Business & Innovation
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."
25 Mar 2015:
Dutch Energy Company Heats
Homes With Custom-Built Computer Servers
A Dutch energy company is installing radiator-sized computer servers — which infamously generate large amounts of
A radiator-sized computer server installed in a home.
waste heat as they churn out data — in residential homes to offset energy costs, company representatives said
this week. In the trial program, Rotterdam-based Eneco has equipped a handful of houses with custom-built computer servers designed to heat rooms as the servers process data for a variety of corporate computing clients. Eneco and the company behind the radiator-servers, Nerdalize
, expect each one to reduce a home's heating expenses by roughly $440 over the course of a year. Eneco will cover all computing-related energy costs, the company said, but they expect the program to reduce server maintenance costs by up to 55 percent through preventing complications that arise when servers overheat. In summer months, the server-radiators will redirect excess heat outside the home, its designers say.
18 Mar 2015:
Biodegradable Plastics Are as
Persistent as Regular Plastics, Study Finds
Plastics designed to degrade don't break down any faster than their conventional counterparts, according to research
Plastic accumulated along the Los Angeles River.
published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology
. Because most plastics accumulate in landfills and remain intact for decades or longer, some manufacturers have begun producing plastics with proprietary blends of additives that are supposed to make the materials biodegradable, and a number of countries have adopted legislation promoting the use of those additives. But in laboratory tests, researchers found the plastics with biodegradation-promoting additives fared no better than conventional plastics in any of three different disposal scenarios — simulated landfill conditions, compost, and soil burial for three years. Previous research looked at plastics buried in soil for 10 years, the authors note, and found that only 5 percent of the so-called biodegradable plastic decomposed.
17 Feb 2015:
Demand for Indonesian Timber
Far Outpaces Sustainable Supply, Study Says
More than 30 percent of wood used by Indonesia’s industrial forest sector stems from illegal sources rather than
Deforestation in Aceh, Indonesia, for palm oil.
well-managed logging concessions or legal tree plantations, according to a new report
based on data from industry and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. If Indonesian forestry industries operated at capacity, 41 percent of the wood supply would be illegal, the analysis found, and if companies were to go forward with plans for new mills, the supply would be 59 percent illegal. The source of this illegal wood is unclear, but the report suggests it is likely harvested by clear-cutting natural forests for new oil palm and pulp plantations. Part of the problem, the report says, is that Indonesia's sanctioned forestry plantations — the country's primary source of legal wood — are not currently sustainable because they are producing wood at only half the predicted rate.
09 Feb 2015:
Norway Divests National Fund
From Coal Companies Over Climate Concerns
Norway has divested its sovereign wealth fund — the largest in the world and worth roughly $850 billion — from coal companies, marking the first time a nation has divested for reasons related to climate change. Over the past three years, the country has dropped investments in more than 100 companies
involved in coal mining, tar sands development, cement production, and mountaintop removal coal mining, officials announced. In a report released last week, the fund's directors said that risks associated with carbon emissions, deforestation, and poor water management outweigh the benefits of continuing to invest in these companies. Critics point out that the fund, which has been built with earnings from Norway's profitable oil industry, still holds roughly $40 billion
in fossil fuel investments. The country says it will decide on a case- by-case basis whether to divest from those holdings.
05 Feb 2015:
Ultra-Efficient Solar Cells
Can Be Adapted for Rooftops, Research Finds
Extremely efficient solar cells similar to those used in space may soon be ready for installation on residential rooftops, according to a report
in Nature Communications
. Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems, which use lenses and curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto small solar cells, produce energy much more efficiently than conventional solar panels — 40-percent efficiency compared to less than 20 percent for standard silicon systems. But they are typically the size of billboards and have to be positioned very accurately to track the sun throughout the day. Now researchers have overcome these obstacles by developing a CPV system that uses miniaturized gallium-arsenide photovoltaic cells, 3D-printed plastic lens arrays, and a moveable focusing mechanism. The new system is small and light enough to fit on a residential rooftop and should be inexpensive to produce, researchers say.
16 Jan 2015:
Solar a Better Investment Than
Stocks in Most Large U.S. Cities, Study Says
For homeowners in 46 of the 50 largest cities in the U.S., investing in a residential solar power system would yield better returns than putting money in the
stock market, according to an analysis
by the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University. For 21 million owners of single-family homes in the U.S., solar energy already costs less than current local utility rates, the report says, as long as the system can be purchased with low-cost financing of 5 percent interest over 25 years. Residents of New York City, Boston, and Albuquerque would likely see the largest benefits from investing in residential solar, the report says. The findings assume
, however, that government incentives encouraging solar investments — such as tax exemptions and policies allowing homeowners to sell excess solar power to utility companies — will continue, which is highly dependent on federal, state, and local politics.
14 Jan 2015:
Offshore Wind More Profitable
Than Drilling on U.S. East Coast, Report Says
Offshore wind would produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling
Offshore wind turbines in the Irish Sea
near the U.S. East Coast
, according to
a new report from the advocacy group Oceana. The report contends that recent claims by the oil and gas industry about the economic potential of offshore drilling in the region are exaggerated because many of those oil and gas reserves are not economically viable to drill. Plans to build the nation's first offshore wind farm off Cape Cod have repeatedly failed to move forward
. But Oceana calculates that over the course of 20 years, offshore wind in the Atlantic could produce nearly twice as much energy as all of the economically recoverable oil and gas. Offshore wind installations also would likely create an additional 91,000 jobs — twice as many as offshore drilling would create, Oceana says.
12 Jan 2015:
Maasai Group Plans to Sell
Biogas Made From Slaughterhouse Waste
A group of Maasai farmers in southwestern Kenya has developed a profitable way to convert animal waste and
A Keeko Biogas cylinder prototype
blood from a local slaughterhouse into biogas that can power the facility as well as other local businesses, Reuters reports
. The Keeko Biogas project plans to start bottling the fuel and selling cylinders of it in March, once safety testing has been completed, project leaders say. At roughly $8 per 6-kilogram cylinder, the biogas is about half the price of liquefied petroleum gas, and it can be up to 40 percent more energy efficient than propane or butane, says the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, which is providing technical support for the project. The facility will be able to produce 100 to 300 cylinders of biogas per week, organizers say. The project will not only offset the costs of waste management for the slaughterhouse, it will also likely help prevent deforestation in the region. "We cut down a lot of trees for charcoal and we hope to reduce that,” the chairman of the slaughterhouse told Reuters.
A Green Dilemma for the Holidays:
Better to Shop Online or In-Store?
Various studies in recent years have suggested that online shopping typically packs a lower carbon punch than shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. But new research suggests the story is more complicated than that. The key, according to a report in the Journal of Cleaner Production
, is to minimize the number of miles driven per item — whether by the shopper, a local delivery van, or a FedEx truck.
05 Dec 2014:
U.S. Natural Gas Fracking Boom
May Be Shorter Than Predicted, Study Says
Estimates of the amount of natural gas that can be extracted from U.S. reserves is much too high and the boom may last just half as long as predicted, says a new report
in the journal Nature
. Official government estimates by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggest that peak natural gas production, driven by the rapid growth of hydraulic fracturing, will likely last until 2040 before tapering off. The new analysis suggests that that estimate is too high. Instead, researchers say, the peak will likely come in 2020, and after that production will fall off dramatically. The findings are based on higher-resolution, finer-scale estimates of oil and gas reserves — in units of a single square mile — compared to the EIA's method, which lumps together all land within a single county. The EIA's method also fails to account for the realities of economics, the reseachers say: Fracking companies tend to look for "sweet spots," which they quickly abandon as soon as the reserves become depleted and extraction costs rise.
26 Nov 2014:
Aerodynamic Upgrades to
Large Trucks Would Cut Fuel Use Steeply
The fuel consumption of the 2 million tractor-trailer trucks hauling cargo across the U.S. — which currently
Airflow patterns around a tractor-trailer truck
burn 36 billion gallons of diesel fuel per year — could be cut by billions of gallons through the use of drag-reducing devices, according to
researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In wind tunnel tests, researchers fitted a scale-model truck with two types of devices designed to reduce drag and improve aerodynamics: a trailer skirt, which consists of panels affixed along the lower side edges of a trailer, and a boat tail fairing, which is affixed to the back of the trailer to reduce the size of its wake. The researchers found that using the devices in combination — technology currently installed on only 3 to 4 percent of the nation’s large trucks — reduced the aerodynamic drag by as much as 25 percent, which translates to a 13-percent decrease in fuel consumption. If the U.S. tractor-trailer fleet were to improve its fuel economy by 19 percent, which the researchers say is achievable, 6.5 billion gallons of diesel fuel would be saved each year, avoiding 66 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
20 Nov 2014:
Real-Time Ocean Acidification
Data Now Available for U.S. Pacific Coast
Researchers, coastal managers, and shellfish farmers along the U.S. Pacific coast can now get real-time ocean
Web portal for ocean acidification data
acidification data through an online tool
developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data — which includes measurements of pH, carbon dioxide concentrations, salinity, and water temperatures at various sites — should help organizations and businesses make decisions about managing coastal resources and craft adaptation strategies, NOAA researchers say. The tool will feature data from five shellfish hatchery sites along the Pacific coast along with readings from NOAA’s ocean acidification monitoring sites. Ocean acidification is driven primarily by absorption of atmospheric CO2 by ocean waters, which changes seawater chemistry in a way that makes it difficult for many marine organisms to form their shells.
19 Nov 2014:
Global Maritime Shipping
Traffic Has Grown by 300 Percent Since 1992
Maritime traffic has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air, and noise pollution in
Maritime shipping traffic has increased rapidly.
the world's oceans and seas, according to a new study
quantifying global shipping traffic. Traffic went up in every ocean during the 20 years of the study, except off the coast of Somalia, where piracy has almost completely halted commercial shipping since 2006. In the Indian Ocean, where the world’s busiest shipping lanes are located, ship traffic grew by more than 300 percent over the 20-year period, according to the report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
. Burgeoning ship traffic has increased the amount air pollution, particularly above the Sri Lanka-Sumatra-China shipping lane, where researchers recorded a 50-percent increase in nitrogen dioxide, a common air pollutant, over the 20-year period. Shipping is also a major source of noise pollution, which can be harmful to marine mammals, the authors note.