Friday, 16 October 2009

Arctic will be ice-free in a decade, according to Pen Hadow

The explorer trekked more than 269 miles towards the North Pole this winter in temperatures below -40 degrees C to measure the depth of the ice.

The average thickness of ice floes was 1.8 metres, suggesting the ice sheet is now largely made up of first year ice rather than "multiyear" ice that will have built up over time.

An analysis by Cambridge University has concluded that the Arctic is now melting at such a rate that it will be largely ice free within ten years, allowing ships to cross the Arctic Ocean.

Further analysis by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) warned that the "irreversible trend" will cause dangerous feedback because water absorbs more heat from the sun than ice, therefore further speeding up the global warming process. The melting of the ice could also trigger extreme weather patterns as the ocean currents change and release even more greenhouse gases stored under the ice.

The results will be presented to a UN meeting this December in Copenhagen as further evidence that the world must reduce carbon emisisons in order to prevent the Arctic melting at an even faster rate.

The Catlin Arctic Survey, led by Mr Hadow, came in for criticism after the team only managed to get half way to the North Pole because of extreme weather conditions and the hi-tech radar equipment for measuring the ice failed in the first few days.

The seasoned Arctic Explorer, who was the first person to trek to the North Pole alone, was forced to continue with just a simple ice drill. During the 73 day trek he took 1,500 readings, often during pitch blackness and with windchill factors down to -70 degree C. The team also took thousands of visual observations to give an impression of how the shape of the ice sheet is changing.

Mr Hadow insisted the effort was worth it. He pointed out that no other readings of this year's winter sea ice was available to scientists and surface readings can pick up changes in the ice that were not being picked up by computer models.

"Our on-the-ice techniques are helping scientists to understand better what is going on in this fragile ecosystem," he said.

"To all intents and purposes the Arctic will be ice free in a decade. I do find the implications of this happening in my lifetime quite shocking."

Professor Peter Wadhams, of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at the University of Cambridge, said scientists rely on readings from submarines or satellite for data sea ice.

However the new data from the survey confirmed the wider evidence that the Arctic will be completely ice free within twenty years, with most of the ice gone within a decade.

"The Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the consensus view that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years and that much of that decrease will be happening within 10 years," he said.

"It will not be very long before we start to think of the Arctic as an open sea. We have taken the lid off the northern part of the planet and we cannot put it back on again."

Siemens Buys Israel's Solel

FRANKFURT -- German industrial conglomerate Siemens AG said Thursday it has purchased Israel's Solel Solar Systems Ltd. for about $418 million.

Solel, which operates solar thermal fields for producing electricity, has been looking for a buyer for the past six months in order to gain more exposure to the international market and more capital for new initiatives, a Solel spokeswoman said.

Siemens Chief Executive Peter Loescher has acquired stakes in several solar-power companies this year.

The deal bolsters Siemens's initiative to expand its presence in renewable energies such as wind power, photovoltaics and solar thermal power. The company targets sales of €25 billion ($37.3 billion) from its "green technologies" portfolio by fiscal 2011, up from €19 billion last year.

"It's definitely crystal clear that even during the crisis we will substantially increase the share of our sales which are attributable to green technologies," Siemens Chief Executive Peter Loescher said in March.

The Solel spokeswoman said the base of the company's operations will remain in Israel. The firm employs about 400 people at its Beit Shemesh, Israel, facility.

Siemens outbid two French companies, Alstom SA and Areva SA, by increasing its offer from $250 million previously, German daily newspaper Handelsblatt reported Thursday. Alstom declined to comment.

Siemens expects the transaction to close by the end of the year, pending approval by regulatory authorities.
—Sara Toth Stub and William Horobin contributed to this article.

Centrica speeds up wind-park plans to qualify for subsidies

Centrica is accelerating plans to build two giant offshore wind parks in the North Sea to allow it to qualify for extra subsidies that could be worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

The two projects at Race Bank and Docking Shoal, off the Norfolk coast, are expected to cost about £1.5 billion each to build. But if Centrica, owner of British Gas, places an order for the turbines before March 31, it will clinch an extra 33 per cent in government subsidies for up to 25 years — transforming the economics of the projects.

Centrica is engaged in a race against time to secure financing and planning consent for the schemes, which will be located up to 27 kilometres offshore and will have a combined generating capacity of as much as 1.1 gigawatts — enough to power 700,000 homes. “It makes a huge difference,” a spokesman said. “We don’t know whether or not we will get the full consents in time, but it may be do-able.”

In a drive to kick-start faltering investment in offshore wind energy, due partly to the recession, the Government announced in April a temporary boost in the renewable obligation certificates (ROCs) awarded to offshore wind generators from 1.5 to 2 per megawatt hour. The move was designed to help meet the Government’s ambitious target of generating 40 per cent of UK energy from renewable sources, such as wind, by 2020.
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At the time, just three offshore windfarm projects were expected to benefit from the decision. They comprised another, smaller Centrica-backed wind farm called Lincs; London Array, a joint venture involving E.ON; and the Gwynt y Mor project off the Welsh coast led by RWE Energy.

Centrica had not been expected to order turbines for Docking Shoal or the nearby Race Bank until 2011 or later.

Nick Hyslop, director at RBC Capital Markets, said there was a huge financial incentive: “It is hard to put an exact figure on how much this is worth because it all depends on future power prices, but it is a very significant amount of money; we are talking hundreds of millions of pounds.”

A spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change said that a decision on consent for both wind parks would be made in due course, but gave no further detail.

Centrica has also been holding talks with turbine manufacturers in the hope that its order for as many as 300 turbines can be placed swiftly once consent is granted.

Some planning concerns have been raised over the impact of the two projects on birds and on UK air radar.

Renewable energy sparks new opportunities

THE government's new system for subsidising renewable energy – to be introduced in April – should provide a major boost for dairy farmers and other landowners who currently face high electricity bills.

That was the view this week of Robin Priestley, of Brodies LLP at its conference on how to harness renewable energy.

The new Feed-In Tariffs (FITs) provide advantages in that they pay for all the electricity generated, as well as surplus power sold to the grid.

The scheme is targeted at small-scale operations up to a limit of five megawatts, and this puts it, according to Priestley, in the range that many farmers could benefit from.

The changing public attitude to renewable energy and climate change is also helping encourage more landowners to look at the opportunity provided by renewable schemes, either through wind power or hydro, according to Alex Buchan, also of Brodie's

"We are increasingly busy with smaller-scale schemes, which are still quite complex in that they require legal expertise in property, planning, taxation and other matters," he said.

" Dealing correctly with these aspects can be critical to the success or otherwise of any project. However, it is noticeable that the public acceptability of renewable energy and its benefit to the country is more apparent."

The increased use of planning conditions, or Section 75 agreements, might also induce communities to support applications, as they can also reap some of the benefit of renewable energy through this condition.

Buchan advised anyone thinking of pursuing the development of a project for either wind or water power to seek advice from people or organisations with a positive track record in this relatively new technology.

The Scottish Government has a renewable energy target of 31 per cent of energy coming from renewable sources by 2011 and while that target now seems achievable, the bar is being raised to 50 per cent by 2020.

One major problem in hitting those targets, however, is that connection to the National Grid is not as straightforward as it could be. There is sufficient capacity in the Central Belt of Scotland, but in the north where there are big plans for expansion of wind farms, the infrastructure is often not up to requirements.

Historically, planning has been a major hurdle for such projects, but the new laws should help reduce the height of that hurdle, says Priestley, but he conceded there would be flashpoints between developers and residents.

By Andrew Arbuckle

US headed for massive decline in carbon emissions

For years now, many members of Congress have insisted that cutting carbon emissions was difficult, if not impossible. It is not. During the two years since 2007, carbon emissions have dropped 9 percent. While part of this drop is from the recession, part of it is also from efficiency gains and from replacing coal with natural gas, wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The U.S. has ended a century of rising carbon emissions and has now entered a new energy era, one of declining emissions. Peak carbon is now history. What had appeared to be hopelessly difficult is happening at amazing speed.

For a country where oil and coal use have been growing for more than a century, the fall since 2007 is startling. In 2008, oil use dropped 5 percent, coal 1 percent, and carbon emissions by 3 percent. Estimates for 2009, based on U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) data for the first nine months, show oil use down by another 5 percent. Coal is set to fall by 10 percent. Carbon emissions from burning all fossil fuels dropped 9 percent over the two years.

Beyond the cuts already made, there are further massive reductions in the policy pipeline. Prominent among them are stronger automobile fuel-economy standards, higher appliance efficiency standards, and financial incentives supporting the large-scale development of wind, solar, and geothermal energy. (See the data.)

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use are under way at every level of government—national, state, and city—as well as in corporations, utilities, and universities. And millions of climate-conscious, cost-cutting Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use.

For its part, the federal government—the largest U.S. energy consumer, with some 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles—announced in early October 2009 that it is setting its own carbon-cutting goals. These include reducing vehicle fleet fuel use 30 percent by 2020, recycling at least 50 percent of waste by 2015, and buying environmentally responsible products.

Electricity use is falling partly because of gains in efficiency. The potential for further cuts is evident in the wide variation in energy efficiency among states. The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to reach the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one-third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country's 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

Actions are being taken to realize this potential. For several years DOE failed to write the regulations needed to implement appliance efficiency legislation that Congress had already passed. Within days of taking office, President Obama instructed the agency to write the regulations needed to realize these potentially vast efficiency gains as soon as possible.

The energy efficiency revolution that is now under way will transform everything from lighting to transportation. With lighting, for example, shifting from incandescent bulbs to the newer light-emitting diodes (LEDs), combined with motion sensors to turn lights off in unoccupied spaces, can cut electricity use by more than 90 percent. Los Angeles, for example, is replacing its 140,000 street lights with LEDs—and cutting electricity and maintenance costs by $10 million per year.

The carbon-cutting movement is gaining momentum on many fronts. In July, the Sierra Club—coordinator of the national anti-coal campaign—announced the 100th cancellation of a proposed plant since 2001. This battle is leading to a de facto moratorium on new coal plants. Despite the coal industry's $45 million annual budget to promote "clean coal," utilities are giving up on coal and starting to close plants. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), with 11 coal plants (average age 47 years) and a court order to install over $1 billion worth of pollution controls, is considering closing its plant near Rogersville, Tennessee, along with the six oldest units out of eight in its Stevenson, Ala., plant.

TVA is not alone. Altogether, some 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wind farms, natural gas plants, wood chip plants, or efficiency gains. Many more are likely to close as public pressure to clean up the air and to cut carbon emissions intensifies. Shifting from coal to natural gas cuts carbon emissions by roughly half. Shifting to wind, solar, and geothermal energy drops them to zero.

State governments are getting behind renewables big time. Thirty-four states have adopted renewable portfolio standards to produce a larger share of their electricity from renewable sources over the next decade or so. Among the more populous states, the renewable standard is 24 percent in New York, 25 percent in Illinois, and 33 percent in California.

While coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. In 2008, a total of 102 wind farms came online, providing more than 8,400 megawatts of generating capacity. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of 2009 and 57 more are under construction. More important, some 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) are awaiting access to the grid.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year. With new incentives, this rapid growth in rooftop installations on homes, shopping malls, and factories should continue. In addition, some 15 large solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are planned in California, Arizona, and Nevada. A new heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power for up to six hours past sundown helps explain this boom.

For many years, U.S. geothermal energy was confined largely to the huge Geysers project north of San Francisco, with 850 megawatts of generating capacity. Now the United States, with 132 geothermal power plants under development, is experiencing a geothermal renaissance.

After their century-long love-affair with the car, Americans are turning to mass transit. There is hardly a U.S. city that is not either building new light rail, subways, or express bus lines or upgrading and expanding existing ones.

As motorists turn to public transit, and also to bicycles, the U.S. car fleet is shrinking. The estimated scrappage of 14 million cars in 2009 will exceed new sales of 10 million by 4 million, shrinking the fleet 2 percent in one year. This shrinkage will likely continue for a few years.

Oil use and imports are both declining. This will continue as the new fuel economy standards raise the fuel efficiency of new cars 42 percent and light trucks 25 percent by 2016. And since 42 percent of the diesel fuel burned in the rail freight sector is used to haul coal, falling coal use means falling diesel fuel use.

But the big gains in fuel efficiency will come with the shift to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. Not only are electric motors three times more efficient than gasoline engines, but they also enable cars to run on wind power at a gasoline-equivalent cost of 75 cents a gallon. Almost every major car maker will soon be selling plug-in hybrids, electric cars, or both.

In this new energy era carbon emissions are declining and they will likely continue to do so because of policies already on the books. We are headed in the right direction. We do not yet know how much we can cut carbon emissions because we are just beginning to make a serious effort. Whether we can move fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change remains to be seen.

Virgin Money's climate change Isa gets Richard Branson in a pickle

Arms manufacturers, tobacco companies, mining giants and oil companies. These are not the kind of companies where you would expect an ethically minded saving operation to be investing the hard-earned cash of an ethically minded saver. And yet Toby Webb says that is exactly where his money ended up when he entrusted it to the Virgin Money climate change Isa.

Toby is no naive green investor. He is the founder of a company called the Ethical Corporation that runs conferences and a magazine that explores how companies are greening themselves.

But even he admits to being shocked when he read the small print on the progress of his investment from Virgin Money. He wrote in a blog: "I had expected the fund to be investing in clean tech firms. Exciting new technology companies set to capitalise on the next green revolution."

But Virgin had other plans for his climate-saving cash. It decided that those cutting-edge clean tech companies, which it calls "solution providers", would get "up to 10%" of the Isa's money. Note that phrase "up to". It could be zero.

Likewise the "solution adopters", would get "up to 15%". For the rest, "between 75 and 100%", Virgin simply promises to find companies with a "lighter environmental footprint". Oh, and they must show "outstanding profit growth".

What does a "lighter" footprint mean? The term turns out to be alarmingly elastic.

For a start, it does not exclude any industry. Oil and coal companies may be the villains of climate change, but that does not count them out of Virgin's climate change Isa. This, Virgin tells its customers, is "so you don't miss out on lucrative sectors like oil, gas, electricity and transportation." Hmm.

Instead Virgin applies what it calls a "green filter" to select companies with better-than-average green credentials within any industry sector. That's what it says: better than average. Impressively perhaps, Virgin says that in pursuit of this somewhat-less-than-gold standard, its consultants, Trucost, analyse no less than 700 criteria of green-ness.

Now Toby may not admit it, but he is a whizz at getting to the bottom of corporate ethical and unethical strategies. That's his business, after all. But he says, he even he had trouble finding out what the 700 filter factors were.

They seem to cover everything from cutting greenhouse emissions to doing something as banal and commonplace as "encouraging recycling in their workplaces".

To be fair, many of the big corporations on Virgin's green investment list do a bit more than encourage their staff to put their office waste paper in a separate bin. But in some sectors of industry, being "better than average" may not involve much more. So if you are a slightly better-than-average coal company, you're in.

And despite the "climate change" name, the huge ragbag of environmental criteria mean that companies do not even have to be better than average in fighting climate change.

Toby found that some of his money had gone to the French oil giant Total, which featured in my Greenwash column a few weeks ago.

Other past subjects of this column's investigations that made it into Virgin Money's good-guys list include the banks HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

And then there is the mining and metals giant, Rio Tinto. It is not everybody's idea of a climate-friendly company, being one of the world's largest coal miners. And its aluminium smelters are among the world's worst climate villains because of the company's unusually heavy reliance on burning coal for the hugely energy-hungry smelting process.

A couple of years ago, I visited one of Rio Tinto's largest aluminium smelting operations, at Gladstone in Queensland. It is hooked up to a 30-year-old coal power station. Producing the metal for each beer can there generates enough CO2 to fill 300 cans.

Yet Virgin is blithely putting its climate change Isa money into this company. Lighter footprint? Give me a break.

Also getting the green nod is British Aerospace, now called BAE Systems, one of the world's great arms manufacturers. In the last little while, BAe has been greening its image. Virgin seems to have been impressed.

Virgin says its investment policies encourage even the biggest and least-green companies to clean up their act. "This is a pressure that traditional green funds cannot exert," says press officer Scott Mowbray. "It is important that the firms from the most damaging sectors receive investment to improve their environmental credentials."

But Toby says the big guys don't need his money. It is the smaller "solution providers" that are struggling to get investment. By putting most of Toby's money instead into the likes of Total, BAe and Rio Tinto, Virgin is delivering them a damaging snub.

It is an interesting debate. But Toby is probably not the only Virgin investor who will feel let down by how Branson's best are investing money they thought was going to fight climate change.

Barack Obama to save Copenhagen climate summit

President Obama must intervene personally to rescue a proposed global deal on climate change that is hanging in the balance, the British Energy and Climate Change Secretary has told The Times.

Ed Miliband said that there was a much greater chance of a successful deal being agreed in December if Mr Obama travelled to Copenhagen to lead the US delegation to the UN conference.

Gordon Brown has said that he will attend the conference but Mr Obama and most other world leaders have yet to commit themselves to going. White House officials offered no new assurances yesterday, saying only that the Administration would be represented at the “appropriate level”.

The British challenge will add to the pressure on Mr Obama to attend, but the case for staying in Washington to shepherd his healthcare reforms into law may prove irresistible.

Asked by The Times if Mr Obama’s presence in Copenhagen would increase the chances of a successful outcome, Mr Miliband said: “Yes. This only works if leaders engage. It’s a very interesting lesson that in July the leaders met in L’Aquila in Italy and agreed that they should commit to avoiding dangerous climate change above two degrees [centigrade]. If they had left it to negotiators it wouldn’t have happened. And Obama was there.”

He called on the US to make a binding and ambitious commitment to cutting its carbon dioxide emissions.

“We do need significant cuts in emissions from the US. We want as much action from America as we can get,” Mr Miliband said. “America and China are the two biggest emitters. They are very key to this. I think a deal without America would be a very bad deal.”

As a presidential candidate, Mr Obama promised to end US isolation on climate change. A cap-and-trade Bill that would allocate carbon emissions permits to major polluters was narrowly passed by the House of Representatives in June but has since been mired in Senate committees.

Senior advisers to the White House have said that alternative carboncutting strategies are being considered in case support for the cap-and-trade Bill, drafted by the Democratic congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, slips on its way to a final vote. They include limiting mandatory carbon cuts to power plants.

Another proposal involves handing responsibility for America’s carbon footprint to the US Environmental Protection Agency instead of Congress. Both scenarios would all but rule out full US participation in a successor to the Kyoto Protocol on cutting emissions, which is the goal of the Copenhagen summit.

The US never signed the protocol and its failure to do so continued to hamper negotiations, Mr Miliband said: “The biggest difficulty we face is that Kyoto was a partial deal because it didn’t have America in it.” Leaders of other countries are waiting to see what Mr Obama will do before making their own announcements.

Mr Miliband said the proposal in the Waxman Markey Bill to cut US emissions by 17 per cent between 2005 and 2020 “would be a very good start”. He said: “If you compare what America is planning to do from now until 2020 under Waxman Markey, it’s about the same as what we are doing, possibly more depending on how you calculate it. If you look back to 1990 it’s less but they are starting 20 years later.”

Britain has agreed to cut its emissions by 34 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 per cent by 2050.

Mr Miliband said that Mr Obama’s election was part of an “alignment of the stars” that made Copenhagen a unique opportunity to secure a deal.

Carbon target

— 190 nations will meet on December 7-18 to try to agree a global deal on cutting CO2 emissions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which runs out in 2012

— The objective is to keep global warming within 2C (3.6F) of the pre-industrial average. The world currently emits 50 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent a year

— Lord Stern of Brentford, former World Bank chief economist, says that emissions must fall to 44 gigatonnes by 2020 and 20 gigatonnes by 2050 to meet the 2C target

— Voluntary commitments by countries so far amount to a cut of two gigatonnes by 2020 — four gigatonnes short of the target

— Gordon Brown has proposed a global fund of $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing countries to adapt to climate change and develop low-carbon economies

— The EU wants the Copenhagen deal to include a commitment to end the destruction of rainforests by 2030

Source: Times database