Final Project: Energy and Ecology – Tying Everything Together

For my final project, I am taking a look into the relationship between humans and the environment through the lens of our pursuit of energy. I was first interested in this kind of topic even on the first day of class. At one point, the harm and potential harm fossil fuel corporations impose on the environment was being discussed. Some of the things other people said made me really interested in the topic and it made me look into some of the things energy corporations did. Later on in the class, we discussed the relationship that humans have with animals. In the class text, Why Look at Animals, John Berger discusses the break between humans and animals that was expedited mainly through corporate capitalism.[1] Berger’s article inspired me to look into the break between humans and animals through energy corporations. When I started to research more and more into the topic, I realized that the break was not just between humans and animals but the environment as a whole. However, I did not want to just bash bad energy corporations for advancing the break, but I wanted to see if there was a way where energy corporations could amend this break between humans and the environment. I dedicated a series of five blog posts that try and capture this idea. This essay is an examination of those blog posts and provides a dialogue for moving into the future.

E&E Part 1: The World’s Most Dirtiest Oil is a great example of how detrimental energy corporations can be on animals and the environment. I was first brought attention to this topic through Garth Lenz TED talk on the subject. The Alberta Tar Sands cover an area of 142,200 square kilometers which is roughly the size of the entire state of New York.[2] All of this land once belonged to the Boreal Forest, the largest terrestrial biome in the world. But besides from using that much land for oil, the environmental effects caused by the Alberta Tar Sands are almost inconceivable. The oil is called the world’s dirtiest oil because the oil obtained produces the most greenhouse gases in the world.[3] The impact, however, that comes from tailing ponds is what I thought to be the most devastating. Tailing Ponds contain the leftovers from the oil refining process and are considered highly toxic. Birds that land in these tailing ponds are not able to get out and soon die there. What is worse is that these tailing ponds leak into the Athabasca River contaminating the entire ecosystem. Fort Chippewa is the home of 800 Aboriginal people and is down the river from the Alberta Tar Sands. In that area, cancer rates are ten times higher than they are anywhere else in Canada.[3] The industrialization of the area is planned to continue and will take on the size roughly the size of the entire state of Florida. I found this incredibly alarming and it made me wonder what impact other fossil fuels had like Natural Gas.

I was gladly surprised when I first started looking into Natural Gas. Natural Gas pales in comparison to the harm that oil causes and actually has a promising future. I detail this further in E&E Part 2: Natural Gas – A Bridge to a Cleaner Future. It is obvious that the United States has a debilitating dependence on oil. We use 25% of the oil consumed daily yet we only constitute 4% of the population.[4] The United States needs to switch to another source of energy, but renewable resources are not viable enough to fulfill all of our energy demand. T. Boone Pickens believes that Natural Gas can fill the void until renewable sources of energy become viable and he makes some good points. Here is his TED Talk about Natural Gas and the energy market right now. After watching his talk, I thought that Natural Gas is a great solution but I had always believed that Natural Gas was dangerous, especially fracking. The more I looked into fracking the more muddled the topic got. There was no conclusive evidence that pointed to the method of fracking that directly caused water contamination.[5] This gave me hope that Natural Gas can and should be used as a sort of bridge fuel until other sources of energy are good enough to fully take over. After this, I looked into what renewable source of energy is the closest to replacing fossil fuels, which as I found out was hydroelectric power.

Hydroelectric power accounts for 80% of all renewable source energy.[6] This got me excited because if it accounts for so much it must be a very viable source of energy, which it is. However, hydroelectric power, at least on a large scale, is actually quite problematic. Obviously building giant dams is a difficult task but what I didn’t foresee was how many problems reservoirs have. The details of this are much more discussed in E&E Part 3: Hydroelectric Power, but for now I will give a brief overview of them. Reservoirs are needed basically to control the flow of water through the dam. If the water levels are controlled well, plant and animal life downstream can experience dry-outs which can kill them. The decomposition of the plant life actually causes a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. Additionally, the water in the reservoir is stagnant so algae and other aquatic weeds often crowd out other plant and animal life.[7] The worst problem, however, comes from the actual formation of the reservoir. These reservoirs are made by flooding large areas which kills a large amount of plant life. As mentioned earlier, the decomposition of plant life produces a substantial amount of greenhouse gases, but in this case it is done on a much larger scale. In some places, the flooding of certain areas causes so much greenhouse gases that the life cycle emissions of that hydroelectric plant is comparable to that of a fossil fuel plant.[7] Up until this point, my research has only shown me that energy corporations struggle with not having a serious impact on the environment and animals, some more than others. What I really wanted to find was an energy source that didn’t just minimize the environmental impact but actually supported it. I found that energy source when I stumbled upon offshore wind farms.

Offshore wind farms was the first topic I found that on top of producing clean energy, it actually promoted life instead of harming it. In E&E Part 4: Offshore Wind Farms, I discussed the benefits of offshore wind farming such as more wind, less impact on birds, and they are away from human populations. But the most interesting benefit from these offshore wind turbines is that they can act as artificial reefs. An artificial reef is a man-made structure that attracts barnacles and mussels which attracts fish which attracts even more animals like seals. I thought that this was so cool because it shows that in our pursuit of energy we can actually help animals. Additionally, if we were to take this idea even further, we could design wind turbines as habitats for even more marine life.[8] This idea of integration is key to moving forward into the future if we as humans want to amend this break that we have with the environment and animals.

An even better example of amending this break can be found in E&E Part 5: Floating Algae Ponds. The OMEGA project is a NASA sponsored project designed to find a way to implement a system for biofuels that doesn’t compete with agriculture for water, fertilizer, and land.[9] OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosure for Growing Algae.[9] Out of all the biofuels right now, microalgae is the most efficient at producing fuel for the amount of land it takes up.[10] Microalgae also has virtually no carbon footprint since all of the carbon dioxide released from it was already in the atmosphere in the first place. Microalgae need four things to produce biofuel which are sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and temperature control. What is amazing about microalgae is that all the nutrients they need can be found in wastewater. So this prompted the brilliant idea by OMEGA scientists to make these offshore enclosures near water treatment facilities. By doing this, not only do you get clean energy but you reduce water pollution at the same time. However, the economics of these systems are still not that great, but Jonathan Trent brought up the idea of integration in his TED talk.[10] When making these systems, we should look how we can integrate other sources of energy as well as helping the environment. Wind and solar energy sources can easily be incorporated into these OMEGA systems. Furthermore, since these systems are offshore, we could turn them into artificial reefs that promote marine life just like the offshore wind farms mentioned earlier. To go even further, these OMEGA systems could be implemented in the reservoirs used for hydroelectric power. I believe that this idea of integration is vital for humans as we move forward and not just for our own energy purposes but for the environment as well.

Berger was right that corporate capitalism is expediting the break between humans and animals but it is not too late for energy corporations to reverse this break. The energy crisis is going to get worse in the near future and we will soon face hard decisions in the energy sector. It is my hope that as we push forward, we focus on not just minimizing environmental impact but how we can produce energy that stimulates life and aids the environment.

Sources

  1. https://carmen.osu.edu/d2l/le/content/11361862/viewContent/6898917/View
  2. http://www.oilsands.alberta.ca/FactSheets/AlbertasOilSandsTheFacts_Oct_2012.pdf
  3. https://www.ted.com/talks/garth_lenz_images_of_beauty_and_devastation
  4. https://www.ted.com/talks/t_boone_pickens_let_s_transform_energy_with_natural_gas
  5. http://energyindepth.org/national/how-anti-fracking-activists-deny-science-water-contamination/
  6. http://ecoble.com/2009/09/10/alternative-power-hydroelectric-potential/
  7. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-hydroelectric-power.html
  8. http://coastalenergyandenvironment.web.unc.edu/environmental-stressors/physical-dynamic-presence/habitat-enhancement-and-loss/
  9. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/OMEGA/index.html
  10. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_trent_energy_from_floating_algae_pods

Retreat Day Post

The following is an excerpt from my journal on the retreat day we had

Today on July 1st, I am living without my phone and my laptop. Instead I am going to spend as much time outside as I can and just reflect and relax.

It is very relaxing to not have to look at my phone constantly in case somebody is trying to contact me. I feel almost liberated from a daily responsibility. One thing I have especially noticed is that I am bored rather frequently without my phone or laptop. If I did have my phone/laptop I would probably be playing a game or just wasting my time on the internet. Instead I am thinking more and more about my future and about general tasks that I should be doing. These are things that I haven’t thought about for awhile and it is really good that I have the time to do so now.

I was unable to find an engineering internship this summer which was very disheartening. I feel that I am at a critical stage right now in my life, a turning point almost. Freshman year of college got me acclimated with the college environment and introduced me to adult life a little. Now after completing sophomore year, I have lived on my own and had to pay my own bills. I feel like one step closer to being a real adult. This is kind of scary to me though, it’s easy to ignore your responsibilities. This summer has been very laid back for me. I don’t have a job but I’m taking three summer classes. Oftentimes I have a lot of free time that I don’t know what to do with. I know that I probably won’t have another summer like this for the rest of my life. Writing that last sentence out really hit home for me. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to think about the future, but we have to.

Besides thinking about the future, it has been nice to think about all the general task I have. For instance, I need to find a place to live for a about a week because my lease expires right before the last week of class. I know I can just crash at one of my friend’s places, I just need to figure out where to put all of my stuff. It is rather unfortunate that I am not using my phone or laptop right now because I could look up places where I could temporarily store my stuff. That is one of the best conveniences of our time. The fact that at any moment, I am a quick Google search away from finding out whatever information I was interested in.

The weather has been pleasant today. I am writing this reflection on my front porch overlooking 20th Ave. It’s a pretty boring street but enough people walk by that I still feel that I am in a city. I should get out of my house more often and just do something, anything. I feel like I spend so much time inside doing pointless things. But I do not know what I want to do and its frustrating. Maybe I will find something that I love doing soon. I really hope so.

E&E Part 5: Floating Algae Ponds

Biofuels have gotten a lot of attention over the last few years as a potential replacement to fossil fuels. However, the amount of land and water needed for producing the biofuels might even have a worse carbon footprint than fossil fuels.[1] That is why NASA organized a team of researchers to find a way to produce biofuel without competing with agriculture for water, fertilizer, and land.[2] The team was led by Jonathan Trent and they are responsible for the new OMEGA project. OMEGA stands for Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae. The OMEGA project is a revolutionary step into a future where humans no longer harm the environment in our pursuit of energy but rather support it.

The OMEGA project is a very comprehensive and advanced group in the biomass/biofuel field. Microalgae was chosen as the biofuel source because of its incredible potential. Microalgae has virtually no carbon footprint because all of the carbon dioxide is releases into the atmosphere was already there in the first place. Microalgae is also capable of producing 2000-5000 gallons of biofuel per acre-year.[3] The next closest source of biofuel can only produce 600 gallons of biofuel per acre-year. [3] Additionally, microalgae needs only four things to survive which are sunlight, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and temperature control. Sunlight and carbon dioxide are everywhere but nutrients and temperature control are a bit harder to maintain. From there, OMEGA scientists had to find a cheap and effective way to supply nutrients to the microalgae and control the temperature. The solution came with the idea to implement an enclosure system offshore near water treatment plants. The reason being that all of the nutrients needed for growing microalgae can be found in wastewater. Additionally, the water and waves keep the microalgae at a constant temperature throughout the enclosure. So along with all the other environmental benefits from microalgae, this system utilizes our wastewater effectively reducing water pollution. With this conceptual idea, OMEGA scientists genetically developed microalgae that could thrive off of wastewater and produce the most amount of biofuel. The actual enclosures are essentially industrial plastic bags that keep the system contained. Wastewater and carbon dioxide is then pumped into the bags to feed the microalgae. The microalgae then use photosynthesis to grow and produce oxygen. The oxygen is then pumped out along with the excess microalgae that can be used as fuel.

The economic cost of these systems are still rather high because of high start-up costs but OMEGA scientist, Jonathan Trent believes that the solution can be solved through integration.[3] These offshore systems could also be designed to capture other sources of energy. Wind and solar energy can be incorporated into the system through photovoltaic cells and small wind turbines. [3] Since these systems are going offshore, why not also incorporate an aspect to support marine life. These systems could double as artificial reefs that promote life. By implementing these kinds of systems, cities not only get cleaner energy but they are reducing water pollution and supporting marine life.

 

Sources

  1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/26/AR2008022602827.html
  2. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/OMEGA/index.html
  3. https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_trent_energy_from_floating_algae_pods

E&E Part 3: Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power has long been a staple of the world’s renewable energy. In fact, 80% of the world’s renewable energy comes from hydroelectric power. [1] Hydroelectric power comes in different forms ranging from large scale damming projects to the small “run-of-the-river” plants. [2] Now, the demand for clean energy is becoming increasingly higher and higher as global climate change from greenhouse gases gets worse and worse. But how clean is hydroelectric power and what is the true impact it has on the environment?

Large scale damming projects are the main supplier of hydroelectric power. An average large scale hydroelectric power plant can produce electricity anywhere from 250-10,000 Megawatts depending on the size. However, the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, is capable of producing 22,300 Megawatts. Besides building these massive dams, another hindrance to hydroelectric power is the need for a reservoir. Reservoirs are needed to control the flow through dams and to ensure that the ecosystems on the river remain balanced. But it is with these reservoirs that the most problems with hydroelectric power occur. First, the reservoir area must be flooded which destroys wildlife habitats and plant life. The decomposition of plant life as a result of the flooding is actually the worst environmental impact hydroelectric power has. As the plants decompose they release carbon dioxide and methane. Second, water levels downstream must be kept constant or the river will dry out and harm animal and plant life.[2] Third, reservoir water is stagnant so there is more of a buildup of sediment and other nutrients which results in an excess of algae and other aquatic weeds.[2] This excess of algae crowds out other plant and animal life, so a system of algae removal is necessary. Lastly, water evaporates much faster than it would in the river because the water is stagnant. Still, these hydroelectric power plants have way better carbon emissions than natural gas and coal. The United States does not plan on making anymore large scale power plants but it will continue to improve existing ones.

Small “run-of-the-river” projects have minimal impact on the environment mainly because large reservoirs are not needed. Typical hydroelectric power systems of small size produce around 10 Megawatts. This is a small amount of electricity but it is enough to supply all the electricity needed for a small community. Small hydroelectric systems are ideal systems for off-the-grid living and are relatively inexpensive. A person can make their own hydroelectric system for as little as $1000.[1]

 

Sources

  1. http://ecoble.com/2009/09/10/alternative-power-hydroelectric-potential/
  2. http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-hydroelectric-power.html

E&E Part 4: Offshore Wind Farms

Offshore wind farms are simply just wind farms that are located 20-35 kilometers away from land.[1] There are many advantages to having wind turbines offshore that make them viable energy sources. First, offshore wind farms produce much more energy than onshore due to the fact that wind is more constant offshore. In fact, winds are 40% more frequent offshore than they are onshore.[2] Second, they are very distant from human populations. This is desirable because many complaints from wind farms center on the noise they create as well as being visually displeasing. Offshore locations are barely visible and cannot be heard from land. Lastly, deaths from birds are severely diminished from that of onshore wind farms because offshore wind farms are situated in locations where birds do not frequently fly.[2] Although all of this sounds great, the cost of making an offshore wind farm is about 2.5 to 3.5 times higher than an onshore one.[2] Additionally, the effects of offshore wind farms on marine life has been unclear for a long time. However, a recent study has shown that despite the noise from wind turbines marine life thrives around offshore wind farms.

This idea that marine life benefits from these offshore wind farms has been believed to be true but now there is scientific evidence. The main theory is that the wind turbine acts as an artificial reef. This artificial reef then attracts barnacles and mussels which in turn attract species of fish.[4] The fish attract seals and before you know it there is a thriving ecosystem all centered around wind turbines. The main concern against this theory is that the noise from the wind turbines will actually repel marine life away from the wind turbines instead of attracting it. Just recently, an international team of researchers from the United States, United Kingdom, and Holland have solid evidence that marine life seems to thrive around these offshore wind farms.[4] The researchers tagged harbor and grey seals with GPS devices and monitored their movements in the North Sea. Out of these tagged seals, eleven harbor seals were shown to have visited two wind farms, one off the German coast and the other off the British coast. The study stated that the seals showed “striking grid-like patterns of movement as they concentrated their activity at individual turbines.”[4] This type of patterned movement is consistent with the movement of seals while foraging.[4] One seal in particular showed direct movements in between turbines and stopped occasionally almost “as if he was checking them out for potential prey and then stopping to forage at certain ones.” [4]

This research is great news for the future of offshore wind farms. This shows that not only are offshore wind farms viable sources of energy but they promote marine life at the same time. Offshore wind farms are a great opportunity for clean energy and more and more are being created in Europe and Asia.[4] In the United States, legislation is holding it back but organizations such as the National Wildlife Foundation are pushing more and more to get it passed.

seals

Seals are awesome

Sources

  1. http://www.ewea.org/fileadmin/ewea_documents/documents/publications/statistics/EWEA_stats_offshore_2011_02.pdf
  2. http://relevansi.com/blog/offshore-onshore-debate-wind-energy/
  3. http://coastalenergyandenvironment.web.unc.edu/files/2011/05/vertical.jpg
  4. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/offshore-wind-farms-create-reef-effect-perfect-for-marine-wildlife–especially-seals-9619371.html

E&E Part 2: Natural Gas – A Bridge to a Cleaner Future

The United States has a crushing dependence on oil. The United States uses about 20 million barrels of oil a day which accounts for 25% of oil consumed a day by the whole world. [1] That means that 4% of the global population comprises 25% of oil used daily. China uses 10 million barrels a day with five times the population. This does not bode well for the United States as oil reserves continually grow smaller and smaller. Of the oil we consume, almost 70% of it is used for transportation i.e. jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline. [1] That means that we cannot switch to renewable sources immediately because jet engines and diesel engines cannot be electric-powered. In the future, I hope that this changes, however the fact of the matter is that the United States needs to switch its main source of fuel. T. Boones Pickens, an oil baron, suggests that the answer to our energy crisis can be found with Natural Gas.

Natural Gas is 25% cleaner than oil and there is plenty of it. In the United States alone there is an estimated 4000 trillion cubic feet of Natural Gas.[1] From an energy perspective, these reserves of Natural Gas have three times the amount of energy that can be produced from the remaining OPEC oil reserves, the largest oil reserve in the world. [1] Through many types of chemical processes, Natural Gas can be used for jet fuel and diesel. Additionally, Natural Gas is even more efficient at producing electricity than oil.[2] By switching to Natural Gas, we will effectively cut our foreign reliance on oil and we will produce cleaner energy. Natural Gas, however, is not the permanent solution to our energy crisis. Natural Gas still has many problems, especially with obtainment. Fracking, a common way of obtaining Natural Gas, is still under debate mainly because its effects are still unknown. Some people believe that it causes earthquakes and contaminates water but no research so far has been conclusive in that the actual method of fracking causes these things to occur, rather mistakes were made by fracking companies. [3] But if we step back and look at the big picture, oil is going to quickly become economically inviable for the United States. Natural Gas does not have to be the solution but a bridge source of energy that can be used to get us to a point where renewable sources of energy are more viable. [1] T. Boone Pickens also suggests that farther into the future we may even be able to obtain methane hydrates. Methane Hydrates are an ice-like substance that has trapped Natural Gas in it. However, they are found deep beneath the ocean floor but the potential is amazing. As I said before, the United States has an estimated reserves of 4000 trillion cubic feet of Natural Gas. The total methane hydrate that can be turned into Natural Gas is around 300,000 trillion cubic feet in the United States alone. [1] In the world, methane hydrate reserves total around 900,000 trillion cubic feet. [1] Regardless of what we do, Natural Gas cannot be ignored and should be looked into further as a source of energy.

 

Sources

  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/t_boone_pickens_let_s_transform_energy_with_natural_gas
  2. http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/fuel.html
  3. http://energyindepth.org/national/how-anti-fracking-activists-deny-science-water-contamination/

E&E Part 1: The World’s Dirtiest Oil

The Boreal Forest is the world’s largest terrestrial biome spanning three continents. In Canada, the Boreal Forest makes up about 60% of its land. In this section, there are over 1.5 million lakes and it is the home of the two of the biggest wetlands in the world. Canada’s Boreal Forest also is the habitat for many endangered species such as the caribou. It is also the location for the world’s largest reservoir of bitumen, or heavy crude oil. The industrialization of oil in certain parts of the Boreal Forest is on a scale that the world has never seen before.[1]

The Alberta Tar Sands are the largest deposits of crude oil in Canada. With the costs of oil on the rise, the Alberta Tar Sands are a great economic opportunity for Canada, but getting the oil out is a difficult process. As of right now there are two processes that are used to obtain the oil which are surface mining and in situ. Surface mining is just open-pit mining, dig everything up and keep the oil. In Situ is a method where extreme heat is applied to the oil in order to make it easier to pull out. Both of these methods are very intrusive to the environment and use inordinate amounts of land and water. The oil obtained produces the most greenhouse gases in the world giving it the nickname the World’s Dirtiest Oil. The size of these projects are so astronomically large that the comparisons seem so ridiculous. For example, one mining pit can roughly be compared to the size of an average metropolitan area. There are ten operating mines in Alberta and there is a plan for twenty more in the future.

The most damaging ecological impact, however, comes from the tailing ponds. After the oil goes through the refining process, the leftover deposits and chemicals are mixed with water and dumped into tailing ponds. These tailing ponds are full of dangerous toxins that can harm fish and birds. In fact, birds that land on the tailing ponds die because they quickly become covered in oil and cannot get out of the mixture. In 2008, 1,600 ducks died at one tailing pond and the company responsible, Syncrude, was given a $3 million fine. [3] A new study shows that leakage from these tailing ponds flows into the Athabasca River. [2] It is estimated that one single tailing pond can leak 6.5 million litres a day.[2] Even worse, the leakage from these tailing ponds has entered the ecosystem and is starting to affect humans. Down the Athabasca River is a place called Fort Chippewa which is the home of 800 Aboriginal people. The cancer rate in this area is 10 times higher than it is anywhere else in Canada. [1] The impact of these tailing ponds cannot be overstated. Now, tailing ponds cover 176 square kilometers, that’s roughly three times the size of Manhattan. The industrialization and destruction of the Boreal Forest is planned to continue with the addition of twenty more mines and other industrial projects such as pipelines. The total planned area for industrialization can be compared to the state of Florida in size. This does not bode well for the future ecology of the Boreal Forest.

Sources

  1. https://www.ted.com/talks/garth_lenz_images_of_beauty_and_devastation
  2. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/federal-study-says-oil-sands-toxins-are-leaching-into-groundwater-athabasca-river/article17016054/
  3. http://www.edmontonsun.com/2012/10/04/tailings-ponds-bird-deaths-in-northern-alberta-net-no-charges