Climate and Energy News Roundup 7/13/2018

Policy and Politics

On Monday, President Trump nominated Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to fill the vacancy created on the U.S. Supreme Court by the resignation of Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Writing in The New York Times, Brad Plumer evaluated what his impact on environmental law is likely to be should he be confirmed.  Likewise, Robinson Meyer wrote in The Atlantic about Kavanaugh’s environmental opinions while serving as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has served since 2006.  Also on Monday the EPA sent its proposed replacement for the Clean Power Plan to the White House for review.  Amanda Paulson and Mark Trumbull of The Christian Science Monitor speculated about why it did so in the context of changes that have been occurring at the Agency.

California law requires that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions return to 1990 levels by 2020.  The California Air Resources Board announced that the goal has already been met; in 2016, in fact.  A centrist Democratic group, New Democracy, says the party’s climate and energy strategy should offer a vision that embraces the nation’s fracking boom alongside renewables and efficiency.  Meanwhile, the latest iteration of the twice-yearly survey conducted by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College has found that 73% of people in the U.S. now think there is solid evidence of global warming and 60% believe that the warming is due, at least in part, to human influences.  Exxon Mobil said on Thursday it has ended its association with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has written an expert court report that forcefully supports a group of children and young adults who have sued the federal government for failing to act on climate change.

Bryce Oates had a very interesting essay in Civil Eats entitled “In Farm Country, Grappling with the Taboo of Talking about Climate Change.”  I highly recommend it because it provides information that may lead to a better understanding among nonfarmers of some in the farm community.  Another interesting essay appeared in Nautilus.  It was written by Mark L. Hineline and is entitled “Is Fixing the Climate Incompatible with American Ideals.”  On the subject of essays, former BP CEO John Browne made the case in Bloomberg Opinion for why the big oil and gas companies have a role to play in the energy revolution.  Dana Nuccitelli addressed the impact of climate change alarmists in contrast to climate change deniers.  Finally, World Resources Institute’s Liz Goodwin wondered if people will wake up to food waste in the same way they have waked up to plastic waste.

Climate

Scientists are finding that temperature affects the adult size of a variety of species, with higher temperatures being associated with smaller body size.  Although the exact consequences are unknown, it is possible smaller body sizes could have a number of impacts on species fitness, with a cascading effect through various trophic levels.  In addition, a study of sea birds revealed that the nutritional value of their prey, fish and squid, deteriorated during ocean warming events.  These are just two examples of the potential impacts of a warmer planet.  Another example of the complex interactions in nature that can be changed by increasing CO2 levels was revealed by a new paper in the journal Ecology Letters.  The authors studied the impact of rising CO2 on milkweed, the plant required for Monarch butterflies to reproduce, and found that beneficial chemicals produced by the milkweed decrease as CO2 increases, making the Monarchs more susceptible to an important parasite.

Nights have been warming faster than days.  Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich explained at The New York Times why that’s dangerous.  It particularly doesn’t bode well for those without air conditioning.  A new study published in PLOS Medicine found that during a heat spell, college students living in dorms without air conditioning scored between 4% and 13% lower than students in air conditioned dorms when tested on their response times and mental arithmetic shortly after waking up.  A new study, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, illustrates another way to document changes in climate over time.  The authors selected 46 trees shown in television footage of the Tour of Flanders bicycle race in Belgium from 1981 to 2016.  The footage clearly showed that the trees budded and bloomed earlier each year over the period covered.

As Earth warms, it is important for people working outdoors to be mindful of the heat index, which combines temperature and humidity, to avoid heat stress.  A recent study revealed that severe heat stress, including death, can occur at a heat index of just 85°F, even though U.S. occupational safety standards warn that workers are at risk when the heat index reaches 91°F.

A new study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, CO2 from microbial decomposition of soil organic matter is escaping into the air faster than plants are taking it back up.  Put another way, the soil microbes appear to be more temperature sensitive than the shrubs, suggesting that as Earth warms, the Arctic tundra will become a net contributor of atmospheric CO2, rather than a net sink.  Another paper, this one in the journal Nature Geoscience, examined the impact of melting permafrost.  The findings suggest that because of emissions of methane and CO2 from wetlands and melting permafrost, human-caused emissions will need to be cut by an additional 20% to meet the Paris Agreement’s limits of 1.5°C or 2°C temperature rise.

In the first of three articles in The New York Times’ Climate Fwd newsletter, Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote about the youth soccer players trapped in the cave in Thailand: “By now, it’s well known that their predicament was caused by rising floodwaters in the cave. What is less known is that the pattern of precipitation that ensnared them is in keeping with broader changes to the region’s seasonal monsoon that researchers have attributed to climate change.”

Energy

I’d like to start the Energy section this week with a gee-whiz article about a long shot energy technology that could provide an inexhaustible carbon-free power source.  The renewable fuel is ammonia (NH3) (yes, the fertilizer and cleaning agent) and the route to an “ammonia economy” is described well by Robert Service in this article from Science.  While full development has some ways to go, ideas like this are what give me hope for the future.

According to data released on Tuesday by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, wind, solar, hydropower, and biogas met 36.3% of Germany’s electricity needs between January and June 2018, while coal provided just 35.1%, the first time this has occurred for such an extended period.  Here is an interesting idea from the UK: Use social media to turn energy conservation into a game and rewarding people monetarily for high achievement.

Pumped storage is a concept that has been around for a long time and has been used extensively at nuclear power plants to store excess energy at night when demand was low.  Now it is getting a second look as a means for storing solar and wind energy.  NPR’s Dan Charles recently visited the Bath County Pumped Storage Station owned by Dominion Energy in the Appalachian Mountains.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in early July examined the nuclear power industry in the U.S. and concluded: “Achieving deep decarbonization of the energy system will require a portfolio of every available technology and strategy we can muster. It should be a source of profound concern for all who care about climate change that, for entirely predictable and resolvable reasons, the United States appears set to virtually lose nuclear power, and thus a wedge of reliable and low-carbon energy, over the next few decades.”  Likewise, according to the UK’s first “National Infrastructure Assessment”, published Tuesday by the National Infrastructure Commission, renewables can generate half of Britain’s power by 2030 without adding to consumer bills, potentially crowding out nuclear as a significant low carbon source of electricity.  Furthermore, the report concluded that the country can have low-carbon electricity, heat, and transport in 2050 at the same cost as today’s high-carbon energy system.

According to an in-depth article by Saqib Rahim at E&E News, the Trump administration has been very accepting of off-shore wind energy, leading him to speculate that by 2021 the U.S.’s first utility-scale off-shore wind project could be operational.  The question is, though, who will develop it, U.S. or European companies.  The latter have a lot more experience and see the U.S. East Coast as a new frontier after years of success across the Atlantic.

The average U.S. retail price of electricity is about 10.4¢/kWh.  Research from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory examined the cost performance of utility energy efficiency programs, utilizing data from almost 8,800 programs across 41 states between 2009 and 2015.  They concluded that the average cost of saving electricity through efficiency programs was 2.5¢/kWh.

Investments in clean energy in India rose 22% in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period last year, while investments by China fell by 15%, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  At this rate, India is expected to overtake China and become the largest growth market by the late 2020s.  Nevertheless, it should be noted that absolute investment by China was much higher in the first half of 2018 at $58.1 billion, compared to India’s $7.4 billion.  In addition, globally, clean energy investment dropped 1% and totaled $138.2 billion in the first half of 2018.

Energy items of particular interest to Virginia readers:

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has accused the builder of the Mountain Valley Pipeline of environmental violations punishable by fines and repair mandates, saying the company’s failure to install and maintain erosion-control devices has fouled 8,800 feet of streams in six locations.  On the subject of gas pipelines, Columbia Gas Transmission has told federal pipeline regulators that a landslide was the apparent cause of the rupture and explosion of a new natural gas pipeline in Marshall County, WV, last month.

Augusta County Public Schools in Virginia has reached an agreement with Secure Futures Solar of Staunton to install 1.8 MW of solar panels on seven schools.  The panels will be owned by Secure Futures Solar and installed at no upfront cost.  The school district will buy the electricity generated under a power purchase agreement.  The “Solar Barn Raising” at Gift and Thrift in Harrisonburg, VA, got a nice shout-out on the Energy News Network.

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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