Tag Archives: climate change

Coal is not coming back – Trump fails industry

The world has run on fossil fuels for a couple of centuries but that is changing. Coal was the first of the fossil fuels to be widely exploited. Coal formed during what is called the carboniferous period about three to four hundred million years ago. At the time the planet was especially warm and wet which favored plant growth. Interestingly, this also meant much higher atmospheric levels of Oxygen which allowed for the growth of giant insects – dragonflies with three-foot wingspans as just one example.

The abundant plant growth accumulated first as peat, which over millennia of heat and pressure resulted in the formation of coal, essentially Carbon with a little Hydrogen smushed together in a solid form. And there it sat, until the English started running out of trees, or at least trees close by Iron smelters.

To produce iron from its ore requires something called a reducing agent. Wood works perfectly well but the process uses a lot of it. In merry olde England, a smelter would be built and then woodcutters were sent out to start bringing in the fuel. The longer the smelter operated the farther the woodcutters had to go while clearing the surrounding forests. When the expense of retrieving fuel got too high, coal was determined to be an economic alternative.

Utilization of coal for making iron lead to the understanding of its value as a fuel. It became the leading source of fuel for industrial power production and has dominated for over two hundred years. Of late the major use of coal has been for electricity generation but as of 2013, coal is no longer king and its use appears to be in free fall.

It is rapidly being replaced by a surge in the production of natural gas from hydro-fracturing and more recently wind and solar. Coal’s replacement is obvious and beneficial. Obvious because the other sources are cheaper and beneficial because they are cleaner in terms of the local environment and global warming.

A plank in President Trump’s campaign platform of 2016 was to reinvigorate the coal industry and save coal miner jobs. He has failed to deliver with this plank. Coal use during the first three years of his term is down over twenty percent, this despite several actions that would favor coal use.

President Trump has ordered the rollback of regulations that prevented much water pollution from coal ash. Another deregulation allows increased particulate emissions, along with toxic atmospheric pollutants like Mercury and Lead. He has ordered the removal of an Obama era regulation that required greater efficiency to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants which could actually reduce the cost to ratepayers.
In a fox-in-the-chicken-coop move, President Trump has appointed a coal industry lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. He rejects climate change and is a staunch opponent of any limit on greenhouse gases.

These regulations were meant to improve health, save lives, and help stabilize our climate. President Trump’s deregulations are endangering lives and destabilizing the climate and have been done in a futile attempt to prop up a failing industry.

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

Ocean Woes

Threats to the biosphere from changes in the oceans are real. Global warming involves not just atmospheric heating but also sea surface warming. About half the increased warming is going to the oceans. This can have wide-ranging effects, with deoxygenation at or near the top of the list of risks.

Henry’s law states that the solubility of gasses in water is inversely proportional to temperature. What this means is that warmer water holds less oxygen. Anglers in Arkansas recognize three distinct kinds of conditions for fishing. Likely the most common fishery in Arkansas is a lake where the water temperature and hence the oxygen content supports fish such as largemouth Bass, sunfish, and the like.

If you are after smallmouth bass you are unlikely to find them in a lake, at least here in Arkansas. Smallmouth bass require a higher oxygen content that is available only in cooler water – usually clear streams that flow fast enough to avoid warming from the sun. It is not uncommon to see smallmouth bass at the cooler upstream ends of creeks and largemouth at the lower, warmer reaches.

Trout are the most demanding in terms of oxygen needs. Trout only thrive in cold water with the highest oxygen concentration. Here is Arkansas that means creeks that get the majority of their flow from springs and the cold tailwaters of impoundments.

The point of this freshwater digression is to point out that the variety and number of fish in a given locale is dependent on water temperature. This is also true in the oceans. There is a reason that megafauna such as whales spend their time in the cold, oxygen-rich waters of the arctic and Antarctic regions – that’s where their food is found in abundance. As the surface of the oceans warm, we should expect changes in where fish and sea mammals alike can survive. Just that sort of change is happening and it doesn’t look good.

Cod are an extremely important commercial fish found in northern regions of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The importance of this fish alone can not be overemphasized. The coastal regions of northern Europe have depended to a large degree on access to Cod. In the middle of the twentieth century the United Kingdom and Iceland were all but at war over fishing rights to the cod in the north Atlantic near Europe.

The trouble with cod now centers in the North Pacific. Just last week, the Gulf of Alaska was closed to cod fishing for the 2020 season. Stocks have been declining for several years, not from overfishing as occurred in the Grand Banks region of the Atlantic, but from ocean warming. The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet. Glaciers are receding, arctic ice is diminishing and now fish stocks are dwindling.

In the future, it is conceivable that other more tolerant species of fish can migrate into the warming Arctic waters but for other locales, this isn’t possible. Fish currently in the tropics are already the only species tolerant of the lower oxygen concentrations. Higher temperatures will likely create fish “deserts.”

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

Carbon Control

Energy production from burning fossil fuels is a classic example of the failure of capitalism to protect us from harm. The fossil fuel industry privatizes profits while socializing costs. Fossil fuel combustion products damage our health and the environment and endanger our future due to global warming.

Some laws have been enacted to protect us. Coal-fired power plants have to have filters to remove some particulate matter and substances which contribute to ill health yet as many as fifty thousand deaths a year are attributed to fossil fuel emissions. These are deaths not accounted for by capitalism.

The biggest threat to global stability and human health is now climate change. There are currently no limits on fossil fuel emissions to protect us. One way to make the user pay the costs would be to put limits on the Carbon Dioxide (CO2) emitted. The process to remove CO2 is called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS.)

If CCS can be made to work, we could have our cake and eat it too. That is, we could have the benefits of energy from burning fossil fuels without negative consequences. Basically, CCS is a process of capturing the Carbon Dioxide waste stream from a power plant and then putting it somewhere other than the atmosphere.

The problem is that it is neither cheap nor easy. CCS technology could double the construction and operating costs of a power plant. The major limitation is the need for storage sites such as airtight underground caverns or the ocean depths, where the carbon dioxide would stay for a long, long time. Like forever.

The best site would be a geologic formation where subsurface rock naturally reacts with carbon dioxide via a process that chemically mineralizes it. These formations exist but are few and far between. We need enough storage space for about five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Without mineralization, storage becomes much more difficult. Carbon dioxide, a gas at normal pressure, would need to be pumped into storage wells and the wells then capped to prevent release. At atmospheric pressure, it would require over six thousand cubic miles of underground open space per year. This kind of space doesn’t really exist, hence pressurization is necessary to reduce the volume. The higher the pressure the more difficult it will be to contain the stored gas. Any leakage will increase the cost both economically and energetically- all that capture, transportation, and pressurization uses energy.

The only way to store the five billion tonnes of carbon dioxide produced every year seems to be by pumping it at high pressure into every hole in the ground that we can find, plugging the hole, and then hoping that the cap doesn’t come off – forever. But what if a storage site does burp? It could be lethal for just about every living thing in the area of the release of CO2.

Carbon capture and storage in the last analysis is expensive, uses a lot of energy, and is quite risky to all life in the area of the storage wells. The only real solution is to abandon the use of fossil fuels and get all our energy from clean, sustainable energy supplies.

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

Global Warming as a Threat Multiplier

The single most important, essentially all-encompassing function of government is to keep us safe. This too often is thought of only in terms of physical violence; you know the line, defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic… But other factors threaten our well-being. Climate change, floods, droughts, and intensified storms affect us all. Additionally, these factors can serve to magnify the risks of many others, especially military and political.

The term “threat multiplier” is used not just by what some call climate alarmists but also the Pentagon. The US military gets it.

Refugee crises have driven some countries into the hands of autocratic leaders who talk tough but at the expense of democracy. Refugees from the Middle East wars strains the patience if not the resources of Europe. The wars are ultimately political but the politics can be driven by environmental factors.

The bloody and seemingly endless civil war in Syria was preceded by a drought that drove farmers from the fields and herders from the pastures. Without work, the former herders and farmers were easily conscripted into the arms of warlords who paid them to kill not till.

The civil war in Yemen was begun over political power. Climate change is multiplying the suffering of the people. In the past, villages would store enough food to last for three or four months in times of emergency. In recent years less rainfall, resulting in reduced harvests, means little if any food is stored for periods of crisis. There is arguably no greater crisis than war.

Now, this civil war threatens to spiral into a broader war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, or even engulf the whole region in conflict and misery.

The presidential election of 2016 was dominated by Trump’s call to “build the wall.” Although immigration was at the time at a fifty-year low, increasing numbers of refugees from the Northern Triangle region of Central America now threaten our stability.

Refugees from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are fleeing violence born of lawlessness. Again these conditions are made worse by climate change. The region is getting hotter and paradoxically, both floods and droughts strain agriculture. What rainfall occurs happens in fewer, heavier events. Flooding followed by periods of drought. To stay alive in hard times, many, especially young males, turn to violence as their only recourse.

Not acting to reduce the rate of global warming will exacerbate problems across the board. Climate change itself and all the troubles that the change serves to multiply the ravages of war, famine, and refugee crises.

The good news is that there are solutions. Sustainable energy supplies that don’t add carbon to the atmosphere are cost-effective replacements for fossil fuels. Utilities and some cities here in Arkansas are adding large scale solar arrays to their energy mix. The cities of Clarkville and Fayetteville have installed arrays with the intention of powering all city functions. Hot Springs has recently signed contracts to do the same. Even the Dover School System is examining a solar power option.

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

Renewable comparisons

Arguments against the deployment of renewable energy supplies range from the ridiculous to the sublime. from economic to aesthetic. From deceptive to just plain lying. The biggest lie, of course, is that they aren’t necessary as global warming is a hoax. The scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming. In terms of the general population, the understanding of the risk is highest among younger, more educated compared to older, less educated populations.

There may be some valid claims that disfavor renewable energy sources but in comparison to what? And at what cost to either our pocketbooks or to a globally stable climate? Considering the current cost and trends, Wind and solar win hands down. Even utilities in conservative parts of the country – Entergy as one example are installing solar panels and producing or at least buying wind-generated power.

The most important issue is one of the release of greenhouse gasses, notably Carbon Dioxide (CO2.) It has been disingenuously argued that because of the energy used in the construction of renewables, they release more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels. The argument is preposterous. Multiple studies around the planet vary only slightly as to the results. The measure is CO2 produced per net energy produced over the lifetime of source. The units are grams of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour produced (g/kWh.) The smaller the number the better.

The gold standard is a large hydro dam, at about 4 g/kWh. Wind is second with about 10 g/kWh, but this number is decreasing as turbines become larger and more efficient. Solar Panels, about 30 g/kWh due mainly to the high energy demand to refine sand into pure Silicon. Fossil fuel-powered plants have energy demands from their manufacture but also from the burning of the fuel itself. Relatively clean natural gas results in 400 g/kWh. And the biggest loser? Of course, it’s coal at 1200 g/kWh. Renewable wins again.

Another specious argument is that renewables are bad for the environment due to the use of toxic materials in their construction as if fossil fuel plants don’t. The average solar panel has about 4 grams of Lead per kilowatt of installed power. For a home system which requires on average 10 kilowatts, there are about 40 grams of Lead solder. Recycling the panels brings the toxic load to near zero. A small percentage of panels, about 5%, employ Cadmium technology, but again this toxic material is incorporated into the easily recycled panels.

Compare that with just the lead released to the atmosphere on burning coal, lead that is widely dispersed in the atmosphere and then to the soil and water, over 42 tons per year of Lead that can’t be recycled. Along with other toxic metals including Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium. The homeowner with 40 grams of lead in solar panels has over 9,000 grams of lead in the battery of every car in the driveway. Whereas toxic releases are part and parcel of burning fossil fuels, toxic components of renewables are small in amount and are not automatically released to the environment. Renewable wins again.

Whenever you hear someone talking about the toxic components associated with renewable energy be sure you have the whole story which includes the far greater toxic burden associated with fossil fuels.

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

Weather Problems, Climate Solutions

May is usually a rainy time of the year but this year is special. As I write the Arkansas River is rising to a historic high level. Some homes in low lying areas of Fort Smith and Van Buren are flooded and the crest is still days away. The Interstate 540 bridge over the Arkansas River is closed and some Highways near the river are closing due to flooding. Pope County Judge Ben Cross has suggested that even sections of Interstate 40 may close.

This flooding presents immediate problems for travelers and homeowners alike but also threatens agriculture, the number one industry in Arkansas. Waterlogged fields can’t be planted and this is the planting season. Couple this the self-inflicted wounds of tariff wars with China and one can see that farming in the Arkansas River Valley is in trouble.

Could this particular flooding event have been predicted? Of course not, but the likelihood of the flooding has been predicted. General Circulation Models (GCM,) the computer systems that estimate the effects of climate change due to global warming, indicate that a warmer climate is a wetter climate for the simple reason that warmer air holds more moisture. The models are doing a good job of predicting a general increase is severe weather including storms and flooding in the midwest and midsouth.

Although most Americans accept the reality of man-made global warming, we have yet to demand action to mitigate or reduce the threat. What will it take? What ever steps we take need to be done immediately and with the understanding that the solution will take a long time. It has taken a couple of centuries to increase the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by 70% but we are realizing the effects at an increasingly rapid rate.

The solution of course is to decarbonize our energy systems. Simply put we need to stop burning stuff to produce energy for industry, to heat and cool our homes and fuel our vehicles. Tremendous strides have been made to lower the cost of wind and solar energy. The next revolution which will make the transition possible is battery storage of the electrical energy. We need an immediate program, a national agenda, to support sustainable energy and suppress carbon emitting fuels.

Democrats have introduced a bill in the US House of representatives to institute a Carbon Fee and Dividend. This will both favor the transition to sustainable energy, but create millions of high tech jobs – jobs that can’t be outsourced as the work must happen here. Additional benefits include a reduction of hundreds of thousands of premature deaths due to improved air quality.

The biggest fear of this transition to a stable future is economic. The fossil fuel industry has tried to paint a sustainable energy future as more expensive but nothing could be further from the truth. The cost of inaction is increasingly expensive. The avoided cost to taking action now, coupled with the reduced costs of wind and solar versus fossil fuels makes for a bright future.

Lower energy costs, more jobs, a more stable climate, and cleaner air – the time has come.

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

Favoring the Sun

Polling shows that a clear majority of Arkansans, 60 to 70 percent give or take, recognize that global warming is happening. Without any polling data, we can only guess the everybody given a choice would favor clean air over polluted air. One method to reduce the rate of global warming and clean the air is to generate electricity from solar panels. Keeping the lights on in a house at night or through a week or two of wintery overcast requires one of two options, a battery bank or buying power from a utility during those periods.

The latter is by far the most common as batteries, where utility power is available, are far more expensive. A common solution is a so-called grid-tied array. People with rooftop solar panels remain connected to the utility grid so that they can get power at night. During the day they can generate the power they need from the sun. To make solar power more attractive most states have some form of net metering.

Net metering is achieved via a bi-directional meter. At night when solar panels are inactive, the meter runs normally, but during sunny periods when the solar panels produce more power than is consumed in the home, the meter runs backward. The homeowner is at these times a net producer, essentially a little power company selling to the utility.

Act 464, 2019 addresses some issues with solar energy production. It allows for third-party leasing. Essentially this allows a homeowner to rent his roof space to another company for placement of solar panels. It also allows for larger net metered arrays so a business can take advantage of the sun to power their facility. A debate exists as to how the solar panel owner is rewarded for their excess production. The simplest and current method in Arkansas is that excess production is rewarded at the same rate as consumption. If in a given billing cycle there is an excess production, credit for that production is carried forward.

Utility executives say that this makes them buy power at a retail rate. Of course, they want to buy power at a wholesale rate, then sell at a retail rate to maintain profitability. But that is an oversimplification. Utilities pay different rates for power depending on demand, so there is no single wholesale rate. High demand times calls for the purchase of expensive “peaking” power. Conversely during low demand times equipment is idled which also has a cost.

Power demands vary by both season and time of day, but one thing is clear. Demand for electricity is always higher during the day than at night. Wouldn’t it be neat if there were a way of producing power during the day when it is needed but not at night so no utility equipment is idled? Solar generated electricity is nicely matched to demand which can serve to lower overall costs to the utility and at the same time clean the air and slow global warming.

The act has good and bad points, but overall it is supported by several environmental organizations.

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

Infrastructure Matters

The good news is that 2018 wasn’t the hottest year on record, only the fourth hottest. The bad news is that the first, second, and third were 2015, 2016, and 2017. One record year doesn’t mean much as the average temperature of the planet is a somewhat “noisy” signal. But the trend is obvious and can’t be denied. How about this: 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since the year 2000.

This trend could be overlooked if one only looked at a particular locale like one state or even one country, but these statistics are based on the global mean temperature, measured by several different agencies, using differing techniques.

A proxy for the global temperature, isotopic analysis of ice cores at the poles can take us even further back in time, even past several glacial/interglacial cycles. It is hotter now than ever. The planet is warming overall and that is forcing other changes to the climate besides being simply hotter.

One of the more serious impacts which we are beginning to see already is an increase in the severity of weather phenomena. More intense hurricanes, heavier rainfall episodes, and more extended droughts can all be attributed to climate change.

The changes are a real existential threat to society. Our infrastructure must be remade to accommodate climate change. At the same time, we need to takes the steps necessary to slow planetary warming by reducing and ultimately abandoning the use of fossil fuels.

The text of the state of the union speech contained some mention of the need for attention to infrastructure. “Both parties should be able to unite for a great rebuilding of America’s crumbling infrastructure,” Trump told the assembled government leaders. “I know that Congress is eager to pass an infrastructure bill, and I am eager to work … on legislation to deliver new and important infrastructure investment.”

What wasn’t heard in the speech was any mention of climate change. In fact, climate change has been off the radar for the last three state of the union speeches. Simply replacing an old interstate highway bridge with a new one will not prepare us for the future. The bridges of the future will have to be higher to protect from increased flooding and built stronger to protect from hurricanes, tornadoes, or other storm events.

Coastal cities must plan for more flooding and more saltwater intrusion into their water systems. Power systems must not just be replaced but must be made more robust. It will be necessary to bury our electric transmission and distribution lines to protect them from untoward weather events.

An event, not out of the question, would be another record flood like the 1927 flood of the lower Mississippi River. An area, 27,000 square miles was flooded to a depth of 30 feet or more in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In today’s dollars that would be a several trillion dollar damage event.

Here in Arkansas, Governor Hutchinson is floating legislation to provide 300 million dollars annually for transportation infrastructure via a combination of sales and fuel taxes. Also planned is an increase in the registration fees for plug-in hybrid and fully electric cars such as the Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla line. This is particularly wrong-headed as they are a solution to global warming. We should be promoting these vehicles, not punishing their use. The Governor’s plan is a business as usual infrastructure fix without any vision for the future and actually punishes actions needed for 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.