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Green Briefs

The Elusive Cost of Cutting Emissions

With the U.S. Congress moving forward on several different climate-change bills, a battle is brewing over the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In mid-March an analysis by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) found the U.S. would lose more than $631 billion in gross domestic product in 2030 if Congress enacted the leading bill, and electricity and gasoline prices would double. Less than a week later, the Environmental Protection Agency floated its analysis: GDP down less than $250 billion in some scenarios, and only modest increases in gas and electricity prices. Other computer models project yet lower costs.

The differences all hinge on the assumptions in the models, such as the anticipated pace of technological change. The faster the country adopts renewable energy, builds nuclear plants, and captures carbon, the lower the eventual costs will be. The NAM study, for one, assumes alternatives arrive slowly. That inflates its projection. And neither model accounts for reductions from new auto fuel economy standards. The bottom line: The real costs are uncertain—but probably lower than opponents of regulation predict.

Concrete That Clears the Air

Concrete is about to start helping in the fight against air pollution, thanks to a new recipe spiked with titanium dioxide, a compound that becomes chemically active in sunlight. Originally concocted by Italy's Italcementi for its bright white, self-cleaning features, the product, called TX Active cement, also neutralizes air pollutants such as benzene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and others.

In the U.S., where the mix is distributed by Essroc Italcementi Group, the first application may be to improve air quality at schools near highways. Working with school districts in Los Angeles and elsewhere, architectural firm Fieldoffice has designed exotic-looking barriers to keep road smog and noise away from areas where kids live, study, and play. To maximize the walls' surface area and thus their pollution-eating potential, the designers plan to use concrete-forming gear that employs ink jet printing technology to create Swiss cheese-like patterns in the walls.

High-Tech Schooling for Our Dumb Grid

In the search for new sources of clean energy, the cheapest and cleanest is actually the power saved through higher efficiency. James E. Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy (DUK), calls it the "fifth fuel," after coal, gas, renewables, and nuclear. But making efficiency gains is difficult in the U.S. because of the current "dumb" electricity grid, which doesn't let homeowners monitor their power use.

Enter the smart grid, where meters connect to a network that includes controllers on furnaces and appliances. Homeowners and utilities can then adjust use—for instance, cutting down during peak time, which then lessens the need to build power plants. The latest twist: Xcel Energy (XEL) plans to hook the entire city of Boulder, Colo., to a smart grid. This summer, the Minneapolis-based utility will begin putting smart meters on every home and installing control technology for those consumers who agree to let the company adjust their power use. Homeowners will get lower bills and will also be able to sell power from home solar panels back to the grid. Xcel figures the grid will save millions of dollars, boost reliability, and make it easier to spot and fix outages.

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