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Real Science

Renewable Energy and Climate Change

Michael Rosenthal

(11/2016) In September of 2011 Constellation Energy announced that they had started construction on a "16.1 megawatt DC grid-connected photovoltaic solar installation" in Emmitsburg, MD. The cost of the project, $50 million dollars, would be financed, owned, and operated by Constellation Energy. The energy produced was to be purchased by the state of Maryland’s Department of General Services and the University System of Maryland in a 20 year power purchase agreement. The energy being produced from this facility, some 22 million kilowatt-hours of emissions-free electricity, would release 15,170 metric tons of carbon dioxide, if produced from non-renewable sources. The property on which this has been constructed is on 100 acres of land leased from Mt. St. Mary’s University, and some of this power is being directed to the University. This is Maryland’s largest PV (photovoltaic) project, and is a part of the State of Maryland Generating Clean Horizons initiative.

The ribbon cutting celebrating the completion of the project took place in late August, 2012. Another benefit of such a project, said then Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, is the number of solar sector jobs that have been created. He further stated that in five years the solar grid was increased by a factor of 530 and that some 2,000 jobs were created. A year later, in July of 2013, this facility was designated as Best Solar Project of 2012 at the Fifth Annual Solar Power Generation USA event held in Newport Beach, California.

Another Emmitsburg solar energy operation began a year later on Creamery Road off of Route 15, on property owned by the Town of Emmitsburg, for its waste water treatment plant. Through a competitive bidding process, Standard Solar was awarded this project, a 1.1 megawatt ground-mounted array to be done in two phases, estimated to produce 1400 megawatt hours in its first year. In the Fall of 2015, the Town of Emmitsburg dedicated the solar-powered wastewater treatment plant. A 4.4 million dollar solar array powers the $19.5 million dollar plant, as well as powering other town-owned buildings and facilities. At the dedication, Mayor Don Briggs announced that "Emmitsburg is now 95 percent reliant on solar energy."

Wind energy is another important potential source of energy in our future. In August 2016 the first offshore wind farm in American waters was opened near Block Island, R.I. The five turbine wind farm is small, but it is an example of things to come – the use of ocean wind to produce energy with minimal environmental effects. The New York Times and Washington Post stories on this accomplishment state that offshore wind stations could produce as much as four times the energy as is generated on the current American grid from all sources. They state that 53 % of Americans live near coasts, so this source of energy can have a huge impact. The idea is not new. Europeans have utilized offshore wind farms for 15 years, but interest in the United States has lagged. Now, such interest is increasing with support from the federal government and states. New York State has committed to getting 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 with a strong interest in wind farms. There is an active proposal to build a 15 turbine wind farm off the eastern coast of Long Island. We have already made strong advances in supplying energy from wind in Texas, Iowa, and other states, accounting for about 5 percent of the country’s energy generation. Some 22 other offshore wind projects are in various stages of development across the country. The Atlantic coast is better for wind farms than the Pacific coast because the water is shallower there; to construct such wind projects on the Pacific coast, where the waters are much deeper, would require more expensive floating platforms. We will surely see more of this direction to produce our energy.

Opposition to wind generated electricity is found among those who have little or no confidence in wind generated electricity, usually because they haven’t learned much about it, and because there is little history to support wind reliability.

Related to our discussion above on sources of energy is the question of climate accord among the countries of the world. Individual countries making rational energy decisions is important, of course, but broad accord across the planet is what we want and what we need.

In the September 15 Washington Post, it was reported that Secretary of State Kerry expressed optimism the Paris climate agreement could become widespread and successful quickly. For the agreement to "enter into force" 55 countries representing 55 % of global emissions must officially join the accord. At that date, 28 countries had done so, including the United States, China, and Brazil, adding up to 41.5 percent of global emissions. The September 22 New York Times reported that 20 more countries had formally joined the accord! This brought the total to 60 countries said to represent 48 percent of global planet-warming emissions that have bound themselves to the Paris Accord. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general expressed optimism, saying "What once seemed impossible now appears inevitable." The next major United Nations climate change summit meeting is in November in Morocco. Diplomats hope to create an independent body to modify and verify countries’ pollution levels and to use public scrutiny to push countries to reduce their emissions. There is also a problem producing enough money to make it all happen. Under the Paris deal, rich countries voluntarily pledged to spend $100 billion dollars annually by 2020 to help poor countries adapt to climate change and develop new clean energy technologies.

As we know, there are differences of opinion both within countries (even ours!), and between countries on climate change and what steps to be taken on the issue. There are still those who deny climate change, and there are those who have personal connections that are hard to put aside.

California is a leader in supporting the reduction of carbon emissions. Governor Jerry Brown signed a hugely consequential bill in September to reduce carbon emissions. The state law has a "cap-and-trade" system that makes polluters pay for the emissions they produce. In spite of this law, the state’s economy has grown faster than the rest of the country’s economy in recent years, as have wages. The next step, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 % by 2030, is much more ambitious. If President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is approved by the courts, ultimately by The Supreme Court, each state will be required to produce an emissions reduction program.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

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