a helpful provision

When I wrote this post on environmental policy in the United States, I hadn’t realized an important section of an earlier House version on Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gases had made it into the final version of the Inflation Reduction Act.

The language amends the Clean Air Act and is very specific that the EPA has the authority to regulate all greenhouse gases and to reduce them through the promotion of renewable energy.

This should blunt the impact of the Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA which held that the Congress had not been explicit enough in defining the scope of the EPA’s work in moving the country away from fossil fuels in order to limit global warming.

One more step in the right direction…

inflation and energy

As the United States Senate passed a major budget reconciliation bill dealing with climate change, energy sources, health care, and corporate taxes this weekend, there has been a lot of public whining from Republicans and industry, saying that the bill will increase, not lower inflation.

Judging from my family’s experience, the bill will lower inflation by decreasing energy costs.

As regular readers may recall, my household has spent years in efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. We have electrified everything in our home, including a geothermal heating/cooling system. We reduced our demand by increasing our insulation and installing LED lighting. We drive our fully electric Chevy Bolt for local driving. (For trips over 200 miles, we drive our plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica, which gets better mileage in gasoline mode than the non-hybrid version.) We own panels in a solar farm because our home was not a good candidate for rooftop panels.

So, this summer, our monthly electricity bill is $17.35, which is the delivery charge from our electric utility. This covers all our household lighting, cooling, laundry, electronics, water heating, etc. plus all our local and short-trip driving.

Meanwhile, many households are burdened with paying $100 to fill their gas tank for the week, plus the cost of their household electricity and methane, propane, or other fuels that they use for heating water, cooking, drying clothes, etc.

A large share of recent inflation is due to increased fossil fuel prices. For our family, that has been felt mostly in the higher cost of food, which is largely driven by the expense of fuel.

I realize that not every household will be able to follow our exact path to be nearly free of fossil fuels but the Inflation Reduction Act just passed by the Senate, which is expected to be passed by the House and sent to President Biden to sign into law later this week, will go a long way to reducing expensive fossil fuel use for residents. As more renewable power comes on line, electricity costs will come down because it is cheaper to produce than fossil fuel electricity. There are rebates targeted at lower-to-middle income folks to help move to electric vehicles, which are much cheaper to run than internal combustion engines. As battery costs have fallen, electric cars are already around the same price as some conventional cars/trucks, so the rebates may make them cheaper to buy.

It’s true that inflation will not suddenly disappear, but this bill has provisions that will bring it down and will help to decrease future inflation spikes by removing inherently volatile fossil fuel prices from the center of our economy. The bill is projected to save average households about $500/year in energy costs. Some households, such as ours, will be able to save much more than that.

So, let’s get this done and enacted! The sooner we do, the sooner it will help people and the planet.

heatwave kitchen

I did something I seldom do this morning.

I wore an apron.

Like many other locations in the Northern Hemisphere, this week we are having a heat wave. It was already 90 F (32 C) by 11:00 AM, so two hours before solar noon, given Daylight Saving Time. Not quite as bad as daughter E in London which set an all-time record at 40 C (104 F) earlier this week, but hot enough that I wanted to get kitchen work that involved heat out of the way this morning.

When I was at the farmstand earlier this week, they were selling beets for only a dollar a quart, so I bought some to roast. I decided to peel and cut them in chunks before roasting. Because I didn’t want to risk splattering my cream and blue print sundress with red beet juice, I donned the apron that B wears sometimes when he is baking.

While the beets were roasting, I made cooked butterscotch pudding for a pie. When I was growing up, my mom used to make pudding pies or sometimes fruited jello pies in the summer. I think that it isn’t a very common practice anymore because there were no pie directions on the pudding package. I remembered the modifications well enough, I hope, that the pie should set. Bonus: I had a graham crust in the cupboard so I didn’t have to bake one.

Admittedly, I don’t have to worry about our kitchen getting unbearably hot because of our air conditioning, provided very efficiently by our geothermal heat pump system. (Geothermal heat pumps use much less energy than conventional central air systems but I wanted to get my electric cooktop and oven work done early so as not to add to the electricity burden which rises in the late afternoon/evening.)

As I keep hearing about people in Europe and the US suffering from extreme heat, my mind goes to heat pumps which will keep them warm in the winter without burning methane and safely comfortable in the increasingly hot summer heat waves, all while helping to combat the greenhouse gas emissions that worsen climate change. Bonus: Heat pumps can break the stranglehold that Russia and other oligarchies have over fossil fuels, promoting peace and economic stability. So much conflict has fossil fuels as an underlying cause. We would do well to stop using them as quickly as possible, so, for peace and the planet, let’s transition to heat pumps NOW.

the definition of energy

I wish that US politicians and the media would stop using the word energy as shorthand for fossil fuels. The United States is banning the import of Russian oil, gas, and coal, which, while they can be burned to release energy, are not themselves energy.

Equating the word energy with fossil fuels only distorts our perception of the problems and possible solutions. Politicians and pundits panic and look for more oil and gas to replace the Russian supply, even though drilling for additional petroleum and building LNG facilities are time-consuming processes which we must not expand but scale back quickly and dramatically if we are to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, as the recent IPCC report alarmingly illustrates.

Rather, if we consider energy more broadly, we can see other ways forward that are cheaper, quicker, and better for the environment. A couple of weeks ago, Bill McKibben published a piece outlining how President Biden could invoke the Defense Production Act to churn out heat pumps to send to Europe so that they can break away from dependency on Russian methane for heating. Bonus: this would create jobs in the US and help our country in its own transition away from fossil fuels after the immediate crisis in Europe has passed. Amazingly, McKibben’s eminently practical and sustainable idea is gaining traction and is being studied by the Biden administration.

It’s also wise and practical to take energy efficiency seriously. It’s been said that the cheapest kilowatt/therm is the one that you don’t have to use. It’s helpful to weatherize and retrofit existing buildings so that their heating, cooling, and lighting needs are lessened, making it easier to run them with available and developing renewable energy resources.

At this point, some of the electricity needed will be generated from fossil fuels and nuclear plants but it is shortsighted to expand these rather than phase them out. Developing new drilling and mining sites is a long, expensive process, as is building new plants, which come with decades of environmental and public health consequences. It is quicker, cheaper, and healthier to move to renewable energy.

The same argument goes for the electrification of transportation. Many countries are already moving toward this goal, which helps in both the environmental and political realms.

While Russia is uppermost in everyone’s minds right now, the truth is that fossil fuels have been used as a political weapon by autocrats and oligarchs around the world. (Rachel Maddow’s book Blowout tells this history in fascinating detail.) Their power will be greatly reduced by a rapid phaseout of these fuel sources in favor of wind, sun, water, and geothermal sources.

These gifts of the earth are a common inheritance.

No one owns the sun or wind.

personal energy independence

With the burgeoning war in Ukraine, which is totally unacceptable and reprehensible on Russia’s part, people around the world expect fossil fuel prices to rise. While this is unfortunate, especially for those in lower socioeconomic circumstances, it will have much less impact on my family than most.

We will be paying higher prices for goods due to increased transportation costs but won’t see much impact on our personal transportation and household costs, due to our years-long efforts to reduce our carbon footprint.

Around town, we usually drive our all-electric Chevy Bolt or our plug-in hybrid Chrysler Pacifica, which only switches to its gasoline engine on the rare occasions that we take longer trips and even then gets much better mileage than a regular minivan. Our home heating system is a geothermal heat pump and our hot water is a hybrid electric/air source heat pump which is nearly always in heat pump only mode. Our appliances are electric. We use a rechargeable electric lawn mower. Only our 50+ year old snowblower which is used a few times a year and our outdoor propane grill run on fossil fuels.

The electricity that powers our homes and cars is from renewable sources. The majority is from solar panels that we own in a community solar installation with the balance bought from a 100% renewable energy supplier. I get a great deal of satisfaction from producing and using clean energy, continuing the legacy of my father and several other members of our family who worked in the hydroelectric sector for many years.

While the driving force for me to move to renewable energy was moral, I do also appreciate the economic impact on our family. Our energy costs as B heads toward eventual retirement will stay relatively low and stable. At the time we installed our geothermal heat pump, the cost of methane was near historic lows, making the number of years that it would take cost savings to make up for the installation cost quite high, partially offset by significant savings in our cooling costs. With the price of methane doubled even before the impact of sanctions against Russia, our investment in our heat pump looks to be an even better economic move, in addition to being best for the climate.

From a moral/ethical standpoint, I also appreciate that my energy dollars are not being used to prop up a fossil fuel system that enables injustice. Certainly, Russian proceeds from fossil fuels go largely to a few oligarchs and government officials, not for the benefit of the public. Saudi Arabia uses its fossil fuel wealth in oppressive ways and is not held to account for fear of cutting off supply. In the US, profits land with oil and gas companies while rural folks and disadvantaged communities bear the brunt of the health and safety problems caused by extraction, processing, and transport. While the entire ecosystem is impacted by fossil fuel use, the heaviest burden falls on vulnerable communities who often did little to contribute to the problem.

I know that the example of my family’s transition away from fossil fuels is a miniscule piece of the solution to help heal the planet, but I hope that we early adopters will show people that it’s possible – and even more economical – to make the switch to renewable energy. Political leaders can develop programs to help lower income households join in and benefit, as well as train workers for weatherization and other energy efficiency projects, for renewable energy jobs, and for the environmental restoration and resiliency work before us.

Real energy independence cannot be pumped out of the ground but can come from the sun, wind, and water that are our common gifts. Let’s use them to create a more stable, just world where fossil fuel supplies aren’t used as a weapon.

methane and climate

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade plus thinking, writing, angsting, and trying to work on climate change issues. This was especially evident during the protracted battle to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State, as we also endeavored to help our Pennsylvania neighbors cope with the damage they were seeing from the industry. I was part of a team that wrote comments on media articles and rebutted industry talking points with facts and science.

Because of this, I read a lot of science and heard a lot of speakers on the topics of fracking, fossil fuels generally, and climate change. Because the Binghamton area where I live was one of the most heavily targeted by the fracking industry, there were frequent rallies that drew experts from the Ithaca area, most of whom were connected to either Ithaca College or Cornell University, which is where my daughter T did her undergraduate degree in environmental science.

One of the many environmental warnings that we sounded was the risk of accelerating climate change, particularly due to methane leakage, which occurs at every point from production through transport, storage, and use.

The powers that be didn’t listen.

Atmospheric methane levels climbed to all-time highs, which has the effect of forcing climate change effects in the near-term. While methane is much more short-lived in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, it is much more potent in trapping heat than CO2, over a hundred times more in a ten-year timespan.

Finally, at the COP26 climate change summit currently meeting in Glasgow, over a hundred countries have agreed to limit methane emissions. In the United States, the Biden administration is finally putting in place regulation of existing fossil fuel wells regarding methane leakage as well as tightening of other rules regarding methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry. Previous efforts targeted new wells only.

One of the sorrows of dealing with climate change is the “what if” factor. What if governments and industry had acted to curtail methane emissions over a decade ago when scientists and activists were pointing out the dangers? What if government and industry had taken global warming from carbon dioxide seriously over fifty years ago when scientists, including industry scientists, made clear the dangers of burning fossil fuels?

If they had, we would not be dealing now with the large increases of extreme weather events, heat waves, floods, and droughts; rising sea levels; loss of glaciers and polar ice; ocean acidification and massive death of corals; weakening of ocean currents; climate refugees; and the threat of even worse consequences in the decades to come.

We can’t redeem the missed opportunities, but we can take action now, including helping those already suffering from climate change impacts.

We can’t afford further inaction.

mostly fossil-free home!

A project that B and I have been working on for years is finally complete. With the installation of a geothermal heating/cooling system, we are able to disconnect our home from the methane infrastructure, which in our area means that we are no longer burning fracked gas from neighboring Pennsylvania in our home. Because we had previously installed a hybrid electric/heat pump hot water heater, our furnace had been the only thing still attached to the gas lines. Now that it is gone, we won’t have to pay for methane, which is relatively low-priced at the moment, or the delivery charges, which are relatively expensive in New York. Those savings will help with our electric bill, which will go up, although our panels in a community solar array generate a good chunk of our electricity. In our region of New York, changing from methane to geothermal for heating is considered a wash in terms of cost, but our air conditioning costs will be much lower with the heat pump than with our outdoor compressor unit.

We have done other projects to make our home more efficient, such as changing to LED lighting and adding more insulation. We use a rechargeable battery-operated lawn mower and electric leaf blower. The only two household things that will still use fossil fuels are our propane grill and our gasoline-powered snowblower, which is only needed a handful of times a year, if that.

We have also cut way back on our use of gasoline for transportation, driving an all-electric Chevy Bolt and a plug-in hybrid electric Chrysler Pacifica. We only use gasoline when we take the Pacifica on longer trips. It gets 30ish miles on battery. When it is running on gas, some of the engine power re-charges the battery, so even when we have no plug-in charge remaining, a quarter to a third of our miles will still be battery powered. It could be even more than that if we are driving on roads with terrain or lots of stop signs/lights because the braking is regenerative, meaning the energy from slowing the car goes toward charging the battery. It’s possible that, as rapid charging stations become more available, we may be able to take longer trips in our Bolt, which would cut our gasoline usage even further. (I know some of you urbanites are wondering why we don’t use mass transit. Unfortunately, our area has almost no mass transit available.)

We have tried to cut down our fossil fuel usage and control our total energy usage as much as is practicable, but I know there is one sector where our carbon footprint will become heavier rather than lighter. I have not been a frequent flyer in my first almost-six decades, but I am likely to be flying several times a year for the foreseeable future. With daughter E and granddaughter ABC’s recent move to London, I see a fair number of airplane flights coming.

The first one will be next month.

Fracking update

I spent a lot of time involved with the eventually successful efforts to ban high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for fossil fuels in New York State. Meanwhile, from my town on the NY/PA border, we have watched a host of negative consequences unfold for some of our PA neighbors. I am also only an hour or so from Cornell University, home to some of the leading researchers on fracking. I was privileged to see these professors speak a number of times, both on campus and at community events.

One of these researchers, Dr. Robert Howarth, has just published a new paper in the journal Biogeosciences about one of the most unfortunate environmental effects of the fracking boom, the release of methane to the atmosphere. Global atmospheric levels of methane are at all-time highs since recording began. The levels started a steep rise in 2006, just as the fracking boom in the United States was picking up.

Having heard and seen so much evidence of methane leakage from fracking, I had already assumed that the two were related, but, in this paper, Dr. Howarth explains the evidence by measuring the amount of 13C present, allowing him to determine the part of the global rise in methane related to fracking, most of which was emitted in the United States. The industry tries to tell us that they are controlling methane emissions through detecting and fixing leaks on the wellpads, but there are many other ways in which methane is released, including venting and flaring at the site, especially in areas where the methane is released when the company is primarily drilling for oil; well leakage that develops over time as casings fail; methane that seeps through the ground to the surface, similar to the way radon reaches basements when it originated thousands of feet below; abandoned wells when fractures intersect with them; compressor station leaks and releases; leakage from transmission and delivery pipes, some of which are over 100 years old; and the production, transport, and use of LNG.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide but is relatively short-lived in the atmosphere. This makes reducing it quickly imperative in the effort to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

It is also why the more ambitious climate plans in the United States, such as those of Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders, call for a ban on fracking.

The sooner this happens, the better. The economics of fracking are already poor, with a number of companies going bankrupt because of it. In many markets, renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuel energy already and energy storage technology is progressing rapidly while falling in price. It’s time to ban fracking and new fossil fuel infrastructure and go all in for renewable energy, energy storage, and energy efficiency.

We need to do all we can to keep the planet livable for people and all other life forms. Banning fracking would be a great step in the right direction.

Energy efficiency upgrades

One mistake that many people make in the quest for energy to run the world is assuming that we need more and more energy as populations become more and more developed. This often leads to the supposition that we need more fossil fuels to keep pace because renewable energy can’t be deployed quickly enough to meet demand.

This overlooks that we can live well on less energy if we use it more efficiently. You don’t have to produce ever more (polluting) energy if demand drops. Increasing energy efficiency is the most cost-effective strategy in many instances.

We have been implementing energy efficiency upgrades at our home. We have replaced almost all of our commonly used lights with LEDs or florescents. Our appliances are Energy Star rated. We recently upgraded our hot water heater to a hybrid electric heat pump unit.

Our latest upgrade is foam insulation for our attic and the rim joists in our basement, which should help with our heating and cooling costs.

Lowering your energy usage does not mean you have to be shivering/sweating in the dark! Implementing more efficient devices and better insulation will keep you comfortable while saving energy and money – and create local jobs.

Earth Day

Another in the string of catch-up posts from this spring…

Earth Day was remarkable for us here in New York State for two reasons this year.

First, the vast majority of the countries of the world signed the Paris climate agreement that day at United Nations headquarters in New York City. Of course, this was a remarkable event for the whole world and we all hope that we finally have the political will to follow through on what the science tells us we must do to avert the most catastrophic consequences of global warming while assisting people everywhere to adapt to the effects that are unavoidable and already underway.

Second, just days before a final deadline, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation rejected the water quality certificate application that would have permitted the construction of the Constitution methane pipeline.

Those of us in the environmental community have been battling against the further expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure as part of the fight against global warming. Building pipelines for fossil fuels is akin to building whaling ships as whale oil was being displaced by other lighting sources. It doesn’t make sense to prop up a dying technology.

Unfortunately, the decision in New York came too late to save forests in a 22-mile swath of Pennsylvania, where some land was taken by eminent domain and cleared despite the owners’ objection and the fact that the whole project did not have all the permits needed to move forward. We were especially heartbroken for the Holleran family, who lost the majority of their producing sugar maples.

The pipeline company is trying to challenge the DEC’s decision in court. I sincerely hope that the court upholds the DEC’s action to protect our environment and health.

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