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[1THING] Blog: Archive for November, 2013

[ In the Arctic, Rich Fish Stocks Meet Energy Exploration ]

The Barents Sea, an Arctic shelf area north of Norway and Russia, is among the world’s richest fishing grounds, and its fish population is changing as the waters warm. Interest from the oil industry is increasing as well, setting up potential conflicts between oil exploration and fisheries. (See related interactive map: The Changing Arctic.

The Barents is home to the world’s largest stock of cod, with a sustainable catch of about 1 million tonnes (valued at about $2 billion) both for 2013 and 2014. This stock has increased considerably in recent years, both due to favorable environmental conditions and sensible management. Management of the fish resources in the Barents Sea has since 1976 been carried out through the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission. This joint management regime is generally considered to be successful, as most fish stocks in this area are now in a healthy state.

The Arctic: The Science of Change
Learn more about the issues surrounding a changing region.

In recent years, annual surveys conducted jointly by Norway and Russia have shown that cod are moving farther north and east than ever before*. These are stray individuals, but the main cod concentrations have also moved northwards in a similar way.

The northward migration of cod is a feeding migration: The cod follows its main prey, capelin—a small salmonid fish—and is able to follow it farther because of an increase in sea temperatures and decrease in ice cover. Cod is, however, not likely to cross the shelf-break and move further north into the deep Polar Ocean, as it is rarely found at depths larger than about 500 meters (1,640 feet). (Vote and comment: “Arctic Activity Is Ramping  Up. What Do We Need to Know More About?“)

The conflict between the energy and fishing industries takes place especially in the spawning and nursery areas for fish. So far, the areas close to the main cod spawning grounds in Lofoten/Vesterålen have not been opened to oil exploration, but this has been a hot issue in Norwegian politics for several years.

So far, the recent changes to fish patterns are mostly occurring within feeding grounds: spawning areas and the general migration patterns between spawning, feeding and wintering areas are much more resistant to changes, both in the Barents Sea and elsewhere. Cod and most other major Barents Sea stocks spawn off the coast of Northern Norway, and so far, changes in spawning areas have been minor.

A considerable part of the fishery industry is at or near the spawning grounds, and due to fuel costs, and weather conditions, it is not likely that the fishing areas will change as much as the distribution of fish during the feeding migrations. The division of the quotas for cod and other major fish stocks in the Barents Sea between Norway and Russia has remained unchanged since the 1970s, despite variations in geographical distribution, so it would take a major change in distribution to re-open this issue.

Another stock which has expanded its geographical range northwards in recent years is the mackerel. This species prefers more temperate waters than do cod, but it has in recent years extended its range to the northwest and northeast, and is now found from the Bay of Biscay in the south to the east coast of Greenland in the northwest and the southern Barents Sea in the northeast. Mackerel was this year found in the Norwegian Sea as far north as 75° N.

The reasons for the northward expansion are the same as for cod – increased temperature (particularly in the surface layers where the mackerel is found) and increased stock size. Management of mackerel has proved more difficult than for cod, as the parties involved (The European Union, Norway, Faroes, and Iceland) have not reached an agreement on how to divide the catch quota between them. The stock has, however, so far been able to cope with catches higher than what is advised by the scientists. (Take the quiz: What You Don’t Know About Energy in the Changing Arctic.)

In the Barents Sea and other northern waters, such as those around Iceland and Greenland, there are large areas where fishing has been almost the only offshore activity going on, but where oil exploration could be moving in. As the fish stock changes along with the climate, these very rich fishing grounds will need continued monitoring and cooperation between fisheries and other industries seeking to enter the region.

* In 2012, cod was found as far north as 82° 30’ N 56° E (north of Franz Josef Land) and in 2013, as far east as 78° 30’ N 79° 30’ E (in the northern Kara Sea – and at the same longitude as India!).


[ Natural Gas Reality Check: U.S. Methane Emissions May Exceed Estimates By 50 Percent ]

A new study challenges our understanding of natural gas as a clean fuel, and raises new questions about the U.S. energy boom.

Sure, natural gas (or methane, its main component) burns with less pollution than coal, but release it directly to the atmosphere and it is a highly potent greenhouse gas–at least 25 times worse than carbon dioxide. (See related, “Methane: Good Gas, Bad Gas.”) The study indicates that far more methane is escaping than previously thought from both oil and gas operations and from livestock facilities.

The findings have especially great significance because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been grappling with the uncertainty over how much methane is escaping from the nation’s growing shale gas production. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas.”)

Faced with an onslaught of criticism from the industry that it had overestimated the fugitive emissions, the EPA this year incorporated the industry’s own studies to downgrade its estimate of U.S. methane emissions by 25 to 30 percent. But the study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), based on the relatively new data gathered from monitoring stations on tall towers and on aircraft, indicate that U.S. methane emissions instead are actually 50 percent higher than EPA has calculated. (See related blog post: “A Move to Capture ‘Fugitive’ Natural Gas Emissions.”)

The study only captures emissions for two years that were early in the shale boom: 2007 and 2008, so it does not provide enough data to see whether methane emissions are increasing over time as gas production ramps up. It also provides no answer on whether the latest estimated trend in overall U.S. greenhouse gas–that the emissions have been falling as natural gas has replaced coal as an electricity fuel–is incorrect. (See related, “U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Emissions Fall to an 18-Year Low” and “Natural Gas Nation: EIA Sees Future Shaped By Fracking.”)

But in an informative Dot Earth blog post by The New York Times’ Andy Revkin, who has been following the fugitive methane issue for years, the authors say that an analysis of more recent years’ data is in the works. The years 2007 and 2008 were the first time that data for such detailed analysis was available from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) cooperative air sampling network. (Both NOAA and DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, as well as the European Commission Joint Research Center and four other academic institutions, collaborated in the paper.)

“The beauty of the approach we’re using is that, because we’re taking measurements in the atmosphere, which carry with them a signature of everything that happened upwind, we get a very strong number on what that total should be,” said co-author Anna M. Michalak, of the Carnegie Institution for Science. “This paper provides the most solid and the most detailed estimate to date of total U.S. methane emissions.”

Lead author Scot M. Miller, a doctoral student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard,  called it a “top-down” approach that provides an important check on the “bottom-up” approach of EPA and other regulatory agencies around the world, which perform a kind of accounting to estimate emissions, based on assumptions on the amount of gases that escape from various operations.

He said it was especially telling was the data showing that the highest emissions, and greatest discrepancy with EPA estimates, were over Texas and Oklahoma, two of the biggest states for natural gas production. “It will be important to resolve that discrepancy in order to fully understand the impact of these industries on methane emissions,” said Miller. The researchers did geostatistical analysis, using data on population density, economic activity, as well as weather patterns, and concluded that natural gas and oil operations are a far more likely source of the excess emissions than, say, landfills, which also emit methane. Also, concentrations of propane, a tracer of fossil hydrocarbons, were much higher over those states.

Methane being released from livestock operations (both from the burping of ruminants like cows and from manure) are as much as double what is currently estimated by the EPA, and they may also be contributing to the emissions over Texas and Oklahoma, the paper said. But Marc Fischer, head of Berkeley Lab’s California Greenhouse Gas Emissions Measurement Project (CALGEM), said even if livestock emissions were ramped up several times higher than inventory estimates for the southwest, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the discrepancy the researchers saw. “That’s why it looks like oil and gas are likely responsible for a large part of the remainder,” he said.

The results concur with those in a separate paper Fischer co-authored earlier this year, in which researchers found that tall tower monitoring data showed California’s total methane emissions are 1.3 to 1.8 times higher than the current official inventory by the California Air Resources Board (CARB).

Miller and his co-authors said they didn’t have detailed enough information on the various sectors within the oil and gas industry to target the methane sources more specifically: Is the methane escaping from drilling sites? Or gas processing facilities? Or pipelines?

David Allen, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the new study, says that further regional measurements and analyses, and source-specific studies, are needed to identify how methane emissions might be reduced. (See related, “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania,” and interactive, “Breaking Fuel From Rock.”) Allen is leading a research team, funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and nine natural gas producers, that is attempting to get a better handle on methane emissions in the industry. (See related, “For Natural Gas-Fueled Cars, A Long Road Looms Ahead,” The New Truck Stop: Filling Up With Natural Gas For the Long Haul,” “Trading Oil for Natural Gas in the Truck Lane.”)

Allen’s team published a paper in PNAS based on data from 190 production sites throughout the United States, including the first-ever direct measurements of some sources. It appeared to reach a hopeful conclusion, that methane control equipment being used at the well completion sites reduced emissions 99 percent. (See related blog, “Natural Gas Study: Allays Fears for Some, Inspires Hot Air From Others.”

But Allen noted in testimony at a Senate hearing earlier this month that the team also found emissions from certain types of pneumatic devices, which control devices such as valves on well sites, had emissions from 30 percent to several times higher than EPA estimates.

In an email, Allen said that the new study by Miller and colleagues makes “an important contribution by using a large number of measurements of ambient methane concentrations to estimate methane emissions to the atmosphere.” But he said more work is needed.

“Fossil fuel production and processing and animal husbandry are large and complex activities, with a large number of potential emission sources,” he said. “So, a logical follow-up question is which sources within these sectors are responsible for the emissions. Some emission sources may be more important than others.”



[ Wind Turbine Bird Deaths Cost Duke Energy $1 Million ]

It’s a slow turn, but the Obama administration seems to be steering the wind power industry toward killing fewer birds. The latest sign: For the first time, a wind power company is paying for neglecting to do what it could to protect birds, including golden eagles. (See related blog post: “Federal Study Highlights Spike in Eagle Deaths at Wind Farms.”)

The company is Duke Energy Renewables, subsidiary of energy giant Duke Energy. The bird deaths – 14 golden eagles and 149 other protected birds, including hawks, blackbirds, larks, wrens and sparrows – occurred at two Duke Energy Renewables wind farms in Wyoming.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, which brought the prosecution  under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act :

“Under a plea agreement with the government, the company was sentenced to pay fines, restitution and community service totaling $1 million and was placed on probation for five years, during which it must implement an environmental compliance plan aimed at preventing bird deaths at the company’s four commercial wind projects in the state.  The company is also required to apply for an Eagle Take Permit which, if granted, will provide a framework for minimizing and mitigating the deaths of golden eagles at the wind projects.”

The government had charged that Duke “failed to make all reasonable efforts to build the projects in a way that would avoid the risk of avian deaths by collision with turbine blades, despite prior warnings about this issue from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).”

The feds did add that “to its credit, once the projects came on line and began causing avian deaths, Duke took steps to minimize the hazard.”  In a statement, Duke said it installed radar to detect eagles in flight and instituted other means that allow it to shut down turbines when eagles are spotted, among various measures. (See related post: “Wind Farm Faces Fine Over Golden Eagle Death.”)

Top of the World and Campbell Hill were some of the first wind sites we brought into service, during a period when our company’s and the wind industry’s understanding of eagle impacts at wind farms was still evolving,” said Tim Hayes, environmental development director at Duke Energy Renewables.

Duke said that after it began monitoring for eagles and curtailing power production as necessary, “more than a year passed without any known golden eagle fatalities” at the sites near Casper, Wyoming.

The American Wind Energy Association called the plea deal “a clear example of a wind company taking responsibility for unforeseen impacts to wildlife and providing conservation measures to not only offset those impacts, but also with respect to other sources of impact existing in the landscape today.” The agreement, the industry group said, “will help advance the knowledge of wind wildlife interactions to further reduce the industry’s relatively small impacts.” (See related post: “Thousands of Songbirds Killed at LNG Plant: Unusual, but Not Unprecedented.”

—Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and has been republished with permission.


[ The Changing Carbon Map: How We Revised Our Interactive Look at Global Footprints ]

See the interactive map: Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints

Click the image above to see the interactive map: Four Ways to Look at Carbon Footprints

At climate change talks in Warsaw this week, just as in the previous 18 annual rounds of negotiations, delegates never were able to overcome the divide between rich and poor nations.

We map the starkly different views of the climate crisis that have led to stalemate in our newly revised interactive, Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footrpints.  (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

Our map zeroes in on just a small number of nations–14–but they happen to be responsible for 80 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. The numbers come from the World Resources Institute’s excellent climate data navigator, CAIT 2.0, one of the few data sources that enables apples-to-apples comparisons of emissions from around the world.

Each of the four viewpoints in our map is accurate, as far as it goes. But each alone is inadequate. Like the legendary blind men surveying the elephant, nations that contemplate the massive global warming problem from only one vantage point will end up groping at a portion of the truth and griping at each other, missing the whole picture. (See related, “Q&A With Philippines Climate Envoy Who’s Fasting After Super Typhoon Haiyan.”)

For the United States and most other industrialized nations, the operative view is “Current Emissions,” and the alarming reality that China’s carbon output has grown more than 40 percent, and India’s, by 25 percent, since our last version of the map, based on 2005 data. (See related “Pictures: A Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine.”) Any treaty that is designed like the Kyoto accord, with binding carbon emissions cuts only for the richest countries, will fail to stem the rising threat of Asia’s rapidly mounting emissions.

The U.S. and Europe often point to the climate progress they’ve made by focusing on what we call “Intensity,” on our map, their relatively low greenhouse gas emissions per unit of economic output. Indeed, carbon intensity has fallen dramatically in wealthy nations over the past few decades. But no nation is an island, and these efficiency improvements are in part because energy-intensive manufacturing has moved to the developing world, often to make goods that are being shipped, bought and consumed in the developed world. And even if all nations were reducing their intensity, it would matter little if absolute emissions are rising at their current rate.

Developing nations frequently rebuff calls that they face binding emissions cuts, pointing to their low “Per Capita” emissions, compared to the giant footprint of the United States and other wealthy countries. Several years ago, India in particular made relatively low per capita emissions the cornerstone of its climate policy, but the trends here too are alarming. India’s per capita carbon emissions are up 12 percent since our previous map, China’s are up 40 percent and now nearly on par with those of Europe. The atmosphere will be overwhelmed if per capita emissions continue to grow at this rate in nations with large and growing populations, and yet these countries still face the very real and necessary challenge of extending electricity to millions of people living in poverty and without access to the grid. (See “Related: Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty.”)

But most of the debate in Warsaw has centered around the title on our map called “Cumulative Emissions.” When measured since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the greenhouse gases released to the atmosphere by the United States and Europe far surpass those of any single developing nation. If, as the scientists now say, the world has a limited “carbon budget” and more than half of it already has been spent, developing nations point out that the United States and Europe have burned up more than their fair shares of fossil fuel on their paths to economic progress.

Cumulative emissions are about more than emissions, they are now about money. Wealthy nations have long promised to establish a fund to bolster the defenses of those at the greatest risk of sea level rise and extreme weather. Developing countries now want to see that funding plus an additional mechanism for the nations with the largest cumulative emissions to compensate the poorer, vulnerable nations for “loss and damage” due to climate events. They could point to one example playing out in real time, the tragedy unfolding in the Philippines after Super Typhoon Haiyan.

But cumulative emissions, too, are changing. Just prior to the Warsaw talks, the United Nations Environmental Program released its “emissions gap” report, showing how nations’ current commitments on climate change fall well short of what’s needed to curb the risk of catastrophic global warming. UNEP noted that until about the year 2000, it was clear that the wealthy nations’ historic emissions far outweighed those of the poor countries. Since then, emissions have grown so rapidly in the developing world since then that the balance has changed significantly. Now, developed nations and developing nations’ share roughly 50-50 responsibility for the atmosphere’s cumulative carbon load since 1850.

Recent research on cumulative emissions cited by the UN, by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency,  shows how tricky a single viewpoint of emissions can be. Some have suggested for example, discounting some past emissions to account for technological progress. The authors point out that the United Kingdom, for instance, had a long history of high emissions due to the use of inefficient steam engines. But nations developing today don’t need to repeat that history; they can employ much more advanced technologies and emit far less carbon for the same level of economic output.

Another way to look at cumulative emissions, the authors point out, is to grant each nation a “deduction,” so to speak, for “basic needs.” In this approach, nations would not be held responsible for the carbon emissions necessary to meet the basic needs of their people.

Discounting past emissions to account for technological progress would tend to lessen responsibility for wealthy nations, while deductions for “basic needs” would lessen the pressure on poorer and developing nations. But the recent research on cumulative emissions underscores the point of our interactive map, the importance of looking at the world’s climate crisis globally and from many different points of view, and not just from the poor frame of reference circumscribed by any one nation’s borders.


[ Winning Wood Stove Designs Announced ]

The Wood Stove Decathlon anointed winners this week in a competition aimed at sparking new ideas for an age-old heating method.


[ Are Those Solar Panels Facing the Wrong Direction? ]

Conventional wisdom says that if you put solar panels on your roof in the Northern Hemisphere, you should point them within 30 degrees of true south to generate the most energy in the course of a year. But a new study by Pecan Street Research Institute, an Austin, Texas-based research and development organization, suggests that most people may do better at covering their own electrical use and reducing stress on utility grids during summertime peak demand periods if they aim the panels westward instead. (See related quiz: What You Don’t Know About Solar Power.”)

Though the study has not been released publicly, Pecan Street provided a copy to National Geographic News. It analyzed 50 homes in the Austin area, looking not just at the amount of electricity generated by the panels, but at the impact on homeowners’ electricity use and the utility grid during periods of summer peak electrical demand, which generally occur between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. (See related post: “Solar Researchers Dig Deeper Into Snow Issue.”)

The study found that west-facing solar systems reduced the amount of electricity that homeowners needed to draw from the grid during summer peak demand by 65 percent. Homes with the conventional true-south orientation, in comparison, achieved a 54 percent reduction.

Pecan Street chief executive and study co-author Brewster McCracken explained that west-oriented panels may be more effective for many homeowners because of their lifestyles.  West-oriented panels are more effective at capturing solar energy late in the afternoon, which also happens to be the time that most people get home from work and turn on their air conditioning in the summer, he said. So homeowners with panels facing in that direction are optimizing their solar power generation at precisely the time that their own usage surges, and when the utility company needs the most help coping with demand.

Additionally, McCracken said, using a west orientation for panels means that less electricity will go unused by the homeowners who generated it, and end up as surplus electricity being put back into the grid. That makes things easier for utility companies. “They’re not structured to handle high levels of electricity being sent back to the grid,” he said. “If they have to do that, it becomes a challenge to maintain electric reliability in an area.” (See related story: “New ‘Flexible’ Power Plants Sway to Keep Up With Renewables.”)

While solar panel installers have known that west-facing panels may be more effective for a while, utility companies still cling to the south-is-best rule-of-thumb, and refuse to give rebates to homeowners unless their panels are facing south, McCracken said.  He’s hoping that the study will prompt them to rethink their opposition to west-facing panels.

The Pecan Street study isn’t the first to show that west-facing panels may be more effective.  A California Public Utility Commission study published in 2011 also found that west-facing systems were “significantly better” at offsetting peak load that south-facing ones,  even though they had lower annual energy yields.

Solar Energy Industries Association spokesperson Samantha Page declined comment on the study.  A spokesman for Southern California Edison said that the utility continues to recommend a conventional south orientation for solar panels.

David Mooney, laboratory program manager for solar R&D portfolio at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, said that Pecan Street’s findings weren’t a surprise, but hoped that the more precise quantification would motivate both consumers and utilities to fine-tune their use of solar installations.

Mooney said that the benefits of tinkering with solar panel orientation would vary, depending upon the region, and that no single prescription necessarily fits all places.  ”In Colorado, for example, we tend to have clouds rolling in off the mountains in the west in the summer, so west-facing arrays would produce the least electricity,” he said. “You would want to have a southern or eastern orientation here to get the most electricity, and that wouldn’t necessarily align with the utility company’s peak demand.”

Mooney also noted that the structure of the incentives provided by utility companies figures into how consumers chose to orient their panels. His own utility provider in Colorado, for example, offers incentives that reward optimum output over the year, rather than the amount of electricity generated during periods of peak demand. “I get no benefit from shaving their peak demand, so there’s no motivation to do it,” he said.

Vote and comment: “What Energy Solution Should We Develop Next?“)


[ Good Electricity Grids Make Good Neighbors ]

In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost asserted that “good fences make good neighbors.”  World history is replete with foreign policy built around physical walls, from Emperor Hadrian, to the Great Wall of China, to the Berlin Wall, the wall between Palestine and Israeli, to the U.S.-Mexico border.  Containment and isolation have often been the cornerstones of policy.

Today we face a different situation, where “front lines” of conflict have blurred and disappeared, and non-state actors dominate the threat-scape. Instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kenya, Somalia, and elsewhere requires a different form of engagement. Important steps have been made in peace-building and post-conflict resolution, but so far we have not taken advantage of a major opportunity to use some of our greatest infrastructure investments to build peaceful, prosperous, and cooperative regional economies.

That asset is the electricity transmission and distribution system, or “the grid.” The irony is that while the grid has been recognized as the greatest engineering achievement of the twentieth century, building partnerships through shared energy commerce has been until now an afterthought, at best. This has to change, for security, economic growth, environmental, and ethical reasons.

When I served as the chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank, a project of special interest to me was the construction of an electricity highway between the rich geothermal energy fields of the Rift Valley in Kenya, through the Lake Turkana plains where the best wind resource identified to date in Africa was recently mapped, to newly constructed hydroelectric facilities in Ethiopia.  Not only are these indigenous renewable energy resources largely untapped, but the policy tools to build clean energy markets could have some of their most effective deployment in poor, power-starved nations. (See related post: “TV Show ‘Revolution’ Teams Up With United Nations to Shine Light on a World Without Power.”)

As Kenya and Ethiopia negotiated, the opportunity to build a regional clean energy market picked up speed, with both nations seeing the benefits of indigenous, regional energy capacity that was stable. Domestic renewable energy also would result in greater job creation than continued reliance and exposure to the price fluctuations of imported fossil fuels.

Last week, the Africa Development Bank announced a $1.2 billion dollar loan to fully fund the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) line that will provide 2,000 megawatts (MW) of transfer capacity in either direction. That is more transfer capacity than either nation currently has generating capacity, and the line will critically link the best renewable energy resource field in each country.  Today both nations are progressing on their feed-in tariff policies to reward clean energy development, and a wider East African Power Pool is emerging to coordinate energy sales among up to 20 African nations.

Donor nations need to make projects of this nature an international development priority.  Not only are roughly 1.5 billion people living today without electricity access worldwide, and perhaps another billion have access on paper, but the reliability and the cost of service keeps the resource out of reach. (See related post; “’Recharged’: Linkin Park’s Efforts on Energy Poverty Get Brighter.”) President Obama’s Powering Africa initiative is a tremendous start on such a platform of engagement, but it needs to aggressively expand into transmission and distribution grid infrastructure, not just power generation. (See related blog post: “As U.S. Plans $7 Billion Effort to Electrify Africa, It Faces Challenges at Home.”)

Critical opportunities now exist to build cooperative regional economies, build local industry, and address the global climate crisis. South Sudan is a striking case in point.  At an important visioning and partnership conference held at Chatham House in London in September, 2013, the point was driven home that engagement with fragile states around infrastructure is a far better investment than triage-based emergency assistance, or in ‘wall-mentality’ projects that seek to insulate nations from regional instability.

South Sudan will hold a vitally important investors’ conference in early December.  At that meeting, overwhelming attention will be given to the so-far failed dialogue with President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum over the oil fields and pipeline.

Instead, investors could focus on connecting South Sudan to the emerging East African Power Pool through transmission projects that would permit the world’s newest nation to pivot away from the ever-tense relationship with Sudan. Instead, the new independent nation could build a network like Kenya and Ethiopia are doing, where solar, wind, geothermal, and other indigenous energy. It could cheaply power the local economy where less than two percent of the population has electricity today.

The grid alone will not meet South Sudan’s energy demands. As in much of the developing world, off-grid communities will persist, so attention to the grid needs to be balanced with efforts to build home and village energy mini-grids and individual energy products, and to ensure that ‘sustainable’ is the hallmark of hydropower and bioenergy projects that are developed.

South Sudan is far from the country where a policy of engagement around energy infrastructure can yield huge development and peace dividends. Kosovo, the poorest nation in Europe, has been a battleground over a proposed coal-fired power plant. In October 2013, the U. S. joined several European nations in releasing white papers and policy directives restricting international lending for coal-based projects, as has the World Bank. Kosovo has significant wind, biomass and hydropower, much of which would most efficiently be developed jointly with Albania. This approach would make the former coal plant project–a pollution-belcher only six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the capital city, using poor-quality coal and adding to the burden of disease– an unnecessary anachronism.

Nations linked by energy commerce, and in particular clean, local energy are at far lower risk to enter into hostilities than those who see each other only as regional rivals.  Thus, while Robert Frost and his neighbor may have both found safety in the wall, their most productive cooperation came when they “meet to walk the line.”  The U. S., U. K., and other governments seeking to build strong international partnerships would be well to make transmission diplomacy and development a centerpiece of foreign policy.

Daniel Kammen is the Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, and Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the inaugural Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank.  He is a member of the IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is also on the advisory council of the Great Energy Challenge.


[ Poland Hosts Climate Talks, While Boosting Coal Industry ]

Poland is playing simultaneous host to international climate talks and a coal industry summit. The move underscores the fossil fuel challenge for climate negotiators.


[ Biofuels and Climate Change: Pulpwood to the Rescue? ]

New study concludes that biofuels can be part of climate-energy solution.

The debate has been raging for years. Can biofuels, fuels derived from recently alive plant materials (or manure), serve as the fuel of choice to power our nation’s huge fleet of automobiles and trucks and power plants without adding to our climate change woes?  (Take a quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Biofuel.”)

A Look at Biofuels in Principle and in Practice

In principle the answer should be yes. Because the carbon in plants is produced from taking carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere via photosynthesis, burning those plant-derived fuels simply puts the same amount of CO2 back in the atmosphere — sort of like no harm, no foul. (See comprehensive coverage: “Biofuels at a Crossroads.”)

Burning fossil fuels, on the other hand — fuels derived from the remains of plants and animals that lived between a million and hundreds of millions of years ago (way before the dinosaurs, by the way) — adds carbon to the atmosphere, carbon that was buried long, long ago, and so results in a net gain of CO2, and in the climate change game, most definitely a foul.

But being a winner in principle and being a winner in practice are two different things. In the first place, growing the biofuel feedstock and converting it to a biofuel consumes energy and emits some CO2. This arises from the energy needed to manufacture fertilizers and fossil fuels used to plant, harvest and transport. But calculations indicate that even after taking that into account, biofuels do better than fossil fuels from a climate point of view. So all is copacetic on biofuels?

Enter the ‘Searchinger Hypothesis’

Not so fast, say a host of papers. (See here, here, here, here and this paper here on which I am a co-author.) Advancing an idea based on the so-called Searchinger Hypothesis after Tim Searchinger (a former colleague who is “generally … credited with reshaping the world debate on bioenergy”), these papers argue that, once one takes land conversion into account, the biofuels climate picture goes from a positive to a negative.

More specifically, the argument goes something like this: When we take crops normally used for food, and use them as feedstock for biofuels instead (e.g., corn ethanol or soybean biodiesel), that can create a food supply deficit. To make up for this deficit, farmers somewhere will cultivate more crops, and to cultivate more crops, the farmers must farm on land not currently under cultivation. And that conversion of land from non-agricultural to agricultural can effectively create carbon emissions.

For example, when a forest is cut down to grow those new crops, there are significant releases of carbon, carbon that would have otherwise been stored in the forest. Thus this scenario represents a heretofore unaccounted for flow of CO2 into the atmosphere (a case of indirect land use). Accounting for these emissions, the advancers of the Searchinger Hypothesis claim, tends to make biofuels no better than, or even worse than, just using fossil fuels.

How to Solve the Biofuel Conundrum?

Some have attempted to solve this conundrum by proposing to use only marginal lands to grow advanced biofuels — leaving prime agricultural land for food. Sounds good, but I’m not sure this will work — it’s simple economics. If farmers can earn more income by growing fuel than crops, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t convert prime croplands to grow fuels. Certainly, as these headlines indicate, U.S. farmers in recent years have been producing more corn in response to the U.S. mandate for ethanol (except in 2012 because of the drought): “2007 Corn Crop a Record Breaker, USDA Reports,” “2009 Crop Year is One for the Record Books, USDA Reports” and “U.S. CORN ACREAGE IS UP IN 2011.” And here’s the latest corn report for 2013. (Not only has growing more corn affected food production, a recent report by The Associated Press found that “As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies.”)

Of course this rush to corn ethanol in the United States is being driven by the ethanol mandates in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Ironically, because demand for gasoline in the United States is dropping, there is no longer enough gasoline being used to consume all the ethanol produced to meet the mandate (when the ethanol content is limited to 10 percent). In response, EPA is now proposing to relax the ethanol mandate. (See related post: “U.S. Proposes First Reduction in Ethanol Mandate.”)

Rosy Biofuel Future Predicted

It would appear that our recent biofuel journey has been problematic. Disrupted food markets, concerns about emissions from land conversion, and mandates that are in search of demands. But a new report released by the nonprofit think tank Resources for the Future foresees a stronger future for biofuels. Specifically, Roger Sedjo and his co-authors conclude that, based on two modeled scenarios,

“industrial forests and supplemental dedicated fuelwood plantations … can economically produce large levels of biomass [to provide biofuels] without compromising crop production, thereby mitigating the land conversion and carbon emissions effects posited by the Searchinger Hypothesis.”

The authors’ conclusions are predicated on their argument that there are more than enough non-agricultural and marginal lands available to produce enough biomass to meet their modeled biofuel demand*, keeping the price for biomass feedstocks low enough to make it unprofitable for farmers to switch from growing food crops to growing biomass for biofuels. (See Sedjo and others discuss biofuels in this series of clips.)

A Linchpin to this Counterargument: Economically Viable Cellulosic Ethanol

A key and critical assumption underpinning the Sedjo et al. argument is that the technology for producing biofuels from cellulosic material (as opposed to sugars from crops like corn) will advance enough to make biofuels generated from cellulose economically viable. If this occurs, the models used by Sedjo et al. predict there would be large amounts of biomass from grasses and trees grown on marginal lands; this biomass along with biomass from the pulpwood sector could meet the demand for biofuels without driving land conversion.* (See related story: “Drop-In Biofuels Squeeze Gasoline from Plants.”)

Will cellulosic-based technologies be able to bring biofuels to the marketplace? It remains to be seen, but there are encouraging signs. At least two cellulosic ethanol plants are up and running in the United States with three more expected to come online in 2014. And while it remains to be seen if production can match this year’s EPA target of 6 million gallons [pdf], next year’s goal of 17 million gallons has been called “realistic.” ($ub req’ed)

So it may turn out, with cellulosic ethanol in play, that biofuels are preferable to fossil fuels. But I’ve got something that beats out both: Cars that drive with fewer gallons per mile and drivers that drive fewer miles. (Vote and comment: “Are Biofuels Worth the Investment?“)


End Note

* The demand for biofuels modeled by the authors is significantly less than the cellulosic biofuel production specified in the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Post corrected 11/21/2013
The original version of the post neglected to mention that the demand modeled by Sedjo et al. is significantly less than the Renewable Fuel Standard specified in the Energy Independence and Security Act. Also left out were two of the primary sources of biomass for the paper’s scenarios (which, along with the biomass from marginal lands, which was mentioned, would be the means to meeting the demand specified in the paper): biomass derived from residues and the pulpwood sector.


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