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Thursday, June 28, 2012

More on NREL’s 80% renewables by 2050: landscape industrialization from renewables

One of the many – legitimate – concerns about the shale gas boom is that it is causing industrialization of the landscape, as thousands of wells are drilled (currently in Pennsylvania – hundreds of thousands eventually) and tens of thousands of miles of pipelines and infrastructure are constructed.   While these impacts can be managed, they are large, and will get a lot larger.

But opponents of shale gas should be careful what they wish for.  If we were to bypass natural gas and go straight to a reliance of renewable energy, we would still not be able to avoid landscape industrialization.

As I wrote here, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has issued a study that says that renewable electricity generation - from technologies that are commercially available today - is “more than adequate” to supply 80 percent of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050.  This excellent summary provides a great overview. It also illustrates something that needs to be acknowledged: impacts and tradeoffs.

To be sure, getting to 80% renewable generation is an essential goal. And gas can be a bridge that we can use to reach it.  But it will not come without cost to the environment, because no form of energy generation is totally benign. 

To get to 80 percent renewable energy penetration, NREL says that on-shore wind power, for example, will have to grow from well less than 10 percent of generation today (about 10 gigawatts) to more than 40 percent (560 gigawatts) by 2050:

That implies enormous increases in the number of deployed wind turbines – and thus in developed ridgetops in the eastern U.S.  What will be the impact to birds, bats, habitats, wildlife, and viewsheds - all concerns that have been expressed about growth in wind power? There are approaches to mitigate these impacts, and research and new technologies are being developed to further reduce impacts. But there will be costs.

And then there is transmission.  Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL. Again, there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.

There is no free energy lunch.

Vision, commitment, investment, stakeholder involvement, and smart planning are all urgently needed as we make our future energy choices.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Earthquake risks from fracking, wastewater disposal are small and manageable

One of the concerns about hydraulic fracturing for oil and shale gas is the risk of what is known as induced seismicity, or in English, man-made earthquakes.

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences has found that hydraulic fracturing is suspected in one case of seismic activity in the U.S. and has been confirmed as the cause for small seismic events at one location in the world. However, NAS says that overall, fracking does not pose a high risk for inducing earthquakes.  

Injection of wastewater for disposal – currently a major component of shale gas exploration - has been “suspected or determined a likely cause” for induced seismicity at 8 sites in the past several decades, according to the study; however, the long-term effects of increasing the number of waste water disposal wells on the potential for induced seismicity are unknown.

One of the principal authors of the report told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week that changing the way wastewater injection wells are planned and operated can largely resolve most concerns about man-made earthquakes.   Mark Zoback, professor of geology at Stanford University, told the committee that with proper planning, monitoring and response, the occurrence of seismic activity associated with waste injection can be reduced and the risks effectively managed.  

Zoback said that wastewater well drillers should avoid areas with geological faults.  This is a no-brainer, but current EPA guidelines do not require the consideration of seismicity in injection well approval, and there are no standard methods to implement risk assessments for induced seismicity. That clearly must change.  Injection wells must be sited subject to pre-development seismic studies to thoroughly characterize the site geologically, just as oil and gas well drillers do.     

In addition, Zoback said that waste well sites should be monitored for seismic activity and be drilled with a plan for what to do if there is evidence of earthquake. Additional regulation requiring these practices is a must.

The study found that four federal agencies—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey—and several different state agencies have regulatory oversight, research roles and responsibilities relating to different parts of underground injection activities, but coordination on induced seismicity issues is lacking. That, too, must change.

Current trends in the shale gas industry toward wastewater recycling and the development of innovative wastewater treatment technologies can go a long way to reducing the need for wastewater injection and have wide benefits beyond minimizing the risk of man-made earthquakes.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Is Lloyd’s a climate alarmist?

In contrast to the U.N.’s Rio +20 conference on sustainable development issued a document that ended up being watered down almost to the point of worthlessness, global insurer Lloyd’s has published a compilation of the environmental issues inherent in a rapidly and perilously warming world.

The threats include: wildfires, floods , drought, a Biblical-sounding “pestilence, weeds and infestation,” Arctic warming, hurricanes and heat waves. 

Read Lloyd’s descriptions of these issues and behold our future if we remain on our present course. 

Is Lloyd’s a climate alarmist, or just stating the obvious?