Renewables 2017: 5 energy trends shaping a sustainable future

In a year in which President Trump seemingly did his best to roll back all the emission-reducing inroads of the Obama administration, the worldwide demand for low-cost, low-carbon energy continued to climb at unprecedented rates.

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and still a major player in coal, is now on target to lead international investment in the sector, according to a recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Closer to home, a surge in solar PV installations – Australia set a new record in 2017 for the fastest time to reach a commissioned 1GW of solar in a calendar year – and widespread investment in wind farms has restored sector confidence.

Australia’s Clean Energy Council reveals that 43 renewable energy projects were under construction or due for completion by the end of 2017. The CEC believes these projects will deliver $8.8 billion in investment, more than 4,469 MW of new renewable energy capacity, and create more than 4,930 direct jobs.

In a watershed year for renewable energy around the globe, below are five other highlights to get excited about.

1. Australia now has the largest lithium-ion battery

When Elon Musk makes a promise, he delivers. In response to ongoing power shortages in South Australia, Musk tweeted Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes in March saying he could create a 100MWh battery storage farm within 100 days as a solution. If not, he’d foot the bill for his troubles.

The batteries were sent and installed well before the Australian heat waves hit – and well ahead of Musk’s self-imposed deadline.

Tesla’s Powerpacks are connected to a wind farm in Hornsdale, owned by French renewable energy company Neoen.

Thanks to Musk’s pledge, South Australia’s premier Jay Weatherill says it’s the first time the state has been able to reliably dispatch wind energy to the grid 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

2. China opens the world’s biggest floating solar farm

A Chinese city once famous for coal became the home to the world’s largest floating solar farm in 2017.

In a symbolic nod to where its energy commitments now lie, Chinese authorities also built it atop a former Huainan coal mine, which had become a lake after being flooded with groundwater.

The 40-megawatt power plant consists of 120,000 solar panels covering an area of more than 160 American football fields. The US$45-million facility could help power 15,000 homes.

Its tenure as a record-breaker, however, is to be short-lived. China, now the global leader in renewable energy investment, started building a 150-megawatt project in the same province in July. The entire facility is expected to be come online by May 2018.

3. SA green-lights the largest single-tower solar thermal power plant

The state once beset by energy woes, is fast becoming the renewable energy leader in Australia. Hot on the heels of the Tesla-built battery farm launching in South Australia, came news of the final stage of government approval for the building of the world’s largest solar thermal plant.

solar is an exciting new energy trend
Pic credit: Solar Reserve Facebook

It works by using multiple heliostats – which are in essence turning mirrors – to focus solar energy onto a single central tower.

This tower uses molten salt technology to store the heat, which it can later use to create steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. The Government contract with United States operator Solar Reserve plant will displace the equivalent of 200,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

The news is accompanied by new figures showing South Australia has successfully shut off its energy reliance on Victoria. Every week since July, South Australia has sold more power to Victoria than it’s brought in.

4. Offshore wind farms

Unencumbered by the usual noise and space limitations of their land-based equivalents, giant turbines rose up from the sea in record numbers in 2017. In May, Dutch officials opened what was billed as one of the world’s largest wind farms – a 150-turbine behemoth in the North Sea. Over the next 15 years, the windpark, which lies some 85 kilometres off the northern coast of The Netherlands, is tipped to meet the energy needs of about 1.5 million people.

With the benefits of more consistent and higher wind speeds at sea it has a peak generating capacity of 600 megawatts, and will help supply 785,000 Dutch households with renewable energy.

TenneT, the Dutch equivalent of the UK’s National Grid, also proposes to construct a man-made island on Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Sea to act as a distribution hub for wind farm electricity (see video above).

Now Australia is looking to jump on the bandwagon with an even bigger project. Melbourne-based Offshore Energy announced in December that it is partnering with Copenhagen Infrastructure Projects to build the country’s first offshore windfarm off the coast of Victoria.

When completed the $8 billion, 2GW, 250 turbine wind farm – dubbed Star of the South – would have the capacity to power 1.2 million homes, or 18 per cent of the state’s current electricity usage.

5. Harnessing Blockchain technology for cheaper power

A WA start-up capitalised on the surge in solar panel and battery installation in Australia with a new peer-to-peer way to buy and sell renewable energy. Power Ledger is a blockchain-based trading platform – bitcoin uses the same technology – that allows trading of renewable electricity without the need for a midd

blockchain has joined the energy industry
Power Ledger chair and co-founder Dr Jemma Green.

leman.

In October, the energy tech start-up made Australian history with the nation’s first initial coin offering through the Ethereum cryptocurrency network after raising $18.9 million in capital in the lead up to its launch, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. Since the ICO, the value of Power Ledger’s 351 million POWRs – cryptocurrency tokens – in circulation increased to $US225 million, according to coinmarketcap.com.

The Perth-based company also recently shared a $2.25 million federal grant with CSIRO, Landcorp and Curtin and Murdoch universities to demonstrate a sustainable energy and water housing project in Fremantle, and is using its cash to employ more software developers and build its staff to about 25. Other trial partners include India’s Tech Mahindra, Origin Energy and New Zealand utility Vector.

Business Clean Up Day 2018: ‘Let today be the start of your clean up journey’

Event founder Ian Kiernan has called on all Australians to keep the momentum going after another successful Clean Up Day campaign.

During a week of action, which kicked off with a Carbon Reduction Institute-sponsored Business Clean Up Day on February 27, an impressive 587,962 volunteers joined together across 7,253 locations to remove rubbish and litter.

Speaking from the 2018 Clean Up Day official site in Brisbane, Mr Kiernan said he was proud to see so many environmentally-conscious Australians rally to the cause: this year’s turnout represented a 14% increase in site and a 4% spike in volunteer numbers over 2017.

But he was also adamant that there is no room for complacency when it comes to keeping our parks, waterways, beaches, bushland and roadways clear of mountains of debris.

“We need to do much more than just pick up rubbish one day a year,” said Mr Kiernan, now in his 28th year of campaigning for a rubbish-free Australia.

“Every day is Clean Up Australia Day – so let today simply be the start of your Clean Up journey. “Making a real difference starts with looking more closely at our persIan Kiernan joins CRI on Clean Up Dayonal purchasing behaviour, becoming conscious of the single-use products, packaging and plastics that we buy and then discard.

“We need to continue to challenge our governments to implement effective waste management and recycling programs to reduce the amount of wasted resource that ends up in our precious environment. Our Clean Up activities provide vital community-led data and feedback that influences decision makers.”

Mr Kiernan and CUA’s Business Officer Wendy Chapman, pictured above right, also found time in the busy campaign week to join the CRI team during their Clean Up Day at Taylors Bay Beach near Taronga Zoo in the Sydney Harbour.

The five staff members, which included CRI’s program managers Garth Mulholland and Heidi Fog, picked up between 30-40 kg of rubbish and close to 1,000 items of litter; everything from plastic zip lock bags to straws and bottle caps.

Their contribution will now be added to the estimated 800 tonnes of rubbish collected across Australia, the removal and destruction of which is being off-set by carbon credits bought by CRI.

“If you missed Clean Up Australia, Business Clean Up Day this year; start planning now to get your business involved next year,” added Mr Mulholland.

“It is a great team-building activity, an opportunity to get outdoors during the week and most importantly a chance to help clean up the environment.”

Since the event started in 1998, Australians have donated more than 33 million volunteer hours, removing the equivalent of 350 thousand ute loads of rubbish from over 178 thousand sites across the country.

“The dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers have made Clean Up Australia Day possible for all these years, and every one of you can be proud of what you have achieved,” said Mr Kiernan.

Results in progress predict volunteers will have removed the equivalent of nearly 16,000 thousand ute loads of rubbish over the last week – just the beginning of what is shaping up to be an outstanding effort in 2018.

Working with limited resources, Clean Up Australia is a not-for-profit NGO which relies on corporate sponsors and donors to supply funding and resources and will continue to provide free bags, gloves and other equipment for as long as it has the funds to do so.

Donations can be made online by clicking here.

Could the next big volcanic eruption in Indonesia help save the planet?

Australian airlines and Bali-bound tourists aren’t the only foreigners keeping a keen eye on the increased volcanic activity around Indonesia of late.

Since Mount Agung began erupting (see video below) at the end of November – and more recently Mount Sinabung on nearby Sumatra – The New York Times reports that NASA researchers and other scientists are on standby to study how ‘the big one’ could theoretically help curb global warming.

Powerful volcanic eruptions are one of the biggest natural influences on climate – when the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo blew in 1991, it spewed 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

The gas spread around the world and combined with water vapour to make aerosols, tiny droplets that reflected sunlight away from the Earth, lowering average global temperatures by one-degree Fahrenheit for several years.

As the world now scrambles for global warming solutions, scientists are wondering if volcanoes can help them unlock the secrets of solar geoengineering, that is, cooling the planet by making it reflect back more of the sun’s rays.

One approach would be to use high-flying jets to spray similar chemicals in the stratosphere. So, by studying the next big volcanic eruption, scientists would also gain insights into how such a scheme, known as solar radiation management, or S.R.M., might work, adds The New York Times.

“This is important if we’re ever going to do geoengineering,” said Alan Robock, a Rutgers University researcher who models the effects of eruptions and who has been involved in discussions about the rapid-response project.

“But even if there were no such thing as geoengineering, it’s still important to understand how volcanoes affect climate.”

The rapid-response effort would involve high-altitude balloon flights and other methods to gather data about an eruption as soon as possible after it begins and for several years afterward.

It would also be important to monitor the aerosols over time, to see how big they get and how they eventually break down. Bigger aerosols would fall out of the atmosphere sooner, lessening the cooling impact, say scientists.

More research needed

In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal, Dr Gernot Wagner, co-director of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research program, and Dr Martin Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard, said the effects could be substantial over time.

“Solar geoengineering is so potentially powerful, in fact, that it turns the usual economics of climate change on its head,” they write under the heading A Big-Sky plan to Cool the Planet.

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks for spraying the atmosphere with aerosols from high-flying planes is that we don’t yet know which materials would be safest and most effective, caution the doctors.

“Sulphate aerosols are featured in most plans, largely because they best match the known effects of volcanic eruptions. But they also contribute to depleting stratospheric ozone.

“Some preliminary research points to the possible use of calcium carbonate as an alternative. It has potentially better reflective properties for lowering temperatures, and it could help to restore ozone. Much more research needs to be done and may well identify other possibilities.”

They are also quick to qualify their statements in support of solar geoengineering by concluding that making the planet more reflective cannot be a replacement for cutting carbon pollution.

“At best, it is a supplement to other efforts to combat climate change, and it’s an imperfect one at that—a drug that merely moderates dangerous symptoms. The permanent solution is a regimen of diet and exercise.”

Snowy Hydro 2.0: Government makes $6 billion buy-out commitment to power project

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has underlined his commitment to the Snowy 2.0 Hydro scheme by striking a deal to buy the iconic power plant outright.

Conditional on sign-off in the May 8 federal budget, the government will pay NSW around $4 billion for its 58 per cent share and Victoria $2 billion for its 29 per cent stake, giving the Commonwealth (a 13 per cent shareholder) total ownership and control.

Energy minister Josh Frydenberg said the sale was “fair value” and promised to never sell the asset, which was valued at $7.8 billion in the deal, to a private buyer.

“The Commonwealth is absolutely committed to keeping it in public hands. There’s no talk about anything different to that,” Mr Frydenberg told ABC Radio.

Mr Turnbull insists the proposed expansion of the Snowy Hydro system will help make the electricity grid more reliable by increasing the amount of energy to be stored from intermittent generators like wind and solar farms.

Studies give the go-ahead

A new independent economic study recently rubber-stamped the government’s decision to press ahead with the ambitious scheme, despite the project’s budget blow-out.

The report, conducted by Marsden Jacob Associates (MJA), considered the state of the market “with or without” Snowy 2.0, which could cost up to $4.5 billion – a $2.5 billion increase on the original estimate.

Key findings of the MJA findings confirmed that Snowy 2.0 would:

  • Lead to better price outcomes for retailers, customers and large energy users.
  • Help future proof the National Electricity Market at the least possible cost against the intermittency of wind and solar generation as they continue to grow their market share.
  • Build on the Snowy Scheme and see greater utilisation of existing dams and increase operating capability.

The Snowy Mountains hydro scheme, built between 1949 and 1974, is made up of 16 dams, seven power stations and 225km of tunnels.

The expansion proposal – dubbed Snowy Hydro 2.0 – involves boring 27km of tunnels linking the Talbingo dam, at an elevation of 552 metres, to the Tantangara reservoir, at 1,233 metres, so energy can be generated by pumping water uphill to the higher reservoir when energy is cheap (say, in the middle of the night) and releasing it back downhill when energy is in high demand and prices are higher.

The upgrades would add 2,000 MW to the hydro scheme’s 4,100 MW capacity, enough to power 500,000 homes. Engineers also say you’d need to build more than 35 million domestic batteries to match its 350,000MWh storage capacity.

One of the technical features of this project is the reversible turbines which can draw water back through the system so it can be reused, lessening the impact on downstream releases and on the supply during drought.

“Snowy Hydro 2.0 is a nation-building project,” a spokesman for the prime minister said before the release of a $29 million feasibility study at the end of 2017.

“It will not only deliver a more affordable and reliable energy system but will also generate jobs and grow our economy.

“The feasibility study clearly demonstrates that Snowy 2.0 is a viable pumped hydro project that will futureproof the National Electricity Market (NEM), helping stabilise the system and deliver lower prices.”

Future-proofing power supply

If construction gets underway shortly, the Snowy 2.0 scheme could begin operating from 2024.

Mr Frydenberg believes that building Snowy 2.0 is vital for the future of Australia’s energy supply.

In a recent opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review, he warned that without Snowy 2.0 the east coast would have “a weaker and more expensive system and we would have failed to future-proof the grid for the inevitable arrival of more intermittent renewables”.

“Instead of falling electricity prices we will see upward pressure on price as volatility continues, there is less competition and other more costly gas peakers and batteries are pursued to stabilise the system,” he wrote.

Mr Frydenberg said the lack of storage and dispatchable power was “playing out painfully today in Victoria and South Australia”.

He cited the use of “expensive, polluting diesel generators using up to 80,000 litres of fuel an hour [which] have been called in just to keep the lights on this summer”.

As for budget blowout, Snowy Hydro CEO Paul Broad said taxpayers needn’t worry about the revised estimated cost of $3.8 billion – $4.5 billion.

“Snowy 2.0 can be funded off our balance sheet, while delivering a healthy internal rate of return of 8 per cent,” he wrote recently in The Australian.

“While, historically, we have not often used our pumping capability, we’re progressively pumping more and will be at capacity when Snowy 2.0 comes on line.

“In fact, our analysis shows that future storage demand will surpass Snowy 2.0’s capacity from 2031, when we can again deliver by expanding the scheme, using the same reservoirs as Snowy 2.0, to benefit future generations.”

He also told ABC TV that the Snowy 2.0 board is committed to doing another $60 million worth of work in the next few months to refine the expansion costs.

“We expect [the cost] is at the lower end of the spectrum,” he said.

“It’s expensive, but it stacks up economically.”

Australia’s tourist hotspots at risk from climate change, finds new report

Many of Australia’s most iconic tourist attractions could be wiped off the map due to a barrage of catastrophic climate change issues, warns a grim new report from the Climate Council.

Citing multiple credible sources, the council’s 68-page study Icons at Risk: Climate Change Threatening Australian Tourism says Australia’s world-famous beaches, wilderness areas, national parks and the Great Barrier Reef are the most vulnerable hotspots, while our unique native wildlife is also at risk.

“Tourists travel across the globe to see Australia’s remarkable natural wonders. But these icons are in the climate firing line as extreme weather events worsen and sea levels continue to rise,” says Climate Councillor and ecologist Professor Lesley Hughes.

“Some of our country’s most popular natural destinations, including our beaches could become ‘no-go zones’ during peak holiday periods and seasons, with the potential for extreme temperatures to reach up to 50 degrees in Sydney and Melbourne.”

Paris agreement will help

The Gold Coast is also under threat from a whole host of climate change pressures, adds Prof Hughes.

Coastal erosion was already a huge issue on the ‘Glitter Strip’ with millions spent on replenishing sand — but it could become a losing battle.

“Places like Surfers Paradise can’t move inland because of development so there’s a risk of inundation and storm surges,” Prof Hughes says.

And then there’s the deadly jellyfish tempted south because of the slowly warming waters.

“Jellyfish, like the deadly Irukandji, are already in Hervey Bay and Fraser Island, not in large numbers but it shows what could happen.”

Prof Hughes says she isn’t trying to discredit the future of the tourism industry, just point out the dangers climate change will pose if changes aren’t made.

“Tourism employs half a million people, which is many times more than coal mining, so we need to be realistic about the risk the industry faces.”

Ultimately only bringing down global emissions to under 2C, the target set by the Paris Climate Agreement, would lessen the pressure on Australia’s natural attractions, says Prof Hughes

But she criticised the government for sidestepping the issue in its latest tourism strategy.

“What disappoints me most in Government planning is that the Tourism 2020 Plan focuses purely on growth and so paints a very optimistic picture rather than a realistic one.”

Other key report findings include:

  • Australia’s top five natural tourist attractions (beaches, wildlife, the Great Barrier Reef, wilderness and national parks) are all at risk of climate change.
  • Beaches are Australia’s #1 tourist destination and are threatened by rising sea levels.
  • Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Cairns, Darwin, Fremantle and Adelaide are projected to have a least a 100-fold increase in the frequency of coastal flooding events (with a 0.5m sea level rise).
  • The Red Centre could experience more than 100 days above 35ºC annually, by 2030. By 2090, there could be more than 160 days per year over 35ºC.
  • The Top End could see an increase in hot days (temperatures above 35ºC) from 11 (1981-2010 average) to 43 by 2030, and up to 265 by 2090.
  • Ski tourism: Declines of maximum snow depth and decreasing season length at Australian ski resorts have been reported for over 25 years, increasing the need for artificial snow-making.

The report, however, isn’t all doom and gloom for Australian tourism.

It also highlights moves by individual operators including hotels, resorts, airlines and even zoos which are taking action to tackle rising pollution.

“States and territories, local governments and individual tourism operators should be congratulated for rolling up their sleeves and doing their bit to slash pollution by embracing renewable energy and storage technology,” adds Climate Council Acting CEO and Head of Research, Dr Martin Rice.

“Now, for the sake of our iconic attractions, we just need the Federal Government to do the same.”

NOAA State of the Climate Report – January 2018

Another scorching start to the year across the globe

Climate change supporters can add another marker to the mounting evidence in their corner – January 2018 was officially the fifth warmest start to the year since records began, reveals the monthly State of the Climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Boosted in no small part by heatwave-like conditions in parts of Australia, the temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 0.71°C above the 20th century average of 12.0°C

The last four years (2015-2018) now rank among the five hottest Januarys on record, and the new data also extends an unbroken 397 consecutive months (since January 1985) in which temperatures were at least nominally above the 20th century average.

Also worth noting, says NOAA, is that the global land and ocean temperature during January has increased at an average rate of +0.07°C per decade since 1880; however, the average rate of increase is twice as great since 1975.

state of the climate report

Sydney hit by heatwave

Warmer-than-average conditions engulfed much of Australia with Sydney bearing the brunt of the sweltering heat. The 47.3°C recorded in Penrith Lakes was the hottest day in the city in 80 years.

Regionally, Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia had a top eight warm start to the year, with Queensland and Tasmania having the second warmest January on record.

Across the Tasman, New Zealand also felt the blast with a national mean of 20.3°C, which is 3.1°C above the 1981-2010 average. That was the warmest January since national records began in 1909.

Other notable temperature spikes were recorded across the western half of mainland U.S., central and eastern Europe, and northern Russia, where temperature departures from average were +2.0°C, or greater. Record warmth across the land was limited to small areas across the southwestern North America, central Europe, and parts of Oceania.

Oceans also hotter than normal

Meanwhile, warmer-than-average conditions dominated across much of the world’s oceans in January, with record warmth observed across parts of the north Atlantic Ocean (off the coast of Portugal), and the central and southwestern Pacific Ocean.

Averaged as a whole, the global ocean surface temperature was 0.56°C above the 20th century average of 15.8°C. This value tied with 1998 as the fifth highest global ocean temperature for January in the 139-year record.

Antarctic sea ice extent during the month was 880,595 square kilometres (17.4 percent) below the 1981-2010 average, the second smallest January extent on record. Only the Antarctic sea ice extent in January 2017 was smaller. Below-average ice coverage was observed in the Ross and West Amundsen Seas.

In the Arctic, sea ice was the smallest spread in the 39-year record at 1.35 million square kilometres (9.4 percent) below the 1981-2010 average, according to analysis by the National Snow and Ice Data Center using data from NOAA and NASA. Sea ice coverage was particularly sparse in the Barents, Kara and Bering Seas.

NOAA data also reveals that rain anomalies during January 2018 varied significantly around the world, as is typical at this time of the year.

Precipitation was above average across parts of eastern half of mainland U.S, Canada, northern Argentina, Paraguay, northern, central, and eastern Europe, northern, central, and southeastern Asia, and western Australia.

It was notably dry across the south-central contiguous U.S., northeastern Brazil, southern half of Argentina, southern Europe, southern Asia, southern Africa, and eastern Australia.

January 2018 was Austria’s wettest January since 1982 at 170% of normal rain levels. However, several locations across the nation set new precipitation records. Of interest, Nauders in Tyrol (western Austria) had a monthly total of 163mm, resulting in the highest rainfall since records began in 1896.

France was also hard-hit with several regions experiencing two to three times the normal monthly deluge. Overall, the national total was 80% above average and the wettest January since 1959.

Climate change goals at risk if new coal plants go ahead, says study

Just days after government data confirmed that Australia is on track to meet its 2020 Renewable Energy Target, a new study finds our climate control headway could be undone by other countries’ continued coal reliance.

Ottmar Edenhofer of the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Berlin, and three colleagues, say that if all the world’s planned coal plants are built we are closing the door on the Paris Agreement’s target of restricting temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius this century.

The research was published in Environmental Research Letters, with co-authors from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the Technical University of Berlin.

The study is based on a concept of “lock-in” or “committed” emissions: Once a coal plant is completed and put into service, the thinking goes, it’s likely to operate for long time to justify the cost of the investment, reports The Washington Post.

The research finds that five countries — India, China, Turkey, Vietnam and Indonesia — are home to “nearly three quarters (73 percent) of the global coal-fired capacity that is currently under construction or planned.”

Vietnam, if plans are carried forward, could see 948 percent growth in coal emissions, the research asserts, by 2030.

The study is based on a database by CoalSwarm, a project of the Earth Island Institute, which carefully tracks coal plants in varying stages of completion across the globe, in collaboration with Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

Christine Shearer, a researcher with CoalSwarm, said it’s important to bear in mind that not all coal plants are actually completed.

“Since we started doing this work, since 2010, only about a third of proposed coal plants ever begin construction or are commissioned,” she said.

China, the world’s biggest consumer of fossil fuels, is a classic example.

Just last October it announced it was stopping or postponing work on 151 coal plants that were either under, or earmarked for, construction.

A month earlier India reported its national coal fleet on average ran at little more than 60% of its capacity – among other things, well below what is generally considered necessary for an individual generator to be financially viable.

Study author Mr Edenhofer, however, countered that the current building plans are important information.

“This does not mean we are doomed, but these announcements are announcements which should be taken into account very seriously,” he said.

“These are not just paper plants, these are real plants.”

Cameron Hepburn, a professor in environmental economics at Oxford University, also weighed in on the recent study with a gloomy outlook.

“If we don’t stop building coal plants now, we will have four unpalatable options,” he tells The Washington Post by email.

“We either (1) shut down coal plants early, (2) retrofit expensive carbon capture technologies, (3) suck even more CO2 out of the atmosphere, potentially at high cost, or (4) burn through the 2 degree C target.”

Extreme Arctic weather event has climate scientists fearful of ramifications

With the sun still not due to rise there until March 20, the North Pole should be one of the coldest and most inhospitable places in the world.

But a strange and disturbing phenomenon struck the planet’s tip on the weekend of February 24-25: temperatures may have soared as high as 2°C, according to the U.S. Global Forecast System model, creating an historic thaw.

The Washington Post reports that Zack Labe, a climate scientist working on his PhD at the University of California, confirmed what several independent analysis showed – an intense pulse of heat through the Greenland Sea triggered a 30°C spike above normal temperature.

The warm disturbance penetrated right through the heart of the Central Arctic, Mr Labe said.

The temperature averaged for the entire region north of 80 degrees latitude jumped to its highest level ever recorded in February. The average temperature was more than 20°C above normal.

“No other warm intrusions were very close to this,” Mr Labe said in an interview, describing a data set maintained by the Danish Meteorological Institute that dates back to 1958.

“I was taken by surprise how expansive this warm intrusion was.”

“To have zero degrees at the North Pole in February – it’s just wrong,” added Amelie Meyer, a Hobart-based researcher of ice-ocean interactions with the Norwegian Polar Institute in another interview. “It’s quite worrying.”

A number of factors in play

The so-called Polar Vortex – a zone of persistent low-pressure that typically keeps high-latitude cold air separate from regions further south – has been weakening for decades, say scientists.

In this instance, “a massive jet of warm air” is penetrating north, sending a cold burst southwards, said Dr Meyer, who has relocated to Tasmania to research on the southern hemisphere, and is hosted by Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.

The polar blast southward resulted in a deadly storm dubbed ‘The Beast From the East’, which has killed as many as 48 people, according to one report. The Siberian weather pattern pummelled the Continent with snow, freezing rain and brutal wind chills – some parts of Britain recorded temperatures as low as -10°C.

Kent Moore, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Toronto, who published a study in 2016 linking the loss of sea ice to these warm events in the Arctic, believed a number of factors may have contributed to the latest episode.

For one, recent storms have tracked more toward the North Pole through the Greenland Sea, drawing heat directly north from lower latitudes, rather than through a more circuitous route over the Barents Sea.

He also said ocean temperatures in the Greenland Sea are warmer than normal.

“The warmth we’re seeing in the Greenland Sea is definitely enhancing the warm events we’re seeing,” Mr Moore said. “I’m surprised how warm it is, but I am not sure why.”

In 2016, Denmark’s Senior Climatologist John Cappelen reported: “Records from Camp Summit, at the top of the Inland Ice, show high temperatures. Camp Summit recorded 7.3oC warmer than normal (-24.3oC compared to the norm of -31.6oC).”

Greenland Inland Ice, in some areas, was up to 2.5 km thick and a source of water with a serious potential to increase global sea levels, concluded the report, which was also cited by NOAA.

Mr Moore said the most recent spike could be tied to a sudden warming of the stratosphere, the atmospheric layer about 30,000 feet high — above where most weather happens — that occurred several weeks ago.

One study, published last July, found that these bursts of warmer air are also becoming more frequent, longer-lasting and more intense.

“It happened in four years between 1980-2010, but has now occurred in four out of the last five winters,” said study author Robert Graham, a climate scientist from the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Other scientists are more worried about the dramatic impact the thaw is having on the rapidly diminishing Arctic sea ice.

They were shocked in recent days to discover open water north of Greenland, an area normally covered by old, very thick ice.

The part of the Arctic covered by sea ice in January was the smallest for the month since records began in 1979, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed recently – a whopping 1.35m square kilometres less than average, which is an area almost twice the size of NSW.

The amount of sea ice in the Arctic has steadily declined over the past few decades because of man-made global warming, according to NOAA. Sea ice in the Arctic affects wildlife such as polar bears, seals and walruses. It also helps regulate the planet’s temperature by influencing the circulation of the atmosphere and ocean.

“Greenhouse gases emitted through human activities and the resulting increase in global mean temperatures are the most likely underlying cause of the sea ice decline,” the National Snow and Ice Data Center said.

NOAA weather watch 2017: Australia’s scorching summer continues

Australia’s sizzling summer continued well into autumn in 2017, according to the world’s leading science agency for climate and oceanic research.

By the end of March, the global climate report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed Australia experienced “unusually warm conditions”.

The average mean temperature was 1.66°C (3.0°F) above the 1961–1990 average and the third highest in its 108-year record. The national maximum and minimum temperatures in March were second highest, behind 1986 and 2016, respectively.

Queensland, NSW, Victoria, Tasmania, and South Australia had a top three warm March, with Victoria recording its warmest March on record, surpassing the previous record set in 2016 by +0.41°C (0.74°F).

By the end of May, the trend had continued for Australia with a national temperature departure from average of +0.71°C, according to the NOAA. This was the 21st highest May temperature in the nation’s 108-year record.

Maximum temperatures were unusually warm, with the month tying as the ninth highest May maximum temperature for the nation as a whole.

Regionally, Queensland had its sixth highest May temperature on record, with the Northern Territory and Western Australia also experiencing top seven figures for the month.

Globally, numbers were also up at the start of the southern hemisphere autumn, with the average March temperature over land and sea recorded at 1.05°C above the 20th century average of 12.7°C.

This was the second highest for March since global temperatures were recorded, behind the record 2016 by 0.18°C, and ahead of 2015 by +0.15°C.

The average mean temperature was 1.66°C (3.0°F) above the 1961–1990 average and the third highest in their 108-year record.

Much of the world’s oceans surfaces also experienced warmer- to much-warmer-than-average conditions during March. Record warmth was limited to sparse areas across the central, eastern and western equatorial, and southern Pacific Ocean, southern Atlantic Ocean, and southwestern Indian Ocean.

The warm start to the year continued through April. The combined global average temperature over the land and ocean surfaces was 0.90°C above the 20th century average of 13.7°C — the second highest April temperature since global records began, trailing 2016 by 0.17°C and ahead of 2010 by 0.07°C.

The year-to-date global temperature was also the second warmest on record at 0.95°C above the 20th century average of 13.7°C, and just 0.19°C behind the all-time high recorded the previous year.

On land, most of the world experienced hotter than usual temperatures, with an overall spike of 1.3°C above the 20th Century average of 8.1°C.

May offered some respite, but was still characterised by warmer- to much-warmer-than-average conditions across most of the world’s land and ocean surfaces, reports the NOAA. However, near- to cooler-than-average conditions were present across the eastern half of the contiguous U.S., eastern Europe, western and north-central Russia, as well as parts of the northern and southern Atlantic Ocean, northern and southern Pacific Ocean, and the tropical Indian Ocean.

The end of the Southern Hemisphere autumn, also spelt more bad news for Antarctica’s sea ice extent.

By May, the coverage was just 9.67 million square km, which was 1.14 million square km, or 10.55 percent, below the 1981-2010 average. This was the second smallest May Southern Hemisphere sea ice total on record, revealed the NOAA.

The US-based administration also reported below-average sea ice extent in the Amundsen Sea, Ross Sea and eastern areas of the Weddell Sea.

Image Credit: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global

Renewable energy sector on track to power half of Australia by 2030

A spike of investment in wind and solar farms has Australia poised to breeze past the federal government’s renewable energy target (RET).

The latest report by Green Energy Markets – November’s Australian Renewable Energy Index – projected that the RET’s 33-gigawatt mark will easily be exceeded by the 2020 deadline.

Green Energy Markets, a Victorian-based research and advisory business focusing on greenhouse gas emission reduction, said that renewable sector is already cranking out enough energy to power 75% of Australian homes

If the trend continues – and the government puts its long-term Paris agreement commitments into a legally enforceable policy – the index predicts that renewables will account for half of all of Australia’s electricity output by 2030.

The news comes as rooftop solar installations reached a record in November 2017, 120 megawatts of capacity installed to surpass the previous peak in June 2012 when subsidies were two to three times higher.

Renewables, which made up just 7% of national electricity output a decade ago, accounted for 17% of the total output in November 2017. That’s a power sector carbon-saving equivalent to taking 7.7 million cars off the road.

The biggest single-source of renewable power remained hydro-electricity, followed by wind and rooftop solar, the index found.

Less than 2% came from large solar farms, suggesting the best is yet to come from this sector, which has an array of large-scale projects underway, reports The Guardian.

More than 12,000MW of wind farm sites and 15,000MW of solar farm sites have been proposed for development across Australia, of which more than half already have planning approvals in place.

The 3,923 megawatts of projects currently under construction in Australia will create enough jobs to employ 13,443 people full-time, said the latest report. Queensland (5834) will deliver most of those roles, followed by NSW/ACT (3422), and Victoria (2459), which recently legislated for a 40% renewable target by 2025.

However, Green Energy Markets founder Tristan Edis also told The Australian that meeting the RET target could also herald the collapse in the value of the large-scale generation certificates – which wind and solar farm operators sell to retailers to boost the returns from clean generation – and with it investment in new capacity.

“Once the Queensland and Victoria schemes are filled we will have met the RET so the price of (certificates) could fall to zero or very low,’’ Mr Edis warned.

In its first report to state and federal governments in December 2017, the Energy Security Board said that the market was “not in the best of health”, with unaffordable energy bills, reliability risks increasing, and uncertainty over future carbon-emissions policy.

Established to co-ordinate the three main energy regulators, the board warned that the market operator was unable to dispatch the lowest priced power as needed and there were increasing incidents of high-priced power being ordered to ensure security.

A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnball had hoped to restore confidence in the power sector by introducing a National Energy Guarantee (NEG), designed to produce cheaper and more reliable electricity, while cutting carbon emissions.

The plan requires retailers to use a percentage of electricity from so-called dispatchable sources such as coal and gas, batteries or pumped hydro, for reliability purposes. They would also be required to buy power that is efficient enough to ensure Australia is on track to meet its Paris target, reports the ABC.