Recent legislative proposals in a number of states across the country have reignited the debate over how  ‘sustainable’ hydropower actually is,  and if it is truly emissions free. California’s Assembly Bill 1771, which was rejected in the state legislature this past April, would have allowed large hydropower facilities to contribute toward state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). As a growing number of states establish increasingly ambitious targets for shares of energy production from renewable sources, there has been ongoing discussion about what types of hydropower should be included in these RPS schemes.

In the United States, state regulators divide hydro into two categories – small and large – depending on the facility’s installed generating capacity. For example, California considers any facility with at least 30 megawatts (MW) of capacity to be ‘large hydro’. Currently, utilities in most states can count only ‘small hydro’ toward RPS targets.

Zipingpu Dam in China's Sichuan Province

California’s Assembly Bill 1771 is neither the first nor the only proposal of its kind. As states that have implemented RPS programs scramble to reach their renewable energy targets, the movement to count large hydro towards these goals has gained momentum.  Similar bills have been proposed in California in the past, as well as in Minnesota. North Dakota currently counts all hydropower in its RPS, including power imported from Manitoba, but stipulates that large hydro facilities must have been placed in service on or after Dec. 31, 2010. Wisconsin will allow utilities to count hydropower from large facilities starting in 2015. 

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carbon sinks, hydropower, large hydro, low-carbon, renewable energy, renewables, small hydro, sustainability

Last Sunday marked the first anniversary of an unprecedented catastrophe that struck northern Japan. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami—triggered by a major earthquake—swept into the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, disabling the cooling capabilities of three of the plant’s oldest reactors. In the days and weeks that followed, as workers struggled to cool and dismantle the plant, reactors 1, 2, and 3 went into meltdown. A series of explosions and fires led to the release of radioactive gas, and fears of contamination ultimately prompted the evacuation of approximately 100,000 people from the immediate area; some 30,000 may never be able to return to their homes.

The Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, 25 March 2011 (Source: econews)

The first anniversary of this horrific event—the worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl accident in 1986—is a time to commemorate the more than 20,000 people who died in the initial earthquake and tsunami, as well as the courage of those who risked radioactive exposure to regain control of the plant and prevent further calamity. But it is also a time to look forward—to examine what we have learned from Fukushima and what it means for the future of energy in Japan and around the world.

A “moment of opportunity” for Japan

In the aftermath of the meltdown, the Japanese public turned decidedly against nuclear power, marking a pronounced change in a nation that was once one of the world’s most committed proponents and producers of civilian atomic energy. Japan has been using nuclear power since the 1960s, and in 2010 it generated 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. In the past year, however, the vast majority of nuclear facilities in Japan have been shut down for routine maintenance or “stress tests” and have not yet been reopened. Today, all but two of Japan’s commercial reactors have been shut down, with the last one scheduled to go offline as early as April. The country has also abandoned any existing plans to build new reactors.

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Angela Merkel, Asse, chernobyl, Daiichi, Deepwater Horizon, energy, energy roadmaps, europea, Forsmark, Fukushima, Georgia Power, Germany, japan, Low-Carbon Development, Noda, nuclear, nuclear accidents, nuclear power, nucular energy, Olkiluoto, renewable energy, renewables, Southern Company, Three Mile Island, United States, Upper Big Branch, Vogtle, Waynesboro, Yucca Mountain

This post is excerpted from an upcoming Worldwatch report on nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world.

With the crisis at Fukushima still unfolding as of early April 2011, the long-term impact of the disaster remains highly uncertain. In mid-March, however, London-based bank HSBC undertook a first analysis of some of the areas where the nuclear sector has been and might be affected. These include:

  • Safety reviews of reactors in several countries (e.g., Germany, Spain, Switzerland, the U.K., and the United States);
  • Immediate shutdown of older reactors (e.g., Germany);
  • Limited or no further lifetime extensions for aging reactors (e.g., Germany, the U.K., the United States);
  • Suspension of new plant approvals (including in China, which was expected to account for 40 percent of new installations over the next decade);
  • Review of reactors under construction in seismically active zones;
  • Higher safety and other costs (as yet hard to quantify) for new and existing nuclear facilities that would render nuclear power less economic or uneconomic; and
  • Re-evaluation of planned energy policy in all nuclear countries, with a greater focus on energy efficiency measures and natural gas and renewables installations.

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Fukushima, japan, nuclear, nuclear power, renewables, stock markets

By Haibing Ma and Jiajing Bi

China is the World's No.1 wind power

As China accelerates its shift to a green economy, it is becoming a frontrunner in the clean energy field. In 2009, the country overtook the United States to become the global leader in clean energy investment, and in 2010 this Chinese investment reached US$54.4 billion, dwarfing the $34 billion from the U.S. With such impressive finance and investment, it’s no wonder that China’s clean energy sector has been growing so rapidly. By the end of 2010, China had installed a total of 44.7 gigawatts (GW) of wind capacity, surpassing the United States to become the world’s biggest wind power market. And China has been the world’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) producer since 2008, with an annual production capacity of 20 GW at the end of 2010.

Chinese manufacturers of clean energy equipment account for more than half of the global supply. Even more impressive is the pace of growth in renewable energy: as recently as 2005, only about 1 GW of wind power capacity was installed across China, and solar cell production was less than 500 megawatts (MW).

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China, clean energy, Climate Change, emission reduction, green economy, green jobs, manufacturing, renewables, solar, solar PV, sustainable development, wind, wind turbine

Part 1 of this post compared current U.S. state-level policy, investment, and development for renewable energy and energy efficiency, using data from recent reports by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE). When reading the two reports, however, it is difficult to ascertain the specific synergies of renewables and efficiency. The answer lies in part in a joint report released by these two organizations in 2007, The Twin Pillars of Sustainable Energy: Synergies between Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Technology and Policy.

Aerial Image of Sheridan, Oregon

Aerial Image of Sheridan, Oregon - Flickr Creative Commons / Sam Beebe

This report makes a strong case for why renewable energy and energy efficiency should be pursued in tandem. Efficiency measures can greatly decrease the United States’ total energy load so that renewable energy generation can more significantly reduce national dependence on fossil fuels. Efficiency provides primarily short-term and medium-term benefits through energy savings, while renewables provide a more far-reaching, longer-term solution to a sustainable energy future. Without decreasing energy use, renewables will chase elusive production targets. Similarly, rising energy demand will quickly counteract any curtailment of carbon emissions from efficiency measures if low-carbon, renewable energy technologies have not begun to be rapidly deployed.

The report uses the example of a strategic energy development plan for 2020 that encompasses 10 states in the Midwest, where efficiency initiatives could reduce electricity consumption by 28 percent and renewable energy development could account for 22 percent of the region’s electricity supply. This combined efficiency and renewables scenario could cut conventional energy generation by 44 percent in comparison to the business-as-usual forecast. An older collaborative study from the U.S. national energy laboratories, Scenarios for a Clean Energy Future, estimated that a coordinated approach with efficiency measures and renewables could reduce greenhouse gas emissions 47 percent below the reference case by 2020.

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ACEEE, ACORE, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, American Council On Renewable Energy, California, EERS, efficiency, energy efficiency, energy efficiency resource standard, Hawaii, Nevada, PBF, public benefits fund, renewable energy, renewable portfolio standard, renewables, RPS, United States

The United Steelworkers Union (USW) has long recognized that environmental health and economic wellbeing are inseparable. As long ago as 1990, the USW declared “the real choice is not jobs or the environment. It’s both or neither.” (USW President Leo Gerard speaks about his union’s environmental history in this YouTube video.) The union is a major sponsor of the U.S. Good Jobs Green Jobs conferences that began in 2008 and that attract well over 1,000 participants annually: labor and environmental groups, business representatives, and public officials. The USW has 1.2 million active and retired members, representing workers in such energy-intensive industries as steel, aluminum, iron ore mining, cement, glass, metals, paper, and rubber, but also those in other sectors, including wind turbine manufacturing.

The USW leadership has placed strong bets that green job growth will be a healthy antidote to the blue-collar blues afflicting the U.S. economy. A recent report by the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that almost 44 million Americans are living in poverty. One of the report’s most shocking findings is that those falling below the poverty line are often full-time workers who simply do not earn enough. In 2009, the poverty rate for working-age people (18–64 years) grew to 12.9 percent, the highest rate in nearly 50 years.

It is against this backdrop that we must see the USW’s decision this month to file a 5,800-page petition with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, pressing the case that “a broad array of Chinese policies and practices threaten the future of America’s alternative and renewable energy sector.” The union is complaining about hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, performance requirements, preferential practices, and other activities that are illegal under World Trade Organization rules. The Obama Administration has 45 days from the date of filing to decide whether to act on the petition.

The petition represents another step in what shapes up to be a growing international battle over who dominates green industries like wind and solar energy. In a mere handful of years, China has transformed itself from marginal player to dominant force, to the point where this year it will likely produce more than half the world’s solar panels and close to half the world’s wind turbines.

This rapid development has been possible in part because China has used cheap labor, subsidized land, low-interest loans, as well as technology transfer requirements for foreign investors and domestic content rules to hatch and grow domestic companies. Its solar photovoltaics industry is almost entirely export-oriented: more than 95 percent of Chinese solar panels are exported to countries like the United States, Spain, and Germany. Former industry leaders in Japan and Germany are reeling.

As far as export subsidies are concerned, the USW is presenting a strong case. Eager to conquer global export markets, China has to date not taken any comparable steps to enlarge its domestic market for solar energy installations (though it has a much stronger record in the wind sector, accounting for one third of the world’s new installations in 2009). Given its sky-high coal use, expanding the use of solar power and other energy alternatives at home is a critical and urgent need.

USW President Leo Gerard (Flickr photo: aflcio Bernard Pollack)

Where I part ways with the USW is with regard to its critique of China’s domestic content rules and similar measures that stimulate the growth of the renewables sector, such as expedited approval of permits to build solar and wind factories. First, the United States itself is no stranger to domestic content requirements. In 1978, Congress imposed such rules with reference to government procurement of transportation equipment, in an attempt to revive the moribund U.S. rail manufacturing industry.

Second, it is high time to learn from China and to stop playing the blame game. China has made enormous strides in the renewables industry. In a climate-challenged world, we need more of these kinds of policies—in China, the United States, and elsewhere—not fewer. As Martin Khor, Executive Director of the Geneva-based South Centre, points out, China is being criticized in the West both for not doing enough to restrain its carbon emissions, and for providing overly generous support for its renewable energy industry.

Khor charges that Western countries have shaped and bent trade rules to their own benefit. Beyond an apparent double-standard in how such rules are applied lies an even larger question. Should we allow WTO rules, which elevate free trade priorities above all other considerations, to be the primary measuring stick of policies designed to avoid catastrophic climate change? Up to a point, domestic content requirements make enormous sense, since they create the space necessary for homegrown companies to compete and provide jobs, and they avoid domination of critical green industries by any single country—whether China, the United States, or any other nation.

Martin Khor

Martin Khor (Flickr photo: WTO Geneva Photos)

The United States needs less rhetoric, and more real action, in support of green industries—in the form of R&D programs, overall climate legislation, feed-in tariffs that set reliable prices for renewable energy, business incubators, preferential financing, worker training, and other measures. The experience of Massachusetts-based Evergreen Solar is a sad, but instructive case. Unable to raise funds in the United States, the company decided to move the final manufacturing phase for its solar panels to China, where state banks offered very attractive loan terms. Some 300 U.S. jobs will be lost.

This kind of development presents one kind of danger. Another lies in the rise of rivaling forms of green protectionism and green mercantilism that are oriented toward exclusively national goals. What the world needs instead is more cooperative efforts to develop and share sustainable technologies.

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Mention “green economy,” and almost automatically many people will think about alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Without question, the makeup of our energy system needs to change—badly. But other aspects of greening the economy shouldn’t get short shrift either. Changing the way we travel from point A to point B, limiting the voracious appetite of our buildings for heating and cooling, and making industries like steel, aluminum, and paper far more efficient are all essential tasks. In many cases, these activities might be pursued in parallel, as different “wedges” of a climate stabilization policy.

Better yet, such approaches can be combined in imaginative ways. One encouraging example is found in China, where solar energy and rail endeavors came together in a project inaugurated last month. A 6.68 megawatt photovoltaic system was installed on roofs and awnings of the recently completed Hongqiao Station, part of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line currently under construction.

The project’s 20,000 solar panels cover an area of 61,000 square meters, forming the largest standalone PV array in the world. The system cost about $23 million to install, produces enough electricity for 12,000 Shanghai households, will cut coal consumption by 2,254 tons, and will reduce carbon emissions by 6,600 tons.

The Hongqiao array is regarded as a pilot project. But given the massive expansion of China’s rail system, it holds enormous potential. Plans are to lengthen the total rail network from 92,000 kilometers today to 120,000 kilometers by 2020, a goal that may even be raised to 150,000 kilometers. The country’s high-speed lines are set to reach a length of 25,000 kilometers. Earlier this year, some 6,500 kilometers had already been constructed.

The rail station sits next to Hongqiao airport

There will be plenty of rail-station roofs to put solar panels on. For that matter, solar panels could be integrated into many more buildings in Shanghai and China’s other metropolises. China and Taiwan together now produce about half the world’s PV panels, but they export most of them. With the Hongqiao project, perhaps that will begin to change.

China, energy, rail, renewables, Shanghai, solar, transportation