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.

Sep
04
2008

Where will we get the energy we need for the future?: Some people would like to see more oil drilling in the US.
Where will we get the energy we need for the future?: Some people would like to see more oil drilling in the US.Courtesy L. Gnome

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. This is the last entry in this series. Previous entries here, here, here, here, here and here.)

Energy is one of the big issues in this election cycle. With gasoline at record high prices, and much of the world’s oil lying in politically unstable regions, there is a lot of pressure to do more drilling in the US, open up more areas to exploration, and build more refineries.

Meanwhile, many conservation groups oppose more drilling, especially offshore or in ecologically sensitive regions of the Arctic. Some call for conservation measures to help reduce oil consumption.

(While the Science Museum of Minnesota does not endorse any candidate or platform, I personally like this energy plan.)

The Bureau of Land Management has announced that a major source of oil is sitting right below our feet: oil shale. Shale is a fine-grained rock made of compressed clay or mud. In some place, oil seeps into the rock. This oil is much more difficult to extract than free-flowing liquid petroleum. But with gas at $4 a gallon, it is becoming feasible to squeeze oil from the rock.

The government estimates there could be up to 800 billion barrels of oil sitting beneath Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. This is equivalent to our current oil imports for, roughly, 219 years. So, tapping this resource would go a long way toward meeting our energy needs until other, greener sources (wind, cheap solar, non-food ethanol) come on-line.

The Bureau of Land Management has produced preliminary guidelines for regulating commercial oil shale production. They are prohibited by law from producing final guidelines. The President has asked Congress to lift the ban so that this effort may go forward.

Sep
03
2008

Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.
Demand for ethanol is pushing up the price of corn: Some poor countries are facing food shortages.Courtesy swankslot

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entries here, here, here, here and here.)

In 2005, Congress passed a law requiring that set levels of renewable fuels, such as ethanol, be blended into gasoline, with the amount rising every year. Ethanol is usually made from corn, and increasing the demand for ethanol has pushed up the price of food.

(We have touched on this topic a time or two before. Researchers are working on making ethanol from non-food sources.)

In August, the state of Texas asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver from the requirements, claiming that higher corn prices were making cattle farming unprofitable. And, ironically, making ethanol production unprofitable, too. The EPA reused.

Some bloggers argue that this refusal puts upward pressure on food prices—a fact that is beginning to hurt poor people the world over. Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has argued for a “safety-valve” that would let refiners miss their targets if food prices rise too high.

Subsidies and tariffs also keep the price of ethanol artificially high. If these wee dropped, the incentives to turn corn into fuel would lessen, and food prices would stabilize.

Aug
31
2008

Proposed power grid for wind and solar: clipped from American Electric Power document
Proposed power grid for wind and solar: clipped from American Electric Power documentCourtesy U. S. Dept. of Energy

Is our power grid ready for wind and solar?

Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal show promise for breaking our addiction to oil. One big problem, though, is moving this new energy to energy users. According to a recent New York Times article,

many transmission lines, and the connections between them, are simply too small for the amount of power companies would like to squeeze through them.

The grid today is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Upgrading our power grid faces multiple obstacles

Our power grid, with about 200,000 miles of power lines, is divided among about 500 owners. Upgrading transmission lines often involves multiple companies, many state governments and numerous permits. Property owners often fight new power lines saying "not in my back yard".

"Modernizing the electric infrastructure is an urgent national problem, and one we all share,” said Kevin M. Kolevar, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability, in a speech last year.

Dept. of Energy recommendation

I recommend reading the Department of Energy report titled, "20% wind energy by 2030" (30 pg pdf). The United Sates plans to add 300 GW of wind power by 2030 (I figure that equals about 200,000 1.5 MW wind generators). They recommend an interstate power grid to carry electricity similar to how our interstate highway system carries cars and trucks.

American Electric Power also has recommendations

In an 8 page pdf document titled, "Interstate Transmission Vision for Wind Integration" American Electric Power, working at the request of, and in partnership with, the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), presents a "high-level, conceptual interstate transmission plan that could provide a basis for discussion to expand industry infrastructure needs in the future".

Aug
17
2008

Electricity from wind was cheaper: I saved 44 cents on my July electric bill because 100 per cent of my electricity is from wind power.
Electricity from wind was cheaper: I saved 44 cents on my July electric bill because 100 per cent of my electricity is from wind power.Courtesy ARTiFactor

I saved money because my electricity comes from wind

About two years ago I signed up for Windsource (click to see my Buzz writeup). Windsource is an Xcel Energy program that allows customers to have all or part of their electricity come from wind (click here for details about windsource charges).

Benefits of wind energy

I did not sign up for Windsource to save money. I was willing to pay extra for wind generated electricity because wind energy has multiple benefits.

  • No carbon dioxide emissions
  • No sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, or mercury emissions
  • No water consumption requirement
  • Creates jobs
  • Creates income for farmers
  • Wind is forever (renewable)
  • Wind energy reduces need for importing energy and exporting dollars

Want to help promote wind energy?

Renewable energy credits have provided incentives for investments in wind energy. A federal production tax credit (PTC) has an expiration date less than five months from now. If you agree that continuing incentives for renewable energy is wise,

Urge your Members of Congress to extend the Production Tax Credit (PTC)

Click the link above for help on how to take action.

Aug
01
2008

Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.
Splitting water to store electricity: A snapshot showing the new, efficient oxygen catalyst in action in Dan Nocera's laboratory at MIT.Courtesy MIT/NSF

Saving up energy for use at night

Want to be energy independent? Solar and wind energy are great but what do you do when the sun goes down and the wind doesn't blow? Batteries with the needed capacity are very expensive.

Energy can be saved up by breaking water apart into hydrogen and oxygen

Using a surprisingly simple, inexpensive technique, chemists have found a way to pull pure oxygen from water using relatively small amounts of electricity, common chemicals and a room-temperature glass of water. At night that oxygen can be combined with hydrogen (also extracted from water) in a fuel cell to make electricity.
The new process, enabling water to more easily be split, is to use a catalyst consisting of cobalt metal, phosphate and an electrode, placed in water.

"When electricity -- whether from a photovoltaic cell, a wind turbine or any other source -- runs through the electrode, the cobalt and phosphate form a thin film on the electrode, and oxygen gas is produced."
"The new catalyst works at room temperature, in neutral pH water, and it's easy to set up. That's why I know this is going to work. It's so easy to implement," Danial Nocera (MIT news office)

Within ten years

Nocera hopes that within 10 years, homeowners will be able to power their homes in daylight through photovoltaic cells, while using excess solar energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen to power their own household fuel cell. Electric vehicles will also power up from this home system.

Learn more: MIT News

A new jet engine is being developed that will burn less fuel and create less pollution than current models, making air travel cleaner.

Jul
08
2008

About four years ago, the X Prize Foundation gave a $10 million award to a team of engineers for building the first private, commercial space craft. Today, the foundation has several other contests going, including prizes for gene sequencing, automotive engineering, and lunar landing. Additional prizes are planned for cancer and longevity research.

Many “big science” research efforts are conducted by government agencies or large companies, both of which try to hold costs down by finding the single best approach. The advantage of prize competitions is that they get dozens of creative teams working on a single problems, trying many different approaches at once, without the restrictions of government or corporate bureaucracy.

The idea is starting to catch on. Last year the US government approved the H-prize for developments in hydrogen-based energy. And Sen John McCain
has proposed a $300 million prize for breakthroughs in battery technology.

Jul
07
2008

Snake power: It looks like an ordinary tube, but this device is a small version of the Anaconda, a snake-like tube that turns ocean wave power into electricity.
Snake power: It looks like an ordinary tube, but this device is a small version of the Anaconda, a snake-like tube that turns ocean wave power into electricity.Courtesy Atkins Global
Indiana Jones may hate snakes, but those looking for clean, renewable energy sources are loving the chances that a “snake” may be able to generate electricity from ocean waves.

It’s not a real snake, but an enormous rubber snake called the Anaconda. Stretching more than 600 feet long, the Anaconda produces energy as it is squeezed by the passing waves of ocean water that it is submerged in. The process is very similar to what happens with a windsock fluttering in the wind.

The Anaconda is filled with seawater and is sealed at both ends. The trailing end of the snake has turbines. As the ocean waves ripple by the Anaconda, the water inside is squeezed and pushed in bulges that move toward the turbines. When the bulges get there, their energy turns the turbines.

The idea is being developed by the British firm Atkins Global. This is all still in the testing stages, but if the research pans out, the Anacondas would be submerged in ocean waters at depths of 120 to 300 feet.

So far, however, researchers are testing their theory on smaller snakes in a wave tank. Seawater testing could begin next year and if everything is successful, the technology could go online commercially in five years. Estimates figure one full-sized Anaconda could generate 1 megawatt of electricity, about the same amount of power for 2,000 homes.

Smart Energy Views is a new blog devoted to news and information on energy efficiency.