Monthly Archives: August 2015

Clean Power Plan

The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the Clean Power Plan. This plan has been evolving since multiple supreme court rulings avered that Carbon Dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated according to the Clean Air Act. Carbon Dioxide is the principle greenhouse gas driving global warming. It’s release to the environment must be slowed and ultimately stopped to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The plan seeks to lower the emissions of Carbon Dioxide by going after the low hanging fruit first: coal fired power plants. The national mandate is to reduce emissions from power plants by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, so implementation will be spread over 15 years. Interestingly, current levels of CO2 emissions are lower that 2005 already. This is due to a combination of the recession lowering demand for power and the increasing reliance on sustainable energy supplies such as wind and the conversion of older coal plants to natural gas. Natural gas plants have always been cleaner burning in a number of ways such as particulate emissions, but especially cleaner due to lower CO2 emissions.

Realistically the country has been moving away from coal already. The cost of coal fired plants has been on the rise because of the increasing recognition of the harmful health effects of burning coal. This has resulted in stricter control of emissions other that Carbon Dioxide. These include particulates which when inhaled interfere with breathing, and toxic metals that pollute the environment and have health consequences of their own. An additional factor driving down the use of coal is the availability of increasing amounts of cheap Natural Gas brought on by the fracking boom.

The situation here in Arkansas is made more difficult because we are behind the curve when it comes to transitioning away from coal. Although the national mandate is a 32 percent reduction averaged over the states in aggregate , ours is 37 percent. The relevant measure is “pounds of CO2 produced per amount of electricity generated (lbs CO2/MMWhe .) California for example only needs to reduce its carbon emissions by 14 percent because they have already moved aggressively to sustainable energy supplies. The states have much latitude in how to lower carbon emissions. Increasing efficiency in energy production from coal plants, carbon trading, and producing more energy from renewable energy are all on the table.

In addition to reducing the risk of global warming, the health benefits of cleaner air abound. Reduced particulate emissions will reduce the incidence of asthma and other cardiopulmonary ailments. Other improvements include lowered emissions of toxic heavy metals such as Cadmium, Mercury, and Lead. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that tens of billions of dollars will be saved in 2030 by improvements in human health and environmental services.

The coal industry is of course squealing like a stuck pig and will sue, along with states heavily dependent on coal use like Arkansas. Their argument is regulation will drive up the cost of electricity. History has shown time and again that industry claims of the cost of regulation are invariably exaggerated. The EPA claims that actual costs of electricity will go down.

And finally there are jobs. Although a few jobs in mining, transporting and utilizing coal will be lost many many more will be created in the new industries associated with renewable energy.

Global Warming; Freshwater, Saltwater

Will fighting over freshwater replace fighting over oil? The snowpack in mountains has been exploited by humans since the beginning of civilization. The slow release of water as the snowpack melts provides not only drinking water but also water for irrigation of crops where seasonal rainfall is insufficient.

Billions of people around the world depend on melt water. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, and less warm season runoff means less water for irrigation during the growing season.

Researchers at Stanford have published a paper examining the projected impact of global warming and water resources, especially those related to the snowpack in the northern hemisphere. Using the average and extreme rates for precipitation, accumulation and runoff for the 30 years from 1976 to 2006 as a baseline, they then used computer modeling to project out through the 21st century.

They found that as global warming intensifies, low snowfall years will increase, and the snow melt will occur sooner, disrupting water management. “”While the greatest impacts are likely to occur at higher levels of global warming, our results highlight the fact that continued emissions over the next few decades are likely to substantially reduce snow accumulation in a number of regions, increasing the risk of both flooding and drought in different parts of the year,” said the lead author of the paper.

A second, obvious threat posed by global warming is the melting of ancient land bound ice. As the ice reservoirs on the antarctic continent, Greenland, and other interior glaciers melt away, sea levels will rise threatening the great coastal cities of the world. Sea level rise is happening now and recent data suggests that it is happening at an accelerating rate.

Based on long term measurements of tidal gauges and more recent satellite data, on average the rate of sea level rise from 1880 to 2013 has been 0.06 inches per year. If one looks at more recent data however the rate of rising is much greater, over twice as fast. Looking at data from 1993 to the present shows a rate of change of sea level of 0.14 inches per year. Taking account of the accelerating rate of change of sea levels, experts predict a sea level rise of up to 6 feet by the end of the century.

It is extremely difficult to stop the seas from rising but by active approaches to slow global warming we can slow the rate of change of sea levels, giving us more time to protect coastal populations through mitigation.

World Wide Wind

We will at some point cease to produce electrical energy by burning fossil fuels, either (sooner) because we realize the harmful effects of using the atmosphere as a toilet, or (later) because we simply use them all up. These fuels can be replaced with sustainable sources, principally wind and solar. Where are we now and where are we going?

In the United States we currently get 13 per cent of our electrical power from renewables. The majority of that from hydropower, followed by wind biomass and solar power as a distant fourth. There seems to be limited potential for growth in hydropower or biomass but the sky the limit for wind and solar, assuming that the issue of intermittency can be overcome.

Although we have no national policy for the country, president Obama has mandated that the federal government get 20% of its electrical energy from renewables by 2020. Various states have renewable portfolios that range from trivial to ambitious: The old south, a couple of coal states in the Appalachians, a few midwest to rocky mountain states have none. Hawaii has the most ambitious, with a target of 40% by 2030.

Internationally, it’s a mixed bag. Mountainous Costa Rica, with a population of about 5 million, gets from 90 to 100% of its electrical energy from renewables, mainly hydro and geothermal. Similarly Norway with twice the population of Costa Rica produces very close to 100% of their electric power from hydropower plants.

Because of availability of cheap electric power they have developed energy intensive industries such as the production high grade Silicon for solar cells. Interestingly a focus of World War II was on Norway. Germany invaded Norway to gain access to energy intensive production of heavy water for their experimental nuclear reactor program.

The real potential for expansion of renewable power is in the wind, especially in countries with lots of coastline. At one point last week, Denmark was producing 140 % of its electrical energy, exporting the excess to Sweden and Germany. Their current average wind produced electricity is approaching 40%, and they are still building out.

Germany is an interesting study. They have a vigorous low carbon energy transition plan (Energiewende.) Their target is an astounding 80% renewable by 2050! They are currently installing wind and solar PV faster than anybody on the planet. Currently they are around 27% with very little hydropower, twice the US average.

The biggest player of course is China. They are the current world leader in carbon emissions, having surpassed the US a few years ago. China’s air pollution problems are legendary. Smog from from eastern China can be tracked across the pacific to our west coast. They recognize they have a problem and are aggressively addressing it by moving away from fossil fuels and toward efficiency and renewables. In 2014 they installed three quarters of the new solar capacity on the planet.