Mr. Greenbacks Goes to Costa Rica!

La Fortuna, CRIt has been much too long since my last post, but I think this one is worth the wait.  Back in February Mrs. Greenbacks and myself were invited to a wedding in Costa Rica and we gladly attended!  Special shout out to Connie and Dave – Congratulations Again!

Aside from the beautiful ceremony and spectacular reception, we got to enjoy much of what Costa Rica had to offer – beaches, rainforest and volcano.

Costa Rica is at the forefront of promoting sustainable practices in their everyday life and as Mrs. Greenbacks pointed out, one of the 5 “Blue Zones” of the world where people regularly live to be over 100 and generally enjoy better health and less incidence of disease than the rest of the world.

Just a few of the common practices that we saw in Costa Rica was composting of all organic materials, low flow faucets and showers as well as automatic shut off switches on the room lights after the key has been removed.  A heavy public awareness campaign also goes a long way toward making guest appreciate the natural beauty of the land.

ImageOn our hanging bridges canopy tour, our guide explained that Costa Rica was well on its way toward meeting its power needs using renewable sources such as hydro, wind, and geothermal.  Almost 95% of CR’s power is produced from renewable sources with hydro accounting for a full 75% of the total.  Geothermal ranks second due to the areas 5 active volcanos and wind installations have been steadily increasing in recent years.  Distributed solar would make a great addition to CR’s renewable energy portfolio and would help to power regions where grid transmission is simply too costly.

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Energy Policy Meets Federal Land

A recent article called Turning Pristine Public Lands Into Solar Farms in Bloomberg Businessweek highlighted the Obama administrations’ policy of opening federal lands maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior to renewable energy projects.  The executive powers that Obama is using are similar to the ones that the Bush administration used to bypass Congress and push for oil and gas drilling on those same lands in 2001.  Using Ken Salazar, the Secretary of the Interior, Obama has approved more than 37 renewable energy projects on federal lands that will power more than 3.8 million homes.

Brownfields WindSince taking office, Obama has issued an average of 1,000 fewer drilling leases per year to oil and gas interests.  Instead, the administration has green lighted more than 18 other utility-scale solar plant, 7 wind farms, and 9 geothermal facilities.

However, certain projects have angered environmentalist groups such as the Sierra Club and the NRDC who feel that some of the projects would be better sited on 80,000 – 285,000 abandoned mine sites on federal lands instead of pristine desert space near treasured national parks such as Joshua Tree in southern California.  A coalition called the Western Lands Project is suing the Dept. of the Interior in federal court hoping to have the projects moved to those less desirable, degraded lands.

While I am generally skeptical of politicians bypassing Congress to achieve a political goal, I do favor building renewable energy plants on federal lands.  I also agree with the Western Lands Project that the Interior should look for better locations for these projects that redevelop sites that have already been ruined by mining operations.  Reusing depleted lands and brownfield development would be ideal for PV installation because the land does not have to be cleaned up beforehand and solar PV requires very little maintenance and can be seated on top of the land, not disturbing the contamination.  The EPA announced a brownfield redevelopment project called Brightfields that aims to achieve exactly that.  As with any major project, land use should be a major factor.  This is especially true when using public lands for private development.  By identifying sustainable sites that promote redevelopment of tarnished lands, the government can achieve a double victory of renewable energy and brownfield remediation.

The below image shows a refurnished open pit mine in Germany that is now one of the world’s largest PV plants at 166MW.  This site would have otherwise been left uninhabitable for any purpose.

Brownfield Solar

Four Climate Change Policy Ideas for the Next President

Congratulations! We are finally out of this election cycle and all the negative ads. And no matter who the winner is, I hope that we can all come together to build a stronger economy and a healthier society. While we wait for the mudslinging over the fiscal cliff to begin, here are the top four recommendations on climate change policy for the incoming (or returning) president as stated in Businessweek.

1) Put a price on carbon. I alluded to this in a previous post called Carbon Emission where we discuss the differences between a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade policy. Businessweek says that “A $20-per-ton carbon price—collected as a tax or by auctioning carbon allowances—would raise on the order of $100 billion per year while creating powerful economic incentives to curb pollution in the most cost-effective manner (and develop new technologies to do so). A carbon price is also an ideal way to help address the coming “fiscal cliff”: Using some of the revenue to pay for lower taxes on labor or capital would provide a double dividend by reducing distortions in our tax system. For that reason, a carbon price enjoys broad support from economists across the political spectrum, from N. Gregory Mankiw, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, and Arthur Laffer on the Right, to Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs on the Left.”

2) Cut Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases. CO2 is obviously the biggest contributor to global warming, accounting for over 80% of GHG’s, but it is not the most potent. Other GHG’s such as Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and other flourinated gases such as hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride are numerous time more potent warmers than CO2.  I wrote a paper on this earlier this year and will post it later this month.  Needless to say, focusing attention on these High Global Warming Potential gases may do more in the short-term to curb warming and create some international “good will” for tackling the CO2 problem. 

3) Promote Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency.  The administration should further the transition to renewable energy sources by removing subsidies for fossil fuels and encouraging smarter subsidies for clean energy.  I wrote extensively on this subject here.  In short, current subsidies to fossil fuels should be removed and invested into R&D.  The current subsidies in place for renewable energy promote widespread deployment of these technologies, but do nothing to increase their output and reduce their cost.  A better subsidy policy would promote increases in efficiency or reductions in cost in order to make these technologies competitive with cheap and abundant natural gas.  After all, the taxpayer wants to see results from their money.

4) Use the Clean Air Act.  Finally, the new administration should take full advantage of the Clean Air Act that sets new vehicle mileage standards, sets limits on pollution from industrial sources, and sets more protective standards for air quality.  “The next administration should build on these steps by setting carbon-pollution emission standards for stationary sources, including new and existing power plants. In doing so, the EPA can draw on a proud tradition, dating back to the Reagan administration, of making clean-air rules as economically efficient and flexible as possible—for example, by allowing averaging and trading so companies can meet standards on a fleet-wide basis rather than at each facility individually. The EPA should also design the carbon standards in a way that rewards states that implement their own rigorous programs—such as the innovative cap-and-trade approaches already in use in the Northeast and getting under way in California.”

There you have it.  In only a few hours from now we will know the next leader of the United States of America.  Now if the time for action on climate change.  The four steps outlined above are only the beginning, but they will help to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, improve the health of our citizens (and the other 6.7 billion citizen of this planet), and even provide opportunities for the growth of new industries.  This is a tall order, but we have never backed down from a challenge before, why start now?

Carbon Emission: Regulatory Controls vs. Market Based Solutions

Many of you have been asking what the difference is between regulatory approaches and market based solutions to carbon emissions.  The answer is fairly simply but depends on what you want the outcome to be.  The whole question can be boiled down to: Tax or Trade?

A carbon tax is a pure price instrument that establishes a certain price on pollution.  While the price is guaranteed, the final emissions reduction is not.  For example, a $5 tax/ ton on CO2 emissions for a firm that pollutes 100 tons of CO2/ year would cost the firm $500.  This policy creates certainty for businesses and governments, but leaves uncertain the amount of emissions reduction. 

On the other hand, a cap-and-trade system (or quantity instrument) determines the final output of allowed emissions, but leaves the price uncertain.  In a certain year where polluters find it hard or costly to reduce emissions, the price of each credit would rise as companies bid up the price of the allowance.  In a different year, the price of the credits might fall as many industries would have a surplus of their pollution credits available on the market.  As companies find it harder to meet the required pollution allowances, the price of each credit would increase with demand.  Every so often credits would be removed from the market in order to achieve the desired level of emissions.

So which one is better?  Depends.  It all depends on what the predicted damage costs are.  If the marginal damage costs are high, then it is better to use a quantity mechanism because you know the level of pollution output.  The market will set the rate.  If the marginal damage costs are low, and policy makers are worried about the high costs of transition to a low-carbon economy, then a price mechanism would be the better option because it would provide more clarity to the business community when making future investment decision.  Hit me back and let me know your thoughts.

Fracking New York

No, the title of this post is not just something I heard uttered by a disgruntled Red Sox fan on our road trip to Boston this past weekend. It actually has to do with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision to begin a new environmental study of the effects of fracking on public health. This decision would restart the regulatory process and almost certainly push a final decision into 2013 or later.

While a big victory for the environmentalists, it has angered upstate residents and land owners who were looking for economic development or to simply lease out their land to natural gas companies. Mr. Cuomo is caught between a rock and a hard spot on this issue because of his committment to economic prosperity and job creation on one hand, and his environmental conservatism on the other. With both sides fervently pushing to allow or deny fracking on the New York region of the Marcellus Shale, the Governor decided to review more data and let the facts make the decision for him.

I say, “Congratulation Mr. Cuomo! Thank you for not bending to one political pressure or another and instead reviewing actual science and data. This is something that has been missing from many of the major political arguments recently.”

America really needs to learn the facts about natural gas – do not base your decision on a 30 second tv commercial sponsored by the Natural Gas Alliance. Get out and do some research. This is such a big deal for America’s economy and our environment. If fracking is for the public good, then a public health study of the effects of fracking is exactly what the doctor ordered.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I must admit that I was originally in favor of fracking in certain areas and more importantly, in favor of natural gas as a “transition fuel” until renewable sources were cost competitive. I saw the economic benefits and job creation associated with fracking as outweighing the environmental degradation. Since then I have changed my opinion. I have to ask myself, why are we taking a bunt when we could be swinging for the fences in terms of renewable energy technology. Natural gas will still play a large role in America’s future – after all, we need a diversified energy portfolio. But now I see the economic benefits of renewable energy technology being even more important to our economy. Instead of risking potential poisoning to our fresh water supplies and still being dependent on the spot price of a commodity, our renewable energy future will protect our most vital resources and at the same time create a demand for good, high-paying jobs in science, engineering, and operations and maintenance of distributed, renewable energy systems.

 

In their own words

“The world is caught in a dangerous feedback loop – higher oil prices and climate disruptions lead to higher food prices, higher food prices lead to more instability, more instability leads to higher oil prices.  That loop is shaking the foundations of politics everywhere.”

-Thomas Friedman

 

“Fortunately, we are not doomed to eternal punishment, as Prometheus was for stealing fire for humankind.  Nor does the dwindling of the old fire of fossil fuels mean a return to the Dark Ages.  Instead, we can create a safer, stronger, fossil-free world by tapping into a far greater resource than fossil hydrocarbons.  The real underlying fuel of America and of modern civilization is innovation and ingenuity.”

-Amory Lovins