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Climate Clippings: Storm Barriers, Wind Potential and King Coal’s Stumble

By Douglas Fischer, for the Daily Climate

A Test for Rotterdam's Sea Defenses

ROTTERDAM - After the winter storms of 1953 lifted the seas 4 meters (13 feet) above normal and sent water surging over dikes and through towns and farms, the Dutch vowed "never again." The nation, of which a quarter is below sea level and another quarter vulnerable to floods, embarked on a nationwide effort to harden their defenses.

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On Saturday engineers conducted their annual test of the last of the pieces to be put into place, the massive Maeslanterkering, or storm surge barrier, that protects the 1.5 million people living in and around Rotterdam, Europe's largest port.

Waterworks such as these are drawing increased attention from civil engineers in cities around the world facing the twin threats of sea-level rise and sharper storm surges predicted by climate change. Later this week officials from some of the most at-risk cities in the world — New Orleans, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City — will gather here for a four-day conference on climate adaptation and flood protection.

The Maeslanterkering, one of the largest moving structures on earth (behind the Green Bank telescope in the United States), consists of two convex, 22-meter (72-feet) high dikes that are floated out into the middle of the port's main channel and then sunk.

Each dike is connected via steel trusses to a pivot point that functions and looks much like a human shoulder joint. Except that the "arms" in this case are as tall as the Eiffel Tower and contain twice as much steel — 15,000 tons a piece. Together the dike is designed to withstand floods up to almost 4 meters and can withstand 70,000 tons of force. 

Tests such as Saturday's are an annual occurrence, conducted before storm season. Saturday's drew a crowd of a few hundred from town, with children, an Oompha band, and venders hawking fried fish. It's not exactly gripping entertainment: The gates take half an hour to close off the 380-meter (0.25-mile) channel and then another half an hour to an hour to sink into place.

Completed in 1997, the Maeslanterkering has been needed only once, in 2007. When the it was built, engineers expected to need to close it once every 10 years. 

But with the sea level expected to rise 60 centimeters over the next century, and many Dutch lands expected to subside an additional 30 centimeters or more, the need for the defenses will only grow, said Peter Persoon, spokesman for Rijkswaterstaat, the agency overseeing the water works. Within 50 years, engineers expect they'll need to deploy their defenses every five years or so.

"We work with water levels," Persoon said. "As water levels rise, it will happen more often."

Editor's note: Douglas Fischer is in the Netherlands for a media tour courtesy of the Dutch trade ministry

Breezy at the Beach

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Anyone who's spent any time at the shore understands there's an abundant surplus of wind energy waiting to be tapped. A new report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has quantified just how much: 4,150 gigawatts — three times the United States' annual electricity demand.

The report [pdf] is based on the "latest high-resolution maps"  that show average annual wind speeds of at least 16 mph at a height of about 300 feet within 50 nautical miles of shore.

Don't bet on all that potential energy being harvested. The study assumed five megawatts worth of wind turbines could be placed in every square kilometer of water that met those characteristics — virtually impossible given various political and technical obstacles. The United States has talked for years about developing offshore wind. But while other countries — notably England, Denmark and Germany — have made considerable strides in placing turbines, the United States is creeping along. Regulators recently gave the OK to the 468-megawatt Cape Wind project off Massachusetts, but it still faces political, economic and legal hurdles.

The report includes detailed maps and tables that break down the wind resource by wind speed, water depth and distance from shore for 26 states with coasts along the Pacific or Atlantic oceans as well as the Great Lakes.

Wind Power Grows

The struggles of offshore wind development in the United States notwithstanding, wind power is a fast-growing source of energy worldwide, according to the International Energy Association.

Last year 40 percent of new electricity generation in the United States came from wind power, while new installations in Europe accounted for 39 percent of new capacity, according to a new report. IEA Wind member countries added more than 20 gigawatts in 2009, bringing the global generating total to 111 gigawatts. 

While that's 5.5 percent of global demand, estimated at about 2,000 gigawatts, wind dominates growth in the renewable energy sector, ahead of both biomass and photovoltaic solar. PV solar, for instance, added 6.4 gigawatts last year for a total capacity of more than 20 gigawatts worldwide, according to the 

The report noted that five countries added more than a gigawatt of new wind capacity, roughly enough to displace a mid-sized coal-fired power plant: United States with 10 gw, Spain (2.5 gw), Germany (1.9 gw), Italy (1.1 gw), and the United Kingdom (1 gw). 

Separately, Iberdrola Renewables announced last week plans to invest $6 billion expanding its wind-energy generation by 2013, adding 3 gigawatts of power capacity within three years. Iberdrola, already the second-largest wind farm operator in the United States, benefits from a gigawatt of transmission rights that enable it to reach large markets, particularly in western states. The Spanish company has an installed capacity of almost 4 gigawatts produced at 41 wind farms in 23 states.

King Coal Stumbles, and Natural Gas Steps In

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Tougher federal regulations and a stumbling economy could shutter 18 percent of the nation's coal fleet in the next two decades, according to a new analysis by Wood Mackenzie.

The big beneficiary from the transition? Natural gas, according to the consulting firm.

The fuel is already picking up market share from coal,. In August Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy announced it would close a coal-fired plant and convert four units at another coal-fired facility in Colorado to natural gas. Houston-based Calpine Corp. has announced plans to covert some of its coal plants in Delaware and New Jersey to gas.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration sees the need for 250 megawatts of additional capacity by 2035, factoring in retiring coal plants and increased demand. Natural gas accounts for 46 percent of capacity additions in its predictions, with renewables picking up 37 percent of that, coal 12 percent and nuclear 3 percent.

The switch from coal to natural gas will ripple through local economies and electrical markets in ways no one can predict, the firm noted. But the trend lines are clear: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is tightening down on particulate, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide emissions, while the financial climate for coal has been dampened by new rules, lawsuits and other market risks, the report concluded.

Photos by Douglas Fischer.

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