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Category — Alternative Energy Sources

The energy revolution is in reverse

Henner Weithöner

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Not-so-calm waters ahead: The IPCC urges a move away from business as usual. Image: Walter Siegmund via Wikimedia Commons

The UN climate panel’s prescription for tackling climate change is admirably clear. The problem is that the world is heading in precisely the opposite direction.

Keeping the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels will not be prohibitively expensive, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says, though it won’t be easy.

There’s just one problem: the atmospheric facts show that the world is not simply ignoring the IPCC. It’s moving smartly away from the clean energy future that the Panel says is attainable towards an inexorably hotter and more risky future.

Reaching the target will mean cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 40-70% over 2010 levels by mid-century, the IPCC report says. Yet what is happening at the moment is the exact opposite: average global emissions rose by a billion tonnes a year between 2000 and 2010, faster than ever before.

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change as cheaply as possible, the report urges an energy revolution to end the dominance of fossil fuels. The IPCC says  investments in renewable energy need to triple, with subsidies to fossil fuels declining and a switch to natural gas to help countries to get rid of coal.

The path to lower emissions may cost the energy giants dear, the IPCC acknowledges. “Mitigation policy could devalue fossil fuel assets and reduce revenues for fossil fuel exporters,” Professor Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC’s Working Group III, which produced the report, told a public meeting here. “To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.” [Read more →]

April 19, 2014   No Comments

Science finds new routes to energy

Tim Radford

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The research opens the way to more nutritious soya beans grown with less water. Image: H. Zell via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists in the US have found new ways to make biofuel, increase crop yields and exploit carbon dioxide through novel applications of familiar materials.

While politicians posture, and climate scientists sigh sadly, researchers in laboratories continue to devise ingenious new ways to save energy, increase efficiency, and make the most of solar power.

Darren Drewry of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and two colleagues from the University of Illinois have a computer model that could design soybean crops able to produce 8.5% more nourishment, use 13% less water and reflect 34% more sunlight back into space.

They report in the journal Global Change Biology that they can achieve all three goals by breeding for slightly different leaf distribution on the stalk, and for the angle at which the leaf grows, using a technique called numerical optimisation to try a very large number of structural traits to get the best results. “And surprisingly, there are combinations of these traits that can improve each of these goals at the same time,” says Dr Drewry.

In the great evolutionary challenge match, plants fight for the light and try to put each other in the shade. “Our crop plants reflect many millions of years in the wild under these competitive conditions,” said Stephen Long, a plant biologist. “In a crop field we want plants to share resources and conserve water and nutrients, so we have been looking at what leaf arrangements would best do this.” [Read more →]

April 19, 2014   No Comments

IPCC tries a gamble with shale gas

Alex Kirby

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Non merci: A French protest against drilling for shale gas. Image: Camster via Wikimedia Commons

The latest IPCC report urges a dash for gas to allow us to reduce the burning of coal. And it accepts the use of shale gas, which threatens to be far more polluting than originally thought.

If you support fracking, you should be pleased with the latest report from theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC). It’s given the green light to the use of shale gas as a short-term way to slow climate change.

The report is the third and final part of the latest IPCC assessment on climate change (known as AR5). While it puts considerable emphasis on the need for more renewable energy – including solar, wind and hydropower – it says emissions of greenhouse gases can be cut in the medium term by replacing coal with less-polluting gas, though the gas will itself ultimately have to be phased out.

On shale gas, obtained by the controversial fracking process, Ottmar Edenhofer – co-chair of the working group that produced the report – said it was quite clear that the fuel “can be very consistent with low carbon development and decarbonisation”.

Among the objections to fracking is the fact the process releases quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas often reckoned to be at least 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. That is the comparison we have often used in the Network’s reporting. It’s right, so far as it goes. But by some calculations it doesn’t go nearly far enough. [Read more →]

April 15, 2014   No Comments

Enough uranium, but nuclear power is still shrinking

Paul Brown

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Highly enriched uranium: The growing difficulty of extracting high-quality ore is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Image: Via Wikimedia Commons

Many people believe nuclear power could save the planet from climate change. But several factors mean the industry is dying, a new analysis suggests.

There is enough uranium available on the planet to keep the world’s nuclear industry going for as long as it is needed. But it will grow steadily more expensive to extract, because the quality of the ore is getting poorer, according to new research.

Years of work in compiling information from around the world has led Gavin M. Mudd from Monash University in Clayton, Australia to believe that it is economic and political restraints that will kill off nuclear power and not any shortage of uranium, as some have claimed.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that renewables do not have the disadvantages of nuclear power, which needs large uranium mines that are hard to rehabilitate and which generates wastethat remains dangerous for more than 100,000 years.

In addition, research shows that renewable technologies are expanding very fast and could produce all the energy needs of advanced economies, phasing out both fossil fuels and nuclear.

Mudd, who is a lecturer in the department of civil engineering at Monash, has compiled decades of data on the availability and quality of uranium ore. He concludes that, while uranium is plentiful, mining the ore is very damaging to the environment and the landscape.

It is expensive to rehabilitate former mines, not least because of the dangerous levels of radiation left behind. As a result many of the potential sources of uranium will not be exploited because of opposition from people who live in the area. [Read more →]

April 12, 2014   No Comments

Nuclear subsidy deal ‘will kill renewables’

Paul Brown

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Hinkley Point nuclear power station, up for renewal: But on what terms? Image: Barbara Cook via Wikimedia Commons

The battle over the UK’s plan to subsidise nuclear power will decide Europe’s energy mix for the next 50 years, say critics.

The United Kingdom’s plans to build heavily subsidised nuclear power stations have come under withering attack from a coalition of Members of Parliament, academics, energy industry experts and environmental groups.

Evidence has poured into the European Commission, which is investigating whether the deal with the giant French nuclear company EDF breaks EU competition rules. The evidence from many objectors, whose submissions had to be made by today, claims that if the contract goes through it will wreck Europe’s chance of building up renewable energies to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

They say renewables will have to compete in an unfair market where one generator, nuclear, is guaranteed to be able to sell all its electricity at a stable price and with a built-in profit until 2058. [Read more →]

April 9, 2014   No Comments

Bulgaria’s micro-hydro power surge

Kieran Cooke

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Unobtrusive, but not always uncontroversial: The micro-hydro plant at Borovets
Image: Kieran Cooke

Bulgaria, one of the European Union’s more recent members, is in the midst of a micro-hydro boom. The hydro plants form part of an overall EU energy package which sets a binding target of achieving 20% of energy from renewables by 2020 in order to tackle carbon emissions and climate change. The plants are controversial, with allegations that they are not properly licensed and monitored – and that they threaten the environment.

Dimitar Lobutov, an entrepreneur investing in a micro-hydro plant here, has little time for environmentalists.

“They are the biggest racketeers in the country – they make all manner of accusations but can’t prove anything”, says Lobutov. “It’s people like me who are developing Bulgaria – the greens just do nothing but complain or try and sabotage our efforts.”

Lobutov, among other things a property developer and importer of electrical equipment, stands proudly by his soon-to-be-completed 1,300 kilowatt micro-hydro power plant in a beautiful narrow mountain valley about 30 miles from Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. Just down the road is one of the country’s main ski resorts. There is thick snow: the clear waters of the river Iskar flow nearby.

Micro-hydro is very much in fashion in Bulgaria, with plants being built on rivers throughout the country. They are relatively simple to construct and operate: pipes are laid perhaps two kilometres upriver, and water is then fed through the pipes, to flow down and drive turbines at a power station.

Electricity generated is sold to the national grid. Investors like Lobutov – he says he’s invested more than two million Bulgarian lev (€1 m/US $1.375 m) in his plant – are guaranteed a set price from the Government, in his case over a period of 15 years. [Read more →]

March 31, 2014   No Comments

Carbon output ‘will climb 29% by 2035′

Alex Kirby

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Spelling it out: A French “non” to the prospect of shale oil and gas. Image: Eva Joly 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

Climate scientists agree that global carbon dioxide emissions need to be sharply cut. A prominent player in the energy industry predicts they will go in the opposite direction.

The good news, from the climate’s standpoint, is that while global demand for energy is continuing to grow, the growth is slowing. The bad news is that one energy giant predicts global carbon dioxide emissions will probably rise by almost a third in the next 20 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2020 and then decline if the world is to hope to avoid global average temperatures rising by more than 2°C over pre-industrial levels. Beyond 2°C, it says, climate change could become dangerously unmanageable.

But BP’s Energy Outlook 2035 says CO2 emissions are likely to increase by 29% in the next two decades because of growing energy demand from the developing world.

It says “energy use in the advanced economies of North America, Europe and Asia as a group is expected to grow only very slowly – and begin to decline in the later years of the forecast period”.

But by 2035 energy use in the non-OECD economies is expected to be 69% higher than in 2012. In comparison use in the OECD will have grown by only 5%, and actually to have fallen after 2030, even with continued economic growth. The Outlook predicts that global energy consumption will rise by 41% from 2012 to 2035, compared with 30% over the last ten. [Read more →]

February 7, 2014   No Comments

Battery offers new hope to renewables

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Solar-powered street lights in Gwadar, Pakistan: Flow batteries could offer many new uses. Image: wetlandsofpakistan via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Radford

It sounds like a seminal step towards unlocking the potential of renewables – a research team has high hopes it has found a cheap and effective way of storing huge amounts of energy.

Scientists in the US think they may be on the track of a new kind of battery technology that could store huge reserves of energy.

One of the great problems of renewable energy generators such as photovoltaic cells and wind turbines is that they can’t respond to demand.

When the sun is out, nobody needs so much heating and lighting, so the electricity goes to waste. In theory, surplus energy could be saved for hours of darkness or when the winds drop, but at a prohibitive cost. But Michael Aziz of Harvard University in Boston and colleagues report in Nature that they have tested what is, quite literally, a solution to the problem.

A common low-cost organic chemical found in crude oil and in living things could, once dissolved in water, be used to fuel a flow battery, into which surplus energy could flow when the winds are high and the sun is shining and everybody has gone surfing, and then deliver stored power when everybody goes home at night time and switches on the light and the cooking stove.

In a flow battery, two solutions of electro-active compounds are made to flow through electrodes in an electro-chemical cell: they react at the electrodes and generate electricity. A membrane separates the two solutions, but lets through charge-carrying ions. [Read more →]

January 11, 2014   No Comments