Posts

At MEC, our job is to keep tabs on energy use in the central Midwest, but why should that matter? Because the ways that people and businesses use energy can affect lives. Technology has yet to come up with a solution that moves people and goods without releasing some sort of air pollution, and air pollution affects human health.  The problem is that every power source that can power a vehicle will create emissions and will have a carbon footprinteven electric vehicles.  There are, however, many alternative fuel options that arefar cleaner than gasoline and diesel.  If you’re looking for a vehicle that produces less emissions, there are a lot of factors to consider when making your decision. 

Let’s compare the different ways that the energy we use affects our health. In 2017 the emissions from vehicles on the road passed up the amount of emissions released from power stations.  That switch has shown up as health problems, such as the increase of child asthma cases for families living near highways and railroads.That’s simply because vehicle emissions get concentrated in the air around the places that people and goods get transported. Transportation emissions are now the #1 source of greenhouse gases too, making it globally important to choose our transportation wisely.  For the sake of our local and global health, we must decide to make transportation cleaner. The question now is how. 

For some, their ideal chosen solution is to walk or bike more places, and to only shop for things in stores within walking distance of their house.  But what if you need transportation?  Remember that COVID shutdowns produced sudden, startling air quality improvements the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades.  As residents of Los Angeles and New York saw with their own eyes, less vehicles on the road immediately improved their air quality, even in heavily polluted cities.  But the shutdown of society isn’t a realistic model for fighting climate change in the long run.  Movement of people and goods still must happen.  Are there cleaner solutions than what’s commonly used to move people and goods right now? The simple answer is yes.  For a more complete answer, here are options that make sense for our health, the economy and the environment. 

Electric vehicles (EVs), which plug in to an electrical supply to “fuel up, are creating a lot of buzz right now, and rightly so. All-electric vehicles have zero emissions coming out of their tailpipesso they appear to be the magic bullet for clean air around our roadways.  Plug-in hybrids are also great, in that they make use of electricity as a primary fuel, but are equipped with a fuel tank as a backup for longer trips.  EVs are great as urban or suburban family cars, transit buses, or local delivery trucks that rack up limited daily miles before returning to base to recharge.  Plus, long-range batteries, fast charging stations, and new heavy truck technologies are under rapid development, so the list of compatible uses is getting longer by the day.  

You may not realize that you can help your electrical grid become more efficient with the electricity being generated just by owning an EV and charging it at night.  The electrical grid is set up to estimate how much power is needed, and then generate slightly more than that amount to provide for our electricity needs.  Whatever electricity is generated at power plants either gets used, or it dissipates with non-use.  If you charge an EV overnight, it utilizes that energy that would otherwise be wasted. 

Biofuels are another cleaner transportation option available now.  They come from farm-produced food commodity byproductsthey emit substantially less air pollution when burnedand they’re surprisingly less expensive than the worst emission producers, gasoline and diesel.  Ethanol and biodiesel have been around for a while, and just like your cell phone, their design and our use of them has greatly improved over the last 20 years. 

In the 1990s, car manufacturers started figuring out how to protect the insides of vehicle fuel lines from the extra corrosiveness of ethanol blends, which is basically ethyl alcohol (moonshine!) mixed with gasoline.  By 2012, ethanol had busted into the mainstream, and most vehicle manufacturers now support up to 15% ethanol (E15).  To save money and get a cleaner burn in your vehicle, look for the E15 label on pumps at gas stations.  The added ethanol increases the octane, which is actually better for modern, more fuel-efficient engines.  Plus, the more ethanol mixed into gasoline, the fewer harmful, carcinogenic gases get released into the air around it All of this is why today most gasoline at the pump already has 10% ethanol in it.  You can choose higher blends if your vehicle is rated to use them.  Then it’s a matter of finding a local gas station where that blend is available to support your choice.  When you’re buying a family vehicle and want the option of using high blends of ethanol (E20-E85)ask to look at flex-fuel” options at your dealership Typically, a flex-fuel vehicle will have a yellow gas cap, indicating that you can safely use blends up to 85% ethanol, wherever you should find them. 

Biodiesel is another clean fuel option. It can be used in most diesel-fueled vehicles, and also supports the regional economy as a value-added farm product. It is a renewable fuel made from vegetable oils, primarily soybean and sometimes corn oil, but also from recycled cooking oil and waste fat. No, you can’t just pour the grease from your deep-fried turkey into your pickup. Just like petroleum, it has to be refined first, and biodiesel at the pump has excellent quality controlsMost diesel engines can use blends of biodiesel and petroleum diesel up to 20% (called “B20), which can be found at some area fuel stations. It’s also an easy drop-in fuel option for farming equipment, heavy-duty freight engines, and industrial work trucks. Fortunately for companies with large industrial fleets, fuel distributors are ready today to bring biodiesel or ethanol blends directly to industrial sites. 

Natural gas, or methane, the same fuel that cooks your food and heats your home, can be used in specialized “Near-Zero” engines that are made to burn it Natural gas is a clean burning fuel with much lower emissions than plain petroleum diesel.  It comes in two possible transportation fuel products: compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquid natural gas (LNG).  Both are available in renewable options.  More on that later. Natural gas is widely available through existing pipelines, and fuel costs are lower and more stable than diesel. It’s a great option for heavy vehicles such as freight trucks, transit buses, and refuse trucks. And, because the engines are quieter than diesel engines, that 6 am trash pickup won’t disturb your sleep.  CNG engines eliminate nearly all smog-forming pollutantshence the trade name “Near-Zero” engines While CNG is available to the general public at some area fueling stations and you can convert some cars and trucks to use CNGit usually only makes financial sense for high-mileage vehicles or fuel-hungry service providers to use it.  A number of our regional governments and service providers are already using CNG today. 

Making natural gas more climate-friendly is a priority for many people and government agencies.  The ultimate low-hanging fruit in reducing climate emissions is renewable natural gas (RNG) which involves collecting and then using methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane comes from sources other than just underground and a whopping 39% of natural gas vehicle fuel comes from renewable sources like landfill gas, which comes out of landfills whether it’s used or not.  Other sources of RNG include wastewater treatment plants, food waste and agricultural byproducts Available in both liquid and compressed forms, RNG is rapidly gaining market share because of its ecologically friendly procurement methods Done right, RNG can even have a negative carbon footprint! 

Which fuel heats your grill AND gets your kids to school?  Propane (also called autogas for transportation uses) It’s yet another cleaner burning, low-emission fuel with notably quieter operation than diesel fuel.  That makes for a much quieter ride, which drivers appreciate.  Because of that stealthy qualitypropane is a popular option for fleets of larger vehicles, especially school bus fleets.  Propane on aautogas transportation contract costs much less than diesel, so school districts can save substantially on fuel costs.  Switching to propane also means that students don’t have to breathe diesel exhaust while waiting for their busesPropane is widely available, with distribution networks already in place nationwide.  Like with CNG, you can convert some personal vehicles to run on propaneand though a bit harder to find than gasoline, it is available at some retail fuel stations. Not to be outdone by its gaseous counterpart RNG, renewable propane is an emerging product As icing on the cake, propane engine manufacturers are actively developing their own version of a “near-zero” engine, expected to be available in coming years. 

Though none of these options are ‘perfect’, they each offer substantial benefits compared to conventional fuelslower cost, longer engine life, quieter operationslower emissions, and economic benefits to the farm economy.  Though no single alternative fuel captures all these benefitsthere’s likely an option that’s almost perfect for your needs When more people, businesses and government fleets embrace alternative-fuel options, the owners/operators enjoy lower costs, softer road noise and less air pollution.  And with more investment in alternative fuels, research and development efforts continue to make every available option even better Big picture: petroleum diesel is far and away the worst culprit in making our air harder to breathe.  In order to cut down on the emissions released into the air by our transportation practices, it’s necessary for all of us to recognize and support any and all options. We can’t yet eliminate vehicle emissions, but moving in that direction ifar easier than you might think.  

For more information on alternative fuels and vehicles, check out the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

You have power.   

Your access to energy would have cracked human credulity for most of our species’ time on earth. For millennia, we elbowed away the margins of night with the smoking glow of wood, grass or buffalo chips. Just 200 years ago, whale oil and candles lit the homes of a slowly industrializing world—for those who could afford them. For those who couldn’t, wood remained the main source of light, heat and cooking, along with the coal that drovthat industrialization. Now, in an eye-blink of human history, we have become the beneficiaries of a world in frenzied motion.   

The energy we use never stops moving. It hurtles from point to point at velocities approaching the speed of light. It slowly plows the oceans in ships big enough to dwarf the fever-dreams of Pharaohs. It is explosive coal dust shot into a furnace, feeding flames five stories high hot enough to melt platinum. It is water roaring 600 feet down a pipe, turning a generator the width of a small house 100 times per minute. It is mazes of pipes and conduits, steam and heat, toxic and explosive chemicals, all combining to refine Jurassic sunlight into jet fuel and gasoline. It is today’s sunlight knocking electrons out of their orbits and into batteries and wires. It is the fission of a single uranium atom unleashing enough energy to make a grain of sand visibly jump, triggered by a neutron moving 1.4 miles per second in reactor spaces unimaginably dense with such reactions. This frenzied motion never stops, only occasionally slows, and makes our world—food, music, lighting, medicine, communications, trade, everythingpossible. 

As Americans, how does all this shake out? What drives our nation’s energy system today, and what will that system look like tomorrow? And what kind of future do we face as the consequences of this vast, and amazingly productive disruption become clearer? These are the kinds of questions this continuing series of short essays will try and provide some answers to.   

We are Metropolitan Energy Center. Part of our mission is to present the best information available on energy, its principles, power and drawbacks, whether it’s heating your house or powering your car. We’ll be covering a lot of ground–from the grid to the feedlot, and from alternative fuels to solar technology. We’ll touch directly on the projects we pursue and probe larger questions of energy policy. We hope that in the process we can hold your interest, provide food for thought, and perhaps puncture a few myths about what new technologies can and can’t do.   

Things are already moving fast, and we hope you’ll hop on board for this excursion.

Since January, there’s been a lot of discussion, analysis and 151-proof worry about the COVID virus – understandably.  Viral impacts have produced (in less than six months) the biggest economic implosion since the 1930s, public health lockdowns spanning the planet, and a global death toll of (at this writing) 434,388, with nearly 116,000 of those confirmed deaths in the United States.

As you’d expect, there has also been a certain amount of silver-lining searching.  It’s only natural – as human beings, we look for the lesson, or what we could have done differently or what we might gain in times like these.  And with cars off the road and factories closing down, citizens of cities as remote from one another as Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi looked out the window and realized something truly strange was happening – the air was cleaner than it had been in years, even decades.  This four-minute clip from CBS has visuals that I won’t try to convey via keyboard.  For many, the spectacle of suddenly invisible (a.k.a. “normal”) air was startling.

With that kind of obvious impact, the next Big Question didn’t take long to surface:  if substantially shutting down Normal looks like this, what kind of impact is it having on the climate?  The early returns are in, and the answer is – not much.  NOAA reports globally averaged CO2 content of 417.07 ppm (parts per million) for May – up from 414.65 ppm in May 2019 and 411.24 ppm in May 2018.  There’s science behind this lack of change.  Earth, in effect, breathes – this was Charles Keeling’s great discovery in the late 1950s.  Atmospheric CO2 content rises and falls each year, bottoming out in October as most of Earth’s landmass hasn’t yet released carbon dioxide before the northern winter, and peaking in May before northern hemisphere forests have really begun to reabsorb it.  This means that COVID’s clean air aftereffects hit just as seasonal CO2 growth approached its peak.

Early estimates are that pandemic shutdowns led to an 8% drop in anthropogenic CO2 output, and that it would take 20-30% reductions for at least six months to put a dent in atmospheric readings.  As climatologist Katherine Hayhoe notes, imagine all the carbon we’ve put into the atmosphere as a pile of bricks.  We’ve been piling them up for about 250 years, more or less, and cutting a slice from latest brick dropped on top of the pile doesn’t make that much of a difference.  And we’re already seeing a rapid rebound in human CO2 output; “Things have happened very quickly”, in the words of one climatologist tracking current conditions as economic activity ramps back up again.

So if even something as disastrous as COVID can’t substantially alter the pace at which CO2 continues to pile up in the planet’s atmosphere, what will?  And if all the efforts made to clean up our energy act to date haven’t materially changed things, what can?  It would be easy to throw up our hands and assume that this spring’s lack of substantive results represents something permanent.

It doesn’t.

We are at an inflection point in how we produce and use energy and the pace of change is only accelerating.  Coal, the dirtiest source of electricity, is dying in multiple major economies.  June 10th marked 61 straight days that the United Kingdom didn’t generate one kilowatt from coal.  COVID has cut demand, so that and an unusually sunny May are part of the story, but the UK’s power grid has fundamentally changed.  A kilowatt of electricity cost as much as 600 grams of CO2 in 2012 – this spring, as little as 125.  And this took place even as the country’s population grew from 64.5 million in 2012 to 68.9 million this year.  In the US, electric output from all renewables surpassed electricity from coal for the first time since the 1880s, and coal has essentially collapsed as a utility fuel – from a peak in 2008 at around 23 quads (Quadrillion BTUs), it’s now producing around 12 quads, as the graph at the link above powerfully illustrates.

And it isn’t just a question of generating electricity.  Large-scale battery storage, a long-time dream of clean power advocates, is expanding rapidly.  15 small-scale 9.95 MWh systems will support peak generation while smoothing out price spikes in Texas, and the state symbolized by the oil rig is already the nation’s leading wind generator.  In California, PG&E is negotiating 1.7 GWh of storage with the state – more than ten times the power of the Texas sites mentioned above.  Perhaps the single most striking change is the cost of solar energy;  between 1980 and 2012, the cost of solar modules fell by a stunning 97%, and those costs keep dropping, just as solar cell efficiencies climb to as high as 47% in some experimental designs.  Underpinning all of this is a simple, unignorable fact – renewables are now less expensive than fossil energy sources.  Markets are responding – unevenly in some locations, swiftly in others but responding all the same.

The task that remains is immense.  There is considerable doubt whether the goal of limiting further warming to 1.5 degrees C to avoid the worst of potential climate damage can be reached.  There isn’t all that much time left.  Lofty pledges of zero-emission goals by companies and countries by 2050 are fine, but we’ve already used up 1.5% of the time remaining between 2020 and 2050 to achieve those goals.  And yet, for the first time, there now appear to be enough tools on the bench – technological and economic – to let us get started on meaningful work.

So where, as COVID redefines economies and politics, is the renewable energy sector?  What happens over the next few years – to technologies, investments, deployments and incentives – will determine multiple trajectories.  These include the jobs of millions of people, how quickly carbon accumulates in the atmosphere and oceans, and the possibility of stranded assets hampering any rapid, substantive switch from old to new.

If you’re thinking purely in terms of dollars and cents, the latest issue of Forbes has a fascinating article.  A joint study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and Imperial College London reviewed returns on energy investments starting in 2009.  Combining German and French stock market data, the past five years showed returns of 178% for renewables and -20.7% for fossil energy.  UK renewable stocks returned over 75%, legacy energy 8.8%.  Here at home, where utility-scale renewable buildouts began later than in Europe, renewable returns were north of 200%, while oil, gas and coal stocks didn’t quite double.  Renewable investments proved more stable over the same periods measured.  But the same article notes that the biggest fossil energy shareholders – pension funds – are reluctant to disinvest from dividend-rich stocks.

Beyond that, an ostensible renewable energy transition is up against multiple countervailing factors – for starters $900 billion or more in potential “stranded assets” of global fossil energy companies.  The oil majors have talked a good game for years now, but the numbers don’t bear out their proclaimed commitments to renewables.  Exxon is now in court for, among other things, bragging on its green energy tech while spending less than ½ of 1% of revenues on renewable energy.  In 2019, BP projected spending between 3% and 8% (at best) of capex on renewables, and in February the company dumped an advertising campaign highlighting renewables.  And so on.

American utilities face the same kinds of stranded asset risks, though only 18% of utility employees view sunk costs in infrastructure as a top worry.  But power plants can be ferociously expensive to build.  Evergy’s Iatan 2 project, which went online nearly 10 years ago, came in at nearly $2 billion, with state-of-the-art environmental retrofits of the Iatan 1 plant adding to costs.  It can take large projects like this decades to pay for themselves; securitizing early retirement of fossil fuel plants can blunt risks to utilities, but so far has only been tried in three states.

Even bigger picture – there’s a substantial inertia built into an energy economy created more than 100 years ago – a vast, complex system that works remarkably well to meet the needs of its customers.  To date, renewables are still a small slice of total US electricity output.  In 2018, natural gas generated about 35% of our electricity, coal about 27%, nuclear a bit over 19% and all renewables, including hydroelectric, not quite 17%, with niche sources making up the rest.

To be clear, renewable energy’s recent eclipse of coal in the US has been remarkable.  In fact, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced the very day this was written that in 2019 consumption of energy produced from renewables passed that produced by coal, the first time per EIA that this has happened since before 1885.  But a decarbonized energy economy is still decades away.  The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that to even approach climate goals, renewables must increase to around 65% of global Total Primary Energy Supply by 2050 – and we’re nowhere close to that yet.  More on all of the above, COVID impacts and the state of play in our next renewable installment.

Written by David VanderGriend – This post also appeared in the Kansas City Star

A startling reality has surfaced from the coronavirus health crisis: Pollution has been significantly reduced in recent weeks during the shutdown. Whether in New Delhi, Kansas City, New York, or Beijing, less driving has resulted in cleaner air. Vistas that previously were only foggy images have burst through as crystal clear pictures of what clean air actually looks like. If we thought we were cleaning the air before, we now see we can do better.

The fact that reduced driving equates to reduced pollution is not a surprise to many of us in the fuel business who have studied and understand the negative aspects of our reliance on petroleum alone. And it relates to a second disturbing reality: Minority communities are disproportionately contracting COVID 19 because of the poor air quality resulting from the traffic congestion of the inner cities.

In establishing the Urban Air Initiative, our objective was to improve fuel quality, while recognizing that eliminating the internal combustion engine is neither an immediate nor practical strategy to reducing pollution. With more than 260 million cars registered in the U.S., we will continue to rely on gasoline for the foreseeable future — but we can identify the most harmful components of gasoline and replace them. Ethanol, for example, is a superior substitute for the family of benzene octane gas additives that produce microscopic particulates and are linked to a range of respiratory and other ailments.

In naming our organization the Urban Air Initiative, we did so knowing urban areas are disproportionately subject to harmful auto emissions, and that they are where the most help is needed.

And who lives in urban areas? The very minority groups feeling the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. New York City reports that inner city minorities are experiencing the highest fatalities from COVID-19, and Midwest cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee are similarly affected. So an obvious question is whether these people were predisposed to getting sick by virtue of simply living in urban areas. Our research has always suggested that is the case, but a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health is one of many research efforts that come to this conclusion.

The most important finding of the study is that people living in counties in the U.S. that have experienced a higher level of air pollution as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency over the past 15 to 17 years have a substantially higher COVID-19 mortality rate. And we believe pollution is much, much worse than what the EPA measures. Particulates associated with coal fired power plants or diesel fuel are just part of the story. Much smaller “ultra-fine” particulates that are literally microscopic are essentially unregulated and unreported.

In our correspondence with the EPA, the agency has conceded its modeling fails to capture these tiny particles and their precursors. It has long been understood that fine particulates linger in the air and travel great distances, with data showing anyone within 300 yards of a congested roadway is exposed. Now imagine the impact in an urban area, be it midsize Kansas City or mega-size New York, where pedestrians are within mere feet of automobiles on every corner and tall buildings trap the emissions. Now enters the coronavirus, attacking the same respiratory system that has long been compromised by near-roadway exposure.

The Harvard study pulls no punches in coming to its conclusions: “The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution. … The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”

The takeaway here is that this is of course a nationwide problem, but it is most concentrated in our cities. All Americans — minority or not — need to understand they were already at risk, and will continue to be until we reduce emissions and improve our fuels.

David VanderGriend is president of the 501(c)(4) nonprofit Urban Air Initiative in Colwich, Kansas. Urban Air Initiative is a member of MEC.