Monday, 5 October 2009

Unbridled Energy: Predicting Volatile Wind, Sun

Utilities Ramp Up Focus on Forecasting When Renewable Fuel Is at a Peak to Avoid Squandering Power That Still Can't Be Stored
For more than a century, producing power has been a matter of flipping a switch. Need more electricity? Fire up some fuel. Need less? Dial the flame back down.
Things won't be that easy in a world that gets much of its energy from renewable sources, which come and go at nature's whim. Wind tends to blow hardest at night -- a problem, since people use electricity mostly during the day. Sunshine can lose its intensity in seconds if eclipsed by a cloud -- inconvenient for people who like their air conditioners to run steadily on summer days.
To harness renewable energy more reliably, some companies are experimenting with ways to story energy when the output is high and then distribute it when output is low. WSJ's Jeff Ball reports on the efforts to build a better battery.
Many states and countries are pledging to produce 20% or more of their electricity from renewable sources within about a decade. That will be a major stretch. The recession has severely crimped renewable-energy investment. Proposals to turn over large swaths of desert and coastline to renewable-energy generation are encountering angry opposition. And the drop in fossil-fuel prices has removed much of the public appetite for a big renewable-energy bid. Yet those very pressures are pushing renewable-energy proponents to pursue their goal as efficiently as possible. And so the search for ways to accommodate the vicissitudes of wind and sun continues to shape up as one of today's great technological quests.
A convenient solution would be to overcome wind and sun's intermittence by storing the energy and then dispensing it later, on windless or overcast days. But storage technology is still embryonic.
So the power industry is having to change the way it operates. To adapt its fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure to renewable energy's ebbs and flows, it is trying to forecast them better. Knowing how nature is likely to behave will help the industry better balance different sources of renewable energy, scientists and utility executives say. The goal: maximizing wind, sun and other natural sources when each is at its peak.
Largely due to the unpredictability of the heavens, the thousands of wind turbines across the country collectively produced 1.3% of actual electricity in 2008.
Currently, every wind farm and solar installation has to be backed up by a nearly equivalent amount of conventional fuel to keep the power grid running. That raises costs.
"We're putting renewables into a system that wasn't designed for renewables," says Paul Denholm, an analyst for the federal government's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, Colo.
Wind power is the fastest-growing renewable source of electricity. Buoyed by government mandates and subsidies, wind farms accounted for more than half of all net electricity-generating capacity added in the U.S. in 2008, according to the Department of Energy.
But capacity to produce is not actual production. Largely due to wind's unpredictability, the thousands of wind turbines installed across the country collectively produced only 1.3% of actual U.S. electricity in 2008, the department's figures show.
The Bonneville Power Administration, a government-owned utility based in Portland, Ore., taps one of the biggest collections of wind farms in the country. Between January and August, average wind-power production accounted for 12% of average electricity consumption in Bonneville's service area.
From hour to hour, though, wind power swings wildly depending on how things blow at the Columbia River Gorge, where most of the wind turbines in Bonneville's service area are located.
This Tuesday was typically erratic. At 1 a.m., wind farms in the Bonneville service area were cranking out about 1,550 megawatts of power. By 7 a.m., that fell to about 800 megawatts, just as people were waking up and turning on their lights and toasters. That night, once most people were asleep, the wind picked up again. By 11:45 p.m., wind power topped 2,000 megawatts.
Most of the electricity in Bonneville's service area comes from hydroelectric power. To compensate for the volatility of wind, Bonneville tweaks the amount of water it lets through the dams. But that doesn't work for the most extreme shifts in wind. Sometimes, when the wind is blowing hard, Bonneville releases extra water over the tops of dams without using it to generate electricity. Otherwise, electrical wires might get overloaded. And when the wind is so strong that Bonneville can't ditch enough water, the utility orders wind turbines shut off.
"Everything changes with wind," says Bart McManus, a wind expert at Bonneville.
Sudden doldrums can be as troublesome as sudden gusts. That was the problem on Feb. 26, 2008, in Texas, which produces more wind power than any other state.
At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Texas's wind farms, concentrated in the western part of the state, were throwing off about 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve about one million households. Then a cold front blew in. By 6:30 p.m. -- when electricity demand typically peaks -- wind production in Texas had cratered to about 360 megawatts.
Exacerbating matters, Texans began turning up their heat -- much of which, in rural parts of the state, comes from electricity.
The operator of Texas's electrical grid, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, known as Ercot, scrambled. It cut off power to various industrial customers that, in exchange for payment, had agreed to let Ercot pull their plugs in emergencies.
To avert situations like these, Ercot has hired a company to provide, every hour, a forecast of how the wind will blow at every wind project on the Ercot grid. It requires wind-power producers to install gauges that feed into those forecasts.
Related Reading
A major difficulty in harnessing the wind to generate electricity is that the wind is unpredictable. The Bonneville Power Administration, a utility in the Pacific Northwest, provides a continuously updated readout of wind-power generation in its service area. The readout shows how erratic the wind can be.
Texas, one of the nation's top wind-power-producing states, unexpectedly lost a massive amount of electricity when a cold front blew in on the afternoon of Feb. 26, 2008. The Department of Energy explains what happened that day in this report.
America's capacity to generate electricity from renewable sources, such as the wind and sun, is growing fast. But renewable energy remains a tiny slice of the overall energy pie, as the Department of Energy shows in this July report.
Wind power now provides just 1.3% of U.S. electricity, but it could provide as much as 20% by 2030 if "significant challenges" are overcome, the Department of Energy said in 2008 in a report.
The forecasts look not just at temperature, but also at wind speed and direction at the height of wind turbines, an altitude that until now hasn't attracted much interest.
If there were a viable way to store large amounts of renewable energy, Ercot might have been able to tap it on that February afternoon. Investors and the government are backing storage development. One hope is a better battery. Other ideas include systems that would store water in uphill sites or compressing air underground, for later release when electricity is needed.
So far, these are largely experimental. Making renewable energy big, many studies suggest, would require a combination of approaches: investment in high-voltage transmission wires to carry renewable electricity from remote areas to cities; policies to encourage energy efficiency; and coordinated construction of renewable facilities so that one form of energy can fill in when others are dormant. In many places, wind is calmest at midday, when solar power is most available.
For now, better renewable-energy forecasting is important. Today's forecasts remain frustratingly inexact. Just after midnight on Christmas morning, 2007, an unexpected wind surge hit in Colorado, a state with a lot of wind turbines. It sent power production soaring on the system operated by Xcel Energy, a utility that is trying to improve its wind forecasts.
"We were walloped," says Tom Imbler, vice president of commercial operations for Minneapolis-based Xcel. To compensate, Xcel scrambled to dial down some of its fossil-fuel power plants. Those plants "were never designed to ramp up and ramp down at the level we're asking them to" in the age of renewable energy, he says. "We're learning as we go."
Write to Jeffrey Ball at

The Price of Green

Specialized funds invest in alternative energy and avoid polluters. But a narrow scope can mean big risk.
You have a hybrid automobile in your driveway, and you faithfully recycle. Is it time to go "green" with your money, too, by investing in eco-sensitive funds?
There are roughly three dozen dedicated green portfolios from which to choose, according to research firm Morningstar Inc. They include both mutual funds and exchange-traded funds. Most focus on companies involved in environment-related industries—such as alternative energy or water treatment and distribution—though a few take it a step further by including a broader mix of companies with low carbon footprints, regardless of the sector in which they operate. Beyond these dedicated green portfolios, there are funds that screen holdings for certain environmental factors as part of a broader commitment to socially responsible investing.
Some financial planners and green-investing professionals say the near future bodes well for companies involved in green industries because of what many see as an eco-friendly White House, economic-stimulus money earmarked for alternative-energy technology, and proposed legislation in Congress that seeks to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and establish standards for energy efficiency.
The "policy and regulatory environment is going to be a boon for green investing, as companies across industries scramble to realign their carbon intensity and how they perform energy-efficiency-wise," says Bennett Freeman, the senior vice president for sustainability research and policy at Calvert Asset Management Co., a longtime participant in socially responsible investing and the manager of the Calvert Global Alternative Energy fund.
But investors tempted by green investing need to choose funds carefully and understand that some of these sectors can be very volatile, as illustrated by the bankruptcy of multiple ethanol and biofuel producers, as well as struggles among small solar-power companies, amid a drop in oil prices over the past year. It is also important to recognize that buying into green businesses and shunning those that are harder on the Earth's resources won't benefit the environment directly.
The thought that "if you are buying stock [in] an oil company, you are somehow giving money to the oil company" is just not true, says Brian Pon, a financial planner with Financial Connections Group Inc. in the San Francisco Bay area. Whether you're investing in a traditional energy company or an alternative-energy player, you are typically buying shares from another investor and not pumping cash into the firm. Further, he says, "an individual doesn't really have the money to affect investment markets. You're buying a hundred shares when hundreds of thousands of shares trade daily."
Green investing has "a less direct impact" on the environment than personally polluting less and recycling, concurs Steve Schueth, president of First Affirmative Financial Network LLC, an independent investment adviser specializing in socially responsible investing. But it is a way for one's investments to reflect one's values, he says.
In many ways, green investing is a subset of socially responsible investing, where fund managers and other investors typically use a set of screens to weed out the stocks of companies that don't meet certain criteria, usually relating to environmental, social and corporate-governance issues.
A wide range of fund strategies fall under the green label, says Morningstar analyst Michael Herbst. The narrowest funds and ETFs are dedicated to specific sectors, such as solar power or water treatment. Others hold a mix of such stocks and "because they are a little more broadly diversified, their performance tends to be less volatile over time," he says. Less common are funds that consider green factors in their stock selection but also include a broad enough range of stocks to serve as a core holding in an investment portfolio. Most green mutual funds and ETFs are on the smaller side, with all but a few having less than $300 million in assets; a couple of the narrow sector ETFs are among the largest portfolios.
Green Sector Bets
Among the narrow and volatile green portfolios are two ETFs that focus on solar energy: Claymore/MAC Global Solar Energy Index and Market Vectors Solar Energy. They are both down 45% over the past 12 months, while the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index declined 6.9%.
"Any time you make a sector bet, you are making a very narrow bet that has lots of opportunities to go wildly wrong," says Milo Benningfield, founder of Benningfield Financial Advisors in San Francisco. Just make sure you are "comfortable with that and have the capacity to take on that risk."
A drop in the price of oil, which made alternative energy sources less viable economically and less attractive to investors, weighed heavily on the solar sector and other alternative-energy areas in the past year. But Claymore Securities Inc. President Christian Magoon says that if the U.S. passes legislation favorable to alternative energy, solar-energy stocks could get a big pop. "There's a lot of volatility in solar stocks," he says.
PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy, a somewhat broader alternative-energy portfolio, has also taken investors for a bumpy ride. The ETF gives investors exposure to areas including ethanol, solar and wind power, and energy efficiency. Over the past year, the fund—one of the larger green portfolios, with a recent $783 million in assets—returned a negative 27%. Over the past three years, it has declined an average 13.5% a year, trailing the S&P 500 by more than eight percentage points.
One of the largest green portfolios, with a recent $1.4 billion in assets, is PowerShares Water Resources, up an average 0.14% a year over the past three years. This fund invests in companies that generally derive 50% or more of their revenue from water-related businesses, including water utilities, water-treatment companies and firms that are involved in the infrastructure and distribution of water.
A Broader Mix
The next group of green funds are those that branch into broader sectors of the economy but that Morningstar's Mr. Herbst says still aren't diversified enough to be attractive as core holdings.
New Alternatives, launched in 1982, has one of the longest track records among green funds. It invests in various areas of alternative energy, including wind, solar and hydropower, as well as in companies focused on energy efficiency and pollution reduction. Recently, two-thirds of its assets were in utilities and industrial-materials firms, according to Morningstar. Like a traditional socially responsible investment fund, New Alternatives steers clear of certain sectors, including nuclear power, coal and oil, and incorporates screens for other social issues.
Over the past decade, New Alternatives ranks in the top 15% of Morningstar's World Stock category, with an average annual return of 6.47%.
Winslow Green Growth and Winslow Green Solutions also fall into this broader group. These mutual funds focus on companies that provide solutions to environmental concerns and those that have environmentally sustainable operations. For example, both funds have holdings in Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc., a fast-food burrito chain. Chipotle has made an effort to be greener by using recycled materials and energy-efficient lighting in some of its restaurants, while also working to source food locally and use natural and organic ingredients, says fund co-manager Matthew Patsky. Both Winslow Green Growth and Winslow Green Solutions have outperformed the S&P 500 this year, with gains of 39% and 26%, respectively.
Pax World Global Green, meanwhile, invests primarily in companies that provide environmental services in the areas of water, energy and waste. It is up 32% this year.
Possible Core Holdings
Several green funds are considered broad and diversified enough to be used as core holdings in an investment portfolio.
The 10-year-old Portfolio 21 is one of Morningstar's favorites in this group because of its established track record and broad exposure to various sectors, issues and locations. This fund ranks in the top 30% of Morningstar's World Stock category for past five years and top 40% for the past decade. Assets are just under $300 million.
Portfolio 21's holdings range from lesser-known companies such as energy-efficient ball-bearing manufacturer SKF AB in Sweden to Internet giant Google Inc. and pharmaceutical company Novartis AG.
Google's business success along with the company's attention to energy efficiency—including installing solar panels at company headquarters—caught Portfolio 21's attention, says Tony Tursich, one of the fund's portfolio managers. Novartis, meanwhile, has taken a leadership role in trying to reduce waste from drugs, which ends up in water supplies, he says.
The fund has some exposure to sectors that wouldn't be considered green by most. It doesn't own traditional mining companies, "but we do have exposure to the metals sector through Johnson Matthey PLC, a metals recycler and refiner," says Mr. Tursich. Portfolio 21 also has investments in several auto-parts suppliers, including one that develops hybrid-auto technologies, though it is avoiding auto companies themselves.
"Toyota and Honda are way ahead of the curve in [building] fuel-efficient cars, but they are still jumping in and making big SUVs and trucks," says Leslie Christian, chief executive of Portfolio 21 Investments.
Other funds that Morningstar analysts say could be considered for core holdings are Green Century Balanced, Green Century Equity, Northern Global Sustainability Index and Alger Green.

Renewable energy? It's an offshore thing

Radical plans are afoot in Britain to build wind farms in the North Sea. Terry Macalister sees how it works in Lillgrund, Sweden
Terry Macalister, Monday 5 October 2009
Imagine what it is like to open the bonnet of your car, stand on top of the engine and be hoisted 85m above the North Sea on a perilously narrow pole. The view on a clear day is breathtaking, but when the wind is blowing so hard the whole contraption swings 4m from side to side, it is grim – even for Leif Bolther.
This 51-year-old Swede, with forearms that would shame Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a seasoned technician in the wind industry. Blooded in the Norwegian offshore oil sector, Bolther has worked in the remotest parts of China and India, but still admits: "It can be hard up there in the terrible cold and freezing rain."
The tough but affable Swede is part of a burgeoning workforce promising a renewable revolution far out to sea. It will replicate the earlier North Sea oil industry, except that it is carbon-free and a vital tool in the battle against global warming.
Bolther works for the turbine manufacturer Siemens in Danish and Swedish waters, where much of the early running has been made in the offshore wind industry. Lillgrund, located 10km off the coast close to the median line with Denmark, is Sweden's biggest wind farm. The 48 turbines produce 110MW of power, enough to light 60,000 homes.
But this week Britain will unveil much more radical plans for this side of the North Sea. The Crown Estate on Wednesday will give briefings on what is known as Round Three (R3) licensing awards, which will take the industry out into much deeper waters. Shortlists have been drawn up and the Crown Estate will soon announce which companies and consortia have been chosen. Nine areas, including the Dogger Bank, acreage off Norfolk and the Firth of Forth, have been designated for development.
The third licensing round is a step change for the UK offshore industry, offering developers the chance to build 25GW of new power. Under rounds one and two, which started in 2000, 8GW can be developed. Combined, the total of 33GW would represent more than 10 times what is produced from wind power today. That would help Britain meet its European Union-agreed targets of producing 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Today it is a tiny fraction of that, while wind already provides Denmark with 20% of its power.
Deep water areas are convenient in that they are far from centres of population and so free in theory from the kind of opposition that has dogged onshore wind farms. But there are still planning issues because of birds and radar, while putting turbines up in the North Sea is costly and time-consuming. They need specialist floating cranes, cable-laying vessels and even platforms to support them.
The Carbon Trust, a government-funded agency set up to promote clean technology, has predicted that a successful R3 could propel Britain towards a £70bn wind and wave market that would support 250,000 jobs. "These technologies are not green 'nice to haves' but are critical to the economic recovery of the UK," says chief executive Tom Delay.
Butwhile R3 is needed to help the government meet its carbon emission targets, developers are wary about the economics. The London Array, much closer to shore off Kent, has been dogged by worries that it cannot be commercial even with enhanced public subsidies. There are also concerns about who will develop and pay for the grid connections and whether the whole enterprise will be undermined by ministerial commitment to nuclear.
Siemens is keen to build one new turbine manufacturing plant in Europe, but has not decided where. René Umlauft, chief executive of its renewable energy division, says the successful launch of R3 is vital to the decision-making process. "We are looking at two locations [for factories] in the UK, one in Denmark and one in Germany. Great Britain has the advantage of R3, which could result in a huge market," he told the Guardian.
GE and Mitsubishi are also considering a turbine plant in Britain, while Clipper has just been awarded a government grant to develop a new generation of blades at a factory in Blyth, in the north-east of England.
Siemens claims it is already involved in commercially competitive wind farms in New Zealand and expects to do the same in Mexico and Brazil. Umlauft says parts of Scotland could see a similar situation unfold in eight years' time, depending on the relative cost of oil and other fuels.
But that is onshore. For offshore wind to thrive, certainly without state support, there needs to be a lot of technological innovation. That is why Clipper, Siemens and others are working flat out to find ways to cut operating costs. There is also a need for investors. The green energy sector has been hit harder than most by the credit crunch, with stocks seen as speculative and uncertain.
The big utilities can develop wind farms out of their own balance sheets, but the smaller independents are heavily dependent on banks that have retreated from what they see as riskier schemes.
New figures out last week suggest a bounceback in confidence, however, for the wider clean technology sector. The London-based consultancy New Energy Finance says $26bn of new investment was made in the three months to September 30, double the amount seen in the first quarter of 2009. The WilderHill New Energy Global Innovation index, a basket of stocks covering wind, solar and fuel cells, has risen by 40% this year.
The renewed optimism comes as global leaders prepare for the Copenhagen climate change talks in December. This should pave the way for a wider successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which started the ball rolling for Co2 cuts and the development of low-carbon energy programmes. The squabbling about who pays what goes on but the world's biggest carbon polluters, China and the US, are playing far more constructive roles than they have in the past.
In the meantime the wind industry continues with its work. Dong Energy of Denmark, one of the companies hoping to win R3 licenses, has just started up its 91-turbine Horns Rev 2 scheme in the North Sea. This is the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, but it is a measure of the pace of the sector that it will only hold that record until the 140-turbine Greater Gabbard field comes on stream off Britain next year. And after that it will be 340 turbines on the London Array.
This has brought contracts for Siemens and is all potential work for Bolther, even before R3 kicks in. Despite having to climb those 85m towers, the Swede is happy: "It's relatively well paid and it's better than the oil rigs. I like to think I am doing something worthwhile: working on clean energy."

Green lobby calls for higher returns on investment in clean energy projects

Adding 10p per kilowatt hour (kwh) to the 36 pence proposed for 'clean energy cashback' scheme would create 30,000 jobs
Ashley Seager
The Guardian, Monday 5 October 2009
An alliance of construction companies, solar energy groups and politicians will tomorrow appeal to the government to increase support for renewable energy for households through its proposed Clean Energy Cashback scheme.
As the government's consultation period on the plan draws to a close, supporters of solar panels are urging the government to increase the amount that home owners would be paid for every unit of green electricity they produce. Just adding 10p per kilowatt hour to the proposed 36p rate would create 30,000 jobs in the next five years, the industry says, by driving demand for 400,000 new installations by 2014.
The scheme, usually called a feed-in tariff, has been successfully used to boost the roll-out of renewable energy technologies across Europe. In July, the government pledged to introduce a similar scheme in April next year.
But its aim of producing returns on investment of 5-8%, depending on the technology, is too low. Germany, for example, typically offers around a 10% return which has seen renewables take off rapidly.
The shadow energy minister, Charles Hendry, said: "Feed-in tariffs are crucial if the kickstart in microgeneration is to happen, but it will undermine the point of introducing the Clean Energy Cashback if the rate is not sufficient to drive domestic and commercial uptake of the technologies."
Brian Berry, of the Federation of Master Builders, said: "The FMB would welcome any change to the proposed Clean Energy Cashback scheme that maximises solar jobs for our membersat a time when many of them are really suffering as a result of the recession."
"The construction and solar industry work in close partnership, with roofers up and down the country now being trained to install solar electric roof tiles. By increasing the clean energy cash back level by at least 10p, the government is kick starting economic recovery in the construction industry - allowing solar energy to play a significant role in the greening of our housing stock."
Alan Simpson MP, special adviser on the scheme to energy and climate change secretary Ed Milliband, said Labour should not be so timid.
"Only real rates of return of between 8-10%...will drive forward the UK market for renewables from 2010. We have to deliver massive benefits for UK PLC and UK jobs during the next Parliament. This means an increase of at least 10p on the proposed solar PV payments for 2010. Without that, we are not even in the game as far as solar PV is concerned."
Paul Donnelly, spokesman for storage group Big Yellow - the sort of company who could potentially roll out a lot of PV on its warehouses - said the current proposal was simply not interesting enough.
"Solar PV is the most practicable renewable technology for urban environments and is also the most reliable in meeting Planning Authority renewable energy targets.
"But the current return on investment for commercial generators suggested by the proposed PV tariff levels will do nothing to drive investment in this robust, effective technology," he said.
Supermarket group Asda has also made it clear to Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) officials that the proposed tariff is too low for the company to bother investing in putting large arrays on its shop or warehouse roofs.
Colin Challen MP, Labour chairman of the Commons All Party Climate Change Group, said the proposed tariff levels would not even deliver the 5-8% return DECC was claiming.
"The Government has literally a once in a lifetime opportunity to get the 2010 starting 'clean energy cashback' payment right for all renewable energy technologies so that the UK can begin to catch up with our European neighbours. But the proposed solar PV payments are simply set far too low to provide for a real kick-start for this technology in the UK and are way below the Government's stated aim of delivering a 5-8% rate of return from the scheme."
For details on the consultation, visit

Political Alliances Shift in Fight Over Climate Bill

The flurry of companies quitting the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is highlighting how the climate-change issue is straining traditional alliances in Washington, as some businesses seek to profit from overhauling the energy market and others try to cut deals to head off tougher regulation.
Some companies and industry groups that have in the past worked with Republicans to fight efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels -- such as Detroit's auto makers -- are now expressing support for action on climate change. Some support legislation to put a price on the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming, while others support preserving the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate such greenhouse gases.
The Chamber of Commerce says it supports efforts to fight climate change through federal investments and incentives for power that can be produced without emitting carbon dioxide. But the group has opposed proposals to require companies to pay for the right to emit carbon.
The Chamber, which says it represents three million businesses, says its positions are "mainstream, common-sense views" approved by a majority of more than 100 business leaders who sit on its board of directors.
Some companies -- such as Peabody Energy and ConocoPhillips -- have spoken out against climate legislation passed by the House of Representatives. Others -- such as General Electric Co. and Duke Energy Corp. -- have expressed support for it.
Many companies backing action on climate change stand to gain if the U.S. requires corporations to pay for the right to emit carbon dioxide.
In the past two weeks, three utilities -- Exelon Corp., PG&E Corp. and PNM Resources Inc. -- have quit the Chamber, citing the group's opposition to climate bills. A fourth company, Nike Inc., said Wednesday that it was resigning from the Chamber's board because the group "has not represented the diversity of perspective" held by the board's members on climate change.
GE, which has built a marketing campaign around the clean-energy technology it sells, intends to remain a member despite differences with the Chamber on specific legislation, a spokesman says.
Exelon, the nation's biggest nuclear-plant operator by output, says it sees an annual upside to its revenue of about $1.1 billion if climate legislation approved by the House in June is enacted. Because nuclear plants don't spew carbon dioxide, their operators wouldn't have to pay for the right to emit such gases, giving them an edge over competitors that burn fossil fuels.
Exelon notes that it has spent billions of dollars over the years to reduce its carbon footprint, by investing in nuclear power, and that it decided years ago to sell most of its coal-powered plants.
Last month, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers -- which includes General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. -- joined the Obama administration and environmentalists in opposing an effort to bar the EPA for one year from attempting to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions for power plants and other large sources.
The group says it opposed the measure because it prefers a single, nationwide set of rules rather than a patchwork of regulations by states. It says it feared the one-year prohibition would have delayed the EPA from finalizing an agency proposal to regulate automobile greenhouse-gas emissions, potentially exposing its members to regulation by states.
"It's not a big surprise that the auto industry, which was just bailed out by the administration, would come to their defense," says a spokesman for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska), who wrote the proposal. He notes that the measure said that "mobile" sources, such as cars, could still be regulated by the EPA.
An alliance spokesman says that the group was "sympathetic to the thrust" of Ms. Murkowski's proposal but that eliminating the "inconsistency created by conflicting and overlapping" regulations at the state and federal level has been "the main priority of all auto makers" since 2002.
Environmentalists have cheered the recent defections from the Chamber, hoping they might weaken one of the best-funded opponents of the climate legislation.
The Chamber, in a statement after Exelon's resignation, said legislation capping U.S. emissions and passed by the House "is neither comprehensive nor international," and would spur retaliation from U.S. trading partners.—Jonathan Rockoff and Paul Glader contributed to this article.
Write to Stephen Power at

Green and confused: Put a cork in it — and stop the whines

Kieran Cooke

We put our wine bottles in the recycling box but what about the screw tops on the bottles? Where should they go?
To safeguard the bubbles in his sparkling wine, a French monk called Dom Perignon started putting corks into bottles in the early 17th century. A US company, Supreme Corq, began marketing plastic stoppers on a large scale in the 1990s. In recent years, wine producers, especially in Australia and New Zealand, began using screw tops.
About 20 billion wine-bottle stoppers are produced each year worldwide. Wine bores argue the merits of the various types but rarely discuss how the different stoppers can be disposed of or recycled.
A screw top is usually made of aluminium alloy. Though the production of aluminium involves huge amounts of energy, it is relatively easy to recycle. However, inside the alloy screw top is a sealant, usually made up of oil-based compounds such as polyethylene, polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) and a paper called white kraft. All these act as barriers, preventing oxygen, chemicals or moisture entering the bottle.
You can undo your screw top from the bottle and put it in the bin with the aluminium cans, foil and other materials but that is no guarantee that it will be recycled. The compounds and chemicals that go into making the sealant contaminate the recycling process: a lot of those screw tops will end up in landfill.
Environmental groups, including the WWF, are in favour of cork stops. The cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa are rich in biodiversity. The cork oak is one of Nature’s great recyclers — shedding and growing its precious, spongy, bark every ten years or so. Tens of thousands of country people depend on cork for their livelihoods. The big cork companies, based mainly in Portugal, are also on the offensive against upstart plastic and screw-top closures. They claim that independent observers have found that CO 2 emissions during the production cycle of a screw top are 24 times higher than those emitted when producing a cork stopper, while plastic stoppers create ten times more CO 2.
Cork producers argue that old bottle stoppers can easily be recycled and used for everything from flooring to insulation, to gaskets on machinery and packaging.
And then there are all the arguments about which closure method is best for the wine. It’s all very confusing — enough to make you uncork, unscrew or de-plastic another bottle.
Send your eco-dilemmas to:

US climate bill not likely this year, says Obama adviser

Carol Browner's bleak view deepens concerns negotiations will fail to produce meaningful agreement in Copenhagen
Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, Sunday 4 October 2009 18.45 BST
The White House has said for the first time that it does not expect to see a climate change bill this year, removing one of the key elements for reaching an international agreement to avoid catastrophic global warming.
In a seminar in Washington, Barack Obama's main energy adviser, Carol Browner, gave the clearest indication to date that the administration did not expect the Senate to vote on a climate change bill before an international meeting in Copenhagen in December.
Browner spoke barely 48 hours after Senate Democrats staged a campaign-style rally in support of a climate change bill that seeks to cut US emissions by 20% on 2005 levels by 2020.
"Obviously, we'd like to be through the process, but that's not going to happen," Browner told a conference hosted by the Atlantic magazine on Friday. "I think we would all agree the likelihood that you'd have a bill signed by the president on comprehensive energy by the time we go in December is not likely."
Browner's bleak assessment deepens concerns that negotiations, already deadlocked, will fail to produce a meaningful agreement in Copenhagen. It also threatens to further dampen the prospects for a bill that was struggling for support among conservative and rustbelt Democrats.
The UN has cast the Copenhagen meeting as a last chance for countries to reach an agreement to avoid the most disastrous effects of warming. Negotiators – including the state department's climate change envoy – admit it will be far harder to reach such a deal unless America, historically the world's biggest polluter, shows it is willing to cut its own greenhouse gas emissions.
Browner's comments undercut a campaign by Democratic leaders in the Senate, corporations and environmental organisations to try to build momentum behind the bill. The day before Browner's comments, John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who is one of the sponsors of the cap-and-trade bill, told a conference he remained confident the bill would squeak through the Senate.
Her remarks also raise further doubts about how forcefully the Obama administration is willing to press the Senate for a climate bill in the midst of its struggles over healthcare.
In the last two weeks, diplomats have grown increasingly frustrated with the administration. Negotiators say they understand Obama would have to struggle to get this agenda through the Senate, but say the president has shied away from opportunities to make the case for climate change.
Obama came in for harsh criticism from environmental organisations for failing to urge the Senate to act during a speech to the United Nations summit on climate change late last month. Environmental groups called it a "missed opportunity".
"If there is no serious US legislation in place then we will have delegations arriving and getting increasingly frustrated with nothing happening," said John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador.

The 'Absurd Results' Doctrine

Turning the carbon screws on businesses so they lobby Congress for cap and trade.

'In recent years, many Americans have had cause to wonder whether decisions made at EPA were guided by science and the law, or whether those principles had been trumped by politics," declared Lisa Jackson in San Francisco last week. The Environmental Protection Agency chief can't stop kicking the Bush Administration, but the irony is that the Obama EPA is far more "political" than the Bush team ever was.
How else to explain the coordinated release on Wednesday of the EPA's new rules that make carbon a dangerous pollutant and John Kerry's cap-and-trade bill? Ms. Jackson is issuing a political ultimatum to business, as well as to Midwestern and rural Democrats: Support the Kerry-Obama climate tax agenda—or we'll punish your utilities and consumers without your vote.
The EPA has now formally made an "endangerment finding" on CO2, which will impose the command-and-control regulations of the Clean Air Act across the entire economy. Because this law was never written to apply to carbon, the costs will far exceed those of a straight carbon tax or even cap and trade—though judging by the bills Democrats are stitching together, perhaps not by much. In any case, the point of this reckless "endangerment" is to force industry and politicians wary of raising taxes to concede, lest companies have to endure even worse economic and bureaucratic destruction from the EPA.
Ms. Jackson made a show of saying her new rules would only apply to some 10,000 facilities that emit more than 25,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, as if that were a concession. These are the businesses—utilities, refineries, heavy manufacturers and so forth—that have the most to lose and are therefore most sensitive to political coercion.

The idea is to get Exelon and other utilities to lobby Congress to pass a cap-and-trade bill that gives them compensating emissions allowances that they can sell to offset the cost of the new regulations. White House green czar Carol Browner was explicit on the coercion point last week, telling a forum hosted by the Atlantic Monthly that the EPA move would "obviously encourage the business community to raise their voices in Congress." In Sicily and parts of New Jersey, they call that an offer you can't refuse.
Yet one not-so-minor legal problem is that the Clean Air Act's statutory language states unequivocally that the EPA must regulate any "major source" that emits more than 250 tons of a pollutant annually, not 25,000. The EPA's Ms. Jackson made up the higher number out of whole cloth because the lower legal threshold—which was intended to cover traditional pollutants, not ubiquitous carbon—would sweep up farms, restaurants, hospitals, schools, churches and other businesses. Sources that would be required to install pricey "best available control technology" would increase to 41,000 per year, up from 300 today, while those subject to the EPA's construction permitting would jump to 6.1 million from 14,000.
That's not our calculation. It comes from the EPA itself, which also calls it "an unprecedented increase" that would harm "an extraordinarily large number of sources." The agency goes on to predict years of delay and bureaucratic backlog that "would impede economic growth by precluding any type of source—whether it emits GHGs or not—from constructing or modifying for years after its business plan contemplates." We pointed this out earlier this year, only to have Ms. Jackson and the anticarbon lobby deny it.
Usually it takes an act of Congress to change an act of Congress, but Team Obama isn't about to let democratic—or even Democratic—consent interfere with its carbon extortion racket. To avoid the political firestorm of regulating the neighborhood coffee shop, the EPA is justifying its invented rule on the basis of what it calls the "absurd results" doctrine. That's not a bad moniker for this whole exercise.
The EPA admits that it is "departing from the literal application of statutory provisions." But it says the courts will accept its revision because literal application will produce results that are "so illogical or contrary to sensible policy as to be beyond anything that Congress could reasonably have intended."
Well, well. Shouldn't the same "absurd results" theory pertain to shoehorning carbon into rules that were written in the 1970s and whose primary drafter—Michigan Democrat John Dingell—says were never intended to apply? Just asking. Either way, this will be a feeble legal excuse when the greens sue to claim that the EPA's limits are inadequate, in order to punish whatever carbon-heavy business they're campaigning against that week.
Obviously President Obama is hellbent on punishing carbon use—no matter how costly or illogical. And of course, there's no politics involved, none at all.

British public refuse to fly less to reduce their carbon footprint

Adam Vaughan
The Guardian, Monday 5 October 2009
The extent of the public's refusal to fly less often has been revealed by research that suggests attempts to slash greenhouse gas emissions from aviation will struggle to get off the ground.
Fewer than one in five people are trying to reduce the number of flights they take for environmental reasons, warns the study from Loughborough University. The findings come after the aviation industry vowed to halve emissions by 2050 and the government's climate advisers called for a deal at UN climate talks in Copenhagen to cap emissions from flying.
The Propensity to Fly study also reveals the vast majority of the British public would rather cut energy use at home than go without flying for a year. While 88% of participants said they were willing or very willing to "reduce how much energy I use in my home throughout the year" only 26% said the same when asked if they would "not fly in the next 12 months".
Research from Exeter University last year said "green living" idealists who recycle and save energy at home are some of the worst offenders.
Dr Tim Ryley, who led the Loughborough research, said: "While some people are willing to fly less and others are willing to pay more to fly to offset emissions, they remain the minority. It is cost and not environmental consequences that deter people from flying more often."
Asked what increase in air fares would deter them from flying short-haul, nearly four in five (79%) said a £50 rise would make them fly less often. With just a £10 increase in short-haul fares to destinations such as Paris and Rome, only 21% would probably take fewer flights.
Air passenger duty, the government's tax on air fares, is changing to take account of distance later this year, with the duty on short-haul flights rising from £10 to £11 in November and £12 in 2010. The increase in long-haul trips will be higher, with economy class to the US rising from £40 to £60 in 2010 and flights of more than 6,000 miles – such as London to Sydney – jumping from £55 to £85 next year.
The research by Loughborough suggests the government's tax rises, which transport secretary Andrew Adonis says will cover the cost of the UK's contribution to global warming, will only deter a small minority of British passengers. From 2012 airlines will have to join the European emissions trading scheme (ETS) - designed to reduce carbon emissions - which the EC predicts will see short-haul fares rise by an additional €6 (£5.50) and €9 (£8.26).
While most people said they were unwilling to pay more for their flight to offset the environmental cost, an increasing number - 32% in 2009 compared to 19% in 2007 - of participants agreed that passengers should pay more to account for aviation's environmental impact. The study included four surveys between 2007 and 2009, with sample sizes of between 300 and 615 people.
Joss Garman, a former Plane Stupid activist and now a campaigner for Greenpeace, said the results reflected a lack of alternatives to flying: "Ultimately it isn't surprising people want to cling on to their flights when they're denied the choice of affordable, low-carbon alternatives." Whilst research like this does underline how divorced the public, like the political, conversation has become from the science, equally there's polling showing the majority oppose a third runway at Heathrow."
Although the recession has dented air travel numbers, which peaked at 239 million passengers through UK airports in 2007 but dropped to 234.2m in 2008, Ryley said growth was expected to return as the economy recovered and Adonis forecasts a doubling to about 500m passengers a year in 2030.
In August, the government announced a plan for a new high-speed rail network to reduce short-haul flights, just a month after the secretary for energy and climate change, Ed Miliband, defended mass air travel on the grounds that deep emissions cuts would be made in other sectors to meet UK carbon targets. "Where I disagree with other people on aviation is if you did 80% cuts across the board, as some people have called for on aviation, you would go back to 1974 levels of flying. I don't want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly," Miliband told the Guardian.
Last month the government's committee on climate change warned that if growth in flights was left unchecked, emissions from global aviation could account for 15% to 20% of all CO2 produced in 2050. While total greenhouse gas emissions from the EU fell by 3% between 1990 and 2002, emissions from international aviation increased by nearly 70%.

Boris Johnson to reintroduce pollution zone a year after UK deadline

Hélène Mulholland, Monday 5 October 2009 01.52 BST
Boris Johnson will reintroduce the third phase of the low emission zone – which bars the most polluting vehicles from entering London – in 2012, one year after Britain is expected to meet a crucial deadline on reducing dangerous airborne particles. The decision, included in the long awaited draft Air Quality Strategy for London, is likely to infuriate critics who have repeatedly warned that the health of Londoners is at stake.
Campaigners point to figures that suggest poor air quality in the capital – which is one of the worst offending cities in Europe – contributed to the premature death of more than 3,000 Londoners in 2005, while the Campaign for Clean Air in London suggests the figure could be as high as 8,000. The government's own figures estimate they result in 12,000 to 24,000 premature deaths a year in Britain.
Johnson provoked a furore in February when he suspended the introduction of the third phase, which was due to come into force next year, just three months after announcing he planned to scrap the western extension of the congestion charge zone. At the time he said it was to protect the capital's small businesses.
The government is trying to avoid fines of up to £300m from the European commission after failing to comply with directives on air quality and had included the extended congestion zone and third phase of the LEZ in submissions to reach the targets by 2011 to try to avert fines. The fines relate to levels of particulate matter (PM10) which are airborne particles emitted mostly by traffic.
After initially suspending the LEZ, the mayor's environment team, headed by Isabel Dedring, conducted detailed modelling of two hundred policies and concluded that the third phase of the LEZ is "a useful piece of the puzzle" in reducing PM10s.
The low emission zone covers the whole of London and currently targets buses, coaches and lorries over 3.5 tonnes.
The third phase of the scheme would have affected 90,000 smaller vehicles whose owners would have incurred a £100 daily charge if they did not meet emission standards.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had warned Johnson he would have to deliver "equal, if not greater, benefits to improve air quality" in his strategy and has already looked at exercising its powers of direction over the mayor if he fails to come up with a plan to improve air quality in the capital.
Dedring said the London mayor's proposals outlined in the draft strategy would be enough to comply.

How much of your council tax gets wasted on waste?

Last year, tax-payers in England and Wales forked out £4.55bn on waste disposal, which could be better spent elsewhere
When I got this year's council tax bill from Southwark council, I glanced at their budget and noticed something extraordinary. The council was spending £32.5m on waste collection and disposal (if you include capital expenditure). But what really astonished me was when I compared this to the borough's total council tax bill of £86.4m. An astonishing 37% of my council tax was being spent on waste collection and disposal. What an enormous, ridiculous waste of money, which could be far better spent on elderly people, education or cutting the borough's carbon emissions.
This got me wondering what the story was nationally. After a bit of detective work with the help of the Audit Commission, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa) and the Welsh assembly, I finally tracked down the relevant figures. No one had ever asked before for a comparison of council spending on waste with total council tax collected.
The statistics revealed that in England and Wales last year, our councils spent a whopping £4.546bn on waste collection and disposal, out of a total council tax collection of £25.7bn – or 18 pence for every pound of council tax income. The English district councils are even worse, spending nearly one in three pounds of council tax revenue on dealing with rubbish.
Here's a short list of some of the other high waste spenders, but you can access the full list via our datablog:
Aylesbury Vale: 36%Berwick-on-Tweed: 37%Cambridge: 43%Chester: 32%North East Derbyshire: 31%
Of course, local councils don't get their funding only from council tax. Government grants and other funding top the pot up to around £107bn, but of this total three-quarters is taken up by education, social care and police.
Angered by how much damage our bin culture was doing to my pocket, I wanted to know what councils were doing to avoid these huge costs in the first place. After all, they are always banging on about the so-called waste hierarchy: reduce comes before re-use comes recycle and ncineration and finally landfill.
When I tracked down the figures, thanks again to the helpful statisticians at Cipfa, it turned out that just £43m goes into reducing the amount of rubbish in the first place across all English and Welsh councils. The Audit Commission's report on waste disposal, entitled Well Disposed, stated that councils feel they have little control over the amount of waste being produced locally. The commission predicted total municipal waste would continue to rise at about 1% per annum until 2020. Talk about a disempowered political class.
The same report found that 75% of councils do not encourage the use of mail preference services to cut down junk mail, 62% do not work with the private sector to reduce waste, 30% provided no waste reduction education for their public and 30% failed to promote re-use services.
Nearly all the effort over the past decade has been about avoiding landfill. So councils have focused on waste incineration and recycling, both of which provide huge revenue streams for major corporations. Many of these waste disposal contracts last for up to 20 years, with some totalling over £4bn of tax-payers' money.
What they should be doing instead is devising contracts like California did with their electricity companies, whereby the contractors were rewarded for lowering demand in the first place. They should also be fostering grassroots initiatives like Freecycle and the Real Nappy Campaign. We need a vision of zero-waste communities, not a hugely expensive full-scale switchover to incineration and recycling.
So have a look at the accompanying data blog on English councils and calculate what percentage of your council tax is being wasted on waste-disposal. Then get working on letting local people know. Write to your local paper and councillors and demand action on waste reduction. We must reduce this shocking amount of money and carbon being wasted on waste.
• Donnachadh McCarthy is the founder of national Carbon Footprint day.