Talking about all things energy, from clean tech, to biofuels, and policy.

Europe Whets Appetite for Coal as U.S. Eschews It

Natural gas is proving to be a significant challenger to the dominance of coal in the U.S., but not necessarily overseas, according to two new Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports.

The EIA released the reports several days after the Environmental Protection Agency announced proposed regulations heavily capping carbon dioxide emissions on future coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Another set of rules is expected to follow next year, capping carbon emissions at existing coal-fired power plants.

Monthly generation from natural gas and coal.
Credit: EIA

Both proposed emission standards are part of the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan, which has been criticized by industry as a “war on coal.”

The EIA reports paint a complex picture for coal in the U.S., strongly suggesting that, for now, use of natural gas for generating electricity is generally increasing, but the opposite is occuring in Europe. The first report shows that rising coal exports to Europe are helping nations there reduce their consumption of natural gas and increase their burning of coal for electricity.

“In contrast to the United States, natural gas consumption in OECD-Europe has been generally declining since 2011, and coal consumption has been generally increasing,” the EIA report said. “A confluence of supply and demand factors, in both the natural gas and coal markets, as well as other economic constraints, have contributed to this phenomenon.”

Imports of natural gas and European natural gas production are decreasin...

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What Is America’s Most Fuel-Efficient Airline?

Commercial flying is a greenhouse gas emission-intensive mode of travel regardless how fuel efficient airlines claim to be, but some carriers are significantly more efficient than others. The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) ranked 15 major U.S. airlines in order of fuel efficiency, but the group said more work needs to be done to learn why some airlines are more efficient than others.

More than 9 million commercial flights depart U.S. airports each year at a time when aviation accounts for the fastest-growing greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. transportation sector. The aviation industry contributes about 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the European Commission projects that by 2020 the global aviation emissions will be about 70 percent higher than they were in 2005 even with airlines' efforts to improve fuel efficiency. 

The International Council on Clean Transportation's ranking of U.S. airlines operating in 2010 based on its model of fuel efficiency.
Credit: ICCT

The ICCT used U.S. Department of Transportation airline data to determine that the least fuel efficient airline, Allegiant Air, is 26 percent less fuel efficient than the most efficient airline, Alaska Airlines, which flies its Boeing 737 jets to numerous remote Arctic locations — think Adak Island, Nome and Prudhoe Bay. Conversely, Allegiant, flies mainly decades-old McDonnell Douglas MD-80-series aircraft known for guzzling fuel.

ICCT’s analysis ranked the 15 mainline air carriers that were operating in the U.S. in 2010, including Continental Airlines, which merged with United Airlines the...

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You Asked, We Answered: Response to 2013 Cars Report

By Daniel Yawitz, Alyson Kenward, and Eric Larson

In the month since we released our report, A Roadmap to Climate Friendly Cars: 2013 we have received many good questions and insightful comments from readers. Thank you to everyone who has taken time to give us feedback. We especially appreciate those who recognized the inherent challenges involved in carrying out and presenting lifecycle analyses. Our research team has reviewed all of the reader responses, and here we offer some additional thoughts and clarification to address those comments. 

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  • Several readers thought that for gasoline we considered only the emissions from combustion and not the full lifecycle emissions (including emissions during oil extraction, transportation, and refining). As we wrote in the report, we did consider the full lifecycle emissions for gasoline. To do otherwise would not be an apples-to-apples comparison.
     
  • One reader thought we had used a 20-year GWP when assessing electric vehicle emissions and a 100-yr GWP for assessing gasoline vehicles. In retrospect, our report is not clear on this point, so the confusion was understandable, but in fact we applied 20-yr GWP values for ALL vehicles analyzed. To do otherwis...

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Wind Power Has its Limits, But It’s Not the Sky

From the climate’s point of view, wind turbines are a great way to generate electricity. The energy source is absolutely free, and turning breezes into kilowatts releases precisely zero heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Sure, it takes energy to build and transport and assemble turbines — some of it, undoubtedly, derived from fossil fuels — but once that giant pinwheel is up and turning, emissions drop off the map. The other thing people like about wind power is that it’s essentially limitless.

Limitless, that is, unless you’re a scientist who thinks hard about such things. Three of those scientists have been thinking hard about the limits of wind power — and their thoughts have turned into a paper just published in Nature Climate Change.

In principle, they argue, the very existence of wind turbines could slow the planet’s winds to the point where they couldn’t generate any more energy. In practice, fortunately, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

The analysis considers both conventional, ground-based wind turbines and futuristic flying turbines that could take advantage of the steadier, stronger winds that blow at high altitudes. In both cases, a big enough fleet would slow the wind and limit the total energy available for electricity making.

For the flying windmills, that limit would be 1,800 terawatts, or 1.8 billion watts — 100 times more electricity than the entire planet currently uses. The ground-based turbines would top out at a mere 40...

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Heat and Drought Pose Risks for Nuclear Power Plants

Compared to coal and natural gas, nuclear power plants offer a significant advantage when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions — they don't emit any. However, in an ironic twist, it seems that climate change is increasingly causing problems for operators of nuclear plants. 

The Braidwood nuclear power plant located in Will County, Illinois.
Credit: Exelon.

Like coal-fired power plants, nuclear facilities use large amounts of water for cooling purposes. After water has cycled through the plant, it is discharged back into a nearby waterway, usually a lake or a river, at a higher temperature. State regulations prohibit nuclear plants from operating once water temperatures go above a certain threshold, in part because it could compromise the safe operation of the facility, and also because discharging very warm water can kill fish and other marine life.

According to the New York Times' Matthew L. Wald, the Braidwood Generating Station, located about 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was recently granted a waiver to continue operating despite the fact that the unusually hot and dry summer had heated the water it was taking in to a toasty 102°F — 2 degrees above the legal operating limit for the plant. 

Like much of the country, Illinois has had an extremely hot summer. In fact, Illinois had its warmest January-to-June period on record.

Map showing that temperatures across much of the U.S., including Illinois, have been running well above average during the past 30 days.
Credit: NOAA/CPC.

According to Wald's story, operators of the Braidwood plant have been hit by the combination of extremely hot days and very warm nights. Nationally, thousands of daily high temperature records a...

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