Posts with «environment» label

Senate passes sweeping climate-focused Inflation Reduction Act

After more than a year of infighting, President Joe Biden’s climate agenda has cleared a significant hurdle. On Sunday, Senate Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 in a 51-50 decision that went along party lines and saw Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote, reports The Washington Post. If passed by the House, the 755-page bill would authorize the single largest expenditure to combat climate change in the nation’s history. In all, the legislation calls for $370 billion in spending to reduce US greenhouse emissions by approximately 40 percent by the end of this decade.

Among the climate change provisions most likely to affect consumers is a reworked federal EV tax credit. The Inflation Reduction Act would provide up to $7,500 in subsidies for electric SUVs, trucks and vans that cost less than $80,000 and cars under $55,000. It would also allow people to claim up to $4,000 when buying a used EV. In both cases, an income ceiling would prevent those who make more than the average American from taking advantage of the legislation.

On top of EV subsidies, the $370 billion in investments set aside by the bill would incentivize the building of wind, solar and other renewable power sources. The act also calls for the creation of a $1.5 billion program that would pay companies that reduce their methane output.

With Sunday’s vote, the Inflation Reduction Act now moves to the House, which will return from its summer recess on Friday. For much of 2021 and the first half of 2022, President Biden’s Build Back Better plan looked doomed to go nowhere due to opposition from Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. In late July, however, Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced they had come to a compromise. 

In exchange for his support, the Inflation Reduction Act includes a provision that would see the federal government reinstate canceled oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's Cook Inlet. While that concession upset environmentalists, it’s not expected to undo the good the Inflation Reduction Act is poised to do for the environment. According to one estimate by Princeton University’s Zero Lab, the bill could reduce US greenhouse emissions by about 6.3 billion tons through 2032.

Crab-inspired artificial vision system works on land and underwater

There had been many previous attempts to develop cameras that mimic the eyes of insects, fish and other living creatures. However, development of artificial vision systems that can see both underwater and on land has apparently been pretty limited. Further, biomimetic cameras are usually restricted by their 180-degree field-of-view. Now, a team of scientists from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) and Seoul National University in Korea have developed a new artificial vision system with a 360-degree field-of-view that can work on amphibious machines.

The team was inspired by the semi-terrestrial fiddler crab, which has a 3D omnidirectional field-of-view. They evolved to be able to look at almost everything at once on land and underwater to avoid attacks and to see communicate with fellow fiddler crabs. Scientists have apparently been having issues finding a way to sustain a camera's focusing capability when the environment changes, which is why this team has decided to take a closer look at the fiddler crab. 

The resulting artificial eye is a nondescript black ball that combines various materials and lenses. Its configuration allows light rays from multiple sources to converge at the same spot regardless of the refractive index of its surrounding — in other words, whether the device is underwater or not. The team tested the technology by conducting in-air and in-water experiments: To be specific, they projected "cutesy" objects in the shape of a dolphin, an airplane, a submarine, a fish and a ship at different distances and in various angles onto the artificial vision system. The result? They found that their camera was successfully able to see the objects whether they were or weren't submerged in water.

Young Min Song, professor of electrical engineering and computer Science at GIST, said:

"Our system could be of use in the development of unconventional applications, like panoramic motion detection and obstacle avoidance in continuously changing environments, as well as augmented and virtual reality."

Other potential applications Song didn't mention include population surveillance and environmental monitoring, which could make the technology an invaluable tool for keeping a close eye on endangered, vulnerable and threatened species. You can check out the scientists' paper with more details about the new vision system in Nature.

Senate deal would revive EV tax credits for GM, Tesla and Toyota

Automakers might just get the EV tax credit extension they've been hoping for. Bloomberg and InsideEVs claim Senators Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin have reached an agreement on the Inflation Reduction Act that would replace the 200,000-unit cap on federal EV tax credits with a system that would restore those perks for GM, Tesla and Toyota. According to Bloomberg's sources, the new approach is a compromise that would switch to price- and income-based limits, drop union manufacturing requirements and offer credits for used EVs.

The Act would provide up to $7,500 in credits for electric SUVs, trucks and vans priced up to $80,000, while cars would have to cost $55,000 or less. Individuals would have to earn no more than $150,000 per year, while couples could make up to $300,000 with the credit intact. You would reportedly get up to a $4,000 credit for buying a used EV, although the income ceiling is said to be much lower. Crucially, the credit could be offered at the point of sale (such as online or a dealership) rather than as a tax refund — you'd get your savings much sooner.

Although the agreement is expected to drop the union production requirement, there would still be incentives for domestic manufacturing. Although the exact terms aren't clear, EVs would have to be built in North America and source many materials from the region. This would mainly represent a concession to Canada, which balked at earlier proposed legislation that would have required US-only assembly. Canadian factories produce US-destined cars for multiple major brands.

The Schumer-Manchin pact is also poised to revive some of the Biden administration's environmental strategy, including its hopes of zero-emissions vehicles representing half of new sales by 2030. It's expected to include $369 billion in climate and energy spending, Bloomberg said. Manchin had objected to the past proposal, in part because he felt the union requirement would favor incumbent American brands like Ford and GM while disadvantaging rivals like Tesla. 

More details of the deal are still to come, and there's a chance the terms could change. If the Inflation Reduction Act passes as claimed, though, it could significantly alter the automotive landscape. GM, Tesla and Toyota could effectively lower the prices of their EVs and offset recent hikes, while Nissan and other marques wouldn't have to worry about hitting a unit cap in the first place. The move could also spark life in the used EV market by offering a clearer financial incentive versus buying new. Simply put, EVs could become more accessible even without lower-cost models in the pipeline.

White House launches a website to help people cope with extreme heat

President Biden's administration is backing up its funding for heat disaster prevention with a website to keep people informed. Fast Companynotes the White House has launched a Heat.gov website to help the public and authorities understand the dangers of extreme heat and reduce the health risks. The 11-agency collaboration offers maps for current and expected temperature spikes across the US, prevention guidance and data-driven tools.

Among the resources are a CDC-made Heat & Health Tracker that shows both historic and predicted trends. You'll see how much hotter your area has become over the decades, for instance. Other tools help you understand the effects of extreme heat on vulnerable groups, or aid communities seeking funds for city heat maps. The Biden administration has already been using the data to guide $50 billion in federal spending, White House climate advisor David Hayes said.

The Heat.gov debut comes just as the US (and many other parts of the world) grapples with particularly severe heat waves, and is part of a larger strategy to deal with the realities of climate change. Temperatures are expected to keep climbing, and this could help planners mitigate the dangers. In his most recent initiatives, President Biden sent $2.3 billion to FEMA for climate-related disaster "resilience," expanded low-income energy help to include efficient air conditioning and proposed wind farms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The website is also consolation of sorts. The Supreme Court recently curbed the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin also thwarted efforts to include climate change measures in a federal spending bill. While Heat.gov won't compensate for those losses, it potentially draws more attention to climate issues.

Formula 1 says it's on schedule to switch to fully sustainable fuel in 2026

Formula 1 is trying to clean up its act and ensure its operations have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2030. An important part of the plan is to use 100 percent sustainable fuel in race cars, and the organization says it's still on schedule to achieve that by 2026.

It's currently developing a "drop-in" fully sustainable fuel for use in F1 cars — it claims most road cars would be able to use the fuel too. This season, F1 cars are using E10 fuel, which includes 10 percent ethanol that's said to be fully renewable. While going from 10 percent renewable fuel to a fully sustainable version in just a few years is challenging, F1 leaders are confident they can reach that goal.

“We’re working on an E fuel where the carbon circle is completely neutral so the carbon utilized to produce that fuel is the same quantity as the carbon emitted from the internal combustion engine," F1 managing director of motorsports Ross Brawn said in a statement. "It means that the engines do not add anything to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." Brawn noted that making the fuel available more broadly could help reduce emissions around the globe, especially in areas where switching to electric vehicles won't be feasible for a long time.

F1’s chief technical officer Pat Symonds, who is leading the 100 percent sustainable fuel project, said the motorsport is still in good shape to meet the 2026 target. “We’ve been working with Aramco and have now tested 39 surrogate blends of fuels,” Symonds said. “This has helped us understand the effects of the different types of blends that you can use in a sustainable fuel. We’ve been testing those in a single cylinder Formula 1 power unit, so it’s representative testing — and I think that’s helped accelerate our progress.”

Biden's latest climate change actions expand offshore wind farms

President Biden is still unveiling measures to combat climate change, and his newest efforts are aimed at preventing environmental crises. The President has outlined a string of executive actions that, notably, include the first "Wind Energy Areas" in the Gulf of Mexico. The 700,000 acres will allow for enough potential offshore wind power to supply over 3 million homes, according to the administration. The Secretary of the Interior, meanwhile, will further work on wind power along the mid-to-southern Atlantic Coast as well as the Florida Coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has unveiled $2.3 billion in funding to bolster resilience against heat waves, wildfires and similar climate change-related disasters. New guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services expands the use of the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program for air conditioning, community cooling centers and other resources to fight extreme heat.

As in the past, Biden characterized his efforts as useful for the economy, not just the environment. The wind power projects should create jobs, while the FEMA and Health Department initiatives could minimize the damage from natural disasters. These events disproportionately hurt minorities and underserved communities, he said, and they also put critical infrastructure at risk.

Biden has pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030. The White House has also devoted billions of dollars to clean energy projects, planned a national EV charging network and fought to reverse the purchase of gas-powered Postal Service vehicles.

This isn’t as extensive a response as some expected. The Washington Post reported that Biden considered declaring a climate emergency this week, though press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre confirmed he is still open to the idea. Biden is far from alone in failing to treat the warming climate with urgency, though. Congress has struggled to pass climate-related legislation given Senate opposition from Republicans and Democrat holdout Joe Manchin. These executive moves could help Biden advance elements of his climate agenda despite the legislative roadblock.

Democratic lawmakers want federal regulators to track crypto mining energy use and emissions

Congressional Democrats are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy to address the recent proliferation of cryptocurrency mining within the US. In a letter sent Friday (via The Guardian), Senator Elizabeth Warren and five other lawmakers said the two agencies should work together to require crypto mining firms to disclose their energy use and emissions.

The request comes after the group recently completed an investigation that began at the start of the year. According to the letter, data collected from seven of the largest mining companies in the US, including Stronghold, Bitfury and Riot, indicates they can collectively use more than 1 gigawatt of electricity. Put another way, that’s almost enough to power all the residential buildings in Houston.

Warren and the other lawmakers say they’re concerned about what all that power use will mean for the environment and consumers. Regarding the former, they state that emissions data from three of the surveyed companies indicate they emit approximately 1.6 million tons of CO2 annually or the equivalent of the tailpipe emissions of almost 360,000 cars. “Bitcoin miners are using huge quantities of electricity that could be used for other priority end uses that contribute to our electrification and climate goals, such as replacing home furnaces with heat pumps,” the letter states.

On the latter point, the lawmakers cite a 2021 study from the University of California, Berkeley that estimated crypto mining in upstate New York raised annual electricity bills by approximately $165 million for small businesses and $79 million for consumers. What's more, they say their investigation doesn’t even scratch the surface of the full impact of crypto mining on power use and emissions in the US. “None of the companies provided full and complete information in response to our questions,” they note.

“The results of our investigation, which gathered data from just seven companies, are disturbing, with this limited data alone revealing that crypto miners are large energy users that account for a significant – and rapidly growing – amount of carbon emissions,” the letter states. By requiring crypto mining firms to disclose their energy use and emissions, the group says the EPA and Department of Energy could provide lawmakers with better data to inform future policy decisions. The agencies have until August 15th to respond to the request.

Hitting the Books: How mass media transformed coyotes into scapegoats

As the boundaries between developed spaces and wildlands continue to blur, the frequency and intensity of human-animal interactions will surely increase. But it won’t just be adorably viral trash pandas and pizza rats whistling on your veranda — it’ll be 30-50 feral hogs in your garbage and birds of prey predating upon your precious pekinese. Next thing you know your daughter’s knocked up and the fine china’s missing! But it wasn’t always like this, Peter Alagona explains in his new book, The Accidental Ecosystem. He explores how and why America’s cities — once largely barren of natural features — have exploded with wildlife over the past 150 years, even as populations have declined in their traditional habitats.

In the excerpt below, Alagona examines our long and complicated relationships with the coyote, one that has lasted for millennia and ranged from reverence to revulsion, a narrative now influenced by the social media hivemind.

UC Press

Excerpted from The Accidental Ecosystem: People and Wildlife in American Cities by Peter S Alagona, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Peter S Alagona.


Urban adapters and exploiters may be prepared for life among people, but are people prepared for life among them? In the 1970s and 1980s, when coyotes started showing up more often in dozens of American cities, residents and officials were unprepared, and many were unwilling to accommodate animals they saw as dangerous interlopers. As one teenager who lost her toy poodle to a coyote told the Los Angeles Times in 1980, “Coyotes make me mad. They take care of our rats, which are really disgusting. But I hate coyotes.” The same year, the Yale social ecology professor Stephen Kellert found that, among US survey respondents, coyotes ranked twelfth from the bottom on a list of “most liked” animals, above cockroaches, wasps, rattlesnakes, and mosquitoes but below turtles, butterflies, swans, and horses. The most-liked animal was the dog, which is so closely related to the coyote that the two can mate in the wild and produce fertile offspring.

In his 2010 book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight about Animals, the anthropologist Hal Herzog wrote that “the way we think about other species often defies logic.” This is not to say that our ideas about animals are arbitrary, but rather that the ways we think about them are shaped as much by history, culture, and psychology as by physics, chemistry, or biology. In the absence of this social context, people’s ideas about and actions toward other animals can seem nonsensical, hypocritical, or downright weird.

Animals are often presumed innocent or guilty — and thus treated with respect or contempt — based on the baggage our culture, through art or literature or tradition, has forced them to carry. An animal’s inherent or perceived qualities also matter. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt to creatures that are big, that we think are cute, pretty, majestic, or humanlike, that seem to embody admirable qualities such as grit, entrepreneurship, or good parenting, or that at the very least leave us alone. Yet such perceptions rarely reflect a species's real behavior or ecology. Many people see rats as disgusting or dangerous, even though most rats pose little threat to most people most of the time. Cats, meanwhile, seem friendly and cuddly despite being ferocious predators and disease-ridden ecological wrecking balls.

Mass and social media play especially important roles in shaping perceptions. When large and charismatic wildlife species started showing up in many American cities more frequently in the 1970s and 1980s, around the time of Kelly Keen’s death, newspapers and TV shows often adopted one of two tones: irony or sensationalism. Ironic images and stories emphasized how surprising it was to see wild animals showing up in supposedly civilized areas. Sensationalistic stories emphasized conflicts between people and wildlife. They often used military metaphors about wars and battles or echoed the paranoid, racist, and xenophobic tropes of the day, comparing wildlife to undocumented immigrants, gang members, criminals, terrorists, and “super predators.”

These images were circulating in the media during an era when the proportion of Americans with firsthand experiences of wild places was flattening or even declining. During the 1970s and 1980s, \consumer products and better infrastructure fueled the growth of outdoor sports, including non hunting wildlife activities like bird watching and photography. Yet technology, which enabled so many people to enjoy the outdoors, also began inserting itself into these same people’s encounters with nature, first mediating and then replacing them. Video screens allowed Americans to spend more time watching virtual creatures and less time interacting with actual animals. Animal-themed visual media exploded in popularity, while zoos and museums struggled to attract patrons. Between 1995 and 2014, even the National Park system saw its annual per capita visitation slide by 4 percent.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the people who encountered wildlife in cities often reacted by treating these animals like the caricatures they read about in the news or saw on TV. For many, creatures like coyotes looked like either cuddly pets or bloodthirsty killers. Neither image was accurate, of course, but both had real world consequences.

When people who viewed coyotes with suspicion saw them in urban areas, often the first thing they did was call the police. Involving the police tended to turn a non problem into a problem or make a bad problem worse. Yet moving away from a law-enforcement-based approach has been difficult.

As late as 2015, New York City, which saw its first coyote twenty years earlier, was still often approaching these creatures as outlaws. That April, the New York Police Department, responding to an early-morning 911 call reporting a coyote in Riverside Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, deployed tranquilizer guns, patrol cars, and helicopters. The ensuing three-hour chase ended when officers failed to corner the fugitive canine. When questioned about the costly and time-consuming incident, the NYPD contradicted a statement previously issued by the Department of Parks and Recreation saying that the city would no longer pursue coyotes that did not appear to pose a threat. It turned out that the two departments did not have a written agreement spelling out this policy. NYPD officers were not trained on how to deal with coyotes, but it was up to them to decide how to respond. The result was predictable: the same excessive force that has plagued modern policing in general was mobilized to combat a wild animal that presented little if any risk.

Over time, some cities and their residents adjusted to their new reality of living with coyotes. Jurisdictions with ample budgets, supportive residents, and helpful institutions like zoos and museums developed research, education, conservation, and citizen science programs. Some parks and police departments started working together to develop new policies and practices, limiting the use of force and trying, with some difficulty, to respond only to genuine emergencies. One of the key messages wildlife officials stressed was that the decision to launch a response should depend on an animal’s behavior — whether it appeared injured or sick or was acting aggressively — and not its mere presence.

As such messages have percolated, attitudes have evolved. In New York, as people have become more accustomed to living with coyotes, fear has given way to tolerance and even a tenuous kind of acceptance. In some neighborhoods, individual coyotes have become mascots with names, backstories, and social media accounts. Few people actually trust coyotes, and most people don’t want them prowling around their backyards, schools, or playgrounds, but many communities have shown a growing willingness to embrace their furry neighbors.

As early as 2008, studies from suburban New York showed that most residents appreciated coyotes, enjoyed having them around, and even “found the likelihood of injury from a coyote acceptable.” But people’s willingness to live alongside coyotes in their communities dropped quickly when incidents occurred, suggesting that tolerance for them remained fragile. Overall, however, the longer most people lived with urban wildlife like coyotes, the more they viewed these creatures not as threats but as natural and beneficial members of multispecies urban communities.

This 'sand' battery stores renewable energy as heat

A company in Finland has created an an unusual storage solution for renewable energy: One that uses sand instead of lithium ion or other battery technologies. Polar Night Energy and Vatajankoski, an energy utility in Western Finland, have built a storage system that can store electricity as heat in the sand. While there are other organizations researching the use of sand for energy storage, including the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Finns say theirs is the first fully working commercial installation of a battery made from sand.

Similar to traditional storage systems for renewables, Polar's technology stores energy from wind turbines and solar panels that isn't used at once. To be precise, it stores energy as heat, which is then used for the district heating network that Vatajankoski services. Sand is inexpensive and is very effective at storing heat at about 500 to 600 degrees Celsius. Polar says its technology can keep sand "hotter than the stoves in typical saunas" for months until it's time to use that heat during Finland's long winters. 

As the BBC explains, the resistive heating process used to warm the sand generates hot air circulated inside the structure. When it's time to use the stored energy, the battery discharges that heated air to warm water in the district's heating system, which is then pumped into homes, offices and even pools. At the moment, Polar's sand battery only serves a single city, and it's still unclear whether the technology can be scaled up. The BBC also says that its efficiency "falls dramatically" when it comes to returning electricity to the grid instead. It's early days for the technology, though, and other companies and organizations might be able to find solutions for those issues. 

We’re heading for a messy, and expensive, breakup with natural gas

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated a number of fault lines already present within the global energy supply chain. This is especially true in Europe, where many countries were reliant on the superstate's natural resources, and are now hastily looking to cut ties before the supply is shut off. This has revealed the fragility of Europe’s energy market, and caused it to drive up demand and prices for consumers all over the globe.

In the UK, things are becoming increasingly dire and energy prices are skyrocketing. Bad planning on the infrastructure side and the cancellation of several major domestic energy efficiency programs are exacerbating the problem. It’s clear that real, useful action on the national level isn’t coming any time soon. So, I wondered, what would happen if I, personally, simply tried to break up with natural gas on my own? It’s relatively straightforward but, as it turns out, it comes at a cost that only one percenters will be able to bear. 

Dan Cooper: Energy consumer

I live in a four-bedroom, end-terraced house that’s around 150 years old and I’ve tried, as best as I can, to renovate it in an eco-friendly way. Since we bought it almost a decade ago, my wife and I have insulated most of the rooms, installed a new gas central heating system and hot water cylinder. We are, like nearly 20 million other households in the UK, reliant on natural gas to supply our home heating, hot water and cooking. And in the period between January 8th and April 7th, 2022, I was billed on the following usage:

Usage (kWh)

Cost Per Unit (GBP)

Cost (GBP)

Electricity (incl. standing charge)

861

0.32

£307.18

Gas (incl. standing charge)

8696.7

0.753

£678.80

Total (incl. tax and other charges)

£1,035.28

Essentially, I paid around $1,300 for my natural gas and electricity in the first quarter of 2022. That figure is likely to rise significantly, as the UK’s mandatory price cap on energy rose by more than 50 percent in April. A further price rise is scheduled for October, with the figure set at £2,800 per year, even though wholesale energy prices are no longer increasing. It’s likely that my energy bill for the first quarter of 2023 will be nearly twice what I’ve just paid. In 2020, the UK reported that 3.16 million households were unable to pay for their energy costs; that figure is likely to leap by 2023.

In the US, the EIA says that monthly utility bills rose to a national average of $122 in 2021, with Hawaii ($178 per month) and Utah ($82 per month) the most expensive and cheapest state to buy energy in. The average price per kWh is around 13.7 cents, which is less than half the comparable price in the UK as it currently stands. For natural gas, the average natural gas price for residential customers was $10.84 per thousand cubic feet in 2020.

The gas problem

Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Much of Europe is reliant on natural gas, a significant proportion of which was supplied by Russia. Despite a rapid decline in domestic production, Europe sought to make natural gas the bedrock of its energy policy in the medium term. A 2013 policy paper written by Sami Andoura and Clémentine d’Oultremont outlined the reasons why officials were banking on it. “An economically attractive option for investors, a potential backup source for renewables and the cleanest fossil fuel, natural gas is expected to play an important role in the European transition towards a low-carbon economy by 2050.” This is despite the fact that “European energy resources are being depleted, and energy demand is growing.”

In 2007, then EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said that the bloc is “dependent on imports for over one half of our energy use.” He added that energy security is a “European security issue,” and that the bloc was vulnerable to disruption. “In 10 years, from 1995 to 2005, natural gas consumption in the EU countries has increased from 369 billion to 510 billion m3 [of gas] year,” he said. He added that the EU’s own production capacity and reserves peaked in the year 2000.

The EU’s plan was to pivot toward Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), methane which has been filtered and cooled to a liquid for easier transportation. It enables energy supplies from further afield to be brought over to Europe to satisfy the continent’s need for natural gas. But the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has meant that this transition has now needed to be accelerated as leaders swear off Russian-sourced gas and oil. And while the plan is to push more investment into renewables, LNG imports are expected to fill much of the gap for now.

Except, and this is crucial, many of the policy decisions made during this period seem to be in the belief that nothing bad would, or could, disrupt supply. Here in the UK, wholesale gas prices have risen five times since the start of 2021 but there’s very little infrastructure available to mitigate price fluctuations. 

The Rough Field is a region in the North Sea situated 18 miles off the coast of Yorkshire, and was previously a source of natural gas for the UK. In 1985, however, it was converted into a natural gas storage facility with a capacity of 3.31 billion cubic meters. This one facility was able to fulfill the country’s energy needs for a little more than a week at a time and was considered a key asset to maintaining the UK’s energy security.

However, Centrica, the private company spun out of the former state-owned British Gas, opted to close the field in 2017. It cited safety fears and the high cost of repair as justification for the move, saying that alternative sources of gas – in the form of LNG – were available. At the time, one gas trader told Bloomberg that the closure would “boost winter prices” and “create seasonal swings in wholesale energy costs.” He added that the UK would now be “competing with Asia for winter gas cargoes,” raising prices and increasing reliance on these shipments. 

And, unsurprisingly, the ramifications of this decision were felt in the summer of 2017 when a pair of LNG tankers from Qatar changed course. The vessels were going to the UK, and when they shifted direction, Bloomberg reported that prices started to shift upward almost instantly. 

Analysis from TransitionZero, reported by The Guardian, says that the costs associated with natural gas are now so high that it’s no longer worth investing in as a “transition fuel.” It says that the cost to switch from coal to gas is around $235 per ton of CO2, compared to just $62 for renewables as well as the necessary battery storage.

Swearing off gas

MarianVejcik via Getty Images

In order to break up with gas in my own home, I’ll need to swap out my stovetop (not so hard) and my whole central heating system (pretty hard). The former I can likely achieve for a few hundred dollars, plus or minus the cost of installation. (Some units just plug in to a standard wall socket, so I may be able to do much of the work myself if I’m feeling up to the task.) Of course, getting a professional to unpick the gas pipeline that connects to my stovetop is going to be harder. 

Unfortunately, replacing a 35kW condensing gas boiler (I have the Worcester Bosch Greenstar 35CDi) is going to be a lot harder. The obvious choice is an Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP), or even a geothermal Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP), both of which are more environmentally-friendly. After all, both are more energy-efficient than a gas boiler, and both run on electricity which is theoretically cleaner.

More generally, the UK’s Energy Saving Trust, a Government-backed body with a mission to advocate for energy efficiency, says that the average Briton should expect to pay between £7,000 and £13,000 to install an ASHP. Much of that figure is dependent on how much of your home’s existing hardware you’ll need to replace. A GSHP is even more expensive, with the price starting at £14,000 and rising to closer to £20,000 depending on both your home’s existing plumbing and the need to dig a bore hole outside. 

In my case, heat pump specialists told me that, give or take whatever nasties were found during installation, I could expect to pay up to £27,000 ($33,493). This included a new ASHP, radiators, hot water and buffer cylinders, pumps, piping, controllers, parts and labor. Mercifully, the UK is launching a scheme to offer a £5,000 ($6,200) discount on any new heat pump installations. But that still means that I’m paying north of £20,000 (and ripping out a lot of existing materials with plenty of life left in them) to make the switch. 

In the US, there’s plenty of difference on a state level, but at the federal level, you can get a tax credit on the purchase of a qualifying GSHP. A system installed before January 1st, 2023, will earn a 26 percent credit, while a unit running before January 1st, 2024, will be eligible for a 22 percent credit. Purchasers of a qualifying ASHP, meanwhile, were entitled to a $300 tax credit until the end of 2021. 

The contractors also provided me with a calculation of my potential energy savings over the following seven years. It turns out that I’d actually be spending £76 more on fuel per month, and £532 over the whole period. On one hand, if I had the cash to spare, it’s a small price to pay to dramatically reduce my personal carbon emissions. On the other, I was hoping that the initial investment would help me reduce costs overall, but that's not the case while the cost of gas is (ostensibly) cheaper than electricity. (This will, of course, change as energy prices surge in 2023, however, but I can only look at the data as it presently stands.)

An aside: To be honest with you all, I was fully aware that the economic case for installing a heat pump was always going to be a shaky one. When speaking to industry figures last year, they said that the conversation around “payback” isn’t shared when installing standard gas boilers. It doesn’t help that, at present, levies on energy mean that natural gas is subsidized more than energy, disincentivizing people making the switch. The rise of electric cars, too, has meant that demand for power is going to increase sharply as more people switch, forcing greater investment in generation. What’s required just as urgent is a series of measures to promote energy efficiency to reduce overall demand for both gas and electricity. 

Energy efficiency

Dan Kitwood via Getty Images

The UK has had an on-again, off-again relationship with climate change mitigation measures, which has helped sow the seeds of this latest crisis. The country, with low winter temperatures, relies almost exclusively on natural gas to heat its homes, its largest energy-consuming sector. As I reported last year, around 85 percent of UK homes are heated by burning natural gas in domestic boilers. 

Work to reduce the UK’s extraordinary demand for natural gas was sabotaged by government in 2013. In 2009, under the previous Labour government, a series of levies on energy companies were introduced under the Community Energy Saving Programme. These levies were added to domestic energy bills, with the proceeds funding works to install wall or roof insulation, as well as energy-efficient heating systems and heating controllers for people on low incomes. The idea was to reduce demand for gas by making homes, and the systems that heated them, far more efficient since most of the UK’s housing stock was insufficiently insulated when built. 

But in 2013, then-Conservative-Prime Minister David Cameron was reportedly quoted as saying that he wanted to reduce the cost of domestic energy bills by getting “rid of all the green crap.” At the time, The Guardian reported that while the wording was not corroborated by government officials, the sentiment was. Essentially, that meant scrapping the levies, which at the time GreenBusinessWatch said was around eight percent of the total cost of domestic energy. Cameron’s administration also scrapped a plan to build zero-carbon homes, and effectively banned the construction of onshore windfarms which would have helped reduce the cost of domestic electricity generation. 

In 2021, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change examined the fallout from this decision, saying that Cameron’s decision kneecapped efforts to reduce demand for natural gas. As Carbon Brief highlighted at the start of 2022, in 2012, there were nearly 2.5 million energy efficiency improvements installed. By 2013, that figure had fallen to just 292,593. The drop off, the Committee on Climate Change believes, has caused insulation installations to fall to “only a third of the rate needed by 2021” to meet the national targets for curbing climate emissions. 

Carbon Brief’s report suggests that the financial savings missed by the elimination of these small levies – the “green crap,” – has cost UK households around £2.5 billion. In recent years, a pressure group – Insulate Britain – has undertaken protests at major traffic intersections to help highlight the need for a new retrofit program to be launched. The current government’s response to their pleas has been to call for tougher criminal penalties for protesters including a jail term of up to six months.

A chart, courtesy of Carbon Brief, showing the impact of the removal of the 'green crap' levies on domestic energy-efficiency installations in the UK.
Carbon Brief

Making my own power

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Looking back through my energy bills over the last few years, my household’s annual electricity consumption is around 4,500kWh per year. A heat pump would likely add a further 6,000kWh to my energy bill, not to mention any additional cost for switching to all-electric cooking. It would be sensible to see if I could generate some, or all, of my own energy at home using solar panels to help reduce the potential bill costs. 

The Energy Saving Trust says that the average homeowner can expect to pay £6,500 for a 4.2kWp system on the roof of their home. Environmental factors such as the country you live in and orientation of your property mean you can’t be certain how much power you’ll get out of a specific solar panel, but we can make educated guesses. For instance, the UK’s Renewable Energy Hub says you can expect to get around 850kW per year out of a 1kW system. For a theoretical 5kWp system in my location, the Energy Saving Trust thinks I’ll be able to generate around 4,581kWh per year. 

Sadly, I live in an area where, even though my roof is brand new and strong enough to take panels, they aren’t allowed. This is because it is an area of “architectural or historic interest where the character and appearance [of the area] needs to be protected or improved.” Consequently, I needed to explore work to ground-mount solar panels in my back garden, which gets plenty of sunlight. 

While I expected grounded panel installations to be much cheaper, they apparently aren’t. Two contractors I spoke to said that while their average roof-based installation is between £5,000 and £7,000, a 6kWp system on the ground would cost closer to £20,000. It would be, in fact, cheaper to build a sturdy shed in the bit of back yard I had my eye on and install a solar system on top of there, compared to just getting the mounting set up on the ground. That’s likely to spool out the cost even further, and that’s before we get to the point of talking about battery storage. 

The bill

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For this rather nifty thought experiment, the cost for me to be able to walk away from natural gas entirely would be north of £30,000 ($37,000). Given that the average UK salary is roughly £38,000, it’s a sum that is beyond the reach of most people without taking out a hefty loan. This is, fundamentally, why the need for government action is so urgent, since it is certainly beyond the ability of most people to achieve this change on their own. 

In fact, it’s going to require significant movement from central government not just in the UK but elsewhere to really shake our love-hate relationship with natural gas. Unfortunately, given that it’s cheap, cleaner than coal and the energy lobby has plenty of muscle behind it, that’s not likely to happen soon. And so we’re stuck in a trap – it’s too expensive to do it ourselves (although that’ll certainly be an interesting experiment to undertake) and there’s no help coming, despite the energy crisis that’s unfurling around us.