It looks like Keystone pipeline protesters are having an unintended impact. Thanks in part to anti-pipeline activism, oil in North America is increasingly being shipped by train. So far this trend has been little noticed by the environmental community, but it's big news in the rail world. From Railway Age:
“Railroads are booming, and [the reason] is oil,” reports the well-known and highly respected stock market news and financial analysis website Seeking Alpha. “Railroad stocks are ready to leap on booming oil transportation.”
The boom started in January, when President Obama denied approval for pipeline operator TransCanada’s proposed $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada’s oil sands to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries. ...
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says rail deliveries of oil and petroleum rose almost 40% in this year’s first half. BNSF, the biggest railway mover of crude in the U.S., posted an increase of 60% in carloads of crude oil and petroleum products during that period.
The installed cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) power continues its precipitous decline, mostly due to falling prices for PV panels. Pushing solar forward in coming years will involve driving down the other costs -- the non-panel costs.
Those are a couple of the insights to be found in the fifth annual report on solar PV [PDF] from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which digs into "project-level data for more than 150,000 individual residential, commercial, and utility-scale PV systems, totaling more than 3,000 megawatts (MW) and representing 76% of all grid-connected PV capacity installed in the United States through 2011." That's an incredibly rich source of data (though it does have some limitations -- for one thing, it doesn't reflect the even more precipitous decline in prices thus far in 2012).
So what do we learn from LBNL?
Installed costs are falling for solar PV systems of every size:
Most of the sharp decline that begins in 2009 is attributable to declining solar-panel prices (though Obama's stimulus bill didn't hurt). The nerds call these "module prices" and everything else -- customer acquisition, financing, permitting, installation, maintenance, worker training, etc. -- "non-module prices." The latter are also known as "balance of system costs" or sometimes [this isn't right -- balance of system costs have to do with non-module hardware specifically] "soft costs."
Here's an illustrative graph showing how how module and non-module costs compare in small PV installations:
Terry Sawyer is on a mission to rescue oysters from newly hostile seas. Sawyer has been farming these briny bivalves for almost 30 years in Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, at Hog Island Oyster Company. The business he co-owns sells $9 million worth of Sweetwaters, Kumamotos, and Atlantic oysters a year at the company's two local oyster bars, at nearby farmers markets, and direct from the farm to hungry consumers who can't seem to get enough of this sustainable shellfish. But Sawyer's seafood business is threatened by ocean acidification (aka climate change's evil twin) and he and other oyster growers are working overtime to find creative ways to save these sea creatures -- and their own livelihoods.
As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the air like a sponge, it also grows increasingly acidic. As a result, baby bivalves, or “oyster seeds,” have a tougher time growing shells and maturing into those plump, juicy adults destined for dinner plates. (Acidification, which lowers the pH of salt water, has also recently been shown to make for a hostile environment for other marine life, such as sea snails.) This shift in the chemical makeup of seawater started wreaking havoc in Washington a few years ago, when Taylor Shellfish Farms and Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery began losing large numbers of oyster larvae.
But the Pacific Northwest wasn’t alone in this predicament: California’s oyster industry has long relied on hatcheries in Oregon and Washington for its oyster seeds. "We're getting squeezed," Sawyer told a group at a recent tour of his farm. "While demand is growing, seed sources are dying off. We're talking about a paradigm shift."
In previous years, Sawyer said he bought some 7 million oyster seeds from hatcheries. (There's a significant mortality rate from seed to market; on average only 50 percent survive in the 18 months to three years it takes for an oyster to mature.) This year, he could buy just 2.5 million seeds -- supplies are down as a result of this problem -- and they were much smaller than the typical six-millimeter size he used to purchase, which significantly lowers the oysters' chances of survival.
So, out of necessity, Sawyer finds himself in the oyster seed growing business. And he's solicited help to keep his baby bivalves alive. Hog Island has partnered with scientists at UC Davis's Bodega Marine Laboratory to keep close tabs on these vulnerable young oysters in the same waters where they used to thrive without much fuss. Such collaboration between scientists and shellfish industry innovators to study, and, ideally, minimize the damage caused by ocean acidification has already taken place at Whiskey Creek with scientists from Oregon State University and will likely be replicated all along the western coastline, said Tessa Hill, lead scientist on the Hog Island partnership.
Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day this week -- here's the full table of contents. Read this post for a little more about the project. And if you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.
Before we get on with the business of reimagination, though, we have to pause for some clarification on the matter of energy.
The first response many of us have to the climate crisis is simple: We need cleaner energy. This is not illogical. Most of the emissions warming the Earth come from burning dirty fossil fuels. So, we think, replacing those dirty power sources with clean energy sources should solve the problem. When we first ponder the challenge of making carbon zero cities, most of us fly immediately to the idea of cities covered in solar panels and powered by fields of wind turbines.
But seeing climate change mainly as an energy-generation problem -- rather than an energy-use problem -- will mean failure. To meet the climate crisis and win, we need to not only change the kind of energy we use, but also (and even more importantly, to my mind) completely rethink our relationship with energy.
The clean energy supply challenge
My support for clean energy is unequivocal. Obviously, we need to be moving quickly towards a world where all the energy we use comes from clean sources. Wind, solar, geothermal, and hydro all have very, very low emissions. (Nuclear is less climate-friendly, once the costs of mining uranium and storing the waste for the necessary 25-100,000 years are factored in, but some smart people like to include nuclear in the clean energy mix.) A world that ran only on these energy sources would be profoundly more sustainable.
Here’s the problem: If we continue using energy as we have, we won’t become a world run on clean energy. Business as usual, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), would see global energy demand jump 44 percent by 2030. The International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that with current policies we may see more than a doubling of world energy use by 2050.
In other words, to “zero out” our emissions solely by using clean energy, we’d have to replace all the dirty energy used on the planet today -- the coal, oil, and gas which provide transportation, heating and cooling, electricity, food, and manufactured goods to 7 billion people -- with solar, wind, and other clean energy. Essentially we’d need to replace all of the energy used everywhere on the planet. And then -- because energy demand is expected to double by 2050 unless we change direction -- we’d need do it again, within the next 40 years.
If you’ve ever looked at the skyline of Washington, D.C., you know what it’s lacking: tall buildings. While other cities of D.C.'s population size and economic stature have at least a few high-rise office and apartment buildings in central locations, D.C. is just a collection of squat boxes. In fact, it’s illegal to build anything over 130 feet tall. That may soon change, however -- and it’s about time.
A widely cited urban myth holds that D.C. law prohibits buildings taller than the Capitol dome. In fact, preserving views of the Capitol and Washington Monument is one of the law's few virtues, but the height restriction is actually the result of some old-fashioned NIMBYism. Height restrictions were first approved by Congress in 1899 in response to neighbors’ complaints about construction of a 160-foot-tall apartment building. In 1910, Congress passed the Height of Buildings Act, which established that the height of a building on a commercial street cannot exceed the width of the street by more than 20 feet and cannot exceed 130 feet overall. As a result, the tallest office and apartment buildings downtown are typically not more than 12 stories.
“We saw the smoke,” says Richard Yturriondobeitia, describing his first glimpse of Long Draw, Oregon’s biggest blaze in nearly 150 years. The fire started July 8, a hot, dry day like many before. Lightning struck, and seven days later, more than 550,000 acres across the southeast corner of the state were scorched. Much of that territory is divvied up as livestock allotments under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) control. The fire came racing toward Yturriondobeitia’s grazing lands. He, his family, and friends tried to herd their cattle, to little avail. Forty-mile-an-hour winds knocked them back. “We got the hell out of there.” They saved themselves, he says. “Couldn’t save the animals.” He rattles off numbers as though from a scorecard of a favorite team’s losses: “112 cows, 46 calves, three bulls.”
The United States has seen nearly a fourfold increase in large wildfires in recent decades. The National Interagency Fire Center keeps tally: As of Nov. 23, over 54,000 fires have burned nearly 9.1 million acres this year; about 1.7 million acres above the 10-year average. When megafires roar, forests tend to get the limelight. But wildfire isn't all about Smokey Bear’s home in the woods. It’s also about the meat on our menu and the ranches where it's raised.
This summer, James West and I hopped in our mud-caked rental sedan and followed the oil tankers out of Williston, N.D. On my notepad was a scribbled address, a spot deep in the North Dakota prairie, just off the shores of serpentine Lake Sakakawea, 20 miles from the nearest town. As we drove oil rigs cropped up in every direction, each indistinguishable from the last. But somewhere out there was the one we were after: the one with my name on it.
In the most recent issue of Mother Jones, we reported on the explosive growth happening in North Dakota as a result of fracking. The drilling technique has unlocked massive deposits of oil from the Bakken Shale, which translate directly to massive deposits of cash for everyone from truck drivers to rig operators to local strippers to the Big Oil kingpins of Houston and Oklahoma City. And in the interest of full journalistic disclosure, I think it’s about time I came clean: A few of those dirty fracked dollars are in my family’s greasy little pocket.
Editor's note: Welcome to Grist's presentation of Alex Steffen's new book Carbon Zero. We'll be posting a new chapter every day for a week -- here's the full table of contents. And this post will tell you a little more about the project. If you like what you read, you can order Carbon Zero from Amazon.
On Monday the 29th of October, 2012, a tidal surge 13.9 feet high (the highest ever recorded) washed up and over the waterfront in Lower Manhattan, pushed forward by the superstorm Sandy. That same week, the storm destroyed large swathes of coastline from the New Jersey shore to Fire Island, while driving torrential rains, heavy snows, and powerful winds inland across the eastern U.S. and Canada. By the time the storm blew out, it had killed more than 100 Americans, made thousands homeless, left millions without power, and caused at least $50 billion in damage. Sandy was, by any reckoning, one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
Maybe, though, the word “natural” belongs in quotes. Because what was surprising about Sandy wasn’t that it happened (indeed, many had predicted that rising sea levels and storms intensified by warmer oceans would make something like Sandy inevitable), but that it was seen so clearly, and so immediately, for what it was: a forewarning of what a planet in climate chaos has in store for us.
Sandy was far from the first sign that climate change is here -- scientists have been warning for decades of the dangers of a heating planet, and in the last 10 years we’ve seen a flurry of unprecedented storms, droughts, floods, melting glaciers, and wildfires, as well as record-breaking heat waves following one after another. Sandy, though, knocked down walls of denial and inattention that have kept us from admitting what’s happening to our world.
What’s happening is that we’re losing the climate fight. Climate change is here, it’s worsening quickly, its effects are more dire than many thought they would be, and -- if we continue with business as usual -- we’re on a track to unleash an almost unimaginable catastrophe on ourselves, our children, and our descendants.
"Part of learning from [Sandy] is the recognition that climate change is a reality," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the time. “Extreme weather is a reality. It is a reality that we are vulnerable.” He added later, ”Anyone who says there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality.”
Our choice: “extremely dangerous” or “catastrophic”
To not warm the planet at all no longer remains an option. The Earth is already dangerously hotter than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
It's not every day that the author of a new book -- a sharp perspective on a topic that's central to your work -- approaches you and proposes that you make the entire thing available on your website. Usually, authors are more ... parsimonious with their work.
So when Alex Steffen brought his Carbon Zero to Grist several weeks ago with this offer, I wanted to make absolutely certain I'd heard him right.
I knew he'd already raised a little money on Kickstarter to write the book. And I knew he was publishing Carbon Zero under the share-and-modify-friendly Creative Commons license. Still, I had to ask.
"So, you're sure you want us to post the entire book? Really truly? You're not afraid it'll hurt sales? You won't change your mind?"
"Yeah," he nodded. "I'm most interested in getting these ideas out there."
(Of course, if you like what you read, Steffen absolutely will not mind if you do want to buy Carbon Zero in its fully designed e-book format, available very shortly.)
I first encountered Steffen the way you probably did -- through his work cofounding and editing the late, lamented blog called Worldchanging. He's known for thinking realistically -- but not too dejectedly -- about how we might get to a greener future, and in a way that embraces technology without fetishizing it.
When I read Carbon Zero, it more than lived up to that reputation. It's a brief but deep manual for imagining how our cities can become the solution to our climate woes. I think you'll find it makes for bracing, inspiring reading that should serve as perfect pick-me-up after Sandy's devastating East Coast visit. You may want to quarrel with some of Steffen's arguments, but I don't think you'll be disappointed by the scope of his ideas or the urgency of his perspective.
This week, we'll be posting all of Carbon Zero's six chapters (along with their occasional sidebars), a chapter each day till we're done. You can begin at the beginning right here.
We'll also bring Steffen over soon to talk more about the book and its ideas and answer your questions. As we post these fresh hunks of prose, the links on this contents page will light up -- and once we're done, they'll stay lit. Ideas, after all, are a renewable energy source.