Blue Marble - September 2013

1 Percent of America's Power Plants Emit 33 Percent of Energy Industry's Carbon

| Wed Sep. 11, 2013 1:09 PM EDT

Less than 1 percent of US power plants produce nearly a third of the energy industry's carbon emissions, according to a new report released Tuesday. "If the 50 most-polluting U.S. power plants were an independent nation," reads the report from Environment America Research & Policy Center, an independent nonprofit, "they would be the seventh-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, behind Germany and ahead of South Korea." The vast majority of the top 100 offenders—98 of them in fact—are coal plants.

The report, which comes in advance of a Environmental Protection Agency proposal on emissions standards for new power plants expected later this month, claims that cleaning up the biggest polluters could have an outsized impact on reducing greenhouse gases. A March EPA proposal suggested capping carbon production at 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour produced for new plants. That's well below the 3,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour the dirtiest existing plants produce. Standards for existing plants are in the works, too—the EPA's proposal is supposed to be submitted by June 2014 and finalized the following year. Even if the standards are weakened in the approval process, the average coal plant still produces more than twice as much carbon than allowed by the cap. That means new coal plants are "highly unlikely" to meet the EPA's target, according to the report.

Source: Environment America Research & Policy Center

Today, the 50 dirtiest plants in the United States—all coal-fired—account for 2 percent of the world's energy-related carbon pollution each year. That's equal to the annual emissions from half of America's 240 million cars. The 100 dirtiest plants—a tiny fraction of the country's 6,000 power plants—account for a fifth of all US carbon emissions. According to the report, curbing the emissions of the worst offenders in the United States "is one of the most effective ways to reduce U.S. global warming pollution…reducing the risk that emissions will reach a level that triggers dangerous, irreversible climate change impacts."

The United States has been trending away from coal, and a recent spate of bankruptcies and closings have thrown the future of coal-fired plants, and their potential for profit, into question. If the new EPA standards don't change the US energy landscape, it's possible that glut of cheap natural gas and looming expensive upgrades for coal plants will.

Here are the top 10 dirtiest plants in the states, and their yearly emissions:

  1. Georgia Power Co.'s Scherer Coal plant, Georgia (21.3 million metric tons)
  2. Alabama Power Co.'s James H. Miller Jr. plant, Alabama (20.7 million metric tons)
  3. Luminant Generation Company's Martin Lake plant, Texas (18.8 million metric tons)
  4. Union Electric Co.'s Labadie plant, Missouri (18.5 million metric tons)
  5. NRG Texas Power's W.A. Parish plant (17.8 million metric tons)
  6. Duke Energy Indiana Inc.'s Gibson plant (16.9 million metric tons)
  7. Ohio Power Co.'s General James M. Gavin plant (16.6 million metric tons)
  8. FirstEnergy Generation Corp.'s FirstEnergy Bruce Mansfield plant (16.4 million metric tons)
  9. Detroit Edison Co.'s Monroe plant (16.4 million metric tons)
  10. Salt River Project's Navajo plant (15.9 million metric tons)

​​You can see the full list here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

People Save More Energy When They Think Someone Is Watching Them

| Thu Sep. 5, 2013 6:42 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

How do you prevent someone from wasting electricity? The same way you prevent them from picking their nose—make them think they are being watched.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers wanted to see whether the Hawthorne effect could be used to change energy-use patterns. The Hawthorne effect refers to the way people tend to alter their behavior when they sense they are being observed. The effect can be a pain in the ass for scientists trying to study human behavior, but it can also be a powerful tool for influencing that behavior.

The researchers sent postcards to a group of utility customers notifying them that their electricity usage was being tracked for one month as part of an experiment. The series of postcards offered no incentives or instructions to reduce energy use—they just let the customers know that they were being, in effect, watched. A control group of utility customers got no postcards.

Sure enough, the Hawthorne effect arose to work its magic. According to results reported Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who received the postcards reduced their electricity consumption by an average of 2.7 percent.

A follow-up survey of postcard recipients indicated that the experiment had heightened their awareness of their own energy habits. Here's what they said they did to cut electricity use:

That all sounds good. But once the customers thought the month-long experiment had ended, they returned to their former energy-wasting ways.

So all we need now are surveillance cameras installed in everybody's homes, watching their every appliance. Right? Oh, wait...

Beijing's Drastic New Anti-Pollution Rules Aim to Clean Up the Air

| Thu Sep. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the Atlantic Cities website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The air quality in Beijing has grown so bad that it's begun to produce its own catch-22s. All that smog is starting to keep tourists away, but tourism is just the kind of less energy-intensive industry that China needs to develop. The city is hoping to ramp up its public bike-share system, in an effort to shift a majority of trips through the city center onto public transportation. But who would want to ride a bike in this atmosphere?

At least one perverse consequence could be helping. The pollution has gotten so awful that residents and officials long averse to addressing greenhouse gas emissions (at the expense of economic growth) are now clamoring for drastic solutions to its related problem: unbreathable air. As The New York Times reported over the weekend in a piece on the "silver lining" to China's smog:

"Air pollution was the perfect catalyst," said Wai-Shin Chan, director of climate change strategy in Asia for HSBC Global Research in Hong Kong. "Air pollution is clearly linked to health, and the great thing is that everybody—that's government officials and company executives alike—breathes the same air."

Scrub Your Glaciers: New Study Links Soot to Major Ice Melt

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 3:47 PM EDT

The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.

This story first appeared on the Grist website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The world's glaciers are wasting away at a cracking pace—but it's not just because the climate is warming.

Soot and other black carbon is settling on ice and snow, absorbing the sun's rays and causing frozen water molecules to melt. It can be hard to tell how much of the melt to attribute to warming and how much to soot.

But researchers have pinpointed a period shortly after the Industrial Revolution when black carbon alone appears to have caused glaciers to melt in the European Alps.

During the middle of the 19th century, the filth from fossil-fuel burning was starting to blanket parts of Europe. “Housewives in Innsbruck refrained from drying laundry outdoors," said Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and coauthor of a paper published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But temperatures weren't yet rising; if anything, it was still getting colder.

Yet in 1865, more than 40 years before temperature records started showing warming in the Alps, the region's glaciers began a retreat that has continued until this day, marking the end of a 500-year ice age.

 
A chart from the PNAS paper tracking the expansion and decline of five glaciers in the Alps since the first measurements. PNAS

Scientists used ice cores and computer simulations to calculate that heat absorbed by polluted snow would have been enough during the second half of the 19th century to melt the snow and expose glaciers to sunlight, kicking off their decline.

"The end of the Little Ice Age in the European Alps has long been a paradox to glaciology and climatology," wrote Kaser and his coauthors. "Radiative forcing by increasing deposition of industrial black carbon to snow may represent the driver of the abrupt glacier retreats."

Andreas Vieli, a glaciologist who was not involved with the research, told Nature that the study offers "a very elegant and plausible explanation" for the glacial melt. "It appears that in central Europe soot prematurely stopped the Little Ice Age."

Gulf Refineries Don't Care About the Keystone XL Pipeline, But Here's Why it Still Matters.

| Wed Sep. 4, 2013 11:58 AM EDT

US refineries on the Gulf that had been anticipating a boom from Canada's Alberta tar sands via the planned Keystone XL pipeline are becoming apathetic about the mired pipeline's future, according to Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. As the domestic US oil boom has kept refineries busy and rail and new pipelines have filled the shipping gap that Keystone would have filled, the refineries on the Gulf that had been waiting to process the Canadian heavy crude "increasingly doubt that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline expansion will ever be built" and "don't particularly care." But does that mean that the 830,000 barrels of heavy crude that would have streamed through the XL pipeline have become irrelevant? Not quite. The pipeline is still the best hope for Canadian tar sands to make it to refineries. Without it, Alberta's surging industry might find itself choked with no way to move all the oil it produces.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Railroads are carrying soaring amounts of crude from Canada down to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast, reducing the need for the TransCanada Corp. project, which is still awaiting approval from the U.S. government after two years of delays.

Meanwhile, a rival pipeline company, Enbridge Inc., is expanding existing pipes to carry Canadian crude south—and it doesn't need federal permission because it's using existing pipeline rights of way. In addition, so much oil is sloshing around the U.S. from its own wells that refiners don't need lots more heavy crude from the north to keep busy.

"Keystone XL has been back-burnered for so long that any relevant parties have been able to make plans as though the project never even existed in the first place," says Sam Margolin, an analyst at Cowen & Co.

The domestic oil boom from sources like North Dakota's Bakken region and the sudden glut of tar sands oil coming out of Alberta have overwhelmed existing pipelines, creating bottlenecks and forcing oil companies to find other ways to move oil from wells to refineries. Between 2011 and 2012, shipments to refineries by truck rose by 38 percent, barge transport increased by 53 percent, and rail shipments quadrupled.

The hitch is that Canada is still staring down a massive planned increase in tar sands production—and without Keystone XL being built, it might not be able to move the oil out of Alberta fast enough to keep pace with production. Canadian tar sands produced 1.8 million barrels per day in 2012, and are hoping to crank that up to about 5 million per day by 2030. In fact, Alberta could pass that milestone as soon as 2016.

Is Climate Change Pushing Pests into Northern Farms?

| Sun Sep. 1, 2013 1:00 PM EDT

Pine beetles like this aren't the only pests driven north by climate change.

In 1996 Colorado received a very unwelcome—and hungry—house guest, the mountain pine beetle, whose voracious appetite for pine has since killed off millions of acres of trees there. A few years later, the beetles came knocking in British Columbia and have now knocked out over half the province's pine timber. The full-bore invasion of these critters, each no bigger than a grain of rice, is now one of the most pressing ecological disasters in the West, and their spread, scientists believe, is driven by climate change.

The beetles aren't alone: Rising equatorial temperatures have pushed a menagerie of pests north at an alarming rate of nearly 10,000 feet every year since 1960, according to a new survey out today in Nature. Researchers led by biologist Dan Bebber at the UK's University of Exeter combed through databases hosted by the non-profit CABI, which aggregates scientific and trade literature on agriculture, for the first documented appearance of over 600 kinds of pests (including insects, fungi, viruses, and bacteria), over a 50-year period in the Northern Hemisphere. They found, averaged across 14 taxonomic groups, a distinctive northward migration, wherein species first noticed at southern latitudes were, at a later date, discovered anew at northern latitudes. 

The chart below, from the paper, shows the distribution range of the different pest groups Bebber examined, with the vertical axis indicating distance from the equator (positive distances indicate north; negative distances indicate south) and the horizontal axis indicating time, from 1960 to the present. Overall, the groups show a gradual northward migration over time (up and to the right):

pest distribution chart
Bebber et al.