Thursday, October 15, 2015

IT'S NOT EASY BEING GREEN: VEHICLES RUNNING ON ALTERNATIVE FUELS

By PEPPER BOWEN

Louisiana has lots of green things. We have foliage, swamps, reptiles, and sometimes even the water. Yet Louisiana is hardly a state often equated with the Green Movement.

Maybe it should be.

Across state metro areas, urban agriculture initiatives are cropping up, pun intended. Local food sourcing is the latest major enviro-health movement to take hold. Solar power panels can be spotted all over New Orleans on new and old houses. There are even electric car charging stations attached to choice Whole Foods parking spaces. You can get all this in a state that is better known for its oil and gas industry. Whoever would have thought Louisiana would embrace alternative fuels? But the truth is that we are not only embracing alternative fuels, we are encouraging them.

There are tax incentives for owning an alternative energy vehicle (AFV) or converting an existing vehicle to operate on alternative fuel. According to the DMV, LA registered and dedicated AFVs can earn 50% of the cost to convert the vehicle from traditional gasoline; 50% of fueling equipment costs, and even 7.2% (up to $1,500) of the AFV purchase cost. Best part is that the list of alternative fuel sources includes a variety of options such as biofuel and biodiesel, methanol, ethanol, propane, natural gas, and electricity.

So we can pick our poison. 

Ethanol is a familiar alternative fuel that is commonly made from corn biomass.  First used as 100% fuel in Brazil in the late 70s, US interest grew over time fueled by federal tax incentives, grants, and mandates. Look to the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 that included the first renewable fuel volume mandate with a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS1) provision requiring 2.78% (that is 7.5 billion gallons) of the gasoline sold or dispensed by 2012 be renewable fuel. Fast forward to the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act which codified the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) and we see the RFS program expanded. Most compelling is the federal ethanol mandates requiring gasoline refiners to blend from 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

But what does that even mean for the consumer now that we have decided to go green?

Department of Energy published the lifecycle of ethanol and in it are impressive kernels of information. First, the use of ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when coupled with petroleum because ethanol burns cleaner. Additionally, ethanol can help to reduce petroleum use in the transportation sector. However, the total energy used to produce ethanol is greater than the total energy used to produce gasoline. So though it was a great early quasi-renewable energy source, these days it may not seem terribly efficient.

Conversely, the electric car is a very popular option for alternative fuel vehicle right now and it’s no wonder why. According to fueleconomy.gov, not only does the all-electric vehicle emit no tailpipe pollutants, it converts between 59% and 62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Alternatively, conventional gas vehicles only convert 17% to 21% of the energy stored in gas to power at the wheels. Best of all, it is a domestic energy source and reducing dependence on foreign oil is always a hot topic.

So this begs the question: is electric green or quite green enough?

The rise of ethanol increased the need for monoculture growing and brought with it a whole host of concerns. Genetically modified (GM) agriculture boomed in order to support the increased need for corn. According to Robert Hahn’s Stanford Law and Policy Review article, Ethanol: Law, Economics, and Politics, ethanol uses 15% of US corn supplies and makes up 3% of gasoline consumption. On top of that soaring (corn based) livestock feed prices plagued ranchers, who were thrilled with the passage of the 2011 Affordable Food and Fuel for America Act that phases out government support for ethanol production over 5 years. Thus, it seems there can be some not so earth-friendly side effects sometimes in going green.

That brings us to the question of the sourcing of the electricity. That is to say, if the power coming from the grid is generated from solar sources, then it is the most excellent of excellent things. On the other hand, if the power is coming from a coal burning plant, then we may not be doing as well as we think.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

FAHRVERGNEIN: VOLKSWAGEN EMISSION RESULTS DO NOT MEET US EPA STANDARDS

By Pepper Bowen

Back in the 90s, German manufacturer Volkswagen (VW) used the “Fahrvergn├╝gen” ad slogan to set their brand apart by touting the enjoyment that comes from driving a VW. This was intended to create a new mental association for VW cars with consumers as not just the source of billowing clouds of diesel smoke emanating from their tailpipes.  VW introduced clean burning and environmentally friendly biodiesel and positioned itself for the new millennium to further expand their sales and profit margins.

That was until the scandal broke.

The 2009 through 2014 VWs have recently become the focus of EPA investigation. VW said originally that the disparity between EU and US emissions standards caused a variance in emissions results. So the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) stepped up and ran their own tests intended to prove that diesel is clean and safe in the US and up to emissions standards.

Apparently surprised to learn that the reported VW emissions did not comport with their own findings, they partnered with West Virginia University’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions for more accurate testing. So between 2013 and 2014, the collaboration undertook a project aimed to evaluate real-world operating emissions from light-duty diesel vehicles in the US: a VW Jetta, a VW Passat, and a BMW X5.

ICCT reports their results were as follows:
  • Real-world nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from the Jetta exceeded the US-EPA Tier2-Bin5 (at full useful life) standard by 15 to 35 times.
  • For the Passat, real-world NOx emissions were 5 to 20 times the standard.
  • The BMW vehicle was generally at or below the standard, and only exceeded it during rural uphill operating conditions. 

That sounds pretty bad so now a little bit of clarity.

EPA’s Clean Air Act establishes air quality standards, national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), for both stationary and mobile sources. The emissions standard for new cars is emissions of hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide 0.25, 3.4, and 1 gram per mile (GPM) respectively. Though these seem like really low numbers in and of themselves, their impact is quite large.

EPA uses a calculation based on average fuel economy of 21.6 miles per gallon, 11,400 miles driven per year, and the standard of one million grams per metric ton in order to arrive at the average tailpipe annual emissions. Look to this example from the Greenhouse Gas Emissions white paper:


                                        CO2 per gallon                 8,887
Annual CO2 emissions = ------------------ x miles =  ------- = 11,400 = 4.7 metric tons Carbon Dioxide
                                          MPG                               21.6

From there, the EPA used that result to compare another source to emissions from passenger vehicles. It is through this comparison that the global warming potential of a gas can be determined. Carbon dioxide is the control and its global warming potential (GWP) is established at 1. Nitrous oxide has a GWP of 298 which is in comparison to that of carbon dioxide. However, the interesting thing about nitrous oxide is that the value is completely dependent upon the design of the engine and the emission control system in the vehicle as opposed to the fuel consumption per mile.

Now that it’s a little easier to see the true impact of the ICCT test results being substantially higher than the EPA standards, back to Volkswagen…

As it turns out, the disparity in standards between the EU and the US was never really the problem. Volkswagen had installed both “road calibration” and a “switch” which are auxiliary emission control devices (AECDs). AECDs are by definition intended to “[reduce] the effectiveness of the emission control system under conditions which may be reasonably expected to be encountered in normal vehicle operation and use. Since VW’s “road calibration” and “switch” are AECDs that were neither described nor justified on the COC applications, they are illegal defeat devices. Long story short, vehicles equipped with defeat devices cannot be certified.

In the end, VW admitted “it had designed and installed a defeat device in the vehicles in the form of a sophisticated software algorithm that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing.” So in a Notice of Violation (NOV) to Volkswagen, the EPA communicated its determination that “VW manufactured and installed defeat devices in certain model years 2009 through 2015 diesel light-duty vehicles… These defeat devices bypass, defeat, or render inoperative elements of the vehicles’ emission control system that exist to comply with CAA emission standards.” The emissions standards are there in part “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population,” and “to initiate and accelerate a national research and development program to achieve the prevention and control of air pollution.”

Both the EPA and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) have levied hefty citations on the company. The CEO has stepped down in the wake of the scandal and the recall will likely cost millions of dollars. In light of all this, consumers may not experience the fun of driving VWs for a while.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SOMETIMES, IT'S HARD TO BREATHE EASY

By Pepper Bowen

Summer is a fun time of year. Longer days and warmer weather mean more opportunity to play. It’s too hot to turn on the stove, so in the States we have a tendency to cook out cause there is something about charcoal that just makes it smell like summer!

But what are those little square charcoal jobbers really made out of and where do they come from?

The trusty encyclopedia Britannica informs us that charcoal is “an impure form of graphitic carbon, obtained as a residue when carbonaceous material is partially burned, or heated with limited access of air”. Kingsford Charcoal has contained wood and mineral char, mineral carbon, limestone, sawdust, and fillers since 2000 and that is pretty much the same thing all commercial grilling charcoal contains.

The process to make charcoal is pretty intense.

Traditionally, a pile of wooden logs is leaned together against a stack of logs, peat, coal, wood, coconut shell, and/or petroleum in a circle and completely covered with soil and straw to prevent air from entering in a sort of kiln. Fuel of some sort is placed on the stack to char the logs and ensure they burn very slowly transforming them into charcoal over about 5 days. Modern methods use a metal container in lieu of a wooden kiln. Nevertheless, compressing into form is fairly standard in that a binder like starch is used to maintain the briquette shape and the briquettes may even include other additives to improve lightly efficiency and produce a white ash.

It’s not all for fun though. Developing countries rely heavily on charcoal for cooking as well as a heat source. In Haiti for instance, Berkeley Lab reports that wood is the predominate fuel for household cooking. However, a 2003 study, shows 91% of total cooking fuel measured in urban households was charcoal. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports 84% of Cambodia’s population depends on wood fuel as the main source of energy; whereas, in the capital city of Phnom Penh 27% of the residents rely primarily on charcoal. This dependence upon charcoal creates a problem, which is two-fold.

First the impact on wood in areas like Haiti and Cambodia, countries with some of the worst deforestation rates the world, is keen. The Pulitzer Center accounts charcoal production in Cambodia alone is responsible for 1.4 million hectares of net forest loss. And US Agency for International Development (USAID) asserts only 2% of Haiti’s forests remain.

Secondly, as the cooking is largely indoors, the charcoal burn pollutes indoor air. According to a USAID’s 2007 study, the average life span in Haiti is shortened by an estimated 6.6 years due to the impacts of indoor air. The World Health Organization’s Public Health and the Environment study from 2009 attributes 6,600 deaths in Cambodia annually to indoor air pollution.

Since cooking outside is difficult in urban areas and the dependence upon charcoal is great, what is the solution? Going green!

In Haiti, Carbon Roots International, a USAID-supported non-profit operating in Quartier Morin, has created green charcoal and bio-char. Farmers are taught to make the charcoal from their own agricultural waste such as dried sugar cane and that charcoal is in turn sold by the farmers. In Cambodia, the entrepreneurs at the Phnom Penh -based Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise have created a charcoal made from discarded coconut husks in a process where the husks are dried, charred, crushed, then extruded, they have managed to create a cleaner burning fuel source.

No data is currently available on the emissions impact of indoor air but these sustainable ventures are already in a position to curb deforestation. And with that, we can all breathe a little easier.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A PENNY SAVED IS A PENNY EARNED

By PEPPER BOWEN

In 2001, Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations (hereinafter American Trucking). American Trucking was a landmark decision that held the Clean Air Act (CAA) made no implied authorization to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to consider the costs of implementing air quality standards. In fact, explicit authorization would be required for the EPA to consider such costs. Therefore the EPA was prevented from considering implementation costs in setting the national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS). 

Ambient air is just the natural outdoor air that people and animals breathe. The air is comprised of gases, largely nitrogen and oxygen, but also has chemical and industrial pollutants, such as the smoke and ash found in smog. These NAAQS are an attempt to define an acceptable level of ambient air pollution for both public health and public welfare protection (i.e. primary and secondary standards). In allowing for cost blind and health based drivers to determinations air quality, the EPA could establish criteria reflecting the latest scientific knowledge of identifiable effects on and protection of public health or welfare and, in doing so, was the most agile means available to manage and protect air quality.

That was until Monday. 

June 29, 2015, Justice Scalia penned another momentous opinion for the Court with Michigan v. E.P.A.. In this decision, the Court held the “EPA unreasonably deemed cost irrelevant when it decided to regulate power plants.” However, this decision was considering a deeply fundamental question: the meaning of the “appropriate and necessary” standard, which governs the initial decision to regulate.

Power plants produce more CO2 than any other industry in the US. The combustion is largely released into the atmosphere through smoke stacks creating an acute effect on the ambient air. New regulations would require a reduction of pollution emitted at a substantial cost to the plant. In fact, the Regulatory Impact Analysis conducted by the EPA estimated “the regulation would force power plants to bear costs of $9.6 billion per year.” But the EPA “could not fully quantify the benefits of reducing power plants' emissions of hazardous air pollutants [and], to the extent it could, it estimated that these benefits were worth $4 to $6 million per year.”

Though under American Trucking the EPA is not supposed to consider cost, the Majority distinguished American Trucking from Michigan v EPA by pointing out the former was to do with public health and safety. The Court rejected the principle established under American Trucking that the CAA directs the EPA to regulate on the basis of a factor that does not include cost, because the Act should be read to imply the consideration of cost anyway. 

Under Michigan v. E.P.A., for the EPA to “regulate emissions of hazardous pollutants from power plants it finds ‘appropriate and necessary’ requires as least some attention to cost.” (Emphasis added) But most importantly, the cost of compliance must be considered “before deciding whether regulation of power plants under the Clean Air Act is appropriate and necessary.”

Monday, July 6, 2015

WE WILL HAVE TO AGREE TO CONSENT DECREE

By PEPPER BOWEN

New Orleans sits at or about six feet below sea level between Lake Ponchartrain, Lake Borgne, the Mississippi River (River) and its tributaries. Because of our geographic orientation, comics have jokingly dubbed New Orleans a bowl surrounded by soup.

As would be expected, water is of considerable interest to New Orleanians. Rain water. Flood waters. Swamp water. Drinking water.

Here in the "Sportsman’s Paradise" we seem to inherently understand that what enters the water supply, including pollution, doesn’t remain in that part of the water way. Rather, it travels, disperses, and touches everything the water touches. In that way, the pollutants threaten the coast, the wildlife, even the quality of drinking water if left unabated. It is the movement of pollutants and the interconnected nature of the waterways which highlight the fact that tributaries, wetlands, and watersheds all have a significant nexus to downstream waters which may be used in fisheries, recreation areas, and drinking water supplies.

It was that very same concern over the interconnectedness that lead groups of vocal advocates - the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, the Orleans Audubon Society, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network - to Washington, DC, in April 1998 to convince the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene. Fast forward to 2015 and we see the Third Modified Consent Decree between the EPA and the New Orleans Sewage and Water Board (SWB) for violations of §301 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

§301 requires a permit for all discharge from a single identifiable source into waterways, whether intentional or inadvertent. In the 90s, the SWB didn’t have a permit to discharge pollutants into waterways, but what they did have was an old,  non-compliant plant discharging pollutants and untreated sewage into Lake Ponchartrain and the River canals. This is how the consent decree came about.

By definition of “consent decree”, SWB admits neither guilt nor liability, but agrees to correct the problems which caused the unpermitted discharge into the waterways. To date, SWB has paid $1.5M total civil penalty to the United States and has spent no less than $2M on the Supplemental Environmental Project ("SEP") in New Orleans. The goal of the SEP included securing significant water quality improvement and public health protections. Current remedial measures include new pump stations, supervisory control and data acquisition ("scada") system and remote monitoring, as well as cross connections between sewage and drainage systems. And the work is not yet finished.

Ironically, the consent decree, substantial investments in infrastructure, and extra monitoring through regulations would have made New Orleans’ water some of the safest drinking water in the country. It is this extra security the EPA hopes to provide to 1 in 3 Americans through the new Clean Water Rule, which will improve drinking water conditions nationwide, once it is adopted and operates in full force.