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December 31, 2007

2007 in Green News (revised)

It's that time of year when media outlets (including some blogs) bombard us with their rankings of the top stories of the year. In stead of adding another to the lists of rankings, I am just providing a few links (in no particular order) to a few of the green lists and bests-of, for the year 2007.

1.Preston Koerner over at Jetson Green has compiled a comprehensive collection of the Ultimate Green News Year in Review for 2007. The links are divided into 6 subcategories ranging from Cleantech to Politics to Business and to Architecture.

2. According to an article in the Fort Collins (CO) Coloradoan, the top business story in Northern Colorado this year is Larimer County's embracing of the New Energy Economy. The article sites the news that Vestas Wind and AVA Solar will bring 1200 renewable energy jobs to the region by completing the construction of their new manufacturing facilities.

3. David Wigder takes a look back at some empirical data to show the recent upswing in attention to green marketing in 2007.

4. TreeHugger put together a list of their top 10 posts of the year, which includes some that are humorous, some that are serious, and some that are just a little curious.

5. Finally, the good people at Grist put together two lists. The first, from David Roberts and Lisa Hymas runs down the top 15 green stories of 2007, which is thoughtful and well put together (and which cites the backlash against coal as the number one story and the number one enemy of the human race). The second, a Best of Grist List put together by Sarah van Schagen and Sarah K. Burkhalter takes a more whimsical approach to green trends, pop culture, and material goods.

6. I would be remiss to not include two very worthy compilations at the Climate & Energy Project blog. There is some very good information on advances (and retreats) in net-metering in the states and there is also a collection of wind updates from 2007 that has lots of neat links.

Enjoy and have a happy and safe New Year!

Photo: New Vestas plant construction in Windsor, CO- David Persons/ Windsor Beacon Library

December 23, 2007

Just when you thought the coast was clear - more Lomborg.

An E&E Publishing Service

Climate: Skeptical enviro Bjorn Lomborg discusses post-Kyoto roadmap, calls Kyoto "feel good strategy" (Wednesday, December 12, 2007)

OnPoint, 12/12/2007As the international community convenes in Bali to create a roadmap for post-Kyoto climate discussions, how successful will a new climate treaty be at reducing emissions and decreasing the impacts of climate change? During today's OnPoint, Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg explains why he believes Kyoto is a "feel good strategy". He also explains why the international community should be focusing on funding R&D for alternative technologies and adaptation measures, rather than emphasizing an emissions-reduction treaty. Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It--The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming," gives his views on the Stern review on the economic impacts of climate change and assesses the current climate discussions in Bali.

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December 19, 2007

Small Wind Remains in Farm Bill

Renewable energy advocates are clearly disappointed with the recently passed version of the 2007 energy bill. Yes, there is an important increase in auto fuel efficiency, but considering that CAFE hasn't been upped in nearly 30 years, I don't think Congress should be patting themselves on the back too hard for that one. However, a little piece of renewable energy legislation may have sneaked into the farm bill without too many Republicans noticing, and it just might have a chance of getting passed into law.

The version of the farm bill passed by the Senate on Friday contains a small wind tax provision - the first in more than 20 years. The provision is a 30% investment tax credit (up to $4,000) for the installation of small wind systems. The credit is available for farmers, small businesses and homeowners for new wind systems up to 10 kw. This may be another piece of evidence of a farm bill in energy bill's clothing.

The tax-credit has remained a part of the farm bill despite an attempt to scuttle it. Sen. Ken Salazar (D-CO) and others defeated an amendment sponsored by Lamar Alexander (R-TN) that would have limited the small wind investment tax credit to farmers and small businesses, thus excluding owners of rural residential property and commercial property suitable for small wind from taking advantage of what has traditionally been viewed as a burden. It comes as no surprise to see Sen. Alexander championing the anti-wind cause once again. The Senator from Tennessee has been surprisingly outspoken about wind energy policy in the U.S., even going as far as suggesting that it ruins mountaintops (to say nothing of the practice of 'mountaintop removal' in TN and other coal-heavy states). It is also interesting to note that Alexander owns property on Nantucket Island in MA, not far at all from the proposed Cape Wind project. Coincidence?! I think not.

I suppose I shouldn't be trumpeting this small victory too loudly, President Bush hasn't signed the bill into law yet, so I suppose there is also a chance that the small tax credit will get axed from the bill just like all of the other renewable energy legislation.

December 13, 2007

Show me the deliberation...please!

After surfacing for some air in the last two weeks, the elusive energy bill has again disappeared into the murky depths of Senatorial politics. Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate has not become the deliberative institution it was designed to be. We see hearings on C-SPAN with lots of questions being asked, and a few being answered. We see flip charts and bar graphs and fancy posters being presented. We see Senators come to the floor with their aides (and sometimes with the help of their aides) to deliver policy speeches to an audience that consists mostly of administrative staff, security guards, pages, and sometimes even some lucky tourists. Real deliberation does not happen on the Senate floor, although bargaining might. And that usually happens when the C-SPAN mics are off.

The right for Senators to filibuster was designed so that debate could continue until a consensus was reached. Usually, now that does not mean debate and deliberation, that means deal-making, mutual back-scratching and overt bargaining. The filibuster is now used as a threat, rather than as an opportunity for substantive back-and-forth. Basically the filibuster now translates as: "I refuse to debate about this and there is nothing that can get me to change my mind." Once again, we can thank James Madison for the institutional incrementalism that pervades and can sometimes cripple American lawmaking.

I appreciate people having conviction about their principles, but why is it that flexibility, contingency and pragmatism are not considered principles worthy of conviction? Regardless of those structural flaws in the system, right now it's the only one we got.

After the Senate voted against cloture on the motion to agree to the House amendments last Friday, we have been seeing a very calculated game of political 'chicken.' The President all along has said he would veto any bill that singles out the oil industry and revokes substantial tax credits to big oil. But does he mean it? Probably yes. Despite the threat, Senate Democrats decided to push ahead with the bill, however, as many guessed would happen, the renewable energy standard was trimmed off to improve the bill's hopes of passage. At this point, it is unclear whether Democrats have the necessary 60 votes to prevent a filibuster and move forward with a vote on the bill.

My concern is that this is one of those instances where President Bush will show his 'conviction' by not passing any bill that repeals the billions of dollars to big oil subsidies. Maybe the President will surprise, in fact I hope he will surprise me. So I will hope that the President will show the rest of the world what a democracy in action looks like by passing the laws that a bicameral legislature has clearly determined as the will of the people. But the one thing that I have found about George W. Bush over the last 7 years is that he has lots of opportunities to surprise me, and hasn't done so once. With that said, I have carefully selected a few quotes that show the kind of real 'quality' communication that have emanated from our leadership in the last few days concerning the energy legislation.

It's a bill that's not going to become law. - Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)

[The House passed a bill] they knew was unacceptable to the president and had no chance being signed into law. - White House Spokesperson Dana Perino

This is not a good bill, but it can be turned into a great bill. - Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM)

If it goes to the White House, we would hope that common sense would prevail and the president would sign that. – Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

I guess they're trying to guarantee a veto.” – Donald
Stewart, spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

He is impossible, and has been for seven years, to deal with. – Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)

December 12, 2007

What are the Alternatives to Electricity Rate Hikes?

Ft. Collins, CO – The electric co-op that serves over 30,000 residential and business customers in rural portions of Larimer, Weld, and Boulder counties in Northeast Colorado, has increased its electricity rates 24 percent over the last three years. But the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association (PVREA) is hardly alone. In response to these un-relenting rate hikes and over-reliance on coal-fired power, the Colorado non-profit group PV-Pioneers, has proposed an alternative plan that would encourage reductions in demand by focusing on energy efficiency and the principle of avoided costs.

The proposed plan suggests that the REA could finance Home Energy Makeovers for members who need them the most, and can afford them least. REAs and co-ops are in a position to make these loans because of their ability to secure no-interest federal loans themselves. The program would allow structural energy efficiency improvements including permanent housing weatherization improvements, replacement of inefficient appliances, or even just the replacement of incandescent with compact fluorescent or LED lighting.

PVREA's current assistance program - like many energy assistance programs across the country - help people pay their bills when they cannot afford to pay themselves. These programs can be incredibly helpful. But the problem is they create little incentive to permanently reduce those bills. They really mask the problem, rather than addressing some of the root causes.

This program is being presented as an alternative to rate increases that PVREA will have to absorb if its wholesale provider, Tri-State G&T continues its search to find somewhere to build a new coal-fired power plant. Just last month, Tri-State made national headlines when they, along with Sunflower Electric of Kansas, were denied an air permit by the Kansas Department of Health for a proposed expansion of the Holcomb coal-fired power plant in Southwestern Kansas.

The PV-Pioneers is a Colorado non-profit group made up of Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association members from Larimer, Weld, and Boulder counties. The group works to keep future rates down, to promote energy efficiency programs and to facilitate the generation of locally abundant renewable energy resources.

December 9, 2007

Global Weirding (part II)

The irony of this photograph will be lost unless you reference the one I took a couple of days ago for a previous post...

And I still haven't found Saturday's newspaper in my driveway.

December 7, 2007

Video: Wind Energy gets no love...(very funny)

I forgot what a great advertisement this is. I put it here so I could find it very easily the next time I need a good laugh... (courtesy of CorporateCitizen07 )

Hopes for Michigan Feed-in Tarriff Fading

Not too much has been heard about Michigan's HB 5218 since it was introduced by Rep. Kathleen Law earlier in this legislative session. HB 5218 was the first proposed legislation containing a 'feed-in tariff' for renewable energy in the U.S. If you don't know, a feed-in tariff or 'fee-schedule' is a policy mechanism which guarantees a premium rate payed to any entity that adds renewable energy to the power grid. Feed-in tariffs have been wildly successful at building the distributed generation of renewable resources very quickly in Germany and Spain -- but not without substantial cost and commitment.

But the latest out of MI is that the proposed tariff because it has not gained the same amount of support as a different bill that would require Michigan get 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015. I think nearly any move toward promoting renewable energy is a move in the right direction - and it is also quite possible that Michigan just wasn't ready for the economic commitment to such an aggressive policy as a feed-in tariff. The point will be moot if the U.S. Senate includes a 15 percent RPS possibly in their version of the bill which may be voted on as early as Saturday. Then again, if President Bush follows through on his veto promise, then Michigan might have something after all.

So what's the deal with feed-in tariffs, and why haven't they caught on in the U.S.? I will suggest that there are two very formidable structural impediments standing in their way:

  1. The modern grid was not built with distributed generation in mind. Distributed generation brings fluctuations in generating capacity that would need to be addressed by making substantial investments in infrastructure.
  2. There are corporate and interests heavily invested in keeping things pretty much as they are. Power providers and utilities are trying to solidify the futures of their enormous corporations by institutionalizing the process by which power is generated, bought, and sold.

Basically what it will take in this country to move to a more decentralized grid is a whole new politics. We need to reassess how to think about electricity generation and distribution in this country. Decentralization of the power grid will be the future of electricity in the United States, the only question is how long it'll take to get us there.

December 4, 2007

Global Weirding

Monday night was one of those nights that I thought my house was going to blow off of its foundation. The wind is hardly uncommon up here. My house is located at an elevation of about 6,000 ft. (kids stuff by CO standards), but it sits on an exposed hillside in the foothills of the Rockies which just gets pounded by the prevailing NW west sweeping down towards the Plains.
Usually after a night like that during the month of December I would expect to wake up and either start a fire in the woodstove or go outside and try to find the newspaper which is somewhere in my driveway under 8" of snow. However today was not your usual day, it was 70 freaking the shade! Now the record for Fort Collins is 70 degrees, but I am located almost a 1000 feet above that. Just to be sure my cheap little thermometer wasn't wrong I crosschecked my data with a rather reliable weather source - a NOAA weather station located on top of Horsetooth Mountain only a half mile away and about 400ft higher. Well it turns out my thermometer may have been a little off after all, the NOAA site said the high was actually 72 degrees!

December 3, 2007

Video: 30 Years of Rhetoric in 3 Minutes

I found this on YouTube - a Barack Obama campaign ad that highlights how politically useful it is for presidents to tout the need for American energy independence.

Obama says he'll bring energy leadership... Somebody needs to.

November 29, 2007

Straw Poll: How much do you pay for electricity?

In light of my most recent post about the so-called "externalities" of coal-fired power, I thought I might add a participatory element the discussion that'll add some context. So, in the name of 'science' please visit ecopolitology (if you're not already here) and answer one simple poll question: How much do you pay for your electricity? (2 seconds and no strings!)

If you don't know, look at your most recent electric bill. Otherwise you can probably find your rates online. I encourage and welcome votes from all cities, counties, states, provinces, territories and countries. Thanks!

Source: Energy Information Administration, Form EIA-861, “Annual Electric Power Industry Report.”(2006)

November 27, 2007

Consumer choice and the eco-social "externalities" of coal (part one)

It is quite common for the end-user of a commodity to have no idea where the good was actually produced, never mind how it got from point A to point B. But some consumers might prefer to get their vegetables them from a local farmers’ market, instead of the supermarket. A person might want to support a business because they have received exceptional service there in the past; or, because they know the signature dish is made with the freshest local ingredients. The global commodities market has separated the consumer and the producer across both time and space. Goods can be shipped all the way around the globe and many can be stored away for future use/sale. When consumers do not see where the good is produced, how it is produced, and the byproducts of that production, they are less likely to have the knowledge that will alter their own spending habits. Not only that, but it may not be so easy to buy something even though it is all around you (as my search for locally-grown soybeans proved). Why does this matter? It all boils down to consumer choice. On one hand, the modern globalized economy consists of consumers that are primarily concerned with getting a given commodity for the best price possible. On the other hand, some may want to choose something other than the least expensive product - and that's where coal comes in.

There are increasing numbers of people who want to weigh other variables or 'social costs' such as the ecological sustainability of a good and the process of manufacturing it; the human rights records in the country where the good is produced or workplace health and safety records of the company making the product. The global economy lives and dies at the level of uncertainty a consumer will accept before choosing to not buy a good. Coal may be less expensive in terms of how much you pay every month for electricity, but those bills do not accurately reflect all of the electricity’s costs or, what economists call, “externalities,” like sulfur dioxide, mercury, carbon dioxide Externalities occur when neither the producer nor the consumer bear
all of the costs of an economic transaction and these costs are inimical to the provision of such 'public goods' as air, water, streetlights, and public safety.

As consumers, we are constantly being bombarded with choices that can challenge the strength and conviction of our beliefs. Most of the choices seem minute, but depending on how loud that little voice inside your head shouts, other choices may present some rather sticky cognitive dissonance at an uncomfortable level. Don't believe me? What is the first thing you think of when you are faced with the ubiquitous inquiry 'paper or plastic?' Concerned about the consequences of all that Styrofoam, do you calculate differences in total resource depletion when asked 'dine-in or carry-out?' Do you buy organic or conventional fruits and vegetables? always? why? why not? Do you buy your gas at Exxon/Mobil or BioWillie? Would you rather have a Budweiser or a Fat Tire? Do you prefer coffee from Starbucks, the coffee cart, or your French press? Would you rather go to to WAL-MART or AL-MART?(*) Would you choose fresh, crisp apples from New Zealand or last autumn's apples from upstate? Would you like bananas that were grown by a company that pays extortion money to violent crime syndicates? or would you rather have no bananas at all?

As electricity consumers, we have no way of determining exactly where the electricity that powers our homes and businesses is generated. Unless you live off the grid or you’ve got the ability to completely disconnect from the grid and generate your own electricity, you cannot distinguish between an electron generated from coal and one generated from wind, natural gas, solar, hydro, or any other source. We can determine the probability that our electricity is of a specific mix, but that is about it. Electricity consumers also often lack any specific knowledge of when electricity is expensive and when it is cheap; we generally know that electricity is more expensive in the morning and in the evening but most of us do not have the ability to monitor those price fluctuations and act accordingly. Fortunately, there is some hope in all of this, as barriers to markets are removed and electricity providers are held accountable for their externalities.

As the issues of energy use and its relationship to climate change are achieving greater acceptance among the general public, consumers want more control over how the energy they consume is produced and how they consume energy. People would be much more interested in the production cost of coal if they were paying the actual cost of coal-fired electricity. Energy generated from “traditional” fossil fuels is only cost-effective because the formula used to determine those costs omits too many of the social and ecological externalities of production...(to be continued).

(*) AL-MART is a small store located in Alma, CO (locals
at the South Park would remind me to tell you that Alma's elevation of 10,578 feet above sea level makes it the highest incorporated town in North America, despite what any other towns might claim).

November 15, 2007

Madisonian 'stability' in American gov't. still doing its job.

Like it or not, the spectre of James Madison still haunts the parliamentary reality of modern American politics. A case in point: the current legislative dance going on between the farm bill, the energy bill, rural senators, and (sub) urban representatives is slowing down lawmaking, and the effects of this delay could be enormous. This is nothing new, and unless there is some sort of constitutional overhaul, American government will continue to plod along incrementally. Not only is the system showing its stickiness but it is also showing its institutional overlap. The energy and farm bills are doing a little cannibalizing of each other. What are people saying about the farm and energy bills?:
"In this bill, we make it a priority to help farmers who are serious about getting into organic production, and we help them overcome the challenges of transitioning into this industry." --Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA)

"Most importantly, significant resources in [the Lieberman-Warner] bill must be explicitly allocated for Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy, the areas where we can get the greatest and quickest bang for our buck." -- Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT)

"I cannot think of an amendment more relevant to the economic security of the American farmer than an amendment to increase the renewable fuel standard" --Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM)

" may have an energy bill that doesn't really have incentives for renewable energy and high value energy efficiency – and that would be tragic."
-- Scott Sklar, President of the Stella Group Ltd.

"What these gentlemen are trying to do is outsource our food and fiber" --Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AK) referring to the two sponsors of the $250,000 cap on farm subsidies.

"We elect Congress to move the country forward, not entrench the past, and we believe they will." --Michael Eckhardt, President ACORE

"I think we're looking at a December timeline for anything, the question is, what's going to be in it?" --Karl Gawell, Exec. Dir. of the Geothermal Energy Association.

"The time is slowly evaporating." --Sen Harry Reid (D-NV)

November 14, 2007

An Energy Bill in Farm Bill's Clothing?

If you have ever gone on a whale-watching trip, then you have an idea what it is like to try and follow the elusive politics of energy during this 110th Congress. If I may elaborate; every once in a while you can follow a whale as it swims along the surface just long enough to spout a burst of effluent and pose for a couple photos before it disappears into the darkness. But most of the time is spent waiting, not watching. Waiting and staring in the direction of where you last saw the whale, expecting it to resurface. The whale eventually resurfaces, but it is nowhere near where you were looking, perhaps even on the other side of the boat. You assume, correctly, that while underwater the whale must have been swimming. But it must have done so differently than you expected it to, for it to have ended up where and when it did. Before I beat this metaphor to death, let me just add that while it is hardly uncommon for deal-making and deliberating to occur behind closed doors, one can easily get caught off guard by only looking in one direction waiting for something to resurface.

Reports spinning in the blogosphere have indicated that renewable energy provisions are in danger of being removed from the energy bill by congressional leaders, who are willing to cede the bill’s better provisions in order to get it passed. All this is occurring while numerous energy issues have surfaced and are bubbling around the Senate Farm Bill.

This is where it gets a little tricky. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) wants to migrate two of his favored energy provisions -- the ethanol mandate and $50 billion in nuclear power loan guarantees -- into the more viable farm bill. Big-Ag has been lobbying heavily in support of the restructuring, but opponents fear that transferring the ethanol mandate to the farm bill would weaken bipartisan support for the energy bill and doom it to failure.

But also buried away in the farm bill is the often overlooked small wind tax credit. This year, identical bills were introduced in the Senate by Salazar (D-CO) and Smith (R-OR) and in the House by Blumenauer (D-OR) and Cole (R-OK) that would provide an investment tax credit of $1,500 per ½ kilowatt of capacity for small wind systems. This incentive could make small-scale wind energy generation viable for many, but it would not create the same kind of explosive growth in large-scale wind installations that an RPS or feed-in tariff would.

Late Tuesday, Blog for Rural America reported that the Senate Ag. Committee had agreed upon a list of amendments, and that debate on the farm bill should proceed in the morning. The first thing to be debated in the morning will most likely be the hotly contested Dorgan-Grassley amendment that would close loopholes for corporate farmers and put a 'hard cap' on farm subsidies at $250,000. Roughly half of the suggested $1.15 billion savings would be spent on social programs like emergency food assistance and food stamp enhancements. The rest of the money would be invested in programs for beginning farmer development, rural microenterprise assistance, farmers markets, organic certification cost share, community food grants, grasslands reserve, and farmland protection.

Not willing to give up hope for a more robust renewable energy program, Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO) has said that he will meet with Speaker Pelosi on Wednesday to talk about the future of the wavering energy bill. Co-chair of the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus, Udall is also meeting with senators to share his experiences with Colorado's successful Renewable Electricity Standard. Udall is positioning himself to run for the senate seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard, so he will do whatever he can to keep renewable energy targets in the energy bill – he could certainly use a legislative victory to earn some political capital to spend in the upcoming campaign.

November 13, 2007

Denial of Kansas Plant Seen as Opportunity for Co-ops

coal-fired power plant, coal
TOPEKA, Kan. – Supporters of a proposed coal-fired power plant in Kansas that would provide power to most parts of rural Colorado are working to revive it after the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) became the first government agency in the United States to cite carbon dioxide emissions as the reason for rejecting an air permit for a proposed coal-fired electricity generating plant. Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s partner in the project, Sunflower Electric, has filed papers with the KDHE Secretary Rod Bremby to reconsider his rejection of the air permit.

In the written decision to deny the Tri-State/Sunflower permit last Friday, Secretary Bremby said that “it would be irresponsible to ignore emerging information about the contribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change and the potential harm to our environment and health if we do nothing.” Sunflower and Tri-State have already begun the appeal process. "We are disappointed with the Secretary's arbitrary and capricious action," said Earl Watkins, Sunflower's president and chief executive officer.

I see the denial of the air permit as an opportunity for Tri-State's 44 member owned co-ops to seize opportunities in efficiency and renewable energies. Not only is Northern Colorado blessed with excellent wind, solar, and biomass resources that can all be harnessed to make clean, reliable, and cost-effective energy, much the same can be said for most of Tri-State's coverage area. Tri-State needs to see the writing on the wall that carbon-emission legislation is coming, and that it is only a matter of time before we are living in a carbon-constrained world. In stead of frittering away member-owners' valuable resources fighting for the construction of new coal-fired power plants, Tri-State should be investing in efficiency, smart-grid technologies, distributed generation, and other ways in which its many members can directly capitalize on the new energy economy.

Exactly how the co-ops will be able to take advantage of the upcoming energy legislation remains to be seen. Rumors continue to swirl that the final bill may be only a skeleton of its former self. I am not playing prognosticator here, but it is quite possible there may be no RPS, no solar tax credit, no extension of the federal production tax credit, and only a meager increase in CAFE standards. I believe that something useful will be passed out of the legislature, I'm just a little skeptical about how many of those good things will make it.

Yet there may be one kernel of hope for renewable energy that is tucked away in the otherwise much-maligned farm bill that would grow renewables by incentivizing distributed microgeneration through a tax credit for small wind. More on this later this week...

Photo Credits:
1. Brian Brainerd, Denver Post

November 11, 2007

Energy Bill: Losing its luster?

I was hopeful yet somewhat skeptical when I last wrote about the chances of meaningful energy legislation making its way through both houses and avoiding the president's recently discovered 'veto pen.' For much of Bush's tenure in the White House, the administration has had little or no need to break out the veto pen. But even when Bush does pass a bill that he has serious reservations about, he has preferred to use the 'signing-statement pen,' despite the fact that there is no Constitutional provision, federal statute, or common-law principle explicitly permitting or prohibits signing statements. Signing statements give an opportunity to the president to add a 'P.S.' that allows the president to voice rhetorical disagreement or otherwise evade proper execution of the laws. Despite the fact that Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution requires that the executive "take care that the laws be faithfully executed", the President has made clear on several occasions that he does not need to execute laws that he does not believe are constitutional.

In the preceding sixteen years of the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton presidencies, the three produced 347 signing statements between the three of them. By October 4, 2006, Bush II had signed 134 signing statements that challenged 810 federal laws. If you have more time and are really interested in this topic, I highly recommend Boston Globe columnist Charlie Savage's new book, Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy .

But before the president even has a chance to see a bill come across his desk, there are some serious substantive differences between the two bills that need to be reconciled, but it is quite possible the differences will not even have a chance to get ironed out before the impending vote some time this week. It appears as though Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Reid are ready to call for a vote on this before Thanksgiving break, without a conference committee on the subject ever have been convened. It looks like an extension of the production tax credit, and the establishment of aggressive renewable energy targets may be overlooked. Major obstacles to the successful passage of quality energy bill include:

1) The Senate version proposes the increasing of new vehicle fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards. Some House members have been trying to ratchet back the Senate-endorsed 35 mph mileage standard. The House version contains no CAFE standards.

2) The house version of the bill included a 15% renewables portfolio standard (RPS) for investor-owned utilities by 2020. States were also permitted to invest in energy efficiency in lieu of renewable energy. The Senate passed no RPS in their version, largely because Senators from the southeast states argued that they do not have adequate renewable resources.

3) There is a proposed repeal of oil, coal, and gas subsidies in the form of tax credits to big energy companies. Pres. Bush has said he would veto a bill with any such repeal and he may get the help he needs as K. Bailey Huthinson of Texas may have the ability to block a joint committee.

4) Perhaps the biggest issue for renewable energy advocates is the apparent lack of tax incentives such as the production tax credit (PTC) and the investment tax credit (ITC). I would be very surprised to see the PTC be passed over for extension, although some large wind energy manufacturers have already shown that they are not waiting to find out.
You can have an impact on what this energy bill looks like. These are not insurmountable obstacles. Urge your Representatives and Senators to consider the RPS, the PTC, and cuts in coal, oil and gas subsidies.

November 7, 2007

New and Improved! Vestas Plant in Colorado

Strong third quarter profits have enabled Danish wind energy giant Vestas to announce the planned expansion of their first and only North American blade plant. The Danish company made the announcement on Tuesday despite the fact that the Windsor, CO facility has yet to produce a single turbine blade. Construction of the plant began in June and Vestas officials say it will be online by early 2008.

Vestas originally planned to hire about 400 full-time employees to operate four production lines, producing 1,200 blades per year. The ramped-up plan would add another 250 full time employees and produce 1800 blades per year; an increase that represents a roughly 50 percent expansion of its production capacity.

Vestas is not waiting for an extension of the federal production tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of this year. Or perhaps they know something we don't. According to the report,

"Vestas is now launching an international information campaign aimed at putting wind power at the top of the global energy agenda, where the political targets in many countries have already been defined. Detailed legislation still needs to be put in place for the industry to make investments in the necessary capacity and the skills required."
The report also states:
"Our goal is that at least ten percent of the world’s power production should be based on wind energy by 2020. To achieve this, the wind turbine industry must install a total of more than 900,000 MW over the next 13 years."
Vestas is no stranger to even the most casual observer of the renewable energy business and anyone who invested in the company (listed on the Copenhagen OMX exchange) should be smiling broadly as the value of the stock has more than tripled in the last year. I am no Jim Cramer, but it is my guess this stock is not done climbing. I will be following Vestas closely as they move into the broadening North American market.

November 5, 2007

The New Politics of the New Energy Economy

Last week I attended a sold-out conference in downtown Denver that addressed the future of Colorado's 'New Energy Economy.' In the absence of any substantial federal legislation to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, state-level government initiatives in such states as California, Vermont, New Jersey, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Colorado to name a few, are giving shape to a technological 'race to the top' scenario where states are competing with each other to attract the type of businesses that can spur the development of a regional new energy economy.

While renewable energy technologies are receiving much needed attention from Wall St. to Main St. and from Cape Cod to Capitol Hill, the consensus at the conference seemed to be that planners, policymakers and investors should focus their immediate gaze on the 'low hanging fruit' of energy efficiency.

A rather interesting group was assembled for this event; it attracted CEOs of major utilities, well-known environmental advocates (and lesser known ones), coal advocates, reps from big oil, governors, farmers, mayors, contractors, energy researchers, policy wonks, etc. It is these sort of interdisciplinary events that have the effect of expanding the green movement beyond the constraints of its traditional boundaries.

In a smart political move, the Governor's Energy Office and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission have already posted links to PowerPoint presentations and high-quality audio of the conference sessions. I have no intention of pouring through the entire conference agenda for you, but if you are interested, I can suggest some worthwhile speeches and panels. The morning began with a pep-talk from Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter who touted a few of the state's legislative initiatives passed in the last session which included a doubling of the renewables portfolio standard (rps) for publicly owned utilities. Ritter delivered his remarks in a high-energy, high-spirited address that started the event off on the right foot. The governor did hint at the proposed policies in his new climate change initiative, but refrained from getting too specific about the details, which will be appropriately announced Monday at Coors Field in Denver. If you do listen to the Governor's talk, pay attention to the Q&A at the end and see if you can pick out which one of the questioners was yours truly! Other worthwhile talks in the morning plenary session came from Ron Binz from the Co. Public Utilities Commission, and from the Director of the Governor's Energy Office, Tom Plant.

If you are interested in traditional fuel sources, you might be interested in listening to the session titled "Coal and Gas: What are the Challenges..." I personally did not attend this session but instead attended the "Consumer Demand" session which featured political analyst Floyd Ciruli and was moderated by the excellent environmental historian Patricia Limerick. During the same time period there was another session for the technically-minded featuring "New Generation Technologies." In the second afternoon session I attended "Meeting Future Demand" which featured some spirited debate between Matt Baker, Executive Director of Environment Colorado and Jim Sims, who is best known as being a part of Vice President Dick Cheney's infamous energy task force (you remember, the one that was criticized for being cloaked in secrecy). This last session was informative but, unfortunately, the equivocating and loquacious Mr. Sims prevented too many questions from being asked by the audience because he was too busy reiterating his redundant messages.

Image Credit: Alexsandar Rodic

October 29, 2007

Colorado's New Energy Economy: The Path Forward

On Tuesday I will be attending what should be an excellent conference in Denver sponsored by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, the Governor’s Energy Office, and the Office of Consumer Counsel. The three state agencies will partner with the non-profit organization Energy Outreach Colorado for what is being billed as a "First-of-its-kind conference" (not my word choice, theirs) to examine current and future energy issues in Colorado. State and local elected officials will be joined by academics, energy leaders from various government agencies, investment bankers, energy industry representatives (both clean and dirty), and non-profit organizations to explore the policies, incentives, and economic impact of transitioning to a future of clean tech and renewable energy in Colorado.

Recapitulating on one of the central themes of his campaign stump speech, gubernatorial inaugural address, and 2007 State of the State speech, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter will deliver the morning plenary address on how his energy initiative coupled with recently passed legislation will be implemented to help construct Colorado's "New Energy Economy." The lunchtime keynote address will be given by NREL Principal Engineer Chuck Kutscher.

Other notable speakers, presenters, and moderators include Richard C. Kelly, Chairman of the Board, President & CEO of Xcel Energy; Greg Wasserman, Vice-President of Alternative Energy Investing for Goldman Sachs; Patty Limerick, Chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado; and Matt Baker, Director of Environment Colorado.

Photo Credit: Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau

October 27, 2007

BC Advisory Council Endorses Feed-in Tariff for Renewables

An advisory council to British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell has issued a report suggesting that the province adopt feed-in tariffs (FITs) to generate growth in new sources of renewable energy. The report suggests that the province should adopt:
“Legislation that governs the energy system mandates that higher rates be paid for power supplied by deploying emerging technologies. This guaranteed rate allows for the development of the project. As the technology becomes more viable, the incentive rates are lowered until over time that particular technology becomes commercially competitive."
FITs have had a tremendous impact on growing renewable energy production throughout Europe, but in Germany especially. The German Renewable Energy Sources Act introduced in 2004 mandated such a system. High electricity rates coupled with guaranteed purchase agreements have contributed to the explosion of micro-scale wind and solar energy in Germany. According to the report:
“Appropriate feed-in tariffs can be a powerful stimulus to the industry. Of all the different measures used to encourage development, tariffs have been the most successful at developing renewables markets and domestic industries, and achieving the associated social, economic, environmental, and security benefits."
Presently, the only hope for a FIT-type policy mechanism is in the Michigan state legislature, where such a bill has been proposed. As it currently stands, legislatures in the U.S. have clearly favored renewables portfolio standards (RPS) as the policy mechanism of choice. I believe the RPS is a step in the right direction, but the exclusions for municipalities and electric co-ops make it so that a goal of 15-20% renewable energy only applies to about 60% of the electricity purchasing public. But these mandatory quotas are creating a stable arena for large-scale utilities to continue to dominate energy production and transmission.

For more on feed-in tariffs and renewable energy policy in Canada, the U.S., and Europe, visit Paul Gipe's Wind-Works page.

Photo Credit: Paul Gipe

October 18, 2007

Solar Power: Front and Center During World Series

When the Colorado Rockies host their first-ever World Series homestand next week against their still to be determined AL foes, there will be flashing coming from more sources than the leather gloves of their pesky infielders. The team will also have a chance to flash the lights of their new solar-powered LED scoreboard. The project at Denver's Coors field is the first commercial-scale solar electric power system to be installed in a Major League Baseball park. As the result of a partnership between the Rockies and Xcel Energy, the system should produce more than enough electricity to power the scoreboard over the course of a year. The sleek SunPower solar modules are grid-tied and integrated with a flat-panel monitoring system that allows fans at the park to observe real-time system performance and scoreboard energy use (the same real-time data has also been made available online here). Thus far, the project has been a net exporter of 2200 kWh of electricity since the system was installed in April.

Not to be one-upped by corporate interests, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter was eager to take some credit and quick to congratulate the Rockies for their leadership as he called upon MLB, the NFL and "stadium owners throughout the nation to follow the example we've set by deploying solar at Coors Field" (emphasis added). I am not completely certain who the "we" Ritter is referring to but, I suppose that last year's passage of a bill that doubled Colorado's renewable energy standard from 10 to 20%, Gov. Ritter is entitled to some credit-claiming. The renewable requirement has thus far meant that investor-owned utilities like Xcel have been eager to buy renewable energy credits and sign long-term power purchase agreements from nearly any energy provider.

Installed in April by Independent Power Systems of Boulder, CO, the project consists of an array of 46 high-efficiency SunPower 215 watt modules that cover what was a mostly open walkway below the bleacher section. In a bit of serendipity, the girders over the walkway happened to slope a perfect 36 degrees. "It's as if they designed the stadium for a 10-kilowatt solar system," said Tony Boniface, president of Independent Power. But, because the panels are in straight-away centerfield, the contractors had to conduct a "glare analysis" to ensure the reflections wouldn't blind batters. "We didn't want to give slumping hitters an excuse," Boniface said. Considering how the Rockies are playing and hitting the ball, the panels do not seem to be causing too much of a glare problem (at least lately).

Consider how much electricity a modern sports stadium draws from the grid to power the extensive infrastructures of lighting and climate control systems, cooking stations, hot water, refrigeration and (in Colorado's case) humidors. Now consider the light being emitted by the small scoreboard in the center of the first image as compared to the other sources of light in the first image. Skeptics might charge that the solar-powered scoreboard exemplifies greenwashing, as it is nothing more than an expensive billboard that creates the illusion of corporate and social responsibility, while masking the more difficult problems related to demand and consumption.

Part of me sides with the skeptic on this one, but I also see that this is not only a smart marketing move by all of the parties involved (especially if they buy adtime or if they are featured in one of those little side-line stories), but that it has some positive political and social effects as well. The high-visibility of the solar array, located in what is essentially a public good, combined with the interactivity of the installation educates people by allowing them to see the costs and benefits of renewable energy generation firsthand (Although I'll admit that I found a little humor whilst looking at the small scoreboard within the larger context of flashing lights, fireworks and thumping music).

[Note: My original intent was to post this on the day after the NL pennant-clinching game, but I needed a day to recover after a fit of revelry that kept us from returning home from the game until quite late.]

Photo Credits:
1. Tim Hurst
2. Independent Power Systems

October 15, 2007

Blog Action Day: Take Back Your Mailbox

So, today is Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers have signed up to write about issues related to ecology, cleaning up the environment, climate change, etc. Do you know that tired saying, "every day is earth day"? Well, for me, and many like me, every day is Blog Action Day (at least every day I post a blog!). Nonetheless, my contribution requires some context. Do you remember what it was like before caller ID? My first mobile phone was not exactly what I would call "cool" by today's standards (or even yesterday's standards). This beauty was about the size of a small loaf of bread with this five inch rubber antenna and a goofy belt-clip assembly that made me look like a cop when I was wearing it. But to me, all that was a mere pittance to pay; for this this two pound plastic box of wires and circuits had caller ID.

Why did I love caller ID so much? It never seemed right to me that, just because someone has a phone means that they also have some obligation or responsibility to engage anyone (or anything) at the other end of the line. Now with the advent of caller ID and the National Do Not Call Registry we have the ability to screen out most telephone solicitation and accept the calls that we want.

Now, in that same vein, we are seeing opportunities to install sort of caller ID for our mailbox. The Direct Marketing Association has a little known program for people to get their name off of all those mailing lists, thus clearing up some space in your mailbox and ultimately reducing paper in landfills. One recent study has shown that paper products amount to nearly 25% of all waste going into area landfills (second only to construction waste which makes up 31%). That number might seem high, but I should add (not proudly) that according to Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Colorado is ranked 38th when compared to the other states, in terms of recycling rate.

Many folks might consider Coloradans largely to be the crunchy-green types, well educated, socially and ecologically conscious,etc. But I'm sorry to say that most of that is a stereotype (although a shift is underway). Sure, there are certain enclaves throughout the state that would be considered more eco-friendly than others, like Summit County, Telluride, Crested Butte, Steamboat, etc. And there are also a few bastions of progressive thinkers in the university towns of Boulder and to a lesser degree Fort Collins. But by and large, Colorado has traditionally been a state where individual freedom dominates all and there are very few laws that mandate recycling. In fact there are many areas in the state where the garbage hauler has no recycling programs or the county landfills only accept the bare minimum of post-consumer recyclable materials. Simply put, too much stuff is being thrown out, and there is really no such thing as "out".

Thankfully, another service has appeared recently on the radar screen that allows you to pick and choose which ones of the hundreds (thousands?) of catalogs you want and which you don't. The service is called Catalog Choice, and it lets you screen out even more of that crap that is all to often ending up in landfills across the country. So my piece of advice for the day, especially in this season of the holiday catalog, click on the link below and started. It's free, easy and there are no strings attached.

Photo Source: Low Impact Living

October 11, 2007

Call for Papers: Ecopolitics Online Journal

Dr. Liam Leonard, a faculty member in the Dep't of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and editor at Ecopolitics Online has announced a call for papers for the inaugural edition of the new online peer-reviewed journal. The theme of the first edition is, “Utopias, ecotopias and green communities: Exploring the patterns of resettlement and living of green idealists.”

According to the announcement on their website: Twice yearly, Ecopolitics Online will publish a collection of peer-reviewed papers from an international pool of environmental academics and researchers. The intent of the journal is to address environmental issues with a multidisciplinary approach, "which incorporates politics, sociology, geography, globalisation, development, economics, philosophy, ecology, law and science." The call for papers suggests that:

"Contributors should explore case studies from a broad and international range of community idealism and cooperative building. Rural resettlement, communes, syndicates, workers’ co ops, environmental communities and educational institutions are included within this broad thematic area of focus."
So even though this is an Irish publication, international scholarship is not only welcome but it seems as though it is encouraged. For more information about submissions, follow this link.

Photo Credits: 1. The Derrybrien Windfarm in County Galway is comprised of 71 Vestas V52 wind turbines and is currently the largest terrestrial wind farm in Ireland (source:

October 9, 2007

Germany to Phase Out Coal Industry; U.S. to Not.

The German government is making headway on a proposal that would seek to totally phase out the country's entire coal mining industrial sector by 2018. The proposal, which is subject to approval by both houses of the German Parliament, will ensure structured

compensation payments for the country's 34,000 coal workers. The German Social Democratic Party has secured a review of the plan in 2012 before it goes into full effect. This reflexive approach is intended to safeguard the mining industry, which was largely responsible for the success of the Social Democrats in the 19th century.

How is Germany able to take such aggressive steps towards eliminating coal? For one thing, the cost of coal-mining in Germany is making the practice economically unattractive. Stringent safety measures, high labor costs and the increased expense to dig deeper to find untapped coal seams has driven the cost of German coal to about 180 euros ($250) per ton, more than three times the global market price. Second, and not completely unrelated, the German feed-in tariff which I have written about here, mandates that utilities enter into purchase agreements for any producer of renewable electricity to the grid.

The formidable presence of the Greens in the German Bundestag has had the ultimate effect of 'devolutionizing ' electricity generation and revolutionizing grid interconnectivity. Now, it looks like their aggressive push for renewable energy sources will help anchor renewable energy sources as the essential ingredient in the German energy mix.

So, with that said, what is the future of coal in the U.S.? Well, put it this way, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of coal development in a country and the number of Green Party representatives in that country's legislature (Congress, Bundestag, Parliament, etc.). The preceding assertion would certainly need to be tested to find a statistically significant correlation, but the point is that there is virtually no third party presence, Green or otherwise, in the American system of interest representation and there is also no significant political efforts toward phasing out coal development.

In fact, one reporter from the Voice of America, has suggested that "like it or not, coal is here to stay." I think those types of blanket statements can be problematic, especially when we are addressing the mobilization of political action. Reporting that something cannot be changed can have the effect of suppressing thought and action. Yes, coal is currently the number one source of electricity in the U.S. And yes, the most powerful coal advocate's national political action committee CoalPAC donates tremendous sums of money to the campaign coffers of legislators in both parties in hopes of perpetuating the 'we need coal' myth. But one of the beauties of democracy is that just because it is here now, does not mean it will necessarily be here later.

Despite the fact that coal is often projected to be our primary source of electricity for some time to come (and I generally agree with this statement), asserting that it must, or accepting such assertions as a predestined certainty precludes the possibility of any discussion of other alternatives. Some will just shrug and accept their perceived reality of a coal-based future, because that is what the 'experts' are saying. Fortunately there are increasing numbers of people and organizations that are not limiting their discussion to the alternatives that provide no alternative

October 4, 2007

Wind and Hydro Power in Colorado: The Irony of the 'Event' as Politics (part I)

On any other day, Xcel Energy would have been basking in the sun. On any other day Xcel officials would have been standing proudly alongside Colorado Governor Bill Ritter and executives from energy conglomerate BP and global financiers Babcock & Brown to announce the grand opening of the new Cedar Creek wind farm in rural Weld County, CO. But Xcel had another issue launching them to the front pages of newspapers across the country, and that was the death of five contractors in a freak fire at a hydro-electric plant in the mountains west of Denver. The ironic timing of these two occurrences is quite striking.

The intent of this piece is not to disparage Xcel directly (a company that has invested rather aggressively in the development of renewable energy resources in MN, CO and NM), rather to illuminate more broadly, the massive social costs of modern electrification -- costs that are not shared equally by all of those who benefit from them -- especially the costs of centralized energy distribution versus distributed (or dispersed) energy distribution.

The language of efficiency has dominated the politics of energy development, but the language of efficiency does not dominate the entire system of accounting for energy. We are efficient in terms of extracting and producing the supply, but there seems to be much less focus on efficiency in terms of demand. Not only that, but we often achieve efficiency by simply not counting all parts of the equation. Take, for example, the economist's prized value of "cost-effectiveness", which is determined by some calculus of cost-benefit ratios and analyses.
The problem is that cost is all too often measured only in terms of real dollars which can have the real effect of obscuring so-called 'externalities' (i.e. mercury pollutants, widening economic disparities, the buildup of heat-trapping gasses, and dead miners).

Meanwhile, in what I am certain ended up being a rather anticlimactic opening ceremony at Colorado's newest windfarm, Governor Bill Ritter flipped a switch that essentially did nothing. While BP and Babcock & Brown have erected several of the 1MW+ turbines, they have yet to connect them to the grid. The farm will not produce any energy until the transmission lines have been hung, thereby bringing the generated windpower to Xcel customers in Colorado. And even though the suit-wearing participants in the grand opening believed their ceremonious but meaningless coalescence would produce a powerful political statement, the event would have been much more "cost-effective" politically, had the freaking turbines been plugged in when Ritter "flipped the switch."

The maximum or "nameplate" capacity of the $480 million wind project is approximately 300MW, which could bring electricity to as many as 90,000 homes in Colorado. However, very few of these homes will be located particularly close to Cedar Creek, most of the power will go to Xcel customers subscribing in the Denver metro area. Theoretically, the green juice goes to customers who have signed up via Xcel's Green Power program but, in actuality, once electricity is generated and transmitted to the grid, accounting for it becomes difficult, it really just becomes completely indistinguishable from any other sources contributing to the grid. So, I suppose that I would accept the argument these locals may in fact get the electricity that is actually produced at Cedar Creek, but that is beside the essential point here. Relatively few of those who will see these 274 turbines spread over 32,000 acres (50 sq. mi.) of eastern Weld County on a daily basis (or several times per day) will actually receive any direct economic benefits of them. Certainly there will be landowners (largely ranchers and farmers) who will receive lease payments from BP and B&B, and there will be ancillary contributions to the local economy when technicians visit gas stations, supply stores, restaurants, etc.; but these pale in comparison to the economic boon to the entire community if they were owned cooperatively by the local rural electric association. It is these REA members and electricity consumers who will undoubtedly make visual contact with one or more of these turbines per day, and whether like the sight of the new turbines or not, most will not receive any sort of compensation. Nor do the members of the REA even get the personal satisfaction of knowing that they are doing something about producing renewable energy, because the money that they pay for their electricity goes mostly to the coal-happy Tri-State Generation and Transmission (which oddly serves FOUR states not three).

Now that I have hopefully gotten your attention, I realize that this post has gotten too long, and still haven't sewn up a coherent argument about how all of this is ironic..., please stay tuned for part II!

Photo Credits:
American Wind Energy Association, The 165-MW Colorado Green Wind Farm, Prowers County, Colorado.
2. Windustry