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Nuclear Waste Deep Storage Plans Approved

Finland’s government issued a construction license to nuclear disposal consortium Posiva last week, Reuters reported. The license gives the group approval to build a storage facility on Olkiluoto Island, Finland, designed to last 100,000 years.

The facility would be the first of its kind in the world. Since the beginning of the nuclear power age, energy firms have paid to store nuclear waste in temporary holding ponds unlikely to last more than a couple of centuries.  The Posiva facility, decades in the planning, may pioneer a more sustainable era of disposal. (See “Finland’s Nuclear Waste Solution,” IEEE Spectrum, December 2009.)

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Steak and ground beef

The Global Energy Risk of Growing More Protein

The global shortlist of security concerns just became a bit longer: border security, cyber security, economic security, water security and now, protein security.

Access to high quality protein sources, beef or otherwise, is increasingly challenging for companies and nations as more of world’s population adopts Western diets, according to a new study from Lux Research.

With the considerable water and energy requirements to grow beef and many other protein sources, the research is meant to help stakeholders understand how to increase the amount of protein produced without jeopardizing environmental resources. 

The study looked at protein production data from more than 100 publications. The researchers then compared all of the protein sources across their entire life cycle. Each protein source was then benchmarked using the concept called “beef parity”, the total resource requirement and risk involved to produce the equivalent of 1 kilogram of beef protein.

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Shocking Trick To Desalinate Seawater

Getting clean water for drinking and agriculture to a burgeoning population is one of the most pressing challenges of this century. A natural place to turn to is the world’s oceans, but desalinating seawater has so far proven to be costly and energy-intensive.

Engineers at MIT have come up with a new desalination system that uses a shockwave to get the salt out of seawater. It could be a practical and energy-efficient method for desalination; water purification in remote locations and emergencies; and for cleaning brackish wastewater generated from hydraulic fracturing, the researchers say.

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Putting California Wind Power Out to Sea

Wind power developers eyeing California’s renewable energy market are literally floating a novel idea. Seattle-based Trident Winds has filed preliminary environmental documents for a farm of 100 floating wind turbines off California’s central coast, according to reporting this week by the San Jose Mercury News

Trident Winds’ proposal is a longterm bet—startup is probably a decade away according to CEO Alla Weinstein—but it's a vision that sounds less and less like science fiction. Just last week Norwegian oil and gas giant Statoil gave the green light to what is likely to be the world’s first floating wind farm, with construction set to begin next year near Scotland; it is to be generating 30 megawatts (MW) of power by the end of 2017. 

There is no doubt that California will need plenty of renewable energy as the state gears up to meet a new mandate requiring half of its power to be renewable by 2030. Less clear is whether it will be ready to stomach floating wind power's financial and maritime pricetag.

Floating turbines rely on the same types of spar buoys and tension-leg platforms used by offshore oil platforms, enabling them to access wind power in deeper waters well beyond the 40- to 50-meter limits of turbines on fixed foundations. That's an enabler for offshore wind power near coastlines that drop off quickly, such as California's, and it also provides access to the stronger, more consistent airflows that prevail further offshore. 

Trident Winds’ project would float offshore from the California coastal city of Morro Bay, which lies between Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo. The plan calls for 10-MW floating turbines standing up to 194 meters tall, which the Mercury News notes is even taller than Morro Rock, "the craggy 581-foot-tall monolith that dominates” the local shoreline.

The fleet of 100 turbines would, of course, be 24 kilometers offshore and thus no competition for Morro Bay's iconic structure. That’s in marked contrast to Morro Bay’s old power plant. San Francisco–based PG&E shut down the coal-fired plant in 2013 but, according to the New York Times, the utility has no plans to demolish its three 137-meter smokestacks

Floating wind turbines have been in the pilot/demonstration phase since the first turbines were installed offshore in Europe in 2007 and 2008. They stepped up in power significantly with the 2009 installation of a 2.3-MW, 65-meter-tall machine off the Norwegian coast by Statoil. Berkeley-based floating wind developer Principle Power (previously led by Trident Winds' Weinstein) installed a 2-MW machine in Portuguese waters in 2011. 

Since then even bigger machines have been floated. In August a consortium of Japanese industrial firms anchored a 7-MW, 105-meter-high turbine off the coast of Fukushima. Statoil’s Scottish wind park plans call for six 6-megawatt machines

Larger scale is seen as critical to making deepwater installations cost-effective, which makes Trident Winds’ proposal for 10-MW turbines understandable. The Guardian’s reporting on Statoil’s project suggests that scale could ultimately render floating turbines more cost-effective than today’s fixed offshore turbines. Citing a June 2015 report from the U.K.’s Carbon Trust, it says the current global average for offshore wind is £112 ($169) per megawatt-hour (MWh), whereas “larger concepts” for floating wind such as Statoil’s could produce power at £85–95/MWh.

Design could help too. The innovator behind the very first floating offshore turbine test recently launched a crowd-funding campaign to fund certification of a simplified turbine for offshore use, redesigned from the ground up with floating installation and operation in mind. 

Cost reductions will be critical to selling offshore wind in the U.S. Since at least 2013, Principle Power has been advancing a proposal to install floating turbines off the coast of Oregon. But, as this weekend’s Mercury Star report notes, Principle Power's projected $240/MWh pricetag is “more than the utilities in Oregon want to pay.” 

Another challenge facing technology proponents is demonstrating that their floating leviathans will have limited impacts on the marine environment. European studies have found that offshore wind farms have limited impact on seabirds. But location is everything, and conservation groups will be looking for reassurance that the technology will be benign for the birds frequenting the U.S. Pacific coast.

A more difficult flashpoint could be impacts on fishing resources. Trident Winds’ project would create a 162-square-kilometer no go zone for drag nets, thanks to power cables dangling between the floating turbines.

Paris Climate Talks Facing Growing Carbon Emissions and Credibility Gaps

Three weeks before the start of the Paris climate talks, negotiators working to craft an international agreement that will curb rising global greenhouse gas emissions are staring into a wide gulf between what countries are willing to do and what they need to do. Most countries have stepped up with pledges to meaningfully cut carbon emissions or to at least slow the growth of emission totals between 2020 and 2030. However, national commitments for the Paris talks still fall short of what’s needed to prevent the average global temperature in 2100 from being any more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at the start of this century—the international community’s consensus benchmark for climate impact.

Worse still, the national pledges employ a hodgepodge of accounting methods that include some significant loopholes that ignore important emissions such as leaking methane from U.S. oil and gas production and underreported coal emissions from China. How the promised emissions reductions will be verified post-Paris is “a big debate right now and it makes a massive difference in the numbers,” says Jennifer Morgan, global director for the climate program at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization. 

The best news out of Paris so far is that, as of last week, climate plans—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) in UN-speak—had been submitted for 156 countries (129 INDCs, including a joint submission for the 28 European Union states). The 156 countries account for about 90 percent of global greenhouse emissions according to the Paris talks’ organizer, the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Broad involvement marks a dramatic contrast with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. That deal, which was exclusively for developed countries, was never ratified by the United States. But in the run up to Paris, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached a broad deal a year ago assuring that their countries would ante up; that encouraged the six of the world’s next biggest carbon emitters, including India, Brazil, and Indonesia,to step up. 

The plans, by and large, propose massive shifts to from fossil fuels to renewables. Number crunching by the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute shows that the “Big 8” emitters have pledged to roughly double their use of renewable energy by 2030 compared with 2012 levels. 

The INDC filed by the United States fits the pattern. It largely relies on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan, which mandates a one-third reduction in carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 2030. The EPA projects that coal-fired power will drop from 39 percent of the nation’s electricity supply in 2013, to 27 percent by 2030—largely thanks to the addition of renewables.

Globally speaking, the promised emissions cuts are both substantial and inadequate. Fully implementing the INDCs submitted so far would hold global temperature rise this century to about 2.7 °C above pre-industrial levels, according to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Policy consultancy Climate Interactive, in Washington, D.C., projects a 3.5 °C rise without stronger action post-2030. (These jumps include the 0.85 °C increase already recorded between 1880 and 2012.) 

Those projections represent a substantial step down from the 4.5 °C net rise by 2100 that is projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) based on current emissions trends. But a degree-and-a-half hotter than the 2 °C limit that world leaders agree is needed to head off the worst impacts of climate change is still significant. 

And for some parties, 2 degrees Celsius remains unacceptably high. For example, that amount of warming could cause sea levels to rise far enough to devastate some small island nations such as the Maldives, and some continental coastal zones such as the Mekong Delta and the shores of Bangladesh. The Dalai Lama and other authorities representing over half a billion practicing Buddhists worldwide issued a letter calling for political leaders find the will for a more protective 1.5-°C target.

A tighter target for 2030 appears unlikely, considering that the UN climate secretariat stated categorically last month that the INDCs are not be up for discussion at Paris. But there is growing support for a belt-tightening mechanism that would continually raise ambitions post-2030. Last week, Xi Jinping and French president Francois Hollande endorsed the idea of a five-year review mechanism for INDCs. 

Recent developments suggest there is room for greater ambition. California, for example, was on track to comply with the EPA’s Clean Power Plan even before last month when legislators approved new renewable power mandates for the state’s power sector. Renewable energy’s share of California’s power generation mix is to rise from at least 33 percent in 2020 to at least 50 percent by 2030.

Unfortunately, uncounted emissions could push the global warming trajectory in the opposite direction, making the INDC-based temperature projection, predicting an increase between 2.7 °C and 3 °C, look optimistic. 

Consider the underestimated methane leaks in the United States. A molecule of methane released into the atmosphere traps over 80 times as much heat within 20 years as a CO2 molecule does; after a 100-years, it will still be 28 to 34 times as potent as the longer-lived CO2 molecule. Remote sensing suggests that U.S. methane emissions are 25 to 75 percent higher than what the EPA acknowledges in its bottom-up inventory of methane sources such as oil and gas facilities, belching livestock, and landfills. 

The reality of this missing methane was affirmed in July by an intensive bottom-up accounting of methane leaks at oil and gas operations in Texas’ Barnett Shale reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The study predicts that methane leaks from the Barnett are about 50 percent higher than what is reported in the EPA’s inventory

What that means for Paris is that the U.S. INDC understates its carbon footprint and overstates some of the promised carbon reductions that rely on a switch from coal to natural gas-fired power plants. “There has been no adjustment made for this,” says Ramón Alvarez, a coauthor on the Barnett study and a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. 

Other loopholes are seeing increased scrutiny thanks to intensifying media coverage in the run up to Paris. The New York Times reported last week that China has been undercounting coal emissions for many years.

And a series by online outlet Climate Central in October questioned emissions reductions attributed to European power plants burning U.S.-produced wood pellets instead of coal. According to the report, this accounts for almost half of what European regulators count as carbon-neutral renewable energy. But the source of wood is critical. Scientists say that power plants burning waste biomass can play a key role in reducing emissions. But Climate Central's reporting found that U.S. forests are being harvested to fuel Europe's biomass power; forest regrowth to recover the released carbon could take over a century.

There was an attempt to head off such accounting discrepancies ahead of the Paris talks by setting standardized accounting rules for INDCs, or perhaps even subjecting INDCs to a pre-Paris vetting process, according to Jennifer Morgan at WRI. Speaking at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Oklahoma last month, Morgan said those attempts failed. Countries were instead merely encouraged to be transparent in their accounting methodologies. “It was voluntary. Some did,” said Morgan.

Morgan is looking for negotiators to create a process by which a robust INDC verification mechanism will be created in the months and years ahead. She predicts that rule-making will take about two years of work post-Paris. 

All of these issues make the Paris treaty look more like the end of the beginning than a final destination. 

Large-Scale Solar and Repurposed EV Batteries to Play Large Role in California's Renewable Energy Future

In October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law an ambitious bill that will require the state to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and double energy efficiency.

The law does not lay out specific plans for how to accomplish this, but experts in the field say utility-scale solar will likely make up a large portion—assuming issues with siting and transmission can be solved, and innovations in energy storage can be applied.

“Looking at present trends, we'll see a lot more solar photovoltaics at utility-scale size,” says Ethan Elkind, associate director of climate change at the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. “Barring other policy developments and technology changes,” says Elkind, “that will be the main contributor.”

Elkind spoke on a panel hosted by the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association last month, along with representatives from the utility Pacific Gas and Electric, the American Planning Association, and San Francisco's Public Utility Commission. The panelists discussed strategies for how California would reach its 50-percent-renewables goal.

The state is already well on its way. In 2014, California generated over 44,000 gigawatt hours of renewable electricity, or about 20 percent of its total usage. California defines renewables as biomass, geothermal, small hydro (under 30 megawatts), solar, and wind. It’-s on track to surpass 33 percent renewables by 2020.

Reaching the state’s 2030 goal may sound exceedingly ambitious, but generating enough renewables to make them the main part of its energy mix may not be too big a problem. In California, the “cost for developing solar is now comparable to the cost for developing natural gas fired plants,” says Josh Hohn, who founded APA’s energy initiative.

However, one major issue will be how that energy is stored and whether utilities can nimbly switch from storing to delivering electricity. Batteries will play a big role, as will demand-response strategies.

One idea especially favored by PG&E is solar-powered electric vehicle charging stations. That would help use surplus solar energy during the daytime, while reducing evening electricity demand. In addition, the more cars that plug into the electric grid, the more revenues for PG&E. The utility recently presented a proposal to build over 25,000 charging stations for $654 million. The California Public Utilities Commission, rejected the plan, although the agency approved a smaller-scale pilot project for 2,510 stations.

That setback for PG&E notwithstanding, California is interested in pushing electric vehicles because transportation is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, at around 38 percent of the state’s total.

Some companies are also looking to repurposed batteries from electric vehicles to store solar or wind energy. For instance, says Hohn, as the battery in an electric car loses range, customers may want to upgrade to a newer one with more range. However, that older battery still stores energy. Those batteries can be repurposed and stacked to store energy from solar and wind. Nissan and General Motors have already announced their intentions to repurpose batteries from the Leaf and Volt vehicles, respectively. And Tesla is also developing stationary battery packs aimed at homes, businesses and utilities.

Repurposing old electric vehicle batteries, says Elkind, “is very promising... [and] will be a critical piece to balancing renewables."

Hohn says another storage option is using surplus solar or wind energy to compress air. Then, when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing, the air can be released to turn a turbine. A southern California utility is looking to build a 300-megawatt pilot facility.

Another storage option is pumped hydro. Similar to the compressed air scheme, surplus wind or solar energy is used to pump water uphill. When the energy is needed, the water is released, flows downhill, and turns a turbine.

PG&E already operates one such plant: the Helms Pumped Storage Facility, which can produce 1,212 megawatts of electricity and go from a dead stop to full generation in about 6.5 minutes.

Elkind says that pumped hydro poses some challenges, however. “Mainly, where will we put them?” he asks. “We don't have a lot of water and it's not easy to build new reservoirs.”

California's four-year drought has already had a major impact on its large hydroelectric facilities. In 2014, in-state hydroelectricity production fell 32 percent from 2013 levels, and was down 61 percent from 2011.

That may not be as bad as it seems at first blush. One consequence of the drought is that it may in fact open up land for utility scale solar projects, Hohn says. As territory that was once prime farmland in the state’s Central Valley begins to dry up, installing solar may be one way for farmers there to still get value out of their land, says Hohn.

Although utility-scale solar projects have a lot of potential for helping California reach the 50-percent-renewable benchmark, there are also significant land-use challenges with such projects.

A recent study found that only 15 percent of existing and proposed large-scale solar projects were on ideal sites. “Energy developers put projects where they can easily get land and where they're likely to get a power purchase agreement,” says Elkind. “They're not always thinking about the biological value of the land.”

Elkind added that, “As a state, we haven't figured out what kinds of lands we want to see solar developed on [and how to] steer incentives toward those lands.”

One potential solution is to install more solar in urban environments. Hohn says that is an idea he favors, and he does think that there will be more “solar gardens” in communities. However, he acknowledged that these smaller scale projects are less appealing financially to developers.

Another challenge, says Elkind, will be meeting the goal without increasing fossil fuel usage. Advances in the various storage technologies will be needed to handle the intermittency of renewables without relying on natural gas for stability. In addition, the state will need to integrate its renewable grid with other western states, figure out how to link grid operators, and set up the markets to trade surplus renewable electricity, he said.

“We've learned a lot of lessons getting to 20 percent renewable energy,” Elkind says. And “we're learning as we push toward 50 percent.”

Solar Towers Don't Seem to Be the Bird Destroyers Once Thought

Solar power towers have had a reputation as alleged avian vaporizers since preliminary reports emerged in 2014 of birds being burned in mid-air as they flew through the intense photonic flux at California's Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Their reputation was muddied even more during tests early this year at SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes power tower in Nevada; the solar thermal plant just recently began producing power. California public radio station KCET reported that as many as 150 birds were killed during one six-hour test in January.

It is obviously upsetting to imagine birds ignited in the name of renewable energy. (KCET reporter Chris Clarke, who has tracked the issue since BrightSource Energy began building Ivanpah in the Mojave Desert, described burning birds as “beyond the pale” in a recent article suggesting that power towers may be finished in California.) 

But, upsetting as any killing of birds is, avian mortality is a downside common to many modern human creations—including buildings, highways, and powerlines. The best data on bird mortality at Ivanpah, macabre as it might be, shows the death rate to be small and likely of little ecological significance.

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Leap in Lithium-Air Battery Tech Could Supercharge Electric Cars

Lithium-air batteries can in principle hold five to 10 times as much energy as a lithium-ion battery of the same weight and double the amount for the same volume. They could theoretically give electric cars the same range as gasoline ones. Now scientists in England claim to have overcome many of the current barriers preventing their use.

In a lithium-air battery, the anode is generally made of lithium metal, the cathode is typically a porous carbon material that brings in oxygen from the surrounding air, and the electrolyte is a liquid connecting the anode and the cathode, helping ions shuffle between them. As the lithium oxidizes, it discharges electricity. Recharging the device reverses the process.

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Chile's Hybrid PV-Solar Thermal Power Stations

SolarReserve, the technology developer behind the world’s biggest solar thermal power tower project optimized for energy storage, says its Crescent Dunes plant in Nevada recently delivered power to the grid for the first time and should reach its full 110-megawatt rating by the end of 2015. While SolarReserve has a similar plant starting construction in South Africa, much of its development activity—like that of a key rival, Spanish engineering firm Abengoa—is focused on a novel solar technology twist destined for Chile’s power hungry energy market. 

SolarReserve’s and Abengoa's Chilean projects both seek to unite solar power’s hitherto competing technology wings: solid-state photovoltaics and steam-raising thermal solar. The aim is to deliver cheap round-the-clock power for Chile's big mines. Their PV component will keep the power on during the day. Solar thermal installations akin to Crescent Dunes—with mirrors or 'heliostats' that concentrate sunlight to directly heat molten salt— will take care of the rest, efficiently storing heat to provide competitive generation overnight.

Chile, which is the world’s top producer of fine copper and second leading gold producer, is also the source of half of the world’s lithium, according to a 2014 report on Chile’s mining sector by consulting firm KPMG. As a result, Chile's mining sector is the country’s largest power user, consuming about 85 percent of capacity on the northern grid (the Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande). Demand is growing: power use by copper mines is projected to double by 2025.

Imported natural gas is pricey, so Chile has met new demand with a mix of coal-fired generation, wind power, and PV farms. Utility-scale PV, much of which exploits the intense sun that bathes northern Chile's Atacama Desert, is surging this year. Chile will have installed 1 gigawatt of solar PV this year alone, according to PV-TECH, up from 493 megawatts in 2014. 

While PV is a good deal—it costs as little as $70 per megawatt-hour (before subsidies), which is well below the heavily-discounted bulk rate of $100 per MWh that Chilean mining firms pay for grid power—it is a glass-half-empty electricity source. As the flat line across the power chart on the Sistema Interconectado del Norte Grande homepage shows, Chile's mines don't stop gobbling power when the sun sets and PV shuts down. 

In fact, as a result of the surging PV development, Chilean power prices are now higher at night than during the day, according to Kevin Smith, SolarReserve’s CEO.

Hybrid PV-thermal solar plants promise a nearly complete 24-hour-a-day power solution. The first, which Abengoa began building last year in the Atamaca Desert city of Calama, combines a 100-MW PV farm with a 110-MW molten salt power tower designed to run 18 hours without sunlight. The PV plant is to be completed this year, while the salt tower (Abengoa’s first) is to begin operation in 2017. 

Abengoa entered the Calama plant’s solar thermal component into a government-mandated auction for renewable power supplies in 2014 and was approved to earn $115/MWh. SolarReserve, in contrast, is offering power from its Chilean hybrid PV-thermal solar projects as a bundle, which CEO Kevin Smith promises will sell for “well under” $100/MWh. 

Smith says SolarReserve’s first proposed Chilean hybrid plant, near Copiapó at the southern end of the Atacama, would combine a pair of 130-MW salt towers—each 18 percent more powerful than the tower at Crescent Dunes—with 150 MW of PV output. 

In August, environmental regulators approved the project (a critical hurdle, particularly since documentation of high avian mortality at the triple-tower Ivanpah installation in California’s Mohave Desert appeared). Smith says SolarReserve is seeking industrial buyers for its hybrid power, but may also bid it into a grid power auction in April 2016. 

Both solar thermal developers have big plans for additional hybrid plants in Chile. SolarReserve’s Smith says they have over 1,000 MW of solar projects in “advanced development” in Chile. Abengoa has filed for environmental permits for two follow-on projects, including a twin of its hybrid 110-MW plant approved by environmental regulators for the northern Atacama and a triple-tower, 315-MW project near Copiapó

Abengoa’s challenge will be raising the capital required. The company is struggling with a heavy debt load, and its financial valuation slid last week after an audit by KPMG, driven by Abengoa creditors, detected a larger than expected cashflow deficit

Analysis this weekend by notes similar stock slides at other renewable energy firms. Among them is the one suffered by PV giant SunEdison, whose stock is down by about 70 percent from its valuation in July 2015.  The report suggests this is due both to the financial structure some renewable firms have adopted, and to fallout from sliding oil prices that has hurt the competitiveness of their renewable energy. 

Solar panels

This Is How Good Solar-to-Fuel Conversion Can Be

In the artificial photosynthesis world, the recent buzz has been about new records set on water splitting by solar energy to make hydrogen.

However, a slightly newer, but similar, field of research is looking at another form of artificial photosynthesis—using solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. Such a technology would have the added benefit of removing a potent greenhouse gas from the atmosphere or preventing it from getting there in the first place.

Researchers with the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that they have evaluated the potential efficiencies of this process for several different photoelectric cell configurations, catalysts, and fuel end products.

The group concluded that solar energy could break down CO2 into synthesis gas—a blend of hydrogen and carbon monoxide that used to make other hydrocarbons—at an efficiency of 18.3 percent or could make liquid hythane—a mix of hydrogen and methane—at 20.3 percent efficiency.

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