Archive for October, 2007

Gwyneth Cravens talk on the web

Monday, October 29th, 2007

You can link to it from Cravens’ site for her new book coming out tomorrow, Power to Save the World. Rip Anderson shares the stage with her.

Cravens met Anderson at a party, and they argued over nuclear power. Anderson took Cravens on a tour of a coal plant, and the nuclear world, and this book followed.

Friends, our Integrity Testimony, and climate change

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Friends (Quakers) are all over the place on solutions to climate change, and what role we should play in the solution. Some of us even disagree that climate change is important for all Friends to address.

At times, our discussions sound like we’re floor 54 in the Tower of Babel.

It’s time to step back. Before we describe Truth to one another, let us explain to one another where we find Truth, and how we recognize it. If a statement is true, how important is it? Which sources do we rely on, and why? We are far from a single standard of Truth.

From Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, section on the Integrity Testimony*:

Friends believe in speaking simply, avoiding misleading words or emotionally manipulative language, which could divert from the discernment of God’s will. Commitment to truth requires authenticity and veracity in following one’s conscience, illuminated by the Inner Light. When we depart from truth, we separate ourselves from God. Integrity is not simply a habit of speech, but a way of life increasingly aligned with God’s will.

When we depart from truth, we separate ourselves from God.

Friends distinguish between illumination of the inner light and a belief that we are always right. (One of my students from long ago insisted that whatever direction he faced was North. We all feel that to some extent!) We also value experiential understanding, in ourselves and others. The inner light isn’t the ego.

Leave a comment, let me know which sources of information you trust and why. Also, what will help Friends to discuss this question effectively, from the Monthly Meeting (congregation) to Yearly Meeting level, moving from Babel to the ocean of light over the ocean of darkness?

* Explanation for non-Friends:
Faith and Practice records the current beliefs of Friends. From Pacific YM’s Faith and Practice:

Testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light, outward expressions that reflect the inward experience of divine guidance.

Check out Pacific YM’s Faith and Practice, or that for any other Yearly Meeting, to learn more.

Nothing in this blog should indicate that Friends do better with integrity than any other group. I just hate reading “we are better” posts.

Peer review

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

What does peer review mean to you?

To some, it means research that is probably funded by industry or government. Many of these people believe the funder influences the quality of the work.

While this clearly happens in some fields, such as the study of particular drugs (most pharmacological research is at a more basic level, to find what and how, not to confirm the latest product), how big a problem is this otherwise? It’s pretty clear that the President isn’t able to influence the outcome of studies, rather he and Congress have most influence on which questions are asked. They can do this through earmarks, more than $2 billion/year just in science, or through the questions asked of National Academy of Sciences or President’s Committee of Advisers on Science and Technology and others. For example, a decade ago, PCAST was asked to report on Federal Energy Research and Development for the Challenges of the 21st Century. The authors recommended that the report be updated every 5 years, but a decade later the update still hasn’t been requested.

We all know stories of company doctors who never found problems with toxins (did they submit articles with that claim to journals?). On the other hand, an article I read long ago (where?) described the US system of government, businesses, and universities working together as the best system for science in the world, as the questions examined at the university level are questions people want answers to. Computer business folks approached universities in the Boston area about collaboration, and were rejected, before settling in Silicon Valley — now the two best colleges for computer science are UC, Berkeley and Stanford.

The Wikipedia description reflects how people in science are likely to see peer review:

Peer review (known as refereeing in some academic fields) is a process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field. It is used primarily by editors to select and to screen submitted manuscripts, and by funding agencies, to decide the awarding of grants. The peer review process aims to make authors meet the standards of their discipline, and of science in general. Publications and awards that have not undergone peer review are likely to be regarded with suspicion by scholars and professionals in many fields. Even refereed journals, however, can contain errors….

Reviewers are typically anonymous and independent, to help foster unvarnished criticism, and to discourage cronyism in funding and publication decisions. However, as discussed below under the next section, US government guidelines governing peer review for federal regulatory agencies require that reviewer’s identity be disclosed under some circumstances.

In addition, since reviewers are normally selected from experts in the fields discussed in the article, the process of peer review is considered critical to establishing a reliable body of research and knowledge. Scholars reading the published articles can only be expert in a limited area; they rely, to some degree, on the peer-review process to provide reliable and credible research that they can build upon for subsequent or related research.

Fraud is hard to catch by this method; often it is caught when others do not produce the same results. This is the method of catching mistakes as well; peer review does not confirm accuracy, but over time, mistakes tend to be caught.

For some, the term peer review means a real study, one that is financed by some means, and there could be a problem if the financing interferes with the result. People triggered by this term are put in an awful position, since every study either falls into the category serious and peer-reviewed, or not serious.

What are your feelings about the term and why?

Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

The National Research Council’s new report discussed the impact of biofuels of today and tomorrow on water supply and pollution.

From the Executive Summary (pictures and graphs from elsewhere):

President Bush has called for production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2017, which, if achieved, would comprise about 15 percent of U.S. liquid transportation fuels.

USDA estimates of corn use
USDA estimates of corn use

This goal is almost certain to result in a major increase in corn production, at least until marketable future alternatives are developed…Corn generally uses less water than soybeans and cotton in the Pacific and Mountain regions, but the reverse is true in the Northern and Southern Plains, and the crops use about the same amount of water in the North Central and Eastern regions.

In some areas of the country, water resources already are significantly stressed. For example, large portions of the Ogallala (or High Plains) aquifer, which extends from west Texas up into South Dakota and Wyoming, show water table declines of over 100 feet. Deterioration in water quality may further reduce available supplies. Increased biofuels production adds pressure to the water management challenges the nation already faces.

The Ogallala aquifer is the largest aquifer in North America
The Ogallala aquifer is the largest aquifer in North America.

Water Quality Impacts
Fertilizer use results in increased nutrients, nitrogen and to a lesser extent phosphorous, in groundwater and surface runoff.

Excess nitrogen in the Mississippi River system is known to be a major cause of the oxygen-starved “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, in which many forms of marine life cannot survive. The Chesapeake Bay and other coastal waterbodies also suffer from hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen levels) caused by nutrient pollution. Over the past 40 years, the volume of the Chesapeake Bay’s hypoxic zone has more than tripled. Many inland lakes also are oxygen-starved, more typically due to excess levels of phosphorous….Of the potential feedstocks, the greatest application rates of both fertilizer and pesticides per hectare are for corn. Per unit of energy gained, biodiesel requires just 2 percent of the N and 8 percent of the P needed for corn ethanol. Pesticide use differs similarly. Low-input, high-diversity prairie biomass and other native species would also compare favorably relative to corn using this metric.

Dead zone expanding
Dead zone expanding, and expected to reach 8,500 square miles this year.

Greater use of marginal land, except for native grasses, could increase soil loss and pollutant transport. Corn requires much more fertilizer — 50 time as much nitrogen and 12 times as much phosphorous as for biodiesel, and pesticide than other fuel sources. Low-input, high-diversity prairie biomass and other native species also do much better than corn.

Reducing Water Impacts through Agricultural Practices
There are many agricultural practices and technologies that, if employed, can increase yield while reducing the impact of crops on water resources. Many of these technologies have already been developed and applied to various crops, especially corn, and they could be applied to cellulosic feedstocks. Technologies include a variety of water-conserving irrigation techniques, soil erosion prevention techniques, fertilizer efficiency techniques, and precision agriculture tools that take into account site-specific soil pH (acidity, alkalinity), soil moisture, soil depth, and other measures. Best Management Practices (BMPs) are a set of established methods that can be employed to reduce the negative environmental impacts of farming.

Such practices can make a large, positive environmental impact. For example, in 1985, incentives were put in place to encourage adoption of conservation tillage practices. According to data from the National Resources Inventory (NRI), maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, overall annual cropland erosion fell from 3.06 billion tons in 1982 to about 1.75 billion tons in 2003, a reduction of over 40 percent (

In addition, biotechnologies are being pursued that optimize grain production when the grain is used for biofuel. These technologies could help reduce water impacts by significantly increasing the plants’ efficiency in using nitrogen, drought and water-logging tolerance, and other desirable characteristics.

Soil erosion decreased 43%
Soil erosion decreased 43%.

The water impact of biorefineries will be less overall, but locally it could be large.

A biorefinery that produces 100 million gallons of ethanol per year would use the equivalent of the water supply for a town of about 5,000 people…use of water is declining as ethanol producers increasingly incorporate water recycling and develop new methods of converting feedstocks to fuels that increase energy yields while reducing water use.

In 2006, 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol supplied 2.4% of US fuels on an energy basis (about 1.5 gallons of ethanol provides the same energy as 1 gallon of gasoline). 100 million gallons of ethanol would supply enough fuel for 29 such towns.

Key Policy Considerations
Subsidy policies have driven dramatic expansion of corn ethanol production.

From a water quality perspective, it is vitally important
to pursue policies that prevent an increase in total loadings of nutrients, pesticides, and sediments to waterways. It may even be possible to design policies in such a way to reduce loadings across the agricultural sector, for example, those that support the production of feedstocks with lower inputs of nutrients.

Cellulosic feedstocks, which have a lower expected impact on water quality in most cases (with the exception of the excessive removal of corn stover from fields without conservation tillage), could be an important alternative to pursue, keeping in mind that there are many uncertainties regarding the large-scale production of these crops….

Biofuels production is developing within the context of shifting options and goals related to U.S. energy production. There are several factors to be considered with regard to biofuels production that are outside the scope of this report but warrant consideration. Those factors include: energy return on energy invested including consideration of production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, harvesting and transporting the crop; the overall “carbon footprint” of biofuels from when the seed is planted to when the fuel is produced; and the “food vs. fuel” concern with the possibility that increased economic incentives could prompt farmers worldwide to grow crops for biofuel production instead of food production.

Though biofuels are a marginal additional stress on water supplies in the US today, they have probably already affected Gulf hypoxia. The anticipated increase in biofuels over the next decade could lead to problems of water supply and pollution in the absence of policies.


Arctic warming early in 20th century

Thursday, October 11th, 2007

The Arctic showed an abrupt increase in temperature around 1920, a cooling, and then a steadier climb beginning in the 1960s. Increased greenhouse gases are pretty well correlated with the second increase, but what caused the first?

20th century: Arctic temperature
20th century: Arctic temperature Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

Worldwide, the results aren’t quite the same.
Climate change mostly anthropogenic
Climate change mostly anthropogenic — variations depend partly on volcanoes, also El Nino/La Nina conditions. (El Nino years tend to be warmer — 1998 was hot because of El Ninl; this is now the temperature.)

Notice that the temperature change in the Arctic is much greater than elsewhere. Among other reasons, there is significant positive feedback — water absorbs most light, ice reflects most light.

The September 7 Science (here for research article, here for perspective, subscription needed) reports on a study of a Greenland ice core, to correlate the effect of aerosols (airborne particles) on temperature. Soot warms the area by increasing absorption (though most other aerosols cool the Earth).

Traces of vanillic acid and sulfates tell us where the soot comes from. The former indicates burning coniferous trees, from summer forest fires, the latter burning fossil fuels, then mostly in the winter.

The cores, covering 1788 – 2002, showed relatively stable black carbon for 60 years (neglecting large volcanos); soot and vanillic acid concentrations were highly correlated . From 1850 – 1951, soot levels were significantly higher, particularly in winter, up to 10 times as high, and correlated not with vanillic acid, but with sulfate. After, soot values declined, though they remain higher than before 1850.

Cleaner air in North America deposited less carbon at this location, even as Asia became a more important source of soot.

The change in absorbed sunlight is of minor importance in the Arctic winter, still,

McConnell et al. estimate an average Arctic warming effect from soot of more than 1 W/m2 between 1850 and 1951, peaking in 1906 to 1910 at more than 3 W/m2–eight times the natural forcing. For comparison, the globally and annually averaged forcing from the total anthropogenic CO2 increase in the year 2006 was ~1.7 W/m2

More records need to be examined, but it does appear as if a major contributor to early 20th century warming for the Arctic has been found.

Declining Arctic ice

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Most of you have seen this:

September sea ice
September Arctic sea ice is in decline, go here to see the animated version of how it changes from year to year.

The animation goes from 1979 to 2007, here are the end points of the show:
Arctic 1979 - 2007
Arctic 1979 – 2007

Minimum occurred September 16, 4 days later than the usual.

One factor that contributed to this fall’s extreme decline was that the ice was entering the melt season in an already weakened state. [National Snow and Ice Data Center] Research Scientist Julienne Stroeve said, “The spring of 2007 started out with less ice than normal, as well as thinner ice. Thinner ice takes less energy to melt than thicker ice, so the stage was set for low levels of sea ice this summer.”

Another factor that conspired to accelerate the ice loss this summer was an unusual atmospheric pattern, with persistent high atmospheric pressures over the central Arctic Ocean and lower pressures over Siberia. The scientists noted that skies were fairly clear under the high-pressure cell, promoting strong melt. At the same time, the pattern of winds pumped warm air into the region. While the warm winds fostered further melt, they also helped push ice away from the Siberian shore. NSIDC Research Scientist Walt Meier said, “While the decline of the ice started out fairly slowly in spring and early summer, it accelerated rapidly in July. By mid-August, we had already shattered all previous records for ice extent.”

A couple of years ago, the worry was that by 2100, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer. Now people are wondering about 2040 or 2030.

Stranded polar bears
Stranded polar bears

Selling coal as nuclear-free energy

Wednesday, October 10th, 2007

Nuon is also wooing customers away from German providers by offering “nuclear-free electricity” at attractive rates-electricity that will be produced in coal-burning power plants in the future.

From Der Spiegel

Not only coal, but coal with even higher GHG emissions, imported not only from nearby Poland, but from South Africa.

How will Germany make enormous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and switch to renewables? Currently, Germany’s per capita GHG emissions in 2000 (12.3 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent) are 40% higher than France’s (8.8 tonnes CO2-e), largely because of the difference in electricity production.

About half (pdf) of German reductions, about 60% of CO2 reductions from energy, since 1990 came from wall-fall. This would have been a combination of changes in East Germany, and an economic recession. The rest is due to policy decisions.

German energy
So what does the German energy mix look like? Note: mineral oil is petroleum.

In spite of all we’ve heard about German renewables, twice as much energy comes from coal as nuclear, and nuclear is almost 3 times as productive as all renewables together. How does the 4.6% renewables break down in 2006?

For electricity, in TWh:
wind 26.5
hydro 21.5
photovoltaics 1
biomass and biogas 10
landfill and sewage gas 3.1

For heat, also in TWh;
biomass 76.5
solar thermal 3
geothermal 1.6

So most German renewable energy comes from biomass and biogas.

It doesn’t begin to compare to the amount of new coal Germany may build:

From cities like Stade in northern Germany to Karlsruhe in the south, power companies want to both build 30 new coal-burning power plants and modernize several older plants…

Size isn’t provided, but 30 new coal power plants, 700 MW each, 70% capacity factor, would provide 130 TWh. This differs from the assumptions in Germany keeps adding coal power, if you can guide me here, please do!

Germans are to be commended on their addition of wind, their willingness to heavily subsidize a low-GHG source of electricity. Hopefully, they will continue when they reverse their nuclear power as pretty much everyone recommends. For example;

Deutsche Bank

Germany will miss its CO2 emission targets, face rising electricity prices and become “dramatically” more reliant on Russian gas if it keeps to its policy of phasing out nuclear energy, a new study warns.

International Energy Agency

The IEA praises Germany’s commitment to sound energy policies and now urges the government to reconsider the phase-out of nuclear power and to focus on energy market reform and climate policy…

Losing the nuclear option will have significant impacts on energy security, economic efficiency and environmental sustainability. Eliminating nuclear from the supply portfolio will reduce supply diversity, increasing reliance on energy imports, particularly natural gas, which is not diversified enough. Shutting down productive assets before their useful lifetime will also impact economic efficiency, requiring additional near-term investments in new capacity that could otherwise be avoided. Finally, generation from nuclear power is free of greenhouse gas emissions. While additional renewables capacity, along with energy efficiency gains, could certainly make up some of the resulting gap, there will be greater reliance on carbon-emitting fuels. Without a doubt, a phase-out will limit Germany’s full potential to reduce its emissions. The IEA urges the government to reconsider the decision to phase out nuclear power in light of these adverse consequences.

One face of European security concerns
Face of European security concerns, Vladimir Putin

Germany keeps adding coal power

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

Third world countries are adding coal power, the US is adding coal power, and Germany is adding coal power. Note about article: it appears that the greenhouse gas emissions cited only refer to the actual burning of coal, and do not include life cycle costs. While these vary by region, British analysis shows a low emissions of 970 g/kWh, and a high GHG cost of 1,300 g/kWh.

German coal
German coal

Germany has an installed capacity of 20.6 GW wind, with a capacity factor of about 20%. So these windmills produce as much electricity as 4.1 GW windmills running at maximum all day long.

Currently 26 coal plants are under construction or are planned in Germany. Assuming 70% capacity factor, assuming 600 MW/plant (does anyone have the German numbers?), if 26 plants are built, Germany will have added 16 GW in new coal capacity, equivalent to 11 GW running at maximum all day long.

Not a good trend, adding decades in new coal power, even if some of today’s more inefficient coal plants are closed.

Nuclear Power Makes Individualists See Green

Monday, October 1st, 2007

From Making Sense of—and Progress in—the American Culture War of Fact

Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation….

We … devoted considerable attention to figuring out precisely why culture exerts this effect, and whether anything might be done to counteract the resulting cultural polarization on global warming beliefs. We conducted an experiment, the results of which show that the impact of culture on the processing of factual information on climate change is highly conditional what sort of policy people anticipate will be used to address it.

In the experiment, subjects were supplied with one of two versions of a newspaper article reporting a study by a group of scientific experts. In both versions, the report was described as finding that the temperature of the earth is increasing, that humans are the source of this condition, and that this change in the earth’s climate could have disastrous environmental economic consequences. In one, however, the scientific report was described as calling for “increased antipollution regulation,” whereas in another it was described as calling for “revitalization of the nation’s nuclear power industry.”

The results of the experiment showed that subjects receiving the “nuclear power” version of the article were less culturally polarized than ones receiving the “anti-pollution” version. That is, individualists and hierarchs who received the “nuclear power” version were less inclined to dismiss the facts related by the described report—that the earth’s temperature was increasing, that humans were the cause, and that the consequences would be dire if global warming were not reversed—than were individualists and hierarchs who got the “antipollution” version, even though the factual information, and its source, were the same in both articles. Indeed, individualists and hierarchs who received the “antipollution” version of the news report were even more skeptical about these facts than were hierarchs and individualists in a control group that received no newspaper story—and thus no information relating to the scientific report that made these findings.

Translation: when it sounds to me as if others are willing to change their minds about nuclear power, then the situation must be serious. When it sounds to me as if they are using the cause d’jour for more of the same, I tend to disbelieve.

It’s long been my observation that while many accept that climate change is serious, they don’t accept that climate change is serious because little is asked of us. We aren’t asked to change our manner of living substantially, we aren’t asked to change our favorite solutions, or our favorite demons.

When Union of Concerned Scientists changes its views on nuclear power because of concerns about climate change, both environmentalists and anti-environmentalists in the US will move climate change higher up our to-do list.

To Do list
figure credit