Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Rethink on renewable energy

In the couple of years, two things have made me think that it is time to rethink how we teach energy, especially renewable energy. These are the annual environmental technology exhibition in Bangkok and the answers on my students' final exams.

The exhibition in the last two years has made me think that my students, along with the general public, do not realize the scale of the renewable energy industry today. At the exhibitions, it now appears that at least half the exhibits were on renewable energy. In fact, the organizers are now promoting it as "Asian Sustainable Energy Week", not as "Entech-Pollutec" as prior to 2016. (Entech-Pollutec is still used, but as a secondary name)

Importantly, we are now at the point where more than half of all new power generation is from renewable energy.

The other thing that made me think was the answers to the questions on the final exams. Most of the students seemed to be thinking in the past.

People still think that renewable energy is expensive. It is not! Yes, that was true as recently as ten years ago, but prices have decreased dramatically. A number of reports now show that renewable energy is cheaper than nonrenewable sources. I also keeping getting the answer that a problem with renewables is they are not efficient! What?!

People are also still thinking that solar and wind power are limited by the time of day and how much the wind blows. But in fact today that is not a major problem. If this was such a problem, then why are we now building large-scale solar power plants and wind farms?

The answer is to this is STORAGE. In my opinion, the biggest advances in energy from the last fifteen years or so has been in the field of storage. Not only batteries (in which there has been huge advances), but in other forms (for example, using molten salt).

Another "myth" often given is the hazards from wind energy due to bird strikes. Two recent studies, one from the USA and the other from the United Kingdom, have shown that the number of birds killed by wind turbines is very low (0.0001%). In fact, since using wind turbines reduces the use of fossil fuel, thereby reducing the amount of pollution -- which causes many more bird deaths, the net effect may be a decrease in the number of bird deaths. It is interesting that the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds (RSPB) actually supports the development of wind power (provided proper siting studies are done).

On the other hand, there seems to be very little criticism of large-scale hydropower. They have been extremely damaging to ecosystems (among other environmental and social problems) and recently have been shown to be one of the major emitters of greenhouse gases in the form of methane. Another area in which almost all environmental activists have concerns is with biofuel crops - no major environmental organizations support them anymore - do to concerns about deforestation and problems with food crops. Note they still support biofuels produced from waste products.

The thing that people seem to be reluctant to talk about is fossil fuel subsidies. This despite the fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) [refs] have both said that fossil fuels subsidies are huge and must be eliminated. The biggest problems is that subsidies distort the markets and contribute to increased fossil fuel use and therefore increases global warming.

The following parts of energy education need to be changed:

1. Care needs to be taken to be sure the information is up to date, things are changing fast in the field of energy, especially renewable energy. Even textbooks are often out of date soon after being published.

2. We need to shift from just teaching simple energy conservation measures (turn of lights when not using, etc.) to including more large-scale solutions (larger-scale conservation in industry, better building design, electric cars, etc.)

3. More emphasis on the need to eliminate all fossil fuels. Not just reduce their usage. Subsidies must also be discussed.

4. Inclusion of the concept of distributed energy (micropower). This includes the need to change the current business model of electrical utility companies.

5. Improvement in how we teach renewable energy. Much of this is discussed above. It includes discussing current costs, energy storage, and major environmental concerns with big dams and first generation biofuels

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paris Agreement - Suprise!

Well, a few months ago we recently finished the Paris talks on a climate change treaty (technically called COP-21). Now that all the hype has died down, let us take a look at it. Very surprisingly we got a good result, known as the Paris Agreement.

First, let me say my overall reactions to it. While not a perfect treaty (more on that in the points below), it was probably the best that we can hope for.

An important point is that the concept behind Paris is radically different from Kyoto (except for the goal of reducing greenhouse gases). The process behind the Paris agreement actually started in Durban.

The foundations on which the Paris agreement is based are the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) which each country must submit to the UNFCCC secretariat. These are declarations of how the country intends to reduce its carbon emissions. Note that while the content of the INDC is not legally binding, the fact they must submit one is.

These INDCs are both the good and bad parts of the agreement. The reason for changing to the INDCs was that the Kyoto Protocol did not work. So another solution was necessary. It also allows countries to choose their own approach to the problem. However, the INDCs are not binding; therefore, there is no enforcement mechanism. More importantly, there is no real mechanism to ensure that the sum of the INDC's will be enough so that global warming stays below the 1.5 degree target. Indeed, with the current INDC's the warming will be 2.6 degrees. Yes, the secretariat must report on the gaps between the total commitments and the overall target, but that will have no real effect.

I also find that the target of 1.5 degrees as specified in the Agreement to be shades of hypocrisy. Even though it sounds good, I think most of the countries have no intention of meeting it.

A highlight of the Agreement is that it places an equal footing adaption (reducing effect of global warming) and mitigation (reducing the greenhouse effect). This is an important step that countries such as small island nations (probably the countries with the biggest impacts) have been asking for a long time.

There is both good news and bad news about the topic known as "loss and damage". The good news is that at last the developed countries have accepted the concept. The bad news is that the Agreement specifically states that no country will be held legally liable or be made to pay composition. Another example of developed countries thinking they can do want they want and not give a shit about anybody else.

Then there is the finance, especially financing of adaptation. Many commentators are stating how great this part is, but I need to remind people (again!), that these are only pledges -- and countries are very bad at keeping their pledges.

Probably the second highlight was the important place for transparency in reporting of countries emissions. This ensures that countries do not try to fudge the numbers and make look like they are doing better than they really are.

In conclusion, this is an important step in reducing global warming, but it is only a step. Much more has to happen, especially at the national level. A lot of work is going to be necessary. Simply turning off the lights when not in the room is not enough.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Climate Change - COP-20, Bonn, ... Not Ready for Paris

We just had an eleven days of talks about the future of climate change in Bonn, Germany. The results do not look good (surprise -- not!).

To begin with, remember the important thing to note is that at the end of 2015, in Paris at Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (COP-21), we are supposed to finalize a new agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

Let us go back six months to the failed (again!) Conference of the Parties. In December 2014 it was the turn of Lima, Peru to host COP-20.

COP-20 was to be a major step toward the goal of having an agreement ready for Paris. In fact, COP-20 was nothing like that at all. What we got was a weak four page statement. Those four pages were indeed agreed on only after the conference went into overtime -- and addressed none of the major issues.

One thing that was "agreed" on at COP-20 was that countries would give to the UNFCCC secretariat stating their country's action plan. However, the plan is voluntary, not mandatory. The deadline was 31 March. But only 34 countries have given their action plan! That just shows how unimportant governments think about making any real impact.

However, just the individual contributions are not enough. The sum of all emissions cuts must be such that they keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius.

Now what about Bonn? The biggest thing is that many important countries are refusing to discuss national contributions and how they would add together. Without this there is really no way that the goals of climate change could be met. The European Union (EU) and African countries want countries to face up to the fact that emission totals won't keep global warming below the 2 degree threshold. However, other countries - especially, China, India, and Brazil - do not want to discuss national contributions until Paris. This has effectively slowed the negotiations.

Instead, the negotiators spent almost all of the meeting discussing procedural issues for the Paris meeting. But even more importantly is the fact that the major issues (in addition to emission cuts) such as equity and finance for developing countries have yet to be addressed.

There was one piece of good news. That is, a draft agreement on technical aspects of the UN's REDD+ (Reductions of Emissions due to Deforestion and Degradation Plus reforestation) was agreed to.

So what will happen in Paris? I think that the countries will agree to will be a meaningless piece of paper. Then they will claim it to be the deal of the century. And global warming will continue to go on.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Brazil and good news on deforestation

One of the hard things to make students understand is how to protect biodiversity. The usual answer we get is do not hunt endangered species, etc. What they fail to grasp is that the major way is to prevent habitat loss, especially by establishment of bioreserves and preventation of deforestation.

That is why I find this article to be interesting. It shows the effect of policies in Brazil in combating deforestation.

What has been happenning? In the last ten years, the amount of deforestation per year has been declining steadily. It is now only 70% of what it was in 2004.

The authors identify the following factors leading to this reduction: monitoring, frontier goverance, government policies, new protected areas, pressure from environmental groups, and macroeconomic trends. It points out that it was the combination of these things not any one specifically.

One interesting thing is that Brazil does not only establish national parks, but also has other "strict protection areas": sustainable use areas, indigenous territories (where large scale logging and plantations are not allowed), and agarian reform settlements.

One conclusion of the article is that in order to keep continuing this trend of reduced deforestation, farmers, ranchers, and other land users must be given further incentives.

This a good example of what is really neccessary for progress in reducing deforestation and therefore protecting biodiversity. Now if others would take this seriously.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

COP-19 A Disaster

I usually give a review of the big annual climate change conference - well here it is, albeit a couple of months late!

The 2013 edition was COP-19 held in Warsaw, Poland. The big news from COP-19 was the walk out by many activists from the meeting in protest of the slow pace of the negotiations.

The meeting  came just after two major reports on global warming. The first was the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A new report comes out every 4 years, and it now states that there is a 95% probability that humans have caused global warming. The other was a report by the International Energy Agency which states that the current path would lead to an increase of global temperatures from between 3.6 and 5.3 degrees, far above often stated goal of 2 degrees.

The one thing that came out of the meeting were the bad actors, especially Poland (the hosts), Australia, Canada, and Japan. Poland had a meeting with coal industry representatives the same time that the COP meeting was going on. Poland (and Australia) have a big coal industry and therefore want to protect a dirty and corrupt industry. Australia had just elected a new government led by a prime minister who is a climate denialist and who has dismantled many environmental agencies. His government has also proposed a huge coal port in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef.

Canada also has big interest in dirty fossil fuels in the form of tar sands. Japan has announced that its carbon emissions will rise instead of falling (there original pledge was a 25% reduction over 1990, now they have announced a 3% increase over the same baseline)

All of these countries, and many others, have used the economics mantra as an excuse for having taken these positions. In reality it is because fossil fuel and other companies control the governments and are often the ones formulating policy.

Probably the best example of this is the so-called "loss and damage issue", discussed at COP-19. This is where developed countries would pay less developed countries for the losses due to damage from climate change. The developed countries, while agreeing to the concept, are not willing to give any money to it, citing the "recession". Yet these countries can give out huge subsidies to the fossil fuel industries.

Other issues where essential no progress was made include equity and measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV).

The one good thing that did come out of the meeting was the continued commitment to REDD+ (reduction in emissions from deforestation and degradation plus reforestation). The program is designed to help countries keep their forests and therefore their stores of carbon. See this article by the World Resources Institute.

Finally, I also note that since COP-19, very little additional progress has been made. I new agreement to replace Kyoto is to be finished by next year, but I do not think that we will have anything but a watered-down agreement that will do nothing to stop global warming. We need to have global action to get athything done.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Must Read: Indian Floods

This is a must read. This makes a good point about the floods that hit Northern India earlier this year. It shows how it was "runaway building projects, dams and official failures that made them catastrophic".

The last paragraph is also really telling: "The present EAC [Expert Appraisal Committee] has approved all 262 projects placed before it over six years, without seriously evaluating their impact or the rivers' carrying capacity."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

In-fashion phrases (on the environment)

Something that always bothers me is when my students are asked what should be done to save energy (or global warming, etc.) their answer is always the same - turn off the lights, turn off electronic equipment not being used, buy efficient equipment, blah, blah, ...

While these answers are good for themselves, I really wish they would consider the whole picture and think about what could be done to seriously help the environment.

Some examples:

Water How to conserve: "Don't run water when you brush your teeth". OK, but almost 80% of all water worldwide is used by agriculture. What we therefore need is a radical rethink of the way agriculture is done. Today's agriculture is mostly monoculture, highly irrigated, large-scale, corporate farms.

What we really need to look at is Water Security as the UN recently discussed.

Energy and Global Warming Turning off the lights is a good idea, but it does not address the large-scale inefficiencies of industry, utilities, etc. And to solve issues such as global warming we must phase out using fossil fuels as soon as possible. Other things include removing oil subsidies, improving power grids and using micropower instead of macropower.

Even though we try to push renewable energy the students still parrot the phrases such as "sun does not shine all the time" or "the wind does always blow", but ignore the developments in energy storage and distribution. On the other hand they seem not to understand that are some concerns about (first generation) biomass.

Solid Waste and Water Pollution "Don't throw trash in the water" (solves two things at once!). For water pollution this is a small part of the problem. Human waste (sewage) and effluents from factories are much more important. For solid waste it does not actually reduce the amount of waste generated and therefore does not solve the waste problem (it solves littering but that is another issue).

"Pass a law" - the cop out answer. I have seen it in everything from solid waste to air pollution to biodiversity. Of course my response is always what law should be passed, what specific aspects are to be regulated, enforcement, and numerous other issues.

My real goal is to make people understand the problem not simply give me memorized expressions that have no meaning.