Monday, November 30, 2015

Instead of Pulling the Pump they Destroyed the Well- VAMWON Notes from the Field

VAMWON Notes from the Field are the stories of the questions I’ve encountered as a volunteer with VAMWON that might be helpful to you. The Virginia Master Well Owner Network (VAMWON) is an organization of trained volunteers and extension agents dedicated to promoting the proper construction, maintenance, and management of private water systems (wells, springs, and cisterns) in Virginia. The Cooperative Extension Services in Virginia manages the program and have numerous publications and fact sheets that can help homeowners make educated decisions about their drinking water. The VAMWON volunteer or Agent can help you identify problems with the water system and provide information on suggested treatments options and other solutions. You can find your VAMWON volunteer neighbor through this link by entering your county in the search box.

I received a homeowner inquiry recently from someone in Loudoun County who found me from my blog, Green Risks, while search for information on wells and groundwater. Two days earlier their well had gone dry. The homeowner had moved into their newly built home in Lovettsville, VA in the fall of 2014. By the fall of 2015 they would lose all water pressure after using the water, especially at night. After this had happened several times, they called a license Well Driller I was not familiar with to come out and check it. They choose the company that had drilled the well and filled the well completion report back in 2006. Despite the well being drilled in 2006, the house was not built until 2014 and during the past couple of years during which time  80 homes were built as a clustered development.

The information on private wells performance and location can be obtained from the water well completion report on file with the department of health. Be aware though, that private well construction was not regulated in Virginia until 1992 and is still not regulated in many places. The “stabilized yield” is the recharge rate at the time of installation. However, groundwater can change over time and it is commonly reported that the recharge rate falls over time from the initial recharge rate. According to the well completion report from 2006 the well stabilized yield was 5 gallons per minute, The well was drilled to 300 feet below grade and the pump placed at 275 feet below grade. Five gallons a minute is not a robust well, but an almost 300 foot deep well would serve as good storage. Each foot of a typical 6 inch well can provide 1.46 gallons of water storage (7.45 gallons of water per cubic foot).

The home owner was told by the Well Driller that her well ran dry because of all the drilling in the surrounding area. That is very possible. The home is located in in a clustered community of 80 recently built homes, all build on an acre or more. The homes are clustered together and a lot of open space is beyond the homes. The Well Driller told the home owner that sediment had filled up the fissures in the bedrock and they recommended hydro-fracking.

I began to write her a response, but felt, finally, that it would be more effective to call her. We talked about her situation. Essentially, the symptom she described of losing water after using it for a little bit is a classic symptom of a well with a diminished water supply- the well was going dry. In the well, a diminished water supply can be caused by drop in water level in the well due to drought or over pumping of the aquifer, or the well could be failing due to mineralization or sediment filling up the fissures and cracks in the bedrock as the Well Driller had thought. It is difficult to tell the underlying cause without checking the condition of all the nearby wells. Groundwater systems are both invisible and dynamic and can be impacted by many things.

Modern wells are drilled past the water table to draw water from water bearing fractures in the bedrock. The groundwater that feeds the wells exists in water–filled and interconnected fractures, pores and cavities in the rock. The size and density of the pores and fractures vary with rock type, depth and location.  In most cases when a well pumps, a cone of depression develops in the water table around the well as the water is pumped out of the well. When many wells are operated in a limited area the cone of depression in one well may affect the water level in another or they can simply pump water out of the aquifer faster than it is recharging. Eighty homes in the development might pump 32,000 gallons a day within the 80 acres of the clustered portion of the development.

In addition, a significant portion of the clustered areas is covered with buildings, patios, walks, driveways, roads and other impervious surfaces that will changed the hydrology of the site reducing ground water recharge in the immediate area around the homes at the same time increasing the demand for water. With reduced groundwater recharge in the immediate area, there is a real possibility that the pumping from all the homes could overdraw the aquifer and dry out several homes over time, beginning with the least robust and shallowest wells.

Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view. While groundwater is a renewable resource it is NOT unlimited. The sad truth is that we do not know how much water we have available in the Culpeper Basin that servers the region, nor do we know what the sustainable rate of ground water use is. The USGS tells us that our groundwater basin is under stress. Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local and adequacy of water resources would vary from neighborhood to neighborhood..

The homeowner decided to take the Well Driller’s advice and hydro-frack the well. The cost of hydro-fracking a well is around $4,000 and the cost of a new well varies by depth and other factors. Around here it is usually $10,000 to $20,000 for a single family home. Home owners insurance never covers well failure either by equipment or groundwater drying up.

 Hydro-fracking usually involves the installation of an inflatable or mechanical packer that is placed in the well bore at least 40 feet below the well casing and drive shoe seal, and at least 60 feet below the ground surface to ensure that the process does not "break" the seal or allow surface water contaminants to enter the well. Fist the well pump is pulled from the well, then the packer is inflated or locked into position and water is pumped through the packer under pressure. Most applications require between 500 and 2,000 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure and in some cases 3,000 psi pressure may be needed in tight rock Formations, the artistry comes into play in knowing the formations and the amount of pressure needed. This could flush particles and rock fragments from existing bedrock fractures or bust open more fractures, resulting in an increased flow of water, and a larger network of water bearing fractures supplying water to the well. This technique has been very successful in bedrock formations. In the wrong geology it could collapse the well.

Unfortunately, things went from bad to worse. When the well driller went to pull the pump, they used a pickup truck with a winch. This essentially pulled the pump at a slight angle and the pump hooked the casing and dislodged it, destroying the well.  The pump should have been pulled from directly above to smoothly remove it. Pulling a pump requires more skill than dropping one in. The well Driller was careless in pulling the pump and pulled out the casing destroying a well that could have potentially been salvaged. After all, the Well Driller had suggested fracking the well to restore flow, which would indicate at the time they believed that the well could be salvaged.

The training and knowledge that well drillers have are limited and based primarily on experience.Experience can be a good teacher, but is often not a consistent one. There are few other sources of information and help. Hydro/ geological engineering and groundwater consulting  are really geared to industrial work and community supply wells where the costs of modeling the ground water flow, geological studies, obtaining data can be recovered, but even then it is experience and an engineering degree.  I recommended the homeowner give a local consultant (and neighbor) a call and contacting a lawyer and going after the Well Drillers errors in pulling the pump. At last report they were working with Loudoun County to identify a location for a new well while exploring recourse against the builder and well driller. .

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Dominion Power to Build Solar Generation in Virginia

Recently, Virginia Electric and Power Company doing business in Virginia as Dominion Power filed an application to build three utility scale solar power generation “plants” totaling 56 megawatts of electricity and projected to cost $130 million within the Commonwealth. The goal is to have the projects approved, built and operating before December 31, 2016 to be able to take advantage of the Federal Solar Tax Credit which will expire on December 31, 2016. If Dominion Power builds the solar facilities and brings them on line before December 31, 2016 they estimate that 91% of the capital expenditures for the projects will qualify for the 30% tax credit a savings of over $35 million to the company and the rate payers who in the end pay for almost all capital expenditures through electrical rates.

All three solar facilities would consist of ground-mounted, single axis tracking solar photovoltaic panel arrays that would connect to the grid. The Scott Solar facility will be in Powhatan County and have 17 megawatts of solar panels. It would be located on 165 acres of land. The Whitehouse Solar facility would have 20 megawatts of solar panels and be located in Louisa County. It will be built on a 250-acre site. Finally the Woodland Solar facility would have 19 megawatts of solar panels. It will be located in Isle of Wight County. The project will be constructed on approximately 200 acres. As it stands now, these projects while just a fraction (less than 0.3%) of the Dominion Power generating capacity are forecast to increase electrical rates by $0.07 per 1,000 kilowatt hours of power purchased.

In the southeast where it rains on average more than 44 inches each year and groundwater is an essential resource, covering hundreds of acres with solar panels and eliminating the tree and brush can have a significant impact on the recharge of groundwater and create excess runoff of sediment into surface water. According to research done at the Brookhaven National Laboratory
possible impacts include the erosion of topsoil, increase of sediment load or turbidity in local streams, reduction in the filtration of pollutants from air and rainwater, the reduction of groundwater recharge, or the increased likelihood of flooding. The impact increases with the amount of rainfall, but mitigation for storm flow surface water were required even for the Ivanpah power plant in the semi-arid inland of California to deal with the impact from the changed water velocity and geohydrology.

When installing solar power in forested regions trees and brush must be removed to prevent shading of solar panels. Typically, any plant taller than half a meter would be removed or cut down, and tree roots would also be removed to allow posts to be driven into the ground. These projects must include a study of the impact to water resources in the immediate area. Once the hydrology is destroyed it is nearly impossible to restore.

These projects are being driven by the expiration of the solar tax credit and the mandates under the EPA Clean Power Plan that require Virginia to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 38% from 2012 emissions levels by 2030. To meet EPA Clean Power Plan carbon dioxide emission levels means that Dominion will have to install or contract for more renewable energy and build more natural gas fired power plants. The steep investment for nuclear plants and the difficulty that in terms of cost and timing overruns that have been experienced in the Tennessee Valley Authority Watts Bar plant and Southern Co. and Scana Corporations projects in Georgia and South Carolina make expanding nuclear generation unlikely here in Virginia. It would be an error to irredeemably damage our water resources to reduce our carbon footprint. At this point reducing our carbon dioxide emissions is not going to stop climate change that is driven by increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to the climate models it is too late to stop global warming, so let’s stop and make sure that we do not destroy our water resources.

Dominion Resources, Inc. the parent of Dominion Power is one of the nation’s largest producers and transporters of energy: with about 24,600 megawatts of electric generation, 12,400 miles of natural gas pipeline and 63,600 miles of electric transmission and distribution lines. By the end of 2015 Dominion expects to have under long term contract 411 megawatts of solar power in California and Tennessee. But electric generators must construct large natural gas-fired combined-cycle stations, such as Dominion’s Warren County plant to meet both carbon dioxide reductions mandated by the Clean Carbon Plan and power needs. The highly efficient combined-cycle plants emit about two-thirds of the carbon of a single cycle plant and about 45% of the carbon of a coal fired electrical plant. However, to operate the plants must have an uninterrupted natural gas supply via a pipeline. Dominion will have to build more natural gas pipelines and power lines to supply and serve these plants.

Monday, November 23, 2015

FDA Approves Genetically Modified Salmon

from FDA
Last Thursday after years of review, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the sale of genetically engineered salmon called the AquaAdvantage salmon in the United States. Not only will genetically engineered salmon be able to be sold in the United States, the law does not require food containing ingredients derived from these salmon to be labeled as genetically engineered or genetically modified.

After a long and rigorous scientific review, the FDA arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage salmon is as safe and nutritious to eat as any non-genetically engineered farmed Atlantic salmon. AquAdvantage Salmon has been genetically engineered to grow more rapidly than its non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon counterpart. It does so because it contains an rDNA construct that is composed of the growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon under the control of a promoter (a sequence of DNA that turns on the expression of a gene) from another type of fish called an ocean pout. This allows the salmon to grow to market size faster than non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon with less feed.

As part of its evaluation, the FDA examined data comparing three groups of fish: non-genetically engineered farm-raised Atlantic salmon from both the company’s salmon farm and from a different commercial salmon farm, and AquAdvantage Salmon. This study compared key hormones (including estradiol, testosterone, 11-ketotestosterone, T3, T4 and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1)) and found no biologically relevant differences. The FDA found the salmon to be equivalent. According to the FDA, the reviewed data also showed that the inserted genes remained stable over several generations of fish, that food from the GE salmon is safe to eat by humans and animals, that the genetic engineering is safe for the fish, and the salmon meets the company’s claim about faster growth.

The FDA reported that after analyzing the potential environmental impact that an approval of the AquAdvantage Salmon would have. Under the approval, AquAdvantage Salmon are subject to stringent conditions to prevent the possibility of escape into the wild. The salmon cannot be raised in ocean net pens: instead, the approval allows for them to be grown only at two specific land-based facilities: one in Canada, where the breeding stock are kept, and Panama, where the fish for market will be grown out using eggs from the Canada facility. In addition, both the Canada and Panama facilities have multiple and redundant physical barriers to prevent eggs and fish from escaping, including metal screens on tank bottoms, stand pipes, and incubator trays to prevent the escape of eggs and fish during hatching or rearing. The fish to be produced for food in Panama will be all-female fish that have been sterilized by a process that may not be 100% effective.

Nonetheless, based on the multiple forms of physical and biological containment proposed by AquaBounty Technologies in the application, the FDA found that the AquAdvantage Salmon would not cause a significant impact on the environment of the United States. This finding is based on the extremely low likelihood that AquAdvantage Salmon could escape from the Canada and Panama facilities and survive in an ocean or waterway to interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon. Based on the agency’s conclusion in the final Environmental Assessment, the agency issued a Finding of No Significant Impact.

Though it is likely that consumers would want to know whether the Atlantic salmon they buy is the product of genetic engineering, the FDA determined that no additional labeling of food from AquAdvantage Salmon is required because the data showed that food derived from AquAdvantage Salmon is not materially different from food derived from other Atlantic salmon. The FDA only requires additional labeling of foods, including foods from genetically engineered sources, when the food products are materially different from their conventional counterparts.

According to FDA standards material differences include changes in features like nutritional profile, and functional properties. The fact that a food is produced through the use of genetic engineering alone does not constitute a material fact requiring additional labeling under the law. Under a draft Guidance released in conjunction with the approval for the genetically engineered salmon, manufacturers who wish to voluntarily label their food products as containing or not containing genetically engineered Atlantic salmon may do so as long as such labeling is truthful and non-misleading. The FDA draft Guidance that the term genetically modified organism, the familiar GMO, is overly broad and inaccurate and should not be used on food labeling and packaging. The FDA prefers the terms non-biologically engineered or non-genetically engineered. You can review the Guidance and comment starting today, Monday, November 23, 2015 by submitting comments at

It will take a year or two before genetically engineered salmon are being sold in groceries or served on menus. As it stands now, this fish will not have to be labeled. To be certain you are avoiding genetically engineered salmon you will have to avoid all farmed fish or look for companies that use the approved FDA terms. This approval will not change anything for me. Though salmon is one of my favorite foods eaten several days a week, I never eat farmed Atlantic salmon or Atlantic salmon. I will not eat farmed fish and I prefer the leaner wild coho salmon.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Solar Tax Credit Ends Next Year

On December 31, 2016 the 30% federal tax credit for solar power (solar thermal heating and solar photovoltaic systems) for consumers will end. Given the time it takes to investigate and install a solar system and the anticipated rush to install towards the end of next year, now is the time to consider if you want to install either system before the tax credit expires.

If solar power makes sense for you depends on where you live, your cost of electricity, the orientation of your roof, and if you have to borrow the money or lease the panels to install the solar panels. The price of solar panels and inverter systems has fallen significantly and may continue to fall in the next several years, but solar system cost isn’t the only variable that drives the financial returns you will receive. Rebates, tax credits, incentives and the electric rate structure are important elements in the economics of solar panels. At today’s prices the 30% federal tax credit makes solar panels a reasonable economic decision even in locations like Prince William County Virginia where there are no rebates or other subsidies beyond the federal tax credit and our rural coop electrical rates are about $0.114 per kilowatt hour.

There are several components to the cost and return of a solar system. The first cost is the cost of the system and the second cost is the design, permits and installation cost. The market cost of solar panels and installation costs have been falling for years. When I signed the contract to purchase my roof mounted solar system at the end of 2009 (though it was not installed until May 2010) the cost per kilowatt for the Sharp panels I bought was about $6,700 plus permits and installation. These days that cost is less than $1,800. I could probably have the same system that cost me $58,540 installed for around $19,000 or possibly less. 

The reduction in cost goes a long way to make solar a reasonable purchase today. Back in 2009 I was able to obtain a state rebate of $12,000 which is no longer available in Virginia. (Two other examples where I’ve lived or have family are: California and Massachusetts. California used to have rebates up to $15,000. Today, they are $0. Massachusetts used to have rebates in the $9,000 range. Now, they are around $2,000)

Though I bought my solar photovoltaic system in 2009 and live in a low cost electricity location (for now), my purchase will have paid for itself in 7.5-8 years. Not only was I was able to score a state rebate of $12,000 and use the 30% federal tax credit, I was able to sell my solar renewable energy credits (SRECs).

To calculate the return on a solar photovoltaic system you need to know how much power the solar panels actually make. My solar panels make more power than predicted by the PV Watts model instead of the expected 9 megawatts of power each year my solar panels have produced an average of over 10 megawatts each year even with a period when the system was shut down for repairs. This “bonus” was a pleasant surprise. My current electricity production rate would translate into an almost 9% return on investment (before depreciation but after the federal tax credit) for solar panels bought today. It is not a spectacular return, but respectable and would justify installing solar panels and helping to reduce the summer peak demand on the power grid.

However, because I paid much more for my solar panels, with only the power generated by solar panels my return would have been around 4% before depreciation. To take the risk of buying and installing the solar photovoltaic system a chance for additional return on my investment was necessary. The SRECs were another incentive available to me in 2010, but is no longer available for Virginia residents.

A SREC is a credit for each megawatt hours of electricity that is produced (and used by me). A 10 Kilowatt systems will produce about 12 SRECs a year. SRECs have value only because some states have solar set asides from their Renewable Portfolio Standards, RPS, which require that a portion of energy produced by a utility be produced by renewable power. Utilities in those few states buy SRECs from solar installation producers. It was a way for states to ensure that the upfront cost of solar power is recovered from utility companies (and ultimately from the rate paying consumers).

Most states at this point require their utilities to buy SRECs only from residents of their own states creating a closed market where the prices typically start off high until supply responds to that price. Other states, like Virginia, have no current solar RPS requirement. There are a couple of states, like Pennsylvania allow their utilities to buy their RPS from any resident within the PJM regional transmission organization. The Pennsylvania SREC price collapsed in early 2011 due essentially to oversupply and no Solar Alternative Compliance Payment, a penalty fee. It is to be noted that my electricity provider, NOVEC, would buy my SRECs for $15 each which is exactly what they pay for other forms of renewable energy they buy.

I can sell my SRECs to utilities in Pennsylvania and Washington, DC (because I registered my system before the market was closed to outside systems). I had my solar system certified by both Pennsylvania and Washington though at the time only Pennsylvania was a viable SREC market. Today the Pennsylvania market has collapsed and in Washington DC my SRECs are worth around $400 for the moment. It will not last, all SREC markets get overbuilt in response to a high SREC value, but Washington DC has significant land constraints limiting large commercial solar arrays. So the SREC market may remain viable for a couple of years, I hope so, but I am not depending on it.

The value of SRECs will go up and down depending on the supply and demand and regulations. RPS requirements may increase over time under the Clean Power Plan (which is currently facing court challenges to its implementation), but value created by regulations are subject to change. SRECs in Pennsylvania have ranged from $200-$300 per megawatt hour in 2010 and then collapsed and fell to $13 as the market remained open and became hugely overbuilt. Now, like Virginia renewable energy credits and solar renewable energy credits sell for the same $15. Washington DC is currently undersupplied to meet their mandate so the SRECS are currently worth $470 each. The market will respond (I only hope not too quickly or too much and the penalty for not meeting the SREC goal will fall). There was a time that New Jersey SRECS topped $670, they fell to $65 and are currently $260. 

While it lasts, for older systems like mine, the revenue from the sale of SRECs is higher than the value of the electricity the solar panels make. Today’s pricing with the federal tax credit make the return on investment in a solar photovoltaic system reasonable in almost all locations (if you do not have to borrow the money). There are other locations where various rebates and incentives and higher electricity rates make the return rich enough to support a market in financing alternatives, but it takes time and some level of expertise to optimize the solar incentives markets. Also, the incentives need to be paid for with either tax dollars (Department of Energy loan guarantees, grants and other incentives) or higher electricity rates- the renewable energy to fulfill the RPS and solar carve outs costs more than energy produced from other sources and results in higher electricity rates.
My costs and reurn for my solar pv system 5/10-10/15

One final point is solar systems do not last forever. All solar PV panels degrade and slowly over time produce less power. Solar photovoltaic panels have no moving parts so that the operating life of the solar panels is largely determined by the stability of the coating film, the quality of finish and fit of the panels and the proper sealing of the edging and connectors. Quality control in manufacturing is essential to have a solar panel that will last 25 years in sun, rain, sleet and snow.

However, there are other things that can go wrong and for systems without micro inverters a failure of one panel in an array just looks like a 2-5% reduction in power production and might not be noticed, it could be attributed to decreasing efficiency of the panels or weather variations. In Ed Begley, Jr.’s Guide to Sustainable Living, he said that over the years he had four solar panels fail, his storage batteries were replaced after 15 years and the wiring for the panels were damaged and needed to be replaced at 18 years. So, these systems are not trouble free even in sunny warm California, you cannot just install them and forget it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Exhaustion of Groundwater in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered in the north by Jordan, Iraq, and Kuwait, in the east by the Persian Gulf, in the southeast and south by Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Yemen, and in the west by the Red Sea. The climate is arid with a semi-arid climate along the Red Sea coast. There are no perennial rivers though seasonally some surface water flows in the south east where annual rainfall of almost a foot falls between October and March.

The Saudi government estimates that the Kingdom has about 630 billion gallons per year, available of renewable water. Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world at 280 billion gallons of water desalinated each year. The main source of groundwater comes from six major consolidated sedimentary old-age aquifers located in the eastern and central parts of the country known as the Arabian Shelf.

This is fossil groundwater, formed some 20,000 years ago. The natural recharge of these aquifers is negligible. The climate of the planet has continually changed over the millennia and some groundwater aquifers are legacies of an earlier climate and are not being recharged. The Arabia Shelf aquifers are groundwater systems that have no natural recharge; unless they are artificially recharged they have a limited life span. If the water from a groundwater basin is used faster than it is recharged, it is being used up and ultimately it will run out, we may be much closer to that point than has been commonly thought.

According to the Water Atlas of Saudi Arabia there are 67 trillion gallons of proven water reserves calculated at some unknown year though thought to be in the last years of the 20th century. Leave it to the Saudis to calculate reserves of water. However, estimates of water stored and what is economically available to use are open to question. In truth, we do not yet know how much water is truly available in an aquifer, we can only see that the water level is falling and the water content observed by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) and Global Land Data Assimilation System (GLDAS) is decreasing.

Recent work has documented that Saudi Arabia and significant segments of Earth's population are consuming groundwater more quickly than it is recharging without knowing when it might run out. Worldwide groundwater still is largely unregulated and unmanaged. Potential consequence when an overused aquifer can no longer supplement limited water supplies are starvation, war and death.

In 1975 it was estimated that Saudi Arabia was using less than 500 billion gallons of water a year for irrigation and a similar amount of water for industry and domestic use. Then water consumption and use changed dramatically. Driven by a government policy in support of achieving food security Saudi Arabia began using groundwater sources for irrigation and growing wheat and grains in the dessert. By 1980 the artesian wells that had fed the oasis’s ran dry, and at its peak in 1999-2000 pumped almost 5 trillion gallons of water in a single year for agricultural irrigation exporting wheat to its neighbors.

At this point it had become clear that the Kingdom was sacrificing water security for food security and policies began to change. However, change was slow because the farm price for water or its availability did not reflect its scarcity or limit. For fifteen years Saudi Arabia has fought to reverse the agricultural and water policies of the last century during which time, it is likely that most of the “proven” groundwater reserves in the Saudi Arabian aquifers has been used up.
from Sciencedirect

The Ministry of Water was created to contain part of the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and part of the former Ministry of Agriculture and Water. This new ministry was responsible for supervising the water sector, developing water related policies, and setting up mechanisms and programs aimed at managing the water resources in a sustainable way. In 2004 the Ministry of Water also became responsible for the electricity sector and was restructured as the Ministry of Water and Electricity to coordinate the development of water desalination and electricity production. The Ministry of Water and Electricity has been reversing the ill-conceived agricultural policies of the 20th century. This year Saudi Arabia will rely almost entirely on imported wheat. Saudi Arabia who once exported wheat grown using precious groundwater from the Arabian Aquifer System can sell oil for grain and an economic interest in international agri-businesses and use technology to recharge their groundwater reserves-not every nation has that option.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Keystone, Carbon Dioxide and Climate Change

Last Friday President Obama announced that the TransCanada request for a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline was denied, stating that the “State Department has decided that the Keystone XL Pipeline would not serve the national interest of the United States. I agree with that decision.

The President went on to say “America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change. And frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. And that’s the biggest risk we face -- not acting.”

As long as I’m President of the United States, America is going to hold ourselves to the same high standards to which we hold the rest of the world. And three weeks from now, I look forward to joining my fellow world leaders in Paris, where we’ve got to come together around an ambitious framework to protect the one planet that we’ve got while we still can.”

Only a few days before, TransCanada had requested that the United States suspend their application for the Keystone XL Pipeline to cross the U.S. Canadian border. That request was denied. In the TransCanada press release they said: “We are disappointed with the President’s choice to deny the Keystone XL application. ...We believe that a pipeline will eventually be built as this is the safest, most economically efficient means of getting crude oil to market.

Back in January of 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Pipeline. The executive summary states that Keystone XL is “unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States based on expected oil prices, oil-sands supply costs, transport costs and supply-demand scenarios.”

There is currently a pipeline Keystone I that runs east from Hardesty Saskatchewan to Manitoba and then south through the Dakotas to Steel City, Nebraska. It is a less direct route and is a lower volume pipeline than the proposed Keystone XL. The Keystone XL would have replaced the Keystone I with a new and better pipeline. Keystone I is old and this would be an upgrade to the oil transport infrastructure. Keystone II runs from Steel City to Cushing, Oklahoma at the Oklahoma storage facilities. Keystone III running from the Cushing Oklahoma to the Nederland, Texas began delivering crude oil from Cushing, OK, to the oil refineries in Texas in January 2014. The Gulf Coast Project, Keystone III, did not require a Presidential Permit because it does not cross an international border.

Denial of the Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline is a symbolic gesture. According to the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Pipeline application, the pipeline would not have had any significant impact on the environment or whether the oil sands were processed into crude oil. I just don’t understand why this took so long. TransCanada Corporation made the second application for a Presidential Permit to construct and operate the Keystone XL Pipeline in May 2012 after the Department of State rejected their original 2008 application in January 2012.

In three weeks at the climate talks in Paris Keystone XL may not even be a topic of conversation. Coal use in China has been big revelation. As reported in the New York Times last week, in September 2015, the National Bureau of Statistics of China published China’s energy statistics for 2013, as well as revised statistics for the years 2000 to 2012. These statistics reveal that China was burning up to 17% more coal than previously reported. According to the New York Times that 17% is equivalent to 70% of U.S. coal use.

When the International Energy Agency, IEA, has released its preliminary 2014 estimates of world CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Global emissions of carbon dioxide were believed to have remained at 32.3 billion metric tonnes in 2014, unchanged from the preceding year. However, world emissions of carbon dioxide is a calculated number, not a measured number. So, that number will now have to be revised as well as how that data was interpreted. The IEA says it is now awaiting Chinese data from their energy census and other revisions before issuing any update to the world emissions summary.

In the 40 years in which the IEA had been collecting data on carbon dioxide emissions, there had only been three times in which emissions have stood still or fallen compared to the previous year, and all were associated with global economic weakness: the early 1980's; 1992 and 2009. The preliminary 2014 data lead the IEA to suggest that efforts to mitigate climate change may be having a more pronounced effect on emissions than had previously been thought as CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP had inched down, decoupling growth from carbon emissions pointing to perhaps a sustainable future.

That view on carbon emissions and the economy will now have to be revised despite the President’s observation that “ over the past decade, even as our economy has continued to grow, America has cut our total carbon pollution more than any other country on Earth.”

In a report released Monday the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced that the global average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration had risen above 400 parts per million last winter dipping below that level again in spring when plants remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The WMO expects atmospheric carbon dioxide to remain above 400 parts per million during all of 2016.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Building a Church and School in the Rural Crescent

St. Katherine Drexel Parish and School has requested a special use permit to build a church with a 1,000 seat sanctuary and 550 seat fellowship hall and classrooms for 260 children in K-8th grades, administrative offices, rectory, meeting areas for community groups and related facilities on a 28 acre parcel of land on the north west corner of Waterfall Road and Route 15 across from the 7/11. Because the land is in the Rural Crescent, the St. Katherine will require a special use permit.

On Thursday night St. Katherine had an informational meeting held at the Evergreen Fire Station to present the project to the public. St. Katherine plans to build the religious facility in phases. The meeting was fairly evenly split between supporters of the church and Rural Crescent preservationists who felt that building a large Church and school is inconsistent with the social objectives of maintaining a wildlife habitat, preservation of farmland, preservation of groundwater and surface water supplies, protection of historically significant areas and scenic views, and prevention of development on fractured rock systems highly susceptible to contamination. The basic zoning that exists now in the Rural Crescent is A1- one house per 10 acres. St. Katherine plans to build the religious facility in phases.

Officially, the Rural Crescent, established in 1998, encompasses almost 116,000 acres, but little of that total is still agricultural land. The Rural Crescent includes about 23,000 acres of federal land in the forest and Manassas Battlefield, 55,100 acres that are already developed including Quantico and existing developments, about 2,600 acres that are permanently protected land, 8,200 acres that have development plans already approved and almost 28,000 acres that are undeveloped and unprotected and could be preserved as open space and farmland.

The Rural Crescent depends on groundwater as the sole water supply for all the existing and future residents, and St. Katherine Drexel Parish and School will depend on an on-site well (or wells) for water supply and septic for sewage. How any proposed land use will impact water and groundwater sustainability should be one of the first questions asked, but is not considered in the application for the special use permit. The right of existing property owners to their water is primary and valuable and should not be compromised or impaired. Because there are natural fluctuations in groundwater levels it is easy to mask or ignore signs of the beginnings of destruction of the water resources that we depend on. Fluctuations in climate or rainfall and imperfect measurements and vantage points mask trends from clear view.

While groundwater is a renewable resource it is NOT unlimited. The sad truth is that we do not know how much water we have in the Culpeper basin, nor do we know what the sustainable rate of ground water use is. We can only hope that the Culpepper Basin is adequate to sustain the rural crescent in the next drought, but the USGS tells us that our groundwater basin is under stress. Sustainability of groundwater is hyper-local. Little is known about the sustainability of our groundwater basins, but potential problems are still at a manageable stage. We now have tools (groundwater models and data from the GRACE project) that can help develop a picture of the volume of the water within the groundwater basin and at what rate it is being used and at what rate it is being recharged. We need to know if the current and planned use of our groundwater is sustainable even in drought years. We need to understand how ground cover by roads, parking lots and buildings will impact groundwater recharge and what level of groundwater withdrawals are sustainable on site to determine if a proposed additional use of groundwater is sustainable before it is granted.

The proposed church and school will cover over 20% of the land with buildings, parking, walkway and other impervious surfaces that will change the hydrology of the site reducing ground water recharge in the area around the school at the same time that the school and church will increase groundwater use to an estimated 12,500 gallons a day (3-4 million gallons a year) according to the Pacific Institute. That is equivalent to building around 50 homes on the 28 acres. With reduced groundwater recharge in the immediate area of the school from all the paving, there is a real possibility that the pumping from the school will create a large cone of depression to draw water from adjacent properties or greater depth that could cause nearby existing wells to go dry, and people will have homes without water –worthless. This is a risk that has not been examined, studied or modeled. This has happened elsewhere. Once the hydrology is destroyed, it cannot be restored. The special use permit should not be granted to a use that will significantly reduce the groundwater recharge to the immediate area while taking the essential water resources of their neighbors without first studying the impact.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The CO2 Diet Update

On Friday, October 23rd the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published the final Clean Power Plan rule in the Federal Register, starting a 90-day comment period. The publication of the rule gives states and energy companies the opportunity to comment or in this case file lawsuits to challenge the legality of the rule. As expected 26 states immediately filed suit in Federal Court to stop the regulations from taking effect. Twenty four of the states joined together lead by West Virginia and filed a Petition for Review and Stay Motions, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where the states argue the rule is illegal and will have devastating impacts on the states and their citizens. Virginia did not join the suit.

The states claim that the rule promulgated under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act exceeds EPA’s authority by unlawfully forcing states to fundamentally alter state resource-planning and energy policy by shifting from coal-fired generation to other sources of power generation that has a significant emphasis on natural gas fired generation and renewable sources. The states also say the rule is illegal because it seeks to require states to regulate coal-fired power plants under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, even though EPA already regulates those same plants under Section 112 of the act.

In its final form the Clean Power Plan attempts to create a nationally consistent standard for each type of electrical generating plant. This is consistent with the requirements of section 111 of the Clean Air Act- to create nationally uniform standards that do not favor one region or state over another. The final rule’s “best systems of emission reductions” focuses only supply‐side measures that reduce CO2 emissions from power plants, and does not mandate any consumer demand‐side energy efficiency. Though EPA removed demand side measures from the rule to align with section 111; nonetheless, EPA expects that demand‐side energy efficiency will be a significant component of state plans under the Clean Power Plan. As a matter of fact, EPA is forecasting that people will use less electricity because the cost of electricity will go up. The Clean Power Plan is projected to reduce electric bills by about $7 per month by 2030 despite electric prices increasing.

The states in their arguments are attempting to have the court issue a stay because it will take years to adjudicate the case and in the meantime this regulation will reshape the power generation and energy infrastructure, natural gas production and environment to meet the demands of the. There will also be significant fiscal impacts. With this regulation the EPA is now taking control of the power generation sector of the economy to remake that industry in a less carbon intensive and more efficient vision.

These regulations will mark the end of the era of using coal to generate electricity in power plants. This era began with the oil crisis in 1972 and will end with the EPA issuing CO2 “budgets” and potentially creates a regional or national carbon trading market for “carbon credits.” These regulations require the shift towards natural gas as the fuel of choice for a significant portion of the power generation. Using natural gas to fire power generation plans will require the building of more gas pipelines and the expansion of Fracking. This will certainly impact the economy and natural environment of states with coal mining and limited gas delivery infrastructure like Virginia. The DMME is proposing fracking regulations in Virginia and there are proposals for additional gas pipelines in the Commonwealth.

Power plants are the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States accounting for about 33% of greenhouse gas release (and slightly more of carbon dioxide). Greenhouse gases are: carbon dioxide (CO2), fluorinated gases, nitrous oxide and methane (CH4). According to the EPA CO2 represents 84% of mass of greenhouse gas emissions and that the climate models indicate to be the cause of climate change. The new regulations will require power plants to cut their CO2 emissions by 30% from 2005 levels or 18% from 2013 levels by using a combination of approaches.

EPA mandates the interim and final goal for each state in the regulation. The EPA expects the regulations to result in a reduction in the electricity used per capita and in the CO2 generated per megawatt hour of electricity produced. The states must provide a plan for achieving that limit that is acceptable to the EPA by June 30, 2016. If the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit does not grant a stay, then the states will have to move forward with implementation to be in compliance. The Congressional Review Act is unlikely to be able to stop this regulation. This act passed during the Clinton administration allows Congress to disapprove and vacate new regulations within 60 days, but operates essentially like any other legislation. Majority votes in both the house and senate are required. In addition the legislation would need presidential approval or enough votes to override a presidential veto, unlikely.

Despite legal challenges to the regulation, states must provide a plan for reaching their mandated goals acceptable to the EPA by June 30, 2016. The EPA is offering “incentives” to early adopters. The EPA is ensuring early adoption of plans so that even if legal challenges prevail, the rule cannot be undone. The EPA is ensuring early adoption of plans so that even if legal challenges prevail, the rule cannot be undone. EPA is providing a Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP) to reward early investments in renewable energy generation that generate carbon dioxide-free electricity or demand-side energy efficiency measures that reduce end-use energy demand like electrical meters that can shut down certain appliances during periods of peak demand.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Fire Injures Six During Chemistry Demonstration

It was second period last Friday and it would be a four day weekend in Fairfax County, Virginia. A high school chemistry teacher a W.T. Woodson High School was performing what is commonly known as the ‘Rainbow Flame Demonstration.”

In its most exciting (and dangerous) form the “Rainbow Flame” demonstration is performed on an open bench typically using methanol as the flammable solvent. The solvent is poured out on the bench and lit and metal salts are tossed (or spooned) into the flame to change its color. Barium Chloride BaCl2*2H2O makes the flame light green, Calcium Chloride CaCl2 turns the flame orange red, Copper Chloride CuCl2 burns a beautiful blue/green, Lithium Chloride LiCl produces a hot pink flame, Potassium Chloride KCl a light lilac colored flame, Sodium Chloride NaCl produces a yellow flame, and Strontium Chloride SrCl2 produces a red flame. In a darkened room it is really quite spectacular. It is also dangerous.
from a U tube demonstration
When this Rainbow Flame demonstration is carried out on an open bench, the conditions for a flash fire are easily met, and there have been several widely reported classroom accidents. Highly flammable solvents, such as methanol, can produce heavier-than-air vapors that move across surfaces and down toward the floor where they spread undetected among viewers of the demonstration. A flame, spark, or even very hot surfaces can ignite the vapors resulting in a sudden flash fire or worse if there is an open container of solvent. Fire can also flash up when additional methanol is poured on the hot surface for another round. According to Jonathan Sanderson of Science Demo, the cause of a series of accidents reported in the US has been the “demonstrators topping up the flame straight from the methanol bottle, leading to the ignition of a large volume of fuel vapour.”

Fire needs to be treated with respect and handled using proper safety precautions. Numerous accidents have occurred with the Rainbow Flame demonstration. Yet, other instructors have performed the demonstration hundreds of times without incident and I’ve done a version of the demonstration myself. The demonstration can be safely performed under a ventilation hood and strictly controlled by pouring a limited amount of solvent into petri dishes or saucers that contain the various salts, then sealing the solvent bottle and NOT refilling the dishes. A careful and controlled experiment (while wearing safety goggles and an apron) loses some of the wow factor of the open flame. This demonstration is dangerous if it is not performed under a ventilation hood and strictly controlled single round of solvent. Never open a bottle of fuel near a naked flame or source of heat, and that the correct procedure here is to make sure the surface or petri dishes are cold before adding a small amount of fuel, then sealing the fuel bottle and removing it to a safe distance, before lighting the mixture. Safety glasses and aprons are a must especially when dealing with a classroom of students.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board issued a warning message for this experiment/demonstration back in 2013 along with a video interview with a victim of a Rainbow Flame demonstration fire that can be seen on U tube