The Problem of Scale

It’s the essential challenge of our attempt to wean ourselves from old, reliable fossil fuels for energy:

From the dust-blown steppes of Inner Mongolia to the waters off Shanghai, China installed more wind turbines in the first half of 2010 than any other country — 7,800 megawatts of potential power production, or more than the United States, the European Union, and India combined. In fact, in northeast China alone, autumn and winter winds now produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, roughly 5.5 percent of the total power generation in the region. That’s up from 534 million kilowatt hours just five years ago.

But despite this rapid progress, wind energy still only generates a tiny fraction of China’s electricity. Indeed, even with aggressive government backing and green energy mandates, such “new energy” — including wind, solar, nuclear power plants, and biomass — accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s electricity production, compared to more than 70 percent provided by coal, which produces roughly 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every metric ton of the dirty, black rock burned. And as China’s economy continues to expand at a dizzying rate for the foreseeable future, wind and other renewable sources of energy will not even be able to keep pace with new demand, meaning fossil fuel burning will continue unabated.

This is hardly unique to China. In the U.S., electricity produced from the breeze has increased 13-fold in the past decade, yet still only provides 2.3 percent of the country’s electricity — compared to just under 50 percent provided by burning coal. Even Denmark, which has done more than any other country to boost wind power, struggles to integrate an intermittent generating resource into a grid whose customers expect the lights or the television to come on whenever they flick the switch.

As the world attempts to wean itself from fossil fuels — a result of the converging desires to combat climate change, improve energy security, and create green jobs — renewables such as the sun, wind, water, and hot rocks will play a larger role. So will energy sources, such as nuclear and natural gas, that are cleaner than the current favorites, coal and oil. The question is: Can any of these resources — or even all of them put together — begin to approach the scale needed to transform the world’s energy supply?

And even if the world’s economies can muster the resources and willpower to wean themselves off fossil fuels, how many decades will it take? And can we move fast enough to stave off the potentially calamitous effects of climate change?

Read the rest on Yale e360.

Posted in Alternative Energy, Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Environment, Global Warming | 1 Comment

Can the world handle 2 billion cars?

brilliance-granse-minibus

TECHNOLOGY DIGESTION: Chinese automaker and state-owned enterprise now builds the "Granse" minibus pictured here based on the "Granvia" minibus by Toyota the company used to build as part of a joint venture with the Japanese automaker.

Maybe, maybe not. But we’re certainly going to find out. The blossoming love affair between middle class Chinese and cars means we can expect hundreds of millions more of the infernal combustion machines in coming years.

But a world of 2 billion cars is also a world with a different climate, more sprawl, more mining and certainly more conflicts over resources (whether oil or lithium). Is that a world we want to live in, whether the cars are electric or not?

China has invested heavily in infrastructure to make the country car-friendly: roads, bridges, tunnels—an orgy of construction that happens to double as a stimulus plan. A pristine four-lane toll highway leads out of the city of Shenyang in northeastern China and every other Chinese city of size, most empty except for a few trucks and official convoys speeding past in their specially licensed black sedans. But within a few years, the lanes will be crowded with cars and the next cycle of road-building will begin. Beijing started its second ring road in the 1980s and completed its sixth—stretching 187 kilometers around the sprawling capital—in 2009.

Predictable results have followed: traffic jams that stretch for kilometers, sprawling suburbia and rising fuel prices. The vice mayor of Beijing was recently “exiled” to work in Xinjiang province after a debacle of some 30,000 vehicles being registered in a few weeks in December in anticipation of a curb on new auto registry. But the capital’s roughly 4.8 million vehicles have turned the city’s roads into sinuous parking lots and a haze covers the cities of China—a combination of the smoke of a million coal fires and all the vehicles’ exhaust obscuring the skyline with smog’s airlight, turning a Beijing sunrise from rosy to peach.

Posted in Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Energy, Environment, Global Warming

What a blizzard in Brooklyn means for global warming

brooklyn-blizzard-2010Not much.

What Does Winter Weather Reveal about Global Warming?

Snowpocalyspe. Snowmaggedon. The brrrrizzard of 2010. And other moments in this year’s environmental history:

The Earth in 2010

Did I mention there was a tornado in Brooklyn this year too?

Posted in Uncategorized

What to do about coal ash?

Here’s a little video I did two years after the “Christmas coal ash spill” in Tennessee. The long and the short of it is we still don’t know what to do with all the ash leftover after our coal burning. And, unlike CO2 and other air pollutants, coal ash doesn’t get a lot of attention. But all of our pollution controls are, essentially, moving the problem of pollutants from our air (via smokestacks) to our water (via leaching from coal ash).

Posted in Clean Revolution, Electricity, Energy, Environment

The Clean Revolution

carbon-capture-and-storage-at-mountaineer-power-plant

Clean Coal?

I continue to work at a snail’s pace on my book (more literally my book proposal) on the slow-creeping tide of change in our energy supplies. I’m not just talking the current fad for wind farms and solar panels on rooftops, but an incremental but monumental effort to replace fire—mankind’s oldest technology, possibly—with some other way of harnessing energy for our needs. This is the work of decades if not centuries. After all, it took millennia for the harnessing of fire to bear full fruit in the form of the coal-fired power plant or an internal combustion engine.

Anyway, thoughts, suggestions, help welcome. The “green” revolution is dead, long live the clean revolution!

Posted in Alternative Energy, Clean Revolution, Climate Change, Electricity, Energy, Environment, Global Warming | Tagged , , , , ,

Life in Denmark

danish-village

An impossibly quaint (where are the gnomes?) thatched roof village at the northern end of the island of Samso. It's a major tourist trap, even for Danes, in summer.

The world descended on Copenhagen these past two weeks—and ordinary Danes don’t like it. Beyond the snarled traffic and foreigners gazing mutely into their palms to try to figure out what coins are worth, there’s all the protesters disrupting orderly Danish Christmas lunches.

Yes, these are traditional opportunities for Danes to get drunk in the early afternoon. But there is a silver lining, according to my sources, since all the police in Denmark are in Copenhagen you can be pretty secure driving drunk in the rest of the country.

I suppose that’s a consolation for all the other inconveniences.

Did I mention drunk Danes stole my Earth Journalism Award?

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A vote for me is a vote for the Earth

vote-badges

Vote for me! Image: (c) iStockphoto.com

Or at least Earth journalism. That’s right, I’m up for an Earth Journalism Award in Copenhagen this December, but I need your help to win.

(a) You can go to the Earth Journalism Awards site and vote for me directly.

(b) You can log in to Twitter and vote for me again by tweeting my story. It’s like democracy in old New York!

(c) Then you can log in to Facebook and vote for me yet again (!) by becoming a fan of my story. Now we’re talking real democracy…

And you don’t have to feel bad. I’m not making (too many) empty campaign promises. I gain no monetary reward from victory (merely a handshake from Rajendra Pachauri). And my story is about carbon capture and storage, which just might be the only hope for restraining the burgeoning amount of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. It’s a win-win-win (which is why I recommend the triple vote.) As the saying goes: vote early… and often.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

What we talk about when we talk about environmentalism

david_biello

david_biello

This little electronic missive is to plant a stake in the ground as well as serving as the proverbial cri de coeur: here I am, sucking up electricity on some servers somewhere and taking up the real estate that might otherwise be squatted by mine enemies. So, expect the occasional post, and a little bit of lightheartedness. The kind of thing I can’t do over at my day job: Scientific American.

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