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What will be the top green stories of 2014?

8 Jan 2014

greatlakesAs this new year kicks off, we thought we’d look ahead at what we think may be the big stories of 2014 at, in no particular order:

Wetlands – Will EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalize guidance regarding the scope of waters regulated under the Clean Water Act? Or will there be new rules or even new legislation?  There are members of Congress on  both sides of this issue and it is unclear which way this issue will go, although the federal trend is to try and govern as many bodies of water no matter what. This fall, EPA published a draft connectivity analysis which many view as a prelude to new regulations attempting to vest the federal government with broad jurisdictional over virtually every drop of water in the country. It will be interesting if the federal government tries to delete the “significant” portion of the Rapanos “significant nexus” test.

• Hydraulic Fracturing –  this continues to be a lightning rod for controversy.  At the end of 2013, the Associated Press reported on both alleged and confirmed environmental problems in 4 states including Ohio and Pennsylvania.  Michigan looks to beef up its oversight of, and its communications regarding, fracking proposals and operations.  The University of Michigan continues to study the technical issues.  The focus on this issue seems to be shifting toward the volumes of water used in fracturing and monitoring withdrawals used for oil and gas production. It appears that the 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior draft rules for fracking on federal and Indian lands remain draft – will they ever be finalized?

• MDEQ Brownfield Process Streamlining.  MDEQ has promised to convene a short-term task force to work on harmonizing, improving and streamlining the various funding mechanisms currently used to incentivize brownfield redevelopment. This can only be a plus.

• MDEQ Cleanup Rules – as required by the Legislature, MDEQ proposed adopting its previously informal standards as formal cleanup rules late in 2013.  The MDEQ will continue to work on improving and in some cases broadening its cleanup rules and criteria – we expect more work on the assumptions of exposure underpinning the standards, more work on vapor intrusion standards and more work on standards and processes applicable to groundwater venting into surface waters.  MDEQ also continues to discuss more rules and standards defining what constitutes “due care” which is an issue for property owners who are not liable pursuant to a BEA and for other reasons.

• Keystone Pipeline.  As we predicted, President Obama and Congress continue to be locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  The President deferred it and lately the pundits have argued that pipelines are safer than transporting shale oil by truck and train.

• Energy Policy In Michigan – at the end of the year, and after a year of “listening” sessions and collecting information, Governor Snyder indicated that he intends to seek legislation improving Michigan’s energy policies, focusing on lowering costs, improving reliability and minimizing environmental impacts.  This will be interesting.

Insulation update

7 Jan 2014

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

If you see these, you likely need more insulation

Two years ago, we added significant insulation to our attic and the walls of our house. We haven’t seen any icicles since.  I know how much kids like to throw snowballs at them and how pretty they can be. However, they can cause significant damage when melting snow gets trapped behind “ice dams” and they are a signal that heat is escaping to the roof through attic – heat that should be staying in the house.

I know that the investment we made insulating the house hasn’t paid for itself yet, but every little bit helps, and it’s nice to know that the energy I’m buying to heat my home is staying inside as long as possible rather than rushing up through my attic, particularly while we deal with the polar vortex.

Electricity “shaming” comes to Detroit?

21 Oct 2013

My first energy “report card”

About 20 months ago, I blogged about a friend in Palo Alto who had received a summary comparing her electric use to her neighbors and last summer my house got a smart meter with the promise that, at some point, we were going to get access to our energy usage information via the Internet “to better manage my energy costs.”

Well, that day has arrived (sort of) and, frankly, I don’t have the tools to manage my costs but now I feel like an underachiever.

Our “energy report card” came in the mail and you can see, my family is somewhere in the middle when compared to my more efficient and less efficient neighbors.  Apparently, if we only could have matched the efficient neighbors, we’d have saved over $400 last year.  That sounds nice, but other than giving me three canned suggestions (or did they know we have an old basement fridge?), I’m not sure knowing how my usage compares really does for me.

Despite all the LED bulbs I’ve replaced (and I still have plenty of incandescents I’m waiting on to burn out), insulation, a new fridge and microwave and dishwasher, and timers, I  still need to invest more time and money in energy efficient appliances and use them more intelligently – no meter is going to remind my family to turn off the lights when we leave a room or not stand with the fridge open. It is the human element that needs to get smarter.

Thus far, I just feel like my neighbors are looking at me and saying, “he’s the one who leaves his porch lights on all night – D+!”  What about you? Did you get one of these? what are you doing with the information?

Manure Digestion/Energy Generation

14 Aug 2013

Tuesday, I traveled to Michigan State University (MSU) for the start up of MSU’s South Campus Anaerobic Digester (SCAD). Reportedly, this is the largest such digester in the United States that is owned by a university.

Anaerobic digestion converts organic materials (feedstocks) without oxygen into biogas.

Once fully operational, MSU’s digester will use roughly 17,000 tons of organic waste from MSU and elsewhere nearby to produce biogas that will generate over 2.8 million kWh of electricity per year.

Most of the system’s feedstock will be dairy manure from the MSU Dairy Teaching and Research Center, with some food waste from campus dining halls, fruit and vegetable waste from a nearby Meijer Distribution Center, and fats, oil and grease from local restaurants.

Biogas produced will power a 450 kW combined heat and power system. The electricity generated will power buildings on the south side of campus.  Hot water generated will maintain the digester temperature at 100 degrees F and to help heat other nearby buildings.

The solids and liquid remaining after digestion (digestate) will be pumped to a solid-liquid separator; solids will be composted; the liquid will be stored in the larger tank in the photo and will be applied to the land as carbon-rich fertilizer.

While the technology is proven, MSU will test this digester to see how this can be implemented in a cost-effective manner. The payback at this point is projected to be between 7 and 12 years. There may be many opportunities for these to be located near large farm “hubs” and even as part of municipal wastewater treatment – if they can be operated economically.

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.

Invasive Species and Unintended Consequences

12 Jul 2013

One action begets a reaction and another and another

Before I took off for vacation, I decided to finish reading 1493 which may be the most thought provoking book on invasive species I’ve ever read.  Author Thomas Mann takes a look at the last 500+ years of world history, economics, anthropology and environment and explains using interesting vignettes how the world we live in is not anything like the world of 1491.

He discusses topics like:

  • malaria and its relationship to the US slave trade;
  • sugar, silver and trade with the far east;
  • how South American potatoes and fertilizer revolutionized Europe and;
  • once the “eggs were all in the basket,” how European farming practices made almost inevitable the potato blight that virtually depopulated Ireland in the mid 1800’s.

He raises many interesting questions, some of which are still being asked today, as in this article regarding the popularity of the “superfood” quinoa as “gentrifying” or changing the South American farmers who used to eat it as a subsistance food.

A fascinating book which raises almost as many questions as it answers and shows how human actions – sometimes on purpose and sometimes not, have resulted in ecosystems (as well as economic systems) which are entirely foreign to the lands they occupy today.  We’ve blogged about Asian Carp and many of us are aware of invasive species like kudzu and purple loosestrife. But I never thought of wheat, onions, earthworms, potatoes, sugar, bananas and horses as invasive species.  I highly recommend this book.

Payback is a b*tch

12 Jun 2013

As regular MichiganGreenLaw readers know, about 18 months ago, we added insulation to our home.  While three years of data (one before, one of and one after) is not a big enough database, I spent time evaluating at the last three years of our DTE and Consumers Power invoices.  What I learned is that our sense that our house was warmer in the winter and stayed cooler in the summer appears to be accurate.  We saw a reduction in our usage and, while rates vary over time, it does appear that we are saving money.  Now we find ourselves asking how long before this improvement pays for itself in savings?

This is the question that many businesses ask before making alternative energy investments – “How long before I recoup my investment?”  Often, in the post-2007 era, businesses will insist on less  than three years.  Savvy investors know that there are many different methods used to analyze capital projects including net present value (NPV), internal rate of return (IRR), cash flow, profitability index (PI), and payback period.

The payback period method does not take into account the time value of money, the likely increase in costs of energy ($4.30 a gallon of gas, anyone?) and this method doesn’t consider cash inflows after the initial investment is recovered (except the recognition that it’s “all gravy” conclusion).  The payback method’s biggest advantage is it is easy to apply and understand.  However, as more and more authors are writing, this method is misleading and often unfair – as this author notes, no one asks for the payback on home amenities. In short, when making these investments, one must treat them as investments and, taking into account incentives, cash flow, cost of money, projected increases in the cost of energy, (not to mention the ability to market the greener approach or the societal value of a smaller carbon footprint)  consider whether investing in greener equipment or processes is the best use for the company’s funds when compared to other investment opportunities. In many cases it may be the best investment, despite a longer than desired payback period.