Cutting Oil Use Should Be Focus of U.S. Energy Research, New Roadmap Says

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A major study modeled after goal-setting reports from the Departments of Defense and State, the first Quadrennial Technology Review by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), called for a shift in energy research and development priorities to reduce America’s dependence on oil.

“Reliance on oil is the greatest immediate threat to U.S. economic and national security and also contributes to the long-term threat of climate change,” the report said.

The DOE spends about $3 billion annually on research and development, with about three-quarters of that going toward “stationary energy” technologies—such as power plants and buildings—and one-quarter allotted for transportation. The report’s release could shift the funding balance more toward transportation, in particular more efficient cars and electric cars.

It will likely shape the 2013 fiscal year budget request from the Obama administration, due to be sent to Congress in February 2012.

Big Dreams

But a longer-term view isn’t synonymous with funding blue-sky ideas, as in the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which Time dubbed “the Department of Big Dreams.” The Quadrennial Technology Review criticized the DOE for placing too much emphasis on technologies “multiple generations away from practical use.”

Instead, the report called for greater focus on integrated energy systems and deployment over the medium to long term. The Obama administration has no choice but to focus on the longer term, argued Jeff Tollefson of Nature, because the weak economy and political stalemates have stymied progress in the shorter term.

The report sticks close to President Obama’s goals: getting one million electric cars on the road by 2015 and cutting oil imports by one-third by 2025. It also focuses on modernizing the electric grid and deploying clean energy, in line with Obama’s goal for 80 percent for America’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035.

Carbon Credit Controversy

WikiLeaks has once again stirred up controversy, this time by releasing a diplomatic cable sent by the U.S. embassy in India, revealing discussions about questionable projects there that earn carbon credits through the United Nation’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Most of the CDM projects in India should not have been certified, the cable said, because they did not achieve emissions cuts beyond what would have happened without the sales of carbon credits.

The cable shows “the CDM is basically a farce,” said a group critical of the program, but officials involved in the program said it has been improved since the cable was sent in 2008.

However, an investigative series last year by the Christian Science Monitor found many instances of fraud and exaggeration. And last week Oxfam published a report alleging 20,000 people were evicted from their land in 2010 to make way for a tree plantation that would earn carbon credits.

Superconductor Espionage

American Superconductor, which designs magnet systems for wind turbines, alleges that Chinese turbine manufacturer Sinovel, its largest customer, stole trade secrets by bribing a disgruntled employee, one of a handful with access to a crucial bit of software.

A court in Austria is hearing the case, in which Sinovel stands accused of offering the rogue employee an employment contract worth at least $1 million. The employee only received a small fraction of what he was promised, and American Superconductor sent Sinovel many parts also without receiving payment.

Sen. John Kerry said such theft would hurt American investment in China.

Master of the Domain

With the internet opening to new domains, there has been a tussle over who will control the .eco domain, with Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection vying against the Canadian company Big Room, supported by former Soviet leader Michel Gorbachev’s charity Green Cross International.

Al Gore’s group has dropped its bid, after many green groups—including, Greenpeace, and WWF—backed Green Cross International. The new domain is intended to be a badge of credibility, said the co-founder of Big Room, and may require disclosure about environmental performance when registering to use the domain.

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.

Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies May Be the Way to Jumpstart Climate Finance

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A leaked World Bank document, due to be presented at the G20 meeting in November, proposes that rich countries eliminate their fossil fuel subsidies and instead contribute the money to climate aid for poor countries to help with green energy and adaptation measures. The paper also said donor countries are unlikely to come up with the money they had pledged to give during 2011 and 2012.

Just five years ago, climate change adaptation was a taboo subject among many environmentalists—as a feature in Earth Island Journal recounts—but things have changed a lot in recent years. Now the Global Adaptation Institute has released a new ranking of how prepared countries are, weighing the likely impacts of climate change in a country against its ability to adapt.

In general, wealthier countries came out on top, with Europe, North America and Australia occupying most of the top 20 spots, and at the bottom were many of the poorest countries that receive the bulk of the world’s development and aid money. Overall, the countries to be hardest hit are also the least able to adapt.

For new adaptation spending, there is a “sweet spot in the middle” for getting the most bang for the buck, investing in countries that are not very wealthy, but also don’t get international aid, said Ian Noble, chief scientist at the Global Adaptation Institute’s council of scientific advisers.

Some countries are already receiving aid for climate change adaptation and emission cuts—but donor countries are not being transparent about their contributions, said a new report from the International Institute for Environment and Development. Norway ranked the highest in transparency, whereas the U.S. was in the middle of the pack, and New Zealand got the lowest score. Of major concern is that donors may be redirecting funds from other development efforts, rather than giving additional aid for climate efforts.

In response to such concerns, the World Bank has launched an Open Data Initiative to allow easier access to more information.

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called for transparency on the part of climate aid recipients—in particular, small island nations.

Grim Energy Forecast

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released what may be its final International Energy Outlook, a report it has published annually, but that was canceled after the EIA’s budget was slashed 14 percent this year.

Some of its highlights include the projection in its reference scenario that global energy use will rise about 50 percent over the coming quarter-century, with half the increase coming from China and India.

The reference scenario also projects renewables (including hydroelectricity) will be the fastest-growing energy source, growing close to 3 percent a year and more than doubling in production over 25 years. But natural gas, coal, and oil all register significant increases as well in this scenario, and the world’s fossil fuel mix shifts increasingly toward coal.

As Time‘s Bryan Walsh comments on the EIA’s scenario, “If you care about climate change, that’s a pretty grim forecast.”

In the near term, debt crises around the world may slow the growth of economies and energy use—including in India and China—said Harold Gruenspecht, acting administrator of the EIA.

China’s Environmental Movement

As a reminder that not every aspect of cleantech is necessarily clean, in China hundreds of protesters camped outside a solar panel factory they accused of polluting a river. After protesters broke into the facility and destroyed offices and overturned cars, the factory closed. Following the protests, the company, JinkoSolar, did pledge to clean up its operations.

Last month, a mass demonstration about a chemical plant in northeast China led the government to close it and promise to relocate it. An increase in such protests in recent years, said an Agence France-Presse article, marks a rising environmental awareness in China.

Sensor Genius

The Macarthur Foundation announced this year’s batch of “Genius awards.” The youngest winner was 29-year-old Shwetak Patel, an assistant professor in computer science at the University of Washington. He won for work on sensor systems that can allow people to track, among other things, energy and water use from individual appliances. He invented a device that plugs into a socket and, by measuring noise in a house’s circuits, figures out when a fridge is running or a TV is on, and, over time, tracks the consumption from each product.

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.

Ending Oil Tax Breaks Could Pay For New Jobs—and Some May Be Green

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

President Obama unveiled a new job creation plan in a major speech to Congress last week and follow-up speeches this week, in which he called for an end to tax breaks for oil and gas companies to bring in an additional $32 billion over 10 years to pay for increased government spending.

Earlier this year, Obama called for repealing those same tax breaks to help pay for clean energy.

In his new speeches on jobs, Obama has not dropped the words “energy” or “green”—but some commentators said, reading between the lines, the president is still calling for more green jobs.

As green stimulus programs have approached their end, in recent months there has been controversy over how many green jobs—and of what kinds—were created.

An article featured in the New York Times said there were not as many jobs created as some had hoped, and that the spending helped outsource numerous jobs to places like China. But sources quoted in the article shot back, saying the article, among other things, neglected to mention many of the green jobs companies created in the United States.

A recent study estimated green stimulus spending created 367,000 jobs directly, and also created jobs indirectly that brought the total to one million jobs.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas industries said they can create 1.4 million jobs, if many areas are opened to drilling—but to create that many jobs would require drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, off the East and West coasts and Florida’s Gulf coast, and on most federal lands besides national parks.

Solar Probe

One company touted for its green jobs—solar panel manufacturer Solyndra—was probed by Congress this week, since it had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees before declaring bankruptcy this month, triggering an FBI raid.

While some have accused Republicans of grandstanding and using the company’s failure as a way to argue against green stimulus spending, some Democrats who supported the company said they also want answers—such as Henry Waxman, who released a July letter from the company indicating it was in good financial shape.

There are many myths about the situation, however, wrote Brad Plumer of the Washington Post. While there do seem to be irregularities about the way the company got its loan guarantee, Plumer argued its failure does not shoot down the idea of green loan guarantees or cleantech subsidies.

Going Flat

Overall, the U.S. failed to add any additional jobs in August, retail sales were flat, and fears grew of an approaching recession.

The fragile economic situation is having widespread effects on energy, with many forecasters lowering their expectations for oil demand the rest of this year and next year. Nonetheless, Americans may spend a record amount on gasoline this year: $491 billion.

Also, the growth of U.S. ethanol consumption appears to be slowing down, after registering several-year growth spurt, in part because of a drop in gasoline use and because most gasoline is now at the legal limit with 10 percent ethanol blended in.

The economic slowdown is likely taking a bite out of some energy efficiency efforts as well, the Energy Information Administration pointed out. Refrigerator replacements, for example, have dropped over the past several years—meaning people are sticking with older, less efficient fridges.

Two Kinds of Green

Two-thirds of the world’s 500 largest companies now include climate change in their business strategies, according to a survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project—and companies that work to cut their greenhouse emissions also outperformed their competitors on the stock market. Also, more companies reported their efforts to cut emissions have resulted in actual reductions, with the fraction soaring from about one-fifth in 2010 to nearly half in 2011.

Sails, Flowers and Honeycombs

Most pylons for power lines are reminiscent of the 19th-century Eiffel Tower, but a U.K. competition for “pylons of the future” aims to update this piece of critical infrastructure. Energy and climate change minister Chris Huhne announced six finalists in the competition, including a pylon design resembling a cylindrical honeycomb, a curved design similar to the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, and another with a single stem branching out to several arms like a flower’s stamens.

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.

Solar Industry “Darwinism” Weeding Out Weaker Companies

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which recently filed for bankruptcy, got special treatment from the Obama administration, some have alleged, since the company’s $535 million in federally guaranteed loans had much lower interest rates than those of other green energy companies, according to an investigative report.

The FBI raided Solyndra’s office, although it would not comment on the reason. The company shut without giving notice to its employees and contractors, which many large companies are legally required to do.

However, Lewis Milford of the Clean Energy Group argued critics are inconsistent in highlighting Solyndra’s failure, since there are many examples of failure in government projects—and that a high rate of failure is inevitable in innovative fields. Overall, the Loan Guarantee Program has performed well, and Solyndra’s failure is not a reason to abandon it, Forbes argued.

Solyndra is only one of many solar energy companies around the world struggling recently, due in large part to rising costs of materials and weaker-than-expected demand for panels, which have led to a sharp rise in mergers and acquisitions compared with last year.

Germany has long been a solar powerhouse, but one of its companies—SolarWorld—is also having trouble, and is shutting down factories in Germany and the U.S. and consolidating manufacturing. Another German solar company, Solon, is shutting an Arizona plant and laying off workers.

All this activity “is Darwinism at work in business,” said an executive of manufacturer Abound Solar.

Solar at Scale

Nonetheless, large solar projects are moving ahead. The U.S. has offered a loan guarantee for putting solar panels on military housing, which could double the number of residential rooftop arrays in the country.

With solar panel costs falling, the European Photovoltaic Industry Association said, solar could be competitive with conventional energy within a couple of years in some markets, and across Europe by 2020.

Also, a new projection from the International Energy Agency said in 50 years’ time, solar energy could provide more than half the world’s power.

Spinning up Fresh Debate

Iran joined the list of nuclear countries by connecting its first nuclear power plant to the grid last week, according to the country’s official media.

Also, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported Iran began running upgraded centrifuges. Iran also offered to allow inspectors “full supervision” of its nuclear activities for the next five years, in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Iran has reportedly tested weapons systems, which some experts said cast doubt on Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is limited to producing electricity. But arms expert Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies said that without proof, it is too soon to jump to the conclusion Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, in discussions at the United Nations, several countries kept pressure on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment until a monitoring deal is worked out.

Storm Brewing Over Clouds

A paper in the journal Remote Sensing has generated a lot of thunder, since the authors argued their study of clouds suggested the climate is not as sensitive to greenhouse gas emissions as had been thought. But many other experts have poked holes in the study, with one arguing the controversial study’s model fails to conserve energy, so it violates a basic principle of physics. The journal’s editor resigned over the controversy.

Energetic Ghost Town

To test out new energy technologies in conditions between the overly controlled confines of the lab and the all-too-messy real world, a company is planning to erect in New Mexico a 20-square-mile, $200-million “ghost town” outfitted with real buildings—but no people.

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.

Tar Sands Pipeline Gets Green Light in Environmental Review

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Hundreds of protesters—including famed climate researcher James Hansen—have been arrested in protests in front of the White House over the past two weeks, in an attempt to stop the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas to carry diluted tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries, mainly over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions and risks of tainting a nearby water aquifer.

The U.S. State Department has been weighing whether to approve the pipeline, and under what conditions. In a major step last week, the State Department published its final environmental review, which said the pipeline would have “no significant impact to most resources” along its path, assuming “normal operation.”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said energy security concerns could help the pipeline win approval on the grounds that importing oil from Canada is preferable to imports from the Middle East—an argument echoed in a Washington Post editorial by veteran business reporter Robert Samuelson.

Shale Gas Shakedown

The Marcellus shale deposits—so far, the biggest site for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking— may contain far less gas than recently projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), according to a new assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although the new estimate is higher than the U.S. Geological Survey’s own 2002 estimate, it is much lower than an estimate EIA published earlier this year. In response, the EIA said it will downgrade their next estimate—perhaps by as much as 80 percent. But the Washington Post reports there may be more to these numbers.

In light of allegations that petroleum companies have overstated how much gas they could get out of shale deposits, the New York State Attorney’s Office is investigating whether companies “overbooked” reserves. Earlier this summer, federal lawmakers called on the Securities and Exchange Commission, the EIA and the Government Accountability Office to investigate industry estimates.

Rise and Fall of Solar, Wind

China achieved a meteoric rise in wind power over the past five years, and last year pulled ahead of the U.S. to become the country with the largest installed capacity of wind turbines.

At the same time, the growth of China’s wind industry is slowing down due to over capacity and withdrawal of subsidies, among other causes. And some of China’s largest wind turbine manufacturers reported falling profits due to fierce competition, as has been seen in the solar panel industry.

Solar manufacturers in the U.S. and Europe have been struggling to compete with panels from Asia, China especially. Two weeks ago, Evergreen declared bankruptcy, followed by Solyndra this week. Both companies had been touted by the Obama administration and local officials as models for the green economy. New York-based SpectraWatt, a solar spin-out from computer chip manufacturer Intel, also filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, China is pushing ahead with plans to greatly expand their installations of solar power, doubling their targeted installations over the next decade. By 2015, they aim to have 3 gigawatts installed—10 times as much as they had last year—and by 2020, 50 gigawatts.

Despite such difficulties in the market, the United States’ net exports of solar power products more than doubled in 2010 compared with the year before, reaching $1.8 billion. Total U.S. exports of solar products rose 83 percent, to $5.6 billion, in part because Asia is importing equipment for manufacturing solar panels.

Burying the Problem

The first industrial-scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) plant in the U.S. broke ground in Illinois, with the aim of capturing emissions from a large corn ethanol plant. Work on the plant began just after a U.S. utility canceled its plan for CCS on a West Virginia coal plant.

In Canada, a CCS plant for capturing emissions from tar sands processing may move ahead after Canada’s government recently agreed to underwrite two-thirds of the $1.35-billion project’s cost.

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.