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UN Panel Predicts More Extreme Heat, Drought and Precipitation

Contemplating the prolonged heat wave and drought that afflicted much of Texas through last summer, you would have to be an extreme climate change skeptic not to wonder whether global warming was playing a role. Instead skeptics have preferred to focus on unseasonable winter events, like the freak snowstorm that swept the U.S. Northeast in late October or the immense record-setting blizzard that swept the Mid-Atlantic states in January last year.

Actually, both kinds of events are consistent with what we should expect with continued global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported this week.

"It is virtually certain that increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes will occur in the 21st century on the global scale," the report says. "It is very likely that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells, or heat waves, will increase over most land areas. . . [A] 1-in-20 year hottest day is likely to become a 1-in-2 year event by the end of the 21st century in most regions, except in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, where it is likely to become a 1-in-5 year event."

Further, "It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe. This is particularly the case in the high latitudes and tropical regions, and in winter in the northern mid-latitudes." In other words, temperate regions will see more winter precipitation, including snowfall. In more tropical zones, '[h]eavy rainfalls associated with tropical cyclones are likely to increase with continued warming," though the frequency of cyclones and hurricanes is not expected to increase as such.

Surveying weather records going back to 1950, the IPCC finds "It is very likely that there has been an overall decrease in the number of cold days and nights, and an overall increase in the number of warm days and nights, on the global scale, i.e., for most land areas with sufficient data. It is likely that these changes have also occurred at the continental scale in North America, Europe, and Australia." Regarding rainfall, "There have been statistically significant trends in the number of heavy precipitation events in some regions. It is likely that more of these regions have experienced increases than decreases, although there are strong regional and subregional variations in these trends."

Readers will note that because of the criticism the IPCC has cone under for not hedging its forecasts with suitable qualifiers about confidence intervals, the panel has taken special care in this report to say whether its findings and forecasts are very likely, probable, or merely possible. This is especially so when it comes to the human contribution to global warming and its effects.

Thus, the report says: "It is likely that anthropogenic influences have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures on the global scale. There is medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation on the global scale. It is likely that there has been an anthropogenic influence on increasing extreme coastal high water due to increase in mean sea level. The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences."

Readers may want to consult for themselves the rather complex charts at the bottom of the IPCC documents showing how it expects the probability distributions for various types of events to shift with global warming in this century.

Summarizing the findings, Thomas Stocker, cochairman of the working group that produced the report, put it like this for the press release that accompanied the report: "For the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world. Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant or decrease."

South Korea Opens World's Biggest Fuel Cell Park

A company caled FuelCell Energy announced that its 11.2 megawatt "fuel cell park" is open for business in Daegu City in South Korea. The facility houses four of FuelCell's 2.8 MW devices, and provides the power to a utility in the region. The heat generated by the fuel cells is also being used by a wastewater treatment facility.

Taehyoung Kim, of FuelCell's Korean partner company POSCO Power, touted the fuel cells' ability to balance out grid variability. "Distributing a number of multi-megawatt fuel cell parks throughout an electrical service area enhances power reliability and energy security for electric utilities and their customers," he said in a press release.

There seems to be a growing interest in this sort of installation especially in South Korea, and the "world's largest" title might not last all that long. In April of this year, several companies signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 15 MW fuel cell plant, with plans to expand it to 60 MW.

I asked a spokesperson for FuelCell Energy about their installations and orders in the U.S., and he told me there are a few installations already running in the 2-4 MW range, including one on the U.C San Diego campus that uses purified biogas as its source fuel. As of the end of July, the company has a backlog of 78.5 MW that they're working on delivering, so there is certainly movement on this front.

Overall though, the fuel cell realm has been relatively quiet since early 2010 when the hype over the Bloom Box was at its highest. Bloom Energy has quietly been installing -- or announcing plans to install -- its devices for a number of companies and facilities though, including a number of AT&T locations, the arena for the San Jose Sharks, and Adobe's headquarters. We may see a few more grid-connected, power plant style fuel cell installations like those in South Korea come online, but it seems that individual companies that want to be a little bit more grid-independent will remain fuel cell companies' primary customers.

(Image of Daegu City installation via FuelCell Energy)

How Canada Should Return Obama's Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year's U.S. elections. Obama's move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta's tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude's bloated carbon footprint.

The oil sands are already in the midst of a radical technology shift, as open-pit mines give way to drilling to reach the 80 percent of Alberta's bitumen reserves buried too deep to reach from the surface. So far that transition has boosted energy consumption, as so-called in situ extraction sites pump 250°C steam into the ground to melt the bitumen in place and then suck a steam-bitumen mix to the surface. Burning fossil fuels to make steam gives fuels refined from in situ bitumen a carbon footprint 2-3 times greater than gasoline refined from conventional crude.

There is, however, a cooler way to extract deep bitumen: dissolving the buried bitumen in place rather than melting it. My feature report in the November/December issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine profiles two companies -- oil sands leader Cenovus Energy and Calgary-based upstart N-Solv -- that are using lighter hydrocarbons such as propane and butane to extract and recover bitumen.

Cenovus has achieved a 15 percent reduction in energy use per barrel of bitumen with a hybrid extraction method combining butane and steam, and says optimizing the process could cut another 15 percent. N-Solv is testing a purely solvent-based process, eliminating steam altogether in a bid to slash greenhouse gas emissions per barrel by 80-90 percent. Imagine the impact on the oil sands pipeline debate.

If evoking such a radical shift in performance sounds pollyannish, consider recent trends in water usage by in situ bitumen producers. Over the past five years or so they have stopped using potable surface waters for steam generation, tapping deep saline acquifers instead; they also began to heavily recycle water. Last year Cenovus' Christina Lake site, which I visited for Technology Review, used over 5000 cubic meters of water per day, of which less than 4 percent was potable.

The lesson is simple: oil sands extraction is a young industry capable of rapid improvement when government raises the bar and demands change. Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board told in situ producers to slash water use, and they jumped to it. With an equally tough approach to greenhouse gas emissions -- be it through mandates or a carbon tax/price -- Canadians can respond meaningfully to their critics.

In fact, only such change from within can save the oil sands industry according to environmentalists and even some industry sources in Calgary that I interviewed this fall. The onus is on Alberta says Jason Switzer, director of corporate consulting for the Pembina Institute, the Calgary-based environmental think-tank that has been the oil sands industry’s closest and toughest critic for more than a quarter of a century: "The government needs to show it’s willing to kick some shins. Because otherwise Keystone XL and pipelines to the coast may not get approved and the oil sands will just be a nice small side business for a few large companies, instead of developing to the scale the province would like to achieve.” 

John Nenniger, the founder and CEO of N-Solv, was less diplomatic. Nenniger called today's energy-wasting oil sands producers, "an accident waiting to happen if they don’t evolve quickly."

The U.S. has even more to gain than Canada from a cleaner oil sands industry. The upgrade would  encourage the world's biggest consumer of petroleum to access more of its imported oil from a neighbor that has been consistently stable, democratic, and friendly. Those are abnormally good qualifiers for an oil supplier, encouraging a path towards taming one of the biggest elephants in U.S. budget debates: military spending to secure the Middle East.

The Next 25 Years in Energy

The latest annual energy outlook by the International Energy Agency, though not radically different from earlier editions in broad outline, nonetheless paints a very dramatic picture of the next quarter century.

The global oil market will remain tight, with prices trending toward $120 per barrel, and with all new net demand coming from the transport sector in rapidly developing countries. Though Russia's role as an oil producer and exporter will decline somewhat, its position in natural gas will be more pivotal than ever, with a fast-growing share going to China and a somewhat shrinking share to Europe. So crucial is the role of Russia, the report contains for the first time a special section devoted to it and has posted that section, in Russian, on the report's homepage.

Like previous outlooks, this one distinguishes between a business as usual scenario and a New Policies Scenario in which governments generally try to curtail consumption of fossil fuels and promote green energy; it appears to consider the New Policies Scenario (NPS) the more likely one. Even in NPS, however, fossil fuels remain dominant for the next 25 years and renewables continue to account for only about 10 percent of total world primary energy demand, thought their share of electricity production grows sharply.

Some of the report's most compelling highlights are displayed in a free-standing document containing ten charts, which is well worth a look even if time is lacking to study the whole report. For example, those subscribing to that theory that oil accounted for the decision of George W. Bush's administration to launch a second Gulf War will find Figure 3.17 arresting: Among the countries expected to make large additions to the world's liquid fuel supplies in the next quarter century, Iraq leads the pack by a healthy margin and is well of ahead of Saudia Arabia and total world biofuels. Other highlights incude:

• with oil production declining in all existing fields, an increasing share of liquid fuels will come from natural gas liquids and oil sands

• despite all the current concern about the prospect of declining subsidies for renewable energy, the 2011 NPS  predicts that total renewables subsidies will increase to $250 billion in 2035, from $66 billion in 2010; European subsidies will increase only modestly from a big base, U.S. subsidies more rapidly from a smaller base, and "rest of world" subsidies more rapidly still from an even smaller base

• in terms of power generation, NPS expects additions of renewable energy to roughly equal additions of gas and coal combined, with nuclear accounting for a considerably smaller share of increases

• even so, NPS sees a relatively robust future for nuclear, with the long-term Fukushima impact rather surprisingly small

• looking at where we are right now and how we got here, the Outlook finds that in the last decade, coal has met almost half of new demand for energy, roughly equally all other sources of energy

Mainly because coal is still so dominant, the Outlook finds prospects for greenhouse gas reduction rather grim. While the world is supposedly still committed to limiting the additional increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius, the Outlook concludes that on a business as usual scenario, the increase will be 6 °C. In the NPS scenario, the temperature rise is held to 3.5 °C, a prospect that is not comforting. Accordingly, the IEA also evaluates a third scenario, a 450-ppm one--that is, one in which the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide goes no higher than 445 ppm, and the rise in temperature no higher than 2 °C.

Achieving the NPS scenario, implying a temperature rise almost twice as great as what the world supposedly wants, would require energy investment of $38 trillion over the next 25 years. The 450-ppm scenario requires a $15 trillion more--that is, $53 rather than 38 trillion.

Even at that level of investment, in the 450 scenario four-fifths of total CO2 emissions in 2035 already are "locked in" by capital stock existing today. "As each year passes without clear signals to drive investment in clean energy, the 'lock-in' of high-carbon infrastructure is making it harder and more expensive to meet our future energy needs and climate goals," said Fatih Birol, IEA Chief Economist.


Is Gas Fracking Inducing Earthquakes?

Fracking for natural gas, whereby gas-trapping rock formations are blasted open with high-pressure water and chemicals, has prompted serious concerns over the safety of groundwater supplies. But another risk is gaining profile: the potential for inducing nerve-rattling microseismicity or, potentially, unleashing a quake of truly destructive magnitude. Like the magnitude-5.6 quake that rocked Oklahoma last weekend.

As Spectrum documented this spring, human activity can and does induce earthquakes. To quote myself:

Tectonic pressures cause the vast majority of earthquakes, but geophysicists also recognize the existence of human-induced seismicity. Hydropower reservoirs, for example, frequently cause small, shallow quakes as shifting water levels change the strains on the rock layers below. Such microseismicity—up to magnitude 4 on the Richter scale—is also caused by wells that inject hazardous waste and wastewater into deep rock formations at high pressure.

And yet, this connection between us humans and something as vast and primordial as an earthquake is hard to accept, much as many (particularly in the U.S.) continue to dismiss the link between such things as cars, coal and climate change.

Take this week's report by West Virginia's Intelligencer / Wheeling News Register: Experts Doubt Fracking Linked to Quakes. The reporter stitches together isolated quotes from reputable geophysicists to present two arguments against a connection between extensive fracking in Oklahoma and this weekend's earthquake, both of which are fallacious.

Argument 1: Microseismicity from fracking is of too little force to unleash a magnitude-5.6 quake that had "the power of 3,800 tons of TNT, which is nearly 2,000 times stronger than the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing."

Argument 2: This and other recent quakes in Oklahoma must be "natural" because they followed "the lines of a long-known fault."

Where these arguments fall down is where they meet. The risk of microseismicity is, in fact, in the very presence of natural faults. Microseismicity can, over time, unlatch the fault like a spring, releasing tectonic strain built up over many years, centuries or even millennia to produce a major shake. As we reported in April, a textbook case occurred in 1967 at India's hydroelectric Koyna Dam (pictured above). Filling of the reservoir behind the then six-year-old dam unleashed a magnitude-6.3 quake on a previously unknown fault, killing 180 people and leaving thousands homeless.

The Oklahoma quake could well have been similarly "triggered" according to Paul Earle, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist quoted by the Intelligencer / Wheeling News Register. As Earle told me this morning: "I believe the earthquake *could* be natural but more studies need to be done to rule out the possibility of an anthropomorphic trigger."

IAEA's Iran Report Represents Critical Inflection Point

The disclosure by the International Atomic Energy Agency in March and November 2003 that Iran had systematically violated Nonproliferation Treaty Requirements for more than two decades was a major turning point. So too was the report disclosed yesterday, in which the IAEA finds that Iran has had a well organized program to develop an implosion bomb that could be fitted to one of its medium-range missiles.

Before, the IAEA had determined that Iran was secretly building facilities to obtain materials for a nuclear bomb--the enrichment plant at Natanz, and a heavy-water production plant that could provide means of obtaining plutonium from natural uranium--and that it only made reports to the agency about the facilities once the agency had learned of them from other sources. Now the agency is saying Iran not only sought materials for a nuclear weapon but also was actively designing the weapon and obtaining components for it, and that in all likelihood such work only appeared to have fully stopped in 2003--04, contrary to previous U.S. intelligence assessments.

The new IAEA report is enormously detailed and takes care to indicate where evidence came from an how it was corroborated. Though it does not name the member state that provided a key 1000-page document, or some ten member states that provided other evidence, it's clear that the agency did an enormous amount of cross-checking over a long period to test the plausibility of various allegations.

What it found was that up to 2003-04 Iran had an elaborate program to develop everything needed for a deliverable implosion bomb. Upon coming under intense international scrutiny and pressure in 2003, it shut down that program and physically destroyed all traces of it. But elements of the program appear to have continued, under the leadership of the same scientist who had managed it up until 2003.





The Opt-Out Continues: Now Mexico

The latest country to back away from nuclear energy, following a recent decision by Belgium to re-accelerate a nuclear phase-out, is Mexico.

According to a report distributed by Bloomberg news, the Mexican government has decided to ditch the idea of building as many as ten nuclear power plants in the next decades and instead build gas-fired generating plants. Behind the decision: the discovery there may be as much as 300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas buried in shale under the  Coahuila border region, in additional to newly discovered reserves of conventional gas under the Gulf of Mexico.

Bloomberg quotes an economist as saying, rightly, that gas-fired plants are cheaper than nuclear power plants and can be built much more quickly. The Mexicans will want to be mindful, however, of growing U.S. evidence of groundwater contamination by methane near shale gas operations

Wind Energy's Maturity

It's not new under the sun: harnessing the movement of air in the atmosphere to drive turbines that generate electricity on a scale much bigger than niche. In the 25 years since a Danish manufacturer of farm equipment initiated the revolution, wind energy has been much of the time and in many places the fastest growing component of new electricity generation.

The current issue of IEEE's Power & Energy magazine, devoted to "the waves of wind," testifies to the technology's technical maturity. Members of IEEE's Power & Energy Society have free access, but for those who are not members, here's a sampler of what kinds of things can be found.

--p. 28: a list of PES working groups devoting time and effort to one technical aspect of another of wind development and wind integration (part of an exhaustive round-up article, "A Blast of Activity")

--p. 29 in the same article: a sidebar explaining issues of harmonics and resonance in wind power plants, arising from the fact that such plants have both inductive and capacitative elements.

--p. 34: a table charting wind capacity value against wind power penetration as a percentage of peak load in selected operating areas around the world (still in the same article).

--p. 48, in an article about the European experience with wind, a table charting some European penetration levels, defined in various ways (the bottom line: In Denmark yearly wind generation as a proportion of gross electricity demand is 21.9 percent, in Portugal 17 percent, Spain 16 percent, Ireland 10.5 percent, and Germany 6.7 percent)

See for yourself: Other articles cover wind development in China, inter-regional planning in the United States, work by a NERC taskforce on wind integration, and reliability. An introductory article in the form of a guest editorial takes stock of what's changed in wind integration during the last two years. The starting point for that assessment is China's surpassing the United States in 2010 as the country with the most installed wind capacity: 42 GW versus 40 GW.

Stray Methane But Not Fracking Fluids Found in Water near Wells

The current issue of Scientific American contains a feature article assessing the issue of water contamination in gas fracking operations, a subject also treated in Spectrum last year. Notably, the SciAm article reports academic research in which water contamination by stray methane but not fracking fluid was found near gas wells. An editorial, building on the article, calls for a slowdown in hydraulic fracturing.

The article by Chris Mooney, "The Truth about Fracking," identifies three ways in which water could in theory be contaminated: leaks or overflows from ponds containing flow-back fluid from fracking operations; cracks propagating from wells deep underground that connect with existing fissures or old wells; and cracks in the cement casing of gas wells, closer to the surface. Mooney reports that a Duke University scientist and colleagues found methane in 51 of 60 drinking water wells nearly mining operations in the Marcellus Shale, but no evidence of fracking fluids.

That strongly suggests to the lead scientist, Robert B. Jackson of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, that leaks from well casings are likely to blame--the least ominous and easiest to address  of the three possible pathways. But propagating fissures are not completely excluded.

The editorial, "Safety First, Fracking Second," calls for more research into these issues and revised regulation. It suggests, among other things, required inspection of well casings, storage of flow-back fluid in sealed tanks rather than open ponds, and injection of tracer fluids into wells along with fracking fluid so that any leakage can be more easily and definitively identified. Lacking such precautions, the magazine argues, public support for fracking--a technology with big obvious benefits--could be jeopardized.


Headwinds: Turbine Makers, like Solar Manufacturers, Could Be in for a Shakeout

Energy guru Daniel Yergin tells a nice story in his latest book about how a Danish farm equipment manufacturer, Vestas, took advantage of California subsidies in the late 1980s to initiate a world revolution in wind generation.

Today, however, the pioneering wind companies like Vestas are running into the same headwinds makers of photovoltaic panels have encountered--the prospect of declining European and North American subsidies, combined with growing competition from low-cost Chinese manufacturers. Wind is much closer than solar to being commercially competitive, and so the situation is not quite as dire. But wind also, by the same token, has achieved higher penetration, which means that the best on-land sites are getting exhausted even as the ability of grids to keep absorbing more intermittent energy is increasingly challenged.

On Monday this week, Vestas shares fell one fifth, after the company issued a third-quarter earnings warning. Share values already had declined 50 percent from this year's high, largely because of reported delays in turbine projects and a German turbine factory.

Smelling blood, critics of high subsidies for renewable energy are going after wind. On Oct. 11, the Manhattan Institute--a neoliberal think tank in (you guessed it) Manhattan--issued a short article highly critical of wind's costliness and alleged climate benefits.

Though the Manhattan Institute often produces well-researched and strongly conceived reports that interest even people of sharply different ideological persuasions, its report on "the high cost of wind energy as a carbon-dioxide reduction method" is not one of its better efforts.

Author Robert Bryce asserts that getting 20 percent of U.S. energy from wind by 2030--a commonly stated goal--would cost $850 billion, yield greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to only 2 percent of projected global emissions, and consume 72,000 square miles of land.

Let's start with the least significant of those assertions, about land. It's often said that wind turbines consume a lot of land, but go bicycling in Denmark's countryside, and you see turbines everywhere right in the middle of plowed fields. The same is true in the North German plains.

So my counter-assertion is this: Wind turbines can consume a lot of land where land is cheap or worthless, say in parts of Texas, which happens to be Bryce's home state. But where land is immensely valuable--say in Germany's Mark Brandenburg, one of the world's great breadbaskets, or in Iowa-Illinois, another--turbines need consume virtually no land.

Regarding costs, Bryce bases his calculations on a historic cost for installed wind of $1.70/W and a projected cost of $2.43/W. Those postulated costs, specified in the text and in a footnote but nowhere justified, may be dubious. Seven years ago, Yergin's Cambridge Energy Research Associates estimated the cost of installed wind at slightly less than $1/W, based on historical data to date at that time.

Could average wind costs be higher now than seven years ago, and does it make sense to predict that they'll be still higher a decade from now? Actually, contrary to what Matthew Wald of the New York Times has said in response to Bryce's article, costs may indeed be trending higher. Even a decade ago most of the best wind sites in Germany had been occupied, forcing the country to move to more expensive sites offshore.  British wind developers are having to go offshore too because of intense local opposition to land-based wind farms.

The more important point, as I see it, concerns Bryce's claims about benefits. Here, simply put, he's putting his calculations in the wrong frame of reference: It makes little sense to consider reductions in U.S. emissions as a fraction of total world emissions. The United States is not morally required to solve the whole world's climate problem, and of course it is not in a position to do so. All it's required to do is address its part of the problem.

Simply put, if current coal generation were reduced from 45 percent of total U.S. generation today to 25 percent and wind generation were increased from 2 percent now to 22 percent a decade from now, the effect would be to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a sixth--a big gain. (That because coal accounts for about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.)

Bryce complains that the cost of accomplishing that cut would be equivalent to a carbon tax of $45-54 per ton, about twice as high as a tax Australia will introduce next year or the current cost of carbon emission permits in the European Trading System. But everybody seriously concerned about climate change and greenhouse gas reduction knows that the ETS price is still far too low to induce desired changes in energy investment. Bryce's projected cost only seems too high to him because he understating the gravity of the global problem and overstating what the United States needs to do to address it.

Bryce calculates that the cost of obtaining 20 percent of U.S. electricity from wind by 2030 would be would be an increase in electricity prices of 48 percent in coal-dependent states. That's a high price for the states that generate most of their electricity from coal, to be sure--and I do not dispute it--but if the tax is made revenue-neutral and proceeds are fed back to those most severely affected by it, then it would be manageable.

Such a system is sometimes called a "sky tax" or "sky trust" and has been proposed by people like entrepreneur Peter Barnes and University of Massachusetts economist James K. Boyce. Revenue from a sky tax could stimulate economic development in historically coal-dependent areas and help such areas adopt 21st century technologies.

The tendency of U.S. policy in the Obama years has in fact been in that direction, but the administration has yet to fully embrace the idea of using proceeds from auctioned emissions credits or a carbon tax to catalyze desirable economic development and reduce social inequalities. Republicans and independents who once seemed interested in cap-and-trade systems--Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman--have all jumped ship.


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