One hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln helped establish the National Academy of Sciences to move the United States forward with independent, objective scientific assessment and discovery. Thanks to groundbreaking research over the past century and half, our country has made staggering strides. However, in more recent years, slamming science and innovation has become sport, as fully explored in Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault Against Science. Particularly when it comes to climate change and emerging cleantech – ideological rhetoric, political potshots and a misleading media are being used to sway a confused public in favor of the fossil fuel industry’s narrative. And the government’s prominent role in sparking technological breakthroughs and emerging industries has been swept under the rug. Cultivating a distrust in science and clean energy prevents responsible sustainable policy and puts our country’s future in peril. Last month, I headed to Boulder, Colorado along with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Global Leadership Council to take part in tours of several national laboratories. We heard firsthand from the best and brightest researchers confirming the environmental challenges we face, but also how they are pioneering next generation solutions. Here are ten takeaways on why we are better off following science’s cues than the entrenched naysayers:
I will keep working to make sure that our scientific research does not fall victim to political maneuvers or agendas that in some ways would impact on the integrity of the scientific process.”
— Barack Obama, 150th Anniversary of the National Academy of Sciences, April 29, 2013
1. Science makes us safer
For our first stop, we went to the National Center for Atmospheric Research‘s (NCAR) gorgeous Mesa Lab in Boulder, Colorado. This federally funded research and development center collaborates with over 100 universities to foster a “deeper understanding of the atmosphere, Earth, and Sun.” The Center analyzes our constantly changing atmosphere by measuring temperature, precipitation, wind, air pollution and more. With meteorological balloons, radar, aircraft sampling, satellite data and sophisticated computer models, NCAR is working to make weather and climate prediction more accurate. Among the benefits, better forecasts protect the public. As an example, NCAR has assisted “hurricane hunters” by developing dropsonde monitoring instruments that are dropped from aircraft into a storm’s eye. This technology has improved hurricane forecasting by 10 – 20% in the crucial 48 hours before a hurricane strikes saving millions in evacuation costs. The Center’s research and technology also predicts aviation and roadway hazards from turbulence, icing, severe storms, fog and hailstones, as well as solar flares that can damage satellites, the electric grid and cellular communications. By studying the health impacts associated with weather and climate, NCAR also helps forecast public alerts for smog, high pollen and extreme heat events, and track infectious diseases migrating due to warmer weather. In addition, climate models are used to understand the impacts of regional and global climate change. To learn more about NCAR, watch the video below or drop in the popular Visitor Center next time you’re near Boulder.
2. “Global warming is coming, ready or not”
When it comes to climate change, there’s nothing like hearing directly from a distinguished climate scientist of 40+ years. Dr. Kevin Trenberth shares the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with collaborators around the world, for being a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) reports. He likened his study of the climate to a medical doctor – evaluating symptoms, making a diagnosis, and offering up treatment. Trenberth made it absolutely clear through a series of charts, facts and figures – there is no doubt climate change is occurring, a consensus reached by 97 – 98% of active climate scientists. He noted the denial campaign is heavily financed and often focused on cherry picking the natural variability of the earth’s temperatures as opposed to following the obvious warming trend over time. He pointed out analysis revealing the media’s misrepresentations of climate science, in which Fox News Channel was found to be 93% misleading and the Wall Street Journal Opinion Page was 83% misleading. He also noted the media’s failure to link a climate context when reporting drought, wildfires and flooding. Since the certainty of anthropogenic climate change has been put to rest, Trenberth said we need to focus on mitigation and adaptation. He warned that ignoring climate change has real consequences. The U.S. had the world’s two costliest disasters in 2012. Superstorm Sandy cost $65 billion and 110 lives were lost, while the Midwest drought cost another $35 billion. Continued research is essential in understanding the impacts of climate change. In a recently published study, Trenberth proposed current climate models are too simple and invalid because they aren’t accurately accounting for heat carried deep down in oceans – which could mean scientists have actually underestimated the warming of our planet.
3. Climate models show the impact of burning fossil fuels
We met with Chief Scientist Dr. Warren Washington, an internationally recognized expert on atmospheric science and climate research. Since starting at NCAR in 1963, he has served as a science advisor to every president since Jimmy Carter. Warren became one of the first developers of groundbreaking computer modeling of Earth’s climate. Today, high resolution
climate models can reliably simulate past, current and future conditions of the atmosphere, oceans, sea ice and land/vegetation as influenced by a range of factors. Using data input from grid boxes across the globe and a good deal of math, supercomputers run billions of calculations to create the remarkably precise, highly tested models. In the Visualization Lab, Warren showed us a simulation of our globe warming and changing over time. He explained the model simply cannot reproduce today’s climatic conditions without the build-up of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels – the ”smoking gun” of global warming. Running simulations can project the implications of other factors as well, such as thawing permafrost (the gorilla in the room). NCAR’s climate model was used in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, for which its scientists and colleagues around the world shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Ideally, climate models help policy makers by illustrating which strategies best guard against significant harm in the future. Warren noted, “carbon dioxide has a lifetime of 100 or more years in the atmosphere, it’s not going away for a long time.” In order to make better headway, Warren noted he’s a fan of conservation, clean renewable energy and stopping subsidies to the oil and gas industry.
4. Better wind information = more wind energy benefits
In the late 1980s, NREL produced wind maps throughout the United States to identify optimal wind turbine sites to help expand renewable energy. They later created international wind resource maps as well. Since wind is tricky to predict, especially in the near term, Dr. Bramko Kosovic spoke to us about wind energy forecasting. More precise models now available
help electrical utilities better anticipate where strong wind will blow 24 hours in advance. This helps steer power companies to reliably buy wind energy when it is most available and at the lowest possible cost per kilowatt hour. This saves money for ratepayers and maximizes the use of wind farms. Good wind data is vital to the growing industry, especially here in Illinois. We are ranked fourth in the country for wind generation, powering the equivalent of 1.1 million homes. We are also home to 13 wind industry headquarters, with 6,000 to 7,000 indirect and direct jobs attributed to the industry.
5. Oceans also suffer from increased carbon dioxide
Dr. Joan Kleypas, a marine ecologist and geologist, spoke to us about “the other Co2 problem.” Increasing levels of man-made carbon dioxide are not only going into the atmosphere, but also being absorbed by oceans. As a result, seawater pH going down in lockstep with rising carbon dioxide. Shifting seawater chemistry is decalcifying corals and many other organisms, such as algae plankton, clams, starfish, which inhibits their ability to build skeletons and shells essential for survival. This relatively new phenomenon is otherwise known as ocean acidification. Kleypas seminal 1999 paper published in Science, and her
continuing research in Hawaii, Bermuda and the Canary Islands, has brought more understanding to the vulnerability of coral reefs. Ocean acidification may bring about a suite of changes that pose a real threat to all marine ecosystems. We may lose 10-50% of corals over the next 40-50 years. However, seagrassses thrive with more co2 and will expand. These changes will threaten food chains and fisheries, reef shoreline protections and biodiversity. Kleypas has been working to inform policy makers on the marine ecological consequences of ocean acidification accelerating over time unless carbon dioxide emissions are reduced dramatically. The potential for coral reefs to adapt to their changing environment is unknown, and a high priority of Kleypas’s research as well.
6. National labs are engines of innovation and prosperity
After NCAR, we visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) eco-modern campus in Golden, Colorado. From its start as the Solar Energy Research Institute under the Carter Administration in 1977, NREL has become the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Discoveries over the past 36 years have led to a host of sustainable breakthroughs for powering our homes, businesses, and our transportation system. NREL researchers, in partnership with private industry, universities and non-profits, are working to incubate a clean energy solutions from concept to commercialization. Senior Energy Analyst Jeff Logan spoke about leaps made to improve performance and reduce costs of new technologies. In the past 30 years, more efficient wind turbines have reduced the price of wind energy by 80%. Now a mainstream source, wind produces more than 10 percent of the electricity in nine states, and was the number one
source of new U.S. electric capacity in 2012. Solar manufacturing costs have also plummeted by 95%, starting around $60 a watt in the mid-1970’s to $1.50 today. Brent Nelson, who runs NREL’s PDIL solar lab, walked us through their sophisticated “cluster tool and transport pod” testing system which leads to better solar materials and improved manufacturing methods. In fact, last year NREL scientists set a world record in solar cell efficiency with a triple junction solar cell that converts 43.5% of the energy in sunlight into electricity. From offshore floating wind turbines to biofuel made from algae, dedicated NREL staffers are working on exciting, transforming solutions to meet our energy challenges. Next generation technologies will protect our environment, create countless jobs and provide energy security. President Barack Obama recently urged Congress to create a $2 billion clean energy research fund with fees paid by oil and gas producers, “We can’t afford to miss these opportunities while the rest of the world races forward.”
7. Renewables CAN serve 80% of U.S. electricity needs by 2050
Since it’s not always windy or sunny, NREL researchers wondered if renewable energy could reliably meet electrical demand in every region in the continental U.S. on an hourly basis 24/7. In the most rigorous, comprehensive analyses to date, NREL brought together more than 110 contributors from 35 organizations including national laboratories, industry, universities, and non-profits to figure out how feasible renewable energy will be in the future. Good news – according to the resulting 4-volume report, RE Futures. Turns out renewable energy
technology commercially available today is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050, in combination with a more flexible electric grid. And as a result, carbon dioxide emissions would decrease by 80% while water use would also be reduced by 50%. Since renewable energy indeed can play a much larger role in the U.S. electric system, Dr. Doug Arent, who leads NREL’s Strategic Energy Analysis Institute, hopes the study will help guide energy investment and policy decisions. He pointed out that we need to rethink outdated business models. Finance will follow if the right policy is put in place.
8. Hydrogen fuel cells are entering the energy mix
As part of our tour, we were transported across campus in Toyota hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV). NREL’s hydrogen and fuel cell research is working to “unlock the potential of hydrogen vehicles, equipment and buildings of tomorrow.” Hydrogen is a gamechanging fuel source because it can be powerful and pollution-free. In fact, our super smooth ride
was my very first zero emission spin. The only thing that came out of the tailpipe was some water vapor. Hydrogen is typically produced by splitting water with a semiconductor using natural gas energy. However, NREL produces hydrogen on-site with clean renewable energy sources such as the sun, wind and even algae biofuel. In fact, their lab has won an award for its pioneering work in extracting hydrogen from water using solar power. Range is another important benefit of hydrogen fuel cells. With a full tank, vehicles can go 250 to 400 miles, and buses can operate up to 16 hours. Using a safety sealed dispenser, it takes less than five minutes to fill a car’s tank with compressed hydrogen gas, and about 10 minutes for a bus. Senior Engineer Keith Wipke said they are also working on hydrogen storage issues and developing safety standards to protect against flammability hazards. Mass production of fuel cell vehicles is coming sooner than you may think. California is building 68 hydrogen fueling stations by 2015, in line with their Advanced Clean Car initiative to reduce greenhouse gases. Since 2012, eight automakers – Chrysler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Toyota – have electric fuel cell vehicles on the road in California, in addition to three bus operators. Another huge application for hydrogen is forklifts. Fuel cells allow forklifts to maintain power longer, refuel faster, and require less maintenance than conventional battery-powered units. We may also see hydrogen fuel cells used for reliable back-up power. By optimizing technology and lowering costs of hydrogen fuel-cells, NREL is helping accelerate this new industry.
9. Smarter charging will give electric cars and renewables a boost
In order to shift away from petroleum, electric vehicles (EVs) will be a big part of our transportation future. We met with engineers at the Vehicle Testing and Integration Facility (VTIF) lab working to advance EVs by rethinking the plug. Right now charging EVs
can take up to 4-8 hours. They are trying to speed up charging to 15-30 minutes. Perhaps we won’t even need a plug at some point. Researchers are looking into wireless drive-on vehicle charging. One day we may even drive on electric roadways that wirelessly charge vehicles as they move along the streets, which would dramatically improve EV range. According to Senior Engineer Aaron Booker and his recently published report, electrifying just 1% of interstate roadways could capture 20% of driving and enable battery electric vehicles to travel across the country. Smarter charging management is another area of VTIF research. Consider that most vehicles are parked around 95% percent of the time. Smart charging would allow direct communications with the grid, coordinating better choices for when it’s most optimal to charge, or even the best time to access wind or solar energy. This integration could lead to lower electric bills, a more stable electric grid and an expanded use of renewable energy resources. Researchers are also exploring opportunities for bi-directional or vehicle-to-grid charging. Instead of only taking electricity from the grid, vehicles would be able to discharge power back into the smart grid. Essentially, the EV’s battery can become multi-use power storage. Imagine getting reimbursed by your utility company for supplying power from your car or using it as a back-up power source for your house. Also keep in mind, Argonne National Lab, located here in Illinois, is working to make batteries five times more powerful, five times cheaper, within five years. Internal combustion engines may have some competition on their hands.
10. National lab demonstrates what’s next in sustainable building design
A look-see at NREL’s 327-acre main campus reveals a stunning showcase of energy efficiency and renewable energy integrations. Sustainability Manager Michelle Slovensky, who directed our Sustainable NREL tour, explained they intend to lead by example and offer a model that is easy for others to replicate. We walked through their newest addition, the Research Support Facility (RSF), which has earned Platinum LEED certification. Innovative green features in this 326,000-square foot building include advanced daylighting and “light louvers“; electrochromic and thermochromic windows; passive heating and cooling technologies including a “transpired solar wall” that collects warm air, and “labyrinth thermal storage” that stores cool night air, under-floor ventilation; and building materials mostly
recycled and locally sourced. Outfitted with super efficient computers, phones and task lighting, workstations only need 68 watts, much lower than the typical office with a 300 watt capacity. And thanks to their large scale rooftop photovoltaic solar system and National Wind Technology Center nearby, RSF is net zero energy, which means it generates the same amount of power that it consumes. This incredible building, a recipient of over 30 sustainable design and construction awards, was achieved cost effectively at $259 per square-foot. NREL also follows many best practices in water efficiency, waste reduction, composting, green purchasing and green transportation. Employees also have free access to public transportation and options to telecommute. Slovensky noted NREL’s inspiring, eco-smart work environment also seems to make their employees happy and productive. Not surprisingly, NREL has been recognized by the Denver Post as a “2013 Top Work Place.”
Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power—that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth’s surface— for instance, Illinois; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become proportionately valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few windmills, and pumps, and you have about all. … As yet, the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of it.”
— Abraham Lincoln ‘Discoveries and Inventions’ lecture, (1860)
Who knew Honest Abe, an inventor himself, saw the huge American upside of science and clean energy way back when. Scientific research, fostered by public and private partnerships, has been changing and improving the lives of millions for many, many years. As shown by NCAR and NREL in Colorado, Argonne and Fermi Lab here in the Land of Lincoln, and in labs scattered across the country, good science is providing our country with enormously valuable, strategic capabilities. It’s time to get past manufactured doubt and the anti-progress lobby with peer-reviewed facts and innovation. Let’s get on with protecting our planet and developing tomorrow’s clean energy industries!
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Written by Amanda Hanley
A note of gratitude to all the NCAR an NREL staff that hosted our tour. Also a huge thanks goes to Julie Truax from NRDC/New York and Boulder’s own NRDC GLC member Peter Welles for organizing the “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” tour, as well as John Adams who leads the NRDC Global Leadership Council.