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Facing Our Flow with BP's Live Spill-Cam

Click image, then hit play (persistently) for live streamFor a look in the mirror that could inspire a car-free weekend, BP has made available a livestream feed of its uncontrolled oil spill over 5000-feet below the Gulf of Mexico's increasingly oily surface. [You'll need to hit play several times to get a peek at this very popular feed.]

Government agencies and industry engineers have been viewing this feed for two weeks. BP made it accessible today to gasoline consumers and shareholders of the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem at the urging of Ed Markey, chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and an advocate of fossil fuel-free energy and transportation.

Just how much of the oil our cars and trucks need is instead spilling out of the Deepwater Horizon's crippled riser? BP and the Unified Command directing the spill response have stuck for weeks with an admittedly imprecise estimate of 5,000 barrels per day (bpd), while independent scientists analyzing earlier video imagery argued for a number of 20,000-100,000 bpd. BP's explanation for the discrepancy is the large amount of natural gas exiting the riser (about half of the plume, says BP) and distortion of the riser, whose diameter is now 30% wider than its pre-accident dimension of 19.5 inches.

We may get a better number tomorrow, when a panel of federal scientists is mandated to report their best estimate.

The new federal figure may, however, be outdated by early next week when BP plans to attempt its most invasive intervention to stem the leak. As I report in MIT Technology Review today, their 'top kill' method could stanch the flow altogether, or break it wide open.

Senate Energy Bill

Two weeks ago Senators Kerry and Lieberman unveiled the American Power Act, essentially the Senate version of a climate bill that the House passed mid-2009. Since Obama’s election and before, climate legislation handicapping has fluctuated wildly: initially, with Republicans like Arizona’s McCain and South Carolina’s Graham co-sponsoring cap-and-trade bills, prompt enactment of a bill to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions was considered a virtual sure thing; then, with the onslaught of the Great Recession, the edging of more urgent issues to the top of the legislative agenda,  and the defection first of McCain and then of Graham, a pundit consensus formed that climate legislation had little or no chance of getting through the Senate this year; but most recently, with Obama’s major victories on health reform and financial regulation, it’s beginning to look after all like he may manage to get anything big he cares about greatly.
Easily the most important factor favoring Senate  passage of the American Power Act is the wide support the bill has garnered in the U.S. business community. Membership in American Businesses for Clean Energy, the main organization representing firms that favor national climate legislation, has grown from barely 750 toward the end of last year to more than 6,000 today.
Boeing, General Electric, IBM, and United Technologies are among the businesses participating in that organization and others, such as the We Can Lead Campaign and the U.S. Climate Action Network. Last year Apple Computer dropped out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of unhappiness about the chamber's obstructionist climate stance, and leaders of energy companies such as Duke, Exelon, NRG, and Shell are backing Kerry-Lieberman four-square.
Yet winning corporate support for climate legislation and courting Republican moderates has come at the cost of many compromises, and not a few are wondering whether those costs have been too high. The main point of the American Power Act is to “put a price on carbon”—that is, to penalize emission of carbon dioxide. But is that price high enough to be meaningful? Does its value exceed the costs paid to get it?
Among the provisions riling some environmentalists, and not just environmentalists:
--its boost in Federal guarantees for new nuclear reactor projects to $54 billion: a “bailout” in the making, rail the libertarian Alliance for Generational Equality and the Cato Institute
--its billions of dollars to support carbon capture and sequestration: a delusion, says Robert Bryce of the market-oriented Manhattan Institute
--donation of free emission permits to coal-burning utilities: a gratuitous lock-in of coal-fired power, at a time when gas and wind represent much more attractive alternatives, says Christopher Flavin of Worldwatch
--promotion of interstate electricity transmission corridors to facilitate transmission of Plains-states wind to consumers east and west: not necessarily transparent enough to guarantee that those who benefit pay the costs, say Timothy Fagan of PSEG
In its totality, the American Power Act comes to an unsightly 987 pages, and thus resembles earlier comprehensive energy bills that came into disrepute because they began to look like Christmas trees for spoiled kids.
The essential point of the bill is to create a nationwide carbon trading system, with emission permits starting at $12/ton carbon, and rising to no higher than $25/ton, so as to help make the country cut its carbon emissions 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.
But can any target for a year 40 years away have any real political meaning? And is the 17 percent target for 2020, which after all will only get the United States back to its 1990 emissions level (the baseline for Kyoto Protocol cuts), ambitious enough?  Is a $25/t  price high enough to stimulate needed technologies like carbon capture and integrated coal gasification? Why are coal-burning utilities and heavy industry getting such cheap rides, and aren’t the oil and transportation justified in complaining about that?
Such considerations suggest it might be better to put the power and climate bill on the back burner, take care of more pressing business first, and return to Congress next year with a 5-page carbon-tax bill that penalizes electric power, transportation, and heavy industry equally.
The conventional wisdom has always been that cap-and-trade is the only path politically viable. But opponents of climate legislation already have dubbed the power act cap-and-tax. Under the circumstances, why not just go straight for the tax?

Germany Leads Again in Solar Growth

The 2009 solar round-up from the (American) Solar Energy Industries Association reports that additions to U.S. capacity (both photovoltaic and thermal) came to 481 MW, up 37 percent from 2008, bringing cumulative capacity to nearly 24 GW. Even so, the United States trailed world leader Germany by a large margin, as well as other siginificantly smaller countries. Germany's 2009 installations totaled 3,800 MW, Italy's 700 MW, and Japan's 484 MW. The tiny Czech Republic installed 411 MW of solar, putting it in fifth place, just behind the United States.

The United States remains world leader in concentrated solar power, however, with 432 MW installed.

Perhaps the most significant development in 2009, as reported by SEIA, was a sharp drop on PV module prices, from $3.50-4.00 per watt in mid-2008 to $1.85-2.25  last year. Considering that modules generally amount to about half the total PV system cost, that would seem to imply that photovoltaic installation costs are now about half what they were in the early part of this decade--big news indeed, if it holds.

SEIA credits much of the 2009 U.S. growth to the U.S. stimulus bill, which eliminated a ceiling on residential thermal reimbursements and replaced tax credits with grants. "Solar equipment manufacturers have been awarded $600 million in manufacturing tax credits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [of 2009], representing investments in new and upgraded factories of more than $2 billion."

State and local incentives also improved. Of the 30 states with renewable energy standards, 18 now have solar "carve-outs"--specific targets for solar, within overall renewable targets--and 5 provide extra credits for solar or distributed generation. So-called property-assessment clean energy financing (PACE) has become increasingly popular among municipalities, Berkeley, California having taken the lead.

Some sore solar points unmentioned in the SEIA report:

--the decision by the leading maker of PV manufacturing equipment to site a major research lab not in the United States but in Xian, China

--the closing of a little factory in Maryland whose acquisition probably inspired BP to declare it was moving beyond petroleum

 As we all are all too vividly aware, BP not only has failed to move beyond oil, it's mired in it, along with growing portions of the Gulf Coast.



Downsizing Nuclear: Difficulties With Big Plants Spur Interest in Mini Reactors

By now, we've all heard plenty about the "nuclear renaissance," or revival, or whatever it's being called. The Obama administration wants $54 billion in loan guarantees to build new reactors, and various states around the country are ramping up efforts to overturn moratoria and bring in those government dollars. It remains unclear, though, if the relatively sudden momentum will actually yield a bevy of new reactors, or if it will be stopped in its tracks.

In Georgia, where the first of those loan guarantees was headed, a judge ruled that the certification process for the new reactors was illegal, setting back the construction process. An attempt in the Illinois legislature to overturn a longstanding moratorium on new nuclear construction in the industry's flagship state failed to make it past the House. Earlier similar attempts in a number of states, including Minnesota, Hawaii and Kentucky, have also run aground. Perhaps appetites for decade-long construction and costs that routinely jump up by the billion are thinner than they appeared.

Some companies, though, have an alternative to the large-scale, 1,200 megawatt-and-up monsters that are running into such opposition. The small modular reactor, delivering only 25 MW of power for eight or 10 years before being replaced, could come before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for approval this year. The output will be enough to power about 20,000 homes.

Hyperion Power Generation is one such company, having revealed last year the design for its Hyperion Power Module. Using a liquid metal cooling design (specifically, lead-bismuth eutectic), the 1.5 meter wide and 2.5 meter high reactor would be shipped to customers fully sealed, and shipped back in the same state a decade later, not requiring any refueling or storing of nuclear waste. Of course, if they really start delivering on the reported 150-plus purchase agreements already in place, that means a whole lot of nuclear material being shipped around the country, even in small and supposedly sealed amounts.

Other nuclear players are also reportedly getting in on the act, from french company Areva to Toshiba and its subsidiary Westinghouse. The small reactors, intended for hard-to-reach locales, military bases, factories or anything else that might not get connected to the traditional power grid easily, will come with substantially reduced price tags compared to traditional nuclear projects. Instead of, say, a $3 billion estimate that likely gets bumped up by a factor of two or three by the time it is completed, Hyperion will ask $50 million.

Even if the immense construction difficulties that big nuclear runs into may not be in play, the regulatory hurdles companies must leap are largely the same. The NRC licensing process can take years, and concerns over leaking material and the potential for terrorism remain in spite of company assurances. And environmentalists who feel that the many billions spent on nuclear power would be better directed toward adoption of renewable energy sources like wind and solar likely won't find comfort in the small nuclear designs. After all, even if they do come in at $50 million, 150 of those comes out to $7.5 billion and the electricity output of about three big nuclear reactors. Progress?

Photo via Hyperion Power Generation

One Million Chernobyl Fatalities?

A new book claims that almost one million people died between 1986 and 2004 from exposure to Chernobyl accident radiation. The claim, based mainly on a survey of scholarly literature in Slavic languages, is orders of magnitude higher than the most authoritative previous estimates. Yet the book is published by the New York Academy of Sciences, which says that earlier estimates "have largely downplayed or ignored many of the findings in the Eastern European scientific literature and consequently have erred by not including these assessments."

The book, "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment," is by Alexey Yablokov of the Center for Russian Environmental Policy in Moscow and Vassily and Alexey Nesterenko of the Institute of Radiation Safety in Minsk.

Global assessments made ten years after the accident and reported at an IAEA conference in 1996 estimated that in the long run, the toll from Chernobyl in terms of premature or "excess" deaths would come to about 8,650. But because the number of "background" cancer deaths in the population most severely affected--the 600,000-800,000 involved in clean-up operations--would come to 825,000, most of the excess cancer deaths would  be "hard to detect epidemiologically," said Elizabeth Cardis, probably the world's leading expert on the subject.

Cardis's detailed predictions were discussed in an IEEE Spectrum article that appeared in November 1996, reporting on the IAEA conference. Though that article is not available online, the general picture it presents remains largely valid, according to the most recent update of Cardis's analysis. Thyroid cancer incidence among children was found to be much higher than models would have predicted, but leukemia incidence was lower. Mortality and mobility associated with psychological stress might exceed casualties attributable to radiation exposure.

In 2005, the Chernobyl Forum a consortium of global health agencies and governmental organizations, including the IAEA and World Health Organization--put the death toll at about 4,000. That still makes Chernobyl the worst industrial accident in history. As such the consequences of the accident are not to be minimized or trivialized, but bear in mind that hundreds of thousands of people die yearly from exposure to emissions from coal-fired power plants.

I have not seen the new book and am not predisposed to give much credence to its claims. Any such treatment of Chernobyl health effects would have to somehow rigorously distinguish consequences of the accident from consequences of the general public health catastrophe that has engulfed Russia and some of the Soviet successor states in recent decades. I draw attention to the book here mainly, as said, because it carries the imprimatur of the New York Academy.


Strained MIT Climate Friendship

A feature story in yesterday's Boston Globe depicts an increasingly strained friendship between Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel--the former well known as one of the leading U.S. climate change skeptics, the latter best known for his pre-Katrina prediction that fierce hurricanes would become more frequent. When Emanual first joined Lindzen at MIT, Lindzen (left) was a registered Democrat  and Emanuel a Reagan voter. Emanuel in the meantime has come around to the view that there's a growing risk of catastrophic climate change: "None of the evidence is perfect, but it all points in one direction," Emanuel (depicted in the postage-stamp photo on the contents page) told the Globe. Lindzen took a jab at Emanuel at last year's Heartland Institute conference, saying he and fellow alarmists take the position they do because it "just makes their lives easier," presumably in terms of research funding and peer pressure. Emanuel has accused Lindzen of endorsing dishonest science.

The two men reportedly still have a collegial relationship but are not vacationing together with their families in France these days or inviting each other to dinner.


Trouble Brewing for Wind?

Amid much good news for wind--an onging global surge in wind energy installations, the go-ahead from the U.S. government for the immensely controversial Cape Wind project--comes a report detailing a sharp rise in wind operating costs and poor performance relative to other countries. Prepared by the independent business intelligence service Wind Energy Update, the Wind Energy Operations & Maintenance Report finds that current O&M costs are two or three times higher than first projected and that there has been a 21 percent decrease in returns on investments in wind farms. O&M costs were found to be especially high in the United States, "now the world's largest wind power market."

Based on surveys, the report estimates average world O&M costs at 2.7 U.S. cents per kilowatthour, which compares with the 2 c/kWh at which costs roughly equal the value of U.S. wind production credits.* The report says that while close to 80 percent of the world's wind turbines are still under warranty, "this is about to change." R&D is focusing especially on gearbox reliability: "Many gearboxes, designed for a 20-year life, are failing after six to eight years of operation."

POSTSCRIPT (5/27/10): to listen to a podcast interview with the author of the report, click here

* My apologies to readers for the inexcusable typo that appeared in the original version of this post, and for my having been so slow to notice alerts to the mistake in comments

Big Chills

As every educated European knows--that is to say, virtually every European--the continent's benign climate depends on an anomaly: Atmospheric warming by the Gulf Stream, which Benjamin Franklin first noticed. Were it not for the Atlantic's warming surface currents--and, perhaps too, deflection of high-atmosphere winds by the Rocky Mountains--Paris and London might resemble Winnipeg, and Scandinavia would be virtually uninhabitable. Because of this precariousness, notions of abrupt or catastrophic climate change have more currency in Europe than in the United States--especially the "big chill" scenario developed, ironically, by the American geochemist Wallace Broecker.

Broecker's 50 years of work at Columbia University's Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory got a recent celebration at the laboratory. Anybody wanting a quick and easy introduction to his main accomplishments can do no better than to watch and listen to the songs written for the occasion by folksinger Tom Chapin, who happens to be Broecker's brother-in-law, and Penn State geologist Richard Alley, author of a nice general-reader book about ice coring.

Broecker's big chill started about 10,500 years ago and lasted about 1,200 years, in a period now known as the Young Dryas, named after a Scandinavian flower whose wanderings testified to sudden climate change. In that event, an ice dam blocking a huge inland lake, Agassiz, burst, sending a flood of freshwater into the North Atlantic; the effect was to shut down the North Atlantic conveyor, plunging western and northern Europe into a mini-ice age.

In 1997, Alley published a paper identifying a similar event, one that occurred about 8,200 years ago, in which freshwater abruptly flooded the Hudson Bay. Now, in a recent Science paper, Shi-Yong Yu and colleagues report on an event about 9,300 hundred years ago, with a similar pattern yet again. That episode had "a Northern Hemispheric expression with a spatial pattern nearly identical to that of [Alley's] '8.2 kyr event,' a widespread cooling associated with the sudden drainage of the glacial Lake Agassiz-Ojibway complex through the Hudson Straight."

Commenting, Alley says there do indeed seem to be several significant "wiggles" in Earth's recent temperature record. The basic mechanism starts with the relative saltiness of the Atlantic, a result of trade winds carrying vapor from the Atlantic across Central America to the Pacific. When the salty Atlantic waters reach the region around Greenland and Norway they sink, to start their return journey south. But when there's a sudden freshwater infusion, the waters fail to sink, temporarily shutting down the conveyor mechanism. In the extreme case, says Alley, the surface freshwater freezes off Norway, giving the regional climate a really nasty kick. In any case, "the emerging picture is that the North Atlantic [climate] does care about freshwater."

Sun King

The New York Times has scored a coup this week, running a rare interview with the reclusive green investor and environmental philanthropist David Gelbaum. Besides taking stakes in U.S. solar and clean-tech companies like Entech Solar, eSolar, First Solar,  and SunPower,  as well as similar companies in Australia and China (not to mention Toyota, because of the Prius), Gelbaum also has put money into smart-grid-relevant companies like GridPoint and startups developing energy storage systems to back up renewables. Yet Gelbaum’s support for solar is not indiscriminate. He has fought a large solar project slated for protected land in the Mojave Desert, which the Wildlands Conservancy acquired to preserve. A co-founder of Wildlands, Gelbaum has donated $250 million to the conservancy, as well as $200 million to Sierra Club. (He also has given similar amounts to support veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and to the American Civil Liberties Union.) According to the Times profile, which is worth reading in its entirety, Gelbaum lives modestly and gives away most of the money he makes through his main investment vehicle, Quercus Trust.



Gas Up, Coal and CO2 Down Sharply

The Worldwatch Institute, for decades a leading player in sustainability research, has issued a report with startling findings about recent changes in the  U.S. fossil fuel mix and their implications for the country's greenhouse gas emissions. From 2007 to 2009, the share of natural gas in U.S. electricity generation increased from 20 to 23 percent, while the share of coal dropped from 52 to 45 percent. That may not look like much at first glance but in fact may be the beginning of a sea change in U.S. energy. The decrease in coal generation accounted for half the decline in carbon emissions from 2007 to 2007, which dropped a jaw-dropping 10 percent.

"In just two years, we wiped out half the increase in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that had taken place during the previous 15 years," observes Christopher Flavin, president of Worldwatch and principal author of the report, "The Role of Natural Gas in a Low-Carbon Energy Economy." Could that dramatic decrease in U.S. carbon suggest that the U.S. goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 17.5 percent by 2020 is unduly unambitious? "It could," says Flavin.

Easily the most important factor enabling U.S. coal generation and carbon emissions to fall so dramatically has been the fast-growing role of natural gas in electricity generation. That in turn is attributable to the revolution in "unconventional gas," that is, natural gas extracted from deep shale formations by means of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. But almost important, arguably, is the bear hug that prominent organizations in the environmental community--Worldwatch and Sierra Club, among them--are giving gas.

Gas, after all, is a nonrenewable fossil fuel. So why do a lot of environmentalists like it so much?

If you go to a place like Dimock, in northeast Pennsylvania, where Marcellus Shale gas drilling is going on great guns, you'll see huge trucks carrying drill pipe through the middle of what used to be a sleepy rural town. Methane has contaminated drinking water wells and must now be vented; everywhere around town there are huge unsightly tanks (see photo above), some holding water for injection into wells, some holding the flowback water which contains all manner of chemicals--some put into the injection water to expedite gas extraction, some picked up from the ground on the way back to the surface.

So how can national environmental leaders be for gas? Actually, the advantages, as enumerated by Flavin and his coauthor Saya Kitasei, are overwhelming. First: "Burning natural gas produces virtually none of the sulfur, mercury, or particulates that are among the most health-threatening of pollutants that result from coal combustion," they explain," citing a study that found the environmental cost of gas-generated electricity was one-twentieth--yes, one twentieth!--that of coal.

Second, electricity from natural gas results on average in about half the carbon emissions resulting from coal-fired power. And that's the average: the ratio is much worse for the older, dirtiest coal plants and best gas-fired ones."New combined-cycle gas plants produce 55 percent less carbon dioxide that new coal plants do and 62 percent less than the average U.S. coal plant," say Flavin and Kitasei.

Because of dispatch rules favoring coal and nuclear baseload plants ahead of gas, and because gas often is used in peaking plants that only come onstream intermittently, gas-fired plants represent a much larger share of U.S. generating capacity than they do of actual generation. This implies that changes in rules and policy could induce an even more rapid conversion of coal to gas, if prices stabilize. Flavin thinks it's now conceivable that in the next 10 or 12 years we could cut coal's share in electricity generation to about a 25 percent share in U.S. generation, to yield roughly a 12.5 percent cut in U.S. carbon emissions.

But prices and policies are the wildcards. Traditionally gas prices have fluctuated drastically; their stabilization will depend on finding ways to develop shale gas consistent with meeting local concerns, which are serious. Needed policies include more uniform Federal and state regulation of gas development, revised electricity dispatch rules, tighter air quality regulation, and--above all--a strong cap-and-trade climate bill that discourages coal generation instead of  "locking it in," as Flavin puts it.


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