Friday, March 25, 2011

Fossil fuels will run out of gas when the solar revolution arrives

Mike Sandiford
The Age, March 22, 2011
    IT'S a sure bet that solar photovoltaics will achieve retail electricity price parity within a few years. When that happens, it will signal the end of the game for fossil fuel baseload power.
    Back in 1988, my first hard disk cost me about $2000. It seemed a risky investment at the time, especially given my existing investments in tape drives, but it was a 20-megabyte marvel of technology. Freeing me from time-consuming tape back-ups, it revolutionised my working life.
    Scaled up to a terabyte, that disk would have cost about $200 million in today's terms. But I can now buy a terabyte disk drive for under $200.
    Demand for disk storage has grown beyond all expectation. Each year, for more than 30 years, costs have been halved, driven in part by the annual doubling in storage density - Kryder's law. Industry analysts expect at least another hundred-fold cost reduction by 2020. Technology-driven cost reductions are typical of industries dependent on advanced material science. The drivers are clear. Innovation provides the technology push and demand pulls the learning.
    In information technology, the rate of learning beggars belief, driving a million-fold reduction in the cost of disk storage since 1988.
    In the energy sector, technology-driven learning applies most pertinently to solar photovoltaics (PVs).
    The cost of PVs is reducing by about 20 per cent for each doubling in deployment. At present rates, doubling is taking 18 months, so PVs get six times cheaper every 10 years. There is no reason to expect the learning to stop for many decades and deployment rates can be increased to accelerate the learning.
    With PV electricity about seven times more expensive than coal-fired power on a levelled-cost basis, we can expect wholesale price parity by 2022. And when we get there, other electricity generation technologies - especially those subject to rising fuel costs - will soon be out of business. Why? Because PV costs will continue to fall.
    Financiers and governments should be sensitive to this timeline. It will turn the electricity market on its head. Distinctions like baseload will no longer matter, as coal will not be able to attract investment. Expensive assets will likely be stranded.
    With costs still high, the key is to get PVs to the stage where market momentum drives the learning. Since PVs can be distributed on buildings where they compete on retail price terms, we can expect that in just a few years. With retail prices typically more than double the wholesale price, retail parity is expected in 2016. Technology breakthroughs might get us there even sooner.
    At the University of Melbourne, scientists in the Victorian Organic Solar Cell Consortium are developing ultra-cheap printable PVs. In a remarkable demonstration, they have already printed them on a substrate similar to the one used to print our $10 bills.
    Backed by $11.75 million in Victorian government funding, the Melbourne group has set 2014 as a target for a printable solar cell with 10 per cent efficiency and a lifetime of 12 years suitable for mass production. This would truly revolutionise the world.
    With just one printing press costing about $25 million, they could print enough PVs to match Australia's existing electricity generation capacity in just 10 years. Roll over Gutenberg!
    To meet all the world's energy needs - about 16 terawatts - would require 350 printing presses costing about $8.5 billion. That is about the same as one new nuclear power station providing less than a hundredth of a per cent of the power.
    Sound like the stuff of fantasy? Only if you don't get the power of Kryder's law. The production rates will be challenging, but this is where the market excels - imagine energy companies touting free building materials - think ElectroBond and PVglass - provided they can harvest the energy. When our buildings power our transport system, the green energy revolution will be unstoppable.
    Ignoring the PV revolution could be catastrophically expensive. New investment in power generation is desperately needed and gas-fired power is the option of choice at today's prices with a carbon price less than about $50 a tonne. But PV's equivalent of Kryder's law, and the phenomenal work going on in our research labs, is telling us investment in gas will be risky. Falling PV costs are likely to strand such assets way before their use-by date.
    Professor Mike Sandiford is director, Melbourne Energy Institute

    Thursday, March 10, 2011

    The science is good, the media bad, the situation worse: Garnaut

    Adam Morton and Katharine Murphy
    The Age, March 11, 2011
      GOVERNMENT adviser Ross Garnaut has criticised media treatment of climate change, suggesting it has undermined support for action by giving equal weight to mainstream peer-reviewed science and sceptical views not backed by published evidence.
      The latest update to Professor Garnaut's 2008 climate change review, launched in Hobart last night, finds that the world is continuing to warm. He also found that the evidence that human greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause has strengthened beyond the high level of certainty of three years ago.
      Despite this, public confidence in climate science seemed to have weakened in Australia, in part due to media coverage of the issue.
      "If you take our mainstream media, it will often seek to provide some balance between people who base their views on the mainstream science and people who don't," he said.
      "That's a very strange sort of balance. It's a balance of words, and not a balance of scientific authority."
      Professor Garnaut said the decline in public acceptance of climate science came amid increasing suggestions in scientific literature that large damage could start at a lower level of warming than the threshold of 2degrees above pre-industrial levels recognised by the United Nations. Australia has warmed by 0.9 degrees since 1910.
      The latest Garnaut update — the fifth of eight to be published before the end of March — finds that not only is the globe warming, but that most physical and biological systems are changing at least as quickly as predicted.
      The pace at which sea levels are rising has accelerated. While the likely increase this century remains uncertain, Professor Garnaut said credible estimates ranged up to 1.9 metres. The climate change department estimates up to 247,600 existing homes worth up to $63 billion are at risk of inundation from a sea level rise of 1.1 metres.
      "It is an awful reality that no major developments in the science hold out realistic hope that the judgments of the 2008 review erred in the direction of overestimating the risks," Professor Garnaut said.
      He said he feared scientific projections to date might have been overly conservative.

      Garnaut says climate science is stronger

      By Bronwyn Herbert

      ABC News Online, 11 March 2011 
      The Federal Government's key climate adviser says the scientific case for climate change has been strengthened. The immediate implication is that avoiding high risks will require large changes in trajectories at an early date.
      On Thursday, Ross Garnaut released the fifth update to his 2008 report on climate change - specifically tackling climate science (available for download here).
      Professor Garnaut says new science since the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change research has strengthened the position that the Earth is warming and that human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.
      He also released specific data on temperature, sea level rises and extreme events from recent years.
      "On the measurable phenomena, it does seem that certainly there's been no evidence of overstatement," he said.
      "And it does seem to be a number of points of understatement, and I call that an awful reality because it would be much better if [the] opposite were true.
      "It would be much better if the evidence was showing the earlier signs had overstated things."
      Professor Garnaut says the world should have a target for cutting emissions.
      "The conclusion of the review is that it's in Australia's national interest for the world to succeed in holding emissions to 450 parts per million," he said.
      "That's much better than the world being moderately successful at mitigation and holding things to 550."
      The update comes as the political debate on the Government's proposed carbon tax heats up.
      This week's Newspoll shows a majority of people are against a price on carbon.
      Those surveyed were responding to a question on whether they would personally be in favour or against paying more for energy or petrol if it would help slow global warming.
      Professor Garnaut says there has been a rise in the number of opinion polls and surveys on climate change.
      He says it is difficult to tie down their statistical significance, but it is clear public confidence has diminished.
      "It's an important question, why it seems that in Australia, the United States and some European countries confidence in the science has diminished," he said.
      "I can't hold myself as a particular authority on this... but one must presume that as an issue moves from something of purely scientific interest into the subject of political debate and dispute, there's a whole lot of communications come into play that aren't actually about the science and that will affect people's perception of the science."
      A CSIRO review found a majority of Australians, between 63 and 83 per cent, believe the climate is changing.
      But across the surveys only 50 per cent agreed human activity was driving climate change.
      "If you take our mainstream media, it will often seek to provide some balance between people who base their views on mainstream science and people who don't," he said.
      "That's a very strange sort of balance; it's a balance of numbers of words and not a balance of scientific authority," Professor Garnaut said.
      Professor Garnaut's next paper will deal with the contentious issue of carbon pricing.
      The final report will be delivered to the Government by the end of May.

      Wednesday, March 9, 2011

      Polar ice melt raising sea levels rapidly: study

      The Age, March 9, 2011
      The pace at which the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting is "accelerating rapidly" and raising the global sea level, according to findings of a study financed by NASA.
      The findings suggest that the ice sheets - more so than ice loss from earth's mountain glaciers and ice caps - have become "the dominant contributor to global sea level rise, much sooner than model forecasts have predicted".
      This study, published on Tuesday, the longest to date examining changes to polar ice sheet mass, combined two decades of monthly satellite measurements with regional atmospheric climate model data to study changes in mass.
      "That ice sheets will dominate future sea level rise is not surprising - they hold a lot more ice mass than mountain glaciers," said lead author Eric Rignot, jointly of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine.
      "What is surprising is this increased contribution by the ice sheets is already happening," he said.
      Under the current trends, he said, sea level is likely to be "significantly higher" than levels projected by the United Nations climate change panel in 2007.
      Isabella Velicogna, co-author of the study, said that the ice sheets lose mass by melting or by breaking apart in blocks of ice, which float into the ocean.
      "It's related to the warming of the planet but that was not the point of the paper. We just observed the changes,"Professor Velicogna said.
      "It's losing mass - much more than was expected many years ago."
      The study showed that in 2006, a year in which comparable results for loss from mountain glaciers and ice caps are available, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets lost enough mass to raise global sea levels by an average of 1.3mm a year.
      The year-on-year acceleration rate of loss on mountain glaciers and ice caps was three times smaller than that of the ice sheets, the study said.
      "The authors conclude that, if current ice sheet melting rates continue for the next four decades, their cumulative loss could raise sea level by 15 centimetres by 2050," the report said.
      "When this is added to the predicted sea level contribution of eight centimetres from glacial ice caps and nine centimetres from ocean thermal expansion, total sea level rise could reach 12.6 inches [32 centimetres]," it said.

      Saturday, March 5, 2011

      Antarctic ice may be more stable than we thought

      WHETHER Antarctica's ice will survive a warmer world is one of the great puzzles of climate science. Now it seems vast expanses of ice may have hung on for the past 200,000 years, surviving the last interglacial.

      The west Antarctic ice sheet's base is below sea level, which should make it unstable. If it were to collapse the torrent of fresh water could raise global sea level by 5 metres. Whether or not this will happen as temperatures climb is a hotly debated topic.

      A new study by David Sugden at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and colleagues suggests the ice sheet may be more stable than we thought. They studied the Heritage range of mountains near the central dome of the west Antarctic ice sheet. Specifically, the researchers looked at blue-ice moraines, where winds erode the ice in topological depressions, exposing the rocks beneath.

      They analysed the moraine for beryllium isotopes produced by cosmic radiation, which accumulate in the rock when it is exposed. Sugden's team found evidence that the moraines had been forming for at least 200,000 years, suggesting that ice has covered the area for at least that long (Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, PalaeoecologyDOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2011.01.027), and therefore survived the last interglacial 125,000 years ago.

      Don't expect this to be the final word on the matter. A recent study by Robert Kopp at Princeton University (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature08686) suggests sea levels were 8 to 9 metres higher than now during the last interglacial, in part due to the west Antarctic ice sheet melting. If Sugden's team is correct, that amount of sea level rise would be unlikely.

      Working out who is right is a "frustrating and intriguing scientific riddle that we'd love to unravel", says Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University in University Park.

      Even if the central parts of the ice sheet can survive a warming climate, melting is likely at the extremities, says Sugden. Tim Naish of Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, agrees. With melting at the edges and in Greenland, "we're looking at a rise of one metre plus or minus 0.5 metres" by 2100, he says - double the maximum predicted in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeSpeaker.

      Wednesday, March 2, 2011

      Ocean acidification threatens marine ecosystems

      By Karen Barlow

      ABC News Online, 3 March 2011
      As politicians debate the merits of a carbon tax scheme, antarctic waters are being used to create an early warning system for oceans affected by climate change.
      Carbon dioxide does not just affect global warming. Ocean acidification is picking up pace, threatening entire marine ecosystems.
      Famed coral, like the Great Barrier Reef, is at risk from more acidic seawater, but the planet's polar waters are especially vulnerable.
      Aboard the temporary floating science laboratory Aurora Australis, marine geologist Dr Will Howard and a team of scientists are investigating the marine repercussions of climate change by sampling the curious life of the southern ocean.
      Rarely seen, tiny marine snails called pteropods are vulnerable to subtle changes in ocean chemistry.
      The concern is that if seawater becomes too acidic they and other organisms like coral will not be able to form.
      Dr Howard says entire ecosystems are at risk.
      "The raw ingredient that a lot of these shell making organisms require is being reduced," he said.
      "Now some of the evidence we are getting from the field would suggest that they are sensitive enough to already be feeling the impact of that reduction in this raw material they need for their shells."
      Dr Howard says seawater is slightly alkaline, but increasing carbon dioxide is making the ocean more acidic.
      "It is unprecedented for millions of years the last time the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere was as high as we have now," he said.
      Dr Howard says the acidity of the oceans has increased by about 30 per cent.
      "That acid in this case has been added by additional carbon dioxide because unlike other gases, when it dissolves in water it forms a weak carbonic acid and that is the source of acidification, and that is the source of the concern," he said.

      Major ecosystem shifts

      Scientists want to set a benchmark for rarely seen creatures now to detect changes in the future.
      Chemical measurements are done on Aurora Australis to calculate the current state of play, while the thickness and chemistry of the snail shells will be studied later in mainland labs.
      CSIRO chemical oceanographer Dr Bronte Tilbrook says no one knows how severe ocean acidification will be on these organisms, but they expect to see major shifts in ecosystems.
      "It seems like some of the biggest changes are on the polar regions, but this ocean acidification is occurring all through the earth's oceans and tropical reefs. Coral reefs are also considered at great risk," she said.
      Oceans absorb carbon dioxide as part of the planet's natural carbon cycle, but global carbon emissions, including Australia's, are increasing.
      "We think actually that threshold is very close, within decades, and that is true for both the Antarctic and the Arctic oceans as well so those two sets of polar ecosystems that we think are facing quite a significant chemical challenge now," Dr Howard said.
      "I would say it is the most persistent and pervasive impact on the oceans that we have ever seen, because it is happening everywhere that the ocean is in contact with the atmosphere, which is to say almost everywhere in the ocean."
      Australian Government figures show carbon emissions are on track to rise 24 per cent above 2000 levels by 2020.
      The CSIRO's Dr Tilbrook says the acidification problem will continue to grow.
      "And it is not going to go away," she said.
      Dr Howard agrees.
      "The ocean will ultimately buffer this carbon dioxide but will take centuries possibly thousands of years for it to happen," he said.
      "So I think the real source of concern [is] that an impact will not be easy to turn around. No matter if we cut emissions drastically, we will still have to live with this impact for quite some time."
      While the effects of ocean acidification are just being felt, Dr Howard says the tide is turning.
      "I think it will start to actually affect ecosystems that we can see and that we do experience quite regularly things like the Great Barrier Reef or the reef at Ningaloo," he said.
      "These are all systems we are used to actually seeing and experiencing and to some extent depending on for tourism and fisheries and other activities so it may be invisible now but I don't think that it will stay invisible for long."

      February Arctic ice extent ties 2005 for record low; extensive snow cover persists

      NSIDC, March 2, 2011

      Arctic sea ice extent for February 2011 tied with February 2005 as the lowest recorded in the satellite record. Sea ice extent was particularly low in the Labrador Sea and Gulf of St. Lawrence. In contrast, winter snow cover remained extensive in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere.
      [To see the maps and graphs associated with this article click on the NSIDC link]

      Overview of conditions

      Sea ice extent averaged over the month of February 2011 was 14.36 million square kilometers (5.54 million square miles). This was a tie with the previous record low for the month, set in 2005. February ice extent remained below normal in both the Atlantic and Pacific sectors, particularly in the Labrador Sea and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

      While ice extent has declined less in winter months than in summer, the downward winter trend is clear. The 1979 to 2000 average is 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles). From 1979 through 2003, the February extent averaged 15.60 million square kilometers (6.02 million square miles). Every year since 2004 has had a mean February extent below 15 million square kilometers (5.79 million square miles).

      Conditions in context

      While ice extent grew at average rates for February, the overall extent remained anomalously low. Air temperatures over most of the Arctic Ocean were between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius (4 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal. Over the East Greenland Sea and north towards the Pole, air temperatures were 5 to 7 degrees Celsius (9 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than normal. Colder conditions, 2 to 6 degrees Celsius (4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit) below average persisted over western Eurasia, east-central Eurasia and some of the Canadian Arctic.

      As air temperatures dropped in the eastern Canadian Arctic in February, parts of the Labrador Sea started to freeze over. However, the Gulf of St. Lawrence remained mostly free of ice. As during winter 2010, when Environment Canada reported that sea ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was at the lowest level on record, the lack of ice will make it difficult for harp seals to give birth to their pups on the sea ice, as they normally do in February and March.

      February 2011 compared to past years

      February 2011 tied February 2005 for the lowest ice extent for the month in the satellite record. Including 2011, the February trend is now at -3.0 percent per decade.

      Through most of January, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) was generally in a strongly negative phase, similar to the pattern that dominated the winter of 2009 to 2010. This led to very warm temperatures over the eastern Arctic, helping to account for the low ice extents over the Labrador Sea and Gulf of Saint Lawrence. However, toward the end of January, the AO returned to a positive phase, and ice began to grow in the Labrador Sea and Gulf of St. Lawrence. For more information on current AO conditions, visit the NOAA Climate Prediction Center Web page.

      Ice motion

      Typically during a negative AO phase, weather patterns favor the retention of thick ice in the central Arctic and Canada basin, where it can better survive the summer. The negative AO also typically leads to a stronger Beaufort Gyre, which helps move ice from the western to eastern Arctic. There the ice thickens, ridging and rafting against the Siberian coast. 

      Last winter, the AO was in its most negative phase since at least 1951. However, slight differences from the typical AO pattern in the location of the sea level pressure anomalies had a significant impact on how the ice moved within and out of the Arctic Basin. During winter 2009 to 2010 the peak pressure anomalies were shifted towards the Barents and Kara seas, which helped transport ice from the Canadian Arctic towards the southern Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Since some of the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic is found north of the Canadian Archipelago, this atmospheric pattern ended up further depleting the Arctic of its store of old, thick ice as that old ice melted during summer in these southerly locations.

      This winter also saw a relatively strong negative AO index during December and January.  However, as we discussed in our January 5, 2011 post, the positive sea level pressure anomalies were centered near Iceland. This led to a more extensive anticyclonic (clockwise) transport pattern than last winter.  This may help keep a more extensive distribution of multiyear ice cover as summer approaches.

      January and February Northern Hemisphere snow cover

      Sea ice extent is only one of a number of data sets scientists use to understand how climate is changing. Rutgers University and NOAA have compiled a 45-year record of Northern Hemisphere snow cover extent from NOAA snow charts. These data show that much of northern North America, Scandinavia and northern Eurasia are snow covered between 90 and 100 percent of the time in January and February. High elevation plains and mountains at lower latitudes, such as the southern Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Hindu Kush in Asia, also have extensive snow cover.

      Over this record, in January, Northern Hemisphere snow cover averages 47 million square kilometers (18.1 million square miles), and in February it averages 46 million square kilometers (17.8 square miles)—approximately 45 to 46 percent of the land area in the region. While sea ice extent was below average for January 2011, this month had the sixth-largest snow cover extent since the record started in 1966, at 49 million square kilometers (18.9 million square miles). Snow was unusually widespread over the mid-western and eastern United States, eastern Europe, and western China. Snow cover in February remained above average at 47.4 million square kilometers (18.3 million square miles), with more snow than usual in the western and central U.S., eastern Europe, Tibet and northeastern China.

      Reduced sea ice extent and extensive snow cover are not contradictory, and are both linked to a strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (see our January 5, 2011 post). A strongly negative AO favors outbreaks of cold Arctic air over northern Europe and the U.S., as many people experienced first-hand these last two winters. Whether this is a trend, or in any way linked to ongoing climate warming in the Arctic, remains to be seen.

      Further reading

      Stroeve, J.C., J. Maslanik, M.C. Serreze, I. Rigor and W. Meier. 2010. Sea ice response to an extreme negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation during winter 2009/2010. Geophysical Research Letters, doi: 2010GL045662.

      Extreme winter weather linked to climate change

      Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

      WASHINGTON | Tue Mar 1, 2011

      (Reuters) - This winter's heavy snowfalls and other extreme storms could well be related to increased moisture in the air due to global climate change, a panel of scientists said on Tuesday.

      This extra moisture is likely to bring on extraordinary flooding with the onset of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, as deep snowpack melts and expected heavy rains add to seasonal run-off, the scientists said in a telephone briefing.

      As the planet warms up, more water from the oceans is evaporated into the atmosphere, said Todd Sanford, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. At the same time, because the atmosphere is warmer, it can hold onto more of the moisture that it takes in.

      Intense storms are often the result when the atmosphere reaches its saturation point, Sanford said.

      This year, a series of heavy storms over the U.S. Midwest to the Northeast have dropped up to 400 percent of average snows in some locations, said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at Weather Underground.

      The amount of water in that snowpack is among the highest on record, Masters said.

      "If you were to take all that water and melt it, it would come out to more than 6 inches over large swaths of the area," Masters said. "If all that water gets unleashed in a hurry, in a sudden warming, and some heavy rains in the area, we could be looking at record flooding along the Upper Mississippi River and the Red River in North Dakota."

      That tallies with projections by the U.S. National Weather Service, which last month said a large stretch of the north central United States is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring.


      Spring floods could be exacerbated by spring creep, a phenomenon where spring begins earlier than previously.

      "We've documented in the mountains of the U.S. West that the spring runoff pulse now comes between one and three weeks earlier than it used to 60 years ago," Masters said. "And that's because of warmer temperatures tending to melt that snowpack earlier and earlier."

      In the last century, global average temperatures have risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (.8 Celsius). Last year tied for the warmest in the modern record. One place this warmth showed up was in the Arctic, which is a major weather-maker for the Northern Hemisphere, according to Mark Serreze, director of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

      One driver of this winter's "crazy weather," Serreze said, is an atmospheric pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation, which has moved into what climate scientists call a negative phase.

      This phase means there is high pressure over the Arctic and low pressure at mid-latitudes, which makes the Arctic zone relatively warm, but spills cold Arctic air southward to places like the U.S. Midwest and Northeast.

      This negative Arctic Oscillation has been evident for two years in a row, the same two winters that have had extreme storms and heavy snowfalls.

      It is possible, but not certain, that the negative Arctic Oscillation is linked to warming of the Arctic, which is in turn influenced by a decrease in sea ice cover throughout the region.

      The only underlying explanation for these events is climate warming due to heightened greenhouse gas levels, Serreze said.

      (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)