After Fukushima, Japan Vows to Boost Renewables

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan pledged to boost renewable energy to at least 20 percent of its consumption in the next decade. This would double the share of renewable electricity in Japan, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear, coal, and oil. Nuclear power had supplied 30 percent of Japan’s electricity, and before the nuclear disaster, the country had planned to build more nuclear plants to boost that share to 50 percent.

“We will do everything we can to make renewable energy our base form of power, overcoming hurdles of technology and cost,” Kan said at a G8 meeting in France. In another speech in France, to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Kan also questioned ongoing growth of energy consumption: “we must ask ourselves … whether it is appropriate for society to increase energy consumption without any limits.”

Kan was expected to announce a new “Sunrise Plan” that would make it compulsory by 2030 for all new buildings to include solar panels. Japan’s richest man, telecoms mogul Masayoshi Son, also threw his weight behind renewables, announcing plans to build 10 large solar power plants and a partnership with local officials from around the country to launch a “Natural Energy Council.”

Alternative Federal Fleet

The federal government’s vehicle fleet should be cleaned up, a memorandum from President Obama ordered. The memo directs federal agencies to switch to purchasing only “alternative fueled” passenger cars and light-duty trucks by 2015. The “alternative fuel” category would include electric vehicles and hybrids, as well as those powered by biofuels or compressed natural gas. To kickstart the switch, a pilot project is purchasing more than 100 electric vehicles.

To help consumers understand their cars’ fuel costs and environmental impacts, fuel efficiency labels have gotten an overhaul. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called the change “the most dramatic overhaul to fuel economy labels since the program began more than 30 years ago.” The new labels are not as simple as those proposed last year by the EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which would have given letter grades to cars.

Meanwhile, richer countries—such as the U.S., Germany and Japan—have reached “peak travel,” according to a new study, with miles traveled per person flattening off in recent years.

China’s Blackouts

In China, now the world’s biggest consumer of electricity, power companies are cutting their production. They are balking at government regulations that are raising the price of coal, while keeping the price of electricity down—policies that the companies say are threatening to push them into bankruptcy. The State Grid, the country’s largest electricity distributor, warned that this summer blackouts could be the worst since the early 1990s.

With power shortages already, Chinese stocks fell on concerns the country would not be able to keep up its high rates of growth. Nonetheless, China widened its lead as the most attractive place to invest in renewable energy, according to consultancy Ernst & Young LLC.

Globally, more money is pouring into renewable energy—but according to a new survey, some investors fear a green bubble may be forming.

Shale Gas Redemption?

A study last month by Cornell University researchers estimated power plants burning natural gas from fracking shale formations cause more global warming than burning coal.  A new assessment from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory rebuts the Cornell study, finding that, watt for watt, such “unconventional” natural gas contributes only about half as much to global warming as does coal.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

U.K.’s “Greenest Government Ever” Charges Ahead with Nuclear Power

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has repeatedly pledged to create the “greenest government ever,” and now the country has adopted a new, ambitious goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, aiming by 2025 to slash them by half, compared with 1990.

The goal, agreed to by Cabinet ministers in the ruling coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, is in line with the legally binding targets the country adopted in 2008 when the Labor Party was in charge, for a 60 percent cut in emissions by 2030, and an 80 percent cut by 2050.

The new target goes beyond European Union targets, and some in industry are pushing for the targets to be conditional, depending on whether Europe as a whole sets similar goals. Much depends on how the figures are calculated; a study last year found that including emissions from Britain’s imports would make their emissions the highest in Europe.

However, there is “no clear agreement on how to achieve the target,” says The Independent. To help reach these goals, though, the U.K. plans to keep existing nuclear plants running, and will push ahead with plans to build more, after the country’s nuclear watchdog group reported there was no reason to revise safety standards in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster. Energy minister Chris Huhne said, “We want to see new nuclear as part of a low carbon energy mix going forward, provided there is no public subsidy.”

Concerns about Nuclear Safety Raised, Dismissed

In Japan, a new assessment by power company TEPCO confirmed suspicions that one of the reactors did suffer a partial meltdown soon after the earthquake and tsunami.

The country has a long history of officials concealing or ignoring dangers in the nuclear industry, according to a New York Times investigation. Lawsuits stretching back nearly a decade tried to raise concern about safety standards. One of the plaintiffs, Yuichi Kaido of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said of Fukushima: “This accident could have been prevented.”

The technical failures in the nuclear power plant—especially emergency vents—raise concerns about the safety of U.S. nuclear plants, another New York Times investigation says, rebutting American officials’ statements that the U.S. plants aren’t vulnerable to the kinds of problems that occurred in Japan.

European countries other than the U.K., such as Germany and Italy, have paused plans for nuclear expansion, and shut down some plants. Some developing countries are pushing ahead with nuclear power, though. Iran has brushed off warnings of earthquake dangers and is continuing with plans for nuclear plants, the Associated Press reported, and Pakistan opened a new nuclear power plant, built with China’s help.

Driving in a Wedge

Nuclear power was one of several “wedges” that could help the world counter climate change, according to a popular way of thinking about emissions cuts developed in 2004 by two Princeton University professors. The approach was meant to break targets—such as the U.K.’s emissions targets—into a number of pieces, to see how quickly measures would have to be ramped up.

But the study was misunderstood and the basic message distorted, one of the authors, Robert Socolow, told National Geographic News. “With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn’t impossible, so it must be easy,” he said. “The intensity of belief that renewables and conservation would do the job approached religious.” Nonetheless, he stands by the general approach, Socolow wrote in a comment to Climate Progress.

Congressional Log Jam

Both Republicans and Democrats introduced major oil bills—but neither managed to pass. Democrats introduced a bill to end $2 billion in tax breaks for big oil companies, a measure President Obama has been pushing for. In Senate hearings, oil company executives were asked to defend the tax breaks—eliciting what a New York Times editorial called “a big whine from Big Oil.”

While Obama had urged that the money be put toward clean energy, the defeated bill would have put the extra revenue toward paying down federal debt. A narrow majority voted for it, but it needed 60 votes to advance.

Republicans, on the other hand, supported a bill to allow more offshore drilling and speed up the process for drilling permits. That bill was rejected with 42 to 57; it, too, needed 60 votes to advance.

Commencement, Counter-Commencement

Rex Tillerson—the CEO of Exxon, the world’s biggest independent oil company—was booked to speak at the commencement at Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston—but the choice was controversial with both faculty and staff.

Student protesters said Tillerson was not fit to speak at the commencement because of (among other things) Exxon’s contributions to “a disinformation campaign against global warming.”

Rather than trying to block Tillerson’s speech, however, students invited peak oil expert Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute to speak after Tillerson—and some students walked out of the quad when Tillerson spoke, returning to hear Heinberg afterward.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Natural Gas Fracking Under Increasing Pressure

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The Oscar-nominated documentary “Gasland” featured dramatic clips of people whose tap water could be set on fire, apparently a side effect of “fracking,” a method of opening up fissures deep underground to unlock natural gas.

A new Duke study backs up these residents’ woes, finding that drinking water near fracking sites had average methane levels 17 times higher than normal. (Natural gas is mainly composed of methane.) The methane in the water wells also had a chemical signature that showed it was from deep underground, where companies are doing fracking.  

Meanwhile, the Obama administration formed a blue ribbon panel to look into fracking safety. France had already put a temporary freeze on drilling into shale gas and oil formations, and now their National Assembly has passed a bill to ban exploration for shale gas or oil

It’s Not Easy Being Green

The summary of a major report on renewable energy from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was leaked earlier in draft form, and has now been published and has generated a lot of discussion. Some touted the study’s findings that by mid-century, renewable energy could power at least 80 percent of projected energy demand, while others pointed out this was based on the most optimistic of the study’s 160 scenarios. So far, only the 25-page summary has been released; details to back up the study’s conclusions will await publication of the full report.

The IPCC report included biomass as a major player in the future of renewable energy. But today’s biofuels can be worse for the climate than conventional fossil fuels, according to another new study, because of the emissions from clearing land, growing crops, and processing the plants to turn them into fuel.

Backing Away from Nuclear

Japan’s prime minister announced the country will abandon plans to expand nuclear power, and it will “start from scratch” on a new energy policy that puts more emphasis on renewables.

As a response to the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear reactors, Germany temporarily shut down its seven oldest nuclear power plants. The New York Times reports a panel appointed by Chancellor Angela Merkel has recommended closing all of Germany’s nuclear reactors within a decade—reactors that currently provide about one-fifth of the country’s electricity.

In the U.K., the Committee on Climate Change, a group advising the U.K. government, recommended building more nuclear power plants, as well as relying on wind turbines, to meet the country’s greenhouse gas emission goals.

The U.K.’s existing policies won’t meet those goals, according to a new assessment—but a massive new energy bill is wending its way through the U.K. Parliament that aims to boost emissions cuts. The bill now carries an additional measure that aims to seal up the country’s famously drafty homes, by making it illegal for landlords to rent their properties unless they meet energy efficiency standards.

Weather Woes

Swathes of the U.S. South and Midwest have been socked by wild weather this spring. First, the areas suffered 800 tornadoes in April. Now the Mississippi is flooding with the highest levels on record in some regions—and global warming has likely played a role in the flooding, since rainfall in the region has risen 10 to 20 percent over the past century, said meteorologist Jeff Masters. The floods would likely break records along the length of the river if it weren’t for controlled levee breaches that have released water onto spillways and farmland. Perhaps it is time, argues Good, to follow in the footsteps of the Dutch, with their “Room for the River” policy, and give up more ground to rivers to adapt to climate change.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The World has Passed Peak Oil, says Top Economist

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Despite high prices, crude oil production has stayed basically flat for roughly five years. It seems this is the all-time high-water mark, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency. “We think that crude oil production for the world has already peaked in 2006,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “I think it would have been better if the governments have started to work on it at least 10 years ago.”

At a European Parliament conference on peak oil, the European Commission’s director-general for transport and mobility policy warned if actions are delayed to reduce oil dependency, “we may be forced to drastically reduce all our mobility.”

Already, rising energy costs are taking their toll around the world, with U.S. economic growth stumbling and raising the spectre of stagflation, as well as, helping to drive up food prices in Latin America, and driving inflation in Europe.

Squeezing Renewables Through Bottlenecks

Renewable energy could, in theory, take over quickly from fossil fuels, according to a draft of a new report on renewable energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The study says renewables could grow 20-fold in the next four decades—more than enough to meet projected demand. But in reality, the report argues, less than 2.5 percent of that potential will be put into place.

One of the bottlenecks in renewable energy production is the electric grid, argued another recent report, this one by the World Resources Institute. Idaho’s power grid, for example, could soon be overloaded by electricity from wind turbines, so the state’s Public Utilities Commission has suspended permits for all but fairly small turbines, cutting the largest allowable turbine 100-fold, from 10 megawatts down to 100 kilowatts.

Wind energy isn’t going away anytime soon, either, according to a study that estimated the effect of continued global warming on wind patterns over America’s lower 48 states and a portion of northern Mexico. By mid-century, most areas will see barely any change in their windiness, and those that will see a drop weren’t great sites for wind power in the first place, the researchers say.

Feed-ins Choked Off

The sluggish economic recovery is also hurting renewables, with the UK’s feed-in tariff—the subsidy for electricity that renewable energy systems produce and sell back to the grid—falling under the blade of budget cuts. The tariff has led to a surge in home solar installations. Now for larger projects, the government is planning to cut the tariff drastically—although projects installed before the August deadline will be grandfathered in.

To get in under the wire and secure the feed-in tariff, a community group rushed to secure funding to put up a bank of more than 500 solar panels on a brewery’s roof, which will keep the beer cool—and the excess electricity will be sold back to the grid. Although community power companies have been created before, such as a pioneering one in Germany, the effort claims to be the first in the UK. Despite their estimate that it will take investors 20 years to make a return, they have attracted widespread interest.

On the other end of the funding spectrum, money for the $24 billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in France was under question in the European Parliament. The project aims to develop a new source of energy through fusion of hydrogen atoms—the same process that powers the sun—but it has run far over the original budget.

Also on the chopping block are about $6 billion in annual U.S. subsidies for corn ethanol production. After proposals to cut these subsidies flat-out, a bipartisan group of farm-state senators made a counter-proposal of a gradual phase-out.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration, a key source of data on the country’s energy production and supplies, is also being forced to cut back, canceling many of its data collection efforts, including its annual compilation of national oil and gas reserves. The cuts could also hurt energy efficiency efforts, since the Administration is suspending updates to its widely used National Energy Modeling System, and canceling its Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey.

Feds Push Emissions Cuts, Clean Energy

In other areas, the federal government is expanding efforts on clean energy and efficiency, with the first scorecards on energy and environmental performance, following the adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” President Obama earlier set goals for 2020 of cutting federal greenhouse gas emissions from buildings and fuels by 28 percent, and indirect emissions (such as from flights) by 13 percent. The new scorecards suggest some progress toward that goal; compared with its 2008 baseline, they found a 2.5 million metric ton reduction in carbon dioxide.

Energy efficiency in buildings could also get a boost with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Battle of the Buildings,” a competition to cut energy use drastically and cost-effectively. This year, 245 buildings are vying for the title, compared with just 14 last year.

U.S. government action on clean energy may expand nonetheless, with a new Senate bill proposing to create a new Clean Energy Deployment Administration to help finance renewable energy projects. Sen. Jeff Bingaman said in a statement on the bill, “We need to find a way to pay for [it].”

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.