Blue Marble

Your Electric Car as a Battery in the Grid

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 7:02 PM EST

Paul%27s%20Civic%20-%20smaller.jpg Electric and hybrid cars could act as energy stores for the power grid when not being driven. New Scientist reports that researchers from the University of Delaware are using a new prototype by AC Propulsion to store or supply grid electricity (Washington DC got a first dose in October). If hundreds or thousands of owners opt into the system, the efficiency of power distribution could improve. A lot. The average US car is driven one out of every 24 hours. Combustion-powered cars are useless off the road. But plug-ins could act as backups to the grid while idle.

 

"Storage is golden for power companies because it is hard to do," [Willet] Kempton told New Scientist, who notes that the cost of storing excess electricity means that there is only capacity for around 1% of yield in the US and UK. Storage is particularly important for renewable energy because power supplied by the Sun, the oceans, or the wind, is often irregular.

 

Each plug-in can provide $4,000 of storage to an energy company per year, at a cost of $600 to install the high-power connection system. Energy companies need to pass on some of their savings to encourage drivers to help out, says Kempton… Hmm. Technology might be the easy part.

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Fuel Cell Cleans Pollution and Makes Electricity

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 6:27 PM EST

071203120753.jpg Pennsylvania State University environmental engineers have developed a fuel cell that uses pollution from coal and metal mines to generate electricity. Bruce E. Logan and colleagues describe successful tests of a lab-scale fuel cell based on microbial fuel cells capable of generating electricity from wastewater. Their device removes dissolved iron from solution while generating electricity at power levels similar to conventional microbial fuel cells (the recovered iron can be used in paints or other products). Better yet, the researchers say, later generations of these cells will lead to more efficient power generation in the future.

Engineers may save us yet.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Divorce is Bad for the Planet

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 1:44 PM EST

"Oh, I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E." Mother Nature probably agrees with Tammy Wynette. According to a recent Michigan State University study, divorce is taking a major toll on the environment.

Some of the findings:

* In the United States alone in 2005, divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households. Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting.

* In the United States and 11 other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries.

* The numbers of divorced households in these countries ranged from 40,000 in Costa Rica to almost 16 million in the United States around 2000.

* The number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 percent to 95 percent greater than in married households.

But the researchers also point out that divorce is just part of the picture: In the U.S., multigenerational households have become less common over the past few decades. What's more, single people are putting off getting married, and hence living alone for longer. Seems like the only bright side about sky-high rent, then, is that it might actually make some cities greener (since fewer people can afford to live alone).

Global Warming Threatens Another Endangered Species

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 1:22 PM EST

Doing its part in the high-brow Priusification of the green movement, the New York Times has just released its "Ski Issue," reporting on the conversion of luxurious Swiss ski resorts into nothing more than luxurious Swiss sun decks and spas as snowfall even in the Alps decreases. Meanwhile one music fan and YouTube user has posted an unofficial video on behalf of the L.A. band HEALTH that honors another imminent casualty of Switzerland's suddenly sultry climate. By pairing the heroic track "Heaven" with footage from Werner Herzog's 1973 documentary The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner about Swiss ski jumper Walter Steiner, Bret Berg touches on a quandary heretofore neglected by the Times and many others: If the Alpine snowfields melt into a miserable puddle, whatever will become of the high-flying Swiss?

—Cassie McGettigan


Your Future Begins in Bali: Global Climate Summit Opens

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 9:43 PM EST

Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, from the press conference "Overview of the main issues of the COP/Technical and logistical details for journalists."

Also largely absent from today's news—unless you read offshore, say, at the BBC—the portentous UN Climate Change Summit 2007 opening today in Bali. Governments are assembled to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 when the current Kyoto Protocol targets expire. You know the Kyoto Protocol, the one Bush never signed, dooming it to irrelevance.

This is the first big international meet since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that evidence for global warming is "unequivocal." What's Bush's stance this time around? The BBC put it diplomatically:

Meanwhile, US President George Bush—who favours voluntary rather than mandatory targets—issued a statement saying that the nation's emissions had fallen by 1.5% in 2006 from levels in 2005.

Bush—that champion of weird math and damn the consequences—hopes his numbers will enable the US to avoid doing what everyone else is in Bali to do: agree to binding emissions targets. This even though 150 multinationals last week did just that, according to Business Green, including Coca-Cola, Gap, Nike, British Airways, Nestlé, Nokia, Shell, Tesco and Virgin, as well as a number of Chinese companies such as Shanghai Electric and Suntech.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Hunger: Coming Your Way

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 8:55 PM EST

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Global agriculture could go into steep, unanticipated declines due to complications that scientists have so far inadequately considered. So say three new reports published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Predicted changes from 1- to 5-degree C temperature rises in coming decades fail to account for seasonal extremes of heat, drought or rain, multiplier effects of spreading diseases or weeds, and other ecological upsets. All are believed more likely in the future, according to The Earth Institute at Columbia University:

"Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale. But there is a strong potential for negative surprises," said Francesco Tubiello, a physicist and agricultural expert at the NASA/Goddard Institute of Space Studies who coauthored all three papers. Existing research estimates that developing countries may lose 334 million acres of prime farm land in the next 50 years. After mid-century, continuing temperature rises—5 degrees C or more by then—are expected to start adversely affecting northern crops as well, tipping the whole world into a danger zone.

Is there any mention of any of these three papers anywhere in the mainstream news? Not that I can find. The world goes on, as usual, headlining inconsequentials and absurdities.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Texas Science Curriculum Director Resigns Over Creationism Kerfuffle

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 1:29 PM EST

creation190.jpgThe science blogosphere is abuzz (here, here and here, for starters) with some juicy creationism news from Texas. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Chris Comer, the state's director of science curriculum, was pressured into resigning this month. Her crime? Forwarding an e-mail about an upcoming talk by creationism expert Barbara Forrest. (Now mind you, by "creationism expert," I don't mean "creationist." Barbara Forrest testified in the Dover trial, and according to Pharyngula blogger PZ Meyers, she had creationists shaking in their boots.)

Anyway, long story short, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had a fit. A TEA memo obtained by the Statesman said, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

Now, never mind the fact that the neutrality for which Texas strives on the subject of creationism pretty much amounts to bad science. Even if neutrality is your goal—heck, even if you're the biggest creationist ever—you might still be interested in hearing what this Barbara Forrest has to say. And if you're a teacher, you're ostensibly interested in open forums, free exchange of ideas, etc. Tough luck for you if you're teaching in Texas. Talk about a hostile learning environment.

More Than 1 in 4 US Birds Imperiled

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 7:35 PM EST

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How are America's birds doing after seven years of the antiGreens? Well, 178 species in the continental U.S. and 39 in Hawaii are in need of immediate conservation. That according to the 2007 Audubon WatchList.

"We call this a 'WatchList' but it is really a call to action, because the alternative is to watch these species slip ever closer to oblivion," said Audubon Bird Conservation Director and co-author, Greg Butcher. "How quickly and effectively we act to protect and support the species on this list will determine their future; where we've taken aggressive action, we've seen improvement," says David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy's Director of Conservation Programs and co-author.

Could Step One be any clearer? Fast forward to 2008 & ditch the flightless leaders.

Among the most imperiled species on the list that regularly breed in the continental U.S. are:

Gunnison Sage-Grouse (not on Endangered Species Act list (ESA) [here's why, at least in part]) • This species is restricted to Southwest ...

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

New Tectonic Source of Geothermal Energy?

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 7:02 PM EST

volcan42.jpg Geochemists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Arizona State University have discovered a new tool for identifying potential geothermal energy resources. The discovery came from comparing helium isotopes in samples gathered from wells, springs, and vents across the northern Basin and Range of western North America. High helium ratios are common in volcanic regions. When the investigators found high ratios in places far from volcanism, they knew that hot fluids must be permeating Earth's inner layers by other means. The samples collected on the surface gave the researchers a window into the structure of the rocks far below, with no need to drill.

"A good geothermal energy source has three basic requirements: a high thermal gradient—which means accessible hot rock—plus a rechargeable reservoir fluid, usually water, and finally, deep permeable pathways for the fluid to circulate through the hot rock," says Mack Kennedy. "We believe we have found a way to map and quantify zones of permeability deep in the lower crust that result not from volcanic activity but from tectonic activity, the movement of pieces of the Earth's crust."

Geothermal is considered by many to be the best renewable energy source besides solar. Accessible geothermal energy in the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, is estimated at 90 quadrillion kilowatt-hours, 3,000 times more than the country's total annual energy consumption. Determining helium ratios from surface measurements is a practical way to locate promising sources.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Clean Up the Coal Plants, Then Clean Out the Fridge

| Wed Nov. 28, 2007 6:46 PM EST

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While the filthy coal industry touts its far-off "clean coal" technology to help keep federal subsidies flowing, perhaps there's a simpler solution to the emissions and toxins these plants belch. A Texas company called Skyonic has developed a process it claims can reduce smokestack carbon by up to 90 percent by transforming the C02 into solid NaHCO3, better known by the brand name Arm & Hammer. Hey, baking soda from coal waste! Great idea, especially if—as the company claims—the stuff comes out food-grade clean. (Even so, I think I'll just use mine to eliminate fridge odors.)

The process, which is now being tested on a pilot scale in Texas, is driven by heat from the waste gases. It involves an input of sodium hydroxide (lye), which is produced on-site, and produces as byproducts hydrogen and chlorine gases, which could be sold at a profit along with the baking soda, the company says.

Skyonic CEO Joe David Jones told ZDNET, where you can read more on this, that his company's "SkyMine" technology also eliminates 97 percent of the heavy metals and most of the acids and nitrogen compounds, which would eliminate the need for pricey smokestack scrubbers. The company is working on a full-scale system it hopes to install in 2009 that would, it says, absorb the waste output of a large (500MW) plant—which includes about 338,000 tons of carbon annually.

Sounds almost too good to be true; pie-in-the-SkyMine, you might say. Still, if it pans out, there'll be plenty of baking soda for that pie, and one less reason to hate the coal industry. 'Course, there is a little matter of blowing the tops off mountains. ...