Energiwende

Since the 1970’s Germany has tried to be a leader in the global energy transition. With an economy that is ranked fifth in the world and with one of the largest populations in the world, becoming a leader does not seem that hard. In 2010 the German government published a document that outlined the main components of Energiewende(energy transition). The document stated, “ by 2025, Germany aims to produce 40%-45% of its electricity from renewable sources, rising to at least 80% by 2050.” The government hopes to achieve these goals by reducing the number of fossil fuels, transitioning energy usage to renewable energy such as wind and solar. Since the beginning of the project Germany has succeeded thus far in achieving its goals.OG-AC406_ENERGI_G_20140826190004

However since 2011, when the German government passed the bill for Energiewende to begin, more and more local and international companies have casted their doubts on the project. The major concern for many of the local and international companies is the rising costs in energy. The locals fear that Germany will lose its competitiveness as one of the leading economic countries. The projects itself would cost about $1.4 trillion which is almost half of Germany’s GDP. Internationally the fear is that the cost of energy is too much and money will be lost. What have international companies done to express their concerns? What does the government promise to do?

Many international companies and a few local companies have reduced their investments in Germany because of the high energy costs. BASF which has one of its main plants located in Germany has decided to cut investments to just 1/4th of its 20 billion euros global investment over the course of the next five years. This is a significant reduction because BASF used to invest ⅓ of its global investments in its German plant. Now BASF is going to invest the extra money in its Asian and American plants. Local company SGL Carbon decided to invest $200 million to its plant in Washington instead of investing the usual $100 million in its home base in Germany. Thus far, the only international companies that have benefited are those who install devices that create renewable energy.

Although there are many concerns the federal government of Germany has continued to push the project due to its numerous benefits. The government claims the country will be a leader in green technology and that in the future the economy will reap in the benefits of renewable energy. The government also claims that the energy costs will decrease as soon as the renewable infrastructure is complete.

I wonder though if the government is thinking of the now. How does the government not realize that it’s spending most of its money on energy. Does the government not realize that many people are going to lose jobs?

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How much money Germany is spending in Euro’s on energy.

So I ask, What should Germany do? Should America follow Germany’s movement?

http://www.wsj.com/articles/germanys-expensive-gamble-on-renewable-energy-1409106602

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/gm.html

Taking Tips From Nature

Nature found out how to survive in a balanced equilibrium long before humans. Plants and animals can survive efficiently using energy from the sun. It has taken humans a long time to realize that the way we exist is not sustainable and that we should start taking a few tips from plants and animals. This idea brought about a new form of biological engineering called biomimicry. Best put by the Biomimicry Institute, “Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.”

Joseph Cho, a sixth former who graduated last year, was in the STEM Fellowship. His project was based off of biomimicry. He studied a specific species of beetle that had a special ability to capture water from the air and form droplets on its back. He wanted to use the beetles’ “technology” to make a large-scale version that could act as a water source for people in Haiti who had little or no access to water/clean water.

Another example of biomimicry addresses the issue of clean and sustainable energy. Primary producers have mastered the art of photosynthesis. A Swiss company, Airlight Energy, recognized this and is in the process of developing The Sunflower Solar Harvester. This product is an innovation to the standard solar panel system. Previous solar methods were improved by taking processes used by sunflowers to harness more energy. The solar power “station” has the ability to track the sun like a sunflower so it absorbs maximum amounts of sunlight. It also cools itself by pumping water through its veins just like a plant. It is designed in a flower like shape that concentrates the sun’s energy. Developers predict that it will need just a quarter of the panels to produce the same amount of energy a standard solar panel system produces today. The station has the capability to provide 12 kW of energy with just 10 hours of sunlight. This is enough energy to power several houses.

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Biomimicry is the key to solving many environmental issues. Humans need to stop the wasteful patterns and return to natural and efficient methods.

Efforts for Efficient Energy

Renewable energy, the idea is so simple, but implementing it? Not so much.

If everyone had access to green energy they would most likely use it. The issue is that capturing renewable energy can be extremely expensive and even impossible to get in certain areas. Alaska is a sad example of this. Alaskans can expect to pay three times the average amount for electricity than the rest of the United States. The state has made it obvious that they are working very hard to get renewable energy to their people to help lessen the cost and lessen their dependency on fossil fuels.In an attempt to do this, the state is trying to harness geothermal energy. To generate geothermal energy you have to dig very deep into the ground in order to obtain heat from the Earth’s core. It is also possible to use the steam emitted from the Earth to move a turbine and create even more energy.

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Krafla Geothermal Station in Iceland

The unfortunate part is that Alaska only has a few areas capable of generating this sustainable energy. Sean Skaling, Alaska Energy Authority’s programs and evaluation director explained, “‘The trick with geothermal is just like any of the other resources,’ he said. ‘You have to find the resource, find it in abundance, make the energy cost effective, which also means it has to be close to a population base.'” With the majority of the population living in Anchorage, it will be near to impossible for the state to access this renewable energy source.

China is another place where those in charge are going to extreme lengths to use green energy. China is different in the way that they have plenty of access to obtain clean energy, but it seems that they are incapable of keeping up with their expanding population. It is clearly not because of lack of effort though. The New York Times reports that “more than $250 billion a year is expected to be poured into the construction of renewable energy production”. Despite China leading the world in solar, wind and other sustainable energy sources they still make up about half of the world’s coal usage. It is discouraging to know that despite all of their efforts “according to projections by the United States Energy Information Administration, annual emissions are expected to reach twice their 2009 levels by 2040.”

It is reassuring to know that so many places are going extremely out of their way to substitute fossil fuels with renewable energy. If there were more easily accessible ways to harness clean energy, the results could be so influential because if it were easy, then everyone would do it.

Plastic + Ocean = Major Problems

Bottle In Ocean

At home, my dad buys bottled water weekly for my family. The natural spring water seems to taste so much better than the tap water.  As good environmentally conscious citizens, we always recycle our water bottles. However, to my surprise I found that, “ only 1 out of 5 bottles are sent to the recycle bin. “ [1]  This information left me wondering where do all of the other un-recycled plastic water bottles go once they are out of use?  After a little research, I found that a lot of water bottles and other plastics materials are dumped into the ocean.  According to the Ocean Conservatory, plastic bottles and plastic bags are the most prominent form of pollution in our oceans.[2] It is estimated that for  every square mile of ocean there is over 46,00 pieces of  floating plastic within it. Ten percent of  worldwide manufactured plastic ends up in the ocean; most of this material settles up at the bottom of ocean floor and never biodegrades![3]

The Research

Lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido from the College of Pharmacy at Nihon University in Japan found that some plastics were decomposing much faster than expected[4].  As these plastics degrade, they release harmful chemicals such as Bisphenol A and styrene monomer.  As  a result, these toxins have had significant effects on marine life. When marine animals consumed Bisphenol A , they experienced reproductive deficiencies. Likewise, styrene monomer is suspected as a carcinogen.[5]

Essentially as plastic decomposes many animals mistake plastic pieces for food. Although water bottles are made up of recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics, PETs do not biodegrade, they photodegrade. This means that they break down the plastic in small fragments.[6]  (Which make them look more like food) These pieces of plastic can then absorb toxins with are harmful to animals if they consume them. According to a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Research, it turns out that about 44 percent of all seabirds eat plastic and 267 marine species are affected by plastic garbage.[7]

This picture shows a beach cluttered with plastic waste.

This picture shows a beach cluttered with plastic waste.

This plastic waste eventually becomes incorporated into the food chain. Bigger marine animals tend to accumulate most of the harmful waste from eating smaller sea life that has taken in these chemicals. Consequently, these contaminated animals end up on our dinner plates and in our bodies. Personally, I prefer not to have small traces of plastic bags and water bottles in my food. So what can we do to ensure that our bodies and marine life is safe from plastic pollution?

Possible Solutions

As a world, we should reexamine  our usage of renewable and nonrenewable resources.  It takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to meet the demand of U.S. water bottle manufacturing. [8] Is it really necessary to have all of those disposable water bottles?  A more sustainable and in the long run cheaper alternative would be to invest in BPA free water bottles. Additionally, efforts such as bringing your own bags when going shopping would reduce the demand for plastic bags. These are a just a few out of many ways we can reduce our waste in the oceans in which we eat from.  I think it is important that people use their powers as consumers to take charge of what they are buying; this pushes industries into producing more sustainable and environmentally friendly products. It is important to remember that everything we do on the earth in one way or another affects the health of humans as well.

Offshore Wind Farms and Undersea Power Cables

Energy use causes problems far and wide, making the search for a solution difficult. While the search for alternative forms of energy continues to be an issue, the new phenomena of offshore wind farms and use of undersea power cables together are proving to be a potential resolution to this persistent problem. A wind farm is made up of many wind turbines. When wind flows through the blades of the turbine, they start to spin. The blades of the turbine are attached to a drive shaft, that when spun causes an electric generator to turn and produce electricity. [1]

images

www.telegraph.co.uk

Offshore farms are superior to land wind farms for a variety of reasons, not all of which are scientific. Wind turbines take up a lot of land and many people find the wind farms to be unattractive and do not wish to see them near their homes. Second, winds tend to be faster and more consistent offshore rather than on land. According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, “a turbine at a site with an average wind speed of 16 mph would produce 50% more electricity than at a site with the same turbine and average wind speeds of 14 mph.”

An offshore wind farm in Germany consisting of 80 turbines generates enough energy for 400,000 homes. [2] The power generated travels through cables 6.5 feet under the ocean floor. These cables were originally used as submarine power cables. They are also being used to connect one country’s power source to another’s. One example is the 360-mile long cable connecting Dutch and Norwegian power sources, called the NorNed. This connection allows the Dutch to use hydroelectric power generated by Norway during the peak of demand for energy during the day and the Norwegians are able to use the energy from Dutch power plants as needed as well. Amazingly, this linkage reduces CO2 emissions by nearly 1.7 million tons per year. [2] Many countries are intrigued by this idea and plan on making connections of their own. Scotland, for example, is planning on building a line to England. It is an ambitious plan to build a $1.1 billion, 239-mile cable under the Irish Sea. Many other countries are getting involved with similar projects as well such as Canada, the U.S. and many others.

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Above: Engineers work on building an undersea cable [2]

The construction of these lines is very expensive because not many places make these undersea cables and the ships that are built for “cable-laying” are also in short supply. However, with the growing interest and value of these cables, the market for this product is predicted to grow much larger in the coming years. The use of offshore wind farms is also increasing. Since it solves the problems of land use and efficiency, these farms will undoubtedly become more common and increasingly more advanced. Offshore wind farm projects are being planned in Denmark, the United Kingdom, Norway, the Netherlands, Japan, China, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Portugal, and others. [1]

Nuclear Energy

A fire burns at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan.

Nuclear energy is one of the most controversial and misunderstood sources of energy in the world, and it may very well be the solution to the energy crisis. When most people hear nuclear energy, their mind often automatically goes to doomsday scenarios or public disasters such as Fukushima or Chernobyl. Many people view nuclear energy as dangerous and unpredictable, but in fact, it may have actually prevented 1.8 million deaths.

When a nuclear reactor fails, it does so in spectacular fashion, and necessitates a massive clean up effort. Nuclear disasters are few and far between, but when they do occur, the media circus surrounding them ensures that a huge amount of people can see the disaster, and that many people will form an opinion on nuclear. While nuclear energy does have some very serious drawbacks, there is no energy source without some cost. The problem with more traditional forms of energy is that their production’s costs are often hidden. The pollution caused by coal and natural gas plants accounts for a massive amount of disease and resulting death worldwide, but those plants rarely have massive meltdowns, and hence get less negative media attention.

From what I have written in this blog so far, it may seem that I think that nuclear energy is a perfect solution. It is not. While it may cause less death and disease than other forms of energy, and it does not contribute to climate change, it has other risks. While it may appear that nuclear energy is a completely renewable and unlimited source of energy, this is not completely true. Uranium is still expensive to obtain, and mining generally has negative consequences for the environment. An even more pressing issue is the problem of disposal of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is radioactive, meaning that it must be contained safely, and it degrades very slowly, meaning that any attempt at storage must be extremely durable and stable. While it does have a lower affect on the environment than other forms of energy, the reactors that produce nuclear energy pose the threat of catastrophic meltdown such as the recent Fukushima accident. Disasters like this threaten to expose entire cities to dangerous radiation, and can cost millions to clean up. In the end, Nuclear energy is a promising but imperfect solution, and it may be our best option looking forward.

Sources:

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/ipdf/10.1021/es3051197

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/2013/04/02/nuclear-power-may-have-saved-1-8-million-lives-otherwise-lost-to-fossil-fuels-may-save-up-to-7-million-more/

LEEDing the Way to a Greener World

I stumbled upon LEED while working on the Energy Challenge project in our Environmental Science class. While discussing ways to make buildings, such as our own school, more energy efficient, a classmate brought up the concept of LEED. She mentioned how a school down the street had become “LEED-certified,” making their newly built dorms incredibly environmentally friendly. At first I was puzzled. Based on this explanation, I thought of LEED as just a label, directly meaning clean and energy efficient. But after delving into some research, I discovered that it’s more than that. LEED is a carefully crafted movement designed to inspire businesses, schools, and others to “save money and resources and have a positive impact on the health of occupants, while promoting renewable, clean energy”.

Figure 1: This colorful and eye-catching LEED logo is one of the many ways that the USGBC is attracting businesses, schools, and others to become more energy efficient.

Figure 1: This colorful and eye-catching LEED logo is one of the many ways that the USGBC is attracting businesses, schools, and others to become more energy efficient.

So what is LEED, actually? LEED, standing for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is an offset of the U. S. Green Building Council. This council was created in 1993 with a mission: to “promote sustainability in the building and construction industry”. And as this committee expanded, the purpose did too, as seven years later, the USGBC created a prestigious certification system to promote environmentally friendly buildings called LEED. LEED, most basically, is a point based rating system. As structures are being created, specific elements are given points for the design of the building itself, the building materials used, and the construction process. Examples of factors that are examined include “the energy envelope, the lighting, the daylighting, choosing non-toxic building materials, using recycled materials, protecting the landscape, plants, water collection and use“. Those who get the most points receive the greenest certification, the platinum award. In descending order, the next best awards include gold, silver, and simplify certified.

Figure 2

So why is LEED important? Having an energy efficient building is more than getting a shiny medal to put on you front desk, is it not? Well, yes, and no. There are cons to this procedure, and as always when combatting energy overuse is cost. First, registration is $1,200. Then, certification fees start at $2,750, but it only goes up from there. After my group for the Energy Challenge and I discussed St. Mark’s in relation to LEED with Mr. Warren, our headmaster, we discovered that large additions, renovations, and new building certifications can cost upwards of $20,000. St. Mark’s, while creating the new center, chose to adhere to LEED specifications but not become officially certified, believing that the money would be better spent elsewhere. As a student, this logic is virtually irrefutable. But as a business, there are major benefits to becoming LEED certified. The first would be the press. Corporations, schools, and homes may seem more desirable if they are more energy efficient, green and environmentally friendly. Secondly, in the long term, they are cheaper to sustain. As quoted from the USGBC website, “LEED-certified buildings cost less to operate, reducing energy and water bills by as much as 40%,”. And people are not shying away. Just this week, Mission College of Santa Clara, California earned a gold certification for it’s new Wilmor center’s features such as a “geothermal system that uses the ground as its heating and cooling agent and solar panels, which will help offset one-third of the building’s power consumption,” as well as “water-efficient landscaping, use of certified wood, efficient lighting controls and use of low-emitting materials“. Office buildings in New York City have set goals to have more green features, and just this past summer 8 West 44th Street received a gold certification. And it’s not just the United States that is part of this movement. Looking at figure 3 below, one can observe that countries around the world have become home to LEED certified buildings. With each day, the world takes a step towards becoming a greener place. Though there are both pros and cons to this LEED, I believe that if more people were to follow their guidelines, there would be major improvements efficiency wise. Though progress will certainly not be immediate, I am sure that LEED is leading the world to become a more environmentally place.

Figure 3: An infographic detailing the spread of LEED throughout the world, and it’s magnitude.

The Dark Side of Fracking

This week I read an article from InsideClimate News by Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones. The article looks into the dark side of “fracking”, but especially the problem that comes when the oil is transported in unsafe railcars. There is a huge oil boom happening right now in North Dakota, on top of a formation called the “Bakkan Shale”.  There is a large amount of oil locked into this shale rock.  For many years, people have known this, however we have never known how to extract the oil.

A process called “fracking” has been developed in just the last few years.  It involves high-pressure jets of water, shot into the shale to fracture it.  Below in Figure 1 is an image that shows the actual process of fracking. Figure 2 shows a real-life example of fracking. Fracking is when you take a drill and drill down into an area of the Earth’s surface prior to a high pressure water formula gets inserted into the rock.

Figure 1:                                                                                     Figure 2:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 11.32.14 PM                Gas Drilling Western Politics

This is the reason why our gas prices have gone down so much recently!  Two years ago, it was common to find gas above $4.00 a gallon.  Today, much gas is under $3.00 per gallon.  The fracking craze has given the US a giant shot of oil, and for the first time we are out-producing most other countries in the world.

Sounds good?  Yes, of course! However don’t forget that there are some downsides: Fracking is very dangerous and extremely polluting.  The water that comes out of the mines, after being shot in at high speeds and pressures, is contaminated with all sorts of heavy metals and petroleum byproducts.  It is a very dangerous process and also it is quite difficult to dispose of.

Second: once the oil is extracted, it has to be transported.  That was the issue brought up in the article, that when a train full of crude oil was going through Canada, it blew up and basically destroyed the entire town of Lac Magantic.  This resulted in 47 people being killed.  Also, this happened just last year!  Transporting oil is always a dirty, filthy job.

Some other instances where this was a problem was in Aliceville, Ala.;Casselton, ND.; New Brunswick, Canada.; and Lynchburg, VA. However, I find it interesting that I haven’t heard of any of these explosions on the nightly news. Why is that? In fact, many of us today probably are not even really aware of how extensive the fracking industry actually is, as well as we probably don’t realize how much pollution derives from it.

Finally, even if more oil was invited by a clean wizard with no waste or pollution at all, whenever a fossil fuel is burned it creates more CO2 for the atmosphere.  This contributes to climate change.

Sources:

Article: http://stories.weather.com/boom

Images: (Google images): http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/2/19/group-seeks-frackingbanintexastown.html

http://globalpoliticalinsight.com/2014/09/01/fracking-where-britain-stands/

Nuclear power good or bad?

Nuclear energy is cheap to produce unlike fossil fuel based energy. When nuclear energy is used there is a baseline of energy that is produced, that will stay the same no matter the conditions; unlike wind, or solar power. A plants production level can be lowered if there is a lot of energy from the sun or wind available, but it can also be raised if there is less energy available from these sources. Nuclear power plants create relatively low pollution because humans do not have to harvest resources from the ground as we do with oil. This lack of harvesting lessens the environmental impact of the nuclear power plants, but nuclear power plants are still dangerous to animals due to the radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants mainly use uranium for fuel, but other substances such as thorium. There is enough uranium available in the earth to produce energy at our current rate for eighty years. Nuclear energy is not a renewable source of energy but with the use of breeder reactors, or nuclear fusion we could possibly turn nuclear power into a sustainable energy source. With innovations in atomic fusion, we are getting closer and closer to being able to create a completely renewable source of energy. At this moment in time using these options to make renewable energy is not practical, but with time I think that they will be. The energy released in a nuclear fission reaction is ten million times greater than that of an atom of fossil fuel reacting. With all of these positives, there are negatives as well. In 1986 a nuclear accident occurred, leaving between 15,000 and 30,000 people dead. A similar incident occurred on March 18th 2011in Japan. This repeating of disasters shows that nothing can really be done to completely protect the world from a horrible accident such as the ones that occurred in Japan, and Chernobyl. Another negative aspect of a nuclear power plant is not the emissions that come straight from the plant its self, because those levels are very low, they actually come from the process of mining Uranium. Here in Massachusetts 14 percent of the electricity generated is from nuclear power. Nuclear power has many pros, and a few cons; but, in my opinion, the dangers and the pollution caused by the plants is enough to make me concerned that if too many plants are built many people could be at risk of a nuclear accident. If there was a way to cut the dangers, and the emission levels of the plants down significantly I think then it would be Ok to build more plants.

Plant picture

facts on MA

Energy Informative

Strides Towards an Energy Efficient World

Energy efficiency is, at its roots, the concept of using and wasting less energy. Many of the most pressing threats to our everyday lives are the results of our (meaning humans) failure to achieve energy efficiency. Of these threats are global warming, diminishing resources, economic turmoil, illness-causing air pollution, reliance on fossil fuel, etc. Examples of energy efficient energy sources include solar energy, wind, and water. Harry Verhaar, head of global and public affairs at Philips Lighting and chairman of the European Alliance to Save Energy, gives a very refreshing and inspiring take on energy efficiency that we should all try to adopt. “Its logical,” he says, “because we simply waste too much. Some people call energy efficiency low-hanging fruit. I would even say energy efficiency is fruit lying on the ground. We only need to bend over and pick it up.” The successful implementation of energy efficiency would ultimately benefit the global community in practically every way possible. Climate change would ease up, our huge rates of pollution would decrease, and our reliance on unsustainable resources such oil, coal, and fossil fuels would be reduced. From an economic aspect, scads of jobs would become readily available in fields such as building upgrades, energy-efficient vehicle manufacturing, and the engineering of energy efficient everyday appliances such as lightbulbs, stoves, houses, etc. Not to mention, the massive weight of an impending economic collapse due to diminishing resources would be lifted from our shoulders. As can be seen in Figure 1 below, we are only decades away from reaching our absolute maximum rate of unsustainable energy usage until we are bound by the law of limitation to cut back.

Figure 1 (http://www.rmi.org/RFGraph-Fossil_fuels_global_production)

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Despite the simplicity of Mr. Verhaar’s fruit analogy, there are many difficult complications that arise from making strides towards energy efficiency. Cultural inertia is a term used to describe the concept that humans are so incredibly adapted to their reliance on coal, oil, and fossil fuel that the sudden transition to using only energy efficient resources would cost unfathomable amounts of money and would bring some of the most influential companies in the world crashing to the ground. Other complications are public skepticism and financial constraints. Quite simply, nobody is sure enough that the transition to energy efficient resources will be worth the massive funding that it requires. Overcoming these hindrances will be far from easy but, whether, gradually or suddenly, we must eventually sever our reliance on unsustainable resources if we want our planet to survive.

Sources:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/business/energy-environment/energy-efficiency-may-be-the-key-to-saving-trillions.html?_r=0

http://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/taking-the-risk-out-of-energy-efficiency

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/geography/energy_resources/energy_rev1.shtml

http://www.rmi.org/RFGraph-Fossil_fuels_global_production