Technology News

China Breaking From the Pack in Renewables Race

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — We’ve all heard the stories about companies that didn’t see the future coming and ended up being left behind. Eastman Kodak comes to mind as one example. They blithely kept pumping out film and chemicals as the world switched over to digital photography. They now stand reduced to a shadow of their former glory.

These days one has to wonder, can the same thing happen to a country? The US has long been known as a leader in technological innovation and competitiveness. But in the area of energy, an unusually cozy relationship between the fossil fuel industry and the representatives whose campaigns they have supported has skewed the level playing field of the free market that those same politicians often claim to be the ideal law of the land. Even under Obama, who recognized the urgent need to move into renewables, entrenched subsidies for fossil fuels still exceed those for renewables by a factor of four to one. This, and the acompanying atmosphere of doubt about the science of cliamte change, has served to delay development and deployment of renewable energy sources.

The incoming administration is expected to double down on this backward-looking bias, having said as much in multiple campaign events. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, and China in particular, does not seem to be blinded by such self-serving patronage, and is leaving us in the dust.

Study Describes Additional Economic Benefits of Clean Power Plan

(3BlLMedia/Justmeans) — In the weeks ahead, a new administration will take the reins of control in government. On their agenda is the dismantling of many of the environmental regulations put in place by the Obama administration. One of these, the Clean Power Plan, which was aimed at reducing carbon emissions from electric power plants, has been the target of multiple lawsuits by Scott Pruitt, former Attorney General of Oklahoma, who will soon head the EPA. It seems certain that Pruitt will do what he can to weaken this law, if not eliminate it entirely. The rationale is apparently economic, based on the idea that regulation costs businesses money rather than simply stimulating them to be more innovative.

Protecting public welfare has been the charter and mission of the EPA since its inception in 1973 under the Nixon administration. Research recently conducted jointly at Drexel, Syracuse, Boston and Harvard Universities, has shown a surprising number of the favorable impacts of the Clean Power Plan, beyond protecting the public.

Specifically, the study looked at the impact of the Plan on crops and trees. While the EPA acknowledged a positive impact on crops and trees when first assessing the impact of the Plan, it made no attempt to quantify it.

Fossil fuel plants emit a number of dangerous emissions. These include carbon, nitrogen and sulfur which combine to produce ground-level ozone. Ozone is a well-known inhibitor of plant growth. In modeling these reductions, the researchers found that they “would provide a significant boost to the productivity of key indicator crops, such as corn, cotton, soybean and potato; as well as several tree species.”

Therefore, controlling these emissions would result in higher yields of these crops and a better economic outcome.

Says, Shannon Capps, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel's College of Engineering, one of the study’s authors, “With policies similar to those in the Clean Power Plan, we're projecting more than a 15 percent reduction in corn productivity losses due to ozone exposure, compared to business as usual, and about half of that for cotton and soybeans. Depending on market value fluctuations of these crops over the next few years, that could mean gains of tens of millions of dollars for farmers--especially in areas like the Ohio River Valley where power plants currently contribute to ground-level ozone."

Big Oil Companies Turn Their Sights to Offshore Wind

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Despite what we might expect to see soon, in the form of furious efforts on the part of a handful of politicians to reverse the inevitable, the tide has already turned against the century-old dominance of fossil fuels. Perhaps there is no better proof of this than the fact that a number of major oil and gas companies are now making significant investments in renewable energy.

As recently reported in the Wall Street Journal, a consortium led by Royal Dutch Shell won a bid to build and run a portion of what is expected to be the world’s largest offshore wind project. The massive Borssele wind project will be located in the North Sea off the Netherlands coast. The Shell portion alone will produce enough electricity to power a million homes at a rate of $56.95 per megawatt hour.

This compares favorably with even the cheapest forms of conventional energy generation. According to the most recent Lazard report on the Levelized Cost of Energy, only the very cheapest natural gas combined cycle plants, which produced power in the range of $48-78 could compete with this. The Borssele installation, in fact, falls at the upper end of the price scale for wind, which currently runs between $32-62, with offshore installations at the upper end.

The cost factor, certainly did not go unnoticed. Dorine Bosman, the manager developing Shell’s wind business said, “Right now the offshore wind project is competitive with any power source.”

Until recently, Shell had shown little interest in offshore wind, but changed direction rather abruptly, earlier this year with the formation of a “New Energies Unit.”

The plunging renewable prices seem to be pulling in everything around them, much as a sinkhole draws in houses, cars, and trees.

The projects themselves are engineering marvels with building-sized towers driven into sea beds, anchoring propellers with wingspans longer than the largest Airbus.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the European energy companies that are primarily at the forefront of this. Norway’s Statoil ASA already has three wind farms in the Baltic Sea, and is currently developing a floating wind farm off the east coast of Scotland. Since 2010, Statoil has invested $2.1 billion in offshore wind.

Denmark’s state-owned Dong Energy AS, which partnered with Statoil as part of the renowned Kalundborg Symbiosis, has sold off a large portion of its fossil-fuels business and is now the biggest player in the offshore wind market with 29% of global capacity. One reason wind is doing so well is that once a wind farm is built, prices stay essentially the same. Not so with oil or gas fields.

Technology is Changing the Way Companies Engage with Employees

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Barely a decade ago, technology in the workplace would typically imply the introduction of new hardware and gadgets for the employees that might help improve their operational efficiency. However, technology is now deployable in ways that can help advance employee skills, improve relationships, and help people become more engaged.

Google Aims for 100% Renewable Power Next Year

(3Bl Media?Jusmeans) — Earlier this month, software and search giant Google announced that it would run its operations entirely on renewable energy by the end of next year. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider the many data centers with billions of people connecting to them, it’s actually about as much power as the entire city of San Francisco, with its population of over 800,000, uses. For those who like numbers, they used 5.7 terawatt-hours in 2015.

However, you won’t see sprawling fields of solar panels and windmills surrounding every Google facility. That’s because, for the most part, that’s not how renewables work. That’s the image many people have—a log cabin on an isolated mountain top, miles from anything, with a couple of solar panels on the roof connected to a stack of old car batteries.

Most people, and large businesses in particular, that buy renewable power, do so through the grid. That’s to say, they buy an amount of renewable energy, equivalent to what they consume, although the actual electrons, that light their lights or run through their computers, could come from anywhere, including dirty coal plants. That gives them the assurance that they will receive the power they need, anytime, day or night, windy or clam. Some critics have suggested that this is somehow, “less green” than connecting directly, but it’s not. The point is that the same amount of power is being produced and consumed somewhere by renewable sources. That is power that otherwise would have been produced by whatever the power company saw fit to use at any given time, based on price, availability and various other factors.

While today, that could include coal and natural gas sources, that fraction will likely decrease for three reasons. First, renewable costs will continue to fall, making them the “fuel source of choice” for utilities. Next, mass storage will continue to be incorporated, allowing more renewables to be integrated into the grid by making their intermittency less of an issue. Finally, as the grid continues to modernize, and become smarter, power will be instantly dispatchable, from one area where the wind might be blowing to other areas where it isn’t.

Newly Installed Solar Double That of a Year Ago

(3BL Media/Justmeans) — Most people are aware that solar power has been booming. Prices are dropping rapidly and panels are going up in many places, either on residential rooftops or as part of large utility scale arrays. But few people have an appreciation for just how much solar has grown in a very short time. The new US Solar Market Insight Q4 2016 report from GreenTechMedia (GTM) Research really puts this into perspective.

The number are particularly impressive right now because the industry just had a phenomenal quarter.

In the third quarter of 2016, with the installation of 4,143 MW  of new capacity, total installed solar PV in the US increased by 99%. That’s right, you don’t need new glasses. Solar essentially doubled in the last quarter. It’s also a 191% increase over last year’s third quarter.

If you do the math, that’s a new MW coming online every 32 minutes. Someone was pretty busy. California alone added over 1 GW in a single quarter, the first state to ever do so. GTM forecasts a yearly total of 14.1 GW. That’s an 88% increase over the previous year.

Let’s take a look at some of the trends behind these numbers. For starters, utilities installed about 75% of this, a little over 3 GW. That shows a big surge of utilities embracing solar, Apparently, many have adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em,” attitude. As a result, the 60% solar share of all new generating capacity broke the quarterly record for market share.

UBS Transforms Work Space to Enhance Employee Efficiency

(3BL Media/Justmeans) – Sustainable work spaces have gained prominence in recent years not just because they are more energy efficient, but also because sustainable buildings arguably correlate to a more productive work environment. Large companies increasingly recognize that introducing green innovation into office spaces can prove to be more profitable in the long run.

Study Sheds New Light on Global Warming “Hiatus”

 (3BL Media/Justmeans) - A recent joint study by scientists at the University of Delaware, NASA, and the Jet Propulsion Lab investigating the so-called global warming hiatus, was announced by the American Geophysical Union (AGU). The paper grew out of a special U.S. Climate Variability and Predictability Program (CLIVAR) panel session at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting.

The study, which was published in the journal Earth’s Future, explores the causes of an apparent slowdown in the rise of surface temperatures in the period from 1998-2013 as compared to the later half of the twentieth century. This observation, which was announced by the IPCC in late 2013, was immediately pounced on by climate skeptics hurling accusations claiming that either the models upon which much of the science is based are flawed, that climate change has ended, or that it was never real in the first place.

As scientists offered explanations for the data, they were repeatedly put on the defensive by various guardians of the status quo.

This discussion in Nature provides the views of several scientist of the relative importance of short term vs. long term trends. While global temperature increases during the period in question were relatively small, they still continued to set new records, with the ten hottest years on record occurring since 1998, nine of them in the last ten years. Temperatures in the past two years have jumped well above those during the “hiatus” period, with 2015 being far hotter than any other year, a full 1.62 degrees F hotter than the 20th century average.

How to Engage Trump Supporters on Sustainability

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Last week’s US election was both a shock and a disappointment for many people around the world. It’s important to think about what happened and why. There are important lessons to learn for all, including those of us working for a more sustainable society.

What’s clear is that there are a lot of people in America who are struggling, people whose lives had fallen outside of the traditional scope of the compassionate liberal vision, with its focus on “underrepresented minorities.” As ironic as it seems, this election was decided by primarily white, working class voters, who had come to feel that they were underrepresented. Donald Trump spoke to these people. Whether or not he will help them remains to be seen, but when a person is suffering, what they want first is to be seen and heard.

The reason this matters in the sustainability fight is, that for these voters, the issue is not one they felt they could afford to pay attention to. When a man who is barely scraping by, has to drive 50 miles each way to a minimum wage job in a beat-up old pickup truck to feed his family, all he wants to know is how much will gas cost. Not only can he not afford a Prius, he wouldn’t want one. He needs that pickup to do odd jobs with, collect firewood, and find other ways to make ends meet.

Many of these people have lost the good-paying jobs they once counted on, in areas like manufacturing and the energy sector. These jobs were often swept away by changes in technology, as well as by global trade. Robots, ATMs, self-checkout lines, and soon, autonomous cars and trucks continue to squeeze out livelihoods, as does the export of manufacturing jobs to lower wage countries. Environmental concerns have also been cited, in slowing down coal production, for example, though cost competition from natural gas has been a far bigger factor. Laying all this at the feet of the president is a bit unfair. Most of these decisions are made by company executive, sometimes because their products are not competitive.

Democrats are angry and scared, but calling these people names, or painting them with the flaws of their candidate will not be helpful. All that can said definitively is that they felt strongly enough about the need for change to overlook those faults.

The biggest block of Trump supporters was rural, while the smallest came from big cities.  While demographers talk about the migration to cities and planners are looking at how make those cities sustainable as the potential salvation of our planet, there are still plenty of people—enough to swing an election—still living in the past century, for whom this is a corner they haven’t gotten to yet.

Many of these supporters come from areas that lack diversity. They have not had the opportunity to go to school with or become friends with children from other backgrounds while growing up. I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue of racism here, or in any way excuse it, but those who have had firsthand experience of other groups tend to be more tolerant. There is also the question of education, and perhaps even more disturbing is the impact that the right-wing media echo chamber (e.g. Fox News, Limbaugh, etc.) have had by spreading false information couched in inflammatory rhetoric.

These are the patterns and trends that now potentially block the path to a sustainable future. On the plus side, these folks obviously love their families, care about their children’s future and their own health. Many of them surely love the land and are sad to see it  being despoiled. If provided with the facts of the situation, they will see that a flourishing, sustainable future is in all of our best interests.

The Roots of Disruption & Where Do We Go From Here

(3Bl Media/Justmeans_ - The world is undergoing massive social and political disruption, as witnessed by this week’s US election, as well as the recent withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. These disruptions, in many ways have their roots in the economic disruptions of the past several decades. These, in turn, have been enabled by technology.


Subscribe to Technology