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Assessing Cancun

The Copenhagen conference that ended this last weekend exceeded expectations and was a definite success, especially  by comparison with last year's Copenhagen Accord. That agreement really only papered over profound and sharp differences, which threatened to wreck the conference and derail the process of international diplomacy being carried out pursuant to the Rio Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992 and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

The Cancun agreements were adopted almost unanimously, with just Bolivia rejecting them. Besides containing some important specifics, they may also provide a vehicle for further undertakings that do not depend on treaty making and treaty ratification. Though such agreements do not have the full gravity of treaties, they are generally considered binding on the states that sign them.*

The two important umbrella agreements adopted at Cancun concern long term cooperation and Kyoto followup. The Kyoto document addresses issues raised by the ending in 2012 of the first "commitment period" in which advanced industrial countries were to make scheduled cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, and the impending second commitment period, which is to run from 2012 to 2020. It is a compact two-page document that declares global warming to be an urgent problem, as described in the 2007  IPCC assessment report, and "urges" the industrial countries to make more aggressive efforts to curtail it than they have made so far. It calls on the world's climate diplomats to see to it in the coming year and at the next climate conference, to be held in Durban, South Africa, that there is no gap between the first and second commitment periods.

In signing onto that statement, the United States seems to be conceding implicitly that it needs to do more than it has promised to do so far to reduce its carbon emissions. Notably, the Japanese government, which came to Cancun wanting to ditch the Kyoto process, was dissuaded from that position by phone calls from the leaders of the UK, Germany, and Mexico. (The Mexican foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, is credited especially with having worked skillfully to make Cancun a relative success.) The Kyoto Protocol to the Rio treaty took force in 2005, and 191 of the 194 parties to the treaty have ratified the protocol; the United States is one of three that have not.

The second Cancun statement, on long-term cooperation, calls on the developing countries to report regularly and verifiably their emissions, as sought by the United States, starting at Copenhagen. The document outlines and specifies how an institution will be established to channel climate aid from the rich countries to the poor--the Green Climate Fund--and, just as importantly for the Third World, specifies how countries can be rewarded for deforestation efforts.

The document on long-term cooperation puts the emphasis equally on greenhouse gas reduction and adaptation to climate change, an important provision for island countries and deltaic regions that are acutely and imminently threatened by global warming. But at the same time it "agrees" that parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions "as soon as possible," bearing in mind that "the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries." This provision implicitly points a finger at China, which refused to make a peaking commitment at Copenhagen. Like the United States, in signing onto the document, China implicitly concedes that it soon will be expected to do more than it has been willing to do in the past.

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* According to the constitutional authority Louis Henkin (Foreign Affairs and the Constitution, Norton, 1972, pp. 184-7), the United States had entered at the time of that writing into thousands or even tens of thousands of executive agreements with foreign countries. While some held that such agreements could not be truly executed without action of Congress, there is no clear consensus on this point. In an important test case, which involved recognition of the Soviet Union by the Roosevelt Administration and the associated Litvinov Agreement, New York State challenged a provision enabling the Federal government to take control of assets held in New York banks to which the USSR laid claim; the Supreme Court held that with respect to "international negotiations and compacts . . . state lines disappear. . . . As to such purposes, the State of New York does not exist." Henkin attributes such reasoning mainly to the primacy the constitution affords the president in the conduct of international relations: If the president agrees to something in that realm, prima facie, it holds.

Save the Birds: Altamont Pass Wind Turbines to be Upgraded

The Altamont Pass wind farm has long been cited by conservationists as a primary reason why wind turbines can sometimes do more harm than good. The 5400-turbine site is so crowded with relatively small windmills that it kills thousands of birds every year, including about 70 federally protected golden eagles as well as other raptors. After decades of operation, though, the Altamont wind farm is finally getting a facelift.

NextEra Energy agreed to upgrade many of the 2,400 turbines it owns at Altamont; it will replace small turbines with fewer larger ones, resulting in a similar power generation capacity of about 240 megawatts. Having fewer turbines spaced slightly farther apart will theoretically reduce the risks for birds who fly through the migration corridor.

The agreement, which could see 80 megawatts of turbines upgraded by the end of 2011 if permitting happens fast enough, stems from a lawsuit filed by the Audubon Society aimed at protecting the birds of the Altamont area. “This agreement addresses the problem arising throughout the state: balancing the need for renewable energy generation with subsequent impacts to wildlife,” said Bob Power, Executive Director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, in a press release [pdf].

It will be interesting to see results from subsequent monitoring of wildlife impacts at Altamont. It does seem likely that fewer, bigger turbines will reduce bird fatalities, but what about bats? Bats most likely die around wind turbines not because of impacts but because of barotrauma: sudden drops in air pressure that exist immediately around the spinning turbine blades basically cause the bats' lungs to explode. Will bigger turbines create bigger pressure drops, and thus more bat fatalities?

It is difficult to predict, but at least one study [pdf] showed that higher turbines do increase bat fatalities. Still, it is undoubtedly progress to try and maintain the energy output of Altamont while minimizing an ongoing point of contention in renewable energy circles by reducing bird fatalities.

(Image via Xah Lee/Wikimedia Commons)

Russian Uranium Company Makes Major North American Acquisition

ARMZ, the uranium mining arm of Russia's state-owned atomic energy monopoly, Rosatom, is taking a 51 percent interest in Canada's Uranium One. The acquisition will make ARMZ the world's fourth largest uranium mining company, according to a report in the Financial Times,  and is part of the company's program of aggressive international expansion. It already has deals or is in serious discussion of deals with France, India, and South Korea, and hopes to be the world's second largest producer within a decade, trailing only Kazakhstan.

Evidently the deal is structured financially in a way that will enable the paired companies to boost production not only in North America and Russia but also Kazakhstan, Australia, and possibly South Africa. Mainly because of new nuclear plants coming online in East Asia, world uranium prices have climbed  about 50 percent this year, from $40 to $60 per pound, and ARMZ is guessing they might stabilize in the long run in the range of $70-80 per pound.

Acknowledging concerns about Russia's trustworthiness as a business partner and its growing role in the U.S. nuclear fuels market, ARMZ director general Vadim Zhivov conceded that the company has a "long hard road" to show Canadian investors that "a Russian state-owned company can . . . play by the rules of the modern developed world." ARMZ's proposed acquisition of Uranium One won the approval of the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States last October, and last week the company's management was honored with an excellence award by Platts, the McGraw Hill energy speciailists.

Could Oil Tankers Be New Reactor Market?

With rising fuel prices, pending international limits on sulfur emissions, and concerns about greenhouse gas emissions in mind, the British shipping consultancy Lloyd's Registry has launched a study of whether oil tankers should be nuclear-powered. At present, reactors have been used almost exclusively to power  military ships, starting with the famous U.S.S. Nautilus submarine (above). In civilian shipping, with the exception of one Russian container boat, nuclear propulsion is used only for icebreakers. Vince Jenkins, global marine risk adviser at Lloyds, clients of the firm are showing interest in alternative propulsion technologies that would cut carbon emissions. "Nuclear power is the only technology that can replace carbon emissions entirely," Jenkins told the Financial Times. 

Two for the Price of One: Singlet Fission and Improved Solar Cells

New research by investigators at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggest an interesting way of improving the output of solar photovoltaic cells. Singlet fission is a process in which the absorption of a single photon can produce two electron-hole pairs, thereby potentially doubling the output of a solar cell.

The research, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, involved the molecule 1,3-diphenylisobenzofuran. In an e-mail, one of the investigators told me that singlet fission is closely related to another process called multiple exciton generation, previously indicated as another possibility for improving solar PV output. MEG occurs in quantom dots, though, compared to the chromophore molecules used in singlet fission, according to Dr. Justin Johnson, of the NREL.

"There is a lot of fundamental research yet to be done to understand singlet fission before it could be useful in solar energy," Johnson told me. He guessed that commercial-scale use of the idea in solar technology is at least five years off, but added that the idea could be applied right away for two types of solar cell: "One is an organic photovoltaic designs (e.g., pentacene/fullerene systems) and the other is dye-sensitized solar cells (i.e., a molecular dye attached to nanocrystalline titanium dioxide)." Johnson continued:

"The efficiency gain arises from the fact that without singlet fission these configurations waste energy to heat during the steps after light absorption and before charge collection. In many cases, the two excitons produced by singlet fission can both be harvested in the same way that one exciton is harvested in a conventional device but without the lost heat, leading to a factor of two increase in efficiency. This is just one scenario, and the exact details of how the device is configured must be taken into account to determine the actual expected enhancement."

He also said that though the molecules used in the recently published work can be difficult to work with, his group is now starting to use easier materials that could be mass produced and would remain stable for at least 10 years, meaning the eventual cost of such solar cells wouldn't be much higher than currently available PV technology.

(Image via NREL)

Coal and Cancun

To first approximation, the political struggle over climate policy can be reduced to the future of coal. The Cancun climate talks are going nowhere because of a stalemate between the United States and China, which each account for about a quarter of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. China gets about three quarters of it electricity from coal, the United States close to half, and neither country is willing to confront its coal industry head-on.

Countries like the UK and Germany, which have been systematically winding down their coal industries, have cut their greenhouse gas emissions sharply and are inclined to stick with the Kyoto formula--first the industrial countries reduce their emissions, then the developing countries. That principle of "differentiated responsibilities" is considered sacrosanct in the Third World. But the United States wants the fastest developing countries, China in particular, to join the industrial in emissions cuts.

That in essence is why Cancun is deadlocked, just as Copenhagen was this time last year.

So if it's a question globally of whether to systematically reduce carbon emissions or to reduce reliance on coal, Big Coal is winning the Big Political Battle. On the ground, however, where it's a question of costs, resources, and technology, coal may be starting to lose. The two biggest factors in play? The revolution in unconventional gas, which already is transforming the future of fossil fuels in the United States and soon may have a similar impact in China. And the world market in coal, which could be undergoing the same kind of transition we have witnessed in world oil during the last decade.

Speaking last week at Platt's Global Energy Outlook Forum in New York City, reporter Bill Holland of Platts Gas Daily cited two recent reports--one from Credit Suisse, one from Deutsche Bank--both concluding that if natural gas prices are at $4 per million BTUs, there is no poiint in building a new coal-fired power plant in the United States and little point in continuing to operate one. As it happens, current U.S. gas prices are roughly $4/mBTU, and futures prices as far out as twelve years are in the vicinity of $5/mBTU and never higher than $6/mBTU. So there's little prospect, Holland concludes, that it will make sense for U.S. utilities to remain as dependent on coal as they are now.

To be sure, some very large coal plants are  continuing to be brought online in the United States. But tighter restrictions on emissions of mercury, SO2 and NOx already are in the works, so even if EPA's soon-to-be-released carbon restrictions are relatively lax, operators of coal plants are sure to see their costs rise quite sharply. Credit Suisse estimates that almost a third of current coal-generating capacity in the United States is subject to no controls whatsoever. As regulation firms up and inexpensive "fracked" gas increasingly enters the picture, demand for coal could drop as much as 30 percent and demand for gas rise as much as 15 percent, Credit Suisse estimates.

Natural gas already is making rather sharp inroads into coal generation in the United States, causing domestic demand for coal to drop somewhat. But the global picture is the opposite. China, whose voracious appetite for coal is generally explained in terms of its seemingly inexhaustible supplies, recently has turned into an importer of significant scale. Those who haven't already lost their short-term memory will recall that early in the last decade China suddenly emerged in the world petroleum market as an importer, which turns out to have signaled the run-up in world oil prices that has the most important single feature of the global economy since mid-decade. Proponents of King Hubbert's "peak oil" theory, which had correctly predicted a peaking in the United States, claimed vindication.

Now similar claims are being made about coal. Writing in a recent issue of Nature, Richard Heinberg and David Fridley argue that economically recoverable reserves in the major producing countries may be much lower than the conventional wisdom has had it, and that China's coal production could peak as soon a 2015. If China's imports continue to grow at current rates, the country will be buying the equivalent of total Asia-Pacific coal exports. Two years ago, the world's entire seaborne trade in coal amounted to barely more than a fifth of what China alone consumes annually.

Hubbert correctly foresaw that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s. In terms of energy content, U.S. coal production peaked at the end of the 1990s, Heinberg and Firdley note.

Will Reality Follow Projections? Renewable Energy Reports Highlight Enormous Potential

As we've mentioned here before, a big part of the renewable energy field seems to involve reports and estimates with less forward progress toward realizing some of that potential than one might like. Some recent additions to the report field highlight the fact that though much of the possibilities do remain just that -- possibilities -- for the moment, we may be on the cusp of truly breathtaking advances in renewable energy development.

One report from the industry group Solar Energy Industries Association presented at the COP16 climate summit in Cancun estimates that global solar capacity could reach 980 gigawatts by 2020. If true, this would represent a truly amazing jump from present: after a record year in 2009, the global solar capacity was only about 20 gigawatts.

As one maker of solar photovoltaic cells told BusinessWeek, that huge leap isn't exactly an easy thing to accomplish. “The capital needed to manufacture that much capacity is staggering,” said Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing at SolFocus Inc. in California. The report most likely includes completion of huge projects like the DeserTec plants in the Sahara.

Moving to the wind sector, a report from the non-profit Environment New Hampshire highlights the lack of real aggression on the part of the United States when it comes to offshore wind. With more than 2 gigawatts already spinning off Europe, and China's first offshore wind farm (102 MW) now online, the paltry goals for the turbine-less US seem all the more weak. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory's report from earlier this year showed the enormous existing potential around US shores, and the east coast alone holds more than 200 gigawatts of offshore wind potential (after taking locations and socioeconomic factors into account). Even still, Europe aims to have 40 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2020, compared to only 10 gigawatts in the US. There is hope, though, that the Interior Department's recent announcement of an improved permitting process might kickstart the industry.

Ten gigawatts of offshore wind in the US would add only about 30 percent to the existing wind capacity overall (which accounts for about two percent of the total US electricity generation capacity). To make a dent in emissions reductions goals, that number will have to grow.

(Image via Environment New Hampshire)

Will Winter Weather Worsen EV Range? Not Hardly.

We’re big fans of Mythbusters and love busting some of our own myths. 

So we decided to test a myth we hear time and time again: electric cars can’t go very far in the winter when in-cabin electric heating zaps the power from the battery pack.

We put on our thermal underwear, grabbed a warm coffee and headed out into unseasonably cold weather with a 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 to see just how the sports car coped with ice, snow and a raging cold northerly wind.

As luck would have it our car for the weekend was exactly the same vehicle we borrowed in October, so we were able to draw a good comparison between the two weekends in true Mythbuster style.

As we pulled out of Central London and headed west down one of the many freeways radiating out of the U.K’s capital the entire U.K. was under severe weather advisories for heavy snow and extreme cold. 

While the temperatures we were set to experience were mild in comparison to a severe north east Winter we were promised temperatures as cold as 14 °F, with daytime maximums barely creeping above freezing point.

But this didn’t phase the Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5. With powerful seat heaters and a fully electric heater providing enough warmth to make the cabin more than cosy, the Tesla forged forward into the encroaching darkness.

About 40 miles before our destination snow started to fall. Initially light, the snowfall became heavier until our car registered an outside temperature of around 25 °F. 

At this point the Tesla, still in Range mode, was predicting enough power for at least another 80 miles. On arrival, the on-board computer predicted a further 40 miles in range mode was possible.

The next day, we took the Tesla on an exhaustive trip designed to give it a thorough working out. First, a 60 mile freeway trip at 70mph, followed by a further 80 mile meandering route through some of the southwest of England’s most challenging roads.

With the temperature below 27 °F for the entire trip and temperatures dropping to an indicated 20 °F while driving through the iconic Cheddar Gorge, our test car didn’t put a foot wrong, climbing up the 1,000 feet twisty road with ease.

Even with the best will in the world we just couldn’t make the Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 lose grip while driving. The Tesla’s traction control made sure it stayed pointed in the right direction, even when we drove on sheet ice.

In fact, the only way we could force the Tesla to slide around was to find a deserted parking lot and turn the traction control off.

We’d planned to film our frigid fun, but it turned out our camera equipment just couldn’t handle the cold and switched off as soon as it was exposed to the extreme windchill. No such problems for the car, however, which kept on providing heat, power and entertainment for a whole weekend.

In total we used just over 140 kilowatt-hours of power over the weekend, resulting in a massive 450 miles of snow-filled fun. 

We struggled to find a difference in performance, range or energy consumption between our cold-weekend and our mid-Fall test-drive. Whatever we threw at it, the 2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 kept going.

Our only problem? A frozen trunk mechanism after the overnight temperature dipped below 16 °F which required a few hours of driving to thaw out.

Other than that, we’d have to say that Tesla have managed to change our perception of Winter electric vehicle motoring.

Myth Busted.

This article, written by Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, originally appeared on AllCarsElectric.com, a content partner of IEEE Spectrum.

The Ideal Wind Farm: Tweaking Turbine Spacing to Improve Output

In the early days of wind energy development, it seemed there was little thought put into some of the details of how to put together a wind farm. The Altamont Pass farm might pass as the poster child for some early missteps, as its small and tightly clustered turbines kill more than 4,000 birds per year (including 70 protected golden eagles). More recently, a lot more thought is going into just how the thousands of turbines the world is building should be spaced

In a presentation at an American Physical Society meeting this week, Johns Hopkins researcher Charles Meneveau discussed work on an algorithm designed to optimize the placement of turbines in a wind farm. Among the findings -- which are based on computer modeling of the flow of air around spinning turbines -- is that generally we've been placing them too close together.

According to a press release, large turbines (of the five-megawatt variety) should be separated by 15 rotor-diameters rather than seven, which is commonly used today. Turbulence created by the spinning blades creates a situation where the speed and direction of the wind is muddied, meaning that turbines placed close together might not be creating as much energy as they could at slightly larger spacings.

This isn't the first research looking at how to get the most out of a lot of turbines placed close together. Earlier this year, investigators in Spain published a paper in Renewable Energy on an algorithm designed to optimize wind farm arrangement. All of this work is a crucial step in improving wind power's overall viability: the continuing effort to bring the cost-per-kilowatt down into fossil fuel range will make each new wind farm that much easier to build.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Stuxnet Sends Ominous Message

Two months ago the German cybersecurity expert Frank Rieger published a compelling analysis of Stuxnet suggesting it targeted Iranian nuclear facilities, quite possibly the big uranium enrichment complex at Natanz. Two weeks ago the U.S. cybersecurity firm Symantec published an exhaustive analysis that showed beyond any reasonable doubt that Natanz was the main target, though perhaps not the only target. All that is arresting enough. But there's also a larger message, namely that any large networked system--from the smart grid to oil refineries or nuclear reactors--could be vulnerable to malware of similar sophistication.

To quote the summary that concludes the Symantec report: "Stuxnet represents the first of many milestones in malicious code history--it is the first to exploit four operating system vulnerabilities, compromise two digital certificates, and inject code into industrial control systems and hide the code from the operator... Stuxnet has highlighted direct-attack  attempts on critical infrastructure are possible and not just theory or movie possibilities.. . . Stuxnet is the type of threat we hope to never see again."

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