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This Dam Simple Trick Is a Big Green Energy Win

This Dam Simple Trick Is a Big Green Energy Win

Only a small fraction of dams actually produce electricity. Transforming them into hydropower plants might stop new ones from being built.

IN NOVEMBER 2019 engineers switched on the 18th and final turbine at Brazil’s Belo Monte Dam: the final step in an odyssey of planning and construction that had started almost 50 years earlier. The vast hydroelectric complex—the fourth-largest in the world—completely upended the northern stretch of the Xingu River, one of the Amazon’s major tributaries. The waters held back by the main dam created a reservoir that flooded 260 square miles of lowlands and forests, and displaced more than 20,000 people.

Major hydroelectric dams can have catastrophic consequences—flooding homes and habitats and changing the flow, temperature, and chemistry of rivers for decades. Although few are quite as big as Belo Monte, there are a glut of new hydroelectric dams in the works all over the globe. In 2014 researchers estimated that there are at least 3,700 major hydroelectric dams in planning or under construction globally. Most of these new projects are located in low- and middle-income countries eager to fuel their growing economies with a crucial source of low-carbon power: In 2020, hydroelectric dams generated as much electricity as nuclear and wind power combined. But the race to tap the world’s rivers for renewable energy presents something of an environmental conundrum: Do the benefits outweigh the environmental chaos that dams can wreak?

Some researchers think there’s a smart way out of this dilemma. Rather than building more dams, why don’t we figure out a way to get more out of the ones that already exist? The majority of them aren’t generating electricity at all—they’re used for irrigation, water supply, flood control, or for fishing and boating. If we can figure out a way to put turbines into those dams so they also produce hydropower—a process known as retrofitting—we could unlock a huge renewable energy potential that isn’t being tapped.

In a retrofitted system, water falling through the dam would spin newly installed turbine blades connected to a generator—and that spinning would generate electricity that could be distributed to local homes or connected to a larger power grid. “How much more can we get out of revitalizing existing infrastructure, rather than expanding and building new infrastructure?” asks Ryan McManamay, an ecologist at Baylor University in Texas and coauthor of a paper exploring the untapped potential of non-powered dams. (McManamay’s own office in Waco is a short walk from one of these dams on the Brazos River. A wasted opportunity right on his doorstep, he points out.)

McManamay and his colleagues estimated that retrofitting dams and upgrading existing hydroelectric plants could boost their maximum output by an extra 78 gigawatts. That’s roughly the power generated by seven Belo Monte Dams, or more than double the average electricity demand in the whole of the United Kingdom. And in parts of the world where new dams are being planned and constructed, the change could be huge. Retrofitting and upgrading dams in the Amazon River basin could unlock 1.6 gigawatts of new electricity production. That’s roughly the amount of energy produced by a natural-gas-fired power station and enough to avoid the construction of 17 new smaller dams altogether. Upgrading and retrofitting dams in the Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia could generate so much power that all the new ones slated for construction in the region would be surplus above what’s required.

Some countries are already making use of this potential. Since 2000, 36 dams in the US have been retrofitted with turbines, adding more than 500 megawatts of renewable generation capacity. There is even more potential out there: A 2016 US Department of Energy report found that an additional 4.8 gigawatts of electricity could be generated by retrofitting non-powered dams over the next three decades. In places like the US and Western Europe, where the dam-building boom of the mid-20th century has long since faded, retrofitting may be the only option left for governments looking to eke out a little more hydropower. “If there are dams that are going to remain in place, let’s try and find solutions and work together to the most optimal solution,” says McManamay.

But before anyone starts upgrading all these dams, they might want to take another look at the numbers. It’s not easy to accurately predict how much electricity a retrofitted facility will actually produce, because it turns out not every dam is a good fit for conversion. Say someone wants to fit turbines in a dam that was built to hold back water so it can be used to irrigate farmers’ fields. During the growing season, a lot of that water would normally be directed toward crops, instead of flowing over the dam to generate electricity. Or perhaps it’s in an area where the water is only high enough to generate electricity for part of the year. Suddenly those retrofitted dams might not seem like such a smart idea.

One recent study on retrofitted dams in the US, also commissioned by the Department of Energy, found that projections of their power output veered toward the optimistic side: On average, those projections were 3.6 times greater than the actual output. The study found that the most successful retrofits tended to be concrete dams initially built to aid navigation. (Dams are often used to widen or deepen waterways to make it easier for boats to pass through.) “This is a complex issue. It’s not an easy fix,” says McManamay.

But in countries such as Brazil, big dams are still very much on the agenda. “If they’re going to develop and really raise the standard of living in the country as a whole, they need energy. That’s the long and short of it,” says Michael Goulding, a senior aquatic scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society. The country’s most recent 10-year energy plan outlines nine new large dams scheduled to be completed before 2029. Rather than hoping these dams won’t be built, it’s important to make sure that proper studies are carried out to make sure that they’re built in a way that minimizes environmental destruction, says Goulding: “Often the environmental impact frameworks aren’t very good. They’ll define an area of interest close to the dam and that area of interest doesn’t include all the downstream impacts and upstream impacts as well.”

The Belo Monte Dam is a good example of just how much of an effect large dams have on the surrounding environment. The dam complex redirected 80 percent of the Xingu’s flow away from a 62-mile stretch of the river known as Big Bend. This section of the Xingu also happens to be the only known wild habitat of the Zebra Pleco—an eye-catching striped catfish beloved by aquarists. “There is a huge risk that this species will go extinct,” says Thiago B. A. Couto, a postdoctoral researcher at Florida International University’s Tropical Rivers Lab. The impact of dams on fish species is well-documented elsewhere in the world. In Washington state, the Elwha Dam disconnected the upper and lower Elwha watersheds, reducing the habitat available to salmon by 90 percent. Some species local to the river disappeared altogether, while the populations of others—such as Chinook—fell to a fraction of their previous levels.

Eventually, however, even large dams may outlive their usefulness. In 2014, the last remnants of the Elwha Dam were removed forever. The Chinook salmon that for decades had remained locked behind two dams are now slowly making their way back upstream. A full recovery is expected to take decades. “Dams don’t last forever,” says Couto. “There are many that are abundant, but are not providing the minimum benefits that they are supposed to.”


Matt Reynolds at Wired

Cop26 reveals limits of Biden’s promise to ‘lead by example’ on climate crisis

Cop26 reveals limits of Biden’s promise to ‘lead by example’ on climate crisis

US declined to join promise to end coal mining and to compensate poor countries for climate damage. Critics ask, is that leadership?

The crucial UN climate talks in Scotland have produced landmark commitments to phase out coalmining, to call time on the internal combustion engines and to compensate poorer countries for damage caused by the climate crisis.

The United States, which has trumpeted its regained climate leadership at the summit, has not joined any these pledges as the talks draw to a close.

This disconnect has provided the world with a muddled sense of America’s willingness to confront the unfolding climate catastrophe, with the fate of historic legislation to lower planet-heating emissions still uncertain ahead of an expected vote in Congress next week.

Joe Biden arrived in Glasgow vowing the US will “lead by example” on climate change and avoid disastrous global heating beyond 1.5C, dispatching his entire cabinet to the Cop26 talks and making widely praised new promises to cut methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and to end deforestation.

Two dozen Democratic lawmakers wearing congressional lapel pins have swept the conference venue this week, all expressing confidence that the vast $1.75tn spending bill will pass back home.

“This is the most ambitious climate legislation of all time,” Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, told the summit. “America is back and is ready to lead,” added Kathy Castor, chair of the House select committee on the climate crisis. “Once we pass this historic package, finally, it will help keep 1.5C alive.”

We have to actually deliver the action in order to get the respect intentionally. It’s that simple

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

But the US is bedeviled by its recent past and – many delegates of other countries fear – its potential future, following Donald Trump’s embrace of climate science denialism and American isolationism. “We have not recovered our moral authority,” admitted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive New York representative, when asked about the specter of the former president. “I believe we are making steps, but we have to actually deliver the action in order to get the respect internationally. It’s that simple.”

There is also mounting criticism that Biden’s actions have not matched his words and that the US president’s negotiators haven’t pushed hard enough for an ambitious deal in Glasgow to secure the deep emissions cuts needed to avoid disastrous warming that will spur ever-worsening floods, heatwaves and wildfires.

More than 40 countries announced at Cop26 a promise to end the mining of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, although the US was conspicuously absent from the list. “It’s very disappointing because the science is quite clear that we have to turn sharply away from coal this decade if we are going to meet our climate goals,” said Rachel Cleetus, policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“We need very clear signals that orientate the US towards clean energy,” she added. “The climate crisis is too dire to just wait for coal to fall out. It’s just another signal of the sway the fossil fuel industry still has over US politics.”

Despite its attempts to expand the rollout of electric vehicles, the Biden administration has also declined to set an end date for the sale of new gasoline and diesel cars, unlike the UK, European Union, Canada, India and a slew of other countries at Cop26.

Its delegation in Glasgow is similarly wary of a push to provide “loss and damage” payments to countries vulnerable to climate impacts and has sought to shift criticism towards the inaction of China and Russiaalthough the US and China did unveil an unexpected plan to work together on cutting emissions, despite the enmity between the two countries.

This reticence, critics claim, undermines Biden’s credibility on climate. Others say the dysfunctional nature of Congress, where sweeping climate legislation to expand renewable energy and wind down fossil fuels is effectively in the hands of a senator who derives most of his income from investments in coal, is to blame.

“There is a handful of members of Congress who represent coal-intensive parts of the country who see [climate action] as a threat to their region,” Sean Casten, a Democratic representative, told the Guardian. “It’s kept the president from doing all that he’d like to do.”

Pete Buttigieg, the US transport secretary, told the Guardian that the Biden administration aims to give Americans better public transit options, as well as electric vehicle rebates and infrastructure, but that “each country is on its own path” to ending the age of fossil fuel-powered cars.

“What we are talking about is a race to the ambitious targets the president has set,” Buttigieg said, adding that the goal of half of all car sales being electric by 2030 will be in itself a “massive lift”.

Biden will face further scrutiny almost immediately after some sort of deal is struck in Glasgow, not only over the fate of the Build Back Better bill but also his issuance of permits for oil and gas drilling.

An auction of 80m acres of the Gulf of Mexico seabed, an area larger than the UK, will be offered to fossil fuel companies next week, while a new report has warned that the oil and gas that will be burned in the Permian Basin, a geological formation in the south-west US, by 2050 will release nearly 40bn tons of carbon dioxide, nearly a tenth of the remaining global “carbon budget” to stay under 1.5C.

“If the Biden administration wants to be serious about its promise to demonstrate US climate leadership, it must first clean up its own back yard,” said Steven Feit, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law.

“The Permian Basin is the single largest fracking basin globally, and the continued reckless pursuit of oil extraction from New Mexico to the Gulf coast is the ultimate display of hypocrisy.


Oliver Milman at The Guardian

Eco-anxiety over climate crisis suffered by all ages and classes

Eco-anxiety over climate crisis suffered by all ages and classes

Poll finds most Britons believe global warming will have far greater effect on humanity than Covid-19

A clear majority of people believe that climate change will have a more significant effect on humanity than will Covid-19, which has already claimed about five million lives worldwide, according to a new poll conducted ahead of the Cop26 summit being held in Glasgow this weekend.

The survey, carried out as part of a study into “eco-anxiety” by the Global Future thinktank in conjunction with the University of York, also finds that concern about global warming is almost as common among older and working-class people as it is among those who are young or middle-class. Overall, 78% of people reported some level of eco-anxiety.

The authors of the report say that their findings should serve as a warning to politicians who may believe that worries about the climate emergency are confined to younger, middle-class and metropolitan voters.

The YouGov poll of more than 2,100 people found that 56% believe the implications of climate change will be greater for the world than will those of the coronavirus pandemic, with a majority of all age groups and social classes holding this view.

Similarly, climate change is considered a top global priority among people of all age groups and backgrounds, and across all regions of the UK.

Despite this widespread concern about the climate crisis – with some 42% of middle and upper-class people reporting high eco-anxiety against 39% of working-class voters – people lack faith in political leaders to act. Some 31% of those questioned believe that the Cop26 summit will have little or no effect, 32% think it will have a moderate effect, while only 18% think it will have a big effect.

The polling found that the biggest difference in levels of eco-anxiety was not between rich and poor or young and old, but between men and women. Some 45% of female participants reported high levels of worry about climate change compared with 36% of men.

Rowenna Davis, author of the report and director of Global Future, said: “Everyone – rich and poor, young and old, north and south, men and women – is suffering eco-anxiety. Therefore, some cynical politicians who seek to use wedge issues like petrol prices to divide the public are not only wrong, they are also making a strategic error.

“Whoever hopes to win the next election will need to win the ‘red wall’. This will mean responding to concerns these voters actually hold rather than perceptions of them. From our research, this must include a meaningful response to climate change.”

Pavlos Vasilopoulos, politics lecturer at the University of York, added: “These findings contest commonly held views that the environment is only an issue for the southern middle class. Instead, climate change appears to be becoming more similar to issues such as unemployment or crime, which are recognised as priorities by the majority and are used to evaluate government performance.”


Toby Helm at The Guardian

Important climate change measures for South Africa get Cabinet nod

Important climate change measures for South Africa get Cabinet nod

South Africa’s efforts to address the effects of climate change on people and the economy in a manner which leaves no one behind, recently received a firm nod from Cabinet.

The meeting approved the revised Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the Climate Bill and South Africa’s negotiating position for COP-26. We have also brought forward the year in which emissions are due to decline from 2035 in the initial NDC, to 2025 in the updated NDC.

As a developing country, South Africa is committed to contributing its fair share towards a global low-emissions, climate resilient economy and society by mid-century. We recognise the consequences of climate change will be catastrophic for the world, and for South Africa, in particular, without global ambitious action to reduce emissions, and address adaptation.

The latest science makes it clear that in order to prevent these catastrophic consequences, an accelerated shift to a low-emissions society is required.

South Africa in partnership with the rest of Africa is on the front-line in the global struggle against climate change and is dedicating significant resources to adapt to the reality of an already-changing climate and address consequential loss and damage.

Kouga Wind Farm in construction near Oyster Bay, Eastern Cape

Our updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), was deposited with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) recently. The submission of the updated NDC follows widespread consultation with business, organised labour, government, civil society and the Climate Commission.

South Africa has set an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution of 420- 350 Mt CO2-eq which is compatible with Paris Agreement goals. However, to achieve such an ambitious target, developed countries must meet their financing commitments made under the UNFCCC and reaffirmed in the Paris Agreement adopted at COP 21.

In the past decade developed countries have not kept to the level of commitments on climate finance, enshrined in the Paris Agreement. In particular there has been minimal assistance to emerging economies in this regard. Accordingly, we need certainty and predictability of the quantum of financing available to us, to embark on our Just Transition.

The Presidential Climate Commission appointed in February, is tasked with bringing together the government, private sector, organised labour and civil society to advise the government on just transition pathways that will ensure our transition to a lower carbon economy that will open up new opportunities for inclusive local industrialisation and growth, job creation and re-skilling.

Fundamental to the commission’s mandate is ensuring that those most vulnerable to the consequences of the transition, particularly workers and communities in the coal value chain, are not left behind.

Cabinet has also adopted the long-awaited Climate Change Bill, an important step in the development of our country’s architecture to manage and combat climate change. The bill, which will soon be tabled in Parliament, spells out that all adaptation and mitigation efforts should be based on the best available science, evidence and information. It further gives effect to South Africa’s international commitments and obligations in relation to climate change, and defines the steps to be taken to protect and preserve the planet for the benefit of present and future generations.

The bill sets in place a mechanism to co-ordinate the government response to the effective management of climate change impacts. Through the national adaptation response, we will strengthen resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate change.

With regard to our country’s negotiating mandate for COP-26, South Africa is fully committed to a collective, multilateral approach to addressing the global challenge of climate change, with the UNFCCC at its centre.

Our position on resource mobilisation is to secure new commitments of support by developed countries for implementation by developing countries, addressing both mitigation and adaptation. We need the COP to provide clarity on and commence the process for determining a new and more ambitious goal for long-term finance, increasing beyond the $100 billion (R1 498bn) per year from 2025.

As already explained, South Africa, and many other developing countries, require the means of implementation for its adaptation and mitigation actions. This funding could come from a wide variety of sources, public and private, bilateral and multilateral, including alternative sources of finance.

With regard to adaptation, COP-26 should deliver an outcome that will enable practical progress, including launching a formal programme of work on the operationalisation of the Global Goal on Adaptation. The position that we will be taking to COP on the adaptation global goal is that we should aim to increase the resilience of the global population to climate change by at least 50% and reduce the global populations that are impacted by the adverse effects of climate change by at least 50%, by 2030 and by at least 90% by 2050.

It is particularly important that developed countries show leadership and come forward with massively enhanced support to developing countries, particularly at this time when sustainable development has been set back decades by the Covid-19 pandemic.


Siemens Gamesa Launches Wind Turbine with RecyclableBlades — a World’s First

Siemens Gamesa Launches Wind Turbine with RecyclableBlades — a World’s First

In recent reports, Siemens Gamesa launched RecyclableBlade for wind turbines.  The technology, a world’s first of its kind, is commercially ready for offshore use.

Siemens Gamesa CEO Andreas Nauen says that the company envisions a society that centers caring for the environment as its goal.  “The time to tackle climate emergency is now, and we need to do it in a holistic way. In pioneering wind circularity — where elements contribute to a circular economy of the wind industry — we have reached a major milestone in a society that puts care for the environment at its heart,” he said. “The RecyclableBlade is another tangible example of how Siemens Gamesa is leading technological development in the wind industry.”

Siemens Gamesa’s RecylableBlade vs. Existing Wind Turbines

While existing wind turbines have some of their components such as the tower and the nacelle that are recyclable, having recyclable blades has remained a challenge.  That is, until the launch of the company’s newest technology.

Existing wind turbine blades are made of polymer composites that contain a variety of materials, including glass, carbon fiber, wood, and a resin system.  As the blades are manufactured, these components bind together, making it difficult to be separated once the turbines are decommissioned.

Siemens Gamesa’s RecyclableBlades, on the other hand, makes use of a new type of resin.  This enables efficient separation at the end of the life of the equipment.  Being separated, the materials may not be conveniently recycled.

The first six 81-meter long RecyclableBlades were made in Denmark.  The industrial giant aims to make all turbines fully recyclable by 2040.

It is also working with RWE Renewables with the installation and monitoring of the wind turbines in Germany at the Kaskasi offshore wind power plant, where energy production is projected for 2022 onwards. 

RWE Renewables Wind Offshore CEO Sven Utermöhlen expressed his enthusiasm for the innovative project. “We are pleased that our offshore wind farm Kaskasi is able to provide a fantastic facility for testing innovations; here we are preparing to test special steel collars and to use an improved installation method for foundations,” he said. “Now, Kaskasi installs the world’s first recyclable wind turbine blade manufactured by Siemens Gamesa. This is a significant step in advancing the sustainability of wind turbines to the next level.”


Carina Isobel at Engineer Rosie

Hyundai to offer hydrogen fuel cell versions of all commercial vehicles by 2028

Hyundai to offer hydrogen fuel cell versions of all commercial vehicles by 2028

Hyundai Motor Group said on Tuesday it plans to offer hydrogen fuel cell versions for all its commercial vehicles by 2028 and will cut the price of fuel cell vehicles to battery electric levels two years later.

The group, which comprises Hyundai Motor Co and Kia Corp, currently has one fuel cell bus and one fuel cell truck, the Xcient Hyundai, on the market. There are 115 of the buses on the road in South Korea and 45 of the trucks in operation after they were rolled out in Switzerland last year.

The two South Korean automakers together offer 20 models of commercial vehicles including trucks, buses and vans, and sold about 287,000 last year.

The group, whose only other fuel cell vehicle on the market is Hyundai’s Nexo SUV, also said it will develop fuel cell vehicles for Kia and its premium Genesis brand, which could be launched after 2025. It did not mention specific targets for fuel cell versions of passenger vehicle models.

The plans are measured ambitions to push ahead with hydrogen technology despite its relative niche status, while the automakers also expand their battery electric vehicle line-up.

Advocates assert that hydrogen fuel cells are cleaner than other carbon-cutting methods as they only emit water and heat, but the technology has only seen limited usage in the auto industry amid concerns about high costs, the bulky size of fuel cell systems, the lack of fuelling stations, resale values and the risk of hydrogen explosions.

Industry-wide, some 10,000-15,000 fuel cell vehicles are produced globally a year compared to 4-5 million electric vehicles, Hyundai said.

Other major automakers pursuing hydrogen fuel cell technology include Toyota Motor Corp, BMW and Daimler. They have been encouraged as Europe and China have set ambitious emission reduction targets and talk of hydrogen infrastructure support increases.

Hyundai Motor Group also said it also plans to employ hydrogen fuel cell technology in other areas such as autonomous container transport.


Joyce Lee and Heekyong Yang via Reuters

The six problems aviation must fix to hit net zero

The six problems aviation must fix to hit net zero

With passenger numbers growing and time to slash emissions dwindling fast, the industry must tackle urgent stumbling blocks on fuel, frequent flyers and more

Aviation tanked in 2020. The number of people taking flights fell by three quarters compared with 2019 levels and as a result there was a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions from aviation. But as countries open up and people begin to fly again, aviation is expected to see a slow climb back to previous levels. The industry anticipates a return to 2019 passenger numbers globally by 2023 and to be back on track with previous growth projections within a couple of decades.

All this is bad news for the planet. CO2 emissions from the industry are likely to triple by 2050. But if the world is to limit global heating to 1.5C, it needs to have hit net zero CO2 emissions by this time. Aviation is a complicated sector to decarbonise. It has some prickly ingredients: difficult technological solutions, hidden extra climate effects, an association with personal freedoms and a disproportionately wealthy and powerful customer base. Here are just a few of the big hurdles the sector will need to overcome if it is ever to be carbon neutral.

1. The fuel problem

For a long time, jet kerosene from fossil fuels was the only available option for aeroplanes. “Flying through air essentially requires a lot of energy, so planes have to rely on fuels that have high energy density,” says Jagoda Egeland, an aviation policy expert at the OECD. “We haven’t had many substitutes with those kinds of properties.”

The fuel efficiency of aircraft improves over time. For example, switching from an older four-engine jumbo aircraft to a more efficient twin-engine aircraft can reduce carbon emissions by up to 30% for each flight, says Emma Harvey, a sustainability consultant who was previously the head of sustainability at Virgin Atlantic. Therefore renewing and upgrading fleets can have an impact on emissions. However, the savings are not enough to keep up with the growth in flight numbers. Before the pandemic, aviation was becoming about 3% more efficient each year, while passenger demand was increasing at about 5% a year.

But after years of development, alternative low-carbon fuels known as sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs, are now beginning to reach the market. These accounted for less than 0.1% of aviation fuel consumption in 2018, but the hope is that this can be ramped up over time.

In the short term, the most promising are advanced waste biofuels made from things like used cooking oils. “That is pretty cheap and has pretty good life-cycle emissions, but its supply is limited,” says Dan Rutherford, director of aviation at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Using these fuels exclusively for aviation would provide for only about 2% of jet fuel use in the EU and US, he says.

The debut flight of the hybrid electric Cessna Sky Master, from Exeter Airport, Devon. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

There are also completely different kinds of aircraft on the horizon. Electric planes are promising for shorter routes, and battery technology is improving all the time, says Ruth Wood, a senior lecturer in environment and climate change at Manchester University. However, the size and weight of current battery technology mean electric propulsion is still a long way off for larger aircraft, she adds.

Some companies are working on new kinds of aeroplanes designed to run on hydrogen gas, which could also be produced using clean electricity. Last year, Airbus revealed its concept for a hydrogen aircraft that it said could enter service by 2035, although it has also admitted such planes won’t be widely used until after 2050.

Chances of being solved? Clean fuels are likely to be used more and more but will make up only a few percent of fuel by 2030 and are unlikely to make a significant impact until after 2050.

2. The non-CO2 problem

Aviation accounts for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but its warming impact is actually far larger owing to the other gases and particulates it emits at high altitudes. Often collectively called “non-CO2” impacts, these include nitrogen oxides and contrail clouds. These are rarely touched upon in aviation climate goals, but they could be tripling the climate impacts of aviation compared with CO2 alone.

What’s problematic, but also promising, about these effects is that they vary substantially depending on the surrounding climatic conditions. For example, one study found that just 2% of flights contribute to 80% of contrail warming effects. Night-time flights are particularly bad, because contrails produce their warming impact mainly at night.

There is still more to learn about these impacts, but policies could already be put in place to limit them, says Egeland, such as an extra charge on aeroplanes that fly at particularly bad times of the day.

It’s important to note that low-carbon fuels can still produce non-CO2 impacts, although these are expected to be lower than for kerosene for most fuels.

Chances of being solved? Unlikely in the near term given low prominenceHowever, the EU is beginning to pay more attention to this issue.

3. The frequent flyer problem

Some argue technological solutions will be too slow to reduce emissions in the aviation sector, and measures to reduce the amount people fly are needed to limit the damage to the climate.

But flying is not an evenly spread activity. In the UK about 15% of the population take 70% of all flights, and around half of people don’t fly at all in any given year. “That’s a pattern replicated in many other counties,” says Cait Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF).

The inequality in flying is even more stark at a global level. One study estimated that just 1% of the world’s population emits 50% of CO2 from commercial aviation, while just 2-4% of people fly internationally in a given year.

Some campaigners therefore support a “frequent flyer levy” as a fairer way to limit aviation emissions. The UK campaign A Free Ride argues everyone should have one annual flight free from the levy, then pay a rising charge for every extra flight taken that year. The UK’s first climate assembly also backed the idea of a frequent flyer levy.

The problem with such a levy is that many people in the frequent flyer category are likely to have the wealth to pay a moderate levy, or to have it paid by their employers, says Wood.

Manuel Grebenjak, a campaigner at the Stay Grounded network, says measures to limit flights overall, such as banning flights on certain routes, could help to stem rising emissions in a fairer way. “If a flight is banned from a certain city to another one, no one can fly, so it’s very just,” he says.

France has already moved to ban domestic flights on routes that can be travelled by train within two-and-a-half hours. Even just providing an alternative to flying can be effective: new high-speed rail lines have reduced aviation transport on the same routes by up to 80%, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Chances of being solved? Governments, including the UK, tend to shy away from demand management approaches to limiting aviation emissions, but France and Austria are making good first steps.

4. The policy problem

All this feeds into a wider need for strong policy to tackle aviation emissions, which has largely been lacking so far. “International aviation sits outside the Paris climate agreement, because that agreement is about a country’s domestic emissions,” says Harvey. “So there was a real push to have a scheme for international aviation.”

After years of inaction, in 2016 countries at the UN aviation agency, ICAO, agreed on the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia), a global deal to “offset” the growth in aviation emissions above the average levels in 2019 and 2020. However, when flights plummeted during the pandemic, countries changed the baseline of this scheme, which means there are currently no obligations on airlines. Egeland says Corsia’s effectiveness will “ultimately depend on the quality of carbon offsets that ICAO will accept”.

ICAO is also in discussions over a long-term climate goal for aviation for 2050, but it is not clear when this will be agreed or what the target will be.

Meanwhile, policies are being increasingly discussed at the national and regional level. In particular, the EU’s proposed “Fit for 55” climate legislation includes plans to mandate targets for SAFs and to end aviation’s fuel tax exemption. “Aviation fuel is exempt from any taxes almost everywhere,” says Grebenjak. “The EU wants to end the basically free rider status of aviation, and implement a kerosene tax that’s at the same level as other fuels.”

Chances of being solved? ICAO has been notoriously slow to act on aviation emissions, and many environmental groups criticise CORSIA for being far too weak, but recent policy moves at the EU level represent a significant step change.

5. The new middle class problem

Action at the EU level is encouraging, and the UK government even has a consultation out on its strategy for net zero aviation. However, the biggest growth in flying in the coming decades is expected outside Europe and the US, especially among the growing middle classes of developing countries.

Asia and the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East are the regions expected to see the most growth in the next 20 years, and last year China overtook the US as the world’s largest air passenger market. “The rise of a travelling middle-class in China and India has seen passenger demand grow at around 10% per annum,” says Hewitt.

Qingdao Jiaodong airport in Shandong province, China.
Qingdao Jiaodong airport in Shandong province, China. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Rutherford adds that frequent flyers look similar wherever in the world they are, namely upper-middle-class professionals. A global frequent flyer levy could therefore be one way to curb the growth, he says.

Chinese airlines will also increasingly have to meet local rules designed for climate mitigation if they want access to international airports, says Hewitt. But the vast majority of flights in China take place within its borders, which international policies would not apply to. “States will need to take domestic action to supplement international agreements in order to achieve net zero for aviation by 2050,” says Hewitt.

It’s worth noting that China also has the world’s largest high-speed rail network by far, while some developed countries, such as the US, have yet to install a single high-speed rail line. “We have to do our own homework first before talking about China,” says Grebenjak.

Chances of being solved? It’s up to developed countries to lead the way on reducing aviation emissions, which will then give more leeway to put pressure on developing countries.

6. The supersonic problem

Even amid growing efforts to reconcile aviation with a net zero world, some companies are pushing to develop aircraft that are even more polluting.

Earlier this year, United Airlines announced plans to buy 15 supersonic aircraft from Boom Supersonic, with the aim to begin using them by 2029. Rolls-Royce and the US air force also have deals with Boom.

As well as the noise issues with supersonics, these super-fast flights could consume five to seven times as much fuel for each passenger as subsonic aircrafts. There’s also a concern that supersonics, which will be operating high in the stratosphere, will have a disproportionate impact through non-CO2 emissions, says Rutherford. Developing emissions-intensive supersonic planes could also end up being a distraction from zero emission technologies such as hydrogen planes, he adds.

Rutherford says the best way to prevent climate damage from supersonics may be to simply require them to meet the same environmental standards as other aeroplanes. “That would, in essence, act like a ban,” he says. “They just can’t meet those standards.”

Chances of being solved? Supersonics are a disaster for the climate and should be made to meet the same environmental standards as normal planes.


Jocelyn Timperley at The Guardian

Open Access Government

Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems.

 Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as 8% OF all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if it was as easy that, everyone would already be doing it.

Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima

“The carbon markets to make this economically viable have only just been formed,” said Millar. And the cost of energy has dropped through the floor as huge solar and wind installations have overturned decades-old power economies. With carbon credits (the market for which I will not be exploring, but suffice it to say it is an enabler) and cheap power come new business models, and Heimdal’s is one of them.

The Heimdal process, which has been demonstrated at lab scale (think terrariums instead of thousand-gallon tanks), is roughly as follows. First the seawater is alkalinized, shifting its pH up and allowing the isolation of some gaseous hydrogen, chlorine and a hydroxide sorbent. This is mixed with a separate stream of seawater, causing the precipitation of calcium, magnesium and sodium minerals and reducing the saturation of CO2 in the water — allowing it to absorb more from the atmosphere when it is returned to the sea. (I was shown an image of the small-scale prototype facility but, citing pending patents, Heimdal declined to provide the photo for publication.)

So from seawater and electricity, they produce hydrogen and chlorine gas, calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate and magnesium carbonate, and in the process sequester a great deal of dissolved CO2.

For every kiloton of seawater, one ton of CO2 is isolated, and two tons of the carbonates, each of which has an industrial use. MgCO3 and Na2CO3 are used in, among other things, glass manufacturing, but it’s CaCO3, or limestone, that has the biggest potential impact.

As a major component of the cement-making process, limestone is always in great demand. But current methods for supplying it are huge sources of atmospheric carbon. All over the world industries are investing in carbon reduction strategies, and while purely financial offsets are common, moving forward the preferred alternative will likely be actually carbon-negative processes.

To further stack the deck in its favor, Heimdal is looking to work with desalination plants, which are common around the world where fresh water is scarce but seawater and energy are abundant, for example the coasts of California and Texas in the U.S., and many other areas globally, but especially where deserts meet the sea, like in the MENA region.

Desalination produces fresh water and proportionately saltier brine, which generally has to be treated, as to simply pour it back into the ocean can throw the local ecosystem out of balance. But what if there were, say, a mineral-collecting process between the plant and the sea? Heimdal gets the benefit of more minerals per ton of water, and the desalination plant has an effective way of handling its salty byproduct.

“Heimdal’s ability to use brine effluent to produce carbon-neutral cement solves two problems at once,” said Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO, now CEO of Terraformation and individually an investor in Heimdal. “It creates a scalable source of carbon-neutral cement, and converts the brine effluent of desalination into a useful economic product. Being able to scale this together is game-changing on multiple levels.”

Terraformation is a big proponent of solar desalination, and Heimdal fits right into that equation; the two are working on an official partnership that should be announced shortly. Meanwhile a carbon-negative source for limestone is something cement makers will buy every gram of in their efforts to decarbonize.

Wong points out that the primary cost of Heimdal’s business, beyond the initial ones of buying tanks, pumps and so on, is that of solar energy. That’s been trending downwards for years and with huge sums being invested regularly there’s no reason to think that the cost won’t continue to drop. And profit per ton of CO2 captured — already around 75% of over $500-$600 in revenue — could also grow with scale and efficiency.

Millar said that the price of their limestone is, when government incentives and subsidies are included, already at price parity with industry norms. But as energy costs drop and scales rise, the ratio will grow more attractive. It’s also nice that their product is indistinguishable from “natural” limestone. “We don’t require any retrofitting for the concrete providers — they just buy our synthetic calcium carbonate rather than buy it from mining companies,” he explained.

All in all it seems to make for a promising investment, and though Heimdal has not yet made its public debut (that would be forthcoming at Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day) it has attracted a $6.4 million seed round. The participating investors are Liquid2 Ventures, Apollo Projects, Soma Capital, Marc Benioff, Broom Ventures, Metaplanet, Cathexis Ventures and, as mentioned above, Yishan Wong.

Heimdal has already signed LOIs with several large cement and glass manufacturers, and is planning its first pilot facility at a U.S. desalination plant. After providing test products to its partners on the scale of tens of tons, they plan to enter commercial production in 2023.


Devin Coldewey at TechCrunch

Four ways Extreme E is leaving a positive legacy in Greenland

Four ways Extreme E is leaving a positive legacy in Greenland

Ahead of the racing action getting underway in Greenland this weekend (28-29 August), Extreme E has continued its efforts in scientific education and local community Legacy Programmes.

Earlier in the week members of the championship’s Scientific Committee, Professors Peter Wadhams, Carlos Duarte and Richard Washington led an expedition to the retreating ice cap to explain to the series’ world-class drivers the devastation the climate crisis is having on this area and the solutions we can all take to limit further damage. Not only that, the drivers also took samples from the ice cap to support Professor Peter Wadhams’ research.

Sara Price, driver for Chip Ganassi Racing said: “Being on the ice cap was an adventure of a lifetime, to say the least. It was very cold up there and it actually ended up raining while we were there, which is an unfortunate occurrence. Rainfall is only a recent thing on the ice cap, and it’s very abnormal because it should be snowing up there. The fact that it’s raining is a bad sign for the ice cap and has led to increased melting and a lot of running water. We got to witness that firsthand.

“It was wild to say the least to see it right in front of us; the ice breaking off, the pollution, and the glacier itself melting at a fast rate and causing rivers and ravines and an overall crazy environment. Its rivers of glacier water are melting fast and causing powerful consequences. It was something to see, that’s for sure, and definitely made it even more real in our eyes, that global climate change is a real thing.”

In every location Extreme E races in, its goal is to work with local community groups to leave a positive, lasting legacy behind, based on specific local needs.

One of the main Legacy Programmes in Greenland is centred around education and supporting local schools. Extreme E has partnered with UNICEF to develop – with support from Professor Richard Washington – educational resources to further the understanding of both teachers and children on climate related issues and the ways in which they can help to address them. These will be taught to the children of Greenland starting from Climate Week in September 2021.

Maliina Abelsen, Head of Programmes, UNICEF Greenland said: “At UNICEF, we know that climate and environmental shocks are undermining the complete spectrum of children’s rights – from access to clean air, food and safe water; to education, housing, freedom from exploitation, and even their right to survive. Virtually no child’s life will be unaffected.

“Over the years, children and young people have shown us that their incredible knowledge and strength by promoting environmentally sustainable lifestyles and setting an example for their communities. Through education programmes, such as this one, we hope that children and young people can take further leadership in addressing climate-related risks.”

In addition, XITE ENERGY RACING Founder, driver and sustainability pioneer Oliver Bennett, along with eco-smart technology business myenergi, and with the support of Extreme E, has installed a revolutionary solar power set-up. The school is now home to a 5kW ground-mounted solar array with an accompanying 5.2kWh battery storage system, which means the education hub will now run on solar power.  

Headteacher Susanne Andersen said: “XITE ENERGY RACING’s solar system will introduce renewable energy to our school. It is not just important that we fight climate change here in Greenland but also to teach our pupils about it. I am happy that our students can follow the solar panel energy production on a day-to-day basis.”

It’s not just the drivers having all the racing fun though, Extreme E has worked with The Danish Automobile Sports Federation (DASU), the municipality of Qeqqata and Kalaanni Teknikkimik Ilinniarfik (KTI, the vocational School of Greenland) to present an interdisciplinary project to provide electric go-karts, which were presented to the students this week by legendary drivers Sébastien Loeb, Cristina Gutiérrez, Emma Gilmour, Stéphane Sarrazin and Oliver Bennett.

The purpose of the project is to create a fun and exciting interdisciplinary teaching-programme while sparking Greenlandic youth interest in electric vehicles with the wider purpose of getting more students into vocational education and being able to handle the many EVs in Greenland.

The interdisciplinary teaching-programme uses the fun and motivation from motorsport to focus on Sustainable Development Goals, mathematics, science and sports to achieve these ambitions. The programme has had success for three years in Denmark and an adjusted version will tour Greenland for the years to come.  

Torben Nielsen, Chairman of Tech College Greenland said: “We see more and more EVs in Greenland, now also in Kangerlussuaq. Tech College Greenland hopes that with the help of Extreme E and DASU, it can attract young people to become EV mechanics.”

The Arctic X Prix racing action gets underway today with Free Practice, followed by Qualifying on Saturday and Semi-Finals and Final on Sunday. A host of global broadcasters alongside Extreme E’s own channels will be airing all the racing. To find out more click here.


Extreme E

Alaska Man builds 300kW Hydroelectric Plant in his Back Yard

Alaska Man builds 300kW Hydroelectric Plant in his Back Yard

An Anchorage hydrologist recently flipped the switch on a state-of-the-art hydroelectric system that he built on his mountainous property near Ram Valley, above Eagle River.

The Juniper Creek Hydroelectric Project began delivering power to homesin the area on July 24, through a connection with the Matanuska Electric Association.

Dave Brailey began dreaming up the $1.7 million project more than a decade ago. His wife, Melanie Janigo, and another couple are part-owners in the project and the land it sits on.

Brailey did the planning and most of the physical work, with occasional help from family and friends. He hired a civil engineer to oversee the project,and other experts for specialized work. He paid a helicopter company to fly in materials like large sections of pipe.

The 300-kilowatt project lies in a brushy gorge below Raina Peak, close to 2,000 feet above sea level.

Part of the flow from a spring-fed stream, left, is diverted into a spillway, right, before flowing through an 18″ pipe to a generator shack at the Juniper Creek hydro project on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Eagle River. All of the water returns to Falling Water Creek after it leaves the generator shack. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A spillway diverts some of the water from the creek. An 18-inch pipe collects the water and drops it nearly a quarter mile, mostly underground, to a computer-run powerhouse that feeds electricity into power lines.

A spring that gushes from the mountainside also contributes relatively warm water, keeping the project flowing year-round. A steep, zig-zagging construction trail connects the structures.

At its peak in summer, Juniper Creek Hydroelectric will provide power for more than 300 homes, Brailey said. At its low point in May, it will power about 50 homes.

“I’ve always thought we need to do something about carbon emissions, and this sort of became my purpose in life, to make something for my children and for humanity going forward,” said Brailey, 60.

He said the project will pay for itself in about 15 years and produce electricity for generations.

A layman who learned

Brailey said he’s a layman when it comes to renewable power projects.

But he’s worked as a hydrologist in Anchorage for 35 years, including as a self-employed consultant most of that time.

A status screen shows the generator producing 302kW, at the Juniper Creek hydro project on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Eagle River. The 300kW run-of-river hydro project near Ram Valley came online at the end of July. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In 2005, he and his wife bought the 160-acre former homestead property, along with their friends, Stephen and Ilysa Parker.

They wanted it for its access to backcountry skiing and hiking.

But Brailey spent several years studying the hydropower prospects on the land, and penciling out other details that led to the project.

Brailey received 14 permits from Anchorage, state and federal authorities, and construction began in 2018.

At times, he spent long periods at a cabin on the land, away from home, Janigo said.

“I’m the hydro-widow,” Janigo said, laughing.

“I lost my husband for several years” to the project, she said.

Juniper Creek Hydroelectric never won grants from state and federal agencies, though Brailey applied, he said. He called that “disappointing.”

The couples often spent money from their retirement accounts, he said.

“We just kept paying bills as we went,” he said.

A welcome effort

The Juniper Creek system provides a tiny fraction of the power used by Matanuska Electric Association, said Ed Jenkin, chief operations officer for the utility.

But it’s unique, in part because one person had the vision and drive to make it happen, rather than say, an engineering firm or a group of engineers, he said.

The cooperative utility, with more than 50,000 members, has connected two other similar hydropower projects onto its grid, utility officials said. This is the first in several years.

Water flowing from uphill enters the generator shack at right and is split, with each half directing the water to a different part of the turbine, far left, which drives the generator to produce electricity, at the Juniper Creek hydro project on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Eagle River. The 300kW run-of-river hydro project near Ram Valley came online at the end of July. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

More people are taking steps to generate their own renewable power, they said. Some sell power to the utility, including some homeowners with rooftop solar panels. Other projects like Brailey’s are much bigger, such as Alaska’s largest solar panel project in Willow, they said.

“We are really open to having new and innovative kinds of power on our system,” said Julie Estey, a spokeswoman with the utility. “We are pretty agnostic to what the technology is, we just want it to be reliable and cost-effective for our members.”

Wind and solar power projects can produce power that’s more intermittent, affected by changes in wind or clouds. But the Juniper Creek system willdeliver a predictable supply of energy, Jenkin said.

It won’t affect prices paid by utility customers, he said.

“In general, it’s a pretty welcome project,” Jenkin said.

Fish-safe power

Juniper Creek Hydroelectric is a run-of-river system. It essentially borrows some of the water from the creek before returning it, without impacting downstream fish resources like a dam would, Brailey said.

“The water is with us for two minutes, then it goes back into the creek,” he said.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided a permit to protect fish habitat wasn’t needed, he said.

“Because there are no fish present, they determined it was not required,” Brailey said.

Hydrologist David Brailey looks at a spring-fed stream that flows into the Juniper Creek hydro project on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Eagle River. The 300kW run-of-river hydro project near Ram Valley came online at the end of July. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

David Schade, director ofthe state Division of Agriculture, said he lives along Falling Water Creek in Eagle River. The creek gets some of its water from Juniper Creek.

He said the project hasn’t affected the creek along his property at all.

Schade was president of the Eagle River Community Council when the project came before the council about three years ago. Some residents initially opposed it, he said. But resistance subsided as people realized it wouldn’t have downstream effects and would be inconspicuously tucked into a gorge, he said.

“They designed it in an economic, ecofriendly (way),” Schade said.

During a tour of the project for a reporter on Friday, Brailey said he was careful to protect Juniper and Falling Water creeks.

“Some people didn’t like it because I would take away the stream,” he said. “But the stream is still here.”

“I took a lot of pains in the project to save stuff like that,” he said, gesturing to a waterfall.

He said a solar-powered radio communications system allows the power to be shut off remotely if there’s an emergency or other need.

The Juniper Creek hydro project, photographed on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021 in Eagle River. The 300kW run-of-river hydro project just below Ram Valley came online at the end of July. At the top of the project is a spillway, which collects the water and directs it into an 18″ pipe, which then travels over 300 feet down to a generator shack where it produces electricity. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Brailey said there appear to be several other opportunities for similar small-scale hydropower projects in the municipality, many of them between Eagle River and Girdwood, based on hydrology reports and his own research.

“It’s worth further investigation,” he said.

Part-owner Stephen Parker, a retired emergency room doctor, said he was skeptical of the project early on. But he never doubted his friend would complete it.

It’s an “incredible achievement,” Parker said.

“He had the trained eye and experience to see the potential, and the stamina, willpower and determination to see it come to fruition,” he said.


Alex DeMarban at Anchorage Daily News