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Earth Day 2016 – hopefully this year will be better

22 Apr 2016

NASA_Earth
On this, the 46th Earth Day, I have reflected on both how far we have come and how much further we have to go.  Certainly, our waters and air are cleaner than they were in 1970. Our energy and cars are cleaner as well. However, the environmental challenges our society now faces are more complex and more granular and, therefore, harder to “solve.” Think about algae in Lake Erie and invasive species throughout our lakes and lands – those are much harder to deal with than a handful of industrial polluters.

Given the events of the last year in Flint, Michigan has become the country’s “canary in a coal mine” with respect to lead. More people are talking about lead and know about it than literally ever before.  When John Oliver spends 18 minutes on it on HBO, you know it is permeating the nation’s consciousness.  In some cases, it is possible we are focusing too much on water and not enough on paint and dust.  Despite the political posturing and the recent criminal charges, I do expect that the politicians and regulators will, in the near term, step up  and we will see greater action on lead removal and protection. Unfortunately, that has been the pattern – major environmental problems result in new environmental initiatives.

Unfortunately, the Flint crisis is likely to delay, perhaps indefinitely, the State’s efforts on developing a Michigan energy policy and, despite his recent letter to State employees, regulatory paralysis will likely reign in Lansing. It is difficult to see State agency employees taking anything other than the most conservative of positions to avoid falling prey to the kinds of problems that occurred in and from the Flint crisis – criminal charges have a way of focusing the mind.

The lack of: (i) an energy policy; (ii) a current solid waste policy; and (iii) a fully funded sustainable program to support brownfield redevelopment (although long promised legislation on brownfield incentives was recently introduced) coupled with the greater focus on petroleum transport via pipeline, particularly, under the Great Lakes, makes me wonder how things will look here in Michigan on the next Earth Day.  Michiganders have always had a healthy respect for our environment – we were among the first in the nation to protect wetlands and waters – the 1950’s vintage easement on pipeline 5 under the straights of Mackinac was cutting edge in its time.  Will Michigan resume its previous environmental leadership or will we continue to struggle as we have for the last few years?  Being in a negative national spotlight is not something any of us sought but now that we’re here – perhaps it is time to step up and take a leadership role on the environment as we once did.  It will cost money and effort but the results – our health and the health of the environment are worth it.

Michigan alternative electrical generation – Henry Ford is not a good analogy

5 Oct 2015

utility workA recent op ed in Crains Detroit Business argued that legislation pending in Lansing regarding Michigan’s electrical system is wrongheaded. The authors focus on the proposed elimination of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS requiring 10% of Michigan’s electricity be generated by renewables by this year) by the legislation and argue that the legislation will cost Michigan energy jobs. They argue that  Henry Ford wouldn’t have built his automobiles here if there wasn’t a legislative infrastructure to support buyers of his cars.  I think I agree with the authors that we should retain the RPS, but their argument doesn’t persuade me. I believe that the future will include a greater mix of sources of electricity. It will not be simply large power coal-fired plants owned by large utilities providing us electricity.

However, without any historical discussion, they suggest that Henry Ford located his operations in Michigan because somehow the regulatory climate supported buyers of his cars, because in their words Lansing didn’t “kowtow” to the horse and buggy industry and paved streets and put up traffic lights. That’s simply not true.  Detroit’s mayor Hazen Pingree began a push to pave streets in the 1890’s and Ford didn’t begin production of his Model T until 1908 (making over 10,000 of them in 1909).  The traffic light wasn’t patented until 1918 and reportedly the first one was installed in Detroit in 1920 – again, well after Mr. Ford had begun his operations (in 1920, Ford reportedly manufactured 1 Million cars worldwide).

As most students of Detroit history know, the automobile industry focused on Detroit because Henry Ford was from here, there was a history of manufacturing, and there was easy access to raw materials. There was no amazing roadway system which led Ford to conclude “this is the place to build the automobile.”  In short, it was an accident of luck, history, geography and economics. I think a better analogy is the railroads, which required a dedicated infrastructure as Congress wanted to open the western United States to commerce and did so by granting rights, privileges and land so that the railroads could establish their “grid” at a lower cost.

The authors of the op ed pay short shrift to the discussion of the legislation’s other major change – elimination of net metering, but it appears that they view this as problematic also. Net metering is the current system whereby individuals and small businesses that generate their own electricity can sell it back to the grid.  The net metering issue is not over whether individual electricity generators can or should sell power back to the grid – rather, it’s what should be the price of that sale. Currently, individual generators can sell power back to the grid at the retail price of electricity charged by the utilities. This has been a boon for encouraging individuals and others to put up wind turbines and solar cells. The ability to sell excess electricity at the same price that the utility charges certainly means a faster payback which means more people will invest in it.

Utilities argue that this is a subsidy and they’re right.  Individual generators do not have to meet regulatory requirements relating to the power that they generate, nor do they have the costs of ensuring long-term reliability or the overhead costs of delivering power to consumers.  If you took your home-grown tomatoes to Kroger or Meijer, would you expect the law to require the store to buy them from you and at the same price the store sells tomatoes? Of course not.  In my view, the question is not whether there should be an incentive for individuals to create distributed power but, rather, how much of an incentive is fair to incentivize distributed power generation and fair to those who will continue to depend on the existing grid that will need upkeep.

We have an infrastructure in place that requires maintenance and upgrading for the 21st-century.  This is not a problem with a simple one-size-fits all-solution. The Legislature needs a more nuanced approach than simply blowing up the current system, but let’s get the arguments right.

Musk a modern day Edison? Batteries take a step up.

1 May 2015

Could these be a thing of the past?

Could these be a thing of the past?

One of the common refrains about solar and wind is that the sun doesn’t always shine (actually it does but not always on us) and that the wind doesn’t always blow. In short, solar and wind can’t always provide power when we need it.  Often that means that solar and wind have been consigned as a supplemental resource in our just-in-time power system.  It also has caused many problems between early adopters of these renewables and the power companies as they fight over the price of sales to the grid (net metering) vs charging solar users extra to help support the grid.   The problem has been power storage – our system and technology do not let us generate power and store it for when we need it.

Last night (actually this morning), Elon Musk announced that he wanted the entire United States to convert to batteries – for home, office and business use and that he further wanted the entire United States to fuel those batteries with solar power.  Now, most of us would think that was an amazing futuristic projection. However, Musk is the CEO of Tesla – the high end electric car manufacturer – so he knows about batteries.  Further, he’s the cousin to the CEO of, and a major investor in, SolarCity – a firm that is leasing rooftops for solar panels (and then selling the electricity to the roof-owners. So, when he says he wants to get us off coal, oil and natural gas and onto solar and wind, he’s worth listening to.  He says we can eliminate the grid.

He is now offering for sale the Tesla Powerwall which is a lithium ion batterypack for $3,500 each. It would take about 3 of them to power a whole home but these could be hooked up to a house with solar panels and the panels could be used to charge the batteries which then could eliminate the need to be on the grid at all. He actually thinks we can eliminate all fossil fuel use in the United States – he said that it would take 2 billion battery units to do it but that equals the number of cars driving on the planet today – his thinking being if we can have 2 billion cars, we can have 2 billion batteries.
He’s got a “gigafactory” going up in Nevada to make these batteries and says there will be more. This could change everything about our economy and our environment and could unshackle our economy in ways not seen since the industrial revolution.  Have all the questions been answered about how much this would cost and how long these batteries will last? Not yet, but that was one intriguing announcement and it could lead to some really interesting and positive changes for the planet and our economy.  It looks like the Tesla was merely the wrapper and the battery technology may be the true gift. I, for one, will be watching.

What will be the top stories of 2015?

23 Jan 2015

edit_calendar_ssk_47433454Happy new year!  I know it’s almost February but as this is my first blog post of the year, I thought (particularly after hearing the State of the Union and the State of the State speeches)  I’d predict the big stories of 2015 in no particular order:

  • Wetland Rules – the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finally proposed rules in 2014  to address the fallout of the Rapanos case.  The proposal was met with a firestorm of disapproval, particularly from the farming world.  Will they ever finalize them?
  • Brownfield TIF Legislation – after all that work last year, will the Legislature take up streamlining this program and expanding it to allow Michigan to be even more competitive in redeveloping brownfields?
  • EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress – in September, 2013, EPA issued a proposal for carbon pollution from new power plants; in June  2014, EPA issued a proposal to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants – the GOP and coal and oil interests in Congress have fought this for some time.  Will the rules be adopted and enforced?  Will there be enough time for electricity generators to get alternative plans in place before being forced to shutter their oldest, least efficient and most polluting plants?
  • Keystone Pipeline – President Obama and Congress have been locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline for almost 3 years now – he seemed to indicate in the State of the Union that he’d veto legislation – will he?
  • Energy Policy – Governor Snyder has pushed for an energy policy, legislation is expected this year and the Governor recently mentioned an intention to develop a new energy agency that would make Michigan more competitive for business.  What that will entail in light of the likely changes due to federal regulations will be interesting to see – will Michigan upgrade or discard its renewable portfolio standard? Can Michigan reduce electrical cost while improving both reliability and environmental performance?
  • Water Policy – the Governor’s long-awaited great lakes policy is expected this year.
  • Pipelines – in addition to the Keystone pipeline, there has been a lot of interest in pipelines in, under and around the Great Lakes – could there be federal and state changes there?
  • Detroit’s Water Authority – it is supposed to morph into a regional authority – as I said previously, the easy part was getting to the agreement last year – will the hard work succeed or will it fail, causing major shockwaves for roughly half of the State’s population?

Gas taxes, electrics and hybrids – is Michigan paying attention?

17 Dec 2014

Tesla

A sharp, environmentally friendly car, but also a “free rider”?

Everyone agrees that Michigan’s roads are in awful shape.  Everyone seems to agree on the amount of money to get them into good shape and keep them there (an additional $1.2 Billion a year – although MDOT argues that it may be closer to $2 Billion/year).  What no one seems to be able to agree on is how to pay for that.  With a week left to go this year (and I wonder why they aren’t working through the 31st on this), the House has passed two bills and the Senate has passed another.

Michigan, desperate to fund much-needed road repairs, appears unwilling to take on this issue

The first House bill would amend the General Sales Tax Act to eliminate, over 6 years, the sales tax on motor fuels. The proposed exemption would first reduce the portion of the sales tax that existed before the approval of Proposal A on March 15, 1994. After January 1, 2021, eligible fuel would be exempt from the sales tax. The Legislature’s own financial analysis shows reductions in State and local revenue by approximately $1.1 billion by fiscal year 2021-2022.  The second bill would amend the Motor Fuel Tax Act to replace the current excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel with a single excise tax that would be adjusted annually.  The current gasoline fuel tax is 19 cents per gallon and under the bill, the tax rate could go up every year but could not exceed 32.5 cents.

the number of miles driven is a good proxy for wear and tear on the roads but I wonder if there should be some weighting based on, well, vehicle weight

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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.

What is a 100 year rain anyway?

14 Aug 2014

Anonymous_two_red_diceAfter the recent flooding, news reporters came out and pronounced Monday a “100 year rainstorm.”  What does that mean anyway?  Is this mere hyperbole, like “trial of the century”?

The term has a specific impact for both insurance purposes and for planning.  Your flood risk determines whether you should buy (or whether you are eligible for) flood insurance.  And I assume that, as to sewer backup insurance (there is such a thing), it also affects your rates.  So, given that we’ve had rain storms in Detroit of over 4 inches 4 times over the last 100 years, what is a 100 year storm?

A 100 year rain storm (like a 100 year floodplain) does not mean that it happens only once every hundred years but rather that, statistically, planners believe that there is only a 1% chance of it happening in any one year.  Think about rolling a die.  If you roll a 3 four times in a row (assuming the die is fair), when you roll it a 5th time, its chances of coming up a 3 (or any other digit) is still 1 in 6 or 16.7%.  Weather is a bit more subjective and variable than rolling a die or flipping a coin but the same concept applies. (more…)