Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wind farm energy might be over-estimated

Wind farms of the sort dotting the Plains states might have markedly less generating capacity than previously assumed, a UNC Charlotte researcher has found.

New research by UNCC's Amanda Adams and David Keith of Harvard University says the drag of large clusters of turbines slows wind enough to curb farms' generating capacity.

Conventional estimates have assumed large wind farms can sustain production of 2 and 4 watts per square meter. New atmospheric modeling by Adams and Keith show it's more likely limited to about 1 watt per square meter at farms larger than 100 square kilometers.

Their research was published Monday in the journal Environmental Research Letters. It was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which reports to Canada's Parliament.

"It's easy to mistake the term 'renewable' with the term 'unlimited' when discussing energy," Adams said in a UNCC release. "Just because you can keep generating new energy from a sources does not mean you can generate energy in an unlimited amount."

Adams' research group focuses on the interface of energy, weather and climate. Densely-placed wind turbines can also have environmental impacts, her research found, including low-level warming when wind farms change natural wind shear and produce turbulence.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Senate bill could backfire on Charlotte

The North Carolina Senate's move to purge members of three state energy and environmental commissions could upset the Charlotte region's plan to meet a federal smog standard.

The region's air quality meets the ozone standard set in 1997, according to smog readings. But the Environmental Protection Agency wants the state to make a last tweak to its air-quality rules before officially designating it in compliance.

That's where Senate Bill 10, which would replace all members of the state's Environmental Management Commission, comes into play. The N.C. Division of Air Quality held a hearing on the rule change EPA wants in January, and the commission is expected to make it final in March.

A change in the EMC's membership -- terms would end when the bill is adopted -- could throw off that schedule. If the rule is not adopted and the EPA designation isn't completed, a hot, smoggy spring and summer could conceivably put Charlotte back in violation of the air standard.

"Not fixing this could affect a lot of small businesses," that might face stricter regulations if the city violates the standard, said Mecklenburg County air-quality chief Don Willard. Federal transportation funding could also be blocked if the region violates the standard.

"It would be nice if this were a non-issue," Willard said.

State environmental officials had nothing to say about Senate Bill 10's potential effects on Charlotte. My questions to the Division of Air Quality were routed to an assistant secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, who referred them to a department spokesman, who told me to call Gov. Pat McCrory's spokeswoman.

But lawyer and blogger Robin Smith, a former assistant environment secretary who left DENR in December, agreed with Willard that Charlotte could get caught in a timing crunch on the smog standard. Smith also raised other issues with Senate Bill 10, related to conflicts of interest among EMC members.

The bill deletes existing language that says at least nine EMC members must have get no significant income from entities the commission regulates. That language existed partly, Smith says, to meet federal requirements for permitting programs delegated to the state under the federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

"Complete repeal of the language may cause EPA to question North Carolina compliance with federal rules governing those delegated programs," she wrote.

DENR, in a memo to legislators the N.C. Coastal Federation published Friday, warned of similar conflicts the bill could pose for the Coastal Resources Commission. In addition to firing the CRC's current members and deleting seats for environmentalists, the bill removes language limiting how many members may have ties to developers.

Those changes would likely have to pass muster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which partners with the states under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act, the memo said. That partnership includes an important provision that says federal activities and permits in North Carolina's coastal counties have to be consistent with state policies.

"In any case, the proposed bill will result in a significant level of public review and extensive reviews by a range of state and federal agencies," the DENR memo said. 

The N.C. Senate approved Senate Bill 10 in a little more than a week. It's now before the N.C. House.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Smokies to feel sequestration's impact, group says

Great Smoky Mountains National Park will close five campgrounds and picnic areas, affecting 54,000 visitors, under the across-the-board federal spending cuts called sequestration, a parks advocacy group says.

That's from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, which says it acquired National Park Service information. Last month, the retirees' group published an internal memo that directed NPS officials to plan for a 5 percent cut in the current year's budget.

The group says the sequestration "meat-cleaver" will cut parks' workforces, close some areas for extended periods, shut visitor centers and restrict access to backcountry areas.

In the Great Smokies, it says, reduced staff will mean less road maintenance and increased time for emergency responses to accidents, rockslides, downed trees and the like. More than 35,000 vehicles a day use heavily-traveled routes around Cades Cove and between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Tennessee and between Gatlinburg and Cherokee.

Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said those are among the "possible consequences" of sequestration but aren't final. The examples cited were for a planning exercise, she said.

The Great Smokies, the most-visited national park, had 9 million visitors in 2012.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dolly Parton's ode to the American chestnut

Superstar Dolly Parton has recorded an ode to the decimated American chestnut, once the most important tree of the Appalachian forests, for the Asheville-based American Chestnut Foundation.

The tuneful "Oh, Chestnut Tree" is available as a free download on the foundation's website.

Parton, a native of eastern Tennessee, collaborated on the song with her uncle, Nashville singer-songwriter Bill Owens. Owens has been a member of the Chestnut Foundation for 25 years and helped arrange for hundreds of chestnut trees to be planted at Parton's Smoky Mountains theme park, Dollywood.

Chestnut trees provided mountain families rot-resistant lumber and a cash crop of nuts that fed people, livestock and wildlife through bitter winters. An Asian fungus accidentally imported more than a century ago spread rapidly through Eastern forests, killing four billion trees by 1950.

"The importance of the American chestnut to the Smoky Mountain region is hard to overstate, and its loss created considerable hardship," Owens says in a release about the song.

The Chestnut Foundation used a special breeding process that in 2005 produced the first blight-resistance trees. Its 16 state chapters are now planting "restoration chestnuts" throughout the East. As Parton sings, "Thank God for second chances."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Doing the math on Duke's rate hike

Duke Energy Carolinas filed 5,012 pages of written testimony, data analyses and appendices Monday in support of its request for an overall 9.7 percent North Carolina rate hike.

Buried in all those numbers is one that's most relevant to most customers: 14 percent. That's the increase the majority of residential customers are being asked to pay.

Duke's news release said the hike, if approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission, would raise residential rates 11.8 percent. That's actually a weighted average of the five rate schedules available to residential customers, including cheaper Energy Star and time-of-use rates.

But most customers are billed under Schedule RS. According to Duke's example of the impact residential customers could expect, the typical monthly bill of $102.72 would grow by $14.27 -- a 14 percent increase.

Remember, too, that customer groups and the state's consumer advocates will pressure Duke to lower the rates it's willing to accept before the Utilities Commission votes.