EarthTechling Sun, 19 Apr 2015 15:05:16 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Putting a Price on Carbon: A Tough, But Necessary, Nut to Crack Sun, 19 Apr 2015 13:29:45 +0000 Carbon dioxide exacts a cost, that much we know. It’s when we try to take the logical next step – putting a price on carbon – that things get complicated.

The issue is in the news as the province of Ontario moves to join what Clean Energy Canada calls “North America’s largest cap and trade alliance,” the one between Ontario’s Canadian neighbor Quebec and the state of California.

Ontario Green Car

image via Government of Ontario

If you’re not familiar with how a cap and trade scheme works, conceptually, it’s pretty simple: Government sets a limit on the total amount of carbon emissions allowed, requires polluters to possess “allowances” for their emissions, sets up a market through which polluters can sell or trade those allowances, and then gradually pushes the emissions limit downward.

Cap and trade’s big conceptual selling point is that it heads toward a certain target, squeezing emissions out of the economy, but gives economic players the freedom to find their own unique way. Polluters that innovate or otherwise reduce emissions can bank them for future use, or sell them to polluters that weren’t able to meet their limits.  Meanwhile, revenues raised by auctioning allowances can help fund things like renewable energy and energy efficiency R&D, providing tools that polluters can then use to meet the declining emissions thresholds.

Europe has led the way in cap and trade, with the EU Emissions Trading System – commonly referred to as EU ETS – that kicked off in 2005. But the first decade in operation has exposed how difficult it can be to get a cap and trade system to work effectively. As Climate Central’s John Upton recently wrote:

Europe’s carbon pollution-pricing program, which is the biggest in the world, was formed to help curb greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere — but it was created before its economy unexpectedly tanked. When the economy crashed in 2008, demand for energy fell with it, and that has meant that European industry has needed fewer carbon pollution allowances to operate under a business-as-usual scenario than had been anticipated. The glut of allowances that has resulted is keeping allowance prices and revenue low, and it is limiting the effects of the emissions trading system on global pollution levels.

Europe is reforming its market to get supply and demand in better balance, and Ontario is getting plenty of advice on how to make its alliance with Quebec and California function smoothly. One of the questions that will need to be answered is what will be done with the money raised; that’s become a key issue in California, where cap and trade, now in its third year of operation, appears to be working well.

Ontario will also have to decide which segments of the economy are covered by the system (typically, very small players aren’t) and who will have to buy emissions and who might get them free of charge (in Quebec, “trade vulnerable” sectors don’t pay).

It’s these complexities that lead many people to suggest a carbon tax, applied across the board, would be a better way of “putting a price on carbon” than cap and trade. As cleantech venture capitalist Tom Rand wrote this week, referring to British Columbia’s carbon tax:

B.C.’s carbon tax is simple, transparent – and works. Carbon is priced at the source – gas pump, electrical power plant. The cost percolates through the economy. The money raised lowers corporate and income tax. Since its inception in 2008, emissions are down nearly 20 per cent compared to the rest of Canada, while economic growth has been slightly higher. There’s good reason the Economist called it “a winner” that “woos skeptics.”

Alas, it’s the very transparency of the carbon tax – which makes it an easy target for opportunistic politicians to attack – that can make it difficult to implement (or hang on to). Still, a recent U.S. poll out of Stanford University found big support for a carbon tax in general, and even bigger support for a system that promised to be “revenue neutral” by refunding the money raised back to the people. As the Carbon Tax Center wrote:

Both [poll] questions insinuated that “companies” would pay the tax, which may have shaded the outcomes in favor of the tax. Nevertheless, the takeaway is unmistakable: the idea of taxing carbon pollution and distributing the revenues fairly has gained tremendous public acceptability.

Despite that, there’s no currently viable attempt to do a carbon tax here in the United States. Instead, cap-and-trade looks like the best bet to spread “pricing carbon” beyond California (and the limited RGGI program in the Northeast for power plants).

The next state to adopt a system could be Washington, where Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee is trying to get a bill through the state legislature that would apply to big polluters, those that emit more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon per year. The money raised would be spent on “transportation projects, education, housing assistance programs, a sales tax rebate to low-income persons, a business and occupation tax credit for certain energy-intensive industries, and rural economic assistance programs,” according to a legislative report.

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All Signs Point to Solar Power Juggernaut Rolling On Sun, 12 Apr 2015 16:30:59 +0000 It’s not a contest. Renewable energy is no zero-sum game (or doesn’t have to be, at least), and according to the experts, all of it and then some will be needed to keep global temperatures from rising beyond safe levels. Still, it’s hard not to view the growth of the two leading non-hydro renewable energy technologies – wind and solar – in relation to each other.

We reported recently that wind grew quickly in 2014, but solar had itself a very good year as well. And there are signs that it could be in for even more rapid growth.

first solar GE

First Solar panels installed at utility-scale site (image via First Solar)

According to the respected “Global Trends In Renewable Energy 2015” report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance, the world poured $270.2 billion into renewable energy in 2014, and more than half the total – $149.6 billion – went into solar.

It was the fifth year in a row that solar investment topped wind, and what made solar’s dominance all the more remarkable is that it is dramatically less expensive than it used to be. So each one of those billions of dollars was buying more solar than it used to.

Last year, 46 gigawatts of solar PV was installed around the world, a record. In the U.S., the number was also a record, 6.2 GW of PV, a 30 percent increase over 2013, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. With 767 megawatts of new concentrating solar power thrown into the mix, U.S. solar capacity climbed past the 20 GW mark.

Going forward, solar could have several advantages over wind.

First, there’s solar’s versatility. Wind works best at very large scale, and nearly all ($92.4 billion) of the $99.5 billion invested in wind in 2014 went into building big wind farms. Solar can do big, but it can also do small. In 2014, $62.8 billion went into building utility-scale solar, while $73.5 billion went into small projects.

In addition, solar can flourish in places where wind struggles – amid the hustle-and-bustle of humanity, in and around cities and towns. For instance, a study published last month in Nature Climate Change estimated that in California, the “built environment” alone could house enough solar to “meet the state of California’s energy consumptive demand three to five times over.” Essentially there is enough roof space that, were it covered with solar panels, this area alone would generate 3 to 5 times more energy than the state consumes!

Solar is also popular. In a new survey, U.S. homeowners were asked to name three forms of energy they felt were important to the country’s future, and more named solar (50 percent) than any other form of energy.

Lastly, there’s price. While solar has plummeted in price in recent years (it’s cheaper than power from the utility in many US states), there are indications it could become even cheaper. Way cheaper. The German think tank Agora Energiewende believes that in Europe, solar could fall to 4-6 cents/kilowatt-hour by 2025 and 2-4 cents/kWh by 2050.

“Plans for future power supply systems should therefore be revised worldwide,” remarked Dr. Patrick Graichen, director of the Agora Energiewende. “Until now, most of them only anticipate a small share of solar power in the mix. In view of the extremely favorable costs, solar power will on the contrary play a prominent role, together with wind energy – also, and most importantly, as a cheap way of contributing to international climate protection.”

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Wind Surged in 2014, But Can It Keep Up the Pace? Wed, 08 Apr 2015 16:43:38 +0000 Is wind power coming on fast enough to help shift the world off fossil-fuel-generated electricity before temperatures get too high? Depends on how you look at it.

In 2014, Asia, Europe and North America – the usual suspects when it comes to wind power– had solid-to-great installation years. Meanwhile, Latin American (namely, Brazil) became a big-time player for the first time, and it all added up to a solid year for global wind.

All told, 51.5 gigawatts (GW) was installed in 2014, the first time the world cracked 50 GW in a single year, and cumulative global capacity now stands at 369.6 GW, according to the Global Wind Energy Council’s just-released Annual Market Update.

2014 installations

Peering at these numbers through the lens of climate change and the imperative to move beyond gas and coal in the electricity sector (oil in the transportation sector is another challenge), a couple of fuzzy pictures emerge.

First: Wind is doing better than the International Energy Agency — the big dog when it comes to analyzing and forecasting the world energy direction – had imagined. As Meister Consultants Group noted recently, growth has outstripped all but Greenpeace’s “Energy Revolution” projection.

With solar also outstripping the old mainline forecasts, renewables have been taking a bite out of fossil fuels as a share of global energy generation. According to Energy Collective columnist Jesse Jenkins:

The share of renewable electricity (excluding large hydropower) in the global electricity mix ticked upwards from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 9.1 percent in 2014…. The growth of renewables was enough to push fossil energy’s share of the mix down by 1.2 percentage points, according to data compiled by Jessica Lovering, a senior energy analyst at the Breakthrough Institute, from International Energy Agency (IEA) and UNEP/BNEF reports. That follows a 2 percent decline in fossil energy’s share from 2012 to 2013.

That’s the good news.

But last year’s record wind growth amounted to a 16 percent increase, and that’s actually slower than wind’s annual growth rate of 22.7 percent over the past ten years. Which is to say, the wind curve is flattening a bit. That’s what tends to happen as the base grows larger. And that worries the Global Wind Energy Council:

So what does this all mean for markets going forward? It means a period of sustained growth, but with unspectacular numbers, at least as far as we can see now. After slipping just below our Global Wind Energy Outlook (GWEO) Moderate Scenario at the end of 2013, due to 2014’s spectacular growth we are back on track with the GWEO Advanced Scenario for 2014, and will no doubt be for 2015 and perhaps 2016 as well. After that, it becomes more difficult.

With China continuing to go gangbusters, Brazil pushing the Latin American sector, and Europe “steady,” the big wild card might well be the United States. Continued Republican strength in Washington could spell trouble.

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Vancouver Joins the 100 Percent Renewable Energy Movement Sun, 05 Apr 2015 13:30:43 +0000 It’s easy to mock efforts by localities to take on climate change – looked at in isolation and strictly by the numbers, no matter how boldly they move to trim their carbon emissions, the impact will be minimal.

Then again, when you start to add up all those little impacts – and take into account a possible galvanizing effect – the story might change.

That’s part of the thinking in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the city council last week approved Mayor Gregor Robertson’s motion to commit the city “to the long term goal of deriving 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources.”

Robertson’s motion highlighted the fact that San Francisco, Sydney, Stockholm and Copenhagen have made similar commitments in recent years, and in comments the mayor said the move by Vancouver was to some degree intended to send a signal to world leaders.

“Cities around the world must show continued leadership to meet the urgent challenge of climate change, and the most impactful change we can make is a shift toward 100% of our energy being derived from renewable sources,” the mayor said.

Clean Energy Canada senior analyst Jeremey Moorhouse noted, “In the lead-up to the Paris climate talks, Vancouver has just bolstered its reputation as a global cleantech hub, reducing carbon pollution and keeping the air clean.”

The city’s goal is bold, even if it doesn’t come with a firm target date. Thanks to lots of hydropower, British Columbia’s grid is already more than 90 percent emissions-free (although not totally free of environmental impact, of course), but Vancouver’s commitment is to green all of its energy demand, not just electricity. And in those terms, Vancouver is now at 32 percent renewables, leaving it a big mountain to climb.

A particular challenge will be in the transportation sector, where cars, trucks and buses powered by gasoline and diesel still rule. Vancouver is working on a longer-range plan to address the transportation challenges, but it already has been pursuing goals like the making majority of trips in the city come by foot, bicycle or public transportation, and trimming the average distance driven per resident by 20 percent from 2007 levels.

While Vancouver joins growing but still small number of cities taking the plunge and aiming to make all its energy use green, the more modest – but hardly insignificant – goal of 100 percent renewable electricity is in a particular sector is becoming surprisingly common. According to the Renewables 100 Policy Institute’s Go 100% Renewable Energy project:

8 Countries, 49 Cities, 56 Regions, 8 Utilities, 21 NonProfit/Educational/Public Institutions, totaling more than 50.4 million people (and counting…) who have shifted or are committed to shifting within the next few decades to 100% renewable energy in at least one sector (e.g. electricity, transportation, heating/cooling).

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The Sun is Rising Again for EarthTechling Fri, 03 Apr 2015 13:30:57 +0000 For more than five years EarthTechling has been one of the leading clean technology blogs. As you know we stopped publishing new content about a couple months ago.

But today, I’m pleased to announce that after a long look and discussions with several interested parties, we’ve found a new team to drive EarthTechling forward.

The goal was always to be a leader in information that inspired action, and we are happy to see the new owners taking pride in relevant and actionable information. This new team is well suited to continue these efforts while continuing to expand the reach and readership of this site.

More than ever before there are exciting developments in earth friendly technologies. Every day we make steps to bringing cleaner technologies to market. And only through sites like EarthTechling can we bring the latest information on these technologies to the forefront. But it all starts with you. The future is bright and green and we hope you’ll welcome this new team and get involved – let them know what you want to hear about!

Over the coming weeks you’ll start to see new content and new additions to the site that will recapture attention and re-position this site once again as the leading source of consumer focused clean technology.

We sincerely appreciate the support and following of our loyal readers and we look forward to continuing to serve you in the years ahead.


Jason Ridge, Former Owner – EarthTechling

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Choosing A Safe, Efficient Insulation Mon, 23 Feb 2015 15:00:26 +0000 Dear EarthTalk: The cold winter we’re having here in the Northeast has convinced me to finally beef up my home’s insulation, but I’ve heard that spray foam can off-gas noxious chemicals and pollute the indoor environment. Are there safer options? – Rose Donahue, Framingham, MA

Making your home more energy efficient is certainly good for the planet and will cut your heating/cooling bills, but you’re right to worry about chemical off-gassing. According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), most common spray polyurethane foam insulation contains methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, a synthetic chemical that has been linked to asthma, lung damage and even death.

Because of the chemical’s risks, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set the maximum legal limit for MDI exposure among workers who handle it and related chemicals at 0.02 parts per million in workplace air,” reports EWG. “However, independent contractors and the general public, including homeowners who take on DIY insulation projects, may not be aware of these federal regulations or the risks associated with MDI exposure.”

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it was studying whether to regulate, restrict or even ban MDI in consumer products. (MDI is also used in a variety of adhesives and coatings like Gorilla Glue.) “Four years later, the agency has yet to take real action to protect ordinary people who go to their local hardware store and pick up a product that contains MDI,” adds EWG.

There is hope from the West, though, as the state of California has made finding safer alternatives to MDI a priority in its Safer Consumer Products program, which requires manufacturers to look for greener, healthier alternatives. Time will tell if this new initiative in California will move manufacturers there and elsewhere away from MDI. Meanwhile, EWG wants the federal government to step up on the issue and restrict or ban MDI insulation across the country.

Homeowners willing to spend a little extra do have some safer alternatives to polyurethane spray foam at their disposal. Soybean-based spray foam doesn’t rely on MDI or any other synthetic chemicals but has a similar R-value (measuring the strength of the insulation in blocking air) as conventional spray foam. Leading soy-foam manufacturers include Biobased and Demilec. Castor oil-based Icynene is another chemical-free spray foam alternative great for green-minded home renovators.

Cotton denim batting—typically made from recycled scraps from denim factories—is another healthy alternative, but can’t be sprayed in and costs almost twice as much in material costs as spray foam. Sheep’s wool insulation is another effective choice, but also can’t be sprayed in and costs significantly more than foam. These and other greener insulation options are available at mainstream and specialty home improvement stores, and also online via vendors including Green Depot, Green Home Solutions and Green Building Supply.

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An E-waste Blizzard Fri, 20 Feb 2015 16:29:39 +0000 Dear EarthTalk: The collective impact of all the iPhones and other devices we buy, use and then discard must be mind-boggling at this point. Has anyone quantified this and what can we do to start reducing waste from such items? – Jacques Chevalier, Boston, MA

With a record four million pre-orders for Apple’s best-selling iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, it’s more evident than ever that consumers want the latest in smartphone technology at their fingertips. A new report by analysts at German market research firm GfK determined that global smartphone sales exceeded 1.2 billion units in 2014—a 23 percent increase over 2013.

With so many new smartphones and electronics being purchased, are users disposing of their older devices properly? According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, approximately 2,440,000 tons of electronics, such as computers, mobile devices and televisions, were disposed of in 2010. Twenty-seven percent, or 649,000 tons, of that “e-waste” was recycled. Because some materials in electronics, such as lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury, could pose risks to human health or the environment, the EPA “strongly supports” keeping used electronics out of landfills.

“Recycling electronic equipment isn’t quite as easy as leaving it in a bin in your front yard, as we’ve learned to do with paper and plastics, but the health and environmental benefits of recycling e-scrap are tremendous,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Mary A. Gade. “Also, we know that half of the devices thrown away still work.”

If Americans recycled the approximately 130 million cell phones that are disposed of annually, enough energy would be saved to power more than 24,000 homes in a year. If we went ahead and recycled one million laptops, too, we would save the energy equivalent to the electricity used by 3,657 U.S. homes in a year. Furthermore, for every million cell phones we recycle, 35,274 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered. Recovering these valuable metals through recycling precludes the need for mining and processing that much new material from the Earth, thus not only conserving natural resources but preventing air and water pollution as well.

Thankfully, recycling old smartphones and other electronic devices is an easy, typically cost-free process for consumers. Electronics retailer Best Buy offers the most comprehensive appliance and electronics recycling program in the United States, with more than 400 pounds of product collected for recycling each minute the stores are open. Best Buy offers free recycling for most electronics and large appliances, regardless of where they were purchased, allowing the company to achieve its ambitious goal of recycling one billion pounds of electronics and appliances by the end of 2014.

Some charitable organizations, like Cell Phones for Soldiers, also offer free cell phone recycling. Since 2004, the non-profit has prevented more than 11.6 million cell phones from ending up in landfills. All cell phones donated to Cell Phones for Soldiers are sold either to electronic restorers or a recyclers, depending on the phone’s condition. The proceeds from the phones are used to purchase prepaid international calling cards for troops and provide emergency financial assistance to veterans. “Cell Phones for Soldiers truly is a lifeline,” says Robbie Bergquist, co-founder of the non-profit. “To withstand time apart and the pressure of serving our country, the family connection is a critical piece to survival.”

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