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Obama Energy and Environment Transition Takes Shape

ClimateProgress.org, the website and blogging central closely associated with Joseph Romm, is reporting that David Hayes will be in charge of all Obama transition planning on energy and the environment, and that the EPA transition planning team will be headed by Robert Sussman and Lisa Jackson. All have substantial political and professional credentials. Hayes was deputy secretary of the interior in the Clinton Administration. Sussman ran the environmental practice for a leading DC law firm and has been a fellow of Jon Podestaâ''s Center for American Progress, while Jackson most recently was head of New Jerseyâ''s environmental agency and just two weeks ago was named chief of staff to NJ Governor Jon Corzine.

Both Sussman and Jackson are now prima facie leading contenders to be named Obamaâ''s Environmental Protection Administrator. Sussmanâ''s closeness to tranisition chief Podesta would seem to give him the edge, but note that Jackson, an engineer who happens to be African American, has helped New Jersey adopt exceptionally hard-headed and far-sighted energy policies, as reported here, not once but twice.

A Critical Election for Sir Martin's Critical Century

Energywise readers may have got the impression from Bill's last post -- Critical Election? Critical Century! -- that Martin Rees was commenting directly on the election, though he was not. Here is some more elegant prose that actually is about the election's critical importance to climate and energy policy and the hopes riding on the Obama Administration to come. The text is a statement released yesterday by R.K. Pachauri, director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Dehli and Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- the UN-sponsored body that seeks and sells scientific consensus on climate science and policy. Pachauri celebrates Obama's election as a cause for optimism:

The presidential elections in the US have vindicated the power of democracy as the most responsive form of government of the people, by the people and for the people. In respect of policies related to climate change, there was obviously a major divergence between the position of the Federal Government and that of the people at large, state governments and the cities in the US.

President-elect Barack Obama has not only been very clear in emphasizing the need for the US to engage in global solutions to meet the challenge of climate change but also in respect of bringing about a major shift in US energy policy.

The US now has a unique opportunity to assume leadership in meeting the threat of climate change, and it would help greatly if the new President were to announce a coherent and forward looking policy soon after he takes office. There is every reason to believe that President Obama will actually do so. This should please people across the globe, because US leadership is critical for mounting global efforts to meet this threat effectively. For this reason itself, apart from several others, the election of Mr Obama is a development that should generate optimism all-round.

Pachauri's statement was forwarded to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists by Arul Louis, a fellow at the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC.

Critical Election? Critical Century!

Sir Martin Rees, an eminent Cambridge University astrophysicist, has an article on science in the next century in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, in which he covers space, nuclear weapons, climate change, green energy, resources and population, epidemics, weaponry of mass destruction, and ultimately the social responsibilities of scientists. As The New York Review may not be the usual destination for IEEE Spectrum readers, Rees's arresting final remarks may be worth quoting at length. Here they are:

â''. . . This century may be a defining moment. It's the first in our planet's history where one speciesâ''oursâ''has the earth's future in its hands.

Suppose some aliens had been watching our planetâ''a "pale blue dot" in a vast cosmosâ''for its entire history, what would they have seen? Over nearly all that immense time, 4.5 billion years, the earth's appearance would have altered very gradually. The continents drifted; the ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved, and became extinct. But in just a tiny sliver of the earth's historyâ''the last one millionth part, a few thousand yearsâ''the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signaled the start of agriculture. The changes accelerated as human populations rose.

But then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within fifty yearsâ''little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the earth's ageâ''the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to increase anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (i.e., the total output from all TV, cell phone, and radar transmissions). And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles lifted from the planet's surface and escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than half-way through the earth's lifeâ''these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed? If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years? Will a final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilize? And will some of the objects launched from the earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

The answers will depend on us, collectively. . . ."

Antarctic Ice Status Could Induce Real State of Fear

In Michael Crichtonâ''s silly but immensely successful State of Fear, the plot turns on the ludicrous poetic conceit that climate scientists are not merely sweeping inconvenient facts under the rug, but conspiratorially covering them up. (At the end, the book stops being merely laughable and turns really nasty, with Crichton sadistically killing some of the scientists off.) Among Crichtonâ''s inconvenient truths supposedly being suppressed: the puzzling pause of the earthâ''s warming in the mid-twentieth century, asymmetric climate changes in the northern versus southern hemispheres, andâ''the point Crichton most emphasizesâ''the fact that parts of Antarctica appear to be warming rather than cooling.

In actuality, those issues have been out in the open and under constant discussion among climatologists for decades. I, a mere amateur observer of the ongoing debates, have had a personal theory about the puzzling mid-century pause for years, but as it has no intellectual standing whatsoever, I wonâ''t bore you with it. Nor will I attempt to lay out the various theories about the asymmetric behavior of the poles, as our understanding of the subject appears to be very incomplete, and the technicalities much too complex for anybody but a specialist to truly grasp.

However, Nature Geoscience has published this week, in its Oct. 30 online edition, a major new scientific report on Antarctic warming, along with an exceptionally lucid commentary by Andrew Monaghan of NCAR and David Bromwich of Ohio State. Since the articles appear to be readily accessibly only to people who have Geoscience accounts, I am going to recapitulate the findings in a little more detail than I ordinarily would.

The report, â''Attribution of Polar Warming to Human Influence,â'' is by eight scientists, among whom the principal is Nathan P. Gillett, a climatologist at the University of East Anglia in the UK. In their introductory précis, the scientists remind readers that in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (its fourth assessment), Antarctica is described as the only continent on which anthropogenic global warming has not be conclusively shown. Using novel simulation techniques and data from four major climate models, the climate scientists say they have now found that Antarctic warming must also be human-induced. As the commentary explains, they arrived at this finding by ingeniously disentangling the â''internal and external forcing mechanisms that have contributed to the recently observed variability in near-surface temperature near the poles.â''

By way of background, the commentary notes that Arctic (North Pole) near-surface air temperatures have warmed at about twice the global rate in the last 50 years. â''One of the most dramatic consequences has been the steady decline of sea ice coverage, punctuated by the shocking record minimum in sea ice extent in September 2007â''about 20 percent below the previous recordâ'¿. Other consequences of Arctic warming include increased river runoff, decreased snow cover, permafrost degradation, and a shrinking Greenland ice sheet that is contributing to the rise in sea level.â'' But changes in Antarctica have been much less homogenous. â''Antarctic sea ice over has in general not undergone the marked decline seen for Arctic sea ice, and there has been relatively little change in near-surface air temperatures over the vast East Antarctic ice sheet during the past half century.â''

But in West Antarctica recent ice core evidence shows that the ice sheet underwent â''strong warming with substantial superimposed variabilityâ'' during the past 50-100 years. Several large glaciers in the region are moving faster, adding to sea level rise. On the Antarctic Peninsula, temperature increases of up to 3 degrees Celsius since the 1950s â''are among the largest on Earth for that period.â''

The commentators go on to discuss the relative paucity of observations in Antarctica, and the very considerable uncertainties in accounts of the regionâ''s temperature variations. But this much seems clear: parts of Antarctica have been warming sharply, and those changes are not consistent with natural cycles.

POSTSCRIPT: Michael Crichton's death last week coincided in an unfortunate way with this unabashedly one-sided post. For more scrupulously balanced appraisals of his work, start with Charles McGrath, William Grimes, and Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times.

Climate Modification Schemes Come into Sharper Focus

A year and a half ago IEEE Spectrum published a feature article making the case that geoengineeringâ''deliberate modification of the earthâ''s climateâ''will have to be part of the solution to global warming. In recent months thereâ''s been an avalanche of geoengineering articles, for which weâ''d like to take credit, except that the main pulse came not from us but from Paul J. Crutzen, the Nobelist who codiscovered the mechanisms behind the creation and destruction of stratospheric ozone. In an August 2006 article, Crutzen put his considerable prestige behind engineered climate modification, specifically the idea of pumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth.

Crutzen is a starting point for a feature in this monthâ''s Scientific American by science writer Robert Kunzig, who surveys three major approaches: pumping SO2 to create a â''stratospheric sulfate sunshadeâ''; telescope designer Roger Angelâ''s concept for building a sunshield out of small silicon nitride disks at the Earth-Sun Lagrangian; andâ''perhaps most arrestinglyâ''whipping sea salt up into the atmosphere to speed and enhance cloud formation over the oceans, using so-called Flettner ships.

Curiously, Scientific American prefaces its geoengineering feature with an editorialâ''an eloquent and well-reasoned one, to be sureâ''arguing that undue emphasis on climate modification puts the cart before the horse: â''Proponents . . . see geoengineering merely as a stopgap measure to buy time for emissions reductions, which may take decades to achieve. But what is the point of buying time? Every year that we put off those reductions makes our job that much harder.â''

This blogger agrees that emissions reduction must take priority. But wouldnâ''t it still make sense to have geoengineering tools at our disposal, to use if catastrophic climate changes start to take place, despite the worldâ''s efforts at emissions reduction? New Zealand ecologist Philip Boyd, in an article and interview, says we should critically evaluate the main geoengineering ideas now, throw away the ones that are plainly no good, and put the remaining ones in a â''climate change toolbox,â'' ready for use in a climate emergency.

If youâ''re looking for criteria to decide which geoengineering ideas make sense and which donâ''t, a good place to start is the May-June issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which listed â''20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea.â'' (Risks of unintended consequences, which loom large in Kunzigâ''s article and SciAmâ''s critical assessment, rank only 20 on the list compiled by Rutgers ecologist Alan Robock.) The top two are the uneven regional effects to be expected from sulfate shielding and the continued acidification of the oceans that will take place irrespective of counter-warming measures.

A technical article that Robock wrote this year with two coauthors evaluated regional climate effects from injection of SO2 in the tropics and Arctic regions. They found that sulfate shields â''would disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people.â''

Top French Nuclear Company Forms U.S. Components Venture

With almost a dozen companies seeking permits to built two and half dozen nuclear power plants in the United States, Franceâ''s Areva has formed a joint venture with Northrop Grumman to produce major plant elements such as reactor pressure vessels and steam generating systems. The subsidiary, Areva Newport News LLC, will be based at the Virginia shipping center, in a new 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that Areva will build with Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, whose business has been in decline.

On the face of it, the decision by Areva and Grumman reflects confidence that reactor construction will soon revive in the United States, after a three-decade-long hiatus. The U.S. Energy Act of 2005 provides $18.5 billion in loan guarantees and electricity production subsidies to the first companies to build new nuclear power plants. Areva reports that its French heavy manufacturing facilities already has a five-year backlog of orders, with nuclear power plants being built or on order in France, Finland, and China.

Solar System Test Center Gets New Parents

Earlier this year when I visited Arizona Public Serviceâ''s STAR Center in Tempe, a Phoenix suburb, it was an arresting and yet somewhat forlorn sight: at a desert highway intersection, not far from the campus of Arizona State University, there was a field full of large and very large arrays covered with various kinds of photovoltaic materials and PV cells, some quite weird shaped, all pointing toward the sun. The barren environment, the absence of any human beings noticeably paying any attention (except for me and my guide), the blazing heat, the strangeness of the shapes, and their evident longing for lightâ''all combined in a feeling of orphanhood.

Evidently it wasnâ''t just my overheated imagination. TUV Rheinland Group, which describes itself as â''the world leader in independent testing and assessment services,â'' has announced itâ''s joining with Arizona Stateâ''s Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory to give STARâ''the Solar Test and Research Centerâ''new parents and parental guidance. In essence, ASUâ''s Photovoltaic Testing Laboratory, established in 1992, and STAR, going back to 1985, will now be part of a global test and certification network run by TUV Rheinland, a $1.5-billion corporation.

At a time when solar standards are more important than ever, the reinvigoration of STAR should make a difference. The U.S. governmentâ''s Renewable Energy Research Laboratory in Golden, Colo., will remain the worldâ''s premier center for testing claims made about PV efficiencies. But for claims about durability of systems and their performance in the field, STAR now stands a chance of really getting on its feet and taking a lead.

China's Explosive and Inadequate Wind Boom

China's dramatic jump into wind power installations and manufacturing provides a glimmer of hope amidst what is otherwise a terribly polluted picture of unsustainable environmental devestation driven largely by coal-fired power generation. But just a glimmer.

Cambridge, MA-based consulting firm Emerging Energy Research affirmed the wind sector growth last week, issuing an analysis that puts China on track to hit 135,000-megawatt of wind capacity in 2020; EER expects China to lead the world in annual wind installations by 2011. EER's 135-gigawatt prediction for 2020 marks a big jump up from the already optimistic prediction by Chinese Wind Energy Association secretary general Haiyan Qin that closed our May 2008 reporting on China's wind sector -- namely that his members would have no trouble doubling the official 30 GW national goal for 2020.

And still the wind sector remains dwarfed by the heft and growth of China's coal-fired power sector. In 2006 alone, China commissioned 102 GW of new coal-fired power stations, a power bloc that exceeds the United Kingdomâ''s entire electric power system. In other words it will likely take a decade of world-leading growth in wind power installations before China's total installed base of wind turbines can put out more power than the coal plants it added in 2006.

Factor in the intermittent output from the wind turbines and the comparison looks that much more lopsided (averaged out over a year, wind turbines produce at their peak capacity only 30% of the time). The result is toxic air that probably kills upwards of a million people per year in China, and is a leading contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Cleaning up the coal-fired plants provides a more likely handle for cutting the local air pollution. According to a survey of coal plant operators issued by MIT's China Energy Project in August -- Greener Plants, Grayer Skies? -- China's coal-fired power plants have the means to capture acid rain and smog forming pollutans, as well as particulates. The authors determined that most of the new plants being added in China employ decent technology, including pollution controls. The problem, they conclude, is that these controls aren't turned on.

Why break the law and leave pollution-trapping scrubbers and baghouses lying dormant? They consume energy, which cuts into revenues, and China's inadequate environmental enforcement is incapable of enforcing compliance.

Could Beijing's extension of controls on auto traffic post-Olympics signal the new ethic of environmental protection needed to activate those scrubbers and start detoxifying China's air? One that could even, some day, include carbon capture to start trimming China's world-leading greenhouse gas emissions? Those may sound like terribly hopeful notes, but they're at least as realistic as relying on wind power to do the job.

Clean Coal's Mountainous Upstream Blindspot

Gasification-based IGCC power plant technology offers a powerful means of cleaning up local air pollution from coal-fired power and, via carbon capture and storage, its carbon footprint. I have argued in past that it should be legally mandated for new power plants burning coal because (1) air pollution laws require use of the best emissions controls available, (2) carbon capture and storage will be economically viable under emerging carbon caps and taxes, and (3) adding new carbon emissions from coal is unjustifiable given the critical need to stabilize atmospheric levels of CO2.

But let's be clear on one thing: IGCC and carbon capture can substantially clean up the coal-fired power plant, but they can't deliver "clean" coal. That's because extracting coal to feed the power plants is, in itself, a dirty business -- at least as it is currently practised. Last week I witnessed this firsthand at two West Virginia mines where mountains are literally dismantled to reveal their hidden coal seams, then piled back to a rough approximation of their original contours or left flat for development. I visited the mines as part of the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference, held this year in the heart of coal country in Roanoke, Virginia.

Mountaintop removal mining, as this practice is called, accounts for about a third of Appalachian coal production but contributes a considerably larger share of Appalachian coal burned in power plants (conventional deep mines yield more metallurgical coal used in steel mills). They are, without question, environmentally and culturally destructive. Thousands of cubic meters of rock, sand, and soil dumped into valleys bury ephemeral stream beds; wildlife are displaced; sludge impoundments from coal-cleaning operations threaten groundwater and communities; and residents of the mountains suffer internal devestation as the lands that define their existence are blasted into oblivion. For a sense of scale download this 5MB panorama of the mine pictured above by National Geographic executive editor Dennis Dimmick.

Can the coal industry do better? Yes. For example, reclamation experts from Virginia Tech told the tour that mountaintop mines are adopting a new reforestation approach that could restore the mountains' ecology within two generations. That's huge improvement over current practices where grasses and shrubs take over, leaving the land in what Virginia Tech forestry professor James Berger called a state of "arrested succession."

Will the industry ever make coal mining socially and environmentally sustainable? Appalachian activists who have fought 'Big Coal' for decades doubt it. For one thing, the coal companies enjoy undivided support from state legislators and governors in coal states. That's why West Virginia author and political activist Denise Giardina told the SEJ conference attendees that she was "rooting for global warming" to stop coal. "I think it will force us to change," said Giardina, who made it clear that IGCC power plants sequestering CO2 weren't the kind of change she had in mind. Quite the opposite in fact: "If we ever have clean coal," said Giardina, "you can kiss the mountains goodbye."

I'm going to need more time to reflect on what I saw and heard last week. The scale of carbon reductions required and developing nations' right to develop may yet justify the ongoing use of coal. But, at the very least, it is more clearer to me than ever that cleaning up our energy systems must start with energy efficiency and less extractive forms of renewable energy. We are all, as willing users of coal-supplied power grids, contributors to Appalachia's plight everytime we turn on the juice.

Storied author, poet and social critic Wendell Berry put that message to the SEJ conference in the bluntest of terms: "It's awfully hard to remember when you push that button that you are authorizing mountaintop removal."

For more on mountaintop removal mining check out this week's article by the Associated Press which I believe was inspired by the SEJ mountaintop mining tour.

U.S. States Get Graded on Reverse Electricity Metering

By common consent, rapid adoption of renewable energy resources by homes and small businesses depends on the availability of whatâ''s called net meteringâ''the ability, technically and legally, to sell surplus energy back into the grid. Only if local jurisdictions guarantee that option will homes and small businesses find it profitable to install solar panels, erect a small wind turbine, or drill to tap geothermal energy. A new report from the Network for New Energy Choices assesses the state of the union in terms of net metering, grading progress or regression in all 50 U.S. states.

The report finds that three states in particularâ''Arizona, Illinois, and Floridaâ''have made major progress in setting standards and rules for net metering, and that 15 others have made significant progress. Texas, in a section about â''worst practices,â'' is singled out for criticism, its having formulated a progressive law only to let special interests torpedo it. New Jerseyâ''s standards and rules get extensive attention in a section about â''best practices.â''

Some states are taken to task for setting unduly low caps on the size of electrical systems eligible to feed back electricity into the grid, and for creating unnecessary bureaucratic impediments. New Jersey is praised for simplifying procedures, eschewing unnecessary safety requirements, allowing relatively large entities to feed back electricity, and for adopting model interconnection standards developed by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

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