Greenhouse Gases


The concept behind biochar is a bit complicated but very interesting. Based on an ancient Amazonian practice of burying carbon in the soil, the industry plans to sequester vast quantities of carbon in the soil and sell the latent emissions as credits on the worldwide carbon market. The theory is that if terra preta (charcoal enriched soil) is created on a global scale as much as 6 billion tons of CO2 would be prevented from entering the atmosphere every year. Although this is only about half of the 8 to 10 billion tons of carbon emitted yearly by human activity it is still substantial enough to be investigated. In fact, scientists around the world are saying that burying biochar would not only slow the rate of global warming it would also enhance the soil and make a side dish of sustainable biofuels as well.

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This is such a cool idea that I just had to come at it, even though I’m a few months behind on the original announcement. In September, 2009, a new car aptly named the “Algaeus” completed it’s cross country tour successfully and refueled the idea that algae might bring natural solutions to our high tech problems after all. The algae fueled car traveled 3,750 miles across the country, spreading the word of new possibilities. After it completed it’s tour, it then joined the “Green Energy Bus”, the Veggie Van Organization and the FUEL team for a college tour to further spread the green word. The “Green Energy Bus” is a retrofit interactive classroom that shows students just how the new concept works.

The Algaeus is the brainchild of Sapphire Energy, the leader in algae-based renewable fuel, who joined with the team behind the award winning film FUEL, to complete the first cross-country car tour powered by a blend of algae-based gasoline in an unmodified engine. It took a total of 10 days after starting in San Fransisco and making it’s way to New York City, to which it arrived on September 18. The Algaeus presents a tantalizing peek into a very likely future which excites me. Sapphire Energy provides the fuel for the extraordinary car, containing a mixture of hydrocarbons refined directly from algae-based Green Crude and extracted through Sapphire’s proprietary process. However, there really is nothing extraordinary about the car in reality. It could be your car, the way things are hopefully going to turn out!

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The big news on the climate front is the bill released by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) last month. It is disappointing to many environmentalists and activists but they are now saying it may be as ambitious as we can hope for given the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on Congress. I am really not happy with it because it just won’t make a significant impact on our increasingly unstable climate. I consider that a disaster.

I guess this bill is a bit better, though, than the 1427 pages of garbage that Waxman and Markey pushed through the House in June. This is known as the American Clean Air and Security Act and both Waxman and Markey are Democrats. It was a complex bill that was hard to read and understand but it essentially had the fingerprints of agribusiness and oil industry lobbyists all over it. This bill by Kerry and Box is a leaner, cleaner bill with a few less fingerprints but it still doesn’t get past environmentalists and climate scientists who actually care.

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In Florida, 12 waste-to-energy facilities from Miami to Panama City process nearly 20,000 tons of municipal solid waste each day while continuously producing over 500 megawatts of clean, renewable power. This amount of waste is enough to fill a football stadium, imagine that! The Tampa Bay area is home to four waste-to-energy facilities, located in the City of Tampa and in the counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. Without these facilities, local governments would be faced with the daunting task of siting large landfills near rapidly growing residential communities. The issue of this development is another problem to be addressed in a different forum but there is no doubt that this landfill to energy idea is a good one.

I first heard about this idea several years ago when a small county northwest of where I reside started pumping landfill gas through pipes and converting it to energy. In fact, I later heard a follow up that claimed the entire city was running on this power alone. Amazing. Not only is this greenie meanie but it’s cheap, too. These waste-to-energy projects eliminate 90% of the waste that might have ended up in a landfill. But it isn’t nearly enough, as you can imagine, because landfills throughout the state are reaching capacity faster than anticipated. It is becoming increasingly difficult to expand landfills or open new ones as residential development encroaches on once-remote landfill sites. People are already living in homes where they can smell garbage 24/7 in various lower income areas around the state. Florida’s current population of over 17 million is expected to reach almost 23 million by the year 2020, bringing even more challenges to managing municipal solid waste.

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I can recall the economists, bureaucrats and investors rejoicing loudly and proudly when the Commerce Department announced that U.S. exports were rising overall, as much as $28.8 billion higher than the year before. But what the department made less noise about and even failed to mention in many instances, was the rising tide of imports, which were up as much or more, around $26.4 billion between the year 2007 and 2008.

I also read an article explaining that the nation’s seaports, airports, railways and highways were still faced with moving an additional $40 billion worth of stuff in and out across our borders, on top of the $330 billion worth of stuff that’s already going in and out each month. These figures omit the increases in the import cost that comes from rising oil prices, which is a huge factor.

But imports of consumer and industrial goods continue to dominate over exports in our trade balance. This is what is called a “trade deficit”. We make and export far less than we import and consume and this has had a huge impact on our economy and current inability to pull ourselves out of the recession. And the need for imports just keeps rising as our capacity to manufacture those items keeps disappearing. The hauling, sorting and delivering of all these foreign-made goods has evolved into a fast-growing, high-tech, high-profit industry. On that end, those that profit from this business are hard pressed to slow it down or correct the imbalance and this is also a huge part of our current picture.

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Now, here’s the thing. I’ve always wondered if the solutions to all these problems might be simple. After all, that’s the way it works in my own life; I spend endless hours and energy running through mazes and jumping through hoops only to discover that the solution was down a straight and simple path. Perhaps this is what we are doing to ourselves in the matter of planetary warming. Perhaps there is a lot of money in making it complicated. And be it not me who would deny people work and income. Yet, I can’t help but think about something I heard.

The sad part about our abilities to move ahead on this problem is the global economic crisis, which has taken precedence. The cost of proposed green initiatives is becoming a huge factor as world governments consider drafting environmental policies. This shift in priorities was evident in the last round of U.N. climate talks in Poland. After a full two weeks of negotiation, it looked as if participants were no closer to consensus on the terms of the treaty that will replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol. The current treaty, created in 1992, requires most developed nations to reduce their carbon emissions. But, currently, overall cost is one of the main reasons for this persistent stalemate on emissions caps.

But there was one interesting solution presented. The IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a report that notes that if governments worked to exploit the natural capacity of forests to absorb carbon dioxide and deliberately aimed to increase the carbon sink that forests create, as much as 40 to 50% of human carbon emissions could be offset. I think this is fantastic and should be done like now. Please refer to my previous post on carbon sinks. Still, to my mind, the even more astounding fact is that this extraordinary possibility has been largely ignored.

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Duke Energy’s Integrated Gasification Combined-Cycle (IGCC) plant in Edwardsport, Ind. is taking a significant step forward in the use of cleaner coal technology. Notice that I say “cleaner coal” and not “clean coal” because the former is possible while the latter is not. But in the noble effort of creating the former to help meet the country’s future energy requirements, the first major pieces of equipment have arrived. Using GE IGCC technology, the plant is expected to be the largest cleaner coal IGCC facility of its type in the world when it is complete. An Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, is a power plant using synthesis gas (syngas). This gas is often used to power a gas turbine whose waste heat is passed to a steam turbine system, also referred to as a combined cycle gas turbine.

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