Author Archives: Elena Craft, PhD

Energy Capital Of The Nation Turns To Clean Energy

This commentary originally appeared on EDF's Texas Clean Air Matters Blog

Last week, the City of Houston announced that it would increase its purchase of renewable electricity to cover half of its energy use.  The city will use almost 623,000 megawatt-hours of electricity from renewable sources per year—equivalent to the energy used by 55,000 residential homes annually.  The purchase makes Houston the largest municipal buyer of renewable energy in the nation.  While Houston’s latest renewable energy purchase may seem at odds with its reputation as an oil and gas hub, it’s exactly the sort of common-sense decision we expect from a city that’s touted as the energy capital of the nation.

Houston is in good company among other Texas cities. The City of Austin already gets 100% of its electricity from renewable sources.  To make the switch, the city leveraged Austin Energy’s GreenChoice program, one of the nation’s most successful utility-sponsored and voluntary green-pricing programs.  The program is part of Austin’s Climate Protection Plan, which establishes a 35 % renewable portfolio goal for Austin Energy by 2020.  In San Antonio, the municipally owned CPS Energy has emerged as a leader in clean energy. Through its New Energy Economy initiative, CPS Energy is growing its network of smart meters and expanding its installed solar capacity, among many other sustainable initiatives.  Today, CPS Energy uses more solar energy than any other Texas utility, while still having the lowest electric rates among the top 10 largest cities in the United States. Read More »

Posted in Climate, Energy Efficiency, General, Renewable Energy, Texas| Comments closed

Natural Gas: A Question Of Sustainability

This commentary was originally posted on the EDF Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.

Today there are around 45,000 shale gas wells operating in the United States – triple the number in 2005 – and as a result, people are rightfully concerned about the extent of the shale boom’s potential damage to the environment.

The issue became the focal point of discussion this month in “Can Natural Gas Be Sustainable?,” a five-person panel presentation at the second annual SXSW Eco conference in Austin. As part of the panel, we discussed how stronger standards and employing best practices could minimize impacts of increased natural gas production in the wake of growing public concern about the health and environmental impacts of drilling.

Attendees of SXSW Eco represented a broad swath of perspectives, ranging from those who were against any natural gas development to those who wanted to see much more natural gas development. One attendee even criticized the title of the panel, presenting the position that developing any non-renewable resource is inherently not sustainable.

As for the sustainability question, one thing is clear: the natural gas industry has a lot of opportunity for improvement, and there is mounting public pressure to address environmental concerns. Nearly 61 percent of Americans have negative views about the oil and gas industry – higher than any other industry (David Blackmon, from FTI Consulting, actually joked that this was an improvement!)

As part of the discussion, I spoke about the many environmental and health impacts associated with natural gas development. Construction and drilling equipment can degrade local air quality with smog-forming pollutants and air toxics (Example: activities at the Barnett Shale in Texas). I also spoke about the implications of faulty well construction as one of the major causes of natural gas leakage, and emphasized that while natural gas is touted as a low-carbon fuel source, leaks from the production, distribution, and use of natural gas could undermine the greenhouse gas advantage combusted natural gas has over coal.

EDF is working hard to address the key problem areas associated with natural gas development: exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products; faulty well construction and design; climate impacts from methane leakage; local and regional air pollution; and land use and community impacts. Our team is engaging with community, government and industry stakeholders to help identify ways to minimize both human health and environmental risk, including:

  • Comprehensive disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals
  • Modernization of rules for well construction and operation
  • Systems-based management of wastes and water
  • State and national standards for improving air quality and reducing climate impacts
  • Minimization of land use and community impacts from natural gas development

Fellow SXSW Panelists

Other speakers presented varying perspectives on natural gas issues. Chris Helman, Associate Editor of Forbes magazine, moderated the panel and emphasized the public interest on the topic, as well as the contribution of natural gas to the country’s energy portfolio.

George Peridas, a scientist from NRDC, prefaced his comments by saying, “We have a lot of work to do before we can call natural gas clean.” Peridas gave examples of numerous exemptions given the natural gas industry under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. As well, those tasked with enforcing the state natural gas regulations that currently exist lack the ability to go out, fully inspect and enforce those standards. The result, he said, was that “industry is a self-policing entity right now.”

Much of his policy work focuses on climate change and correspondingly, Peridas said that natural gas could help with climate change and air quality when compared to coal. “The key is that gas needs to displace dirtier fuels,” he said. “A bridge is not the right frame of mind, and we cannot afford to treat gas as an abundant resource. We need to address its impacts now.”

Some of the solutions Peridas proposed included: designation of “off-limits” areas that provide fresh water resources or wildlife/conservation value; stopping those leaks that waste methane and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; development of a comprehensive guide for how to drill safely (e.g., proper cement jobs at well sites); repealing the outrageous exemptions at the federal level that industry currently enjoys; focusing on measures and policies that promote solutions (e.g., solar energy); and ensuring that communities have a say in whether drilling proceeds in their areas.

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, a nun with Congregation Of The Sisters Of Charity Of The Incarnate Word, and community advocate for the Eagle Ford Shale, agreed strongly with co-panelist George Peridas and his push for more local regulations. She told the story of citizens in small, rural Texas towns being strongly impacted by the Eagle Ford shale, and even used the phrase “merciless exploitation” to describe her own such experience.

Sister Elizabeth asked the rhetorical question: “Are we counting our natural gas clean energy chickens before they hatch?” She then emphasized that society must consider all of the activities required to produce natural gas, including activities she has observed in the Eagle Ford Shale: trucks and heavy equipment; travel trailers for workers; transporting of sand and chemicals, fracking equipment, and toxic waste (produced during operations); construction of huge batteries and tanks; rigs operating 24 hours a day; loud compressor stations; damage to land requiring clean up; and more.

David Blackmon, managing director at FTI Consulting, represented industry’s point of view, which touts the “reality that over half of our electricity generating capacity is natural gas.” The demand for natural gas includes backing up intermittent supply from solar and wind power. He said that natural gas was one of the only power sources that could be “cycled up” in a matter of minutes and that coal made this process more expensive.

Blackmon said that the key to making natural gas sustainable was ensuring public trust; trust that it is being appropriately regulated at federal, state and local levels. “I absolutely agree that there are not enough inspectors in the Texas Railroad Commission to regulate it,” he said. “The good news is that most companies in the industry recognize the need for public trust and are working towards that.”

Posted in Methane, Natural Gas| Tagged , , , , | Comments closed

Do Shale Gas Activities Play A Role In Rising Ozone Levels?

This commentary was originally posted on the EDF Texas Clean Air Matters Blog.

Source: AFP

As we continue seeking relief from rising temperatures this month, it’s also time to be on the watch for ozone alerts. The annual Texas smog season – April 1 through October – already appears to be in full swing this year with numerous counties around the state exceeding health-based ozone concentrations many times since March.

Just last week, the Houston Chronicle highlighted the magnitude of ozone exceedances that the area hasn’t seen since 2003. Additionally, the month of May was the nation’s “smoggiest” in the past five years according to a recent report released by Clean Air Watch. Texas ranked second, surpassed only by California, for the most Code Red and Code Orange days so far in 2012, with 18 days and 27 days respectively.

Ozone-forming pollution is emitted by cars, refineries and various industrial plants. As more Texans begin to see shale gas drilling rigs pop up around them, many are asking the question: Could emissions from natural gas and oil operations significantly contribute to ground-level ozone? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

The Role of Natural Gas and Oil in Rising Ozone Levels

While burning natural gas produces less smog-forming pollution than coal combustion but more than renewable energy generation, much of the equipment used in the drilling, production, processing and transporting of natural gas and oil produces significant amounts of such pollution. This equipment releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx), which combine in the presence of sunlight to form ground-level ozone or “smog.” According to the state of Colorado, natural gas and oil operations were the largest source of ozone-forming pollution, VOCs and NOx in 2008.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has reported that storage tanks used in the exploration and production of natural gas and oil are the largest source of VOCs in the Barnett Shale. Recently, there have been additional concerns that San Antonio may not meet federal ozone standards due to Eagle Ford Shale development. Peter Bella, natural resources director at the Alamo Area Council of Governments, told the Houston Chronicle that the city is “right on the edge of nonattainment.”

Ozone concentrations comparable to those recorded in some of the most heavily polluted U.S. cities have been measured in rural parts of Wyoming and Utah, where little other industrial activity occurs:

It’s important to note, however, that ozone monitoring does not exist in many oil and gas development areas, so we don’t know the full extent of the potential problem. For instance, though the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has committed to start monitoring in the Eagle Ford, there is not currently sufficient monitoring to characterize ozone problems in the area.

Protection of Human Health

As natural gas and oil development expands into new regions, adverse air impacts are likely to follow, absent sufficient emissions controls. It is crucial for states to have strong standards in place, especially for a state such as Texas, which experienced exponential production increases in a short period time. The Eagle Ford Shale alone saw a 432 percent increase in natural gas production from 2010 to 2011.

We are happy to report that EPA recently finalized clean air measures that will serve as an important first step in reducing harmful pollution discharged from a variety of oil and natural gas activities. In fact, last month, EDF President Fred Krupp testified before the U.S. Senate in support of these new clean air standards, which will result in significant reductions in smog-forming pollutants and hazardous air pollutants like benzene, a known carcinogen. As a co-benefit, the standards will also reduce methane, a potent climate forcer.

In his testimony, he said “these common sense measures are a win-win: they reduce pollution, conserve valuable domestic energy resources, and in some cases, actually save producers money.” He added that it was “critical that we build on these clean air measures if our nation is to fulfill the President’s promise in his State of the Union to develop natural gas without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”

While mounting evidence continues to link natural gas drilling with rising ozone levels, it is important to remember why we should care in the first place:

  • Ozone has been linked to a host of maladies, including premature mortality, heart failure, increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits for respiratory causes among children and adults with pre-existing respiratory disease, such as asthma and inflammation of the lung, and possible long-term damage to the lungs.
  • Children, the elderly, and people with existing respiratory conditions are the most at risk from ozone pollution.
  • Ozone also damages crops and ecosystems. Ozone is one of the most phytotoxic air pollutants – causing damage to vegetation in national parks and wilderness areas, especially in mountain regions and to valuable crops.
  • Ozone pollution also contributes to climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ozone is the third-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and methane.

In the end, we’re talking about the protection of human health as well as our entire planet. Continue to visit this blog for updates on rising ozone levels in our state, as well as other vital information related to Texas air quality.

Posted in Climate, Natural Gas, Texas| Tagged | Comments closed

CFLs Again. Different Story – Same Answers

By: Elena Craft

A recent article published in the Press Democrat repeats some of the same allegations (as well as some misleading information) that we’ve heard before regarding concerns about Compact Florescent Lights (CFLs), such as:

  •  Fluorescent lighting triggers migraines
  • Mercury can be released as a vapor if the bulb breaks
  • Fluorescent lighting emits  dangerous radio waves

The literature on the impact of CFLs in the marketplace is robust, and we at EDF have responded many times to the concerns raised. We list here some of the most frequently asked questions and provide additional resources for those who wish to investigate CFLs further.

Why are CFLs better for the environment?

CFLs use less electricity than incandescent lights, and therefore result in a reduced consumption of power (a 15-watt fluorescent bulb, for instance, generates the same amount of light as a 60-watt incandescent. This makes a fluorescent bulb about four times more efficient). Since approximately 45% of the energy generated in the US comes from coal, replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs goes a long way with respect to energy conservation. In addition, since coal-fired power plants represent the largest source of mercury emissions in the US, reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency measures (like replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs) results in less mercury that ends up in our lakes and streams from power plants (even if all of the CFLs were to be disposed of in landfills, which we hope they don’t!) As a result, less mercury ends up accumulating in our environment, in wildlife, and in sport fish.

Are CFLs better for your pocketbook?

Because CFLs use less energy, your electricity bill will be lower. The savings vary of course, depending on how many bulbs you install and how long the lights are on. Assuming that the light is on for 6 hours per day and that the electric rate is 11.3 cents per kilowatt-hour, the Department of Energy has estimated that replacing an incandescent bulb with a CFL will save $105 over the life of the light. One public utility in Washington State has estimated that if every American household were to replace the five most frequently used light fixtures or bulbs with CFLs, then each family would save about $60 a year in energy costs. [They consider the five most frequently used light fixtures to be: kitchen ceiling lights, table and floor lamps in the living and family rooms, and outdoor porch lights].  If the average home converts all of the average 40 bulbs in a home from incandescent to CFLs it would roughly triple those savings.

Do CFLs contribute to migraines?

In the past, CFLs might have contributed to headaches. The contribution of CFLs to headaches was a result of the flickering of light produced by the magnetic ballasts that powered fluorescent lamps at about 60 cycles per second. Fluorescent lighting used today uses electronic ballasts that operate at 40,000 cycles per second, resulting in imperceptible flickering to the eye. For more information, see here.

Do CFLs cause electromagnetic interference?

The answer is that it is possible for CFLs to cause electromagnetic interference, but these electric and magnetic fields have not been found to pose a health hazard to the general population.

From EPA’s Energy Star website:

Similar to linear fluorescent lighting and other electronics, it is possible for CFLs to cause electromagnetic interference (EMI). Electromagnetic interference is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and ENERGY STAR includes these requirements by reference for CFLs. In addition, ENERGY STAR requires CFLs to use ballasts that operate at greater than 40 kHz, which limits the potential for interference. Finally, ENERGY STAR requires that the product package clearly state any devices that the CFL has potential to interfere with. This information is usually found along with other statements of known incompatibility with controls and application exceptions.

How much mercury is in the CFL bulbs?

The amount of mercury in CFLs varies, depending on the type and wattage of the bulb. If the bulb is rated as an Energy Star bulb (as most are), then it should contain no more than 5 mg of mercury (5 mg is barely enough to see with the naked eye; for comparison, the amount of mercury in a non-electronic thermometer or thermostat is about 500 mg). In response to concerns from the public about mercury in the bulbs, some members of the Association of Electrical and Medical Equipment Manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to minimize the mercury content in the bulbs. Under the terms of the commitment, participating companies have agreed to cap the average mercury content of CFL models of less than 25 watts at 4.0 mg per lamp. CFL models that use 25 to 40 watts of electricity have capped average mercury content at 5.0 mg per lamp. Environmental Working Group published a list of bulbs that have even lower levels (in the 1-2.7 mg/bulb range) of mercury. You can print out their mercury guide here.

Are there special considerations with regard to cleaning up broken bulbs?

Yes. Because the bulbs contain mercury, there are special considerations with regard to clean-up of a broken bulb. The recommended protocol for cleaning up a broken CFL is the following:

  • Have people and pets leave the room.
  • Shut-off the central system if you have one and air out the room for 5-10 minutes.
  • Carefully place broken bulb in glass jar, sealable plastic bag, or container and place outside (mercury vapors can escape the plastic bag, so don’t keep the bag in the house). Also, if a bulb breaks on the carpet, don’t vacuum it, just pick up the pieces as best you can and dispose of as described above (the vacuum cleaner could cause the mercury to be dispersed). Let the mercury vapor dissipate for a day or two before vacuuming.

You can find more details regarding the step-by-step clean-up instructions on EPA’s webpage.

Why should you recycle CFLs?

Because the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, it is advised that you recycle the bulbs at any number of collection points, including places like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Ikea. Because the bulbs last longer than incandescent, the average home should generate very few bulbs per year. You can find a list of recycling resources here.

So what’s the final conclusion?

Are CFLs the perfect energy solution? No, but they are a big step in the right direction. To help determine what kinds of CFLs are right for you, check out this guide.

Posted in Energy Efficiency| Comments closed
  • About the author

    Dr. Elena Craft works on air quality issues around Houston, specifically on reducing pollutant emissions along the Houston Ship channel. One focus area is the Port of Houston, where she is a strategist in designing and initiating a comprehensive clean air plan to reduce diesel emissions. Her work at the port includes partnerships with retailers and other stakeholders and incorporates clean air and efficiency measures across all sectors of port operations. Dr. Craft also works to reduce air toxics in the Houston region, specifically those compounds that have been identified as known or suspected carcinogens. Dr. Craft’s background is in molecular toxicology and she is ultimately concerned with advocating for policies that increase energy efficiency and that reduce exposure to air toxics and improve human health. She holds a M.S. degree in toxicology from NC State University, and a PhD from Duke University. Her research experience includes working with toxics like PCBs, dioxins, and metals, and examining their health effects as related to environmental exposures. Previously, she worked for the US EPA and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, focusing in the areas of proteins, metals, and molecular biology.

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