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U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Federal Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Yesterday's unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting a state suit against electric power companies crosses political lines in complicated ways. Brought in 2004 by six states, New York City, and three land trusts, it sought to force utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it had the support of environmental groups and was strenuously opposed by the electric power industry. Yet the decision is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory, because it wishes to keep regulation of greenhouse gas emissions firmly in the control of the Environmental Protection Agency. And environmentalists, even in tactical defeat, are taking it as a signal for EPA to proceed forcefully. "Now the EPA must act without delay," said NRDC attorney David Doniger, who had supported the suit. "In this case," commented the Financial Times, "the EPA found itself in the rare position of being supported by the big coal companies."

The bottom line would seem to be this: In unanimously upholding EPA's authority in the domain of climate change, the court is reaffirming its 2007 decision that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases and should in fact do so if scientifically warranted. The 2007 decision has been challenged by states like Virginia, and House Republicans have introduced a bill instructing EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases. Yesterday's decision indicates that state challenges to the 2007 decision will not stand, and it takes political wind away from the sails of those seeking to block EPA action.

NOTE: In at least one earlier blog post, I incorrectly reported that former justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on carbon regulation. In fact, O'Connor had already left the court, and Bush appointees Alito and Roberts were already on the court. So the liberal-conservative political balance on the court is essentially the same today as it was then, contrary to what I suggested before.

Breaking Ground: Work Starts on World's Biggest Solar Plant

California governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were both on hand on Friday for the ground-breaking ceremony of what will be the largest solar power plant in the world. The Blythe Solar Power Project, in Riverside County, Calif., will be home to 1,000 megawatts of solar thermal power.

The Blythe project, along with others like the much discussed Ivanpah project, represents a trend toward truly utility-scale solar power. Moving these projects forward to the point of actually beginning construction has been a challenge, with wildlife and other concerns standing in the way. In the case of Blythe, developer Solar Millennium was required by the Bureau of Land Management to fund 8,000 acres of protected land for desert tortoises and other threatened species. This is intended to roughly offset the 7,030 acres that will be disturbed by construction and by the resulting solar thermal plant. There have also been water-related issues to overcome, which changed the initial design.

Blythe will be built in phases, with the first electricity flowing toward homes—about 300,000 of them—by 2013. And though no large solar plants like this yet exist, Blythe will soon be followed by others: In 2010 alone, the BLM approved solar projects on public lands that total more than 3,500 megawatts of capacity. To put that in context, the Solar Energy Industries Association put the total installed solar capacity in the United States at the end of 2010 at only 2,593 megawatts.

(Image via Solar Millennium AG)

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German Wind Bigger Than Ever

Siemens has announced installation in the sea off Denmark of its prototype 6-megawatt wind turbine, which has a rotor diameter of 120 meters and yet weighs only 350 tons. The company boasts that the machine's relatively low weight is pathbreaking. "In tendency, large wind turbines have always been heavier per megawatt than small ones," comments Henrik Stiesdal, CTO of Siemens's wind power business unit. "Reaching this low weight with a strong and robust machine is the result of targeted innovation combined with our more than 30 years of wind industry experience."

Just in terms of electrical capacity, the new Siemens turbine is astonishing. Yet it is not the only such very large wind machine and is not in fact the current record setter. Three years ago, Enercon unveiled a 7-MW wind turbine, the E-126. The first of that series was installed on land, in Emden, Germany.

Given Germany's decision to phase out all nuclear energy on an accelerated basis, the bigger-than-ever wind turbines could not be arriving at a better time. As if in anticipation of the new situation, the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection, and Reactor Safety last September issued an "Immediate 10-Point Program" in connection with the government's general "energy concept."   

If you happen to be wondering why your own country is not more daring and determined in its energy planning, the 10 points make for interesting reading.

Three of the first five points deal specifically with expediting construction of large wind farms in Germany's North and Baltic Seas. Several more are directly relevant to the viability of wind energy: new procedures to involve all stakeholders in grid planning, formulation of preconditions for a "coherent and Germany-wide grid expansion,"  a public information offensive to explain why building out the national power grid is essential to going green, financial breaks for energy storage systems, and so on.

In the context of the 10-point "immediate program," the government has authorized the quasipublic KfW Bank Group to make large concessional loans to bank consortia supporting large new wind projects and even to participate directly in such consortia. KfW may make loans of up to 400 million euros on a matching basis and still more, under certain conditions, if there are legitimate cost overruns. Taking that into account, total per-project KfW credit can go as high as 700 million euros (roughly US $1 billion).

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Obama Administration Unveils 21st Century Grid Vision

There are some nice elements in the smart grid package that the White House rolled out today: a $250 million Agriculture Department loan program to advance grid modernization in rural areas; a collaborative private sector initiative, "Grid 21," to promote consumer-friendly grid tech; Energy Department projects to improve consumer access to energy information. Most interesting perhaps is the creation of an interagency Renewable Energy Rapid Response Team, to "improve Federal coordination and ensure timely review of proposed renewable energy projects and transmission lines."

But in view of the enormity of the jobs to be done, some surveying the administration's press releases and game plan will come away worrying about the location of the beef. Tellingly, the 95-page vision statement issued today by the Cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council contains just two-and-a-half pages under the chapter heading, "Progress Made to Date." Almost all that progress has to do with smart meter installation programs driven by the $10-billion package of grants and loan guarantees in the 2009 recovery bill.

Readers may judge for themselves, starting perhaps with the White House smart grid fact sheet posted today.

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The Black Swan and the Bell Curve

Many developments in the last few years have suggested that general public concern about global warming is much shallower than one might have supposed earlier in the decade, most recently Germany's decisions to end reliance on nuclear energy entirely and accelerate the phase-out of currently operating reactors. That means much more dependence in the next decade on domestic coal and natural gas mainly imported from the Russian sphere, and probably somewhat greater imports of nuclear-generated electricity from France. And it means that Germany is very unlikely to meet its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goal--a cut of 40 percent by 2020, vis-a-vis the 1990 level.

Deutsche Bank now predicts that greenhouse gas emissions from Germany's power sector will more than double in the next decade as a result of the country's new course, an astonishing prospect for a country that until now had been a leader in global efforts to address climate change.

The retreat of Republican senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who earlier had cosponsored cap-and-trade greenhouse gas reduction bills; the refusal of Congress to take up such a bill and the Obama administration's decision not to fight for one; the global breakdown of the Kyoto process and the acquiescence of the once-activist European nations to a program of purely voluntary carbon cuts; the relative indifference of general publics to the whole subject of global warming and climate change, despite a plague of violent and weird weather that has afflicted the United States, western Europe, Russia, China, and Pakistan in the last few years--what's going on?

"Planet Earth Doesn't Know How to Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everybody to Leave," led the satirical weekly The Onion last week. In this week's opener to The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert muses in a more serious vein about why people aren't getting the message, despite the consistency of extreme weather events with climate model predictions. Why did the president brood about such events being "beyond our power to control," she wonders, in his recent visit to tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri?

Of course the president is not exactly wrong. Unusually violent events will take place occasionally under any circumstances. And--the public probably grasps--the likelihood of such events will continue to increase even if we all start sharply cutting greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, because of the warming "inertia" already injected into the system.

What's easily lost sight of in that kind of reflection, however, is the simple fact that we can work to reduce the probability of ever-more extreme climate events, or not. Right now, we have drifted into zone where global greenhouse gas concentrations are much higher than they have been any time in the history of homo sapiens and close to 50 percent higher than they were at the dawn of the industrial revolution, 250 years ago. We are in uncharted waters and getting deeper into those waters all the time. The rational decision is to reverse course and start navigating our way out of those waters as fast as can be prudently done.

How fast is that? There are those--a lot of those--who argue, in light of the Fukushima and other worse-than-worst case nuclear accidents, that we don't need to do anything so desperate as resort to more reactor construction just to mitigate the risks of climate change. Respectfully, I would suggest that the risks associated with global warming are of a completely different order than the risks attached to atomic energy. For the weird weather we've seen so far may be no more than a nasty foretaste of what's to come.

Suppose, to take a different kind of worse-than-worst case, some catastrophic combination of flood, drought, and pest conspired to completely shut down one of the world's major breadbaskets for three or four years--say Illinois-Iowa, the Yangtze or Yellow River basin, the Mekong, Ganges, Indus, or Nile. The effect would be a a global food shortage, mass starvation, and global convulsions the like of which have never  been seen before.

To focus for a moment on the Illinois-Iowa scenario, standard business as usual projections say that this part of the Midwest will have, by the end of the century, a climate like that in East Texas or Alabama--a temperate climate zone will have changed to a subtropical one characteristic of the deep South.

That's the mainstream scenario. But what if things were even worse than that, much worse? "Black swan" scenarios associated with the mathematicians Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Benoit Mandelbrot postulate that seemingly very improbable events take place because the probability distribution turns out (mainly in hindsight!) to have "fat tails"--that is, instead of conforming to the "normal" Bell Shape form, the distribution has a shape in which the probability of extreme events is greater than normal.

We don't actually have to resort to black swan theory, even if geoscience is one of its more obvious applications. The politically conservative Chicago jurist Richard A. Posner, in Catastrophe: Risk and Response (2004), has pointed out that the more uncertain we are about mainstream climate projections, the more we should be worrying about worse-than-worst case scenarios. Thus, he suggests, climate skeptics are shooting themselves in the foot when they emphasizeuncertainties. By the symmetrical logic of the Bell curve, if climate scientists are underestimating the possibility things may be not nearly as bad as they predict, they also are underestimating the probability they will be much worse.

How much worse could they be? In an agricultural collapse scenario, we could be talking about millions, hundreds of millions or even billions of deaths--not the "mere" 20,000-30,000 premature deaths that have followed from the Chernobyl accident.

POSTSCRIPT, 6/30/11L

The Financial Times reported yesterday that 46 percent of the United States has been either abnormally wet or abnormally dry this spring; 21 percent is normal. "It is highly improbable that the remarkable extreme weather events of 2010 and 2011 could have all happened in such a short period of time without some powerful climate-altering force at work," said Southern Methodist University business professor Bernard Weinstein, quoted in the FT. "I expect that by 20 to 30 years from now, extreme weather years like we witnessed in 2010 will become the new normal."

The re-insurance company Munich Re has arrived at a similar conclusion: "The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge."
 

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Case for Accelerating Dry Cask Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: John Boyd is an IEEE Spectrum contributor reporting from Kawasaki, Japan. This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer and our timeline.

A newly released report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials contains information that implicitly bolsters the case for moving spent fuel out of cooling ponds and into dry cask storage, both in the United States and in most other parts of the world as well. After 9/11 it already was apparent that fuel in cooling ponds could make a tempting target for terrorists--and one much easier to hit than reactor cores. Now, in the wake of the dangerous fire in the Fukushima cooling pond, the case for accelerating dry cask storage is inescapable.

With plans for permanent disposal of nuclear wastes stalled just about everywhere except for Finland and Sweden, spent fuel should be moved as fast as possible out of cooling ponds and into dry casks.

What does that mean? As the Fissile Materials report usefully explains, "In dry cask storage, spent fuel assemblies are typically placed in steel canisters that are surrounded by a heavy shielding shell of reinforced concrete, with the shell containing vents allowing air to flow through to the wall of the canister and cool the fuel. A typical dry cask for Pressurized Water Reactor fuel contains about 10 tonnes of spent fuel, roughly one half of an annual discharge from a 1 GWe reactor." The large cylindrical containers (seen in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission photo above) generally are located close to reactor sites in the United States, but are much "harder" than the spent fuel ponds also typically found at the sites.

Worldwide, about 90 percent of spent fuel is in vulnerable cooling ponds and only a tenth in dry casks, according to the report. The numbers are somewhat better for the United States, where, of roughly 64,500 tonnes of heavy metal (uranium and plutonium, basically), 15,250--almost a quarter of the total--is in dry casks. Princeton University's Harold Feiveson , a participant in the ongoing fissile materials studies, points out that as much as 50,000 tonnes or more could be promptly moved to dry casks, having already cooled for the requisite five years.

(The U.S. reactor fleet produces about 2,000 tonnes of spent fuel a year, so of the 65,000 tonnes of total spent fuel, only about 10,000 tons still needs to be in cooling ponds.)

Robert Alvarez, a former senior official in Bill Clinton's Energy Department, recently made the same argument. Writing in the Huffington Post, Alvarez said that the United States “should promptly take steps to reduce these risks [associated with cooling ponds] by placing all spent nuclear fuel older than five years in dry, hardened storage casks [as] Germany did 25 years ago. It would take about 10 years at a cost between $3.5 and $7 billion. If the cost were transferred to energy consumers, the expenditure would result in a marginal increase of less than 0.4 cents per kilowatt hour for consumers of nuclear-gneerated electricity."

Dry casks at Fukushima, Alvarez notes, weathered the tsunami and earthquake unscathed, unlike the reactors and cooling ponds.

Arguably, with 9/11 the large quantity of U.S. spent fuel being held in unhardened cooling ponds already represented a national emergency. Now, with the collapse of plans for a permanent geologic spent fuel repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, the situation is more urgent than ever.

The logic behind the selection of Yucca Mountain grew from a perception that the United States should just pick a place to put its spent fuel, already, and get on with the job. Since the area around the U.S. nuclear weapons testing area was already highly contaminated, what serious objection could there be to putting well-secured reactor wastes in the vicinity? But it turned out that Nevadans objected strenuously, and with their voices ever more significant in closely contested presidential elections, they ultimately prevailed and killed the project. As it happens, says the fissile materials report, Yucca Mountain turns out to have been "a poor choice on technical grounds." Ideally, spent fuel should be stored in oxygen-free conditions, for example in deep granite or clay. But Yucca Mountain would have been exposed to flows of oxygen-rich water.

The mission of the International Panel on Fissile Materials is to establish a technical basis for securing, consolidating and reducing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, so that they will be less available for use in nuclear weapons by errant states or terrorists. This latest report, however, has special salience because of its relevance to nuclear accident scenarios and power plants security.

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Big City Climate Meeting in Mega-Sao Paulo

The Earth Systems Research Laboratory on Hawaii's Mauna Loa reported at the end of May that the atmospheric carbon level is now 395 ppm (394.97, to be exact), 46 percent higher than the pre-industrial level. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency reported that 2010 greenhouse gas emissions, despite the global economic crisis, were at a record-high level.

As the world steadily approaches a landmark where global carbon concentrations will be 400 ppm and 50 percent higher than the pre-industrial level, experts are concluding that we will be unable to contain the increase in average global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, our official goal. Evidently we're on track for a 4 degree rise by the end of this century.

Yet the major world economies are deadlocked over whether to stick with the Kyoto program of agreed-upon greenhouse gas reductions, the United States having opted out because of concerns about countries like China and India, and the emerging market economies having refused to opt in because of concerns about how their growth prospects would be affected. 

So, under the circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that others are seizing the initiative. Representatives of 40 large metropolises (the C40) convened in Sao Paulo last week to discuss what they can do. Half the world's people live in cities, where they consume two thirds of the world's energy and generate 70 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. 

The C40, originally brought together by Bill Clinton, now is chaired by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mega-egos from mega-cities confronting a mega-problem, perhaps the greatest ethical challenge of our day. Can they succeed?

I'm old enough to remember when I first heard that Sao Paulo, a place I had barely heard of, was the world's largest city. Now the world's largest city is most likely Chongqing, on the Yangtze River just upstream from the Three Gorges Dam. Soon it will be some other place we've never heard of. Globalization, industrialization, and urbanization are occurring at such a breakneck pace, it's hard to have faith we'll be able to cope successfully with the ramifications.

The C40 cities agreed last week to regularize a system of emissions accounting, to be submitted to the next big global climate meeting, in Durban, South Africa, next November. the World Bank agreed to establish a single office where cities can come to one-stop-shop for climate action grants. Bloomberg's foundation promised to give the C40 $6 million per year for the next three years to support its activities, a 12-fold increase over what it had been getting from the Clinton Foundation.  (Bill Clinton ceded personal leadership of the group to Bloomberg, an aide to the former president commenting that the "golden rule" applied: He who has the gold rules.)

Making progress on climate depends partly on many people doing many small things in many places, as Bloomberg said in Sao Paulo. (He is seen above unveiling an electric car charging station in New York, last year.) Around the world, cities are tightening energy efficiency standards, accelerating installation of LED lighting, promoting lower-emissions vehicles, and so on.

But progress also depends, even more crucially, on the really big players doing really big things. Though there is much the cities can do to conserve energy, improve energy efficiency, and promote greener technologies, ultimately, unless something is done about how the huge quantities of energy they consume is produced, the climate problem will keep getting worse. Inevitably, then, the emphasis of city programs will be not on slowing climate change but on adapting to it. And the cities that will shine will be those, like Chicago, that prove to have done the most the fastest to be ready for climate change when things get really bad.

Italian Voters Turn Against Nuclear Power Ahead of Referendum

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

A riff on the 1959 French film Hiroshima mon amour, set in postwar Japan

Italy is hurtling towards a referendum on nuclear power this month that could deliver yet another blow to the beleaguered low-carbon energy option, following recent reversals in Switzerland, Germany and Japan. Political graffiti and propaganda that I recorded last week in Genoa mirror opinion polls that show Italian voters souring rapidly on nuclear energy.

Fukushima Mon Amour (top right) is a riff on the 1959 French film Hiroshima Mon Amour, set in post-war Japan. Another image found on Genoa's medieval walls (lower right) closes with one of the Italian language's strongest insults, porcodio, to read: No to god-damned nuclear.

For Italy, this month's referendum is a case of deja vu: The country shut down the last of its four nuclear reactors in 1990, after voters approved an antinuclear referendum inspired by the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. That made Italy the only G8 nation without nuclear power. Italy's top court ordered a second referendum for June 12 and 13 of this year after Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi passed legislation to restart Italy's nuclear program, proposing to supply a quarter of Italy's power via nuclear energy by 2030.

Last week, sensing an impending loss at the polls, Berlusconi's government put off the plan for two years and sought to scrap this month's referendum. If the courts nevertheless allow the vote to go forward, Italy's nuclear renaissance could be nipped in the bud.

But for all the anti-nuclear indignation that Italian voters may muster, their rejection of nuclear power is likely to be less than definitive. Roughly 10% of Italy's electricity is now nuclear power imported from France and Switzerland, according to the World Nuclear Association, an industry group.

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Increasingly Fractious Questions about Gas Fracking

The U.S. natural gas industry has been advertising itself as a bridge to an energy future belonging to wind, and that may be an understatement or even be the opposite of the truth: It may turn out--when we look back on the present day from mid century or later--that wind will have been a bridge to what's called in the industry "unconventional" gas. That refers in theory both to methane obtained as a byproduct of coal mining and to gas extracted by means of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking." But for all practical purposes--so dramatic has been the revolution in shale gas--it refers just to fracking.

But the higher its profile, the more unconventional gas is destined to be questioned. New York State has put a moratorium on gas drilling to protect New York City's pristine water supply. France has flatly banned it, at least till further notice. And this last week, in ExxonMobil's and Chevron's annual shareholder meetings, resolutions calling for more transparency in corporate fracking plans garnered substantial support--41 percent of voting stockholders in the case of Chevron, 28 percent in the case of ExxonMobil.

Concerns about integrity of water supplies are paramount, but they are not the only concerns. (A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found 17 times as much methane in water wells located in fracking areas as the average in non-fracking areas.) Another major one from a policy standpoint is leakage of gas from drilling operations and distribution systems. In terms of public policy, one of gas's selling points is its relatively small carbon footprint--for any given amount of electricity   generated, emissions from gas-fired turbines are about half those from a coal-fired generating plant. But methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and so if large quantities are leaking into the atmosphere, the supposedly benign impact of switching from coal to gas could be cancelled.

Recent studies have found that in the United States, "as much as 7.9 percent of [natural gas] puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines," The New York Times reported.This is an important subject we will know a lot more about when scientists start to directly measure greenhouse gas emissions on a regional basis, an endeavor that's in its infancy. To date, estimates of national emissions are derived from known sources, mostly importantly electricity generators and gasoline (petrol) burned in internal combustion engines. Direct emissions measurements taken in the atmosphere may reveal significant sources that have been underestimated in the past.

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Smart Grid Developments

California's plan to have smart meters installed universally by the end of next year is running into some opposition in PG&E's northern territory. According to a recent report in EnergyBiz magazine, some customers believe they are "suffering health effects including migraine headaches, heart palpitations and nausea from the emissions of the radio frequency meters." Because of such complaints, the state's uitility commission has ordered the utility to prepare some kind of opt-out option for disgruntled customers. It remains to be seen how much the development may impede installation of some 17 million advanced meters.

On a more positive note, Siemens is doing a two-year test in a Germany city to evaluate a self-organizing, automated electricity distribution system in which an increased shared of energy from renewables must be accommodated. To be carried out in cooperation with the local utility, a local college, and the Aachen technical university, the project is dubbed Irene, for Integration of Renewable Energies and Electric Mobility. Besides incorporating power from wind turbines, solar cells, and biogas generators, Irene will provide for electric vehicle charging, and for the EVs to store electricity. The "Siemens role in this smart grid pilot project involves installation of software developed by its global research [arm] Corporate Technology," says the company's press release.

Siemens also has announced a global contest in which five smart grid business or technology proposals that could "help the world become a better place" will be recognized: "The world around us is changing. To lower CO2 emissions, we need to rely on renewable energy sources.  For that, the current energy network needs to become more flexible and intelligent," says the contest site. Winners will receive $21,000 each and a trip to Berlin to meet with Siemens smart grid experts. Siemans has also promised to spend more than $1.5 million to test the best ideas in the real world. Proposals will be accepted through June 15.

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