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COVID, Carbon and Clean Energy

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.

COVID-19 Impacts: Ethanol and Its Discontents

Carnage in the conventional energy sector has drawn a lot of attention in the past few weeks.  But the collapse of recent months was presaged by mediocre performance stretching back literally years.  Total returns for the Standard & Poor Energy Sector for 2019, including dividends, were a paltry 6%.  And for the entire decade of 2010-2019, the same sector was up 34%, by far the worst performance of the 11 sectors S&P tracks.  The fracking revolution, it turns out, created a world awash in oil and gas, but didn’t do much to help the industry that created it.

Which brings us to a related question – if oil & gas are in trouble from COVID-19 and from a decade of overproduction and low prices, what has the ongoing turmoil done to alternative fuels?  In particular, since KC Clean Cities operates in the biofueled, beating heart of the Midwest, what’s happened to biodiesel and (particularly) ethanol?

A bit of backstory:   more than 95% of vehicle gasoline sold in the US is a 10% ethanol blend.  There are several reasons for this.  Until about 15 years ago, a compound known as MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether) was blended with gasoline to add oxygen.  As a result, gasoline burned cleaner, and cut smog-forming chemicals and toxins like benzene in exhaust.  But there were problems – MTBE leaked into groundwater from gas station tanks, creating water quality problems.  Moreover, it’s listed as a potential carcinogen.  Enter ethanol, exit MTBE with the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Like MTBE, ethanol adds oxygen to gasoline and cuts smog-forming emissions.  Unlike MTBE, it’s also a way for America to deal with its massive agricultural surpluses by distilling a value-added product from corn. (It’s worth noting that ethanol now accounts for 40% of all the corn we grow.)

With the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, Congress created a mandate that steadily increasing amounts of renewables would be blended into America’s fuel supply – 36 billion gallons by 2022.  This is the Renewable Fuels Standard, which has been hotly debated over the last few years in Washington and elsewhere.

So far so good.  Refineries and fuel importers had a choice – they could blend steadily increasing amounts of renewable fuels.  Or, if they didn’t want to, they could use RINs – Renewable Inventory Numbers – attached to each gallon of renewable fuel produced.  Pecos Pete’s refinery has already hit their required volume of ethanol blended with gasoline for the year, but they keep on blending.  Why?  Because Brownsville Bob’s refinery hasn’t blended any ethanol into their gasoline.  However, Bob can stay in compliance by buying RINs from Pecos Pete, with the price set by the RIN market.

There’s also been a safety valve built into the system, called the Small Refinery Exemption or SRE.  “Small” is relative, but refineries with less than 75,000 barrels per day as of 2006 qualify, and can petition EPA to be excused from renewable fuel blending.  And this is where the fur begins to fly.  Between 2016 and 2018, the EPA granted a total of 85 small refinery exemptions, a big jump that removed a total of 4 billion gallons of mandated demand from the market.  This has been a sore spot with farmers, but hardly the only one.  The ongoing trade war with China has dried up what was a major market for ethanol, corn and distiller’s grain, a byproduct of the ethanol production process used as animal feed.  Allowing year-round sales of E-15 – that is, gasoline that is 15% ethanol by volume hasn’t made much of a dent, since relatively few gas stations sell it even though all light-duty gasoline vehicles 2001 or newer are approved to use E15.

And now, COVID.  Just as Texas and Oklahoma oil producers and refineries don’t have any place left to store their crude and refined products as consumer demand collapses, ethanol producers are running out of storage.  Federal Reserve research shows US ethanol production down nearly 50% since the beginning of 2020.  73 out of 200 total plants nationwide are shut down, while another 71 are on reduced production schedules.  At least two dozen ethanol plants are now producing alcohol for hand sanitizer, but at low volume, much of which will be donated anyway.

For the time being, the sector seems to be shaking its way into stasis.  Whatever shape the ethanol industry takes in 2021 and beyond will depend for now on what the virus does– and how we respond – in 2020.

For additional details on why this matters, please check out our guest blog posting by David VanderGriend of the Urban Air Institute.  Fuel blending standards can sound arcane, and the details of ethanol and corn and agriculture seem like something taking place in distant, rural counties.  They’re not.  They impact the lives of residents of metro Kansas City every day, and at the fundamental level of our own health.

Higher COVID-19 fatality rates among urban minorities come down to air pollution

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.