Air Pollution Intensifies Pacific Storms

Pollution from China's coal-burning power plants is pumping up winter storms over the northwest Pacific Ocean and changing North America's weather, a new study finds.

Northwest Pacific winter storms are now 10 percent stronger than they were 30 years ago, before Asian countries began their industrial boom, according to research published today (April 14) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

North America will be hardest hit by the intensifying storms, which move from west to east, said lead study author Yuan Wang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"The increasing pollution in Asian countries is not just a local problem, it can affect other parts of the world," Wang told Live Science.

Aerosol emissions have rapidly increased in Asia in recent decades. For example, China is now the world's largest coal consumer, and in Beijing, air pollution levels have soared 400 times higher than World Health Organization limits. In contrast, aerosols from North America and Europe have meanwhile decreased, because of clean air regulations. [China's Top 6 Environmental Concerns]

Wang and his co-authors examined how the tiny pollution particles in Asia play a role in cloud formation and the storms that spin up each winter east of Japan, in a cyclone breeding ground north of 30 degrees latitude. Monsoon winds carry aerosols from Asia to this storm nursery in the winter.
The researchers created a computer model of six kinds of aerosol pollution and tested their effects on clouds, precipitation and global weather patterns. Different aerosols affect storms in varying ways, such as by blocking the sun's radiation or providing a nucleus around which water vapor can condense to form raindrops.

The new study finds that sulfate aerosols are among the most important drivers of Pacific storms, by encouraging more moisture to condense in clouds, Wang said.

Pollution from Asia is also changing weather patterns over North America, Wang added.
Wang said this winter's unusually cold weather east of the Rocky Mountains could have been influenced by pollution-driven cyclones and high-pressure systems in the northern Pacific. These Pacific weather patterns caused swoops in the jet stream that drove cold air south across the central and eastern United States — the so-called polar vortex. The same weather patterns are linked with record-high temperatures in Alaska this winter.

"This cold winter in the U.S. probably had something to do with stronger cyclones over the Pacific," Wang said.


The researchers are testing more sophisticated computer models to better understand the effects of stronger storms and increasing pollution on global weather patterns, Wang said.


This article is reposted from Scientific American Author credit goes to Becky Oskin Images credit goes to Nasa Earth Observatory


World Wind Power Poised to Bounce Back after Slowing in 2013

At the end of 2013, the wind farms installed in more than 85 countries had a combined generating capacity of 318,000 megawatts, which would be enough to meet the residential electricity needs of the European Union’s 506 million people. New data from the Global Wind Energy Council show that wind developers built 35,000 megawatts of new generating capacity worldwide in 2013. This was down from 45,000 megawatts installed in 2012—marking only the second time in 25 years that installed capacity increased by less than it did the year before.

The principal reason for the decline in new capacity was a more than 90 percent drop in U.S. wind farm installations from a record 13,000 megawatts in 2012. Although the United States has the second-highest wind power capacity in the world—some 61,000 megawatts—a lack of long-term policy planning has led to several such boom-and-bust cycles.

Despite the dearth of new capacity, there were many bright spots for U.S. wind power in 2013. Wind accounted for at least 12 percent of the electricity generated in nine states, including Iowa (27 percent) and South Dakota (26 percent). Iowa will get another boost from a $1.9 billion deal announced in December 2013: Warren Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy Company purchased Siemens turbines totaling more than 1,000 megawatts, all destined for Iowa wind projects. When complete in 2015, these wind farms will likely bring the wind share of electricity in Iowa to at least 33 percent.

Wind’s contribution to the grid is also growing in Texas, the U.S. wind capacity leader with 12,400 megawatts. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas reports that wind farms produced nearly 10 percent of the electricity delivered to its 24 million customers in 2013. And with the early-2014 completion of state-funded transmission projects linking windy West Texas and the Panhandle to population centers to the east, Texas can accommodate even more clean electricity on the grid. The state has 7,000 megawatts of new wind power capacity under construction, more than half of the 12,000 megawatts currently being built nationwide.

China has led the world in installed capacity since surpassing the United States in 2010. In contrast to the drop in U.S. installations in 2013, China’s wind construction accelerated—adding 16,000 megawatts to reach a total 91,000 megawatts. Wind further solidified its role as the number three electricity source in China (behind coal and hydropower), out-generating nuclear power by an impressive 22 percent. The National Energy Administration aims to make wind-generated electricity cost-competitive with coal by 2020. (See data.)

As in Texas and many other places around the world, some of China’s best wind resources are found far from major cities where electricity demand is high. High-voltage transmission lines now under construction will connect wind-rich provinces in the north and west with more populous ones in the central and eastern provinces. For example, one project linking remote Xinjiang province to the 4 million people in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, was completed in early 2014. Infrastructure projects such as this one will be critical in reaching the official Chinese goal of 200,000 megawatts of grid-connected wind capacity by 2020.

India, the country with the fifth-highest amount of installed capacity, added 1,700 megawatts in 2013 to cross the 20,000 megawatt threshold. Although this was 25 percent less new capacity than in 2012, India is poised to grow its wind power base dramatically in the coming years. In January 2014, the government announced a National Wind Energy Mission—in the spirit of the country’s National Solar Mission—to be launched mid-year. By beefing up the grid and using incentives to attract investment to wind hotspots, the program aims to hit 100,000 megawatts of wind within eight years.

Development is picking up elsewhere in Asia as well. In Pakistan, wind power capacity doubled to 100 megawatts in 2013 and will double again when two 50-megawatt projects go online in 2014. Thailand also doubled its wind capacity in 2013, reaching 220 megawatts. And the Philippines has seven projects due for completion in 2014 that will expand wind capacity there 13-fold to 450 megawatts.
Before China’s recent surge, Europe was the leading wind power region. Germany, which added 3,200 megawatts in 2013, ranks third worldwide in total capacity, with 34,000 megawatts. Four of its northern states regularly get half or more of their electricity from wind farms.

When it comes to wind’s contribution to national electricity needs, European countries top the leaderboard. Denmark gets one third of its electricity from wind, well on its way to a target of 50 percent by 2020. Portugal, Lithuania, Spain, and Ireland come in at around 20 percent each. In fact, wind came within a percentage point of beating nuclear power for the title of Spain’s number one electricity source in 2013. And Germany, Europe’s largest economy, obtained 8 percent of its electricity from wind farms.

While some of the larger European wind power markets, including Spain, Italy, and France, have slowed down, smaller players are speeding up. Poland and Romania each expanded their wind power capacity by 36 percent in 2013, to 3,400 and 2,600 megawatts, respectively. And in Turkey, even though the approval process for projects is slow, wind capacity grew by 28 percent to nearly 3,000 megawatts.

One region with enormous wind potential but little development so far is Latin America. Brazil, best known for getting 80 percent of its electricity from large hydropower, hosts the most wind power capacity in the region—now close to 3,500 megawatts after a 950-megawatt addition in 2013. At government auctions, wind companies have won more than half of all contracts to sell electricity since 2011, according to Bloomberg data. Some 10,000 megawatts of wind may be installed in Brazil between 2014 and 2019. Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay also added wind power in 2013.
In all of Africa, just one project added capacity in 2013. The final 90 megawatts of Ethiopia’s 120-megawatt Ashegoda Wind Farm went into operation, more than doubling the country’s wind capacity to 170 megawatts. South Africa has 2,100 megawatts of wind power in the pipeline, including 750 megawatts to be added in 2014 alone.

Offshore projects account for just over 2 percent of the wind capacity installed worldwide. Having hit a seventh straight annual installation record in 2013, however, offshore wind is growing fast. More than half of the 7,100 megawatts of offshore capacity belongs to the United Kingdom, which installed 730 megawatts in its waters in 2013. Denmark, Germany, and Belgium each added at least 190 megawatts to their totals, while China added 39 megawatts. Both Vietnam and Spain added offshore wind capacity for the first time, as did the United States, although the U.S. project was one very small demonstration turbine off the coast of Maine.

Offshore wind is still one of the more expensive electricity generating technologies, but onshore wind is often highly competitive with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power in areas with strong wind resources. And costs continue to fall as wind manufacturers steadily improve turbine efficiency, harnessing more wind per machine. In the United States, the average price of wind-generated electricity has dropped 40 percent since 2009.

After a slower year in 2013, world wind installations will bounce back in 2014, perhaps to a new record—the Global Wind Energy Council sees the potential for 47,000 megawatts. Roughly half of the total will be built in China and the United States (around three times more in the former than in the latter). This is good news for the wind business, for electricity consumers, and for people who value cleaner air and water. But increasingly dire scientific warnings about the consequences of climate change mean that the world will need to accelerate the shift to carbon-free, renewable sources of energy even more so in the years to come.


For a plan to stabilize the Earth’s climate, see “Time for Plan B.” Data and additional resources available at www.earth-policy.org.


This article is reposted from Grist Author credit goes to EarthPolicyInstitute Images credit goes to EarthPolicyInstitute

Wind Power Has Cut U.S. Carbon Dioxide Emissions By 4.4 Percent: Report

WASHINGTON -- The growth of wind power in the United States is putting a significant dent in emissions, according to a forthcoming report from the American Wind Energy Association. Wind generation avoided 95.6 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, which is equivalent to taking 16.9 million cars off the road.

That's a 4.4 percent cut to power sector emissions, when compared to the level of emissions that would have been generated if that power had come from fossil fuels. Wind proponents say that's evidence that the wind industry is playing a major role in meeting U.S. emissions goals. "Every time a megawatt of wind power is generated, something else is not generated," said Elizabeth Salerno, AWEA's vice president for industry data and analysis.
There are now 61,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S., with turbines in 39 states. Another 12,000 megawatts of wind power are currently under construction, and power projects for which contracts are signed but construction has yet to start are expected to produce another 5,200 megawatts. AWEA says those additional projects should cut another 1 percent of power sector emissions, putting the country closer to the Obama administration's goal of cutting total U.S. emissions 17 percent by 2020.

The switch to natural gas for power generation, spurred by lower prices in recent years, is usually given most of the credit for reductions in emissions from the power sector over the last nine years. But plants now burning gas could switch back to coal if prices go back up, said Salerno, so "those aren't fixed, permanent reductions." With wind, she says, "those reductions are locked in."

The AWEA report also found that the expansion of wind energy has helped reduce water consumption by 36.5 billion gallons, or about 116 gallons of water per U.S. resident. Thermal power plants, which include coal, nuclear and some natural gas-fired units, use the fuel source to boil water, which produces the steam that turns the turbines that generate electricity. Plants also require water for cooling, whereas wind turbines do not.

Jordan Macknick, an energy and environmental analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has said that wind is the "clear winner" when comparing the water use of different types of electricity generation.
AWEA says two big factors could help boost the continued growth of wind: the extension of the production tax credit, which provides a financial incentive for wind development, and possible changes to the EPA's emission standards for existing power facilities. Regarding the former, the Senate Finance Committee approved a billThursday that would extend the credit through the end of 2015. It had lapsed at the end of the 2013.

As for the EPA, it's still not clear what the standards for emissions reductions fromexisting power plants will look like. The EPA said Friday that it has sent its draft standards to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review, and expects to release those draft standards in June, per President Barack Obama's climate action plan. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said that standards will be crafted in a way that allows states to develop their own feasible emission reduction plans through energy efficiency measures and the increased use of renewable energy.


It's not yet clear, however, how steep the emissions cuts for existing plants will be. It's also not yet clear how much of a state's compliance with the standards will be expected to come from changes inside the power plants -- such as efficiency or technology upgrades -- or from added capacity via renewables. AWEA argues EPA could "set the standard pretty aggressively" for states to use additional generation from wind and other renewables to comply.


This article is reposted from Huffington Post Author credit goes to Kate Sheppard Images credit goes to Jim Cole/ AP

Why Investing in Aging Coal Plants is a Losing Bet

Across the U.S., economics are increasingly favoring investment in renewable energy at the expense of dirty coal energy. As the price of solar dips below coal and even natural gas in some instances, the domestic demand for coal wanes and a growing number of companies are eager to get out of their investments in aging coal plants that cost more than they’re worth to upgrade and, in a growing number of instances, just to keep running.

As the nation’s coal power plants age, they become more expensive to maintain. The costs associated with making long-term investments in an aging coal plant, including replacing breaking parts and upgrades like scrubbers and other pollution controls, often exceeds the economic viability of coal in the long-term.

Meanwhile, the natural gas prices remain low, ample wind and solar energy provides cost-effective alternatives, and energy efficiency, always the lowest-cost resource, reduces demand. Further public health protections and the first federal standards limiting carbon pollution from power plants—a key driver of climate change—are also on the horizon, all making dirty coal a shaky investment proposition.

Electricity Customers and Tax Payers Share Financial Risk of Coal Investment

Electricity customers bear the burden of long-term gambles made by utilities that coal will remain a viable energy investment. When deciding whether it makes economic sense to upgrade coal plants or retire them, utility regulatory boards are weighing utilities’ bids to pass these growing costs on to customers.

Recent examples of failing coal plant economics include:
  • In Illinois, coal plant owner Ameren Corp. recently had to pay a company, Dynergy, to take five coal plants off its hands—they couldn’t give away these plants for free. And there’s no guarantee Dynergy plans to invest to keep the coal plants up and running either. They’ve already announced plans to shut at least one of the units.
  • In Michigan, when a coal plant when on the auction blocks, no bidders offered to purchase the Upper Peninsula coal plant.
  • Recently, the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission told Puget Sound Energy it needed to reconsider its bid to continue investing in a Montana coal plant rather than decommissioning it, citing the financial risk involved as natural gas prices continue to plummet. The utility board pointed out that the likelihood of new emissions standards for coal plants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may also reduce the cost effectiveness of doubling down on the Colstrip plant in Montana.
  • In Oregon, PacifiCorp is facing a similar questioning from the utility board about whether ratepayers should be on the hook to finance for its plan to invest billions to upgrade its fleet of coal plants.
Even though companies are paying to have others take over their coal plant portfolios and utility boards are examining what costs should be borne by electricity customers, the public may still be on the hook for long-term investments in the fossil fuel. As a report by Chicago Business Travel Association made clear, the coal industry actually cost Illinois taxpayers $19.8 million in 2011 when revenues, subsidies and the expenses of regulation were netted out. And that cost doesn’t include the environmental and public health costs from related air and water pollution and climate change that are borne by the public.

Coal’s Shrinking Market Share as Clean Energy Becomes More Economical

Internationally, financial support for new coal-fired plants is quickly fading. Last June, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank –lending organizations that had formerly invested billions of dollars into coal plants around the world—pulled out of financing overseas coal plants except in special circumstances.

Coal’s share of America’s energy market is also way down from just a few years ago. Investors already expected another bleak year for the U.S. coal industry—but 2014 may be the record-setting worst year for coal producers, according to a new report by ICF International.

Looking ahead, nearly a quarter of the nation’s coal fleet could be retired by end of the decade. Of 536 coal-fired plants in U.S., 84 have already announced retirement and Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates that 146 units more may retire by 2020. Coal’s contribution to the U.S. energy supply also is falling. Coal accounted for 39 percent of total U.S. electricity generation last year, down from about 50 percent from 2003-2008 and a rebound from a record low 37 percent in 2012.

The natural gas boom has certainly played a big role in coal’s shrinking market share, but the lower cost of clean energy is also a growing trend. In fact, solar energy is making headlines for its record-low prices, including in Texas. Austin Energy (a city-owned utility) is about to sign a 25-year power purchase agreement with Sun Edison for 150 megawatts of solar power at “just below” 5 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In comparison, the municipal utility estimates that natural gas would cost 7 cents per kWh and coal would cost 10 cents per kWh—meaning solar is the most affordable source of energy available for the utility, in addition to being the cleanest option. And the utility can lock in that price for 25 years through this contract, a winning proposition given the volatility predicted on the horizon for the other energy options.


As coal plants become more financially untenable and renewable energy continues to become more economical, long-term investments in clean energy is quickly becoming the smart economic choice for investors, electricity customers, and the planet.

This entry is the first of a two-part follow up to the blog Long wrote last fall. This first entry focuses on the national story, the next entry will focus on coal in the west.


This article is reposted from EcoWatch Author credit goes to Noah Long Images credit goes to Doc Searls

Why Your Next Plastic Bottle Will Be Made From Shale Gas

Even as more signs emerge that the natural gas bubble is heading for a colossal bust, Exxon Mobil shale gas is officially a thing. The company plunged into the shale gas market in 2010 with the acquisition of XTO Energy and weirdly enough, the recent drop in gas prices only seems to have whetted its appetite for more. Rumors are flying that Exxon Mobil is set to buy out mega-giant shale gas developer Chesapeake Energy, and in the mean time Exxon Mobil has announced that it will expand its Baytown, Texas chemical facility to convert natural gas to polyethylene, the world’s most common plastic.

It might look like the decision-makers at Exxon Mobil are off their collective rockers, but it seems to us that they have an end game. As competition in the fuel market heats up from solar and wind energy, Exxon Mobil is tapping into a huge non-fuel market for natural gas with the Baytown gas-to-plastic expansion.

Polyethylene is perhaps best known for its use in plastic bottles, but it has many other applications including kitchen bags and wraps, industrial tubing and piping, and any number of plastic parts and products.

The Exxon Mobil Baytown Expansion

Though much better known for its oil activity and for its intense (and sometimes bizarre) lobbying against climate action, Exxon Mobil also happens to be the largest natural gas producer in the US. That’s even before the Chesapeake acquisition, assuming that happens.

Baytown, not coincidentally, is also already the largest refinery and integrated petrochemical operation in the US.

Exxon Mobil announced plans for the Baytown expansion last spring and expects the gas-to-plastic operation to be humming away by the end of 2016.

According to a report in Chron.com, the company’s natural gas assets were already the main driver behind the Baytown expansion last year, so if the Chesapeake acquisition goes through this year it will add more fuel to an already hot fire.

The Chesapeake Angle

Chesapeake is notorious in its own right. Its long trail of financial troubles has tilted a business media spotlight on the shale gas boom-turned-bust, leading to a great deal of frayed nerves among pension funds and other major investors, as noted by our friends over at Fuel Fix.

Just yesterday, Fuel Fix noted that top investor Carl Icahn, who reportedly owns about ten percent of Chesapeake, is one of the shale gas investors pushing for a shakeup of the industry.

For Chesapeake, that seems to mean a sale is in the works. As recently as last month, the Dallas Business Journal (bizjournals.com) reported that Icahn is seeking a cash bid for Chesapeake, with Exxon Mobil among the short list of potential buyers.

Exxon Mobil Shale Gas

All of this activity is taking place against a backdrop of increasing public attention to natural gas in general, and shale gas in particular, due to the controversial shale drilling method called fracking (short for hydrofracturing).

We’ve previously noted that natural gas has been vigorously promoted as a cleaner alternative to oil or coal in terms of global warming emissions, which has gone a long way toward creating a favorable public image for natural gas as fuel.

Also helping things along to a significant degree is an exemption to the Clean Water Act that then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former oil industry executive, won for the fracking industry during the Bush Administration.

Fracking is a drilling method that involves injecting a chemical brine deep underground. It involves massive quantities of water and contaminated wastewater, so it would seem to be an imperative for disclosure regulations under the Clean Water Act, but due to the Cheney loophole the industry has been insulated from public reaction to the contaminants it is introducing into local environments.

Other local fracking impacts are too numerous to mention here (they include earthquakes, for one thing), but the thing that really interests us is the fugitive emissions issue.

Fugitive emissions refers to the unintentional release of natural gas all along the lifecycle, from drilling and transportation on up to storage and distribution.

Since the primary component of natural gas is the powerful greenhouse gas methane, that’s a huge issue, and evidence is beginning to emerge any earth-friendliness that natural gas can claim compared to other fossil fuels is at least counterbalanced, if not entirely overwhelmed, by fugitive emissions.

The fugitive emissions issue is bad enough when applied to natural gas as a fuel but at least in that sector, natural gas can truthfully claim that it involves far less greenhouse gas emissions than oil or coal when burned. That’s an especially important point in its favor when you consider the new generation of highly efficient “combined cycle” gas-fired power plants.

However, when you get into gas-to-plastics, then you have to consider the emergence of bioplastics and other earth friendly alternatives including renewable biogas from human wastewater.

In that context, the advantages of fossil natural gas, especially fracked gas, completely disappear and the controversy over fracking is bound to create even more uncertainty in an already shaky market.
Hey, don’t trust me, trust Fox News. That network’s Sacramento affiliate covered the massive anti-fracking rally in California last weekend and heaped attention on the protesters at the expense of the fracking industry.

I dunno, maybe the folks at Exxon Mobil really are off their rockers. However, Exxon Mobil shale gas is a thing that’s here to stay for the foreseeable future, so maybe we all need to consider that gas-to-plastics thing when we buy our next plastic bottle.


This article is reposted from Clean Technica Author credit goes to Tina Casey Images credit goes to HappyDays Photo &Art