Category: renewable

Rachel’s Journal Roundup Q3 2022

Rachel’s Journal Roundup Q3 2022

  1. Theine,H.; Humer, S.; Moser, M.; Schnetzer, M. 2022. “Emissions inequality: Disparities in income, expenditure, and the carbon footprint in Austria,” Ecological Economics (197).

Recently, we completed a project for the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, where we estimated the economic, social, and environmental carrying capacity of the peninsula. One of the issues we considered was the environmental impact of those moving to the area. Like many areas in Maine, the Blue Hill region is seeing an influx of wealthier individuals to the area, primarily due to the rise of remote work. One question that was brought up for us is how households’ environmental impact changed with higher income levels. This article investigates the carbon content of households’ expenditure patterns. They find that the top decile of the income distribution in Austria receives 22% of national income, spends 18% of national expenditure, and causes 17% of emissions. The bottom decile, by contrast, accounts for just 3% of national income, 4% of expenditure, and 4% of emissions. While the article focuses on Austria, results are suggestive for the United States, where income inequality is much larger than it is in Austria. 

While differences in income may explain some of the differences in emissions, they only explain about one third of the difference, implying that the remaining two-thirds of the variation in emissions is attributed to other factors. Not surprisingly, results show that characteristics such as housing stock, heating fuel, and car dependence all contribute to the variation in household carbon emissions. 

These results are not surprising. However, they do bring up a question about the environmental footprint of households moving to Maine (and other places). If, as evidence seems to indicate, higher income people are moving to Maine, it may presage an increase in carbon emissions, based upon these results.  However, the potential good news is that two-thirds of the variation in emissions was due to other factors. If newcomers to Maine reduce their dependence on fossil fuels either by weatherizing or upgrading existing housing stock, they may be able to mitigate some of the increase in emissions coming from increased consumption. If public transportation can be improved in areas that are attracting in-migrants, so much the better. It is possible that an influx of in-migrants will increase carbon emissions. But it is not inevitable.

  1. Kovacs, K.; West, G.; Nowak, D.; Haight, R. 2022. “Tree cover and property values in the United States: A national meta-analysis.,” Ecological Economics (197).
Tree canopy” by Jim Stanton is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This article explores the relationship between tree coverage and property values. The authors refer to tree coverage as a public good because increased tree coverage in a given area of a neighborhood has been shown to increase value of the homes throughout the entire neighborhood. A representation of this relationship would help municipalities quantify the benefits of community forestry programs. 

The hedonic property value method is a statistical technique that can be used to assess the value of ecosystem services to property. However, these studies are expensive and time-consuming, and oftentimes, local governments are unable to access the resources needed to carry out these analyses. The authors used hedonic property studies conducted in the past to create a benefit transfer tool (whereby multiple hedonic analyses are combined in a meta-analysis) that can be used to measure the value of tree coverage in communities that have not yet conducted hedonic property value analyses. 

Results indicate that where existing tree cover is low, increasing on-property tree density increases property values, while increases in off-property tree cover has no statistically significant effect. In contrast, where tree cover is medium to high,, off -property tree cover has a greater positive effect on property valves than on-property tree cover. This perhaps reflects the belief that high density tree cover on the property is seen as increasing maintenance costs. 

Although the study finds relatively low property value effects, increases in property values are only a small part of the benefits of increased tree cover. The ecosystem services provided by tree cover include air filtration, soil stabilization, flood control, recreation, and habitat provision, as well as aesthetic value. The authors conclude by noting that hedonic property studies can also be used to support open space zoning and green space ordinances.

  1. Mueller, J. 2022. “Natural Resource Dependence and Rural American Economic Prosperity From 2000 to 2015,” Economic Development Quarterly 36(3):160–176. 

This article investigates the role that natural resources play in the economic development of US counties. There are two types of natural resource development: extractive natural resource use, such as oil and gas, mining, and timber, and non-extractive, such as tourism, recreation, and real estate. The author points out that dependence on natural resource development has been shown to be associated with decreases in per capita income, increases in inequality, and elevated poverty in the long term (the so-called “resource curse”). Yet not as much attention has been paid in the literature to the dependence on non-extractive natural resource development. This study aims to correct that, by studying both forms of resource development on economic outcomes in rural counties across the United States. The author makes a distinction between remote rural counties and metro-adjacent rural counties. 

The author finds that the relationship between natural resource development and economic prosperity varies between non-metropolitan remote and nonmetropolitan metro-adjacent counties. Generally speaking, high levels of dependence on either extractive or non-extractive resource development was associated with negative economic outcomes for both remote and metro-adjacent rural counties. However, these relationships were complex. Non-extractive resource development in particular has been promoted in some strands of the literature to have a positive effect on economic outcomes in rural areas. But this work casts doubt on that hypothesis, indicating that non-extractive resource development may actually have a negative effect on the economic outcomes of remote rural counties, perhaps due to the low wages in many of those industries. More work needs to be done in this area.

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

China Recycle Ban Brings Challenges and Opportunity

Recycling changed dramatically in 2018, when China went from accepting 45% of the world’s plastic waste to almost none. As a result, by 2030, up to 111 million metric tons of plastic could be displaced.[1]

All that extra plastic, as well as the paper and other materials China is refusing, has significant and far-reaching effects. It impacts waste management systems and the economics of recycling, and it may also force people to re-evaluate their behavior.

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Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?

Woody Biomass: One step forward, two steps back?

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Last week I was a guest in my colleague’s Renewable Energy Law class.  One of the questions I was asked had to do with Maine’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).  Maine’s RPS seems, at first glance, to be an ambitious goal (40 percent of Maine’s electricity is to come from renewable sources by 2017). However, at the time the RPS was made law, Maine was already mostly meeting that goal, thanks to Maine’s booming woody biomass industry. 

Other states in the New England Power Network can help fulfill their own RPS by purchasing renewable energy certificates (RECS) from other states in the network.  If a particular unit of energy is produced by a renewable source, that unit of energy could earn a REC, which could then be sold elsewhere.  However, even though every state in New England has a RPS (except Vermont, which has a goal), they don’t all accept the same types of energy for their RPS. Hence, there are some RECS that can be sold in some states, but not others.

Maine is the only state in New England that accepts biomass and large scale hydro to help fulfill its RPS. Therefore, any biomass facility that produces RECS can only sell them in Maine. In a report that came out detailing the performance of Maine’s RPS during the past year, a good 95% of the  Maine RPS was met through RECS generated from biomass.  And the fact that biomass credits can only be sold in Maine will depress the price of those credits -leading to less revenue for those facilities.

Which lead to one of the students’ questions: why don’t the other states accept biomass?  It’s a good question.  Leaving aside the (obvious) conclusion that Maine accepts biomass as an energy source in order to prop up its ailing wood products industry, why would other states not accept it? Isn’t biomass a renewable source of energy? And isn’t it carbon neutral ?

The answer, as any good economist knows, is “it depends.”  (My father used to say -paraphrasing Harry Truman – that what the world needs is a one-handed economist, because we’re always saying ”on the one hand….  But on the other hand…” ) Biomass is certainly a renewable source, in the strict physical sense that the “fuel” used – plant matter – is renewable.  The time it takes to regenerate, of course, depends on the growth rate of the plant matter used.

But there’s also no escaping from the grim third law of thermodynamics – that matter (or energy) can neither be created nor destroyed.  It takes power to make power.  How efficient the energy source is depends upon the energy content of the fuel and the energy used up in the process of making it.  Think lifecycle analysis.  If a unit of energy generated requires two units of energy in order to generate it, then that source isn’t really renewable – is it?

UPDATE: As my colleague Bill Strauss of FutureMetrics points out, “Every solid or liquid fuel whether coal, pellets, gasoline, diesel, natural gas, etc., gathers a carbon footprint from mining, extraction, refining, transport, etc.  Only biomass, if the net carbon stock is not depleted (i.e., the growth rate equals or exceeds the harvest rate), captures the CO2 from combustion contemporaneously…  Wood pellets are a low carbon solution… they are carbon neutral in combustion but are not carbon neutral over the supply chain.  Of course neither is anything else that depends on fossil fuel for transport etc.”

Absolutely, Bill, and thanks for that. (So people actually do read this stuff…) Check out their website!

Biofuel can be made from a number of things: corn, switch grass, trees, wood  manufacturing waste, to name a few.  And there are a number of ways biofuel can be produced – burned, fermented, digested by bacteria, or “gasified.”  The energy content of the fuel as well as the energy input needed vary widely for each process. 

As for whether it’s carbon neutral – well,  anyone who makes that claim is doing some pretty funky carbon accounting.  In the sense that the carbon released when the tree is burned is the same amount of carbon that was “stored” in the tree – then yes. But what about the carbon used in harvesting the tree?  Getting it to the processing site,  and from there to where it will ultimately be used? There’s also the fact that trees uptake carbon at different rates in their lifecycle, and that different species of trees uptake carbon at different rates. So for it to be carbon neutral, the net stock of carbon in the forest needs to remain unchanged. It’s possible, but it’s not as simple as “cut a tree, plant a tree.”

What about the claim that it’s sustainable? Again,  it depends.  If the trees are harvested at the same rate they regenerate, then yes. And, Maine’s biomass is mostly from residue from the forest products industry, so the use of waste product for energy gets a thumbs up in my book.

Recently,  two major biomass facilities in Maine went offline,  alarming the logging industry and others in the forest products supply chain. It also should alarm environmentalists.  The decline in oil prices has not only boosted demand for oil,  but depressed demand for biomass and other renewable sources of energy. Biomass may not be a perfect source of energy,  but it needs to be part of the energy solution in Maine.