Climate and Energy News Roundup 2/9/2018

Policy and Politics

A new paper, published in Environmental Research Letters, found that if all coal-fired power plants that are planned or under-construction were built and operated for their design lifetimes, while existing coal-fired power plants continued to operate, it would be impossible to hold global warming below 2°C.  After failing to get FERC approval for a plan to bail out some coal-fired power plants, DOE officials are considering having Rick Perry use his authority as energy secretary to grant emergency compensation for plants run by First Energy Solutions that may be at risk of shutting down.  Ted Nordhaus, Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, had an interesting essay in Foreign Affairs arguing that the 2°C goal is a delusion because climate change is not a problem that can be solved, but rather, must be managed.

In a formal comment submitted Wednesday to the docket for the repeal of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), four Democratic senators wrote that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is unfit to oversee the repeal of the CPP because of his history of lawsuits against the plan and the Obama administration when Pruitt was attorney general of Oklahoma.  Hence, he should recuse himself.  On an 11-10 party line vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler’s nomination to be Deputy Administrator of the EPA was sent to the full Senate for a vote.  Over the weekend, the White House withdrew its nomination of Kathleen Hartnett White to head the Council on Environmental Quality.  The compromise federal spending bill that Congress passed early Friday includes an array of tax credits for renewable energy, along with a controversial tax break for carbon-capturing technologies that will benefit the fossil fuel industries.

Ivy Main summarized the recent energy happenings in the Virginia General Assembly (GA).  As of Thursday, the electric utility regulation bill pushed by Dominion Energy was advancing through both chambers of the GA.  Meanwhile, in South Carolina, Dominion Energy was having disagreements with the Public Service Commission and the legislature over its proposed takeover of SCANA and how refunds related to the defunct Summer nuclear power plant should be handled.  The University of Edinburgh announced that it is divesting its £1bn endowment fund of all fossil fuel investments.  Climate change art made the news this week.  An article at CityLab featured the work of Hannah Rothstein, who reimagined seven historic National Park posters, originally designed for the WPA, to show what the parks might look like in 2050 after being damaged by climate change.  In addition, a feature article at Thomas Reuters Foundation News introduced several climate change museums around the world, including one in New York City showing pictures and a film of ice cores.

Climate

According to a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), there may be more than 874,000 tons of mercury buried in the permafrost of the Northern Hemisphere — roughly “twice as much mercury as the rest of all soils, the atmosphere, and ocean combined.”  The danger is that as the permafrost thaws, the mercury could be released and make its way into the food chain.  Another article in the same journal raised another issue to consider as we act against the root causes of climate change.  A significant part of the warming that has occurred since 1970 has been driven by CO2 emissions from new coal-fired power plants in China, India, and other developing countries.  Many of those power plants have no scrubbers on them so they are emitting aerosols, thereby causing severe air pollution in many cities.  Because aerosols block incoming sunlight, they act to cool Earth, counteracting some of the warming associated with the CO2 emissions.  According to the paper in GRL, the removal of the aerosols from the power plant stacks and other sources could induce a global mean surface heating of 0.5–1.1°C, an impact that needs to be considered in planning.

According to an analysis by reporters at The New York Times, 2,500 facilities in the U.S. that handle toxic chemicals are in locations that face a high or moderate risk of flooding.  Those risks are likely to increase as rainfall becomes more intense in a warming world.  A new study published in the journal Climate examined how the risk of flooding will change in Europe due to climate change.  At all levels of warming studied (1.5°C, 2°C, and 3°C), there is a substantial increase in flood risk over most countries in Central and Western Europe, but a smaller increase in Eastern Europe.

A controversy has erupted among marine scientists over the amount of carbon stored as a result of the growth of seagrass meadows (so-called “blue carbon”).  Late last year a team from Fisheries and Oceans Canada published an article in Environmental Research Letters claiming that blue carbon researchers are overestimating how much carbon is being stored in ocean sediments.  Tuesday, a group of Australian scientists published a response in the same journal.  This is an example of how science progresses and ultimately will drive research to the correct assessment.

David Kirtley had an interesting blog post on Skeptical Science about what changed the minds of several climate change skeptics.

Energy

On several occasions I have linked to articles about the debate over whether it is possible to decarbonize the electrical grid by using only renewable energy.  Now David Roberts at Vox has provided a primer on the issues involved in the debate.

Ionic Materials Inc., a battery-material developer, raised $65 million to build a production line and commercialize its technology, which involves a polymer electrolyte material for solid-state alkaline batteries, a concept that will compete with the dominant lithium-ion technology.

On Wednesday, Navigant Research released its latest report, “Offshore Wind Market and Project Assessment 2017”, which analyzed the offshore wind energy market around the globe, and found that 3.3 GW worth of new wind energy capacity was installed in 2017, bringing the global capacity up to almost 17 GW.  The UK accounted for more than half of the installations across Europe.  Vestas Wind Systems will offer combined wind, solar, and storage technologies, allowing the world’s biggest turbine maker to sell hybrid renewable plants that generate electricity around the clock.

On Tuesday, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its 2018 Annual Energy Outlook, which projected that the carbon emissions of the U.S. will barely go down for the foreseeable future and will be slightly higher in 2050 than it is now.  If that occurs, the U.S. would almost single-handedly exhaust the whole world’s carbon budget by midcentury.  In a new climate risk report requested by investors, ExxonMobil said that keeping global warming below 2°C might mean cutting the use of oil by 20% between now and the year 2040, although it insists it would still be able to produce all the oil in its existing fields and keep investing in new reserves.

New research from Applied Economics Clinic, commissioned by Consumers Union, concluded that a greater investment in energy efficiency by Dominion Energy in Virginia would reduce new household energy demand by nearly 60% and help significantly cut the need to build additional capacity, which could save customers up to $1.7 billion over the next decade.

The state of South Australia is continuing its development of energy storage systems with the announcement of a 1350 MWh pumped hydro energy storage plant in addition to Tesla’s recently awarded 675 MWh virtual power plant.  In the UK, a Scottish engineering company has received a grant from the government innovation agency to explore the commercial viability of using abandoned mine shafts for energy storage.  Rather than pumping water, as others have proposed, Edinburgh-based Gravitricity would suspend a huge weight in the mine shaft and raise it when there is excess electricity available, then lower it to generate electricity when needed.

From the end of 2016 to the end of 2017, the U.S. solar industry lost 9,800 jobs, marking the first drop ever recorded in the “National Solar Jobs Census” since it started collecting data in 2010.

Last week, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee unanimously rejected the Northern Pass transmission project, which was to have moved power from Hydro-Quebec dams in Canada to a substation in Deerfield, N.H.  The developers plan to appeal.

These news items have been compiled by Les Grady, member and former chair of the CAAV steering committee. He is a licensed professional engineer (retired) who taught environmental engineering at Purdue and Clemson Universities and engaged in private practice with CH2M Hill, the world’s largest environmental engineering consulting firm. Since his retirement in 2003 he has devoted much of his time to the study of climate science and the question of global warming and makes himself available to speak to groups about this subject. More here.

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