Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Voices and Votes Against Fracking Rang Out and Racked Up in 2014

Armed with a 10-gallon hat and a one-gallon milk jug, Burch Muldrow challenged standard operating procedure in a Texas oil patch. Here he compares a picture of the pool of sludge with the scene after the pit was covered. Credit: David Hasemyer/InsideClimate News) Click to Enlarge.
Across the country, from California to Ohio, people have gone to the ballot box to protect the air they breathe and the water they drink by enacting bans on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  They have gone to court to fight for their right to clean air and water.

They rent vans to haul people to meetings of government regulators to protest oil- and-gas development that intrudes on their lives.  They become reluctant activists who say they've been pushed too far.

"The public is becoming more educated on the issue," said Congressman Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has opened an investigation into the way states regulate the disposal of toxic waste generated by fracking.

"People are realizing that oil-and-gas operations are being conducted with little oversight and their health and our environment are at stake and that they need to stand up and have their voices heard," Cartwright wrote in an email interview.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuels.

Opponents are concerned about air, water, waste, noise and light pollution, and they argue that regulations are too weak.

A New Sophistication in the Public Pushback

Hundreds of cities, towns and counties in 25 states have passed measures regulating or banning fracking, according to data collected by Food & Water Watch, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.

New York authorities announced a statewide fracking ban earlier this month, saying the controversial process could contaminate the state's air and water and pose public-health risks.
Bills are pending to reclassify oilfield waste as hazardous and to ban fracking on federally owned public land—a longshot in the face of a Republican takeover of Congress in January.

Read more at Voices and Votes Against Fracking Rang Out and Racked Up in 2014

Another Year and Glaciers Are Another Meter Thinner

Global glacial mass balance in the last fifty years, reported to the WGMS and NSIDC. The downward trend in the late 1980s is symptomatic of the increased rate and number of retreating glaciers. (Credit: Robert A. Rohde/ Click to Enlarge.
The world's glaciers act like frozen water towers, storing snowfall in winter before releasing meltwater in the summer.  This water flows downstream to thirsty cities such as La Paz in Bolivia.  Since 1980, the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) reports every other year on how  a sample of worldwide glaciers are doing.  They report the "annual mass balance", which tells you how much ice the glaciers have gained or lost each year, and the latest values have just been released.

Over the last 2 years, the glaciers measured lost almost a meter of thickness each year, bringing the total since 1980 to over 19 metres. ...

2013/2014 falls into 5th place for loss rate, but it continues the accelerated trend.  Since 2000, ice loss has been about 100% faster than it was between 1980-2000.  This fits with results of a scientific study by Marzeion et al. (2014) that reported that most of the recent glacier loss is due to human-caused global warming. Andy Skuce talks about this study in more detail in his report on a trip to the vanishing Athabasca glacier.

The WGMS only measure a sample because they use measurements taken by scientists on the ice, and it's slow and expensive to get enough to report on each enormous glacier. To expand these measurements further, we use satellites. Jacob et al. (2012) used the GRACE satellites which "feel" Earth's gravity to calculate that glaciers worldwide lost about 150 billion tonnes of ice each year from 2003-2010.  This meltwater flows into the oceans, and explains part of the sea level rise that's been measured by other satellites.

Read more at Another Year and Glaciers Are Another Meter Thinner

As Rising Sea Level Chomps at Cape Canaveral, NASA Uses Nature-Friendly Solution

Research student Kyle Sexton stands in a depression behind a beach berm at low tide along the Cape Canaveral shoreline. The all-terrain vehicle is equipped with global positioning equipment to help measure beach erosion in the area. (Credit: Peter Adams) Click to Enlarge.
Along Florida's most famous slice of waterfront, the water is taking a bigger and bigger bite.  As the level of the Atlantic Ocean has pushed higher, it has begun gobbling up the shoreline along Cape Canaveral.

Scientists from the University of Florida and the U.S. Geological Survey began studying the problem in 2009, finding that what was going on could not be explained by typical Florida beach erosion.  This was climate change at work, with a warmer ocean expanding beyond its old bounds.

To deal with the problem, NASA came up with a solution beyond the typical Florida beach renourishment project, one that saved money and is likely to last a lot longer than a beach renourishment project would.
Throughout most of Florida, the typical answer to beach erosion is dredging sand from underwater and using it to rebuild the shoreline, a method called beach renourishment. Thirty-five of Florida's 67 counties have used taxpayer money to artificially enhance their beaches in this way, plumping them up like a fading star injecting collagen in her too-thin lips.

But NASA decided to do things differently.  Instead of building back the shoreline, the agency used beach sand from a project at nearby Patrick Air Force Base to build, over about seven months earlier this year, a second, mile long line of dunes inland from the area where the erosion was occurring.  Total cost: $2.8 million.

"Renourishment would be much more expensive,"  said Nancy Bray, director of center operations for Kennedy Space Center.  Besides, she pointed out, the rising sea would just wipe out the built-up beach all over again, requiring NASA to spend even more of the taxpayers' money.

Even better, she said, is the fact that the second dune system created habitat for several endangered and threatened species that call Cape Canaveral home.

Read more at As Rising Sea Level Chomps at Cape Canaveral, NASA Uses Nature-Friendly Solution

Let's Stop the Disaster that Is the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership)!

Here is what Senator Bernie Sanders says about the TPP.  [Item 4 is a significant retreat from dealing with climate change.  A corporation's right to profit can override laws protecting the climate.  This is discussed on page 78 of Naomi Klein's book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate]:

10 Ways the Trans-Pacific Partnership Would Hurt Working Families
  1. TPP will allow corporations to outsource even more jobs overseas.    
    According to the Economic Policy Institute, if the TPP is agreed to, the U.S. will lose more than 130,000 jobs to Vietnam and Japan alone.  But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
    Service Sector Jobs will be lost.  At a time when corporations have already outsourced over 3 million service sector jobs in the U.S., TPP includes rules that will make it even easier for corporate America to outsource call centers; computer programming; engineering; accounting; and medical diagnostic jobs.
    Manufacturing jobs will be lost.  As a result of NAFTA, the U.S. lost nearly 700,000 jobs. As a result of Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, the U.S. lost over 2.7 million jobs.  As a result of the Korea Free Trade Agreement, the U.S. has lost 70,000 jobs.  The TPP would make matters worse by providing special benefits to firms that offshore jobs and by reducing the risks associated with operating in low-wage countries.
  2. U.S. sovereignty will be undermined by giving corporations the right to challenge our laws before international tribunals.     The TPP creates a special dispute resolution process that allows corporations to challenge any domestic laws that could adversely impact their “expected future profits.”
    These challenges would be heard before UN and World Bank tribunals which could require taxpayer compensation to corporations.
    This process undermines our sovereignty and subverts democratically passed laws including those dealing with labor, health, and the environment.
  3. Wages, benefits, and collective bargaining will be threatened.    
    NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China, and other free trade agreements have helped drive down the wages and benefits of American workers and have eroded collective bargaining rights.
    The TPP will make the race to the bottom worse because it forces American workers to compete with desperate workers in Vietnam where the minimum wage is just 56 cents an hour.
  4. Our ability to protect the environment will be undermined.    
    The TPP will allow corporations to challenge any law that would adversely impact their future profits.  Pending claims worth over $14 billion have been filed based on similar language in other trade agreements.  Most of these claims deal with challenges to environmental laws in a number of countries.  The TPP will make matters even worse by giving corporations the right to sue any of the nations that sign onto the TPP.  These lawsuits would be heard in international tribunals bypassing domestic courts.
  5. Food Safety Standards will be threatened.    
    The TPP would make it easier for countries like Vietnam to export contaminated fish and seafood into the U.S.  The FDA has already prevented hundreds of seafood imports from TPP countries because of salmonella, e-coli, methyl-mercury and drug residues.  But the FDA only inspects 1-2 percent of food imports and will be overwhelmed by the vast expansion of these imports if the TPP is agreed to.
  6. Buy America laws could come to an end.    
    The U.S. has several laws on the books that require the federal government to buy goods and services that are made in America or mostly made in this country.  Under TPP, foreign corporations must be given equal access to compete for these government contracts with companies that make products in America.  Under TPP, the U.S. could not even prevent companies that have horrible human rights records from receiving government contracts paid by U.S. taxpayers.
  7. Prescription drug prices will increase, access to life saving drugs will decrease, and the profits of drug companies will go up.     Big pharmaceutical companies are working hard to ensure that the TPP extends the monopolies they have for prescription drugs by extending their patents (which currently can last 20 years or more).  This would expand the profits of big drug companies, keep drug prices artificially high, and leave millions of people around the world without access to life saving drugs.  Doctors without Borders stated that “the TPP agreement is on track to become the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries.”
  8. Wall Street would benefit at the expense of everyone else.    
    Under TPP, governments would be barred from imposing “capital controls” that have been successfully used to avoid financial crises.  These controls range from establishing a financial speculation tax to limiting the massive flows of speculative capital flowing into and out of countries responsible for the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s.  In other words, the TPP would expand the rights and power of the same Wall Street firms that nearly destroyed the world economy just five years ago and would create the conditions for more financial instability in the future. ...
  9. The TPP would reward authoritarian regimes like Vietnam that systematically violate human rights.    
    The State Department, the U.S. Department of Labor, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all documented Vietnam’s widespread violations of basic international standards for human rights.  Yet, the TPP would reward Vietnam’s bad behavior by giving it duty free access to the U.S. market.
  10. The TPP has no expiration date, making it virtually impossible to repeal.    
    Once TPP is agreed to, it has no sunset date and could only be altered by a consensus of all of the countries that agreed to it.  Other countries, like China, could be allowed to join in the future.  For example, Canada and Mexico joined TPP negotiations in 2012 and Japan joined last year.
Click here to sign Bernie's petition »

Read more at Let's Stop the Disaster that Is the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership)!

Delaware-Size Gas Plume over West Illustrates the Cost of Leaking Methane

A huge methane plume escapes from oil and gas operations New Mexico. (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
Satellites that sweep over energy-rich northern New Mexico can spot methane as it escapes from drilling rigs, compressors and miles of pipeline snaking across the badlands.  In the air it forms a giant plume:  a permanent, Delaware-sized methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago.  “We couldn’t be sure that the signal was real,” said NASA researcher Christian Frankenberg.

The country’s biggest methane “hot spot,” verified by NASA and University of Michigan scientists in October, is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2 billion leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites across the country. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere, where it contributes to the warming of the Earth.

Methane accounts for about 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it — nearly 30 percent — is the oil and gas industry, government figures show.  All told, oil and gas producers lose 8 million metric tons of methane a year, enough to provide power to every household in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.

As early as next month, the Obama administration will announce new measures to shrink New Mexico’s methane cloud while cracking down nationally on a phenomenon that officials say erodes tax revenue and contributes to climate change.  The details are not publicly known, but already a fight is shaping up between the White House and industry supporters in Congress over how intrusive the restrictions will be.

Republican leaders who will take control of the Senate next month have vowed to block measures that they say could throttle domestic energy production at a time when plummeting oil prices are cutting deeply into company profits.  Industry officials say they have a strong financial incentive to curb leaks, and companies are moving rapidly to upgrade their equipment.

But environmentalists say relatively modest government restrictions on gas leaks could reap substantial rewards for taxpayers and the planet.  Because methane is such a powerful greenhouse gas — with up to 80 times as much heat-trapping potency per pound as carbon dioxide over the short term — the leaks must be controlled if the United States is to have any chance of meeting its goals for cutting the emissions responsible for climate change, said David Doniger, who heads the climate policy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

Read more at Delaware-Size Gas Plume over West Illustrates the Cost of Leaking Methane

   Tuesday, December 30

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Attention Turns to Fracking's Impact on Air Quality

A energy facility flares in South Texas' Eagle Ford Shale region. (Credit: Lance Rosenfield/Prime) Click to Enlarge.
New science and media coverage highlight air pollution from fracking, long overshadowed by concerns over water contamination.

Fracking's impacts on air quality took the spotlight this year, fueled by new research and broad media coverage.

The modern shale boom has created a massive influx of oil-and-gas wells, compressor stations and other infrastructure that spew toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases into the air.  The consequences for public health and climate change are increasingly recognized as serious issues, on par with the water contamination concerns that once dominated debates over the pros and cons of fracking.

In mid-December, New York banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within its borders, effectively closing off the state's shale gas resources to producers.  New York's decision was based on a public health review which cited various health risks including "air impacts that could affect respiratory health due to increased levels of particulate matter, diesel exhaust, or volatile organic chemicals."

Read more at Attention Turns to Fracking's Impact on Air Quality

Prevention Is Easier and Less Painful Than Cure: Keep Vermont Yankee Operable - by Rod Adams

Vermont Yankee (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
On Monday, December 29, 2014, the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant ... shut down because its current fuel load has been nearly completely used up.  Because no new fuel has been ordered, the plant will remain shut down for at least six months. That estimate is a pure guess; the lead time required to manufacture, deliver and install a new fuel load might be longer than that.

However, despite all assumptions to the contrary, the plant is not yet dead.  The batter at the plate has a good eye and an excellent batting average as long as he is allowed to engage with the pitcher.  There’s also a decent roster of pinch-hitters who can be inserted if the batter has mentally checked out and refuses to wake up.

The point of no return will not arrive until that fateful day when all of the fuel has been removed from the reactor vessel, the company has prepared and submitted two specific documents — one to certify that all fuel has been permanently removed and one to certify permanent cessation of operation — to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has accepted those documents, and has modified the plant license to a “possession only” status.

The process of completing the required steps can be pushed rather rapidly when stubborn decision makers want to make sure their choices are not later reversed — as was done in the case of San Onofre units 2 and 3 — but it can also be delayed for decades by people who want to keep options open — as was done in the case of TVA’s Browns Ferry Unit 1.

For a cost that is arguably lower than the cost of any alternative power, Vermont Yankee could be refueled and operated for another 17-18 years with the possibility of being refurbished and relicensed for another 20 years after that.  It can keep contributing to the local economy and find additional ways to maximize its valuable location.

The highest and best use for a site that is already generating electricity is to keep doing so; adding more clean generating capacity that is not dependent on natural gas would be my first choice if I was involved in the decision making process.

Read more at Prevention Is Easier and Less Painful Than Cure: Keep Vermont Yankee Operable

Ocean Warming: Probing a Blue Abyss

A Weddell seal with a conductivity-temperature-depth tag on its head. (Credit: Dan Costa, University of California at Santa Cruz) Click to Enlarge.
For every 10 joules of energy that our greenhouse gas pollution traps here on Earth, about 9 of them end up in an ocean.  There, the effects of global warming bite into fisheries, ecosystems and ice.  But those effects are largely imperceptible to humans — as invisible to a landlubber as an albatross chomping on a baited hook at the end of a long line.
During 2014, as rising ocean heat fueled planetary temperature records, and as it continued to eat away at Antarctic ice, scientists discovered that the oceans have been warming far more quickly than anybody had realized — and doing so for decades.  Stark findings were published online in Nature Climate Change in October, relying on data from the global flotilla of thousands of Argo floats.  These drone-like seafarers have been plumbing inhospitable depths since 2000, beaming back data on ocean temperatures and other variables.

Using float data, scientists recalibrated sparse historical measurements and estimates of ocean warming, concluding that the upper 2,700 feet of the world’s oceans had warmed by between a quarter and a half more than had previously been realized.  The largest discrepancies with existing data were discovered in the Southern Hemisphere, where historical records are as sparse as the shipping traffic that traditionally provided so much of the planet’s ocean weather information.  There, it appears that ocean warming has been occurring at twice the previously-understood rate.

“We continue to be stunned at how rapidly the ocean is warming,” Sarah Gille, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor, said when we spoke with her earlier this year. “Extra heat means extra sea level rise, since warmer water is less dense, so a warmer ocean expands.”

As seas continue to swell, flooding cities and infrastructure, they’re also going to continue to become more acidic.

The impacts of ocean acidification, which is caused when carbon dioxide dissolves into seas and reacts with water, is a topic that scientists and governments are only just starting to grasp in meaningful ways.  With taskforces and research projects being launched across the globe, 2015 promises more answers not only on ocean warming, but on the shellfish-ravaging and fish-baffling effects of falling pH levels.

Read more at Ocean Warming: Probing a Blue Abyss

A Bipartisan Group of Senators Is Pushing for Distributed Wind — Here’s Why It Matters

Whole Foods in Brooklyn (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
A group of Senators recently urged the US Department of Energy to continue funding programs for the domestic distributed wind energy industry.  The bipartisan group, led by Sen. Al Franken, wrote a letter highlighting the clear potential for distributed wind power to “contribute many gigawatts of electricity similar to other renewable technologies.”  Reactions have been mixed, and that’s understandable.  The distributed wind industry has faced a good deal of critique (some of which is warranted).  Nevertheless, the Senators are correct: Distributed wind is a useful technology, with useful applications, and stands to benefit from the increasingly attractive economic conditions for distributed generation.
2011 was when the wind started to come out of the industry’s sails (and yes, pun intended).  The economy had tanked, and solar prices were gaining economies of scale, making small wind expensive by comparison in a market where customers were holding their wallets more tightly.  But just like with solar, distributed wind has continued to evolve and innovate.  The technology and business models have continued to advance, the industry has consolidated, and as the senators noted in their letter, the distributed wind power industry is at the threshold of rapid commercialization.

Economic conditions are increasingly attractive for all distributed generation.  In just a few short years, distributed wind has changed dramatically.  There are fewer players, and the standards are much tougher as the SWCC, in the US, and comparable certification programs around the world, have reached maturation.  The technology has advanced — and has a wide variety of applications.  You’re not going to find distributed wind atop 20% of rooftops, like you will already with solar in Australia, but you will find that the modern technologies from the companies that remain in the industry — the strongest, best run ones with the best technology, and with better economies of scale — will start gaining a resurgence.

Distributed wind has particularly great potential in applications such as:
  • Farms: A 10kW or larger turbine can be installed in windy locations and produce energy at a rate less than that available from the grid, or in farms in remote regions with difficulty accessing the grid.
  • Northern and Southern regions, from Scandinavia to Patagonia: There are limitations to solar resources during the winter months at the poles, but wind is a great resource in most of these areas.
  • Hybrid installations: Particularly in off-grid situations, a mix of energy sources adds resiliency and lowers the cost of energy.
Read more at A Bipartisan Group of Senators Is Pushing for Distributed Wind — Here’s Why It Matters

Report: Distributed-Renewables Disruption Will Reduce Utility Revenues by Up To $123 Billion a Year by 2025

Digitally enabled grid executive surveys (Credit: Accenture) Click to Enlarge.
The ongoing growth of distributed renewable energy generation throughout the US and Europe will see utility-company revenues reduced by as much as $123 billion a year by 2025, according to a new report from the consulting company Accenture.

That new report on the Digitally Enabled Grid clearly states that if the utilities wish to maintain a market share comparable to that of today, the companies will need to “fundamentally transform their business models.”

Interestingly, the report makes note of the fact that roughly 61% of utility-companies are clear on the reality that potential disruption is a possibility and are expecting “significant or moderate revenue reductions” to be a result of this change.

As per the scenarios outlined by Accenture, utility-company revenues could fall by $123 billion per year by 2025 (Europe and the US) at the top end of the spectrum, or $66 billion per year on the low end.  So, significant changes no matter what — just a matter of how significant.

“Based on our research, Accenture believes that the most likely scenario in the next 10 years could lead to revenue losses at the lower end of our scale, $18 billion a year in the US and €39 billion (US$48 billion) in Europe, caused by a moderate reduction in load on the grid network,” stated Valentin de Miguel, global managing director of Accenture Smart Grid Services.  “Falling technology costs, shifting consumer sentiment and moderate electricity price increases will drive to increased penetration of clean technologies and the reduced utility revenues.”

Read more at Report:  Distributed-Renewables Disruption Will Reduce Utility Revenues by Up To $123 Billion a Year by 2025

   Monday, December 29

Monday, December 29, 2014

2014:  The Year Climate Change Undeniably Arrived

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, at climate talks in New York City. (Credit: The Climate Group, Flickr)  Click to enlarge.
All year long, from the Antipodes to the Aleutians, the changing global climate plagued the planet.  If 2014 does not, in the final reckoning, prove to be the hottest year ever recorded, it will come very close.

As a landmark scientific review published by several U.S. government agencies declared in May: "Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present."

Of course, it did not happen all at once.  The Australian heat wave had lingered over from 2013.  Every decade is now warmer than the one before.  Each new year is one of the warmest on record.  Young adults have never lived through a month when global temperatures were cooler than the old normal.

"There is no standstill in global warming," said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization, which as the year drew to a close estimated that 2014 would turn out to be the warmest year scientists have ever recorded.

It is fair to say that 2014 was the year that climate change undeniably arrived.

That means much more than to say the world's temperature continued to rise.  So did the emissions of greenhouse gases and the buildup of those gases in the atmosphere.  And so did the gathering sense of crisis, the understanding that the time left for effective action was running out. 

Read more at 2014:  The Year Climate Change Undeniably Arrived

Washington State Offers Ambitious Cap-and-Trade Plan

Seattle, Washington. (Credit: Washington State Department of Transportation/flickr)  Click to Enlarge.
If Washington’s governor gets his legislative holiday wish, the Evergreen State in 18 months will launch one of the world’s most sophisticated and all-encompassing climate-pollution pricing programs.

Draft legislation released last week by the office of Gov. Jay Inslee (D) would — if sufficient support can be mustered from state lawmakers — raise an estimated $1 billion a year through a new levee on greenhouse gas pollution.

The program would cap statewide pollution rates at levels that decline over time, with polluters allowed to trade state-sold pollution allowances among themselves.  It would affect as great a share of carbon as any similar program operating in the U.S., while avoiding pitfalls of other programs, such as giveaways for certain polluters.

The program was crafted to help Washington get on track toward meeting its goals, established by the legislature in 2008, of producing no more greenhouse gases in 2020 than had been the case in 1990, with a further 50 percent reduction by 2050.  Windfall revenue under the cap-and-trade proposal would ease entrenched shortfalls in transportation and education spending, reduce taxes and fund household energy efficiency improvements for poorer residents, and help meet the general costs of running the state.

Read more at Washington State Offers Ambitious Cap-and-Trade Plan

The Grid Reliability Myth - by Carl Pope

Power lines are seen as an out-of-control wildfire threatens the electrical grid in the area on June 9, 2011 in Springerville, Arizona. (Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
On August 1, 2011, a feral heat wave grasped Texas by its drought-parched throat.  Temperatures remained over 100 degrees for 40 days -- dozens of people died.  Air conditioners all over the state struggled valiantly to cool buildings -- much of their effort leaked out into the hot Texas sky.  Then, one by one, twenty power plants -- primarily natural gas peaker plants -- winked out because of the temperature.  The cost for a KWH of electricity during the afternoon peak reached $5000.  While inland wind was also low during the heat wave, coastal breezes kicked up.  Wind power barely kept the grid operator from having to black out neighborhoods.  Grid operators conceded that equipment failures in such heat were to be expected.  The irony here is that the power plants which failed -- inefficient peakers with a high cost per KWH -- are justified on the basis that they will be required only occasionally, during extreme weather -- but apparently are not designed to be available in those very circumstances!

Remember this episode the next time you hear -- or read -- that we can't progress to 100 percent clean energy because the centralized, fossil grid is more "reliable."  Our current coal and natural gas reliant grid is anything but reliable.  The Galvin Electricity Intiative led by former Motorola CEO Bob Galvin and former Edison Electric CTO Kurt Yeager, describes the grid as:
Aging, unreliable, inefficient, insecure and incompatible with the needs of a digital economy.... each day roughly 500,000 Americans spend at least two hours without electricity.  Brownouts, power spikes and even minor blips can bring high-tech production lines to a halt.  Such impurities and failures cost business and consumers an estimated $150 billion a year.  Moreover, the system is vulnerable to terrorist attack, major storms and even moderately turbulent weather.

Read more at The Grid Reliability Myth

The Arctic Is Absorbing More and More Sunlight, NASA Images Show

These maps show the net change in solar radiation absorbed by the atmosphere over the Arctic from 2000 to 2014, as well as the net change in sea ice cover over the same period. Shades of red depict areas absorbing more sunlight (left map) and areas with less ice cover (right map). (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)  Click to Enlarge.
The Arctic has been absorbing significantly more sunlight since the year 2000, according to NASA satellite data, a trend that mirrors the steady decrease in Arctic sea ice during that same period. These maps show changes in the amount of solar radiation absorbed over the Arctic from 2000 to 2014, as well as changes in sea ice cover during the same period.  As sea ice cover declines and more dark ocean is exposed to the sun's rays, that decreases the reflectivity, or albedo, of the ocean's surface, meaning more heat is absorbed.  Shades of red depict areas absorbing more sunlight and areas with less ice cover.  The Arctic's rate of absorption has increased by 5 percent every June, July, and August since 2000.  No other region on the planet has shown significant changes in albedo during that time, researchers say.  When averaged over the entire Arctic Ocean, the increase is roughly the equivalent of an extra 10-watt light bulb shining continuously over every 11 square feet of Arctic Ocean for the entire summer, researchers say.

Read original article at The Arctic Is Absorbing More and More Sunlight, NASA Images Show

   Sunday, December 28

Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 Was the Year We Finally Started to Do Something About Climate Change

2014 was a big year for climate news, good and bad.  In June, the Obama administration took its biggest step yet in the fight against global warming by introducing regulations to limit greenhouse gases from existing power plants.  And while there was plenty of anti-science rhetoric and opposition to climate action (no, the polar vortex does not disprove climate change), the year came to a dramatic end with at least three landmark climate-related stories:  In September, hundreds of thousands of protesters around the world marched to demand climate action.  November's historic deal between the US and China to curb greenhouse emissions breathed new life into international climate negotiations.  And finally, after a series of last-minute compromises, leaders from nearly 200 countries produced the Lima Accord, which, for the first time, calls on all nations to develop plans to limit their emissions.  All eyes are now on Paris, where next year world leaders will meet in an attempt to work out a major global warming deal.

Read original article at 2014 Was the Year We Finally Started to Do Something About Climate Change

Investment Falters as Fossil Fuels Face ‘Perfect Storm’

An anti-fracking protest against the rising shale oil production in the US. (Credit: Bill Baker via Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
The world’s investors – both big and small – think primarily in terms of making good returns on their money.  And, over the years, investing in the fossil fuel industry has been considered a safe bet.

Yet maybe, just maybe, attitudes are changing – and fairly profoundly – as financial analysts warn that the industry faces “a perfect storm” as it enters 2015.

The Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI), a London-based financial thinktank, analyses the energy industry and lobbies to limit emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

On one side, CTI says, the industry is being buffeted by a crash in oil prices and a drop in demand.  On the other, there’s the threat of increasing regulation aimed at cutting GHG emissions and a worldwide growth in renewable forms of energy.

Cool reception
Anthony Hobley, CTI’s chief executive, says investors are realizing that the energy world is changing.

“At one stage, when we talked to investment firms about the risks of investing in fossil fuels we were given a cool reception,” Hobley told Climate News Network.

“Now we are being invited to brief the big investment funds.  Investors have an enormous amount of power – they are weighing up the risks of investing in fossil fuels and wondering just how safe their money is.”

The CTI has long warned of the dangers of a “carbon bubble”, with investments in fossil fuels becoming ”stranded assets” due to the imposition of stricter regulatory controls on emissions and the widespread adoption of renewable energy.

“The carbon bubble is not going to burst in 2015,” Hobley says.  “The transition from fossil fuels to other forms of energy is going to take place over several decades.

“But a combination of more regulations, new technologies, the falling price of renewable energy, and the need for a more efficient use of resources, is making investors rethink their investment strategies.”

Read more at Investment Falters as Fossil Fuels Face ‘Perfect Storm’

A Bit of Good Green Energy News for Your Holidays, Courtesy of New England

High voltage power lines (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
ISO-NE, as the nerds call it, is the nonprofit organization that administers the New England grid and its wholesale power market.  It is responsible for making sure that supply (generation) matches demand (load) at all times; it tells all the 82 large generators in its territory when to put electricity on the grid and when not to.  Every hour, generators “bid in” to the wholesale market and the ISO draws from the cheapest power first.

Two exciting bits of news out of ISO-NE, both brought to us by Jerry Elmer of the Conservation Law Foundation.

First, the ISO is busy at work making renewables dispatchable.  Of course it can’t make the wind blow or the sun shine.  But to an ISO, “dispatchable” has a specific technical and legal meaning.  It needs the generator to be in constant electronic communication with the ISO control room. (Check.)  It needs reliable five-minute-ahead forecasts for wind strength and sun intensity. (Check.)  And it needs algorithms that will enable it to dispatch renewables when circumstances line up. (In the works, due some time next year for wind and hydro, the year after for solar.)

There’s lots of technical detail about what it means for renewables to be “within dispatch,” but I won’t burden you.  The main takeaway is that ISO-NE is soon going to treat wind, hydro, and solar as dispatchable resources, which will make them much more competitive in New England wholesale power markets.

Second, as of earlier this month, ISO-NE is for the first time permitting what’s called “negative price offers.”  This one requires a bit of explanation.

Read more at A Bit of Good Green Energy News for Your Holidays, Courtesy of New England

Pope Francis's Edict on Climate Change Will Anger Deniers and US Churches

Pope Francis was a key player in thawing relations between the US and Cuba. (Credit: Franco Origlia/Getty) Click to Enlarge.
He has been called the “superman pope”, and it would be hard to deny that Pope Francis has had a good December.  Cited by President Barack Obama as a key player in the thawing relations between the US and Cuba, the Argentinian pontiff followed that by lecturing his cardinals on the need to clean up Vatican politics.  But can Francis achieve a feat that has so far eluded secular powers and inspire decisive action on climate change?

It looks as if he will give it a go.  In 2015, the pope will issue a lengthy message on the subject to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, give an address to the UN general assembly, and call a summit of the world’s main religions.

The reason for such frenetic activity, says Bishop Marcelo Sorondo, chancellor of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, is the pope’s wish to directly influence next year’s crucial UN climate meeting in Paris, when countries will try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce emissions.

“Our academics supported the pope’s initiative to influence next year’s crucial decisions,” Sorondo told Cafod, the Catholic development agency, at a meeting in London.  “The idea is to convene a meeting with leaders of the main religions to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion.”

Read more at Pope Francis's Edict on Climate Change Will Anger Deniers and US Churches

The Climate in 2015:  Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart - by Rebecca Solnit

Chevron Corp. supported several candidates in Richmond, Calif., where the company has been hoping to modernize a large oil refinery, seen here in 2010. None of the Chevron-backed candidates were elected. (Credit: Paul Sakuma/AP) Click to Enlarge.
Americans are skilled at that combination of complacency and despair that assumes things cannot change and that we, the people, do not have the power to change them. Yet you have to be abysmally ignorant of history, as well as of current events, not to see that our country and our world have always been changing, are in the midst of great and terrible changes, and are occasionally changed through the power of the popular will and idealistic movements. As it happens, the planet’s changing climate now demands that we summon up the energy to leave behind the Age of Fossil Fuel (and maybe with it some portion of the Age of Capitalism as well).

How to topple a giant

To use Ursula K. Le Guin’s language, physics is inevitable:  If you put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the planet warms, and as the planet warms, various kinds of chaos and ruin are let loose.  Politics, on the other hand, is not inevitable.  For example, not so many years ago it would have seemed inevitable that Chevron, currently the third biggest corporation in the country, would run the refinery town of Richmond, Calif., as its own private fiefdom.  You could say that the divine right of Chevron seemed like a given. Except that people in Richmond refused to accept it and so this town of 107,000 mostly poor nonwhites pushed back.
As McLaughlin put it of her era as mayor of Richmond, Calif.:
We’ve accomplished so much, including breathing better air, reducing the pollution, and building a cleaner environment and cleaner jobs, and reducing our crime rate.  Our homicide number is the lowest in 33 years and we became a leading city in the Bay Area for solar installed per capita.  We’re a sanctuary city.  And we’re defending our homeowners to prevent foreclosures and evictions.  And we also got Chevron to pay $114 million extra dollars in taxes.
Read more at The Climate in 2015: Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart - by Rebecca Solnit

Five Bits of Research that Shaped Climate Science in 2014

Climate science never stops developing.  Over the course of the year we've covered a myriad of scientific studies, some of which have made the news, and others which have been more quietly received.  Here's our pick of the papers that have shaped scientific discussion about climate change in 2014.
  1. Pacific winds drive surface warming slowdown
    In February, a paper by Matthew England and colleagues helped shed light on why surface temperatures have risen more slowly over the last 15 years or so than in previous decades, even though we're emitting greenhouse gases faster than ever before.
  2. West Antarctic glaciers show signs of collapsing
    A paper by Ian Joughin and colleagues in May suggested the chain of events leading to collapse may already be underway.  It won't be quick - probably taking several centuries.  But beyond a certain point, the process is likely to be unstoppable, the scientists warned.
  3. Antarctic sea ice measurements hit record high
    On Sept. 19, 2014, the five-day average of Antarctic sea ice extent exceeded 20 million square kilometers for the first time since 1979. The red line shows the average maximum extent from 1979-2014. (Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr)  Click to Enlarge.
    Scientists say changes in local wind patterns and ocean circulation are the most likely candidates, delivering cold water to the surface which then freezes.

    But a paper back in July by Ian Eisenmann and colleagues suggested there may be another explanation - a change in the way measurements are made, rather than in the sea ice itself.
  4. The link between Arctic sea-ice loss and extreme winters got a bit stronger.  Maybe
    Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing almost twice as fast as the global average - a phenomenon known as Arctic Amplification.

    A paper published in October by Masato Mori and colleagues was the latest in a series linking rapidly increasing temperatures in the Arctic to very cold winters in the northern hemisphere.
  5. Record summer heatwaves are ten times more likely with climate change
    Climate change is raising the odds of summer heatwaves in Europe by a factor of 10, according to research from the Met Office.  Over the past 10 to 15 years, the likelihood of a 'very hot' summer has risen - from once every 50 years to once every five years.
Read more at Five Bits of Research that Shaped Climate Science in 2014

   Saturday, December 27

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Real Outcome of Global Warming Talks in Lima:  A Future for Coal

U.S. climate change negotiator Todd Stern explains the laborious proceedings in Lima, Peru. (Credit: © Carlos Garcia Granthon) Click to Enlarge.
“There will be coal burning.”  Negotiators from around the world produced a four-page climate-change accord after some sleep-deprived haggling over the weekend in Lima, Peru, but the agreement could be summed up in those five words.

For the first time, all nations agreed that all nations must have a plan to curb greenhouse gases.  That includes not just reducing pollution (“mitigation” in the jargon), but also “adaptation” (preparing for the climate changes already in the works), “finance” (money for the poor), “technology development” (better ways to get energy or reduce pollution), “capacity building” (helping poor countries develop) and “transparency” (ensuring nobody cheats).

At the same time, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, with 2013 marking another record year for pollution, as evidenced by the constant hum of diesel generators in Lima that helped keep the heated negotiations cooler, among other energy needs.  The single largest source of climate changing pollution continues to be burning coal, whether in wealthy nations like the U.S. or developing economies like China.

The shift of a single word—from a “shall” to a “may”—means the world will very likely continue to burn lots of coal.  Instead of being required to provide “quantifiable information” about their greenhouse-gas emissions, countries may choose whether or not to include those statistics in their pledges instead, known in the jargon as “intended nationally determined contributions.”  These pledges or INDCs are promises that come in a variety of flavors – not just strict pollution cuts like those from the E.U. nations, but also softer targets, such as reducing the amount of energy used to produce a single widget in India while producing more widgets overall (a so-called “carbon intensity” goal).

China and India led the charge against any monitoring or verification of such pledges. Worse, the Chinese and Indian negotiators do not appear to want INDCs to be comparable with each other.  In other words, the pledges “may” prove mutually inscrutable.

Read more at The Real Outcome of Global Warming Talks in Lima: A Future for Coal

Nuclear:  Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease

Workers building a nuclear reactor in Waynesboro, Ga., one of just five under construction in the United States, where nuclear energy is waning. (Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas.  And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.

But as Vermont Yankee illustrates, the nuclear industry in the United States is having trouble maintaining the status quo, much less expanding.  “It’s going nowhere quickly,” said Sharon Squassoni, who studies energy and climate change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.  Overseas, the outlook is not much better.

In addition to market forces, enormous design and construction costs, questions about new federal emissions rules, uncertainty about the long-term storage of waste fuel, and public perceptions about safety after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan have all had an effect on the American nuclear industry.

Of the roughly 100 reactors in operation in the United States, four others have been permanently shut since 2012 because of market economics or the costs of repairs or safety improvements, and half a dozen or more are in jeopardy, industry analysts say. Safety concerns may eventually scuttle others close to large populations, including Indian Point.

Beyond five reactors under construction, few if any others are likely to be built anytime soon.  And progress on a new generation of smaller, less expensive and potentially safer reactors has been slow.

Given that most of the still-profitable plants will reach the end of their useful lives by midcentury or sooner, it appears likely that nuclear power will play a diminishing role in the United States.  “We’re going to be hard pressed just to replace those,” Ms. Squassoni said.

All of this is encouraging to opponents of nuclear power, who are concerned about the costs, the potential for a major accident — despite the industry’s relatively good safety record — and the hazards of storing spent fuel.

“These things are extremely expensive and prone to cost overruns,” said Grant Smith, the senior energy policy analyst with the Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts research group that advocates solutions to climate change.  “The high-level nuclear waste issue has never been addressed.  You’re talking about indefinite costs into the future.”  But the outlook for nuclear power dismays the industry and its supporters, including some environmentalists, who point out that replacing the lost electricity from Vermont Yankee and the other recently closed reactors with power from natural gas could result in the release of as much carbon dioxide as is produced yearly by two million cars or more.

“We can’t take a carbon-free source of energy off the table,” said Carol M. Browner, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who is now with Nuclear Matters, an industry-backed group.

Read more at Nuclear:  Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease

Restored Forests Are Making Inroads Against Climate Change

Costa Rica is considered a forest success. Much of the country's old-growth forest was lost from the 1940s to the 1980s, but then new policies stemmed the loss, and forests have regrown to cover more than half the country. Serious threats persist, including a boom in pineapple farming that gives landowners an incentive to cut down recovering forest plots. (Credit: Matthew Hansen and Peter Potapov, University of Maryland; Google; U.S.G.S; NASA; Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute / The New York Times) Click to Enlarge.
Over time, humans have cut down or damaged at least three-quarters of the world’s forests, and that destruction has accounted for much of the excess carbon that is warming the planet.

But now, driven by a growing environmental movement in countries that are home to tropical forests, and by mounting pressure from Western consumers who care about sustainable practices, corporate and government leaders are making a fresh push to slow the cutting — and eventually to halt it.  In addition, plans are being made by some of those same leaders to encourage forest regrowth on such a giant scale that it might actually pull a sizable fraction of human-released carbon dioxide out of the air and lock it into long-term storage. 

With the recent signs of progress, long-wary environmental groups are permitting themselves a burst of optimism about the world’s forests.

“The public should take heart,” said Rolf Skar, who helps lead forest conservation work for the environmental group Greenpeace.  “We are at a potentially historic moment where the world is starting to wake up to this issue, and to apply real solutions.”

Still, Greenpeace and other groups expect years of hard work as they try to hold business leaders and politicians accountable for the torrent of promises they have made lately.  The momentum to slow or halt deforestation is fragile, for many reasons.  And even though rich Western governments have hinted for years that they might be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars to help poor countries save their forests, they have allocated only a few billion dollars.

Around the world, trees are often cut down to make room for farming, and so the single biggest threat to forests remains the need to feed growing populations, particularly an expanding global middle class with the means to eat better.  Saving forests, if it can be done, will require producing food much more intensively, on less land.

Read more at Restored Forests Are Making Inroads Against Climate Change

Migration Merits Place in Mainstream of Climate Debate

A family fleeing the 2011 drought and famine in Somalia collects firewood outside Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. (Credit: Andy Hall/Oxfam via Wikimedia Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Among all the statistics about temperature increase, polar melting, and sea level rise associated with a warming world, the impact on hundreds of millions of people forced to leave their homes due to climate change is often not fully considered.

But the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an intergovernmental body set up in the early 1950s to help resettle an estimated 11 million people made homeless in the aftermath of World War Two, is making new efforts to put questions of migration at the center of the climate change debate.

Forecasts for the number of people who will be forced to move due to climate change vary considerably.  At the top end of the scale, there are estimates that up to one billion environmental migrants could be created by mid-century.

The IOM is trying to bring together the various data and research on migration and climate change to better understand the issue, and has recently launched a website dedicated to the topic.

Read more at Migration Merits Place in Mainstream of Climate Debate

   Friday, December 26

Friday, December 26, 2014

Green Bonds May Help Limit Effects of Climate Change

A financing mechanism called a green bond is a new strategy for funding investments that may lessen impacts of climate change. (Credit: Curt Carnemark/World Bank)  Click to Enlarge.
A few years ago, the Mexican government pinpointed a promising method for reducing carbon dioxide emissions:  Encourage Mexicans to trade in their old refrigerators, air conditioners, light bulbs and the like for more up-to-date models.  After all, about 80 percent of the country’s energy comes from fossil fuels, and household appliances account for about a quarter of its electricity use.  But how to pay for the program, while making it affordable for poor households?

The answer:  a financing mechanism called a green bond.  After implementing this new strategy for funding environmentally friendly investments, the Mexican initiative is on track to reduce CO2 emissions by more than 1 million tons a year for the foreseeable future — the equivalent of cutting the carbon emissions of 217,000 cars annually, according to green bond pioneer World Bank, which issued the instrument.

In fact, the project is just one of scores of efforts around the world aimed at reducing carbon emissions or helping communities adapt to climate change — initiatives that are being paid for, at least partially, by this new type of financing.  By year end, experts expect the total amount invested in such bonds to hit $40 billion, up from just $2 billion in 2012.

“We’ve never seen this kind of exponential jump in market size,” says Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, an environmental advocacy group based in Boston.

Needed: $1 Trillion per Year

Adopting environmentally friendly technologies and techniques, from wind and solar installation to watershed management, is costly — very costly.  According to the International Energy Agency, we need to invest at least an additional $1 trillion per year just into clean energy projects worldwide by 2050 to ensure that global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius, avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

“The focus is on allowing us to transition to a low-carbon economy — and to do it quickly,” says Sean Kidney, CEO and co-founder of the Climate Bonds Initiative, a London-based nonprofit.

Read more at Green Bonds May Help Limit Effects of Climate Change

Can Electric Vehicles Be 'Environmental Villains'?

Scenarios depicting changes in concentrations of regulated air pollutants. (Credit: Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States (PNAS) by Christopher W. Tessum, Jason D. Hill, and Julian D. Marshall) Click to Enlarge.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis) found in a new study assessing the life cycle air quality impacts on human health of 10 alternatives to conventional gasoline vehicles “that electric vehicles (EVs) powered by electricity from natural gas or wind, water, or solar power are best for improving air quality, whereas vehicles powered by corn ethanol and EVs powered by coal are the worst.”  This study entitled Life cycle air quality impacts of conventional and alternative light-duty transportation in the United States and published in the renowned scientific journal ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’ (PNAS) constitutes an important contribution to the debate over “environmental impacts of conventional versus alternative transportation options.”  Importantly, the authors – Christopher W. Tessum, Jason D. Hill, and Julian D. Marshall – emphasizethat their “results reinforce previous findings that air quality-related health damages from transportation are generally comparable to or larger than climate change-related damages.”

Read more at Can Electric Vehicles Be 'Environmental Villains'?

Record Numbers Evacuated in Malaysia's Worst Floods in Decades

Record numbers evacuated in Malaysia's worst floods in decades (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
More than 100,000 people have been evacuated from their homes by authorities in five northern states of Malaysia hit by the Southeast Asian' nation's worst monsoon floods in decades.

Extremely high levels of floodwater and bad weather have made relocating victims and the transport of food supplies by helicopters difficult, Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a statement.

A total of 103,412 people have been displaced in Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, Perak and Perlis, state news agency Bernama said, surpassing the previous record of 100,000 people evacuated during floods in 2008.

Northeastern peninsular Malaysia, which is worst affected, is regularly hit by flooding during the annual Northeast Monsoon, but this year's rains have been particularly bad.

Read more at Record Numbers Evacuated in Malaysia's Worst Floods in Decades