Can a National Leave-No-Fuel-Behind Clean Energy Standard Drive Serious Emissions Reductions?

President Obama sets a new goal: generate 80% of U.S. electricity by clean energy sources by 2035. Source:

Last Tuesday, in his second official State of the Union address, President Obama signaled a new approach on energy – one clearly calculated to attract the widest possible support in the 112th Congress.

It sounds like this:

[C]lean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.  So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal:  By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources.

The President’s remarks echo recent Washington chatter about a federal “clean energy standard” – a target for how much electricity must be generated from renewable sources and other fuels supposed to be clean, at least relative to the traditional coal plants that currently produce 45 percent of the nation’s power. A clean energy standard, many analysts argue, would appease Republicans who favor coal with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and nuclear power. And although natural gas has yet to find the champions in Congress that coal and nuclear have, the natural gas industry believes that their fuel should not be left out of a renewable or clean energy standard either.

For his part, the President seems willing to consider almost anything, as long as it can deliver the critical votes that eluded efforts in the last Congress to pass a climate and energy bill—or at least a national renewable energy standard.

Some folks want wind and solar.  Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas.  To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

President Obama’s “we will need them all” energy strategy has an obvious logic in a politically divided Washington. But is political feasibility a good enough reason to pass a national clean energy standard?

It was just last September that Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced legislation creating a national renewable energy standard (RES), a measure which garnered support from 34 senators from both sides of the aisle. This RES would have created a goal of generating 15 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable energy by 2021, Renewable energy was defined to include solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean, geothermal, municipal solid waste, and new hydroelectric generation, and up to 4 of the 15 percent could come from energy efficiency savings. In 2009, non-hydro renewables provided just 3.6 percent of U.S. electricity.

A properly designed national RES would build on the renewable portfolio standards and goals now in place in 32 states and the District of Columbia, creating a national minimum that would bring in the states, many in the staunchly nuclear- and coal-oriented Southeast, that have not so far been inclined to develop renewable portfolio standards on their own.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from one such state, South Carolina, countered Bingaman’s bill with a proposal for a national “clean energy standard” (CES), which sounded like an RES (20 percent by 2020, 50 percent by 2050), but would allow two additional power generation technologies to qualify: nuclear power and coal plants with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Clean energy standards are not without precedent – Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and West Virginia already have what are essentially clean energy standards, allowing utilities to meet their obligations with the likes of so-called “clean” coal technologies (OH, PA, MI, and WV), advanced nuclear power (OH), and even natural gas (WV). Ohio’s portfolio standard, the only one to be more than a couple years old, may have played a role in encouraging new plans to build 483 MW of additional wind turbines—a figure that would increase Ohio’s wind capacity by over 4000 percent.

If an ambitious national CES could be crafted with a substantial carve-out for truly clean and renewable electricity (a feature of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania’s standards), some analysts argue that RES-supporters would be conceding little. It would likely take more than a decade to build a new nuclear plant, and experts believe that it will be at least a decade before “clean coal” technology is ready for commercial use. If a clean energy standard included Obama’s target of 80 percent by 2035, it would help focus the country’s power industry on the need to drastically reduce its dependence on dirty coal.  Given the rapid decline in the cost of solar and wind power now underway, renewables might well be the clean energy option that most utilities choose.

On the other hand, it is not clear that a national clean energy standard along the lines that Senator Graham originally proposed would do much to accelerate the energy transformation that is so desperately needed in the United States. For example, the senator’s home state of South Carolina already generates 52 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, making a clean energy target of 20 percent by 2020 fairly meaningless. While the uneven geographic distribution of renewable resources around the country may preclude one-size-fits-all RES, it would be a mistake to compromise on a CES that allowed states too much flexibility.

Adding natural gas to a CES would add an additional layer of complexity. While natural gas plants do provide significant carbon dioxide savings over coal, and we believe they have an important role to play in a low-carbon energy economy, they produce more emissions than do renewable sources such as wind and solar. Moreover, natural gas already provides 24 percent of the country’s electricity—second only to coal—a share that is expected to increase rapidly without the help of a mandate.  The U.S. already has dozens of relatively efficient, under-utilized natural gas-fired power plants and an abundant supply of domestic natural gas. If the point of a CES is, as Obama says, so “businesses will know there’s a market for what they’re selling,” it’s difficult to make the case that natural gas needs the support of a CES—other policies could encourage coal-to-natural gas switching without intruding on a market share that would otherwise be set aside for renewable energy.

The real question is this: will we gain more than we lose with a national CES? Even in its absence, states with a renewable portfolio standard or goal in 2009 represented 57 percent of U.S. electricity generation.  An additional 13 percent was generated in states with an “alternative” or clean energy standard. Of the remaining 14 states, Florida, the largest generator, is currently developing a renewable portfolio standard. Some of these states’ policies are more ambitious than others, but all give cause for optimism in the states’ abilities to demonstrate leadership on clean energy.

A national standard, whether an RES or CES, that incentivizes each state to invest seriously in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its power sector and includes an ambitious target for truly renewable technologies would be a major step forward for the United States’ clean energy industries—industries that are quickly being left behind by their counterparts in Europe and Asia, where governments have sent clear, sustained signals supporting new energy technologies. Whether this Congress will prove capable of passing such a standard, however, remains very much in question.

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Green Design Faces Gray Reality for China’s “Eco-Cities”


By Haibing Ma and Lini Fu  

China has launched more than 100 ”Eco-City” initiatives in recent years, according to a 2009 World Bank report—more than any other country worldwide. These efforts have proven to be an investment hot zone and appear to be a timely mechanism for building China’s sustainable future, particularly as the country urbanizes rapidly. But actually implementing these diverse projects has hit its own sustainability snags, putting a halt to or even shelving several initiatives and putting many others in serious question. 

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Finnish professor Eero Paloheimo, in his pioneering book on the concept, Syntymättömien sukupolvien Eurooppa (The Way Towards a New Europe), observes that most existing theories and designs for Eco-Cities worldwide share a common goal: to enhance the wellbeing of citizens and society through integrated urban planning and management that fully harnesses the benefits of ecological systems, and protects and nurtures these assets for future generations. According to Paloheimo, an Eco-City should embrace the two basic features of: 

  • Being economical in all aspects, and
  • Releasing no pollution to its surroundings.

Paloheimo is, not surprisingly, a major force behind several of China’s Eco-City initiatives, including the Tianjin Eco-City project, which is being co-developed with Singapore’s government and is widely viewed as one of the most promising of these efforts. The Tianjin municipal government hopes to build a self-sustaining, 30-square-kilometer city that could accommodate 350,000 residents within 10 to 15 years. As of the end of 2010, some 14 residential community projects were under development in this “land of hope,” with a goal of welcoming the first group of “green citizens” in the second half of 2011. 

Other projects face dimmer futures. China’s first Eco-City project, Dong Tan district on the nation’s third largest island (Chong Ming), has failed to accomplish its phase-I goal of building a residential “green-design” community that can hold at least 10,000 residents. Even after a three-year delay in launching, the project hadn’t placed a single brick on the ground by the end of 2010. Wan Zhuang, another Eco-City project that two years ago set out to achieve the highest sustainability standards, now boasts only a crumbling, cocoon-like structure to remind visitors of its grand ambitions (see photo on right and read this contrast of plan versus reality [in Chinese]). Other Eco-City projects across China, as eye-catching as their development plans are, have seen little progress beyond blueprints on paper. 

Maybe it is still too early to draw conclusions, but it isn’t hard to be concerned about the future of these projects—especially about whether they can actually live up to the Eco-City indicators articulated by Professor Paloheimo. 

It’s not that the designs themselves are not “green” or that local governments haven’t been actively involved. According to its development plan, the Wan Zhuang project aims to be 100-percent powered by renewable sources and to have a completely closed system for water and waste recycling. Similarly, Dong Tan aims to achieve a 60 percent energy savings, 88 percent water savings, and 83 percent reduction in solid waste compared with the average Chinese city. Local governments, too, have been desperately reaching out, seeking investment for these projects and advertising their “bright futures.” 

In short, the goals are appropriately aligned and the support is there. So what is hindering local officials from implementing certain projects, particularly in a government-driven society like China? 

The reality, of course, is that like many countries, China is far more complex than it appears at first glance. Sustainable development plans, like the Eco-City projects spread across the country, ultimately depend on the sustainability of the policymaking process itself and the relevant support system. 

It’s likely that most of China’s Eco-City projects are facing at least one of the following challenges:  

Shifting political leadership  

In China, dedicated support from a top political leader can make a huge difference to any local or regional project. A common characteristic of the existing Eco-City projects is that they all were blessed with enthusiastic endorsement from local heads of government, which explained the quick launch of these projects in the first place. However, given that a Eco-City initiative typically takes at least a decade or more to carry out, this high-level support needs to be continuous throughout the deployment period. 

In most cases, Chinese local officials, especially those in the top ranks (i.e., Secretary-Generals of local party committees and/or local mayors) have service terms of five years, and can serve for a maximum of two terms. So if a local leader resigns or is transferred elsewhere, this could signal termination of the local Eco-City development plan that the leader originally supported. This happened to the Dong Tan project when former Mayor and Party Secretary-General of Shanghai, Chen Liangyu, was removed from his position in 2006 due to corruption charges. Dong Tan has since had trouble bringing in additional investment to continue the project, and  some previously committed investment was withdrawn because donors did not want to be connected with projects supported by a convicted leader. 

Even in times of normal, smooth leadership transition, the policy continuation problem might persist because succeeding leaders wish to promote their own agendas rather than carrying on inherited unfinished projects. In this regard, all of China’s ongoing Eco-City projects will face a “destiny test” once the current leaders are no longer in power. 

Non-green incentives  

Green design never comes free. Large-scale development projects like Eco-Cities require significant investment that generally exceeds the financial capacity of local governments. As a result, governments typically bid out the development rights to business groups, which are tasked with investing in and building out components of the project under the government’s macro-management. Out of self-interest, business developers tend to start with sub-projects that guarantee the quickest and highest return on investment, which in the current economic situation usually means residential housing units. 

It’s no wonder, then, that most ongoing Eco-City initiatives are actually real estate projects. Some are indeed built in adherence with strict green codes, but others are purely commercial facilities with no specific environmental or ecological goals. For example, there were reports (see one of the report here [in Chinese]) that some of the projects under Wan Zhuang Eco-City’s development plan were actually for private golf clubs. Moreover, because many of the residential communities that have been built with concrete environmental standards are significantly more expensive than their non-green counterparts, China’s Eco-Cities might eventually become enclaves for high-income households only. This raises the question of whether this is in line with Eco-City principles, or, more profoundly, whether access to green goods or services creates an unjustified gap between urban dwellers.  

A convenient truth  

The fact that China’s existing Eco-City projects tend to focus largely on real estate development also raises a quality-control question at the conceptual level: does a green-designed residential community even count as an Eco-City? By definition, a city should be able to accommodate a full range of functions covering all the major aspects of its residents’ work and life. Under Paloheimo’s definition, an Eco-City is designed to be a closed system (on the resource and material level) and doesn’t address such qualification questions. 

Maybe the Eco-City concept isn’t really relevant when applied to existing cities. But in China’s case, where a significant share of these projects is based on the development of previously non-existent city districts, the question becomes crucial. It’s hard to imagine an Eco-City where most of its population would have to travel in-and-out of city bounds frequently to earn a living (green or otherwise). 

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Reviewing all of the so-called “Eco-City” initiatives on China’s map (see right), we couldn’t help but notice that this moniker is being conveniently added to any urban development plan, as long as the planned municipality boasts some “low-carbon economic sectors” such as tourism, recreation, and information technology, and that it vows to depend to some degree on renewable energy and a closed-cycle material management system. 

If this is accomplished and operates strictly as planned, then these newly built cities might generate minimum or even zero environmental impact. But it seems that none of these plans opted to internalize the wider costs associated with urban development, specifically the tremendous materials and energy needed to build up the infrastructure of these Eco-Cities. Certainly, tourism or recreation alone would generate far fewer carbon emissions. But if the environmental and energy costs of developing these low-carbon sectors were included, it is unlikely that any of these Eco-City projects (from a life-cycle perspective) could achieve carbon neutrality, much less their intended goals of reduced carbon emissions and energy use. 

Bigger ecological concerns  

Even if life-cycle analysis proved that China’s Eco-City projects themselves would result in near-zero environmental impacts, these efforts would likely present other ecological impacts that are not currently factored into the equation. Developing a new Eco-City could easily eat up hundreds of square kilometers of land that might be of indispensable ecological or other value to China or the world. One of the reasons that the Dong Tan project was put on hold is that the planned Eco-City would have been built on valuable farmland, which China is now viewing as a strategic asset in terms of food security. 

In addition, Dong Tan is an important stopover for migratory birds, including 12 endangered species and dozens of other birds listed in the National Protected Animal Catalog. The potential impacts on migration patterns of the region’s Eco-City and other large-scale urban planning projects has yet to be assessed. In 1998, years before the inception of the Eco-City, more than 326 square kilometers of Dong Tan was established as a National Nature Reserve to protect area wetlands—a potential conflict that local government officials must have been aware of before they started conceiving the Eco-City idea. 

In principle, cities can be ecologically or environmentally friendly, but a long-term green vision alone is not enough. Project implementers and local officials need to pay special attention to the steps that they are taking to achieve those goals. Most importantly, green concepts like Eco-Cities should not be used as an advertising tactic to attract outside investment for less environmentally friendly, more traditional development. In short, to build a sustainable future, the approaches and processes being utilized should be sustainable in practice as well. 

Worldwatch Institute is dedicated to exploring a comprehensive green economy approach that addresses the full range of sustainability issues such as climate change, resource degradation, population growth, and rural development. With support from the Finnish government, the Institute is specifically examining China’s green economy potential and its future role in helping other developing countries pursue sustainable development. We will release our first report on the topic this spring. We welcome the opportunity to continue working closely with regional and local governments in China to help build a green future in a sustainable way.

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