Sunday, August 29, 2004

The hydrogen economy may get a big boost

One of the major drawbacks to the development of a hydrogen based economy is that hydrogen does not occur on Earth in its elemental form. In order to create pure hydrogen you have to expend energy to make it. Thus, hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source; you still need a source of energy to make the hydrogen.

Now, Australian scientists are claiming to have developed a way to harnass solar energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Using special titanium oxide ceramics that harvest sunlight and split water to produce hydrogen fuel, the researchers say it will then be a simple engineering exercise to make an energy-harvesting device with no moving parts and emitting no greenhouse gases or pollutants.

It would be the cheapest, cleanest and most abundant energy source ever developed: the main by-products would be oxygen and water.

"This is potentially huge, with a market the size of all the existing markets for coal, oil and gas combined," says Professor Janusz Nowotny, who with Professor Chris Sorrell is leading a solar hydrogen research project at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Centre for Materials and Energy Conversion. The team is thought to be the most advanced in developing the cheap, light-sensitive materials that will be the basis of the technology.

"Based on our research results, we know we are on the right track and with the right support we now estimate that we can deliver a new material within seven years," says Nowotny.

The much touted fuel cell industry has faltered recently as technical problems remained unsolved. This new source of hydrogen may be an important boost to get fuel cells back on track.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

More on water:

Asian farmers sucking the continent dry�

A generation ago, Indian farmers in the state of Gujarat used bullocks to lift water from shallow wells in leather buckets. Now they haul it from 300 metres below ground using electric pumps. But that technological revolution is about to have devastating consequences. ...

ndia is at the epicentre of the pump revolution. Using technology adapted from the oil industry, smallholder farmers have drilled 21 million tube wells into the saturated strata beneath their fields.

Every year, farmers bring another million wells into service, most of them outside the control of the state irrigation authorities. The pumps, powered by heavily subsidised electricity, work day and night to irrigate fields of thirsty crops like rice, sugar cane and alfalfa.

But this massive, unregulated expansion of pumps and wells is threatening to suck India dry. "Nobody knows where the tube wells are or who owns them. There is no way anyone can control what happens to them," says Tushaar Shah, head of the International Water Management Institute's groundwater station, based in Gujarat. "When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India," he says. ...

The same revolution is being replicated across Asia, with millions of tube wells pumping up precious underground water reserves in water-stressed countries like Pakistan, Vietnam, and in northern China.

In China's breadbasket, the north China plain, 30 cubic kilometres more water is being pumped to the surface each year by farmers than is replaced by the rain. Groundwater is used to produce 40 per cent of the country's grain, and Chinese officials warned this week that water shortages will soon make the country dependent on grain imports.

Vietnam has quadrupled its number of tube wells in the past decade to one million, and water tables are plunging in the Pakistani state of Punjab, which produces 90 per cent of the country's food. ...

At least a quarter of India's farms are irrigated from over-exploited reserves of water that threaten to run dry in the coming decades, says Shah. Hundreds of millions of Indians may see their land turn to desert. "In some areas accessible groundwater supplies could be exhausted within the next five to 10 years."

It is already happening in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, says Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. A plunging water table means that only half as much land in the state can be irrigated compared with a decade ago.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Global warming, growing populations and meat eating habits are exacerbating the world's precarious water situation. A major part of this problem is that meat eaters consume the equivilent of five times the amount of water used by people on vegetarian diets. As countries like China and India develop larger middle classes, more and more of them are switching to a western diet that includes much more meat.

The consensus emerging among scientists is that it will be almost impossible to feed future generations the typical diet eaten in western Europe and North America without destroying the environment.

A meat and vegetable diet, which most people move to when economically possible, requires more water than crops such as wheat and maize. On average, it takes 1,790 litres of water to grow 1kg of wheat compared with 9,680 litres of water for 1kg of beef.

Says Anders Berntell, the director of the International Water Institute; "The world's future water supply is a problem that's ... greater than we've begun to realize.

"We've got to reduce the amount of water we devote to growing food. The world is simply running out of water."

Global warming is worstening the water supply situation by melting glaciers that people have been relying on to supply water. For example, global warming is shrinking China's highland glaciers, including those covering Mount Everest, by an amount equivalent to all the water in the Yellow River every year.

Much of the melted glacier water vaporizes long before it reaches the country's drought-stricken farmers and again global warming is to blame.

The human cost could be immense, since 300 million Chinese live in the country's arid west and depend on water from the glaciers for their survival.

All of this has lead some scientists to speculate that water wars could break out in the future over dwindling water supplies.

"We have had oil wars," said Professor William Mitsch. "That's happened in our lifetime. Water wars are possible."

Scientists at the World Water Week conference which began on Sunday in Stockholm said that ignorance and complacency were widespread in wealthier countries.

"I don't know what will shake these regions out of complacency other than the fact there will be droughts, pestilence and wars that break out over water rights," said Mitsch, professor of natural resources at Ohio State University.

Mitsch told Reuters potential flashpoints included the Middle East.

"Continuing on our present path will mean more conflict," a report by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) said.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

China Records First Crop Trade Deficit

In another sign of world demand outgrowing the ability to supply, China has recorded it's first net trade deficit. In the first half of 2004, China imported $3.73 billion more agricultural good than it exported. This compares to an average surplus of $4.3 billion a year between 1995 and 2003. Ministry officials and academics tried to downplay the significance of the reversal. "The deficit is glaring but not surprising, given the country's commitments following WTO entry, the implementation of tariff rate quotas and competition in the global market," said Han Yijun, a researcher with the ministry's Research Centre for Rural Economy.

But the stunning turnaround in basic foodstuffs brings into question whether environmental factors such as the huge dustbowl that has been created on the northern China plains, or the dwindling water tables are cutting into China's ability to feed itself.

Compared with the first half of last year, China imported 1.8 times as much as grain (rice, corn, wheat and barley), or 4.115 million tons, in the first half of this year, partly in response to the straining supply-demand relations in the domestic market, according to Han.

In particular, wheat trade made a U-turn during the period, Han said.

Back in the first half of last year, China was a net exporter of wheat. But it imported 2.727 million tons of wheat by the end of this June, the latest customs statistics indicated.

Wang of the Agriculture Trade Promotion Centre said grain imports constituted just a marginal part of food consumption in China, and the country will by no means rely on imports for food security.

Wheat imports, for example, have been used to replenish stocks rather than for direct consumption, according to Han Jun, a senior researcher with the State Council Development Research Centre - a leading government think-tank.

But if wheat imports were being used to replenish stocks that means that demand had outpaced supply in previous years, making these imports inevitable. Scientists had been predicting that China would soon have to enter the import market in a big way and now it has. China's problems have now become the world's problems.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Oil prices have gone over $49 a barrel in the last few days. Most experts believe that $50 a barrel is inevitable and that $60 a barrel is likely. But no matter what short term prices do, long term prices will remain under upward pressure, and here are some of the reasons why.

Saudi production slips

Despite pledges to increase its output, Saudi Arabia, OPEC's largest producer and exporter, produced about 9.13 million barrels a day of oil in July, down from 9.52 million barrels a day in June, according to Petrologistics.

The figures came as a bit of a surprise to analysts. In recent months, OPEC members had been producing nearly flat out to meet red-hot global oil demand, and officials have pledged to hike their output to keep the market supplied.

The production hike has cut into OPEC's unused capacity, and analysts have expressed concern that OPEC wouldn't be able to fill any supply gap caused by a supply disruption in a major oil producer such as Iraq or Russia.

The Saudis claim to have a million and a half barrel a day excess capacity that they can use if a shortage develops, but so far they have only come up with excuses as to why they aren't using it. Now, to have Saudi production actually decline is a sobering event. Half of Saudi oil comes from one huge field--Gahwar--and it is so old that it will inevitably go into decline in the near future, if it is not already in decline. The loss of production from Gahwar will be hard to replace.

And it that weren't enough to worry about, the world's second largets oil field--Cantarell is nearing a precipitous decline.

Originally the field had 35 billion barrels of oil in place. Now, in place oil is not reserves. They expect to get around 50% of that oil out of the ground to market. The field reached an early peak in production of 1.1 million barrels per day in April of 1981 from 40 oil wells. By 1994 the production was down to 890,000 barrels of oil per day. At that time, cumulative production was 4.8 billion barrels. In 1995 it was producing 1 million barrels per day and the Mexican government decided to invest in that field to raise the production level. They built 26 new platforms, drilled lots of new wells and built the largest nitrogen extraction facility capable of injecting a billion cubic feet of nitrogen per day to maintain reservoir pressure. Doing this raised the oil production rate in 2001 to 2.2 million barrels per day. Today the field produces 2.1 million barrels.

To put this amount of production into perspectives, the largest field discovered in the US Gulf of Mexico will produce about 250,000 barrels per day. That field has about a billion barrels of reserves. If I were to find a field of that size, the company I worked for would probably make me president. For the world production, Cantarell represents 4 of the largest fields ever found in the US side of the Gulf. In 50 years of exploration in the US side of the Gulf of Mexico, only one one-billion-barrel oil field has been found. ...

Supergiant Cantarell continues to be the mainstay of Mexican oil production, with 2.1 MMb/d of output in 2003 up from 1.9 MMb/d in 2002. However, Cantarell is expected to decline rapidly over the next few years, falling as far as 1 MM b/d by 2008. This has given particular urgency to Pemex's efforts to develop other fields and move into deepwater.

Those two fields, Gahwar and Cantarell, produce close to ten percent of all the oil pumped in the world. The ramifications of both of them going into decline would be enormous.

But that's still not all of the story. World wide demand for oil continues to soar, especially in China.

Just a quick glimpse at the figures involved makes clear the dimensions of the problem. China's economic growth has bubbled along at a steamy pace of 8 to 10 percent a year for the past decade.

With that growth, private auto sales in that vast nation have skyrocketed from token levels 10 years ago -- only 220,000 were sold as recently as 1999 -- to nearly 2 million this year. Last year alone, China's automobile sales increased by a staggering 69 percent.

It's estimated that China could have nearly 30 million automobiles by 2010. By 2030, China is expected to have more cars than the United States and import as much oil as the U.S. does today.

Already, China has overtaken Japan as the world's second biggest importer of oil, after the United States. And its appetite is huge and growing. As Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates puts it, "China has gone from being a minor player in world commodity markets, if a player at all, to being the decisive dynamic factor today. In terms of oil, 40 percent of the entire growth in oil demand since the year 2000 has been China."

In this quarter alone, China's demand for oil is projected to increase 21 percent. That follows a 19-percent increase during the first quarter of this year.

But, of course, speculating about how many cars China will have in 2030 is silly. There is not enough oil in the world for two United States--especially with the two largest oil fields in the world poised to go into decline. If China does produce more cars than the U.S. by 2030, neither nation will have the oil supplies to run them.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

After a slow start wave power is making an appearance.

The Wave Dragon, the Salter Duck, the Archimedes Wave Swing, the Sea Clam, the Tapchan, and the Pendulor are all wave powered electric generating systems that have floundered on technical problems. Energy from waves has been erratic and difficult to harnass. In most coastal areas, waves are intermittent, which means energy production is spotty. Virtually all of the devices tested in the past only produced electricity when the surf was up, with no means of storing power.

The early devices were complicated and often too fragile for the pouning waves. Plus they typically produce low-frequency power, which can be difficult and expensive to convert to high-frequency electrical grids.

But a new generation of wave powered devices is making its appearance

The Seadog,
say its inventors, represents a different, simpler and more rugged approach that can actually turn an elusive dream into a commercial reality.

Manufactured by Independent Natural Resources Inc. of Eden Prairie, Minn., the device is an anchored mechanical pump that uses wave action to transport seawater to an elevated reservoir onshore. Water from the reservoir is then released down a flume to turn a turbine, which produces high-frequency electricity.

Energy is stored latently, as water in the reservoir. When more electricity is needed, more water is released down the flume. The system involves no hydraulics, no noxious fluids, no submerged cables. ...

Bolstered by $270,000 in venture capital, Thomas plans to have a single unit installed off the Humboldt coast by the end of the year to demonstrate the essential feasibility of the technology in the real marine world. The project must be approved by the California Coastal Commission and the State Lands Commission.

In New York City Verdant Power, an energy company based in Arlington, Virginia, plans to plunge six electricity turbines into the East River. If the $4.5-million project is successful, the generators will form the first farm of tide-powered turbines in the world.

The New York project signals a trend towards cheaper, free-standing turbines that can be dropped into oceans or estuaries. The first experimental tidal mills were installed last year: a 300-kilowatt turbine was sited off the north Devon coast in Britain and another of the same capacity was placed near Hammerfest, Norway. The two European companies behind them are planning to expand these individual mills into turbine fields.

Taylor believes he has an advantage over his competitors, because the design of his turbine blades means that they keep spinning even at slower water speeds. His team tested a smaller prototype of the turbine, suspended from a platform, in January 2003.

And in Spain a New Jersey based company is building the first wave power station off the northern coast of Spain.

The project, which is due to begin in March, 2004, will involve the building of a pilot plant with an initial capacity of 1.25 MW, with the possible expansion to 2.0 MW. Iberdrola will connect the power generated by the planned wave power station into the Spanish national grid. Iberdrola is making a concerted effort to increase their renewable energy capacity.

"Iberdrola is firmly committed to renewable energy development," said Roberto Legaz, Iberdrola's Director of Renewable Development. "We are investing more than 2.4 billion euros in renewable energy over the period 2002 to 2006, to reach a capacity from these sources of 4,500 MW by the end of 2007.

OPT and Iberdrola plan to form a joint venture for the development, construction, operating and financing of the project. In addition, the joint venture will proceed towards developing offshore wave power of up to 100 MW installed capacity.

Many people in the industry will be watching these projects to see how viable they are. As oil production nears peak, all forms of renewable energies will need to be exploited to replace hydrocarbons.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Legislature pushes incentives to spur solar homes

A sweeping proposal to run half of new California homes on solar energy by 2020 gained momentum Tuesday, with the initiative by the state Environmental Protection Agency added to a bill that already has cleared one chamber of the Legislature.

The proposal would far exceed incentives and requirements in other states, putting California on a par with solar programs by world leaders like Japan and Germany. It comes three years after the state's debilitating energy crisis, which helped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unseat recalled Gov. Gray Davis last fall.

Sen. Kevin Murray, a Democrat from Culver City, said he will alter his bill to include key parts of the EPA proposal without waiting for Schwarzenegger to decide if he will support it.

Schwarzenegger was generally supportive of the plan during an informal conversation last week, Murray said. "Whether he puts his full muscle behind it or gets behind it I think remains to be seen over the next few days."

Schwarzenegger, in a speech Monday at the Border Governors' Conference in New Mexico, called for border states to cooperate on an energy conservation campaign and expanding the production of solar and wind-generated electricity.

State EPA officials last week outlined the "Million Solar Homes Initiative" to fulfill a Schwarzenegger campaign pledge.

That would include spending $100 million annually for 10 years for incentives to add solar power to new and existing homes, and backing the incentives with a requirement that builders include solar on 5 percent of new homes by 2010 and half by 2020. The $100 million would come from a new monthly utility bill surcharge of about 25-30 cents per household, which the EPA estimates would be more than offset by letting homeowners sell their excess electricity back to utilities.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

It's the End of the World As We Know It

A simple fact of life is that any system based on the use of nonrenewable resources is unsustainable. Despite all the warnings that we are headed for an ecological and environmental perfect storm, many Americans are oblivious to the flashing red light on the earth’s fuel gauge. Many feel the “American way of life” is an entitlement that operates outside the laws of nature. At the Earth Summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush forcefully declared, "The American way of life is not negotiable." That way of life requires a highly disproportionate use of the world's nonrenewable resources. While only containing 4% of the world population, the United States consumes 25% of the world’s oil. The centerpiece of that way of life is suburbia. And massive amounts of nonrenewable fuels are required to maintain the project of suburbia.

The suburban lifestyle is considered by many Americans to be an accepted and normal way of life. But this gluttonous, sprawling, and energy-intensive way of life is simply not sustainable. Few people are aware of how their lives are dependent on cheap and abundant energy. Are these Americans in for a rude awakening? In a fascinating new documentary, The End of Suburbia – Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream, the central question is this: Does the suburban way of life have a future? The answer is a resounding no.

The film opens with the quote, “If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.” You’d think from that opening we’re in for a very depressing flick. Not so. Despite the serious subject matter the documentary is actually quite engaging and entertaining. Not only is it informative for those already familiar with the issues but it’s also quite accessible and enlightening for the uninitiated. It serves as great introduction and a real eye-opener for people who are largely unfamiliar with the topic of energy depletion and the impact it will have on their lives and communities.

The End of Suburbia marshals an impressive array of evidence that the growing energy demands of the “American dream” in suburbia will eclipse our planet’s ability to provide it. The suburban way of life will soon become economically and ecologically impossible to maintain. We will see the inevitable collapse of the suburban lifestyle and the end of the American Dream. And it will happen within our lifetimes.

How bad will it get? Put it this way. We are looking at the mother of all downsizings. ...

Kunstler calls the project of suburbia “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world” and says “America has squandered its wealth in a living arrangement that has no future.” You immediately get the idea he’s not exactly a fan of suburbia. How and why did this happen? The End of Suburbia outlines the seemingly rational and logical impulse behind the project of suburbia, tracing the beginnings to the late 19th century when it was originally envisioned as an antidote to city life and an escape from the hideous aspects of industrialism. Modern suburbia traces its beginnings to just after World War II when the suburban project took off with a massive housing boom and the increasing dominance of the automotive industry. This car-centered suburban project ended up being the template for the massive development of the second half of the 20th century. That project was wrapped up, packaged, and sold to the American public as “The American Dream.”

The End of Suburbia points out that the rise of the suburbs was made possible by abundant and cheap oil. It allowed for the creation of a system of habitation where millions of people can live many miles away from where they work and where they shop for food and necessities. And there is no other form of living that requires more energy in order to function than suburbia. But the voracious and expanding energy needs of our industrial society, our insane consumer culture, and the affluent suburban lifestyles are brushing up against the disturbing reality of finite energy resources.

The biggest impact will be felt by those who currently live in the sprawling suburbs of North America. The end of cheap oil will signal the end of their way of life. Frankly, many of the things we take for granted will come to an end. The End of Suburbia makes clear that the effects of energy depletion go way beyond paying more at the pump. It will literally get down to the question of how you will feed yourself and your family.

Meanwhile today, oil futures closed over $44 a barrel for the first time and analysts at Deutsche Bank warned that oil could reach $100 a barrel.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Fresno may lead country in energy

he way some people see it, Fresno each year loses 150,000 tons of energy-making fuel -- sewage sludge and residents' yard trimmings.

But that's not the worst part. The city pays more than $3 million to have the sludge and the green waste recycled as compost.

A private technology developer in North Carolina asks: Why not stop spending money and start using these wastes to make clean energy -- hydrogen?

"Fresno could make hydrogen to produce electricity," said Dennis McGee, founder and chief executive officer of Enviro-Tech Enterprises Inc. "You would have an energy supply that would actually improve the environment."

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a research arm of the Department of Energy, adds that Fresno could become a model for the rest of the country.

"Now is the time, and this is the place," said Bob Evans, senior scientist at the lab. "The wastewater treatment site in Fresno is a great place to do this."

The Fresno Public Works Department scheduled time Tuesday to briefly describe to the City Council a strategy to build Fresno into a national center for clean-energy technology, such as hydrogen, biogas and solar power. Enviro-Tech's ideas fit into that strategy, officials say.

"There is a universe of technologies emerging," said Martin McIntrye, Public Works director. "We're excited about putting Fresno on the map with them."