Business & Innovation
17 Sep 2015:
Chaotic Illegal Timber Trade
Threatens Crucial Forests in Southeast Asia
A murky, illegal timber trade enabled by systemic corruption exists between China and Myanmar and is worth hundreds of millions of
Illegal log trucks in Kachin wait to cross into China.
dollars annually, making it one of the world's largest illegal timber schemes, according to a new analysis by the Environmental Investigation Agency
(EIA). At stake are some of the most ecologically important remaining forests in Southeast Asia, EIA says. The report documents how Chinese businesses pay in gold bars for the rights to log entire mountains and smuggle timber out of Myanmar's conflict-torn state of Kachin. The stolen timber, primarily high-value species of rosewood and teak, is increasingly being sourced from deeper within Myanmar to feed factories in south and east China. The trade appeared to have peaked in 2005, when 1.3 million cubic yards of logs crossed the border. A brief hiatus then occurred when Chinese authorities intervened, but the scale is once again nearing peak levels, the EIA says.
16 Sep 2015:
Unchecked Consumerism Causing
Record-Breaking Resource Use, Study Says
Consumption of critical global resources — from meat and coffee to fossil fuels and water — has peaked in recent years, accelerating
Cevahir shopping center in Istanbul, Turkey
climate change, pollution, and resource depletion to unsustainable levels, according to an analysis
by the Worldwatch Institute. The report tracked 24 global consumption trends and found many of them to be record-breaking. Meat production, for instance, has more than quadrupled in the last 50 years, leading to large-scale pressure on water, feeds, and grazing land. Aquaculture production has increased roughly 10 fold since 1984, and today farmed fish account for nearly half of all fish eaten. Global plastic production has also risen continuously over the past 50 years, while recycling rates remain very low. In the United States, for example, only 9 percent of plastic was recycled in 2012. “Untrammeled consumerism lies at the heart of many of these challenges,” said author Michael Renner.
14 Sep 2015:
Global Solar Panel Production
Rate Slowed in Recent Years, Analysis Finds
Solar photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing has been growing at a slower rate in recent years, increasing by only 4 percent
Solar panel manufacturing facility
annually from 2011 to 2013, compared to an average annual growth of 78 percent from 2006 to 2011, says a U.S. Energy Information Administration
analysis. Globally, solar PV production facilities are producing far fewer solar panels than their maximum capacity allows, the report says. The peak for that metric occurred in 2011, at 70 percent, when 36.6 gigawatts of solar PV modules were produced globally, while the maximum capacity was 52 gigawatts. The slowdown may be explained by complaints of unfair trade practices originating in China, the EIA says. An investigation found that Chinese solar PV modules were being dumped below cost on the U.S. market, and the U.S. Department of Commerce recently enacted anti-dumping measures on Chinese PV modules. The market is reacting to the slow growth by downsizing workforces and consolidating solar PV manufacturing companies, the analysis says.
26 Aug 2015:
U.S. Shale Gas Production
Expected to Fall for First Time, Report Says
Natural gas production from all seven major shale formations in the U.S. is projected to drop next month for the first time since
Monthly change in shale gas production
the shale gas boom began in earnest roughly a decade ago, according to an analysis
from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Major shale regions produced gas at a record-high rate of 45.6 billion cubic feet per day in May, but that rate is expected to drop to 44.9 billion cubic feet per day in September, the report says. It attributes the decline to existing, legacy wells becoming significantly less productive and a substantial drop in the number of drilling rigs in each of the seven major shale regions since September 2014. New wells are being established, the EIA notes, but they are not producing enough natural gas to offset expected declines from legacy wells.
17 Aug 2015:
Cost of Distributed Solar Power
Fell for Fifth Straight Year, Report Says
Prices for both residential and non-residential solar energy systems fell in 2014, marking the fifth consecutive year of declining
costs for solar photovoltaic systems, according to
an analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Residential rooftop solar panels in the U.S. cost 40 cents per watt less than the same systems in 2013, and prices for non-residential systems fell by 70 cents per watt. In the first half of this year, costs in a number of large markets fell by an additional 20 to 50 cents per watt, the report says. Photovoltaic equipment costs have remained relatively stable since 2012, so the lower prices are primarily due to reductions in "soft" costs such as marketing, labor, permits, and inspections, analysts say.
11 Aug 2015:
Cost of Producing Wind Power
Reached a New Low in the U.S. Last Year
The cost of generating wind power in the U.S. fell to its lowest level ever last year, according to a report
from the Department of Energy. Utility companies purchased wind power for 2.35 cents per kilowatt-hour on average last year, making the price of wind energy competitive with conventional power sources in many parts of the country. Wind power now meets on average 4.9 percent of the nation's electricity demand, the DOE analysis found, and nine states used wind to produce more than 12 percent of their electricity. Iowa and South Dakota produced more than a quarter of their electricity from wind, Kansas generated roughly 22 percent from wind, and Texas remained the leading state for wind installations
in 2014. With a total installed capacity of 66 gigawatts, the U.S. now ranks second only to China in wind power capacity.
07 Aug 2015:
New Zealand Will Shutter Last
Remaining Coal Power Plants, Officials Say
New Zealand will close its last remaining coal plants and rely even more heavily on renewable sources for its electricity needs,
Buller Coalfield, South Island, New Zealand
the country's energy minister announced
Thursday. New Zealand already has the fourth-largest share of renewable electricity generation in the world, with roughly 80 percent of its energy needs met by renewables. The final two coal-fired power plants will shut down by December 2018, according to the utility company running the plants, which cited changing market conditions that have made coal power unnecessary in New Zealand. The nation has been using coal to fill gaps in dry years, when hydropower could not meet the grid's demand. But recent investments in wind and, particularly, geothermal energy have made that stopgap measure unnecessary, the energy minister said. The country has pledged ahead of the Paris climate summit to cut emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
06 Aug 2015:
Mimicking Butterfly Wings Can
Improve Efficiency of Solar Energy Systems
Solar-concentrating photovoltaic systems can produce nearly 50 percent more power by mimicking the V-shaped wing
Cabbage white butterfly
formation certain butterflies exhibit before take-off, say researchers at the University of Exeter. The cabbage white butterfly warms its muscles before flight by placing its wings in the shape of a "V" to maximize the concentration of solar energy onto its thorax. This behavior, known as reflectance basking, increases the butterfly's thorax temperature by roughly 13 degrees F compared to flat wings, the researchers found. When reflective panels are arranged around a concentrating photovoltaic system in the same way, this wing-like configuration increases the power-to-weight ratio of the solar energy system by 17-fold, making it vastly more efficient, the researchers explain in the journal Scientific Reports
. The team showed that replicating the single layer of highly reflective scale cells found in the butterfly wings could also improve power-to-weight ratios of solar concentrators.
05 Aug 2015:
Emissions From U.S. Power
Plants Reached 27-Year Low, Report Says
Electric power plants in the U.S. emitted less carbon dioxide in April than they have in any month since April 1988 — a 27-year low — according to an analysis by the Energy Information Administration
. The report said the electric power sector has made major strides in improving efficiency and lowering its carbon footprint, producing significantly more electricity while lowering CO2 emissions. Renewable energy production has more than doubled since 1988, the use of natural gas to produce electricity has more than tripled, and coal consumption has decreased by 17 percent, the EIA report says. Natural gas plants are now about 25 to 30 percent more efficient than coal plants in terms of power generation, and they emit 71 to 79 percent less carbon dioxide than coal plants.
Gallery: The Wild Lands at Stake
If Alaska’s Pebble Mine Proceeds
The proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska is a project of almost unfathomable scale. If the copper- and gold-mining project proceeds, the mine would cover 28 square miles and require the construction of the world’s largest earthen dam — 700 feet high and several miles long — to hold back a 10-square-mile containment pond filled with up to 2.5 billion tons of sulfide-laden mine waste. All this would be built not only in an active seismic region, but also in one of the most unspoiled and breathtaking places on the planet — the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s most productive salmon fishery. In a photo essay, landscape photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum documents the lands and waters at risk from the project, whose fate is currently wending its way through the courts.
Read more | View gallery
27 Jul 2015:
President Obama Announces
Major New Limits on Interstate Ivory Trade
President Obama has announced strict new limits
aimed at stemming the global ivory trade which, when implemented,
FWS crushed illegal ivory trinkets in Times Square.
would nearly ban all ivory trade within the United States. The measures also include new restrictions on when ivory can be exported to other countries. “We’re proposing a new rule that bans the sale of virtually all ivory across state lines,” Obama said at a press conference in Kenya on Saturday. Current laws in the U.S. are aimed at controlling the import and export of ivory, while allowing some legal trade among states — a loophole that many illegal ivory dealers have used to their advantage. The new regulation, expected to be finalized later this year, would restrict ivory trade between states to items that are over 100 years old or contain only very small amounts of ivory. The U.S. is estimated to be the world's second largest ivory market, with sales outpacing all nations except China.
23 Jul 2015:
Synthetic Coral Could Remove
Mercury Pollution From Ocean, Study Finds
Chinese researchers have constructed a type of synthetic coral that could help remove toxic heavy metals like mercury from
Microscope image of the coral-like structure
the ocean, according to a report in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science
. Mercury can be especially toxic to corals because they very efficiently adsorb heavy metals, the scientists note. They took advantage of that ability to create a synthetic coral that can bind and remove mercury pollution in water. The coral-like structure is covered with self-curling nanoplates made of aluminum oxide — a chemical compound that can collect heavy metals. The scientists found that the synthetic coral structure could bind mercury 2.5 times more efficiently than aluminum oxide particles alone. According to the World Health Organization, up to 17 in every thousand children living in areas relying on subsistence fishing showed cognitive declines caused by eating mercury-contaminated fish.
22 Jul 2015:
Algae Could Be Environmentally
Friendly Livestock Feed, Research Finds
Algae could replace corn as feed for cattle and other livestock, according to findings
published in the Journal of Animal Science
. Algae — hardy
Algae-based cattle feed
microorganisms that can grow in a variety of environments and laboratory settings — require less fertilizer, water, land, and herbicides than corn, and thus could prove to be an environmentally friendly alternative for livestock feed, researchers say. The materials used in the new study were remnants of algae grown and processed for other applications, such as cosmetics, cooking oil, and biofuels, and would otherwise have been burned as waste. The researchers found that even these pre-processed leftovers were able to provide the same amount of protein as corn, along with slightly more fat. Cattle in the study readily ate the algae at a variety of concentrations and maintained their body weight as well as corn-fed cattle. Researchers say the algal meal could be priced to compete with corn and could be on the market by 2016.
Interview: The High Environmental
Cost of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation
As some U.S. states move to legalize marijuana, one issue has been largely ignored in the policy debates: the serious
environmental effects of the marijuana industry. A new paper co-authored by ecologist Mary Power details many of those impacts by focusing on marijuana cultivation in California, where most of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Power describes how California growers siphon off scarce water resources, poison wildlife, and erode fragile soils. What’s needed, she contends, is legalization of marijuana at the federal level, which would likely drive down marijuana prices. “As long as there is a market that will pay enough to compensate for the brutally hard work they do to grow this stuff in forested mountains,” she says, “then it will keep growing.”
Read the interview.
15 Jul 2015:
'Buckyballs' May Be Able to
Capture Carbon Dioxide, Research Finds
Researchers have made progress toward using buckyballs — tiny, spherical chemical structures composed of 60 carbon molecules — to
Buckyball crystal structure
pull carbon from the atmosphere, a team from Rice University reports
in the journal Energy and Fuels
. They had previously found that buckyballs, also known as fullerene or carbon-60 molecules, have the ability to capture CO2 from high-temperature sources such as industrial flue gases and natural gas wells when combined with a polymer known as polyethyleneimine (PEI). In the new study, the researchers found that they could modify the PEI-enhanced buckyballs to capture carbon in lower-temperature environments. The advance may open the door to fine-tuning the enhanced buckyballs for a variety of carbon capture projects, the researchers say.
13 Jul 2015:
Australian Government Curbs
Investments in Wind and Solar Energy
The Australian Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), a government-funded organization that invests in renewable energy, will no
Rooftop solar panels in Western Australia
longer invest in wind technology and small-scale solar projects, the government announced Sunday
. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the CEFC should invest in new and emerging technologies, and that wind and small-scale solar projects
should instead be supported by the free market. Currently, one-third of CEFC funding, which totals roughly $10 billion, goes to solar projects, the majority of which are small-scale. The funding ban could increase prices for small-scale solar projects such as rooftop photovoltaic panel installations, especially for low-income households, renters, and public housing tenants. The ban on these investments is the latest in a series of actions by the Abbott government to make cuts in environmental initiatives, including two failed attempts to abolish the CEFC.
08 Jul 2015:
Mountaintop Removal Coal
Mining Has Slowed Significantly, Data Show
Coal production from mountaintop removal mines
in the U.S. has declined 62 percent since 2008 — a much steeper drop than the downward
trend in overall coal production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration
reports. Mountaintop removal (MTR) mines have recently been subjected to additional stringent regulations. For example, MTR operations planning to discard excess rock and soil in streams must now secure extra permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. Tennessee is considering banning some types of MTR mining altogether, and a federal stream protection rule expected to be proposed this summer could place additional limits on the practice. Lower demand for U.S. coal in general can be attributed to competitive natural gas prices, renewable energy growth, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations, the EIA says.
02 Jul 2015:
Water Usage for Fracking
Has Increased Dramatically, Study Shows
Oil and natural gas fracking requires 28 times more water now than it did 15 years ago, according to a study
by the U.S.
Water use in fracking operations in the U.S.
Geological Survey. The increased water demand is attributed to the development of new, water-intensive technologies that target fossil fuels in complicated geological formations, the researchers say. The amount of water used varies greatly
with location, the study found. A fracking operation in southern Illinois, for example, can use as little as 2,600 gallons of water each time an oil or gas well is fracked. That figure jumps to more than 9 million gallons in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and south and eastern Texas. Fracking is often concentrated in arid regions and could exacerbate existing water shortages, especially as water requirements for fracking continue to increase. Most of the water used for fracking is disposed deep underground, removing it from the water cycle.
01 Jul 2015:
Church of England Divests from
Oil Firm Exploring Virunga National Park
The Church of England has divested its holdings
in the British oil and gas company Soco International, citing ethical concerns over Soco's attempts to
Mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park
drill for oil in Congo's Virunga National Park. The national park, Africa's oldest, is home to the largest surviving populations of endangered mountain gorillas and hippos
. The Church of England's investment fund is valued at roughly $10.5 billion, and $2.5 million of that had been invested in Soco International. The move marks only the third time in recent years that the church has divested from a company on ethical grounds. In 2012 it sold its holdings in News Corporation to protest the phone-hacking scandal, and in 2010 it divested from a mining corporation over human rights violations associated with its operations in India.
30 Jun 2015:
Residential Solar Panels Are
Net Win for Utility Companies, Analysis Says
Households and businesses with solar panels deliver greater benefits to utility companies than they receive through programs
Installing rooftop solar panels
like net metering, according to an analysis
of 11 case studies from across the U.S. by the advocacy group Environment New York. Net metering programs credit solar panel owners at a fixed rate — equal to or less than the retail price of electricity — for providing the excess power they generate to the grid. Utility companies have been fighting those credits in recent years, saying that solar panel owners don't pay a fair share of grid maintenance and other overhead costs. However, all 11 studies showed that solar panel owners provide net benefits to their respective utility systems, Environment New York says, including reduced capital investment costs, lower energy costs, and reduced environmental compliance costs. The median value of solar power across all 11 studies was roughly 17 cents per unit, compared to the nation’s average retail electricity rate of about 12 cents.
22 Jun 2015:
Researchers Look to Design of
Owl Wings to Make Quieter Wind Turbines
A new type of coating for wind turbines inspired by the shape of owl wings may dramatically cut noise associated with onshore
Australian masked owl in flight
wind farms, according to
research from the University of Cambridge. The scientists found that an owl's flight feathers have a microscopic down-like covering and numerous other intricate design details that smooth the passage of air over the wing, scattering sound as the owl flies. To replicate the structure, the researchers looked at designing a covering that would scatter the sound generated by a turbine blade in the same way. Early tests of their prototype material, a 3D-printed plastic coating, demonstrated that it could significantly quiet wind turbines without any appreciable impact on aerodynamics. Since wind turbines are heavily braked in order to minimize noise, the new technology could mean that turbines could spin at much higher speeds, producing more energy while making less noise.
Interview: Is Cloning Mammoths
Science Fiction or Conservation?
Biologist Beth Shapiro has published a new book, How to Clone a Mammoth
, that looks at the many
questions — both technical and ethical — surrounding any attempt to revive extinct species. In a Yale Environment 360
interview, Shapiro, associate director of the Paleogenomics Institute at the University of California at Santa Cruz, explains why she believes new gene-editing technology could benefit critical ecosystems and living species that are now endangered. “We are in the midst of an extinction crisis,” she says. “Why would we not use whatever technologies are available to us, assuming we can go about doing it in a reasonable and ethical way?”
Read the interview.
16 Jun 2015:
Human Data Can Improve
Ecosystem Service Models, Study Says
Protected forests in Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, and Thailand have prevented the release of more than 1 billion tons
Aerial view of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, an ecosystem service worth at least $5 billion, Georgia State University economists found
. Their conclusion about the monetary benefit of those forest protections is based on a new method they derived for valuing services such as carbon capture, conservation, and improvements in air and water quality. Instead of relying on modeling alone, the new method uses interviews and on-the-ground data to see how conservation programs affect human behavior and impact ecosystems. By combining the two types of information — environmental models and social science data — public officials can gain more realistic insights into how a particular policy might affect the environment and the people who interact with it, the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
09 Jun 2015:
Record Level of Residential Solar
Installed in U.S. in First Quarter of 2015
U.S. homeowners installed more solar power systems in the first three months of this year than in any other previous quarter,
Rooftop solar panels
according to data from the Solar Energy Industries Association
(SEIA), a trade group for the U.S. solar sector. The first quarter of any given year typically sees the fewest solar installations because of winter weather, the group notes, but the period from January through March of this year saw a solid increase over last quarter — 11 percent — and a 76 percent increase over the same period last year. The average cost for a residential solar system is now $3.48 per watt, or 10 percent lower than this time last year, the SEIA report says. It also notes that, cumulatively through the first quarter of 2015, nearly one-fourth of all residential solar installations have now come on-line without any state incentives.
08 Jun 2015:
Reforming Mobile Phone Industry
Helps Profits and Environment, Study Says
Mobile phone manufacturers and the environment would both benefit from producing less-complex phones that
Millions of unused phones are discarded each year.
use "the cloud" — a network of remote servers connected to the Internet — to carry out power-intensive tasks, researchers say
. The current business model encourages consumers to upgrade devices frequently with little incentive to recycle them, researchers write in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
. There are roughly 85 million unused phones in the U.K. alone, the researchers note, and replacing the gold they contain — not to mention copper, silver, and other rare metals
— would cost nearly $170 million and release an equivalent of 84,000 tons of CO2. Moving to a "cloud-based" system where heavy computing is done on remote servers would allow manufacturers to produce less-complex phones that are designed to last longer and require fewer valuable metals, the analysis found.
01 Jun 2015:
Six Major Fossil Fuel Companies
Call for Governments to Set Carbon Price
Six leading oil and gas companies have called on
governments to enact a carbon-pricing system, saying this would be the most effective way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The chief executives of Total, Statoil, Royal Dutch Shell, BG Group, BP, and Eni, in a joint letter to the head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said that governments should use regulatory measures to discourage carbon-intensive energy options and to level the playing field for all energy sources, both renewables and fossil fuels. The executives said the companies are willing to do their part, but that governments need to provide a clear, stable, and long-term policy framework. Total chief Patrick Pouyanne said in a news conference that a carbon price of roughly $40 per ton is needed to spur the replacement of coal-fired power stations, which produce twice as much CO2 as those that use natural gas. And a price of $80 to $100 per ton, he said, would justify investing in carbon capture and storage systems.
Designed for the Future:
Practical Ideas for Sustainability
From packing materials made of mushrooms to buildings engineered to cool and power themselves, sustainable design can play a key role in helping people adapt to a changing planet. That’s a central message of the new book Designed for the Future
, in which more than 80 experts in sustainable design — architects, journalists, urban planners, and others — are asked to point to a specific project that gives them hope that a sustainable future is possible. Their selections vary widely, from communities that leave no carbon footprint to cutting-edge technological research programs. An e360
gallery highlights a few of the projects they say have inspired them.
View the gallery.
14 May 2015:
Biologically Inspired Coating
Will Improve Solar Panels, Researchers Say
Key characteristics of moths’ eyes, which are anti-reflective, and lotus leaves, which are water-repellant, inspired a new type of glass coating that could significantly improve the efficiency of solar panels, say researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory
. The extremely durable coating can be customized to be fog-resistant, anti-reflective, and superhydrophobic — meaning it repels water drops so efficiently that they barely make contact with the solar panel surface, literally bouncing off and carrying away dirt and dust that hamper performance. The key component is a nanostructured layer of glass film that, under a microscope, has a porous texture resembling coral, which helps the solar cells absorb more light, the researchers say. Reflecting less sunlight means a 3 to 6 percent increase in light-to-electricity conversion efficiency and power output, studies show. The coating can be fabricated using standard industry techniques, the researchers say, making it easy and inexpensive to scale up and incorporate in current products.
Canine Conservation: Using Dogs
In War Against Poachers in Kenya
In Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy — home to some of the most endangered subspecies of rhinoceros — officials are deploying a new weapon to combat rampant rhino poaching: highly trained K-9 dogs. Six Belgian Malinois tracking and attack dogs are now working with Kenyan rangers to protect tiny populations of northern white rhinos and eastern black rhinos, which have been hunted to near-extinction by poachers seeking rhino horn for supposed medicinal purposes. Overseen by a former military dog instructor with the U.K. Royal Army Veterinary Corps, the K-9 units are being deployed not only in Ol Pejeta but also in a Tanzanian park that has been plagued by poaching. Read the article.
27 Mar 2015:
Metals Used in High Tech
Are Becoming Harder to Find, Study Says
Metals critical to newer technologies such as smartphones, infrared optics, and medical imaging will likely become harder
This chart shows the criticality of 62 metals.
to obtain in coming decades, according to
Yale researchers, and future products need to be designed to make reclaiming and recycling those materials easier. The study, the first to assess future supply risks to all 62 metals on the periodic table, found that many of the metals traditionally used in manufacturing — zinc, copper, aluminum, lead, and others — show no signs of vulnerability. But some metals that have become more common in technology over the last two decades, such as rare earth metals
, are available almost entirely as byproducts, the researchers say. "You can't mine specifically for them; they often exist in small quantities and are used for specialty purposes," said Yale scientist Thomas Graedel. "And they don't have any decent substitutes."