For the First Time in 40 Years… Economic Growth Hasn’t Lead to an Increase in CO2 Emissions.

On an average, people tend to commonly associate CO2 emissions with the economy. So, what I am trying to get at is that many people think that if there is a global economic growth, in correlation, we expect to see an increase int he CO2 emissions as well. However, for the first time in over 40 years, we are seeing that this is not the case. This my friends is amazing news for all of us who care about the environment. While this is great news, the question still remains; what has triggered this trend to finally changed? Well, there are several factors and the International Energy Agency has evaluated all of the reasons that they believe that there hasn’t been an increase, but rather a decrease in the CO2 emissions, even though there was an increase in economic growth.

China is the worlds largest CO2 emitter and it is also the country where a majority of the worlds industrial work takes place. Over the past two years, China has taken an initiative to reduce the amount of CO2 that they emit by shifting towards using renewable sources of energy, rather than using non-renewable sources of energy. In China’s case, they have led the world in the amount of solar installations with the hope of cleaning up the countries polluted air. In figure 1, you will see that by the end of 2015, China hopes to add as much as 15 gigawatts of solar energy, which will power around 16 million houses. They want to accomplish this task by installing cheap solar panels on top of commercial buildings, rather than just confiding panels in the rural areas.

Figure 1.

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Additionally, the second factor that has attributed for there to be a decrease in the amount of energy used is the idea that awareness causes people to change their behaviors. People are greedy. Unfortunately,  this is the hard truth. If you tell them that they will save money by buying certain types of technology, they will be willing to do it. This has been happening all over the U.S. The more aware people become about the energy that they are using, the more willing they are to change their behaviors and their electronics. Over the past year, home energy efficiency has decreased drastically, causing there to be an overall decrease in energy. In figure 2, you will see that there is a decrease in the amount of energy in a per capita basis as well as a GDP basis. 

Figure 2.

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The third, which can be overruled, but it is still just as important. The IEA has reported that one of the reasons there is a decrease in CO2 emissions is because transportation has become more efficient. Cars are now being made in order to be more efficient.

Now, the final reason that CO2 emissions have decreased, while the economy prospers, is due to the fact that there was a natural gas boom, due to fracking. Robert Starvins, a leading environmental economist said, “This has, in turn, led to significant increases in dispatch of gas-fired electricity generation, relative to dispatch of coal-fired generation, as well as increased investment in new gas-fired electric generation capacity, and cessation of investment in new coal generation in the United States.” 

Now, lets rejoice. While the world still needs to make huge strides to bettering the environmental conditions, the progress we are making is incredible. China, the worlds leading CO2 emitter has come to its senses and so is the rest of the world.

Flying Where The Sun Don’t Shine

As most already know, solar energy is the energy released by the sun, which is used to heat and light Earth’s surface.  However, it is less likely that many of us know much specifically about the invention of the solar-powered aircraft!  I recently was intrigued by this phenomenon after coming across an article titled, “Solar Powered Aircraft: A Flight Of Fancy?” written by Anmar Frangoul, that focuses on the exciting journey of two “innovators” (paragraph 1), as Frangoul puts it, who plan to fly all the way around the world (beginning in Abu Dhabi) aboard the “Si2” or the “Solar Impulse 2”.

“The Solar Impulse 2”:

Figure 1: Nighttime                                                    Figure 2: Daytime:

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Figure 3: Carbon Fiber:

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The Si2 (shown above in Figure 1 and 2) was built with a 72-meter wingspan (designed using carbon fiber- see Figure 3 above), and receives its power to charge its 633-kilogram lithium batteries by use of sunlight energy.  Therefore, it can be inferred that the batteries for the solar-powered aircraft are only able to charge during the daytime when the sun is out and shining.  Remember, the plane’s wingspan is 72 meters – that’s more than 220 feet!  This giant wingspan is covered with cells that collect the sun’s rays.  With the help of its 17, 000 solar cells, the plane actually receives enough charge throughout the day, and the powerful batteries charge quickly enough, so that the plane could continue to successfully run during the entire night, without help from the sun.

The solar powered aircraft is interesting to me mainly because it is different from other vehicles that run on sunlight energy.  For example, in comparison with solar-powered cars, the aircraft is not hybrid. Instead, it is completely electric and solely powered by solar energy.  This means that it really is totally clean when it runs, and emits no pollution.  And because it’s efficient enough, with enough charging capability and capacitance or storage, it can go seemingly forever.  I wonder about the lithium batteries, if they need to be discarded now and then replaced, and what the pollution impact is from one of these batteries. In addition to its uniqueness, the future capabilities of the solar-powered aircraft (such as the Si2) excite me because of the potential benefits.

Figure 4: The “innovators”- Bertrand Piccard (left) and Andre Borschberg (right):

Test flight Pilot equipement

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg (pictured in Figure 4 above), who invented the plane’s technology, are currently flying it around the world. One of the goals of this flight is to demonstrate the amazing storage power of the batteries, and that the plane can fly across an entire ocean overnight, with no sunlight.   If this Si2 mission is successful, then a whole new window will open up for solar energy.  Solar energy, which is currently determined to be clean, but extremely inefficient and costly, (low percentage of solar energy actually gets converted into electricity and used, especially compared to energy powered by gas or coal), will suddenly be deemed a cost-effective form of energy.  The Si2 plane is quite large, but if we can make the solar cells be twice as efficient as they are now, then we only would need half those cells.  If solar energy were made more efficient, we could do a lot more with it, for other than the efficiency issue, solar energy is quite remarkable!

Wireless Energy Transmissions: Making the Seemingly Impossible Possible

 In 1901, Nikola Tesla began the creation of the Wardenclyffe, a “power tower”, foreseen to one day be able transfer energy wirelessly in all directions around it. But, soon after this project had begun it was scrapped, and the tower with it, due to low funding and lack of investors.

Fig. 1 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower

One hundred and fourteen years later, scientists have finally taken Tesla’s work to the next step, and have succeeded in transmitting energy wirelessly. JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or the Japanese equivalent of NASA) has harnessed the power of microwaves, directed this power at pinpoint accuracy at a small target, and delivered 1.9 kilowatts of power 55 meters away for the very first time, no wires attached. Scientists aim to use this technology for the generation of solar power in outer space. But 55 meters is miniscule compared to the 22,300 miles away that scientists aim to place these solar stations. Yet, this could be a major breakthrough in renewable energy: humans may one day be able to harness a virtually undisturbable, inexhaustible source of energy. In space, there is never a time of day or type of weather that is unfit for the capture of solar rays. And we still have billion years, give or take a few, until our sun begins to die. 

Fig 2. What the solar panels in space may end up looking like

Technology like this has existed previous, but in different forms. First of all, typically, energy, or in it’s usable form, electricity, is transmitted via power or distribution lines or wires. In addition to wired transfer, there are also two different types of wireless energy transmission: near-field or non radiative, and far-field or radiative. Near-field is somewhat newly conventionalized, but nonetheless relatively commonly used for charging devices, such as phones, electric toothbrushes, and cardiac pacemakers. You may have see this method in your local technology store as a mat that you can place your phone on to wirelessly charge.

Fig. 3 An example of near-field non-radiative technology: the wireless charging mat

The type of wireless energy conveyance that JAXA has just now harnessed is far-field, or radiative transmission. Also known as “power beaming”, radiative transmission occurs via beams of electromagnetic radiation, such as microwaves or laser beams. The solar space stations would use the microwave technique to beam precisely pinpointed streams of energy down to earth.

Fig. 4 Another idea of what the wireless space solar panels may look like

Though inexhaustible radiative wireless energy seems to be faultless, as with any new innovation there are challenges as well as possible flaws. How will JAXA move this gigantic solar system into space? How will they choose to construct it? Maintain it? I assume that this process of but moving from the earth into space, and position will take years. And, what will it look like from earth? Will we be able to see it?

Will it be efficient, more so than existing solar panels? Though they will certainly generate a massive increase in amount, I hypothesize that there will be energy lost along the way, as 22,300 miles is an extremely long distance. And if the beam is concentrated and powered high enough not to be inefficient, what will become of the people, animals or objects that get in it’s way? After reading comments on what informed readers believe will occur, I have come to the conclusion that, because this beam will be incredibly hot, it could cook or vaporize anything in it’s way. Though a JAXA spokesman has said that this beam will not fry a bird or airplane in it’s path due to low-energy density, it is hard to make solid conclusions when this method has only been tested in the range of 55 meters and not yet an exponentially larger scale.

Fig. 5 A third layout of how these panels may be aligned, and how they function

The station itself is bound to cost millions, if not billions of dollars, which will either drive taxes or the cost of energy itself up. In addition, JAXA has been working on this Space Solar Power Systems idea for years, and has only made it to the first, vital step: transmission itself, and for only a short distance. A representative from the Agency has stated that it could take decades before the practical application of the technology becomes a reality. News providers and science enthusiasts have speculated no earlier than the year 2030 or 40.

Fig. 6 A group of JAXA Scientists

Though wirelessly transmitted energy will not be an innovation of the near future, I believe that when the Space Solar Power System is implemented, and the method is working, that it will change the way we think of energy altogether. In fifteen years, nonrenewable resources will begin to dwindle. There will be unrest, and slowly our beautiful earth will begin to be saturated with turbines and panels, streaking across the landscape. An alternate option will be desired, if not necessary. And what better option than putting these energy collectors outside of our world entirely, and making them infinite? It is unavoidable to state that wireless solar space energy could very well be our future. And if so, it will certainly be a bright one.

The Future: Not Salty Salt Water

When you were little you were always told to never pee in the pool, right? Well some people don’t think that rule applies to the ocean, and to those people I say this: The ocean may be our new source of fresh water, so quit peeing in it! The process of desalinization may be the solution to end the Californian drought, and other droughts all around the world (as long as those places have the access to the technology). The basic idea of the process is that sunlight is focused onto a cylinder of water using mirrors; the water then evaporates and spins a turbine as it rises and later collects as clean water. Desalination takes impure runoff water, or ocean water, and uses solar energy to evaporate the water off, using it for farming, drinking water, or other purposes.

In California the WaterFX solar thermal desalinization plant is working to turn contaminated run off water into pure water for the community. This one plant so far is capable of producing 14,000 gallons of clean water a day. That’s the same amount of gallons if you collected all the milk from 1,750 cows in one day. The average American uses between 80-100 gallons of water a day through just daily use. The hope for this plant is to expand their operation and produce 2 million gallons a day. Aaron Mandell, co-founder of WaterFX, sells the water to farmers in the community and sees the company multiplying ten times in the next five years. Using desalinization is a really good way to help the drought in California, but doesn’t it mess up the natural water cycle?

Solar desalinization sounds pretty cool initially, it produces clean water and power with no fuel, just sunlight, but I had many initial concerns with the process when I first heard of it. The water cycle is basically the base of life on earth, and if it is tampered with then who knows the extent of the damage that could be done. How much water would be taken out of the ocean? What would happen to microorganisms in the water that play a crucial role in the oceans food chain? What happens to the left over gunk that made the water impure to begin with? After thinking about these questions I came to the conclusion that no source of energy is perfect and that on the scale of natural cycles that we already mess with in order to get power, solar desalinization seems to be on the smaller end of the spectrum.  It essentially has no negative environmental impacts directly due to the fact that it has no emissions, and no chemicals are used in the process. Its negative impact is based purely upon what people who run the plant choose to do with the “gunk” that’s left over after the water evaporates.

Solar Energy: Abundant, but Inefficient!

This week I read an article from the University of Colorado website, “Solar Power”, which focused on the abundance and cost of solar energy. What intrigued me about this article was its description of how much solar energy is available, but not really useful to us now. This is due to the fact that the solar panels are simply not efficient enough. However, there is so much solar radiation in our atmosphere, the article claims, that we have 16,000 times our current needs of energy available to us. The only problem is that we cannot efficiently convert solar energy to electricity, or store it cheaply. This class has looked a lot at new technologies springing up around coal, oil, and other fossil fuels. Coal is very dirty, and hydraulic fracturing presents many dangers of its own as well. In fact, just last week, a train carrying oil from a fracking industry, blew up in West Virginia. This was because it was carrying both coal and oil, which are polluted and non-renewable resources. People around our country are praising the fossil fuel industry for bringing the cost of gas down in recent years. On the other hand though, this article actually informed me that there is far more renewable energy available from the sun than we will ever need. Our current problem in this area comes from photovoltaic panels (See below in Figure 1)

Figure 1: Active Solar Photovoltaics:

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A solar panel uses two layers of silicon with different charges, sandwiched between other kinds of metal to produce an electric current from sunlight. Right now, most solar panels available are only 10% efficient: if the panel absorbs 100 joules of sunlight energy, it only produces 10 joules of electric energy. Therefore, the technology is also expensive! The article shows how 1 kilowatt hour of electricity from coal can cost as little as 10 cents, and the same electricity from a solar panel can cost 50 cents, or as much as 85 cents on a cloudy day.

There has been such a focus of money and energy on coal and oil recently. If those same resources were put towards solar efficiency, solar panels might look a lot more attractive to consumers, and we might be able to tap into the vast resources from the sun.

Bringing Beauty back into Green

It is projected that by 2088, the world will run out of fossil fuels. We could even deplete our oil by 2040, or our natural gas by 2060. This may seem inconceivable, but taking into account the rate that we are guzzling energy, and the fact that this rate is constantly increasing may means that our lights will go out too soon. But do not fear! Renewable energy is forthcoming. There will never be a day when the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing, or at least, not in the near, foreseeable future. Renewable energy has minute if any emissions that contribute to global warming, improves public health and the environment, and is inexhaustible. Yet today, the world still uses 81% fossil fuels, with 34% oil, 21% natural gas, and 26% coal/peat. All the renewable energy used in the entire world is less than even one of these resources, at only 13% usage. The advantages of using renewable resources are many, and for a better future, a change needs to be made. So why is it that we still use so much nonrenewable energy?

The world's energy consumption by resource

Fig. 1: The world’s energy consumption by resource

     There are multiple reasons. First, these innovations are pricey. The average home solar system costs a little over $10,000. It’s hard to justify the installation of solar panels, which includes paperwork, construction, and a whole load of hassle, to lower your energy bill in the long run, when you oil bill is already only a few hundred dollars per month. The other downside to renewable energy is that it can be an eyesore. There have been countless complaints from angry citizens who believe that wind turbines have ruined their community’s scenic landscapes.  One man commented his on experience with the installation of turbines, stating “One of the most troublesome problems with the proliferation of industrial wind projects in Maine is their encroachment on the “treasures” of the state that we have purchased to protect for future generations. […] We have leveraged with these funds millions of dollars more from other sources to preserve places like the Mahoosuc Range, Rumford Whitecap, Bald & Speckled Mt, Tumbledown & Jackson Mt., and Schoodic Mt.  All these wonderful places are being surrounded by wind turbines.”

Fig. 2: Wind turbines on a scenic landscape

This problem with wind turbines is even plaguing Scotland, with the Daily Mail reporting that “They are famous Scottish landmarks which have withstood wars, weather and centuries of change – but they could not escape the Scottish Government’s green agenda.”  And I agree: these turbines placed around beautiful mountain ranges, historic sites, and rolling hills are certainly an ugly blot on the landscape.

Fig. 3: The Daily mail comments “The View? Gone with the Wind”

Fig. 4: There are even plans of building turbines “taller than the London eye” surrounding Loch Ness

This leads people to despise the idea of renewable energy. Eventually, the turbines will be disposed of due to unhappiness of the people. This only digs the world deeper into the hole it’s already dug much into: we need renewable energy to be used more, yet it’s becoming disliked, so it’s not. But a new option is emerging, something that blows all other ideas for clean energy implementation out of the water. What if, instead of attacking the world’s energy problem with boring, ugly white turbines, or a black, brooding expanse of solar panels, people were to approach this problem from a different angle? Instead of only productivity, why not combine productivity and beauty to create an efficient masterpiece?

 Yes, there is a solution!

Innovative companies are turning ugly wind turbines into something beautiful. They are, in essence, taking the meaning of the word “green” literally. The first of these companies is NewWind, based in France. NewWind has created an artificial Wind Tree, which uses tiny leaf-shaped turbines to harness the power of the wind. They can utilize anything from the smallest breeze to a giant gust of wind. They are completely silent, as well as modern, sleek, and pleasant to view.

Fig. 5: French people observing the Wind Tree

They produce 3.1 kwh of energy.  Though they are not quite as efficient as your typical turbines, which produce anywhere between 5-10 kwh or more, nonetheless, they have been praised and lauded by countless websites and magazines. They are currently are being used in Brittany, France and are set to be installed at the Place de la Concorde in Paris in March, 2015. In my opinion, they are most certainly energy made beautiful.

Vid. 1: Above is a short video showing the Wind Trees in action

Another emerging invention is the Power Flower created by NL Architects.  The biggest advantage of this power flower is that it minimizes space needed to function. Instead of a huge turbine, it’s a thin, lean build that utilizes vertical turbines for maximum space-saving.

Fig. 6: Wind turbines in comparison to Power Flowers

Just like the Wind Tree, it is basically silent and can absorb wind that blows form any direction. Though there are many plans for the Power Flowers to become domestic energy solutions, there have not been many installed just yet. But, the plans look incredibly promising. This is yet another example of a minimalistic, clean, attractive build that will certainly be admired by customers.

Fig. 7: A plan showing how the Power Flowers could be seamlessly integrated into the landscape.

Lastly, the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore is an example of an already functioning innovation that has smoothly merged into Singaporean culture. There are many words to describe the Gardens by the Bay, but the first that come to mind are awe-inspiring, breathtaking, and incredible. They are unbelievable feats of architecture, and look like they have popped out of a futuristic movie. They do not make people turn away, but rather, are an attraction that draw citizens and tourists alike near.

Fig 8: A beautiful shot of the Gardens by the Bay

But these Gardens are more than beautiful. As well as spectacular, they are also incredibly efficient. The trees are layered in solar panels, act as cooling ducts for nearby conservatories, collect rainwater, and de-humidify air before this cooling.

Fig 9: The Trees up close

Singapore is filled with high rises, skyscrapers, and a dense city landscape. Their initiative should be one that is followed by cities around the world: to transform their community into a greener place, both physically and energy-wise.

The world is transforming into a viridescent place, and a more beautiful one, too. I believe these three projects, the Wind Trees, Power Flowers, and Gardens by the Bay, will motivate people to become more excited about energy efficiency, rather than despising of it. They will look forward to the beautiful installations, and benefit from the clean energy that they produce. It was once believed that the stark white wind turbine, or black expanse of solar panels was the future, but I believe that real future is the combination of beautiful architecture and renewable energy.

Could Cheaper Oil and Energy Be Dangerous?

In the article titled, “Preserving Ancient Art In Land Marked For Solar Energy Development” by Jeremy Miller, we get a look at the dangers that come along with the benefits of the new fracking industry that has boomed in the US. Cheaper oil and energy seems to be a good thing, but there are prices to pay, including increased carbon in the atmosphere, which only speeds up climate change.  In fact, Figure 1 shows a chart of all the amounts of carbon dioxide emissions by the United States alone. (2)  As you could have guessed from Figure 1, carbon dioxide is the most popular greenhouse gas being released into the atmosphere by humans, harming the environment.

Figure 1: All U.S Carbon Dioxide Emission Estimates (2)

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Alternatives would give us a brighter future, but they also come with problems. One example is the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, almost operational on the southern border between California and Nevada. This will be one of the larges utility facilities in the United States, “supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours.” (1) This means 400 million joules of electrical energy every second. Compared with fracking, and the damaging pollution that it brings, an array of solar panels seems like a great idea. However, a whole list of issues has come up in the recent months while the solar panels were being installed. For example, the air around an active solar panel becomes heated. A large array of panels can create a “solar flux” (1), which is a pocket of super heated air that could rise and kill birds. This utility is built in the remote Mojave Desert, and may be endangering a rare species of desert land tortoise. This article shows that there is no easy answer to our energy needs. Even though peak energy consumption dropped off slightly after the 2008 recession, our country still needs to find clean, new, and efficient sources of energy that will have minimal impact on the environment. 

I always assumed that solar energy was good, and I was surprised at how many problems were arising from one energy plant. Another one that really struck me was the cultural impact: the land contains some ancient rock art from early Aztec people. Now the archeology is endangered. The descendants of those first natives still live in the area, but their communities are cut across by the array, and some of their native languages, which are only spoken by a handful of people today, are also now endangered by the solar panels. The result is that any new source of energy comes with problems, and these problems and issues need to be weighed against each other.

Sources:

(1) http://www.hcn.org/blogs/goat/preserving-ancient-art-in-land-marked-for-solar-energy-development

(2) http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html