Tag Archives: global warming

Hottest.April.Ever

While conservatives in several states are tearing their hair out over transgender bathroom issues and passing laws to the same and Donald Trump is ranting about Hillary coming for your guns, a more pervasive real issue is pounding on the front door.

For the seventh straight month, and the third strait year, it’s the hottest ever recorded on planet earth. Whether you use actual thermometer readings, or proxies for temperature such as freeze-thaw dates, the answer is the same. Whether you use land based or sea surface temperatures, the answer is the same. Whether you use ground based or satellite data, the answer is always the same.

It’s hotter than ever and more importantly, it’s getting hotter faster than ever. That is the really scary part. The earth’s average temperature has changed radically over time. It has been hotter and it has been colder, but never in the past 800,000 years has the temperature of the earth been warmer nor changed as rapidly as it has in the last couple of centuries. And the rate of change is accelerating.

This planetary cycle is driven by our continuing to flood the atmosphere with certain gases, called radiatively forcing gases which trap heat and hence warm the surface of the planet. It’s really not very complex science, and most of the world’s scientists understand.

The time period arbitrarily chosen as a baseline is 1950-1980. If we call that zero, then the temperature In in April was hotter than ever. New data from NASA, the agency that put man on the moon, and maintains people in space on the International Space Station, show that the average combined land and sea temperatures for April were 1.11 degrees Celsius (2.00 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the baseline. That is the average. It was much hotter near the poles (here in Bullfrog Valley it was actually a little cooler as I recall but BFV is not the rest of the world.)

In locations such as Alaska, Russian Siberia, and Greenland, the difference was as much as 4 C (> 7 degrees Fahrenheit). “The interesting thing is the scale at which we’re breaking records,” said Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia. “It’s clearly all heading in the wrong direction.”

The saddest and most maddening thing is that this is nothing new or surprising. Scientists around the planet have been beating the drum, loudly, since the 1980s. Our climate is in crisis and we need to act now. Every day we delay means more costs to our children both in dollars and a loss in biological richness. Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist warned of the possibility of global warming in a paper published in 1896, On the Influence of Carbonic Acid [Carbon Dioxide] in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.

Forewarned is forearmed, if we will just listen.

Wind Power Transmission Line

A federal decision on the Plains and Eastern Clean Line High Voltage Direct Current line is imminent. This proposed 700 plus mile long transmission line will extend from the panhandle of Oklahoma, through Pope County, and on to Memphis. If approved and built it will allow for the movement of large amounts of wind generated power from the midwest to parts east where it can be used to replace coal fired generating plants.

The route already approved by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will pass through central Pope county. A substation just north of Atkins will allow Arkansans a piece of the power from the line. For perspective the line will cross Big Piney Creek near where it crosses Highway 164.

The line and others like it are necessary to reduce our need for coal which fouls the atmosphere in multiple ways. There is a superabundance of clean, relatively inexpensive energy waiting to be tapped in the midwest, the only need being transmission.

The Line is not without its detractors however, especially those in the path of the powerline right-of-way (ROW.) It will require a couple of hundred foot wide ROW with 150 foot towers spaced about 5 to the mile. The land within the ROW can be used safely for any purpose with the exception of forestry – crops, hay fields, and pastures are acceptable uses for the area. Landowners will be compensated for the ROW but they complain that compensation is insufficient.

It really boils down to “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY.) This is not surprising, nobody wants their view of a skyline marred by powerlines. But powerlines are a fact of modern life. Anyone who is connected to the electrical grid benefits from numerous folks having yielded a ROW to get that power to their home or business.

One suggestion to remove the negative visual impact would be to bury the line underground. It has been done locally on a very small scale. In some newer subdivisions the distribution lines are buried but not for far, as it is quite expensive compared to overhead lines.

The relative cost of burying high voltage transmission lines is assumed to be prohibitive as it is just not done with the exception of lines that cross large bodies of water where it is the only possible alternative.

To bury a transmission line requires serious disruption, trenching then back filling, not just pastures and hay fields but sidewalks, roadways, and even rivers and wet lands. For forest land, a clear cut ROW would be necessary to be able to bring in the heavy equipment necessary to excavate and lay the line.

One of the benefits of buried lines is that they are less susceptible to weather related outages. The other side of the coin is when an outage occurs in an underground line it is harder to locate and harder to access, changing repair times from hours for overhead lines to weeks for underground lines.

Cost estimates are in the range of 2 to 10 times more expensive than overhead lines. Power companies across the land, whether private like Entergy or public like the Arkansas Electric Coops, have made the decision to stay with overhead lines, wherever possible.

State Support for Sustainable Energy

The data are in and the numbers are crunched. 2015 is officially the hottest year for the planet in recorded history. Last year raced past the previous hottest year, 2014. In fact the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1998.

The science is clear, the heating is due in the main to burning fossil fuels. Governments around the world are developing strategies to decarbonize their economies. Here in the United States we have federal various tax credits which lower the cost for both individuals and businesses to be less reliant on fossil fuel combustion. Purchase tax credits are available for energy efficiency and sustainable energy production. Also, production tax credits for wind produced energy are available.

Variable levels of subsidization from the states for both purchase and production of sustainable energy is also available. These can come as purchase savings: income tax credits, income tax deductions, sales tax rebates, and cash rebates. Production of sustainable energy, for example solar photovoltaic systems or wind turbines are subsidized by feed-in tariffs or net metering. Levels of support also vary by sector such as homeowners, coops, or for profit businesses.

California is generally recognized as the nation’s leader in clean renewable energy because they have committed to a renewable portfolio of 50% by 2030. This means they expect 50% of energy production in the state to come from renewable energy. Their success thus far is driven by a combination of all the above, credits for efficiency, the purchase of equipment, and for energy produced.

An example of a production subsidy is a feed-in tariff. This is a rate structure for electricity where the producer of clean energy, say a homeowner with solar panels, signs a long term contract to produce energy to the grid at a premium price. In Michigan the average cost of electricity is about 11 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh). Producers with a feed-in tariff are paid 24 cents a kWh. Payback times at this rate could be less than five years!

Here in Arkansas we are about in the middle of the pack, renewable energy support-wise. There is essentially no state purchase support, but net metering provides some assistance for the production of clean, carbon free energy. Net metered systems in Arkansas use bidirectional meters. When the sun shines and production is in excess of consumption the meter runs backwards, at the same rate as it runs forwards when consuming energy. There no additional access charge or fee for net metered systems. What this means is that the home producer is paid retail cost for the power sent to the grid.

Less valuable but still of some help are net metered systems where the producer is only paid the power company’s avoided cost, the wholesale rate. This doesn’t reward the expense of providing clean power to the grid as the avoided cost is the cost of the oldest, cheapest, and usually coal fired power production. Nevada recently downgraded their net metered systems to pay only the wholesale price for production, rather than the retail price.

Only two states, Tennessee and South Dakota, have no production support for distributed clean energy.

National Security is More than Bombs

The focus of a previous Republican debate was national security. To a man (or woman) the only concern was for the security that comes from a bullet or battleship. Their strategies involved variations on sending our troops to die in Syria, greater involvement of the Arab nation’s troops, increased drone attacks and a strangely abundant call for carpet bombing.

Other kinds of security may come to mind on a national scale, food security is a biggie, and avoidance of floods and droughts, and disease vectors such as insect born infections, and epidemics, and heat waves and on and on from global warming and climate change. Bullets and battleships won’t help here, just the opposite. Instead of fighting we must work on agreeing so we can reach solutions.

Back to national security of the bombing kind. Last July the Department of Defense (DoD) released a report outlining possible threats to national security that could involve the military. “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions that threaten stability in a number of countries…”

When the British exited the Indian subcontinent they partitioned the area into India and East and West Pakistan, based strictly on religious grounds. Later east Pakistan became Bangladesh. It is a small but populous, low-lying country. A predominantly Muslim country adjacent to a predominantly Hindu India. What happens when rising sea levels push 150 or so million Muslims “upslope” into Hindu India? The capital of Bangladesh is not coastal but still is just 4 meters above sea level. Even without forcing migration across borders, population concentration can cause strife.

Hardly any place on earth is immune from threats that could turn into military conflict. The melting of Arctic sea ice will bring several major nations into proximity in the area. Some of the area has ill-defined borders which when covered with ice weren’t much of an issue. Now those issues along with the seas are heating up.

Access to fresh water will surely become a flash point in the future. The high latitudes and low latitudes are predicted to get wetter, but the mid latitudes drier. There are already over a billion people with limited access to potable water and this may only get worse with global warming.

The DoD report emphasizes that the threat is real and requires planning to be prepared for the future. “The ability of the United States and other countries to cope with the risks and implications of climate change requires monitoring, analysis and integration of those risks into existing overall risk management measures, as appropriate for each combatant command, they added.”

A recurring theme in science fiction novels and movies has been the coming together of otherwise warring nations to fight a common enemy – space aliens. Will global warming be the threat not from space but from within which will bind us together as a world community? An important step was taken recently in Paris with a much heralded agreement among all nations. The meeting of world leaders has resulted in an international resolve to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Upcoming Paris Talks

Next month, world leaders from over 190 countries, and scientists that represent governments and Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) will meet again, this time in Paris, to try to address the issue of global warming. This is a mind-bogglingly difficult task. Fully 80% of the global economy runs on the energy produced from burning fossil fuels which releases Carbon Dioxide. The CO2 in the atmosphere acts like a blanket trapping heat which results in warming the planet.

The answer is simple and clear, but the solution is anything but. The answer is to stop burning carbon as an energy source. How that is achieved is the crux of the problem. Some say that if we can put a man on the moon, we ought to be able to solve the climate problem. To be honest that was an easy goal to achieve. First and foremost we did it essentially alone. The global warming challenge requires the cooperation of every country on the planet, something which has never happened before.

Our putting a man on the moon also didn’t require any special source of energy or concern for the wastes produced therefrom. To solve the global warming crisis will require a combination of drastic reductions in burning fossil fuels, massive improvements in energy efficiency to reduce demand and an expansion of sustainable non-carbon energy sources over an extremely short time scale, unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Some steps have been initiated in a few countries, most notably Western Europe, where several countries have moved aggressively to deploy wind and solar. On a good day Denmark can get 100 % of its electrical energy needs from wind. Germany is not particularly well situated for solar power yet in 2014 they produced over 6% of the electrical energy from solar PV panels. Even China is reacting. Their current 5-year plan has a goal of over 11% of energy needs from renewable sources. That’s some of the good news, the bad news is that it is not nearly enough.

If the countries could agree to reduce carbon emissions by 20% from the current scenario, over the next 50 years, it will only push back the time it takes to double the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 10 years – from 2065 to 2075. Some countries such as those in western Europe have both the technological acumen and the political will to achieve that kind of a goal. Others like the US have the technology but as yet have not expressed the political will to take on the task. And finally much of the rest of the world has neither.

So where does that leave us? Eventually the planet with run out of energetically available fossil fuels, but it doesn’t look like curtailing their use will happen any time soon. Adapting to “a new world order” of the climate variety seems inevitable. If there is one thing we humans do well is adapt. As a species we are very young, but have come out of Africa and covered the globe, occupying every conceivable niche. From the frozen tundra to desiccated wastes of deserts. From lowland swamps to the tops of mountain ranges.

We will pull our cities back from the submerging coasts, and adapt our crops to the hotter regimen. But what about the rest of the biosphere? I suspect we will be adapting to a more biologically barren world.

EPA Rules and Regulations

The 1960s saw much turmoil, but one positive feature was the growing awareness of the need to protect the environment. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and brought an awareness of the damaging effects of the use of persistent pesticides. Other dramatic events during previous decades such as fogs comprised of sulfuric acid killed people. This occurred when an inversion layer trapped the stagnant air.

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland OH caught on fire, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a couple of bridges. The fire was a result of pollution from oil and other flammable factory wastes – and this wasn’t the first time.

The growing concern of the public, youth activism, and the first Earth Day forced the hand of President Nixon. Previously protection of the environment was spread over several agencies, but mainly the Health, Education, and Welfare Department’s National Air Pollution Control Administration and the Interior Department’s Federal Water Quality Administration. The programs were combined with the creation of a new cabinet department, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Existing laws concerning water were amended and strengthened and became the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. And it is not static but rather dynamic, being amended as sound science influenced policy. Changes have met with controversy.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 had left unclear just what the “waters of the United States” mean, so the EPA and Corps of Engineers collaborated on the Clean Water Rule which more clearly defines just what waters will be subject to regulation. The ultimate goal is to protect drinking water. Agricultural, and industrial concerns have called the rule overreach and in fact Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has sued to block the implementation here in Arkansas.

Similarly the Clean Air Act has existed since 1963 but has been amended several times as needed to protect the air we all depend on. Toxic emissions that resulted in acid rain, and levels of heavy metals that can cause nerve damage and especially brain damage (Mercury, Cadmium, Lead) have been lowered in the environment.

The EPA has been studying haze (smog) in National Parks and Wilderness Areas since 1988. In 1999 they began an ambitious program to work with states to clear the air. The haze is due mainly to power plant emissions of fine particulates. The Regional Haze Rule however has been delayed to the point that recently The Sierra Club has sued the EPA for failing to implement a plan in conjunction with the state of Arkansas. [disclosure: I am an officer in the Arkansas Chapter of the Sierra Club]

Another contentious feature of clean air results from Bush’s EPA declaring Carbon Dioxide a pollutant in 2006. Much litigation later, President Obama has sought the Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% by 2030. Both the Regional Haze Rule and the Clean Power Plan are being vigorously opposed by our Attorney General as being too costly.

As the population continues to grow, our regulatory structure must meet the demand of more pressure on clean air and clean water. We are the problem, and we have to be the solution.

Mean Coal

To say that every time you flip a light switch, you kill another coal miner would be an outrageous and unsupportable allegation, but we need to think about the costs, in addition to the electric bill, of keeping the lights on.

Close to half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, and a lot of it. Current use is about a billion tons of coal a year. The costs we pay directly include the actual costs of extraction of the coal, and additional costs tangentially related to coal extraction. The tragic deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia forces us to see these additional costs.

In addition to the deaths from accidents are the more significant but less dramatic deaths from diseases associated with coal mining. Black lung disease is estimated to take 1,000- 3,000 thousand lives per year. Chronic, non-lethal conditions such as related cardiopulmonary diseases affect many, many more miners. If the coal companies pay the health care costs associated with mining, then the cost is added to the price we pay for electricity, but the emotional costs are immeasurable and born by the miners and their families.

We literally have to decide what a life is worth. How much are we willing to spend on our electricity to prevent another death through greater but much more costly safety regulations? Put more bluntly, how many deaths and how much debilitating illness will we tolerate to save money on our electric bill?

Costs which we bear collectively but outside the cost of electricity are more insidious. Severe environmental degradation occurs when mountain top removal strategies are employed to get at coal seams. The tops of mountains are blasted and pushed into surrounding valleys. Acid drainage from various mining techniques can destroy virtually all life in affected watersheds. Emissions from the burning of coal include numerous toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic. More radionuclides are released to the environment from burning coal than the total fuel cycle of nuclear reactors. Coal combustion is the major contributor to global warming and and changes in ocean chemistry through acidification.

So the question becomes what do you want to pay for your electricity, in dollars, lives and the environment you leave to our children. The most important thing you can do is examine how much energy you use. You really don’t need kilowatt-hours of electricity. What you want is a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well-lit house. Or a successful business that meets the customer’s needs.

To a surprising degree, this can be achieved through the utilization of what Amory Lovins calls “negawatts.” That’s the energy you don’t use through efficiency. It’s better than a free lunch, it is a lunch that pays you to eat it! Examples abound: LED light bulbs, attic insulation, shade trees, and clotheslines just to name a few.
Even if we don’t act responsibly, ultimately we will power the world without burning carbon because we will have used up it all up. But we can act responsibly, we can decide that the adoption of a world powered by truly sustainable energy is our best and only future.

 

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.

Wind Turbines and Bird Kills

The Environmental Protection Agency will complete work on a rule soon which requires a collective 30 % reduction in carbon emissions from power plants over the next couple of decades. Essentially coal fired power plants will need to be shut down across the country. The best guess besides greater efficiency is that the power lost will be replaced to a large degree by utility scale wind turbines.

No problem, as there is a huge potential for energy generation. Just the wind in the plains has the potential of providing several times as much electrical energy as is consumed nationwide. Add off- shore wind and the factor is some 10 times what is used!

There are downsides however. The wind is intermittent, so additional sources of power need to be available when the wind doesn’t blow, but up to a penetration of about 30 % of the market it is doable without additional committed reserves.

But what about the birds, bird kills that is? Estimates are all over the map from a few tens of thousands to over a million a year. A recent review of over a hundred studies suggests that about 500,000 birds are killed by wind turbines annually. Currently wind turbines produce 4.4 % of the electrical energy consumed in the US. If we expect to ramp up energy production from wind turbines to 30 % of the market, then we should expect about 3.4 million bird kills a year. That is a lot of birds. How many bird deaths is too many? What activities should be limited based on how many deaths? Should we not expand the use of wind for electric generation?

Interestingly, bird deaths from wind turbines are a pittance compared to other anthropogenic factors. You can’t have too many communication towers right? We want lots of cell phone access and clear digital TV programming. These towers currently kill over 6 million birds a year. Give up your cell phone and you will save 12 times as many birds as wind turbines kill.

One solution would be to abandon electricity. No electricity means we don’t need the wind turbines. This would save 30 million bird deaths a year, due to electrocution from and collision with transmission and distribution lines. Um, maybe we ought to keep the lights on as the wind turbines aren’t really the problem.

We could save oodles on fuel if we didn’t drive cars. This would have the added benefit reducing global warming by lower carbon emissions. It would also save 200 million birds a year due to collisions.

Like the view out the window of your home or office? Board them up and save 600 million birds a year. By now you should see that those wind turbines are relatively benign compared to so many other man made structures. But all these put together pale in comparison to one single factor – cats. Between house pets and feral animals they kill an estimated 2.5 billion birds a year. That’s billion with a B. Our house pets and their escaped brethren kill 5,000 times as many birds as do our wind turbines, and I don’t think anybody is talking about eliminating the pets.

Why Electric Cars?

At the dawn of the automotive age electric cars were, in proportion, more numerous than today. With cheap gasoline and the much greater range the internal combustion engine (ICE) came to dominate the market and continues to do so to this day.

The tide is beginning to turn, slowly, but it is turning. First fuel is not so cheap anymore. In 1970 the price of a barrel of oil was about 3 dollars. This was the last time the US was a net exporter of oil and therefore had some control of the price. Adjusted for inflation that would be about 18 dollars currently. Even at the recently depressed price of around 50 dollars a barrel, it is several times more expensive than in 1970. A car getting 25 miles per gallon will cost the driver of an ICE powered car about 2.50 $ to cover 25 miles.

How does that compare with an electric powered vehicle? Modern vehicles running on electricity, whether they are hybrids, plug-in hybrids, or pure electric get around 4 miles per kiloWatt-hour (kWh). Locally electricity costs are around 9 cents a kWh. To cover that same 25 miles in this comparison means that the fuel cost for an electric car is 75 cents, less than a third the cost for gasoline.

An important feature of electric cars is their ability to recapture some of the energy consumed after accelerating up to speed – when you take your foot off the accelerator in an electric car the motor acts like a generator sending power back to the battery. It’s immensely important in stop and go traffic. This is a principle reason why hybrid cars such as the Prius get such good mileage, even thought they have only a small supplemental electric motor/battery for an otherwise gas powered car.

Gasoline engines have hundreds of moving parts. The parts need lubrication, and cooling and exhausting, and on and on. It is interesting to note that Forbes magazine has described the maintenance shop at new car dealerships as the principle profit center. You may negotiate a lower price for a new car but I doubt any negotiating room to lower the cost for labor and parts in the shop.

For an electric engine there is essentially one moving part, the rotor. No significant lubricants are needed, no coolants to maintain, no exhaust system, you don’t even need a transmission except to go forwards or backwards. Hence maintenance of an an electric car is significantly cheaper than ICE powered cars.

There are a couple of current drawbacks. Modern electric cars are produced as yet in small numbers and therefore don’t benefit from economies of scale. As they become more popular costs will fall. The biggest limiter right now is range and charging time. The high end Tesla with a 120 kWh battery has a range of over 250 miles. The charging time with one of their “superchargers” is about an hour.

The Chevrolet Volt, at half the price of the Tesla model S, has a 40 mile range on electric but the range is extended by an on board ICE that serves only to charge the battery on the fly.