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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on the controversial Cape Wind project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts? -- Mitchell Barstow, Bern, NC

First proposed in 2001, the Cape Wind Project aims to put 130 wind turbines across 24 square miles of Horseshoe Shoal almost five miles offshore of Massachusetts’ Cape Cod to generate some 1,500 gigawatt hours of electricity per year from clean, renewable wind power. The project has been polarizing from the get-go, pitting well-heeled Cape Cod homeowners opposed to the obstruction of their ocean views against environmental advocates intent on implementing cleaner energy sources.

Things were looking rosy for Cape Wind, which finally gained approval from federal and state regulators in 2011 and then lined up contracts with two big utilities, National Grid and Northeast Utilities, to purchase its green power. But recent news that Cape Wind was unable to reach funding milestones—despite raising some $2.6 billion to date—that would have enabled the commencement of construction by the end of 2014 means the beleaguered project may finally be, in the words of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound’s Audra Parker, “dead in the water.” Indeed, a week after the missed deadline, National Grid and Northeast Utilities terminated their contracts with Cape Wind, and analysts don’t see any way forward for the project.

Slated to be America’s first offshore wind farm, Cape Wind may be the most famous offshore wind project to never happen. But other plans to develop offshore wind farms off the coast of Massachusetts may be in the works. Ellen McNamara reports in the Boston Globe Magazine that the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing to open up another ocean swath across some 700,000 acres south of Martha’s Vineyard (an island off of Cape Cod) to competitive bids from wind developers. Other offshore wind projects are slated for the Gulf of Mexico and near Block Island off Rhode Island’s coast.

But it’s anybody’s guess whether these other projects can get their heads above water given the expiration of the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) at the end of 2014. The PTC rebated wind energy developers 2.3 cents per kilowatt hour of electricity produced for their first 10 years of operation.

The non-profit American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports that with the PTC in effect from 2007-2014, U.S. wind capacity nearly quadrupled, representing an annual average investment of nearly $15 billion. Thanks in part to the PTC, upwards of 70 percent of U.S. Congressional districts now host a wind project or wind-related manufacturing facility that is helping boost local economic development across the country. And perhaps most important, the PTC has been an instrumental tool in helping lower the cost of generating electricity from wind by more than 40 percent over the past four years. But just because the costs of generating wind energy have come down doesn’t mean wind energy projects are ready to survive without the PTC subsidy in an energy market still dominated by cheap and abundant natural gas.

But with Republicans firmly in control of Congress, the topic of renewing the PTC doesn’t even seem to be on the legislative agenda for 2015. While Cape Wind’s recent troubles don’t seem to be tied directly to the expiration of the PTC, an unfriendly legislative environment for renewables doesn’t augur well for reviving the ambitious plans to put up windmills in Horseshoe Shoal.

CONTACTS: Cape Wind, www.capewind.org; Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, www.saveoursound.org; American Wind Energy Association, www.awea.org.


Dear EarthTalk: What is the “National Food Policy” that environmentalists and foodies are asking President Obama to enact by Executive Order, and how would it affect American diets?
  -- Justin Brockway, Los Angeles, CA

A November 2014 op-ed piece in The Washington Post entitled “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of American Lives” makes the case for President Obama to sign into law an executive order establishing a national food policy for managing the nation’s food system as a whole.

Authored by food writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, along with Union of Concerned Scientists’ Ricardo Salvador and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, the op-ed states that because of unhealthy diets, a third of our kids will develop Type 2 diabetes—a preventable disease that was formerly rare in children.

“Type 2 diabetes is a disease that, along with its associated effects, now costs $245 billion, or 23 percent of the national deficit in 2012, to treat each year,” the authors note. “The good news is that solutions are within reach—precisely because the problems are largely a result of government policies.” The authors cite Brazil and Mexico—countries they consider “far ahead of the United States in developing food policies”—as examples for positive change: “Mexico’s recognition of food as a key driver of public health led to the passage last year of a national tax on junk food and soda, which in the first year has reduced consumption of sugary beverages by 10 percent and increased consumption of water.” 

While the White House has not responded in any way to the suggestion thus far, the article’s message that the current food system has caused “incalculable damage” remains alarming.

Whether or not to pass our own tax on junk food and soda in the U.S. has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Some say it’s deceitful to suggest that a tax on sodas is necessary to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes when numerous other unhealthy options like sugary caffeinated beverages, candy, ice cream, fast food and video games that promote sedentary behavior would still be widely available. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Public Economics suggests that soft drink taxation leads to a moderate reduction in soft drink consumption by children and adolescents; however “this reduction in soda consumption is completely offset by increases in consumption of other high-calorie drinks.” Furthermore, in 2010, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg stated that "an extra 12 cents on a can of soda would raise nearly $1 billion,” which suggests that government officials expect people to continue buying soda despite the tax.

Even though passing a soda tax has proven to be controversial, The Washington Post op-ed clearly points out the federal government’s contradictions concerning food. Existing federal guidelines for the U.S. diet, known as MyPlate, recommend that half the food we eat should be fruits and vegetables, yet these foods are granted less than one percent of farm subsidies. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of subsidies go toward corn and other grains. The result, the op-ed states, is the “spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidize its production.”

CONTACTS: Michael Pollan, www.michaelpollan.com; Mark Bittman, www.markbittman.com; Olivier De Schutter, www.srfood.org; Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org; MyPlate, www.choosemyplate.gov.


Dear EarthTalk: What’s going to happen to the U.S. solar industry when the federal solar investment tax credit expires next year? -- Victoria Chase, Washington, DC

In the U.S., a new solar project was installed every three minutes in 2014, and jobs in the solar industry rose from 15,000 employees in 2005 to nearly 174,000 today. This substantial growth is in large part thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s 30 percent Investment Tax Credit (ITC) for commercial and residential solar energy systems. In 2007, after only one year of implementation, the ITC led to the doubling of installed solar electric capacity. In 2008, Congress passed an eight-year extension of the ITC, allowing solar to become the fastest growing energy source in the U.S. Solar has also become much more affordable: The average installed cost per watt has dropped from around $7.50 in 2009 to $2.89 in 2013.

After December 2016, the ITC solar credit will drop from 30 percent to 10 percent and the residential credit will drop to zero—unless Congress extends this deadline. Large companies are currently making significant solar investments before the solar tax credit deadline arrives. In February 2015, Apple announced that it would spend $848 million over 25 years to buy 130 megawatts of electricity from First Solar’s California Flats Solar Project in Monterey County. The project, which will occupy 2,900 acres of land in Cholame, California, is the solar industry’s largest-ever corporate power purchase agreement.

“Apple’s commitment was instrumental in making this project possible and will significantly increase the supply of solar power in California,” said Joe Kishkill, First Solar’s chief commercial officer. “Over time, the renewable energy from California Flats will provide cost savings over alternative sources of energy as well as substantially lower environmental impact.” 

Two weeks after Apple’s announcement, Google announced that they would be making a $300 million investment with SolarCity, America’s largest solar provider, for residential solar projects across 14 states and the District of Columbia. The SolarCity fund, which totals $750 million, is the largest of its kind ever created for residential solar power. “We’re happy to support SolarCity’s mission to help families reduce their carbon footprint and energy costs,” said Sidd Mundra, Renewable Energy Principal at Google. “It’s good for the environment, good for families and also makes good business sense.”

Duke Energy has also played a major role in catapulting solar energy in North Carolina, which ranked third among states during the third quarter of 2014 in installed capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Duke Energy’s $500 million solar expansion plan includes their recent approval to build three solar farms in eastern North Carolina that will total 128 megawatts of capacity.

“These projects will help provide significant amounts of cost-effective renewable energy to benefit our customers,” said Rob Caldwell, Duke Energy’s senior vice president for distributed energy resources.

To allow solar to continue to soar, the 2016 U.S. Budget includes proposals “to reform and renew tax credits that incentivize the deployment of wind, solar, and carbon capture sequestration technologies.” Ken Johnson, chief spokesman for SEIA, says that his group plans to lobby Congress to extend the credit. “That’s our top priority for this session of Congress,” he said, adding that developers across the solar industry are “trying to do as much as possible before it drops to 10 percent in 2017.”

CONTACTS: First Solar, www.firstsolar.com; Solar City, www.solarcity.com; Duke Energy, www.duke-energy.com; SEIA, www.seia.org.


Dear EarthTalk: How do environmentalists feel about the concept of ocean fertilization as a form of carbon sequestration?      -- Jeffrey Edwards, Pomfret, CT

Ocean fertilization is a technique whereby swaths of ocean are “seeded” with iron to promote the growth of phytoplankton (microscopic plants that form the base of the marine food chain), and is one of several promising geo-engineering techniques that could help mitigate global warming. Also known as carbon sinking or ocean seeding, the idea was first suggested in the 1980s by Moss Landing Marine Labs’ John Martin, who subsequently conducted experiments off the California coast confirming that phytoplankton growth could be encouraged by dumping ferrous sulfate (iron) into nutrient-deprived areas of the ocean.

More recently, California entrepreneur Russ George has developed ways through his firm, Planktos to use ocean fertilization to help governments and companies meet emissions reduction goals. In 2012 Planktos helped the Haida Gwaii tribe of western Canada spread 100 tons of iron sulphate into the Pacific 180 miles off the coast of British Columbia, which triggered a phytoplankton bloom across 10,000 square miles of ocean. Juvenile salmon feed on phytoplankton, and salmon runs came back fourfold across the region. The tribe is keen to use ocean fertilization to restore the severely depleted salmon fishery they have depended on for centuries and to generate income from the sale of carbon credits to the Canadian government (a carbon credit—or carbon offset—is a credit for greenhouse gas reductions achieved by one entity that can be purchased and used to compensate (offset) the emissions of other entity).

But some environmental leaders warn that ocean fertilization might be too good to be true as a tool for mitigating climate change. “Many scientists have suggested that the complex interplay between the iron and carbon cycles prevents any direct extrapolation of how much carbon dioxide will actually be removed from the atmosphere following fertilization,” says Jackie Savitz, Vice-President for U.S. Oceans at the non-profit Oceana. “This means we will never be able to estimate the benefits, much less verify them well enough to sell carbon offsets based on fertilization.” 

Savitz adds that “much of the carbon taken up by phytoplankton may simply be re-released when those plants are consumed by bacteria or zooplankton at rates that are impossible to accurately predict.” She also worries that large-scale, long-term fertilization could drastically alter marine ecosystems: “Unanticipated downsides, like changing the phytoplankton community structure, could cause repercussions throughout the food web, and may disturb key feeding relationships.”

Another issue with ocean fertilization is that phytoplankton blooms could release large amounts of other greenhouse gases, like methane or dimethyl sulfide, that are even more potent than the carbon dioxide they are sequestering. Also, the bacterial decay resulting from the die-off of massive iron-induced phytoplankton blooms could create oxygen-free dead zones in the water column that could leave marine ecosystems in worse shape than before.

“Rather than engaging in expensive and uncertain experiments on our oceans,” Savitz concludes, “we should move away from fossil fuels, by stopping subsidies, and stopping expansion of offshore drilling and at the same time, invest in technologies like solar and wind power that are certain to reduce carbon emissions without threatening complex ocean ecosystems.”

CONTACTS: Moss Landing Marine Labs, www.mlml.calstate.edu; Planktos, www.planktos.com; Oceana, www.oceana.org.


Dear EarthTalk: The proposed KeystoneXL oil pipeline from Canada into the U.S. seems to get all the headlines, but shouldn’t we also be worried about the Energy East pipeline? – Art Shea, Troy, NY

The Energy East Pipeline is a $12 billion project proposed by TransCanada Corp. that will combine existing, converted natural gas pipelines with new pipeline construction to carry oil some 2,800 miles across Canada from Alberta’s tar sands fields to export terminals in Quebec and New Brunswick. Unlike TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline proposal, which aims to transport oil from Alberta to Nebraska, Energy East would not directly cross into the U.S. But environmentalists on both sides of the border are concerned since Energy East would transport 1.1 million barrels of tar sands oil a day—25 percent more than Keystone XL—and will be the longest oil pipeline on the continent.

Just as Keystone XL has been shrouded in controversy and debate in the U.S., Energy East faces fierce opposition in Canada, where groups like Environmental Defence and the Council of Canadians believe the pipeline threatens both sensitive ecosystems and populated areas with the risk of a spill. According to the report Liquid Pipeline: Extreme Energy’s Threat to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, by Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians, Energy East would cross the northern end of the Great Lakes, including the St. Lawrence River Basin watershed, threatening many water systems along the way.

“In its preliminary project description filed with the National Energy Board in March 2014, TransCanada outlined details about its plans to build a port in Cacouna, Quebec, just north of Rivière-de-Loup on the St. Lawrence River,” the report states. “Local residents are very concerned that any accidents involving either the pipeline or marine shipments along this route would put the already endangered beluga whale population at greater risk.”

For its part, TransCanada says that it “understands the important role all aquifers, rivers and lakes play in maintaining sensitive and vital ecosystems across Canada,” but asserts that “pipelines remain the safest, most efficient and most environmentally friendly mode of transporting energy across the continent.” Before the Energy East pipeline goes into service, TransCanada plans to clean and thoroughly inspect the converted section of the pipeline. The company has also promised to avoid crossings of important water bodies to minimize disturbances of sensitive aquatic ecosystems. Highly-trained technical staff in TransCanada’s control center would monitor the pipeline 24/7.

While construction and maintenance of the Energy East pipeline would create some 14,000 jobs during its first seven years while providing upwards of $7.6 billion in tax revenue to pay for schools, roads and other public services across Canada, many Canadians remain concerned that a spill could threaten or destroy their livelihoods.

Regardless of these concerns, TransCanada is currently working to get final regulatory approval from Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) to start work on Energy East and hopes to have construction completed by the end of 2018. Environmentalists are still holding out hope that NEB will reject Energy East on environmental and/or socio-economic grounds, and continues to drum up support across Canada and beyond for shelving the beleaguered pipeline.

CONTACTS: Energy East Pipeline, www.energyeastpipeline.com; Environmental Defence, www.environmentaldefence.ca; Council of Canadians, www.canadians.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 




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