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The California Gas Disaster: What Comes Next and Where Else Could it Happen?

storage_2013The ongoing leak at the Aliso Canyon natural gas facility owned by Southern California Gas has driven more than 2,000 families from their homes in the Porter Ranch area of Los Angeles and prompted Gov. Brown to declare a state of emergency. It’s dumped an estimated 83 thousand metric tons of methane into the atmosphere so far (see our leak counter here), with no clear end in sight.

But what are the next steps from here? What are the wider implications of this continuing disaster; and where else could something like this happen? What do we do to prevent another Aliso, and how will Southern California make up for the environmental damages once the leak stops?

The troubling fact is that Aliso Canyon is just the tip of a very big iceberg, reflecting both the industry’s widespread methane problem, and the potential local risks of over 400 other storage facilities nationwide. It spotlights a longstanding, largely invisible problem, promising to shift political dynamics around solutions. And the penalty phase, when it comes, will hopefully codify important principles that will also have a big effect on industry behavior. Read More »

Also posted in California, Methane, Natural Gas| Read 2 Responses

A Sunny Future for Utility-Scale Solar

512px-Nellis_AFB_Solar_panelsUtility-scale solar and distributed solar both have an important role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions, and both have made great strides in the past year.

Utility-scale solar, the focus of this article, is reaching “grid parity” (i.e., cost equivalency) with traditional generation in more areas across the country.  And solar received a major boost when the federal tax incentive was recently extended through 2021. The amount of the incentive decreases over time, but the solar industry may be able to offset the lower tax incentive if costs continue to decline.  New changes in policy and technology may further boost its prospects.

Record year for utility-scale solar

Some of the world’s largest solar plants came on-line in the U.S. during the past year, such as the 550-megawatt (MW) Topaz Solar plant in San Luis Obispo County, California and the 550MW Desert Sunlight plant in Desert Center, California. Last year saw a record increase in the amount of new utility-scale solar photovoltaic generation installed – about four gigawatts (GW), a whopping 38 percent increase over 2013, and enough solar power to supply electricity to 1.2 million homes.  This number is expected to increase in 2015 when the final numbers are in. Read More »

Also posted in Clean Power Plan, Energy Storage, Solar Energy| Comments are closed

Tech Innovation in the Energy Utility Space: Good News & Room for More

281848673_f2dbe9926d_oA survey released this month by a top management consulting firm found that 80 percent of the companies polled – including Apple, Google and Tesla – rank innovation among their top three strategic priorities. Unfortunately, the nation’s utility sector seems to be behind the curve when it comes to embracing this idea.

Utility companies invested just 0.1 percent of revenue in research and development in 2013, according to the National Regulatory Research Institute. That’s less than 1/30th the national average of 3.3 percent for all industries. In fact, R&D spending by energy utilities has declined in absolute terms since the mid-90s. But that’s only one piece of the problem. There’s also the related problem of low adoption of new technologies by the sector, which some have attributed to a culture of caution.

That’s why it was so noteworthy when Public Service Electric & Gas Company (PSE&G), New Jersey’s largest and oldest publicly-owned utility, announced it will use data gathered by EDF using cutting-edge leak quantification technology to prioritize a massive $905 million pipeline replacement program. After assessing public safety considerations, PSE&G will use data on methane emissions from its pipes to identify those most in need of replacement. Read More »

Also posted in Methane, Natural Gas| Comments are closed

Infrared Camera Reveals Huge, Wafting Cloud of Methane over California’s Aliso Canyon

Methane pollution from the oil and gas industry is a serious problem for our climate and communities, but it’s one most people aren’t even aware of. That’s because, while methane is a powerful pollutant, it is colorless, odorless and invisible to the naked eye.

But residents of Southern California’s Porter Ranch neighborhood had their eyes opened wide to the methane problem when a natural gas storage well in nearby Aliso Canyon ruptured and created a massive leak right next to their homes – an incident detected by residents in October from the putrid smell of mercaptan, an additive utilities use to more easily detect natural gas leaks.

Natural gas is made mostly of methane, and when it is released unburned, it has a warming power over 84 times that of carbon dioxide over 20 years. So, leaking or intentionally emitting unburned natural gas – which happens not just through malfunctions but often during routine production and transportation of oil and gas – can do major climate damage. The California Air Resources Board estimates that Aliso Canyon is pumping out methane at about 50,000 kg per hour, or about 62 million standard cubic feet, per day – that’s the same 20-year greenhouse gas impact as the daily emissions from 7 million cars.

Now, on day 48 in a very uncertain timeline of the one of the largest U.S. natural gas leaks ever recorded, infrared cameras are giving us a true glimpse at the size of this man-made methane volcano. Looking at side-by-side images of Aliso Canyon taken on Dec. 9 using an everyday camera and one equipped with infrared technology reveals just how blind we are to this kind of pollution:

Aliso canyon 2 Read More »

Also posted in Methane, Natural Gas| Comments are closed

Oil and Gas Pollution Delivers a One-Two Punch to Our Public Health

One of the country’s largest leaks ever of natural gas, which is primarily made up of the potent greenhouse gas methane, has been going on in California’s Aliso Canyon for over a month. The volume that’s been leaking has been staggering—and the impacts to local residents severe enough to warrant relocating hundreds of families.

Major disasters like the one unfolding in Aliso Canyon have a tendency to grab our attention because the impacts are so acute and can be immediately documented—from the volume of methane that’s leaked (latest climate impacts estimate: equivalent to driving 160,000 cars/year) to the documented health impacts (bloody noses, headaches, breathing difficulties, nausea).

The Aliso Canyon leak, however, also provides us a good reminder of what communities across the U.S. who are close to oil and gas facilities have been increasingly concerned about—the ongoing environmental impact of air pollution that is being released into their neighborhoods, and the safety of those operations. Most of the pollution is invisible to the naked eye, but infrared cameras are bringing the problem into sharper focus, and with that a louder call for action and oversight by federal officials. EPA estimates that today, methane leaks from onshore oil and gas development is contributing climate impacts equivalent to driving nearly 130 million cars annually. And their emissions are contributing to unhealthy air for residents living next door and downwind of this development. Read More »

Also posted in Air Quality, California, Methane, Natural Gas| Read 1 Response

Local Solar Can Be Good For All Neighborhoods

Grid AlternativesSolar power in California has, in many ways, been an unparalleled success: the state has more solar power installed than the rest of the country combined. There are more solar workers in California (55,000) than working actors or utility workers. Solar workers earn a higher than average wage, and the industry is making strides in employing more women, veterans, and people of color. And, the median income of households installing solar in California in 2012 was between $40,000-$50,000, mostly middle- and working-class homeowners.

But there are two sides to this story because, unfortunately, solar power is still inaccessible to many low-income households.

Take my neighborhood of Boyle Heights, on the east side of Los Angeles, for example: over 70 percent of residents are renters and cannot install solar on roofs they don't own. For those who do own their homes, many can't afford to purchase their own solar system (the median income is just over $33,000) or don’t qualify for traditional financing. Residents here have captured a paltry $0.33 per capita in solar incentives over the past 15 years, as compared to Bel Air (yup, that Bel Air) which received almost $200 in solar incentives per capita – over 600 times more than Boyle Heights. Read More »

Also posted in California, Clean Energy, Solar Energy| Comments are closed
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