Category Archives: Energy

Al Gore: “Our Democracy has been hacked”.

algoreAl Gore gave an inspiring talk last night at Harvard University titled “Healthy Planet, Healthy People” in honor of the late Dr. Paul R. Epstein, the brilliant scientist who shared the Nobel Peace prize with him in 2007.

Gore started the night by acknowledging Dr. Epstein’s work in connecting the dots between climate change and its impact on global human health.

Warming temperatures will allow disease carrying mosquitoes to spread out of the tropics, bringing malaria, dengue fever, and other currently tropical diseases to higher latitudes. “Global warming will also prolong mosquitoes reproductive and life cycles, and enable deadly viruses to survive in places that were too hostile for them before” Gore explained.

Gore also mentioned the connection between the uprising of diseases like cholera and global warming. “Communities have learned to deal with cholera by investing in infrastructure and building better sewer systems. The last thing they would have done is turn their streets into an open sewer. But that is exactly what we are doing to our atmosphere. We are using it as an open dumping ground, dumping over 35 billion metric tones of carbon per year”.

Gore quoted James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute to illustrate the severity of the situation “the amount of extra heat being trapped in our atmosphere is like exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs per day 365 days per year, that is insane”.

He continued by explaining how the weather patterns are also being severely disrupted by global warming. “We will have more floods, stronger hurricanes, and more intense droughts in the upcoming years. Communities all around the world are experiencing one in a hundred, one in a thousand events every two or three years. Extreme weather will become the new normal.”

The audience broke into laughter when Gore mentioned that “When Inconvenient truth came out I repeatedly heard from my detractors that I was exaggerating when I talked about water flooding the World Trade Center memorial site. After Sandy, I don’t get that anymore”.

Gore explained how democracy and capitalism, the two pillars supporting the weight of our society have been degraded over time and turned into a corrupted and intertwined mess.

“Our democracy has been hacked, our operating system has been turned into something very different our founders intended. What our founders gave us was amazing, and I’ve watched it degrade over time.” Gore said.

Gore also said that “our elected representatives today are not worried about their constituents, they spend their time begging for money, it’s a race of who can put more ads on TV. This deeply affects the way they think and make decisions.”

Even if corruption is evident, Gore remains optimistic in our democratic system. “I am hopeful because of the internet. Not today, not tomorrow but soon the internet will replace TV and people will have an open space for debate and conversation, internet is the public square for democracy”.

Gore also explained that our economic system needs to be redefined. One of the main problems our current system faces is our definition of growth. “The definition we are using for growth is literally insane” Gore said.

Gore argued that GDP, the main tool for measuring a country’s economy is terribly flawed.

Simon Kuznets, the economist who first developed GDP in 1934 warned that it should not be used to measure a country’s wealth. But of course, nobody listened.

Since GDP was implemented in 1937, almost 95% of the US income goes to the top 1% of the country.

Gore, like Kuznets and many others believe that GDP fails to take into account major aspects of a country’s economy, such as externalities, depreciation of resources, positive externalities or distribution of income.

Costs related to pollution or environmental degradation are not accounted for (externalities), and contributions to science, mental health or arts (positive externalities) are also ignored in this economic model.

“Our GDP tells us, hey we are doing great, the US is just fine, but in reality we are not. Only the top 1% is doing well. We must be more accurate, or this economic model will drive us over the edge of the cliff.” Gore said.

But despite all this, Al Gore remains hopeful. “I am optimistic because President Obama in his acceptance speech addressed Global warming in an urgent manner, more than any other president before him. Obama now has no choice but to address global warming and act. And I know he welcomes this challenge”.

Al Gore is hopeful that renewable energies will pick up soon as the cost reduction and increased implementation will make them more accessible. He also recommends putting a price on carbon and regulating CO2 emissions from power plants.

Gore ended his talk praising young people’s passion and desire for change. “Young people that don’t succumb to the temptation of being cynical, and are passionate about what they do is what gives me hope for the future”.

The Big Spill

In these last few months I’ve seen numerous images of dolphins, pelicans and turtles  floating in the deadly and unfortunately coveted oil that is now spilled all over the Gulf of Mexico. But despite the media “bombarding” I still didn’t quite have a complete picture on what went wrong.

 

Sea Turtle Conservancy

 

 

By Charlie Riedel

 

The BP Gulf spill is the “worst environmental disaster in U.S. history” and no one still knows the extent of this catastrophe or how many generations will witness its devastating consequences.

Let’s start by looking back a year before the explosion happened.

On April of 2009 the U.S. Mineral Management Service (MMS), the federal agency that regulates offshore drilling, gave BP a “categorical exclusion” from requirements to prepare a detailed environmental impact report because they thought a spill to be highly “unlikely”.

The MMS claimed that the likelihood of a spill was less than 1% and that if a spill were to happen it wouldn’t be significant or release much oil.

But on April 20th of 2010 BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, turning  one of the world’ s most advanced drill rigs into a pile of twisted metal and putting the MMS and BP to shame.

Initial reports estimated a flow of oil of 1000 barrels per day, a few days later it went up to 5000, and by the end of April it went up to 25,000 barrels per day.

By the beginning of  May the  realization that this spill was the worst in U.S. history was undeniable, the final estimates went up to 100,000 barrels per day!

BP’s Response

Before the spill, BP had an environmental response plan which claimed that the company could recover 500,000 barrels per day using current technology, and therefore the worst case scenario spill would not pose any danger. In this report BP also claimed that a worst case scenario spill would not harm any of the fisheries or marine life of the Gulf of Mexico, including walruses, sea otters and sea lions.

As you are probably thinking, there are no sea otters, sea lions or walruses in the Gulf. We later learned that BP copied and pasted word by word an old environmental response plan prepared for the arctic. They obviously did not take preventing an environmental disaster seriously and as a consequence they have endangered our finite and valuable resources with their carelessness and incompetence.

So what did BP do in order to “try” to clean up their mess?

Mainly two things: Burn the spilled oil and pour chemicals (dispersants) into the water.

These two methods were used to cover their “backs” in the easiest and cheapest way without taking the long-term consequences into consideration. BP priorities are clear, economic profits before people or the environment.

 

NOAA

 

By burning tons of oil, not only did they release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, but also sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and volatile organic compounds.

And they were not just burning oil, countless turtles and other marine animals like dolphins and whales were also burnt alive as shown in the picture below.

According to the NY times, the dispersant used by BP (Corexit) was banned in the UK over a decade ago even though it’s EPA approved.

Corexit was also used in the Exxon-Valdez spill and has been linked to human health problems including respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney, blood disorders and reproductive  problems.

Dispersants like Corexit break up oil into droplets that linger longer in the water instead of collecting at the surface.  Their use in the Gulf spill has limited the instances (and images) of oil-covered seabirds, but has kept the effects of the spill mostly underwater.

Dispersants have mostly moved the oil from the surface to the deep waters of the Gulf. What is now feared is that these deep-sea pockets of oil are fastly approaching the gulf loop current which could spread the oil into the Atlantic Ocean.

The most conservative figures estimate a total of 5 million barrels of oil spilled to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists and government officials estimate that BP burned  less than 1/4 of the spill,  another quarter had dispersed into scattered molecules, 1/4 has dispersed into small droplets which are extremely toxic to animals, and the last quarter (five times the size of the Exxon-Valdez spill) remains as sheens on the water or tall balls in beaches.

Environmental and Social Impact

The long-term consequences of this tremendous disaster is still unknown. The oil spill’s impact on the environment and socio-economics of the region will continue for decades to come.

In the first four weeks after the explosion that killed 11 workers and started the massive leak, wildlife officials say at least 500 birds, 250 turtles and 50 mammals, were found dead along the US Gulf coast.  In the following months after the explosion, thousands of fishes, birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles were killed by the oil, and  their eggs and offspring poisoned.

Most scientists agree that the damage to the Gulf wildlife will last for many generations due to the high toxicity of the area.

Louisiana, the nearest state to the leaking well, around 42 miles offshore, has been the most impacted. The state’s governor stated in May that almost 200 of its 400-mile coast had been polluted at that time.

The U.S. government has declared a “fishery disaster” in the seafood-producing states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama due to the oil spill. A quarter of US waters in the Gulf of Mexico are closed to fishing, hitting the livelihoods of shrimpers, oyster-catchers and charter boat operators.  Marine biologists agree that “every fish and invertebrate contacting the oil is probably dying”.

Following is a map showing the fishery closure boundary (as of June 2010):

Most government officials said the impacts could take years to unfold. Scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service stated that “this is just a giant experiment going on and we’re trying to understand scientifically what this means”.

One of the marine species that has been mostly affected are sea turtles. Their range is shown in the map below.

View (courtesy of NASA) of the spill from space:

Looking forward

The Deepwater Horizon explosion is a direct consequence of our addiction to oil. The most important conclusion we should take from this disaster is the urgent need to shift towards clean renewable energies.

The prize of oil becomes way too expensive if we take all its externalities into consideration. The clean up, environmental and health costs and impact on the local economy are all externalities that should be considered when paying for oil.  In the long run green energy is not only cleaner and safer but also much cheaper!

We only have a few more years of oil left before we exhaust the last reserves on earth, and we should be moving towards renewables at a much higher speed.

President Obama just lifted the moratorium on deep water drilling, so unfortunately it looks like we will continue to drill until the last drop of oil, no matter how many more accidents, spills or deaths this may cause.

Instead, we should be focusing in investing more into clean renewable energies, that is the only way to ensure an accident free and clean future for us and our kids.

Sources:

National Geographic

NOAA

NY Times

Algae, the Fuel of the Future

Earth2tech

Earth2tech

Biofuels that come from corn, palm, sugar cane or soy are responsible for deforestation and an increase in food prices.

This is not the case of a  biofuel that was first considered in the seventies, and is now getting much deserved attention: algae.

Algae transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently that they can double their weight several times a day, and can generate 30 times more oil per hectare than other plant based biofuels. Algae can grow in salt water, freshwater or even contaminated water, at sea or in ponds, and on land not suitable for food production.

Its production doesn’t require massive amounts of land like other plant based fuels.

On top of those advantages, algae grows better when fed extra carbon dioxide (the main greenhouse gas),  and on contaminated water bodies. By collecting algae we could produce biofuel while cleaning up other problems at the same time.

Various algae contain different levels of oil, and they can also be genetically modified to produce more oil. Most scientists argue that the algae found in pond scum is best suited for biodiesel.

Also, pressing algae creates a few more useful byproducts such as fertilizer and feedstock without depleting other food sources.

Once the oil’s extracted, it’s refined, mixed with an alcohol (such as methanol), and a few more steps will bring algae biodiesel fuel.

Polluted lake-Algal bloom

Polluted lake-Algal bloom

But the most exciting part of algae biodiesel is the great productivity at low cost (economic and environmental). Biodiesel makers claim they’ll be able to produce more than 800 gallons of algae oil per ha per year.

Algae production has the potential to outperform other potential biodiesel products such as palm or corn. For example, a 50 ha algae biodiesel plant could potentially produce 10 million gallons of biodiesel in a single year. Experts estimate it will take 140 billion gallons of algae biodiesel to replace petroleum-based products each year. To reach this goal, algae biodiesel companies will only need about 40 million ha of land to build biodiesel plants, compared to billions of hectares for other biodiesel products. Since algae can be grown anywhere indoors, it’s a promising element in the race to produce a new fuel.

For now algae based biofuel is still in the R&D stage, but we’ll hopefully  run our cars on this uber green fuel in our lifetime.

Some interesting Algae Biodiesel Start-ups:

GreenFuel

Aurora

BFS

Saphire

How Biofuels are killing the last Orangutans

2810orangutan_narrowweb__300x4280The Orangutan is one of our closest and most enigmatic relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA.

Their name is derived from the Malaysian words orang hutan, which means the person of the forest.

According to recent research, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities.

They have been documented to use tools like chimpanzees, but also have been found capable of other tasks beyond chimpanzees’ abilities such as using leaves to make rain hats and leak proof roofs over their sleeping nests.

But there are still many questions about their intelligence and social behaviour that will probably remain unanswered.

It is now clear that if their habitat continues to be destroyed at the current rate, they will be extinct in 5 to 8 years.

There are only an estimated 50,000 orangutans left in the wild, 90 % of them are in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia. Most live in small, scattered populations that cannot take the destruction on the forests much longer. Trees are being cut at a rate of 300 football fields every day. The majority of the cleared forest  is being converted into huge oil palm plantations.


forest_fires_borneo_sumatra

Forest fires from the air

Forest fire-Palm oil plantation

Forest fire-Palm oil plantation

Palm oil is currently considered the most productive source of biodiesel fuel, and Indonesia and Malaysia account for 83 % of its global production.

A United Nations report has found that “illegal logging and fires have been overtaken as the primary cause of deforestation by a huge expansion of oil palm plantations, which are racing to meet the increasing demand from western food manufacturers and the European Union’s increased demand for biofuels.”

But several new studies show that the biodiesel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its supporters intended: it’s dramatically accelerating global warming instead of saving us from it.

The basic problem with most biofuels is very simple: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests that store enormous amounts of carbon. Indonesia has burned so much forest to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters.

The studies which favored biofuels did not take into consideration whether the crops would ultimately replace vegetation and soils that sucked up even more carbon. It was as if they assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots.

One groundbreaking new study in Science concluded that when this deforestation effect is taken into account, corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline.

Palm plantation

Oil palm plantation

But while the western world drives their cars fueled by biodiesel from palm oil, more than 5.000 orangutans die every year.

Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas and baby Orangutan

Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas and baby Orangutan

Dr. Galdikas, a pioneer in Orangutan conservation (the Jane Goodall of Orangutans but not as famous) runs a rehabilitation center with more than 300 animals orphaned when their mothers were killed by palm oil plantation workers.

In a recent article she explains that “Many come in very badly wounded, suffering from malnutrition, psychological and emotional and even physical trauma”. After years of being cared for in the center, they introduce them back to the wild, but she explains that “it is getting harder and harder to find good, safe forest in which to free them”.

Friends of the Earth state in their report “Oil for Ape” that “Destructive oil-palm plantations will continue to spread, and the forests of Borneo and Sumatra will continue to be destroyed, unless the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia recognize the customary land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities”.

The Indonesian government took the indigenous land and is now selling it to the Palm Oil corporations. They are both making more money than they could ever imagine.

Don’t be fooled by this fuel; biofuels are not clean energy. Not only do they contribute to carbon emissions by replacing forests, but also kill thousands of animals by destroying their habitat, and the Orangutans have very little time left.


babyorang

Check out these videos and organizations to learn more about them and about what you can do:

UN : “The last stand of the Orangutan” (PDF)