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Sen. Klobuchar: Ethanol = Univac, Cellulosic Biofuels = PC

Corn EthanolSenator Amy Klobuchar made the analogy at a policy presentation on climate change sponsored by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Humphrey Institute.

For those less technically inclined, UNIVAC I was the first commercial computer. It used 5,200 vacuum tubes, weighed 29,000 pounds and consumed 125 kW according to Wikipedia. An apt comparison for those familiar with the corn ethanol vs. cellulosic biofuel debate.

While I could not attend due to class, a hat tip to Jeff Fecke at the Minnesota Monitor - he's posted a thorough live blog of the event.

Other notable comments from Fecke's live blog and Strib article:

  • Klobuchar is starting a "Carbon Busters!" award program (complete with generic superhero), which will be given to government, business, and schools that work to reduce their carbon footprints.

  • Thinks cap and trade is the most realistic short-term solution

  • "We don't need a silver bullet, we need silver buckshot."

Note that I am uncertain if the "generic" superhero of the Carbon Busters! program was Klobuchar's or Fecke's dry wit.

Future policy presentations will include other members of the Minnesota congressional delegation. Call your representative now if you want to see more energy related presentations.

Update: The presentation was heavily covered in the blog world -

Tom Elko at Sky Blue Waters, Flash at Centrisity and M. Brodkorb at Minnesota Democrats Exposed.  Another quote of Klobuchar I didn't see anywhere but the UMN Daily:

"This isn't just about 8-year-olds crying about penguins anymore."



Supreme Court Rules Against EPA

Reuters writes:

In a defeat for the Bush administration, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a U.S. government agency has the power under the clean air law to regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.

The nation's highest court by a 5-4 vote said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency "has offered no reasoned explanation" for its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide and other emissions from new cars and trucks that contribute to climate change.

The NY Times is running an AP story about the decision - it notes:

The court had three questions before it.

--Do states have the right to sue the EPA to challenge its decision?

--Does the Clean Air Act give EPA the authority to regulate tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases?

--Does EPA have the discretion not to regulate those emissions?

The court said yes to the first two questions. On the third, it ordered EPA to re-evaluate its contention it has the discretion not to regulate tailpipe emissions. The court said the agency has so far provided a "laundry list" of reasons that include foreign policy considerations.

So don't expect the EPA to suddenly start regulating GHGs - they have lots of time to come up with more excuses not to and let challenges to that decision slowly work through the system.

This is a quick post to get the info out there - I'll post more this afternoon. Did not see this one coming. You can read the Massachusetts v. EPA opinion yourself.

WashPo Does Dr. Tilman

Prairie Photo

Sky Blue Waters linked to a a Washington Post interview with U of Minnesota's own Dr. Tilman on biofuels. The article is entitled "Outlook: The Negligible Benefits of Food-Based Biofuels Focusing on Current Ethanol Sources Could Raise Food Prices, Hurt the Environment -- and Make Almost No Impact on Fossil Fuel Use."

These questions from readers came after Dr. Tilman and Jason Hill published "Corn Can't Solve Our Problem" in the Post on 25 March.

Crunch Time

One of the problems with running a project like Energista while in graduate school is that graduate school has deadlines and big papers. For me, this week is a difficult one as I try to finish a draft of my final project before I am ejected into the market to seek employment.

As I will not be writing much of anything for pleasure this week, I wanted to suggest that people looking for something to read continue to follow the RES hearings in Oregon which are being covered by Watthead.

US Army Assumption: Natural Gas nonviable in 25 years

According to a recent study contract SOW (scope of work) released by the Department of the Army: (emphasis added)

"Current Army assumption is that Natural Gas may cease to be a viable fuel for the Army within the next 25 years based on price volatility and affordable supply availability.

The study will attempt to predict natural gas supply/demand over the next 25 years, examine possible scenarios of Liquefied Natural Gas imports vs. domestic natural gas and the overall impact on Army installations overall. The Army's total energy use by installations has decreased by 30% since 1985 but has risen the past two years.

I doubt the Army will decide to release the final report but the type of questions asked in the SOW are key to determining natural gas's ability to be the base load fuel of the 21st century.

Global Warming Working Group

Short Description: 

We will focus on Global Warming issues and how it is impacting our communities. Please join us in a community dialog and help us strategize to create change.


Minneapolis Urban League 2100 Plymouth Ave. N. Minneapolis, MN


Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota


Free -- light food provided

Full Description: 

Global Warming Working Group Free event- light food will be provided Please join us!!!!!! Tuesday, March 27, 6:30-8:30 Minneapolis Urban League 2100 Plymouth Ave. N. Minneapolis, MN We will focus on Global Warming issues and how it is impacting our communities. Please join us in a community dialogue and help us strategize to create change. For more information please contact Karen Monahan 612-436-5402

Gas Tax Increase in MN

Gas tax graphicThe Star Tribune had an article today about the legislation proposed by Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, to increase sales taxes on gasoline in Minnesota. It has been inserted as part of the transportation bill being voted on by the Senate today. The proposal aims to more than double the state's gasoline tax from the current $0.20/gallon to over $0.40/gallon in 10 years.

The merits of this and increased vehicle efficiency standards have been discussed on this list in the past at:

While I support increasing the cost of doing business as usual as a way to influence consumer behavior I am skeptical about this proposal. First, it contains only a small funding connection to increasing viable alternatives to the behavior being disincentivised. Second, it does not contain provisions to reducing the disparate impacts on those who do not have alternative transportation modes available. For instance, rebates to offset price differentials for higher efficiency vehicles for use by small businesses and in rural areas.

Last, this bill is a huge bucket of new and increased taxes. From the article,

The bill also includes these other levies, all dedicated to roads, bridges and transit:

• Higher registration renewal fees on future new car purchases, but no increases on currently owned vehicles.

• A half-cent rise in the general sales tax in the seven-county Twin Cities area, imposed without a voter referendum, plus a $20 excise tax on new vehicle sales in the metro.

• Local-option authority for half-cent sales-tax increases in the rest of Minnesota, subject to voter approval.

• Authority for all 87 counties in the state to impose a $20-per-vehicle annual wheelage tax. Three suburban counties levied the current maximum of $5 per vehicle last year.

• Increased fees for leased vehicle registrations, license plates, titles and drivers' licenses, plus a $20 reinstatement fee for a license suspended for theft of gasoline.

I think this is ultimately makes it a very difficult bill to swallow politically. The Governor has indicated a willingness to veto increased taxes. The committee vote was split along party lines. Plus, this will make it more difficult for the DFL leadership to pull along support within their own ranks; particularly in the House.

Incidentally, the Governor's proposal is even worse. He wants to borrow more money to fund a more limited number of projects.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty's own no-new-tax transportation plan calls for $1.7 billion in borrowing over 10 years to accelerate more than two dozen highway projects. The money would be paid back mostly via a transfer of existing motor vehicle sales taxes to roads and transit authorized by voters in November.

Dam Minneapolis

The Star Tribune covered prospects of adding a new hydroelectric dam to St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis. There is some concern that it will damage the mill ruins. I was curious about a few oddities with this proposed project.

It will apparently generate enough electricity to power 2000 homes, but will only run at off peak hours.

Crown Hydro spokesman Rob Brown said water would drop through thick, durable steel pipes and wouldn't harm the mill ruins. The company would negotiate the amount of water it would leave flowing over the falls and regulate it with a computerized device, he added. Crown Hydro would run mostly at night and other non-tourist hours, Brown said. And he assured people there wouldn't be vibrations.

Evidently, the existing Xcel dam has significant periods of lessened generation due to low river levels.

Xcel's plant, which has five turbines, ran at partial capacity 22 percent of the time from the most recent time frame available, 1992 to 1997, because of low river flows, officials at Xcel said.

The idea of putting in a new facility that may negatively impact the ruins to supply a little bit of non-peak energy, assuming river levels are consistently high enough for both dams, seems suspect. That being said, I suppose it will tend to offset coal baseload so there is an upside.

Gore Does Congress

Earth on fire

Gore dropped by Congress to speak to energy committees on global climate change. He got the rock star treatment from the press and hostile cross examination from a comically absurd Senator Inhofe. The Economist covered his presentations.

GLOBAL-WARMING sceptics, says Al Gore, are looking at a burning cradle and speculating that perhaps the baby is flame-resistant. Testifying before Congress on March 21st, the former vice-president was as cautious and understated as any other movie star.

Many others covered it as well - I especially appreciated the NPR coverage. Sci-Tech Today covered some of Texas Republican Barton's pouting after he didn't like Gore's answers to Barton's suggestion that carbon dioxide emissions do not cause climate change. Onegoodmove has video of a comical interchange between Senator Inhofe (former committee chair) and Chair Barbara Boxer. Inhofe has claimed that global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people - it probably comes close to the hoax of evolution.

Aside from the theatre aspect of the day, The Economist explains where we find ourselves

The Democrats have two options. They can push now for the toughest carbon-curbing law that will survive a filibuster in the Senate and a possible veto by President George Bush. Or they can wait two years and hope to pass something tougher in 2009, with someone greener in the White House. Mr Gore says there is no time to waste, but Congress may waste it anyway.

Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Saint Paul Capitol

The Duluth News Tribune reports on efforts by some to establish a state tax credit for alternative fueled vehicles. It references H.F. 1002.

Although we clearly need policies that make alternative fuel vehicles cheaper and more accessible to consumers, I do not think this will be an effective means to that end. We should know by now that people who buy dual-fuel vehicles will not necessarily use the E85 unless that is effectively cheaper than the alternative.

The larger problem with this legislation is that dual-fuel vehicles are not necessarily more efficient than those powered only by petroleum. Is society better served by consumers purchasing a 30 mile-per-gallon (mpg) vehicle because it can run on batteries or E85 when 40+ mpg vehicles are available that run on gasoline.

Any bill like developing tax credits should have a cutoff so that cars that achieve 40mpg or less are not eligible and SUVs/light trucks that achieve less than 30mpg are not eligible. We should not be giving tax credits to people who buy a 19mpg truck instead of 15mpg truck.

Global Warming Warmup

Climate Change Graphic

I have nearly listened to all the MN House hearings on the Global Warming Mitigation Act of 2007 (H.F. 375). By the end of the week, I hope to have a post that offers more detailed discussion of the hearings around that bill. As of now, the fate of the Mitigation Act looks uncertain but is leaning toward death from what I can tell.

I have had some thoughts and concerns over the course of the 12-15 hours of testimony and debate over this bill that I have been dying to express. They follow.

Much of the testimony on the bill is on section 5 (I'll explain the bill in greater detail in a future post) which requires any new large generation source to offset its GHG emissions. This has a major impact on the proposed Big Stone II plant in South Dakota (to supply electricity to Minnesota) and has therefore drawn a lot of ire from the utilities who have invested in Big Stone II and plan on it to supply future baseload power.

After listening to the same people offer the same testimony in front of two MN House committees (Energy Cmte and the Enviro and Natural Resources Cmte) as well as the Senate, I get testy. The utility testimony from Otter Tail Power offered the same flawed analogy 3 times in exactly the same wording without comment from anyone.

Big Stone II will be the most efficient plant for its time (a super critical pulverized coal), creating just less than 1 ton of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour produced. Otter Tail Power notes that it will be considerably more efficient than existing coal plants and should therefore be considered similiar to a hybrid vehicle. In this analogy their existing plants are essentially less efficient vehicles with greater pollution. They argue that not building Big Stone II, Otter Tail Power will be giving up a hybrid vehicle while it is forced to wait for some future zero emission vehicle. The lesson of the analogy is that such a wait is nonsensical.

This analogy is flawed in several ways. For one thing, Otter Tail gives the impression that they are replacing the old vehicle with the new hybrid, but they are in fact, continuing to run the old vehicles constantly while adding a new hybrid which pollutes a little bit less than the old vehicles, but still greatly adds to emissions. They have suggested that they might be able to retire one of the older plants five years after Big Stone II goes online, but have no obligation to do so.

The Mitigation Act legislation emphatically allows Otter Tail to do what their analogy suggests. They can offset their emissions from Big Stone II by reducing emissions from their older, dirtier, less efficient plants. This would be a tremendous benefit for the environment although such a trade certainly would not help Otter Tail add more baseload to their portfolio.

Otter Tail was not the only to note that plants like Big Stone II are good because they allow us to use coal more efficiently but they never noted that they are really proposing to continue using coal less inefficiently even after building these new facilities. No legislation is preventing them from making their older units more efficient.

Another concern of mine centers from that cold weekend in February when MISO asked everyone to conserve electricity because the grid had very little reserve capacity. This was brought on both due to extremely low wind speeds during high demand and the unplanned outage of a large coal generator (at the Sherco plant). Some Representatives (shockingly, only those who deny climate change science) have hammered on this issue by saying we need more coal generation to back up wind generation.

This is indeed one lesson that can be learned from that weekend. However, distributed generation advocates could also claim that by building massive centralized coal plants, we are setting ourselves up for a fall when one too many of the generators have an unplanned outage. This would also be a flawed lesson but seems just as valid as ignoring that component of the low reserve capacity in order to make a point.

What it comes down to is that a strong grid must have different technologies that compliment each other. As Chairman Hilty brilliantly reminded everyone, no utility is required to build that much wind to satisfy the renewable energy standard (although Xcel is - for reasons that I don't think were every justified). Utilities are required to build generation from a selection of eligible technologies. They have overwhelmingly chosen wind, despite its shortcomings, because it is cheaper. A stronger grid may not come cheap, but can be done by increased reliance on other eligible technologies like solar (though intermittent, tends to peak when needed) and biomass.

My last concern is about the rules of the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX - wikipedia has the basics). While I like the idea of the climate exchange, I am concerned about what would happen if Minnesota joined it.

The way I understand it, CCX creates a baseline of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions based on the client's emissions over base years 1998-2003 (or something close to that). It then requires (through force of binding contract) reductions from that baseline by certain percentages each year. Any upward deviation from those reductions requires credits from the exchange (currently selling around $4 per ton of carbon dioxide).

My main concern is with the accounting. If the Metropolitan Council joins CCX, its baseline will include the years before the Hiawatha light rail line began operation. LRT requires massive amounts of electricity, which is especially carbon intensive in this region. How is the Met Council expected to reduce its baseline with a spike on that magnitude?

LRT is a net reducer of GHGs but the Met Council does not get credit for the thousands of cars not driving when people take the train instead. This seems a fundamental flaw in CCX (unless I have misunderstood how it works) because it effectively penalizes the Met Council for reducing emissions via the LRT because the Met Council's baseline does not include emissions from all the private vehicles which are taken off the road.

NPR feature on CitizenRe

NPR had a feature on CitizenRe this morning. The reporter did a good job of outlining some of the previous concerns raised here and elsewhere. 

solar panels

RES in Oregon, Other Updates

Climate Change Graphic

Jesse, from Watthead, has a detailed post about the proposed RES in Oregon and other clean energy legislation that is currently being discussed in their legislature.

They appear to be heading for a 25% by 2025 standard with strong support from the Governor. Jesse's post explains how you can listen to the hearings directly; alternatively, Jesse will be offering updates on Watthead as the process moves forward.

Locally, our Global Warming Mitigation Act has passed out of the Committee and will soon be on the floor of the House. I believe it is still in committee in the Senate. I hope to have a roundup of what has been going on there after I finish listening to the hearings from the House. Clean Energy Minnesota describes the components of the bill as drafted. I believe the House has modified it, but I'm not sure how.

Nationally, I was just made aware of the National Wildlife Federation's comprehensive guide to global warming legislation. I think many of us have been too busy working on local stuff to follow the national scene but NWF has done the grunt work for us! They are keeping that site updated as things change.

Gore's Rebuttal Rebutted

Inconvenient Truth Cover

The NY Times recently published an article called "From a Rapt Audience, a Call to Cool the Hype."

But part of his scientific audience is uneasy. In talks, articles and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore’s central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism.

It would now appear that this article - about alarmists being alarmed at Gore's alarmism - is itself, (you guessed it) alarmist and inaccurate. I am not an expert on climate change and would guess that few readers of this blog are. We try to be informed and listen to reasoned arguments. Most of us tend to distrust popular science exercises done by former politicians like Gore.

Nonetheless, many of us have found Gore's presentation to be mostly accurate. I remain most confused about the sea level issue. I have heard that his estimates of sea level are at odds with what most scientists believe - but I have also heard that this aspect of climate science is presently the area with the highest uncertainty.

But when I read an article by William Broad in the NY Times that casts broad doubt on his presentation, it alarms me more than when I read similar reports from groups that are funded by ExxonMobil (duh).

Now it appears that William Broad's article was significantly off the mark. Real Climate has offered a thorough debunking of that article.

The first rule when criticizing popular science presentations for inaccuracies should be to double check any 'facts' you use. It is rather ironic then that William Broad's latest piece on Al Gore plays just as loose with them as he accuses Gore of doing.

I found their discussion of the extreme weather event issue to be particularly salient:

This is dishonest in at least two different ways. First of all, Broad conveniently forgets to mention that the 2006 Hurricane season was accompanied by a moderate El Nino event. It is well known that El Nino events, such as the 2006 El Nino, tend to be associated with stronger westerly winds aloft in the tropical Atlantic, which is unfavorable for tropical cyclone development. The season nonetheless produced a greater than average number of named storms in the tropical Atlantic (10), 3 more than the typical El Nino year. But El Ninos come and go--more or less randomly--from year to year. The overall trend in named tropical Atlantic storms in recent decades is undeniably positive. We can have honest debates about the long-term data quality, but not if we start out by misrepresenting the data we do have, as Broad chooses to.

I would have thought that Broad's editor (he does have one, right) would have done a little bit of fact checking on a topic with so much hype and obfuscation. It would appear that the editor did not exercise due diligence by quoting non-credible people:

Roy Spencer, best known for his satellite work arguing against warming of the atmosphere (which turns out to have been an artifact of a combination of algebraic and sign errors), criticizes Gore for pointing out that recent warmth appears to be anomalous in at least the past 1000 years. Spencer does this by both mis-characterizing the recent National Academies Report on the subject which indeed pointed out that there are numerous lines of evidence for precisely this conclusion, and by completely ignoring the recently-released IPCC Fourth Assessment report, which draws the stronger conclusion that the warmth of recent decades is likely anomalous in at least the past 1300 years.

At any rate, I remain frustrated by how difficult it is to find honest discussions of what is reliable information and what remains mostly unknown. While there are always uncertainties, I wish I had a better understanding of what "most" scientists believe right now on issues like sea level rise. While the IPCC report is supposed to offer this, my understanding is that it is simultaneously the alarmist work of a bunch of U.N. kooks and a massive understatement by U.S. government stooges.

Bill McKibben

Short Description: 

A Durable Future: Local Enterprise and the Environment

McKibben’s animating idea is that we need to move beyond "growth" the paramount economic ideal and pursue prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs, and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment.


Westminster Presbyterian Church (Sanctuary)
1200 Marquette Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55403


Westminster Town Hall Forum



Full Description: 

He shows this concept blossoming around the world with striking results, from the burgeoning economies of India and China to the more mature societies of Europe and New England. For those who worry about environmental threats, he offers a route out of the worst of those problems; for those who wonder if there isn’t something more to life than buying, he provides the insight to think about one’s life as an individual and as a member of a larger community.

McKibben offers a realistic, if challenging, scenario for a hopeful future. As he so eloquently shows, the more we nurture the essential humanity of our economy, the more we will recapture our own.

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