Category Archives: Carbon and Climate Issues

Global Warming for the Skeptical

Alpine flowers---earlier every year.

Alpine flowers—earlier every year.

I saw some hyperbole on a website the other day, warning of sea level rises of 35 meters by the end of the century, due to global warming. I’m not so sure. But, that’s not to say that I think that the planet isn’t warming, because I’m even more unsure about the claims from the other extreme that nothing is happening, or that, if it is, humans don’t have anything to do with it. The truth is somewhere in the middle here—the planet is clearly warming, and human activity is nearly certain to be a major cause.

But while I do have an opinion, I’ve got plenty of friends, relatives, and acquaintances that are confused, misinformed, or misguided about the issue, and often end up not knowing what to think. It’s easy to see why—vested interests have purposely obfuscated the issue, political elements have ignored or ridiculed inconvenient data, and statistics have been used incorrectly by all sides. Worse, the warnings of a few degrees of warming, set to occur over decades, often don’t strike fear into people’s hearts. My post about Mr. X’s devil’s-advocate views (“Mr. X on Global Warming“) sums up the more rational side of this position.

BUT, I think common sense can help us out here. Leaving the graphs and trend lines and statistical margins of error aside, there are quite a few changes in the world that are clear to see and aren’t in doubt, and when taken together shed light on this issue. In no particular order–

— Glaciers are in retreat the world over, at rates that are astounding the scientists that study them. Photography provides clear proof of this. Some images from the US Geological Survey–

Grinnell Glacier USGS cropped

Sperry Glacier USGS cropped

Identical changes are occurring worldwide; many more images can be found at USGS and elsewhere on the web, such as the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And it isn’t some tiny fluke, the melting of glaciers is massive and ongoing.

— Arctic sea ice is melting. Despite the flap the other month instigated by a skewed report in the U.K. by David Rose, the Arctic is melting (see post “Et Tu, Time?”). Many reputable groups expect the Arctic to be nearly ice-free in summer by mid-century, and nations around the polar circle are scrambling to position themselves to take advantage of new oil exploration and shipping opportunities. Articles such as this one from Business Insider, “China Begins Using Arctic Shipping Route that ‘Could Change the Face of World Trade’” are easy to find. It isn’t just number and graphs—it’s reality above the Arctic Circle. Reports that polar bears, notoriously good swimmers, are drowning for lack of sea ice aren’t being fabricated out of thin air.

— Sea levels are rising, the oceans are getting more acidic and warmer, and reefs are dying. It’s occurring to me that this could end up being a very long post if I’m not careful, so I’ll shorten up my explanations. But, none of these things are really in doubt, and information about the topics abounds. Two really good articles about these ocean topics are worth mentioning, though, one on ocean acidification recently in The Economist, “Acid Test: The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic. How much that matters is not yet clear. But it might matter a lot.”, and the cover story in National Geographic in September, “Rising Seas“. Needless to say, carbon dioxide and climate warming are at the root off all four of these ocean problems.

— In North America, days of snow cover are down, spring arrives earlier, and frost occurs later, in trends that go back decades. This effect is large enough that the USDA has reworked their plant hardiness zone maps in ways that reflect about a 5-degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature. (One article of many, this one from the Washington Post, “New USDA Plant Zones Clearly Show Climate Change“). Changes in average snow cover have been extreme enough that they have prompted Porter Fox, an author at Powder Magazine, to write “DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow”. A portion of a review from Outside Magazine–

Deep book cover
“The snowpack in British Columbia has declined by half overall and the ski season in some regions is four to five months shorter than it was 50 years ago,” he writes in DEEP.  “Eastern Canada is even warmer… Computer models show the Northeast ski season shrinking to less than 100 days by 2039. Under other models, the mean snow depth for the Rocky Mountains is predicted to drop to zero by 2100.”

This summer at Solarfest I heard a similar presentation by Dr. Alan Betts of Atmospheric Research in Vermont, where he gave an hour-long presentation, with photographs, of an extremely long list of frost dates and snow cover and plant blooming times, all of which provide near-unmistakable evidence of warming in New England.

The USDA 1990 map---a colder U.S.

The USDA 1990 map—a colder U.S.

 — The Snowshoe Hare, the Canada Lynx, and trees in the Rockies have been clearly impacted by a warmer planet. Just to start with the trees, the headlines are pretty self-explanatory— “Study: US Trees Dying at Alarming Rate” (Time), “How the Pine Beetle is Destoying Colorado Forests” (Newsweek), “What’s Killing the Aspen” (Smithsonian), “What’s Killing the Great Forests of the American West?” (… The root of the problem—a warmer climate, which stresses trees and allows insect populations to mushroom to previously unheard-of levels.

Canada Lynx.

Canada Lynx.

Related is a huge shift in the populations of the Canada Lynx, pushed out of thousands of square miles of range due to reduced snowfall levels and the unfortunate demise of many of its primary prey, the snowshoe hare, itself a victim of often being the wrong color in a changing world. (One article of many—“Canada Lynx and Climate Change: Rising Temperature and Declining Snow Fall Spell Trouble for Canada Lynx.”). None of this is exclusive to the US—similar situations can be found worldwide.

I could go on, but I suppose my main point is this—you don’t have to be a scientist in some esoteric field to see that the earth is getting warmer—evidence abounds. Now, some would argue that yes, the world is warming, but that human activity isn’t a factor. This argument seems equally untenable; the science behind how greenhouse gasses work has been understood for a century, and the rise in CO2 has almost exactly mirrored both warming and human industrial development (post, “A Matter of Limits“). In 2012 the world emitted 30,000 million tons of CO2, and we’ve been emitting similar amounts every year for decades. You just don’t have to be a rocket scientist to put two and two together here.

The problem, or one of the problems, is that all of this change, while extremely rapid on a geologic scale, seems to be occurring just slowly enough to be beyond the natural human threshold for arousing fear and alarm. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the boiling pot—the water’s getting hotter, but we aren’t jumping out. (Interesting Psychology Today article—“Climate Change: A Psychological Problem“).

Now, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said before, I would like nothing more than for future data to show that we were all wrong about human-induced climate change, it would be a huge blessing for mankind. I’m not some zealot in a new secular religion of climate alarm, proselytizing to the unfaithful. But, reason and common sense militate against the idea that nothing is happening, or that humans are uninvolved. So, don’t be confused, and don’t let this or that extremist keep you from seeing the forest for the trees. It is a near-certainty that the planet is warming, that humans are causing it, that the change is rapid in the broad view of things, and that it’s a dangerous path for all of nature, which ultimately includes we humans.

29 Jan 2013: A link to a 15-second NASA video that is an excellent visual representation of all this.

 Top image credit: “Flowers on the Edge”, by Bryant Olsen, Creative Commons, at Image has been cropped.
Grinnell and Sperry Glaciers– USGS Repeat Project, photographers listed in graphics.
1990 Hardiness map– USDA.
Lynx photo– USFWS.


Net-Zero is Possible

An interior view of Middlebury College's 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

An interior view of Middlebury College’s 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, a net-zero house.

Until this past summer, I had more or less assumed that a net-zero house, one that didn’t use any fossil fuel to function, could really only be achieved in some ridiculously expensive research and development setting. That may have been true a decade ago, but it isn’t true now. A combination of technical advances and cost reductions has now put a net-zero house within the reach of nearly everyone. Even better, net-zero can be achieved in most buildings in stages, and are investments that are likely to outperform the market in today’s investment climate. The result is a win-win-win situation.

First, what exactly is “net-zero”? There isn’t a hard-and-fast definition, but, in general, net-zero buildings create as much energy as they consume. They typically combine highly efficient construction and appliances with some form of renewable energy generation, usually on-site. But, this can be done in different ways, and sometimes with different goals in mind, and the result is a wide variety of net-zero terms, as delineated in this list from a designer in Waitsfield, VT (his house is in the list below)—

“Net-zero carbon, net-zero cost, net-zero source, net-zero site, near net-zero, net-zero ready…there are many terms used to describe a certain category of buildings that are referred to as “net-zero energy buildings” (or NZEBs).”

In the last six months I have seen or heard about no less than six examples of net-zero buildings, and the variety of approaches in these buildings will give you some sense of the term, I think. (Some of these details are from memory, so forgive me out there if I get something wrong).

Building #1— Kim Quirk is the owner of Enfield Energy Emporium in Enfield, CT, an architectural firm, and she bought and renovated this house and has turned it into a net-zero office space and living quarters. I saw her presentation about this at Solarfest this past summer, and if I recall, the house was originally built in the mid-19th century, and was mostly gutted when she bought it. She had the basement foamed, and did a deep-energy retrofit that included increasing the thickness of the exterior walls and filling them with cellulose insulation. She added a 5kw PV system in the yard, which is net-metered. And here’s the unusual part—for heating, she dug a huge hole under her driveway, about 10 x 12 feet by 10 feet deep, lined the sides with a liner and foam, filled it with sand, water, and tubing, and then buried it. (My rough calculations—about 60 tons of insulated mass). This thermal mass is a huge “Thermos” that can store an entire summer’s worth of heat gathered by a largish array of evacuated-tube thermal collectors. So all summer long they run and pump hot water through this thermal mass (pics here), which brings the temperature up to something like 180 degrees. In the winter another set of tubing pulls the heat out, where it’s radiated into the house in a system of low-temperature (90 degree F) baseboard heat. An interesting approach. One of her goals was zero-combustion in addition to net-zero, and from her talk this summer it sounded as if the building was on its way to achieving her design goals.

Building #2— Architect Bill Maclay’s Dartt House, in Waitsfield, VT. I saw Bill give a presentation about this building last week at Renewable Energy Vermont’s Expo in Burlington. This is another older structure, renovated in much the same way as Kim Quirk’s house. It is actually two or three net-zero projects together—a building that serves as an office, and an adjoining building that he been turned into two apartments. Unlike Kim Quirk’s solar-heated thermal mass method, these buildings use air-to-air heat pumps for both heat and cooling, all powered by a combination of larger PV arrays—one 17kw array that serves as the roof of a carport (last pic on this page), smaller arrays to the rear of the house, and another large net-metered array that is off-site.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-40 walls and R-60 roof panels.

Our house, under construction in 2004. Timber-frame construction with R-25 walls and R-32 roof panels.

Building #3— Oddly enough—our house. Technically a “near-net-zero building” as it is now, as we still use propane for hot water. But we’re on our way to net-zero, via yet a third approach—using sustainably-gathered biomass for heat. In our case, cordwood. Our house is off-grid, with a 3kw PV system and a 1kw wind turbine. With the addition of a bit more PV and solar hot water, we should get all the way to net-zero. Even as is, the building uses only a fraction of the fossil fuel that most Americans use. The house also has a fair amount of passive-solar design features—it is oriented to the south, and most windows and living areas are on that side of the building, and closets and utility areas are on the north. The site is shielded to the north by hills and trees, and open to the south. The building has performed admirably—on sunny days in the winter I can leave home for work with the house at 63 degrees, and come home to a house that is well above 70, all with no heat on, even if outside temps are in the 20’s. We typically use about 2 1/2 cords of wood per winter for heat, which we burn in a single wood stove on the main floor of the open-floor-plan design.

Building #4— Well, “buildings”, plural. A company called Vermod is making net-zero single-wide modular homes to address the need for efficient low-cost housing in the state. With 12-inch-thick walls and triple-pane windows, and a 6kw PV system on the roof, Continue reading

Cree Bulbs for the Bruhl’s

Cree bulb cropped

Want to know how a government policy can effect real change? Here’s an example—I have been meaning to start switching over to LED bulbs in the house, even more so since I read a piece last summer by Marc Gunther about the newest generation of LED bulbs (“A Better Light Bulb. Again“). We’ve purchased a few LED bulbs in the last year for specific applications (in one case, some pendulum lights where we needed lots of light output but limited heat), but those bulbs have been expensive, costing up to $35 each. Then, a month ago while walking through Home Depot I saw the Cree bulbs, that were referenced in the article, selling for $9 apiece. That’s still expensive, but not so expensive that I wouldn’t consider buying a few at a time and replacing the compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs that we currently use in the house. But, I didn’t buy any then, because I wanted to compare energy usage among the different brands of LED bulbs, as I suspected that they weren’t all equally efficient.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when I was again walking through Home Depot and saw the bulbs, but this time for $4.98 apiece, a much lower price than I expected. This turned out to be due to a promotion by Efficiency Vermont, a program funded in part by the state, that is underwriting the cost of the bulbs. At this price I bought eight bulbs instead of just a few, and took them home to try them out. I like them. They are bright, they have a warm tone, they come on instantly, they should last nearly forever, and, as my son and I accidentally dropped one and it didn’t break, they seem to be quite a bit tougher than the curlicue CFLs. But here’s the biggest bonus—the new bulbs use only 9.5 watts apiece, and we were replacing CFL’s that were rated at 13, 18, 20, and 26 watts. In the case of the first three the light output seemed the same or better, and was close even in the case of the 26-watt CFL (marketed as a 100w replacement). So, in one fell swoop we reduced our energy use for these eight bulbs by at least 50%, and possibly more, even over the CFLs, which are already many times more efficient than the old incandescents. That’s substantial.


Some of the replaced bubs, which we gave away for reuse.

Then, it struck me that this remarkable incentive program wouldn’t last forever, so I stopped back by Home Depot after work the other day and bought 25 more bulbs, enough to finish replacing nearly every bulb in the house. Lighting accounts for about 20% of electrical use in the average American home, and I suspect it’s an even higher proportion in our off-grid setup. In winter months we don’t currently make quite enough solar power to get by (relying occasionally on the gas-powered generator), and if the new bulbs help reduce this energy gap, then it will result in a direct savings in burning fossil fuel. A good deal.

So back to where I started, this is a good case of supply and demand principles at work. The government underwrote an incentive, and that incentive increased demand for the bulbs, and energy was saved as a result. (And judging from the near-empty racks of bulbs at the store, I wasn’t the only one who has been swayed by the low prices into purchasing more). So, a public thank-you to Efficiency Vermont, and another public thank-you to some forward-thinking legislators who set up and voted to fund the state’s efficiency programs. Demand for bulbs like these will eventually reduce their costs, and the products will stand on their own merit. The same is true for electric vehicle incentives, and a whole host of other efficiency incentives I can think of. This is money well spent, it is smart policy, and it is part of that “better path forward”. In a world where real change sometimes seems hard to achieve, here’s a program that works.



Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World


I sometimes run across news that I find depressing, and this last week or so I seem to have come across a whole string of such stories with regard to energy use. It seems sometimes like any hope of a sustainable future is on the verge of being overcome by the growth and momentum of the system. Thus, the bit of hyperbole in this post’s title, and my original intent to write about this gloomy side to humankind’s precarious situation, or at least about how we need to step up our efforts. I was thinking that perhaps we are indeed like characters in a disaster movie where an asteroid is set to destroy the planet, and we should all just accept it, concentrate on enjoying our last days, and just quit worrying about renewable power, permaculture, recycling, and adopting more sustainable lifestyles.

But, as I set out to bolster my negativism with facts, I ended up with a more-nuanced thesis. On the whole, it might not be as bad as I thought. Much of the info that gave me this perspective comes from a research company called Enerdata, a large and seemingly well-respected European research company, and, more specifically, their online interactive “Yearbook” about worldwide energy production and use. It’s a fascinating site.

So how are we doing, when you look at the actual numbers about energy? Here’s my admittedly-rough impression of their data, from 1990 to present, a period of almost a quarter of a century. I’ll include links to the graphs, so you can judge for yourself.

Crude oil production— Over the last quarter century, not much change. A slight upward trend from 3,000 megatons to about 4,000 megatons overall, but roughly flat for the last decade, with no visible “peak”, and no dramatic hockey-stick-like exponential growth. On the whole, it doesn’t appear out of control in any way (other than the fact that we’re still burning an awful lot of oil).

oil platform south thailand

Oil and gas production south of Thailand.

Natural gas production— A steady increase in production, from about 3,000 bcm (billion cubic meters) to about 3,500 bcm. The recent boom in U.S. production isn’t overly visible on the graph. From the point of view of sustainability, there could be worse news—burning natural gas creates only about half the CO2 emissions than burning coal does.

Electricity production— Like oil, a steady increase, from about 10,000 twh (terrawatt hours) to about 20,000 twh over the 23-year period, with perhaps even a slight leveling-off as of late. Like oil, it doesn’t appear that growth is out of control. In all of these cases, growth appears linear rather than exponential, and, in the case of oil and electricity, might even be tapering off a bit.

Coal production— Flat until about 2002, then steady uptick from about 4,500 mt to about 7,500 mt today. Most of this was due to increased consumption in China, BUT—the sub-heading on this page reads “Sharp slowdown in global growth mainly due to the slackening pace in China”. This graph isn’t great news for the planet, but again, the growth doesn’t look exponential.

All of these are just portions of the world’s total energy production, (and this graph isn’t just a compilation of the previous graphs, because some of the fossil fuels are used to make the electricity) which shows steady growth from about 8,000 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) to about 13,000 Mtoe.

But, what of renewable generation? The proportion of electricity from renewable sources has been steady as a percentage of total production over the entire period. At first glance this makes it look like we aren’t making progress, but when you take into account that electricity production has gone up 10,000 twh’s, math dictates that the sum total of the increase in renewable generation has been tremendous. (Hydroelectric power is included in these numbers). We aren’t decarbonizing (yet), but renewables seem to be holding their own, at least in terms of percentages.

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

The result of all of the world’s fossil-fuel consumption is CO2 emissions, and this data is also included on the site. On the whole, another relatively flat graph. The world emitted about 20,000 mt of CO2 in 1990, and that number is about 30,000 mt today, but it isn’t increasing fast, and almost appears to be starting to level off. In the U.S., total CO2 emissions declined by 3.5% in 2012 (and CO2 from coal declined by over 12%). In fact, net CO2 emissions have declined in many industrialized countries, including Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe. While all is not rosy in this data as a whole, there’s no denying that these net declines are good news.

It is important to note that world population has increased steadily over the entire period that these graphs cover (world population was about 5.2 billion in 1990, and is almost 7.2 billion today). World population goes up by about a million people every 3 1/2 days, and has been this way for decades. (WorldMeter population ticker here.) So, when we place these energy graphs against the backdrop of a population that has grown by nearly 2 billion over the same time period, another positive trend is evident—relative decoupling. We’re still increasing damage to the planet, but we’re doing slightly better than we were, through efficiency and conservation. The Enerdata site graphs this, too, in a graph of “carbon intensity”—how much atmospheric CO2 we create for each unit of economic output. The news here is good—carbon intensity is falling steadily, and has been for decades. We are getting more efficient in how we use energy, and it shows. In more developed countries, carbon intensity has dropped by 40% since 1990. This is good news.

We’re not out of the woods, though. Our increased efficiency is a force in the right direction, but it is counteracted by two other forces—the demands of an ever-increasing population, and the demands of a world that is getting wealthier. Population is on track to begin to plateau, though it will be decades before it begins to level off appreciably. And millions being raised out of poverty (link to a good overview in The Economist) is a good thing, and hopefully this can be achieved for all of the people in the world. But this is why overall energy use continues to rise despite dramatic efficiency gains—it just takes more energy for ever more people to live more materially secure lives. We also aren’t out of the woods just yet because the human footprint is larger than some of these numbers show; recent studies have shown that when all impacts are taken into account, that we aren’t achieving as much as we might think we are in the way of decoupling. 

But, what the numbers do show, I think, is that we’re making some progress, even though we have a long way to go. And related to energy, which still largely comes from fossil fuel, recent information seems to suggest that perhaps the atmosphere isn’t quite as sensitive to CO2 as we thought, which might buy humankind a bit of time. There’s plenty of bad news out there, but with regard to that metaphorical asteroid, perhaps, just perhaps, it might not hit planet Earth. It’s going to be a close call, though. I’ll be checking back in with this Enerdata site next year, to keep watch on how we’re doing.

Image credit: tolotola / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: pancaketom / 123RF Stock Photo


The Nuke Post

Testing newly-mined cores for uranium content.

Testing newly-mined cores for uranium content.

Ok, so what to think of nuclear power as a path forward? It’s an extensive and complicated subject, and one that doesn’t lend itself to definitive pronouncements. But, I’ve figured out quite a few things, much of it from a single long blog post by Tom Murphy, “Nuclear Options“, and from that page’s well-moderated and even longer list of comments from highly-educated professionals in the field. I highly recommend reading both if you’re interested in the subject, but if you don’t have a few hours to digest it, here are some important points, as I understand them (the unattributed quotes in this post come from his page)—

The biggest point of all—we can’t just take what we have and scale it up. After my post about Vermont Yankee quite a few people have expressed their opinion to me that we need to take France as a model and start scaling up nuclear power as a (relatively) carbon-free energy source. But, there simply isn’t enough uranium to power a full-scale switch to nuclear fission as we know it, even aside from safety and other concerns. Depending on how you figure it, the world’s 13 TW energy appetite would use up all the uranium in somewhere between six years and a few decades. This is because fissionable U-235 makes up only .7% (that’s point seven percent) of naturally-occurring uranium, which is nearly all “impotent” but fertile (as opposed to fissile) U-238. As such, something like a million tons of natural uranium a year would need to be mined.

Two ways out of this particular dilemma seem to be 1) to use breeder reactors, which can use the U-238 indirectly by converting it to plutonium, and 2) to use thorium, instead of uranium, as a fuel, in reactors (also breeder reactors) that can convert thorium into U-233 (U-233 being the second, but not naturally-occurring, fissile isotope of uranium). Thorium is several times more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust, and either of these approaches could extend the available fuel supply to an extent that it would become much less of an issue, or even a non-issue.

(Some other “ways out”—extracting uranium from seawater, or even common granite. At present I believe these options are quite theoretical, with no proven way to extract uranium on a large scale. There is potential there, because fissile materials have a million times the energy density of chemical fuels (oil), but at present these are not realistic options. Then, of course, there is fusion, which is so complex and difficult that I don’t think we’ll ever achieve it on a commercial scale.)

So, back to the “two ways out”—the problem with breeder reactors is mainly that they are expensive and less safe, due to proliferation and other concerns, and as such haven’t been fully developed for power generation. But breeders (sometimes called “fast reactors”) have some advantages. First, they can use both of the naturally-occurring isotopes of uranium, which would extend the available uranium supply by a factor of 140. They can also be designed as “burners”, which are reactors that are specifically designed to use up spent fuel. Because they use fuel differently, spent fuel from fast reactors is also less of a long-term hazard. This point deserves a few lines of explanation, because it’s one of the key advantages of breeder reactors. When a neutron hits a uranium atom and causes it to split, it splits into two “daughter” atoms of various elements, with atomic weights of about 95 and 135. These materials are also referred to as  “fission products”. But, some uranium atoms absorb the neutron without splitting, and become transuranics (sometimes called “actinides”). Both of these, the fission products and the transuranics, remain in the spent fuel. But, they are vastly different in terms of their long-term hazards—fission products have much shorter half-lives, and are more-or-less fully degraded after a relatively short 300 years. The transuranics, however, have half-lives that make them dangerous for tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years. BUT—breeder reactors can be built to burn up these transuranics. (I believe GE’s new S-PRISM designs, which are on the verge of being constructed in both the U.S. and Britain, are reactors of this type). So, therein lie the advantages of breeders—they can utilize nearly all of naturally-occurring uranium, they can burn up high-level radioactive waste from non-breeding reactors, and they leave spent fuel that is less hazardous over the long term.

There are disadvantages to breeders, as well. They make plutonium as part of their fuel cycle, and as such raise concerns over proliferation, especially as fuel is reprocessed. But, it also seems that this plutonium isn’t pure enough to be usable in weapons (though all nuclear material of this sort is “pure enough” to be used in dirty bombs); such weapons-grade plutonium is more often made in reactors specially built for this purpose. Breeder reactors are also more complex than standard reactors, and as such, even more expensive. They aren’t unworkable, but of the 430 or more nuclear reactors currently in operation worldwide, only a tiny handful are breeders, notably Russia’s BN-600 reactor, a 560 MW plant that has been operating since 1980. Many more breeder reactors have been built but later shut down, such as France’s Super-Phoenix, and Germany’s SNR-300, the latter a $19-billion plant that was completed, never started, and then decommissioned. Because such reactors aren’t common, a path forward using nuclear to make large proportions of our power would require further research and development (and quite a few countries are currently moving in this direction). It is expense that keeps fast reactors from being more common now, they would only pay off if the price of uranium was substantially higher than it currently is (the cost of fuel is NOT currently one of the big expenses in nuclear power). Continue reading

Et Tu, Time?

Yes, it's still disappearing.

Yes, it’s still disappearing.

Really, Time Magazine? As if the section in The Economist wasn’t enough, I open up Time magazine last night, and see a great big “60%” in their “Briefing” section (Sept. 23 edition), with this text underneath (along with clip-art of a shivering penguin)—

” [60%] Increase in ice-covered ocean water since last year, leading some scientists to believe that the planet is actually undergoing ‘global cooling’.”

It took a whole twenty seconds online to figure out the story behind this, but apparently Time doesn’t have that kind of time. A whole host of articles (all written a week or more before the Time edition), with telling headlines, from reputable sources, spell out the details. Just a few of them—

No, The World Isn’t Cooling“, by Phil Plait on Slate.

With Climate Science Like This, Who Needs Fiction? – Discover Magazine.

Arctic Sea Ice Delusions Strike the Mail on Sunday and Telegraph – The Guardian.

Apparently a notable climate denier named David Rose wrote the original deeply-flawed piece in the Mail, a conservative British tabloid, and it was then picked up by the Telegraph, and from there by various outlets in the U.S. But I’m deeply disappointed in Time; they should be embarrassed by this lapse. If commentators the world over figured it out within days, I just don’t see why they couldn’t have figured it out in a week.

Image credit: muola / 123RF Stock Photo

Hang On, Indeed

Lordy, Lordy. I was just getting my head wrapped around the nuclear question, but before I could write about it the whole deal about the role of small-scale ag came up. So, I’m just getting my head wrapped around that, but before I could write about it, THIS comes up—

Economist coverAn entire special section in The Economist, with endearing cover image and catchy title, about how humans need to grow the economy, in order to save the planet.

Arg. I’m not sure where to begin with this, because my gut feeling is that they’re wrong, or, at a minimum, that the argument needs to be much more nuanced than they present it. But, without days and days to dig into it, I’m not sure I can write with surety. (Not that I’m ever completely sure about anything, as the multiple-stage morphings of my last post  attest to.)

But, a few off-the-cuff thoughts—

First, the articles say that global warming might be one of the more serious threat that species face, along with habitat destruction. Unfortunately, economic growth is tied almost in lockstep with energy growth (see post “A Matter of Limits“). And, despite tremendous gains in renewable capacity in recent years, humans are still using ever more fossil fuel. To paraphrase Bryan Walsh from Time, humans are losing the race to decarbonize. So, if those two things are true, then we need to be very, very careful about issuing blank checks for more economic growth. Burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuel just isn’t an answer. (NOTE April 2016– in the years since I wrote this, we have begun to decouple fossil fuel use from economic growth. We aren’t out of the woods yet by any measure, but we’re doing better….)

The articles also give, fairly I think, a great deal of credit to the environmental movement for recent gains. Calls for habitat protection, sustainability, conservation, and the like have moved governments and NGOs alike to enact many changes that have been beneficial. In fact, the entire collection of articles is upbeat in tone, and they urge humanity onward to more economic growth.

But, GDP can be a pretty blunt measure, counting as it does McMansions and Hummers in the rich world right along with better roads and communications for poor African nations. All growth is not equal. There is no doubt that economic growth can help many of the world’s poorest lead dramatically better lives, and there’s no doubt that the very poor trash their environments (as Mr. X never tires of pointing out to me, concern for the environment is the luxury of wealthy nations). But, more urban sprawl and planet-trashing consumption in the rich world is NOT part of the answer, and I’m afraid that a quick read of this section of the magazine by most will do more harm than good, as many will take it as a blank check for more business-as-usual.

In the end, we need to keep and continue all those changes that environmental movements have achieved in rich and poor countries alike, but go easy on these prescriptions for unfettered growth. Rich nations have indeed done some good things with regard to the environment and biodiversity, but they have, and continue to, exact a huge environmental toll, much of it in faraway and poor places. The global warming impact of the wealthy world is also huge—the average American uses something like 40 times the energy that the average person from the world’s poorer nations uses. Even with lower overall population numbers, the consumption in rich nations is at the root of many of the world’s environmental problems.

We aren’t decoupled, and all actions have consequences. Continuing to mushroom the human footprint and impact, if we aren’t careful, is going to have the biggest consequence of all.

Needed: The Hard Path

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee is closing. While I normally have no real shortage of opinions on many issues, I don’t really have an opinion about this one.

If you aren’t aware, Vermont Yankee is an aging, 540-megawatt reactor in Vernon, Vermont, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It has been a lightning rod for those who oppose nuclear power in the Northeast, and the site of numerous spills, leaks, and small mishaps (though many would argue that opponents regularly make mountains out of molehills whenever this particular plant is concerned). The drive to shut it down has moved to the courts, and the battles there are ongoing. But, in the midst of this, low U.S. natural gas prices (themselves largely the result of another controversial arena, fracking) seem to have sealed Yankee’s fate, and owner Entergy just announced that the plant will be closed next year.

And here the mixed feelings begin. On one hand, nuclear power plants seem vulnerable to terrorism, have the potential to wreak havoc on huge areas (think Fukushima, Chernobyl), use fuel that is non-renewable and difficult to extract, and produce waste that is problematic. On the other hand, they have, on the whole, solid safety records, small footprints, and produce carbon-free power. Then, there is even more potential benefit when you move beyond considering just current reactors (so-called “Generation II” and “Generation III” reactors) and look at newer designs that could be built to shut themselves down if things go wrong, or, like fast-breeder-reactors, use fuel much more efficiently. (A good Time Magazine article here.)

If CO2 emissions and the resulting warming are serious problems, and if the energy in fossil fuels is difficult to replace with renewable power (posts: “A Matter of Limits” and “The Magic-Wand Question“), then nuclear power might, just perhaps, be a big part of the solution. More than a few former critics of nuclear power have come to this conclusion, and have become supporters. A recently released documentary by Robert Stone, “Pandora’s Promise”, focuses on some of these individuals. Trailer–

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, and the reviews of the film have been mixed. Brian Walsh of Time, whose opinion I tend to respect, feels that it is important, and writes that it should be seen, especially by environmentalists. Others are more critical. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I get the gist of it.

So all of this gives me some things to ponder.

First, some issues are just complex and difficult to be definitive about, issues where all-or-nothing pronouncements tend to be intellectually dishonest. I’d put nuclear power into this group, along with fracking and GMOs. All are problematic, yet all have the potential to be part of the solution.

Second, there is the issue of whether R&D money put into nuclear power wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere. The “promise” of nuclear power hasn’t been fully realized; newer “Gen IV” designs are not ready to go into full production, and much investment would be required. These billions might be better spent doing research on permaculture, or utility scale storage, or any of a thousand other needed efforts.

But third, call me crazy, but we need the curtailment that will come with switching to renewables. It will impose self-discipline; the comparative scarcity of this power will force efficiency and conservation. Humanity has huge problems in addition to energy, like deforestation and pollution and overfishing and groundwater depletion, and many of these can only be solved by reducing the human footprint on the planet (at least until we decouple; see post “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail“); which will require true paradigm shifts with regard to human behavior. If by some miracle we could actually provide what the nuclear supporters of the 70’s envisioned, “electricity too cheap to meter”, I’m afraid it would just allow humanity to plow ahead with profligate wastefulness and business-as-usual.

So in the end, perhaps I do have an opinion. I’m afraid, though, that it is an opinion that might not be popular. Hard paths never are. We must be disciplined, we must be focused, and if we are going to work hard, we might as well think big, and work toward a planet powered by clean, renewable power, with reduced consumption and a reduced focus on material things; a world of wind turbines, solar panels, permaculture, highly-efficient buildings, and more intentional living. That’s the clean, safe, healthy future we need.

 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Massachusetts wind resource map.

Massachusetts wind resource map.

I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Opponents of the wind turbines in Lowell, VT, led by groups like Energize Vermont, say that Vermont ridges are far too precious to have wind turbines put on them. There are MUCH better places, according to them, and they whip out maps like the one above. “What could be better than this?”, they say. Huge areas offshore with mean wind speeds above 8 meters/second, all within easy undersea-cable reach of major cities like Boston. All readily doable with off-the-shelf technology. So, save the pristine mountains, and just put the turbines where they make more sense, miles from shore in some of the windiest places in America. I agree that they should be there (along with turbines in Vermont)—I think we need ALL the wind turbines (see post “The Magic-Wand Question“), and putting turbines off-shore seems like a no-brainer.

Well, not so fast. As you may have heard, many people there (and more than a few of them quite-wealthy property owners in Martha’s Vineyard, Hyannis, and Nantucket) don’t want the towers, either, even if they’re five miles offshore. The main project being proposed, a 454-megawatt installation called Cape Wind, has been trying to overcome regulatory hurdles and legal opposition for over a decade (great Huffington Post article about the project). The good news—it’s nearly fully funded and has indeed managed to clear most of the hurdles, though at great cost, and the project is still pushing forward. I won’t wade into the details of the mess around this, but it’s enough of a circus that two books and at least one feature film have been made about the struggle. Watch this trailer for “Cape Spin” below; it’ll give you a sense of what I’m talking about—

This opposition is clearly a huge case of Not-In-My-Backyard, as even the likes of Robert Kennedy Jr., an ardent opponent of Appalachian mountaintop removal mining and supporter of the Coal River Wind project in West Virginia, opposes Cape Wind. Not incidentally, the towers would be visible on the horizon from the Kennedy compound.

Then, in New Hampshire, people have lined up left and right to support a moratorium on wind development, because they don’t want any project in their “backyard”. (The measure was recently defeated, and wind development will go forward).

Meanwhile, in the midst of much inaction, the real devastation, like the removal on entire mountains in Appalachia for the coal that powers our intransigent lifestyles, continues.

Oh, for a bit of perspective; we might be fiddling while Rome burns.

 Image Credit:

Intellectual Honesty

Out of oil?

Out of oil?

Mr. X has been chastising me again, this time about writing the statement “though it’s only been three or four decades since we’ve truly realized it, the carbon emissions in the second graph are going to wreck the planet”, in my post “A Matter of Limits“. He says that it isn’t a fact that carbon emissions will wreck the planet, only a possibility. He’s right—I generally treat this statement as a given, an a priori assumption, and use it as a starting point for many arguments. The physics, the bulk of the evidence, and the majority of climate scientists concur. BUT—predicting the future is a hazardous thing, and Mr. X, I believe, is correct on this one.

This has also made me think because I’ve seen two lines of thought in the last week that have given me pause, and I want to be intellectually honest in my mental pursuits, and don’t want to be one of those people who is so committed to their own viewpoint that they become ossified in their thinking (see my post from early last month, “Half-Truths“).

So, line-of-thinking #1—I stumbled across a blog the other day, “Do the Math“, which is written by a professor at UC San Diego, Tom Murphy, and deals, generally, with the math and physics behind energy. I found it quite fascinating.The man is a real-life PhD-level astrophysicist, seems thoughtful and reasoned, and is a good writer. His opening statement to his blog, apart from the technical accomplishments, seems like a compilation of things I have written myself. So, finally back from Boston, and with my wife now out of town, I sat down the other day and started reading what he’s written. I read until almost 2 a.m., and then more yesterday; perhaps half of all the material on his website. Fascinating stuff. His general take—we live on a finite planet, economic growth must level off, there are real mathematical and thermodynamic reasons why our energy use can’t continue to grow exponentially, oil is peaking, we might get caught in a predicament as energy becomes more scarce, and there are no great energy alternatives out there. Because of all of this, we need to voluntarily slow down, conserve, and begin to adjust to a future of level population, zero economic growth, and constrained energy. Liquid fuels will be the first to diminish, and will have ripple effects on the whole economy, he writes, and the potential for efficiency improvement is limited in many areas.

So, I agree, completely, with most of that. The part that gave me pause—for all his concern about switching to renewable sources of power, the driving force behind his viewpoint is “peak oil”, and not global warming. I was, and remain, skeptical. Five or more years ago, I would have agreed—peak oil seemed like a rock-solid case as I pondered it. But I fairly quickly began to think of more and more avenues that would make “peak oil”, if not a non-issue, at least not a civilization-crasher. Likewise, five years ago I gave quite a bit of credence to those who felt the U.S. financial system was due to go off the rails, and I’ve also decided that this is far less than likely. Tom Murphy, for all his brilliance, and for all his very-useful articles about renewable power, and despite his 12.5 million website hits, might not be correct as to the things he emphasizes.

But, back to the part-that-gave-me-pause—one reason he is concerned about peak oil seems to be that he doesn’t think that global warming will be an issue (and peak oil is clearly inevitable, I’m just not sure that it will be a show-stopper. I might expound on that, but perhaps not in this post). And, reason to stop and take note—this isn’t some ideologue on the street parroting back something he heard on Rush Limbaugh about global warming ideas being a sham, this is a guy that can actually do, and has done, much of the math. Interestingly, he doesn’t deny global warming in any way, in fact, he claims that the physics behind it are rock-solid. He just doesn’t seem to think that a warming planet will be a show-stopper (read his post “Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps“). So, I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about the part about it not being a serious matter, but it’s something to think about.

The ocean-- a source of disparity.

The ocean– a source of disparity.

Reason-to-pause #2—Mr. X pointed out an article about recent warming data that shows that the planet isn’t warming quite like most models predicted. There seems to be much recent discussion of this. Bottom line—no one really thinks that warming has stopped, but it seems that something isn’t quite right with the computer models, likely in the algorithms that pertain to the thermal capacity of ocean water at depths deeper than 700 feet. The result is that the average temperature of the planet has remained somewhat flat for the last decade. Here’s a more complete reading list in case you’re interested, all recent articles: The Economist “A Cooling Consensus”, New Republic “Explaining the Global Warming Hiatus”, The Economist “Apocalypse Perhaps A Little Later”, The Economist “A Sensitive Matter”, and The Washington Post “Global Warming Appears to Have Slowed Lately: That’s No Reason to Celebrate”.

Climate science is notoriously complex, and this situation just shows that we might not know as much as we think we do. Again, no one thinks that warming isn’t happening or isn’t going to continue, and none of these articles argues with the idea that the burning of fossil fuels is the culprit, but the argument is over the speed at which this will happen. If it turns out that due to some heretofore unknown factor that warming is going to proceed slower than expected, then yay for the planet; it will give humanity a bit more time to adjust. In fact, it might shift the ball into Tom Murphy’s court, and back to concerns about peak oil (though I doubt it).

But the fact that models are still being perfected is reason enough to be a bit more careful with the dire predictions. Now, all that being said—the whole “global warming/peak oil/energy” ball of wax is only part of humanity’s problems. Trend lines are heading in the wrong direction in just about every arena (post- “It’s the Trend Lines that are Scary“). And, within the energy debate, it is interesting to note that in most cases, the potential downsides to business-as-usual, whether from global warming, or climate change, or peak oil, are potentially quite serious, or even disastrous. So, while Mr. X is correct, and these aren’t sure things, they are well within the realm of possibility (or even likely), and the safest course of action, in nearly all cases, is to begin to shift away from fossil fuels. And, in the vein of being intellectually honest, the risk of an all-out effort is that it may slow the economy in ways that might impact the world’s poor. But, I think this risk is vastly overshadowed by the risks of not acting in response to the potential downsides of continued profligate fossil fuel consumption.

So, despite all these pauses, my basic tenets remain—business-as-usual is a dangerous game, and we need to veer away from that course.

 Image credit: sgv / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: andreyst / 123RF Stock Photo