Climate Conversations – Bad News and Good News

Let’s go good news first, we could use some encouragement right now.  

I’ve been encouraged, and inspired, by the book Climate Church, Climate World by Jim Antal, a leader of the UCC in Massachusetts.  I’ve heard Antal speak before, and would recommend this book to anyone with an appreciation of the value of communities of faith in society.  One doesn’t need to be believer in particular scripture to accept Antal’s view that creation (however it arose) was a gift to be appreciated and not squandered.  Most people take for granted that the earth is human’s dominion, which is one of several points to address in what he describes as a New Moral Era.

Antal describes the climate crisis as an issue for which the church was created.  Avoiding confronting the climate crisis is ignoring the most serious threat to our survival, and there will be no end of misery for vulnerable peoples unless communities work together to stop it.. The point is one of individual salvation vs collective salvation.  Antal’s view is that we are in this together, so collectively the choices we make and things that we do together are going to have the most impact, so we should focus on the collective good (happiness, comfort, well-being) rather than individuals.

One of the things I most liked in the book was when Antal talked about approaches to motivate people from dispair and inaction (p 128 in the paperback): The first is to cultivate wonder.  Perhaps the best way to do this is to embrace what both Emerson and Thoreau realized: “We are immersed in beauty.”   Again and again, natures beauty has drawn out of me gratitude that words cannot express”. So beautifully articulated.  

So get that book, which I’d be happy to lend anyone if the library doesn’t have it.  And come to see Jim Antal when he visits Concord in early June. Plans are being made but there will be an open community event on the afternoon of June 8th or 9th.  Will be posted here when arranged.

Now I can’t remember what the bad news was!   I’m sure it will occur to me.

Hoping to continue these Climate Conversations through 2019.  I hope you’ll let me know what you think about this stuff! (The “conversation” part)

Climate Conversations – essays on the environment, climate and sustainability

Happy New Year to anyone reading this!  2018 was for me a good year personally, but I think a dismal year in news for the planet.  We are reminded by the IPCC recent report that the time to act is now, clarifying that now means really turning things around in the next 12 years.  Atmospheric CO2 continues to rise at around 0.5% per year in 2018 reaching 410 ppm for the first time in history. Flattening out this Keeling curve by 2030 could keep climate change manageable; continued growth at the current rate would get us to 500 ppm by 2050, a rapid growth scenario that would push the earth’s temperature up another 4℃ (we’re up 1℃ so far).  Global emissions of 37 billion tons CO2 (5T/capita) are what we’re dealing with, especially affluent Americans (typically 15-20T/capita). We’ve got to help people to drop their CO2 load by tons per family, that’s my goal for 2019.

Just before the New Year, I got to see the musical Hamilton.  It was fantastic, inspiring, more fun than the book. Among other things, Hamilton wrote 51 essays, the majority of the Federalist papers, in a short time to inform people and help raise public opinion towards ratifying the Constitution.  Arguably it worked, since the doc was ratified by a small margin, and the rest is history. So I’m thinking, how about the climate, perhaps I should write the Federalist papers to get the climate ratified, or rectified? One essay a week through 2019 may be a tall order for me, but let’s see what I can do with these Climate Conversations.  (The “conversation” part is in the comments readers leave on the blog or editorial post.)

 

The business with Natural Gas

We talked about the relative GHG strength of natural gas compared with other fuels at a recent meeting.  I’d like to share with you recent report and the method which I think is most useful to think about it, which comes from the Environmental Defense Fund.  They do some very good research in this area.
The main issues which muddy the water with natural gas are:
a) the leakage of natural gas from storage facilities, pipelines and other infrastructure is not accurately known, but is quite a bit higher than estimates made a few years ago, and which are used by the EPA.  The following report summary (https://www.edf.org/media/new-study-finds-us-oil-and-gas-methane-emissions-are-60-percent-higher-epa-reports-0) says that the EPA estimated leakage (1.4%)  is only 60% of the value from recent survey data (2.3%).  Since methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas, the effects of leakage can dominate over the CO2 from combustion.
b) since methane has a short atmospheric lifetime (around 12 years) compared with CO2 (>100 years), the relative warming effect depends on the time scale chosen, which is somewhat arbitrary.  The EPA uses a 100 year timespan, for which Methane is 30-35 times more warming, while for a 20 year timeframe it is 85-105 times more warming.      It is clear that for our existence the 20 year timeframe makes some sense to avoid self reinforcing climate change (a “tipping point”) while we reduce emissions.  But it is still an arbitrary choice, which number to use.   The EDF researchers used a concept called “Technology Warming Potential” to resolved this, which is described in the attached paper.  The TWP is the relative warming of a choice between one fuel and another over the years, and it uses the example of natural gas powered buses compared with diesel.  For a moderate amount of natural gas leakage, and taking into account engine efficiencies, a choice to go with a natural gas bus over a diesel causes more warming than the diesel for the first 90 years, after which the natural gas would have less warming impact.  It would be a similar calculation for a natural gas heating system, though perhaps not as extreme.
In fact, the EPA uses an older estimate of the Methane 100yr GWP of 21 (compared to 30), which is I think is biased.  Because of the underestimated consequences of natural gas, it would be good if the GHG inventory that Concord uses includes an alternate weighting for natural gas use.  I think of this as an ‘error bar’ – essentially the amount we may be underestimating our climate impact as a community.

What to take away from the recent IPCC report

Our town of Concord has recently commissioned the Climate Action Advisory Board, a volunteer committee charged with advising the Town on issues of greenhouse gas reduction and improving climate resilience. We appreciate the Town taking these issues seriously, and residents willing to devote much of their time on this.   We encourage the CAAB to think big and look at creative solutions for tackling these challenges, since now is the best time to move forward on this.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C (2.7° F) above pre-industrial levels (we currently are 1° C higher) in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change.  The report investigates the difference between 1.5° and 2°  C on the effects on the world, and (believe-it-or-not) the effects would be a great deal worse at the higher temperature.  While concerns about climate change are not new, the potential impacts are becoming better and better understood, improving our understanding of the mess that we are in.  One might ask, is it relevant to consider 1.5° vs 2.0° when the current state of affairs suggests we may be in for 3° or 4° C rise?  While the Paris Accord was a relatively small step towards capping the rise to 2° C, the Federal government has abandoned this agreement and actively walks the other direction.

Climate does change naturally, but those changes are slow enough that they can only be measured over several decades, so normally it makes sense to consider climate in a 50 year time frame.  The changes happening now are so much faster than this, and an additional 1° C temperature rise is expected to occur in the next 50 years.  Note these temperature values are global averages: the changes over land which happen here will be twice as high as this, with the accompanying effects on the biosphere, sea level, agriculture and weather patterns. The report considered the ethical issues of society allowing this to happen, as well as burden sharing between countries of different economic means

Finally, and most significantly, the report considers strategies to cap global temperature rise to 1.5° C, including renewable electricity generation, and replacing fossil fuels for transportation, heating, and other energy uses.  These need to take place in less than 50 years, more like 10-20 years max. It is vital not to lose sight of the fact that solutions exist and it is a matter of choosing to adopt them as soon as possible.  Delaying action reduces the likelihood of the existence of a hospitable planet during our children’s lifetime.  Individually, and collectively, we can take a pathway to the 1.5° C future, or one to a much hotter place.  Our choice to make.

Submitted to Concord Journal, 11/18

Concord Sustainability and Energy Committee

My first year of driving electric

A year ago I bought a Chevy Bolt, and my first year driving electric has been a great experience.  I’ve never been especially into cars, though I’ve always chosen ones with good fuel efficiency.  Since I am concerned with climate change as well as cost, I wanted something that would lower my carbon footprint and save money.  Concord Municipal Light Plant has been working on greening the electricity supply, plus we’ve got solar panels on our roof, so for me an electric car is the way to go.

I chose the Bolt because its range (typically 230 miles on a charge) can get me to the Cape and back on one charge, and I didn’t want to wait a couple more years for a comparably priced Tesla.  It is my first American car, and so far I’m very happy with how it is designed, inside and out.  It has the best acceleration of any car I’ve driven, and has no transmission, and needs no oil or filter changes since it doesn’t have an engine, just an electric motor.  Open the hood and it is about as clean as when it was new.  That says something about how much pollution it has been putting out the tailpipe as well.

I think keeping the car charged, and not running out of juice while driving, are the big unknowns about having an EV for many people.  We installed a 240 Volt outlet in the garage, not that big a deal, and a $650 charging adapter that I keep in the back of the car.  So charging overnight is really easy, taking about 10 hours.  Charging on the usual 120 volts is also possible but takes considerably longer.  There are also a growing number of fast DC charging stations that I could use in a pinch, though I haven’t had to do that yet.  The furthest I’ve gone is up to northern New Hampshire, where they don’t have too many options yet, and it took me about 3 days to be ready to drive back.  Fortunately, I wasn’t in any hurry.

The electricity use doesn’t amount to a big expense compared with gasoline.  The Bolt gets almost 5 miles per kilowatt hour, which at Concord’s electricity price amounts to just over 3 cents a mile.  At today’s gas price of almost $3 it costs the same as gas for a car that gets around 100 miles a gallon.  That will amount to big savings if it lasts as long as I hope.  People have asked whether it is worth having a separate meter installed to get the Light Plant’s EV rate. I don’t think so, since I hope to see them change the standard rates so more people will start driving EVs, which will be good for their business and the planet as well.

If you are wondering “is an electric vehicle right for me?”, Concord’s Sustainable Energy Committee is helping to put on an “Electric Vehicle Ride and Drive” event next month to help answer that question.  The event will be on Saturday, September 15th at Walden Pond, and bring a lot of EVs together, give people a chance to test drive cars, talk to owners and find out about discounts and all the details on EV ownership, without the pressure of visiting a showroom.  You can find out more and sign up for a test drive on the website ConcordMA.gov/Sustainability.

Brad Hubbard-Nelson

Town of Concord Sustainability and Energy Committee

Denying Climate Change by not mentioning it

The Concord Journal perspective “Renewable Energy Faces Challenges” (April 5th) points out that renewable energy projects face many of the same NIMBY issues as conventional energy.  Not surprisingly, there is also opposition to them from economic interests that favor the status quo: fossil fuels.  The editorial incorrectly suggests that natural gas is a benign source, which it is not unless methane leakage is ignored.  It also confuses geothermal energy, which powers Iceland, with geothermal heat-pumps which are gaining traction in Massachusetts.  Their conclusion, that we should be content with a mix of conventional and new energy sources, is misguided and ignores a central fact not mentioned once in the piece:  Lowering greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophic climate change is essential.  We are coming to a time in which the climate crisis is not a remote possibility: just ask residents of Puerto Rico, Houston, and parts of Boston this year.  Denying that climate disruption is a serious issue, by not mentioning it, is irresponsible journalism.  We can afford to take the necessary steps to wean ourselves off of fossil energy, even if it means paying a bit more for electricity.

Bradley Hubbard-Nelson, Concord

Chair, Comprehensive Sustainable Energy Committee

Is the CMLP Strategic Plan bold enough?

The CMLP strategic plan V2.0 would achieve significant greenhouse gas reduction in the 8 year period through 2025, primarily through a 4 year process of purchasing enough Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to cover Concord’s entire electricity supply.  This step is indeed bold, and would put CMLP in a leadership position in this regard among New England’s municipal utilities.  However, I am concerned that its targets in two other areas – specifically electric vehicle adoption and heating system electrification – are not bold enough, and may make it difficult to reach the longer-term goal (80% GHG reduction by 2050).  Here I present an alternate scenario in a simple model, which, while challenging, may have better chance of success and I think improve CMLP’s business by increasing revenue more aggressively.

CSEC has done an ad-hoc analysis of Concord’s energy use and GHG emissions.  Energy consumption within the town uses 4 main fuels, each with its different GHG impact:

  • Electricity, assumed in 2015 to have GHG impact of 0.76 lbs CO2/KWh (the average for the ISO New England grid was assumed), but which would fall to zero as enough RECs purchased to cover the entire supply;
  • Gasoline consumed by the approximately 13,000 vehicles in town, with GHG impact of 19 lbs CO2 per gallon;
  • Fuel oil consumed primarily for space and water heating (but including perhaps 20% from diesel fuel in trucks and buses), with GHG impact of 22 lbs/gallon;
  • Natural gas consumed primarily for space and water heating (but also cooking), with a GHG impact from combustion of 12 lbs/therm (ignoring methane leakage which is uncertain but could double this number).

The analysis doesn’t include propane, which we think is not significant, and is expected to decrease over time due to its expense.

We estimate the combined use of these fuels produced a GHG emission total of 250,000 Tons of CO2 in the baseline year 2008, amounting to 6.4 Tons CO2 equivalent per capita, with the largest uncertainties due to the amount of fuel oil used and the natural gas GHG impact.  Looking towards 2050, we seek an 80% emissions reduction, through lowering the GHG impact of electricity and reducing the amount of fossil fuels used, to a level of 3.3 Tons per capita.

The figure below illustrates the goal over time.  The two red points are the assessment values in 2008 and 2015, and the black dotted line a smooth trajectory to reach the Global Warming Solutions Act target of 50 % reduction by 2030 and 80% reduction by 2050.  The yellow points are a simple estimate of GHG from the CMLP strategic plan, and the green are an alternate scenario that will be discussed below.

Following the CMLP strategic plan, the utility does the heavy lifting through 2025 with the REC purchases and gradual conversion of the supply purchases to renewable as new contracts are made.  According to the plan, this is 95% of the GHG reduction, the remainder coming from 5% gasoline use reduction through conversion to EVs, and 7.5% each reduction of fuel oil and natural gas reduction through heat pump adoption.  The latter numbers come from examples of what other communities have achieved in programs similar to what Concord might undertake.

Electric vehicle adoption and heating system conversion involve significant investments by residents and businesses, aided by CMLP through the Energy Efficiency surcharge or reinvested net income, or possibly another funding source in the Town.  But this is largely Concord’s residents ‘stepping up to the plate’, which is a good thing to encourage since residents supported the Article 51 adoption at Town meeting.

For examining an alternative scenario, we ask whether residents and businesses could more quickly do a larger reduction sooner, by stronger promotion of heat pumps and EVs.  Ultimately, by 2050, the reductions sought are:

  • 100% non-carbon emitting electric power (which Article 51 urges by 2030);
  • 80% reduction of gasoline use, by conversion of most vehicles to EVs;
  • 90% reduction of fuel oil use, by converting almost all such homes to electric heat;
  • 30% reduction of natural gas use, by converting many such homes to electric heat.

Items 2 and 3 are drastic reductions, but some combination of reductions of these magnitudes are what is required by 2050 if we remain true to the goal.

Table 1 shows the alternate scenario targets compared with the CMLP strategic plan goals, as we understand them.  Several assumptions are made, which are somewhat optimistic:

  1. Automobiles are replaced every 5-10 years. Product offerings are improving rapidly, and will become more affordable as battery prices fall.  With the right incentives, the majority of car purchase could be electric, once the charging infrastructure is mature.  Electric automobiles should be charged at home with off-peak power to lower the power cost to the extent possible;
  2. Heating systems are replaced every 20 years on average. Costs for high efficiency heat pumps may come down, such that with the right incentives the equipment costs are competitive with fossil fuel systems – at least over time due to lower operating costs.
  3. Fuel oil is not something consumers like, so they would be willing to convert if the economics makes sense and the functionality + comfort are good. The cost of fuel oil is likely to rise a bit over time, hopefully improving the economics.
  4. Converting from natural gas is a harder sell, because it is less expensive, which isn’t likely to change very quickly. Natural gas use is probably still increasing, and most new homes are being built with natural gas.

Because of the infrequent replacement interval of heating systems, we think it is important to start right away with a strong promotion, to not miss opportunities in the early years, and to accelerate the adoption in the community.

Table 1.

  Alternate scenario CMLP strategic plan V2.0
  Electricity Supply EV Adoption Heating system conversions   Electricity Supply EV Adoption Heating system conversions  
Year % non-emitting Gasoline reduction Fuel Oil reduction Nat Gas reduction CO2/ cap % non-emitting Gasoline reduction Fuel Oil reduction Nat Gas reduction CO2/ cap
2020 50% 5% 5% 2% 11.8T 75% 2% 3% 3% 10.9T
2025 80% 20% 20% 5% 9.5T 100% 5% 7.5% 7.5% 9.4T
2030 100% 50% 40% 10% 6.7T 100%        
2040 100% 70% 70% 20% 4.9T 100%        
2050 100% 80% 90% 40% 3.3T 100%        

Note that in the alternative scenario presented, the rate of conversion of power supply to non-emitting is somewhat slower than CMLPs plan, which suggests that some of the additional funds that would be used for purchasing RECs might instead be used for promoting the other reductions; this is not meant to suggest that CMLP not pursue the planned greening of the power supply, just that it is may be possible for similar GHG reductions by front-loading the electrification parts.  Comparing the two approaches in the figure, one sees that while the initial GHG reduction in the CMLP plan are greater, the trajectory extrapolated beyond 2025 is not as favorable.  Further, if the alternate scenario were a reality, the additional electricity demand would be very significant. While the CMLP strategic plan would grow KWh sold by of order 1% by 2025, the alternate scenario would grow KWh sales by 3-4% over that period, which we assume would improve CMLPs business position.

In summary, we would like the Town and CMLP to consider accelerating the adoption of EVs and heat pumps through a strong promotion effort.  This could have the benefit of improving the chance of reaching the deep GHG reductions in the next few decades.  While the CMLP strategic plan assumes a certain uptake of these new technologies based on previous programs, we suggest that a strong promotional effort through the Town could do significantly better, especially with sustained effort by the Sustainability Director, CMLP, CSEC, the schools and other organizations.  Indeed, to meet Article 51 goals, we will need to do better, and the question should be how to do it sooner rather than later.

Biodiversity in Concord – what it means for climate control

Living by the Global Warming Solution Act would mean a substantial step towards reducing our environmental impact.  Since Concord is an affluent town and contributes well more than average CO2 emissions per capita than the average American, we have a special responsibility and make a larger impact in doing so.  We recognize that this is not the whole story; that stabilizing the climate to avoid catastrophic changes in the future will take more, in particular saving the biodiversity and natural carbon sinks of the planet.  Halting climate change may also take measures which are controversial to the environmentalist movement, such as geo-engineering or using more nuclear power, and the longer we wait to act, the more drastic those measures will need to be.  Local measures such as planting trees and stopping development will probably not be enough.

For numerous reasons, I am a big fan of biodiversity, preserving open land, stopping un-sustainable development, and learning to live with minimum environmental impact.  My question is, how much can atmospheric CO2 be affected by what we do locally, and if the answer is “small” compared with reducing and greening energy consumption, how much should it be emphasized.  As I see it, the biggest impacts on biodiversity that we can have as a town are:

  1. Preserving open space for long term – Almost 40% of the town’s area is already protected as open space (6100 acres out of 16,000 total). When there is an opportunity to save more land from development, it should be taken.  But the amount of undeveloped land which is available for permanent protection is limited.  And assuming it is already not developed the forward impact is very minor; protecting that lands potential to sink carbon is vital but does not add to the carbon sink required to bring CO2
  2. Converting developed land to conserved land – there may be some opportunities for this. The cost to take land out of circulation would be high.  The biggest opportunities here would be damaged tracts, such as the Nuclear Metals land.  Over time parcels like this could grow trees and absorb carbon.  However, the amount of CO2 absorbed per acre-year is of order 10% the amount of CO2 emissions reduction from building a solar panel array on that space.  So there is a tension between preserving land vs renewable energy that needs to be dealt with.  Where the impact to the towns character is minimal, I think we should convert damaged tracts and parking lots to solar arrays.
  3. Agricultural land – I would argue that converting agricultural land to conservation land could increase biodiversity but goes against preserving the town’s character. Much of the agricultural land is managed fairly sustainably, so I suspect there isn’t that much opportunity to have an impact here.
  4. Lowering peoples impact on residential land – this is perhaps where some impact could be had. Better lawn practices, less mowing and leaf blowing, improved grass mixtures, reduced watering.  Less clear-cut development, smaller lawns and more gardens, and the right sort of gardens to sequester CO2 – which I realized the other night that I knew very little about.   These are a variety of things which can be pursued, some individually, but are difficult to measure and regulate.  The potential savings for a typical property, whatever that is, is pretty small.  For a 1 acre property, according to the American Planning Association, converting it 50% to forest (permanently – for centuries – which is hard to guarantee) would amount to roughly 1 ton of CO2 sequestration per year.  We can accomplish many times more than this CO2 savings by flying less, driving electric, heating electric, and greening our electricity supply.

There is no disagreement, we should work both on energy consumption and efficiency, and on biodiversity.  But as I see it, the impact we can have on the former is many times higher than the latter.  This is why I think this year we should focus on the larger impact, with a solid commitment towards getting to 80% reduction by 2050.  Success would be measureable, and we could be an example for other towns to do so.  I think the town could adopt this, and that it would be difficult for opponents to persuasively argue that we shouldn’t take the climate seriously and reduce our impact.  On the other hand, including biodiversity enhancement as a primary goal would in my opinion provoke a stronger opposition from people concerned with property rights, and remind people of earlier arguments about artificial turf.  The three legged approach would be more likely to fail, and the forward momentum from the EFTF might be lost.

Natural Gas – Not the “Clean” Transition Fuel

Printed in the Concord Journal, November 18, 2014

The urgency of slowing climate change requires us to think carefully about our energy choices at home. One choice many people are making is to heat with natural gas, which is promoted as an “environmentally friendly” alternative. However, recent studies of methane leaks from gas production and pipelines, and a better understanding of its effect on the climate have shown natural gas to be much less the “green” alternative than was thought. A better alternative for many homeowners is heat pumps, which besides helping the environment may save money in the long run.

It is well known that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with as much as 105 times the effect by volume as that of carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20 year period. The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) updated methane’s total warming effect to be over half as large as that of CO2, significantly higher than the 30% previously estimated. With this in mind, it is a cause for concern that atmospheric methane has been increasing steadily, and the source of this rise is unclear.

Some of the recent increase may be due to leakage from unconventional natural gas (“fracking”) operations that have been on the rise. Back in 1996, the EPA estimated such emissions to be low, but several recent studies have measured much higher amounts than the earlier EPA values. Also there have been numerous reports of leaky pipes bringing the gas to the consumer. In any case it is increasingly clear that fugitive emissions make natural gas less “environmentally friendly” than advertised. Further considering the environmental consequences of fracking – the use of large quantities of water, the chemicals remaining in that water when it is disposed of, and the potential for groundwater contamination – the promised “bridge to sustainable energy future” looks more like a bridge to nowhere.

Heat pump technology offers homeowners a promising alternative. Heat pumps use electricity to transport existing heat into the home more efficiently than generating it from scratch. They come in two basic types: ground-source “geothermal” heat pumps which take heat from underground, the higher efficiency option for new construction or if space is available; and air-source heat pumps, usually wall mounted systems that are more economical for replacing an existing furnace. Either variety can function with existing duct work or forced hot water pipes, and many systems can cool in summer as well as heat in winter.

The up-front cost for heat pumps is somewhat higher than a natural gas system, but by taking advantage of the 30% Federal tax credit and lower operating cost, a heat pump system can pay for itself in less than 10 years. As the local electric utility mix migrates to more renewable energy sources, the heat-pump carbon footprint will decrease.

The commonwealth’s legislated goal is to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by 80% by 2050. However, at the present time there are plans being made for constructing a large new gas pipeline in Massachusetts. This would be an investment in infrastructure that will last decades and ensure that we don’t make the transition on time.   The best alternative would be to lessen the demand for natural gas, house-by-house and year-by-year. To that end, homeowners and builders should take the time to learn about heat pumps, and encouraged through the right incentives to make the best choice.

Brad Hubbard-Nelson is a Concord resident and a member of the ConcordCAN! Steering Group