Learn more about Tapworld.org, a Great Energy Challenge grantee.
Learn more about Tapworld.org, a Great Energy Challenge grantee.
Information technology managers take note: The cloud can be your friend.
U.S. government researchers built a model to test the energy cost of running common business applications using centralized data centers instead of local systems. Turned out the cloud’s energy efficiency advantages on a nationwide basis were huge – up to 87 percent, or around 23 billion kilowatt-hours.
“This is roughly the amount of electricity used each year by all the homes, businesses and industry in Los Angeles,” the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers said in a press release that accompanied the study [here.
Plenty of case studies on the cloud vs. local question have been done by consultants, but the Berkeley Lab team said that this open nature of their model – which takes into account factors such as data centers, transmission systems, client devices, transportation systems, and more – offers a power new tool for analysis.
“We can’t fly by the seat of our pants when it comes to assessing sustainability. We need numbers – hard data — to properly analyze how cloud computing compares to how computing is done now,” Northwestern University’s Eric Masanet, lead author of the report, said in a statement. “Well-thought-out analysis is especially important with new technology, which can have unforeseen effects. Our public model allows us to look forward and make informed decisions.”
Breaking down the savings themselves, the researchers said that “most of our estimated energy savings were associated with email and productivity software, owing to their widespread use in U.S. businesses.”
The researchers admitted that “like all modeling efforts, our estimates are not without uncertainties.” They said a key to arriving at more solid numbers is access to more comprehensive and credible public use data on all components of digital services systems – including data centers, network transmission systems, client devices, user behavior and present day energy efficiency practices.
This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.
Run current through genetically engineered microorganisms, and they produce gasoline substitute. Can U.S.-funded electrofuels research finish the drive from lab to market?
ATTENTION PHOTOGS AND ASPIRING PHOTOGS:
The Sheffield Education Center is accepting submissions to “Submerged”, an exhibit of photos and videos taken in the depths and shallows of Barton Springs Pool. We need your help to capture the springs as you see them.
Due date for submissions: July 5th
Artwork Drop off: July 16th‐ 21st
Opening reception: August 11th
Closing: October 6th
Artwork Pick up: October 8th‐13th
CLICK HERE FOR ALL THE DETAILS/RULES!
When it comes to keeping the lights and air conditioning on this summer, how much of a safety margin do we need?
After all, summertime is when electricity demand surges, as an entire nation reaches for the thermostat in the midst of a heat wave. Overall, our grid is getting older, and the demands are getting higher.
The North American Electric Reliability Corporation, the agency that’s paid to worry about the power grid in the United States and Canada, says we’re reasonably good shape for the summer—except for Texas and maybe California. Of course, given how large Texas and California are, a worst case scenario could leave some 60 million Americans sweltering in the summer heat.
As you’ll see on this map, most regions of the country have enough capacity in reserve. The percentage on the left is the actual reserve available, while the percentage on the right is the “reserve margin” that NERC says should be enough to get by. Most parts of the country are doing pretty well — in fact some, like the Gulf and Central regions, have two or three times the reserve they need.
Only one part of the country is actually below the reserve margin: Texas. Demand in Texas is outstripping supply (demand has increased by 2.3 percent in 2012-13, but supply has only increased 1.4 percent, according to the Energy Information Administration). Texas utilities may bring mothballed generating stations back into service and use more aggressive “demand response” programs aimed to manage increased demand during peak periods.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean there will be blackouts this year – only that Texas has less of a safety margin than it should have if things go wrong.
California has enough reserve on paper, but may be cutting it close in reality because two units of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station are off-line and due to be retired. California officials have put a number of steps in place to bolster service.
NERC says two other factors may have a big impact on whether the lights stay on this summer, and they’re both, well, elemental: wind and water.
Water will be an issue because of expected drought in the Western states this summer. That matters to power plants because many conventional generating stations draw cooling water from rivers and other bodies of water. If water levels drop, the plants may not get the water they need, or may exceed environmental restrictions on how much they can use. That isn’t a certainty, but NERC warns that utilities will need to watch out for it.
Wind is an issue, ironically, because wind power is becoming more and more popular. In fact, government studies have shown that wind farms and natural gas account for almost all the new generating capacity in the United States over the past decade. As a carbon-free, renewable power source, wind has huge benefits.
But it also has a significant drawback, which is that the power you get from wind farms fluctuates widely depending on the weather. That means that you can’t automatically count on wind farms to be producing wind power just because electricity demand is peaking—it’s either a windy day or it’s not. This also means that grid operators need to adjust to significant changes in wind energy output. That is doable — European countries that rely more on wind are learning to deal with this. But we need a more modern grid to do it here.
Overall, the U.S. power grid is both huge and aging. There are a whole host of energy options that will never get off the ground without a better grid: electric cars, expanding wind and solar, and, as the latest reports show, just keeping up with demand.
Modernizing the grid will take money, and and it isn’t something we can do while we’re focused on the short term. Without a better grid, we may get through this summer, but we’ll still have to worrying about the summers to come.
Scotland’s whisky industry churns out a sobering amount of waste, but it may eventually feed a heady biofuels market if Celtic Renewables’ plans succeed.
The world is on track to dangerous global warming, but some solutions could be implemented quickly, says International Energy Agency.
Here are some ideas on what to do with items you plan to toss out, or are lying around your home doing nothing. A bit of elbow grease and creativity can turn an item into something useful, or even a piece of art!
The words in the title above came from Pogo, and they have bounced around in the back of my brain since the 1970s when I first heard them. Many times I’ve been confronted with the truth of that quip by Pogo, the beloved character of former Disney cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973), in a poster he created for the first Earth Day in 1970. No affirmation was more emphatic than an experience Mary and I shared in Canada recently.
This Earth Day, just two days after the third anniversary of BP’s fatal Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, we did something not very mindful of our Earth. We boarded a jumbo jet with a few hundred other people, who may or may not have realized it was Earth Day, and flew toward the tar sands of Alberta.
This trip was put together by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation‘s Joint Public Advisory Committee, or JPAC, the nongovernmental panel, composed of five members each from Mexico, the United States and Canada, on which I serve at the request of President Obama. We focus on matters of development and environmental effect but our members walk in both worlds. While I direct a tiny nonprofit organization working to cleanup and preserve the Yukon and other rivers, a fellow member served as the chief executive officer of a Canadian oil company, valued in 2010 at $50 billion. We are a mix of scholars, business leaders, and environmentalists with a plethora of titles and backgrounds in between.
Our quarterly meetings focus on issues relevant to environmental happenings in North America, be they development or crisis management, and we assess particular processes and/or events then present our findings on the various issues to the leadership of each of the three countries. Often we visit sites key in the discussion. The goal of this trip was to hear from the public in Calgary on the future of oil and mining in their province of Alberta. We would also visit and assess the tar sands production a few hours north of Calgary as guests of Suncor, a leader in the development of the tar sands.
NOTE: Tar Sands or Oil Sands? The proper name is bitumen sands. I use the phrase tar sands because that is the terminology used when I first heard it, although the Calgary Herald revealed that to oil industry insiders, “The term tar sands is the equivalent of dropping the f-bomb in church.”
Bumps in the Roads
Upon our 4:30 a.m. arrival at the executive airport in Calgary, we were flown by corporate jet to Fort McMurray, about an hour from the tar sands, or what our enthusiastic pair of young Suncor hostesses referred to simply as “Site.” Once in Fort McMurray, located in the Wood Buffalo Region of Alberta, we were treated to breakfast by Suncor in a corporate hotel restaurant. Over bacon and eggs, our hosts indulged us with stories of the good life in Fort McMurray before herding us back onto a deluxe tour bus and delivering us to a recently completed Starbucks. Then, with coffee in hand, we rode along in amazement touring the shiny new frontier town where the majority of trees you see have been recently planted. Few signs of buildings older than a couple of years were evident.
In their presentation, our guides highlighted the migration of workers to this oil utopia and I was floored to hear that one recent month saw the delivery of 147 babies in Fort McMurray, a community of approximately 75,000. This is a boomtown on steroids, but unlike the well-documented and obvious ills which suddenly befell towns like Gillette, Wyoming after its discovery of energy resources, the dark side of processing the Alberta Tar Sands is neatly hidden beneath new sidewalks and pavement. Countless new subdivisions filled with cookie-cutter houses stand in sore need of trees, shrubs or anything green to surround them. Construction equipment covers vast areas of land where within weeks yet another new batch of shockingly expensive yet surprisingly small, nondescript houses or condo projects will appear. Away from the high traffic zones, there are the more intimate and elaborate groupings of executive homes where families from Houston and Tulsa and other oil-prosperous U.S. cities reside for now.
The bus slowed often to roll over deep heaves in the new pavement. One hostess explained the shoddy road conditions away by informing us the bumpy roads are a problem which there just is no time to address since Fort McMurray is a 24-hour town. “Most all community members here are shift workers at the production facilities and since they occupy these roads 24 hours a day we cannot close the roads to repair them,” she said. This explanation was bothersome on several levels. Most obvious is the fact that these new roadbeds were not sufficiently prepped before dropping the asphalt. It seems to me that things are being quickly thrown together. I live in Alaska where we regularly deal with permafrost, soggy muskeg, and other challenging terrains in building and development, but we beef up construction efforts in our attempt to make sure what we create will last. This is not to say we do not experience frost heaves and bumpy roads in Alaska, but I’ve never seen a new road fail in a timeframe as short as this. Fort McMurray seems to be host to a flurry of quick fixes.
Living in Boomtown Near “Site”
This community supporting the tar sands development looks to be owned outright by the oil industry. Most glaring to us were the schools and churches with the name SUNCOR emblazoned across their facades. As we progressed toward “Site” with our upbeat guides breathlessly reciting their impressive, well-rehearsed dialogue, this new town was feeling increasingly like the fictional creation of Hollywood called Stepford. We learned that new hires, thus new community members, are arriving in Fort McMurray nonstop. Wal-Mart and other chain retailers have descended. Strip malls with several floors of condos stacked on top of them abound and our guides informed us that housing prices range from $400,000 to $600,000. One guide stated,“’The singles usually opt for the less expensive, more carefree lifestyles afforded by the condos, which start at $300,000. However,” she added, “Suncor helps with a large down payment.”
That said, we later discovered a recent census study in the Calgary Herald reporting that single family home prices in Fort McMurray start closer to $800,000 and the price of a duplex starts at around $500,000. Unfortunately for residents, the salaries of many non-execs do not seem to be in step with the cost of living here. One government report proclaims the average household income is around $130,000 but most in the service industry earn far less than that. We heard that a Starbucks employee might earn $18 per hour in Fort McMurray but that wage will not sustain a mortgage and the average rent for an apartment is $2,000.
On top of the apparent housing issues, there are also the usual suspects of Boomtown Syndrome lurking beneath the surface which no new community wants visible; drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and the types of crimes easily perpetrated wherever new money flows freely … but that’s a different sort of environmental issue and a topic for another discussion.
As a captive audience we spent the next 60 minutes on a luxury bus watching Suncor videos and being regaled by these two individuals astoundingly well versed on the topic of all things fabulous and wonderful about Suncor and oil sands production. The bus turned off the main highway onto a less substantial route which stretched into treeless rolling hills blanketed in a web of mucky roads. On the ride between this area and Fort McMurray we had entered several forested areas. In this zone, however, there were no longer any forests within sight. Snow and rain fell so the ground was covered in large puddles and patches of white. Dirt-caked tankers and semis moving heavy equipment were a constant sight on the roads as were stagnant ponds on either side of them. (Related “Pictures: Satellite Views of Canada’s Oil Sands Over Time“)
Baffling Birds and Spinning Words
One of our guides relayed that they refer to these scarecrows beside the ponds as “bitchy-men (a play on the word “bitumen”) Air cannons fired regularly sound off like loud explosions, and alarms screech when birds approach these tainted waters. (Syncrude, a competitor in the development of the Alberta Tar Sands was fined $3 million a couple of years ago when over 1,600 water fowl died when they mistook a tailings pond, of which there are many, for a welcoming rest area. Syncrude made a point of reporting that three mallards survived.)
The scarecrows on the edges of these many ponds prompted several in our group to snap photos, and we were informed by our guides that, “The colorful flat men beside the ponds are there to encourage the birds to not land there.” This skilled phraseology was not lost on us and we would continue to catch word usage such as this, designed to create positive feelings, throughout the day. While I might expect to hear, “The colorful flat men beside the ponds are there to discourage the birds from landing there.” This bright and sunny Suncor spin avoided any negative word associations. (Not to mention that if the flat men had ever been ‘colorful’ they were only grimy and gray now. I love the psychology of consumer marketing. Make your audience feel good even as you deliver bad news.) This clever technique was employed in all discussions from our guides and the continual use of upbeat verbiage worked hard to promote a positive message even when the gist of said message was negative.
Our hostesses had an über pro-Suncor response to all of our questions about the tar sands, and the pair seemed to be intentionally attached at the hip. So when I approached one who was momentarily alone, it was a lot like seeing the proverbial deer in the headlights. Her reactions only got worse as our short discussion evolved. The day before this trip I had read a report documenting a spill which occurred just two weeks prior from a Suncor cooling pond into the Athabasca River. When the company finally issued a statement, they claimed that no bitumen was in the spill but there was delay in telling the public what WAS in the spill (toxic wastewater). This is not how I view transparency. So when I asked the guide about the incident she immediately corrected me, revealing that Suncor never uses the term spill … they call it a “release.” Well, of course they do.
Plausible deniability. Mary suggested to her that a “release” is typically something that is controlled but as far as this particular incident was reported, it was an accident – a broken pipe - something over which Suncor had no control. Now I don’t know about you, but I always associate the word “release” as letting go of something intentionally; a planned event. You release your child’s hand in the park as you arrive at the swings. Armies release bombs and missiles. However, there would be no cluttering this conversation with facts. This young woman was resolute in her insistence that this was not a “spill” and seeing her gulping water from her bottle and keeping it near her face during our short exchange indicated to me that this one must have been a very scary impromptu chat for her. After all, she was tasked with keeping aloft the sparkly Suncor flag, no matter what. When Mary asked her about Suncor employees’ health and cancer stats and her knees practically buckled, we backed off. Unfair question? No. Just not part of her script.
“The Tar Sands are Mordor. The air is foul, the water is being drained and poisoned, and giant tailings ponds line the river.”–
Maude Barlow, Council of Canadians Chairperson and Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the U.N. General Assembly
The above quote from Ms. Barlow reminds me that during the part of our tour through the bowels of the tar sands production zone, the place our guides referred to as “Downtown Suncor,” the air was rank. As we crept through this smelly gray environment filled with smoking, flaming stacks and huge bands of wires hanging overhead, large sooty trucks passed us as workers hustled about on foot in gear which covered them from head to toe. I honestly imagined this huge operation happening on another planet. Nothing of what we saw looked like Earth. Our ever cheerful guides exhibited the quintessential puzzled looks as they declared their surprise and confusion at the strong smells in the air on this day. They looked quizzically at one another as they lamented over the fact that normally such an odd and baffling smell was not present. It was about then that a cell phone rang and one guide replied to it with these words: “Hi there! Oh, are the roads too mushy to get out to Site today? Yeah, we were worried that might happen with the snow today. Oh well. Thank you!”
So. No visit to see the actual tar sands today. Hmmm. Surprise, surprise. So we’ve included photos with this post taken at the tar sands for National Geographic by photographers Peter Essick and Sarah Leen. And here’s a gallery of photos from the magazine: Scraping Bottom: The Canadian Oil Boom.
To finally shut up on this tar sands issue, I’ll finish with this: I’m thankful these tar sands do not exist in a third world environment. Its a messy and unhealthy process to get this stuff cleaned up for use, but at least in Canada there are SOME regulations. That does not mean I’m happy the tar sands are not being left alone. I feel the tar sands development is a mistake we could and should avoid. With concentrated effort, we could shift to greener energy solutions. The magnitude of this effort will stretch our limits on every level.
In addition, the Keystone XL pipeline, if developed, will stretch across the United States like a sleeping grizzly on our living room floor. Fine, perhaps, until it stirs. Then, who knows what hell might break loose? (Related Interactive: “Keystone XL: Mapping The Flow of Tar Sands Oil” and “Oil Spill Spotlights Keystone XL Issue: Is Canadian Crude Worse?“)
I’m not against development and I realize that for now, we are addicted to oil, but I think Pogo nailed it. Remember, this issue is our fault. The tar sands development would not exist without our addiction problem. As long as the people currently in power continue to live in this fantasy of denial, making excuses for our dependency on fossil fuel and rejecting the proof of climate change, we will continue to be plagued by challenges such as the Alberta Tar Sands and the repercussions which accompany them. The U.S. Congress and Canadian Parliament are hellbent on jumping headlong into the future with NO energy policy in place, but Pogo’s message is clear … we are the enemy. That must change, so let’s commit to making it happen. We know that to end this addiction, we’ve got to stop ignoring the problem. Let’s commit to having those uncomfortable conversations with those who don’t get it, and let’s be bolder in our approach and more selective when choosing our political candidates.
Finally, since I’m no expert on bitumen, I leave it to you to become your own. Apply your critical thinking skills and do your research. I’ve added a few sites to peruse below. Beware that the “facts” vary, so watch for spins. Then follow your heart to the conclusion that you, your kids, your pets, and your own Pogo can live with. Development with environmental consciousness is the right course and we all know it. Let’s come together, get off our apathetic asses and do something to finally make this change happen. We have the power. So what are we waiting for?
The late Wally Hickel, secretary of the Department of Interior and twice Alaska governor once asked, ”Why war? Why not big projects?”I’d like to modify that and ask you today: “Why oil? Why not big, clean energy projects?”
Visit the following sites for more info about the bitumen sands:
As always, I thank you for reading!
Jon and Mary took photos while on their tour in April, but agreed to give Suncor a chance to review them and approve before publication. They are still waiting for approval. Meanwhile, they have moved onto the Amazon, where they are working with tribes on similar environmental issues. Stay tuned to Jon’s National Geographic Newswatch blog for more on that effort.
Global greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever. What’s to be done?
“Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map,” a special report [pdf] by the International Energy Agency (IEA), was released on Monday, and the findings are sobering. (See related story: “What’s Behind the New Warning on Global Carbon Emissions?“)
In 2012 energy-related, global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions reached their highest levels ever at 31.6 gigatons, a data point to go along with the fact that last month CO2 surpassed the 400 parts-per-million mark for the first time in perhaps several million years.
Virtually all of that increase can be attributed to emission increases in developing countries (i.e., countries not belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or OECD), with China making the largest single contribution. All in all, non-OECD countries now account for 60 percent of all global emissions; in 2000 that percentage was 45.
(And before we OECD country-ites pat ourselves on the back for our climate-change enlightenment and point fingers at the “Third World”-ers, let’s not forget that a lot of those increasing emissions in non-OECD countries are to produce cheap goods for us to import and consume.)
The report did point to some positive signs:
Bleak Prediction for Keeping Climate Change in Check
The IEA’s assessment of where we are headed is pretty bleak. The authors write:
“The world is not on track to meet the target agreed by governments to limit the long-term rise in the average global temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (°C). … Policies that have been implemented, or are now being pursued, suggest that the long-term average temperature increase is more likely to be between 3.6 °C and 5.3 °C (compared with pre-industrial levels), with most of the increase occurring this century.”
IEA’s Recipe for Averting Dangerous Climate Change
But all is not lost, according to the report. The world can still meet the 2-degree Celsius target, the agency claims, and it’s not all that difficult. Because “the energy sector accounts for around two-thirds of greenhouse-gas emissions,” thanks to heavy energy consumption worldwide of fossil fuels, key to meeting the challenge is targeting energy, the report argues, and it prescribes four steps for “intensive action … required by 2020,” all involving existing and/or available policies and technologies:
The IEA stresses throughout that these actions (which they call the “4-for-2 °C Scenario”) should be taken swiftly and collectively to buy us time to 2020, when a new international climate treaty is expected to take effect (2015 is the target year for reaching a new post-Kyoto, global agreement). In other words these are “a bridge to further action” and a bridge that needs to be built and crossed ASAP.
In case you missed it, President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping had an historic, two-day summit last week at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California. That’s right Rancho Mirage. You gotta hand it to the PR folks at the White House — what better place to hold the first face-to-face meeting between the two world leaders than in a place called mirage?
Mirage or no mirage, the meetings, we are told, covered a wide range of topics including climate change. And lo and behold, the leaders of the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases came to an agreement to address the problem of climate change.
Was it a visionary and bold plan to address emissions from the energy sector? No. Was it a more modest but groundbreaking plan along the lines of that proposed by the IEA? Again, no.
What Obama and Xi agreed to do was work on eliminating emissions of hydriofluorocarbons (HFCs).
HFCs are manmade chemicals used in refrigerants. Back in the mid-70s scientists discovered that the chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs also known by the trade name Freon) that were used in items like aerosol cans and refrigerants were depleting the ozone layer, an important part of the atmosphere that protects us from, among other things, skin cancer. To stop that depletion, CFCs were eventually phased out and replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), but, as it turned out, those too depleted the ozone layer (though not quite as much), and so they were phased out and replaced by HFCs.
The good news with HFCs is that they do not affect the stratosphere. The bad news is they are a greenhouse gas and can be 14,800 times more potent than CO2 at warming the atmosphere.
So, don’t get me wrong. Obviously there are global-warming benefits to eradicating HFCs. In fact, I’ve written in support of it. And the IEA report, while not including it in its four-point action plan, highlights HFCs along with other “short-lived climate pollutants” (SLCPs) — black carbon, methane and tropospheric ozone — as warmers responsible for a “substantial fraction of the radiative forcing to date” and thus good warmers to reduce but as a “complement” to actions that reduce CO2 emissions. To quote the report:
“[L]asting climate benefits from fast action on SLCPs are contingent on stringent parallel action on longer-lasting CO2 emissions. In other words, while fast action to mitigate SLCPs could help slow the rate of climate change and improve the chances of staying below the 2 °C target in the near term, longer term climate protection depends on deep and persistent cuts in CO2 emissions being rapidly realised.”
So, given all the other positive areas for collaboration on addressing climate change that the two countries could pursue — R&D on green technologies, advancing technologies like carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS), building sustainable cities, greening transportation, and establishing and enforcing solid environmental laws [pdf], etc. — limiting the global-warming-reducing measures to eliminating HFCs seems, at least from where I sit, a bit of a disappointment. More of a mirage than a real plan to tackle climate change.
Ironically, much of the world’s climate-change woes could be alleviated if just the United States and China, by themselves, entered into a bilateral agreement to curtail CO2 emissions. You think, maybe Obama and Xi are saving that one for their next summit? Hopefully to be held at the Garden of Facing Realities.