October 9, 2015

Energy & Environment News – Week Of 10/5

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Virtuous Renewables?

A number of fascinating stories this week focused on the changing cost differential between renewables and fossil fuels.  Daniel Kusick of EE News’ ClimateWire reported that wind power is now selling at or below the price of fossil fuels in Germany and the U.K. That’s according to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance study. Apparently Denmark achieved the same milestone last year.

In the United States, the market still favors coal and gas, which sell here for about $65 per MWh.  If you account for subsidies, wind power averages about $80 per MWh, while solar is $107. Yet the cost of renewables is going down. Wind power is predicted to be cheaper than coal and gas within a decade.

So, what’s happening in Europe will soon jump the pond and it’s a very big deal. As Bloomberg Business explains, widespread adoption of renewables lowers fossil fuels’ so-called “capacity factor.” That’s calculated as the percentage of what a power plant actually produces versus its maximum potential over a given time period. Fossil fuels have long had the advantage over renewables, as coal-fired power plants have a high capacity factor. That means they are usually generating almost as much electricity as they’re able to, operating at around 70-80% capacity. Solar and wind, as intermittent power sources, have much lower capacity factors over time. But as more and more renewables come on line, less and less coal or natural gas is used, thereby lowering that tricky-to-understand capacity factor. The result?  A “virtuous cycle”:

“As more renewables are installed, coal and natural gas plants are used less. As coal and gas are used less, the cost of using them to generate electricity goes up. As the cost of coal and gas power rises, more renewables will be installed.”

Temperature Spikes and Wildfire Threat

On a completely different topic, Climate Wire’s Brittany Patterson reported on new research on wildfires in the Rockies.  A researchers from the University of Wyoming, along with team of scientists, looked at charcoal deposits from 12 lakes in northern Colorado.  They reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week that about 1,000 years ago temperatures in the area rose 1 degree and stayed that way for a couple of centuries. And that spike in temperature brought with it huge wildfires.  The scientists studied some 385 miles and found that 80 percent of it had burned during this period. The conclusion, according to John Calder:  “When we look into the past, we see fire is very sensitive to climate change. A small amount of warming can lead to huge increases in area burned.”

Scientists across the country are trying to assess and predict the impact of higher temperatures, especially in the west where wildfires are common. The west has been experiencing record high temperatures, but only for the past few decades. That is why scientists are increasingly looking to the distant past for answers.