The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on December 26, 2007

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According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the first wave power program in the United States. The program is for four 250 kW bouys anchored in Makah Bay off the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. Finavera Renewables, a renewable energy company out of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and Portland, Oregon, is the owner of this particular technology, bouys that use wave motion to force water through a turbine to generate electricity. While the project has only been granted a 5-year conditional approval from the FERC, Finavera hopes to generate enough power from wave motion to power 150 homes. And if this technology works out, then wave motion along the Pacific coast could generate up to 12% of the U.S.’s present power needs if 100% utilized.

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In most of the U.S., if you want to drive legally, you need car insurance. The insurance covers damages to your car if it’s damaged and it’s not anyone else’s fault, but also limits your financial liability in the event that a horrible accident occurs. But what about insurance that covers damages driving your car does to the environment? Until very recently, there were no insurance companies who would offer you so-called Green Insurance. That is no longer the case. In the U.S., Allstate Insurance now offers it’s Allstate Green program, and an insurance company in the U.K. called Climatesure offers carbon-offset travel insurance as well. When you sign up with Allstate Green (and enroll for their low-carbon all-electronic payment plan, of course), Allstate pays $30 of your premium to Carbonfund.org, an organization that sells carbon offsets. Depending on the type of car you drive, that $30 may or may not offset your vehicle’s carbon footprint – check out Carbonfund.org’s carbon calculators for more information.

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As I’ve said in my occasional Nanotech Roundups over on my own site, nanotechnology is an enabling technology that has the potential to make everything different, and energy generation is no exception. This week, Nanowerk ran an article about just a few of the ways that nanotech is making electricity generation better. For example, nanotech coatings are enabling fossil fuel plants to run hotter and thus more efficiently, effectively lowering the CO2 intensity of the power plant. But many of the same coatings can be used for nuclear plants, even hydroelectric and wind power, because they’re good for reducing corrosion and wear on turbines or water purification systems. Similarly, nanotech is already used in some forms of solar panels, and many solar power researchers are working with nanotech to enable paintable and flexible solar cells that could one day turn the entire exterior surface of your house into a solar cell. Given that the incident power of the sun on an average house’s surface area is more than sufficient to power all the electronics in the house, this could dramatically change the energy situation globally. Nanotech-based lubricants are being used in wind turbines, nanotech-derived clays may be used to store hydrogen for fuel cells, and much, much more.

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In a bit of interesting news out of Bali, the small Pacific island nation of Palau was looking to the United States military as a source of both much needed national investment and electricity. Specifically, Palau hopes to turn one of their remote islands into a test bed for an orbiting solar satellite that would beam microwaves down to the island that were generated from solar power. Solar power satellites, if done right, have huge potential due to the sheer amount of available volume that you could fill with solar panels, and the fact that the atmosphere doesn’t attenuate solar power in space. The problem is that, at the power levels required to power civilization, the microwave beams carrying the power would have unknown environmental effects. At a minimum, the high power beams would have be turned into no-fly and no-go zones in order to protect people. And sufficiently large satellites could themselves be used as weapons if they weren’t designed exactly right. I for one don’t necessarily think that having a huge microwave source in space run by my nation’s enemies is necessarily a good strategic position.

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There’s some mixed news on the global heating front from Discovery News today. According to researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz, the last major global warming episode 55 million years ago (the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM) was probably ended by dramatically increased oceanic biological production of plants – lots of plants sucked the CO2 out of the air and sequestered it in deep ocean sediment. This is the good news. The bad news is that it took a very long time for the heating to reverse itself – deep ocean sediment samples indicate that the plants took 170,000 years to pull the excess heat out of the atmosphere. And the cause? Scientists believe that volcanic activity cooked hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 out of the ground, causing global heating that eventually warmed up the oceans enough to trigger sublimation of massive deep ocean methane hydrate deposits. The worse news is that human beings are releasing about 6 billion of tons of CO2 previously sequestered in coal and oil every year, we’ve already released several hundred billion tons of CO2 into the air, and we don’t know how hot the atmosphere and the oceans need to get to release the trillions of tons of methane sequestered in deep sea hydrates. Oh, and methane is 23x more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

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And finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ruled the day after President Bush signed the latest energy bill into law that the state of California and 16 other states would not be granted a waiver permitting them to regulate CO2 emissions more tightly than the federal government guidelines. The automobile manufacturers fought the waiver successfully, claiming that a so-called patchwork of state regulations would cause them undue financial harm, especially since the new law would address the same issues (albeit not as fast and not as effectively as California’s law). However, the state of California has already indicated that it will sue the EPA in federal court, and since the EPA has lost all four of the CO2 cases that have gone to the Supreme Court, the odds are against the EPA in the legal challenge.

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