Weekly Mulch: What's Missing from the New Clean Energy Agenda?

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

Nuclear power, biofuels, clean coal: These are the Obama administration’s answers to climate change. The 2011 budget, released this week, promised new loans for the construction of nuclear power plants, and on Wednesday the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), White House, and other departments detailed steps to encourage ethanol and clean coal production.

These initiatives may garner support from conservatives, but their ascendancy comes at a price. Support for renewable fuel sources, like wind and solar, has dwindled. President Barack Obama did encourage Senate Democrats to pass a climate change bill, but some moderates are bucking the cap-and-trade provisions that could tamp down carbon emissions. Those moderates are pushing for legislation that leaves carbon caps out entirely.

It hasn’t been a good week for climate advocates. On top of the Obama administration’s overtures to crusty, old energy industries, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has had to fend off pressure to resign. The IPCC published a report with a badly sourced fact about the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are melting, and when scientists pointed out the error, Pachauri would not cop to the mistake. (If you missed the beginning of this to-do, Mother Jones‘ Kate Sheppard covered the controversy back in January.)

Given this country’s weak efforts to tamp down carbon emissions, though, perhaps the IPCC’s prediction that those glaciers likely will disappeared by 2035 will turn out to be accurate.

New nuclear plants—but at what cost?

Obama’s budget, as Sheppard reports at Mother Jones, is upping funding for nuclear plant development, even though previous nuclear projects have run wildly over budget. The president has always supported increased nuclear production. As an Illinois Senator, Obama had Exelon Corporation, the country’s largest nuclear operator, in his constituency. The company continued to support him as a presidential candidate. The proposed funding runs in the neighborhood of $54.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects. That’s good news for an industry that’s in need of cash. As Sheppard explains, without governmental backing, these plants would have little chance of being built.

Even as public opinion toward nuclear power has warmed, projected construction costs for new plants have soared, with a single reactor now estimated to cost as much as $12 billion,” she writes. “In fact, the outlook for nuclear plants looks so dire that even Wall Street banks have balked at financing them unless the government underwrites the deal.”

The Obama administration is also backing research into nuclear waste disposal, a prerequisite for nuclear expansion. No matter how “green” nuclear energy production might be, so far there’s no safe, sustainable way to deal with its by-products. Finding a long-term solution for nuclear waste disposal will not come cheaply.

Biofuels move us backwards

The administration’s support for biofuels was bigger slap in the face to environmentalists, though. Just a few years ago, ethanol made from corn or switchgrass ranked high on the list of renewable fuels that could spring America from its Middle East oil addiction. In practice, however, biofuels have proven more environmentally destructive and less efficient than advocates had hoped. With farmers in the Midwest knee-deep in corn marked for ethanol production, though, backing away from biofuels is politically dicey.

The consequences are more than political, however. At Grist, Tom Philpott argues that support for biofuels will ultimately drive global carbon emission up, rather than down.

“As ethanol factories continue sucking in more and more corn, plantation owners in places like Brazil and Argentina will put more grassland and even rainforest under the plow to make up for the shortfall, resulting in huge carbon emissions,” Philpott writes. “That dire effect of our ethanol program, known as indirect land-use change, likely nullifies any scant climate benefits from ethanol.”

It’s not just corn and switchgrass that pose a problem, either. As Gina Marie Cheeseman reports at Care2, algae farms, another potential source of biofuel, face their own challenges. Algae demands high energy input and could release more carbon dioxide emissions that it would save, according to a new report from the University of Virginia.

There’s more research to be done before writing algae energy production off, however. In January, the Department of Energy said it would sink $44 million into work on algae pools. Industry players like ExxonMobile are also underwriting research on the subject, Cheeseman writes.

No room for innovation

Moving towards energy sources like nuclear power and ethanol does take the country a step closer to responsible energy production. But right now, the Obama administration is not leaving room for new or ambitious ideas that could do more. Wind and solar, which would form the best foundation for a sustainable energy future, have few advocates in Congress. They also seem to have no role in the near-term energy plan.

Ethanol was the Midwest’s first green industry, for instance, but there are other possibilities for juicing up the region’s clean energy production. In The Nation, Lisa Margonelli lays out the case for “gray power,” which is recycled energy produced by the old, dirty smokestacks that ring cities like Cleveland.

In this vision, twentieth century industry can produce twenty-first century energy. Waste energy, Margonelli argues,  “can be profitably “recycled” onto the grid to create power as clean as that from solar and wind but far cheaper.”

“In fact, energy now lost as steam and gases by the region’s manufacturing plants, as well as municipal and agricultural waste, could create as much energy as sixty-nine nuclear power plants, according to figures commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency,” she says. “This power could strengthen the region’s electrical grid and preserve jobs by making local manufacturing plants more economically stable, while making the region a leader in greener technology.”

A project like Margonelli imagines, however, would require significant commitment and vision from the federal government, both of which are lacking right now.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

Weekly Mulch: Climate Change On Obama’s Back Burner

By Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium Blogger

In his first State of the Union address, President Barack Obama touched on climate issues only briefly. He called on the Senate to pass a climate bill, but did not give Congress a deadline or promise to veto weak legislation. Nor did he mention the Copenhagen climate conference, where international negotiators struggled to produce an agreement on limiting global carbon emissions.

The Obama administration’s attitude towards climate change still represents a remarkable shift from the Bush years, when global warming was treated as little more than a fairy tale. But in the past year, Congressional squabbling has stalled climate legislation, and international negotiators nearly gridlocked in talks over carbon admissions at the multinational Copenhagen conference. Without strong leadership from the president, work to prevent this looming environmental crisis will stall.

Obama did address global warming skeptics, saying that they should support investment in clean energy, “because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.”

“And America must be that nation,” Obama said.

No push for climate bill

Despite his combative language,  the president did not challenge Congress to push for real solutions to ballooning carbon emissions and energy consumption. As Forrest Wilder of The Texas Observer notes, Obama “uttered the phrase ‘climate change’ precisely once.”

The Senate has already wait-listed the climate bill: Health care came first. With health care reform now in line behind work on jobs and bank regulation, climate legislation has little chance of passing the Senate in the coming months, let alone making it to the president’s desk.

If Congress lets this work wait until after the midterm elections, the United States will show up at international negotiations in December 2010 as a leader in carbon emissions yet again, but with little in hand to show a way forward.

Clean energy, not renewable energy

When the president did bring up climate issues, he focused on their connection between climate reform and potential job creation. Obama highlighted areas for growth, not in renewable energy fields like wind or solar power, but in nuclear power, natural gas, and clean coal.

Yes, these fuel sources could decrease the country’s carbon emissions. But they are not solutions that will revolutionize energy production. Grist’s David Roberts was floored that the speech omitted renewable energy entirely and kowtowed to a more conservative litany of energy projects. “I suppose it was done to flatter conservative Senators that will have to vote for the bill Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham are working on,” he writes. (The three Senators are working on a version of the climate bill designed to appeal to Republicans.)

“But the SOTU is not a policy negotiation,” Roberts says. “It’s a bully pulpit, a chance to shape rather than respond to existing narratives.”

Roberts argues that progressive supporters would benefit from a stronger message. If activists knew that the White House stands behind a real shift in America’s energy policy, they could use that prompt to drive action on climate change.

What was missing

While touting the virtues of off-shore drilling, Obama overlooked other policies that could broker real change. Although he admonished Congress to pass a climate bill, he did not pressure the legislature on what he’d like that bill to include. He did not mention cap-and-trade, the mechanism the House bill relies on to tamp down emissions and dirty energy use.

President Obama did touch on transportation reforms that could decrease the country’s use of fossil fuels.

“There’s no reason Europe or China should have the fastest trains,”  Obama said. He cited a high-speed rail project that broke ground on Tuesday in Tampa, FL, as evidence that America could best the rest of the world in creating new energy-efficient technology.

But one or two high-profile projects won’t be enough to challenge Europe’s network of high-speed trains or China’s investments in solar power. The White House could put the country at the forefront of sustainable technologies, but it’ll take more money than the president has committed. In AlterNet’s ideal state of the union, projects like the railway would merit sustained attention and funding. Funding for the high-speed train came from this year’s stimulus bill, and there’s no guarantee that similar projects will find federal funding in the future.

“Continued support is still needed” for green jobs and clean energy, Alternet’s editorial staff argues. “It’s unclear yet how Obama’s new proposal for a three-year spending freeze will apply to this sector, but a boost is what is needed, not cuts.”

Green jobs

Michelle Chen argues for In These Times that the president is right to subordinate climate issues to economic policy. “The jobs angle is more than sugar-coating,” she says. A recent Pew Research Center poll put climate change at the end of Americans’ long list of cares, and a Brookings Institution study found that they’re no longer willing to pay as much for greener products.

Jobless workers need green in their pockets most of all, and so far politicians’ promises haven’t made up for the slack economy.

“No matter how slick the marketing, confidence in green jobs may wilt even further absent real investments in the beleaguered blue-collar workforce,” Chen writes.

Copenhagen accord losing momentum

The small role that climate change played in the state of the union address only emphasized the downward momentum of the issue since the United Nations conference on global warming in Copenhagen. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes talked to six leaders in climate change activism, and none of them offered a different strategy than they had last year.

That same stasis is showing up in Europe, as well. Spain, which currently leads the European Union, proposed that the European Union’s negotiating position should remain the same as its position before the Copenhagen conference, according to Inter Press Service.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), who’s working on climate change legislation in the Senate, offered advice to climate activists at a clean energy forum in Washington, DC on Wednesday. Mother JonesKate Sheppard reports that Sen. Kerry encouraged his audience to get angrier, louder, and more active, in the mode of the conservative Tea Partiers, who have earned plenty of attention. After his speech, he also recalled the tactics that pushed landmark legislation like the Clean Air Act through Congress.

If climate change is going to play a larger role in the next state of the union, the citizens and groups concerned about this issue need to do something to put it on the agenda. Otherwise, next year, the president may find it just as easy to skim over it again.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Will Green Stimulus Money Go to China?

Developers of a massive 36,000-acre wind farm in West Texas will be seeking federal stimulus money for the project which will include 240 2.5-megawatt wind turbines.

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Wind powered ski areas

Of all industries, the ski business would be among the first adversely affected by global warming.  Already, warming weather is cutting into ski profits, and threatens the traditional meccas of winter sports.  It is anticipated that melting glaciers and unreliable snowfall will force many lower altitude snow sports centers to close within our lifetimes.

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Obama should aim higher on renewable energy

One of my biggest frustrations with Democratic leaders is their refusal to embrace the energy policy Al Gore outlined this summer, which could "end our reliance on carbon-based fuels" in the next decade.

Barack Obama has offered an energy policy that's a big improvement on what George Bush has done. Unfortunately, Obama still supports more investment in so-called "clean coal" and has not ruled out expanding nuclear power.

On the plus side, Obama also calls for generating 10 percent of our country's electricity from renewable sources by 2012--which sounds great until you learn that the U.S. has already surpassed that goal.

Look at what happened in the past year, even as the Bush administration did little to promote wind and solar energy:

According to the latest "Monthly Electricity Review" issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (October 3, 2008), net U.S. generation of electricity from renewable energy sources surged by 32 percent in June 2008 compared to June 2007.

Renewable energy (biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, wind) totaled 41,160,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) in June 2008 up from 31,242,000 MWh in June 2007. Renewables accounted for 11.0 percent of net U.S. electricity generation in June 2008 compared to 8.6 percent in June 2007. Compared to June 2007, wind power grew by 81.6 percent in June 2008 while solar and conventional hydropower experienced increases of 42.6 percent and 34.7 percent respectively. Geothermal energy also enjoyed a slight increase (0.8percent) while biomass (wood + waste) remained relatively unchanged.

Years ago, some people thought it was a pipe dream to ask Congress to require that 10 percent of U.S. electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2010. Yet even in the absence of a mandate, we exceeded that number two years ahead of schedule.

Just think of what could be done if we had a president and Congress committed to expanding wind and solar power in this country. Assuming Obama wins the election, we need to press him to raise the bar on renewable energy. If Obama suggests that the best we can do is 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025, we will fail to capitalize on the opportunity to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

(Note: A commenter at another blog suggested that Obama may not be counting hydroelectric power as one of the renewable sources from which we should get 10 percent of electricity by 2012. If that is so, then we would need to approximately triple electricity generated by wind and solar in order to meet Obama's goal in four years. Even that goal doesn't seem ambitious enough to me, however.)

Perhaps more important, Obama and other Democratic leaders should stop lending credibility to the idea that we need either more "clean coal" or more nuclear power. We can meet our baseload needs without them. Every new coal-fired plant is a 50-year investment in the wrong direction, and every new nuclear reactor creates more waste we don't know what to do with.

The false choice between coal and nuclear power understates the potential to reduce our electricity consumption through conservation and efficiency measures.

It also affects decision-making at the state level. In April, the two Democrats on the Iowa Utilities Board (including key early Obama supporter John Norris) cast the deciding votes in favor of an application to build a new coal-fired power plant near Marshalltown. They rejected testimony from James Hansen and others regarding the adverse health and environmental impacts of coal emissions, as well as the utility's ability to do much more to promote energy efficiency.

Speaking to the Des Moines Register, they explained that they voted to approve the coal plant because they don't believe we can meet demand for electricity without new coal or nuclear power, and no one is seeking to build more nuclear reactors in Iowa.

Even with strong presidential leadership, we'll have plenty of trouble getting Congress and the states to adopt good energy policies next year.

Obama should set higher goals for generating electricity from clean renewable sources and make that (along with efficiency measures) his top energy priorities.

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