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Sierra Daily: November 2012
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13 posts from November 2012

Nov 30, 2012

A Boost For Batteries

Ev batteries iStock_000018976864XSmallWhat’s keeping quiet, non-polluting electric cars from taking over the automotive world? The cost of batteries. To keep the sticker price of electric vehicles from skyrocketing beyond the $30,000 average an American pays for a new car, most EVs available today have a range of around 100 miles. Only the $100,000 Tesla S has the 250-plus-mile range that some consumers consider a benchmark. 

But we may not have to wait long for Tesla-esque range to sweep the EV market. On Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it is investing $120 million in the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR, or "J-Caesar"), a new research lab whose goal is to develop batteries that are five times more powerful and five times cheaper within five years.

"Factors of five are what we need to transform both the power grid and transportation," said Eric D. Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, where the facility will be based. (The state of Illinois is kicking in another $5 million.) The efforts of five national labs, five universities, and four private companies will be combined at JCESR, whose researchers will work on batteries and energy storage that can be applied to everything from smartphones to electric cars to the utility grid.

The lab is one of five "innovation hubs" that Congress has approved. Three are up and running: an energy-efficient-building design lab in Philadephia; a solar fuels research center in California; and a “hub” working to improved nuclear reactors at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Image of an array of EV batteries by iStock/magnetcreative.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Worse Than Solyndra!

Oil shaleRemember how the failure of solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra, which had received $535 million in federal loan guarantees, supposedly showed the folly of government support for renewable energy? By that measure, it's way past time to give up on our century-old search for fuel from oil shale. A new report from the nonpartisan group Taxpayers for Common Sense details the billions of dollars wasted over the years in the quest for a domestic fuel source that still remains unproven.

Since the 1980s, oil shale has been showered with billions in tax credits, price guarantees, and loan guarantees. In addition, public lands have been given to private companies for oil shale research and development without requiring the payment of rents, bonuses, or royalties for facilities producing at less than commercial scale. After decades of federal support, oil shale has yet to be commercially produced. And simply making more federal lands available or limiting regulations on resource extraction is not a solution to our nation’s debt crisis. It could even lead to greater taxpayer liabilities down the road.  

Oil shale, it must be noted, is not to be confused with "shale oil," i.e., oil released from shale rock formations by a hydraulic fracturing process similar to that used to release natural gas. Oil shale is a sedimentary rock containing fossilized organic matter called kerogen, which, the report notes, "requires a large and expensive energy investment to produce liquid fuel." The heyday of oil shale was in the 1980s, following the oil shocks of the 1970s; old timers will remember the "Synfuel" debacle, which cost the government $20 billion but produced no fuel. A further $3.2 billion went to loan guarantees, and $3.6 billion to price guarantees. And the waste continues: Just this spring, Congress proposed still further federal funds to this loser technology. Subsidies are only considered foolishly spent, apparently, when they don't go to the fossil-fuel industry.

Photo of oil shale in open cast mining quarry by koer/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Nov 28, 2012

Making Clean Energy Cleaner

Wind turbine iStock_000020850611XSmall dah_pratResearchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell take the concept of “cradle to grave” environmental impacts seriously. Under a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the school’s Wind Energy Research Group, along with researchers at Wichita State University, is designing biodegradable wind turbine blades

Today’s turbine blades, which can measure up to 200 feet long and weigh as much as 18 tons each, are made from petroleum-based polymers. When they are retired, they are commonly incinerated, landfilled, or cut up and used as filler in construction. “One of the things we’re looking at is to replace petroleum-based resins with sustainable resins. We’re going to find a new material that has the same properties as the current ones,” says Professor Chrisopher Niezrecki of UMass. Niezrecki estimates that the U.S. will be purging over 34,000 blades annually by 2030 as the industry booms.

If researchers can develop a strong and cost-efficient “bio-resin” based on, say, vegetable oil, its application could go beyond turbine blades to any product made from fiberglass, such as boats, swimming pools, and bath tubs.

Image by iStock/dan_prat.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Nov 20, 2012

The Turkey Menace

Turkey deflectorCyclists in my part of the world are struggling with a new hazard these days: wild turkeys wandering into the roadway. The beautiful hills of the East Bay (i.e., San Francisco Bay) are overrun with them, as Daniel McGlynn reported in Bay Nature:

The turkeys arrived due to a long effort by the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to establish the species as a game animal here. Starting in the 1870s and then again episodically in the early 1900s, the state released turkeys, but the efforts failed, mainly because the farm-raised birds couldn’t adapt to the wild. Then in the late 1970s DFG officials started capturing Rio Grande wild turkeys in Texas and releasing them in California, where they’ve adapted so well that their numbers have grown exponentially.

It's not unusual now to come upon flocks of 20 or more turkeys grazing the East Bay's oak woodlands. And they're not only here: Riding in southern Oregon last Thanksgiving, I was seconds away from being an ironic headline in the local newspaper when I rounded a corner on a steep descent and encountered a flock of gobblers, who luckily took wing at the last second. Last month, a local rider was not so fortunate when he collided with a turkey and later died of his injuries.

That tragic incident led to a lively conversation on the listserve of my local cycling club. Many riders recalled their own close calls with the ubiquitous fowl. One suggested using a fairing as a turkey deflector (pictured above--sadly practicable only for recumbents), in the manner of the cow-catchers on old locomotives. Most, however, simply savored their imminent revenge on turkey-kind. A happy--and safe--Thanksgiving to all.   

Wild turkey photo by NNehring/iStock. Recumbent fairing by TerraCycle.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Nov 19, 2012

How Hot Is Too Hot?

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4°Celsisus (about 7.2°Fahrenheit), that's how hot. Thus sayeth the World Bank in its new report, Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. Yet that's precisely where we're headed:

Despite the global community’s best intentions to keep global warming below a 2°C increase above pre-industrial climate, higher levels of warming are increasingly likely. Scientists agree that countries’ current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change emission pledges and commitments would most likely result in 3.5 to 4°C warming. And the longer those pledges remain unmet, the more likely a 4°C world becomes.

The implications of a 4°C world were teased out for the Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics. They make for very dreary reading: sea-level rise of .5 to 1 meters; increase in tropical cyclone intensity; extreme heat waves like that which struck Russia in 2010 becoming the norm; mass migrations of peoples as islands sink and entire regions become uninhabitable.

In this new high-temperature climate regime, the coolest months are likely to be substantially warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century.

"It is my hope that this report shocks us into action," says World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in his foreword. "A 4°C world can, and must, be avoided. . . . The solutions don't lie only in climate finance or climate projects. The solutions lie in effective risk management and ensuring all our work, all our thinking, is designed with the threat of a 4°C world in mind."

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Nov 16, 2012

The Culture of Climate Change

Sandbags iStock_000022171576XSmall jay lazarinWhether having seen Lower Manhattan inundated during Superstorm Sandy will motivate more Americans to respond more seriously to the threats of climate change may depend on how much we see such storms’ effects culturally as much as physically.

According to Professor Neil Adger of the University of Exeter, cultural factors are key to making climate change real to people. In a study recently published in Nature Climate Change, Adger and fellow researchers argue that “governments have not yet addressed the cultural losses we are all facing as a result of global climate change and this could have catastrophic consequences. If the cultural dimensions of climate change continue to be ignored, it is likely that responses will fail to be effective because they simply do not connect with what matters to individuals and communities. It is vital that the cultural impact of climate change is considered, alongside plans to adapt our physical spaces to the changing environment.”

Making the connections are not that hard: Herders abandon pastoral ways as their grazing lands suffer. Traditional hunting and fishing in the Arctic withers as polar ice melts. Rocky Mountain ski resorts teeter into precarious financial straits as annual snowfall changes. Commuters can't get to their Wall Street offices. “When people experience the impacts of climate change in places that matter to them, the problems become real and they are motivated to make their futures more sustainable,” said Professor Katrina Brown of the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute. ”This is as true in coastal Cornwall as in Pacific Islands.”

As for New York, Bloomberg Businessweek gave the climate change discussion a solid kick with its recent cover “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” accompanying a photo of a darkened and flooded Manhattan street. (The publications’s editor, Josh Tyrangiel, tweeted: “Our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid.”)

Image of sandbags in Lower Manhattan by iStock/Jay Lazarin.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Nov 14, 2012

Finally, President Obama Addresses Climate Change

ObamanewsconferenceAn astonishing thing happened at today's White House press conference--someone (and thank you, Mark Landler of the New York Times!) finally asked a question about climate change. And a good one too! It went like this:

In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you’re going up to New York City, where you’re going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is changing our weather. What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change? And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?

This in itself is progress, as we went through three presidential debates without a mention of climate. Obama's initial response was a strong declaration of his belief in climate science--which also, sadly but truly, counts as progress in our current political culture:

You know, as you know, Mark, we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change. What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been extraordinarily — there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe. And I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.

So far so good! Obama continued with a strong defense of his actions on climate in his first term, and a promise of a national "education process" in the future:

Now, in my first term, we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks. That will have an impact. That will a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. We doubled the production of clean energy, which promises to reduce the utilization of fossil fuels for power generation. And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.

But we haven’t done as much as we need to. So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

Thereafter, it gets rather less inspirational:

I don’t know what — what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue. I also think there’s — there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.

I won’t go for that.

If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.

So you know, you can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this — moves this agenda forward.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying, though — (off mic) — probably still short of a consensus on some kind of — (off mic).

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I — that I’m pretty certain of. And look, we’re — we’re still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don’t get a tax hike. Let’s see if we can resolve that. That should be easy. This one’s hard. But it’s important because, you know, one of the things that we don’t always factor in are the costs involved in these natural disasters. We’d — we just put them off as — as something that’s unconnected to our behavior right now, and I think what, based on the evidence, we’re seeing is — is that what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road if — if — if we don’t do something about it.

So: An acknowledgement that serious action on climate involves some "tough political choices" (recall the battle over a national cap and trade bill in 2009) together with a pretty clear indication that those choices are not going to be made anytime soon. I hope we don't wait too long.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Hard Lessons Learned...Maybe

Black sunday Florentine_Films-S7737Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns' latest work, The Dust Bowl, does not drive home an explicit comparison between the Dust Bowl that consumed the southern Plains in the 1930s and ongoing climate change, but the implied connections are obvious. Airing on PBS on Sunday, November 18 and Monday, November 19, Burns’ four-hour documentary, writes Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Joel Connelly, "should be watched particularly by those who deny the mounting body of evidence that man can cause climate change, and that climate change can bring catastrophe."

The Dust Bowl, says Burns, "was a catastrophe of almost Biblical proportions--10 years and hundreds of storms--killing not only crops and cattle but children." After plowing up native grasses that had adapted to harsh conditions in the Plains with roots five feet deep, farmers planted wheat fields that, once confronted with unrelenting drought conditions, set the stage for dark, devastating dust clouds that one witness likened to "two midnights in a jug."

"It is an extraordinary cautionary tale, one that we should ponder now," Burns tells Connelly. "We have experienced a prolonged drought in the heart of the country, storms of exaggerated ferocity, and the hottest months since we began keeping records. I hope this experience--the Dust Bowl--launches a conversation about the long-term planning that humans don't like to do, but are required to do to save ourselves from ourselves."

On Thursday, November 15 at 2pm ET, filmmaker Burns and journalist Paula Zahn will host a live "YouTube event and national dialogue regarding the Dust bowl's legacy on both the environment and the culture of the United States." You can join in at youtube.com/pbs, and submit questions at youtube.com/pbs or #DustBowlPBS.

Image of Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, in Ulysses, Kansas, courtesy of Historic Adobe Museum.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Nov 12, 2012

Do The Math

Math is hardThere's an interesting argument going on, post election, as to whether the Romney campaign's failure to appreciate President Obama's lead in late polls was the result of delusion or incompetence. Many are ascribing the problem to what my favorite English professor at U.C. Berkeley, the late Julian Boyd, called "the sin of voluntarism"--i.e., believing something because you want to believe it. 

True Believing political campaigners, however, aren't the only ones ignoring inconvenient numbers and clinging to their own versions of reality. Those standing in the way of a rapid transition to a clean-energy economy can only do so by remaining willfully ignorant of the precariousness of our hold on a stable climate, as demonstrated by the International Energy Agency's new World Energy Outlook 2012. The topline finding from the report that many are fixing on is that by 2020, the United States is expected to outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world's largest oil producer. (So much for "Peak Oil.") The truly scary part, however, is this:

[T]he climate goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees Fahrenheit] is becoming more difficult and more costly with each year that passes. . . Almost four-fifths of the CO2 emissions allowable by 2035 are already locked-in by existing power plants, factories, buildings, etc. If action to reduce CO2 emissions is not taken before 2017, all the allowable CO2 emissions would be locked-in by existing energy infrastructure at that time.

Bottom line: If the world hopes to limit warming to 2 degrees C., "No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050." As Damian Carrington's excellent EnvironmentBlog puts it, "This means nothing less than leaving most of the world's coal, oil and gas in the ground or facing a destabilised climate, with its supercharged heatwaves, floods and storms."

If we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, then, it would follow that we shouldn't build an enormous pipeline across the United States to facilitate their use. Ignoring that simple math would be a sin.

Photo by YinYang/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Nov 09, 2012

War and Warming

Storm warning iStock_000013558332XSmall arcady_31Just in case you recoil at the thought of curling up with Climate and Social Stress: Implications for Security Analysis, the 280-page report issued today by the National Academy of Sciences at the behest of U.S. intelligence agencies, the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin offers a nice summary, including: “The country lacks the capacity to clarify what lies ahead as greenhouse heating continues, so gird for surprises.” Among the report’s recommendations: “The U.S. government should begin immediately to develop a systematic and enduring whole-of-government strategy for monitoring threats connected to climate change.”

Huffington Post reports the ominous irony that release of the report, the culmination of an 18-month investigation, was delayed by Hurricane Sandy.

Image by iStock/arcady_31

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”


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