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Blog Day: June 10, 2016

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Volvo R&D Chief takes swipes at Tesla ’s Autopilot, implies Musk is lying about safety

A member of the media test drives a Tesla   Motors Inc. Model S car equipped with Autopilot in Palo Alto, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. Tesla   Motors Inc. will begin rolling out the first version of its highly anticipated

Tesla recently attracted some criticisms over its Autopilot system. There are primarily two camps when its comes to approaches to developing self-driving cars. Some companies are gradually releasing more and more advanced autonomous and semi-autonomous features (level 2) leading to a fully autonomous system (level 4), like Tesla ’s Autopilot, and others, like Google, are aiming to only release a system once the technology is ready for a fully (level 4) self-driving car.

Among the criticisms, scientist Andrew NG said that it was “irresponsible” for Tesla to ship the Autopilot and BMW’s CEO compared the system to an unreliable app. Now it’s Volvo’s turn to go after Tesla ’s Autopilot for similar reasons. (more…)

Solar Panel Design Layouts: May 2016

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Exclusive: Tesla and SpaceX battery experts set up competing startup for EV and home battery packs

rome power 4

You might remember Porter Harris from our piece on SpaceX’s battery development ‘Tesla is not Elon Musk’s only company developing high-tech battery packs‘ – and also when covering Faraday Future (FF) since Harris joined the company as ‘Chief Battery Architect’ in November 2014 – and then one more time when he suddenly left the company just before it came out of stealth mode.

Electrek has now learned that he co-founded a new startup to compete with FF and Tesla with new battery pack designs for electric vehicles, and even to compete with ‘Tesla Energy’ in stationary energy storage products. (more…)

How Does a Solar Pool Heater Work?

This simple animation shows how solar pool heating systems work by redirecting pool water to roof mounted solar collectors where the pool water heats up. This uses your existing pool circulation pump to send water to the solar panels and back.

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Apple Energy deeper dive: Is this Apple running its own microgrids or more?

apple-campus-2

Yesterday, 9to5Mac.com reported that Apple Inc has founded a new, fully owned, subsidiary known as Apple Energy and that this entity had applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC regulates power companies) to be able to sell electricity and other power grid services to anyone that is not a public utility. Does this mean that you can now buy clean electricity made on the roof of the Apple Spaceship? Unless you are a large corporate electricity user within 10-30 miles, probably not. However if we step back and take a broader view, something interesting is happening – the likes of Apple, Google, Ikea and others including even Walmart are showing us a small piece of the future of much smarter electricity grid owned by many instead of the few.

(more…)

The Climate Costs of Offshore Oil Drilling

When the U.S. government refuses to include the costs of climate change in its environmental assessments, we’re the ones that pay.

A new report from Greenpeace USA and Oil Change International shows that President Obama’s plan to expand offshore oil and gas drilling will lead to an increase in global carbon dioxide emissions—and those emissions will impose billions in social costs that we’ll all be stuck paying for.

More Drilling Leads to Increased Carbon Emissions

The report, The Climate Change Costs of Offshore Oil Drilling, uses the government’s own oil production estimates and finds that the Obama administration’s proposed 2017-2022 Five-Year Program for offshore oil leasing could lead to increased emissions of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over roughly 50 years. That’s equivalent to the emissions from 3.6 million cars on the road over that same time period.

Of this total, about half of the emissions—440 million metric tons—would come from expanded drilling in the Arctic Ocean and another 384 million would come from the Gulf of Mexico. The report builds on the findings of a recent study by the Stockholm Environment Institute, which found that phasing out the leasing of federal lands to fossil fuel companies could significantly reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

And, unsurprisingly, this increase in emissions comes at a high cost to you and me. Using the government’s official estimates for the Social Cost of Carbon, we found that the offshore drilling program would impose net social costs of between $59 billion and $179 billion over the next 50 years.

In his final few months in office, President Obama is looking to cement his legacy as a climate champion, building on advancements like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement. Expanding offshore drilling would do the exact opposite, but there is still time for the president to reverse course and put a halt to new offshore oil leasing.

Here’s why he should.

What is the Social Cost of Carbon, Anyway?

Our daily lives are connected to the climate in ways both obvious and subtle and for that reason carbon pollution dumped into the atmosphere will cost us in a variety of ways.

For one, climate change is already a significant threat to human health. More frequent heat waves, droughts, changing infectious disease patterns and air pollution will lead to increased risk of illness, more premature deaths and higher health costs.

Similarly, climate change will impact our food systems by changing temperature and rainfall patterns and affecting crop yields. Changes in food production will be costly for farmers and consumers—and could be devastating for the planet’s poorest inhabitants.

And as sea-levels continue to rise, coastal governments will have to spend tax dollars to guard against floods and storm surges. The U.S. recently saw its first relocations due to climate change, where a native tribe in Louisiana is in the process of moving from its traditional lands to higher ground because of erosion and rising sea levels. A number of Alaskan Native villages are in similar predicaments, but have not yet secured the necessary funds to resettle.

These climate change costs represent a stealth tax that we are already paying and which is set to increase rapidly in the years to come. Fossil fuel companies make their profits by off-loading these costs onto the rest of us. You won’t see this tax at the gas pump, but we are paying it nonetheless.

Thousands of people queue for buses in Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy disabled subway service. Photo credit: Paul Martinka / Greenpeace

The U.S. government has started to come up with a system to tally up these climate impacts. The official government Social Cost of Carbon estimates calculate the costs of emitting one metric ton of carbon dioxide in a given year. The costs inexorably rise over time as the planet’s climate system becomes more and more stressed. These official numbers almost certainly underestimate the true costs of climate change, but they are a useful benchmark.

The First Step is Admitting You Have a Problem

But just because the government has these handy estimates doesn’t mean it’s using them.

In its Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed offshore drilling program, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) doesn’t calculate the social costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions. It doesn’t even admit that expanding oil and gas leasing will lead to higher global emissions.

Science says it should.

If you add up the climate-related social costs associated with burning the oil that would be pumped under the proposed offshore plan, they may be larger than the net economic benefits gained from selling that oil. The omission of these downstream costs is a fundamental flaw in BOEM’s environmental assessment.

Activists raise a “Climate” banner in the sHell No Flotilla in the ‘Paddle in Seattle’ protest. Photo credit: Marcus Donner / Greenpeace

This is even more evidence that expanded offshore oil drilling is a bad bet for the climate and people everywhere. The time has come for President Obama to keep federal fossil fuels in the ground and end oil leasing in the Arctic and in the Gulf of Mexico—raise your voice before the public comment period closes on June 16.

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Alaska Is Having Hottest Year Since Records Began

By Nika Knight

Like the rest of the world, Alaska has been unusually hot this year—and it’s about to get hotter.

That’s according to the most recent data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as Climate Central reported.

Symphony Lake, near Anchorage, Alaska. Photo credit: mcav0y / Flickr

Between March and May of this year, the meteorological spring, the entire state has been about 10 degrees hotter than normal, with an average temperature of 32 F.

“That may sound cold,” Climate Central noted, “but warmth is a relative term. That temperature handily beat the previous record hot spring of 1998 by 2 F (1 C), according to NOAA.”

The cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau have experienced their hottest springs since records began.

How much spring temperatures departed from the average in Alaska this spring. Photo credit: NOAA / Climate Central

Frightening effects of a warming Alaska include melting permafrost, increasing wildfires, an acidifying ocean and depletion of habitat for critical species, scientists have warned.

“Alaska isn’t only experiencing the hottest temperatures on record by a huge margin,”observed Gizmodo: “The state’s frozen rivers broke up earlier than ever before. The growing season shifted earlier than ever in recorded history. The state is also drying up quick, with only the very lowest coastal regions not in active drought right now.”

Climate Central reported:

Rick Thoman, climate science and services manager for the NWS’s Alaska region, said that several factors had converged to keep Alaska so relatively toasty, including persistent high pressure systems over the region and warm waters off the coast. Early snowmelt has also exacerbated the spring heat.

The effects of the elevated temperatures are readily apparent, Thoman said, with berries ripening weeks earlier than usual, very early “last frosts” and an early start to construction projects.

Climate Central observed that temperatures in Alaska “have also steadily risen—like the planet as a whole and the Arctic in particular—thanks to the excess heat trapped by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”

Indeed, scientists say that 2016 may end up being the hottest year in recorded history and by the widest margin, as Common Dreams reported.

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Whistleblower Says EPA Officials Covered Up Toxic Fracking Methane Emissions for Years

By Nika Knight

Why has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to take adequate action against disastrous, climate-warming methane emissions from the fracking industry?

Fracked gas flaring at a fracking well near the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Photo credit: WildEarth Guardians / Flickr

An environmental watchdog alleges that the answer may be a years-long, systematic cover-up of the true data surrounding these toxic emissions. That cover-up, the group says, was at the hands of at least one EPA researcher who accepted payments from the oil and gas industry.

In an incendiary federal complaint filed on Wednesday with the EPA’s Inspector General, the 28-year-old North Carolina-based group NC WARN wrote that “there has been a persistent and deliberate cover-up that has prevented the agency from requiring the natural gas industry to make widespread, urgently needed and achievable reductions in methane venting and leakage across the nation’s expanding natural gas infrastructure.”

“Studies relied upon by EPA to develop policy and regulations were scientifically invalid,” the organization charged.

Specifically, wrote NC WARN in a press statement, “Dr. David Allen, then-head of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, has led an ongoing, three-year effort to cover up underreporting of the primary device, the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler and a second device used to measure gas releases from equipment across the natural gas industry. Allen is also on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been funded by the oil and gas industries for years.”

“The EPA’s failure to order feasible reductions of methane leaks and venting has robbed humanity of crucial years to slow the climate crisis,” said Jim Warren, director of NC WARN. “The cover-up by Allen’s team has allowed the industry to dig in for years of delay in cutting emissions—at the worst possible time.”

The cover-up was discovered by NC WARN, the group wrote in its complaint, when it became aware that the very inventor of the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler, an engineer named Touché Howard, had been attempting to blow the whistle for years on the crucial instrument’s malfunctioning. The critical failure causes the instrument to under-report methane emissions “up to 100-fold,” the organization wrote.

Studies have shown the EPA underestimating methane leaks from fracked gas production for years and Howard’s own research found that the agency has been “hugely underestimating” methane emissions specifically as a result of the faulty instrument, asCommon Dreams reported.

“In the extreme, that kind of failure could lead to catastrophic explosions,” Howard told the Orlando Times.

The complaint describes Howard’s repeated attempts to warn the EPA and Allen about the instrument and the silence he received in response.

“It appears that the goal of the [University of Texas] team was not to critically examine the problems but to convince [Environmental Defense Fund, who co-authored the study] and its production committee members that no problems existed,” NC WARN added.

“We believe Mr. Howard was specifically prevented from providing input because the [University of Texas] team knew that he would be able to show that their counterarguments were faulty and the resulting studies scientifically invalid,” the group concluded.

Howard’s concerns and the specific mechanical problems of the measurement instrument he has repeatedly pointed out have to this date never been addressed, “resulting in the failure of the EPA to accurately report methane emissions for more than two years, much less require reductions,” the complaint noted. “Meanwhile, the faulty data and measuring equipment are still being used extensively throughout the natural gas industry worldwide.”

Indeed, a graphic included in the complaint demonstrates that the malfunctioning Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler is relied upon to measure methane emissions at nearly every point in the fracked gas production process:

Natural gas production sectors in which the Bacharach Hi-Flow Sampler (BHFS) is used. Diagram source: EPA, via NC WARN

It’s no mystery why Allen may have been so determined to fudge the data on toxic fracked gas emissions, NC WARN argued: “His disclosure statements […] show his research and consulting have long been funded by the oil and gas industry.”

NC WARN requested that the EPA Inspector General, the agency’s internal watchdog, investigate its allegations of fraud and abuse by Allen and other EPA officials; retract Allen’s studies and examine all EPA standards and policies that relied on those studies; conduct a new, scientifically valid study to “accurately quantify methane” emissions from the fracked gas extraction and production process; as well as investigate the EPA’s reliance on researchers with industry bias and conflicts of interest.

Moreover, the group recommended that the EPA “redress the damage that has been done” by doing the following:

1. EPA should institute a zero emission goal for methane;

2. EPA should initiate a full regimen for oversight, testing and remediation of methane emissions in the natural gas industry; and

3. EPA should take into account the global warming potential of methane emissions over a 20-year (not 100-year) timeframe.

Warren added that the only permanent solution to the problem of methane leaks is a total ban on fracking: “Fracking for gas and oil must also be stopped for a host of reasons. We’re reaching out to communities, workers, advocates and elected officials to join the call for an investigation into EPA’s scientific fraud.”

“The people of this nation,” Warren went on, “must demand that regulators and politicians reject the pervasive pressure of corporate money, stop coddling the polluters—and do their jobs on behalf of the public.”

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Bionic Leaf Turns Sunlight Into Liquid Fuel 10 Times Faster Than Nature

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the U.S. claim to have beaten nature at its own game. They have created a “bionic leaf” that exploits sunlight to create biomass—and they say their invention is now 10 times more effective than an oak or maple leaf.

Scientists have released a new artificial photosynthesis system, Bionic Leaf 2.0. Photo credit: Harvard University

Two separate laboratories at Harvard University have co-operated to devise, enhance and test a system that uses sunlight to split water molecules and feed the hydrogen to bacteria that then produce liquid fuels. The next task is to scale up the experiment to produce carbon neutral fuels to combat climate change.

“This is a true artificial photosynthesis system,” Daniel Nocera, a leading researcher in renewable energy who is professor of energy at Harvard said. “Before, people were using photosynthesis for water-splitting, but this is a true A-to-Z system and we’ve gone well over the efficiency of photosynthesis in nature.”

Photosynthesis was perfected by the plant world more than 3 billion years of evolution. It drives the entire living world and it is the primary source of all fossil fuels.

Ancient Sunshine

Climate change became a problem only when humans started to extract ancient sunshine in the form of coal, oil and natural gas, stored in the Carboniferous rocks and put it back in the atmosphere.

Just as wood fires from felled timber make no difference to the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide levels—because the same forest that shelters the fallen tree will absorb it again—so biofuels converted from surplus maize or sugarcane should, in theory, make no difference to global warming.

So the idea of what the Harvard team call “bionic leaf 2.0″ is an attractive one. It could deliver liquid fuels in convenient form that would make no difference to the planet’s overall carbon budget. In effect, it could bypass the vegetation stage.

Chemists and engineers the world over are racing to exploit human ingenuity and deliver brilliant solutions, including artificial leaves that can capture carbon dioxide. The challenge is to do so effectively, cheaply and on a massive scale.

Which is why Prof. Nocera’s lab teamed up with microbiologists led by biochemist and systems biologist Pamela Silver, of Harvard Medical School.

The scientists report in Science journal that they have devised a hybrid system based on cobalt-phosphorus alloy catalyst partnered with bacteria called Ralstonia eutropha, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen at low voltages.

Organic Chemistry

The microbes consume the free hydrogen and, in the presence of oxygen and carbon dioxide, begin some organic chemistry. So far, the system has made isobutanol and isopentanol and even a bio-plastic precursor product.

The Harvard scientists say their bionic leaf converts solar energy to biomass with an efficiency of 10 percent. The fastest-growing plants do the same with an efficiency of 1 percent.

What works in a laboratory may be tricky to translate into large-scale production, but the researchers are confident they have something that works.

Prof. Nocera said: “It’s an important discovery. It says we can do better than photosynthesis. But I also want to bring this technology to the developing world as well.

“If you think about it, photosynthesis is amazing. It takes sunlight, water and air—and then look at a tree. That’s exactly what we did, but we can do it significantly better, because we turn all that energy into a fuel.”

Watch here:

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Scientists Turn CO2 Into Solid Rock

Scientists in Iceland successfully turned carbon dioxide emissions from a power plant into stone, they reported in Science. The team injected CO2 mixed with water into basalt rock, which formed limestone after two years.

Co-author Sandra Snaebjornsdottir displays a core of porous basalt laced with carbonate materials from the carbon sequestration process. Photo credit: Kevin Krajick / Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a divisive issue in the climate and energy community, but the scientists are confident that solidifying the gas would prevent it from leaking back into the atmosphere, as is the danger with many CCS methods.

“Carbon capture is not the silver bullet, but it can contribute significantly to reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” lead author Juerg Matter said of the experiment.

Watch here:

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/119512256 expand=1]

For a deeper dive: Washington Post, AP, New York Times, Climate Central, The Guardian, Gizmodo, Vocativ, CNBC, Orlando Times, Phys.org, National Geographic, Smithsonian, InsideClimate News, Climate Home, Independent, Economist, IB Times

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

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Kids Get Their Day in Court: 21 Youth Sue U.S. Government in Landmark Climate Lawsuit

U.S. District Court Judge Ann Aiken scheduled Wednesday an oral argument for the youths’ landmark climate lawsuit for Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. PST in Eugene, Oregon.

The youth plaintiffs after the hearing on March 9 in Eugene, Oregon. Photo credit: Our Children’s Trust

The 21 young plaintiffs received a favorable decision in their case brought against the federal government and fossil fuel industry from U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin in April. Now, they are looking forward to their next opportunity to appear in court to fight for climate justice.

“I am excited that Judge Aiken is interested in hearing our oral argument this September,” plaintiff Kiran Oommen, a 19-year-old from Eugene, said. “The U.S. government’s continued support of the fossil fuel industry, despite the obvious high risks, is hurting people all the time and it’s getting worse. With incidents like the oil train derailment and proceeding disaster in Mosier, Oregon this month, we can see the direct negative consequences of the government’s blatant disregard for the health and safety of the people. The longer this case lasts, the greater the evidence will be condemning their actions.”

The plaintiffs are suing the federal government for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty and property and their right to essential public trust resources, by permitting, encouraging and otherwise enabling continued exploitation, production and combustion of fossil fuels. The case is one of multiple related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children’s Trust, seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system. Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and the King County Superior Court in Seattle, Washington, also ruled in favor of youth in related actions.

“We look forward to the opportunity to argue this case before Judge Aiken,” Julia Olson, counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of Our Children’s Trust, said. “The more these brave young climate advocates appear in court, with the tremendous public support we anticipate for this September 13 hearing, the better. This is another chance to tell the egregious story of this case: that for more than 50 years our government has exploited fossil fuels, hand in hand with industry, knowing it would destroy our climate system and the healthy futures for these young people. We are eager to show the court how these youth’s fundamental constitutional rights are being infringed.”

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