Renewables advance, Europeans parley on carbon

Solar and wind energy running rampant

SolarCity kicked off a $200 million bond sale to individual investors last week, as a way to hoover up more capital to install photovoltaics on customers’ rooftops and sell them the clean power. The favorable economics stem from the falling price of solar, which was driven until 2012 by lower panel prices, and since then, by lower costs for the other components of the system. Meanwhile, wind energy’s success has led to push-back against favorable tax treatment for the industry in Texas, and is leading to the closure of coal- and gas-fired plants in Scandinavia and the Baltics, as wind power outcompetes fossil energy.

Talks in Brussels and Berlin mull new climate policies

European Union leaders meet in Brussels this week to set continent-wide targets for climate action, amid new reports that the surplus of permits in the EU’s Emissions Trading System undermines its progress toward carbon reduction. The forum faces a significant challenge in uniting countries in strikingly different circumstances, from coal-dependent Poland to nations such as Denmark that have made great progress in decarbonizing their electricity grids. Meanwhile, diplomats meet in Berlin to prepare for December’s Lima climate summit, where early reports suggest each country will be asked to set its own carbon reduction goals, raising concerns that countries will “lowball” their climate targets

Rising potential for renewables and energy efficiency

Clean energy accounted for the vast majority of U.S. carbon pollution cuts over the last six years, according to a new Greenpeace analysis. Conventional wisdom had ascribed most of the decline to a switch from coal- to gas-fired generation, but renewables accounted for 40 percent of the drop, with efficiency and fossil gas tying at 30 percent each. In the Pacific Northwest, new efficiency improvements have cut demand by the equivalent of a large gas plant since 2010, for about one-fifth the price. For renewables, the Union of Concerned Scientists projects that the U.S. could get nearly one-fourth of its electricity from renewables by 2030, about double the target proposed by the EPA. 

Midterm elections highlight climate contrasts and contradictions

With midterm elections just two weeks away, climate issues are figuring in several key races. Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action fund ripped into Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who reversed the climate policies of his predecessor Charlie Crist, who is challenging him in a rematch this year. But NextGen’s message avoids explicit mention of climate, focusing instead on charges that Scott favors big business over the people’s interests. Speaking at Yale, U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern foresaw a time when climate denial will become politically untenable—a state of affairs foreshadowed by GOP candidates’ increasingly twisted rhetoric when asked about climate.

Nuclear power: back from the crypt

It took longer than the Panama Canal to build, but a Tennessee Valley Authority nuclear reactor is expected on line at the end of 2015, thanks to ongoing political support and economics that compare favorably to refurbishing aging coal plants. It’s also cheaper to extend the licenses of nuclear reactors, leading utilities to apply to prolong the lives of seven reactors dating to the early 1970s. Fission power may get a boost from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s finding that Yucca Mountain’s geology could isolate spent fuel for the requisite millennia, and Lockheed Martin announced progress in building a fusion reactor that it hopes to bring to market in ten years.

Fossil gas: the bridge fuel to nowhere

The widespread availability of cheap fossil gas would do little to alleviate the problem of climate change, according to a new study published in Nature. The authors—who crafted five independent computer models to simulate the impact of abundant gas on the world economy—found carbon emissions and global warming pressures would remain virtually unchanged. The reason: cheap gas would result in higher energy use, and a slowdown in the adoption of carbon-free energy such as wind and solar. The results of this research echo similar findings for the U.S., published last month in Environment Research Letters.

This year had the hottest September on record

NASA announced that last month was the hottest September on record, wrapping up the warmest Northern Hemisphere spring and summer in history, animated here. A pair of studies extrapolated where this could end up: Danish researchers calculated a worst-case scenario for sea-level rise, which would have the oceans six feet higher by 2100; and British scientists linked CO2 levels of 500 ppm with an ice-free Antarctica 15 million years ago. That would mean a lot of glacial calving, like the Manhattan-sized ice rupture recorded here by the producers of Chasing Ice.

Will home waters outlast the homeland?

What happens to the sovereign waters of a nation if it vanishes beneath the sea? This article considers the prospects for island states such as Kiribati, whose land area is the size of Kansas City, but holds exclusive mineral and fishing rights to an India-sized expanse of ocean. Treaties grant countries a 200-mile radius around each livable outpost, but if entire nations are inundated and must emigrate, their citizens may seek recognition as “deterritorialized states” with a claim to the same patch of ocean. Seeking to forestall that outcome, 30 activists from Pacific island nations blockaded and briefly delayed a 700-foot coal ship leaving the Australian harbor of Newcastle before they were dispersed by police.

* * *

On the Climate Solutions blog: Elizabeth Willmott describes how the New Energy Cities program is helping Shoreline, WA meet the ambitious goal of cutting its carbon pollution in half by 2030, starting from a baseline that already includes ultra-low-carbon electricity. Ben Serrurier deconstructs a deceptive study released last week that sounded a false alarm about the costs of a clean-fuels standard to Washington drivers.  

Seth Zuckerman's picture

Editor, ClimateCast

, Climate Solutions

For over 20 years, Seth has covered issues of natural resources and the environment as a freelance journalist for numerous publications, including The Nation, Sierra, Orion, Newsweek, and the Christian Science Monitor.  He is the co-editor and co-author of Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home (Ecotrust, 1999) and author of Saving Our Ancient Forests (Living Planet Press, 1991). He taught environmental journalism for two semesters at Brown University and directed the forestry programs of northern California’s Mattole Restoration Council from 2006 to 2011. Seth’s work with Climate Solutions marks a return to his academic roots: he holds an A.B. from Stanford in Energy Studies (1983), and an M.S. from UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group (1990).