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We focus on energy policy and issues relating to climate change. Anyone may comment on an item; all views solely reflect the opinion of the author. Please email us if you have comments or questions.

Gore's Updated Slides (Again)

More new slides, once again from TED

No free lunch

The Washington Post has a good article about the tough decisions that face lawmakers and renewable energy system planners regarding wildlife protection, other environmental concerns, and economic feasibility. It highlights a new transmission line, the SunZia line, that would connect New Mexico's renewable energy potential in wind and solar with Arizona's large cities' demand for electricity. The line would provide additional electricity to consumers that would prevent the need for new coal-fired plants, but its location threatens wildlife - its path is set to cross the Rio Grande, acres of grassland, and go along two national wildlife refuges.

One of the biggest challenges renewable-energy projects pose is that they often take up much more land than conventional sources, such as coal-fired power plants. A team of scientists, several of whom work for the Nature Conservancy, has written a paper that will appear in the journal PLoS One showing that it can take 300 times as much land to produce a given amount of energy from soy biodiesel as from a nuclear power plant. Regardless of the climate policy the nation adopts, the paper predicts that by 2030, energy production will occupy an additional 79,537 square miles of land.

The impact will be "substantial," said Jimmie Powell, the Nature Conservancy's national energy leader and one of the paper's co-authors. "It's important to know where the footprint is going to be."

In some cases, scientists are just beginning to discover the unintended effect of projects such as wind turbines. Grassland birds such as the lesser prairie chicken and the greater sage grouse, both of which are candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act, appear to avoid vertical structures such as wind turbines and transmission-line towers. This is proving to be a problem in states such as Kansas, an ideal site for wind power, because as more turbines are built, lesser prairie chickens will confine themselves to narrow ranges, fragmenting a population that must be connected to survive.

The more impacts and effects that are taken into account, the harder solving these problems seems to be.

Renewable Energy's Environmental Paradox

Geoengineering gains more traction

All options are on the table to control climate change effects, according to Obama's science adviser, John Holdren, including technologies formerly (or still?) derided by mainstream scientists. Examples include injecting pollutants high into the atmosphere to block sun rays, using mirrors to reflect sun rays, or a huge umbrella to filter sun rays (see my previous post for another link).

Twice in a half-hour interview, Holdren compared global warming to being "in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog."

Last week, Princeton scientist Robert Socolow told the National Academy that geoengineering should be an available option in case climate worsens dramatically.

But Holdren noted that shooting particles into the air—making an artificial volcano as one Nobel laureate has suggested—could have grave side effects and would not completely solve all the problems from soaring greenhouse gas emissions. So such actions could not be taken lightly, he said.

Still, "we might get desperate enough to want to use it," he added.

Obama looks at climate engineering

Official who proposed MN’s cap-and-trade system now criticizes Obama’s approach

From Keith:

Story on the St Paul Legal Ledger describing Ed Garvey's comments about Obama's cap & trade plan - he does not support the current position, saying that there needs to be a "workable" solution, that "does not penalize petroleum manufacturers," for whom he currently lobbies.

Official who proposed MN’s cap-and-trade system now criticizes Obama’s approach
President Obama's Unfortunate Cap & Trade Proposal

Mega Energy Bill?

Democrats may put Obama's carbon regulation bill together with renewable energy measures into one large bill. Could be good, in that it would be all in one, so it wouldn't take as long to pass as two bills. Could also be bad, in that it could align all efforts against either measure into a stronger movement. The vote could be as early as this summer, according to Sen. Harry Reid's spokesman.

For more info, see Democrats May Combine Carbon-Trading, Renewable Energy Measures

New Clean Coal Ad

Thank you Coen Brothers

Climate Change Today

The November issue of Mother Jones introduced me to - the important new organization spearheaded by Bill McKibben. "The Most Important Number on Earth" talks about the tipping point of climate.

McKibben has been doing great work to update people who know that climate change is a problem but still aren't sure what to do about it. He recently showed up in a Q & A feature in Foreign Policy to answer key questions about climate change in 2009.

Those of us who have followed this for awhile have been arguing that we need to get beyond arguing that this is scientific fact. We won't convince everyone - and enough people are convinced that we need to do something about it rather than wait for purposely dense people to "get it."

Those who will lose out in the clean economy have moved on as well. They used to pour their resources into groups that denied global warming but they are a late-night joke now. So these companies have adjusted and are instead pouring money into studies that show insanely high costs if we put a price on carbon. NPR's On the Media recently covered some of the subterfuge they use in these reports.

Sometimes it seems that one cannot listen to a program on climate change without hearing someone foolishly talking about how nuclear power is the big solution, if only big-government liberals who hate the market would let the market build more nuke plants. This remains a confusing claim to anyone knows anything about nuclear power as it is totally at odds with a free market approach - heavy government intervention into markets is required for nuclear power to work - from insurance to loans to waste disposal. I thought David Leonhardt from the NY Times dealt well with this issue on a good episode of the Diane Rehm Show that recently dealt with Green Collar Jobs. Also, Foreign Policy magazine offered some sobering reminders as to how hard it will be for nuclear power to make a dent in the climate change problem.

I'll end this by embedding a video from - which is totally social media enabled (facebook, youtube, twitter, etc).

Is corn-based ethanol good for us?

Depends on who you ask.

The University of Minnesota recently released a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, suggesting that corn-based ethanol is about the same as gasoline in terms of energy but may in fact be worse for the environment in terms of air quality. The University of Nebraska countered with a study, published by the Journal of Industrial Ecology, that suggests corn-based ethanol has made huge progress in increasing its energy efficiency and has significantly reduced carbon emissions, such that it is a better alternative than gasoline. Both Minnesota and Nebraska are corn-rich states, and both have a large corn-based ethanol industry, though the U of M has been accused of being anti-corn ethanol (by the corn and ethanol industries). Each study includes different variables, which may account for some of the difference in outcome. Both articles are linked below.


For more information, see:

Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline
National Corn Grower Association's take on articles, plus link to Nebraska article
U study: Corn no better than gas
New study praises corn as source for ethanol
Five reasons corn ethanol won't save the planet

Is Pawlenty changing his mind about energy?

In an apparent policy reversal, Minnesota state agencies told legislators that further climate change action may be unnecessary. Data have shown a drop in emissions from 2005 to 2006, and the assistant commissioner for air quality at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, David Thornton, and the new head of the Office for Energy Security, Bill Glahn, suggest that if that trend continues, Minnesota will meet its emission reduction goals in 2015 with no new policy actions.

This seems highly unlikely to me, and I find the suggestion disturbing.

Furthermore, they are suggesting that Big Stone II will reduce carbon emissions because it could replace two older coal plants (which won't happen), and that the only new policy suggestions from the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group (MCCAG) they support are eliminating the ban on new nuclear plants (which the MCCAG suggested should be studied) and implementing appliance efficiency standards.


Thanks to Keith for the heads-up.

But that climate legislation is needed now!

In a sobering release, climate researchers from the US, Switzerland & France have announced that we will experience negative climate change impacts despite future emission reductions. Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere faster than previously thought, making any emission reduction goals all the more urgent.

This study suggests that if carbon levels reach 600 ppm, many areas of the world will see severe drought, similar to or worse than the 1930s Dust Bowl. Sea levels will also rise by 3 feet by the year 3000, though the prediction did not take into account glacier and sea ice melts, which would increase the level.

Another study released yesterday states that emperor penguins will likely be extinct by 2100, due to loss of habitat, warming temperatures, and decreases in food population. Because the birds are long-lived and breed later in life, they are less adaptable to changes in climate. Now the poles each have a threatened mascot...

For more information, see:

Long Droughts, Rising Seas Predicted Despite Future CO2 Curbs
Emperor penguins face extinction

States look differently at Obama global warming plan

Obama is beginning the process of getting his climate change legislation moving forward and has chosen two liberal Democrats, Sen Barbara Boxer & Rep Henry Waxman, to lead this process. Both legislators hail from California, which is significantly further along in the carbon footprint reduction process than many other states. California gets about 20% of its electricity from coal; in contrast, Ohio generates 86% from coal. Minnesota is somewhere around 60% (and hopefully falling from the work we've done lately, but I haven't seen recent numbers).

Because of this stark difference in electricity generation sources, support for this legislation depends on geographical location. Legislators from the Northeast and California are strongly in support of it. Those in the Midwest and Plains states are not.

This has long been predicted as a problem for any national carbon regulation. California is obviously ready for national legislation -- it has many policies in place that will smooth its transition or even may be more stringent than any national policy. However, coal-rich states, from the Rockies to the Midwest to the Southeast, have been less eager to enact policies to promote alternative energy sources and therefore will require more investment and time to meet national standards. It will be interesting to see how the legislation is crafted to balance the differences in states' ability to meet carbon reduction goals.

Another challenge is determining how this legislation will affect economic development within the US. With our current struggling economy, will carbon regulation be too expensive? Will it boost jobs through the promotion of alternative sources, or will it stifle development as companies are further regulated? Opinions differ... but I think the regulation is overdue, necessary, and will hopefully not be too painful.

For more information, see:

Geography Is Dividing Democrats Over Energy
Will carbon regulation boost or stifle the economy?

Study evaluates clean energy technologies and declares winners

And the winner is wind! According to a study done by Mark Z. Jacobsen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, wind the cleanest of the "clean energy" technologies. Other winners, in order, are concentrated solar (the use of mirrors to heat a fluid), geothermal, tidal, solar photovoltaics (rooftop solar panels), wave, and hydroelectric. The losers include biofuels, nuclear, and "clean coal," which Jacobsen says are not nearly as clean as currently touted.

Not a huge surprise, but he used an apparently new method:

Jacobson has conducted the first quantitative, scientific evaluation of the proposed, major, energy-related solutions by assessing not only their potential for delivering energy for electricity and vehicles, but also their impacts on global warming, human health, energy security, water supply, space requirements, wildlife, water pollution, reliability and sustainability.

For more information, see:

Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security
Wind, Water, and Sun Beat Biofuels, Nuclear, and Coal for Clean Energy
Stanford University Professor - Mark Z Jacobsen

Big Stone II

So I've been planning this post for a while, and during that time, the story has changed a bit....

In a somewhat unexpected move, the Minnesota PUC unanimously approved the transmission for the project on January 15. The provisions they placed on the project were:

  • Using a $26/ton carbon dioxide cost cap.
  • Using a $3,000/kw construction cost cap.
  • Adhering to the mercury, water, C-Bed, and other agreements made with the OES in the August 2007 settlement.
  • Closing Hoot Lake Plant as a coal-fired generation station no later than the end of 2018, unless it is later determined as necessary to cost-effectively meet customer needs (including environmental costs)
  • Evaluating the feasibility and prudence of building Big Stone II as ultra-super-critical rather than as a super-critical pulverized coal plant. If cost-effective, ultra-super-critical could result in an additional two percent efficiency gain. (see World Coal Institute for definitions)
  • Committing to building Big Stone II as carbon-capture retrofit-ready

So, I was disappointed in the project's progress, disappointed that the PUC is allowing it to go forward, and was prepared to post as such.

But then...

The EPA blocked it! They are questioning the permit that South Dakota gave the plant proposers last year. The EPA objects to the emission levels for sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, as well as the strength and appropriateness of the suggested emissions monitoring program. Thus, the plant needs a new, revised permit.

This will make the plant more expensive to build and could create problems with their recent approval of transmission from the MPUC (see construction cost cap). We'll just have to wait and see whether this determination by the EPA makes the project defunct or just prolongs the process.

But it sure is nice to have an environmentally-minded EPA again.

For more information, see:


I have just upgraded the code behind this site and set up a basic theme. Many of us hope to see Energista return to its glory days, but we remain overcommitted. Stay tuned and you may find more content in the near future.

Stop Oil Speculation Now

So I received an email today: "An open letter to all airline customers." In it, the major US airlines are alleging that $30-$60 of the cost of a barrel of oil is due to speculative costs, a price increase that occurs when speculators purchase oil only to resell it at a higher price. So they would like us, the consumers, to request that our government put a stop to this. The campaign can be found here. I don't know a whole lot about this, so I'm wondering if anyone who reads this (does anyone still read this?) knows much and could comment on the veracity of this claim as well as its implications. It seems plausible that there could be a cost increase from oil speculation. But how would you regulate it? What would a dramatically lower cost of oil do to our economy, or to the recent push to make more fuel-efficient cars, travel less, and consume less?

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