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[1THING] Blog: Archive for October, 2012

[ Gabon Expedition: Rendezvous in the Rough Seas of an Oil Field ]

Mike Fay’s exploration of Gabon’s untouched wilderness led to 11 percent of the country being named national park land. This inspired Enric Sala to explore and help protect similarly pristine areas of the ocean around the world. Now the two explorers go back to the beginning to explore the murky waters off the coast of this African nation.

The scene is surreal: the sun is setting, the skies overcast. We are bombing south in a tender boat for a rendezvous in rough seas. The lights of square buildings many stories high and gas flares illuminate the sea to the horizon. This is the Total oil field south of Port Gentil, Gabon. Total has been producing a significant percentage of the Gabonese national budget for decades and today is the first time I have ventured so close.

The tender captain didn’t like the looks of what we needed to do. It was almost dark. He had to power the bow of the boat up to pipes arranged in a cup below the rig and keep it there. At the right second we needed to jump on to a ladder in a six foot swell. Do or die, I slid myself out on the bow deck and waited for a rise, jumped and ran up the ladder. One, two, three we were all up. We started up the stairs, layer after layer of offices and living quarters. The whine of turbines and smell of half combusted petroleum was heavy in the air. We met with Benjamin Seigneur, the head of his sector Grondin, an agglomeration of about 20 platforms. He was young, had about a two-week beard, looking like a combat Lieutenant that needed to be on top of it 24/7, for weeks. He was welcoming and cut to the chase. We could dive as we wished at the designated places, we needed to make sure we anchored in the right spots to avoid the sub-sea pipes and the rest was process.

We went back to the ominous ladder that went into the dark, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks.


We went back to the dreaded ladder, I looked down at the water and there in the glow of the flare and lights were hundreds of large jacks. Photo by J. Michael Fay.


A light went on my head. There are seven billion people on Earth and counting. Resource use is on a scary trajectory and these guys are out here on the front lines providing what everybody wants. So what about a new kind of protected area out here? One that takes this industrial landscape, with a whole world of features that attract fish, maybe even increase productivity, and rules that limit human activity, including all fishing and focuses on conservation. We can put a layer on the map that adds biodiversity and fisheries management to the oil fields. It needs to be done everywhere.

This is the meaning of the slogan adopted by the Gabonese Government and its President, Ali Bongo Ondimba: “Gabon Vert – Gabon Industriel – Gabon des Services” – Green Gabon – Industrial Gabon – Services Gabon”. The Green is about conservation, parks, sustainable harvest of natural resources and sustainable development. Industrial Gabon is founded on the principal of respect for the environment. These two pillars are not mutually exclusive, and looking down into the waters of the Atlantic, teeming with hundreds of fish lit by gas flares, I got it. Now it is up to us to implement the model – conservationists and industrials working together – and Gabon des Services is about sharing the model with the world at large.


Read All Gabon Expedition Posts at the National Geographic News Watch blog



[ Wind, Hydroelectricity See Bumps in New Chart of Americans’ 2011 Energy Use ]

A new analysis of American energy use in 2011 shows a shift to higher-efficiency technologies, though most energy use in the United States remains tied to coal, natural gas and petroleum (click here to see an enlarged version).

The flow chart analysis, which was released by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and was created using data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), shows that Americans last year used 97.3 quadrillion BTU (quads), a slight drop from 2010.

The majority of energy use was for electricity generation, with wind power seeing the biggest jump between 2010 and 2011, increasing 27 percent. Hydroelectricity increased 26 percent. Livermore analysts attributed these changes to an increase in the number of wind farms and to maximized output from hydroelectric dams in the western U.S., thanks to high precipitation levels.

Use of natural gas also increased slightly. “Sustained low natural gas prices have prompted a shift from coal to gas in the electricity generating sector,” Livermore analyst A.J. Simon said in a press release. “Sustained high oil prices have likely driven the decline in oil use over the past 5 years as people choose to drive less and purchase automobiles that get more miles per gallon.”

High oil prices have also led to changes in home heating habits, the EIA noted in its annual Winter Fuels Outlook this month. More American households, particularly in the Northeast, are turning to wood as fuel for home heating.

Wood use is included in the biomass section of the Livermore chart. LLNL’s Anne Stark notes that biomass is also used in the transportation sector for ethanol production and that a few power plants use wood and forest residue to produce electricity.


[ EU ‘Will Over-Deliver’ on Kyoto Emissions Targets, Agency Says ]

The European Union is on track to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 8 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to data released by the European Environment Agency (EEA) Wednesday. “The European Union as a whole will over-deliver on its Kyoto target,” said EEA Executive Director Jacqueline McGlade in a press release.

Overall EU emissions between 2010 and 2011 fell, on average, by 2.5 percent. Among member states, the United Kingdom was credited with making the biggest emissions cuts by volume, with a reduction of 36 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (Mt CO2 eq.) in 2011, or 6 percent. Cyprus, which contributes a relatively small share of the EU’s emissions, made the largest reduction by percentage, achieving a 13 percent emissions drop in 2011.

The EEA’s report attributed the drop partially to a warm winter, noting that the residential and commercial sector played the largest role in lowering emissions. “Although economic factors played a part in certain countries, it is notable that the EU economy overall grew by 1.5 percent while emissions fell by 2.5 percent,” the release said.

Nine EU states, including Bulgaria and Lithuania, saw a rise in emissions last year. However, those nations have achieved overall reductions in greenhouse gases  since 1990, according to the EEA.

The EU has committed to reducing emissions by 20 percent between 1990 and 2020. So far, it has achieved a drop of 16.5 percent and is on track to meet the full goal. But “most Member States need to step up their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by accelerating the implementation of those additional policies and measures they have already planned,” the EEA said.

The European Union is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind China and the United States, according to the International Energy Agency, or IEA (see related map: Global Carbon Footprints). Estimates released by the IEA in May showed that China had  an emissions increase of 9.3 percent in 2011, while emissions in the U.S. fell by 1.7 percent. Neither nation is bound to emissions targets under the Kyoto Protocol.



[ IKEA Vows All Solar and Wind Power by 2020 ]

Putting more in than it takes out – across the board, that’s a key aspect of the bold sustainability plan the furniture giant IKEA says it will pursue over the next several years.

The company on Tuesday vowed that by 2020 it will produce more renewable energy than it consumes in its stores and buildings. But what about all the trees felled for desks, book shelves, dining tables and chairs? It will plant more than it uses. Likewise with water: The company says that its overall water credit from all activities along the entire value chain will be greater than its water debit.

IKEA is already roaring forward on many of these goals: It has wind farms in six countries and has been blanketing store roof after store roof with solar panels at a furious pace. The solar and wind systems in operation or under construction already meet 27 percent of the company’s electricity demand.

On the consumer side, Ikea announced earlier this month that by 2016, it will sell only LED bulbs and lamps, completely phasing all other lighting options out of its inventory.

Despite the progress it has already made, it will be quite a feat if IKEA can pull this off, because one thing it’s not planning on doing is becoming smaller. “People & Planet Positive,” its strategy paper for sustainability (available online as a PDF), forecasts that the company will grow to “around 500″ stores by 2020 (it’s at around 300 now). But IKEA is bringing something of a messianic zeal — or so it sounds — to the task, as it also aims to turn the very products it sells into tools for sustainability, with super-efficient but inexpensive appliances, energy-miser light bulbs and more.

“We believe that sustainability should not be a luxury good – it should be affordable for everyone,” Chief Sustainability Officer Steve Howard said in a statement. “With over 770 million visitors to our stores, we are excited by the opportunity to help our customers fulfill their dreams at home with beautiful products that help them save money on their household bills by reducing energy and water use, as well as reducing waste.”

While there’s an obvious marketing payoff to the IKEA strategy — don’t you feel all warm and fuzzy about the company right now? — costs and risks do accompany the full-on commitment to sustainability.

IKEA says it is halfway toward investing 1.5 billion euros into solar and wind by 2015, so that’s around a billion dollars more in the next two or three years. On the compliance front, the company said it will meet a range of standards on environmental and social impact and working conditions. That could translate to less flexibility in purchasing as it seeks out certified wood and cotton, and reduces use of palm oil and leather. As the Wall Street Journal, ever mindful of the bottom line, reported: “Marketing and using more sustainable products promises to be a challenge for IKEA’s purchasing managers, who are under pressure to keep costs in check. The company has long aimed to keep prices low.”

But environmentalists said it was the kind of bold action required. John Sauven, head of Greenpeace UK, told Reuters the plan “puts IKEA at the forefront of leading companies” taking on the climate-change challenge.

—Pete Danko

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.


[ Wooden Wind Tower Claims Green Edge ]

The tens of thousands of massive towers around the world that hold megawatt-plus turbines hundreds of feet high, where the wind blows unimpede,d are fashioned of multiple steel plates rolled into a cylinder or conical shape, welded into sections of tower, and then bolted together onsite. Except for one.

In Germany, the company TimberTower announced it had for the first time used a 100-meter (328-foot) wood tower to erect a 1.5 MW wind turbine.

No, the tower, just outside Hanover, isn’t made from one gigantic tree. It might take one of California’s famous Giant Sequoias to fulfill that role, and they aren’t for sale. Plus, this tower isn’t a pole — it’s a framed and paneled structure, more akin to a building.

The tower is “manufactured as a linked system out of glued laminated timber panels and surface components, which are assembled onsite into a closed, hollow body with a hexagonal, octagonal or dodecagonal cross section,” the company explains.

The fact that the towers use PEFC certified wood and “are produced in a manner that saves energy and is environmentally friendly” – along with the CO2-consuming qualities of growing trees – gives TimberTower the confidence to assert that wood beats steel as a green tower option.

Steel turbines generally run between $300,000 and $600,000. TimberTower didn’t say what theirs might go for, but they claim a cost advantage.

“Only in the first half of the 20th century did steel begin to replace wood,” the company says on its website. “Nowadays, wood hardly figures in the production of wind energy plants. The launch of the TimberTower will change all this.”

The company says the Vensys turbine the tower holds, with blades 77 meters long, weighs more than 1,000 tons. That’s a lot of stress, but the company guarantees a minimum life cycle of 20 years – and it says it can safely build even taller towers, claiming that a hub height up to 200 meters “can be achieved economically.”

“Thanks to the crosswise layering of the longitudinal and transversal lamellae, the swelling and shrinking in the panel plane are reduced to an insignificant minimum ,” the company says. “The static ability to withstand stress and the form stability are thus significantly increased. This opens a wealth of completely new possibilities regarding load transfer. Loads are not only transferred in one direction, as is the case with supports or beams, but rather they are transferred to all sides (“real in-plane action”).”

Whether wood towers might go beyond being a rare curiosity is hard to say. The steel tower turbine market is highly competitive and like crystalline solar PV, has seen Chinese dominance lead to a trade dispute and preliminary duties on imports from China to the United States.

– Pete Danko

This post initially appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.


[ Most Say Global Warming is Real, But Does That Mean They’re Ready to Make Changes? ]

Surveys show the American public is more convinced of the reality of global warming – but how much will that really shift policy?

Two surveys released this month, from the Pew Research Center and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, both find solid majorities of Americans who say global warming is real and growing numbers who say it’s caused by human activity. The questions used are slightly different, but both agree that there’s been an increase.

  • Pew finds 67 percent say there is “solid evidence” the planet is warming, up 10 points from 2009. Some 42 percent tell Pew researchers the warming is caused by human activity such as burning fossil fuels, an increase of eight points since 2010.
  • Yale found 70 percent who say “global warming is happening,” an increase of 13 points, and 54 percent who say it’s caused by human activity, up 8 points since 2010.
  • While most people in the Yale survey still believe global warming is a distant threat, the survey also found four in 10 who say people around the world are being harmed right now by climate change.

It isn’t clear what’s driving the change, although Yale speculates that the extreme weather of the past several years may play a role. It’s also true that surveys showed public belief in climate change dipped in 2009 and 2010 – even with the recent shift, fewer say climate change is real than in 2006. There are also significant differences by age and party identification.

Many environmentalists and climate scientists have seemed mesmerized by surveys like this, because they’re convinced of a basic premise: If people believe climate change is real, then they’ll support action to prevent it.

But in fact, public thinking on solutions is a lot more complicated than that.

Accepting the problem isn’t the same thing as embracing a solution. Solving our energy problems is largely a matter of making tradeoffs, and the tradeoffs get complicated very quickly. The world desperately needs more energy, as places like China and India develop and increase demand, yet it also needs energy that’s clean, affordable and secure.

And it’s difficult to get clean, affordable and secure energy in one package. No energy source is perfect. Every option has flaws. Coal is cheap but dirty. Nuclear is clean but expensive and potentially risky. Oil is prone to price swings and political disruptions. Wind and solar require big investments to scale up.

No matter what option you pick, someone’s going to be unhappy, and something is going to be sacrificed.

What’s more, even if they believe global warming is real, people may not see it as the country’s top priority. Other problems, like the economy, may be more pressing, or none of the options may seem practical or palatable.

But this is what leaders are for: to make the choices clear to the public, and to move policy forward. So far, based on the presidential debates, we’re having half of the discussion we need. Climate change barely rates a mention, yet it’s as much a part of the tradeoffs we need to consider as the price of gas or energy security.

Accepting the reality of global warming is important. But unless you also accept the tradeoffs needed to address it, you haven’t really moved forward.


[ High Fuel Costs Spark Increased Use of Wood for Home Heating ]

High heating oil prices are causing more U.S. households to choose wood for home heating, according to a new government analysis, but only a fraction of those are using cleaner wood pellets.


[ Batter Maker A123’s Bankruptcy Underscores Hurdles for Clean Tech ]

The bankruptcy filing this week of U.S. government-backed battery maker A123 Systems demonstrates the challenges of developing clean energy technology in a still-evolving market.


[ On Moby Dick’s Anniversary, a Reminder of Our Energy Past ]

To understand how long civilization’s pursuit of energy has pitted man against the natural world, there is perhaps no better chronicle than Moby Dick, the great American novel among Herman Melville books, being celebrated on its 161st anniversary by today’s Google Doodle.

Author Herman Melville, who wrote of his own experience on whale ships, more than a century and a half ago articulated the conflict that continues to echo today in the debates over deepwater drilling, over opening the Arctic bowhead whale habitat to oil exploration, and over seismic surveys and their impact on marine mammals. (See also “Bubble Curtains: Can They Dampen Offshore Energy Sound for Whales?“)

Most people think of Moby Dick as the tale of Ahab’s anguished search for his white whale. But a more enduring story unfolds in the background, of society’s chase for oil (to light its lamps), and the whale-hunting business that grew to satisfy that demand. Melville considered how the practice of energy extraction in the early 1800s was abhorred in the very homes that enjoyed its benefits. “Butchers we are, that is true,” he wrote. “But, though the world scouts at us whale hunters, yet does it unwittingly pay us the profoundest homage; yea, an all-abounding adoration! for almost all the tapers, lamps, and candles that burn round the globe, burn, as before so many shrines, to our glory!”

The oil industry’s advocates today talk about jobs creation and the economic benefits that flow from their wells and pipelines. Melville described how the seaport of New Bedford, Massachusetts had become wealthy, “a land of oil.”  “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent… Whence came they? how planted upon this once scraggy scoria of a country?” he asks. “Go and gaze upon the iron emblematical harpoons round yonder lofty mansion, and your question will be answered. Yes; all these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

Now, the oil industry is delving miles below the sea, and in the frozen north, and squeezing the tar sands of Alberta to satisfy a global demand for energy that Melville’s world could not have imagined. Although the whale still sustains collateral damage from civilization’s pursuit of energy, nations did abandon the brutal industrial sperm whaling business that Melville records in exquisite (some would say excruciating) detail in Moby Dick. It wasn’t a surge of concern for the species that killed the whaling business, of course. It was a cheaper alternative to whale oil; the industry’s fate was sealed with the success of the first commercial petroleum oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859.

But perhaps then, there’s a hopeful message for our energy future in Moby Dick. Less than a decade after Melville’s grand account of the industry was published, in 1861, The New York Times recently noted, the whaling industry was in such decline that the federal government was buying old whale ships (perhaps much like the Pequod,) loading them with stones and sinking them in Charleston Harbor to blockade the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

In a world that is even more ambivalent about its sources of energy (See: “Chilean Wind Farm Faces Turbulence Over Whales“) than Melville’s was, shouldn’t there be greater hope for alternatives that can supplant fossil fuels as quickly as petroleum ended the hunt for Moby Dick?

(See quiz: “How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?“)


[ Second Presidential Debate: Who Won on Energy? ]

A contentious exchange over energy policy occurred early in Tuesday night’s second presidential debate in Hempstead, New York. While Gov. Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama of “keeping us from taking advantage of oil, coal and gas,” Obama continued to advocate for his “all of the above” plan to promote clean energy. “We’ve got to make sure we’re building the energy sources of the future, not just thinking about next year, but 10 years from now, 20 years from now,” he said.  (See the full transcript at The New York Times.)

The candidates sparred over, among other things, the Keystone XL pipeline, oil company leases, energy industry jobs, and the issue that perhaps hits home hardest for most Americans: gasoline prices. Romney essentially laid the blame for current gas prices (which are around $3.75 a gallon for regular fuel)  with Obama:  “The proof of whether a strategy is working or not is what the price is that you’re paying at the pump. If you’re paying less than you paid a year or two ago, why, then the strategy is working. But you’re paying more.”

But as others have pointed out, the U.S. president exerts very little control over gasoline prices, which are largely determined by the crude oil market. (See also: “Crude Reality: Gas Prices Rocket Because They Can“)

Which candidate do you think made a stronger case on energy policy? Weigh in on the poll below and in the comments.

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