Climate Compass Blog

Low-cost cooling tips when the heat is on

fan

Late summer days mean fun in the sun – kids running through sprinklers, building sandcastles, and playing at the park. Unless it’s so hot, you’re mostly looking at the outdoors through the window of an air-conditioned house.

An eight-day stretch of 95-plus days, with DC’s infamous humidity, felt like being trapped in a sauna, and we’re not alone in feeling the heat. Much of the Northeast was roasting. Central and eastern Europe had heat waves. The Middle East has seen record-breaking temperatures as high as 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Globally, last month was the hottest July on record.

As we all crank up the air, how can we keep cool while keeping the energy bills down?

Here are five simple ways:

  1. Close window shades or drapes during the day to block out sunlight and keep the inside temperature cooler. Highly reflective interior blinds can reduce heat gain by about 45 percent, while drapes with white plastic backing can reduce heat gain by 33 percent.
  2. Manage that thermostat. Your cooling costs increase by up to 5 percent for every degree you lower the temperature. And don’t cool an empty house. According to the Department of Energy, you can save as much as 10 percent a year on cooling and heating bills by turning your thermostat 7 to 10 degrees from its normal setting while you’re at work.
  3. Avoid using items that generate heat. Common culprits are incandescent lightbulbs,  which waste 90 percent of energy in the form of heat, the stove and oven, and the clothes dryer. Replace heat-intense bulbs with CFLs or LEDs, take advantage of summer fruits and vegetables for a no-cook meal, and hang your laundry to dry.
  4. Hang out in the lower levels of your home if possible. Heat rises, so the basement or first level may feel cooler. You may even want to sleep there on roasting hot nights.
  5. Turn on ceiling fans (counter-clockwise) and portable fans to circulate air when you are in the room. It doesn’t actually cool the room, but it makes you feel cooler by helping sweat evaporate faster. You can also cool off by putting a cold cloth on your wrists or neck or taking a cold shower. Remember to drink plenty of water on hot days. Organizations like the Red Cross provide checklists to help you prepare for the heat.

For future summers, consider planting shade trees, especially on the southwest side of the house, or building a trellis with climbing foliage. Take a closer look at your windows and doors to make sure cool air isn’t leaking out. And explore ways to increase attic ventilation and reflective insulation that blocks the transfer of heat from the roof and attic into your house.

Heat waves are expected to become more frequent and intense, so taking simple steps now can reduce cooling bills in the future.

We need to prepare for more downpours

When rain comes all at once, the impacts can be devastating, and deadly.Army National Guard Photo of Louisiana Flood Rescue

  • Two feet of rain – that is about four months’ worth – fell in parts of Louisiana over the past few days, forcing thousands to flee their homes as water rose to the rooftops. More than a dozen people have died in the flooding.
  • On July 30, nearly six inches of rain fell in two hours in Ellicott City, Md., turning Main Street into a raging river that swept away cars, tore up storefronts, and killed two people.
  • About a month earlier, up to 10 inches of rain fell in 12 hours in parts of West Virginia, causing flooding that killed 26.

Heavy downpours are expected to become more frequent in a warming world. That’s because warmer air can hold more water vapor. For each degree of warming, the air’s capacity to hold water vapor goes up by about 7 percent. An atmosphere with more moisture can produce more intense precipitation, which is what we’ve been seeing.  

Heavy downpours increased 71 percent in the Northeast and 27 percent in the Southeast between 1958 and 2012, according to the National Climate Assessment.

Last year, flash and river floods killed 176 people in the United States, more than for any other weather-related disaster.

Better infrastructure -- both “green,” like using soil and vegetation to absorb rainfall, and “gray,” using manmade materials for pipes and walls -- can give the water someplace to go other than into homes and businesses.

In urban areas, where concrete and asphalt have replaced water-absorbing soils, rain gardens and porous pavements can reduce the amount of storm water pouring through the streets, or overwhelming water treatment plants.

In other areas, more extensive storm protection infrastructure, like flood walls and storm water storage and pumping facilities, may be needed. Nashville is considering building a $110 million flood wall and pumping system after flooding in May 2010 killed 11 and caused more than $2 billion in private property damage. After initially blocking the plan, the council this summer authorized completing designs and seeking community input.

Green and gray infrastructure can even be combined. Cities like Philadelphia and Hoboken, N.J., are topping underground storm water storage tanks with recreational fields for the community.

Flood protection is costly, but so is flood cleanup. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates four severe floods – in Texas and Oklahoma in May 2015, South Carolina in October 2015, Texas and Louisiana in March 2016, and Houston in April 2016 – caused an estimated $7 billion in damages and killed 69 people.

More frequent and intense downpours are one of the impacts we can expect from climate change. Cities, states and businesses will need to work together to strengthen infrastructure and protect properties and lives.

Exciting year for carbon capture technology

This year we will witness a number of milestones in technology to capture, use and store carbon dioxide from industrial sources and power plants – technology we need to reach our goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We will need continued policy and financing support, however, to accelerate deployment worldwide. Innovative research in finding uses for captured carbon will also be essential.   

In 2016, the Emirates Steel Industries project in Abu Dhabi will be the world’s first steel plant with carbon capture, use and sequestration (CCUS) technology to begin operations. Globally, seven commercial-scale CCUS projects are under construction and many more are in the planning stages.

In the U.S., two notable CCUS projects are expected to come online soon, including the first-ever incorporation of CCUS technology at a bioethanol refinery at the Archer Daniels Midland project in Illinois and the incorporation of CCUS technology at the coal-fired power plant at the Southern Company Kemper project in Mississippi. Not far behind, in 2017, the NRG Energy Petra Nova project in Texas will also incorporate CCUS technology on coal-fired power generation.    

These anticipated project developments reflect the fact that CCUS technology is advancing around the world. Fifteen commercial-scale CCUS projects are operating. Eight of those are in the United States, which has been a leader in this area.

Recent North American milestones include the retrofit of the SaskPower Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant project in Canada with CCUS technology in 2014. In April 2016, the company announced it had exceeded the carbon capture reliability goals established for the technology. SaskPower estimates it could cut costs up to 30 percent on future units based on the experience it has acquired. Also in Canada, in November 2015, Shell incorporated CCUS technology on hydrogen production at the Quest project in Alberta. 

CCUS technology grows increasingly important as nations begin to implement their emission reduction pledges under the Paris Agreement. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report concluded that CCUS technology will be essential to meet mid-century climate goals of keeping global temperature rise within 2 degrees Celsius of preindustrial levels. In fact, without CCUS, mitigation costs will rise by 138 percent.

Even as nations take on climate change and diversify their energy portfolios, fossil fuels are expected to serve 78 percent of the world’s energy demand in 2040. The most recent Energy Information Administration analysis suggests that global energy consumption is expected to rise by 48 percent over the next 30 years led by significant increases in the developing world. In Asia in particular, power generation from fossil fuels is expected to continue to grow over the near term.

Earlier this spring, the International Energy Agency (IEA) published a study on retrofitting China’s coal-fired power plants with CCUS technology, which will be critical because China has roughly 900 GW of installed coal-fired power plant capacity and has committed to peaking its CO2 emissions by 2030. The IEA study concludes that one-third of the coal fleet in China is suitable for retrofitting with CCUS technology.

Aside from the power sector, CCUS is a critical technology for the industrial sector, which contributes roughly 25 percent of global emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a by-product of many manufacturing processes for chemicals, steel, and cement production as well as refining. There are no practical alternatives to CCUS for achieving deep emissions reduction in the industrial sector.

In some cases, the cost of incorporating CCUS technology into industrial processes may be lower than in the power sector because the CO2 stream in the industrial sector is often relatively pure, i.e. less mixed with other gases. A number of industrial CCUS projects are already operational including the Uthmaniyah natural gas processing project in Saudi Arabia that came online in 2015. In the U.S., the Air Products Port Arthur project in Texas incorporating CCUS technology on hydrogen production has been operational since 2013.

As new projects begin operating around the world, the Global CCS Institute concluded that policymakers can learn lessons for CCUS from the development of offshore wind in Europe. Those projects benefited from policy support from national governments through feed-in tariffs and long-term offshore wind capacity targets in national energy plans. The report also concludes that a multi-source approach to finance, including project finance, export credit agency support, multilateral institution lending, and green bank funding, will be helpful for CCUS technology. 

Finding uses for the captured carbon will also be essential. At the January World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the Global CO2 Initiative was launched to develop innovative approaches to transform CO2 into commercial products. Promising options include construction materials, plastics, chemicals, and agricultural products. 

As researchers continue exploring new uses for captured carbon, CCUS project developments this year and next continue to highlight the significant potential for CCUS technology to contribute to global emissions reduction.

This blog post first appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of The Current, a publication of the Women's Council for Energy and the Environment.

A tale of two states: NY and CA chart different courses on nuclear

California and New York are leaders in setting ambitious climate goals. Both have committed to producing half their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Both have set identical goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Where they part ways, however, is on nuclear power, which supplies the majority of zero-emission electricity in the United States. California is letting its nuclear plants ride off into the sunset while New York, which just approved a Clean Energy Standard that specifically includes nuclear power, is actively trying to preserve them.

California’s path

This summer, Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) announced it will close its Diablo Canyon nuclear plant – the last one in the state of California – by 2025. After striking an agreement with environmental and labor groups, PG&E said it will seek to replace Diablo Canyon’s roughly 18,000 GWh of annual electricity – almost 10 percent of California’s in-state electricity – through improved energy efficiency, which will decrease demand, and renewable energy.

Many experts think it will be a stretch to reach that goal, especially by 2025, and that natural gas will have to fill the gap, as it has where nuclear plants have closed elsewhere in California, Vermont and Wisconsin. In New England, emissions increased 5 percent in 2015 after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant shut down and was largely replaced by natural gas-fired electricity.

Diablo Canyon might have kept going if PG&E had gotten its way in negotiations with the state last year to include nuclear power in California’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS). That standard requires utilities to produce a certain amount of electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal and hydropower. Including nuclear would have helped it compete economically with other low-carbon energy.

New York’s path

That’s exactly the path being taken in New York, which gets a third of its in-state electricity from nuclear power. To preserve the low-carbon benefits of its economically troubled upstate reactors and ensure its electricity mix becomes increasingly clean – with no backsliding – New York’s Public Service Commission has approved a clean energy standard (CES), which is essentially an RPS that includes nuclear.

New York’s CES mandate, which will take effect in 2017, is a novel approach that incorporates best practices from other states. It’s designed to incentivize new renewables deployment while also preserving existing clean electricity generation.

New York’s CES has three tiers, each with its own supply-demand dynamics. Tier 1 will incentivize new renewable development. Tier 2 is designed to provide sufficient revenue for existing renewable electricity supply. Tier 3 is designed to properly value the emission-free power from the state’s at-risk nuclear power plants.

Nuclear plant operators have long sought to correct what they perceive as a market failure to compensate nuclear power for its low-carbon benefits. If the at-risk reactors were replaced by an equivalent amount of fossil generation, emissions would increase by 14 million metric tons – increasing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions nearly 10 percent.

New York’s plan isn’t without controversy. There’s concern that it’s too costly. However, an associated cost study by the PSC found that the state could “meet its clean energy targets with less than a 1 percent impact on electricity bills.”

Most U.S. states have a renewable portfolio standard or alternative energy standard. Only Ohio allows new nuclear to qualify. Only New York has provisions for existing nuclear power plants.

Illinois is working to expand its RPS to include nuclear into a low-carbon portfolio standard, similar to New York’s CES, but efforts have stalled in the state legislature. Exelon has announced plans to close two nuclear power plants in the state in 2017 and 2018, which could lead to an additional 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions for the state.

Across the U.S., nine reactors are scheduled to close by 2025, which could increase carbon emissions by about 32 million metric tons, or 1.7 percent of the current total U.S. carbon emissions from the power sector.

New York’s approach to reducing its emissions is a practical, well-considered model that many other states could be following (Arguably, a national price on carbon would be more efficient, though more challenging to enact.)

New York’s four upstate reactors provide significant environmental and economic benefits. From a climate perspective, it doesn’t make sense to prematurely close these facilities when, in the short- and medium-term, they cannot realistically be replaced by alternative zero-emission power sources. Keeping these reactors operational also buys us additional time to address energy storage and transmission challenges to support more renewable generation.

With reasonable policies in place to support the existing U.S. reactor fleet, it will be easier for the U.S. to reduce its emissions and achieve its climate goals.

One year later, Clean Power Plan having impact despite stay

A year after the Clean Power Plan was finalized, on August 3, 2015, it is already having a tangible impact on how states are thinking about carbon emissions from power plants - and even other sources - and are working to confront the climate challenge.

Before the Supreme Court temporarily halted the plan in February, most states had launched the required public stakeholder outreach.

As we’ve learned from our engagement with states through the C2ES Solutions Forum, even after the stay, many of those conversations have continued, and they’ll affect how states approach climate change regardless of the outcome of the Clean Power Plan’s judicial review.

A few states, like West Virginia, have stopped all Clean Power Plan conversations. Others, like Washington and California, are moving forward to reduce emissions beyond what the Clean Power Plan would require.

The vast majority, including states as diverse as Virginia and Wyoming, fall somewhere in the middle – thinking about, discussing, or working on potential implementation options.

Many states, like South Carolina, are talking about cleaner power because of the forces already affecting the sector today. Consider:

  • Between 2005 and 2015, U.S. power sector emissions fell 20 percent as a result of a shift from coal to natural gas, increased renewable energy, and level electricity demand.
  • Last year, nearly two-thirds of new electric capacity added to the grid was renewables.
  • Some states are grappling with how to help the No. 1 source of zero-emission power, nuclear, remain competitive in a changing marketplace.
  • Utility regulators are trying to determine how to integrate rooftop solar panels, which are surging in popularity, into the system.

For most programs under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets emission targets, and the states determine how to reach them. The Clean Power Plan is no different. But as states began thinking through how to develop an implementation plan, they found themselves having new and different conversations with new and different colleagues.

For some state environmental officials, Clean Power Plan outreach was the first time they had spoken with their public utility regulators about electric reliability and with other stakeholders about the effects of electricity rates and energy efficiency programs on low-income communities.

State energy offices, city governments, state legislatures, utilities, clean power providers, and energy users of all kinds have been brought into the discussions, deepening relationships and broadening understanding. For example, Arizona started a robust public input process, including everyone from utilities to civic groups, that is continuing after the stay with three more meetings in 2016.

The energy sector is changing rapidly, and the Clean Air Act requires action to bend the curve toward even lower emissions. These stakeholders will have to work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a meaningful and economically efficient way, and these new relationships will help make that happen.

The Clean Power Plan also prompted some states to examine potential implementation pathways. They often found they could reduce emissions with less expense and policy push than they had assumed. Most modeling efforts (see the Rhodium Group, MJ Bradley and Associates, and the Bipartisan Policy Center) have found even lower compliance costs when regional or national cooperation (e.g. interstate trading) is factored in, with some costs approaching zero.

States have also been learning from one another. Over the past 18 months, C2ES has helped convene stakeholders in conversations across the country to look at common themes and examine how market-based strategies can help states create plans that businesses can support and cities can help implement.

Through the Clean Power Plan process, business leaders and state and city officials across the country have learned about the opportunities and challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Continuing to analyze options, do modeling and conduct stakeholder outreach, even if it falls short of writing a state plan, will have tremendous value as states consider their energy futures and when judicial review of the Clean Power Plan is complete. Evolving toward a cleaner energy system has both environmental and economic benefits, so we encourage states to continue exploring pragmatic, common-sense approaches to reach that goal.