Saturday, August 20, 2016

Do you believe in Global Warming?

Wigton Wind Farm, Jamaica
Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant physicists of our age, on his 70th birthday, warned that the greatest threat to the future of the planet is global warming, (but journalists were more interested in what he thought about Donald Trump). Most people understand what is meant by the ‘greenhouse effect’ – carbon dioxide (CO2) forms a layer around the earth that prevents the heat of the sun from escaping, in the same way as glass in a greenhouse. What is not so well understood is that the hotter it gets, more and more water evaporates and the water vapour itself acts as a greenhouse gas, multiplying the effect of the carbon dioxide. This is an example of positive feedback, (like having a microphone too near a speaker box) which will result in further increases in temperature causing more water to evaporate, hence more greenhouse effect.
Prof Stephen Hawking
Photo © Jaime Travezan
At the present time, the only way this can be prevented is to cut down on emissions of CO2, primarily by stopping the generation of electricity from the use of fossil fuels.  If the emissions of CO2 are not cut down, we will reach a tipping point, where nothing more can be done. Global warming will be irreversible.
     The reason I gave this post the title ‘Do you believe in Global Warming?’ is because many people, including those in positions of power and influence, deny that it is happening, in spite of all the evidence – melting polar ice-caps, higher than average temperatures every year, record temperatures being recorded. This is not the first time that those in authority have refused to believe scientists. In 1634, Galileo was condemned to house arrest for the heresy of believing that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that the earth revolves around the sun. This happened a long time ago and would be thought of as ridiculous today. Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of time to convince the world about the causes of global warming. 
Professor Anthony Chen

 Jamaica’s own Professor The Hon. Anthony Chen, OM, an Atmospheric Physicist at UWI, was a member of the Team which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for efforts made to increase and disseminate greater knowledge of man-made climate change and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change. How many Jamaicans know of his work or of this award? I hope the present government will have the sense to consult him.
In an article in the Sunday Gleaner on August 14, 2016, "Betting Against Coal" he addressed the question of energy generation in Jamaica.
     In relation to proposed coal fired generation and alumina smelting he said: While there will be immediate gains for the owners, in particular, and for the country, the extent to which is still not clear, the losses in the long run will cancel these gains. This statement must be considered in the light of climate change. Further on in the article he noted: China is to shut down 4,300 old coal mines and ban new coal mines for the next three years, and it has placed a ban on new coal-fired plants in areas where there is excess electricity generation. Don’t we live on the same planet as the Chinese? Even if they want to blame Jamaica for producing the CO2, it will still have the same effect. Contrary to popular belief, Jamaica’s greenhouse gas emission (GHG) is not insignificant.
     Professor Chen also pointed to the possibility of a carbon tax: If the new US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) rule will effectively ban the construction of new coal-fired power plants because the CO2 emission rates required of fossil plants are so strenuous that no conventional coal plant could meet them; the state of Oregon has become the first U.S, state to ban coal plants; UK coal plants are to be phased out in 10 years.
The World Bank head has warned against new coal plants. In this scenario where there is a ban on coal, the owners of the Alpart plant would be in a tight situation since coal, if it is available, will likely be expensive because of mechanisms put in place to restrict its use, such as a tax on carbon, and the project may well be abandoned.

A wild fire in California

If the world decides to wait to see what happens, the decision to get rid of fossil fuels would probably take place around 2040 to 2050, when climate-change disasters become so severe that the world will see that it has to get rid of fossil fuel. These disasters could take the form of extreme drought and floods, heat waves killing thousands, unstoppable wildfires, severe storms, accelerated sea-level rise, food and water shortage, and acidification of the seas.
In this scenario, Jamaica will be spending billions on combating the impacts of the disasters which will continue well beyond 2040 to 2050, again because of the lag between emission of CO2 and additional warming. Our losses, because of the billions of dollars spent to fight the disaster, will be more than what we have gained from the operation of the coal plant.
CARIBSAVE, for example, put the estimated cost of sea-level rise to CARICOM countries at between US$30 billion and US$60 billion by 2050.
Professor Chen suggested, that instead of building a coal-fired plant, we should become pioneers in the development of renewable energy, from sun, wind, waves and hydropower, with a mix of large-scale plants, and small-scale generation at homes and business places. As he says, Solar and wind take up space, but consider that the amount of solar radiation falling on one-thousandth of the area of Jamaica is sufficient to provide all our electricity demand, assuming a conversion efficient of 20 per cent. Consider also other sources of renewable energy that are more persistent, such as offshore wind farms and wave energy.
Solar panels on a roof

The ultimate benefit of having renewable energy as 100 per cent of our energy source is that we will no longer depend on imported energy resources such as oil and coal.  Our energy fuel, such as wind and solar, will be free, and we will have energy security and independence. As pioneers, we can attract funding from sources like the Green Climate Fund or the World Bank. But it should be clear that we cannot profess to be pioneers in the field of renewables if we have a 1,000MW coal plant belching out toxic material; no funding agent would consider us to be serious.
He discussed the problem of storage of electricity, which is at present challenging, but much research is being done, with new technologies coming on stream.
He suggested how we can become these pioneers:

1. We should be leading the charge at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on behalf of island states. We should negotiate a UNFCCC-sponsored meeting of the leading world experts on storage of energy and renewable energy to determine the future prospects in energy storage and renewable energy which are best for island states, and have UNFCCC set up bodies to seek funding for research and development in these areas.

2. We should do more to encourage the use of renewable energy in homes and business places.

Wind Turbines at Ultimate Jerk Centre, Discovery Bay
They also have solar panels.
3. We should seek funds for pilot projects on utility-scale storage. We could start small like just having enough storage for frequency regulation and  ramp up when electricity supply fluctuates. With enough experience and pioneer status, we could seek funding for more ambitious projects like utility storage for peak usages in the evening.
     My own suggestion is that the National Water Commission should install solar panels to supply electricity to pump water to customers and storage tanks during the day. The water in the storage tanks could then flow by gravity to supply customers during the night.
     On a final note, the UNFCCC is doing its work. It is now the responsibility of governments to educate their populations on the dangers of global warming and what we can all do to mitigate it.