Interview: Calling for Moratorium
On Development of Tar Sands Oil
In a recent commentary in Nature
, aquatic ecologist Wendy Palen and seven colleagues were sharply critical of the way that Canada and the United States have gone
about developing Alberta’s vast tar sands deposits and the infrastructure needed to transport those fossil fuels to market. Rather than looking at the cumulative impact of this massive energy development on the climate and the environment, Palen and her co-authors wrote, major decisions have been made in piecemeal fashion. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Palen talks about why a moratorium on new tar sands developments is needed, how the decision-making process is biased in favor of short-term economic benefits, why the fate of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline is critical, and what can be done to begin factoring in the real costs of exploiting the tar sands.
Read the interview.
29 Aug 2014:
New Database Tracks Ecological
Health Impacts of Dams on World's Rivers
A newly launched online database
illustrates the impacts of nearly 6,000 dams on the world's 50 major
river basins, ranking their ecological health according to indicators of river fragmentation, water quality, and biodiversity. The "State of the World's Rivers" project was developed by the advocacy organization International Rivers
and created using Google Earth. Users can compare the health of individual river basins, see the locations of existing and planned dams, and explore 10 of the most significant river basins in more depth. The 6,000 dams represented in the database are a small percentage of the more than 50,000 large dams that impact the world's rivers, the organization notes.
28 Aug 2014:
Rail Transport of U.S. Oil Up
By 9 Percent, Creating Rail Car Shortage
The amount of U.S. oil shipped by rail rose 9 percent during the first seven months of the year compared to 2013, reaching 16,000 carloads per week in July,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration
(EIA). U.S. crude oil production reached an estimated 8.5 million barrels per day in June for the first time in 18 years and is driving the increase in rail transport
, the EIA said. Only 3 percent of petroleum shipped by rail in 2009 was crude oil; now crude accounts for more than half. Over the past three years, much of the oil has come from the Bakken Shale, primarily in North Dakota. Between 60 and 70 percent of the more than 1 million barrels per day of oil produced in North Dakota has been transported by rail so far in 2014, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The demand for rail cars has created a backlog that's been particularly worrisome for farmers, who say their grain is rotting before shipping space is available
to take it to market.
27 Aug 2014:
Obama Seeks Climate
Accord Without Congressional Approval
The Obama administration is aiming to forge a legally binding, international agreement that would cut fossil
fuel emissions and direct funds to poor nations dealing with climate change, without ratification from Congress, The New York Times
reports. The agreement would combine legally binding updates to an existing 1992 climate change treaty — allowing Obama to sidestep the constitutional requirement that treaties be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate — with voluntary pledges for specific emissions targets and aid to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. Nations would then be legally required to report progress toward their emissions targets at international meetings that would "name and shame" countries making slow or no progress, the Times
reports. Lawmakers from both political parties say that no climate agreement requiring congressional approval could be reached in the near future. Republican leaders are expected to oppose the agreement being worked on by the administration and say it would be an abuse of executive authority.
20 Aug 2014:
Exporting Coal to Korea Could
Slash Emissions by 21 Percent, Analysis Says
Exporting U.S. coal to South Korean power plants could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 21 percent compared to burning it at less efficient U.S. plants, according to
researchers at Duke University
. The strategy could also generate more than $25 billion in economic activity in the U.S. and cut emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter, the researchers say. For those benefits to occur, however, U.S. plants would need to replace the exported coal with natural gas, and South Korea must use the imported coal to replace dirtier sources of coal. South Korea's coal-fired power plants are newer and significantly more efficient than those in the U.S. — efficient enough to offset emissions associated with shipping the coal across the globe, the researchers say. However, they also caution that further studies are needed to assess the scenario's full environmental impacts, including water use, land use, and the degradation of vital habitats.
19 Aug 2014:
Wind Energy Prices at
All-Time Low, According to U.S. Report
The cost of wind power in the U.S. is at an all-time low of 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a new report
from the U.S. Department of Energy, and utility companies are in some cases electing to use wind as an energy source over fossil fuels because of its low cost. Although wind power grew modestly in 2013 — installations were only 8 percent of those seen in the record year of 2012 — it now meets 4.5 percent of U.S. energy needs, producing enough electricity to power 16 million homes. The country ranks second only to China in installed wind capacity, the report says, and wind power accounts for 33 percent of all new U.S. electric capacity additions since 2007. That progress has been heavily dependent on federal, state, and local incentives, however, and wind power's growth could slow if those incentives expire. Its viability could also fall if natural gas becomes more affordable than wind, the report cautions.
14 Aug 2014:
Some Chemicals in Fracking
Fluids Raise Red Flags, Researchers Say
Of the more than 200 compounds used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, eight are toxic to mammals and the
A Marcellus Shale fracking operation
health risks of roughly one-third are unknown, according to
researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is a drilling technique that releases natural gas and oil by injecting fluids with chemical additives deep into rock formations. The research team tracked down substances commonly used as fracking additives and found they include gelling agents to thicken the fluids, biocides to inhibit microbial growth, and compounds to prevent pipe corrosion. The industry claims the additives are non-toxic and food-grade, and while that is true in some cases, the researchers note, most fracking compounds require treatment before they can be safely released into the environment. Moreover, a number of chemicals that could pose health risks, such as corrosion inhibitors and biocides, are used in reasonably high concentrations in fracking fluids, the researchers note.
11 Aug 2014:
Climate Effects of Keystone XL
Significantly Underestimated, Study Finds
The U.S. State Department's final environmental review of the Keystone XL Pipeline may have underestimated carbon dioxide emissions associated with the pipeline by as much as four times, according to
a new study published in Nature Climate Change
. The addition of Keystone XL crude oil to the market will drive global oil prices down, the authors say, which in turn will increase demand for oil worldwide — by as much as 0.6 barrels for every barrel of Keystone XL oil added to the market. The extra oil consumption could add up to 110 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year, an amount four times larger than the State Department's estimate of up to 27 million tons annually, according to the study. President Obama has said he will let the pipeline proceed only if it will not "significantly exacerbate" greenhouse gas emissions. The State Department's final review determined that the pipeline's effect on climate change would be negligible, but that analysis did not take into account the increase in crude oil demand that could be sparked by Keystone XL, the authors of the new study say.
08 Aug 2014:
China Added Large Amount
Of Solar Power in First Half of 2014
In the first half of 2014, China added 3.3 gigawatts of solar power — as much as is installed in the entire
Distributed solar in Kunming, China
continent of Australia — China's National Energy Administration reports
. The country now has 23 gigawatts of solar power installed, which is nearly twice that of the United States. China, the world's largest carbon emitter, has set a goal of 35 gigawatts of installed solar power by the end of next year. The nation's push toward solar energy will include distributed solar, such as rooftop and ground-mounted installations near homes and municipal buildings, Chinese officials say, and the government could announce distributed solar incentive programs later this month, Bloomberg News reports. Renewable energy, especially solar, has become a high priority for the Chinese government as major cities and industrial areas have experienced choking air pollution. Earlier this week, officials announced that Beijing would ban coal use by 2020.
Green Innovations Are Bringing
Energy-Saving Technology Home
Advances in technology and consumer demand for energy-saving devices have made green technology
increasingly accessible. Many innovations are geared toward homeowners looking to lower not only their energy bills, but also the carbon footprints of their homes and daily activities. From solar-harvesting shingles and windows to shoe insoles that can power a smartphone, this Yale Environment 360
gallery explores a few of these energy-saving technologies.
View the gallery.
29 Jul 2014:
Danish Wind Power To Be Half
The Price of Coal and Natural Gas by 2016
Wind power has overtaken all other energy sources as the cheapest form of electricity in Denmark, with a cost
roughly half that of coal and natural gas projected by 2016, according to
an analysis by the Danish Energy Association (DEA). Home to major turbine manufacturers Vestas and Siemens, the country has been investing steadily in wind power since the 1970s and seems to be reaping the benefits of those investments now, analysts say. Electricity from two new onshore wind power facilities set to begin operating in 2016 will cost around 5 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, according to DEA calculations. The Danish government aims to meet 50 percent of the country's total electricity needs with wind power by 2020, and another 20 percent with other renewable sources. By 2050, the government aims to produce all electricity from renewable sources.
22 Jul 2014:
Costs of Urban Light Pollution
Highlighted in Citizen Science Effort
A recently launched citizen science
project aims to highlight the environmental, social, and financial impacts of excessive nighttime lighting in cities around
the world. The project, called Cities at Night
, enlists people to help identify the cities pictured in thousands of blindingly lit photos taken by astronauts orbiting the earth. Organizers hope that when residents and officials see the bright photos of their cities at night, they will be prompted to cut nighttime light use and energy consumption. Widespread artificial lighting has made light pollution
a growing problem in urban areas by disrupting behavioral patterns of people and wildlife, wasting millions of dollars in energy costs, and adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Some solutions are relatively inexpensive and straightforward, the organizers say, such as using shields to direct light down to street-level, which can allow a city to use lower-wattage streetlights.
21 Jul 2014:
India Doubles Coal Tax to
Fund Ambitious Clean Energy Initiatives
India's finance minister has doubled the tax on coal imported to or mined in the country, raising the tariff from $0.83 to $1.67 per metric ton, with plans to use the revenue to fund a host of renewable energy projects over the next decade, Clean Technica
reports. The revenue will be added to the National Clean Energy Fund, which was established to provide low-cost financing for renewable energy projects. The fund's scope will be expanded to include environmental projects as well as clean energy research and development, including a national wind energy program, four major solar power projects, and an initiative that aims to establish transmission corridors for distributing electricity from renewable energy sources. The revenue will also be used to fund a new, separate ministry focused on cleaning the heavily polluted Ganges River. The tax could raise as much as $1.2 billion in the first year, according to estimates.
18 Jul 2014:
Germany Tops Energy-Efficiency
Ranking and U.S. Scores Near Bottom
Germany tops a new energy efficiency ranking of the world’s major economies, followed by Italy, China, France, and Japan, according to
the American Council
for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE). The United States ranked 13th out of 16 nations, behind countries such as India, China, and Canada, although new carbon pollution standards proposed this June for existing power plants would be a major stride in the right direction, the ACEEE said. The group also admonished Australia, which ranked 10th, for demonstrating "a clear backward trend" in adopting energy efficiency measures. Germany took the top spot largely due to regulations it has imposed on commercial and residential buildings. And China, despite lax enforcement of building codes, uses less energy per square foot than any other country, the analysis found.
Five Questions for Jeffrey Sachs
On Decarbonizing the Economy
Thirty scientific institutions from 15 countries recently released a report for the United Nations outlining how
the world’s major carbon dioxide-emitting nations can slash those emissions by mid-century. Called the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project
, the initiative aims to provide leaders with a plan of action in advance of a UN summit in September and climate negotiations in Paris in late 2015. Yale Environment 360
asked Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a key player in the decarbonization project, five questions about the initiative and the prospects for global action on the climate front.
09 Jul 2014:
One-third of German Power
Came from Renewables in First Half of 2014
Thanks to abundant sunshine and wind, renewable energy generated 31 percent of Germany’s electricity
in the first six months of this year, according to a new report. The report
, released by the Fraunhofer Insititute, said that 27 percent of the country’s electricity production came from wind and solar, and four percent from hydropower. Solar power generation grew by 28 percent in the first half of 2014 compared to the first six months of 2013, and wind power grew by 19 percent over the same period. On a couple of particularly windy and sunny days in May and June, renewable energy accounted for 50 to 75 percent of Germany’s electricity production, the report said. The Fraunhofer Institute said that as Germany continues to phase out its nuclear power plants, it remains reliant on highly polluting “brown coal”
to produce electricity. A substantial portion of German coal-generated electricity is being exported, the report said.
02 Jul 2014:
Roughly $80 Billion Wasted on
Power for Networked Devices, Report Says
The world’s 14 billion online electronic devices, such as modems, printers, game consoles, and cable boxes, waste around $80 billion in electricity annually because of inefficient technology, according to a new report
the International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2013, networked devices consumed around 616 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, with most of that used in standby mode. Roughly 400 TWh — equivalent to the combined annual electricity consumption of the United Kingdom and Norway — was wasted because of inefficient technology. The problem will worsen by 2020, the agency projects, with an estimated $120 billion wasted as devices such as refrigerators, washing machines, and thermostats become networked. Much of the problem boils down to inefficient “network standby,” or maintaining a network connection while in standby mode. Most network-enabled devices draw as much power in this mode as when fully active, the report notes. Using today's best technology could cut energy consumption by 65 percent, the IEA said.
25 Jun 2014:
Blizzard Helps Scientists
Visualize Airflow Around Wind Turbines
A Minnesota blizzard has helped scientists understand airflow patterns around large wind turbines, paving the way for more efficient turbine designs and wind farm
Airflow patterns are visible during blizzard.
configurations, researchers report
in Nature Communications
. Wind farms lose roughly 10 to 20 percent of the potential energy they could harvest, and complex airflow patterns play the largest role in those energy losses. Studying airflow around large turbines, which can be more than 100 meters tall, is not feasible in lab settings, so scientists typically test smaller turbine models in wind tunnels and use tracer particles to visualize airflow patterns. Researchers from the University of Minnesota realized they could scale up their experiments to real-world conditions by using heavy snowfall during a blizzard to trace airflow patterns, as shown in this video. Their findings show that airflow patterns under real-world conditions differ from smaller-scale laboratory tests in important ways, and those differences should be taken into account when designing turbines and wind farms.
24 Jun 2014:
Concentrated Solar Power
Could Compete with Natural Gas, Study Says
Concentrated solar power (CSP) could meet a substantial percentage of current energy demand in some parts of the world, according to research
CSP plant in San Bernardino County, CA
published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. In the Mediterranean region, for example, the study shows that a grid-connected CSP network could provide 70 to 80 percent of current electricity demand, at no extra cost compared to natural gas-fired power plants. CSP could also feasibly meet energy demands in parts of southern Africa, according to researchers. CSP systems use mirrors or lenses to concentrate solar rays into a small area. The concentrated energy heats a liquid that produces steam to drive turbines, which means that the collected energy can be stored as heat and converted to electricity when needed — a major advantage over solar panels, which store energy much less efficiently.
19 Jun 2014:
Rerouting Flights to Avoid
Contrails Would Slow Climate Change
Rerouting the flight paths of commercial aircraft to minimize the condensation trails, or contrails, they leave behind would help slow global warming, even if
the new flight path is longer, according to research published today
. Contrails, thin clouds composed of ice crystals condensed from an aircraft's exhaust, can persist for 17 hours or more and are likely the single largest contributor to climate change
associated with aviation. They form when a plane passes through parts of the atmosphere that are very cold and moist, usually near high pressure systems. The new research shows that avoiding contrail formation has greater climate benefits than avoiding additional carbon dioxide emissions associated with slightly longer flight routes. For example, for a small aircraft that is predicted to form a contrail 20 miles long, an alternative path that adds less than 200 miles will have a smaller climate impact than the contrail. For a larger aircraft, which emits more CO2 per mile than a smaller plane, the alternative route is preferable if it adds less than 60 miles, according to researchers from the University of Reading.
18 Jun 2014:
Global Energy Systems Must
Prepare for Climate Change, Study Says
Power plants and energy systems around the world will experience potentially disastrous effects from climate change and should develop plans for dealing with those effects, according to a report released today
by the World Energy Council and European researchers. Long-term droughts, for example, could threaten water supplies needed to cool large power plants as they produce electricity, the report notes
. Many energy facilities are also lacking protection from floods, rising seas, and severe weather events — a problem highlighted by the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Strong global political action could have major impacts on the energy sector, the report says, especially if governments make a coordinated effort to invest in renewable and low-carbon energy and upgrades to power distribution grids.
17 Jun 2014:
Livestock Maps Highlight
Regions Prone to Disease and Pollution
A new mapping tool
shows the global distribution of cattle, pigs, and other livestock in high-resolution, 1-square-kilometer detail. Created by the International
Livestock Research Institute, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and British and Belgian researchers, the maps are the most detailed renditions ever produced of the planet's billions of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks. They reveal several notable trends
, such as the high density of pigs in China, India's relatively high sheep and goat populations, and the affinity of the southeastern U.S. for chickens. Researchers say they will be powerful tools for tracking and predicting livestock-borne disease outbreaks, such as avian flu strains that have been linked to dense poultry markets. The maps could also predict where major livestock operations are most likely to harm the environment, researchers say. As livestock production increases, demands on land, water, and energy intensify, and so does pollution from livestock waste
13 Jun 2014:
U.S. Energy System Depicted
In New Mapping Tool from Federal Agency
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently launched a mapping system
that allows users to
explore the landscape of energy sources and power plant distribution across the nation. Among the most striking visualizations is this map showing the widespread distribution of natural gas power plants, marking the fossil fuel's growing use as an energy source. The U.S. had 1,714 natural gas power plants in 2012, accounting for 30 percent of the country's electricity generation, Vox reports
. Natural gas plants are easier to build and emit fewer pollutants and roughly half as much CO2 as coal-fired plants. The EIA maps depict numerous aspects of the U.S. power system, including the distribution of wind turbines, solar installations, nuclear power plants, coal-fired plants, hydropower stations, and pipelines. More energy maps
are available at Vox, or users can create their own with the EIA's tool.
09 Jun 2014:
Air Conditioning Can Raise
Urban Nighttime Temperature by 2 Degrees
Excess heat from air conditioners raises outdoor temperatures at night by nearly 2 degrees F (1 degree C), worsening the urban heat island effect and increasing cooling demands, according to research
from Arizona State University. Studying the Phoenix metropolitan area, researchers found that air conditioning systems pumped more waste heat into the air during the day, but the effect on near-surface temperatures was negligible. The same was not true for nighttime temperatures, however, when waste heat significantly boosts air temperatures because of nighttime atmospheric conditions. Air conditioning systems can consume more than 50 percent of total electricity
during extreme heat, the researchers note, and summertime extreme-heat days are projected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change. Redirecting waste heat from air conditioning systems to household appliances such as water heaters, for example, could help alleviate the problem, the scientists say. They project that such strategies would save at least 1,200 to 1,300 megawatt-hours of energy per day in the Phoenix metropolitan area alone.
Interview: The Small College That
Launched Fossil Fuel Divestment
When Stanford University announced in May that it would divest its endowment of coal mining companies, it was following the lead of a tiny college in rural Maine
that dubs itself “America’s environmental college.” A year and a half earlier, Stephen Mulkey, the president of Unity College
stood on a stage with Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and lead cheerleader for the divestment movement, to announce that his college would be the first institution of higher learning to rid its endowment of all fossil fuel holdings. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Mulkey, a climate scientist, talks about the ethical imperative behind the decision to divest, and his vision for, as he puts it, a re-engineering of the way the environmental sciences are taught.
03 Jun 2014:
Developing Countries Lead
Global Surge in Renewable Energy Capacity
The number of developing nations with policies supporting renewable energy has surged more than six-fold in just eight years, from 15 developing countries
in 2005 to 95 early this year, according to a report from REN21
, an international nonprofit renewable energy policy network. Those 95 developing nations today make up the vast majority of the 144 countries with renewable energy support policies and targets in place. The report credits
such policies with driving global renewable energy capacity to a new record level last year — 1,560 gigawatts, up 8.3 percent from 2012. More than one-fifth — 22 percent — of the world's power production now comes from renewable sources. Overall, renewables accounted for more than 56 percent of net additions to global power capacity in 2013, the report says. Although financial and policy support declined in the U.S. and some European countries, China, the U.S., Brazil, Canada, and Germany remained the top nations for total installed renewable power. China's new renewable power capacity surpassed new fossil fuel and nuclear capacity for the first time, the analysis found.
02 Jun 2014:
New U.S. Coal Plant Rules
Could Lead to a Steep Drop in Emissions
The Obama administration today unveiled a sweeping new plan
that aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions from the nation’s 600 coal-fired power plants by roughly a third. Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new rules would give states maximum flexibility
to achieve the goal of reducing power plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Hundreds of coal-fired power plants are expected to close under the EPA plan. But rather than immediately shutting down plants, states would be allowed to reduce emissions by making changes across their electricity systems — by installing new wind and solar generation or energy-efficiency technology, continuing to expand the use of natural gas, and by starting or joining state and regional “cap and trade” programs. “There is no one-size-fits-all solution ... so each state’s path can be different,” said McCarthy. The proposed regulations could be held up by legal challenges. Obama administration officials said the rules would lift the U.S. into a clear global leadership position
on combating global warming.
30 May 2014:
New Battery Technology
Could Offer Cheap Renewable Energy Storage
New battery technology that uses cheaper and safer materials to store large amounts of energy may soon enable utility companies to use more renewable power,
Iron-chromium flow battery technology
MIT Technology Review. The new device is a type of flow battery, and it uses liquid materials that rely on iron-chromium chemical reactions to store energy. California-based startup Enervault, developer of the new battery, figured out how to use materials that had been tried in batteries decades ago; Enervault overcame a key technical challenge that had caused the earlier batteries to quickly degrade. The new battery is large — it can store one megawatt-hour of electricity, or enough to run 10,000 100-watt light bulbs for an hour — and the materials last more than 20 years, according to its developer. Although the battery is inefficient compared to conventional batteries — it loses 30 percent of the energy used to charge it — it is still economically viable, the company says. The iron-chromium flow battery costs 80 percent less than vanadium flow batteries, a competing technology. The batteries are currently in use at a small power plant near Modesto, California.
29 May 2014:
Electric Airplane Debut
Offers Hopes for Cutting Emissions
The aircraft manufacturing giant Airbus recently unveiled
a fully-electric aircraft which, if widely adopted, could reduce the aerospace industry's carbon
The recently debuted, fully-electric E-Fan
dioxide emissions by an order of magnitude. The E-Fan aircraft has two, 30-kilowatt electric motors powered by a series of lithium-ion batteries in the wings of the plane, as well as a 6-kilowatt electric motor in the wheel to provide extra power during takeoff and taxiing. Despite incorporating highly energy-efficient and aerodynamic design elements, however, the E-Fan has only a one-hour range and cannot leave the vicinity of the airport. Airbus says that future designs will rely on electric-hybrid engine technology and that by 2050 such airplanes should be able to accommodate 70 to 80 passengers on a three-hour flight. The plans were spurred, in part, by the European Union's Flight Path 2050
, which aims to reduce the aviation sector's nitrous oxide emissions by 90 percent, noise pollution by 65 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions by 75 percent by 2050. "It's a very different way of flying," said Jean Botti, a technology officer at Airbus Group, "absolutely no noise, no emissions."
23 May 2014:
Oil Drilling Permits
Issued for Key Area of Yasuni Park
The Ecuadorean government has issued permits to begin oil drilling
in a key area of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve and National Park
, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Environment Minister Lorena
Tapia said the government had signed permits to begin preparations for drilling in the so-called ITT section of the park, which contains two uncontacted indigenous tribes; drilling itself could begin as early as 2016, the government said. Ecuador’s President, Rafeal Correa, had offered to ban drilling in large sections of the park if the international community raised $3.6 billion to compensate the country for leaving the oil in the ground. But after only $13 million was raised, Correa gave the green light to drilling, saying “the world has failed us.” Oil drilling has already taken place in some areas of the 6,500-square-mile park. As this Yale Environment 360 video
shows, Yasuni is home to a remarkable array of species, including roughly 400 species of fish, 600 species of birds, and thousands of species of vascular plants and trees.