Sunday, August 20, 2017

Electric Cars:  The Death of the Internal Combustion Engine - The Economist

It had a good run.  But the end is in sight for the machine that changed the world.

The Internal Combustion Engine (Credit: Jon Berkeley) Click to Enlarge.
The internal combustion engine's days are numbered.  Rapid gains in battery technology favor electric motors instead. ... The Chevy Bolt has a range of 238 miles (383km); Tesla fans recently drove a Model S more than 621 miles (1,000km) on a single charge.  UBS, a bank, reckons the “total cost of ownership” of an electric car will reach parity with a petrol one next year—albeit at a loss to its manufacturer.  It optimistically predicts electric vehicles will make up 14% of global car sales by 2025, up from 1% today.  Others have more modest forecasts, but are hurriedly revising them upwards as batteries get cheaper and better—the cost per kilowatt-hour has fallen from $1,000 in 2010 to $130-200 today.  Regulations are tightening, too.  Last month Britain joined a lengthening list of electric-only countries, saying that all new cars must be zero-emission by 2050.

The shift from fuel and pistons to batteries and electric motors is unlikely to take that long.  The first death rattles of the internal combustion engine are already reverberating around the world—and many of the consequences will be welcome.

To gauge what lies ahead, think how the internal combustion engine has shaped modern life.  The rich world was rebuilt for motor vehicles, with huge investments in road networks and the invention of suburbia, along with shopping malls and drive-through restaurants.  Roughly 85% of American workers commute by car.  Car making was also a generator of economic development and the expansion of the middle class, in post-war America and elsewhere.  There are now about 1bn cars on the road, almost all powered by fossil fuels.  Though most of them sit idle, America’s car and truck engines can produce ten times as much energy as its power stations.  The internal combustion engine is the mightiest motor in history.

But electrification has thrown the car industry into turmoil.  Its best brands are founded on their engineering heritage—especially in Germany.  Compared with existing vehicles, electric cars are much simpler and have fewer parts; they are more like computers on wheels.  That means they need fewer people to assemble them and fewer subsidiary systems from specialist suppliers.  Car workers at factories that do not make electric cars are worried that they could be for the chop.  With less to go wrong, the market for maintenance and spare parts will shrink.  While today’s car makers grapple with their costly legacy of old factories and swollen work forces, new entrants will be unencumbered. Premium brands may be able to stand out through styling and handling, but low-margin, mass-market car makers will have to compete chiefly on cost.

Assuming, of course, that people want to own cars at all.  Electric propulsion, along with ride-hailing and self-driving technology, could mean that ownership is largely replaced by “transport as a service”, in which fleets of cars offer rides on demand.  On the most extreme estimates, that could shrink the industry by as much as 90%.  Lots of shared, self-driving electric cars would let cities replace car parks (up to 24% of the area in some places) with new housing, and let people commute from far away as they sleep—suburbanization in reverse.

Even without a shift to safe, self-driving vehicles, electric propulsion will offer enormous environmental and health benefits.  Charging car batteries from central power stations is more efficient than burning fuel in separate engines.  Existing electric cars reduce carbon emissions by 54% compared with gas-powered ones, according to America’s National Resources Defense Council.  That figure will rise as electric cars become more efficient and grid-generation becomes greener.  Local air pollution will fall, too.  The World Health Organization says that it is the single largest environmental health risk, with outdoor air pollution contributing to 3.7m deaths a year.  One study found that car emissions kill 53,000 Americans each year, against 34,000 who die in traffic accidents.

Autos and autocracies
And then there is oil.  Roughly two-thirds of oil consumption in America is on the roads, and a fair amount of the rest uses up the by-products of refining crude oil to make petrol and diesel.  The oil industry is divided about when to expect peak demand; Royal Dutch Shell says that it could be little more than a decade away.  The prospect will weigh on prices long before then.  Because nobody wants to be left with useless oil in the ground, there will be a dearth of new investment, especially in new, high-cost areas such as the Arctic.  By contrast, producers such as Saudi Arabia, with vast reserves that can be tapped cheaply, will be under pressure to get pumping before it is too late: the Middle East will still matter, but a lot less than it did.  Although there will still be a market for natural gas, which will help generate power for all those electric cars, volatile oil prices will strain countries that depend on hydrocarbon revenues to fill the national coffers.  When volumes fall, the adjustment will be fraught, particularly where the struggle for power has long been about controlling oil wealth.  In countries such as Angola and Nigeria where oil has often been a curse, the diffusion of economic clout may bring immense benefits.

Meanwhile, a scramble for lithium is under way.  The price of lithium carbonate has risen from $4,000 a tonne in 2011 to more than $14,000.  Demand for cobalt and rare-earth elements for electric motors is also soaring.  Lithium is used not just to power cars: utilities want giant batteries to store energy when demand is slack and release it as it peaks.  Will all this make lithium-rich Chile the new Saudi Arabia?  Not exactly, because electric cars do not consume it; old lithium-ion batteries from cars can be reused in power grids, and then recycled.

Read more at The Death of the Internal Combustion Engine

Today’s GOP Agenda Is Unpopular and Indefensible. - by David Roberts

“So, mum’s the word, then?” (Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) Click to Enlarge.
The New York Times had a big story on the the 11th about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s propensity to operate in secret.  It offers a detailed and damning review of the evidence, but it stops short of drawing the broader conclusion:  namely, that the approach of serving industry under cover of secrecy is not idiosyncratic to Pruitt, nor is it distinctively Trumpian. Rather, it is the standard approach of today’s GOP, as reflected in such recent initiatives as the failed health care bill.  It is, in fact, the only approach possible to advance an agenda that is unpopular and intellectually indefensible.

Before painting that bigger picture, though, let’s look more closely at Pruitt’s brief but memorable stint at the EPA so far.

Pruitt is radically remaking the EPA, mostly in secret
Things got off to an inauspicious start in February, when a story at E&E revealed that Pruitt was requesting a full-time, around-the-clock security detail — not the first act of a man confident in his agenda.

In May the New Republic’s Emily Atkin, noting Pruitt’s refusal to meet with media or make his schedule public, asked, “What is Scott Pruitt hiding?”  Another story in May found that political leadership at the EPA had begun “occasionally inserting new data and other information into public statements without final review from career policy specialists,” data and information officials inside EPA describe as “misleading and incompatible with extensive agency research.” Another covered Pruitt firing several scientists from the agency’s science review board, planning to replace them with people more sympathetic to industry.

An AP story in June uncovered an email record showing that Pruitt coordinated tightly with fossil fuel groups as attorney general in Oklahoma.  E&E revealed that Pruitt’s calendar in his early weeks at EPA was filled with meetings with energy executives (though he met with no environmentalists).

A story in July showed that Pruitt is rolling back regulations “without the input of the 15,000 career employees at the agency he heads.”  Instead, the Times’s Coral Davenport writes, “Pruitt has outsourced crucial work to a network of lawyers, lobbyists and other allies, especially Republican state attorneys general.”  Another noted that he had traveled back home to Oklahoma — where he hopes to run for Senate — 10 times in his first three months, huddling with industry allies from his AG days.

Also in July, Rolling Stone ran a long expose by Jeff Goodell that focused on, among other things, Pruitt’s secrecy.
Except for his victory lap after Paris, he mostly avoids mainstream media.  (Pruitt's office refused numerous requests to interview him for this story.)  And despite his often-professed belief in "the rule of law," he has steadfastly resisted and evaded Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mail records and other public documents.  He's so good at operating in the shadows, in fact, that he was recently given the Golden Padlock Award by investigative journalists, which recognizes the most secretive publicly funded person or agency in the United States.
Here’s the Golden Padlock Award, which a group of investigative reporters and editors gave to Pruitt for “steadfastly refusing to provide emails in the public interest and removing information from public websites about key environmental programs.”

And now, The New York Times pulls it together:
[Pruitt] has terminated a decades-long practice of publicly posting his appointments calendar and that of all the top agency aides, and he has evaded oversight questions from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, according to the Democratic senators who posed the questions.

His aides recently asked career employees to make major changes in a rule regulating water quality in the United States — without any records of the changes they were being ordered to make.  And the E.P.A. under Mr. Pruitt has moved to curb certain public information, shutting down data collection of emissions from oil and gas companies, and taking down more than 1,900 agency webpages on topics like climate change, according to a tally by the Environmental Defense Fund, which did a Freedom of Information request on these terminated pages.
The picture that emerges from all this is pretty clear:  Pruitt is avoiding oversight, avoiding environmentalists, avoiding agency staff, and avoiding mainstream media.  He is taking steps to corrupt agency science and science communication and loosen regulatory burdens on fossil fuels, in close consultation with industry groups and right-wing media, with as little public scrutiny as possible.

What’s notable, aside from the grotesque distortion of the agency’s mission, is how well Pruitt represents the state of today’s GOP.

And first, let’s get this out of the way:  Pruitt is a creature of the GOP, not any kind of Trump-era anomaly.  He has spent his entire career enmeshed in right-wing groups like the Republican Attorneys General Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council.  He is steeped in conservative media, a long-time favorite of right-wing sites like Breitbart.

He is of the movement, and the culmination of the GOP’s current philosophy toward EPA, which can only be described as thoroughgoing nihilism.  The right views EPA as a tool of the Democrats and it wants to burn it down.  Trump has merely given Pruitt the green light.

Read more at Today’s GOP Agenda Is Unpopular and Indefensible.

Hot Days Put the People Who Grow Your Food in Danger

Heatstroke can be deadly if not treated quickly.

 Harvesters (Photo credit: Flikr | Ali Eminov) Click to Enlarge.
The luscious tomatoes and juicy peaches in your local grocery store were most likely picked by hand to prevent bruising.  But that personal touch comes at a price.  On hot days, the workers who pick these crops are at risk of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and other heat related illnesses.

Linda McCauley, a professor and dean of the Emory University School of Nursing, says heat-related illness can sneak up on someone who is unaware of the signs.  So it’s important to recognize the early symptoms in order to prevent serious complications or even death.

McCauley:  “So you’re working in a field and you’ve started having a headache and then all of a sudden you’re starting to feel dizzy and you feel like you’re going to pass out.”

Once someone feels light-headed, quick action is critical.

McCauley:  “In general, the workers don’t have any sense about how dangerous a heatstroke is – in that you have minutes.  You don’t have hours.”

Heat stroke can be deadly, but it’s also avoidable.  So educating workers and employers about how to recognize the symptoms is vital.

And putting programs in place to protect workers will become even more important as the climate warms.

Read original at Hot Days Put the People Who Grow Your Food in Danger

Saturday, August 19, 2017

  Saturday, Aug 19

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Analysis:  Why US Carbon Emissions Have Fallen 14% Since 2005

Wind Turbine by Gas Sign (Credit: ) Click to Enlarge.
Before 2005 US carbon emissions were marching upwards year after year, with little sign of slowing down. After this point, they fell quickly, declining 14% from their peak by the end of 2016.

Researchers have given a number of different reasons for this marked turnaround.  Some have argued that it was mainly due to natural gas and, to a lesser extent, wind both replacing coal for generating electricity.  Others have suggested that the declines were driven by the financial crisis and its lasting effects on the economy.

Here Carbon Brief presents an analysis of the causes of the decline in US CO2 since 2005. There is no single cause of reductions.  Rather, they were driven by a number of factors, including a large-scale transition from coal to gas, a large increase in wind power, a reduction in industrial energy use, and changes in transport patterns.

Declines in US CO2 have persisted despite an economic recovery from the financial crisis. While the pace of reductions may slow, many of these factors will continue to push down emissions, notwithstanding the inclinations of the current administration.

Carbon Brief’s analysis shows that in 2016…
  • Overall, CO2 emissions were around 18% lower than they would have been, if underlying factors had not changed, and 14% lower than their 2005 peak.
  • Coal-to-gas switching in the power sector is the largest driver, accounting for 33% of the emissions reduction in 2016.
    *Wind generation was responsible for 19% of the emissions reduction.
  • Solar power was responsible for 3%.
  • Reduced electricity use – mostly in the industrial sector – was responsible for 18%.
  • Without these changes, electricity sector CO2 emissions would have been 46% higher than they are today.
  • Reduced fuel consumption in homes and industry was responsible for an additional 12% of the overall emissions reductions.
  • Changes in transport emissions from fewer miles per-capita, more efficient vehicles, and less air travel emissions per-capita account for the final 15%.
Read more at Analysis:  Why US Carbon Emissions Have Fallen 14% Since 2005

Some Democrats See Tax Overhaul as a Path to Taxing Carbon - The New York Times

Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, second from left, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, third from left, hope to curry bipartisan support for a carbon tax as part of a larger deal on tax reform. (Credit: Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press) Click to Enlarge.
With a sweeping overhaul of the tax code on the horizon, two Senate Democrats believe this is the moment to broach the third rail of climate change policy: a carbon tax.

The plan by the senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, to level a $49 per metric ton fee on greenhouse gas emissions is widely acknowledged as a long shot.  But the lawmakers, along with climate activists and a cadre of conservative supporters, insist the tax reform is a way to create bipartisan support. The senators propose to use a portion of the estimated $2.1 trillion they anticipate in carbon tax revenue over the first 10 years to reduce the top marginal corporate tax income rate, something the White House has called for.

They also hope to have an ally in President Trump’s economic adviser, Gary D. Cohn, who met in February with a prominent group of Republicans advocating a similar plan.

No Republican lawmaker has signed on to the Senate measure.  Mr. Trump, who routinely proclaims his affection for coal, during the presidential campaign flatly rejected via Twitter a suggestion that he might put a price on carbon pollution.  The senators steering the effort admit they haven’t even broached a carbon tax directly with members of the administration, and the White House has distanced itself from the policy via Twitter a suggestion that he might put a price on carbon pollution. The senators steering the effort admit they haven’t even broached a carbon tax directly with members of the administration, and the White House has distanced itself from the policy.

Yet even the fiercest critics of a carbon tax say they can’t afford to dismiss the effort.

“What is that Taylor Swift song?  We are never, ever, ever getting back together?  This is never, ever, ever going to happen,” said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax lobbyist and founder of Americans for Tax Reform.  But, he added, the possibility of a carbon tax routinely re-emerges. “This time there is money for promoting that this idea might happen someday,” he said.

Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels, agreed.  “It’s so much revenue that it’s always going to be on the table and it’s always a threat,” he said.
The carbon tax movement’s biggest jolt came this year when a coalition of Republican elder statesmen, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III,  made the case to the White House that a fee on the burning of fossil fuels coupled with a monthly dividend to American households would be good for the economy, as well as the planet.  Those discussions are continuing, said Ted Halstead, founder of the Climate Leadership Council, a think tank dedicated to free market solutions to climate change, who has been working with the conservative leaders.

In the meantime, Senators Whitehouse and Schatz say, they have their eyes on the tax overhaul debate.  The White House wants the corporate rate cut to 15 percent from its current 35 percent.  Whether or not that is realistic, they say, getting even partway there will take bipartisan compromise.

The carbon tax bill they have proposed uses part of the revenue to reduce the marginal corporate income tax rate to 29 percent.

“There are only a handful of options in terms of generating revenue for broad-based tax reform, and they’re all very close to dead on arrival.  This is the one proposal that could attract a significant number of Democrats,” Mr. Schatz said.  He acknowledged, though, that using revenue to cut the corporate income tax rate could turn off some Democrats, too.

The legislation calls for the tax, which would increase annually by 2 percent, to be collected at its source — at coal mines, oil refineries, or ports of entry.  The rest of the revenue would come back to taxpayers in an annual inflation-adjusted $550 refundable tax credit, or $1,100 for married couples filing jointly.  Money would also be devoted to veterans and to coal country for job training programs.

The idea of a carbon tax dates to the 1920s, when the British economist Arthur Pigou observed that some goods had social costs that society ended up paying for — like alcohol, or pollution.  In the early 2000s economists and other supporters of taxing companies for the carbon they send into the atmosphere formed the Pigou Club in his honor.

Some conservative heavyweights, like Arthur Laffer, often called the father of supply-side economics, and Darren W. Woods, the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, have thrown their intellectual and political heft behind the idea.  Economists argue that the revenue from a carbon tax could be used to reduce or eliminate income, payroll, or other taxes.  Some business leaders say it is preferable to onerous regulation or a cap-and-trade program.
Mr. Norquist and other opponents like Mr. Pyle say they welcome a debate on a carbon tax. They and others recalled that Democrats lost the House in the 1994 midterm elections in large part because President Bill Clinton proposed but failed to get passed a “B.T.U. tax” on fuels that would have raised energy costs.

A 2013 Congressional Budget Office analysis found that a carbon tax half as big as the one Mr. Whitehouse and Mr. Schatz propose would raise gasoline prices by 20 cents a gallon and electricity bills by 16 percent on average.  Coal-heavy states would see even steeper price increases.

The idea that a national tax on carbon dioxide emissions could generate billions of dollars for ailing coal communities does not seem to have won over many lawmakers.  Senate Democrats who recently wrote to Republican leaders laying out their conditions for bipartisan tax reform did not mention a carbon tax.  But supporters note that if the White House hopes to cut tax rates without raising the deficit, it will need to find new, taxable economic activity.  So optimistic are Mr. Whitehouse and Mr. Schatz about winning bipartisan support that they unveiled their bill at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.  (A representative was quick to note, though, that hosting the carbon tax debate was not an endorsement of the policy.)

Read more at Some Democrats See Tax Overhaul as a Path to Taxing Carbon

Wind and Solar Power Are Saving Americans an Astounding Amount of Money -- by David Roberts

Not getting sick and dying from pollution is worth quite a bit, it turns out.

Wind and solar capacity in the continental US (Credit: Nature Energy) Click to enlarge.
Wind and solar power are subsidized by just about every major country in the world, either directly or indirectly through tax breaks, mandates, and regulations.

The main rationale for these subsidies is that wind and solar produce, to use the economic term of art, “positive externalities” — benefits to society that are not captured in their market price.  Specifically, wind and solar power reduce pollution, which reduces sickness, missed work days, and early deaths.  Every wind farm or solar field displaces some other form of power generation (usually coal or natural gas) that would have polluted more.

Subsidies for renewables are meant to remedy this market failure, to make the market value of renewables more accurately reflect their total social value.

This raises an obvious question:  Are renewable energy subsidies doing the job?  That is to say, are they accurately reflecting the size and nature of the positive externalities?

That turns out to be a devilishly difficult question to answer.  Quantifying renewable energy’s health and environmental benefits is super, super complicated.  Happily, researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab have just produced the most comprehensive attempt to date.  It contains all kinds of food for thought, both in its numbers and its uncertainties.

(Quick side note:  Just about every country in the world also subsidizes fossil fuels.  Globally, fossil fuels receive far more subsidies than renewables, despite the lack of any policy rationale whatsoever for such subsidies.  But we’ll put that aside for now.)

Here’s how much wind and solar saved in health and environmental costs
The researchers studied the health and environmental benefits of wind and solar in the US between 2007 (when the market was virtually nothing) and 2015 (after years of explosive market growth).

Specifically, they examined how much wind and solar reduced emissions of four main pollutants — sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and carbon dioxide (CO2) — over that span of years.  The goal was to understand not only the size of the health and environmental benefits, but their geographical distribution and how they have changed over time.

To cut to the chase, let’s review the top-line conclusions:
  • From 2007 to 2015, wind and solar in the US reduced SO2, NOx, and PM2.5 by 1.0, 0.6, and 0.05 million tons respectively;
  • reduction of those local air pollutants helped avoid 7,000 premature deaths (the central estimate in a range from 3,000 to 12,700);
  • those avoided deaths, along with other public health impacts, are worth a cumulative $56 billion (the central estimate in a range from $30 to $113 billion);
  • wind and solar also reduced CO2 emissions, to the tune of $32 billion in avoided climate costs (the central estimate in a range from$5 to $107 billion).
So, if you add up those central estimates, wind and solar saved Americans around $88 billion in health and environmental costs over eight years.  Not bad.

That number is worth reflecting on, but first let’s talk a second about how they came up with it.

Uncertainties abound in measuring positive externalities
Tallying up these benefits is difficult for all sorts of reasons.
These ranges reflect the simple fact that different models weigh things differently, from the physiological impacts of pollution to the value of missed work.   This is part of what muddies the politics of environmental regulation:  Costs are specific and concentrated; benefits are uncertain and diffuse.

Wind and solar benefits vary over time and from place to place
If you dig into the paper, you find that the most interesting data has to do with the variations in benefits across regions and over time.

It’s complex, but in a nutshell, the health and environmental benefits of wind and solar vary depending on what other sources are being displaced, and how much, and when.

... while the absolute level of subsidies might match the absolute level of benefits, they do not line up on a granular level.  The health and environmental benefits of wind and solar vary widely by time and region, but most policy incentives for wind and solar do not.  Federal tax incentives treat all wind and solar projects the same.  And when subsidies do vary, as in state-level policy, it’s rarely connected to their varying benefits.

The conclusion the researchers draw from this subsidy mismatch is that “addressing air quality and climate change through policies directly supporting wind and solar is not necessarily the most cost-effective approach.”

That’s true, as far as it goes, though I think there are still plenty of good reasons to support wind and solar.  What’s fun, though, is to think about what it might look like if state and federal supports for wind and solar did vary by time and region.
A final word on costs and benefits
In this case, as in all such cases, it is somewhat misleading to simply compare total subsidies with total health and environmental benefits.  The total amounts are not all that matters.  It also matters how costs and benefits are distributed — i.e., equity matters as well.

To put it bluntly:  A dollar in federal taxes is not equivalent to a dollar of avoided health and environmental costs.  The latter dollar is worth more than the former dollar.

Why is that?  Simple:  Federal taxes come disproportionately from the wealthy, via our progressive federal income tax, but health and environmental benefits disproportionately help the poor.  And as any good economist will tell you, the same dollar is worth more to a poor person than it is to a rich person.

This is something that often gets lost in discussions of environmental regulations.  It’s not just that their total benefits almost always exceed their direct costs.  It’s that those benefits are uniquely egalitarian and progressive.

In the case of climate change, any reduction in CO2 emissions benefits everyone on Earth (egalitarian), while disproportionately helping the poor, who suffer earliest and most from climate impacts (progressive).

In the case of local air-quality benefits, cleaner air benefits everyone in the region who breathes (egalitarian), while disproportionately helping the poor, who are more likely to live in close proximity to fossil fuel power plants (progressive).

In terms of equity, converting a dollar of wealthy people’s money into a dollar of health for low-income communities seems like a good deal to me.  And if you can get multiple dollars of low-income health benefit for every dollar of high-income taxes, well, that’s a no brainer.

Read more at Wind and Solar Power Are Saving Americans an Astounding Amount of Money

For Wind Power, Bigger Is Better

(Credit: Illustration by Luke Shuman; data from Bloomberg NEF; Rochard A. Dunlap, Make Consulting, GWEC) Click to Enlarge.
Things are looking up for wind power—way up.  Wind is now competitive with fossil fuels in many areas of the world, while the rise of turbines to new heights figures to bring down costs even more.
(Credit: Illustration by Luke Shuman; data from Bloomberg NEF; Rochard A. Dunlap, Make Consulting, GWEC) Click to Enlarge.
 (Credit: Illustration by Luke Shuman; data from Bloomberg NEF; Rochard A. Dunlap, Make Consulting, GWEC) Click to Enlarge.

Read original at For Wind Power, Bigger Is Better

America's Frail Grid Defense

The United States tested a hydrogen bomb 250 miles above Earth in 1962, creating a blue-lit sky as particles collided with nitrogen atoms. The atmospheric detonation created a powerful electromagnetic pulse that shut off streetlights and phone lines in Hawaii. Officials today warn that a U.S. enemy like North Korea could use an EMP to badly damage the U.S. grid. (Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Mother Nature's first attempt to explore the Earth's fledgling electrical system came Sept. 1, 1859.  It was a two-day solar storm that aimed rogue pulses of electrical energy — later called geomagnetic disturbances (GMD) — at the planet, where they hitchhiked on telegraph lines that acted as giant antennas.  Many were knocked out, but a few lines astonished their operators by sending messages without any power.

The two-day storm is known as the Carrington Event after Richard Carrington, the British astronomer who identified the cause.  The display of power was unusual.  The northern lights, the fireworks resulting from electrons hitting the Earth's upper atmosphere, appeared as far south as New Orleans.
The first major U.S. military attempt to explore electrical effects in the upper atmosphere was a more brutal, secretive and unsettling affair.  It came a century later, on July 9, 1962, with a hydrogen bomb test called Starfish Prime.  The 1.4-megaton warhead detonated at 250 miles over the mid-Pacific, creating an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) — somewhat similar to GMD, but more powerful and immediate.  It blew out streetlights and shut down telephone systems in Hawaii, 898 miles away.
But the results of Starfish hinted at the answer to a more profound strategic question:  If an EMP explosion in the upper atmosphere caused serious, lasting damage to an adversary's electricity grid and its communication systems, its economy would be in tatters.  Would there be any need for further nuclear strikes?
In 2001 Congress appointed an investigative panel, the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse Attack, and in 2003 it held several meetings between Russian scientists and U.S. experts on the subject.  The commission learned that the Russian tests were held over the deserts of Kazakhstan, where EMP bursts from nuclear weapons destroyed above-ground, long-distance power lines; burned through insulators; and even disabled a buried communication line over 400 miles away from the blast.

According to one commission report, by 1968 the Soviets had developed a way to launch an EMP attack over the United States using a "fractional orbital bombardment system" (FOBS).  It was designed to evade the main U.S. detection systems — banks of radars watching for missile and bomber launches coming over the North Pole — by being carried in a satellite that would orbit over the United States from the South Pole.  Soviet experts told the commission that the system was dismantled in 1983.

Two former cold warriors helped Congress fill in the gaps.  Henry Cooper, a nuclear weapons expert, former head of the Strategic Defense Initiative under President Reagan and a former Pentagon official under President George H.W. Bush, worked closely with the commission, which was terminated by Congress in 2008 but was restarted in 2015.  He told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May that "very senior Russian generals" and other former Soviet weapons experts told the commission in 2004 that "EMP knowledge had been transferred to North Korea."

The possibility that North Korea has developed such a weapon, he suggested, might explain why its underground nuclear tests have had low yields.  Weapons designed to enhance EMP effects don't necessarily need high blast power.

"I consider that we are living in the most dangerous period of my lifetime for a number of reasons, but the vulnerability of our national electric power grid is among the most important ones," Cooper, 80, told the committee.

EMP and the classic plot twist
In prepared remarks in July 2015, R. James Woolsey, a former U.S. arms control negotiator and head of the CIA under President Clinton, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that "North Korea and Iran have both orbited satellites at altitudes that, if the satellites were nuclear warheads, would place an EMP field over all 48 contiguous United States."

"The iconic EMP attack detonates a single warhead about 300 kilometers [186 miles] high over the center of the U.S.," Woolsey testified, asserting that the scenario poses "an existential threat that would have catastrophic consequences for our society."  Yet many people still think "that EMP is science fiction," he complained.

Indeed, that may still be the case.  While more members of Congress, at least 13 foreign nations, U.S. scientists and some businesses are now taking fresh, serious looks at the potential threat, EMP quickly became a classic plot staple on American movie screens during the 1980s.  There, the threats started with two James Bond films, followed in later decades by more EMP adventures starring Superman, Batman, and even Godzilla.
What was troubling to younger scientists during this fictional onslaught was that as each decade passed, the U.S. economy was becoming more dependent on digital electronics, computers, cellphones, satellite-based communications, and weather and GPS navigational systems that have rapidly accelerated the nation's vulnerability to both hostile EMP attacks and solar storms.

'People should know more about this'
The two phenomena, GMD and EMP, have some similarities.  However, EMP attacks are regarded as more dangerous because they come in three phases.  The first phase, called E1, strikes with no warning time and can damage control systems that are often left intact by the weaker start of a solar storm.  The full EMP attack can be carried out in 20 minutes.  The most harmful part of a solar storm, called the coronal mass ejection, can sometimes take two days before its clouds of charged particles and twisted magnetic fields can strike the Earth.

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, is familiar with the concerns about EMP and knows that the Defense Department has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and several years hardening its communication and electrical systems to protect against it.  His main worry is that the nation's three electric power grids remain unprotected and that a solar storm could be almost as devastating to them as a military attack.  "People should know more about this," he said during a recent interview.
The result was a 144-page study in 2008 called "Severe Space Weather Events," by the National Academy of Sciences, written by a committee headed by Baker.  It concluded that "electric power grids, a national critical infrastructure, continue to become more vulnerable from geomagnetic storms" and pointed to the prospect of long-term blackouts and trillions of dollars of damage, an economic jolt that would make Hurricane Katrina's costs in the $125 billion range seem trivial.
It was a warning that was finally heeded by the White House after decades of confusion, fears, much creative science fiction, international tensions, and some scary near misses.  On Oct. 13 last year, President Obama signed an executive order, the National Space Weather Action Plan, setting a timetable for government agencies to deal with a large but still poorly understood GMD threat that the president said "could disable large portions of the electrical power grid, resulting in cascading failures that would affect key services such as water supply, health care, and transportation."

Three months later, Obama was gone.  According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Australia, Finland, Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sweden, and the United Kingdom are among nations that are taking steps to harden their power grids against the twin threats of EMP and GMD.  Whether the United States will join them remains a work in progress.

Read more at America's Frail Defense Against a Nuclear-Tipped Threat

Leaks You'll Never See in Food Stores Are Warming the Earth

Display cases (Credit: Open Grid Scheduler Grid Engine/Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
When it comes to making refrigeration more efficient and less harmful to the climate, U.S. supermarkets have been a long-slumbering giant.  There are at least 38,000 of them.  They spend 50 to 60 percent, on average, of their energy bills on cooling people and food, which puts them among the biggest commercial building electricity users.

According to a recent study by the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the average supermarket uses about 2.5 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, the equivalent of about 213 American homes.  Sixty to 70 percent of their electricity for air conditioning and refrigeration is spent pushing refrigerants through miles of pipes and running big compressors and condensers to keep things cool.

The rest is spent to run display cases, cooler fans, evaporator defrosting and small heaters used to prevent condensate from forming on glass doors and display cases, so people can see the food.  Supermarkets can afford to pay those big electricity bills.  They have an annual sales volume of almost $770 billion, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

Environmental lawyer Keilly Witman's job was to remind them that their leaking refrigerants had already been blamed for destroying the Earth's ozone layer, which protects people from harmful solar radiation.  She was also there to alert them that many newer ozone-saving refrigerants are chemicals with thousands of times the global warming potency of carbon dioxide.

People in EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division warned Witman that the leaky pipe problem had festered for years and they needed a creative way to solve it.  She saw her job as a rare opportunity.  "The EPA is not used to having to convince people to do things," Witman explained.  She set up a voluntary program called the GreenChill Partnership; it was meant to find companies that had innovative ways of preventing refrigerant leaks, so they might help other supermarket chains.

GreenChill was the beginning of EPA's good-cop, bad-cop approach to the problem.  A few chains, such as Whole Foods, Hannaford Bros. and Harris Teeter, were interested right away, but others took years of convincing.

Air conditioning was invented in the United States, and the technology hasn't changed much until recently.  There is a new family of refrigerants in Europe and Asia that were gaining attention.  In her sales pitch, Witman — who was once the entire staff of GreenChill — would point out that stores in Europe had been able to cut the cost of their leaks by using a much cheaper chemical — carbon dioxide — as a refrigerant.

That took more explaining, because CO2 has been thoroughly villainized for causing global warming.  Man-made emissions from burning fossil fuels, beginning with coal, are pumping CO2 into the atmosphere.  But popular refrigerants, such as a fluorinated chemical called HFC-404A, are 3,922 times more potent than CO2 as global warmers.

Witman's biggest selling point was that reducing refrigerant leaks would help supermarkets make money.  According to EPA, the average U.S. supermarket leaks 1,000 pounds of refrigerant a year, which, at a cost of $10 to $20 per pound, is expensive.  Preventing leaks also would eliminate emergency service calls that were seen as a fact of life in the supermarket industry.

"When people realized you could actually save money, we had people joining the partnership who really didn't care about the environment.  They just wanted to save the money," Witman said.  "That was no problem for me, because the whole time they were saving money, they were helping the environment."

Read more at Leaks You'll Never See in Food Stores Are Warming the Earth

How Solar Thermal + Storage Won on Cost in South Australia

Solar tower power plant with molten salt storage (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
As the South Australian government basks in the glow of procuring a second world-leading and game-changing renewable energy technology project for the state, attention is turning to the finer details of the deal; in particular, how a solar tower power plant with molten salt storage won the government tender on costs.

SA Premier Jay Weatherill announced on Monday afternoon that solar thermal developer SolarReserve had won the tender to supply 100 per cent of the government’s long-term power needs via a 150MW, $650 million solar tower and storage facility to be built in the former coal town of Port Augusta.

The project, dubbed Aurora, won the 20-year contract to deliver power at just $78/MWh which, as we reported here, is amazingly cheap:  around one-half of previous estimates for the technology, and significantly cheaper than the gas generation fleet that currently dominates the state’s generation profile.

So how did SolarReserve come to such a low cost of supply?

The answer lies in two key elements of the deal.  The first is the length of the power off take contract SolarReserve has signed with the SA government, which at 20 years, allows the company to amortize debt over a longer period.

The second key factor is the $110 million of recoupable finance promised by the federal government in April, in a deal with SA Senator Nick Xenophon to help accelerate the development of a solar thermal plant or large-scale solar project at Port Augusta.

The deal, struck in exchange for Xenophon passing the federal Coalition’s tax cuts, was welcomed at the time by Weatherill, who confirmed the loan – over and above any funding from CEFC or ARENA – would put solar thermal “right in the running” to win the SA government’s tender.

And so it did.  Speaking in an interview on Monday, SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith remained hazy on the finer details of the contract (we assume the SA government gets to keep the LGCs generated by the power plant), but did concede that if the federal government withdrew its promise of equity funding, the company would have to go back to the drawing board on costs.

“We’ve built that into the structure that we’ve offered to the South Australia government,” he said, while stressing that the money was not a grant.  “I think it’s interesting to point out that that’s an equity investment; so they get that money back, plus they get a return.  So there will be actually profits that’ll go to the federal government for repayment and the equity investment on that funding.”

Asked whether the project was a “loss leader,” however, Smith’s response was a clear “no.”

“Investors and lenders do not let projects be loss leaders,” he said.  “Lenders keep everyone honest.  It is a modest return project… We hope to make some money on the back end of the deal.”
On the length of the contract, Smith said 20-years was a pretty typical time-frame for the industry.  “That allows us to bring in long-term financing… long-term debt … and that allows the capital cost to be amortized over a longer period, (and) drives down the cost of power.

“As soon as that debt is paid off, we are looking at significant price reductions after that,” he said.

For the SA government, the solar thermal and molten salt storage project has the obvious benefit of ticking the box for both its tenders – to provide 75 per cent of its long-term power supply and 25 per cent of its electricity load from dispatchable renewables – and the longer-term benefit of putting downward pressure on the state’s power prices.

Read more at How Solar Thermal + Storage Won on Cost in South Australia

Friday, August 18, 2017

  Friday, Aug 18

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Study Validates East Antarctic Ice Sheet to Remain Stable Even If Western Ice Sheet Melts

Team Members Taking a Short Ice Core to Study Properties of Sediment Coming from the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. (Image Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory) Click to Enlarge.
A new study from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis validates that the central core of the East Antarctic ice sheet should remain stable even if the West Antarctic ice sheet melts.

The study's findings are significant, given that some predict the West Antarctic ice sheet could melt quickly due to global warming.

If the East Antarctic ice sheet, which is 10 times larger than the western ice sheet, melted completely, it would cause sea levels worldwide to rise almost 200 feet, according to Kathy Licht, an associate professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in the School of Science at IUPUI.

Licht led a research team into the Transarctic Mountains in search of physical evidence that would verify whether a long-standing idea was still true:  The East Antarctic ice sheet is stable.

The East Antarctic ice sheet has long been considered relatively stable because most of the ice sheet was thought to rest on bedrock above sea level, making it less susceptible to changes in climate.  However, recent studies show widespread water beneath it and higher melt potential from impinging ocean water.

The West Antarctic ice sheet is a marine-based ice sheet that is mostly grounded below sea level, which makes it much more susceptible to changes in sea level and variations in ocean temperature.
The big question the team wanted to answer was how sensitive the East Antarctic sheet might be to climate change.

"There are models that predict that the interior of the East Antarctic ice sheet wouldn't change very much, even if the West Antarctic ice sheet was taken away," Licht said.  According to these models, even if the ice sheet's perimeter retreats, its core remains stable.

"It turns out that our data support... those models," she said.  "It's nice to have that validation."

Read more at Study Validates East Antarctic Ice Sheet to Remain Stable Even If Western Ice Sheet Melts

Thursday, August 17, 2017

  Thursday, Aug 17

Global surface temperature relative to 1880-1920 based on GISTEMP analysis (mostly NOAA data sources, as described by Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato, and K. Lo, 2010: Global surface temperature change. Rev. Geophys., 48, RG4004.  We suggest in an upcoming paper that the temperature in 1940-45 is exaggerated because of data inhomogeneity in WW II. Linear-fit to temperature since 1970 yields present temperature of 1.06°C, which is perhaps our best estimate of warming since the preindustrial period.

Norway's Climate Hypocrisy:  Clean at Home, Dirty in the Arctic

Norway trumpets its low carbon footprint, but a new report says plans to ramp up oil and gas production in the Arctic will increase its emissions by half again - making a mockery of its Paris Agreement promises.

Norway has been issuing exploration permits in the Lofoten archipelago, within the Arctic Circle (Credit: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Hagen) Click to Enlarge.
At the United Nations annual climate summits, Norway is often the darling in the room.

Although it is an energy-producing country, Norwegians are keen to stress their bold emissions-reduction measures at home.  The country has adopted legislation to become "climate neutral" by 2030 - far earlier than other countries.  It's a front runner in electromobility - and will also ban the use of fossil fuels to heat homes from 2020.

However, a new report from the Washington-based research organization Oil Change International is challenging Norway's reputation as a climate champion.

Though it may be adopting laudable emissions reduction efforts domestically, it is exporting 10 times the amount of its domestic emissions to other countries though the extraction and export of North Sea oil and gas. It is the 6th largest gas producer in the world, and the 15th largest oil producer.

Growing oil exploration
The main thing worrying Friends of the Earth Norway, which sponsored the report, is that these exports are set to grow.

Norway is issuing oil and gas exploration permits within its territories in the North Sea and the Arctic at a rapid pace.  According to the report, these proposed and prospective new oil and gas fields would increase Norway's emissions by 150 percent from what [they are] today.

Read more at Norway's Climate Hypocrisy:   Clean at Home, Dirty in the Arctic

Greenland Ice Flow Likely to Speed Up: New Data Assert Glaciers Move Over Sediment, Which Gets More Slippery as It Gets Wetter

Surface meltwater ponding on dark ice (Image Credit: C F Dow) Click to Enlarge.
Flow of the Greenland Ice Sheet is likely to speed up in the future, despite a recent slowdown, because its outlet glaciers slide over wet sediment, not hard rock, new research based on seismic surveys has confirmed.  This sediment will become weaker and more slippery as global temperatures rise and meltwater supply becomes more variable.

The findings challenge the view that the recent slowdowns in ice flow would continue in the long term.

The research, published in Science Advances, was led by Professor Bernd Kulessa, a glaciologist at Swansea University, and involved experts from the UK, Canada, Sweden, and Norway.

Read more at Greenland Ice Flow Likely to Speed Up:  New Data Assert Glaciers Move Over Sediment, Which Gets More Slippery as It Gets Wetter