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Energy and Global Warming News for August 26th: California approves first new U.S. large solar thermal plant; Electricity from the air?

California Approves First New U.S. Thermal Solar Plant

California regulators on Wednesday approved a license for the nation’s first large-scale solar thermal power plant in two decades.

The licensing of the 250-megawatt Beacon Solar Energy Project after a two-and-a-half-year environmental review comes as several other big solar farms are set to receive approval from the California Energ y Commission in the next month.

“I hope this is the first of many more large-scale solar projects we will permit,” said Jeffrey D. Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, at a hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday. “This is exactly the type of project we want to see.”

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Developers and regulators have been racing to license solar power plants and begin construction before the end of the year, when federal incentives for such renewable energy projects expire. California’s three investor-owned utilities also face a deadline to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by the end of 2010.

Still, it has been long slog as solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert have become bogged down in disputes over their impact on protected wildlife and scarce water supplies.

Related Post: Concentrated solar thermal power Solar Baseload “” a core climate solution.

Electricity Collected from the Air Could Become the Newest Alternative Energy Source

Imagine devices that capture electricity from the air “• much like solar cells capture sunlight “• and using them to light a house or recharge an electric car. Imagine using similar panels on the rooftops of buildings to prevent lightning before it forms. Strange as it may sound, scientists already are in the early stages of developing such devices, according to a report presented at the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

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“Our research could pave the way for turning electricity from the atmosphere into an alternative energy source for the future,” said study leader Fernando Galembeck, Ph.D. His research may help explain a 200-year-old scientific riddle about how electricity is produced and discharged in the atmosphere. “Just as solar energy could free some households from paying electric bills, this promising new energy source could have a similar effect,” he maintained.

The notion of harnessing the power of electricity formed naturally has tantalized scientists for centuries. They noticed that sparks of static electricity formed as steam escaped from boilers. Workers who touched the steam even got painful electrical shocks. Famed inventor Nikola Tesla, for example, was among those who dreamed of capturing and using electricity from the air. It’s the electricity formed, for instance, when water vapor collects on microscopic particles of dust and other material in the air. But until now, scientists lacked adequate knowledge about the processes involved in formation and release of electricity from water in the atmosphere, Galembeck said. He is with the University of Campinas in Campinas, SP, Brazil.

Scientists once believed that water droplets in the atmosphere were electrically neutral, and remained so even after coming into contact with the electrical charges on dust particles and droplets of other liquids. But new evidence suggested that water in the atmosphere really does pick up an electrical charge.

Galembeck and colleagues confirmed that idea, using laboratory experiments that simulated water’s contact with dust particles in the air. They used tiny particles of silica and aluminum phosphate, both common airborne substances, showing that silica became more negatively charged in the presence of high humidity and aluminum phosphate became more positively charged. High humidity means high levels of water vapor in the air “• the vapor that condenses and becomes visible as “fog” on windows of air-conditioned cars and buildings on steamy summer days.

“This was clear evidence that water in the atmosphere can accumulate electrical charges and transfer them to other materials it comes into contact with,” Galembeck explained. “We are calling this ‘hygroelectricity,’ meaning ‘humidity electricity’.”

In the future, he added, it may be possible to develop collectors, similar to the solar cells that collect the sunlight to produce electricity, to capture hygroelectricity and route it to homes and businesses. Just as solar cells work best in sunny areas of the world, hygroelectrical panels would work more efficiently in areas with high humidity, such as the northeastern and southeastern United States and the humid tropics.

Egypt’s Wind Ambitions Could Keep Lights On

Large parts of Cairo were left in the dark again this week as Egypt wrestles with a series of major power disruptions.

The timing couldn’t be worse.

Public anxiety levels are already sky high due to concerns about wheat supplies and food inflation following Russia’s recent ban on exports. It is, after all the world’s biggest importer of the grain.

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But with all this happening during the holy month of Ramadan-a period during which Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset-it’s little wonder that people are taking to the streets in protest.

At the heart of Egypt’s power problem is its outdated and neglected electricity infrastructure. Soaring summer temperatures have pressured an already creaky system while high night-time demand for electricity-a period when Muslim’s break their daily fast-has also contributed to the outages.

Community College Training for Managing Green Jobs

BEYOND “green-collar” jobs, like retrofitting a home to conserve energy or helping build a wind farm, an energy-conscious economy will need a new generation of environmentally smart managers, and that’s where community colleges are stepping up with new courses and degree programs.

The federal government is pouring $500 million into training for green jobs, and the sector devoted to energy efficiency is estimated to grow as much as fourfold in the next decade, to some 1.3 million people, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Its March 2010 report was financed by the Energy Department.

Green-collar jobs have grabbed the public’s attention, and educational institutions are starting programs to train the managers who will oversee the technologies, manufacturing processes and materials that will be used to conserve energy and help safeguard natural resources.

Some community colleges already are offering two-year degrees in environmental management and certificates for managers who want to add green qualifications “” which means learning more about the environmental aspects of a particular field “” to their r©sum©s. These colleges are offering some courses and training on campus as well as online.

New Yorkers Begin to See How Much They Have to Lose From Climate Change

Lowering the energy consumption of the Empire State Building may seem bold and significant — and it is. But the real challenge lies among the city’s lesser-known buildings that extend into the horizon, to the north and south and in adjacent boroughs. Unless New York can lower its $15 billion annual energy bill and show the world that there are successful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it could find itself teetering on the edge of disaster indefinitely.

Compared with other city dwellers, the average New Yorker is not an energy wastrel. This is largely driven by the heavy use of public transit, low automobile ownership and smaller living spaces. As a result, he or she emits far less carbon dioxide per capita than a resident of just about anywhere else in the country — an indirect consequence of New York’s high density.

This has put the million-plus buildings that populate the city at the center of plans to reduce emissions and better manage New York’s energy needs.

Climate affecting Alaskan spruce forests

Alaskan forests of white spruce and other trees are suffering from the effects of climate change and rises in temperature, researchers say.

Experts say stands of white spruce, which a recent study found contain half of the genetic diversity of all white spruce in North America, are suffering, ScientificAmerican.com reported Wednesday.

“A biome shift is now occurring,” University of Alaska, Fairbanks, forest ecologist Glenn Juday said. “You don’t have to wait for the effects. They’re happening.”

North America’s white spruce require at least 11 inches of rain each year, a number that rises if mean summer temperatures are higher than around 60 degrees F.

When temperatures hit a mean of just below 70 degrees F, the trees can’t survive.

In Fairbanks, conditions are hovering right on that edge. July temperatures have exceeded 70 F several times in the last 20 years, Juday said.

From Climate Science to Climate Activism “” The Sequel

A couple of years ago, I posted a piece here describing the journey of Richard Somerville, a climatologist a the University of California, San Diego, from a tight focus on research to a role as an advocate for climate action.

It is a journey that comes with costs and compromises. When I taught a seminar at Bard College in 2007 on the role of communication in shaping environmental policy, I had the students split into defenders of two approaches taken by prominent climate scientists.

One group had to defend Susan Solomon, the much lauded atmospheric scientist who, while a co-leader of the 2007 science assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, staunchly refused to provide her personal view of the implications of global warming research despite the prodding of reporters.

The other group had to defend James E. Hansen, the NASA climatologist who had already become a strong advocate for particular climate policies at that time and, more recently, got himself arrested in coal country. The debate played out, as you might imagine, with no easy answers.

China aims to boost hydropower

China’s hydropower installed capacity has exceeded 200 million kilowatts, making it the world’s highest, state-owned news agency Xinhua reports.

The Chinese government aims to boost that amount to 300 million kilowatts by 2015, as part of its aim to cut carbon emissions per unit of gross domestic product by 40 to 45 percent by 2020, said Zhang Guobao, director of the National Energy Administration.

In an online interview with China’s Sina Finance news Web site Tuesday, Zhang reiterated China’s pledge at the Copenhagen summit on global climate change last December that it would generate 15 percent of its power from non-fossil sources by 2020, up from the current 7.8 percent.

“We will take the initiative to deliver that promise even though the task is not easy at all,” said Zhang. “But we still have a lot of basic work to do.”

New political scene may deliver climate action

I was asked to write this article as an analysis of what the election results mean for climate policy in this country, depending on who won. The problem is, we still don’t know who won. However, it’s starting to look like a hung parliament might just be better for climate policy than the majority governments we’ve had in the past.

I spent most of Saturday night grappling with the odd situation we find ourselves in: a lower house controlled by three rural MPs and a Greens balance of power in the Senate. But it’s not just the outcome of the election that has implications for climate policy. The entire campaign and the context surrounding it are almost more important.

It’s not an accident that the Australian people have given power in both houses to minority parties and independents. In fact, it could be seen as a backfire on both major parties, who wrongly thought that appealing to minor issues and self-interest would work. Fortunately (or unfortunately for the major parties), Australians have more smarts and more integrity than that.

Bucyrus India Coal Plant Deal Gets Ex-Im Bank Financing Approval

Bucyrus International Inc.’s sale of coal-mining equipment for a power plant in India won U.S. Export-Import Bank financial approval, advancing a project that was rejected in June amid environmental concerns.

The government-backed lender agreed to $900 million in loan guarantees for Reliance Power Ltd. to buy from U.S. companies in building a coal-fired power plant, the bank said yesterday in an e-mail statement. Congress now has 35 days to review the deal before a final vote by the bank.

Bucyrus had lobbied U.S. lawmakers to revive the deal that was initially turned down after groups such as the Sierra Club said funding would undercut the Obama administration’s pledge to limit export financing on projects that might harm the environment. Reliance won preliminary environmental approval in July after giving the bank a pledge to cap the plant’s carbon emissions.