Tag Archives: Energy

How to Build Climate Resilience in Ecosystems

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Some ecosystems show little response [to climate change] until a threshold or tipping point is reached where even a small perturbation may trigger collapse into a state from which  recovery is difficult .  ….[S}uch collapse may be altered by conditions that can be managed locally…. [This] provides  potential opportunities for pro-active management.…[C]rises in iconic UNESCO World Heritage sites illustrate that such stewardship is at risk of failing. The term “safe operating space” frames the  problem of managing our planet in terms of staying within acceptable levels or “boundaries” for global stressors [Such as climate change]….

Obviously, local interventions are no panacea for the threats of climatic change. For example, melting of arctic sea ice with its far-reaching ecological consequences cannot be arrested by local management. However, ways of building climate resilience are emerging for a variety of ecosystems, ranging from control of local sources of ocean acidification  to management of grazing pressure on dry ecosystems,World Heritage Areas.

The Doñana wetlands in southern Spain provide the most important wintering site for waterfowl in Europe. They contain the largest temporary pond complex in Europe, with a diversity of amphibians and invertebrates. Despite the site’s protected status, the marshes are threatened by eutrophication due to pollution and reduced flow of incoming streams, promoting toxic cyanobacterial blooms and dominance by invasive floating plants that create anoxic conditions in the water. In addition, groundwater extraction for strawberry culture and beach tourism also has major impacts.  Little has been done to control these local stressors, leaving Doñana unnecessarily vulnerable to climate change. UNESCO has just rated this World Heritage Site as under ‘very high threat’.

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world. In response to multiple threats, fishing has been prohibited since 2004 over 33% of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and efforts have begun to reduce runoff of nutrients, pesticides, herbicides and sediments from land. However, these interventions may be too little, too late. Approximately half of the coral cover has been lost in recent decades, and the outlook is “poor, and declining” with climate change, coastal development and dredging as major future threats. The World Heritage Committee has warned that in the absence of a solid long-term plan, it would consider listing the reef as “in danger” in 2015.

More available online Creating a Safe Operating Space for Iconic Ecosystems By M. Scheffer et al, 2015

For the Love of Batteries: Storing Electricity

Districht heating accumulation tower of Theiss, near Krems an der Donau, Lower Austria with 50000 cubic meters volume.  Image from wikipedia

Batteries are a hugely important technology. Modern life would be impossible without them. But many engineers find them disappointing and feel that they could be better still. Produce the right battery at the right price, these engineers think, and you could make the internal-combustion engine redundant and usher in a world in which free fuel, in the form of wind and solar energy, was the norm. That really would be a revolution.

It is, however, a revolution that people have been awaiting a long time. And the longer they wait, the more the doubters wonder if it will ever happen. The Joint Centre for Energy Storage Research (JCESR)...hopes to prove the doubters wrong. It has drawn together the best brains in energy research from America’s national laboratories and universities, along with a group of interested companies. It has money, too. It has just received a grant of $120m from the country’s Department of Energy. The aim, snappily expressed, is to make batteries five times more powerful and five times cheaper in five years…

The first test of any combination of substances that comes out of the Materials Project, or anywhere else, will be to beat the most successful electricity-storage device to emerge over the past 20 years: the lithium-ion battery. Such batteries are now ubiquitous. Most famously, they power many of the electric and hybrid-electric cars that are starting to appear on the roads. More infamously, they have a tendency to overheat and burn. Two recent fires on board Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners may have been caused by such batteries or their control systems. Improving on lithium-ion would be a feather in the cap of any laboratory… McKinsey, a business consultancy, reckons that lithium-ion batteries might be competitive by 2020 but… there is still a lot of work to do. Moreover, pretenders to lithium-ion’s throne are already emerging.

The leader is probably the lithium-air battery…The lithium-air approach has consequently generated a lot of hype. It has problems, though, which will take years of research to resolve. Lithium-air batteries are hard to recharge and extremely temperamental. The chemical reaction which powers them is not far removed from spontaneous combustion. Lithium-air batteries are thus highly inflammable and require heavy safety systems to stop them catching fire. Luckily, the researchers at JCESR have other irons in the fire. One is the multivalent-ion battery….

The second transformation, besides electric cars, that better batteries might bring about is what is known as grid-scale storage. If this could be done cheaply enough it would revolutionise the economics of wind and solar energy by making the main problem with such sources—that the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow—irrelevant. To this end, Argonne’s researchers are working on what are known as flow batteries…Unlike batteries based on cells, flow batteries can be made very large indeed, so they can store vast amounts of energy. Hence the idea of using them to collect surplus power from wind turbines and solar panels and squirrel it away for use later. But their water-based electrolytes limit their potential…

A battery-driven world, then, would electrify parts of the economy, such as transport, that have been recalcitrant, and would encourage the shift from costly (and polluting) fossil fuels to “fuels” such as sunlight that cost nothing. As a manifesto for a revolution, that takes some beating. The question is, will the revolutionaries win, or will the ancien régime prevail?

Excerpts, The future of energy: Batteries included?, Economist, Feb. 2, 2013, at 67

The Golden Age of Coal

Yangzhou industrial area, China

Coal-fired power stations provide two-fifths of the world’s electricity, and there are ever more of them. In the doubling of the world’s electricity production over the past decade, two-thirds of the increase came from coal. At these rates, coal will vie with oil as the world’s largest source of primary energy within five years. As recently as 2001, it was not much more than half as important as oil

The main factor has been the unslakable thirst for energy in China, which in 2011 overtook America as the world’s biggest electricity producer. In 2001, according to the International Energy Agency, a club of rich nations, Chinese coal demand was about 600m tonnes of oil equivalent (25 exajoules). By 2011 China’s coal demand had tripled—a rise from two-thirds of the energy America gets from oil to twice that amount. China’s domestic coal industry produces more primary energy than Middle Eastern oil does.

Other developing economies are just as keen on coal, if not yet on such a grand scale. In India, producing 650 terawatt hours of electricity in 2010 took 311m tonnes of oil equivalent, and the power sector’s coal demand is growing at around 6% a year. The IEA reckons India could surpass America as the world’s second-largest coal consumer by 2017.

Meanwhile in Europe, which likes to see itself as a world leader on climate, they are using more and more of the stuff.

America’s coal business, like the rest of the country’s energy industry, has been upended by the advent of shale gas, now available in unforeseen quantities at unforeseen prices. In April 2012 the price fell below $2 per million British thermal units, or Btus ($7 per megawatt hour). This has made gas increasingly attractive to power companies, which have been switching away from coal in increasing numbers.

The decline of coal.. will be protracted. Coal-fired power stations are built to last—the oldest plant currently operating was built in the 1930s—so unless new rules force them to close, they will be retired gradually. By 2017 or so, reckons Brattle Group, a consultancy, coal use will stabilise again, as gas demand finally makes gas prices dearer than coal. Coal may be down in America. But it is not yet out

Coal in the rich world: The mixed fortunes of a fuel, Economist, Jan. 5, 2013, at 54

Oil Sands of Canada; sticky metal pipes

Canada’s oil sands contain some 170 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered economically with today’s technology (and perhaps ten times that in total). Canada thus has the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. And since most oil-rich nations’ reserves are under state control, Canada has the largest reserves that private companies are free to invest in—more than half of the global total, reckons Ken Hughes, Alberta’s energy minister.

Other countries welcome the idea of plentiful energy from a stable democracy. It could reduce the rich world’s dependence on the Middle East. There are “no bribes or body bags”, grins an oil-industry booster. And the potential is immense. A new study by the Alberta Geological Survey estimates that the province has huge resources in its shale beds as well as its oil sands: 3,400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 420 billion barrels of oil—numbers comparable to America’s.  However, Canada’s output of 3.5m barrels of oil a day is less than half that of America. (America’s output is set to exceed Saudi Arabia’s; see article.) Several problems hobble Canadian energy: geology, capital, people and pipes.

First, geology. Canadian oil is hard to extract. It mostly comes in the form of bitumen, which is “hard as a hockey puck” at 10°C, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), an industry body, puts it. If it is far below ground, it must be blasted with steam to make it flow, and then pumped out. This process (known as “steam-assisted gravity drainage”) was developed in Alberta. In the past decade, with high oil prices, it has made the oil sands economical to exploit. But precariously so: the best projects break even when oil is $30 a barrel, but many new ones need it to be $80 or more. (West Texas Intermediate is currently $85.)

See also Oi Sands Rush

Canada gets less than it should for its oil because it lacks enough pipelines. Environmentalists oppose them, arguing that pipes leak (which is always possible) and that Canada’s heavy oil causes more greenhouse-gas emissions than other oil (which is true, but not by much). President Barack Obama has delayed the approval of a pipeline called Keystone XL, which would move Canadian oil to America’s Gulf coast. A decision is expected soon.

Alex Pourbaix of TransCanada, the firm behind the Keystone pipeline, insists that the project will be good for both countries. Canada forgoes a fortune—perhaps $20 a barrel—because it cannot get its oil to the sea. Canadian gas sells at a discount, too: North American prices are far lower than those in Asia.  Another proposed pipeline, Northern Gateway, would carry oil to Canada’s west coast, whence it could be shipped to Asia. Canada would benefit from having a choice of customers. But the government of British Columbia, and various aboriginal groups, have yet to say yes.

To exploit its hydrocarbons, Canada needs capital: some $50 billion-60 billion a year, on recent trends. Such sums are “far more than Canadian capital markets can raise,” says Dave Collyer of the CAPP. Canada gets plenty of foreign investment: Syncrude, one of the biggest oil-sands developers, is a joint venture that includes American, Chinese and Japanese partners. But lately the country has grown frostier towards foreign capital.

In October Canada’s federal government temporarily blocked a $5.2 billion bid by Petronas, Malaysia’s state energy giant, for Progress Energy Resources, a Canadian natural-gas company. It has yet to approve a $15 billion offer by CNOOC, a Chinese state-owned firm, for Nexen, a Canadian oil-and-gas firm. A deadline passed last week; a decision may come next month. Mr Hughes says he is keen on foreign investment so long as foreign firms abide by the same rules as Canadians; but it is not up to the provincial government.

The other big bottleneck is human capital. Hardly anyone lives near the oil sands, so labour must be imported, from other parts of Canada and from abroad. People from 127 countries live in Fort McMurray, says Ken Chapman of the Oil Sands Developers’ Group. They speak 69 languages. The Walmart in town looks like the United Nations, except that all the shivering Africans are buying woolly hats. Mr Hughes expects to see a skills shortfall of 100,000 people in Alberta by 2017. Canada’s immigration rules are more liberal than America’s, but firms still gripe about delays. An Irish worker in Fort McMurray complains of having to fly to Calgary to sit a test of English proficiency. It’s her native language, and the test is online.

Companies poach staff from each other, bidding up labour costs. It would be easier to attract workers to Fort McMurray if the town were more liveable; a one-bedroom flat can cost $2,000 a month. To build more homes, however, the town must wrestle with provincial red tape—and also attract legions of builders, plumbers and electricians, all at inflated wages.

Working conditions in the oil sands are tough. Touch a metal pipe with your bare hand at minus 40 and it sticks. “It’s not for everybody,” shrugs an oil-firm boss. At remote work camps, companies provide hot food, warm cabins, broadband and squash courts. All this is costly. Many firms make equipment elsewhere and truck it in, so that fewer people have to toil in the cold. Some are hoping dramatically to raise the proportion of man-hours worked off-site.

With so many bottlenecks and a volatile oil price, firms are growing cautious. Suncor Energy and Canadian Natural Resources, among others, are putting new investments on hold. “It’s the uncertainty,” says Marcel Coutu, the boss of Canadian Oil Sands, a firm that owns 37% of Syncrude. “No one knows when or whether those pipelines will be built.”

Canadian energy: The sands of grime, Economist, Nov. 17, 2012, at 62

Oil Sands Rush and the New Pipelines: Canada

Oil production from the tar sands is set to rise from 2m barrels a day (b/d) to 3.3m by 2020, or from 58% to 72% of Canada’s total oil output. Getting this oil to market is a mounting worry for Canada’s energy industry and for Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. That is because the necessary infrastructure is opposed both by local communities and by greens, who want to halt development of the tar sands. Per barrel, the extraction of oil from bitumen emits between three and four times as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as conventional oil does, according to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank in Calgary. But other estimates are much lower….

The Obama administration has withheld approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would take oil to Gulf coast refiners. (TransCanada, Keystone’s promoter, still hopes for approval.) Mr Harper has courted China as an alternative market for the oil, but that depends on approval of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, a C$5.5 billion ($5.4 billion) 1,177km twin pipeline from Edmonton to Kitimat in British Columbia. The route crosses the land of 50 or so First Nations bands (indigenous tribes). More than 4,000 people have registered to speak at the environmental hearings, which began in January.

Last month another energy firm, Kinder Morgan, said it would spend $4.1 billion to double the capacity of the Trans-Mountain to Vancouver, the only existing line to Canada’s west coast. It hopes to start work in 2016. Vancouver’s mayor opposes the idea, worrying that tourism will be wrecked by tanker traffic and spills.

The government is pulling out all the stops to get these projects approved. The budget bill includes sweeping changes to the cumbersome procedures that govern environmental approval of energy projects. These now involve up to 40 federal departments and agencies. Under the bill, only those directly involved would be able to intervene in hearings; fishery habitat will no longer automatically be considered; and most assessments will have to be completed within 18 months. The federal government would have the power to overrule the energy board, but also to cede the assessment process to the provinces. These changes could quicken the prospects of big hydropower schemes in Manitoba, Labrador, British Columbia and Quebec, aimed at exporting electricity to the United States.

But pipelines are the government’s priority. That is because natural-gas exports, long the mainstay of the energy industry, are threatened by shale gas in the United States (they have fallen by 5% over the past year). While there are legitimate environmental worries, replacing gas exports with tar-sands oil is vital for economic growth, argues Matthew Akman, an analyst at Scotiabank. Investment is pouring into the tar sands, but potential oil exports will outstrip pipeline capacity by 2015.  Unless, that is, existing pipelines are rejigged—and not just Line 9. TransCanada’s 3,000km main line has carried Alberta’s gas to Ontario and Montreal for more than 50 years, but now runs at less than half of capacity. Converting the line to oil, and adding a spur to a refinery at Quebec City, would cost more than C$5 billion and take several years. But it could still beat the Northern Gateway, and be politically more attractive. Refiners in eastern Canada currently use imported crude costing $20-30 a barrel more than western Canadian oil.

The budget bill also includes money to investigate whether green charties are engaging in political activities incompatible with their status. But there are risks—not least to Canada’s international image—in demonising environmentalists. The arguments for developing the tar sands are strong, but the opponents cannot be simply shrugged aside.

Energy in Canada, The great pipeline battle, Economist, May 26, 2012

Rio+20 Earth Summit; agenda and prospects

The Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is much bigger than its [three] predecessors — Stockholm in 1972,-

Ecological Restoration Alliance to Save Threatened Habitats

Botanic gardens around the world will sign an historic agreement on 23 May 2012 to restore the world’s damaged ecosystems.  Responding to a United Nations target to restore at least 15 percent of the world’s damaged ecosystems by 2020, the following institutions have agreed to work together to form a new Ecological Restoration Alliance:

•Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK

•Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK

•Missouri Botanical Garden, USA

•Brackenhurst Botanic Garden, Kenya

•Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Australia

•National Tropical Botanical Garden, USA

•Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, Brazil

•Instituto de Ecología, A.C. “Francisco Javier Clavijero Botanic Garden”, Mexico

•Royal Botanical Gardens, Canada

The Alliance has ambitious aims, with a plan to restore 100 damaged, degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Restoration projects will be conducted on six continents, drawing on the proven restoration knowledge, capacity and experience of the allied botanic gardens, arboreta and seed banks.  The places to be targeted include tropical forests, prairies, wild places within cities, wetlands and coastal sites – ecosystems that are under threat and are no longer able to provide essential services and resources for sustaining human livelihoods and biodiversity.

Other botanic gardens in China, South Africa, UK, USA and Venezuela are committed to joining or supporting the Alliance. The combined expertise of members will be drawn together to build global capacity for pragmatic yet well-informed ecological restoration. The lessons learned from the initial flagship projects will be applied to other places, enhancing the contribution of restoration to achieving a healthy and sustainable planet. A new generation of practitioners will be trained and guidance provided to industry and governments toward best practices for land restoration. This ambitious 20 year initiative, developed by botanic gardens and facilitated by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), responds to urgent global needs expressed in both the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the Millennium Development Goals.

For  more info see Ecological Restoration Alliance