What’s “American Energy?” Consult the Constitution, not the atlas

May 30, 2012

It’s the name of the game.

President Obama is into it – check out his agenda for Securing American Energy.  His opponents are all over it too:  the American Energy Alliance is running ads attacking the President’s energy policy.  But on this much they agree:  American Energy is the good kind.

But how do we know which energy is American?  The distinguishing factor seems to be the physical location where the energy is extracted or collected.  So, oil from Saudi Arabia is not American, but oil from North Dakota is.

It can get a little confusing:  Oil from tar sands in Alberta is North American, so it’s pretty much “American.”  Oil from Venezuela is South American, so it’s not really “American” at all.

But when the President and his opponents pump “American” Energy, they are trying to connect to something more than where the holes get drilled.  They are invoking our national values.  They’re appealing to a word and a symbol – America – the core meaning of which is found not on a map, but in our creed.

So, what if we had an energy policy defined by American values?  What if when we said “American Energy,” what we meant was not lumps of coal or barrels of oil extracted from U.S. soil, but the kind of energy that embodies what it really means to be American?

In that world, American Energy might be about:

Freedom:  We would avoid energy sources like oil that prop up dictatorships and subject Americans to the abuse of concentrated economic power.  Energy efficiency and conservation, in contrast, liberate people from volatile energy costs, market manipulations, and the inexorable price pressure of rising demand for finite resources.  With more efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances, we can do more while using less:  the ultimate energy freedom.

Democracy:  Fossil fuel industries have accumulated unprecedented wealth and power.  Their money pollutes our democracy as aggressively as their emissions pollute our air.  Solar energy, on the other hand, is ubiquitous, and the fuel is free.  The sun delivers more energy in an hour than humans use in a year.  We can collect and finance solar energy together on our homes and businesses.  If we put our energy dollars into solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and public transit, maybe ExxonMobil won’t have enough money to buy so many politicians.  Renewable energy is available everywhere, but its resilience against economic and political tyranny is quintessentially American.

Responsibility:  America pioneered a fossil-fueled path to prosperity, and if the whole world follows it, we are all toast.  So now we can and must blaze a clean energy path to prosperity.  When we do, America can proudly lead the world economy and Americans can do right by our kids.  (The Island President makes an irresistible case for this kind of American energy.)

Dependence on fossil fuels is crippling our nation – bleeding our economy, destabilizing the climate, eroding national security, and undermining our ability to control our institutions.   No matter where they drill and dig, those resources belong to Big Oil and King Coal – not you, not me, not America.

Clean energy, transportation choices, and energy efficiency can free us.  America has what it takes to build a clean energy economy and take back our democracy from the fossil fuel industries who use our energy dollars to corrupt our political process.   We have the resources, the technology, and the ingenuity to control our destiny and build a better future.

That’s American energy.  Fossil fuel addiction is American’t.

(….with props to Van Jones and Rebuild the Dream for the American/American’t bite…..)

The Harder They Come: a rough guide to coal export’s effect on climate

May 24, 2012

Coal export proponents like to argue that, climate-wise, it doesn’t matter:  Asia will burn the same amount of coal regardless of whether we ship it from the Northwest.  This argument is weak because it: a) defies basic economics – see here; b) ignores the x-factor:  economic “lock-in” to dangerous climate disruption – see here; and c) is morally dubious – see here.  So we know coal export is bad for the climate.  Check out Eric de Place’s social math for scale.

It’s true, however, that the Powder River Basin isn’t the only potential source of coal supply for Asia.  Estimating the net emission impact requires some elaborate economics (forthcoming). [i]  But this graph is a rough, directional guide:

Let me explain.

It all comes down to the difference between the cost of producing and transporting Powder River Basin coal and the value of that coal in Asian markets.  That difference appears to be huge.

PRB coal isn’t dirt cheap.  It’s cheaper (than, say, top soil or gravel).  Most of it lies under public land, and the federal government basically gives it away.  Strip-mining is the very definition of quick and dirty – and, yes, super-cheap.  The mine-mouth cost of “producing” PRB coal is in the range of 10-15 bucks a ton.

Transporting it by rail and mega-ship to Asia is much more costly than snatching it from federal land, but there’s still plenty of margin.  Rail costs run about a penny a ton per mile, so that’s maybe another $20 a ton to get it to port.  Throw in say  $15 for ocean shipping, tack on a value-added tax and port fees in China, and we’re looking at maybe $70 per ton delivered cost.

The benchmark thermal coal price in China in January was $115 per ton.  So PRB coal suppliers could significantly undercut the market, and still make a bundle.  This also explains why Asia is “just drooling” for this coal, and why, in turn, Big Coal is drooling to get it there.  Saliva speaks volumes.

The fact that they could sell coal so much cheaper also means that other suppliers would have to lower their prices to remain competitive.  And that would mean even greater increases in emissions, and more irreversible commitments to coal infrastructure.

So, both the potential for profits and the potential for net emission increases depend on the same factor – the amount by which the value of the coal in Asia exceeds the cost of getting it there.  In other words, the coal export business succeeds roughly in direct proportion to how much it disrupts the climate.

That means there is a reliable if not precise way to gauge how big the net emission impacts of coal export would be:  by observing how desperately the coal industry tries to make it happen.  One more walk through the logic:

The harder the coal industry tries to mow down the opposition to coal export, the more we can infer that enormous profits are at stake.  And the size of the prospective profits is directly related to how competitive their coal is in Asia, which is directly related to how cheaply they can deliver it, which is directly related to how much would be burned.

Yup, how bad it would be for the climate is an indirect function of how much the coal industry wants it.  Judging by the money they are throwing at the early rounds of this battle, it’d be real bad.  And, they have warned, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

There is, of course, a corollary conclusion about how we should respond:

We will know that coal export would be okay from a climate perspective when they give up and stop trying to make it happen. 

[i] To calculate the net emission impact you have to assess how big the relevant markets are; how much cheaper this coal is than other available supplies in those markets; and what the “elasticity” of coal consumption is – that is, how much it changes in response to price.  We’re working on it; stay tuned.

The revolutionary thing about zero energy homes: They’re kinda normal.

May 22, 2012

I went on a tour of zHomes expecting to see exotic, futuristic technology and experimental building systems – Tomorrowland stuff.  Their website says:

“zHome is a revolutionary, 10-unit townhome development that uses smart design and cutting edge technologies to radically reduce its environmental impacts.”

Now, I don’t want to screw up their marketing, but the most amazing and inspiring thing about zHomes is that they’re not so whizbang at all.  They’re almost ordinary, in the best possible way.

Yes, they have some construction features that most homes don’t.  Yes, they have solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.  But none of this is eye-poppingly unusual.  I was expecting some kind of high-tech advanced building envelope system, until I walked in and saw the wall cross section display:  a well-insulated 2×6 stud-wall with foam on the outside.  Nice, tight, snug – but nothing fancy.

They have efficient CFL and LED lights – off the shelf; hydronic heating in the slab (hot water in tubes); Energy Star Appliances; energy monitors that are pretty cool but less sophisticated than most video game apps.

The components of a zHome are not unfamiliar.  But the result truly is extraordinary – beautiful, comfortable, affordable homes that use no net energy.  Zip. 

Demonstrating awesome performance, however, does not a revolution make.  The revolution is when everybody starts doing it – when the awesome thing becomes the done thing.

….and lo and behold (CSN fans), “there’s something happenin’ here….”.  What it is is becoming clear.

Brad Liljequist, the Project Manager (and heart and soul) of zHome, says in a terrific post in Dwell:

“Six years ago, when we first started zHome, the concept of true zero energy homes seemed like a far off dream. At about that time, the AIA 2030 Challenge was being championed with a vision for zero energy, zero carbon buildings being mainstream by 2030. At the time that seemed like an aggressive, if not impossible goal. Now, I personally think that timeline is too far out in the future.

Today I see breakthroughs happening everywhere. Numerous buildings, like the Bullitt Center and the Seattle Center House of the Future, are … showing deep green buildings in other contexts. But these high profile efforts are also paralleled by a realignment in more basic, mainstream building as well. Built Green 5 Star homes and LEED Platinum buildings are moving out of the “rare” category and popping up with greater frequency.”

Commercial sector greening too…

Meanwhile, McGraw-Hill Construction reports that the share of green buildings in the commercial sector will rise from 2% in 2005 to 48% by 2015.  Stephen Lacey at ThinkProgress reports that the industry will have to scramble to build up a qualified workforce fast enough to keep up with the demand.  These are the right problems to have.

The Bullitt Center is going to change the game — again, not just by demonstrating what’s possible, but by pushing what’s possible toward what’s done.  Stay tuned….

Coal Industry to Northwest: “Back away from your future. Resistance is futile.”

May 20, 2012

Talk about a good way to ruin that first Sunday morning cup of coffee….

Seattle woke up today to a litany of coal export insults, front page in the Seattle Times:  “…an explosion of diesel exhaust”; “… long, traffic-snarling trains”; “…more accidents and marine vessel groundings”; “…poison aquatic food webs.”

….and that’s before the story turns to “the most far-reaching issue:  the potential effect new markets for coal could have on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Oregon, Washington, and many local governments insist that the federal government take a comprehensive look at the issue, including the climate impacts.  One way or the other, decisions about coal export amount to fateful climate policy decisions.  Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber said, in his strongly worded letter to the feds:

“In the absence of a clear federal policy on this point, we will simply be deciding by not deciding.”

“Deciding by not deciding” is, of course, exactly what the coal industry proposes.  The last thing they can afford is a conscious decision, on the merits, in full view of all the facts.  When asked about a review of climate impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act, coal industry analyst Andy Robert said,

“…[NEPA is] a national – not an international – act.  I think people against this kind of development will reach for any lever they can pull.”

Yes, these “people” are ruthless.  That crafty and devious Governor Kitzhaber will stoop so low as to invoke the National Environmental Policy Act as a way of analyzing the gravest environmental threat ever to face the nation.  And that’s just the camel’s nose.  What will they do next?  Pass a law against free and unlimited dumping of carbon emissions into the atmosphere?  They must be stopped!

The coal industry’s strategy is clear:  convince us that we are powerless, so we might as well just roll over and turn the Pacific Northwest into a conveyor belt for their “bulk commodity.”  They try to avoid saying “coal” because that just leads to discussions of mercury poisoning and asthma and acid rain,…and then, inevitably, you know, climate disruption.  And everybody knows we can’t fix that.  It’s a global thing.  Let the global people worry about it.

So, c’mon Northwest, lighten up.  Just take the path of least resistance and don’t look at the climate reality, because you can’t do anything about it any way.  The best policy for dealing with intractable evil is simple:  See no evil!

And remember, Big Coal warns ominously, WE CAN DO THIS THE EASY WAY, OR WE CAN DO IT THE HARD WAY.

“The industry is geared up for a long fight, and in the end I think there will be ports developed,” says coal industry analyst Michael Dudas.  “How long that will take and how extensive it will be…that is yet to be determined.”

Let’s see….When does Hell freeze over?

President Obama and the ecosystem of denial

May 17, 2012

America’s resistance to climate reality is like an Altoid Mint: curiously strong.   Nowhere else is denial so rampant, so acceptable and so overrepresented in government.

Call me a romantic (you won’t be the first), but I have to think the President of the United States has a role in battling this national psychosis. 

No, I’m not waiting for the President to ride in on a white horse and make everything right. (I stopped doing that after Copenhagen).  But he shouldn’t allow denialism to flourish in an official Presidential communication void.

….which has been the norm for the better part of President Obama’s first term.  Silence isn’t quite as bad as outright denialism, but the combination of the two has proven lethal to the nation’s climate conversation.  One political party is off in anti-science la-la land, and the other fears (weakly and incorrectly) that climate doesn’t poll well enough to talk about.  They are both filling vital niches in the ecosystem of denial.

Ironically, fossil fuel interests are pushing climate and energy back on to the national agenda, with a firestorm of attack ads on the President.  If anybody has enough money to convince the public that night is day, it’s Big Fossil.  But persuading Americans that clean energy is bad and science is bunk is a tall order.  And by pushing the politicians they support to embrace these extreme positions, they may well be leading their friends in public office to a slaughter.

There’s every reason to believe that political proponents of clean energy and climate reality can win this fight…but only if they’ll fight it.

So it’s encouraging to see the President starting to feel his way back into the politics of climate reality and clean energy.  His political team seems to be sensing the tremendous vulnerability of opponents who deny climate science and cozy up to fossil fuel interests.

You have to hope there is a political price to be paid for militant resistance to facts, especially when the fact in question is a civilization-threatening emergency.  Given the relentless negativity of politics generally and the Citizens United-juiced 2012 cycle in particular, maybe the only open door back to climate reality is the political exposure of those who shun science and shill for fossil fuel interests.

I’ll take it.


Much was made of the President’s remarks on climate in his recent Rolling Stone interview – (too much, in my view, and I’m a glass is 10% full kind of guy.)  But the President’s comments on climate and the Keystone Pipeline are worth discussing.  So I do, here.

Coal export violates Rule 1 for winning the climate solutions game: “Don’t Lose”

May 16, 2012

The climate game is asymmetrical.  Winning it is a long haul; it’ll take 50 years or more of patient investment to unwind ourselves from our fossil fuel infrastructure and build a sustainable energy economy.  It’s great work, but quick it is not.  Losing the game, however, is easy.  We could do it in a heartbeat.  That’s what Jim Hansen’s talking about when he calls tar sands development “game over” for the climate.

And tar sands aren’t the only way to lose.  The single variable that will probably have the biggest impact on the world’s carbon emission trajectory and the fate of the climate is the number of coal-fired power plants that China and India build in the next decade or so.  This factor looms so large because coal plants are so big, so long-lived, and so capital-intensive.  And China and India will build a whole lot of them if they think that’s best way to power economic development for another 1.5 billion people.

A coal plant is a commitment.  You don’t build one (let alone hundreds) unless you’re planning to run them for decades.  So one of the most important questions you ask yourself before plunking down all that capital is:  How much will the fuel cost – not just today, but 10, 20, 30 years from now?  Fuel price forecasting is notoriously risky business, but at a minimum you want to know that there’s a lot of fuel available, and that there will be enough different suppliers to give buyers some competitive leverage.

This is one of the most important reasons why we are compelled to stop coal export from the Powder River Basin (PRB), through Northwest ports, to Asian markets.  The PRB is among the largest coal deposits in the world, and the cheapest to extract.  The all-important question that this coal answers is not “Where will China and India get coal tomorrow?”  The question is “Will China and India have unlimited to access to all the world’s coal supplies, giving them enough confidence in future prices to justify construction of a whole generation of new coal plants?”  And if the answer is yes, well, Jim Hansen’s going to say that scary thing again.


1) Now, we can’t very well say to China and India:  “Sorry, the atmosphere is already full of the carbon that created our prosperity, so you’re out of luck.”  But we also can’t say “Go ahead and build out coal-fired economies; and here, take our coal,” because then we are all toast, scientifically speaking.  The only fair way forward is for the developed economies to pioneer a new, sustainable prosperity that works for us for the long haul and for the billions more who will surely follow the best path to prosperity available to them.  That’s what we’re trying to do in the Pacific Northwest.  And coal export is, well, the opposite of that.

2)  James Fallows and others contend that there’s no way around the coal, so the only hope is rapid development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology.  The jury is out on whether it will prove more cost-effective to clean up an inherently dirty resource, compared to technology that more efficiently and cheaply captures clean energy.  But if you’re betting on CCS, then the LAST thing you want is for a whole new generation of coal plants to be built now, with neither the technical nor the geological requirements for CCS.  If we lock ourselves in to conventional fossil infrastructure now, then breakthroughs in CCS or clean energy technology will be too little, too late.  Opening a mainline from the fastest growing energy markets to the world’s cheapest coal would  encourage exactly that outcome.  The most important and devastating result of siting coal export facilities in the Northwest would be sending a strong economic signal that would make it much more likely that China will develop more coal infrastructure, without CCS, in the next decade.

3) For a nice big elegant picture of the whole climate game, see Design to Win, prepared by California Environmental Associates with the able assistance of many of our favorite certified smart people in 2007…so yeah, it’s a little dated, but still useful.  “First, don’t lose,” is a whole section in that paper.

Sun sun sun, here it comes

May 15, 2012

The mole people of Cascadia began emerging this week, squinting at the bright sun and providing some climate relief by increasing Earth’s albedo as they exposed their pasty skin.  And just as the sun began to peep out, I got my first loan repayment check from the Winthrop Community Solar Project!

Methow Valley community energy goddess Ellen Lamiman spearheaded the project, which attracted 49 investors to finance a 22.8 KW system near the Okanogan Valley Electric Co-op.  The project is going gangbusters, producing enough energy to deliver a 40% ROI by the time the project transfers ownership to the town of Winthrop in 2020.

This past year we’ve seen the most concerted, lavishly-funded attack on clean energy ever.  I guess that means we’ve arrived; clean energy is posing a legitimate threat to fossil fuel dependence-as-usual.  But I don’t think there’s enough money in the world to convince people that accelerating the transition to clean energy is a bad idea.  Not as long as the sun shines and we have people like Ellen building a local culture of responsibility for climate solutions.

Our friends at NW SEED have a terrific Community Solar Guide for the Northwest.  Check it out here, and let it shine.