Climate Solutions Policy Director K.C. Golden has some thoughts on where to go with national climate legislation after last week's down vote on the Climate Security Act. As thunderstorms and tornadoes ripped through the nation's capital last week, the U.S. Senate tied itself in a procedural knot, preventing a vote on the substance of the Climate Security Act -- the first meaningful climate legislation to reach the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it "the most important issue facing the world today." But the minority stalled -- insisting on a full reading of the nearly 500-page bill -- while the storm raged outside. Once again, the "world's greatest deliberative body" did nothing about the world's biggest problem. Twenty years after our preeminent climate scientist Jim Hansen warned Congress of the need for immediate action, this dilly-dallying is enough to make you scream.
A new energy ecosystem is emerging that connects smart, green buildings with a smart, green grid to optimize energy flows. Since commercial and industrial buildings represent around 40 percent of U.S. energy use, and homes another 30 percent, this represents the most significant opportunity for energy efficiency and mass-scale renewable generation. But creating this new green energy ecosystem means linking what are today heavily "stovepiped" separate systems within buildings and between buildings and the grid. It also means expanding the definition of green buildings to include the digital smarts that connect diverse systems. The Green Intelligent Buildings Conference in Baltimore on April 2-3 focused on ways to cut through "stovepipes" and build those new linkages. "We need to find ways to make the grid smarter, to make buildings smarter, and to have these smarts communicate with each other," keynoter Jeffrey Harris of the Alliance to Save Energy told attendees. This will require new technologies and partnerships that cross traditional boundaries, said the ASE vice president for programs. "We need not just utilities but private industry to be involved." One key area where new partnerships are needed is within the building industry itself, between green builders and building intelligence providers.
Ron Sims, the African-American executive of a county whose name now honors Martin Luther King Jr., has led efforts to make King County one of the climate leaders among American counties. In today's Climate Solutions Journal, he writes about Dr. King's dream and how it connects to climate change, green jobs, and social justice. (County residents a number of years ago decided to shift from honoring 19th century slaveowner and political figure Rufus King to MLKJr. Recently the county logo finally caught up -- see upper left-hand corner.)
Here's another good reason to fix a shaky and outdated power grid, from the Defense Science Board: keeping the Air Force flying during the next terrorist attack. The military focuses much of its efforts on avoiding global petroleum disruptions. But it has not thought much about power grid disruptions that could affect its own bases, the Department of Defense (DOD) group says in a report authored by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger The board says "physical or cyber sabotage -- or even a simple capacity overload -- could devastate U.S. military and homeland security installations and have a frightening ripple effect across the country, leaving everything from sewage systems to border security controls paralyzed for weeks, perhaps months," ClimateWire reports ($ub. req'd, but free trial available). Investigators noted: "A long-term major power outage would have significant consequences for both DOD and the nation ... Unfortunately, the current architecture of the grid is vulnerable to even simple attacks."
When Xcel Energy announced a few days ago that it had selected Boulder, Colo. as "the nation's first fully integrated Smart Grid City," it represented a vitally important step toward creating a low-carbon energy network. Photo: Aidan M. Grey Xcel previously announced its intention to stage the largest and most comprehensive deployment of smart grid technologies in the U.S. ever, and now it says it has targeted Boulder for a several-year effort that will cost up to $100 million. The aim at a comprehensive system is precisely what makes this a breakthrough. Smart grid technologies exhibit the classic network effect. Deployed individually, some can still have valuable benefits, as the personal computer did before the internet. To maximize benefits, however, they must be put together. Because this requires an overall systems transformation, and because such changes generally pose all sorts of chicken-and-egg challenges, the smart grid has been slow to catch on in the U.S. (France and Italy, who have more centrally managed electrical systems, have managed to advance farther.)
"State and regional governments around the world ... are fast becoming an essential and effective part of the movement to combat climate change," says The Climate Group in a new report. "Low Carbon Leader: States and Regions" (PDF) profiles 12 exemplars including California, which in 2006 enacted the first economy-wide cap on carbon emissions in the U.S., and Northeast states moving to implement the first U.S. carbon cap-and-trade system. The report notes that U.S. states, ranked individually among other nations, represent 34 of the world's 75 leading global warming pollution sources. California ranks 12th. Subnational governments have critical roles to play in carbon pollution reduction, both directly and in terms of the influence they can bring to bear on national governments, The Climate Group notes.
U.S. failure to enact limits on global warming emissions could cost American companies that export to the European Union. E.U. President Jose Manuel Barroso on Sunday said the European Commission is considering a charge on importers from nations without carbon limits. Companies from those countries may be required to buy carbon emissions allowances on exports into the E.U. This is intended to level the playing field with European companies who are already part of the European Emissions Trading System instituted to meet E.U. obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty. Barroso said the Commission could "require importers to obtain allowances (emissions permits) alongside European competitors ... There would be no point in pushing EU companies to cut emissions if the only result is that production and indeed pollution shifts to countries with no carbon disciplines at all."
A Northwest field test of smart-grid technologies has documented tremendous potential to run a grid that delivers power far more economically by controlling peak demand. The Pacific Northwest GridWise Demonstration Project has just announced the results of their year-long test, which included two pieces: On the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, 112 homes, three onsite generation units and municipal water pumps were equipped with automated systems that allowed them to adjust grid power demand in response to price signals. Appliances embedded with microchips capable of automatically responding to grid power fluctuations were placed at 150 homes in Washington and Oregon. The aim of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory-managed project was to document the ability of automated control systems to cut usage of the most costly power. Reducing demand can eliminate the need for peak power plants and delivery systems used only a relatively few hours of the year. Among the study's findings: Average power bill savings among customers who participated in the Olympic test were 10 percent, and peak load reductions 15 percent. Power use reductions plus distributed generation reduced peak power distribution loads 50 percent for days at a time. These technologies have potential to lower peak power prices plus save $70 billion over 20 years by avoiding the need to build peaking plants and wires. If all appropriate appliances were equipped with the intelligence to respond to grid conditions, 20 percent of U.S. power demand could be adjusted, tremendously reducing the level of blackouts and brownouts.
In the late 1990s, after pineapple express storms caused severe flooding and deadly mudslides across the Northwest, National Climatic Data Center Chief Scientist Thomas Karl said the storms were "an example of the type of weather patterns that would be expected to become more frequent and yield an increase in precipitation extremes as the climate continues to warm." Welcome to the future. The Northwest was fire-hosed again in recent days, flooding communities and leaving them in the dark throughout western Washington state, while cutting I-5 from Portland to Seattle, and rail service to boot. As of today, a lengthy detour to the east or an air flight remain the options for travel between the two major U.S. Northwest cities. Costs are placed at $4 million per day, and that is before expensive repairs to the I-5 roadbed are taken into account. The connection of global warming to increased storms and rainfall is as easy to make as the connection of steam rising from a pot of water to the stove flame beneath -- Heat causes evaporation. Global warming is heating the oceans, and the steamy, moist air rising from ocean surfaces is rocket fuel for storms. A warmer atmosphere also holds moisture better. The line of clouds pointing from the tropical Pacific to the Northwest that show up on the weather report satellite photos are the physical illustration of these phenomena. Of course, the scientific caveat is that no one weather event conclusively demonstrates global warming. The point here is that global warming loads the dice for more frequent and intense storms such as the Northwest has seen in recent days. When rainfall in the rain city of Seattle hits the second greatest one-day level in recorded history, and the record was set only in 2003, it provides a very suggestive indicator.