Thursday, December 10, 2015

Paris Climate Talks: What does it mean for the Bay

Image result for cop 21For the past two weeks, negotiators from across the globe have convened in Paris for the 21st United Nations conference on climate change. One hundred eighty six countries have come with ambitious pledges to limit greenhouse gas emissions. While past conferences have attempted to negotiate a treaty that would keep warming to 2 degrees Celsius, over 100 countries have now pushed to try and keep warming to 1.5 degrees.

It is unclear if this goal is possible given the amount of carbon we have already added to the atmosphere and the voluntary pledges being offered so far. Our current path including these pledges sets us up for 5 degrees, and we have already passed the 1 degree mark. Meeting a goal of only half a degree more of warming would require an unprecedented shift to a decarbonized economy across the world and would also require removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Because of the urgency, the final treaty will likely have specific requirements to “ratchet up” the promises from each country. The goal is that by the year 2030, all countries would be on a common pace to revise these promises every five years.

Much of the focus at the conference has been on lowering the demand for fossil fuel and using technology to limit emissions while switching to renewable energy. This directly ignores the scientific consensus that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must say in the ground for us to remain below 2 degrees of warming. Keeping it in the ground is not being discussed at this point, and here at home, the United States promotes and subsidizes fossil fuel development while trying to limit carbon emissions – a very difficult task.

In Paris, and here at home, you will hear two major topics of discussion when it comes to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation includes activities that will reduce or prevent greenhouse gas emissions, such as switching to renewable energy or preventing deforestation. Adaptation includes activities that reduce harm from the effects of climate change, such as removing infrastructure from flood prone areas, planting trees and treating stormwater.

Much of Save The Bay’s work in habitat restoration falls under adaptation. We are restoring salt marshes so that they provide habitat value for as long as they can be sustained. We are supporting dam removal as a way to connect rivers so that fish can migrate. We are helping cities and towns to move flooded infrastructure and treat stormwater. We also support mitigation by using solar panels at the Bay Center and advocating for renewable energy. On Tuesday, the RI Governor signed an executive order that will direct state agencies to get 100% of their energy use from renewable sources by 2025. It also supports zero emission vehicles, public transit and green buildings. 

There is a third piece of the puzzle, however, and that deals with loss and damage.

The problem, of course, is that no matter what we do in the coming years, some amount of sea level rise and temperature rise are already “baked in” and this will bring significant loss and damage to everyone on the planet to varying degrees. Already, Pacific Island nations are faced with abandoning areas that are uninhabitable, and droughts and floods are forcing people off their land.

This loss and damage is a bone of contention at the talks because poor countries feel that wealthy developed nations should shoulder the burden for making payments to them as restitution for causing much of the problem. Beyond money, assistance would include providing these countries with the capacity to cope and welcoming refugees from climate change disaster zones.

The sad reality is that so much damage has already been done we are beyond talking about mitigation and adaptation and are realizing that we could soon be dealing with a vast humanitarian crisis. The scale of that crisis depends on the strength of this and future climate agreements and how quickly they are acted upon by all the countries of the world.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Celebrating one year of gas free driving during Drive Electric Week

Image result for drive electric week

Last summer, I interviewed Save The Bay’s Facilities Manager about his decision to lease a Chevy Volt. The Volt is an electric drive vehicle with a gasoline engine for extended range. The all electric range is about 40 miles, after which a gasoline engine takes over. This is slightly different from a hybrid engine which switches back and forth from gasoline power to electric power during driving. After doing some research of my own, I decided last September to lease an all-electric Nissan Leaf, and go gasoline free. I like the simplicity of having one engine and virtually no maintenance other than tires and brakes.

Driving an all-electric car does take some planning ahead, and is best for city driving. The range varies widely depending on outside temperature and driving conditions. On good days, the range can top 90 miles with moderate driving speeds, but winter weather and use of the heat lowers the range under 80 miles. The car starts to warn you when running with under 20% of the battery remaining, so I generally take 20 miles off my effective range when planning my driving. With a battery instead of a gas tank, I feel like there is a direct feedback and connection to my own energy consumption and driving habits.

Rhode Island Supports Electric Vehicles
In 2013, Rhode Island partnered with National Grid to install 50 public charging stations through the ChargePoint Network. These stations are free to network members for the first four years while owners pay for the electricity. After four years, owners of the stations can decide to keep them free or begin using a fee based system. The stations are distributed throughout the state and are located at the state beaches, malls and restaurants such as Cilantro Grill and Chili’s, and at other locations such as Rhode Island College and Bryant University.

But what About the Electricity?
If you are interested in a direct comparison of energy consumption and costs for an electric car and a gasoline car, here are some of the things I have learned. One gallon of gasoline has the equivalent amount of energy as 34 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. Our second car, the Honda Fit, gets about 34 miles/gallon or about 1 mile per kWh. My Leaf diagnostics tell me that I average about 4.6 miles per kWh, or the equivalent of about 156 miles per gallon. The 2015 Nissan Leaf advertises an average miles per gallon equivalent of 114 miles, so either I am very efficient or my car is not very accurate.

The 2015 Nissan Leaf battery holds 24 kWh of energy. This means that a full charge at 16 cents per kWh costs about $3.84. I have been using about 200 kWh at home every month, for a cost of about $32. It also means that at an average of 4.6 miles per kWh, I should have a range of 110 miles, which is kind of pushing it. I have heard that the diagnostics are not very accurate, and that is something being worked on. 

To me, all those numbers mean that my electric car is almost five times more efficient than my gasoline car, regardless of the fuel type. Because of regenerative braking technology, the brake pads last up to three years longer. Fewer fluids and oils means less contribution to stormwater pollution. No exhaust means I am not contributing to low level ozone pollution, the major cause of air quality alert days in the heat of the summer. In addition, electric vehicles emit only 19.8% of the total heat emitted by conventional vehicles per mile, reducing the heat island effect in cities.

What About other Sources of Pollution?
Electric vehicles do create more pollution during the manufacturing process, and they do require electricity to be generated somewhere, using some type of energy source. The best scenario would be to plug in to a solar panel array or to purchase green energy through your electric company. Not all parts of the country are set up to distribute electricity from clean sources of fuel. The east and west coasts, however, happen to be areas where the electricity mix is steadily becoming more and more renewable.

According to the Sierra Club, in Massachusetts EVs have about 70% lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional cars. If you are interested in seeing the energy mix going into New England’s electricity generation in real-time, check out this site from ISO New England (our energy grid operator).

The Future of Electric Vehicles
In October 2013, eight states which include Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Washington and California, signed a pledge to get 3.3 million EVs on the road by 2025. I am fairly confident that we will soon reach a tipping point and this goal will be easily surpassed. When the 2018 models start rolling out, we will see range go up over the 200 mile mark and electric cars will be mainstream. Electric options are available from most major car companies already.

The problem with being an early adopter, however, is that depreciation is relatively high, given that the technology is getting so much better with each new car model. This does provide some opportunities, however, if you are looking to get into the electric car game and save a bunch of money. I am very happy with my choice and am looking forward to seeing what happens. I am already fighting for space at the public charging stations that I use, so I know there is a growing crowd out there with me. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Omega Pond Fish Ladder opens up the Ten Mile River

After several delays and technical challenges, the Omega Pond fish ladder at the mouth of the Ten Mile River was finally opened just in time for this year's spring fish run. Herring were waiting at the dam when the ladder was opened, and fish were seen making their way to Hunt's Mill where an annual fish count is done by volunteers.

Save The Bay's connection to this project began in 1996, when  Paul Bettencourt took Wenley Ferguson on a tour of the ponds where he once fished for herring, now long since filled in. They stopped at the Omega Pond dam, where Paul shared his vision of restoring the fish run. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders, and the project began in 2001 with an Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study. The project was a collaboration between many state, federal and local partners including Save The Bay, the CRMC, DEM, the City of East Providence and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

About 65% percent of the funding for the project was provided by federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). This funding includes about $5 million from the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Now that three fish ladders are in place, herring have three river miles and about 340 acres of habitat in which to spawn. They can now make their way to the Massachusetts state line, where they find the next dam at the Pawtucket Country Club. This dam is part of the Ten Mile River Reservation and is owned by RI DEM. The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has been supporting this project and provided fish from the Nemasket River herring run in Middleboro. These fish were stocked into the upper Ten Mile River to help maintain the run. The run was also maintained by a group of fishermen who for over ten years scooped returning herring and stocked them into the river under cover of darkness. These scooping events became celebrations as more and more fish returned and several thousand fish were helped over Omega Pond dam. 

Save The Bay will continue to work on this project and will advocate for continued river restoration. Water quality improvements are still desperately needed and the upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae. The flow in the Ten Mile River, like many of the Bay's small tributaries, is dominated by wastewater effluent. The Attleboro treatment plant is under strict new permit limits, but nutrient pollution in stormwater and from birds and wildlife is still contaminating the river. Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts including water quality and in stream habitat. We can now begin a dialogue with Massachusetts about additional restoration opportunities over the border, and the work is just beginning!