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17th February 2017

U.S. solar installations grew by 95% in 2016

Annual solar PV installations in the U.S. nearly doubled last year – growing from 7,492 megawatts to 14,626 megawatts.

This new record-breaking figure is revealed by GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) in advance of their upcoming U.S. Solar Market Insight report, due for release on 9th March.


exponential solar power growth usa 2016 2017


In addition, solar power set another record by achieving the greatest share of capacity additions for the first time ever in the U.S. It accounted for 39% of new installations among all energy types in 2016, ahead of natural gas (29%) and wind (26%). As shown on the graph below, this is almost a ten-fold improvement on its 2010 share of 4%.

“What these numbers tell you is that the solar industry is a force to be reckoned with,” said Abigail Hopper, SEIA’s president. “Solar's economically winning hand is generating strong growth across all market segments nationwide, leading to more than 260,000 Americans now employed in solar.”


exponential solar power growth usa 2016 2017


"In a banner year for U.S. solar, a record 22 states each added more than 100 megawatts," said Cory Honeyman, GTM Research's associate director of U.S. solar. "While U.S. solar grew across all segments, what stands out is the double-digit-gigawatt boom in utility-scale solar, primarily due to solar's cost-competitiveness with natural gas alternatives."

The U.S. now has more than 1.3 million solar PV installations, with a cumulative capacity of over 40 gigawatts.


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17th February 2017

Oxygen levels in the world's oceans have fallen 2% since the 1960s

A study published in the journal Nature finds that oxygen levels in the oceans have declined by 2% globally in the last 50 years, due to warming and stratification.


oxygen levels ocean falling 2 percent


Oxygen is an essential necessity of life on land. The same applies for almost all organisms in the ocean. However, the oxygen supply in the oceans is threatened by global warming in two ways: warmer surface waters take up less oxygen than colder waters. In addition, warmer water stabilises the stratification of the ocean. This weakens the circulation connecting the surface with the deep ocean and less oxygen is transported into the deep sea. Therefore, models predict a decrease in global oceanic oxygen inventory of the oceans due to global warming. The first global evaluation of millions of oxygen measurements seems to confirm this trend and points to first impacts of global change.

In the journal Nature this week, oceanographers from GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany have published the most comprehensive ever study on global oxygen content in the world's oceans. It demonstrates that overall oxygen levels have dropped by more than 2% over the last 50 years. While 2% might not sound like much, the effects can be dramatic.

"Just a little loss of oxygen in coastal waters can lead to a complete change in ecosystems – a small decrease in oxygen like this can transform from something desirable to very undesirable," said David Baker, a Professor at the University of Hong Kong's Swire Institute of Marine Sciences. "It's almost like the oceans are getting ready for a heart attack. You're essentially slowing the heartbeat of the ocean, and you're getting less oxygen to the ocean."

"Since large fishes in particular avoid or do not survive in areas with low oxygen content, these changes can have far-reaching biological consequences," comments Dr. Sunke Schmidtko, lead author of the study.

The researchers used all historic oxygen data available around the world for their work, supplemented it with current measurements and refined the interpolation procedures to more accurately reconstruct the development of the oxygen "budget". In some regions, previous research had already shown a decrease in oxygen.


oxygen levels ocean falling 2 percent
Credit: Martin Visbeck, GEOMAR


"To quantify trends for the entire ocean, however, was more difficult, since oxygen data from remote regions and the deep ocean is sparse," explains Dr. Schmidtko. "We were able to document the oxygen distribution and its changes for the entire ocean for the first time. These numbers are an essential prerequisite for improving forecasts for the ocean of the future."

The study also shows that, with the exception of a few regions, oxygen content decreased throughout the entire ocean during the period investigated. The greatest loss was found in the North Pacific. So-called "dead zones" are also multiplying – shallow areas where the water is so low in dissolved oxygen that most sea creatures can't survive. The global decline in ocean oxygen may worsen from 2% to 7% by the year 2100.

"While the slight decrease of oxygen in the atmosphere is currently considered non-critical, the oxygen losses in the ocean can have far-reaching consequences because of the uneven distribution. For fisheries and coastal economies this process may have detrimental consequences," said co-author Dr. Lothar Stramma.

"With measurements alone, we cannot explain all the causes," adds Prof. Martin Visbeck. "Natural processes occurring on time scales of a few decades may also have contributed to the observed decrease." However, the team says their results are consistent with most model calculations that predict a further decrease in oxygen in the oceans due to higher atmospheric CO2 concentrations and consequently higher global temperatures.

"The oceans are really a mirror of human health – if they're sick and dying, then that's the future of humanity as well," said Baker.


oxygen levels ocean falling 2 percent



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14th February 2017

Human activity is changing the climate 170 times faster than natural processes

Humans are causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces, research has found. This study, for the first time, produced a mathematical equation to describe the global impact of human activity on the Earth system, known as the Anthropocene equation.


anthropocene equation


"Over the past 7,000 years, the primary forces driving change have been astronomical – changes in solar intensity, and subtle changes in orbital parameters, along with a few volcanoes. They have driven a rate of change of 0.01°C per century," said Professor Will Steffen from the Australian National University (ANU), one of the study authors. "Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions over the past 45 years have increased the rate of temperature rise to 1.7°C per century, dwarfing the natural background rate."

His paper, co-authored by Owen Gaffney from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is published in The Anthropocene Review. It examines our planet as a single complex system and assesses the impact of human activities on the system's trajectory. Under current astronomical forcing, and if atmospheric levels of CO2 had remained at their pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million (ppm), Holocene-like conditions could have been expected for another 50,000 years, the paper says.

"We are not saying the astronomical forces of our Solar System or geological processes have disappeared – but in terms of their impact in such a short period of time, they are now negligible compared with our own influence," said Steffen. "Crystallising this evidence in the form of a simple equation gives the current situation a clarity that the wealth of data often dilutes. It also places the contemporary human impact in the context of the great forces of nature that have driven Earth system dynamics over billions of years. The human magnitude of climate change looks more like a meteorite strike than a gradual change."

In addition to CO2, the researchers looked at a range of other impacts. For example, the release of methane (an even more powerful greenhouse gas) has occurred 285 times faster than the natural background rate, leading to a 150% increase in atmospheric concentration since 1750. Humans have also disrupted the nitrogen cycle, now undergoing its largest and most rapid change in 2.5 billion years. Before the Industrial Revolution, only about 5% of land cover was intensively used, but this has now expanded to 55%. The falling pH level of the oceans is yet another concern – they are currently acidifying at their fastest rate since the carboniferous period, 300 million years ago. Biodiversity is collapsing, with extinction rates up to 100 times faster than normal.

Humanity still has a chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, according to Steffen, but time is rapidly running out: "The global economy can function equally well with zero emissions. Research shows we can feed nine billion people – the projected world population by 2050 – and reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time."


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13th February 2017

Japan to build world's largest floating solar power plant

In a joint venture, Kyocera Corporation and Century Tokyo Leasing Corporation have announced plans to start construction of the world's largest floating solar power plant, on the Yamakura Dam reservoir, managed by the Public Enterprises Agency of Chiba Prefecture in Japan for industrial water services.

The 13.7 megawatt (MW) plant will be managed by the Public Enterprises Agency of Chiba Prefecture for industrial water services. It is scheduled for launch during 2018 and will be comprised of approximately 51,000 Kyocera modules installed over a fresh water surface area of 180,000m². The project will generate an estimated 16,170 megawatt hours (MWh) per year – enough to power almost 5,000 typical households – while offsetting 8,170 tons of CO2 emissions annually. This is equal to 19,000 barrels of oil consumed.

The project was initiated in October 2014, when the Public Enterprises Agency of Chiba Prefecture publicly sought companies to construct and operate a floating solar power plant to help reduce environmental impacts. With a decrease in tracts of land suitable for utility-scale solar power plants in Japan, Kyocera has been developing floating solar power plants since 2014, which utilise Japan's abundant water surfaces of reservoirs for agricultural and flood-control uses. The company began operation of 1.7MW and 1.2MW plants in March 2015, followed by the launch of a 2.3MW plant in June.

Like many other nations around the world, Japan is seeing rapid growth in deployment of solar energy. Based on current trends in generating capacity, the country has the potential to be almost 100% solar powered by 2040.


Japan to build worlds largest floating solar power plant



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30th January 2017

U.S. crops at risk of "abrupt and substantial yield losses"

A study published in Nature warns that some of the most important crops in the U.S. are at risk of "abrupt and substantial yield losses" from rising temperatures later this century, with harvests potentially declining by 20% for wheat, 40% for soybean and almost 50% for maize.


food crops climate change


Some of the most important crops in the U.S. are at risk of substantial damage from rising temperatures. To better assess how climate change is likely to impact wheat, maize and soybean, an international team of scientists ran ultra-detailed computer simulations of past, present and future yields. These were shown to accurately reproduce the observed reduction in past crop yields induced by high temperatures, thereby confirming that they captured one main mechanism for future projections. Importantly, the scientists found that increased irrigation could help to reduce the negative effects of global warming on crops – but this is possible only in regions where sufficient water is available. Ultimately, limiting global warming is needed to keep overall crop losses in check.

“We know from observations that high temperatures can harm crops, but now we have a much better understanding of the processes,” says lead author of the study, Bernhard Schauberger from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “The computer simulations that we do are based on robust knowledge from physics, chemistry, biology; on a lot of data and elaborate algorithms. But they of course cannot represent the entire complexity of the crop system, hence we call them models. In our study, they have passed a critical test.”

In their work, the scientists compare the model results to data from actual observations. This way, they can find out if they include the critical factors into their calculations, from temperature to CO2, from irrigation to fertilisation.

For every day above 30°C (86°F), maize and soybean plants can lose 5 percent of their harvest. The simulations developed at the Potsdam Institute show that even small heat increases beyond this threshold can result in abrupt and substantial yield losses. Such temperatures will be more frequent under unabated climate change and could severely harm agricultural productivity. Harvest losses of 20 percent for wheat, 40 percent for soybean and almost 50 percent for maize, relative to non-elevated temperatures, can be expected by the end of this century without substantial emission reductions. These losses do not even consider extremely high temperatures above 36°C (97°F), which are expected to lower yields further. The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters: world market crop prices are likely to increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries. This will be a particular concern as demand for food increases due to both population growth and rising affluence.

“The losses got substantially reduced when we increased irrigation of fields in the simulation, so water stress resulting from temperature increase seems to be a bigger factor than the heat itself,” says co-author Joshua Elliott from the University of Chicago. When water supply from the soil to the plant decreases, the small openings in the leaves gradually close to prevent water loss. They thereby preclude the diffusion of CO2 into the cells, which is an essential building material for the plants. Additionally, crops respond to water stress by increasing root growth at the expense of above-ground biomass and, eventually, yields. “Irrigation therefore could be an important means of adaptation to dampen the most severe effects of warming,” says Elliott. “However, this is of course limited by the lack of water resources in some regions.”

Burning fossil fuels elevates the amount of CO2 in the air. This usually increases the water use efficiency of plants, since they lose less water for each unit of CO2 taken up from the air. However, this cannot be confirmed as a safeguard of yields at high temperatures, the scientists argue. The additional CO2 fertilisation in the simulations does not alleviate the drop in yields associated with higher temperatures above 30°C.

The study, "Consistent negative response of US crops to high temperatures in observations and crop models", appears this month in Nature.


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26th January 2017

Doomsday Clock moves closer to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved the hands of the iconic "Doomsday Clock" forwards by 30 seconds.


doomsday clock 2017


The Doomsday Clock is now at two and a half minutes to midnight, having previously been at three minutes to midnight. Normally when changes occur, the hands are moved forwards or backwards in increments of a minute. But today, for the first time in the 70-year history of the clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Science and Security Board has moved the hands 30 seconds closer to midnight. In another first, the Board has decided to act, in part, based on the words of a single person: Donald Trump, the new President of the United States.

The decision to move the hands of the clock is made in consultation with the Bulletin's Board of Sponsors, which include 15 Nobel Laureates. The Science and Security Board's full statement about the Clock is available online.

In January 2016, the Doomsday Clock's minute hand did not change, remaining at three minutes before midnight. The Clock was changed in 2015 from five to three minutes to midnight, the closest it had been since the arms race of the 1980s.

In a statement today, the Bulletin's Science and Security Board notes: "Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity's most pressing existential threats — nuclear weapons and climate change... This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. The board's decision to move the clock less than a full minute — something it has never before done — reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days..."

The statement continues: "Just the same, words matter, and President Trump has had plenty to say over the last year. Both his statements and his actions as President-elect have broken with historical precedent in unsettling ways. He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science. In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president's intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse."

In addition to addressing the statements made by President Trump, the Board also expressed concern about the greater global context of nuclear and climate issues: "The United States and Russia—which together possess more than 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons—remained at odds in a variety of theatres, from Syria to Ukraine to the borders of NATO; both countries continued wide-ranging modernisations of their nuclear forces, and serious arms control negotiations were nowhere to be seen. North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth underground nuclear tests and gave every indication it would continue to develop nuclear weapons delivery capabilities. Threats of nuclear warfare hung in the background as Pakistan and India faced each other warily across the Line of Control in Kashmir after militants attacked two Indian army bases."


nuclear weapon states


In surveying the status of climate matters, the Board concluded: "The climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal (in 2016) —but only somewhat. In the wake of the landmark Paris climate accord, the nations of the world have taken some actions to combat climate change, and global carbon dioxide emissions were essentially flat in 2016, compared to the previous year. Still, they have not yet started to decrease; the world continues to warm. Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: "As we marked the 70th anniversary of the Doomsday Clock, this year's Clock deliberations felt more urgent than usual. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used by a President-elect of the United States in cavalier and often reckless ways to address the twin threats of nuclear weapons and climate change."

Lawrence Krauss, the Bulletin Board of Sponsors chair, said: "Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics, but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term. Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge. In 2016, world leaders not only failed to deal adequately with those threats; they actually increased the risk of nuclear war and unchecked climate change through a variety of provocative statements and actions, including careless rhetoric about the use of nuclear weapons and the wanton defiance of scientific evidence. To step further back from the brink will require leaders of vision and restraint. President Trump and President Putin can choose to act together as statesmen, or as petulant children, risking our future. We call upon all people to speak out and send a loud message to your leaders so that they do not needlessly threaten your future, and the future of your children."

Retired Rear Admiral David Titley, Bulletin Science and Security Board, said: "Climate change should not be a partisan issue. The well-established physics of Earth's carbon cycle is neither liberal nor conservative in character. The planet will continue to warm to ultimately dangerous levels so long as carbon dioxide continues to be pumped into the atmosphere— irrespective of political leadership. The current political situation in the United States is of particular concern. The Trump administration needs to state clearly and unequivocally that it accepts climate change, caused by human activity, as reality. No problem can be solved unless its existence is first recognised. There are no 'alternative facts' here."





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26th January 2017

Technological progress alone won't stem resource use

A study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) finds no evidence of an overall reduction in the world’s consumption of materials.


technology and resource consumption future timeline
Credit: MIT


Are humans taking more resources from the Earth than the planet can safely produce? The answer lies partly in whether we can “dematerialise,” or reduce the amount of materials needed to produce goods and services.

While some scientists believe that the world can achieve significant dematerialisation through improvements in technology, a new MIT-led study finds that technological advances alone will not bring about dematerialisation and, ultimately, a sustainable world.

The researchers found that no matter how much more efficient and compact a product is made, consumers will only demand more of that product and in the long run increase the total amount of materials used in making that product.

Take, for instance, one of the world’s fastest-improving technologies: silicon-based semiconductors. Over the last few decades, technological improvements in the efficiency of semiconductors have greatly reduced the amount of material needed to make a single transistor. As a result, today’s smartphones, tablets, and computers are far more powerful and compact than computers built in the 1970s.

Nonetheless, the researchers find that consumers’ demand for silicon has outpaced the rate of its technological change, and that the world’s consumption of silicon has grown by 345 percent over the last four decades. As others have found, by 2005, there were more transistors used than printed text characters.

“Despite how fast technology is racing, there’s actually more silicon used today, because we now just put more stuff on, like movies, and photos, and things we couldn’t even think of 20 years ago,” says Christopher Magee, a professor of the practice of engineering systems in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society. “So we’re still using a little more material all the time.”

The researchers found similar trends in 56 other materials, goods and services – from basic resources such as aluminium and formaldehyde to hardware and energy technologies such as hard disk drives, transistors, wind energy, and photovoltaics. In all cases, they found no evidence of dematerialisation, or an overall reduction in their use, despite technological improvements to their performance.


technology and resource consumption future timeline


“There is a techno-optimist’s position that says technological change will fix the environment,” Magee observes. “This says, probably not.”

Magee and his co-author, Tessaleno Devezas, a professor at the University of Beira Interior, in Portugal, published their findings recently in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

In their research, Magee and Devezas examined whether the world’s use of materials has been swayed by an effect known as Jevons’ Paradox. In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons observed that as improvements to coal-fired steam engines reduced the price of coal, England’s consumption of coal actually increased.

While experts believed technological improvements would reduce coal consumption, Jevons countered the opposite was true: Improving coal-fired power’s efficiency would only increase consumer demand for electricity and further deplete coal reserves.

Magee and Devezas looked to see whether Jevons’ Paradox – and consumer demand in general – has prevented dematerialisation of today’s goods and services. They sought to identify a general relationship between dematerialisation, technological change, and Jevons’s Paradox – also referred to as a rebound effect.

The team developed an equation, to calculate whether dematerialisation is taking place for a given product. Their model considers a number of variables including population and economic growth, a product’s yearly increase in technological performance, and demand elasticity – the degree to which demand for a product varies with its price.

Not surprisingly, the researchers’ model indicates that dematerialisation is more likely when demand elasticity for a product is relatively low and the rate of its technological improvement is high. But when they applied the equation to common goods and services used today, they found that demand elasticity and technological change worked against each other – the better a product was made to perform, the more consumers wanted it.

“It seems we haven’t seen a saturation in demand,” Magee explains. “People haven’t said, ‘That’s enough,’ at least in anything that we can get data to test for.”


technology and resource consumption future timeline


Magee and Devezas gathered data for 57 common goods and services, including widely used chemical components such as ammonia, formaldehyde, polyester fibre, and styrene, along with hardware and energy technologies such as transistors, laser diodes, crude oil, photovoltaics, and wind energy. They worked the data for each product into their equation, and, despite seeing technological improvements in almost all cases, they failed to find a single case in which dematerialisation – an overall reduction in materials – was taking place.

In follow-up work, the researchers were eventually able to identify six cases in which an absolute decline in materials usage has occurred. However, these cases mostly include toxic chemicals such as asbestos and thallium, whose dematerialisation was due not to technological advances, but to government intervention.

There was one other case in which researchers observed dematerialisation: wool. The material’s usage has significantly fallen, due to innovations in synthetic alternatives, such as nylon and polyester fabrics. In this case, Magee says that substitution, and not dematerialisation, has occurred, i.e. wool has simply been replaced by another material to fill the same function.

So what will it take to reduce our materials consumption and achieve a sustainable world?

“What it’s going to take is much more difficult than just letting technological change do it,” Magee says. “Social and cultural change, people talking to each other, cooperating, might do it. That’s not the way we’re going right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”

However, others are more hopeful that technology will bring about sustainability, albeit at significant cost.

“[Technology] will get us to a sustainable world – it has to,” says J. Doyne Farmer, a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford who was not involved in the research. “I say this not only because we need it, but because there is only so much we can suck out of the Earth, and eventually we will be forced into a sustainable world, one way or another. The question is whether we can do that without great pain. Magee’s paper shows that we need to expect more pain than some of us thought.”


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