18 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for November 5: New transparent thin film could turn windows into solar generators; World’s oil thirst leads to risks; UN report warns of climate change’s threat to human progress
Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy have developed a material that could turn an ordinary-looking window into a solar panel. If developed successfully, the breakthrough means that any window could do double duty as a solar panel, and entire glass-walled buildings could be designed around their capacity to generate solar energy.
Aside from their use in residences and office buildings, transparent solar panels also raise the potential to add value other structures such as solar greenhouses.
Transparent Thin Film Solar Material and “Fullerenes”
The new material was developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory. Its keynote is the use of fullerenes, which are molecules composed of 60 carbon atoms, shaped roughly like a soccer ball. Fullerines have the ability to assemble themselves into a honeycomb-like pattern of hexagons. When they are applied to a polymer they end up pushing the polymer chains to the edges of the hexagons, and that makes the resulting material transparent.
Water and Thin Film Solar Panels
There is still a long way to go before the new material can be developed for commercial purposes, but the prospects look pretty attractive. The manufacturing process was designed to be cost effective, with the potential to be expanded from the lab to factory scale. It involves using water droplets to steer the polymer-fullerene material into forming its distinctive honeycomb pattern. This wouldn’t be the first time that water droplets have been used to create futuristic materials; they have also been used as “chaperones” to manipulate graphene into precise shapes.
The world’s thirst for crude is leading oil exploration companies into ever deeper waters and ventures fraught with environmental and political peril.
The days when the industry could merely drill on land and wait for the oil – and the profits – to flow are coming to an end. Because of that, companies feel compelled to sink wells at the bottom of deep oceans, inject chemicals into the ground to force oil to the surface, deal with unsavory regimes, or operate in some of the world’s most environmentally sensitive and inaccessible spots, far from ports and decent roads. All those factors could make it difficult to move in equipment and clean up a spill.
From the Arctic to Cuba to the coast of Nigeria, avoiding catastrophes like BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill is likely to become increasingly difficult and require cooperation among countries that aren’t used to working together.
An Associated Press review of oil ventures around the world found plans to punch through layers of salt more than three miles beneath the ocean floor off the coast of Brazil, drill seven exploratory wells off Cuba and extract oil from crude-soaked sands on the Canadian prairie. Drilling is proceeding in countries with extremely weak regulations and a lack of skilled operators, and in geological settings much like the northern Gulf of Mexico, with high pressure and weak rock formations ripe for blowouts.
In its annual flagship report on the state of the world, the UN said unsustainable patterns of consumption and production posed the biggest challenge to the anti-poverty drive.
“For human development to become truly sustainable, the close link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions needs to be severed,” the UN said in its annual human development report (HDR).
Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the HDR said the past two decades had seen “substantial progress” in human development despite the impact of the financial crisis, which had resulted in 34 million people losing their jobs and an additional 64 million people dropping below the $1.25 a day income poverty threshold.
“Most people are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services. Even in countries facing adverse economic conditions, people’s health and education have greatly improved.”
Jiang Kejun, senior researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission’s Energy Research Institute, was one of the first Chinese academics to study the concept of low-carbon cities. With his colleagues, he is currently producing a low-carbon programme for Shenyang in north-east China. During the recent climate-change talks in Tianjin, Liu Jianqiang spoke to Jiang about low-carbon cities.
Liu Jianqiang: “Low-carbon city” seems to have become a buzz word, with many places in China adopting this label. Are these cities really low-carbon?
Jiang Kejun: These so-called “low-carbon cities” are actually high-carbon. Per-capita emissions in Chinese cities are two or more times those of western cities. What’s low-carbon about that?
LJ: Why are per-capita emissions so high in Chinese cities?
JK: Because, in developed nations, cities are used primarily for living – emissions come mainly from transportation and buildings. But Chinese cities are home to a lot of industry, and the associated emissions are high. There isn’t actually much residential energy consumption.
China’s strategic promotion of low-carbon cities is a good move, but many cities have gone about it the wrong way. They have all piled in to become “low-carbon cities” and it’s been disastrous.
NextEra Energy Inc (NEE.N) won federal approval on Thursday for a $1 billion-plus, 250-megawatt solar plant in California, the latest in a string of solar-power plants to get the greenlight in the nation’s most populous state.
When completed, the plant will be big enough to power at least 75,000 homes, the U.S. Department of the Interior said.
Development of alternative energy has been a major platform of President Barack Obama and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a way to reduce dependence on dirty fossil fuels and create jobs. The plant will generate more than 1,000 jobs during peak construction, the Interior Department said.
California has ambitious goals to produce one-fifth of its energy from renewable sources as part of the country’s toughest renewable energy mandate.
Several large-scale California solar plants have received approval in recent weeks as part of a fast-track effort between federal and state authorities.
The approved plants run between 250 megawatts and and 1,000 megawatts, which helps put the solar industry on par with traditional fossil-fuel powered plants. Currently, the largest solar power plant in operation in the United States totals 80 megawatts.
From an environmental standpoint, it’s hard to figure out whether to celebrate or mourn the results of Tuesday’s election. The failure of Proposition 23, which would have suspended California’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, sends a powerful message that tough economic times haven’t blinded Golden State voters to the urgent threat posed by climate change. But much of the rest of the country proved less farsighted.
The Republican takeover of the House puts an end to hopes for a federal climate bill or clean-energy legislation; a party traditionally hostile to environmental regulation appears to have shifted even further to the right on energy issues, essentially turning itself into a lawmaking arm of Big Oil. Environmental lobbyists in Washington expect to spend the next two years playing defense “” rather than pushing for positive action, they’ll be trying to prevent the GOP from rolling back the progress already being made.
For example, a key goal of Republican lawmakers for the next session is to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the power to regulate greenhouse gases. Such an irresponsible rejection of U.S. law (the Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act) and science (the EPA concluded in 2009 that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and welfare, based on overwhelming scientific evidence) couldn’t overcome a veto from President Obama. But Republicans could attach such a bill as a rider to crucial spending legislation, and a few Democrats from coal states would help them pass it.
Canadian and Dutch researchers have shown that current equations to predict methane production of cows are inaccurate. Sound mitigation options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of dairy farms require a significant improvement of current methane equations, according to a study of the Dutch-Canadian team in the journal Global Change Biology.
The researchers, from University of Guelph and University of Manitoba (Canada) and Wageningen University & Research centre (the Netherlands), compared the observed methane production of cows with that predicted by nine different methane equations that are applied in whole farm greenhouse gas models. “The prediction accuracy of these equations is small, and the equations are not suitable to quantify methane production of cows,” says Dr Jan Dijkstra, senior researcher worker at Wageningen University and adjunct professor at University of Guelph. “The predictive power of methane equations will have to be markedly improved if such whole farm models are used for sound decisions by governments to reduce environmental impact of dairying.”
On a global basis, according to the FAO livestock is responsible for some 18% of all greenhouse gases emitted. Methane is the most important greenhouse gas on a dairy farm.The FAO estimates that about 52% of all greenhouse gases from the dairy sector is in the form of methane. Several whole-farm models are available that predict the total amount of greenhouse gases (the sum of CO2, CH4 en N2O) of dairy farms. Such whole-farm models are applied to make an inventory of total greenhouse gas emission on farm, and to estimate the effect of management changes (changes in breeding, nutrition, etc.) on greenhouse gas emissions. Methane is the single most important element in such estimates. Methane is 25 times more potent than CO2. Hence, the accuracy of estimation of total greenhouse gas emissions of whole-farm models largely depends on the accuracy of the prediction of methane emitted per cow.
A widely agreed international target to avoid dangerous global warming must take account of local impacts and may need to change, said the chief scientist at the MetOffice Hadley Center, Britain’s biggest climate research center.
Julia Slingo said the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (2C) may need adjusting to take into account research into local and regional effects, particularly on rainfall patterns, as climate science advances.
More than 120 nations agreed to the U.N.’s Copenhagen Accord last December which aimed to limit average global warming to less than 2C, in one of the main outcomes of a fractious summit.
But hopes are low for agreement on a global climate deal, to succeed the Kyoto Protocol on curbing greenhouse gas emissions after 2012, at a follow-up U.N. conference in Cancun, Mexico later this month.
Slingo said the world should keep the 2C target for now to aid negotiations, but that it should be kept under review.
She said better local and regional data would “enable individual countries to enter negotiations in a more informed, engaged way because it doesn’t seem like an arbitrary target that’s just been set at a global level.”
Scientists have long known that large volcanic explosions can affect the weather by spewing particles that block solar energy and cool the air. Some suspect that extended “volcanic winters” from gigantic blowups helped kill off dinosaurs and Neanderthals. In the summer following Indonesia’s 1815 Tambora eruption, frost wrecked crops as far off as New England, and the 1991 blowout of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo lowered average global temperatures by 0.7 degrees F — enough to mask the effects of manmade greenhouse gases for a year or so.
Now, scientists have shown that eruptions also affect rainfall over the Asian monsoon region, where seasonal storms water crops for nearly half of earth’s population. Tree-ring researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory showed that big eruptions tend to dry up much of central Asia, but bring more rain to southeast Asian countries including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar — the opposite of what many climate models predict. Their paper appears in an advance online version of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
The growth rings of some tree species can be correlated with rainfall, and the observatory’s Tree Ring Lab used rings from some 300 sites across Asia to measure the effects of 54 eruptions going back about 800 years. The data came from Lamont’s new 1,000-year tree-ring atlas of Asian weather, which has already produced evidence of long, devastating droughts; the researchers also have done a prior study of volcanic cooling in the tropics. “We might think of the study of the solid earth and the atmosphere as two different things, but really everything in the system is interconnected,” said Kevin Anchukaitis, the study’s lead author. “Volcanoes can be important players in climate over time.”
With large swaths of forest destroyed by wartime defoliants, and even larger areas lost to post-war logging, Vietnam has set an ambitious goal for regenerating its woodlands. But proponents of reintroducing native tree species face resistance from a timber industry that favors fast-growing exotics like acacia.
On a muggy morning near Vinh Cuu, a town about 60 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, a blue Toyota pickup whizzed by dense tropical scrub. The nearest city was Bien Hoa, home of an American air base during the Vietnam War. Today, the surrounding countryside is a patchwork of villages, farms, and recovering forests.
Inside the truck, workers from the Vinh Cuu Nature Reserve were trading war stories, recalling that the region was once a hotbed of fighting. The surrounding forest had served as a haven for the Viet Cong; 10 miles away the Communist guerillas had dug a network of tunnels.
The road turned to clay and snaked into a dense bamboo canopy. When the forest gave way to fields, the truck stopped on a stretch of road that straddled two tree plantations “” one of imported Australian acacia, and the other of a native hardwood, Hopea odorata, also known as thingan or takian.