Tag Archives: energy

genetically engineered algae

USEPA has approved a strain of genetically engineered oil producing algae to be tested outdoors.

On August 1, 2013, EPA received TSCA Experimental Release Applications (TERAs) R-13-0003, -0004, -0005, -0006 and -0007 from Sapphire Energy, Inc. to test five different intergeneric strains of the photosynthetic green algae Scenedesmus dimorphus in open ponds. The purpose of the field test is to (1) evaluate the translatability of the genetically modified strains from the laboratory to an outdoor setting, and (2) to characterize the potential ecological impact (dispersion and invasion) of the genetically-modified microalgae. The introduced intergeneric DNA sequences include certain metabolism genes and an intergeneric marker gene that enables detection of the microorganism from environmental samples. Also, different regulatory elements controlling expression of the genes were used, resulting in the five intergeneric strains. The field trials are to be conducted at the University of California San Diego Biology Field Station (BFS) in La Jolla, CA.



stealing used fast food oil

According to Bloomberg, theft of used fast food oil has become more common as its economic value has increased recently. There are a few interesting reasons for this:

Finding value in old grease isn’t new. For more than a century, the waste product has been processed into ingredients for everything from makeup and paint to pet food and livestock feed, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based National Renderers Association, which represents 51 companies with 205 plants in the U.S. and Canada.

What’s different is more cooking oil is being made into fuel. It’s now the largest use for old grease, at around 30 percent of demand. A 2007 energy law calls for American cars, trucks and buses to use escalating amounts of biofuels. Most of that is corn-based ethanol used in gasoline, but refiners also are making more biodiesel. Soybean oil is the primary raw material, followed by used grease and corn oil…

The rally in biodiesel is boosting the value of grease. Since Feb. 17, the fuel is up 12 percent to $3 a gallon, as of April 28. Further gains may be likely because of a trade dispute with competitors in Argentina and Indonesia, which may limit imports of biodiesel

So the value of, and therefore the incentive to steal, grease is on the rise due to a complicated set of factors involving fuel demand, government regulation, and international trade policy. If some of the biodiesel we are using in the U.S. is coming from palm oil plantations in the tropics, that adds another element to consider in the environmental benefits or costs of the technology. I also suspected that the typical burger joint owner who is paying someone to pick this stuff up doesn’t care all that much if someone else picks it up. From that person’s perspective, either way it goes away. I suppose the environment could be hurt depending on where it goes, and the licensed grease hauling industry gets hurt (and yes there is an industry association for that, called the National Renderers Association, and they are very concerned about this issue.

410 ppm

Climate Central says we have hit 410 ppm:

On Tuesday, the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded its first-ever carbon dioxide reading in excess of 410 parts per million (it was 410.28 ppm in case you want the full deal). Carbon dioxide hasn’t reached that height in millions of years. It’s a new atmosphere that humanity will have to contend with, one that’s trapping more heat and causing the climate to change at a quickening rate…

“The rate of increase will go down when emissions decrease,” Pieter Tans, an atmospheric scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. “But carbon dioxide will still be going up, albeit more slowly. Only when emissions are cut in half will atmospheric carbon dioxide level off initially.”

Even when concentrations of carbon dioxide level off, the impacts of climate change will extend centuries into the future. The planet has already warmed 1.8°F (1°C), including a run of 627 months in a row of above-normal heat. Sea levels have risen about a foot and oceans have acidified. Extreme heat has become more common.

All of these impacts will last longer and intensify into the future even if we cut carbon emissions. But we face a choice of just how intense they become based on when we stop polluting the atmosphere.

So things are not only not getting better. They are not even getting worse at a slower rate. They are getting worse at a faster and faster rate, and our not-too-ambitious goal is to make them get worse at the same rate. High school calculus teachers are probably the only ones enjoying this.

electric cars about to boom

According to Bloomberg, electric cars are set for a big boom by 2020 and could lead to a peak and decline in oil demand sometime in the 2020s.

Electric cars are coming fast — and that’s not just the opinion of carmakers anymore. Total SA, one of the world’s biggest oil producers, is now saying EVs may constitute almost a third of new-car sales by the end of the next decade.

The surge in battery powered vehicles will cause demand for oil-based fuels to peak in the 2030s, Total Chief Energy Economist Joel Couse said at Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s conference in New York on Tuesday. EVs will make up 15 percent to 30 percent of new vehicles by 2030, after which fuel “demand will flatten out,” Couse said. “Maybe even decline…”

“By 2020 there will be over 120 different models of EV across the spectrum,” said Michael Liebreich, founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “These are great cars. They will make the internal combustion equivalent look old fashioned.”

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

climate change starting to bite in Alaska

Bloomberg has an article about the effects of climate change in Alaska, and failure to deal with them. Surprisingly, it sounds like the state was making some limited strides under Sarah Palin but has completely dropped the ball since.

Across Alaska, in towns built on permafrost, rising temperatures are causing the ground to sink, damaging buildings and roads. In towns built on the coast, less sea ice means greater exposure to storms and floods. Drier conditions have led to more forest fires. Extreme weather killed or injured as many Alaskans in 2015 as in the previous 10 years combined. “Environmental change is not a theoretical in Alaska,” says Rick Thoman, the state’s climate sciences and services manager for the National Weather Service. “It’s happening, and it’s accelerating.”

Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it…

Alaska is an extreme example of a national failure to prepare for climate change. Across the U.S., state funding for environmental projects, such as beach erosion control or upgraded sewage systems, peaked in 2007, even as capital expenditures have since risen 25 percent. States along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have resisted adopting the latest model building codes designed to protect residents against storms and other extreme weather.

Along with its failure to deal with climate change, it sounds like Alaska has squandered its oil wealth. It could have converted its natural capital in financial capital that future generations could use to deal with the consequences of extracting those natural resources – pretty much a textbook definition of sustainability. It’s not the only failure at the state level – my home state of Pennsylvania could have used royalties from the shale boom to reduce its enormous state and municipal pension mess, but it didn’t and it’s mostly too late now.


making your own biodiesel

Do you want to make your own biodiesel? Here’s an article. Basically, biodiesel is vegetable oil either mixed with regular diesel or processed to change its properties so it can fuel a diesel engine or generator. If you try this please don’t poison, burn or blow yourself up. If you poison, burn or blow yourself up don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This is interesting on a small scale but I don’t think it’s the answer to civilization’s energy problems for a few reasons. The obvious one is that it takes a lot of vegetable oil, vegetable oil crops/trees take a lot of land to grow, and if you do it on a huge scale you will not have that land available for anything else, like growing food. We should be diversifying our economy away from our reliance on oil specifically, and liquid fuels more generally. Still, there are applications like air travel where liquid fuels seem to be the best technical solution, and it might make sense to reserve biofuels for those. If you need an emergency generator for some reason, like at a hospital, and battery or fuel cell technology are not up to the job or cost-effective enough yet, a tank of biodiesel certainly seems like a safer and less toxic alternative to a tank of regular old diesel.

are you smarter than Einstein?

It seems to me that spending your life trying to disprove Einstein is a path to likely disappointment and failure. Nonetheless there are brave souls who dare to challenge (well, tweak maybe…) his theories.

FOR 80 YEARS, scientists have puzzled over the way galaxies and other cosmic structures appear to gravitate toward something they cannot see. This hypothetical “dark matter” seems to outweigh all visible matter by a startling ratio of five to one, suggesting that we barely know our own universe. Thousands of physicists are doggedly searching for these invisible particles.

But the dark matter hypothesis assumes scientists know how matter in the sky ought to move in the first place. At the end of 2016, a series of developments has revived a long-disfavored argument that dark matter doesn’t exist after all. In this view, no missing matter is needed to explain the errant motions of the heavenly bodies; rather, on cosmic scales, gravity itself works in a different way than either Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein predicted.

The latest attempt to explain away dark matter is a much-discussed proposal by Erik Verlinde, a theoretical physicist at the University of Amsterdam who is known for bold and prescient, if sometimes imperfect, ideas. In a dense 51-page paper posted online on Nov. 7, Verlinde casts gravity as a byproduct of quantum interactions and suggests that the extra gravity attributed to dark matter is an effect of “dark energy”—the background energy woven into the space-time fabric of the universe.

EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2017

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has released its annual energy outlook 2017. In their economic modeling exercises, some of the interesting things that happen are that oil demand stays relatively flat, natural gas demand continues to grow, coal continues to fall, and renewables continue to grow through 2040 although they don’t reach a higher share of the total supply than natural gas or oil. Carbon emissions fall or stay relatively flat in most scenarios, which is interesting but remember that flat emissions that are still too high will cause atmospheric greenhouse gases to continue growing at a steady rate. Some of the most interesting graphs are emissions intensity per dollar of economic output and emissions per unit of energy used, which both fall over time but again this does not guarantee that the atmosphere is healing itself, only becoming sicker at a slower rate.