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.

Libya’s Revolution Could Provide Stimulus through Cheaper Oil

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

After rebel forces swept into Libya’s capital, Tripoli, the country may be able to start to ramp oil production and exports again, which many analysts hope will bring down oil prices.

Libya claims Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, and was producing about 1.6 million barrels a day when the production suddenly dropped to near zero in February. Many analysts said it will take two to three years for Libya’s oil production to recover to previous levels, and by year’s end they may only be producing a quarter to a third as much as before.

Even before rebels had taken over Moammar Gadhafi’s compound, oil companies were preparing to return to the country, which they left months before.

So far, though, the price has been up and down, in part because of anticipation of the outcome of a summit this week, which may result in a new round of quantitative easing, which would likely drive down the value of the dollar.

Trading Leaks

To try to understand how much speculators are driving oil prices, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has been looking into “excessive speculation.” Earlier this year, five traders were charged with making $50 million off speculation.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a long-time critic of oil speculation, became frustrated with the pace of investigations and leaked the records of many trades.

Unconventional Contention

While dozens were in jail in Washington, D.C., after protests to oppose the construction of another pipeline carrying tar sands products from Canada to the U.S., a New York Times editorial argued against the pipeline because of high greenhouse gas emissions from tar sands operations. Canadian officials, meanwhile, stepped up lobbying on its behalf.

Producing natural gas from shale deposits using hydraulic fracturing has also been under scrutiny for its greenhouse gas emissions, and now a new study argues Marcellus Shale natural gas has slightly higher emissions than conventional natural gas, but fewer emissions than coal.

West Virginia issued emergency rules to regulate horizontal drilling, which the governor hoped was a first step to more permanent regulations for this drilling.

Dark Days in America, Brighter Elsewhere

With budget woes, spending cuts, and more spending cuts scheduled to be made over the coming years, it appears renewable energy in the U.S. is entering “dark days,” reported GreenBiz.

But renewables are gaining increasing traction elsewhere. In Brazil, in a large power auction, wind emerged as the cheapest source of electricity, beating out natural gas and hydroelectric power. The contracts could lead to the construction of 1.9 gigawatts of new wind farms.

Japan is expected to pass a renewable energy bill that would introduce a feed-in tariff to make renewables more attractive, and set down in law the government’s target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent (compared with 1990 levels) by 2020. To cope with the Fukushima disaster, though, Japan has boosted its use of fossil fuels in the short term.

Germany’s national rail company, which is the country’s biggest electricity consumer, is also moving toward renewables, planning to quit fossil fuels by 2050.

The Billionth Car

The future is bright for electric cars, according to a forecast from Pike Research, which said worldwide sales are likely to grow to 5.2 million by 2017, more than 50 times this year’s estimated sales.

However, even then electric cars would make up a tiny fraction of all cars, with more than one billion on the road as of 2010, a new study said. About half of the recent growth in cars has been in China, which has higher efficiency standards than the U.S., but the country is showing little interest in hybrids and electric cars.

Scientists Scrutinized 

Scientists working on climate change have been under scrutiny, with a polar bear researcher being suspended from his job for the U.S. government.

Another researcher came under fire after the “Climategate” leak of e-mails. He was cleared earlier this year in an investigation by his university, and now has been cleared in a second investigation by the National Science Foundation.

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.

Scrambling to Head Off Power Outages Caused by Heat Waves, Rapid Growth, and Disaster

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Texas has suffered through the worst drought and one of the worst heat waves on record, pushing electricity use to a record high in an attempt to cope.

Texas is the state with the largest installed wind capacity, and recently installed wind farms came through to boost the state’s electricity generation just in time. However, even this jump was not enough to meet demand, and four mothballed natural-gas plants will be fired back up. Thermostats that power companies can automatically adjust also helped ease demand.

The state suffered through blackouts earlier this year, and the mere threat of more outages recently has boosted home energy audits and efficiency measures, as well as calls for more renewable energy.

Texas may also beat Massachusetts to the punch, installing America’s first offshore wind farm before the long-delayed (but finally approved) Cape Wind project. The 600-turbine, 3-gigawatt project may have its first turbine up and spinning by year’s end.

Shortages Boost Fossil Fuels

China also had to ration electricity earlier this year, and is facing a power crunch over the next few years as it struggles to keep up with fast-growing demand.

To meet the demand, China’s coal use is soaring, and the country became a net importer of coal in 2009. In July, the country’s coal imports broke a new record, possibly driven by worries of outages, and by the government’s decision to allow power companies to charge more.

Earlier this month, it was reported that China is planning to create a national cap on energy use as part of a plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

China is not the only one boosting coal imports. The U.K. is buying increasing amounts of coal from the U.S., and the European Union’s demand for coal may increase.

Likewise, Japan has coped with a drop-off in nuclear power mainly by using more liquefied natural gas, but was able to boost its total electricity generation higher than last year, before the Fukushima disaster.

The increased cost of energy in Japan, said some experts, risks pushing the country into a third “lost decade” of economic stagnation.

Making Fracking Friendlier

The push to produce more natural gas through fracking needs further examination to reduce any environmental risks it could be causing in the U.S., according to a task force organized by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Companies are failing to follow best practices, and the explosive growth of fracking has left regulators behind, the task force said, prompting the need for stronger regulations. However, the panel made few specific recommendations of how to improve the situation, focusing mainly on collecting more data on the effects of fracking and sharing the data publicly.

While there are state regulations on fracking practices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed earlier this month its first air pollution standards aimed at cutting smog and greenhouse gas emissions from these wells.

Renewables’ Attraction

While many economies are struggling, large investors are finding renewable energy looks more favorable, with insurance giants such as Allianz and Munich Re putting billions into wind and solar and  big banks funding large installations.

The world’s biggest solar power plant, to be built in California, will use photovoltaics rather than concentrated solar, its developer announced, because of the drop in solar panel prices.

Although U.S. residential solar power has not grown as quickly as in some other countries, such as Germany, do-it-yourself kits and innovative installations are making the investment more attractive.

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.

As Markets Dive, Clean Energy Stocks Hit by “Triple Whammy”

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The stock market took a beating this week, after the rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. bonds—but clean tech stocks have been falling even faster than the market as a whole.

Shares in clean energy companies have been hit by a “triple whammy”—producing too much capacity for the demand, problems with government debt, and broader risk aversion among investors. As a part of this, clean energy venture capital funding has dropped 44 percent when compared with last year.

Analysts from the global bank HSBC said wind energy stocks are undervalued and their prices could fall more as debt crises in both the United States and European Union stand to cut wind subsidies further. There are more than seven gigawatts of wind projects under construction now—but few planned beyond 2013 because of uncertainty about policies.

Solar stocks were down after many companies reported dismal second-quarter results, as prices on panels fell—but not as fast as the costs of producing them—and as their margins shrank. First Solar, the biggest solar panel manufacturer outside of China, boosted production but suffered a large drop in profits—and their share price. Suntech, the biggest manufacturer, also saw its stock fall, hitting a one-year low.

But some analysts say renewables stocks are bottoming out, and are set to rise again.

Adjusting to No Nukes

Germany decided to phase out nuclear power within 10 years and rely more heavily on renewables, and the country’s utilities are scrambling to adjust. E.ON, the world’s biggest utility in terms of sales, suffered its first-ever quarterly loss and is laying off 11,000 workers as it aims to boost its spending on renewables.

Another utility, RWE, is also selling off assets to cope with poor performance—but is planning to stick with its renewables investments.

Making the Military Green

The U.S. military is the single biggest user of oil in the world, and has been warned by analysts its dependence is a security threat. Now the U.S. Army has formed a new renewables office that may spend $7 billion over the next decade on renewable and alternative energy power.

Although the military has a target of using 25 percent renewable energy by 2025, many installations lack the expertise to move forward quickly enough, said the U.S. Department of Defense, and the new office aims to fill that gap.

Meanwhile, units within the mega-corporations Boeing and Siemens have teamed up to pursue military contracts for smart-grid technologies, which the military could develop and bring down the costs, helping them reach the market later.

Risky Business

With oil prices high and political uncertainty in many oil-exporting countries, the U.S. faces near-record energy security risks, according to a new U.S. Chamber of Commerce report. In 2010, their energy risk index is as high, as in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and near the record high of 2008. The Chamber predicts the risk level will remain high for another 25 years.

With gloomy economic prospects, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries all agreed oil demand later this year is likely to be less than they had thought.

With Saudi Arabia boosting its production to the highest level in 30 years, oil prices have fallen a bit in recent weeks, but this is largely because of weak economies, the IEA said.

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.

China Aims to Become Solar Powerhouse with New Subsidies

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

China is already the world’s biggest solar panel manufacturer, but now it is making a move to become a major solar energy consumer as well, with a nationwide feed-in tariff to pay people or businesses a subsidy for electricity they produce with solar panels. This follows on the heels of the country’s wind energy feed-in tariff in 2009, which led to explosive growth in their wind industry.

China had a mishmash of solar incentives before, but the new policy will give a clearer signal to the market and “encourage more companies to participate in the industry,” said an analyst from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

China’s latest five-year plan, released in March, set the goal of using 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, and a solar feed-in tariff has been expected for months—so in anticipation many solar installations have already gotten rolling, and a flurry of projects may soon qualify.

Fast and Steady Wins the Race?

China, Germany and the U.K. have the most stable and consistent clean energy policies, which helps boost investment, according to a new report by Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors.

However, on the same day as China’s announcement, the U.K. put into place a cut in its solar power subsidy for installations over 50 kilowatts, “effectively ending solar farm development” in the country, Business Green argued.

There was a stampede of projects trying to get completed before the deadline, but some are planning more large installations nonetheless. Also, it turns out a loophole in the solar feed-in tariff would have allowed large projects to still get high subsidies—but the government is now moving to close that.

The U.K. had planned to raise subsidies for other clean energy—but it is delaying the raise in the feed-in tariff for anaerobic digesters.

Besides the U.K., a number of other European countries—including Spain, Italy and the Czech Republic—hacked away at their solar subsidies before, and now the Australian state of Western Australia has also eliminated theirs.

The Canadian state of Ontario, on the other hand, is trying to protect clean energy projects by changing regulations to make it harder to cut clean energy subsidies.

Meanwhile, solar installations have been rising fast worldwide as the price of solar panels has fallen about 20 percent in the past year. But manufacturer’s margins are also falling, so it is not clear how much longer these price trends can continue.

Ethanol Subsidy Survives—For Now

It came down to the wire, but the U.S. Congress passed a deal to raise the debt ceiling before the Aug. 2 deadline, and Obama signed it into law.

But the deal did not include a near-term cut of ethanol tax breaks, as some had expected, which would have netted an estimated $2 billion in additional revenue.

However, it is likely the ethanol tax break will not be renewed, in which case it would cease at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, ethanol producers are pushing for a change in regulations to allow more ethanol to be blended into gasoline, allowing gasoline to be E15—15 percent ethanol—compared with E10 today. Last month, experts testified to Congress that the higher ethanol content may damage some cars’ engines, and more tests were needed to ensure E15 is safe.

There are also plans to carry ethanol in existing oil pipelines—but a new study found ethanol could crack the pipes, since bacteria that eat the fuel and excrete acids could thrive inside the pipes.

Making the Smart Grid Smarter

There have been many proposals for making our electricity grids and appliances smarter to help them use less electricity at peak times and shift use to off-peak hours of the day.

However, if many people’s appliances all switch on suddenly when the electricity rate drops, an MIT study found, the spike in power use could bring down the grid. But smarter tuning of how electricity rates go up and down during the day could avoid the problem.

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.

Debt Ceiling Impasse Could Hit Clean Energy Hard

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Clean energy could be among the hardest-hit sectors if the U.S. government does not raise the debt ceiling and then defaults on the national debt.

If there is a default, it could hurt in direct ways, by stopping payments for cash grants and loan guarantees that support many renewables projects. It could also hit innovation, by putting the Department of Energy program for cutting-edge energy technologies, ARPA-E, at risk.

A default could also hit indirectly, by pushing down the value of the U.S. dollar, as well as pushing up interest rates, which would affect financing for renewables projects that require large up-front investment.

Leaving Energy Subsidies, Credits Behind

Any kind of budget deal will have to include large spending cuts. According to a survey of experts by the National Journal, most energy subsidies and tax breaks could be cut back. Subsidies for wind and solar may fly under the radar and survive cuts—at least for a little while.

Corn ethanol subsidies are likely to face big cutbacks, following a Senate vote in June. Any plan to raise the debt ceiling would most likely include slashing the 45-cent-per-gallon credit for gasoline blended with ethanol. “We don’t need the excise tax credit,” said Chuck Woodside, chairman of the national Renewable Fuels Association, because ethanol is now cheaper than gasoline.

The tariff on imported ethanol is likely to go soon as well, reported Ethanol Producer—either at the end of the year when current legislation expires, or sooner, if that legislation is repealed by a deal on the debt ceiling.

Making Oil Go Further

Problems with the debt ceiling could have mixed effects on the price of oil, which has been rising again in recent weeks. A default would likely push down demand, but also push down the value of the dollar—which would have opposite effects on the price of oil. Lately, though, traders have been betting prices will continue to go up.

The oil the U.S. buys would go further under new auto efficiency standards Obama is expected to announce on Friday, which would require cars by 2025 to average 54.5 miles per gallon, compared with current requirements of 30.2 mpg.

During the first half of 2011, Detroit’s Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford and Chrysler—boosted their lobbying to more than $10 million to try and shape the efficiency standards. Now, Platts reported, the major automakers have agreed to the plan.

Renewables Boost in U.K., Germany

The U.K. is dominating the offshore wind market lately, installing, in the first half of 2011, the most offshore turbines of any country—101 around the U.K., compared with seven across the rest of Europe.

But Germany is looking to catch up. Both houses of Parliament have now passed a new energy bill, which has more aggressive targets for expanding renewable energy, and includes higher tariffs for biomass, geothermal energy and offshore wind. But according to an analysis by Rhenish-Westphalian Institute for Economic Research, the transition to renewable energy is likely to be more expensive than the government has said.

A Warm Cloud

Server farms—which store and process huge amounts of data that zing around via the internet—eat up a lot of electricity, but the heat they spit out could be put to use, argued scientists at Microsoft Research and the University of Virginia. They propose putting servers in buildings, where the waste heat could heat the buildings, to save ­on energy—and it could also create faster, more secure networks.

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.

Japan, Germany Struggle With Nuclear Power Slowdown

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

With a large share of their nuclear power plants down at the moment, both Japan and Germany are scrambling to meet energy demand and figure out how to get by without nuclear in the future.

Two-thirds of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors are currently down, most of them for maintenance and testing. To cope with the power shortfall, Japan’s central government asked consumers to cut back on electricity use. But by spring of next year, all reactors currently running in the country would need to shut down to go through scheduled check-ups. If they fail, or if local opposition prevents them from restarting, it could lead to “a once unthinkable scenario,” the Japan Times reports, with the country losing all its nuclear power generation.

After Japan’s nuclear disaster, Germany temporarily shut down seven of its oldest nuclear reactors, and later decided to keep them shut. Not long after, the country’s parliament voted to phase out all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. But Germany’s Federal Network Agency said last week one of the old reactors may need to be restarted to meet energy demand.

Less Nuclear Means More Coal, Gas

While Germany has voted for an “energy revolution” based on renewables, the country is slated to boost its reliance on fossil fuels in the short run. Germany plans to build new coal and natural gas power plants, subsidized by revenues from selling emissions credits—money previously slated for energy efficiency efforts.

Germany also signed a deal with Russia to boost cooperation between the countries. Germany is already Russia’s biggest natural gas customer, and their purchases will likely increase once a new pipeline under the Baltic Sea opens in October.

In Japan, if all the nuclear plants did go offline, in the short term the country would be unable to fill the gap with fossil fuels, according to a study by the Japan Center for Economic Research. Nonetheless, Japan will boost its use of fossil fuels this year, raising its greenhouse gas emissions significantly, which could potentially throw the country off its targets under the Kyoto Protocol. Morgan Stanley estimated Japan would use more coal, liquefied natural gas, and oil—including, in the worst-case scenario, an additional 540,000 barrels a day for the rest of the year.

Oil Addiction Leaves Few Options

If terrorists were to attack the world’s largest oil production facility in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. would have few options to deal with the resulting massive oil shortfall, according to a “war game” run by Securing America’s Future Energy, a coalition of retired military leaders and business officials.

Global oil markets are well-enough supplied for the moment, concluded the International Energy Agency in a 30-day review of its release of emergency oil stocks in June, so it will not coordinate release of more stocks right now. The agency is still waiting to see the effects of its release of 60 million barrels—less than one day’s worth of global consumption—which is still in process.

One reason for the agency outlook is some members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have boosted production—in particular Saudi Arabia. That country’s own oil consumption has reached a record high, and is set to continue rising—meaning in the longer term their exports will probably dive.

Green Helmets

The United Nations Security Council heard arguments for the creation of a peacekeeping force to deal with climate change-related conflicts. The President of Nauru, a small island nation in the Pacific, pushed for the new force, and also wrote an editorial for the New York Times, arguing his own country’s unsustainable reliance on phosphate deposits, now largely depleted, is a cautionary tale about ecological limits and the threat of climate change.

However, the U.N. failed to agree on whether climate change poses a security threat.

Carmageddon’s Unforeseen Benefit

Americans are willing to avoid gridlock traffic, at least for a few days, as Los Angeles found. The city closed its most heavily used freeway for roadwork to add a carpool lane. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa warned residents to “stay home. Or go on vacation. Walk. Go on a bike. But do not get in your car … It’s going to be a mess.” The feared traffic jams were quickly dubbed “carmageddon.”

What actually happened was anti-climactic, as people heeded the warnings and stayed off the roads, leading to a dramatic drop in smog levels. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said locals “turned Carmageddon into Carmaheaven.” He added, “Why can’t we take some chunk of L.A. and shut it down to traffic on certain days or weekends, as they do in Italy?”

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.

Australia’s Ambitious Scheme Sets World’s Highest Price on Emissions

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Australia, with the highest per capita greenhouse emissions of any large developed country, will soon take on one of the most ambitious schemes to tackle climate change, with a new carbon-trading system.

The planned carbon tax will start in 2012 and apply first to the 500 worst polluting companies responsible for about 60 percent of the country’s emissions, making it the largest carbon market outside of Europe. Rates will start at 23 Australian dollars per tonne of carbon (US$24.20 per ton), higher than prices have been on the European emissions market for the past couple of years.

The carbon prices would gradually rise, and then the government would transition in 2015 into a cap-and-trade system, aiming for emission cuts by 2050 of 80 percent compared with 2000 levels.

Taxes Redefined

Australia’s plan was generally hailed by environmentalists and those working on renewable energy, and economists generally support it. But it was panned by many in big industry, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s administration, already suffering low approval ratings, saw ratings drop further after announcement of the new plan.

To avoid the carbon tax penalizing the poor, about half of the new revenues will be returned to citizens in the form of tax breaks for the lowest earners, part of an effort toward “reducing taxes on desirable things (work and income) … and replacing them with a charge on something undesirable (carbon pollution).”

The carbon tax is part of a package of new policies on climate and energy, which also include the creation of a new Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which will oversee more than $3 billion in funding, primarily for solar, wind, and geothermal energy. The funding boost will put “solar on steroids,” said John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Energy Society, aiding large-scale solar installations.

Nuclear Power Continues to Polarize

Meanwhile, the U.K. is embarking on a huge restructuring of its electricity market, which is outlined in a new white paper. The Guardian’s Damian Carrington argues the “sprawling and complex maze of measures … has the central aim of getting new nuclear power stations built.”

Since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, and others in the U.K. government have supported expanding the country’s nuclear power. Within days of Japan’s disaster, the U.K. government began drawing up a public relations strategy to downplay the disaster, according to a recent report on a leak of government e-mails.

The restructuring proposed in the new white paper would require spending £200 billion ($320 billion) on new infrastructure, but this won’t necessarily lead to higher electricity prices than customers would face otherwise, argues Huhne, since customers now are vulnerable to rising oil and gas prices.

Elsewhere, there are a growing number of countries planning or weighing a nuclear retrenchment. Most recently, Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister said the country is no longer interested in developing nuclear energy, and Japan’s Prime Minister urged his country to phase out nuclear.

France, the most nuclear-reliant country, is embarking on a new study of the country’s future energy mix that will consider the possibility of phasing out nuclear by 2040 or 2050.

Saudi Oil Peak?

After the announcement by the International Energy Agency that the world’s richer countries would tap into their emergency oil reserves, oil prices initially fell. For the U.S. portion of the release, many bidders vied for the oil, offering about $105 to $110 a barrel—which would raise more than $3 billion for the government.

The high number of bidders “shows there are concerns in the marketplace over just how much oil is going to be out there,” said David Pumphrey, deputy director of energy and national security for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

After an acrimonious meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in which members disagreed about whether to boost production, some countries decided to go it alone. The most significant is Saudi Arabia, which raised its output to about 9.5 million barrels a day—the same rate as before the global recession.

Meanwhile, major Wall Street firms warned of rising oil prices over the rest of this year and into 2012. Goldman Sachs, for one, raised its forecast prices, and said “it is only a matter of time before inventories and OPEC spare capacity become effectively exhausted” and prices soar. A major reason for the gloomier outlook, Goldman Sachs said, is Saudi Arabia won’t be able to pump as much oil as many had expected.

Solar Purchasing

The company Groupon offers big discounts as long as a bunch of people will sign up to a particular deal, and now San Francisco is emulating this model to boost solar power installations. By forming buyers’ groups, they hope to get around some of the barriers to small-scale solar, such as high transaction costs and availability of credit.

In another effort to finance small-scale solar, some firms are emulating Wall Street’s bundling of mortgages, by creating “asset-backed securities”—bundles of leases on residential solar panels.

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.