Friday, July 29, 2016

Rio 2016 – Good Intentions, Unfulfilled Goals

By Ashlyn White, Policy Intern

Hosting the Olympic Games is a daunting task for any country to take on. Infrastructure improvements, massive building projects, and logistical planning of where everything and everyone are going to go are just a few of the things that need to be worked out during the preparation stages. Another critical component is figuring out how the Games will be powered. Every single stadium, venue, and building within the Olympic Village, along with the International Broadcast Center, need reliable energy to ensure the Games run smoothly. This is in addition to the increased energy needs of the many spectators, which include things like transportation to and from the venues. For Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games have been a source of serious controversy in many areas, including the strains it will have on the country’s energy supply.

Hydropower is the main source of Brazilian electricity and accounts for 70 percent of the country’s production. Unfortunately, Brazil is in the middle of a serious drought, which has impacts on the country’s ability to produce enough hydropower to meet the needs of everyday citizens and will severely strain the grid’s ability to support the Games. The Brazilian energy crisis has led to serious cutbacks, including cutting the power to people’s homes and businesses for extended periods at a time. Still, Brazil’s goal is to keep as much of the Games on the grid as possible to take advantage of the country’s available renewable energy capacity. However, Rio suffers from rolling blackouts as a result of low energy production, and the back-up strategy will rely on diesel-powered generators, as it is too late to build the solar energy infrastructure that was originally planned. Brazil faced similar problems when it hosted the World Cup in 2014, and the government spent $5 billion to subsidize fossil fuel generators as a result.

While Rio is not unique in failing to deliver on its environmental promises compared to previous Olympic host cities, it is certainly disappointing. Rio had promised to host the “Green Games for a Blue Planet” by using clean energy, upgrading low income neighborhoods, preserving natural spaces, and significantly improving public transportation to clear up the streets and control smog. As with many previous Olympic host cities, budget constraints and poor planning are to blame when these ambitious environmental and energy projects get cut. Jay Coakley of the University of Colorado studies the impacts of massive events like the Olympics, and as he explained in an interview with The Atlantic, if money hasn’t been allocated up front, what can happen is a city or region goes so deeply into debt and there’s so little money or energy left to complete those projects.” Rio itself fell victim to this in 2014 when they hosted the World Cup. For example, the committee in charge of organizing the World Cup never broke ground on a proposed high-speed rail line between Sao Paulo and Rio that was meant to reduce vehicle emissions, nor did they ever put up the solar panels that were meant to power the various stadiums.

With only a little over a week to go until the Games’ Opening Ceremonies and dozens of very major problems left to be solved, it is clear that whatever renewable energy goals Rio’s Olympic Committee had at the outset will not come to fruition now. Looking ahead, Pyeongchang and Tokyo are looking much more likely to deliver more environmentally friendly Olympic Games that use renewable energy technology. For example, Pyeongchang plans to power their 2018 Winter Olympic Games with 100 percent renewable energy from new and existing power plants that rely on solar and geothermal energy. While this is a lofty goal, they are already well set up to meet it, considering they currently have the capabilities to generate 145 MW out of the 190 MW of capacity that will be needed to power the Games. Further, they have plans to erect a number of wind farms to generate 100 percent renewable energy and to develop their electric transportation infrastructure, all by 2017. Tokyo also has big goals for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and plans to power their Olympic Stadium with solar power, install a rainwater retention system, and build the Olympic Village to utilize renewable energy systems like solar, seawater heat pumps, and biogas power generated from food waste. While there are several years to go between now and the Pyeongchang and Tokyo Games and anything could happen to derail their plans, it seems that both cities have looked to the disappointments of Rio and are being much more proactive in their renewable energy and sustainability goals.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

U.S. Pursues New Energy Solutions in Green Ponds

By David Heberling, Policy Intern

The past few weeks have been exciting for those following the progress of renewable energy in North America. As fellow policy intern, Sage Ertman mentioned in his post this past Monday, the leaders of the United States, Canada, and Mexico met to discuss a renewed commitment to partnership in the pursuit of a green energy future for the continent. Spurred forward by the historical cooperation of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Obama joined Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in developing a plan to further integrate and innovate a clean energy future as laid out in North American Climate, Clean Energy and Environment Partnership Action Plan.

The plan has many ambitious initiatives for cooperation, conservation, and implementation of new technology. One example of the cooperation of the three countries can be seen in their development of cross-border transmission projects. According to the plan, the U.S. will cooperate with its neighbors “to achieve a goal for North America of 50% clean power generation by 2025.” Among the myriad of cooperation in policy and technology is a call for robust innovations in renewable energy technology.

Many innovations are currently underway to advance and diversify the means through which the U.S. can pursue these renewable energy goals. As I covered in my last blog post, there are some exciting innovations outside of what people typically see as the big three for renewable generation – wind, solar, and hydro. Recently, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced they would be pursuing algae as a new source of renewable biofuel. When most of us think of biofuels, especially ethanol, immediately we think of corn. And for good reason: Corn currently accounts for 80 percent of the bio-ethanol produced domestically. Biofuel derived from corn has had a few major disadvantages from its very conception. Corn has traditionally been a source of food and feed for livestock, corn requires the use of arable land, and yields a relatively low amount of fuel.  However, bolstered by the new DOE funding, that may soon change for the better. Algae has a few distinct advantages over corn in terms of producing biofuel.

First, and most obviously, algae is not a source of food in and of itself, so it does not compete with other food sources for terrestrial farming space. Also, it is important to consider the type of land that would be used for algae production. Algae cultivation does not require the use of arable land the way corn does.  That’s not to say that algae farms wouldn’t have a demand for space, they would, but algae-based generation comes second in land-use efficiency, surpassed only by solar arrays. When it comes to biofuel generation, algae could produce up to 60 times more oil per acre than its land-based cousins. According to Florida company Algenol, algae can produce 8,000 gallons of fuel per acre annually, and corn averages around 420 gallons of fuel for the same time period.

Secondly, algae-derived biofuel serves not only as a source of clean energy, but also has the ability to help combat the effects of climate change. Climate change has the potential to cause our already limited supplies of fresh water to decrease. Algae presents an opportunity to help mitigate some of that stress.  As algae grows in salt water it actually provides fresh water. For every one gallon of biofuel, algae would produce 1.4 gallons of freshwater. Corn derived ethanol requires 2.7 gallons of water per gallon of fuel.

Finally, in addition to requiring less land, not competing with the food supply, and providing instead of demanding water for production, algae could help in the reduction and recycling of our existing carbon output. Like all plants, algae require carbon dioxide to grow. This means that while producing fuel and fresh water, algae would be actively removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. The potential to utilize this for our benefit is huge. Algae ponds could be installed near operational fossil fuel plants and fed their carbon heavy exhaust as part of the ethanol production cycle.

As the U.S. continues to pursue innovation in its green energy future, funding these technological advances brings hope for a robust adaptation to the challenges of climate change. The green energy future could have huge potential for algae as a literal green energy powerhouse.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Bright Future, Part I: A Changing Political Climate

By Sage Ertman, Policy Intern

The United States and the world at large have taken some great steps toward a sustainable
energy future. Today’s post will cover some of the good things that have happened recently for U.S. and global energy policy. Over my next two posts I will shed light on some potential setbacks as well as the potential for the U.S. to convert “the energy infrastructures of each of the 50 United States to 100% wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry) by 2050.”

Until more recently as the effects of climate change have become more apparent, there wasn’t a unified push to transition toward renewable energy. However, now it seems as though the international community is finally beginning to recognize what we are doing to our planet and what we need to change to fix it. Not only have we seen a tremendous rise in renewable energy development and investment across the globe (both private and public), but the political climate is changing as well. Politicians are now listening to the environmental community and exercising their power to legislate for these necessary changes. The Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, and the North American Leaders’ Summit are a few examples of these efforts at home in the U.S. and abroad.

Clean Power Plan

The Clean Air Act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate emissions of air pollutants from stationary and mobile sources. Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act regulates existing stationary sources (e.g. power plants) by requiring compliance with standards of performance.The EPA’s Clean Power Plan, finalized only months before the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, establishes emission guidelines and regulations under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act. Specifically, it requires States to develop plans to comply with set emission performance rates by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired electric generating units (EGUs). The EPA estimates that by 2030 the Clean Power Plan will have reduced emissions by 32% (from 2005 levels). However, the future of the Clean Power Plan remains uncertain in light of legal challenges.

COP 21

In late 2015, representatives from most of the world’s countries appeared in Paris for a United Nations conference on climate change (COP 21 for short). Signed by 178 countries (including the US) on April 22, 2016, the Paris Agreement seeks to prevent the rise of the global average temperatures beyond 2°C above pre-industrial levels. While countries agreed to make efforts to limit the temperature increase to 2°C, they also agreed to an additional aspirational goal of limiting the increase to 1.5°C. Never before has there been such a global movement in the name of the environment.
North American Leaders’ Summit

In June 2016, the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the U.S. met at the North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa, Canada. While clean energy already provides roughly 35% of electricity generation in North America, these leaders set an even more ambitious goal that reaches beyond what the countries agreed to under the Paris Agreement: a 50% target for clean energy generation by 2025. The plan is to institute a series of initiatives that would tighten the energy efficiency standard in the next three years, to research further deployment strategies for renewable energy production across North America, and to reduce fossil fuel subsidies to mitigate carbon emissions.

This platform for transitioning to clean energy is building momentum and seeing much needed global support from politicians, legislators and world leaders. These efforts seem to show that the global community is finally waking up from a blissfully ignorant slumber to improve the quality of not only our lives but also the lives of future generations. Hopefully the global community can come together as a united front in time to fight the consequences of our changing climate.

In my next post, I will discuss a few potential setbacks in U.S. efforts to expand renewable energy policy.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Collaborative Economy and Renewable Energy

By Ashlyn White, Policy Intern

Two weeks ago, businesses, investors, and policymakers met in London for the Business & Climate Summit to discuss their goal to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next 50 years, developing a “roadmap” for short, medium, and long term steps to transition to a “net zero carbon economy.” Numerous leaders from a variety of industries, academic disciplines, and governments spoke about the urgent climate change problem and the immediacy with which members of the private and public sectors must act to mitigate this global problem. More specifically, leaders at this year’s summit discussed the Paris Agreement, collaborations between gas companies and environmentalists regarding Canada’s oil sands, “decarbonization” of transport, financing a low carbon economy, and more. 

Renewable energy and the role it plays in achieving carbon neutrality was a featured topic of the Summit, particularly in a session entitled “Going Further, Faster: Accelerating the Clean Energy Transition.” Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, opened the session and spoke about a project called PEERS, Inc., which focuses on the shift from industrial capitalism to a more “collaborative economy.” The “collaborative economy”, led by companies like Zipcar and Airbnb, focuses on sharing resources and ideas in a collective environment. At the center of the project is the idea that all players in an economy should do what they do best. For example, large corporations offer capital and experience whereas individuals are better at acting quickly and customizing solutions to problems. In a cooperative economy, both large and small actors bring their strengths to the table and combine them to solve a problem, meet a goal, or develop something great. This kind of cooperation among large and small actors is the only way, Chase argues, to move towards achieving the world’s climate goals.

Chase’s speech was followed by a discussion featuring a diverse panel of world leaders in business, finance, and the public sector. The panel members elaborated on Chase’s ideas of collaboration and discussed how partnerships within and between the business, finance, and the public sectors are, in their views, key to achieving the clean energy transition goals. 

The energy-related business representatives focused mostly on, perhaps quite obviously, the importance of investing more in renewables and less in fossil fuels as the best way to push the energy market forward. While emphasizing that expanding investment and development of renewable energy in developed countries is a critical part of reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, they also noted the importance of removing barriers to entry for renewables in developing markets. Rui Teixiera of EDP in Portugal particularly highlighted that changing the regulatory schemes of all countries, but developing countries in particular, to incorporate renewables as a larger percentage of their portfolios, will help to prevent developing countries from facing the problems developed countries are facing currently. Teixiera also emphasized the importance of developing rural microgrids based on renewable energy now instead of trying to transition grids to renewables later as another simple and doable way of preventing future unnecessary challenges.

Perhaps the most interesting and novel ideas came from the representatives from the world of finance. Support and involvement of financial institutions, the stock markets, and large-scale investors is possibly the most important and underexplored part of accelerating the transition to clean energy, according to the panel’s finance sector representatives. In particular, Assaad Razzouk, CEO of Sindicatum, noted the important role the stock market may play in shifting the way financial institutions view renewable energy – by making them more valuable than fossil fuel alternatives. In order to reflect the non-monetary costs of fossil fuel investments in financial statements, Razzouok suggested changing the fiduciary duties of financial institutions to make it more difficult to invest in dirty energy as the most critical part of changing the financial industry’s involvement in renewable energy.

Lastly, the public sector representatives suggested that achieving collaboration among private and public entities is the fastest way to meet renewable energy goals. While a lot of climate talk is focused on large emitters, Said Mouline of ADEREE and CGEM commented on the importance of small emitters being proactive now so as to never become  major emitters. As an example, Mouline noted work being done in Morocco to convince businesses to adopt renewable energy now as part of their business model to stay ahead of the trend towards renewable energy in the country’s regulations. 

While the public sector has to play an active role in the transition to renewable energy, it also has to play a support role for the private sector. David Turk of the US Department of Energy commented on the importance of governments promoting innovation to push the transition quickly, particularly as climate and renewable energy goals begin to grow exponentially. Further, he noted the importance of public sector support of companies that have set ambitious goals in order to push what other companies, industries, and governments view as possible.

The ideas presented by these leaders in renewable energy represent hopefully just the tip of the iceberg in what is to come from the Paris climate talks and conferences like the Summit. While the messages were general, the panel representatives presented interesting and possibly impactful theories as to what will push the world to increasingly use renewable energy technology to help achieve climate goals by shifting markets to make renewables more profitable than fossil fuels, being proactive to prevent problems before they begin, and encouraging collaboration. While identifying the problems and general solutions is critical, the specific actions taken by all members of the business, finance, and public sectors to expand upon the goals and ideas of the Business & Climate Summit will be critical to determining the world’s success in making an impact on climate change

Monday, July 11, 2016

Tribes & Renewables Part V: Potential For and Conflicts Over Renewable Project Development on Federal Land

By Andrea Lang, Policy Analyst

Credit: National Park Service
Over the last several weeks, this blog series has explored the potential for renewable energy development on Indian land and the benefits of (Part II) and barriers (Parts III & IV) to such development. Now, Part V turns to a wholly separate issue related to Tribes & Renewables: how renewable development on federal land affects tribal interests, and how to address such conflicts. 

The Potential for Renewable Development on Federal Land 

In terms of the potential for utility-scale renewable development on federal land, it’s important to understand how vast this land; the federal government owns about 650 million acres of land, which makes up about 28% of all the land in the country. Moreover, much of this land is rich in renewable resources. To visualize the potential for solar development on federal land, just take a look at the two maps below. The colored areas on the left map show where federal land is located (except the pink areas, which are Indian lands), while the red and orange areas on the right-side map show the best areas in the country for solar PV. The overlap is pretty striking; much of the southwest is dominated both by excellent solar resource and federal lands.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has concluded that developing only 10% of available renewable resource potential on federal land would yield 140 GW of solar PV capacity, 400 GW of concentrating solar power capacity, 80 GW of wind energy capacity, 20 GW of geothermal capacity, and 0.3 GW of biomass capacity. In total, this would provide 640 GW of renewable energy capacity, which is more than half of current total U.S. capacity. Given the amount of public land available and the potential for developing renewable energy, federal land is likely to be increasingly important as the U.S. continues to expand the share of its electricity coming from renewable energy sources. 

So What Does Renewable Energy Development on Federal Land Have to do with Tribes?

As obvious as it may seem, it’s important to remember that tribes once occupied significantly more land than they do now. Thus, many of the archeological sites, as well as still-used spiritual or cultural sites, are located off-reservation, including on federal land. Thus, any attempts develop renewable resources on federal land should take care not to damage any native cultural resources. 

Fortunately, federal law requires government agencies with decision-making authority over a project to consider impacts on cultural resources. The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which is 50 years old this year, requires federal agencies to “take into account the effects” of their undertakings on historic property, including tribal cultural resources, through something called the Section 106 process. Thus, rather than affirmatively requiring agencies to avoid impacts to cultural resources, section 106 of the NHPA merely requires that, in consultation with affected tribes, the agency takes a project’s impacts into account.
For example, if a renewable developer wants to build a solar PV project on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, the developer must obtain a lease from the BLM. Because the BLM’s decision to approve the lease constitutes a federal undertaking, it must comply with the NHPA’s section 106 requirements. First, the BLM must consult with nearby and potentially interested tribes to identify any cultural resources in the area. Second, the BLM (again in consultation with the tribe) must determine whether the project will have any adverse effects on the cultural resource. Finally, BLM must “resolve” any adverse effects by signing a memorandum of agreement with tribes regarding project alternatives or modifications. 

During each of the three steps listed above, the BLM has final decision-making authority and it can ultimately decide to move forward with the project in spite of tribal objection. However, doing so would trigger additional procedures (for example, requesting a formal opinion from the Keeper of the National Register, or an opinion from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation), which adds time. The procedure-oriented NHPA is thus aimed to facilitate agreement and ensure better decision making regarding impacts on cultural resources. 

The NHPA represents a framework by which tribes can voice and potentially address their concerns. Next week’s final post in this blog series will present examples to illustrate how the NHPA has worked in practice to protect tribal cultural resources.