Big Hopes for Al G.

NI logoFirst Things First: The trouble with electricity is that you can’t seal the unused portion when you’re done using it and put it on a shelf. The New York Times explores one potential industry in the “green jobs” archipelago trying to change that, filing a piece from industrial-belt poster-city Allentown, Penn.  International Battery is developing a cereal-box-size battery that could help remake the energy economy by making electricity able to be stored with ease and scale as never before. The company and more than 120 others are vying for $2 billion in grants the Department of Energy will dole out to seed a U.S. industry for electric-car batteries.

Another strategy to save electricity for later, beyond batteries, is to not generate it until later. The U.S. might reduce its 2020 energy use by 23 percent with a comprehensive–and well-executed–program to burn less and harness more from what we do burn. That’s the conclusion of a major McKinsey report that analyzes and models integrated energy efficiency planning among local, state, and federal governments, and public and private entities. Forty percent of the savings would fall in the industrial sector, with 35 percent in homes, and the balance in the commercial sector. The net savings from identified actions comes to $600 million in the next decade in the McKinsey scenarios.

Energy efficiency is frequently referred to as “low-hanging fruit,” or the “fifth fuel” for electricity, after coal, natural gas, nuclear, and the various renewables. Amory Lovins, the energy strategist and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is no stranger to energy efficiency. His 1976 Foreign Affairs essay, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken” [pdf] called for “a prompt and serious commitment to efficient use of energy.” The essay was immediately recognized as a maddening disruption (some people liked it and some hated it). This week Lovins and two co-writers call for a new manufacturing paradigm, akin to the shift during World War II, in which Detroit dropped car-making and went into the tank business. Lovins et al write in their recently acquired roles, shared with all American taxpayers, as co-owners of General Motors.

Here’s an idea, possibly the next step in the history of “cap-and-trade.” To reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, the federal government sets a maximum number of miles Americans can drive every year, a cap that declines over time. Drivers who exceed their cap any year must buy mile credits from less traveled compatriots. Okay, it’s a bad idea, and one unconsidered by federal agencies, NGOs, and industry groups who built scenarios for halving U.S. transportation emissions by 2050. The report, Moving Cooler, was put out by the Urban Land Institute, and overseen by a group assembled from government, business, and NGOs.Reduced speed limits, land-use change, and tweaking travel behavior might bring a 24 percent drop. The changes that would bring those reductions toward 50 percent include “pay-as-you-go” auto insurance and per-mile driving fees.

The Feel Good Hit of the Summer: The U.S. and China held an upbeat summit in Washington, which resulted in a signed memorandum that lays out how the world’s two largest carbon dioxide emitters can work together more closely on climate change and clean energy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the talks reinforced the centrality of climate change to the two nations’ relationship. President Barack Obama opened the two-day event, noting that “neither of us profits from a growing dependence on foreign oil, nor can we spare our people from the ravages of climate change unless we cooperate.” This builds on previous memoranda of understanding, including the recent agreement to invest together in research into carbon capture and storage (CCS), or trapping CO2 from a coal-plant chimney and pumping it underground for the eons.

The House climate bill would dangle billions of dollars in incentives before coal-burning power plant operators, encouraging them to seek and deploy CCS technology. The government would reward carbon pioneers by making the first 6 gigawatts of stored emissions eligible for allowances worth up to $90 a ton, more than three times the price tag the EPA has projected for a high-end carbon price.

The Guardian teases out the conflict in this tale from Spremberg, Germany, where Swedish energy giant Vattenfall has built a $100 carbon capture and storage facility. Residents nearby the Schwarze Pumpe project are skeptical, apparently, of living atop a reservoir of carbon dioxide. “It was supposed to begin injecting by March or April of this year but we don’t have a permit. This is a result of the local public having questions about the safety of the project,” a Vattenfall official said. The European Union would like to build as many as a dozen such plants by 2015.

A Meaty Issue: The many issues touched by climate change cut close to something very close to the American heart: the American stomach. The Washington Post‘s “Food and Dining” section riles carnivores in this piece that recites the litany of obvious reasons why mass consumption of red meat fuels climate change. Ezra Klein cites a 3.5-year-old University of Chicago study that estimates a vegan diet prevents more emissions than trading in an inefficient car for a Toyota Prius [pdf].  The problem: “Telling people to give up burgers doesn’t poll well.”

Why We Have Satellite Monitoring: Canadian astronaut Bob Thirsk is two months into a six-month stint on the International Space Station. On Sunday, he reported a personal observation that glaciers are melting. “Most of the time when I look out the window I’m in awe. But there are some effects of the human destruction of the Earth as well. “This is probably just a perception, but I just have the feeling that the glaciers are melting, the snow capping the mountains is less than it was 12 years ago when I saw it last time,” Thrisk said. “That saddens me a little bit.”

Many eyes in the climate sciences now turn north this time every year, to watch the Earth’s Arctic ice cap dissolve into the sea. The National Snow and Ice Data Center writes updates on Arctic sea ice extent, usually the first week of the month. They’ve interrupted regular programming to note that this year sea ice is shrinking faster than in 2008, the second deepest melt, but still slower than in 2007, when the ice cap reached its lowest documented extent.

Congressional action on climate change has increased public attention to all aspects of debate, even in matters where most key scientists have high confidence in observations, such as whether climate change is happening, given temperature records of the past decade. This week came news that the global seas have set a heat record, warming to 0.59 degrees C above the 20th century average of 16.4 degrees C (about 62 degrees F). But it’s the air temperature that has received much (or, depending on your perspective, too little) scrutiny in the press and blogs. For further clarification, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration included a sidebar clarifying the matter, “Do global temperature trends over the last decade falsify climate predictions?” The passage can be found on pages 23-24 of this report pdf.

The Second “Al G.”: How’s this for a headline, from Technology Review: “A Biofuel Process to Replace All Fossil Fuels.” This week Joule Biotechnologies, a start-up in Cambridge, Mass., unveiled its process for harvesting 20,000 gallons of biofuel per acre of souped-up algae. The lede reveals, “If this yield proves realistic, it could make it practical to replace all fossil fuels used for transportation with biofuels.” That’s a big if. The company has raised “substantially less than $50 million,” some of it from employees. The challenges are formidable. Algae populations can grow too fast and expire before their work is done. And the bioreactors themselves can be too expensive for their fuels to pay off (Unless gas prices spike and don’t fall again). The company hopes to start building a commercial scale plant in 2011. This technology is most interesting and most welcome, but be cautious about messianic stories about start-ups looking for VC funding.

Eric Roston is Senior Associate at the Nicholas Institute and author of The Carbon Age: How Life’s Core Element Has Become Civilization’s Greatest Threat. Prologue available at Grist.