Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Nanotech solar panels that regenerate

Scientists at MIT have engineered synthetic molecules that self-assemble themselves into a pattern that can turn light into electricity by mimicking a key aspect of how plants convert sunlight into stored energy. Basically, the molecules disassemble and re-assemble themselves by the addition or removal of a certain chemical.  The assembled 'phospholipids' form disks that offer support to protein molecules that respond to light and release electrons. The disks in turn are attached spontaneously to carbon nanotubes inside a solution which act like wires to collect and channel the flow of electrons.

Theoretically, the efficiency of the structures could be close to 100 percent. Modern solar energy systems tend to degrade rapidly and efficiencies often fall to 10 percent after a short time in use. This new nanotechnology will allow for a solar system that has very high efficiency and which can replenish itself through the disassembly and reassembly process.
The implication is that the technology can in future be mixed with polymers or other materials (hopefully done in an environmentally friendly, non toxic way) and then used as a organic compound coating for anything imaginable such as your car, house or even your iPod touch.
Source: MIT News

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Clean Energy for South Africa, Not Coal

Clean Energy for South Africa, Not Coal

Join me at

South Africa is investing in more coal-fired power stations

Eskom has made a US$3.75 billion project loan application from the World Bank, which is supported the the South African government. The investment programme is aimed at extending power generation capacity of Eskom by about 50% from the current 40,000 MW. Included in the programme are plans to build Africa's first clean coal "supercritical" 4,800 MW power station, one 100 MW Wind Power project, one 100 MW Solar project as well as investment in low-carbon energy efficiency components such as transportation and power plant efficiencies.

Two new coal-fired stations in the pipeline are named Medupi and Kusile, power plants that have been designed by Eskom to minimise carbon emissions. These power plants are the first two in Africa to use the more-efficient “supercritical” (operate at higher steam pressures and temperatures) and “CCS-Space ready” design, which is the technology adopted by most Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries for all new power generation. In addition to using supercritical design, these power stations will be the largest dry-cooled power stations in the world, which is a further testimony to the sustainable infrastructure development policies of South Africa.

The investment projects are all part of the South African governement's aims to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent by 2020 and 42 percent by 2024, conditional on the provision of finance, technology and capacity building.

Concentrated solar power and wind technologies are expected to make a significant contribution to the government’s target of 10,000 GWh (about 1,667 MW equivalent) from renewable energy sources by 2013, which also includes the development of the solar water heating industry and interventions to reduce emissions in the industrial sector.

The 10,000 GWh target is equivalent to about 5 percent of the present electricity generation in South Africa. This is equivalent to replacing two (2 x 660MW) units of Eskom's combined coal-fired power stations.

In substituting for base-load coal power, wind power produces a net decrease in greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, and a net increase in biodiversity. When comparing renewable energy sources with each other and with conventional power sources, three main factors must be considered:
- capital costs (including, for nuclear energy, waste-disposal and decommissioning costs);
- operating and maintenance costs;
- fuel costs (for fossil-fuel and biomass sources—for wastes, these costs may actually be negative).

Overall, wind energy costs about the same as present-day power, and this makes me wonder why such a small percentage of investment is going into Wind Power projects. Mainstream Renewable Power recently stated on our national television broadcaster that, according to research they have been involved with for the last 10 years, South Africa has excellent wind power resources that are capable of supplying 75% of our countries' demand for electricity, at a cost per megawatt lower than that of coal-based power.

The countries' latest Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions (2008), published by the US Energy Information Administration, shows that we are dumping 451 million metric tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) into our atmosphere every year. World figures for the same period are 30,337 million metric tonnes, which places South Africa high on top of the contributors list at 1.48% of Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions globally. A 34% reduction of 451m metric tonnes of greenhouse gases by 2020 will be 153m metric tonnes, leaving a balance of around 300 million metric tonnes anually. That is still a significant amount of pollution and poison.

Personally, I cannot equate the intended reduction in emissions with the small amount of investment and infrastructure of renewable & clean energy being proposed in the World Bank loan application by Eskom. I simply do not believe that enough is being done overall. For some reason the South African government seems adamant that coal-based power is still a way forward and perhaps this has a lot to do with protecting interests that certain individuals may have in the immense coal-based energy industry that South Africa owns.


South African Government Information

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Plant a tree on World Forestry Day 2010

I recently joined this event on since I have a keen interest in all matters relating to environmental causes and I am specifically concerned with carbon emissions in this year as it is the year in which South Africa is hosting the Soccer World Cup.

The objectives of planting a tree on World Forestry Day 2010 are clear: By planting an indigenous tree you can make a contribution to reducing CO2 emissions and improve biodiversity in your locale during 2010. In a recent post I noted how an additional 2,75 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent will be dumped into the atmosphere as a result of this 'glamorous' world event and that insufficient measures to minimize (forget neutralize) the carbon footprint of the event have been planned for. Besides certain programmes to increase energy efficiency and use renewable energy wherever possible, the World Cup greening program includes the planting of a large number of trees across various cities in South Africa. By my calculations, the number of trees to be planted surrounding this event, is approximately 300,000. Now this may sound like a sufficient number of trees to offset (through carbon sequestration) the carbon emissions over a reasonably acceptable period of time, but I think it is neccessary to examine the issue in more detail in order to highlight the problem we are facing. I also hope to encourage more people to take part in the World Forestry Day event and examine similar issues closer to their own living environments.

Carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil type, regional climate, topography and management practice. It is estimated though, that a single mature tree can absorb carbon dioxide at a rate of 22kg (48lbs) per year and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support at least 2 human beings. Planting of 300,000 trees will thus result in the capturing of approximately 66,000 tonnes of CO2 per annum. This is equivalent to a carbon offset of about 2,40% each year and will thus take another 41 years to offset the carbon footprint of the Soccer World Cup. However, the trees that will be planted are not mature, probably only between 1,5m and 2,2m in height to ensure the best chance of survival. It will therefor take these trees a few years before they reach maturity. My guess is we can then expect 50 years or more for the trees to have a significant impact on the carbon pollution created by this event. Other factors to consider is that carbon accumulation in trees and soils eventually reaches a saturation point, after which more sequestration is no longer possible. This happens, for example, when trees reach maturity. Even after saturation, the trees would need to be sustained to maintain the accumulated carbon and prevent subsequent losses of carbon back to the atmosphere. In other words, you then need to store the wood produced to keep it from decomposing and re-emitting CO2 back into the air.

Planting trees have many benefits such as:
- Improving our air quality
- Reducing topsoil erosion
- Preventing contaminants from entering our waterways
- Energy saving in planned landscapes
- Extending lifespan of paved surfaces
- Improve economic sustainability
- Increase real estate values
More detail on benefits here

There are no doubts that tree planting does have many general benefits, but there are a number of specific criticisms against the practise also.

1. Tree-planting doesn’t address the real issue of preventing emissions at source
2. Trees take too long to make a difference to climate change
3. Carbon credits from tree plantations aren’t properly verified
4. Trees don’t last forever so their climate change value isn’t permanent
5. Money for plantations would be better spent preventing deforestation
6. Tree plantations are bad for biodiversity and the local environment
7. Forests may actually contribute to global warming
8. Plantations often have negative social impacts
These criticism's are examined in more detail here

I think it is absolutely necessary that we plant more trees and support events such as World Forestry Day, but we should do so with care for maintaining biodiversity and with no social impacts. We must also not simply plant a tree thinking that it is a quick or permanent solution to preventing and eliminating emissions. I strongly support the development and soonest implementation of alternate energy solutions for use in industry, home and travel so we do not have to worry about half-baked greening programmes for world events in the future.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Alternate energy solutions - Saving money and lives

I am strongly opposed to the massive program by Eskom to upgrade and expand South Africa's electricity infrastructure, by adding more coal-fired power stations as sources of energy supply. As a result of the large scale usage of coal as our primary source of energy, South Africa is already the 14th highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

The sulfur dioxide produced in coal combustion poses an immediate threat to the health of people and contributes to 500,000 premature deaths a year in China alone, in the USA this figure is about 30,000 deaths per year. Globally the deaths related to coal pollution is estimated at 161 deaths per terrawatt-hour(TWh). All major energy solutions have their related deaths: rooftop solar is many times more dangerous than nuclear power and wind power, but much safer than coal and oil, as it has no air pollution deaths. The mortality rate for wind power from 1980–1994 was 0.4 deaths per terawatt-hour and estimates as of end 2000 was 0.15 deaths per TWh, a decline attributed to greater total cumulative generation. Hydroelectric power had a fatality rate of 0.10 per TWh (883 fatalities for every TW·yr) in the period 1969–1996. Nuclear power has about 0.04 deaths/TWh.

Shocking statistics for coal power without even considering that it causes acid rain that poisons lakes, rivers, forests and crops. Why do countries continue to develop these toxic energy systems when there exist more than enough alternate solutions with far less environmental impact and related deaths? In the modern world there is no more place for an answer that is remotely associated with cost of energy production in this regard, nor the cost of building the infrastructure.

Comparisons on projected costs per kilowatt-hour indicate that wind, geothermal and hydro power can be equally, if not more, cost effective than coal. These power sources do however have certain limitations and externalities that influence their reliability and environmental impacts. Studies on available and emerging non-conventional, renewable power generation technologies such as Atmospheric Cold Megawatts, Thermal Electric and Ocean Energy Thermal Conversion (OTEC) indicate that such technologies will be even cheaper than any existing energy sources and with less environmental impact.

These technologies are all within reach and within affordability and it is my opinion that government should cease with the coal energy development and, as a priority, provide all private and commercial property, including farms, apartments and other types of accommodation in South Africa with any of the above alternate energy sources. Why not?


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Soccer Wold Cup 2010 South Africa - Greening or Greying?

Environmental issues surrounding the Soccer World Cup 2010, to be hosted in various cities in South Africa, have been fighting for attention since the announcement of the hosting nation a few years back.

The main concerns have been around the environmental effects of such a large sporting event versus the timely completion of the construction projects and job creation associated with it.

South Africa is not at the global forefront of environmental legislation such as recycling, water conservation, carbon emissions and renewable energy sources. How the country has dealt dealt with the impact of potentially millions of foreign visitors within a very short space of time is rather disappointing.

The City of Cape Town was first to raise its hand in favour of the environmental responsibility issues. The city implemented an official 2010 FIFA World Cup greening programme, named Green Goal 2010, to make the soccer world cup as environmentally responsible as possible. Details about this project on the official City of Cape Town Website. The programme was supposed to draw on Germany’s World Cup experience in 2006 when the organisers reduced the event’s greenhouse gas emissions by increasing energy efficiency and using renewable energy wherever possible. Other South African host cities also signed a pledge committing them to ensuring a green event along with the 2010 Local Organizing Comittee and Environmental Affairs Ministry.

Unfortunately, all the efforts made to date will still result in an increase of the carbon footprint of the event, compared to the 2006 FIFA World Cup footprint left in Germany. Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica told leading news reporters that "The FIFA 2010 World Cup will have the largest carbon footprint of any major event with a goal to be climate neutral", estimating the carbon footprint of the Soccer World Cup 2010 event at 896,661 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This excludes the additional 1,856,589 tonnes contributed by international travel created by air travel to the long-haul destination. She added that "This footprint is almost 10 times the footprint of the 2006 FIFA World Cup hosted in Germany". A bleak outlook indeed. I wonder how much effort was really put into the development of the programmes, or whether it was just another item on the list to check off as soon as possible in order to favor the powers that be.

Concerns are also raised to how the carbon footprint of the event is going to affect some of our smaller communities that have geared themselves toward providing accommodation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup. These beautifull landscapes will surely feel the effect of an additional 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide filtering into the eco-systems at a later stage.

Take for example Southbroom and surrounding areas south of Durban. Southbroom has some five kilometers of beautiful seafront and the town was developed with amazing foresight. All the best in the original landscape was preserved. Larger plots and generous provision for parks and open spaces was all part of the original town planning. This set Southbroom apart from neighbouring towns.

Today, the township's wealth of vegetation is undoubtedly one of its finest assets. And, because strict environmental principals pertaining to all development has been implemented over many years by serving local authorities, Southbroom's unique semi-rural character has been preserved.

The Frederika Nature Reserve encompassing nearly eight hectares of mature, virgin dune forest extending southwards from the 16th green is rated one of the finest examples of dune forest remaining in Natal. Regarded as extremely fragile in terms of the complex eco-system, this is a priceless tract of land.

Southbroom has long been described as the "jewel" of the South Coast. There is indeed something very self-contained about Southbroom. It offers excellent sporting facilities - golf, tennis and bowls. The beaches are perfect for surfing, swimming or walking. It is then no wonder that places such as The Tenth @ Southbroom are providing luxury, serviced accommodation for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

It would be a pity if we lose such fragile pieces of our eco-system for the sake of football.