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A Green Lining in Economic Clouds

With the latest alarming reports of drastic economic downturns in Japan and Europe, perhaps we may take some comfort in the fact that carbon emissions are dropping sharply too, which may make it possible to achieve medium-term targets that would have been considered unreachable a year or two ago. According to reports by Point Carbon and New Energy Finance, the prices of carbon emission permits have dropped to the lowest levels seen in the second phase of the European trading scheme; total European emissions were down about 3 percent from the year before. Emissions from steel and cement production were down 9 percent, and those from electricity generation dropped 2 percent.

Climate Denial Crock of the Week

Opponents of the theory of anthropogenic climate change are hard at work via Internet forums making a last stand against the present societal momentum to address our impact on global climate and, specifically, to reduce the carbon footprint of our energy systems. They tend to repackage a dozen or so arguments, each of which takes a factual nugget, strips it of its scientific context, and twists it into a proof that climate change is either a natural process or a figment of the IPCC's imagination. Midland, MI-based multimedia producer, cartoonist, and alternative energy enthusiast Peter Sinclair is returning fire, nugget-for-nugget, with his new YouTube-distributed video series, Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

Each episode of Crock answers one of the climate denial "hobby-horse arguments" with five minutes of science-based, semi-professionally produced video. The Vikings help tell the story in this week's episode, Medieval Warming?, which explodes the notion that Earth was warmer during the Middle Ages than it is today:

Previous episodes tackle, among others, the role of solar cycles, sea ice volume versus area, and the meaning of cold snaps.

Sinclair's message to the deniers is: "Please. Please debate me. I'll rent the room... Come on down." Sinclair received training to do just that via Al Goreâ''s Climate Project, but I'm betting he'll have far greater impact via YouTube. For a sense of his motivation from the horse's mouth see this video interview of Sinclair at Regeneration, a 3-day gathering of university students in Grand Rapids last month organized by the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition.

NYC Museum of Natural History Climate Exhibit

To judge from recent reactions to some of our climate posts in Energwise, there are a lot of people out there who could use some basic instruction in the science and implications of climate change. And so it was to be heartily welcomed, in principle, when the worldâ''s most famous and probably its greatest museum of natural history opened an exhibit about global warming, to run almost a year from Oct. 18, 2008 to Aug. 16, 2009. Mounted in collaboration with a handful of other major museums and foundations, with financial support from the Bank of America and the Rockefeller Foundation, how could it not be great?

For some months, Iâ''ve been puzzled by the absence of attention in the media given the American Museum of Natural Historyâ''s climate change exhibit. So I went to check it out yesterday, taking my spouse along to act the part of â''woman in the street.â'' It didnâ''t take us long to find the answer to my question: What I hoped would be a great exhibit is a great disappointment. There is so little good to be said about it, if indeed anything at all, one is tempted to pass over it in silenceâ''which evidently is exactly what most critics have been doing.

First, some words about the crying need for general climate education, as evidence by a sampling of comments appearing here. A recent post on the Energy Secretaryâ''s warning about the impact of global warming on California agriculture prompted this reaction from a reader who evidently doesnâ''t know that students of climate are called climatologists, not climatists or cosmologists: â''Why are the climatists so worried about the environment? They are the same ones that say the universe just magically appeared from nothing. Can't have it both ways.â''

A post about a recent PNAS paper on long-term climate impacts got this response from a reader who appears to have not quite grasped the distinction between weather and climate: â''There is NO scientific data based climate change model that can predict even next year's global temperature, let alone 10 years for now.â'' Actually, though we canâ''t accurately predict what the weather will be a week or two from now, we can and do accurately predict what the climate will be a year and ten years from now. (And we also can accurately predict, and have done so, what the long-term impact of a major volcanic eruption will be.)

In reaction to the same readerâ''s disbelief â''that the IEEE has fallen for the psuedo science of Global Warming/Climate Change,â'' a reader in Australia wondered why he wasnâ''t falling off the bottom of the Earth, since itâ''s flat.

Then there is this comment, which is just flat wrong: â''The fact that respected scientists disputing human causes for climate change now far outnumber respected scientists blaming humans for it, has been completely ignored by the liberal media.â'' The fact is, about 99 out of 100 climatologists fully subscribe to the claim that the worldâ''s climate is being adversely affected by human activity.

The American Museum of Natural History had an opportunity to describe and explain how climatologists have arrived at that conclusion, to explore its implications, and to do so taking advantage of all the best in interactive, engaging display technology that museums have to offer. It has completely botched that job. It doesnâ''t even do a good job of explaining the rudiments of climate change--the greenhouse effect, the relative irradiation of the poles and the equator, the difference between weather and climate--let alone offer viewers opportunities to interact and engage.

To take one very random example, one panel tells us how in upstate New York a peeper frogâ''s peeping signals the beginning of spring, and that this frog now starts peeping two weeks earlier than decades ago. But do we hear the sound of the frog peeping? Do we see an actual frog, or at least a video of the frog? No we donâ''t.

In the next to last major exhibition area (the seventh of eight), which is called Changing Land,we see panels about more intense storms, more droughts, and more wildfire. But we see nothing about the land effect that is by far the most serious and alarming, the impact on the worldâ''s major agricultural regions. (This is such a stunning oversight, I have to say, one wonders if some corporate sponsor somehow sabotaged the exhibit.)

At the end of that next to last room on land--a point where you can assume that everybodyâ''s attention is flagging--thereâ''s a small panel listing the sources of knowledge about the Earthâ''s climate history: tree rings, lake sediments, corals, cave deposits, ice cores. WHY ISNâ''T THAT PANEL A WHOLE ROOM, AND WHY ISNâ''T IT THE FIRST ROOM IN THE EXHIBIT? The first thing the skeptical visitor needs to understand is how scientists have arrived at the knowledge we have about climate. It is here, right at the beginning, to take a very important example, that viewers should be told how climatologists have teased a history of world temperatures out of ice cores--a fundamental that is never explaining anywhere in the exhibit, and to the extent itâ''s mentioned at all, is explained misleadingly.

The last room in the exhibit, A New Energy Future, describes some promising renewable and carbon-free energy sources in development. It comes as no surprise, after the previous seven rooms, that no mention is made of their relative costs or the technical maturity (or immaturity) of the various green energy contenders.

The Museum of Natural History is not cheap. In fact, it's one of the worldâ''s museums thatâ''s gone the furthest in turning itself into an all-round money machine, with many unappealing dimensions. Itâ''s still well worth visiting, to see the fabulously redesigned dinosaur and marine exhibits, the famous Roosevelt-era dioramas of wildlife and human cultures, and much else besides. But the combined cost of general admission and the special climate exhibit, at $24 per adult, is not worth it. Skip the climate part, which is not worth a dime.

Victory for Mountaintop Strip Mining May be Pyrrhic

In a decision hailed by the coal industry and condemned by critics of Appalachian mountain strip mining, a U.S. Appeals Court found on Friday the 13th of this month that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should not be required to do more strict environmental reviews of applications to lop mountain tops. The Richmond, Virginia, appeals court ruled that a district court judge had erred in not deferring sufficiently to the Corpsâ'' technical expertise and in asking it to take into account indirect environmental effects that are more properly left to state regulatory authorities. Though the National Mining Association hailed the decision, its real impact may be to hasten the advent of tougher Federal supervision of mountaintop stripping.

The Bush Administration was friendly to the coal industry in every possible wayâ''even friendlier than it was to oil and gasâ''as documented in many newspaper articles and books, including the third chapter of my Kicking the Carbon Habit. President Obama promised during his campaign to crack down on the Appalachian coal industry, a risky stand given the prevalence of the practice in politically decisive states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia. With courts taking a step back from tighter regulation of coal, Obamaâ''s super-environmentalist team seems sure to step in.

New Jersey Solar Initiative Illuminates PV Costs

Public Service Electric and Gas announced a five-year plan this week to outfit utility poles, subsidized housing, schools, and sundry other public buildings with solar cells. The total amount of photovoltaic cells will come to 120 megawatts and cost an estimated $773 million. That's equivalent to about 6.5 dollars per watt, which is in line with recent historical costs, worldwide, and consistent with a statement Secretary of Energy Chu made yesterday. The generally accepted breakeven point for photovoltaics is $1/W. Chu said that PV needed to improve by a factor of five.

Energy Secretary Chu Calls for Three Breakthroughs

In an interview with the New York Times today, Steven Chu said that major breakthroughs are required in biofuels, batteries and solar. He said that solar needs to get â''five times better,â'' which I interpret roughly as follows: Industry sources say that photovoltaics have cost between $3 and $4 per Watt in recent years, which is three or four times higher than the breakeven level with coal-generated electricity. One company, First Solar, claims that it will be able to get PV module production costs down to $1/W in five years. But historical data for recent yearsâ''the dollars spent on new PV installations, divided by their total megawattageâ''suggest that real-world PV costs are still in the vicinity of $6 or $7 per Watt.

So if you take an average of industry claims and historic data, you get a current cost for photovoltaics of about $5/W. Improving on that by Chuâ''s â''factor fiveâ'' would give you breakeven.

Sweden Ends Nuclear Ban

This is big. The Swedish government, it was reported today, is ending the countryâ''s multi-decade ban on new nuclear construction and is dropping its plan to phase out all operating reactors. Though it relies on atomic energy for half its electricity, the Swedes have been committed since the 1980s to shutting down all their nuclear power plants, though they have not in fact made much progress doing so. Now the center-right governmentâ''s stated intention is to build new reactors to gradually replace the 10 currently operating. The decision is bound to have wide impact on opinion, especially in Germany, which also has been committed in principle since the 1980s to phasing out nuclear energy.

Sweden is one of those little countries, like South Korea and Holland, that wields an influence in technology--not to mention culture and world politics--that is all out of proportion with its size. It now joins other Europeans countries--notably the United Kingdom, France, and Italy--that have decided in the last year to expand reliance on nuclear energy. Its national utility Vattenfall, a world leader in developing and demonstrating clean energy technology, is expressing interest in entering the British nuclear market as a competitor to Franceâ''s national utility EDF. Vattenfall owns and operates nuclear reactors in Germany, as well as a large fleet of coal-fired plants, and often is in the news there.

Germanyâ''s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who appears to be on a political upswing, has long sought â''an exit from the nuclear exit.â'' Commenting on Swedenâ''s â''buried exit,â'' Germanyâ''s leading business newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, said the decision has aroused agitation among German environmentalists.

Fuel Cell (FC) Watch

After a brief moment of celebrity as star player in President Bushâ''s fantasy of a â''hydrogen economyâ''â''a momentary box office hit that played just long enough to kill the electric carâ''fuel cells fell out of vogue. But the compact electrochemical devices that generate electricity by a kind of reverse electrolysis still have the potential to be a game changer. In some important respects they are closer to commercialization than photovoltaic cells, and if they should suddenly start down the runway and lift off the way wind energy did a decade ago, they could revolutionize both the automotive and power sectors.

A report released this week by Fuel Cell Today takes stock and offers some suggestive hints. All such reports must be taken with a â''big grain of salt,â'' to use a cliché much beloved in the analyst trade; having done a bit of this work myself on the side, I can tell you that a lot of the numbers you read in such reports are pretty much made up. This is no secret. But Fuel Cell Today describes itself as â''the leading organization for market-based intelligence on the fuel cell industry,â'' and its findings seem plausible and interesting. Among them:

â'¢ Global shipments of fuel cells increased 50 percent in 2008, to an estimated 18,000 units

â'¢ Direct Methanol cells accounted for a growing share, putting a squeeze on standard hydrogen types

â'¢ Through the third quarter, venture capital support remained strong, but dropped sharply in the fourth quarter

â'¢ Happily, substantial government support seems assured in the coming years

Specifically, the European Unionâ''s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative will spend 500 million euros (about $666 million) on fuel cell development in the five years to 2013. Japanâ''s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is spending $1 billion, and Germanyâ''besides participating in the EUâ''s JTIâ''has its own $2-billion, 10-year program ($200 million per year). The United States at present is slated to spend $130 million/year for three years.

Europe accounts for will over half the worldâ''s fuel cell market, and its share grew markedly last year, as did the role of its manufacturers vis-à-vis U.S. competitors. The major emerging markets, in Fuel Cell Todayâ''s estimation, are India, Latin America, and the Middle East.

As in most areas of green technology, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan, despite its vigorous entrepreneurial culture, because of 30-plus years of governmental neglect. But even so, after years of upheaval and shaking out in the fuel cell industry, the United States still has two very solid players, one of them a United Technologies subsidiary, the other a determined independent. The latter, FuelCellEnergy, has secured impressive contracts in Japan and South Korea to build power-plant-scale fuel cell installations.

Fuel Cell (FC) Watch

After a brief moment of celebrity as star player in President Bushâ''s fantasy of a â''hydrogen economyâ''â''a momentary box office hit that played just long enough to kill the electric carâ''fuel cells fell out of vogue. But the compact electrochemical devices that generate electricity by a kind of reverse electrolysis still have the potential to be a game changer. In some important respects they are closer to commercialization than photovoltaic cells, and if they should suddenly start down the runway and lift off the way wind energy did a decade ago, they could revolutionize both the automotive and power sectors.

A report released this week by Fuel Cell Today takes stock and offers some suggestive hints. All such reports must be taken with a â''big grain of salt,â'' to use a cliché much beloved in the analyst trade; having done a bit of this work myself on the side, I can tell you that a lot of the numbers you read in such reports are pretty much made up. This is no secret. But Fuel Cell Today describes itself as â''the leading organization for market-based intelligence on the fuel cell industry,â'' and its findings seem plausible and interesting. Among them:

â'¢ Global shipments of fuel cells increased 50 percent in 2008, to an estimated 18,000 units

â'¢ Direct Methanol cells accounted for a growing share, putting a squeeze on standard hydrogen types

â'¢ Through the third quarter, venture capital support remained strong, but dropped sharply in the fourth quarter

â'¢ Happily, substantial government support seems assured in the coming years

Specifically, the European Unionâ''s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative will spend 500 million euros (about $666 million) on fuel cell development in the five years to 2013. Japanâ''s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is spending $1 billion, and Germanyâ''besides participating in the EUâ''s JTIâ''has its own $2-billion, 10-year program ($200 million per year). The United States at present is slated to spend $130 million/year for three years.

Europe accounts for will over half the worldâ''s fuel cell market, and its share grew markedly last year, as did the role of its manufacturers vis-à-vis U.S. competitors. The major emerging markets, in Fuel Cell Todayâ''s estimation, are India, Latin America, and the Middle East.

As in most areas of green technology, the United States lags well behind Europe and Japan, despite its vigorous entrepreneurial culture, because of 30-plus years of governmental neglect. But even so, after years of upheaval and shaking out in the fuel cell industry, the United States still has two very solid players, one of them a General Dynamics subsidiary, the other a determined independent. The latter, FuelCellEnergy, has secured impressive contracts in Japan and South Korea to build power-plant-scale fuel cell installations.

Two Reports Highlight U.S.-China Climate Issues

One, â''Common Challenge, Collaborative Response,â'' comes from The Asia Societyâ''s Center on U.S.-China Relations and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Itâ''s noteworthy above all because it comes from a task force chaired by Nobelist Steven Chu, the new energy secretary, and John L. Thornton, an Asia expert and former co-COO of Goldman Sachs. The other, a little confusingly, comes courtesy of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. Written primarily by two men youâ''ve probably never heard of, David B. Sandalow and Kenneth G. Lieberthal, it actually has some interesting things to say.

Ten years ago, in the November and December 1999 issues of IEEE Spectrum magazine, we drew attention to the critical importance of coal combustion in China and India, and discussed the implications for climate and clean energy technologies. If advanced industrial countries like the United States â''want to mitigate the risks of climate change, after cleaning up for themselves and getting their owns houses in order,â'' we said at that time, â''the next best thing they can do is help China and India do the same.â''

Since then, Chinaâ''s greenhouse gas emissions, mainly from coal combustion, have come to equal or surpass those of the United States. On a per capital basis, however, the Chinese peopleâ''s emissions remain a tiny fraction of Americansâ''. Hence the enduring difficulty of finding common constructive ground, the focus to todayâ''s two reports.

The Chu-Thornton report calls on the leaders of the two countries to convene a climate summit. Specifically, it says the two countries need to find ways of continuing to make electricity from coal, by developing clean coal technologies; collaborate to enhance energy efficiency and deploy renewable energy technologies; and find â''innovative finance mechanisms,â'' so that the private sectors can be better engaged. Those conclusions will strike many as less than compelling. Zero-carbon coal technologies are still far from commercialization, and to the extent they are being actively developed today, the Scandinavians, not potential partners in the United States, are leading the way. In the meantime, emissions from coal can be cut only by burning less coal, and that can occur only if non-renewable as well as renewable energy sources are drawn uponâ''specifically, more natural gas and more nuclear power. Improving efficiency is a good thing but runs up against the efficiency paradox: the more efficient and the more inexpensive energy is, the more people use. So mandated conservation measures also will be required. As for financial innovations . . . the less said, these days, the better.

The Sandalow-Lieberthal report, at least to judge from the executive summaries, is more substantive. It suggests, for example, efforts to electrify vehicle fleets and improve the energy efficiency of buildings, and creation of a joint Clean Energy Corpsâ''a kind of mutual Peace Corps. It says the two countries should initiate at least one major technology co-development project. Identifying an area of genuine U.S. technical strength, it says that the United States can help China in â''large-scale database management, and instrumentation that can contribute significantly to Beijingâ''s capacities to monitor and evaluate energy policy outcomes.â''

Like Chu-Thornton, Sandalow-Lieberthal say there should be a U.S.-China summit as soon as possible, and that cooperation on climate change and clean energy should be a key topic. As it happens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced today that she will soon travel to China, and that climate will be high on her agenda.

Now weâ''re really talking.

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