News & Notes

by Chris Shreve

Court Rules NRC Can’t Ignore Yucca Mountain

A federal appeals court in August ruled the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) must consider the Department of Energy (DOE)’s license application to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. In a frankly worded opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the president may not disregard the mandates of the Nuclear Policy Act, and that the long-standing policy debate over Yucca Mountain “is not our concern.” (The NRC is an independent agency but the president appoints its commissioners.)

The NRC’s reasons for not complying with the statute rested on Congress’s apparent unwillingness to advance the Yucca Mountain project. The NRC argued that in the last three years, Congress has appropriated little or no funds, is unlikely to do so in the future, and that the $11.1 million it has appropriated is insufficient to complete the licensing process.

The court was not persuaded, saying Congress speaks through the laws it enacts, and that no law states the NRC should shut down the licensing process. Furthermore, “policy disagreement with Congress’s decision about nuclear waste storage is not a lawful ground . . . to decline to continue the congressionally mandated licensing process.”

But don’t expect the NRC—or Congress—to get back to work on Yucca Mountain. At a news conference following the court’s ruling, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, a longtime opponent of the site, put it bluntly: “This decision means nothing. Yucca Mountain is an afterthought.”

ACEEE Ranks Energy Efficiency of Cities

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has released its 2013 City Energy Efficiency Scorecard, a report that ranks 34 of the most populous U.S. cities on their policies to advance energy efficiency.

Top honors went to Boston, which did the most to reduce energy use in five key areas: buildings; transportation; energy and water utility efforts; local government operations; and community-wide initiatives.

Other top-scoring cities included Portland (Oregon), New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin. The next top-scoring cities (Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver) also developed efficiency initiatives and could rise in the rankings in future years, according to ACEEE.

The report is the first to rank cities exclusively on energy efficiency efforts. To accompany the report, ACEEE launched an interactive infographic (available at aceee.org) that highlights each city’s best practices and scores.

But even the highest scorers have room for improvement. ACEEE offered several recommendations for cities to improve their efficiency, such as adopting energy savings goals; managing, tracking, and enabling easy access to energy use and goals; and partnering with energy and water utilities to promote and expand energy-efficiency programs.


The Supreme Court will decide whether tailpipe emissions regulations can be applied to power plants. Photo courtesy of Jeff Kubina

Supreme Court Grants Review of EPA Greenhouse Gas Rule

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed on October 15 to review aspects of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations. Justices will hear a challenge to a June 2012 U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling that upheld a suite of EPA regulations.

The Supreme Court, however, will limit its review to a single issue—namely, whether the EPA’s regulation of GHG emissions from new motor vehicles triggered similar regulations for stationary sources. It’s a timely issue, as the EPA in September proposed standards to require new power plants be built with technology to limit carbon pollution (see next article).

The Court’s decision, expected in the summer of 2014, could affect the EPA’s rules on future power plants as well as state programs to limit carbon pollution.

EPA Proposes New Carbon Standards

The EPA in September proposed Clean Air Act standards to cut carbon pollution from new power plants. The proposal represents a major step in curbing CO2 emissions as outlined in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

“Climate change is one of the most significant public health challenges of our time,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. “By taking commonsense action to limit carbon pollution from new power plants, we can slow the effects of climate change and fulfill our obligation to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our children.”

Under the proposal, new coal-fired plants would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour, and would have the option to meet a somewhat tighter limit if they choose to average emissions over multiple years. Separate standards were set for new, large natural gas-fired turbines, which would need to meet a limit of 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour. New, small natural gas-fired turbines would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour.

Power plants are the largest concentrated source of emissions in the United States, together accounting for roughly one-third of all domestic GHG emissions, according to the EPA.


Should renewables move to the front of the line? Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy

Vermont Wind Project Clashes with Grid Operator

A $5,490 bill sent to a regional grid operator has revived the debate over how renewable energy should be incorporated into the grid. David Blittersdorf, a co-owner of the Georgia Community Wind Project in northwest Vermont, sent the bill to ISO New England after he was ordered to stop sending electricity to the grid. Demand was low one day in early October, and he was told to take his wind turbines offline—in favor of power gen­erated by fossil fuel and nuclear plants.

The amount of the bill represents the revenue Georgia Wind lost during the six-hour shutdown, but its real value lies in its message. In a letter to ISO New England President Gordon van Welie, Blittersdorf wrote, “It is our firm belief that renewable generation should be considered ‘must take’ generation sources. Otherwise . . . finite fossil fuel sources are burned at a time when forever-lost wind energy is forced to shut down.” He added that the grid operator should ensure renewable sources of power are used first.

A spokesperson for ISO New England said the company completed a study in 2010 about how to integrate renewable energy into the grid and is working to incorporate some of the suggestions.

EIA to Release Monthly Drilling Productivity Reports

On October 22, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released the first edition of a new monthly Drilling Productivity Report (DPR). The report provides region-specific insights into oil and natural gas drilling-rig efficiency, new well productivity, existing-well decline rates, and overall oil and natural gas production trends.

The new DPR is necessary, according to the EIA, because technology used in drilling for and producing natural gas and oil has made obsolete the traditional indicators of future production, such as simple counts of oil-directed and gas-directed drilling rigs in use.

“The metrics presented in the Drilling Productivity Report are intended to be more informative than traditional indicators of future oil and gas production,” said EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski. “The report provides a new approach that takes into account changes in the application of technologies that have led to rapid increases in U.S. oil and gas production.”

The DPR initially will cover the six geographic regions that account for 90% of domestic oil production growth and nearly all domestic natural gas production growth. The complete report is available on the EIA website (www.eia.gov).

DOE Commits to Long-Delayed Energy Efficiency Standards

It took a coalition of 10 states, the city of New York, and two national advocacy groups to get the DOE to commit to several long-overdue energy savings standards.

The standards—for metal halide lamps, walk-in freezers, commercial refrigeration equipment, and small elec­tric motors—are mandated by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act but were 7 to 18 months overdue.

A coalition made up of the state of New York; attorneys general for Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washing­ton; the California Energy Commission; the corporation counsel for the City of New York; the National Con­sumer Law Center; and the Natural Resources Defense Council had been pushing the DOE to issue new standards.

The pressure worked, as the DOE in August and September released separate notices of proposed rulemak­ing for all four products. The new standards could cumulatively save about 5.8 quads of electricity through 2035, or the equivalent of taking at least six coal-fired power plants offline, according to the ACEEE.

Wind Turbines Don’t Decrease Property Values


A wind turbine in my backyard? Go right ahead. Photo courtesy of Southwest Windpower

A large-scale study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Labo­ratory (LBNL) found wind energy facilities don’t decrease the value of surrounding homes. The study col­lected data from more than 50,000 home sales within 10 miles of wind facilities in nine states. It found “no statistical evidence” that home prices near wind turbines were affected either before or after construction of the turbines.

Previous research had suggested a potential effect on home values during the period between the announcement of a wind facility but before its construction. Those studies were limited by their relatively small sample sizes, according to LBNL, and the large sample size of its current study found no such correlation.

The findings don’t mean an indi­vidual home has never lost value due to its proximity to a wind farm (or that it can’t happen in the future), rather, it’s a rare enough occasion to be statistically insignificant.

This finding is good news for the U.S. wind industry, which installed 13 gigawatts of power in 2012. And, as the study notes, more wind energy facilities are expected to be devel­oped, some of them in more populated regions.

DOE Fined For Asbestos Cleanup at Nuclear Site

On October 20, the U.S. Environ­mental Protection Agency (EPA) fined the DOE $115,000 for improperly managing asbestos while demolishing buildings at a nuclear waste facility. The EPA said 19 of 22 soil samples at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington State contained asbestos.

Hanford is a 586-square-mile site created in 1943 as part of the Manhat­tan Project. Production stopped in 1989, and work shifted to cleanup of hazard­ous materials. The DOE oversees the cleanup, which includes the demolition of hundreds of buildings.

The DOE says its contractors completed asbestos demolition and management activities in accordance with the regulations as they understood them at the time. The DOE has 15 days to dispute the violations.

No Bids for Wyoming Coal Rights

For the first time in the state of Wyoming, no companies bid on coal mining rights for a tract of land offered by the Bureau of Land Management.

The 2-square-mile Maysdorf II North Coal Tract in the Powder River Basin contains an estimated 148.5 million tons of mineable coal. It is near two other mines, currently operated by two separate companies—Alpha Natural Resources and Cloud Peak—both of whom declined to bid.

Cloud Peak President and CEO Colin Marshall said in a statement that it was “not prudent to bid at this time” in light of current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment toward coal and coal-powered generation.

The coal market is sluggish in part because natural gas prices remain low, and more utilities are choosing natural gas to generate power.

More Victims of DOE Cyber Attack

A July cyber attack at the DOE compromised the personal information of more than 53,000 employees—four times more than originally reported.

An internal email from DOE Deputy Chief of Staff Jonathan Levy says names, dates of birth, and Social Security numbers were stolen, including those of current and former employees, dependents, and contractors.

“I want to assure you that the Department takes this incident very seriously and is implementing improvements to prevent future incidents,” wrote Levy. “The Department sincerely regrets this incident and the inconvenience it has caused the affected individuals.”

All affected individuals were notified and offered one year of free credit monitoring. The attack was the second on the DOE’s systems in 2013.

West Coast Leaders Join Forces to Combat Climate Change

On October 28, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington, and the premier of British Columbia, Canada, signed the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, a strategic alignment to combat climate change and promote clean energy.

Under the plan, California and British Columbia will maintain their existing carbon pricing programs along with their respective clean fuel standards, while Oregon and Washington have committed to moving forward on a suite of similar policies. The leaders further agreed to harmonize their 2050 greenhouse gas emission targets (and develop midterm targets where needed) and pledged to cooperate with governments around the world to press for a global agreement on climate change in 2015.

The plan calls for all four jurisdictions to account for the costs of carbon pollution and, where appropriate and feasible, link programs to create consistency and predictability across a region of 53 million people.

“Each of the governments here is already taking bold steps on climate change,” said Washington Governor Jay Inslee. “By joining forces, we will accomplish even more.”