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Todd Woody's Posts


Forget saving the planet, driving an electric car will save your life

nissan leaf
Dongliu / Shutterstock

The failure to persuade a sizable percentage of Americans that climate change poses a clear and present danger is one of the great failures in marketing and the subject of considerable debate among scientists, academics and politicians. But there is one argument for taking action against global warming that has resonated: health.

When the Koch brothers and two Texas oil companies bankrolled a California ballot initiative in 2010 to gut the state’s landmark global warming law, billionaire activists activist Tom Steyer and his allies defeated the measure in part by arguing not that it would lead to climate catastrophe but would harm Californians’ health by allowing petroleum giants to pollute while keeping smog-creating cars on the road.

Now there are some hard numbers to back up those claims. A study released this week by the Environmental Defense Fund and the California chapter of the American Lung Association analyzed the impact of California’s cap-and-trade emissions program -- which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 -- as well as the state’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), which mandates a 10 percent reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2020.

“By 2025, the health benefits of the LCFS and [cap-and-trade] will save $8.3 billion in pollution-related health costs such as avoided hospital visits and lost work days,” the report states. “In addition, these policies will prevent 38,000 asthma attacks as well as 600 heart attacks, 880 premature deaths, and almost 75,000 lost work days -- all caused by air pollution.”


The grinch that stole the coal industry’s Christmas


Coal industry executives can only wish Santa will leave them a lump of the black stuff in their stockings this Christmas. But as 2013 draws to a close, those stockings are likely to be empty as the pace of coal-fired power plant closures accelerates.

Market research firm SNL Energy estimates that coal-fired plants generating as much as 64,002 megawatts of electricity will be shuttered by 2021. That’s 5,000 megawatts more than SNL predicted in May. Just since that earlier projection, however, several energy companies and utilities announced they would close some big coal plants, including the Tennessee Valley Authority’s decision in November to take out of service coal-fired power stations generating 3,100 megawatts. That would leave the government-owned utility in the heart of coal country reliant on nuclear and natural gas to generate the bulk of the region’s electricity.

That’s certainly good for the planet, given that coal is responsible for 42 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.


The carbon time bomb in your retirement account

wall street stock exchange ticker

Will climate change leave your investment portfolio stranded like a polar bear on melting ice floe? If your pension fund or 401(k) manager invests in fossil fuel companies, it just might.

Last year, the International Energy Agency warned that a third of the world’s oil, coal, and other fossil fuel reserves must remain untouched until 2050 to stave off catastrophic climate change. That, naturally, freaked out some investors. What’s the future worth of an ExxonMobil or a Chevron if governments ever get their act together and impose carbon taxes that make burning that dinosaur juice unprofitable? That would transform those fossil fuel reserves into “stranded assets,” turning the billions of dollars spent discovering and securing that untapped oil, natural gas, and coal into liabilities.

Such a scenario would make sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, even more competitive, further depressing fossil fuel behemoths’ stock price -- and the value of your portfolio. Then there’s a growing and increasingly successful campaigns to persuade pension funds, universities, and municipalities to divest from fossil fuel companies to fight climate change. According to an analysis by the Climate Accountability Institute, a nonprofit institute, just 90 fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 63 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gas emissions since 1854. ExxonMobil alone has spewed 3.3 percent of that carbon.


The world’s greenest oil company?

SunPower's solar facility in Alamosa.
Mark Udall
SunPower's solar facility in Alamosa, back by Total.

When Total, the French oil and petrochemicals conglomerate, announced a joint venture Thursday with California biofuels company Amyris to produce low-carbon jet fuel and diesel, it was just the latest move into renewable energy by the fossil-fuel giant.

During the height of the green-tech investing boom before the 2008 global economic crash, oil companies from BP to ExxonMobil poured hundreds of millions of dollars into solar and biofuels. That served as both a hedge against a low-carbon future, and, not coincidentally, as a way to generate some green goodwill. It’s not a new phenomenon. Oil company Atlantic Richfield, for instance, bought an early solar panel maker back in 1977.

But that enthusiasm has waned in recent years. Oil companies as well as venture capitalists pruned their green-tech portfolios amid the worldwide downturn and the belated realization that some renewable energy technologies were not ready for prime time, while others would require billions of dollars to commercialize. BP -- which had rebranded itself as “Beyond Petroleum” -- shuttered its solar operations in 2011. ExxonMobil earlier this year said it’s reevaluating its investment in algae biofuels after putting $100 million into a company called Synthetic Genomics.


How scientists are using drones to fight the next big oil spill

oil sheen

More than three-and-half years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are launching drones and ocean-going sensor arrays off the Florida coast in an effort to map the path of future oil spills before they devastate beaches and coastal ecosystems.

Researchers from the University of Miami and other scientists are placing 200 GPS-equipped “drifters” in the surf zone just off Fort Walton to map where the ocean currents take the devices. Sensors placed on the ocean surface and seabed will track the movement of colored dye that will be released during the three-week experiment that began on Monday. Two drones outfitted with GoPro cameras will also monitor where the currents take the drifters and dye. Since the drones can only stay aloft for an hour at a time, a camera-carrying kite will also be deployed.

A comparative drift experiment in Biscayne Bay.
A comparative drift experiment in Biscayne Bay. Click to embiggen.

All the data collected will be used to construct a computer model of near-shore ocean currents to predict how future oil spills or other pollutants will disperse as the approach the shore.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Five charts that explain the great energy shift

vintage coal factory - resized
Thiophene Guy

The United States is undergoing the greatest revolution in energy production in decades thanks to the shale gas boom and the rise of renewable energy. The lure of cheap natural gas has led utilities to shutter aging and carbon-spewing coal-fired power plants in favor of much cleaner burning gas. Pending federal emissions regulations make it unlikely that any new coal plants will get built in the years ahead, while state renewable energy mandates and the declining cost of solar and wind technologies have triggered a boom in green power. That trend is likely to continue in the decades ahead. The U.S. …

Read more: Climate & Energy


Report: Homebuyers willing to pay premium for solar

Okay, I’m a little slow on the uptake on this but I’ve been pursing a recent report from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory on the effect of installing a rooftop solar array on the sale price of homes in California. (It makes for dense reading and unless you’re really into “hedonic pricing models” and “difference-in-difference model,” you might want to stick with the two-page summary.) The upshot: California homes that sport solar panels sell for a $17,000 premium for an average newish 3.1-kilowatt photovoltaic array. “This is a sizable effect,” Ryan Wiser, a staff scientist at the Lab and a coauthor of …


On Coachella’s solar stage

It was a sunny year at the 2011 Coachella Music Festival, and the stage is set for the town's new concentrating photovoltaic farm.Photo: Paige K. ParsonsAn interesting solar development got buried by Thursday’s big news that French fossil fuel conglomerate Total had agreed to acquire a majority stake in SunPower, the Silicon Valley photovoltaic panel maker and power plant development. That $1.37 billion Total is spending on SunPower naturally overshadowed the Southern California desert community of Coachella’s announcement that it had flipped the switch on a 420-kilowatt concentrating photovoltaic farm at its water reclamation plant. Don’t yawn. Here’s why the …


What’s next for the enviro-business coalition that defeated California’s Prop 23?

Now that we've put together some green muscle, what will we do with it?Photo: Denis GilesMuch of the green movement has been mounting a rearguard fight in Washington to fend off attempts to gut the U.S. EPA in the wake of the Republican sweep of the 2010 elections. California, as usual, is heading down a different road. The enviro-business coalition that defeated Prop 23, Texas oil companies' attempt to derail the state's global-warming law, is stepping up effort to push lawmakers to expand California's climate-change efforts. First, the No on 23 campaign led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer resurfaced …


Dirty clouds: Greenpeace ranks tech giants on their data centers’ coal dependency

Tech companies have something hanging over their heads.Photo: The SharpteamAs I sit here at the Local 123 café in Berkeley on Earth Day, a dozen hipsters are transfixed by their Macbooks, their heads lost in the cloud. According to a Greenpeace report [PDF] released this week, all those presumably green and well-meaning digital workers-slash-slackers are contributing to global warming every time they update their Facebook status, scan their Twitter stream or check their Gmail. That's because all those apps live in massive data centers -- a.k.a. "the cloud." In the "How Dirty is Your Data?" report, Greenpeace analysts estimate data …