Sustainablog

This blog will cover some news items related to Sustainability: Corporate Social Responsibility, Stewardship, Environmental management, etc.

19.11.09

Tackling climate change with technology - a blaggers guide

Excellent factual summary, thanks to John S.




Power
New technologies will be required if the world economy is to grow without accelerating climate change.
Since the industrial revolution, economic growth has gone hand in hand with the consumption of fossil fuels and the release of ever greater amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere - leading many scientists and politicians to call now for a new, technological revolution.

Fuels

Clean Coal
Range of technologies to pre-treat coal to reduce emissions, burn it more efficiently, or capture and store carbon emissions.
Pros
Most abundant and widely distributed fossil fuel. Preserves existing industry and makes use of existing infrastructure.
Cons
Uses more coal per kWh than normal coal power. Produces some pollutants, such as heavy metals
Viability
Small-scale trials under way. Huge investment(c $3trn) needed by 2050. Estimated cost: 5-13 cents/kWh (double normal coal).

Geothermal

Uses naturally hot rocks, or temperature differences, beneath Earth's surface to heat water directly or drive turbines.
Pros
Constant renewable energy source in some locations. Highly efficient for heating living spaces. Long hardware lifetime.
Cons
Underground heat only available in some locations. Energy can "dry up" for years. Can in some locations release toxic gases.
Viability
Currently less than 1% of global capacity. US and Australia investing in new technologies. Estimated cost: 5-11 cents/kWh. Iceland currently has about half its electricity generation from this method. The Southampton experimental site is the UK's only Geothermal and the UK has very few of the rocks that make this possible.

Nuclear
Harnesses energy from the controlled splitting of atoms, releasing heat that is harvested to drive turbines.
Pros
Significant historical experience and technology developed. Can provide heat and electricity.
Cons
Perceived as risky. Strong opposition from green campaigners. Creates radioactive waste. Fuel can be weapons security risk.
Viability
Set for a comeback after years in shadow. New reactors behind schedule. Disputed cost. One estimate: 4-8 cents/kWh.

Marine
Exploits energy of shifting tides, underwater currents, or shoreline and offshore waves.
Pros
Large and infinitely renewable resource. Tidal energy very regular. Can be exploited on small or large scale.
Cons
No consensus on best means to capture energy. Large projects may disrupt natural water flow, tides and ecosystems.
Viability
Little expected before 2030. Technology uncertain, so wide cost range: 15-30 cents/KWh (double or triple coal). UK ideally located for this.

Wind
Using the wind, on land or at sea, to drive turbines.
Pros
Significant experience and mature industry and infrastructure. Infinitely renewable resource. Can be deployed in range of project sizes.
Cons
Intermittent resource. Not efficient for all locations. Windfarms interrupt radar signals, can be noisy and regarded by some as unsightly.
Viability
Currently about 1% of global supply. Onshore cheaper than offshore. High energy storage costs are handicap. Quite low cost: 7-14 cents/kWh.

Solar
Gathers energy from sunlight, using light to generate electricity directly (photovoltaic) or to heat liquids to drive a turbine.
Pros
Infinitely renewable and most abundant zero-carbon resource. Silent and no effects on local environment.
Cons
Like wind and marine, intermittent. Current photovoltaic designs complex; if widely used, chemicals could become scarce.
Viability
US investing heavily, EU planning plant in Africa. Cost still high (13-35 cents/kWh) but expected to fall. Price of solar panels falling.

Hydroelectric
Generates electricity by damming water and constraining flow through turbines. Most widely deployed renewable strategy.
Pros
Well-established as a large-scale energy source. Can also be used for energy storage if run in reverse.
Cons
Dams disrupt ecosystems. Can trap decaying matter that creates pollution.
Viability
One of the cheapest forms of electricity. Development focusing on small hydro-electric power. Estimated cost: 2-6 cents/kWh.

Source: Costings from IEA. Who I find to be the most conservative.

Transport

Hydrogen
Hydrogen can be burned in combustion engines or used to drive fuel cells that combine it with oxygen to produce electricity.
Pros
It's clean - the only waste product is pure water - and it's the most abundant element in the universe.
Cons
Hydrogen production is very energy-intensive, often using fossil fuels or biomass. Flammable nature raises storage and transport risks.
Viability
It's too early to give an accurate estimate of cost. The US National Research Council says $55bn needs to be spent on R&D.

Electric
Transport can run on electricity stored in batteries, or in next-generation storage devices called supercapacitors.
Pros
Mechanically simple, and newer electric motors very efficient. Existing power grid can be used as basis for charging infrastructure.
Cons
Much depends on how electricity is produced. From a carbon-intensive source, overall emissions may be higher than petrol.
Viability
Far cheaper than petrol per mile but cost of battery makes cars more expensive. Also requires entirely new infrastructure.

Biofuels
Fuels made from plant matter or organic waste. Bioethanol, from sugar-rich crops such as maize, used in place of petrol. Old cooking oil can be refined into diesel.
Pros
Biofuel blends can be used in existing cars. Second generation fuels will make use of waste biomass such as seeds or husks.
Cons
Growing and cropping biofuels burns carbon - maybe more than they save. Grown on arable land that could be used to grow food.  
Viability
Cost comparable to petrol - sometimes cheaper, depending on oil price. Effect on food prices needs to be factored in.

Alternatives
Alternatives include the burning or pyrolysis (heating) of municipal waste. Pyrolysis results in a combustible gas or oil, and more heat.
Pros
Many alternative fuels' greatest advantage is that they utilise something that would otherwise go to landfill.
Cons
A dense waste product may result. Amount of CO2 saved varies, depending on method of combustion and type of fuel used.
Viability
Waste fuel technology is at an early stage of development, but experts say it could be competitive with other fuels in 10 years. But then they would wouldn't they.

Now some of the more controversial topics. Geo - Engineering

Scientists have been looking for ways of modifying the Earth's environment to control global warming - it's known as geo-engineering.
One way to do this is simply to reflect more of the sun's light, changing the Earth's reflectivity, or albedo.
This could be attempted using vast, flexible space reflectors (1) placed in orbit around the Earth. Alternatively, various types of "stratospheric aerosols" could be released in the upper atmosphere (2) to scatter some light back out into space. Earth-bound reflectors (3) could do the same.



Another approach is to directly reduce the atmospheric carbon that, among other things, leads to temperature rises.
This could be done by "fertilising" the ocean , stimulating the uptake of carbon by surface algae that would eventually sink to the ocean floor. Exposing the surfaces of carbonate and silicate rocks in "enhanced weathering" could provide a place for carbon to be absorbed.
Another frequently mentioned proposal is the capture of carbon dioxide from the air using "artificial trees", followed by liquefaction and storage, probably in underground reservoirs.


There is no single geo-engineering "silver bullet" that should be pursued as an all-encompassing solution to climate change, says the Royal Society in its analysis of the cost of a range of proposals compared with their efficacy.
Stratospheric aerosols seem to offer the most effect for the least investment, and could be deployed soon, but present an unknown risk to the environment.
Changes to desert surface albedo are projected to be more effective than ocean fertilisation, but both could change delicate ecosystems in unexpected ways.

17.11.09

Netherlands to levy 'green' road tax by the kilometre

Netherlands to levy 'green' road tax by the kilometre
Nov 13 05:20 PM US/Eastern
The Dutch government said Friday it wants to introduce a "green" road tax by the kilometre from 2012 aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent and halving congestion.

"Each vehicle will be equipped with a GPS device that tracks how many kilometres are driven and when and where. This data will be then be sent to a collection agency that will send out the bill," the transport ministry said in a statement.

Ownership and sales taxes, about a quarter of the cost of a new car, will be scrapped and replaced by the "price per kilometre" system aimed at cutting the Netherlands' carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent.

"Traffic jams will be halved and it helps the environment," the ministry said.

Dutch motorists driving a standard family saloon will be charged 3 euro cents per kilometre (seven US cents per mile) in 2012. That would increase to 6.7 cents (16 US cents per mile) in 2018, according to the proposed law.

Every vehicle type will have a base rate, which depends on its size, weight and carbon dioxide emissions.

Taxis, vehicles for the disabled, buses, motorcycles and classic cars will all be exempt.

"An alternative payment will be introduced for foreign vehicles," the ministry statement added.

The Dutch cabinet approved the road tax bill on Friday. It will need the backing of parliament before it becomes law.

16.11.09

Oil: future world shortages are being drastically underplayed, say experts

Oil: future world shortages are being drastically underplayed, say experts
• Swedish academics slate IEA's report as 'political document' for countries with vested interest in low prices
• Oil production 'likely to be 75m barrels a day rather than 105m'

Terry Macalister
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 12 November 2009 19.57 GMT
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An oil rig in Los Padres National Forest, California
An oil rig in California. The International Energy Agency is accused of underestimating when oil will run out. Photograph: David McNew/Getty
A leading academic institute has urged European governments to review global oilsupplies for themselves because of the "politicisation" of the International EnergyAgency's figures.
Uppsala University in Sweden today published a scathing assessment of the IEA's annual World Energy Outlook, saying some assumptions drastically underplayed the scale of future oil shortages.
Kjell Aleklett, professor of physics at Uppsala and co-author of a new report "The Peak of the Oil Age", claims oil production is more likely to be 75m barrels a day by 2030 than the "unrealistic" 105m used by the IEA in its recently published World Energy Outlook 2009. The academic, who runs a Global Energy unit at Uppsala, described the IEA's report as a "political document" developed for consuming countries with a vested interest in low prices.
The report from Aleklett and others, including Simon Snowden from the University of Liverpool, says: "We find the production outlook made by the IEA to be problematic in the light of historical experience and production patterns. The IEA is expecting the oil to be extracted at a pace never previously seen without any justification for this assumption."
There is particular concern about high future production rates from "unconventional" sources such as tar sands, with the Uppsala report saying there is a lack of information about the figures in the 2008 Outlook and largely repeated in the latest one. "We must therefore regard the IEA production figure as somewhat dubious until it is explained more fully," added the Swedish report, which is to be published in the journal Energy Policy.
The Uppsala findings come days after the Guardian reported that IEA whistleblowershad expressed deep misgivings about the way energy statistics were being collected and interpreted at the Paris-based organisation. Insiders questioned whether US influence and fears of stock market "panic" were encouraging the IEA to downplay the potential for future oil scarcity.
Aleklett, whose latest work was funded by the state-owned Swedish Energy Agency, said he had experience of similar internal worries about the IEA.
"The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) gave me the task of writing the report, Peak Oil and the Evolving Strategies of Oil Importing and Exporting Countries. This report was one of those discussed at a round-table meeting that was held in the IEA's conference room in Paris. At that opportunity, in November 2007, I had a number of private conversations with officers of the IEA. The revelations now reported in the Guardian were revealed to me then under the promise that I not name the source. I had earlier heard the same thing from another officer from Norway who, at the time he spoke of the pressure being applied by the USA, was working for the IEA."
The energy agency dismissed the suggestions of political influence on its analysis as "groundless". It said the annual document was reviewed by 200 different and independent experts.
The IEA was always trying to find ways to make its estimates even stronger, a spokeswoman said: "We would be happy to see any initiative to improve the data quality on reserves and decline rates. We believe our World Energy Outlook 2008 opened an important door to have more field data and transparency and would very much welcome similar efforts to help improve transparency in the oil sector."
Meanwhile, Steve Sorrell, author of a recent oil supply report for the UK Energy Research Centre, which also warned of British government complacency on the issue, said the Uppsala paper was a "useful contribution" to the debate on "peak oil" – the period at which maximum levels of crude output is reached after which there will be terminal decline.
"The IEA has taken some useful steps in recent years to give more information about how it is arriving at certain conclusions and that is to be welcomed. But its [oil supply/demand] scenarios have also changed radically and that deserves greater explanation. We still need greater access to the data that provides these assumptions," he said.
Aleklett added: "I am a scientist, not an economist or a politician. I believe in the facts and if someone can prove me wrong I will happily change my mind."

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