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[1THING] Blog: Archive for September, 2012

[ NBC’s ‘Revolution’: Imagining the Ultimate Blackout ]

The NBC drama Revolution, which premiered last week, is set in a world completely devoid of electrical power 15 years after a massive, mysterious blackout. People go back to traveling by horse and on foot; villages grow their own food; iPhones become useless relics.

Some critics have complained that the show is short on explanations and jumps too quickly to an inexplicable future where we still have not figured out how to get the power back on, skipping over the juicy blow-by-blow of what happens directly after huge masses of people lose all access to electricity. Revolution does offer a few tidbits from the unraveling in its first two episodes, though: planes fall out of the sky, cars lie abandoned on highways, people stranded in the cities perish, and people commit murder for food, among other grim scenes.

Take Our Poll

In the real world, we have gotten some unsettling previews of what might happen when the lights go out for a long period of time. This photo gallery of the world’s worst power outages offers a few examples of blackouts around the world caused by storms, human error and other factors. Even though most of those outages lasted just a few days or less, they still drive home the mass misery that occurs when millions are left stranded in the dark. Most prominently this year, more than 600 million people in India lost power for two days in July (see photos from the blackout and an analysis of the country’s power situation).  A month earlier in the U.S. Northeast, where transmission lines are particularly burdened, a powerful derecho system of thunderstorms knocked out electricity to more than 4 million.

Aside from inflicting huge costs and disruptions that range from inconvenient to life-threatening, blackouts force us to recognize the many ways we are dependent on reliable electricity from the grid, and contemplate even for just a few hours what life might be like for the 1.4 billion people worldwide who do not have it. Do you worry about the stability of the electricity grid in your country? How would you fare in a long-term blackout? Weigh in on the poll above and in the comments.


[ As Iraq’s Oil Boom Progresses, So Does Gas Flaring ]

Iraq’s oil production reached 3.2 million barrels per day (mbpd) this past August – nearly 1 mbpd more than it was a year ago. That growth is set to continue: Iraq, home to the world’s fourth largest proven petroleum reserves, plans to ramp up production to 10 mbpd in six years. Given that 95 percent of Iraq’s state revenue comes from oil, that industry is key to the nation’s post-war rebuilding.

However, the flip side of Iraq’s growing oil output has been a nearly uncontrolled burning of “associated gas,” which is raw natural gas released as a by-product of petroleum extraction. Natural gas is often found in oil wells, where it is either dissolved in crude oil or exists separately in a form of a cap on top of the oil.

Unless it can be captured and used for commercial purposes, associated gas is burned off upon reaching an oil well surface, or it can be directly vented into the atmosphere without burning. Because methane is a key component of associated gas, venting of gas deposits large volumes of methane into the atmosphere, while burning it releases carbon dioxide. Thus, gas flaring is a source of greenhouse emissions and also carries the cost of wasting a valuable energy resource and degrading air quality.

Iraq currently ranks among the world’s top five flaring countries, according to the World Bank. As the second largest producer of oil in OPEC, Iraq flared around 9 billion cubic meters of associated gas in 2011. According to some estimates, the southern oil fields of Rumaila, West Qurna and Zubair account for over 25 million cubic meters of gas per day.

The World Bank says that the gas flared in Iraq, which amounts to $5 million per day in lost energy, would be sufficient to cover all of the country’s electricity demand. Faced with electricity supplies available only a few hours a day and with shortages of clean cooking fuels, Iraq’s flaring of associated gas is a colossal waste of a precious resource. In fact, flared gas would be sufficient to cover all of Iraq’s electricity demand.

The practice of burning gas is a matter not only of energy use, but also of public health and the environment. Residents who live near oil fields have complained of asthma, irritated skin and other problems.  Aside from methane, flaring gas produces nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and other emissions that can affect vegetation and watershed.

The natural gas sector in Iraq lags behind its well-developed oil industry and, thus far, attempts to capture associated gas have been limited. Last year, Iraq’s Basrah Gas signed a landmark agreement with Royal Dutch Shell* and Mitsubishi to capture associated natural gas from southern oilfields and use it to fuel power stations and as feedstock for the petrochemical industry of this war-torn nation. The project aims to harness 2 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas by 2017.

This amount is just a small fraction of the gas flared in Iraq last year, however, and Iraq’s oil production stands to increase dramatically over the next two decades. With a glut of natural gas keeping prices down, Iraq has limited incentive to focus on the potential of capturing and exporting gas while its focus is on growing oil production. As Robert Lesnick of the World Bank has noted, “The savings from shifting from liquid fuels to gas for Iraq’s power generation is estimated at several billion dollars per year, but this benefit is less than one week’s increase in revenues from targeted incremental crude oil sales.”

According to the World Bank’s Global Gas Flaring Reduction partnership, Iraq has made flare reduction a priority in its energy policy and has launched a gas pricing study. Already, potential customers are waiting: Turkey and Jordan have reportedly expressed interest in gas imports from Iraq. It remains to be seen whether these developments will be enough to significantly reduce the amount of wasted natural gas now pouring into Iraq’s air.

*Shell is sponsor of The Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.


[ Charting a Path to More Efficient Cars ]

No less an authority than the International Energy Agency says the world could cut the fuel used for road transport in half over the next 40 years. The question is whether anyone is willing to do the work needed to get there.

Fully one-fifth of all energy use worldwide is for transportation, and transportation is primarily about oil. In fact the IEA calculates almost all the projected growth in petroleum use in the world is going to come from transportation.

(Related Photos: “Cars That Fired Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fuel“)

The good news, according to a pair of new reports from the IEA, is that the technology needed to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles is already available and cost-effective. Most developed nations and China already have fuel efficiency standards in place as well. Under the Obama administration, the United States has raised fuel efficiency standards, but the new regulations have drawn fire from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who has called them “extreme,” and from auto dealers who worry they will raise car prices and discourage potential buyers. Overall, the United States has been a laggard on fuel standards over the years, but in some specific areas, our standards are higher than anywhere else).

The bad news, however, is in the developing world. Most developing nations are lagging behind in fuel efficiency – and this is where energy use is going to explode in the next few decades. Since upgrading existing vehicles is nearly impossible, the IEA argues that governments should focus on changing efficiency in new vehicles. But the IEA says that means getting new government policies in place, ideally within the next five or ten years, including:

  • requiring vehicles to be labeled on their fuel economy and carbon emissions;
  • setting fuel economy and carbon emission standards;
  • and using tax incentives, vehicle taxes and fuel taxes to encourage efficiency.

Again, most industrialized nations, including the United States, already have these things in place (whether they could be done better is another story). Many developing nations can’t or don’t enforce the rules they do have.

But this brings us back to the fundamental question surrounding all energy policy: are societies willing to make choices, and accept the inevitable tradeoffs that come with them?

In the U.S., for example, we’ve been willing to do some things: raise efficiency standards and provide tax credits for electric vehicles, although these changes have been controversial, and there are many calls for their repeal. Beyond this,  any proposal to increase gas taxes, or raise the cost of driving, has proved to be a non-starter. The specific patterns of what’s politically acceptable and what’s not are going to be different from country to country. In nearly every case, as societies grow and become more fuel-hungry, there are going to be different deal-breakers.

(Related Photos: “Rare Look Inside Automakers’ Drive for 55 MPG“)

That’s because in nearly every case, on nearly every energy issue, there are going to be tradeoffs. Navigating those tradeoffs is the fundamental political challenge surrounding energy policy worldwide. And unless the world gets better at making those tradeoffs, we’re staying stuck in first gear.



[ NG Explorer Jennifer Burney on Solar, Snakes and the Future of Energy ]

Jennifer Burney, named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2011, continues her work on agricultural solutions for struggling farmers. She observes, for example, that “as great as local organic food may be in my own kitchen, we’ll never feed the whole world that way. Like it or not, ‘Big Agriculture’ is why we’ve been able to sustain a hungry planet; and thanks to investments in technology, significant climate impact has been mitigated.” One key contribution she made was introducing solar irrigation to farmers in Benin, Africa. The organization that she worked with, Solar Electric Light Fund, is also a grantee of the Great Energy Challenge.

What project are you working on now?
I’m working on a few different things. First, I’m looking at different kinds of irrigation systems for smallholder farmers in dry climates around the world. Do they help farmers and their families earn income and escape poverty permanently? Do they help communities adapt to climate change? Can these systems be environmentally sustainable? Second, I’m looking at the ways air pollution affects our ability to grow food and trying to quantify the agricultural benefits of cleaning up our air. Finally, I’m working to understand and quantify all the different ways energy is used in food production, processing, and consumption. I’m interested in helping chart a realistic pathway for greening the global food system.

(Related Story: “Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa“)

Burney explains more about her work on solar irrigation in Africa:

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?
I am always very pleasantly surprised by the universality of human experience. I love spending time with people whose day-to-day lives are very different from mine and realizing very quickly that we share many of the same motivations, emotions, and concerns. I have always loved travel for this reason, but it has become so much more powerful for me since becoming a parent. The love that parents have for their children; the desire to protect and shepherd them into a fulfilling life — these forces know no cultural barriers.

On a more mundane note, the biggest physical surprises for me always seem to involve snakes. Snakes like to hide in drip irrigation tubes, in latrines, in wells, and under the rocks I happen to be sitting on. I don’t really like being up close and personal with them, (Apologies to all the herpetologists in the National Geographic explorers’ family!) but they always seem to find me, even on the shortest little hikes. I realized recently that I was born in the year of the snake, so I’ve started trying to think of these critters as my spirit animal.

Have you ever been lost? How did you get found?
I’ve wandered off course a few times when backpacking, but never anything too terrible. Phew!

If you could trade places with one explorer at National Geographic, who would it be and why?
Tough question! There are so many with incredible day-to-day lives and deeply moving stories. For example, I’m particularly inspired by the work my fellow emerging explorer classmates, Sasha Kramer and Aziz Abu Sarah are doing. I’d love to tag along with them for any amount of time. If I were really going to trade places with someone permanently, it’d have to be Mike Fay. I started reading about him in college and I’ve been moved by everything he’s done ever since.

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in a hundred years?
Unfortunately, I fear that climate change is going to make our world look very different in a hundred years. Then the National Geographic crew will be exploring previously inaccessible and/or newly extreme regions right here on earth. On a more positive note, I think there will be radically new types of energy generation, storage, and transmission; dramatic changes in our roles with the water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles; and all sorts of new technologies that make the world a more intimate place and help promote peace and well-being for all. National Geographic will be leading the way in exploring and publicizing these innovations.

Sketch by Burney of herself checking corn and taking notes in the field.

What one item do you always have with you?
I don’t have any one “signature” item, but I *usually* have sunscreen, sunglasses, and water close at hand. Boring, I know, but always useful.

What are you reading?
Mr. G, by Alan Lightman.

What is your favorite food?
Burrito. Also, I’m a native New Mexican, so tend to believe that green chili makes everything taste better.

What are you listening to?
I love all music, but recently have been alternating bluegrass and classical. In fact, I heard the Punch Brothers perform an adaptation of one of the Brandenburg concertos for mandolin, banjo, etc., and I thought it was just about the greatest musical synergy ever.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?
Hang in there…in 10-15 years, being a nerd will be cool.

If you won the lottery, what would you buy? Where would you travel?
I’d stick some in my kids’ college savings accounts, buy some land on the east side of the Sierras, take the whole family to West Africa to visit friends and colleagues there, buy tickets to the next few World Cups/Women’s World Cups, and give the rest to those in need.

If you were a baseball player, and you came up to bat, what song would be played as your “signature song”?
Something by Bruce Springsteen? I love the Boss, and it seems like it’d fit at a baseball game! I really like the album he did of all the old Pete Seeger songs, so I could imagine a whole stadium drinking beer, basking in the sun, and rocking out to something like “Pay Me My Money Down.” That being said, in my own head, it’d be something more like the soundtrack to the Motorcycle Diaries playing. That music gets you both focused and fired up!

Listen to part of the soundtrack from the Motorcycle Diaries:

Do you have a hidden talent?
I play the violin, which a lot of folks in my day-to-day life don’t know about.

What is your favorite National Geographic photo?
Impossible to choose! In general I love all NG pictures involving deserts. This must be because I’m a child of the desert. I remember loving the photos in issues about the Sahel and the drying of the American Southwest a few years back. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a terrible photographer, so I really appreciate the ability to wordlessly capture the delicate balance of life in water-constrained areas.

What is your favorite National Geographic magazine or news article?
Again, so hard to choose! Perhaps the article and set of aerial shots from the 2005 Africa issue? I also loved the soccer issue before the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Soccer’s another one of those things that really unites people around the world.

If you were to bring back one species of animal that has gone extinct, what would it be?
This is probably cliché, but any dinosaur. How amazing would that be?


[ MIT Magnets Could Pull Offshore Oil Spills From Water ]

Over two years later, the Gulf Coast is still struggling to recover from the 2010 BP oil spill. Perhaps the only silver lining to this deadly event was the fact that it revealed to the world just how unprepared oil companies are to prevent, contain, and clean up offshore spills. Faced with this ugly truth, scientists and inventors have been working to advance spill clean up technologies, so that the next time a spill occurs (and there will be a next time) we have something better than boom and dispersant to throw at it.

MIT has lead the charge in this quest for new clean up technologies. Just months after the BP oil spill began, they unveiled the Seaswarm, an autonomous robot that can navigate the surface of the ocean to collect surface oil and process it on site. Now, they’ve come up with an even simpler solution: a method for separating oil from water using magnets.

We all know that oil and water don’t mix. That’s why it was so easy to see the sheen of BP’s crude oil floating on the surface of the water during and after the spill. Although it’s easy to see the oil, getting it out of the water is another problem. Skimming and burning are two common methods, but they’re inefficient, and make it impossible to recover any of the oil.

MIT’s new technique would mix water-repellent ferrous nanoparticles into the oil plume, then utilize a magnet to simply lift the oil out of the water. According to a recent release, the researchers envision that the process could take place aboard an oil-recovery vessel, to prevent the nanoparticles from contaminating the environment. Afterward, the nanoparticles could be magnetically removed from the oil and reused. It’s believed that this ability to recover and reuse the oil would offset much of the cost of cleanup, making companies like BP more willing to foot the bill for their mistakes.

“This oil-spill problem has not really been worked on intensively that I know of, and of course it’s a big problem,” said Ronald Rosensweig, a former Exxon researcher and a pioneer in the study of ferrofluids who wrote the field’s first textbook. “You could think of separating oil from water by centrifuging or something like that, but in a lot of cases, the fluids are pretty much equal in density: Some of the oil sinks, some of it floats, and a lot of it is in between. The magnetic hook could, hopefully, make separation faster and better.”

— Beth Buczynski

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.


[ Shell’s Arctic Plan Curtailed by Dome Damage ]

The aptly named Arctic Challenger—Shell’s* trouble-plagued oil spill recovery barge—has once again demonstrated how challenging drilling for oil in the Arctic can be in a post-Deepwater-Horizon world.

(Related: “Is Another Deepwater Horizon Disaster Inevitable?“)

The barge, which underwent a multi-million-dollar facelift in a Bellingham, Washington, shipyard, was retrofitted to serve as the flagship of Shell’s “state of the art” Arctic containment system. Yet during the first test of the oil spill recovery dome in Puget Sound on Saturday night, the barge crew managed to ding up the dome as they attempted to place it over a mock runaway well—ending any hope that Shell would drill into potential pay dirt on any of its Arctic leases this year.

Instead, the company says it will drill as many “top-holes” as it can before sea ice sets in by late October, laying the groundwork for the 2013 drilling season.

“It’s a disappointment that this particular system is not ready yet,” Marvin E. Odum, the president of Shell Oil, told the New York Times. “We’ve made the call that we are better off not drilling in hydrocarbons this year.”

(Related: “Pictures: Four New Offshore Drilling Frontiers“)

It is just the latest in a series of mishaps that have hampered Shell’s drilling efforts and left many critics doubting if the company is ready to drill in one of the harshest—and most pristine—environments on the planet. Earlier this summer, Shell’s 514-foot (157-meter) Liberian-registered drill ship, Noble Discoverer, drug its anchor during a blow in Dutch Harbor and drifted close to shore in front of the Royal Aleutian Hotel. The ship was undamaged and on September 9,  began drilling in the Burger Prospect some 50 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. A day later, however, it had to pull out and abandon the site to avoid an ice floe.

(Related: “Ice-Breaking: U.S. Oil Drilling Starts,While Nations Mull Changed Arctic“)

The 38-year-old Arctic Challenger—a former barge with so much new superstructure it now looks a bit like a floating casino with a crane— has been beset with electrical and safety equipment issues and delayed Shell’s advance into the Arctic because it did not  pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection. Towed by ocean tugs, the barge houses 72 workers, the containment dome, as well as other oil spill response equipment. It’s supposed to have enough capacity to store spilled oil for 24 hours until Shell’s oil spill tanker reaches any spill site. It was a voluntary piece of equipment offered by Shell, but as it is part of the drilling permit and plan,  Shell has not been allowed to drill into oil-bearing zones before it is on-station off Barrow. It remains in a repair dock in Bellingham, Washington, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

At a conference in Alaska a few weeks ago, Shell’s vice president for Alaska, Peter Slaiby, stressed that the Challenger was a redundant piece of equipment—a fourth line of defense against a blow-out that would only come into play after drilling mud, a beefed-up Blow-Out-Preventer, and a ready-made capping stack that was already on site had all failed. (It was a capping stack that eventually closed down BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, but it had to be built on the fly as oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico; Shell agreed to have a stack ready in the Arctic, and it is currently on a ship stationed between the Beaufort and Chukchi drill sites.)

(Related Quiz: “How Much Do You Know About the Gulf Oil Spill?“)

But the details emerging about the failed containment dome test do little to bolster Shell’s assurances. According to anonymous sources who spoke to the L.A. Times, the dome was damaged when Shell workers attempted to lower it over weights that had been dropped to the sea floor to simulate the site of a runaway well. According to the L.A. Times, one of the dome’s eight winches stuck on the way down. When a min-sub, known in the industry as Remotely Operated Vehicle, or ROV, was sent down to inspect the problem, it became entangled in the dome’s cables and eventually sank. Divers were then dispatched to recover the inoperable dome.

Shell’s statement on the incident emphasized the care it was taking in proving its gear (“We will not conduct any operation until we are satisfied that we are fully prepared to do it safely,” it said.)

But the company’s critics were quick to pounce on the latest setback. “This incident as well as others over the summer show that Shell is clearly not prepared to go forward in a safe way,” says Charles Clusen, director of the Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel, one of three environmental groups challenging Shell’s air permit, drilling permit and oil spill response plan in court. “If Shell has such an incident in the calm waters of Puget Sound, what happens when one of those arctic storms whips up?”

The ultimate lesson? The Arctic gives up its treasures slowly.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.



[ On Trying to Catch the Wind Energy? ]

A lack of wind won’t stall our future renewable energy economy, but Congress might.

Debunking the Myths That Take the Wind out of Wind Energy’s Sails

Wind has its downsides. It’s intermittent; it’s too expensive. Fair points, but there are ways around them. For example the whole intermittency issue could be handled now by using spatially diverse sources; and once affordable energy storage technologies are developed, intermittency will likely become a non-issue.

And the cost issue is in many ways a red herring. Many argue that fossil fuels are cheaper than renewable energy sources because of the market’s failure to account for the so-called external costs of fossil fuels such as pollution. These are costs we all bear but are not reflected in the price we pay for the energy; if those externalities were included in the price of energy generated from fossil fuels, renewable energy would become more competitive perhaps even less costly. Even now, wind-generated electricity is now in a virtually cost-competitive heat with coal-fired power generation.

But Can We Extract Enough

As a world community, at any given moment our maximum power draw is somewhere between 12.5 and 18 terawatts. That’s orders of magnitude smaller than the amount of power dissipated by the wind — about 50,000 terawatts in the lower atmosphere or troposphere.

So we can all agree that there’s a lot of wind to be had, but can we have it? Can we put enough turbines in place to capture enough energy without affecting the climate? In short, if we wanted to build a clean energy economy around wind, could we? Two new studies say, yes, we have enough wind to power the globe … and then some.

Saturation Point Not a Problem

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week, Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Christina Archer of the University of Delaware explored the limits of wind availability for energy extraction relative to what is known as the saturation point. In principle one would expect that increasing the number of turbines would increase the amount of energy generated from wind. That’s true but only up to a point, the saturation point, beyond which the benefits of adding another turbine decrease while the costs increase. That saturation point occurs when the turbines get so close together that one is always in the draft of another and there’s just not any more wind to be gotten.

Is this a problem? Jacobson and Archer set out to find out — to see how much energy is available prior to reaching the saturation point. The authors used a dynamic global model to estimate “the maximum wind power that can be extracted upon increasing the number of wind turbines over a large geographic region, independent of societal, environmental, climatic, or economic considerations.” Their calculations indicate that this saturation wind power potential exceeds current energy demand several times over — about 80 terawatts, if the turbines are set at 100 meters above the land surface (excluding Antarctica) and coastal ocean, and 380 terawatts at 10 kilometers above in the jet streams.

No Significant Climate Effects

Another concern over using lots of wind for power generation is that it will disrupt the climate by pulling too much wind energy out of the atmosphere. Not a problem, says a paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Kate Marvel of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and colleagues. They conclude that “at the level of present global primary power demand [about 18 terawatts], uniformly distributed wind turbines are unlikely to substantially affect the Earth’s climate.”

So what are the limitations to developing wind power at the global scale? Marvel et al seem to hit the nail on the head when they conclude their paper with: “It seems that the future of wind energy will be determined by economic, political and technical constraints, rather than global geophysical limits.”

Which brings us to the continuing saga of the Production Tax Credit for wind, which begins way back in the 19th century when the federal government first got into the business of giving a helping hand to fledgling energy industries.

The Production Tax Credit

If you read this blog regularly, you might know that subsidies and tax credits have been an integral part of American energy policy since the 19th century. We built railroads to help the timber industry, and we provided healthy subsidies to jump-start the coal, oil and gas industries. And so it was not at all surprising when, following the oil shock of the 1970s, the federal government began to give a leg up to renewable energy. The first of those came in the form of the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 which required public utilities to purchase lower-cost energy from independent producers including renewables sources.

With the Energy Policy Act of 1992, Congress first established the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit for new facilities that would generate electricity using a renewable energy source — an attempt to somewhat level the playing field with established non-renewable energy sources (see earlier discussion about cost competitiveness). Initially given at 1.5 cents (adjusted for inflation) for every kilowatt-hour produced by a new wind plant for its first 10 years of operation, the subsidy for wind currently stands at 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. “In effect,” as explained on the Energy Information Administration’s website, “the subsidy reduces the per-kilowatthour cost of new wind plants by 20 to 25 percent.”

The original Production Tax Credit expired in July 1999 but before the year ran out it was extended to 2001. Since then, Congress has reauthorized and expanded it numerous times, most recently in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (or stimulus package). Failing Congressional action, this tax incentive for wind will expire at the end of this calendar year (other tax supports for other renewables will extend through 2013).

Should the federal tax credit for wind be extended? The arguments on the pro’s [pdf]  and con’s abound. But there is a pretty strong consensus about one thing: if the tax credit for wind is not extended, the U.S. wind industry will tank, much as it did each time in the recent past when the tax credit went on hiatus. (Indeed, Siemens announced this week that it is laying off 615 workers at its U.S. wind facilities, citing uncertainty over the tax credit as a reason.)

Historic impact of PTC expiration on annual wind installation (AWEA)
“Historic impact of the Production Tax Credit expiration on annual wind installation” (Used with permission by the American Wind Energy Association [pdf])


And right now the chances of extending the tax credit for wind are looking rather slim. While President Obama has called for an extension,presidential nominee Romney has come out against it. Several bills that would extend it have been languishing in Congress. While the U.S. Senate Finance Committee approved an extension with bipartisan support, the bill has yet to come to the Senate floor. On the House side, the Energy and Commerce Committee rejected a bid to add an amendment to the so-called “No More Solyndra” bill that would have extended the subsidy.

And so the future of wind energy development in the United States seems very much, if you’ll pardon expression, up in the air. There is talk of both chambers considering an extension of the subsidy after the election. Sort of makes sense: along with the fiscal cliff why not a wind cliff?

* This post has been amended with the news of the Siemens layoffs.


[ Computerized ‘Family’ Takes Up Residence in Luxury Net-Zero Energy House ]

From the outside, the upscale look of this suburban Maryland home is typical for the Washington, D.C., area. But the inside reveals something very different. The virtual “family” inside the house is made up of state-of-the-art sensors, and the house aims to achieve net zero annual energy consumption.

Built by the U.S. government, the $2.5 million Net Zero Residential Test Facility is really an elaborate laboratory, reports Reuters. The house, which was unveiled last week, sits on the grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

(Related Pictures: “Seven Supergreen Government Buildings“)

The “Nisters,” an imaginary family including two working parents, and children ages 8 and 14, are controlled by researchers camped out in a command center in the home’s detached garage. From there, scientists can use sensors and computer programs to make the residents take a shower, cook dinner, do the laundry, turn the television and computer on and off, and other everyday tasks families do that use energy.

Solar panels line the roof to generate electricity and heat water, and scales are used to gauge water use. The system uses weight to determine who’s taking a shower and how much hot water they would likely use. (The teenager, for example, might take a much longer shower than other family members.)

The 2-story, 4-bedroom, 3-bath house was funded by federal stimulus money made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which prioritized green construction.

The project will attempt to show the public that a house that doesn’t need to look space-aged to operate on net zero energy. It will also be a testing ground for new energy-efficient technologies and environmentally friendly design standards.

“The goal of the facility is to demonstrate that over the course of a year, a home similar in size and aesthetics with all the features a family and surrounding communities would want, can achieve net zero,” said Hunter Fanney, chief of NIST’s Building Environment Lab, in a video about the project. “That is, over the course of a year, you’d have zero energy building, yet enjoy all the amenities and size of a home typical of the surrounding community.”

The home, which uses commercially available technologies, has walls and roofing with more than twice the amount of insulation found in typical homes, and geothermal heating and cooling that uses the temperature of the ground to keep the temperature inside the house comfortable.

(Related Pictures: “In Search of Green Air Conditioning“)

During its first year in operation, no humans will be allowed into the house so scientists can monitor how it performs without interference. But it will look occupied, with the lights turning on and off at pre-determined times, appliances and hot water running. The researchers have even added devices to give off heat and humidity like a person would.

While the house will use energy from the grid on days when it can’t generate enough energy of its own, officials say it will make up for that energy over the course of the year so that it has a net-zero result.

With its hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances in addition to its amazing energy efficiency, Fanney of NIST says he’d feel right at home living in this laboratory. “I’d love to live in this house,” he told CNN.

(Related Quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity“)


[ EarthShare PSA: Impacts ]

EarthShare PSA: “EarthShare Impacts”

A probono project made possible by a dedicated group of NYU film students and other volunteers, our latest video reminds us about the substantial accomplishments of EarthShare’s member charities and how their work protects the food we eat and the air we breathe, the playgrounds and parks where our children play, the land and wilderness we share with other living creatures, and so much more. The environment sustains us and is our future — it’s up to us to care for it.

With your help, EarthShare has raised nearly $300 million to support the work of more than 500 nonprofit organizations working to preserve and protect our natural world. If you’re a member of the media and you’d like more information about EarthShare’s materials, please contact us!

Go behind the scenes for the making of “EarthShare Impacts” and learn how the film came together here.


[ Oregon Eco-Winery Goes Beyond LEED ]

In 2002, more than a dozen structures and countless trees were scorched in the course of the Biscuit Fire, which took down roughly 500,000 acres in southern Oregon. Now a Dayton-area winery with a history of green innovation — Stoller Family Estate — has put a number of those trees to use in its new tasting room, along with a whole lot of solar power.

This wood comes courtesy of the “standing dead,” i.e., trees that were killed by the fire but were left standing, often in excellent shape for those willing to make use of salvaged wood. Stoller put that wood to work in constructing its new tasting room, which features mostly reclaimed wood. Wood from the Biscuit fire was used in the building’s rolling ceiling, while the tasting room’s large support columns were upcycled from an old Portland warehouse.

Oregon’s KGW reports that the new Stoller tasting room’s 236 solar panels generate enough energy to power the entire building, and even send a little solar love next door to the Stoller winery. When the winery’s work slows down during the summer months, some of that energy will get routed back to the grid. That is, after the winery’s electric forklift has been charged, as well as the electric vehicles of any wine connoisseurs who happen to stop by for a sip of Stoller’s renowned pinot noir.

Other green features of the new tasting room — which was designed by the same firm that designed the winery itself, Ernest R. Munch of Portland — include natural daylighting, courtesy of a wall of windows, and soon, a green roof that will help to insulate the building while helping to manage storm runoff on site.

Stoller Family Estate is located in Oregon’s Dundee Hills area. It became the first Gold LEED-certified winery in the nation back in 2006, and has since carried on its commitment to environmental stewardship by becoming one of 14 wineries to take on the “Carbon Neutral Challenge,” a joint program of the Oregon Environmental Council and the Oregon Wine Board. 

As part of the challenge, Stoller underwent a rigorous energy audit that revealed the most energy-intensive areas of its operations. It then joined other green-minded Oregon wineries in instituting a number of changes aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as installing solar panels, retrofitting lighting, insulating tanks and even using goats, sheep and raptors instead of lawn mowers and pesticides. While 30 Oregon wineries originally signed on the line for the challenge, Stoller was one of only 14 that made it all the way to the end of the process. To complete the Carbon Neutral Challenge, all participating wineries purchased carbon offsets for their remaining emissions through the Bonneville Environmental Foundation’s methane digester projects.

The wineries that reached the finish line in this Oregon program also became members of The Climate Registry, a national system that sets standards for calculating, verifying and reporting greenhouse gas emissions.

Willamette Valley Vineyards of Turner and King Estate Winery of Eugene were the largest participating wineries in the Carbon Neutral Challenge. In addition to Stoller, the other wineries to complete the challenge include A to Z wineworks, Abaclea, Adelsheim, Chehalem, Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Left Coast Cellars, Lemelson Vineyards, Mahonia Vineyards and Nursery, Sokol Blosser Winery, Soter Vineyards, and Winderlea Wine Co.

Susan De Freitas

This post originally appeared at EarthTechling and was republished with permission.