"Energy and Global Warming News for March 8: Florida utility plans gas-solar hybrid power plant; Conserving moorlands can slow down climate change"
INDIANTOWN, Fla. “” In former swamplands teeming with otters and wild hogs, one of the nation’s biggest utilities is running an experiment in the future of renewable power.
Across 500 acres north of West Palm Beach, the FPL Group utility is assembling a life-size Erector Set of 190,000 shimmering mirrors and thousands of steel pylons that stretch as far as the eye can see. When it is completed by the end of the year, this vast project will be the world’s second-largest solar plant.
But that is not its real novelty. The solar array is being grafted onto the back of the nation’s largest fossil-fuel power plant, fired by natural gas. It is an experiment in whether conventional power generation can be married with renewable power in a way that lowers costs and spares the environment.
This project is among a handful of innovative hybrid designs meant to use the sun’s power as an adjunct to coal or gas in producing electricity. While other solar projects already use small gas-fired turbines to provide backup power for cloudy days or at night, this is the first time that a conventional plant is being retrofitted with the latest solar technology on such an industrial scale.
The project’s advantages are obvious: electricity generated from the sun will allow FPL to cut natural gas use and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It will provide extra power when it is most needed: when the summer sun is shining, Floridians are cranking up their air-conditioning and electricity demand is at its highest.
For a detailed discussion of these hybrids, see this August 2009 post that I asked energy and financial expert Craig Severance to write: The dynamic duo: Hybrid solar/gas plants provide low-cost, low-carbon power when needed
As the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2009 report indicates, climate-related impacts are already evident and expected to increase. Signs of change abound. Sea level rise. Longer growing seasons. Increases in heavy downpours. Droughts. Extended ice-free seasons and more.
Individuals, decision makers and government officials are asking how they can best prepare their families, businesses and communities for the impacts of climate change. They worry about managing flood risks, planting the right crops, allocating water and making smart business decisions. In just about every sector the need for data and other climate information to support vital decisions is on a fast track, from requests to inform local planning policies, to regional and national questions about energy and food security, to worldwide concerns about diminishing water resources. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is the nation’s primary source of data and research on the oceans and atmosphere, and demands on the agency to provide trusted, timely and accessible information are growing quickly.
Yet NOAA’s and the nation’s climate-related information resources are not organized to meet the growing demand. To remain relevant and responsive, NOAA must adapt.
Recognizing the urgency of climate-related information needs, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and I have announced the intent to establish the NOAA Climate Service. This new entity would bring together long-standing NOAA capabilities into a single office. NOAA already responds to millions of annual requests for climate information through Nobel Peace Prize-winning researchers and assessments, observations, predictions, training and critical on-the-ground service delivery. With one highly visible, responsive point of entry to climate science and services, NOAA will be better prepared to continue its internationally recognized role in the development and delivery of climate science, tools, products and information.
Scientists have stressed that conserving and restoring the moorlands is important because they are some of the rarest habitats in the world, home to extremely rare animals and plants, and can also slow down climate change. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s heather moorlands are in the UK. However, pollution, overgrazing and wild fires have damaged large areas.
Several organisations in the Peak District National Park in England are trying to restore and conserve the moorland habitat.
Moorlands in good condition act as a valuable carbon sink that absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases, thereby slowing climate change.
The Peak District Moorlands currently stores between 16 and 20 million tonnes of carbon; and together with the rest of the UK’s peat lands are the single largest carbon reserve in the UK-storing the equivalent of 20 years of UK carbon dioxide emissions.
For more background, see “For peat’s sake: A point of no return as alarming as the tundra feedback.”
In Washington last week, the Obama administration abandoned the long-running plan to bury nuclear waste below Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, another potential barrier to new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Big questions loom about the viability of electric cars and of futuristic power plants that would shoot their greenhouse-gas emissions underground instead of skyward. And concerns about unintended environmental consequences are thwarting plans for wind and solar farms from Wyoming to the Mojave Desert.
Don’t expect clarity from the government, the financial world or even the scientific lab, said the chief executives and entrepreneurs who gathered last week at ECO:nomics, The Wall Street Journal’s third annual conference on the business of the environment. But, they advised each other, don’t dally in trying to dominate the new energy market, because the spoils will go to those who exploit the uncertainty the best.
When the Journal held the first ECO:nomics conference, in March 2008, things seemed clearer. Oil prices were high, investors were showering money on renewable-energy developers, and federal lawmakers were pushing to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently had won the Nobel Peace Prize for a report concluding that global warming was “unequivocal” and was “very likely” caused by human activity, so the debate over climate science appeared largely done.
All that has changed. Oil prices, though rising again, are just above half their mid-2008 highs. Tough economic times are pinching clean-energy investment and prompting new opposition to a mandatory carbon cap. And the IPCC has said it will appoint an independent committee to investigate questions raised recently about its widely watched climate-science reports
“It’s frustrating, but scientists are human beings,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said at the conference. Society has produced “a greenhouse-gas layer that is absolutely, positively due to humans,” he said, but the precise impacts remain unclear. “The uncertainties are quite large.
The three senators writing compromise climate legislation are lobbying business groups in hopes of winning their support for the effort. One obstacle: the absence of an actual bill.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) briefed a group of electric utility executives this week on a broad outline of the plan. Kerry and his cohorts, Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have also reached out to Tom Donohue, the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who has been among the harshest critics of a climate bill stalled in the Senate.
Kerry, Graham and Lieberman have worked for weeks to break the impasse and craft a measure to reduce heat-trapping gases that could win centrist support. A key to their effort will be reducing the level of angst among business, given high unemployment levels and the effects that capping carbon dioxide could have on the economy. Supporters say climate legislation could create jobs by spurring growth of a clean energy industry in the United States.
China may kick off its first citywide carbon cap-and-trade system by June to help rein in its emissions, according to an adviser on the program.
Tianjin, a northeastern port city, plans to impose a mandatory limit on energy used to heat buildings in the first half of this year, John Shi, CEO of the carbon credit trader Arreon Carbon UK Ltd., said in an interview. Under the scheme, property managers who use energy below the limit will earn credits they can then sell, he said.
Two companies — Citigroup Inc. and OAO Gazprom — have already purchased allowances in the Chinese program.
The Tianjin effort will help the country move toward meeting its pledge of reducing its carbon dioxide output per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.
The city’s program, China’s first market-based carbon trading plan, was established by Arreon and the Tianjin Climate Exchange. Beijing and Shanghai are also working on establishing carbon trading programs and are competing with Tianjin to develop emissions trading systems for the nation, Shi said.
Shi’s company has also been approached by local government officials from the provinces of Inner Mongolia and Jiangsu and the cities of Dalian and Foshan for help in raising energy efficiency and reducing emissions, he said.
“On the one hand, Tianjin needs to develop very quickly,” said Mu Lingling, deputy general manager of the Tianjin Climate Exchange. “On the other hand, it has to provide environmental protection.” The emissions trading program can help the nation achieve both targets, Mu said (Bloomberg, March 5).
With access to solar-powered energy products for Cambodia’s rural poor extremely limited, the solar energy company Kamworks and the Cambodia Mutual Savings and Credit Network are partnering to provide low-interest loans to customers hoping to outfit their homes with solar panels, while Kamworks will provide and install the equipment.
Directors at the two companies said the scheme “” the first of its kind in Cambodia “” will help the country’s rural poor gain access to renewable energy.
“You have to say the investment for solar-powered technology is higher initially than fossil fuels,” said Jeroen Verschelling, a director at Kamworks. “Even though there is a payback time of less than one year, people still find it very hard to make the investment.”
Mr Verschelling said all the equipment Kamworks produces will have to be of the highest quality as “the moment it stops working the client will stop paying” back the loan and the foundations of the entire partnership will come undone.
Buyers interested in equipping their homes with solar technologies will first pay a visit to Cambodia Mutual Savings, which will share retail space with Kamworks at a building in Cambodia’s Kandal province, to take out a loan ranging from $25 to $599, depending on the product. A visit to Kamworks would complete the purchase.
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Three manufacturers of solar panels led a top-10 ranking of U.S. clean technology startups compiled by the research firm Dow Jones VentureSource.
Solyndra Inc. of Fremont, Calif.; Suniva Inc. of Norcross, Ga.; and eSolar Inc. of Pasadena, Calif., were at the top of the first-ever “companies to watch” list released yesterday at a conference here sponsored by the Wall Street Journal, which like the research firm is owned by Dow Jones & Co.
Alan Murray, a deputy managing editor at the Journal, said inclusion on the list by no means guarantees commercial success. “But we do think there’s a good chance that one of these promising companies will be the next big thing in clean technology,” he said.
Dow Jones VentureSource looked at 350 venture-backed businesses valued at less than $1 billion in putting together the list. The firm assessed a given company’s founders and management, track records of investors on respective boards, the amount of capital raised over the last three years, and the percentage change in valuation for the year that ended on Nov. 30.
The ranked list:
- Solyndra Inc., Fremont, Calif.
- Suniva Inc., Norcross, Ga.
- eSolar Inc., Pasadena, Calif.
- RecycleBank LLC, Philadelphia
- Boston-Power, Westborough, Mass.
- Fisker Automotive Inc., Irvine, Calif.
- eMeter Inc., Sun Mateo, Calif.
- Serious Materials Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.
- Silver Spring Networks Inc., Redwood City, Calif.
- Tesla Motors Inc., San Carlos, Calif.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has challenged climate skeptics to use “real data and make their analysis transparent” when denouncing the science of global warming.
Addressing recent revelations that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report contained at least two errors, Chu said he believes those mistakes don’t negate “the huge amount of data” that supports the notion that human activities are a major cause of climate change. Nor, he said, have they affected his faith in the IPCC.
“There are times in science when some groups do things that are sloppy,” Chu told E&E Friday at a conference in Santa Barbara, Calif., organized by The Wall Street Journal. “It’s frustrating, but scientists are human beings.”
The best defense against such errors, he said, is peer review, including the IPCC’s recently announced plan for an outside review of its 2007 report.
“Scientists love to scrutinize each other,” Chu said, describing peer review as “a feedback mechanism that says ‘If you’re wrong, I’m going to get you.’”
Chu’s comments come as many prominent climate scientists find themselves defending the broad conclusions and purpose of the IPCC and re-examining how they communicate climate science to the public.
Some have taken aim at media coverage of the IPCC errors and e-mails that were apparently stolen last fall from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit.
“The media has certainly portrayed the University of East Anglia situation as a crisis,” Bob Watson, a former IPCC chairman who is now the chief scientist for the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told a House of Commons committee last week. “In my opinion, there is absolutely no adverse effect on any of the conclusions of the IPCC.”
Others say fending off skeptics’ criticism is now a part of doing climate science, for better or worse.
“We all get hate e-mail,” Richard Somerville, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told reporters last week. “But I think that that just comes with the territory now. There is an ugly side to it, but I don’t overrate it, and I don’t think it’s a major concern at all.”
Tim Reeder, a scientist with the U.K. Environment Agency, said he was “surprised at how quickly public opinion seems to have moved” on climate in recent months.
“We were running up to Copenhagen with people on board, and then, for whatever reason — the e-mail, ‘Climategate’ issue came up with the University of East Anglia, and then we had IPCC issues with the Himalayans melting — I think that tied in also with the cold weather,” Reeder said. “And reaction perhaps to events at Copenhagen. I think it’s very unfortunate, and I’m surprised how quickly opinion seems to have moved.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) unveiled the latest stage of a sweeping effort to green the Capitol last week, when his office became the first to install new lighting and water fixtures designed to dramatically slash energy use in House offices.
His office is the first to undergo the efficiency upgrades, which will eventually cut energy use by 23 percent and water use by 32 percent throughout all House office buildings.
“There are very concrete things we can do that are meaningful and beneficial to all of us that don’t require us to have debates that are unresolvable about the esoteric things that we sometimes discuss around here,” Welch said of the effort.
The 30-month project will eventually replace 3,000 light fixtures, install low-flow bathroom fixtures and upgrade heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems in all House office buildings.
Capitol officials hope to reduce energy consumption by 23 percent and water consumption by 32 percent and achieve $3.3 million in energy savings “” equivalent to taking nearly 1,700 cars off the road or planting 2,600 trees.
“These very historic but older buildings are not that efficient from an energy standpoint,” said Bob Lane, executive director of the Chief Administrative Officer’s Green the Capitol initiative. “We are now going to be at a new plateau. We’ll never return to the old days.”
The private sector is covering the upfront costs for the renovations. Energy service company NORESCO laid out $34 million for infrastructure upgrades in the Rayburn, Longworth, Cannon and Ford House Office buildings and the House page dormitory.
With a single, concerted initiative, says Lakshman Guruswami, the world could save millions of people in poor nations from respiratory ailments and early death, while dealing a big blow to global warming “” and all at a surprisingly small cost.
“If we could supply cheap, clean-burning cook stoves to the large portion of the world that burns biomass,” says Guruswami, a Sri Lankan-born professor of international law at the University of Colorado, “we could address a significant international public health problem, and at the same stroke cut a major source of warming.”
Sooty, indoor air pollution from open wood or other biomass fires has long been linked to health problems and deaths. More recently, scientists have been surprised to learn that black carbon “” not only from biomass fires but from dirty diesel engines and other sources “” is a far larger contributor to global warming than previously suspected: The dark particles absorb and retain heat close to the Earth’s surface that might otherwise be reflected.
Primitive stoves and open fires pose serious health risks, particularly among women and children.Some two billion people around the world, Guruswami notes, do most or all of their cooking and heating with fires from simple biomass “” dried dung, wood, brush, or crop residues. In India alone, the ratio is much higher “” about three-fourths.
“Think about that,” says Guruswami, who directs his university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Security. “Two billion people, one-third of the people on Earth, are caught in a time warp, with no access to modern energy. They got energy from Prometheus a long time ago, and that was it.”