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Summer Reading (Environment Edition)

The slightly leftish New York Review of Books may not be the typical Spectrum reader's second choice in technical literature, but two recent articles are worth consulting if you're trying to keep up with the basics of the climate debate. One, by the British economist Nicholas Stern, author of the big British study assessing the long-term costs of global warming and the benefits of curbing it, is aptly titled, "Climate: What You Need to Know." Reviewing the most recent book by the influential environmental writer Bill McKibbon, Stern takes him to task for being unduly pessimistic about the prospects for constructive policy. But this doesn't mean that Stern's view of our situation is sanguine: "The issue for policy is how to manage risk, taking account of strong scientific evidence that the risks are potentially very large. These are not small probabilities of something nasty, but large probabilities of something catastrophic," writes Stern.

Stern's magnum review of climate change economics has been criticized on methodological grounds, and I too have misgivings about its use of discounting. But Stern has an impressive command of climate science basics, and for this reason, it's worth paying attention to what he thinks we need to know. To have a 50 percent chance of keeping additional warming at no more than 2 degrees celsius in this century, Stern notes that we have to reduce global emissions by more than half from today's level by 2050. If countries do their very best to keep their Copenhagen pledges, Stern says we have a chance of making the 2050 target, though cuts will be more costly and difficult after 2020 than before.

What needed is sobering indeed: The world's per capita emissions of carbon dioxide, 7 tons today, must be reduced to 4 tons by 2030 and 2 tons by 2050.

The other recent article in the New York Review, "The Message from the Glaciers," is about the fate of the Tibetan plateau, sometimes called "the third pole" because of its giant ice rivers. The author, Orville Schell, also is no climatologist. But as a prominent Asia expert, Schell does care about what's happening to the Himalayan glaciers, and he knows the context. Though his article does not take account of the very latest scientific findings, it will be useful to anybody who wants to put those findings in perspective.

This week's Sunday New York Times carried a review of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth, by Eric Pooley, a top editor at Bloomberg Business Week who also has worked at Fortune and Time in senior positions. Though described by the reviewer as somewhat ponderous going, the book evidently raises some thorny questions about deals environmental leaders like Fred Krupp have entered into with corporate executives. The whole subject of how the leading environmental groups have worked with Big Business and Big Politics deserves much more critical scrutiny. One wishes that Stephen Schneider had addressed it in his Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate. Though Stanford climatologist Schneider has been a key player for decades, the index to his book does not contain names like Krupp, the hugely influential CEO of the Environmental Defense Fund. Nor do organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth--or even National Geographic, the publisher of his book--appear.

Speaking of environmental politics and the political establishment, the current edition of The Highlands Voice, the monthly newspaper of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, carries an appraisal by the conservancy's president of the late West Virginia senator, Robert C. Byrd. What's interesting is the complexity of the conservancy's relationship with the senator, and the complexity of Byrd's attitudes toward the environment, development, and especially of course the local coal industry. Byrd was an altogether complicated and fascinating man: A member of the Ku Klux Klan as a young man, a battler for racial and social justice for the remainder of his life; a country fidddler who could keep up with Appalachia's best; by all accounts the Hill's leading expert on congressional procedure for many decades. He was the senior-most member of Congress, and easily one of Congress's most influential members.

Conservancy president Hugh Rogers reports that Byrd generally considered it his job to bring home the bacon for his consituents--that is, he generally favored development, including initially mountaintop strip mining. But after Judge Haden's landmark decision in 1999 seeking to block further mountaintop removal (Bragg v. Robertson), Byrd retreated from that position. He said that the practice had "a diminishing constituency in Washington" and that most members of Congress, like most Americans, opposed it. Under the circumstances, he said, West Virginians risked shouting themselves out of productive dialogue with the EPA and Congress if they persisted single-mindedly in mountain strip mining.

POSTSCRIPT: As this posts, I have only just now have learned of Stephen Schneider's untimely death, yesterday. Lest the preceding remarks be interpreted as critical, I regret it and apologize if any offense is taken. I am all the sorrier that there will be not future opportunity to discuss with him the climate wars and Big Environmentalism.

Summer Reading (Energy Edition)

You won't be staying on top of energy and green tech if you just read that rag IEEE Spectrum, even if it is the preferred magazine of engineers in telecommunications, computing, software, electronics, and power.

This month Technology Review, MIT's glorified alumni magazine, has an excellent article about Suntech and its founder and CEO, Zhengrong Shi, otherwise known as China's sun king. You know the general story in outline: How China's low-cost and aggressive solar manufacturers have pretty much seized the world market, taking advantage of ultra-generous subsidies in Spain and Germany that were intended to favor domestic manufacturers. But even so you may find arresting some of the numbers Tech Reviews trots out.

China's photovoltaic production capacity in 2001 was 2 MW; today it is 4 GW--two thousand times larger. Suntech's capacity went from 10 MW in 2002 to 1 GW now. 

Three years ago, U.S. solar manufacturers were suppling 43 percent of the PV panels qualifying for California rebates, China just 2 percent. Today China's supplying 42 percent of them, Americans 15 percent.

If you want to know in more detail just how the Çhinese have done that, Tech Review's profile of Sun King Shi is well worth reading. But skip the solar commentary on p. 14, with the ridiculous spin it puts on PV costs. The author argues that solar is now nearing grid parity because generating costs are merely twice as high as wholesale electricity and wind costs, under optimal solar conditions. Merely?

This month's Scientific American has a feature--really a two page infographic--titled "the dirty truth about plug-in hybrids." The article usefully focuses attention on the fact that hybrid and electric cars will be climate-friendly only to the extent the electricity they draw from the grid is generated by low-carbon means. Relying on a Department of Energy study, it charts, by U.S. region,  how much of the additional electricity for hybrids and EVs would likely come from fossil fuels versus zero-carbon sources like hydro, wind, and nuclear.

But how reliable is that DOE study? SciAm doesn't cast a critical eye on it, or even explain its methodology and assumptions. On the face of it, some of the results look weird and dubious, to say the least. The magazine's chart has two thirds of the electricity New York would supply to hybrids coming from oil. But who burns oil to make electricity? Oil-generated power represents a trivial fraction of the U.S. supply mix. The chart has 100 percent of Texas's additional electricity coming from natural gas. But Texas is the state that's been building out wind the most aggressively (hence the Pickens plan). None of that power for Texas's electric cars is going to come from wind?

And what about long-term electricity demand in general? What assumptions are DOE and SciAm making about the price the Federal government is going to put on carbon, and how that will affect power prices?

As long as you're mulling those issues and leafing through Scientific American, you might want to also consult its take on unconventional natural gas and water. Mostly it retreads what IEEE Spectrum and Tech Review published earlier this year, but Mark Fishetti does has some interesting additional detail about just how contaminants can get into groundwater from bore holes. Even better, go to the Worldwatch website and download Beneath the Surface, A Survey of Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development. The report, a joint effort by Mark Zoback of Stanford University, Bradford Copithorne of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Worldwatch's Saya Kitasei, finds that the likelihood of contaminants from deep shale boreholes getting into the groundwater layers much closer to the surface is extremely small. But it also concludes that faulty borehole construction can lead to gas leakage into surface water. Stricter regulation and more honest discussion of environmental risks will be essential if shalegas is to live up to its full potential, say the authors.

In the July Scientific American, take a look too at Jane Braxton Littlle's article about how wastewater is being recycled in California to produce geothermal electricity. It's a nice description and analysis of how recycling municipal waste water neatly solved two problems, a shortage of aquifer water at a major geothermal site misnamed The Geysers, and a need for cheaper wastewater treatment. Just one issue here: Both in a box and in the text the article says the innovation neatly solves three problems, though only two are clearly spelled out.

Nothing of course will shake Scientific American's reputation  as the world's leading science magazine for the general educated reader. But you'd think they could look at their sources a littlle more critically, and count to three in a fashion that the general educated reader can follow.

What the ARPA-E Is Up To: $93 Million for Energy Research

In a third round of Recovery Act funding awards, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, announced that $93 million will be awarded to 43 different projects around the country. According to a press release, the projects "focus on accelerating innovation in green technology while increasing America's competitiveness in grid scale energy storage, power electronics and building efficiency." Energy Secretary Steven Chu made the announcement on Monday.

ARPA-E is modeled after DARPA, the military's geeked out wing that develops things like stealth technology for fighter planes. One of the interesting sides of ARPA-E is that it encourages researchers to take shots at things that might be a bit out there. According to their mission statement: "To focus on creative “out-of-the-box” transformational energy research that industry by itself cannot or will not support due to its high risk but where success would provide dramatic benefits for the nation."

You can read about all the projects here [PDF], but here are a couple of newly funded projects that might fit that category of high risk and high reward:

  • ABB Inc. along with SuperPower Inc. and Brookhaven National Laboratory received $4.2 million to try and build an advanced superconducting magnetic energy storage device. In short, this involves storing energy from the grid in the magnetic field of a coiled wire, and could theoretically have "near-zero" loss of energy. The aim is to bring a fringe technology toward the mainstream of power storage, making it "cost-competitive for delivering megawatt hours of stored electricity."
  • The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Southern California will try and improve the technology involved with iron-air batteries. Iron-air batteries are attractive because of the super cheap nature of their materials, but have to-date suffered from poor efficiency and life cycle. In this project, $1.46 million will go toward improving on those issues and creating a proof-of-concept battery that could eventually be commercialized for cheap but effective energy storage.
  • Another category of project involves improved building efficiency, and Architectural Applications and partners will use $458,265 to try and develop a novel air conditioning system. If successful, recycled exhausted air will be used to partially cool and dehumidify incoming fresh air. "This design promises a performance increase of 25-40 percent compared to conventional air conditioning systems."

First Coulomb Electricity Pump Installed in New York

At a Manhattan parking lot owned by Edison Properties--no relation to ConEd, by the way--Mayor Bloomberg and HUD Secretary Donovan unveiled today the first Coulomb Technologies charging station. Part of a $37 million program to deploy electricity pumps in 9 U.S. metropolitan areas, with $15 million coming from the Obama administration's stimulus bill, the station is the first of 100 to be deployed in the next months in the city's 5 boroughs. Quoting former mayor Ed Koch, who called New York the city where the future comes to audition, Bloomberg said he wanted the city to be ready by early next year when the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf hit the market.

The ChargePoint network of charging stations, conceived and built by Coulomb Technologies, is being deployed in cooperation with Chevrolet (because of the Volt) , Ford (with its forthcoming Focus and Transit Connect EVs), and Daimler, which is introducing an electric Smartcar. Housing Secretary Donovan, a former member of Bloomberg's city government, emphasized that the administration's support is part of a broad strategy of future job creation. He said that the next day, on July 15, Obama would be cutting the ribbon at a new car battery manufacturing plant in Holland, Michigan.

When Obama took office, said Donovan, there were no factories in the United States mass-producing batteries for EVs; now there will be nine.

Bloomberg, who calls himself a political independent, voiced appreciation and support for the Obama program but volunteered that the number of new jobs resulting from ChargePoint installation will be small in the short run. Pointing out that climate benefits from electric vehicles are highly dependent on the carbon intensity of power generation, I asked how much of New York’s electricity comes from zero-carbon sources; Bloomberg deferred to his sustainability chief, who said New York gets about 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and hydropower plants. While that's less than I would have guessed--which shows that you shouldn't just guess when you're calculating your personal carbon emissions--it does suggest that curbing air pollution is a better argument than carbon mitigation for promoting electric vehicles.

Passenger cars and light trucks account for about 15 percent of New York City's carbon emissions, and so it's easy to see that if 2.5 percent of them were replaced by electrics in the next few years, as a study deems possible, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be negligible. Even if all the internal-combustion cars are eventually replaced by electrics, the global climate benefit would be modest, whereas the reduction in street-level pollution would be dramatic.
 

Paris Puts the Bicyclette First

Paris threw open nearly one thousand one-way streets to two-way traffic this week -- that is, for travelers willing to pedal. Whereas other cities such as Boulder and London have created a handful of designated counterflow bike lanes, the new rules taking effect in Paris this week allow bicyclists to cycle upstream against automobile traffic within all of the city's 30 kilometer-per-hour zones.

Generally speaking these 30-kph zones comprise knots of narrow streets serving primarily neighborhood traffic. But Paris city hall expects a big impact for cyclists. According to Paris planners the move will expand route options for cyclists and may also (seemingly against all odds) improve safety. The mayor's office notes that on some streets cyclists heading upstream will be further from parked cars, minimizing their risk of 'winning a door prize' from innattentive automobile users stepping out onto the roadway.

Counterflow cycling is part of a long-running push by Parti Socialiste mayor Bertrand Delanoe to pump up bicycling's role in Paris transport, and their second major innovation. Their first was Vélib, which brought bike sharing to the big cycle on a previously unheard-of scale. Parisians (and the millions of tourists that visit the city annually) can grab and drop bikes from any of 1800 parking spots across the city.

Reporting by the New York Times last year left many Americans with the impression that Vélib was on the brink, its bikes paralyzed by rampant vandalism. That's not what this visitor to Paris is seeing. And it's not what London sees. That city is in the process of rolling out a bike share of its own this summer.

Up next in Delanoe's urban transport innovation program: an electric car share system dubbed Autolib that the city hopes to launch next year. Paris envisions 3000 electric cars available at 1000 locations in the Paris metro region. City hall is in the process of choosing between the three finalists for the contract to launch and operate the system. 

The New York Times ran a suprisingly optimistic report on Autolib last month, despite starting the article with yet another misleading swipe at Vélib.

Hybrid Solar-Coal Plant: Excuse to Pollute?

Utility company Xcel Energy recently announced that the first ever demonstration of a hybrid solar-coal power generating station is up and running near Grand Junction, Colorado. The plant uses an array of concentrating solar parabolic troughs to reduce the coal consumption of unit 2 of the Cameo coal power station.

An interesting idea, to be sure, but the scale of the coal issue makes this seem like little more than lipstick on a pig. A very, very dirty pig. As NASA scientist and leading climate expert James Hansen writes in his recent book Storms of My Grandchildren, "If we want to solve the climate problem, we must phase out coal emissions. Period."

Hansen and others have shown [PDF] that only if global coal emissions are completely phased out by 2030 could atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide be stabilized at between 400 and 425 ppm (which certainly seems unlikely from our current level of about 392 ppm), most likely averting some of the more dire climate scenarios. The US currently gets about half of its electricity generation from coal; we better get started if we want that 2030 target to be remotely realistic.

Xcel's demonstration project - built along with Abengoa Solar - could reduce coal use at the Cameo generating station by two to three percent, and according to a video the company produced, scaling up the idea could someday bring that to 10 percent. If we take Hansen's - and many other scientists' - word for it, 10 percent reductions in coal use over the next decade or so isn't nearly enough.

That's not to say this isn't better than nothing. It just seems that the $4.5 million price tag might have seen better use in other renewable projects rather than a slick way to keep a 53-year-old coal plant open far into the coming renewable energy age.

"We are very excited about getting this unique renewable energy project on line," said Kent Larson, vice president of Xcel Energy, in a press release. "If this project produces the successful results we expect, this type of solar thermal integration will help move the use of solar energy one step closer to being a potential technology for improving the environmental performance of coal-fired power plants for Xcel Energy and for utilities around the country."

The key there is that the aim is to improve coal plants' performance. When faced with the realities of coal mining and emissions, though, most of us might prefer to just get rid of them.

(Images via Sandia National Laboratory and Xcel Energy)

EPA Re-ssues Tighter Air Quality Rules

The U.S.Environmental Protection Agency, having seen a Federal appeals court throw out its new clean air rules two years ago, has now reformulated those rules in ways expected to pass muster. According to the agency, the new rules will avert up to 36,000 premature deaths at a compliance cost of $2.8 billion, besides producing other significant health benefits.  Though the implied estimate of fatalities from coal-fired generation may seem high, it's consistent with the latest and most authoritative assessment of mortality and morbidity associated with U.S. air pollution. It's to be assumed that many utilities and energy companies will opt to shut down some of their oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants, rather that install expensive pollution abatement equipment, and that as a result,  coal's share in U.S. electricity generation will continue to shrink.

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Yet Another Review Largely Clears Climategate's Jones

A panel of outside experts appointed by the University of East Anglia to examine the conduct of its Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in light of the embarrassing e-mails disclosed late last year has delivered what is perhaps the most nuanced and authoritative judgment yet on "climategate." The CRU's Phil Jones, who had stepped down as the unit's director while it was under review, has been reinstated in a similar position.

"Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigor and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behavior of CRU scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt. In addition, we do not find that their behavior has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments. But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the University of East Anglia, who failed to recognize not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the university and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science."

Just days before the East Anglia review group released its findings on July 7, a Penn State panel issued similar conclusions, largely clearing Michael E. Mann of hockeystick graph notoriety. My assessment was that the e-mail imbroglio nonetheless had caused lingering damage to the reputations of the CRU and the IPCC, and that their work will be scrutinized much more closely in the future. Roger Pielke Jr, with whom I've crossed swords on occasion, has voiced the same opinion.

"The e-mail don't change at all the fundamental tenets of the science," Pielke told the New York Times. "But they changed the notion that people could blindly trust one authoritative group, when it turns out they're just like everybody else"--that is to say, subject to human foibles and human error.

Europe's 2009 Energy Growth Dominated by Renewables

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre released its annual "Renewable Energy Snapshots" report this week, and found that 62 percent of all new electricity generation installed in 2009 in the 27 EU member countries was from renewable sources. This represented an increase from 2008, when 57 percent of new electricity was renewable.

Europe has some relatively lofty energy and climate goals. They hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, improve energy efficiency by 20 percent and ensure that 20 percent of all energy usage is renewable, and all that by 2020. That is a lot of 20s.

The region does seem to be well on its way in terms of the renewable share, with 19.9 percent of the total net electricity generation in 2009 coming from renewable sources. That amount represents 608 terawatt-hours, out of a total of 3,042 TWh; they are targeting between 1,120 and 1,400 TWh to achieve the desired renewable penetration.

In terms of newly installed capacity, wind power led the way, and now represents about 4.2 percent of the total electricity generation (compared to about 2 percent in the United States). After drastically exceeding previous goals for wind power, the European Wind Energy Association is now targeting [PDF] 230 GW of installed wind power capacity by 2020.

The report authors pointed out that meeting some of Europe's aggressive targets will be difficult without aggressive policy changes from those in charge:

"Without increased political support, especially in the field of fair grid access and regulatory measures to ensure that the current electricity system is transformed to be capable to absorb these amounts of Renewable Electricity, these predictions will not come about."

(Image via Joint Research Centre)

BP. Bhopal, Chernobyl

Writing in a recent issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Madhusree Mukerjee wonders why, at a time President Obama is demanding that BP fully compensate Americans for the Gulf disaster, his administration is simultaneously "leaning on the Indian government to render its citizens unable to claim damages from U.S. power-plant suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident." Pursuant to the controversial nuclear commerce deal that the Bush administration negotiated with India, the United States would like India to adopt nuclear liability limits analogous to those in the U.S. Price Anderson Act, which caps corporate liability for a U.S. nuclear accident at $11 billion. A proposed Indian law would limit corporate liability in that country to $110 million.

Yet the Chernobyl accident, notes Mukerjee, a former staff editor at Scientific American and Physics Today magazines, caused an estimated $250 billion in damages. Closer to home, the Indian government estimated the cost of the horrendous Bhopal chemical leak at $3.3 billion, yet the most it was able to recover from Union Carbine was $470 million. The December 1984 leak at the pesticide factory killed 15,000 people and maimed another 100,000.

Mukerjee is not the only person connecting nuclear liability exposure with the Gulf situation, which of course is a vivid reminder that industrial accidents worse than anything imagined somehow keep happening. Peter Bradford, a former commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, points out that the $54.5 billion in loan guarantees that the U.S. government is offering for new nuclear power plant projects amounts to an exposure of $500 for every American family. Bradford complains that although nuclear investors will be required to pay the U.S. Treasury a fee to compensate for the financial risk U.S. citizens are assuming, fees will be negotiated in secret and remain secret.

My own position? Though I'm on-record with my belief that nuclear energy will have to be part of the long-term answer to global warming and energy security, I'm also on-record as being opposed to liability caps like Price Anderson. If nuclear energy is as safe as its proponents claim, the industry should be able to get along without those limits. If nuclear construction cannot proceed without them, so be it.

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