Downsizing may be the new nuclear option

Downsizing may be the new nuclear option

As delays and spiralling costs hit plans for big nuclear power stations, building thousands of small reactors could be part of a strategy to fight climate change.

LONDON, 9 October, 2015 – Nuclear reactors that will fit on the back of a truck are the great new hope for nuclear industry expansion.

These small modular reactors (SMRs) are being backed by the US, China and the UK as part of a low-carbon electricity strategy to deploy alongside renewables.

Several manufacturers are designing and building prototype reactors that are similar to the power providers for icebreakers and nuclear submarines. They vary in capacity up to 30 megawatts − enough to produce enough electricity for a small town.

All the major manufacturers, electricity suppliers, regulators and some enthusiastic politicians will attend an SMR summit in London for two days from October 20, with the aim of getting the reactors from the design and development stage to widespread deployment.

Critical time

The push to develop SMRs comes at a critical time for the nuclear industry as the building of traditional large nuclear power stations is increasingly marked by cost over-runs and delays.

They are also seen as out of step with modern grids, where small-scale renewables close to the point of use are beginning to dominate.

The idea of SMRs is that they can fit the modern pattern and be deployed close to population centres where the power is needed, so avoiding the 10% power loss from large reactors that is inevitable because of the vast distances the power is transmitted.

In most countries, safety and the need for large quantities of cooling water dictate that traditional large nuclear power stations are sited on the coast, or in remote places isolated far from big towns and cities.

The UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, a government body, believes there is vast potential for SMRs, estimating that they could provide 65-85 gigawatts of new electricity production by 2035, valued at £250-£400 billion (about US$400-615 bn) of business.

If this estimate is anywhere near accurate, this would mean around 3,000 small reactors being deployed worldwide in the next 20 years.

“The next two or three years will be critical in development if small modular reactors are to be deployed extensively in the next 10 years”

Gordon Waddington, of Rowan House consultants, will chair the London meeting. He was formerly a leading engineer with Rolls-Royce, is an expert on the nuclear industry, and believes that SMRs are vital in combating climate change.

Despite this, he says that there are considerable technical problems in the UK over the  deployment of SMRs, with regard to meeting safety and security requirements − including the safeguarding of nuclear materials − while keeping the power produced at an economic price.

The price tag of £1bn-2bn per reactor is well below the £24 billion for current large reactors, but is still a considerable outlay for an as yet untried technology. “It would take a significant leap of faith for any utility to build the first reactor,” Waddington says.

There are also other problems, such as getting local approval for siting the reactors, and getting agreement on prices for the electricity.

However, Waddington also sees it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to get involved in an industry as it takes off, and for a country like the UK to develop SMRs for the domestic market and also for export.

He says: “The next two or three years will be critical in development if small modular reactors are to be deployed extensively in the next 10 years.”

Amber Rudd, the UK government’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary, who has reduced wind and solar subsidies, is keen to underwrite the nuclear industry.

At the governing Conservative party’s annual conference this week, she praised the work of Sheffield University’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and specifically its work on the next generation of SMRs.

Cost to consumers

However, she also revealed that the UK is reviewing its energy policy, which means that support for nuclear − with the extra cost to consumers it will involve − might not be acceptable when wind and solar are already much cheaper, and when electricity demand in the UK is going down.

So far, however, politicians and the nuclear industry keep repeating the myth that the UK’s existing nuclear stations are going to close down in the next decade.

George Osborne, the UK chancellor, last week gave this as the main reason for his government offering a £2 billion loan guarantee to the Chinese if they will help new nuclear construction in Britain.

This is despite the fact that the French company EDF, which owns all but one of Britain’s nuclear stations, has a policy of investing in the old stations and seeking five-year extensions in the lifetimes of all its reactors – in one case, for 20 years.

Some have already been granted extensions and, under British regulations, these extensions could be repeated every five years for decades, provided the reactors remain safe. – Climate News Network

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Scientists push boundaries to find alternative energy

Scientists push boundaries to find alternative energy

From algae to alloys, ingenuity in the world’s laboratories is fuelling experiments to find new ways of providing viable sources of clean energy.

LONDON, 8 October, 2015 – Wind and solar energy remain the only obvious replacements for fossil fuels, but recent research shows that scientists are clearly thinking outside the box to come up with future alternatives.

They have recently been able to report at least theoretical progress with nuclear energy, algae, and a novel alloy.

In just a few days, they proved that thermonuclear fusion – once somebody works out how to make it happen – will be economically viable.

They have worked out how to cultivate green algae for biofuel in huge quantities at US$50 a barrel, which is about the cost of crude oil.

They have even found a way to get electrical energy directly from cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae.

And they have exploited an alloy that can deliver a colossal pulse of electric power when you kick it.

Experimental stage

None of these technologies has advanced beyond the experimental stage, but all are testament to the ingenuity now being deployed in the world’s laboratories and experimental start-ups.

Fusion power – not to be confused with nuclear fission – exploits the thermonuclear conversion of hydrogen to helium with little or no noxious discharge and the generous release of energy.

This is what powers the sun and fuels the planet’s life. It is also the basis of the thermonuclear bomb. For the last 60 years, humans have been trying to make fusion work peacefully on Earth, with only tantalising flickers of success.

But if it does work, British scientists report in the journal Fusion Engineering and Design, it will not be too expensive.

They analysed the cost of building, running and ultimately decommissioning a fusion power station, and found it comparable to fission or nuclear energy.

The challenge of nuclear fusion is to heat stripped-down heavy hydrogen atoms to 100 million °C so that they fuse into helium, while finding a way to tap the released energy, and at the same time keep the reaction going.

“What we can say is that our predictions
suggest fusion won’t be vastly
more expensive than fission”

The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), now being built in the South of France, might in a decade show that it could happen. Assuming it works, the process should be affordable. There would be no high-level radioactive waste, no problems with finding fuel, and no by-product that could be turned into nuclear weaponry.

“Obviously we have had to make assumptions, but what we can say is that our predictions suggest fusion won’t be vastly more expensive than fission,” said Damian Hampshire, of the Centre for Materials Physics at Durham University, UK.

“Calculating the cost of a fusion reactor is complex, given the variations in the cost of the raw materials and exchange rates. However, this work is a big step in the right direction.”

Biofuel is currently based mostly on the conversion of agricultural crops – sugar cane, or corn – to feedstock for ethanol, which can be converted into gasoline or other fuels. But, in a hungry world, this is not an ideal solution.

So researchers have been looking at the microbial plant life in waste water and ponds as a possible answer, with promising experimental results on the small scale.

But now an Israeli company called Univerve has pioneered a cultivation system that gets ever more sunlight to speed up photosynthesis and get the algae working ever harder

They report in Technology journal that they bubbled air through a suspended, modular triangular structure with transparent walls so the algae get their solar energy from all sides and their oxygen at all times.

They promise green reactors up to 100 metres, holding 100 cubic metres of “production medium”, or algae. There is a bonus: algae make omega-3 oils, so it could also serve the food industry and deliver cattle feed, as well as feedstock for the biofuel business.

In Montreal, Canada, researchers report in the same journal that they can tap into the photosynthesis in the tank full of algae and directly retrieve clean energy in the form of electricity.

The process involves tapping into the electron transfer chains in the plant life that turn sunlight into carbon-based tissue. In essence, the tank of cyanobacteria serves as the anode in a biological battery.


Having demonstrated the principle, the next step is to work out how to get commercially-useful power from what becomes, quite literally, the power plant.

In the US, civilian and military scientists have been looking again at an alloy of iron doped with gallium that has been around for decades, but which has just shown that it can produce electricity.

It has been named Galfenol, and is described in the Journal of Applied Physics as magnetoelastic. Squeeze or deform it, and its magnetisation changes. Stick it in a magnetic field, and it changes shape.

The scientists found that when boxed in a clamp so that it could not deform, wrapped with copper wire and subjected to a powerful impact, Galfenol generated as much as 80 megawatts of instantaneous power per cubic metre. That is, it converted mechanical energy into electromagnetic discharge.

Right now, like the other advances, it remains a discovery awaiting an application. But energy researchers are certainly applying great ingenuity to the search for clean energy sources. – Climate News Network

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UK is accused of rigging market against renewables

UK is accused of rigging market against renewables

As electricity from renewable sources tops 25% in the UK, the government is challenged to create a level playing field by scrapping nuclear and fossil-fuel subsidies.

LONDON, 7 October, 2015 – One of the pioneers of the United Kingdom’s renewable energy industry says the British government is distorting the market in an attempt to support fossil fuels and nuclear power.

His accusation comes as the industry’s trade association, RenewableUK, announces that in the second quarter of this year renewable energy produced 25.3% of the country’s electricity − more than either nuclear power (21.5%) or coal (20.5%).

The accuser is Dale Vince, who in 1995 founded the green energy company Ecotricity, which supplies almost 170,000 British customers with wind and solar power.

He is challenging the government to scrap its subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuels in order to “create a level playing field” after it cut support for renewable energy.

Abandon policies

Last month, the influential Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said countries should abandon fossil fuel support policies.

Vince said that in the second quarter of 2015 renewable energy had, for the first time, outperformed the nuclear and coal industries. And it had done so with a fraction of the subsidies that fossil fuels and nuclear power enjoyed.

He said: “Renewable energy receives one-tenth of the support that fossil fuels do, yet powers 25% of the country. And government says only renewable energy has to stand on its own two feet. It makes no economic sense.

“Britain is blessed with enough renewable energy to power our entire country several times over, safely, without pollution, and at the lowest cost of all energy sources.

“If there was a level playing field in Britain, renewable energy would win hands down”

Vince said the International Monetary Fund put UK subsidies to the fossil industries in Britain at £30 billion (US$45.5 bn) annually – more than £1,000 ($1,500) per household per year.

“In contrast, support for all renewable energy amounted to £2.6 billion last year, about £100 per household per year, with onshore wind − which is the main focus of government attacks − adding just £10 to household energy bills.

“Government says only renewable energy has to stand on its own two feet. It makes no economic sense.”

“Unfortunately, the government appears ideologically opposed to renewable energy and has moved to put a stop to this incredible success story.

“It is not just cutting all support and increasing planning hurdles, but even going so far as to make renewable energy pay the Climate Change Levy, which is (or was) a tax on fossil fuels to fund climate change measures. Renewable energy in Britain now effectively subsidises the fossil fuel industry – to the tune of £1 billion every year.”

Last week, the government announced it would pay a further £2 bn to encourage the Chinese to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in the west of England.

Vince said the plant would be paid twice the market price for power, for the next 35 years − “and then we’ll have to clean up the mess left behind, which already amounts to £120 billion for the current fleet of nuclear plants being decommissioned”.

Widespread criticism

Plans by the government to supplement its ageing fleet of nuclear power stations with a new reactor at Hinkley Point is attracting widespread criticism – not just from anti-nuclear campaigners, but also from the energy industry and investment banks.

The government is also intent on exploiting shale gas. As the energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, explained in August: “We are backing the safe development of shale gas because it’s good for jobs, giving hardworking people and their families more financial security, good for our energy security, and part of our plan to decarbonise the economy.

“We need more secure, home-grown energy supplies – and shale gas must play a part in that.”

As claims mount that the UK’s energy policy is in disarray, the hapless Rudd has been renamed “Amber Rudderless” by some of her critics.

The UK government’s policy appears to ignore global trends. Worldwide, 2015 marks a doubling of the renewable energy sector from its size just 10 years ago. – Climate News Network

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Climate change raises danger for urban heat islands

Climate change raises danger for urban heat islands

Scientists warn that densely-packed cities face even greater health hazards as greenhouse gases continue to push up temperatures.

LONDON, 6 October, 2015 – However hot the weather gets, it will be worse in the cities – and scientists in the US have just worked out how much worse by measuring the notorious urban heat island effect.

They planted 150 sensors in and around Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, in time for the heatwaves that hit the US in 2012, and found that the city experienced twice as many hours at temperatures above 90° Fahrenheit (32°C) than the surrounding rural areas.

Sealed roads and pavements, bricks, tiles, concrete and slate all absorb heat. But densely-packed cities also generate their own heat − from traffic exhausts, lighting, central heating, and air conditioning.

Greater investment in air conditioning will make things worse, as all the heat inside buildings will be dumped into the streets, adding to the stress.

Cooling mechanism

Furthermore, water – which, when it evaporates, cools the grass and the trees – runs off the urban pavements into subterranean drains, so cities surrender another natural cooling mechanism.

The consequence is that any urban area is likely to be several degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside. Half of the world’s billions now live in cities; by 2050, it will be two-thirds.

Extremes of heat are likely to become more pronounced and more frequent as global average temperatures climb in step with greenhouse gas discharges from the combustion of fossil fuels, so the crowded cities could become a serious health hazard, especially in the tropics.

As temperatures stayed above 40°C in southern Pakistan in June this year, so many died that cemeteries in Karachi  ran out of space. About 65,000 people had to be treated for heat stroke.

“Projections are underestimating the amount of heat urban communities need to prepare for”

“Not only do heatwaves intensify the urban heat island, but the heat island also intensifies the heatwaves, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’d want,” says Jason Schatz, an environmental researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

He and research colleague Christopher Kucharik report in Environmental Research Letters that Madison’s airport recorded 39 days with temperatures higher than 90°F in 2012. Downtown Madison experienced more than 49 days of dangerous temperatures.

Conversely, when a polar vortex delivered extremes of cold to the northern and eastern US in the winter of 2013-14, Madison gained from the urban heat island effect as city-dwellers experienced 40% fewer hours at below-freezing temperatures.

Frequent extremes

Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that climate change will bring greater and more frequent extremes of heat and drought that could compromise electricity supplies, which in turn would amplify the risks to health.

Other scientists have tried to find a form of city planning that might relieve the city-dweller, and have confirmed that the more trees and green spaces, the better the environment.

Madison normally experiences nine days a year with temperatures higher than 90°F, but climate scientists forecast that, by mid-century, this temperature will be surpassed on average by 29 to 37 days. And these projections do not allow for the urban heat island effect − the extra swelter factor at the heart of every big city.

“Cities are where most people will encounter future warming, and projections are underestimating the amount of heat urban communities need to prepare for,” Dr Kucharik warns. – Climate News Network

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Warmer winters slow the growth of forest giants

Warmer winters slow the growth of forest giants

Trees coming into leaf later and bumblebees with shorter tongues are just two of the impacts on nature that researchers are linking to global warming.

LONDON, 4 October, 2015 − Spring is arriving ever earlier as greenhouse gas levels rise and global temperatures warm, and the northern hemisphere growing season is now two weeks longer  than it was in 1900.

But, paradoxically, new research shows that forest giants that once responded to the early spring are beginning to slow down – because they miss the chill.

Yongshuo Fu, an Earth system scientist at Peking University, Beijing, and colleagues report in Nature journal that they have measured a slowdown in the response of oaks and other forest citizens to the change in temperatures and carbon dioxide levels.

Where these species, on average, unfolded their first leaves four days earlier, with every 1˚C rise in temperature, they now do so only 2.3 days earlier for every additional 1˚C.

Ever-earlier spring

The reason is that, to take full advantage of the ever-earlier spring, these deciduous species first need to feel a period of chill. And as temperatures on average rise, the extent of true winter chill diminishes.

The researchers concede that there may be other or additional reasons why alder (Alnus glutinosa), silver birch (Betula pendula), horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), beech (Fagus sylvatica), lime (Tilia cordata), oak (Quercus robur) and ash (Fraxinus excelsior) seem to be slowing in their leafy response.

But since many deciduous trees depend on a frosty spell to release them from their periods of dormancy, it seems a likely factor.

The scientists show once again that as humans change the climate, they are also changing the ecosystems that support all life on Earth

To identify the slowdown, the researchers used data from the Pan-European Phenology Project, which for 33 years has monitored the unfolding of the first leaves of all seven species at 1,245 sites across central Europe.

The scientists used direct observation, and confirmed their hypothesis with computer models to show once again that as humans change the climate, by increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as a consequence of the combustion of fossil fuels, they are also changing the ecosystems that support all life on Earth.

And in the same week, US scientists report that as global warming begins to change the mix of mountain wildflowers each spring, pollinating insects too are beginning to respond.

Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a biologist at the State University of New York, and colleagues report in Science journal that, in the last 40 years, the tongues of two species of alpine bumblebee have grown shorter.

Bumblebees need long tongues to reach deep into the flower tubes of the plants they favour. But warmer summers have meant that the flowers they favour most in the Rocky Mountains have become less frequent, and pollinators that once specialised have now become generalist foragers, grabbing honey where they can.

In the course of doing so, two that are commonly found at high altitudes, species Bombus balteatus and B. sylvicola, have evolved shorter tongues.

Gaining altitude

The mix of flowers at lower altitudes has become impoverished, and although mountain flowers have been gaining altitude over the decades, the gain in higher growth has not been enough to offset the loss for the bees.

The research confirms a wider picture of change as a consequence of global warming. In the Americas, plants are colonising higher slopes, and in Europe the bumblebee has also been feeling the heat, and losing part of its range.

In general, high altitude sites seem to be warming faster than the lowlands.

Research of this kind provides a local snapshot of global change, and what it means for individual species in nature’s mix.

“We see broader bumblebee foraging niches, immigration by short-tongued bumblebees, and shorter tongue length within resident bee populations as floral resources have dwindled,” the scientists conclude.

“In remote mountain habitats − largely isolated from habitat destruction, toxins, and pathogens − evolution is helping wild bees keep pace with climate change.” – Climate News Network

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America’s Atlantic coast set to take a worse battering

America’s Atlantic coast set to take a worse battering

Scientists say the eastern seaboard of the US faces more frequent storms and flooding as sea levels continue to rise with climate change.

LONDON, 3 October 2015 −Sea level rise and global warming spell danger for New York as average flood heights have risen by 1.25 metres along that part of the US coast − and new research warns that the devastating flood that arrived with Superstorm Sandy in 2012 could happen again.

A flood height of 2.25 metres would once have happened only every 500 years. Now scientists say it could recur every 25 years.

And a second study finds that almost the entire US Atlantic coast is increasingly at risk from the combined hazards of storm surge and sea level rise, and that this risk rises dramatically with time. According to one scenario, it could increase 350-fold.

The two studies are based on different approaches, but they reinforce each other’s conclusions.

Historic approach

Andra Reed, a researcher in the Department of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University in the US, and colleagues report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the devastation of Sandy prompted them to take the historic approach.

They did this by using fossil evidence to reconstruct the history of flooding along the coast where New York City now stands.

The 2012 hurricane breached the sea walls at Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan, and flooded the city’s subway tunnels, but the city’s record of such surges goes back only to 1850.

So the researchers used a mix of climate models and evidence from sediments and tiny marine organisms to build up a picture of sea level change between AD 850 and 2005.

“In the pre-anthropogenic era, the return period for a storm producing a surge of 2.81 metres or greater, like Sandy at the Battery, would have been about 3,000 years,” Reed said. “We found that, in the anthropogenic era, the return period for this same storm surge height has been reduced to about 130 years.”

“A storm that occurred once in seven generations is now occurring
twice in a generation”

Her co-author, Benjamin Horton, professor of marine and coastal sciences at Rutgers University, put the same findings another way. “A storm that occurred once in seven generations is now occurring twice in a generation,” he said.

The 1,200-year reconstruction of sea level change showed that sea level rise had risen at its steepest rate in 1,000 years in the last century. This meant that “an extra 100,000 people flooded in the region during Hurricane Sandy who would not have been flooded if sea level had not been rising”.

Sandy caused an estimated $50 billion worth of damage and destroyed 600,000 houses. But concern about storms and floods – especially along densely populated coasts – is not new.

In the last three years, researchers have warned that maritime cities could by 2050 face an annual toll of $1 trillion in flood defences and damage, and this may have risen to $100 trillion by 2100.

America’s eastern seaboard already experiences sea level rises above the global average, and routine high tide flooding presents an increasing hazard.

But the unholy mix of rising seas and more intense coastal storms presents special dangers, according to Christopher Little, a climate scientist at Atmospheric and Environmental Research in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Climate models

He and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change journal that they analysed 15 climate models at five locations – Atlantic City in New Jersey, Charleston in South Carolina, Key West and Pensacola in Florida, and Galveston in Texas – to see not just what would happen to sea level rise, and to the frequency and intensity of hurricanes, but also the chances that the two could coincide.

They calculated what might happen if the planet greatly reduced the emissions of greenhouse gases − produced by the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas − and what could be expected if the humans went on burning them in the “business-as-usual” scenario.

Even if the planet voted for severe cuts in fossil fuel use, the combined heights and durations of future floods could increase at least fourfold, and perhaps as much as 75-fold. If humans carry on pumping oil and shovelling on the coal, this “flood index” could increase by 35 to 350 times.

“When you look at hazards separately, it’s bad enough, but when you consider the joint effects of two hazards together, you can get some surprises,” says one of the report’s co-authors, Radley Horton, a climate systems researcher at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Sometimes one plus one can equal three.” – Climate News Network

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Climate change threatens global financial crash

Climate change threatens global financial crash

The world’s most influential banker says an orderly switch from fossil fuels to renewables is needed to avoid turmoil on world stock markets.

LONDON, 2 October, 2015 − A warning that climate change might make the world’s stock markets and banks unstable and lead to a financial crash has come from Mark Carney, chairman of the G20 countries’ Financial Stability Board.

Carney, who is also Governor of the Bank of England, particularly warns about the effects on the market if panic selling occurs and there is a plunge in value of shares in fossil fuel companies and industries that produce a lot of carbon dioxide.

These companies, some of the world’s largest, control one-third of stock market assets. If investors realise these stocks are overvalued and try to sell them all at once, it will cause chaos, Carney said.

The stark warning is a “remarkable intervention” from one of the world’s most conservative and influential bankers, who says he will be advising the world’s richest nations at the G20 summit in November to put policies in place to prevent climate change causing future severe turmoil in the markets.

Unpaid loans

He warned that banks might become unstable because the billions of dollars in loans they have made to fossil fuel companies might not be repaid.

Carney suggests that there will be a switch of investments from carbon-intensive industries to renewables. He says investments in fossil fuel companies might be seen as overvalued because, to avoid dangerous climate change, more than two-thirds of fossil fuels will need to be left in the ground.

Carney’s warning is in stark contrast to the policies of George Osborne, the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer, who appointed him to his role as Bank of England governor in 2012.

Osborne has this year been demolishing the UK’s on-shore wind and solar subsidy programme, while providing tax breaks to North Sea oil companies to find more reserves and giving the go-ahead for fracking gas over large areas of England.

Carney did not comment on this policy rift, saying it was up to governments not bankers to make decisions about how to move to a low-carbon economy, but he said they must manage the transition in a way that did not cause market shocks.

The weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that . . . climate change will threaten financial resilience
and longer-term prosperity”

Speaking to Lloyd’s of London, one of the biggest insurance markets in the world, he said giving investors maximum information would allow them to make sensible decisions about when to disinvest in fossil fuels.

Politicians had to manage this without suddenly revealing that some stocks were overvalued because company assets would be “stranded” because oil coal and gas would always have to remain in the ground.

He said he was going to recommend to G20 countries in November, ahead of the UN climate change conference in Paris the following month, that they start setting a carbon price so that investors could see how large companies emitting carbon dioxide would be affected.

Carney told the BBC: “The point is the risks build with time, and they build more rapidly with inaction, so climate change is a function of cumulative emissions, so the slower the action is today, the bigger the action has to be in the future.

“That would mean more abrupt change, that would mean bigger shocks to the value of financial assets, bigger strains on banks and insurance companies that are exposed to those assets, so what we’re trying to do is to promote as smooth an adjustment as possible. We think it can be done, and we think it can be done by providing better information.”

Zero emissions

He called for the setting up of a Climate Disclosure Task Force so that all companies would have to declare how much carbon they emitted or produced, and how they were going to proceed to zero emissions in the future. Since the G20 countries are responsible for 85% of emissions, they would be a good starting point.

“Our societies face a series of profound environmental and social challenges,” he said. “The combination of the weight of scientific evidence and the dynamics of the financial system suggest that, in the fullness of time, climate change will threaten financial resilience and longer-term prosperity.

“While there is still time to act, the window of opportunity is finite and shrinking.”

Jeremy Leggett,  founder of Solarcentury, the largest UK solar electricity company, and chairman of the CarbonTracker thinktank, described it as “a momentous announcement when such an eminent banker tells the world that climate change is the biggest issue of the future”.

He said: “Carney’s remarkable statement of position also raises the remarkable corollary that George Osborne might well now be party to the sabotage of the capital markets.” – Climate News Network

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Brazil’s demarcation plans put people and planet at risk

Brazil’s demarcation plans put people and planet at risk

Threat to Brazil’s indigenous reserves raises climate and health concerns as studies show that reduced deforestation leads to lower CO2 emissions and better air quality.

SÃO PAULO, 1 October, 2015 − Environmental organisations warn that a bill now going through the Brazilian Congress to transfer responsibility for demarcating indigenous reserves from federal government experts to politicians could lead to an increase of 110 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030.

The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) calculates that the accumulated carbon stock inside indigenous reserves in the Amazon basin amounts to 47 billion tonnes − or more than a year’s worth of global emissions.

Studies have shown that rainforest located in indigenous reserves is almost always preserved, even when much of the land around it has been cleared for farming.

But the controversial bill that might soon be voted into law could radically change that situation by giving Congress responsibility for demarcating indigenous reserves − which critics liken to asking the fox to look after the chicken house.

The 2014 elections in Brazil produced a very reactionary chamber of deputies, many of them belonging to the “bullet, bull and bible” lobbies defending law and order, agribusiness and conservative moral issues, with very little sympathy for, or understanding of, Brazil’s hundreds of indigenous groups.

Formally recognised

At present, indigenous lands are formally recognised only after detailed anthropological, archaeological and historical studies conducted by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency for policies relating to indigenous peoples, which then physically demarcates their territory.

It is a slow and painstaking process that allows for the compensation of farmers who have settled in good faith − sometimes with land titles dating back to Brazil’s imperial government in the 19th century.

The 698 indigenous reserves occupy 13% of Brazil’s total land area, almost all (98%) of it in the Amazon basin. Two-thirds have been officially recognised, while another 228 await demarcation, but the bill could include a clause making even recognised reserves open to revision.

If the demarcation process were transferred to congress, environmental groups such as the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a well-respected Brazilian NGO, fear that forested indigenous areas will be opened up “to high impact activities like mining, dams, oil and gas pipelines, waterways, railways, roads, and non-indigenous settlements and farming activities”.

“Even outside Amazonia, indigenous reserves have played an important role in safeguarding biodiversity”

“It is worth emphasising the strategic importance of indigenous lands for environmental conservation,” ISA says.

The accumulated deforestation in indigenous territories in Amazonia is just 1.9% of the original forested area within them, compared to overall deforestation of 22.8% of the total original forested area, according to figures produced for 2013 by the Programme to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon (PRODES), the monitoring project of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.

“Even outside Amazonia, where indigenous reserves are much smaller in area, they have played an important role in safeguarding biodiversity,” ISA adds.

If the new bill is approved by Congress, IPAM reckons that the probable changes could lead to an extra 110 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2030.

The Brazilian government is committed to zero illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, but embattled president Dilma Rousseff is currently too busy fighting the threat of impeachment to take on another fight with some of the Congress members she needs to keep on her side.

Criminal loggers

The government has mounted a number of successful law enforcement operations to crack down on criminal loggers, and deforestation rates have been falling. But if indigenous areas stop being protected, and fall into the hands of farmers, loggers and mining companies, the Forest Code allows for 20% of the acquired area to be cleared.

According to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, falling deforestation rates are not only good for reducing CO2 emissions, but have also contributed to saving lives by improving air quality.

The study found that the 40% reduction in Brazil’s deforestation rates since 2004 is preventing 1,060 premature adult mortalities annually across South America, because of the consequent reduction in fire emissions and, therefore, of particulate matter (PM).

The study says: “Inhalation of PM from fires has adverse impacts on human health, including increased hospital admissions and premature mortality.”

It estimates that deforestation fires alone cause an average of 2,906 premature deaths annually across South America from cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer. – Climate News Network

  • Jan Rocha, a freelance journalist living in Brazil, is a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian.
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Safer battery could spark investment in renewables

Safer battery could spark investment in renewables

Researchers have developed a battery that uses a common food additive to enable abundant solar and wind power to be stored cheaply and safely in homes and offices.

LONDON, 30 September, 2015 − The dream of a home battery – cheap, durable, safe, and as big as you like – that could store solar or wind power is a step nearer reality.

Researchers from Harvard University in the US report that they have tested a “flow battery” that uses cheap and abundant chemical elements, can be operated with plastic components, will not catch fire, and can operate at 99% efficiency.

Such batteries could be used to save and store surplus wind and solar power, which could then be used at times when neither form of renewable energy can deliver.

The latest advances are based on technology already tested by the same engineers, but made more attractive with a switch to chemical components that are non-toxic, non-flammable, and safe for use in homes and offices.

Electrical action

Typically, flow batteries have exploited a metal, such as vanadium, dissolved in acid to deliver electrical action.

Kaixiang Lin, a chemistry student at Harvard, Michael Marshak, now assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues report in Science journal that, instead of costly and difficult-to-handle metals, they have tested naturally-occurring, carbon-based molecules called quinines for the negative electrolyte component of the battery.

They had started their experiments with bromine-based electrolyte for the positive ions, but bromine is toxic and volatile. So they replaced it with a non-toxic, non-corrosive ion called ferrocyanide.

“It sounds bad because it has the word cyanide in it,” Dr Marshak says. “Cyanide kills you because it binds very tightly to iron in your body. In ferrocyanide, it’s already bound to iron, so it’s safe. In fact, ferrocyanide is commonly used as a food additive, and also as a fertilizer.”

“It can’t catch fire – and that’s huge when you
are storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people”

The combination of a common organic dye and a cheap food additive in alkaline, rather than acidic solutions, meant that the researchers could increase their battery voltage by 50%.

It also means − at least in principle − that a domestic residence could store its own surplus solar or wind power and keep the refrigerator or the central heating running after sunset or on windless days. How much a house could store would depend only on the size of the tanks that held the two electrolytes.

“This is chemistry I’d be happy to put in my basement,” says Michael Aziz, a professor of materials and energy technologies at Harvard, who has led the research. “The non-toxicity and the cheap, abundant materials placed in water solution mean that it’s safe. It can’t catch fire – and that’s huge when you are storing large amounts of electrical energy anywhere near people.”

The improved flow battery stores energy in liquids contained in external tanks. Image: Kaixiang Lin/Harvard University

The improved flow battery stores energy in liquids contained in external tanks (here in red and green). Image: Kaixiang Lin/Harvard University

The storage problem has consistently been held against investment in solar and wind energy, but a safe, cheap and capacious technology could change the economics of renewable power generation.

Paradoxically, another group of researchers from the same university have, in the same week, argued that the storage shortfall might be a non-problem.

Hossein Safaei and David Keith, of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard, report in the Energy & Environmental Science journal that the supply of wind and solar power could be increased tenfold without any additional storage.

Energy shortfall

Even though wind and solar power deliver energy intermittently, relatively-low carbon gas turbines and zero-carbon sources − such as nuclear, hydropower and biomass − could be used to make up the shortfall.

The researchers do not argue that better batteries would be of no advantage. Their case is that the absence of better batteries need not, and should not, stop investment in renewables.

They are not the first to argue this. At least one group has calculated that the US could get 99% of its energy from zero-carbon sources.

“We’re trying to knock out a salient policy meme that says you can’t grow variable renewables without a proportionate increase in storage,” Professor Keith says.

“We could cut electric sector carbon emissions to less than a third of their current levels using variable renewable, with natural gas to manage the intermittency. But this will require us to keep growing the electricity transmission infrastructure.” – Climate News Network

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Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

Elephant grass could offer viable alternative to coal

By adapting a tropical grass to grow in the British climate, scientists hope to be able to replace coal in power stations with biofuel.

LONDON, 29 September, 2015 − The UK government is spending £1.8 million on a scientific project that aims to breed a new seed-producing variety of tropical grass that could provide a viable source of fuel for power stations.

Miscanthus, better known as elephant grass, is already being used in Europe to produce biofuel to replace coal in power stations − but growing enough of it is the main drawback.

So scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales are being given government funding to help develop miscanthus strains that like UK conditions and produce viable seeds, without losing the fast-growing and drying properties that make it ideal for biofuel.

The variety currently used is Miscanthus x Giganteus, which grows fast – up to three metres tall − on poor agricultural land in Europe to produce a cash crop for farmers in the spring, when the dried stalks from the previous year are ideal for burning in power stations.

Hybrid variety

However, the “giganteus” is a hybrid variety that does not produce viable seeds. To grow a new plant, farmers currently have to break off and sow a bit of the root, or rhizome, of another elephant grass.

Even with machines to plant dozens of chopped-up rhizomes, it is very time-consuming to plant enough elephant grass to feed a power station, or to make bio-fuel for cars. If the grass produced seed, areas could be planted 200 times faster.

Currently, the UK demand for biomass for electricity is more than 5 million tonnes a year, of which 75% is imported − which partly defeats the object, since transporting biomass uses fossil fuels.

The theory is that all of these imports could be replaced by elephant grass if UK farmers were given the means to plant enough.

“We need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels”

In addition, smaller local biomass plants could be built near where the elephant grass grows, thus cutting transport costs. And any surplus could be used to produce liquid fuel to power lorries and cars.

According to enthusiasts, if a car engine used a gallon of fuel every 25 miles, one tonne of miscanthus could produce biofuel to drive over 750 miles.

Once the grass has been planted, it lives for 20 years and produces 10-20 tonnes of fuel per hectare. It is also said to be beneficial for birds and wildlife that live protected inside the almost impenetrable foliage and in the leaf litter between the rows.

In some parts of the world, miscanthus varieties that do produce seeds can be a problem as they can block watercourses and are hard to remove once their roots have become established.

However, the scientists at Aberystwyth University’s Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences are confident that they can produce a plant that reproduces and grows well in European conditions, while avoiding any environmental problems with careful management.

Reduce emissions

Dr John Clifford Brown, leader of the project, believes that the crop will benefit the agricultural industry and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions.

He revealed that the university has already spent 10 years working on developing miscanthus into a crop that can supply the UK’s growing biomass demand, and that the seeds of the new hybrids will be planted at four trial sites across the UK to see which performs best.

“Several harvesting approaches will be explored to maximise crop quality and quantity,” he said. “The overall goal is to develop new systems for miscanthus-based agriculture that increase profitability, and so enable transition of today’s niche crop into a large-scale biomass supply system.

“The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and we also need to develop our economy to take advantage of green technologies, as opposed to relying on a limited stock of fossil fuels.” – Climate News Network

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