MINNEAPOLIS -- Industrial settings and crowded highways are often associated with calls to reduce harmful carbon emissions, but what about a typical commercial building?
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In Minnesota, there is a legislative push to enhance standards for new construction. Various levels of government, utilities and even some corporations have made pledges to achieve net-zero emissions in the coming years.
Some clean energy advocates say to get there, commercial buildings, such as skyscrapers and strip malls, need to do their part.
Rick Carter, CEO of Minnesota-based LHB Corporation, which designs buildings with sustainability in mind, feels a stronger code for new development is key.
"When our engineers and architects are working on a problem, whether it's a renovation or a new building, they're dealing with 40% of the total greenhouse-gas emissions in Minnesota," Carter explained. "Most of that comes from the generation of electricity."
Combined, commercial buildings and residential structures account for 40% of the nation's energy use.
The bill, introduced last spring and expected to be debated next session, calls for a net-zero energy standard by 2036 for new commercial property.
Bill sponsors see obstacles in the Senate, with questions over how it would impact the construction costs.
Richard Graves, associate professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research at the University of Minnesota, said enhanced standards would pay off in the long run, and are less expensive for new construction. He pointed out it goes beyond adding LED lighting and improving insulation. For example, he suggested switching from natural gas to electric-based heating and cooling would be effective.
"Heat pumps are much more cost-effective and work better in our climate than they did just a few years ago," Graves emphasized.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, is the bill's sponsor in the Senate. He said there have been suggested amendments, such as making this optional for local governments, but he acknowledged there are calls from others, including the construction side, to press forward a statewide standard.
"A lot of thoughtful people have put some, some ideas into this," Senjem remarked. "And we want to try to get there if we can."
The effort comes as Minnesota struggles to reach broader greenhouse-gas emissions goals, including a 30% reduction by the year 2025. So far, the state has only seen an 8% reduction. Since 2005, there's been a 15% increase in emissions in the commercial sector.
By Whitney Bauck for Reasons to be Cheerful.
Broadcast version by Eric Galatas for Colorado News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
When Trondheim-based Magnus Korpås bought his first electric car in 2019, he settled on a Tesla—the model of car that offered the most charging stations available to him at the time. However, in just a few years, Norway built out its charging infrastructure so quickly that no matter what type of electric vehicle (EV) you choose, there’s virtually always a charging point nearby.
“In Norway, we’re quite used to electric vehicles. This is the common car now,” says the professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “You diverge from the standard if you buy something else, really.”
For the past three decades, Norway has doggedly endeavored to electrify its vehicle fleet, using a mix of infrastructure investments, subsidies and regulations to nudge people into electric cars. The results have been remarkable: 20% of cars on the road are EVs, and Norway was the first country in the world to see EV car sales begin to outpace fossil fuel car sales. Today, 80% of new cars sold in Norway are electric.
By comparison, the U.S. is woefully lagging. It is estimated that less than 1% of cars on U.S. roads are electric, and while EV sales are rapidly growing stateside, they still account for just under 5% of new cars sold in the country. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is meant to help speed the transition from fossil fuel cars to EVs as part of a bid to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, about 27% of which are attributable to transportation.
While the IRA is designed to promote EV uptake through purchase subsidies, it simultaneously aims to vastly expand the U.S.’s EV charging network. Range anxiety, concern that a car will run out of charge while out on the road, is a significant factor keeping Americans from buying EVs. While many climate advocates argue that reducing transportation emissions requires strengthening public transit options and making cities more bikeable and walkable, promoting EV adoption is the fix most prominent in the IRA.
“There’s strong consensus that vehicle electrification is a big part of the [climate] solution. But you can’t do that without having the charging infrastructure,” says Ben Shapiro, the manager of the Carbon-Free Transportation team at the clean energy think tank Rocky Mountain Institute. “From a climate perspective, it’s imperative.”
According to Shapiro, the U.S. needs “orders of magnitude more charging infrastructure than we have today” to reach its goal of making half of all vehicle sales zero-emissions by 2030. Norway—which has more EVs per capita, and more chargers per EV, than any other place in the world—offers a roadmap for how to get there.
The great buildout
Up to this point, EV charging infrastructure in the U.S. has been driven largely by private investment. Tesla has installed more than 163,000 chargers across the country, but its chargers only work on Teslas for now (though that’s scheduled to change soon). In January, Mercedes-Benz announced that it would install 2,500 high-powered chargers that will work with any car by 2027, following Volkswagen’s 2021 announcement that it planned to have 10,000 fast chargers in North America by 2025.
In Norway, too, Tesla was the first major commercial player to begin building out public charging stations in an effort to make its product more appealing. As EV adoption continued to increase in the 2000s and 2010s, the Norwegian government stepped in to ensure charging points were easy to use and equitably distributed. It invested 7 million euros to create 1,900 charging points by 2011.
Parallel measures to increase charging accessibility started to ramp up in the U.S. with the passage of recent policy like the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (BIL). The latter invests $7.5 billion in EV charging with the goal of building out a network of 500,000 chargers across the nation by 2030, while the former restores expired tax credits for installing EV chargers in low-income communities and rural areas. The Biden administration finalized new standards that will make U.S. charging infrastructure available to everyone, regardless of what brand of car they drive. (Tesla’s formerly exclusive Supercharger network will soon be open to all brands of EVs).
Norway offers additional lessons for prioritizing equity. Since more than 82% of EV users in Norway charge their vehicles at home, housing associations can apply for grants that subsidize up to 50 percent of the cost of buying and installing communal chargers. The Norwegian government also created “a law that parking garages have to establish the basic infrastructure, like having the electricity available,” says assistant general secretary of the Norwegian EV Association Petter Haugneland.
Improving grid capacity
Analysis from S&P Global estimates that the U.S. needs to quadruple the number of EV chargers between 2022 and 2025 to keep pace with the EVs that will be on the road. If Norway’s experience is any indicator, encouraging EV adoption itself might be the best tool the U.S. has to increase charger proliferation.
According to Korpås, Norway’s path to charging point saturation started by stimulating more demand for EVs–just as the U.S. has done with EV purchase tax credits embedded in the IRA. But while the U.S. only incentivizes EV purchases, Norway also disincentivizes purchases of non-electric cars. Its “polluter pays” principle means that fossil fuel cars are taxed higher than EVs. The purchase tax on fossil fuel-burning cars is calculated by a combination of weight and emissions, which means bigger, more polluting cars are more expensive.
Because Norway is a cold country that had already built out extensive grid capacity to handle the population’s heating needs—most of which are met with electricity—the Norwegian grid was decently equipped to handle the energy demand from EVs, Korpås says. In other words, the grid infrastructure was already in place even if public chargers were not.
Much like Norway, about 80% of EV charging in the U.S. happens at home. But the U.S.’s grid doesn’t have as much relative capacity as Norway’s, in part because the U.S. tends to rely more on natural gas for heating. Expanding EV charging infrastructure in the U.S. will rely more on building out the electrical grid’s overall capacity than on building more public charging ports.
Another contributing factor to Norway’s success adopting EVs is its deep pockets — which is, in no small part, due to its status as a major oil exporter. The country of 5 million people collected almost $90 billion in tax revenue from the oil and gas industry last year, according to Norwegian officials, and its per capita gross domestic product is $20,000 more than the United States’, per World Bank data. And while the IRA has freed up funding for climate initiatives stateside, many decarbonization projects have and will continue to run into dead ends until the U.S. begins to more proactively plan its grid buildout.
“There’s a pretty significant investment that will need to take place to support all of this new electrical demand,” says RMI’s Shapiro. “That’s not only an electric utility issue, that’s also a regulatory issue. We have a lot of work to do from an electric sector public policy perspective to enable the utilities to move more quickly on this to get ahead of the growing demand for charging.” Part of what that means, he says, is streamlining the permitting process so utilities can quickly invest in infrastructure that can anticipate future electricity needs.
According to Haugneland, the Norwegian EV Association’s members use public fast chargers about twice a month, and a host of third-party charging companies are stepping in to take advantage of the growing market. Companies like Recharge and Eviny are establishing fast chargers, which can charge an EV battery to about 80% capacity in 30-45 minutes. These stations are everywhere from traditional gas stations to grocery stores to McDonalds’, with a growing number of chargers outside the major cities for when people take longer trips.
‘You can’t copy everything’
These days, one of the biggest frustrations Norwegian EV drivers face, according to Haugneland and Korpås, is that there’s no easy, centralized way to find or pay for charging across all the different platforms. If the U.S. can get ahead of that problem by ensuring a more standardized approach to locating and paying for public charging, as the Biden administration has committed to, it will benefit drivers, Haugneland says. So will a streamlined permitting policy that allows electric utilities to build out grid infrastructure more quickly so they can meet increased electricity demand from EVs, Shapiro says.
“The European and U.S. market may be five years behind, but hopefully you will catch up very soon,” says Haugneland. “Of course you can’t copy everything, but I think there’s a lot of learning to be done from the Norwegian market.”
Whitney Bauck wrote this article for Reasons to be Cheerful.
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Montana's environmental advocates are criticizing Gov. Greg Gianforte for signing a bill they said will allow the state to ignore the impacts of climate change when developers construct large-scale energy projects such as coal mines and power plants. The measure received a lot of attention during the legislative session, most of it in opposition.
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House Bill 971 builds on a decade-old law prohibiting the state from including actual or potential impacts which are "regional, national or global in nature" in environmental reviews of big energy projects.
Anne Hedges, spokesperson for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said the measure is a direct attack on the state's most precious natural resources and leaves them unprotected.
"You're telling the public and you're telling the state their rights don't matter," Hedges asserted. "That they don't really have a right to a clean and healthful environment and the state has no obligation to protect people from the very real dangers of the climate crisis."
The bill prohibits regulators such as the state's environmental quality department from measuring greenhouse-gas emissions and the effects of climate change when they review the overall impacts of large projects such as coal mines and power plants. The bill's supporters argued they are trying to avoid excessive state regulation and contend measuring and regulating greenhouse-gas emissions and other impacts on the climate should be left up to federal laws like the Clean Air Act.
Hedges countered the state understands local issues better than the federal government does, and added the whole purpose of Montana's environmental agencies doing these sorts of studies is to be able to educate residents who live here about the impacts of a major energy project.
"On the land, on the air, water, wildlife, economy, cultural resources, et cetera," Hedges outlined.
Hedges pointed out ultimately, the bill will create longer and more dangerous wildfire seasons, a shrinking snowpack, and reduced stream flows as emissions from power plants add to a warming climate and unstable atmosphere.
A law known as the "Halliburton Loophole" is under growing scrutiny. It exempts oil and gas companies from revealing the chemicals they use in the hydraulic fracking process.
The latest study finds between 2014 and 2021, companies used hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic chemicals - without any governmental oversight.
Another report published last year by scientists and medical organizations says living near fracking sites increases risks for cancer, respiratory diseases, heart problems, birth defects and more.
Leatra Harper, managing director of the Freshwater Accountability Project, explained that the loophole prevents communities from understanding potential harms.
"People need to know what the exposures could be," said Harper. "We need to know what the chemicals are to look for when we find water contamination. And we don't even know how to test for it, because we don't know what to test for."
The Independent Petroleum Association of America and other industry groups argue that fracking poses little to no risk of harmful health effects.
The group FracTracker estimates hydraulically fractured wells produce about 2.3% of the oil and gas output in Ohio.
Harper added that previously proposed federal legislation would have addressed the issue by requiring companies to reveal which chemicals they use in the fracking process.
"There's something called the FRAC Act that has just basically been mothballed," said Harper. "And we need to revive that and fix this problem that started at the federal level, that allowed this industry to take off."
As of 2022, hydraulic fracturing techniques have been used on an estimated 1.7 million wells across the U.S.
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