Beyond Irene: Future Hurricanes Will Get Worse

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Natalie Wolchover, Life’s Little Mysteries Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Hurricane Irene battered the East Coast this weekend, blasting buildings and trees that hadn’t felt such strong winds in decades, and flooding subways, tunnels and entire coastal neighborhoods.
Thankfully, Irene diminished in strength before making landfall on the Mid-Atlantic Coast and New England; though she is estimated to have caused $7 billion in damages, things could have been a lot worse. And atmospheric scientists say they will be.
They warn that hurricanes will get more destructive in the future. And as oceans warm, more and more of the strongest storms will creep north.

Warm seas
About 90 tropical cyclones form worldwide each year; that pace hasn’t changed recently. Rather than causing more hurricanes and typhoons to develop, the 0.5-degree Celsius rise in tropical sea surface temperatures that has occurred over the past 30 years seems to have another effect. As Colorado State atmospheric scientist James Elsner ominously put it: “The strongest storms are getting stronger.” Hurricanes are like heat engines, Elsner explained. When the ocean puts more heat in, more energy comes out in the form of faster winds that blow for longer. As detailed in a 2008 paper in Nature (and in later studies analyzing subsequent hurricane seasons), he and his colleagues have noticed a steady upward trend in the maximum wind speed of the strongest hurricanes. For the top fifth most intense hurricanes, wind speeds have increased by 4.5 miles per hour per degree-Celsius rise in the ocean temperature. For storms in the top 10th of the intensity ranking, wind speeds have increased by 14.5 mph per degree Celsius.

That’s a jump of almost an entire category on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale that rates hurricane intensity. [Are Category 6 Hurricanes Coming Soon?] Only the strongest tropical storms seem to be affected by rising ocean temperatures; Elsner says this is because they alone experience a “thermodynamic perfect environment” — open waters with no wind shear coming from land. “Most storms are struggling as they pass near the coast. Only strong storms in this favorable thermodynamic environment are able to intensify with the warm ocean,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. Theoretical models for how ocean temperatures should affect hurricane intensity square with Elsner’s real-world data. Kerry Emanuel, a professor of meteorology at MIT and an expert on hurricane intensification, has developed a model called the “maximum potential intensity theory,” which predicts that the strongest storms will get stronger as seas warm.

The effect seems especially apparent in the North Atlantic, where cooler waters used to knock the wind out of hurricanes as they moved north, but no longer do.
Emanuel first presented his model in a 2005 article in Nature. “The correlations between Atlantic hurricane power and sea surface temperature have actually improved [since then],” he wrote in an email. This strengthens the predictions laid out in his theory. He regularly updates maps displaying the maximum cyclone intensity throughout the world’s oceans. Read the full article: Beyond Irene- Future Hurricanes Will Get Worse

Brookings Quantifies the Clean Economy, Finds More Jobs Than Fossil Fuel Sector

185 investing flash 300x125 INS7In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama spoke of “the promise of renewable energy” and the clean economy to “strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.” But the state of the clean economy, let alone its progress, remains hard to assess; with no standardized definitions and data, it can be difficult to quantify its size, nature, and growth at the regional level.

A new report and interactive website from the Brookings Institution attempts to bring clarity to some of these issues. The study, conducted in partnership with the Technology Partnership Program of research and development company Battelle, covers the years 2003 to 2010 for every county in the United States.

According to the report, “Sizing the Clean Economy” [PDF], the clean economy now employs some 2.7 million U.S. workers—300,000 more than the fossil fuel sector and 1.3 million more than the biosciences sector.

Most clean economy jobs reside in mature segments, such as wastewater and mass transit. But the fastest-growing segments are in the clean energy sector. These segments, which include the wind, photovoltaic, smart grid, biofuel, and battery industries, grew 8.3 percent annually from 2003 to 2010, far outstripping the 4.2 percent rate for the national economy.

An unusually large share of these jobs—26 percent—are in manufacturing, compared to just 9 percent of jobs in the economy as a whole. And, on a per job basis, the clean economy is about twice as export-oriented as the national economy—$20,129 worth of exports is sold for each job in the clean economy, versus just $10,390 in exports for the average U.S. job. The biofuels industry, the most export-oriented segment, generates an estimated $189,000 in exports per job.

These jobs also offer better pay for low-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole. The median wage of a typical clean economy job approaches $44,000, far exceeding the national median of $38,616 (weighted by averages of the medians). And almost half of all jobs in the clean economy held by workers with a high school diploma or less, compared to only 37.2 percent of U.S. jobs.

Although the clean economy permeates all of the nation’s metropolitan areas, it manifests itself in varied configurations: Service oriented cities include New York (mass transit), San Francisco (professional services), and Las Vegas (architectural services). Many Midwestern and Southern metropolitan areas, like Louisville, Cleveland, and Little Rock have manufacturing oriented clean economies. State capitals (e.g. Harrisburg, PA, Sacramento, CA, and Raleigh, NC) have a disproportionate share of clean jobs in the public sector. Other metro areas, including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Portland, and Los Angeles, have balanced and multi-dimensional clean economies

Brookings found that strong clustering of industries (geographic concentrations of firms in similar or related industries) boosts metro area growth performance in the clean economy. Overall, clustered establishments grew at a rate that was 1.4 percentage points per year faster than non-clustered establishments (4.6 percent annual growth from 2003 to 2010, versus 3.2 percent). Among the most clustered metropolitan areas are Houston (providing a clustered environment for 74 percent of its clean economy establishments), Los Angeles (73 percent), Seattle (45 percent), and Pittsburgh (37 percent).

Although the report finds that the private sector will lead in catalyzing faster and broader growth across the U.S. clean economy, governments must play a role in mending policy uncertainties and gaps. Other nations are already bidding to secure global productions and the jobs that come with it. Meanwhile, the United States risks failing to exploit growing world demand.

To address these concerns, the report recommends that Congress and the federal government step up “green” procurement efforts, institute a national clean energy standard, put a price on carbon, and create a funding mechanism to help bridge the commercialization “Valley of Death.” Congress should also embrace continued incremental growth of key energy and environmental R&D budgets, as well measured expansion of such recent institutional start-ups as the Energy Frontier Research Centers, ARPA-E, and Energy Innovation Hubs programs.

On the regional level, states may adopt or strengthen their own clean energy standards, work to reduce the initial costs of energy efficiency and renewable energy adoptions, and pursue electricity market reform to facilitate the use of clean and efficient solutions. Localities can help support adoption by expediting permitting for green projects, adopting green building and other standards, and adopting innovative financing tools to reduce the upfront costs of investing in clean technologies.

Underlying all these efforts, parties must emphasize detailed knowledge of local industry dynamics and regional growth strategies. By pursuing this bottom-up course, the report concludes, “the nation can and will build the domestic clean economy.”

Investigate your own region using Brookings’ interactive Sizing the Clean Economy Indicator Map.

Solar satellites key to green energy

satellites 300x300 INS7With gas prices on the rise, the race is on for cheap alternative fuel sources, including solar power, but amid a wash of criticism, the solar industry may not even be in the running.

The major criticisms against solarpower facilities, such as wind farms, are unreliability and inefficiency. Solar power depends on environmental factors beyond human control and that makes investors anxious. These facilities also require areas with high amounts of sunlight, usually hundreds if not thousands of acres of valuable farmland and all for relatively little power production.

This is why, in the 1960s, scientists proposed solar-powered satellites (SPSs). SPSs have about the most favourable conditions imaginable for solar energy production, short of a platform on the sun.

Earth’s orbit sees 144 per cent of the maximum solar energy found on the planet’s surface and takes up next to no space in comparison to land-based facilities.

Satellites would be able to gather energy 24 hours a day, rather than the tenuous 12-hour maximum that land-based plants have, and direct the transmitted energy to different locations, depending on where power was needed most.

So, with so many points in its favour, why hasn’t anyone built one yet?

Obviously, putting anything into outer space takes a lot of money.

Many governments claim there simply isn’t any money in the budget for launching satellites into space, but in 2010, amid an economic crisis, the United States managed to find $426 million for nuclear fusion research and $18.7 billion for NASA, a five-per-cent increase from 2009. The most recent projections, made in the 1980s, put the cost of launching an SPS at $5 billion, or around 8-10 cents/ kWh. Nuclear power plants cost a minimum of $3 billion to $6 billion, not including cost overruns, which can make a plant cost as much as $15 billion.

In the U.S., nuclear power costs about 4.9 cents/kWh, making SPS power supply only slightly more expensive. But these estimates are over two decades old and the numbers likely need to be re-examined. The idea for space-based solar energy has been around since the ’60s; given the technological advancements since then, surely governments would have invested in making an SPS power supply more budget-friendly.

That is not the case. Governments and investors are rarely willing to devote funding to something that doesn’t have quick cash returns.

The projected cost of launching these satellites once ranged from $11 billion to $320 billion.

These figures have been adjusted for inflation, but the original estimates were made back in the 1970s, when solar technology was in its infancy, and may have since become grossly inaccurate.

How long an SPS would survive in orbit is anybody’s guess, given the maintenance due to possible damage to solar panels from solar winds and radiation. As for adding to the ever-expanding satellite graveyard in Earth’s orbit, most solutions to satellite pollution remain theoretical.

Still, these satellites should not be so largely dismissed.

There is a significant design flaw keeping these satellites from production. One of the major shortfalls in the design of SPSs is simply in getting the power from point A to point B. This remains the most controversial aspect of SPSs: the use of microwaves to transmit power from high orbit to the ground.

Critics often cite the dangers of microwave radiation to humans and wildlife, however, the strength of the radiation from these beams would be equal to the leakage from a standard microwave oven, which is only slightly more than a cellphone.

A NASA report from 1980 reveals that the major concern with solarpowered satellites was problems with the amplifier on the satellite itself. Several workable solutions were proposed in that same report. The report also recommended that NASA develop and invest in SPS technology, so that by the 2000s, these satellites would be a viable alternative fuel source. This recommendation was ignored.

We should already have the technology and the infrastructure in place for green energy, but we don’t. Instead, we are engaged in a mad dash for the quickest, cheapest alternative to oil and that may be the source of our downfall.

For the sake of the future, expediency must take a back seat to longevity and longevity may just be found in outer space.

Austin Mardon received an honourary doctorate of laws from the University of Alberta on Friday. He is a member of the Order of Canada and is a full member of the International Academy of Astronautics . Pauline Balogun is a U of A student who is interested in green technologies for the future. EDMONTON JOURNAL

Solar and Renewable Energy In the Midst of a Transformation

solar wind change 1 INS7As the clean energy industry emerges from a challenging period caused by the global economic downturn, it is entering a stage of rapid change in which business models are being transformed against a backdrop of regulatory uncertainty. In several key sectors, the market is shifting back toward business structures and technologies that were once abandoned, but are now being revived. A new white paper from Pike Research identifies 10 key trends that are part of this transformation. The paper, which includes commentary and predictions about the state of the clean energy industry in 2011 and beyond, is available for free download on Pike Research’s website.

“Clean Energy: Ten Trends to Watch in 2011 and Beyond”

“As the clean energy industry matures and as it simultaneously comes to grips with economic challenges, market leaders are experimenting with new business models, both at a large scale and on a distributed basis,” says senior analyst Peter Asmus. “At the same time, key industry players are utilizing an increasingly wider diversity of technology options, especially in the solar and wind sectors.”

Key clean energy trends that Pike Research is watching in 2011 and beyond include the following:
• The revival of direct current (DC) transmission and distribution technologies
• China’s rise as the most important global market for waste-to-energy power plants
• New rules for economies of scale, from huge wind turbines as large as 10 megawatts (MW) to small modular nuclear reactors that could power a shopping center or a business complex
• Greater diversification of technology choices in solar, including a resurgence of concentrated solar power (CSP) and concentrated solar PV (CPV)
• More product diversity in the wind power sector, both in terms of design and scale, including more vertical axis and two-bladed turbine designs and the increasing importance of mid-sized turbines (100 kW to 1 MW)
• The movement of power plants to marine sites, including the growth of offshore wind, hydrokinetic wave and tidal generators, and even floating solar photovoltaics (PV) on water-based sites
• Growth in geothermal power generation, largely due to state renewable portfolio standards (RPS) in the western United States
• Investor-owned utilities returning to ownership/development of new renewable generation projects

Pike Research’s white paper, “Clean Energy: Ten Trends to Watch in 2011 and Beyond”, presents ten key trends shaping future markets for clean energy including not only renewable energy – solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and hydrokinetic – but also natural gas-fired microturbines and nuclear power. Most of these technologies will become integral elements of the clean energy mix. Conclusions and predictions presented in this paper draw from a broad array of Pike Research reports, with market forecasts included for key sectors. A full copy of the white paper is available for free download on the firm’s website.

Middle East desert solar plan criticised

desertec concentrated solar2 300x186 INS7A plan to turn the desert sunshine of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) into electricity, both for the region and for export to Europe, has been criticised for ignoring the needs of local people and the science community.

Critics say that the Desertec Industrial Initiative’s (Dii) centralised, top-down approach means that electrification may not benefit the desert people and may stifle capacity-building in the region’s science community. They were speaking on the sidelines of the Solar Energy for Science Symposium in Germany this week (19–20 May), held to push the project forward and explore the potential for scientific collaborations between Europe and MENA.

The symposium was organised by the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), with Egypt’s Academy of Scientific Research and Technology and the Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME), in Jordan.

Desertec aims to harness the huge solar and wind resources across the deserts of MENA, delivering up to 15 per cent of Europe’s electricity needs by 2050 via high-voltage transmission lines.

Feasibility studies are on the way after which funding of up to US$400 billion will be sought.
Hamed El-Mously, chairman of the Egyptian Society for Endogenous Development of Local Communities, said the project was ignoring the wishes of local people.
Desert people have not been consulted about their energy needs — despite the fact that a mix of energy options may be more appropriate than a single, large powerplant, he said.
And the swathes of desert needed for such plants will take away the land that many nomadic and pastoral societies use for their livelihoods, he said.

‘Desertec is a top-down approach, in both senses — North-to-South and governments-to-local-communities. There is much more needed to engage the communities.’
Meanwhile, academics expressed fears that the project would not boost MENA science.

‘It is not good for Tunisian researchers,’ said Samir Romdhane, a professor at the Tunisian Physical Society. The technology will be imported from abroad with little opportunity for MENA researchers to develop. It is not an idea that came from the region, but from a consortium of German firms, he said. And Abdelfattah Barhdadi, physics professor at Ecole Normale Superieure de Rabat, in Morocco, said that, although there are many experts in the area who could contribute to the development of Desertec, there has ‘not been enough effort on the behalf of the project to consult them’. A supporter of the project, Odeh Al-Jayyousi, regional director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Jordan, also called for more local engagement.

‘We need to promote multi-stakeholder dialogue and bottom-up approaches, and we need to plan with the people not for the people’. Referring to the wave of unrest this year known as the Arab Spring, which has raised concerns about the viability of Desertec, he said: ‘This wave of democracy will nurture new ideas. ‘I think we need this type of big idea that will cross national boundaries and induce a new model of development.’
Suhil Kiwan, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and a co-founder of the Desertec University Network, insisted that the project will develop the region’s science. Both the original idea and the idea for the university network came from the region’s scientists, he said. The export of electricity to Europe will only be the last step.

The aim of the conference was to stimulate new scientific research partnerships between European and MENA institutions, in order to promote renewable energies and sustainable development. It brought together scientists, ministers and stakeholders from both regions — mainly Egypt, Germany and Jordan. The conference, attended by more than 200 people from over 35 countries, concluded that concentrated solar power generation is already technically feasible and economically sound, and the costs are competitive with fossil fuel electricity generation — so stakeholders in both regions should carry on working to make the project a reality. The conclusions acknowledged a suggestion from an Egyptian delegate to create a regional centre of excellence in solar science.

But there was no consensus on achieving the right balance between the contributions of different stakeholders, the funding mechanism, and whether to involve Sub-Saharan African countries in the project.
The initiative’s next conference will take place in Cairo later this year (2–3 November).

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