Climate Change Blog 6

By Carl Howard posted 11-17-2017 12:13 PM


October 29, 2017 was the 5 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy hitting the NYC area. It is important to recall that this storm crippled the region, killed over 100 people, cost billions in lost real estate, business and infrastructure and billions more have been spent fortifying for the next storm. But many home-owners and businesses have still not recovered and many storm-protection projects have yet to begin.  It is essential that we learn how to recover from such storms.

A Rutgers University report found that NYC could experience Sandy-like storm surges every five years by the middle of this century. If Sandy recovery efforts are any indicator, it means we won’t finish repairs from one storm before another hits. Hopefully, the various stakeholders in the Sandy recovery efforts, from federal to state to local actors, have learned a great deal over the last five years, because it is certain that we will have to do this all over again. Any of the storms that destroyed much of Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico could easily have devastated NYC too.

Congress allocated about $50 billion to help the region rebuild in 2013. Much of the billions in federal, state and local money spent so far on storm protection in the region has gone toward smaller projects, like building dunes and bioswales, a landscape feature that uses pockets of dense vegetation to prevent flooding.

In NYC, three seawall-like projects to protect flood-prone areas remain in the planning stage. One Lower East Side project contemplates construction of a massive berm hidden by a park. Another project on Staten Island includes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NY State and City, it envisions a sea wall covered with sand to appear as a sand dune. A third major NYC project involves plans for a reinforced dune and expansion of the beach off Rockaway Peninsula, Queens. These projects are estimated to cost $1.6 billion and are fully funded. Yet no work has begun. The Staten Island and Lower East Side projects won’t be completed for several years, while the Rockway project is still awaiting federal approval.

Water from the East River could still flood city streets and basements because the idea of building berms around Lower Manhattan is still in the planning stages. The first phase of that plan, known as the Big U, would involve installing walls and gates attached to existing structures, like the elevated F.D.R. highway.

At NYU Langone Medical Center in downtown NYC, where a massive power failure forced the hospital to evacuate vulnerable patients during Sandy, a $1.1 billion FEMA grant has been used for upgrades. Critical equipment has been moved from the basement to higher floors, flood barriers now surround the hospital and  backup generators have been installed.

Most Sandy-related deaths in NYC occurred in areas under a mandatory evacuation order. Many people either chose to ignore the order or felt they had nowhere to go and no way to escape. Future evacuation orders may be enforced but it is not clear how.

The NYC Housing Authority says 80,000 residents in more than 400 buildings were “significantly affected” by Sandy. Many are still feeling the impact today.

One reason for the slow pace of repairs is that FEMA took three years to award a $3 billion grant for the recovery work. Thus NYCHA couldn’t use that money until this year. Work now being done at 33 developments across Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and Staten Island includes repairs for Sandy damage, replacing temporary boilers installed after the storm with permanent ones, and resiliency work to prevent extensive damage and power outages in future storms. Of the 33 projects, 17 are currently under construction and one is completed. NYCHA hopes to begin construction on the remaining projects by the end of the year.

For private housing, in June 2013, Mayor Bloomberg announced the Build It Back Program, a city initiative to help homeowners build or renovate their homes because of damage from Sandy or elevate them to help stay above the next storm. The well-intentioned program has been widely criticized for being slow and bureaucratic. On the third anniversary of Sandy, de Blasio promised to complete every construction project by the end of 2016. That didn’t happen. Nearly 1,000 families have been waiting five years for construction to be completed. De Blasio’s new target finish date is the spring, 2018.

A massive amount of work remains to repair damage from Sandy. Repairs on the Canarsie Tube under the East River will require the L train to shut down for 15 months beginning in April 2019 which will affect 225,000 daily weekday commuters. The MTA’s $7.6 billion program in response to Sandy includes installing submarine doors, Kevlar curtains and mechanical gates to plug more than 3,000 openings into the subway below 14th Street. Daniel A. Zarrilli, the city’s chief resilience officer, said construction could begin on that segment, estimated to cost $740 million, by the end of next year and would take several years to complete.

Five years after Sandy other tunnels still need repairs. Currently, #2 and 3 trains don’t run between Manhattan and Brooklyn on weekends as the MTA repairs the Clark Street Tube. Work started in the spring of this year and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2018. The agency also plans to close the F train’s Rutgers Tube on weekends starting in 2022 for similar repairs. And all that repair work says nothing of the “fortify” bit of the Fix & Fortify plan, which involves installing rapidly deploying covers over 5,600 street openings so stations don’t flood, and on which progress has been painfully slow.Related

The longest recovery may be Amtrak’s which plans to wait eight more years to begin repairs to its East River tunnels, which are heavily used by the Long Island Rail Road. It plans to wait for the East Side Access project to be completed so LIRR trains have another route into Manhattan while the current tunnels are repaired.  Amtrak doesn’t plan on repairing damage from Sandy until thirteen years after it hit.

Sea Bright NJ is a coastal community in Monmouth County that was devastated by Sandy. The town’s response has been to fortify its sea wall, but many say the focus should instead be on moving people out of harm’s way.

The traditional response to recovery is to build it back. This serves traditional interests of real estate development and generates taxes. But we need to question whether this in the best long-term interest of the state or the communities or the homeowners who are going to be right back where they were, vulnerable to the next inevitable storm.

With sea-level rise and more frequent hurricanes, sheltering in place is not an effective strategy. Political leaders will need to make difficult decisions to incorporate the lessons of Sandy and speed future recovery efforts. “Managed retreat” is a topic you will be hearing more about.


The scientific consensus is that future destructive storms are inevitable given the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. World CO2 emissions as of 2012 were about 45 billion metric tons. I have no idea how to make that number real except to say 45 billion metric tons is a lot of tons. Enough to have an effect on the planet’s climate. By 2030 the High estimate is that world emissions will be 55bmt, the Low estimate 50bmt. Under the Paris accords, if all countries meet their pledges (the two last holdouts, Nicaragua (which wanted a stronger agreement) and Syria, have signed the Accord leaving one country as a hold out, US), the High estimate is still 55bmt (as explained below), the Low: 50bmt by 2030. To stay below the two degree Celcius level to avoid catastrophe world emissions must decrease at least to the High level of 40bmt, if not the Low estimate of under 30bmt by 2030. And then decrease from there.

Here's a snapshot for the US, EU, China and India:

Current (‘14) emissions - High Estimate (’30) – Low   Paris High -  Low -  2degrees High –   Low

World  45bmt                    55                          50        55             50              40                 30

US       6.5bmt                   6.5                          6            <6           5                4                  <2

EU       4.5bmt                   4                            3.5         4             <4              2.5                <1

China   11bmt                    >13                        <12        >14         12              10                  7.5

India    2.5bmt                   >5                          <5            6            5.5             6.5                  4

The sobering reality of these numbers is that even if all countries meet their Paris pledges (look at the Low estimates for Paris: (50, 5, <4, 12, 5.5) they do not meet the High target to stay below 2 degrees C (40, 4, 2.5, 10, 6.5 – with the possible exception of India). Total World emissions even under the Paris Accord are predicted to rise (from current 45bmt to at least 50bmt) and looking at the projected numbers for China and India help explain this inconvenient truth. In 2014 China and India emitted around 11 and 2.5 bmt respectively. Their Low estimated emissions under the Accord is <12 and 5.5, but to stay below 2 degrees C these numbers need to be reduced at least down to 10 and 6.5 (again, India may reach its target but its push to modernize may very well produce more emissions and it may be that the Low estimate, 4bmt, is the more accurate figure). These numbers would be even worse but for the gains being made in solar, wind and other non-carbon energy sources. Note: no industrial nation is on target to meet its Paris pledge and major emissions cuts will be necessary to not exceed two degrees C warming.

One problem in assessing progress is that the numbers reported by individual countries is hard if not impossible to verify. There has been talk at the global climate meetings such as the one currently on-going in Bonn, Germany (which I will address in my next Blog) to undertake a major effort in 2018 to clarify and verify the accuracy of these numbers. In all likelihood the amount of emissions is much higher than reported. Increasing the transparency of pledges would make it easier for countries to pressure each other do more, which is how the Paris Accord was designed.

China is hard to forecast. It’s Paris pledge was to reach peak emissions levels by 2030 and then decline but it may have already peaked (its emissions reporting is suspect). It has canceled plans for a hundred coal plants and is investing heavily in cleaner sources like solar and wind (as well as nuclear). The country also plans to sell millions of electric vehicles in the years ahead.

To cut down on carbon emissions, we need to cut down on burning coal, and Britain is doing just that. Its last coal-burning plant may close by 2025. This is a startling development for the nation that founded an industrial revolution powered by coal.

For four decades the Drax Power Station has been one of the world’s largest coal power plants, often generating a tenth of the U.K.’s electricity. It has been the powerhouse behind Britain’s 250-year love affair with coal – the fuel that built the country’s empire and industrialized the world. Henceforth Drax will only burn biomass – mostly wood chips imported from the southern US.

When Drax opened in 1974, Britain got 80 percent of its electricity from burning coal. As recently as five years ago, the figure was 40%. But last year, it was 9%, and this summer coal supplied less than 2% of Britain’s electricity. On April 21, 2017, for the first time, the British power grid went 24 hours without coal.

The zing in the power lines now comes almost entirely from natural gas, nuclear, and growing networks of giant wind turbines and solar farms. Coal now only provides occasional back-up energy in the U.K., mostly on sunless and wind-free winter days. The next important step is to replace coal as a back-up power source with large batteries, and, as I have written, this is happening.

The collapse of coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, has resulted in a sharp drop in Britain’s CO2 emissions from electricity generation. Those emissions fell 50% between 2010 and 2016. The average Briton is now responsible for only about a third the CO2 emissions of the average American.

The trend away from coal is becoming familiar in many developed nations. It is an important reason why global CO2 emissions have not risen in the past three years. Coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation, for instance, has fallen from 53% in 1997 to 32% last year. Trump’s pro-coal rhetoric will not change that given the cheap price of natural gas, solar and wind energy. In February this year, a month into the Trump era, operators announced plans to shut down the largest coal-burning power plant in the American West, the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station in Arizona.

With coal came pollution. London became known as the “big smoke.” In 1952, an estimated 10,000 people died in the capital during a “peasouper” smog. Long before the world became seriously concerned about coal’s contribution to climate change, Europe was worried about acid rain caused by coal burning. British power stations were discovered to be killing fish a thousand miles away in the lakes of Norway. The lingering effect of Britain’s coal use is that Britain is responsible for 6% of all the industrial CO2 in the atmosphere today – more per head of population than any large nation, the U.S. included.

Lahore, Pakistan, is today experiencing this same coal-based horror. Thousands die each year due to inhalation of PM 2.5, tiny particulate matter that enters deep into the lungs, as well as mercury and other coal-related pollutants. Additional deaths occurred on Lahore’s highways recently due to zero visibility from smog.

But the big story is the rise of renewables. In particular, Britain has pioneered giant offshore wind farms, with each turbine able to generate 8 megawatts. The price of energy from offshore wind has halved in five years, and it is now lower than either nuclear or gas.

Offshore wind energy is booming across most of Europe. As a result, 2016 was the first year during which Britain got more energy from wind than coal, 11.5% compared to 9.2%, with £17.5 billion more investment earmarked in the next four years. British wind energy peaks in winter, while solar generates more in summer. In 2016, British solar produced more power than coal for the six-month period from April through September.

Coal’s collapse in Britain reflects a Europe-wide trend. Coal-power production within the EU has fallen by 20 percent in the past decade. France will close its last coal plant in 2023. Analysts of the Paris climate accord say that to meet its targets, the EU will have to close all of its coal-fired power stations by 2030. A goal that now seems attainable.

But there are holdouts, notably Poland and Germany, which together now burn half the EU’s coal. In Germany, the decision to abandon nuclear power after the Fukushima accident in 2011 has resulted in a resurgence in burning dirty lignite coal raising the country’s CO2 emissions and unleashing environmental protests and mine occupations this summer.

One consequence of the collapse of coal has been a halt on developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. The last climate assessment from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014 foresaw the large-scale future deployment of CCS as a prime means of curbing emissions. But since then several planned demonstration projects have foundered.

Germany dropped the idea amid environmental concerns. An EU-funded Dutch scheme died in June when private partners pulled out. That announcement came only days after U.S. utilities gave up on a clean-coal project incorporating CCS at Kemper county in Mississippi.

On a happier note, wind energy provided 206% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs on Oct 2. On that day wind power provided 86,467 megawatt hours (MWh), more than double the country’s total daily electricity needs. The electricity was enough to power 7.116 million homes, about three times the total number of Scottish households.

Wind energy generation was impressive on a monthly basis too, with wind turbines providing 1,108,862MWh of the total 1,768,505 MWh electricity consumption during September (meeting 63% of the country’s monthly electricity needs). And, from January to June 2017, wind turbines generated enough electricity to power 124 % of Scottish households

Seeing the potential of clean, non-carbon energy, and consistent with public opinion, Scotland’s Parliament announced that fracking will be banned.

Wales' Environment Secretary wants 70% of the nation's electricity to be generated by renewable sources by the year 2030. While the Welsh usage of renewables is only 32%, that is more than twice that of the United States (15%).

Other countries in the UK are pushing to rapidly expand renewable energy investment. Ireland introduced legislation to divest government funds from coal and oil, a first step in moving the country away from fossil fuels. Scotland has also embraced renewable infrastructure with efforts to increase wind, solar, and tidal energy generation. Scotland has set its own target of 100% clean energy by 2020.

Scotland has also officially switched on the Hywind Scotland, the world's first floating wind farm. Hywind will provide clean energy to over twenty thousand homes. The 30 megawatt wind farm consists of five turbines and is located 25 kilometers (25 miles) offshore.

Batwind, a Lithium battery that can store one megawatt-hour of power, is linked to the Hywind to help mitigate intermittency and optimize output. Typical offshore wind farms are installed on sea-beds in relatively shallow seas. The advantage of a floating system allows countries like Japan, the U.S. West Coast and Mediterranean, where sea-beds drop steeply off the coast, to utilize the technology. Hywind can be used for water depths up to 800 meters, thus opening up areas that so far have been inaccessible for offshore wind.

The project cost about 200 million pounds ($263 million) to construct. The cost of onshore and offshore wind has declined significantly in recent years, with the UK's latest renewable energy auction dropping to 57.50 pounds ($76) per megawatt-hour.

Floating wind is expected to follow a similar downward trajectory over the next decade making it cost competitive with other renewable energy sources. Statoil hopes to reduce the costs of energy from the Hywind floating wind farm to €40-60/MWh ($47-76) by 2030. Up to 80% of the offshore wind resources are in deep waters (+60 meters) where traditional bottom fixed installations are not suitable. Floating offshore wind is expected to play a significant role in the growth of offshore wind going forward.

Scotland’s first minister announced plans to end the sale of new gas and diesel-powered cars by 2032 and fast-track the development of a country-wide charging network for electric vehicles.

Scotland also set a world record for producing energy from tidal power. Tidal energy harnesses the natural ebb and flow of the ocean, and the technology generated enough electricity last month to power 2,000 Scottish homes using two turbines. Tidal power uses massive, submerged turbines that function as underwater windmills to produce electricity, pivoting into the current and spinning as the tide goes in and out. (A similar pilot project recently was run in the East River off NYC powering a store on Roosevelt Island.)

Because water is over 800 times more dense than air, tidal energy rotors can also be significantly more compact than those used for wind turbines, which have diameters up to 300 feet.

The company, Atlantis Resources Limited, produced over 700 megawatt hours in August at its flagship underwater MeyGen production site in the north of Scotland. Atlantis claims its tidal turbines turn slowly enough that they pose no threat to marine life, and sea vessels can pass over the tidal field unobstructed.

In the US, additional incentive to close dirty coal plants came from former NYC mayor Bloomberg. His charity will give $64 million to help accelerate the retirement of coal plants in the U.S. Bloomberg Philanthropies has given $110 million to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign which aims to shutter two-thirds of US coal-fired power plants by 2020. Despite Scott Pruitt's proclamation that the Clean Power Plan rollback means the "war on coal is over," market forces say otherwise.

Major utilities across the US continue to move away from coal-fired power. A Texas utility confirmed plans to shutter a San Antonio coal-fired power plant; a coal operator announced it would idle a western Kentucky mine; and the government gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Navajo and Hopi tribes in preparation for the likely closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station.

Bloomberg declared his actions Wednesday as a 'war on coal,' embracing a term Republicans use to attack clean-energy advocates, saying that the Trump administration and EPA’s Pruitt are wrong to say that the war is being fought mainly in Washington, D.C. “The war on coal is a fight for America's health, for our economy and our environment, and our competitive place in the world. And it's a fight we're going to win, no matter what anybody in Washington says.” “This is to save American lives and save the American economy. This is our future, and going in the wrong direction is just needlessly inflicting pain on all of us, and it has to stop."

In April, a survey by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found that 46 coal-burning units at 25 power plants across 16 states will close or significantly reduce production by 2018. Milwaukee-based WEC Energy Group also plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the levels set by Obama regulations despite Trump's roll-backs.

A report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that about two-thirds of coal-fired plants will close by 2040, while gas-fired electricity may rise by 22% and renewables could jump a stunning 169%. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows (Dylan).

The views expressed above are my own.

Carl Howard, Co-chair, EELS Global Climate Change Committee