Friday, February 24, 2012

Home energy-saving plans proposed

Duke Energy this week asked for state approval to launch or tweak three energy-saving programs for residential customers

The changes, which need approval by the N.C. Utilities Commission, include:

-- An appliance-recycling plan would offer customers $30 and free pick-up if they give up old, inefficient refrigerators or freezers.

-- Additions to Duke’s Smart $aver program would offer customers incentives to make their homes more energy-efficient. The program would offer up to $400 to homeowners who install attic insulation, $200 for duct sealing, $350 for duct insulation, $60 for a central air-conditioner tune-up and $125 for a heat pump tune-up.

The program already offers $200 incentives to customers who install higher-efficiency heating and cooling systems.

-- Under a free new program, Duke will proactively seek out customers in low-income neighborhoods. Based on energy-saving needs, it will offer a menu of conservation measures such as weather-stripping, compact fluorescent bulbs, water heater insulation or water-saving showerheads.

Costs of the programs would be paid for by an existing energy-efficiency rider, which adds $2.35 a month to typical residential bills.

More on these if they're approved.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Climate change influences bird migrations, study finds

Warming temperatures mean quicker migrations for birds in eastern North America, a UNC Chapel Hill biologist says in a newly-published paper.

A team led by Allen Hurlbert based its work on 48 million observations reported over the past decade by amateur birdwatchers to eBird, an online database. Results were published Wednesday in the science journal PLoS ONE.

The study focused on 18 species, all commonly found across the East. It analyzed when the birds arrived at various points on their migrations. On average, each species reached stopping points 0.8 days earlier for each degree Celsius of
increased spring temperature. But some species arrived up to three to six days early.

Timing is everything on birds' perilous journeys. Arrive too early, and no food may be available. Get there late and risk losing territory or mates.

Birds that migrate slowly, such as red-eyed vireos (right), are most likely to quicken their migratory pace as temperatures rise and slow them when readings fall, the study found. Those that typically make rapid or especially long migrations were more resistant to temperature cues -- potentially to their peril.

"They have to time it right so they can balance arriving on breeding grounds after there's no longer a risk of severe winter conditions," Hurlbert says. "If they get it wrong, they may die or may not produce as many young."

Hurlbert's coauthor was Zhongfei Liang, a former undergraduate student who helped analyze data.

Friday, February 17, 2012

North Carolina's dirty-water list released

There are a couple of ways to look at water pollution in North Carolina, detailed in a report out this week: as showing a disheartening lack of improvement or evidence that conditions aren't growing worse.

About one-third of the streams, rivers and lakes the state assessed are impaired by some form of pollution, the report says. Waterways fall on and off the impaired-water list, which is updated every two years, but that overall proportion hasn't changed in recent years.

The Catawba River basin, including most of Charlotte, has 356 miles of tributary streams on the list, mostly because they're unhealthy for aquatic life. Among them are most of Mecklenburg's creeks: McAlpine, McMullen, Irwin, Sugar and Little Sugar.

The South Fork arm of Lake Wylie makes the list for excessive copper levels. So does Lake Rhodhiss, in the upper basin, for high pH. Statewide, bacteria, chemicals, sediment and polluted stormwater are most often to blame.

Worth noting are some caveats about the list. It does not include waters for which pollution-control plans have been developed -- among them Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's water source, which landed on the 2010 list for slight acidity. A plan crafted for the same problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will be applied here, the N.C. Division of Water Quality says.

The list also isn't a snapshot of all N.C. waters. Only those where pollution is expected are assessed. Those that don't meet water quality standards or support designated uses, such as supplying drinking water, are listed as impaired.

In that light, says Susan Massengale of the water-quality division, the list shows that waters aren't degrading further despite years of rapid development. New technology has been harnessed, she says, to make the stuff that comes out of discharge pipes ever cleaner.

Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman takes a dimmer view, noting that virtually all urban streams are polluted. "We need to be smarter about new development if we want our waterways to provide for us," he says.

Have your say here. The state will take public comment on the updated list through March 12.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Report questions energy from biomass

Making electricity by burning wood instead of fossil fuels can lower heat-trapping emissions, says a study out today, but not fast enough to head off worsening climatic conditions.

Expanding use of biomass in the Southeast would also mean cutting down more live trees in addition to burning waste wood, the report said, raising questions about its effect on wildlife and water quality.

The Biomass Energy Resource Center, a Vermont nonprofit focused on "community-scale" biomass energy, produced the analysis for the National Wildlife Federation and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The study analyzed 17 existing and 22 proposed biomass facilities in seven southeastern states, including the Carolinas. The N.C. Utilities Commission ruled in 2010 that Duke Energy could use whole trees, chipped into bits and blended with coal, to help fuel its Buck power plant in Rowan County and its Lee plant in Williamston, S.C.

Researchers looked at the carbon life cycle, forest growth and wood supplies in the region.

They found that fueling commercial power plants with wood and exporting fuel pellets to Europe will produce higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to fossil fuels, for up to 50 years. Levels would drop after that as regrowing forests absorb carbon released earlier.

Adding more carbon to the atmosphere from biomass could accelerate climate change impacts, said the Wildlife Federation's Julie Sibbing. David Carr of the law center says the Environmental Protection Agency should adopt a forest-to-furnace method to calculate the impact of harvesting, burning and regrowing biomass on climate and forests.

The Forest Guild and Spatial Informatics Group partnered with the Biomass Energy Resource Center on the study.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Duke to study carbon capture at Indiana plant

Duke Energy today expanded a research collaboration with a Chinese partner, China Huaneng Group, into capturing carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants.

Huaneng Group, China's largest power producer, developed a facility in 2009 to catch 120,000 tons a year of the carbon dioxide the 1,320-megawatt Shidongkou power plant emits. An expanded agreement with Duke signed today includes an engineering study of applying that process to a unit of Duke's Gibson plant in Indiana.

Duke says it has no plans, for now, to modify Gibson. With a capacity of 3,145 megawatts, Gibson is Duke's largest power plant. The study will be paid for by the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, which the two countries created in 2009.

David Mohler, Duke's chief technology officer, said in a news release that Duke's assessment of the Chinese technology "will help put this technology in context with other options."

Duke's Edwardsport plant in Indiana, now nearing completion, was designed to have the capability of capturing and storing carbon dioxide. But the plant is $1 billion over its initial budget and Duke is facing ethical and mismanagement claims in Indiana.

Duke is still studying carbon capture at Edwardsport, spokesman Tom Shiel said.

Duke and Huaneng Group signed an agreement in 2009 to share information on renewable and clean-energy technology. Today's announcement extends that agreement for three years.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

NRC ready to license Georgia nuclear plant

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said today it has finished safety and environmental reviews that clear the way for licensing of the first U.S. nuclear reactors in a generation.

The NRC said it expects to issue combined construction and operating licenses for two new reactors at the Vogtle plant near Augusta, Ga., within 10 days. Site preparation is already underway. A subsidiary of Southern Co. is building the plant.

No new U.S. nuclear plant has been licensed for construction since 1978.

Nine anti-nuclear groups, including North Carolina's Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and the N.C Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, said Wednesday they will ask the NRC to delay the Vogtle license so they can file a challenge in federal court.

Vogtle will use Westinghouse Electric's AP1000 reactor, a new design that would shut down without electricity or human intervention during accidents. The NRC certified the design in December.

Charlotte-based Shaw Power Group shares a contract with Westinghouse to build the Vogtle plant and a two-reactor AP1000 addition to the Summer plant, also expected to be licensed soon, northwest of Columbia.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Energy costs taking a bigger bite, study finds

American families, especially poor ones, are spending more of their income on energy costs, says an analysis out today from a coal-industry advocacy group.

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is an industry-supported group that blames government regulations for making energy more expensive. Stiffer environmental rules that push utilities to retire their dirtiest power plants are a factor, most recently in the 7 percent N.C. rate hike Duke Energy was granted last month.

But the study notes that rocketing gasoline prices account for most of growing energy costs. It also acknowledges that as costs rise, household incomes are dropping. Median incomes, adjusted for inflation, were 7 percent smaller in 2010 than they were in 2000, the Census Bureau reports.

This explains the outrage aimed at Duke Energy for seeking its second N.C. rate increase since 2009, with a third on the way later this year.
The ACCCE study is based on Census and Energy Information Administration data and price forecasts. In 2001, it says, families earning $10,000 to $30,000 a year spent 14 percent of their after-tax income on electricity, home heating and cooling and transportation. Now those costs gobble 24 percent.

For families making $30,000 to $50,000 a year, energy costs went from 10 percent to 17 percent. For those making more than $50,000, it rose from 5 percent to 9 percent.