Category Archives: Environment

The Global Warming Policymaking Paradox

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 23rd October 2012

There exists a paradox at the center of efforts to deal with global warming that is directly related to how quickly policymakers limit greenhouse gases. If policymakers limit greenhouse gases too quickly, the price of power – electricity and fossil fuels – will rise precipitously, causing competitiveness challenges in industry potentially leading to unemployment and triggering a political backlash from the public. However, if policymakers limit greenhouse gases too slowly, clean energy alternatives cannot become cost-competitive with fossil fuels in time to prevent disastrous global warming.

Remarkably, no country has developed a comprehensive energy policy to prepare for the inevitable global warming crisis. Expressions such as sustainable energy, the “green revolution” and the “green economy” gave the appearance that a global movement to end the reliance on fossil fuels finally was under way. Alternative energy was identified as one of the world’s emerging economic growth engines. Over the last ten years, significant investment has gone into alternative energy including wind power, tidal power, solar power and electric vehicles in an attempt to build a bridge to a fossil-fuel-free future.

What happened to the green economy? The initial optimism has been diluted by a number of factors. Alternative energy has turned out to be more expensive than initially calculated. Developing enough of it to provide widespread power has proven stubbornly difficult. The technologies themselves have not responded to investment in ways that were initially anticipated and breakthrough innovations have been few and far between. We have discovered no Moore’s Law for alternative energy technologies.

The 2007-2009 financial crisis placed many alternative energy projects on hold, especially if they required substantial government funding. Further, the crisis precipitated a global economic recession from which many nations have not yet recovered. Renewable energy has not been exempt from the phenomenon of dampened investment.

This global economic weakening was reflected in the retrenchment of many nations away from an ambitious and expansive consensus solution to global warming. The commitment to renewable energy, especially wind and solar power, as the primary means of cutting carbon emissions began to wane. This decreased commitment occurred at the same time that multilateral treaties and regulatory regimes failed to provide the institutional foundations that the green movement needed.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster instantly altered the discussion on energy policy and suddenly nuclear power was written out of the equation. This was a huge blow to the potential success for the sustainable energy movement which held that nuclear energy was at the forefront of an paradigm shift toward a truly sustainable, low-carbon energy future. There had always been a strong anti-nuclear sentiment that was suspicious of what it considered government and industry mythology about nuclear safety. The Fukushima incident converted this suspicion into widespread anti-nuclear sentiment that quickly spread to Germany, Spain, Italy, Taiwan and the United States.

This shift from exuberant confidence in an easy and effortless bridge from our current reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sustainable energy to a darker and more pessimistic vision for energy has had profound consequences. The United States, after demonstrating initial support and enthusiasm for a paradigmatic shift in the future of energy, now favours a more incremental approach to transitioning from dirty – and foreign – fossil fuels to renewable energy. The most obvious element of this approach has been support for shale gas.

Many Americans stress that because energy innovation takes a long time, the U.S. must keep investing in its energy future. Energy innovation will mean replacements not only for coal, conventional oil and gas but shale gas as well. For these replacements to be successful, they should allow policymakers to limit greenhouse gases quickly enough to have a favourable effect but not so quickly to place excessive stress on an already weakened economy. The chief uncertainty is whether there will be enough public support for these incremental measures to succeed.


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Electric Cars Are Here But We Might Not Be Ready For Them

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 7th September 2012

Are we ready for electric cars? After a number of false starts, they’re now available for sale in North America – the Nissan Leaf, the Mitsubishi i MiEV and the Ford Focus Electric are members of a growing roster of electric-only vehicles produced by major auto manufacturers. They join hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, which hedge their bets by having both gasoline and electric propulsion.

Pure electric vehicles and hybrids are popular, at least in principle, because compared with conventional internal combustion engine automobiles, electric vehicles have the key benefit of significantly reducing local air pollution.

But are electric cars ready to replace their gasoline- or diesel-powered counterparts? And are we ready to transition to vehicles that will require a substantial and expensive support structure to sustain? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.

Electric cars are not ready for prime time. Despite their potential benefits, the pervasive use of electric cars faces several hurdles and limitations. The future of electric vehicles ultimately will depend on the cost and availability of batteries with much higher specific energy, power density and longevity than is the case today.

The cost of their lithium-ion battery packs adds $4,000 or more to each vehicle, requiring many miles of operation before that cost can be recouped in conventional fuel savings. If history is any indication, many owners will have traded in their car before achieving break-even.

Driving on battery power won’t take you far either. Most electric cars can travel less than 300 kilometres before needing to be recharged, which can require six hours or longer. The expression “range anxiety” figures prominently in their drivers’ lexicon. The operating range of conventional internal combustion engine vehicles now routinely exceeds 1,000 km; you will need to stop for other reasons before the fuel runs out. The technology infrastructure is still only minimally equipped to support millions of charging stations. The network of residential, commercial and government facilities to recharge electric vehicles won’t be an inexpensive proposition.

And since electric vehicles need to be recharged, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the point of operation doesn’t necessarily mean a free ride. Electric power needs to be generated at power plants that may burn coal or oil. In many regions, the limited availability of sufficient electric power may present problems.

Across Canada, many power generating plants already operate at peak capacity at least part of the time, and adding additional capacity to manage the draw of electric vehicles will require the rethinking of power grids and power usage patterns. Admittedly, many electric car owners will recharge their vehicles at night when load requirements are lower, but we don’t yet have a clear understanding of the implications of the added cost and how it will be borne.

Currently, big-money support for the transition to electric vehicles is a two-nation race. The U.S. and China have independently established policies and economic incentives to overcome existing barriers to fund more cost-effective battery technology and the further development of electric vehicles. The U.S. government has committed $2.4 billion in federal grants to fund the development of electric cars and batteries.

Electric vehicles would also lessen American dependence on foreign oil and directly address the ongoing American concern about vulnerability to oil price volatility and supply disruption. China recently announced it will provide funding of $15 billion to initiate the development of a competitive electric car industry.

The era of the conventional internal combustion engine isn’t quite over.

Innovations such as electronic engine management and advanced materials and assembly methods will mean that internal combustion engines will achieve increasingly better fuel economy even as more stringent emissions standards are applied. The application of innovation and technology may extend the lifespan of these engines for another 20 years.

Even so, the gasoline or diesel powered vehicles’ days are numbered, and the development of an efficient, cost-effective battery will change the world. Most communities across Canada are wholly unprepared for the eventual changes that electric vehicles will bring.

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The Old Keystone is New Again

By Peter Lindfield, published in the Telegraph-Journal 18th May 2012

TransCanada, the Canadian pipeline company, has filed a new application with the U.S. State Department to build the Keystone XL pipeline that will transport crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the American Gulf Coast. The application sets the stage for a new round of outrage and opposition not only to the pipeline, but to the tar sands themselves.

President Obama had refused to support TransCanada’s first proposal, claiming that there was insufficient time to undertake a thorough environmental review of the project. TransCanada’s new proposal specifies alternative routes intended to avoid the environmentally sensitive area in the Sand Hills region of Nebraska that was deemed at risk from potential pipeline leaks.

Because the pipeline crosses an international boundary, the U.S. State Department possesses jurisdiction over the project. It will be pressured to give TransCanada’s new application a thorough environmental review especially after the political fallout over a less than rigorous assessment on its first proposal in 2010. The regulatory agency was pilloried for minimizing serious environmental hazards including risks to the aquifers of the original route.

Some critics of the initial proposal will say that the new routes put forward by TransCanada would involve potentially the same damage in the event of a pipeline spill. Other opponents will claim that the fundamental concerns that underpin opposition to the pipeline will not be changed by a simple route modification.

The Canadian government will heavily lobby Washington to gain early approval for the pipeline proposal. One of TransCanada’s key concerns is that the proposal could get bogged down in a protracted environmental review. The company can count on House Republicans for support. Congress is under pressure to force Mr. Obama to make a quick decision on the project which would once again mean an inadequate environmental review. The Senate resisted pressure to force the president to truncate the review process the first time but it remains to be seen whether a similar defense can be mounted this time.

A superficial review of the politics and economics of the pipeline would have it that the project is a winning proposition on all counts. Keystone XL supporters have pointed to the job creation, the potential of reductions in gas prices and a decreased dependence on foreign oil as other benefits to the U.S. economy.

The Canadian government will face stiff opposition to its lobbying efforts. Critics argue that extracting oil from tar sands is an extremely energy-intensive process with a significant environmental impact. Oil from tar sands produces more greenhouse gases than conventional oil extraction. This has made Canada the focus of heavy criticism in the U.S. and even more so in Europe. Opponents to the Keystone XL pipeline will contribute few benefits to Americans who point to the likelihood that most of the Keystone XL oil will be targeted for export. Those who are outraged that the pipeline may threaten the environment are bracing for a renewed battle with industry.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver has characterized those who oppose oil sands and pipeline projects as radicals dedicated to limiting economic growth. “We hear a lot from environmental groups, and that’s fine, and we should hear from oil companies and from others who may be able to bring some facts to the table,” Mr. Oliver said.

The Canadian government has shifted from its claim that the oil extracted from the tar sands is “ethical oil” to an aggressive position that the tar sands are a critical and necessary contributor to the Canadian economy. This has become the key justification of federal government support while opposition to the Keystone XL project and to the tar sands has come to mean opposition to jobs and prosperity.

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