Climate Compass Blog

At a Policy Crossroad for Clean Energy Technologies

The United States is at a crucial crossroad in its stance on clean energy policy. Once the leader in emerging clean technology markets, the U.S. now trails European nations and China in the research, development, and deployment of many new energy technologies. Financial analysts and industry insiders presented a stark choice at a standing-room only hearing hosted by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming last week: either we can adopt and extend policies that promote domestic growth of clean energy industries, or we can continue to fall further behind other countries around the world in our ability to compete in the markets of the 21st century. Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) echoed the experts in saying that without clear long-term and short-term incentives, companies will invest clean energy dollars in other countries, most notably China. In effect, we will be trading our addiction to Middle Eastern oil for an addiction to Asian clean energy technologies.

Clean energy technology markets are already substantial in scope and are likely to grow in the coming decade. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investments in new forms of clean energy have already surged from under $50 billion in 2004 to more than $170 billion four years later. And as mentioned in our brief on Clean Energy Markets, annual investments in global renewable energy could reach $424 billion a year in 2030.

The panel of expert witnesses advised the Committee that if the United States wants to be a leader in clean energy, it needs to foster innovation by extending successful programs like tax credits, loan guarantees and grants, and adopt a renewable energy standard (RES). Tom Carbone, Chief Executive Officer of Nordic Windpower, said firms like his need clear market signals, such as a price on carbon or a RES, so they can respond to market demand.

Michael Liebreich, Chief Executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, emphasized the importance of market signals. Under an RES, the government would require that a certain percentage of utilities’ power plant capacity or generation come from renewable sources by a given date, and mechanisms such as credit trading would allow flexibility in meeting this requirement. However, the RES needs both to be ambitious and to have stiff penalties for noncompliance in order to be successful. Such a policy solution could help create the market demand clean energy firms need to establish footholds and ultimately achieve significant, self-reinforcing growth.

Mark Fulton, Global Head of Climate Change Investment Research at Deutsche Bank, urged the adoption of policies that are transparent, have longevity, and have certainty (TLC) in order to ensure the United States has a competitive advantage in global energy markets. Investors want transparent policies that clearly define the rules and create a level playing field. So to attract private funding, these policies should be in place for the length of the investment and should not be subject to the kind of frequent and uncertain renewal that has stymied the production tax credit and investment tax credit.

In addition to their environmental benefits, Ravi Viswanathan, General Partner at New Enterprise Associates, believes that these policies are exactly what are needed at this uncertain economic time. Mr. Viswanathan argued that clean energy investments can lead to job creation and energy independence. If we have the right incentives, clean energy jobs would be created domestically rather than abroad. Innovation has long been a source of our competitive advantage. Other countries, such as China, have speed, capital, and scale, and they are exercising their manufacturing advantage. Now, these countries are beginning to do something that investors had not anticipated: foster innovation. Once other countries start innovating in earnest, unless the United States takes action, the economic benefits associated with these technologies will go elsewhere.

In his closing statement, Chairman Markey highlighted the role government has played in fostering innovation and developing new markets, citing examples from the Manhattan Project to the internet. In all past cases, the United States showed leadership in developing a national plan that incentivized private investment. We need a similar plan today in the energy sector that incorporates Fulton’s principles of TLC and harnesses the power of the markets to spur innovation. As mentioned in our Clean Energy Markets brief, well-crafted climate and clean energy policy can give nascent clean energy industries a foothold by creating domestic demand and spurring investment and innovation. The time to act is now: through policy leadership at home and abroad, the United States can position itself to become a market leader in the industries of the 21st century.

The Record-Scorching Summer of 2010

Several of my previous posts have examined the remarkable weather of the past year, including the unusual U.S. East Coast snowstorms this winter, the wide array of floods and heat waves this summer, and how these can help us understand our vulnerabilities to climate change. The average land surface temperature this summer (June-August) was the warmest on record globally and the fourth warmest on record in the United States.

Now that northern summer has come to a close, we can take stock of just how warm it was. Christopher C. Burt—weather historian, extreme-weather guru, and author—takes a look at temperature records set in the U.S. and around the world this summer in his blog at Weather Underground. Some of his findings include:

  • Fifteen (15) U.S. cities recorded their warmest summer (June-August) ever.
  • Only one U.S. city (Santa Barbara, CA) recorded its coldest summer.
  • Seventeen (17) countries set new records for high temperatures, breaking the previous record of fifteen (15) countries set in 2008.
  • No countries recorded a record low temperature.
  • The Arctic country of Finland recorded a high temperature of 99°F at the Joensuu airport.
  • A town in Pakistan recorded a record high temperature of 128.3°F.
  • Los Angeles recorded its highest ever temperature of 113°F this Monday, in spite of an otherwise cool summer.

It’s important to put this single year into a broader perspective; if this warmth is just an aberration, then we might be wasting time talking about it. But it is clearly part of a much longer warming trend that has been going on for decades. A recent report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2009 was one of the ten warmest years on record (since 1880) and that the 2000s was the warmest decade followed by the 1990s and then the 1980s. If the first 9 months of this year are an indication, the 2010s appear poised to continue this upward march in temperatures.
 

(Figure Source:  NOAA’s State of the Climate in 2009, Chapter 2)

Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program

Solutions in Shopping

This month I joined John Donahue, the CEO of eBay, at a National Press Club event to discuss the climate benefits created by small, online retail businesses. The retail sector—and the private sector more broadly—has a huge opportunity to innovate and drive us toward a more climate-friendly clean energy economy, and we are encouraged that eBay is stepping forward to make this point.  

Active business community engagement is fundamental both to achieving effective climate policy and to achieving real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Industry must work with their employees, their supply chain, and policy makers to make the case that addressing a changing climate is essential and can be good for business—providing policy certainty, leading to innovation and investment, and ultimately helping to move our economy towards a low-carbon future.

According to the new eBay-commissioned white paper, small e-retailers facilitate the reuse of products and eliminate the need for carbon-intensive brick-and-mortar stores, both of which are climate-friendly compared to big box retail. For instance, it suggests that since eBay’s founding 15 years ago, the infrastructure savings from its online marketplace alone have cumulatively displaced emissions equivalent to approximately 4 million tons of CO2 per year, or the annual output of 760,000 cars—roughly the number registered in the state of Kansas or West Virginia.

In our current period of policy uncertainty, one thing we do know is that energy efficiency matters and it works. We also know from the work we do on employee engagement that individuals and consumers are a huge untapped resource in the effort to seriously address our energy-climate challenges. It’s clear that the key role for retailers—both online and “offline”—is to connect consumers to low-emission/energy-efficient goods and services, and companies such as eBay and Best Buy, a featured case study in our recent report on corporate energy efficiency, are doing just that.

Eileen Claussen is President

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: Breathing Easier

This is the second post in a three-part series that examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 1  Part 3

Last week, I discussed why consuming oil is bad for U.S. national security. In this post, I’ll look at another reason to consider a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) – helping the environment. I’ve previously explored the effect PEVs will have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is clear that PEVs have the potential to reduce GHG emissions significantly so long as society also reduces the carbon intensity of the electrical grid. But the environmental benefits of PEVs are not limited to climate change.

Figure 2: It's hard to see through all the smog, but that’s the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC in 1988. (Source)

PEVs also benefit local air quality, which might matter a lot if you live in a city with poor air quality. Despite enormous strides in the U.S. to reduce air pollution, the EPA estimated in February of this year that nearly 127 million Americans live in areas where air quality concentrations are above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish and periodically update and evaluate the NAAQS. While air quality has improved significantly since 1990, nearly half of Americans still face air quality-related health risks, including decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and premature mortality.

Air pollution primarily comes from stationary fuel combustion, industrial processes, and vehicles. Transportation mainly contributes to two air pollution problems: ground-level ozone and particle pollution. Particle pollution or particulate matter (PM) consists of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air; coal fired power plants, as well as diesel vehicles including cars, trucks, and buses, are some of the sources of PM. Ground-level ozone, a serious air pollutant also known as smog, results when sunlight reacts with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (which are components, for example, of vehicle exhaust).

The health effects of air pollution include decreased lung function, respiratory infection, and even increased risk of heart attacks and strokes under certain conditions. While the U.S. EPA and state governments are moving ahead with regulations that improve the air quality for Americans, most people (especially in urban areas) remain at risk of effects from excessive ozone and PM. The American Lung Association recommends the EPA reduce air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. One way consumers can help is by purchasing vehicles with lower tailpipe emissions such as PEVs.

The more miles Americans travel in passenger vehicles powered by electric motors, the more local air quality will improve according to a study completed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is difficult to quantify air quality benefits from using PEVs since air pollution can come from multiple sources, including vehicle tailpipes as well as power plants. All-electric vehicles in cities will almost certainly improve local air quality since a mile traveled that is powered by electricity does not produce any vehicle emissions and the power plants that produce the electricity are often located away from city centers. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, those improvements are tempered by the percentage of miles that rely on the gasoline or diesel-powered backup energy source rather than by the batteries. In fact, using PEVs can result in more local air pollution at the electricity generation source, especially if the source is a coal power plant. This potential problem underscores another reason (in addition to the goal of reducing GHG emissions) that we should work on reducing power plant pollution as we green the vehicle fleet.

PEVs will not end air pollution in the United States, but increasing the market penetration of these vehicles will help reduce air pollution in cities throughout the country. In the next post, I’ll look into how the financial numbers might work out with a PEV for your next vehicle purchase.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: National Security

This is the first post in a three-part series that examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 2  Part 3

Though it is unlikely that the first generation of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) will be adopted by the masses, there is a compelling case for everyday consumers to take a look at these vehicles when they become available this winter.  There is no silver bullet to solving climate change, but PEVs could play an important role as one of a broader set of solutions. As is the case for many climate solutions, the benefits from PEVs are more than environmental. In this three part series, I’ll make the case for PEVs based on the gamut of issues that matter to Americans – national security, the environment, and their wallets.