Where is Peak Oil?

The idea of Peak Oil, where demand exceeds supply, threatened us for a long time yet continual advances in oil extraction techniques keeps pushing that date farther and farther out, as explained in a recent article over at FastCompany (worth reading if you’re into this stuff!).  Instead, we’re facing a new dilemma…we’ve gotten so good at extracting fossil fuels from the ground, that we now face the grim reality of the environmental impact of consuming the known and accessible fossil fuel reserves.  If we want to stay below the internationally-agreed upon 2°C of global warming, we can dump about 565 gigatons more CO2 into the atmosphere.  The problem is that current fossil fuel reserves, ignoring any future discoveries, contain about 2,795 gigatons of CO2 (source).  Yeah.  Not good.  Either fossil fuels need to get so expensive that people stop using them, or we’re going to really mess up this planet.

Can the Internet of Things help reduce global warming?

The Internet of Things is best thought of as abundant networked, communicating smart devices all around you.  Sensors, mostly, that are all communicating and making available unprecedented amounts of information about objects and the environment.  Houses that know what rooms people are in, what rooms they are likely to be in next, and adjust HVAC systems accordingly to reduce energy consumption, for example.  I’ve loved the idea of this from a technology geek perspective, but I hadn’t considered the environmental aspect until coming across this article talking about how it could offset billions of tons of CO2 through increased efficiency.  Interesting idea…and it makes a lot of sense.  We’d have to also consider the CO2 impact of actually producing so many sensors and networked objects, though.

Big increases in global CO2 in 2012

2012 saw large increases in the amount of atmospheric CO2, with a jump of 2.67ppm (parts per million).  As a comparison, between 2000 and 2010, the annual rate of increase was just under 2ppm; in the 1960s it was less than 1ppm.  In spite of this data and political paralysis on the issue, scientists still talk as if we have some hope of averting catastrophic climate change on this planet.  Let’s face it, the only way that will happen is if/when renewable energy becomes so much cheaper and more accessible to the average consumer that they’ll rush to embrace that.  Until then, our greed and short-sightedness will keep us on this path.  By the time the effects are so overwhelming that even the GOP has to pull their heads out of the sand and admit the problem, it’ll be too late to fix it.

Sorry, kids.  Yes, we know exactly what our current course of action is doing to the environment you will rely upon when you’re our age.  Or at least, we have a really, really good idea of what will happen, just some disagreement about the exact timing of things.  Don’t let future history suggest otherwise.  The people of this era are choosing this path for our own short term gain.  I’m doing what I can to help influence others via this blog and my own actions, but it’s a really tough battle.

(via NBC news)

Continual drop in solar energy prices – grid parity

Solar electricity is moving ever closer to grid parity, meaning the cost is comparable to existing grid supplies (coal, gas, etc).  This is a pretty significant milestone, as politics have failed (and will continue to do so) in substantially reducing CO2 emissions…but if solar becomes less expensive than fossil fuel electricity, market forces will take over where governments have failed.  A project in Spain recently achieved grid parity with a group of fourteen rooftop solar panel arrays, and in the US, a project by First Solar is producing at less cost than coal.  I think we’re moving into a new electricity marketplace, where people are going to start asking why we’re not looking at solar to cut costs, rather than asking why we should pay *more* for solar, as has been the case in past years.  I wouldn’t expect your utility bill to decrease though, as the gradual decommissioning of fossil fuel plants is not going to be cheap.  But, a big win for the environment – if we can move quickly enough on this.

Also in solar energy news, the world’s largest solar thermal plant, being built in California, recently passed a big test proving that it’s ready to enter commercial service.  Solar thermal technology is significant as the thermal energy it collects can be stored to provide energy when there’s a shortage of sunlight (cloudy days, or at night).

Clean coal power – for real this time!

new.coal_.techx299The idea of ‘clean’ coal power has really been more of a marketing ploy and not something that environmentalists would agree with…until now, that is.  Researchers at Ohio State University have proven a new clean coal technology in a 25kW facility ran for one week…far from the megawatt scale needed for industrial uses but no small feat and a great step towards that goal.  The next step is a one megawatt demonstration plant already in the planning stages.

So how does it work?  Burning coal is a messy process, producing lots of gaseous byproducts that are difficult to separate and manage.  This new process (“chemical looping”) reacts with materials rich in oxygen, like iron oxide (ie, rust).  The energy in the coal breaks the bond between the oxygen and iron, which produces nearly pure CO2 as a byproduct (the other being iron metal and a mineral known as wustite).  So, it still produces the greenhouse gas CO2, but that CO2 is nearly pure, meaning it’s much easier to contain it (at which point it can be used for industrial purposes or stored underground to not contribute to global warming).  The pure iron is then burned in a separate process, which produces heat to generate steam and drive turbines to generate electricity.

This is expected to result in only small increases in the cost of electricity…whether it can be scaled up to power plant levels quickly enough is the real question.

(via TechnologyReview)

Slow climate change by working less!

Now here’s an idea I think we could all accept.  The Center for Economic and Policy Research has released a paper (PDF link) that looks at the impact that working fewer hours would have on climate change.  It assumes that working less would also result in decreased consumption, which then decreased factory output, etc…and finds that reducing work hours by an annual average of only 0.5% over the rest of this century would eliminate 25-50% of the global warming that has not yet already been ‘locked in’ (or in other words, reduce the warming yet to be caused by future greenhouse gas emissions).  The estimated impact to personal impact is a reduction of 10-25%, in exchange for increased leisure time.

Now, we just need a catchy slogan for this.  Post any ideas in the comments below, let’s make this happen! 🙂

(via Inhabitat)

Climate change in the news

cracked-earth-textureClimate change is becoming more of a focus for me…we’re learning more and more, but also starting to see more effects of this.  So, I’ll be posting summaries, like this one, of various climate change stories I find on the web, rather than posting them one at a time.

First up, the latest National Climate Assessment, produced by more than 300 government scientists and outside experts, paints a bleak picture for this country.  The report, still in draft form, predicts warming and more extreme weather events.  Read more here.

A forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked online (not due to be released until September of 2013 as it is not yet peer-reviewed), and paints a grim picture for our civilization…if we continue on our current path, warming will be ‘a catastrophic and unmanageable 10F over much of Earth’s habited and arable land.”  The report also concludes that it is ‘virtually certain’ that human activities are responsible for this global warming.  Read much more about this report here.

The World Bank is raising the red flag about global temperature increases above 4C (7F), saying that “we’re on track for a 4C warmer world marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”  Food security is in doubt as temperatures rise, with crop yield reductions and extreme temperatures likely leading to shortages and hunger.  What’s worse is that this 4C ‘danger zone’ is something that our current policies can’t even meet – we’ll overshoot that easily.  Read more here.

The BBC reports that current CO2 emissions are too high to curb climate change, and are increasing, rather than decreasing as we need.

The Washington Post reports that, while there is a wide range of predictions from the various climate models, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is finding that warming is likely to be on the high side of predictions – not good, as it means we’ll substantially overshoot the target world leaders have agreed upon as the limit to avoid catastrophic consequences.

It’s basically all bleak news these days…but what makes it worse is that we have the technology and resources, right now, to make significant reductions in our CO2 emissions but we fail to act.  Future generations will pay the price…and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Climate Change News

I’ve seen a number of interesting articles regarding climate change in the news lately, so figured I’d just sum them up in a single post.   As always, follow the links for the full stories.

First, the World Bank has issued a report (PDF link) that finds a very high chance of hitting an average warming of 4°C by the end of this century…twice the international ‘goal’ of 2°C.  The report goes into details of why this is bad, but chances are if you’re reading this you already believe it’s bad…what is significant here is that yet another scientific report is showing we’re making too little progress towards combating climate change, and are leaving a pretty messed up world for future generations. (full article at the Washington Post).  It’s also worth noting that while the impacts of a 2°C rise have been studied quite a bit, the same scientific scrutiny has not been applied to a 4°C rise.  They conclude that, “Given that uncertainty remains about the full nature and scale of impacts, there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible.”  Think about that.

Our neighbors in Canada are feeling a bit better about global warming, as it’s not expected to impact them as negatively (or other northern countries like Russia).  (link)  The warmer temperatures could even have some benefits…more tourism and increased food production, for example.

In Iowa, more than 130 scientists from Iowa colleges and universities have pointed out the obvious…that the bad drought they experienced this year is a predicted effect of global warming, and that we can and should expect more of the same (or worse) in coming years.  (link)  I wonder if this will lead to a mass exodus of people moving from the Midwest to Canada?

In light of the news that the US is on track to be a net exporter of energy by 2020, no longer dependent on foreign oil, the IEA warns that

No more that one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2°C goal.

By pursuing energy independence via increased domestic fossil fuel production, we’re also sealing the fate of future generations.  (link)

Last, but most certainly not least, is that when you look at global average temperature, October 2012 was above average…but what’s most significant is that this was the 332nd consecutive month where the global average temperature has been at or above average.  Remember, there are local variations – some parts of the world may be cooler, some hotter – but globally, the data indicates that this planet is warming up. (link)

I’d like to wrap up this post with advice for how we can stop this, but that’s a real tough one.  I’m convinced that the only solution is to provide people with a clean energy alternative at a lower cost.  More importantly, we need action fast…which means we need a dramatically lower cost, something that makes everyone rush to adopt this new technology.  I’m not aware of any technologies that fit that requirement…and our country lacks the political will to implement change on a national level.  Any ideas?

World CO2 emissions increasing

We’re doing a lousy job of fighting global warming, despite science giving us a pretty good understanding of the impacts continuing along this current path.  Rather than cut emissions, global CO2 emissions in 2011 increased by 2.5% to a new record of 34 billion metric tons, according to Scientific American.  It’s depressing that we can’t solve this problem…but the reality is, people are more worried about themselves than future generations.  Or at least, that’ll be the case until those future generations grow up and realize who’s to blame for the mess they face.

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