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Tweet storming @AlGore’s talk to @ARPAE’s #ARPA16

March 1st, 2016 · 1 Comment

As a respite from watching Republican Party debates and campaigning, I am spending three days at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Energy Innovation Summit. In stark contrast to those @GOP science-denial soundbites, this Super Tuesday morning, Al Gore spent an hour on stage being interviewed by Steve Clemons from The Atlantic.  There are a number of people — like Al Gore and his former boss, Bill Clinton — that are simply worth listening to for their thoughtful and informed discussion whether you fully agree with specific points.  Listening with an open mind, anyone should learn and be spoked to thinking.  This morning’s Q&A, in front of 1000s of the nation’s leading edge energy scientists, engineers, and investors was no exception. While, hopefully, ARPA-E will make this full talk available, after the fold are a few dozen tweets that — well — don’t do justice to the Vice President’s comments.

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→ 1 CommentTags: Energy

@ARPAE Summit: Executives asked “Either/Or” Deployment/#Innovation, respond “Both”

March 1st, 2016 · No Comments

At the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Energy Innovation Summit, Katie Fehrenbacher asked two CEOs (Michael J. GraffAmerican Air Liquide Holdings; Wayne T. Smith, BASF) their thoughts as to Bill Gates’ call for an “Energy Miracle” to address climate change.  

To paraphrase, her question:

Bill Gates has called for an “energy miracle”, for focusing on creating innovations to create new technologies for addressing climate change for deployment 15 years from now. This has created a bit of a battle as to what we should focus on: deploying available technologies or innovation.

Do you think that we should be investing more on deploying technologies and systems available today or should be we investing on innovation research?

Smith’s direct response:

I think we need both.

And, Graff:

I would fully agree with that.

Simply put, these two high-technology CEOs — both heads of firms with significant resources invested, annually, in developing ‘new’ technologies and capabilities — rejected the either / or premise and emphasized the importance of deploying climate/clean energy solutions today even as we work to develop new options for tomorrow.

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Can Sarah Palin see PV panels from her porch?

February 22nd, 2016 · No Comments

The Department of Energy just released a study that sparked this question:

Entitled Solar Prospecting in Rural Alaska, the study examines the return on investment for installing solar panels in communities far from the grid.  In remote areas, the cost of transporting goods and materials can be multiples of their price.  While flying in basic goods like milk (and coca cola) via the US Postal Service is subsidized by the rest of the nation, the reality is that it costs a lot more to get a gallon of diesel fuel to an Alaskan village far from the nearest road than it does at your neighborhood gas station.

While petroleum products have dwindled to less than one percent of America’s electricity supply, diesel generators are a prime electricity source for smaller communities not connected to the grid.  Very roughly, as a rule of thumb, consider roughly 1/20th to 1/20th of a gallon per generated kilowatt-hour.  E.g., just for the fuel, when diesel is $2 per gallon, electricity will cost $0.10-$0.20 per kilowatt hour to produce when the average American is paying $0.12 per kilowatt delivered to their home. Add in the cost of buying & maintaining the generator and you’ve likely doubled that production cost.  However, the fuel isn’t $2 per gallon in rural Alaska — with some villages having prices closer to $7/gallon. And, this ends up in the electricity bills.

Electricity generated by diesel fuel in some rural Alaskan villages can cost $1.00 per kilowatt-hour or more, which is more than eight times the national average.

Solar has been encroaching into Arctic energy systems.

Cleaning solar panel on Kodiak Island (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis)

Cleaning solar panel on Kodiak Island (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis)

For example, researchers have pursued wind/solar combo systems to support remote research sites and there are a number of solar installations around Alaska (including this home heated with solar thermal panels).

For rural Alaska villages, the DOE study concludes:

this analysis suggests that solar PV—along with fuel and other electricity savings measures—can be economically competitive in many remote Alaskan villages and could have a number of benefits including reducing a village’s dependency on diesel fuel, improving electricity price predictability, providing local environmental benefits, and more.

With that in mind, should we wonder whether, rather than Russia, Sarah Palin can see solar panels from her porch?

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America’s K-12 science teachers tripping up on gateway to climate-science knowledge

February 19th, 2016 · No Comments

Up front, the expert scientific community is near unanimous: climate change is occurring and human action is driving this change.  Simple truth:

Over 97 percent of climate scientists have independently concluded that human-caused global warming is happening.”

As three leading science communication experts put in a US News & World Report OPED,

In the history of science, there have been few instances in which almost all experts in a particular field were in complete agreement.

Climate change is one of those instances.

Now for the troubling point.
Too many — under the withering propaganda attacks on climate science financed by the Kochs, Exxon, and others of their ilk — do not understand this.  And, this fact — that scientists have strong agreement on climate science — matters.  And, it even matters across the political spectrum.

A “Gateway Belief” is a piece of knowledge, a fact that — if known — opens the door for greater and deeper understanding of an issue. When it comes to climate change, across the political spectrum, this one point (that over 97% of experts say humanity is driving climate change) is such a gateway belief.

increasing public perceptions of the scientific consensus is significantly and causally associated with an increase in the belief that climate change is happening, human-caused and a worrisome threat. In turn, changes in these key beliefs are predictive of increased support for public action. In short, we find that perceived scientific agreement is an important gateway belief, ultimately influencing public responses to climate change.

In other words, want greater support for climate mitigation and adaptation action, a good starting point: educate people about the substantive (overwhelming) climate consensus.

Those resistant to action on climate change have long understood this — no wonder that they attack “97%” and trot out their pet anti-climate science talking head(s).

Sadly, far too many across the English-speaking world do not know this gateway belief.

Recently released research shows that a particularly troubling group is tripping over this gateway:

Only 30 percent of middle-school and 45 percent of high-school science teachers in the U.S. are aware of the fact that nearly all climate scientists are convinced that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.

And, things get worse.

Here’s the kicker: The authors explain that although many science teachers themselves believe that climate change is happening, because most are not aware of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change many opt to teach “both sides” of the so-called climate debate, mistakenly giving students the impression that the basic facts are still contested, rather than conveying the fact that there is a deep and well-established consensus among climate scientists.

“Both sides” is clearly not solely a problem in traditional media “he says, she says,” all sides should be reported, tradition.

Not surprisingly, political ideology impacts teachers approaches to climate change. Further to the (and the redder the school district, I would suspect), the more likely “controversy” and “both sides” will make its appearance in the science curriculum.

97 percent, however, could well be the most effective tool against this.

one of the few facts that speaks to both conservatives and liberals in a powerful way is information about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.

Purple, blue, or red: knowing 97% “strengthens other important key beliefs that people hold about climate change”.  And, most powerfully, among conservatives.

Knowing about scientific consensus is powerful in other fields.  After all, there is a reason why “4 of 5 dentists agree” is embedded in the social landscape of a generation of TV watchers.  And, sowing doubt is powerful too.

Tobacco companies have long understood the psychological consequences of sowing doubt: As long as people think there is disagreement among the experts, most won’t act.

Sadly, rather than 97% being understood by 97% of Americans, the real figure is about 1% who know this.  E.g., it is far from only school teachers who are tripping at the gateway.  However, teaching teachers “97%” and getting them to teach their students that might be a way get beyond 1% and have fewer Americans tripping on the gateway and falling flat on their face when it comes to climate science knowledge.



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Renewable/Efficiency/Storage Progress so fast even ‘innovators’ find it hard to keep up …

February 17th, 2016 · No Comments

We are seeing extraordinary shifts across virtually every technology arena even though, especially in areas of large-fixed infrastructure (buildings, energy systems, etc …), it can sometimes be hard to see the change.

Whether solar pv or wind pricing, the ability to squeeze out efficiency in systems (buildings, vehicles, machines, etc …), or battery capacity per pound, the pace of change in systems commercially available is often hard to comprehend. As the Department of Energy has put it, we are living through a Revolution NOW!

DOE on on LED light bulbs: price nosediving, installations skyrocketing

With the breadth and pace of change in the energy market, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it is hard even for those pushing innovation to keep up with that pace of change.

“Innovation” is certainly a strong thematic in government energy policy discussions around the world. The announcement of the ‘billionaires’ club’ Breakthrough Energy Initiative provided one of the major ‘side’ elements to the COP21 in Paris.  Associated with that, a pledge by major governments to double energy R&D funding by 2020.

Building on this, four major ‘names’ (Arjun Majumdar (Stanford, first head of ARPA-E), John Deutch (MIT), George Schultz (former Secretary of State), and Norm Augustine (former CEO, Lockheed Martin)) have called for a major private-sector push for energy innovation.

The concept is interesting. In essence, seek to create ten ten-Corporation initiatives groups. Each of these 100 firms would commit to $10M/year in funding, for a total of $10B over a decade, to develop breakthrough energy options through the innovators’ valley of death into broad commercialization and deployment.

each Energy Innovation Entity would be supported by roughly 10 companies, each committing about $10 million a year for 10 years — a “10-10-10” mechanism.

Lots of challenges in this concept. A bit much focused on ‘develop tomorrow’s options’ without mentioning today’s and, well, a concept for business cooperation that seems at odds with most firm’s corporate governance approaches and …  However, still an interesting concept.

Embedded within the discussion, however, an example of just how hard it can be for ‘innovators’ to keep up with the pace of change. The following is the authors’ major example of where large-scale private business investment is required.

Take, for example, advances in battery technology. A battery that costs less than $100 per kilowatt-hour with a lifetime of more than 1,000 cycles would be a game changer for offering affordable and reliable renewable electricity across the world. Today’s lithium ion batteries cost three times more.

Yes, $100 per kWh is generally see as a critical threshold for making EV vehicles truly cost competitive with traditional gasoline vehicles on purchase price (and much less expensive to own).  The problem is found with “today’s” — or at least how one thinks about it.

Batteries have been nose-diving in price.  In the Energy Innovative Entity concept OPED, the authors certainly imply that getting from $300 to $100 is unlikely to occur with lithium ion batteries without some form of intervention like they suggest (note, $1B is a relative pittance in the battery world) and is a stretch goal requiring major intervention and significant time to achieve it.

That, however, does not comport with “today’s” reality.

The Chevy Bolt, being built today, has batteries that General Motors is buying at $145 per kilowatt-hour capacity.  GM released that price information five months ago.  And, GM forecasts achieving $100 per kWh battery pricing by 2022 in the normal course of business.

GM Battery Cost Price Projections

Note that the  $145/kWh price is what GM is paying today.

The actual price today (okay, five months ago — at least) is less than half what the authors cite.

With the rapid advances in battery density and rapidly lowering costs, the GM graphic above is likely pessimistic about what we will actually see in the market place.

It seems plausible that the $100 per kWh battery target will be broken before 2020.

Simply put, the advances in energy systems (and, well, across virtually every field of technology and science) are going so rapidly that even those most concerned with ‘innovation’ are having a hard time keeping up.


→ No CommentsTags: electric vehicles · Energy

Politi-“fact” vs truth: challenges in fact checking climate statements

February 16th, 2016 · No Comments

Senator Bernie Sanders, amid the Democratic Presidential primary, has had strong words about Republican presidential candidates and climate change.  Amid discussions of the (distorting) influence of interest group financing in politics during the 3 Feb debate with Secretary/Senator Clinton, Sanders said

Do you think there’s a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real, and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system?

Polifact took on the this statement — in a dissected form — and went to rate it.  As an advance warning, they did so in a convoluted manner focused on “fact” that ended up leaving aside “truth”.  Before getting to Politifact, let’s lay out some climate truth:

Here is reality:
  • The earth is warming at unprecedented (in terms of humanity’s time on the planet) rate and scale.
  • Human activity (primarily the burning of fossil fuels) is driving this warming.
  • The warming — the human-driven climate change — is creating serious risks for human civilization.
  • Significant, serious, and action is required both to reduce emissions (en route a carbon-neutral (if not negative) global economy) and to prepare global society (and the United States) for deal with climate consequences.
There is not a single Republican on the South Carolina primary ballot who acknowledges/embraces “this reality”: that climate change is real and we need to “transform our energy system” to deal with it.
President Obama clearly agrees with Senator Sanders:

Sadly, Politifact is not alone … 

UPDATE 2:  17 Feb 2016
See excellent well-documented MMfA discussion of how Republican candidates cited by Politifact as aligned with climate science actually aren’t. Media Glossing Over Climate Science Denial by GOP “Establishment” Candidates ends:
Hopefully media outlets will more deeply explore how well the candidates’ comments square with climate science going forward, particularly in articles that purport to be “fact-checks.” Splitting the GOP field into “outsider” candidates who reject climate science and “establishment” candidates who accept it might make for a compelling media narrative. But it doesn’t make for an accurate one.

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→ No CommentsTags: political symbols · politics

When it comes to #WhiteHouse proposed oil fee, #CRS myopically sees only costs & not benefits?

February 11th, 2016 · No Comments

UPFRONT NOTE:  President Obama’s proposed 21st century clean transportation program, funded by a $10 fee per barrel of oil, would likely have significant positive return on investment: reduced fossil fuel pollution impacts, improved economic activity in areas with mass and other transit investments, reduced economic vulnerability to oil market volatility and price shocks, reduced oil imports, reduced climate impacts, …. Those benefit streams, however, aren’t entering the public discussion …

Cost-Benefit Analysis …

There are those, such as Frank Ackerman, who see cost-benefit analysis as perverting of government regulatory decision-making (especially related to environmental issues). With some strong analysis and reasoning behind them, they argue that the practice should be abandoned. No matter the power of their work, there is a simple truth to deal with: ROI (return on investment) and other business concepts are so embedded in decision-making culture that an abandonment is unlikely to occur.  Thus, the discussion returns to a lesser of evils: what can be done to foster analysis that provides accurate and useful support for decision-making.

When it comes to cost-benefit analysis (environmental, energy, or otherwise), a simple touchstone: evaluate both costs AND benefits.   And, importantly, avoid stove-piping and provide a window on systems implications for a fuller look at those costs and benefits. Regretfully, it is extremely rare to find a serious systems’ look.  Even more abysmally, there is a robust tradition when it comes to energy and environmental issues of looking at “costs” with little to no discussion of benefits. (For example, here, here, here, …)

In a quick-look at the “macroeconomic impacts” of President Obama’s proposed $10 fee on a barrel of oil, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) joined a long legacy of cost-only looks at climate and clean energy policy options.  In its three-page memo to Congress, with substantive large discussion of potential costs (increased gas costs, reduced oil exploration, etc), CRS essentially wrote off that there are potential benefits. A word search provides a quick touchstone:

  • Cost: five uses
  • Benefit: nilch, nada, zero guest appearances.

Within its “macroeconomic” discussion, CRS lets us know that the fee might reduce domestic oil exploration, might weaken energy security, might cost jobs in the oil and gas sectors, might hurt consumer confidence, might create inflationary pressure, might …, mightmight

Amid all those mights, CRS included one sentence on “benefits”:

Jeff Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council, pointed out that the Clean Transportation System programs would generate transportation infrastructure jobs as a partial offset to the effect of higher petroleum product prices.

As long as CRS was speculating on costs, perhaps speculation on benefits would have been in order.  The proposed 21st Century Clean Transportation Program, including the $10 fee on oil, might:

  • Strengthen the economy: foster innovation in oil-dependent products (from cars to plastics) to create more value from every barrel (which, by the way, would increase export competitiveness of US products); create growth around transit paths (as is seen in areas with transit, as real estate values sky rocket near new transit stations); etc…
  • Make transportation work better for Americans across the nation, from transit systems to better lighting controls to improved highway traffic (due to more people/goods moving by rail, etc …) with the potential to take a bite out of the 7 billion hours/year Americans waste due to transportation bottlenecks and problems.
  • Reduce pollution, with concurrent benefits in reduced health costs and reduced climate risks.

A true systems’ analysis likely would show that a $10 fee on a barrel of oil, with appropriate protections for U.S. producers against foreign competitors, would have a significant set of benefits for Americans that would outweigh (potentially by an order of magnitude in value) the costs.  To arrive a meaningful understanding of that fully-burdened cost-benefit analysis, however, you first have to recognize that there are benefits.  Regretfully, in this case, CRS didn’t take that first step.



→ No CommentsTags: analysis · Cost-Benefit Analysis · Obama Administration · oil · transportation

Analysis again shows: clean energy future totally affordable

January 26th, 2016 · 2 Comments

Without doing fully burdened cost-benefit analysis, NOAA and University of Colorado Boulder researchers analyzed various electricity portfolios (article) over the coming decade and found that:

Even in a scenario where renewable energy costs more than experts predict, the model produced a system that cuts CO2 emissions 33 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and delivered electricity at about 8.6 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, electricity cost 9.4 cents per kWh in 2012.

Not surprising, this conclusion leads to headlines like Bloomberg’s “Cutting pollution from coal cheaper than you think“.  As discussed below, however, the study team seems to understate the real case — with a richer study perhaps leading to a title “Cutting pollution from coal more profitable than we realized”.

As to the study, this team modeled an integrated national system — leveraging regional differences for renewables based on high-fidelity weather records — to foster a designed grid to reduce the need for backup generation to cover intermittencies. The grid buildout, in their model, relies heavily on HVDC (high-voltage, direct current) power lines which would enable moving electricity long distances with minimal transmission losses.

Alexander MacDonald, co-lead author and recently retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), compared the idea of a HVDC grid with the interstate highway system which transformed the U.S. economy in the 1950s.

“With an ‘interstate for electrons’, renewable energy could be delivered anywhere in the country while emissions plummet,” he said. “An HVDC grid would create a national electricity market in which all types of generation, including low-carbon sources, compete on a cost basis. The surprise was how dominant wind and solar could be.”

The modeling has interesting (powerful, even) results.

“Our research shows a transition to a reliable, low-carbon, electrical generation and transmission system can be accomplished with commercially available technology and within 15 years,” said MacDonald …

And, it is getting praised

“This study pushes the envelope,” said Stanford University’s Mark Jacobson, who commented on the findings in an editorial he wrote for  the journal Nature Climate Change. “It shows that intermittent renewables plus transmission can eliminate most fossil-fuel electricity while matching power demand at lower cost than a fossil fuel-based grid

The team found that

“The United States could slash greenhouse gas emissions from power production by up to 78 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years while meeting increased demand”

… and at a price similar to (if not below) currently delivered electricity prices.

That is a powerful result …

Yet, the analysis looks to undermine that power: there is no discussion of all of the value streams that come from driving down carbon emissions in the electricity system. Here are just a few direct payoffs for the U.S. economy through moving toward a cleaner electricity grid.

  • Employment (Jobs! JOBS! JOBS!!!) is higher with renewable energy, per kilowatt hour, than traditional fossil fuels: building wind turbines, installing solar panels, and, with efficiency, insulating homes (and manufacturing that insulation), etc …
  • Railroad capacity to move goods and people as lower coal movements reduce bottlenecks.
  • Reduced pollution leading to higher productivity (fewer lost work days due to asthma attacks).
  • Etc …

And, of course, that ‘oh by the way’ value from reduced climate risks.

This looks to an important study — showing that an accelerated move to a clean electricity grid is viable at essentially low cost.  Regretfully, by what looks to be a stove-piped analysis solely within the electricity market, the analysis fails to highlight a simple truth: this transition would create tremendous value — not just be cost neutral — while lowering risk.



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→ 2 CommentsTags: analysis · electricity · emissions · Energy

‘Jonas’ illustrates dark magic of storms, tides, and sea level rise

January 24th, 2016 · No Comments


  Tides, and

     Sea Level Rise

Sadly, this rolls off the tongue.

Sadly, because is a rather terrifying presage of the world that we are moving into.

This guest post comes from John Englander, one of the most prescient voices as to the implications of sea level rise and the ever-increasing imperative to act to adapt to the changes that are coming — no matter how much climate mitigation we take. [note: that there will be worsening implications from climate change, no matter what we do, is not a reason not to work (hard, urgently, passionately) for mitigation. We might have a say as to how fast and how bad climate change impacts humanity and ecosystems even if it is well past time to prevent significant damage from happening.)

‘Jonas’ (also known as: the Blizzard of 2016, and “snowzilla”) was just one more unusual weather event that will go down in the ‘record books.’ What made this special was how the amount of moisture in the air and the unusual temperatures and pressure systems aligned for massive snow. Of course, heavy snow does not cause coastal flooding.

Yet the severe coastal flooding from the Carolinas up to Massachusetts illustrates the dark magic when the flooding forces of storms, tides and sea level rise combine. Jonas was not even hurricane force winds, something we associate with severe coastal damage. There were strong winds, but by themselves they would not create this kind of coastal flooding.

But Jonas did hit at the monthly full moon, when tides are more extreme.  Plus we are in the higher phase of the 18.6 year tide cycle, raising water heights even higher this year. It is the invisible way that the timing of the wave heights and the tide cycle just happen to hit that determines whether flooding will be bad or not. For example, when Jonas hit Annapolis this weekend, the tide was not at the high point of the daily cycle. When the peak of the storm hit farther up the coast the damage was much worse, because it hit at high tide.

Over the last century, sea level in the area of the mid Atlantic east coast of the United States has risen approximately 14 inches. That will not reverse for at least a thousand years, until such time as the planet’s temperature falls to the point where the glaciers and ice sheets return to growth mode. Indeed the rate of sea level rise is now increasing dramatically.

In fact our problem with sea level rise is almost entirely related to the rate of the rise. Sea level keeps inching higher and higher, as the glaciers and ice sheets in the polar regions continue to melt due to record levels of heat. For example, Arctic temperatures this month were as much as 50 degrees F above normal.

“Eventually” sea level will be tens of feet higher than now. The question is how quickly.  That depends on the amount of heat we add to the oceans and some subtle structural dynamics in Antarctica that cannot yet be determined.

I like to use the rhyming phrase “storms, tides, and sea level rise” to help identify how this powerful synergy between those three forces will keep breaking records over the coming decades. When we see streets flooding, there is a tendency to think of it as having a single cause. Yet there can be various factors that contribute to flooding:

  • heavy rainfall
  • storm surge – a bulge in ocean height driven by wind or low barometric pressure
  • different levels of ‘high tide’ which cycles primarily due to the position of the planets, peaking almost twice daily, with extra height at the full and new moon according to the 28 day lunar cycle.
  • sea level — the base ocean level at low tide that primarily reflects the amount of ice on land and any overall change in ocean heat content. On a regional level, sea level can also be affected by land subsidence, a drop in its elevation due to compaction, plate tectonics, extraction of groundwater or petroleum.

Erosion is a different phenomenon, though it often also gets lumped in with these types of flooding. Primarily erosion at the beach is due to direct wave action driven by local or distant storms, OR it is due to the long term removal of sand by the normal currents along the coast, but often disturbed by artificial structures like jetties and inlets.  To a considerable degree, what we think of as erosion is a natural inevitable process as ocean currents continue to sculpt shorelines in a very dynamic manner.

The flooding this weekend from Jonas is a powerful reminder how storms, extreme tides, and sea level rise are a swirling dynamic. What we see is the severe flooding. Almost everyone associates the flooding with the record storm. They do not notice how much the subtle planetary-driven tide cycle contributes. It is also easy to overlook how the unstoppable long term rising sea will keep making these events worse and worse.

The sooner we plan and adapt to rising sea level, the better communities will be prepared for these temporary flood events too.  Resiliency planning for higher ocean levels is a good investment for coastal interests everywhere. That’s the business case we make at The Rising Seas Group. Planning ahead for inevitable higher sea level is a good investment. Any sailor knows that you look out to the horizon to know the weather that is headed your way.

We can plan and adapt to much higher sea level that is now on the horizon.  Indeed we must. For example, I like to use a “9-box matrix” which allows different stakeholder groups to look at their own Short-Medium-Long time perspectives, against Low-Moderate-Worst case projections for sea level rise for a particular geographic area. With that and a vulnerability assessment, the next step is to plan adaptation.

Events like Jonas should remind everyone with coastal interests that even modest storm surge can have surprising impact. We are at the early phase of a very long term trend, an ever-rising sea level — something not witnessed in human history.

We can ADAPT. To do that we must PLAN. To do that, we must UNDERSTAND where things are headed.

→ No CommentsTags: catastrophic climate change · climate change · guest post

Porter Ranch should spark end to ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ on methane leakage

January 11th, 2016 · No Comments

The Porter Ranch methane gas leak is emerging from an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ situation to more common knowledge, with growing governmental, media, and social focus on this continuing manmade disaster. Likened increasingly to a land-based version of BP’s Deepwater Horizon, the leak has serious health implications that are leading to 1000s being moved from their homes and looks likely to have, at the end, the equivalent climate impact equivalent of over 10 years of an average coal-fired plant.* This is both a massive and slow-motion disaster: slow-motion in that capping the leak is a difficult and time-consuming engineering challenge with little ability, it seems, to do more than watch the methane leak (with special cameras) and leak and leak for month after month until is finally capped.

There are at least four California Senate bills under consideration that call for moratoriums on new gas injections in this storage area, placing financial responsibility for the disaster on ‘the polluters’, and other measures. (See the material in Senate Porter Ranch Gas Leak Background and Bill Package 010816.)
An old adage is ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.  While wondering what ‘good’ really means, there is no question that this situation merits ‘crisis’ status and one question to ask, therefore, is “what can be done to help in the long term based on learning from and within the political focus on this crisis?”  Within this package of proposals, there seems to be a gap that merits filling that will help in identifying and tackling future methane leaks more rapidly, efficiently, and effectively.
In short, it is well past time to institute  more extensive, continuous (okay, frequent/iterative), public mapping of methane leaks along with the requirement to and resources for rapidly addressing leaks.  With something along those lines, California (and the California Air Resources Board (CARB)) could become leading-edge in the nation as to this underemphasized pollution issue and help drive forward the Administration’s methane leakage efforts.
Methane leakage is far from only a problem at fracking sites or at major storage sites — but is leakage is a problem through the entire cycle from drilling to end user. Many (including this author) were stunned seeing the work of researchers who mapped methane leaks in Boston and Washington, DC.  As one discussion began,
Residents of Washington, DC are used to jokes about metaphorical hot air, humidity, and the swampy history of their city. But there’s something they may not know about the District: it’s overrun with methane, which sometimes makes manhole covers explode.

Natural gas is mostly methane,

Methane leaks mapped as 3,356 spikes along 785 miles of road in Boston. Yellow indicates methane levels above 2.5 parts per million.

Methane leaks mapped as 3,356 spikes along 785 miles of road in Boston. Yellow indicates methane levels above 2.5 parts per million.

and it is carried through underground pipes to heat buildings and cook food. Those pipes are often old, and this led ecologist and chemical engineer Robert Jackson of Duke University to drive around DC over a period of two months, regularly measuring the air to take methane levels.

He and his research team found methane leaks everywhere, with thousands of places having significantly higher than normal methane concentrations, and some places reaching 50 times normal urban levels (100 ppm vs 2 ppm). A similar study in Boston last year found essentially the same results. In DC, the source wasn’t the swamp on which the city was built — it was fossil fuel.

Those leaks — all those yellow spikes — help show the thruthiness lie of ‘natural gas has half the emissions when burned‘ because, well, coal doesn’t disappear in the atmosphere between the mine and burning. That ‘natural gas’ doesn’t look so great in total emissions profile if we take well to flame leakage rates seriously. If leakage rates are high enough, natural gas (methane) could actually be worse than coal because methane has roughly 80 times the climate impact of natural gas over 20 years.
Consider all those yellow spikes. Because costing money, they create risks: risks of explosions, risks to health of those breathing the molecules, and risks through worsened climate change impacts.  All those spikes merit erasing … but can’t be dealt with if they remain out of sight (and thus out of mind).
A robust mapping effort would not have to be expensive and could have significant benefits.  Very simply, California could move to put monitoring devices on public vehicles (school buses, police cars, busses).  It wouldn’t be perfect coverage but would provide rather robust and frequent monitoring.  Of course, the systems wouldn’t have to be limited to only methane.  Note that this has already been done.  Three Google mapping cars were equipped with Aclima monitors to provide air quality data in a test in the Denver area:
Three Street View cars took measurements of nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, particulate matter, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) — air pollutants which can affect human health or climate change. …
Imagine constantly updated, publicly available information about the air quality of your community.  Writ large, from VOCs to CO2 to other pollutants, the pollutants all around us are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.  Data enables decision-making and action.  Visibility fosters support for that action.
California shouldn’t let the Porter Ranch crisis go to waste. There should be round-the-clock efforts to reduce and end the leak as fast as possible. The health and safety risks to individuals and community require continuous monitoring and addressing.  There must be measures to address the very real damages that local residents and communities have occurred. Measures are required for reducing risks into the future. And, measures with broader payoff merit implementing.  California should take a lesson from Porter Ranch and act so that methane leakage is never again ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’.
* Note: The calculation as to climate impact is a back of the envelope effort that merits more detailed analysis.
UPDATE:  Here is a discussion of pollution levels around Porter Ranch which incorporates a visualization like those above.

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