Friday, August 26, 2016

California’s New Climate Rules Explained

The San Francisco Bay Area. (Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Following more than a year of legislative toing and froing, California’s leaders agreed this week on how ambitious the state will be in the fight against climate change after 2020.

Short answer: very.

A progressive culture and Silicon Valley-style innovation a decade ago thrust California toward the head of the worldwide pack when it comes to shifting away from polluting fossil fuels in favor of cleaner alternatives.

This week, the state Assembly and Senate ensured the state’s leadership will be strengthened when lawmakers approved two key bills.

The legislation will require Californian agencies take steps needed to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 40 percent in 2030, compared with 1990 levels.  Gov. Jerry Brown plans to sign it.

How do California’s Goals Stack Up?
The state’s new climate goals are far more ambitious than those of the U.S. overall, and they’re in line with ambitions in Europe, which is a world leader on climate action.

Both the European Union and California are shooting for 40 percent pollution reductions in 2030 compared with 1990 levels.  The Europeans got off to an earlier start, setting a more ambitious target for 2020 than California.  That means California will have to work harder to reach its goals for 2030.
Are any countries or states more ambitious than California?
Just as California is the star of climate action in the U.S., the European Union has its own big shot — Germany.  Germany aims to reduce its climate impacts by 40 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, which is something California and the EU aim to achieve a decade later.

Still, per person, Californians and Germans continue to be heavier polluters than most Europeans, releasing the equivalent of about 12 tons each of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in 2013.  That’s a third more than the European Union average.

Read more at California’s New Climate Rules Explained

Asian Carbon Finds Its Way Home

India and China have good reason to cut their greenhouse emissions, scientists say: soot they are producing is damaging their own water resources.

Yak dung contributes to the soot found to be polluting the Tibetan Plateau. (Image Credit: travelwayoflife / Wikimedia Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Black carbon – soot particles that absorb sunlight, spread by fossil fuel combustion  – are thought to accelerate the thinning of the glaciers of Himalaya and Tibet.  Scientists have just identified the source of this Asian carbon.

The smears that warm the ice in the Himalayas come from India, they say.  And two thirds of the black cloud that settles on the frozen rivers of Tibet is from China.

Since billions of people in the region depend on the steady flow of glacial melt water down the Indus, the Ganges, the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and many other rivers through the summer growing season, the implications are ominous.

But since India and China are two of the three countries that burn fossil fuels to emit the highest levels of climate-warming carbon dioxide, the research also delivers another goad to action.

Pristine snow and ice reflect solar radiation back into space: mountain snows with a high albedo provide their own insulation, and release melt water slowly throughout the season.

Faster melting
Soot and cinders from forest fires or factory chimneys lower the albedo, because black carbon absorbs solar radiation and accelerates melting.

Shichang Kang of the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based in Lanzhou, reports in the journal Nature Communications that he and colleagues from China and Sweden focused on identifying the source of carbon particles collected from eight snowpits.

These were on glaciers at what the scientists call the Third Pole – the Himalaya-Hindu Kush mountains and the Tibetan Plateau represent the greatest mass of ice on Earth beyond the Arctic and Antarctic – during May and June over the years 2012 to 2014.
Source pinpointed
Two-thirds of the soot from the Tibetan plateau, they report, came from fossil fuel combustion in China, and much of the remainder from cinders of yak dung, a traditional fuel in Tibet.

The particles sampled from the Himalayas were, they write, equally composed of fragments of burning biomass and fossil fuels from the Indo-Gangetic Plain in North India.  So Asian carbon could be storing up problems for a thirsty (and therefore hungry) future.

Read more at Asian Carbon Finds Its Way Home

How Predictable Is the First Ice-Free Arctic Summer?

Average September Arctic sea ice extent, from 1979 to 2015. (Credit:  NSIDC) Click to Enlarge.
Around this time each year, many people turn their attention to the Arctic in anticipation of the annual minimum for sea ice cover.

After reaching its annual peak extent at the end of winter, Arctic sea ice melts as temperatures rise through spring and into summer.  Sea ice then hits its smallest extent sometime in September.

Since the satellite record began in 1979, the Arctic sea ice cover in September has declined by around 13% per decade.  The current record low was recorded on 16 September 2012, when sea ice dwindled to 3.41m square kilometers.

Such a stark drop off in sea ice has prompted the question of when the Arctic will first see an ice-free summer.  In our new study, published last week in Geophysical Research Letters, we consider whether it’s possible to pin this down to a specific year.

When does ice-free mean ice-free?

First, we need to clarify what exactly an “ice-free” Arctic summer is.

By “ice-free”, scientists usually mean a sea ice extent of less than one million square kilometers, rather than zero sea ice cover.

Arctic sea ice extent for 14 August 2016 (5.61m square kilometres). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. (Credit: NSIDC) Click to Enlarge.
There’s a good reason for this.  Arctic sea ice isn’t just found in the central Arctic Ocean, but also along the northern coastlines of the US, Greenland, Russia and Canada, and in the narrow channels of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  And it is thicker in these regions than in the central Arctic Ocean.

Scientists expect, therefore, that sea ice will be present there a little longer than it will out in the central Arctic Ocean.  This means as sea ice continues to decline, we will reach a point where the central Arctic Ocean will be largely ice-free, but remnants of ice will still remain along the northern coastlines of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland.  Scientists therefore chose the one million square kilometer threshold to represent a practically ice-free Arctic Ocean.

Uncertainty in predictions

The emissions pathways have a big impact on when we might see consecutive ice-free summers.  For example, under the high emissions pathway, the Arctic is consistently ice-free during September from the late 2060s in our simulations.  In contrast, under the moderate pathway, consistently ice-free summers only occur in a few model simulations by 2080.

In conclusion, our findings suggest that we cannot predict the timing of an ice-free Arctic summer with an uncertainty of less than about 25 years.

But while natural fluctuations of weather and climate will affect exactly when an Arctic summer will first be ice free, we can be fairly certain that it will happen well before the end of this century without significant cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more at How Predictable Is the First Ice-Free Arctic Summer?

Scientists Solve Puzzle of Converting Gaseous Carbon Dioxide to Fuel [Using Sand]

Every year, humans advance climate change and global warming by injecting about 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Converting greenhouse gas emissions into energy-rich fuel using nano silicon (Si) in a carbon-neutral carbon-cycle (Credit: Chenxi Qian) Click to Enlarge.
A team of scientists from the University of Toronto (U of T) believes they've found a way to convert all these emissions into energy-rich fuel in a carbon-neutral cycle that uses a very abundant natural resource:  silicon.  Silicon, readily available in sand, is the seventh most-abundant element in the universe and the second most-abundant element in the earth's crust.

The idea of converting carbon dioxide emissions to energy isn't new:  there's been a global race to discover a material that can efficiently convert sunlight, carbon dioxide and water or hydrogen to fuel for decades.  However, the chemical stability of carbon dioxide has made it difficult to find a practical solution.

"A chemistry solution to climate change requires a material that is a highly active and selective catalyst to enable the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuel.  It also needs to be made of elements that are low cost, non-toxic and readily available," said Geoffrey Ozin, a chemistry professor in U of T's Faculty of Arts & Science, the Canada Research Chair in Materials Chemistry and lead of U of T's Solar Fuels Research Cluster.

In an article in Nature Communications published August 23, Ozin and colleagues report silicon nanocrystals that meet all the criteria.  The hydride-terminated silicon nanocrystals -- nanostructured hydrides for short -- have an average diameter of 3.5 nanometres and feature a surface area and optical absorption strength sufficient to efficiently harvest the near-infrared, visible and ultraviolet wavelengths of light from the sun together with a powerful chemical-reducing agent on the surface that efficiently and selectively converts gaseous carbon dioxide to gaseous carbon monoxide.

The potential result:  energy without harmful emissions.
The U of T Solar Fuels Research Cluster is working to find ways and means to increase the activity, enhance the scale, and boost the rate of production.  Their goal is a laboratory demonstration unit and, if successful, a pilot solar refinery.

Read more at Scientists Solve Puzzle of Converting Gaseous Carbon Dioxide to Fue

  Thursday, Aug 25

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) Click to Enlarge.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

Corn is the main crop used in the U.S. to produce biofuel. (Credit: Jim Deane/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Most gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some ethanol, and the findings, published in Climatic Change, were controversial.  They rejected years of work by other scientists who have relied on a more traditional approach to judging climate impacts from bioenergy — an approach called life-cycle analysis.

Following the hottest month on record globally, and with temperatures nearly 2°F warmer and tides more half a foot higher than they were in the 1800s, the implications of biofuels causing more harm to the climate than good would be sweeping.

The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work.  “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat.

“The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said.  “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

The findings were criticized by scientists whose work is directly challenged by them.

Argonne National Laboratory scientist Michael Wang, who has led lifecycle analyses that found climate benefits from different biofuels, called the research “highly questionable” for a range of technical reasons, including its focus on growth by American crops instead of the global network of farms.

Driven by federal and Californian policies that promote biofuels to slow global warming, the use of ethanol, biodiesel and similar products more than trebled nationwide during the years studied, providing 6 percent of Americans’ fuel by 2013.  Federal data shows gasoline sold in the U.S. last year contained about 10 percent corn ethanol.
The University of Michigan scientists dispensed with the timescale-based approach altogether, eliminating the need for policy decisions about which timeframes should be used. Instead, their research provided an overview of eight years of overall climate impacts of America’s multibillion-dollar biofuel sector.
Although European officials have warned of the limitations of the use of lifecycle analyses in assessing the climate impacts of bioenergy, the EPA has been steadfast for more than five years in its attempts to create a new regulatory framework that would continue to embrace the approach.

Read more at Study Finds Biofuels Worse for Climate than Gasoline

Median Installed Price of US Solar Dropped by 5–12% in 2015, Berkeley Labs Reports

Two new studies conducted by Berkeley Labs have concluded that the median installed price of solar in the United States fell by 5% to 12% in 2015.

Median Installed Price vs Installation Year (Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) Click to Enlarge.
The conclusions are part and parcel of the latest editions of two recurring “state of the market” reports published by the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).  Specifically, the reports analyzed the market for distributed solar PV systems and found that, in 2015, residential systems declined by $0.20 per watt (or 5%) year over year — by $0.30/W (or 7%) for smaller non-residential systems, and by $0.30/W (or 9%) for larger non-residential systems.

Utility-scale solar that came online during 2015 also fell, dropping by $0.30/W (or 12%) compared to 2014 figures.

Further, preliminary data analyzed by Berkeley Labs has shown that prices have continued to fall during the first 6 months of 2016 across most US states and market segments.

“This marked the sixth consecutive year of significant price reductions for distributed PV systems in the US,” said Galen Barbose of Berkeley Lab’s Electricity Markets and Policy Group.

This is especially interesting given the relatively stable price of solar PV modules since 2012, placing the burden of cost savings primarily in the “soft costs” basket — including marketing and customer acquisition, system design, installation labor, and permitting and inspections.

PPA price vs PPA installation date (Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) Click to Enlarge.
The new research also analyzed power purchase agreement (PPA) pricing, which thanks to lower installed project costs and higher capacity factors has resulted in levelized PPA prices from utility-scale solar PV projects dropping precipitously — by $20–30/MWh per year on average from 2006 through 2013, with a smaller price decline of approximately $10/MWh per year evident among PPAs signed in 2014 and 2015.

“Falling PPA prices have enabled the utility-scale market to expand beyond the traditional strongholds of California and the Southwest into up-and-coming regions like Texas, the Southeast, and even the Midwest,” said Berkeley Lab’s Mark Bolinger.

Both reports, along with accompanying slide decks and data files, can be downloaded for free from and

In addition, the extensive underlying database of project-level data developed for Tracking the Sun is available to the public and can be downloaded through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Open PV Project.

Highlights of both reports will be presented through two separate webinars:

Read more at Median Installed Price of US Solar Dropped by 5–12% in 2015, Berkeley Labs Reports