Chu Tones it Down for Cancun

Energy Secretary takes the cautious route in Cancun; just part of the sideshow at COP16.

US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appeared to pull some punches while speaking at the US Center in Cancun on Monday. (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

The UN climate negotiations in Cancun may be the official attraction, but in many ways, there’s just as much happening at the “side events” here at COP16.  There are dozens everyday — last week there were more than 150, and that number is increasing this week as more people arrive for the final days of the talks.  While the negotiations are limited to representatives from national governments, the side events provide a stage for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientists, business leaders, and local and regional government officials, many of them, it turns out, from California. Continue reading

The Overspray from Prop 23

On Monday, US energy secretary Steven Chu became the latest high-profile voice against California’s Proposition 23, the statewide initiative to suspend AB 32, the state’s four-year-old climate strategy.

“AB 32 was a good bill and continues to have California in a leadership role in developing clean energy and the efficient use of energy,” Chu told reporters at a dedication in Menlo Park. “From the middle 1970s California played that role and it would just be a terrible setback.”

Last week the trend was given full voice by Mary Nichols, who, as chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), is charged with getting AB 32 fully implemented in the next two years, called Prop 23 a “very serious threat,” not just to the core programs of AB 32, but to an array of regulatory programs that support the state’s attack on greenhouse gases. Continue reading

DOE Secretary Opposes Prop 23

In what are believed to be his first public remarks on the subject, US Energy Secretary Steven Chu came out against California’s Proposition 23 today. Chu said passage of the measure, designed to suspend the state’s landmark climate law known as AB 32, would be “a terrible setback.”
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Chu: Time to End “Paralysis”

Gretchen Weber

Photo: Gretchen Weber

Energy Secretary Steven Chu returned to his old stomping grounds at Stanford University yesterday with a broad outline for jump-starting “a clean energy industrial revolution.”  Speaking to a packed auditorium of students and faculty, Chu advocated the passage of a comprehensive energy bill, saying that increased innovation and investment in “clean tech” is essential for American competitiveness, as well as for reducing dependence on foreign oil and mitigating climate change:

“We are right now in a state of paralysis. There are many businesses who say ‘No, no, we can’t do this, this country was founded on cheap energy, that’s what I want.’  That’s just holding off the inevitable.  So if we hold off the inevitable for another 5 or 10 years, I think we will lose.  Because the other countries are moving.  And then we play catch up.  And then we import their stuff.  That’s what’s at risk.  The future of the prosperity of the US is at risk.  Energy touches everything.”

Chu said the United States is “not doing so well” in terms of clean energy innovation and cited the drop in US market share in photovoltaics  from 44% in 1996 to less than 10% today.

“The US innovation machine is the best in the world,” he said, and then recited a dismal laundry list of fields in which the US is no longer leading the way, including auto fuel efficiency, hybrid car batteries, energy transmission, energy transmission equipment, and nuclear technology.

When asked by an audience member why the US doesn’t commit to a Manhattan Project-style endeavor to solve the energy issue, Chu explained that a project at that scale would have an annual cost in the tens of billions.  In comparison, the current base budget of the DOE is $3 billion per year.

“I agree.  We should do that,” he said. “Tell people in Congress how important it is.”

Key to America’s success, he said is an energy bill that sends signals to the private sector that clean energy is a profitable venture, through incentives and tax breaks.  He said that the federal government plays a role in grants and loan guarantees, but to scale technologies from the idea stage to the factory floor, private investors must play a role.

“America has an opportunity to seize the day and to lead in what has to be a new industrial revolution,” said Chu.  “It’s our choice. Do we want to be leaders or followers?”

As if on cue, it looks like Los Angeles is about to crush one plan that might have helped put southern California at the forefront of clean energy generation and transmission. The Riverside Press-Enterprise reports today that Los Angeles officials will likely announce tomorrow that they’re pulling the plug on the contentious project known as Green Path North.   The project would have installed 80 miles of high-voltage lines and towers to carry geothermal, wind and solar energy from Imperial County to Los Angeles and some Inland cities.  The plans have met with opposition from environmental groups and communities along the proposed corridors.

The project was featured last year in a radio series for Climate Watch by KQED’s Rob Schmitz, on plans to get clean energy from southern California’s deserts to its cities.

Capturing Carbon in California

CoalPlantLauren Sommer’s two-part radio series on carbon capture in California airs this week on The California Report. You can also view her slide show at the end of this post.

The idea seems simple enough: In order to get energy, we burn carbon. In most cases, that carbon comes out of the ground in the form of natural gas or coal. So instead of releasing the resulting carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, why not put it back into the ground?

Of course, carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS) is much more complicated than that. Nonetheless it’s a strategy that’s being pursued aggressively by both international leaders and US Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who would like to see it deployed in ten years.

There are obstacles on both the “capture” and “storage” side of the equation. In terms of technology, however, “storage” is much further along, thanks to the oil and gas industry, which is already using CO2 in oil recovery. Injecting compressed CO2 into oil fields forces more oil to the surface in a process known as enhanced oil recovery. As many in the industry will remind you, they have three decades of experience doing this.

Keeping it underground is another matter. In the western US, the West Coast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership (WestCarb) is setting up a number of pilot projects to study how CO2 can be safely stored underground. As Technical Director Larry Myer explained to me, one of the primary goals is to simply work out the regulatory, siting, and liability issues.

As with any waste issue, choosing the site is the most important–and often most difficult–issue. California’s Central Valley has plenty of underground saline aquifers and depleted oil and gas fields that could hold CO2. But the trick is finding a site where the geology can securely store it and where there’s little risk of groundwater contamination. On the plus side, scientists know that CO2 is slowly immobilized underground, which lessens the risk over time. But how long that takes is still under study.

As for the “capture” issue, there are three ways to separate CO2 from power plant emissions.

  • In today’s Climate Watch story, I describe Oxyfuel technology, in which natural gas is burned in pure oxygen. Since the outputs are steam and carbon dioxide, the CO2 can be easily siphoned off. But that requires building new power plants from scratch.
  • The second option seeks to deal with the carbon dioxide before the fuel is burned; a “pre-combustion” approach. Or for all you wonks out there: Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC). The downside to this process is that it requires gobs of energy, which makes it expensive.
  • Finally, there’s the “post-combustion” approach. That’s where the CO2 is “scrubbed” from flue gas after the fuel is burned. Existing plants can be retrofitted with this technology, but it also comes with large energy penalty, just like IGCC.

A price on carbon, through either a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax, would change the economic case for CCS, but there are a lot of strikes against the technology. So why pursue it?

The argument goes like this: In order to achieve steep emissions cuts–say an 80% reduction worldwide by 2050–it may be an important tool (or stabilization wedge).  The world will continue to use fossil fuels in the near term and despite the enormous growth of renewable energy, it’s still a drop in the bucket. That’s why many believe that CCS is a crutch the world needs to wean ourselves from fossil fuels.

The End of Ag? Chu Drops a Climate Bomb

arizona-drought-small.jpgHigher temperatures and drier conditions could destroy California’s vineyards by the end of the century if Americans do not act fast to slow global warming, Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu said Tuesday in his first interview since joining the Obama cabinet.  Chu, a California native, warned that increased water shortages in the West and a loss of up to 90 percent of the Sierra snowpack are likely to have a severe impact on the state’s agricultural industries as well as California’s cities.

“I don’t think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen,” Chu told the Los Angeles Times.  “We’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California.”

Californians may appreciate this kind of attention in Washington to what is shaping up as potentially the worst drought in the state’s history.  The California Department of Water Resources reports $308.9 million in agricultural losses last year due to drought in the state, and if January was any indication of what’s to come, that number will be even higher for 2009.  The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reports that grape growers in the counties of Sonoma and Mendocino are facing a difficult choice this month as they decide whether to use some of their reduced water allotments for frost protection. With such a rapidly dwindling supply, water used now could mean none for irrigation later in the season.

This morning on KQED’s Forum, California water experts discussed the direness of the situation and the probability of water rationing and other measures to deal with it.

The California Department of Water Resources website has extensive information about drought conditions and mitigation efforts across the state, including this fact sheet updated for January 2009.

Photo by Reed Galin

CNN: Berkeley Lab’s Chu to Head DOE

xbd200805-00226-24.jpgReuters news agency is quoting CNN today in reporting that Steve Chu will get the nod from President-elect Obama to head the U.S. Dept. of Energy.

Since 2004, the Nobel laureate physicist has been the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). Lab spokesman Lynn Yarris said he could not confirm the report. In an email to KQED’s Cy Musiker, he wrote that Chu is traveling until next week, adding that right now the report is “all still speculation.”

Chu has maintained a fairly high profile, writing op-ed pieces on America’s energy future and lecturing on potential solutions to climate change (note that this link is to an hour-long video).

He’s also been a vocal supporter of California’s comprehensive plan to attack climate change, known by the shorthand AB-32. From an opinion piece for the San Francisco Chronicle last year, co-written with U.C. Berkeley’s chancellor, Robert Birgeneau:

“The development of new, carbon-neutral energy sources are needed to avert the predictions of disastrous climate change. The landmark global warming legislation signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year committing our state to ambitious reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 is a strong and encouraging step. California is a national and global leader moving toward a sustainable energy future, and it is in the public mission of the University of California to help find ways to meet these goals.”

LBNL has been a leader in developing energy-saving technology, from lighting to windows, to “cool-roof” coatings.

In 2006 Chu was interviewed on KQED’s Pacific Time.

The California Air Resources Board is expected to vote on final acceptance of an implementation plan for AB-32 tomorrow. Speaking of which, published reports indicate that Mary Nichols, who heads California’s air board, will be passed over for the top spot at the Environmental Protection Agency, and that the nod will go to Lisa Jackson, a former state environmental regulator in New Jersey.

Photo: LBNL.