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Renewable standards turn out to be a bargain

Federal labs finds the costs of RPS are low or negative

Adding renewable electricity to the grid is surprisingly cheap, according to a new study from a pair of federal research labs. The report examined Renewable Portfolio Standards in nearly 30 states, which brought more than 46,000 megawatts of green power on line through 2012, while adding just 2 percent on average to electric bills. Last week, Wisconsin announced that it had met its (rather weak) 2015 standard two years early, but Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich signed legislation suspending his state’s goal of getting 12.5 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2025. As of last year, it had reached just 2 percent.

Coal’s share of world energy use increases–but for how long?

Even as the world coal industry celebrates a 3 percent growth rate in 2013, raising its share of world energy above 30 percent for the first time in 40 years, this week also brought word of two clouds on the horizon. Coal production and profits have been falling, according to this op-ed in the Denver Post heralding “geology’s war on coal.” Meanwhile former Sierra Club chairman Carl Pope sees a different adversary for coal: solar power has shaved peak-hour electricity prices in California, cutting the rates received during summer afternoons by all generators, eviscerating profit margins for coal plants.

Tesla frees its patents, opens door to open-source electric cars

Electric automaker Tesla announced last week it will allow other firms to use its patents in building their own electric vehicles. Commentators were quick to note that the move, unveiled on the Tesla website, isn’t pure altruism, but a nod to the “network effect”—a recognition that Tesla’s prospects improve the more popular electric cars become, supporting a denser infrastructure of charging stations and other support services. Last week Tesla also met with BMW on boosting battery-powered vehicles. Meanwhile, Alcoa announced another approach to making electric vehicles more practical: supplementing a car’s lithium battery with a thousand-mile aluminum-air battery that could kick in on long trips.

Germany pushes frontiers of energy innovation

Volkswagen has just brought a 260-mpg car to market in Germany and Austria, a $150,000 diesel-electric hybrid two-seater called the XL1. It has an all-carbon-fiber body and manual steering to keep its weight to 1,800 pounds, as well as cameras instead of side mirrors to reduce air resistance. Volkswagen is venturing into the home energy market as well, with gas-fired cogeneration units to provide hot water and electricity under remote control to dispatch power to the grid when needed. Germany’s renewable energy economy has generated so much interest that the first printing of a Baedeker guidebook to 200 green-energy sites has already sold out.

Fish are crucial to storing carbon in the deep ocean

Overfishing jeopardizes the ocean’s natural ability to store carbon, according to new research that estimates the importance of deep-sea carbon sequestration. One study showed that bottom fish off Great Britain prey on mid-water species, some of which migrate to the ocean surface at night to feed on plankton. By digesting these traveling fish and returning to the sea floor, the bottom-dwelling fish lock up carbon that would otherwise be released back into the atmosphere. Those fishy meals add up: the Global Ocean Commission report released last week found that the high seas capture over 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, about 5 percent of human CO2 emissions.

Natural gas exports: not as climate-friendly as you’d think

The global warming effects of methane leakage and transportation are so high that it could be decades before there’d be a climate benefit for China to switch from coal to American-sourced natural gas, according to research published last week. The trade-off depends on the leakage rate, because methane is about a hundred times more potent at trapping the earth’s heat than the carbon dioxide reduced by shifting from coal to natural gas. In addition, liquefaction and transportation ups the carbon footprint of liquefied natural gas by 15 percent.

CA sinks cap-and-trade funds into bullet train, other projects

California struck a deal last week to invest $250 million in a bullet train from Los Angeles to San Francisco, using funds raised from the auction of carbon pollution permits under its cap-and-trade system. Energy efficiency, transit-friendly housing and other low-carbon transportation projects also garnered shares of the $870 million expected next year, once motor fuel joins electricity under the carbon cap. Although the system faces pushback (along with Quebec’s) from the fossil-fuel industry, the pact was part of the state’s routine budget process, and fits with a recent poll that two-thirds of Americans are willing to pay more for energy to curb global warming.

Climate is the most divisive issue in modern U.S. history

Opinions on global warming show a sharper partisan divide than gun rights, abortion or the death penalty, according to the New Hampshire Granite State poll. Where 83 percent of Democrats agree with the scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is already underway, only 36 percent of Republicans do. That gulf between D’s and R’s is twice as wide as on legal abortion, and one and a half times as wide as for gun control. As though to underscore this finding, President Obama mocked climate deniers at a commencement address he gave last weekend, likening them to those who’d say the moon is made of cheese.

Federal action on tank-car safety could block oil by rail

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee last week directed state agencies to develop an oil train derailment response plan. Sightline notes that if the US Department of Transportation issued a federal emergency order banning shipments in the unsafe oil cars currently in use—the type involved in the 2013 accident that killed 47 people in Quebec—it would bottle up oil production from the North Dakota Bakken fields. Meanwhile, oil shipments are attracting opposition in the local arena: earlier this month, after six hours of citizen testimony, the Vancouver, WA, City Council voted to oppose what would be the Northwest’s largest oil shipping terminal.

Shifting climate bedevils corn farmers, golfers, map-makers

A warming world will make it harder to raise corn as weather becomes more erratic and groundwater is overpumped, according to a study by Ceres. Preparing for a drier world has also made golf courses scale back on irrigation, leading to less lush links, including the one in North Carolina where the U.S. Open is being played. In metropolitan areas, hotter summers are creating their own feedback loops, with air-conditioning making the ambient air another 1 degree C hotter, as cooling units pump the heat from houses into the their surroundings—further increasing the need for A/C, and electric power to run it.

Author Bio

Seth Zuckerman

former Editor, ClimateCast, Climate Solutions

For over 20 years, Seth has covered issues of natural resources and the environment as a freelance journalist for numerous publications, including The Nation, Sierra, Orion, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor.  He is the co-editor and co-author of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Ecotrust, 1999) and author of Saving Our Ancient Forests (Living Planet Press, 1991). He taught environmental journalism for two semesters at Brown University and directed the forestry programs of northern California’s Mattole Restoration Council from 2006 to 2011. Seth’s work with Climate Solutions marks a return to his academic roots: he holds an A.B. from Stanford in Energy Studies (1983), and an M.S. from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group (1990).