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U.S. Energy Budget Highlights

The president's 2011 budget, posted yesterday on the White House/OMB website, triples Federal loan guarantees for new nuclear power plant construction, to $54.5 billion. That compares with $3-5 billion in loan guarantees for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, and $144 million to support grid enhancements. In addition, the Energy Department will invest $4.7 billion directly in development of clean energy technologies, including almost $2.4 billion for efficiency and renewables, $545 for "advanced coal climate change technologies," $300 million for ARPA-E, and $793 million for clean energy activities and civilian nuclear energy programs.

The content and composition of the 2011 energy budget is all the more significant because, as the administration appears to be resigning itself to enactment of what will be at best a weak carbon cap-and-trade bill, the weight of meeting carbon reduction goals will fall more heavily on direct support for green tech. Bearing in mind the U.S. Copenhagen pledge to reduce carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050,  the budget allocates $2.6 billion in research on climate change and impacts. The government will invest in registries to account for greenhouse gas emissions and issue regulations to improve energy efficiency, lower consumer bills, and reduce emissions.

Especially considering the more than $10 billion the energy department will be spending on activities associated with nuclear weapons--$2.7 billion to secure materials, $8.1 billion for weapon stockpile stewardship--the budget is bound to dismay advocates of renewable energy and carbon reduction. But bear in mind that the administration already spent very aggressively in 2010 in hot areas like the smart grid and advanced batteries. Even so, green tech advocates in the United States and abroad will be watching like hawks in the coming year to see whether developments are living up to promises.

WSJ Calls China’s Electric Bicycle Craze a Killer

Mainstream media have finally noticed the electric bicycle craze that's swept China — where there are now 120 million e-bikes on the road — and is now making inroads in Europe and North America. This weekend the New York Times examined what it called China's “accidental transportation upheaval”, and the Wall Street Journal devoted a coveted cover slot to China's e-bikes in January. The latter, unfortunately, paints an unduly dark picture of this energy-efficient and relatively affordable urban transport option.

“Because they are so silent, fast and heavy they've become a traffic menace,” says WSJ China correspondent Shai Oster in the video that accompanies his piece on e-bikes, unwisely shot while riding one through Beijing (video embedded below). Oster says this is why there is a “new backlash” against e-bikes, with various levels of Chinese governments trying to squelch the e-bike. What I see is ongoing harassment that China's e-bike community has endured for the past 6-7 years.

Early on the official complaint was that rapid replacement of the lead acid batteries most Chinese e-bikes carry  fueled pollution (According to the Times a typical Chinese e-bike uses five lead batteries in its lifetime, each containing 20 to 30 pounds of lead). Today the complaint is that deaths have “soared” from 34 in 2001 to over 2000 in 2007 (not too surprising given that e-bike use was exploding exponentially over that period). My take — reinforced by alternative-transport and urban design activists in China — is that these complaints are a smokescreen for car-oriented industrial and urban planners.

I stand by that analysis, argued for Spectrum in the 2005 feature “China's Cyclists Take Charge.” But I also ran the issues by Chris Cherry, a transportation engineer at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who wrote his dissertation on the environmental, safety and mobility impacts of China's e-bike phenom.

Cherry responded yesterday with a back-of-the-envelope comparison that reveals e-bike fatalities — about 3.8 per 10,000 vehicles in 2007 — about as high as you'd expect for China's dangerous streets. In the same year fatality rates for riders of conventional bicycles, motorcycles and cars were roughly 1.5, 12.1 and 81 per 10,000 vehicles, respectively. In the U.S., by contrast, the road fatality rate is about 1.8 per 10,000 vehicles. “An ebike on crazy Chinese streets is only twice as dangerous as me driving to get a gallon of milk in the US”, says Cherry.

He is more sanguine about e-bikes role in Chinese lead pollution. The problem, he says, is that many small, poorly regulated smelters recycle used e-bike batteries and they make a mess in the process, and it is largely the e-bike's explosive growth that keeps them open. “The rate of new high tech facilities can’t keep up with consumption,” says Cherry.

That said, Cherry tells me I'm “right on” as far as the best role for Chinese officials. They could do more good, he agrees, by trying to solve the lead problem than trying to snuff out the e-bike. His proposal is that they use economic rather than traditional regulation (which clearly isn't working): “I think that it would be more cost effective to subsidize clean batteries (as a larger part of their e-vehicle initiative) or [to] heavily tax lead.”

Winter Reading Tips

If you found yourself wondering during President Obama's State of the Union speech last week why he thinks the United States is ready to speedily build some high-speed rail infrastructure, you'll want to consult the nicely illustrated feature in the February issue of Wired magazine--and for some news updates, you might search our blog posts as well. But note: while text to the Wired feature is accessible online, to get full benefit of the excellent graphics you'll want to look at the magazine itself.

To judge from communications from organizations representing the left-liberal flank of Obama's constituency, nothing in his speech went down worse than his call for more nuclear energy. If you're seriously interested in nuclear prospects you'll want to have a look at the fall issue of Daedalus, the high-brow journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Two of the contributors to that report--Richard A. Meserve, the physicist-lawyer who served as head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and John W. Rowe, chairman and CEO of Exelon--also are serving on a blue-ribbon panel that Obama has set up to review nuclear waste disposal options. In the budget request due out this week, Obama is expected to ask for a tripling of Federal loan guarantees for nuclear construction, consistent with Energy Secretary Chu's complaints that current guarantees are not ample enough to jump-start a nuclear revival.

Obama claimed he's still determined to get a carbon cap-and-trade bill through Congress, though skeptics are beginning to wonder about how seriously he means that. For a withering critique of offsets trading, take a look at Mark Shapiro's article in the current issue of Harper's, though you have to be a subscriber or buy the magazine to see the whole thing. For Spectrum's take, the online feature by Melissa Checker is still worth a look too.

Spectrum contributor Peter Fairley  was quick to recognize how key Boliveia will be in supplying lithium for the batteries expected to power hybrid and electric cars. As it happens the current issue of Technology Review has a stunning photo essay on what Bolivia's nascent lithium industry looks like. There too there's no substitute for the magazine itself.

Despite Higher Installation Costs, Wind Continues to Surge

New turbines amounting to almost 10 gigawatts were installed in the United States in 2009, bringing the country's total wind capacity to about 35 GW, according to data released by the American Wind Energy Association this week. Next week the Global Wind Energy Council, based in Brussels, is expected to release figures showing that wind installation worldwide almost equalled the booming growth rates seen in recent years, which have been around 28 percent per annum.

The 2009 performance is all the more remarkable in light of last year's severe economic recession and a sharp run-up in wind installation costs, going back several years. Steve Sawyer, secretary general of the global council, points out that the cost of steel doubled from 2004 to 2006-7 and the cost of copper almost as much; pretty much the same was true for the price of the fiberglass used in turbine blades, made from a petroleum feedstock. Four or five years ago the cost of European wind installation was about 1000 euros per kilowatt (or roughly $1.4/W), says Sawyer, but in the next years it increased to around 1400 euros/KW, mainly because of the higher commodity prices. Wind costs peaked about a year ago and have since come down some, but only a little.

The China price, notes Sawyer, is to be sure 30-40 percent lower than the global average--and the India prices is even lower than that.

Putting its spin on the rather sensational 2009 news, the American wind association asserts that additional U.S. wind capacity avoids or saves more than 60 million metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions, 200,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, 80,000 tons of nitrous oxide, and 20 billion tons of water. A spokesperson for the association claims, perhaps a little dubiously, that their numbers crunchers got these results whether the generation that wind is substituting for is taken to be the average national mix or the specific mix replaced by specific turbines. The amount of wind installed last year in the United States, the association boasts--and rightly so!-- was equivalent to the amount of new natural gas capacity installed. Together, wind and gas accounted for 80 percent of new U.S. generating capacity in 2009.

To keep things in perspective, recall that when wind (or solar) capacity is compared to baseload fossil or nuclear generation, it is normally divided by a factor of three, four or even five, to account for intermittancy. (The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine.) By that standard, the new wind capacity really is equivalent to no more than 3.3 GW of natural gas. But even by that reduced benchmark, it's the equal of three nuclear power plants--not a single one of which is getting built in the United States at present.

Surveying and elucidating wind cost trends, Sawyer takes note of other factors that have been at work. During the peak growth years when global demand was straining capacity, a sellers' market contributed to cost escalation. Then too, in some cases, the best wind sites were getting exhausted and new turbines were having to be installed in more challenging circumstances, This has been true for example of Gemany, which is having to go off-shore and build larger windmills.

Even so, the European Wind Energy Association did a study last spring in which wind was found to be cost-competitive with all other electricity generating sources, in the current range of carbon prices, at wind speeds of 7 meters per second or higher onshore and 8.25 m/s offshore. As Sawyer sees it, offshore wind is about where onshore was ten or fifteen years ago in terms of technology and economics; it's time now for offshore wind "to grow up."

Looking ahead, Sawyer is confident wind will continue to grow at robust rates. He says that in systems containing a large wind fraction, the wind reduces demand for expensive peaking power and therefore cuts total system costs. He believes that standard economics methodology have underestimated those savings, and that once this is recognized and fixed, wind will look better than ever.

GM's Feisty and Embarrassing Vice Chairman

"Once again, Bob won't get the job." That was the definitive prediction this weekend by Automotive News, the industry's journal of record, on GM vice chairman Robert Lutz's chances of being named CEO [link may require subscription]. Yesterday they were proven right when GM's acting CEO, GM chairman Ed Whitacre, announced that he would continue permanently in the position. What they got wrong, however, was why Lutz was unfit for the top job.

Automotive News let Lutz speak for himself, arguing that at 78 years old he was too "geriatric" for an ailing automaker in need of rejuvenation. That logic flies in the face of Whitacre's logic that what GM needs most, after ousting two CEOs in 2009, is stability. After all, Lutz has served in top product development and marketing roles for GM since 2001, and previously held top jobs at Chrysler and Ford.

What makes Lutz the wrong man at the wrong time is that he rejects the intensifying concerns for sustainability that now drive automotive markets and innovation worldwide. At the Detroit Auto Show last week Lutz held forth on climate science with the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining that Earth is being cooled by a dearth of solar flares rather than warmed by greenhouse gases from cars and other fossil fuel-burners:

"All I ever say is look at the data, look at the empirical evidence...Katrina was six years ago and we have yet to have the next hurricane.”

It was classic Lutz. The product-development chief who contributed to GM's reliance on ever larger and less fuel-efficient trucks has made regular headlines with his contempt for the theory of climate change, most famously in 2008 when Dallas-based D magazine quoted Lutz calling global warming a "total crock of ****." No surprise then that many in the green-car movement cheered Lutz' imminent retirement early last year -- plans he suspended to help save GM.

Lutz apologists point to the self-styled motorhead's role in developing and securing plans to produce the Chevy Volt, a fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid -- this after dismissing Toyota's hybrids as a marketing stunt, albeit  a wildly successful one. Unfortunately, the Volt will be too expensive to save GM, according to my colleague Philip Ross' analysis in Spectrum's January issue. (Will the Real marketing stunt please stand up?!)

Lutz himself  has argued that his off-color remarks on climate change "have nothing to do with the decisions I make to advance the cause of General Motors," but that is just silly. Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon cite Lutz' remarks as a failure of management in their treatise on automotive sustainability, Two Billion Cars, published last year by Oxford. Sperling and Gordon quote a 2008 editorial by Automotive News publisher and editorial director Peter Brown on the value of posture and words:

"When the vice chairman of GM, an icon and the czar of vehicle development, calls the scientists' consensus on global warming a bunch of doo-doo, he's unavoidably speaking for the company. Does the consumer want to buy a car from a company that professes to want to save the world (think Toyota and Honda) or from a company that begrudgingly plans to meet what it characterizes as misguided federal standards?"

Sperling, who runs UC Davis' Institute of Transportation Studies, and transport policy analyst Gordon say Lutz' commentary reinforces questions about the depth of GM's commitment to advanced environmental technology, since the company "feels no need to reign him in."

Hopefully CEO Whitacre, who was installed as Chairman last year by President Obama, will do just that.

If Whitacre does send Lutz packing, it will be on behalf of GM's employees, shareholders, and creditors. GM's latest CEO reiterated yesterday that the company plans to repay $5.7 billion in loans outstanding from the U.S. government by June, as well as $1.4 billion it owes the Canadian government.

Samsung to Install 2.5 Gigawatts of Wind and Solar in Ontario

One of the more startling experiences you can have, if you happen to be in the U.S. Northeast, is to cross the border into Canada around Niagara Falls. On the U.S. side, everywhere there is industrial and urban decay, as if the whole area had somehow been bombed back into the pre-industrial age. Immediately across the frontier on the Canadian side everything is humming along nicely, as if one had just entered the 22nd century.

Three years ago IEEE Spectrum magazine reported on Ontario's forward-looking program to end reliance on coal generation, by boosting renewable energy and propping up nuclear. Last year the province's Liberal Party government adopted a Green Energy Act, aiming to create 50,000 new jobs in the green energy sector and kick-start economic growth. Now the province has reached a deal with Samsung wherenby the South Korean conglomerate will install 2.5 GW of wind and solar generation, and build manufacturing facilities to support the effort in Ontario.

The deal is all the more striking because Samsung is a relative newcomer to wind turbine construction. But this is not the first time in recent months Korea has suprised the world with a sudden move into global clean-energy markets. Late last year a Korean consortium entered bidding for construction of an initial nuclear power plant in the Emirates--and ended up winning the competition.

 

 

 

Climate Community Has More Egg on Face

Trouble notoriously comes in threes, and so it goes for the climate science community and the organizations that have sought to advance action to slow global warming. First came the disclosure of the East  Anglia e-mails, casting doubt on the 1000-year temperature record. Then there was the embarrassing treatment of non-governmental organizations at the ill-organized Copenhagen climate conference. Now there's the discovery of an egregious misstatement about the fate of Himalayan glaciers--not a minor matter--in the IPCCs most recent report, specifically the second volume on impacts.

The error is described in a letter to the editor by J. Graham Cogley of the University of Toronto, which Science magazine posted this week. The panel's Working Group II, in a technical report that was supposed to be based on authoritative, peer-reviewed scientific findings, said that the Himalayan glaciers probably will disappear by 2035 and that their area might shrink from 500,000 square kilometers to 100,000. According to Cogley, the first  statement turns out to be based on a news story that had appeared in New Scientist, "about an unpublished study that neither compares Himalayan glaciers with other rates of recession nor estimates a date for disappearance of Himalayan glaciers"; the indefensible statement has been widely quoted, including by the Intergovernmental Panel's chairman. The second statement (which by the way seems obviously inconsistent with the first) appears to have been taken from a published statement that referred to shrinkage in the year 2350, not 2035.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, winner with Al Gore of the Nobel Peace Prize, regularly issues multi-volume reports that  are meant to represent the carefully honed consensus of hundreds of accredited climate scientists from all over the world. Caught in errors that make its vaunted process look bush league at best, the IPCC has issued a categorical apology, which Roger Pielke Jr has posted on his website. Pielke has blogged about this latest embarrassment, which also has been thoroughly covered in the New York Times and in Andrew Revkin's climate blog.

To get a reaction to the IPCC embarrassment and the larger Himalayan ice issue, I contacted Lonnie Thompson, professor and research scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. Thompson pioneered the study of tropical and subtropical mountain glaciers, starting in Peru in the early 1970s, and he has studied glaciers in every part of the world. Fortuitously, I found Thompson sitting in his office with Yao Tandong, director of the Tibetan Plateau Research Institute, which is based in Beijing and has an outpost in Lhasa.

Thompson points out that the IPCC reports are intrinsically conservative "because every country in the world including Saudi Arabia has to sign off on them." Without belittling the glacier error, he points out that it occurred only in the technical report, not in the executive summary. (But that's an argument that cuts both ways: yes, the authors of the executive summary get credit for not having repeated dubious and unsupported statements; but it's the technical report, after all, that is supposed to be technically bullet-proof.)

What about what's substantively at stake? Billions of Asians depend on rivers fed by the Himalayan glaciers. Thompson says flatly that no credible scientist claims to know what will happen to them, or even how much ice is in them. However, with Yao's assent, he insists on this bottom line: From 1980 to 1995, 90 percent of the Himalayan glaciers retreated, and from 1995 to 2005, 95 percent. And those same patterns are "right in line" with what's also been found in the Alps, Alaska, and South America.

Thompson expresses confidence that the IPCC, in its next round, will make extra sure that all peer-reviewed assertions really are peer-reviewed. He does see an argument for IPCC procedural reform, in that it's a process in which "everybody wants to play an equal part though not everybody is scientifically equal." At the same time, he's alarmed at the constant harassment climate scientists are getting from critics, and fears for the future of the field.

 

Three Cultures of Climate Science

The British physicist and writer C.P. Snow famously distinguished between "the two cultures," the sciences and humanities, deeming the split a major impediment to the solution of social problems. As scientists and the general public grapple with global warming, that split is getting renewed attention--to scientists it seems that the public has trouble grasping what they're saying and acting accordingly, while to the public scientists often come across as high-handed or even authoritarian. There's a lot to be said about all that, but that's not the end of it. Even within science there are subcultures, and members of those subcultures do not always see eye to eye about what's most significant, credible, or--in terms of action--decisive.

Students of climate science conventionally distinguish between three subfields: theory, empiricial work, and modeling. The modelers tend to get the most attention, because they are the ones who assess how sensitive global temperatures have been to greenhouse gases and assert how much warmer the earth will get as concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases increase in the atmosphere.

One effect of that focus on modeling is that people tend to lose sight of the basic theory and its history, starting with the French physicist and mathematician Joseph Fourier--best known to electrical engineers for the Fourier Transform, ubiquitous in signal processing--who discovered the greenhouse effect in the early 19th century. More than a hundred years ago the Swede Svante Arrhenius came up with a credible estimate of how much the earth would warm in reaction to a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the meantime, the warming effect of various gases has been definitively proven in the laboratory.

And that brings us to something else that follows from the focus on modeling. Computer simulations, however elaborate and whatever their horsepower, always are open to claims that something important has been left out, some key parameter has been misestimated, or some critical connection misunderstood. Models always are so complicated that they basically have to be taken on faith by anybody who's not a modeler. For this reason, a lot of scientists and many members of the well-educated public much prefer empirical work, where one can understand at least in principle the scientific basis of claims.

This is why, in the last analysis, the hacked (or allegedly hacked) e-mails to and from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia have been getting so much attention. As scientist John Christy explains in an interview with IEEE Spectrum, East Anglia has played a key role in formulating the recent history of the world's temperature, and if that history has been misrepresented, then a case can be made that recent warming is mainly the result of natural cycles, not emissions from human activity.

The most recent thousand years of climate history have received enormous attention primarily because of Michael Mann's famous hockey-stick graph, which shows a sharp increase in global temperatures in the last century, by comparison with the thousand-year average. It's the authenticity of this graph that is being called into question--not for the first time. The hockey stick graph was reproduced in the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and no double had a big impact on opinion primarily because it is so easy to look at and understand.

But there have always been students of climate science who thought that too much emphasis was being put on the recent history of the climate record, at the expense of the million-year record gleaned primarily from ice cores. The ice drillers have established a lockstep relationship between greenhouse gases and global temperatures, through numerous ice ages and interglacial transitions: when carbon dioxide and methane levels are high, we live in a nice balmy world like today's, and when they're low, we have an ice age. Though it's not crystal clear what's driving what, this much is well established: greenhouse gas levels today are far higher than they're ever been in the last million years, and the difference between pre-industrial and today's levels is greater than the difference was between glacial and interglacial levels.

That's what gives a lot of people pause.

Nissan Gets Into the Electric Vehicle Charging Business

AeroVironment's Nissan-branded 220-volt home chargerNissan doesn't plan to leave buyers of its battery-powered LEAF sedan, which goes on sale in December, to their own devices when it comes to vehicle charging. Nissan will offer a home-charging program to LEAF buyers which will start with an electrician visiting the buyer's home to, among other things, check the quality of their electrical service, according to an announcement this week at the Detroit Auto Show.

Electric vehicle enthusiasts tend to poo-poo the practical and technical challenges posed by home-vehicle charging -- witness the hostile comments to our coverage of concerns voiced by California such as PG&E and Southern California Edison that clusters of EVs could burn out block-level power circuits (see "Speed Bumps Ahead for Electric Vehicle Charging"). But Nissan, like the utilities, is leaving nothing to chance.

The idea is to make sure that infrastructure-induced challenges don't detract from the on-street excitement of driving an EV, according to a Nissan spokesperson quoted in a BNET post from the Detroit show today by New York Times clean-car blogger Jim Motavalli:

“We didn’t want to say, ‘Here’s your car, now you’re on your own."
                -- Mark Perry, a Nissan spokesman handling the Leaf introduction

Motavalli adds that Nissan selected Monrovia, CA-based electric vehicle innovator AeroVironment to handle the program because they offered a rare combination of strong technology and customer service experience. AeroVironment's Nissan-branded 220-volt home chargers will charge a fully-depleted LEAF in 8 hours.

While there is considerable media focus on rapid-charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) such as those offered by Project Better Place, most EV charging is likely to occur at home. That's a necessity in the short term given the present dearth of rapid charging stations available to the public, but it may also carry into the future.

Demonstrations by Tokyo Electric Power, for one, show that drivers actually run their EV batteries down further and then retank them more at home if rapid public charging stations are available. Why? Because they are more confident that they can pop in for a recharge in a pinch if they push their batteries too far. Getting home is assured.

Nuclear Groundbreaking

A person responding to my recent skeptical post about the long-awaited nuclear renaissance took issue with my claim that ground has yet to broken for a new reactor in the United States. The counter-claim is that ground has already been broken for new nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina. My reading of the facts is different, but I'm ready to stand corrected if my reading is wrong. The latest news I've seen for the proposed reactors for the Summer site in SC is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission accepted a construction application in August 2008, and that action is still pending. As for the Vogtle site in Georgia, POWER magazine recently reported that while some work has been done at the site involving installation of sensors and the like, final construction approval also is pending for that project.

Perhaps we disagree about what's meant by breaking ground. I take that expression to mean that construction approval is final, a hole is being dug, and contractors are getting ready to pour concrete.

This is not to say that nothing is going on, in the United States or elsewhere in the world. A South Korean consortium has just emerged as the surprise winner in a global competition to build a nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates. An expert panel has advised China's government that Canada's Candu heavy-water reactor may be the best choice to burn alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium; China continues to pursue work on the pebble bed modular reactor concept, though just about everybody else seems to have given up on the PBMR. GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

GE Hitachi and Detroit Edison are teaming up on a project anticipating construction of an Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor at the site of the Fermi 2 plant near Detroit.

All that is interesting enough, not to mention the new small reactor concepts mentioned in my previous post. But scattered projects, however innovative or promising,do not make--to use the worst of all nuclear chiches--a critical mass. Ironically, perhaps the best news for nuclear is the accumulating evidence that it's become almost impossible to build a new coal generating plant in the United States. A month ago, for example, it was announced that Florida is cancelling its last planned new coal plant. Though the natural gas industry is still taking ads reminding the public that gas is an excellent substitute for coal, which it is, one may doubt whether gas and wind alone can fill the gap as coal plants are cancelled or decommissioned because of concerns about pollution and climate change.

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