Monday, February 06, 2006

U.S. congressmen push at U.N. for new climate talks

A key U.S. senator called on the Bush administration on Monday to open global climate talks, warning that the dangers of global warming were not only a threat to the United States but India and China as well.

Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told the 15-nation U.N. Security Council that the world's dependence on oil and other fossil fuels damaged the environment and many nations' economies.

"With this in mind, I have urged the Bush administration and my colleagues in Congress to return to a leadership role on the issue of climate change," Lugar said.

He said the United States "must be open to multilateral forums that attempt to achieve global solutions to the problem of greenhouse gases."

The European Union, Japan and much of the rest of the industrial world are imposing mandatory cuts on emissions linked to global warming in the Kyoto treaty on global warming. The Bush administration favors asking U.S. companies to join a voluntary emission reduction program.

Lugar, as well as fellow Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and George Voinovich of Ohio, stressed that China and India, which are spewing out more greenhouse gases than anticipated, needed to be brought into the U.N.'s 1992 Kyoto Protocol, where developing nations had received exemptions.

"The issue is alive," Voinovich told reporters. "We are concerned
about it. I think the more we work together on it, the more likely it will be that we will do something about reducing greenhouse gases."

Coleman said that "the issue of renewables is not just a Midwest area issue anymore" but a national issue "so we have to lessen our dependence on Middle East oil, that's a reality."

"The dynamic has changed regarding global warming," he said. "Clearly the massive consumption (of India and China) opens an opportunity for additional discussion."

Lugar, a Republican from the corn-growing state of Indiana, said breakthroughs in genetic engineering made it possible to break down a wide range of plants and that ethanol processing remains a relatively young industry.

"Oil processing has had the comparative benefit of a century of intensive research and development," he said.

In November, Lugar and Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democratic, introduced a Senate resolution calling for the United States to return to negotiations on climate change.

In 2001 President George W. Bush pulled out of the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to cut rich nations' emissions of heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels. Bush said Kyoto would harm the U.S. economy and that it wrongly excluded poor nations from first targets to 2012.

The United States is the world's top source of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

California: New Power Meters Show Users the Money

Two years ago, the 42-year-old furniture salesman had an "advanced" electricity meter installed in his Valencia home as part of a pilot project designed to see whether the high-tech devices could help customers save power.

As far as Wong is concerned, it worked. On hot summer afternoons in the Santa Clarita Valley — when power prices are at their highest — the meter and a "smart" thermostat that displayed real-time electricity prices helped Wong reduce power consumption and cut his monthly bill by almost 30%, from about $70 to $50.

"I could plan my cost and usage instead of guessing," he said. "I could see where I was using too much energy and reduce it."

Wong's enthusiasm is shared by California regulators and two of the state's biggest utilities. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. plan to spend $2 billion over the next several years installing millions of the advanced meters in homes across the Golden State. Customers can expect a small hike in electricity rates to pay for the program.

The meters are actually mini-computers that communicate with a utility's central data center, providing real-time information on how much electricity a customer is using and when it's being used.

Data provided by the meters enable utilities to offer voluntary "variable pricing" plans. Under the plans, customers are charged more for power used during peak periods such as weekday afternoons when electricity supplies are tight and prices are high, and less at night and on weekends, when demand and prices are lower.

The goal is to alleviate the state's power crunch by giving customers a financial reward for running their dishwashers at night — or dinging them for jacking up the air conditioning on hot afternoons.

There's a bonus for utilities: They currently employ thousands of meter readers who periodically slip into backyards to manually record customers' electricity use — jobs that would go the way of the milkman if advanced metering became universal.

"I always knew this was coming. Technology has pretty much taken over," said Mike Boyle, a PG&E worker who says he reads as many as 1,300 meters a day in Vacaville, northeast of San Francisco.

Like the Flex Your Power program the state launched during the 2000-01 energy crisis, advanced metering relies on consumers to voluntarily reduce the amount of electricity they use. But regulators hope variable pricing will promote conservation in a state where rolling blackouts remain a threat.

Similar schemes have cut power consumption and costs in Pennsylvania, Florida, Sweden and elsewhere, said California Energy Commission member Arthur Rosenfield. The energy commission thinks the program could cut energy use in California by 1% on peak summer days, when the danger of blackouts is greatest. In addition, the program would reduce the hidden subsidy that residents of the state's cooler coastal regions pay to support the energy needs of the fast-growing interior valley and high desert regions, he said.

In the state-sponsored pilot project, high-tech meters
were installed in 2,500 homes and the customers were billed under a variety of variable-pricing plans. Electricity use fell by an average of 13%.

"The old straw that electricity demand [isn't affected by price] is not true at all," said Roger Levy, a consultant with the energy commission.

The pilot project made a believer out of Robert Birkmaier, a PG&E customer who runs a contracting business from his five-bedroom home in Merced. Birkmaier was able to cut his electricity bill by 25% even while battling the San Joaquin Valley's torrid summer heat.

"I got to be a little smart," he said. "If I know it's
going to be hot, I close up the windows and the house at 10 or 11 [in the morning] and stay fairly comfortable until 3 or 4 p.m. I don't turn on the air conditioner until 7," when rates drop.
Birkmaier said he didn't mind paying extra to run his air conditioner a little earlier on occasion. "If I have a dinner party going and guests are coming for dinner, I bite the bullet and flip on the air conditioner."

Participants in the pilot program who were provided with "smart" electronic thermostats in addition to advanced meters enjoyed even greater control over their kilowatts.

Kathy Chomuk, who lives in Valencia with her husband and son in a 2,400-square-foot house, said the thermostat provided pricing information that helped her manage her household budget and her chores.

One afternoon, the 43-year-old legal secretary recalled, she planned to do a load of laundry. But first she checked her thermostat.

"Rates were about 26 cents [per kilowatt-hour], so I said, 'Forget it,' " Chomuk said. The clothes were washed a few hours later, when the rate dropped to 9 cents.

Armed with the pilot project results, PG&E will begin installing 5 million advanced meters this fall in Northern and Central California. In Orange and San Diego counties, SDG&E is moving ahead with plans to put 1.3 million new electric meters in homes and small businesses in 2008 and 2009.

Not everyone is convinced that the average ratepayer really wants to micromanage energy consumption.

"People don't spend every waking moment thinking about the average cost of electricity," said Marc Joseph, an attorney with the meter readers' union.

And even if they did, skeptics say, energy conservation wouldn't necessarily follow.

"If I'm a residential customer and it's hot outside, I've got to run my air conditioner," said Bob Finkelstein, executive director of the Utility Reform Network, a ratepayer advocacy group known as TURN.

"I'm not going to go home and unplug my refrigerator from 4 to 7 p.m."

In filings with the state Public Utilities Commission, which sponsored the pilot program, TURN contends that PG&E overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs of the utility's advanced meter proposal.

Advanced meters cost about $100 each, and PG&E said it would recover its initial investment by raising residential and small-business electricity rates by an average of 1.1%. Buying — and paying for — smart thermostats would be left up to the customers.

The meters should quickly pay for themselves and lead to lower rates over time, said Jana Corey, PG&E's advanced metering project manager.

The utility expects to recover most of the $1.6-billion cost of the program by eliminating its 900 meter readers and by shrinking other operational costs. Other cost savings made possible by the advanced meters include spotting the exact location of outages before dispatching line repair crews; reducing power theft; and giving customers more accurate billing statements. In addition, cutting power use would reduce the need to build power plants.

More savings would come from tying about 4,000 natural gas meters into the remote meter network, although gas bills still would be based on a per-unit price for total monthly consumption.

Existing discounts for low-income, elderly and infirm customers would be unaffected by the new pricing.

In contrast to PG&E and SDG&E, the state's third big investor-owned utility is taking a slower approach to advanced metering. Southern California Edison Co., which has more than 4 million residential and small-business customers in the Los Angeles Basin and parts of the coast and Central Valley, says it's waiting to develop even smarter meters and won't shift completely to the new technology until 2013.

Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power, with 1.4 million customers, said it had no plan to install advanced meters.

Edison says it has already made its transmission system more efficient and wouldn't get the same savings as PG&E and SDG&E with the current generation of meters.

"The benefits have to be greater than the costs, and with the existing technology, that's not the case," said Lynda L. Ziegler, Edison's vice president of customer programs and services.

Birkmaier, the Merced resident, might disagree. A little knowledge, he figures, can turn even the most die-hard kilowatt burner into a conservationist.

"Most people are a little ignorant about power," he said. "They get up in the morning and want to shave but don't know where those electrons are coming from.

"But if you sting 'em with more money, they'll start learning."

Carbon emission targets delayed by government row

The govornment are comming close to failing on there current targets for greenhouse gas emmisions cuts, but the political situation in the UK, with broad cross-party support for cuts is making this a high pressure situation. The lib-dems and tories are both starting to smell blood, whilst labour mp's are increasingly determined not to let such a failure occur.

This from the Gaurdian:

The government's strategy to cut carbon dioxide emissions in the battle against climate change has been paralysed for seven months by a dispute between two Whitehall departments.

Labour has pledged in three successive manifestos that by 2010 it will cut the UK's CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 levels. The promise has reached almost totemic status in the party.

But publication of a programme to meet the targets has been held up, with the Department of Trade and Industry arguing that emissions have risen at such a rate over the past two years that it is unlikely Britain can meet the target. The DTI's latest projections show that, on current measures, CO2 will have been reduced to "only around 10% below 1990 levels by 2010".

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, armed with less statistical and economic modelling firepower than the DTI, is contesting the figures, and insists the target can still be met by vigorous action.

Ministers are frustrated by the delay since the postponements reduce the government's chance of meeting its 2010 target. They fear that the UK's claim to international leadership on climate change is being undermined.

In an attempt to step up pressure on No 10, ministers warn that David Cameron, the Tory leader, is putting the environment at the heart of his repositioning of his party. Mr Blair has taken a strong position on climate change, but privately believes Mr Cameron's promise to cut carbon emissions year on year is unrealisable.

The inability of two key Whitehall departments to agree on the way ahead in such a crucial area of policy comes amid renewed warnings that the dangers posed by climate change are more serious than previously thought. The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, yesterday published the findings of a study initially prepared by international scientists for a conference convened by the government as president of the G8 last February. It includes evidence from the head of the British Antarctic Survey, Professor Chris Rapley, that the west Antarctic ice sheet may be starting to disintegrate. Scientists believe that would raise sea levels around the world by 16ft (5 metres), with disastrous consequences around the world.

The government announced its review into its UK domestic climate change programme in September 2004, admitting it was not on course to meet the commitment to cut CO2 by 20% by 2010. A consultation document was published in December 2004 and most of the consultancy work completed last spring. The review, originally to be published last summer, is now due "early this year". But Mrs Beckett, under pressure from an all-party alliance on climate change, was unable yesterday to say precisely when it would be published.

The government is still likely to fulfil a separate but less ambitious pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% by 2008-12, which would meet its commitment under the Kyoto protocol.

It is understood there have been technical disputes in Whitehall about measuring carbon emissions, including the true base level of emissions in 1990. The review is also being held up by uncertainties over the contribution Britain can make to the second round of the EU carbon trading emissions scheme, due to start in 2008 and end in 2012.

Each EU country is to send the EU commission details of how it intends to meet a national allocation plan by this summer. The plan fixes the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted by all the installations in each country covered by the scheme, as well as the number of emission allowances allocated to each individual installation.

In the domestic climate change programme, ministers have been looking at a range of options including tougher building regulations, higher vehicle excise duty on polluting cars and cuts in council tax to give incentives for domestic energy efficiency. The options are limited as businesses have already cut emissions, but carbon emissions from transport are projected to have gone up by 16% between 1990 and 2010, even though average fuel efficiency has also risen. More nuclear power, the subject of a separate government review, could not contribute to the 2010 target since no new stations could come on stream so quickly.

The Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, Norman Baker, said last night:
"There is a genuine problem about measuring carbon emissions in a credible way
but I fear there are some in government, especially in the DTI and in No 10,
that are quite happy to postpone decisions on climate change. The longer the
delay the more difficult it is to meet the target. They are quite happy to talk
about the importance of climate change, but not to take any action if it means
they are going to lose votes."

For the Tories, Peter Ainsworth, the shadow environment secretary, said: "Every day the news on climate change gets worse, but the UK's contribution to the problem keeps going up. How many more warnings does the government need before it takes effective action to cut emissions? The science is clear, now we've actually got to do something about it. I urge the government to restate its absolute commitment to cutting emissions by 20% by 2010 and 60% by 2050, and to give us a firm date for the delayed climate change programme review.

"Britain is capable of playing a major role in helping to achieve a more
stable and secure planet but we must put our own house in order first."

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