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[1THING] Blog: Archive for September, 2012

[ MIT Magnets Could Pull Offshore Oil Spills From Water ]

Over two years later, the Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from the 2010 BP oil spill. Perhaps the only silver lining to this deadly event was the fact that it revealed to the world just how unprepared oil companies are to prevent, contain, and clean up offshore spills. Faced with this ugly truth, scientists and inventors have been working to advance spill clean up technologies, so that the next time a spill occurs (and there will be a next time) we have something better than boom and dispersant to throw at it.

MIT has lead the charge in this quest for new clean up technologies. Just months after the BP oil spill began, they unveiled the Seaswarm, an autonomous robot that can navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site. Now, they’ve come up with an even simpler solution: a method for separating oil from water using magnets.

We all know that oil and water don’t mix. That’s why it was so easy to see the sheen of BP’s crude oil floating on the surface of the water during and after the spill. Although it’s easy to see the oil, getting it out of the water is another problem. Skimming and burning are two common methods, but they’re inefficient, and make it impossible to recover any of the oil.

MIT’s new technique would mix water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles into the oil plume, then utilize a magnet to simply lift the oil out of the water. According to a recent release, the researchers envision that the process could take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. Afterward, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil and reused. It’s believed that this ability to recover and reuse the oil would offset much of the cost of cleanup, making companies like BP more willing to foot the bill for their mistakes.

“This oil-spill problem has not really been worked on intensively that I know of, and of course it’s a big problem,” said Ronald Rosensweig, a former Exxon researcher and a pioneer in the study of ferrofluids who wrote the field’s first textbook. “You could think of separating oil from water by centrifuging or something like that, but in a lot of cases, the fluids are pretty much equal in density: Some of the oil sinks, some of it floats, and a lot of it is in between. The magnetic hook could, hopefully, make separation faster and better.”

— Beth Buczynski

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


[ Shell’s Arctic Plan Curtailed by Dome Damage ]

The aptly named Arctic Challenger—Shell’s* trouble-plagued oil spill recovery barge—has once again demonstrated how challenging drilling for oil in the Arctic can be in a post-Deepwater-Horizon world.

(Related: “Is Another Deepwater Horizon Disaster Inevitable?“)

The barge, which underwent a multi-million-dollar facelift in a Bellingham, Washington, shipyard, was retrofitted to serve as the flagship of Shell’s “state of the art” Arctic containment system. Yet during the first test of the oil spill recovery dome in Puget Sound on Saturday night, the barge crew managed to ding up the dome as they attempted to place it over a mock runaway well—ending any hope that Shell would drill into potential pay dirt on any of its Arctic leases this year.

Instead, the company says it will drill as many “top-holes” as it can before sea ice sets in by late October, laying the groundwork for the 2013 drilling season.

“It’s a disappointment that this particular system is not ready yet,” Marvin E. Odum, the president of Shell Oil, told the New York Times. “We’ve made the call that we are better off not drilling in hydrocarbons this year.”

(Related: “Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers“)

It is just the latest in a series of mishaps that have hampered Shell’s drilling efforts and left many critics doubting if the company is ready to drill in one of the harshest—and most pristine—environments on the planet. Earlier this summer, Shell’s 514-foot (157-meter) Liberian-registered drill ship, Noble Discoverer, drug its anchor during a blow in Dutch Harbor and drifted close to shore in front of the Royal Aleutian Hotel. The ship was undamaged and on September 9,  began drilling in the Burger Prospect some 50 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. A day later, however, it had to pull out and abandon the site to avoid an ice floe.

(Related: “Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts,While Nations Mull Changed Arctic“)

The 38-year-old Arctic Challenger—a former barge with so much new superstructure it now looks a bit like a floating casino with a crane— has been beset with electrical and safety equipment issues and delayed Shell’s advance into the Arctic because it did not  pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Towed by ocean tugs, the barge houses 72 workers, the containment dome, as well as other oil spill response equipment. It’s supposed to have enough capacity to store spilled oil for 24 hours until Shell’s oil spill tanker reaches any spill site. It was a voluntary piece of equipment offered by Shell, but as it is part of the drilling permit and plan,  Shell has not been allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones before it is on-station off Barrow. It remains in a repair dock in Bellingham, Washington, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

At a conference in Alaska a few weeks ago, Shell’s vice president for Alaska, Peter Slaiby, stressed that the Challenger was a redundant piece of equipment—a fourth line of defense against a blow-out that would only come into play after drilling mud, a beefed-up Blow-Out-Preventer, and a ready-made capping stack that was already on site had all failed. (It was a capping stack that eventually closed down BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, but it had to be built on the fly as oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico; Shell agreed to have a stack ready in the Arctic, and it is currently on a ship stationed between the Beaufort and Chukchi drill sites.)

(Related Quiz: “How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?“)

But the details emerging about the failed containment dome test do little to bolster Shell’s assurances. According to anonymous sources who spoke to the L.A. Times, the dome was damaged when Shell workers attempted to lower it over weights that had been dropped to the sea floor to simulate the site of a runaway well. According to the L.A. Times, one of the dome’s eight winches stuck on the way down. When a min-sub, known in the industry as Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, was sent down to inspect the problem, it became entangled in the dome’s cables and eventually sank. Divers were then dispatched to recover the inoperable dome.

Shell’s statement on the incident emphasized the care it was taking in proving its gear (“We will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely,” it said.)

But the company’s critics were quick to pounce on the latest setback. “This incident as well as others over the summer show that Shell is clearly not prepared to go forward in a safe way,” says Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, one of three environmental groups challenging Shell’s air permit, drilling permit and oil spill response plan in court. “If Shell has such an incident in the calm waters of Puget Sound, what happens when one of those arctic storms whips up?”

The ultimate lesson? The Arctic gives up its treasures slowly.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.



[ Listening to the past ]

What did the world of naturalist Aldo Leopold sound like?

Rising before daylight and perched on a bench at his Sauk County shack in Depression-era Wisconsin, Leopold routinely took notes on the dawn chorus of birds. Beginning with the first pre-dawn calls of the indigo bunting or robin, Leopold would jot down in tidy script the bird songs he heard, when he heard them, and details such as the light level when they first sang. He also mapped the territories of the birds near his shack, so he knew where the songs originated. Lacking a tape recorder, the detailed written record was the best the iconic naturalist could do.

The dawn chorus that Leopold heard in1940 no longer exists at the shack. The mix of species today is different due to changes in the landscape and changes in the bird community around the shack. More noticeable is the thrum of the nearby interstate highway, audible at every hour from Leopold’s storied sanctuary, and other sounds of human activity.

But here’s the good news! Stan Temple, a University of Wisconsin-Madison emeritus professor of wildlife ecology and Christopher Bocast, a UW-Madison Nelson Institute graduate student and acoustic ecologist, have recreated a “soundscape” from Leopold’s 70 year-old notes.

The soundscape produced by Temple and Bocast is a compressed version of the chorus described by Leopold, taking 30 minutes of notes and compressing them into five minutes of recording. Bird songs and calls were obtained from the extensive collection housed at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library.

Listen to the soundscape here.

You can visit Aldo Leopold’s Sauk County shack, part of the Aldo Leopold Nature center. Find out more here.

Information from UW-Madison News Service.


[ On Trying to Catch the Wind Energy? ]

A lack of wind won’t stall our future renewable energy economy, but Congress might.

Debunking the Myths That Take the Wind out of Wind Energy’s Sails

Wind has its downsides. It’s intermittent; it’s too expensive. Fair points, but there are ways around them. For example the whole intermittency issue could be handled now by using spatially diverse sources; and once affordable energy storage technologies are developed, intermittency will likely become a non-issue.

And the cost issue is in many ways a red herring. Many argue that fossil fuels are cheaper than renewable energy sources because of the market’s failure to account for the so-called external costs of fossil fuels such as pollution. These are costs we all bear but are not reflected in the price we pay for the energy; if those externalities were included in the price of energy generated from fossil fuels, renewable energy would become more competitive perhaps even less costly. Even now, wind-generated electricity is now in a virtually cost-competitive heat with coal-fired power generation.

But Can We Extract Enough

As a world community, at any given moment our maximum power draw is somewhere between 12.5 and 18 terawatts. That’s orders of magnitude smaller than the amount of power dissipated by the wind — about 50,000 terawatts in the lower atmosphere or troposphere.

So we can all agree that there’s a lot of wind to be had, but can we have it? Can we put enough turbines in place to capture enough energy without affecting the climate? In short, if we wanted to build a clean energy economy around wind, could we? Two new studies say, yes, we have enough wind to power the globe … and then some.

Saturation Point Not a Problem

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Christina Archer of the University of Delaware explored the limits of wind availability for energy extraction relative to what is known as the saturation point. In principle one would expect that increasing the number of turbines would increase the amount of energy generated from wind. That’s true but only up to a point, the saturation point, beyond which the benefits of adding another turbine decrease while the costs increase. That saturation point occurs when the turbines get so close together that one is always in the draft of another and there’s just not any more wind to be gotten.

Is this a problem? Jacobson and Archer set out to find out — to see how much energy is available prior to reaching the saturation point. The authors used a dynamic global model to estimate “the maximum wind power that can be extracted upon increasing the number of wind turbines over a large geographic region, independent of societal, environmental, climatic, or economic considerations.” Their calculations indicate that this saturation wind power potential exceeds current energy demand several times over — about 80 terawatts, if the turbines are set at 100 meters above the land surface (excluding Antarctica) and coastal ocean, and 380 terawatts at 10 kilometers above in the jet streams.

No Significant Climate Effects

Another concern over using lots of wind for power generation is that it will disrupt the climate by pulling too much wind energy out of the atmosphere. Not a problem, says a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Kate Marvel of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and colleagues. They conclude that “at the level of present global primary power demand [about 18 terawatts], uniformly distributed wind turbines are unlikely to substantially affect the Earth’s climate.”

So what are the limitations to developing wind power at the global scale? Marvel et al seem to hit the nail on the head when they conclude their paper with: “It seems that the future of wind energy will be determined by economic, political and technical constraints, rather than global geophysical limits.”

Which brings us to the continuing saga of the Production Tax Credit for wind, which begins way back in the 19th century when the federal government first got into the business of giving a helping hand to fledgling energy industries.

The Production Tax Credit

If you read this blog regularly, you might know that subsidies and tax credits have been an integral part of American energy policy since the 19th century. We built railroads to help the timber industry, and we provided healthy subsidies to jump-start the coal, oil and gas industries. And so it was not at all surprising when, following the oil shock of the 1970s, the federal government began to give a leg up to renewable energy. The first of those came in the form of the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 which required public utilities to purchase lower-cost energy from independent producers including renewables sources.

With the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress first established the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit for new facilities that would generate electricity using a renewable energy source — an attempt to somewhat level the playing field with established non-renewable energy sources (see earlier discussion about cost competitiveness). Initially given at 1.5 cents (adjusted for inflation) for every kilowatt-hour produced by a new wind plant for its first 10 years of operation, the subsidy for wind currently stands at 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. “In effect,” as explained on the Energy Information Administration’s website, “the subsidy reduces the per-kilowatthour cost of new wind plants by 20 to 25 percent.”

The original Production Tax Credit expired in July 1999 but before the year ran out it was extended to 2001. Since then, Congress has reauthorized and expanded it numerous times, most recently in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (or stimulus package). Failing Congressional action, this tax incentive for wind will expire at the end of this calendar year (other tax supports for other renewables will extend through 2013).

Should the federal tax credit for wind be extended? The arguments on the pro’s [pdf]  and con’s abound. But there is a pretty strong consensus about one thing: if the tax credit for wind is not extended, the U.S. wind industry will tank, much as it did each time in the recent past when the tax credit went on hiatus. (Indeed, Siemens announced this week that it is laying off 615 workers at its U.S. wind facilities, citing uncertainty over the tax credit as a reason.)

Historic impact of PTC expiration on annual wind installation (AWEA)
“Historic impact of the Production Tax Credit expiration on annual wind installation” (Used with permission by the American Wind Energy Association [pdf])


And right now the chances of extending the tax credit for wind are looking rather slim. While President Obama has called for an extension,presidential nominee Romney has come out against it. Several bills that would extend it have been languishing in Congress. While the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved an extension with bipartisan support, the bill has yet to come to the Senate floor. On the House side, the Energy and Commerce Committee rejected a bid to add an amendment to the so-called “No More Solyndra” bill that would have extended the subsidy.

And so the future of wind energy development in the United States seems very much, if you’ll pardon expression, up in the air. There is talk of both chambers considering an extension of the subsidy after the election. Sort of makes sense: along with the fiscal cliff why not a wind cliff?

* This post has been amended with the news of the Siemens layoffs.


[ EarthShare PSA: Impacts ]

EarthShare PSA: “EarthShare Impacts”

A probono project made possible by a dedicated group of NYU film students and other volunteers, our latest video reminds us about the substantial accomplishments of EarthShare’s member charities and how their work protects the food we eat and the air we breathe, the playgrounds and parks where our children play, the land and wilderness we share with other living creatures, and so much more. The environment sustains us and is our future — it’s up to us to care for it.

With your help, EarthShare has raised nearly $300 million to support the work of more than 500 nonprofit organizations working to preserve and protect our natural world. If you’re a member of the media and you’d like more information about EarthShare’s materials, please contact us!

Go behind the scenes for the making of “EarthShare Impacts” and learn how the film came together here.


[ EDF Climate Corps Saves Energy and Money ]

EDF Climate Corps Saves Energy and Money

Katie Ware manages marketing and
communications at Environmental Defense Fund
(EDF), an EarthShare member organization. Here she answers some questions about
Climate Corps, a highly
competitive fellowship program that pairs specially trained graduate students
with companies, cities and universities to take their energy management
programs to the next level – whether they’re just starting out or are already leaders
in the climate and energy space.


Nicholas Lopez on a building facilities tour during the 2012 EDF Climate Corps training

Where did the idea
for EDF Climate Corps come from?

We recognized one of the fastest and most cost-effective
ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions was through improved energy efficiency in
buildings. Commercial and residential buildings account for more than a third
of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. McKinsey & Company
estimates that the U.S. could reduce its annual energy consumption 23 percent
through efficiency measures, which could save companies and consumers over a
trillion dollars.

EDF launched Climate Corps in 2008 to seize this opportunity.
We started with just seven student fellows in Bay Area companies. When those
fellows found $35 million in energy savings in just one summer, we realized the
model worked. We’ve since placed nearly 300 fellows in approximately 200
leading companies, cities and universities across the nation.

Since EDF Climate Corps began, we’ve uncovered energy
efficiency opportunities worth $1 billion in net operational costs for participating organizations
like Facebook, Boeing, Chicago Public School Systems and the City of Atlanta,
and more than a million metric tons of avoided annual carbon emissions for the


What are some common
efficiency improvements that organizations make as a result of the program?

When we started the program, we wanted the fellows to take
advantage of the low hanging fruit for energy opportunities – to go in and turn
off the lights, so to speak. The fellows would crunch the numbers and work
closely with companies to implement technical energy efficiency projects in
areas such as lighting, HVAC and office equipment. More recently, we’ve also
seen a shift in the fellows’ efforts toward helping develop more strategic
projects and processes to improve energy management practices.

Many organizations task fellows with projects around
employee engagement, behavior change initiatives, long-term goal setting and
investment prioritization tools. We’ve especially seen this in organizations
that have participated for multiple years. Each year, we’re able to take the
engagement deeper and focus on making improvements to allow for long-term,
comprehensive energy management. We’ve found that fellows are able to provide
value to any organization, whether they’re just beginning to focus on energy
management or are already an industry leader. There’s always more to do.

database of case studies
is a good representation of the kinds of projects
fellows work on. Our
is also a great resource.


What challenges do
companies face in implementing efficiency or sustainability measures?

Companies face many barriers to implementing energy-saving
projects, most of which have nothing to do with technology and everything to do
with the way people make decisions. Put simply, companies are made up of
individuals driven by priorities, habits, and organizational cultures that
often impede progress on energy efficiency.

We’ve been doing a lot of thinking around ways to overcome barriers.
We recently released the report Breaking
Down Barriers to Energy Efficiency: Findings from EDF Climate Corps 2011.
offers effective ways to motivate employees, create accountability for success,
identify investment opportunities, ensure funding for financially attractive
projects, measure cost savings, and scale performance gains continuously over

Whether a company is trying to get off the starting block,
or taking its energy and climate initiatives to the next level, the report
outlines proven strategies for getting beyond the low-hanging fruit to the tremendous
savings that energy efficiency can deliver.


Paulina Orkisz spent her summer as an EDF Climate Corps fellow for the Adidas Group

How do you ensure
companies continue making efficiency upgrades after the students have left the

Fellows often identify folks to pass the baton on to before
leaving the program. We follow up with host organizations to check on
implementation in the years following the fellowship as well. It’s promising to
see that most of the low-to-no cost projects get implemented right away. Many
of the larger scale projects identified in the past couple years are already
complete or underway too. A particularly interesting trend we’ve seen is
organizations participating for multiple summers, with each fellow building on
the work of their predecessor(s). 


What changes does the
program hope to make in the coming years?

While quick wins and low- or no-cost projects are critical
to building momentum for energy efficiency, our goal is to move companies past
one-off initiatives toward a comprehensive energy management strategy that
delivers systemic and lasting reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas
emissions. As we continue to expand our network and engage more deeply with
organizations, we look forward to increasing our impact.


Do you represent a company or organization that would
like to get involved with EDF Climate Corps to cut energy costs? Email EDF at
info@edfclimatecorps.org to learn more.
Spaces are filling up fast for 2013, so be sure to contact them soon.


[ In Uganda, Villages Reap Benefits of “Machine” Energy ]

The grueling processing of grain and gathering of firewood dominate life in Uganda’s Teso region. Engineers Without Borders is seeking to help power an improved harvest.


[ Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts as Nations Mull Changed Arctic ]

Shell begins Arctic drilling. While some focus on spill risk, summit leaders consider the wider environmental impact of opening a new industrial frontier.


[ Should state park admission be free? ]

I was on vacation in Iowa recently, and was downright surprised to find out that admission to all their state parks is free.*

With revenue shortfalls common across the country, I applaud that state’s determination to not charge admission. I feel this shows their commitment to encouraging every one to get outside and enjoy nature.

I took the above picture at Pike’s Peak State Park, across the border from Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. Although they didn’t cooperate for a picture, I saw bald eagles and peregrine falcons soaring around, and it was absolutely breathtaking and life-affirming.

In Wisconsin, you could experience the same thing, right across the river at Wyalusing State Park, where you’ll pay $7 to get in, unless you forked out $25  for an annual pass.

I understand budget concerns, but I think it would be wonderful if the state didn’t have to put a price on nature. It’s just a thought.

*Illinois also does not charge admission fees for its state parks, although a proposal to start charging was considered in the Illinois legislature earlier this year.



[ Ocean Energy Teams Compete for $16 Million Scotland Prize ]

In the roiling waters off Scotland’s coast, companies are vying to prove technology to harness the energy of the sea.