Business & Innovation
26 Jan 2016:
Cost of Manufacturing Solar
Panels Is Projected to Continue Falling
The cost of manufacturing solar panels is dropping more quickly than previously predicted, putting solar energy on course to meet
20 percent of global energy demand by 2027, according to Oxford University mathematicians, who developed a new forecasting model
. By contrast, the International Energy Agency’s predictions are far more conservative, stating that by 2050, solar panels will generate just 16 percent of global energy demand. The Oxford researchers' model predicts solar panel costs will continue to decrease 10 percent a year for the foreseeable future. Their model draws on historical data from 53 different technologies. The findings should help refute claims that solar PV cannot be ramped up quickly enough, said Oxford's Doyne Farmer, who co-wrote the paper. “We put ourselves in the past, pretended we didn’t know the future, and used a simple method to forecast the costs of the technologies,” he said.
22 Jan 2016:
Gasoline Prices Slow Electric
Car Sales to Below Administration Goals
The low price of gasoline is delaying the Obama Administration’s stated goal of reaching one million electric vehicles on American
Cheap gas is hurting electric car sales.
roads by now, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said
. In the summer of 2008, with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, Obama, then a candidate, set a goal of getting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015, something he reiterated in his 2011 State of the Union address. Of the 250 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads, only 400,000 of them are electric. Sales fell six percent last year when compared to 2014, to about 115,000 vehicles, despite an increasing number offerings, often at sold at steep discounts. But cost remains an issue. Mostly due to the price of batteries, electric and hybrid cars often cost about $8,000 to $10,000 more than an equivalent gasoline-powered car.
07 Jan 2016:
New Device Harvests Energy From
Walking and Exercising, Researchers Say
Researchers at MIT have developed a new method
for harnessing energy
generated by very small bending motions, which could be capable
Schematic of new human energy harvester
of harvesting power from a broader range of natural human activities such as walking and exercising. Based on electrochemical principles — the slight bending of a sandwich of metal and polymer sheets, with materials similar to those in lithium ion batteries — the new technology can more effectively capture energy from human motions than previous devices. Those devices, which were based on frictional technology or the compression of crystalline materials, can capture energy from mechanical vibrations, but they are not as compatible with the pace of human movements, the researchers explain in the journal Nature Communications
. When bent even a very small amount, the new layered composite produces a pressure difference that squeezes lithium ions through a polymer. The process produces alternating electrical current, the researchers say, which can be used directly to power devices such as cell phones and audio players.
06 Jan 2016:
Graphene Membrane Can Clean
Nuclear Wastewater, New Research Shows
Microscopic graphene membranes can effectively filter radioactive particles from nuclear reactor wastewater
Microscopic image of graphene membrane
at room temperature, researchers from the University of Manchester have shown. Writing in the journal Science
, the researchers demonstrated that graphene membranes can act as a sieve, separating different varieties of hydrogen — both radioactive and non-radioactive isotopes — from water. The new technology could also be scaled to produce significant amounts of so-called "heavy water," which is a non-radioactive component that is required in large quantities to produce nuclear energy. The graphene technology is 10 times cheaper and more efficient than current methods of producing heavy water. "This is really the first membrane shown to distinguish between subatomic particles," said University of Manchester researcher Marcelo Lozada-Hidalgo.
23 Dec 2015:
Congressional Tax Credits
Expected to Further Boost U.S. Renewables
The renewable energy sector in the United States is finishing 2015 on a high note as Congress has voted to approve significant extensions for tax credits
for renewable energy, and the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) has reported a surge in wind power installations.
Ending uncertainty about the fate of tax credits for the wind and solar industries, Congress has voted to extend investment tax credits for solar power and production tax credits for wind energy through 2022 and 2020, respectively. Renewable energy companies and analysts praised the extensions, saying that, coupled with rapidly falling prices for wind and solar energy technologies, the tax credits virtually guarantee a boom in the production of renewables in the U.S. Earlier this week, the AWEA said U.S. wind energy production has reached a milestone, with 50,000 turbines providing a generating capacity of 70 gigawatts — enough to power 19 million homes.
14 Dec 2015:
Accelerating Rock Weathering
Could Help Reduce Atmospheric CO2 Levels
Speeding up the naturally occurring process of weathering rocks to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere could help to
Weathered limestone cliffs in Yorkshire, England
stabilize the climate and avert ocean acidification caused by greenhouse gas emissions, according to
research published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. As rainwater and other environmental conditions naturally break down rocks on the earth's surface, carbon dioxide is drawn from the atmosphere. The process converts CO2 to bicarbonate, a mineral that chemically binds CO2 and is washed away through rivers to the oceans. By modeling the large-scale effects of weathering — which is driven largely by precipitation, vegetation, and soil microbes — the researchers found methods for accelerating this CO2-removal system. Such a strategy could significantly counteract anthropogenic fossil fuel emissions, they say, slowing ocean acidification and protecting delicate ocean ecosystems such as coral reefs.
09 Dec 2015:
Paris COP21: U.N. Climate Talks
Could Hasten the Demise of Coal
Is Paris the beginning of the end for coal? Coal burning is declining fast in both of the world's two largest carbon dioxide emitters,
China’s air pollution is pushing it away from coal.
China and the U.S., with resulting declines in emissions for both countries. The fuel looks incompatible with a world that warms by no more than two degrees C, bringing calls for its rapid phaseout as the global economy is "decarbonized." But, with or without a deal in Paris later this week, will the calls be heeded? Has the demise of King Coal been greatly exaggerated? The smart money in Paris is betting that, despite the embrace of coal by some developing countries such as India and Turkey, the dirty fossil fuel’s days are numbered. "The inevitable conclusion we can draw on the future of global thermal coal is that it has none," an energy analyst said in Paris.
04 Dec 2015:
Paris COP21: Global Financiers Hop
Aboard the Zero-Carbon Bandwagon
Outside the conference hall where the Paris climate negotiations are taking place, a large crowd gathered in the bright sun on
Bank of England governor Mark Carney
Friday morning, chanting for an end to government subsidies for fossil fuels. Yards away, a meeting of financiers and bankers got under way in which a central demand was for, well, much the same thing. Something strange has happened here. The masters of the financial universe are out in force insisting that, though they may not be waving placards or chanting slogans, they are part of the solution. Free markets could deliver a zero-carbon world, they say. And Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and a leading player in the global financial system, announced the creation of a task force to develop a carbon-disclosure system that could force companies to reveal how heavily their businesses are invested in fossil fuels. He said it could become standard business practice around the world — carbon footprinting for financiers.
01 Dec 2015:
Paris COP21 — Business Leaders
Announce 'Breakthrough Energy Coalition'
A group of leading business people and technology entrepreneurs — including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook founder
Global leaders announced 'Mission Innovation.'
Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Jack Ma of China’s Alibaba Group — have announced in Paris a new initiative to spur investment
in low-carbon energy technologies. The Breakthrough Energy Coalition
says it will work closely with governments and research institutions to “mobilize investment in truly transformative energy solutions for the future.” The coalition will work closely with governments to invest in and develop the technologies, and at the Paris conference the leaders of 21 nations announced the formation of a Mission Innovation
initiative to make clean energy available worldwide.
30 Nov 2015:
Paris COP21: For the Poorest
Nations, Questions of Compensation
In a series of side events on the first day of the Paris climate conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the
Initiative on Resilience, a program designed to help the world’s poorest countries, which are especially vulnerable to the ravages of global warming. Finance to help developing nations adapt to climate change is potentially the dealbreaker in Paris. Developing nations expect a Green Climate Fund, which would cover adaptation and the cost of moderating their greenhouse gas emissions, to contain $100 billion a year by 2020. If the money is not on the table, they may ditch their promises on emissions — and scupper the deal. Germany, France, and other developed nations promised help in Paris. But the president of Angola, chairing a group of 48 African nations vulnerable to climate change, said $5 billion of such projects were already on hold for want of cash.
25 Nov 2015:
Airlines Could Halve Emissions
By 2050 by Making Cost-Saving Changes
Airlines could cut their greenhouse gas emissions in half over the next 35 years by making changes that would actually
Cost-effective changes could cut airline emissions.
save them money, according to
research published in the journal Nature Climate Change
. Researchers developed a list of 14 strategies, all based on current technologies, that airlines could pursue to cut emissions, which account for roughly 2 to 3 percent of the total carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere each year. For example, one recommendation is to keep planes at the gate until takeoff rather than making them idle on the runway, or to use fewer engines — perhaps even electric engines — when taxiing. Emissions could also be cut significantly by reducing aircraft weight, the researchers say, such as by lowering the amount of extra fuel carried or replacing seats and brakes with ones made from lighter materials. Updating flight paths to more direct routes, adjusting altitude and speed to avoid drag-inducing turbulence, and retiring older planes would also cut costs and emissions.
19 Nov 2015:
Genetically Engineered Salmon
Approved for Sale in U.S. Supermarkets
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today approved
genetically engineered salmon for human consumption, marking the first
AquAdvantage salmon (top) compared to conventional salmon
time an animal with genetic alterations has been cleared for sale in supermarkets across the nation. A long and bitter battle
has surrounded the issue, and this approval comes five years after government reviewers deemed AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon, as the fish is known, safe for consumers and the environment. Opponents have argued that the genetic integrity of wild salmon could be threatened if the GM fish were to escape from contained farms into rivers and oceans. The company says, however, that the fish will be raised on land, thus making escape into the wild impossible, and that the GM salmon can be farmed more efficiently because they have a faster growth rate than conventionally farmed salmon.
11 Nov 2015:
Renewable Diesel Production and
Demand Growing Worldwide, Report Finds
A new type of renewable, non-petroleum-based diesel fuel is on the rise worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration
with demand driven by mandates in multiple countries. Unlike other biofuels, renewable HEFA biofuels — the acronym stands for hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids, and the fuels are known as "renewable diesel" in the U.S. — are nearly indistinguishable from their petroleum counterparts, meaning they can serve as "drop-in" fuels, readily substituting for traditional diesel. For example, they can be used in diesel engines without the need for blending with petroleum diesel fuel. Worldwide, more than a billion gallons of HEFA fuels were produced in 2014. Ten plants worldwide now produce renewable diesel, and five additional projects are in development. Alaska Airlines, KLM, and United Airlines have demonstrated the use of HEFA biojet fuel on commercial flights since 2011.
06 Nov 2015:
Austria’s Largest State Now
Generates All Electricity from Renewables
The electricity supply in Lower Austria, the largest state in Austria, is now fossil-free,
state officials have announced. The state in northeastern Austria, which has a population of 1.65 million, now gets 63 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric power, 26 percent from wind energy, nine percent from biomass, and two percent from solar. While hydroelectric power has always generated a large portion of the state’s electricity, Premier Erwin Proell said that $3 billion in investments since 2002 in utility-scale solar and other renewables had helped the state reach the 100 percent renewables target. Proell said the expansion of renewables has created 38,000 green jobs in the state, with the aim of generating 50,000 jobs in the renewables sector by 2030. Throughout Austria, 75 percent of electricity generation now comes from renewable energy sources.
Interview: ‘Third Way’ Technologies
Could Help Turn the Tide on Climate
Massive seaweed farms that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and counteract ocean acidification. The widespread adoption of carbon
fiber technology that extracts CO2 from the air and turns it into cars and other industrial products. Concrete manufacturing that is carbon-negative rather than the energy-guzzling Portland cement used today. These and other ideas represent what Australian scientist Tim Flannery calls “third way technologies” — safe methods to reduce carbon dioxide levels that could be adopted in concert with large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Flannery explains that unlike risky geo-engineering schemes, these approaches “strengthen Earth’s own self-regulatory system by drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere in ways the planet naturally does already.”
Read the interview.
23 Oct 2015:
Powerful Foreign Companies
Behind Much of Laos' Illegal Deforestation
Industrial-scale illegal logging is routine in Laos, a southeast Asian nation which has seen its dense forest cover decline from
Illegal logging in Laos by a large Vietnamese company
29 to 8.2 percent over the past decade, and the practice is gaining momentum under the guise of special infrastructure projects, according to information obtained
by the London-based advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). In 2013, Laos exported 1.8 million cubic yards of timber to Vietnam and China — more than 10 times the country’s official harvest, EIA found. Trade data also show that in 2014 China received $1 billion in illegal timber from Laos — a 22-fold increase from 2008. The high figures imply that the bulk of this timber is composed of valuable rosewood species, which are supposedly protected under Lao law. Virtually all logging operations are linked to infrastructure projects, especially hydropower dams, roads, mining, and agricultural plantations, EIA says.
20 Oct 2015:
California Solar Development
Often Occurring On Wilderness Lands
More than half of the large solar energy installations that have been built or are planned in California are being
constructed on undeveloped lands
Solar power plant in California's Mojave Desert
rather than in previously developed, less-sensitive areas, according to a new study. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, said that of 161 planned or operating utility-scale solar power developments in the state, more than 50 percent are being located on natural shrub or scrublands, such as the Mojave Desert. About 28 percent have been built on agricultural land and 16 percent have been built in developed areas, according to the study
, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers said that it makes far more sense for the state’s robust solar power industry
to locate its installations on farmland, especially considering the severity of California's ongoing drought.
16 Oct 2015:
Oil and Coal Companies
Say They Back CO2 Cuts, Climate Talks
Ten major oil companies, mainly from Europe, on Friday acknowledged their industry’s role in climate change and said they agreed with United Nations goals to limit temperature increases
to 3.6 F. Their statement follows a similar declaration
on Wednesday by 14 major companies closely tied with the fossil fuel industry, including coal giants BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, as well as Royal Dutch Shell, BP, and the world’s largest cement maker, LafargeHolcim. The Friday statement by European oil company executives acknowledged that the “existing trend of the world’s net global greenhouse gas emissions is not consistent” with UN climate targets. But the companies did not commit to specific production cuts or supporting a price on carbon. With UN climate talks opening in Paris in December, the statements by both groups are part of public relations efforts to demonstrate that oil and coal companies are willing to join in the fight to slow global warming.
14 Oct 2015:
Toyota Vows to Eliminate
Nearly All of Its Gasoline Cars by 2050
The global automobile giant, Toyota, has announced plans to steadily phase out production of gasoline-powered cars
and to slash emissions from its fleet by 90 percent by 2050. Speaking in Tokyo, Toyota executives vowed to work with government officials and other companies to replace internal combustion cars with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hybrids. “You may think 35 years is a long time, but for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary,” said a senior Toyota executive. The company said that by 2020 annual sales of its hybrid vehicles will reach 1.5 million and sales of fuel cell vehicles will hit 30,000 — 10 times the projected figure for 2017. Meanwhile, Volkswagen, shaken by scandal over falsifying emissions data on its diesel cars, announced it will increasingly shift production
to hybrid and electric vehicles.
In Brazil, A City’s Waste Pickers
Find Hope in a Pioneering Program
The millions of impoverished people who sift through trash and landfills for recyclable materials have been called the world’s “invisible environmentalists.” Yet many work in deplorable conditions and face exploitation from unscrupulous middlemen. In
A waste picker works at a warehouse in Curitiba.
Curitiba, Brazil, city officials and social activists have launched a rapidly growing program in which the waste pickers work out of city-sponsored warehouses and use their collective power to bargain for fair prices for their recycled goods. The Curitiba initiative is one of a growing number worldwide that seek to provide better working conditions and higher wages for waste pickers, while also aiding recycling and creating cleaner cities. Read more.
07 Oct 2015:
Africa Can Increase Renewable
Energy Use Four-Fold by 2030, Study Finds
The African continent could generate nearly a quarter of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030, according to a report
Solar PV minigrids serving 30 villages in Mali
by the International Renewable Energy Agency
(IRENA). The report identified potential renewable energy sources — including solar, biomass, hydropower, and wind resources — equivalent to more than 375 million tons of coal. While half of energy use in Africa today involves traditional biomass consumption, the report estimated that a shift to renewable-energy cooking solutions would reduce traditional cook stove usage and the resulting health complications from poor indoor air quality, leading to savings of $20 to 30 billion annually by 2030. In the African power sector, the share of renewable sources could increase to 50 percent by 2030, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 340 million tons, the IRENA report says.
05 Oct 2015:
Icelandic Seafood Giant
May Be Involved in Endangered Whale Hunt
Iceland’s controversial annual hunt of fin whales — classified as "endangered" by the International Union for Conservation
of Nature — ended with a catch of 155 fin whales, the largest slaughter since the 1986 moratorium on commercial whaling, reports the London-based advocacy group Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). The EIA and the Animal Welfare Institute obtained evidence
revealing the ongoing involvement of international seafood giant HB Grandi — a Reykjavík-based company with an annual income of roughly $230 million (as of 2011) — in the whaling business, despite its claims to the contrary. HB Grandi is Iceland’s largest seafood company and its CEO has repeatedly insisted that the company “is not involved in whaling and never has been.” Despite the international moratorium, Iceland recently has allowed commercial whaling and has shipped whale products to Japan.
29 Sep 2015:
Electric Buses Could Lead to
Significant Savings Even for Smaller Cities
Electric buses could save a city with half a million residents — one similar in size to Sacramento, California — roughly $12 million each
Electric bus, Bonn, Germany
year if the city's buses were to run on electricity rather than diesel fuel, according to a study
by the Volvo Group and the audit and advisory firm KPMG. Factors such as noise, travel time, emissions, energy use, natural resource use, and roughly $2.9 million in avoided health care costs contributed to the annual savings, the analysis says. Gothenburg, Sweden's second-largest city, recently began operating a new electric bus line built by Volvo and powered by wind and hydro electricity, says Niklas Gustafsson, Volvo's head of sustainability. The buses' environmentally friendly design, combined with the fact that they are completely silent and emissions-free, has made the line popular in Gothenburg, he says.
28 Sep 2015:
Shell Ends Arctic Oil and Gas
Exploration Bid for Foreseeable Future
Shell Oil has announced
that it will stop its controversial exploratory drilling for oil and gas in Arctic waters for the foreseeable
Shell's Polar Pioneer rig as it left Seattle for the Arctic
future, saying in a statement that the reserves it had discovered were not “sufficient to warrant further exploration.” Shell began operating its first exploration well on July 30, 2015, in the Chukchi Sea off the northwestern coast of Alaska. But the company reported that although it had found indications of the presence of oil and gas, the reserves in the basin where they were drilling were, in the words of one company official, "clearly disappointing." Under Shell's federally approved exploration plan, all rigs and support vessels must leave the Chukchi Sea before the end of October. Environmental groups hailed Shell's announcement.
24 Sep 2015:
Nearly Half of U.S. Seafood
Is Wasted Annually, New Study Shows
As much as 47 percent of the edible U.S. seafood supply is wasted each year
, with more than half of that waste coming
Maine Avenue Fish Market in Washington, D.C.
at the consumer level as people throw away spoiled or uneaten seafood at home, according to a new study. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future estimated the edible U.S. seafood supply at 4.7 billion pounds a year, and said that 2.3 billion pounds of that are wasted. The study, published in the Journal Global Environmental Change
, said that 573 million pounds are lost annually as commercial fisherman catch and discard the wrong species. Roughly 330 million pounds are lost during distribution and retail, and 1.3 billion pounds are lost at the consumer level. The researchers recommended a number of changes to reduce the waste, including stricter limits on by-catch by commercial fishermen and efforts to encourage consumers to purchase frozen seafood.
23 Sep 2015:
New and Reactivated Coal
Mines Fell to Lowest Levels Ever Recorded
The opening of fewer new coal mines, combined with the closing of less-efficient mines, led to 2013 having the lowest number of active coal mines in the U.S. on record, according to an analysis
by the Energy Information Administration. In addition, the number of new and reactivated coal mines that began production in 2013 reached its lowest level in at least the past 10 years, the analysis says. Although 103 mines were added that year (the most recent year for which complete data are available), 271 mines were idled or closed, amounting to a 14-percent decline in the total number of productive coal mines compared to the previous year. The 2013 total was 397 fewer coal mines than in 2008, when U.S. coal production peaked. The declining number of new mines reflects reduced investment in the coal industry, strong competition from natural gas, stagnant electricity demand, a weak coal export market, and regulatory and permitting challenges, the EIA says.
Interview: A Scientist’s View
On How to Repair the Planet
For an environmental scientist who studies how humanity is pushing the earth close to potentially disastrous tipping points, Johan Rockström
of a new book, Big World, Small Planet
— is surprisingly optimistic. Although he reckons that our species has crossed four of nine “planetary boundaries,” including those on climate change and deforestation, he believes there is still time to pull back from the brink and create a sustainable future based on renewable energy and a “circular” economy that continually reuses resources. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Rockström describes how an alignment of science, technological advances, and a growing public hunger for action can get civilization back on track. “It’s not a journey where we are backing into the caves,” says Rockström. “It’s a journey of high technology ... and huge, multiple benefits.”
Read the interview.
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.