30 August 2010

Glacial Slowness?

Riggs Glacier in Alaska
Glaciers have long been a byword for slowness. But perhaps they are not the slowest thing around.

A recent New York Times editorial quotes Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri as saying, when asked why she saw no immediate need to pass a comprehensive energy and climate bill, "You know, it took 50 years on health care."

The U.S. Senate is so sub-glacial in the speed of its deliberations that before it acts on climate change we may find that the glaciers (or more precisely the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica) have already voted, and not in our favor. The ice sheets will probably reach their tipping points before the Congress does.

In related news, the U.S. Geological Survey recently published "Glaciers of Asia" the ninth volume of its series "Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World", which finds "Many of Asia’s glaciers are retreating as a result of climate change." (Press release here.)

26 August 2010

U.S. Energy Flows

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has come out with its "Estimated U.S. Energy Use" flow chart covering the year 2009. These charts are always fascinating.

Chart by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from DOE/EIA data.
The full-size chart with annotations is available as PDF.

The most stunning thing about this picture, as in previous years, is how much of the energy that we mine or capture is wasted (the light grey parts of the diagram). The inefficiency of generators, motors and other devices, and losses during transmission, mean that of the 94.6 quadrillion BTUs the U.S. tapped in 2009, less than half provided useful heat or work. Fifty-eight percent was lost ("rejected", in EIA's terms).
  • 67% of the energy embodied in fuels used to generate electricity was lost, with only 33% of it being converted into electricity.
  • Of the energy embodied in fuels used for transportation, a stunning 75% didn't move any vehicles, but was lost.
  • By contrast use of energy in homes, businesses and factories was relatively efficient. The efficiency factor used by the LLNL analysts for these sectors is 80%.

Learning more

Here are some of the other things we can learn from this graph (and the accompanying LLNL press release):
  • Despite all the fuss about ethanol from corn, and the expenditure of billions every year subsidizing it, it only provided 3.4% of energy used for transportation (the thin green line leading from "biomass" to "transportation"). This was only a little more energy than the natural gas used for transport, though it is about 30 times as much as electricity used for transport.
  • Solar energy is a vanishingly small part of electricity supply--about three tenths of one percent.
  • Wind provided about 2% of energy used for electricity generation, up by about a third from 2008.
  • All the wind power in the chart is from large-scale wind farms. Distributed small-scale wind generation still isn't big enough to show on the chart.
  • Total energy use was down by about 5% from 2008 due to the weak economy, and also possibly some improvements in efficiency. Residential use was down about 2%, commercial use about 1%, industrial use about 9% and transportation about 3%.
  • Biomass is used to heat homes (4% of residential energy use), and to power cars as ethanol, and a minute amount to make electricity (1% of energy for generation), but more than half is used in industrial facilities. This is probably mostly waste being converted to power and process heat at paper mills, food processing plants, lumber mills, furniture manufacturers, waste processing plants and the like. 
  • Although one hears about the possibility of renewable energy powering plug-in battery-electric vehicles to help wean us off oil, even all the nation's renewably generated electricity (about 10% of electrical energy, one quad, not counting nuclear but including big hydro) would only satisfy about 4% of current transportation energy needs. This would be about 40 times more electricity than is currently used in transportation. And of course diversion of that amount of power to transportation would require a corresponding increase in energy resources to generate electricity for all its current uses.
  • To replace the 18 quads of coal used to generate electricity, output of utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal would have to increase nearly 20-fold.
  • 94.5 quads of energy consumption is 300 million BTU for every resident of the U.S., about 90,000 kW-h.
We should thank A.J. Simon, the LLNL energy systems analyst who develops the energy flow charts. His efforts provide real insight. (Compare the weak flow chart provided by EIA.) Here is a nice article on Lawrence Livermore's 25-year effort to chart U.S. energy use.

The data for the chart come from the EIA's Annual Energy Review 2009.

LLNL's news release is here. The PDF of the chart and notes from LLNL is here.

Credit is due to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the Department of Energy, under whose auspices the work was performed. Full source information is in the PDF of the chart here.

18 August 2010

Curse of Immortality and Plastic Migration--Update

They are everywhere, but how much do we really know about them? These two films give new insight into the feelings and struggles of plastic bags.

1. Biography

Poignant short film explores the misfortune of eternal existence . . . of a plastic bag. Voiced by Werner Herzog. (18:33) Part of Futurestates from Independent Television Service.

If you can't see the video here, you can watch it on YouTube.

2. Documentary

This nature documentary/campaign advertisement tracks the parlous migration of this fascinating species. Narrated by Jeremy Irons. (3:59) Presented by Heal the Bay.

If you can't see the video here, you can watch it on YouTube.

Coming soon . . .

How long before other filmmakers take up the challenge and we see, perhaps, a western, a thriller, or buddy movie? Of course number 1 above has characteristics of a road movie. Plastic Bag--The Musical?

See Doc's earlier analysis of the trend toward eco-villains here (spoiler alert).

[Originally posted (about just "Plastic Bag") on Doc's blog at HaraBara.com.]
(Explore types of movies here.)

05 August 2010

Learning From China

Lei Fung poster
The Chinese were famously exhorted, in a campaign in the 1960s, to "Learn from Comrade Lei Feng". Maybe the time has come for nations around the world to begin to learn from China.

Much of the news about China's growing leadership in clean technology and green markets is due to China's size. It has huge and growing markets and manufacturing capacity for everything, including wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, green buildings and other low-carbon technology.

Every day news items note China becoming the biggest in this, a leader in that. Here are some recent item headlines from Daily Green Brief, just over the past few weeks:
  • US slips to second behind China for new wind power in 2009
  • China 'leapfrogs US to become biggest energy user'
  • The State of New Energy Investing ("There is little doubt about the most striking 2009 New Energy (NE) and Energy Efficiency (EE) statistic: Investment in China grew 53%. The world invested $119 billion in NE/EE in 2009 and China got $33.7 billion of it.")
But other items reveal China's aggressive development of new energy and environmental policies and programs.
  • China may launch environmental tax trial
  • China to invest $15 billion over 10 years for green autos
  • BSG hybrid expected to be standard for cars in China
  • China May Spend $738 Billion on Clean Energy Projects
  • GM to get boost from China's fuel-efficient vehicle incentives
  • Environment tribunals hammer polluters with legal accountability

Breaking the policy deadlock

Policy responses to the challenges of global climate change have ranged from "none" to "feeble" to "serious". Especially in the great free-market democracies the process has been uninspiring. Traditional carbon-intensive energy sources are so well entrenched, and generate so much money and political power, that any measures that might trim their profitability are, it seems, impossible.

China has its own problems with entrenched political power centers, and its policymaking can be criticized from many angles. But it begins to look like China is pushing forward with creative policies, incentives, taxes, regulations and programs that could become guides to other nations.

Many Chinese policy options will be unavailable or unattractive to other nations. Few jurisdictions would threaten to execute gross polluters, environmental exploiters and others who put profit above social responsibility. Fewer still would carry out such executions. But China does use this approach to focus the mind of potential scofflaws.

China's monolithic single-party system of government can also act faster than many more democratic institutions. (Although this system alone does not guarantee economic success or social benefits--witness The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.) Even in China's own recent past the power of the party has led to policy disasters, like the Great Leap Forward. Of course no political system is immune from policy blunders, even government-caused catastrophes.

Will there be followers?

The leaders of China seem to have found an approach that enables both great central control and powerful business and individual enterprise. Its leaders seem to be willing to try policies and evaluate their impact, and then adjust them as needed. This approach should generate a wealth of policy experience useful to governments around the world.

China could be a leader in imposition of carbon taxes and other means of bringing the cost of externalities home to polluters. Carbon taxes have been tried in only a few other jurisdictions (British Columbia and Denmark come to mind). Anything that could conceivably be called a tax is politically impossible in the USA. Carbon taxes have many technical advantages as ways to shift the allocation of resources without micromanagement from the center.

Taxes and incentives seem to be more attractive to Chinese policymakers than carbon markets, although they will try both. Markets are potentially more efficient, but they are politically difficult to create. The carbon markets created so far seem highly distorted by free allocation of permits to the politically powerful and other tinkering that robs them of much of their efficiency. And of course the great beacon of free markets, the United States, which invented pollution markets, can't establish them in the current political climate.

China's transportation policies make a stark contrast with India's, for example. While China is building more and more high-speed trains and rail lines, India can barely keep its current rail system rolling. China is encouraging the development of electric and hybrid cars, while India seems happy with more cars of any kind. These policy decisions will have major impacts on the future emissions of both nations.

If others around the world see, over time, apparent success in China's moves to reduce carbon intensity, control environmental pollution, improve public health, and build green industries they may wish to imitate them. Will that imitation extend to emulation of China's political system as well as its specific policies?

A new beacon?

If China can demonstrate that the right to develop does not necessarily require the right to pollute, and that economic prosperity can go hand in hand with carbon reduction, its leadership on climate policy among the emerging economies will be enhanced. In any event it seems obvious that the policy approaches of the U.S., Russia, Australia and some other leading nations are unlikely to be found worthy of emulation.

The EU and some of its members can still claim some successes, and could provide another source of climate policy wisdom. Brazil may do the same, but Brazil just isn't as big as China, and lacks its global political clout.

Few countries have China's great wealth, resources, and markets, so none can follow its approaches exactly. But many will carefully study its example.