Wind Picks Up Nationally, California Lags

A cluster of wind turbines in Tehachapi Pass marks California's early commitment to wind energy. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Wind power generators added nearly 40% to their total capacity in the US last year, as several states blew past California, according to a new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. According to the tally, four states now generate more than 10% of their total electricity (excluding exports) from wind.

Texas is the undisputed leader in the wind race, installing nearly 2,300 megawatts of capacity last year alone. Other Midwestern states such as Indiana, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota have also been aggressive installers of wind farms. Continue reading

For Roofs, White Is the New Cool

Officials at the US Department of Energy are checking their roofs for some of that “low hanging fruit” available to increase energy efficiency in buildings. A study released this week by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that “cool roofs” have the potential to offset up to two years worth of worldwide CO2 emissions and reduce the effects of urban “heat islands.” If that’s the case, increasing the albedo, or reflectivity, of roofs and pavements might be the solution to hotter days in the city.

Flying over most California cities reveals relatively few white roofs (Photo: Craig Miller)

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Wind Picks Up While Solar Costs Drop

Solar Gain

In green building circles, the term “solar gain” refers to how much a place heats up during the day, from sun exposure. This week marked “gains” for both solar and wind energy development in California. For years, the buzz around solar power has centered on how rapidly the cost of photovoltaic systems would drop enough to make it truly competitive.

Solar panels shade the parking lot at Genentech in Vacaville.

Solar panels shade a corporate parking lot in Vacaville, CA.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab released its second annual “Tracking the Sun” report this week, which actually tracks the cost of harnessing the sun’s energy in the U.S. It finds that the last decade (1998 to 2008) has seen the cost of installed photovoltaic power drop by 30%, averaged nationwide, although there were some short-term quirks. Among the “key findings:”

Preliminary cost data indicates that the average cost of projects installed through the California Solar Initiative program during the first 8½ months of 2009 rose by $0.4/W (per watt) relative to 2008, while average costs in New Jersey declined by $0.2/W over the same period.

That’s an interesting quirk at a time of generally low inflation and would seem to resonate with our recent report from Rob Schmitz, comparing the “red tape” cost factors between California and Japan (sorry, we didn’t get to New Jersey). Of course in markets, as in climate science, short-term fluctuations aren’t necessarily meaningful.

While the authors surveyed data from 16 states, they note that the results are “heavily skewed towards systems in California and New Jersey, where the vast majority of PV systems in the U.S. have been installed.” So clearly, California is participating in the longer-term trend of declining costs.

Average installed costs vary widely across states; among ≤10 kW systems completed in 2008, average costs range from a low of $7.3/W in Arizona (followed by California, which had average installed costs of $8.2/W) to a high of $9.9/W in Pennsylvania and Ohio. This variation in average installed cost across states, as well as comparisons with Japan and Germany, suggest that markets with large PV deployment programs tend to have lower average installed costs for residential PV, though exceptions exist.

The report noted three incentive programs in California that are encouraging solar installations in new construction: the Emerging Renewables Program, the New Home Solar Partnership Program, and the California Solar Initiative, and confirms that solar has gone mainstream, with 88% of systems connected to the grid. The LBNL report finds that overall, the main driver in recent cost declines has been the cost of PV panels themselves, as opposed to other components that solar systems require.

The report contains a wealth of charts and graphs to fascinate the solar wonk. You can download the 50-page report as a PDF file.

Wind picking up

Also this week, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) released third-quarter figures (PDF download) for large-scale wind energy  installations, logging 1,649 megawatts (MW) of new power generating capacity. The figure shows growth from the previous quarter and a running total of 5,800 MW of new capacity for the year, so far.

California clocks in at third among states with the most installed wind capacity, behind Texas and Iowa–but the Golden State does not place in the top five, in recent growth.

AWEA continues to voice consternation over a longer-term tailing off in wind turbine construction and manufacturing, especially in the U.S:

…the 5,000 MW now under construction is nearly 38% lower than the over 8,000 MW under construction at this time last year. A firm, long-term national commitment to renewable energy is still needed for the U.S. to become a wind turbine manufacturing powerhouse and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

AWEA calculates the total operating wind power capacity in the U.S. to be about 31,000 MW, enough to power “the equivalent of nearly 9 million homes, avoiding the emissions of 57 million tons of carbon annually and reducing expected carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2.5%.” Average power consumption per household varies considerably from state to state.

No Shockers in White House Climate Report

The Obama Administration released a much-vaunted update on climate change today. In its nearly 200 pages, the report contains no new data and few new conclusions on the pace and impact of climate change across the U.S. Rather it affirms the core findings of recent research and sounds the alarm for rapid, definitive action to reduce carbon emissions and prepare for changes already on the way.

In a statement from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Evan Mills, one of the report’s 28 co-authors, calls it “the most thorough and up-to-date review ever assembled of climate-change impacts observed to date as well as those anticipated in the future across the United States.” Mills is one of two northern California scientists listed in the report’s credits, along with Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

One clear signal from the report is that it’s time to move adaptation strategies to the front burner; preparing for climate effects already in the pipeline.

Louis Blumberg directs the California climate change team for The Nature Conservancy, and told me in a telephone interview this morning, “I would say it’s a very clear signal that even if we dramatically reduce emissions immediately, which we need to do as soon as possible, we’ve already put enough CO2 into the atmosphere where we’re going to have have significant changes to our way of life. And we need to begin now and plan to adapt to these unavoidable impacts and I think this report underscores that urgency.”

But neither Blumberg nor Mills have given up on the mitigation side. Mills says “the good news is that the harshest impacts of future climate change can be avoided if the nation takes deliberate action soon.”

Here is a summary of  “key findings,” taken directly from the report:

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced.

Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow.

Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase.

Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change.

4. Climate change will stress water resources.

Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged.

Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge.

Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

7. Threats to human health will increase.

Health impacts of climate change are related to heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts.

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses.

Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone.

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems.

There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today.

The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

On KQED Public Radio’s Forum for Wednesday, 6/17

9am Forum with Michael Krasny
White House Climate Report
We discuss the report, as well as federal climate change legislation from Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. Guests include Dan Kammen, professor of energy at UC Berkeley and co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment; and Katharine Hayhoe, professor of geophysics at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the climate study.

Short-Term Data Clouds the Climate Picture

Two established climate scientists have issued a warning about using short-term data in arguments over climate change. This is such a common point of confusion that I’ve published the news release from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, in its entirety:

BERKELEY, CA – In the hotly debated arena of global climate change, using short-term trends that show little temperature change or even slight cooling to refute global warming is misleading, write two climate experts in a paper recently published by the American Geophysical Union–especially as the long-term pattern clearly shows human activities are causing the earth’s climate to heat up.

In their paper “Is the climate warming or cooling?” David R. Easterling of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center and Michael Wehner of the Computational Research Division at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory note that a number of publications, websites and blogs often cite decade-long climate trends, such as that from 1998-2008, in which the earth’s average temperature actually dropped slightly, as evidence that the global climate is actually cooling.

However, Easterling and Wehner write, the reality of the climate system is that, due to natural climate variability, it is entirely possible, even likely, to have a period as long as a decade or two of “cooling” superimposed on the longer-term warming trend. The problem with citing such short-term cooling trends is that it can mislead decision-makers into thinking that climate change does not warrant immediate action. The
article was published April 25 in Geophysical Research Letters.

“We wrote this paper, which was carefully reviewed by other researchers and is scientifically defensible, to clearly show that even though our climate is getting warmer, we can’t expect it to do so in a monotonic way–or that each year will be warmer than the preceding year,” said Wehner. “Even with the climate changes caused by human activity, we will continue to see natural variability including periods of cooler temperatures despite the fact that globally averaged temperatures show
long-term global warming.”

“It is easy to ‘cherry pick’ a period to reinforce a point of view, but this notion begs the question, what would happen to the current concerns about climate change if we do have a sustained period where the climate appears to be cooling even when, in the end, the longer term trend is warming?” write Easterling and Wehner.

The research was funded by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research through its Climate Change Prediction Program.

Citing an accepted climate modeling scenario in which no efforts are made to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, the earth’s climate is expected to warm by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the 21st century. The authors point out that this is consistent with other simulations contained in the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), which was recognized with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

“Climate scientists pay little attention to these short-term fluctuations as the short term ‘cooling trends’…are statistically insignificant and fitting trends to such short periods is not very meaningful in the context of long-term climate change,” the authors write. “On the other hand, segments of the general public do pay attention to these fluctuations and some critics cite the most recent period as evidence against anthropogenic-forced (human-induced) climate change.”

The authors used both observed climate data from 1901-2008 and a series of climate model simulations performed on supercomputers to study the occurrence of decade-long trends in globally averaged surface air temperature. They found that it is possible, and indeed likely, to see periods as long as a decade in the recent past which do not show a warming trend. The authors even found that running computer simulations for the 21st century with significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions showed some decades with lower or static average temperatures. One such example can be found by looking at data from 1998 to 2008, which shows no real trend, even though global temperatures remain well above the long-term average.

According to the authors, the unusually strong 1997-98 El Niño contributed to unusual warmth in the global temperature for 1998, so that without similar dramatic changes, the following decade does not appear to be warming. A similar interpretation can be made by looking at the short-term data from 1977-85 or 1981-89, “even though these periods are embedded in the 1975-2008 period showing a substantial overall
warming,” Easterling and Wehner write. In the first example, dropping data from 1998 and looking at 1999-2008, the researchers found a strong warming trend.

Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.

Editors’ Note: Of course, this cuts both ways. Though it may be tempting to do so, it’s no more legitimate to point to the latest heat wave or a single fire season as proof of global warming. This is a conundrum that makes it difficult to find consensus on pubic policy. There are additional links posted with the full news release at the LBNL site.

Climate Debate Runs Hot and Cold

We see occasional references in our discussions here to a “cooling phase” over the past decade or so. It’s often evoked in arguments against the case for global warming. Of course, in the centuries-long span of the Earth’s climate patterns, a decade or so is a mere blip on the screen.

Now a climatologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab has co-authored a paper that warns against using “periods of a decade or two” to argue the case one way or the other (we also often hear people use temperature data from recent hotter years as evidence for global warming).

Andrew Revkin summarizes the findings in his blog for the New York Times.

Wehner works in the Computational Research Division at LBNL and co-authored the paper with NOAA scientist David Easterling of the National Climatic Data Center, in Ashville, NC. Easterling wrote the Center’s FAQ page on global warming, in which he includes this answer to the question of whether the global climate is warming:

Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.74°C (plus or minus 0.18°C) since the late-19th century, and the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade is nearly twice that for the past 100 years. The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S. and parts of the North Atlantic) have, in fact, cooled slightly over the last century. The recent warmth has been greatest over North America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Lastly, seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001 and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995.”

As for the geographic fluctuations, Robert Bornstein of San Jose State has produced data showing a general cooling trend along the California coast over the past 30 or 40 years. But he’s quick to point out that the anomaly is most likely a result of, not an argument against the broader global warming trend.