Building a Clean Energy Future: Transmission Is One Piece of the Puzzle

Dec 3, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


Dealing with the fundamental challenge of global warming and ending the direct and painful impact of fossil fuel-fired power plants on our communities and our families will mean systemic and systematic change to all aspects of our energy system – and doing that will mean employing a wide range of tools and strategies.

A first tool we must employ is already in our hands: efficient and smart use of energy in our homes and businesses.   Confronting the effects and implications of energy production can and must lead us to move forward policies that encourage both conservation (simply using less energy) as well as efficiency (getting more from the energy we continue to use).

Another critical element in our arsenal for reducing emissions is the large, deep and pervasive deployment of clean energy generation.  Zero emissions electricity generation will take a wide range of forms and come in every imaginable size – from the smallest solar power installation to the largest wind farm.  Replacing the mammoth fleet of coal, oil and gas burning power plants that have kept the lights on for the last century will require a deep and abiding effort to find and embrace every reasonable opportunity to make clean energy.

Recently, I had the chance to participate in an online presentation about a tool that is needed to accommodate and make full use of our clean generation potential: electric transmission to bring clean energy from wind farms to the urban customers who can make use of that power.

The webinar was put together by Americans for a Clean Energy Grid – a group that brings together environmental groups and industry voices in support of renewable energy development as part of a series of such events they were convening to discuss developments in different regions. The slides and an audio recording from that event are still available online.

The story told that day is one of change – a change from the past when transmission was built almost entirely to meet the needs of electric reliability and satisfy rising demand for electricity to a new world where efficiency has ended such “load growth” and transmission is being built more and more to either move wind power from Northern New England or to import hydropower into the region from Canada to serve as “firming power” during times of less wind.

This change will not be easy or simple and it must be done right.  Imports of hydropower from Canada may or may not be part of the solution set we need – and any proposal to build transmission for that purpose must be carefully scrutinized and integrated into our planning for meeting the climate driven emissions reductions mandates on the books across the region.  This caution is even more true of natural gas infrastructure, whether it be pipelines or new power plants. Keeping our eye on the prize of meeting our climate and reliability goals in a sane and cost-effective manner will drive a push for greater efficiency, local clean generation and a measured amount of transmission to support bringing large-scale renewable energy (and wind in particular) to market.


The Next Opportunity for Growing Renewable Energy in New England: Going Big by Going Regional

Jul 23, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

The story of renewable energy development in the United States has included many important moments in which the states have provided leadership – most notably through fostering the shaping and building of new markets for renewable energy markets through programs like Renewable Energy Standards (also known “Renewable Portfolio Standards”).  These efforts have been of great value to the states who put them in place and have complemented and reinforced the incentives and programs to build up renewable energy resources like wind and solar by the Federal Government.

We are at a critical moment in the history of renewable energy development.  The collapse of coherent federal renewable energy policy, due to congressional inaction, in the form of failed attempts to put in place a Renewable Energy Standard and renew the Production Tax Credit, has created a greater need for state action – especially when clean renewable energy is an essential puzzle piece in solving the fundamental climate crisis that we face.

An interesting new element in this story is the quest by the New England States, working through a variety of vehicles, to develop a new “regional procurement” strategy that will allow the states to minimize the cost and maximize the benefits of renewable energy development for the region. This idea, also being discussed by leading scholars, could be a way to move forward smart and effective energy and climate policy, producing great value for a very reasonable investment.

This is far from a theoretical question.  Last year, in July 2011, the New England Governors directed their staff and the New England States Committee on Electricity who work with that staff, to continue to develop and build a mechanism for regional procurement. On July 29-30, 2012 the Governors meet again in Burlington Vermont and will hear a report on how that work has gone.  Will they take the critical step of moving beyond study and consideration of this idea and take action?

Dr. Yergin’s Dilemma Goes Global: The Collision of Abundant Fossil Fuels and Climate Protection

Jun 11, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Not that long ago I wrote here about Daniel Yergin’s latest book, the long-awaited follow up to his authoritative history of human use of oil. I concluded by noting:

[How] difficult [it would be for] Dr. Yergin to fully confront the dilemma implicit in his work – that the presence of affordable hydrocarbons (oil and/or natural gas) for indefinite future will create a strong pull constantly moving us away from making the reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions that science tells us we need to make in order to save ourselves.

Sadly, this is not a challenge that Dr. Yergin has taken up. The New York published an essay by Dr. Yergin in its widely-read Sunday Opinion section about the changing face of petroleum supply as the United States has dramatically increased its oil and gas production.  As influential commentator Joe Romm notes in a blog post this new Yergin piece completely ignores the issue of climate. Romm argues that, “While Yergin is happy to detail America’s new orgy of fossil production, he is has nothing to say about how we could do this in an environmentally sound way, in part, I suspect, because he knows that we can’t.”

But this head-on collision of climate and increased gas and oil production is not unique to Daniel Yergin.  Over at Foreign Policy, Steve LeVine provocatively asks “Can we survive the new golden age of oil?”  He surveys the opinions of various experts about how oil and gas production around the world will continue to expand in all kinds of places including in North America and in the Eastern Mediterranean noting that:

What these experts have not said, however, is that while this new golden age may indeed shake up the currently rich and powerful and create new regional forces, it could also accelerate the swamping of the planet in melted Arctic ice. So much new oil may flood the market that crude and gasoline prices might moderate and lessen consumer incentives to economize. “In the absence of U.S. leadership, I tend to agree with NASA’s James Hansen that it is ‘game over for the planet,'” Peter Rutland, a professor at Wesleyan University, told me in an email exchange.

These thoughts, and related exploration of the same theme by Michael Levi, should provide us all with a real jolt. It is simply not true that declining supplies and rising prices of oil and gas will bring about the fundamental changes that will be needed to avert climate disaster. And if you think the U.S. Federal government or a global agreement will save the day – you just haven’t been paying attention.

Dr. Yergin and others who describe a world with continued high availability (and low prices) of petroleum are presenting us with a gordian knot – and among the only folks holding a sword are the local, state and regional leaders from both government and business who are working to build a new economy around clean, zero emissions technology and practices.

Doctor Yergin’s dilemma

Mar 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Update – The debate about this phenomena continues.  See compilation of further ruminations about continued available petroleum and climate from a variety of powerful voices in another post from June 11, 2012.  And some of the same ideas are chewed on in an interesting op-ed by Reuters editor Chrystia Freeland in the August 9, 2012 New York Times.

In 1991 Daniel Yergin published his massive history of the petroleum industry, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. Regardless of what you think about Yergin’s perspective on the topic, it is hard to dispute the complete and authoritative nature of that book. It provided a guided tour through the life of one of the defining industries of the 20th century and remains a powerful and surprisingly readable look at this essential subject.

In the years that followed there was strong interest in an update to The Prize that brought the story up towards the present and grappled with challenges to the ascendancy of petroleum in our economy and society – like the realization that global warming caused by burning fossil fuels is causing deep and systemic damage to the planet.

In 2011 Doctor Yergin did produce that much awaited sequel, The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World. That book contains six full chapters detailing the evolution of modern climate science and leaves no doubt about the fundamental validity of the observation that the phenomena of global warming from the burning of petroleum and other fossil fuels is indeed, very real.

However, that point must play out against the backdrop of Dr. Yergin’s deep and abiding belief that the there is no such thing as “peak oil” – that global oil production may plateau and stop rising but that improvements in technology mean that we will never see a steep decline in exploitable oil reserves. Indeed, he is even more firm in his belief that if you look at the broader array of fossil hydrocarbons, including natural gas, that the progression of technologies like hydraulic fracturing and its deployment across the world will lead to continued availability of such fuels at fairly low prices for the long term – really, he argues, indefinitely. This is a hard perspective for a climate advocate to ponder – he is in effect arguing that continued availability of hydrocarbons is an “inconvenient truth” that those addressing the challenge of global warming must face, that the argument that “we are running out of the stuff anyway” is simply not part of the debate about continued use of fossil fuels.

But Dr. Yergin has his own dilemma to confront: he does not address the fundamental collision between his observations about the validity of climate science and his belief that we are not in danger of running out of affordable hydrocarbons. This is an especially difficult circle for him to square as he is fundamentally an optimist – believing that society has always found technological solutions to the problems we have encountered and created for ourselves in the past and we will do so again. To Dr. Yergin’s credit he does engage renewable energy and energy efficiency, the  key tools for decarbonizing our economy, at  length in The Quest but never quite gets to the point of describing a path to a future where we are no longer burning fossil fuels and putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It would be very difficult for Dr. Yergin to fully confront the dilemma implicit in his work – that the presence of affordable hydrocarbons (oil and/or natural gas) for indefinite future will create a strong pull constantly moving us away from making the reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions that science tells us we need to make in order to save ourselves.

Bill McKibben has noted on many occasions, getting off fossil fuels will be the hardest thing that humanity has ever done and the only thing that would be harder would be living in the world where we don’t. And Dr. Yergin is telling us that his expert analysis is that it will be even harder than many believe to make that transition because new technologies and techniques will continue to increase the pool of available fossil fuels – but he has looked at the climate science and he does not deny that we must make the transition.


Regional Greenhouse Gas program is a win for the economy and environment – so let’s do more!

Nov 15, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

A study released today documents the powerful benefits of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) – the nation-leading effort by Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants while building up energy efficiency and clean energy efforts in the states.

The study found that RGGI created $1.6 Billion in net economic benefits across the region ($888 million in New England alone).  The program saved electricity customers $1.3 Billion on their energy bills region-wide due to investment by the program in energy efficiency and created 16,000 Job Years (a standard measure of employment) during the first 3 years of the program (including temporary and permanent positions).   The cost of the program was minimal, creating an imperceptible 0.7% electricity price increase on customer bills across the region that was more than offset by the benefits of the program.

CLF has been deeply involved with the RGGI program from its inception. We strongly believe that this is solid proof that RGGI, while first and foremost an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is also a win for the economy, consumers and business, as well as the environment.

We must apply the lessons of RGGI to date and move beyond this pilot phase, scaling up the program to further reduce pollution, create even more jobs and reduce energy bills on a much greater scale, and take this effort into other parts of the nation.

RGGI has proved that a well-designed greenhouse gas reduction policy is a win for just about everybody.  The complaints (amplified by their well-financed megaphone) from the filthy few companies who make their money by extracting and selling coal and oil, at great cost in lives and environmental damage, should not distract us from hearing that very positive story.

Clean Energy Solutions needed: Small, Medium, Large and Extra-Large

Nov 14, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

I often say that there are two phrases that a professional climate advocate, whether they like or not, ends up repeating.

The first one, which is not the subject of this post, is “The scary part is . . . ”  As in “The scary part is that Daniel Yergin might be right when, in his new book, he suggests that climate science is right and fossil fuels are a systemic problem AND that peak oil/gas theory is wrong and we are not running out of fossil fuels.”  But that is the subject of another and different blog post to be written and just one of millions of examples of sentences beginning “The scary part is . . .” that you can write or utter about global warming.

The second one is “We have to do that too . . . ” As in, “Yes, we need to conserve more and be more efficient but we need to build wind farms, like the one proposed off of Cape Cod, too.”   As so many folks, including the folks at Princeton who are more famous for wedges than dairy farmers in Wisconsin, will tell you big systemic problem like global warming requires a huge range of solutions.  As some like to say, there is no silver bullet, perhaps multiple rounds of silver buckshot.

This last point causes me to do something I am reluctant to do – disagree with a very smart guy who has a record of knowing how to get things built.  In an opinion piece, Jiggar Shah, the founder of the solar development company Sun Edison and CEO of the very laudable Carbon War Room disagrees with the wisdom of the “jumbo” solar projects being undertaken by large energy companies like NRG Energy that are chronicled in a recent New York Times article.

My suggestion is simple: We need to do both.  We need the vast network of distributed solar on millions of rooftops that Mr. Shah envisions.  We need to do smart development of large solar as well.  We also need to be far more efficient in how we light and heat all our buildings and how we use energy to travel.

The array of technologies we will need to address global warming range from new smart heating devices for our homes, sidewalks to allow safe travel on foot in all our communities, shareable bicycles like the one I took to work this morning, electric cars powered by clean renewable energy, trains that connect cities and neighborhoods, and intelligently sited wind farms and solar installations on land and in the water.

We need to be relentless in our search for new solutions, recognizing dead-ends like the old nuclear power plants that have proved to be an expensive dead-end while aggressively evaluating new answers.

The good news about solar electric generation, as a source of new answers, is that the price of this technology continues to descend at a very steep rate.

While this is very bad news for folks trying to build a business that depends on making a profit by selling these modules, it creates many new opportunities to deploy solar electric generation as part of a large scale clean energy solution; and to do so in the form of a whole lot of Small on many rooftops, a fair amount of Medium on large roofs and appropriate locations on the ground, some Large and, where appropriate, even some Extra Large.

Nature is tapping us on the shoulder too, but her pockets are empty. Is that why the Senate isn’t listening?

Oct 14, 2011 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took the Senate floor yesterday in defense of science and reason – two topics that seldom seem to influence the decisionmaking of the Senate lawmakers these days when it comes to climate change.  Speaking out against the two big lies permeating the halls of congress: 1) environmental regulations are a burden to the economy; and 2) the jury is still out on climate change, Senator Whitehouse convincingly argued why both claims are false.  “The jury isn’t out,” he said, “the verdict is in!”  “More than 97% of publishing scientists accept that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it,” the Senator said in a twenty-four minute floor speech in which he cautioned his colleagues that the Senate is failing, “earning the scorn and condemnation of history” because while it considers repealing laws designed to prevent pollution, it cannot repeal the laws of nature.  “The dark hand of polluters can tap so many shoulders and there is a lot of power and money behind that dark hand, but nature is also tapping us on the shoulder, and we ignore that tapping at our own grave peril,” said Senator Whitehouse.  I must admit, I don’t have a lot of confidence that nature’s hand will win the contest in Washington, D.C., but my confidence is a bit restored when a Senator has the courage to speak the truth to his colleagues … giving nature’s tap a fighting chance.  Senator Whitehouse (RI) Floor speech on climate change

A powerful statement from the White House

Apr 5, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

The Obama Administration has issued a clear statement opposing the bill that would roll back the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Air Act.  It really speaks for itself so I am just pasting it in below as well as providing a link.

The question for our Senators and Representatives is: will they reject this attack on the public health and the environment? They should stand firm against this bill and underhanded attempts to slip the  same provisions into other legislation, like the budget.


H.R. 910 – Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011

(Rep. Upton, R-MI, and 95 cosponsors)

The Administration strongly opposes House passage of H.R. 910, which would halt the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) common-sense steps under the Clean Air Act (CAA) to protect Americans from harmful air pollution.  H.R. 910 would also increase the Nation’s dependence on oil and other fossil fuels as well as contradict the scientific consensus on climate change.

The CAA gives EPA the necessary tools to protect our families from a wide variety of harmful pollutants that cause asthma and lung disease – especially in children.  Weakening these standards would allow more pollution in the air we breathe and threaten the health of Americans across the country.  A recent report by EPA shows how important this landmark law has been in protecting public health.  In 2010 alone, just one part of the CAA prevented:

  • 160,000 premature deaths;
  • 130,000 heart attacks;
  • More than 100,000 hospital visits by preventing millions of cases of respiratory problems, including bronchitis and asthma.  It enhanced productivity by preventing millions of lost workdays, and kept kids healthy and in school, avoiding millions of lost school days due to respiratory illness and other diseases caused or exacerbated by air pollution.

Since 1970, the CAA has reduced key air pollutants that cause smog and particulate pollution by more than 60 percent.  At the same time the economy has more than tripled.  And since the CAA Amendments in 1990, electricity production is up and prices are stable.  In 2009, electric utilities delivered 33 percent more electricity to U.S. households and businesses than in 1990, while nationwide electricity prices remained essentially unchanged.

Over its 40-year span, the benefits of the CAA – in the form of longer lives, healthier kids, greater workforce productivity, and ecosystem protections – outweigh the costs by more than 30 to one.

Passage of H.R. 910 would also block important policy measures that enable the CAA to achieve additional societal benefits related to carbon pollution.  For example, the bill would block EPA’s involvement in the historic, bipartisan Federal program to promote vehicle fuel economy standards for Model Years 2017-2025.  This program will reduce oil consumption, provide significant savings to American consumers at the pump, and limit pollution from tailpipe emissions.  Further, H.R. 910 would second guess the widely-accepted scientific consensus that carbon pollution is at increasingly dangerous concentrations and is contributing to the threat of climate change.  This could create uncertainty around the requirements which are currently in effect for the Model Year 2012-2016 vehicle standards.  Finally, H.R. 910 would contradict public health experts and scientists and strip EPA of its authority to develop sensible standards for currently unchecked carbon pollution, and thus prevent EPA from following its statutory obligations as interpreted by the Supreme Court.

If the President is presented with this legislation, which would seriously roll back the CAA authority, harm Americans’ health by taking away our ability to decrease carbon pollution, and undercut fuel efficiency standards that will save Americans money at the pump while decreasing our dependence on oil, his senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.

Efficiency – a critical resource that works

Jul 30, 2009 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

In a blog post that follows up on a New York Times newspaper story about the groundbreaking McKinsey report on the enormous opportunity for energy efficiency as a resource for tackling global warming there is a nice discussion of the statewide energy efficiency utility in Vermont.

A few key points about the McKinsey report:

  • The report shows that a comprehensive approach to making the United States more energy efficient could save consumers $1.2 trillion by 2020.
  • The report finds that this approach could also cut overall energy consumption in the U.S. by 23% in the next decade, eliminating the need for expensive new coal plants and dramatically reducing our carbon emissions by up to 1.1 gigatons.
  • The study cites research suggesting that energy efficiency could create 600,000 to 900,000 sustainable green jobs in twelve years.

The Efficiency Vermont model, that CLF helped build and grow, as well as other successful models like the programs administered by conventional utilities in Massachusetts, and efforts on the regional level, have made New England a national leader in this critical area – but there is so much more that can be done . . .