January 25, 2010

An update on wind energy potential

Just a week ago, I addressed the myth that enough wind power off the East Coast existed to replace current coal-burning power plants. The biggest barriers to building these wind farms is the humongous cost of not only the offshore wind farms, but the transmission lines to get this power to where it's needed most--our largest cities.
Back in 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that the U.S. could get 20 percent of its electricity from wind power by 2030. That was a mighty big COULD.

This week, the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory released the news that the eastern half of the U.S. could obtain as much as 30 percent of its electricity from wind by 2024, much of it from offshore wind farms. But this big COULD actually considered the six power grids that run from the Great Plains to the east coast and from the Canadian border to the tip of Florida. It's called the "Eastern Interconnection" power grid.

This grid, PLUS $93 billion for more than 30,000 miles of new power lines and infrastructure could work? Hmmm. That's almost what we taxpayers spent to bail out AIG. Sure wish Congress had a clear choice back then. Green jobs to build this infrastructure or green bucks for AIG top executives?

January 22, 2010

Powhatan Creek says "Thanks"

If you want to see how to restore a creek, check this major project in Powhatan Creek, off the James River.

The Friends of Powhatan Creek have been active for many years helping their stream return to a better state. Rampant development in this watershed has impacted this stream's health. It has been on an "impaired" list of local waters and deserves all the help it can get.

January 14, 2010


In today's world, we face a glut of information. How do you find green facts when environmental myths and exaggerations spread like wildfire? Do you have the tools to distinguish the bull from the cowpatties in this era of sound bites?

I googled “environmental myths” recently, and was overwhelmed by the conflicting information from both “the sky is falling” folks and the climate change skeptics. Many individuals who don't know much about science or nature are propagating these myths. It’s very easy in today's society when many people distrust government or view scientists as manipulating data (as in the recent Climategate debacle).

Many myths and urban legends, however, are based on a small bit of truth. My favorite source to “debunk” myths is FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit website from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. Designed to check the facts spouted by politicians, spin doctors, and those seeking to influence politics and policy debates, it won a 2009 Webby “People’s Voice” award for helping folks “cut through the spin.” When they make an occasional error, they fess up to it immediately. Here is one myth they debunked.

The Offshore Wind Energy Myth: There's enough wind power off the East Coast of the U.S. to generate 1 million megawatts of power—all the electricity we now get from coal.

So said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in April 2009. It sounded great since 600+ coal burning power plants (which produce roughly half our electricity) contribute to smog and mercury contamination. But it’s just not true. At least not offshore.

According to Factcheck.org, converting wind to enough electricity to replace all U.S. coal-fired plants would require building 3,540 offshore wind farms as big as the megasized Nysted Wind Farm off the coast of Denmark." That one has 72 turbines, a capacity of 165.6 megawatts an hour, and averages about 66 megawatts an hour.

A Department of Energy spokesperson later clarified that satisfying only 20 percent of U.S. demand (less than half of what coal plants fulfill) would require land-based turbines and related infrastructure that would take up an area slightly less than the area of Rhode Island, plus 119 offshore wind farms the size of the proposed Nantucket Sound facility. Producing enough power to account for all of what is now put out by coal-fired plants in the U.S. would require 3,540 installations of that size, comprising well over 250,000 individual turbines.

So far the U.S. has built exactly zero offshore wind farms. The closest to getting final permits is Cape Wind in Nantucket Sound. The only remaining block is from two American Indian tribes that argue that the turbines would interfere with their spiritual greeting of the sunrise. Cape Wind can only provide an intermittent source of power when the wind is blowing (averaging 170 megawatts per hour). Much of the highest wind energy potential is far offshore, and it could take about 11 years to get other offshore wind farms up and running. However, a Harvard study last year stated that onshore land-based wind farms promise a lot more. “Resources in the contiguous United States, specifically in the central plain states, could accommodate as much as 16 times total current demand for electricity in the United States.”

The truth, unfortunately, is that we’ll need conventional fossil fuels such as coal and foreign oil for the foreseeable future. But more than $500,000 worth of foreign oil per minute in 2009? That’s incentive to generate at least 20 percent of our power from renewable sources by 2020.

Texas power companies set a goal of producing 2000 new megawatts of electricity from renewables in 1999, and reached it in 2005 mostly by wind farms. The world’s largest wind farm, in Roscoe, Texas (200 miles west of Fort Worth) with a capacity of 781.5 megawatts, surpassed the nearby 735.5 MW Horse Hollow wind farm, and began operations--on more than 100,00 acres--in October 2009. Texas now has close to three times as much wind capacity as Iowa, the second-ranked state. More than 5 percent of Texas electricity now comes from wind farms on the open plains.

January 8, 2010

Global Warming: Manmade or Natural Cycle?

Or a little bit of both?

I write this during a brutally chilly January along the East Coast. Most North Americans experienced below-average temperatures in 2009, according to the U.N. So how can people still believe in global warming? Are the skeptics right after all?  Is Oklahoma's Senator James M. Inhofe justified in calling global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people"? Perhaps “global weirding,” a term by Hunter Lovins, founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, is a fitting one.

The biggest concept to get your brain around in this ongoing debate is that climate is NOT the same as weather. Climate is a measure of decades and centuries, not months or years. Climatologists look at long term trends and patterns. The weatherman looks at the next few days. So "climate change" is really a more accurate term than "global warming." It's not merely an attempt to play spin doctor.

The weatherman is warning us nightly of this January cold spell lasting for another week or two. We proudly think of America first, but we're only a small percentage of the world's land masses. We rejoiced that the hurricane season was so mild. In any given month, however, are the number of record highs outpacing the number of record lows?

Back in December 2009, the World Meteorological Organization released data showing that the last decade is the hottest ever recorded, and 2009 was among the 10 hottest years ever recorded--especially in Southern Asia and Central Africa. China experienced its third-warmest year since 1951. Many sweltered during the heat waves in the U.K., Italy, France, Belgium and Germany. 150 died in India during one major heat wave. Australians suffered through three heat waves during what is likely to be the third-warmest year ever recorded there. But we Americans are somewhat parochial in our observations. Perhaps the Weather Channel needs to share more global weather trends and climate patterns.

Averaging the temps over both land and sea, the WMO says that 2009 will rank as the fifth-warmest year recorded since 1850. It's also among the hottest years in the last few thousand years, if you compare ice cores, tree rings, and layers of sediment. That is definitely above my pay grade.

Then there are droughts We Virginians saw googads (my technical term) of rain during the last few months, so can't we imagine droughts elsewhere? China suffered its worst drought in five decades in 2009. Australia, East African nations, and parts of Argentina are dealing with persistent droughts. California saw some relief recently from one of their worst droughts. Last January, I drove along the Russian River to its end at the Pacific Ocean. I did not expect this river to end in a dead end pond of sorts a few hundred yards from the Pacific.

Water, water, everywhere was the lament in many places around the globe as they experienced deluges of rain. Turkey experienced more rainfall in 2009 than it had in 80 years. Southeastern Spain had nearly a foot of rainfall over two days, where it usually only rains 18 inches each year. The U.S. had its wettest October in 115 years. Tidewater Virginia received more than a foot of rain during a November 2009 nor'easter that was the remains of Hurricane Ida.

What about that Arctic sea ice? February is the height of the annual freeze. Currently, warmer-than-usual temperatures in the Arctic have sea ice trending along the same line as the record-breaking melt of the 2007 season. As sea ice melts, the darker water that is exposed absorbs more of the sun's energy, which leads to warmer waters and more melting ice.

WHAT CAN YOU DO? Sleuth out the facts on climate change if you doubt anything I've posted. It isn't easy. You'll find lies and distortions from both side of the climate change aisle.

See what FactCheck.org has to say about those hacked emails referred to by some as Climategate.

Visit The DeSmogBlog Project  that has billed itself as "the world’s number one source for accurate, fact based information regarding Global Warming misinformation campaigns" since 2006.

Check out the the largest US business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce site. They wanted to put the science of global warming and the EPA on trial. The Chamber has since lost Apple, 3 utilities (California's PG&E, New Mexico's PNM, and the largest electric utility in the U.S., Exelon) and Nike.