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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?

Electric Shaming – Part 2 – “I told you so”

15 Dec 2014

1368974_10201396380089655_297288408_nA year ago, I raised the question “has electricity shaming come to Detroit?”  This was after I started receiving the monthly “letter of shame” that DTE generates, comparing my family to our more and less efficient neighbors.  It appears I’m not alone in wondering about this.

Saturday’s Detroit Free Press asked the same question.  The answer appears to be about the same as mine was – most people wonder who are these “more efficient” neighbors and what are they doing that I am not?   Interestingly, the Free Press article says DTE and Consumers can document a decrease in electricity usage after these letters (and emails) start going out – albeit a relatively small decrease – 1%.  In the meantime. I’d appreciate better information on how to save energy rather than just the generic platitudes about switching lightbulbs (I’m working on it), vacuuming out my refrigerator (I do that)  and ditching the old refrigerator in my basement (not going to happen).

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

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.

Planning for global change – low carbon by 2050?

13 Feb 2013

A recent report by the reinsurance firm, Swiss Re raises some interesting possibilities.  The first of which is that Swiss Re says it is possible for 92% of the world to shift to low carbon technologies by 2050 if agreements are put into place by 2015.  Swiss Re reports that low carbon technologies make up 33% of the global power supply.

The report reviewed 6 scenarios for the future:

1. Greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are not pursued and adaptation to climate change is required;

2. Dramatic weather changes lead the world to drastically reduce GHG in 2025, including by building CO2 capture systems;

3. Gradual pursuit of GHG reduction happens, but not fast enough to impact climate change;

4. Research leads alternative energies to become competitive with, and replace, fossil fuels;

5. High carbon fuel prices allow alternative energies to compete with, and replace, fossil fuels; and

6.  Economic recovery and consensus lead to strong greenhouse gas policies to spur investment in green technologies.

The report concluded that options 3, 4 and 5 are believed the most likely to occur.   Interestingly, the report concludes that the cost to shift energy generation, while high, is roughly 20% of the cost of world-wide adaptation to a changing climate.

Sequestration and the EPA

4 Feb 2013

Paul Ryan and many other members of Congress are beginning to talk about calling the President’s bluff and allowing the budget sequestration to occur.  If budget sequestration takes effect on March 1, 2013, according to a September 14, 2012 report from the White House Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), the EPA will face a $716 million budget cut.

The OMB projected that the  following programs would face cuts of 8.2%:

  • Superfund (approximately $121 Million)
  • State and tribal assistance grants (approximately $293 Million)
  • EPA’s program and management account (approximately $220 Million)

Other programs facing similar percentage cuts, but in lesser amounts include: EPA’s science and technology fund; office of the inspector general; leaking underground storage tank trust fund and inland oil spill programs account .

The OMB report stated that these cuts would degrade the EPA’s “ability to protect the water we drink and the air we breathe” and urged Congress to prevent these cuts.  Reportedly, the EPA is developing its 2014 fiscal year budget due out shortly without taking these cuts into account.  February is going to be a very interesting month.

Is Climate Change Moving Up The President’s Agenda?

22 Jan 2013

Hurricane Sandy – a harbinger of things to come?

President Obama dedicated a whole paragraph of his second inaugural address to the issue of global climate change.  In part, he said:  “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”

Many believe that this is the issue of our time.  Recently, a 60 person Federal Advisory Panel released a draft climate assessment report for public review that made some fairly dire predictions.  For the Midwest, the Panel predicts longer growing and shipping seasons but decreased water quality, more extreme storms, more floods and droughts, and declining lake health.  The World Bank released a similar report last November discussing why a 4 degree C warmer world must be avoided. The World Economic Forum issued a report estimating it would cost at least $700 Billion more to support green growth (but they also estimated $100 Billion per year to adapt to climate change).

While some weak efforts at a nationwide carbon cap and trade program died quickly during the President’s last term, sides seem to be lining up to support a carbon tax or to oppose it. Those in favor, like Tom Friedman – see it as a “two-fer” – both encouraging alternative energies by raising the price of traditional carbon fuels and a source of revenue for deficit reduction.  Those against, argue that “the science isn’t clear” and make the typical anti-tax arguments.   The public seems to want to have those in charge do something – but as usual, are not interested in paying more to avoid the problem.  After last Summer, belief in climate change jumped to 70%  -after Hurricane Sandy, I expect it’s even higher.

The President has been quietly, but steadfastly, working to push toward a carbon-less energy system, we shall see if his February 12 State of the Union outlines the energy “Manhattan Project” his supporters have been calling for and if February brings an approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. The next 45 days may tell the tale of whether his inaugural paragraph was serious or just words.