greenhouse gas

Civilized wasteland: Can clean energy save the planet from sci-fi cliche?

An old man skirts the wreckage of civilization avoiding packs of feral dogs and even more feral sub-humans as he hunts for a hint of salvation.

Most preserved food has long since been picked clean and anything overtly useful taken by those who came before. But something may be waiting over the next hill or valley. His life and the lives of his fellow villagers -- who were too afraid to join his quest -- depend on his success.

The narrative is basically the gist of a book I just plowed through. It's the latest in a series of end-of-world novels I've burned through in the past year and a half. Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a haunting tale of pointless survival of a man and his son in a world without hope, got me started. I saw it on the "Read This" shelf at the Clovis, Calif. library and read it in six hours.

Blew me away.

End of the world

Since then I've read two series by S.M. Stirling that deconstruct the world in different ways. The first, "Island in the Sea of Time," transports the entire island of Nantucket thousands of years into the past. A follow-up, "The Change" series, unravels society by unceremoniously causing all electrical, combustion and modern mechanical devices to stop working. The result is death and massive destruction by mobs of hungry people.

Just to mix it up, I read Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island," which tosses five men from a balloon on a remote Pacific Island and serves as a sequel to "20,000 Leagues Under Sea." That enticed me to finally tackle "Robinson Crusoe." Both have world-ending elements but create characters who thrive on the challenge of recreating society.

The latest to absorb my full attention is Nick Cole's "Old Man and the Wasteland." Think of it as the follow to McCarthy's ode to destruction. Depressing definitely but Old Man has a spark of hope. It cost me 99 cents via my Kindle wireless, by the way.

Big gain in 'we're doomed' genre

I had forgotten the title of Old Man, so I searched for it on Amazon using the key words "end of the world." The search turned up way too many hits. Some I'd read long ago. One was a Phillip K. Dick novel (gotta read that one). But many were new.

It's that end-of-days trend that got me thinking. American society has been running at 60, 70, 80 mph for the past century. Faster and better, consume and discard. We're tearing it up. Live hard, die young.

Unfortunately, pollution, climate change, environmental destruction and dwindling sources of cheap burnable fuel have revealed all-too-real and scary limits. We don't need the nuclear winter concept to scare our children, just a couple more decades of rising tides, foul air and super nasty weather to drive home the message.

Now authors and screen writers have picked up the torch. Note the plethora of zombie movies.

Studies show danger ahead

The barrage of news that we could be doomed continues unabated. Providing further support are two studies: the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Annual Greenhouse Gas Index and the Civil Society Institute's energy economics report.

The data rich NOAA Index says the growth rate of carbon dioxide averaged about 1.68 parts per million per year from 1979 to 2010. It averaged about 1.43 ppm per year before 1995 and 1.94 ppm per year since. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is about 390 ppm.

Charts show steady increases in CO2, nitrious oxide and methane.

The unwritten message: If this continues, we're doomed.

We do have alternatives

The CSI report has a bit of an optimistic feel, saying that a transition to clean energy would save $83 billion over the next 40 years. The report, "Toward a Sustainable Future for the U.S. Power Sector: Beyond Business as Usual 2011," says the move would avoid tens of thousands of premature deaths due to pollution, would create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, would force sharp cuts in carbon pollution and would curtail water consumption for power production.

Institute President Pam Solo says: "The truth is that America can and should embrace a workable and cost-effective future that is built on safe, renewable energy. Not only is it feasible and less expensive to do so, but we really have no other choice as a nation."

Would you prefer to envision your 20-year-old son as the old man wandering a desolate world in 40 years?

I prefer optimistic endings

Not what I want for my boy, especially after paying $32,000 a year to send him to Seattle University. I would hope the investment pays off.

I vote for the responsible option. The Institute says 65 percent of Republicans, 75 percent of Independents, 88 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Tea Party members (77 percent overall) agree with the following statement: "The U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies."

Others are on board, but a switch won't be easy. And it won't be fast. I hope it's inevitable. And I'll just keep reading this stuff until I'm lured away by another genre.

245 buildings vie for title of nation's most energy efficient

This year's national competition to extract the most energy savings from a building pits middle schools and car dealerships vs. Wall Street and Park Avenue high-rises.

May the best building win.

The competition, dubbed Battle of the Buildings, is staged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Teams from 245 buildings will install energy efficient lighting, heating and cooling; adopt intensive building management systems that closely monitor and adjust energy use according to occupancy and other factors; and modify behaviors and practices that could unnecessarily cost kilowatt hours.

Of course, there are other measures such as cool roofs, insulation, windows and weatherization upgrades that can result in big savings, too.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said, “We’re harnessing our nation's innovative capacity to save money on electric bills, create a cleaner environment and protect the health of American families.”

A winner will be named in November.

This year's competition is far greater than the inaugural event last year, in which teams from 14 buildings saved $950,000 and reduced greenhouse gas emissions amounting to the yearly electricity use of about 600 homes.

Last year's winner was Morrison Residence Hall on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C. The 10-story, 200,000-square-foot dormitory was built in 1965 and achieved a 35.7 percent reduction on its annual energy bill for a $250,000 savings.

The EPA says educating the public to the benefits of reducing energy use in the 5 million buildings in which people in this country "work, play and learn" is important because the sector consumes about 20 percent of the nation’s energy use. It also produces a similar percentage of the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and forces Americans to fork over more than $100 billion a year.

Those interested can follow along with the contestants to see what their strategies are and what they end up doing to reduce energy loads. The variety of the buildings this year is pretty interesting. Buildings range from the Experience Music Project Science Fiction Museum in Seattle with perhaps the highest energy use intensity rating, or EUI, in the group with 536.9 to the offices of Norandex, a building supplier, in Rochester, N.Y. with a rating of 47.5. The rating is derived by taking energy use and dividing by square footage. The higher the number, the higher the energy use.

Other buildings I found interesting were the Marriott Fullerton Hotel with an EUI of 153.6, the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Ave. in N.Y. with an EUI of 228.2, the Caterpillar AC Building in Mossville, Ill. with an EUI of 282.2 and the 450 Sutter Building in San Francisco with an EUI of 178.9.

Here's to extreme energy savings.

Photo: Experience Music Project building in Seattle under Space Needle.

Greenhouse gas inventory seminar planned

The San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization will hold class on conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory.

The event is planned from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, March 23, in the SJVCEO Board Room, 4747 N. First St., suite 140, in Fresno. The program is geared to local government officials and regional planning agencies. There is no charge. Here is the link to register.

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA is conducting the training through the Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative.

ICLEI was founded in 1990 as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The council was established when more than 200 local governments from 43 countries convened at an inaugural conference of the World Congress of Local Governments for a Sustainable Future at the United Nations in New York.

Included in the training session will be:
  • Overview of the SEEC project and ICLEI
  • Overview of conducting a government operations inventory
  • Overview of conducting an inventory at the community scale
  • Defining the scope of study, boundaries and protocols
  • Overview of the Local Government Operations Protocol and Community Scale Protocol Framework
  • Timelines, staff and resources needed to effectively complete inventory
  • Gathering, organizing and working with data
  • Sector detail (overview of recommended and alternate methods and discussion of data sources)
  • Overview of tools that can be used to gather data and execute a comprehensive inventory
  • Reporting inventories

The Statewide Energy Efficiency Collaborative is a new alliance to help cities and counties reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save energy. It is a collaboration between three statewide nonprofit organizations and California’s four investor-owned utilities.

Members are ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability USA, The Institute for Local Government, The Local Government Commission, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., San Diego Gas and Electric Co., Southern California Edison Co. and Southern California Gas Co.

The program is funded by California utility ratepayers.

California, Massachusetts top list of energy efficient states

When it comes to energy efficiency, California ranks No. 1.

At least that was the finding of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy in its recently released 2010 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard report.

Massachusetts placed second and Oregon, New York and Vermont round out the top five.

"Governors, state legislators and officials, and citizens increasingly recognize energy efficiency — the kilowatt-hours and gallons of gasoline that we don’t use thanks to improved technologies and practices — as the cheapest, cleanest, and quickest energy resource to deploy," the report's drafters said.

The findings reflect those of a recent report by San Francisco-based Clean Edge Inc., which listed California just ahead of Massachusetts in a study listing the top clean energy states. That study listed innovation in multiple sectors as a key to developing a green economy.

In addition to states taking a leadership role in the energy efficiency movement by undertaking new policies and programs, the ACEEE report found:

  • Alaska, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico showed the most improvement from last year's report by increasing investment in utility energy-savings programs, expanding state government initiatives and adopting better building codes. 
  • State spending of $4.3 billion on energy efficiency in 2009 was about double that of two years earlier. 
  • Twenty-seven states have adopted or are in the process of adopting energy efficiency resource standards that establish fixed, long-term energy efficiency savings targets. That's double the number four years ago. 
  • Twenty states have adopted or are in the process of adopting improved building codes that stress energy efficiency. 
  • California, Massachusetts and Washington have enacted greenhouse gas reduction targets related to transportation. 
  • The injection of more than $11 billion in federal stimulus funding for state energy efficiency projects has helped create new programs that are saving money and putting people to work.

Feds plan to crawl further up your tailpipe

It's starting to look worse for my 1974 superbeetle.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled a plan today that likely will result in new restrictions on automobile exhaust.

And just when it felt safe to buy fuel at less than $3 per gallon.

The agencies said they will begin developing tougher greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and trucks built in 2017 through 2025, which "will build on the success of the first phase of the national program covering cars from model years 2012-2016."

The EPA and DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in April announced that they cranked fuel economy standards up to about 34.1 mpg for the combined industry-wide fleet for model year 2016. Starting in 2012, automakers must improve overall mileage and emissions by about 5 percent a year.

The news item is that standards could reach as high as 62 mpg by 2025, but that's if and only if the auto industry makes improvements of 6 percent a year. EPA's report provided a range between 47 to 62 mpg in 2025 "if the industry achieved all of the increases through fuel economy improvements."

“Continuing the successful clean cars program will accelerate the environmental benefits, health protections and clean technology advances over the long-term,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in a statement.

The idea is to reduce the country's addiction to oil. A noble goal. Jackson also said the measure also is intended to encourage automakers to innovate.

Few details were provided. The measure follows directives issued in May to propose more strict regulations on the nation's gas-guzzling fleet of passenger cars and trucks. The effort involves the California Air Resources Board to develop a technical assessment.

An updated analysis of possible future standards is expected by Nov. 30 after agencies conduct further studies and meetings to determine an "appropriate" level of standards.

Officials said new standards could be proposed within a year.

Whatever happens, new regulations will again target fuel consumption. Electric cars are expected to make a big splash in coming years, but the majority of Americans will continue to cling to their gas-burning traditions for reliable transportation.

Officials estimate the program reduces CO2 by about 960 million metric tons and conserves about 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles regulated.

At the time of the EPA's release of the new fuel economy standards, Jeremy Korzeniewski of Autoblog Green put it in perspective. "Naturally, all of this is going to cost some extra dough," he wrote. "If the Feds are right, automakers will spend $51.5 billion over the next five years putting the standards into effect and the average price of a new car will rise by $985 by 2016."

However, he also said fuel savings will put an extra $3,000 in consumers' pockets over the life of the vehicle.

The question I have is simple. What about older cars? A rough search of opinions online turned up a number of perspectives. Some believe regulators feel that most older rolling stock will be scrapped and replaced. That's understandable.

However, there's a big contingent that restores old rigs. Emissions controls are expensive and difficult to apply to older models, not to mention how they can be performance killers. I did read one post from a classic car restorer who championed the use of some modern advances.

Stay tuned. And just to be clear, my bug is sitting in the backyard awaiting an electrical harness transplant. It creates zero emissions.

EPA clamps down on new power plants & refineries

New refineries and power plants will have to address greenhouse gas emissions before receiving federal approval under a proposed rule by the Environmental Protection Agency, agency officials said.

The move could be major. For one thing, greenhouse gas is a clean energy buzz word and everybody appears to have an opinion. For another, any move by the EPA regarding the Clean Air Act elevates the debate.

In California, Proposition 23 dominates discussion over greenhouse gas. The measure would suspend AB 32, also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, requiring California to develop regulations that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

EPA's proposal complements a rule passed this spring which specifies that beginning in 2011, projects that increase greenhouse gas emissions substantially require an air permit.

Next up for EPA is making sure states modify their permitting laws.

For instance, an EPA statement says, "EPA will work closely and promptly with states to help them develop, submit, and approve necessary revisions to enable the affected states to issue air permits to GHG-emitting sources. Additionally, EPA will continue to provide guidance and act as a resource for the states as they make the various required permitting decisions for GHG emissions."

Expect fireworks.

Darren Goode of reports that industry groups challenging EPA's rule include the American Forest and Paper Association, National 
Association of Manufacturers, the American Iron and Steel Institute 
and the Portland Cement Association.

Goode wrote, the "Sierra Club filed a legal challenge despite its support for the intent of the rule and the timeline for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources. The group is concerned about the precedent it could 
set for other pollutants."

Likewise, Kassie Siegel, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute director, said the EPA's actions fall short.

“The EPA should be moving boldly, quickly, and confidently to implement the Clean Air Act’s successful pollution-reduction programs for greenhouse gases. ... While everyone agrees that greenhouse reductions for the largest polluters must be prioritized, the EPA can and should move far more quickly to reduce pollution from the other very important sources."

Photo: Ravenswood Power Plant in New York City by ericortner.