Tag Archives: greenhouse gas

Creating a low-carbon transportation system for MSP: Part One, Baselining

My latest at streets.mn does the carbon accounting which should have been part of the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan developed by the Met Council.

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s got charts, so you’ll want to read the rest.

Xcel Energy: social cost of carbon is $21 per ton

Old news, but still worth posting. In October, Xcel Energy filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission defending the cost overruns of upgrading the nuclear power plant in Monticello. Via the Star Tribune:

Xcel filed the report in response to the state Public Utilities Commission’s pledge in August to investigate the Monticello investment. The company said that even with the cost overruns, the project benefits customers — saving an estimated $174 million through the remaining 16 years of its license.

Yet that cost-benefit number relies on a “social cost” comparison between keeping the nuclear plant, which emits no greenhouse gases, vs. generating electricity from a plant that does emit them. State law says utility regulators should consider the cost of greenhouse gas emissions, though they’re not currently regulated. Without carbon-emissions savings, the Monticello upgrade would be a losing proposition, costing customers $303 million extra over its life, according to Xcel’s filing.

In interviews, Xcel executives defended the investment, saying they would make the same decision today, even though the utility world has changed since 2008, when the project began. Natural gas, now a favored fuel for power plants, is low-priced thanks to the fracking boom. And electricity demand has lagged since the recession, dampening the need for new plants.

“If we didn’t have our nuclear plants, we would be taking a big step backward in terms of our CO2 accomplishments,” said Laura McCarten, an Xcel regional vice president.

If you dig into the dockets (CI-13-754), you can find that Xcel’s modeling assumptions include a price on carbon of $21.50 per metric ton starting in 2017.

Regardless of your feelings about nuclear power, a utility stating that the externalities of carbon should be priced when making energy planning/financing decisions is significant. The use of a ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCC) metric at the federal level has (not shockingly) been the point of some contention.  The Office of Management and Budget’s SCC is $35/mt in 2015 versus Xcel’s $21 in 2017.

Theoretically, we should start to see this figure or something similar used in all future energy planning decisions (Sherco, cough, cough) in Minnesota.  Unless of course, Xcel was only being selective in order to justify recovering this very large expense (and spare the shareholders).

It would be an interesting exercise to apply this Minnesota SCC to land use and transportation infrastructure and planning decisions.

The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

stanley side view (2005-023-040)

Autonomous vehicles may bring a myriad of benefits, but I anticipate that one of the largest may be the actual reduction in the total size of the vehicle fleet.  Eventually autonomous vehicles will allow “whistlecar” service, and whether fully autonomous or not would, this service is likely to fundamentally change the ownership model of automobiles.  Like present-day car-sharing services or taxis, a whistlecar subscription would mean one car could serve the needs of many people, instead of remaining parked most of the day waiting for its one owner to return.  Once you’re done with a car, it can drive off and serve someone else in the vicinity, drive to a charging station (if it’s electric), drive to a garage for service, or perhaps even deliver packages.  When you can subscribe to an on-demand travel service available 24-7 (and eventually cheaper than owning a car), many people will choose not to own.

Setting aside all the other benefits of autonomous vehicles for the moment, I’ll explore just this one: the benefits of a reduction in the car fleet.  And in a limited way: the greenhouse gas implications of this reduction in vehicles. Continue reading The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

10-9-12-Mike-HestiaProject-Indianapolis

The geography and spatial allocation of greenhouse gas emissions

Researchers at Arizona State University have created a simulation to map CO2 emissions in cities to individual buildings and roadway segments (or “fine spatial and temporal quantification” in academic terms).  Called the Hestia Project, the simulation uses local data from buildings, air pollution reporting, and hour-by-hour traffic data to quantify emissions.

Cities are hungry for detailed emissions data, as in most cases what they can get from utilities is whole-city data, not broken down by neighborhood or building.

The idea is that while cities might be able to guess at where their CO2 emissions mostly come from, it’s more useful to know precisely where the hotspots are — a neighborhood of older houses, for example, or a handful of energy-wasting factories, or a frequently snarled intersection or merge point on a highway. By concentrating on these, a city could make significant improvements in its overall emissions picture with relative ease.

“We want to help them get the greatest reductions per dollar, the biggest bang for the buck,” said project leader Kevin Gurney, of Arizona State University.

A finer grain of detail will help target local emissions-reduction strategies.  However, as our emissions measurement tools get better, we need to make sure not to miss the key land use-transportation connection that drives a big portion of greenhouse gas emissions.  If a “frequently snarled intersection” looks like a significant emissions source in your community, the easy answer is widen the road, add some turn lanes, and voila, the source is reduced.  Freeway-widening might have a similar, short-term impact.  But adding capacity to the roadway to reduce total emissions will obviously backfire.

Another related issue deals with accounting or “responsibility” for emissions.  Suburban locations may look pretty green, since by comparison, not much of the regional travel occurs inside their boundaries.  All the “hotspots” are core freeways and intersections.  If we look at emissions based purely on geography, we miss the fact that suburban growth drives urban transport emissions.  That’s why in the community greenhouse gas accounting world, the newest methodologies use a “demand-based” method for accounting for transportation emissions, which more accurately assigns emissions to communities base on regional travel patterns.  It would be great to see the Hestia project “reassign” some of the roadway emissions to the origin and destination locations and see how the map colors change.

America’s first carbon tax

Via Terrapass:

It’s finally here. The first overt economic deterrent aimed at US consumers for their emissions of greenhouse gases has arrived on our shores. Figuratively, at least.

This past week, most major US airlines levied a $3 ticket surcharge on all flights to and from European Union (EU) nations after a European court determined that the “EU Aviation Directive” can and should apply to them. This means that US-based airlines will need to acquire and submit carbon emission permits in line with their emissions, consistent with the EU emissions trading scheme.

Boulder has actually had a carbon tax since 2007, but the airline fee is the first with a national impact.

Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Bicycles in a square

According to the European Cycling Federation, if the whole of the EU cycled like the Danes, they could achieve significant emissions cuts.

If the EU cycling rate was the same as it is in Denmark, where the average person cycles almost 600 miles (965km) each year, then the bloc would attain anything from 12% to 26% of its targeted transport emissions reduction, depending on what forms of transport the cycling replaced, according to the report by the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation (ECF).

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate as it deliberately excludes the environmental impact of building road infrastructure and parking, or maintaining and disposing of cars.

These figures are for the EU’s 2050 emissions reduction target.  The figures are even greater for 2020 targets.

Bikes are not a new technology that would require long adoption periods and high initial capital costs.  Almost everyone knows how to use them, and they are cheap.  They also have myriad co-benefits, not least of which is increased physical activity.  To get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should take a close look at the bike as a potential solution.

Using ECF’s study as a model and making some estimates, the Twin Cities metro could see some significant emissions reductions if we biked like the Danes, but getting there would be tough.  I’ll get to that, but first some initial thoughts on the Europeans. Continue reading Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Piecemeal cuts won’t get us to 80 percent reduction

Jane C.S. Long has an interesting, and sobering, review of the work of the California Council on Science and Technology on what it will really take to get to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.  This is the target that California has adopted, and what many scientists have said we need to aim for to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.  Minnesota has actually adopted this target in state law as well (remember the old Tim Pawlenty?), but hasn’t done much about it since.

So how can we get to an 80 percent reduction? Not easily.

Having done the maths, what did we discover? If California could very quickly replace cars, appliances, boilers, buildings and power plants with today’s state-of-the art technology, replace and expand current electricity generation with non-emitting sources and produce as much biofuel as possible by 2050, the state could reduce emissions a lot — by perhaps 60% below 1990 levels. But it would have to replace or retrofit every building to very high efficiency standards. Electricity would have to replace natural gas for home and commercial heating. All buses and trains, virtually all cars, and some trucks would be electric or hybrid. And the state’s entire electricity-generation capacity would have to be doubled, while simultaneously being replaced with emissions-free generation. Low-emissions fuels would have to be made from California’s waste biomass plus some fuel crops grown on marginal lands without irrigation or fertilizer.

To reach an 80% cut will take new technology.

That new technology includes “major advances in near-zero-emissions fuel”.  According to Long, “California can’t just spend or deploy its way to an 80% reduction or beyond — and neither can anywhere else.”