Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Battered by Extreme Weather, Americans Are More Worried About Climate Change

After months of intense hurricanes, heat waves, and droughts, a survey finds a record number of Americans worried about climate change.

A Majority of Americans Think Humans Can Reduce Global Warming (Credit: Yale Climate Change Communication / George Mason University) Click to Enlarge.
The latest climate change survey from Yale and George Mason Universities is out, and it shows that Americans are still poorly-informed about the causes of global warming.  Only 54% understand that it’s mostly human-caused, while 33% incorrectly believe global warming is due mainly to natural factors. 

In fact, a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports developed a real-time global warming index.  It shows that humans are responsible for 1°C global surface warming over the past 150 years – approximately 100% of the warming we’ve observed.  Lead author Karsten Haustein explained their new index and study in a blog post.

Americans are nevertheless growing increasingly concerned about climate change.  A record 22% are very worried about it (double the number in the March 2015 survey), and 63% of Americans are at least somewhat worried about climate change.  That’s probably because they perceive direct climate impacts – 64% of survey participants think that global warming is affecting the weather, and 33% said it’s having a big influence.

Americans also connecting the dots to specific extreme weather events.  About 54% said that climate change worsened the extreme heat waves, wildfires, and hurricanes that pummeled the country in 2017. 

They’re generally correct; in fact, a recent study by MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel found that global warming made the extreme precipitation associated with Hurricane Harvey (the largest rainfall of any US hurricane on record) more likely.  Previously a 1-in-100 year event for Texas and 1-in-2000 year event for Houston, Harvey’s extreme precipitation has already become a 1-in-16 year event for Texas and a 1-in-325 year event for Houston – six times more likely due to human-caused global warming.

Overall, 42% of those surveyed believe that Americans are being harmed by global warming right now – an increase of 10% from the response in March 2015, and a record high in the survey that began in 2008.  That increase is likely due to the beating America took from extreme heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods in 2017. It’s difficult to deny global warming when its effects are punching us in the face.

At the same time, only 15% of Americans realize that the expert consensus on human-caused global warming is over 90%.  That’s an important result because the expert consensus is a ‘gateway belief.’  Research has shown that support for climate policy is linked to perceptions about scientific agreement on climate change.

The survey also found that Americans are very pessimistic about the odds that we’ll successfully tackle the threats posed by global warming.  While 78% realize that humans could potentially slow global warming, only 5% of Americans believe we’ll be successful in doing so.  A quarter of those surveyed think that we’ll fail because people are unwilling to change their behavior, and 48% said it’s unclear at this point whether we’ll take the necessary action. 

Read more at Battered by Extreme Weather, Americans Are More Worried About Climate Change

Proposed Tax Reform Bill Has ‘Disastrous Implications’ for Renewable Energy

Wind turbines in the sky. (Image Credit: Deposit Photos) Click to Enlarge.
Last week, both houses of the U.S. congress passed versions of a tax reform bill.  As readers might recall, tax reform was one of the platforms on which Trump ran for president and getting a major tax reform bill passed would be a big win for him.  Each version of the bill has implications for the renewable energy industry but the wind industry is particularly worried about the House bill.

The bill that was passed by the Senate Finance Committee (not the full Senate) keeps all provisions for renewable energy tax credits in place, however it doesn’t include any extensions for the renewable energy technologies (biomass, geothermal, fuel cells, and incremental hydro among others) that were previously omitted from the past tax credit extension.

The bill that was passed by the entire U.S. House of Representatives is cause for major concern for the wind energy industry.

“The House is proposing to retroactively change the rules for investment in wind power years after contracts have been signed and turbine orders placed,” said AWEA spokesperson Evan Vaughan in an interview on Friday.  The bill "would have potentially disastrous implications for the wind industry's growth and the manufacturing supply chain," he said. 

By making modifications to the “start construction” language, eliminating the safe harbor clause and eliminating the inflation adjustment for the production tax credit (PTC), project developers who may have already signed contracts in 2015 or 2016 but haven’t yet put a shovel in the ground are now in a terrible position.

“Companies are faced with two bad options, either take substantial loss on the value of their project because they would be losing a substantial amount of value on the credit or walk away entirely,” said Vaughan, adding that the bill is already having a chilling effect on the market.

As a refresher, the “start construction language” and the safe harbor clause mean that developers can sign contracts with turbine or other component manufactures and begin to make payments on those contracts as a way to start construction on a project and therefor qualify for the PTC.  By eliminating that language, the new bill would mean that developers would have to physically begin construction.

“Companies can't go back in time to start physical work to qualify so they would have to requalify,” said Vaughan adding that requalifying at a non-inflation adjusted rate would mean that a project that had been looking forward to a 2.4 cent-per-kWh PTC would now be looking at 1.5 cents.  “The best they could do in 2017 is 80 percent of 1.5 rather than 100 percent of 2.4,” he said.

The House bill also repeals the “permanent” 10 percent solar investment tax credit for projects that begin construction after 2027 and repeals the Electric Vehicle tax credit.

On the plus side for renewable energy, the bill extends the current ITC with the phase-out in place, to the “orphaned” technologies that weren’t included in the original 2015 tax credit bill.

Read more at Proposed Tax Reform Bill Has ‘Disastrous Implications’ for Renewable Energy

To Make Solar Really Work, Turn Up the Heat

Researchers say it’s the only way to make concentrated solar efficient and affordable.

Technologists John Kelton and Daniel Ray inspect the falling-particle receiver at the National Solar Thermal Test Facility, operated by Sandia National Laboratories.
A 200-foot tower stands centered in front of a field of rotating mirrors on the southern edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

It’s the National Solar Thermal Test Facility, operated by Sandia National Laboratories, where scientists are working to develop hotter, cheaper, and more efficient technologies for concentrating solar power.

The hundreds of mirrors focus sunlight onto a receiver at the top of the solar tower.  In conventional systems, this would heat water or other fluids to generate steam that drives an electric turbine.  But here a curtain of fine ceramic particles continually falls through the concentrated sunbeam instead.  The particles, which resemble black sand, can easily reach temperatures 100 ˚C hotter than those standard fluids.  That promises to boost the available energy, cutting the costs of production and storage.

This approach is one of three that federal researchers believe could help concentrating solar power finally become affordable and sustainable.  Last January, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory published a next-generation demonstration road map that highlighted falling particles, higher-temperature molten-salt systems, and a gas-based heat transfer fluid as promising pathways to produce solar thermal energy at six cents per kilowatt-hour by 2020, a goal set by the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative in 2011.

The Department of Energy announced in September that it would invest $62 million in about a dozen promising projects along these pathways, sparking renewed excitement in a field that had largely faded from the public view (see Making Sense of Trump’s Surprising Investment in Solar). 

Researchers at Sandia, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Savannah River National Laboratory, and Brayton Energy have confirmed to MIT Technology Review that they’ve applied for the funds, individually or as teams.  Concept papers were due earlier this month, and the deadline for full applications is mid-January 2018.

“Everyone in CSP is looking at this as a great research opportunity,” says Cliff Ho, a Sandia engineer and principal investigator of the falling-particles project. 

The big advantage of concentrating solar over photovoltaics is that heat energy can be stored more easily and affordably than electricity.  That means the plants can ramp production up or down to meet the real-time demands of the grid, even at night, a flexibility that solar panels can’t match without big, expensive batteries or other restricted forms of storage.

The problem is that building and operating a concentrated solar power plant is expensive.  The $2.2 billion, 170,000-mirror Ivanpah plant in California’s Mojave Desert, owned by BrightSource, NRG, and Google, is just the latest black eye for the sector.  Since coming online in 2014, the project has been plagued by high costs, low production, a fire, and utility commission threats to shut it down.  In the 1980s, Luz International erected nine earlier-generation concentrated solar plants in the same desert, only to see those high-cost operations collapse as supportive government policies expired.  Luz and BrightSource were both founded by Arnold Goldman, who died in June.

Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis found last December that energy production from a solar thermal tower with storage ran between $119 and $182 per megawatt-hour, compared with $48 to $78 for combined-cycle natural gas.  The latter also cost about one-eighth as much to build on a kilowatt basis, according to 2015 figures from NREL.

DOE researchers previously determined that the first step toward improving the efficiency and economics of concentrating solar power is moving from traditional steam-power cycles to what’s known as a supercritical carbon dioxide Brayton cycle.  By placing carbon dioxide under high heat and pressure, it takes on the properties of both a liquid and a gas, and significantly increases the energy conversion efficiency.

A Science paper in May concluded that a supercritical carbon dioxide Brayton cycle could be up to 30 percent more efficient than conventional steam turbines.  The problem, however, is that running this power cycle requires a heat source of at least 700 ˚C to realize its full potential, as well as a heat transfer system that can operate under such high temperatures.

All three of NREL’s highlighted pathways are efforts to crank up the temperature, though each has its own set of promises and challenges.  Molten salt, for instance, has already been done, but moving to alternative salts capable of working at higher temperatures will require more durable containment materials, pipes, and pumps.  The gas approach could be pursued with relatively easy-to-manage gases like carbon dioxide or helium, but additional research will be needed to minimize the power drain from circulating the gases.

The falling-particle receiver at Sandia is the closest thing to a working prototype along any of these paths.  Engineers first placed it on the tower at the National Solar Thermal Testing Facility in July 2015.

The particles are made primarily of alumina and iron oxide.  After falling through the solar beam, they ride back to the top on an elevator, in a loop.  The team has achieved temperatures as high as 900 ˚C, Sandia engineer Ho says.

Read more at To Make Solar Really Work, Turn Up the Heat

Warming to Make Thunderstorms Larger and More Frequent

 In this Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 file photo, a neighborhood near Houston’s Addicks Reservoir is flooded after heavy rains from Tropical Storm Harvey. A study released Monday, Nov. 20, 2017 predicts that summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping 80 percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding. (Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip)  Click to Enlarge.
Summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter, and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping 80 percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding, a new study says.

Future storms will also be wilder, soaking entire cities and huge portions of states, according to a federally-funded study released Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The U.S. in recent years has experienced prolonged drenchings that have doused Nashville in 2010, West Virginia and Louisiana in 2016 and Houston this year.  The disasters cost about $20 billion a year in damage.

By the end of century if emissions aren't curbed, these gully washers will be much worse because they will get bigger, said Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who led the study.

Prein and colleagues used high-resolution computer simulations to see how global warming will likely change the large thunderstorms that are already daily summer events in North America.  Previous studies projected more frequent and wetter storms, but this is the first research to show they likely will be more widespread, covering an entire city instead of just half of it, Prein said.

"We see increases that are beyond our expectations ... far beyond our expectations," Prein said.  "It looks everything that can go wrong does go wrong concerning flooding."

With the size of the storm factored in, the total amount of rain in the U.S. South is projected to jump 80 percent between now and the end of the century, Prein said.  For Mexico, the increase in rainfall would be 70 percent and 60 percent in the U.S. Southwest.  Canada and the rest of the U.S. should expect a 40 percent rain increase from current levels.

About half of those increases are from the storms being larger, Prein said.  These types of storms include tropical storms, but most of the storms studied are average thunderstorms.

Read more at Warming to Make Thunderstorms Larger and More Frequent

Statoil Plants Flag in Big Oil's Race for 'Cleaner' Crude

Norwegian oil company's Statoil logo is seen at their headquarters in Fornebu, Norway, June (Credit: Business Insider) Click to Enlarge.
While the world will need oil and gas for decades to come, Statoil’s Chief Executive Eldar Saetre expects that many oil deposits will never be tapped as increasingly discerning consumers will demand only the lowest-polluting crude.

“A lot of fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground, coal obviously ... but you will also see oil and gas being left in the ground, that is natural,” Saetre told Reuters in an interview in London.

“At Statoil we are not pursuing certain types of resources, we are not exploring for heavy oil or investing in oil sands.  It is really about accessing the most carbon-efficient barrels.”

Around 70 percent of the world’s discovered oil resources is heavy oil and bitumen, both highly viscous crudes that are more complex and energy-intensive to extract and process than lighter crude, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The comments from a senior oil executive may raise alarm bells for oil-rich countries such as Venezuela and Canada that mostly produce heavy oil.

The retreat from energy-intensive oil production in Canada and elsewhere is already taking place.

Statoil sold its entire Canadian oil sands business late last year to Athabasca Oil Corp, and Royal Dutch Shell, ConocoPhillips and Marathon Oil have all scaled back their operations in the country.

Statoil is now exploring for new resources offshore Norway and Brazil where oil is lighter and abundant.

“The world needs to develop more efficient barrels... Competitiveness to me is carbon competitiveness and cost competitiveness,” Saetre said.

Shell, Exxon Mobil, and France’s Total have also invested billions in recent years in Brazil’s oil wealth, and companies are vying to discover and develop resources in other light-oil provinces such as the North Sea as well as shale basins in the United States.

Growing pressure from investors on oil companies to reduce their carbon emissions, is propelling the trend - highlighted last week when Norway’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund announced plans to cut investments in oil and gas companies.

Read more at Statoil Plants Flag in Big Oil's Race for 'Cleaner' Crude

Climate Changes Triggered Immigration to America in the 19th Century, Study Finds

Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, Upper New York Bay. (Credit: © littleny / Fotolia) Click to Enlarge.
In the 19th century, over 5 million Germans moved to North America.  It was not only a century of poverty, war, and revolutions in what is now Germany, but also of variable climate.  Starting at the tail end of the cold period known as the Little Ice Age, the century saw glacier advances in the Alps, and a number of chilly winters and cool summers, as well as other extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.

"Overall, we found that climate indirectly explains up to 20-30% of migration from Southwest Germany to North America in the 19th century," says Rüdiger Glaser, a professor at the University of Freiburg, Germany, and lead-author of the Climate of the Past study.

The researchers could see a climate signature in most major migration waves from Southwest Germany during the 19th century.  "The chain of effects is clearly visible:  poor climate conditions lead to low crop yields, rising cereal prices, and finally emigration," says Glaser.  "But it is only one piece of the puzzle."

"Our results show that the influence of climate was marked differently during the different migration waves," adds Iso Himmelsbach, another of the researchers at the University of Freiburg who took part in the study.

The team studied official migration statistics and population data from the 19th century, as well as weather data, harvest figures, and cereal-price records.  They focused on the region that is now the Baden-Württemberg state, where many of the migrants -- such as Charles Pfizer of pharmaceutical fame -- originated from.  They started by identifying the major migration waves and then investigated to what extent climate played a role in driving people to North America during each of them.

The first wave followed the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815.  The volcanic ash and gases spewed into the atmosphere caused temperatures to drop around the world for a few years after the eruption.  The 'year without summer', 1816, was wet and cold causing widespread crop failures, famine, and emigration.

"Another peak-migration year, 1846, had an extremely hot and dry summer leading to bad harvests and high food prices," says Annette Bösmeier, a researcher at the University of Freiburg who also involved in the study.  "These two years of high migration numbers appear to be quite strongly influenced by climate changes, while for other migration waves other circumstances appeared to be more important," she adds. 

Read more at Climate Changes Triggered Immigration to America in the 19th Century, Study Finds