The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change


Leave a comment

Looking at Wind Power

Wind power has been in the news in my area lately, with the pros and cons of specific projects being argued in the papers. As often happens, these stories have raised questions for me, and inspired me to do a deep dive into the subject. Here goes.

In the News….

Remember Martin O’Malley? He ran for the Democratic nomination for president last cycle. I suspect he will try again and could well be president someday. He is still very much a rising politician. In any case, he used to be the governor of Maryland, my state, and as such racked up a very impressive environmental record. He takes climate science very seriously. And one of the things he did was to champion the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act of 2013, which incentivizes wind power in various ways. Various renewable energy companies have been attempting to take advantage of the opportunity. This spring, two companies received regulatory approval to build wind farms near Ocean City. Combined, the project would be only the second US offshore wind farm, and by far the largest.

There are a lot of issues involved in this project. Besides the hoped-for emissions reductions, there is the political value of getting a major renewable power facility up and running, and the economic value of a big manufacturing project. The turbines themselves would be made here in Maryland.

But not all issues are positive. There is concern that wind turbines can disturb or kill wildlife, and there are worries that wind power might not be as “green” as it’s made out to be. Finally, there are aesthetic concerns. Though I, personally, find wind turbines kind of cool-looking, plenty of people don’t, and the project has been pushed farther and farther offshore in order to minimize its visibility from the beach–tourism being a major source of Ocean City’s revenue. I have seen a photograph doctored to represent how the current project will look from shore when completed (it’s included in one of the articles I’ve linked to), and honestly I’m not sure whether the specks visible on the horizon are wind turbines or dust on my screen. But yet some in Ocean City remain concerned.

In comes Dr. Andy Harris, Eastern Maryland’s delegate to the US House of Representatives (and yes, he’s a medical doctor, too).

Representative Harris has sponsored an amendment (an amendment to what, I’m not sure) that would block Federal funding for site assessments for wind turbines within 25 nautical miles of the coast. This move, if approved, would effectively block at least one, possibly both of the planned projects. Not only would moving the wind farms further out take time that neither company has budgeted for, but the farther offshore a wind farm is, the more expensive it becomes. At a certain point, a project simply stops making good business sense. Representative Harris says he supports the wind farm, but is simply concerned about the business interests of his Ocean City constituents–but it’s worth noting that his overall environmental record is terrible. In general, the wind farms have a lot of public support (though less in Ocean City).

Pros and Cons of Wind

Politics aside, how do wind farms actually stand up, environmentally? The environmental cost of a wind turbine is not zero, for although there are no carbon emissions during operation, the same cannot be said for manufacture,transportation to the site, routine maintenance, and so forth. So, what is that cost? The answer depends largely on which data you include in your analysis and how exactly you ask your questions–which is one reason why it’s possible to find wildly differing conclusions on the subject, all apparently “fact-based.” With that in mind, I focused as much as possible on more scholarly sources, people who did not seem to be arguing for a specific preferred option. But it is possible I missed something. As always, this post is meant as the beginning of your research on a subject, not the final word.

Wind at Home

Most of the figures I looked at related to the large turbines used for utilities-scale generation. After all, my hunt for information was started by a proposed wind farm. It’s worth noting, though, that there are other forms of wind generation. Some turbines are small, designed for home use. Some are even portable. I expected that small-scale turbines would have a better environmental profile than large ones, partly because they just appeal to my taste (I WANT them to be better!), and partly because the absolute environmental cost of a small unit is obviously so much smaller. But the important thing to consider is not the absolute cost but the cost-benefit ratio, and according to one study, home-based wind turbines don’t always have a good ratio.

The way cost-benefit ratios are expressed in this context is payback time–how long does it take for the carbon emissions saved by using a turbine to equal the amount of greenhouse gas emitted during construction, installation, maintenance, and decommissioning of that turbine? If the payback time is shorter than the working life of the turbine, its net impact is carbon-negative (that’s good). If it’s longer, that’s a carbon-positive impact, meaning a net increase of emissions (bad).

Three figures go into determining how long payback time is for a given system: the total environmental cost of the turbine; how much electricity the turbine generates; and the environmental cost of whatever form of electricity generation the turbine replaces. Payback times in general are expected to lengthen in the future as the electricity grid, as a whole, becomes less carbon-intensive.  For micro-wind, both carbon cost and electricity generation can vary widely.

The study I mentioned analyzed several different turbines at several different locations. The “greenest” turbines were responsible for less than 200kg (441 pounds)of carbon dioxide—not good, exactly, but many people emit as much every day simply by commuting to work in the morning. Others topped 1,500kg (3307 pounds).

Meanwhile micro-turbines sited in windy areas could generate a respectable 40% of a typical home’s energy use, but turbines in large cities, where buildings block or dissipate a lot of the wind through turbulence, only generated about 2%.

So, if you live in a windy area and your house is relatively isolated, you can achieve payback in a year or so, if you choose a micro-turbine model with a low carbon cost. But in other circumstances, payback might never happen. You’re better off buying your electricity from the grid.

Wind and Birds

One of the most concerning charges against wind power is that turbines kill birds and bats and otherwise harm wildlife. Of course, so does climate change harm wildlife. As much as I don’t want anything to harm animals, a fair judgment depends on a realistic comparison.  Large number of birds are at risk of extinction due to climate change, so if wind power can slow climate change, then the birds come out ahead, unless the death toll from turbines is truly horrific.

According to a document by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the death toll from turbines is not horrific—no bird or bat populations are at risk from turbines. The number of individuals killed can be dramatically reduced by careful siting and other steps, such as locking the turbine blades when the wind is low. Bats are more active in calmer air, when turbines don’t generate much electricity anyway. Offshore turbines can negatively affect marine life, but can also create artificial reefs that help marine life, so again, proper siting is critical.

Carbon Cost for Large-Scale Wind

For a detailed look at both the environmental and financial costs of wind, check here. The article also addressed several specific common criticisms in quick detail. At present, payback time for utility-scale installations is one to two years, unless sited somewhere, such as peatlands, where the disturbance of development itself has a high carbon cost. A graph comparing the per-kilowatt hour cost of various forms of energy makes it difficult to compare the different renewables–because all of them are so low as to be indistinguishable from zero next to fossil fuel generation. Not that their emissions are zero, but it’s like trying to create a graph comparing the body weights of three different kinds of songbird, a mouse, a sheep, and a cow.

Does wind reduce carbon emissions as compared to fossil fuel? You bet.

At least wind reduces carbon if it replaces other forms of energy generation instead of adding to them. While the article does address the issue of standby generation (some people have charged that because wind doesn’t always blow, wind power requires the use of other forms of generation. The article acknowledges the point, but says the carbon emissions still end up going down), it does not address the issue of overall demand caps.

Let’s say we us X amount of electricity generated by fossil fuel. So if we bring X amount of non-fossil fueled generation online, will that mean the end of fossil fueled electricity? Or will the public just decide to use twice as much electricity?

The answer to that puzzle lies somewhere in a complex tangle of economics and policy. I am not prepared to answer it, but it must be answered. My guess is that this is a problem the free market cannot solve by itself, even assisted by subsidies. We will eventually need a cap on either total electricity use or total fossil fuel use in order to get off fossil fuel.

And get off fossil fuel we must.


Leave a comment

To the Point

My time has been highly limited this week so far because I had medical appointments two days in a row–nothing serious, don’t worry, I just needed new glasses and also had some questions for my MD. Just somehow the two appointments ended up being back-to-back, so now I’m behind on everything. Rather than skip this week’s climate post or try to squeeze it into Wednesday, I’m going to just take a few minutes right now to say….

Where are the climate protests? I have a friend who intentionally got himself arrested the other day protesting the healthcare bill, which is absolutely admirable, and it one of many worthy issues that deserve phone calls and emails to elected representatives. But it made me realize that I haven’t seen hide nor hair of the climate movement lately.

Either there are actions going on that aren’t well-organized enough for me to hear of them and don’t make the news, or nobody’s doing anything, and I don’t know which one is worse. So, I say again, climate change is the central issue, both because it can hurt us on a scale like almost nothing else and because the fossil fuel industry is currently the primary driver of most of our other political woes. Follow the money; no matter where you start, you’ll end up in oil.

So. There are heat waves and droughts and famines and fires afoot right now. Let’s get climate change back in the news.


Leave a comment

As If

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my teacher.

To be clear, I’m not currently taking any classes, nor am I in a training program of any kind. There are simply some people who remain one’s teachers no matter what. I have two, and I sent an email to one of mine the other week, more or less just to say hi.

He asked how I was. I confessed I was not well; multiple people I care about have cancer and a president named Trump. He made the appropriate sympathetic noises (we’ve never talked much about private matters with each other) and then reminded me that “especially in politics, this too shall pass.”

I suspected him of being blithely ignorant, though of course I didn’t say so. The forces that would see the Earth burn so they can make a buck seem to be winning, and he tells me it will be ok? Yes, this, too, SHALL pass; in twenty million years, biodiversity and climate stability will likely have recovered, but that’s supposed to be comforting?

Actually, it is comforting. As I think I’ve said before, I find great comfort in Ursula K. LeGuin’s line, “No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars.” The character who speaks this line is talking about the literal end of the world. “There” refers to the land of the dead. That no matter what we humans do, the Earth will probably be able to repair itself in a few million years is a kind of good news.

Beyond that, “this, too, shall pass” is not necessarily a note of hope in the ordinary human sense. The idea is not necessarily that things will get better (though they may), but simply that things are transitory, that the current situation is not the only context, and not the permanent context, that can apply. I have heard it suggested that the way to really internalize and believe “this, too, shall pass” is to make a point of saying it when things are going well.

As a Buddhist might, I can take refuge in the simple truth of impermanence.

I suspect my teacher would be on board with all these interpretations, but could he also have meant what he initially seemed to mean, that yes, indeed, things will be alright? This isn’t the end of the world?

Back when he was more obviously engaged in teaching me, I became fairly sure this man was always right, that things he said were true because he said them. Even before I finished grad school, I’d modulated that stance somewhat. Yes, he could be wrong (though it does seem to be rare), but it was more interesting, and ultimately more educational, to begin with the presumption that he wasn’t. The principle here is a bit like that of a Tarot deck or a zodiac–the process of figuring out how the oracle applies to your question is a wonderful source of insight, whether the oracle actually applies to your question in a literal sense or not. Rather than wondering is my teacher right? I made a practice of asking myself what if he is right? What can I see from the perspective he is offering me?

(I mean this principle within certain limits, of course. Clearly, treating individual human beings as totally infallible could cause problems)

So, I decided to return to that practice and ask myself what if things aren’t as bad as I fear that they are? What does the world look like if the anti-environment plutocracy we now face is simply transitory?

The thought echoed one I learned many years ago–when faced with a challenge, don’t ask whether I can succeed. Assume that I can, and seek to discover how.

And from my teacher’s vantage point of hope and optimism I looked out and saw…a spaghetti pile of possibilities that I find utterly overwhelming. I don’t know about you-all, but I find it very difficult to choose among equally valid options. Faced with a to-do list of five quick items and an afternoon to do them in, I not infrequently end up spending the whole afternoon playing on Facebook because I can’t decide which one to do first. Occasionally I have actually asked my husband to pick a task for me. He complies with good humor.

So, I seem to be paralyzed now, not by the awesome awfulness of Trump (who, after all, will pass, one way or another), but by the difficulties of my own brain. But while awesome awfulness seems like a very big problem to tackle, I have at least some hope of learning to operate my own grey matter. It’s a start.

What about you? What lies in the way of your own action? What does the world look like if you assume you’ll succeed?


Leave a comment

Independence

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

241 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.