JUICE: Gripping & Dripping Global Warming

By Published On: August 13, 2005

The California Energy Commission toils in the wings to get a grip on climate change impacts. It continues to work to improve efficiency standards and dole out funds supporting renewables projects. Carbon dioxide emissions inexorably rise. The California Public Utilities Commission keeps working backstage to get renewables deals with utilities off the ground. It is assessing the prospects of requiring that one-third of our power supplies be green. The impacts of global warming increase. Alarming studies about worsening impacts of climate change mount. Our consumption of fossil fuels only escalates. Where is the action desperately needed on front and center stage? When will our governor get the show on the road and turn his early-June reality-based pronouncement on the urgency of cutting greenhouse gas emissions into reality? If Schwarzenegger was as dedicated to reducing greenhouse gases as he is to fund-raising or ensuring that the lights, sounds, and settings of his photo ops are Hollywood-perfect, think how much progess he could make. Wonder what’s got me all hot and bothered? It was seeing up close the rapid melting of the magnificent Alps glaciers. And seeing how big increases in energy efficiency and renewables development are so very attainable with commitments at the political and electoral levels, as demonstrated by Northern and Central Europeans. Last month, while I was waiting for my climbing partners to come down from a peak in the Alps near the French-Swiss border, a Swiss hiker began chatting with me. A cloud blew in and obscured the breathtaking views and early-morning sun. While adjusting his pack and rope, he asked me where we had climbed from and the whereabouts of my fellow climbers. I told him our route and pointed up to the now-hidden peak, adding that I hoped they’d arrive soon, as I was feeling the chill of the misty cloud. He then asked me my nationality. After raising oft-heard concerns about the rapid melting of the Alpine glaciers, he remarked, “Your president doesn’t believe in global warming.” I replied that Monsieur Bush was climate change-challenged and that many Americans disagreed with him. At that moment, however, I did long for some warmth, as stomping my feet in the glacier wasn’t keeping them from getting numb. Many Europeans I met expressed views like those of the Swiss climber. The day before, while standing in the hot afternoon sun, an earnest guardian of one of the Alps mountaineers’ huts pointed out how far the dripping glacier we climbed down had receded-about 200 meters in 10 years. The accelerated melting is caused by diminished snowfall, higher summer temperatures, and increased exposure of the gray glaciers’ frozen mass to the sun. Watching the beloved, once-rock-hard rivers of ice turn into giant Slurpees makes the Swiss, the French, and countless others, including me, break out in a sweat. At the same time, many Europeans don’t just fret. Energy efficiency is largely ingrained in them, and renewable energy development receives broad support. They aren’t issues reduced to hollow pronouncements and endless debate. In the places we stayed during the trip to Europe, lights were on timers and the bathrooms equipped with tankless water heaters. Alternative power investments are all the rage-with the environmental and energy security benefits, not the costs, getting center stage. Public transportation options are plentiful, and tiny, very fuel-efficient cars popular. Energy efficiency goes against our consumer culture. Most Americans make personal changes at a frightfully slow pace-if at all-without incentives and encouragement. The power industry is, however, equipped to take up some of the slack, leading the way to a fossil-fuel-lite future. Back in the U.S. flatlands, I notice I can go in and out of the bathroom at night without worrying about the light going out. I remind myself to carry sweaters to overly air conditioned meetings to keep from feeling as if I’m waiting on an indoor glacier. I notice again the rolled eyes when I insist on riding my bike or taking public transportation. After my adventurous break in routine, I’m also struck by the dearth of action at the political and personal levels to reduce fossil-fuel use in spite of continued warnings near and far. Recent studies conclude that climate change is intensifying the force of hurricanes and exacerbating the spread of diseases. It is melting Siberian permafrost, which will lead to heaps of emissions of methane gas, a notorious greenhouse gas. In California, climate change gets sporadic attention at the political level, but we need, as the governor would say, “Action. Action. Action.” Governor Schwarzenegger made a big splash in early June announcing unprecedented, nonbinding goals to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. With the cameras zooming in, he rolled out voluntary emission reduction goals for 2010 of 11 percent, which, if met, would bring the CO2 down to year-2000 pollution levels. In 50 years, time, greenhouse gases in the state are supposed to be slashed by 80 percent. That is the level that many atmospheric scientists say is needed to stabilize the earth’s climate. Two and a half months later, what is there to show for it? Although the governor is largely missing in action regarding his June pronouncement, there’re plenty of data to back up needed live-action changes, which would boost his melting political standing. Take into consideration two recent events: At the end of last week, the state’s voluntary greenhouse gas emission reporting program, the Climate Action Registry, reported that 50 organizations signed up last year. But those businesses represent only 12 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emitters. They do include, however, the state’s three investor-owned utilities and some generators-including Calpine and FPL. A survey by the Public Policy Institute of California concluded at the end of last month that 86 percent of Californians believe global warming will affect current or future generations, with more than half of those polled saying they believe the impacts are real now. “Driven by concerns about how global warming will degrade their quality of life and by a profound lack of confidence in the environmental and energy tilt of the federal government, Californians want the state to act on its own to address the problem,” states the institute. This adds to my conviction that impacts of and concerns about global warming will escalate here. It would, thus, would be wise for California’s electrical industry to take the high road. Industry should embrace the governor’s voluntary plans, lending it credibility and helping to sweeten the bad taste left in the public’s mouth after the Enron scandal. The in-state electricity generating sector is responsible for about 16 percent of CO2 emissions, according to the Energy Commission. Add in power imported from out-of-state facilities, and the figure rises to 30 percent of the greenhouse gases. There is another reason not to wait for action from Sacramento, particularly if, as some utility executives fear, the industry will be forced to bear the brunt of meeting Schwarzenegger’s CO2 reduction goals. Utilities and generators should lead the way to a more sustainable future and also try to beat the greenhouse reduction goals set by the governor. There should be measurable, verifiable commitments to stringent efficiency and renewables levels. Actions should include:<ul><li>Going like gangbusters on conservation, efficiency, and investments in existing and promising alternative power technologies.</li> <li>Putting dirty old plants out to pasture.</li> <li>Maximizing the use of new, efficient power plants.</li> <li>Reducing power plants’ heat rate, improving fuel efficiency.</li></ul>There were two hopeful flickers of light this week. CEC chair Joe Desmond pushed for a legal analysis on whether California can set greenhouse gas standards for imports of coal-fired power. If favorable, it may help Schwarzenegger activate his greenhouse gas reduction plan. Another promising sign is Southern California Edison’s newly inked contract for a 1 MW solar thermal project in its territory, which if viable could be expanded to 850 MW. Being proactive on the global warming front could turn around public perception of the currently unpopular energy sector. Before the governor announced his greenhouse gas reduction plan in June at the UN World Environment Day Conference, the applause PG&E received after announcing efforts to improve energy efficiency and cut CO2 emissions was impressive. And that was from an audience in San Francisco, where the utility’s corporate status among a cynical public is a few notches below that of Martha Stewart. Instead of waiting to get hammered, private and public utilities, regulated and unregulated, should announce goals and their progress. They should challenge the biggest polluters in and outside the state to follow their lead to turn down the heat. The industry could highlight how it’s doing its part to stem Mama Earth’s meltdown. It also would be a notable example of life imitating photo ops. <b>AG Alleges Utilities Worsen Global Warming</b> Oral arguments will he heard August 12 in the first-of-its-kind lawsuit against five large utilities. The case seeks to slash their greenhouse gas emissions. The suit, brought by California attorney general Bill Lockyer and seven other state AGs in the U.S. District Court of New York in July 2004, claims that five large generators’ CO2 emissions spread to other states, constituting a public nuisance under federal law. The goal of the attorneys general is to have the companies “do their fair share to help reduce global warming,” Lockyer states. The hearing focuses on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. The companies targeted are American Electric Power, AEP Service Corp., Southern Co., Xcel Energy, Cinergy, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Together they emit 651 million tons of CO2 a year into the atmosphere, claims the suit. Lockyer and his fellow AGs allege that global warming “threatens California with widespread harm, that the defendants have contributed to the nuisance as the nation’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide, and state that the plaintiffs “are seeking reductions in the companies’ global warming pollution.”

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