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China accelerates renewables

By Dave Elliott

The Chinese National Renewable Energy Centre (CNREC) says China could get 85% of its electricity and 60% of all its primary energy from renewables by 2050, with wind and solar PV both exceeding 2TW of installed capacity by 2040.

The nation certainly seems to be trying to head that way. Under its new 5 year plan it aims to more than double its wind energy capacity (to 250GW), and nearly treble solar capacity (to 160GW), accelerating well ahead of the EU.

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Balancing green power

By Dave Elliott

If the use of renewables is to expand further, ways have to be found of compensating for their variability. Fortunately there are many, as I have outlined in a new book ‘Balancing green power’, produced for the Institute of Physics. It sets out to show how, taken together, they can help balance grid systems as increasing amounts of renewable capacity is added, helping to avoid wasteful curtailment of excess output and minimising the cost of grid balancing. The options include flexible generation plants, energy storage systems, smart grid demand management and supergrid imports and exports.

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EGU Debate: can we have global economic growth and a habitable climate?

by Liz Kalaugher

At the EGU General Assembly debate on “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” there was discussion whether the session was even titled with the right question. Not to mention the pre-debate issue of whether the speakers should stand up or sit down.

To Clive Spash of WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, the title was too tightly focused on climate and should have widened out to a habitable planet. Spash, who believes that the economic view of the world is unrealistic, said he disagrees that economic growth is vital and thinks it’s politically naïve to try and shut down the debate on whether we need growth. In his view a carbon tax won’t work and decoupling of growth and carbon emissions won’t save us.

Narasimha Rao of IIASA, Austria, also wanted the question to be broader. Rao called for consideration of dimensions of wellbeing beyond economic growth, since the economy doesn’t reflect phenomena such as air pollution and oil spills.

Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, UK, reckons the answer depends on whom we’re referring to – rich people, people in poorer nations, or other species. Some in the rich parts of the world believe we can cope with 2, 3 or even 4 degrees of temperature rise, he said, whilst many developing countries believe that the maximum habitable temperature change for them is 1 or 1.5 degrees, given that many are already feeling the effects of climate change. And significant numbers of animal species are already struggling with temperature rise today, particularly as they’re under other environmental stresses too.

Given the rates of emissions reductions we’d need, Anderson said that a 1-1.5 degree threshold is no longer viable and we’re stuck with 2 or 2.5 degrees at best. “Economic growth is not compatible with a habitable climate for people like us,” he said, arguing that since the relatively poor need economic growth to have a habitable climate, it means big emissions cuts for the rich. And for non-human species, economic growth is again not compatible with a habitable climate.

Finally, Jorgen Randers confessed that having worked in sustainable development since 1972, he has failed as the world is less sustainable now. Randers argued that economic growth is compatible with a habitable climate but human society has not been willing to implement the solutions. To him, the question is “is humanity going to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP fast enough to get greenhouse gas emissions to decrease?” Whilst technically “it’s a piece of cake”, and shifting from dirty to clean production is cheap at a cost of just 1% of GDP, it has not been done and will not be done because people think too short-term. “That’s the sad story,” Randers added.

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EGU audience votes that Anthropocene began with industrial revolution

by Liz Kalaugher

Most audience members at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly session on the Anthropocene thought that we are already in this epoch. Session chair Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden conducted a quick straw poll mimicking a show of hands conducted at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last December. Around five people reckoned we can’t ever say as we’re too close, and one person voted that we didn’t have enough information to make a call.

As to when the epoch started (if it has), the majority of the audience thought at the time of the industrial revolution, with substantial numbers voting for the 1950s, around 15 for the onset of agriculture and just one for 1610.

It wasn’t a very scientific poll – apart from in terms of the participants’ backgrounds – but as Gaffney detailed in his introduction, the concept of the Anthropocene is politically, economically, culturally and legally loaded, as well as being of scientific significance.

Even the name has been argued over, with suggestions such as the Capitalocene, Misanthropocene, the Obscene or even the Machine Age. Speaker Andrew Revkin of Pace University and the New York Times, US, who is a member of the International Stratigraphy Commission’s Anthropocene working group, detailed how he presciently came up with the term Anthrocene in his 1992 book on Global Warming. When he wrote that sentence, however, he was thinking that the idea was hundreds of years away, rather than just 8.

The Anthropocene working group will meet in Oslo at the end of this week.

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Keeping 60 million Romans fed as climate changed

by Liz Kalaugher

Think of Romans and the first things that come to mind are probably straight roads, gladiators and togas. But the Romans had to deal with climate change too, as Brian Dermody of Utrecht University in the Netherlands detailed to a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

During the time of the Romans, the climate moved from the Roman Warm Period (250 BC-250 AD) to the cooler Late Roman period, accompanied by precipitation changes too. By using a hydrological model and reconstructions of temperature and rainfall change, as well as population distribution and cropland estimates from nearly 15,000 archaeological sites and crop suitability maps, Dermody looked at the effects on the yield of four major crops for the Romans – millet, wheat, olives and grapes.

Overall, crop yields decreased as the climate cooled, Dermody’s models showed, particularly in the west of the Roman Empire. Surprisingly, yields of grapes, wheat and millet around the Mediterranean increased

To keep 60 million people fed, the highly civilised Romans relied on trade and irrigation. Dermody, who believes models give more of a subtle picture, will now look at trading routes and food supply using a network of routes developed by classicists.

Dermody said he responds to people questioning why he’s investigating history by replying that “as environmental scientists, we’re interested in the interactions between humans and the environment and how they played out long term”. The study could even tell us about water resource management and food redistribution today.

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Must vineyard managers choose between bees or worms?

By Liz Kalaugher

Given the option, would you help bees or worms? That’s the choice indicated by initial results presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week by Sophie Kratschmer of the University of Natural Research and Life Sciences in Vienna.

As part of the VineDivers project, Kratschmer found that, contrary to expectations, solitary bees in vineyards in eastern Austria thrived when there was less management of the vegetation between rows of vines. This higher diversity was a surprise as disturbed ground tends to contain more flowers, a food source for bees. Since solitary bees nest underground, however, they may not appreciate tillage. The team did find a link between flower coverage and the number of wild bee species.

Earthworms, in contrast, were more diverse when there was ploughing of the earth between the vines, probably, according to Kratschmer, because it boosts the carbon content and makes the soil less compact. Plant diversity and biomass weren’t affected by the management intensity.

Both bees and worms are useful for viniculture, with bees providing pollination while earthworms help form soil and cycle nutrients.

Fortunately, when it comes to selecting management regimes for vineyards, the findings may not boil down to a difficult choice between bees and worms. Next Kratschmer will investigate a “medium” management intensity, intermediate between the low and high regimes in this study, which may work for both types of animal.

The wider VineDivers project will pool results from France, Romania and Spain and also use GIS analysis to find out the role of landscape diversity.

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Renewable Integration – a view from Germany

By Dave Elliott

High shares of wind and solar power transform the entire power system and can lead to additional system integration and back-up costs aside from building the power plants themselves. A new background paper from Agora Energiewende examines these dynamics and concludes that, not only are the direct integration/balancing costs low, but so are the controversial indirect costs associated with the variable utilization, in balancing mode, of conventional plant – as long as the power system becomes considerably more flexible.

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After Hinkley

By Dave Elliott

Battles continue over the economic viability of the proposed £18bn Hinkley nuclear project, with EDF still saying it can go ahead, despite the resignation of two key senior executives, opposition from the French trade unions and even doubts now emerging from the French Government. Energy minister Ségolène Royal said: ‘This project must offer further proof that it is well-founded and offer a guarantee that the investment in this project will not dry up investments that must be made in renewable energies.’  It is interesting then that EDF’s recent R&D Paper ‘Technical and Economic Analysis of the European Electricity System with 60% RES’, by Alain Burtin and Vera Silva, looks at an EU future dominated by renewables, with nuclear only playing a moderate role, 90GW total.

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ETI on energy saving in buildings

By Dave Elliott

The UK Energy Technologies Institute’s report by Jeff Douglas on Decarbonising Heat for UK Homes notes that ~20% of CO2 emissions are from domestic heating, but says insulation/upgrades won’t cut that enough: ‘the scope for cost effectively reducing the energy demand of existing buildings to the great extent required to meet emissions targets is limited as comprehensive insulation and improvement measures are expensive and intrusive. A several hundred billion pound investment in demand reduction for the entire building stock might deliver less than half of the emissions abatement needed. The most cost effective solutions therefore involve the decarbonisation of the energy supply combined with efficiency improvements that are selectively rather than universally applied, as part of a composite package’.

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The RHI to be ‘reformed and refocused’

By Dave Elliott

The UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was introduced to support households, businesses, public bodies and charities in moving from conventional forms of heating to renewable, low carbon sources of heat. It has escaped cuts so far, indeed it is set to expand, but the government wants to restructure it to keep energy costs down for consumers and get better value for money. It expects spending on the RHI to rise from £430m in 2015/16 to £1.15bn in 2020/21, but says it wants to promote wider access and make project more affordable, ‘by firmly controlling costs’.

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