Stories tagged environment

This page lists stories about the environment, energy, climate change, and global warming from Science Buzz, a website devoted to science in the news, emerging research, and seasonal phenomena.


Proposed power grid for wind and solar
Proposed power grid for wind and solarCourtesy U. S. Dept. of Energy

A national energy grid - good or bad

About a year ago I wrote about our need for a national energy grid. Many politicians are moving to block the lines because they hurt their local economies or because of environmental local impacts. Others claim more local improvements would be better and less costly. Read more in Technology Review's, "A Costly and Unnecessary New Electricity Grid".

A new national grid, which has been likened to the Interstate Highway System constructed in the 1950s, has been proposed by groups such as the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, and AEP, a large utility; elements of the plans have been included in recent federal legislation.

Last week, investor T. Boone Pickens said that he's halting his planned four-gigawatt wind farm in Texas in part because of a lack of transmission lines to carry the power from the farm to urban centers.

Learn more about the national energy "smart grid"

If you have 20 minutes or so, Center for American Progress has several complete primers on the issue:

Smart appliances save electricity and money

Last Tuesday, General Electric showed utility industry executives how their new appliances could reduce electric demand and save everyone money. Read about it in Are consumers ready for the smart grid?


Wind turbines surfin' the deep blue sea
Wind turbines surfin' the deep blue seaCourtesy Flickr
Last week, I was lucky enough to partake in a fun-filled road trip to Colorado. Though the Rocky Mountains are a spectacular site, I found myself more excited to see all of the wind turbines on the 15-hour drive from Minneapolis to Colorado Springs. This ultimately resulted in a research extravaganza, as I wanted to know more about how wind energy works and what the US was doing to improve renewable energy.

Lets start with a few Minnesota wind facts :
• Total installed wind energy capacity is currently 1752.16 megawatts
• Total wind energy potential is 657 billions of kWh/year
• Currently ranked at 4th in US for current wind energy output (Go Minnesota!)

On average, one household will consume around 4,250 kilowatt-hours per year , so think of how many homes can be powered if Minnesota was reaching its wind energy potential.

I also came across this article that came out today in Scientific American that discusses the great steps that Hawaii is taking towards renewable energy. Recently, Hawaii signed an agreement with the US Department of Energy (DoE) that outlines a plan to obtain 70 percent of its power from clean energy by 2030, in which 40 percent will be from renewables like wind farms.

As of right now, the state relies on imported oil for 90 percent of its power. If a man-made or natural disaster were to occur that would prevent shipment of oil, Hawaii cannot plug into the mainland’s electrical grid, making them extremely vulnerable. So not only will they gain energy security, but the cost of electricity will also lower by reducing the amount of money spent on shipping money to foreign countries for oil (10% GDP).

The largest source of renewable energy will be makani, or wind. There are currently two proposed farms for Lanai and Molokai islands that will together generate a total of 400 megawatts of electricity, which will provide 25 percent of Oahu’s total generation capacity. Considering that over 70 percent of the stat’s population lives in Oahu, that’s a lot of energy! Solar water heating, geothermal energy, and the novel technologies in ocean thermal plants will also be used to provide the Hawaiian islands with clean, renewable energy.

For more information on what you can do here in Minnesota, check out this blog post from ARTiFactor that describes Windsource, a great program through Xcel Energy.


Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'...
Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'...Courtesy nebarnix
This week is National Bike-Walk to Work Week!

That means that in cities across the country people are being encouraged to take at least one trip to work or school on foot or by bicycle. Why? Pick your favorite reason! Mine include: biking and walking save me money, biking and walking are more fun than sitting in traffic, and biking and walking let me see things in my neighborhood up close. If you live in the Twin Cities you can even get free breakfast tomorrow at select locations in honor of Twin Cities Bike Walk to Work Day.

There's no doubt that biking and walking are good for your body, but are biking and walking more energy efficient than driving a car? Sure, you don't need to stop to fill up at a gas station, but something has to power your commute. According to most statistics, bicycles are the most efficient means of transportation in terms of calories, but I also came across this article about one UK environmentalist who claims that walking is worse for the planet than driving, since modern food production is so energy intensive - especially if, like me, you sometimes power your commute with coffee and bacon.

What do you think? What's the most energy efficient way to travel? How do you like to travel to school or work?


Money: it's a hit: Give the banker his props: rich societies pollute less and emit less carbon (per unit of energy used) than poorer societies.
Money: it's a hit: Give the banker his props: rich societies pollute less and emit less carbon (per unit of energy used) than poorer societies.Courtesy Steve Wampler

We’ve talked before about how rich cities also tend to be clean cities. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people in subsistence situations tend to scrabble for mere survival, without much regard to any other issues. Only after securing basic life necessities can they focus attention on externalities, such as the environment.

Now comes word that there is something of a linear progression going on:
the richer you are, the greener you are.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The professors argue: “If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.” All thanks to the free-market system, and the wealth that it brings to us all.

Money…it’s greener than you think!


Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.
Almost everything we'll need, right here: Almost.Courtesy Stefan Thlesen
BTW, Buzzketeers, if I ever catch you using the term “the john” when talking about a toilet, I will erase you from the story of my life. Sure, I just used it, but think I have the right to take possession of that word to divest it of its hurtfulness. Sort of like how ugly people are allowed to call stuff “fugly.”

Anyway, let’s consider the future of energy. We all know that we have to start conserving fossil fuels, so that we can use them with abandon in a dune buggy-filled Mad Max style future. (I like to think of this as “saving it for the party.”) In the mean time, we have to get clever. This week I noticed a couple of stories about people thinking outside the box with regards to energy. In one case, they’re thinking above the box, in the other they’re thinking below the box. (Or maybe they’re thinking in the box. It depends on what you use your boxes for.)

Check it out: a company called Solaren Corp has convinced the largest energy utility in California to purchase 200 megawatts of solar power from them by around 2016. The way they propose getting that power is the interesting thing—they plan on getting it from space.

Wait… that was poorly phrased. All solar power comes from space. What Solaren intends to do is launch a massive array of mirrors (as large as several miles across) into orbit to collect and reflect sunlight onto photoelectric cells. The cells will convert the sunlight into electric power, which will then be converted into radio waves and blasted down to a receiver on Earth. The radio energy will then be turned back into electricity. Solaren claims that the system could eventually generate 1.2 to 4.8 gigawatts of power at a price comparable to that of other alternative energy sources, enough to power 250,000 homes in California. And unlike land-based solar panels, the flow of energy wouldn’t depend on weather, and the orbit would be high enough that the system could provide energy 24 ours a day. They intend to launch it up to about 22,000 miles above the surface of the planet, meaning that it would be just inside of a high Earth orbit, and therefore geosynchronous. (I think.) Pretty neat, huh?

However, getting a couple miles of mirrors up to 22,000 miles above Earth is a little tricky. A little tricky, and super expensive. Building the receiving systems isn’t going to be cheap either. Some folks think that the project is altogether… unlikely. But the California power utility isn’t actually making an investment (i.e., taking a risk) they just promised to buy the power when it’s there (or if). But that commitment is probably comforting for investors.

Solaren says that the radio waves being sent back to Earth will be one sixth the intensity of sunlight. But what kind of radio waves are we talking about here? Visible light is composed of radio waves. So are radio, um, radio waves. Nope, we’re talking about microwaves. Microwaves have the advantage of being pretty high-energy. They have the disadvantage of being a little scary to me. And to other people. But it seems like it’s not all that dangerous; the center of the microwave beam would have an intensity of about 23 milliwatts per square centimeter. The limit for workplace exposure to microwaves in the US is 10 mw/cm2, so obviously 23 mw/cm2 is beyond what the government considers safe, but the area of maximum intensity is relatively small. Near the outside of the receiving array, the intensity would be closer to 1 mw/cm2. Birds flying through the center of the beam could have some trouble, and small aircraft and hot air balloons would do well to avoid it, but the metal shell of conventional planes should protect passengers entirely (the same way that your metal microwave protects you from the forces cooking your food). I suppose a super-villain could always hack into the satellite controls, and re-aim the system at a neighborhood. But that’s assuming that it ever gets built.

So from pie in the sky (a huge mirror pie), let’s turn our attention to fudge underground. It doesn’t have quite the sunshiny appeal of space mirrors, but it’s a little more feasible at the moment.

Remember how, in Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome, Master Blaster was harvesting methane fuel from pig feces? Well, that works in the real world too, and not just with pig feces.

Consider the following: if you were to safe all of your… solid waste for one year, you could produce an amount of fuel equivalent to about 2.1 gallons of diesel fuel. I know—it doesn’t seem as much a it should, right? But if a city of 250,000 people was converting its waste into fuel, they’d have enough to drive 80 buses 62,000 miles each. If that figure sounds oddly specific, it’s only because that’s what Oslo, Norway intends to do. The city is all set to fuel its public transportation with brown gold. (Or with the biomethane produced by it.)

The cost of producing an amount of biomethane equivalent to a liter of diesel fuel comes to about 98 cents, while a liter of diesel costs about $1.30 at the pumps in Norway. And, unlike some other biofuels we won’t mention, it only gets into your food supply after you’ve eaten it.

Because the fuel comes from recently grown organic materials, it’s supposed to be carbon neutral, which is good. The article doesn’t say how energy intensive the process of making it is, though. Also, methane itself is a pretty bad greenhouse gas, but I suppose if it’s all burned efficiently that shouldn’t be a problem. (Burned methane makes CO2 and water.)

Energy may be plentiful in the future. We’ll just have to watch where we step.

Nano - the wonder car: Available March 23, 2009
Nano - the wonder car: Available March 23, 2009Courtesy SanDev

Tata's Nano car on sale

The ultra cheap ($2050) Nano car hits the market in India tomorrow. It is 10.2 feet (3.1 meters) long, has one windshield wiper, a 623cc rear engine, and a diminutive trunk. Newsvine

(Disclaimer: I stole the title of this post from the original article. Hey, if imitation is a sincere form of flattery...) Anyway, the Italian town of Torraca (population 1,200) is the first place on Earth to be entirely illuminated with light-emitting diodes (LEDs) instead of incandescent lighting. Lots of other cities around the world are following suit.

Though they're more expensive to buy up front, LEDs are much more energy efficient than old-school light bulbs, and they last a LOT longer.

"Potential energy savings, however, appear to hold more sway with cities and building owners than cost. After all, some 22 percent of all electricity use in the U.S. is devoted to lighting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy—and switching to LEDs could save $280 billion by 2028. In fact, researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., estimate that replacing incandescents with LEDs could save $1.83 trillion in energy costs globally over the next decade and eliminate the need for 280 1,000-megawatt power plants."


Zipingpu Dam: Upriver from the town of Dujiangyan, Sichuan, China.
Zipingpu Dam: Upriver from the town of Dujiangyan, Sichuan, China.Courtesy TaylorMiles
Scientists suspect that last year’s devastating earthquake in China may not have been a natural disaster. A nearby dam may have weakened fault lines and spurred the magnitude-7.9 quake.

The Zipingpu Dam is only 3.4 miles from the epicenter of the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. This quake killed 80,000 people and left 5 million homeless. Although the area exhibits a lot of seismic activity, an earthquake of this magnitude is unusual.

Water in the Zipingpu Dam

The Zipingpu Dam is one of nearly 400 hydroelectric dams in the area. It rises 511 feet high and holds 315 million tons of water. US and Chinese scientists believe that the weight of the water increased the direct pressure on the fault line below. This volume of water would exert 25 times more pressure annually than is natural. Additionally, water seeping into the rock acted as a lubricant and relaxed the tension between the two sides of the fault line. Since the reservoir was filled in 2004, the water caused a chain of ruptures culminating in this massive earthquake.

Worldwide impact on green energy

Sichuan province is the epicenter for more than just a powerful earthquake. It is here that most of China’s hydroelectric power is generated, an integral component of its renewable power plans. The area also produces much of the world’s wind turbine equipment. The infrastructure will take months or years to repair.

Before the quake, China admitted to major flaws in the country’s 87,000 dams. The earthquake damaged other dams and power stations and several major reservoirs were drained to prevent their dams from failing.

Based on a ranking of the annual energy savings made by technology improvements to commercial buildings, the Twin Cities ranks eighth nationally. Topping the list (in order) are Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston. The full report and details can be found here. Interestingly, major cities not making the top ten include New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit. This USA Today report also includes a quiz you can take to find out the eco-friendly score of the place where you live.