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.


Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant loses steam.

Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn biofuel study
Rock-Tenn currently uses steam heat generated by the coal fired Xcel High Bridge plant. When that source of steam is shut off this summer, Rock-Tenn will fire up its old boilers and begin burning fuel oil or natural gas. This will increase their energy costs by four to six million dollars annually but could go much higher depending upon the volatile international energy markets.

The Rock-Tenn plant processes half of all paper recycled in Minnesota (about 1000 tons per day). Rock-Tenn (formerly Waldorf Paper) employs about 500 people at an average salary of $60,000 and spends about $75 million on goods and services yearly.

St. Paul Port Authority, to the rescue.

The St. Paul Port Authority, a non-profit municipal corporation, with its mission of job creation and retention, plans to build a new fuel plant for Rock-Tenn. Big bucks are involved. Current estimates are about $140 million. District Energy, a private, non-profit corprtion, and Market Street Energy, its for-profit affiliate will run the Rock-Tenn power plant (they currently run the St. Paul district heating and cooling).

Law makers propose $4 million to study idea.

The proposed Midway biomass power plant picked up some steam May 1st when members of the Minnesota Legislature included $4 million to study the idea in their environment, energy, and natural resources bill. The bill also allows for regular input from four district councils (near University Avenue and Vandalia Street) and by business and labor interests.

Big, important issues involved.

Coming up with an environmentally friendly biomass source that is technically and economically workable is a task that involves many important issues.

Municipal waste disposal.
Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT) runs a processing plant in Newport, MN that converts municipal solid waste (MSW) to refuse-derived fuel (RDF). The RRT plant gets municipal solid wastes from Ramsey and Washington counties, which subsidize its operation. Read more about municipal waste disposal here.

Energy from renewable fuel sources.

Ramsey and Washington counties support an RDF fuel source for the Rock-Tenn plant as a way to provide both fuel for Rock-Tenn and a "market" for the counties' municipal solid wastes. Other biomass fuel choices exist—among them, woody wastes, agricultural wastes and crops grown specifically for fuel. The choice of fuel for the Rock-Tenn power plant has implications for the municipal solid waste system, but also for air quality, property taxes, agriculture and farmers, and the future of recycling. tcdailyplanet

Who pays? Who profits?
The St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, Washington County and the City of St. Paul are among the public entities whose decisions factor in the process, including decisions on financing and public subsidies. I recommend reading TCPlanet's, "Follow the money" and "Keeping track of the players".

Environmental impacts.
A proposal would need to be made to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) with an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. After the MPCA evaluates this worksheet, it will decide whether a full-scale (time-consuming and expensive) Environmental Impact Statement is necessary.

"a biomass plant has impacts both 'upstream' and 'downstream' of the plant. Upstream impacts include the impacts of growing, harvesting, processing and transporting the biomass. ... Downstream impacts include noise and health impacts from air and water emissions and ash disposal. Air emissions have the most significant downstream impacts." Green Institute study(pdf)

What do you think?

Refuse-derived fuel, known as RDF, raises health and quality of life issues, issues that hopefully will be resolved with fully informed, scientific reasoning. You can get started by following some of the links above.


Some Science Buzz writers specifically go looking for science stories to write about. Then there are lazy folks like me, who just surf the web as per usual, and when something sciencey crosses our path, we bookmark it.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been running across a lot of stories on energy. None of them seemed big enough to merit its own story, but they are too good to completely ignore. So, here’s a potpourri:

Recycling nuclear waste

America’s energy needs keep growing. Producing energy by burning coal or oil pollutes the environment. Nuclear energy is much cleaner, but it produces radioactive waste. Now a government-funded project in Tennessee is trying to recycle the waste from nuclear power plants to produce a new type of fuel—one that could produce up to 100 times as much energy, and produce 40% less waste.


One old technology that may be making a comeback is gasification—turning organic material, such as coal, into a gas which can be burned for energy. It’s cleaner than burning coal directly for energy—a lot of the pollutants are captured and re-used. And, you can gasify any organic material, including plants and farm waste.

The problem with ethanol

In other threads on this blog, we’ve discussed some of the downsides of ethanol-- increased demand for corn causes farm prices to shoot up. A report from Brazil outlines some of the other potential problems, from pollution created in its manufacture, to destroying large ecosystems to raise the crops that will be turned into ethanol.

Oil shale

When drillers go looking for oil, they look for large pockets of liquid trapped in the earth, surrounded by non-porous rock. This is sometimes called “easy oil”—ready to refine as soon as it comes out of the ground. But there are vast amounts of oil in porous rock, like sand or shale. Miners have to dig up vast amounts of oil-soaked rock, and then separate the usable oil from the sand. It’s a very expensive process. But, as the price of crude oil keeps climbing, we are getting to the point where shale oil makes sense. And what’s even better, some of the largest deposits in the world are found here in North America.

The article linked above describes a shale oil operation in Canada. There are also operations underway in the
United States. And there’s another project underway in Israel.


One Billion Bulbs Science Museum of Minnesota Bulbs Change Statistics

The website One Billion Bulbs want to help reduce pollution, energy consumption, and greenhouse gases by getting people worldwide to change their old-style incandescent light bulbs to new compact fluorescents. Their goal: one billion light bulbs changed.

They still have a ways to go. As of this morning, they were around 56,000.

Science Buzz has decided to help! We want to see how many light bulbs our devoted readers can change. If you’re interested, go to this site. Click on “Join the Group” and register. Then, as you change out your light bulbs, record your activity.

The home page of One Billion Bulbs lists the most active groups. We’d like to see Science Buzz on that list! Join now!.

Want to know how much money you’ll save, and how much pollution you’ll prevent, by changing to fluorescent bulbs? Use this handy calculator:

(How many Science Buzz readers does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll find out soon enough!)


Solar cells reduce your electric bill, but they are also very expensive to buy and install.  Are they worth it?: Photo by clownfish from
Solar cells reduce your electric bill, but they are also very expensive to buy and install. Are they worth it?: Photo by clownfish from

Some people are installing solar panels on their homes. These panels generate electricity from sunlight. Using the panels will lower your electric bill, and reduce demand from power plants (which often burn coal).
But, are they worth it?

On April 15, the San Francisco Chronicle said yes. They looked at the costs of buying and installing the panels, and weighed it against the benefits (which include getting a tax rebate). They found that, over 25 to 30 years, the average home would save about $33,000.

So, solar panels are a good idea, right? Not so fast! On April 14, the NY Times reported that solar panels never pay for themselves. Even accounting for electrical savings and tax rebates, they are so expensive that you never make your money back.

Well, the two articles can’t both be right. Right? Well, actually, they both seem correct -- but they are based on two very different scenarios:

  1. Different tax rebates in the two states.
  2. More sunshine in California, making the panels more useful.
  3. The panels are almost twice as expensive in NY than in SF.
  4. The NY Times assumed that, if you didn’t spend the money on panels, you’d put it in the bank or otherwise invest it, where it can earn money for you. The SF Chronicle did not take this into account.

So, whether or not solar panels are a good financial investment depends on a lot of factors. Whether they are good for the environment is much easier to answer – they produce electricity without pollution.

In the future, the debate may be moot – scientists are working on new types of solar cells that use nanotechnology, which may bring the costs way down.


Will new technologies render oil obsolete?: Photo by tbone55 via
Will new technologies render oil obsolete?: Photo by tbone55 via

There’s been lots of energy news lately. Here’s a round-up of some articles I found interesting:

An inventor in Colorado is making biofuel from pond scum. Algae grow rapidly; they produce waste products that can be turned into biodiesel and ethanol; and they can absorb carbon dioxide from traditional coal- and oil-burning factories.

A company in Arizona has announced on their corporate blog that they have invented a new process of creating hydrogen on-demand from magnesium and water. This would allow a clean-burning fuel cell to produce its own hydrogen.

And speaking of fuel cells, Ford Motor Company has unveiled a prototype hydrogen / plug-in car. It runs on batteries powered by hydrogen. But, very few stations in the US carry hydrogen for refueling. So, you can also recharge the batteries by simply plugging it into a household electrical outlet. Ford hopes to have a commercial model available within 10 years.


Rural village in Bangladesh: How will nanotechnology benefit them in the coming years?  Courtesy adrenalin.
Rural village in Bangladesh: How will nanotechnology benefit them in the coming years? Courtesy adrenalin.
You may have heard about nanotechnology enhanced pants that keep that wine stay away or even a nanotech tennis racket. But if nanotechnology is truly set to revolutionize the world we live in what benefits can the poorest people of the world expect to see?

According to a 2005 study these are the areas we should focus on first:

  1. Energy storage, production and conversion
  2. Agricultural productivity enhancement
  3. Water treatment and remediation
  4. Disease diagnosis and screening
  5. Drug delivery systems
  6. Food processing and storage
  7. Air pollution and remediation
  8. Construction
  9. Health monitoring
  10. Vector and pest detection and control

The study was developed by the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health at the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics lead by Dr. Peter Singer. Read the full report

Not surprisingly energy tops the list. According to Singer easy access to cheap energy will lead to a great deal of economic growth in the developing world. Here at the Buzz we have covered several nanotechnology energy advances that might come to market in the future. super cheap solar cells, nano ultracapacitors from MIT, nano products now.

Look for more info on some exhibits we will be rolling out soon on nanotech's impact on energy and the environment.

A Virgina-based company is building wind turbines...under water. Wind-powered turbines produce electricity in many parts of the country. The company hopes to use similar technology to harness the power of steadily-flowing rivers.


Minnesota's Renewable Energy Standard (RES) set high.

High standard set by Minnesota: MN State Government
High standard set by Minnesota: MN State Government
Minnesota passed legislation (S.F. 4) that requires Minnesota's largest utility, Xcel Energy, to secure 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, while other utilities’ target is 20 percent by 2025. The state average of 25 percent renewable energy by 2020 is the most aggressive in the nation.

"I just think this is a landmark moment for our state," Pawlenty told about 150 lawmakers, environmentalists, utility representatives and academics at the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
The legislation is expected to produce thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in new investments over the next couple of decades. (Feb 22/07) Pioneer Press

Renewable Energy Standard wins by a landslide

Minnesota's Senate voted 61-4 and the House of Representatives voted 123-10 which shows the overwhelming support for mandating renewable energy production.

"Right now, Minnesota imports more electricity than any other state. We need to keep more of our money at home," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Appleton.

It has been estimated that, when implemented, the use of renewable energy under the bill will save consumers and businesses as much as $500 million a year. StarTribune

Renewable energy cost worries refuted

Passage of the RES was aided by the results of a recent study released by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The study found that utilities could use wind power to generate up to 25 percent of their energy mix without a significant impact on energy costs. (gov. news release)


Batteries recalled

Ultracapacitors to replace batteries
Ultracapacitors to replace batteries
Batteries start fires. Batteries pollute. Batteries wear out. Batteries can leak acid. What the world needs is a better way to store electic energy. The people who invested in Google, Amazon, and AOL are now putting their money in ultracapacitors.

New ultracapacitors can replace batteries

If a new company called EEStor delivers on its promises, storing electric power in what it calls ultracapacitors will change the world.

Among EEStor's claims is that its "electrical energy storage unit" (EESU) could pack nearly 10 times the energy punch of a lead-acid battery of similar weight and, under mass production, would cost half as much.
It also says its technology more than doubles the energy density of lithium-ion batteries in most portable computer and mobile gadgets today, but could be produced at one-eighth the cost. TreeHugger

EEStore has contracted to deliver its first EESUs to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 to use in their electric vehicles. It also has patented "Electrical-energy-storage unit (EESU) utilizing ceramic and integrated-circuit technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries."

What is an ultracapacitor and how does it work?

According to Clean Break via The Energy Blog

  • It is a parallel plate capacitor with barium titanate as the dielectric.
  • It claims that it can make a battery at half the cost per kilowatt-hour and one-tenth the weight of lead-acid batteries.
  • As of last year selling price would start at $3,200 and fall to $2,100 in high-volume production
  • The product weighs 400 pounds and delivers 52 kilowatt-hours.
  • The batteries fully charge in minutes as opposed to hours.
  • The EEStor technology has been tested up to a million cycles with no material degradation compared to lead acid batteries that optimistically have 500 to 700 recharge cycles,
  • Because it's a solid state battery rather than a chemical battery, such being the case for lithium ion technology, there would be no overheating and thus safety concerns with using it in a vehicle.

A capacitor is like a grilled cheese sandwich. The electrical energy is stored in the bread slices. The cheese needs to prevent the stored electricity from leaking across to the other side. In ultracapacitors the pressure will be over a thousand volts. The company that can solve ultracapacitor size, weight, leakage, cost, and safety issues will have the "holy grail" of electric storage.


Dr. Clarence Lehman of the University of Minnesota will present an evening program on Energy and Biofuels at the Warner Nature Center on Friday, January 12, 2007 at 7:00 PM.

Dr. Lehman co-authored a paper featured as the cover story in the prestigious journal Science on Dec. 8, 2006. The highly regarded work emphasizes the importance of native grassland perennials in providing more usable energy, greater greenhouse gas reductions and less agrichemical pollution than corn grain ethanol or soybean biodiesel.

The evening is co-hosted by the Friends of Warner Nature Center and the Friends of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station Research. Refreshments and beverages will follow the program. The cost of the evening is free to any members of either Friends group and is open to the public with tickets priced at $12/family or $8/individual. Call (651) 433-2427 to register or for more information.

Buzz stories about biofuel: