Posts with «environment» label

GM aims to use hydrogen fuel cells for mobile power generators

Automakers have been pursuing the dream of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for decades — who wouldn't want a car that runs on renewable hydrogen and only emits water vapor? But many challenges, from designing cars that can easily hold the fuel, to setting up reliable hydrogen distribution, have made it difficult to turn that dream into a reality. But what if you used those fuel cells to set up a remote EV charging station, or to replace a traditional gas or diesel generator for a large camp? That's what GM is planning to do with its HYDROTEC fuel cell technology, the company announced today.


GM's Mobile Power Generators, or MPGs, are pretty self descriptive: they'd basically let you bring large amounts of electricity anywhere without burning fossil fuels, or expanding a local power grid. It could be useful for concerts, movie sets, or neighborhoods that frequently lose power. (In my town outside of Atlanta, almost everyone owns a gas generator to deal with storm-related outages.) 

The announcement also makes plenty of sense for GM, as it's already bringing its fuel cell technology to trucking, aerospace and rail partners. The company says the MPGs will be able to spit out 60 to 600 kilowatts without producing much noise or heat.

GM plans to show off an MPG-powered EV charging station in the middle of 2022, a project co-funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the U.S. Army. Additionally, the California Energy Commission is exploring how MPGs could help provide energy during power shutdowns. GM is also working together with Renewable Innovations to build the EMPOWER rapid charger, which could deliver fast EV charging to existing stations without the need for huge infrastructure improvements. Taking things to an even more extreme level, there's a large MPG implementation that could potentially power large military camps and heavy-duty equipment. (And as a bonus, those camps can actually use the water the MPG emits.)

While it'll likely be years before MPGs can actually deployed, it's heartening to see GM explore uses for fuel cells outside of cars. Battery-powered EVs have evolved so quickly that hydrogen-powered cars don't have much of a future (sorry, Toyota). So it's about time we start considering other ways fuel cells could help.

Biden administration announces new measures to upgrade US power grid

With its landmark climate legislation in jeopardy, the Biden administration has announced a series of new executive actions to accelerate the US’s transition to a clean power grid. On Wednesday, the White House said it would allocate billions toward projects that lead to the construction of more wind, solar and geothermal energy across the country.

Specifically, the administration announced it’s moving forward with the lease of six commercial areas off the coasts of New York and New Jersey for use in wind farm projects. On offer is more than 488,000 acres of ocean seafloor for the winning bidders to build an estimated 5.6 and 7 gigawatts of clean power generation. As part of the bidding process, the White House says it will incentivize participants to support labor jobs and to source turbine components from American manufacturers. The New York Bight development is one of the primary pillars of the Biden administration’s plan to build out 30 gigawatts of offshore wind production by 2030.

Another significant facet of today’s announcement is the “Building a Better Grid” initiative. Pulling from the $65 billion Congress set aside for power grid upgrades when it passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the initiative earmarks $2.5 billion toward funding the installation of new transmission lines. It’s putting another $3 billion toward an expansion of the Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, which supports projects that increase the capacity and flexibility of existing electrical infrastructure.

The administration notes it will also allocate $10 billion in grants to states, tribes and utility companies to help those groups strengthen their local transmission lines. Taken together, the investments will help modernize the country’s power grid, making it easier to transport renewable energy from remote generation sites to where it’s needed most. It will also harden the power grid against the kind of extreme weather events that have become more commonplace as the effects of climate change have worsened.

Today’s announcement sees the White House putting forward meaningful climate policy, but if the Biden administration is to have a chance of meeting the president’s ambitious goal of decarbonizing the country’s power grid by 2035, it will need to bypass the legislative gridlock that has left the Build Better Back Framework in limbo. Much of that will depend on whether the White House can convince Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to support the approximately $1.75 trillion climate and social spending bill.

US greenhouse emissions increased by 6.2 percent last year

Over the last year, US greenhouse emissions increased by 6.2 percent compared to 2020 levels, according to a new report from the Rhodium Group. The jump puts the country further behind meeting the reduction targets put forward by the Paris climate agreement. Under the deal, the US has pledged to reduce its greenhouse emissions between 50 percent and 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. As of last year, they were 17.4 percent below that benchmark. That’s a step back from the 22.2 percent reduction the country had achieved the year prior.

Behind the increase in overall emissions were corresponding jumps in pollution generated by the country’s transportation and power sectors. Compared to 2021, those sectors generated an additional 10 percent and 6.6 percent of greenhouse emissions. Driving those increases was a 17 percent increase in reliance on coal-generated power and more people driving after a pandemic-related downturn.

The report underscores how important is it is for the US to clean up its power grid and transportation sector. Another recent study found that wind and solar could meet 85 percent of the country’s current electricity needs. So much of whether the US will meet its Paris Agreement commitments will depend on if the country can mobilize investment as part of policies like President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan. The fate of the bill is uncertain, but what is clear is that the technology is there to enable a clean transition. Until recently, natural gas had never been more affordable, and yet it was still more expensive than renewable sources of energy

What we learned this year about how to avoid a climate catastrophe

COP26 was not a fist-in-the-air moment, and not the victory against climate change that humanity had been banking on. Sadly, politics and commerce put a hard thumb on proceedings, limiting the action possible. Commitments to “phase down” coal, rather than a firm pledge to eliminate it outright, show how far we still have to go. But the event also served to highlight the extent of what needs to be done if humanity’s going to survive beyond the next century.

One “victory” out of the event was the belief that ensuring global warming held at 1.5 degrees was still possible. It’s worth saying, however, that 1.5 degrees isn’t a target to meet so much as an acceptance of impending disaster. In October, the IPCC explained that such a temperature increase will cause significant upticks in the frequency of extreme heat waves, monsoon-like rainfall and widespread droughts. Extreme weather events that may have taken place once every 50 years a few centuries ago could become a regular, and fatal, occurrence.

All the while, the facts of the matter are unchanged: Humanity needs to avoid adding new carbon emissions while also tackling those we’ve already emitted. That means an aggressive reduction of every man-made carbon-emitting process everywhere on Earth, the total reformation of agriculture and an unprecedented rollout of carbon capture and storage technology. And, ideally, that process should have begun the better part of two decades ago.

There are many dispiriting facts about the world, but one that always hurts is the fact that coal plants are still being greenlit. Global Energy Monitor’s data has plants currently being permitted or under construction in (deep breath) China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Poland, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. As Reuters says, each plant will be expected to run for at least 40 years, severely damaging efforts to go Carbon Negative. Not only is it in everyone’s best interest that these plants don’t go online, but wealthier nations have a moral obligation to help provide the funding to help at least some of those names move toward clean energy.

Tunvarat Pruksachat via Getty Images

The problem is that electricity is going to be the most important resource of the 21st century, especially if we’re going to tackle climate change. Many key technologies, like transportation, will ditch fossil fuels in favor of electricity as their primary source of fuel. The world’s demand for energy is going to increase, and we’re going to need to generate that power cleanly. The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions believes that, by 2050, the world’s power needs will jump by 24 percent. So where will we get all of this clean power from?

Fusion has, forever, been held up as a magic bullet that will totally eradicate our worries about energy generation. Unlike Nuclear Fission, it produces little waste, requires little raw fuel and can’t produce a runaway reaction. Unfortunately, Fusion remains as elusive as The Venus de Milo’s arms or a good new Duke Nukem game. ITER, the internationally-funded, French-built experimental reactor won’t be finished until 2025 at the earliest and is still just a testbed. If successful — and that’s a big if — we’re still a decade away from any serious progress being made, at which point mass decarbonization will already need to be well underway.

That means any power decarbonization will have to come from the renewable technology that’s available to us today. Nuclear, Wind, Solar, Geothermal and Tidal power all need to be ramped up to fill in the gap, but the scale of the task in the US alone is staggering. According to the EIA, the US generated just short of 2,500 billion kWh using fossil fuels in 2020. If you wanted to, for instance, replace all of that with nuclear power, you’d need to build anything in the region of 300 reactors, or increase the number of solar panels installed in the US by roughly a hundred percent — and that’s before we talk about intermittency.

James Trew / Engadget

One thing we can do, however, is to reduce our demand for energy to lessen the need for such a dramatic shift. That can be, for instance, as easy as better insulating your home (in cold climates) or improving the efficiency of AC systems (in warm climates). Another smart move is to ditch the car in favor of public transportation, walking, or getting on your bike. There is evidence that e-bike adoption is becoming a big deal, with Forbes saying that sales are tipped to grow from just under 4 million annually in 2020 to close to 17 million by 2030.

None of this, however, will matter much unless we can also find a way to pay off the debts humanity has racked up over the last century. The IPCC believes that we need to extract up to one trillion tonnes of atmospheric CO2 in the near future. This can be done with massive tree planting works, more of which needs to be done, but also this process may need a little help.

That’s why a number of startups have been working on industrial processes to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. Right now, such a process is very expensive, but it’s hoped that as the technology improves, the cost will start to tumble. There’s also a concern, of course, that running schemes like this will give polluting companies and nations a free license to avoid reform.

As much as we can hope that this technology matures quickly, the rate of progress needs to get a lot faster a, uh, lot faster. For instance, Climeworks’ Orca, its new flagship carbon capture plant in Iceland, will extract 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. If we’re going to reach the point where we can avert a climate catastrophe using extraction alone, we’ll need this capacity to increase by about a hundred million times.

The point of this is, broadly speaking, to outline how much more sharply our attitudes toward the climate need to shift. If we’re going to succeed at defeating climate change then we’re going to need to go onto the sort of war footing – where resources are devoted to nothing but solving the crisis – that few can ever imagine undertaking. But, as most of the resources point out, the only way that we’re going to stave off the damage after dragging our feet for so long is to go all-out in search of a solution.

First full asteroid return sample confirms early Solar System origins

Scientists have finally studied their first full samples returned from an asteroid in space, and they confirm what you'd expect — while providing some new insights. ScienceAlertreports researchers have released twopapers revealing their first analysis of samples from Ryugu, the space rock the Hayabusa2 probe visited in February 2019. The team knew Ryugu would be a common, carbon-rich C-type asteroid, but that still makes it a good peek at the ingredients of the early Solar System.

The sampling indicates Ryugu has a carbon-dominated composition similar to the Sun's photosphere (outer shell), much like certain meteorites. It's made of the most primitive materials in the Solar System, emerging from the dust disc that formed along with the Sun itself. It's also quite porous, like many asteroids. However, it's not quite a neat and tidy example. Most C-type asteroids have a low albedo (solar radiation reflectivity) of 0.03 to 0.09 due to their carbon, but Ryugu's is 0.02. It's dark even by the standards of its cosmic neighbors.

As it stands, the very existence of these studies represents an achievement. The first attempt to return a sample, from the astroid Itokawa in 2010, only netted a tiny amount of dust. There's still more to come from Ryugu, but even the existing data could help scientists reshape their understanding of the Solar System's birth and development.

EPA announces strictest fuel efficiency standards ever, reversing Trump-era rollback

On Monday, the Biden administration finalized new fuel efficiency standards designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions put out by passenger vehicles. By 2026, the Environmental Protection Agency will require that automaker fleets travel an average of about 55 miles per gallon, up from the 37 miles per gallon standard they’re held to as of this year.

The agency estimates the policy will save American drivers between $210 billion and $420 billion through 2050 on fuel costs. Over the life of a model year 2026 vehicle, that will translate to about $1,080 in individual consumer savings after factoring in the higher initial cost of a more efficient vehicle. The EPA estimates the policy will also prevent the release of about 3.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the same time frame.

“We followed the science, we listened to stakeholders, and we are setting robust and rigorous standards that will aggressively reduce the pollution that is harming people and our planet – and save families money at the same time,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said.

The new standards effectively mirror those put forward by the Obama administration in 2012. Had former President Trump not weakened those in 2018, they would have required automakers to make vehicles that could travel about 51 miles per gallon by 2025.

Jeff Alson, a former EPA senior engineer, told The New York Times, the new standards recapture the emissions cuts carved out by the Trump administration. “That’s good, but it’s not going to get us anywhere near the level we’ve got to get to reduce vehicle emissions enough to protect the planet,” he said.

We've reached out to Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and Stellantis for comment on today's rulemaking. 

The new standards mark the most significant climate action taken to date by President Biden. As of 2019, the transportation sector has been the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. However, the announcement comes just one day after Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he would not support the Democratic party’s Build Back Better plan. Among other items, the approximately $2 trillion plan includes a proposal for up to $12,500 in individual tax subsidies for Americans who buy an EV as their next car.

Dell's Concept Luna shows how future laptops could be easier to repair and recycle

Working with Intel, Dell has created a new laptop called Concept Luna with the aim of making future PCs easier to repair, reuse and recycle. Dell said that if it incorporated all the design ideas, it could reduce a computer's carbon footprint by up to 50 percent compared to current laptop models.

A key feature of Concept Luna is the redesigned components and a new, more efficient layout. To start with, the motherboard is 75 percent smaller at just 5,580 square millimeters and has a 20 percent lower component count. Everything is rearranged, with the motherboard close to the top cover to expose it to a larger cooling area. It's also separated from the battery charging unit in the base, allowing better passive cooling that could eliminate the need for a fan. 


The extra efficiencies also reduce power requirements, allowing the designers to use a smaller battery with deep-cycle cells that offer a "long charge that can be maintained across many years of use, increasing refurbishment and reuse beyond the first product life it services," Dell said. 

On top of making the design more power efficient, Dell designers used less energy-intensive materials that are easier to recycle. The aluminum body, for instance, was processed using hydro power and a more efficient stamped construction. Dell also reduced the number of screws by tenfold, "with just four needed to access internal components." That not only reduces material count, but repair time (to disassemble, repair and reassemble key components) by around 1.5 hours. 


Other features include a palm rest that's easy to repair and reuse, a keyboard mechanism that can be easily separated for replacement and recycling, and a bio-based printed circuit board (PCB) made with flax fiber in the base and water-soluble polymer as glue. "What's notable here is that the flax fiber replaces traditional plastic laminates... [and] the water-soluble polymer can 'dissolve,'" making for easier recycling. 

Concept Luna is far from the first green laptop concept. Framework, for example, recently demonstrated an easy-to-repair laptop with features like removable ports and components that are labeled so you can repair it yourself. 

Dell might not be the most-loved PC company in terms of customer service, but it frequently tops corporate charts for environmentally-friendly initiatives. Creating a concept that points the way to easy-to-fix, more recyclable PCs is a solid step toward reducing plastic waste and pollution in the PC industry. Now, Dell plans to take the best ideas from Concept Luna "and evaluate which have the greatest potential to scale across our product portfolio," the company wrote. 

Biden orders federal buildings, vehicles to adopt renewable energy by 2050

The White House's renewable energy push now includes a transformation of the federal government. President Biden has issued an executive order that would require the government to stop buying combustion engine vehicles by 2035, and to switch all buildings to renewables and other zero-carbon energy sources by 2050. The administration willbuy only carbon-free electricity by 2030, and aims to cut building emissions in half by 2032.

Biden saw the measure as a way to "lead by example" and encourage both a "carbon pollution-free" electricity industry by 2035 and net zero emissions for the entire economy by 2050. The federal government is the largest employer, energy user and land owner in the US, the President said, and its shift to renewables could influence private businesses.

It's a modest goal in some ways. The timeline is very long, for a start. Multiple states will have banned gas-powered car sales by 2035 — why would it take the federal government that long to switch a relatively modest 600,000-vehicle fleet to EVs and other emissions-free machines? The 300,000 buildings are more daunting, but the order gives officials roughly three decades to make the transition.

At the same time, there are plenty of challenges. The feds depend on a wide range of buildings and vehicles across the country, many of them with different requirements. It may take a highly coordinated effort to transition everything to zero-emissions transport and renewable energy, even if the scale is relatively modest. And then there's the question of future administrations. As we've seen before, a new presidency can undo environmental regulations and delay or even thwart emissions reduction plans. The targets offer plenty of opportunities for reversals.

The order is still notable even if there are setbacks. It's an acknowledgment that efforts to limit climate change aren't confined to the private sector, and it could prompt contractors to transition to environmentally friendly products in a bid to win federal deals.

The Ford Bronco Sport contains trace amounts of recycled ocean plastic

Many car brands are touting recycled parts in their vehicles, but Ford thinks it can claim some extra bragging rights. The badge claims the Bronco Sport is the first vehicle to use parts made entirely of recycled ocean plastic. Ford used plastic from the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to make wireless harness clips in the SUV. They're as durable as previous petroleum-based clips, but require less energy to make and even cost 10 percent less.

The company has been using some degree of recycled plastic for over two decades, although it has been getting creative as of late. It recently started making F-250 fuel-line clips from 3D printer waste, and used water bottles for the underbody shields on the 2020 Escape.

This move could be an important step toward more sustainable car production. At the same time, it shows just how far Ford has to go. They're small parts in an SUV that's sold exclusively with a combustion engine inside — this would carry more weight if they were larger components in a hybrid or pure electric vehicle. Ford has vowed to further electrify its lineup and explore future uses of ocean plastic. Until that happens, though, this is more a hint of that future than a major milestone.

Cryptocurrency mining in Kazakhstan is leading to power shortages

Cryptocurrency mining consumes a massive amount of energy, and that's prompting a crisis in Kazakhstan. The Financial Timesreports the country's electrical grid operator KEGOC said it would start rationing electricity for 50 registered miners after their demand reportedly invoked an emergency shutdown mode at three power plants in October. They'll also be the first disconnected if there are grid failures, the quasi-public company said.

The energy ministry estimated that electricity demand has jumped by eight percent so far in 2021 versus the more typical one or two percent. There have been blackouts in six regions since October.

Officials and observers have pinned the power cuts on climbing numbers of unregistered crypto miners illegally generating currency from their homes or even factories. China's war against cryptocurrency may be partly responsible. Energy demand started climbing when mining firms moved from China in early 2021, and it jumped again when China made mining illegal this May. Electricity has been relatively inexpensive in Kazakhstan, making it a haven for companies hoping to make larger profits from crypto operations.

Kazakhstan is trying to compensate for the power shortages. It's asking a Russian energy company to supplement the national power grid, and it will charge registered miners a compensation fee of 1 tenge (about $0.0023) for every kilowatt-hour starting in 2022. Both efforts will take time, however, and this is forcing miners to either scale back or move equipment.

There are also worries the government isn't being honest about its problems. The University of Glasgow's Luca Anceshi argued to The Times that Kazakhstan was scapegoating miners for reliability problems with the country's electrical grid. Whether or not that's true, it's safe to say the mining demand hints at the potential problems for other countries if their local crypto production takes off.