Environment & the World

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Hubbert’s Peak and Oil

Filed under: Books, Energy, Geology, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 10:10 pm

I recently read the book Out of Gas by David Goodstein, which reflects upon energy use especially in light of the coming oil shortage. One thing this book got me thinking about was Hubbert’s Peak and when we really might start to feel the pain of declining oil supplies. Goodstein makes the point that Hubbert’s Peak followers and the major oil companies (using BP’s data as representative) essentially agree that we only have about 40 years of oil supply left at current consumption rates.

If I understand correctly, Goodstein argues that the major oil corporations and the Hubbert followers disagree on the point of crisis. According to Hubbert’s peak, societies will start to spiral into an energy crisis once we pass peak oil production. Passing the peak would be the turning point when supply can no longer keep up with our energy needs–leading to higher prices and shortages. In contrast, the energy corporations seem to argue that we can rest assured about our oil supplies until we’ve pretty much pumped out everything we can.

In thinking about this issue, there are at least three points that deserve further discussion and analysis.
1. Is Hubbert’s view correct that oil supplies will start to fall short of demand once we pass the peak?
2. How much proven reserves of oil are there?
3. What are our contingency plans in the face of an oil shortage?

Hubbert’s view has credibility to it. He correctly predicted that U.S. oil production in the lower 48 states would peak around 1970, which is exactly what happened. Furthermore, the Hubbert curve also adequately characterizes the production curve of individual oil wells. The general trend of oil production appears to follow a rising curve which tops out once half of the oil has been extracted. After that peak, production declines. It therefore doesn’t require a big stretch of the imagination to assume that global oil production would follow the same pattern.

Another way of looking at this point would be to ask whether it is plausible that we can keep raising production to meet increasing demand until we’ve exhausted our oil supplies. It might be; but it also might not be very realistic. Declining oil reserves necessarily mean that certain oil fields will dry up or will start to yield less. Increasing our production in tandem with a growing global thirst for oil means that new oil fields will have to be brought on-line faster than existing ones dry up. The challenge, however, is that new oil fields lie in remote regions and pumping more oil from existing regions would require costly new technologies as the oil becomes harder to extract. The large capital investment in technology, discovering new fields, and bringing them on-line imply that oil-reliant economies might already experience more pressure (at least in terms of cost) well before we’ve extracted the last drop.

The second point is also contentious because the limited time frame in which our oil-thirsty economy can survive depends on the amount of proven reserves. The OPEC 2005 Bulletin estimated that there are 1.15 trillion barrels of proven reserves left in the world (pdf, p.45). The U.S. Energy Information Administartion estimated world oil reserves in 2006 at 1.29 trillion barrels of oil (pdf, p.28). At current global consumption (excel spreadsheet) rates of about 84 million barrels of oil per day this means we have 42 years of oil left in the earth.

The problem with the above calculation is that it assumes that global consumption of oil will remain at present levels in the future and that the proven reserves of oil will also remain the same. In reality, both of these numbers are dynamic. A look at global demand statistics for oil reveals that they rise every year. EIA estimates show that by 2025 global oil consumption could be at about 115 million barrels per day (p.26).

On the other hand, the size of proven reserves could increase for a while (pending new discoveries). The same EIA document estimates that by 2025 we will have 2.96 tillion barrels worth of proven oil reserves in the world (p.29), however it is not clear whether that number takes into account the additional amount we will have consumed by then. In Sept. 2006, an official at Aramco (the Saudi oil company) stated that 4.7 trillion barrels of oil remain. As the Wall Street Journal points out, though, “3.5 trillion of the roughly 4.7 trillion barrels of oil Mr. Jum’ah is counting on will depend on the development of new technologies… He also factored in 1.5 trillion barrels from nonconventional sources, such as Canadian tar sands.”

Estimating future reserves is quite a hotly contested matter, nor is it straightforward. An increase in proven reserves does not translate into prolonged bliss for the oil economy. Advanced extraction techniques and nonconventional sources would most likely be more costly and energy-intensive, so prices could rise and we’d be getting less net energy per barrel produced. Furthermore, some people have taken a more cynical view of proven reserve statistics. High jumps in reported oil reserves have led some to suspect certain countries have over-reported the size of their reserves for political/economic gain.

All this begs the question, what is our backup plan? What happens if oil fields dry up faster than expected, or if we face another oil embargo? Or even, what’s our plan once oil runs out? The U.S. has built a transportation infrastructure that relies almost entirely on oil products, and it’s just not clear at this point what would happen when gas prices spike even higher and when the shortages begin. How will millions of people commute to work? What sacrifices will we be forced to make when gasoline costs rise even more? What about airfare? Road trips? Our three-car garage lifestyle? Higher transportation costs will also affect the prices for products we buy, most of which are shipped 10 to 1000 miles to reach our store shelves.

No matter what view you take on peak oil, it’s clear that our way of life as we know it will no longer be possible if we continue to build economies and lifestyles dependent on ever rising appetites for oil. Oil consumption does not need to grind to an instantaneous screeching halt, however we need Plan Bs and Cs and we need to develop alternative energy sources that will make our economy more resilient in the face of oil supply shocks. After all this fretting, I haven’t even made mention of the climate change angle, an issue intimately connected to, and one that will only be exacerbated by, ever more voracious oil consumption. In a scathing dose of reality, James Howard Kunstler describes our attitude towards the oil dilemma as sleepwalking into the future. Indeed, it is time to wake up.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Solar Boom?

Filed under: Economics, Energy, Oil — amirj @ 2:47 pm

Did you know that we’re in the middle of a solar economic boom of sorts? Even though this is a story that ought to interest and tickle environmentalists, it seems that the environmental community hasn’t accorded the topic nearly as much attention as the business community has. Indeed, this has been a business story with a heavy financial market angle, but is that all it should be?

So, what’s been happening? In the last two years numerous solar companies have begun to trade publicly on Wall Street, with a burst of solar initial public offerings in the past three months alone. If their growing market presence is notable, though, their market performance is even more so. Many of these solar companies’ stocks have soared. A look at a comparative chart of some of these stocks shows that their value has jumped up anywhere from 20% to 100% in the last three months alone. To get an idea of how impressive that is, compare those percentage gains to the single-digit interest rate that you earn in your savings account and then imagine what would have happened to your money had it been invested in those solar stocks. Furthermore, a look at the three major U.S. market index stocks (the Dow, Nasdaq, and S&P500) shows overall market gains of 2% – 4% over that same three month period, indicating that the solar stocks have truly been on fire.

Of course, this solar story is not without blemishes. There are some companies involved in the solar industry whose stocks have not done that well in the same period. A look at this chart reveals three such examples. Nevertheless, the number of solar stocks surging seems to outnumber the number of sluggish ones thus suggesting that a boom might be more of the rule and the sideways action or decline more of an exception. The other impressive angle to this story is that this recent boom took place when oil prices have been trading at relatively low prices compared to the summer highs near 80$/barrel. My impression has been that market leaders tend to favor alternative energy stocks when the price of oil spikes and brush it aside when the price of oil slides down to more tolerable levels–though that shortsighted trend might be decoupling.

What all this makes me wonder, then, is what should this story mean to the environmental community? To the environmental movement? The environmental community has focused on the dangers of climate change and with regard to energy, the need for governments to pass stronger pollution regulations and do much more to support alternative energy initiatives. The environmental community has, at times, also been willing to give pats on the back to corporations that show some kind of leadership in improving their energy efficiency and in supporting alternative energy. What the environmental community seems to shy away from is blatant attention to and support for the private sector companies that have made it their business to develop and sell the technologies that environmentalists want to see adopted on a larger scale.

It’s tough to pin-point the exact reason why the environmental community keeps its distance from the business sector. There are probably many reasons, some deeply ideological and value-based, others more plain. The thought of environmental non-profits cozying up to for-profit businesses seems like an unnatural fit, and perhaps might even be limited by tax laws(?). The lack of attention to industry trends might also have to do with the fact that environmentalists might feel let down by a corporate-dominated landscape which built a U.S. economy so heavily reliant on fossil fuels and so averse to environmental protection.

Times have changed, though. Green is more chic than it used to be and companies have started to discover that “going green” can pay off. To bring us back full circle, my question, then, is now that the  market seems to be sending us the right signals about solar power, what can we do to make sure that the market won’t let us down again? 

Thursday, January 25, 2007

State of the Union ’07 & Energy

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil, Politics, Transportation — amirj @ 2:21 pm

I thought it would be worth discussing the President’s take on energy and the environment in his State of the Union speech. Here’s the relevant portion of his speech:

“Extending hope and opportunity depends on a stable supply of energy that keeps America’s economy running and America’s environment clean. For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists — who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.

“It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.) We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

“We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. (Applause.) When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

“To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 — and that is nearly five times the current target. (Applause.) At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks — and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

“Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. (Applause.) And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. (Applause.)

“America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change. (Applause.)”

Watching the live delivery and generous applause during this section of the speech was more exciting than processing it and reading all the reactions.

Notable:
-Recognizing “global climate change” and the need to confront it.
-Reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
-Reducing gas consumption by 20 percent in 10 years.
-Strengthening fuel economy standards.
-Supporting more ethanol, hybrid technology, wind and solar power.

Sticky:
-Clean coal, clean diesel
-Nuclear power
-Doubling capacity of Strategic Petroleum Reserve
-“Alternative fuels” (coal to gas?)
-Not enough decisive action

Some reactions:
The Sierra Club is unimpressed.

 The Union of Concerned Scientists supports the fuel economy proposals, but remains cautious and says more needs to be done to address global warming.

Steven Mufson at the Washington Post and Dave Roberts at Grist examine the energy proposals from the State of the Union ’07 point by point leaving us with little for which to cheer.

With the President increasingly supporting some political action on energy issues and a Democratic majority in Congress there is still a possibility for some positive developments. With the Democrats largely eager to push for progressive energy policies they might meet the President half way this year and finally get something done.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Major Dam Project Completed in India

Filed under: Development, Energy, Environmental Justice, Water — Cathy @ 12:51 pm

2007 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the tens of thousands of people who will be displaced by the recent completion of the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in India.  The Sardar Sarovar is the largest of a series of 30 large dams proposed for the Narmada River, India’s fifth largest river.  The project was started in 1987 but was delayed for many years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada”) movement and its supporters, as well as by conflicts between various Indian states over how to divide the benefits of the dam.  The NBA is a grassroots movement to defend the rights of the 320,000 people who have been or will be displaced by the project.  According to the Friends of the River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html), the NBA managed to convince the World Bank, which was at one time funding $450 million for dam construction, to commission an independent review of the project; the review report supported the NBA’s main concerns ultimately caused the bank to withdraw its support. 

The Indian government claims that the dam will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, provide drinking water for 20 million people, and generate 1,450 MW of peak power (http://www.dailyindia.com/show/99695.php/Controversial-Sardar-Sarovar-Dam-against-tribal-interests:-Medha-Patkar).   Whether or not these benefits will actually be realized is also highly controversial, but there is certainly no denying that the states that would benefit from irrigation and drinking water from the dam are extremely dry and in need of additional water supplies.  Even so, it does not follow that a mega-dam is the best way to meet those needs.  Rainwater harvesting, including bringing back traditional rural methods of rainwater catchment, has proven to work well in these drought-prone areas, providing enough water to meet rural needs without drawing down the water table. (http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/conservation/drought.htm).

As of the beginning of 2006, the dam had already been constructed to a height of 111 meters; Dec 31, 2006 marked the completion of the project, at a final height of 122 meters.  This additional 11 meter height increase is estimated to displace 35,000 families, according to the United Nations (http://www.narmada.org/misc/unhcr.html).   In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that further height increases would not be allowed until the government had proved that previously displaced people had been compensated.  However, according to the UN, this has not occurred; many of the people who were previously displaced, largely indigenous people and farmers, have yet to receive adequate rehabilitation and arable land.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 2

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Reading Group, Transportation — Cathy @ 11:14 am

There’s way too much in this chapter for me to do justice to in one post.  To give a quick summary of the main ideas, H&L first point out the major inefficiencies of the current automotive industry and then propose their natural capitalism-based solution, the “hypercar” which is significantly more efficient (80-200 mpg) and also leads to a significant reduction in the materials needed in the manufacturing process, while also catalyzing the switch to a fuel cell-based electricity generation system.  They then go on to discuss the problem that hypercars can’t solve: “too much driving by too many people in too many cars.”  They do propose some interesting policy ideas for dealing with this problem, including various methods for encouraging public transit (e.g. having employers charge a yearly parking fee, paying their employees the same amount every year, and letting them pocket the difference if they can find a cheaper way to get to work).

The two key components of the hypercar are its ultra-light weight and its hybrid engine, which H&L predict would evolve into a fuel cell. The hypercar would weigh 2-3 times less than a normal car, by taking advantage of light-weight carbon composites, rather than steel.  This light weight translates into much larger gains in energy efficiency, because, as H&L point out, most of a car’s power goes into moving the car, not the driver.  With an ultra lightweight car body, other components (such as the suspension, engine, etc) can also be smaller and lighter, compounding the efficiency gains.  The reductions in materials use achieved by a hypercar are quite staggering: “92% less iron and steel, 1/3 less aluminum, 3/5 less rubber, and up to 4/5 less platinum.”

They then present a rosy view of the hydrogen economy.  They suggest that fuel cells could be made commercial by widespread deployment in stationary applications, i.e. buildings.  As with other distributed generation systems, this could ultimately be cheaper than constructing new large centralized power plants.  But the key question of course, is where to get the hydrogen for the building and hypercar fuel cells.  Initially they suggest reforming natural gas and sequestering the carbon produced in this process.  Again they are a little vague on the timing of this; from other sources I’ve heard, it sounds like fuel cells won’t be commercially available in the price range they need for hypercars for another 20 years or so.

Unfortunately this is one chapter where the age of the book (1999) starts to show.  I wonder if H&L would be as optimistic about the power of “advanced technology, customer demands, competition, and entrepreneurship” to re-shape the auto industry if they were writing the book today.  In this chapter they mention that the president of Toyota in 1997 “predicted hybrid-electric cars would capture one-third of the world car market by 2005.”  H&L further report that “by the spring of 1998, at least 5 automakers were planning imminent volume
production of cars in the 80 mpg range.”  What happened?  H&L seemed to have neglected the large factor that consumer demand plays in moving a giant and reactionary industry like the automotive industry. It appears that Americans’ love of SUVs can only be curbed by high oil prices, not by more efficient vehicles alone.  Also, the cultural and educational difficulty of convincing the public that an ultra lightweight car is just as safe as an SUV may prove a major hurdle. Instead of H&L’s optimistic view that the “strategic advantages … of saving oil, protecting the climate, and strengthening the economy may justify giving automakers strong incentives to pursue their introduction into the marketplace even more aggressively”, we are still stuck with a government that is too timid to raise the CAFE standards.

Friday, January 5, 2007

ExxonMobil’s approach to climate science

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil — Cathy @ 7:56 pm

Amir has previously written a couple of posts highlighting Exxon Mobil’s sky-high profits, so I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about where some of that money is going.  According to a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon has spent $16 million between 1998-2005 to basically spread confusion and disinformation on climate change, and has earned itself the honor of being the world’s most active corporation in undermining climate science.  Specifically, Exxon funds a network of organizations that publish and advocate for non-peer-reviewed scientific articles debunking climate change.  In many cases, donations from Exxon accounted for more than 10% of the annual budgets of these organizations.  Granted, the amount of money spent by Exxon on this issue pales in comparison to its $36 billion annual profits for 2005.  But on the other hand, perhaps Exxon’s huge profits make its actions against climate change all the more indefensible since the company is not exactly hurting. 

The fact that Exxon is one of the leading debunkers of climate science, is not exactly news.  However, I was rather impressed by the audacity of some of the organizations mentioned in the report.  To give an example of the quality of these organizations, many of them are still touting a petition that was allegedly signed by 17,000 scientists contradicting global warming and asking Congress to reject the Kyoto Protocol.  It turned out that the petition signatories included “numerous fictional characters” and Scientific American “estimated that approximately one percent of the petition signatories might actually have a PhD in a field related to climate science.”

The biggest lesson for environmentalists from Exxon Mobil’s work is the importance of framing.  By repeatedly emphasizing the uncertainty of the science, Exxon has forced environmentalists and scientists to keep debating with them in the media about the science.  With the debate still stuck on the science, there was no room to argue that perhaps the solutions to climate change would be desirable for non-environmental reasons, by bringing new manufacturing jobs or encouraging urban revitalization.

The UCS report also touches on how Exxon Mobil’s disinformation campaign might be brought down.  One of the most promising strategies is shareholder activism – promising because it has already started.  In 2006, institutional investors with $6.75 billion in ExxonMobil stock accused the company of “making a massive bet – with shareholder’s money – that the world’s addiction to oil will not abate for decades.”  Unlike the other major oil companies – including BP and Shell – Exxon has refused to start investing in renewable technologies and even divested in most of its alternative energy holdings under its previous CEO.  Although ExxonMobil’s recent profits suggest that their short-term strategy is good, it seems that everyone else – including shareholders and fellow oil companies – is starting to see the writing on the wall.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Environmental Justice on Navajo Reservation

Filed under: Energy, Environmental Justice, Waste — Cathy @ 12:41 am

I wanted to give some publicity here to a struggle that some Navajo Indians are waging to protect their community from a coal power plant to be built on their reservation.  The Desert Rock power plant would be constructed in the sacred region of Dinetah (in New Mexico), a region which already has 2 power plants and where the air is so dirty that people with asthma and other respiratory illnesses have difficulty breathing.  Moreover, the electricity from power plants on Navajo land primarily supplies non-Indians, so that many Navajos in the region still live without electricity, according to http://www.unobserver.com/layout5.php?id=2951&blz=1.

Last week, local residents started a blockade after learning that water drilling had been started without notifying the local residents. They are refusing to move until they get documents that would prove that the company has complied with Clean Water Act requirements.  In what appears to be an attempt to intimidate the protestors, the sheepdog of an 80-year-old elder protestor was brutally killed, according to http://www.gallupindependent.com/2006/dec/121606lw_dogskinnedalive.html.

It’s too easy to think that the historical injustices that European settlers perpetrated against native populations in the United States were just that – historical.  This incident is a good reminder that we still have a long way to go to make amends for past and current wrongs.  Moreover, this is not an isolated incident.  In Arizona, Native Americans are trying to halt expansion of a hazardous waste site on their land; the Navajo Nation is fighting in federal
court to protect a sacred mountain from a proposed ski resort; etc. More info and suggested opportunities for action on this issue can be found at the Indigenous Environmental Network’s website:
http://www.ienearth.org/alerts.html#dine121406.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Congress Okays More Drilling

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Politics — amirj @ 1:46 am

This past weekend both the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (S. 3711). This legislation makes 8.3 million acres available for new oil and natural gas production projects.

The Act also contains other provisions, the inclusion of which enabled the Act’s proponents to frame it in a positive, progressive light. As a “consolation” (or a slap in the face depending on your viewpoint) for environmentalists, the Act allocates funds from drillling revenues for coastal wetlands restoration, hurricane protection and flood control projects in the Gulf States in addition to funds for parks and green space preservation in all 50 states. Thanks to these provisions, the Act manages to rationalize, on the surface, increased oil exploration and extraction in as a win-win solution. Along the same lines, the bill comes off as a benevolent boost for efforts to help protect Gulf states from future hurricanes and especially as a much-needed source of rebuilding funds for Katrina-stricken Louisiana. It also justifies the drilling in terms of creating new jobs and helping the U.S.A.’s energy security.

On that latter note, D-LA Senator Landrieu’s press release on the bill reads: “The area is projected to produce enough natural gas to sustain more than 1,000 chemical plants for 40 years, and enough oil to keep 2.7 million cars running and 1.2 million homes heated for more than 15 years.” These statistics fail, however, to convey that the U.S.’s voracious appetite for hydrocarbons means that all this new oil and natural gas would serve more as a light hor d’oeuvre than a serious fix for our petro cravings. At a consumption rate of over 20 million barrels of oil per day, all of the oil that this bill makes available would only satisfy a meager 2 months worth of the U.S.’s oil needs. Simiarly, with U.S. natural gas consumption at about 22 trillion cubic feet per year, the 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas believed to be in this area would only meet an equivalent of one quarter of a year’s worth of U.S. natural gas demand. Of course, the oil and natural gas from this area would not be pumped out in such a short period of time, nor would this area ever constitute the sole source of hydrocarbons for the U.S. at any point in time. Nevertheless, these general calculations illustrate how minute these sources are compared to the total U.S. demand.

In a completely unsurprising move, President Bush praised the Act and will likely sign it into law swiftly. Ironically, even though the President has professed that this country is addicted to oil, signing this new law will do no nothing to wean us off the addiction. In fact, the sort of short-term, pseudo-petro-security this Act provides will only assuage our fears over the looming oil shortage, distract us from urgency of the matter, and will exacerbate our global warming emissions in the time being.

The Sierra Club opposed this bill, arguing that it makes more sense to improve car fuel efficiency and invest in wind and solar power. Indeed, it would have been much more fruitful for Congress to look into ways to improve energy efficiency and to reduce our humongous rate of fossil fuel consumption. Small-scale energy efficiency projects rolled out across the entire country could easily save more energy than we would ever pump from this area in the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, Congress could have seized this opportunity to show some really innovative and inspiring leadership. Instead of providing Gulf states with funds, generated from additional fossil fuel extraction, to protect the environment and guard against future hurricanes, Congress could have authorized financial incentives for new solar and wind energy projects in these Southern states, the tax revenues from which could serve the same end goal.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Hydropower – not so clean after all?

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Water — Cathy @ 7:18 pm

I have never been a fan of large dam projects.  In the United States, dams have decimated salmon populations, reduced the Colorado River to a trickle by the time it reaches the Pacific, and otherwise transformed the ecology of our western rivers.  And in many developing countries, dam projects displace hundreds of thousands of people, often without giving them adequate compensation.  Large popular movements have arisen against major dam projects like the 3 Gorges Dam in China or the Narmada River dams in India.

But dam proponents have argued that dams don’t emit carbon dioxide, so they must still be better than coal, right?  Well, perhaps not, at least in tropical regions.  A recent article in the journal Nature (“Methane quashes green credentials of hydropower”, Nature 444(30): 524-525, 2006) highlights recent research suggesting that “the global-warming impact of hydropower plants can often outweigh that of comparable fossil-fuel power stations.”  How?  When land is flooded to create the reservoir, a large amount of organic matter is trapped underwater, and more organic matter flows in over time.  In warm tropical waters, this organic matter decays into methane and carbon dioxide.  Since methane is a 20 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, these reservoir emissions can be quite significant.  Indeed, the article cites an example of Brazil’s Balbina Dam, whose construction caused the flooding of 2500 square kilometers of rainforest; it is now accepted that a coal plant would have been better for the climate!

The article notes that the debate over the magnitude of reservoir emissions is not yet settled, largely due to a lack of data on dam methane emissions.  However, by some estimates, counting the methane emitted by dams (95-120 million tons per year) would represent a 20% increase in global methane emissions!  This is a large enough number, and enough is known about dam methane emissions, to make many scientists want to start acting now on this problem. 

Saturday, November 25, 2006

SoCal Cities Pass on More Coal

Filed under: Energy, Politics — amirj @ 8:17 am

Before the what-are-you-thankful-for trope gets too far behind us, here’s something to consider. Just in time for Thanksgiving, a group of Southern California cities decided they’ve had enough with dirty coal power plants. To make it official, they decided not to renew their contracts for coal power, and instead to look to renewable energy sources to power their future.

“Officials in Pasadena, Anaheim and several other large cities notified the Intermountain Power Agency this week that they would not be renewing their contracts for cheap, coal-fired power.

Those contracts expire in 2027. That leaves the cities two decades to secure the alternative energy sources they’ll need, from wind farms to desert solar power.

The moves could put the region in the forefront nationally of the commercial use of alternative energy in coming years, but researching and building the infrastructure to replace coal-fired power will be a costly, risky business.

‘All of these technologies are still in their infancy,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water & Power. ‘We’re still looking at the fact that right now, the Intermountain plant is 65 percent of our energy.'”

I suppose this announcement is something to be thankful for. Oh, and about the risky business stuff–I’m not too worried. If there’s political will, I’m confident we’ll find a way. With its abundant sunshine, it shouldn’t be too hard to generate plenty of solar power in SoCal.

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