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U.S. Citizenry Is Less Concerned About Global Warming

We canâ''t improve on the headline the editors of the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media put on their recent story: â''Gallup Poll Finds More Americans Less Concerned about Global Warming.â'' Yes, even as scientists and opinion leaders are sounding louder alarms about the dangers of global warming, the broad public is getting more skeptical. Whatâ''s going on?

The latest Gallup poll, as reported in the Yale Forum story, finds that 41 percent of Americans consider alarmist news reports about climate change to be exaggerated, while 57 percent regard the reports as correct or underestimated. In a 2006 Gallup poll, in contrast, 66 percent regarded reports generally as correct or underestimated, while just 30 percent considered reports exaggerated. Just as Yale summarizes, more Americans are less concerned about global warming.

In a discussion of American attitudes and news coverage, carried concurrently by Yaleâ''s Environment 360 website, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert reflects on the situation. Kolbert, author of a New Yorker series that appeared in book form as Field Notes from a Catastrophe, recalls that climate change often is characterized as a â''slow moving catastrophe,â'' one thatâ''s largely invisible until itâ''s too late. She quotes John McCain as having expressed skepticism about â''whether our political system can deal with a problem like this.â'' Kolbert concludes that â''the media have contributed to the general sense of it not being an urgent problem because itâ''s not the lead story of the paper every day.â''

My take, for what itâ''s worth, is rather differentâ''almost the opposite. In the last few years, with polls regularly reporting that Americans broadly think of themselves as more concerned about climate change than they take scientists and opinion leaders to be, the view has taken hold among journalists that they are to blame for having reported both sides of the climate debate, as if both sides were equally valid. Media coverage of climate debates has become more one-sided.

Why then has the public become more skeptical rather than less, even as professional skeptics have become less skeptical, scientists have become more alarmist, and journalists have focused more attention on the alarmists? In my view itâ''s because climate coverage has become repetitive and overly insistent, without being more probing and analytical. The effect has been, I submit, to make some of the public feel itâ''s being railroaded.

The debates are over about whether the world is getting warmer, about whether human activity is an important factor in that warming, and whether the consequences could be serious. People know all that and are getting tired of hearing it. What people want to know is: just how serious could the consequences be? To what extent can they be averted? What is it worth paying to minimize adverse effects of warming? These are the debates--in which scientists and policy economists are sharply dividedâ''that are not getting adequately covered in the press.

Too often, global warming is portrayed as something that can be simply stopped, consequences as something that can be simply prevented. But thatâ''s not the case, and all reasonably informed people know that too. So, I submit, people are tired of being talked down to, of being told things they already know, and not being told about things they need to know about.

Report Envisions Dramatic Urban Energy and Carbon Savings

A report done by a German university for Siemens takes as its test case Munich, the mid-sized but high-tech city where the electrical engineering and electronics conglomerate is headquartered. The postulates and conclusions of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy are rather eye-catching, as are its examples and arguments. The authors believe itâ''s realistically possible, in just 50 years, to cut per capita carbon emissions in Munich from 6,500 kilograms to between 750 kg and 1300 kg, in keeping with the ambitious goals of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The reportâ''s starting point is the observation that over half the worldâ''s population now lives in cities. Those city dwellers consume 75 percent of the worldâ''s energy and account for 80 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions. So if it can be shown that energy and carbon can be sharply cut in cities, then thereâ''s hope for everybody.

The Wuppertal researchers see the greatest potential for savings in a program of thorough-going building insulation and re-insulation, together with installation of triple-pane windows and heating-cooling systems that recover and resuse warmth. Other big gains can come from smart electrification and smart vehicle management, together with much more reliance on electrified vehicles and public transportation. Electricity supplies will be more localized and small-scaleâ''right down to building developments and housesâ''with the lionâ''s share of energy coming from renewable, carbon-free sources.

The authors may at times be accused of pie-in-the-sky, â''best case scenarioâ'' thinking. Many a critical reader will be forgiven for refusing to believe that all the good things the report anticipates will actually come true. What saves the report from irrelevance and makes it truly interesting are its many detailed examples, which may not always convince, but do always provoke.

â'¢ For insulation, the report says tiles made from polystyrol, polyurethane, or fibrous materials are ready-at-hand for exterior mounting, but for full effect these need to be as thick as 30 centimeters. Under development, however, are vacuum-core insulation panels, a little as 3.5 cm thick. Even more intriguing: phase-change waxes that melt when ambient temperatures get warmer, absorbing heat, but then harden when itâ''s cooler, releasing heat.

â'¢ To discourage extravagant use of the gasoline car, Singapore has had a toll system since 1975 thatâ''s cut time sitting in traffic jams by 45 percent and helped double use of public transportation. London has had similar success with its inner-city congestion pricing system, and some of its red double-decker buses are now hybrids, consuming up to two-fifths less fuel and registering corresponding cuts in CO2.

â'¢ To show that cities donâ''t actually have to consume depletable fuels and emit greenhouse gases, Swedenâ''s Malmö is constructing a new district with 3,000 inhabitants who, by next year, are to rely entirely on renewable energy or waste combustion. Much of the districtâ''s heating and cooling will come from a geothermal system, in which water will be pumped to the surface at 15 degrees Celsius. (In summer the water will provide cooling at that temperature; in the winter it will be further warmed by means of heat pumps and solar-thermal devices, to provide heating.)

â'¢ A U.S.-Israeli venture is getting ready to deploy experimental networks of car charging and battery exchange stations. If successful, networked electrical and hybrid vehicles will be able to store energy, helping to stabilize grids by consuming it when itâ''s plentiful and feeding it back when scarce. (The reference is to the scheme concocted by Palo Altoâ''s Better Place, which has alliances with the state of Israel and Renault-Nissanâ''s Carlos Ghosn. In January, Better Place announced it would soon start deploying its first network in Denmark, to feed wind-generated electricity to cars.)

â'¢ Assessing the general potential for smart grids, the report reckons that as all households are equipped with real-time electricity meters, every home appliance will have the potential to help with load stabilization and electrical system management. For Germany alone, it calculates that aggregate contribution at 1300 to 3000 MW.

The Wuppertal/Siemens researchers do not shy away from big ideas, which is why their report is worth perusing. Right now itâ''s available only in German, but keep your eyes out for an English edition.

Toyota's Secret: The Clean Air Act of 1970

masatami-takimoto-credit-toyotaHow many automotive engineering leaders from Detroit or Stuttgart would identify the U.S. Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 as the inspiration of their engineering career? Yet that's exactly what Masatami Takimoto did when I spoke with the Toyota executive vice president responsible for R&D and powertrain engineering earlier this month at the Geneva Motor Show.

Since Takimoto retires in June, I asked him to identify the most exciting chapter of his 39-year career with Toyota. His reply brought a smile: "You're familiar with the Muskie law?," asked Takimoto. I'd been asked the same question five years earlier, in Tokyo, while interviewing Takehisa Yaegashi (revered within Toyota as 'the father of the hybrid') for a cover story on hybrid vehicles for MIT's Technology Review.

Thanks to Yaegashi I knew that it was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who drove through the 1970 amendments to the U.S. air pollution law. And I knew that Muskie's law, which required the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards, had inspired a lot more at Toyota than pollution-eating catalytic converters: Toyota's engineers also began experimenting with new propulsion concepts such as the battery-powered electrical vehicle that produce inherently less pollution.

In fact, Masatami says Toyota started developing hybrids in 1969, while Congress was still debating the legislation. And they never stopped. When the challenge of climate change arose in the 1980s and California mandated the development of zero-emissions vehicles in the 1990s, Toyota leaders recognized an unstoppable trend towards environmental protection and responded by accelerating R&D on electric vehicles and hybrids. In 1996 they pushed the pathbreaking Prius into the market.

What was Detroit's focus through those years? One would have to say, based on their lobbying and lawsuits, that crippling California's demand for EVs was near the top. Just imagine what the automotive industry might look like today if GM had instead taken a chapter from Toyota's playbook and pushed its battery-powered EV1 sportscar nationwide, rather than crushing both California's rules and the EV1 demo fleet?

For other highlights of my interview with Takimoto, see "Inside Toyota's R&D Strategy", published today by MIT's Technology Review.

Preliminary Estimate Says 2008 Was Solar Boom Year

According to a report just out from Navigant Consulting, last yearâ''s PV shipments, at 5.4 GW, were up 78 percent from 2007. If confirmed by further analysis, the industryâ''s performance ran strongly counter to the general economic downturn, and photovoltaics seem to be taking off. But there are two major reasons for caution. One is uncertainty in the numbers themselves (estimates of 2007 shipments have varied from 2.8 to 3.43 GW). The other is that with about 1 GW of PV stuck in inventory, and incentives being pared back in the two countries mainly driving demand, last yearâ''s PV sharp uptick could turn out to be an aberration.

Last year, says Navigant, Germany and Span accounted for close to four fifths of PV purchases. But both countries are modifying the generous feed-in tariff laws that have driven demand. Spainâ''s 44 cent/kWh subsidy produced results faster than expected but by the same token proved much too costly; itâ''s being cut to 34 cents/kWh for small rooftop installations and 32 cents/kWh for all others.

Also of interest in the Navigant report are changes in the rankings of top ten PV producers. Sharp, after holding the number one position for years, has dropped to third place. Germanyâ''s Q-Cells is now Number One, and the California company Suntech Number Two. Arizonaâ''s First Solar, which has made headlines with its dramatic claims about manufacturing cost reductions for its thin-film cells, is fourth.

Fate of Major U.S. Carbon Capture Project Still in Doubt

In what seems like the economistâ''s equivalent of confusing metric and British units, a government audit has disclosed that the Federal governmentâ''s estimate of how much it would cost to build a major experimental power plant was off by $500 million because it confused constant (inflation-adjusted) with unadjusted dollars. The error produced an inflated estimate of the plantâ''s total cost that contributed to the Bush Administrationâ''s decision to cancel the plant last year, leaving the United States without a major carbon capture & storage (CC&S) project. The project, FutureGen, would generate electricity using coal gasification technology, with carbon dioxide separated from other waste streams and sequestered in some kind of quasi-permanent repository.

Energy Secretary Chu has told reporters that even with the error corrected, because of other factors, the total cost of the plant may still be too high. According to The Washington Postâ''s account, he said that if the plant costs more than $2 billion, that will be a serious problem because the country needs to explore a portfolio of affordable CC&S options. So, while the death of FutureGen may have been somewhat exaggerated, the same goes for its prospective resurrection.

5 Megawatts-a-Pop and Prepped for High Seas Action

Here's a shot of the prototype of REpower System's 5-megawatt (MW) offshore wind turbine, which has been generating power since 2004 in Brunsbÿttel near the mouth of the Elbe River on Germany's North Sea. I stopped to see the original REpower 5M last week while reporting an upcoming feature for IEEE Spectrum and clocked the turbine's 126-meter diameter rotor swinging at 11 rpm, nearly full speed. The 5M marks an awesome juxtaposition, with the 120-meter high turbine (hub height) towering over Brunsbÿttel's spongy marshland, chemical complexes and a nuclear power plant.

The 5M is creating buzz these days after RWE Innogy, the renewable energy subsidiary of German utility RWE, signed a deal to install 250 of them over the next five years. At a total value of â'¬2 billion it is the biggest deal yet for offshore wind. It also cements plans for RWE's Nordsee 1 wind farm, which could be Germany's first worldscale offshore farm if the first 30 5Ms are installed in 2011 as planned. Nordsee 1, about 50 kilometers offshore, could ultimately grow to 1000 MW -- the same scale as large coal and nuclear-fueled thermal power plants.

REpower's-5M-prototype-in-Brunsbuttel

Heartland Conference Provides Window on Climate Debate

This time last year, a meeting in New York sponsored by the Heartland Institute provided a nice preview of the arguments climate change skeptics would be highlighting in the coming year, and of the star scientists they would rely on to put the strongest face on their arguments. This yearâ''s meeting, which opened last night in NYC, does the sameâ''and the upshot is a little startling. Last year I came away with the distinct impression that climate skepticism still had a lot of life in it. This year the impression, to judge from todayâ''s report by Andrew Revkin in The New York Times, is the opposite.

A notable development in the last year, Revkin notes, was the decision by ExxonMobil to stop funding climate skepticism, including the Heartland Institute and its conferences. But the shift in mood doesnâ''t stop there. The most noted and active of the climate skepticsâ''S. Fred Singer, Richard S. Lindzen, Russell Seitz, and John H. Christyâ''all are warning their fellow skeptics not to carry their arguments too far. Singer, for example, is reminding them that carbon dioxide is indeed indisputably a greenhouse gas, and that humans certainly are partly responsible for measured increased in CO2 in the atmosphere. Lindzen, probably the best qualitfied atmospheric scientist among the skeptics, warned them against trying to attribute recent temperature changes exclusively to solar cycles.

With skeptics like this, climate change skeptics might ask, who needs alarmists?

Bye Bye Yucca?

As noted by energy reporter Matthew A. Wald in todayâ''s New York Times, the Obama budget contains no funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which sounds like its death knell. The decision, consistent with a campaign promise that Obama made, arguably owes much more to politics than to science or technology. Nevada, home of the repository that would be built at the former nuclear weapons testing area, is prominently represented in Congress by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Even more importantly, Nevada emerged somewhat improbably in recent years as a red-blue battleground state, guaranteeing that many a serious candidate for national office would promise to terminate plans for the repository (though McCain did not).

Five years ago, a Federal judge ruled that to be certified for construction and operation, the nuclear spent fuel stored at Yucca Mountain would have to be proved safe for a million years. On the face of it, this is a ridiculous standard: hardly anything can be â''provedâ'' safe for a million years; and one would think, after perhaps 625,000 years, that we would learn a thing or two about storing nuclear wastesâ''and that if they wereâ''t safe at Yucca, well then, weâ''d move them somewhere else.

But to negate that judgeâ''s ruling, the president and Congress would have to pass a law setting a different standard. That plainly is not going to happen. The result will be, as Wald spells out today, an avalanche of litigation, and many more years of arduous negotiation and planning, starting once again from Go.

An amusing but essentially wrong-headed commentary in the liberal e-zine Slate calls this the one decision of Obamaâ''s that will have an impact for a million years. Timothy Noah argues that in making the decision, Obama is saying essentially that the answer to the nuclear waste problem is not to create any more nuclear waste. Thatâ''s not what Obama is saying. He was cautiously but firmly and consistently pro-nuclear throughout his campaign. Noah also deems untenable the current system of storing wastes temporarily on-site in water pools and then transferring the spent fuel to dry casks. Wald has argued persuasively in Scientific American (March 2003) that the system, though far from ideal, is tenable as long as we need use it.

Senate Environmentalist Holds Up Key Science Appointments over Cuba

Itâ''s really just a curiosity but does provide a glimpse of how things work. Talking Points Memo, the liberal news and blogging operation, has a story this week saying that New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, an advocate of action to address climate change, is threatening to hold up two key Obama appointments over unrelated Cuba policy. Though a solid liberal, Menendez takes a hard line on Cuba and is troubled by some provisions in the presidentâ''s spending bill that could signal a softening of policy toward the post-Fidel Castro regime. As a result, heâ''s threatening to put a temporary block on Senate action to confirm Obamaâ''s science adviser and the appointee to become head of NOAAâ''along with Steven Chu, Obamaâ''s energy secretary, they are the two most eminent people nominated for top presidential positions.

Cap and Trade or Carbon Tax?

In his address before Congress last night President Obama called on â''Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.â'' The question is, will a cap and trade system deliver the desired result better than a straight carbon tax?

A debate held last October at Columbia University between Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbiaâ''s Earth Institute, sheds some light on the subject.

De Boer argues the merits of the Kyoto Protocol, which set limits on greenhouse gas emissions for signatory developing countries and led to the European Unionâ''s carbon emission trading system. Central to this cap and trade scheme is the Clean Development Mechanism. The CDM allows companies in developing countries that exceed their carbon caps to purchase offsetting CDM certificates. These certificates finance clean technology projects in developing countries.

De Boer reports that there are now 1170 registered clean development mechanism projects in 49 developing countries. He notes, however, that he is not â''blindâ'' to the challenges that the CDM faces, including the sometimes-questionable â''additionalityâ'' of CDM projects. Many argue that these projects would have gone ahead without outside investment and that the CDM is no more than a cheap way for developing countries to buy their way out of carbon compliance.

De Boer believes that carbon cap and trade and the CDM, though imperfect, are worthy works in progress. And he does not oppose a complementary set of carbon taxes. "We need a set of tools to spur both private and public money flows," he says. "Climate change is a global problem and we will need all the tools at our disposal."

Sachs argues that market-based mechanisms like cap and trade have not demonstrated that they can turn the trajectory of carbon emissions as â''sharply and dramatically as we need to do it.â'' The CDM, says Sachs, â''is unfortunately a very small marginal tool that isnâ''t going to really change the broad framework of how energy is produced and technology distributed.â'' He also fundamentally dislikes cap and trade because he believes it encourages the continued deployment of questionable, risky financial instruments. â''I am not so keen on sending our best and brightest off to do more financial market engineeringâ'' for the carbon markets, he says. â''I think the meltdown shows how we took a generation of brilliant young people and put them to tasks that donâ''t solve problems.â''

Sachs believes that a carbon tax is much easier to administer than a cap and trade scheme. â''There are just a few places we get carbon from and by taxing upstreamâ''at the refinery or the wellheadâ''you reach a carbon price for the whole economy,â'' he says. Cap and trade systems on the other hand, require monitoring the compliance of hundreds of thousands of enterprises, which, Sachs suggests, keeps a lot of regulators, attorneys, and auditors busy but has questionable impact on carbon emissions.

Unlike a cap and trade system that thrives on price volatility, a carbon tax will put a floor on the price of carbon. A more certain price for carbon encourages long-term investment in clean technologies, says Sachs. While Wall Streetâ''s financial engineers make money from cap and trade, a carbon tax allows real engineers to figure out ways to get CO2 under control. But Sachs isnâ''t holding his breath waiting for Congress to act on his suggestion. â''The US is neurotic when it comes to taxes,â'' he says.

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