Eco-news you can use for September, 2009

PE - Green News 9-2009 - FL Steve Rhodes newspapers curbside
Photo courtesy of Steve Rhodes at Flickr.com

Here at the Practical Environmentalist, we’re green news junkies. We keep an eagle eye out for the latest science, social, and environmental developments and try to sum up the big picture. A lot of exciting things are going on right now, with greentech leading the way.

A company in Salt Lake City is developing a new type of deep storage battery. When used along with solar panels, backyard wind turbines, or biofuel microturbines, these could be a key component in a decentralized power grid.

There’s a pilot project in Boulder Colorado that could be the shape of things to come. It combines smart meters with some other neat tricks. The result is a power grid that gets more usefulness with less emissions. This type of system may be deployed nationwide in the near future:

The stimulus package includes $11 billion toward modernizing the electric grid, including the development of renewable energy.

While scientists and entrepreneurs are working on building a more efficient and green power grid, other research is showing surprising side effects from pollution. A small study in New York found a solid link between exposure to prenatal pollution and child development. This study is likely to strengthen the voices of people living in communities downwind of smokestacks or downriver of factories.

Advocates for environmental justice are also raising concerns about emissions from shipping. When cargo ships operate in international waters, they often burn some of the dirtiest fuels available. Many ships currently burn bunker oil; a low-grade fuel that is more like tar than the gasoline found at a corner gas station.

If these emissions are covered by an international carbon tax, there will be a huge incentive for shipping companies to use cleaner fuels. Already, many countries regulate emissions around their port cities, and the shipping lines switch to cleaner, more expensive fuels near shore. Because of this, most ships already have the capability to burn cleaner fuels, yet they choose to use cheap fuels that have dangerous emissions.

In the near future, the ocean may be the source of clean burning fuels. Exxon has made its first big investment in algae derived fuels, and the potential market for these 2nd generation biofuels is huge. Of course, that market could collapse if the oceans boil away first.

There are several major engineering proposals on how to combat climate change. These so-called “geo-engineering” projects include some pretty crazy ideas, such as putting mirrors in orbit to deflect sunlight or covering glaciers with insulation. A recently proposed idea is to stimulate algae growth in the North Sea. Transforming the North Sea into a huge carbon sink would have about as much effect as replanting all of the rainforest in Brazil, with the added benefit of stimulating devastated fish hatcheries. The side effects of massive engineering projects like this are largely unknown though, and that’s a major cause for concern.

Finally – here’s an interesting article about clam shell packages. It includes tips for safely opening these tricky containers (try a can opener) and a discussion about the environmental impact of heavy plastic packaging. By 2012, it’s estimated that roughly 1.1 billion pounds of resin will be trashed from these clamshells alone. As a result, there’s increasing interest in biodegradeable packaging that can also provide security for its contents.

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Photo courtesy of Derek K. Miller, penmachine.com at Flickr.com

News that has nothing to do with Election 2008


Photo courtesy of ecupaintingguild at Flickr.com.

With all the news coverage focused on the election, there are a lot of important and/or awesome things that have escaped attention. Here’s a quick overview of environmental news that’s worth following:

First off, it’s common to get a craving for pumpkin pie around this time every year. But it would take hundreds of people to eat a pie made from this enormous 1,900 lb pumpkin. This behemoth is expected to set a new record for giant pumpkins (a record that has grown bigger every year in recent memory). Maybe this is the monster that Charlie Brown’s been waiting for.

I’m sure that pumpkin wasn’t grown naturally, but no one tried to stick an organic label on it at the store. On the other hand, some businesses have been caught making false environmental claims to sell their products. It can be challenging to tell greenwashed products apart from their legitimate green competitors, but one way to make informed choices is to research the companies involved. Many large companies now publish yearly ‘Corporate Sustainability Reports’ that describe their environmental track record. Corporations are also assigning a dedicated board member to oversee environmental performance. Many of the pro-environment changes that companies are adopting also contribute to the bottom line, and make great economic sense while money is in short supply.

On a related note, the credit crunch is slowing down plans to build new wind farms. Even though wind power accounted for about a third of all new power capacity built last year, the credit climate is making it really hard to line up investors. Wind energy is also running into some problems of scale. Windy days in Washington state are causing salmon deaths in a weird series of unintended consequences. As the wind picks up, wind turbines generate more and more electricity. The excess electricity floods the transmission lines, and automatic controls kick in to shutdown other sources of power. In some cases, this causes hydroelectric dams to idle their turbines and dump water over spillways. If only there was an efficient interstate transmission system, or a better way to store electricity, this whole chain of events could be avoided.

But what if we lived in a world without any need for a power grid? Bloom Technologies is trying to create a lower pollution future based on efficiencies of micro-scale. With small fuel cells, the company hopes to eliminate power loss from transmission lines and bring electricity to the third world. As a bonus, they are designing fuel cells that produce hydrogen as a byproduct – that waste gas could be used to warm homes and fuel vehicles.

Whether cars burn hydrogen or gasoline, tailpipe emissions are pretty much inevitable. This waste product has something that is surprisingly useful though – untapped energy in the form of heat. Researchers are developing new thermoelectric systems that can harvest electricity from tailpipe emissions. If they can keep cost and weight to a minimum, these devices will likely be incorporated into a wide range of hybrid vehicles to boost mileage. The energy recovery isn’t 100 percent, but it can really add up to a serious boost in efficiency:

GM researcher Jihui Yang said a metal-plated device that surrounds an exhaust pipe could increase fuel economy in a Chevrolet Suburban by about 5 percent, a 1-mile-per-gallon improvement that would be even greater in a smaller vehicle.


Photo courtesy of fensterbme at Flickr.com.

Queen of England plans array of offshore wind turbines, including biggest turbine ever built

Her Majesty -FLA
Photo courtesy of ceebee23 at Flickr.com.

The Queen of England once enjoyed direct rule over 2/3 of the earth’s surface. Her personal authority is a bit less these days, but she still has control over the territorial waters of Great Britain. And, with the backing of the Crown Estate, Queen Elizabeth II can afford to do some really impressive things in her domain. Like building an array of offshore windmills, including the biggest individual windmill in the world.

Her Majesty’s windmill will produce 7.5 megawatts, which is more than twice as much as the previous record holder (GE’s 3.6 MW Offshore Turbine). The company that’s producing the turbine is Clipper Windpower, based in California. They have a proven history building monster wind turbines – including the largest turbine built in the US: the 2.5 MW Liberty Turbine. Details are still being worked out about where the giant wind turbine will be produced, and how it will be shipped to England.

The average British person uses 10-15 kilowatts per day (half of the average American energy consumption), which means that on a windy day this monster turbine will meet the needs of roughly 500-750 people. And the British Crown plans to build multiple turbines, all far out to sea. Many will be invisible to people on land, but the biggest windmill in the world will be nearly 600 feet tall and should be visible for about 18-19 miles.

Windmill array -FL
Photo courtesy of yakkerDK at Flickr.com.

Is there a green lining to the economic bailout package?


Photo courtesy of Gemma Kate Thorpe at Flickr.com.

The $700 Billion bailout bill has stirred up mixed emotions. On one hand, relieved sighs have been heard from Wall Street, but many people are spitting mad. In the aftermath of the bill’s passage, some key sections of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 have been overshadowed by chaos in the stock market.

From an environmental standpoint, the biggest news is that the bail out bill renews the tax credits for alternative energy. After the bailout bill was defeated, language from the recently defeated Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 was added to the second version. It provides tax credits for wind, solar, fuel cell, micro turbines, co-generation, and geothermal systems and the benefits have been extended as far as January 1, 2017. Also, tax incentives were added for “marine and hydrokinetic renewable energy” (new technologies that capture energy from waves and tidal forces).

The bill contains a few other surprises. The ceilings were raised on just about every type of tax credit. For instance, the maximum incentive for fuel cells was raised from $500 to $1,500. Wind turbines that produce less than 100 kW are now eligible for up to $4,000 of credit (that means projects up to $13,333 are eligible for a full 30% tax credit). Heat pumps qualify for up to $2,000 of credit. And solar panels now have an unlimited credit. Here’s a concise summary of the new tax benefits and other impacts.

Also of interest – the Emergency Economic Stabilization Bill allows for up to $800,000,000 of Renewable Energy Bonds, with those bonds split between public energy providers, government bodies, and private energy providers. There are also tax breaks offered for “clean” coal, coal liquefication (for use as a gasoline substitute) and coal gasification (a process that improves burn efficiency within coal turbines). One of the biggest surprises is that the bill now rewards power companies and steel producers for capturing carbon emissions. There’s a requirement that 65-70% of carbon dioxide produced from coal must be captured and sequestered to receive credit, and the projects that sequester carbon better than their competitors are given the highest funding priority.

That’s right – the benefits offered to coal producers and consumers come with strings attached. The bill even gives a tax credit for carbon sequestering! From page 175 of the 451 page bill:

‘‘SEC. 45Q. CREDIT FOR CARBON DIOXIDE SEQUESTRATION.
(a) GENERAL RULE.—For purposes of section 38, the carbon dioxide sequestration credit for any taxable
year is an amount equal to the sum of—
(1) $20 per metric ton of qualified carbon dioxide which is—
(A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
(B) disposed of by the taxpayer in secure geological storage, and
(2) $10 per metric ton of qualified carbon doxide which is-
(A) captured by the taxpayer at a qualified facility, and
(B) used by the taxpayer as a tertiary injectant in a qualified enhanced oil or natural gas recovery project.

Since many oil companies are injecting CO2 into the ground already to boost production, it’s questionable whether the second half of this carbon credit will create any new benefits to the environment. There is also some concern that carbon dioxide injected into the ground can increase the acidity of groundwater and escape over time. But, if you have any great ideas about how to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, now is the time to put them into practice. It may be a bit tricky to get financing though – despite the passage of the alternative energy friendly bill, many green companies are having trouble securing financing and now might not be the best time for an IPO.


Photo courtesy of Gemma Kate Thorpe’s at Flickr.com.

Tax laws are causing a solar installation frenzy, trying to beat end of 2008 tax credit expiration


Photo courtesy of
M.Barkley at Flickr.com.

At the end of this year, an elevated tax credit for for alternative energy projects is set to expire. These federal tax credits will decline from 30% of the total construction cost to just 10%, and several alternative energy groups have been lobbying Congress to extend the benefit. Even though some states and local power companies offer additional incentives to invest in alternative energy, the reduced Federal tax credits will have wide ranging effects. Industry experts and analysts expect companies who sell solar, wind, biogas, microturbine, and fuel cell technologies could be wiped out by reduced tax credits:

Without the credits, “I’ll essentially be out of business,” Tamas said. “Solar will be dead, other than for a little bit of residential.”

Congress was expected to renew these popular tax credits, but the Senate and House have gone into recess without doing so. Since many of these projects require months and months of construction time, there could be a lag in construction even if the credits are renewed in September. In the near term, the uncertainty is creating a solar building boom.

Many big retailers are attempting to complete green energy projects before the tax credits expire on December 31st. Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Whole Foods, Safeway, REI, and BJ’s Wholesale club are just a few major companies that are accelerating their solar installation plans to beat the deadline. This means that solar workers are pulling overtime and likely to see big bonuses this year, but they may be getting pink slips in the spring.


Photo courtesy of
EGL Energy at Flickr.com.

How green is your cell phone tower?


Photo courtesy of mtoreceptive at Flickr.com.

In the developing world, where electric grids are less reliable, many cell phone towers have to generate their own electricity. With diesel generators, that means that energy costs can add up to 2/3 of the total maintenance costs. Theft and vandalism are also a big problem with these systems.

As a result of these high energy costs, many cellular providers in the Third World have adopted green power supplies. In addition to wind and solar power, some of these cell phone systems incorporate biodiesel.



Photo courtesy of Tirau Dan at Flickr.com.

Designers are also rethinking the traditional cell phone tower. In 2007, Ericsson introduced the Tower Tube – a self contained concrete tower that has less visual impact and a smaller carbon footprint. Since they use concrete instead of a steel structure, and have no need for a perimeter fence, these towers release approximately 20% less CO2 than conventional towers. Other companies are getting rid of cell towers entirely by using trees!

If you look closely, the cell towers near your house may already be using solar or wind backup power supplies. Here’s an example of a solar panel that powers weather monitoring equipment on a cell tower.

Will Congress act to save Greentech jobs?


Photo courtesy of taryn_* at Flickr.com.

At the end of 2008, the cost of installing and operating alternative power generators is set to rise. There are currently federal tax credits that offer a 30% rebate on solar improvements (up to $2,000), but a sunset clause will reduce the rebate from 30% to 10% after January 1st, 2009.

Also, there’s a production tax credit that offers incentives for utilities to use wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, and other alternative power sources. It’s also set to expire at the end of 2008. Unless these two tax credits are extended, industry studies warn that the US could lose more than 100,000 green collar jobs.

The open question is – how much truth lies behind these numbers? Even if the solar tax credit is allowed to lapse, there will be no effect on projects that cost more than $20,000. Is it possible that self interested alternative energy companies are trying to get legislators attention through fear? Since when did green power companies start behaving like coal lobbyists?