Tag Archives: Renewable energy

Climate Sense: Sea ice, economics, legal issues and the orca task force

The shift to “clean fuels,” such as solar and wind power, is tied up in economics, and it appears that change is coming — with or without a push from government. This week, I read three different and somewhat contradictory reports about this dynamic competition between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

I also took a look at the hard data surrounding Arctic sea ice and reviewed videos of the governor’s orca task force meeting on Monday.

Item 1: Sea ice has stopped growing for the year

Spring has come to the Arctic, as the extent of the sea ice appears to have stopped growing this year and has begun its annual decline.

Arctic sea ice extent for March 13. The orange line shows the average extent for that day from 1981 to 2010. Click twice to enlarge.
Graphic: National Snow and Ice Data Center

The maximum extent of sea ice was probably reached on March 13, when it reached 5.71 million square miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That would tie it with the year 2007 for the seventh lowest extent in the 40-year record of satellite data. It is also the highest extent of ice since 2014, as one can see in the chart on the NSIDC News and Analysis page.

“While this is not a record-low year for the Arctic sea ice maximum extent, the last four years have been the lowest in our record, reflecting a downward trend in winter sea ice extent,” said NSIDC senior research scientist Walt Meier. “This is just another indicator of the rapid changes that are occurring in the Arctic due to climate change.”

NSIDC, supported by government agencies, says the analysis is preliminary, since it is possible that more ice could accumulate with shifts in the weather.

Item 2: Court blocks oil drilling for climate considerations

Oil-drilling projects in Wyoming have been blocked by a federal judge, who says the Bureau of Land Management needs to first consider the cumulative effects of climate change from those projects.

Map of recent oil and gas leases in three Western states. Click on map for zoom-in video.
Map: Western Environmental Law Center

“BLM summarized the potential on-the-ground impacts of climate change in the state, the region, and across the country,” said U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in a written opinion (PDF 448 kb). “It failed, however, to provide the information necessary for the public and agency decision makers to understand the degree to which the leasing decisions at issue would contribute to those impacts. In short, BLM did not adequately quantify the climate change impacts of oil and gas leasing.”

The lawsuit, brought by WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility, alleges that 473 oil and gas leases covering 460,000 acres in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado were in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act for failing to discuss the full impacts on climate change. The judge agreed, applying his specific ruling to 282 leases.

Samantha Ruscavage-Barz, managing attorney for WildEarth Guardians, said in a news release: “It’s high time the federal government was held accountable for the costs of sacrificing our public lands for dirty oil and gas. This win demonstrates the Trump administration can’t legally turn its back on climate change.”

Leasing of federal lands for oil development is the “irreversible and irretrievable commitments of resources” that triggers a review of the overall environmental impacts, the judge said. While the BLM could not predict the specific impacts of each drilling project at the leasing stage, “it could reasonably foresee and forecast the impacts of oil and gas drilling across the leased parcels as a whole.”

Reporter Nichola Groom covered the story for Reuters.

Item 3: Climate change at orca task force

Monday’s meeting of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force included an afternoon session with presentations on the effects of climate change, with a special focus on the effects of salmon and orcas. It also includes a talk by Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish, who describes how shellfish growers are working to overcome the damaging effects of ocean acidification on their industry.

The presentations on climate change were followed by discussions by task force members about how they should address the issue of climate change. The climate change discussion can be heard in the video below.

For those interested, I blogged about the morning sessions yesterday in Water Ways, which involved legislative progress, also recorded by TVW.

Item 4: Economics to end fossil fuels, but when?

Author Bill McKibbon in The New York Review of Books uses two economic reports about fossil fuels and geopolitics as a springboard for writing an engaging piece that describes the dynamic competition between fossil fuels and clean energy.

“(Author Kingsmill) Bond writes that in the 2020s — probably the early 2020s — the demand for fossil fuels will stop growing,” says McKibbon. “The turning point in such transitions ‘is typically the moment when the impact is felt in financial markets’ — when stock prices tumble and never recover … Precisely how long it will take is impossible to predict, but the outcome seems clear….

“A far more important question, of course, is whether the changes now underway will happen fast enough to alter our grim climatic future,” he continues. “Here, the answers are less positive.

“Scientists, conservative by nature, have routinely underestimated the pace of planetary disruption: The enormous melt now observed at the poles was not supposed to happen until late in the century, for instance, and the galloping pace of ocean acidification wasn’t even recognized as a threat two decades ago.”

Item 5: Financial returns on fracking in doubt

While the federal government moves ahead with plans for extensive oil and gas leasing, a new analysis by Sightline Institute raises questions about whether the process of fracking is really paying off.

“By some measures,” the authors wrote, “America’s fracking industry had a banner year in 2018. Shale companies produced more oil and gas than ever, lifting total U.S. output to all-time highs … (But) a cross section of 29 publicly traded, fracking-focused oil and gas companies spent $6.7 billion more on drilling than they realized from selling oil and gas….

“These disappointing results come on the heels of a decade of bleak financial performance. Since its inception, the fracking sector has consistently failed to produce enough cash to satisfy its voracious appetite for capital. From 2010 through 2018, the companies in our sample had an aggregate negative cash flow of $181 billion.”

Authors of the report are Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry, Kathy Hipple and Tom Sanzillo.

Item 6: U.S. banks pour money into fossil fuels

A new report funded by a coalition of environmental groups has found that 33 global banks have provided $1.9 trillion to companies expanding their development of oil, natural gas and coal since adoption of the 2015 Paris climate accord. Such financing has risen in each of the past two years, the report says.

The report, “Banking on Climate Change 2019” says the four largest bankers of fossil fuels are all U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citi and Bank of America.

“At a time when science tells us we need to rapidly transition to clean energy, major American banks are placing themselves on the wrong side of history by continuing to offer a blank check to the fossil fuel industry,” Ben Cushing of the Sierra Club said in a press release. “The global outcry for financial institutions to stop financing climate destruction will only grow louder and more powerful until these banks get the message and pull their support for dirty fossil fuels once and for all.”

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.”

Amusing Monday: Climate change is scary enough for Halloween

Samantha Bee’s Halloween show last week is making a big splash on the Internet. The underlying theme was climate change, and the program cleverly makes a connection with this particular time of year, when many people relish the experience of getting scared.

In one segment of the show, which is called “Full Frontal,” singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson wears a picture of the Earth while singing an altered version of her big hit “Be OK” (original version). The revised song, called “Not OK,” addresses the horrors of climate change.

As Michaelson sweetly sings about the dangers of an altered climate, members of the “Full Frontal” cast dance around the stage, representing hurricanes, storms, floods, burning trees and finally an angry sun, as you can see in the first video.

Michaelson sings, “I am clearly not OK, not OK, not OK. Earth is clearly not OK today. I’m getting warmer every day, every day, every day. Climate change is Fu__ing me, oy vey!”

It’s tough to combine humor with a serious message, but Michaelson’s new words on a tragic theme are made palatable by the upbeat tune and the silly dancers.

One viewer commented on Michaelson’s Facebook page that she had ruined a perfectly good song, but the vast majority of her fans were delighted that she had found an amusing way to weigh in on an important topic.

I guess something similar could be said for the entire show, which I decided to go ahead and share on this blog post. Except for the Michaelson segment, the videos are posted in the order they appeared on the show. If you’re not familiar with this show, you should be warned that the language can be coarse at times.

In another segment, more edgy than funny, Samantha Bee goes after Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, who has begun to reverse direction on President Obama’s plans to move the United States away from coal and toward renewable energy. She points out that before Pruitt became the head of the EPA, he was one of the agency’s biggest enemies. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the EPA 14 times, largely on behalf of the oil and gas industry. While she can’t stop Pruitt’s anti-regulatory approach, she thinks she can poke him in the eye by demanding a public hearing.

In Act 3, called “(Hot as) Hell House,” Bee takes climate deniers through a Halloween-style haunted house to see if she can scare them into caring about climate change. The setting is 50 years from now, when the Earth is ruined, cockroaches are the only food supply and people cannot escape the droning recitation of Al Gore’s Ted Talk by a creepy John Hodgman. One climate skeptic said the experience had changed her mind, but her reasoning — revealed at the end — was quite amusing.

The haunted house scenes were filmed within the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, the site of Terror Behind the Walls. It is said to be America’s largest haunted house, listed as number 1 in the country by Forbes magazine.

Polls show support for state action on climate change — near and far

If the U.S. government fails to take action on climate change, a majority of Americans would like their states to pick up the ball and run with it.

Some 66 percent of those participating in a national survey agreed with the statement: “If the federal government fails to address the issue of global warming, it is my state’s responsibility to address the problem.”

Question: “Please identify your level of agreement with the following statement … If the federal government fails to address the issue of global warming, it is my state’s responsibility to address the problem.” (Click to enlarge)
Graphic: University of Michigan/Muhlenberg College

Residents of Washington state appear to feel even stronger about the need for state action, according to a survey by The Nature Conservancy, which is preparing for a statewide initiative to be placed on the 2018 general election ballot.

The national survey, by two University of Michigan researchers, demonstrates growing support among Americans for action on climate change, despite very little action by Congress. The last time the question was asked, in 2013, 48 percent of respondents wanted their states to take action. The latest results show an 18-percent increase in the number of people who support state action.

This and several other polls reveal growing concerns among Americans about the negative effects of climate change on human civilization as well as the environment.

Interestingly, the national survey was taken between April 17 and May 16 — before President Trump announced that he would withdraw U.S. support for the Paris climate agreement, which includes clear targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Respondents may have been aware of Trump’s executive order in March to dismantle former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

Americans are still somewhat divided along party lines, with Democrats more supportive of state action than Republicans. But the latest national survey reveals that more Republicans may support state action than not, at least within the survey’s margin of error. The survey shows that 51 percent of Republicans believe that states should step up to climate change, compared to 34 percent four years ago.

Support among Democrats for state action went from 57 percent in 2013 to 77 percent this year.

Another survey taken after Trump was elected showed that nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the people who voted for him support taxing or regulating greenhouse gas emissions, and nearly half (47 percent) agreed that the U.S. should support the Paris climate agreement. See “Trump Voters and Global Warming.”

I will return to the national perspective in a moment, but first some almost-breaking news from Washington state, where The Nature Conservancy on Monday filed three petitions for possible ballot measures with the Secretary of State’s Office.

All three petitions deal with possible state actions on climate change, but none of them are intended to be used for signature gathering, according to Mo McBroom, government relations director for TNC. The idea, Mo told me, is to see how the Attorney General’s Office writes the ballot titles for the three measures, which is what a voter would read on the ballot.

Polling of Washington state voters after the defeat of a carbon-tax measure in last fall’s election showed that most voters knew little about the content of Initiative 732 when they cast their ballots. Also contributing to the confusion was the ballot title itself, which mentioned taxes but failed to explain that increased taxes on fossil fuels would be offset by reduced sales and business taxes plus a tax rebate for low-income residents.

I should point out that a fair number of environmental groups voiced opposition to the measure, in part because it failed to provide money for clean-energy initiatives. And some worried that the measure would add to state budget problems. More than anything, the mixed messages probably killed the measure.

Now, all the environmental groups as well as business and government supporters are hoping to come together around a single initiative with a high likelihood of success, Mo told me. The specifics of the real initiative are still under review, she said, and one should glean nothing from the three different proposals submitted this week. Once the details are worked out, a final petition will be submitted next January.

“The most important thing is that we are looking to build the broadest base of support for solutions to climate change.,” Mo told me. “Whether it is a carbon tax or fee or a regulatory structure, it is about how we, as a society, make the investments that the public wants.” For further discussion, read Mo’s blog entry posted yesterday in Washington Nature Field Notes.

Personally, I will be watching for the transportation aspects of the coming initiative, since more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state involve the transportation sector — and Mo acknowledged that incentives to encourage cleaner fuels will be essential.

“We want to create an approach that is technology neutral,” she said. “we’re not picking winners and losers. We are creating innovate solutions.”

The Legislature has been struggling for months with Gov. Jay Inslee’s carbon tax proposal (PDF 801 kb). If something good comes out of that process, Mo said, the initiative may not be needed. Reporter Phuong Le reported on this issue for the Associated Press.

According to polling last fall (PDF 596 kb), 81 percent of Washington voters believe climate change is happening; 62 percent believe it is caused by human activities; and 69 percent support state action to reduce carbon pollution. Support may be even higher today. The survey was conducted by FM3 Research and Moore Information for The Nature Conservancy and Vulcan.

The national survey by University of Michigan researchers this spring showed that 70 percent of Americans across the country believe that global warming is happening. Barry Rabe, one of the researchers, told me that public opinion has ebbed and flowed somewhat on this issue since these surveys were started in 2008. See the graphic below, or check out the details on the Brookings blog.

Question: From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?
Graphic: University of Michigan/Muhlenberg College

During the early years of former President Obama’s administration beginning around 2009, “there was a very aggressive effort by opposition groups that argued that climate change is a hoax,” Rabe said. “That probably had an impact (on people’s opinions).”

Now people seem to be returning to a stronger belief in climate change and tending to support the understanding that humans are responsible. Democrats and Republicans alike seem to feeling more urgency to take action.

“This may be a case where political figures are at variance with their base,” Rabe said, noting that most Republicans in Congress are showing no inclination to address the issue. But even in some conservative states, such as Texas and Kansas, state lawmakers are doing more than ever to address climate change, in part because of parallel economic interests involving renewable energy.

“Energy politics breaks down very differently depending on the state you are in,” Rabe said.

From a national perspective, all eyes will be on Washington state over the next year or two, as people throughout the country watch to see how people here address climate change, Rabe said. A lot of folks wondered about the rejection of the climate-change initiative in what many view as a pro-environment state, he added. People nationwide did not grasp the nuances of last fall’s vote, but they are interested in what comes next.

Gov. Jay Inslee joined with the governors of California and New York in signing onto a new U.S. Climate Alliance to help meet the goals of the Paris agreement in light of Trump’s efforts to withdraw from the pact. See Timothy Cama’s piece in The Hill.

California and New York have already passed climate-change-emissions legislation, Rave said, so people across the country are wondering how Washington plans to meet its commitment.

Mo McBroom of The Nature Conservancy said officials involved in the climate-change issue in Washington state embrace the leadership role that this state can play.

‘Geothermal’ heating does not require a geyser

You don’t need to have a geyser in your backyard to benefit from “geothermal” energy.

While superhot water from deep underground makes for a pretty exciting story, it’s not the only way to go. Klamath Falls, Ore., is involved in a $1.6 million project to generate electricity from what is considered “low temperature” geothermal water. Check out the story in yesterday’s edition of the online magazine Government Technology.

Michael Mayda of Thermal Systems in Silverdale describes a geothermal heat pump in a new Bainbridge Island home.
Kitsap Sun photo

“The city, with its high-desert landscape, sits above natural geothermal springs, which residents have used for 100 years to heat their homes,” states the article by Russell Nichols. “Hot rocks and geysers keep the sidewalks warm when the winter comes and pump heat into buildings downtown.”

The article goes on to describe a low-temperature geothermal power plant proposed for Klamath Falls that was pioneered at Chena Hot Springs in Alaska. For a description of the Chena project, involving United Technologies Corporation, see the For Your Own Power Web site.

While geothermal electricity is exciting technology, what caught my attention was a federal residential tax credit that will pay 30 percent of the cost of solar, wind, fuel cell … and, yes, geothermal systems. I pursued geothermal heat pumps in a story I wrote for Sunday’s Kitsap Sun.

The unlimited tax credit makes it feasible to consider geothermal heat pumps in many new home installations. Furthermore, an additional $1,500 rebate from Puget Sound Energy opens the door to consider them when replacing old heating systems, especially for large homes.

In addition to my Sunday story, these resources may help you understand the operations and benefits of geothermal heat pumps:
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