Friday, February 25, 2005

A Hydrogen Roadblock Cleared?

One of the biggest roadblocks to the development of a practical fuel cell car has been the problem of how to store enough hydrogen to make it practical. Now, a storage technology developed by The University of Queensland may provide the answer to this problem.

The Queensland engineers have developed magnesium alloys that absorb hydrogen like a sponge, store it safely for long periods and release it on demand when either the pressure or temperature is varied. Under laboratory conditions, it can store enough hydrogen to allow a vehicle (carrying a 100kg storage unit) to drive 500 kilometres, which meets a target set by the US Department of Energy for hydrogen storage systems by 2010.If this storage capacity can be achieved in a full-scale prototype at acceptable hydrogen release temperatures.

UniQuest Managing Director, David Henderson said that the scale-up of Hydrexia’s promising technology could deliver substantial reductions in cost and weight when compared to existing hydrogen storage systems. If this storage capacity can be achieved in a full-scale prototype at acceptable hydrogen release temperatures.

UniQuest Managing Director, David Henderson said that the scale-up of Hydrexia’s promising technology could deliver substantial reductions in cost and weight when compared to existing hydrogen storage systems. If this storage capacity can be achieved in a full-scale prototype at acceptable hydrogen release temperatures it could deliver substantial reductions in cost and weight when compared to existing hydrogen storage systems.

This could be a major breakthrough in fuel cell technology.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Biofuel Use Grows in Europe

Working to meet ambitious goals set by the European Union, the countries of Europe are unveiling plans to boost biofuel production. France will triple biofuel output within three years, bringing an additional 800,000 tonnes of biodiesel and ethanol production on stream by end-2007. However France is two years behind an EU target for 2005 to have biofuels making up two percent of fuels. The country hopes to make the 2010 target of 5.75 percent.

In Britain, a new biodiesel plant capable of turning recycled cooking oil and animal fats into fuel is due onstream in Scotland this spring, boosting output of the green fuel by up to 35,000 ton a year. But Britain, too, is well behind the EU set targets.

In fact, only Germany appears to be on target to meet its EU goals.

The EU biofuels program has been spurred by high crude oil prices, worries about world oil producers' ability to keep up with demand, and tough targets to cut greenhouse emissions. Biofuel use, notably biodiesel derived from vegetable oils, and ethanol, which can be produced from grains, sugar or biomass, has gotten major support from European governments.

Although the EU countries are behind their targets, they are in marked contrast with the United States where government inaction has left the development of such fuels as biodiels to enterprising individuals who cruise to McDonalds for a fillup and a few localities which have supported it.

If peak oil is on the horizen, Europe, where demand for oil has remained level in recent years, will be in a better position to deal with it than the U.S. where demand for oil is growing rapidly.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Water again....

A two-day conference in Chicago was held this week for regional communities coping with water shortages. At issue was the federally mandated line that determines which communities can use Great Lakes water and which cannot. The line was drawn to prevent the Great Lakes from shrinking from overuse.

It may seem paranoid to hold a water shortage conference on the shores of the world's sixth biggest freshwater lake, but a collision of politics, public health and hydrology has put a crunch on many communities that lie just beyond the Great Lakes basin dividing line, including a host of suburbs west of Milwaukee.

The line is the boundary Congress uses to determine who is entitled to Great Lakes water and who is not. The idea behind keeping Great Lakes water inside the basin is to prevent the lakes from shrinking; water taken from lakes but kept inside the basin ultimately flows back into the Great Lakes. Lake water taken beyond the basin line, in this region, ultimately flows down the Mississippi River.

The eight Great Lakes governors are plodding ahead writing new rules that could stretch the lake-use boundaries. But the rule-writing has been under way for more than three years, and nobody is expecting changes any time soon.

Meanwhile, the people whose job it is to keep the water flowing in the communities just beyond the dividing line are starting to sweat.

Their wells are, literally, running dry.

The informal conclusion some attendees have come to is, "One: People really don't know where their water comes from. And two: They're going to be really mad when it's not there."

The U.S. Southeast has been added to the list of regions that faces long term water shortages. After the drought of 2002 the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, passed a long term water management plan, which implemented some water saving measures and called for a reassessment in the future. The drought has since lifted and the reassessment has disappeared from view.

Unfortunately, the area's long term problems stem not from drought but from rapid population growth. Albemarle County’s population is expected to leap from 88,000 in 2003 to more than 167,000 by mid century. The regional water service authority estimates that nearly 102,000 county residents will be served by 2050. At this rate, water usage would outpace supply after 2008, and by 2055 the area could see a deficit of 9.9 million gallons per day.

The myopic reaction of local officials to the projections is predictable.

Local water officials say there is nothing they can do but try to keep up. J.W. “Bill” Brent, executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority and a Rivanna board member, said the authority is servant to whatever growth projections the county and city put together. “We’re here to supply growth,” Brent said. “Whatever the city and the county say that is.”

Similarly, Thomas L. Frederick Jr., executive director of the Rivanna authority, stressed that the RWSA’s only directive is to meet demand. “For us to do anything other than to meet the 9.9 million gallons per day … we wouldn’t be doing what has been mandated of us,” Frederick said.

But how that will be accomplished is the question. The same question posed during the drought of 2002, and one first raised almost three decades ago.

This complete unwillingness to face up to the question of limits promises nothing but unnecessarily severe crises in the future.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Chicken Soup for the Environmentalist

When Paul was a boy growing up in Utah, he happened to live near an old copper smelter, and the sulfur dioxide that poured out of the refinery had made a desolate wasteland out of what used to be a beautiful forest.

When a young visitor one day looked at this wasteland and saw that there was nothing living there — no animals, no trees, no grass, no bushes, no birds ... nothing but fourteen thousand acres of black and barren land that even smelled bad — well, this kid looked at the land and said, “This place is crummy.” Paul knocked him down. He felt insulted. But he looked around him and something happened inside him. He made a decision: Paul Rokich vowed that some day he would bring back the life to this land.

Many years later Paul was in the area, and he went to the smelter office. He asked if they had any plans to bring the trees back. The answer was “No.” He asked if they would let him try to bring the trees back. Again, the answer was “No.” They didn’t want him on their land. He realized he needed to be more knowledgeable before anyone would listen to him, so he went to college to study botany.

At the college he met a professor who was an expert in Utah’s ecology. Unfortunately, this expert told Paul that the wasteland he wanted to bring back was beyond hope. He was told that his goal was foolish because even if he planted trees, and even if they grew, the wind would only blow the seeds forty feet per year, and that’s all you’d get because there weren’t any birds or squirrels to spread the seeds, and the seeds from those trees would need another thirty years before they started producing seeds of their own. Therefore, it would take approximately twenty thousand years to revegetate that six-square-mile piece of earth. His teachers told him it would be a waste of his life to try to do it. It just couldn’t be done.

So he tried to go on with his life. He got a job operating heavy equipment, got married, and had some kids. But his dream would not die. He kept studying up on the subject, and he kept thinking about it. And then one night he got up and took some action. He did what he could with what he had. This was an important turning point. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is common to overlook what is near by keeping the eye fixed on something remote. In the same manner, present opportunities are neglected and attainable good is slighted by minds busied in extensive ranges.” Paul stopped busying his mind in extensive ranges and looked at what opportunities for attainable good were right in front of him. Under the cover of darkness, he sneaked out into the wasteland with a backpack full of seedlings and started planting. For seven hours he planted seedlings. He did it again a week later.

And every week, he made his secret journey into the wasteland and planted trees and shrubs and grass. But most of it died. For fifteen years he did this. When a whole valley of his fir seedlings burned to the ground because of a careless sheepherder, Paul broke down and wept. Then he got up and kept planting.

Freezing winds and blistering heat, landslides and floods and fires destroyed his work time and time again. But he kept planting. One night he found a highway crew had come and taken tons of dirt for a road grade, and all the plants he had painstakingly planted in that area were gone. But he just kept planting.

Week after week, year after year he kept at it, against the opinion of the authorities, against the trespassing laws, against the devastation of road crews, against the wind and rain and heat ... even against plain common sense. He just kept planting. Slowly, very slowly, things began to take root. Then gophers appeared. Then rabbits. Then porcupines.

The old copper smelter eventually gave him permission, and later, as times were changing and there was political pressure to clean up the environment, the company actually hired Paul to do what he was already doing, and they provided him with machinery and crews to work with. Progress accelerated. Now the place is fourteen thousand acres of trees and grass and bushes, rich with elk and eagles, and Paul Rokich has received almost every environmental award Utah has.

He says, “I thought that if I got this started, when I was dead and gone people would come and see it. I never thought I’d live to see it myself!” It took him until his hair turned white, but he managed to keep that impossible vow he made to himself as a child.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Another, relatively new energy source may show surprisingly rapid results. An inter-governmental report has just been released in the U.S. showing that wave energy could become economically feasible in the very near future.

The study was carried out by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), in collaboration with the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and energy agencies and utilities from six states. EPRI was established in 1973 as an independent, non-profit center for public interest energy and environmental research. Their members represent over 90 percent of the electricity generated in the United States.

Conceptual designs for 300,000 MWh plants (nominally 120 MW plants operating at 40 percent capacity factor) were performed for five sites: Waimanalo Beach, Oahu, Hawaii; Old Orchard Beach, Cumberland County, Maine; WellFleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts; Gardiner, Douglas County, Oregon; and Ocean Beach, San Francisco County, California.

The study determined that wave energy conversion may be economically feasible within the territorial waters of the United States as soon as investments are made to enable wave technology to reach a cumulative production volume of 10,000 - 20,000 MW. (Land-based wind turbines, in comparison, generate 40,000 MW.)

"Wave energy will first become commercially competitive with land-based wind technology at a cumulative production volume of 10,000 or fewer MW in Hawaii and northern California, about 20,000 MW in Oregon and about 40,000 MW in Massachusetts," said Roger Bedard, ocean energy project manager. "Maine is the only state in the five site study whose wave climate is such that wave energy may never be able to economically compete with a good wind energy site."

With proper siting wave energy is believed to be one of the most environmentally benign ways to generate electricity. Second, offshore wave energy may face much less local objection since wave energy conversion devices often have a very low profile and are located far enough away from the shore that they are generally not visible. Third, wave energy is more predictable and consistent than solar and wind energy, offering a better possibility of being dispatchable by an electrical grid systems operator and possibly earning a capacity payment. And it it may be one of the lowest cost renewable energy sources is its high power density.

Wave energy is sounding like a very promising new energy source.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, has published its 2005 Environmental Sustainability Index which rates the ability of nations to protect the environment over the next several decades. Using 76 data sets, including natural resource endowments, past and present pollution levels, environmental management efforts, and a society’s capacity to improve its environmental performance, the study develops 21 indicators of environmental sustainability.

While it appears that no country is on a fully sustainable trajectory, at every level of development, some countries are managing their environmental challenges better than others.

The study finds that the factors that corelate most highly with a high overall score are civil and political liberties, government effectiveness, political institutions, and participation in international environmental agreements.

Sam Pizzigati, author of "Greed and Good" takes the analysis one step farther, suggesting that there is also a strong relation between income inequality and a high sustainability score.

The top two nations on the environment list, Finland and Norway, just happen to be among the most economically equal nations in the world, as is the fourth-best nation on the list, Sweden.

Uruguay [number 3 on the list], meanwhile, has been Latin America's most economically equal country for most of the last century.

The United States, among the worst-performing developed nations on the environmental list, also happens to be the developed world's most unequal nation.

The new environmental rankings don't track the world's inequality rankings rung by rung, but that may be because researchers still lack, as they noted in their new report, all the “reliable data” they need.

It appears that social justice and environmental sustainability go hand in hand.