Why Is Hydro-Québec So Intent on Overselling Its Hydropower?, Part II

Oct 24, 2014 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

CLF has been asking questions about the carbon footprint of large-scale Canadian hydropower since before the Northern Pass project’s inception. I recently raised our concerns in my list of three ugly numbers behind the regional push for more hydropower imports, pointing out that, in the first decade after flooding, greenhouse gas pollution from new hydropower reservoirs can produce 70% as much greenhouse gas pollution as natural gas power plants, according to Hydro-Québec’s own science.

As with our number on new hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec took exception in a press release, asserting that CLF does not understand the science. We obviously disagree. In this post, the second in a series of three, I will break down what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the climate benefits of its hydropower. This will be a deep dive, especially because Hydro-Québec’s press release is so profoundly misleading.

Aurora Borealis over Gouin Reservoir, Québec (photo credit: flickr/-AX-)

Aurora Borealis over Gouin Reservoir, Québec (photo credit: flickr/-AX-)

Why CLF Cares About Hydropower’s Carbon Footprint

Why is this issue important at all? As our region considers massive new infrastructure to import more hydropower, we need to have a full, honest accounting of the real impacts—on both sides of the border. Greenhouse gas pollution and climate change know no international boundaries, and New England is ultimately responsible for the carbon pollution attributable to its power use.

Getting credible estimates of the climate effects of new imports is especially important because virtually every proponent of new hydropower imports touts reduced emissions as a dominant reason to pursue them. Likewise, federal law and some state statutes require accurate assessments of what new imports of hydropower will mean for New England’s greenhouse gas emissions and how we achieve our short-term and long-term climate goals. To the extent new imports are in the region’s future, something CLF could support with the right conditions, we need honest numbers.

Given that hydropower projects do not have smoke stacks, when I say “carbon pollution” or “greenhouse gas emissions” from hydropower, what do I mean? Reservoirs behind new dams inundate vast geographic areas. For example, the Eastmain reservoir in the James Bay region is roughly 600 square kilometers, or more than three Lake Winnipesaukees. Drowned vegetation and biological material decompose over time and release carbon dioxide and methane into the water column and then into the atmosphere. In addition, the flooding destroys northern forested landscapes that can be potent carbon sinks (and are often called “lungs of the planet”), increasing the net greenhouse gas emissions of the reservoir by the amount of any lost capability to sequester carbon.

The key question is how much net greenhouse gas pollution a reservoir produces for its power output over time. To assess the climate effects of new imports of hydropower, pollution from the facilities supplying the power can be compared with the emissions of displaced power here in New England.

It’s also important to understand the effects in the province supplying the power and in neighboring regions, like New York or Ontario. If Canadian hydropower is merely shifted from those markets to ours and the gap is filled by fossil fuel power plants, the imports won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall.

What Hydro-Québec Gets Wrong About Its Own Research

In its press release, Hydro-Québec says that “CLF asserts that hydropower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are much higher than they actually are … by cherry-picking data contained in a scientific study on emissions from a recently created reservoir in Québec…. What that study really indicates is that hydropower is one of the lowest-emission generating options per kilowatthour produced.”

Here again, as with hydropower costs, Hydro-Québec misstates CLF’s point. The number I cited does not pretend to describe all hydropower, or even all Hydro-Québec hydropower.

The 70% number clearly and expressly describes the emissions from a new large-scale hydropower facility during the first ten years of operation. It is taken directly from peer-reviewed scientific analysis by Hydro-Québec and academic researchers of data collected at the Eastmain 1 reservoir, a new hydropower facility in northern Québec. My blog post includes the relevant graph, presented in a scientific paper that a Hydro-Québec scientist co-authored, showing a direct comparison of these emissions with natural gas and supporting CLF’s statement that a new large-scale hydropower facility can emit 70% of the greenhouse gases of natural gas power plants in the decade following development.

A 100-year life-cycle analysis shows lower long-term emissions, but in a world where climate change is accelerating and we desperately need to reduce emissions now, the early emissions of Hydro-Quebec’s new facilities—several of which are under construction and slated for development in the coming few years—are vitally important. Moreover, it is these new facilities that Hydro-Québec intends to rely on to support new exports to the United States, likely making their carbon footprint more relevant to New England’s current decisions to increase imports than the footprints of existing reservoirs that are supplying Québec customers.

It is worth noting that the 100-year emissions described in the research are much higher than the numbers that Hydro-Quebec’s press release implies that the study confirms. The paper says that 100-year emissions are 40% of the emissions of natural gas power plants, about ten times more than the factor Hydro-Québec quotes and much higher than solar and wind power, which emit no pollution once installed.

While Hydro-Québec says CLF is “cherry-picking” a data point from its research, it ignores that the data point is a key finding of what is now seminal research, which Hydro-Quebec touts on its website as the first time ever that researchers have measured the emissions of a landscape developed for hydropower both before and after flooding:

Project EM-1 is a world first, since this is the first time that GHG emissions are measured before and after the creation of a hydroelectric reservoir. This will make it possible to precisely identify the impact hydroelectric reservoirs have on greenhouse gases.

Despite its billing, Hydro-Québec’s Eastmain research does not provide a full picture. In particular, there are many important differences between hydropower facilities in Québec, and the differences’ effects on reservoir emissions haven’t been fully researched.

For example, Hydro-Québec’s new dams along the Romaine River, now under construction, are creating somewhat smaller reservoirs than Eastmain (collectively, only one and a half Lake Winnipesaukees), suggesting that they might produce less net pollution. However, the flooded landscape along the Romaine and the flooded landscape at Eastmain are quite different. Hydro-Québec’s research at Eastmain suggests that the flooded landscape wasn’t a carbon sink prior to reservoir construction, whereas the landscape along the Romaine is more heavily forested and could provide much more vegetation that will decompose over time as well as a greater value as a carbon sink, which is now being lost.

And of course, the project’s emissions rate depends on how much power the reservoir produces. A vast reservoir that produces a relatively small number of megawatts of power will likely have a higher emissions rate than a smaller reservoir in the same landscape that produces a higher number of megawatts. That’s why true “run-of-river” hydropower facilities, which are powered by the flows in existing rivers and do not require enormous dams or flooding, are much lower carbon resources than large-scale hydropower.

Hydro-Québec’s Faulty Math

So why Hydro-Québec is so upset with CLF’s characterization of the utility’s own groundbreaking research? The core of Hydro-Québec’s disagreement with CLF is this: the utility likes to cite a greenhouse gas emission rate (pollution per unit of energy generated) that assumes its Eastmain reservoir alone powers two generation stations (meaning that the emission rate equals the reservoir’s emissions by the output of both stations). When the utility is in charge of the presentation, it highlights this number, which reflects a steep drop in the emission rate after the newer generation station came online by early 2012. The peer-reviewed version of the research, published in 2012, refuses to make that assumption and leaves out the newer generation station from the reservoir’s power output. Why?

The new station (Eastmain 1-A) was constructed to include flows made possible and channeled to the Eastmain reservoir by Hydro-Québec’s massive project to divert the Rupert River. That means that the net effects of the landscape changes associated with the diversion project are key to understanding the emissions of the Eastmain complex as a whole. A major element of the diversion project was the creation of two diversion bays totaling about 350 square kilometers, or the flooding of about two additional Lake Winnepauskees. While Hydro-Québec’s favored number assumes that this flooding has no net effect on emissions, the peer-reviewed research says the effects are unknown and therefore does not include the power from Eastmain 1-A in its calculation of the Eastmain emission rate.

That leaves us with the table from the peer-reviewed paper itself, which is where CLF got its number. We are also informed by the thorough research summary from Synapse Energy Economics on this topic that CLF released more than two years ago, which shows that new hydropower facilities have significantly higher emissions than have been assumed and advertised.

CLF has attempted to engage Hydro-Québec in a serious dialogue on this issue. While there have been several interactions—like this one on our blog after CLF released the Synapse report—we have yet to see anything that meaningfully addresses CLF’s concerns or corrects its misleading public relations campaign.

The Need for Honest Numbers

If this all seems complicated to you, you’re right. The research on hydropower emissions is not complete, and it is probably fair to assume there is significant variation from reservoir to reservoir. Some likely have a larger carbon footprint than Eastmain and some smaller; some are decades old, with relatively low emissions going forward, and others are newer, with a larger carbon footprint now and in the near term.

For many years, policymakers and large-scale hydropower boosters have assumed this complexity away. Hydropower emissions were either presumed to be zero or were pegged at a level based on extrapolations from simple measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from reservoir surfaces, including reservoirs flooded many decades ago. In many cases, including in Canada’s inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, a single miniscule emissions figure is used to characterize all large-scale hydropower facilities. These assumptions are at work in Hydro-Québec’s press release, including in its comparisons to other power sources and its statements about avoided emissions from its energy sales.

We know now that the old simplifying assumptions can be way off, which is one reason why CLF and others have identified a need to “tag” the energy from individual power facilities in Québec that are used for exports to the United States and define, with at least some reasonable approximation, the energy’s source and its environmental attributes and emissions profile.

The developers of the Northern Pass transmission project and Hydro-Québec are continuing their campaign to gloss over the very real greenhouse gas pollution that hydropower projects create. Despite Hydro-Québec’s own research, they are advertising numbers and slogans that inaccurately minimize reservoir carbon footprints or deny the pollution even exists. Unfortunately, it’s also the case that many New England policymakers and the federal officials reviewing Northern Pass’s permit application appear thoroughly disinterested in getting to the bottom of what Canadian hydropower projects really mean for the climate or in insisting on an accurate accounting from Hydro-Québec. For example, we have not received a single substantive response to our August 2013 request that the states meaningfully assess this issue as part of their regional efforts around hydropower imports.

As with the costs of Canadian hydropower, New England deserves honest information about the emissions of the product that Hydro-Québec wants to sell us. Instead of impugning CLF for raising questions, Hydro-Québec and American transmission developers like Northern Pass that want to bring New England its power should start offering New England the basic respect of fair dealing and real numbers.

Coming next in this series, what Hydro-Québec’s defense of its product gets wrong—on the reliability benefits of new imports for the New England electric grid.

3 Things No One is Telling You About Rising Energy Costs

Oct 3, 2014 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first White House chief of staff, was once quoted as saying “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste,” referring to the opportunities to pass sweeping bills in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. Over the past weeks, we’ve seen that sentiment put into practice by some of New England’s major energy industry players. They’ve been fanning the flames of fear over expected winter price spikes to support their continued push for building massive new gas pipelines, even though new pipelines have no chance of helping to address the risk of price spikes for this winter.

Here are 3 things you’re not being told about what’s really responsible for the increased rates and how to deal with rising energy costs now:

  1. New pipelines can’t and won’t address the rising rates for this winter (or the next three winters).
    • Even under the most optimistic scenarios, new natural gas pipelines of the scale that were being considered as part of the now-stalled New England Governors’ initiative could not be permitted and built earlier than November 2018. Even if they lived up to the Governors’ promises after that, they would do nothing for consumers this winter and the next three winters.
    • New England isn’t the only region of the country that experienced price spikes this past winter. New York, an area that had just expanded its pipeline capacity still experienced higher prices last winter, and the regional electric grid known as PJM (because it covers, in part, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland) also experienced price spikes even though it is located in the epicenter of abundant Marcellus shale gas supplies.
  2. The real problem isn’t a major deficit of pipeline capacity, but a failure to deal adequately with the increased use of natural gas for power generation.
    • We now use a lot of natural gas for power generation in New England, which helped modernize the system by moving us away from old, polluting, and inefficient sources like coal and oil. Because of this, and the way the regional grid’s electric market works, natural gas prices now generally set the price for electricity in New England.
    • Unlike natural gas utilities that supply homes and businesses with gas for heating, which buy gas on long-term “firm” contracts that guarantee access to gas, the companies that own natural gas power plants typically buy cheaper “interruptible” contracts because there isn’t currently a mechanism that allows them to pass-through the additional costs of buying firm supply.
    • In the winter time, people are often turning on the heat at the same time that they are turning on the lights, so the system experiences high demands on gas for both uses in the mornings and afternoons. These “coincident” demands led to price spikes between 10-42 days in each of the last winters, and retail electric prices are now catching up as the market is expecting a repeat of last winter’s high prices.
    • Now that natural gas makes up so much of the electricity we use, the volatility of gas prices has a bigger impact on electric prices and leads to higher rates. We have been far too slow in deploying demand-reducing energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses and in increasing the amounts of local renewable energy on the system, both of which would help reduce market prices for electricity and protect us from volatile gas prices.
    • The increased use of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports should help to moderate the price spikes to some extent this year, but more can be done through market reforms without risking overbuilding gas capacity.
  3. Energy efficiency is the best way to reduce your bills and stay warm this winter.
    • Even though rates are going up, you can still lower your total bill by lowering your demand. Massachusetts has some of the best energy efficiency programs in the country which means that you can apply for rebates, incentives, and assistance to help you install efficient measures. Other New England states have programs as well.
    • If you don’t own your home or apartment, there are still some inexpensive steps you can take to cut your bills. There are many ways to conserve energy for a very small investment of time or money. Check back in for a look at how Senior Attorney Shanna Cleveland is getting her apartment ready for the winter.

New CLF Ventures Study to Reward Drivers for Driving Less

Sep 18, 2013 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

“Pick a Day, Commute Another Way.” That’s the theme of this week’s Massachusetts Car-Free Week, when the state joins over 1,000 cities in 40 countries around the world to encourage motorists to leave their cars at home and try bicycling, walking, public transit, carpooling, or vanpooling to work. With transportation as the state’s largest and fastest growing sector with respect to climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions, it’s imperative that we reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

Here at CLF, in addition to our extensive policy work to improve transportation choices in both urban and rural communities across New England, we’ve long advocated for market-based approaches to encourage people to drive less as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and traffic congestion. That’s why, in conjunction with Massachusetts Car-Free Week, we’re proud to announce a new pilot study that our non-profit affiliate, CLF Ventures, will be conducting in 2014.

Funded by a $2.1 million Federal Highway Administration Value Pricing Program grant administered by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and with an in-kind contribution from Plymouth Rock Assurance, the three-year study will explore how rewarding people for driving less affects their driving behavior.

Specifically, CLF Ventures will examine how the size and timing of cash rewards, and how those rewards are communicated, can motivate people to adjust how much, when, and where they drive. The study will help us understand the economic and environmental implications of these behavioral changes, and will provide, for the first time, publicly available data about these behavioral impacts so that states, insurers, and motorists can learn more about the effectiveness of various incentives for reducing driving. Using in-vehicle telematics devices, the study will collect data on miles traveled and when a driver enters different geographic zones, such as Metro Boston or Metro North, but it will not track specific locations.

As CLF President John Kassel states:

“CLF strongly believes in market-based approaches to addressing environmental problems. For more than 15 years, we’ve championed innovative methods to reduce driving as a way to achieve real environmental benefits. This study is an important next step in providing the data policymakers and insurance companies need to design effective voluntary programs that encourage reductions in driving on a large scale. We need to pursue every option available to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to meet Massachusetts’s – and the region’s – climate goals.”

Financial incentives to drive less can provide a win all-around for Massachusetts consumers, residents, insurers, policymakers, and the environment:

  • Consumers can earn rewards for driving less.
  • All Massachusetts residents will benefit from improved road safety and reduced traffic congestion that result when people drive less.
  • Insurers can provide an incentive to policyholders that reduces driving, thereby reducing the number and cost of auto accident claims.
  • Policymakers will benefit by having real data that reflects how consumers change their driving behavior when incentivized to do so.
  • The environment will benefit from the reduction in vehicle miles – less driving means reduced fuel usage, better air quality, and lower climate-altering greenhouse gas emissions.

Groups of randomly selected, current Plymouth Rock policyholders will be invited to participate in the pilot study, which will begin in 2014. Potential participants can accept or decline the invitation to participate; they cannot “volunteer” to join the study. The study will enroll approximately 3,000 Plymouth Rock policyholders in Massachusetts from a representative mix of vehicle classes, geographic territories, and coverage characteristics. Participants will pay their normal insurance premiums, regardless of how many miles they drive, and can earn per-mile cash rewards for reducing the miles they drive.

Considerable data security measures will be in place to protect the privacy and confidentiality of the voluntary study participants and protect their personal information. Participants will be told what data will be used and how, and must provide their consent. Data released to the public will be scrubbed of personal/identifying information and only made available in aggregate form.

We know that reducing miles driven can decrease emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases and health-damaging air pollutants, ease traffic congestion, and improve road safety. What we don’t know is to what extent driver behavior can be influenced through financial rewards and incentives. This pilot study is a great way to find out.

Reading Your Street: What You Can Learn About Natural Gas Infrastructure

Aug 9, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

You’ve heard of the writing on the wall, but what is all that writing on the sidewalk and the street? You’ve seen it—yellow, orange, blue, red and white.

Some of it is pretty easy to decipher like “DS” for “Dig Safe” or “STM” for “steam” but some of the drawings look more like ancient hieroglyphics.

 

It’s incredible what’s running right beneath our feet, like an entire natural gas infrastructure, but we rarely take time to think about it.

In Massachusetts, we have over 21,000 miles of natural gas distribution pipeline running under our streets. That’s almost enough pipeline to circle all the way around the Earth. For perspective, you could drive from Boston to San Francisco and back three times and still not put 21,000 miles on your odometer.

I’ve been thinking about what’s under the street a lot over the past two years. In July 2011, I was introduced to a professor at Boston University, Nathan Phillips, who had embarked on a journey of mapping natural gas leaks in the City of Boston. Using a high tech sensor, Nathan was detecting leaks and translating them into incredible visual representations that called attention to the aging natural gas pipelines criss-crossing our city.

natural-gas-infrastructure

Maps created by Nathan Phillips of Boston University

After I saw Nathan’s maps, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the ground. Whether I was walking or biking, I started to notice all kinds of infrastructure, not just natural gas, everywhere.

There were “Gardner Boxes” in front of the houses on my street—these are one type of emergency shut-off valves for gas service lines.

natural-gas-infrastructure-Emergency-Shut-Off

Emergency Shut-Off

Then there were the large, bold, golden “G”s on the street, sometimes accompanied by CI (which stands for cast iron) or PL (for plastic) or BS (for bare steel), or CS (for coated steel) 18-in or 12-in or 3-in (telling me the diameter of the pipeline), and NGrid or NStar (the name of the company that owns the pipeline).

Suddenly, I could tell a lot about my street just from looking down. But what I couldn’t tell from the markings alone was just how important natural gas infrastructure is for a safe, thriving and sustainable neighborhood. That took some digging of a different variety.

Leaking Pipes Contribute to Climate Change

What I found was surprising and unsettling. Massachusetts has some of the oldest natural gas pipelines in the country. Almost 4,000 miles of the pipeline in Massachusetts is cast iron and another 3,000 is what’s known as “unprotected steel” (meaning unprotected from corrosion). These two types of pipe are referred to as “leak-prone pipe” in the industry because they are highly susceptible to breaks, fractures, and corrosion. Cast iron pipe was first installed in the 1830s, and some of the pipe in Massachusetts that is still in service dates to the Civil War. The gas utilities have started to focus on replacing this “leak-prone” pipe, especially since the tragedies in San Bruno, California and Allentown, Pennsylvania brought home how dangerous old pipelines can be.

But replacing old and leaking pipelines isn’t solely about public safety. It’s also a matter of conserving a valuable natural resource and tackling climate change. Natural gas is up to 95% methane, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a 100 year time frame. When natural gas is combusted, in your furnace or in a power plant, it emits much less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, but when it’s leaked directly into the air from a pipeline, it adds up to a significant source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Unfortunately, current methods for estimating just how much natural gas is leaking from pipelines aren’t very accurate. What we do know is that leaking pipelines in Massachusetts are releasing between 697,000 tons of CO2e and 3.6 million tons of CO2e every year. That’s a huge range, and one that we’re working to narrow with the help of Professor Phillips and his students. These leaks can also take a heavy bite out of gas customers’ pocketbooks, as a recent report prepared for Senator Ed Markey showed.

What You Can Do

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more information here about the efforts to replace leak-prone pipeline in Massachusetts and what you can do to make sure that your street is both safe and climate friendly. Until then, here are a few tips to remember:

1) Dig Safe—You never know what types of pipelines, wires, or cables may be running under your lawn or sidewalk. Dig Safe will contact the utilities so that they can mark the lines for you. Even for small projects like planting a tree, always check in with Dig Safe before you dig. It’s free, and it’s required by law to keep you and your neighbors safe. You can check the website or simply call 811 before you dig.

2) Report Leaks—If you think you smell gas, put out all open flames and do not use lighters or light matches. Do not touch electric switches, thermostats or appliances. Move to a safe environment and call your gas company or 911 to have them come check it out. Here is the contact information for Massachusetts’ three largest gas companies: Columbia GasNational Grid, and NStar Gas.

3) Conserve—It sounds simple, but using less is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce the climate impacts from natural gas. Contact MassSave for a free home energy audit.

4) Contact your Legislator—Legislation is pending in Massachusetts right now that would help fix these leaks. We’re supporting H.2933 and portions of S.1580. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, you can take a look at the testimony we filed with partners like Clean Water Action.

The Most Important Thing You Will Read Today – The Clearest Statement on Climate Science From the Most Definitive Source

Aug 6, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

AGU-logo-climate-science

You just can’t find a more solid, conservative, reliable and grounded group than the American Geophysical Union.  Since 1919 the AGU has been the hub of the physical sciences in the United States providing a gathering place and information exchange for earth, air and space scientists and then communicating carefully reviewed scientific information to the public and decision-makers in government, business and throughout society.

When a group like the AGU speaks through an official statement you know that every word of the statement has been scrutinized and carefully chosen to communicate important ideas and complex climate science as accurately as possible. The process of creating these statements involves hours, days, weeks and years of meetings, reviews, re-reviews and painstaking scrutiny.

This means when that when the AGU issues (as it did in 2003) and then updates (as it did again last week) its official position statement on a subject like global warming, attention should be paid. The latest version of that statement can be downloaded in PDF form from the AGU website and is “pasted” below in its entirety.

The calm and carefully chosen words of the AGU should reinforce a critical realization that immediate and dramatic action is needed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions immediately. By becoming much more efficient in our use of energy and dramatically reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we burn, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Meeting these goals will require developing dense and sustainable cities where most trips can be made on foot and convenient and affordable public transit plays a strong and supporting role as well as technological shifts to highly efficient buildings powered by renewable energy like wind and solar power.  The AGU also reminds us that even if we slash our greenhouse gas emissions very sharply and immediately we must deal with the implications of the emissions of the past and the warming that is already baked into the system, warming that is bringing us rising sea levels and extreme and disrupted weather.

The call to action that the scientists of the AGU is sounding is being heard here in New England – laws like the renewable energy and energy efficiency standards are on the books in part because of this fundamental challenge.  This legislative response to climate science is even more obvious in the case of laws specifically requiring emissions reductions – like the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.  But passing laws is only one in a series of needed steps forward.

Translating the law into regulations (as the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection just refused to do when pressed by a remarkable group of kids) and then action, actually delivering on the promise of reduced pollution emissions, will not be easy.  But we really don’t have a choice . . .

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.

Humanity is the major influence on the global climate change observed over the past 50 years.

Rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.

“Human activities are changing Earth’s climate. At the global level, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel burning dominates this increase. Human-caused increases in greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed global average surface warming of roughly 0.8°C (1.5°F) over the past 140 years. Because natural processes cannot quickly remove some of these gases (notably carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, our past, present, and future emissions will influence the climate system for millennia.

Extensive, independent observations confirm the reality of global warming. These observations show large-scale increases in air and sea temperatures, sea level, and atmospheric water vapor; they document decreases in the extent of mountain glaciers, snow cover, permafrost, and Arctic sea ice. These changes are broadly consistent with long-understood physics and predictions of how the climate system is expected to respond to human-caused increases in greenhouse gases. The changes are inconsistent with explanations of climate change that rely on known natural influences.

Climate models predict that global temperatures will continue to rise, with the amount of warming primarily determined by the level of emissions. Higher emissions of greenhouse gases will lead to larger warming, and greater risks to society and ecosystems. Some additional warming is unavoidable due to past emissions.

Climate change is not expected to be uniform over space or time. Deforestation, urbanization, and particulate pollution can have complex geographical, seasonal, and longer-term effects on temperature, precipitation, and cloud properties. In addition, human-induced climate change may alter atmospheric circulation, dislocating historical patterns of natural variability and storminess.

In the current climate, weather experienced at a given location or region varies from year to year; in a changing climate, both the nature of that variability and the basic patterns of weather experienced can change, sometimes in counterintuitive ways — some areas may experience cooling, for instance. This raises no challenge to the reality of human-induced climate change.

Impacts harmful to society, including increased extremes of heat, precipitation, and coastal high water are currently being experienced, and are projected to increase. Other projected outcomes involve threats to public health, water availability, agricultural productivity (particularly in low-latitude developing countries), and coastal infrastructure, though some benefits may be seen at some times and places. Biodiversity loss is expected to accelerate due to both climate change and acidification of the oceans, which is a direct result of increasing carbon dioxide levels.

While important scientific uncertainties remain as to which particular impacts will be experienced where, no uncertainties are known that could make the impacts of climate change inconsequential. Furthermore, surprise outcomes, such as the unexpectedly rapid loss of Arctic summer sea ice, may entail even more dramatic changes than anticipated.

Actions that could diminish the threats posed by climate change to society and ecosystems include substantial emissions cuts to reduce the magnitude of climate change, as well as preparing for changes that are now unavoidable. The community of scientists has responsibilities to improve overall understanding of climate change and its impacts. Improvements will come from pursuing the research needed to understand climate change, working with stakeholders to identify relevant information, and conveying understanding clearly and accurately, both to decision makers and to the general public.”

Adopted by the American Geophysical Union December 2003; Revised and Reaffirmed December 2007, February 2012, August 2013.

President Obama Steers U.S. Climate Policy Towards the Lighthouse of New England Leadership

Jun 25, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

President Obama has always talked a good game on climate. But simply stating that “for the sake of our children and our future we must do more to combat climate change” is not a substitute for action. Today, the President proposed a package to step up the actions of the federal government to confront and attack this fundamental threat to our communities, economy, families and environment.

CLF applauds the President’s actions to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are changing our climate – emissions that damage the public health as well as our environment; harming our kids and our climate. However, we feel obliged to point out that these are simply overdue steps in the implementation of the Clean Air Act. In the landmark case of Massachusetts v. EPA the Supreme Court clearly laid out the duty of the federal government to address the pollutants causing global warming under that law.  This is not about unilateral action by the Administration:  it is about the executive branch doing its essential job of implementing the law enacted by Congress and interpreted by the Courts.

While the emissions reductions efforts the President is proposing are modest, they are very much a step in the right direction — as long as they aren’t undermined by any approval to move dirty and dangerous tar sands oil through our country.

Addressing, Not Just Feeling, the Impacts of Climate Change

The President’s plans for taking on the practical business of adapting to and managing life in a changing climate is another common sense step in the right direction. Given the real and devastating impacts of blistering summer heat, rising seas, extreme rain and snow storms on our communities and economy, this work is essential.  The focus of the Administration on climate adaptation efforts by U.S. Department of Agriculture is heartening.  It is hard to think of something more fundamental to our families and communities than food; drought and other climate change impacts are wreaking havoc on our food system, and so far, this issue has not received sufficient attention.

Building on a Record of State Leadership

By moving forward with emissions reduction measures, the federal government sets off (at last!) on a path blazed by the states that have been leaders in the effort to reduce dangerous emissions from the burning of coal, oil and gasoline.

New England, along with a few other states and regions, has been a beacon for the nation on climate and energy policy. Over the last decade New England, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy, has reduced its emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, the chief cause of global warming, by over 10%: reducing regional emissions by over 20 million tons a year.  Our emissions reductions have been accompanied by a rise in new economic investment in clean energy and technology. In Massachusetts alone, an economic survey showed the Clean Energy economy growing by 11.2% between July 2011 and July 2012 with a business census revealing 71,523 people employed at 4,995 clean energy businesses across the state.

CLF and its allies in the region are continuing to set a high bar for both the states and the feds, pushing for a Coal Free New England where our electricity comes from increasingly clean sources and is used more and more efficiently, as well as reducing emissions from our transportation system by shifting to cleaner cars, increasing transit use and building smarter and healthier communities. We must continue to pursue emissions reductions that meet the mandates of science and science-calibrated laws like the Massachusetts and Connecticut Global Warming Solutions Acts.

CLF is all about environmental solutions – and therefore we cheer the decision to further expand the aggressive development of renewable energy on federal land and federally owned, managed and financed facilities.  From intelligently and carefully sited wind farms to solar panels on housing projects to delivering on the promise of offshore wind, the time has come to go fossil free.

The Moral Duty to Act – Retreat or Surrender Are Not Options

There is no going back – the plans for emissions regulation, adaptation planning and renewable energy development unveiled today are  long-overdue steps that require aggressive action to bring to fruition. The duty to act might be invested by law in the Administration but the moral duty to protect future generations rests with all of us and we must hear the call and push our elected representatives, from the President on down, to take action.

“No supportable basis for optimism” and “ever higher costs”: PUC Staff calls out PSNH’s failed business model

Jun 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

This past Friday, staff from the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission and The Liberty Consulting Group issued the results of their investigation (PDF) into the impacts of PSNH’s failing business model and “ever higher costs” to consumers. The Union Leader and NHPR were quick to quote the report’s damning conclusion:

In summary, the situation looks to worsen, as continuing migration from PSNH’s default service by customers causes an upward rate trend. We find no supportable basis for optimism that future market conditions will reverse this unsustainable trend, especially in the near term. To the contrary, the PSNH fossil units face uncertainties that combine to create a risk of further, potentially substantial increases in costs.

This underlines the benefits of abandoning PSNH’s residential energy service, noting that “PSNH’s default service rate has exceeded [competitive supplier] rates since mid-2009.” As PSNH itself stated in a filing before the NH Supreme Court in May, PSNH energy service ratepayers “have the legal right and ability to avoid payment of PSNH’s default energy service rate entirely by buying their electricity from a competitive electric power supplier.” The PUC staff’s report serves as a call to action for New Hampshire consumers to save money, protect their finances, and improve the environment by buying energy from lower cost and more efficient energy suppliers.

PSNH’s only public response to the report thus far has been to cite the dispatch of their coal units during extreme temperature events this year as evidence that the plants are necessary “insurance” against natural gas price increases. The report itself contradicts this, however, noting that even at this year’s levels of natural gas price spike frequency and severity in New England (due to a cold winter and a late spring heat wave two weeks ago), natural gas price fluctuations “have not served to give the PSNH fossil units enough of a boost to overcome their negative value,” and that PSNH has not offered any data or analysis to rebut this finding. That is, even with the extreme peaks of electric demand felt in the past year requiring their use more often than in the past few years, PSNH’s fossil fuel fired power units still lose ratepayer money.

The report assesses the real financial impacts of PSNH’s past and possible future decisions to invest in their coal units rather than shut them down, and demonstrates that the ratepayer money lost if PSNH’s electricity generation is sold off will be lower than many might fear. The key points raised by the report include:

  • Even in a best case scenario, PSNH’s already above-market rates will continue to climb. The investigation calculated PSNH’s energy service rates with a myriad of possible variables, including high natural gas prices and lower coal prices (the scenario that PSNH claims will validate its economic decisions) and a migration rate lower than PSNH reported this April. In all cases, the report found that PSNH’s default energy service rate would climb still higher than their current well above market 9.54 cents per kilowatt hour rate, to 10 or 11 cents per kilowatt hour.
  • Customers continue to flee PSNH’s energy service. CLF has been reporting the steep increase in residential customers rejecting PSNH’s high energy service rates for a while now. We’ve also noted that most large commercial customers had migrated away from PSNH years ago. The combination of these two trends led to the report this May that migration across all customers reached half of PSNH’s total load as of the end of April.
  • The full cost of the Scrubber Project has yet to be felt by ratepayers. PSNH has started recovering the cost of the ill-founded scrubber installation at Merrimack Station to the tune of 0.98 cents per kilowatt hour on a temporary basis. The report estimates that full recovery of the scrubber’s cost would nearly double that amount, to 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour added to ratepayers’ bills. This, of course, is a cost that competitive energy service providers don’t have to deal with.
  • Looming environmental compliance projects as Scrubber redux? PSNH is currently waiting for its new final permit from EPA for cooling water withdrawal and discharge at Merrimack Station. The final permit is likely to require cooling water intake structures (like those constructed at Brayton Point Station in MA), at a price tag of $111 million or more, in addition to other protections for water quality and wildlife. Costs associated with new or impending air quality requirements would require additional compliance at significant cost, and these estimates don’t even take into account the risk posed by CLF’s ongoing Clean Air Act citizen suit.
  • Potential ratepayer costs from divestment of PSNH’s electricity generation would be minimal. If PSNH’s generating assets are sold, New Hampshire state law allows PSNH to recover from ratepayers costs that are not covered by sale proceeds (“stranded costs”). The report roughly estimates that potential energy service rate increases to cover stranded costs would be no more than 0.9 cents per kilowatt hour and possibly much less, given the high value of PSNH’s hydro generation units.

The report ultimately recommends that the PUC initiate a proceeding to solicit formal feedback on the report and its conclusions. This proceeding would likely result in firmer value estimates for PSNH’s assets, interim steps that could be accomplished through the PUC’s existing authority, and more detailed recommendations for legislation.

As CLF and the Empower NH coalition have repeatedly noted, promoting and advancing competition in New Hampshire’s energy service markets yields only benefits for the state’s electricity ratepayers in the face of PSNH’s “ever higher costs” to ratepayers. While the PUC and the Legislature decide how to implement the recommendations of this report, ratepayers should continue to vote with their feet and leave PSNH’s energy service.

Air Quality Alerts; What You Can Do About Them

May 31, 2013 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Mindy McAdams, Flickr

Kids playing in Boston’s Christian Science Plaza Fountain, by Mindy McAdams on Flickr

The heat is here!

Even though it’s technically still spring until late June, it feels as though summer has already come to stay in southern New England. While we New Englanders pride ourselves on being able to handle all kinds of weather, the health risks posed by poor air quality shouldn’t be ignored.

On a hot summer day, I know I make sure to check the weather in the morning before leaving to see how hot it might get and if there’s a chance of rain. Weather reports and weather websites are good at giving us lots of data about the day’s weather in general (hourly temperatures, chance of rain, and radar maps tracking storms), but don’t always give a detailed explanation when there’s an air quality alert (like there is this weekend).

What does an Air Quality Alert really mean?

The Air Quality Index combines measurements of ground level ozone and particulate matter to determine when levels of those pollutants might be harmful to humans.

Ground level ozone forms when pollution from cars, construction equipment, factories, and power plants containing oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic chemicals mix in sunlight. While lots of ground level ozone is formed in urban areas on hot days, it can also be blown over long distances by wind. Particulate matter is just what it sounds like, particles from construction dust and pollen down to heavy metals and toxic pollutants. Both ground level ozone and particulate matter can be inhaled and cause serious respiratory problems. Southern New England and the mid-Atlantic seaboard are at special risk for ground level ozone and particulate pollution due to the combination of big cities and winds blowing east.

Ground level ozone and particulate matter at levels that commonly occur here in the summer can cause some very unpleasant health problems for even healthy adults (coughing and wheezing isn’t a lot of fun), but can be dangerous and even life-threatening for kids with asthma or other breathing problems, adults with chronic conditions, and the elderly. And some studies suggest that ground-level ozone can actually cause asthma and breathing problems in kids. Adults at risk and parents of kids at risk probably know more about all of this than the average person, but hearing that there’s an Air Quality Alert on the weather can still leave anyone with a lot of questions.

As you can see from the AQI scale, a score of 50 would be labeled “good” and 51 would be “moderate,” so more precise data is essential. That information isn’t always available on a weather report, which is where the EnviroFlash website comes in. They plot the hourly Air Quality Index measurements on maps, so you can check out the forecast and close to real-time information about local air quality:

EnviroFlash this morning

What can I do about bad air quality in the summer?

While there are of course steps that people at risk from elevated ground level ozone and particulate levels can take to protect themselves from dangerous breathing events, the good news is that there are simple and very important things we can all do to help prevent elevated air quality:

  • Prevent your car from contributing to vehicle emissions: try to limit driving trips and take public transportation if possible.
  • Reduce the amount of electricity that your household uses, keeping the worst-emitting fossil fuel fired power plants from being pressed into service: Keep your air conditioner a few degrees higher, and make sure to turn lights and electronics off when you’re not using them.

 

 

EPA Must Follow the Law, Set Rules for Power Plants

May 10, 2013 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

While harm from climate change becomes more apparent every day, EPA is dragging its feet in setting much-needed limitations on greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants. This failure is a plain violation of the Clean Air Act. So CLF recently took the first step to spur EPA into action. Working with attorneys at Clean Air Task Force, we let EPA know that if it does not act, we will sue.

Kite on Marconi Beach

Kite on Marconi Beach, courtesy of EandJsFilmCrew @ Flickr. Recent extreme weather caused significant damage at Cape Cod’s Marconi Beach.

The Clean Air Act requires EPA to issue regulations limiting emissions of air pollutants that may “endanger public health or welfare.” We know well that greenhouse gases drive climate change and therefore endanger public health and welfare in many ways: droughts pose risks to our food supply; sea level rise increases flooding of vulnerable communities; and extreme weather events threaten to wash coastal infrastructure out to sea. Nevertheless, during the early and mid-2000s, EPA all but ignored greenhouse gases. Many states and environmental groups (including CLF) sued to make EPA do something.

First, we argued, greenhouse gases are air pollutants subject to EPA regulation. Second, we said, EPA had to decide one way or the other whether greenhouse gases were dangerous; if so, the Clean Air Act imposes an absolute duty on EPA to regulate them. In a fine opinion by now-retired Justice Stevens, the Supreme Court agreed with us: greenhouse gases are pollutants subject to EPA regulation, and EPA had to decide whether they are dangerous. Two years later, EPA decided that greenhouse gases do, in fact, pose a danger to public health. This means EPA is required by law to regulate them.

After all that, EPA did begin to regulate greenhouse gases. However, it did not limit emissions from the single largest category of greenhouse gas polluters – power plants – which account for nearly 40% of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. If any polluters need robust regulation, power plants do. Finally, after more pushing from CLF and other environmental organizations, EPA published proposed standards for greenhouse gas emissions by power plants.

Under the Clean Air Act, these proposed standards started a clock – EPA had one year to issue final rules. Instead, EPA announced on Day 364 that the final rules would be delayed indefinitely. This delay is both illegal and wrong. EPA now has sixty days to fix its error and issue final rules that seriously address the most pressing problem of our time.

If it does not, CLF and Clean Air Task Force will turn to federal court to compel EPA to act.

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