Climate Sense: The road to clean energy – politics, technology and culture

Experts say it is possible, in the not-too-distant future, for the United States to generate nearly all its electrical energy from sources that do not produce climate-changing greenhouse gases. But first some political and technical hurdles must be crossed.

In this week’s “Climate Sense,” I share some news articles that I found noteworthy, as well as an interesting description of five movies about climate change — including the one in the video player here. Films can help bring about cultural change, as mentioned in a review of five films about climate change (Item 6 at the bottom).

Item 1: Battle over clean power in the Washington Legislature

Legislation to move Washington state residents toward forms of electrical power that do not result in greenhouse-gas emissions has been advancing through the state House and Senate, as described in a comprehensive story by Brad Shannon and Robert McClure of Investigate West.

“Both Senate Bill 5116 and House Bill 1211 seek to end the use of coal-fired electricity by 2025 and set a firm January 2030 deadline to hit clean energy targets,” they write.

“Utilities that fail to hit those targets could stand to pay a considerable price,” according to their story. “The Senate legislation would impose a $60 per megawatt-hour penalty for any natural gas or other carbon-emitting sources of power after 2030. The House version would levy $100 per megawatt hour. It’s not clear if or how those costs could be passed on to Washington households, which, on average, use about 12 megawatt hours per year.”

The concern raised by Republican lawmakers and utilities involves the stability of the integrated power grid in the Northwest and how to keep electricity flowing steadily without a backup source of coal or natural gas, which clean-power advocates wish to eliminate.

“No one wants to be reckless,” Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, was quoted as saying. “No one wants to drive too fast outside of the lanes. But we also know we have the ability inside the state to embrace 100 percent clean and move forward.”

Carlyle, sponsor of the Senate bill, added that “there are technical and legitimate operational issues where we need flexibility for these utilities.”

Read the full story to understand the political lay of the land. By the way, in case you missed it, Gov. Jay Inslee announced yesterday that he is running for president and will focus on efforts to reduce climate change as the centerpiece of his campaign.

Item 2: A total clean energy grid would need lots of storage

January’s bone-chilling weather in the Eastern and Central United States, triggered by an anomaly in the polar vortex, has provided a test of what it could take to keep the electricity flowing in those regions if solar and wind were the only sources of power, according to Dan Gearino of Inside Climate News, who reviewed a new report by the analytical firm Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables.

Batteries could be the answer to maintaining the grid when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, according to the analysis, but Gearino raises questions of feasibility, technology and politics in his interview with Wade Schauer, co-author of the report.

Storage would need to increase from the current 11 gigawatts to 277.9 gigawatts for portions of the grid that supply New England, New York, the Mid-Atlantic, the Midwest and parts of the South. That’s roughly double Wood Mackenzie’s current forecast for energy storage nationwide in 2040, Gearino says.

Item 3: New national grid design could be part of the answer

The challenge of going green is putting the electricity sector through the “most profound operating changes in the U.S. electric power sector since the era of Thomas Edison,” writes reporter Peter Behr in E&E News.

The issue is not just power generation from wind and solar farms but the complication of rooftop “distributed” solar energy and “smart appliances” designed to operate only during periods of low demand.

An upgrade of the country’s entire transmission system would be a major step forward, according to experts interviewed for Behr’s wide-ranging article. One scenario involves three ultra-high-voltage direct-current lines spanning the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River, with other new lines moving power from west to east.

Surplus afternoon solar power from the Southwest could stream into Southeastern states at dusk, Behr writes. Other lines could ship unused wind energy from the Great Plains into major cities in the Great Lakes and East Coast regions, or the other way into California.

Computers would need to be designed to respond rapidly to load changes on the grid, far faster than humanly possible. The days of people watching dials and flipping switches to balance the loads could soon be over.

Item 4: More certainty about human causes of climate change

“Evidence for man-made global warming has reached a ‘gold standard’ level of certainty,” writes reporter Alister Doyle of Reuters, who quotes scientists regarding this statistical threshold.

Researchers in the United States, Canada and Scotland say evidence for the cause of global warming reached the “five sigma” level by 2005 in two of three sets of satellite data and in 2016 in the third, according to the report.

The “five-sigma” level is a statistical benchmark used in particle physics that means the chance of reaching current conditions through natural factors alone are one in a million. Others commenting in Doyle’s article but not involved in the study said they preferred to raise the certainty to somewhat above 99 percent.

Here’s the statement by Benjamin Santer and colleagues in the journal Nature Climate Change (Feb. 25):

“An anthropogenic fingerprint of tropospheric warming is identifiable with high statistical confidence in all currently available satellite datasets. In two out of three datasets, fingerprint detection at a 5σ threshold — the gold standard for discoveries in particle physics — occurs no later than 2005, only 27 years after the 1979 start of the satellite measurements. Humanity cannot afford to ignore such clear signals.”

Item 5: Trump becoming isolated on climate change

“New efforts by President Trump and his staff to question or undermine the established science of climate change have created a widening rift between the White House on one side, and scientific facts, government agencies, and some leading figures in the president’s own party on the other,” writes New York Times reporter Coral Devenport.

It is one thing to argue about an issue on the basis of policy, such as cost or priority, but no president has ever tried to systematically undermine the findings of the National Academies of Science or other respected scientific groups, experts said.

“It creates a huge divide with our European and Asian allies, and it allows China to claim the mantle of climate leadership,” Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense, was quoted as saying. “China shows up at climate conferences when the U.S. doesn’t, and they offer to engage on the science.”

White House officials seem to be in the process of setting up a panel to question basic scientific findings related to climate change.

Comedian Stephen Colbert of The Late Show joked last week about the man chosen by President Trump to head the new climate panel. I featured Colbert’s monologue and related information in my “Amusing Monday” blog post this week along with other humorous jabs by Colbert.

Item 6: Climate-change films can be empowering

Daisy Simmons of Yale Climate Connections reports on the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., where climate change emerged as a major topic in some notable films.

“Climate change is happening before our very eyes – including on the big screen. Watching a well-informed high-quality documentary can help bring the issues to life in a way that feels personal, enlightening and, yes, empowering,” she writes in a review that includes trailers and potential access to five notable films.

“Climate Sense” is my attempt to share some of the important research, political developments, fascinating viewpoints or inspiring opinions that I come across during my reading. For a further explanation, read my first Water Ways post of 2019: “Climate Sense: I would like to share what I learn during this coming year.”

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