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Thursday, January 21, 2016

PA's resolution for 2016: cut methane emissions

On January 20, 2016, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2015 was not only the warmest year in the 136 years of record keeping, but it set the record by the widest margin of any previous year. With global temperatures last year 2.36 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average, the need to take climate action is clear. As Pennsylvania is the third-largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in the nation (behind the much larger states of Texas and California), we have a key role to play.

It is particularly appropriate that, on the day before that announcement was made, Gov. Tom Wolf joined Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) secretary John Quigley and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) secretary Cindy Dunn for a town hall meeting on energy, climate, and the environment where they announced a much-needed effort to cut methane emissions from the state’s natural gas industry by as much as 40 percent. 

GHG methane is 84-86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Overall, it’s the second most prevalent GHG humans emit, but in the natural gas industry - where methane is the chief component of the gas itself - it is the most significant pollutant.
As Sec. Quigley reported, even if we assume that the industry-reported data for methane leakage is accurate (and there is reason for doubt), the market value of the lost gas would amount to $8 million per year. Since the secretary said actual leakage rates could be between 2 and 12 percent, that number may be much higher. Additionally, we need to consider the public health costs of the excess air pollution and, of course, the cost of climate impacts. As Carnegie Mellon professor, Albert Presto put it, “if emissions are above 6 percent of production, we’re sort of in this climate disaster territory.

What happens next?
The first step is simple. DEP will implement the upcoming amendments to the federal emissions standards put forth by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for new and modified sources known as Subpart OOOO (often pronounced “quad-O”) and the newly proposed Subpart OOOOa (probably pronounced “quad-O-a”, but “OOOOahhh” would work, too.) This is a good start but will, by definition, be limited to new and modified sources, leaving thousands of existing wells untouched.

DEP will also be addressing existing sources of methane emissions, which are not presently addressed in the EPA's proposed methane rules announced in August 2015. What will follow from DEP is implementation of the upcoming Control Techniques Guidelines (CTGs) for the industry, which should be finalized this summer. These will apply to existing sources of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from a number of emission sources. Once the federal CTGs are finalized, DEP will move forward with a regulatory process to implement them. This is a 18 to 24 month process that will include extensive review and opportunity for public comment. This will be another step forward, but gaps in coverage will likely remain.

Another avenue to address this problem is through DEP’s permitting process. Currently, mid-stream operators like compression facilities benefit from what is know as General Permit 5 (GP-5) and wells and wellheads benefit from a permit exemption (Exemption 38). These allow operators to avoid the time and expense of applying for individual permits if they meet specific criteria. By strengthening GP-5 and converting Exemption 38 to a stronger general permit, the DEP could effectively require better emission controls much sooner than the 18 to 24 months it would take to enact a regulation.

How can the public get involved?
While permit revisions can be used quickly and to good effect, there are drawbacks. One obvious point is that since a general permit can be changed more quickly and easily than a regulation, positive changes can be easier to undo. The other main issue is that the public comment period on a general permit may occur years before the new permit is used. That often means that by the time a citizen knows they will be impacted by permit provisions, their ability to comment on that permit is long over. There is no perfect solution to this problem, but one essential element is public involvement.

That means uniting in support of the DEP in their efforts to strengthen protections. It also means being a good citizen and letting folks in Harrisburg know when their actions fall short of our expectations.

Unlike many other states, the Constitution of Pennsylvania guarantees citizens the right to clean air, pure water, and a healthy environment. The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve the best and most comprehensive protections from methane leakage, and it is important that the DEP and the governor hear that from the citizens themselves.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

How to cut down on your gas bill this winter

With the first major snowstorm of the season upon much of Pennsylvania, the last thing you want to hear is that your gas company is seeking a rate increase. On Tuesday, January 19th, UGI Utilities Gas Division filed a request with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to increase its base rates for residential, commercial and industrial customers by $58.6 million annually.

In all fairness, the last time UGI requested a base rate increase was 21 years ago and UGI has the lowest natural gas residential distribution rates in Pennsylvania among major gas utilities. UGI is requesting the increase to pay for “ongoing system improvements and operations necessary to maintain safe and reliable natural gas service.” The improvements include replacing all of their non-contemporary pipelines with those made of contemporary materials, such as plastic or coated steel. Pennsylvania has a considerable amount of old pipeline infrastructure, bare steel or even cast iron pipes as much as 100 years old, that's susceptible to breakage and leaks. Removing the old pipelines is certainly a step in the right direction.

Even so, you are likely wondering how your gas bills could possibly be going up when the price of natural gas is at a record low and you keep hearing about the abundance of natural gas we have available. The rate increase is for the distribution component (delivery charge) of your gas bill, meaning the cost of getting gas from the company to your home. It does not affect the cost of the gas (purchased gas commodity charge) you actually use to heat your home, fuel your stove, etc.

If UGI’s base rate case is approved, the bill for a typical residential heating customer who uses 57.3 hundred cubic feet of gas (CCF) per month will increase $10.20 or by 19.7 percent from $51.77 to $61.97 per month. UGI is requesting that the new gas rates take effect March 19, 2016, but it is very likely that this won’t happen. The PUC typically suspends the effective date for general base rate proceedings to allow for investigation and public hearings, which will take months to complete.

Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to prevent your monthly bill from increasing. The best and cheapest option is to implement energy efficiency measures in your home. In simpler terms, if you use less gas you will be able to decrease the component of the bill that you have some control over. So how can you use less gas in your home without freezing your butt off during the winter months?

The Consumer Energy Center provides five great steps you can take to cut down on your natural gas and propane use:

  1. Turn down your thermostat to 68 degrees. For every degree you lower your heat in the 60-degree to 70-degree range, you'll save up to 5 percent on heating costs. 
  2. Replace or clean furnace filters as recommended. Dirty filters restrict airflow and increase energy use. Now is also the time for a furnace "tune-up." Keeping your furnace clean, lubricated and properly adjusted will reduce energy use, saving up to 5 percent of heating costs. 
  3. Reduce hot water temperature. Set your water heater to the "normal" setting or 120-degrees Fahrenheit, unless the owner's manual for your dishwasher requires a higher setting. Savings can be 7-11 percent of water heating costs. 
  4. Seal up the leaks. Caulk leaks around windows and doors. Look for places where you have pipes, vents or electrical conduits that go through the wall, ceiling or floor. Check the bathroom, underneath the kitchen sink, pipes inside a closet, etc. If you find a gap at the point where the pipe or vents goes through the wall, seal it up. Caulk works best on small gaps.
  5. Consider replacing your old gas appliances with an ENERGY STAR® water heater or furnace. 

In addition, purchasing a smart wifi thermostat will enable you to easily adjust the temperature of your home when you aren’t even there. For instance, you can turn the heat down to 55 degrees while you are at work (you don’t want to go much lower when it’s really cold out because your pipes could freeze) and turn it up when you are ready to head home. Spray foam, weather stripping, and plastic coverings for old drafty windows are things you can easily find at your local hardware store. Also, be sure that your attic and crawlspaces are insulated.

UGI even has an energy saving section on its website with an interactive house showing you where and how you can save.

Jennie Demjanick is energy policy analyst for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @JennieDemjanick.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What MTV taught me about fossil fuel subsidies

Image credit:
Back in the 1980s, MTV commercials would often include the slogan "Too much is never enough." (Who can doubt that given the quality of music videos of the day?) MTV was trying to get a generation of kids to neglect their homework and watch more TV than they should, but at least they weren't being sneaky about it. Parents could hardly argue that they were not warned.

Maybe, in the interest of honesty, the natural gas industry and their allies should dust off that slogan and use it whenever they ask for favors. The fact that they spent more than $20 million last year in lobbying and campaign contributions is a big clue that the industry is going to want more subsidies and less regulation. Their attempt at keeping possible dissenting voices off the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) advisory committee is a further sign we can expect them to ask for more.

Case in point: In most places, political advisers would consider it shocking hubris for a state House Speaker like Mike Turzai to read directly from gas industry talking points when opposing a severance tax on gas. Here in Pennsylvania, however, such a clear indication of industry influence barely raises an eyebrow.

By comparison, Speaker Turzai's plan to further subsidize the gas industry by creating 20 little tax havens known as "Keystone Energy Enhancement Zones" probably won't be recognized as the blatant corporate welfare it is. (Using the "boiling the frog" metaphor, although technically inaccurate, is very tempting.)

Even without these new handouts, the fossil fuel industry already takes advantage of $2.3 billion in Pennsylvania dollars as tax breaks and other subsidies. That isn't even counting the preferential tax treatment and additional subsidies the federal government provides. In spite of this, the stock prices of many gas drillers in the state are in a slump right now. The reason is Economics 101: With the explosive growth of the industry, supply has outstripped demand and gas prices have dropped.

Although drillers probably saw the glut coming years ago as the number of drilling permit applications climbed, they made the business decision to continue full speed ahead. Now, faced with the consequences of their decisions, they are begging friends like Speaker Turzai to subsidize new customers and create new markets for their gas.

However, there are other choices. Instead of subsidizing the bad decisions of fossil fuel operators and helping them increase their profits at public expense, we could choose to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy that will pay dividends directly to consumers in the form of lower bills.

When this alternative was raised, Turzai's spokesmen, Jay Ostrich, said “If someone can show us a model where the government is not subsidizing alternative energy sources and it works, we would love to see that.” If folks don't see the irony in that, it's time to turn off the stove because the frog is boiling.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Will the state Senate vote to raise your electric bill?

Alexander Pope's 1709 Essay on Criticism is one of those works that nearly everyone has quoted but almost nobody has actually read. It gave us famous quotes like "a little learning is a dangerous thing," and perhaps the most popular "fools rush in where angles fear to tread."

If it were not for that work, folks who write about happenings in our legislature would have fewer clichés at their disposal. Those clichés are used often because of the amount of bills that seem simple and harmless at first glance, but in reality are very risky and deserve careful consideration.

Next week, we may see our state Senate vote on a bill that falls into this category—Senator Boscola's Senate Bill (SB) 805, the large commercial and industrial opt-out of Act 129.

SB 805 is based on the idea that large electricity consumers have enough incentive to cut electricity costs without requiring them to do so under the Act 129 program. That is a nice concept, but the data seems to indicate that is not the case.

If there weren't any cost effective measures available, we would expect the utilities (that are charged under Act 129 with proving large consumers achieved reductions) would have trouble meeting their targets. However, not only are they consistently reaching their targets, they have been coming in under budget. That suggests we should do more under Act 129, not less.

Additionally, SB 805 isn't limited to large industrial consumers claiming they have increased efficiency as much as possible. It would also exempt all of their subsidiaries. Thus, if a large factory opts out, then they can opt out all of their offices as well. The fact of the matter is, we don't even know how many sites this will impact.

Why should we care if they opt out? 
Once a company opts out, the overall energy efficiency targets for Act 129 will decrease along with the amount of money available to invest in energy efficiency. In other words, the utilities will not be able to take the investments they would have made at large consumer facilities and use them for other consumers (like us residential customers). Therefore, once the opt outs start occurring, we will no longer achieve the amount of energy savings we have historically seen under Act 129. This will end up raising everyone else's electric bills.

Historically, about 10 percent of the efficiency improvements from Act 129 have come from large industrial customers. In fact, they have accounted for roughly $100 million in net benefits during each phase of Act 129 from savings like avoided cost of generation and avoided operation and maintenance expenses. $100 million is a lot of money to lose, but the actual net benefits are even higher if you account for fuel and water savings, the value of public health and environmental benefits, avoided compliance costs from other regulations, and the wholesale price suppression effect that lowers all of our electric bills.

What does SB 805 really mean for our electric bills? 
That is exactly what the senators poised to vote on the bill should be asking themselves. There are other options besides rushing the bill through the Senate. For starters, the Senate could require the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to study the impacts, or at the very least they could hold hearings.  We should expect our Senate to give far more consideration to a bill aimed at providing a handout to large companies at the expense of homeowners and smaller businesses.

Alexander Pope's essay also contained the quote "To err is human, to forgive, divine." A noble sentiment, but us voters are only human and probably won't be as forgiving of a senator responsible for raising our electric bills.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

EPA affirms there is no Oz behind the curtain

On Tuesday, October 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the current results of its 2014 Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program (GHGRP). It’s an important window on data that is often obscured, under-reported, or not reported at all.

The current glut in natural gas has caused prices to fall and driven older and less efficient coal-fired power plants into retirement. Not surprisingly, EPA reports that this has resulted in a 0.1 percent drop in carbon emissions from that sector, or just over 3 million tons nationwide. Reporting a drop in this sector is good news, but with total emissions from all sources on the rise, we are heading in the wrong direction.

Emissions from the petroleum and natural gas industries threaten to compound the problem. Not only have such emissions risen by 3.5 percent over the past year and 6.2 percent over 2011, these emissions tend to contain more methane and will exacerbate our problems in the short term.

Industry continues to claim that leaving them alone to pursue voluntary methane standards is the answer, but as this report confirms, there is no Oz behind the curtain. These emissions continue to be unregulated and continue to rise unabated.

Emissions are Up
The report shows 3.2 billion metric tons of carbon pollution were emitted last year. This is an increase over the 3.18 billion metric tons reported in 2013.

And just like last year, roughly 7 percent of these emissions are methane. This is especially concerning because the current science shows that, over a twenty-year period, methane is 84 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The report, however, understates the problem. EPA bases its global warming potential of various pollutants on the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) instead of the more current AR5 from 2014. It further underestimates the problem by using a 100-year time scale where methane is assumed to be "only" 25 times as bad as CO2.

The result: When we hear bad news about methane, the reality is worse.

A bridge to nowhere?
There are still folks out there claiming that natural gas is a "bridge fuel" to a clean energy future but that future is far from certain.

EPA has suggested that switching from coal-fired power plants to gas plants can be an element of our state climate plans. However, if we spend money on natural gas development and infrastructure, those sources of emissions may be with us for decades.

This makes it ever more critical to have strong, comprehensive regulations to keep methane emissions at a bare minimum. The EPA's current plan, which exempts over seven thousand existing wells in Pennsylvania from additional controls, isn't enough. If EPA doesn't step up to the plate, it's Gov. Tom Wolf's responsibility to protect our citizens and make Pennsylvania a leader in methane controls.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Save the Date: 5th Annual Pittsburgh Solar Tour on Saturday, October 17

PennFuture is thrilled to announce that we will once again be hosting our annual solar tour in Pittsburgh. During our solar tours, hundreds of people have discovered the power of the sun.  

From noon to 4:00 P.M. on October 17, participants will be able to tour several solar powered homes and businesses. Solar owners will open up their solar installations to the public, tell their stories, and detail why they decided to go solar. 
The tour is completely free! 

image source: Land Art Generator Initiative
The tour consists of featured solar installations and open houses. The featured locations will be highlighted in our guidebook and additional activities will be offered during the tour. 

One of the featured stops on this year's tour is "Renaissance Gate," an art sculpture integrating solar panels designed by students participating in the 2015 Art+Energy Camp. The piece is located outside the Homewood Renaissance Association at 7240 Frankstown Ave.  Be sure to check it out as you drive by! 

A guidebook and map are provided upon registration so participants can visit as many of the featured locations and open houses as they want.

New this year:  PennFuture is also hosting a Solar Soiree after the tour for all solar owners and participants at the Kingsley Association. At the after party, guests will be able to meet and mingle with like-minded folks in the Pittsburgh area over free drinks and food. As an added bonus, guests will be able to see and hear all about the Kingsley Association’s new solar installation.

Register for the tour, the Solar Soiree, or - better yet - both!  

The tour — sponsored by PennFuture, the Solar Unified Network of Western PA (SUNWPA), Solarize Allegheny, and Pittsburgh Green Innovators — is conducted in conjunction with the American Solar Energy Society's (ASES) 2015 National Solar TourOctober is National Solar Tour month at ASES so tours and open houses will be held across the country throughout the month.

This event is free and open to the public thanks to underwriting support by Levin Furniture, the first furniture retailer in the nation to install solar panels.

Be sure to register at!

Jennie Demjanick is energy policy analyst for the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. She tweets @JennieDemjanick.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Climate change impacts in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's latest climate change impact assessment is frightening. The report finds that Pennsylvania has already seen a human-induced, long-term warming of more than 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 110 years. This trend is expected to accelerate so that, by mid-century (2041 to 2070), scientists predict a 5.4 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit warming across the state. The report equates that to having average temperatures in the Philadelphia area becoming similar to those of Richmond, Virginia.

What does that mean for PA?

From an energy perspective, that means more demand for power. There will be somewhat less demand for heating in the winter, but the extra summertime demand as air conditioners get used more heavily will more than eat up any savings. The increased demand means higher electricity bills unless we get serious about improving energy efficiency.

Higher temperatures can also create electricity supply issues. Nuclear and fossil fuel plants often rely on cooling water that is in a certain temperature range. If it's too warm, they may need to lower their generation or shut down completely. We have already seen this happen at Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station on Cape Cod, which reduced operation in 2011, and at the Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut that shut down for 12 days in 2012. The Braidwood plant in Illinois also narrowly avoided a shutdown in 2012 after getting special permission to keep operating when it's cooling water hit 102 degrees Fahrenheit.

When a plant like one of these can't produce the capacity the grid is relying on, other more expensive (and often dirtier) generation must fill the gap. In some cases this means firing up huge diesel generators at rates more than ten times higher than what we normally pay.

It's not just energy either. 
There is also an issue with agriculture. Some may naively hope that a longer growing season means more productivity, but that isn't the way it works. The dairy industry is Pennsylvania's largest agricultural sector and heat stress lowers both milk production and reproduction rates of cows. This is a serious enough problem that dairy farms in hotter climates have to spend a lot of money to provide fans and sprinklers for their cows.

Crops are impacted too. Unlike California with its persistent drought, much of Pennsylvania may end up with wetter conditions than normal. But too much water can be as bad as too little. Floods are an obvious source of crop damage that can sometimes cost billions. Weeds, insects, and fungi that prefer warm and wet conditions will also expand their range, and this can be just as damaging. The result will be higher food prices for everyone.

It's not too late to act. 
We may not be able to avoid all of the damage from climate change, but if we act now and act together, we can make a difference. This means Pennsylvania has to do its part. Since a third of our carbon pollution comes from power plants, we need the Clean Power Plan, but that won't be enough. We need to do our best to minimize carbon pollution economy-wide.

Polluters and their friends will try and scare us with inflated claims of the costs while ignoring the benefits. The reality is different. A report from Citi found the cost of inaction was much higher.

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The EPA needs to hear from you!

Can you be in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, September 29 for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) public hearing on its recently proposed rule to curb harmful methane pollution from oil and gas drilling?

***Update: You can also join us at the rally at 10:30 a.m. on September 29 at the Westin Pittsburgh third floor ballroom located at 1000 Penn Avenue. Attending? Please email us if you will be joining us on Sept. 29.***

Simply showing up at a public hearing, even if you don't speak, sends a powerful message. A standing-room-only crowd will tell the EPA that Pennsylvanians care about methane leakage and its impacts on both public health and the environment. Being there to provide support is a great start, but if you can provide comments, that’s even better.

 There is a lot that EPA needs to hear: 

  • We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make fighting climate change a top priority.
  • Methane leakage from natural gas drilling is not only wasteful, it’s a climate killer. Methane gas is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after their release into the atmosphere. Unless we stop the leaks, we will not reach our goals of cleaner air and a reduction in global warming.
  • We need to do more. The EPA's proposal is a good start, but it won't do anything about the leakage at thousands of existing wells in Pennsylvania that aren’t covered by the rule. 

graphic source: Environmental Defense Fund

 How do you comment?

Q: What should I say?
A: There are some key points listed above to get you started, but the important thing is to speak in your own voice. The most memorable comments are often the most personal ones. If you are a parent or grandparent worried about the health of your family, the EPA needs to hear that. If you see this as a moral or ethical responsibility, tell them why. Whatever reason makes speaking out important to you, it’s probably worth saying.

Q: Does my voice matter?
A: Absolutely. The EPA will get a lot of technical comments from all sorts of experts on this rule. It's tempting to think that an average person doesn't have anything important to add, but that is not the case. Just being there and speaking shows that stopping methane leakage is important to you. It shows that this is something worth fighting for.

Q: Can I send in written comments, or should I speak at a public hearing?
A: You can do both! Speakers at public hearings don't get much time—often only three to five minutes. That means you only have time to highlight your key points, but even a few words can be worth it. Often a very short message will be the best and most memorable. It's always a good idea to give them a written copy of your remarks as well. And, if you have more detailed information to add, you should include that with your written comments. Especially if what you have to say is a technical or legal point that is hard to summarize.

Q: What is the next step?
A: Contact EPA and sign up to be in Pittsburgh on September 29 to tell them why stopping methane leakage is important to you. As well, consider joining us for a rally at the Westin in downtown Pittsburgh (and just around the corner from the EPA hearing) at 10:30 a.m. More details on the rally coming soon!

Rob Altenburg is director of the PennFuture Energy Center and is based in Harrisburg. He tweets @RobAltenburg.