Saturday, July 22, 2006

Rails to Trails

I experienced the Glacial Drumlin State Trail a week ago when I biked from Sullivan, Wisconsin to Madison last Saturday and from Madison to Milwaukee last Monday. I had stayed up late Friday night taking apart and reassembling my bike's two wheel hubs, cleaning off each individual part of the hubs (including the bearings), and repacking each one with new grease. This along with some other maintenance and cleaning ensured that my bike ran smoothly on the way to Madison and back.

I recommend checking out a rails-to-trails bike trail. They have the advantage of being relatively isolated from traffic (only at cross intersections) and have a gentle grade characteristic of rail lines (so no serious climbs). They work well for the bike commuter if the trail happens to be in the right place. The Midtown Greenway in St. Paul, a trail I used frequently in my last year of college, is also a former rail line, and it takes one conveniently from one side of Minneapolis to the other.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Indonesian Palm Oil and Its Threat to the Rainforest

There needs to be a major debate within governments and in the general public about what most environmentalists already aware of: the limits and downsides of biofuels as solutions to the growing global energy and environmental crises. I suspect that the prevalent assumption in these realms about biofuels is that they will somehow play a major part in a seamless transition from oil as a fuel for our transportation sector.

The long list of concerns with biofuels, including, but not limited to, EROEI (Energy Returned over Energy Invested), water use, soil degradation, and, perhaps most problematic, land use, proves that this assumption is oversimplified to the point of being dangerous if it continues without modification.

The Christian Science Monitor has one of the latest articles addressing the land use problem in one of biodiesel's production hot spots: Indonesia.

...the government plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to build four biodiesel plants and develop hundreds of thousands of acres of palm oil plantations every year using a total of $1 billion in government funds.

[snip]

[Environmentalists] have long suspected that palm oil production is a ploy to log rainforest areas, destroying habitat for such threatened wildlife as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinoceros, as well as land used for local livelihoods.

"They're going to solve one problem by creating another," says Rudi Lemuru, executive director of the palm oil industry watchdog Sawit Watch. "They say biofuel is to minimize air pollution, but when they cut the forests, they create a new problem."
The situation may be worse in neighboring Malaysia, as George Monbiot pointed out last year.

In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts of palm oil production. “Between 1985 and 2000,” it found, “the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia”(8). In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.

Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist(9). The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.
Think about that last line for a second: more destructive than crude oil in Nigeria.

Fortunately, thanks in part to environmentalists' efforts, there is both awareness and a search for alternative solutions back in Indonesia.

The government earlier this year scrapped plans to create the world's largest palm oil plantation - nearly 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres) - in one of the world's most diverse forest areas in the center of Borneo after it was shown that most of the land was too high and steep for palm oil. Government scientist Utami says there are more than 20 million hectares (49 million acres) of "unproductive land" the government could use to grow more palm oil for biodiesel. Environmentalists are wary of what the government means by "unproductive."

[snip]

Officials are also looking at cheaper alternatives to palm oil-based biodiesel. The seed of the jatropha tree, for example, can be processed into biodiesel more cheaply than palm oil. The trees grow well in places where little else can, and the crop might even be able to ease poverty in remote areas with marginal farmland.

"If jatropha can meet the demand, we will use that for biodiesel," says Nenny Sri Utami, head of research at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.

But while jatropha was grown during World War II in Indonesia to fuel Japanese tanks and airplanes, the plantations fell into disuse afterward. Redeveloping them into a viable fuel option would take years, and energy technologies might evolve in the meantime.
It would be worth a couple more years of R and D to save Indonesia's rainforests from being eliminated for good. I don't know much about the jatropha tree, but insofar as it can be and is grown in places where few other crops can (and where rainforests don't grow), then it is a way around the land use problem. Here is a PDF for more info.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Much Ado about Coal Gasification

David Roberts over at Grist provides a summary of recent articles on coal gasification, an alt fuel idea of rejuvenated popularity due to high oil prices. The latest hubub has centered around Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer's nationally-scaled promotion (with posts on Daily Kos) of allegedly clean diesel for automobiles derived from coal through the Fischer-Tropsch process. The process is only clean if the carbon dioxide emitted from the process (which amounts to about twice as much as when petroleum is burned), is sequestered, i.e. not released into the air.

Schweitzer's zeal in pushing coal gasification -- motivated greatly by Montana's huge coal resources -- has yielded some pretty compelling pros to gasifying coal at a time when we need to free ourselves from our dependence on oil and when cleaner coal-to-gas plants would be a better alternative than the upcoming wave of conventional coal power plants proposed to be built in the U.S. in the near future, but Roberts is still rightly skeptical.

Having read a good bit about all this, my skepticism has not been overcome. Here are what I see as the big limitations on gasification/sequestration:

- Coal boosters say we have 250 years worth of coal in this country. But as Jeff Goodell argues persuasively in Big Coal, this number is wildly exaggerated. Much of that coal lies under inhabited or wilderness areas; the estimate is based on outdated studies; it assumes our usage won't increase, but the whole point of "energy independence" would be to increase it substantially. In short, if we replace all oil with liquefied coal, we'd burn through the coal quickly and do immeasurable damage to our natural landscapes in the process.

- Schweitzer brushes off concern about mining, saying the surface mining in Montana is safe and landscapes are reclaimed. The truth is a bit more complicated.

- Right now, the only demand for CO2 sequestration comes from enhanced oil recovery. Do we really want to enable the recovery of tons more oil, which would bring the price of oil down and, oh yeah, get burned and release CO2?

- Who's going to pay for all the sequestration that doesn't help recover oil? Remember, if coal-to-liquid is to replace any substantial percentage of our oil, there's going to have to be a lot of it, and that means a lot of sequestration. Sequestration requires a great deal of money and a particular set of geological features. How will it scale up?
The more fundamental problem with the push to gasify coal is that it shows how unwilling we are as a nation to find alternative means of transportation than personal, motorized automobiles. Our stubbornness in trying to maintain our unsustainable lifestyles is directly proportional with how chimerical our energy solutions are.

Cracks in UK Nuclear Reactors

From OneWorld US, via Common Dreams (though I couldn't find the original on OneWorld's site):
An internationally renowned nuclear expert is calling for nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom to be immediately shut down after government documents revealed they contain cracking in the bricks of their reactor cores.

The documents, which were obtained under Britain's Freedom of Information Act, show that the government's Nuclear Safety Directorate (NSD) has identified cracks in the cores of up to 14 UK reactors, rendering them at increased risk of a radiological accident.

In a report prepared for the environmental group Greenpeace, which has long been a critic of the continued use of nuclear energy, nuclear expert John Large called the cracked graphite cores "a central nuclear safety component."
More from Greenpeace UK:
Reactor cores - where nuclear reactions take place and are controlled - contain graphite bricks. The inspectors have found that not only are the bricks in the reactors extensively and unpredictably cracked, but the reactor operator, British Energy, doesn't know the full extent of the damage, nor how much cracking the cores can sustain before safety functions are compromised.
Back to the OneWorld article, which quotes nuclear expert Large's explanation of how the core functions in the reaction process and how cracks in the core can jeopardize its safety capacity:
"The core serves to moderate (slow) the neutrons initiating fission in the nuclear fuel," he explained. "Within it are formed about 330 vertical channels that receive stringers of nuclear fuel, it provides for the high pressure flow of the carbon dioxide gas coolant and, importantly, vertical interstitial channels for the entry of control and shut down rods and, if needed, the secondary and emergency reactor close down systems. For nuclear safety it is absolutely essential that the vertical fuel and interstitial channels remain closely aligned during normal service operation and fault conditions under which abnormal forces may arise across the core assembly overall and within the individual graphite bricks."
The British government, naturally, "reacted with calm," claiming the core damage was "known about, anticipated for, within the safety case." The government's response is probably aimed at quelling any concerns in the lead-up to the UK releasing its Energy Review, a major policy document
which will set the course for the development of the country's energy sector. The recommendations are expected to include a renewed focus on nuclear power. [OneWorld article]
Greenpeace reports on how Blair has put nuclear power "back on the agenda with a vengeance" even though it is not a viable energy solution for the UK.
A Greenpeace report comparing nuclear and decentralised scenarios for the UK found that a decentralised energy scenario would be:

1. £1 billion cheaper than a nuclear scenario -- even excluding the cost of managing nuclear waste;

2. Cleaner than nuclear, with 17 per cent lower carbon emissions;

3. More secure than nuclear - UK gas consumption would be 14 per cent lower than in the nuclear scenario.
(The link to the report document is unfortunately not working.)

It is troubling that Tony Blair is making nuclear energy a primary focus of the UK's energy future, in light of current concerns with reactor cores. Even if the cracks turn out to be "within the safety case," as the UK government claims, can the Nuclear Safety Directorate assure that the "abnormal forces" which may occur due to cracked core bricks do not lead to a major reactor meltdown? Even if core damage occurs but a major accident is avoided, it will still mean a loss of power to everyone connected to the grid for that particular plant, which is a problem that decentralized, non-nuclear energy avoids.

I don't know enough about the intracacies of core design to know how serious the cracks in the core are in each of the (up to) 14 nuclear plants in question. It's not helpful to be overly alarmist, but with nuclear power it is also dangerous to be overconfident. The best thing to do is to heed experts' advice, and at least one expert, John Large, has serious concerns.

Here is a BBC News map of nuclear power plants in the UK:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Confronting the Most Inconvenient Truth

Flying can be considered the most inconvenient truth within the larger inconvenient truth of global warming. It is easy these days to pick on automobiles as climate change culprits (and rightly so), but flying has become the elephant in the room for some reason. I have seen a good deal of environmentalists dedicated to some conservation cause, only to think nothing (or at least not enough) of flying hundreds of miles away to a conference or organizing target location.

Aviation's impact on global warming is worse than just the CO2 emitted by airliners' engines (which is quite a bit).
It’s not just that aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of aircraft fuel has a “radiative forcing ratio” of around 2.7(11). What this means is that the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. The water vapour they produce forms ice crystals in the upper troposphere (vapour trails and cirrus clouds) which trap the earth’s heat. [George Monbiot]
The good news is that Europe has made a bold move to confront the harmful effects of flying by initiating a tax to help cover airliners' CO2 emissions.

The Times July 05, 2006

Air fares 'to double' as Europe votes for green tax

By Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent

AIR passengers will be charged up to £40 extra for a return ticket within Europe to pay for the environmental impact of their journeys, under plans approved by the European Parliament yesterday.

MEPs voted in favour of the “immediate introduction” of a tax on jet fuel for flights within the 25 member states of the EU. The charge would double the cost of millions of budget airline flights.
In an aspect of the vote that is foreign here in America, the European Parliament actually voted against industry's position in favor of protecting the environment. British Airways' arguments for a more lenient tax due to alleged uncertainty about flying's impacts on the environment and an issuance of free permits for already existing emissions were both rejected by the Parliament.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the tax (439 to 74 with 102 abstentions), showing that Europe is fully aware of aviation's contribution to global warming and ready to do something about it. The tax and carbon trading structure would, at present, only apply to flights within Europe. While this is not as comprehensive as including international flights that include stops in Europe, it would cover the estimated 2 billion passenger-flights per year in Europe by 2020.

Awareness, however, is the first step in confronting a problem.
The parliament accepted that aviation’s total contribution to global warming was two to four times greater than the impact of CO2 alone, and that airlines should be forced to pay for this.
Even British Airways is willing to publicly accept the capacity of aviation to pollute our skies.
Andrew Sentance, BA’s head of environmental affairs, admitted that aviation could account for almost half of Britain’s total CO2 emissions by 2050, compared with 6 per cent today.
If only our easy-flying society "across the pond" could confront our parallel truths, it would go a long way towards resolving the climate crisis.

For more information, visit the GreenSkies website.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Drilling Our Own Grave

There was rightful disgust over the House's vote last Thursday to lift a moratorium on drilling for oil and gas off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and part of the Gulf of Mexico.

More drilling, of course, will only result in a few drops in the bucket of our nation's energy crisis, but since when did most politicians resist the drops (read: political brownie points) and kick the bucket ("bucket" as in habit -- of the oil guzzling variety -- not "kick the bucket" as we commonly know it!)?

From the Tampa Tribune, via The Oil Drum:

Energy analysts and geologists have estimated that tapping the outer continental shelf would delay by five to 10 years for oil and 11 to 19 years for gas the day global reserves reach their apex and forever start to decline.

Kenneth S. Deffeyes, a retired Princeton University professor and former geologist for oil giant Shell, has said drilling in places such as the eastern Gulf would "only postpone the bigger problem."