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Progress and pitfalls in California's clean energy quest

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California Delays First Cap & Trade Permit Auction

State will start with a dry run while questions remain about how to spend the money

Getty Images

Starting next year, industries will have to track their greenhouse gas emissions and some will have to pay for carbon pollution rights.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board (ARB) announced at a state senate hearing that the first carbon permit auction will be pushed back to November 14th.

The surprise announcement came at a hearing called to discuss what to do with proceeds from the sale of permits to emit greenhouse gases, the first of which is expected to flow into state coffers late this year.

Nichols’ announcement stole the headlines, though she said that the new auction date will not affect the overall timeline for implementation and that August will now be a “practice auction.”

“We’ll give everybody a free round in August where the auction won’t really count,” Nichol told me. “So that gives all the stakeholders, including of course, all the companies that are going to have to be purchasing allowances at the beginning an opportunity to see how the system will actually work.” Continue reading

Survey: Waning Support for Alternative Energy Among Westerners

Meanwhile, support for mining and drilling has gone up

Skytruth

Wells stretch to the horizon in a Wyoming gas field. A recent Pew survey found increased support in the West for expanded gas and oil drilling.

As gas prices surge, support is waning for alternative energy sources, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center released last week. The decline has been particularly pronounced in the western U.S., a region characterized in previous surveys by strong support for alternative energy.

Ebbing enthusiasm for alternatives, according to the survey, is coupled with greater support for “traditional” gas and oil development. In a survey last year conducted by Pew, 73% of Western respondents said they supported increased development of alternative energy, while only 19% were in support of increased development of traditional sources such as oil, gas and coal.

Fast-forward a year. With the price of gas nationwide averaging close to $4 per gallon – up nearly 9% from the same period last year – the percentage of respondents in support of alternatives declined by 20 percentage points, whereas support for expanding mining and drilling jumped by 20 points, to 39%.

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EPA’s New Carbon Rule Doesn’t Do Much in CA

California enacted similar limits to pollution from power plants in 2006

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The EPA's new rule limits carbon emissions from new power plants nationwide.

The US Environmental Protection Agency will, for the first time, begin restricting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants. The EPA’s new standard limits how many pounds of carbon can be emitted per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. It doesn’t apply to existing power plants or to new plants that have already been permitted, and natural gas-powered plants should be able to meet the standard without changes. But coal-powered plants will no longer make the cut without adding carbon capture and sequestration technology.

This won’t have much of an effect on California’s energy industry, Dave Clegern from the California Air Resources Board told me, though he’s not complaining. “It’s always good to see a national standard, and we’re glad the EPA is doing it.”

Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a similar standard for power plants in California back in 2006. The state gets very little electricity from coal-powered plants, and the coal-fired power California residents do use comes from outside of California.

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Why Shell Oil Supports California’s Climate Change Legislation

Shell CEO is pro-AB 32, but stands by taking legal action against environmentalists in Alaska

Shell, US

Shell has partnered with MIT to explore carbon sequestration.

Royal Dutch Shell CEO, Peter Voser affirmed his company’s commitment to AB 32, California’s climate change legislation, and also explained why a carbon trading system is crucial to the development of alternative energy sources.

“We are clearly in favor of cap and trade systems,” he said to an audience of Silicon Valley business people and climate experts Wednesday in Burlingame. “We’d like to have it globally, to level the playing field.”

This statement from Shell, the global oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands and one of the world’s largest companies, is notable when you consider the strong opposition to AB 32 from the oil industry at large. In 2010, Proposition 23 attempted to derail the imposition of AB 32 provisions and was largely bankrolled by Tesoro and Valero, two Texas oil companies.

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Fuel Cell Reality Check: A Blooming Solution at Caltech?

The “Bloom Box” may be moving one step closer to affordability at Caltech — but is it even close to tipping point for the mass market?

Bloom Energy

Caltech needed more generation capacity to meet the demands of its energy-intensive research.

Sunnyvale-based Bloom Energy made a big splash in 2010 when it came out of stealth mode – on the CBS program 60 Minutes no less – and announced its high-efficiency fuel cell, spawned by a NASA project for Mars. It has earned an impressive roster of clients including Google, eBay and Walmart.

But beyond the inevitable skeptics, the really big catch? “Bloom Boxes,” as the fuel cells have been dubbed, have a price tag of around $700,000. Hardly affordable for all but the largest companies with plenty of cash.

Yet California Institute of Technology, the private research university generally known as Caltech, had twenty Bloom Boxes installed on its Pasadena campus in 2010. Each box now produces 100 kilowatts of electricity for a total of two megawatts capacity; or 17% of the university’s electricity demand.
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Are We Giving Up Too Soon on Carbon Capture?

California could benefit from the controversial technology behind “clean coal”

Dynegy

It's not just for coal: Natural Gas-fired power plants could use carbon capture technology, too.

A prominent researcher says it would be foolhardy to abandon plans to siphon off the carbon dioxide from industrial emissions and store it underground. The concept, known widely as “carbon capture and sequestration,” or CCS, has been a slow starter in the U.S. In fact, worldwide, there are only a handful of working projects.

“It never had a chance,” said Sally Benson, following a panel at a major science conference. Benson directs the Global Climate & Energy Project at Stanford University, and is a proponent of CCS — though she says companies that were leading the charge are now “wavering.” She told me that the 2010 UN climate talks in Copenhagen were a turning point; when it became apparent that governments weren’t about to put serious restrictions on carbon emissions, she says investors backed away from CCS, which is still in the pilot stage of development and very pricey. Continue reading

Golden Gate National Recreation Area Gets Wind Turbines Spinning

The National Park Service is expanding its renewable energy efforts

By Thibault Worth

Alison Taggart-Barone/National Park Service

Frank Dean, General Superintendent of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, speaks in front of one of the new wind turbines at Crissy Field.

The Crissy Field Center, an environmental education center operated by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Park Service and the Presidio Trust, erected three out of an eventual five wind turbines Wednesday. The event highlighted the expanding mission of the National Park Service to use more renewable energy in powering park facilities.

While the Center’s turbines will be used for mostly educational purposes, the ceremony took place on the same day that the National Park Service reached an interconnection agreement with Southern California Edison to bring 20 dormant renewable energy projects in California online.

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Job and Climate Concerns Driving Support for Large-Scale Solar

For the five desert counties polled, the economy is the top concern, “solar” leads energy choices

Courtesy BrightSource Energy

When it

Here’s the fine print up front: this survey, conducted during December and January, was underwritten by BrightSource Energy, the company that’s building one of California’s largest solar projects at Ivanpah, northwest of Needles in the Mojave Desert. Private capital for Ivanpah came from Google and from CalSTRS, the state’s teachers’ retirement system. It’s an enterprise that’s been lauded by Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and President Obama.

But just this week, Ivanpah came under fire in a Los Angeles Times story boldly titled “Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth.” BrightSource took to its own website to refute the charge that their utility-scale solar effort is responsible for “razing the desert” and pointed to their “low impact design,” a native plant nursery on site and a “Head Start” program for juvenile desert tortoises.

All that said, the phone survey conducted by Probolsky Research, LLC and released today by Vote Solar, a non-profit advocacy group, shows jobs and the economy leading the list of concerns among 52.3 percent of those polled, horse lengths ahead of a host of other woes which only garnered single-digit responses, including “environmental issues.” Only 5.5 percent put that at the top of the list. Continue reading

War of Watts: Neighbors Compete for Lowest Energy Use

Pitting neighbors against one another isn’t always a bad thing...is it?

Hear the companion radio feature to this post on KQED’s The California Report.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses,” the 1920s-era comic strip that inspired the catch-phrase of the same name, is a classic reminder of the ridiculous lengths we sometimes go to just to impress our neighbors. The need to “keep up” has driven plenty of neighborhoods into frenzies of conspicuous consumption—fueling spending sprees on everything from pink socks and fur-lined miniskirts, to microwaves and McMansions.  But can that same impulse really inspire a trend in “non-consumption?”

According to a growing body of research [PDF download] by environmental economists and behavioral psychologists, the answer is a resounding: Yes! Here are some of interesting nuggets to come out of that research. Continue reading

Requiem for Yucca Mountain: Federal Commission Says to Move On

The problem of where to put nuclear waste goes back to the drawing board

US Dept. of Energy

Dead End? The giant boring machine pokes through a rock face at Yucca Mountain.

In its final report, a federal blue-ribbon commission suggests that it may be time to throw in the towel on Yucca Mountain, the embattled project to store high-level nuclear waste in Nevada. Billions have already been spent on the project, which appears to have reached a dead end.

But the urgency to find a safe, permanent home for nuclear waste in the U.S. was tragically underscored last March by the destruction of three Japanese reactors and their storage pools of spent fuel rods, after an ocean tsunami overwhelmed the Fukushima plant’s coastal defenses. Continue reading