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Suppression of Climate Dissent

The disclosure of messages among climate scientists has provided evidence, as the Wall Street Journal put it in an editorial, of "coordinated efforts by leading climatologists to fit the data to their conclusions while attempting to silence and discredit their critics." In the press, climate skeptics like James Delingpole of England's Telegraph have reacted with glee. Even those normally sympathetic to the mainstream climate scientists like Andrew Revkin of the New York Times concede that the messages raise questions about the quality of some research and the behavior of specific scientists.

Given that hundreds of messages and documents are at issue, I leave it to the reader to assess each point on its merits. For now let me just say this. Having covered energy and climate for close to twenty years, I know that climate scientists seeking to engage and arouse the public have sometimes tried to marginalize those who do not go along with the mainstream view of what the situation requires. For example, without naming names, there was a pioneering climate modeler who was discouraged from testifying to Congress because he did not agree that global warming was necessarily "dangerous." When I was profiling him, a long-time colleague of his tried to dissuade me from mentioning his non-alarmist view of things--advice that I naturally ignored.

The problem as I see it is simple. Scientists and technologists have a habit of thinking that certain policies follow logically and inescapably--that is to say scientifically--from their scientific findings. But policy choices always involve economic trade-offs, competing interests, and personal values. Scientists and policy analysts clarify those trade-offs, but when it comes to actually making a choice, the technologist is no different from every other citizen. It's this mistaken notion that a certain policy must follow from a finding that prompts some scientists to discourage dissent and filter out the noise from findings so as to "not confuse the public."

Climate skeptics, let it be said, often fall prey to a mirror-image temptation. Thinking too that policy must follow from science, they feel called upon to refute the science because they don't like the direction policy recommendations are headed. Rather than debate and rebut specific policy recommendations, which are always open to challenge, they try to chip away at the foundations of climate science, which in fact are rock-solid.



Tata and Berkeley Frigid to MDI's Air Cars

Indian carmaker Tata Motors is voicing concerns about the range and durability of the compressed-air powered minicar technology critically analyzed in IEEE Spectrum this month (see "Deflating the Air Car"). Tata Motors invested in French air car developer Motor Development International (MDI) in early 2007, but yesterday Mumbai-based news source DNA reported that Tata sees ongoing issues with MDI's technology.

Tata already sells vehicles that run on gasoline, compressed natural gas, and liquid petroleum gas and is launching a battery-powered sedan in Europe. However, Tata Motors' vice-president for engineering systems S Ravishankar apparently told DNA Money that the company's efforts to add air-powered cars to its fleet are hung up by range limitations:

"Air is not a fuel, it is just an energy carrier. So a tank full of air does not have the same energy as a tank full of CNG. Any vehicle using only compressed air to run would face problems of range."

When asked whether this means that "the 'Air Car' project off?," Ravishankar declined to comment. Instead, Ravishankar added that excessive cooling of the air car's pneumatic engine is also presenting a challenge.

Spectrum's analysis of the thermodynamics of MDI's AirPod concluded that the minicar is not energy efficient relative to electric vehicles, and unlikely to deliver on its promised 200-kilometer-plus range. New York Times columnist Jim Motavalli pour further cold water on pneumatic propulsion last week, reporting on a UC Berkeley report on the poor efficiency of pneumatic vehicles.

MDI, for its part, continues to talk up the AirPod's imminent commercialization, and has forged what may be the firm's first university partnership since an unsatisfying collaboration with France's prestigious École des Mines de Paris (which deflated ambitious range claims for an early version of MDI's technology). Switzerland's ArcInfo reports this week that an MDI partner in Reconvilier will commence manufacturing of the AirPod "from March" and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne will fund a doctoral student to help boost the efficiency of MDI's air compressor stations.

The vapor thickens!

Image caption: Air France and KLM agreed to test a dozen AirPods starting in Spring 2009 but still await delivery from MDI.

Cash for (Coal) Clunkers

Preparing a recent talk for the New England section of IEEE's Power and Energy Society ("How Can We Best Achieve Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions?"), a lightbulb lit up over my head: Instead of encouraging energy companies to switch from coal to low-carbon or zero-carbon energy sources such as nuclear fission, natural gas, or wind by imposing a carbon trading system or a carbon tax, why not just pay them to switch? The dirtiest U.S. coal plants, besides being responsible for about two fifths of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, are also blamed for about 10,000 premature fatalities each year. Admittedly, the thought of bribing parties to stop causing early deaths may stick in the craw a bit. But if that's the most effective way of getting the job done, hey, why not?

There's a very deeply ingrained notion that the United States just can't afford to shut down half its coal plants because the country's coal is so plentiful and cheap. But that's wrong. The comparison I've often made is to the feelings one has about a very good, very cheap, and very reliable car that also happens to be very old—one of the classic great cars, like the 1951 Plymouth or the Dodge Dart of the 1960s and the Oldsmobile Omega of the Seventies and Eighties. Consumers hung on to those cars because they were so inexpensive to maintain and operate. But was a 1951 Plymouth, with no seatbelts, catalytic converter or electronic diagnostics, still a great car in 1981? Obviously not. And nor are the country’s dirtiest coal plants, which are churning out electricity using technology that's not too different from what it was generations ago, good plants today.

You think you can't afford to replace that dirty and unsafe old car; but actually you can easily afford to. You just need a little nudge.

So that's why, contemplating the difficulties the United States has had agreeing on a carbon trading system or carbon tax, it occurred to me that it might just be easier to pay utilities to pour concrete into their aging coal plants the same way we just paid consumers to disable their car clunkers. After all, the cash for clunkers program gave the economy a distinct little boost, and quite a few families ended up with better cars that were smaller, more fuel-efficient, and less polluting.

Of course there was always the sour puss who called cash for clunkers a clunker of a concept, ourselves included. Maybe you're in trouble when you have to call upon Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia Earth Institute's controversial leader, when you need to be brought back down to earth. Writing in the current issue of Scientific American, Sachs argues that the car program was a clunker of a climate policy: He reckons the cost of each metric ton of carbon saved at about $140--seven or eight times the level at which carbon has been trading.

That's a compelling argument. But remember: Cutting carbon was not the only reason or even the main reason for cashing in car clunkers; and nor would cutting carbon be the only compelling reason to cash in coal clunkers. 


Angry Mermaid

Taking their cue from the famous mermaid in Copenhagen's harbor, and anticipating the global climate meeting that will convene in Copenhagen in December, a handful of European environmentalist and corporate watchdog groups have established a mock award to "recognize the perverse role of corporate lobbyists, and highlight those business groups and companies that have made the greatest effort to sabotage the climate talks and other climate measures."

The prize brings to mind a recent blog post in which I complained about the excessive role that corporate lobbying has come to play in U.S. climate policy. As the post was widely misconstrued as an attack on nuclear energy or natural gas, which I favor, let me take this occasion to clarify my position: My gripe is exclusively with legislative strategy that tries to make good things happen by giving incentives to particular industrial sectors; my view, widely shared by economists and conservative political writers like David Brooks of the New York Times, is that policy should confine itself to penalizing carbon-intense energy sources. (To the extent that I part ways with people like Brooks it's over the degree of penalizing; my personal view is that the carbon penalty should be draconian.)

In singling out ads placed by the natural gas industry for attention, I may have been slightly unfair to the natural gas industry. After all, the industry has valid points to make about the role gas can play as a bridge from fossil fuels to greener energy. For example, as Robert F. Kennedy also has noted, a lot of gas-fired generation currently lies idle most of the time and could, with appropriate rule changes, replace coal generation without new plants having to be built. In the final analysis, however, the natural gas industry is indeed hoping that it will benefit from special incentives in the upcoming U.S. climate bill and it has been lobbying Congress to that end.

This is how Rod Lowman, president and CEO of the American Natural Gas Association, put it in an interview when asked about gas language in the Kerry-Boxer climate bill:  "It is definitely a beginning point. In our discussions with staff and senators, everyone agrees that this is a natural gas title with language there as a placeholder to start discussions about taking advantage of lower-carbon natural gas to generate power. The placeholder outlines the direction to take in helping to incentivize the use of natural gas to generate power, and it talks about appropriations of funds to make that happen."

To echo language favored presidents from Nixon to Obama, let me be clear: As long as nuclear energy, solar energy and wind are benefitting from special incentives in climate and energy legislation, there's indeed nothing wrong with the natural gas industry's getting such incentives too; what I object to is anybody's getting incentives.




Very Bad News on Climate Front

Not long ago it was our distinct pleasure to transmit a piece of rare good news from the climate front, the discovery by British researchers that microorganisms living in Antarctic waters are taking up a small but significant amount of atmospheric carbon. Now comes the bad news, and unfortunately it's a lot worse--evidence that our oceans' ability to absorb carbon may be dropping sharply.

It's been long known from direct measurements that the seven seas are sopping up a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that humans are pumping into the atmosphere. Scientists have worried that the fraction might drop as atmospheric levels rise and the oceans become saturated. Now comes a report, published this week in Nature and reproduced on the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory's website, saying that even though the oceans are continuing to absorb ever larger quantities of carbon dioxide, the fraction of human emissions they've taken up may have dropped by as much as 10 percent since 2000.


"The study reconstructs the accumulation of industrial carbon in the oceans year by year, from 1765 to 2008," explains the Earth Institute’s Kevin Krajick, in a lucid press release. "[Lamont Doherty's Samar] Khatiwala and his colleagues found that uptake rose sharply in the 1950s, as the oceans tried to keep pace with the growth of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Emissions continued to grow, and by 2000, reached such a pitch that the oceans have since absorbed a declining overall percentage, even though they absorb more each year in absolute tonnage. Today, the oceans hold about 150 billion tons of industrial carbon, the researchers estimate--a third more than in the mid-1990s."

Khatiwala and his co-researchers developed techniques to infer quantities of industrial carbon in the oceans, working backwards from contemporary levels, and sought to identify the locations of its uptake and its sub-sea transport. They estimate that about 40 percent of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the oceans is taken up in frigid waters near Antarctica, to be carried northwards by ocean currents.

At the uppermost part of the globe, ironically, waters are under-calcified because of freshwater from melting ice streaming into them. A report in this week's Science (appearing tomorrow, Nov. 20) finds that in 2008, in the words of its abstract, “surface waters were undersaturated with respect to aragonite, a relatively soluble form of calcium carbonate found in plankton and invertebrates.” This effect was expected but is showing up about a decade earlier than predicted. It endangers marine organisms that depend on water saturated with calcium carbonate to build their shells and skeletons.



South Korea Emerges as Global Player in Nuclear

It's been obvious for a long time that South Korea is the Sweden of Northeast Asia--a modest-size country that is so high-tech-savvy and business-smart that it consistently punches way above its weight. But it still comes as a surprise that a Korean nuclear construction group is entering the ring to slug it out with France's Areva and a GE-Hitachi team for a reactor construction contract in the United Arab Emirates, as the Wall Street Journal reports. The group, led by Korea Electric Power Co., includes Samsung and Hyundai, as well as Japan's Toshiba-Westinghouse. With six reactors under construction, Korea plans to build a dozen more by 2030.

China to Build Wind Turbine Plant in United States

China's A-Power Energy Generation Systems, together with its North American partner the U.S. Renenewable Energy Group, have reportedly announced their intention to build a wind turbine factory in the United States. This is the second such announcement from a Chinese green tech company this week. Earlier, China's Suntech disclosed that it will be the first Chinese solar manufacturer to build a PV factory in the States.

A-Power Energy and U.S. Renewable came under attack a couple of weeks ago when Charles Schumer, the very powerful Democratic Senator from New York, criticized their plan to draw on U.S. stimulus money to build a $1.5 billion wind farm in Texas.



Green Electrons

The New York Times's Kate Galbraith has a nice article this week, "Shorted," in which she talks about how electricity consumers can find themselves paying more to get green energy only to find that their monthly checks to the utility are financing ads trying to persuade even more customers to send checks to pay for ads to persuade  even more customers to send checks to finance ads to . . . Galbraith cites a report finding that overall in the United States, about a fifth of the money consumers put into green energy programs goes for advertiising and marketing. Some specific cases are much worse than average, of course. A Florida utility saw regulators disallow its program because it was so late delivering promised electrons from renewable sources.

Austin Energy, reports Galbraith, sells the most green power of any utility in the country.  Yet earlier this year the Texas utility was able to sell only 1 percent of a wind-power package it offered customers—an offer that would have cost the average taker an extra $58 per month!

That may be warning sign not just for green electron programs but for wind power too. Early indications are that the average global cost of new wind installations rose rather than fell last year, which could merely indicate excessively fast development, but also suggests that the best wind sites have been cherry-picked and that it will be harder now to deliver wind ever more cheaply. 

China's Suntech to Build Its First U.S. Plant

It's another first for China's top solar company. Last year Suntech moved into the Number Two position among global photovoltaics manufacturers, and according to the analysts at iSupply, it's expected to take the Number One spot this year. That puts it ahead of its closest competitors, Japan's Sharp and Germany's Q Cells. In late August, Suntech announced that it had achieved a record-high conversion efficiencies in multicrystalline silicon PV of 15.6 percent, surpassing the 15.5 percent record set 15 years earlier by Sandia National Labs. Now Suntech has announced it will build a module manufacturing plant in Arizona, the first such factory to be erected by a Chinese company in the United States.

Relying on imported PV material from China, by being located near its markets the plant will economize on module shipping costs while--at the same time--helping the Chinese fend off concerns about export of U.S. jobs to their country.

U.S. Lighting Competition Status

So far there's still just one contestant for the U.S. Energy Department’s L Prize, as DOE announced on Sept. 24: Philips Lighting. The award, authorized by Congress in 2007, seeks to stimulate rapid replacement of two very widely used and very energy-inefficient lamps, the 60-watt incandescent bulb, and the Par 38 halogen. DOE says that if the four-hundred-million-plus 60-W bulbs currently used in the United States were replaced by LED lighting, enough electricity would be saved to illuminate more than seventeen million households, with five million fewer tons of carbon emitted annually.

Philips reportedly has delivered 2000 prototype bulbs to DOE for testing, claiming they meet all contest requirements: the same amount and colors of a 60-W bulb but for 10 watts, a 25,000-hour lifetime, etc. However, Congress has been dragging its feet on actually appropriating the money needed to reward the winner or winners, and no additional contestants have entered or even expressed firm interest in competing.

In a way it may not matter. A company like Philips doesn't really need the $10 million that would go for the 60-W-incandescent replacement or the $5 million for a successor to the PAR 38. And even if there never is another competitor, the award is made to the first company over the line, so Philips can still win fair and squarely. What really matters, points out DOE's Christina Kielich in an e-mail, is that 27 U.S. companies have partnered with the L Prize program to drive the winning product or products out into the marketplace.

“For example," she says, "PG&E and Southern California Edison might elect to do a bill stuffer, rebate, or other incentive to get the product into the hands of millions of electricity customers. The partners are ramping up plans for field testing next spring, so a number of them will have hands-on experience too."


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