Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Climate and Energy Stories May 11, 2014

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The following are stories that I recently found interesting:

Research: Natural Variations in Atlantic Drive Extreme Winters (abstract here).  This research identifies the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation as the primary driver of blocking patterns (via the North Atlantic Oscillation) that have caused extreme cold winters over Europe and east US in recent years.  This Oscillation is a natural feature of the climate system.  This means that anthropogenic effects on extreme winters are likely not the dominant factor.  This challenges many climate activists’ statements that extreme weather we experience today are man-made.  The actual message is more nuanced.  The work combines 20th century observations with climate model results.  They write “A negative NAO in winter usually goes hand-in-hand with cold weather in the eastern US and north-western Europe.” The observations also suggest that it takes around 10-15 years before the positive phase of AMO has any significant effect on the NAO.  The AMO has been positive since the early 1990s.

German electricity demand and generation changing, but are the assumptions valid?  The figure below shows German government power generation historically and for the next 15 years:

 photo Germanpowergenerationprojection201405_zps8395b943.png

As indicated in the graphic, fossil power generation could hold constant until 2029, then decline as additional renewable power comes online.  In the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, Germany is decommissioning their nuclear power plants.  What I find interesting in this graphic is Germany projects renewables will pick up the electricity generation lost by nuclear power in the next 15 years as well as satisfy new electric demand.  Only after that would renewables eat into fossil power generation.  I’m not an expert on the German energy system, but I do know based on my expertise that this projection means Germany will not accelerate system decarbonization until 2030, give or take a few years.  By direct consequence, Germany’s CO2 emissions will likewise not decline until 2030.  This provides additional evidence that CO2 emissions will not decline soon enough to avoid 2C warming by 2100.  We don’t have 15 more years to act if that’s really the goal.  Emissions have to start declining in 2014-2015 if 2C is the goal.  This projection tells me Germans are more willing to accept unknown but certain and common climate change risks but are unwilling to accept known but rare nuclear power risks.

Two new solar projects will be built in Arizona.  This news isn’t terribly unique; companies make similar releases regularly now.  What I wanted to point out is the scale of the projects compared to the scale of electricity needed.  These systems will generate 42.76MW of electricity.  The mean size of a coal plant in the US is 667MW.  Thus, 15-16 new solar projects of this size have to be built to substitute solar generation for one coal plant.  Remember, then number of coal plant retirements is increasing.  Demand is also increasing.  As in the case of the graphic above, renewable energy generation has to replace existing generation but also meet demand that doesn’t currently occur.  In 2012, coal generated 1,514,043 thousand MWh, natural gas generated 1,225,894 thousand MWh, and renewables generated 218,333 thousand MWh (141,000 by wind; 4,000 by solar).  To displace coal and later natural gas in the next 50 years, we have to boost the number of solar and wind projects by 10-100X.  I cheer every new project announcement; we need many more of them.

3 Dont’s: Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, says there are at least three things “we know that you shouldn’t do,” when communicating the science: don’t use language people don’t understand, don’t use too many numbers, and don’t talk about “plants, penguins and polar bears” instead of people. Maibach says another error is talking about the threat of climate change without giving people solutions.

Guess what most activists do (and did historically)?  They use inappropriate language, they talk mostly about numbers, and they talk about polar bears.  Moreover, they talk about threats (devastation, civilization ending, epic disasters, apocalypse , trouble, strife, etc.) and don’t offer solutions.  Is it any wonder most people remain disconnected on the topic?  It’s not to me.  What makes this worse?  People “aggressively filter” information that doesn’t conform to their worldview.  The more education they have, they more they filter that information.  Thus, climate believers are more likely to believe in climate change with more education and climate skeptics are more likely not to believe in climate change.  It’s not a matter of education; it’s a matter of values.  Climate communicators therefore need to talk to people about people in their local setting, not obscure numbers of global phenomena.

Among other things, the EIA’s January report shows total January energy production in 2014 than 2013 or 2012.  Most of the renewable energy in the graphs are hydroelectric, not wind or solar, which continue to lag far behind other generation sources despite recent year-over-year percentage increases.  It also shows that contrary to pro-fossil fuel industry claims, the cost of residential energy continued to hold steady, as it has for 30 years now.  In other words, adding renewable energy doesn’t significantly impact energy costs.

As the US shifts from coal to natural gas (not coal to renewables), US GHG emissions falls led developed countries in 2012: by 3.4% vs. 1.3% for the EU (see German energy generation above).  That’s one way to measure progress.  Another: actual EU emissions are far lower than US emissions compared to 1990.  That means the US, as the 2nd largest GHG emitter worldwide, has a very long way to go before it achieves stated climate goals.  The Obama administration for instance has a recent talking point that the US will meet 2020 GHG emission cut goals due to their leadership.  The big devil in the details: they’re using 2005 emissions instead of 1990 emissions.  Even if you don’t know the exact numbers, you should be able to state with confidence that 2005 US emissions were higher than 1990 emissions because we weren’t deploying renewable energy, our population grew, and our demand per person grew.  Well, the EU’s emission cuts reference their 1990 levels.  Moreover, peak US GHG emissions occurred in 2005.  It’s easy to hit big percentage cuts from a maximum value; it’s much harder to hit those same percentage cuts from an intermediate value.  The US would have to cut all emissions from 1990 to 2005 and then an additional amount from 1990 to achieve Kyoto goals.  We will not achieve that by 2020 under current policies because we never wanted to.  We may not achieve a 17% reduction in 1990 emissions by 2030.  This constitutes a persuasive argument that <2C warming by 2100 will not occur.

In rereading my list of topics to cover in this post, I found a couple that deserve more singular attention.  More to come later this week.


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