Climate & Energy

Naked photo shoot on melting glacier

A little skin for ice shrinking thin

Saturday in Switzerland, hundreds posed naked for a photo shoot on the shrinking Aletsch glacier. Greenpeace said it hoped to "establish a symbolic relationship between the vulnerability of the melting glacier and the human body."

Regular oil cleaner than ethanol

Saving and restoring forests better for climate than switching to biofuels

A new study in the journal Science ($ub req'd) validates what many have been saying here in Gristmill: Biofuels, especially those from the tropics, are far worse for the planet than regular old crude oil. The study finds that we could reduce global warming pollution two to nine times more by conserving or restoring forests and grasslands than by razing them and turning them into biofuels plantations -- even if we continue to use fossil fuels as our main source of energy. That's because those forests and grasslands act as the lungs of the planet. Their dense vegetation sucks up far more carbon dioxide and breathes out far more oxygen than any biofuel crop ever could. When you destroy that wilderness, much of the carbon stored in its living matter is either burned or otherwise oxidized -- which is why the destruction of tropical forests accounts for more than 20 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions (more than China produces). Meanwhile, we'd be saving all the creatures that rely on those wildlands for habitat. The scale is huge: replacing even 10 percent of our gas with biofuels would require 43 percent of U.S. arable land. Are you listening George Soros? What about you, Center for American Progress? And you, Barack Obama? If you don't have access to Science, here's the free write-up from The New Scientist (and you can take action on this issue here).

A hot time in the old town tonight

And that’s not cool, man

This is a very, very big deal. If nukes have to go offline just when you need them most, that's a huge monkey wrench in plans for a nuclear resurgence. Given that this much-discussed (if less observed) resurgence centers on precisely those states most likely to suffer crippling heat waves, this is a huge problem for investors. The last thing anyone wants after dropping two big ones ($2B) on a nuke plant is to have to buy juice at more than $100/mWh on the spot market during a heat wave. Given the likely temperature trends that we've already unleashed, this is bad news; without air conditioning, most of the South is already damn near uninhabitable; if we use more coal to make the A/C work, then we're not just shooting ourselves in both feet -- we're heading north at that point, blasting away.

Coal myths

They’re still common, but they make no sense

A little while back I praised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for opposing new coal plants in his home state. Now he’s clarified his position: he opposes new coal plants anywhere in the world. …

Kristof hits a home run

Finally some mainstream focus on efficiency

I’ve had my issues with NYT columnist Nic Kristof in the past, but he’s knocking them out of the park on climate change. His latest hits exactly the right notes. Check it out: Concern about …

The genius behind better biofuel

a man with a microbe on mission

At 29, David Berry MD, a PhD, and now, title as Young Innovator of the Year in MIT's Tech Review magazine. So what makes Berry so hot? He's the brains behind LS9, the California-based company working on "renewable petroleum." Berry's goal was nothing less than "to develop a novel and far-reaching solution to the energy problem." In col­laboration with genomics researcher George Church of Harvard Medi­cal School and plant biologist Chris Somerville of Stanford University, Berry and his Flagship colleagues set out to do something that had never been attempted commercially: using the tools of synthetic biology to make microörganisms that produce something like petroleum. Berry assumed responsibility for proving that the infant company, dubbed LS9, could produce a biofuel that was renewable, better than corn-derived ethanol, and cost-­competitive with ­fossil-based fuels. I understand that Chris Somerville -- a leading figure in the plant biology field -- is also at work on plants that are genetically engineered to produce biodegradable plastics. Now if they could just integrate that idea with these petroleum-producing microbes, we'd really have something to celebrate.

BioWillie pens a biodiesel book

Willie Nelson is talking about biodiesel again. This time in book form, and the result is On the Clean Road Again: Biodiesel and the Future of the Family Farm. The 90-some-page pocket-size book (it’s like …

Coal logic

Not your father’s Old Coal

In thinking and responding to posts about the latest EPRI propaganda, a couple questions came to mind. Questions I'm a bit embarrassed I hadn't thought of before, so I pose them to you now: If coal isn't cheap, is there any reason to build it? If we're willing to pay 12 cents/kWh for baseload power, would you preferentially pay it to coal? Those may seem odd questions to ask, but follow me through the math.

Real-life smart grid adventure

Keeping the air conditioners running in muggy Pennsylvania

Just back from visiting the family in Pennsylvania, where temperatures were hitting the high 90s. It was the kind of sticky, muggy, oppressively hot weather that reminds me why I live in the cool corner that is the Pacific Northwest. As air conditioners were blasting away everywhere and lights were flickering, I was thinking that grid operators must be calling on every demand-response resource they could. Back into post-vacation action, I came across an Aug. 10 release [PDF] from PJM Interconnect that confirmed it. The power grid was on emergency status and PJM, in fact, drew a record demand response -- 1,945 megawatts -- equal to a fair-sized city. PJM also reduced voltage in the overall system by 1,000 MW, explaining those flickers. So I actually lived through the scenario with which I opened "Adventures in the smart grid no. 2." Damned glad they kept those air conditioners on.