Archive for September, 2007

New poll shows differing interest in addressing climate change

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

A new poll asks people from various countries:

Agree or disagree
Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.

It is necessary to take major steps soon.

Support or oppose
Wealthy countries give financial assistance and technology to less wealthy countries that agree to limit their emissions.

In the US, 71% believe human activity is a significant cause of climate change. Of the countries surveyed, only Turkey (70%), Egypt (66%), and India (47%) scored worse.

In the US, 59% support major steps very soon, tying us with Turkey. A number of countries scored worse: Kenya (53%), Nigeria and Germany (50%), Russia and Egypt (43%), South Korea (48%), and India (37%).

In the US, 70% support providing support to less wealthy countries. A plurality in three countries oppose limiting emissions at all in less wealthy countries: Egypt (53%), Nigeria (50%), and Italy (49%).

I’m not surprised by German lackadaisical attitudes toward climate change; they seem to be heavily invested in opposing nuclear power and preventing speed limits on the Autobahn. Australians’ and Americans’ new-found interest is heartening. Based on the response of the Indian public, it appears that more general education is important.

More general education would probably benefit discussion in most of the countries — in only 3 countries do 85%+ support major steps soon: Spain (91%), Italy (86%), and France (85%). No wonder so many governments are having trouble reaching agreement on solutions.

Will power lots of houses….

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Whenever power plants are proposed, the accompanying statement generally says, “will power h houses” and “will reduce GHG emissions as much as taking c cars off the road”. Today, we’ll look at the first claim.

Most articles assume that each house uses electricity at the rate of 1 kW, that is, every 24 hours a house uses 24 kWh, every year, a house uses 8760 kWh. How accurate is this? For California, it’s a good assumption.

I’ll choose two other states to check, though, Ohio and Texas, arbitrary choices.

In Texas in 2001, the average person used 5,600 kWh in the home. In Ohio, it was 4,200 kWh. Today’s per capita use is likely at least as high.

TX: 5,600 kWh/year * 1 year/8,760 hours = 0.64 kW
OH: 4,200 kWh/year * 1 year/8,760 hours = 0.5 kW

The average American uses electricity somewhere between 0.4 kW and 0.7 kW. Look at your daily use on your bill, and divide by 24 hours to get the rate of use for your house.

The average Texas household has 2.74 people. The average Ohio household has 2.49 people.

TX: 0.64 kW/person * 2.74 people/house = 1.75 kW/house
OH: 0.50 kW/person * 2.49 people/house = 1.24 kW/house

So a power plant would need to average 1.75 GW in Texas, 1.24 GW in Ohio, to power 1 million households.

The capacity factor tells us how much electricity a power plant produces, compared to its rated capacity. A nuclear power plant, with a 90% capacity factor, produces only 90% as much electricity. The average US windmill currently produces only 27% as much, though this varies regionally and is presumably increasing. The average German windmill only produces 20% of its rated capacity.

If a power plant is built outside California, or other low-electricity states like Hawaii, don’t assume that the 1 kW/house rule holds.

Middle Atlantic Division
Middle Atlantic Division

Want a pictoral representation of how your state compares?

A low-energy house in Berkeley, Kabul, and DC

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

Rick Diamond began this season’s Lawrence Berkeley Labs Science at the Theater series with questions about how much greenhouse gas we emit daily. The 18 pound bag of charcoal — looks like coal — poured onto the stage represents Californian emissions, about half that of the typical American, more than double typical person worldwide. About 1/3 of American emissions are buildings (half residences), 1/3 transportation, and 1/3 industry and agriculture.

So what are the largest sources of residential emissions? Put these in order:

• computers and TVs
• other appliances
• lighting
• space heating
• water heating

Then check page 7 of Diamond’s talk.

Want to know where you can reduce emissions in your house? Check out LBL’s Home Energy Saver. You’ll see how you compare to other houses in your zip code with recommendations on reducing your own energy use. An energy efficient house in Berkeley (all houses are old, so this requires retrofitting rather than new construction) can cut greenhouse gas emissions by half. You can also see typical costs of using various appliances, as well as comparing costs of the washer for cold water/cold rinse vs. hot water/warm rinse.

Nationally, to change our buildings, by category:
• low hanging fruit: $500/person
• big intervention: $3,500/person
• deep retrofit: $18,000/person
• above +3kW photovoltaics (solar panels) for everyone: $28,000/person

The house in Kabul starts out lower emitting, more modest than American houses. Interestingly, both emissions and per capita emissions were significantly higher two decades ago (see slides 29 and 30). LBL created a foam panel, foam sandwiched between cellulose cement boards.

A house in DC
A house in DC

The house in DC is the House of Representatives, plus other house buildings. See more on Greening the Capitol. Surprisingly, some people were still using incandescent bulbs, unusual for public and government buildings: 12,000 incandescent bulbs in desk lamps.

Penguins and climate change

Saturday, September 22nd, 2007

The Chicago Tribune has an Antarctica section. See pictures of penguins, how climate change is affecting them, and what the penguin world will look like in 2100 (very, very dark much of the year, as penguins move closer to the South Pole).

Other pictures include studying ice cores and the loss of artifacts from the Scott expedition.

Penguins and climate change
Penguins and climate change

US coal plants under construction

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Some energy sources are built with big public attention (nuclear and solar come to mind), while others appear to be ignored. With all those coal power plants stopped in Texas and elsewhere, how many coal power plants are being built?

From Reuters, the US is building 7.6 gigawatts (GW) in coal power plants, about 7.5 of today’s nuclear power plants, about 5 of the new ones.

Location Size (MW) Completion
Arkansas 665 2010
Colorado 750 2009
Iowa 790 2007
Nebraska 660 2009
Nevada 200 2008
S. Carolina 640 (2) 2007, 2009
Texas 600, 750 2009, 2010
Wisconsin 600 (2), 500 2009, 2010, 2008
Wyoming 90 2008

Near construction are 400 MW in Arizona, 30 MW in Colorado, 1,500 MW in Illinois, 2,100 MW in Kansas, 600 MW in Ohio, 950 MW in Oklahoma, and 660 MW in W. Virginia. About 140 plants are in the permitting process.

Coal plant near Omaha
Coal plant near Omaha

From the Washington Post

From the top of a new coal-fired power plant with its 550-foot exhaust stack poking up from the flat western Iowa landscape, MidAmerican Energy Holdings chief executive David L. Sokol peered down at a train looping around a sizable mound of coal.

At this bend in the Missouri River, with Omaha visible in the distance, the new MidAmerican plant is the leading edge of what many people are calling the “coal rush.” Due to start up this spring, it will probably be the next coal-fired generating station to come online in the United States. A dozen more are under construction, and about 40 others are likely to start up within five years — the biggest wave of coal plant construction since the 1970s.

The coal rush in America’s heartland is on a collision course with Congress. While lawmakers are drawing up ways to cap and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, the Energy Department says as many as 150 new coal-fired plants could be built by 2030, adding volumes to the nation’s emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of half a dozen greenhouse gases scientists blame for global warming….

Sokol says that until new technologies become commercial or nuclear power becomes more accepted, coal is the way to meet that demand.

UCS: Nuclear Power and Global Warming

Friday, September 21st, 2007

Someone sent me a recent position paper from the Union of Concerned Scientists. I ran out of energy part way through responding to their points.

Over time we accrue a lot of worries about nuclear power, I certainly did. Then we need to ask ourselves, are these concerns legitimate? How do they compare to the dangers of not using nuclear power? So it’s reasonable to have a lot of questions! I was personally surprised at what I learned when I began looking into what I “knew”.

Nuclear waste is also addressed here.

Nuclear waste is a pretty insignificant problem whether or not a permanent site has been chosen. More than any other fact about nuclear power, this stunned me when I learned it. I was quite skeptical, and spent a lot of time checking that statement. I had thought the dangers of nuclear waste were serious, but I could find no justification for that belief in scientific literature.

I went to sites like Union of Concerned Scientists, as well — what did environmentalists say? It turns out that UCS and other say “large amounts of radioactive waste”, “lasts a long time”, etc. They never told me that anyone would die from it—I filled in the “how many” blank myself. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans die yearly from coal waste, including from coal power plants CA owns (21% of CA electricity), hundreds of thousands of Chinese, etc. Each year. Coal waste from CA electricity kills several hundred people each year, not counting the effects of climate change.

Coal power plants expose us to 4 times as much radioactivity as a nuclear power plant will over its complete life cycle, from mining to hundreds of thousands of years of waste decay. And if the radioactivity in nuclear waste were such a problem, why are those who are worried not launching major campaigns to get people to move from areas with very high radioactivity, such as Denver, Portland, Pennsylvania, where the increase in radioactivity over a place like SF is of much more importance than living near a radioactive waste site, much more importance? Or even more, Ramsar, Iran, where background radiation is 100 times the maximum exposure to anyone anytime from nuclear waste (about 300,000 years from now, after the waste has had time to migrate through Yucca Mountain, exposure will peak) without any apparent increase in cancer rate?

Background Radiation

Radiation Exposure varies. The average exposure from TVs is more than the living directly outside a nuclear power plant, but both are considerably smaller than from other choices.

From the Department of Health:

The exposure of an individual to cosmic rays is greater at higher elevations than at sea level. The cosmic radiation dose increases with altitude, roughly doubling every 6,000 feet. Therefore, a resident of Florida (at sea level) on average receives about 26 mrem, one-half the dose from cosmic radiation as that received by a resident of Denver, Colorado, and about one-fifth of that by a resident of Leadville, Colorado (about two miles above sea level). A passenger in a jetliner traveling at 37,000 feet would receive about 60 times as much dose from cosmic radiation as would a person standing at sea level for the same length of time.

If you smoke one cigarette/day, add 280 mrem to your exposure (typical US exposure is 360 mrem). It seems to me that if worried about radioactivity, first address smokers and people who live in areas with high natural background radioactivity.

EPA Map of Radon Zones
EPA Map of Radon Zones

Zone 1: predicted average indoor radon screening level greater than 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter); Zone 2: predicted average indoor radon screening level between 2 and 4 pCi/L; and Zone 3: predicted average indoor radon screening level less than 2 pCi/L.

I have never seen any indication in the scientific literature that nuclear waste is a difficult technical issue, see National Research Council Disposition of High-Level Waste and Spent Nuclear Fuel: The Continuing Societal and Technical Challenges (2001). It is a social issue.

What are the Union of Concerned Scientists arguments?


Prudence dictates that we develop as many options to reduce global warming emissions as possible, and begin by deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk. Nuclear power today does not meet these criteria.

Well, we can spend $3 billion in CA subsidies for solar, in addition to federal subsidies, between now and 2017, and by then we will have as much electricity from solar as from 40% of the nuclear power plant that could be built with the same money. Hopefully we’ll do BOTH. But calling solar or/and wind quick is probably overstating the case. One solar panel or windmill doesn’t take much time to build, but to construct a nuclear power plant’s worth does.

Nuclear power is not the silver bullet for “solving” the global warming problem.

True — we need every possible solution and then some.

A major expansion of nuclear power in the United States is not feasible in the near term. Even under an ambitious deployment scenario, new plants could not make a substantial contribution to reducing U.S. global warming emissions for at least two decades.

Misleading — do we want to build coal plants that will last for decades, or nuclear power plants, or natural gas? Also, we could have new nuclear power plants as early as mid-decade, possibly as much as 30 GW in plants by 2020, close to double that by 2025.

Until long-standing problems regarding the security of nuclear plants—from accidents and acts of terrorism—are fixed, the potential of nuclear power to play a significant role in addressing global warming will be held hostage to the industry’s worst performers.

I’m not sure what they are talking about, though these are frequent themes of UCS—nuclear power plants are on 90% of the time, including one month for refueling every 12 – 18 months. What are they talking about? Why are acts of terrorism at Diablo Canyon anywhere near as likely or as likely to be terrifying as at the Richmond oil refineries?

An expansion of nuclear power under effective regulations and an appropriate level of oversight should be considered as a longer-term option if other climate-neutral means for producing electricity prove inadequate.

Um, the analysis has been done — they sound a lot like the VP at my first high school: she would order books, then see if there was money left before ordering the next set of books, then see if there was money left before ordering the next set, then…. People pretty good with calculators have already done the calculations, and the other methods alone (and, I think, other methods WITH expanded use of nuclear power) come off inadequate. WITHOUT nuclear power, they are highly inadequate indeed.

Spent fuel rods can, however, be stored safely in aboveground steel cylinders (“dry casks”) for at least 50 years.


Etc, etc, etc. Which of their points has particular resonance with you?

I don’t see UCS changing its views until its subscriber base does. They are so highly associated with their position, that not only do the people in charge have to change their views, but they risk subscription donations. The Economist suddenly changed its views on climate change by changing one of the VPs, maybe UCS and nuclear power will go through a similar transition. Scientists worked hard with UCS over a very long period to get it to be first, as interested in climate change as in nuclear power, and now, even more interested.

UCS is only a good source of information to the extent that their understanding represents that of policy experts and scientists. Statements such as “begin … deploying those that achieve the largest reductions most quickly and with the lowest costs and risk” with the idea that any of the sources they promote are lower cost than nuclear power (some efficiency solutions are, though not all, but wind, solar, etc. cost more), that the amount of net GHG reductions we could usher in over 2 decades with all non-nuclear solutions together equal what we could achieve with nuclear power alone, the let’s wait to see what works argument — to the extent that UCS is able to slow down the introduction of nuclear power, people will die. I don’t know if people will die from the lack of shifting to nuclear power in the millions or more — it depends on how much time we have to stop some of the worst excesses of climate change. Well, except that today’s US coal plants over 40 years killed more than a million people, ignoring the effects of climate change. So the direct problems of coal are also bad.

Expressing concerns about nuclear waste necessarily promotes solutions that create fossil fuel waste.

Berkeley Friends Meeting climate change series continues

Friday, September 14th, 2007

The Committee of the Environment of Berkeley Friends Meeting invites you to come to two follow up Q/A sessions to the series on climate change we had in the spring of 2007.

Child care, hospitality and snacks before the sessions will be provided. Sessions are from 1 to 3 PM, 2151 Vine St. on the corner of Walnut Street in Berkeley

Earlier presentations posted here.

September 16
The Science of Climate Change and Individual Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions will focus on the science of climate change and what we can do to decrease our own greenhouse emissions. Karen will begin with a half hour presentation on climate change, followed by Q&A and discussion.

October 7
Policy and Technology Solutions to Climate Change Karen will repeat her presentation on nuclear power. Q&A on policy and technology solutions will follow. Check out the policy/technology presentation, as this will not be repeated.

BioForum: Tropical Forests and Climate Change

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

This year’s series:

• Tropical Rainforest : Challenges and New Hopes
Saturday, October 20, 2007; 8:30am-4pm
Oakland Museum of California

• Global Climate Change and Its Influence on Evolution
Saturday, February 9, 2008; 8:30am-4pm
University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley

Each day, you’ll hear 5 – 6 scientists talk about their own research into these subjects. This series targets teachers from elementary school to community college, but plenty of just plain people attend as well. Cost is $30 each day, or $55 for both.

The not yet completed building for California Academy of Sciences.

Science at the Theater

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

Lawrence Berkeley Labs presentations in the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 5:30 – 7 PM:

• Reducing Our Carbon Footprint: A Low Energy House in Berkeley, Kabul, and Washington DC. Rick Diamond September 17

• Reducing Our Carbon Footprint: Frontiers in Climate Forecasting. Bill Collins October 22

• Reducing Our Carbon Footprint: Converting Plants to Fuel. Chris Somerville November 12

Free. See you there!

Climate change reducing honey production?

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Yes, there is colony collapse disorder, but according to today’s Washington Post:

…some experts say the more likely reason for this year’s weak honey crop, which the National Honey Board says is on track to be smaller than last year’s below-par 155 million pounds, is something much more obvious: the weather. In the South, drought and wildfires have prevented flowers from blooming. In the Midwest, a late freeze brought nectar flows in many areas almost to a halt. And in California, the country’s No. 2 honey producer, coastal beekeepers reported that there were almost no flowering plants in July. The bees were fed sugar water to keep them from starving.

Honey bee disappearance
Honey bee disappearance

Polar bear extinct in US by mid-century

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

From USGS, executive summary:

Projected changes in future sea ice conditions, if realized, will result in loss of approximately 2/3 of the world’s current polar bear population by the mid 21st century. Because the observed trajectory of Arctic sea ice decline appears to be underestimated by currently available models, this assessment of future polar bear status may be conservative….Ultimately, we projected a 42% loss of optimal polar bear habitat during summer in the polar basin by mid century….In the archipelagic ecoregion [of the Canadian Arctic], polar bears could occur through the end of the century, but in smaller numbers than now….Sea ice conditions would have to be substantially better than even the most conservative [global circulation models] projections to result in qualitatively different outcomes for polar bears in any of the ecoregions.

Alaskan polar bear cubs
Alaskan polar bear cubs (more…)

Substitutions for oil — besides fuel

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

We associate oil with transportation, but there are other uses:

Today, 65 percent of our clothing is made from oil. Virtually all of our inks, paints, dyes, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and hundreds of intermediate chemicals are made from oil. The production of petroleum based plastics alone has expanded by more than 400 percent in the last two decades, to 30 million tons in 1990. Plastics are replacing glass, metals and paper in an ever expanding variety of products.

World Liquids Consumption by Sector
World Liquids Consumption by Sector — Energy Information Administration predicts about a quarter of the increase in oil consumption between 2004 and 2030 will be used for chemical and petrochemical processes. (Two thirds of the increase will be for transportation.)

I begin the discussion of biofuels this way to show competing interests for land and water: food, forage and fiber; ecosystem services (eg, rain, fish, and insects); transportation fuels and non-transportation substitutions for oil products. I don’t know the greenhouse gas, land use, or water implications of providing these to a population 40% larger in 2050, and perhaps 3 times as rich. Additionally, Green Chemistry is likely to either reduce or increase impact on water and land use — I don’t know (if you do, please leave a comment!)

Sometimes discussions of land and water use in the future sound like a large family deciding what to do with the $100 in the bank, without consulting other members. It would be useful to know how much extra land, for example, will be needed to feed a larger world population. Land not yet farmed tends to be less productive than farms already in use, and many places in the world, land is being degraded. On the other hand, transgenic crops will increase the yield, particularly on degraded land.

Pacific Yearly Meeting minute on Climate Change

Saturday, September 1st, 2007

RESPONDING TO THE GLOBAL CLIMATE CRISIS (pdf): A Minute Approved by Pacific Yearly Meeting [of the Religious Society of Friends], August 1, 2007

Friends have come to realize that caring for the Earth is a true spiritual concern. In the current Faith and Practice, we are asked to “live according to principles of right relationship and right action within the larger whole. Be aware of the influence humans have on the health and viability of life on earth.” Throughout the Pacific Yearly Meeting, a growing number of individuals and meetings have taken specific steps to raise awareness and alter behavior in these regards.

We now are facing global climate change, a phenomenon no longer seriously in doubt within the scientific community. As a result of choices we have made, the Earth is growing ever hotter, exacerbating weather extremes, habitat destruction, species extinction, and the dislocation of human lives. We recognize that resource scarcity brings greatest risk to the most vulnerable people. It can also aggravate the conditions for war.

These changes, we can no longer escape entirely. Yet some of the harm may be avoided if we act responsibly soon. In the face of these awesome challenges, we turn away from either apathy or despair toward way opening in the Light. We acknowledge the need to awaken to our sacred connection to life on this Earth.

We call for Friends to examine and decrease our individual impacts, where possible, so that Earth’s resources are sustained or replenished. Such commitment will likely entail major adjustments in our purchases, diets, transportation, and livelihoods.

While many individual Friends have progressed toward a more sustainable lifestyle, we must now move toward a corporate witness in our meetings, joining with and helping each other and also like-minded groups in our common concerns.

We ask all to stay continually informed about this evolving planetary crisis to discern future actions that will become needed. We appeal to all Friends to make this a standing priority in our families, meetings, and communities.

We ask monthly meetings in the coming year to discuss and discern this minute in terms of their appropriate witness and action and for input at the annual gathering of the Pacific Yearly Meeting in 2008.

We submit the actions below, ones implemented in various meetings within PYM, to exemplify some possible first steps in creating a sustainable way of life on a healthier planet:

*Engaging in collective discernment in our meetings to understand and reduce human contribution to climate change, allowing Spirit to work among us.
*Reducing meeting-wide, personal greenhouse gases at least 10% in the coming year through decreased driving, flying, and home energy use, and using efficient alternatives, for those able to do so.
*Being a resource, encouraging, and learning from others to reduce our contribution to global warming.
*Networking among meetings and other like-minded groups, both religious and secular, to share resources and expertise.
*Laboring with those shaping public opinion and policy. From local to state, national, and international levels, advocating measures to support Earthcare and lessen the occasion for war.
*Through personal participation and public policy, working to promote environmental justice and assist the most vulnerable.