Harnessing Sun, Wave Power for Energy

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Editor’s Note: The Climate Post will take a short summer break next week, returning Aug. 9.

Oceans, which cover more than two-thirds of the planet, hold a large amount of energy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates ocean wave and tidal currents have the potential to account for 15 percent of the nation’s electricity by 2030.

While technologies harnessing energy from tides and currents have been domestically discussed for decades, the nation’s first commercial tidal energy project was dedicated in Maine Tuesday. This first tidal generator is expected to begin delivering electricity to the regional power grid in September—with just enough juice to power 25 homes as it starts out. The U.S. Navy, too, is exploring harnessing wave power as part of a larger plan to reduce energy consumption by 50 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Interior identified 17 sites on public land across six Southwestern states that could be ideal for the development of solar energy. The plan, which will be finalized after a 30-day comment period, places 445 square miles of public land in play for utility-scale solar facilities. On the technology front, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles are taking the idea of solar power from roofs to windows with the invention of a thin, transparent solar cell that can turn the sun’s energy into electricity while still allowing visible light to stream through. The cells, researchers claim, can be produced at high volume for low cost and installed at an estimated $10 to $15 per window.

Effects of Drought, Heat Continue To Be Felt

NASA satellites tracking ice surface melt in Greenland recorded unprecedented melting over the course of four days in July—melting even occurred at Greenland’s coldest, highest place, Summit Station. While the ice sheet normally sees melting over summer months, the speed and scale of the thaw—which went from 40 to 97 percent—surprised scientists. “Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average,” said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist who belongs to the research team analyzing the satellite data. “With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time. But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome.”

The drought in the United States continues to spread, forcing some plains ranchers to sell cattle and driving down the U.S. corn yield to a 10-year low. It has some contemplating whether we are headed for a repeat of the 2008 global food crisis, but others are more optimistic, saying farmers may weather the drought better than in 1988. With National Weather Service forecasts indicating the drought is likely to worsen, The Washington Post took a comprehensive look at whether climate change is causing the drought. The short answer: Droughts have multiple causes, there have been worse ones in the past, and most evidence suggests droughts will become more intense in many parts of the world if the planet keeps heating up, which could disrupt the world’s food supply.

Rules Get Review

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing part of a controversial rule that sets the first federal standards to reduce mercury and other toxic pollutants from power plants. The review was prompted by power plant operators who found the rule was confusing for new plants.

The EPA also has issued new—and largely unnoticed—rules limiting sulfur dioxide and soot emissions from cruise ships. The new rules, which go into effect Aug. 1, would require cruise ships to immediately reduce the sulfur content of their fuel from an average of 2.7 percent to 1 percent, and to reduce that number to 0.1 percent by 2015. EPA estimates the benefits of the new rule, by 2015, will be like removing 12.7 million and 900,000 cars off the road per day in terms of sulfur dioxide and soot emissions. The cruise ship industry and some Alaskan officials worry about the increased cost and availability of the lower-sulfur fuel, however, and Alaska’s attorney general has filed a lawsuit to block the new rules.

The European Commission announced a rescue plan that would withhold carbon allowances to support its Emissions Trading Scheme, which has struggled of late due to an oversupply of carbon credits. The rescue plan would involve “backloading,” or delaying auctions of carbon allowances, in an effort to bolster the program. While there are no firm numbers in the draft proposal itself, a Commission analysis assesses the possibility of withdrawing 400 million, 900 million or 1.2 billion allowances over the first three years of the market’s next phase.

Cars that Drive Themselves

Motor vehicles are responsible for a significant percentage of U.S. carbon emissions. As YaleE360 tells it, self driving cars—which could greatly reduce the risk of accidents and slash fuel consumption and emissions—may be a reality sooner than you think.

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

U.S. Makes Strides on Climate Change

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

As Grist puts it, contrary to popular belief, the U.S. is making progress on climate change. Overall, the country’s carbon emissions fell 1.7 percent last year—in part because of the explosive growth of natural gas and the Great Recession. Looking at energy-related carbon emissions in the last five years, the U.S. has experienced a roughly 6 percent drop. In fact, total greenhouse gas emissions are not expected to reach 2010 levels again until 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

That doesn’t mean everyone is concerned about its progress. Generation X—individuals ranging from 32 to 52—may not be the stereotypical slackers they are often portrayed to be, but most are not extremely worried about climate change, according to a new poll. Only about 20 percent said they were highly concerned, while 42 percent were moderately concerned about climate change. The remaining 37 percent showed less concern or none at all. That said, when looking at the population as a whole, there is a “substantial” increase in the number of Americans concerned with the issue, according to a study comparing various opinion polls.

One technology intended to artificially cool the planet and combat climate change, may actually make climate conditions worse. Four separate climate models used by a group of scientists to test the concept of geoengineering—where an increase in the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was balanced by a “dimming” of the sun—showed undesirable climate effects, including a reduction in global rainfall. One map suggests many of these projects are already under way across the world—with one new field test proposed by Harvard researchers that would combine sulfate particles with water vapor to form aerosols to reflect the sun’s rays. “The time has come to differentiate: some geoengineering techniques are more dangerous than others,” said Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany. His team recently came out with a study that looks at dumping iron into the sea to bury carbon dioxide for centuries, potentially reducing the impact of climate change.

Temperatures, Drought Threaten Resources

Drought conditions, now gripping much of the country, have led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare natural disasters in more than 1,000 counties in 26 states. Labeled the sixth most severe drought in the United States since record keeping began in 1895, the heat and lack of rain is taking a heavy toll on crops—especially in key corn growing states in the Midwestraising food and fuel prices. A map by the National Climatic Data Center illustrating the subtraction of precipitation and potential evapotranspiration in June attempts to show why. Even if there had been normal precipitation amounts, it would not have been enough to meet potential evapotranspiration demand in most areas, says Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman.

An iceberg twice the size of Manhattan broke off a Greenland glacier this week.  In addition, the Arctic lost in June about 1.1 million square miles of ice, a record. That’s nearly equivalent to the area of Alaska, Florida, Texas and California combined. The rapid retreat of snow and ice has sparked interest in the Arctic’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves. Shell already has plans to begin exploratory drilling in the area as early as this summer if permits arrive as projected. Proponents say if Shell finds oil, thousands of jobs could be created, while others voice concern over the possibility of spills and marine pollution. Regardless, the pace of widespread drilling in the region remains uncertain.

Countries Reconsider Nuclear

Following Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster a year ago, Germany opted to shut down all of its nuclear plants by 2022. The plan was to expand its current renewable energy portfolio—which makes up about 20 percent of the energy mix—to 35 percent by 2020 and 80 percent in 2050. Those targets may be less likely and could be readjusted if jobs are threatened. “The timeframe and the goals of the energy revolution are intact,” said Economy Minister Philipp Rösler. “But we will have to make adjustments if jobs and our competitiveness should become endangered.”

Meanwhile, Japan, which ordered all nuclear power plants shut down for inspection after Fukushima, will restart a second reactor to handle energy demand. The decision has prompted protests as Japan considers three energy options as it moves forward—reduce nuclear power to zero as soon as it can, decrease it to 15 percent by 2030 or aim for a 20-25 percent share by 2030.

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

As Country Breaks Heat Record, Studies Analyze Climate Connection

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The same week the continental United States broke its record for the hottest six months in a calendar year, the United Nations announced 2011 was among the 15 warmest so far. Climate change may have increased the chances of the types of extreme weather seen in 2011, and may have been heavily influenced by a weather pattern called La Niña.

The odds of such record U.S. heat being a random coincidence—while not 1 in 1,594,323, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center said in a new report—are perhaps on the order of 1 in 100,000. One NOAA scientist claims there is an 80 percent chance the record heat can be attributed to climate change. Meanwhile, Meteorologist David Epstein called the extremes “simply a reality of nature.”

This report, and another released this week by NOAA and the American Meteorological Society, link the recent weather extremes and records to manmade warming. The Guardian points to air conditioning as one modern convenience increasing our climate risk—now responsible for almost half a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Ultimately, how people perceive the science behind numbers like these may hinge on their political ideologies. One University of North Carolina researcher found trust and confidence in science has declined since 1974 among people who are politically conservative.

Renewable Energy Investment, Generation Grow

As debates over a renewable fuel standard for transportation hit a political divide, global clean energy investments are rising—roughly 24 percent. Renewable energy generation, overall, is projected to grow more than 40 percent in the next five years. China is expected to be the largest contributor to this growth, and globally hydropower is predicted to lead—followed closely by wind, bioenergy and solar power.

This growth is amid forecasts world oil demand will decrease in 2012. Slower economic growth was cited by the International Energy Administration’s as the reason for the 130,000-barrel-a-day cut.

The U.S. still fared poorly on energy efficiency rankings. The American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Economy used 27 metrics to calculate the ninth-place ranking among 12 major economies. Countries including China, France, Italy and Australia ranked higher than the U.S.—with the United Kingdom taking the top spot.

Judge: Air Should Be Treated Like Water

One expert says attorneys tasked with arguing climate change lawsuits could benefit from a Texas judge’s recent ruling that the air and atmosphere must be protected for public use. Adam Abrams, an attorney representing Texas, said the ruling could be a persuasive argument in lawsuits designed to force states to cut emissions, pending in 11 other states. “I think it’s huge that we got a judge to acknowledge that the atmosphere is a public trust asset and the air is a public trust asset,” Abrams said. “It’s the first time we’ve had verbiage like this come out of one of these cases.”

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

Climate Change Concern Slipping as Scientists Ponder Link between Recent Events

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A new poll says climate change is no longer first on Americans’ list of the most critical environmental problems. About three in 10 people, or 29 percent, believe water and air pollution to be the top issue. Meanwhile, 19 percent saw climate change as a threat, down from 33 percent in 2007. Even with the decline, three-quarters of those polled thought the Earth was getting warmer.

Some scientists are connecting events such as the record heat and Colorado wildfires—suggesting warming is a real threat. The proof, according to scientists such as Princeton University Professor Michael Oppenheimer, is right outside. “What we’re seeing really is a window into what global warming really looks like,” Oppenheimer said. “It looks like heat. It looks like fires. It looks like this kind of environmental disasters.”

A study of media headlines from April 1 to June 30 didn’t quite reflect these scientists’ views. Coverage barely mentions climate change or global warming. Of more than 350 broadcasts and print articles, just 3 percent linked the wildfires to climate change.

Natural Gas Demand High as Drilling Expands

While New York State ponders lifting a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for natural gas, North Carolina lawmakers voted to override Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of a bill that legalizes the technique in the state. The nudging vote, made in error, allows the formation of an Energy and Mining Commission tasked with creating regulations to govern natural gas production, both through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

As states consider getting in on the nation’s shale gas boom, some of the places companies are considering targeting—parks, churches and playgrounds—are raising eyebrows. The latest is a 122-year-old cemetery in eastern Ohio. Opponents of the lease say the cemetery is sacred ground that shouldn’t be violated, while defenders argue drilling is so deep it won’t disturb the graves and could generate needed revenue.

Natural gas demand continues to increase even though, for the second consecutive year, total U.S. energy production declined. It is projected natural gas will increase 6 percent and account for 27.4 percent of the U.S. energy market, due in part to low prices and environmental regulations that will reduce consumption of coal. One blogger argues: natural gas liquids just may be the next “fossil fuel glut to follow natural gas.”

Health Care Decision’s Effect on Environmental Regulation

Days after a federal court ruled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, Texas—one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit—is considering appealing the decision. (Full disclosure: Shortly after the ruling, I participated in a teleconference with three other experts in which we went over the ruling in detail.) Wednesday, the EPA reaffirmed it will not revise permitting thresholds under the Clean Air Act. The tailoring rule, the EPA said, will continue to focus on the largest emitters—both new and existing.

The same week as the EPA ruling, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, and since then, several have questioned what the ruling means for the Clean Air Act. The Court’s ruling that the federal government cannot coerce states to accept the law’s Medicaid provisions may have implications for the Clean Air Act’s state implementation plans, and new limits on the Commerce Clause may affect other regulations as well.


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