Friday, March 31, 2017

Politics, Pipelines, and Power

Among the many political events in an event filled third week of March, the Trump administration made good on a campaign promise and granted the permit to build the TransCanada’s Keystone XL Pipeline. The permit was previously denied by the Obama State Department back in 2015 (FYI - TransCanada’s US headquarters is here in Westborough).

The pipeline has long been hailed as a way to make the US more independent of Middle Eastern oil, create tens of thousands of new jobs, and lower the price of oil. The reality is that it will do none of these things.

It will provide between 2,000 and 6,000 temporary jobs during construction and perhaps a few hundred permanent jobs during its lifetime. The pipeline will transport heavy bitumen mined from the Canadian Athabasca tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast where it will be processed for export, not domestic use. Even the pipeline steel will be manufactured in Russia or India.

We can also contrast this pipeline with the alternative energy industry’s record over the last several years. In 2015, the solar energy and wind energy industries employed 209,000 and 88,000 people respectively on a permanent basis and grew 20% from just the previous year.

States, communities and landowners along the pipeline will bear the risk in the event of a pipeline rupture. Pipelines that transport diluted bitumen, as this one will, break 25 times more frequently than pipelines transporting normal crude oil due to internal corrosion.

The benefits of Keystone XL to the US economy will be trivial, at best, although TransCanada will profit handsomely.

The powers that be have been dismissing solar and wind power as too intermittent, too expensive and too insufficient. In fact, I had conversation a couple of weeks ago with a retired engineer who worked at the Seabrook nuclear power plant, who was just as dismissive for the same reasons. The math says otherwise.

Seabrook is rated at 1244 Megawatts and produces 10,800 Gigawatt hours of electricity per year. The first five wind turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm are rated at 30 Megawatts and currently produce 125 Gigawatt hours per year. Simple math says that 430 such turbines would generate the equivalent of Seabrook plant.

430 is a big number until you consider that Europe currently has 3,230 offshore wind turbines and installed over 400 in 2015 alone. Texas has over 10,000 turbines, which produce up to 50% of the state’s power.

We are way behind the alternative energy curve here in the US, except in states like Texas, ironically enough. Economies of scale have brought down the price of solar and wind to the point where they are competitive with natural gas or coal and are way cheaper than nuclear power.

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline may have had great political symbolic value to the Trump administration; however, it’s a nonstarter economically. If Donald Trump really wanted to put his influence behind energy industries that are creating jobs, he wouldn’t be promoting tar-sands pipelines and a dying coal industry.

It should come as no surprise that clearly, he is listening to the wrong people.

Published in the Westborough News, March 31, 2017

Trends, Curves and Accelerations

Last weekend’s cold snap notwithstanding, I really, really expected this winter would be colder than last. The world had wound down from an El Nino of historic proportions, which helped drive global temperatures to record levels in 2015 and 2016.

But it really wasn’t. Instead, the red wing blackbirds were back the third week of the February and the spring peepers were happily chirping away in the swamps near my home on the 28th.  February 2017 was warmer than February 2016 and it was 15 degrees warmer than the February 2015 (which was an awfully cold winter).

Saying a warm day in February is absolute proof of global warming is as ridiculous as Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma standing in the well of the Senate with a snowball saying it is absolute proof that global warming is a hoax. Indeed, you can say the same thing about a warm February. We’ve had them before. In fact, February 2017 was only the 9th warmest on record in Massachusetts. The warmest was in 1984.

What scientists look for are trends. The trend is that an average Massachusetts February in the early 21st century is about 4 degrees warmer than it was at the end of the 19th century, based on records from the Blue Hill Observatory. From a climate perspective, that’s a lot. Our climate is shifting.

As an aside, the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton has the longest continuous record of weather data in the United States, and recordings are still made with the same 19th century equipment.

OK, a warm winter isn’t so bad. Anyone want to tell me that last summer’s heat waves were fun?

In physics, the term acceleration is defined as the rate of change of velocity per unit of time. If you step on the gas pedal in your car, you increase your speed and you keep increasing it until you take your foot off the pedal.

If you want to know why the issue of climate change is a big deal now when it wasn’t 25 or 30 years ago. The answer is acceleration.

I recently looked at the “Keeling Curve”. It is so significant that the American Chemical Society designated it a “National Historic Chemical Landmark,” something only a data geek could love.

The Keeling curve is a graph displaying very careful daily measurements of CO2 collected from the summit of Mauna Loa on Hawaii since the early 1960s, started by Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institute in California. The graph is an upward trending curve with time, a classic example of acceleration.

Humans have been changing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. In the mid-1960s, the rate of increase was about 0.4 parts per million (ppm) per year, then 1.4 ppm/year until the late 1990s and thereafter, over 5 ppm/year. During each of those time intervals we accelerated the rate of concentration increase by a factor of three.

It’s as if we tapped on the gas pedal during the early 20th century, pushed on it in the 1960s and stomped on it starting in the 1990s. 

Most of the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere has been added since the 1960s.

I will grant you that five parts per million doesn’t seem like a very big number. Even 400 ppm, the current concentration in our air, is a small number. It’s just 1 part in 2,500.

Funny thing about chemistry is that the relative quantity of something can have nothing to do with It’s the absolute effect.

400 ppm of carbon monoxide from a leaky furnace will kill you in a matter of hours. 0.04 ppm of Fentanyl can kill an adult in minutes.

When C02 was at 180 ppm 25,000 years ago, the northern hemisphere looked like Antarctica.  When CO2 last was at 400 ppm, about 3 million years ago, sea level was over 20 feet higher than now.

This is why the projected impacts of climate change have become a very real, imminent, and potentially society-altering issue now when it wasn’t a generation ago.

According to the Washington Post, the Trump administration wants to cut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's budget by 17%. The biggest single cut proposed is the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, which includes a key repository of climate and environmental information, the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Ironic, isn’t it? Black birds and small frogs seem to know what’s going on, but the administration in DC seems hell bent on not wanting to know.

Published in the Westborough News March 10, 2017