Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, I am now witnessing what is arguably the most important energy policy debate on the North American continent today. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposal is pitting province against province, and province against the federal government of Canada, in increasingly dramatic terms. Thrown in for good measure, my home state of Washington, neighboring British Columbia, has good reason to get involved in the dispute as well.

The concern south of the border has to do with significantly increased oil tanker traffic, and the potential for spills right in the middle of orca territory. The prolific journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joel Connelly, reviews the risks here: Connelly: Dow Constantine joins B.C. pipeline resistance.

The concern in the Vancouver area, where the pipeline expansion terminates in massive holding tanks, includes pipeline leaks, emissions, and fire risk to the local residents. The public health risks, which include exposure to lethal chemicals, are compellingly detailed in the 2016 study, Kinder Morgan and Public Health, written by a group of physicians.

For an overview of the project, including the federal government of Canada’s reasoning for approving it, see Justin Trudeau Approves Oil Pipeline Expansion in Canada.

The province of Alberta has for decades been a powerful voice in Canadian energy policy-making, with vast reserves of oil and natural gas that it sells both to other Canadian provinces, and to international markets. Their expressed concern with B.C.’s objection to the pipeline expansion is economic. In the popular imagination, whenever we hear stories of oil workers thrown out of work or industry towns in the carbon economy falling victim to out-of-touch environmental priorities, we conjure up images of honest, no-nonsense folk working hard just to scrape out a modest living. It’s easy to forget that the average standard of living in an area like Alberta is comparatively very high. Moreover, this standard of living is based on a diversified economy, not entirely dependent on a carbon energy sector.

Yet B.C. and Alberta have for a couple of years now simply been talking past one another, and getting increasingly shrill about it. I’m trying to imagine a new discussion path, whereby we can value the oil and gas resources available in Alberta, yet respect the health, safety, and environmental objections of a broad coalition of people in British Columbia and the state of Washington.

Think of the oil and gas as a bank account. And not just any old checking account, but as part of a regional (and even global) nest egg. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly.

The carbon-based resources are a form of security, socked away against hard times or emergencies. We should be grinning from ear to ear that we have it, that we know how to use it for our energy needs, and that we can now keep it in the ground to save it for later. We should be proud that we can pass it along like an inheritance to future generations, not just decades down the road, but centuries.

The plain, immutable fact is that carbon-based energy resources are finite. Yes, it’s lovely to discover new natural gas plays and oil fields. But no matter what, they are finite, and frankly we are already glimpsing at this finitude. Deep-water drilling has proven to be exceedingly dangerous. And, even more to the point in the debate about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, when you are champing at the bit to utilize tar sands, an extremely dirty and expensive-to-process form of oil, you know you’ve reached some kind of inflection point for energy policy.

Renewables (primarily wind and solar, combined with some form of storage) should be the energy currency we are using now for day-to-day “expenses.” In places where hydro infrastructure already exists, and provides an abundant source of clean power, this can complement wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal options. Energy efficiency measures, particularly useful when scaled to large metro populations, must underlie the whole system.

And finally, gratefully, in back of all this will be our reserves of oil and gas, hopefully never having to be used. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly. I can imagine a new mind-set that would even consider these resources beautiful, part of our beautiful home rock, part of our loved environment. Precisely because they are kept in the ground.

Like other utilities across the U.S., Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is paying attention to market forces and ratepayer concerns, and turning away from coal as a lead player in its energy portfolio. Up for debate is what fills the void left by the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants: will the twenty-first century become the century of natural gas, or will renewables like wind and solar be given a real chance to grow to utility scale?

For PSE, this matter has been under active consideration for much of 2016, and may well be decided this year. How will the utility replace the power from two of their four coal plants in Colstrip, Montana, when these plants are formally taken offline in 2022. (The combined output of the Colstrip facility represents about 20 percent of the power used by PSE.) The Sierra Club has researched and proposed a mix of efficiency measures and renewable generation (for example, Montana wind) to replace Colstrip 1 and 2. But currently, all indications are that PSE wants to build natural gas power plants instead.

Here are five questions PSE must answer for ratepayers before going all-in on natural gas in this way:

Are you planning to build your natural gas plants here in the state of Washington?

A national map of technically recoverable natural gas resources shows that our region isn’t exactly brimming with potential in this regard. For example, the Gulf Coast region (with 536 trillion cubic feet, or tcf) has nearly ten times as much as the Pacific region (54 tcf), and is itself a distant second to the Atlantic region (833 tcf).

If the plan is to site the natural gas plants where there is a more abundant supply (for example, Montana), what are the additional legal, political, and logistical hurdles for the utility in doing so that would ultimately affect the company’s ratepayers?

Are you committed to building combined cycle plants to maximize efficiency?

This method, which refers to the process of capturing waste heat to power a steam turbine, provides a significant boost to the efficiency of a typical gas-fired power plant. (For comparison, coal-burning plants are 33 percent efficient, gas-fired plants are 42 percent efficient, and combined cycle plants are 60 percent efficient.) Ratepayers should be assured that PSE is opting to maximize the efficiency of any new natural gas plant it builds.

Do you plan on using fracking? What safety precautions will you employ? What insurance and legal protections will you put in place to protect your shareholders from accidents, environmental disasters, and lawsuits?

Hydraulic fracturing is an admittedly ingenious technology, almost wholly responsible for the increasing estimates of how much natural gas is accessible in the rocks beneath us. But fracking carries with it such a host of environmental dangers, from jaw-dropping water consumption to chemical contamination of groundwater to exacerbation of seismic activity, that any use of it must be subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The state of New York banned fracking in 2014. Isn’t it possible the state of Washington would do the same?

Will you allow the flaring of methane and ethane from your gas fields?

Gas flared from oil and gas fields is simply wasted, and is a practice that the World Bank has called for to end by 2030. Though flaring is more common in the oil industry than the natural gas industry, the World Bank states of the latter: “While in many cases the lighter components, methane and ethane, are then re-injected into the reservoir, in some cases these components are flared. This type of flaring is arguably worse than flaring from oil fields because a larger portion of the overall hydrocarbon production is being flared.”

How will you measure methane emissions from the plants? What’s an acceptable level of leakage?

Studies of methane emissions from natural gas fields have varied from region to region in the U.S., and depend to some degree on the age and condition of the equipment used. But PSE should be committed to state-of-the-art design and equipment to ensure the least emissions possible of this powerful greenhouse gas. If the industry standard hovers between 1-2 percent, PSE should commit to less emissions than the industry standard.


Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining over 100 of my fellow energy policy geeks as we filled to overflow capacity the hearing room of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). It was the largest crowd ever to attend a UTC hearing, and we were there to voice objections to a plan by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to continue operation of the coal plant in Colstrip, Montana, for another two decades at least.

“The Colstrip coal plant is the biggest source of carbon pollution in the entire Northwest.”

–Sierra Club

The Sierra Club organized the activity, including transportation to and from Olympia where the commission does its work. The venerable environmental group has gotten involved because approximately 30 percent of PSE’s electricity comes from Colstrip, and PSE is the single largest owner of that plant. 

Among the wide array of experts and interested citizens participating in the hearing were Montana ranchers directly harmed by the pollution emanating from smokestacks and collecting in ponds around Colstrip, public officials from both Montana and Washington (Nathaniel Jones, Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Olympia, was particularly eloquent), and scientists and attorneys speaking to the degradation of water and air quality attributable to the Colstrip plant.

For its part, the three-member UTC board patiently listened to some five hours of testimony, asking numerous questions and sparring occasionally with environmental attorneys when the latter seemed to be asking more of the commission than its defined charter permitted. Essentially that charter is an economic one: to determine whether a private utility can pass the cost of capital investment on to its customers via their electricity bills. But commissioners admitted that environmental and even moral arguments could ultimately factor in to their economic analysis and decisions.

So, will this large-scale effort to influence the UTC amount to anything? I am genuinely encouraged that it will, at the very least, cause the commission to recommend to PSE that it revise its 20-year plan, and provide some specifics around retiring at least the two older of Colstrip’s four coal-fired boilers.

Though the effort to scale up production, sales, and even to some extent the cultural acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs) on US roadways is commendable, we need corresponding attention to how that electricity is generated in the first place. If it comes from a dirty source like coal, you could be creating far more greenhouse gas emissions than you realize as you gaze in admiration at your smokeless EV tailpipe.

Estimates from the Department of Energy (DOE) show that greenhouse gas emissions nearly triple when the same EV is dependent on a relatively dirty electric grid compared to a relatively clean one (with a greater percentage of electricity coming from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower). For example, a Nissan Leaf in the Denver area spews 330 grams of carbon dioxide per mile (g/mi), but only 120 g/mi emitted by the same car in the San Francisco area.

Granted, the dirty-sourced EV still fares better than the 500 g/mi average for new, gasoline-powered cars. So yes, by all means, let’s make sure the EV momentum we have seen in the last couple of years doesn’t stall out. But let’s also recognize that we need to use this phenomenon as another lever to persuade policymakers and utilities to increase the proportion of renewables in the overall energy portfolio.

Check out this DOE website where you can plug in your zip code and see how your area and car model stack up: Beyond Tailpipe Emissions.

Energy reading: two reviews

November 26, 2010

What’s the best way to convince people about the value of renewable forms of energy (such as solar and wind power) and to make them care about using energy more efficiently in their own lives? It has been a surprisingly difficult task, especially in the U.S., which notoriously hasn’t signed on to the Kyoto Protocol and has recently stalled on passing national energy legislation.

Two books published mid-decade take a decidedly left-brain approach: from the careful, rational argumentation of Craig Morris in Energy Switch: Proven Solutions for a Renewable Future (2006), to the barrage of numbers and calculations presented by Godo Stoyke in The Carbon Buster’s Home Energy Handbook: Slowing Climate Change and Saving Money (2007), these authors aim to persuade not through high-pitched, emotional rhetoric or even through moral imperatives (the position Al Gore staked out so emphatically in An Inconvenient Truth), but instead through pragmatism and statistical analysis. I found their voices a welcome addition to the overall dialogue, though not without some flaws.

Morris reviews the entire spectrum of energy sources, including fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas), mature renewables (solar, wind, geothermal), developing renewables (fuel cells, tidal, wave), nuclear, and biomass. He concludes the book with chapters about power grids and efficiency measures to decrease energy consumption.

“This book does not divide sources of energy into ‘good guys and bad guys,’” Morris states in his introduction, “but rather points out the necessity—indeed, the inevitability—of a switch to renewables. Though inevitable, this switch will be painful if we wait too long” (p. 1). He suggests that the remaining and finite supply of fossil fuels be used largely on behalf of the establishment and growth of renewable supplies. This makes the energy “switch” more of a manageable transition than a desperate lunge.

Morris differentiates himself from most American observers of energy policy by his ability to provide detailed comparison of US policymaking with that of Europe. Germany in particular is far ahead of the US with regard to making the switch to renewables, even though solar, wind, and geothermal resources available within German borders are far less than is available here. He greatly admires the political coalitions in Germany (left and right, green and conservative) that have come together to create and maintain the Renewable Energy Act there. He delves deeply into technical and political details of that policy (such as feed-in tariffs, tax incentives, and localized power distribution), and throughout the book backs his claims with numerous tables, charts, and footnotes. Once or twice he allows himself a slightly preachy, condescending tone towards what he regards as a particularly American recalcitrance in the face of European far-sightedness, but writing as he was during the Bush administration, one can forgive the lapses of frustration on his part.

Some of the most effective moments in Energy Switch take place when Morris, who is well versed in the arguments used by skeptics of renewable energy, takes on these objections directly and counters them calmly and systematically. For example:

  • Renewables are inefficient; the technology just isn’t there yet. “The efficiency of a coal plant… cannot be compared to the efficiency of renewables. A coal plant with 33 percent efficiency is by no means twice as efficient as a monocrystalline cell with at least 16 percent efficiency. The sun sends us far more energy than we would ever take” (pp. 117-8). That is, a 16 percent conversion of a practically infinite supply works out better than a 33 percent conversion of a very finite supply.
  • Renewables can’t compete in the marketplace without heavy government subsidies. Government subsidizes all forms of energy; renewables aren’t getting preferential treatment. Even in Europe, subsidies bestowed on coal, oil, and gas quadrupled those given to all kinds of renewable energy in 2001 (p. 79).
  • Renewables aren’t practical for utility-scale usage because the power they produce is intermittent. Geothermal power isn’t intermittent, with a 95 percent reliability rate that puts coal plants and nuclear plants to shame (p. 134). Further, when wind and solar are paired the problem of intermittent production is substantially reduced, because wind often kicks in at night.
  • Renewables are the answer to a problem we don’t really have (global warming). Actually, renewables are the answer to a whole host of problems, even leaving aside the question of climate change. They’ll be producing power long after all the fossil fuels have been used up, they’ll create jobs, they’ll foster energy independence, and they’ll improve quality of life for those of us who breathe (p. 76).

Though Morris does an admirable job bringing to light many of the strengths of renewables and suggesting a moderated course for making the “switch”—including continued research in such areas as coal gasification and cogeneration natural gas turbines—I can’t help but think his book won’t reach a general audience.

By contrast, Stoyke’s Home Energy Handbook just might. Loaded with pocketbook appeal, this resource has got to be the ultimate in bottom-line, number crunching around efficiency measures for the homeowner. Right on the cover, emblazoned almost like an Oprah book-of-the-month endorsement, is the eye-opening claim that you can save $17,000 over a 5-year period.

Stoyke walks the reader through detailed recommendations in home design, transportation, electric power, heating, cooling, water usage, and environmental goods and services. Rather shrewdly, he presents his findings through two lenses: the “carbon miser” lens, which sees efficiency measures in terms of dollars and cents, and the “carbon buster” lens, which sees efficiency measures in terms of carbon emissions reductions.

Read this book cover-to-cover, and you are likely to find all the numbers deployed here lose their impact. For example, at the foot of many pages in the book cryptic references would appear in gray highlight, such as “Carbon Miser: 20.9%; $8512.00” or “Carbon Buster: 32.6%; $10,197.70.” I lost track of what these statistics were referring to: a specific measure discussed on the page? A group of measures discussed in the section? Something cumulative or in aggregate as you read along?

But treated more as a loose reference book to understand what efficiency measures you can take, how much impact generally it will have, and even tips for green shopping as you give it a go in your own home, Stoyke’s approach is invaluable and turns up some surprising options.

He champions some decidedly low-tech and unsexy fixes, such as sealing air leaks around your house and capping your chimney when not in use. It turns out these can save you more in five years than better known approaches like adding insulation to the attic (though that helps too, but Stoyke’s comparative tables give you an at-a-glance look at how to prioritize if you have a limited budget or commitment to all this).

Or if you are looking to replace your old water heater tank with something more environmentally friendly, install a thermal solar collector for your hot-water needs, rather than the somewhat trendier tankless water heater option. You’ll triple your reduction in carbon emissions using this more efficient and longer lasting solution (p. 115).

Paradoxically, the Home Energy Handbook ends up appealing to the consumer in me as much as the conservationist. It lists all kinds of actual appliances, computers, home electronics, and automobiles in terms energy efficiency. In other words, it helps a certain kind of shopper. It is Consumer Reports for the green crowd.

But consumer choices cycle quickly in our culture. Written in 2007, how relevant will it seem in 2017? For this reason, though Stoyke’s book speaks the right language to be influential right now and in the short-term, it is Morris’ book that will have the longer shelf life.