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Columbia University Honors One of Its Top Geoscientists

Wally on a shipIf an inventory were to be compiled of those who have contributed most in the last half century to our understanding of climate, ocean-atmosphere dynamics and global warming, Wallace Broecker would have to rank near the top by any reckoning. As it happens, Wally Broecker has spent the last half century and more--58 years to be exact--at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, which is nestled north of New York City in the Palisades, on the west shore of the Hudson River. He first visited it to interview for a college internship in December 1951,and once he started that internship the following summer, he never left. Coming from a slightly obscure college located near Chicago in the monotonous Illinois prairie, it was as if he had entered the Garden of Eden, he said at a celebration of his contributions last Friday, except that despite his sins he never got thrown out.

Though Broecker is indeed known as a cantankerous and demanding man who can be dangerous to cross, his audience was in a forgiving mood Friday afternoon, having gathered for several hours of talks and songs honoring "Wally Broecker's 50 Years of Innovation." And rightly so.

Were there a Nobel Prize in geoscience, Broecker would have at least one. He in fact has every other relevant award: the Franklin Institute's Franklin Medal, USC's Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, the U.S. president's National Medal of Science, AGU's Roger Revelle Medal (named for the scientist who first started directly measuring carbon concentrations in earth's atmosphere), the National Academy's Alexander Agassiz Medal (named for the scientist who discovered the ice ages), and the European Association for Geochemistry's Urey Medal (name for the isotope dating pioneer). Broecker's most influential single paper has been cited in scholarly publications more than 25,000 times.

Broecker started his career as a geochemist specializing in carbon dating. His major achievements, as summarized in talks by George H. Denton of the University of Maine and Michael L. Bender of Princeton University, have included the following:

--his leadership in charting the chemical composition and age of ocean waters at all depths, worldwide

--his discovery of what he dubbed The Great Ocean Conveyor, a giant current that loops across the South Pacific and South Atlantic and then heads north to what Denton called its "weak spot" near Greenland, where warm surface waters cool and drop, to return saltier to the southern hemisphere

--his discovery and analysis with Ewing and Heezen of a sudden cold snap 11,000 years ago, an event he later called "the big chill"

--his postulation, based on study of glacial moraines in both the northern and southern hemispheres, of a bipolar climatic seesaw, such that when the North is colder the South is warmer, and vice versa

Broecker was a leader in Geosecs (see photo), a large-scale global program to measure just about everything in the oceans that could be identified. In 1975, a time when there was much concern about global cooling, Broecker predicted that a combination of natural climatic variability and human-generated greenhouse gases would soon make for global warming. In 1979 he estimated that about half of the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere by humans is soaked up by the oceans, a finding that has stood up well as precise measurements have been taken worldwide. Having focused early in his career on the abruptness with which each ice age ended, Broecker developed a theory about those terminations, in which he detailed the salient aspects of the problem. Though his initial theory has not held up, said Bender, his analysis of how to attack the problem remains foundational, "150 papers later." And though evidence has mounted that the initiating event in the Young Dryas cooling was a meteor strike, not Broecker's spontaneous breaking of a natural dam, his Big Chill scenario remains a chilling reminder of Europe's particular vulnerability to catastrophic climate change.

Quite a story for somebody who at age 20 was attending a small denominational school where you couldn't smoke, drink, dance or play cards, who had no idea really what he wanted to do with his life, and was thinking of becoming an actuary.

A lot of kind and generous things were said on Friday by colleagues, friends and eminences, including Al Gore, who sent a video tribute. But the most telling words, perhaps, came from Columbia President Lee Bollinger. He recalled how several years ago, upon the inauguration of a new geochemistry building at Lamont Doherty (featuring an especially ritzy office for Broecker), Broecker said (in front of a mike) he supposed he should thank Bollinger, but really Bollinger and just been obstructive and unhelpful. Bollinger observed that in any other kind of organization Broecker would have been fired. But speaking as a specialist in free speech, Bollinger wanted to remind himself and everybody else what the point of free speech is:

Every once in a while somebody comes along who thinks differently from everybody else. Free speech protects that person, so that eventually everybody else may think differently too.

POSTSCRIPT: Coincidentally, earlier this month, another Columbia-affiliated climate scientist, James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, also was honored with a prize: the 2010 Sophie Prize, in recognition of "his clear communication of the threat posed by climate change and for his genuine commitment to future generations." Hansen also would be a clear contender for a Nobel Prize in geoscience, if such a prize existed. In his case the prize would have been for his construction of one of the first credible models of how global temperatures will be affected by rising greenhouse gas levels--a model whose results have held up well with time, despite its simplicity and relatively low computational requirements.

New York City Leads World in Hybrid Bus Adoption

Denmark and Germany led the world in development and adoption of modern wind turbine technology. Until recently, photovoltaics was driven mainly by the generous production credits provided by Germany's forward-looking feed-in tariff law. Conventional fast trains invented in France and Germany have been the path breakers worldwide, while the Japanese pioneered bullets. As for light-rail mass transit, the United States is simply nowheresville--just about any subway car running on any U.S. city line is built in Japan, Canada, or Europe. So it comes as rather a pleasant surprise to learn that in one area of advanced green transportation--hybrid buses--a U.S. municipality is actually ahead of the world pack.

By June this year New York City will have 1,675 hybrid buses workings its streets, which makes it  the world leader in terms of the number of hybrid buses it has brought into service, according to panelists at a recent briefing sponsored by the New York chapter of the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society. The NYC buses, all BAE Orion VIIs, are diesel series-drive hybrids. The earlier models (675) are equipped with lead-acid batteries, the more recently acquired (690) with lithium-ion ones--the former weigh about 3,000 pounds, the latter just 800 lbs.

Not only are the hybrids operating in New York and other major cities, they're actually made in the United States. A key factor, says Jerry Higgins, who until recently was in charge of bus procurement in New York, is the buy-America--or even buy-in-state--provision. The Orion buses are made by BAE and Daimler in Johnson City, in upstate New York. The other two U.S. manufacturers are GM Allison, which makes a parallel-drive diesel bus, and ISE, which has a gasoline hybrid. ISE, located in San Diego, developed the gasoline bus with that city specifically in mind, because Southern California's clean air regulations bar acquisition of diesel buses of any kind.

It's not hard to see why hybrid buses are all the rage in cities like New York--they're for all practical purposes the only kind of new bus the city is buying, says Higgins--despite their higher cost ($550,000, say, versus about $400,00 for a standard bus). They are much quieter, emit 90 percent less particulate and 50 percent less NOx, and give  carbon reductions in direct proportion to their lower fuel usage. That can vary widely, depending on routes characteristics and a particular driver's habits: "No two drivers handle the bus the same way"; depending particularly on braking style, "one driver might get 5 mpg, another 8," said another panelist. San Diego's ISE claims average fuel usage of 7.2 mpg, versus 3-4 with a CNG bus.

Graphene Solar Cells Loom

The graphite tip of a pencil wouldn't be of much use for collecting solar energy, but a one atom thick sheet of that same construct of carbon-known as graphene-sure would. Carbon-based solar cells, if made to be commercially viable and efficient, would be a boon for the renewable energy sector; carbon is as abundant an element as one can find, and could eliminate some of the problems of silicon and other materials currently used in photovoltaic cells.

The problem to this point, though, has been that sheets of graphene tend to stick to each other easily, and sheets made up of many carbon atoms tend to be difficult to work with. Researchers at Indiana University, however, recently managed to create sheets with 168 atoms that they could keep away from other sheets. They accomplished the feat by adding hydrocarbon "arms" extending at approximately right angles from the edges of the sheet. Two of these arms generally will cover each side of the graphene, preventing other nearby sheets from sticking to it.

Their compound was also highly soluble, an important characteristic if they are to be used in solar cells. The authors wrote that the 168 atoms in their sheets are the most in a soluble graphene sheet to-date. They reported a solubility of up to 30 mg/mL in "various common organic solvents, such as chloroform, tetrahydrofuran, or toluene."

Of course, this isn't the first time that graphene has been touted as a solar cell savior. Even though the new version was able to absorb energy in the range from 200 to 900 nm, turning that energy into electricity isn't an easy process.

"Harvesting energy from the sun is a prerequisite step," said Liang-shi Li, the lead researcher on the project, in a press release. "How to turn the energy into electricity is the next. We think we have a good start."

Image by Liang-shi Li.

Green Economics

If you're still on the fence as to whether carbon-reduction policies are called for, or whether direct regulation, a carbon tax or cap-and-trade is the best approach, then you won't want to miss Krugman's article in this week's Sunday Times magazine. Krugman explains the basic principles of environmental economics in easy-to-understand language, and forcefully states the case for climate action: "We're not talking about a few more hot days in the summer and bit less snow in the winter; we're talking about massively disruptive events, like the transformation of the Southwestern United States into a permanent dust bowl over the next few decades."

Citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the climate bill that the U.S. House passed last year, Krugman estimates that it would merely trim U.S. economic growth from 2.4 percent to 2.31 percent per year during the four decades from 2010 to 2050. The estimated global growth penalty would be even smaller, because countries like China produce energy inefficiently and can more easily improve performance and cleanliness.

Krugman might have made the case even more forcefully if he had observed that the world's major breadbaskets could end up getting much too much or much too little water as the century wears on, if global warming goes unchecked. (What we're REALLY talking about is the ability of the world to feed its 7, 8 or 9 billion people.) And he might have been a little more critical of the U.S. acid rain program: Its cap-and-trade system resulted in much more coal stripping in Montana's Powder River basin and West Virginia mountaintops, as detailed in my book, Kicking the Carbon Habit. (A drawback to cap-and-trade unmentioned by Krugman is that it can produced undesirable secondary consequences.)

The particularly acute concluding section of Krugman's article deals with the pitfalls and drawbacks of cost-benefit analysis as a guide to long-term climate policy. He notes, for example, that standard estimates of gains may be overstated because a lot of warming is already "baked in," as he puts it. Conversely, if we don't take action a lot of bad things will continue to happen well beyond 2100--the usual end-point in C/B calculations--and so, "if you place a significant weight on the really, really distant future, the case for action is stronger."

But there's the rub, as he goes on to argue. Technical economists and economic philosophers are deeply divided on the question of what the thinkers call "time preference" and the technicians "discounting." If too much or too little weight is put on the welfare of future people, absurd conclusions result. So, says Krugman, it may be better to rely on an insurance model: rather than take cost-benefit analyses too seriously, policy might better be based on insurance principles--we should take actions now to reduce the possibility of catastrophic events occurring in the future.

That's the better way to go, I'd agree, but it too begs some questions. When we insure our houses against total loss, as we're required to do when we get a mortgage, the amount we buy is based on the estimated replacement cost of the house, which in turn is based on objective market values. But we can't insure ourselves against total loss of Earth, and even if we could, we wouldn't know how to value its (inestimable) worth. So how much insurance should we buy? One possible answer is that we should buy as much as we can afford. But what happens when we start discussing how much we can afford? We find ourselves getting sucked right back into cost-benefit analysis--which is what happens to Krugman too!

South Africa Gets Big World Bank Loan for Controversial Energy Project

At the end of last week the board of the World Bank approved a $3.75 billion loan, most of which will go to build one of the world's largest coal-fired generating plants. The project had come under mounting fire from environmental leaders around the world and from the Obama administration, which wants to discourage international lenders from financing new coal plants. In the last 15 years, public lenders like the World Bank have funded $37 billion in 88 coal-fired plants in developing countries, according to a report cited in a New York Times article. And  as noted in a recent blog post here, South Africa's government has come under increasing criticism at home too, because its heavy investment in energy will burden future generations with a high level of indebtedness and present-day ratepayers with much higher electricity costs.

Eskom, the leading national energy company, is embarked on a $50 billion program to boost capacity, which could result in electricity prices rising 25 percent per year for three straight years.

The World Bank, defending its position, points out that large solar and wind projects also will financed out of the loan, and that South Africa has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent by 2020--twice the U.S. pledge, for what that's worth. The U.S. government, for its part, wants the World Bank to only fund projects in the future that are at least carbon-neutral.

No Joke: Extending Solar's Lease on Life

A notorious economics joke has optimistic implications for solar energy and its decades-long dreams of matching the cost of the electricity now flowing on power grids -- the vaunted grid parity that is most renewable energy advocates' image of the singularity that will free us from climate change and the anti-democratic effects of centralized power. In the joke an economist, physicist and chemist are stranded, starving, on a remote island when a can of soup washes ashore. The physicist proposes smashing it open with a rock, and the chemist wants to build a fire, heat the can and blast it open. The economist offers a simpler solution: “Let’s assume," he says, "that we have a can opener."

The joke isn't the work of a frustrated, underfunded physical scientist, but rather the Nobel-prize winning American economist Paul Samuelson. His joke provides an admission: Economists rely on a bevy of assumptions about people and their tools to reduce a complex world to dollars-and-cents and those assumptions can be wrong, rendering economic theories and projections of limited practical value. Solar advocates have begun to argue that its time for economists to reassess an assumption underpinning cost estimates for power from photovoltaics: the expected lifetime of a solar panel.

Accelerated-aging tests of solar panels installed a decade ago with 20-year lifetime warranties predict that 90% will still be operating at the 30-year point according to this BBC report on research by Heinz Ossenbrink at the EU Energy Institute. Ken Zweibel, director of George Washington University's Solar Institute, tells me he's betting that panels produced today warranted for 30 years will be working decades longer--albeit at roughly 30% lower power output. "My belief is that it will be 60 years," says Zweibel. 

If researchers such as Zweibel and Ossenbrink are right, the up-front cost of producing and installing photovoltaics today should be amortized over a longer useful lifetime, and a much larger number of kilowatt-hours of power generation. That will lower the estimated cost per kilowatt-hour. Combined with remarkable reductions in manufacturing costs achieved in recent years -- a 40% reduction since just the middle of last year according to authors from Applied Materials writing last month in Photovoltaics World magazine -- Ossenbrink predicts that solar will hit grid-parity across Europe within a decade.

That would be one heck of a can opener.

Climategate Is Dead, Long Live Climategate

The British House of Commons's Science and Technology Committee has issued a report largely clearing the East Anglia Research Unit and its suspended director, Phil Jones, of scientific wrong-doing. Though the development has been widely noted in the elite European press, from France's Le Monde to Britain's Independent, it's received less attention in the U.S. Press. That's regrettable, as the so-called "Climategate" scandal has had the greater impact on American public opinion.

To quote from The Independent's report, the Commons committee found no evidence that Jones had "deliberately withheld or manipulated data in order to support the idea that global warming was real and that it was influenced by human activities." Further, it found nothing "to suggest that the hallowed peer review process had been subverted by Professor Jones, and no reason to question the scientific consensus that global warming is happening and that it is influenced by human activities." In the committee's own words, the "scientific reputation" of Jones and the CRU is "intact."

The report  did take East Anglia to task for withholding information in response to Freedom of Information requests, but it put more of the blame on the university than on the climate unit or Jones, who it said had been "scapegoated" to some extent. It recommended that climate researchers be more open with data and methods in the future.

The parliamentary inquiry prompted by the hacked East Anglia e-mails is but one of several, and so the House of Commons report is not the last word or necessarily the most authoritative word in this matter. But it is surely the most high-level of the inquiries, and so on the face of it, the committee's report should lay Climategate to rest. But will it?

Actually, no. First of all, too much damage has been done by disclosure of messages in which all too many climate researchers are revealed to be suffering from a bunker mentality. If they're supposedly so confident of their assertions, why are they so defensive? Not for a long time will press or public be quite so ready to just accept the word of England's Hadley Center or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--and there will be all the more skepticism because of the IPCC's accursed Himalayan glacier errors.

Second, at a time the world is emerging from a recession that almost turned into a great depression, people are looking for reasons to put jobs and prosperity ahead of potentially costly carbon reduction measures. No wonder prospects for U.S. climate legislation are now being declared dead, despite Obama's huge health care victory. And no wonder oil companies are spearheading a California ballot initiative to suspend implementation of its 2006 climate law until until state unemployment drops below 5.5 percent for four consecutive quarters (from above 12 percent at present).

If the initiative wins the support of most California voters--and why wouldn't it?--that will further cement the state's growing reputation for being absolutely ungovernable. Will it also show that serious government action on climate is unachievable?

Nuclear Aesthetics versus Green Aesthetics

In a major victory for local environmentalists and a setback for the nuclear industry, on Friday the New York State Department of Energy Conservation ruled that the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant just north of New York City violates clean water rules and must be equipped with cooling towers, if it is to continue to operate. The plant, which was built in the early 1970s and supplies almost a third of the city's electricity, relies on a once-through cooling system, taking water from the Hudson River and returning it to the river.

The numbers do give pause: The two operating Indian Point reactors take in 9.5 billion liters of water a day, "or more than twice the average daily water consumption of all of New York City"  and then pump it back into the Hudson "20 or 30 degrees hotter," as The New York Times reported this weekend. The state ruled that the cooling system kills too many fish, and consumes and contaminates too much water, to warrant renewal of the reactors' 20-year operating licenses in a few years' time. By common consent; no such cooling system would be approved for a new plant today; installation of the cooling towers commonly (though mistakenly) associated with images of nuclear power would cost an estimated $1.1 billion.

More is at stake here, however, than the usual tradeoff between environmental protection and business competitiveness. Indian Point is located at a lovely little bend in the Hudson, just across from a spectacular state park, and just down-river from West Point and Storm King (where, by the way, the contemporary environmental movement got its start in a battle over a dam proposal). Right now, consisting basically just of two domed reactors, Indian Point's presence is discreet and unobtrusive. But it's hard to imagine its being equipped with huge cooling towers without its turning into an eyesore in what is one of the nation's most lovely and historic sites.

That scenario is a reminder of an element in the debates over our energy futures that is rarely stated and discussed, but which is arguably much more important than it may seem. There are a lot of people around the world who consider wind turbines a visual blight, not very different from the electrical transmission towers that are always so  controversial. Consider now that if the Indian Point electricity going to New York all had to be generated by wind, perhaps 200-500 huge turbines would have to be put somewhere. I personally find wind farms to be consistently stirring and beautiful, so I'm not one to prefer nuclear on aesthetic grounds. But solar? If it ever turns out to be competitive at grid scale, the alternative to a compact nuclear plant would nondescript photovoltaic farms that cover gigantic areas. I don't know about you, cherished reader, but here my aesthetic preferences are in principle decidedly on the side of nuclear.

That's assuming, however, that beautiful and historic spots on major rivers do not have to be sullied with looming cooling towers.  The New York State decision, coming on top of Vermont's decision to not renew the license for an old reactor in that state, further calls into question the notion that we are going to see a net increase in nuclear-generated electricity in the near future. President Obama's decision to give loan guarantees for a new nuclear plant in Georgia may be the beginning of a successful effort to prevent the share of U.S. energy produced by reactors from dropping sharply, but it may be not much more than that.

BP Closes Another Solar Manufacturing Plant

BP has announced it is closing its solar manufacturing operations in Frederick, Maryland, north of Washington, D.C. The striking thing about the news is that it's a mere local story, with the focus on the 320 workers who lose their jobs. The national press has ignored it, as have the specialized news sites and blogs that specialize in solar energy and green tech. 

BP acquired the Frederick plant in 1998 when it bought Amoco. A mere dozen years ago, believe it or not, that little factory was the largest or one of the largest photovoltaics manufacturing operations in the world. BP's acquisition of it seems to have partly or even largely inspired the company's decision to start styling itself as the world's largest solar manufacturer, to adopt an image of the sun as its corporate logo, and to launch a high-profile ad campaign in which it said it was moving "beyond petroleum." A mere two years later, as Spectrum pointed out a while back, it ditched production of the next-generation thin-film photovoltaic panels it had been developing, abandoning a key effort to finally make solar cells widely affordable--and raising doubts as to whether it would be moving beyond petroleum any time soon. Today, BP is not high on the list of the world's top photovoltaics makers.

BP will continue to employ about 100 people in research, sales and project development in Frederick, but the main foci of its solar development efforts are joint ventures in Bangalore, India, and Xian, China. Generally it has got out of producing PV materials, leaving that to subcontractors, and concentrates on integrating and selling systems.

United States Finally Tightens Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards

The Obama administration promised to tighten U.S. automotive fuel efficiency standards almost immediately after taking office, as reported here, and today, following the customary process of policy formulation, comment and review, it did so. Equally important, the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time sets standards for vehicular carbon emissions--a move generally welcomed by the auto industry, which does not want to see states adopt a variety of carbon standards piecemeal, in California's footsteps. That would require them to develop and market different cars to suit the varying state requirements.

The new rules require automakers to improve fleet fuel efficiency and cut carbon emissions by about 5 percent per year, starting with the 2012 model year. By 2016, the required average fleet fuel efficiency will be an estimated 34.1 mpg (or 6.9 liters per 100 kilometers,  with some variance, depending on the degree carbon cuts are achieved by improving efficiency or by other means. If better efficiencies yielded all the carbon reductions, average fleet performance in 2016 will be 35.5mpg (6.6 l/100 km).

Efforts to tighten fuel efficiency standards have been stymied in the United States for decades, an embarrassing situation for liberals inasmuch as Democratic Party representatives of auto manufacturing strategy and the Big Labor lobby have sometimes been more at fault than Republicans. Obama has cut through that particular Gordian knot, and his EPA will soon take action to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources as well. It is an open question, however, whether he will be able to corral auto and coal state Democrats to enact meaningful national legislation on energy and climate.

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