Sunday, March 18, 2018

Beyond Three Thirds, the Road to Deep Decarbonization - By Michael Liebreich, Senior Contributor, Bloomberg New Energy Finance

Wind tower by smokestack (Credit: Click to Enlarge.
In my BNEF Summit keynote in London last September, I talked about how far clean energy and transport had come over the last fifteen years.  Where renewable energy used to be dismissed as “alternative”, I talked about the “new orthodoxy” of what I called the Three-Third World:  by 2040 one third of global electricity will be generated from wind and solar; one third of vehicles on the road will be electric; and the world’s economy will produce one third more GDP from every unit of energy.

The fact that we are on track for the Three-Third World is quite extraordinary.   It certainly outstrips my expectations when I founded New Energy Finance in 2004.  And it is probably unstoppable:  wind, solar and battery costs will continue to fall faster than any mainstream energy forecasters expect, and there is nothing that makes me think President Donald Trump will succeed in his attempts to revive coal.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that even though we are on track to achieve the Three-Third World by 2040, it will not be enough 
Building efficiency
First of all, we all need to start treating the energy efficiency of our buildings like it really matters.  Mainly that means insulation, air-tightness, and good thoughtful architecture and design.  It doesn’t need to add much cost to the building; in many cases nothing at all.  Ten years ago, I had never heard of the PassivHaus building standard; in ten years’ time, all new buildings could easily meet it.  In fact, there is no reason why new houses shouldn’t produce more energy than they consume, receiving utility revenues instead of incurring utility costs.  It’s just a question of applying technologies and techniques we know work.

Retrofits are harder.  The important thing is that any time a building undergoes a deep renovation, its energy performance has to be brought up to the highest standard.  It is possible – I’ve done it.  As long as you are doing deep renovation works anyway, the extra costs are not prohibitive.  Even a twenty-year payback would be equivalent to 5% risk-free after-tax – a highly attractive rate of return to most home-owners in a world of persistently low interest rates.  Mainstream mortgage providers need to stop colluding in a system that treats the cost of a new kitchen as an investment, but the cost of a low-energy retrofit as an expense.

Once all new-builds and deep renovations are done properly, we will halve our heating challenge over twenty years, allowing a lot more of the heating load to be met electrically, mainly with air-source and ground-source heat pumps.  If you think they can’t work in cold temperatures, just look at Norway, or Japan.

Then there are other new technologies.  Some of the most intriguing start-ups I come across are working on thermal batteries, using phase-change materials, salts, clever thermodynamics, or just big chunks of concrete or tanks of hot water.  Drake’s Landing Solar Community meets over 95% of its winter heating needs from solar energy collected during the summer.  It lies just 45 minutes’ drive from the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic venues.  How cool is that – or rather how warm?

There are, however, significant benefits to continuing to power a large proportion of the world’s heating with solid, gas, or even liquid fuels.  These are easier to store in bulk to cope with seasonality and resilience than electricity, which will always need to balance to within a few days’ of real time, and will also be needed by industry.  The question is how to make them zero-carbon.

A significant proportion of the heating load in temperate climates –  in countries like the U.K., Northern Europe, New England, Canada, the former Soviet Union, and Northern Asia – could be met by biogas or biomass, most efficiently using combined heat-and-power, or CHP, cogeneration.  Though it is hard to add district heating in existing neighborhoods, it can be done – look at Sweden.  Some 10% more Swedish households have been connected to district heating every decade since the 1960s, to the point where over half of all homes are now connected.  And here’s a thought – since you are going to have to add more capacity to local grids to charge all those EVs, how about combining new bio-based CHP delivering local heating, with massive battery storage, to provide grid services and improve resilience for energy-intensive industries, all while reducing investment requirements in the distribution grid?

If there’s not enough biogas, you might consider running your CHP on natural (i.e. fossil) gas, which would still be up to 85% efficient, but not zero-carbon.  To achieve that, you would need to use CCS (carbon capture and storage), but let’s be clear, that is not happening in the absence of a carbon price.  Micro-CHP is attractive until you consider the capital cost, and even with a carbon price it’s hard to see how to capture the emissions from distributed sources.

And that brings us to hydrogen, which can be used anywhere without creating local emissions.

My skepticism about hydrogen vehicles is well known.  What real problem do they solve?  If you have electricity and you want to drive somewhere, just use a battery electric vehicle (BEV) – they will be fully competitive with internal combustion vehicles on a total-cost-of-ownership basis with no subsidy within five to six years in most markets, according to BNEF forecasts ... .  Why would you waste half of your electricity electrolyzing hydrogen, compressing and storing it, only to turn it back into electricity in a car?

If you are concerned about how long it takes to refuel, well that is a problem for the few percent of us who actually drive long distances; everyone else will charge their EVs overnight.  Most people won’t want to visit a hydrogen station every few days just to avoid a 20-minute charge on the rare occasion when they drive long-distance.  Even commercial vehicles, unless they regularly drive long distances – say, over 300 miles – will go electric.  Ships, trans-continental trains, long-distance trucking, and niches like fork-lift trucks are the only parts of the transport system where hydrogen makes any sense.

In fact, even if you have already produced your hydrogen for some other reason – such as seasonal storage – and you want to drive somewhere, it will make more sense to generate power centrally and charge an EV, rather than to put it in a hydrogen-fueled vehicle.  Doing so will be much lower-capex per megawatt, much more efficient, and you can extract value from the waste heat.  And that’s before getting into the lack of hydrogen filling stations compared to the ubiquity of the grid, the complexity of fuel cell vehicles versus the simplicity of EVs, maintenance costs, safety, and so on.

Nevertheless, I am bullish about hydrogen.  It is one of the most promising ways of dealing with longer-term storage, beyond the minutes, hours or days that could be met by batteries, or the limited locations in which pumped storage could work.  It can be stored as hydrogen, perhaps blended into the existing natural gas system, or after conversion into ammonia, natural gas (so-called power-to-gas, or P2G), methanol, or some higher-value synthetic liquid fuel.  It can help provide the huge pulses of reliable power needed by some energy-intensive industries like ceramics.  We need to stop fooling ourselves about hydrogen as a transport fuel, and explore its pervasive use throughout our energy, chemical, and industrial system.

Read more at Liebreich:  Beyond Three Thirds, The Road to Deep Decarbonization

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Saturday 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.

From Residential to Utility-Scale, Solar Wins in Recent State-Level Actions

Community-scale solar (Image credit: CC0 Creative Commons | Pixabay) Click to Enlarge.
22 Solar Projects for New York
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 9 announced that New York has authorized competitive awards under the state’s Clean Energy Standard mandate for 22 utility-scale solar projects.  The awards are part of $1.4 billion awarded for a total of 26 renewable energy projects in the state.

Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) President and CEO Abigail Ross Hopper in a statement commended Cuomo for what she said is a “historic commitment to solar energy.”

“These 22 solar projects will create thousands of jobs, generate billions of dollars in investment and bring clean and affordable energy to the residents of New York state,” she said.  “It is highly rewarding to see that the Empire State has made this groundbreaking investment in solar energy.”

Energy Bill Signed in Virginia
Gov. Ralph Northam on March 9 signed an omnibus energy bill for Virginia that designates 5.5 GW of solar and wind energy as “in the public interest.”  The bill also initiates a process to modernize the state’s power grid to help spur renewable energy development.

SEIA Vice President of State Affiars Sean Gallagher said in a statement that the public interest finding is a “great first step” for solar in Virginia.

“[W]e must ensure the grid modernization process that this bill initiates is data-driven, solicits the public’s input, and is not a blank check for a utility to spend consumers’ money with little accountability,” Gallagher said.

By 2022 Virginia is expected to have an installed solar capacity of about 2 GW, before taking the new law into consideration, according to SEIA.

New Jersey Considers Clean Energy Bills
New bills filed on March 14 by New Jersey legislators have been lauded by many clean energy organizations for their potential to grow the state’s renewables development and extend benefits of clean energy to more residents.

The text of the bills was not immediately available in the state’s online legislative documents center.

According to the SEIA, the two companion bills introduced in the New Jersey House and Senate would increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard target for solar and begin the process of developing next-generation solar incentives in the state.

This legislation would also help establish a community solar program in the state, giving consideration to residential customers, especially in multifamily buildings, and low-to-moderate income customers, SEIA said.

In a statement Brandon Smithwood, policy director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, said the bills were important for solar in New Jersey in light of the recent tariffs places on solar cells and panels.

Read more at From Residential to Utility-Scale, Solar Wins in Recent State-Level Actions

Siting a Wind Farm in the Most Challenging Place in the US

Developer: “It’s a bit of a bellwether for what the future looks like.”

Image, right: visual simulation of the AWE as it will be seen from Gregg Lake in Antrim, NH. (Credit: AWE) Click to Enlarge.
According to Jack Kenworthy, CEO of Eolian Renewable Energy, a project developer based in New Hampshire, the best wind projects are those that have died two times because then you know what’s wrong with them.  The project he is currently working on is known as Antrim Wind Energy (AWE), a 28.8-MW wind farm on the Tuttle Hill ridge line in Antrim, N.H. in the United States.

On a windy day in late February, Kenworthy, Henry Weitzner with Walden Green Energy, a subsidiary of German utility RWE, and landscape architect David Raphael with Landworks, took several members of the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) on a site inspection tour to show them how AWE will impact the community in which it resides.

New England Wind Projects Challenging
In all of the U.S., New England is among the most difficult places to site wind projects.  Walden Green Energy’s Henry Weitzner said this one has been one of the worst.  “Walden has looked at about 15 different projects,” he said, adding, “We have looked at Texas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Utah and California, and I would say that there definitely are some issues in California but this is overwhelmingly the most difficult.”

So why even try?  Going back to 2009, Kenworthy explained he had originally viewed the process of building a wind farm in the state of New Hampshire as the most reasonable of all the New England states.  At that time there had been three wind projects that had gone though the SEC process.  “The process itself was long and expensive and kind of painful for all those projects but at the end of the day they were able to be built,” he said.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with his project, which was not modified or conditioned but outright denied “at the 11th hour on a subjective issue” he said.  The reason for the denial was adverse aesthetic impacts.

Rather than give up, Kenworthy altered the project, dropping one turbine all together and modifying the height of another to lessen its visual impact.  Further, he swapped out the Iberdrola turbines with higher-rated Siemens turbines so he could deliver the same amount of power to the grid with fewer turbines.

Since a few years had passed, he was also armed with more direction regarding what benchmarks the project needed to meet.  “Noise is very clear to us — it is a 40 DBA standard.  Shadow flicker is very clear — it is an 8-hour per year standard.  We can meet that,” Kenworthy said.  

Finding Good Sites
Kenworthy said part of his tenacity in building the AWE project is that it is the best sited wind project in the state.  Not only because of the excellent wind resource, but also because the project can be built close to existing transmission lines and close to a main highway, so there is no need to build new transmission nor is there any roadway impact.

“Look, good wind sites, nowadays in New England are extremely rare.  This is one of them.  In fact, it's not just a good wind site, it’s a great wind site,” said Kenworthy.

Read more at Siting a Wind Farm in the Most Challenging Place in the US

Climates Change Faster in a Warmer and Wetter World

While more rain normally cools a summer environment, a warmer and wetter world could face quite unfamiliar problems.

Heat and moisture together can speed up climate change. (Image Credit: Mary Hollinger, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons) Click to Enlarge.
Climate change may still cause surprises, if simultaneously it means a warmer and wetter world.  More heat and moisture together can unbalance ecosystems.

Scientists have been warning for decades of shifts towards ever greater risks of flooding in some places, more intense and sustained droughts and potentially lethal heatwaves in others.

But new research suggests an unexpected twist: temperate and subtropical zones could become both hotter and wetter during future summers.

And this could create a whole suite of unexpected problems: farmers and city dwellers who have adapted to a pattern of cool wet summers or hot dry summers could face a new range of fungal or pest infections in crops, or pathogens in crowded communities, as insects and microbes seize a new set of opportunities.

Canadian scientists report in Nature Communications that they considered what they call “departures from natural variability” that may follow as a consequence of continual rises in global average temperature, driven by ever greater combustion of fossil fuels that emit ever higher ratios of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

They studied historical records back to 1901, and climate projections as far as the year 2100.  And they see a problem:  creatures – people, crops, pathogens and pests – that have adapted to particular regional ecosystems could be jolted out of their comfort zone.

“Some of the disruptions of climate change stem from basic physics and are easily anticipated.  Increases in sea level, forest fires, heat waves, and droughts fall into that category.

“But there is a whole other category of unexpected disruptions that stem from upsetting the complex balance of ecosystems,” said Colin Mahony, a forester and doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, who led the research.

A global increase in outbreaks of fungal needle blight in pine plantations could be linked to wetter and warmer conditions.  Mosquito-borne pathogens could flourish in hot cities with once rare puddles of standing water.

Read more at Climates Change Faster in a Warmer and Wetter World

Youth and Colombia Forests - by James Hansen

Satellite images show a rainforest being deforested (Credit: Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Tropical deforestation does more than fuel global climate change, threatening all people.  It also affects life prospects of local youth.  So I am happy to see young people in Colombia stand up for their rights.  Yesterday my legal adviser Dan Galpern filed my Amicus Brief in Colombia to support 25 plaintiffs, youth between ages 7 and 26, who are filing a tutela (guardianship) action, a mechanism that the Colombian Constitution provides to protect fundamental rights of individuals to a dignified life, health, food and water.  The plaintiffs can be seen here.

Deforestation threatens fresh water supplies, as half of the rain that falls in the Colombian Amazon is recycled rain.  The impact of deforestation on ecosystems and freshwater, together with climate change, risks public health by helping spread vector-borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and zika.

Colombia, in the precatory 2015 Paris climate accord, committed to zero-net deforestation in the Colombian Amazon, the most biodiverse region in the world, by 2020.  Instead the nation allowed deforestation to skyrocket in 2016 by 44 percent.

The legal action of the 25 youth has been filed before the Superior Tribunal of Bogota, with the support of Dejusticia.  Dejusticia is a Colombia-based research and advocacy organization dedicated to the strengthening of the rule of law and the promotion of social justice and human rights in Colombia and the Global South.

The youth are asking the government to formulate an action plan within six months to reach zero-net deforestation in the Colombian Amazon.  Further, they are asking the government for an Intergenerational Agreement in which the authorities will commit to take effective and quantifiable measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Read more at Youth and Colombia Forests

Friday, March 16, 2018

Friday 16

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.

Meteorologists Have a New Strategy for Bringing Climate Change Down to Earth

Elisa Raffa (Credit: KOLR10 News) Click to Enlarge.
For years, TV meteorologists were hesitant to talk about climate change.  Climatological views — the long-term trends and patterns that influence weather — were not part of their education.  Their time on air is limited.  Some stations may discourage climate change talk.  Many meteorologists simply feel it isn’t their responsibility.  And some are concerned about how it might affect their ratings and job security.

“Audiences trust their local meteorologists,” says Mike Nelson, chief meteorologist at Denver7, an ABC affiliate in Colorado.  “Our jobs depend on that trust.  Meteorologists understand this, and some tend to stay away from controversial subjects.”

But that won’t do anymore, says Nelson.  “We are as close to a scientist as most Americans will ever get.  People invite us into their living rooms.  We have a responsibility to educate them on the facts.”

In 2010 several meteorologists joined Climate Central, George Mason and Yale universities, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the American Meteorological Society in a pilot project to explore how broadcast meteorologists could better communicate climate change.  Two years later, Climate Central launched Climate Matters as a full-time, national program to help meteorologists talk about climate change in and with their communities.

“We need more people connecting the dots about how climate change is already affecting people and will continue to do so in the future,” says Bernadette Woods Placky, Climate Central chief meteorologist and director of Climate Matters.  By linking local impacts to larger changes, Climate Matters aims to empower people to prepare for impacts like heatwaves, flooding, elevated food prices, and health situations.  “We are a resource to help meteorologists tell their local story,” says Woods Placky.

Today, Climate Matters supplies webinars to help meteorologists understand topics such as climate models, health impacts, and extreme precipitation events.  It provides data for individual markets, such as how viewers think about climate change.  It also offers weekly communication packages containing location-specific climate analyses and visuals as well as workshops offering a deeper dive into the science, impacts, and solutions to climate change.

Read more at Meteorologists Have a New Strategy for Bringing Climate Change Down to Earth

Dust Storms + Snowpack Raise Late-Summer Water Concerns

Darkening of snow from more dust storms in warmer Colorado Rockies 'just pushes on gas pedal for snowmelt'.

Dust on the snowpack enhancing snowmelt rates in Senator Beck Basin, San Juan Mountains, CO, May 2013. (Photo credit: Dr. Jeffrey Deems) Click to Enlarge.
“It looks apocalyptic,” says Jeff Deems, a research scientist at the University of Colorado.  With “a big orange-red sky, it really does look Martian.”

He’s describing dust storms – layers of windblown particles that are landing on mountain peaks and leaving them coated with a dark layer of sand and soot.  As anyone who has sat in a car with black upholstery on hot summer day will attest, black objects absorb more heat than lighter ones, so by the darkening the snow, it’s melting it faster.

Deems explains that “If you put dust on the snowpack, which enhances the absorption of that solar radiation, then that just pushes on the gas pedal for snowmelt.”  In a recent study looking at the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Deems and lead author Tom Painter of NASA found that the amount of dust on mountain snowpack will control how fast rivers rise in the spring regardless of air temperature.  And the more dust there is, the faster the runoff.

The particles are carried to the Rockies by winds coming from the Southwest when deserts are drying out.  The dust events are frequently on the leading edge of a storm and can be pretty dramatic – closing interstates and making it hard to see and breathe.  The dust will get deposited in the mountains and quickly become buried by fresh snow, but Deems explains that the sun can see through about a foot of snow, so if it’s greater than 12 inches (30 cm) of new snow, then that dust is just buried, lurking in there waiting for the melt season to arrive.

The dust storms mostly happen in the spring, so the particulates tend to be near the surface of the snowpack and are deposited in a series of layers.  Once the runoff season starts, the snow will melt down and then hit a layer of the dust.  The water will drain away, but the dust piles up making the surface darker and darker as each layer is revealed.  This darkening supercharges the melting, and the pattern continues until the snowpack is gone.

More dust, less rain – problem worsening
The problem is getting worse because there’s more dust than there used to be because of less rain with a warming climate and more land development that’s exposing bare soil.  Those soil surfaces are naturally armored by crust – lichen and moss combinations that make this black armored surface.  Those crusts are virtually impervious to wind erosion.  They’re very strong – except when they’re crushed.  Beginning back in the mid- to late-1800s, soil started getting disturbed by people grazing animals.

Since then, Deems says, we’ve got a wide array of disturbance agents – recreational activities, oil and gas exploration and development, suburban development, dry land farming, etc.  All of these activities disturb the soil crust and make the fine grain substrates available for wind transport.

And there are various climate change components.  As we continue in this warming and drying trajectory in the Southwest, plants that might have anchored the soil are less likely to get the water they need to germinate and grow.

But the study doesn’t suggest that air temperature can be ignored.  It contributes somewhat, but Deems says their research finds that dust is the dominant force shaping the pace of spring runoff.  Also, temperature does control whether precipitation falls as snow or rain, so ultimately it regulates how much snow there is to melt.

All of this has important implications for water managers.  The snowpack is Colorado’s biggest reservoir, holding way more water than surface storage.  If it runs off faster, it can be a challenge to store it all.  And, in order to have water available for later in the summer, it’s vital that the snowpack stick around for as long as possible.

Water managers watch spring runoff to decide when – and how much – water to allocate to users, to store or to release from dams.  Deems says that if we shorten the snowmelt period by increasing that rate, they’ll have a much narrower window of time over which to make those decisions.

So, what can be done about the dust?  Studies have shown the soil crusts can regenerate if left alone, but land use development along with drier conditions because of climate change could make that recovery tougher.

Read more at Dust Storms + Snowpack Raise Late-Summer Water Concerns

Half a Degree More Global Warming Could Flood Out 5 Million More People

The 2015 Paris climate agreement sought to stabilize global temperatures by limiting warming to well below 2.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue limiting warming even further, to 1.5 C.

To quantify what that would mean for people living in coastal areas, a group of researchers employed a global network of tide gauges and a local sea level projection framework to explore differences in the frequency of storm surges and other extreme sea-level events across three scenarios: global temperature increases of 1.5, 2.0 and 2.5 C.

They concluded that by 2150, the seemingly small difference between an increase of 1.5 and 2.0 C would mean the permanent inundation of lands currently home to about 5 million people, including 60,000 who live on small island nations.

The study, conducted by researchers at Princeton University and colleagues at Rutgers and Tufts Universities, the independent scientific organization Climate Central, and ICF International, was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters on March 15, 2018.

"People think the Paris Agreement is going to save us from harm from climate change, but we show that even under the best-case climate policy being considered today, many places will still have to deal with rising seas and more frequent coastal floods," said DJ Rasmussen, a graduate student in Princeton's Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and first author of the study.

The researchers found that higher temperatures will make extreme sea level events much more common.  They used long-term hourly tide gauge records and extreme value theory to estimate present and future return periods of extreme sea-level events through the 22nd century.  Under the 1.5 C scenario, the frequency of extreme sea level events is still expected to increase.  For example, by the end of the 21st century, New York City is expected to experience one Hurricane Sandy-like flood event every five years.

Extreme sea levels can arise from high tides or storm surge or a combination of surge and tide (sometimes called the storm tide).  When driven by hurricanes or other large storms, extreme sea levels flood coastal areas, threatening life and property.  Rising mean sea levels are already magnifying the frequency and severity of extreme sea levels, and experts predict that by the end of the century, coastal flooding may be among the costliest impacts of climate change in some regions.

Future extreme events will be exacerbated by the rising global sea level, which in turn depends on the trajectory of global mean surface temperature.  Even if global temperatures are stabilized, sea levels are expected to continue to rise for centuries, due to the fact that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time and the ice sheets are slow to respond to warming.

 Read more at Half a Degree More Global Warming Could Flood Out 5 Million More People

Ultrashort Laser Pulses Make Greenhouse Gas Reactive

At the laser and infrared spectrometer: Prof. Peter Vöhringer (left) and Steffen Straub in the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry at University of Bonn. (c) Photo: Barbara Frommann/Uni Bonn Click to Enlarge.
It is a long-cherished dream:  Removing the inert greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and using it as a basic material for the chemical industry.  This could address two major problems at once by containing climate change and at the same time reducing the dependence on oil.  Physico-chemists at the University of Bonn are in the process of making significant contributions to this vision.  They have discovered a new way to create a highly reactive form of carbon dioxide with the help of laser pulses.  The results have been published online in advance and will soon be presented in the printed edition of the journal "Angewandte Chemie."

Every day, nature shows humans how to elegantly bind carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into a much-needed raw material.  Plants perform photosynthesis with their green leaves when exposed to light.  Oxygen and the much-needed energy and nutrient supplier sugar are created from carbon dioxide and water with the help of sunlight.

"Scientists have been striving to mimic this model for a long time, for instance in order to use carbon dioxide for the chemical industry," says Prof. Dr. Peter Vöhringer from the Institute for Physical and Theoretical Chemistry of the University of Bonn.  What makes the concept hard to implement is that it is very difficult to push carbon dioxide into new partnerships with other molecules.

With his team, the physico-chemist has now discovered a new way of generating a highly reactive variant of the inert and hard-to-bind greenhouse gas.  The researchers used a so-called iron complex:  The center contains a positively charged iron atom, to which the constituents of the carbon dioxide are already bound multiple times.  The scientists shot ultrashort laser pulses of ultraviolet light onto this iron complex, which broke certain bonds.  The resulting product was a so-called carbon dioxide radical, which also forms new bonds with a certain radicality.

Such radicals have a single electron in their outer shell that urgently wants to bind permanently to another molecule or atom.  "It is this unpaired electron that distinguishes our reactive radical anion bound to the central iron atom from the inert carbon dioxide and makes it so promising for chemical processes," explains lead author Steffen Straub from Vöhringer's team.  The radicals could in turn be the building blocks for interesting chemical products, such as methanol as a fuel or urea for chemical syntheses and salicylic acid as a pain medication.

Read more at Ultrashort Laser Pulses Make Greenhouse Gas Reactive

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Thursday 15

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.

Biofuels Can Help Solve Climate Change, Especially with a Carbon Tax

We’re not yet optimizing biofuel production for both economic and environmental factors.

Willow trees grown for biofuel next to a biofuel power station in Lockerbie, Scotland, UK. (Photograph Credit: Ashley Cooper / Alamy/Alamy) Click to Enlarge.The term “biofuels” has many meanings, but basically they are grown fuels (like corn ethanol) that we can use instead of fossil fuels (like petroleum).  While biofuels can be any fuel produced from plant material, historically they have been produced from food crops such as corn and soy.  But, new technologies are enabling biofuel production from non-edible gases, wood, and other plant waste material.

The beauty of biofuels is that they suck carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow.  When we burn them in our automobiles, we release carbon dioxide, but it is the same carbon that the plants absorbed while growing.  Just on that basis, biofuels appear to be zero net emitters.

But this view is too simplistic.  It takes energy to grow biofuels; it takes fertilizer, tractors, transportation, and energy to convert the plants to liquid fuels.  Planting and growing these crops can also change how much carbon is stored in the soil.  And using existing food crops or arable land for biofuel production might lead to deforestation if farms are expanded elsewhere to make up for lost food production.

So, if you want to accurately assess the impact of biofuels, you need to look at what’s called a “life cycle analysis,” which basically means the effort it takes to grow the crops, harvest them, convert them to fuel, transport them to distribution sites, and combust them. 
Back in 2009 I did a study with my former student Fushcia-Ann Hoover, and we compared different feedstocks for ethanol.  You can have corn, soybeans, sugarcane, switchgrass, poplar trees, and others.  What is the best crop?  Which is easiest to grow?  Which is best for the environment?

What we found, way back in 2009, is that if non-commercial crops were grown, you could actually end up with fuel that was significantly cleaner than petroleum.  The trick was finding clean crops that don’t need a lot of fertilizer, water, and other inputs.  Corn ethanol for instance is not the best choice.  You need so much water, fertilizer, and other costs, that it almost doesn’t make it worthwhile.  But other crops such as switchgrass, grown on marginal lands, have real a potential.  Marginal lands are farmlands that are not optimal for growing crops.

Our conclusion in 2009 was straightforward.  Don’t use good cropland for biofuels.  Rather, use marginal croplands, with minimal water and fertilizer, to create plants that can be converted to biofuels. 

But our conclusion wasn’t the end of the story.  There are other details that researchers should consider.  For instance, how far from the croplands to the refinery?  How much energy is needed to transport the fuels?  All these issues matter and they were the focus of a recent research paper just published in Nature Energy.  This study used an actual biofuel refinery located in Kansas for the basis of the study.  And the authors counted all the emissions that occur during the lifecycle analysis of these biofuels.  They realized that marginal croplands give lower yields, so there are competing issues of productivity and greenhouse gas reduction.

Then there’s the complicating factor of economics.  The price of biofuels and the price of greenhouse gases matter.  If society is willing to pay a small pollution charge like a carbon tax, it supports the producers of clean energy.  But if society doesn’t put a premium on clean energy, it’s harder for clean industry companies to thrive.

In the new study the authors discovered something fascinating.  The found that the choices a farmer may make regarding what land to use for biofuels and how much fertilizer to use depend strongly on the price of clean fuels and the cost of greenhouse gases.  Simply put, it we put a reasonable price on carbon pollution, farmers will be able to grow switchgrass, poplars, and other species, reduce greenhouse gases, and make money.

But, if there is no cost to carbon pollution, farmers will be motivated to spend more money on fertilizer and that, in the end, will lead to more emissions.  While all the scenarios resulted in large emissions reductions compared to gasoline, the reductions were especially large for the scenarios that included a carbon price.

So, there is a delicate balance. The balance is made more clear when we realize that farming location matters.  If biofuels are grown close to refineries, less pollution is created in transporting the fuels to the refinery.  However, this limits cropland choices to those nearer to refineries. 

With this balance of competing factors, the authors find room for improvement; currently we are not optimizing the performance in terms of both economic and environmental factors.  In order to do this right, we have to balance all these mentioned issues.  We can’t just focus on transportation costs, fertilizer costs, and land quality costs; we have to consider these costs all together as a system.

I spoke to the lead author of the paper, Dr. John Field, from Colorado State University and asked him about the significance of this work.
Agriculture is being challenged by increasing food demand, and changes to regional climate.  On top of this, most plans to combat climate change rely on the agricultural sector to increase carbon storage in soils, and to produce raw materials for the large-scale production of biofuels and power.  Modeling studies like ours attempt to predict on a farm-by-farm basis where the best opportunities for biofuel crop production and soil carbon storage lie, how much they might cost, and how those two goals trade off. 

Our results suggest that biofuels can have a wide range of environmental outcomes depending on exactly where and how those crops are grown, but climate benefits can be increased at relatively low cost.
This is another great example of clean energy technologies that will help us solve the climate problem while continuing our use of fuels that drive the economy.  It’s a win-win situation. 

Read more at Biofuels Can Help Solve Climate Change, Especially with a Carbon Tax

Global Solar Installations Jumped 29 Percent in 2017

Mityaevo Solar Park, Crimea. (Image Credit: Activ Solar | Flickr) Click to Enlarge.
Global solar power saw considerable success last year, with installations increasing by about 29 percent to 98.9 GW from 76.5 GW in 2016, according to data released Wednesday by SolarPower Europe.

Asia was a major source of growth in the sector, with solar deployment in China and India contributing more than 63 percent of the total solar demand in 2017, SolarPower Europe said.  The Chinese solar market saw the largest growth, reaching 52.8 GW in 2017, up from 34.5 GW in 2016.  The U.S. was the second largest growth market with 11.8 GW, followed by India with 9.6 GW.

Read more at Global Solar Installations Jumped 29 Percent in 2017

Chain Reaction of Fast-Draining Lakes Poses New Risk for Greenland Ice Sheet

Melting of Greenland ice sheet forms lakes that drain in summer. (Credit: Timo Lieber) Click to Enlarge.
A growing network of lakes on the Greenland ice sheet has been found to drain in a chain reaction that speeds up the flow of the ice sheet, threatening its stability.

Researchers from the UK, Norway, US, and Sweden have used a combination of 3D computer modeling and real-world observations to show the previously unknown, yet profound dynamic consequences tied to a growing number of lakes forming on the Greenland ice sheet.

Lakes form on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet each summer as the weather warms.  Many exist for weeks or months, but drain in just a few hours through more than a kilometer of ice, transferring huge quantities of water and heat to the base of the ice sheet.  The affected areas include sensitive regions of the ice sheet interior where the impact on ice flow is potentially large.

Previously, it had been thought that these 'drainage events' were isolated incidents, but the new research, led by the University of Cambridge, shows that the lakes form a massive network and become increasingly interconnected as the weather warms.  When one lake drains, the water quickly spreads under the ice sheet, which responds by flowing faster.  The faster flow opens new fractures on the surface and these fractures act as conduits for the drainage of other lakes.  This starts a chain reaction that can drain many other lakes, some as far as 80 kilometers away.

These cascading events - including one case where 124 lakes drained in just five days - can temporarily accelerate ice flow by as much as 400%, which makes the ice sheet less stable, and increases the rate of associated sea level rise.  The results are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

The study demonstrates how forces within the ice sheet can change abruptly from one day to the next, causing solid ice to fracture suddenly.  The model developed by the international team shows that lakes forming in stable areas of the ice sheet drain when fractures open in response to a high tensile shock force acting along drainage paths of water flowing beneath the ice sheet when other lakes drain far away.

"This growing network of melt lakes, which currently extends more than 100 kilometers inland and reaches elevations as high a 2,000 meters above sea level, poses a threat for the long-term stability of the Greenland ice sheet," said lead author Dr Poul Christoffersen, from Cambridge's Scott Polar Research Institute.  "This ice sheet, which covers 1.7 million square kilometers, was relatively stable 25 years ago, but now loses one billion tonnes of ice every day.  This causes one millimeter of global sea level rise per year, a rate which is much faster than what was predicted only a few years ago."

The study departs from the current consensus that lakes forming at high elevations on the Greenland ice sheet have only a limited potential to influence the flow of ice sheet as climate warms.  Whereas the latest report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that surface meltwater, although abundant, does not impact the flow of the ice sheet, the study suggests that meltwater delivered to the base of the ice sheet through draining lakes in fact drives episodes of sustained acceleration extending much farther onto the interior of the ice sheet than previously thought.

"Transfer of water and heat from surface to the bed can escalate extremely rapidly due to a chain reaction," said Christoffersen.  "In one case we found all but one of 59 observed lakes drained in a single cascading event.  Most of the melt lakes drain in this dynamic way."

Although the delivery of small amounts of meltwater to the base of the ice sheet only increases the ice sheet's flow locally, the study shows that the response of the ice sheet can intensify through knock-on effects.

Read more at Chain Reaction of Fast-Draining Lakes Poses New Risk for Greenland Ice Sheet

Eastern Mediterranean Summer Will Be Two Months Longer by End of 21st Century

Climate changes will cut winter in the region by half, Tel Aviv University researchers say.

Climate change is believed by scientists to affect millions of people. (photo credit: Reuters) Click to Enlarge.
The eastern Mediterranean -- an area that covers Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and southern Turkey -- is experiencing monumental climate changes poised to significantly affect regional ecosystems and human health.  According to a new Tel Aviv University study, these changes will alter the duration of summer and winter in the region by the end of this century.

The summer, a dry and hot period of four months, will last for about six months by 2100; the winter, the region's rainy season, will accordingly shorten from four to just two months.

"Our research shows that the climate changes we are all noticing today are likely to intensify in the coming decades," says Assaf Hochman of TAU's School of Geosciences, who led the research.  "It is very important to understand this to try to prevent the deterioration as much as possible, or at least prepare for the change."

The study was overseen by Prof. Pinhas Alpert and conducted by Hochman, Dr. Tzvi Harpaz and Prof. Hadas Saaroni, all of TAU's School of Geosciences.  It was published in the International Journal of Climatology.

The culprit:  Greenhouse gases
The research is based on global climate models and points to an expected rise in greenhouse gases as the chief factor responsible for the seasonal changes.

"These projected changes will significantly influence our lives by shrinking and degrading the quality of our water resources, increasing the risk of brushfires, worsening pollution, and altering the timing and intensity of seasonal illnesses and other health hazards," Hochman says.

"One of the main causes of these changes is the growing concentration of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere as a result of human activity.  We have sought to examine what is expected in the 21st century as a direct result of the greenhouse effect on the climate."

Read more at Eastern Mediterranean Summer Will Be Two Months Longer by End of 21st Century

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wednesday, Mar 14

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.

At This Rate, It’s Going to Take Nearly 400 Years to Transform the Energy System

Here are the real reasons we’re not building clean energy anywhere near fast enough.

Fifteen years ago, Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution, calculated that the world would need to add about a nuclear power plant’s worth of clean-energy capacity every day between 2000 and 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Recently, he did a quick calculation to see how we’re doing.

Not well.  Instead of the roughly 1,100 megawatts of carbon-free energy per day likely needed to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 ˚C, as the 2003 Science paper by Caldeira and his colleagues found, we are adding around 151 megawatts.  That’s only enough to power roughly 125,000 homes.

At that rate, substantially transforming the energy system would take, not the next three decades, but nearly the next four centuries. In the meantime, temperatures would soar, melting ice caps, sinking cities, and unleashing devastating heat waves around the globe (see The year climate change began to spin out of control).

Caldeira stresses that other factors are likely to significantly shorten that time frame (in particular, electrifying heat production, which accounts for a more than half of global energy consumption, will significantly alter demand).  But he says it’s clear we’re overhauling the energy system about an order of magnitude too slowly, underscoring a point that few truly appreciate:  It’s not that we aren’t building clean energy fast enough to address the challenge of climate change.  It’s that—even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem.

The UN’s climate change body asserts that the world needs to cut as much as 70 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury to have any chance of avoiding 2 ˚C of warming.  But carbon pollution has continued to rise, ticking up 2 percent last year.

So what’s the holdup?

Beyond the vexing combination of economic, political, and technical challenges is the basic problem of overwhelming scale.  There is a massive amount that needs to be built, which will suck up an immense quantity of manpower, money, and materials.

For starters, global energy consumption is likely to soar by around 30 percent in the next few decades as developing economies expand.  (China alone needs to add the equivalent of the entire US power sector by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.)  To cut emissions fast enough and keep up with growth, the world will need to develop 10 to 30 terawatts of clean-energy capacity by 2050.  On the high end that would mean constructing the equivalent of around 30,000 nuclear power plants—or producing and installing 120 billion 250-watt solar panels.

There’s simply little financial incentive for the energy industry to build at that scale and speed while it has tens of trillions of dollars of sunk costs in the existing system.

“If you pay a billion dollars for a gigawatt of coal, you’re not going to be happy if you have to retire it in 10 years,” says Steven Davis, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.

It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to see how any of that will change until there are strong enough government policies or big enough technology breakthroughs to override the economics.

A quantum leap
Climate observers and commentators have used various historical parallels to illustrate the scale of the task, including the Manhattan Project and the moon mission.  But for Schrag, the analogy that really speaks to the dimensions and urgency of the problem is World War II, when the United States nationalized parts of the steel, coal, and railroad industries.  The government forced automakers to halt car production in order to churn out airplanes, tanks, and jeeps.

The good news here is that if you direct an entire economy at a task, big things can happen fast.  But how do you inspire a war mentality in peacetime, when the enemy is invisible and moving in slow motion?

“It’s a quantum leap from where we are today,” Schrag says.

The time delay
The fact that the really devastating consequences of climate change won’t come for decades complicates the issue in important ways.  Even for people who care about the problem in the abstract, it doesn’t rate high among their immediate concerns.  As a consequence, they aren’t inclined to pay much, or change their lifestyle, to actually address it.  In recent years, Americans were willing to increase their electricity bill by a median amount of only $5 a month even if that “solved,” not eased, global warming, down from $10 15 years earlier, according to a series of surveys by MIT and Harvard.

It’s conceivable that climate change will someday alter that mind-set as the mounting toll of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, extinctions, and sea-level rise finally forces the world to grapple with the problem.

But that will be too late.  Carbon dioxide works on a time delay. It takes about 10 years to achieve its full warming effect, and it stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years.  After we’ve tipped into the danger zone, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions doesn’t decrease the effects; it can only prevent them from getting worse.  Whatever level of climate change we allow to unfold is locked in for millennia, unless we develop technologies to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere on a massive scale (or try our luck with geoengineering).

This also means there’s likely to be a huge trade-off between what we would have to pay to fix the energy system and what it would cost to deal with the resulting disasters if we don't.  Various estimates find that cutting emissions will shrink the global economy by a few percentage points a year, but unmitigated warming could slash worldwide GDP more than 20 percent by the end of the century, if not far more.

In the money
Primary energy world consumption (Credit: BP) Click to Enlarge.
Arguably the most crucial step to accelerate energy development is enacting strong government policies.  Many economists believe the most powerful tool would be a price on carbon, imposed through either a direct tax or a cap-and-trade program.  As the price of producing energy from fossil fuels grows, this would create bigger incentives to replace those plants with clean energy (see Surge of carbon pricing proposals coming in the new year).

“If we’re going to make any progress on greenhouse gases, we’ll have to either pay the implicit or explicit costs of carbon,” says Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

But it has to be a big price, far higher than the $15 per ton it cost to acquire allowances in California’s cap-and-trade program late last year.  Borenstein says a carbon fee approaching $40 a ton “just blows coal out of the market entirely and starts to put wind and solar very much into the money,” at least when you average costs across the lifetime of the plants.

Others think the price should be higher still. But it’s very hard to see how any tax even approaching that figure could pass in the United States, or many other nations, anytime soon.

The other major policy option would be caps that force utilities and companies to keep greenhouse emissions below a certain level, ideally one that decreases over time.  This regulations-based approach is not considered as economically efficient as a carbon price, but it has the benefit of being much more politically palatable.  American voters hate taxes but are perfectly comfortable with air pollution rules, says Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University.

Fundamental technical limitations will also increase the cost and complexity of shifting to clean energy.  Our fastest-growing carbon-free sources, solar and wind farms, don’t supply power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.  So as they provide a larger portion of the grid’s electricity, we’ll also need long-range transmission lines that can balance out peaks and valleys across states, or massive amounts of very expensive energy storage, or both (see Relying on renewables alone significantly inflates the cost of overhauling energy).

The upshot is that we’re eventually going to need to either supplement wind and solar with many more nuclear reactors, fossil-fuel plants with carbon capture and other low-emissions sources, or pay far more to build out a much larger system of transmission, storage and renewable generation, says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher with the MIT Energy Initiative.  In all cases, we’re still likely to need significant technical advances that drive down costs.

All of this, by the way, only addresses the challenge of overhauling the electricity sector, which currently represents less than 20 percent of total energy consumption.  It will provide a far greater portion as we electrify things like vehicles and heating, which means we’ll eventually need to develop an electrical system several times larger than today’s.

But that still leaves the “really difficult parts of the global energy system” to deal with, says Davis of UC Irvine.  That includes aviation, long-distance hauling, and the cement and steel industries, which produce carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process itself.  To clean up these huge sectors of the economy, we’re going to need better carbon capture and storage tools, as well as cheaper biofuels or energy storage, he says. 

These kinds of big technical achievements tend to require significant and sustained government support.  But much like carbon taxes or emissions caps, a huge increase in federal research and development funding is highly unlikely in the current political climate.

Read more at At This Rate, It’s Going to Take Nearly 400 Years to Transform the Energy System