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Even as we struggle with heat waves, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, drought, and rising sea levels are as a result of climate change, the potential to sequester carbon in forests and soils offers hope. Humans have caused climate change by burning fossil fuels and disrupting the balance of nature, but there is an opportunity to restore these natural systems for carbon sequestration. Since we already used the carbon budget to keep global temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius, an action is needed to not only eliminate emissions but to recapture carbon dioxide that has already entered the atmosphere.

By stopping deforestation, and restoring degraded forests and soils we can combat climate change while improving biodiversity, soil productivity, and food security. Implementing better land management practices could be an important strategy to store carbon in the ground and lowering carbon emissions. Thus, curbing the rate of deforestation and improving land management and agricultural techniques should be a priority for policymakers at the federal and state levels in order to slow climate change, which has posed a significant threat to U.S agriculture.

Deforestation:

Forests are one of the largest carbon sinks and are currently absorbing and storing 450 billion tons of carbon. Forests are not only important in storing carbon, but they also play a significant role in preventing floods, supporting wildlife, moderating extreme temperature, presenting cultural values and providing recreation. However, after the industrial revolution, people started cutting down and burning trees for construction, shipbuilding, and energy producing, which resulted in turning a large amount of carbon back into the atmosphere. Human activities are the main reason for releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, including through deforestation.

Between 2001 and 2017, 5.57 gigatons of carbon (Gt) was released into the atmosphere as a result of tree cover loss in the United States. The U.S is cutting trees to make wood chips and wood pellets and export them from ports in the Southeast to Western Europe. Last year, Southern U.S. was identified as the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world as a result of a 70 percent increase in wood pellet exports from Southern. In 2017, the U.S lost 2.3 million hectares (Mha) of forest equivalent to 175 metric tons (Mt) of CO₂ emissions. Continued deforestation will neutralize all climate action efforts and strategies.

Afforestation and Reforestation Opportunities:

Afforestation is the process of planting forests in areas that have never been forested, while reforestation is the recovering of forests in areas where forests were destroyed.  Reforestation and afforestation could make an important contribution to curb climate change and to improve the quality of air if managed appropriately. Thus, afforestation and reforestation are identified as negative emissions options since they are able to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  Afforestation, reforestation, and improving land management and conservation practices as a means of solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere have several benefits to the society and environment. Planting new trees and recovering forests protects against soil erosion, helps retain soil moisture, increases biodiversity, and controls flooding. Also, these efforts can enhance agricultural productivity and develop resilient food systems. Moreover, planting trees has lower cost and environmental impacts compared to other negative emission technologies such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture & Storage.

Enterprise 50 Year Tree Pledge Surpasses 12 Million Plantings, 100 Reforestation Projects.Photo by Eterprise holdings

Afforestation and Reforestation:

The main problem is that planting forests is not an instant solution, since it takes time for seedling trees to be matured. Also, if afforestation is not properly managed, it can result in a reduction of local biodiversity, the modification of particular biomes, the introduction of non-native and potentially invasive species, and lost revenue from agriculture. Native grasslands that are altered to forests may not contain the same habitat for local species, and ill-managed reforestation efforts may result in the production of a monoculture (the practice of growing a single tree species) that lacks not only plant diversity but reduces the number of available habitat types for forest inhabitants. In addition, the application of nitrogen fertilizers would have several negative impacts on the environment. The production of nitrogen fertilizer releases a group of potent greenhouse gases known as nitrous oxides, along with CO2. Nitrogen pollution is identified as a threat to the biodiversity of species and biodiversity loss is a major environmental challenge

Soil Carbon Sequestration Opportunities:

Soil is a major sink of carbon and can store twice as much CO2 than is in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, farming currently plays a significant role in releasing a large amount of carbon into the atmosphere. As a result of an increase in the global population and the demand for food, commercial planting with the use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased, and frequent harvesting has resulted in reduced carbon levels in the soil. However, there are several land management practices which help promote inappropriate farming techniques. “Soil Carbon Sequestration” is one of the techniques which implements as a tool to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the ground. Thus, soil as a carbon sink can play a vital role in agricultural strategies to curb climate change and offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use techniques that store CO2 in the ground offer an opportunity to mitigate climate change. Farmers can help soil hold more CO2 by making sure crop residue and animal manure re-enters the soil. However, the amount of carbon that soil can hold depends on several factors such as types of soil, regional climate, and characteristics of soil microbes. Healthy soils with more organic matter can store carbon while providing agricultural and environmental benefits. Soil carbon storage directly benefits farmers by improving soil fertility, reducing erosion and increasing resilience to droughts and floods.

Conservation practices such as agroforestry, no-till agriculture, planting cover crops, forest farming, and silvopasture all increase the amount of carbon that can be sequestered in the soil.

  • In agroforestry, crops are planted between rows of trees while the trees mature. The system can be designed to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, flowers, herbs, bioenergy feedstocks, and more. Agroforestry helps improve land productivity with several potential benefits for the communities such as reducing soil erosion, increasing plant growth, climate change adaptation, and increasing food security.
  • “Forest farming” also is a way to grow food, herbal, botanical, or decorative crops under a forest canopy that is managed to provide ideal shade levels as well as other products.
  • “Silvopasture” integrates trees with livestock and their forages on one piece of land. The trees provide timber, fruit, or nuts as well as shade and shelter for livestock and their forages, help animals from the hot summer sun, cold winter winds, or a heavy rainfall.

Soil Carbon Sequestration Challenges:

Land Management Techniques: Forest farming & Agroforestry methods to keep CO2 in the ground & improve soil fertilizing

The main problem is that the initiatives are all voluntary and have not been adopted on a large scale. Farmers are experiencing several barriers in the way of implementing smart agriculture. For example, tilling the soil is a traditional practice for controlling weeds, and shifting to no-till technique requires changing farm equipment and using other weed-control methods. Therefore, farmers have to encounter with the high costs of altering farm equipment and the risk of lower yields in the short-term.  Furthermore, the benefits of soil carbon-rich take a long time to be viable and the long-term benefits of healthier crops and resilient communities are spread among societies. Thus, incentives and subsidies play a vital role in encouraging farmers to invest in cultivating healthier soils and split costs of shifting to new techniques since implementing the sustainable land management practices is critical to curb climate change and keep CO2  in the ground.

However, in the Midwest, for instance, around 50% of U.S farmland is operated by renters, and around 80% of agricultural land is owned by a non-farming landlord. Therefore, it would be difficult to encourage investments in soil health because renting tenants face short-term costs but might not receive the long-term benefits. Thus, policy-makers should provide tax incentives and subsidies for renters and non-farming landlords to be able to apply the land management practices. Since enhancing soil carbon by practicing land management techniques can prepare us to be well adapted for the negative impacts of climate change on the agriculture industry, there is an imperative need to invest in this solution and develop more helpful regulations to improve farmland productivity and communities’ resiliency.

Overall, fixing these barriers need providing the greatest financial and technical assistance and improving research and development (R&D) efforts as well as increasing private partnerships and offering incentives for farmers and renters. Improving the land management practices and the climate-smart agriculture is required a coordination and integration between various sectors dealing with climate change, agricultural development, and food security at the national, regional and local level. Local governments can provide tax credits for private companies to invest in different types of research with an emphasis on supporting soil carbon storage and to encourage them to offer useful consultant for farmers.

In Conclusion:

Well-managed natural systems carbon sequestration projects, along with the arrangement of sustainably produced timber, agriculture, and energy will produce numerous benefits including additional income for rural development, improve communities’ resiliency, and promote conservation programs. In order to improve climate change mitigation and sustainable development programs, governments must carry out the resolution of sustainability practices and oversee the implementation of these practices. The success of carbon sequestration projects will depend on the high carbon prices and aggressive emission reduction goals. Also, the political willpower plays an important role in prioritizing forestry activities and land management practices as part of mitigation portfolios. Care should also be taken to avoid unintended environmental and socioeconomic impacts that could threaten the overall value of natural systems carbon sequestration projects.

CASE STUDIES: Continue Reading »

What does it mean to make a climate action plan “Paris compliant”?  You may have heard this phrase, but do you really know what it means?  “Paris” refers to the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, which every nation in the world except the United States is committed to. “Compliant” refers to the goals set in the agreement to keep global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and attempt to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial temperatures.  So, what does that mean for a city wanting to do its fair share to avert climate crisis?

1.5 vs. 2 Degrees Celsius

The Paris Climate Agreement names two goals, but which one should we focus on – limiting warming to 1.5 or to 2 degrees Celsius?  Half of a degree might not sound like much, but, as NASA puts it, it’s a “big deal.”  That’s because the temperature increase won’t be spread out evenly over the area of the Earth or evenly throughout the year or time of day.  Some places and times will see much greater increases, resulting in more extreme weather. Heat-waves would be longer, rainstorms more intense, sea levels would rise further, tropical coral reefs would be totally destroyed, and agriculture would be hit harder.

There’s also a strong equity argument to be made for the 1.5 degree Celsius goal.  The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) advocated for this more protective goal during the Paris Climate Agreement negotiations because their very existence is threatened by climate change.  Rising sea levels are already making some low-lying coastal areas uninhabitable, and a 2 degree increase would completely inundate many of the 44 low-lying AOSIS member countries.

Beyond the clear and present threat to low-lying nations, warming has been and will continue to be most pronounced in the tropics, which includes many poorer nations.  And poor people around the world will be most negatively impacted by climate change because the poor often live in more marginal areas – in flood plains or in drought-prone regions – and because the poor lack the resources to cope with extreme weather.

Global temperatures have already increased by about 1 degree Celsius and climate change is causing health problems.  As this trend continues, those without access to medical care or living in flood plains will struggle to cope.

Global Carbon Budget

Understanding the concept of the global carbon budget (which is really a greenhouse gas budget) is important.  Fundamentally, limiting warming requires limiting the total quantity of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, with emissions accumulating in the atmosphere year after year.

Determining an exact number is challenging and various climate models yield different results.  Some models indicate that the carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius has already been exceeded.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognizes the need for additional analysis of the carbon budget to meet the 1.5 degree goal and is working on a report focused on this topic.

In the meantime, the carbon budget values provided in the IPCC 2013 AR5 Synthesis Report are the most comprehensive source of guidance because they include all GHGs from all sources, identify pathways to likely (defined as a two-in-three chance) meet the 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius goals, and are based on modeling out to 2100.  Using the IPCC budget for the 1.5 degree goal, and accounting for emissions since that report was released, the remaining carbon budget at the start of 2017 was 162.02 gigatonnes.  Limiting emissions to this amount would give us a 66% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

A 66% chance of success also translates to a 34% chance of failure.  Failure to preserve a livable climate.  Ideally, we would aim to keep cumulative GHG emissions well below this budget to increase our chances of keeping to 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Negative Emissions

Past inaction to reduce GHG emissions now makes negative emissions, or carbon sequestration, necessary to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and likely even to meet the 2 degree goal, but the assumed scale of such efforts can easily be overestimated.  The vast majority of the climate models relied on by the IPCC – and therefore, the underlying Paris Climate Agreement – assume massive negative emissions.  While there are existing technologies and techniques for achieving negative emissions, all face significant challenges, including cost, other impacts on the environment, and use of land needed to feed the growing world population.  Recent research suggests that negative emissions technologies are more limited than climate scientists have assumed in their modeling.

GHG Emissions Reductions Goals for U.S.  Cities

The realities of the carbon budget and limits of negative emissions technologies makes a rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to avert climate crisis.  While meeting the goals set in the Paris Climate Agreement is still possible, there is no time to waste on inactionNet zero global GHG emissions must be reached by around 2050, and substantial near-term emissions reductions are critical.

C40 has developed a roadmap, called Deadline 2020, for how cities can translate these global goals and carbon budgets to local goals and actions.  The emissions reduction curve for a given city depends on how much greenhouse gases the city emits and how much wealth the city has.  Compared to the global average, U.S. cities are high emitters and have high wealth (defined as greater than $15,000 per capita gross regional product per year).  The Deadline 2020 roadmap calls for such cities to get on a “steep decline” GHG emissions trajectory, with emissions reaching zero before 2050.  The roadmap makes it clear that wealthy, high emitting cities, such as those in the U.S. must take significant action prior to 2020 to make it possible to achieve the 1.5 degree goal.

The good news is that more and more cities are engaging in climate planning.  In Texas, that includes Austin, San Antonio, Houston, and hopefully soon Dallas.  While each city has its own challenges and opportunities, the C40 Deadline 2020 roadmap can and should be used to set fair, science-based goals.

As global temperatures continue to rise along with CO2 emissions, leaders in need of solutions should be cautious when considering the potential of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).  While the wholesale success of these technologies was assumed in many of the climate models used in developing the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

In the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, the world agreed on implementing greenhouse gas mitigation plans which focus on producing negative carbon dioxide emissions to help curb climate change.

Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project. Capture CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility and store it underground.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) facilities generate electricity by burning trees and crops that have taken CO2 from the atmosphere throughout their lifetime. When the biomass is burned, BECCS facilities capture the CO2 emissions and store them or, more often, use CO2 in order to enhance oil recovery (EOR). BECCS is one of the technologies the potential to achieve negative emissions if easy-to-grow feedstocks, such as switchgrass, are grown with sustainable practices and the captured CO2 is sequestered. However, these conditions don’t currently exist at commercial facilities.

BECCS Case Study: Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage Project

In April 2017, the U.S Department of Energy (DOE) announced that the Illinois Industrial Carbon Capture and Storage (ICCS) project at Archer Daniels Midland Company’s (ADM) Decatur corn ethanol facility had begun operations by injecting carbon dioxide into a large saline reservoir. The ICCS project stores more than 1 million tons of CO2 a year. The project captures CO2 from ADM’s Decatur corn processing facility, and stores it almost a mile and a half underground. The total project cost is $207.9 million and it has received a cost-share agreement of $141 million investment from the Department Of Energy. The project team members include ADM, Schlumberger Carbon Services, Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS), University of Illinois, and Richland Community College (RCC). The technology demonstrated for this project aimed to help the development of the regional CCS industry (i.e., enhanced oil recovery in the depleted oilfields in the Illinois Basin).

Although the main purpose of BECCS technology is to reduce greenhouse gases and help combat with climate change, practically, CO2 has been captured in order to enhance oil recovery, which will result in more CO2 in the atmosphere. As the world’s focus is on keeping global temperature below 2 degree Celsius, using carbon capture storage (CCS) and BECCS in this way will perpetuate the use of fossil fuels. Also, emissions from the transportation of feedstock and the use of nitrogen fertilizer for growing crops could be a big challenge and accelerate the trend of global warming especially associated with ozone destruction.

The Illinois Basin Decatur facility and the EBCCS plant as a whole emit more CO2 than the BECCS plant has been designed to capture. The graphics info provided by Carbon Brief shows that the total CO2 emissions have been emitted by Decatur facility over 2.5 years of the operation was 12,693,283 tons of CO2. However, the EBCCS plant only absorbed 2,095,400 tons of CO2 which means that Decatur facility as a whole has emitted 10,597,883 tons of CO2 even with BECCS capacity. Thus, this project failed to fulfill the purpose of reducing carbon and curbing climate change.

The Illinois Basin Decatur Project. By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Caption: The Illinois Basin Decatur Project.  By Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

Challenges and Concerns of BECCS Projects:

  • High Cost of Capturing and Storing Carbon: It costs $100 to capture a ton of CO2 for a biomass plant. Whereas, fossil fuel plants are capturing carbon for about $60 a ton. This difference is based on varying bioenergy feedstock prices; energy production process; and capture technology. Also, transporting large amounts of biomass long distances to the storage site would significantly add to the cost of BECCS, since biomass tends to have a lot of weight relative to its energy.
  • Transporting CO2 to the reservoirs via pipelines or trucks: The transportation networks are costly and also turn more CO2 back into the atmosphere. More infrastructure – such as pipelines – would need to be built, which increases the cost of BECCS and indirectly results in more emissions through the construction process. Also, CO2 leakage from pipelines or storage sites could endanger people, harm marine ecosystems, and threaten freshwater ecosystem. Navigating the property rights of local communities can also be a challenge.
  • Effects of increased fertilizer use, such as nitrogen: Nitrogen fertilizers can be leached into the groundwater and washed into waterways, resulting in serious health, environmental, and economic damage. Nitrogen fertilizers applied in agriculture can add more nitrous oxide to the atmosphere than any other human activity. Nitrous oxide also moves into the stratosphere and destroys ozone which could result in increasing global heat. Nitrogen pollution is identified as a cause of decline in native species and is a threat to biodiversity for vertebrate, invertebrate and plant species. A study found 78 federally listed species identified as affected by nitrogen pollution. Use of fertilizer nitrogen for crop production also influences soil health, by reducing organic matter content and microbial life, and increasing acidity of the soil.
  • Water concerns: Agriculture and power generation are highly water intensive. In order to produce 1 ton of ethanol, 3.5 t of CO2 and 5 t of H2O is needed, which means that more than 21,000 t of CO2 and 300,000 t of water vapor are consumed each year. However, more than 3 billion people are already affected by water scarcity so it is a critical challenge in utilizing BECCS technology.
  • Food Scarcity: food prices would increase as a result of changes in land use. Also, since climate change has already threatened the crop yields harvest, sudden changes in the weather could result in food shortage or even famine in some regions. Altering lands to a specific crop yield would affect the land quality and may result in regional resource shortages.
  • Geological storage sites for CO2: In the fertile Midwest of the U.S., croplands are too far from geologic storage to be a viable location for BECCS in the near-term. There are relatively few pipelines in place for transporting CO2 and the long-distance transportation of large volumes of captured CO2 is expensive, particularly if many small pipelines have to be built. Biomass could be transported to sites where CO2 storage is available, but that would significantly add to the cost of a BECCS project.
  • Land Use challenges: Could displace or expose small farmers to the volatility of world markets. Also, as a result of changing land applications, soil erosion, and degradation could happen and soil would lose its fertility. Poor management of bioenergy crop production can result in soil carbon loss from direct and indirect land use changes and significantly affect the net amount of CO2 removed by BECCS. In addition, land rights of farmers & ranchers should be considered as important challenges as well.
  • Cost of Ethanol Production: Depending on a cost of a barrel of oil and production cost of gasoline refining, ethanol can either increase or slightly decrease the cost of a gallon of gasoline.

Overall, even though the U.S has a large potential for geological storage sites, there is still a need for transportation systems for either biomass or CO2 for the large-scale deployment of BECCS. Also, concerns associated with the land, water, and fertilizer use that would be required at the large-scale deployment of BECCS make the long-term economic viability of this technology uncertain. Tax incentives such as 45Q might cover some parts of the related costs, however, the health, environmental, and economic impacts of this project on the society is still unclear as well.

Overly optimistic assumptions about quickly achieving negative emissions on a large scale are dangerous. The world carbon budget is running out for 2 degree Celsius and we have already used the 1.5 degree’s carbon budget. While investments in BECCS are needed, these technologies do not give us a license to postpone eliminating emissions from other sources. And BECCS is only a solution if sustainable agriculture practices are employed, CO2 emissions are permanently sequestered and not used for oil recovery, and project sites are carefully selected to reduce emissions from transportation.
Continue Reading »

On Monday, July 30, 2018, Public Citizen and the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition submitted comments to the NRC on an application from Holtec seeking a license to put an “interim” storage site for the nation’s deadly high-level radioactive waste, which they anticipate will be for 120 years.  An unsafe, de facto permanent dump site could be created and the waste might never move again if there is no political will or inadequate funding in the future for a permanent waste site. The company plans to transport 10,000 canisters of irradiated reactor fuel rods from around the county and store them near the surface in New Mexico, inviting disaster and creating massive risks. This is more waste than has been created by all U.S. nuclear reactors to date.

“There is everything to lose with this plan to bring the nation’s high-level radioactive waste to New Mexico. The risks to health, safety, security and financial well-being are immense and people need to act now to stop this massive mistake that imperils people in New Mexico as well as along transport routes throughout the country,” said Karen Hadden, director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition, who has been working with local opposition groups for months opposing this application and a similar one just across the border in Andrews County, Texas.

The application has been assigned docket number NRC-2018-0052-0058.  We have heard thousands of comments were submitted in opposition to this license application, but expect it will be some time before NRC’s website reflects the actual number of comments submitted, so don’t be fooled by the low number of comments reported on the website.  We had 10,561 people submit comments via our action page and thousands signed comment letters that were submitted by local New Mexican citizens.  On Tuesday after the comment deadline, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson told a reporter with the Santa Fe New Mexican that they had received more than 2,300 public comments – the overwhelming majority in opposition to the project, but they wouldn’t have a definitive tally for a few weeks.

The application for the site in Andrews, Texas by Waste Control Specialists (WCS) has been resubmitted after the company was bought by private equity firm J.F. Lehman & Co. this Spring and is moving forward.  We expect to be submitting comments for that application by the end of the year.

Earlier this month, I visited Exploration Green, a former golf course that local residents have helped to transform into a storm water detention basin and green space.

Located in Clear Lake, TX, Exploration Green finished its first phase in March 2018, and has 3 more phases to go. Yet even before Phase 1 was completed, Exploration Green is already paying off for residents of Clear Lake.

Hurricane Harvey

Rains from Hurricane Harvey hit the Clear Lake area strongly, and the detention basin, then under construction, held 100 million gallons of rainwater and prevented about 150 homes from being flooded. Exploration Green serves as a model for what Houston and other flood-prone areas can do to manage storm water.

Wetland Restoration

Profound development in the greater Houston area led to the loss of 20% of Harris County’s freshwater wetlands between 1990 and 2010, a loss of 15,855 acres. And as Harris and surrounding counties continue to be developed, more and more freshwater wetlands will be lost.

Wetlands serve an important function. They clean polluted runoff that enters Galveston Bay, and without them, the health of Galveston Bay will suffer.

Exploration Green has been working with Texas A&M’s Texas Coastal Watershed Program to design and build storm water wetlands that can enhance the environment and provide habitat for the many creatures that call the Clear Lake area home.

Putting It All Together

A recent report in the journal PLOS ONE states that the cost of flooding along the Gulf Coast will range from $134 and $176 billion by 2030, and the annual risk of flooding in the region is expected to more than double by 2050. This is due to climate change, land subsidence, and the concentration of assets in the coastal zone.

Nature-based solutions like the storm water detention basins and wetlands at Exploration Green are a cost-effective way to help mitigate flooding in communities in Houston. Communities can and should used them alongside policy measures and other infrastructure improvements to enhance our resilience to floods.

Carbon Engineering’s direct air capture facility sucks CO2 directly from the atmospheric air. – Carbon Engineering

To maintain climate, we need to cut greenhouse gas – especially carbon – emissions down to zero. The more greenhouse gases that are released, the hotter our planet will be. If we are seeking to keep the global temperature below 1.5-2 degree Celsius, we need to find a way to reduce CO2 emissions. Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a technology which sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere by using large fans that move air through a filter to generate a pure CO2 stream. Depending on the application of the captured CO2, DAC can be either a “carbon recycling” or “carbon removal” technology. Carbon recycling refers to the process of using CO2 produced by DAC as fuel, or in other ways which will release CO2 back into the atmosphere, such as to carbonated beverages. Carbon removal requires CO2 to be stored underground or used in materials that do not allow CO2 to be released into the atmosphere, such as in cement or plastics.

DAC Carbon Recycling Case Study: Carbon Engineering

Recently, “Carbon Engineering,” a Canadian-based company leading the commercialization of direct air capture technology, have been working on Air to Fuels project, which uses renewable electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and then combines it with CO₂ captured from the atmosphere to use it as an input to produce synthetic fuels that can substitute for diesel, gasoline, or jet fuel. DAC’s cost at a commercial scale is not exactly determined yet. However, the latest estimate cost announced by Carbon Engineering is a range cost from $94 to $232 per ton for capturing CO2 and they hope to produce fuels from the Air2fuel project for less than $1.00 per litter, once it scaled up.

DAC Carbon Removal Case Study: Climeworks

Direct air capture unit along with the cooling towers of the geothermal power plant in Hellisheidi, Iceland. (Climeworks/Zev Starr-Tambor)

Swiss firm Climeworks recently launched the world’s first “commercial” direct CO2 capture plant at Hinwil, Zurich. Climeworks has been working on CO2 for carbonated drinks and renewable fuels project through the partnership with CarbFix which working on the project of dissolving CO2 into drinking water. Also, the Gebrüder Maier fruit and vegetable company uses the captured CO2 to boost the growth of cucumbers, tomatoes, and aubergines in its large greenhouses. However, the most interesting project which is designed to be a carbon removal project is happening right now! Climeworks recently launched a pilot project in Iceland which is a geothermal power plant with direct air capture technology. The facility is capturing 50 metric tons CO2 from the air each year, which is equivalent to a single U.S household or 10 Indian households. The CO2 captured in order to convert the emissions into stone. Thus, they’re making sure that CO2 doesn’t escape back into the atmosphere for the next millions of years.

Climeworks / Julia Dunlop Carbon capture from ambient air goes commercial

Pros of DAC:

  • Full-scale operations are able to absorb significant amounts of carbon, is equivalent to the annual emissions of 250,000 average cars
  • DAC system can be sited anywhere which reduce the cost of transporting CO2 to the sequestration sites
  • DAC can be scaled easily and has a relatively small land footprint in comparison to other carbon removal technologies such as Bioenergy Carbon Capture Storage (BECCS)
  • DAC system produces fuels with 100x less land use footprint and less water use than biofuels.

Cons of DAC:

  • Energy Intensive: Direct air capture is a fairly energy intensive process because the concentration of CO2 in ambient air is relatively low. Separating CO2 from the air is challenging since it takes a significant amount of energy and air to separate and concentrate CO2 in the atmosphere. Thus, large volumes of air must be processed in order to collect meaningful amounts of CO2
  • Very Expensive: Currently, it is not a financially viable option because it is very expensive. The cost of CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranges between $94 and $232 per ton according to Carbon Engineering estimate
  • Water consumption concern: One study estimates for removing 3.3 gigatons of carbon per year, DAC could expect to use around 7.925e+13 gallons of water per year (assuming current amine technology, which is what Climeworks uses). This is equivalent to 4% of the water used for crop cultivation each year. Carbon Engineering using sodium hydroxide that would use far less, but this, in turn, is a highly caustic and dangerous substance
  • Revenue Opportunities: Revenue opportunities for DAC carbon removal systems depend on carbon markets and regulations. Without high enough carbon prices, DAC systems are likely to find the largest revenue opportunities by providing CO2 for manufacturing fuels, enhanced oil recovery, greenhouses and carbonated beverages, as DAC systems can be sited anywhere.

Climeworks direct air capture plant founders Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher onsite. Climeworks / Julia Dunlop

Policy Approach:

There have been some policies that provided a shift toward greater development and deployment of carbon dioxide removal and recycling. In February 2018, the U.S budget bill passed by Congress which extends and reforms the federal Section 45Q tax credit. 45Q provides credits for businesses that use CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and for CO2 injection into underground geologic formations. Mostly, the 45Q tax credits benefits fossil fuels industry. Based on the bill, any new fossil-fuel power plant or carbon-dioxide producing industry that commences construction before 2024 is eligible for tax credits for up to 12 years. The tax credits offered up to $35 per metric ton of carbon dioxide captured if the CO2 is put to use (pushing out oil from depleting fields is the most popular use) or up to $50 if it is simply buried in underground storage. Hence, the bill benefits fossil fuels companies at a lower cost of carbon capture and help fossil fuels companies expand oil production, and continue to build coal plants. Thus, the carbon removal companies are not willing to sequestrate carbon when there is a market for selling it. The only way to make money off sequestration is if the government is directly subsidizing it or if there is an extremely high carbon price. Currently, there is no carbon price anywhere in the world great enough to make sequestration profitable. At present, carbon is trading at a low price in the global market compared to the cost of storing it underground.

However, tax credits could make negative emission projects more financially attractive and more economically viable. Based on the incentives provided by 45Q bill, direct air capture could be a critical tool for CO2 removal since it has a countless potential for removing carbon and reuse it. Since the high cost of the technology in pilot projects has been an obstacle to a large-scale implementation, hopefully, new regulations and tax credits such as 45Q bill ease the process and lower the costs. Although the tax credit will not cover the full cost of these technologies, it will make a noticeable reduction in the operating cost.

Tax credits and regulations mean greater opportunities for developers and suggest positive movement in wider efforts to stem climate change, as carbon capture and storage is widely considered to be a significant element of addressing climate change. Recently, several private investors and fossil fuels companies have started investments in DAC technology. Especially, the oil and coal industry since the captured CO2 can be used for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR). However, utilizing DAC technology to develop EOR would neutralize any efforts regarding climate mitigation actions.

Direct air capture could hold the promise of capturing CO2 from the atmosphere. However, since there is an economic benefit of using CO2 to make fuels or for enhanced oil recovery, fossil fuels industry are making money off the technology. In a time that there is relatively little carbon budget left to keep the world temperature below 1.5C or 2C, nations need to focus on cutting CO2 emissions rapidly by shifting their reliance away from fossil fuels to the renewable energy, in particular. Continue Reading »

The Texas Hill Country is 18,000 square miles of natural wonders, economic resources, and a cherished way of life. In this unique place, the boom of construction and growth is sweeping in. In fact, Comal County is now the second fastest growing county in the United States.

Unfortunately, the Hill Country’s natural resources and beauty are endangered by the aggressive aggregate industry seeking air quality permits for quarries and cement plants throughout the region. The aggregate industry includes concrete batch plants, rock crushing operations, and hot mix asphalt plants. The 17-county expanse of the Hill Country is located just to the north and west of fast-growing San Antonio, Austin, and the rapidly urbanizing Interstate Highway 35 corridor connecting these cities. Many unincorporated areas of the Hill Country are now in the crosshairs of the demands of the aggregate and concrete industry, putting public health and natural resources at risk.  

In 2017, Vulcan Construction Materials (VCM) submitted a permit application to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to convert Comal County’s “White Ranch”, a 1500-acre parcel of pristine ranchland between Bulverde and New Braunfels, into a limestone rock crushing plant.

(The proposed site will reside amongst 6,000 properties and have about 12,000 residents within a 5-mile radius. Vulcan Quarry -center)

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It is never comforting to see the words “lost” and “radioactive material” appear in the same sentence. But, somewhere in West Texas, a seven-inch steel rod containing a mixture of americium-241 and beryllium is rolling around lost among the purple sage.  Halliburton misplaced the radioactive rod somewhere between Pecos and Odessa on September 11, 2013 and we have not seen any reports that it was ever recovered.

But wait, there is more.

A transport carrying 22 tons of low-level radioactive waste in route to the WCS low level radioactive waste site just outside of Andrews, Texas was lost for nearly a month in 2001. This waste was later found abandoned on a north Texas cattle ranch covered over with dirt. The driver of the transport was nowhere to be found.

And more . . .

Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio, Texas, in March 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there and ensure that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands. While in Texas, their car was broken into and the radioactive chemical elements were stolen. The experts, brought the samples of plutonium and cesium to compare with the material they had come to recover. After spending the night in a hotel off of Loop 410 in San Antonio, they awoke to find their car window had been smashed and the testing material was gone. More than a year after the incident, the material is still missing. No public notice was made after the substances disappeared, and officials still are not commenting on the missing radioactive material. In fact the public knew nothing about this incident until the Houston Chronicle and the Center for Public Integrity reported on the story earlier this week on Monday.

So why are we writing about these incidents?  These are terrifying because they were probably not a carefully planned terrorist attack, but rather more likely a comedy of errors.  What you should find even more terrifying is the speed at which the license permitting process for not one, but two “interim” high-level radioactive waste storage sites is progressing.

Holtec is seeking a permit for “interim” storage of the nation’s deadly high-level radioactive waste in Southeast New Mexico, just outside of Hobbs.  The permit is for temporary storage which it defines as 120 years.  But looking past the license parameters, a commercial, unsafe, and de facto permanent dump site could be created, where the waste might remain forever if there is no political will to move it or if there is inadequate funding to do so.

WCS, Waste Control Specialists, in Andrews, Texas is also seeking a similar permit to store high-level radioactive waste at their site, since their successful bid to store low-level radioactive waste turned out to be not as lucrative as they had hoped.

The two companies plan to transport around 14,000 canisters of irradiated reactor fuel rods from around the country and store them slightly below or on the surface in these two states a mere 60 miles apart, inviting disaster and creating massive risks. This is more deadly waste than has been created by all U.S. nuclear reactors to date and many New Mexicans and Texans would be affected by its relocation and transport, not to mention the communities around the country along the transport routes from the 104 nuclear power plants throughout the United States.

Holtec’s permit application is a bit further along than WCS’s (who pulled their permit from consideration during negotiations to sell the company back in the Spring) and you will have one last chance to submit comments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regarding the Holtec application.  Comments are due by July 30, 2018, and can be made online at NoNuclearWaste.org or https://action.citizen.org/p/dia/action4/common/public/?action_KEY=13813

We expect the NRC will begin public hearings and take public comments for the WCS application in the next couple of months and will let you know how to submit those comments at that time.

In the meantime, Congressman Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, has written a letter to U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry demanding answers about the undisclosed amounts of plutonium and cesium stolen from the backseat of the vehicle in San Antonio.  Castro also asked for a list detailing all incidents in the past five years of missing radioactive materials in Texas. He asked for written answers to his questions, as well as an in-person briefing for himself and other members of Congress. So we may be hearing about additional incidents in the coming months.

So if you find the three incidents of missing radioactive waste disturbing, when there is currently little transportation of such materials, just think about what could go wrong with thousands of metric tons of high-level radioactive waste crossing the country.  Whether you live in New Mexico, Texas, near a nuclear plant or anywhere along a highway or rail line that could be transporting this waste, you should have a say in this plan.  Your only opportunities are upon us now.

Taking a Stand

On Friday, June 2, 2017, Mayor Mike Rawlings released a statement in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement regarding reducing global warming emissions. Under the title of “Dallas will continue to be a leader on climate action,” the Dallas Mayor noted:

“Climate change should not be a partisan issue.  I disagree with any decision that undermines our nation’s leadership role in the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Dallas is a leader in emissions reduction efforts, and we have had significant success in reducing our carbon footprint. I am asking our staff to continue to develop and maintain programs that improve regional air quality, reduce carbon emissions and otherwise address climate change.  This is a common-sense approach that is good for our citizens, our businesses and our planet.”

The Dallas Mayor’s statement came on the heels of 406 Mayors, representing 70 million Americans across the country, as they committed to adopt, honor and uphold the Paris Climate Agreement goals.  These Mayors all made a commitment to intensify efforts to push for new action to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) reduction target, and work together to create a 21st century clean energy economy.

Other Texas Mayors that signed onto the 2017 Climate Mayors agreement included Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio, Mayor Sylvester Turner of Houston, Mayor John Thormaides of San Marcos, and Mayor Scott Saunders of Smithville.

 

Texas Cities at Work

Today, San Antonio is in the midst of working on their first climate plan.   Austin was ahead of the curve, having started working on a climate plan in 2014, long before the Paris Agreement, setting a goal of achieving net-zero community wide emissions by 2050.

 

Dallas Needs to Develop a Stand Alone Climate Plan with a Net Zero Goal

Dallas is in the midst of finishing its third global warming emissions inventory.  The first inventory the city conducted was an assessment for the years 1990 through 2005.  Dallas’ second inventory, which was taken from 2006 to 2010, illustrated a 7% reduction in community-wide greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, meeting the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement signed in 2006.

When Dallas completes its latest and third inventory, it will determine if the city met its goal of a 39% reduction by 2017.   From there a new “stand alone climate plan” with a “net zero” goal should be adopted by the Mayor and City Council; and Dallas should take the necessary steps to meet that goal.

 

Dallas Can Take Credit for Recent Initiatives in a Climate Plan

Dallas can take credit for its latest inventory along with projects recently put forward such as its Resiliency plan, its adoption of new building codes, green procurement and energy efficient programs and its commitment to purchase electric vehicles when the City decides to take on designing its “stand alone climate plan.”  Dallas has also purchased 100% renewable energy credits, but purchasing actual renewable energy would be even better.

Now is the time, as the City finishes its most recent emissions inventory, to put these recent measures and others into a plan that will help Dallas achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or some other date certain.

 

Advancing Dallas As a Leader – Leaving a Legacy for the Future

Without a stated net zero goal set with a projected date for achieving that goal and supported with a detailed action plan, Dallas cannot be certain it is doing all it can to achieve to combat climate change.  

Mayor Rawlings did the right thing by signing onto the Mayors Climate agreement. As he enters his last year in office, we have the opportunity to make his goal to advance Dallas as a leader in mitigating the effects of climate change a reality and an important part of his legacy.  Now is the time for Dallas to take the next step with a “net zero” plan to show it is doing all it can to secure a cleaner, brighter future for its citizens and generations to come.

 

As if the relentless heat wasn’t enough this summer, Austin is experiencing hazy skies due to an African dust cloud originating in the Saharan desert. The dust was most noticeable on Sunday, July 1. The technical term for this dust is “fine particulate matter,” particles that are so small they can travel from our lungs into our blood stream, causing health problems. An individual particle is 1/20th the width of a human hair. 

The Clean Air Act establishes standards for fine particulate matter (also known as “PM2.5” because it is 2.5 microns in diameter) in the air we breathe. PM2.5 is measured in micrograms per meter cubed, a measurement of how much material is found in a given volume of air. The Environmental Protection Agency has established limits of PM2.5 at 35 μg/m³ in a 24 hour period and 12 μg/m³ in an annual average. If an air monitor exceeds that level of PM2.5, then the region it monitors risks being designated in “nonattainment” of the federal standard. There are currently no areas in Texas in nonattainment of the PM2.5 standard, though there are several areas in nonattainment of the ozone pollution standard.

Unfortunately, the Austin area got very close to violating the PM2.5 standard on Sunday. The table below lists hourly monitor values at the Zavala air monitor in Austin (you can see a map of all the air monitors in Texas here). As you can see, the 24-hour average of monitor values at Zavala on July 1 was 32.5 μg/m³, very close to the EPA’s standard of 35 μg/m³.

Data available from TCEQ

This does not mean, though, that Austin risks falling out of attainment of the fine particulate matter standard. There are a few reasons for this. First, measuring compliance with the standard is a complex calculation that involves averaging three years of air monitoring data. Second–and more importantly for air quality this week–African dust is considered an “exceptional event” that would be excluded from the data anyway.

An exceptional event is an air pollution event that is excluded from the data because it meets certain criteria. The EPA establishes the criteria for an air pollution event to be considered exceptional. These criteria include that “the event is associated with a measured concentration in excess of normal historical fluctuations, including background.” 40 CFR § 50.14(c)(3)(iv) (emphasis added).

African dust has been reaching Texas since time immemorial, and the impact of these events on air quality in Texas is absolutely part of the normal historical fluctuations of weather and air quality. In fact, the phenomenon was first identified by a noted historical figure, Charles Darwin, during his famous trip aboard the H.M.S. Beagle in 1833.

You might think that the considerable historical record on African dust events would cause EPA to reject their exclusion from the data on the basis that they are, after all, well within “normal historical fluctuations.” You would be wrong. The truth is that Texas has a long history of claiming exceptional events that include African dust storms. Other typical exceptional events in Texas include agricultural fires in Mexico (as old as agriculture) and ozone pollution blowing in from other countries (also Mexico, also old).

Why does this matter? Most importantly, air pollution is linked to public health. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory ailments such as asthma and COPD are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. We have to keep our air clean to keep ourselves healthy. But nonattainment designations have consequences for a region that can last for decades and cost billions of dollars. Houston and Dallas, for example, have been trying to get into attainment of the ozone standard for decade. It’s why we have emissions tests for our cars, and why we can’t build a new factory without reducing pollution from an existing one. The consequences are so great precisely because the impact on human health is so serious. Asthma is the number one cause of school absences. Globally 7 million people die each year from air pollution.

So the purpose of a nonattainment designation is to make our air healthier and protect ourselves and our children. Unfortunately, in Texas, the focus is on avoiding nonattainment designations and their consequences to big business. Several times in the last few years, Texas has used the exceptional events rule to keep areas artificially in attainment of air pollution standards. In 2013, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality plainly stated that it was excluding enough exceptional events from Houston’s data to keep the area from being desingated under the fine particulate matter standard. Several air quality advocates (including myself) objected to this move. We even pointed to Charles Darwin’s observations as evidence that Texas could not exclude African dust events from its data.

Our objections were ignored by Texas and EPA. The result today is that thousands of people are breathing air that does not meet federal pollution standards. Their health will suffer as a result. Some people will even die. There are quantifiable consequences to these decisions, and they are measured in human lives.

Since the 2013 move to avoid designating Houston as not meeting the PM2.5 standard, several other exception event exclusions have kept areas of Texas artificially in attainment of pollution standards. El Paso doesn’t meet the ozone standard, but exceptional events blamed on Mexico in 2015 have helped the area to avoid a nonattainment designation. More recently, the failure to designate San Antonio as not meeting the ozone pollution standard was blamed on ozone transport from other regions.

In some cases, Texas is using the law correctly to exclude exceptional events. (Houston’s lack of a PM2.5 designation is not one of these cases. We still maintain that it was done improperly and in violation of the exceptional events rule and the spirit of the Clean Air Act.) But even if the state is legally correct in its maneuvers, it’s doing so at the cost of human health. When the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality relies on tricks of data manipulation to avoid federal scrutiny, it is prioritizing business interests over people. A nonattainment designation has consequences for business and industry: old plants have to clean up, new plants have to invest in clean tech. These consequences do reach into the billions of dollars. The total cost of compliance with the Clean Air Act in 2020 is estimated to be $65 billion. But the health benefits of cleaner air in 2020 is estimated at $2 trillion. That’s a return on investment of more than 30 to 1.

Notably, more and more of our air pollution is coming from vehicles. When you register your vehicle, you pay a fee that is used in part to reduce vehicle pollution. When you get your car inspected and make any improvements needed to meet emissions standards, you are investing in clean air. Texas makes sure that you pay your fair share of the cost of reducing air pollution, and you should be happy to do so. After all, it is an investment in your health and your children’s future.

So why does Texas keeping fighting against Clean Air Act regulation? It’s a question of priorities. Much of the cost of compliance is born by industry, especially the oil and gas industry. That’s a powerful lobby in Texas, far more powerful than children who can’t go to school because of chronic asthma attacks. Texas is willing to skirt some regulations in order to save money for industry. It isn’t willing to invest in environmental improvements that pay huge dividends to its people in the long term.

Industry profits today, or public health tomorrow. Texas has made its choice. What’s yours?

Students and faculty at universities across the United States have been at the forefront of implementing solar energy at their schools. And for good reason, with increasing attendance at colleges and universities, it is a growing concern to many that these institutions be environmentally conscious.

So what makes solar energy remarkable?

Solar energy has seen increased popularity among institutions due to its ability to “pay back” to an institution over time. Once initial installation costs have been paid, an institution which chooses to adopt solar energy can then save money by not having to buy energy from an electric company. With solar panels warrantied at 25-years, the institution can reap the reward of solar energy payback for several years. Not only do solar panels make for a smart investment over time, they have low maintenance and repair costs.

Although there are several advantages with the use of solar energy, there can also be administrative and fiscal challenges in the push for renewable energy in the form of solar power. For many of those pushing to implement renewable energy at their own universities, and even wider community, it can be asked: “How did they do it?”

The following universities have excelled in the realm of implementing solar energy:

Stanford University, Stanford CA:

In 2009, Stanford began their renewable initiative by launching their “Energy and Climate Action” which planned to transition away from using 100% fossil fuels. Since 2009, Stanford has transitioned to using 65% of its total electric use to renewable sources. Of the renewable energy used by Stanford, 50% of it comes from solar energy. Stanford has been able to provide 200 kWh of solar electricity to its campus by use of both onsite roof top solar along with offsite solar power procurement:

  • The onsite rooftop solar can be found on 16 various locations on campus, and accounts for 2% of solar energy produced.

    One of Stanford’s on-site installations

  • The offsite solar power procurement is where Stanford is able to get 48% of its solar electricity. The project is a part of a partnership with SunPower, a solar panel manufacturer and contractor. The offsite solar array is a 67 megawatt plant and is comprised of 155,000 panels, located in the Mojave Desert. This array is considered an “individual model”, meaning it provides electricity to Stanford University exclusively.

    Stanford’s off-site solar panel array

Stanford leases the panels from SunPower, and initial costs required by the initiative were allocated from the university’s annual facilities budget.

George Washington University & American University, Washington DC:

In June of 2014, George Washington University and American University created a partnership called the “Capital Partners Solar Project”. This partnership would make the large-scale implementation of solar energy fiscally possible. As a result, 52 megawatts of energy are provided by Duke Energy Renewables to both AU and GWU. The energy is produced off-site in North Carolina electric grid. The universities get the financial benefits from the energy produced.

George Washington University and American University Presidents announce plans for a joint solar energy initiative between universities.

  •  American University:

American University is the first university in the United States to become “Carbon Neutral”. Meaning, AU has achieved net zero greenhouse emissions. Electricity used at AU comes from 100% renewable sources, 50% of which comes from the Capital Partners Solar Project solar energy deal.

  • George Washington University:

Along with American University, George Washington University also receives 50% of its electricity from the solar energy deal. The solar panels aren’t present on campus due to lack of space required for energy demands. The desire by students for solar power, along with administrative support, paved the way for the partnership for solar energy with American University. The partnership gave the perfect opportunity to increase renewable energy consumption and do so more affordably.

Even for schools without large endowments, solar energy can still be made financially feasible:

Huston-Tillotson University, TX:

Funding can be a huge obstacle in the push for solar, as initial installation costs can be huge. In Texas, many schools have used a number of local renewable energy incentives to afford the initial costs of solar.

Huston-Tillotson University, a small private university in Austin, Texas has installed a 240 kWh array, which has 736 panels. The university has a student body population of just under 1,000 students. With a small student body, the university wanted to incorporate green energy while also being cost effective.

Huston-Tillotson University leases it’s solar panels through Freedom Solar, a local Austin manufacturer.

Huston-Tillotson was able to finance their solar array will no upfront costs. The university was able to make installing solar panels a possibility by earning PBIs (performance based incentive credits) offered by the City of Austin, along with the commercial VoS (Value of Solar), which is rate Austin Energy uses to compensate customers for the value of the energy the panels produce. These two revenue streams from Austin Energy (the city-owned utility) equal at least what HT pays for the lease on the solar installation.

Karen Magid, director of STEM and Sustainability at Huston-Tillotson, stated a to two-prong approach was used when giving the pitch for solar energy. The first, that green energy would pay back to the university over time and allow them to discontinue purchasing electricity from the grid. Second, the use of green energy is a major selling point to environmentally conscious prospective students. HT is able to boast more solar panel energy per student than fellow Austin area universities: The University of Texas, St. Edward’s, and Concordia.

25 years ago, Texas electricity prices were skyrocketing because overbudget and unneeded nuclear plants were being brought online. It was generally believed that competition among electric generators would lower costs and pollution. That thesis has come true. Natural gas producers claimed building a lot of new natural gas plants would reduce electricity costs. Advocates for renewable energy and energy efficiency believed that an open market would create new market opportunities in which they have thrived.

Therefore, the Texas electric market was deregulated and split into three parts. The generators and retailers would compete based on costs but the distribution and transmission system, which provides the poles and wires on which our energy is transmitted, would remain regulated. In order to avoid conflicts of interest the rules governing deregulation clearly divided the market into those that generated electricity and those who distributed it. The rules clearly said that generators produced the energy- and that transmission and distribution companies could not.

This made sense about 25 years ago, but time has shown us that the system is out of balance, and the only time the generators really make money is when it is really hot or cold. On a daily basis the amount of energy we use swings wildly from late at night when the winds blow hard to hot afternoons when every generator is needed. As result we have a lot of wasted power produced to balance these swings. This systemic imbalance results in a lot of unneeded costs to consumers including pollution and overbuilding of poles and lines to deliver energy at times of peak demand.

Storing excess energy in big electric batteries can provide a third leg to the stool and balances out the swings while reducing costs and pollution. This isn’t new technology. We’ve been storing energy in car batteries for more than 100 years. But battery technology has changed dramatically over the last decade. The proof is in your pocket. Think about the phone you carried ten years ago. Today’s phone batteries are a fraction of the size and weight and store far more energy for longer than those of 10 years ago. Today’s storage batteries can store renewable energy at a fraction of the cost of upgrading or building transmission or distribution infrastructure. It can also store that excess energy produced by renewables until we need it on hot afternoons, cutting costs for consumers and reducing pollution. Add to that the expected explosion in energy storage provide when millions of electric cars plug into the grid and allow tier batteries to be used to meet short term peaks on a hot summer day.

The rules adopted 25 years ago didn’t envision the dramatic technological changes that have occurred. What we need to do is modify the rules that deregulated the electric industry by allowing batteries to provide energy to reduce costs while making money. That means clearing up the question of who can own storage and how to pay for it.

The Public Utility Commission (PUC) is beginning to hold hearings to resolve this question. There are many solutions being discussed. The basic message is clear. We support storage which will lower costs and pollution and can enable new technologies to thrive.

Public Citizen believes that consumers deserve energy that is reliable, resilient, responsive, modern, clean, and affordable. Energy storage technology is the next big step in reducing pollution and costs from power generation.  If correctly deployed, it will help us avoid expensive and unnecessary buildouts of transmission infrastructure, thus lowering costs for consumers. Storage will also help us to realize the full potential of our renewable energy sources, particularly wind which blows strongest at night and solar which produces energy during the middle of the day and storing it until we need it most in the late afternoon and evening.  We support PUC adopting policies that will reward utilities for investing in energy storage that is cost effective in providing clean, reliable, affordable energy to Texans.

Tom "Smitty" SmithThis guest post was written by Tom “Smitty” Smith, who served as the Texas state director of Public Citizen for 31 years from 1985 until his retirement in early 2017.  For more than four decades, Smitty organized citizens to stand up for their rights in a wide variety of forums. He has worked on energy, environment, ethics and campaign finance reforms.  His passion has been reducing global warming by promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency and cleaner transportation. Many of the programs he promoted have become national and international models.

June 26, 2018
By Briauna Barrera

 

Imagine: You’re walking through your neighborhood one warm summer evening. The sun is sinking into the horizon, and the cicadas are starting their nightly chorus. Bats are swooping in the sky. The scent of a nearby grill lingers in the air. Automated sprinklers and homeowners alike water vibrant green lawns, excess water swirling lazily onto sidewalks and down sewer drains. This is familiar, this is home.

Lawns appeared in England and France in the 1800s as a showcase wealth and nobility. The idea reached the United States through literature and art from England in the late 18th century and was similarly used by landowners to convey their status. In the 1830s and 1840s, as cities in the US become more congested and polluted due to the Industrial Revolution, wealthy families began to move outside the city in order to escape the issues of urbanization. In these new suburban landscapes, the upper class adopted the stylings of the elite in England and France. Then at the beginning of the 20th century, the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Golf Association, and Garden Club Of America encouraged the proliferation of lawns due to its potential as a profitable industry. During this same time, the United States shifted from a producer society to consumer society and much of the individually owned land, especially in cities and suburbs, was no longer needed to produce food for domestic animals or vegetables for the family. Advertising encouraged people to have lawns and buy lawn-care products and by the 1930s, lawns were viewed as a normal and expected feature of middle-class suburban landscapes.

Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, Humphry Repton, 1795

With the economic boom following World War II and the passage of the GI Bill, which allowed returning soldiers to afford college educations and ownership of detached single-family homes, there was a dramatic increase in suburban development. Automobile-centric policy and corporate practices, in large part through lobbying from car manufacturers, also supported the rapid increase in suburban development, as the increase in mass production of cars made them more affordable for private ownership and the drastic expansion of the U.S. highways systems under the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, gave residents an avenue out of deteriorating urban areas into the surrounding suburbs. While white residents fled in droves from cities, known as White Flight, people of color were often prohibited from moving into the suburbs through racists practices such as red-lining. Thus, the sharp rise of suburbia resulted in an increasingly stark urban landscape defined by race and allowed white families to join the middle class and start building generational wealth that that was harder for families of color to obtain. The American lawn became a staple for the well-to-do middle class and continued its legacy of showcasing wealth, status, and consumption.

The Green Revolution, a period of rapid technological advances in agricultural technology and federally-supported agriculture research increased people’s ability to maintain grass lawns in any climate. Now that grass lawns were within reach for families across the nation, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the National Gardening Association (NGA) sought to expand their power and influence through the new patch of empty land surrounding each middle class American home. The NGA did so by hosting garden workshops that educated people on the proper way to grow and maintain lawns, hosting gardening contests, and volunteering within local communities. While gardening groups and clubs shifted their focus to growing ‘victory gardens’ consisting of vegetables to support the wartime effort during World War I, after the war, focus shifted back to growing flowers instead of vegetables and beautification efforts rather than using gardens, lawns, and community spaces for practical measures. Advertisements also ramped up, with ads and articles about gardens starting to appear in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens. Beautification gardening and golf, leisurely and status-laden activities, became available to the middle class who were increasing in numbers in the suburbs and creating a lifestyle in which grass became paramount.


Wizard Power Mower & Lawn Conditioner advertisement, 1953

The commitment of American consumption and advertising resulted in the creation of a financial and laborious expenditure for home-owning Americans who were expected to spend vast amounts of time and money in the upkeep of something that produced nothing. Currently, the average homeowner spends about 70 hours a year maintaining their lawn and Americans households spent around $29.5 billion on lawn care and gardening services in 2015. However, people are not instinctively compelled to care for lawns, at least not when lawns were first introduced, but many people learned “to keep their front yards in presentable condition as dictated by community cleanup campaigns and school programs, as well by advertising. Advertising, as a result of a country driven more and more by consumption and production, manufactured a false need for lawns that came at the consumer’s and the environment’s expense.

Lawns have a distinct impact on the appearance of the American landscape through the introduction of non-native and invasive plants across the United States. Many of the common grasses used for lawns, such as Kentucky bluegrass or Bermuda grass, are not native to the North American continent and were brought over to familiarize the landscapes for colonists, to graze animals that were accustomed to European flora, and by accident, as when grass seeds were present in the hay of livestock on ships. Eventually these non-native grasses became the grasses people used for their lawns. As lawns spread across the United States, so too did invasive and non-native grass species spread. These grass species drove out other, native species of grass, decreasing biodiversity and disrupting the local food webs as a result.

Lawns are an intensive use of resources, especially water. According to the EPA, nationwide use of landscape irrigation makes up approximately one-third of all residential water use, totaling more than seven billion gallons per day, and up to 50 percent of water used for irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, wind, or runoff caused by overwatering. Lawns not only waste resources, but they are also an inefficient use of land. As lawns became more commonplace, it became increasingly taboo for lawns to serve a purpose other than aesthetics. When lawns were first introduced, they served various functions, such as grazing for livestock, but by the 20th century, functionalist lawn us had all but died out. However, lawns take up an estimated 40 million acres of land in the continental United States or almost two percent of surface in the contiguous U.S. If grass were counted as a crop, it would take up three times as much space as irrigated corn.

Lawns maintenance uses an inordinate amount of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. Lawns use about 30,000 tons of pesticides yearly in the United States. However, the effects of  these toxic chemicals do not stop at the land; excess phosphorus and nitrogen runoff from lawn fertilizer enters waterways, and the increased amounts of dissolved nutrients cause algae blooms that siphon oxygen out the affected waterways, asphyxiating fish and causing the larger ecological systems to fail and ultimately eutrophying these waterways. Not only does this destroy the habitat for flora and fauna, disrupt the ecosystems, and lower biodiversity, it also causes “dead-zones” that prevent fishing from taking place and negatively affects water quality, which in turn causes human health issues.

Furthermore the toxicity of these fertilizers can affect other animals indirectly, for example, birds that eat fish or insects that have come into contact with fertilizers are at the risk of contracting pesticide poisoning and dying as a result. Additionally, studies have shown a link between the use of pesticides and colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which bee colonies are abandoned for seemingly no reason. This is problematic because one-third of the food we eat depends on insect pollination, mostly by honeybees at that, and over the last six years, American beekeepers, on average, have lost 30 percent of their hives each winter. With the spread of lawns and the use of pesticides, the health of ecosystems, animals, and humans are all at risk.


A suburb in Bay City, Texas. 

By enforcing a particular landscape aesthetic, it becomes evident that the American lawn forced a cultural homogeneity across different climate zones and different demographics. This particular home landscape aesthetic enforces a hegemonic idea of what American homes can and should look like by catering to the Northeast ideal and climate of landscaping, all the while pushing people who cannot afford  that ideal or do not wish to conform to it to the periphery. This becomes yet another barrier to becoming homeowners, an integral feature to accruing generational wealth.

As the commonality of lawns increased and more and more homes in the suburbs were bought, an increase in private property occurred as undeveloped land was acquired, bought, divided, and sold to families and individuals. Thus, the propagation of lawns also contributed to an increase of privatization. This increase of privatization is problematic because privatization sterilizes culture by taking public space, whether it be physical commons like public parks or digital commons such as TV and radio, and sells them to the highest bidder. As privatization increases, through processes like the acquisition of undeveloped (and unowned) land or of public land and the subsequent development of that land for private purposes, such as creating suburban developments, culture loses to commercial values. The institution of the grassy lawn, driven by those same commercial values, forced out cultural and geographically-specific landscaping methods because it suited the land developers who had vested interest in the lawn maintenance industry.

Lawns are ecologically unsustainable and contribute to the pervasive isolation of people who live in an economic system based on consumption and individualism. Lawns may cause many problems and issues, but they are not the root cause of them. They are microcosms of systematic problems. We need to rethink the way we construct and live in cities, including housing, transportation, and density.

Imagine: You’re walking through your neighborhood one warm summer evening. Native trees cast shade over the wide sidewalks with ample bus-stops on one side and protected bike lanes on the other. You pass one of the many neighborhood parks and see children playing, couples walking hand-in-hand, and families enjoying dinner together. Where lawns were once sprawled out, now stands additional multi-family housing, along with more shade trees, fruit trees, and landscaping full of native plants and flowers. Gardens built with permaculture methods bloom everywhere, full of vegetables and herbs. Butterflies, bees, birds, and bats provide a peaceful, steady hum of life. You pluck a ripe plum, it tastes sweet. This is familiar, this is home.

UPDATE:  The EPA has extended the public comment period for this rule.  You can now submit your comments by an August 23rd deadline:
https://action.citizen.org/p/dia/action4/common/public/…

Last week, I, Stephanie Thomas, Houston Organizer for Public Citizen, joined members of community and environmental groups testifying in opposition to Polluting Pruitt’s proposed rollbacks of the 2017 Chemical Disaster Rule.

The Chemical Disaster Rule helps better protect workers, first responders, and fenceline communities. So what exactly is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gutting?…

Almost all of the disaster prevention measures in the Chemical Disaster Rule.

What’s Being Lost

The repeals mean that industry will no longer be required to invest in third party audits when accidents happen nor will facilities need to conduct a root cause analysis as part of incident investigations following incidents with a catastrophic release or a near miss.

The EPA is merely putting out fires, not working to prevent the fires, explosions, and deaths from happening in the first place.

Safer technologies? The EPA proposal rescinds requirements for certain facilities to complete safer technology and alternatives analyses to minimize the amount of hazardous substances used. Also, they are rolling back demands to use less hazardous substances, incorporate safer designs, and minimize the impact of releases. This seems like a a no-brainer, but unfortunately, these rollbacks toss safer technology out the window.

Even first responders will be losing out. The proposed changes remove a requirement to provide, upon request, information to the public on chemical hazards, including substance names, safety data sheets, accident history, emergency response program information, and LEPC contact information (Under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), Local Emergency Planning Committees (LEPCs) must develop an emergency response plan, review the plan at least annually, and provide information about chemicals in the community to citizens).

Let us remember Hurricane Harvey and its devastating chemical impacts along the Gulf Coast – most notably the explosion at the Arkema facility in Crosby, Texas. Floodwaters caused the backup generator to fail, leading to explosions of unstable organic peroxides and the release of a slew of toxic chemicals, including an unpermitted release of cancer-causing ethylbenzene. Had the 2017 chemical disaster rule been in place, first responders and community members would have had access to safety data sheets providing information for protecting themselves against the harmful chemicals released into the air and water; and would not have had to file lawsuits such as the one filed in Harris County by first responders alleging Arkema failed to take adequate safety steps to secure dangerous chemicals ahead of Hurricane Harvey.

Known Impact to Communities

By the EPA’s own account, more than 150 chemical incidents occur each year. And the agency knows that repealing these rules will hurt minority, low-income communities the most. 

Who benefits? The chemical industry – and all for a measly $88 million per year, a drop in the bucket for these big corporations.  

The EPA only provided one opportunity to testify on the rollbacks to the Chemical Disaster Rule. While I was glad to be able to testify there, that’s not good enough. Because this proposal knowingly harms communities, impacted communities need a seat at the table.

While the EPA leaves out environmental justice communities, industry interests are well-represented within the agency. Several administrators and counselors for the EPA have served as lobbyists and litigators for industry. Just yesterday, the US Senate held a confirmation hearing for DowDupont lawyer Peter Wright, who will likely be leading the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management, which oversees the Risk Management Program.

It’s no accident that these rollbacks are being proposed at a time when industry’s foxes have taken over the henhouse. The EPA should be supporting the health and wellbeing of Texas communities, not padding the profits of corporate polluters.

Petra Nova, the world’s largest post-combustion carbon capture project, has been in commercial operation at the W. A. Parish Plant in Thompsons, Texas, southwest of Houston, since January 2017. The project offers no hope for combating climate change.

Petra Nova Facility

The Parish station has 10 generating units, but only unit 8 has been upgraded with carbon capture technology, and thus, the other 9 units are still emitting CO2. The project was supposed to divert 40% unit’s exhaust into a post-combustion capture (PCC) system, which designed to capture 90% of the CO2 in that stream. However, once the emissions from the gas-fired turbine that powers the carbon capture system and the emissions from the additional petroleum products resulting from enhanced oil recovery are taken into consideration, the total impact of the carbon capture system is actually an estimated 2% increase in CO2 emissions.

The Petra Nova has retrofit cost $1 billion and benefitted from a $190 million Clean Coal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. This huge amount of money has been invested to build a new coal power plant and enhance oil recovery by injecting 5,200 tons of carbon dioxide per day at West Ranch. However, NRG’s CEO has claimed that the Petra Nova CCS project “made both strategic and economic sense at $75 to $100 a barrel” and that “obviously [with West Texas Crude selling for less than US$50 a barrel], it does not currently make economic sense.”

Fossil fuel industries have promoted the use of CCS technology as a solution to enable the continued burning of fossil fuels for electricity generation. The coal industry has been seeking to increase its profit by lobbying Congress to get subsidies even though they are aware of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels on the human health and climate change. Moreover, fossil fuel industries have influenced the EPA to reduce penalties and long-term liability to increase the profitability of CCS projects at the expense of public health and the environment.

Petra Nova Carbon Capture

Health and Environmental Impacts of CCS Technologies Include:

  • Power plants that are capable of capturing carbon require 15-25% more energy than conventional plants in order to capture and store CO2. The mining, transportation, and burning of the additional fuel (usually coal) needed for CCS produces more CO2 emissions.
  • Particulate matter and Nitrogen Oxide are both expected to increase as a result of the additional fuel consumption in order to capture carbon dioxide. Particulate matter is identified by the World Health Organization to be the deadliest form of air pollution as its ability to enter the respiratory system
  • Due to the degradation of the solvents in the process of capturing carbon, Ammonia is expected to increase, which can lead to form particular matter in the atmosphere
  • Possible damages or any leakage in the pipeline or storage reservoir would result in serious environmental impacts
  • Gradual leakage in the storage site can damage fresh groundwater resources if the incorrect storage site is selected or the site is not prepared correctly
  • Injecting CO2 into aquifers can cause acidification of the water and increase its ability to break down the surrounding rocks, aggregate the potential for leakage into the soils or water table, which could worsen the impact of climate change in ocean sinks as a major reservoir of carbon dioxide.

Since burning fossil fuels is the main reason for global warming, do we really need another coal power plant with CCS capability? Isn’t better to allocate federal tax credits and incentives for building energy storage or solar/ wind farms to generate electricity?

Recently, the average cost of solar energy has decreased by $2.71 to $3.57 per watt and the wind energy cost has dropped to around $30/MWh to $60/MWh in 2017. Solar battery energy storage technologies have also advanced and costs have declined by $400 dollars per kilowatt hour (kWh) to $750/kWh. Therefore, it is more viable and profitable to invest in the clean renewable energy to cut CO2 emissions instead of building new coal power plants with CCS capability.

As a result of a growth in the world population and energy demand, greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and have accelerated climate change. In order to combat climate change, nations must shift their reliance away from fossil fuels to renewable energy instead of applying new technologies to produce “clean coal.” Relying on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies to rescue the world from climate change instead of focusing action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a dangerous gamble.

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