18 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for May 27: Greenland’s uplift is evidence of rapid ice loss; Nation’s largest concentrated PV project opens; Western U.S. grid can handle more renewables
Scientists at the University of Miami say Greenland’s ice is melting so quickly that the land underneath is rising at an accelerated pace.
According to the study, some coastal areas are going up by nearly one inch per year and if current trends continue, that number could accelerate to as much as two inches per year by 2025, explains Tim Dixon, professor of geophysics at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) and principal investigator of the study.
“It’s been known for several years that climate change is contributing to the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet,” Dixon says. “What’s surprising, and a bit worrisome, is that the ice is melting so fast that we can actually see the land uplift in response,” he says. “Even more surprising, the rise seems to be accelerating, implying that melting is accelerating.”
The research was published in Nature Geoscience. The idea behind the study is that if Greenland is losing its ice cover, the resulting loss of weight causes the rocky surface beneath to rise. The same process is affecting the islands of Iceland and Svalbard, which also have ice caps, explains Shimon Wdowinski, research associate professor in the University of Miami RSMAS, and co-author of the study.
“During ice ages and in times of ice accumulation, the ice suppresses the land,” Wdowinski says. “When the ice melts, the land rebounds upwards,” he says. “Our study is consistent with a number of global warming indicators, confirming that ice melt and sea level rise are real and becoming significant.”
Using specialized global positioning system (GPS) receivers stationed on the rocky shores of Greenland, the scientists looked at data from 1995 onward. The raw GPS data were analyzed for high accuracy position information, as well as the vertical velocity and acceleration of each GPS site.
The measurements are restricted to places where rock is exposed, limiting the study to coastal areas. However, previous data indicate that ice in Greenland’s interior is in approximate balance: yearly losses from ice melting and flowing toward the coast are balanced by new snow accumulation, which gradually turns to ice. Most ice loss occurs at the warmer coast, by melting and iceberg calving and where the GPS data are most sensitive to changes. In western Greenland, the uplift seems to have started in the late 1990’s.
Melting of Greenland’s ice contributes to global sea level rise. If the acceleration of uplift and the implied acceleration of melting continue, Greenland could soon become the largest contributor to global sea level rise, explains Yan Jiang, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Miami RSMAS and co-author of the study.
“Greenland’s ice melt is very important because it has a big impact on global sea level rise,” Jiang says. “We hope that our work reaches the general public and that this information is considered by policy makers.”
A solar technology that leads the pack in hot, sunny climates scored a victory this week with the official launch of a concentrator photovoltaic (CPV) system in Victorville, Calif., that officials claim is North America’s largest facility of its type.
The project brings 1 megawatt of electric capacity online at Victor Valley College, a small school near Los Angeles, and consists of 122 arrays made by Mountain View, Calif.-based SolFocus Inc.
The installation, dubbed a “micro-generating facility,” is connected to the local electric grid and will produce about 30 percent of the electricity used by the college in a year, officials said.
“In addition to providing energy cost savings and a new revenue stream, these 122 arrays will provide the ideal testing ground for our students to build green careers that support the nation’s new energy economy,” said Victor Valley College President Christopher O’Hearn at a launch event. School officials plan to develop curricula on system installation, operations and maintenance around the facility.
The school did not disclose the system’s cost or expected payback time, but they said it uses one-thousandth as much of the expensive solar photovoltaic material as is in traditional cells. The cost of CPV is typically raised by other elements of the systems, such as moving parts that track the sun across the sky, however.
CPV technology is similar to the photovoltaics found on many rooftops but is far more efficient thanks to reflective optical elements that concentrate sunlight onto high-power solar cells. SolFocus claims its cells are more than twice as efficient as traditional silicon solar cells.
The technology works especially well in very sunny regions since, unlike some other photovoltaics, it does not produce energy well with the diffuse light available on cloudy days. It is also more effective than other photovoltaics when temperatures are high, according to the CPV Consortium, a global industry group.
The technology is often confused with concentrating solar power, or CSP, that group said. CSP is also used for large-scale installations but uses the sun’s heat rather than converting it directly to electricity. CSP installations concentrate the sun’s rays onto collectors that heat up a medium, often molten salt, which is then used to produce steam that turns a turbine.
More than a third of the electricity in the western United States could come from wind and solar power without installing significant amounts of backup power. And most of this expansion of renewable energy could be done without installing new interstate transmission lines, according to a new study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, CO. But the study says increasing the amount of renewables on the grid will require smart planning and cooperation between utilities.
The NREL findings provide a strong counterargument to the idea that the existing power grid is insufficient to handle increasing amounts of renewable power. As California and other states require utilities to use renewable sources for significant fractions of their electricity, some experts have warned that measures to account for the variability of wind and solar power could be costly. At the extreme, they speculated, every megawatt of wind installed could require a megawatt of readily available conventional power in case the wind stopped blowing. But the NREL findings, like other recent studies, suggest that the costs could be minimal, especially in the West.
“It’s a lot lower than what people thought it was going to be,” says Daniel Brooks, project manager for power delivery and utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute. Even if wind farms had to pay for the necessary grid upgrades and backup power themselves, they could still sell electricity at competitive rates, he says.
NREL considered a scenario in which 30 percent of the total electricity produced in a year in western states comes from wind turbines and 5 percent comes from solar power–mostly from solar thermal plants that generate power by concentrating sunlight to produce high temperatures and steam. The researchers assumed the solar thermal plants would have some form of heat storage, although not all planned plants do. The study used detailed data about wind speeds, solar irradiance, and the operation of the electrical grid. GE Energy researchers commissioned by NREL then used the data to simulate the impact of various scenarios for wind and solar power use.
The researchers found that one way to keep the number of new backup power plants to a minimum is to expand the geographical area that renewable energy is gathered from, says Debra Lew, the NREL project manager in charge of the study. If utilities can call on wind farms and solar power from several states, rather than just from the local area, a drop in wind in one area is likely to be offset by an increase in wind elsewhere, and solar panels shaded by clouds in one area will be offset by others in sunny areas.
That makes it far less necessary to have conventional power plants standing by to make up for drops in power. The NREL study estimated that drawing only on local resources would increase variability on the grid by a factor of 50. That’s “a huge increase,” Lew says, too big for a local utility to balance using backup power and other resources. If you aggregate resources over several states, the increase is less than a factor of two.
Nissan’s chief executive, Carlos Ghosn, said Tuesday that the company had already received 19,000 orders in the United States and Japan for the electric car that it would start selling at year-end.
More than six months before the car, the Nissan Leaf, arrives at dealerships, the preorders mean that the car is sold out for this year and that the company might stop taking reservations, Mr. Ghosn said during a visit to the Detroit Economic Club.
“The preorders are such that we are very comfortable with what we have undertaken,” Mr. Ghosn said after the speech. “The more we advance into it, the more comfortable we are with it.”
Nissan plans to break ground Wednesday in Smyrna, Tenn., for a plant to build batteries for the Leaf and eventually other models, part of its goal to sell at least 500,000 electric cars worldwide starting in 2013. The first Leafs will be made in Japan, with assembly in Tennessee planned to start in 2012.
Mr. Ghosn’s enthusiasm for electric vehicles contrasts with some recent studies and with comments from other automakers, including Honda, suggesting that pure electric vehicles have little short-term potential.
General Motors is scheduled to begin selling a battery-powered plug-in car, the Chevrolet Volt, later this year, but the Volt also has a small gasoline engine so that drivers can go beyond the battery’s expected range of 40 miles a charge.
Mr. Ghosn said he did not want the Leaf, whose expected range is 100 miles on a full charge, to have a range-extending engine, a feature that G.M. has said would assuage drivers’ worries about being stranded with a dead battery with no fast or easy way to recharge.
“We wanted to do a zero-emission vehicle,” Mr. Ghosn said. “I don’t want gasoline in the car, period.”
Nissan has given the Leaf a starting price of $32,780, minus a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Volt, whose price has not been disclosed, is expected to sell for close to $40,000 before the tax credit.
Among the other electric vehicles planned for sale in the United States within several years are a battery-powered version of Ford’s compact car, the Focus, and the Tesla Model S sedan, which will be built in California as part of a new partnership with Toyota announced last week.
The preorders for the Leaf include 13,000 in the United States, where dealers take a $99 deposit, and 6,000 in Japan.
Mr. Ghosn said sales in the United States would be concentrated in areas where there was sufficient means to support electric vehicles, like cities in California and other states that are installing charging stations.
President Barack Obama said the “heartbreaking” oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which has fouled wetlands and closed fishing grounds, underscores the need for the U.S. to rapidly develop alternative energy sources.
The Earth can’t sustain continued dependence on fossil fuels and the U.S. is in a race with other nations to find renewable sources to power cars and companies, the president said after touring the Solyndra Inc. solar-panel manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.
“Even as we are dealing with this immediate crisis,” he said of the BP Plc spill, the U.S. is in competition with countries including Germany and China to develop advanced energy technology.
“Nobody is playing for second place,” Obama said.
He vowed to keep pressing Congress to pass energy legislation that would spur alternative energy development and lessen consumption of oil, most of which the U.S. imports.
Obama was in Fremont to highlight the efforts his administration already is undertaking to both revive economic growth and encourage new energy technology.
Solyndra received $535 million in loan guarantees under last year’s economic stimulus. According to the company, construction of the new solar panel plant will create as many as 3,000 jobs and lead to as many as 1,000 full-time jobs.
Leak as Backdrop
The leaking BP well, which the London-based company was attempting to plug today, served as the backdrop for his remarks.
Obama said he spoke earlier today with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about BP’s work to seal the well, which is about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) underwater, and cut off the gushing oil.
“If it’s successful, and there’s no guarantees, it should greatly reduce or eliminate the flow of oil,” Obama said. “If it’s not, there are other approaches that may be viable.”
Obama is set to get a report tomorrow from his interior secretary, Ken Salazar, about the cause of the April 20 explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that resulted in the leak. He’s scheduled to visit the gulf coast May 28.
“Our dependence on foreign oil endangers our security and our economy,” Obama said. “The spill in the gulf, which is just heartbreaking, only underscores the necessity of seeking alternative fuel sources.”
The good news for your energy bill may be bad news for Iowa’s wind energy.
Thanks to a drilling boom in new fields extending from Texas to New York, natural gas has become as an environmentally friendly competitor to wind. Big new discoveries in shale deposits have brought down the price of natural gas by 60 percent from two years ago.
Michael O’Sullivan of NextEra Energy, Iowa’s second-largest producer of wind power, told the
American Wind Energy Association meeting in Dallas this week: “Our product is too expensive relative to other options. Our competitive advantage has largely evaporated.”
The sudden rise of natural gas is credited with throwing wind energy into another of its periodic slowdowns. Iowa, with 2,300 megawatts of wind electricity generation, trails only Texas among the 50 states in wind capacity.
Iowa is seeing the herky-jerky path of wind. The state has gained about 2,300 jobs making towers, turbines, blades and gearboxes at plants in Cedar Rapids, Fort Madison, Newton and West Branch.
TPI Composites recently announced a 237-worker layoff at its Newton blade plant, but at the same time asked the state for assistance to build a blade plant at Sioux City that would employ up to 500 workers, if it is built. Clipper Windpower in Cedar Rapids laid off workers a year ago, but now has stabilized its employment at about 320 workers.
The news for Iowa in the natural gas boom isn’t all bad. At least homeowners are less likely to face
budget-busting winter heating bills if the price of natural gas stays around $4 per thousand cubic feet, down from more than $10 two years ago.
An environmental group says North Carolina could generate at least 28,000 jobs in the solar energy field if it shifts electricity production more from traditional sources to solar energy in the next 20 years.
The research arm of Environment North Carolina released a report on Wednesday and held a news conference outside the Legislative Building. The report based findings on raising the percentage of power that comes from solar sources to 14 percent of the state’s electricity consumption by 2030. Current law requires less than 1 percent of electric power to originate from the sun by 2018.
Report co-author Elizabeth Ouzts said lawmakers could help the state encourage solar power by approving a tax break to those who build plants for renewable energy manufacturing.