Category: Energy

How much of the world’s arable land is used to grow food?

food vs fuel&feed
Crops grown for food (green) versus for animal feed and fuel (purple)

Just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people. Another 36 percent is used for animal feed. And the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses…

The proportions are even more striking in the United States, where just 27 percent of crop calories are consumed directly — wheat, say, or fruits and vegetables grown in California. By contrast, more than 67 percent of crops — particularly all the soy grown in the Midwest — goes to animal feed. And a portion of the rest goes to ethanol and other biofuels.

Some of that animal feed eventually becomes food, obviously — but it’s a much, much more indirect process. It takes about 100 calories of grain to produce just 12 calories of chicken or 3 calories worth of beef, for instance.

The map itself comes from Jonathan Foley’s fascinating, visually rich exploration in National Geographic of how we can possibly feed everyone as the world’s population grows from 7 billion today to 9 billion by mid-century…

There are lots of possible strategies here. Farmers could increase agricultural productivity by boosting crop yields — either through new farming techniques or through improved crop genetics. But even if the rapid rate of improvement in crop yields over the 20th century continued, that still wouldn’t produce enough food for everyone…

One implication of that is that, as countries like China and India grow and consume more milk and meat, the pressure on global farmland will grow. But, alternatively, if the world shifted even a small portion of its diet away from resource-intensive meats or grew fewer biofuels, we could wring more food calories out of existing farmland.

There are many more strategies – which almost always fall under the category of tweaks. Poisonally, I’d rather see the production of flavorful vegetable-based protein continue to move forward, become practical and affordable. Yes, flavorful means “tastes like meat, tastes like chicken, tastes like fish”.

I think philosophical discussions about the life and death of animals that evolved along omnivore humans won’t change public opinion anymore in the next couple of centuries than was achieved in the last couple. Make veggie-based stuff that consumes fewer calories of potential energy and tastes like the stuff we grew up consuming, furry, finned or feathered – and costs less – and you have a winner.

Fortunately, there are a number of folks working on that. That’s the side I’m on.

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Researchers set new record in solar energy efficiency

UNSW’s solar researchers have converted over 40% of the sunlight hitting a solar system into electricity, the highest efficiency ever reported.

The world-beating efficiency was achieved in outdoor tests in Sydney, before being independently confirmed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at their outdoor test facility in the United States…

“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” said Dr Mark Keevers, the UNSW solar scientist who managed the project.

The 40% efficiency milestone is the latest in a long line of achievements by UNSW solar researchers spanning four decades. These include the first photovoltaic system to convert sunlight to electricity with over 20% efficiency in 1989, with the new result doubling this performance.

“The new results are based on the use of focused sunlight, and are particularly relevant to photovoltaic power towers being developed in Australia,” Professor Martin Green said…

A key part of the prototype’s design is the use of a custom optical bandpass filter to capture sunlight that is normally wasted by commercial solar cells on towers and convert it to electricity at a higher efficiency than the solar cells themselves ever could.

Such filters reflect particular wavelengths of light while transmitting others.

When the whole paper is published we will see and hear a lot more about the process. Proof-of-concept is already established. Prototype and pilot plant demonstrations are next.

And, then, if all continues apace, we start to be able to acquire greater output with fewer dollars invested in solar power. Hopefully, at the individual home level as well as commercial solar farms.

Thanks, Mike

Oil trains are virtual pipelines – with secret routes and fewer safety regulations


Click to enlargeTom Stromme/Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal has a story on issues surrounding the “virtual pipeline,” and it’s hard to know where to begin sorting out what’s what. The easy part is defining our terms: a virtual pipeline is the mile-long, or longer, hookup of railroad tanker cars that carry oil from places like North Dakota to refineries throughout the country. The issue in the Journal piece is that the oil trains aren’t bound by the same safety regimen as traditional pipelines, and that their routes are often state-mandated secrets due to the fear of a terrorist attack. With the virtual pipelines moving through dense urban areas, the report appears to contend that such constraints on safety and knowledge put the public at higher risk if something goes wrong, if not outright danger.

The controversy isn’t new, nor unusual…As the energy boom has, well, boomed, and railroad companies have looked for freight business to supplement and remedy the decline of coal shipping, rail transport of crude oil products has increased magnificently. With that, cities here in the US and in Canada have asked a lot more questions about how to keep that liquid black economy running and keep everyone safe, worried about first responder preparedness and the quality of train manifests meant to detail the cargo. The Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fire in Quebec in 2013 that killed 47 people only pressed the urgency.

Questions about the secrecy make sense, all the more so because the attempt at secrecy seems absurd; how much of a secret is a train that’s a mile long, that has DOT hazardous materials placards identifying the kind of substance in each car, has passed amateur trainspotting bloggers all along its route, and that can sit still in the middle of a city for hours at a time waiting for space to open up at the destination?

Yet we wonder why the transport of crude is what’s banging the alarm bells – trains carry all kinds of hazardous materials through cities every day, including radioactive substances. When the Department of Homeland Security put together a document called “National Planning Scenarios” in 2004, examining terrorist targets, it was rail cars full of chlorine that ranked alongside dirty bombs and the nerve gas sarin; a story in the Washington Post referenced the suggestion that a single 90-ton tanker car of chlorine could put three million lives at risk in an urban area, while the EPA said an attack at a chlorine plant near New York City could endanger 12 million people. And guess what: almost all chlorine is transported by rail, every car carrying it slapped with a DOT 1017 placard on its side. On the other hand, there’s a lot more crude in transit than chlorine.

From where I sit the question of rail transport of dangerous materials is amplified by the increase in flammable crap carried by these invisible pipelines. They’re only invisible in that the public rarely notices their passage. If no one is hollering our elected officials feel secure in ignoring dangers. They can always blame the railroads themselves, anyway.

Perish the thought that the portion of American bureaucracy charged with legislation and regulation actually get off their rusty-dustys long enough to earn their keep.

First Chevy Volt to hit 200,000 miles

One year ago, InsideEVs reported on Erick Belmer, proud owner of a Chevy Volt. Back then, the focus was on how Belmer’s Volt had at least 20,000 miles more than the highest mileage LEAF in the U.S.

Four months later, we updated the Belmer story with a post on how his Volt was celebrating its second birthday with over 146,000 miles on the odometer.

Belmer is once again featured here for a world’s first: 200,000 miles on a Chevy Volt…

As Belmer tells InsideEVs, the Volt was purchased on March 28, 2012. Since then, it’s seen a daily commute of 220 miles there and back, with a single longest trip of 430 miles in a day.

Oil changes come every 38,000 miles and tire rotations every 10,000 miles. That’s basically all the maintenance that’s been required on Belmer’s Volt…

“Volt is holding up flawlessly! No noticeable battery capacity loss. Used 9.7 kw because it’s a 2012. I am so pleased with this vehicle!”

The Volt was always my dream car! To get to drive it everyday is a dream come true! This car is Wonderfully engineered!”

Keep on Rocking in the Free World, Erick.

I can sympathize with the driving. When the first Acuras came out I was still living on the road. Miles weren’t quite as bad as yours; I was averaging ab’t 75,000 miles per year – enough to get me finally changing jobs and getting off the road after 20 years.

Out here in the Southern Rockies ain’t nothin’ next to nothin’.

Abandoned oil wells still spewing methane into the air we breathe


Just in the first oil boom state, Pennsylvania — 200K/1 million abandoned oil wells

Some of the millions of abandoned oil and natural gas wells in the United States are still spewing methane, marking a potentially large source of unrecorded greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study released on Monday.

Researchers at Princeton University measured emissions from dozens of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania in 2013 and 2014 and found they were emitting an average of 0.27 kg (0.6 lbs) of methane per day, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“These measurements show that methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells can be significant,” according to the study. “The research required to quantify these emissions nationally should be undertaken so they can be accurately described and included in greenhouse gas emissions inventories.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is mulling whether to issue mandatory standards for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as part of President Barack Obama’s broad climate action plan.

Presuming Barack Obama isn’t interned at Gitmo by the incoming Republican-dominated Congress.

Environmental groups have told the EPA that directly targeting methane rather than secondary volatile organic compounds, which the agency currently regulates, is more effective and can help the United States make steeper greenhouse gas emission cuts.

The history of extractive industries – whether mining or well-drilling – is one of the worst serial crimewaves in the United States. Between abandoned mines, wells ignored because their production of crap hydrocarbons isn’t sufficiently profitable – it is a tale of poisonous dangers left to rot.

Early warning signals of wide-ranging climate change to affect Europe and Africa


Reindeer in Scotland might not be so rare

Research, published…in the journal Nature Communications, used a simulation from a highly complex model to analyse the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), an important component of the Earth’s climate system.

It showed that early warning signals are present up to 250 years before it collapses, suggesting that scientists could monitor the real world overturning circulation for the same signals.

The AMOC is like a conveyor belt in the ocean, driven by the salinity and temperature of the water. The system transports heat energy from the tropics and Southern Hemisphere to the North Atlantic, where it is transferred to the atmosphere.

Experiments suggest that if the AMOC is ‘switched off’ by extra freshwater entering the North Atlantic, surface air temperature in the North Atlantic region would cool by around 1-3°C, with enhanced cooling of up to 8°C in the worst affected regions.

The collapse would also encourage drought in the Sahel — the area just south of the Sahara desert — and dynamic changes in sea level of up to 80cm along the coasts of Europe and North America.

“We found that natural fluctuations in the circulation were getting longer-lived as the collapse was approached, a phenomenon known as critical slowing down,” said lead author Chris Boulton.

We don’t know how close we are to a collapse of the circulation, but a real world early warning could help us prevent it, or at least prepare for the consequences” adds co-author Professor Tim Lenton.

The study is the most realistic simulation of the climate system in which this type of early warning signal has been tested.

It’s everyone’s wildest sci-fi movie. Wild only because climate change deniers have focused their paid-for-stupidity only on the aspects of climate change indicating environments with rising temperatures. Actually the whole North Atlantic current from the Gulf Stream via the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation warms the north and west of Europe and the UK from what would be normal temps absent that elevator.

The Benelux countries and the UK might become more like Lapland.

My curiosity extends to changes in humidity and precipitation. The report indicates desertification south of the Sahara. I wonder if the affected areas of Europe might end up with increased precipitation. Folks in the west of Scotland, Wales and England might have to sprout webbed feet.

Thanks, Mike – GMTA

New NatGas power plant will integrate renewable energy power plants into grid

GE just announced the largest debt financing this year for a thermal power plant in the US. Located in Riverside County, California, the massive 800 MW Sentinel Facility will help facilitate the integration of renewable energy into the power grid. The plan is being funded by a union of mega companies including GE Energy Financial Services, Diamond Generating Corporation and Competitve Power Ventures, and when it is completed it will produce enough power for 239,000 homes.

The thermal plant is part of California’s program to derive 33% of its power from renewable energy by the year 2020. In addition to the CPV Sentinel Facility, Riverside will welcome the Blythe Solar Project, a 968 megawatt solar power plant, driving the state even further toward their goal.

Aside from generating power, the $2 billion project will also give way to 300 construction jobs and 400 employment jobs — expected to inject $55 million into the local economy. Sales tax alone from the project will bring $30 million, and property taxes will provide the county with an additional $6.4 million.

And it ain’t going to buy coal from the Four Corners and PNM.

Oh yeah – that’s more post-construction direct permanent jobs than the whole Keystone XL pipeline.

Thanks, Mike

Green jobs employ more Canadians than oil sands jobs

Canada’s green energy sector has grown so quickly and has become such an important part of the economy that it now employs more people than the oil sands.

About $25-billion has been invested in Canada’s clean-energy sector in the past five years, and employment is up 37 per cent, according to a new report from climate think tank Clean Energy Canada to be released Tuesday. That means the 23,700 people who work in green energy organizations outnumber the 22,340 whose work relates to the oil sands, the report says.

“Clean energy has moved from being a small niche or boutique industry to really big business in Canada,” said Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada. The investment it has gleaned since 2009 is roughly the same as has been pumped into agriculture, fishing and forestry combined, she said. The industry will continue to show huge growth potential, beyond most other business sectors, she added.

While investment has boomed, the energy-generating capacity of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and biomass plants has expanded by 93 per cent since 2009, the report says…

Not a priority, however, for the Conservatives running the Federal government. Big Oil still rules.

Not only does the oil industry still get more substantial subsidies, she said, it also eats up a good deal of the country’s diplomatic relations efforts – through the lobbying for the Keystone XL pipeline, for example…

As for the provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan in particular should follow Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia in getting into the renewable-energy game, Ms. Smith said. Still, the necessity for this shift is beginning to gain some traction, she said, noting that Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell said last week that the province has to “get off the oil train…”

The Clean Energy Canada report notes that much of the investment for Canada’s clean-tech expansion currently comes outside the country. Of the five largest investors since 2009, just one, Manulife Financial Corp., is Canadian. Two Japanese companies are in that top-five list, along with two German banking groups.

“The fact that foreign investors are coming to Canada to invest in our clean energy, tells us that we have a fantastic resource,” Ms. Smith said. “We need Bay Street to wake up and recognize this is where the puck is going.”

Gotta love Canadian sports metaphors. In a nation where hockey rules, the puck stops here is a legit phrase.

World’s biggest solar power plant is now up and running


Click to enlarge

Did you hear about the largest solar power plant in the world and how it is now producing electricity? Did it make the nightly broadcast news?

Probably not, but Solyndra was all over the news media for a while. There’s a blatant lack of coverage for solar success stories, so it wouldn’t be surprising if most people aren’t hearing about them. California’s Topaz project is the largest solar power plant in the world with a 550 MW capacity, and it is now in full operation. It is located in San Luis Obispo County and has 9 million solar panels. Construction began just two years ago.

The electricity produced by the plant will be purchased by Pacific Gas and Electric. The solar panels were manufactured by First Solar and the project was developed by First Solar.

SEIA says about 200 homes in California are powered for each MW of solar power capacity. So, for a 550 MW solar plant, about 110,000 homes could be powered when the sun is shining. First Solar has said this figure could be 160,000 homes in the case of Topaz…

Using the electricity created by this huge solar plant rather than fossil fuels will prevent the generation of about 377,000 tons of CO2 annually. It will also not produce harmful air pollution the way coal power plants do.

There’s more, of course. If you’re interested enough in solar power to read through a post like this you may already know something of the life and cost of solar panels. Though it’s nice to dust them off to keep efficiency up, that’s about it for maintenance. Convertors to kick DC electricity over to AC need replacement a few times in the life of a system; but, you can expect these critters to last 20 or 30 years with very little reduction in output.

Compared to the cost of coal or even natural gas, compared to the cost of maintaining a nuclear power plant – this is going to cost peanuts. And only squirrelly politicians and flat-earthers would rather spend the extra money for dirty electricity.

Thanks, Mike — GMTA :)

Shopping in a Twizy

A little less than four years ago, the first 2011 Nissan Leaf electric car was delivered to eager buyer Olivier Chalouhi in San Francisco.

Earlier this month, Nissan and its partner the French carmaker Renault delivered their 200,000th electric car.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance now claims a 58-percent share of the market for vehicles with no tailpipe emissions.

And it doesn’t bother sales at all – in most of the world – to roll out a commercial showing a couple of Formula One drivers galavanting around one of the biggest shopping malls in the world – in a couple of Twizys. Renault’s cutesy electric city car – the smallest of the four electric models they offer.