Strengthen bill C-12, then pass it

Last November, the federal government tabled the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (Bill C-12). The bill in its current form is a good first step in giving a level of detail and accountability to our country’s stated commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But it needs a few improvements before becoming the law of the land.

First, the bill omits an emissions target for 2025, instead making the first target a full 9 years away in 2030. Given that 2030 is approximately the deadline by which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared that action is necessary to prevent disaster, why not take a look at the halfway point, and course correct if we need to?

Second, Bill C-12 doesn’t adequately address how the federal government and the provinces will share the effort required to achieve emissions reductions. Different provinces have different emissions profiles (based on, for example, population and industry). The federal government must help each province develop and implement their respective plans, so that the parts will add up to the desired whole.

Bill C-12 also needs to place greater emphasis on the oversight role of independent scientific experts, and less on politicians. In the bill’s current form, there is indeed a new “Advisory” body, but how much authority this group will really have is unclear.

The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act is close, but not quite ready for prime-time. With a few small adjustments, it can be a law we’ll be proud to compare with similar successful laws in the UK and New Zealand.

Climate progress: The angel is in the details

A majority of us, and arguably a vast majority of us, have understood for years that we need to slow climate change. To borrow from the terminology of marketing research, the “sentiment” is well established. This is why it has been relatively straightforward to get national governments to commit to long-range, aspirational, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions targets. Canada, for example, isn’t unique in declaring its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Making these declarations is relatively painless to do. In political calculus, it’s not hard to imagine that such goals produce more good will than bad (though the latter reaction does persist as a stubborn minority view).

So what comes next? As a nation, how do you get beyond the initial sentiment to meaningful and measurable action? How do you move from big, distant goals to incremental and provable progress toward those goals? It turns out that the angel is in the details.

Ecojustice and a few other Canadian environmental groups are framing this next phase in terms of governmental accountability. In A New Canadian Climate Accountability Act: Building the legal foundation to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, the authors make a thoughtful case for how this might be achieved. It’s not easy, and there are a lot of moving parts. But now is the time to make this a national focal point.

Crucial to the accountability plan is to establish an expert commission that makes recommendations, sets incremental targets, and ensures that funding incentives and responsibilities are correctly calibrated according to the overall 2050 goal. This commission is stitched into the highest levels of governance and policy-making, so it has the legitimacy of being “in the room where it happens.” Moreover, the commission must consult abundantly with the provinces and with Indigenous groups, and is responsible for frequent reporting to the public for improved transparency. That is to say: the commission is powerful but must steer clear of blunt-instrument problem-solving and inadequately explained dictates.

Think the notion of detailed accountability is just another unworkable idea in bureaucratic Canada? It’s not. The UK and New Zealand took the dive years ago, and their successes and even failures can be used as a template to guide our own effort now.

Think Canada’s already got this issue covered? We don’t. According to the Ecojustice report, we’ve missed every single GHG reduction target to date. And being situated closer to the pole than many nations means that global warming is a bigger problem and happening much faster in Canada than elsewhere.

Our elected officials must introduce a climate accountability law by the end of 2020.

UPDATE: On November 19, the House of Commons did indeed put forward BILL C-12: An Act respecting transparency and accountability in Canada’s efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.

Wild salmon runs: Help coming this month?

What follows is another letter to the Trudeau government on behalf of the environmental group, Ecojustice.

It might be human nature: commitments made with ardent urgency at one point in time can lose their intensity with the passage of time. I get it. I’m asking you today to resist this natural impulse and make good on an important commitment made years ago on the campaign trail.

The Cohen Commission report of 2012-13 found a clear connection between reduced sockeye salmon runs and open-net fish farms. In one particular area of British Columbia, the Discovery Islands, a cluster of these fish farms makes for a perilous journey through narrow waterways for wild salmon making their way from the Fraser River out to open ocean. The transmission of sea lice from farmed salmon endangers the lives of the migrating salmon, but the issue is even more broad than that.

The Cohen Commission states: “Open net pen aquaculture, as currently practiced in British Columbia, has the potential to create problems for wild salmon populations because the pens are open to the environment, allowing wastes, chemicals and pathogens to move freely back and forth.”

These farms must be removed per Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise years ago during campaigning. Trudeau pledged to implement every one of the Cohen Commission’s 75 recommendations to remedy the problem of diminishing wild salmon runs in the province. Importantly, there’s a deadline coming up soon on one of the most important of these recommendations: #19, pertaining to the prohibition of net pen salmon farming in the Discovery Islands by September 30 of this year.

That date quickly approaches, and I’m concerned that we’ve not yet heard from the Trudeau government about whether you will keep your promise. Words can be great, but actions matter more. I urge you meet your deadline, and take action now rather than delay for any reason, be it for yet another round of further study or to compromise with the farming industry now that the Cohen Commission inquiry feels like a distant memory.

Wild salmon are a keystone species. They need to be protected. I’m counting on you to do what was promised to Canadians on the campaign trail and remove all open-net fish farms from the Discovery Islands.

UPDATE: On December 17, 2020, Canada’s Fisheries Minister announced that the Discovery Islands fish farms would be completely phased out by summer of 2022. These farms cannot acquire new fish in the interim period. They can only harvest existing stocks.

The proposed T2 project off the coast of Delta, BC

Here’s a letter to Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, on behalf of the environmental group Ecojustice:

I’m against the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project for a number of reasons, but here are the three most important:

  • The environmental impact is to an area known to be important and already under stress. It’s one thing to prioritize commercial growth when the area affected is known to be unstressed and potentially resilient to such pressures. Quite another to conclude that Canadians are willing to look the other way when we know of species at risk, and lands and waters for which we owe responsible stewardship could be harmed. The Federal Review Panel Report of March 2020 found in a summary of its key findings: “…the Project would result in numerous adverse residual and cumulative effects.”
  • The building and operation of the proposed terminal isn’t simply a zero-sum game in which you can calculate a win for people despite a loss for habitat. There are many people in the affected region who are likely to experience diminished quality of life due to the project. For example, the Federal Review Panel Report concluded that several Indigenous groups could be impacted by the project due to changes in their current use of lands and resources in the area. And generally in the City of Delta, BC, local populations could be impacted because of limits on outdoor recreation, increase in exposure to nitrogen dioxide and other respiratory irritants, noise, light, dust, and stress.
  • By the Port of Vancouver’s own calculations and admission, the massive T2 project will be inadequate to cover Canada’s international commerce needs within a decade. In their FAQ on project facts, they state: “…construction of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 Project could begin in 2022 and would take approximately six years to complete. Our goal, through building the project, is to ensure that Canada is able to meet trade plans and objectives through to the mid- to late-2030s.” In historical terms, this is barely even a blip. We would simply pass on to the next generation the need to scale up still further, on the backs of some other community and region.

How to talk to oil and gas enthusiasts: Canadian edition

Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, I am now witnessing what is arguably the most important energy policy debate on the North American continent today. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proposal is pitting province against province, and province against the federal government of Canada, in increasingly dramatic terms. Thrown in for good measure, my home state of Washington, neighboring British Columbia, has good reason to get involved in the dispute as well.

The concern south of the border has to do with significantly increased oil tanker traffic, and the potential for spills right in the middle of orca territory. The prolific journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Joel Connelly, reviews the risks here: Connelly: Dow Constantine joins B.C. pipeline resistance.

The concern in the Vancouver area, where the pipeline expansion terminates in massive holding tanks, includes pipeline leaks, emissions, and fire risk to the local residents. The public health risks, which include exposure to lethal chemicals, are compellingly detailed in the 2016 study, Kinder Morgan and Public Health, written by a group of physicians.

For an overview of the project, including the federal government of Canada’s reasoning for approving it, see Justin Trudeau Approves Oil Pipeline Expansion in Canada.

The province of Alberta has for decades been a powerful voice in Canadian energy policy-making, with vast reserves of oil and natural gas that it sells both to other Canadian provinces, and to international markets. Their expressed concern with B.C.’s objection to the pipeline expansion is economic. In the popular imagination, whenever we hear stories of oil workers thrown out of work or industry towns in the carbon economy falling victim to out-of-touch environmental priorities, we conjure up images of honest, no-nonsense folk working hard just to scrape out a modest living. It’s easy to forget that the average standard of living in an area like Alberta is comparatively very high. Moreover, this standard of living is based on a diversified economy, not entirely dependent on a carbon energy sector.

Yet B.C. and Alberta have for a couple of years now simply been talking past one another, and getting increasingly shrill about it. I’m trying to imagine a new discussion path, whereby we can value the oil and gas resources available in Alberta, yet respect the health, safety, and environmental objections of a broad coalition of people in British Columbia and the state of Washington.
Think of the oil and gas as a bank account. And not just any old checking account, but as part of a regional (and even global) nest egg. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly.
Think of the oil and gas as a bank account. And not just any old checking account, but as part of a regional (and even global) nest egg. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly.
The carbon-based resources are a form of security, socked away against hard times or emergencies. We should be grinning from ear to ear that we have it, that we know how to use it for our energy needs, and that we can now keep it in the ground to save it for later. We should be proud that we can pass it along like an inheritance to future generations, not just decades down the road, but centuries.

The plain, immutable fact is that carbon-based energy resources are finite. Yes, it’s lovely to discover new natural gas plays and oil fields. But no matter what, they are finite, and frankly we are already glimpsing at this finitude. Deep-water drilling has proven to be exceedingly dangerous. And, even more to the point in the debate about the Kinder Morgan pipeline, when you are champing at the bit to utilize tar sands, an extremely dirty and expensive-to-process form of oil, you know you’ve reached some kind of inflection point for energy policy.

Renewables (primarily wind and solar, combined with some form of storage) should be the energy currency we are using now for day-to-day “expenses.” In places where hydro infrastructure already exists, and provides an abundant source of clean power, this can complement wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal options. Energy efficiency measures, particularly useful when scaled to large metro populations, must underlie the whole system.

And finally, gratefully, in back of all this will be our reserves of oil and gas, hopefully never having to be used. That which is saved tends to be valued even more highly. I can imagine a new mind-set that would even consider these resources beautiful, part of our beautiful home rock, part of our loved environment. Precisely because they are kept in the ground.

Five questions PSE should answer in 2017

Like other utilities across the U.S., Puget Sound Energy (PSE) is paying attention to market forces and ratepayer concerns, and turning away from coal as a lead player in its energy portfolio. Up for debate is what fills the void left by the decommissioning of coal-fired power plants: will the twenty-first century become the century of natural gas, or will renewables like wind and solar be given a real chance to grow to utility scale?

For PSE, this matter has been under active consideration for much of 2016, and may well be decided this year. How will the utility replace the power from two of their four coal plants in Colstrip, Montana, when these plants are formally taken offline in 2022. (The combined output of the Colstrip facility represents about 20 percent of the power used by PSE.) The Sierra Club has researched and proposed a mix of efficiency measures and renewable generation (for example, Montana wind) to replace Colstrip 1 and 2. But currently, all indications are that PSE wants to build natural gas power plants instead.

Here are five questions PSE must answer for ratepayers before going all-in on natural gas in this way:

Are you planning to build your natural gas plants here in the state of Washington?

A national map of technically recoverable natural gas resources shows that our region isn’t exactly brimming with potential in this regard. For example, the Gulf Coast region (with 536 trillion cubic feet, or tcf) has nearly ten times as much as the Pacific region (54 tcf), and is itself a distant second to the Atlantic region (833 tcf).

If the plan is to site the natural gas plants where there is a more abundant supply (for example, Montana), what are the additional legal, political, and logistical hurdles for the utility in doing so that would ultimately affect the company’s ratepayers?

Are you committed to building combined cycle plants to maximize efficiency?

This method, which refers to the process of capturing waste heat to power a steam turbine, provides a significant boost to the efficiency of a typical gas-fired power plant. (For comparison, coal-burning plants are 33 percent efficient, gas-fired plants are 42 percent efficient, and combined cycle plants are 60 percent efficient.) Ratepayers should be assured that PSE is opting to maximize the efficiency of any new natural gas plant it builds.

Do you plan on using fracking? What safety precautions will you employ? What insurance and legal protections will you put in place to protect your shareholders from accidents, environmental disasters, and lawsuits?

Hydraulic fracturing is an admittedly ingenious technology, almost wholly responsible for the increasing estimates of how much natural gas is accessible in the rocks beneath us. But fracking carries with it such a host of environmental dangers, from jaw-dropping water consumption to chemical contamination of groundwater to exacerbation of seismic activity, that any use of it must be subjected to a rigorous cost-benefit analysis. The state of New York banned fracking in 2014. Isn’t it possible the state of Washington would do the same?

Will you allow the flaring of methane and ethane from your gas fields?

Gas flared from oil and gas fields is simply wasted, and is a practice that the World Bank has called for to end by 2030. Though flaring is more common in the oil industry than the natural gas industry, the World Bank states of the latter: “While in many cases the lighter components, methane and ethane, are then re-injected into the reservoir, in some cases these components are flared. This type of flaring is arguably worse than flaring from oil fields because a larger portion of the overall hydrocarbon production is being flared.”

How will you measure methane emissions from the plants? What’s an acceptable level of leakage?

Studies of methane emissions from natural gas fields have varied from region to region in the U.S., and depend to some degree on the age and condition of the equipment used. But PSE should be committed to state-of-the-art design and equipment to ensure the least emissions possible of this powerful greenhouse gas. If the industry standard hovers between 1-2 percent, PSE should commit to less emissions than the industry standard.

Energy bills slashed by 71 percent

The data evidence is in, and it shows that solar panels have reduced my energy bills by 71 percent, with greater reductions expected for calendar year 2016.

Table showing energy bills over three-year period.

Comparison of annual bills paid to Puget Sound Energy, 2013-2015. “Adjusted energy bill” refers to the amount paid after the solar production payment is factored in.

In 2013, the last calendar year in which I didn’t have the solar array, my bill from PSE totaled $1343.05, for electricity and natural gas (the furnace and water heater are powered by natural gas).

In 2014, which saw the installation of the array in October, my bill from PSE totaled $1240.85. This was down approximately 8 percent from the previous year, a decrease possibly (although not definitively) associated with the transition to solar for my electricity.

And in 2015, the first full calendar year in which the solar array was operative, my bill from PSE totaled $881.26. This figure is down approximately 29 percent from the previous year, and 33 percent from 2013. This shows the impact of the solar panels in and of themselves, and while it is not as dramatic a reduction as I had imagined it might be, the reason for this is clear. Heating in winter is easily the costliest component of my power portfolio, and this is supplied by natural gas, not electricity.

But if you factor in the solar production payment from 2015, which was $498.30, this offsets approximately 57 percent of my power bill for that year. This “adjusted energy bill,” then, is down roughly 69 percent from the previous year, and roughly 71 percent from 2013.

The numbers for 2016 should be even better, with the solar production payment jumping to $738.64, against a total PSE bill probably very similar to that paid last year. Production increased in 2016 to 5276 kWh, over the 2015 total of 3322 kWh. (Note: the 2015 production total was lower because it was based on only nine months of array usage.)

The array also achieved a milestone on August 30 of this year: 10 megawatts (or 10,000 kilowatts) produced in total.

State solar incentive program still going strong

Two years in, I have reached a point, amazingly enough, where I consider my solar panels a routine part of my world. They quietly warm and accelerate their profusion of electrons, and I can go for days now without thinking of them at all.

But then something happens that, shall we say, jolts me out of my inattention. Recently it was the deposit of some $738.64 from Puget Sound Energy into my bank account, representing its annual solar production payout for the array on my roof. The money actually originates in a state of Washington fund to incentivize the adoption of renewable energy (including solar, wind, and even anaerobic digestion applications).

All the buzz over the last few months has been how dramatically an individual’s payout would be reduced this year, due to the fact that the amount in the overall fund remains constant, while the number of people participating in the renewable economy in the state is increasing substantially. But the cuts were less than anticipated: my own system, which is categorized as “solar manufactured out of state”, now pays at a rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour produced, down only a penny from the previous year. Other categories were comparable in their marginal reductions.

This is not to suggest that the future of such a fund is secure. A former mayor of Seattle, who had gone solar at approximately the same time that I did, recently decried the possibility of payout reductions from their original incentive rates as a kind of “bait-and-switch” deception of consumers. Indeed, it is commonplace to calculate a prospective solar customer’s ROI before the customer commits to the installation. Calculating incentives, tax breaks, and electricity produced, the installer can at least give you a ballpark estimate: your system will pay for itself in 15 years, say, or 10, or even 5! But if a major piece of the calculation is subject to change at each legislative session, that ROI becomes much less predictable.

We’ll see how it plays out. But in the meantime, all this got me to thinking more about the economics of going solar. Next post I will go through some of the interesting data that is now accumulating from two years’ worth of having a solar array.

UPDATE: Washington’s renewable energy incentive program finally did reach an end in the summer of 2020.

A surprising new environmental coalition

Yesterday I had the pleasure of joining over 100 of my fellow energy policy geeks as we filled to overflow capacity the hearing room of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC). It was the largest crowd ever to attend a UTC hearing, and we were there to voice objections to a plan by Puget Sound Energy (PSE) to continue operation of the coal plant in Colstrip, Montana, for another two decades at least.
The Sierra Club organized the activity, including transportation to and from Olympia where the commission does its work. The venerable environmental group has gotten involved because approximately 30 percent of PSE’s electricity comes from Colstrip, and PSE is the single largest owner of that plant.
Among the wide array of experts and interested citizens participating in the hearing were Montana ranchers directly harmed by the pollution emanating from smokestacks and collecting in ponds around Colstrip, public officials from both Montana and Washington (Nathaniel Jones, Mayor Pro Tem of the City of Olympia, was particularly eloquent), and scientists and attorneys speaking to the degradation of water and air quality attributable to the Colstrip plant.

For its part, the three-member UTC board patiently listened to some five hours of testimony, asking numerous questions and sparring occasionally with environmental attorneys when the latter seemed to be asking more of the commission than its defined charter permitted. Essentially that charter is an economic one: to determine whether a private utility can pass the cost of capital investment on to its customers via their electricity bills. But commissioners admitted that environmental and even moral arguments could ultimately factor in to their economic analysis and decisions.

So, will this large-scale effort to influence the UTC amount to anything? I am genuinely encouraged that it will, at the very least, cause the commission to recommend to PSE that it revise its 20-year plan, and provide some specifics around retiring at least the two older of Colstrip’s four coal-fired boilers.

Photo of solar panels

The data is in: Year one for the solar array

A year ago yesterday I was toasting the completion of the solar array installation at my house. At the time, I knew that if I wasn’t at the cutting edge of the residential renewable energy movement, I was at least in a very small minority of homeowners who had actually purchased rooftop solar.

Now we finally have a large enough sample size to look at the data and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the installation and how it fits into the context of this home’s energy use.

Production from the panels: 15.1 kWh per day. Electricity use in our home: 11.3 kWh per day.

The sunlight hitting the surface of the 20 solar panels on my roof for a full year produced 5.5 megawatts of electricity, which is exactly what was forecast by the company that installed the system. So the system performed as expected, factoring in the location and orientation of the roof, the number and wattage rating of the SolarWorld panels, expected shading from backyard trees, and so on. I’m very appreciative to Northwest Electric and Solar, as well as Solarize Bellevue, for their honesty and accuracy in setting expectations for how the array would perform.

Some notable details on the production side:

  • The system averaged 15.1 kWh per day. Over time, it’s normal to see slight decreases in production, so it will be interesting to track, year-over-year, whether the system will continue to generate close to this level of production.
  • Production was highly dependent on season, even more so than I had anticipated. For example, December was unable even to crack 4 kWh per day. June, on the other hand, soared to just over 30 kWh per day. The best six-month span (what I like to call the baseball months, April through September) produced nearly 85 percent of the total for the year.
  • Cleaning the panels had little to no impact on production. I cleaned them myself one morning, and although I could see a difference in the appearance of the panels, I was disappointed to find no difference in the “before-and-after” numbers. However, I will likely have the array professionally cleaned just to confirm.

Probably the first question any homeowner considering solar has is, “Can the panels take care of all my electricity needs, and spin my meter backwards?”

The data bears out that this was definitely the case at our house. But it should be noted that our electricity consumption is significantly less than the average American household. The house itself is relatively small (fewer than 1400 square feet), there are only two of us living here, and we try to make energy-efficient choices in lighting, appliances, and so on. So the medium-sized array on the roof easily handled our electricity needs over the year.

Earlier this year, I purchased an electric vehicle. Right now, because of a promotional perk, I’m charging it free at fast-charge stations outside the house. But eventually I will use the charger I had installed in my garage. That will most likely use up the surplus electricity from my panels, putting us back at approximately net-zero. We could always add more panels to the roof, so that production continues to stay ahead of usage. At the moment, I can’t see doing that, but it is a good reminder that solar scales at least as far as your rooftop allows!