Just minutes after I published my last post, I received an update from EENews that Senators Kerry and Lieberman have submitted their energy and climate bill to the EPA for review, a multiple week process that must be completed before the bill can be discussed on the Senate floor. This step gives me hope that this bill will be debated and voted on soon.
The energy and climate baton has been held by the Senate since last June, after the House passed their own bill (H.R. 2454). Over the past several months, the baton has been carried by three Senators:
- Lieberman – an Independent from Connecticut
- Kerry – a Democrat from Massachusetts (also the home state of Representative Markey, a primary author on the House bill)
- Graham – a Republican from South Carolina
Their work has been a commendable effort – three individuals with significant differences with regard to basic political ideologies working together to develop an energy and climate bill that each could live with. In a government that (from the outside looking in) still appears heavily entrenched in partisan politics, these three gentlemen’s efforts gave rise to the hope that we could – united as a country – successfully develop the legislation that will lead our country to the sustainable energy future that will be key in our continued success as a world power.
The past week has brought these hopes to a sharp precipice, where all but the most dedicated appear ready to let go of their hopes for comprehensive energy and climate legislation before midterm elections hit this November. This shift occurred as Americans watched the third musketeer, Senator Graham, step away from the table just days prior to the planned release of the bill. His reason for walking away from this process – his belief that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was going to put immigration reform ahead of energy and climate on the legislative docket.
Immigration reform has long been on President Obama’s agenda. It is not a new topic – having been explored in past administrations (we still have not forgotten the Bush border fence). But, until Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer but pen to paper on Friday, immigration reform had not been the top item on the congressional to-do list. Her state’s controversial immigration law has drawn America’s fire, being called “hysterical naitivism” that puts the conservative border state “at risk of becoming a police state” and at the same time attracts support from 70% of Arizona residents according to a recent poll. Regardless of your position on Arizona’s law, there is no doubt that it has heated up the push toward federal immigration policy reform.
Senator Graham has long been an advocate for immigration reform and expects to be involved in the process, which he believes may not be a feasible option given his time commitments to energy and climate legislation. He further justified stepping away from his work with Senators Kerry and Lieberman in part through voicing his belief that immigration reform would be put ahead of energy and climate on the legislative docket because of Senator Reid’s personal agenda for his reelection campaign this fall. According to the White House, it is more likely that Senator Graham walked away because of pressure from conservatives.
According to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, energy and climate legislation from the three Senators is still a priority in front of immigration reform if nothing else than because of the simple fact that the Senate has been working on this topic for longer, and losing momentum now would be detrimental to the future success of this legislation.
A commentary piece on CNN today, written by environmental economics Professor Andrew Kleit at Penn State.
A few excerpts:
“The reality is our economy is set up to burn coal for electricity and gasoline for cars, and moving away from this will be difficult, time consuming, and will compel consumers to decide whether they think it is worth it.”
“If we want to address our country’s energy concerns, we have to be willing to face one important fact: that creating such solutions will not be cheap. Different forms of energy are available, but using them will result in raising our electricity and gasoline bills significantly.”
Dr. Kleit presents an interesting discussion on how the shift to a green energy economy comes at a cost – and how that cost influences our willingness to shift toward a cleaner energy future.
For my part, I would argue that while shifting to clean and renewable energy resources may be more expensive in the short-term (without carbon legislation), in the long-term it will be must less costly both from a direct economic standpoint and even more dramatically when the health benefits are included into the equation (health of our bodies and health of our earth).
One year ago, I participated in my first radio interview with Dialectica Radio (91.7 FM here in Austin). The topic was Shaping the Energy Technology Transition and the discussion included policy recommendations for a comprehensive federal energy and climate policy. These recommendations were developed over a two semester (9 month) period by 13 graduate students. This was less time than it has now taken the federal government to move from passing the House energy and climate bill (H.R. 2454) and (almost) proposing the Senate bill (authored by Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham).
The development of our recommendations occurred in a similar fashion to that in D.C. over the past year. Republicans, Democrats, Independents – all together in a room, hashing out ideological differences to obtain a compromise that would achieve the group’s goals in a way that folks could live with. There were some heated moments – and a lot of discussion, evaluation, and compromise. At the end of the 9 month project, we prepared a report that topped the 200 page mark. Quite an achievement – we felt – for a bunch of grad students.
To check out the archived recording, you can go here
Today was supposed to be the day that the Senate unveiled its long anticipated energy and climate bill. This revealing had been in the works for months, originally planned to be announced on the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (a.k.a. last Thursday). It was postponed until today, but over the weekend unrelated immigration reform discussions derailed it once again. Instead of announcing a momentus accomplishment, an energy and climate bill to debate in the Senate, Senators Kerry & Lieberman are running around trying to prevent the implosion of the bill. I, for one, hope they can hold on.
Why did this happen?
It appears that the missing musketeer,Senator Graham (Republican – South Carolina) has run for the hills in a huff over immigration reform, citing rumor than Senator Reid would prioritize immigration reform over the energy and climate bill discussion. I won’t argue here whether or not Senator Graham’s angry response to these rumors coupled with Arizona’s immigration reform bill, which was signed by the state’s Governor on Friday, was justified. What I will say is that I’m saddened and disheartened by the fact that Senator Graham feels justified in walking away from the energy and climate effort, if he truly believed and supported the overarching meaning of this type of reform in the first place.
Is his response really about immigration?
Or, was Senator Graham just looking for a way out?
From where I’m sitting, the latter seems to be one of the few logical explanations for his behavior.
We use water to create usable energy and energy to create usable water.
Water and energy, energy and water – inextricably linked.
In the United States, we predominately generate electricity in large power plants that burn fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) to generate heat. This heat is used to boil water to make steam and it is this steam that is used to generate electricity by turning a turbine linked to a generator. In this process we end up with a lot of excess heat, which we can’t use in the turbine (they only work with super high-quality steam, meaning we end up with a lot of steam that they can’t use without being damaged). To get rid of this heat, cooling is required.
While this process is fascinating, let’s get to the bottom line –
getting rid of heat = cooling = lots and lots of water
Getting rid of all of the excess heat generated in power generation requires water – and even though we’ve become very efficient at condensing this water to prevent excess evaporation, some of this water will be consumed. This water will be evaporated into the air and will eventually rain down to the earth again at some other location. But, it is highly unlikely that this water will rain down in the same area in which it was evaporated. As our power plants aren’t easily relocated, this shifting of water resources is quite a hefty price.
The end result – we consume a LOT of water to make electricity. What do I mean by a lot?
An average household in Austin uses 1,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity every month. If this electricity came from a natural gas plant, this household would have also consumed 223 gallons of water during the same month. For coal, this almost doubles to 426 gallons. Nuclear – 600 gallons. Every time we turn on our computer, heat up leftovers or turn on the lights, we are evaporating water.
The Sweetwater coal plant that I wrote about on Tuesday will use a dry cooling system, meaning it uses air instead of water for its cooling needs. While this method of cooling saves water, it also decreases power plant efficiency meaning you have to burn more fuel (for example coal) to get the same amount of electricity. For water constrained areas, this may still be an acceptable tradeoff. However, this increase in fuel use has a corresponding increase in greenhouse gas emissions and in the final cost of the electricity generated. This plant will still need water to run its carbon capture system.
As we move into our energy future, we cannot forget the water implications of our choices. The good news is that renewable energy sources like solar and wind take little or no water to generate electricity. We can shift our energy use to preserve our precious water resources.
Yesterday, EDF and Tenaska Inc. signed an agreement that ensures that EDF will not stand in the way of the facility’s permits as long as the plant meets conditions regarding air emissions and water use.
The agreement between EDF and Tenaska requires the new Trailblazer Energy Center to capture 85% of its carbon dioxide emissions, presumably through carbon capture and storage technology (CCS). This technology is a foundation in the clean coal concept, capturing these greenhouse gases before they are emitted into the air. The captured gas is then stored underground in existing geological formations or in huge tanks (a very unattractive and expensive option compared to underground geologic storage). This way, the gases don’t contribute to global climate change because they are not actually released in the air. CCS discussions normally revolve around a 90% capture rate, so the Trailblazer capture rate will be fairly aggressive.
The proposed coal power plant has also agreed to only obtain 2,000 acre-feet of water (about 657 million gallons) per year from “outside sources.” As CCS technology increases the water needs of an already thirsty coal power technology, this agreement is even more significant. A typical coal plant consumes 426 gallons of water per megawatt-hour of electricity that it generates. This means that, if the Trailblazer facility runs 80% of the time (typical for a Texas coal plant) it will use 1.7 billion gallons of water per year (this value is certainly higher with CCS technology). The Sweetwater plant will use a dry cooling system where air is used instead of water to cool the system. This will make each kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces more expensive (dry cooling is less efficient than the cooling systems we typically use). But, it has the advantage of drastically lowering the water requirements of the plant.
With this go-ahead, Tenaska Inc. has announced its plans to break ground on this facility in 2011 to supply its first megawatt-hour in 2015.