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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Recent Carbon Market News

A couple of carbon market-related news items caught my eye recently.  While not an exhaustive list, these items are important to discuss:
EU Cancels Carbon Auction, Prices Drop
RGGI Nets $106 Million For Clean Energy, May Hit $2 Billion By 2020

The EU auction failed because bids didn’t reach a secret reserve price.  “In the past five years, carbon prices on the ETS have plummeted nearly 90 percent.”  The core problem with the ETS is oversupply of credits.  The article points out possible solutions: backloading or long-term structural change.  I’m not an expert on carbon markets, but my understanding leads me to support the long-term structural change course.  The ETS tried to please too many vested interests simultaneously (too complex) and resulted in pleasing too few while not achieving its core objective of emissions reductions resulting from a market signal.

On the other hand, The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative had its successful 19th auction of CO2 allowances earlier this month.  I wouldn’t characterize it as bad news, but the clearing price of $2.80 per ton, above the reserve price of $1.98 per ton, is too low to directly impact CO2 emissions; it is also lower than the price in Europe and California.  Utilities in the region are switching to cheaper fuel sources because they’re cheaper, not because they emit fewer CO2 emissions.  According to the article, a significant portion (63%) of the $105.9 million in this quarter’s revenue and the $617 million in historical revenue are earmarked for clean energy technologies like energy efficiency, renewables, and climate change adaptation across RGGI’s nine Northeast US member states.  I would certainly like to read a more in-depth analysis of this claim.  Where specifically have the investments gone and what are the results to date?

The RGGI realizes their reserve and clearing price are too low:

Just over a month ago, the RGGI states decided to reduce the 2014 CO2 budget (the “cap” in cap-and-trade) from 165 million to 91 million tons and retire unsold 2012 and 2013 allowances.  This 45% cut is expected to boost allowance prices to $4 per ton in 2013 and up to $10 per ton in 2020, creating billions of new revenue every year. By comparison, RGGI allowance auction clearing prices have never risen higher than $3.51.

That 2020 price is still too low to have much of a direct impact on carbon emissions.  The obvious benefit is the additional revenue however.  The more revenue we have available to invest in innovation and deploy efficient infrastructure and technologies, the more we will decrease CO2 emissions.  The investment portion of the RGGI policy is a positive feature (I have read less about what the EU does with ETS revenue; I don’t claim with certainty that the RGGI system is “better” than the ETS system).  Any national-level tax-and-dividend system will be complex.  But even$20 per ton today would not, absent subsidies, provide enough incentive for utilities to switch from fossil fuels to zero-carbon sources.
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State of Polar Sea Ice – March 2013: Annual Arctic Maximum and Antarctic Minimum Reached

For the second time in only six years, and the third time in ten years, global polar sea ice area in February and March 2013 mimicked climatological normal conditions (1979-2009).  This follows January’s improvement from September 2012’s significant negative deviation from normal conditions.  While Antarctic sea ice loss occurred slower than the climatological normal rate, Arctic sea ice gain was more rapid than normal during February.  Polar sea ice recovered from an extensive deficit of 2.5 million sq. km. area late last year to a 0.5 million sq. km. surplus within the last week.

Arctic Sea Ice

According to the NSIDC, weather conditions once again caused less freezing to occur on the Atlantic side of the Arctic Ocean and more freezing on the Pacific side than normal this winter.  Similar conditions occurred during the past six boreal winters.  Sea ice creation during February measured 766,000 sq. km.  Despite this rather rapid growth (38% higher than normal), February′s extent remained well below average for the month.  Instead of measuring near 15.64 million sq. km., February 2013′s average extent was only 14.66 million sq. km., a 980,000 sq. km. difference!  The Arctic likely reached its maximum annual extent about 10 days ago.  In terms of annual maximum values, 2013’s 15.13 million sq. km. was 733,000 lower than normal.February’s relatively high rate of ice formation for February related to the lack of existing sea ice at the beginning of the month.  Without ice already in the Ocean, new ice formed as winter continued.

Barents Sea (Atlantic side) ice finally edged toward its climatological normal value during the month after remaining low this winter, as it did in the past 10 winters.  Kara Sea (Atlantic side) ice recovered from low extent the past couple of months, which is different from February 2012’s conditions.  The Bering Sea (Pacific side), which saw ice extent growth due to anomalous northerly winds in 2011-2012, saw similar conditions in December 2012 through February 2013.  This caused anomalously high ice extent in the Bering Sea again this winter.  As it did previously this winter, a negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation allowed cold Arctic air to move far southward and brought warmer than normal air to move north over parts of the Arctic.  The AO’s tendency toward its negative phase in recent winters is related to the lack of sea ice over the Arctic Ocean in September each fall.

In terms of climatological trends, Arctic sea ice extent in February has decreased by 2.9% per decade, the lowest of any calendar month.  This rate is closest to zero in the late winter/early spring months and furthest from zero in late summer/early fall months.  Note that this rate also uses 1979-2000 as the climatological normal.  There is no reason to expect this rate to change significantly (much more or less negative) any time soon, but increasingly negative rates are likely in the foreseeable future.  Additional low ice seasons will continue.  Some years will see less decline than other years (e.g., 2011) – but the multi-decadal trend is clear: negative.  The specific value for any given month during any given year is, of course, influenced by local and temporary weather conditions.  But it has become clearer every year that humans have established a new climatological normal in the Arctic with respect to sea ice.  This new normal will continue to have far-reaching implications on the weather in the mid-latitudes, where most people live.

Arctic Pictures and Graphs

The following graphic is a satellite representation of Arctic ice as of February 11, 2013:

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Figure 1UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130211.

Here is the similar image from March 24, 2013:

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Figure 2UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Northern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

As is normal for this time of year, there is not a large difference between these two graphics.  Any differences are primarily due to storm systems’ presence that push ice around, or the lack thereof.  The lack of sea ice in the Barents Sea (north of Europe) is problematic because wind and ocean currents typically pile sea ice up on the Atlantic side of the Arctic.  Sea ice presence in the Bering Sea (between Alaska and Russia) does not alleviate this problem because currents take ice from that area and transport it into the Arctic and then out into the Atlantic.  The sea ice on the Atlantic side would be among the first that currents transport and then melt during the spring.  With sea ice missing on the Atlantic side, currents will more easily transport Arctic sea ice to southern latitudes where it melts.

Many people questioned the overall health of the Arctic ice pack earlier this month when images (like the one below) and video documented extensive cracks in the ice in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.  A fellow blogger (and new author!) emailed me about this phenomenon and I wrote that I would blog my thoughts on the topic.  As Andrew Freedman wrote, “According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colo., this fracturing event appears to be related to a storm that passed over the North Pole on Feb. 8, 2013, creating strong off-shore ice motion. The event is unusual but not unheard of, as similar patterns were seen in early 2011 and 2008. However, the NSIDC said the fracturing this time is more extensive.”  The worry is the extent and size of the cracks and leads as well as the early calendar date at which they are all appearing – up to weeks before normal.

I found this article on the topic and agree with Greg Laden, the author.  The cracks and leads  might be a big deal or they might not.  We will have to wait until the minimum sea ice extent occurs in September before we issue judgment.  The scientifically sound course of action would be to wait until early cracks appeared in multiple seasons and then see what the range of response later in the year is.  For all we know, the cracks could allow for even more ice to form in March than normal and delay the onset of melting.  It strikes me as scientifically unsound and even irresponsible to conjecture about the existence and effect of processes, which we do not understand well.  If scientists crow about upcoming devastating Arctic sea ice loss this year and reality doesn’t conform to their wishes, how much credibility with the public do they engender?  I think observers should stay patient and discuss the phenomena and effects we do understand – there is plenty of material with which to work!

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Figure 3 – NOAA AVHRR infrared picture of Arctic sea ice on 20130312.

The following graph of Arctic ice volume from the end of February demonstrates:

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Figure 4PIOMAS Arctic sea ice volume time series through February 2013.

As the graph shows, volume (length*width*height) hit another record minimum in June 2012.  Moreover, the volume remains far from normal since it just returned to the -2 standard deviation envelope (light gray).  I understand that most readers don’t have an excellent handle on statistics, but conditions between -1 and -2 standard deviations are rare and conditions outside the -2 standard deviation threshold (see the line below the shaded area on the graph above) are incredibly rare: the chances of 3 of them occurring in 3 subsequent years under normal conditions are extraordinarily low (you have a better chance of winning the Powerball than this).  Hence my assessment that “normal” conditions in the Arctic are shifting from what they were in the past few centuries; a new normal is developing.  Note further that the ice volume anomaly returned to near the -1 standard deviation envelope in early 2011, early 2012, and now early 2013.  In each of the previous two years, volume fell rapidly outside of the -2 standard deviation area with the return of summer.  That means that natural conditions are not the likely cause; rather, another cause is much more likely to be responsible for this behavior: human influence.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

Take a look at February’s areal extent time series data:

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Figure 5NSIDC Arctic sea ice extent time series through late March 2013 compared with last five years’ data and climatological norm (dark gray line) and standard deviation envelope (light gray).

As you can see, this year’s extent (light blue cuve) grew more rapidly in December than February.  This graph also shows that this year’s extent remained at historically low levels through the winter, well below average values (thick gray curve), just as it did in the previous five winters, which are also shown on this graph.  In this month’s version, NSIDC also plotted the previous four years’ data (2008 through 2012).  You can also see what happened to conditions during late March and early April last spring (dark green curve).  A late season freeze surge occurred, which delayed the date of maximum extent by a number of weeks.  Last year’s surge has no bearing on what might happen over the next couple of weeks this year.  Weather conditions and some low-frequency climate oscillations (AO) are different this year and have more bearing on ice conditions than last year’s date of maximum extent.

Antarctic Pictures and Graphs

Here is a satellite representation of Antarctic sea ice conditions from February 11, 2013:

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Figure 6UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130211.

And here is the corresponding graphic from March 24, 2013:

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Figure 7UIUC Polar Research Group‘s Southern Hemispheric ice concentration from 20130324.

Ice growth is easily visible around the continent.  There is more Antarctic sea ice today than there normally is on this date in the year.  The reason for this is the extra ice in the Weddell Sea (east of the Antarctic Peninsula that juts up toward South America).  This ice exists this austral summer due to an anomalous atmospheric circulation pattern: persistent high pressure west of the Weddell sea pushed sea ice north.  The same winds that pushed the sea ice north also moved cold Antarctic air over the Sea, which has kept ice melt rate well below normal.  A similar mechanism helped sea ice form in the Bering Sea so far this winter.  Where did the anomalous winds come from?  We can again point to a climatic relationship.

The difference between the noticeable and significant long-term Arctic ice loss and relative lack of Antarctic ice loss is largely and somewhat confusingly due to the ozone depletion that took place over the southern continent in the 20th century.  This depletion has caused a colder southern polar stratosphere than it otherwise would be, reinforcing the polar vortex over the Antarctic Circle.  This is almost exactly the opposite dynamical condition than exists over the Arctic with the negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation.  The southern polar vortex has helped keep cold, stormy weather in place over Antarctica that might not otherwise would have occurred to the same extent and intensity. The vortex and associated anomalous high pressure centers kept ice and cold air over places such as the Weddell Sea this year.

As the “ozone hole” continues to recover during this century, the effects of global warming will become more clear in this region, especially if ocean warming continues to melt sea-based Antarctic ice from below (subs. req’d).  The strong Antarctic polar vortex will likely weaken back to a more normal state and anomalous high pressure centers that keep ice flowing into the ocean will not form as often.  For now, we should perhaps consider the lack of global warming signal due to lack of ozone as relatively fortunate.  In the next few decades, we will have more than enough to contend with from Greenland ice sheet melt.  Were we to face a melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet at the same time, we would have to allocate many more resources.  Of course, in a few decades, we’re likely to face just such a situation.

Finally, here is the Antarctic sea ice extent time series through mid-March:

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Figure 8NSIDC Antarctic sea ice extent time series through late March 2013.

Policy

Given the lack of climate policy development to date, Arctic conditions will likely continue to deteriorate for the foreseeable future.  The Arctic Ocean will soak up additional energy (heat) from the Sun due to lack of reflective sea ice.  Additional energy in the climate system creates cascading and nonlinear effects throughout the system.  For instance, excess energy pushes the Arctic Oscillation to a more negative phase, which allows anomalously cold air to pour south over Northern Hemisphere land masses while warm air moves over the Arctic during the winter.  This in turn impacts weather patterns throughout the year across the mid-latitudes.

More worrisome for long-term concerns is the heat that impacts land-based ice.  As glaciers and ice sheets melt, sea-level rise occurs.  Beyond the increasing rate of sea-level rise due to thermal expansion (excess energy, see above), storms have more water to push onshore as they move along coastlines.  We can continue to react to these developments as we’ve mostly done so far and allocate billions of dollars in relief funds because of all the human infrastructure lining our coasts.  Or we can be proactive, minimize future global effects, and reduce societal costs.  The choice remains ours.

Errata

Here are my State of Polar Sea Ice posts from February and January 2013. For further comparison, here is my State of Polar Sea Ice post from March 2012.

Update

I meant to include the following two graphs in this post because of the historical nature they represent.

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Figure 9 – Time series of Arctic sea ice area from UIUC from 1979 to Sep. 18, 2012.

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Figure 10 – Time series of Arctic sea ice area from UIUC from 1979 to Mar. 25, 2013.

The difference between these two graphics is obvious since they were taken near the time of minimum area (2012) and maximum area (2013).  In terms of magnitude, the freeze season of 2012-2013 produced the highest amount of frozen ice area in the modern record (11.168 million sq. km.).  The value of ice area last September was the lowest on record and the value of ice area earlier this month was the highest in four years.  March’s area value occurred because of the factors I discussed above that boil down to this: the relative lack of thick ice in recent winters permitted rapid ice growth, albeit thin ice that melts quickly the following year.  In addition to new record low area values in the future, significant oscillations from minimum to maximum and back again are likely to occur in the future as well.  This does not contradict climate change; it is a manifestation of climate change.  I hope write more about this topic soon, but countries are reconstructing international policy (military and economic) as a result of the changes seen in the Arctic.  Those policy shifts will have societal repercussions, which I venture say few people realize today.


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Extreme Weather, Climate Change, and Public Reporting

If you have had any exposure to this subject, you probably already have your mind made up about my title. As I’ve gained exposure, via multiple disciplines, I’ve changed my mind. And that allows me to look at climate reporting in new ways.  Take this article and interview for instance. It’s meta-related, masked by the climate’s relationship to extreme weather. There are thousands of examples of conservatives ignoring science when it suits them. Doing so actually has more to do with conservatives operating from their value system. Are there similar examples of others ignoring science when it similarly suits them? I think it would be foolhardy to assume otherwise. Here is what I think about this article.

First, the mask: climate-extreme weather. There is no documented causal relationship between the two. In fact, the number of identified causal relationships between climate change and anything is still relatively small. There is a strong temperature signal. There is a growing ocean acidification signal. The sea level change signal is small but present and growing. How about precipitation? Nothing definitive. How about snowstorms? Nothing definitive.

But those signals are small against much stronger climate signals. Would something like drought or hurricanes or floods or tornadoes exhibit a stronger signal. In a word, no. There simply is not a detectable climate and extreme weather link today. That is not to say a future signal will not exist – there very well might be. But as of today, there is not. What science backs up that claim? The 2008 U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s Synthesis Report for starters (p.42; 2.2.2.1):

When averaged across the entire United States (Figure 2.6), there is no clear tendency for a trend based on the PDSI. Similarly, long-term trends (1925-2003) of hydrologic droughts based on model derived soil moisture and runoff show that droughts have, for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U. S. over the last century (Andreadis and Lettenmaier, 2006).

So as of the early 21st century, U.S. droughts have become less severe, not more. The IPCC’s global analysis on extreme events concurred (p.171):

There is not enough evidence at present to suggest high confidence in observed trends in dryness due to lack of direct observations, some geographical inconsistencies in the trends, and some dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice. There is medium confidence that since the 1950s some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts (e.g., southern Europe, west Africa) but also opposite trends exist in other regions (e.g., central North America, northwestern Australia).

One big impediment to our extreme event trend ascertainment is our basic inability to monitor events in the first place. But based on the observations made, there is, in the IPCC’s own language, only medium confidence that droughts in some areas of the world are increasing in severity while decreasing in other places. Is climate change increasing extreme events? Not droughts – not yet.

What about storms like Sandy or Katrina (note: the former was a tropical system that changed to an extratropical system at landfall while the latter was a full-fledged hurricane at landfall)? There is at this time no global trend in hurricane frequency or intensity that demonstrates a clear causal relationship to climate change. There are indexes that a few scientists have developed to examine the data in different ways with differing results, but they require fairly complex methodologies to calculate. If I created my own index that demonstrated a relationship between the type of food I ate and climate change, does one cause the other? Certainly not directly. The hurricane-climate change relationship should exhibit a detectable signal in 50 more years or so. Until then, scientists cannot confidently say the data supports such a relationship. Extratropical storms increased in strength a little over the past century, although the locations of increase are limited. Their frequency has not increased.

Quickly, the same thing holds for floods and tornadoes. Datasets are simply too limited in space and time to currently identify a robust relationship.

As I wrote above, there are clear signals that we have already detected. The effects of those signals are mostly well-known, although some surprises are certainly in store for the planet. Extreme weather is not one of those signals. At least, not yet. If people are concerned about the level of inaction taken on climate change to date, it is folly to chase down or exaggerate signals that do not yet exist. If arguments based on signals detected are not enough to propel action, then we need to address their sets of values and how we communicate them. Fear-mongering and purposeful ignorance of science are not adequate substitutes.

Finally, I question the following from the article:

“I quote the climate skeptics or deniers — whatever term you prefer — when they’re relevant. So when I’m doing a piece about the science itself and what the latest scientific findings are, especially if that’s a short piece, I don’t necessarily feel obliged to quote the climate skeptics the same way that if you were doing a story about evolution, a New York Times reporter wouldn’t feel obliged to call up a creationist and ask them what they think. On the other hand, the climate skeptics are politically relevant at this point in American history [in a way that] the creationists are not, for example. So we have a fair chunk of the Congress … that sees political traction right now in questioning climate science or purporting not to believe it, so in a political story or in a longer story, I usually do give some amount of space to the climate skeptics.”

This quote comes from Justin Gillis, who writes about climate change for The New York Times. Does any of the above evidence make it into his interview with NPR? Here is my question: is Mr. Gillis a climate change writer or a politics writer? Scientific climate change writers should focus on the science. If Mr. Gillis wants to be a political climate change writer, he and the NYT owe it to their readers to make that distinction clear. Especially when double standards are applied to a different type of science writing. I would argue that creationists have a considerable amount of political traction right now also. I do not agree with their viewpoint, but if Mr. Gillis and the NYT want to write comparison pieces and not news pieces, I do not see why that effort should stop at climate change.


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CO Public Utilities Commission Rejects Xcel Energy’s Bid To Collect Remaining $16.6 Million in SmartGridCity Costs

I last wrote on this topic a couple of months ago, following a Denver Post article that started with a Judge’s decision that ratepayers should not be responsible for cost overruns associated with Xcel’s SmartGridCity program.  The judge’s decision was not the final step in the matter.  As a matter of course, the final step was the Colorado’s Public Utilities’ Commission decision whether to grant Xcel’s request to collect $16.6 million from Colorado ratepayers.

If this is the first time you’ve read about this, here is a short history.  In 2008, Xcel proposed SmartGridCity, in which they would install approximately 50,000 smart meters in the city of Boulder by year’s end.  It was one of the most ambitious smart grid projects announced at the time.  Xcel’s proposal totaled $15 million in costs, which they themselves would completely bear.  Seven partner companies were supposed to pay for the remainder of the $100 million project.  A little something called the Great Recession got in the way, along with little transparency and project mismanagement on Xcel’s part.  Today, 23,000 smart meters are installed – at a cost of $44.5 million, triple the original estimate for less than half the project deployment.  The PUC previously approved Xcel’s request for $27.9 million, which is currently collected through customer rates, not from Xcel’s assets.

Thankfully, the PUC decided today to reject Xcel’s request with prejudice, which means Xcel cannot appeal the decision.  I support this decision mainly because I do not think Xcel should saddle regional ratepayers with costs for benefits they cannot receive.  That is a disgusting business practice and terrible precedent to set for future projects.  In a similar vein, Xcel’s success in expanding a coal plant in Pueblo, CO seemed to many to be a grab at capital to pad profit.  Ratepayers overwhelmingly rejected the plant’s expansion because it would generate more electricity than demanded by the population as well as its long life: Xcel stuck CO with this expanded plant for the next 50 years.

I have expressed my frustration with the PUC on occasion.  I do not think they exert the appropriate level of oversight over Xcel when the energy utility asks for rate increases, especially given Xcel’s lack of correctly forecasting generation capacity or demand.  This decision doesn’t atone for past decisions I didn’t agree with, but I am glad of this result.

I reiterate my general support for the smart grid.  I think we will eventually witness a significant transformation of the US’s power sector, including its infrastructure.  Smart grid technologies could usher in an era of increased efficiency.  Energy consumers currently do not have much access to data on their usage.  Many (not all) people could change their consumption habits if they had access to that data.


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US Carbon Intensity

I saw this article today – “US Getting More Economic Bang for Its Energy Buck” and wanted to make some observations about it.  The article contains the following assertion:

Energy intensity, or the amount of energy we use to create one dollar of GDP, has plummeted 58 percent between 1949 and 2011. Even more impressive is the 66 percent decrease in carbon intensity, or the amount of carbon emitted per real dollar of GDP.

The data are what the data are.  This comment follows the data:

These improvements are what greens miss when they call for Americans to make painful, costly cutbacks on energy usage.

Let’s take another look at that data, now that we know the bias of the author.  There are 62 years in the data cited.  That means there was a 0.94% annual decrease in energy intensity. The good news is there was a decrease. We generated the same GDP dollar for less energy, as we expect in an advanced society with research and innovation.  Similarly, there was a 1.06% reduction in carbon intensity. This value is important for energy and climate policy. The amount of carbon required for every GDP dollar fell over the past 62 years. Again, this is a good thing generally speaking. Technological efficiency permeated the economy over that time, which reduced the amount of carbon we emitted.

Now an important question: What caused this decrease? Was it emission reductions? No, US emissions have increased since 1950, with only a couple of periods when emission values didn’t increase every year. The US emitted just over 600 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon in 1950 and over 1500MMT in 2011. If carbon intensity is a measure of carbon per unit GDP, then the denominator increased faster than the numerator (GDP rather than carbon), in order for the ratio to decline over time. In 1950, the US real GDP was $2 trillion; in 2011, it was $13 trillion. Indeed, GDP increased faster than carbon emissions over the past 60 years.

What magnitude carbon intensity decrease is necessary to achieve carbon concentration reductions? First of all, carbon emissions have to decrease. Granted this has to occur globally, but let’s keep our focus on the US since we can actually control those emissions. Something between 3% and 4% annual decrease would do the trick. That is 3 to 4 times the historical rate! Let’s go back to the ratio: what has to change to achieve this decrease? It’s one of two things: carbon emissions or GDP. If GDP increases at the same rate it has historically, carbon emissions would have to decrease in value. If carbon emissions increased at the same rate they have historically, GDP would have to triple or quadruple in value.  The former case is more likely because while we want GDP to grow as much as possible, tripling or quadrupling the rate of GDP growth won’t happen.

So our goal should be to decrease carbon emissions. If we can simultaneously increase GDP along the way, so much the better. We obviously should not look at “solutions” that decrease GDP. Walter Russell is unfortunately partially correct when he says that some greens miss part of reality. They place too much focus on decreasing emissions regardless of the consequences. In the real world, people still have to eat and pay for the mortgage. Walter does miss his own share of reality however. These graphs do not indicate a wildly efficient economy. We should not break out into celebration because of the graphs. We should instead examine them soberly and then determine what our goals should be. Do we want to decrease emissions and concentrations and if so to what level? Those goals will help us establish the requisite policies to achieve them. I for one do not think we are decarbonizing nearly fast enough and I think we can decarbonize faster via some common sense policies.


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51.4% of the Contiguous United States in Moderate or Worse Drought – 12 Mar 2013

According to the Drought Monitor, drought conditions improved recently across some of the US. As of Mar. 12, 2013, 51.4% of the contiguous US is experiencing moderate or worse drought (D1-D4).  That is the lowest percentage in a number of months. The percentage area experiencing extreme to exceptional drought increased from 17.7% to 16.5% in the last month. Percentage areas experiencing drought across the West stayed mostly the same while snowpack generally increased. Drought across the Southwest decreased slightly and rain from storms improved drought conditions in the Southeast.

My previous post preceded a major winter storm that affected much of the US.  In some places in the High Plains and Midwest, 12″ or more of snow fell.  With relatively high liquid water equivalency, this snow represented ~1″ of water precipitation.  Unfortunately, these same areas required 2-4″ of rain to break their long-term drought.  In other words, while welcome, recent snows have not substantially reduced drought severity affecting the middle of the nation, as the following map shows.

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Figure 1US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions as of the 12th of March.

If we focus in on the West, we can see recent shifts in drought categories:

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Figure 2 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Western US as of the 12th of March.

Some small relief is evident in the past couple of weeks, including some changes in the mountains as storms recently dumped snow across the region.  Mountainous areas and river basins will have to wait until spring for snowmelt to significantly alleviate drought conditions.  As you can probably tell, this is a large area experiencing abnormally dry conditions for almost a year now.

Here are conditions for Colorado:

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Figure 3 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in Colorado as of the 12th of March.

Drought conditions improved somewhat across the southwestern portion of the state in the past couple of weeks.  The percentage area that is experiencing less than Severe drought conditions continues to track downward, which is a good sign.  Unfortunately, Exceptional drought conditions continued their hold over the eastern plains.

Here are conditions for the High Plains states:

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Figure 4 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the High Plains as of the 12th of March.

Again, even with large snowfalls in the past month, little drought relief is evident across this region.  What these states need are frequent soaking rains in the spring and summer to alleviate their long-term drought.  Agriculture certainly could use that relief this year.

And finally the area that experienced the most relief in the past month, the Southeast:

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Figure 5 – US Drought Monitor map of drought conditions in the Southeast as of the 12th of March.

The shifts in the numbers in the table tell a good story.  Frequent storms tracked over this region recently, which helped bust the worst conditions (Severe and worse).  Look at the ‘None’ category now versus three months ago: the percent area doubled!  Now the rains need to continue through the rest of the year.

US drought conditions are related to Pacific and Atlantic sea surface temperature conditions.  Different natural oscillation phases preferentially condition environments for drought.  Droughts in the West tend to occur during the cool phases of the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation and the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, for instance.  Beyond that, drought controls remain a significant unknown.  Population growth in the West in the 21st century means scientists and policymakers need to better understand what conditions are likeliest to generate multidecadal droughts, as have occurred in the past.

As drought affects regions differentially, their policy responses vary.  A growing number of water utilities recognize the need to be proactive with respect to drought impacts.  The last thing they want is their reliability to suffer.  Americans are privileged in that clean, fresh water flows when they turn their tap.  Crops continue to show up at their local stores despite terrible conditions in many areas of their own nation.  Power utilities continue to provide hydroelectric-generated energy.

That last point will change in a warming and drying future.  Regulations that limit the temperature of water discharged by power plants exist.  Warmer conditions include warmer water today than what existed 30 years ago.  Warmer water into a plant either mean warmer water out or a longer time spent in the plant, which reduces the amount of energy the plant can produce.  We can continue to generate the same amount of power if we are willing to sacrifice ecosystems which depend on a very narrow range of water temperatures.  As with other facets of climate change, technological innovation can help increase plant efficiency.


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Can Researchers Do Simple Math?

An upcoming paper in Energy Policy challenges an affirmative answer to that question.  Here is the paper’s topic: “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight,”.   That sounds great from an environmental perspective.  The authors claim that by 2050, NY state can transform its entire energy infrastructure so that the state will not use any fossil fuel sources.  Based on my knowledge of the climate system and having done some work in the energy infrastructure realm, I challenge the conclusions drawn in the paper.  According to Andy Revkin, who wrote about this paper, the authors issued the following as part of their press release:

According to the researchers’ calculations, New York’s 2030 power demand for all sectors (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) could be met by:

4,020 onshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
12,770 offshore 5-megawatt wind turbines
387 100-megawatt concentrated solar plants
828 50-megawatt photovoltaic power plants
5 million 5-kilowatt residential rooftop photovoltaic systems
500,000 100-kilowatt commercial/government rooftop photovoltaic systems
36 100-megawatt geothermal plants
1,910 0.75-megawatt wave devices
2,600 1-megawatt tidal turbines
7 1,300-megawatt hydroelectric power plants, of which most exist

Kudos to the researchers for generating an actual list which we can use for discussion.  It is this list on which I base by answer.  And here is why.  What do all the numbers mean in that list?  They mean that if construction on this infrastructure began to finish as of January 1, 2013, the following would have to be built every year until 2030:

236 onshore 5MW wind turbines (~1 per day)
7512 offshore 5MW wind turbine (~2 per day)
23 100MW concentrated solar plants
49 50MW photovoltaic power plants
294118 5kW residential rooftop PV systems (806 per day!)
29412 100kW commercial/government PV systems (81 per day!)
2 100MW geothermal plants
153 1MW tidal turbines

It should be relatively easy to see the magnitude of the task in front of the researchers’ claim.  The social and political landscape is currently not one that supports doing this.  Where will this infrastructure be built?  What policies will we put in place to ensure this happens?

Look at the residential rooftop PV systems number: 1471MW needs to be installed every year: 294118 * 5kW * 1MW/1000kW.

And the commercial/industrial rooftop PV systems number: 2941MW needs to be installed every year: 29412 * 100kW / 1MW/1000kW.

If we add these two together, NY needs about 4,412MW of solar PV systems installed per year, for a total of 75,000MW by 2030.  We can compare these numbers to installation numbers maintained by different sources.  I couldn’t find anyone who tracks number of system installs per year.  In 2011, New York installed 60MW of solar capacity across residential, commercial, and utility projects, or 1.4% of the researchers’ stated goal.  That is a huge discrepancy.

MW installation won’t have to double every year to achieve the 75,000MW goal – that’s the good news.  The bad news is the installation will have to grow by 150% every year for the next 17 years.  What could possibly get in the way of that achievement?

We can also look at the number of PV installations: 806 and 81 per day!  While the solar industry has certainly grown considerably over the past decade, are there 81 100kW commercial and industrial rooftop PV installations taking place every day in the the state of NY?  How about 806 residential systems?  Every. Day.  If installers are not doing this at that rate today, those systems have to be installed at some point in the future in order to achieve the goals.  Will 1,000 installations take place every day by 2030?  It might be nice to hope so, but that ignores a whole suite of policy requirements.  Any delay in installation in the near term imposes a higher required rate of growth in the future to meet 2030 goals.

Zero off-shore wind turbines were installed as of the end of 2012.  The numbers listed above translates to 63.85GW of installed wind by 2030.  That exceeds the national goal of 54GW announced by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu just two years ago.  Goals can and should change, but they require people with vision and insight to establish them and set a course to meet them.  What happens if future Interior and Energy secretaries some from the fossil fuel industry?  What roadblocks will NY face in achieving 64GW of off-shore wind by 2030?

On the practical side, where is natural gas in this energy portfolio?  Do the researchers make a credible assumption that recent natural gas finds will remain in the ground for the next 17 years while renewable energy infrastructure booms?  How will that happen?  What about energy efficiency and net energy reduction?  The authors make a huge assumption that efficiency gains of 5%/year are achievable.  A further assumption is made that New Yorkers will consume less net energy over time.  Is that realistic?  If not, the above numbers would have to grow in size even further.  What technological innovations have to occur?  How will NY handle renewable energy variability?

Are there abundant renewable resources across America?  Yes, there absolutely are.  The keys to harnessing those resources as quickly and efficiently as possible are available through smart policies – something that this paper should include since it is going to Energy Policy.  At best, this paper presents an interesting thought exercise.  I for one want to see a lot more work on the policy trends required to get NY to these goals.