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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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U.S. Energy Information Administration: Reference Projection

EIA released its 2015 reference case for electricity generation between 2000 and 2040.  The upshot: while they expect natural gas and renewables to continue their growth in the U.S.’s overall energy portfolio, coal is still very much in the mix in 2040.  From a climate perspective, if their reference projection becomes reality, we easily pass 2C warming by 2100.

Their reference projection “reflects current laws and regulations—but not pending rules, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan“.  So it is no surprise that current laws and regulations result in passing the 2C threshold (or the GHG emissions which would actually lead to passing the 2C threshold).  The EPA’s Clean Power Plan isn’t in effect yet – and it will take time to analyze changes to actual generation once its final form does take effect.

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Figure 1. EIA’s Reference Case analysis and projection of U.S. electricity generation (2000-2040).

The good news is renewables’ share grows during the next 25 years.  Again, there’s no surprise there.  Nor is it surprising to see natural gas’ share also grow.  If you look at the left y-axis, the absolute share of renewables exceeds that of natural gas.  The bad news (from a 20th-century climate perspective) is that coal remains 34% of the electricity generation in this scenario.  That news is tempered by the fact that in both absolute and percentage terms, coal use is lower during the next 25 years than the last 15 years.  The absolute numbers are most frustrating from a climate perspective.  In 2040, this scenario projects >1.5 trillion kilowatt hours of coal generation.  Absent additional policy measures, that value remains largely unchanged during the next 25 years.  How do we address that?  Well, beating people over the head with scientific consensus claims hasn’t worked (and won’t in the future either): the American public know what causes global warming, once you get past self-identity question framing.  Once you interact with Americans on familiar terms, they’re much more willing to support global warming-related policies than many climate activists want you to believe.

 photo EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2015 Fig 2_zpsxotnkmbd.png

Figure 2. EIA’s renewable generation by type.

The EIA projects wind penetration to continue as it has for the last decade – almost doubling in absolute terms in the next 25 years.  We need that deployment and more to make a serious dent in GHG emissions.

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Figure 3. EIA’s six cases in their 2015 annual report.

You can see how different assumptions impacts EIA’s 2040 projections of electricity generation in 2040 compared to the 2013 historical case.  Don’t hope for high oil prices: renewables constitute more than 1 trillion kilowatt hours in that case, but coal also grows to nearly 2 trillion kWh!  Putting dreams aside, I don’t think those coal plants will all be running highly efficient carbon capture and sequestration technologies.

We still need RD&D for multiple technologies.  To do that, we need policies that prioritize innovative – and yes, risky – programs and projects.  The government is the only institution that can reliably assume that level of risk.  If we want to avoid 4C or 6C, we can; we need innovative policies and technologies today to stay below those thresholds.

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REMI’s Carbon Tax Report

I came across former NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s email last week supporting a carbon tax.  At the outset, I fully support this policy because it is the most economically effective way to achieve CO2 emission reductions.  An important point is this: it matters a lot how we apply the tax and what happens to the money raised because of it.  Many policy analysts think that the only way a carbon tax will ever pass is for the government to distribute the revenue via dividends to all households.  This obviously has appealing aspects, not least of which is Americans love free stuff.  That is, we love to reap the benefits of policies so long as they cost us nothing.  That attitude is obviously unsustainable – you have simply to look at the state of American infrastructure today to see the effects.

All that said, the specific carbon tax plan Hansen supported came from a Regional Economic Models, Inc. report, which the Citizens Climate Lobby commissioned.  The report found what CCL wanted it to find: deep emission cuts can result from a carbon tax.  There isn’t anything surprising with this – many other studies found the exact same result.  What matters is how we the emission cuts are achieved.  I think this study is another academic dead-end because I see little evidence how the proposed tax actually achieves the cuts.  It looks like REMI does what the IPCC does – they assume large-scale low-carbon energy technologies.  The steps of developing and deploying those technologies are not clearly demonstrated.  Does a carbon tax simply equate to low-carbon technology deployment?  I don’t think so.

First, here is an updated graphic showing REMI’s carbon emission cuts compared to other sources:

 photo EPA2014vsEIA2012vsKyotovsREMI2014_zps961bb7c7.png

The blue line with diamonds shows historical CO2 emissions.  The dark red line with squares shows EIA’s 2013 projected CO2 emissions through 2030.  EIA historically showed emissions higher than those observed.  This newest projection is much more realistic.  Next, the green triangles show the intended effect of EPA’s 2014 power plant rule.  I compare these projections against Kyoto `Low` and `High` emission cut scenarios.  An earlier post showed and discussed these comparisons.  I added the modeled result from REMI 2014 as orange dots.

Let me start by noting I have written for years now that we will not achieve even the Kyoto `Low` scenario, which called for a 20% reduction of 1990 baseline emissions.  The report did not clearly specify what baseline year they considered, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt in this analysis and chose 2015 as the baseline year.  That makes their cuts easier to achieve since 2015 emissions were 20% higher than 1990 levels.  Thus, their “33% decrease from baseline” by 2025 results in emissions between Kyoto’s `Low` and `High` scenarios.

REMI starts with a $10 carbon tax in 2015 and increases that tax by $10/year.  In 10 years, carbon costs $100/ton.  That is an incredibly aggressive taxing scheme.  This increase would have significant economic effects.  The report describes massive economic benefits.  I will note that I am not an economist and don’t have the expertise to judge the economic model they used.  I will go on to note that as a climate scientist, all models have fundamental assumptions which affect the results they generate.  The assumptions they made likely have some effect on their results.

Why won’t we achieve these cuts?  As I stated above, technologies are critical to projecting emission cuts.  What does the REMI report show for technology?

 photo REMI2014ElectricalPowerGeneration-2scenarios_zpse41c17d9.png

The left graph shows US electrical power generation without any policy intervention (baseline case).  The right graph shows generation resulting from the $10/year carbon tax policy.  Here is their models’ results: old unscrubbed coal plants go offline in 2022 while old scrubbed coal plants go offline in 2025.  Think about this: there are about 600 coal plants in the US generating the largest single share of electricity of any power source.  The carbon tax model results assumes that other sources will replace ~30% of US electricity in 10 years.  How will that be achieved?  This is the critical missing piece of their report.

Look again at the right graph.  Carbon captured natural gas replaces natural gas generation by 2040.  Is carbon capture technology ready for national-level deployment?  No, it isn’t.  How does the report handle this?  That is, who pays for the research and development first, followed by scaled deployment?  The report is silent on this issue.  Simply put, we don’t know when carbon capture technology will be ready for scaled deployment.  Given historical performance of other technologies, it is safe to assume this development would take a couple of decades once the technology is actually ready.

Nuclear power generation also grows a little bit, as does geothermal and biopower.  This latter technology is interesting to note since it represents the majority of the percentage increase of US renewable power generation in the past 15 years (based on EIA data) – something not captured by their model.

The increase in wind generation is astounding.  It grows from a few hundred Terawatt hours to over 1500 TWh in 20 years time.  This source is the obvious beneficiary to a carbon tax.  But I eschew hard to understand units.  What does it mean to replace the majority of coal plants with wind plants?  Let’s step back from academic exercises that replace power generation wholesale and get into practical considerations.  It means deploying more than 34,000 2.5MW wind turbines operating at 30% efficiency per year every year.  (There are other metrics by which to convey the scale, but they deal with numbers few people intuitively understand.)  According to the AWEA, there were 46,100 utility-scale wind turbines installed in the US at the end of 2012.  How many years have utilities installed wind turbines?  Think of the resources required to install almost as many wind turbines in just one year as already exist in the US.  Just to point out one problem with this installation plan: where do the required rare earth metals come from?  Another: are wind turbine supply chains up to the task of manufacturing 34,000 wind turbines per year?  Another: are wind turbine manufacturing plants equipped to handle this level of work?  Another: are there enough trained workers to supply, make, transport, install, and maintain this many wind turbines?  Another: how is wind energy stored and transmitted from source to use regions (thousands of miles in many cases).

Practical questions abound.  This report is valuable as an academic exercise, but  I don’t see how wind replaces coal in 20 years time.  I want it to, but putting in a revenue-neutral carbon tax probably won’t get it done.  I don’t see carbon capture and sequestration ready for scale deployment in 10 years time.  I would love to be surprised by such a development but does a revenue-neutral carbon tax generate enough demand for low-risk seeking private industry to perform the requisite R&D?  At best, I’m unconvinced it will.

After doing a little checking, a check reminded me that British Columbia implemented a carbon tax in 2008; currently it is $40 (Canadian).  Given that, you might think it serves as a good example of what the US could do with a similar tax.  If you dig a little deeper, you find British Columbia gets 86% of its electricity from hydropower and only 6% from natural gas, making it a poor test-bed to evaluate how a carbon tax effects electricity generation in a large, modern economy.


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EPA’s Proposed CO2 Emissions Rule in Context

 photo EPA2014vsEIA2012vsKyoto_zps8d150e25.png

If you follow climate and energy news, you probably have or will encounter media regarding today’s proposed CO2 emissions rule by the EPA.  Unfortunately, that media will probably not be clear about what the rule means in understandable terms.  I’m writing this in an attempt to make the proposed rule more clear.

The graph above shows US CO2 emissions from energy consumption.  This includes emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas.  I have differentiated historical emissions in blue from 2013 EIA projections made in red, what today’s EPA proposal would mean for future emission levels, and low and high reductions prescribed by the Kyoto Protocol, which the US never ratified.

In 2011, historical US energy-related emissions totaled 5,481 million metric tons of CO2.  For the most part, you can ignore the units and just concentrate on emission’s magnitude: 5,481.  If the EPA’s proposed rule goes into effect and achieves what it sets out to achieve, 2020 emissions could be 4,498 MMT and 2030 emissions could be 4,198 MMT (see the two green triangles).  Those 2030 emissions would be lower than any time since 1970 – a real achievement.  It should be apparent by the other comparisons that this potential achievement isn’t earth shaking however.

Before I get further into that, compare the EPA-related emissions with the EIA’s projections out to 2030.  These projections were made last year and are based on business as usual – i.e., no federal climate policy or EPA rule.  Because energy utilities closed many of their dirtiest fossil fuel plants following the Great Recession due to their higher operating costs and the partial transfer from coal to natural gas, the EIA now projects emissions just above 2011’s and below the all-time peak.  I read criticism of EIA projections this weekend (can’t find the piece now) that I think was too harsh.  The EIA historically projected emissions in excess of reality.  I don’t think their over-predictions are bad news or preclude their use in decision-making.  If you know the predictions have a persistent bias, you can account for it.

So there is a measurable difference between EIA emission projections and what could happen if the EPA rule is enacted and effective.  With regard to that latter characterization, how effective might the rule be?

If you compare the EPA emission reductions to the Kyoto reductions, it is obvious that the reductions are less than the minimum requirement to avoid significant future climate change.  But first, it is important to realize an important difference between Kyoto and the EPA rule: the Kyoto pathways are based off 1990 emissions and the EPA is based off 2005 emissions.  What happened between 1990 and 2005 in the real world?  Emissions rose by 19% from 5,039 MMT to 5,997 MMT.  The takeaway: emission reductions using 2005 as a baseline will result in higher final emissions than using a 1990 baseline.

If the US ratified and implemented Kyoto on the `Low` pathway (which didn’t happen), 2020 emissions would be 4,031 MMT (467 MMT less than EPA; 1445 MMT less than EIA) and 2050 emissions would be 2,520 MMT (no comparison with EPA so far).  If the US implemented the `High` pathway, 2020 emissions would be 3,527 MMT (971 MMT less than EPA!; 1,949 MMT less than EIA!) and 2050 emissions would be drastically slashed to 1,008 MMT!

Since we didn’t implement the Kyoto Protocol, we will not even attain 2020 `Kyoto Low` emissions in 2030.  Look at the graph again.  Connect the last blue diamond to the first green triangle.  Even though they’re the closest together, you can immediately see we have a lot of work to do to achieve even the EPA’s reduced emissions target.  Here is some additional context: to keep 2100 global mean temperatures <2C, we have to achieve the lowest emissions pathway modeled by the IPCC for the Fifth Assessment Report (see blue line below):

 photo CO2_Emissions_AR5_Obs_Nature_article_zps1e766d71.jpg

Note the comment at the bottom of the graph: global CO2 emissions have to turn negative by 2070, following decades of declines.  How will global emissions decline and turn negative if the US emits >3,000 MMT annually in 2050?  The short answer is easy: they won’t.  I want to combine my messages so far in this post: we have an enormous amount of work to reduce emissions to the EPA level.  That level is well below Kyoto’s Low level, which would have required a lot of work in today’s historical terms.  That work now lies in front of us if we really want to avoid >2C warming and other effects.  I maintain that we will not reduce emissions commensurate with <2C warming.  I think we will emit enough CO2 that our future will be along the RCP6.0 to RCP8.5 pathways seen above, or 3-5C warming and related effects.

Another important detail: the EPA’s proposed rule has a one-year comment period which will result in a final rule.  States then have another year to implement individual plans to achieve their reductions (a good idea).  The downside: the rule won’t go into effect until 2016 – only four years before the first goal.  What happens if the first goal isn’t achieved?  Will future EPA administrators reset the 2030 goal so it is more achievable (i.e., higher emissions)?  Will lawsuits prevent rule implementation for years?  There are many potential setbacks for implementing this rule.  And it doesn’t achieve <2C warming, not even close.


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Climate & Energy Links – Sep. 12, 2013

Here are some stories I found interesting this week:

California’s GHG emissions are already lower than the 2015 threshold established as part of California’s cap-and-trade policy.  The reasons emissions fell more than expected include the slow economy and relative widespread renewable energy deployment.  The problem with this is the lack of innovation.  We have seen what companies do with no incentive to innovate their operations: nothing that gets in the way of profit, which is the way companies should operate.  That’s why we need regulations – to incentivize companies to act in the public interest.  Should CA adjust future cap thresholds in light of this news?

No surprise here: Alter Net had a story detailing the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook and the picture isn’t pretty (and I’m not talking about the stock photo they attached to the story – that’s not helpful).  Experts expect fossil fuels to dominate the world’s energy portfolio through 2040 – which I wrote about last month.  This projection will stand until people push their governments to change.

Scientific American’s latest microgrid article got to the point: “self-sufficient microgrids undermine utilities’ traditional economic model” and “utility rates for backup power [need to be] fair and equitable to microgrid customers.”  To the first point, current utility models will have to change in 21st century America.  Too much depends on reliable and safe energy systems.  The profit part of the equation will take a back seat.  Whatever form utilities take in the future, customers will demand equitable pricing schemes.  That said, there is currently widespread unfair pricing in today’s energy paradigm.  For example, utilities continue to build coal power plants that customers don’t want.  Customers go so far as to voluntarily pay extra for non-coal energy sources.  In the end, I support microgrids and distributed generation for many reasons.

A Science article (subs. req’d) shared results of an investigation into increasing amplitude of CO2 oscillations in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 50 years.  This increase is greater for higher latitudes than middle latitudes.  The increase’s reason could be longer annual times of decomposition due to a warming climate (which is occurring faster at higher latitudes).  Additional microbial decomposition generates additional CO2 and aids new plant growth at increasing latitudes (which scientists have observed).  New plant growth compounds the uptake and release of CO2 from microbes.  The biosphere is changing in ways that were not predicted, as I’ve written before.  These changes will interact and generate other changes that will impact human and ecosystems through the 21st century and beyond.

And the EPA has adjusted new power plant emissions rules: “The average U.S. natural gas plant emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, and coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds. According to those familiar with the new EPA proposal, the agency will keep the carbon limit for large natural gas plants at 1,000 pounds but relax it slightly for smaller gas plants. The standard for coal plants will be as high as 1,300 or 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour, the individuals said Wednesday, but that still means the utilities will have to capture some of the carbon dioxide they emit.”  This is but one climate policy that we need to revisit in the future.  This policy is good, but does not go far enough.  One way or another, we face increasing costs; some we can afford and others we can’t.  We can proactively increase regulations on fossil fuels which will result in an equitable cost comparison between energy sources.  Or we can continue to prevent an energy free market from working by keeping fossil fuel costs artificially lower than they really are and end up paying reactive climate costs, which will be orders of magnitude higher than energy costs.


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Energy and Climate Stories Via Charts

The following charts show different pieces of a sobering story: the US and the world has not and is not in the foreseeable future doing enough to reduce carbon-intensive energy.  This shouldn’t come as any great surprise, but I think these charts enable us to look at the story graphically instead of just hearing the words.  Graphics tend to have a larger impact on thought retention, so I’m going to use them to tell this story.

 photo GlobalEnergyByType-2013ProjectionbyBNEF_zps7ec53b2d.jpg

Figure 1. Annual global installations of new power sources, in gigawatts.  [Source: MotherJones via BNEF]

This figure starts the story off on a good note.  To the left of the dotted line is historical data and to the right is BNEF’s projected data.  In the future, we expect fewer new gigawatts generated by coal, gas, and oil.  We also expect many more new gigawatts generated by land-based wind, small-scale photovoltaic (PV) and solar PV.  Thus the good news: there will be more new gigawatts powered by renewable energy sources within the next couple of years than dirty energy sources.  At the same time, this graph is slightly misleading.  What about existing energy production?  The next chart takes that into account.

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Figure 2. Global energy use by generation type, in gigawatts.  [Source: MotherJones via BNEF]

The story just turned sober.  In 2030, coal should account for ~2,000GW of energy production compared to ~1,200GW today.  Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, so absent radical technological innovation and deployment, 2030 emissions will exceed today’s due to coal alone.  We find the same storyline for gas and to a lesser extent oil: higher generation in 2030 than today means more emissions.  We need fewer emissions if we want to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations.  The higher those concentrations, the warmer the globe will get until it reaches a new equilibrium.

Compare the two graphs again.  The rapid increase in renewable energy generation witnessed over the last decade and expected to continue through 2030 results in what by 2030?  Perhaps ~1,400GW of wind generation (about the same as gas) and up to 1,600GW of total solar generation (more than gas but still less than coal).  This is an improvement over today’s generation portfolio of course.  But it will not be enough to prevent >2°C mean global warming and all the subsequent effects that warming will have on other earth systems.  The curves delineating fossil fuel generation need to slope toward zero and that doesn’t look likely to happen prior to 2030.

Here is the basic problem: there are billions of people without reliable energy today.  They want energy and one way or another will get that energy someday.  Thus, the total energy generated will continue to increase for decades.  The power mix is up to us.  The top chart will have to look dramatically different for the mix to tilt toward majority and eventually exclusively renewable energy.  The projected increases in new renewable energy will have to be double, triple, or more what they are in the top chart to achieve complete global renewable energy generation.  Instead of a couple hundred gigawatts per year, we need a couple thousand gigawatts per year.  That requires a great deal of innovation and deployment – more than even many experts are aware.

Let’s take a look at the next part of the story: carbon emissions in the US – up until recently the largest annual GHG emitter on the globe.

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Figure 3. Percent change in the economy’s carbon intensity 2000-2010. [Source: ThinkProgress via EIA]

As Jeff notes, the total carbon intensity (amount of carbon released for every million dollars the economy produces) of the economy dropped 17.9 percent over those ten years.  That’s good news.  Part of the reason is bad news: the economy became more energy-efficient in part due to the recession.  People and organizations stopped doing some of the most expensive activities, which also happened to be some of the most polluting activities.  We can attribute the rest of the decline to the switch from coal to natural gas.  Which is a good thing for US emissions, but a bad thing for global emissions because we’re selling the coal that other countries butn – as Figure 2 shows.

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Figure 4. Percent change in the economy’s total carbon emissions 2000-2010. [Source: ThinkProgress via EIA]

Figure 4 re-sobers the story.  While we became more efficient at generating carbon emissions, the total number of total emissions from 2000 to 2010 only dropped 4.2%.  My own home state of Colorado, despite having a Renewable Energy Standard and mandates renewables in the energy mix, saw a greater than 10% jump in total carbon emissions.  Part of the reason is Xcel Energy convinced the state Public Utilities Commission that new, expensive coal plants be built.  The reason?  Xcel is a for-profit corporation and new coal plants added billions of dollars to the positive side of their ledger, especially since they passed those costs onto their rate payers.

In order for the US to achieve its Copenhagen goals (17% reduction from 2005 levels), more states will have to show total carbon emission declines post-2010.  While 2012 US emission levels were the lowest since 1994, we still emit more than 5 billion metric tons of CO2 annually.  Furthermore, the US deliberately chose 2005 levels since they were the historically high emissions mark.  The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, challenged countries to reduce emissions compared to 1990 levels.  The US remains above 1990 levels, which were just under 5 billion metric tons of CO2.  17% of 1990 emissions is 850 million metric tons.  Once we achieve that decrease, we can talk about real progress.

The bottom line is this: it matters how many total carbon emissions get into the atmosphere if we want to limit the total amount of warming that will occur this century and the next few tens of thousands of years.  There has been a significant lack of progress on that:

 photo energy_sector_carbon_intensity-20130530_zpsae891a88.jpg

Figure 5. Historical and projection energy sector carbon intensity index.

We are on the red line path.  If that is our reality through 2050, we will blow past 560 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration, which means we will blow past the 2-3°C sensitivity threshold that skeptics like to talk about the most.  That temperature only matters if we limit CO2 concentrations to two times their pre-industrial value.  We’re on an 800-1100 ppm concentration pathway, which would mean up to 6°C warming by 2100 and additional warming beyond that.

The size and scope of the energy infrastructure requirements to achieve an 80% reduction in US emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 is mind-boggling.  It requires 300,000 10-MW solar thermal plants or 1,200,000 2.5-MW wind turbines or 1,300 1GW nuclear plants (or some combination thereof) by 2050 because you have to replace the existing dirty energy generation facilities as well as meet increasing future demand.  And that’s just for the US.  What about every other country on the planet?  That is why I think we will blow past the 2°C threshold.  As the top graphs show, we’re nibbling around the edges of a massive problem.  We will not see a satisfactory energy/climate policy emerge on this topic anytime soon.  The once in a generation opportunity to do so existed in 2009 and 2010 and national-level Democrats squandered it (China actually has a national climate policy, by the way).  I think the policy answers lie in local and state-based efforts for the time being.  There is too wide a gap between the politics we need and the politics we have at the national level.


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CO Public Utilities Commission Rejects Xcel Energy’s Bid To Collect Remaining $16.6 Million in SmartGridCity Costs

I last wrote on this topic a couple of months ago, following a Denver Post article that started with a Judge’s decision that ratepayers should not be responsible for cost overruns associated with Xcel’s SmartGridCity program.  The judge’s decision was not the final step in the matter.  As a matter of course, the final step was the Colorado’s Public Utilities’ Commission decision whether to grant Xcel’s request to collect $16.6 million from Colorado ratepayers.

If this is the first time you’ve read about this, here is a short history.  In 2008, Xcel proposed SmartGridCity, in which they would install approximately 50,000 smart meters in the city of Boulder by year’s end.  It was one of the most ambitious smart grid projects announced at the time.  Xcel’s proposal totaled $15 million in costs, which they themselves would completely bear.  Seven partner companies were supposed to pay for the remainder of the $100 million project.  A little something called the Great Recession got in the way, along with little transparency and project mismanagement on Xcel’s part.  Today, 23,000 smart meters are installed – at a cost of $44.5 million, triple the original estimate for less than half the project deployment.  The PUC previously approved Xcel’s request for $27.9 million, which is currently collected through customer rates, not from Xcel’s assets.

Thankfully, the PUC decided today to reject Xcel’s request with prejudice, which means Xcel cannot appeal the decision.  I support this decision mainly because I do not think Xcel should saddle regional ratepayers with costs for benefits they cannot receive.  That is a disgusting business practice and terrible precedent to set for future projects.  In a similar vein, Xcel’s success in expanding a coal plant in Pueblo, CO seemed to many to be a grab at capital to pad profit.  Ratepayers overwhelmingly rejected the plant’s expansion because it would generate more electricity than demanded by the population as well as its long life: Xcel stuck CO with this expanded plant for the next 50 years.

I have expressed my frustration with the PUC on occasion.  I do not think they exert the appropriate level of oversight over Xcel when the energy utility asks for rate increases, especially given Xcel’s lack of correctly forecasting generation capacity or demand.  This decision doesn’t atone for past decisions I didn’t agree with, but I am glad of this result.

I reiterate my general support for the smart grid.  I think we will eventually witness a significant transformation of the US’s power sector, including its infrastructure.  Smart grid technologies could usher in an era of increased efficiency.  Energy consumers currently do not have much access to data on their usage.  Many (not all) people could change their consumption habits if they had access to that data.


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Restarting Japan’s Nuclear Plants Causes Hyperventilated Opining

In the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, many people missed an important lesson staring them in the face.  Nuclear power’s CO2 emissions are small in comparison to fossil fuels, there is no doubt.  But safe nuclear energy is very expensive.  Japan has to decide which goals it wants to attain.  Do the Japanese want carbon-free energy, cheap energy, or safe energy?

I read an article at Grist that takes the new Japanese Prime Minister to task over his desire to restart Japan’s off-line nuclear power stations.  I doubt that Susie Cagle has to find a way to deliver power to an industrialized island nation with no energy resources of its own, which allowed her to take this tack.  The title of her post is misleading or biased, take your pick.  Fukushima isn’t damned in this decision:

The newspaper said making the necessary upgrades to meet the proposed guidelines would cost plant operators about $11 billion, in addition to improvements already made after the Fukushima accident. The agency has said the new guidelines will be finalized and put in place by July 18.

$11 billion to meet new guidelines doesn’t come across as ignoring Fukushima’s lessons.  The fundamental flaw in Cagle’s argument is an incorrect interpretation of risk.  How many nuclear power plant disasters has the world suffered?  How many plant-hours have those plants operated?  What is the ratio of disasters to operating hours or Giga-watts of electricity produced for people?  Astoundingly low.  How many people are killed in Japan or the US by motor vehicles per year?  Fatalities decreased to 36,000 in 2009, if you’re curious.  What replacement technology does Cagle and other anti-nuclear advocates propose?  Because one technology kills people every day while the other does not.

How will Japan replace 33% of its electricity generation if it keeps all of its nuclear power plants offline?  Natural gas has replaced nuclear since Fukushima, which still releases CO2 into the atmosphere and requires drilling and transport.

The Japanese government’s handling of nuclear safety was and is an issue (corruption infests regulation enforcement).  But Cagle’s article didn’t discuss the causes behind Fukushima (besides using nuclear at all) or offer solutions – about either nuclear safety or energy policy.  Does she really expect Prime Minister Abe to try to convince the Japanese people they shouldn’t have electricity or they should pay more for their energy when viable technologies are at hand?

Also missing from the article was the following.  As Japan and Germany add to CO2 concentrations by closing nuclear power plants and burning more fossil fuels, Japan’s coast faces rising sea levels in a warming world.  Cagle could have discussed the need to add sea-level change projections into Japan’s nuclear energy policy as they strengthen infrastructure.  How many additional billions of dollars might the Japanese need to spend to handle climate change effects?