For green business, blue skies ahead. For climate policy, who knows?

The renewable energy and clean tech industries let loose a collective sigh of relief today. President Obama’s re-election means they still  have a friend in the White House.

Clean energy was a big winner yesterday,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “American voters not only re-elected a president who made green jobs a cornerstone of his first term and his campaign, they also rejected some of the shrillest champions of Big Oil and Big Coal.”

As Nick Robins, HSBC’s climate research analyst, said today:

Obama’s victory essentially protects key climate policies from repeal, particularly the regulation of carbon dioxide by the EPA, most notably in the power and auto sectors. It also offers the chance of extending the Production Tax Credit for wind energy when it expires at the end of this year.

True enough, but the today’s inefficient, hodge-podge collection of EPA rules, clean-energy subsidies and state mandates — while better than nothing — is no substitute for a rational economy-wide policy to deal with climate change.

Could this election usher in a carbon tax or cap-and-trade regulations to limit global warming pollution? That’s impossible to know,  but there’s no evidence that climate action has climbed to the top of the president’s to-do list.

Obama made a passing reference to climate change in his acceptance speech, saying: “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

But his all-but-absolute silence about global warming during the campaign means that he has no mandate from voters to act on the issue. Worse, he has made close to zero effort to persuade Americans that the issue matters, a failure that will surely cast a shadow over his legacy if it isn’t rectified during a second term.

To see what’s next for climate and green business after the election, I reached out to some smart people in the business world and in Washington to see what opportunities, if any, they see.

The first, and maybe the best, opening will arise when the president and the lame-duck Congress face the so-called fiscal cliff in the next 60 days. The government will need revenue to avoid painful spending cuts and tax increases, and a tax on carbon emissions could become an option. [click to continue…]

Climate change: It’s time to get ready

This blogpost about climate preparedness is part of the 2012 State of Green Business Report, published by GreenBiz, where I’m a senior writer. You can download a copy of the full report here.

Last December, government officials, corporate executives and activists met in Durban, South Africa, for high-level climate talks. They went home with an agreement … to keep talking. Meanwhile, we’re emitting more carbon dioxide every year, and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are steadily rising. If CO2 levels were somehow to stabilize now–they won’t–the world will keep warming. The bottom line: Climate change is inevitable. The world needs to learn how to prepare for it.

Increasingly, smart businesses are starting to do just that. Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what’s being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness.

The payoff from investing in adaptation could be substantial.  In 2011, insured losses in the U.S. from natural catastrophes, including tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, topped $105 billion, breaking the record of $101 billion set in 2005, the year of Hurricane Katrina, according to Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm. Some of those losses had nothing to do with climate change, but others did. [click to continue…]

Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage. [click to continue…]

Maybe the best retail ad ever

Patagonia's home page this weekend

In the midst of the madness of black Friday, and this weekend of American consumerism run amok, come a few wise words from the outdoor retailer Patagonia.

In a full-page ad in the New York Times, the privately held company asks shoppers to think more carefully about what they purchase, and the real cost of all the things we buy.

The headline: Don’t Buy This Jacket

“We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else,” the company says.

The rest of the ad is worth reading, and thinking about, so I’ll copy the text here:

It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet.

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else. [click to continue…]

Flying green? Yes, say Alaska and United

Technological progress is impossible to predict, but it’s safe bet that we won’t be flying solar- or wind-powered airplanes anytime soon. So the best hope of flying without emitting large volumes of greenhouse gases lies with biofuels.

This week, there’s good news on bringing biofuels in the air. Beginning Wednesday, Alaska Airlines will fly 75 commercial passenger flights in the U.S. powered in part by biofuels. “This is a historic week for aviation,” declared Alaska Air’s CEO, Bill Ayer, in a press release. Today (Nov. 7), United Airlines make the first U.S. commercial flight using an advanced biofuel made from algae, according to Reuters.

Keith Loveless, vice president of corporate and legal affairs, who oversees sustainability, told me: “These fuels will make a meaningful contribution towards reducing the aviation industry’s environmental impact, and towards reducing fuel volatility, which is an incredible problem for the airline industry.”

But–and you knew there would be a but–biofuels remain way too expensive to replace jet fuels today. That’s why Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, got on the phone with me last week so that the Obama administration will do all it can to advance progress on aviation biofuels. “We are engaged right now in aggressively promoting research to determine the most efficient non-food feed crop that can be used,” he said. [click to continue…]

Do green groups need to get religion?

Peter Lehner

“Americans actually do care about their health. They don’t want their kids have to be poisoned in order for them to get a job. They value their natural heritage.”

“One should not read what’s going on the House of Representatives as an indication of where America wants to be.”

That’s Peter Lehner talking. Peter, a 52-year-old environmental lawyer, is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of America’s most important environmental groups. The NRDC has a $95 million budget, about 400 employees and about 1.3 million members. They’re big and they represent a lot of people.

And yet the NRDC and its allies are getting nowhere in Washington.

They’re struggling to protect the EPA against unrelenting Republican attacks.

And, as Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote the other day in the Times, climate change–arguably the biggest problem facing mankind–has devolved into a non-issue. The “fading of global warming from the political agenda is a mostly American phenomenon,” she wrote.

Why?

That was the question on my mind when I met recently with Peter, who is thoughtful and smart, to talk about the politics of climate. That’s not my  specialty, but I came with an idea: The green groups that try to persuade Americans that environmental protection is good for their jobs and pocketbooks–that is, that green is in our self-interest–have missed opportunities to frame the environment and especially climate as moral issues, in ways that would appeal to our higher and better selves. Put another way, the big NGOs that focus on policy are not as comfortable talking about culture and religion.

So I wondered what the NRDC had learned from the failure of cap-and-trade—the scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that was rejected by Congress—and whether its leaders are rethinking their message.

[click to continue…]

What can we learn from Solyndra’s failure?

Our national conversation has become so politicized that it’s hard to talk about anything without setting off an argument.

Not the weather. And certainly not the failure of Solyndra, the solar company that went bankrupt after getting a $535 million loan from the Obama administration.

Today’s hearing of the  Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, focusing in part on Solyndra, was more like an inquisition than a fact-finding exercise.

It was titled “How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda is Killing Jobs.” That was before the testimony began.

No matter that chief inquisitor Darrell Issa, who now denounces clean energy subsidies, once sought a loan guarantee for Aptera, an electric car maker that wanted to set up shop in his district. Dan Burton, the No. 2 Republican on the panel, supported a federal guarantee for Abound Solar, a company in his district.

What hypocrisy.

Democrats are little better, particularly as they blather on about green jobs. Sure,  when Washington subsidizes clean energy, jobs may be created. The thing is, when the government subsidize anything (oil exploration, ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, home ownership), you get more of it, and more jobs. Does this mean that market-distorting subsidies are an efficient way to create jobs? The question answers itself.

[By the way, there was some amusing back-and-forth at the hearing about what constitutes a green job. It turns out that bus drivers, whether driving they are driving hybrid buses  or not, are doing “green jobs” because mass transport is greener than driving,  my friend Matthew Wald reports in The Times.]

So what, if anything, can we learn from Solyndra’s failure? Should the government stop financing clean energy, as some Republicans say? Or preserve today’s subsidies, as the industry would like? [click to continue…]

Your dollar-draining, energy-sucking, carbon-polluting cable TV habit…

So we already knew that watching too much TV dulls the mind and costs a bundle (my cable bill’s $170 a month, including Internet and phone).

Now we know, thanks to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, that your super-snazzy set-top box and DVR combo that means you will never have to miss another episode of Two Men and a Baby is costing you more money, wasting energy and generating carbon emissions.

With more than 80% of Americans now subscribing to cable, the numbers, taken as a whole, grow pretty big, the NRDC says:

In 2010, the electricity required to operate all U.S. set-top boxes was equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, resulted in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, and cost households more than $3 billion.

They aren’t as startling on a house-by-house basis–each box, on average, costs about $18.75 a year to operate, depending on local electricity prices.  But much of that money, it turns out, is wasted. About two-thirds of the energy consumed by the set-top is used when no one is watching TV or recording programs.

In a press release, NRDC’s efficiency guru, Noah Horowitz, says:

Set-top boxes are the ultimate home energy vampires, silently sucking significant amounts of energy and money when nobody’s using them. The consumer, who pays the electric bill, deserves technologies without hidden costs.

On his blog, Noah goes on to say:

The biggest finding from our field work was that the only way to really turn these boxes off is to unplug them — not an attractive option. For almost all the boxes we tested, hitting the power button simply dims the clock or display. For a typical DVR, instead of consuming 30 Watts when on, the box used 29 Watts, only the difference of one Watt.

The problem here, as it is with many wasteful practices in the economy, is a split incentive between the owner and the user. (Economists call this a principle-agent problem.) It’s the reason why a landlord doesn’t care how inefficient an air conditioner is if the tenant pays the bill, and why few people dining out on an open-ended expense account pay much attention to the bill. In this case, the  cable operator (Comcast, Time Warner) or phone company (Verizon, AT&T) that buys the set-top box doesn’t pay the electric bill, and so they have no reason to design, build, buy or demand a more efficient box. Markets aren’t working the way they should.

[click to continue…]

Amanda Little: Take me out to the (green) ballgame

Today’s guest column comes from Amanda Little (née Griscom), one of my favorite writers on energy and the environment, and it’s on a very timely topic–the greening of sports. Amanda is the  author of Power Trip: The Story of America’s Love Affair With Energy, and she was a long-time columnist for Grist.org and Salon.com. Amanda has also written for Outside, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wired, New York, InStyle, O Magazine and the Washington Post. She is the recipient of the Jane Bagley Lehman Award for excellence in environmental journalism. Amanda’s now blogging for Forbes.com, where this column originally appeared.

Why is it timely? Because just the other day, the Philadelphia Eagles unveiled plans to install solar panels, wind turbines and a co-generation plant at Lincoln Financial Field, making the stadium quite possibly the “greenest” in the sports. The gridiron goes off the grid, you could say. And if you think sports is a sandbox, with little impact on the “real world,” think again, about, say, Jackie Robinson’s influence on the civil rights movement. If you want to change the minds of people at the grass roots, about climate or energy or recycling, there’s no better place to start than with sports.

As the San Francisco Giants celebrate their 2010 World Series triumph, they’re quietly coveting another, humbler feat—one that’s perhaps no less historic in the long run. The Giants are one of the greenest teams in professional sports, and they’re proving that sustainable practices fatten the bottom line even as they ease the burdens on the planet.

Their stadium, AT&T Park, which accommodates about 45,000 fans, runs its scoreboard on solar power, recycles and composts nearly 50 percent of its waste, sources eco-friendly napkins, containers, utensils, toilet paper and the like, and has enough efficiency features to cut the stadium’s annual energy and water bills in half. That amounts to huge savings, given that stadiums can consume as much energy as small cities.

AT&T Park: Green in more ways than one

The Giants are on the front end of a trend that’s quickly gaining traction in major league baseball and throughout the NFL and NBA. Teams are stepping up recycling and efficiency in their facilities, attracting lucrative corporate sponsorships with green messaging, and raising consciousness among fans. If the trend continues to build in the next two years, we may find that games do more to push environmental progress in the U.S. than politics.

Especially now, given the acrimony in Washington, professional sports may have a broader and more profound influence than any other single entity on American mindsets, slicing through socioeconomic and political divides. “More than 150 million Americans – half our population – regularly follow professional sports,” Allen Hershkowitz, Senior Scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. Hershkowitz founded the NRDC project greensports.org, a pro-bono consultancy that advises teams and leagues on environmental strategies.

For nearly a century, professional sports have galvanized social movements and ginned up American patriotism. Baseball, for instance, desegregated a decade before the nation did, helping catalyze the civil rights movement. Women’s basketball and softball leagues were organized before women had the right to vote. [click to continue…]

The Gulf disaster, and the future of coal

If you like the BP oil spill…

cleaning-oil-spill-2

you’re going to love carbon capture and storage.

Coal_power_plant_Datteln_2_Crop1

Carbon capture and storage, or CCS, is the technology that offers the best hope of generating electricity from coal in a way that doesn’t further heat up the planet. When people talk about “clean coal” – a phrase that deserves quotes because coal is never entirely clean — they’re often talking about CCS.

CCS technologies, which can be applied before or after the coal is burned, are designed to capture carbon dioxide, transport it to a secure location, typically deep under the ground, and then sequester it safely for a long, long time, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Get the connection? Just as the oil industry assures that they can safely drill for oil a mile under the ocean, the coal companies and utility industry are very confident that can bury CO2 deep under the ground, with little or no risk that it will ever escape.

Do you want to take them at their word?

I asked Mike Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club and a leading anti-coal activist, about BP and CCS. He replied by email:

The BP deep water oil disaster is an example of how seeking out new and riskier ways of feeding our addiction to fossil fuels leads to new and more catastrophic problems….If there’s a lesson in this, it’s that relying on unproven and complicated methods to sustain our dependence on oil and coal has disastrous consequences.

You may be surprised to learn that CCS isn’t favored just by the coal guys or the utilities. Some environmental groups like the technology, too. David Hawkins, the estimable head of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which strongly opposes conventional coal plants, says it’s essential that we figure out CCS. Here’s his very thoughtful argument on behalf of CCS, from NRDC’s Switchboard blog:

As a community, we have achieved great success in blocking new coal plants one by one but we need a comprehensive coal policy as well.  Showing CCS is an available tool helps us to convince policymakers that they should oppose construction of coal plants that do not capture their carbon.  Is such a policy as attractive to many in our community as a law that says no more coal plants, period? No.  But we need to ask ourselves — what are the realistic odds of getting Congress or any significant coal-using state to adopt a “no new coal, period” policy in the next handful of years?   I have fought the coal industry for 40 years and in my judgment the odds of a total ban on new coal plants are not large.

The Obama administration is also an enthusiastic supporter of CCS on a grand scale, in the form of a controversial, costly project known as Future Gen. Just a week ago, even as oil was spewing into the gulf, Obama’s DOE  announced that it would spend up to $612 million in recovery act money (to be matched by $368 million in private funding) to demonstrate large-scale CCS from industrial sources (not power plants, although the technology is similar).

One project will store CO2 in a “deep saline formation,” as part of a corn ethanol project. Two others will use the CO2 in “enhanced oil recovery” in the Gulf, believe it or not. Such well-connected companies as Archer Daniels Midland and GE are among the beneficiaries. From the DOE announcement:

·         Leucadia Energy, LLC (Lake Charles, LA)—Leucadia and Denbury Onshore LLC will capture and sequester 4.5 million tons of CO2 per year from a new methanol plant in Lake Charles, LA. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield, starting in April 2014. The project team includes Leucadia Energy, Denbury, General Electric, Haldor Topsoe, Black & Veatch, Turner Industries, and the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.  (DOE share: $260 million)

·         Air Products & Chemicals, Inc. (Port Arthur, TX)—Air Products will partner with Denbury Onshore LLC to capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from existing steam-methane reformers in Port Arthur, Texas, starting in November 2012. The CO2 will be delivered via a 12-mile connector pipeline to an existing Denbury interstate CO2 pipeline and sequestered via use for enhanced oil recovery in the West Hastings oilfield. The project team includes Air Products & Chemicals, Denbury Onshore LLC, the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, and Valero Energy Corporation.  (DOE share: $253 million)

·         Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (Decatur, Ill.)—The project will capture and sequester one million tons of CO2 per year from an existing ethanol plant in Illinois, starting in August 2012. The CO2 will be sequestered in the Mt. Simon Sandstone, a well-characterized saline reservoir located about one mile from the plant. The project team includes Archer Daniels Midland, Schlumberger Carbon Services, and the Illinois State Geological Survey. (DOE share: $99 million)

Unfortunately, these subsidies don’t appear to be linked to actual tons of carbon sequestered. They support demonstration projects. Still to be determined are such issues as who “owns” the store CO2, who will be responsible, financially, if it escapes, etc.  To be fair, CO2 has been stored underground for years as part of enhanced oil recovery, but we’ve also been doing deepwater drilling for a long time.

Interestingly, the connection between the BP disaster and CCS was suggested to me,  not by an environmentalist, but by a very sophisticated investor in clean technology. This investor—who asked not to be identified, because he works closely with big companies like GE and with the Obama team—has placed bets on solar power, energy storage and efficiency, so he’s no fan of coal, but he’s also driven by a personal passion around the climate crisis.

Since I can’t quote the investor, I’ll give the last work to the Sierra Club’s Mike Brune:

Relying on carbon capture and storage is like a heroin addict finding a new vein to shoot. It’s not a solution, it’s simply a new way to perpetuate the problem. The Sierra Club has no objection to using private, corporate resources to fund CCS research to see if CCS can ever be done safely, cheaply, and without requiring massive amounts of energy. In the meantime, we shouldn’t be seeking out more expensive and dangerous ways to feed our dependence on oil or coal. Instead, we should be putting our innovation and resources to work in the service of clean energy that will create jobs and keep our coasts, wild places, and communities healthy and intact.

Photo links/credits: duck (Audubon Society of Florida)  coal plant (wikimedia)