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"Cool It" Instead Fuels It

The title of the new movie featuring "skeptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg is of course an intentional pun: It refers at once to cooling the debate over global warming and finding a way to actually cool the planet. The second point may come as surprise to some, who may not be aware that Lomborg is not and never has been a climate change denier. What he has argued is that proposed solutions to global warming are too expensive and detract from spending on more serious global problems such as disease, ignorance, and poverty.

Cool It opens with a rather long and boring personal introduction of Lomborg and a defense of his controversial book. Only after 20 minutes do we arrive at the 1990 Rio conference, where the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted; it is subjected to an inadequate and tendentious discussion, along with the follow-on Kyoto Protocol and last year's Copenhagen climate conference. We see President Obama telling the assembled delegates in Denmark that we have been talking about climate chance for two decades "without much to show for it."

That's a falsehood, and the film does its viewers no service and Lomborg no credit in repeating and endorsing it. The Kyoto Protocol called on the advanced industrial countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 7-8 percent by 2008-12 by comparison with 1990. As of 2007, Germany had cut its emissions by 21.3 percent, the United Kingdom by 17.3 percent, France by 5.3 percent, and the members of the European Union that adopted the protocol by a combined 4.3 percent. In the United States, however, emissions increased by 16. 8 percent; in Australia, the other major country that declined to ratify the protocol, they were up 30.1 percent.

Had there been no Rio treaty or no Kyoto Protocol, it's reasonable to assume that European emissions would have climbed from 1990 to 1997 almost as much as U.S. and Australian emissions did. So to say we have "nothing" to show for the two agreements is as if five buddies pledged to stop drinking, four succeeded but the biggest guzzler of all relapsed, and we thereupon declared the abstinence program a total failure. The failure is the hopeless drunk, not the program.

Though the argument in Cool It is based on the relative costs of greenhouse gas reduction versus other strategies, the film is remarkably casual in the way it throws numbers around. It does not explain carefully where its major cost estimates are coming from, what their basis is, or put them in a meaningful context. Not surprisingly, the movie has left viewers confused. One reviewer came away with the impression that the combined industrial country cost of complying with Kyoto was said to be $280 million per year, an absurdly small number. The film's actual number, $280 billion sounds big but actually is not so huge: Assuming the combined annual GDP of the industrial countries is at least $50 trillion, $280 billion is a fraction of 1 percent.

The same kind of problem arises with the estimate of how much it will cost Europe to attain its 20-20-20 goals, which Lomborg puts at $250 billion. We don't really know what the basis of that number is, and to me it sounds rather inflated. But even if it's correct, let's remember that it represents about 1.6 percent of Europe's $15 trillion domestic product and about $500/person/year. Is that too much to pay for insurance against the long-term risks of dangerous global warming? Lomborg says, unintelligibly, that it would be like buying home insurance that only covers the doorframe.

Lomborg wants to think he's clarifying the debate about global warming, but he's not. What he proposes is that instead of spending $250 billion per year on greenhouse gas reduction the money instead should be spent on the development of futuristic gee-whiz energy technologies, which he continues to be amazingly credulous about. Where is the $250 billion to come from? One reviewer came away with the impression that it would come from a carbon tax, and that may indeed be what Lomborg is suggesting.

If so, the supposed maverick is saying essentially what just about every other serious advocate of action on climate is saying: We should either tax carbon or auction emission credits in a cap-and-trade system, and use the very large revenues to fund development of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies. Lomborg is purveying the conventional wisdom, but in claiming to be saying something distinctively different, he's only sowing confusion and tossing random kindling on what's already a blazing fire.

Trenberth Goes Back to Basics on Climate Change

At last count we had about 40 comments on the interview with you about IPCC reform, many of them hostile. Where do you think that extreme hostility is coming from? You and your colleagues must think of yourselves as honest, hard-working scientists, and yet you stand accused of being a “liar,” part of a corrupt enterprise, “the system.”

This kind of thing is not confined to climate science. There are a lot of other examples out there. It's a nasty atmosphere, and any hot topic brings this out. Climate science has become highly politicized, and climate change denial is closely related to the strong opposition many people feel at having the government interfere in their affairs in any way. Under these circumstances something like “climategate” was bound to happen. I received something like 19 pages of e-mail with extremely abusive language in them. I kept asking the mail people why our filters weren’t catching them.

Many of the hostile comments on the interview appear to come from engineers. Some express anger, for example, about IEEE’s stand on climate change, which must be some kind of misunderstanding, as IEEE as such doesn’t take positions on controversial matters of politics and policy. Are you surprised to see well educated, well credentialed individuals expressing such anger?

Yes, I am rather. Last year I gave an invited lecture at an IEEE meeting of aeronautical engineers, with about 700 in attendance. Afterwards a tremendous number of people came up to me and said they had no idea as to the nature of the evidence regarding climate change, how everything fits together. In general scientists and engineers have open minds.

In terms of the major claims that are so hotly contested-—that the earth is getting warmer, that human activity is playing a significant role, and that warming will gather pace unless we change our ways rather radically—to what extent to they rest on computer modeling and how much on observational science?

Our knowledge that the earth is warming does not come from modeling at all. It comes from a very wide variety of sources and is incontrovertible—“unequivocal,” the IPCC said in its last assessment. The main sources are temperature readings, melting of Arctic sea ice and glaciers, snow extent rise in sea level, and ocean temperatures.

What about the human role?

We can see that greenhouse gas concentrations are growing in time and that temperatures are rising, and we postulate a causal relationship. But we need computer models to test and prove that relationship. We run the models with the observed changes in the atmosphere and see what temperatures are generated, then remove the gas forcings, and compare the results. Though there's some natural variability, of course, since 1970 human-induced warming has clearly emerged from the noise.

As for prediction of future temperatures and other effects of climate change, there we rely entirely on models.

What about paleoclimatic research—ice science and such?

It plays a smaller part. It depends on use of proxies to substitute for instrumental readings, and when you go back further than 500 years, the number of such proxies drops and data get blurrier. As you go back in time annual resolution is no longer possible. We also know much more about forcings in the modern period: We have information on solar activity going back to Galileo, and we know quite a bit about volcanic activity, which affects the composition of the atmosphere significantly.

Can you say something about the widespread belief that solar activity somehow accounts for the temperature changes we’ve seen in recent decades?

That’s easily disproven. It’s nonsense. Since 1979 we've had spacecraft measuring total solar irradiance, and there's been no change—if anything the sun has cooled slightly. There's nothing in the record that indicates that the sun is responsible for any of the warming in this period.

And further back?

The sun did get somewhat more active early in the last century and probably did account for some of the warming until about 1950. The best current estimate is that it explained about one tenth of one degree Celsius of the warming, which totaled about 0.3C from 1900 to 1950. There was a solar minimum in the early 1700s and probably was partly behind the so-called Little Ice Age. Going much further back to the alternation of ice ages and interglacial periods, they were driven by subtle changes in the orbital relationships of sun and earth—the Milankovitch cycles. We learned from the study of them that small changes in solar irradiation can generate huge changes in climate. In fact, the changes in radiative forcing from the rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are much larger than the changes connected with the Milankovitch cycles. 

For the record, are you the person who Dave D says messed with the Australian temperature record?

I’m a native of New Zealand and have had nothing to do with the Australian record.

As a person who has contributed a great deal of time to IPCC work, do you feel that lead scientists should be directly compensated by the IPCC?

No, that would only make the process even more vulnerable to the criticism that it is somehow self-serving.

Renaissance Hiccups: What Do Recent Nuclear Reactor Incidents Tell Us?

The nuclear proponents will say that the system is working. Two separate incidents at the Vermont Yankee and Indian Point nuclear plants on resulted in shutdowns of both sites, but authorities in both cases were confident that the problems posed no threat to the public. And hey, that's the idea, right? Catch things before they really do become a problem. Let's take a look.

The Vermont Yankee plant, in Vernon, Vermont, closed down because a routine check found a leak from a welded over pipe in the feedwater system; this is a closed loop that brings water to cool the reactor. But this wasn't just regular water dripping at about 60 drops per minute from the pipe; it was radioactive water. According to an update from Entergy, who owns the plant (and whose Vermont Yankee website can be found on the somewhat ironically domained, the pipe was in a section of the system that could not be repaired while the plant remained active, so they made a "conservative decision" to pull it offline. Since Sunday, the pipe has apparently been repaired and the reactors were being powered back up and reconnected to the grid on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in Buchanan, New York, one of two main transformers exploded on Sunday evening and caused an automatic shutdown of the second of three reactors at Indian Point (pictured). Importantly, these transformers are located outside of any area with nuclear material nearby, so the all-clear report that sounded just a few hours later was undoubtedly justified.

In a statement from -- oh look, Entergy owns this one too! (And Indian Point has a similarly hilarious website, Anyway, they claim everything is now functioning as normal; nothing to see here, apparently.

And yes, neither of these incidents seem to have been particularly dangerous, and the response systems in place do appear to be working as they should. The bigger issue here is that these aren't necessarily isolated problems. Vermont Yankee became the first plant in more than two decades to be shuttered (well, after 2012, at least) by the public when the state senate voted against renewing its license. The reason? Radioactive tritium leaks. Entergy reported last month that tritium levels are low and that there is no danger of water contamination, but the problem highlights the fact that our nuclear infrastructure is not getting any younger.

Whether or not the next incident actually is a threat is almost beside the point; multi-billion dollar loan guarantees will be a hard political sell if the public keeps hearing about radioactive water leaks and explosions. If the old plants can't keep quiet for a while, the nuclear renaissance might be dead in the water.

(Image via Daniel Case)

New York State's Climate Plan Contrasts with California's

Six years ago the New Yorker magazine caused rather a stir with an article in which writer David Owen described how he and his wife had moved to a utopian green community where they got by living in just 700 square feet, with no dishwasher , garbage disposal or car, and a monthly electric bill that came to about one dollar. That utopian community was Manhattan.

Yesterday New York State issued an interim greenhouse gas reduction plan, its (outgoing) governor David Paterson having pledged last year to put the state on a path such that its emissions would be 80 percent lower in 2050 than in 1990. That's a weaker goal than California's, which targets 2020, a timeframe in which leaders can be held accountable for their results. The philosophy and approach behind New York's plan also is strikingly different from California's. Yet the two states also have two big things in common: Relatively low per capita energy consumption and emissions, because of their highly urbanized "green" lifestyles, and populaces and political leaderships that are firmly dedicated to combating global warming.

At some risk of oversimplification, it can be said that California's commitment is tightly bound up with its self-perception as a high-tech state that stands to benefit in the long run from driving development of energy-saving, carbon-reducing technologies, while New York is more focused on helping avoid the local ill effects to be expected from climate change.

Those effects, as spelled out in a fact sheet that accompanied release of the interim report, could include a temperature rise by 2080 of 5 to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit, heavier rainfall and flooding, more frequent and severe heat waves, and a rise in the level of coastal waters and the Hudson River estuary of 12-55 inches.

The report puts the emphasis squarely on improving the efficiency of buildings, which account for about 40 percent of the state's emissions, and transportation, where New York has been a pioneer in electrifying public transport, notably buses. It also calls for adopting a more aggressive renewable portfolio standard, to encourage lower-carbon generation, and for "expansion" of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which envisions a regions carbon trading system. It characterizes its proposals for buildings and transport as "no regrets" options--that is, policies that would make good sense even in the absence of climate change.

The problem with the plans being made by New York, obviously, is that the state can't do it alone. Avoiding the ill effects of climate change depends on everybody all over the world doing their part. So, while California and New York, Britain, Germany and Denmark all make good-faith efforts to reduce their emissions, all will be naught unless they somehow persuade the other big emitters to make equivalent efforts.

IEA Anticipates a Fossil-Dominated Future

The International Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook, released yesterday, is receiving relatively little attention in the press even though the alternative energy scenarios the IEA traces are of above-average interest.

Admittedly, the main messages of the report are pretty much what we already all know in our guts: Oil, coal, and natural gas will continue to dominate world energy consumption, whether we conduct business as usual, adopt greener policies, or make heroic efforts to keep carbon concentrations in the atmosphere below 450 ppm so as to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 more degrees celsius in this century.

What gives the report its bite is its sharp attention to the issue of what a really effective global climate policy would require, a subject on which the IEA and its director Nobuo Tanaka have shown themselves to be true believers. As in its previous annual report, the agency still expects world energy consumption to grow sharply, with fast-developing countries accounting for the lion's share of additional energy demand. Among fossil fuels, reliance on natural gas will grow the most strongly, an estimated 44 percent by 2035--more than a third of that increase being "unconventional" (shale) gas. Though consumption of coal and oil decreases in the advanced industrial countries according to the IEA's intermediate "new policies" scenario--the one it seems to consider most probable--demand for oil and coal in China, India and other developing countries increases by a significantly greater amount.

With expectations for global climate policy much dampened since Copenhagen  last December and the U.S. failure to adopt a greenhouse gas reduction bill this year, the notion of reducing governmental subsidies for fossil fuels has been getting a lot of attention of late as an alternative approach. But the IEA survey implicitly casts serious doubt on the plausibility of that approach. Subsidies are by far the highest in just the countries that have oil and gas coming out their ears: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, etc. Are we seriously to believe that governments in such countries are going to risk their popularity or stability by sharply boosting domestic energy prices?

The IAE report makes specifically clear what we already know, namely that really effective climate policy--of a kind that might contain the global temperature rise in this century at no more than two additional degrees Celsius--would require a gargantuan effort on the part of just those countries most reluctant to commit themselves to it. In terms of what would be required between now and 2035, China would have to account of 32 percent of CO2 abatement and the United States 18 percent.

As yet, regrettably, there's still no sign that the challenge issued by IEEE Spectrum magazine in November 1999 will be met: Noting that China would surpass the United States as the world's top source of greenhouse gas emissions in the next century, we said that "if countries like the United States want to mitigate risks of climate change, after cleaning up for themselves and getting their own houses in order, the next-best thing they can do is help China and India do the same."


Toward a Non-Reflecting, Self-Cleaning Solar Panel

Continuing on yesterday's improving-solar-panels beat, today we learn of a new process that can quickly create a solar surface that barely reflects any light and can clean itself. And the innovation comes from sunny Finland, of course.

Researchers at Aalto University (a recently formed conglomeration of three older Universities) created a new method -- using deep reactive ion etching -- for fabricating a pyramid-shaped nanostructure on a silicon surface. The silicon wafer, once etched, can then be used to create a stamp, making further wafer fabrication an easy additional step.

Generally, the smooth silicon surfaces used in solar cells reflect a lot of the light that hits them, lowering their efficiency. The shaped surfaces, though, barely reflect any light at all.

Water and particle accumulation on solar cell surfaces also increase the reflectivity, so the researchers went a step further. They coated the surface with a "low surface energy fluoropolymer," which made it ultrahydrophobic. Water droplets that hit a solar cell with such a coating would quickly roll off, carrying dust and other particles with them. There are other strategies for dust removal on solar cells -- including one that was developed for use on Mars, of all places -- but no matter what the method it's clear that keeping a cell clean will boost its efficiency by an enormous amount.

According to the researchers' paper, which was published in the journal Advanced Materials: "High-throughput fabrication of low-cost self-cleaning surfaces, which suppress the reflection of light over a wide spectral range, is expected to have applications ranging from chemical analysis of drugs and biomolecules to photovoltaics."

(Image via Aalto University)

Semiconductors + Fullerenes = Power-Generating Windows

We've covered transparent solar cells here before, but when there's a cool new entry to the field it deserves some attention. Researchers at Brookhaven and Los Alamos National Laboratories have created thin films capable of generating power by combining a semiconducting polymer with carbon fullerenes.

From a press release: "Under carefully controlled conditions, the material self-assembles to form a reproducible pattern of micron-size hexagon-shaped cells over a relatively large area (up to several millimeters)."

The researchers noted that hexagonal transparent cells have been created before using other polymers, but never with the semiconductor-fullerene combination. By repeating the millimeter-scale patterning over a wider area, one of the researchers said the thin film could be used to create "energy-generating solar windows, transparent solar panels, and new kinds of optical displays."

The hexagons tend to let light through their centers and absorb it better at the edges, keeping an array of them largely transparent. And the edges also seem capable of conducting electricity.

Even the fabrication process seems predisposed to scale up toward commercial uses. Micrometer-scale water droplets were spread over a thin layer of the polymer-fullerenes combo, and the water then assembled itself into larger arrays. When it evaporated, the hexagonal structure of the arrays was left behind. The paper on the new technique and material was published in the journal Chemistry of Materials.

The list of solar cell innovations continues to grow, but most are slow to scale up toward actual market use. Still, it doesn't get any less exciting to picture the windows of one's house actually powering what's behind them.

(Image via Brookhaven National Laboratory)

Twin Setbacks for Tidal

PG&E has announced it's ditching, at least for now, a 5 MW tidal energy project that had been slated for the coast of Humboldt County in northern California. The utility cited excessively high investment costs--including $50 million just to cover transmission infrastructure--and absence of any potential for physical expansion. Pacific Gas & Electric cancelled another plan for a tidal project in northern California last year but is continuing to pursue one near Santa Barbara.

So far, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued just one license for a tidal project in the United States, and that one is dormant, the owner having surrendered it after failing to raise funds, according to Energy Central's Ucilia Wang.

The bad news on the U.S. side of the pond pales, however, with the recent news from the UK. The British government said two weeks ago it was giving up plans for a giant tidal plant to be built across the Severn estuary that cuts into southwestern England north of the Wales peninsula. The gigantic 8 GW facility consisting of 214 4o MW turbines would have been gigantically expensive to build: 20 billion pounds according to its promoters, more like 34 billion according to the British government--which said the project had turned out to be too risky and too expensive compared to other sources of low-carbon electricity.,

Scotland's 10 billion pound tidal challenge remains very much active, but England's decision does cast serious doubt on whether Scotland will ever generate 25 percent of the UK's electricity, as the Scots claim they could do.

Concurrently with the Severn decision, the British government approved eight sites for construction of new nuclear power plants.

California's Climate Commitment

“[Climate change] creeps up on you. And then all of a sudden, it is too late to do something about it. ... We don’t want to go there.”

Thus spoke Schwarzenegger, California's body-building movie star governor, upon signing four years ago a California law committing the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions an estimated 25-30 percent by 2020. Nationally, any directed governmental effort to reduce GHG died earlier this year when the White House gave up on getting a cap-and-trade bill through the Senate; with last yesterday's loss of the House, the idea of deliberately reducing U.S. carbon emission is dead as a doornail. But Californians, defying the national trend, voted to uphold Arnold Schwarzenegger's SB 32--and, in the same breath, chose Democrats Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer over the former corporate CEOs Meg Whitfield and Carly Fiorina, for governor and senator.

The battle over Proposition 23, which would have suspended implementation of the state's Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 until economic conditions improve, was seen as a national bellwether and pitted some big-name donors on both sides of the fight against each other: Supporters of the ballot initiative included a Kansas company owned by the Koch brothers ($1 million), the Missouri-based Adam Smith foundation (nearly $500,000), and Occidental Petroleum ($300,000); among the opponents were San Francisco Democratic Party donor Thomas Steyer ($2.5 million), the Natural Resources Defense Council (more than $1 million), and venture capitalist John Doerr ($500,000).

Evidently the state's voters bought arguments that California's future depends on a sustained commitment to advanced green tech, and elected leaders they can count on to stick with the program. Brown, a former governor known for his visionary attitudes toward technology, once wanted California to have its own space program. Boxer, as chairperson of the Senate environmental committee, is one of the most influential national players in climate and energy policy.

California's commitment to greenhouse gas reduction was striking four years ago, and its reaffirmation of that commitment is all the more striking today, because in many ways it's tougher for the golden state to cut carbon than it would be for the country as a whole. The state already has in place some of the strictest building and fuel efficiency standards in the world, and little of its in-state electricity generation depends on coal. So while the United States could easily cut its emissions sharply by imposing much tougher standards and by encouraging rapid replacement of coal-fired plants by cleaner technology, California does not have those options.

That said, the one thing the golden state does have in relative abundance is sun. This last week, Schwarzenegger and the U.S. interior secretary joined with BrightSource executives to hail the beginning of construction of  the 370 MW, utility-scale Ivanpah solar concentrating plant. "Today we are breaking ground on the largest solar project in the world, right here in California," boasted Schwarzenegger. To be built with help of a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy on 347,000 acres of Federal land, Ivanpah will feature 347,000 large mirrors surrounding three generating towers.

Some kind of carbon trading plan is expected to be part of California's program to implement AB 32, and other regional trading plans are being put in place piecemeal in other parts of the country--exactly the uneven regulatory environment that big business has said it didn't want. With companies no longer much interested in trading carbon voluntarily to prepare for inauguration of a national system, the Chicago climate exchange (CCX) is on the verge of collapse, the Financial Times reported Monday.

Had President Obama proposed a revenue-neutral "sky tax" on carbon, as some economists and climatologists proposed, in which revenues would be used to generate green-tech jobs in the parts of the country most adversely effected by penalizing coal, the national picture might be different today. The president might have created employment in just those regions where he took the worst drubbing yesterday, without standing accused of driving up the Federal deficit. But--to recycle this week's favorite cliches--he failed to exhibit the audacity of hope, and the electorate said nope.

Without a national system that penalizes emission of greenhouse gases equally regardless of their source--a system that can be tuned to achieve just the reductions the nation desires--we are left with second-best solutions and a second-rate approach to policy making, in which each special interest lobbies to favor its cause and disadvantage its adversaries. The result is a hit-and-miss approach to greenhouse gas reduction, in which the end result cannot be accurately predicted and everything depends on who is picked as a winner or loser.

Quick to get a jump on the new realities,however distasteful they may be, the American Wind Energy Association issued a press release this week pointing out that while wind far outdid coal last year in new electricity generation installation, this year the pattern has reversed, with coal coming out far ahead. To redress that, AWEA would like to see the government enact a national renewable energy standard and extend 2009 wind tax credits. Good luck.

Trains Need Greening Too: Amtrak to Add New Efficient Locomotives

Amtrak has agreed to buy 70 electric locomotives from Siemens as part of an ambitious $11 billion, 14-year plan to upgrade its rail service. The trains, called Cities Sprinters, will drastically upgrade the energy efficiency of their predecessors.

Among the energy-saving features on the Siemens design - which will be based on the Euro Sprinter design (pictured) - is regenerative braking.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s locomotive,” said Oliver Hauck, president of  Siemens Industry’s Mobility Division, in a press release. “Not only will we use renewable energy to build them, the locomotives will also include energy efficient features, such as regenerative braking that can feed up to 100 percent of the energy generated during braking back to the power grid."

Moreover, the $466 million contract with Siemens will be filled largely by manufacturing at a Sacramento plant powered (mostly) by solar energy. So if anyone starts doing lifecycle emissions calculations for these trains, that will help as well. (The project will also create more than 200 jobs, mostly in California).

I'm an unabashed trains lover, but I'm the first to admit they're far from perfect when it comes to energy use and efficiency. So it's nice to see Amtrak, in spite of seemingly constant financial problems, following through on promises to upgrade its fleet.

(Image via Siemens)


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