[1THING] Blog: Archive for February, 2012

[ Bill Gates Calls Current Level of Energy Research Funding “Crazy” ]

Bill Gates sees the transformative potential of low-cost energy. “Cheaper energy would be on the list of the three or four things you would want for the poorest people in the world,” he said Tuesday at the 2012 Energy Innovation Summit, sponsored by ARPA-E, the Department of Energy’s three-year-old advanced energy research agency.

Cheaper energy with no new greenhouse gases would allow for improvements in other parts of these people’s lives, freeing up money for fertilizer, lighting, and other significant investments. “Without advances in energy,” Gates said, “they stay stuck where they are.”

But energy innovation is hard and requires more investment. Gates called energy research “greatly underfunded,” saying we should be spending twice as much. “It’s crazy how little we are funding this energy stuff,” he added.

Gates admitted that the rapid pace of innovation in the computer industry may have warped people’s views about the difficulty of the energy challenges and may partly explain the low levels of investment. In contrast with personal electronics, he pointed out that gigantic capital investments will be needed to change the way we generate energy.

The mandate for ARPA-E is to identify and fund potential breakthrough technologies that are at a very early stage of development, just beyond the level of laboratory work. Gates noted that failure is part of the process of innovation.  “It’s a very complex set of technologies,” he said, “We need literally thousands of companies doing these things to get the ten or so who are going to get it right.”

In Gates’s view, the prospect of failure does not preclude tackling ambitious projects. For example, Terrapower, a startup company Gates has supported, is exploring advanced nuclear designs, making use of the modeling power of supercomputers.

He has even provided some funding for research into geoengineering, something he characterized as a drastic step that might one day have to be considered if our energy practices don’t change fast enough. Drawing an analogy, he asked, “Is heart surgery preferable to a good diet? Of course not. Let’s go for the good diet.”

To the hundreds of scientists in the room, each working to develop the next breakthrough energy idea, that sounded pretty appetizing.

[ Presidents and the Price of Oil ]

Offshore oil rig, Brazil

Even if we go with more offshore drilling, we have to accept that it takes years for one of these rigs to be sited and produce oil. Photo: Agencia Brasil

If you’re a primary voter, you’ve got your pick of candidates who’ll promise to bring down the price of gasoline. Unfortunately, whoever wins is going to run up against the limits of presidential power pretty quickly.

The fact is that presidents don’t have that much authority over the price of oil, for a number of virtually inescapable reasons.

  • Oil is a truly global commodity. There’s a lot of anger over the fact that the U.S. can be exporting oil even as prices remain high at home. But that’s based on a false assumption: that somehow we should use up all the oil we have at home first, and then export whatever’s left (or import if we come up short). But in fact oil is sold on global commodities markets like the New York Mercantile Exchange. It’s one big market out there, and whoever’s willing to pay the most per barrel on a given day gets the oil. Even oil-rich countries may buy on the spot markets to smooth out production.
  •  Oil markets are vulnerable to speculation. Because oil is bought and sold on a daily basis in markets that operate more or less like the stock market,  the price of oil is sensitive to all kinds of political and weather events.  Oil traders can be a little like nervous people stocking up on bottled water and canned goods before a storm. Sure, the hurricane may veer out to sea, and the latest tensions with Iran may get resolved over time but in the meantime, people will clear out the shelves. The price of oil can shoot up in the face of hurricanes, coups, embargoes—or even just talk about them. And news that the crises are easing—or that there are big new oil discoveries somewhere—can bring them down again.
  • Producing more oil here doesn’t mean it’ll stay here. Because of global markets, if China, India or some other country is willing to pay more on a given day, then that’s where the oil is going. As China and other developing countries boom and buy cars, we’re going to see more and more competition for the oil that’s on the market. Unless the next president and Congress are willing to dramatically change how oil is sold – like imposing a tariff on overseas sales – then there’s no guarantee that oil produced here will stay here. And a tariff wouldn’t keep prices low for Americans; quite the opposite in fact.
  • Prices move fast, but energy policy doesn’t. It actually takes years for policy changes to take effect, because energy projects don’t spring up overnight. Even if we choose to open up more areas to drilling, the Energy Department estimates it will take a minimum of five years for any expanded offshore drilling to actually be in production, and 10 years for expanded Alaskan fields to reach the market. It could be longer:  the Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico took eight years to get into production, and Canada’s Hibernia platform took 19 years.

With time frames like that, what the next president should do, and has to do, is get us to an energy policy that deals with our long term issues: the soaring worldwide demand for energy, and how we meet it without ending up with ruinous global climate change. That means going back to fundamental questions about the kinds of vehicles we drive, and the kinds of power plants we build.

But that’s not the conversation we’re having. And until we start having it, promises to lower prices at the pump are going to be empty ones—and misleading and manipulative ones at that.

[ National Solar Energy Plan Moves Closer to Final Stages ]

On the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union remarks to expand clean energy development, the Interior Department is moving to finalize the nation’s first solar energy program for public lands with the closing of the public comment period today. Over the past 90 days, the Bureau of Land Management has been seeking input on the Supplemental Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) for solar development on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

The solar plan has garnered more than 100,000 comments in the past two years from stakeholders across the country advocating for balanced, guided development that would minimize potential impacts on wildlife and sensitive lands, and reduce uncertainty in permitting. Solar companies, major trade associations, utilities and conservation groups also submitted a joint letter to Interior with recommendations to help shape a successful solar program.

Following are statements from conservation groups and other stakeholders in support of guided solar development:

“It’s time to kick our addiction to polluting fuels and create new jobs by increasing clean sources of energy,” said Johanna Wald, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Interior’s intention to guide development to thoughtfully designated ‘solar energy zones’ will help ensure the success of the solar industry and our nation’s quick transition to a clean energy economy while protecting irreplaceable lands and wildlife. Reaching that balance is a tall order but Interior has provided strong leadership demonstrating that a comprehensive final solar program can be achieved.”

“We are at a critical juncture in the future of solar development on our public lands,” said Chase Huntley, Director of Renewable Energy Policy at The Wilderness Society.  “We have seen a tremendous amount of leadership from staff at the Department of the Interior to ensure we develop a strong solar program. Over the next few months we hope to see them finalizing a plan that strikes a balance between wildlands and wildlife protection while creating certainty and a level playing field for the solar industry.”

“If the Obama administration is to reach the goal of powering three million homes with clean energy by the year’s end, it must move quickly to put in place a smart solar energy program that speeds up permitting of projects. The key is to guide development away from conflicts with wildlife and natural resources to areas with access to transmission,” said Jim Lyons, Senior Director for Renewable Energy with Defenders of Wildlife. “The Interior Department’s proposed solar program focuses on producing power in low-conflict and no-conflict zones and offers the best opportunity to achieve this goal.  This zone-based approach is an important step toward producing energy in the right places and protecting sensitive public lands and wildlife.”

“Properly designed solar energy zones on public lands would be a major step forward in helping create an enduring and stable investment environment for the solar industry,” said Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner at DBL Investors. “As a solar investor, I believe the biggest advantage of the zones approach is reducing uncertainty in permitting. By doing so, it will reduce risks and attract long-term investments for projects that will create jobs and help advance our nation’s clean energy goals.”

“The Bureau of Land Management's latest solar energy plan is a major step forward in achieving the multiple goals of efficient solar development and protecting our water, wildlife and magnificent western landscapes,” said Timothy Hay, former Nevada consumer advocate and public utility commissioner. “By establishing clearly defined zones for solar energy development, we can begin to provide investors, developers, conservationists and citizens the predictability and stability to move forward.”

“Well-designed solar energy zones will result in faster permitting and speedier construction of projects,” said Jonathan Foster, a director of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) in California. “Interior’s approach to guide solar development to appropriate areas strikes the right balance between protecting critical lands and wildlife, and providing greater certainty for project success – and should be supported by solar developers, environmentalists, and the public at large.”

“The solar industry is up to the task of meeting the President’s goal for dramatically expanding our rich solar resources in the Southwest,” said Rhone Resch, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.  “However, project developers need clear rules of the road that balance the need for flexibility to build solar power plants both inside and outside of designated Solar Energy Zones with responsible stewardship of public lands, resources and wildlife. These are not mutually exclusive objectives and we look forward to continuing work with stakeholders.”

[ Top Environmental Scientists Sound a Call to Action ]

Earlier this week, top scientists released a paper urging governments to take restorative steps for the planet’s ecosystem. Faced with today’s challenges, “Society has no choice but to take dramatic action,” the authors write. They note the important role that energy –- and particularly reliance on fossil fuel — plays in climate change, biodiversity loss and damage to the environment.

The paper integrates insights from 20 historical recipients of the Blue Planet Prize, which is awarded by the Asahi Glass Foundation for scientific strides in solving global environmental problems. Two of the report’s authors, José Goldemberg and Amory Lovins, are on the Great Energy Challenge advisory board.

Key recommendations in Environment and Development Challenges: The Imperative to Act include:

  • Replace GDP as a measure of wealth with metrics for natural, built, human and social capital — and how they intersect.
  • Eliminate subsidies in sectors such as energy, transport and agriculture that create environmental and social costs, which currently go unpaid.
  • Tackle overconsumption in high-income countries, and address population pressure by empowering women, improving education and making contraception accessible to all.
  • Transform decision-making processes to empower marginalized groups, and integrate economic, social and environmental policies instead of having them compete.
  • Conserve and value biodiversity and ecosystem services, and create markets for them that can form the basis of green economies.
  • Invest in knowledge — both in creating and in sharing it — through research and training that will enable governments, business, and society at large to understand and move towards a sustainable future.

The paper concludes, “Governments, the private sector, voluntary and civil society at large all have key roles to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy, adaptation to climate change and a more sustainable use of ecosystems … Failure to act will impoverish current and future generations.”

Collecting and summarizing insights from a number of the world’s top scientists was no small feat. Lovins said of the effort, “The Blue Planet Prize laureates are distinguished, diverse, knowledgeable, and opinionated, so Sir Robert Watson (formerly the excellent head of the IPCC) took on a formidable task when he undertook a quick synthesis of their recommendations for the world. As always, he rose to this worthy challenge.”

[ Frito-Lay Electric Trucks Quieter Than a Doritos Crunch ]

Frito Lay has been steadily making inroads on sustainability throughout their operations. Beginning in late 2010, they launched an innovative electric fleet of delivery vehicles around the U.S., and have steadily been building out the fleet in key markets since then.

EarthTechling recently sat down with Frito Lay’s National Fleet Sustainability Manager, Steve Hanson, and his regional Pacific Northwest counterpart, Rich Wilson, to talk about everything from how these vehicles have boosted internal morale to whether you might buy an extra bag of Doritos once you get a look at one of them.

EarthTechling (ET): Start at the beginning and tell us how this program got off the ground. Why big electric vehicles?

Frito Lay (FL): Part of our objective at Frito Lay/PepsiCo has been broad corporate sustainability, a program going back really to the late 90s that’s primarily centered in manufacturing. On the fleet side, when fuel hit three and four bucks-a-gallon people started getting really serious about fleet sustainability. So we set some internal targets and now we’ve got public targets surrounded around turning down our on-road fuel usage by 50% by 2020.

ET: How many trucks are you guys rolling out across the country?

FL: Last year we ended up with 176 on the road in the U.S. and Canada, and then we’ve placed our next order for 15 and those should hit the road in the first quarter.

ET: Have you guys done calculations on your end about when it becomes cost effective? Or is it more for you guys a strategic environmental target that you’re trying to hit?

FL: Certainly one of the points of emphasis in all our sustainability activities is we are a publicly traded company. We do have to answer to shareholders at the end of the day so we’ve never tried to be green for the sake of being green. Certainly along with that comes the whole green-washing piece and the token purchase and press release. That’s really not the emphasis of what we’re trying to do.

We definitely need to see an economic return on the purchase. It’s a capital intensive project. The particulars we wont go into, but its a fairly manageable number that’s well within the capability of the vehicles, of the battery pack, the size of the purchase – if we’re hitting a number between 35 and 42 miles per day then that puts us where we need to be to hit our cost goals.

ET: With almost every publicly traded company that we talk to, the goal has to be somewhat economic and it looks like you guys obviously did the math about the hybrids vs. the electrics.

FL: Yeah, we did some testing back probably seven years ago with the state of Texas on some hybrid delivery vehicles, which is a smaller class of truck. We got, quite honestly, decent fuel performance but we could go spend $20,000 less on the cleaner new diesel technology and get better MPG so it didn’t make sense to pay for all that extra complexity.

The beauty and the sweet spot to be in when it comes to fleet is that you save money and reduce emissions and do the right things by the environment- it’s all the same thing. It’s not this balancing, complex equation. It’s less fuel, it’s less emissions, it;s less money, it’s fairly simple.

And when you’re trading to 10 cents per kWhour for electricity from three or four dollars per gallon of fuel, the math isn’t rocket science.

ET: Do you feel like it is generating consumer goodwill as well? That people see the trucks and feel positively about them?

FL: We’re probably never going to do big marketing campaigns around this – we’re a consumer product brand, we’re not a transportation company or whatever. But, you know, you like to see it and you start to hear lots of stories about people who start to notice these things, and we don’t take it for granted that we need to win over our consumers everyday and earn their trust and respect as a company.

ET: Where are the trucks being deployed now? They are here in Portland, and you said you have 176 trucks around the country.

FL: Yep, we’ve got a sizable number in the Bay Area as well as Southern California, a couple markets in Texas, Atlanta, Orlando, the D.C. Metro area, New York City, Boston and Columbus, Ohio. And then we’ve got a couple trucks in Toronto and Montreal.

image copyright EarthTechling

ET: Do local government programs influence at all where you guys decide to put the trucks?

FL: It certainly helps. At this point in time it’s no shock to anybody that it’s an expensive proposition. It’s very early on and government incentives definitely help to make the economics more feasible and make it successful in our program. So we absolutely take that into the factors that we look at.

ET: What do the drivers really love about the trucks?

FL: It’s new. It’s brand new, so I mean, everyone likes a brand new rig. It’s quiet and doesn’t have a diesel making a lot of noise. They can talk to somebody out the window of the rig at the store or whatever. It is also just the pride of, “I’m drivin’ something that’s cutting edge stuff.”

ET: Where can people expect to see the trucks next?

FL: I would say you can expect to see a bunch more in the Pacific Northwest as well as California. New York is certainly being aggressive about trying to induce folks into coming and putting more trucks in their state, so we’ll do our best to accommodate them as well.

Patricia Marchetti

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.

[ Climate Researcher Lied to Get Documents, Triggering Ethics Debate ]

A top climate researcher—Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute—admitted he lied to obtain documents from the Heartland Institute, which he then leaked to media and revealed the organization’s plans to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change.

Gleick resigned from the board of the National Center on Science Education, and stepped down as chairman of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) taskforce on scientific ethics.

His admission has triggered an ethics debate in the climate community, with ethics expert Dale Jamieson calling Gleick’s actions “unethical” but adding, “relative to what has been going on on the climate denial side, this is a fairly small breach of ethics.”

Cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky argued that “revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial … likely constitutes a classic public good,” against which the ethics of Gleick’s deception have to be weighed.

The president of the AGU said the organization was disappointed with Gleick, whose actions were “inconsistent with our organization’s values.” NASA climate researcher Gavin Schmidt said “Gleick’s actions were completely irresponsible.” Bryan Walsh of Time argued Gleick’s actions “have hurt … the cause of climate science.”

In the U.K., a freedom of information act request for details on the funder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate change skeptic group, was denied by a court on the grounds the foundation is not influential enough.

PTC Could Equal Permanent Tax Credit

The Production Tax Credit (PTC) that aids wind energy is set to expire at the end of 2012, but some legislators are fighting to save it, with Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado arguing that “every minute counts” in trying to forge a deal.

To avoid such struggles over regular renewals of the PTC, President Obama proposed a new corporate taxation plan that would make the subsidies permanent, as well as make permanent a research-and-experimentation tax credit that expired Jan. 1.

High Oil Prices a Drag

Since the start of the year, oil prices have been on the rise, putting adrag on economic recovery in the U.S., pushing up consumer prices and causing overall inflation—risking a repeat of early 2011, when high oil prices nearly pushed the country back into recession.

President Obama was scheduled to speak about the issue Thursday, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the rise in prices—despite a drop in domestic consumption and rise in production—“tells you that there are other things beyond our control.”

The threat high oil prices pose to economies across developed countries could trigger the International Energy Agency to release more oil from strategic reserves, as was done in spring 2011, argued Reuters analyst John Kemp.

The rising oil prices have U.S. consumers wondering why. The prices, experts said, have stayed high because of rising consumption in emerging markets, as well as the threat that Iran’s oil exports may be cut off. An International Energy Agency official said that other countries would be able to make up for a loss of Iran’s exports, which had been 2.2 million barrels a day, and to boost production, Saudi Arabia may restart its oldest oil field.

In response to the European Union’s decision to embargo Iranian oil, Iran halted oil shipments to Britain and France, and possibly other European countries. Major shipping countries are refusing to pick up Iranian oil, with one shipping executive saying it would be like “getting leprosy.”

GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said he would get gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon. However Bryan Walsh said no president can deliver that—at least without making the U.S. economy tank.

Tar Sands Tussle

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry diluted tar sands from Canada to Texas, which President Obama had earlier nixed.

The European Union held a vote on whether to ban imports of oil made from Canadian tar sands, but it ended in a deadlock.

The amount of tar sands is small compared with the amount of natural gas and coal in the world, so the tar sands alone don’t pose a major threat to the climate, argued a study in Nature Climate Change.

Some took this to mean that Canada’s tar sands are “not so dirty after all.” However, study leader Andrew Weaver—a climate modeler at the University of Victoria in Canada—argued that use of tar sands is “a symptom of the bigger problem of our dependence on fossil fuels,” and policy makers should avoid commitments to infrastructure supporting fossil fuel dependence.

Meanwhile, another study of tar sands sites found levels of air pollution—in particular nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide—were comparable to air above a large power plant.

Small Feet, Large Footprint

A new report on the carbon footprint of a diminutive creature—shrimp—shows they’re worse than cattle, at least when raised in aquaculture. When coastal mangrove forests are cleared to create shrimp farms, it’s the “the equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture,” said study leader Boone Kauffman.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday for National Geographic’s News Watch by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

[ Concern Over Rare Rhino Rouses Clean Energy Drive in Malaysia ]

After a fight against a coal-fired power plant that threatened one of the last sanctuaries of the Sumatran rhino, a struggle for cleaner energy continues in east Malaysia.

[ Natural Gas Boom Won’t Stall U.S. Renewables ]

The recent plummet of the natural gas spot price to a 28-month low has stirred discussion about implications for renewable energy—the majority electrical generating component in RMI’s vision of the 2050 U.S. energy economy.

Since mid-2009, it has been increasingly clear that the amount of natural gas supplied via hydraulic fracturing (popularly known as “fracking”) will create an oversupplied domestic natural gas market. The resulting low gas prices depress contract pricing for long-term power sales to utilities. This situation poses significant challenges for new, utility-scale renewable power projects, which must secure contracts with attractive fixed prices to obtain financing.

Yet, while fracking to unlock America’s shale gas reserves poses a near-term threat to the rate of utility-scale renewable energy development, it offers significantly lower risk to growth of domestic renewable energy just a few years out.

That’s in part because natural gas faces significant upward pricing pressure. Increased regulation, long-term underperformance of production wells, and higher-priced drilling leases all should push prices up on the supply side. On the demand side, increased use of compressed natural gas in vehicles, exporting of liquefied natural gas, and, most significantly, increased natural gas demand for electrical generation, replacing coal, also should elevate prices.

Even against the current natural gas futures pricing curve—much lower than just a few months ago—utility-scale renewables can compete unsubsidized within a few years. In good wind locations, wind power can already compete unsubsidized with natural gas selling for more than $6 per million BTU. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, wind turbine pricing has averaged 14 percent per-year declines since the mid-1980s. If that continues, by 2016 wind power should compete head-on in a growing number of locations with wholesale natural gas, which by then is expected to sell above the mid-$4s per million BTU.

Continued Year-Over-Year Growth

Even in the short term, while low natural gas prices will likely slow the deployment of renewable energy capacity, they may not stop absolute year-over-year growth.

First, in 2012 special financing circumstances will keep work going and capital flowing. Many project developers invested the necessary 5 percent minimum of total project costs prior to Dec. 31, 2011, qualifying these projects to receive a 30 percent Treasury grant. Many of these projects also signed power purchase agreements with utilities at attractive prices before the current dip in natural gas pricing. In addition, 50 percent bonus accelerated depreciation is available.

Solar PV Boom

A boom is projected to accelerate in distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) development, which is less affected by low natural gas prices. While utility-scale renewable generation must compete against wholesale prices, distributed renewable installations such as solar panels on a factory roof compete against retail power rates. Those projects generate electricity used on site and reduce that business’s bill at the higher retail rates, which on a national average continue to rise despite falling wholesale prices.

While the retail rates are rising, solar PV development costs are rapidly decreasing. By the beginning of 2013, crystalline (industry “standard”) solar module costs are predicted by energy analysts to reach 70 cents/watt, dropping total cost of commercial installations to approximately $2.70/W and residential installations to about $3.60/W, based on Department of Energy SunShot data. These whole-system installation prices represent reductions of more than 50 percent from as recently as 2007.

Grid parity, the point at which renewables are price competitive with the existing grid, primarily based on coal- and gas-fired electricity generation, has already begun, with average retail prices in Hawaii above those levels, as are top retail prices in other states, such as California. While Hawaii and California feature some of the most expensive retail rates in the U.S., the fact that they have attained grid parity for many retail ratepayers indicates more areas will reach the grid parity tipping point with each penny drop in the price of solar PV installations.

The Takeaway

Cheap natural gas presents a challenge to utility-scale renewable power growth over the next couple of years, but increased distributed solar PV deployment may bridge the gap. RMI is working with utilities, public service commissions, financiers, and others empowered to enable PV deployment to exploit and accelerate this near-term opportunity. Long term, the relentless cost curve of both utility-scale wind and solar PV—as well as natural gas’s and coal’s environmental and market dynamic factors—will inevitably lead to accelerated build-out of renewable power.

[ Looking to the Climate-Change Road Less Traveled ]

Congressional deadlock and new scientific insights force new direction.

The news on the avoid-dangerous-climate-change front seems to get ever bleaker.

On the Policy Side, Little to No Progress

The probability of a U.S. policy to curb greenhouse gas emissions any time soon is as close to zero as you can get — President Obama said as much in his State of the Union address. Internationally the news is not that much better: from the latest climate talks in Durban, it appears that, if all goes according to plan, 2020 is the soonest we can expect a new international agreement to go into effect.

On the Science Side, Too Little, Too Late for CO2-Related Policies

It’s looking ever more apparent that the time to prevent carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations from rising above 450 parts per million (ppm) — the line-in-the-sand threshold that’s been nominally identified to avoid dangerous climate change — is all but gone.

Durban’s target date might be 2020, but if the International Energy Agency’s 2011 energy projections [pdf] are accurate, waiting that long to seriously start cutting emissions will make keeping CO2 concentrations below 450 ppm virtually impossible.

(Related: “IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change“)

Things look even bleaker if non-CO2 greenhouse warmers are figured into the projections. For example, in a recent project out of Stanford University’s Energy Modeling Forum, a suite of coupled climate-economic models was used to estimate what it would take to keep the total equivalent CO2  concentration below 450 ppm, 550 ppm, and 650 ppm. Most of the study’s models were unable to find any scenario capable of meeting the 450-ppm-equivalents threshold [pdf] without maintaining high concentrations of polluting and life-threatening aerosols.

And while much is being made of natural gas serving as a bridge fuel between coal-fired power and some future carbon-free energy system, Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution argue in the journal Environmental Research Letters that such a strategy will do little to nothing to reduce global warming in this century. To have any impact in that time period, they write, coal-fired power will need to be replaced by “conservation, wind, solar, nuclear power, and possibly carbon capture and storage.”

Non-CO2 Strategies Getting a Serious Look

So what’s a global-warming mitigator to do? Look for alternatives. And fortunately, it looks like one can at least buy us time.

(Related: “The Strange State of Climate Change Denial” and “Global Warming Mitigation: Smoke and Not Mirrors“)

Despite two important caveats — namely that CO2 is the largest single greenhouse warmer we add to the atmosphere, and there is no long-term global-warming solution that doesn’t involve major cuts in its emissions — the non-CO2 greenhouse warmers are not irrelevant. Collectively, they’re responsible for about 30-40 percent of global warming. Key among them are

  • methane, which comes from such sources as agriculture, landfills and natural-gas leakage;
  • black carbon (a k a soot), which comes from using low-tech cookstoves and burning biomass; and
  • lower-atmospheric ozone, a product of photochemical smog largely generated from automobile and power-plant pollution.

Importantly, their temporal characteristics are very different from CO2’s. CO2 emissions largely come from energy generation; the infrastructure and technologies needed for this energy have decades of useful lifetimes, and so change is difficult and slow unless you’re willing to abandon investments already made. Moreover, because CO2 has a long atmospheric lifetime, slowing CO2 emissions enough to have a substantial effect on its concentration takes time — were CO2 emissions held constant today, its concentration would continue to rise for centuries.

Greenhouse warmers such as methane, black carbon and ozone are quite different. Lowering their emissions would not require huge investments or a retooling of our energy infrastructure; on the contrary, in most cases lowering their emissions would involve making current technologies cleaner and more efficient. Plus, their atmospheric lifetimes are relatively short — about 10 years for methane, weeks to a month for ozone, and about a week for black carbon. Cutting these emissions would reduce their concentrations much more quickly than cutting CO2, and have a more immediate effect on slowing global warming.

Tiny air pollution particles known as black carbon (or soot) form in the air when fuels like coal, wood, and diesel are burned. Because they absorb heat from sunlight, these airborne pollutants add to global warming. This animation shows how soot was dispersed around the Himalayas in 2009. Scientists and policy makers are looking to black carbon, among other targets, to help mitigate global warming as a stopgap measure. (Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

So how effective would a strategy focused on non-CO2 warmers be? Drew Shindell of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and colleagues recently addressed that question in a paper published last month in the journal Science. The authors identified 14 measures (see table below) — seven that reduced methane emissions and seven that addressed black carbon — that collectively could reduce net global warming by 2050 by almost one degree Fahrenheit. Not enough to solve the problem, but enough to buy us time to get our act together on CO2 emissions.

14 Measures Addressing Methane Emissions and Black Carbons

Measure / Gas Sector
Methane measures
Mitigation of methane from coal mines Fossil fuels
Recovery of leaked methane from oil and gas production
Reducing gas leakage during pipeline transmission
Landfill gas collection and mitigation of biodegradable waste Waste management
Including gas recovery at wastewater treatment plants
Control of methane emissions from manure Agriculture
Intermittent aeration of continuously flooded rice paddies
Black Carbon measures
Filters for diesel vehicles Transportation
Elimination of highest-emitting vehicles
Introduce clean-burning biomass stoves in developing countries Residential
Substitution of clean-burning cookstoves using modern fuels (liquid petroleum gas or
biogas) for traditional biomass cook stoves in developing countries
Replace traditional brick kilns Industrial
Replace traditional coke stoves
Ban open burning of agricultural waste Agricultural

After Shindell et al, Science magazine, 2012

State Department Gets Into the Act

A common refrain in international policy circles is that the United States should take a leadership role on climate change. But with the U.S. political climate currently what it is, that’s a tall order. Rather than tilting at the windmill, the State Department (and by extension the administration) has decided to take a different tack: the recently announced international voluntary program called the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants. Launched by six countries and the United Nations, the initiative targets black carbon, shorter-lived hydrofluorocarbons, and methane to achieve “concrete benefits on climate, health, food and energy resulting from reducing short-lived climate pollutants.” In addition to potentially reducing net global temperatures by almost one degree Fahrenheit by 2050, the 14 measures could avoid the annual loss of more than 30 million tons of crops and millions of premature deaths.*

(Related: “Time to Clear the Smoke” and “On Cookstoves, Research Paves Way to Action“)

A few mild barbs have been lobbed at the program. For example the World Wildlife Fund cautions that this should not be allowed to obfuscate the real imperative to cut CO2 emissions, and worries about its tendency to shift the burden from developed nations to developing economies where black-carbon emissions and ozone-producing gases are largest. Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, expressed similar sentiments.

The criticisms notwithstanding, I think the State Department is on to something here. The time for just focusing on CO2 emissions is past — that train left the station years ago.

____________________

Note

*In a related initiative the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a program to address black carbon emissions in the Russian Arctic.

[ Linkin Park’s Bid to ‘Power the World’ ]

More than two years after the 2010 earthquake that left Haiti in rubble and displaced 2.3 million people, recovery has been slow in coming. Hundreds of thousands are still living in camps such as Corail-Cesselesse, a relocation area set up in the aftermath of the quake. And the cholera outbreak that has taken nearly 7,000 lives on top of more than 300,000 lost in the quake itself continues to cause suffering.

Aside from the quake, dependence on charcoal for cooking has continued to cause deforestation and health problems Haiti, prompting the U.S. Agency for International Development’s announcement today that it would support a $7.2 million project meant to bolster the market for cleaner cookstoves.

(Related: Time to Clear the Smoke)

The dearth of reliable, sustainable cooking options in Haiti is just part of the overall energy access problem in a country where fewer than one third of the residents have any electricity at all, and where outages are frequent. Haiti, like many other countries around the world, suffers from a crippling lack of power.

Not many bands are better suited to bring that message to a broad public than Linkin Park. With more than 39 million Facebook fans, more than 700,000 followers on Twitter and a listener base that has steadily expanded since the band’s debut album Hybrid Theory was released in 2000, Linkin Park has threaded a philanthropic mission throughout its website, social media and via video messages on YouTube.

Last November, the band announced its support for the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All initiative. Dave “Phoenix” Farrell, the Linkin Park’s bassist, answered questions via e-mail about their efforts.

Tell us about the Sustainable Energy for All initiative. The band pledged support for it last December. What will the band be doing?

Linkin Park and [our aid organization] Music for Relief have launched Power the World in support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Year of Sustainable Energy for All in 2012. We chose Haiti for our first Power the World project because the country faces severe energy poverty. There are 34 million people in the Western Hemisphere who have no access to modern energy; 8 million of them are in Haiti. To help, you can go to www.powertheworld.org to make a $10 donation and Music for Relief will provide a solar-powered light bulb for a family in Haiti without access to energy.

What led to your interest in energy poverty? Have you done anything like this before?

I traveled to Haiti in April of 2011 to see firsthand how Music for Relief has helped the recovery effort. I visited Camp Corail and saw solar-powered lights, which MFR helped fund with the UN Foundation to help keep women and children safe. When the Secretary- General announced the energy initiative for 2012, I knew it was something we should be a part of.

Getting people interested in issues like energy poverty can be challenging. How do you plan to do it?

It’s definitely a tough issue to communicate fluidly and succinctly. In addition to our normal online channels (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) we are going to be creating some video components to help relay the magnitude and importance of sustainable energy for the future. We are also working in conjunction with the UN to create other projects throughout the year.

What has the response been like from fans (and maybe non-fans)?

So far the response has been very positive, but we are just getting started. I hope momentum continues to build through the year to facilitate a very strong interest in the issues of energy poverty.

There are so many issues related to energy. What stands out to you as being particularly pressing?

Fewer than 25 percent of households in Haiti are connected to electricity grids. That means 75 percent of households are lit using kerosene lamps, candles. In addition to being dangerous, this is also far more expensive than electricity. With sustainable energy, neighborhoods are safer at night, medical services can be more effective, and children can study and play after the sun goes down. Our solar light bulb is hopefully a small first step towards a far better quality of life for millions of Haitians.

How far do you think social media can go in creating change?

As has been seen in 2011, social media can be revolutionary. The potential social media has to create change is just starting to be tapped.

What do you hope to have achieved by this time next year?

Power the World is a pledge to help one million families gain access to clean energy solutions. That’s the goal, and with the help of music fans everywhere, we hope to achieve it. Once again, you can help by going to www.powertheworld.org. Make a $10 donation and Music for Relief will provide a solar powered light bulb for a family in Haiti without access to energy.

(Related: “Solar Energy Brings Light to Quake-Darkened Haiti“)

(Related: “The Solvable Problem of Energy Poverty“)