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Aggregating Energy Since 2006


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.

Prius v. Hummer

I continue to hear claims (even from people who should know better) that the Prius is somehow less energy efficient over its lifetime than the Hummer. This is total BS and Slate explained why the Prius is more efficient and why so many people claim otherwise.

Most of this disinformation comes from a loony report that too many serious people took ... well, seriously. It was not. It was a hack job.

The skeptics' basic argument is that the Prius' battery is irredeemably un-green, mostly because of its high nickel content and complex manufacturing process. As a result, "Dust to Dust" contends that a Prius will consume $3.25 worth of energy per mile over its cradle-to-grave lifetime. A Hummer H2, by contrast, will use $3.03 per mile and the Hummer H3 just $1.95.

It seems that the authors just made a bunch of stuff up and got Rush Limbaugh to do their publicity. When I first looked at this report, my BS-meter went off when I saw their claims that most of the energy in a cradle-to-grave analysis of vehicles comes its production.

"Dust to Dust" also posits that the vast majority of a car's cradle-to-grave energy gets expended during production. That assertion runs contrary to virtually every other analysis of vehicular life cycles, including those conducted by MIT (PDF) and Argonne National Laboratory.

Next time you hear someone spreading this disinformation, send them to the Slate piece. And please stop repeating it.

Does Energy efficiency just offer more money to squander?

As more and more vehicles and appliances become energy efficient, Americans save money -- then spend that money on more and bigger vehicles and appliances, a new study finds.

Details on St. Paul Public Buildings' Efficiency

The City of St. Paul has a Sustainable Initiative and the Council Matters video program recently covered what St. Paul is doing to become more efficient.

They interview Dave Nelson, the city of St. Paul's real estate manager, about a new building that will use 45% less energy than one built only to code. The building uses special asphalt that allows water to drain through it to the earth rather than channeling it to a drain.

They have also arranged the building so the offices and conference rooms are in the south of the building to use as much natural light as possible. Other areas have solar tubes bringing light from the roof into the building. Sensors controlling the lights automatically keep light levels even depending on the amount of ambient light.

They are also retrofitting old buildings to use less energy and achieving paybacks of between a 2-5 years from what I remember. The Council Matters program seems like a good source of local news to St. Paul.

MN Leg Update


Energista has been sagging in its MN Legislature coverage over the past two weeks, but Loon Commons has continued with great weekly updates. The Leg has the week off and I hope to catch up with their antics over the next couple of days. I have no clue what is happening in the Leg in relation to biofuels and would be thrilled if someone else can help us out with that.

Looks like the Global Warming Mitigation Act is pretty much dead in the Senate. At this point, I can do little more than quote the Loon Commons story:

The final curveball from the Senate this week was some significant struggles around passage of the Global Warming Mitigation Act we have been promoting. We were informed by Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon (DFL-Duluth), chair of the Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications Policy Committee that the Global Warming Mitigation Act (SF192 authored by Sen. Ellen Anderson) would not be receiving a vote in her committee. The most significant power a committee chair holds is setting the agenda for the committee. She indicated that any global warming provisions would be in her omnibus bill, but the language we were initially provided this week was a far cry from anything in the Sen. Anderson legislation we support.

The little more I can add is that I have heard that Chair Prettner-Solon is herself the stumbling block in her desire to forge consensus on this issue. She appears poised to move a do-nothing climate change bill through rather than proceed with a close vote (though I don't know that there are enough votes for the Global Warming Mitigation Act to survive). As someone who applauded her efforts to create consensus on the RES issue, I am disappointed that she feels consensus is needed on this bill as well. I'm tired of rhetoric suggesting Minnesota will be in the dark if new coal plants are forced to pay to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. The reality is that a worst-case scenario involves higher prices, not rolling blackouts. This is not trivial, but neither are massive investments into long-lived power plants that may not be economical in a carbon-constrained future.

How many states have Republican governors who will sign a bill requiring new large sources of GHGs to offset their emissions? That our Senate Energy Committee cannot move a strong bill out of committee is hugely disappointing.

The news is not all bad as the energy conservation bill pushed by Dibble in the Senate and Kalin in the House has passed the whole Senate and made it out of the House Finance Committee. The bill is not as aggressive as proposed, but should still encourage more conservation that we currently have. The switch from a spending mandate to a savings mandate should help and the decoupling part should provide better incentives for utilities to conserve. All in all, these are significant steps - ratcheting up the conservation requirement can be done overtime if there is evidence the utilities are capable of reaching higher targets.

I'm curious to see what I have been missing over the last two weeks of House Energy Finance Committee hearings. Chair Hilty has moved his (really the Governor's) Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 out of committee but Magnus (climate-change denier) has been stricken as an author. I'm curious to learn what happened there and what purpose the bill serves at this point (several pieces of it having already been passed in the RES and conservation piece I just mentioned).

Finally, the omnibus energy bills are hitting the committees soon. The House Energy Finance & Policy (H.F. 1392) is available for energy-obsessed masochists everywhere. The Senate Energy & Utilities Committee appears to have turned the Governor's Next Generation Energy Act of 2007 (S.F. 145) into their omnibus bill.

Energy Conservation Update

Conservation Improvement Program image

The March 9 edition of Session Weekly from Minnesota House of Representatives includes a short piece on Representative Kalin's H.F. 1221 on energy conservation. I recently wrote a post about the decoupling portion of this bill.

The bill has been approved by the House Energy Finance and Policy Division. Its next stop is the House Finance Committee.

The bill represents an expansion of the state's current conservation improvement program, which directs utilities to invest money in programs and initiatives that encourage energy conservation among their customers.

Kalin called the 1.5 percent goal both "aggressive" and "doable." Representatives of utility companies, however, said they would have a tough time meeting it, and that it might result in higher gas and electric prices.

Mike Bash, chief financial officer of Connexus Energy, said it didn't make sense to put the onus for energy conservation on the utility companies when customers are responsible for gas and electric demand.

"We're not at our customers' shoulders when they're at Best Buy buying that new plasma TV. We're not at their shoulder when they're at the hardware store deciding which light bulb to buy. We're not there with their builder at their new home deciding what appliances to put in," Bash said, adding that his company will have to raise its rates anywhere from 6 percent to 10 percent if the bill passes.

Sheldon Strom, executive director of the Center for Energy and the Environment, disputed the notion that the bill would increase energy prices, arguing that having to build new power plants to meet energy demands would be much more expensive than conservation.

In the same pattern of testimony from the Renewable Energy Standard, utilities largely said that 1.5% is too big a conservation goal. Some suggested they thought they could meet 1% but even that would be stretch.

When discussing why utilities are required to do the conservation (in response to Bash's question above), someone noted that energy companies are trusted by consumers and are therefore posed to offer the best programs to reduce demand. From a philosophical point of view, I wholly agree that customers should be the targets and not the energy companies themselves, but I think this plan is more practical.

That being said, one utility testifier made the salient point that they may offer a customer hundreds of dollars in rebates for efficient appliances, only to see them purchase a bigger TV or something else that will nullify the conservation. It left me thinking that education has to be the ultimate answer.

When discussing potential costs, testifiers for the utility companies stressed that this could raise rates and that there is no linear relationship between conservation and money spent. Thus, conserving 2% may cost more than twice as much as conserving 1%.

While that makes intuitive sense (CFLs are cheap, but only take you so far) some of the testimony seemed over the top. Some of the testifiers used cost estimates extrapolated from what they are currently achieving. However, their current requirement is a spending requirement - not an efficiency requirement. Thus, there undoubtedly ways for the utilities to be more efficient with their conservation dollars.

The worst moment came when one of the utility testifiers showed what other states are doing and insinuated that Hawaii's incredibly stringent conservation requirements are responsible for their sky-high $.22/kWhr cost. As one Representative pointed out, this is a meaningless comparison because Hawaii has to pay exorbitant energy costs due to its isolated location.

I thought the best moment came when some of the more conservative members of the committee were complaining that this bill goes too far. Another member noted that the Leg has been moving increasingly toward performance standards in all aspects of policy and that this is nothing more than a step in that direction.


Light bulb

The House Energy and Finance Committee had several discussions centering around decoupling sales from revenues for gas and electric utilities. Decoupling enables removes the disincentives for energy efficiency and conservation that utilities currently face.

Wayne Shirley from the Regulatory Assistance Project testified in front of both this House Committee (on February 28) and in front of the Senate Energy Committee (on February 27 I think).

Decoupling is a feature that Governor Pawlenty has mentioned and one that Representative Kalin has included in his bill on the conservation improvement programs (CIPs). House Research has a summary of that whole bill - but I am focusing on the decoupling aspect here. If I understand it correctly, H.F. 1221 requires the Public Utility Commission to establish standards for decoupling. Utilities may then enter into pilot projects to see what happens when revenues are decoupled.

So what does decoupling mean? That summary has a good definition of decoupling:

"Decoupling" means separating a utility's revenues from its fluctuations in sales in order to remove utility disincentives to promote energy efficiency.

I'll explore what this means by summarizing Shirley's testimony. If you want to hear his words, I have isolated his audio presentation (6 MB mp3, 36 minutes long) to the House as well as a 15 minute clarification from discussion in the Senate Committee (6 MB mp3).

Currently, the ratemaking process for utilities involves the utility (Xcel for instance) and the Public Utilities Commission determining the appropriate rates for selling electricity (or gas) based on "cost of service regulation." All operating expenses are summed with the necessary returns on capital investments to get the revenue requirement. This is divided by the sales to get the price that at which electricity will be sold.

In the real world, sales will be different from what is expected based on many factors. This may mean higher or lower sales than expected. If the sales are insufficient (over time, perhaps several years later) to recover costs and the needed rate of return, it starts the process over.

As the utilities generally have high fixed costs, it cannot lower costs to make more money. They make more money based upon sales. Higher sales than expected during the ratemaking mean more profits (or higher dividends for cooperatives). This a significant disincentive to encouraging customers to lower consumption.

Decoupling changes the ratecase procedure by adding another step. After the revenue requirement is divided by the expected sales, they compute the average revenue per customer in each class (industrial, commercial, and residential). This is done more frequently (somewhat automatically) than traditional ratecases. For instance, the rate might be adjusted based upon actual consumption every month.

He uses this example:

A utility is determined to require $1 million from a given rate class. They are selling 25 million kilowatt hours of energy over that period. Under the existing system, this means the utility will charge $.04 per kilowatt hour. ($1,000,000/25,000,000 kWhrs).

If many customers became more efficient and reduced overall consumption in that rateclass by 1.5%, the utilities revenues would decline by $15,000.

Under a decoupling arrangement, the rate is adjusted for the next time period so that all ratepayers in that class are now paying $.0406 per kWhr.

At this point, you may be thinking, "Whaaaaa? How is it that the rates go up because people are conserving?" The utilities have to cover their costs and necessary returns on investments. If they are selling less power, they need to price it higher. Bear in mind that those who conserve power and use less of it will see smaller bills even if the rate increases slightly. In the example above, that was a fairly major (and unlikely) sudden reduction in consumption. In real life, the reduction would be smaller and also balanced partially by a growing customer base.

The important part about all of this is that utilities no longer have an incentive to increase their sales. If they increase their sales, the rates will drop in the next period (again, perhaps monthly or quarterly) and they will not profit from those increases (because their rate of return remains fixed). When combined with other aspects of Representative Kalin's improved CIP bill, the utilities have a strong incentive to encourage conservation and efficiency.

Decoupling has the effect of stabilizing the revenue stream of the utilities because its revenues are no longer dependent on sales. Thus, a mild winter will no longer hurt the profits of energy companies whereas a cold winter will no longer boost profits (due to higher than expected sales).

Week Wrapup

SI Cover Photo

MEP's lobbyist, John Tuma explained what happened to climate change legislation in the Minnesota House this week. He also mentions progress on the conservation legislation.

In other interesting news this week, Sports Illustrated has a cover story this week on sports and global climate change.

As global warming changes the planet, it is changing the sports world. To counter the looming environmental crisis, surprising and innovative ideas are already helping sports adapt

I'm looking forward to reader reactions in the next couple of issues.

Gore's House

Climate change deniers and right wing pundits are thrilled to see a report suggesting Gore's Nashville mansion used 221,000 kilowatt hours of electricity in 2006. While the report comes from a right-wing think tank, it appears to be credible judging from additional A.P. reports and the response from a Gore spokesperson. The average U.S. home uses around 10,000 kw hours per year.

She said Gore subsidizes renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power and methane gas to balance 100 per cent of his electricity costs.

She said Gore participates in a utility program that lets people buy blocks of "green power" for $4 a month. Gore purchases 108 blocks a month, the equivalent of 16,200 kilowatt hours.

The Gore home is also under renovation to add solar panels, Kreider said.

This falls perfectly into the discussion we have had about whether offsets are valuable in themselves or whether there should be an efficiency consideration. I think this is the perfect example of a major downside of offsets. People like Gore should be selling their mansions to families of 50 or investing in super efficient insulation and lighting at the minimum.

This attack is clearly politically motivated, but Gore's personal life does appear to be incompatible with the changes needed for reducing GHGs. Efficiency is more important than offsets despite being less public and braggable.

Update: Some had used this realization, coupled with Bush's apparently enviro-friendly house in Texas to suggest that Bush is friendlier to the environment than Gore.

This is absurd. Whereas Gore apparently lives less efficiently in his Nashville home than Bush may in Crawford, the simple fact is that these differences do not even exist when compared to national energy consumption. What is important is policies and how they drive the market. Gore's policies are right and his lifestyle choices are questionable. Bush's (ahem, when it comes to energy, Cheney's) policies are wholly wrong whereas he appears to have made less deleterious personal choices in building his mansion.

Ban Bulb Bans

After recent announcements that both California and Australia are considering bans of incandescent light bulbs, a Slashdot post suggests GE has made them more efficient. The press release has more information.

The new high efficiency incandescent (HEI™) lamp, which incorporates innovative new materials being developed in partnership by GE’s Lighting division, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and GE’s Global Research Center, headquartered in Niskayuna, NY, would replace traditional 40- to 100-Watt household incandescent light bulbs, the most popular lamp type used by consumers today. The new technology could be expanded to all other incandescent types as well. The target for these bulbs at initial production is to be nearly twice as efficient, at 30 lumens-per-Watt, as current incandescent bulbs. Ultimately the high efficiency lamp (HEI) technology is expected to be about four times as efficient as current incandescent bulbs and comparable to CFL bulbs. Adoption of new technology could lead to greenhouse gas emission reductions of up to 40 million tons of CO2 in the U.S. and up to 50 million tons in the EU if the entire installed base of traditional incandescent bulbs was replaced with HEI lamps.

Kevin Nolan, Vice President of Technology for GE Consumer & Industrial, said: "In addition to offering significant energy savings comparable to CFLs, the 21st century version of Edison’s bulb provides all the desirable benefits including light quality and instant-on convenience as incandescent lamps currently provide at a price that will be less than CFLs. We and other lighting manufacturers have been aggressive in developing and marketing CFLs. But consumers want more options and we plan to respond to their needs and deliver environmental benefits, too. It’s important that we offer consumers a full range of products that meet their personal desire to reduce their negative impact on the environment while preserving their ability to pick the best lighting product for their needs. That’s why we are moving aggressively to commercialize these new lamps."

Notice that the new bulbs are still not as efficient as CFLs but may be if GE's predictions are accurate. This is yet another sign that outright bans of incandescents are a poor policy choice. A good policy choice would likely be regulating an efficiency in light bulbs - perhaps a minimum of x lumens per Watt. Another possibility is taxing bulbs that fall below some line.

Outlawing such lights outright is foolish because it is not the most efficient way to reduce GHG emissions without dampening the public's enthusiasm for positive changes.

Introducing Green Options!

If you are looking for ways to "green the good life," then start today, because you now have a fantastic tool at your fingertips. Green Options is a site that provides practical, personal information on ways we can all live a more efficient, healthy, and eco-friendly lifestyle. I'm blogging daily there as well, covering the national renewable energy scene.

In addition to a blog hosted by a stable of writers covering issues like green business, politics (the site is strictly nonpartisan), and Do-It-Yourself (DIY) posts, Green Options features a Green Life Guide, discussion forums, daily green news, and other tools.

We haven't even been live for a full month yet, but we're adding more tools all the time and still have more to come. In response to suggestions that we cover more geographic areas then just green living in the United States, we've added a blogger from Israel and may be adding more. And stay tuned for more practical, applicable tools coming out in the near future to help you incorporate renewable energy into your life.

Australia moving to ban incandescent bulbs

A California legislator isn't the only person proposing a ban on incandescents. The Australian government recently announced a plan to gradually ban the sale of incandescent bulbs. The plan is supported by Prime Minister John Howard, who is cited in the article as a recent global warming convert. The plan would supposedly reduce Australia's GHG emissions by 12 million tons by 2012 and cut household power bills by up to 66 percent.

The article talks about a different tactic that Gov. Pawlenty and other US policymakers may want consider... In Cuba, Castro formed "youth brigades" which went from household to household replacing incandescents with fluorescents in a move to stem the blackouts which afflicted the island. That's one way to "encourage" conservation!

Personally, I'm not sure I would support an outright ban. A lot of people are very sensitive to light quality and prefer incandescents in some locations. Does anyone know which brands of CFLs have the softest light? The best I've found are GE Soft Lights.

Responsible Carbon Neutrality?

Many people have recently been discussing carbon neutrality because so many companies are carbon washing themselves.

Joel Makower makes some good points about when one should be considered carbon neutral:

But beyond that is a bigger concern: that carbon neutrality could be seen as a cover-up for real action. As such, there would be a backlash against companies making carbon-neutral claims without having taken the appropriate precursory steps to maximize their energy efficiency and use the highest percentage possible of energy derived from clean, renewable resources.

I think we should distinguish between responsible carbon neutrality and irresponsible. I don't know where Wal-Mart would fit within this model if they use sustainable building practices (big if given their dependence on massive parking lots and such) and LED lighting. On the other hand, their entire business model is based on carbon-intensive long-distance transit.

14 Minnesota Colleges kick-off Energy Saving Competitions

On February 1, 14 Minnesota colleges kicked-off Campus Wars, a state-wide energy saving competition managed and led by students in the Minnesota College Energy Coalition and the Minnesota Public interest research group. The competition measures percent reduction in heating and electricity use from the previous 3-year average for the entire campus, so student life, academic facilities, and institutional operation are all involved.

As one of the organizers and a student coordinator at Macalester College, I was delighted to get picked up by the Minnesota Daily: 

Students around the state, from Macalester to the U of Ms in the Twin Cities, Morris and Duluth, Carleton and more are pulling together to confront global warming and the energy crisis. We are moving forward with innovative on-campus solutions, institutional policies, state and federal advocacy, community energy development, and building a new campus culture of efficiency and innovation. 

The Midwest Climate Action Conference, which will draw hundreds of youth from across the Midwest to confront global warming, is in 3 weeks.


How Many Legislators Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb (Act)?

California may ban conventional lightbulbs by 2012! In an interesting development, California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine wishes to purge the state of the traditional incandescent bulbs and replace them with the more efficient fluorescents.  While it is admirable that California is, again, pushing the country to be greener, this step poses some potential problems.  

1)  The light given off by fluorescents is definitely different than the incandescents everyone is used to.  Will people accept this change easily?  Will fluorescents work in all applications?  They don't dim like incandescents do, which makes me wonder if there are other applications in which they are inferior.  What about all the lightbulbs in the movie industry?  
2)  How do you monitor this??  "Welcome to my home, Mr. Incandescent Inspector!  Would you like to see my bathroom?"  Somehow I think not.  Even if they just ban the sale of incandescents within the state, I could see black markets opening up for traditional bulbs, or even people driving to Nevada, Arizona, or Oregon to buy them just as Minnesotans would go to Wisconsin to buy fireworks before "The Body" made them legal.  
3) Fluorescents are more expensive than incandescents, and though they present significant energy cost savings throughout the lifetime of the bulb, many people cannot afford the upfront cost (or understand the implications of the bulb).  Would a sharp increase in demand for the bulbs raise the cost significantly?  Economics says yes... Would the state subsidize the purchase for poorer Californians?  
Not sure that this idea would successfully accomplish what Assemblyman Levine wishes it to, but it is an interesting idea.

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