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Obama and Xi Breathe New Qi into Global Climate Talks

Context is everything in understanding the U.S.-China climate deal struck in Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week. The deal's ambitions may fall short of what climate scientists called for in the latest entreaty from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its realpolitik is important.

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In 2040, Fossil Fuels Still Reign

By 2040, the world’s energy supply mix will be divided into nearly four equal parts; Oil, gas, coal and low-carbon sources—nuclear and renewables—according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2014 World Energy Outlook.

The assessment by the IEA finds that under current and planned policies, the average temperature will also increase by 3.6 degrees Celsius by 2100. Renewable energy takes a far greater role in new electricity supply in the near future—expanding from about 1700 gigawatts today to 4550 gigawatts in 2040—but it is not enough to offset the global dominance of fossil fuels.

“As our global energy system grows and transforms, signs of stress continue to emerge,” IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, said in a statement. “But renewables are expected to go from strength to strength, and it is incredible that we can now see a point where they become the world’s number one source of electricity generation.”

Renewable energy production will double as a share of world electricity demand by 2040, according to the report. But that still does not dethrone coal in electricity generation. Coal will simply shift regionally from the United States and China to Southeast Asia and India, according to the EIA.

The least sexy fuel of all, energy efficiency, is poised to be a winner in coming decades and could have an even greater impact if some of the world’s largest energy users carry through with proposed efficiency plans. Efficiency measures are set to halve the global growth in energy demand from 2 percent annually to about 1 percent beginning in 2025, according to the IEA.

Efficiency standards for cars and more stringent energy efficiency targets for industry and everyday devices are key to slowing the demand for energy, but they do not necessarily help diminish the world’ reliance on fossil fuels because the true price of fossil fuels are not acurately reflected in the price people pay in some regions. 

Fossil fuels receive about $550 billion in subsidies in 2013, compared to $120 billion for all renewable energies. Although the fossil fuel subsidies were $25 billion lower than 2012, there is still vast room for improvement to end price breaks for the mature industries, especially in gas and oil-rich nations, which offer the bulk of the subsidies.

“Subsides to fossil fuels, which encourage wasteful consumption, remain a big problem, despite major efforts on the part of many countries around the world to reduce or eliminate them— primarily where they have become too much of a burden on the public purse,” the IEA states.

Despite the prevalence of fossil fuel subsidies, efficiency and renewables are gaining ground. The IEA’s 2014 World Energy Outlook was released at the same time that the U.S. and China pledged to reduce their carbon emissions by nearly a third by 2030. The targets are non-binding, but do provide a new benchmark for international negotiations. Such policies help to stall fossil fuel growth and reduce energy prices over all. Even in the Middle East, where energy is heavily subsidized in many countries, several countries have implemented stricter building codes for improve efficiency.

The reliance on oil, particularly in the transportation sector, remains fairly steady, according to IEA’s projections. Although there will be some movement toward gas-fueled vehicles, electric transportation, and energy efficiency improvements, the growth in oil for transport and in petrochemicals will largely mask those developments.

The picture painted by the IEA does not take into account technology breakthroughs that could change the picture significantly. Lower cost batteries for renewable-energy storage and advances in tidal power, among many other technologies,  could greatly change the energy mix a quarter century from now.

Heat Your House with Someone Else's Computers

Data centers have no use for all of the waste heat that they generate, but there are plenty of situations in which waste heat isn’t wasted at all: say, inside your house, in the middle of winter, especially if you live somewhere cold. The obvious solution here is to just live in a data center and bask in its warmth, or slightly less ridiculously, put a very small data center in your home or office that generates a useful amount of heat on demand.

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Vattenfall Seeks $6 Billion in Compensation for German Nuclear Phase-Out

Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011 precipitated Germany’s "Atomausstieg" (nuclear exit), a program to close down all German nuclear plants by 2021. The eight oldest nuclear power stations were closed down immediately. Two of these power plants are owned by the Swedish state-owned energy giant Vattenfall, which also operates power plants in several other European countries.

In 2012 Vattenfall filed suit at the Washington-based International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), demanding $6 billion in compensation.

The company, which reported a net loss of $2.5 billion for the third quarter of 2014, claims that the closure of the power stations caused substantial financial damage. The amount of compensation demanded remained undisclosed until the end of last October, when Germany's Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) revealed that the claim is for $6 billion in a letter answering the request (PDF) for more information by a member of the national parliament (Bundestag).

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Taiwanese Researchers Report Progress Towards a Magnesium-ion Battery

Back in January, when lithium-ion batteries powering the electronics in the Boeing Dreamliner aircraft caught fire, the news came as a shock to many. The culprit was the lithium in these rechargeable batteries. It easily ignites when, for example, oxygen is released inside the battery. Batteries made with magnesium are less flammable because a protective layer of magnesium oxide covers the metal. However, it’s not just the lower likelihood that they could turn into tinder boxes that makes magnesium batteries interesting as an alternative to their lithium counterparts. The magnesium ions in the electrolyte also carry a double positive charge, increasing the amount of charge that can be stored by a battery of a given size. Manufacturers of electrically powered cars are especially interested in a workable magnesium-ion battery, but a commercially viable formulation has eluded researchers up to now.

Now a research team led by Fei-Yi Hung, Chun-Shing Lu and Li-Huei Chen from the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at National Cheng Kung University (NCKU) in Tainan, Taiwan, claims that it has developed "next-generation" magnesium batteries that could replace lithium batteries. “We control the reduction-oxidation effects by magnesium membrane electrodes and magnesium powder electrodes technology to increase the magnesium battery prototype’s stability.” Hung is quoted in EnergyTrends, a Web publication based in Taiwan and China. Hung adds that, “A magnesium battery’s capacity is 8 to 12 times higher than a lithium battery. In addition, its charge-discharge efficiency is 5 times higher.”

One of the lingering concerns that troubled engineers looking to design a magnesium battery has been fears over the high reactivity of magnesium. David Prendergast, and Liwen Wan, both researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, published in October the results of supercomputer simulations showing that the reactivity of magnesium is not a hindrance at all. The existing misconception, that magnesium ions would form complex coordination compounds that would hinder the motion of the ions through the electrolyte, proved wrong. Their simulations indicated that the ions formed only four coordination bonds instead of six, making a magnesium-ion coordination complex much smaller and more efficient than was expected.

Their finding should encourage the Taiwanese team and other research groups, which should lead to a diversity of approaches, according to Prendergast. One of the remaining problems is working out the chemistry for solutions that have cathodes, anodes, and electrolytes which are mutually compatible. "The hope is that we can come up with a set of prototypes that we can at least propose and then vet them against each other, and try to come up with a working combination," says Prendergast.

Is Iceland Poised to Become a Data Center Paradise?

Past the bullet- and blast-resistant security station, through a two-door man-trap or two, and inside a few card-plus-passcode doorways at Verne Global’s facility one can finally see one of the two main things that make Iceland an attractive place to put data centers: holes in the walls. More accurately, simple vented walls that allow the outside air to come in, pass through some filters and laser monitoring systems, and on into the rooms full of server racks. Data centers need massive amounts of cooling power, and Iceland’s often chilly air can do the trick.

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EU Climate Summit Commits to 2030 Carbon Cuts

European leaders wrapped up a two-day climate summit in Brussels last week with a deal to cut the European Union's total greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels. This would continue a downward trend – the EU is already on track to meet a 20 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2020 – but the ageement is weak relative to Europe's prior ambitions to confront climate change.  

Investors in green tech pushed agressively for the deal, seeking a longterm signal that the European market will continue to reward advances in energy efficiency and low-carbon energy production. The deal is also a shot in the arm for the Paris global climate talks, scheduled for December 2015, which will seek to achieve the decisive binding global targets for greenhouse gas reductions that failed to emerge from the 2009 Cophenhagen climate talks.

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Power Production Decentralizes in Mexico

Over the last twenty years, Mexico's electricity sector has shifted from being almost 100 percent state-owned and centralized to about one quarter privately generated. This summer, the Mexican government signed into law energy and electricity grid reforms that will accelerate the decentralization of its electricity production (See “Mexico Opens Its Grid to Competition.”). By the end of this year, a new agency should have a regulatory map available for power producers large and small, said Edgar López, renewable energies director at Mexico's Energy Regulatory Commission (CRE) at a conference in Mexico City last month.

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Internet-Exposed Energy Control Systems Abound

Two-and-a-half years ago researchers at Chicago-based cyber security firm Infracritical set out to measure how many industrial control systems are openly exposed to the Internet. Their disquieting findings are up for discussion today at the 2014 ICS Cyber Security Conference in Atlanta.

Infracritical remotely identified over 2.2 million unique IP addresses linked to industrial control systems at energy-related sites including electrical substations, wind farms, and water purification plants. And they were still logging an average of 2,000-3,000 new addresses per day when they closed the count in January 2014.

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Can Organic Solar Cells Reach Old Age?

Although organic photovoltaic cells are less efficient than silicon-based ones, experts expect their to one day be a big market for them. That’s because they are cheap to manufacture, flexible, and light-weight. However, there is a big obstacle to their wide-scale use: their lifetime is limited by oxygen and by ultraviolet radiation.

There’s hope, according to Monica Lira-Cantu, an engineer investigating organic solar photovoltaics at the Catelan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Bellaterra, Spain. She was one of the three organizers of ISOS-7 International Summit on OPV Stability (ISOS) held in Barcelona, on 6-8 October.

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