Tag Archives: Renewable energy

Seaweed problem could provide biofuel solution

A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in Heligoland off northern Germany Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons
A long strand of sugar kelp on a beach in the Heligoland archipelago off north Germany
Image: Grabriele Kothe-Heinrich via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown 

Biofuels are controversial because they are often produced from food crops or grown on farmland, but a common algae found in abundance around coastlines and clogging up beaches may be the answer.

LONDON, 19 October, 2014 – It has often been used as a farmland fertilizer, and in some communities it is eaten as a vegetable, but now researchers believe that seaweed could power our cars and heat our homes too.

One species of algae in particular, sugar kelp (Laminaria saccharina), is exciting scientists from Norway. It grows prolifically along the country’s coasts and, as its name suggests, contains a lot of energy − about three times as much sugar as sugar beet. That makes it suitable for turning into food and fuel.

Sugar kelp uses excess nitrogen in the sea, and so cleans up fertilizer pollution. However, it can grow so fast it can be clog beaches and needs to be removed, so finding an economic use for it would solve many problems.

Scientists are competing to see who can get convert seaweed into fuel most efficiently.

One of them is Fredrik Gröndahl, a KTH Royal Institute of Technology researcher and head of the Seafarm project. He believes the algae are being upgraded from an environmental problem into a valuable natural resource and raw material.

“The fact is that algae can absorb nitrogen from the water as effectively as a wastewater treatment plant,” Gröndahl says,

Eco-friendly resource

In some places, it is so prolific that it disrupts normal activities along the shoreline, but Trandahl’s project converts algae into eco-friendly food, medicine, plastic and energy. “We see algae as a resource,” he says. “We collect excess algae along the coasts, and we cultivate new algae out at sea.”

The seaweed is being scooped up from the Baltic Sea, along Sweden’s southern coast, in order to be converted to biogas. It is a coast rich with the seaweed, and the city of Trelleborg estimates that its beaches host an excess of algae that is equivalent to the energy from 2.8 million litres of diesel fuel.

The first algae farm is already up and running, near the Swedish town of Strömstad, in the waters that separate the country from Denmark. The Seafarm project will, according to Gröndahl, contribute to the sustainable development of rural districts in Sweden. “We create all-year-round jobs,” he says.

One example is in the “sporophyte factory farms” on land where, to begin with, the algae are sown onto ropes. When miniature plants (sporophytes) have been formed, they sink and are able to grow in the sea. After about six months, when they algae have grown on the ropes, they are harvested and processed on land through bio-refining processes.

Grow rapidly

“It will be an energy forest at sea,” Gröndahl says. “We plan to build large farms on two hectares right from the start, since the interest in the activities will grow rapidly when more farmers and entrepreneurs wake up to the opportunities and come into the picture.

“In 15 years’ time, we will have many large algae cultivations along our coasts, and Seafarm will have contributed to the creation of a new industry from which people can make a living.”

Another line of research, using the same kind of seaweed, has been revealed by Khanh-Quang Tran, an associate professor in the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) Department of Energy and Process Engineering. He has been producing what he calls bio-crude.

“What we are trying to do is to mimic natural processes to produce oil,” says Khanh-Quang Tran, whose results have been published in the academic journal, Algal Research. “However, while petroleum oil is produced naturally on a geologic timescale, we can do it in minutes.”

Using small quartz tube “reactors” – which look like tiny sealed straws – Tran heated the reactor, containing a slurry made from the kelp biomass and water, to 350˚C at a very high rate of 585˚C per minute. The technique, called fast hydrothermal liquefaction, gave him a bio-oil yield of 79%. That means that 79 % of the kelp biomass in the reactors was converted to bio-oil.

A similar study in the UK, using the same species of kelp, yielded only 19%. The secret of much higher yields, Tran says, is the rapid heating.

Carbon-neutral

Biofuels that use seaweed could lead humans towards a more sustainable and climate-friendly lifestyle. The logic is simple: petroleum-like fuels made from crops or substances take up CO2 as they grow and release that same CO2 when they are burned, so they are essentially carbon-neutral.

The problem of using food crops has led many to question whether bio-fuels are a solution to climate change. So to get around this problem, biofuel is now produced from non-food biomass, including agricultural residues, and land-based energy crops such as fast-growing trees and grasses.

However, seaweed offers all of the advantages of a biofuel feedstock, and has the additional benefit of not interfering with food production.

But while Tran’s experiments look promising, they are what are called screening tests. His batch reactors are small and not suitable for an industrial scale. Scaling up the process requires working with a flow reactor, one  with a continuous flow of reactants and products. “I already have a very good idea for such a reactor,” he says.

Tran is optimistic that he can improve on a yield of 79%, and is now looking for industrial partners and additional funding to continue his research. – Climate News Network

Scientists refute lower emissions claim for fracking

Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia
Pipe dream: a fracking operation in the Permian Basin region of Texas and New Mexico
Image: Rhod08 via Wikimedia

By Alex Kirby

As advanced technology triggers the boom in extraction of natural gas, a new study warns that market forces mean the cheaper fossil fuel could replace not just coal, but also low-emission renewable and nuclear energy.

LONDON, 15 October 2014 − The argument that fracking can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is misguided, according to an international scientific study, because the amount of extra fossil fuel it will produce will cancel out the benefits of its lower pollution content.

The study, published today in the journal Nature, recognises that technologies such as fracking have triggered a boom in natural gas. But the authors say this will not lead to a reduction of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Although natural gas produces only half the CO2 emissions of coal for each unit of energy, its growing availability will make it cheaper, they say, so it will add to total energy supply and only partly replace coal.

Advantage nullified

Their study, based on what they say is “an unprecedented international comparison of computer simulations”, shows that this market effect nullifies the advantage offered by the lower pollution content of the gas.

The lead author, Haewon McJeon, staff scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute, a partnership between the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and the University of Maryland, said: “The upshot is that abundant natural gas alone will not rescue us from climate change.”

Fracking, horizontal drilling and other techniques have led to surging gas production, especially in the US. “Global deployment of advanced technology could double or triple global natural gas production by 2050,” McJeon said.

This might eventually mean not lower CO2 emissions, but emissions by the middle of the century up to 10% higher than they would otherwise be.

The report, which is the work of five research groups from Germany, the US, Austria, Italy and Australia, said the replacement of coal by natural gas was fairly limited. And it might replace not just coal, the study had found, but low-emission renewable energy and nuclear power as well.

One of the co-authors, Nico Bauer, a sustainable solutions expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, said : “The high hopes that natural gas will help reduce global warming because of technical superiority to coal turn out to be misguided because market effects are dominating.

“The main factor here is that an abundance of natural gas leads to a price drop and expansion of total primary energy supply.”

Not only could this lead to an overall increase in energy consumption and in emissions, but increased gas production would mean higher emissions of methane from drilling leakages and pipelines.

The research groups projected what the world might be like in 2050, both with and without a natural gas boom. They used five different computer models, which included not just energy use and production, but also the broader economy and the climate system.

“When we saw all five teams reporting little difference
in climate change, we knew we were on to something”

“When we first saw little change in greenhouse gas emissions in our model, we thought we had made a mistake, because we were fully expecting to see a significant reduction in emissions,” said James Edmonds, chief scientist at the Joint Global Change Research Institute. “But when we saw all five teams reporting little difference in climate change, we knew we were on to something.”

Ottmar Edenhofer, chief economist of PIK and co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group on mitigation, said: “The findings show that effective climate stabilisation can be achieved only through emissions pricing.

”This requires international political co-operation and binding agreements. Technological advances can reduce the costs of climate policies, but they cannot replace policies.”

Article of faith

The widespread use of shale gas continues to attract policymakers, and for some it is almost an article of faith. It recently received the IPCC‘s endorsement, with Professor Edenhofer himself apparently backing it.

In the UK, a senior Conservative politician, Owen Paterson, is urging more fracking to increase Britain‘s shale gas supplies.

Paterson, who lost his job as Environment Secretary in July, today gave the annual lecture to the climate-sceptic Global Warming Policy Foundation, arguing against wind power and for “investment in four possible common sense policies: shale gas, combined heat and power, small modular nuclear reactors, and demand management”.

Paterson also said that the UK should suspend or scrap its Climate Change Act, which commits it to cutting CO2 emissions by more than 80% on 1990 levels by 2050, unless other countries follow suit.

His former Cabinet colleague, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, said that scrapping the legislation would be “one of the most stupid economic decisions imaginable”. − Climate News Network

Wind turbines may lure bats into fatal errors

Mixed messages: wind turbines tower above a forest in New York state Image: Paul Cryan/US Geological Survey
Mixed message: wind turbines among trees in New York state are a deadly hazard for bats
Image: US Geological Survey/Paul Cryan

By Tim Radford

Hi-tech thermal surveillance techniques have enabled US researchers to hone in on the likelihood that mistaking wind turbines for trees may be the cause of many bat deaths.

LONDON, 12 October, 2014 − Scientists in the US might just be about to answer one of the great puzzles of biodiversity and renewable energy: why one of nature’s most agile flyers, a creature with the most sophisticated ultrasonic tracking system, should be so fatally attracted to wind turbines.

Blades on the giant towers of wind turbines can rotate faster than a bird can fly, and are known to cause huge numbers of bird fatalities. The bigger mystery is why they kill so many bats.

These nocturnal flying mammals perform their aerobatics at bewildering speed. They can detect and snap up an insect on the wing, and so collision with a wind turbine blade ought to be about as rare as collision with a building or a tree.

But there is no doubt about bat losses. Researchers have already estimated that US wind farms account for 600,000 or more of the creatures every year. And this is not good news − particularly as some experts think bats may be worth $3bn a year to US farmers as pest controllers.

Curious parallel

Now research biologist Paul Cryan and colleagues from the US Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center in Colorado report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on a curious parallel: the species most likely to die near a wind turbine are those that are most likely to nest in trees.

And the conditions that bring the greatest number of deaths are not the high winds that send the blades racing through the air at a lethal 280 kilometres an hour, but the relatively gentle breezes of the kind that bats might experience as the familiar air currents in woodland when the insects are out in their millions..

In other words, it is just possible that bats – which notoriously cannot see very well – are led by their echolocation system to believe that they are flitting around a tree.

In 2012, at a wind farm in Indiana, Dr Cryan and his fellow researchers monitored the behaviour of bats with thermal surveillance cameras, near-infrared video cameras, acoustic detectors, and radar. Altogether, they detected more than 3 million animals flying through their target zone. A quarter of these were vertebrates, and four-fifths of these vertebrates were clearly identified as bats.

After each night’s surveillance, they also found about a dozen freshly dead bats, but very rarely did their video cameras actually observe a fatal impact.

Behaviour pattern

However, they identified a behaviour pattern. Bats were more likely to approach a turbine during low winds, and they were less likely to approach from downwind as wind speeds increased and turbine blades moved freely.

So the logic works like this: bats orient towards the turbines when the air currents are the sort they might expect to find around tall trees where the insects are gathered, or because they normally roost in tall trees.

Such findings are provisional, and there is more work to be done. But the hypothesis does help explain why it should be tree-roosting bats that suffer most losses.

“Behaviours that evolved at tall trees might be the reason why many bats die at wind turbines,” the report concludes. – Climate News Network 

World of clean energy ‘feasible’ by mid-century

Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons
Keeping it clean: a hydropower site at Holbuvatnet in the highlands of eastern Norway
Image: Ximonic/Simo Räsänen via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

International researchers, in what they believe is the most comprehensive global assessment of clean energy’s potential, report that a low-carbon system could supply the world’s electricity needs by 2050.

LONDON, 10 October, 2014 − A global low-carbon energy economy is not only feasible, it could double electricity supply by 2050 while actually reducing air and water pollution, according to new research.

Even though photovoltaic power requires up to 40 times more copper than conventional power plants, and wind power uses up to 14 times more iron, the world wins on a switch to low-carbon energy.

These positive findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Edgar Hertwich and Thomas Gibon, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Energy and Process Engineering.

Life-cycle assessment

They and international research colleagues report that they have made – as far as they know – the first global life-cycle assessment of the economic and environmental costs of renewable and other clean sources of energy in a world that responds to the threat of climate change.

Other studies have looked at the costs in terms of health, pollutant emissions, land use change or the consumption of metals. The Norwegian team set out to consider the lot.

There were some things they had to leave out: for instance, bioenergy, the conversion of corn, sugar cane or other crops to ethanol for fuel, because that would also require a comprehensive assessment of the food system; and nuclear energy, because they could not reconcile what they called “conflicting results of competing assessment approaches”.

But they tried to consider the whole-life costs of solar power, wind power, hydropower and gas and coal generators that used carbon capture and storage to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

They took into account the demand for aluminium, copper, nickel and steel, metallurgical grade silicon, flat glass, zinc and clinker. They thought about the comparative costs of “clean” and “dirty” power generation, and they considered the impact of greenhouse gases, particulate matter, toxicity in ecosystems, and the eutrophication– the overwhelming blooms of plankton − of the rivers and lakes.

They also assessed the impact of such future power plants on the use of land, and they made allowances for the economic benefits of increasing amounts of renewable power in the extraction and refinement of minerals needed to make yet more renewable power.

More efficient

Then they contemplated two scenarios: one in which global electricity production rose by 134% by 2050, with fossil fuels accounting for two-thirds of the total; and one in which electricity demand in 2050 rises by 13% less because energy use becomes more efficient.

They found that to generate new sources of power, demand for iron and steel might increase by only 10%. Photovoltaic systems would require between 11 and 40 times the amount of copper that is needed for conventional generators, but even so, the demand by 2050 would add up to just two years’ worth of current copper production.

Their conclusion? Energy production-related climate change mitigation targets are achievable, given a slight increase in the demand for iron and cement, and will reduce the current emission rates of air pollutants.

“Only two years of current global copper and one year of iron will suffice to build a low-carbon energy system capable of supplying the world’s electricity needs by 2050,” the authors say. – Climate News Network

Europe throws nuclear power a state aid lifeline 

A £16 billion replacement is planned for the ageing Hinckley Point nuclear plant Image: Adrian and Janet Quantock via Wikimedia Commons
Taxpayers will subsidise a £16 billion replacement at the ageing Hinkley Point plant
Image: Adrian and Janet Quantock via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

The controversial decision that Europe will allow state subsidies for nuclear power is likely to face a legal challenge by opponents who believe it will kill off the market for renewable energy.

LONDON, 9 October, 2014 − The European Commission has now agreed that Britain can subsidise the building of the world’s most expensive nuclear power station − despite previously believing that the deal breaks the European Union’s rules on state aid.

The £16 billion plant planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset, south-west England, was approved by just one vote at a meeting yesterday of the EC. And the decision was made even more controversial by the fact that the current members of the Commission end their term of office this month.

The new commissioners, who were not consulted over the issue, are now expected to face a series of challenges in the European Court of Justice over the legality of the deal.

The two European Pressurised reactors of 1.650 megawatts each that are planned for Hinkley Point by the French state-owned energy giant EDF are supposed to be constructed by 2023, but the track record of the nuclear industry is so poor that this is unlikely.

Over budget

A similar single reactor being built by the same company at Flamanville in France was scheduled to be completed by 2012, but is already four years late and €5 billion over budget.

The British government subsidy comes in the form of a guaranteed price for the electricity of £92.50 per megawatt hour for all the energy that the power station generates. This is double the current price of electricity, and the government has to buy it whether or not the electricity is needed.

Announcing yesterday’s decision, the EC Vice-President, Joaquin Almunia, said these subsidies had been modified so that if EDF made excess profits some money would be returned to the British taxpayer.

For the nuclear industry, the decision is a shot in the arm as it has never been possible to finance a nuclear power station without state aid. This is because private enterprise is not prepared to put up the massive capital and have it tied up in the power stations for a decade or more before there is any financial return.

The UK wants to build a whole series of new reactors on similar subsidies, and both Poland and the Czech Republic have expressed a wish to do the same because they fear that they are too reliant on Russian gas for their energy needs.

Lord Hutton of Furness, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, described the EC’s approval as “an important step”.

Ageing generation

He said: “This will set in train an important time for the nuclear sector in the UK as new-build projects get under way to replace the current ageing generation. It also gives certainty to other European countries looking at the UK system of contracts for difference as a mechanism to secure their own supply.”

Garry Graham, Deputy General Secretary of the Prospect trade union, said: “This is fantastic for jobs, consumers and the UK economy. Nuclear new-build is a key component in providing the UK with low-carbon energy generation.

“When operational, Hinkley Point C will provide seven per cent of our energy needs for generations to come. Its construction and operation will provide thousands of high-quality skilled jobs, while the £16bn investment will give a real boost to businesses on both a local and national level.”

However, even before the decision was announced, Austria, which strongly supports renewable energy sources, had already threatened to take the EC to the European Court of Justice to challenge the decision.

The Austrians are unlikely to be alone. A group of energy companies, scientists and associations have also been looking at a legal challenge.

Profoundly disappointed

One of those involved is Paul Dorfman, from the Nuclear Consulting Group. He said: “We are profoundly disappointed that the outgoing European Commission administration has decided to rush through this decision to approve state aid to Hinkley Point C without giving the new Commission the opportunity to review and reflect on a decision that will set a significant precedent on energy and competition policy.

“That this decision has been taken in undue haste only strengthens the grounds for, and likely success of, a legal challenge.

“The decision document refers to a significant body of new evidence from the UK and EDF, yet there is no adequate access to this information − which means that it is impossible to check the validity of this information.

“Since this evidence has persuaded the Commission to change its mind, it is important that this is properly scrutinised and validated before any final conclusion was made.

“We will be unable to make any further detailed comment until the material is released. However, we are convinced that this state aid will distort the UK and pan-EU energy market. Subsidies should not be provided to a mature technology like nuclear. We will be working with those directly and indirectly impacted by its distortive impacts over the coming weeks to put together our case.”

Andrea Carta, EU legal adviser for Greenpeace, said: “There is absolutely no legal, moral or environmental justification for turning taxes into guaranteed profits for a nuclear power company whose only legacy will be a pile of radioactive waste.” – Climate News Network

Investor heavyweights call for clear action on climate

Falling costs make renewables such as solar energy competitive in the US without subsidies Image: US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons
Falling costs make renewables such as solar energy competitive in the US without subsidy
Image: US Bureau of Land Management via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

As a major UN climate summit gets under way in New York today, some of the world’s leading institutional investors demand clearer policies on climate change and the phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

LONDON, 23 September, 2014 − Many of the biggest hitters in the global financial community, together managing an eye-watering $24 trillion of investment funds, have issued a powerful warning to political leaders about the risks of failing to establish clear policy on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 340 investment concerns − ranging from Scandinavian pensions funds to institutional investors in Asia, Australia, South Africa and the US − have put their signatures to what they describe as global investors’ most comprehensive statement yet on climate change.

In particular, the investors call on government leaders to provide a “stable, reliable and economically meaningful carbon policy”, and to develop plans to phase out subsidies on fossil fuels.

They warn: “Gaps, weaknesses and delays in climate change and clean energy policies will increase the risks to our investments as a result of the physical impacts of climate change, and will increase the likelihood that more radical policy measures will be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ambitious policies

“Stronger political leadership and more ambitious policies are needed in order for us to scale up our investments.”

Attempts to establish carbon pricing systems capable of making an impact on climate change have so far ended in failure, while oil and gas companies continue to battle against stopping fossil fuel subsidies.

The investors’ move has been welcomed by the United Nations.

Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said: “Investors are owners of large segments of the global economy, as well as custodians of citizens’ savings around the world. Having such a critical mass of them demand a transition to the low-carbon and green economy is exactly the signal governments need in order to move to ambitious action quickly.

“What is needed is an unprecedented re-channelling of investment from today´s economy into the low-carbon economy of tomorrow.”

The investors’ statement comes amid growing concern in the finance sector about the economic consequences of a warming world.

Last week, a commission composed of leading economists and senior political figures said the transition to a low-carbon economy was vital in order to ensure continued global economic growth.

Stranded assets

Other groups say investors who continue to put their money into fossil fuels are taking considerable risks. As governments and regulators face up to the enormity of climate change and place more restrictions on fossil fuels, such investments could become what are termed “stranded assets”.

There are also signs of a surge in low-carbon technologies, particularly in the renewable energy sector. Last week, Lazard, the asset management firm, reported that a decline in cost and increased efficiency means large wind and solar installations in the US can now, without subsidies, be cost competitive with gas-fired power.

There is also increased activity on the carbon pricing front. China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, recently announced it would establish a countrywide emissions trading system by 2016.

If implemented, the China carbon trading system will be the world’s biggest. The country already runs seven regional carbon trading schemes. – Climate News Network

Political will is only barrier to 100% renewables

Wind turbines in Germany's Rhein-Hunsrück district, a world leader in renewables Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons
Germany’s Rhein-Hunsrück district already exceeds100% electricity from renewables
Image: Markus Braun via Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

A report published ahead of next week’s UN Climate Summit illustrates that poor and prosperous nations, tiny islands and great cities, can achieve all their energy needs from renewables.

LONDON, 20 September, 2014 − A new handbook shows how forward-looking communities around the world are already moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and generating their own power with 100% renewables − while also becoming more prosperous and creating jobs.

The report, How to Achieve 100% Renewable Energy, is being released today, ahead of the UN Climate Summit in New York next Tuesday (September 23), when the UN Secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, will call on world leaders to make new commitments to cut fossil fuel use.

The World Future Council, based in Hamburg, Germany, has issued the report to show that it is only lack of political will that is preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels. It believes that the leaders at the UN summit need to set ambitious targets and timetables to achieve the switch to renewables.

Technologies exist

Using case histories − from small islands in the Canaries to great commercial cities such as Frankfurt in Germany and Sydney in Australia − the report makes clear that the technologies to go 100% renewable exist already.

In many cases, the switch has the combined effect of saving money for the community concerned and creating jobs, making everyone more prosperous. In all cases, improvements in energy efficiency are essential to meeting targets.

Where the100% renewable target is adopted, it gives the clearest signal to business that investments in clean technologies will be secure. The report says: “The benefits range from savings on fossil fuel imports, improved energy, and economic security, as well as reduced energy and electricity costs for governments, local residents and businesses.”

There is no case made for nuclear power. Indeed, the report says that the uranium needed for nuclear fuel is − like coal, oil and gas − a finite resource that will soon be running out.

One of the case histories in the report is the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. In March 2011,  it sustained the world’s worst nuclear accident since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, and has now opted to go for 100% electricity from renewables by 2040.

Some of the 100% renewable targets detailed in the report are just for electricity production. The authors − Toby Couture, founder of the Berlin-based energy consultancy E3 Analytics, and Anna Leidreiter, climate and energy policy officer at the World Future Council − point out that heating and cooling, and particularly transport, without fossil fuels is far more challenging, but still equally possible. Some countries are already committed to it.

Denmark, a pioneer in the field, has a target of achieving all its electricity and heating needs from renewables by 2035, and all energy sectors − including transport − by 2050. This includes an expansion of wind and solar power, biogas, ground source heat pumps, and wood-based biomass. Because of its investments, the country expects to have saved €920 million on energy costs by 2020.

At the opposite end of the scale, El Hierro, a small island in the Canaries, has a 100% energy strategy, using a wind farm and a volcanic crater. When excess electricity is produced by the wind farm, water is pumped into the volcanic crater, which acts as a storage lake for a hydroelectric plant. This supplements the island’s electricity supply when the wind drops or when demand is very high.

A future component of El Hierro’s strategy is to replace the island’s entire stock of 4,500 cars with electric vehicles, so cutting the need to import fuel.

Surplus electricity

Some places have already exceeded 100% electricity from renewables. The Rhein-Hunsruck district west of Frankfurt, Germany, managed this in 2012, and expects by the end of this year to be producing 230% of its needs, exporting the surplus to neighbouring areas through the national grid. It hopes to use the surplus in future for local transportation, hydrogen or methane production.

There are many other examples in the report, including from San Francisco in the US, Cape Verde island in West Africa, Bangladesh, Costa Rica, and Tuvalu island in the Pacific. These show that both rich and poor communities can share the benefits of the renewable revolution – and, in the case of the 3 billion people still without electric power in the world, bypass the need for fossil fuels altogether.

Jeremy Leggett, a pioneer of solar power and author of a foreword to the report, says: “We are on the verge of a profound and urgently necessary shift in the way we produce and use energy.

“This shift will move the world away from the consumption of fossil resources towards cleaner, renewable forms of power. Renewable energy technologies are blowing the whistle on oil dependency and will spark an economic and social renaissance.

“The question is: Do we make this transition from fossil resources to renewables on our own terms, in ways that maximise the benefits to us today and to future generations, or do we turn our heads away and suffer the economic and social shocks that rising prices and market volatility will create?” – Climate News Network

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