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[1THING] Blog: Archive for October, 2012

[ Hurricane Sandy: The Climate Change Connection ]

Hurricane Sandy & Climate Change


Homes Flooded on Long Island: DVIDSHUB / Flickr

Although 24/7 broadcast coverage of Hurricane Sandy barely
hinted at the climate change elephant in the room, and while the two leading
presidential candidates continued to avoid the topic, those in Sandy’s path were
more adamant about the need to confront global warming.

“There’s no such thing as a 100-year flood. These are
extreme weather patterns. The frequency has been increasing,” New York Governor
Andrew Cuomo said in
an interview
. Cuomo has recently suggested the state might need to start
constructing storm barriers to guard against the sea level scientists are
will rise two feet by 2050.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy echoed the unprecedented
nature of the hurricane in another
: “The last time we saw anything like this was – never.”

It’s important to note here that it’s difficult to blame some individual weather events — particularly
hurricanes — on climate change. EarthShare member The Union of Concerned
Scientists created
this handy infographic
to show which weather events have the strongest
connection. Hurricanes are on the low end of the spectrum:


Even so, Sandy’s record-breaking
run — largest Atlantic hurricane on record at 1000-miles across, highest-ever
storm surge in Battery Park, most widespread power outages and public transit
impacts, combined with the growing frequency of other extreme weather events
and the almost textbook
predictions of climate scientists
fulfilled — has led many to call this a
global warming-fueled storm.

“In a nutshell, global warming heats up our oceans and loads
hurricanes and other storms with extra energy, making them more violent,” says
Dan Lashof of the Natural
Resources Defense Council
, an EarthShare member organization. “Global warming also leads to rising sea levels,
which boosts storm surges, and in turn lead to more severe flooding. Sea levels
stretching from Boston to Norfolk, Virginia are rising four times as fast as the
global average, making the region more vulnerable to flooding.”

Jeremy Syomons at the National Wildlife Federation, also an EarthShare member group, points to
the source of this warming: “The near-record warmth of the Atlantic waters that spawned the
storm is the new normal, thanks to the warming caused by one trillion tons of carbon pollution that has been dumped
in our atmosphere from burning oil, coal and gas.”

The question of how big or damaging Sandy might have been
without climate change is difficult to answer, but there’s one thing 98% of
climate scientists unequivocally agree on: extreme
weather events like Hurricane Sandy will become more frequent in the coming
. The once-in-a-lifetime storm
is sure to become a regular occurrence in years ahead.

In 2012 alone, the US experienced the warmest
year on record
(so far); wildfires burned more than a million acres in the
West; a severe drought impacted over half of the country; violent, heat-fueled “Derecho”
storms tore through the Ohio Valley and mid-Atlantic; and Arctic ice melted to its lowest
extent ever.

These indications make it imperative that citizens and leaders
begin to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for climate change by
making their cities more resilient. You can make a difference by starting that
conversation in your own community and asking the climate question, even (and
especially) when no one else is willing to do so!

For more information
on the work that EarthShare member groups are doing to address global warming, visit
Climate Change & Energy page.
Also check out World Resources Institute’s timeline of 2012 extreme weather


[ Note to Exelon: You can’t have it both ways. ]

Exelon has changed its tune on the federal Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind energy and has begun to lobby against its extension. Most recently, the company issued a reportattacking the subsidy.

The truth behind this about-face is not something Exelon wants the public to know. Exelon owns the country’s largest commercial nuclear fleet, and the profitability of these plants depends primarily on the price of power. While lower electricity prices are good for electric customers, they cut into Exelon’s bottom line.

While Exelon would like you to believe that the PTC is causing wholesale electricity prices to fall, that is simply not the case. It is well documented that the recent reduction in wholesale electricity prices has primarily been caused by the economic downturn and the abundance of cheap natural gas. Natural gas production is at a record high in the U.S., and prices are the lowest they’ve been in over a decade. It is, therefore, not surprising that the use of low-cost natural gas by electric power generators has increased every year since 2009.

While wind does have beneficial impacts on lowering wholesale electricity prices, it is not from subsidies. Rather, it is due to the fact that wind has no fuel costs and therefore can bid into competitive electricity markets such as PJM at a price of zero.

Another flaw in Exelon’s argument is that it fails to recognize that all forms of power generation are subsidized. The company’s nuclear plants, it should be noted, are no exception. A 2011 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that more than 30 subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. The report concluded that legacy subsidies exceeded 7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), which is above the average wholesale electricity price from 1960 to 2008. All told, the nuclear industry has received over $160 billion in subsidies since 1947, and new plants have been eligible for a production tax credit of $18 per megawatt-hour since 2005.

Exelon may be feeling the pinch from lower wholesale electricity costs but it cannot use wind energy or the PTC as a scapegoat. It is critical for electric customers, and the reliability of our grid, that we continue to invest in a diverse supply of power generation. Wind is an important part of our generation portfolio and provides many benefits to electric customers, the economy and the environment.


[ Really Scary Movies: Films About Energy, Anxiety and Disaster ]

As evidenced by all the October cable movie marathons, Halloween season is the time when people like to watch scary movies.

I tend to watch an inordinate amount of scary movies myself, for reasons I probably don’t want to know. It’s no secret that horror films are often reflections of cultural anxieties, and many a Ph.D. thesis has been written on aspects of the topic.

As we discussed a few weeks back, NBC’s new drama Revolution directly confronts our worries about energy, and what happens when the lights go out. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world 15 years after a mysterious worldwide blackout.

There have been dozens of sci-fi movies, horror films and thrillers over the years that address – directly or indirectly – our cultural anxieties about blackouts, energy crises and subsequent disasters. Here’s a sampling, and feel free to make your won recommendations in the comments field below. This Halloween, forget about ghosts and vampires. Go for the really scary stuff.

The China Syndrome (1979)

Probably the granddaddy of all Big Energy anxiety movies, The China Syndrome is named after a gallows-humor term describing a nuclear power plant meltdown that burns into the earth, clear through to China. In the film, Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon try to prevent just such a scenario, and in a bizarre case of art anticipating life, the film was released just 12 days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred on March 28, 1979. The China Syndrome is a relatively thoughtful disaster movie that sparked a new wave of anti-nuclear hysteria when it hit theaters.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Worries about energy problems and climate change go hand-in-hand, and director Roland Emmerich’s sci-fi flick was the first blockbuster movie to confront (and commoditize) our growing fears in the new millennium. In the film, melting polar ice caps disrupt the North Atlantic current, extreme weather devastates the planet, and things generally go haywire. The science in the film may not be rigorous, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s about scaring the bejeezus out of you and upping the ante on a disaster movie template as old as cinema itself.

Blackout (2009)

This recent horror indie, starring Amber Tamblyn and Armie Hammer, takes a refreshingly direct approach to power outage fears. Three strangers get stuck in an elevator when a massive blackout hits the city. One of them is a serial killer. Things get messy. This movie isn’t for the faint of heart – it’s plenty bloody – but it does have some pretty conspicuous subtext about what happens to civilized people when the lights go out. Blackout explores an anxiety familiar to anyone who’s ever thought about the energy grid as the creepy guy walks in, and those elevator doors close. (If you like this, you might like the similarly structured 2010 film Devil, from M. Night Shyamalan.)


The Trigger Effect (1996)

This underrated thriller from director David Koepp (Mission Impossible, Jurassic Park) stars Kyle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Shue and Dermot Mulroney in the story of what happens when a massive power outage goes unresolved for several days. As chaos descends, the characters are forced to break the alarmingly fragile surface tension of civil society. The tagline in the trailer says it all: “When the lights of the city stop burning … the laws that hold us together fall apart.”

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

Post-apocalyptic movies are a genre onto themselves, and they all deal on some level with the collapse of our energy infrastructure after an instigating catastrophe – comets, plagues, zombies, what-have-you. Australian director George Miller’s Mad Max movies are particularly resonant, however, in that dwindling oil supplies lead directly to World War III. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is, in my obsessively considered opinion, the best of the trilogy and among the most compelling post-apocalypse movies ever made. By making gasoline the primary currency of this future dystopia – before even food and water – the film issues a darkly comic critique of modern civilization. Defend the fuel!

Double Secret Bonus Tip: For a different kind of scary movie experience, you might want to track down the truly terrible 1979 comedy Americathon, generally considered among the worst movies ever made. The movie’s premise: The gas shortage has completely eliminated the automobile, and the U.S. citizens get around primarily via rollerskates.




[ Candy Energetics: What Filling Up Your Tank on Halloween Looks Like ]

While the Northeast recovers from superstorm Sandy, how about a sweet diversion?

They’ll be crying out for “trick or treat” tomorrow night, but we all know that’s really just code for “hand over the candy.” And for many, the candy haul is quite substantial.

According to epidemiologist Donna Arnett of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, in a typical Halloween haul “the average U.S. child collects between 3,500 and 7,000 calories from candy.”

And while Halloween may be a candy bonanza, it’s by no means the only way we Americans indulge in a ahem … healthy candy fix.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American consumes about 25 pounds of candy a year. Assuming that this number only applies to people over 10 and under 75, we’re talking about almost 250 million people and that extrapolates into a total candy consumption of almost 3 million metric tons of the sweet stuff.

Whew, that seems like a lot of candy, doesn’t it? To get a better sense, here’s another way to look at it.

Candy’s gasoline equivalent

In the final analysis whether we are eating candy, a pound of beef, or a head of broccoli, our primary motivation is caloric — to get the amount of energy we need to do the things we do, like, say, moving an arm, walking or biking to the office, or typing a post for TheGreenGrok.

The fact that many of us consume more calories than we actually need in a given day is an inconvenient fact of modern life, but nevertheless it all starts from a need for energy to survive.

Turns out, candy is a pretty good source of calories. A survey of various forms of candy (chocolate, gummy bears, Pez, candy corn) at Calorieking.com suggests that the average pound of candy has between 1,800 and 2,600 calories — for this calculation I’ll use 2,000 calories as average. (Note: A food calorie is actually one kilocalorie or 4.184 kilojoules.)

So how much is 2,000 calories?

A calories-to-calories comparison

Well, most of us are familiar with driving here and there, and we have a pretty good sense of how far a gallon of gasoline at about $3.50 a pop these days will take us — for the average American car about 24 miles. So let’s do a little comparison.

A gallon of gas weighs about six pounds and contains about 130 million Joules (130,000 kilojoules) or about 30,000 calories. So here are some candy-to-gasoline equivalents.

Candy amount is equivalent to Gasoline amount
1 pound of candy 0.06 gallons
American kid’s Halloween haul 0.1 – 0.2 gallons
Average American’s candy intake 1.6 gallons
Total American candy consumption 400 gallons

Dollar-to-dollar comparison reveals a gasoline bargain

Doesn’t that just make you want to down some candy even more? Now let me lay out some numbers I find even more interesting.

On the basis of a quick and furtive tour of the candy aisle at my local grocery store, I estimate that a pound of candy costs about $4. By comparison, a pound of gasoline (remember there’s six pounds in a gallon) only costs about 60 cents. Sounds like gasoline’s a bargain.

But we don’t buy gasoline by the pound. So what about the caloric value? Well, a dollar will buy you about 500 candy calories but at the pump that very same dollar will get you 8,600 calories of gasoline. Even more of a bargain.

Isn’t it surprising? With all that goes into getting a gallon of gasoline from some hole in the ground to your gas tank, on a per calorie basis that gallon of gas is more than 15 times cheaper than a pound of Skittles. Could government subsidies have something to do with it? (More on the cost of gasoline.) Maybe, but let’s not forget that many of the calories you get in your candy come to you courtesy of a federal handout in the form of farm subsidies.

And then there’s the whole addiction issue. Many would agree that our nation has an addiction to sweets as well as an addiction, at least according to President George W. Bush, to gasoline. Do government subsidies, which suppress prices, have anything to do with it? I suppose an argument could be made that such is not the case for candy. Many of us struggle with a kind of sweet-tooth addictionchocolate, it turns out, stimulates both pleasure-anticipation neurons and food-reward neurons, and other sugary sweets can have an opiatelike effect.

But why are we addicted to gasoline? I have a strong suspicion it is not because we have a sweet tooth. Could the fact that it’s cheaper than candy have anything to do with it? Something to think about while you’re gobblin’ down your candy this Halloween. Bottoms up.


[ U.S. Nuclear Plants Brace for Hurricane Sandy Impact ]

As Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast, preparations are under way to safeguard Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest U.S. nuclear plant.


[ Sandy Leaves Millions Without Power, Triggers Nuclear Plant Shutdowns ]

At least 6 million people across the mid-Atlantic region are without power Tuesday morning after Hurricane Sandy inundated homes and underground infrastructure, toppled trees and downed power lines. Surreal scenes of a darkened Manhattan emerged after flooding and a substation explosion Monday night knocked out power for most buildings below 39th Street.

A statement on New York utility Con Edison’s website said more than 650,000 customers lost power in “the largest storm-related outage in our history.” The utility predicted that many outages, particularly those related to the substation explosion at East 14th Street, would last up to a week. (See related “Photos: World’s Worst Power Outages“)

Also Monday night, New Jersey’s Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest nuclear plant in the U.S., declared an alert due to high water levels, and three reactors experienced shutdowns. A unit at Indian Point in Buchanan, New York, automatically shut down “as a result of electrical grid disturbance,” according to plant operator Entergy. The other shutdowns occurred at Nine Mile Point in Scriba, New York, when an electrical fault triggered an automatic shutdown; and Salem Generating Station in Hancocks Bridge, New Jersey, which was manually shut down because of high river levels and debris in the waterway of its circulating-water pumps, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Oyster Creek’s operator, Exelon, said in a statement Tuesday that water levels “are falling rapidly today as Hurricane Sandy moves out of the area. When water levels fall sufficiently the station will terminate the Alert.” (An Alert is the second-lowest of four action levels defined by the NRC.) The NRC said in a statement that it was maintaining a “heightened watch” over all affected plants.

Early reports suggested that East coast refineries, which had shut down in anticipation of the storm, were not seeing any major damage after the storm. Philadelphia Energy Solutions, the Northeast’s largest refinery, was reportedly restarting some operations already Tuesday morning.


[ Hurricane Sandy Power Outages Escalate as Storm Makes Landfall ]

The number of New York City area residents with no electricity shot up from 4,500 to nearly 350,000 in an eight-hour period Monday, as Hurricane Sandy made landfall just southwest of Atlantic City, N.J. Con Edison said it was forced to shut down power to lower Manhattan as a precautionary measure; the Battery Park area was seeing unprecedented flooding.

“The shutdown will help avoid extensive damage to company and customer equipment, and allow company crews to restore power to customers more quickly,” according to a statement on Con Ed’s site. Con Ed had warned earlier today that it would shut down underground electrical equipment that was in danger of flooding.

East Coast residents may have wondered whether the superlatives applied to Sandy were valid or just hype Monday morning, when many areas were still seeing just heavy rains. But as the storm made landfall, its repercussions quickly became apparent.

“And the lights go out in the Village,” read one Instagram update, showing a vast swath of Lower Manhattan completely darkened. According to CNN, more than 2.8 million are currently without electricity.

National Geographic News reported earlier Monday that Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest nuclear power plant in the United States, was preparing for the storm’s approach Monday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission dispatched additional inspectors with satellite communications systems to Oyster Creek and eight other power plants that lie in the forecast path of the storm in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut.

Hurricane Sandy turned many areas of Manhattan into ghost towns as they were evacuated ahead of the storm. The storm is expected to slowly wind down over the next few days.


[ Utilities Ready for Power Outages as Hurricane Sandy Barrels Ashore ]

Residents and utilities along the East Coast are bracing for the worst of Hurricane Sandy, which is expected to bring winds up to 90 mph along with heavy rains when it makes landfall Monday.

Billed as “Frankenstorm” because of the tropical hurricane’s collision with a cold front from the west, a full moon, and the week of Halloween to boot, Hurricane Sandy has killed at least 65 people in the Caribbean and prompted a wave of public transit shutdowns and supermarket sprees for provisions as it approached the U.S. East Coast. Residents from North Carolina up to New York prepared to cope without electricity for at least a couple of days, if not a week or more, as happened during the derecho thunderstorm system that walloped this region over the summer and left 4.3 million without power.

As of noon Monday, flooding was prevalent in Sandy’s vicinity, but power outages were limited: at least 15,000 people along the mid-Atlantic region were without power, with the largest number of outages in New York and Virginia. As the storm moves west and north as forecast, utilities are prepared for the situation to get worse.

“Now it’s just a matter of waiting until the storm makes its impact,” said Le-Ha Anderson of Dominion Power, which serves 2.5 million customers in Virginia and North Carolina and had about 5,500 customers without power midday Monday. “If it does impact us at the force we’re hearing from meteorologists, we know that we’re going to have extended outages and multiple outages, and we are ready for that.”

Utilities have mobilized crews and have been watching for early damage. Con Edison, which serves 3.3 million customers in New York, has been “prepared for several days leading up to this,” said Con Ed spokesperson Sara Banda. “We have people spread out at the different areas that may be impacted by flooding so that they can keep a close eye on underground electrical equipment.” Banda said that if water rose, Con Ed would shut down underground electrical equipment to prevent damage and shorten outage times. The company had 4,200 customers without electricity at midday, with the largest numbers being in the New York City borough of Queens and in Westchester County.

Utilities will have to cope with Sandy’s double-barreled assault of flooding, which can damage underground electrical systems particularly in cities, and the wind and rain that can bring down trees and hit exposed, overhead power lines. Major utilities in the region were publicizing their preparation efforts online (see Dominion, Con Ed, PSG&E in New Jersey, PECO in Pennsylvania and PEPCO in the Washington, D.C. area) noting that they had mobilized their own personnel at maximum capacity and were also marshaling resources from neighboring utilities.

Preparations aside, Dominion Power’s Anderson warned that customers should still expect to see extended outages. “Given the nature of the storm, with sustained winds and saturated ground, we know we’re going to have to rebuild portions of our facilities,” she said. She also warned that repairs to damaged lines would not necessarily happen immediately, given the high winds forecast. “We may need to hold crews back until it’s safe,” she said. (See “Pictures: World’s Worst Power Outages“)

John Miksad, senior vice president of electrical operations at Con Ed, echoed Anderson’s warnings about extended outages and recommended that customers keep phones charged, set refrigerators and freezers at the highest setting, and collect water in pots and/or bathtubs. He also urged people to stay away from downed power lines, noting that those lines may be concealed by pooled water or downed trees.

“We would ask our customers to keep their safety first and foremost on their minds, as it is on our minds,” Miksad said during a news briefing.

How prepared are you for an extended power outage? What measures have you taken? And what are you most prepared to do without? Weigh in below.
Take Our Poll

(See “NBC’s Revolution: Imagining the Ultimate Blackout“)


[ Why Are China and Japan Sparring Over Eight Tiny, Uninhabited Islands? ]

A potential wealth of natural gas beneath the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands places them at the center of a tense territorial dispute between China and its neighbors.


[ Gabon Expedition: Rendezvous in the Rough Seas of an Oil Field ]

Mike Fay’s exploration of Gabon’s untouched wilderness led to 11 percent of the country being named national park land. This inspired Enric Sala to explore and help protect similarly pristine areas of the ocean around the world. Now the two explorers go back to the beginning to explore the murky waters off the coast of this African nation.

The scene is surreal: the sun is setting, the skies overcast. We are bombing south in a tender boat for a rendezvous in rough seas. The lights of square buildings many stories high and gas flares illuminate the sea to the horizon. This is the Total oil field south of Port Gentil, Gabon. Total has been producing a significant percentage of the Gabonese national budget for decades and today is the first time I have ventured so close.

The tender captain didn’t like the looks of what we needed to do. It was almost dark. He had to power the bow of the boat up to pipes arranged in a cup below the rig and keep it there. At the right second we needed to jump on to a ladder in a six foot swell. Do or die, I slid myself out on the bow deck and waited for a rise, jumped and ran up the ladder. One, two, three we were all up. We started up the stairs, layer after layer of offices and living quarters. The whine of turbines and smell of half combusted petroleum was heavy in the air. We met with Benjamin Seigneur, the head of his sector Grondin, an agglomeration of about 20 platforms. He was young, had about a two-week beard, looking like a combat Lieutenant that needed to be on top of it 24/7, for weeks. He was welcoming and cut to the chase. We could dive as we wished at the designated places, we needed to make sure we anchored in the right spots to avoid the sub-sea pipes and the rest was process.

We went back to the ominous ladder that went into the dark, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks.


We went back to the dreaded ladder, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks. Photo by J. Michael Fay.


A light went on my head. There are seven billion people on Earth and counting. Resource use is on a scary trajectory and these guys are out here on the front lines providing what everybody wants. So what about a new kind of protected area out here? One that takes this industrial landscape, with a whole world of features that attract fish, maybe even increase productivity, and rules that limit human activity, including all fishing and focuses on conservation. We can put a layer on the map that adds biodiversity and fisheries management to the oil fields. It needs to be done everywhere.

This is the meaning of the slogan adopted by the Gabonese Government and its President, Ali Bongo Ondimba: “Gabon Vert – Gabon Industriel – Gabon des Services” – Green Gabon – Industrial Gabon – Services Gabon”. The Green is about conservation, parks, sustainable harvest of natural resources and sustainable development. Industrial Gabon is founded on the principal of respect for the environment. These two pillars are not mutually exclusive, and looking down into the waters of the Atlantic, teeming with hundreds of fish lit by gas flares, I got it. Now it is up to us to implement the model – conservationists and industrials working together – and Gabon des Services is about sharing the model with the world at large.


Read All Gabon Expedition Posts at the National Geographic News Watch blog