By Shanjun Li, Han Kyul Yoo, and Jhih-Shyang Shih
Americans produce about 4.4 pounds of waste per capita every day, according to the latest information from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). About 65 percent of that waste—a total of about 164 million tons each year—is disposed in landfills. But is burial in a landfill the end of the story? Not at all. The organic matter in landfills is eventually broken down by bacteria. This process produces an abundance of gases, including methane. In fact, landfills represent the third-largest source of methane emissions in the United States. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas and thus a concern—but it increasingly is being captured and used to power homes and other establishments.
The first landfill gas energy projects started operation in Wilmington and Sun Valley, California, in 1979. Today, more than 630 US landfill gas energy projects generate 16.5 billion kilowatt hours of electricity per year—equivalent to the electricity consumption of 1.5 million homes—and deliver 317 million cubic feet per day of landfill gas to direct-use applications. EPA has identified an additional 450 landfill sites for the potential development of energy projects.
However, these projects come at a price. Between 1991 and 2010, the average cost for a landfill gas energy project to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity was 4 to 5 cents. The wholesale electricity price was 2.5 to 3 cents during that same period.
Given the important energy and environmental benefits of these projects—and the potentially prohibitive price tag—state and local governments use various policy tools to encourage municipal landfills to adopt them. But do these incentives work?
To answer this question, we conducted the first in-depth analysis of the factors that affect project adoption, primarily using two datasets: a database of potential landfill sites for landfill gas energy project development from EPA’s Landfill Methane Outreach Program and a database of state tax incentives and renewable portfolio standards from the Database on State Incentives on Renewable Energy and Efficiency, maintained by North Carolina State University. We looked at policy variables, the physical characteristics of landfills, and energy prices. Our focus was on four types of government policies that offer incentives to landfill gas energy projects: renewable portfolio standards, production tax credits, investment tax credits, and state grants.
President Obama touched on a number of environmental issues during last week’s State of the Union address, emphasizing that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.” Read on for analysis by RFF researchers on the policy ideas mentioned throughout the address.
On regulating carbon emissions:
- In RFF’s Expert Forum on the Clean Power Plan, leaders from the public and private sectors answer 10 questions about EPA’s proposal to cut power plant emissions—from increasing the efficiency of coal plants to improving energy efficiency.
- In an RFF webinar series cohosted with the Electric Power Research Institute, experts explore the costs and benefits of EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
- RFF experts examine the electricity price impacts of a carbon tax, which they note would be smaller across states than across income groups.
On climate change:
- An RFF/Stanford/USA Today survey reveals that 81 percent of Americans think the government should limit US greenhouse gas emissions.
On falling gas prices:
- Stephen Brown explains why falling crude prices will boost economic activity in 42 states and DC, while negatively affecting eight other states that depend on energy production exports.
- Alan Krupnick notes that low oil prices will affect the US production of tight oil when companies’ rates of investment return begin to fall.
On fuel efficiency standards:
- Joshua Linn explains the tradeoffs between fuel efficiency and other technologies—like horsepower—that occur when manufacturers respond to tightening fuel economy standards.
On the US agreement with China:
- Phil Sharp writes that “attention to the environment by federal and state governments … has created a major American asset,” noting that both countries have much to learn from one another.
- Nathan Richardson cautions against optimism, noting that “[even] controlling local air pollution is not sufficient to reduce [China’s] dependence on coal.”
Each week, I review the papers, studies, reports, and briefings posted over at the RFF Library Blog.
Massachusetts Low Gas Demand Analysis: Final Report
[Fierce Energy] Prioritizing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and imports of Canadian hydroelectricity would reduce Massachusetts’s exposure to wintertime price spikes that result from the state’s growing dependence on natural gas for heating and electricity generation. That is according to a new analysis conducted by Synapse Energy for Acadia Center, a non-profit, research and advocacy organization with a self-described commitment to advancing the clean energy future. – via Synapse Energy for the Acadia Center
Climate Change and Space Heating Energy Demand: A Review of the Literature
This paper reviews recent evidence on the potential impacts of climate change on energy demand for space heating in residential and commercial buildings. We cover two main topics. First, we review empirical studies of the historical relationship between temperature and energy use for heating and cooling. These studies show consistent evidence of a U-shaped relationship between temperature and energy demand, in which energy use for heating is greatest at very low temperatures, and energy use for cooling is greatest at very high temperatures. The temperature at which energy use is minimized varies across geography and time periods, but in most studies is between 53°F and 72°F (12°C and 22°C). Second, we review studies that estimate how climate change will affect future energy use for space heating and cooling. – via US EPA, National Center for Environmental Economics / by Matthew Ranson, Lauren Morris and Alex Kats-Rubin
Commercializing Second-Generation Biofuels: Scaling Up Sustainable Supply Chains and the Role of Public Policy
The promise, prospects, and public policy trade-offs related to the greater use and production of second-generation biofuels were addressed in an executive session convened by the Harvard Kennedy School on November 13 and 14, 2014. The session attracted more than 25 of the world’s leading experts from the fields of policy, science, and business for an intensive two day session. The agenda consisted of three sessions focused on (i) the sustainability of cellulosic supply chains, (ii) government policy options to attract investment and (iii) government policy options to ensure that environmental objectives are met. The discussions were off-the-record, with each participant present in his or her own capacity, rather than representing an organization. This report is a summary of the main points and issues raised over the two days. – via Rapporteur’s Report, Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School / by Joern Huenteler, Laura Diaz Anadon, Henry Lee and Nidhi R. Santen
The Economic Importance of the Colorado River to the Basin Region
[Wall Street Journal] A new study for the first time quantifies the economic importance of Colorado River water to seven Western states—and the dire outcome should ongoing droughts dry up even a portion of it. – via Carey School of Business, Arizona State Univ. / by Professor Tim James, et al.
New York Ocean Action Plan
The New York Ocean Action Plan (OAP) is a coordinated and inclusive effort focused on improving the health of our ocean ecosystems and their capacity to provide sustainable benefits to New Yorkers. Together, scientists, resource managers, and a wide range of stakeholders will take stock of New York’s ocean-related activities and programs. Through a ten-year action plan, the goal of the OAP is to achieve better-managed and healthier ocean ecosystems that will benefit people, communities, and the natural world. Grounded in short-term actions to reach long-term goals, the OAP will guide State government funding, research, management, outreach, and education choices. – via New York Dept. of Environmental Conservation
Before the wheels touched down last March at Beijing’s spectacular airport, we could smell the pollution. Burning eyes, raspy throats, and persistent coughing got our attention faster than smart phone apps which registered particulate levels (PM 2.5) off the charts—15 times worse than the World Health Organization’s acceptable standard. We were lucky. The levels had been far worse the previous week, and fortunately, that night gusting winds brought major relief—lowering harmful levels to just three times the health threshold.
Beijingers told us their ancestors prayed for rain; they pray for wind.
The next day Premier Li Keqiang “declared war on pollution,” unveiling plans to restructure the economy and promote clean energy development to advance growth while cutting conventional pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the government announced that it will not allow coal burning in the capital city by the end of 2020.
If laissez-faire environmentalism aided China’s incredible growth—which has lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty—the lack of strong constraints now undermines that growth. China confronts serious competitive drag: major health costs on the horizon, social unrest, the loss of international markets for contaminated products, and even the increasing reluctance of business leaders to let their families live in heavily polluted cities.
Facing massive environmental deficits—extensive poisoning of the land, air, and water—China will require years of aggressive policies and massive investment to correct the course. In the meantime, to get a few days of relief, Beijing is ready to trigger emergency measures: temporarily shutting down industrial plants and restricting driving of the ever-expanding auto fleet. Other cities are experimenting with geoengineering: seeding clouds to wash out some of the particulates—in short, creating acid rain, trading one pollution problem for another.
Landing back at Dulles Airport a week later, the air was breathable. But the airwaves in Washington carried loud voices denouncing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a threat to American prosperity and to our global economic competitiveness.
While many factors enhance or inhibit a nation’s economic growth, it should now be clear that 40 years of attention to the environment by federal and state governments has been accompanied by major economic growth and has created a major American asset. For most people, prosperity is more than GDP growth.
The recent agreement between the United States and China to lower their greenhouse gas emissions signifies an understanding that climate change is a global challenge. The latest issue of Resources magazine explores climate change and other environmental and resource issues facing the world. Highlights include a look at EPA administrator Gina McCarthy’s remarks at RFF, an interview with RFF’s Allen Blackman about forest conservation investments, and more:
Wood Energy: An Overlooked Renewable
Wood energy is often ignored in national conversations about renewable energy, yet it dominates renewable energy portfolios in many developed nations—and is poised for even more growth.
Mapping the Value of Ecosystem Services in Latin America and the Caribbean
Juha Siikamäki, Peter Vail, Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, and Francisco Santiago-Ávila
When making decisions about conservation priorities, examining the services provided by the diverse ecosystems in Latin America and the Caribbean helps to ensure that people living in the region reap the benefits.
What Homeowners Say about Energy Audits
Karen L. Palmer and Margaret A. Walls
Less than five percent of American homeowners have had a home energy
audit, and many have not followed through with recommended changes. A household survey helps explain why homeowners are not taking advantage of these opportunities to save money.
Green Growth for China?
Mun S. Ho and Zhongmin Wang
For China’s leaders, achieving a sustainable path that balances economic growth and environmental protection is now a political necessity. Reforms to the country’s unique institutional reward system and governance structures are critical to this effort.
RFF ON THE ISSUES: Regulating methane emissions; China’s pollution problem; Climate impacts on agriculture
In this edition:
- Alan Krupnick on EPA’s new methane emissions regulations
- Phil Sharp on combining economic growth and environmental regulation in China
- RFF seminar on how scientists are preparing for climate change’s agricultural impacts
Regulating Methane Emissions
A new EPA proposal released last week aims to reduce methane emissions by 45 percent over the next 10 years. The proposed rules will target methane emissions from the oil and gas sector across the United States, which currently produces more natural gas than any other country.
In a recent blog post, RFF’s Alan Krupnick writes that EPA has taken “very important steps” in its commitment to exploring methane measurement and monitoring technologies. Krupnick writes: “What will remain unclear for some time is whether further reductions beyond the cheap stuff are really necessary to meet emissions reduction goals for this sector.” Read More
EPA issued a long-awaited statement today on its intentions to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas extraction, processing and transmission sectors 40-45 percent of 2012 emissions by 2025.
While EPA had begun to tackle emissions from new wells, and plans to continue down this road in the future (albeit by regulating methane directly rather than as an ancillary benefit), the much awaited aspect of today’s statement addresses existing wells.
EPA plans to issue guidelines and “ready to adopt control measures” for states to add to their State Implementation Plans for reducing VOC emissions in ozone non-attainment areas and in the Ozone Transport Region (the states east of the Mississippi River). Thus, as previously for new sources, methane emission reductions will come about as an ancillary benefit of VOC reductions. This is a reasonable start, but rural areas in western states, where much of the oil and gas activities occur, would not be included in these requirements.
There are other important aspects of today’s announcement. First, EPA plans to “explore potential regulatory opportunities” in methane monitoring and measurement technologies to help undergird its GHG emissions reporting system (and also will work with industry in their own voluntary efforts to better monitor, report and verify methane emissions). These steps are very important. We would counsel that efforts to actually measure the amount of methane leakage needs to be developed rather than just leak detectors.
Second, BLM has agreed to update its methane standards around flaring, venting and leaking, in coordination with EPA. Our earlier analysis of BLM proposed standards applying to oil and gas extraction of federal lands revealed that, in general, the revised standards were weak compared to what many states were doing. Thus, coordination with EPA is a positive development.
Third, EPA plans to work with industry “to develop and verify robust [but voluntary] commitments to reduce methane emissions.” EPA mentions several voluntary efforts, including One Future, which among many activities is examining the potential for a market-based approach for reducing methane, something RFF is looking into as well. EPA recognizes that these voluntary actions could “reduce the need” for future regulation, but is careful not to say that voluntary efforts substitute for regulations. This distinction is very important. Industry rightly says that it is in its interest to control leaks, since its product is going up, literally, in smoke. Yet, some types of leaks are cheap to fix relative to the value of the product lost and others are expensive. Industry cannot be expected to fix expensive leaks without being forced to by regulation. What will remain unclear for some time is whether further reductions beyond the cheap stuff are really necessary to meet emissions reduction goals for this sector. Our point would be that any pain inflicted should be minimized through cost-effective policy design.
A recent Bloomberg View article (“Brazil Puts a Denier in Charge of Climate Change,” January 7) draws a sharp contrast between Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s September UN General Assembly reference to climate change as “one of the greatest challenges of our times” and a just-announced appointment to her cabinet. A slightly edited version of my “comment” to the article follows.
It appears that the President has selected a climate denier – Aldo Rebelo – as Brazil’s minister of science and technology (the agency that has climate in its portfolio), a move that seems seriously misguided. Aside all else, Brazil’s acknowledged emergence as a significant power – hemispherically and beyond – makes responsible political judgments a test of the country’s claim to international respect. If this appointment threatens a politicization of climate science, Brazil fails that test decisively.
But there is more. And it adds both irony and disillusionment to what, over a number of years, has pointed to a growing Brazilian policy-embrace of environmentally responsible growth. And no one embodies that record more than Dr. José Goldemberg – the Brazilian-born physicist who, both as a distinguished academic and public official, played a leading role in hosting the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Among many other distinctions, Goldemberg served as Rector of the University of Sao Paulo, Visiting Professor at Princeton, President of the Brazilian Association for the Advancement of Science, and co-recipient of the (US-based) Mitchell Prize for Sustainable Development.
That a tradition reflected in such contributions should, in effect, be so casually shrugged off with the appointment of a viscerally committed climate denier – one who appears to lack the interest or intellectual wherewithall to articulate the basis for such denial – is truly troubling.
Gas Tax Opportunity
The current oil market has created an ideal opportunity to raise the gas tax and better support the Highway Trust Fund, according to the editorial board of the Washington Post. In a recent op-ed, it writes that revenue could be used to fill the fund, which will “run dry again in May.”
In a previous letter to the editor, RFF’s Joel Darmstadter writes that the current gas tax has “ceased to make any meaningful contribution to sound economic and environmental policy” due to its inability to keep up with inflation. RFF’s Margaret Walls also considers the limits of a gas tax in a Wall Street Journal blog post, noting that an inflation-adjusted tax will still only generate “about half as much” in annual revenues due to tighter corporate average fuel economy standards.
Climate Science Consensus
In a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post, Nobel Laureate Mario Molina addresses recent comments by prominent figures that “cast doubt on man-made climate change” by referencing previous climate shifts that were unrelated to human actions. Molina writes that “while the planet may have experienced natural periods of warming in the past, what is happening now is not natural.”
At an event hosted by RFF and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Molina noted that scientists have reached the kind of consensus on climate change that “is not common in science,” but media coverage—and therefore public perception—“certainly does not represent [this] consensus.” Video of the event can be found here.
Poverty, political instability, and natural disasters are just a few of the problems facing Latin America and the Caribbean. So it’s not surprising that policymakers devote limited resources to conserving the region’s biodiversity—even if it is, by all accounts, exceptionally rich and valuable. But that’s exactly why those scarce conservation resources need to be deployed strategically.
Co-authored by RFF researchers Becky Epanchin-Niell, Juha Siikamäki, Daniel Velez-Lopez and me, it has three sections.
- The first part provides an overview of the region’s (terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine) biodiversity, the threats to this biodiversity, and the drivers of these threats.
- The second section summarizes what we know about seventeen leading conservation policies, including regulatory polices like protected areas and land-use planning, and market based approaches like subsidy reform and payments for ecosystem services.
- And the third section proposes a five-point action plan focusing on green agriculture, strengthening terrestrial protected areas and co-management, improving environmental governance, strengthening coastal and marine resource management, and improving biodiversity data and policy evaluation.