Disappearing Arctic Ice

It looks as if 2012 will set a new record low for Arctic ice extent[1]. As a measure of the impact of global warming, this is depressingly clear-cut. There’s no need to go into arguments about trends and variability, or use any kind of modelling – the ice is melting visibly.

Arctic Sea ice extent

Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

fn1. Satellite data on ice extent goes back to 1979. There are other measures, arguably more relevant, such as estimates of ice volume, for which the data set is shorter. They tell an even gloomier stories.

83 thoughts on “Disappearing Arctic Ice

  1. @John Quiggin “the US has just recorded a 20-year low and, despite the bad news you mention from Germany, the EU is meeting its reduction targets so easily there is now pressure to tighten them unilaterally.”

    Positive developments, but not as much as is needed. Fran pointed what needs to be done: negative emissions, not just lower emissions.

    And the reported changes are not what they seem. The US’s reduction is due to a confluence of factors some of which have only one-time effects, such as the cut-in of the long-scheduled mercury emission regulations which closed many summertime peaking coal plants. And it is to be hoped that employment and the median real wage in the US pick up soon.

    Of the ongoing trends, demographics (the retirement of the large bulge in the population pyramid popularly called the Baby Boomers) will provide a tail wind for about 15 years, and then the wind will swing around.

    Europe has the demographic tail wind, and it is importing biofuels (so it doesn’t have to account for the emissions involved in producing them). (But Europe has acted, too. Full credit to the Germans and Italians for getting the PV industry to the point that it is – we owe them thanks for that. We owe the Danes thanks for starting the wind industry, too.)

    But let’s wait till 2014 to see what is happening in Europe. It defies logic that the substitution of nuclear power with coal power in Germany can have no effect on Europe’s emissions trend (after accounting for recessions, etc.).

    There has been some increase in carbon efficiency in the OECD, but less than it seems, once these factors are accounted for.

    And saying “look, we’ve cut back, aren’t we good” (implied: time for a breather) doesn’t cut it. Reducing your daily calorie surplus from 3000 to 2850 kcal won’t make the type 2 diabetes go away. Reducing OECD emissions 5% won’t noticeably affect the global carbon emissions trajectory. Nor will quadrupling renewables in China, or even quadrupling them again, and again, and then again.

    China reducing the *growth* in its coal use to only 3.7% may alter the emissions curve slightly, but it’ll still bend up, not even straighten out, let alone bend down. And that reduction is expected to be temporary.

    We need a hundred good news stories, and better ones than these, John, to counter the bad news.

  2. @John Quiggin

    “There is no such thing as baseload demand.”

    What are we going to do with the electricity generated by wind generators at 3 o’clock in the morning? Or are they going to be wasted much more than they are now?

  3. There are severe limits to the extent that demand shifting and storage can overcome irregular energy supply. I see from Origin Energy’s FAQ page the trial of time-of-use pricing in Victoria has been halted to protect the ‘vulnerable’. I presume that refers to the frail elderly not using heating or cooling at time the gas or electricity price is likely to be high.

    The subject of energy storage is complex suffice to say after 200 years of research lead acid batteries remain the cheapest option. To cope with a severe cold snap a city might need tens of gigawatt-hours of electrical energy storage. That is simply beyond the means of readily available technology and the power must be generated in real time. If not mainly coal fired electricity then what?

  4. Chris @ #2, There is such a thing as baseload supply, but not baseload demand. Baseload power plants don’t change production to meet changing demands. Cheap coal made baseload supply possible. The future will be a series of peaking plants such as biogas, biomass, geothermal, molten salt and other storage devices working around direct solar and wind power in conjunction with a smart grid.

  5. @Hermit

    These limits aren’t real. They reflect political mishandling of the introduction of meters, most notably the fact that they were combined with an increase in fixed charges, when correct pricing principles would yield low (or no) fixed charges, since distribution costs as well as generation costs are driven by peak demand.

    If we were moving from time-of-day to fixed tariffs, exactly the same concerns would be raised and with more justification. That is, low income households who managed their usage to minimise costs would rightly complain that this capacity was being taken away.

  6. JQ wrote:

    They reflect political mishandling of the introduction of meters

    Had personal contact with the inner workings of smart meter roll-outs in my state – it definitely looked that way to me – eg: the newspeak “Advanced Metering Infrastructure” (AMI) instead of “smart meter”.
    I suspect the utility of the devices will outlive the political fallout – eg: come the next long dry spell, we will have much better data about our water usage.

    The “melted granny” scenarios could have been mitigated by a successful home efficiency drive (eg: the failed federal insulation program). Political arse covering masquerading as empathy really gets my goat.

    On the whole grid/base load argument – I’m a believer in a having a widely distributed heterogeneous generation but some “central” capacity is required for a grid if for no other reason than to use as a timebase to keep everything in phase (oh, and to prevent all the home PV “island effect” circuits cutting in sporadically).
    I highly recommend a read of ‘What’s wrong with the electric grid?’ for some insight into what goes on in managing an electrical grid distributed over a large area.

  7. @Salient Green

    There is such a thing as baseload supply

    Indeed, and in that respect wind generation is the same as capital-intensive fuel-burning power stations. Average wind generation is independent of the time of day, as is the capacity of coal-burning power stations. So wind generation is going to have exactly the same problem as coal generation during off-peak times, i.e. its generating capacity will be more than necessary during off-peak times if its capacity is sufficient during peak times.

  8. @Chris O’Neill

    Certainly wind has the least satisfactory supply characteristics (intermittent and uncorrelated with demand), followed by coal and nuclear (constant and uncorrelated with demand). Solar PV follows load pretty well and could do even better, at some efficiency cost with western orientation, as discussed in the other thread. But gas is better still and hydro even better as a source you can turn on and off as needed.

    We managed to cope with the supply-demand mismatch of a coal-based system for a long time, and I’m sure we can do the same with a mixture of wind, solar, gas and hydro, which appear to be the likely winners over the next few decades.

  9. JQ – current nuclear technology poses some technical difficulties when it comes to load following but none the less French operators do load follow using current nuclear technology. Many proposed designs, specifically the LFTR and IFR, are absolutely superb load followers. LFTRs are virtually a natural load follower due to the strong negative temperature coefficient of reactivity. The more power you pull from them the more they want to make.

    What tends to make nuclear plants operate as a base load technology isn’t so much that it can’t load follow but rather the fact that fuel costs are approximately zero in the scheme of things so there is never an incentive to reduce output whilst other generators are available to do so. Nuclear power costs are essentially determined by the capital cost of the plant and the marginal energy cost is close to zero (up to the maximum capacity of the plant). When demand declines in a power grid you turn off power that is easy to do so (ie not coal) but also power with the highest marginal cost (ie not nuclear).

    Nuclear should not be dismissed as only good for base load.

    Nuclear power can be a highly flexible energy solution.

  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Load_following_power_plant#Pressurized_water_reactors

    In France, however, nuclear power plants use load following. French PWRs use “grey” control rods, in order to replace chemical shim, without introducing a large perturbation of the power distribution. These plants have the capability to make power changes between 30% and 100% of rated power, with a slope of 5% of rated power per minute. Their licensing permits them to respond very quickly to the grid requirements.

  11. To return to the post topic for a moment, the Danish Meteorological Institute sea ice extent record has fallen. DMI uses a 30% threshold instead of the more usual 15%.

  12. Also the June Northern Hemisphere snow anomaly was the lowest figure for June in the whole 45 year record, besting the previous record set in 2010 by 1 million square kilometres.

    The average retreat North over the last 27 years, since the mid-1970s, is 18 miles per year. Since the mid-2000s it is 38 miles. In this last dramatic year, at the height of the melt season, the snow has been melting away 71 miles further North than in any other previous year.

  13. All is not lost, Terje.

    The reality is that the world will in the future, as it has always in the past…….be Thermo Nuclear Powered.

    The sad reality is that the anti nuclear lobby will also be vindicated for their opposition, as this one, immensely inefficient, nuclear reactor will eventually blow up and destroy everything around it.

  14. @John Quiggin

    We managed to cope with the supply-demand mismatch of a coal-based system for a long time, and I’m sure we can do the same with a mixture of wind, solar, gas and hydro, which appear to be the likely winners over the next few decades.

    The point was, wind has the same supply-demand mismatch as a coal-based system with other problems thrown in as well. The big advantage of solar cells is they don’t produce power when no-one wants it. Wind will if it’s ever substantial. Gas and hydro solve the supply-demand mismatch problem. Wind makes it worse.

  15. Chris O’Neill wrote:

    Gas and hydro solve the supply-demand mismatch problem. Wind makes it worse.

    Given that the cost of running a turbine is planned maintenance every so often, why wouldn’t you run it as often as you can? There’s no fuel cost, ditto for solar.
    Pump some water up a hill, compress air, charge capacitors, create reactive power (see my link a few posts ago) or just boil your potatoes (ie: issue an alert that your spot price is now 10 cents less than everyone else…)

    The supply-demand mismatch can be dealt with by having diversity in location and type of energy production (I note a recent press release about a Victorian gas fuelled site with a 5 minute start up time). I’m all for gas and hydro where appropriate but if we can do it without the extra methane (for both) and CO2 (gas) it would be worth the effort.

  16. @Happy Heyoka

    Given that the cost of running a turbine is planned maintenance every so often, why wouldn’t you run it as often as you can?

    Assuming you’ve already sunk the cost into wind, but the issue was deciding how much to sink into wind in the first place. As the solar storage post points out, after solar cell installation plays out, the remaining demand will consist of a large peak in the evening for half of the year with relatively less demand the rest of the day, i.e. a very high peak to average ratio. Wind is very capital-inefficient at supplying this type of demand compared with hydro and gas which are by name and by nature, “peaking” generators. Perhaps there is a capital-efficient opportunity for wind to supply some of the minimum load that lasts all day long but that will, of course, make up only a small part of the generating capacity.

  17. @Chris O’Neill

    Perhaps there is a capital-efficient opportunity for wind to supply some of the minimum load that lasts all day long but that will, of course, make up only a small part of the generating capacity.

    The logical first step is to have an installed wind capacity equal to the minimum night-time demand. Though relatively small, this is still quite significant and most places are nowhere near this capacity yet.

  18. @Chris O’Neill

    The logical first step is to have an installed wind capacity equal to the minimum night-time demand. Though relatively small, this is still quite significant and most places are nowhere near this capacity yet.

    I’d be in favour of devising and rolling out low footprint storage solutions capable of being used over time at a cost reflective of the cost of the intermittent capacity. I’d build enough wind to meet maximum post peak capacity taking into account a plausible capacity credit.

  19. @Chris O’Neill

    Assuming you’ve already sunk the cost into wind, but the issue was deciding how much to sink into wind in the first place.

    Sorry Chris, I missed the context – someone was wrong elsewhere on the internet and I lost the thread.

    While I have seen “average annual wind speed” figures for various localities, I haven’t come across a decent source for “comparative instantaneous wind speed” for a whole state with an hour-by-hour timescale. Maybe capacity to meet night-time demand is a reasonable first milestone.

    I think Fran is right about storage being important, but “grid-scale” storage is hardly trivial – hydro is one proven technology but we’re all out of convenient places to expand on that – if you tried doing a “Three Gorges” in the river valley where I lived you’d end up with a bunch of politicians hanging from lamp posts.
    There was the giant compressed air storage scheme (which pretty much relied on having existing geological support). Exotica like Vanadium-Redox – well, I’m not holding my breath.

    Without coming over all “chicken little”, what worries me is that spending years pursuing the most cost-effective solutions is in itself a problem given the portents (Arctic and Antarctic ice, corn yields, wildfires). Rather than putting all our effort into a handful of sites using two or three technologies we must work on getting a diverse set of medium scale technologies implemented and accept the risk that some of them will prove to be less than perfect.

    I have my welding gear ready right here, what I’m looking for is someone to translate this into the language of the economically conservative.

  20. I haven’t come across a decent source for “comparative instantaneous wind speed”

    Of course, having just plucked that phrase out of my fundament, I Google it and there are two million hits… sigh.

  21. Happy H,

    Storage is an issue, but it is not necessarily as difficult as it is made out to be. Renewables require evaluation as as an integrated embedded energy medium rather than as an exterior appendage. By far the largest energy source in the medium term future will be the distributed energy production facilities that will be an essential feature of both domestic and commercial housing. As JQ has been at pains to point out energy consumption will over time adapt to the variability of solar delivery. Wind power and wave power will be very significant balancing contributors, as will biomass energy where it is commercially viable.

    Our GenIIPV system on its own has the potential to generate to supply between 50 and 75 percent of Australia’s to total electricity consumption within less than 30 years. At that point over 6 million buildings will be fitted with this of other (there have been several recently announced systems hedging in this direction though still wide of the mark) comparable systems. The minimum storage capacity for each of these users is expected to be 6 kilowatt hours capacity. So where 6 million distributed energy producers have 6 kilowatt hours of storage there will be a minimum national online storage capacity of 36 gigawatt hours. And that is before you consider vehicle storage batteries. Blue Gen systems appear to be gaining acceptance and these will also add very considerable “off peak” capacity.

    When you add up the ALL aspects of the renewables system as they will be 20 years from now energy storage shortfalls will be a minor issue easily coped with from the offset fuel costs. The real issue is what will the grid energy production system look like at that point in time. I would be expecting a collapse of most commercial operators and a return to state owned (in the public interest) grid energy production which will focus very much on system management, mass energy storage, and exotic energy production options.

  22. @Jack Strocchi

    Gratuitous abuse deleted (reply post also deleted)

    I apologise for taking the bait PrQ. I’ll bit my tongue if there is a next time. It had been a tough week but that’s no excuse.

  23. @Happy Heyoka

    I think Fran is right about storage being important, but “grid-scale” storage is hardly trivial

    I like the idea of using small scale pumped hydro combined with localised water treatment. If we had sewage/waste water pumped to combined district water treatment and catchment systems not only could we save energy transporting water, and make better use of existing water, but we could use surplus power from intermittent sources to pump water to perhaps 50 metres of head pressure and the local catchment vessel. We have near where I live a pumping station perhaps 1.6 km as the corw flies from large water tanks on a hill at probably at least that elevation.

    Taking surplus power to do that job would be very easy but something obviously we could elect not to do when power was in short supply. These mini-pumped storage systems could be the reserve power overnight, allowing both the coal fired and gas peaking stations to be closed/ramped down. Because we could make use of natural terrain, the engineering costs of doing this would be far lower than in most other locations near load centres.

    Another option might involve the V2G system. As more and more plug-in electric vehicles come on line both the vehicles and the battery swap infrastructure could become part of the grid storage system. There’s an obvious advantage from the POV of a battery owner in selling power during peak demand and buying it back during the off-peak, even if one makes allowance for the accelerated decline in the battery life of each cycle. One suspects that if this becomes a major source of redundant capacity manufacturers will begin focusing on how to build batteries capable of avoid deterioration through cycling.

    It also occurs to me that there is an untapped resource in the discarded lead-acid batteries of conventional vehicles. These are a not insignificant disposal problem but I do wonder at the feasibility of reconditioning these batteries for grid storage.

  24. Fran you need to look at the energy storage capacity of water. It is not a lot. Without looking I think that it is around 125 watt hours per cubic meter at 100 meters head. You need to have very large bodies of water to make pumped hydro useful. I don’t think that the tanks on Old Bathurst Road are of a suitable scale. Wentworth Falls lake would be a useful size but then it would be useless for other activities.

    For that scale of infrastructure (water storage tank size) the Redox battery makes more sense as a storage medium. At (originally 20) 40 watt hours per litre, a cubic meter (1000 litres) would store 40 kilowatt hours , or a 30 metre diameter by 10 metre high tank would store 90 megawatt hours times .75 (round trip efficiency). That is a useful amount of storage. That would make 12 kilowatt hours available to 6000 homes.

    That is if my info quick calcs are anywhere near correct.

  25. @BilB

    The figure I’m working with is 0.272kWh per Kl of water (1 M^3). I am assuming a round trip efficiency of about 80% (pipe diameter is a variable here). A 30m tank 15m in height elevated to 50 m head pressure would yield 1442.17kWh when fully discharged. Adjusting for 80% RTE that is 1153.74 kWh. Where the existing topography is suitable, the costs of these would be manageable. We already have places where reservoirs pump to neighbourhoods from elevated positions.

    Batteries have a toxicity and ideally, one doesn’t want to add toxics to the system.

  26. Yes that figure sounds familiar, about twice what I said. I knew it was in that territory, still not particularly wonderful. The Redox system has the advantage of not requiring elevation. in fact it best suits a recessed (submerged) location. The Redox liquid is mainly vanadium particles and sulphuric (?) acid so is not especially toxic, although any release is not acceptable.

    I’m afraid I still prefer the domestic storage solution which covers far more of the user’s needs. Last Friday’s storms, for instance, left us at home without power for several hours, as usual. Regional storage does not solve that sort of occurance, which is so far the most common power problem that our family has after the size of the power bill. So there is my work list. GenIIPV solves the power bill problem, with about 6 kilowatt of storage (at present $4200, but eventually $1200) solves both short term backup storage an external connection problems. Extended low solar periods are largely coped with by the fact that even in these times the system generates up to 30% of its full solar peak. And when all else goes wrong most of the GenIIPV features can be backed up with gas consumption. There is one more link missing, which I am sure we will be able to bridge in due course.

    So on the whole I don’t feel so stressed about the need for regional storage for GenIIPV users. And even for the broader system i think that system size will cope with most of the storage needs coupled with intelligent distribution which can trigger things like off peak water heating to absorb supply overloads.

    Summary. I am less concerned now about storage now than I was several years ago during all of those wasted arguments with anti solar energy alarmists like Peter L. Also if you Google around you will see that there are serious companies such as Siemens and The Switch providing significant industry standard mass energy storage solutions for wind power load leveling.

  27. I forgot to multiply by Pi in my calculation, Duh.

    So your Old Bathurst Road tank would as a Redox tank store 424 megawatt hours unless I’ve made yet another mistake. Alternatively to achieve the Redox tank size to store the 1442 kilowatt hours is just 36 cubic metres, or a tank 6 x 6 x 1 metre high. There is a massive difference in the energy density there.

  28. So just working through the implications of the above if we had across the Sydney conurbation — (i.e the area bounded by Newcastle/Hunter to the north, Wollongong in the South and Lithgow in the West) you could have in pumped storage alone about 173MWh taken from surplus generation of about 216MWh.

    It’s hard to find out how much wind/PV we have in NSW but across the country in 2010 about 5400 MwH in solar PV and Wind were consumed. Assuming 30% of that was in NSW the surplus generation should be a lot lkess than 216 MWh.

  29. @BilB

    I think there should be a mix of options but the pumped storage option colocated with local reservoirs sounds appealing as part of the mix precisely because at the margins it wouldn’t require a lot of new infrastructure. We have to store (and treat) and pump water anyway and we can decide when it is convenient in demand terms to do that. Processing water locally has energy advantages.

    If we had much more high density housing we could have even more locally based energy storage since the scope for complexes to run large scale solar on the rooves and store the power in batteries and so forth would be greater than would be the case for individuals. Parking spaces could facilitate V2G connectivity and draw down power directly from their own panels.

  30. Fran, you have to take into consideration that to recover the potential energy from you elevated water tank, you need to have a reservoir tank for the water to flow freely into at the bottom. You cannot let the water drain slowly back through the elevation pump and somehow recover the energy, that is not how they work. Furthermore the water at the bottom has no pressure. In our area there is enough water in the Nepean river for low volume pumped storage but the head tank would only be useful for that purpose. It obviously could not be used for drinking water. The Castlereagh Rise might have enough elevation to do something useful in that way.

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