The whole world might be going to the dogs while it’s also going to hell in a hat, but PAT PILCHER has some good news.
These days, reading newspapers and watching TV news is just depressing. I’m not talking about the low rent nature of modern media, nor am I going to whine about the surge in crappy reality TV shows. What is getting me down is the doom and gloom around Climate-ageddon. Scientists and the media are saying that it is upon us. Drought is driving some regions to famine. Shifting climate zones is causing mass extinctions. Oceans are warming and Lorde has a new album out (okay, so Lorde isn’t global warming related, but you’ve got to admit that there is a tonne of hot air surrounding her new album). The experts say that all this (except for the Lorde album, of course) is due to the copious amounts of greenhouse gases humanity is pouring into earth’s atmosphere daily.
The reason this is such a problem is that heat from the sun enters the atmosphere and heats everything up during the day. During the night, this heat should radiate out into the cosmos as harmless longwave infra-red energy, allowing everything to cool down.
Trouble is, greenhouse gases trap the heat, and although the effect is small it is cumulative. The net effect is one of warming temperatures which have been attributed to melting icecaps and an array of horrors brought to us every night by the news. Trees and vegetation should capture one of the key greenhouse gases (CO2) and convert it back into oxygen, but as human populations continue to grow, forests are being cleared to make way for pasture. This might sound like a bleak combination and it is – but there are some extremely clever moves aimed at reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So here’s some climate change good news just for a change.
Burning petrol sees a lot of nasty pollutants produced, many of which are greenhouse gases. Recent improvements in battery and electric motor technologies are driving a sharp rise in the number of hybrid or plug-in electric cars. They’re quieter and best of all, emit zero greenhouse gases.
If this sounds good, there is a catch (there always is). Battery technologies may have improved, but the range of an electric car is limited and they can take time to charge.
Unsurprisingly, access to decent charging stations is a big deal for electric car owners. London might have the answer. They’re converting street lamps into electric vehicle charging stations. This should make it possible for electric car owners to plug-in and charge nearly anywhere.
All that is needed is a custom charging cable which has built-in smarts so car owners know how much juice they’ve used.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that putting a plug socket on a lamp post would see opportunists plugging smartphones in for a free charge. This is where the added smarts on the custom cable come into play. The cable authenticates with the utility company before any charging can happen. It also allows for smart billing, which could involve giving a cut to the local city council or government department that owns the lamp-post.
It’s a clever move. Most dense urban environments simply don’t have room for car chargers, and this has held back uptake of plug-in electric cars. Using existing infrastructure such as lamp-posts makes a lot of sense, as they already have electricity wired into them. Equally nice is the fact that electric car owners in the London suburb where the trial is underway can request outlets be added to lamp-posts outside their homes.
Limiting the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into the air Is one thing, but what about all the greenhouse gases already floating around? China’s rapid industrialisation has left them with massive pollution issues. In typical Chinese fashion, the massive nation is fighting back with some very innovative and clever ideas.
They may have huge pollution issues, but they’re also big proponents of clean eco tech. Their latest (and most daring) bid is a ‘Forest City’ that is currently under construction in Liuzhou (which is in the Guangxi Province).
The city won’t burn dinosaurs to stay lit and warm either, it’ll be powered by renewable energy. As nice as that is, the real kicker is that it’ll be planted with just under a million plants and a whopping 40,000 trees. The aim is to create buildings that are literally green, a move that should see the forest city capturing 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of air pollutants each year.
The city will be located along the banks of the Liujiang river, and will span 175-hectares. Its population is estimated to be 30,000 people and its buildings will be covered in over 100 species of plants. As well as capturing a significant amount of CO2 and other pollutants, the city should also produce 900 tons of oxygen annually.
The green city will also connect to Liuzhou city using a fast rail used by electric trains. The city will generate electricity using a combination of geothermal and solar energy, and is to be completed by 2020.
Planting the city up and designing all its buildings as vertical gardens isn’t just about air quality. The city’s designers say that the profusion of plants will help keep the average air temperature manageable (summer can get excruciatingly hot in the Guanxi province). The plants will also act as noise barriers and will bolster greater biodiversity for birds, insects and small animals.
The forest city might use nature to pull C02 out of the air, but the Swiss are taking an entirely industrial approach with a factory that literally sucks carbon dioxide out of thin air.
The factory is called DAC (direct air capture) and can capture around 900 tonnes of CO2 each year.
The clever part is that this means of fighting climate change may be profitable. CO2 captured by DAC is pumped to a nearby vegetable farm, where it is used as fertiliser. Talks are already well underway to sell DACs captured CO2 to beverage companies for soft drink production.
DAC is built on top of a waste utilisation plant and has CO2 collectors atop of its roof. These capture 2,460 kilograms of CO2 per day, depending on weather conditions.
Capturing and releasing C02 requires heat. Filters in DAC’s collectors must be heated to 100c before they can effectively release captured C02. This comes to DAC in the form of heat from the waste plant.
New Zealanders might feel smug that most of our electricity comes from clean and renewable hydroelectricity, but burning of oil, coal and gas to produce electricity is often the only option available for some countries. This isn’t just bad from a climate change perspective: coal, oil and gas are a finite resource. Once they’re gone, that’s it. Doom and gloom aside, eco-friendly and renewable alternatives are beginning to gain ground.
In the USA, solar energy is now one of the fastest growing energy sources, accounting for 2.2 per cent of total electricity generation in the US. This is significant as the USA is the largest electricity market in the western world.
In April, solar electricity accounted for 4.8 million megawatt hours, which represents a massive 63 per cent year on-year increase in the amount of juice solar was generating. Wind energy is also growing, up by 22 per cent. Wind turbines and photovoltaic solar cells typically account for more than 10 per cent of electricity generation in the USA.
This growth of renewable eco-friendly power in the USA might not sound like a big deal, but renewable energy sources are now providing more electricity than nuclear power in the USA.
As impressive as this all sounds, the big numbers for solar are coming out of China. Their eventual domination of the world solar market began in the late 1990s. Germany was struggling with unprecedented demand for solar panels because of a Green government program to promote rooftop solar panels. Germany provided initial seed capital, technology and experts to China in a bid to kickstart the production of affordable solar panels to meet German demand.
Solar panels were not something new for the Chinese – they’d used solar energy as means of generating electricity for rural areas that were isolated and uneconomic to connect to the Chinese power grid. By then, Spain and Italy also began to see huge demand for rooftop solar panels, driven by expanding government solar incentives, adding to demand. Anticipating further demand and growth, China began to tool up to meet an expected solar panel surge.
This saw China buying solar companies and inviting others to move to China. When there, these companies found cheap and skilled labour. Tax credits also helped sweeten the deal significantly. Indications are that the long-sighted Chinese government contributed a whopping $47 billion for what they called a ‘strategic industry’. The move appears to have paid off.
Before long, China was the price leader in the world’s solar panel market. China’s aggressive expansion into solar had in effect created a worldwide glut. For every solar panel ordered by an overseas customer, two remain unsold.
By 2013, China’s panel industry dropped global prices for costly panels by a staggering 80 percent.
This is playing out well for China, who have followed Germany’s lead by developing its own ‘feed-in tariff’ that paid generous rebates for electricity generated by solar panels. This resulted in a surge in domestic Chinese demand for solar panels.
By 2015, China’s domestic solar panel market roared past Germany’s and became the world’s largest.