding by multilateral development banks. From now on, the U.S. will not support such projects at all in wealthy countries unless they employ carbon capture and sequestration technologies. In the world’s poorest countries, the U.S. will support only the most efficient coal technology available and only where no other economically feasible alternative exists. The U.S. is the largest shareholder in development banks like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. While the U.S. is in no position to impose its policy on the banks by diktat, the new Treasury guidelines will likely exert considerable pressure to scrub coal plant funding from the banks’ agendas.

The U.S. isn’t going it alone in reining in funding for new coal plants. The World Bank itself has announced that it will limit financing for new plants to “rare circumstances” where countries have no alternative. The leaders of  Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden joined Obama in Stockholm in September in pledging not to fund any more coal projects.

The Treasury guidelines will have no effect on private financing, of course. And political pressure in favor of burning coal is intense, not just in the U.S., but in India and, of course, China – the world’s most voracious consumer of coal. Indeed, the Treasury action is a reflection of the intense political battle being waged in Washington, and arises out of Obama’s reliance on administrative measures to chip away at carbon emissions in the face of Republican obstruction in Congress. In this case, Obama and the Treasury appear to be taking a page from Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook: they’re walking softly and carrying a big stick.

Still Not Gone

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

I hate to keep beating the proverbial dead horse, but Fukushima is the gift that keeps on giving. Or the problem from hell.

Last week I wrote about how the Fukushima disaster had re-entered the news cycle, and not in a good way. After largely vanishing from public consciousness, the stricken reactors had emerged from the memory hole after Tepco, the plants’ operator, announced that massive amounts of radioactive water had escaped from temporary holding tanks and was headed for the open seas. In that post, I described Tepco’s response to the disaster from the get-go as hapless. That adjective hardly seems sufficient to describe the Inspector Clouseau of energy companies.

Following hard on the heels of last week’s announcement that, its prior multiple protestations notwithstanding, the situation at the devastated plants was not contained (and notwithstanding its hallucinatory plan to freeze the ground to prevent contaminated water from leaching into the ocean) comes word that the situation at the stricken plants is even worse than Tepco has ever let on. Or, more to the point, ever knew.

All along, Tepco has reported that the radiation emitted by the leaking water was around 100 millisieverts an hour. Well, the equipment the company was relying on to make those readings could only measure up to 100 milisieverts.  So, apparently, they took that as the actual reading of the radiation level.  Turns out the actual amount of radiation is 1,800 millisieverts an hour.  Garbage in, as they say, gives garbage out.

And how much is that? Enough to prove lethal in a mere four hours. Pause a moment to think of the workers who have been struggling to contain those leaking tanks.

You have to wonder where Tepco got their Geiger counters. Army surplus? Did Tepco simply not have the equipment to accurately measure the radiation? Did it know the amount and hope to keep mum about it? At this point, it scarcely matters. The company, the devastated plants, and Japan at large seem destined to stumble from one appalling revelation to another. Please join me in hoping I don’t have to post about Fukushima next week.

Forgotten But Not Gone (Godzilla Edition)

via Giant Freakin Robot

via Giant Freakin Robot

Last May, I wrote about the strange cloud of amnesia that seemed to have settled over the Fukushima nuclear site in Japan and how the disaster had faded almost entirely from public view, at least in the U.S.  At the time, Tepco, the plant owner and operator, was pouring water into the crippled reactor buildings to keep the nuclear cores cool. Unfortunately, all that water had to go someplace, so it was being stored in a massive 42 acre tank farm. Already, the tanks had started leaking. That jury-rigged system was intended to keep the cooling water (and the copious amounts of ground water flowing into the reactors) from being dumped at sea. Japanese fishermen really aren’t keen on radioactive fish.

Since that post, things have only gotten worse at Fukushima. This week Tepco officials reported that 300 tons of highly radioactive water has escaped from a storage tank and is making its way inexorably towards the sea. Indeed, it may already be flowing into the ocean. This is really a pretty dire situation, and certainly the worst turn of events since the original disaster. Monday’s discovery has definitely put Fukushima back into the news.

Tepco’s response has been hapless from the beginning. Now, in keeping with the whole Godzilla, sci-fi nightmare quality of the situation, the company has hatched a bizarre and improbable plan to keep the radioactive water from entering the ocean. It proposes to build a gigantic, upside down comb-shaped device to freeze the ground between the stricken reactors and the coast. Nothing else has worked so far, so maybe The Big Chill will succeed where every other attempt to contain the free-flowing waste has failed. But this latest scheme smacks of desperation. Perhaps recognizing the almost slapstick nature of the scheme, Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said “It’s like a haunted house, one thing happening after another. But we must take any steps that would reduce risks to avoid a fatal accident.”

Freezing the ground indefinitely may strike us as an absurd solution. It’s easy to invoke images of Godzilla and low rent B-movie nightmares, and crack wise about the sci-fi weirdness of Tepco’s frantic efforts to stay on top of the Fukushima disaster. But it’s important to remember that the original Godzilla movies were not the chuckle-inducing late night movie fare we remember. They were grim and fiercely anti-nuclear parables made in a country which had only recently been devastated by nuclear weapons. For all the mad scientist vibe of Tepco’s latest folly, the consequences aren’t funny. They aren’t funny at all.

The EPA, Greenhouse Gases, the D.C. Circuit, and Political Warfare

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Photo via D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

The Obama administration, increasingly frustrated by Congressional hostility to any efforts to contain greenhouse gases, has turned to the EPA as a tool for reining in carbon emissions. The agency is developing regulatory standards under the Clean Air Act to reduce carbon pollution on a number of fronts. It is coordinating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to promote new technologies with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles by 3,100 million metric tons by the year 2025.  It is implementing rules requiring minimum amount of renewables in transportation fuel, setting national limits on carbon emissions by power plants, and implementing rules which are expected to bring about a 95% reduction of  volatile organic compound emissions from fracking gas wells. Where Congress has refused to act, the Agency has embarked on an aggressive and far-reaching effort to fill the void.

But the agency’s efforts to curb America’s copious carbon discharge may encounter a fatal snag in an unexpected place: the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It is this court, arguably the second most important in the country, which reviews decisions and rule-making by many federal agencies,including the EPA, and has jurisdiction over regulations enacted under the Clean Air Act, the very act upon which the EPA is basing its regulations. The D.C. Circuit Court has a conservative reputation and environmentalists have been growing increasing concerned about the likelihood of it de-clawing the EPA’s efforts. As Steven Pearlstein has written in the Washington Post, the D.C. Circuit represents a “ new breed of activist judges …waging a determined and largely successful war on federal regulatory agencies.”

Without question, the court is well positioned to block the administration’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions via agency action. The administration, however, is determined to counter-balance the political composition of the court. The court currently has three empty spots on the bench.  The administration has put forth candidates to fill the vacant seats, a move which has some Republican politicians reaching for Orwellian political analogies. Senators Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Grassley accused Obama of “court-packing”, as though simply filling long-vacant seats on the court were the equivalent of President Roosevelt’s efforts to expand the size of the Supreme Court, a plan that would have resulted in a total of six new justices at the time. The senators know perfectly well that the D.C. court, like many others across the nation, is under staffed – it’s just in their interests to keep it that way. A dysfunctional, chronically short-staffed, and conservative court is exactly what is called for to keep the EPA’s hands off the climate control switch. The New York Times has called Republican intransigence on filling the court’s vacancies “something not far from a crisis in our constitutional system.”

Readers of this blog are well aware of the necessity of tackling global climate change. Faced with a stone wall of willful denialism and industry resistance, the administration had little choice but to turn to the EPA. The political battle over greenhouse gas emissions has now shifted inexorably to the courts: The Republican’s bone-deep hostility to regulation has assured it. Filling the D.C. court’s empty seats is likely to provoke more than a skirmish. It could turn into a major battle in the country’s – and the globe’s – efforts to keep from cooking itself to death.

Expiring Wind PTC: Who Stands Where?

Photo by Francesco Gola. Some rights reserved.

In the intensifying battle over the extension of the wind energy production tax credit, a new tactic has emerged. The main lobby for extension, the American Wind Energy Association, on Wednesday announced its support for a middle ground solution. AWEA recommends a one-year extension, followed by a five-year gradual decrease in the PTC until it goes away completely. If gradually reduced until 2019, according to industry analysis, the PTC could be eliminated and a minimally viable industry could exist and be able to continue achieving cost reductions.

Our friends at Grist worry that this tactic essentially admits that the PTC is not actually needed, and that other renewable energy sources whose production tax credits expire soon, like solar, are left in a weaker position.

The tax credit, originally passed in 1992, has been extended three times. But now 17 days remain until its expiration, and the stakes are high for both sides.

Conservative groups argued in a letter to lawmakers Wednesday that the credit “essentially transfers taxpayer dollars from your constituents and subsidizes the states with such mandates.” The states without renewable electricity standards, mostly in the Southeast, Appalachia, and the Gulf Coast, generally have less installed wind power.

In addition, Republicans have pointed to the credit as a way to help close the deficit, as it will cost $12.1 billion over ten years. Not all Republicans are convinced, though. Joining many Democrats in voicing support for the extension are Republicans whose districts house more than 80% of wind installations.

Separately, the Department of Energy has offered some good news to the wind industry. DOE announced that seven projects will receive up to $4 million in grants to complete engineering, design, and permitting processes, and three of these will be selected to receive up to $47 million over four years with a target opening of 2017.

For readers to whom the above means anything, it is probably needless to say that DOE is optimistic about the energy potential from offshore wind generation. Data suggest that 4,000 GW of energy could be tapped in state and federal waters, which is four times the capacity of all existing US electric power plants.

Training Energy’s Labor Force

Albany Township, PA. Photo by Nicholas Tonelli, some rights reserved.

As natural gas is booming, the industry is teaming up with the Labor Department to address a growing skills gap. Energy and utility industries are in growing need of skilled workers, especially those with backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math, and apparently these workers are becoming harder to find. Interviewed by The Hill, a Labor Department official expressed concern that the biggest obstacle to emerging energy industries is a shortage of workers with appropriate skills.

One way Labor is addressing the issue is by developing school curricula and supporting workforce-training programs. The Labor Department awarded a $15 million grant to western Pennsylvania community colleges’ training programs that feed workers into the region’s booming natural gas industry. If the program is successful, it could be replicated in North Dakota and other areas with growing energy industries. Energy firms are involved in the effort, donating equipment for training and supporting a nonprofit consortium to develop curricula and offer apprenticeships.

The electric utility industry, too, is facing the challenge of training a new workforce for the changing industry as many workers plan to retire in the coming years. Utilities are seeking workers with a new skill profile, combining electrical engineering with information technology, and sometimes struggling to find qualified workers to work on new “smart-grid” technology.

More Efficiency Standards, and Transportation Finance

Photo by Andrew Curtis. Some rights reserved.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration announced its fuel efficiency standards for cars in an effort to curb U.S. dependency on oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In a related measure, on Thursday President Obama issued an executive order to spur energy efficiency upgrades at manufacturing facilities across the country. Energy efficiency policy, put on the back burner for years, has hardly moved forward despite support from members of both political parties. Some of that support comes from DOE studies indicating that doubling the nation’s industrial efficiency could create 1 million skilled jobs and bring in $234 million of investment.

The directive aims to boost combined heat and power capacity to 40 gigawatts by 2020, an increase of 50 percent compared with today. Agencies will craft best practices and help states encourage combined heat and power implementation. The administration said that reaching the goals outlined in the order would reduce energy costs by $10 billion annually in addition to attracting $40 to $80 billion in private investment.

Combining heat and power facilities to produce both simultaneously on-site is more efficient than having separate facilities. By burning less fuel, the combined heat and power technology reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lowers energy costs. By having a fuel source on-site, manufacturing facilities are protected from electricity outages.

Also in the news are the fiscal policy repercussions of the new vehicle mileage standards announced earlier, because the requirements will make less fuel tax money available for road construction and maintenance. The highway trust fund, which pays for a large portion of road projects, will take a $71 billion hit due to the requirements. Already included in the current transportation bill, set to expire in 2014, are tax loopholes and fee increases to cover a $10 billion shortfall in gas tax revenue. Expect to hear more about financing transportation projects as the gas tax brings in less revenue in the future.

 

 

 

 

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