August 3, 2014

Enough Solar for Everyone

Here is a good reminder of exactly how little area is required to provide enough solar power for the entire worldBelow is a map that shows the area we'd need from the Northern Africa desert in order to get the job done.

An area of 158 miles x 158 miles would be enough to meet the total electricity demand of the world. The amount of electricity needed by the EU-25 states could be produced on an area of 68 miles x 68 miles. For Germany with a demand of 500 TWh/y an area of 28 miles x 28 miles is required, which concerns 0.03 % of all suited areas in North Africa.

Our planet receives 6,000 times more energy from the sun every day than all seven billion of us can consume.  [Clean Techies]

53.3 Years of Oil Left - According to BP

BP publishes a statistical review of world energy every year.  Here is BP's webpage on oil reserves showing only 53.3 years of oil production remaining. 

Oil reserves

Total world proved oil reserves reached 1687.9 billion barrels at the end of 2013
Sufficient to meet 53.3 years of global production. The largest additions to reserves came from Russia, adding 900 million barrels and Venezuela adding 800 million barrels. OPEC members continue to hold the majority of reserves, accounting for 71.9% of the global total. South & Central America continues to hold the highest R/P ratio. Over the past decade, global proved reserves have increased by 27%, or over 350 billion barrels.

Lessons Bees Can Teach Us

Honeybee collapse has much to teach us about how humans can avoid a similar fate, brought on by the increasingly severe environmental perturbations that challenge modern society.
Honeybee collapse has been particularly vexing because there is no one cause, but rather a thousand little cuts. The main elements include the compounding impact of pesticides applied to fields, as well as pesticides applied directly into hives to control mites; fungal, bacterial and viral pests and diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by vast acreages of single-crop fields that lack diverse flowering plants; and, in the United States, commercial beekeeping itself, which disrupts colonies by moving most bees around the country multiple times each year to pollinate crops.
The real issue, though, is not the volume of problems, but the interactions among them. Here we find a core lesson from the bees that we ignore at our peril: the concept of synergy, where one plus one equals three, or four, or more. A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides. Alone, each represents a benign dose. But together they form a toxic soup of chemicals whose interplay can substantially reduce the effectiveness of bees' immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.
These findings provide the most sophisticated data set available for any species about synergies among pesticides, and between pesticides and disease. The only human equivalent is research into pharmaceutical interactions, with many prescription drugs showing harmful or fatal side effects when used together, particularly in patients who already are disease-compromised. Pesticides have medical impacts as potent as pharmaceuticals do, yet we know virtually nothing about their synergistic impacts on our health, or their interplay with human diseases.
Observing the tumultuous demise of honeybees should alert us that our own well-being might be similarly threatened. The honeybee is a remarkably resilient species that has thrived for 40 million years, and the widespread collapse of so many colonies presents a clear message: We must demand that our regulatory authorities require studies on how exposure to low dosages of combined chemicals may affect human health before approving compounds.
Bees also provide some clues to how we may build a more collaborative relationship with the services that ecosystems can provide. Beyond honeybees, there are thousands of wild bee species that could offer some of the pollination service needed for agriculture. Yet feral bees — that is, bees not kept by beekeepers — also are threatened by factors similar to those afflicting honeybees: heavy pesticide use, destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture and a lack of diverse nectar and pollen sources thanks to highly effective weed killers, which decimate the unmanaged plants that bees depend on for nutrition.
Recently, my laboratory at Simon Fraser University conducted a study on farms that produce canola oil that illustrated the profound value of wild bees. We discovered that crop yields, and thus profits, are maximized if considerable acreages of cropland are left uncultivated to support wild pollinators.
A variety of wild plants means a healthier, more diverse bee population, which will then move to the planted fields next door in larger and more active numbers. Indeed, farmers who planted their entire field would earn about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in would earn $65,000 on a farm of similar size.
Such logic goes against conventional wisdom that fields and bees alike can be uniformly micromanaged. The current challenges faced by managed honeybees and wild bees remind us that we can manage too much. Excessive cultivation, chemical use and habitat destruction eventually destroy the very organisms that could be our partners.
And this insight goes beyond mere agricultural economics. There is a lesson in the decline of bees about how to respond to the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary human societies. We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature — a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees.
Mark Winston, a biologist and the director of the Center for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University, is the author of the forthcoming book "Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive."  [NY Times]

Keeping Cool - with less AC

Before I Crank Up the AC, we…
  1. Switch to t-shirts, shorts and bare feet. In the winter, we pull on wool sweaters and socks. Once it hits the 80s and 90s, our philosophy is "less is best." I also wear a lot of sleeveless dresses that flow rather than cling. The swooshing fabric actually seems to create a small but welcome breeze when I walk.
  2. Draw the curtains and pull the shades. Keeping direct sunlight out of the house can help keep it 10 degrees cooler inside. I have double-honeycomb shades on most of my windows and thermal insulated window quilts on my French doors. They make a difference summer or winter.
  3. Shade windows from outside. The most sunlight comes through south and west facing windows, so these should be your priorities for exterior awnings or overhangs. A wide variety are available, including those that can retract in winter to let the sun in.
  4. Insulate. Most of us tend to seal up cracks around leaky doors and windows, attics, and crawl spaces to keep our houses warmer in winter. But the principle works just as well in summer. Once we cool the air in our house, we try to keep it inside! We don't have a fireplace, but if you do, make sure to close the damper to prevent cooled air from sneaking out the chimney. If you're not sure where you should insulate first, get an energy audit. The audit will tell you where your home is losing air that's been heated or cooled. It will also analyze the amount of energy your appliances use. After the audit, you'll receive a comprehensive home performance report that includes recommendations for energy saving improvements. The cost of the audit depends on where you live; many utilities subsidize the cost of an audit.
  5. Maintain the HVAC system (or Upgrade your air conditioner). We don't have window air conditioners, but if you do, it's a good idea to do some basic maintenance on them before you really need them. Also, shade your unit from the hot sun if possible; just don't obstruct air flow. If you've been using the same window unit for a while, consider replacing it with a more energy-efficient model. I have a whole-house HVAC system, which I get checked annually to keep it working at maximum energy efficiency.
  6. Shift to LEDs. Regular incandescent light bulbs mostly give off heat. LEDs are called light emitting diodes because they mostly release light (which is a lot cooler than heat!). Though LEDs are somewhat more expensive than CFLs, another smart lighting option, their price is dropping all the time as consumer demand goes up. In addition to saving energy and money, I love the fact that, once installed, many of these bulbs last for a decade or more. I'm too busy to keep changing light bulbs, aren't you? Likewise, run appliances like clothes dryers, dishwashers and ovens in the cooler evening or morning hours when the heat they emit won't be quite so noticeable–and send you scampering to crank up the AC even more.
Use Fans Along With the AC…
We've found that using room fans lets us reduce the AC while still keeping our house comfortable. Here's what we do:
Cool our home to 78 or 80 degrees, then use fans. The hotter it gets outside, the colder we usually want it inside. But our mantra is "No igloos! "Instead, we set the thermostat to 78 or 80 degrees, which will keep the temperature– and the humidity level — under control (along with our electricity bills). Then we use strategically placed fans to cool the rooms we are in at the moment.
Reduce AC use when we're not home. In our house, we actually turn off the AC during the day and keep the blinds closed on the south-facing windows that get the most solar gain. In the evening, when everyone gets home, we turn fans on in the rooms we're in while the AC cools down the house and removes some of the humidity that's built up. We also have a fan in each bedroom. That way, we can keep the AC at a reasonable temperature without overcooling the entire house. Generally, as long as the air is moving, we feel cooler and comfortable.
We also…
Eat cold food. Summer is a great time to get out of a hot kitchen. We keep baking and broiling to a minimum, favoring salads, quickly steamed vegetables, yogurt and cereal, cold soups made in a blender or food processor, fruit salads and ice cream over roasts, casseroles, and homemade desserts like pies and cookies. We use a microwave, toaster or toaster oven if we need to heat something up, and an electric tea kettle to boil water quickly and without much emitted heat.
Use big appliances at night or in early morning. Plus, we use a drying rack instead of the clothes dryer for everything except sheets and towels. Summer is not the time to sweat through labor-intensive chores like washing walls and baseboards. We happily save those for cooler days in fall or winter.

New Interactive Boston Flood Map

A recently released interactive flood map for Boston shows that my son's new apartment near Fenway Park will be underwater if there is a storm surge of 7.5 feet. 

It looks like he stays dry if the storm surge stays below 5 feet. 

Same thing goes for his office at 5 Cambridge Center in Kendall Square. 

We've had three storms since Hurricane Sandy that would have flooded the Faneuil Hall area if they had arrived at high tide. We've been lucky so far - all of them arrived at low tide. 

Boston is rated the 8th most vulnerable city in the country for sea level rise. 

[Climate Progress] [WGBH]

Coal and the Social Cost of Carbon

Is the Obama Administration for coal or against coal?  

Which do they believe is more important? Reducing emissions or their all of the above energy strategy? 

It is hard to tell if you read these two stories on two very different policies put in place by the federal government. 

In the first story, the federal government is ignoring its own social cost of carbon policies when it comes to setting coal lease prices. 

The Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of publicly owned coal during the Obama administration, unlocking 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of over 825 million passenger vehicles, and more than the 3.7 billion tons that was emitted in the entire European Union in 2012. …
A ton of publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will, on average, cause damages estimated at between $22 and $237, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates — yet the average price per ton for those coal leases was only $1.03. …
The carbon pollution from publicly owned coal leased during the Obama administration will cause damages estimated at between $52 billion and $530 billion, using the federal government’s social cost of carbon estimates. In contrast, the total amount of revenue generated from those coal leases sales was $2.3 billion.
The federal coal leasing program is the source of 40% of US coal extraction. One BLM field office in Wyoming recently proposed a plan that estimates new coal leases amounting to 10.2 billion tons, which would unlock an estimated 16.9 billion metric tons of carbon pollution.
Meanwhile, in another section of the federal government…. They are using the social cost of carbon to promote their agenda. 
Failing to adequately reduce the carbon pollution that contributes to climate change could cost the United States economy $150 billion a year, according to an analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisers released Tuesday.
The report is part of the White House’s effort to increase public support for President Obama’s climate-change agenda, chiefly an Environmental Protection Agency proposal targeting coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of planet-warming pollution. The E.P.A. will hold public hearings on the proposal, which are expected to be heated, this week in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington.
The rule could lead to the shutdown of hundreds of power plants, a decline in domestic coal production, an increase in electricity rates and a fundamental transformation of the nation’s power supply. The White House has repeatedly sought to make the case that the long-term cost of not cutting carbon emissions — including longer droughts, worse floods and bigger wildfires that will damage homes, businesses and the nation’s infrastructure — will be higher than the short-term expense of carrying out the regulation.
Hmmm… What lessons can we learn from this experience? 

July 4, 2014

Valuing Nature's Services - $125 to 145 Trillion / Year

The benefits human civilization enjoys from the world's natural ecosystems — grasslands, marshes, coral reefs, forests, and the like — amounts to something in the vicinity of $142.7 trillion a year. That's over eight times the value of the entire U.S. economy ($16.2 trillion a year), and almost twice the value of the world economy ($71.8 trillion a year). [Climate Progress]
In 1997, the global value of ecosystem services was estimated to be $46 trillion a year in 2007 $US. 
Using the same methods as in the 1997 paper but with updated data, the estimate for the total global ecosystem services in 2011 is $125 trillion per year (assuming updated unit values and changes to biome areas) and $145 trillion per year (assuming only unit values changed), both in 2007 $US. 
From this we estimated the loss of eco-services from 1997 to 2011 due to land use change at $4.3–20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used. 
Many eco-services are best considered public goods or common pool resources, so conventional markets are often not the best institutional frameworks to manage them. However, these services must be (and are being) valued, and we need new, common asset institutions to better take these values into account. [Global Environmental Change] [NY Times]