What Will it Take?

An interesting confluence of events this week: A Senate committee votes down a contentious amendment to the “climate” bill, a new Stanford survey shows rising concern about global warming, and pundits gather in Pasadena to sort through it all.

87496035The survey, conducted by Jon Krosnick’s Political Psychology Research Group with funding from the National Science Foundation, suggests that some climate pollsters have been getting it wrong. About three in four respondents to the Stanford poll (74%) acknowledge that the “world’s temperature” is rising, and though they appear to be divided on the cause (with a slight edge to human causation), roughly the same majority (76%) favor federal limits on “the amount of greenhouse  gasses thought to cause global warming.” Krosnick summarized some of his findings in an editorial for the New York Times.

Meanwhile eminent climate scientists, social scientists and journalists assembled in SoCal this week, in part to ask the question: “What will it take to precipitate meaningful policy responses to climate change?” The answer from author Stewart Brand was succinct: “It takes warfare.” Brand was part of a panel at “Moving By Degrees,” a day-long forum hosted by American Public Media’s Marketplace program. Brand, who describes himself as an “ecopragmatist,” has concluded that when the planet’s “carrying capacity” is strained to the point where nations and peoples are fighting over dwindling resources, only then will coordinated international action begin in earnest.

Brand’s dim view was shared by physicist-turned-blogger Joe Romm, who said that while current US policy is driven by “denial,” he sees a coming shift in which people move “from denial to desperation.” That, says Romm, will be the catalyst. “Denial makes easy things hard and desperation makes hard things easy,” he said. Romm says he expects the desperation phase to set in about a decade from now, when extreme weather events and other likely manifestations of climate change intensify and become more frequent. Romm challenged the notion that technology will provide an easy solution to climate change and defied the gathering to come up with one “game-changing” technological breakthrough in energy, over the past three decades.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy.

New York Times blogger Andrew Revkin points to a graph that shows the relatively low level of US R&D funding devoted to energy (it's the little green squiggle in the middle). Photo: Craig Miller

Romm and Brand were joined by two high-profile climate scientists, Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Michael Mann, who directs the Earth System Science Center at Penn State; social scientists Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego and Eileen Claussen, President of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change and Strategies for the Global Environment; as well as commentators from business and investment groups.

Most agreed that “putting a price on carbon,” through cap-and-trade or some other means, is an essential, if overdue policy step. Analyst Bruce Kahn of Deutsche Bank issued a plea for a coherent policy on carbon pricing. “You can’t put a policy in place today and change it tomorrow,” said Kahn. “A carbon price needs longevity and certainty so companies will add it to their business models.” Once that happens, Kahn said there’s “a massive amount of capital out there looking for a place to go,” and that investment capital will flow to where stable policies exist. Mindy Lubber, president of the CERES investor group, went a step further: “We are losing the jobs and opportunities right now in the clean tech sector,” said Lubber, “because we don’t have the right market signals in place.”

Brand also had some advice for environmentalists, which he says have become “the cohort of the Left:” Brand said “We need to de-tribalize,” and he offered that “The best thing Al Gore could do is shed the Democratic party.”

All of the day’s sessions are archived at the Marketplace conference website.

Has the Southwest Passed “Peak Water”?

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

Historic water marker on the shores of Lake Powell, April 2010 (Photo: Gretchen Weber)

People have been talking about “peak oil” for decades now, debating when oil production will peak and then start to decline as remaining resources become scarcer and harder to access.   Less attention has been given to the idea of “peak water,” which is the subject of a new analysis by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute.  The concepts of peak oil and peak water aren’t entirely analogous for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that, overall, water is a renewable resource.  But there are limits to what water is renewable, and how fast supplies recharge.  While the world is not going to run out of water, the report authors argue, in parts of the world including the southwestern US, we’re likely long past the point of peak water.  That matters a lot, said study co-author Meena Palaniappan, because unlike oil, which is shipped across the world, water is still a local and regional issue.

“We’re not going to run out of water,” said Palaniappan, “but we’re going to see a change.  We’re at the end of cheap, easy access to water.  We’re going to have to go further, pay more, and expect less in terms of fresh water.”

The report divides peak water into three types: peak renewable water, the total annual supply of water from sources such as rainfall, rivers, and groundwater sources that are refilled relatively quickly; peak non-renewable water, which includes groundwater aquifers that either do not refill or do so extremely slowly; and peak ecological water, past which, the value of ecological services provided by water is greater than the value it provides in direct human services.  Or simply, it’s the point where taking water causes more ecological damage than it’s worth.

“The goal is to find the sweet spot, where we can maximize the human value water provides as well as the ecological value,” said Palaniappan.

In the western US, we are definitely past peak ecological water, said Palaniappan.  As evidence of this, she cited the Central Valley aquifer, which is being pumped down far faster than it can recharge and the Colorado River, which supplies Southern California with much of its water, and no longer reaches the ocean most years because every drop of it is appropriated for human use.

Last week, I was in Salt Lake City to talk with Terry Fulp, the Bureau of Reclamation‘s Deputy Regional Director of the Lower Colorado Region.  He said that after 10 years of drought on the Colorado, each of the seven states that draw from it are still getting their allotted water supply, and the reservoirs are about half full.  The Colorado River system, which supplies water to more than 30 million people, has a huge storage capacity, equal to four times the river’s annual flow, Fulp said. But increasing demand due to the drought and to population growth have the Bureau looking ahead at the challenges the system may be facing in the not-too-distant future.

“The supply and demand curves basically have crossed,” said Fulp.  “If you look over the last 100 years, the water supply has been above the demand, but demand has been growing, and essentially, today they have met.  We’re operating on a tight margin, a very tight margin, so the question is about projecting what we think the future will look like twenty years out.”

Like Palaniappan, Fulp says that conservation is critical and may become increasingly so in the near future. But even so, he said he doubts the demand for Colorado River water is going to decrease. The supply may, however.  Long droughts are common in the paleorecord, and water managers are planning for an additional 10-15% reduction in flow due to the effects of climate change.   This matters a great deal in a system where just about every drop is spoken for.  Fulp says that developing methods for accessing new water supplies, such as groundwater and desalinization plants, needs to be central to a long-term water management strategy for the region.

The Solar Jobs Solution: Some Perspective

As anyone who got stuck in the traffic knows, President Obama made a call at one of the Bay Area’s new darlings of green tech, Fremont-based Solyndra Inc., which he called a “testament to American ingenuity and dynamism.”

The firm is tapping more than a half-billion dollars in federal loan guarantees to build a manufacturing plant for its photovoltaic (PV) technology. Governor Schwarzenegger and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have also used Solyndra as a backdrop for showcasing California’s burgeoning clean tech sector. The company has developed a new type of PV technology designed for commercial rooftops.

Solyndra's rooftop solar panels use a new type of cylindrical module. Image: Solyndra, Inc.

Solyndra's rooftop solar panels use a new type of cylindrical module. Image: Solyndra, Inc.

Today in Silicon Valley, the big, green hype machine was running at full tilt. Solyndra’s CEO, Chris Gronet, talked up the California location. “If our factory was someplace else (outside the US), we probably would not have the supply chain across 29 US states,” he told KQED’s Cy Musiker today.

Mike Mielke of Silicon Valley Leadership Group added to the frenzy: “Clearly California’s leadership in the emerging trillion-dollar clean energy technology market has put us in an ideal investment position,” he said in a statement issued after the Presidential appearance.  “We would not be as competitive without the state’s landmark clean energy policies like AB 32.”

But some temperance was injected into the festivities by Severin Borenstein, co-director of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Asked if investments in solar panel production necessarily translate to permanent job growth, he told Musiker: “The evidence from a longer-run perspective really doesn’t support that.”

Borenstein says what history does demonstrate is that dominance in a given technology lasts just about as long as the government subsidies supporting it. He pointed to both Germany and Spain, both of which have recently lost some of their edge in production of solar components. Much production of solar and wind energy products has already moved to China.

“This idea that you’re going to create a permanent competitive advantage in producing green technology by subsidizing it now is really not very well born out in the data,” said Borenstein, who doesn’t deny that federal stimulus funding has “helped push forward” some key technologies. In the absence of a meaningful price mechanism for carbon emissions, Borenstein says that “pushing forward on some of these alternative technologies is the best thing we can do.”

Regarding California’s landmark climate law, the aforementioned AB 32, Borenstein agrees with the state’s Legislative Analyst that implementation would not have a significant impact on California’s overall economy, in either direction. But Borenstein doesn’t see the point in abandoning the state’s primary comprehensive climate strategy to save jobs, as some have suggested it would. “Climate change is real and it is potentially catastrophic,” said Borenstein. “If every time we have an economic setback, we put the environment second, we’re never going to make any progress.”

California Slogs Toward Cap-and-Trade

Dispatch from the bureaucratic trenches:

A cloud settles over the state capitol. Photo: Craig Miller

Clouds linger over California's cap-and-trade future. Photo: Craig Miller

The notion may be losing momentum in Washington but in Sacramento, California’s Air Resources Board continues the trudge toward a carbon trading program mandated under the state’s 2006 climate law, AB 32. This week its staff held the latest in a series of public meetings to discuss “program development” and “allowance allocation.” The topic may be a certified snore for most people but the CalEPA auditorium in Sacramento was nearly packed with representatives from utilities, environmental groups, public health advocates and an assortment of other interested parties, many with diametrically opposed views of how carbon allowances should be meted out for trading.

One of them was Chris Busch of the Center for Resource Solutions, who gave voice to a contingent disillusioned with what they read as momentum toward giving away allowances to industry. Busch coined what was probably the phrase of the day, accusing the Air Board of some “creative re-framing” of how carbon allowances might be distributed. Environmentalists have been pushing for something close to a “100% auction” of permits, while many business interests are hoping to get them free of charge, at least in the early stages of the program.

To many in the room, the update from the Air Board staff appeared to indicate a drift toward free permits. The Board’s Kevin Kennedy stressed that the staff had never come out officially for a 100% auction and said they’re “taking a close look” at how best to distribute them. His colleague, Matt Zaragoza put it more bluntly, saying “We’re strongly considering the need for free allocations.”

Regarding the state’s plan to join in a regional carbon market with several other states and some Canadian provinces known as the Western Climate Initiative, Kennedy insisted that “reports of it’s death have been greatly exaggerated.” But when pressed on how many US states are actually prepared to move forward, he confirmed that only New Mexico is in lockstep with California. Arizona’s governor recently signed an executive order pulling that state out of the proposed regional carbon market.

Here in the Golden State, industry is still angling for anything it can get to keep emissions fees to a minimum. Some complain that valid considerations are being left out of the plan.

“A lot of us are producing products today that are very focused on energy savings.,” said Phil Newell, who heads energy and environmental affairs for Guardian Industries, a maker of “low-E” glass products which promote energy efficiency. Newell says that a system of traded carbon permits and offsets should account for the energy savings achieved by his company’s products. “Every time we use a unit of energy in producing a coated product, we’re reducing 500 units of pollution elsewhere,” Newell claimed in a hallway interview. “We need some recognition of that.” Newell said that without that recognition, the high cost of carbon allowances might force his company to shut down manufacturing in California. Guardian operates a plate glass manufacturing plant near Fresno.

The Air Board’s staff says it is pushing for a “design document” describing a plausible allowance system by mid-summer.

Another Whack at a Federal Climate Bill

87767226The latest version of a federal climate bill sets a series of national targets for greenhouse gas emissions and would halt California’s plans for state and regional carbon trading.

Unveiled by Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman today, the American Power Act aims to push GHG emissions down to slightly below 2005 levels by 2013, then sets a longer-term reduction timetable of 83% (of 2005 levels) by 2020, 58% by 2030, 17% by 2050 (or to flip it around, an 83% reduction from 2005 levels by 2050), in line with the promise that President Obama made following the “Copenhagen Accord.”

The 987-page bill regulates seven greenhouse gases, with room for the Environmental Protection Agency to add others under the Clean Air Act. The cap-and-trade provisions focus on “7,500 factories and power plants,” which is to say those that put out more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon per year. That’s the same benchmark used by the federal EPA in its proposed regulations.

Like previous drafts, this one nullifies state and regional carbon regulation, setting up “one clear set of rules” for industry and providing “compensation for the revenues lost as a result of the termination of their cap-and-trade programs,” such as California’s AB 32, and regional efforts, such as the Western Climate Initiative. California’s Legislative Analyst has estimated that the state has committed about $120 million so far, to the implementation of its 2006 climate law. California regulators have already weighed in on the concept of “federal preemption,” warning against leaving the job of carbon reduction to the federal government alone. The Kerry-Lieberman bill requires “consultation” with states that currently have their own emissions plans.

Significantly, the first several sections of the Senate bill address development of energy sources. The reduction goals for greenhouse gas emissions aren’t even spelled out completely until page 265. Energy provisions that may come to bear on California policy include:


– All farms appear to be exempt from cap & trade but benefit from offset programs

Oil Industry:

– According to a summary of the bill from Kerry’s office: “Producers and importers of refined products” will get a fixed price for their carbon allowances.

– Offshore drilling is included as part of the energy strategy but states can prohibit leasing within 75 miles of the coast

Nuclear Power:

– Provides several incentives, including an “expedited procedure for issuing combined construction & operating licenses for qualified new nuclear reactors.”

– Increases loan guarantees to $54 billion

Missing from the bill is a comprehensive national strategy for storage of spent nuclear fuel, an unresolved issue that prevents California utilities from any expansion of nuclear power.

Governor Schwarzenegger issued a statement that barely acknowledged federal preemption, saying only that “California has been an unparalleled leader in clean energy, pioneering policies that have benefited the entire nation, and we must be able to continue our important, groundbreaking work that will both improve the environment and help our economy.”

Some environmentalists have already responded with raspberries. In a statement based on draft summaries of the bill, the group Friends of the Earth called it “dangerous,” claiming that the bill would “scrap crucial tools for solving the climate crisis” and provide “billions in giveaways to corporate polluters.” In a statement from the Environmental Defense Fund, on the other hand, its western regional vice president said that the bill’s announcement “marks real progress in the fight against climate change.”

Andrea Seabrook reported on the bill’s rollout and prospects for NPR’s All Things Considered.

AB 32 Stopper Headed for Ballot

It looks like there will be a measure on November’s statewide ballot to block full implementation of California’s greenhouse gas regulations.

Groups supporting the measure they call the “California Jobs Initiative” claim they gathered more than 800,000 signatures, nearly twice what they needed to qualify the proposal as a statewide referendum.

The existing climate law, known widely as AB 32, allows for the Governor to declare an emergency suspension of up to one year. But John Kabateck, who heads the California branch of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, says small businesses in particular can’t wait to see what the next governor might do; that the measure is needed to “stop the madness.” Kabateck said it’s time to “just push the pause button and please stop loading small businesses with new costs, new mandates and new regulations at a time when we need to crawl out of the hole.”

Studies have reached varying conclusions about what effect the state’s current regulatory path for carbon emissions would have on the California economy. Opponents of the measure have already formed their own campaign, trying to keep momentum behind the three-year-old climate law known as AB-32.

Steve Maviglio, who works for the the pro-AB 32 Californians for Clean Energy and Jobs, formed to oppose the ballot initiative, says he doesn’t think all those signatures necessarily signify broad support. “I think what that represents is the travesty of the initiative system and how out-of-state oil companies can buy their way onto the ballot,” he told me, in a telephone interview. The push to get the measure on the ballot has been financed largely by Texas-based oil companies and a somewhat obscure organization called the Adam Smith Foundation, based in Missouri.

“It took them $2 million to round up these signatures” said Maviglio. “And if you look at every single poll, you can see that Californians know we can have both clean air and a strong economy, and that we’re not going to be fooled by Texas oil companies,” he added.

The proposed ballot measure would freeze AB-32 until the state’s unemployment level dropped to five-and-a-half percent—or lower–for one full year. That’s something that’s happened only three times since the mid-1970’s: once in the late 1980s (for about ten quarters), a similar stretch in the late ‘90s, and once in 2005-06. After the deep recession of the early ‘80s, it took the state’s unemployment rate about four-and-a-half years to move from its 11% peak back to the 5.5 percent threshold.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger today called the effort to halt AB-32 “the work of greedy oil companies.”

New Solar Manufacturing Plant for Silicon Valley

SunPower CEO Tom Werner and Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar announcing the creation of a new solar manufacturing plant in Milpitas, CA (photo: Gretchen Weber)

SunPower CEO Tom Werner and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Photo: Gretchen Weber

Silicon Valley-based solar cell manufacturer SunPower Corp. announced today that it’s decided to site its newest manufacturing plant in California, a move that CEO Tom Werner says will create hundreds of jobs and may prompt an “economic cluster” that will attract similar projects.

SunPower has partnered with contract manufacturer Flextronics, and plans for the Milipitas-based operation to be up and running by the end of the year, producing high-efficiency solar cells.

Werner and Flextronics CEO E.C. Sykes were joined at the announcement in Milipitas by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who sported a green tie and chastised the assembled crowd for not celebrating Earth Day with similar fashion choices.

“I am so excited about this,” said Schwarzenegger about the new project. “This proves that protecting the economy and protecting the environment can be done simultaneously.”

Werner said locating the manufacturing operation in California makes sense both for economic reasons and because California is home to a large solar market, thanks to  the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring 33% renewable energy by 2020, and the Million Solar Roofs Initiative.  Werner added that a record 50 megawatts of rooftop solar power were installed last month in California.

“You want to be close to your customer for logistical reasons, and also because you learn from your customer and you build it back into your product,” Werner told me following the staged media event.  “And by being local you can learn faster than you can if you’re distant.”

Other California selling points were a green manufacturing equipment sales tax exemption, which enabled SunPower to buy equipment for the facility tax-free, and low-interest loans from Recovery Act funds granted through the City of Milpitas, said Werner.

Governor Schwarzenegger used the occasion to warn Californians against taking the state’s environmental laws for granted.

“Right now there are greedy Texas oil companies that want to come in here and spend millions of dollars to roll back AB 32 (the state’s 2006 carbon legislation) and our other environmental laws,” he said. “Why? Because they don’t like that there’s alternative energy being created.  They don’t like what you are doing here.”

States Bridle Against “One-Size” Carbon Rules

Next week the US Senate will take the wraps off a long-awaited national energy and climate bill, which–even before its unveiling–is already making California businesses and regulators nervous.

Though exact language has not been revealed, the compromise bill reportedly includes sections that would nullify state and regional programs to regulate carbon emissions. That does not sit well with Mary Nichols, California’s chief carbon regulator. “When it comes to energy policy and the environment, one size truly does not fit all,” Nichols told reporters in a Tuesday conference call. Nichols chairs the California Air Resources Board, which is the lead agency charged with implementing the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2006.

The state has already invested three years and more than $100 million dollars (approximately $40 million per year, according to a policy brief issued last week by the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office), laying the groundwork for sweeping new regulations, including a carbon trading scheme with several other Western states. The regional cap-and-trade program known as the Western Climate Initiative could also be jeopardized by the current Senate bill, though from most appearances, the program is already languishing.

Businesses also have much at stake. Jan Smutny-Jones heads the Independent Energy Producers Association, whose members generate almost half the electric power produced in California. “My members are making literally billion-dollar decisions about infrastructure that’s going to be around in California generating electricity or transporting electricity to customers for the next 40-50 years, and they kind of need to know sooner rather than later, in terms of what the actual rules of the road are gonna be,” Smutny-Jones told me in his Sacramento office on Monday. “Having the rules change is disruptive,” he said.

California Senator Barbara Boxer, who co-sponsored the first Senate version of the bill last fall, says she does “not support federal preemption” but also wants to avoid overlap between the state and federal systems. “It depends on how the bill is written,” Boxer told reporters at the recent state Democratic Convention. “I’ve had environmentalists say ‘Well if we do a trading system on the credits, we want one system, we don’t want two systems,’ so there’s some areas where it may make sense.”

Nichols offered little latitude in her remarks on Tuesday.  “We need to put down a marker here and remind the senators that they will not have an effective climate program without the states,” she said. “We don’t want there to be any room for doubt about whether states are permitted to do things that advance their economic and energy agendas.” Nichols cited large amounts of “green” venture capital flowing into California as fruit already borne by the state’s actions toward reducing carbon emissions.

The Senate bill is expected to be rolled out on Monday. Optimists are hoping that a finished bill could reach the Senate floor by June or July, according to a report from Reuters news service.

Stop-AB 32 Drive Draws Money from Farther Afield

87606151Environmentalists have registered much consternation over the fact that out-of-state oil companies have been bankrolling a ballot measure to freeze implementation of AB 32, backbone of the state’s climate strategy.

Today Anthony York updates the situation with the latest intrigue on his Capitol Weekly website.

The latest major contribution–nearly a half-million dollars–reportedly comes from a Missouri foundation with tenuous links to climate policy.

Planning Questions Persist Over Sea Level Rise

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Heavy surf along the Monterey Peninsula. Photo: Craig Miller

Speakers at this week’s sea level planning conference in Oakland cited everybody from H. L. Mencken to Yogi Berra (“You can observe a lot just by watching”). But the primary insight from the event may have been courtesy of Robert Frost: “…miles to go before (we) sleep.”

About 225 representatives from industry, government and academia gathered at the behest of the non-profit Bay Planning Coalition.  The effort was to push forward a planning agenda to help prepare the Bay Area and coastal California for rising sea levels due to the changing climate. There is considerable uncertainty surrounding how much sea level rise we should expect in the decades to come. There were indications at the conference that planners were starting to coalesce around predictions of 16 inches by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100, projections embraced by the state’s formal climate adaptation plan.

Greater still is the uncertainty surrounding how governments, businesses and public agencies will respond to the challenge. Estimates are that rising seas threaten $100 billion of “economic assets” statewide, half of which are in the Bay Area. While most speakers seemed to agree on the urgency of mobilizing a coordinated planning effort, few seemed certain where to start.

The palpable frustration in the room was voiced  by, among others, Calla Rose Ostrander, Climate Action Coordinator with the City and County of San Francisco. “I think we’ve set ourselves up to need certainty, to make decisions,” she told me, saying that public agencies in charge of roads and development feel paralyzed. “When we apply for funding for these things,” explained Ostrander, they (potential funders) say ‘How are you planning for it?’ And we haven’t been advised yet on how to plan for it.” That dilemma was echoed by Paul Thayer of the California State Lands Commission: “You can’t engineer for a range of sea level rise,” he said. And yet that would appear to be the task.

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrustructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Oakland Int'l Airport, like much of the Bay Area's critical infrastructure, lies barely above sea level. Photo: Craig Miller

Funding is another area that remains fuzzy, amid all the inter-agency discussions, and one that was not substantively addressed at the conference. It is expected that rising seas will require billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades. The Port of Oakland, for example, is awaiting the outcome of a study to determine what “perimeter defenses” will be needed to keep runways at Oakland International Airport above water.

Several speakers raised concern about rallying public support to confront a threat that is so diffuse. Will Travis, who heads the San Francisco-based Bay Conservation & Development Commission, predicted that “bringing it home” to households with more immediate worries will be the biggest challenge. And yet we can’t wait, warned Travis. “The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes.”

Scientists as well as policymakers are pondering how to respond to rising sea levels. Nicole Heller of our content partner Climate Central recently attended a conference aimed at that end of the issue, and wrote about it in the Climate Central blog.