Friday, July 3, 2009

Lovelock's latest global heating book: A Final Warning

I like the "global heating" books by the British physicist James Lovelock; cogent, convincing, and eloquently written. The Revenge of Gaia and now The Vanishing Face of Gaia: The Final Warning.

Global heating is quoted because it is Lovelock's favored term for climate change or global warming. He advocates that adaptation is more important than trying to "defeat" or "beat" global warming.

His more salient points and data analyses tend to stand out in stark relief. For example, we are already close to the point where the feedback effects of excess greenhouse emissions exceed manmade emissions -- methane or carbon dioxide (CO2) released from permafrost in the Arctic regions, the reduced albedo effect of the melting Arctic seas (the frozen white ocean reflects back 80 percent of the sun's heat; the dark exposed ocean only 20 percent); and the dramatic loss of algae from ocean waters.

Algae does not flourish in warming seas and is now diminishing to a large extent, according to Lovelock. Algae seeds clouds with a precursor chemical called dimethyl sulfide. The clouds in turn help reflect the sun's heat back into space.

Therefore, even a giant reduction of our own emissions will have no substantive effect on preventing further warming.

The exhalations of people, their pets, and domesticated animals represent about 23 percent of manmade global-warming emissions, according to the book.

I quibble with him on two major points however. He is strongly opposed to wind turbines, particularly European installations. I favor well-planned wind implementations in the U.S., such as in northern Maine and the Texas and Dakota plains.

Lovelock is heavily in favor of nuclear energy. I believe nuclear must be a part of the new energy mix (with a reduction in the use of fossil fuels). But I confess a strong ambivalence toward nuclear, NIMBY-like; I wouldn't want my children to grow up next to a reactor.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Vermont leads the way on alt-energy incentives

Good ole leading edge Vermont has implemented a Europe-style "feed-in tariff" law that essentially pays renewable-energy generators a sustainable rate for any extra electricity they generate.

Why is this important? The present rate in most states for systems such as wind and solar PV that use "net metering" is woefully, downright insultingly low, in the area of a wholesale price of six cents per kilowatt generated in Massachusetts.

Net metering means that your solar PV or wind system is connected to the electric grid. Any extra electricity you generate beyond what you use causes the electric meter to spin backwards, requiring the electric utility to credit you for those additional kilowatts.

A low wholesale price for alt-energy means that if I had a big solar PV system (instead of one that generates about 250 KwH per month) that generated about 200 extra kilowatt hours per month, then the electric utility would only have to pay me $12 per month for the energy.

Yet I pay them about 18 cents a kilowatt hour for the extra electricity my house uses beyond what we can generate with PV panels!

This is unfair because it provides no financial incentive for thousands of generators to become small satellite utilities, which is just what this country needs to overcome its oil and coal addictions.

Vermont law H. 446 will pay $0.30/kWh for solar PV systems; $0.20/kWh for wind systems of less than 15 kilowatts; and $0.14/kWh for wind generated by the larger wind turbines. The law took effect on May 27, 2009.

Speaking of wind, the first floating wind turbine was launched in Norway. This allows wind farms to be located farther out to sea where the winds can be stronger, and also helps staunch the "not in my backyard" problems that plague some off-shore wind farms.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

U.S. EPA Will Regulate Carbon Dioxide under the Clean Air Act

Let me slip this tidbit in first, before I discuss CO2 (it's good to be back after a bit of a hiatus from this blog!). U.S. gasoline prices have quietly leapt higher, from lows of $1.69 per gallon not too long ago to $2.15 per gallon (using the gas station down the street from me in Massachusetts as a gauge).

Quietly, because no one is really talking about "soaring gas prices" at the moment of a really bad economic downturn. Yet the current price represents a 27 percent increase in just a few months.

Much of the energy talk now revolves around which low-carbon strategies to implement in light of making an attempt to stem global warming.

However, oil is currently at $57 per barrel; any further increases will make it much more difficult for the world to recover from recession.

Speaking of global warming, the U.S. EPA in mid-April declared that it would regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) and four other pollutants under the Clean Air Act. This declaration precedes a formal proposal to regulate the greenhouse gases, which include methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. The declaration will be accompanied by the usual quips about human exhalation of CO2 and how it can be controlled!

Here's the detailed EPA description of their decision.

It's a several-months long bureaucratic public process (I used to write about these regulatory issues in a newsletter) before CO2 emissions end up falling under a new final regulation.

However, the Obama administration has now made a complete about-face compared with the Bush presidency in an effort to regulate CO2 emissions and move to a low-carbon economy.

The next stage in this contentious legal arm-wrestling is a proposed "cap-and-trade" system for limiting overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Store Up Those Multivitamins, Including D3

Buy affordable multivitamins and vitamin D3, including for your kids. Neither is very expensive.

Why would I write about vitamins in a blog about energy and the environment?

Because the way modern Americans and others obtain most of their food is based on a complex system that is highly vulnerable to disruptions, such as drought, loss of a key energy supply (e.g., fossil fuels that are used to fertilize farms then transport the grain, fruits, or vegetables), or the loss of financial credit required to buy those inputs (a more recent concern).

As a result, the hauling of food great distances could simply halt (how fast do you think anyone would warn you of *that*?), or be tremendously delayed.

I always keep lots of vitamins around because chances are you can always find something to provide calories on short notice, but it's not likely to be very nutritious, which presents the threat, especially for the young ones, of nutritional deficiencies over time. For example, my basal metabolic rate, the amount of calories I *would* burn just loafing around in bed all day (without hiking long distances or walking, for example), is about 1650 calories. I could always find 1500 or so calories in the form of rice, peanut butter, bread, crackers, in an emergency (lurching for the Velveta, so to speak), but I wouldn't want to have to live on simple or sugary carbs for a very long time.

I would want to give my family members and myself a multivitamin and a healthy dose of vitamin D3 each day with the food.
There is some conjecture, further, that vitamin D3 can be used as an antibiotic in a pinch.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Support Your Local (And Regional) CSA

If you can afford it, invest in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

A CSA gives you a share of a farm or farm cooperative's fruits, vegetables, and/or meats usually during a growing season such as June through October in the northeastern U.S. In fact, even if you feel like you cannot afford it, co-invest in a CSA with a neighbor.

Here's how it works: you send them a single payment in early Spring (say $450 for a full share, the equivalent of less than one month of bad electricity bills here during the winter:), and thereby agree to share the farm's bounty and possible risk of failure, by drought say.

They do not have to repay you in the event they lose their crop to a killer drought or flood; however, you get a weekly pile of veggies or meats from the local farm(s), plus your's and others' investment helps ensure that a local farm survives (along with other advantages, such as having a person-to-person relationship with a food grower, and not having to rely on labels and faceless companies of questionable credibility to determine whether antibiotics are used, or whether cows, chickens or Elk for that matter are grass-fed).

In case you haven't noticed, you and your family need food to survive; you do not want to have to rely on the equivalent of 3,000-mile cesar salads, or grapes from Chile (however tasty they are), for your sustenance. A bad oil-related energy crisis could easily knock out or greatly stress food production and long-distance transportation in the U.S. The supermarkets' shelves in many places would be picked clean in a matter of days.

I have invested in two CSAs, one local CSA for veggies and fruits, and another in Vermont for grass-fed meats and eggs. I have a chest-sized freezer in the basement where I plan to store a lot of the bounteous local produce and protein. I'll let you know how it goes with my CSA shares. I will also re-plant my Summer garden; it provides about 10 percent or less of my calories.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is the U.S.'s Third Largest Oil Exporter Teetering on the Edge?

Mexico's oil production is plunging. "Pemex extracted 772,000 barrels a day from Cantarell [in January 2009], the world’s third-largest [oil] field, a decline of 38 percent from a year earlier" (yikes!), according to the Bloomberg article, whose link I found at this blog.

Why should U.S. citizens care (the plunging rule of law on the U.S. border with Mexico is probably a more heightened near-term concern)?

Because Mexico is the United State's third largest exporter, behind Canada and Saudi Arabia. In December 2008, the U.S. imported 1.126 million barrels per day from Mexico, nearly 10 percent of all of its imported crude oil, according to the EIA.

To put that number into perspective, even Iraq exported only about half that oil amount to the U.S. during the same period.

Fueling cars and trucks, the transportation of much of our food, for instance, is about 97 percent dependent on crude oil.

The U.S. is dangerously dependent on foreign countries for this crucial energy source; two-thirds of all of our oil comes from other countries.

The top five exporters (including Venezuela and Nigeria, along with the previously mentioned three) dominate U.S. imports. "The top five exporting countries accounted for 59 percent of United States crude oil imports in December while the top ten sources accounted for approximately 87 percent of all U.S. crude oil imports," according to the Energy Information Agency. It's not like we can just grab more oil from another source who is willing to make up for Mexico's probable and eventual exit from the scene as a big U.S. exporter.

Mexico's need for its own dwindling oil supply will probably exceed its need for the revenue it can raise by selling its oil, particularly at the present low price per barrel of about $42. Experts call this condition "peak exports" (when important supplying countries are forced to consume their own crude oil rather than sell it). Despite the fact that the world is currently awash in relatively cheap oil, this is a problem the U.S. is likely to confront in the months and years ahead.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Renewable Energy Content In the Stimulus Law

President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law on February 17. The law includes about $60 billion worth of investments in energy efficiency measures and renewable-energy technology, out of $787 billion in total allocations.

Here is a detailed article describing the "clean technology" funding in the bill, including $5 billion towards the Weatherization Assistance Program, as well as $4.5 billion for activities to modernize the nation's electrical grid.

The Natural Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC) provides this summation of much of the law's "green" funding:

  • $6 billion for clean and safe water
  • $4.5 billion for greening federal buildings
  • $2.5 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy Research and Development
  • A multi-year extension of the renewable production tax credit
  • $6 billion in loan guarantees for renewables, transmission and leading edge biofuels
  • $2 billion for advanced batteries
  • $9.3 billion for intercity rail, including high-speed rail 
  • $27.5  billion for highways (this large pot of money is not exclusively for highways, and states and cities must use this flexibility to invest in fuel-efficient public transportation)

Apparently, $50 billion for loan guarantees involving liquid-coal and nuclear energy has been removed from the bill, according to the NRDC.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not That Climate Change Science Needed Anymore Bad Press

Not that Climate Change science needs anymore vociferous detractors, but a $280 million carbon dioxide (CO2) monitoring satellite crashed into the sea near Antarctica today. You can read more of the bad news here at treehugger.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Climate Change Revs Up Beyond Earlier Predictions

The global warming pot continues to boil, as people are otherwise (understandably) preoccupied with near-term crises.

A scientist points out in the The Washington Post that increased inputs such as coal-burning factories in the developing world are intensifying climate change beyond the most recent predictions of the IPCC.

This means that the latest climate models are probably underestimating the extent of temperature extremes, sea-level rises, polar melting, and other anomalies that climatologists expect to take place in the next 50 years (or sooner, or later).

The scientific evidence is ironic, considering that it has been since the 1980s and conservative Reagan years since I have sensed so many people wrapped up in the "climate change is a hoax" personal fantasy. The "feedback mechanisms" involved with excess greenhouse gases are likely to threaten the habitability of the planet for us and other species.

These mechanisms include the melting of massive amounts of permafrost, which releases more CO2 and methane into the atmosphere than mankind could ever muster; as well as the continued acidification of the oceans, which typically are a "sink" for CO2 in the atmosphere. The more acidified the waters become, the less CO2 uptake takes place in the oceans.

Further, the "albedo" effect by which snow cover reflects heat back into space is obviously reduced the more snow recedes and uncovers more forested terrain. Trees also become net CO2 emitters when the carbon saturation of the forest reaches a certain level. The Australians and to a lesser extent the Californians have experienced the extreme weather events that in all probability will increase in frequency over the next several years.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gas Prices Creep Up: Oil Supply Crisis in the Offing?

Gasoline prices have gone up quite a bit in the last few weeks here in the Boston area, from about $1.69 per gallon to $1.89 per gallon. What gives?

What will become of us if we are hit with an energy crisis on top of this horrendous, Depression level economic crisis?

First of all, gas is still very cheap for the beleaguered U.S. consumer compared with Europe. Gas is more than three times more costly there. But clouds are gathering on the horizon.

The New York Times reported back in December 2008 that "dozens of major oil and gas projects have been suspended or canceled ... as companies scramble to adjust to the collapse in energy markets [meaning the price of crude oil]."

This means that all those oil derricks that were sprouting up all over places like Texas, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota have ceased operations, not to mention big exploration and drilling projects throughout the world. What looks like a good deal at $147 per barrel suddenly does not make any sense at less than $40 per barrel.

As a result, it is just a matter of time before supply constraints send the price of the Western world's precious oil upwards again.

That is just what the realing economy needs, right? High energy costs. Actually, yes. This is a golden opportunity for the U.S. and other countries, when oil demand is historically low, to begin weaning themselves from this heroin-like addiction, via conservation mainly (smaller cars, better trains, telecommuting, eating locally grown food, and the like), before the unfortunate implications of a loss in oil supply become the second really bad crisis to come true.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Revive the U.S. railroad system

The "stimulus" package that is presently being tossed back and forth as a political football in the U.S. Senate contains $18.5 billion of spending under a renewable-energy related title.

This spending would include $2 billion for renewable energy research, including biomass and geothermal projects; $6.2 billion to help make homes more energy efficient (via a weatherization type program); and $4.5 billion to modernize the electric grid (the so-called "smart grid" to help move solar-thermal and wind-generated energy to population centers).

Most of these provisions make sense and will presumably help create "green" jobs at a time of great economic suffering.

Most people agree that we can kill two birds (if not a whole flock) with one stone here; create energy-related jobs, give renewable energy a boost to reduce some of our self-destructive foreign-oil dependence (although only conservation can really make inroads there), and ameliorate some of the country's pressing infrastructure problems, like dangerous bridges and lousy railroad systems.

How does the stimulus address our antique passenger-railroad system?

I've been in Switzerland and experienced what a world-class train system is like. The system itself does not overly depend on oil (it is electrified with largely nuclear power and hydropower), the trains are a great way to travel anywhere, even to the smallest villages, and a Swiss does not have to own a car (although many do).

Suffice it to say, the U.S. does not have one of these systems. A bad energy crisis and consequent gas/diesel shortages could quickly lead to a food transportation crisis.

I love the Acela high-speed service to New York City, but this is a rare example in the U.S. of a modern rail system.

The New York Times reports that one of the stimulus bill's provisions that is likely to be dropped is $800 million for Amtrak, to reduce the cost of the $825 billion package and make it more palatable to lawmakers.

The Amtrak proposal would specifically be allocated only for "the repair, rehabilitation, or upgrade of railroad assets or infrastructure."

This sounds like a practical expenditure to me, considering that the federal government is willing to hand multi-billions of dollars to failing financial institutions, only to have those funds disappear into the ether. A country's train system, particularly a geographically dispersed country like the U.S., is one of its most essential assets.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Instinctive responses to global warming/cooling vary by region

It is snowing again in the U.S. northeast, where we are having a winter more evocative of my New England childhood in the 1960s. No roofs are spared the ominous ice dams, and you can hardly see over the snowbanks. Much of the United States has experienced a similiarly rough winter. What happened to global warming?

Well, once again, ask the Australians. They seem to be living in the equivalent of Death Valley, California, with temperatures in Melbourne and Adelaide ranging from 109 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit, amid a 12-year-long drought. I hiked in Badwater, Death Valley this year where it was 109 F., and neither the landscape nor the temperature seemed to belong on Planet Earth.

The point is that weather is not climate, and that forming an opinion about global warming versus cooling based on the weather outside, however tempting, is short-sighted.

At any given moment you can find opposite representative examples of weather extremes in the world, such as Australia versus the top of Mount Washington (where Summer is really summery, and winter is really wintry).

The National Academies of Science and the Royal Society lean strongly toward global warming, as in forming a scientific consensus that unchecked manmade greenhouse gases can trigger dangerous feedback mechanisms.

As the AccuWeather global warming blog points out, a recent study indicates tht Antartica has indeed been warming during the last 50 years.

Finally, 2008 turned out to have been about the ninth warmest year globally since 1880.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Climatologist Hansen makes personal appeal to President-elect Obama

It will be interesting to see the path that President Obama will take in dealing with climate change.

He's getting advice from all corners; everyone has their favorite strategies for reducing carbon emissions and fossil-fuel use: Al Gore (solar power, wind power and geothermal energy), Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute (a renewables strategy dominated by wind), even T. Boone Pickens the oil man, whose plan revolves around mainly wind energy and domestic natural gas.

Now the climate scientist James Hansen has written a personal letter to Obama with his own plan for mitigating global warming. His plan involves phasing out coal-fired power stations; implementing a carbon tax (he views cap-and-trade systems, such as this one in the U.S. northeast, as "ineffectual"); and developing fourth-generation nuclear power.

My own preference for the U.S. is to fully exploit the potential for concentrated solar electric utilities in the sunny Southwest; keep building wind farms apace in the Midwestern wind corridor and off-shore; upgrade electric utilities to be able to efficiently distribute this electricity, and greatly expand the use of solar module arrays and geothermal energy by individual buildings and homes. What's yours?

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The USGS Assessment of Abrupt Climate Change

A group of scientists led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have released a report discussing the current knowledge of abrupt climate change.

You can download the executive summary here. The report analyzes the likelihood of "abrupt climate change," which it defines as:

"A large-scale change in the climate system that takes place over a few decades or less, persists (or is anticipated to persist) for at least a few decades, and causes substantial disruptions in human and natural systems."

I further quote from the executive summary:

"This report considers progress in understanding four types of abrupt change in the paleoclimatic record that stand out as being so rapid and large in their impact that if they were to recur, they would pose clear risks to society in terms of our ability to adapt: (1) rapid change in glaciers, ice sheets, and hence sea level; (2) widespread and sustained changes to the hydrologic cycle; (3) abrupt change in the northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic Ocean associated with the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC); and (4) rapid release to the atmosphere of methane trapped in permafrost and on continental margins."

The report reflects a greater understanding of abrupt climate change compared with five years ago, and goes into greater detail on this topic than did the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report.

The gist of the report is that:

1) the melt waters from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are likely to contribute to greater sea-level rises than previous assessments have stated;

2) the U.S. Southwest could experience more intense droughts;

3) the Atlantic "conveyor belt" of warm water flowing from the southern latitudes to the North Atlantic and cold water flowing south, or AMOC, is likely to decrease from 25 to 30 percent during the 21st century, but not collapse; and

4) abrupt methane releases from heavily laden sources such as permafrost are unlikely but cannot be discounted (methane has more powerful heat-trapping effects than carbon dioxide, and one of the catastrophic feedback mechanisms that scientists warn about are massive natural methane releases from permafrost or methane hydrates in the oceans, releases that are precipitated by manmade greenhouse gases).