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Pure-form Big Chill Scenario Seems Vindicated

For decades, Wallace Broecker's Younger Dryas "big chill" scenario has been the poster-boy example of how sudden and devastating climate change can be: According to his theory, the sudden collapse of a natural ice dam in the St. Lawrence river system about 13,000 years ago let a gigantic mass of fresh water escape from an inland sea into the North Atlantic; that in turn disrupted normal oceanic circulation, shutting down the Gulf Stream and plunging the northern hemisphere into a mini-ice age, just as it was emerging from the last big one.

A few years ago groups of scientists produced evidence that the St. Lawrence dam collapse was induced not by post-ice age warming but by a meteor. Strictly speaking, the question was academic. It didn't really matter, in terms of implications for climate policy, whether the root cause had to do with natural climatic cycles (which by the way are triggered by changes in Earth-Sun orbital geometry), or with something that came in one huge burst from outer space. From a scientific point of view, a meteor impact inducing other changes is one kind of climate "forcing"; a human-induced increase in greenhouse gas levels is another.

But of course that's not exactly how things play in the popular press. Say that a climate catastrophe was caused by a meteor, and it sounds like a freak accident that has no real implications; say that it arose  from the natural dynamic of the earth-atmosphere system and it sounds like something to seriously worry about.

So it's of some interest, both political and scientific, to learn that the meteor theory is on its last legs. According to an authoritative account by reporter Richard A. Kerr in the September 3 issue of Science, "Mammoth-Killer Impact Flunks Out," the leading impact specialists are concluding that the main proponents of a Younger Dryas collision have failed to find the critical evidence needed. Chalk another one up for Broecker, seen above setting out on a scientific expedition.

Old-Time Coal

The grassroots rebellion against coal that swept the United States has been a startling and striking development. Until quite recently it seemed impossible to build a new nuclear power plant under any circumstances; almost from one moment to the next it was new coal one couldn't build--or so it seemed.

Actually, according to a recent compilation by the Associated Press, that's not quite so. Since 2008, 16 large coal plants have been completed in the United States, and 16 more are under construction, according to AP's Matthew Brown. "Combined they will produce an estimated 17,900 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to power up to 15.6 million homes--roughly the number of homes in California and Arizona," writes Brown. "They also will generate about 125 million tons of greenhouse gases annually."

To be sure, until recently Federal regulators expected about 150 new coal plants to be built by now. So, 16 is a much smaller number, but still quite big enough to keep coal in its position as the largest U.S. generator of electricity and by far its single most important source of carbon emissions.

The continued construction of traditional coal plants represents an "acknowledgment that highly touted 'clean coal' technology is still a long ways from becoming a reality," as Brown sees it--and it's hard to argue. About $35 billion is being spent on the old-time coal plants, about ten times what the Obama Administration's stimulus bill earmarks for development of clean-coal plants that can capture and store carbon.

Brown also sees an implicit confidence on the part of the utility industry that carbon emissions will not be penalized, but if that's the industry's attitude, it may turn out to be mistaken, despite this year's demise of the administration's proposed cap-and-trade legislation. The Environmental Protection Agency still has the authority to regulate carbon directly as a pollutant, and though that's sure to be challenged in Federal courts, the Supreme Court would have to reverse a rather recent ruling for EPA to be blocked.

Meanwhile there are other ideas on the table. Media magnate Ted Turner, oilman T. Boone Pickens, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, Grist blogger Ted Nace, and--last and indeed least--yours truly have all proposed that we simply pay owners of dirty coal plants to shut them down, on the model of the cash for clunkers program. Paying rather than penalizing could defuse a divisive issue and give the economy an added boost, the same way bribing people to buy new cars did.

U.S. National Parks Threatened by Climate Change

Last year Spectrum had occasion to draw attention to cyber threats to Virginia's state computer systems. Now the focus is on climate change and Virginia's major tourist attractions, with the release last week of a report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council: Profile of Virginia's Special Places in Peril.

The report addresses how climate change could affect small sites like Jamestown and one very big one, the gorgeous Shenandoah National Park and its famed Blue Ridge Highway, built during the New Deal as one of FDR's showcase work generation projects. In a press briefing, representatives of NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization joined with Virginia conservationists to spell out how global warming could affect places that draw 6 million visits annually and account for 4,000 in-state jobs.

I have to confess finding the warnings about the Blue Ridge somewhat underwhelming. Yes, I don't doubt that the timing and character of the spectacular fall colors may be affected and that ground-feeding birds may be threatened. Yes, it is a really remarkable thing that this greatest of eastern parks is just "a tank of gas away" for many tens of millions of people, some living as far away as New York City. (My son and I discovered that last summer when we drove down from Brooklyn and took the pictures accompanying this post.) But frankly, my gut tells me that even with some pretty unwelcome effects from climate change, experiencing the Shenandoah will be just as astonishing 75 or 100 years from now as it is today.

Jamestown, ironically, is perhaps another story. The site is little and not much to look at. But it is after all the exact spot where Europeans landed in 1607 to establish their first permanent settlement in North America, as every grade schooler learns. No doubt it will be permanently submerged by the end of the century--and so will many another equally compelling site around the world.

At the briefing I naturally wondered why a Rocky Mountain organization was  examining an Appalachian park and an Atlantic monument. The answer is that RMCO has been systematically examining the impact of climate change on major national parks, starting in the west, with special attention in one report to Glacier National Park. But there also is a not particularly hidden agenda. In the last year, the Virginia attorney general has been conducting something of a crusade against climate activism: He sought to take legal action in connection with the climategate research imbroglio, and he has taken a leading role in challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate carbon.

NRDC's Theo Spencer said in opening remarks last week that the report is meant to convey (among other things) that there are more constructive ways of addressing climate change than to conduct a "witchhunt against climate scientists." And the report concerns issues, Spencer continued during the Q&A, that are unfolding "in DC policymakers' backyard."

Stephen B. Schneider: In Memoriam

Though I can't altogether justify it, I can't escape the feeling that the death on July 19 of Stephen B. Schneider somehow got lost in the noise of this summer's surf. The more alert climate bloggers, including Andrew Revkin at the New York Times and William Hewitt at the Foreign Policy Association, immediately reported it and with lively appreciation of Schneider's significance. The New York Times ran a nice obituary, as did other papers. But I didn't see anything on anybody's front page, and there were no after-the-fact tributes in the leading pages of opinion--at least none that I noticed.

For an appreciation, I highly recommend a piece posted by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "The Passing of a Climate Prodigy." A physicist and engineer turned climatologist, Schneider was a productive scientist throughout a career that took him from GISS to NCAR and finally Stanford. But much more than most scientists, Schneider was eager to involve himself in the details of policy formulation and willing to dirty his hands in politics. (It was mainly for this reason, no doubt, that he was one of MacArthur's designated geniuses.) He founded and led the influential  interdisciplinary journal Climate Change, and he was a lead author for all four of the major IPCC assessment reports.

If the recommendations of the recent IPCC review panel are followed, Schneider would not have been able to continue as a lead writer in future reports, as rotation of authors is called for. But that doesn't mean his voice would not have been heard. At a time when global climate policy is in profound disarray, Schneider's informed attention to the subject will be missed more than ever.

PHOTO CREDIT: Patricia Pooladi, National Academy of Sciences

Macro-Engineering and Renewables: Tilting at Windmills?

As we have covered in this space before, the Desertec Foundation wants to build massive solar thermal installations in the Sahara Desert and elsewhere, pointing out that if only a tiny fraction of the world's deserts were used we could have all the power we would ever need.

But that isn't the only instance of macro-engineering ideas in the renewable energy field: from T. Boone Pickens's ideas around wind power to proposed hydroelectric monstrosities in Africa, people have been thinking BIG when it comes to pushing fossil fuels out of the picture. Some of the ideas seem great, like the solar thermal plants in the desert; but given our general history with projects on such huge scale, is macro-engineering a new energy landscape really the way to go?

Take the idea put forth by researchers in 2007 of a massive dam at the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea: the project would conceivably generate upwards of 50 gigawatts of electricity, but the authors themselves basically acknowledge such an idea is little more than a thought experiment. "The cost and time-scales involved are beyond normal economical considerations," they write, and seem more interested in simply discussing the implications of such huge projects.

But is that really so off-scale? The existing Three Gorges Dam along the Yangtze River in China (pictured) will peak at just shy of half that capacity, and the proposed Grand Inga Dam along the Congo River will supposedly have a generating capacity of 39 gigawatts.

Clearly, we as a species are not incapable of seemingly insane-in-scope projects, and renewable energy is no exception. Dams, of course, are public enemy number one among environmentalists when it comes to renewables, but is it possible that that's just because we haven't completed any really big solar or wind projects? Three Gorges displaced 1.3 million people, had cost overruns in the many billions of dollars, and has been threatened by such largely unforseeable problems as giant islands of garbage that could have jammed up the turbines.

What would Desertec do to the Sahara? What would happen to America's "wind corridor" through the Midwest if all of the Pickens turbines were actually built? Clearly, I am not suggesting that renewables aren't the most important energy source of the future (they are), only that thinking too big sometimes has unintended consequences. Macro-engineering concepts in other fields are often just ideas that don't get built:  the giant Shimizu Pyramid, or, say, a space elevator. With the need to massively expand renewable energy around the world growing greater with every ton of CO2 emitted, does it make more sense to focus efforts and dollars on individual, very doable projects than on giant quick fixes?

(Photo via Hugh/Wikimedia Commons)

Skeptical Environmentalist Embraces Climate Activism

In what's generally perceived as a radical reversal, the famed skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg is now calling climate change a major world issue that must be squarely addressed. Though Lomborg himself is claiming he has not switched positions, this is not the general perception; the Lomborg Wiki characterizes his new stance as a u-turn.

In fairness, contrary to a very widely held misperception, Lomborg has never been a climate change denier. His position was that the problem of global warming was exaggerated, that other global problems deserved much more attention and investment, and that to the extent greenhouse gas emissions were a threat, advances in solar technology would take care of the problem. (In a book, I called Lomborg's faith in solar technology remarkably credulous, for somebody who styles himself as a skeptic.)

If Lomborg is now noticing that solar will not actually be able to solve all our problems, and if he's owning up honestly to the implications, he's to be congratulated. One reason I've always defended Lomborg against his detractors is that he writes clearly and accessibly, and says what he really thinks. The evolution of his well-articulated thinking will be a positive service.

Top-level Review Panel Calls for IPCC Reform

A blue ribbon panel representing 15 national science academies, the InterAcademy Council's Committee to Review the IPCC, issued a long-awaited report today that focuses on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's procedures. The panel was established at the behest of the United Nations and the IPCC itself, after the disclosure of errors in the panel's last report--amplified by the brouhaha over the hacked East Anglia e-mails--tarnished the reputation of the climate science community.

The IPCC review report's key recommendations are simple and clear. An executive committee and executive director should be established, so that when issues come to light between major reports--like the embarrassing misstatements about the destiny of the Himalayan glaciers--they will be addressed promptly and effectively; to avoid such errors in the future, a more focused method of handling expert comments must be developed. More transparent methods of selecting IPCC participants need to be adopted, and no one of the eight major panels should be led by the same scientist more than once.

Evidently the panel concluded that the Himalayan errors occurred to an extent because the IPCC had responded to some 7,000 expert comments one by one, rather than keeping its eye on truly central issues. Once the errors were disclosed, they were particularly costly because nobody was in charge.

Though the review's focus was on proces more than substance, it determined that the Himalayan errors were not a completely isolated case. It found other instances of important generalizations in summary chapters not being adequately supported and explained.

Press speculation in response to the review report has centered on whether the panel implicitly is calling on the incumbent IPCC leader, the Indian scientist Rajendra Pachauri, to resign. Certainly, as Britain 's The Independent observed, the review "did nothing to lessen the pressure" on the embattled IPCC chairman. Pachauri has said he will not resign, and that while he welcomes the panel's recommendations, action will await an October meeting in South Korea of the 194 countries that participate in the IPCC.

It's probably a tribute to the review panel and its leader, Harold T. Shapiro, a former president of Princeton University, that press comment on the report has been so consistent and uniform across political boundaries. "The climate expert group is invited to reform itself," headlined France's business-oriented Figaro, so as to better respond to public criticism. Germany's left-liberal Sueddeutsche Zeitung characterized the report's thrust as an "invitation to openness": While the IPCC needs to reform itselt, there also is no basis for the sometimes excessive attacks on it. The liberal-to-moderate New York Times said the panel had found flaws in the climate panel's structure.

It was the centrist Independent that was perhaps sharpest: "IPCC feels the heat as it is told to get its facts right about global warming."

After Soaring, Wind Glides

A more sober mood has settled over the wind industry this year. In the United States, where 10 gigawatts of capacity was added in 2009, up a record-setting 20 percent from the previous year, new turbine installations this year are expected to be closer to 6 GW. On August 18, the top Danish wind manufacturer Vestas saw the value of its shares drop 20 percent, after a second straight quarterly loss and issuance of a profit warning. Because of several adverse trends, some of the countries that have pushed wind most aggressively may be approaching a saturation point where further turbine investment would be counter-productive. Wind meets 20 percent of electricity demand in Denmark, 14 percent in Spain and Portugal, and 8 percent in Germany, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's 2009 Wind Technologies Market Report.

An earlier DOE report famously said that wind could in principle supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity by 2030. Will that actually happen? EnergyBiz's Marty Rosenberg recently got a telling answer from Iberdrola executive Don Furman: "Certainly not in the next 20 years." The most Furman would say was that the United States would be getting "a substantial part" of its energy from wind within 50 years.

Wind currently satisfies about 2.5 percent of electricity demand in the United States, and there's ample room for much more growth. In the "interconnection queues" maintained by regional operating systems in the United States--ranked requests for transmission to accommodate added generating capacity--wind ranks Number 1 at 300 GW, far ahead of the next contender, natural gas. With about 18,500 Americans making turbines and turbine components and 85,000 working in the U.S. industry overall, the fraction of wind equipment that the United States imports has dropped to 40 percent from 50 percent, and General Electric has secured a global position as one of the top producers, giving the Danes and the Germans a run for their money.

But there also are limits. DOE registered a rather sharp increase in "wind curtailments" in 2009--orders to generators to stop feeding energy from turbines into the grid because demand was low or transmission lines couldn't handle the load. Higher curtailments contributed to a drop in average U.S. capacity factor--the percentage of the time a wind generator is producing at its maximum possible rate--after years of steadily improving capacity.

That's important because intermittent energy sources like wind and solar have by nature much lower capacity factors than baseload coal, gas, and nuclear. The 2009 drop in the U.S. wind capacity factor to 30 percent from 34 percent the year before means in effect that for every watt of coal, gas, or nuclear capacity installed, about three times as much wind capacity has to be built to deliver equivalent output over time.

Other limits include an unexpected increase in wind operating and maintenance costs, noted in a post earlier this year, and diminishing returns from wind as the best turbine sites are occupied. As the International Energy Agency charted in its generating electricity report this year, wind costs vary much more widely than traditional baseload generating costs, especially in the United States. And so it will not be good news for wind if it gets tougher to keep making average new installations cheaper.

Then too, perhaps, there is a growing unease in some places about the aesthetic impact of huge turbine towers. The traditional Dutch windmill, though a mighty machine capable of grinding minerals and moving water, also was mighty cute. Today's much larger and much more industrial turbines relieved monotony when they first were installed in large numbers in the North German plains and Jutland's rolling fields. Strung along a mountain ridge, they can make a stirring, even exciting, sight.

But I noticed this summer driving from the densely populated Rhine delta through Germany's Ruhr rustbelt to the unspoiled farmlands south of the Mosel that the opposite also can be the case. In the congested industrial areas of Holland and northwest Germany, big turbines make the landscape look even more congested and industrial. And in the fields that spread from Germany's Southwest to France's Alsace, which are unchanged from Napoleon's time, turbine towers--like transmission towers--are not a welcome addition.

All this is just a reminder that while wind is going to be a big part of the answer to future green energy needs, it will not be the whole answer.

As Shalegas Goes Big-time, Small Players Seek Bigger Pockets

The U.S. shalegas business is dominated by small companies that are not household names and which do not operate the way the better-known tech companies do. (One example: if you're a journalist looking to cover a technology story, generally all you need to do is contact the relevant company or organization, get put in touch with the public affairs department, and go from there once some ground rules are negotiated; reporting on the Marcellus earlier this year, I found that the typical shalegas company does not have a PR or media department, does not return phone calls, and in the rare event it does, tells you bluntly that it sees no advantage in talking with a member of the press.) The situation appears, however, to be rapidly changing--the little unknowns are starting to get gobbled up by the mega energy companies we all know about.

The inflection point came in June when ExxonMobil completed its purchase of XTO Energy, based in Fort Worth, Texas, for $40 billion. The month before, Royal Dutch Shell stated its intention to buy East Resources Inc., which owns gas development rights covering 650,000 acres in the Marcellus.

Now, several other of those companies so unknown outside the shalegas business are putting themselves up for sale. Chief Oil & Gas and Talon Oil & Gas, both based in Dallas, as well as Denver-based Anuschutz Exploration Corp., all have made known they are looking for buyers. According to an estimate cited in the Wall Street Journal, unconventional gas will account for close to two thirds of U.S. natural gas production by 2020, as compared with two fifths today. People familiar with the background to the current situation describe the three companies as "operations limited by their size, leading them to explore sales," commented the Journal.

Tech From Mars: Self-Cleaning Solar Panels

Taking a cue from technology initially created for missions to Mars, researchers have invented a self-cleaning system for solar panels that requires no water or mechanical movement, and uses only a tiny fraction of the electricity generated by the panel.

"A dust layer of one-seventh of an ounce per square yard decreases solar power conversion by 40 percent," said Malay Mazumder, PhD, of Boston University, in a press release. "In Arizona, dust is deposited each month at about 4 times that amount. Deposition rates are even higher in the Middle East, Australia, and India."

Compounding such difficulties is the worldwide goal of scaling up solar installations in rapid fashion to make meaningful contributions to power production. If huge projects like the Desertec plants in the Sahara and elsewhere are to become reality -- and an efficient, well-run reality, at that -- solutions to things like dust on panels are needed.

Mazumder's system, developed for NASA in use in Mars missions, involves use of an electrically sensitive material covering solar panels. When dust levels on the surface get too high, an electric charge flows over the panel capable of pushing the dust off the surface and back into the air. According to Mazumder, about 90 percent of the dust is removed within two minutes.

There are other self-cleaning systems out there, but they generally require water. Such systems might work well for home-based, small solar installations, but to keep the dust off vast arrays in remote desert locations, panels that clean themselves using bits of their own electricity and no water at all could make a huge difference.


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