Monthly Archives: December 2018

It’s Time for Underground Transmission Lines

What do the Camp wildfire in California, sales of Tesla Model 3, and the east coast hurricanes have in common? The answer is that currently, none involve underground electric transmission and distribution lines.

The Camp Wildfire in Northern California this year was the deadliest in the history of California. At least 85 people died, 12,000 structures were destroyed, and over 220 square miles were burned. This one wildfire alone caused 10 billion dollars in property damage. Although climate change-induced drought and increasing population density both contributed to the catastrophe, the ultimate cause was most likely a short in an overhead electric transmission line.

Several million people lost electric power due to Hurricanes Michael and Florence. Extensive damage to downed transmission and distribution lines can take weeks to replace or repair. This delay impacts the local economy and threatens the health of those dependent on hospitals, clinics, and electrically powered medical devices. The cost to repair the electrical grid damage will be tens of millions of dollars.

Tesla’s lower cost but still pricey Model 3 is outselling all other luxury cars combined. In August it became the fifth highest selling car in the United States. As we convert our transportation systems to electric power we need to upgrade and expand our electrical grid.

At the same time, climate change is threatening the stability of traditional overhead transmission and distribution lines. Storms such as tornadoes and hurricanes can knock down lines. Floods and droughts both can cause shorting of lines and loss of power. It is time to consider burying our grid. Estimates of the costs of burying the grid as opposed to overhead lines vary wildly, some up to a order of magnitude higher.

Not calculated in these costs are the externalities mentioned above. Also as is often the case, the price of modernization goes down with both economies of scale and improvement in the technology itself.

A couple of years ago a major controversy raged across this part of Arkansas over the proposal for a large transmission line designed to bring cheap wind-generated electricity from the midwest to consumers to our east. Politics, the advent of cheap natural gas from fracking, and strenuous objections from landowners caused the cancellation (delay?) of this project.

There is no question that vast reserves of cheap wind energy exist on the great plains, but the power needs to be delivered to users, most of which are to the east of the plains. Large-scale transmission lines are needed.

One project looks to the future. A 350 mile HVDC underground transmission line has been proposed to run from Mason City, Iowa to Chicago. It will take advantage of cheap wind power. To lower project costs the line will use existing railway rights of way. Major transmission lines could also be located aside highway rights of way. It is not safe to put overhead lines along highways as they present a serious collision hazard.

All of our infrastructure needs maintenance and occasional upgrades as environmental conditions change. We can pay for a more stable climate and resilient electrical grid now, or have our children pay much more in the future.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Global Cooling Myth

Those in denial about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AWG) frequently make a claim about a past prediction of global cooling rather than warming. The argument goes something like this: How can we trust the scientific community about their dire warnings of global warming when not that long ago they were warning about an impending ice age? What is it, warming or cooling? They don’t know.

The graph of the earth’s temperature between 1880 and now is bumpy to say the least, in scientific terms it is called a noisy signal. If you look at a short enough time period one can find both periods of warming and cooling. From about the 1940s to the 1970s there was a period of cooling; overall however, the trend is to warming. We are now about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 1880.

This brief period of cooling led to a number of studies focused on climate change. One significant discovery in this era was a climate driver known as “Milankovitch cycles.” This was a recognition of a certain wobble in the earth’s tilt and small changes in earth’s orbit. Whereas these cycles may have been important in past ice ages, they had little or nothing to do with the current changes in contemporary climate issues.

Another factor studied was particulate matter in the atmosphere. The brief cooling of the 40s-70s may have been impacted by larger than previous amounts of fine dust particles from burning fossil fuels. The dust actually caused reflection of sunlight, lowering the amount of light and heat that reached the surface of the planet. In fact, this has led some to the dangerous proposition of injecting dust into the atmosphere to combat AGW.

These were the discussions of scientists in the 1970s, where publishing in peer-reviewed journals is what goes for scientific discussions. A recent study, a peer-reviewed publication of course, looked at the number of publications in the 70s relating to changes in the earth’s climate. The authors of this study found there were only 7 papers predicting cooling, 20 predicting no change, and 44 predicting warming. The was never any consensus of global cooling, only a brief discussion.

The state of scientific publications now is a resounding consensus for global warming. The data is clear, the planet is getting warmer which is forcing changes to the climate. We know the warming is due to human activities because of correlations between warming and increases of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and deforestation.

Being skeptical about scientific findings is healthy. In that respect science is self correcting. Misunderstanding and outright fraud have been uncovered by questioning scientific results. But at some point when a consensus becomes clear, even overwhelming then the refusal to accept the consensus changes from healthy skepticism to dangerous denial.

Denial of AGW is hazardous as it allows some to justify inaction. The longer we wait, the more expensive will be our actions to mitigate damage. It is somewhat like a debt, the longer one waits to pay it off, the more costly it becomes. Inaction now just shifts greater costs to the future, our children.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Change in the Courts

Remember school house rock and “How a bill becomes a law?” The Saturday morning programming focused on wide-ranging subjects including civics. The video addressed legislation but there is another mechanism to “make law” or at least influence government policy. Individuals and cities or states can seek redress in the courts to force actions of government agencies when they think the agencies are acting in violation of existing laws or constitutional mandates.

The suggestion that human activities, most notably burning fossil fuels, can influence global climate has been around since early in the Nineteenth century. The connection has been strengthened ever since. A landmark decision of the supreme court occurred during George W Bush’s second term in 2007. Several states and cities, led by Massachusetts successfully sued the Environmental Protection Agency to force regulation of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses as pollutants.

The case, Massachusetts v EPA turned on the definition of a pollutant. The court ruled that greenhouse gasses are pollutants and therefore should be regulated to protect the environment. This allowed the Obama administration to ramp up efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and to produce the clean power plan which clamped down on carbon emissions from power plants.

President Trump has acted to reverse both of these Obama era regulations. His actions are being contested in the courts, based to a considerable degree on the previous supreme court interpretation of greenhouse gasses as pollutants and the need for their regulation.

Another interesting case is before the court now. This case, Juliana v U.S. is being brought by a group of children ages 11 to 22 against a number of agencies including the EPA, Energy, Interior, and Defense departments. This is literally a children’s crusade for the right of future generations to live in a stable climate.

Apparently, the government will not challenge the scientific consensus that the planet is warming and the climate changing. Nor will they deny human influence on the changes. Rather the government will argue that the claimed harms of weather extremes cannot be reasonably connected to climate change.

The connection between any individual storm event and climate change is a difficult claim to make but let me use a favorite sports analogy. Mark McGuire, a slugger for Oakland and St. Louis, hit home runs both before and after employing anabolic steroids to enhance his performance. Can any one home run be linked to “juicing?” No, of course not. However, both he and Sammy Sosa both broke the previous home run record while juicing.

We are now breaking records for climate disruption while enhancing climate change. The job of the litigation will be to make that connection. If so the court should rule with the children to protect their future.

The children are not asking for damages per se, but rather are asking the judge to order the affected agencies to revamp regulations with the goal of reducing emissions of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses to much lower levels than exist today.