Category: Environment

UBS urges investors to join the renewables revolution


Click to enlargeVillage of Eitting near Munich, Germany

Big power stations in Europe could be redundant within 10-20 years as electric cars, cheaper batteries and new solar technologies transform the way electricity is generated, stored and distributed, say analysts at the world’s largest private bank.

In a briefing paper sent to clients and investors this week, the Zurich-based UBS bank argues that large-scale, centralised power stations will soon become extinct because they are too big and inflexible, and are “not relevant” for future electricity generation. Instead, the authors expect it to be cheaper and more efficient for households and businesses to generate their own energy to power their cars and to store any surplus energy in their own buildings even without subsidies.

In language more closely associated with green NGOs, the bank with assets of more than $1.5tn says it expects a paradigm shift away from large-scale conventional power plants. “Power is no longer something that is exclusively produced by huge, centralised units owned by large utilities. By 2025, everybody will be able to produce and store power. And it will be green and cost competitive, ie, not more expensive or even cheaper than buying power from utilities,” say the authors, who urge their financial clients to “join the revolution.”

“Solar is at the edge of being a competitive power generation technology. The biggest drawback has been its intermittency. This is where batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) come into play. Battery costs have declined rapidly, and we expect a further decline of more than 50% by 2020. By then, a mass [produced] electric vehicle will have almost the same price as a combustion engine car. But it will save up to $2600 a year on fuel cost, hence, it will begin to pay off almost immediately without any meaningful upfront ‘investment’. This is why we expect a rapidly growing penetration with EVs, in particular in countries with high fossil fuel prices.”

The expected 50% reduction in the cost of batteries by 2020 will not just spur electric car sales, but could also lead to exponential growth in demand for stationary batteries to store excess power in buildings, says UBS. “Battery storage should become financially attractive for family homes when combined with a solar system and an electric vehicle. As a consequence, we expect transformational changes in the utility and auto sectors,” it says. “By 2020 investing in a home solar system with a 20-year life span, plus some small-scale home battery technology and an electric car, will pay for itself in six to eight years for the average consumer in Germany, Italy, Spain, and much of the rest of Europe…”

By 2025, falling battery and solar costs will make electric vehicles cheaper than conventional cars in most European markets. “As a conservative 2025 scenario, we think about 10% of new car registrations in Europe will be EVs. Households and businesses who invest in a combined electric car, solar array and battery storage should be able to pay the investment back within six to eight years,” UBS says. “In other words, based on a 20-year technical life of a solar system, a German buyer should receive 12 years of electricity for free.”

But the bank does not expect power companies or the grid to disappear: UBS says they have a future if they develop smart grids which manage electricity demand more efficiently and provide decentralised back-up power generation.

But, hey, your SUV is running OK. Cousin Ernie’s Chevy pickup truck does everything it should do. If our public utilities need to be modernized – well, that’s what we have state legislatures and regulatory commissions to take care of. Right?

Leading Americans in the direction of renewable, cheaper, cleaner sources of electricity is probably as unnecessary as eventually converting the Affordable Care Act to a single payer system. This all may save money and improve our quality of life; but, isn’t it all a little too foreign for Americans to adopt?

Fossil fuel electricity under real threat from solar and wind power

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Click to enlargeStiftung OFFSHORE-WINDENERGIE

Of all the developed nations, few have pushed harder than Germany to find a solution to global warming. And towering symbols of that drive are appearing in the middle of the North Sea.

They are wind turbines, standing as far as 60 miles from the mainland, stretching as high as 60-story buildings and costing up to $30 million apiece. On some of these giant machines, a single blade roughly equals the wingspan of the largest airliner in the sky, the Airbus A380. By year’s end, scores of new turbines will be sending low-emission electricity to German cities hundreds of miles to the south.

It will be another milestone in Germany’s costly attempt to remake its electricity system, an ambitious project that has already produced striking results: Germans will soon be getting 30 percent of their power from renewable energy sources. Many smaller countries are beating that, but Germany is by far the largest industrial power to reach that level in the modern era. It is more than twice the percentage in the United States.

Germany’s relentless push into renewable energy has implications far beyond its shores. By creating huge demand for wind turbines and especially for solar panels, it has helped lure big Chinese manufacturers into the market, and that combination is driving down costs faster than almost anyone thought possible just a few years ago.

Electric utility executives all over the world are watching nervously as technologies they once dismissed as irrelevant begin to threaten their long-established business plans. Fights are erupting across the United States over the future rules for renewable power. Many poor countries, once intent on building coal-fired power plants to bring electricity to their people, are discussing whether they might leapfrog the fossil age and build clean grids from the outset.

A reckoning is at hand, and nowhere is that clearer than in Germany. Even as the country sets records nearly every month for renewable power production, the changes have devastated its utility companies, whose profits from power generation have collapsed.

Professional naysayers, bought-and-paid-for skeptics, conservative ideologues rooted to political failures like Ayn Rand see the fruit of their labors rejected by economic reality – as usual. Solid facts, real advances are beginning to progress as predicted – or better. That won’t shut them up. The money tap remains wide open. But, ordinary folks, working class, middle class, however you slice and dice your class analysis, are starting to reap the benefits of the new means of renewable energy production.

No one is more tradition-bound than public utilities. They function like constipated manure machines. They’ve been producing cowshit for research and analysis for so many generations they are incapable of changing their business model to match a dynamic economic landscape.

Meanwhile, globalized competition encouraged by the group of nations acting responsibly to counter climate change are affecting the cash flow and profits of corporations sitting around like children in a temper tantrum – demanding the people who recognized the need for change now spend tax dollars to bail them out of their self-generated disaster.

They should be replaced by common sense, scientific, economic solutions. Send them away. Build them a leaky rest home next to one of the Koch Brothers coal heaps.

Feds agree disaster coming to North American birds from climate change

A day after the National Audubon Society released a report saying that about half of North America’s 650 bird species will be threatened by climate change, a report released Tuesday by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies concluded that nearly one-third of American birds are in trouble.

The State of the Birds, a comprehensive study by nearly two dozen government agencies and conservation groups that tracks species loss and the effectiveness of conservation efforts, found species in moderate to steep decline across habitats and ecosystems. But it also highlighted that conservation projects could be successful, as with wetland species, like mallards and blue-winged teals, which saw a 37 percent bump in population since 1968.

“Conservation in one part of the country is not enough,” said Daniel M. Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “We have to see the larger picture of conservation.”

We must have more than one portion of the electorate, more than a coalition of the willing in Congress, coming together with the majority of our nation’s population in a serious effort to combat the effects of climate change.

That won’t begin to happen until a significant number of bought-and-paid-for politicians are removed from office. Most of them Republicans or Blue Dog Democrats. The sort of political hacks who make a career of power and policy directed by the almighty dollar.

I only hope folks will stand up for the world we live in before these greed-driven thugs cause irreparable damage.

Thanks, Mike

Infection, death risk increases with every day of hospital stay

Infection risk in patients increases by 1 percent each day of hospitalization, a new research reveals.

Researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina examined 949 documented cases of Gram-negative infection at their academic medical center. This study is the first to quantify the risks for patients over time.

The team noted that in the first few days of hospitalization the percentage of infections from Gram-negative bacteria (a multidrug-resistant one) was around 20 percent and the rate constantly went up as days passed and reached 35 percent at 10 days.

Researchers stated that the infections developed in hospitals represent a large and possibly preventable segment of hospital-related deaths. These infections are on the rise year by year. According to one European study, Gram-negative infections comprise of two thirds of the 25,000 hospital-acquired infection deaths each year.

The CDC says that around 722,000 hospital-acquired infections resulted in 75,000 deaths. A death rate greater than 10%. And folks wonder why we call our local hospital, “Saint Victims”?

Thanks, Mike

Sleeping on animal skins may be good for babies — and other baby animals. eh?

Sleeping on animal skin may reduce a baby’s risk of developing asthma, research suggests…Germs in the hide and fur prime the immune system not to trigger allergies, scientists believe…The finding comes from a study of 2,441 healthy German infants whose progress was monitored until the age of 10.

More than half (55%) slept on animal skin during their first three months of life. They were 79% less likely to develop asthma by six years of age than children not exposed to animal skin.

The results, presented at the European Respiratory Society’s International Congress in Munich, lend support to the “hygiene hypothesis” that suggests too much cleanliness early in life can increase susceptibility to allergies.

Lead researcher Dr Christina Tischer, from the Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen Research Centre, said: “Previous studies have suggested that microbes found in rural settings can protect from asthma. An animal skin might also be a reservoir for various kinds of microbes, following similar mechanisms as has been observed in rural environments.

“Our findings have confirmed that it is crucial to study further the actual microbial environment within the animal fur to confirm these associations.”

Grandma was right. Of course, she only had to content with rural dirt, wild fur. Environments contaminated by industrial pollution probably still aren’t recommended sources for “natural”.

Thanks, Mike

Haboob swallows Phoenix, Arizona

The city of Phoenix, Arizona, was hit by a massive dust storm on Saturday evening…

The haboob left thousands of homes without power and grounded numerous flights at the city’s international airport.

Reports indicated this critter had about a 3000-foot top.

Now, folks over in Arizona will get to listen to Tea Party-types whine for a couple of weeks about this sort of dust storm being called a haboob. Even weather reports are judged on whether they’re white enough.

Scientists retrieve sea ice imagery from dawn of satellite observation

Images from the onset of the satellite age, long languishing in storage, have been recovered by University of Colorado researchers, shedding light on sea ice variations going back 50 years.

David Gallaher and Garrett Campbell have succeeded in digitizing more than 750,000 long-lost images off data tapes and black-and-white film from NASA’s early Nimbus satellite series, focusing on changes in sea ice extent in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Both scientists work in CU’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, which is part of the university’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Their project was fueled by $550,000 in NASA funding.

The Nimbus satellite series consisted of seven spacecraft launched over a 14-year period, its primary mission to capture clouds and other atmospheric features to aid the forecasts of hurricanes and other weather events. But now the satellites’ decades-old harvest is yielding further insights for contemporary study…

The modern satellite record of sea ice goes back only to 1979.

Gallaher learned about the stored data from the early years of the seven-satellite Nimbus series — Nimbus 1 launched Aug. 28, 1964 — during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union at San Francisco in 2009.

“We found out that it was sitting down in this warehouse in Asheville, North Carolina (at the National Climatic Data Center),” Gallaher said. “We called up and said, ‘Gee, could you send us the data for the Arctic and the Antarctic?’ And they said, ‘No.’

“They said there was no way, that it was truly ‘dark data.’ It was only on these giant rolls of film, and the only way to get what we really wanted was to scan all of it,” Gallaher said. “We asked, ‘How much are we talking about?’ And they said it would fill at least a pallet and a half.’ What? Really?”

From the efforts of Gallaher, Campbell and about eight CU students logging countless hours over the past three years — working with a $40,000 Kodak scanner picked up “dirt cheap,” according to Gallagher — more than 250,000 of the recovered Nimbus images have now been made public. The painstaking process involved having to consult NASA metadata to determine the orbit of the satellite at the point each image was recorded, and from that, identify the geographic location for each image.

Images they have recovered reveal that in 1964, Antarctica showed the largest sea ice extent ever recorded there, and that just two years later, in 1966, it registered a record-low maximum sea ice extent…

“If we had information about the winds and sea surface temperatures down there, we might be able to better interpret it,” said Campbell, a project scientist. “We have not had the time and energy to look into that. We’re still in the details of extracting all the information from these images.”

An interesting by-product of the scientists’ work is that they learned of a University of Tasmania study creating a 150-year proxy record of Antarctic sea ice change, extrapolating data from methanesulphonic acid concentrations drawn from the Law Dome ice core, south of Cape Poinsett, Antarctica. That study had indicated a 20 percent sea ice decline since about 1950.

“We’re able to validate (the Tasmanian study) with 1960s Nimbus (images),” Gallaher said. “Is it the end all? We don’t know, but if you look now at their record, validated by our records, it turns out the Antarctic started a major decline in 1950s.”

Such an interesting search. You’re tired of hearing this; but, given back, say, the last thirty years, I’d get serious about a new career in computational analysis. Though I think the craft can be used with broad strokes down to the finest, narrow quizzing of scientific data, I’d probably focus on work like this.

Of course, if you want to daydream, you could end up working for Craig Venter on genomics. Woo-hoo!

Thanks, Mike

BP ruled “grossly negligent” in Gulf oil spill

BP Plc was “grossly negligent” for its role in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico four years ago, a U.S. district judge said on Thursday in a ruling that could add billions of dollars in fines to the more than $42 billion in charges taken so far for the worst offshore disaster in U.S. history…

U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier in New Orleans held a trial without a jury last year to determine who was responsible for the April 20, 2010 environmental disaster. Barbier ruled that BP was mostly at fault and that two other companies in the case, Transocean Ltd and Halliburton, were not as much to blame.

“The Court concludes that the discharge of oil ‘was the result of gross negligence or willful misconduct’ by BP, the ruling said.

BP said it would appeal the ruling…blah, blah, blah…

BP has already been forced to shrink by selling assets to pay for the cleanup. Those sales erased about a fifth of its earning power…

Barbier has yet to assign damages from the spill under the federal Clean Water Act. A gross negligence verdict carries a potential fine of $4,300 per barrel fine.

BP says some 3.26 million barrels leaked from the well and the U.S government says 4.9 million barrels spilled. The statutory limit on a simple “negligence” is $1,100 per barrel…

Even after the Clean Water Act fines are set, BP may face other bills from a lengthy Natural Resources Damage Assessment, which could require BP to carry out or fund environmental restoration work in the Gulf, and other claims.

They deserve to pay every penny of fine, every dollar of public compensation, every billion of responsibility owed the environment of the Gulf of Mexico.

Turns out Google’s undersea cables have a shark problem

There are many, many things that can go wrong as you lay thousands of miles of fiber optic cable along the ocean’s floor. Earthquakes can rip things up, as can fishing hooks. But now we know of a new threat: Shark attacks.

According to Network World, Google Product Manager Dan Belcher told folks at a Google marketing event in Boston last week that Google ensures its cable is sheathed in a Kevlar-like protective coating to keep the sharks from chomping through the line. Turns out this is standard operating procedure among undersea cable-layers, who must take a number of steps to keep aquatic life from harming (or being harmed by) data cables…

We’ve long known squirrels are a major problem to anyone laying cable, but according to a report by the International Cable Protection Committee cable bites—by sharks and other fish—remain a surprisingly persistent problem. In the 1980s, a deep-ocean fiber-optic cable was cut four times. Researchers blame crocodile sharks for those attacks after finding teeth in the cable.

The cable protection folks really have no idea why sharks bite cables either, although some suggest it may be due to “electro magnetic fields from a suspended cable strumming in currents,” they say in their report…

…Chris Lowe, the professor who runs California State University, Long Beach’s, Shark Lab, says they may simply be curious. “If you had just a piece of plastic out there shaped like a cable, there’s a good chance they’d bite that too.” But even an exploratory nibble is enough to cause some serious trouble. “Just a little bite is enough to get through the jacket, damage the fibers and then you’re screwed,” Lowe says.

Nothing to do with shark foreplay, at least.