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Top five energy and environmental trends of 2013

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Here are our top five environmental and energy trends of 2013.

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D.C. green business, as covered by this column, includes federal and city agency actions on environmental and energy issues, as well as various related political news. With so many pieces, it’s difficult putting the puzzle together, even for only one year. But here are the top five common trends that connect some of the pieces for 2013.

In order to identify these trends, we stayed clear of local political considerations, and we strove to look at big-picture connections that affect energy, environmental and sustainability issues in the D.C. region, even if they have national impacts as well. As you'll see, many of them are interrelated.

First, the combination of hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling in shale rock formations continued to increase the supply of natural gas in the U.S. and to influence the price.

The significant shift from coal to natural gas generation last year provided a favorable context during 2013 for carbon restrictions on new power plants proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The change in fuel source for electric generation from higher-carbon emitting coal to lower priced natural gas was not as great during 2013 as it had been in 2012, based on Energy Information Administration data covering the first nine months of this year.

But the general effect of more natural gas supply lowered price compared with 2011 and translated into reduced carbon emissions compared to 2011 generation.

Second, serious storms and more transparent science appeared to facilitate greater acceptance that carbon emissions from man-made sources exacerbate global warming.

The visibility of government and private sector efforts to address climate-change-related emergency planning heightened. On November 1, 2013, EPA, for example, released a draft of its implementation plans to help communities adapt to a changing climate.

Separately, during 2013, the Association of Climate Change Officers, a professional development organization, began giving credits toward a new climate-change certification, which the Association plans to launch next year, analogous to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications for green-building experts.

Third, states have increasingly taken the lead on renewable portfolio standards (RPS).

There is no federal RPS obligation outside of requirements to purchase renewable energy that apply to federal agencies. Yet, thirty states, including D.C. and Maryland, have RPS requirements, and eight more, including Virginia, have voluntary renewable energy targets, according to data accumulated by the Solar Center at North Carolina State University.

A mandatory renewable portfolio standard obligates utilities that sell electricity to retail customers to rely on renewable energy, such as the wind, the sun and biomass, for a specified portion of the electricity they sell.

A renewable portfolio standard requirement represents only one of a number of significant factors that influence the amount of renewable energy produced and used in the U.S. Nevertheless, a RPS requirement facilitates market growth in renewable industries by establishing a minimum level of demand for electricity generated from renewable sources.

Fourth, in the face of political divisions in Congress, the Obama Administration ratcheted up its emphasis on climate change using executive actions and agency rulemakings.

On June 25, 2013, President Obama issued a climate action plan that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through executive actions. Consistent with the plan, in September, the EPA proposed standards to cut carbon pollution from new power plants.

Then, in December, President Obama ordered federal agencies to more than double their use of electricity produced by renewable resources, a directive that requires them to make solar, wind and hydro power 20 percent of the government’s energy portfolio by 2020.

Fifth, during 2013, states and the federal government continued to rely on public-public and public private partnerships to encourage innovation and technology that promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmentally-related infrastructure, such as green stormwater projects and transmission lines that support renewable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy continued to provide competitive grants under several programs to promote smart growth, sustainability, energy technology and green building. Similar assistance was available at the state level. For example, D.C., through the DC Sustainable Energy Utility, provided technical expertise and financial subsidies to homes and buildings under several energy efficiency programs.

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