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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Monitor staff and guest contributors offer a mix of news, analysis, and commentary on energy and resource issues emerging across the globe.

A chimney in an industrial area of Sydney emits vapor. Eliminating energy subsidies would ease budgetary pressures on cash-strapped governments and slow global carbon emissions, according to a new report from the IMF. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters/File)

IMF: End energy subsidies

By Correspondent / 03.28.13

The world spent $1.9 trillion in energy subsidies in 2011. It was not money well spent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The subsidies reinforce inequality by disproportionately benefiting the wealthiest, largest consumers of energy, according to a report released Wednesday by the global economic organization. Eliminating them would ease budgetary pressures on cash-strapped governments and slow global carbon emissions, the report finds.

"Subsidies cause overconsumption of petroleum products, coal, and natural gas, and reduce incentives for investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy," the report reads. "This over-consumption in turn aggravates global warming and worsens local pollution."

Eliminating energy tax subsidies worldwide would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 4-1/2 billion tons – a 13 percent reduction, the IMF study found. ( Continue… )

A sun-bleached road leads into Florida's vast sugar cane country. Scientists are trying to tap into the large amounts of heat soaked up by roads. (Patrik Jonsson/Staff)

Roads soak up the sun. Could we use that energy?

By Joao PeixeGuest blogger / 03.27.13

Roads soak up a lot of heat energy from the sun. During the summer it can often be unbearable to walk along the road in sunny areas as the heat radiating upwards can lend a stifling quality to the atmosphere.

Scientists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts have decided to develop a system that can put this heat energy to good use. By using special piping technology they can turn effectively turn the streets into giant solar energy collectors.

The idea is quite similar really. Water is pumped through pipes that are buried a few centimetres below the surface of the road. The heat absorbed by the asphalt then warms the water, which can then be used further up along the pipe to generate electricity. The transfer of the heat energy from the road to the water also helps to cool the road surface and prolong the lifespan of the asphalt. (Related article: Study Finds Libya has More Solar Resources than Oil)

Rajib Mallick, the associate professor leading the team of researchers, said that their “preliminary results provide a promising proof of concept for what could be a very important future source of renewable energy.”  ( Continue… )

Joe Reneau displays the damage his home received in two earthquakes in less than 24 hours in Sparks, Okla. The 5.7 magnitude earthquake in November 2011 may have been the result of wastewater injection from oil production, according to a new study. (Sue Ogrocki/AP/File)

Oklahoma earthquake: How oil extraction shifts the ground beneath us

By Correspondent / 03.27.13

Oklahoma's largest recorded earthquake may have been the result of injection wells used for disposing wastewater from oil extraction, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Oklahoma, Columbia University and the US Geological Survey. Their findings challenge the state's own geological survey, which concluded the 5.7 magnitude earthquake was likely "the result of natural causes."

It's the latest back-and-forth in a decades-long debate over the connection between fossil fuel recovery and seismic activity. To what extent does oil and gas production shift the ground beneath us? When does the risk of seismic activity outweigh the benefit of increased energy resources? 

The 2011 event in Oklahoma is the largest earthquake linked to wastewater injection, according to the study, published Tuesday in the journal Geology.

“There’s something important about getting unexpectedly large earthquakes out of small systems that we have discovered here,” said study co-author Geoffrey Abers, a seismologist at Columbia University, in a press release. His conclusion is that “the risk of humans inducing large earthquakes from even small injection activities is probably higher” than previously thought.  ( Continue… )

A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa. The present and the past suggest that the so-called shale gas revolution is about to end, Cobb writes. (Keith Srakocic/AP/File)

Do high natural gas prices mean the shale boom is ending?

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / 03.26.13

As U.S. natural gas prices flirt with the $4 mark, some skeptics of the so-called shale gas revolution think prices are headed much higher. Such a move would, not surprisingly, seriously undermine the official story that the United States has a century of cheap natural gas waiting for the drillbit.

Several years ago when natural gas began flowing in great quantities from deep shale deposits beneath American soil, it seemed to be the beginning of the end of America’s troubled journey into dependence on energy imports—a journey marked by frequent worry, occasional war and enormous expense.

But, to some people this supposed solution to America’s energy needs has begun to seem as costly to the environment and human health as the country’s dependence on imported energy has been in terms of mental distress, money and blood. It turns out that this new kind of natural gas requires the industrialization of the countryside in order to extract it. And that, say those closest to the action, risks tainting air, land, and drinking water and compromising the health of humans and animals alike.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful, cheap, American, and much easier on the climate than coal or oil. It didn’t take too long before people started looking into whether shale gas really was that much easier on the climate. A Cornell University researcher came to the conclusion that shale gas was probably worse for climate change than coal. His conclusion hinged in part on what are called “fugitive emissions”—unintentional, but unavoidable releases of unburned methane into the atmosphere during the hydraulic fracturingoperations performed to extract the gas. Methane is some 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.  ( Continue… )

Processed coal streams out into a pile after being cleaned in the prep plant at the Century Mine near Beallsville, Ohio. Numerous clean coal technologies impact our daily lives, Gates writes. (Jason Cohn/Reuters/File)

A look at clean coal technology in the 21st century (Sponsor content)

By Steve GatesAmerican Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) / 03.26.13

Dry Sorbent Injection (DRI) achieves between 40 to 75% removal of Sulfur Dioxide and acid gases and is one of the numerous clean coal technologies that impact our daily lives.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, DSI systems remove hydrogen chloride (HCl) and other acid gases through two basic steps:

  • Step one. A powdered sorbent is injected into the flue gas—combustion exhaust gas exiting a power plant—where it reacts with the HCl. The sorbents most commonly associated with DSI are trona (sodium sesquicarbonate, a naturally occurring mineral mined in Wyoming), sodium bicarbonate, and hydrated lime.
  • Step two. The compound is removed by a downstream particulate matter control device such as an electrostatic precipitator (ESP) or a fabric filter (FF), also referred to as a baghouse. Fabric filters are generally more effective (when combined with DSI) than ESPs, with respect to overall HCl reduction. For modeling purposes, EPA estimate a DSI system with a fabric filter is expected to achieve 90% removal of HCl, while an ESP only achieves 60% removal, although actual performance will vary by individual plant.

Solar panels are shown on the roof of a house in Coburg, Germany. Today's photovoltaics recover roughly only a third of the sun's power, but the unique light-absorbing characteristics of nanowires could change that, according to a new study. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters/File)

Will nanowires provide a breakthrough for solar power efficiency?

By Correspondent / 03.26.13

Wires 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair can absorb more of the sun's power than previously thought possible, a new study in Nature Photonics suggests.

Although still years away from production, nanowire solar cells could push the conversion efficiency of the sun's energy past the so-called Shockley-Queisser limit, which for decades has served as a fixed ceiling in solar energy research. 

Such a breakthrough would be significant because the sun's power is wildly abundant, but diffuse, and difficult to harvest. Even increasing the limit by a few percent would go a long way in making solar a more viable alternative to fossil fuels.

Today's photovoltaics recover less than a third of the sun's power, but the unique light-absorbing characteristics of nanoscopic structures could "have a major impact on the development of solar cells, exploitation of nanowire solar rays and perhaps the extraction of energy at the international level," according to scientists at the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who wrote the study. ( Continue… )

A man walks outside a closed Bank of Cyprus branch in Athens, Tuesday. Russian oligarchs are effectively funding the Cyprus bailout, Alic writes, and this certainly won’t go down well in Moscow. (John Kolesidis/Reuters/File)

Cyprus bailout: Russia misses chance for natural gas

By Jen AlicGuest blogger / 03.26.13

Negotiations for Cyprus’ bailout, which has hinged largely on its hydrocarbons future, have ended with Russia missing the chance to swap aid for offshore exploration licenses and the Greek Cypriots agreeing to an EU bailout package that hits at the Russian oligarchy by shutting down the island’s second-largest bank.

Over the course of last week, Greek Cypriots were shuffling back and forth to Moscow in an attempt to lure Russia into a bailout package that would have given it a stake in the island’s estimated 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas offshore—but it wasn’t a big enough stake to tempt the Kremlin.

Earlier in the week, Cypriot officials had rejected an EU bailout package that would have seen anyone with a bank account over 20,000 euros paying a 3-15% levy on deposits in return for future gas shares. (Related article: Cypriot Bailout Linked to Gas Potential)

Cyprus then hit up Russia to raise the stakes in this geopolitical game for control of Mediterranean hydrocarbons. The trick was to raise the specter of a Russian grab for Cypriot gas reserves in order to force a kinder bailout offer from the EU.  ( Continue… )

A Syrian living in Jordan shouts slogans against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad amidst Syrian opposition flags during a protest marking two years since the start of the uprising, in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters/File)

Did climate change cause the Syrian uprising?

By Charles KennedyGuest blogger / 03.25.13

A new study on the Arab Spring and Climate Change, finds evidence to suggest that it was not merely a coincidence that the Syrian revolution began just as the entire country was still struggling to survive after the worst drought ever recorded.

Between 2006 and 2011 nearly 60% of Syria experienced the worst drought ever, turning much of the country’s farmland into barren dust bowls, and resulting in a series of severe crop failures.

Due to the devastating drought and subsequent lack of food and water in rural areas hundreds of thousands fled to the cities, where existing problems were only exacerbated by the influx of new mouths to feed.

As water became scarcer some farmers turned to groundwater supplies to continue to grow their crops, but this then caused ground water levels around the country to plummet, compounding the effects of the drought. (Related article: Syria Chemical Attack Raises Sinister Questions( Continue… )

People walk past a logo next to the main entrance of the Google building in Zurich, Switzerland. Google hope that investments made now will put them in a strong position in the future when renewable energy becomes much cheaper than fossil fuels, Peixe writes. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters/File)

Why Google is spending billions on renewable energy

By Joao PeixeGuest blogger / 03.25.13

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has spent billions over the past few years investing in renewable energy projects and trying in general to cut its impact on the environment. Google is a successful business, and these investments have not been just for the benefit of the environment, or to increase their sense of wellbeing; they are investments made with a goal to making a profit in the future.

Rick Needham, the director of energy and sustainability at Google recently gave a presentation at the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, in which he explained that, “while fossil-based prices are on a cost curve that goes up, renewable prices are on this march downward.”

Google hope that investments made now will put them in a strong position in the future when renewable energy becomes much cheaper than fossil fuels. (Related article: Clarifying the Clean Energy Innovation v Deployment Debate)

One reason for the opposing trends that renewable energy and fossil fuels are experiencing can be found within the basic fundamentals of the energy sources:  ( Continue… )

Earth Hour participants wave their LED candles during an event to mark Earth Hour 2012 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Skeptics of the annual event say it may not save much, if any, energy to turn lights off for an hour. (Lai Seng Sin/AP/File)

Earth Hour 2013: Does it really save energy?

By Correspondent / 03.23.13

Earth Hour 2013 commences Saturday at 8:30 p.m., regardless of where in the world you live. For the duration of an hour, Earth Hour participants will shut off their lights in a global action against climate change. 

The six-year-old tradition is largely symbolic. It's intent is to spur on environmental awareness that lasts well beyond the hour of candlelit reflection, organizers say. Still, some view it as counterproductive because it accomplishes little in the way of reducing carbon emissions. 

Earth Hour's "vain symbolism reveals exactly what is wrong with today’s feel-good environmentalism," writes Bjørn Lomborg in an opinion piece in Slate. "[T]he cozy candles that many participants will light, which seem so natural and environmentally friendly, are still fossil fuels – and almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs."  

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