Monday, August 13, 2012

Controversial Carbon Offsets

The New York Times ran a front page story (8/9/12) on the paradox of carbon offsets. Offsets, which are supposed to help lower carbon footprints, actually spurred the wrong reaction. Refrigerants have a very high carbon footprint. For every 1 ton of carbon, a refrigerant is 11,000 time stronger which means it can trap heat and negatively impact global warming far worse than carbon dioxide. Businesses realized they could profit by not simply phasing out refrigerants but producing more refrigerants to destroy as carbon offsets. This is the exact opposite purpose of offsets. Offsets were originally intended to help lower carbon footprints. If it is difficult for  customer to lower their own footprint--say giving up commuting and bike to work--they can decide to spend money and buy offsets to offset the carbon footprint of their commute. The money spent funds a project elsewhere--say a project at a farm to lower the methane emissions from cows. Nevertheless, greed took the best and businesses realized a way to profit. Rather than just phase out refrigerants, they can produce more refrigerants, destroy the refrigerants' "waste byproduct," claim that the destruction is an offset helping to lower carbon footprints, and get paid for it. The article, written by Elisabeth Rosenthal and Andrew Lehren, mentions that some companies earn $20 to $40 million a year just by destroying waste byproducts from coolants.

I love this article because it reveals the unenvironmental paradoxes and "green" efforts like carbon offset programs. Carbon markets are complicated and when ill-designed or "gamed" in some sort, they fall apart from their original intent to clean up the environment. As David Doniger of the NRDC said in the story, "It turned the economics of business on its head."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Greenhouse gases from Refrigerants

I learned today about refrigerants, so the purpose of this blog is to introduce you--perhaps non global warming geeks--to what is a refrigerant, how it is used, and why it negatively impacts the environment.

Refrigerants sound exactly how the terms sounds. They are coolants typically used to in ACs. They  are ozone-depleting substances if they are released to the environment. Depleting the ozone layer allows more heat to enter our atmosphere and warm the Earth. Their global warming potential, a factor that signifies their impact to global warming, is a range from hundreds to 11,000. This means if carbon dioxide is a factor of 1 in terms of its impact to global warming, refrigerants (commonly known as HFCs and PFCs or CFCs) are upwards of 11,000 times stronger or worse for global warming. Today, I had a talk with my boss and my non-engineer background came out. I made a blooper in talking about refrigerants. I thought the amount of greenhouses from refrigerants came from our refrigerators not our ACs. I thought ACs have a greenhouse gas footprint primarily due to energy use. Cooling mechanisms in soda machines to ACs use refrigerants. Your car AC does as well. They are not dangerous to you, only dangerous to global warming if released.

What are the common uses of refrigerants? In a car, refrigerants are in your car AC. Air has to blow against the refrigerant, gets cooled, and then gets circulated.  Sources through wikipedia suggest that by 1992, it was illegal to release refrigerants in to atmosphere. No taking a halon, which is like a fire extinguisher, and just releasing it. EPA also has a wealth of information: 

Here's what a refrigerant looks like: picture

So why care? If you are doing greenhouse gas foot printing like me, why care? Well, it's nice not to walk up to a soda vending machine and not be ignorant that there could be a huge greenhouse gas source in there. Given that the most impactful refrigerants are now illegal, but the public talks carbon dioxide these days because it is so common. We forget about those less commonly heard greenhouse gases are far more powerful and right in our backdoor in our car AC.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Mercury and Air Toxics Standard (MATS) rule

This is not the kind of mat that you lie on for yoga relaxation. It takes skill to interpret and understand a 1,117 paged rule. I'm looking into the rule now for my job as an Environmental Analyst. It's different than studying and cramming for an exam. I really am motivated to look at something to understand it not to memorize it. On December 21, 2011, the EPA released the final version of a rule aimed to curb mercury emissions. Upon reading the name, it's obvious to a lay person that this rule makes sense. Why wouldn't the U.S. need a rule to enforce reductions in mercury emissions. People generally ingest mercury through fish. According to the EPA, the implementation of this rule will avoid 4,700 cases of heart attacks, 2800 cases of bronchitis, 130,000 cases of asthma, and 4000-11,000 cases of premature deaths. Mercury, itself, does not cause bronchitis or asthma. It's the particulate matter that is also emitted along with the mercury and air toxins that cause the respiratory diseases. I am not a doctor, so I could be wrong. Mercury, and other air toxins, at high levels in the bloodstream of pregnant women can be harmful to babies (source). The ads from Sierra Club say it all.

Some notes
  • Rule applies to boilers that burn more than 10% of their fuel in fossil fuels over 3 years or 15% in one year after 2015
  • Changes for oil units- I'm trying to understand the changes. A limited use category exempts any boilers with annual capacity factors less than 8%. How is the 8% calculated? Using the fuel heat input for just oil and using a 24 month average after
  • Work practice standards such as tune-ups every 3 years or 4 years for neural network adjustments instead of emission testing
  • Just test moisture content to ensure comply with HCL and HF for existing oil unit
On December 16, 2011, EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Action also released a memo specifying how power plants could get a one-year extension to comply if they impact reliability. The memo mentions that the "policy does not address installation of controls and/or instances of noncompliance" that do not pertain to reliability (p 2, memo). I have questions:
  1. On p4 of the memo, EPA mentions that companies will begin planning early if there are reliability issues and thinks companies will notify their "reliability entities" if there are issues. Then on Pg 5, EPA mentions specific steps such as notifying EPA's Enforcement office within a year of the rule's publication (likely late Feb to early Mar 2012) of the dates when companies plan to shut plants down or control. This signals the timing of potential reliability concerns. After writing all this, I realize that my question may not be a question but a thought. Do companies have to submit a separate request to the "reliability entities" or does EPA just assume companies will already do this so they don't give specific criteria. In part D on page 6 of the memo, EPA specifies that companies need to get validation from the "reliability entities" confirming that there is, in fact, a reliability concern, but there are no specifics on how companies should work with their reliability entities. At least, this is my interpretation.
On December 21, Obama also released a presidential memo in which he instructs EPA on 3 points: 1) EPA to make the one-year extension "broadly available to sources." The use of "broadly" suggests EPA to apply it the extension to a variety of issues other than reliability; 2) to work with NERC, FERC, RTOs, and reliability experts and alert companies early of extensions, creating more certainty per EO 13563; and 3) make information available to the public on the execution of MATS.

After reading this rule and blogging, I realize that I have come to no conclusion but merely blog as a way to write this rule into my memory. I'm not sure if any readers can take away anything interesting.

To learn more about this rule and the impacts of mercury, see:

Friday, November 11, 2011

California Valley Solar Ranch

My company was featured on a front-page story on Until you see a picture, it is hard to tell exactly what my company is working on. They are building solar panels on 100s of acres of what used to be a ranch. The solar farm is located between L.A. and San Francisco. Way cool. It will be interesting to see the project start up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Environmental Journalism opportunities

I am a sucker for the wedding section of the NY Times. Since it's not a big news story, i noticed that the NY Times stopped updating the section. They used to have videos each week. I'm a sucker for romance and thought the videos were cute.

Irregardless of this, I read an article about a couple this week and noticed that the bride, Laura Keane, was a Henry Luce Fellow. I also read another article in the NY Times magazine about Jeremy Grantham, an environmentalist and Wall Street businessman. The article was entitled, "A Darker Shade of Green," written by Carlo Rotella. The article mentioned the Grantham PRize for Excellence in Environmental Journalism, which awards $75,000 to an environmental journalist.

This led me to research about the Luce Fellowship, named after Henry Luce, the founder of Time Magazine. These are all opportunities worth considering. I'll get back to this later. I have to work on a few other things.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Part of my job as an environmental analyst involves tracking environmental regulations. It involves a lot of reading, and at times, feels as if I don't understand what I read. With the internet and quick ability to google, there are tools online to help decipher regulations.

One of the topics I've had to follow is climate change regulations. Since Congress has dropped the topic of climate policy--well, they have not dropped but it certainly has fallen lower on the ladder after the 2011 fiscal budget--states such as California have had to move ahead with their own programs. Last week, California signed into law a billed called SB1x2 (Senate Bill 2x) which extends their state renewable portfolio standard (RPS). An RPS is a states requirement to have a portion of their state's electricity come from renewable sources by a certain year. California, under Gov. Schwarzenegger, already implemented a 20% RPS by 2010. The most recent CPUC report mentions they achieved about 17-18%. SB1x2 gives the state the ability to extend this RPS in years come to achieve 33% renewable energy by 2020. On September 23, 2010, the California EPA also passed an RES (renewable energy standard) to achieve 33% by 2020. What is the difference between the RES vs RPS?

Does the difference have to deal with who has authority to regulate the rule? The PUC (public utility commission) overseas the achievement and the progress of the RPS. CA EPA (California Air Resources Board) has the authority to implement the RES (see CARB's RES website). It was a directive under Governor Schwarzenegger's Executive Order S-14-08 to establish a 33% renewable energy target by 2020. Now that it's a new Democratic administration under Governor Brown, is this Executive Order moot?

According to the PUC's June 2009 report, the RPS is a legislative action, meaning it is a different agency under the CA government that oversees the RPS. It's the CA Congress vs. ARB (CA EPA) that implements the RES. A summary explains that the RES is independent from the RPS. The "RES also applies to a broader range of regulated entities than the RPS such as the Publically Owned Utilities." In reading this summary, I would like to highlight the differences:
  • Applicability- "Senate Bill 2X applies to all electricity retailers in the state – investor-owned utilities (IOUs), municipal utilities, and independent sellers. The current 20% standard applies only to investor-owned utilities and independent sellers." (Simitian website). It makes sense that the PUC would oversee the RPS if only IOUs are regulated. THis begs the question, what is the difference amount POUs, IOUs, and municipal utilities? I know IOUs are the big regulated utilities like SDGE, PG&E, and SCE. POUs are like LADWP. "The PUC would handle oversight of the state's investor-owned utilities, with the air board retaining the authority (under the state's climate change law) to loosely oversee and, if need be, punish public utilities" (E&E)
  • Coverage-The RES and RPS also differ in terms of coverage. The RPS looks at the state and how much of the state shoudl come from renewables, but it also dicates the IOUs to set targes to achieve the renewable objective. The RES regulates all utilities.
  • Treatment of in-state vs out-of-state electricity- "RES Allows Unlimited Unbundled/Tradable RECs. The RES allows an unlimited use of “unbundled” or “tradable” RECs (TRECs) for compliance purposes. In contrast, the CPUC has limited the use of TRECs under the RPS, at least temporarily. TRECs allow the environmental benefits associated with renewable electricity to be sold or traded separately from the underlying electricity." (Summary). The PUC limited the use of TRECs, I assume, because they wanted to ensure that a certain % of in-state generation came from renewables. I don't remember the exact % but a large portion of CA's energy comes from out-of-state cheap coal. So the RES increased the flexiblity to use TRECs to comply and unbundled RECs, which means that you can use credits to comply. A credit can equal to 1KW of renewable energy that could ahve been produced outside CA. You are using out-of-state renewable power to comply with a state requirement.
  • Means to comply- "Senate Bill 2X does not require utilities to reach the goal at any cost. The PUC must approve renewable energy contracts, and utilities may be granted exemptions if the price of energy, or the difficulty of moving it into the state’s grid, make the cost excessive" (Simitian website)
  • Statute vs Regulation- "Unlike the RPS, which is a codified statute, the RES remains a CARB regulation. A new Governor could order CARB to revise the RES, similar to Governor Schwarzenegger’s Executive Order S-21-09, which prompted the RES in the first instance." (Latham and Watkins summary)
  • Targets- "Under the new law, all load-serving entities need to satisfy a 20% by December 31, 2013, renewable procurement target, a 25% target by year-end 2016, and a 33% target by December 31, 2020." (platts)

Year Renewable Electricity Standard3 SB 1x2
2012 through 2014 20 percent 20% by 12/31/2013
2015 through 2017 24 percent 25% by 12/31/2016
2018 through 2019 28 percent n/a
2020 and annuallythereafter 33 percent 33% by 12/31/2020

Helpful websites:
RPS update

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Nuclear in the US

The Japan earthquake has brought into question the safety and support for nuclear power. Before I make a hasty judgment call, I want to recall the background: what is really going on in Japan? The papers flash the pictures of local folks getting scanned, as if in an airport terminal, for radioactive material that could be on their hair or body. E&E (Environmental and Energy news) reports that U.S. nuclear plants that have applied to the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for an extension in their license to operate another 20 years are now being questioned. Certain policymakers such as the NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) press the NRC to consider the impact of earthquakes or seismic activity before they extend Entergy's license to operate the 1,028 MW Unit 2 and 998 mW Unit 3 of nuclear facility, Indian Point. This a great map of the 104 nuclear plants in the U.S. I'm not sure if my assumption is right but it seems like the midwest does not have that many given the lack of transmission lines to carry the power to where it's needed. According to a July 2010 report and EIA from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the amount of grid-tied photovoltaic interconnections is less than 1,400 MW. You start to realize the value of nuclear when 1 nuclear plant has enough electric supply than all of the solar capacity combined in the U.S. As I learn more about this situation, I hope we, Americans, learn about improving saftey but not conjure an artificial fear of all things nuclear. Nuclear is a part of our energy future.