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Detroit’s Carbon Footprint – now what?

18 Nov 2014

Not a carbon footprint

Not a carbon footprint

A couple of years ago, my son was watching a cartoon where one character discussed his villainous carbon foot print (a giant foot).  This showed me both how widespread the use of the term “carbon footprint” had become and how little anyone seems to know what to do with or about that information.  A group at the University of Michigan recently released findings calculating the City of Detroit’s cumulative carbon footprint and presented their report to Mayor Duggan’s office.

Not surprisingly, the study reported that some 66% of the City’s emissions come from stationary sources including residential and commercial buildings and another 30% result from transportation. Those are known to be large sources of emissions.

What I found interesting is that 41% of the city’s total emissions are produced in just 4 of the City’s 33 ZIP codes – primarily from the City’s southwest, midtown and downtown areas. Citywide, greenhouse gas emissions totaled 10.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2011 and 2012. According to the report, if you drove from Detroit to Ann Arbor 60 times, your car would emit roughly one metric ton of CO2.  Also interesting is that, on a per capita basis, Detroit’s 2012 emissions are below average when compared to data previously collected from 13 other U.S. and Canadian cities. Detroit’s per capita emissions ranked 9th-lowest among that group—below Cleveland, Denver, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor and Washington, D.C.  Per capita emissions were lower in Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, Seattle and New York City. That one always surprises, but New York with its many tall buildings is surprisingly efficient on a per-capita basis. The report shows that electricity use contributed 45% to 2012 citywide emissions, in large part because of DTE Energy’s fuel mix, which includes 76% coal.

Now that we know where the City’s “low hanging fruit” of CO2 emissions can be found, the City may be able to work on assisting its property owners and businesses to reduce those emissions, which typically go hand-in-hand with cost savings.  That’s often the best way to sell such changes – not based on an environmental change, but based on an economic one.  One more thing for Mayor Duggan’s team to work on.

Energy creativity – thinking outside the box

31 Jul 2013

Has inspiration struck?

Can we produce “clean” energy to: (1) cost effectively enough to put into use, (2) reduce dependance on foreign oil and US coal; and (3) reduce carbon emissions?

Despite a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal discussing Europe’s experience with higher cost, less dependable solar and wind power, the creativity of academia never ceases to amaze me. I recently came across an article about this publication, Environmental Science & Technology Letters and a paper in it about utilizing CO2 emissions from power plants in fluids, where the CO2 was split into positive and negative ions. The ions were then used to create a flow of electrons that could be captured by an electrode, creating electricity. While this proof-of-concept is not yet efficient (i.e., it uses more energy than it generates), the researchers believe that they may be able to turn that around and make it cost-effective. While this wouldn’t reduce CO2 emissions, it could double the amount of energy associated with the same emissions, effectively cutting CO2 emissions in half per kilowatt generated.  If this works (and there’s no guarantee that it will), it would also enable us to continue to use the current grid system.

Just as interesting, and farther along, are the University of Michigan’s experiments, described here, with capturing energy from low flow water bodies.  The concept of hydroelectric energy is not new but UM apparently thinks that they may have found an efficiency that others may have missed allowing energy to be generated without dams and using natural flow rates.

Whether these technologies will turn out to be cost-effective remains to be seen but the ingenuity of mankind certainly gives me hope that we can protect the planet, be efficient and not have to become luddites.

Smart Grid – what is it?

3 Jan 2012

There has been a lot of talk about upgrading our grid to a “smart” grid to improve energy (and therefore environmental) efficiency.  Many of the technologies on the grid are antiquated, and can be up to 50 years old. So, what is a “smart grid” and why don’t we already have one?

In a “smart grid,” everyone on the grid system (from electric generators to transmitters  and distributors to consumers) communicate and work with each other.

A key feature of a smart grid system is the use of advanced technologies that provide participants with relevant, real-time information. These technologies allow generators, system managers, and customers to receive instantaneous information on electricity needs and prices, and to work together to meet electricity needs in the most efficient way possible.  A “smart grid” is likely to have at least three components that the current grid doesn’t have:

  • Sensors so that power quality is being measure in real time
  • Communications that relay data coming from the sensors back to utility operators for them to evaluate and make decisions
  • Controls that allow changes in the operation of the system

In most cases, the utilities still don’t know about a power outage until they get a call from a customer. As utilities put smarter technologies onto the grid, energy savings should be achieved as the grid communicates with homes’ energy management systems so each home can work with a utility to manage power needs.  As a consumer, you will likely be able to know when the power is cheapest and have a plan with the utility that tailors your power consumption accordingly.  The closest thing we have now, is interruptable air conditioning.

The smart grid will become even more important as more and more alternative energies are brought on line such as solar, wind, geothermal and others which will be less consistent than the old standby, coal.  It will take more management to ensure the continued reliability and consistency of our energy system when there are far more, smaller, intermittent generators than there are right now.

In Southeast Michigan, DTE is involved in an electric storage test project in Ann Arbor and is spending Millions of Dollars of Federal stimulus funding on projects such as:

  • deploying a large-scale network of 660,000 smart meters;
  • implementing a Smart Home program which will provide customer benefits such as dynamic pricing and smart appliances; and
  • circuit upgrades, information systems and other improvements.


Top Michigan Green Law Stories of 2011

27 Dec 2011

As we race toward the end of the year, we thought we’d look back at what we thought were the big stories of 2011 on, and in no particular order:

  • Solar Suffers / Wind Farms Move Forward – As we reported, due to a lack of incentives and serious foreign competition, solar companies languished this year and many will not make through 2012 – see posts regarding solar’s suffering; however, wind generated energy appears to be going strong- see posts regarding the progress of wind development.
  • Fracking – something that was little heard of before 2011, received a lot of notoriety as Michigan issued new rules for this gas extraction process, New York evaluated doing likewise, the EPA began to study its side effects in earnest and dueling reports began to be released.
  • MDEQ reorganization – in 2010, there was a lot of focus on legislation intended to move more sites toward closure and while the law passed, the MDEQ did little but thumb their collective noses at the change.  Well, the Director shuffled the staff in hopes of shaking some closures loose – Shake Up At MDEQ .  Time will tell.
  • PACE Legislation – Michigan adopted Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) legislation intended to help fund green energy and energy conservation investments in commercial buildings.  Ann Arbor then became the first City to adopt a PACE Ordinance.
  • New Due Diligence Requirements – As we blogged in Buyer Beware buyers may now need to do their own environmental inspections on residential properties which may chill the sales of refurbished industrial lofts. This comes on top of speculation that some due diligence was deficient as it was not well documented – what are developers and buyers to do?
  • Brownfield Credits Done – Governor Snyder, in an effort to get control over tax credits which did not appear on any government budget, decided that he would cap the amount of incentives given out and eliminate the  wildly successful brownfield credit program. While the public’s focus was on the TV and film making credits, the Governor first froze and then significantly downsized this program just when Michigan needed it most.

Wyandotte to offer geothermal to its residents.

2 Jun 2011

In southeast Michigan, most think of Ann Arbor as the clear cut municipal leader in energy conservation and sustainable practices. You may be surprised to learn about the City of Wyandotte’s new program which will offer its residents the option of geothermal heating and cooling. The geothermal public utility, thought to be one of the first of its kind in the U.S., is pretty interesting.

In a nutshell, geothermal heating and cooling systems make use of the consistent temperatures found near the surface of the Earth’s crust (below 10 feet – the ground temperature stays consistently around 55 degrees F even in northern climates).  A 4-6 inch well is drilled between 300-600 feet deep and a thermal loop of pipe is installed containing a water-based solution. The solution is then circulated through a heat pump (powered by electricity and which takes the place of a furnace or air conditioning unit), where it acts as either a heat sink or a heat source.

According to the City, its geothermal customers should save between $500-$1,000/year in energy costs. The City installs the well and owns and maintains the equipment outside of the home (at a cost of around $10,000) and the equipment placed inside the home (such as the heat pump and hot water heater) would be the owner’s responsibility (also at a cost of approximately $10,000 – after Fed tax credit and rebates).  The City’s Engineer predicts that “in 20 years, the majority of homes will be serviced by geothermal.”  Due to the high start-up cost, I suspect that most residents will wait until a furnace or air conditioner needs to be replaced before taking advantage of the City’s geothermal program; however, if the price of the equipment continues to drop and the payback gets closer to 7 years, this program looks very promising. I’m sure other municipalities and utilities interested in offering geothermal energy on a large scale will no doubt be keeping close tabs on Wyandotte’s newest utility.