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First solar bread oven takes a bow

April 20, 2014 in Adaptation, Africa, Emissions reductions, Energy, Solar energy, Technology

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Makine injera the traditional way in Mekele:  The new oven should eliminate greenhouse emissions Image: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

Making injera the traditional way in Mekele: The new oven should eliminate greenhouse emissions
Image: Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Until now solar cookers have always needed fairly constant sunshine, but a new design which can store the Sun’s heat will finally mean fewer greenouse gas emissions..

LONDON, 20 April – Cooking using just the power of the Sun is not a new technology. Dozens of designs of solar cookers using mirrors and other shiny surfaces to concentrate the Sun’s rays are popular across the world, especially where electricity and wood for fires are in short supply.

Many thousands are in use in Africa, and they are very popular for large-scale communal cooking in China. They can be designed for boiling water, cooking stews, frying and baking.

But one problem is how to keep ovens hot enough, long enough, to cook such staples as bread, and how to maintain the temperature when the Sun goes in or at night.

Now an Ethiopian student working with colleagues in Norway thinks he has solved the problem. Instead of cooking the food directly with the Sun’s rays, his design concentrates the heat on a container holding a mixture of salts.

Traditional bread

These store the heat, releasing it gradually over 24 hours and maintaining a steady temperature of 220°C (428°F).  This would make it possible for people in developing countries to cook food efficiently, safely and in an environmentally benign way at any time of day.

Asfafaw Tesfay came from Ethiopia to Norway in 2008 with the clear idea of developing a solar oven able to bake his country’s staple food, a flat bread called injera, which is traditionally served at every meal.

The problem of cooking the bread, which needs a high temperature, is particularly acute because large parts of the country are without access to electric power or wood. Only 3% of Ethiopia is now forested, down from 35% in 2000, and 85% lacks an electricity grid.

Tesfay and other students from the the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) are now looking to sell the cooker commercially, particularly in Ethiopia itself where they believe it is most needed. The oven can reach a temperature of 250⁰C(482⁰F), which makes it well adapted to the country’s food traditions and resources.

Storing heat

Tesfay and his fellow students Mari Hæreid, Sebastian Vendrig and Dag Håkon Haneberg, who work from the NTNU School of Entrepreneurship, say the cooker is the first of its kind. According to Even Sønnik Haug Larsen, who doubles as both a student and a teacher: “This oven has several advantages compared to other solar-powered ovens on the market. The biggest difference is that it can reach a high temperature and store that high temperature over time, which makes it perfect for baking injera.”

The students see a potential market in organisations working in the countryside, schools, universities, hospitals, bakeries, restaurants and hotels. Later they hope to make the oven available to private individuals, but many are poor and would have to be trained how to use it.

Haug Larsen and his fellow student Sebastian Vendrig travelled to Ethiopia around mid-January to contact customers and potential partners. At the same time they wanted to see if it was possible to produce the oven locally in Mekele, the home city of Asfafaw, the man behind the idea.

They want to establish a viable business there and look at possible production workshops as part of a Norwegian scheme for technology transfer.

“It would be fantastic if our product could improve conditions in several developing countries, and if we can be part of creating jobs locally,” said Haug Larsen. – Climate News Network

The energy revolution is in reverse

April 18, 2014 in Climate, Emissions reductions, Energy, Fossil fuels, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Mitigation, Nuclear power, Policy, Shale Gas, Subsidies, Warming

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Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual
Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

By Henner Weithöner

The UN climate panel’s prescription for tackling climate change is admirably clear. The problem is that the world is heading in precisely the opposite direction.

BERLIN, 18 April – Keeping the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will not be prohibitively expensive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, though it won’t be easy.

There’s just one problem: the atmospheric facts show that the world is not simply ignoring the IPCC. It’s moving smartly away from the clean energy future that the Panel says is attainable towards an inexorably hotter and more risky future.

Reaching the target will mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% over 2010 levels by mid-century, the IPCC report says. Yet what is happening at the moment is the exact opposite: average global emissions rose by a billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2010, faster than ever before.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change as cheaply as possible, the report urges an energy revolution to end the dominance of fossil fuels. The IPCC says  investments in renewable energy need to triple, with subsidies to fossil fuels declining and a switch to natural gas to help countries to get rid of coal.

The path to lower emissions may cost the energy giants dear, the IPCC acknowledges. “Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters,” Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, which produced the report, told a public meeting here. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

‘Negligible’ cost

Another controversial point is the report’s inclusion of nuclear power as a low-carbon option (it acknowledges that it has declined globally since 1993 and faces safety, financial and waste-management concerns). The report also advocates carbon capture and storage (CCS), noting that it remains untested on a large scale.

But the IPCC insists that diverting hundreds of billions of dollars from fossil fuels into renewable energy and cutting energy waste would shave just 0.06% off expected annual economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. “Statistically you won’t notice,” said Dr Ryer Gerlagh, a co-ordinating lead author on the economics chapter of the report.

Li Shuo of Greenpeace China said: “Science has spoken: climate action is no burden, it’s an opportunity. As renewable energies are growing bigger, better and cheaper every day, the age of dangerous and polluting coal, oil and gas is over. The only rational response to this report is to start the phase-out of fossil fuels immediately.”

Wrong direction

Global temperatures have risen about 0.8°C since record-keeping started in 1850. Current pledges by governments to reduce emissions by 2020 have set the world on a path to between 3 and 5°C of warming by 2100, the IPCC says.

The Working Group III contribution to the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) is intended to provide a comprehensive assessment of the options for mitigating climate change through limiting or preventing greenhouse gas emissions. It may have shown that those options exist and are affordable. But that is very far from showing that governments can be persuaded to use them. – Climate News Network

Henner Weithöner is a freelance journalist in Berlin specialising in renewable energy and climate change.

Science finds new routes to energy

April 17, 2014 in Agriculture, Biofuels, Carbon Dioxide, Energy, Technology

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The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water
Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

LONDON, 17 April – While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.”

Once future agricultural scientists have worked out what they most want from a crop – and in arid zones, water economy must rate highly – the programme can decide the best configuration of leaf. From that, future breeders could select traits from the enormous library of existing soybean variations.

Lomg-lasting benefit

They could reduce the canopy to let light through to lower levels to increase yield, or they could heighten the canopy to reflect light back into space and offset climate change.

“We can also model what these plant canopies can do in a future climate, so that it will be valid 40 or 50 years down the line,” says Praveen Kumar, an environmental engineer.

At Stanford University in California, other scientists have thought of a way to make biofuel without benefit of fields, plants or sunlight. They report in Nature that they have devised an oxide-derived copper catalyst that can turn carbon monoxide – the lethal gas in car exhausts and coal-burning power stations – directly into liquid ethanol of the sort now made from corn and other crops.

What’s more, they say, they can do this at room temperature and normal atmospheric pressures. The technique rests on the ability to turn copper oxide into a network of nanocrystals of metallic copper that would serve as a cathode in an electrolysis reaction and reduce carbon monoxide to ethanol.

Biofuel is expensive: it takes time, fields, fertiliser and water. It takes 800 gallons of water to grow a bushel of corn, which in turn yields three gallons of ethanol. The new technique could eliminate the crop, the time, and a lot of the water.

Ten-fold efficiency gain

And it opens another way to exploit captured CO2 as a power source. Carbon dioxide can be turned efficiently and easily into carbon monoxide. The new oxide-derived copper catalyst could then turn carbon monoxide into ethanol with ten times the efficiency of any normal copper catalysts.

The team would like to scale up their catalytic cell and see it powered by solar or wind energy. “But we have a lot more work to do to make a device that is practical,” said Matthew Kanan of Stanford.

Meanwhile, scientists in Oregon report in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal RSC Advances that they have tested a new way to tap the sun’s rays, and to use that power to make solar energy materials at the same time.

Once again, the match of nanoscience and copper has provided unexpected consequences. By focusing light continuously on a continuous flow micro-reactor, the researchers have synthesized copper indium nanoparticle inks that could make thin-film solar cells in minutes. Other processes might take hours to deliver the same materials.

“It could produce solar energy materials anywhere there’s an adequate solar resource and in this chemical manufacturing process, there would be zero energy impact,” said Chih-Hung Chang of Oregon State University. – Climate News Network

IPCC tries a gamble with shale gas

April 14, 2014 in Adaptation, Coal, Energy, Fracking, Greenhouse Gases, IPCC, Methane, Nuclear power, Renewables, Shale Gas, Solar energy, Wind power

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Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas
Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

The latest IPCC report urges a dash for gas to allow us to reduce the burning of coal. And it accepts the use of shale gas, which threatens to be far more polluting than originally thought.

LONDON, 14 April – If you support fracking, you should be pleased with the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). It’s given the green light to the use of shale gas as a short-term way to slow climate change.

The report is the third and final part of the latest IPCC assessment on climate change (known as AR5). While it puts considerable emphasis on the need for more renewable energy – including solar, wind and hydropower – it says emissions of greenhouse gases can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas, though the gas will itself ultimately have to be phased out.

On shale gas, obtained by the controversial fracking process, Ottmar Edenhofer - co-chair of the working group that produced the report – said it was quite clear that the fuel “can be very consistent with low carbon development and decarbonisation”.

Among the objections to fracking is the fact the process releases quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas often reckoned to be at least 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. That is the comparison we have often used in the Network’s reporting. It’s right, so far as it goes. But by some calculations it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Own goal

Recently an observant reader pointed out that methane is 20 times more potent than CO2 when its impact is measured over a century. But in the short term it is a far greater problem. Over the space of two decades it is estimated to be at least 84 times more damaging than carbon dioxide.

Robert Howarth is professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. He and his colleague Drew Shindell of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have predicted that unless emissions of methane (and black carbon) are reduced immediately, the Earth will warm by 1.5°C by 2030 and by 2.0°C by between 2045 and 2050, whether or not carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

Professor Howarth puts the global warming potential of methane higher still. He has written: “At the time scale of 20 years following emission, methane’s global warming potential is more than 100-fold greater than for carbon dioxide (Shindell et al. 2009).”

Some critics will conclude that the IPCC’s search for a bridging strategy to move us rapidly to a world of clean energy has scored an own goal by failing to rule out a fuel which entails a large and avoidable increase in greenhouse emissions. The cost of the infrastructure needed to exploit shale gas on a large scale may also work to prolong its use.

Affordable transformation

Ironically, the clean energy world the IPCC seeks need be no more than 15 years away, according to one US expert. Mark Z Jacobson is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, California, and director of its atmosphere and energy program. He believes that wind, water and solar power can be scaled up cost-effectively to meet the world’s energy demands, ending dependence on both fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Professor Jacobson described in Energy Policy in 2010 how he and a colleague had analysed “the feasibility of providing worldwide energy for all purposes (electric power, transportation, heating/cooling, etc.) from wind, water, and sunlight (WWS)”.

He continued: “We suggest producing all new energy with WWS by 2030 and replacing the pre-existing energy by 2050. Barriers to the plan are primarily social and political, not technological or economic. The energy cost in a WWS world should be similar to that today.”

It sounds like a less risky path to a world of clean energy than the IPCC is urging. Fifteen years to build a different way of fuelling society, or 20 years of watching spiralling methane emissions, seems a no-brainer. – Climate News Network

Enough uranium, but nuclear power is still shrinking

April 11, 2014 in Energy, Nuclear power, Resource shortages

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Highly enriched uranium: The growing difficulty of extracting high-quality ore is increasing greenhouse gas emissions Image: Via Wikimedia Commons

Highly enriched uranium: The growing difficulty of extracting high-quality ore is increasing greenhouse gas emissions
Image: Via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Many people believe nuclear power could save the planet from climate change. But several factors mean the industry is dying, a new analysis suggests.

LONDON, 11 April – There is enough uranium available on the planet to keep the world’s nuclear industry going for as long as it is needed. But it will grow steadily more expensive to extract, because the quality of the ore is getting poorer, according to new research.

Years of work in compiling information from around the world has led Gavin M. Mudd from Monash University in Clayton, Australia to believe that it is economic and political restraints that will kill off nuclear power and not any shortage of uranium, as some have claimed.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that renewables do not have the disadvantages of nuclear power, which needs large uranium mines that are hard to rehabilitate and which generates waste that remains dangerous for more than 100,000 years.

In addition, research shows that renewable technologies are expanding very fast and could produce all the energy needs of advanced economies, phasing out both fossil fuels and nuclear.

Mudd, who is a lecturer in the department of civil engineering at Monash, has compiled decades of data on the availability and quality of uranium ore. He concludes that, while uranium is plentiful, mining the ore is very damaging to the environment and the landscape.

It is expensive to rehabilitate former mines, not least because of the dangerous levels of radiation left behind. As a result many of the potential sources of uranium will not be exploited because of opposition from people who live in the area.

‘Too cheap to meter’

His paper examines the history of uranium mining and its wild fluctuations in price. These have little to do with supply, but rather with demand that is badly affected by nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima, and by the political decisions by governments to embark on new nuclear building programmes, or to abandon them.

“Despite the utopian promise of electricity ‘too cheap to meter’, nuclear power remains a minor source of electricity worldwide”, Mudd writes. In 2010 it accounted for 5.65% of total primary energy supply and was responsible for 12.87% of global electricity supply. Both contributions have effectively been declining through the 2000s.

“Concerns about hazards and unfavourable economics have effectively slowed or stopped the growth of nuclear energy in many Western countries since the 1980s.”

The Fukushima accident in Japan has accelerated the trend away from nuclear power. The growth in projects in some countries, notably China, Russia and India, does not offset the fact that many more nuclear power stations will reach retirement age over the next 15-20 years than will be constructed.

Among the factors Mudd considered in the fluctuation of supply was the conversion of Russian and American nuclear weapons into power station fuel supplying 50% of American needs since the mid-1990s, and 20% of global uranium supply.  This has not materially affected the long-term supply of uranium.

Mining blighted

Another issue that is more politically contentious is the high cost of rehabilitating mines, notably in Germany and the US. In many of the countries where uranium has been mined and no rehabilitation attempted, the prospect of further mining is blighted. Mudd gives the examples of Niger, Gabon, Argentina and Brazil, where there has been considerable public opposition to opening up fresh deposits as a result.

If these resources and other uranium deposits elsewhere in the world are to be exploited, Mudd argues, the issue of rehabilitating existing and future mines needs to be addressed.

“There is a critical need for a thorough and comprehensive review of the success (or otherwise) of global U mine rehabilitation efforts and programmes; such a review could help synthesise best practices and highlight common problems and possible solutions,” he says.

The paper also examines in detail the quality of the ore and the difficulty of extracting uranium from various rocks. Mudd concludes that as time passes the richer ores in the rocks that are easiest to extract are becoming scarce.

As a result, for each pound of uranium extracted more greenhouse gases are generated, adding to the CO2 emissions of nuclear power. However, he believes, in the overall comparisons of various energy systems the increase is only marginal.

“The future of nuclear power clearly remains contested and contentious — and therefore difficult to forecast accurately. While some optimists remain eternally hopeful, reality appears to be relegating nuclear power to the uneconomic category of history.

“Overall, there is a strong case for the abundance of already known U resources, whether currently reported as formal mineral resources or even more speculative U sources, to meet the foreseeable future of nuclear power. The actual U supply into the market is, effectively, more an economic and political issue than a resource constraint issue,” Mudd says. – Climate News Network

Nuclear subsidy deal ‘will kill renewables’

April 7, 2014 in Energy, Europe, Nuclear power, Renewables, Subsidies, United Kingdom

EMBARGOED UNTIL 1101 GMT ON MONDAY 7 APRIL

Hinkley Point nuclear power station, up for renewal: But on what terms? Image: Barbara Cook via Wikimedia Commons

Hinkley Point nuclear power station, up for renewal: But on what terms?
Image: Barbara Cook via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The battle over the UK’s plan to subsidise nuclear power will decide Europe’s energy mix for the next 50 years, say critics.

LONDON, 7 April – The United Kingdom’s plans to build heavily subsidised nuclear power stations have come under withering attack from a coalition of Members of Parliament, academics, energy industry experts and environmental groups.

Evidence has poured into the European Commission, which is investigating whether the deal with the giant French nuclear company EDF breaks EU competition rules. The evidence from many objectors, whose submissions had to be made by today, claims that if the contract goes through it will wreck Europe’s chance of building up renewable energies to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

They say renewables will have to compete in an unfair market where one generator, nuclear, is guaranteed to be able to sell all its electricity at a stable price and with a built-in profit until 2058.

The UK Government has agreed a minimum price of £92.50 (US $153) a megawatt hour from a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in the west of England from 2023 – roughly double the existing price of electricity in Britain. The price will rise with inflation and runs for 35 years, a deal unprecedented in the energy sector, and not available to renewable energies like wind and solar. The guarantee will continue for all future nuclear stations too.

The Government has gone further, guaranteeing loans for construction, and providing insurance and compensation payments if policies change for any reason. It claims that the deal will save £75 a year on the average consumer’s bill if electricity prices rise by 2023, as it forecasts. If they do not, then consumers will be paying far more for their electricity than they would otherwise.

EU test case

No-one involved in the investigation into whether the deal constitutes unfair state aid doubts that climate change is a severe threat and needs to be tackled. The argument is about which is the best set of technologies to help deal with the problem.

There are 12 states in Europe interested in nuclear power generation, slightly under half the EU’s members. All see the UK subsidies investigation as a test case into whether they also will be able to give state aid to nuclear stations.

One of the submissions, from the Nuclear Consulting Group, with more than 100 signatures from MPs from six parties in the UK and European Parliaments, plus engineers, academics and energy experts, says the proposed aid to guarantee nuclear’s profitability is incompatible with EU State Aid rules. The NCG says it unfairly discriminates in favour of nuclear and will damage renewable energies with far greater potential.

Given that this level of support is unavailable to other low carbon technologies, it is certain to significantly distort competition and strongly affect trade between member states.

“The development of sustainable and affordable low carbon energy remains a growing economic sector with huge potential for job creation. To seek to delimit this diversity through particular State Aid support of nuclear power at the expense of other, potentially more flexible, safe, productive, cost-effective and affordable technologies seems, at the very least, unwise,” says the submission.

It says the British Government has also not been completely honest about the prospects for existing nuclear power stations. In its announcement about subsidies the Government claimed that all but one of the eight existing nuclear power stations were due to close about the time the new Hinkley Point plant is finished in 2023.

In fact EDF, which owns the plants, and is also building the new one, intends to keep them open until 2030 or even longer if safety conditions allow. If the Government’s current power station-building plans succeed, then more than 50% of Britain’s electricity would be generated by subsidised nuclear stations, effectively cutting out renewables.

Delays and cost over-runs

One big problem for the UK’s plans, apart from the European Commission inquiry, is that the building schedule for the European pressurised water reactors (EPRs) planned for Hinkley Point, and for Sizewell in eastern England, is in doubt.

The first two prototypes, under construction in Finland and France, are subject to severe construction delays and cost over-runs. The Finnish Olkiluto 3 EPR was due to be completed in 2009 at a fixed price of €3 billion (US £4.1 bn), but the cost has now escalated to €8.5 bn and completion has been put back to 2018. The French new build by EDF at Flamanville is already four years behind schedule and the cost has more than doubled to €8.5 billion.

Other groups objecting to the UK subsidy plan also say that rather than promoting a diversity of supply, as ministers claim, the decision to back nuclear will reduce the scope for other technologies.

Bad value

Friends of the Earth says that currently there are seven to ten viable renewable energies being developed in the UK, among them wind on and off shore, solar, biogas, wave, under-sea turbines, small-scale hydro, biomass, and hot rocks, all of which could contribute to the energy mix if nuclear had no guaranteed unfair advantage.

These were all comparatively new technologies, where the price of generation was coming down all the time. In contrast, FoE says, nuclear has been operating for 60 years and still requires a 35-year price guarantee.

By the time Hinkley is in operation, solar and on-shore wind will be far cheaper, with costs falling fast, and it is likely that offshore wind will be in a similar position. The nuclear subsidy “represents extremely bad value for money for UK citizens,” the submission concludes. – Climate News Network

Can fracking rid us of nuclear waste?

April 6, 2014 in Energy, Fracking, Nuclear Waste Disposal, Technology

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A nuclear waste container in Nevada: There hopes that fracking may point the way to a safe storage option Image: Bill Ebbesen via Wikimedia Commons

A nuclear waste container in Nevada: There are hopes that fracking may point the way to a safe storage option
Image: Bill Ebbesen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Fracking is opposed by many communities for a range of reasons. But it appears the geology that holds hard-to-reach hydrocarbons could also be suitable for storing spent nuclear fuel.

LONDON, 6 April – US scientists are proposing that the source of one controversial energy programme could provide a solution to the problems of another. Nuclear waste – that embarrassing by-product of two generations of uranium-fuelled power stations – could be stored indefinitely in the shale rock that right now provides a highly contentious source of natural gas for utility companies.

An estimated 77,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored in temporary, above-ground facilities: for decades, governments, anti-nuclear campaigners and nuclear generating companies have all agreed that such a solution is unsafe in the long-term, and unsatisfactory even in the short term.

Nuclear fuel remains hazardous for tens of thousands of years. Everyone would like to see it safely tucked out of harm’s way. But for decades, there has been disagreement and uncertainty about what might constitute long-term safety.

But Chris Neuzil of the US Geological Survey told the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Dallas that the unique properties of the sedimentary rock and clay-rich strata that make up the shale beds could be ideal.

France, Switzerland and Belgium already planned to use shale repositories as a long-term home. For decades, US authorities planned to bury American waste under Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but abandoned the scheme in 2009.

Rare impermeability

For more than 60 years, miners and oil and gas companies have used controversial “fracking” or hydraulic fracture techniques to create flow channels to release oil and gas trapped in rock, and the approach has been amplified in the search for otherwise inaccessible natural gas or methane trapped underground.

But fracking is necessary because shale rock is impermeable – hardly any water normally flows through shale beds – and this impermeability may actually make the rock perfect for long-term nuclear waste storage.

Many shale formations are the product of very high pressures over many millions of years. Shale fractures may show up where roads cut through a hillside, but conditions deep underground are quite possibly much safer. Experiments have shown that water moves through the rocks only very slowly, if at all.

“Years ago I would probably have told you shales below the surface were also fractured,” said Neuzil, who is examining a shale site in Ontario for the Canadian Nuclear Waste Management Organisation. “But we are seeing that that is not necessarily true.”

However, one criterion for a safe burial site would have to be the absence of oil or natural gas or anything else that might attract the interest of a future generation of hydraulic fracture engineers. – Climate News Network

Wooden skyscrapers help cool climate

April 4, 2014 in Adaptation, Built Environment, Energy, Forests, Greenhouse Gases, Technology

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Builders have used wood for millennia: Now the technology is reaching for the skies Image: Chris Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

Builders have used wood for millennia: Now the technology is reaching for the skies
Image: Chris Reynolds via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Wooden skyscrapers could tick a number of important boxes, including making a serious contribution to cutting climate impacts. The good news is they’re already helping to do that.

LONDON, 4 April – US scientists have a new green solution to urban construction: chop down trees and use the wood for buildings. Good strong timber buildings – and there are plans for 30-storey skyscrapers built of wood – would save on concrete and steel, save on carbon dioxide emissions and cut the use of fossil fuel.

The argument may seem counter-intuitive: that is because a substantial component of climate change stems from changes in land use and the loss of forests. And some researchers have demonstrated that even the most mature trees, the forest giants, can go on absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But Chadwick Oliver, a forester at the University of Yale and colleagues make the case in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry. They argue that if the world stepped up the harvest of the forests and used the wood efficiently then economies could save on fossil fuel, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and give people a reason to value the forests.

It works like this. Overall, trees add 17 billion cubic metres of new wood to the planet’s biomass each year. Right now, humans take about 20% of this new growth – that’s 3.4 billion cubic metres – and a lot of that is burned, inefficiently as cooking fuel, or just burned.

Savings outweigh emissions

If humans stepped up the wood harvest to 34% and used it for construction, they could reduce the use of steel and concrete, and cut between 14% and 31% of global carbon dioxide emissions (the authors count methane and nitrous oxide emissions as carbon equivalents in this calculation).

And of course, carbon would stay locked up in the wood in permanent structures. This would also save between 12 and 19% of annual global fossil fuel consumption: the wood left over from construction could be turned into energy.

The savings on concrete and steel happen because about 16% of global fossil fuel consumption is accounted for by the manufacture of steel, concrete and brick. Factor in the need to transport building materials and that brings the fossil fuel share to between 20% and 30%. So wood-based construction consumes less energy.

The loss of forests represents the release of carbon dioxide, but as long as the harvesting is efficient, more carbon emissions are saved overall.

Better than agriculture

But, of course, this makes forests valuable. “The study shows still another reason to appreciate forests,” says Professor Oliver, “and another reason not to let them be cleared for agriculture.

“Forest harvest creates a temporary opening that is needed for forest species such as butterflies and some birds and deer before it regrows to large trees. But conversion to agriculture is a permanent loss of all forest biodiversity.”

So suddenly, in every sense, wood is cool. Wooden skyscrapers and apartment buildings are already being designed and tested in Sweden and in Canada. Selective harvesting of forests could help protect stands of timber against the spread of wildfire, benefit wildlife and maintain wealth.

“Forests historically have had a diversity of habitats that different species need,” says Professor Oliver. “This diversity can be maintained by harvesting some of the forest growth. And the harvested wood will save fossil fuel and CO2 and provide jobs — giving local people more reason to keep the forests.” – Climate News Network

Bulgaria’s micro-hydro power surge

March 30, 2014 in Energy, European Union, Hydropower, Renewables, Technology

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By Kieran Cooke

Bulgaria, one of the European Union’s more recent members, is in the midst of a micro-hydro boom. The hydro plants form part of an overall EU energy package which sets a binding target of achieving 20% of energy from renewables by 2020 in order to tackle carbon emissions and climate change. The plants are controversial, with allegations that they are not properly licensed and monitored – and that they threaten the environment.

BOROVETS, Bulgaria, 30 March -  Dimitar Lobutov, an entrepreneur investing in a micro-hydro plant here, has little time for environmentalists.

“They are the biggest racketeers in the country – they make all manner of accusations but can’t prove anything”, says Lobutov. “It’s people like me who are developing Bulgaria – the greens just do nothing but complain or try and sabotage our efforts.”

Unobtrusive, but not always uncontroversial: The micro-hydro plant at Borovets Image: Kieran Cooke

Unobtrusive, but not always uncontroversial: The micro-hydro plant at Borovets
Image: Kieran Cooke

Lobutov, among other things a property developer and importer of electrical equipment, stands proudly by his soon-to-be-completed 1,300 kilowatt micro-hydro power plant in a beautiful narrow mountain valley about 30 miles from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Just down the road is one of the country’s main ski resorts. There is thick snow: the clear waters of the river Iskar flow nearby.

Micro-hydro is very much in fashion in Bulgaria, with plants being built on rivers throughout the country. They are relatively simple to construct and operate: pipes are laid perhaps two kilometres upriver, and water is then fed through the pipes, to flow down and drive turbines at a power station.

Electricity generated is sold to the national grid. Investors like Lobutov – he says he’s invested more than two million Bulgarian lev (€1 m/US $1.375 m) in his plant – are guaranteed a set price from the Government, in his case over a period of 15 years.

Threat to rivers

“I plan to get my investment back within six or seven years”, says Lobutov. “I want to leave a financial legacy for my grandchildren.”

Petko Tzetkov works for the Sofia-based Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation. “Many people think micro-hydro is a clean energy solution and will help us achieve EU renewable targets. But the reality is these plants are being built without any overall energy plan and are often not properly licensed or monitored”, he says.

“They have a big and damaging impact on water resources and wildlife – many are being built within national parks and other protected areas.”

Ivan Mishev, head of a fishermen’s union, says: “It’s a dire situation. In the old communist days about 20% of the country’s rivers were destroyed by badly planned dam projects. Now rivers are being destroyed by micro-hydro.

‘Money launderers’

“Fish stocks are being ruined. Romania, our neighbour, is much bigger and has far more water resources than we have. Yet double the number of permits for micro-hydro have been issued here. If we continue on this path our rivers will exist in name only.“

Government officials defend the micro-power projects. A Ministry of Environment spokeswoman described environmental impact assessments – paid for by the developer – as “very comprehensive.” And she denied there was any corruption involved in the issuance of licenses.

Local opinions about the power plant being built here differ. “Those projects – they’re just a way of laundering money”, says a marketplace trader. Another local disagrees: “We need more entrepreneurs to build up the country. We can’t stand still, we have to develop.”

It’s been an exceptionally warm winter in the Bulgarian mountains: the skiing has not been good and snow-making machines have had to be used. Many feel the climate is changing.

“What happens if the river dries up, or when there’s much less water during the summer months?” asks a local fisherman. “Will the micro-hydro plant close down, or will the owner drain the river in order to protect his investment?”

Other renewables

As its contribution to overall EU renewable energy targets, Bulgaria has to produce 16% of its energy from hydro, wind, solar power and other renewable sources by 2020.

A large part of its energy comes at present from imports of gas from Russia and from heavily subsidised power produced by the Kozloduy nuclear plant, on the Danube in the north of the country. Plans for a second nuclear plant were shelved two years ago while negotiations continue with foreign contractors on updating Kozloduy.

A late 2011 report by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) said Bulgaria had considerable wind resources which could be exploited. Energy could also come from biomass.

The IIED also called for greater transparency — and said the Government should address corruption and domination of the market by a monopoly in the energy sector. – Climate News Network

Climate scientists 3 Economists 0

March 14, 2014 in Climate deniers, Climate risk, Economy, Energy, Forecasting, IPCC, Journalism, Population

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Climate scientists are much better at the forecasting game than economists says a new study Image: Eileen Sanda via Wikimedia Commons

Climate scientists are much better at the forecasting game than economists says a new study
Image: Eileen Sanda via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Hold up the trophy. Open the champagne. Climate scientists have easily won the game. According to a recent study, when it comes to the accuracy of forecasts and projections, the climate side is much better at the game  than the economists’ team.

London, 14 March – The study, by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a UK based independent think-tank, examines the accuracy and precision of projections made by both climate scientists and economists over the past 20 years.

First, the economists. The study looked at measures commonly used in long term UK government economic modelling and decision making, using 1995 as a baseline: the population forecast for England and the forecast for the UK Treasury’s  debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratio.

In the US, the forecasts on oil prices over the period made by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) were also examined.

Economic inaccuracies

The NEF finds the economists’ projections both inaccurate and imprecise in all three areas.  The economists saw the population of England growing at a fairly modest level from 1995 to the present – from around 49 million 20 years ago to 51.5 million now.

In fact England’s population has risen steeply, particularly over the past 10 years and is now approaching 54 million.  The UK Treasury’s forecasts on the GDP to forecasts on the debt to GDP ratio fared no better, displaying “a bias towards optimism in government economic forecasts” says the study.

Meanwhile the crystal ball gazing of economists at the EIA was a miserable failure: they predicted oil prices rising on a gentle curve in the 15 years 1995 to 2010. In fact prices have been extremely volatile, rising at some points by more than five times the predicted figure.

And of course, the most damning judgement of the financial boffins forecasting skills is the failure of nearly all economic pundits to predict the 2008 recession.

Better projections

Contrast this with predictions made by climate scientists over the past 20 years, in particular those made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Again the NEF looks at three specific areas of projection – carbon concentration in the atmosphere, the temperature anomaly and forecasts since 1995 of sea level rise.  There can be no doubt of the result, says the study.

“Climate models outperform major economic forecasts on accuracy… global temperature, sea level and carbon concentration have all risen within the ranges originally forecast (by the IPCC) in 1995.”

While on one level this can be looked at as a bit of amusing sparring between two academic disciplines, there is serious business going on here.

The NEF makes the point that despite the dubious track record of economic forecasting, many government policy decisions are based on the data offered up.

Devious deniers

Meanwhile the climate deniers have succeeded in highlighting the narrow bands of uncertainty in the work of climate scientists – stalling action on the issue. Sections of the media collude in this process.

“This emphasis on uncertainty has a negative impact on climate progress” says the report. “It slows down environmental policy and corrodes the public will to act.”

The NEF draws attention to the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report and its revised estimate of certainty – up to 95% – that humans have been the main cause of global warming from 1950 to the present.

“This 95% has a precise scientific meaning. It is higher than the certainty that vitamins are good for your health and equivalent to the certainty that cigarettes cause lung cancer.”

Despite this, the climate denial bandwagon continues to roll along.

“We often hear the argument that climate models are too uncertain to bother taking action, but this is not borne out by the facts” says Aniol Esteban, the head of environmental economics at the NEF.

“We can’t go on making huge policy and investment decisions based on financial advice no more reliable than a coin flip, while at the same time discrediting climate models with a 20 year track record of accuracy. The double standard has to end now.” – Climate News Network