Jason Barton

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Archive for the ‘Water’ tag

Cooperation on Biofuels Increasing between Brazil and US

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With the US ending both the tariff on imported ethanol and the tax credit for domestic blenders, cooperation between the US and Brazil on biofuel technology is increasing, as well as efforts to trade renewable fuels on global markets. (See my post at the end of last year)

Yes, we need to be ever vigilant on the possible effects of increased biofuel production on food availability and prices as well as on land use, soil and water quality, and related issues. In my doctoral dissertation, however, I examined these issues in depth and contend that increased production can occur along with protection of ecological health.

The cooperation discussed in the article below can lead to greater efficiency of renewable fuel production, using less land and less water to produce more fuel.

Energy is fundamental to economic growth, and as countries in Latin America and Africa increase their ability to produce renewable energy domestically, they create more jobs and better the lives of their people in ways that will improve economic as well as environmental conditions for generations. These are undoubtedly positive.

It is a fascinating time to be alive.

Insight: U.S. and Brazil – At last, friends on ethanol

A gas station worker fills a car's tank with ethanol in Rio de Janeiro April 30, 2008. Brazil is the world's largest producer and exporter of ethanol. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

By Brian Winter

BRASILIA | Fri Sep 14, 2012 11:21pm IST

(Reuters) – After years at each other’s throats, Brazil and the United States are working together to promote the use of ethanol in a collaboration that could revolutionize global markets and the makeup of the biofuel itself.

The breakthrough came in January when Washington allowed a three-decade-old subsidy for U.S. ethanol producers to expire and ended a steep tariff on foreign biofuels. The tariff, in particular, had poisoned diplomatic relations between the world’s top two ethanol-producing countries for years.

Continue reading this article here.

Algae May Be the Future of Biofuels, but it’s a Distant Future

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This is promising. Whatever we may say about Monsanto (read more here), there are some smart people working there, and their investment in technology to use algae for biofuels shows there is some real promise in those efforts. The innovation needed to make this technology energy efficient and cost effective, however, is a long way off.

Cellulosic biofuels from crops with which we have great experience, such as corn and grasses, continues to face considerable barriers. First, while we have known for millennia how to ferment 6 carbon sugars such as glucose,we lack the experience and an efficient method to ferment the diverse, 5 and 6 carbon sugars in cellulose. To complicate matters further, unlike the sugars in cane or in the carbohydrates in corn, the sugars in cellulose are mixed in with lignin, the stiff, woody parts of plants that give them their structure.

Sapphire energy, the company discussed in the article below, will not likely ferment the sugars for fuels like ethanol, but will extract the oil to make diesel fuel. This process still faces barriers as formidable as those I discuss above, plus the added disadvantage that we don’t have proven methods to grow, harvest, and process algae efficiently.

You might be thinking, ‘the pond near our backyard grows tons of algae and we don’t even want it, how hard can it be?’ When we’re trying to grow enough to be used to power cars and planes, and in a small space with limited inputs of water and other form energy, it gets trickier.

It will take time to develop the methods to do all of this. It can be done, but let’s not figure that developments such as this give us license to continue using fossil fuels with our present, reckless abandon.

Innovation, yes, efficiency always.

Monsanto Backs Algae Startup Sapphire Energy

content by earth2tech

By Katie Fehrenbacher at Earth2Tech

Tue Mar 8, 2011 11:07am EST

Agriculture and genetics giant Monsanto has made its bet on algae. On Tuesday Monsanto announced that it has made an equity investment in, and developed a partnership with, algae startup Sapphire Energy.

Founded in 2007, Sapphire Energy uses synthetic biology to make a green crude out of algae that can be turned into gas, diesel or jet fuel. Monsanto wants access to Sapphire’s genetic research technology to use it for its own agricultural development. Using Sapphire’s genetic technology, Monsanto can isolate traits in algae (like high yields and stress traits) that could be used to tweak other crops. Monsanto’s CTO Robb Fraley said in a release that algae is an “excellent discovery tool,” for agricultural genetic research.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

March 20th, 2011 at 10:52 am

Obama and the New Brazil

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After a first visit to Brazil earlier in the 20th Century, a foreign diplomat boldly stated that “Brazil is the country of the future!” Self-deprecating Brazilians quickly added, “And it always will be.”

Based on my four years of living in Brazil and many return visits in the four years since, I don’t think Brazilians are saying this any longer, nor are the popular media or President Obama.

It has been fascinating to watch the changes in Brazil since my first arrival shortly before Lula’s election in 2002. I feel very fortunate to have earned the job that first brought me there, and to have stayed in close contact with the amazing colleagues and friends with whom I worked and laughed during the past decade.

Mr. Obama, Meet the New Brazil

By JULIA SWEIG and MATIAS SPEKTOR
Published: March 18, 2011

When Barack Obama lands in Brazil this weekend, he will find a country transformed. In little more than a decade, some 30 million people have been lifted out of poverty and the country has risen to seventh place in the world economy.

Change at home has revolutionized policies abroad. Brazil has woken up to the 10 states along its borders, becoming the eminent power and driver of regional integration in South America. It has set out to develop closer ties simultaneously with Israel, Syria and Iran.

[…]

With most of the Amazon within its borders, the world’s 10th largest oil stores, and nearly a fifth of the world’s fresh water, Brazil is an environmental power, an energy power, and guarantor of global food security.

Read the entire article here.

More Advancements in Cellulosic Biofuels

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Government investments in cellulosic biofuels may be paying off.

Not only do these advances move us closer to using grasses and other crops that require less water and fertilizer and compete less with food, it also moves us closer to the advanced biofuels that, unlike ethanol, can be used as drop in replacements for gasoline (read more here).

We need to combine these advancements with further efforts in conservation and efficiency, or we risk converting so much of the Earth’s biomass to serving human uses that we will decrease biodiversity to the extent that we risk further ecological collapse.

This doesn’t just diminish our ability to go camping in pretty places, it also threatens our supply of essential resources such as clean, healthy water and soil.  I like to go camping, but I like eating and drinking healthy food and water even more. They’re really important, and clearing diverse forests and prairies so we can plant crops such as grasses, whether for fuel, food, fiber, or feed, poses risks to water and soil.

Energy Department Announces New Advance in Biofuel Technology

Highlights Opportunity to Reduce America’s Oil Dependence and Create Jobs in Rural America

March 07, 2011

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu today congratulated a team of researchers at the Department’s BioEnergy Science Center who have achieved yet another advance in the drive toward next generation biofuels: using bacteria to convert plant matter directly into isobutanol, which can be burned in regular car engines with a heat value higher than ethanol and similar to gasoline. This research is part of a broad portfolio of work the Department is doing to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and create new economic opportunities for rural America.

[…]

Secretary Chu added that: “America’s oil dependence—which leaves hardworking families at the mercy of global oil markets—won’t be solved overnight. But the remarkable advance of science and biotechnology in the past decade puts us on the precipice of a revolution in biofuels. In fact, biotechnologies, and the biological sciences that provide the underlying foundation, are some of the most rapidly developing areas in science and technology today – and the United States is leading the way. In the coming years, we can expect dramatic breakthroughs that will allow us to produce the clean energy we need right here at home. We need to act aggressively to seize this opportunity and win the future.”

Read the entire article here.

Patience, Efficiency Are Key to Safe, Profitable Use of Brazil’s Oil

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There are a lot of people with a lot to gain from drilling this “presal” oil off Brazil’s coast as quickly as possible. I have worked with some of them and understand their desire to move forward with the extraction now, not later. I also understand their many good intentions as well as their confidence that the oil can be extracted safely using existing technology, even if I don’t agree.

I can also attest, from personal experience, to the truth of the article’s contention that government bureaucracy will be as inefficient at getting the job done as it will be at distributing any public funds to Brazilians and much needed government services. The barrier however, is not the Brazilian government, but existing technology.

And yes, prices at the pump are rising with no sign of abating, but it’s hard to see how speeding this oil drilling ahead in the next few years will do much to ease those prices in anything but the longest term. Plus, oil is a great example for supply creating its own demand. Increase the supply of oil and the lowered prices will drive us to use enough gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel to keep demand and prices high.

The first paragraph in the article below describes a process that is every bit as difficult, and as dangerous, as the one employed for the Deepwater Horizon platform formerly situated in the Gulf of Mexico. These processes and others like them can be and have been done safely, though recent experience tells us that not only is this safety far from ensured, but also that if something goes wrong, the consequences remind us exactly what the word “disaster” means.

The pressure to drill now is exacerbated by the high current demand for oil in the face of growing constraints. Some are reluctant to continue drilling off U.S. shores while the people and economies of Louisiana and other Gulf states are still reeling from last summer’s spill. Regardless of your political stripe, Middle East politics make us all a bit uneasy, especially when we think of how much of our oil comes from despotic and unstable regimes there.

Slowing our demand for oil, first by increasing efficiency and reducing use of transportation fuels, and then by continuing to develop viable alternatives to petroleum, will decrease the drive to rush drilling in places like the oil fields over 7000m beneath the ocean’s surface, through 3000m of rock and another 2000m of salt.

Given time, companies such as Petrobras will certainly improve technologies so that this oil can be reached more safely, with more effective failsafes in the event something does go wrong, and likely it will all be doable at lower costs, to the companies doing the drilling and to the consumer.

The additional time will also allow Brazil to continue eliminating corruption and streamlining its bureaucracy so that the permitting process is more efficient, as are the avenues through which the government spends its revenues and improves infrastructure.

These factors combine to create win-win-win situations for people, profit, and ecological health. Patience and efficiency are key.

Brazil’s offshore oil

In deep waters

Extracting the black gold buried beneath the South Atlantic will be hard. Spending the profits wisely will be harder

Feb 3rd 2011 | CIDADE DE ANGRA DOS REIS | From The Economist print edition

THE coast of Rio de Janeiro is 290km and 70 minutes away as the helicopter flies. High overhead, gas is flaring; underfoot, enough oil to fill 330,000 barrels is waiting to be offloaded. The ocean floor is 2,150 metres beneath. Drill past 3,000 metres of rock and you will hit a layer of salt 2,140m thick. Only after boring through that fossilised ocean will you strike oil—6.5 billion barrels’ worth in the “Lula” field alone. (Supposedly, it is named for the Portuguese word for squid, not the former president called Lula for his curly hair.)

[…]

More hopeful is the prospect that technological progress, led by Petrobras, can diversify Brazil’s economy. The company employs more than 1,600 people in research and development, says Carlos Fraga, who leads these efforts. It also works with 85 Brazilian universities and research institutes, and for every one of its own researchers, another ten outside the company are working on its projects full-time. A technology cluster is springing up around Petrobras’s research labs in Rio, with university facilities alongside new $50m laboratories built by the likes of General Electric and Schlumberger.

From this perspective, the technical obstacles of sub-salt drilling look like an opportunity. Exploiting offshore oil, says Mr Fraga, could spur Brazilian innovation just as the space race did in the United States. “Just extracting the oil is not enough to move Brazil on in technological development,” says Segen Estefan of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “These are finite resources. Brazil must seize the moment to lead in technology, not just in extracting and exporting raw materials.”

Read the entire article here.

Soil is essential, non-renewable, and disappearing

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The headline on the article below borders on yellow journalism (I hope I sufficiently toned down my own headline above), but the problem of soil erosion is very, very real. If there’s any doubt in your mind, head to the rural Midwest and take a look at a church yard nestled amongst the corn and soybean fields. The churchyard will be six to ten feet higher than the surrounding farm fields.

Why? Modern industrial agriculture, the methods widely practiced around the world, too often leads to massive amounts of erosion. The soil simply blows away or is washed downstream.

Deforestation leads to more erosion as plants that would have held the soil, and the water essential to healthy soil, are removed for timber or to make way for agriculture. The crops may be beneficial to the soils, a nice symbiotic relationship common in systems untouched by humans, but if the soil is left bare for months at a time, as is usually the case in the Midwestern US during the winter, that soil is still highly vulnerable to erosion, hence the church yard phenomenon.

Civilization’s Foundation Eroding

September 28, 2010

Lester R. Brown

The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. This soil, typically 6 inches or so deep, was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. But sometime within the last century, as human and livestock populations expanded, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation over large areas.

Sinai Desert
Credit: iStock Photo/stevenallan

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In a section of his report entitled “The Hundred Dead Cities,” he described a site in northern Syria, near Aleppo, where ancient buildings were still standing in stark isolated relief, but they were on bare rock. During the seventh century, the thriving region had been invaded, initially by a Persian army and later by nomads out of the Arabian Desert. In the process, soil and water conservation practices used for centuries were abandoned. Lowdermilk noted, “Here erosion had done its worst….if the soils had remained, even though the cities were destroyed and the populations dispersed, the area might be re-peopled again and the cities rebuilt, but now that the soils are gone, all is gone.”

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During the late nineteenth century, millions of Americans pushed westward, homesteading on the Great Plains, plowing vast areas of grassland to produce wheat. Much of this land—highly erodible when plowed—should have remained in grass. This overexpansion culminated in the 1930s Dust Bowl, a traumatic period chronicled in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a crash program to save its soils, the United States returned large areas of eroded cropland to grass, adopted strip-cropping, and planted thousands of miles of tree shelterbelts.

Amazon Deforested

Credit: iStock Photo/Brasil2

During the late nineteenth century, millions of Americans pushed westward, homesteading on the Great Plains, plowing vast areas of grassland to produce wheat. Much of this land—highly erodible when plowed—should have remained in grass. This overexpansion culminated in the 1930s Dust Bowl, a traumatic period chronicled in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In a crash program to save its soils, the United States returned large areas of eroded cropland to grass, adopted strip-cropping, and planted thousands of miles of tree shelterbelts.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

September 29th, 2010 at 7:56 am

Regulating gas drilling & fracturing

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Internalize the externalities. That’s the job of government in this situation. If there are external or indirect costs from drilling for natural gas, particularly with technologies such as hydraulic fracturing that involve greater risk, the companies performing the drilling, and people like us who then buy the finished product by lighting our homes, pay those costs.

For example, if the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing leak into drinking water and make people sick, the economic costs such as hospital bills and lost work are paid by the company who was doing the drilling involved with the leak. Of course this doesn’t solve all the problems caused when people get sick from bad water, but it motivates the companies to prevent such accidents, as opposed to setting up government funds to fix them, which motivates neither prevention nor the guilty parties taking responsibility for their actions. Then, as these costs are passed along to we the consumers, we’re motivated to pay more attention to the companies that provide our electricity, further enforcing the cycle.

Yes, it may seem shallow or even vulgar to think about issues of human health only in monetary terms, but it presents a set of very efficient tools for solving so many of the problems that go much deeper than money.

PA senator says US should regulate gas drilling

August 20, 2010, 8:13AM ET

By MICHAEL RUBINKAM

SCRANTON, Pa.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said Thursday that Pennsylvania’s emerging natural gas industry has the potential to create jobs and wealth, but also carries environmental risks that must be addressed.

The Pennsylvania Democrat told a forum in Scranton that the “gas rush” taking place in the vast Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania “can create a great economic boost” in a state where nearly 600,000 people are unemployed. But he added: “We must not fail to protect our people, our land, our water and our future.”

Read the entire article here.

Colorado Citizens Concerned about Move from Coal to Natural Gas

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Darn, this looked like such a positive move from so many angles, but it’s hard to argue against people who have valid concerns that this move could raise their utility prices or, much worse, threaten their jobs.

The volatility in prices is difficult to control, but is it possible that a slow reduction in coal mining could lead to a smooth retraining for these people into jobs, even within the energy industry, that are safer for Coloradans as well as the people who work in the mines?

These people’s concerns certainly have merit, and I haven’t looked deeply enough into the particulars to offer much insight, but this is a typical example of stakeholders in a somewhat antiquated system fearing change, not because they don’t believe it will be better for all in the long run, but because they fear it will be worse for them in particular in the near future.

If solutions to problems like this one can be found, they could be applied in so many places all over the country in the coming years.

Western Coloradans air concerns on Xcel energy plan

Associated Press
08/30/10 10:00 PM PDT

GRAND JUNCTION, COLO. — Many western Coloradans are urging state regulators to reject moves to switch from coal to natural gas as the fuel to generate electricity.
About 300 people turned out Monday night for a hearing in Grand Junction on a new state law aimed at using natural gas to fuel power plants in efforts to cut power plant emissions. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest producer of electricity, has announced a $1.3 billion plan to convert coal-fired power plants to natural gas in Denver and close a coal plant in Boulder.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

August 1st, 2010 at 8:06 am

A Special Report on Water

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Many have pointed out the inextricable links between water and energy. Beyond the similarities in demand and scarcity mentioned in the first line of the article below, “Water, it is said, is the new oil,” there is also the need for water to produce biofuels, many forms of solar power, hydroelectricity, and water used for oil and gas extraction processes such as hydraulic fracturing.

Before I focused on bioenergy and agriculture, I was initially interested in the economics of water. While it’s important to focus in order to understand the intricate details of any of these essential areas, it is equally important to consider the others, the entire context, when examining any of them.

A special report on water

For want of a drink

Finite, vital, much wanted, little understood, water looks unmanageable. But it needn’t be, argues John Grimond (interviewed here)

May 20th 2010 | From The Economist print edition

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WHEN the word water appears in print these days, crisis is rarely far behind. Water, it is said, is the new oil: a resource long squandered, now growing expensive and soon to be overwhelmed by insatiable demand. Aquifers are falling, glaciers vanishing, reservoirs drying up and rivers no longer flowing to the sea. Climate change threatens to make the problems worse. Everyone must use less water if famine, pestilence and mass migration are not to sweep the globe. As it is, wars are about to break out between countries squabbling over dams and rivers. If the apocalypse is still a little way off, it is only because the four horsemen and their steeds have stopped to search for something to drink.

The language is often overblown, and the remedies sometimes ill conceived, but the basic message is not wrong. Water is indeed scarce in many places, and will grow scarcer. Bringing supply and demand into equilibrium will be painful, and political disputes may increase in number and intensify in their capacity to cause trouble. To carry on with present practices would indeed be to invite disaster.

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Soaked, parched, poached

Many of these conceptual difficulties arise from other unusual aspects of water. It is a commodity whose value varies according to locality, purpose and circumstance. Take locality first. Water is not evenly distributed—just nine countries account for 60% of all available fresh supplies—and among them only Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Indonesia and Russia have an abundance. America is relatively well off, but China and India, with over a third of the world’s population between them, have less than 10% of its water.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

May 21st, 2010 at 12:56 pm

Stillwater to Deploy Water SaveSource Fixed Network Solution from Itron

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Here are some tangible details on more of the applications of the occasionally enigmatic, smart grid technology. Not only can it help to transmit electricity more efficiently and gather more detailed information on electricity usage, as shown here, it also has some excellent applications for water users and utilities.

It’s a fascinating time to be alive.


LIBERTY LAKE, Wash. – February 24, 2010 (News Release)

Itron Inc. (NASDAQ: ITRI) announced today that the City of Stillwater, Okla., (Stillwater) will deploy Water SaveSource, Itron’s fixed network metering system for water providers. Serving a population of more than 50,000, Stillwater pursued an advanced meter data collection system upon receiving an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus fund award.

Located 60 miles northeast of Oklahoma City, Stillwater will deploy 17,000 Water SaveSource end points over the next three years which will be read by a fixed network. By deploying Water SaveSource, Stillwater expects to collect incremental meter reads and data logging, which will facilitate analysis of customer water usage and the tracking of unaccounted for water losses. This will improve Stillwater’s customer service and provide data for proactive in-home leak detection programs.

Read the entire article here.

Written by Jason

February 24th, 2010 at 8:52 pm