Aurora Biofuels, a California startup, has engineered a strain of algae that could absorb twice as much CO2 as strains found in nature. The increases come by boosting the algae’s built in mechanisms to still be effective in low light conditions. Aurora has built a pilot facility near Melbourne, Florida, but soon hopes to expand to larger sizes.
Archive for the ‘CO2’ Category
There was a recent blog post on NYTimes.com highlighting how downloading music emits less CO2 than buying CDs.
Who would have thought making a plastic disc, packing it in plastic, and shipping via air freight and truck would emit CO2? While most people did know that everything involved in getting a CD to a consumer emits CO2, one important thing to note from this article that people often overlook is that Internet usage does emit CO2 because the computers required to host and transmit the data still consume energy.
Large companies like Amazon, Apple, and non-music related services like Google and Microsoft are comparatively energy efficient. Data centers consume mass amounts of energy because there are literally thousands of computers tightly packed into buildings. It’s in the best interest of these companies to save energy, not just to be green, but to save money. Over the life of a server, its energy use can cost more than the hardware itself. When computers run, they emit heat, which is wasted power. That heat also needs to be removed, typically by air conditioning, which also consumes more energy.
Of the major Internet companies, Google has stepped up and made its energy savings methods public. Hopefully other data centers can follow suit and implement some of the measures to reduce energy consumption.
In reply to comments on the More Coal Industry Propaganda post.
You are right, Jesse, the cost of power is important. Legislation does drive up the price of dirty energy, but it only brings the cost closer to the true social costs of power from coal. If you are a believer in the free market, then with some other economic principles you are likely to see that as prices go up, consumption goes down. Demand for electricity is elastic, just like the price of gas. When the cost in the US went up in 2008, consumption went down, causing the prices to drop again. It’s arguable that the cost of electricity generation does not fluctuate enough for there to be a dramatic effect, but that’s only true if there is only a single source of power.
As clean technologies become *relatively* cheaper, they are more cost competitive. For one, the economies of scale make clean technologies cheaper as more is bought. I did say relatively cheaper because even with prices stay the same, they become more competitive as the others go up. Even if clean options do not become more widespread, energy efficiency subsidies are being introduced, which will also benefit low income consumers and offset a large amount of the costs introduced by emissions legislation.
Energy markets right now are not free because there are a lot of subsidies and tax incentives for energy producers that are not incorporated in final energy prices. The coal industry is very dependent on the railroad industry, which has been highly subsidized by the US government. Oil companies receive tax incentives for exploration, and in states like CA have to pay disproportionately low taxes on sales of what they find. Ignoring the cost of wars in the Middle East (because they were about terrorism, right?), the US protects shipping lanes used to import oil from the region, at no direct cost to oil companies.
The solution to saving money when coal gets more expensive is to stop using coal. Many (not all) power companies offer options for consumers to buy their energy from renewable sources. If that’s not an option, first reduce wasteful energy consumption. Second, use subsidies to make your home more energy efficient.
The coal industry is right in that consumers should care about what they pay for energy. However, keeping coal prices artificially low is not the answer.
The Coal Industry is back spending millions of dollars trying to sway public opinion of coal power by talking about “the importance of low-cost electricity.” Fortunately for those in favor of the climate bill (despite its flaws), it does not have the same scare factor as “death panels” or that “politicians are out to kill grandpa” seems to be pervasive in debates about health care reform in the US.
The most unlikely critics of Cap and Trade are its creators. They are in favor of the Carbon Tax because they believe it would be more effective and flexible. I agree, and not just because the creators think the tax is better. The primary reason is that Cap and Trade has the potential to pay polluters once they drop below the cap. There are many things wrong with Cap and Trade for CO2, but incentives for reducing emissions under Cap and Trade fall off much faster than they do with a Carbon Tax.
Update: Found this article talking about how in the Senate version of the Climate Bill, many of the earlier Carbon permits will be free to “help in the transition.” That is precisely what we DON’T want. If there is not pain, there will be no incentive to clean up.
I’ve touched on some of the various health statistics associated with coal in other articles, but did not really get into the reasons why coal fired power plants cause the issues, or what the specific problems are. To recap, there are more than 23,000 deaths in the US every year that can be attributed to emissions from coal fired power plants. The main problems caused by the emissions are respiratory issues, such as asthma and chronic bronchitis. DOE Air Quality Research also shows that there is a “positive correlation” with heart disease and lung cancer.
“Positive correlation” is another way of saying that we know the emissions cause illness, but it’s extremely difficult to scientifically prove a direct link. Other studies show that emissions from power plants are the primary source for Mercury exposure in humans, in the form of Methylmercury, which can cause neurological symptoms. More specifically, the EPA says, “Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. Impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills have been seen in children exposed to methylmercury in the womb.”
The health effects of coal power plant emissions are well known and well documented. However, they are often either completely overlooked or even ignored when the US Coal Industry uses the term “clean coal.” The primary argument used to justify the name “clean coal” are chemical scrubbing of *regulated* pollutants and Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). Coal plants have been required to scrub emissions from regulated pollutants since the Clean Air Act, and the only thing new since the launch of the “clean coal” campaign was the hope of CCS. Mercury has only recently been regulated. On March 15, 2005, the EPA issued the Clean Air Mercury Rule, which established gradually decreasing caps. Emissions from coal fired power plants still contain toxins that are not currently regulated, so until everything is captured, they cannot be clean.
Even IF all emissions from coal fired power plants are eliminated (will never happen), and everything is captured and sequestered, the waste needs to be stored. The volume of the waste is too large for any permanent storage, and toxic spills like the one in the Tennessee Valley will continue to happen. Mining coal is dirty, burning coal is dirty, and disposing of the waste products are dirty. Power from coal will NEVER be clean.
Previous study by the US DOE Aquatic Species program found a few things that are relevant. While the process and outputs differ, some of the limiting factors are the same. I truly hope Joule Bio can deliver on their claims, but I am personally skeptical for a few reasons:
- The theoretical maximum for open pond algae to biodiesel is around 15,000 gallons per acre
- Anything but open pond is prohibitively expensive for mass production
- As organisms excrete more fuel into the environment, excretion displaces nutrient sources
- Organisms need energy to reproduce, and converting CO2 to hydrocarbons also takes a lot
Theoretical maximums can certainly be improved using new technologies and engineering the organisms so their metabolisms are on overdrive is one way to do it. However, there are a number of limiting factors, including sunlight, CO2 and nutrients. As closed systems become stacked higher, a lower percentage of the organisms receive sunlight at any given time. The problem can be addressed by pumping fluids containing organisms to and from the surface. However, growth is still limited by sunlight. Additional light sources can be introduced, but they also require energy, and additional money to power.
There is nothing inherently expensive about closed bioreactors, but scaling them to large areas is much more expensive than an open pond. Similar tests at Dow aim to produce up to 100k gallons of ethanol on 24 acres, which is still only a little over 4k gallons per acre, and less than the 5k gallons per acre the Aquatic Species progam actually achieved in open ponds.
A current technical barrier, which could possibly be overcome through genetic engineering, is that organism survival rate drops off as ethanol content goes up. The concept can be observed in fermentation of wine and beer, as the alcohol content increases, yeast dies off and alcohol content peaks. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is working with some of these companies, is aware of the challenge (PDF, p5) and is working on producing “super-bugs” that can survive in harsh conditions. The research is promising, but as the desired alcohol content is excreted by the organisms, it displaces nutrients in the environment and further limits growth. The balance of inputs and outputs is one area still being studied, and the results will be dependant upon the organisms used.
One final reason for my pessimism about total output of the Joule Biotechnology approach is that creating hydrocarbons from CO2 is energy intensive. Even with the abundance of solar energy, if an organism puts too much of its energy towards its output, then it will not have as much energy to reproduce. Much of the reason algae has been investigated for biofuels is that it reproduces so quickly. Scaling to large numbers is easier when organisms reproduce quickly. In algae to biodiesel production, the oils from within the algae are extracted, which kills them off. Without high growth rates, expansion would not be possible. Fortunately, in the Joule Biotechnology approach, the products are extracted without killing off the organisms. However, as more energy goes to production, less goes to reproduction, limiting how fast production can scale.
These companies all have ambitious goals, but it appears that the numbers and claims are still too inflated. The most ambitious stated goal is by a company called Algenol that hopes to produce one billion gallons of ethanol a year. Based on current consumption [updated] of gasoline, which would be displaced by the ethanol, that’s still less than two thirds of gasoline consumption in the United States. Two thirds One third is certainly a significant proportion, but it will take years and major technology advances to come close to that, and global consumption will continue to increase.
I do believe that with government subsidy, and potentially without, that some of these will eventually be profitable. However, I do not believe that any of these companies will come close to “replacing all fossil fuels.”
Update: New EIA numbers show consumption data was actually ~3.3 Billion gallons.
In a recent House session, Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) expressed her objections to the the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (Climate Bill). Her main objection is that by 2020, Wyoming would lose up to “15,000 high paying jobs” that can’t be replaced by green energy jobs if the bill were passed, as the nation moves away from coal fired power plants. That’s an average of about 1500 jobs a year lost, and she apparently believes that the jobs in her district are more important than the health and lives of the rest of the country.
If the bill passes, Wyoming jobs would be particularly hit hard because there are a disproportionately large number of jobs dependent upon coal. Coal mines in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana produce more coal than any other area of the country, even the entire Appalachian region. Compared to the rest of the country, Wyoming does not have to burn as much coal because it is not a population center, and that means health effects from emissions are disproportionately low.
In the rest of the country from power plant emissions *every year*, there are more than 23,000 deaths, 21,000 hospital admissions, 26,000 emergency room visits for asthma, 38,000 heart attacks, 16,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, 554,000 asthma attacks, and 3,186,000 lost work days (Source: Harvard Environmental Management, pdf p23).
I have not heard Rep. Lummis speak about responsibility, but I did hear Steven Leer, Chairman and CEO of Arch Coal speak about their mining operations in the Powder River Basin. It was clear that the people that mine coal, but do not burn it, completely abdicate themselves of any responsibility for coal fired power plant emissions. We cannot let the deliberate distortion of the truth and intentional omissions continue to cause problems for the rest of us.
Rep. Lummis wants you to feel bad for the 1500+ workers and their families that will lose their jobs each year because of the Climate bill. Apparently, she does not want you to feel bad for the 23,000+ people that die every year, or their families, because she feels it’s not the mining that’s responsible.
The last post about Cap and Trade got some comments on various sites asking if it’s a tax, then why not just impose a Carbon Tax? I agree that a Carbon Tax is a better approach than Cap and Trade. Unfortunately, messaging and political image can be more important than effectiveness when evaluating legislation. Calling anything a tax is a surefire way of killing legislation. No politician wants to be responsible for increasing taxes, they would rather be seen supporting capitalism and ”letting the free market” solve the problem.
One of the major problems with Cap and Trade is that baselines need to be established, which are usually through political processes, not scientific processes. With so much political support for coal and oil production, there is not much that can stop politicians from pushing for overly generous baseline emissions. As the dirtiest emitters implement the cheapest fixes and drop below their artificially high baselines, they can sell their carbon credits for additional profit. There is financial incentive to reduce emissions, but as the technology to reduce emissions gets more expensive than earned credits, the incentive goes away completely.
When a Carbon Tax is in place, there is always a financial incentive to reduce emissions, with no opportunity to profit from being a polluter. Similarly, the incentives go away when the technology gets more expensive than emitting. An additional argument against a Carbon Tax is that the money goes into the hands of the government, rather than the market. I’m not a fan of government efficiency, but if legislation is structured properly, then it can go directly to environmental programs. When the Superfund was first established, the tax on controlled chemicals went directly into the Superfund until legislation expired. After it expired, taxes (and stimulus money) went to the cleanup.
With taxes on bad practices in place, which are directly paid by the ones emitting, the bill can still be passed onto consumers. However, they have the choice to reduce consumption or opt for other alternatives, and directly reduce what they pay. Without programs in place to tax bad practices, the same consumers are forced to pay through taxes and have no way to opt out.
I’m no fan of big government, but there are areas where the free market cannot succeed and government needs to step in. Carbon emissions, and general pollution, are areas where the financial impact is spread over thousands or millions of people, rather than the people responsible for the problems. Cap and Trade is the carrot because you get paid for doing good. Carbon Tax is the stick because you pay for doing bad. In this case, I believe the stick would be more effective than the carrot. However, if politicians continue to be too cowardly to implement a Carbon Tax, Cap and Trade is better than nothing at all.
Warren Buffet has made his opinion on Cap and Trade known, and as I believe they should be, his words are being taken seriously. A post today on theenergycollective.com analyzed Warren Buffet’s comments on Cap and Trade, and pointed out a few reasons why they believe he is wrong. While I agree with the points in the article, as well as others, there is one point that is consistently missed when quoting how much utility bills will go up.
The actual impact cannot be calculated by taking just the raw costs and dividing by the number of consumers. If you believe in the laws of economics, which I am sure Warrent Buffet does, then the Consumer Theory in microeconomics tells us that if prices go up, consumption goes down. As energy bills start to rise, people become more conscious about energy usage and find ways to be more efficient. They start turning lights off when the leave the room, they don’t leave doors open and let the AC out, they turn the thermostat on the AC up a few degrees, etc.
People not currently concerned with energy efficiency for conservation reasons become concerned because it directly affects their wallet. These effects are very hard to predict, and but the revised number in the article of an added $30/month is still high, when taking only the direct causes into account. As consumers use less energy, less CO2 is also emitted, meaning that emissions costs to the producers will also be lower. These same effects were observed when oil prices spiked in 2008. In summary, people drove less, they carpooled, and ultimately purchased less gas. As less was purchase, supplies increased, dropping prices.
The cost to consumer estimates only take into account direct effects of the study. In addition to the effects on consumption habits, the studies also ignore effects of other parts of the legislation. The entire system must be taken into account, rather than just direct costs. Incentives for energy star appliances will reduce energy consumption. Energy efficiency subsidies will have effects, and the list goes on.
I still respect the words of Warrent Buffet, but I do feel he is missing some key points. While the external effects are extremely difficult to quantify, existing estimates as to the real financial impact to consumers are still too high.