Tag Archives: Renewable energy

Fracking fuels conflict over water resources

A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons
A wind farm in Nova Scotia, Canada, where a fracking ban favours renewable energy
Image: Dennis Jarvis via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Limited water supplies near the richest oil and gas reserves accessible through fracking threaten to create tensions that could block future projects using the controversial extraction process.

LONDON, 15 September, 2014 − The vast quantities of water needed to release oil and gas by fracturing rock formations are not available in large areas with the richest deposits – posing major challenges to the future viability of fracking.

According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), 38% of the areas where shale gas and oil is most abundant is arid or already under severe water stress – and the 386 million people living in these areas need all the spare water they can get.

Among the countries that have areas with potentially large quantities of shale underground, but which have limited water supplies, are China, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Mexico, the US and the UK.

Andrew Steer, president of the WRI, said: “These factors pose significant social, environmental, and financial challenges to accessing water, and could limit shale development.”

Stumbling block

The report says that estimates of shale gas reserves add 47% to the global, technically-recoverable natural gas reserves and 11% to the oil reserves. But it points out that that “as countries escalate their shale exploration, limited availability of fresh water could become a stumbling block”.

The method of releasing the trapped gas and oil in the process known as fracking is controversial because it involves injecting large quantities of water and chemicals underground to fracture the rock and release the oil and gas.

In some areas of the US, where fracking has been pioneered and has enabled large new supplies of oil and gas to be produced to the benefit of the economy, there has been trouble with the release of methane into the atmosphere and contamination of water supplies.

In many areas that have potential for fracking, this had led to a public backlash − even where there is plenty of potential water for use in the process.

An example is the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, where the Environment Minister, Andrew Younger, has imposed an indefinite ban on fracking onshore and plans to bring forward legislation to ban the practice.

“Nova Scotians have clearly indicated they are not yet ready for the use of hydraulic fracturing in the development of shale reserves,” Younger said. “We will respect their views.”

Areas of stress

The WRI has produced a detailed map of shale oil and gas reserves, overlaid with colours indicating of areas high water stress. It illustrates where most conflict over the use of resources is likely to be.

The report comments on the problems facing companies and governments in persuading their citizens to sacrifice limited water supplies so that oil and gas can be extracted.

“The findings indicate that companies developing shale resources internationally are likely to face serious challenges to accessing fresh water in many parts of the world,” the report says.

“These challenges highlight a strong business case for strategic company engagement in sustainable water management at local and regional levels.

“They also point to a need for companies to work with governments and other sectors to minimise environmental impacts and water resources depletion.” – Climate News Network

Drowned tropical forests add to climate change

Dead trees poke out of the Nam Theun 2 dam reservoir, Laos. Image: Dominique Serça/CNRS
Dead trees poke eerily out of the Nam Theun 2 dam reservoir in Laos
Image: Dominique Serça/CNRS

By Paul Brown

New scientific data supports the belief that methane emissions from big hydroelectric dams in the tropics outweigh the benefits that this form of renewable energy provides.

LONDON, 11 September, 2014 − Big dams built in the tropics to produce hydroelectricity have long been highly controversial − and data gathered in Laos by a French team studying methane emissions confirms that dams can add to global warming, not reduce it.

In many rocky regions low on vegetation and population, such as in Iceland and other northern mountainous regions, the production of electricity from hydropower is clearly a net gain in the battle against climate change.

In Asia, Africa and South America, however, masses of methane are produced from dams by the drowning of tropical forests in them. As long ago as 2007, researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research calculated that the world’s largest dams emitted 104 million tonnes of methane annually and were responsible for 4% of the human contribution to climate change.

Short-term threat

Since methane has an impact 84 times higher over 20 years than the same quantity of carbon dioxide, this is a serious short-term threat to pushing the planet towards the danger threshold of increasing temperatures by 2˚C .

Despite the warnings that big dams in the tropics might be adding to climate change, governments go on building them − while often claiming that large dams equal clean energy.

The new research shows that the methane discharges are probably even worse than current calculations.

In an attempt to find out exactly what the perils and benefits of big dams in the tropics can be, a French team from the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) has been studying the Nam Theun 2 reservoir in Laos − the largest in Southeast Asia − prior to its filling, in May 2008, right up to the present to calculate the total methane emissions.

Methane is produced by bacteria feeding on the plant material drowned when the dam is filled. This is added to by more organic matter that is washed into it by rivers and rains.

Measuring the methane produced is the tricky bit as it reaches the atmosphere in three ways. Some is dissolved in the water and reaches the atmosphere by diffusion, some goes through the turbines and is released downstream, and the third way is called ebullition – which means bubbles of methane coming directly to the surface and going straight into the atmosphere.

It is these last gas emissions that have been so hard to measure, but the team has developed automatic measuring devices that work 24 hours a day.

The measurements carried out on the Nam Theun 2 reservoir enabled the scientists to show that ebullition accounted for between 60% and 80% of total emissions from the reservoir in the first years following filling.

Maximum emissions

In addition, ebullition intensity varies at night and seasonally. During the four months of the hot dry season (mid-February to mid-June), emissions reach their maximum because water levels are low. Daily variations are controlled by atmospheric pressure: during the two daily pressure drops (in the middle of the day and the middle of the night), methane (CH4) ebullition increases.

With the help of a statistical model, day-to-day data related to atmospheric pressure and water level was used by the researchers to reconstruct emissions by ebullition over a continuous four-year period (2009-2013).

The results obtained highlight the importance of very frequent measurements of methane fluxes. They also show that the ebullition process − and therefore the amount of methane emitted from tropical reservoirs during their first years of operation − has most certainly been underestimated until now.

For the researchers, the next stage will be to quantify diffusion at the surface of the reservoir and emissions downstream from the dam to the same level of accuracy. This will enable them to complete the assessment of methane emissions from this reservoir, and better assess the contribution they make to the global greenhouse effect. – Climate News Network

China may be ready to kick coal habit

A coal-fired power station at Yangzhou in China's central Jiangsu province Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons
A coal-fired power station at Yangzhou in China’s central Jiangsu province
Image: Vmenkov via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

Signs are hopeful that China, the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases, aims to become less reliant on the polluting coal that powered its rapid economic rise.

LONDON, 5 September, 2014 − There are still doubts. The statistics might be proved wrong. But it looks as if China might be starting to wean itself off its coal consumption habit.

China produces and consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined. Coal, the most polluting of all energy sources, has powered the growth of China’s flyaway economy. But as incomes have risen, so has pollution. The country is now the world’s No.1 emitter of greenhouse gases.

Latest figures indicate that change is on the way, spurred on by a much-vaunted government “war on pollution” campaign. The state-run National Development and Reform Commission reports that domestic coal output shrank over the first five months of 2014 – the first such decline since the start of China’s rapid economic expansion back in the late 1980s.

Virtual halt

Greenpeace, the environmental NGO, said in a recent analysis of China’s coal sector that growth in coal imports, which had been going up at an annual rate of between 13% and 20% in recent years, has come to a virtual halt.

Meanwhile, the official Xinhua news agency says Beijing – a city of nearly 12 million people – will ban the sale and use of coal in its six main districts by 2020.

Coal-fired factories and power plants around the Chinese capital are being shut down and replaced by natural gas facilities. Coal generated 25% of Beijing’s energy in 2012, and the aim is to bring that figure down to less than 10% by 2017. Other cities and regions are following Beijing’s lead.

Just how meaningful these cutbacks in coal use are is difficult to gauge. Air pollution – much of it caused by the burning of low-grade thermal coal − is not only a big environmental issue in China but also a political one as well.

China’s leaders have promised a population increasingly angry about the low quality of the air they breathe and the water they drink that the government is determined to tackle pollution.

Yet coal-fired power plants are still being built at a considerable pace, and many more are planned.

Some analysts argue that the present slowdown in China’s coal consumption is only temporary, the result of a dip in industrial output that will be reversed as soon as the economy roars ahead again.

Less reliant

Others say the decline in coal consumption is part of a long-term trend. As China’s economy matures, becoming less dependent on heavy industrial goods and embarking on more hi-tech and service-oriented projects, the country will become ever more energy efficient – and less reliant on coal.

China might be the world’s biggest emitter of fossil fuel emissions, but it also has fast become a global leader in hydro, wind and solar power.

No one is suggesting that coal is going to be absent from China’s energy mix anytime soon. The lung-jarring pollution of many of China’s cities is likely still to be evident for some years yet. But coal is no longer king.

That’s bad news for big coal exporters to China, particularly Australia and Indonesia. But it’s potentially good news for millions in China who crave clean air. And it’s very good news for the planet. – Climate News Network

Plan to make renewables cheaper than coal within 10 years

 

Solar power in India: Could renewables answer the world's energy needs? Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons

Solar power in India: Could renewables answer the world’s energy needs?
Image: Bkwcreator via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Three weeks before the UN Secretary-General’s extraordinary meeting of world leaders in New York to tackle climate change, a leading British scientist unveils plans for a global low-carbon fund on a par with the Apollo Moon programme.

LONDON, 2 September 2014 – There are prospects of significant progress in the response of world governments to climate change, according to a former UK Government chief scientist, Sir David King.

“There are signs that a leadership role is beginning to emerge”, he told a conference in London held by the Green Economy Coalition.

Sir David also announced that he and a colleague are working with governments to raise funds to help all countries, including developing countries,  to switch to renewable energy. Their scheme hopes to raise nearly as much as the cost of the Apollo programme, NASA’s moon-landing project.

“President Obama is getting ready to commit the US to action, and last week the Chinese Prime Minister, Li Kichiang, announced that his country’s emissions had fallen by 5% in a year”, he said.

“The US and China are positioning themselves for an agreement. And that’s not all. The first speech by the new leader of India, Narendra Modi, spoke of his determination ‘to solarise’ the economy.

Ice in retreat

“Brazil’s emissions, including from deforestation, have fallen from 16.5 tonnes per person to 6.5 tonnes since 2005. Across the Andes in Peru, where the UN climate convention negotiations will take place in December, they know well enough about climate change.

“From Lima they can see the ice retreating up the mountains. At its lowest point it is now 1,000 metres above where it reached to 30 years ago..”

Sir David praised the UK’s commitment to cut greenhouse emissions by 80% by 2050, compared with their 1990 levels. He said the target – matched by Mexico – was likely to be met. The biggest climate challenge confronting the UK, he said, was from rising sea levels.

Some critics say, despite this, that the UK Government is dragging its feet, especially on supporting renewable energy. With a colleague, the economist Professor Lord Richard Layard, Sir David is working on a scheme to raise money to address this.

“It’s called the Global Apollo Programme”, he explained. “We are urging all governments to form a Commission to spend 0.02% of their GDP, which should raise US$10-20 bn p a over 10 years,  to fund RD&D for low-carbon technology.

“We are encouraging governments to launch the Programme at the UN during Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit on 23 September. The objective is that by 2020 renewable power should be cheaper than coal in all sunny parts of the world, and by 2025 in all parts of the world.”

Sir David, who for seven years was the UK Government’s chief scientist, is now its Foreign Secretary’s special representative for climate change. Asked if he were hopeful about progress to tackle climate change, he replied: “I’m in this job because I’m an optimist.”

Global reach

His hopes were echoed by another speaker, Hunter Lovins, president of the Colorado-based Natural Capitalism Solutions.  She told the Climate News Network: “We can do it. But it’s going to be tough. So will we do it?

“I don’t agree with the exponents of the idea of near-term human extinction (NTHE), who say we face total collapse by around 2030 or 2035.

‘”What we need is to find incentives for business, to get big countries behind solar+, the idea David King is working on – combining renewables and efficiency, with back-up where it’s needed.”

Professor Lovins told the conference: “Business-as-usual is going to get really ugly. What’s the narrative we can produce to compete with neo-liberalism?” – Climate News Network

Waste could fertilise food cost cuts

Waste not, want not: a maize anaerobic digester Image: Alex Marshall/Clarke Energy Ltd via Wikimedia Commons
Waste not, want not: a maize anaerobic digester on a farm in the UK
Image: Alex Marshall/Clarke Energy Ltd via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Scientists are developing a way to squeeze the last vestiges of value from renewable energy processes by combining their waste products to produce eco-friendly fertilisers that could help slow food price rises.

LONDON, 30 August 2014 − Researchers in the UK think they may have found a way to produce fertilisers that should cut farmers’ costs and at the same time boost some types of renewable energy.

Their scheme, which involves using waste material from anaerobic digesters and ash from burnt biomass, would also cut fossil fuel use and save natural resources.

The team, based at the Environment Centre at the University of Lancaster, says their fertiliser would help to slow the rise in food prices. And they believe it would work worldwide.

The three-year project has received more than £850,000 (US$1.4 m) in funding from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council. Research, due to start this year, will take place in labs at the university and in field trials.

The project, which includes several partners working with the university, aims to produce a sustainable, environmentally-friendlier source of soil conditioner and crop fertiliser.

Potential

It builds on research originally conducted by one of the partners, Stopford Energy and Environment Ltd consultancy, which investigated using a mixture of digestates − the waste left over after material has been through an anaerobic digester − and ash, from burnt biomass, as an alternative to existing fertilisers.

Most fertilisers now in use, such as phosphorous-based and nitrate-based products, are made using energy-intensive methods that involve the consumption of oil and gas.

Phosphate-based fertiliser relies as well on the mining of phosphate, a finite and unsustainable resource, and on a production process using various toxic chemicals.

There are already projects in several countries − including the UK − that use waste from digesters to make fertiliser.

But Professor Kirk Semple, of the Lancaster Environment Centre, who leads the project, said: “It is the mixing of anaerobic digestate with biomass ash that is important. . . This would reduce pressure on natural resources and develop a new market for problematic by-products of the bio-energy industry.

“Although the project is based here in the UK, we believe there is exciting potential to produce a sustainable alternative to existing fertiliser use across the globe.”

Nutrients

A successful digestate-ash fertiliser would reduce costs and provide additional income to biomass and anaerobic digestion operators. The Lancaster team says this could make these forms of renewable energy − which could meet more than 15% of UK energy demand by 2020 − more appealing to investors, as at the moment ash has to be expensively dumped in landfills.

They say it could help to improve food security and reduce costs to farmers as production of the new fertiliser would not be linked to the global price of oil and gas.

Previous studies by Stopford show that biomass ash and digestate can be useful nutrient sources for crops in conditions which lack them.

Professor Semple told the Climate News Network that he and his colleagues were working to ensure that the new fertiliser was entirely safe. He said: “Part of the grant will be used to chemically analyse the materials, individually and together, for metals and potentially other chemicals.”

He says commercial-scale production of a successful digestate-ash fertiliser “is some way off”. But he adds: “This project offers the first detailed interrogation of this type of soil amendment. If successful, we would then look to develop this for the commercial sector.” − Climate News Network

Politicians ignore people’s power pleas

A community-owned solar farm in the UK Image: Neil Maw/Westmill Solar Co-operative via WEikimedia Commons
Field of dreams: a community-owned solar farm near Oxford, UK
Image: Neil Maw/Westmill Solar Co-operative via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

Consumers worldwide increasingly want renewable energy sources to provide their electricity, yet many governments are ignoring them by continuing to exploit fossil fuels.

LONDON, 26 August, 2014 − Public support for renewable energies across the world continues to grow, particularly in more advanced economies − with solar power being especially popular.

At the same time, the policies of the governments in most of these richer countries do not mirror public opinion as many continue to develop fossil fuels, which do not command such popular support.

An example is the UK, where the government wants to exploit gas reserves by the controversial method of fracking – fracturing rock to allow the gas to reach the ground surface. The Conservative government is also promising to cut down on subsidies for onshore wind farms and to build nuclear power stations.

According to the public attitudes report published this month by the British government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, 36% of the population supports the plan to build new nuclear stations, and only 24% support shale gas extraction by fracking.

Widespread support

In contrast, 79% of the public is in favour of renewable energies to provide electricity. The UK has plentiful renewable energy and is exploiting several different types. Solar panels are the most popular form, with 82% of the public supporting their widespread use on the roofs of private houses and, more recently, solar farms in fields in the countryside.

Other high scores for renewables were offshore wind (72% in favour), onshore wind (67%), wave and tidal (73%), and biomass (60%) − even though all need public subsidy to compete with fossil fuels.

Despite the government’s public support for nuclear, there has been no start on a new station because a subsidy offered by the government is being investigated as potentially illegal under European Union competition legislation. Fracking is still at the exploratory stage and requires years of investment before any power could be produced.

Massive growth

Meanwhile, renewables keep on growing. In the first three months of this year, they produced nearly one-fifth of the UK’s electricity. Renewable energy generation was 43% higher than a year previously, showing the massive growth in the industry.

Both onshore and offshore wind farms are growing quickly, with the UK now having the largest offshore wind industry in the world.

The electricity output from renewables this year was boosted by high rainfall in Scotland, helping the country’s hydropower stations to produce more power, and windy conditions over the whole of the UK improving wind power output.

The British government’s response to these successes has been a policy to reduce the subsidies for both wind and solar power, as improving technology and mass production lower unit costs, while increasing Treasury support for nuclear power and fracking.

Germany has a similar public support for fossil-free energy – with 69% of consumers agreeing that the subsidies are needed to switch electricity generation to renewables. Unlike in Britain, all nuclear stations in Germany are being closed because of public demand, and fracking is unlikely to be considered.

This is partly because 380,000 Germans already work in the renewable energy sector and its development is credited with helping Germany through the recent recession by creating manufacturing and maintenance jobs.

Attitudes in the US to climate change and renewables have also changed in recent years, despite a barrage of propaganda from the fossil fuel industry attempting to cast doubt on the scientists’ predictions of global warming. The public supports renewable energies, irrespective of their views on global warming.

Actively concerned

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication reports that 18% of Americans are alarmed by climate change and its effect on their country, and 33% are actively concerned. This is in contrast to 11% who are doubtful that climate change is man-made, and a very vocal 7% who believe it is a hoax or conspiracy got up by scientists and journalists.

Dr Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale project, said “Whatever people’s view on whether climate change was man-made or not, all sectors agreed that there should be support for alternative energies. Subsidies for more fuel efficient and solar had wide public support. This cut across voters of all parties and no party.”

Even in Australia, where the government has repudiated all efforts to combat climate change, 70% of the public support renewable energies.

In the developing world, public knowledge of renewable energies is less, and so is the support − although solar power is popular. In India, where power cuts are a major headache for businesses, a recent poll showed that 50% of Indians want more renewable energy, and particularly solar power, believing it will help them get a more consistent electricity supply. – Climate News Network

Elections sideline São Paulo drought crisis

Drought has now hit dams on rivers such as the Paranapanema Image: José Reynaldo da Fonseca via Wikimedia Commons
Past prime: drought has now hit dams on rivers such as the Paranapanema
Image: José Reynaldo da Fonseca via Wikimedia Commons

By Jan Rocha

As South America’s biggest city suffers its worst drought in over a century, São Paulo state politicians are putting re-election prospects ahead of the need to introduce measures to address a desperate situation for millions of people.

SÃO PAULO, 25 August, 2014 − Outside the semi-arid area of the north-east, Brazilians have never had to worry about conserving water. Year in, year out, the summer has always brought rain.

But that has changed dramatically. São Paulo, the biggest metropolis in South America, with a population of almost 20 million, is now in the grip of its worst drought in more than a century − a water crisis of such proportions that reports on the daily level of the main reservoir arefollowed as closely as the football results.

The lack of rain is also affecting the dams that produce most of Brazil’s energy, highlighting the urgent need to diversify power sources.

And yet the state governor, wary of the effects on his prospects in forthcoming elections, has refused to introduce measures to ration, or even conserve, water.

Mighty rivers

Brazil is blessed not only with the mighty Amazon and all its huge tributaries, but also with dozens of other lengthy, broad rivers − once the highways for trade and slaving expeditions, but now providing waterways for cargo, power for dams, and water for reservoirs.It has at least 12% of the world’s fresh water supply.

But five of the principal rivers – the Tiete, Grande, Piracicaba, Mogi-Guaçu and Paraiba do Sul − that cross or border São Paulo, Brazil’s wealthiest state, have less than 30% of the water they should have at this time of year, according to data from the regional Hydrographic Basin Committee and from the National Electric System Operator (ONS).

Other major water sources – such as the Paraná, South America’s second biggest river, and the Paranapanema − are also suffering from the long dry period. The ruins of towns flooded for dam reservoirs have reappeared, fishermen’s boats are beached because the fish have disappeared, and navigation is at a standstill.

The transport of grain and other cargos to the port of Santos, via the river network, had to be suspended after the water level fell by up to eight metres. The equivalent of 10,000 lorryloads of cargo have been transferred by road so far.

Many industries have suspended their activities because of lack of water, and the drought has resulted in the loss of part of the coffee, sugar cane and wheat crops in one of Brazil’s most important agricultural states.

The hydrological period lasting from October 2013 to March 2014 was the driest for 123 years, according to the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, the oldest institute of its kind in Latin America .

Lowest volume

The federal government’s energy research company, EPE, found that in the first three months of 2014 the volume of rain was the third lowest since the 1930s.

It was the third consecutive year of reduction for the reservoirs of the hydroelectric dams that make up the South-east/Centre-West System, where many of Brazil’s biggest cities are located. From 88% in 2011, the volume of water in them had fallen to 38% by April 2014 – the month in which the dry season begins in this region.

By mid-August, the reservoirs of the Cantareira system, which supplies the water for almost 8.5 million of São Paulo’s inhabitants, had fallen to just 13.5% of capacity.

Yet the state government of São Paulo has so far refused even to admit that there is a crisis. The problem is the October elections, when Governor Geraldo Alkmim is running for re-election. Like most politicians, he does not want to be associated with a crisis. The word “rationing” is taboo.

Instead, unofficial rationing – what might be called rationing by stealth – is in operation. At night, the São Paulo Water Company, Sabesp, is reducing the pressure in the water system by 75%, leaving residents in higher areas of the city with dry taps.

Over 80% of the country’s energy comes from hydroelectric power, and dozens more giant dams are under construction or planned, mostly in the Amazon basin. The government has been strangely reluctant to invest in, or even encourage, other sources of abundant renewable energy, such as wind, solar and biomass.

The over-reliance on hydropower has already led to a distortion. The back-up system of thermo-electric plants, run on gas and diesel, and designed for emergencies, has had to increase production from 8% in 2012 to cover 25% of energy demand this year − thus contributing to higher carbon emissions.

Politics have also interfered with the special crisis committee set up to monitor the drought situation, with representatives from local and federal agencies unable to agree on what to do.

The Sao Paulo energy company, CESP, unilaterally decided this month to reduce the volume of water released from the shared Jaguari reservoir to the neighbouring state of Rio de Janeiro for electricity generation, in order to keep more for its own water needs.

Dangerous precedent

For Marcio Zimmerman, executive secretary of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, CESP’s action creates a dangerous precedent. “There will be chaos if everyone decides to rebel against the ONS,” he said.

The realisation that climate change is already leading to major changes in weather patterns has sounded alarm bells among the business community about the need to diversify energy sources and conserve water.

Early this month, at a seminar organised by the Brazilian Business Council for Sustainable Development, the chief executives of more than 20 top companies drew up a list of 22 crisis-related proposals to be put to the presidential candidates in October’s election.

Newspaper editorials are now urging the politicians to take their heads out of the sand and involve the population in a serious discussion on the crisis and its effects on the water supply, energy generation, and food production .

The Rio newspaper O Globo declared: “They belittle the potential for efficiency available in a society accustomed to waste. When they act, it might be too late.” – Climate News Network

New rules could block biofuel’s alien invaders

The invasive giant reed (Arundo donax) has been approved in the US as a biofuel crop Image: H Zell via Wikimedia Commons
The US approved the invasive giant reed (Arundo donax) as a biofuel crop
Image: H Zell via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Producing biofuel from plants can help to reduce fossil fuel use and climate change emissions, but scientists warn of risks that some species may become unwelcome and damaging invaders.

LONDON, 10 August, 2014 − Researchers in the US have warned those anxious to cut greenhouse emissions to make quite sure that the cure they choose will not turn out worse than the disease.

They have developed a tool that should help to avoid the danger that efforts to address climate change could allow invasive plant species to spread where they are not wanted.

Making fuel from plants avoids using fossil fuels − although it does use land that could otherwise grow crops. But scientists are concerned that plants grown for their energy could damage their new environment.

If a plant grown as a biofuel crop is approved solely on the basis of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists from the University of Illinois warn that its potential as the next invasive species may not be discovered until it’s too late. So they have drawn up a set of regulatory definitions and provisions.

White list

They also assessed 120 potential bioenergy feedstock taxa (biological classifications of related organisms) and came up with a “white list” of 49 low-risk biofuel plants − 24 native and 25 non-native − from which growers can choose.

Lauren Quinn, an invasive plant ecologist at the university’s Energy Biosciences Institute, and her colleagues set out to create a list of low-risk biofuel crops that can be safely grown for conversion to ethanol. But in the process of doing that, they recognised that regulations were needed to instill checks and balances in the system.

“There are not a lot of existing regulations that would prevent the planting of potentially invasive species at the state or federal levels,” Dr Quinn says.

In approving new biofuel products, she says, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not formally consider invasiveness at all – just greenhouse gas emissions related to their production.

“Last summer, the EPA approved two
known invaders . . . despite public criticism”

The report’s co-author, A. Bryan Endres, professor of agricultural law at the university, says: “Last summer, the EPA approved two known invaders, Arundo donax [giant reed] and Pennisetum purpurem [napier grass], despite public criticism.”

The researchers say there is no clear and agreed scientific definition of what “invasive” means, although the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has made a brave attempt, while also broadening the category. It says: “Invasive alien species have devastating impacts on native biota, causing decline or even extinctions of native species, and negatively affecting ecosystems.”

Dr Quinn says: “Our definition of invasive is ‘a population exhibiting a net negative impact or harm to the target ecosystem’ . . . We want to establish guidelines that will be simple for regulators, and informed by the ecological literature and our own knowledge.

“We also need to recognise that some native plants can become weedy or invasive. It’s complicated, and requires some understanding of the biology of these plants.

High risk

“Some of the biofeedstocks currently being examined by the EPA for approval, like pennycress, have a high risk for invasion. Others have vague names such as jatropha, with no species name, which is problematic.

“For example, there are three main Miscanthus species, but only sterile hybrid Miscanthus giganteus types are considered low risk. However, the EPA has approved “Miscanthus” as a feedstock, without specifying a species or genotype.

“That’s fine for the low-risk sterile types, but could mean higher-risk fertile types could be approved without additional oversight.”

Dr Quinn thinks the team’s list of  low-risk feedstock plants will serve to clear up the confusion about plant names. It was developed using an existing weed risk assessment protocol, which includes an extensive list of 49 questions that must be asked about a particular species − based on its biology, ecology, and its history of being invasive in other parts of the world.

Although a plant may be native to a part of the US, it could be considered invasive if it is grown in a different region, Dr Quinn says. “For example, Panicum virgatum is the variety of switchgrass that is low risk everywhere except for the three coastal states of Washington, Oregon and California.

“But future genotypes that may be bred with more invasive characteristics, such as rapid growth or prolific seed production, may have higher risk.” − Climate News Network

Hydropower illuminates a piece of history

Cragiside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878 Image: National Trust
Cragside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878
Image: National Trust

By Alex Kirby

A British conservation charity has turned to technology thousands of years old – the Archimedes screw − to provide electricity for lighting one of the historic mansion houses it looks after. 

LONDON, 31 July, 2014 − Hydropower is making its return to one of the UK’s grand houses, which almost 140 years ago pioneered the use of water to provide electricity.

A modern version of an ancient device, the Archimedes screw, has been installed at the Cragside mansion, in north-east England, to harness the power of a stream in the grounds and provide lighting for the house − which in 1878 became the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, provided by a turbine.

The new system, a galvanised turbine 17 metres long, will produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in Cragside, although not enough to power its computers, freezers, fridges and heaters. It will generate about 12kw of electricity − enough, over a year, to provide the property with around 10% of its electricity.

Cragside was built by the 19th-century inventor and innovator, Lord Armstrong, who used the lakes on his land to generate hydroelectricity. It is now in the care of the National Trust, the charity responsible for conserving historic houses and countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland).

Sculptural sight

Andrew Sawyer, the Trust’s property curator at Cragside, said: “It is a very visual demonstration of the way hydropower works, an almost sculptural sight in the landscape.

“Hydroelectricity is the world’s most widely used form of renewable energy, so we are looking forward to sharing this very special part of its heritage.”

The Trust is committed to reducing its energy use by 20%, halving fossil fuel consumption, and generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. This will enable it to cut its energy costs by more than £4m annually, releasing more money for conservation.

Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside Image: North News and National Trust
Installing the modern Archimedes screw at Cragside
Image: North News and National Trust

Earlier this year, it installed at one of its Welsh properties, Plas Newydd, a marine source heat pump, which uses sea water to provide all the heating the house needs.

At Cragside, water from the lowest of the five lakes on the estate will feed through the Archimedes screw and into the stream below. As the water passes down through the spiral blades, the device uses its energy to turn the screw. The energy is then converted into electricity by a generator.

Power-saving potential

The Trust has replaced all 350 lightbulbs in Cragside with LED bulbs, whose low electricity consumption improves the scheme’s power-saving potential.

But despite the screw’s ability to cope with a wide range of flow levels in the lake, fed by a stream that rises in nearby moorland, there will be some times of year when the water level is too low to produce any power.

Sarah Pemberton, regional head of conservation for the Trust, said: “The technology is easy to maintain due to the simple mechanics, and because it works at low speed, it’s possible for fish to pass through the turbine unharmed.”

The Trust is working with a 100% renewable electricity supplier, Good Energy, to provide clean energy at 43 more of its historic properties. − Climate News Network

Boom-or-doom riddle for nuclear industry

Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) 
Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic.
Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The nuclear industry remains remarkably optimistic about its future, despite evidence that it is a shrinking source of power as renewables increasingly compete to fill the energy gap. 

LONDON, 26 July, 2014 − The headline figures for 2014 from the nuclear industry describe a worldwide boom in progress, with 73 reactors presently being built and another 481 new ones either planned or approved.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) official website paints a rosy picture of an industry expected to expand dramatically by 2030. It says that over the period 1996 to 2013 the world retired 66 reactors, and 71 started operation. Between now and 2030, the industry expects another 74 reactors to close, but 272 new ones to come on line.

This represents a much larger net increase in nuclear electricity production than the basic figures suggest because most of the newer power stations have a bigger capacity than those closing down.

Pipe dream

Detractors of the industry say that these projections are a pipe dream and that nuclear power will not expand at that pace, if at all, and that solar and wind power will grow much faster to fill the energy gap.

Which projection is correct matters enormously because the world is both short of electric energy and needs to replace fossil fuels with low carbon sources of power to save the planet from dangerous climate change. Nuclear energy and renewables such as wind and solar are in competition to fill the gap.

The figures show that nuclear production is currently in decline from a peak in 2006, and is now producing less than 10% of the world’s electricity needs.

World solar capacity, on the other hand, increased by 35% in 2013, and wind power by 12.5% − although, added together, they still do not produce as much power as nuclear.

All the evidence is that wind and solar will continue to grow strongly, and particularly solar, where technological advances and quantity of production means that prices have dropped dramatically.

Costs of producing energy are hard to compare because solar is small and local and dependent on sunshine, while nuclear is large and distant and must be kept on all the time. However, research suggests that solar is already producing cheaper power per kilowatt hour than nuclear, the costs of which have not come down.

Commercial market

Both costs and time seem to be major factors in deciding which technology will gain market share. Nuclear stations are expensive and a long time passes before electricity is produced, making them almost impossible to finance in a normal commercial market. Solar panels, in contrast, can be up and running in days, and wind turbines within weeks.

Historically, nuclear power plants have always been built with government subsidy – a pattern that is continuing across the world. For example, the two countries with the largest number of reactors under construction − China, with 29, and Russia, with 10 − have populations with no democratic say in the matter.

Critics of the WNA figures say that while the claims for reactors planned and proposed might be real, the chances of most of them actually being built are remote.The US is said to have five reactors under construction, five more planned and 17 proposed – but with existing nuclear stations closing because they cannot compete with gas on price, it is unlikely that all of these will be completed by 2030.

The UK, which has a government keen to build nuclear stations, is said to have four stations planned and seven more proposed. The first of these stations was due to be opened by 2017, but work has not yet been started. The earliest completion date is now expected to be 2024, and the rest will follow that.

The delay in Britain is partly because the subsidies offered to French, Chinese and Japanese companies to build the UK reactors are under investigation by the European Commission to see if they breach competition rules.

Massive subsidies

Martin Forward is from the English Lake District, where one of the four nuclear stations is planned, and runs Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment. He said: “I cannot see how nuclear has any future in Europe because of cost. Nuclear needs massive subsidies to be financially viable, but these are currently illegal under European law, so it is unlikely that the British ones will be built.

“Even if the government can get over that hurdle, there are many problems to overcome − for example, the designs of the stations have to be finalised. The process could take years, by which time wind, solar and other renewables will have expanded so much it will make nuclear redundant.”

The industry does not accept this, pointing to the US, where utilities hope that all five plants currently under construction will be producing power by 2019.

Siobhan O’Meara, a senior analyst at Nuclear Energy Insider, is one of the organisers of an annual “nuclear construction summit”, the sixth of which is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October.

She said: “With nuclear new build taking off once again across the globe, it’s never been more critical to finance, plan and deliver your construction programmes on time and budget.”

Time will tell who is right. – Climate News Network