Why There Is No Better Time For Wind and Solar Energy Than Now
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report, which explores ways to cut carbon emissions, put the world on notice. Despite efforts in the United States, Europe and developing countries such as China to ramp up energy efficiency and renewable energy, global carbon emissions have been increasing at a much faster clip than they were just a few decades ago. To avoid the worst of the worst, IPCC scientists say emissions will have to be reduced 40 percent to 70 percent by 2050 and warn that we only have a 15-year window to reverse course.
"We cannot afford to lose another decade," said Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist who co-chaired the committee that wrote the report. "If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization."
As Edenhofer points out, the cost of doing nothing likely would dwarf whatever we might spend today to address climate change. That said, it makes the most sense to replace fossil fuels with the most cost-effective, safest, carbon-free and low-carbon options that can be deployed as quickly as possible.
For the biggest source of U.S. carbon pollution—electric utilities—the best solution is wind, solar and other renewable energy technologies, which, according to the new IPCC report, "have achieved a level of technical and economic maturity to enable deployment at a significant scale." In other words, renewables are now a lot cheaper and better than they were when the last IPCC report came out seven years ago.
Nuclear Not Economic
What about nuclear power? Although it now provides the most carbon-free electricity in the country, without a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, it's not economic, even with more than 50 years of generous federal subsidies.
Over the last decade, the estimated price tag for a new reactor has skyrocketed, jumping from $2 billion in 2002 to as high as $12 billion today. Wall Street won't finance a project unless Uncle Sam co-signs the loan, which leaves taxpayers on the hook if a project fails. So while Southern Company and its partners, with the help of an $8.3 billion federally guaranteed loan, are building two new reactors at the Vogtle nuclear plant site in Georgia, it's unlikely the industry will be able to muster more than two or three more in the next decade. As recently as five years ago, utilities applied for licenses to build more than 25 new reactors.
At the same time the nuclear industry's hoped-for renaissance has fizzled, older reactors are shutting down. Four reactors closed last year because of prohibitively expensive safety upgrades or competition from cheaper energy sources, namely natural gas and wind. Economics will close a fifth reactor, Vermont Yankee, this fall, and the nation's largest nuclear plant operator, Exelon, said in February that unless market conditions improve, it will announce plant closings by the end of this year.
Wind, Solar More Affordable
Unlike new reactors, the cost of solar and wind has dropped dramatically. Solar panel prices have plummeted more than 75 percent since 2008, and the cost of generating electricity from wind turbines declined more than 40 percent over the past three years, sparking a construction boom. Last year, solar installations in the United States amounted to a record 5.1 gigawatts, boosting the national total to nearly 13 gigawatts—enough to power nearly 2.2 million typical American homes. And by the end of December, there were enough wind turbines across the country to power 15.5 million homes and cut annual electric power sector carbon emissions by 4.4 percent.
Given solar and wind's exponential growth, experts see tremendous potential. The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), for example, projects that wind and solar could produce 15 percent of U.S. electricity by 2020, 27 percent by 2030, and 50 percent by 2050.
Still, naysayers harp on the fact that wind and solar power are intermittent. The sun doesn't always shine, they say, and the wind doesn't always blow. That may be true, but it's not a deal-breaker. Studies by NREL and electricity grid operators in the United States and Europe conclude that larger contributions from solar and wind would not create significant technological problems or impose higher costs.
"Meeting demand in the face of variability and uncertainty is old hat for grid operators," said Mike Jacobs, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) who used to work at NREL. "They're already doing it with wind and solar here in the United States and in Europe.
"Besides, spreading wind and solar installations over a large enough area would help address the intermittency issue," he added. "The wind is always blowing somewhere, and if we increased the percentage of wind and solar to 30 percent—which we should be able to do within the next 15 years—the system's flexibility to manage supply and demand, along with a updated grid, should be able to integrate that power."
Renewables Provide More Resilience
Ramping up renewables not only would cut carbon emissions, it also would diversify the national electricity system and make it more resilient, according to a new UCS report. That system—which includes power plants, transmission lines and fuel delivery networks—was not designed to withstand all of today's extreme weather events, many of which have been linked to climate change.
Sea level rise, for example, threatens nearly 100 coastal electricity facilities, including power plants and substations, the UCS report found. Water temperature and availability also pose major problems. Older coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants rely on a "once-through" cooling process that draws hundreds of millions, if not billions, of gallons of water daily from the closest water body. When that river, lake or ocean gets too hot, which is happening with greater frequency, the plants have to cut back production or shut down temporarily. Likewise, droughts can substantially reduce water availability, while flooding from extreme rainfall can overwhelm a plant, as it did in June 2011 when a record-breaking Missouri River flood forced the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant near Omaha to remain shut down after a scheduled refueling outage two months earlier.
Renewables don't suffer from the same limitations. Rooftop solar panels and wind turbines, for instance, rely on smaller, more distributed units, which make it less likely that extreme weather events would have the same dramatic impact. Moreover, renewables are less vulnerable to drought and heat because they don't require water.
Let's Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuels
To get where we need to go, the federal government has to turn its outdated energy subsidy policy on its head. The oil and gas industry has been enjoying average annual subsidies and tax breaks of $4.86 billion in today's dollars since 1918, according to a 2011 analysis by DBL Investors, a venture capital firm. The nuclear industry, DBL found, benefited from an average of $3.5 billion a year in subsidies from 1947 to 1999. And coal, which has been getting federal and state subsidies since the early 1800s, currently receives at least $3.2 billion a year, according to a 2011 Harvard study.
Renewables, on the other hand, averaged only $370 million a year in subsidies between 1994 and 2009, according to DBL. The 2009 stimulus package did provide $21 billion for renewables, but that support barely began to balance the scales that still tilt toward fossil fuels. Just last December, for example, Congress allowed a key wind industry tax break to expire, but it continues to support massive subsidies for coal, oil and gas.
Americans represent less than 5 percent of the world's population, but we're responsible for 19 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Despite the fact that China surpassed us as the world's top carbon emitter in 2006, we're still the worst offenders per capita. So after subsidizing coal for more than 200 years and oil and gas for nearly 100—which inadvertently got us into this mess—it's long past time to take fossil fuels off the dole and go all out to promote renewables. Fifteen years is just around the corner.
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By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
Tropical Storm Josephine Also No Threat to Land<p>Meanwhile, the season's record-earliest tenth named storm, Tropical Storm Josephine, was also struggling with high wind shear as it traced out a path over the open ocean.</p><p>At 5 a.m. EDT Saturday, Josephine was located about 310 miles east of the northern Leeward Islands, moving west-northwest at 15 mph with top sustained winds at 45 mph. Josephine is expected to bring one to three inches of rain over portions of the northern Leeward Islands, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico over the weekend. Josephine will encounter steadily rising wind shear through Monday, peaking at a very high 30 – 35 knots. This high shear is likely to destroy Josephine's circulation by Monday, before the storm can affect any other land areas.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/08/tropical-storm-kyle-forms-unlikely-to-affect-land/" target="_blank">Yale Climate Connections</a>. </em><em></em></p>
By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds<p>The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures. </p><p>Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.</p><p>There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.</p><p>They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.</p>
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.<p>But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called <a href="https://theoceancleanup.com/" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a>, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage. </p>
Collecting With the Current<p>"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/green-entrepreneur-sets-sights-on-great-pacific-garbage-patch/a-38855785" target="_blank">The Ocean Cleanup</a> declares on its website.</p><p>But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.</p><p>One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.</p><p>One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."</p>
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.<p>The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."</p><p>"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."</p><p>Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.</p>
Communication Breakdown<p>The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."</p><p>Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.</p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said. </p>
Inshore Solution?<p>Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.</p><p>"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says. </p><p>As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first. </p><p>The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Great Pacific Garbage Patch</a>. </p><p>The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.</p><p>Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.</p><p><span></span>"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/environment-conservation-plastic-oceans/a-54436603" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.<a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2646992655#/" target="_self"></a></em><em></em></p>
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