China’s Opportunity

This week’s Bloomberg Businessweek had an article titled On China’s Electricity Grid, East Needs West, that explained the mega cities of China’s east coast are consuming resources from the coal rich areas in the country’s far western provinces resulting in lengthy transmission lines and growing instability among the minority ethnic groups there.

coal chinaOne of the biggest problems with having cities so far removed from the natural resources that power those cities is transmission.  In China, freight railroads and river barges are already overloaded and overcrowded.  This led party leaders to push for development of interior regions of the country and build high voltage transmission networks called the West-East Electricity Transfer Project.  By 2020 the total capacity of this project is projected to equal 60 Hoover Dams.

china water scarcityThe second problem with this large-scale coal driven buildup is the lack of water resources available to produce steam in these plants.  Many of these planned coal plants are located in water scarce regions including Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia and has led to tensions with ethic Mongolians and Uighurs who depend on farming and herding for their livelihood.  By tapping already stressed aquifers and wetlands, there could be a larger problem looming.

Coal currently generates 80% of China’s electricity and the country is responsible for half of the annual consumption of coal worldwide.  Following the traditional model of building coal plants located far away from the end users is simply not the answer.  While high-voltage transmission lines are more efficient that shipping coal by rail or barge, much of the electricity produced is still lost in transmission.

solar chinaA better idea would be harness China’s production capacity of solar PV cells and adopt a domestic policy of distributed generation.  DG is sited near the end user of the electricity and therefore less vulnerable to losses during transmission.  PV cells can be placed vertically up the sides of the country’s many skyscrapers eliminating the need to clear land for ground-based systems.  Smart building design is another idea that could drastically reduce demand for electricity and save the country from building expensive, inefficient, centralized power plants.

Distributed generationChina’s massive infrastructure build out has been nothing short of extraordinary.  Now it has the opportunity to leap ahead of other developing nations by committing resources towards building the next generation cities.  Distributed generation, microgrids, and smart integrative building design can all help to make this idea a reality.

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2013 State of the Union

Well Mr. President, you proved me wrong.  “Climate Change” was mentioned a total of 3 times during your SOTU speech last night.  But more importantly was the context in which you used the phrase such as:

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.  Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend.  But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15.  Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods – all are now more frequent and intense.  We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence.  Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.

To stress his point, Mr. Obama directed Congress to come up with “market based solutions” (think cap and trade) to climate change or else he would step in with an executive order.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth.  I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.  But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.  I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

The bill that Obama mentioned was the 2007 Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act that proposed a reduction to 2004 levels by 2012, 1990 levels by 2020, and 60% below 1990 levels by 2050.  This can be done.  We need to evaluate how we use energy and how we can make our products more efficient.  As any homeowner knows, wasted energy is wasted money and right know we can’t afford it.

Obama 2013 State of the Union

Global Energy Challenge

First, let me start off by saying Happy New Year to all the Greenbacker’s out there.  I apologize for the wait in between posts but it has been a crazy couple of weeks.  Anyway, a few months back BP published their annual BP Review of World Energy 2012.  Below are some key charts created by Jeff Tollefson & Richard Monastersky and published in Nature.com.

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This chart shows the largest energy users as well as the relative breakdown of their energy supply.  Two spikes are clearly noticeable – the US and China.  Notice that the US is reliant on coal, oil, and natural gas for a majority of its energy needs while China is heavily dependent on coal, with oil coming in second.  The recent boom (no pun intended) of natural gas supply in the US has not only dropped the price of natural gas domestically, but also explains the price decrease of coal.  Economics proves if the price of x falls, the price of a substitute of x will also fall in order to keep demand steady.  In effect, the benefits of cleaner burning natural gas are offset by increased use of coal in other countries.

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The above graph simply illustrates world energy use in million tons of oil equivalent.  The final scenario shows what energy consumption would look like if we were to keep the 450ppm limit on carbon emissions.

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This last graph shows several interesting figures – the most interesting in my opinion is that China alone accounts for 49% of global coal consumption.  However, China’s rise these past three decades has been simply amazing.  Already there are more than 170 cities in China with populations over a million.  Fueling this rapid expansion will require significant increases in coal, oil, natural gas, and renewable energy.  By leveraging the power of new technologies and global markets, renewable energy can compete with fossil fuels.  Lets hope that renewable energy plays an even greater role in mankind’s future than current trends predict.

Melting Ice Caps

The ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are melting, sea levels are rising, and the rate of ice loss is increasing.  These are the conclusions a new peer-reviewed report published in the journal Science came to.  The study, authored by 47 experts from 26 institutes, used satellite images to show that the ice sheet melting has contributed to an 11 mm (0.4 in) rise in sea levels.  The Greenland ice sheets contributed 2/3 to this rise while Antarctica contributed the remaining 1/3.  Also startling were the comments on the Pine Island Glacier, an iceberg the size of New York City that is set to calve off in the upcoming months.  While most of this information is probably not news to you, it does offer scientific proof that the planet is warming.  We must act now.  Please inform yourselves about solutions to climate change – whether through cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – and pressure your elected officials to enact policy measures.  The only way to slow the rate of warming is to reduce our emissions through every means possible.  Use less energy by making energy-efficient upgrades to your house.  Write a letter to your representatives to end subsidies for fossil fuels so renewable technologies can compete on a level field.  Or simply turn off electronics when they are not in use.  Climate change is a problem that touches all areas of modern society – it is a national security issue, an economic issue, a development issue, and a humanitarian issue.  And as this study proves it is getting worse.  The paradox is that by the time we see changes that affect us, it may be too late to stop it.

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Methane: The Other Greenhouse Gas

I woke up this morning to an interesting article on NBCnews.com that mentioned a new study that shows that the methane hydrates located off the East coast are destabilizing at an alarming rate.  So what does this mean?  Well, basically, it appears that this is caused by a change in the Gulf Stream, or the natural convection cycle where warm waters are transported north and east from Florida towards the Arctic and Europe where the water is cooled and begins its southern journey back down.  However, climate change inspired temperature changes are throwing off the natural cycle and destabilizing the methane hydrates on the sea floor.

Why should we care?  Aside from the fact that the Gulf Stream is responsible for the weather patters on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the nutrients in the water that sustain our fish, this new discovery represents a something of a turning point in climate change.  Methane, or (CH4) to all my chemistry nerds out there, is a potent greenhouse gas that currently accounts for 16% of GHG emissions.  While less abundant than carbon dioxide, methane is 23x more potent than CO2.  The fear is that we have now reached a tipping point where increased global temps actually bring on unwanted effects of their own.  And believe it or not, we have a lot of methane hidden in a frozen state in the permafrost on our northern locations. 

I mention this study not to be an alarmist (well, maybe), but because I believe that many of us think that climate change will be easy to solve once all parties come together to take action.  This is not true.  It is going to take plenty of work to solve this problem.  There is definitely a tipping point where the Earth enters into a reinforcing cycle of warming – the question is: did we just pass it?  If not, can we take corrective action before we reach that point.