Sustainability

Offshore wind powers ahead as prices drop 30% below nuclear
July 19, 2016 09:30 AM - Kieran Cooke, The Ecologist

The cost of offshore wind power in the North Sea is 30% lower than that of new nuclear, writes Kieran Cooke - helped along by low oil and steel prices, reduced maintenance and mass production. By 2030 the sector is expected to supply 7% of Europe's electricity. Output from the Dogger Bank project will be 1.2 GW (gigawatts) - enough to power more than a million homes. Next year, a 150-turbine wind farm off the coast of the Netherlands is due to start operating, and other schemes along the Dutch coast are in the works. Denmark, Sweden and Portugal are major investors in offshore wind, and China has ambitious plans for the sector. Wind farms - both onshore and offshore - are a key ingredient in renewable energy policy, and an important element in the battle against climate change. WindEurope, an offshore wind industry group, says that at the present rate of installations it's likely Europe will be producing about 7% of its electricity from offshore wind by 2030.

Offshore wind developers benefit from falling costs

By some calculations, all this building work would seem to make little economic sense. Fossil fuel prices are low on the world market, and constructing offshore wind farms several kilometres out at sea, in often treacherous conditions, has traditionally been an expensive business.

Trees rely on a range of strategies to hunt for nutrient hot spots
July 18, 2016 03:59 PM - Penn State via EurekAlert!

On the surface, trees may look stationary, but underground their roots -- aided by their fungal allies -- are constantly on the hunt and using a surprising number of strategies to find food, according to an international team of researchers.

The precision of the nutrient-seeking strategies that help trees grow in temperate forests may be related to the thickness of the trees' roots and the type of fungi they use, according to David Eissenstat, professor of woody plant physiology, Penn State. The tree must use a variety of strategies because nutrients often collect in pockets -- or hot spots -- in the soil, he added.

"What we found is that different species get nutrients in different ways and that depends both on that species' type of root -- whether it's thin or thick -- and that species' type of mycorrhizal fungi, which is a symbiotic fungus," said Eissenstat. "What we show is that you really can't understand this process without thinking about the roots and the mycorrhizal fungi together."

Tree species with thicker roots -- for example, the tulip poplar and pine - avoid actively seeking nutrient hot spots and instead send out more permanent, longer-lasting roots. On the other hand, some trees with thinner roots search for nutrients by selectively growing roots that are more temporary, or by using their fungal allies to find hot spots.

A battery inspired by vitamins
July 18, 2016 03:12 PM - John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences via EurekAlert!

Harvard researchers have identified a whole new class of high-performing organic molecules, inspired by vitamin B2, that can safely store electricity from intermittent energy sources like solar and wind power in large batteries.

The development builds on previous work in which the team developed a high-capacity flow battery that stored energy in organic molecules called quinones and a food additive called ferrocyanide. That advance was a game-changer, delivering the first high-performance, non-flammable, non-toxic, non-corrosive, and low-cost chemicals that could enable large-scale, inexpensive electricity storage.

While the versatile quinones show great promise for flow batteries, Harvard researchers continued to explore other organic molecules in pursuit of even better performance. But finding that same versatility in other organic systems has been challenging.

New discoveries about photosynthesis may lead to solar cells of the future
July 18, 2016 11:01 AM - Lund University via EurekAlert!

For the first time, researchers have successfully measured in detail the flow of solar energy, in and between different parts of a photosynthetic organism. The result is a first step in research that could ultimately contribute to the development of technologies that use solar energy far more efficiently than what is currently possible.

For about 80 years, researchers have known that photochemical reactions inside an organism do not occur in the same place as where it absorbs sunlight. What has not been known, however, is how and along what routes the solar energy is transported into the photosynthetic organism -- until now.

"Not even the best solar cells that we as humans are capable of producing can be compared to what nature performs in the first stages of energy conversion. That is why new knowledge about photosynthesis will become useful for the development of future solar technologies", says Donatas Zigmantas, Faculty of Science at Lund University, Sweden.

Calcification: Does it pay off in the future ocean?
July 15, 2016 03:13 PM - University of Southampton via ScienceDaily

An international research team has calculated the costs and benefits of calcification for phytoplankton and the impact of climate change on their important role in the world's oceans.

Single-celled phytoplankton play an important role in marine biogeochemical cycling, in marine food webs and in the global climate system. Coccolithophores are a particular group that cover themselves with calcium carbonate shields, known as coccoliths. Some wrap themselves in an impenetrable coat of coccoliths, some make coccoliths in the form of sharp spikes, some use them as parasols against the sun and some form funnel-shaped light collectors.

But this requires a lot of energy -- and the price for the artful armour could rise further due to global change. With the help of a new model, the researchers analysed the energetic costs and benefits of calcification. The results, published in the current issue of the journal Science Advances, suggest that the ecological niche for calcifying algae will become narrower in the future.

Ptarmigan in Colorado have varied reproduction, not likely linked to warming trends
July 15, 2016 02:37 PM - Colorado State University via EurekAlert!

Animals that live at high elevations are often assumed to be at risk for extinction as habitats warm and change. But a new study led by Colorado State University researchers found that ptarmigan, which live in cold ecosystems, are not strongly affected by fluctuations in seasonal weather at two populations studied in Colorado.

The results, published July 15 in the journal PLOS ONE, are surprising, given the general perception of alpine animal populations as vulnerable to recent climate warming, study authors said.

Ptarmigan are grouse that live in cold ecosystems, such as alpine and tundra habitats, said Greg Wann, Ph.D. candidate in CSU's Graduate Degree Program in Ecology and a member of the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.

The birds are well-known for changing colors seasonally. In late spring and summer, ptarmigan are brown, and in the fall, they molt into a white plumage to match the surrounding snow. The white-tailed ptarmigan is the smallest species of this type of grouse and is endemic to North America. It is the only ptarmigan that exists in Colorado.

Solar on the best UK sites is competitive with cheap coal
July 15, 2016 02:18 PM - Chris Goodall, The Ecologist

Last week a massive 350-hectare open cast coal mine at Druridge Bay won planning permission. This got Chris Goodall wondering: what if the land was turned into a solar farm instead? His surprise discovery: solar power on England's south coast already costs no more than coal - and it's only getting cheaper.

A week ago Northumberland council gave planning permission to a new open-cast coal mine at Druridge on the coastline just north of Newcastle.

About 3 million tonnes of coal will be extracted over a five to seven-year period from an area of around 350 hectares, including storage space. (350 hectares is about 1.4 square miles)

The environmental objections to the plan are striking. For example, the owners predict about 170 HGV movements a day along local roads during the whole lifetime of the project. The landscape impact is also severe although the developers say they will ensure that the local sandy beaches are unaffected.

Ocean warming primary cause of Antarctic Peninsula glacier retreat
July 14, 2016 03:37 PM - British Antarctic Survey via EurekAlert!

A new study has found for the first time that ocean warming is the primary cause of retreat of glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula. The Peninsula is one of the largest current contributors to sea-level rise and this new finding will enable researchers to make better predictions of ice loss from this region.

The research, by scientists at Swansea University and British Antarctic Survey, is published in the journal Science today (Friday, July 15). The study reports that glaciers flowing to the coast on the western side of the Peninsula show a distinct spatial correlation with ocean temperature patterns, with those in the south retreating rapidly but those in the north showing little change. Some 90% of the 674 glaciers in this region have retreated since records began in the 1940s.

India: The Burning City
July 14, 2016 09:23 AM - Al Jazeera

Underground fires have been burning for more than a century beneath India's largest coalfield, but in recent decades open-cast mining has brought the flames to the surface with devastating consequences for the local population.

As communities are destroyed and thousands suffer from toxic fumes, what lies behind this human and environmental disaster?  

Filmmakers Gautam Singh and Dom Rotheroe went to find out.

The devastating impact of coal mining 

After the US and China, India is currently the world's third-largest energy consumer; a position that is set to consolidate in coming years as economic development, urbanisation, improved electricity access, and an expanding manufacturing base all add to demand.   

Right now much of those energy needs - up to two thirds of all electricity generated - are being met by domestically produced coal, of which India has abundant reserves. 

Rising sea levels will change the ecology of the Everglades
July 14, 2016 09:19 AM - CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, NPR

The Florida Everglades is a swampy wilderness the size of Delaware. In some places along the road in southern Florida, it looks like tall saw grass to the horizon, a prairie punctuated with a few twisted cypress trees. The sky is the palest blue.

But beneath the surface a different story is unfolding. Because of climate change and sea level rise, the ocean is starting to seep into the swampland. If the invasion grows worse, it could drastically change the Everglades, and a way of life for millions of residents in South Florida.

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