SB 310 makes it far harder for Ohio to comply with the Clean Power Plan

obama clean power plan
obama clean power plan

President Obama delivers his speech announcing the final Clean Power Plan on Monday, August 3 (courtesy of Susan Walsh/Associated Press).

Last Monday, President Obama stood at the podium in the East Room of the White House to announce “the single most important step America has ever taken in the fight against global climate change” – the final Clean Power Plan (CPP). As the President noted in his remarks, this final rule amounts to “the first-ever nationwide standards to end the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants” into our atmosphere. The EPA projects that, if fully implemented, carbon emissions from US power plants should be 32% lower in 2030 than in 2005.

Here in Ohio, the rule was met by a mixture of excitement from those of us who want the country to take action on climate change and outrage from those who oppose such steps. Attorney General Mike DeWine joined 11 other attorneys general in a lawsuit to derail the rule, while notorious Ohio coal firm and serial litigant Murray Energy intends to file no fewer than 5 separate suits.

Changes to the final Clean Power Plan that affect Ohio

Given all of this controversy over the CPP, it may be wise to take a step back and consider just how the rule would affect Ohio. Last year, I explored how Ohio fared in the proposed CPP and how the state’s clean energy standards put it on a solid path towards meeting its carbon reduction targets. While that analysis was relevant at the time, we need to revisit it, as the final CPP is different from the proposed version in a lot of ways. For the sake of this post, here are a few of the key changes that will affect Ohio:

  1. State compliance plan date: Under the proposed CPP, states needed to submit their compliance plans to the EPA by June 30, 2016. The final rule pushes this date back to September 6, 2018, but with a caveat. States still need to submit either a final plan or an interim plan in 2016, but they can request a 2-year extension of the deadline if they meet certain criteria. This matters, as Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler has already stated that he will wait until to submit a plan until he sees how the rule fares in the federal court system, which may take years.
  2. Emissions cuts to begin later: Whereas the proposed CPP required states to begin cutting carbon emissions in 2020 and continue through 2030, the final rule delays that effective date until 2022. This 2-year delay is important for Ohio as a result of SB 310, as I will explore later.
  3. Changing the way that emissions reductions are measured: Originally, the EPA planned to measure emissions reductions as the change in how many pounds of carbon emissions a state produces per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy it produced (“rate-based”). But the Agency has now added a “mass-based” approach, which shows reductions in the actual tons of carbon states emit. Additionally, EPA has changed the state-by-state targets to account for the fact that the utility sector operates within 3 broader regions. As a result, Ohio’s rate-based target was strengthened from 1,338 lbs/MWh to 1,190, up to 37.4% from a 27.7%. The mass-based reduction remains at a comparable 27.85%.
  4. Eliminating the energy efficiency benchmark: The proposed CPP created federal guidelines for state compliance plans that included 4 main building blocks: improved coal plant efficiency, more use of natural gas, increasing renewable energy generation, and improving demand-side energy efficiency. EPA has removed the energy efficiency building block, which has significantly reduced the CPP’s legal vulnerability. Fortunately, EPA did not scrap demand-side energy efficiency entirely. Instead, it will allow states to include it as part of their state compliance plan.

How Ohio can meet its Clean Power Plan requirements

Fortunately, Ohio is well-positioned to meet its emissions reduction targets under the CPP, as multiple analyses have shown.

In a 2013 analysis, the World Resources Institute found that, if Ohio fully implemented its renewable portfolio standard (RPS) and energy efficiency resource standard (EERS) that the state passed nearly unanimously back under SB 221, it could cut its carbon emissions by 17% through 2020.

WRI’s analysis also calculated the emissions savings from the other 2 building blocks in the CPP. It estimated that Ohio could cut its emissions by 7% by 2020 if it increased the operating capacity of its existing natural gas fleet (building block 2). The state could further cut emissions by 2% if it improved its coal plant efficiency by 2.5% (building block 1). Combined, these four actions would get Ohio to a 26% cut by 2020, before the CPP’s requirements even kick in. And if Ohio continued to implement its EERS and RPS beyond their current end date, the state would be able to meet and exceed its required carbon targets.

wri ohio emissions clean power plan

Ohio can cut its carbon emissions by up to 24% through 2020, depending on the policies it implements under the Clean Power Plan (courtesy of World Resources Institute).

SB 310 will make increase the costs of compliance

While Ohio is currently in decent shape, SB 310 will unquestionably make it more difficult and more expensive for the state to comply with the CPP.

The two-year freeze on the RPS and EERS will deprive the state of renewable energy and energy efficiency gains that it could count towards future benchmarks. Though it pushed back the date when states have to demonstrate emissions cuts by 2 years, EPA wants to encourage states to reduce their carbon emissions before that point. Accordingly, the final CPP creates a Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP), which allows states to get credits for renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures taken in 2020 and 2021 and apply these to reduction targets in subsequent years. For every 1 MWh of wind or solar that a utility brings on line, it will get a 1 MWh credit towards future emissions reductions. And for every 1 MWh saved through energy efficiency projects in low-income communities, utilities will get a 2 MWh credit.

Because SB 310 freezes Ohio’s RPS and EERS for 2015 and 2016, the RPS and EERS benchmarks will be lower during 2020 and 2021. RPS benchmarks will decline to 6.5% and 7.5% from 8.5% and 9.5%, respectively, while the efficiency requirement for 2020 will be halved to 1%. According to projections from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), the state’s major electric utilities would have generated almost 25.9 million MWh of renewables in 2020 and 2021; however, thanks to SB 310, this number will fall by nearly 25% to 19.4 million MWh.

The freeze will also cut into the amount of low-income energy efficiency projects carried out in the state. From 2009-2012, Ohio’s major electric utilities realized  55,084 MWh in energy savings from low-income projects. This accounted for just under 1% of total savings. Based on estimates from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), Ohio was on course to save 56,410 MWh from energy efficiency in 2020 and 2021 before SB 310. Using revised energy savings from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which account for SB 310’s effects, this number would fall to 46,866 MWh. Because these savings get double credit in the CEIP, Ohio will lose out on 19,048 MWh of emissions reduction credits (ERCs).

All told, the 2-year freeze on Ohio’s clean energy standards enacted under SB 310 will cause the state to miss out 6,476,386 MWh of ERCs. If we assume that each of those MWh would have offset a unit from a fossil fuel plant, we can estimate how many tons of carbon emission reductions the state will lose. EPA has calculated that Ohio’s power plants release 1,900 pounds of CO2 per MWh; as such, Ohio will lose ERCs worth roughly 6,152,567 short tons of CO2. Applying a social cost of carbon at $40 per ton means that this one effect of SB 310 will cost the state more than $246 million.

But that doesn’t account for any potential reductions in the RPS and EERS benchmarks. The bill’s language makes it perfectly clear that the Ohio legislature intends to “enact legislation in the future… that will reduce the mandates.” Any future reductions to these clean energy standards will make it that much harder for Ohio to comply with the Clean Power Plan.

What should Ohio’s elected officials do?

Clearly, SB 310 carries a big price tag for Ohio. The state’s elected officials should take action on three fronts to address this issue.

First, the legislature needs to pass a bill restoring Ohio’s clean energy standards as enacted under SB 221. It should not wait until the freeze comes to an end on December 31, 2016. Instead, legislators should use the final report from the Energy Mandates Study Committee, which is expected to be released this fall, as a reason to restore the standards effective January 1. Interestingly, OEPA Director Butler told Gongwer (subscription required) that, despite his reservations, he realizes restoring the standards from SB 221 would help Ohio meet its emission reductions targets. Beyond this step, however, the legislature should look to pass a follow-up bill by the end of the next session that will extend and, preferably, strengthen these standards through at least 2030.

Second, Ohio should begin exploring how it can partner with other states to form a regional carbon trading system. The final CPP explicitly allows and even encourages states to pursue this route. Several Midwestern states have been meeting under the auspices of the Great Plans Institute to discuss this option, but Ohio has conspicuously been absent. It would be in the state’s best interest to work with its neighbors in order to lower the cost of compliance.

Third, Ohio needs to double down on low-income energy efficiency. According to Policy Matters Ohio, the state currently weatherizes roughly 7,000 homes per year. This number accounts for just 1.5% of the households in the state who seek emergency assistance for their utility bills each year. Not only will ramping up low-income weatherization allow the state to get additional credits through the CEIP, it will generate tangible benefits. Every $1 million invested in weatherization leads to the creation of 75 jobs.

Ultimately, SB 310 has cost Ohio considerably, but it’s not too late to mitigate those effects. Every day that Ohio continues to languish under this bill will continue to add to those costs. It’s time to act.

Update (8/13/2015, 3:45pm): Since I posted this, the Union of Concerned Scientists has updated its state-by-state projections on the Clean Power Plan. In June, they concluded that Ohio was on track to meet and actually exceed its 2020 interim reduction benchmark under the proposed CPP. The new analysis finds that Ohio is now on track to achieve 84% compliance with its rate-based goal and 130% compliance with its mass-based goal for the 2022 benchmark. Without implementing additional policies, however, the state would only 44% and 56% of its rate- and mass-based targets, respectively.

Additionally, I noted that, based on the EPA’s social cost of carbon ($40 per ton), the emissions reductions that Ohio will miss in 2020 and 2021 as a result of SB 310 would carry a cost of more than $246 million. This number does not account for the costs of other air pollutants that power plants release in addition to CO2. Based on a 2010 study, which reviewed the literature on the air quality co-benefits of carbon reductions, the average air quality benefit for developed countries per ton of CO2 is $44. Based on this number, Ohio would not only incur climate change-related costs of $246 million, it would also forego air quality improvements worth more than $270 million. Combined, SB 310 will cost the state nearly $517 million in 2020 and 2021 alone.

Ohio already has a compliance plan for the EPA’s carbon rules. It’s called SB 221.

epa carbon reduction goals by state
epa carbon reduction goals by state

Carbon reduction goals by state under the EPA’s proposed rule (courtesy of Business Insider).

As you’ve no doubt heard, President Obama took the most serious executive action in American history to tackle climate change on Monday. The US EPA unveiled its long-anticipated rule to regulate carbon emissions from existing power plants. The rule calls for a 30% reduction in carbon intensity within the electric power sector by 2030. The rule is extremely complex and lengthy (645 pages, to be exact), but the details are starting to emerge.

Like the Affordable Care Act, the EPA’s proposed rule is highly flexible and will be implemented at the state level. Cognizant that states have different fuel makeups within the electric sector, the EPA set carbon reduction targets for each state, ranging from just 10.6% in North Dakota to 71.8% in Washington. The rule also provides states with tremendous flexibility in how they can reduce carbon emissions, listing a bevy of different options, including:

  1. Improving fossil fuel plant efficiency
  2. Switching from coal to natural gas for electric generation
  3. Ramping up electricity production from renewable energy
  4. Investing in end user energy efficiency
  5. Adopting a cap-and-trade system or join an existing program, like the Northeast’s Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)

This rule is far from being finalized. It still needs to go through a public comment period, an implementation phase, and – no doubt – a lengthy battle in the courts. That said, it is already starting to reap potential dividends. Yesterday, Chinese officials announced that they may include a carbon cap in its next Five Year Plan, which begins in 2016. The Chinese have are already experimenting with pilot cap and trade systems in seven cities, though the experiment has not been a rousing success.

How will this rule affect Ohio?

Understanding that it will be more difficult for some states – namely, the most coal-dependent ones – to reduce their electric power emissions, the EPA set more lenient emissions reductions standards for these states. Ohio, which gets 65% of its electricity from coal and emits more CO2 than all but three other states, is required to reduce its carbon emissions from 1,850 tons per megawatt (MW) of energy to 1,338 tons per MW (see page 30 of PDF) by 2030. That represents a 27.7% reduction, slightly under the overall 30% standard nationwide.

Predictably, lawmakers in Columbus have already started their posturing over the issue. More than a week before EPA even announced the rule, a bipartisan group of coal boosters in the Statehouse introduced House Bill 506, which requires the Ohio EPA to establish rules that dictate how the state will implement the regulation. The bill, which passed unanimously out of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, is intended to shield Ohio’s coal industry. According to Gongwer (subscription required):

[Rep. Jack Cera (D-Bellaire] said the bill looks to continue Ohio’s energy supply portfolio that relies heavily on coal-fired generation. He said the industry has a significant impact in his district, and the use of coal is vital to the region’s economic security….

[Rep. Andy Thompson (R-Marietta)] said he is looking to make sure Ohio continues to have affordable, reliable power supplies based on reasonable policies. He said the bill allows the state agency to consider each power generating unit, and how changes would impact local communities. If done properly, the state policy could prevent the retirement of older coal-fired plants.

Mr. Cera said a rush to meet federal requirements could be detrimental to families by increasing energy costs and eliminating jobs. He said further reduction of coal-fired power facilities could bring the state and region closer to having inadequate power supplies. Mr. Cera added that while technology is advancing, additional time may be needed to get enhanced controls in place.

Mr. Thompson told Rep. Tony Burkley (R-Paulding) there is a place for a mix of power sources, but said it is essential that the state has a baseload source that is available at all times.

“Coal is there,” he said. “Coal is on site. There is no delay.”

Craig Butler, the Director of the Ohio EPA, who would be tasked with developing the compliance plan, has decried the proposed regulations as “unnecessary federal mandates.” He has also sworn to “preserve as much existing coal-fired electric generation” as possible.

Because nothing makes sense any more, FirstEnergy has actually downplayed the rule and made it seem like it’s happy to comply. CEO Tony Alexander, who last made news for bashing the same EPA over its nonexistent “war on coal,” told the New York Times he supports cap and trade, saying,

By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost. The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.

VP Ray Evans even told the AP that the company was “generally pleased by the overall direction of the federal plan.”

Now, under normal circumstances, if FirstEnergy approved of an environmental regulation and felt it could comply with it easily, I’d be freaking out over how lax the rule was. And I do have some concerns about the plan, namely the decision to make the baseline year 2005, which is when carbon emissions reached their peak in the US. I would be much happier with 2012 as the baseline, as emissions fell 16% during that seven-year span. This would make the rule far more ambitious and beneficial. As it currently stands, the rule would only lead to a 17% reduction from 2012 emission levels, not the 30% headline number we are all seeing (which is relative to 2005).**

But I digress. What I really want to emphasize here that the executives at FirstEnergy are apparently more progressive on environmental regulations than the head of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Let that one sink in for a minute.

SB 221 and the carbon rule

So how should Ohio go about meeting this new rule? What should the state’s compliance plan look like? Well, it’s first important to note that, in addition to the 2030 goal, the EPA’s rule also includes an interim reduction target for states to achieve by 2025; for Ohio, this involves a reduction to 1,452 tons per MW. This amounts to a 21.5% decrease by 2025. So Ohio roughly needs to reduce its carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 22% by 2025.

Wait, 22.2% by 2025 – where have I heard that number before? Oh, right, that’s the standard for energy efficiency set by SB 221 back in 2008. Under those standards, Ohio’s four investor-owned utilities need to reduce the amount of electricity that their customers use by 22.2% through 2025, against a 2006-2008 annualized baseline. The similarities are startling.

sb 221 energy efficiency benchmarks

Annual energy efficiency benchmarks for Ohio’s investor-owned utilities, as specified by SB221 (courtesy of Mark Rabkin).

Now, you may note that carbon emissions and energy efficiency are not the same thing. And you’d be right.

But, under the EPA’s proposed plan, states that choose to invest in energy efficiency would need to improve demand-side energy efficiency by 1.5% per year from 2020-2030. Conveniently, SB 221 requires the state to improve its energy efficiency by 2% per year from 2020-2025, allowing it to meet and even exceed that standard. And while 22.2% savings still comes up short of the 27.7% mark required by 2030, the state would be well on its way to meeting this standard, and it could make up the rest of the gap by continuing to implement its existing renewable portfolio standard, which also exists due to SB 221.

In other words, Ohio already has compliance plan in place. The state passed it, nearly unanimously, six years ago. But, thanks to the legislature, we are just one signature away from derailing these standards.

SB 310 and Ohio’s compliance plan

SB 310 will leave Ohio in a precarious situation. The freeze would last until December 31, 2016, six months after the date that EPA has set for states to submit their compliance plans*. The state could sue over the rule, which may affect that date – Mike DeWine has already shown a predilection to waste taxpayer resources over the latest right wing cause du jour – but I feel pretty confident the courts will uphold the regulation.

So, where will Ohio find itself as the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2017? Will it implement weakened energy standards, as SB 310 makes clear the legislature plans to do, or will it allow SB 221 to come back into force? Will it put together a satisfactory compliance plan, or will the US EPA have to step in and take over?

Surely, the legislators behind SB 310 considered these questions when crafting the law. Not quite. According to Tom Knox at Columbus Business First,

Rep. Sandra Williams of Cleveland, the ranking Democrat, asked him how the freeze would impact the state’s ability to meet new regulations to limit coal-plant carbon dioxide emissions. Balderson said he was unaware of the rules but didn’t think they would impact his bill.

That’s right. An elected official who sits on the Senate Public Utilities Committee and introduces a bill as significant as SB 310 openly admitted that he was “unaware” of forthcoming EPA standards that anyone with a passing knowledge of Google could have found out about. Did he miss the massive speech that President Obama gave last summer when he announced these rules? It wasn’t exactly a secret.

The climate change imperative in policy making

That’s what makes things like SB 310 or Cuyahoga County’s decision to sign a 20-year deal to get coal-fired power from from  Cleveland Thermal so mind boggling. Policy making doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Obviously uncertainty always exists, and it’s sometimes necessary to make simplifying assumptions and leave out exogenous factors. But the preeminent policy challenge of our times is not just one of those things you can ignore. Pretending science doesn’t exist won’t make it so.

A changing climate is not just one of many factors at play. It is a baseline factor that directly and indirectly influences everything else. From insurance markets to credit worthiness, from allergies to vector-borne diseases, from human and economic development to violence and conflict, climate change is always a factor in play. While it would be nice to pretend otherwise, it’s no longer an option available to us.

Even if you reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on this issue, it makes sense to assume it’s true. Because consider the risks if your wrong. What if that expensive new bridge or road your state just built was only designed to withstand one foot of sea level rise? Or what if a farmer invested his or her life savings in a crop that can’t survive the megadrought happening in the West?

Every single policy decision we make now, regardless how mundane or seemingly unrelated, must have climate change embedded in it. It may be convenient to pretend this one local project can’t possibly have any bearing on such a global issue – I’m looking at you, ODOT – but we cannot afford that luxury.

So the people in charge in Columbus can – and, I’m quite sure, will – continue to ignore what I’ve just said, because they have a clear profit motive to do so. But if there is one thing that these new carbon rules make clear, it’s that the day of reckoning on issue is coming, and it’s a lot closer than some people may like.

Ohio has 30 months to decide whether or not it will act on climate change or whether it will cling to the status quo. Because, whether or not Columbus likes it, the EPA has supremacy on this issue, and it has the law in its side.

So what does this all mean?

Oh, I guess you were expecting me to actually go somewhere with this. Okay then.

Ohio’s best option is for John Kasich to veto SB 310 and call on lawmakers to not only protect the state’s clean energy standards, but actually discuss ways to strengthen them through 2030. But seeing as I’m not the benevolent dictator of this state (but seriously, I’d be ever so benevolent…), and the Governor has made it clear he will sign SB 310, that leaves us searching for alternatives.

Given the options available, our next best choice is to ensure that Ed Fitzgerald and David Pepper get elected as Governor and Attorney General this fall. That would empower Governor Fitzgerald to veto any GOP-led plan to weaken the standards that may emerge during the freeze and ensure that Attorney General Pepper does not foolishly sue the EPA over the carbon rules. That may seem like a long shot at this point, but the alternative is far, far worse.

Ohio is poised to meet the EPA’s carbon rules while creating jobs, cleaning its air, and creating thousands of good jobs. Or we can throw all of that out the window to gamble that the GOP-led legislature can somehow come up with a law that is better equipped to do all of this than SB 221. Don’t hold your breath.

Update (6/4/2014 3:31 p.m.): I originally thought the EPA was requiring states to submit their compliance plans by December 31, 2016, the same date as the end of the proposed freeze. The actual date is June 30, 2016; I have updated the post to reflect this change.
Update 2 (3:44 p.m.): Brad Plumer just pointed me to a post from Resources for the Future, which argues that everything people have been saying about the 2005 baseline is incorrect. Apparently EPA was only using 2005 as the headline year, because President Obama’s commitment to reduce US emissions by 17% at the Copenhagen Conference uses 2005 as its reference point. But, in reality, all of the EPA targets for state carbon reductions are based on 2012 numbers, meaning that this rule really does represent a strong emissions reduction standard. Look for cheers from fellow environmentalists and cries of impending economic doom from fossil fuel boosters.

What is the real cost of freezing Ohio’s clean energy standards?

oec clean energy infographic
students protesting against sb 310

Students protesting against SB 310 in front of the Ohio Statehouse on Wednesday, May 14 (courtesy of Ohio Beyond Coal).

I have asthma. According to the CDC, I am one of 831,787 Ohioans and 25.9 million Americans living with this condition (PDF). That means that 1 out of every 12 Americans is living with asthma, up from 1 out of 14 in 2001.

While people who may not have firsthand experience with this illness may not understand, asthma is far more than just an inconvenience. I’ve heard and seen children with asthma describe feeling like fish out of water when they are suffering an attack. It’s terrifying to not be able to get the air you need. While I don’t think I was ever really in any acute danger, the fact remains that 185 children and 3,262 adults died of asthma in 2007.

As much as I hate to admit it, asthma came to define much of my childhood. From the day that I was diagnosed at either 5 or 6 (I can’t remember the exact date), my severe asthma was omnipresent. Many of my memories from this period involve such episodes, including the role that my mom played in helping me deal with these attacks. Growing up, my mom routinely worked 60-hour weeks and stayed until 3:00 a.m. or later every Tuesday night to edit her newspapers. Despite this, she was always there to listen to my lungs to see if I was wheezing; to pick me up from school or practice if I had an attack; to ferry me to and from the the ER when I needed treatment; and to sit next to me in the hospital for the long hours while I underwent tests, got chest x-rays, and did my nebulizer treatments.

I vividly remember my first major asthma attack. It was the spring of 1993, and I started having breathing trouble towards the end of the school day. The attack only got worse throughout the afternoon, and when my mom got home from work around 6:00 p.m., she immediately drove me to the ER at Fairview Hospital. We sat in that ER for hours before a doctor could see me and for several hours more before they were able to admit me for care. My mom stayed with me right until they took me up to my room for admittance at 3:30 a.m. I ended up spending three days in the hospital for treatment and observation (thankfully, it was the only time that I actually got admitted for asthma). This is just one of the thousand acts of kindness from her that I can never fully repay.

Fortunately, as I got older, I began to grow out of this severe asthma. Today, I am able to live a normal life without worrying about when my next attack will come. But, at the same time, I know that the threat remains, and I have my emergency inhaler on hand, just in case. I was reminded of this quite vividly back in the fall of 2005 when I went in for routine surgery. The procedure required me to go under general anesthesia, so the doctors intubated me. But, after the surgery, when they tried to remove the tube, I suffered a severe bronchial spasm that cut off my breathing. My blood-oxygen saturation levels plummeted into the mid to upper 60s (normal levels are 95-100%), and I ended up spending the next 24 hours in the ICU, an experience I recommend avoiding, if at all possible.

I have no idea how much my asthma diagnosis ended up costing my parents in medical bills and lost time at work, but I imagine the amount was substantial. I did see the medical bills that came in during my stay at the ICU and, even with insurance, they were staggering. For the millions of Americans who suffer with asthma everyday, many of whom do not have insurance, this diagnosis is a real burden. On average, asthmatics spend $3,300 in medical costs each year. According to CDC numbers, asthma costs total $56 billion in direct medical costs, lost school and work days, and premature deaths. Everyday in this country, 36,000 children miss school and 27,000 adults miss work due to this condition.

My past (and present) as someone living with asthma has made me an advocate for clean air. We know that air pollution is both a root cause of the condition and a proximate trigger of asthma attacks. And that’s what pisses me off so much at SB 310. By crippling Ohio’s clean energy industry and protecting the fossil fuel industry, it will directly contribute to more asthma attacks and more chronic pulmonary diseases. This bill will carry a high cost in blood and treasure for our state.

It’s great to focus on how this bill will destroy jobs and harm a thriving clean energy industry in the state (which I’ve done), but SB 310 proponents just counter with their BS “war on coal” retort, a completely disingenuous argument that is, nonetheless, powerful in this state. But it’s another thing entirely for proponents of this bill to hear about the ways that it will directly affect the health of thousands of Ohioans and just not even give a shit.

Yesterday. the Ohio Environmental Council released this infographic showing the benefits of the state’s clean energy standards during 2013:

oec clean energy infographic

Source: Ohio Environmental Council

Using these numbers and EPA incidence factors, we can roughly calculate the economic and health benefits of the clean energy standards in 2013 alone. According to 2011 EPA standards, every ton of NOx, SO2, and PM2.5 has has the following benefits:

incidence factors for power plant emissions

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

Accordingly, using these numbers, the reductions in NOx and SO2 emissions saved 3.5 lives, 267 lost work days, 59 asthma attacks, and 2.5 non-fatal heart attacks last year alone. And, based on Lepuele et al.’s economic benefit estimates, these standards had a health-related economic benefit of $208,620,000 in 2013.

But these numbers don’t even take into account the social benefit of the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the standards. The US government currently uses $37 per ton as its social cost of carbon emissions. Accordingly, given that these standards saved 1,061,300 tons of GHGs in 2013, they created an economic benefit of $39,268,100. In total, using these conservative estimates, Ohio’s clean energy standards generated an additional economic benefit of $247,888,100 in 2013 alone.

These savings are not included in other analyses, but they are real, and they affect the lives of ordinary Ohioans everyday. The facts are clear – a vote for SB 310 is a vote for more asthma attacks, more heart attacks, more work and school days missed, more trips to the ER, more premature deaths, and more of the carbon pollution that is driving climate change. These are the the stakes.

If SB 310 proponents really wanted to show the real cost of these standards on Ohioan’s electric bills, as they claim, they should include a provision in the bill that requires the inclusion of these numbers. Somehow I doubt that would go over too well.

How much will SB 310 cost you?

sb 310 costs

Ohio Partners for Affordable Energy and Ohio Advanced Energy Economy  just released a new report that demonstrates how SB 310 will raise electricity rates in Ohio. Find out how much more you will have to pay from 2015-2016 if the legislature freezes Ohio’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards.

[CP_CALCULATED_FIELDS id=”6″] [CP_CALCULATED_FIELDS id=”7″]

*Calculators use estimated additional cost of electricity for residential and commercial users in Ohio from the OAEE/OPAE report. The report uses Public Utilities Commission of Ohio data, which is based on 750 kWh per month for residential customers and 300,000 kWh per month for commercial customers.

There’s nothing moderate or reasonable about Senate Bill 310

john kasich
john kasich

Governor John Kasich will ultimately decide the fate of Ohio’s clean energy future. God help us all (courtesy of the Toledo Blade).

Ever since Senator Troy Balderson (R-Zainesville) first introduced SB 310 back in March, the bill’s proponents have continually tried to paint themselves as unbiased, reasonable actors who are just working to defend the best interests of Ohio’s consumers.

They routinely emphasize the supposed uncertainty around the effects of the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards and point to an Energy Mandates Study Committee, which will analyze the standards during the two-year freeze and propose potential changes, as proof that they are reasonable actors who are standing up for ratepayers.

Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina) told the Columbus Dispatch “What we want to do as a legislature is put procedures in place that are based on evidence and science.” He added, “We’ve spent $1.1 billion since 2009 on energy efficiency. … I’m not quite sure what we’ve gotten out of it.” The Study Committee is supposedly intended to solve this (non) issue.

Senator Frank LaRose (R-Akron) went so far as to claim that his work to “moderate” the bill provided that he was a true statesman.

And Governor John Kasich, who will ultimately decide whether Ohio continues to move forward or dives headlong into its coal-fired past, released a joint statement with Sen. Faber that read, “By temporarily holding at our current level while problems are ironed out, we keep the progress we’ve made, ensure we steadily grow new energy sources and preserve affordable energy prices for both businesses and consumers.”

So, given the centrality of this Study Committee to the GOP’s claims that they acting reasonably and in the best interest of Ohioans, you would think it would include experts on the issue and take a sober, neutral approach to its task. Yeah, not quite.

Here’s the actual text that creates the Energy Mandates Study Committee in SB 310 (emphasis is mine):

Section 3. It is the intent of the General Assembly to ensure that customers in Ohio have access to affordable energy. It is the intent of the General Assembly to incorporate as many forms of inexpensive, reliable energy sources in the state of Ohio as possible. It is also the intent of the General Assembly to get a better understanding of how energy mandates impact jobs and the economy in Ohio and to minimize government mandates. Because the energy mandates in current law may be unrealistic and unattainable, it is the intent of the General Assembly to review all energy resources as part of its efforts to address energy pricing issues.

Therefore, it is the intent of the General Assembly to enact legislation in the future, after taking into account the recommendations of the Energy Mandates Study Committee, that will reduce the mandates in sections 4928.64 and 4928.66 of the Revised Code and provide greater transparency to electric customers on the costs of future energy mandates, if there are to be any.

Setting aside the fact that the bill’s authors clearly don’t understand how to use the word “impact” correctly, the intent of this section is quite clear. The Ohio GOP wants us to believe they just plan to “study” the state’s clean energy standards to see if they can decipher their effects and, if necessary, make changes. But, as you can see, the writing is already on the wall.

SB 310 predetermines the outcome of the Study Committee, and it inevitably guarantees that the standards will be watered down heavily during the two-year freeze, if not killed entirely. The bill calls them “unrealistic and unattainable” and lays out the GOP’s intention to “minimize government mandates” and “reduce” them going forward. The goal is blatantly transparent.

We don’t need to continue spending hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars on frivolous studies from partisan lawmakers. The evidence that Ohio’s clean energy standards are benefiting Ohioans is overwhelming. Researchers at Ohio State say so. The Public Utilities Commission says so. Hell, even the utilities say so!

There’s nothing fair or reasonable about SB 310, no matter how much its proponents bloviate. As Terry Smith said so well in Sunday’s edition of The Athens News,

Anyone familiar with the arguments of climate-change deniers will see some of their rhetorical flourishes in Balderson’s vague references to gimmicks and slogans gussied up with a gratuitous fealty to science. That’s their perverse way of casting doubt on the overwhelming global scientific consensus that climate change is happening now, is getting worse, and is mainly caused by human-kind’s burning of fossil fuels.

Plus, as critics of S.B. 310 have pointed out and the utilities themselves have admitted, money spent on energy-efficiency standards will recoup twice as much in savings.

If Ohio wants to continue sliding backward into the darkness, while its elected representatives happily collect rent from the fossil-fuel and electric utility industries, and their allies in the dark world of Koch, it makes perfect sense to double down on coal- and gas-fired electric power and flea-market-level severance taxes for oil and gas.

You almost wish the GOP leadership had the guts to come out and admit their true intentions. But they know that, if they did, Ohioans would revolt. So they hide behind their false facades of reasonableness and rationality so they can keep the money flowing from the fossil fuel industry. It’s worked up to this point, but you can only stem the tide of history for so long.

Conservative Ohio group uses push poll to attack clean energy, fails miserably

blue creek wind farm
blue creek wind farm

The Blue Creek Wind Farm in western Ohio (courtesy of Business Wire).

Over at Columbus Business First, energy reporter Tom Knox posted a piece yesterday afternoon titled “Business group poll says Ohio voters want energy efficiency mandates changed.” According to the post, a coalition of Ohio business groups conducted a poll of 800 registered Ohio voters, in which 72% of respondents indicated they wanted the state to revise the energy efficiency and renewable energy standards set by SB 221.

This poll seems extremely bewildering, particularly considering the fact that Ohioans have repeatedly expressed overwhelming support for the clean energy standards on multiple occasions. Just two weeks ago, an identical 72% of Ohioans stated just the opposite, indicating they support the standards in their current form and would oppose revising them.

Moreover, recent nationwide polls find similar results. In a Gallup poll, Americans preferred renewable energy to fossil fuels by a 2-to-1 margin, wanted the government to invest in ramping up renewable energy production 67% to 32%, and supported implementing mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions 63% to 35%. Another poll from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication validates this latter result, finding that Americans support forthcoming EPA regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants by a nearly identical 64% to 35% mark.

So what’s going on here? Perhaps this is just another example of Americans not truly understanding policies or being inclined to support something when it’s phrased one way but not another? We know, for instance, that even as most Americans generally oppose Obamacare, they continually support the actual provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

Then I actually looked into the details of the poll. It was conducted by a coalition of business and fossil fuel interests, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, and Industrial Energy Users-Ohio. All of these groups have close ties to the fossil fuel industry, particularly FirstEnergy. The group, which is so fly by night that it doesn’t even have a website or bring up anything on Google, has chosen the particularly Orwellian name “Ohioans for Sustainable Jobs.” Apparently fossil fuel industry jobs are sustainable, but Ohio’s 25,000 clean energy jobs are not.

According to Knox’s post, here is the actual text of the question that garnered the headline result, a blatantly transparent example of push polling:

Six years ago, when the Ohio legislature passed the law mandating reductions in electricity consumed, certain assumptions were used to justify the law, many of which were wrong. For example, legislators assumed electricity would be in short supply and new electric generation would be expensive. But today, there’s ample low-cost electricity and will be for years to come. Knowing this … should the Ohio state legislature, taking into account the new information, go back and change the law?

If a college freshman tried to use that question in Statistics 101, s/he’s probably fail the class. The poll was also conducted by The Tarrance Group, a high-price DC polling firm, which brags it “is one of the most widely respected and successful Republican strategic research and polling firms in the nation.”

FirstEnergy and its friends can continue to shell out thousands of dollars to buy the poll results they want, but it won’t change the fact that the people of this state have, do, and will continue to support clean energy But all that coal money can, and has, bought much of Ohio’s legislature. The utility companies gave more than $1.3 million to legislators (PDF) from 2008-2013, and they expect something for their investment.

We need to keep the heat on our elected representatives in Columbus as they finish debate on SB 310. Otherwise, we risk letting their fossil fuel benefactors keep turning the heat up on our planet.

Update (4/30/2014 9:16am): Tom Knox provided me with the full press release and set of survey results. Taken in full, the poll seems a bit more credible than the one question would have it seem out of context. That said, there are still several methodological issues with it.

In the first question, where 56% of Ohioans seem to come out against SB 221, the question does not actually ask whether respondents oppose the law on its merits; it simply asks if they agree that “the government should mandate reductions in
electricity use by Ohio’s residential and businesses users.” That is exactly the type of wording that garners opposition to policies in the abstract, such as Obamacare.

Secondly, the poll continually asserts that Ohioans will pay more on their electricity bills – $45 this year – to meet the energy efficiency mandates. Nowhere does it mention the fact that customers can opt into rebate programs financed by these surcharges, nor does it mention the fact that energy efficiency programs have saved Ohio ratepayers more than $2 for every $1 invested, according to the electric utilities themselves. Moreover, Ohioans have already indicated (PDF), in multiple polls, that they are willing to pay more for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Fortunately, they don’t have to.

Thirdly, the poll asks two questions about whether or not ratepayers should have the option to opt out of paying the costs of the clean energy mandates. This is exactly the type of question that sounds wonderful in theory, but the Devil is in the details. Allowing ratepayers to opt out of paying into these programs would render them completely ineffective; it would be a de facto repeal in all but the name.

Enabling customers to take advantage of utility rebate programs without paying into them would allow them to become free riders, who would enjoy the benefits of energy efficiency (e.g. lower wholesale electricity costs) without having to bear any of the costs. It’s interesting how conservatives suddenly support subsidies and “picking winners and losers” when the winners are their industry friends. A voluntary opt-out provision would simply drive up the costs of compliance to the point where the programs were completely suspended. We know that the members of “Ohioans for Sustainable Jobs” would like to see SB 221 repealed in its entirety. But because that would never fly – see SB 58 – they want to hide behind semantics and do it under the cover of night instead.

I will continue to say this over and over and over and over again: Existing Ohio law requires all energy efficiency programs to save ratepayers more than they cost. If they do not pass this total resource cost test – which they have, by the way – the Public Utilities Commission is legally obligated to reject them.

The entire foundation of this poll is based on the phony premise that energy efficiency programs cost Ohioans more than they save. That’s completely unfounded, and, as a result, this poll is nothing more than a house of cards. The Supreme Court may claim that money equals speech, but it doesn’t enable you to buy your own facts.

Ohio lawmaker compares clean energy to the Bataan death march

Senator Bill Seitz
Senator Bill Seitz

Ohio State Senator Bill Seitz of Cincinnati (courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch)

When the Ohio GOP leadership introduced SB 310 last month, they intentionally tried to sideline Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) from the process. We know that Sen. Seitz has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. He has previously likened the clean energy standards to “Joseph Stalin’s five-year plan,” and he routinely labels his opponents as “enviro-socialist rent-seekers.” But this time he outdid even himself.

Last Wednesday, April 9, Sen. Seitz turned a Senate Public Utilities Committee hearing on SB 310 into a three-ring circus. First, during the middle of testimony from Aaron Jewell, a US Army veteran who fought in Iraq, Sen. Seitz reportedly got up, pulled out a pack of cigarettes, and walked out of the room to take a smoke break.

He came back into the session halfway through the testimony of Dan Sawmiller, a Senior Campaign Representative for the Ohio Beyond Coal Campaign with the Sierra Club. Mr. Sawmiller also served with the Ohio National Guard from 2000-2008, during which time he worked as a combat engineer in Iraq.

Mr. Sawmiller served with 485 other guardsmen and women to clear some of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad of improvised explosive devices, in order to make way for the movement of additional troops and supplies. At least one of his fellow servicemen did not make it home.

During his testimony, he detailed the work he did in Iraq. “I explained how my combat experiences drove my passion to work on energy efficiency and national security issues,” he said. “This drove me to work with the Sierra Club.”

But rather than showing respect and gratitude for his service and simply debating the facts of the clean energy law, Mr. Sawmiller explained that Sen. Seitz made outlandish comments that are offensive to those who have served in our military.

“The Senator referred to the current law as being on the Bataan death march for clean energy,'” he explained. “The more I think about what was said, the more offended I get as a combat veteran.”

Let that sink in for a minute. According to an elected representative of the people of Ohio, a policy that has lowered electricity bills, stimulated economic growth, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and helped spark a clean energy sector that employs more than 25,000 people is on par with an internationally recognized war crime that killed 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers. Not only is such a statement utterly absurd, it insults the memory of the men who died (and those who survived) either on that march from Bataan or in the nightmarish prison camps that followed.

Did I mention that April 9 marked the 72nd anniversary of the surrender at the Bataan Peninsula and the first day of this horrific six-day march.

While Sen. Seitz may dismiss the connection, there is a reason why the United States military has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into renewable energy and energy efficiency – it saves money and, more importantly, lives.

Fossil fuel boosters love to claim that hydraulic fracturing will allow the US to drill its way to energy independence. But, as Brad Plumer explains,

Even if, one day, the United States produces enough oil to satisfy its own needs, it still won’t be entirely “independent” from the rest of the world. That is, the US economy will still be vulnerable to supply shortages or turmoil in the Middle East (for instance). There’s a reason for that. Oil is relatively easy to trade on the global markets.

Because oil is fungible international commodity, the US military will continue to maintain a vital interest in it. In a 2010 article, Roger J. Stern estimated that the US spent at least $6.8 trillion to secure oil reserves from 1976-2007. He calculated that the military costs of securing oil supplies from the Persian Gulf “exceeds the value of Gulf petroleum exports in all years except 1990 and the value of US petroleum imports from the region by roughly an order of magnitude.”

In other words, the US government is spending substantially more money to secure Middle Eastern oil reserves than the oil itself is worth. Stern concluded that, rather than trying to increase the supply of oil, we should curb demand by investing in energy efficiency, as this strategy “would address the core problem.”

Our reliance on fossil fuels has a direct impact upon the performance and flexibility of the armed forces. At least 70% of all tonnage on the battlefield is fuel, leaving the military highly vulnerable to energy market volatility. According to the Department of Defense, the military spent $13.2 billion on fuel for its operations in 2010. Due to the difficulty of delivering fuel to forward operating bases, fuel costs can often exceed $400 per gallon.

This dependence on fossil fuels also creates operational challenges. Infantry soldiers in Afghanistan carry 26 pounds of batteries on missions to power their equipment. This weight hinders their mobility and increases the physical strain on their bodies. That’s why Tremont Electric, a Cleveland-based clean energy company, is working with military contractors to integrate their kinetic energy device, the nPower Peg, into body armor.

And just as Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach, today’s military runs on its fuel and water convoys. These convoys are highly vulnerable, however, and became a favorite target for militants in Afghanistan and Iraq. The DoD reports that at least 3,000 US soldiers and military contractors were wounded or killed in raids on such convoys from 2003-2007. This breaks down to roughly one casualty for every 24 convoy trips.

Veterans like Dan Sawmiller and Aaron Jewell are well aware of this intimate connection between energy security and national security, as they saw it every day on the streets of Baghdad. But Sen. Seitz has chosen to demean their service and ignore their voices, because he serves the interests of ALEC and its funders in the fossil fuel industry.

“Clean energy has proven to be a great deal for Ohio’s homeowners and businesses,” Mr. Sawmiller said. In a letter sent yesterday to Senate President Keith Faber (R-Celina), he called on the GOP leadership “to demand respect for the sacrifices that Ohio’s soldiers have made for generations” asking for a more dignified way to debate legislation.

If you are also tired of the Bill Seitz’s continued insults and bloviating, take a stand. Call Sen. Seitz’s office at (614) 466-8068 or send him an email demanding that he apologize to our veterans and stop his mindless attacks on Ohio’s clean energy standards.

GOP beware: Ohio overwhelmingly supports clean energy

ohio statehouse
ohio statehouse

The Ohio Statehouse (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Well, the Ohio GOP is at it again. After Senator Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) failed to even get the support of his own caucus for SB 58, his bill to mangle Ohio’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards, the GOP leadership has decided to pursue a new course – just letting FirstEnergy decide what to do.

On Friday, Senator Troy Balderson (R-Zainesville) introduced SB 310, a bill to immediately and indefinitely freeze the efficiency and renewables standards at 2014 levels, which would cap them at roughly one-tenth and one-fifth of the final numbers, respectively. The bill looks an awful lot like one that FirstEnergy tried to sneak through the lame-duck legislature under the cover of night in November 2012.

I won’t dive too deeply into the details of the bill or the parade of horribles it will unleash on Ohio, as it has been covered pretty effectively by other outlets; I want to focus on a different perspective, instead. Midwest Energy News has a thorough, useful primer, and the PD was actually ahead of the game by denouncing the bill as “misbegotten” and noting it would take Ohio backwards into the dark, coal-stained days of its past.

Plunderbund goes into great detail on the history and benefits of SB 221, the bill that established the state’s energy standards in 2008, and the likely consequences of SB 310 – higher energy bills, billions in lost economic activity, thousands of jobs foregone, air and water pollution, etc. As the post rightly notes,

Senator Faber made it clear that he hopes to rush this bill through the legislature and have it on the Governor’s desk before the May recess. The GOP is counting on the idea that you aren’t paying attention to this issue or that you will buy into the misinformation they are spreading. The opponents of SB 221 are not looking out for the interests of Ohioans. They are simply defending the economic interests of the fossil fuel industry and electric utilities…

The Ohio GOP is not targeting SB 221 because it has failed to work; they’re targeting it precisely because it has worked so well. In order to defend the well-being of economy, environment, and the people of our state, Ohioans need to protect SB 221.

As the French say, précisément.

But as I said, I wanted to focus on a different angle to this story. Proponents of SB 221, including Senators Seitz and Faber, continue to claim that they are standing up for the interests of ordinary Ohioans, not just their utility company benefactors. Sen. Faber claimed this bill is “based on evidence and science,” while Sen. Seitz, who loves to call his opponents “enviro-socialist rent-seekers,” repeatedly argues that the existing standards “constitute a hidden electricity tax on consumers.”

One would assume that if the standards were truly nothing more than a hidden green tax to benefit a bunch of socialist treehuggers, ordinary Ohioans would be universally opposed to it and happy to call for its appeal. Not quite.

In a poll conducted during February 2013, Ohioans demonstrated their support for the state’s energy mandates. Almost 80% of respondents expressed support for existing policies to require that at least a portion of electricity be generated from clean energy sources, while 65% indicated that they specifically support increasing renewable energy generation as a replacement for coal and natural gas.

Last November, Small Business Majority surveyed Ohio’s small businesses to get their views on the subject. They found that 53% of the state’s small businesses support SB 221 in its current form, while just 43% stood opposed. Moreover, 65% of those surveyed said that renewable energy “can have economic benefits for small business owners, such as lowering utility bills and providing new business opportunities for entrepreneurs.” Ohio’s small businesses know that the mandates have helped drive the development of a vibrant clean energy sector in the state, which already employs more than 25,000 people.

But even more surprising were the results of a survey last July from the Yale Project on Climate Communications. While the main headlines included the fact that 70% of Ohioans believe climate change and occurring, and 49% believe it is manmade, there was some information buried in the report that is germane to this debate. According to the study,

A majority (59%) supports requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from wind, solar, or other renewable energy sources—even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year. Comparatively few (35%) would oppose this policy.

Rather than fearing the potential economic impacts of SB 221, Ohioans have embraced them with open arms. That’s because they know that the benefits of the state’s energy mandates far exceed any potential costs. In the same survey, 43% of respondents felt that switching from fossil fuels to clean energy would increase employment and economic growth. And Ohioans want their leaders to act now. Majorities – 54% and 56%, respectively – want Governor Kasich and the state legislature to do more to address climate change, including ramp up clean energy generation.

So the Ohio GOP and their friends at the big utility companies can continue to delude themselves that writing love letters to coal-fired power plants is a winning campaign strategy. But if they sow these seeds of discontent this spring, they’re going to have to reap them in November.

If you care about water, you need to worry about energy production

lakeshore power plant
lakeshore power plant

FirstEnergy’s Lake Shore power plant, which is slated to close this fall, sits along the shore of Lake Erie on Cleveland’s east side. Thermal pollution from the plant has historically prevented the waters near the site from freezing over in winter (courtesy of WKSU.org).

This article is cross-posted from Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.

Saturday was World Water Day 2014. This year’s theme centered on the water-energy nexus, a topic which has become increasingly important in recent years.

According to the United Nations, energy production currently accounts for 15% of global water use, a number which is projected to grow to 20% within the next two decades. In the US, this number is significantly higher; the US Geological Survey estimates that electricity production alone makes up 49% of all water use.

Unfortunately, people tend too often to overlook the water-energy nexus until a catastrophic event happens. Water plays a vital role in the entire lifecycle of energy production, and it remains extremely vulnerable to the deleterious consequences that may arise from each step in the process – from extraction to refining to generation to distribution and beyond.

We know, for instance, than at least 20% of streams in West Virginia are heavily degraded due to mountaintop removal mining, an incredibly destructive form of coal extraction. In addition, we have seen several recent mishaps at other stages the process, whether it was the massive Freedom Industries chemical spill on the Elk River (refining), Saturday’s oil tanker spill outside of Houston (distribution), or the major coal ash spill on the Dan River.

Thermal pollution and water quality

But there exists another, less understood impact of energy production on freshwater resources – thermal pollution. The US gets 91% of its electricity from thermoelectric power plants; this category largely includes nuclear power plants and plants that run on fossil fuels. Thermoelectric plants generate massive amounts of heat during electricity generation process. This heat builds up within the plant and forces plant operators to draw in huge amounts of freshwater to cool the generators.

water withdrawals for power production

Daily water withdrawals for power production by state. As the map shows, water use is particularly high in the Great Lakes region (courtesy of the US Geological Survey).

Once-through cooling systems, which take in water once for cooling and then discharge it back into waterways, make up 31% of the US’s power plant fleet. These systems require 20,000-60,000 gallons of freshwater for cooling per megawatt hour (MWh) of energy produced. As a result, the Sierra Club estimates that power plants suck up more than 135 trillion gallons of water (PDF) each year for cooling alone.

This staggering total exacts a serious toll upon aquatic environments. Dicharged water temperatures are, on average, 8-12ºC warmer than the intake temperatures. As Madden, Lewis, and Davis noted in a 2013 study,

Aquatic organisms are highly dependent on specific thermal conditions in aquatic environments; water temperatures above or below optimal thermal regimes can cause stress or even death.

Such thermal pollution can negatively alter aquatic ecosystems in a number of ways. It can reduce the solubility of oxygen, stymie animal growth rates, change nutrient cycling processes, and increase the toxicity of chemicals like heavy metals and pesticides. Accordingly to Madden, Lewis, and Davis, increasing water temperatures by 7ºC has been shown to halve key biological processes, such as growth and reproduction. It’s no surprise, then, that power plants are responsible for the deaths of trillions of fish each year.

How water quality affects energy production

Interestingly enough, however, elevated water temperatures can also harm the efficiency of thermoelectric power plants. As water temperatures increase and stream levels drop, both the suitability and availability of cooling water decreases. During the severe heat wave that struck Western Europe in the summer of 2003, France saw its nuclear energy capacity fall by 7-15% for five consecutive weeks. This event marks a harbinger for our future in a warming world.

Climate change will reduce thermoelectric power production

According to a 2013 article in the journal Global Environmental Change (paywall), climate change will ensure that river temperatures increase significantly for a large swathe of the planet, while low river flows (lowest 10th percentile) will decrease for one-quarter of the global land surface area. Throughout much of the US, mean river temperatures are projected to increase by at least 2ºC, while high water temperatures will climb by 2.6-2.8ºC.

This spike in high water temperatures will be particularly critical for power plants, as they will occur during the period at which both water temperatures and energy demand are highest – the peak of summer. The Clean Water Act sets restrictions on the maximum temperature of water withdrawn and discharged by power plants; while the specific thresholds may vary by state, the temperature is commonly set between 27ºC and 32ºC. Research shows that more than half of all power plants with once-through cooling systems already exceed these numbers, demonstrating the vulnerability of the electricity system to global warming.

Using these numbers, van Vliet et al projected the impact that climate change will have on thermoelectric power plants (paywall) due to the combination of higher water temperatures and decreased river flows. They found that summer capacity for these plants will fall by 4.4-16% from 2031-2060. Moreover, these plants appear extremely sensitive to major reductions (greater than a 90% drop) in output as a result of global warming; the same study concludes that these events will increase nearly three-fold.

The Great Lakes region appears particularly vulnerable to falling electric output in a greenhouse world due to its heavy reliance on an aging fleet of coal-fired power plants. The National Climate Assessment notes that 95% of the Midwest’s electricity generating infrastructure (PDF) will likely see declines in output due to higher temperatures. As climate change increases stress simultaneously on aquatic ecosystems, drinking water supplies, and electricity production, potential conflicts over water uses will almost certainly increase among stakeholders.

Those of us who wish to protect our vital freshwater resources, like the Great Lakes, cannot afford to focus solely upon this sector, given its inextricable links to other areas. We need to worry as well about the stability of our climate and the makeup of our energy system. Renewable energy technologies use substantially less water than fossil fuel plants and will help shift us away from carbon-intensive energy sources. A 2012 study shows that if the US invests heavily in energy efficiency and renewable energy production, by 2050, water withdrawals and water consumption for energy production would fall by 97% and 85.2%, respectively. This shift would save 39.8 trillion gallons of water.

If we want to truly be stewards of our freshwater resources, we need to act as stewards for our climate.

Suburbs are terrible for the climate

carbon footprint map northeast ohio
carbon footprint map northeast ohio

Map of household carbon footprint intensity by zip code in Northeast Ohio (courtesy of the Cool Climate Network).

That’s the message of a new study from researchers at UC Berkeley. The research, which analyzes spatial differences in household carbon footprints (HCF) was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (paywall).

Unsurprisingly, the study finds that suburban areas have, on average, HCFs that are up to twice as large as the national average, which the authors place at 48.5 tons of CO2 per household. In dense urban centers, these numbers can be half the national average. On the whole, principal cities account for just 30% of total carbon emissions, while suburban areas account for 50% of emissions, despite having less than half of the total population. The significantly higher level of HCF in suburban areas, which reach above 85 tons of CO2 in certain areas, has the effect of offsetting many of the efficiency gains made by living in dense urban cores.

As Christopher Jones, a co-author of the study, notes:

“Metropolitan areas look like carbon footprint hurricanes, with dark green, low-carbon urban cores surrounded by red, high-carbon suburbs,” said Christopher Jones, a doctoral student working with Kammen in the Energy and Resources Group. “Unfortunately, while the most populous metropolitan areas tend to have the lowest carbon footprint centers, they also tend to have the most extensive high-carbon footprint suburbs.”

I decided to take a look at the variation of HCFs within Northeast Ohio. As expected, Cleveland and Akron both fit the model of a “carbon footprint hurricane,” as described by Jones. As the study notes, carbon emissions already start from a higher baseline in the Midwest due to the region’s heavy reliance upon coal for electricity generation (fortunately, in 2012, coal generation fell to 67% [PDF] of Ohio’s electricity generation from 85% in 2008).

HCF numbers stretch from lows of 21.1 tons and 26.5 tons in downtown Akron and Cleveland, respectively (numbers which are 57% and 45% below the national average), to highs of 75.4 tons in Hudson (155% of the average) and an astonishing 85.6 tons in uber-wealthy Gates Mills (176% of the average).

household carbon footprint for 44113

Household carbon footprint numbers for my home zip code, 44113

The two factors that ultimately supercharge HCF levels in Northeast Ohio’s suburbs are two of the central features of our sprawl-based development model – transportation and housing. In my neighborhood on Cleveland’s near West side (44113), housing – which includes emissions from electricity use – accounts for approximately 13 tons of carbon annually, while transportation generates just 7 tons.

Compare those numbers to 44139, the zip code for Solon, which saw its population increase by 9.56% from 2000 to 2010. In Solon, the average household generates 21 tons of CO2 from transportation and roughly 23 tons from housing.  Not to mention that the average HCF in the suburb is 95% higher than households in 44113.

household carbon footprint for 44139

Household carbon footprint numbers for Solon

As I’ve discussed before, sprawl has been at the heart of development throughout Northeast Ohio since at least the advent of the Interstate Highway System. Despite seeing its population grow by just 0.32% from 1948 to 2002, the amount of land developed in Cuyahoga County increased to 95% from just 26% during this period.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

As the population continued to spread out, vehicle miles traveled climbed, while public transportation utilization decreased apace. Annual ridership on the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority plummeted from a high of 129,691,743 riders in 1980 to 44,680,000 in 2010 – a decrease of two-thirds in just 30 years. As a result, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions (PDF) in Northeast Ohio.

These data clearly suggest that a suburban lifestyle is one of the leading drivers of carbon emissions in the US. Consistent with the fact that climate change is a massive environmental justice issue, the individuals in Northeast Ohio who generate the majority of carbon pollution are the least likely to endure the effects of climate change. Instead, as I’ve noted before, it is the poor, the elderly and infirmed, and persons of color living in urban areas – where carbon emissions are lowest – who will bear the greatest burden.

Unfortunately, Jones and Kammen also conclude that increasing population density is not the solution to this challenge. They find that increasing population density 10-fold only reduces HCF by one-quarter. Accordingly, they conclude that there is “no evidence for net [greenhouse gas] benefits of population density in urban cores or suburbs when considering effects on entire metropolitan areas.”

Instead, the authors argue that we need to increase energy efficiency in suburban areas by retrofitting homes, increasing penetration of electric vehicles, and expanding renewable energy generation. This suggests that urbanization is not a silver bullet to climate change, which is an important lesson to keep in mind as we move towards a world in which roughly 70% of people live in urban areas by 2050. We cannot afford to see US-style suburbanization expand into the developing world, or we may eliminate any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.