Energy and Global Warming News for September 22: Warmer oceans feed hurricanes; Volt battery trade-in market; Developing nations to get clean-burning stoves

A trade-in market for the Volt battery?

When the Chevy Volt hits dealerships next month, it will have a 16-kilowatt-hour battery that will power the car for 40 miles, General Motors says. Like most rechargeable batteries, the one in the Volt will slowly lose its abiltiy to store energy, though; G.M. will give the battery a warranty for eight years and 100,000 miles, although it says it should last 10 years.

At that point, its storage capacity will be down to roughly 10 kilowatt-hours, according to the company. What happens then?

On Tuesday, G.M. and the ABB Group, the electrical equipment manufacturer, said they were exploring whether worn-out batteries could have an afterlife on the power grid.

That 10 kilowatt-hours is still a lot of energy, after all “” roughly what a single-family house uses in eight or 10 hours. And even if the speed at which the battery can deliver the current declined, it would probably be fast enough for electric utility use. (With car batteries, one of the challenges is to deliver energy fast enough to accelerate a car to highway speeds.)

A market for used batteries potentially could help G.M. sell new Volts, given that the battery pack is not expected to last as long as the rest of the car does and the cost of a replacement pack would be substantial. A buyer might like to know that the old parts would have trade-in value.

How much remains clear. The Volt is supposed to sell for $33,500, after a $7,500 federal tax credit, and a significant part of that cost is the battery. At current prices, buying 16 kilowatt-hours might push the price well into the thousands of dollars….

But what could another company, one that did not particularly care about the weight or size of the pack, do with it?

Bob Fesmire, a spokesman for ABB, said that he would not speculate because that might tip off competitors to his company’s ideas. But the obvious use is to link them to another growing technology, renewable energy from intermittent sources like the wind and sun. Some utilities are already exploring the use of batteries, not so much to store power for when it as needed as simply to slow down the rate at which renewable generation waxes and wanes.

Batteries could also be used for simple storage at a utilty substation or in a house. But batteries store energy as direct current, and household appliances use alternating current, so a device called an inverter would have to sit between the batteries and the grid. A customer who wanted batteries in the basement as a back-up source could buy an inverter, but a customer using solar cells could install batteries more easily, because solar cells already have inverters.

G.M. is collaborating more and more with utilities as it seeks to work out a system so that the power grid can “talk” to the car, charging it up at hours when prices are not at their peak level. But this is its first major collaboration with a company that supplies utility equipment for power production and distribution, Mr. Kelly said.

Warmer seas fueling hurricanes

Streak of four storms in 20 days called unusual.

The four major Atlantic hurricanes that spun toward the Caribbean in the past month were fueled by record warm seas and formed in an unprecedented 20 days. With 10 weeks left in the hurricane season, more may be coming.

The storms that were born off west Africa gathered strength by absorbing the ocean’s heat and swelled into Category 4-level hurricanes on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale. While none hit land at full speed, each packed winds of at least 131 miles an hour, stronger than Katrina’s Category 3 winds when it devastated New Orleans in 2005.

After Igor churned past Bermuda Monday and cut power to two-thirds of the island’s residents, Tropical Storm Lisa formed yesterday in the east Atlantic. While the six-month season is past its statistical peak, forecasters and insurers said warmer seas can lengthen the danger period to property, from beach homes in Florida to rigs and refineries in the oil-rich Gulf of Mexico.

“The hotter the water, the higher the octane level, and there [are] going to be far more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes,’’ said Jim Rouiller, an Air Force meteorologist for 20 years who works for Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pa.

The season may be busy for another month, said Simon Young, chief executive of the insurer Caribbean Risk Managers. “All the ingredients’’ were in place for major hurricanes to form this year, he said.

Developing nations to get clean-burning stoves

WASHINGTON “” Nearly three billion people in the developing world cook their meals on primitive indoor stoves fueled by crop waste, wood, coal and dung. Every year, according to the United Nations, smoke from these stoves kills 1.9 million people, mostly women and children, from lung and heart diseases and low birth weight.

The stoves also contribute to global warming as a result of the millions of tons of soot they spew into the atmosphere and the deforestation caused by cutting down trees to fuel them.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to announce a significant commitment to a group working to address the problem, with a goal of providing 100 million clean-burning stoves to villages in Africa, Asia and South America by 2020. The United States is providing about $50 million in seed money over five years for the project, known as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

More than a dozen other partners, including governments, multilateral organizations and corporate sponsors, are to contribute an additional $10 million or more.

Mrs. Clinton called the problem of indoor pollution from primitive cookstoves a “cross-cutting issue” that affects health, the environment and women’s status in much of the world. “That’s what makes it such a good subject for a coordinated approach of governments, aid organizations and the private sector,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Hot off the press

150-year old flattened flowers tell climate story.

They are dry and brittle now, the showy orchids that Victorian-era flower-lovers plucked from English meadows and carefully pressed onto vellum sheets. But the faded blooms confirm that spring flowers are blooming earlier in the United Kingdom (UK) due to a warming climate, according to a new study.

Field records have long suggested climate change is driving changes in plant “phenology” — the timing of flowering and the budding of leaves. But there are few records that reach far into the past, making it difficult to detect trends. To get a better historical perspective, a team of ecologists from the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens and the universities of East Anglia, Kent, and Sussex looked to old collections of pressed plants kept by major botanic gardens and museums.

In particular, the team reports in the current Journal of Ecology, they examined 77 specimens of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) collected around Britain between 1848 and 1958. Each had details about when and where it was picked, which researchers were able to match with archived weather data. Then, they compared the pressed-flower data with field observations of the same orchid made between from 1975 to 2006 in the Castle Hill National Nature Reserve in East Sussex.

Then and now, spider orchids bloomed when spring temperatures reached a certain threshold, the team reports. And as a result of a warming climate, the orchid has been flowering 6 days earlier for every 1 degree Celsius in mean spring temperature.

The unusual study suggests that pressed plant collections — some of which include specimens collected centuries ago — “may provide valuable additional information for climate-change studies,” says the study’s lead author, PhD student Karen Robbirt of the University of East Anglia. And such “historical ecology” may give scientists “some confidence in our ability to predict the effects of further warming on flowering times.” — David Malakoff

Ontario on front line of climate change

Ontarians got a taste of what climate change is like this summer, and most of us didn’t worry about it, as we enjoyed the hot, sunny days, uninterrupted by rain.

But in my annual report released today, I maintain there are storm clouds gathering on the horizon. Due to our latitude, global warming is occurring faster in Ontario than the global average; while the average temperature around the world went up by 0.75 degrees Celsius in the past century, average temperatures in south-central Canada increased by an average 1.2 degrees Celsius.

Most experts predict this warming will accelerate. And if you take into account the lowlands of Hudson’s Bay, it could speed up even more. There’s a vast expanse of wetland peat in the lowlands, composed of centuries of decayed vegetation. A shift in the water table could release methane and carbon dioxide, both of them greenhouse gases. The province’s Expert Panel on Climate Change Adaption has warned: “Losing that carbon to the atmosphere as GHG’s is a risk of global proportions.”

All of this threatens to dramatically alter the landscape of the province, wiping out familiar plant and animal species, and introducing alien species that have never been seen here before.

The first signs of this change are already literally posted outside Long Point and Rondeau Provincial Parks. They warn campers and visitors about deer ticks, a species of pest Ontarians haven’t had to worry about before, because the ticks couldn’t survive Ontario’s frigid winters. However, warmer winters have brought the deer ticks north, and with them an increase in the incidence of Lyme disease. There were predictions they would spread throughout all of southern Ontario by the end of this decade, but these are already outdated. Deer ticks testing positive for Lyme disease were found in Thunder Bay this summer.

UNEP: Clean energy investments can help meet poverty reduction goals

Investing in clean energy is an essential part of meeting international goals to reduce poverty, according to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report, “A Brief for Policymakers on the Green Economy and the Millennium Development Goals,” released on September 20, asserts that the “green economy” and poverty reduction goals are inextricably intertwined. Focusing on the Millennium Development Goals, which include a goal to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015, the UNEP report contends that a shift to a green economy will not only reduce environmental risks and ecological scarcities, but will also improve human well-being and lessen inequalities. For instance, solar power and efficient lighting can replace oil-based lighting sources, on which the “energy poor” in Africa spend about $17 billion per year.

Solar energy surging in Italy, outpacing U.S.

Italy is in the midst of a solar surge, outpacing the United States and coming in second only to solar powerhouse Germany in the push to install new projects.

The Mediterranean country’s solar boom is likely to continue for the next several years, thanks to recently adopted changes to its feed-in tariff scheme and a new national authorization process for solar projects. In the meantime, the U.S. solar industry says implementing similar policies stateside could propel domestic solar growth, and federal, state and municipal lawmakers are pushing to get such rules on the books.

In the second quarter of 2010, Italy’s solar market grew by 127 percent over the previous quarter, according to research and consulting firm Solarbuzz. That means it is on track to reach its goal of doubling its solar capacity in 2010, aiming for a total installed capacity of about 2,500 megawatts (MW). In the longer term, the country hopes to have 8,000 MW installed by 2020.

“We forecast a sustained growth path, thanks to the stable government support to the development of renewable energies and to the establishment of a solid and highly professional market of solar PV market operators,” David Armanini, managing director of Italian solar developer Prothea, told SolveClimate News in an e-mail. “We are confident that the market will show an annual growth of about 1.5 gigawatts in the next three years.”

High-tech wallpaper cleans the air!

We’ve seen wallpaper that monitors your environment and wallpaper that tells a scientific story, but now there’s even wallpaper that cleans the air! That’s right, Bl¼cher Technologies has come up with a “breathable, glass fiber/polyester nonwoven paper-like covering” with absorbents that capture icky toxins like PCB, PCP, pesticides, and radon. The air purifying wallpaper is a smart way to get around “sick building syndrome” if you’re doing a retrofit of a space that was built in an era where “no-VOC” didn’t mean diddly to anyone.


The key to the wallpaper, which is called Saratech Permasorb is a network of tiny, round black balls that are almost perfectly uniform. These charcoal-like absorbents are small, evenly distributed, and extremely porous, giving them a large internal space to capture and store harmful contaminants. And if you have leftover wallpaper after you’ve covered your walls, you can use the excess to line your shoes and keep bad odors out of them!

Spain’s largest biomass plant gets go-ahead

New ‚¬100m plant set to supply 400,000 people with electricity from wood fuel.

Ambitious plans for Spain’s largest biomass plant have been approved by the Spanish government.

Renewable energy group Ence required governmental permission as the ‚¬100m (£84.4m) plant near the town of Huelva was to be funded using public money specifically set aside for renewable energy projects. Ence has drawn up a shortlist of three companies — Tecnicas Reunidas, OHL and Acciona-Idom — to build the plant, which when completed will increase the firm’s current 68MW facility to 118MW and become Spain’s largest.


The wood fuel for the Huelva plant is likely to come from the company’s 116,000 hectares of sustainably managed forests in Spain, Portugal and Uruguay, although the company said it hoped to decrease its dependence on imported materials. The new plant should supply energy to about 400,000 people as well as going some way to meeting the Andalucian Energy Sustainability Plan’s (SKIP) objective of producing 257MW from biomass by 2013.

Renewable energy as a whole met just under 13 per cent of all demand in Spain last year and the country has been expanding its investment to increase this to 22.7 per cent by 2020, as the government announced in March. It is already home to the world’s largest solar power station, which opened in July and has also been traditionally strong in producing wind energy, but biomass still lags some way behind.

In total, biomass accounted for just 1.3 per cent of energy production in 2009, compared to 12.5 per cent for wind power.