Crop Damage Sparks Fuel Versus Food Debate

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Dry conditions that continue to grip Midwestern states, damaging crops and threatening to push up food prices, stirred new debate this week after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released crop yield projections capturing the severity of the drought. Though the U.S. is the largest producer of corn and soybeans, the report puts corn production at 10.8 billion bushels, down 13 percent from last year’s yield and 17 percent from July projections. It also slashes soybean yields, though not as sharply as corn.

The low projections are bumping up corn prices. The price spike in corn is causing some livestock farmers to turn to other sources, even candy, for their animals’ nutrition. While the USDA announced it will buy up to $170 million worth of meat to help relieve some of these farmers, low yield projections still mean feed could be more scarce next year. “I think this will help some in the short run, but what we really need is to change the ethanol mandate,” said Bob Ivey, a hog farmer and general manager of Maxwell Foods, of the USDA announcement.

Like Ivey, others renewed debate over the use of corn for ethanol production this week, putting more pressure on the U.S. to divert its corn crop to food. As required by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is currently used in ethanol production, with the rest going to food, animal feed and exports. With agricultural production in other major exporting countries such as China and India suffering and the global food price index up six percent in July, some are concerned about global shortages of certain food commodities. As some legislators called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue a waiver of the corn ethanol RFS for the next year, the top United Nations food official, José Graziano da Silva, told the Financial Times that an “immediate, temporary suspension” of the mandate could help head off another world food crisis as poorer countries bear the burden of rising food costs. The Renewable Fuels Association urged the EPA to reject the waiver request, saying it “would do more harm than good to America’s economy and its energy security.”

Meanwhile, the federal government is poised to approve the use of sorghum to create advanced ethanol. It would join imported sugar-cane-based ethanol and domestic biodiesel to become the third “advanced biofuel” in the U.S. (Advanced biofuels produce fewer greenhouse gases over their lifetime.) A sorghum-based ethanol could be a welcome addition to the U.S. biofuel supply because sorghum is not an important ingredient in human foods (it’s mainly used as animal feed), it is more drought-tolerant than corn, and it produces the same amount of ethanol as corn using one-third less water.

Study: Temperatures May Climb 7 Degrees

If droughts weren’t enough, global warming and urbanization could cause temperatures in cities to climb seven degrees by 2050, according to a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. That’s two to three times higher than the effects of global warming, says Climate Central’s Michael Lemonick.

One scientist affiliated with MIT is pursuing a technology that would help in droughts by mitigating water lost from reservoirs through evaporation. The technology involves coating the water with a thin layer of vegetable oil, which could possibly reduce evaporation by up to 75 percent.

Energy in the Arctic

Shell’s plans for drilling in the Arctic faced another delay—not one due to ice, but rather to failure to complete construction on a spill response barge, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “So it’s not a matter of ice. It is a matter of whether Shell has the mechanical capability to be able to comply with the exploration effort that had been approved by the government,” Salazar said. The window to drill is closing, The Wall Street Journal warns, as exploration in the Chukchi Sea must end by Sept. 24 and the end of October in the Beaufort Sea.

This came as the first comprehensive plan to manage the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska was announced, leaving open the possibility for a pipeline to transport oil and gas from the Chukchi Sea onshore. The plan would allow drilling on half of the 23 million-acre reserve estimated to contain 549 million barrels of recoverable oil and 8.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

In the renewable energy sector, wind made headway in 2011, adding about 6,800 megawatts of power generation, which made it second only to natural gas of all new U.S. electric capacity. Specifically, wind accounted for 32 percent of energy, pushing U.S. wind power capacity to 47,000 megawatts.

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.

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.

Ethanol Tax Breaks Survive, but Vote May Have “Broken the Dam”

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

While a bill to slash $6 billion in annual tax breaks for ethanol fuel failed to pass the U.S. Senate, it was still hailed by some lawmakers and analysts as a major break from the past.

It raises a philosophical quandary, says the Christian Science Monitor: “If Congress takes away a tax subsidy, should that count as a tax hike?” Nearly all Republican representatives have signed on to “The Pledge,” an agreement to never vote to raise taxes.

The bill to end ethanol tax breaks attracted votes from both sides of the aisle, with 34 Republicans and 6 Democrats voting for it—but it fell 20 votes short of passing. Nonetheless, some Democrats said the vote broke the dam, opening the way for the repeal of other tax breaks, such as larger ones for the oil industry.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Midwestern senators introduced an alternative to ending ethanol subsidies. Instead of a flat-rate tax credit of 45 cents per gallon of ethanol-gasoline blend, the new bill would introduce a variable subsidy that would increase when oil prices drop, and fall when oil prices climb.

On Thursday, a wide majority in the Senate did vote in favor of another piece of legislation that would end tax breaks for U.S. ethanol as well as tariffs on foreign ethanol. However, the change is unlikely to go into effect immediately, Bloomberg reports, because the repeal of the subsidies and tariffs is attached to another piece of legislation that is unlikely to become law.”

Fuel Woes Cause Ripple Effects

A report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and seven other international agencies called for an end to subsidies for biofuels because they are driving up food prices. Prices for both food and fuel have been rising fast in India and China, leading the Chinese government to adjust banking rules to try to quell inflation.

Meanwhile, if oil prices remain high—above the current level of $120 for Brent crude—there is a risk of derailing the economy, into a double-dip recession, said Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency. “We all know what happened in 2008. Are we going to see the same movie?”

U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu also warned high fuel prices are taking their toll. “We’re very cognizant of … the fact that higher gasoline prices so impede the economic recovery,” Chu said. One of the measures the Obama administration considered for bringing down gasoline prices, he said, was to tap the government’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve, intended for emergencies.

More details came in a report from Reuters, with anonymous sources saying that in the weeks before a recent, fractious OPEC meeting, U.S. and Saudi officials met to discuss “an unprecedented arrangement” of oil trades. In the proposed deal, the U.S. would send Europe low-sulfur, “sweet” crude from the strategic reserve, and in return receive more high-sulfur, “sour” crude from Saudi Arabia. The deal fell through, the sources said, because Saudi Arabia was unwilling to sell the oil at a discount.

Another Kind of Military Power

The U.S. military—the world’s single largest user of oil, and responsible for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s energy consumption—has now created an Operational Energy Strategy. “Before, it was assumed energy would be where you needed when you needed it,” a Pentagon official told National Journal. “The new strategy is to say that energy is a strategic good that enables your military force.”

Earlier this month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, called on the Army to use fuel more efficiently. In addition to efficiency, renewable energy will be a major priority for investments by the military over the next 20 years, according to a study by clean tech group Pike Research.

Nuclear Risks Still Weigh Heavily

Nuclear plants and nuclear waste disposal have been under increased scrutiny since Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which the government recently confirmed had led to a meltdown of three of the six reactors at the site.

Republicans called for Gregory Jaczko, head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to step down after it was revealed he had “unilaterally” moved to stop work on the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump—a project for a long-term disposal site that has been in the works for decades, but that President Obama vowed in 2009 to end.

An independent review of temporary waste storage sites in the U.S. indicated that the threat of a release of radioactivity dwarfs the risk Japan faced. The report’s lead author, Robert Alvarez, said, “The largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet will remain in storage at U.S. reactor sites for the indefinite future.”

Meanwhile, China’s nuclear power plants all passed a recent safety review by government inspectors, paving the way for the country to move ahead with its ambitious plans for expanding atomic energy.

Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 has turned the country into “a multibillion-dollar laboratory experiment” on how to roll out alternatives quickly to replace the quarter of Germany’s electricity that came from nuclear prior to Japan’s disaster. To enable renewables to take on a larger share of the load will likely require huge investments in expanding the grid and add a few thousand miles (several thousand kilometers) of additional power lines.

Are We Headed for a New Ice Age?

The Sun may go into hibernation for decades, a few new studies suggest, with a dramatic drop in the number of sunspots. Previous drops in the number of sunspots have been linked to cooler times on our planet, such as the “Little Ice Age” that struck medieval Europe.

Although some newspapers trumpeted that we’re approaching a “second little ice age,” New Scientist says the effect would actually be more like “a slightly less severe heatwave.” In fact, even if sunspots do go quiet, it would lower the Sun’s heating of Earth by at most 0.3 watts per square meter, whereas theman-made greenhouse effect is now about six times larger, at 1.7 watts per square meter.

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.