Just Released! “Energy, Biology, Climate Change”

FrontCover6x9 white border 72dpi EBCC2015

Our newest book, published on May 6, 2015 and available at Amazon.com for $19.95.

The focus of this book is the interactions between energy, ecology, and climate change, as well as a few of the responses of humanity to these interactions. It is not a textbook, but a series of chapters discussing subtopics in which the authors were interested and wished to write about. The basic material is cutting-edge science; technical journal articles published within the last year, selected for their relevance and interest. Each author selected eight or so technical papers representing his or her view of the most interesting current research in the field, and wrote summaries of them in a journalistic style that is free of scientific jargon and understandable by lay readers. This is the sort of science writing that you might encounter in the New York Times, but concentrated in a way intended to give as broad an overview of the chapter topics as possible. None of this research will appear in textbooks for a few years, so there are not many ways that readers without access to a university library can get access to this information.

This book is intended be browsed—choose a chapter topic you like and read the individual sections in any order; each is intended to be largely stand-alone. Reading all of them will give you considerable insight into what climate scientists concerned with energy, ecology, and human effects are up to, and the challenges they face in understanding one of the most disruptive—if not very rapid—event in human history; anthropogenic climate change. The Table of Contents follows: Continue reading

Cutting Climate Costs of Nitrogen Fertilizer Production

by Emil Morhardt

Nitrogen fertilizer, crucial for growing commercial crops, is based on ammonia made in factories using the energy- and CO2-intensive Haber-Bosch process; hydrogen is stripped off natural gas using steam, then reacted with nitrogen in the air. The process uses repeated cycling at high temperature and pressure, and consumes 2% of the world’s energy production. Stuart Licht and colleagues at George Washington University noticed, however, that a recently developed fuel cell using ammonia as a fuel and producing electricity as an output might be run in reverse: electricity in, ammonia out, with a whole lot less temperature and pressure (and energy) required. Even better, it wouldn’t need natural gas as a hydrogen source—with its attendant CO2 production—being able to get it from air and steam at a temperature lower than a household oven baking bread and at ambient pressure. Furthermore only simple materials would be required; molten sodium and potassium hydroxide (inexpensive commodity chemicals), nickel electrodes, and an iron oxide catalyst, all in a single pot.

After considerable experimentation with different temperatures, voltages, forms of iron oxide, Continue reading

Exploring the Reliability and Potential Climatic Impacts of Large-Scale Deployments of Offshore Wind Turbines

Wind power is widely available renewable energy source, but a large-scale deployment of several million wind turbines would be required to meet the estimated global energy demand in 2100 of 44 TW. Wang and Prinn sought to examine the environmental impacts and reliability of such an extensive use of offshore wind power (2011). The researchers had previously conducted a study to examine the effects of a similar large-scale deployment of wind turbines over land to meet about 10% of the predicted global energy needs in 2100. Their model suggested that such a significant use of wind turbines over land could lead to a significant temperature increase in the lower atmosphere over the installed regions. This model also predicted a significant disturbance in air circulation patterns as well as cloud and precipitation distribution. Unlike the previously modeled land-based wind turbine installations, the offshore wind turbine installations were found to cause a surface cooling over the installed regions. The disturbance to the global climate caused by offshore wind installations was calculated to be relatively small when compared to land-based installations. Yet there are significant concerns about the intermittent nature of power generation from offshore wind turbines caused by seasonal wind variations, so the operation of such a substantial offshore wind would demand significant measures taken on the part of system operators to cope with this variability. —Meredith Reisfield
Wang, C., Prinn, R. G., 2011. Potential climatic impacts and reliability of large-scale offshore wind farms. Environmental Research Letters. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/6/2/025101.

Wang and Prinn, working at the Center for Global Change Science and the Joint Program of the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sought to compare the effects of deploying wind turbines over semi-arid grasslands to the effects of large-scale offshore wind installations. The land-based model found that using wind turbines on this scale could cause global surface warming exceeding 1 K over designated surface areas and alter global distributions of rainfall and clouds. To model the effects of large-scale deployment of offshore wind turbines, the researchers used the Community Atmospheric Model of the Community Climate System Model developed by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research. This model was coupled with a slab ocean model and the Community Land Model to simulate the long-term climate responses to large-scale offshore wind turbine use.
This three-dimensional climate model presented several advantages including a high spatial resolution of 2° by 2.5° along the latitudinal and longitudinal directions respectively, 26 vertical layers of atmospherics modeling, coverage of a large range of geographic areas, and consideration of multiple assumed strengths of wind turbine effects. To simulate the climate effect of offshore wind farms, Wang and Prinn modified the surface drag coefficient to represent the turbine-induced change to sea surface roughness.
The researchers conducted six simulations of offshore wind turbine effects. The wind turbines in each simulation were installed over regions between 60°S and 74°N in latitude, at depths of 200, 400, or 600 m and an assumed sea surface drag coefficient of either 0.007 or 0.001. The turbines were simulated to be in five regions free from sea ice that are likely to become actual offshore turbine installation sites, including the Southeast and East Asian coasts, the North American coast, the West European coast, the South American coast and Oceania. The higher drag coefficient was based on reported measurements over mesoscale wind farms, while the lower coefficient approximately doubles the average sea surface drag coeffient in areas without wind turbines. Each model was set up to run 60 years and take about 40 years to reach an annually repeating climatic steady state. These simulations utilized present day greenhouse gas levels to isolate the climatic effects of wind turbines from effects due to greenhouse gasses. The results compared the mean parameters of the last 20 years of each model used in analysis. Power gain from mean flow kinetic energy due to wind turbines was calculated by using the models with and without wind turbines, then subtracting. Raw wind power consumption increases proportionately with installation area and the sea surface drag coefficient assumed in the model. The researchers assumed a 25% conversion rate of raw wind power converted to electric power by wind turbines. The estimated output of electric power ranged from 6.8 to 11.9 TW with the higher drag coefficient, and from 1.7 to 3.1 TW with the lower drag coefficient. At most, these numbers would account for 25% of the predicted 44 TW of future global energy needs.
The climatic impacts of the simulated installations were significant. The surface air temperature over tropical and mid-latitude sites were reduced by nearly 1 K, with even greater cooling observed in the Arctic region and a slight warming in Antarctica. The cooling was due principally to enhanced latent heat flux from the sea surface to the lower atmosphere, driven by an increased turbulent mixing caused by the wind turbines, and extended vertically into the lower and middle troposphere through mixing. The annual averaged surface air temperature ranged from 0.4 to 0.6 K in models with a high surface drag coefficient and was about 0.2 K in the low drag coefficient cases. Cooling was also shown to be greater as a smaller fraction of the turbines were installed in tropical latitudes. Due to changes in the patterns of geographical locations of installed regions as turbines were modeled to be in depths of 200, 400, and 600 m. Though these turbines also create impacts on clouds, temperatures, precipitation and air circulation beyond the installation sites, the impacts were less significant then those observed with a similar deployment of turbines over land.
The large deployment of offshore wind turbines also presents concerns about intermittency and reliability, as well as the need to lower the high current unit wind power costs. Intermittency is especially serious over European coastal sites, where the potentially harvested with power could vary by a factor of 3 seasonally, and was generally found to be greater than a factor of 2 . The inconsistency of offshore wind as a power source would require solutions such as on-site energy storage, backup generation and long-distance power transmission for an electrical system dominated by offshore wind power.

Diversifying Variable Renewable Energy Sources to Reduce Utility Reserve Requirements

Sources of renewable energy, including solar, offshore wind, and ocean wave technologies, offer significant advantages including no fuel costs and no emissions from generation. However, the renewable and nondispatchable nature of these technologies severely impacts grid reserve requirements. Like many areas in the U.S., the Pacific Northwest is rapidly expanding its wind power resources. An additional 5000 MW of offshore wind power is expected to come online in this area in the next five years. This trend in renewable energy resource development presents significant problems for system operators. The variability of wind resources can create a need for greater ramp-up rates, interhour variability, and scheduling errors in conventional power plants. These factors combine to increase the amount of energy generation capacity the system operators must hold in reserve to prevent rolling blackouts and energy shortages. Halamay and colleagues (2011) analyzed the interaction of variations in utility load, wind power generation, solar power generation, and ocean wave power generation. Their research suggests that a diversified portfolio of energy resources can reduce the effects of variability and decrease utility reserve requirements.  —Meredith Reisfield
Halamay, D.A., Brekken, T. K. A., Simmons, A., McArthur, S, 2011. Reserve requirement impacts of large-scale integration of wind, solar and ocean wave power generation. IEEE Transaction on Sustainable Energy 2, 321–328.

Halamay and his colleagues analyzed the effects of offshore wind, solar and ocean wave renewable energy sources on reserve requirements for the Pacific Northwest. The output of each of these renewable power sources varies over time. While the variation is typically small, the output of a large plant can occasionally go from full output to low production or vice versa over the course of several hours. System operators also have limited control over renewable power generation, so in this analysis the researchers chose to subtract the contribution of renewable energy sources from the total load. The researchers hypothesized that a diversified renewable energy portfolio would enable a greater penetration rate than just one predominant renewable energy source. Penetration is the ratio of the peak load within the year to the peak generation within the year. In each of these scenarios is greater than or equal to penetration by solar and wave energy.
The researchers calculated the energy reserve requirements for six scenarios; no renewable energy; 15% wind power penetration; 10% wind and 5% solar penetration; 10% wind and 5% wave penetration; 10% wind, 2.5% solar, and 2.5% wave penetration; and 5% wind, 5% solar, and 5% wave penetration. The second scenario, 15% wind generation, most closely reflects the current energy portfolio in the area studies, which has 14% wind penetration. The researchers studied the area within the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) Balancing Authority Area (BAA). Wind generation and load data were freely available from the BPA. Wind power data were collected from approximately 1600 MW of wind under the BPA BAA, which was scaled as necessary to model the desired penetration rate. Irradiance data were gathered from 10 different locations in the Pacific Northwest to calculate potential for solar power generation, with the assumption that each location hosted 50% photovoltaic and 50% concentrating solar sources. The data were combined, weighting each site equally, and scaled to model the desired power generated for each particular scenario. Buoys measuring wave height at three locations were used to calculate theoretical ocean wave power outputs. The data were also combined and scaled as necessary. All data and analysis focused on the 2008 calendar year and used 10-minute sample times.
The researchers also used three different time scales to describe power reserve requirements. The first, regulation, examined the difference in small changes in power that can be readily met through Automatic Generation Control (AGC) via spinning reserves. The following time scale, defined as the difference between hourly power generation and 10-minute average power load describes larger changes in power demand and supply. The imbalance time scale describes the accuracy of forecasted power generation by comparing hourly forecasted power generation with hourly average power generation. Imbalance components of reserve requirements have grown significantly with increased use of wind power and are predicted to continue to grow rapidly. The 2008 load was forecasted using historical data from 2007 as a baseline, with additional correction terms added to account for load-growth from one year to the next and smooth transitions between monthly averages to prevent discontinuities. The scenarios with diversified renewable energy sources showed improvement over use of wind alone.
Halamay and his colleagues demonstrated the adverse affect of wind power on reserve requirements. These results suggest the need for an integrated approach to develop renewable energy sources. This analysis did not include tidal energy conversion, harvesting energy from tidal flows to generate power, despite the strong tidal resource in populous areas such as Puget Sound. 

The ARPA-E: Renewable Fuel through Genetic Modification, photosynthesis, and the Electro Fuels Program

The technology needed to create renewable fuel and the solutions to problems like global contaminated drinking water and starvation exist in hundreds of labs around the world.  For example, the Slingshot, a small water purification unit developed by Dean Kamen, runs on cow dung, requires no filters, produces potable water, and can simultaneously power 70 energy efficient light bulbs.  Globally, we produce 150% of the amount of food required to feed everyone, yet we cannot manage to transport it and millions die of starvation every year; small changes in world-wide food distribution and transportation, accomplished through improved international communication, would be a strong step towards ending hunger.  And people are coming up with new sources of renewable energy, and more efficient ways to extract that energy, on a daily basis.  Unfortunately the economic incentive for wide-scale use of expensive inventions usually just isn’t there, and without incentive our progress will always be stunted.  Still, in 2007 the U.S. Department of Energy saw fit to commission a new branch of research known as the Advanced Research Project Agency – Energy.  Its goal has been to investigate and fund cutting edge research into energy technologies and began with a budget of $400 million.  Much of the work they fund is kept under wraps, but Richard Blaustein had the opportunity to review a few projects that will be discussed below.  From genetically modifying plants to electro-stimulating specific microorganisms, the scientists working for the ARPA-E are searching for essentially new sources of renewable energy.  And so far, they have enjoyed a great deal of success.—Edward McLean
            Blaustein, Richard. 2012 Can Biology Transform Our Energy Future?: ARPA-E infuses innovative research ventures with fresh funds. Journal of BioScience, Vol. 62, No. 2.

            While much of their funding is spent on improving existing technologies, the ARPA-E has taken special interest in developing biotechnology that utilizes existing biological processes.  Through genetic modification, several projects focus on using target organisms to produce renewable fuel naturally.  This article focused on two different pursuits, but each requires diligent research across many fields.  The first is genetically modifying plants so that they can photosynthesize more efficiently and produce more oil that can be refined from the plant matter, and used as biofuels.  This project is known as Plants Engineered to Replace Oil (PETRO), and from its outset, its mission has been to “get photosynthesis to produce biofuels directly that provide more of what we need and to use the existing energy-capture process to put more energy into fuel” (116).  Many of the plants that produce biofuels do so indirectly; only after distillation or some other secondary process can their products be made into fuels.  Researchers at PETRO are exploring ways to tweak photosynthesis and other metabolic pathways that will take in sunlight and CO2 and yield a directly usable fuel, stored throughout the plant body.  In processes that produce fuel from crops like maize or sugar cane, the usable product only comes from one part of the plant and the rest is discarded.  If target plants were modified so that their stems and leaves could also be used to supply fuel, the entire process would be enormously more efficient.  The environmental impact of creating fuel this way is meniscal next to the imprint left by searching for and burning fossil fuels, and it is renewable so long as sunlight is available.  PETRO has provided a number of promising breakthroughs that demonstrate considerable hope for the future of renewable energy.  This team now faces the daunting task of supplying incentive to policy makers to adopt and fund this research.  If only that was as doable as producing renewable energy by modifying photosynthesis. 
The second project this article discussed at length is the Electro Fuels Project, which involves essentially engineering the genome of a microorganism and implanting that code into a target E. coli cell.  This engineered genome borrows genes from different microbes—sometimes from as many as 16 different organisms—that code for specific enzymes involved in pathways used to fix CO2 into higher carbon compounds.  Through these modified pathways, much like in the aforementioned photosynthesis example, the E. coli cells will take atmospheric CO2 and transform it into a fuel such as butanol, which is “a high energy carbon-compound,” which would be excreted and easily collected.  This process is known as Electro Fuels because the catalyst that begins the carbon fixation process is an electrical shock, administered by a tiny cathode.  A remarkable branch of their research extends into adapted evolution studies; this type of investigation “instigates and processes mutations and changes for the whole organism.”  In other words, these scientists expose the target organism to a new stimulus, and perhaps the genetic material the bacterium will require to adapt, and do so for generation after generation until the organism possesses the biological machinery to coexist with—maybe even utilize—the introduced stimulus.  In this case that would involve mass producing the colonies of bacteria that are able to process carbon using the newly discovered pathways and identifying the genes that code for the enzymes that allow them to make higher energy carbon compounds as a by product of respiration.  The next step would be removing the target gene, along with up 20 others involved in some other piece of the operation, combining them and correctly inserting them into the malleable E. coli.  The whole procedure sounds maddening and meticulous, but with careful research the project shows remarkable promise.
            Another Electro Fuels project was discussed and it too pertains to the fixation of carbon, but on a much larger scale and smaller focus on creating renewable energy.  The group involved in this research has its sights set on carbonic anhydrases, which are naturally occurring enzymes that capture carbon, sometimes at astonishing rates.  The team reports that one carbonic anhydrase molecule can fix one million CO2 molecules every second, adding that they are among the fastest working enzymes in nature.  They have recently been working on another directed-evolution study to make the enzyme more adapted to the “extreme alkaline and thermal conditions found in emission-capture systems.”  The work is less predicable than the researchers might want, but they cannot complain too much, as they have seen a million-fold increase in their carbonic anhydrase’s stability.  If these enzymes were technologically manipulated and available for widespread use in emission-capture systems installed by factories, the CO2 emissions across the country would rapidly decrease. 
The cutting edge research discussed in this brief review pertains directly to bioremediation, but on a much larger scale than the focus of most remediating projects.  The ARPA-E is actively searching for ways to use the excess CO2 our industrial pursuits have generated to create fuel, fundamentally reversing the production of energy and using the largest source of pollution and existing biological systems to make energy.  We are in a noble age of technological advances and have never been better suited to subdue some of the many issues that plague our world.  But we also have never existed in a world with more opposition, with more of a need for an individual to blame, and with more “extreme economics” (from sociobiologist Rebecca Costa), all three of which are biologically engrained in each of us and stand like unconquerable mountains in the way of progress.  We need to overcome a lot more than the energy crisis if we wish to save ourselves, and I guarantee prevailing over our own hardwiring will be unfathomably more difficult compared to making renewable energy, which has already been done.

Oceanographic Parameters to Explore the Environmental Impacts of OTEC Installations

Before field trials of ocean thermal technology (OTEC) become operational, researchers need a solid understanding of the environmental impacts of these installations. Due to the large thermal gradient and irregular bathymetry off the coast of Hawaii, the archipelago has several potential OTEC sites in the works. A pilot plant is under construction south of Barber’s Point, Oahu, and a commercial plant may be constructed off of Kahe Point, Oahu. A Final Environmental Impact Statement was conducted in 1981 for the Barber’s Point site, but this report needs to be brought up to current oceanographic and engineering standards. Comfort and Vega (2011) suggest a protocol for environmental baseline monitoring, which focuses on ten chemical oceanographic parameters, and addresses existing gaps in knowledge of ecology and oceanography near the two OTEC sites. In the operation of an OTEC plant, seawater intake pipes draw warm water from a depth of 20 m and cold water from a depth of approximately 1000 m. The water masses are mixed and discharged at 60 m or deeper. An environmental impact analysis can help to determine the optimal mixed seawater discharge level. —Meredith Reisfield
Comfort CM, Vega L. 2011. Environmental Assessment of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion in Hawaii. Hawaii National Marine Renewable Energy Center, Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, p 1-8.

During the operation of an OTEC plant, large water masses are redistributed. A 5 MW OTEC plant requires 25 m3/s of both cold and warm water flow. The daily flow tops 2 million cubic meters of water. The redistribution of large volumes of water could significantly impact an ecosystem, affecting primary production, nutrient concentrations, and densities of larval fish and other plankton. Comfort and Vega propose using existing data sets as baseline environmental information for OTEC. They recommend an additional year-long, directed, baseline monitoring program to address gaps in existing knowledge. Fortunately, as researchers at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute acknowledge, significant data are already available to describe current circulation, and oceanographic parameters such as temperature, salinity, nutrients, and primary production off the coast of Oahu. The OTEC plume’s trajectory has also been modeled. OTEC operation raises several concerns about biological impacts. The redistribution of water on a large scale will affect the temperature stratification, salinity, oxygen and nutrient levels near the site. A primary concern in OTEC installations is the potential for upwelled nutrients to fertilize surface waters and prompt phytoplankton blooms. To avoid altering the primary productivity in surrounding waters, it is crucial that the plumes discharged from OTEC facilities settle at a sufficiently low depth so that the potential for functional biomass increase is reduced. Small organisms, including plankton and fish larva, can easily be trapped in the intake pipes with high mortality due to sudden and significant temperature and pressure changes. Many organisms migrate vertically throughout the water column on a daily basis, so understanding which organisms may be entrapped requires further knowledge of the ecosystem. Since floating objects in the ocean tend to accumulate large groups of fish and seabirds, larger organisms are likely to interact with the OTEC installations.  These organisms are less likely to be entrained in the system due to their larger size and swimming abilities which will allow them to easily manage the current flow. Vibration of the deep water pipe will create a signal that could be detected by marine mammals and fish, creating a risk of disruptions in marine mammal communication and navigation. The researchers propose additional monitoring of seasonal oceanographic parameters at relevant locations, further plankton sampling across multiple depths and time periods, and acoustical monitoring at the installation site to quantify baseline noise levels both before and after installation of the OTEC facility. Comfort and Vega note that given the wide availability of current data, gaps in knowledge could be quickly and efficiently addressed with one year of directed baseline monitoring. Studying the effects of an OTEC facility in operation with sufficient baseline data, rather than simply modeling these outcomes, could ensure that commercial OTEC plants have a minimal environmental impact.