The Climate in Emergency

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

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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.


And in Comes O’Malley

Martin O’Malley has just thrown his hat in the Presidential ring, a move that surprises no one who has been watching his career. His presence also makes the race a bit more homey for me, since he has just completed two terms as Maryland’s governor and that is my state. Unfortunately, he’s a relative unknown outside the state, and the buzz so far is that he’s not going much of anywhere this time around. A recent cartoon depicted the “O’Malley Bandwagon,” being drawn by a rocking-horse. But he’s young enough that he could easily try again, perhaps with a cabinet-level position in the meantime to round out his resume.

But how is he on climate change? What would it be like if he did win?

Martin O’Malley is like the other two Democratic hopefuls in that we don’t have to rely on his campaign promises to guess how he’d do on climate as President–he has already shown his colors as Governor of Maryland. And his colors are surprisingly green. He has been called a climate hawk, and his interest in the environment isn’t just political. It’s entirely genuine. He’s taken some heat from climate deniers of late, who pounced on his assertion that climate change is a “business opportunity,” as if he were some kind of opportunist. Of course, that isn’t what he meant–he meant that actually doing something about climate change is not only the the right thing, but also the profitable thing. And he’s exactly right–there’s nothing fiscally responsible about environmental disaster.

Under Mr. O’Malley’s leadership, Maryland really stood out on climate and related issues. He has set goals of reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions (from 2006 levels) by 25% by the year 2020 and by 80% by 2050. He brought the state into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a functional carbon pricing program that raises money for energy-efficiency programs that can lower residents’ utility bills. He released the Maryland Climate Action Plan, in 2008, championed the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act of 2009, and started Maryland’s Zero Emissions Vehicle Program and got the Maryland Offshore Wind Energy Act passed, both in 2013.

Then there’s the goal of diverting 65% of our waste from landfills by recycling and composting, in order to reduce methane emissions. There’s the tree-planting program designed to deepen carbon sinks. There’s the expansion of rail lines in Baltimore and in Maryland’s D.C. (reduces car traffic and related emissions). Public buildings follow highest International Energy Conservation Code from the International Code Council. Residents who cut peak-time electricity usage get discounts on their bills. Mr. O’Malley held ClimateStat meetings every quarter, where he was genuinely enthusiastic about the proper presentation of data.

Has all of this worked?

So far, yes. Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions have gone down, and although much of the decrease was actually due to the Great Recession and other such factors, the state has done somewhat better than the country as a whole–even as its population grows faster than average.

How many of these programs will hold in the face of our new, pro-business, Republican governor, Larry Hogan, is anybody’s guess, but Mr. O’Malley could have taken steps to try to slow reversal of his policies; what many environmentalists see as his one major failing, his issuing of strict guidelines for fracking (as opposed to not considering fracking at all), can be seen as an attempt to make it harder for Governor Hogan to write his own, loose guidelines (in fact, Maryland remains under a moratorium on fracking, which Mr. Hogan agreed to not veto).

Mr. O’Malley does have a somewhat deserved reputation for verbal awkwardness (he’s a bit of a geek, though he also plays in an Irish rock band called O’Malley’s March) but he can talk the talk on climate change, too. He brought up climate change in his very first Presidential campaign speech and features the issue prominently on his website. He has publicly acknowledged that Maryland is feeling the effects of climate change already. He has unequivocally opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline, in part on climate grounds. Of national energy policy, he has said “An all-of-the-above strategy did not land a man on the moon. This is a systems engineering challenge, as was landing a man on the moon,” and that reducing greenhouse emissions should be the explicit goal of American energy policy.

Mr. O’Malley is the real deal on climate, and he is a careful, strategic politician. Whether he manages to be a serious contender for the White House this time around or not, he will be one in the future. Speaking strictly as the author of a single-issue blog on climate change, I am very much ok with that.





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Vote Here

I spend a lot of time urging people to vote on climate. Perhaps urging is not enough, however? Who is running, what the various candidates’ voting records are, even how to register and where to vote might not be obvious to everybody. This being a midterm election, there isn’t as much media attention on the individual races and it is all to easy to just sit the whole thing out.

I’m not talking here just about people who are completely unfamiliar with the political process; it’s embarrassing to admit, but more than once I’ve found myself in the voting booth looking at candidates I’ve never heard of, for offices I don’t understand–I know about Congress races and so forth, but what exactly is the Judge of the Orphans Court? Also, while I’ve always considered environmental issues when voting, this will be the first year I look up candidates’ stance on climate change even in races where the issue never came up in the campaign. I can’t be the only person not certain where to go for that kind of information.

So, let’s do this. I’ll go through the process for my own district, plus a few others for variety, and maybe the whole thing will seem a little simpler and clearer for everybody else. I am American, so I’ll focus on American voting, but hopefully voters in other countries will be inspired.

The voting process

I’m in Maryland, and Maryland has a handy-dandy website where I can type in my name and zip code and get my registration record, polling place, whether I’ll need to show ID (I will not), and even a sample ballot. If I weren’t registered already, I could get registered through this site. Every other state I’ve tried has some version of this site, though they are not all equally useful and not all feature exactly the same information, but generally if you do an Internet search on “how to vote in [my state]” you’ll get your choice of websites at your service. You’re looking for the following information:

  • What day is the election?
  • Where is your polling place?
  • Can you vote early? How?
  • Are you properly registered?
  • Do you need to bring identification or your registration card to vote?
  • Who is running for what office in your district?

If getting to the polling place is difficult, look into absentee voting or see if a volunteer group can help with transportation.

Again, some of this might seem obvious, but it’s embarrassingly easy to overlook something–like an ID requirement–and not be able to vote. It’s also possible for something important to change, like the location of your polling place. Or, your registration could have been purged through a weird clerical error. It’s important to check.

The general election is Tuesday, November 4th, by the way. That is 19 days from today.

The candidates

I looked up a sample ballot for my voting district using the website mentioned above. It lists the following races:

  • Governor/Lt. Governor (they run together, on one ticket, in Maryland)
  • Congressional Representative (no Senate race in Maryland this year)
  • both houses of the State Legislature
  • Comptroller
  • State Attorney General
  • County Commissioner
  • Sheriff
  • Judge, Court of County Appeals At Large (two of them, each up for a vote of confidence, rather than running against competitors)
  • State’s Attorney
  • Clerk of the Circuit Court
  • Register of Wills
  • Judge of the Orphan’s Court (the instructions say to vote for any three out of a pool of four candidates)

Plus there are two Constitutional amendments up for approval. Neither has anything to do with climate change.

Arguably, a lot of these candidates don’t have anything to do with climate change, either. I mean, Register of Wills? Of course, it’s important to research all of these races, otherwise we leave part of our power as citizens in a democracy unclaimed–and today’s Register of Wills could be tomorrow’s Senator. And sometimes unexpected people can strike a blow for climate sanity–District Attorneys, for example. But no, I’m not going to write about every candidate for every race. Instead, I’ll just focus on the gubernatorial and Congressional races.

To be clear, I’m not campaigning for anybody, and I’m not going to discuss the candidates’ records on anything other than climate.

The League of Conservation Voters compiles score cards for Congresspeople, as well as for Congress as a whole. That is a good place to start. Each score reflects the number of environmental votes, as defined by a large panel of environmental experts, plus co-sponsoring bills during periods when no such votes reached the floor. The League divides “environmental votes” into several categories–“climate” is one of those categories, but so are “clean energy,” “dirty energy,” “drilling,” “air pollution,” and “transportation,” all of which are obviously part of the climate issue as well. If there is any way to subdivide an individual’s score by category, I have not yet found it, but it is clear that climate-related issues contribute significantly to the overall score and that an individual’s climate score cannot be larger than his or her overall environmental score.

So, the incumbent candidate for Congress in my district is Representative Andy Harris. His score for 2013 is 0. A big goose-egg. His lifetime score is 5%. Our senators, Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski have excellent records, but neither is up for election this year.

But what about Mr. Harris’ challenger, Bill Tilghman? (“Tilghman” is a common Maryland name; the “gh” is silent) Or anybody campaigning as write-in candidates?  Are any of the alternatives better?

I did an Internet search on “Bill Tilghman Climate Change,” and found, where you can look up candidates by state. Beside party affiliation, current job, and a brief biography, the site lists each candidate’s official stance for several major issues, including climate. It isn’t clear where the site gets its information–presumably they ask the candidates, since the profile looks like a questionnaire. Their profile for Mr. Harris is consistent with his scorecard from LCV, but  several of the questions were left blank–this suggests that the site is accurate as far as it goes but does not provide a complete picture. The site also includes candidates who were eliminated in the primary, and does not cover races for state offices, but it still seems a good place to start.

Bill Tilghman looks good, here. He believes climate change exists, supports cap-and-trade, supports EPA regulation of businesses and tax credits for renewable energy research and development, and does not support offshore drilling. Good for him. Of course, there is no way to know how he’ll stick to all of this once in office, but he’s obviously better than a goose egg. On the other hand, further searching reveals he supports fracking.  Some environmentalists do support natural gas use as a lower-carbon transitional fuel, so Mr Tilghman may be quite genuine in his opposition to climate change.

I have not found any organized write-in campaigns for District 1, though of course any of us have the option to write in whomever we want.

The gubernatorial race is harder because there is much less information already compiled. Presumably national organizations, like League of Conservation Voters, take less notice of state and local positions. I returned to my sample ballot and randomly chose the Democrat, Anthony Brown. I searched on “Anthony G. Brown Climate Change” and found a voter information site run by our regional paper, The Baltimore Sun. This site also lists Mr. Brown’s competitors, of course, as well at the other state and local races. Great! Except this site does not address climate change at all. It might be a good source of supportive information, but we’ll have to look elsewhere.

Rather than looking for other voter information sites that might be more cooperative, I’ve tried searching for information on individual candidates. I don’t want to rely on the candidates’ statements about themselves, which will likely say more about what they think the electorate wants to hear. Mr. Brown is the current Lt. Governor, and is running as Martin O’Malley’s political heir. In his own campaign materials, Mr. Brown claims O’Malley’s environmental record while in office as part of his own and he is actively presenting himself as an environmental candidate on that basis. So, what is Mr O’Malley’s record on climate change? I haven’t found anything like an objective score card, but Mr O’Malley has spoken extensively about the seriousness of climate change, and has advanced a fairly aggressive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% over the next five years. So that’s encouraging.

Larry Hogan literally has no environmental record at all, according to The Washington Post described his environmental plans as “gauzy at best,” during the primary race and has since endorsed Mr. Brown, who has himself criticized Mr Hogan on climate change grounds (and much else–the campaign is nasty on both sides), but none of this is especially objective. Mr Hogan is a businessman (he does not say what his business does, besides economic development) and is running largely on an economic message. Climate change is, of course, important relative to Maryland’s economy because so much of the state is coastal–we have escaped from recent storms with very little damage, but a major storm-surge could get extremely expensive. However, in the world of politics, “business-friendly” and “job creation” are often code words for opposition to environmental regulation. While the environment does get a mention on Mr. Hogan’s website, he does not appear to be campaigning as an environmentalist. There is a good chance, therefore, that he isn’t one.

Shawn Quinn is the third candidate on the ballot for Governor. As a Libertarian, he is probably a long shot, but his website is professionally done and this is not his first political campaign. He has not held political office before and therefore has no official record on climate change, but he does not mention the issue on his website. As a libertarian, he is very definite in his belief that the government should not be involved in people’s lives–he opposes Maryland’s efforts to reduce smoking, for example, as well as its subsidies to tobacco farmers. This stated reluctance to allow government to involve itself either in public health or in economic development probably means he would not provide leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or developing alternative energy, either.

This is the kind of detective work I am talking about. Some races are covered by large environmental organizations who can provide analysis of candidates’ records on climate change, but otherwise we are generally on our own. Information might be fleeting, especially for challengers who have no prior political record, but it is often possible to at least eliminate some candidates from consideration if they fail to mention the environment at all (meaning that they don’t think they need the votes of environmentalists) or if their campaigns focus on issues that are traditionally at odds with climate change, such as business.

I’ll keep researching candidates for my own knowledge and will share anything notable I find.