Compelling new evidence from the US governments top bee expert that modern pesticides may be a major cause of collapsing bee populations led to calls yesterday for the chemicals to be banned.A study published in the current issue of the German science journal Naturwissenschaften, reveals how bees given minute doses of the widely used pesticide imidacloprid became more vulnerable to infections from a deadly parasite, nosema.Bee experts described this as clear evidence of the role pesticides play in the plight of bees. Although research into the furry insects may seem like a very academic exercise, bees are vital to human survival. More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90 per cent of the worlds food are pollinated by bees, and Albert Einstein once predicted that if bees died out, “man would have no more than four years to live.”
Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!
continue reading at The energy trap — Cleantech News and Analysis.
Ecological economist David Stern recently wrote a paper on the importance of energy for economic growth aptly titled ‘The Role of Energy in Economic Growth’. His overview paper follows a long chain of biophysical research on this topic from Schumpeter in the 50s to Georgescu-Roegen in the 70s to Herman Daly, Charles Hall, Cutler Cleveland etc. in the present day. This type of thinking – that energy is its own special input to the production function and is non-substitutable (we can’t make stuff without energy), is still outside of mainstream economic discourse, who follow the classic exogenous growth model (Solow) where labor and capital are all that matter. But if energy is special, and has declining marginal returns (i.e. fossil fuel depletion), that has enormous implications for future growth prospects and the modus operandi for our institutions. Yet it is still widely assumed in economic/financial circles that energy is just the same as other commodity inputs and that a high enough price will create its own energy supply in perpetuity.
Incorporating the premise that energy is separate and unique in the production function is a necessary (but not sufficient) change we have to make to our economic theories. Professor Stern’s paper, written for economists, is a step towards bridging the assumption chasm that underestimates energy’s role in our human ecosystem. I invited David to write a short overview of his paper (guest post), which is below the fold.
Continue reading at The Oil Drum | The Role of Energy in Economic Growth.
As food prices rise and our own food security becomes more perilous the time is now here to start moving towards a far more local and sustainable form of agriculture. Transition St. Asaph are currently looking for volunteers and activists interested in setting up a food co-op for the people living in and around St Asaph. If you are a grower or someone looking to purchase cheap local organic food please give us a hand and contact us at [email protected] for more info.
LONDON — One of the driest spring seasons on record in northern Europe has sucked soils dry and sharply reduced river levels to the point that governments are starting to fear crop losses and France, in particular, is bracing for blackouts as its river-cooled nuclear power plants may be forced to shut down.
French Agriculture Minister Bruno Le Maire warned this week that the warmest and driest spring in half a century could slash wheat yields and might even push up world prices despite the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s predicting a bumper global crop due to greater plantings.
France has pledged hundreds of millions of euros in aid to its drought-stricken livestock farmers, who have watched feed supplies dwindle and prices rise. Waterrestrictions are in place in more than half of the country’s administrative regions or departments.
“The situation is serious for French farmers. We wanted to act swiftly and on a large scale,” Le Maire told reporters last week.
And the French government has set up a committee to keep an eye on the country’s electricity supply situation and monitor river levels, as 44 of the 58 nuclear reactors that supply 80 percent of France’s electricity are cooled by river water.
The problem appears to be not that the reactors might overheat because of the lack of water but that the depleted rivers might overheat, creating ecological havoc, when the water returns to them after cooling the reactors.
The abnormally low rainfall and high temperatures — similar in northern Europe to the major drought of 1976, but actually worse in France — have also hit hydroelectric power availability and output in France.
Rainfall down 40-80%
The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization said last week that between February and May of this year, rainfall over Europe as a whole ranged from 40 to 80 percent of the long-term average from 1951 to 2000, and in many parts of western and central Europe it was even below 40 percent.
Between March and May, the outcome was even lower, with France, Germany and southeastern England the worst hit.
The preceding winter 2010-2011 was very dry in western Europe, causing very low soil moisture in March and April. This, coupled with the warmer-than-average temperatures, put major water stress on plants, and in particular, agricultural crops.Up to now, 2011 has been one of the 10 driest years in Switzerland since 1864, while in France, January to April was the driest period since 1975. In Germany, April this year was one of the 10 driest Aprils since 1881, WMO said. Springtime in Germany, it added, was the driest March-to-May period since 1893.
“This aggravated the water deficits compared to average seasonal conditions. Agriculture was highly affected in western and central Europe; the growth of crops lagged much behind usual conditions,” WMO said.
Germany, which produces some 25 percent of the European Union’s oilseed rape — a major source of oil and animal feed as well as biodiesel — expects to see the drought slash output by more than 20 percent.
German river levels lowest in a century
Some three-quarters of oilseed rape goes into the country’s biodiesel industry — the biggest in the 27-nation bloc — leaving it critically short of feedstock and either forcing imports or cutting production, with a consequent knock-on effect on the country’s and the European Union’s efforts to cut climate-changing carbon emissions.
And while there has been some rainfall recently, helping raise water levels on the river Rhine — which acts in effect as a major north-south watery superhighway for all manner of goods, including food, manufactured products, chemicals and fuels to and from Europe — WMO said water levels in most German rivers were the lowest at this time of year for about a century.
The lack of water made the region’s forests super-dry, triggering wildfires in parts of the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In Germany, with vast tracts of forest, the Forest Fire Danger Index hit its highest possible level.
WMO said the abnormal weather was caused by a persistent ridge of high pressure over western and central Europe, blocking more normal patterns of rainfall and temperature. “This situation is climatologically a very stable constellation, but it has persisted for an unusually long time,” WMO said.
A parched breadbasket
In the United Kingdom, where the parched southeast — the country’s breadbasket — has received some welcome rain in the past week or two, it has been nowhere near enough to correct the water deficit after the driest March since 1953.
“The recent rain has made very little difference — if any at all — agriculturally, simply because when the ground gets as dry as it has been, when you do get some rain it simply runs straight off what in effect is like a concrete surface,” said Met Office spokesman Barry Gromett.
“While it will eventually find its way into some sort of reservoir … I wouldn’t have thought it was significant really in terms of water resource. When you get to a certain state, you have to look to redress the balance. When you have been so far below average, it is sensible to assume that you have to make similar sorts of gains above average for similar periods of time,” he told ClimateWire.
On Friday, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declared East Anglia to be in drought and said large parts of Wales, the Midlands and southwest and southeast England were on the brink of drought. It has convened a summit of farmers, water authorities, municipal bodies and environment agencies to draw up plans of action.
At the same time, water authorities in London urged people to conserve water, while in the Midlands, people were warned they could face usage restrictions such as lawn watering bans.
World farming needs a “major shift” to more sustainable practices as intensive crop production since the 1960s has degraded soils, depleted ground water and caused pest outbreaks, the United Nations said.
More farmers need to reduce ploughing and alternate cereals with soil-improving plants, and use an “ecosystem approach” based on natural systems to promote crop growth, save water and fight pests, the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization said in a guide to policy makers published today.
The so-called Green Revolution that started in the 1950s and spread in the 1960s introduced more productive wheat, corn and rice varieties and relied on “high levels” of fertilizer and pesticides, the UN agency said. That boosted cereal yields and food production, saving an estimated 1 billion people from famine and jump-starting Asian economies, the FAO said.
“Those enormous gains in agricultural production and productivity were often accompanied by negative effects on agriculture’s natural resource base, so serious that they jeopardize its productive potential in the future,” the FAO said in the book on farming, “Save and Grow.”
Negative effects include land degradation, salt build-up in irrigated areas, depletion of groundwater, pest resistance and pollution, according to the agency.
“It is also clear that the current food production and distribution systems are failing to feed the world,” the FAO said. “The number of undernourished people in 2010 was estimated at 925 million, higher than it was 40 years ago.”
The world population is forecast to climb to 9.2 billion in 2050 from an estimated 6.9 billion in 2010, requiring a 70 percent jump in world agricultural production, the FAO said. With “virtually no spare land” in parts of Asia and Africa, yield increases and more intensive cropping will be needed, the agency said.
Between 2015 and 2030, “an estimated 80 percent of the required food production increases will have to come from intensification in the form of yield increases and higher cropping intensities,” the FAO said.
About 70 percent of the area that is available to increase agricultural production, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, suffers from soil and terrain constraints, according to the FAO.
Wind generation as an intermittent power source adds to the total variability of a regional grid system. A number of studies have been completed that model and analyze wind profiles by region with the intent of better understanding how high penetrations of wind energy might impact system reliability and what steps could be taken to minimize the impacts.
In most cases, these studies are based on available wind data (speed, direction, timing) collected over many years–the type data used by developers forecasting project performance prior to construction. These wind studies are also used by legislators and regulators when evaluating policies that mandate renewable energy development.
Growing evidence from both sides of the Atlantic indicates that performance models based on wind data often promise levels of generation substantially above actual wind power output.
UK: John Muir Trust Challenges 2005 Analysis
The United Kingdom has long been regarded as having the best wind resource in Europe. A 2005 analysis of hourly wind speeds collected from sixty-six UK locations identified three characteristics of the wind resource that proponents rely on to justify an expansive build-out of wind energy facilities.
The study concluded that for the 35 years between 1970 to 2005 there was never a time when the entire country was without wind; the wind always blew enough to generate electricity somewhere in Britain; and that the resource tended to blow more strongly when demand was highest: during the day and winter months.
The analysis found that wind would operate at an annual average capacity factor of 27% — above levels found in Germany and Denmark – and low wind speeds affecting most of the country (90%) would only occur for one hour every five years.
But last month, this 2005 study was put in the shade. The United Kingdom’s leading wild land conservation charity, the John Muir Trust, released a report examining wind power’s actual contribution to the UK’s energy supply. The findings, based on real-time energy production from Nov 2008 to December 2010–26 months–were sobering. Wind generated at substantially below the 27% capacity factor, and low wind events (defined as output falling below 10% of capacity) occurred over one third of the time, or almost nine months in aggregate (1/3 x 26 months).
The report created a firestorm for those tracking wind development. Legislators and energy policy experts immediately questioned whether the same reality existed in their area. Since preconstruction forecasts for wind power performance are based on wind speed data, what if the modeling overstated actual generation?
New York Wind: Overestimates Too
In fact, we need only look to New York State to see an identical story line. In 2005, the New York State Energy Research And Development Authority (NYSERDA) and General Electric assessed the impact of large-scale wind generation on the reliability of the State’s bulk power system to understand the operational and economic effects of deploying 3,300 megawatts of wind (10% of New York’s peak load).
The study concluded that New York could support a 10% penetration of wind into its grid system with turbines reliably operating at 30% average capacity factor or better. To its credit, NYSERDA acknowledged that most of the high wind output would occur during nighttime hours with some overlap occurring “late in the day when the wind output is picking up before the loads have fully dropped off.”
Several years of wind generation data are now available and we took a look at how well NYSERDA and GE predicted output levels. We were particularly interested in project performance after developers had a year or more to address start-up issues.
By the end of 2010, New York State claimed fifteen wind energy facilities totaling an installed capacity of 1,275 megawatts. The projects are geographically distributed in the northern and western regions of the State but typically away from denser population centers including New York City with the highest demand for electricity.
Twelve of the fifteen projects comprise the bulk of the nameplate capacity (1,225 megawatts). These facilities went into service in the years between 2006 and February 2009. Less than 50 megawatts of wind was installed prior to 2006. Since early 2009, wind development in the State has been largely stagnant with only one wind project built in the last two years. Iberdrola’s 74 megawatt Hardscrabble project went online in February 2011.
The lull in construction has provided a valuable opportunity to evaluate two full years of wind generation and to assess whether the promises of New York wind have been realized.
Promises Meet Reality
No wind project in New York achieved a 30% capacity factor, and most are operating at well below this figure including Maple Ridge 1 and 2 touted by wind proponents as a premier wind site. Maple Ridge was forecasted to have a capacity factor of 34% prior to construction but has consistently operated around 25% — a significant performance reduction.
Noble Environmental’s projects produced at even lower levels. When the company sought community acceptance of its projects in upstate New York, John Quirke, an officer and founder of Noble, insisted their projects would operate at 30-35% of their nameplate capacity.
In the tax agreement signed with Clinton County, New York, Noble went so far as to sweetened the deal by offering to pay a bonus of $1000/MW every time the annual capacity factor of any of their projects exceeded 35%. Clinton County officials had no way to verify the sincerity of Noble’s offer since preconstruction wind data was confidential, but Noble certainly knew the truth.
Noble’s upstate projects operated with a 20% to 22% capacity factor in 2010.
Wind Forecasts and Project Financing
When determining whether a wind energy project is worth the financial risk, a credit analysis is prepared based on conservative wind production. This production amount, known as the annual energy yield prediction, represents the average wind speed forecast for a project with a 90% confidence (P90). In other words, the wind production level that the project is expected to operate at 90% of the time.
The P90 figure needs to be within 12% to 15% of the average production figures in order to catch a bank’s attention. If the difference between the average capacity factor (P50) and P90 is off by 20% or better, a project would be considered ‘unfinanceable’. We can’t know the P90 figures presented to investors for most of New York’s wind projects, but our guess is that most of these projects would have been considered unworthy had actual production numbers been available. We’d be interested in knowing whether those who fronted the money for the projects would bother again.
Meeting Public Goals
NY ratepayers who are subsidizing wind development in the State are also receiving considerably less than promised. Square miles of New York’s most rural areas have been transformed into industrial power plants, communities and families are split over project opposition, and homeowners have been driven from their homes due to turbine noise, shadow flicker and other nuisances. If tax revenue agreements with communities were negotiated based on inflated capacity factors, actual payments will be lower.
State and local officials have long encouraged wind as an economic development tool for rural areas, but at some point the public needs to know whether the projects are delivering on the primary plan i.e. to see more renewable energy on the grid. At capacity factors in the low- to mid- 20% range, many more wind turbines and related infrastructure (transmission) will be needed to meet State mandates which will increase costs and impacts.
Our review only looked at average annual capacity factors and did not consider the hourly and daily variability of the resource and whether the wind helped meet peak demand needs. But looking at average performance alone is enough to suggest New York’s wind is not worth all the fuss.
By. Lisa Linowes
As the global energy crisis deepens, here are three developments that will change your lives
By Michael T. Klare
Here’s the good news about energy: thanks to rising oil prices and deteriorating economic conditions worldwide, theInternational Energy Agency (IEA) reports that global oil demand will not grow this year as much as once assumed, which may provide some temporary price relief at the gas pump. In its May Oil Market Report, the IEA reduced its 2011 estimate for global oil consumption by 190,000 barrels per day, pegging it at 89.2 million barrels daily. As a result, retail prices may not reach the stratospheric levels predicted earlier this year, though they will undoubtedly remain higher than at any time since the peak months of 2008, just before the global economic meltdown. Keep in mind that this is the good news.
As for the bad news: the world faces an array of intractable energy problems that, if anything, have only worsened in recent weeks. These problems are multiplying on either side of energy’s key geological divide: below ground, once-abundant reserves of easy-to-get “conventional” oil, natural gas, and coal are drying up;above ground, human miscalculation and geopolitics are limiting the production and availability of specific energy supplies. With troubles mounting in both arenas, our energy prospects are only growing dimmer.
Here’s one simple fact without which our deepening energy crisis makes no sense: the world economy is structured in such a way that standing still in energy production is not an option. In order to satisfy the staggering needs of older industrial powers like the United States along with the voracious thirst of rising powers like China, global energy must grow substantially every year. According to the projections of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), world energy output, based on 2007 levels, must rise 29% to 640 quadrillion British thermal units by 2025 to meet anticipated demand. Even if usage grows somewhat more slowly than projected, any failure to satisfy the world’s requirements produces a perception of scarcity, which also means rising fuel prices. These are precisely the conditions we see today and should expect for the indefinite future.
It is against this backdrop that three crucial developments of 2011 are changing the way we are likely to live on this planet for the foreseeable future.
The first and still most momentous of the year’s energy shocks was the series of events precipitated by the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions and the ensuing “Arab Spring” in the greater Middle East. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt was, in fact, a major oil producer, but the political shockwaves these insurrections unleashed has spread to other countries in the region that are, including Libya, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. At this point, the Saudi and Omani leaderships appear to be keeping a tight lid on protests, but Libyan production, normally averaging approximately 1.7 million barrels per day, has fallen to near zero.
When it comes to the future availability of oil, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this spring’s events in the Middle East, which continue to thoroughly rattle the energy markets. According to all projections of global petroleum output, Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states are slated to supply an ever-increasing share of the world’s total oil supply as production in key regions elsewhere declines. Achieving this production increase is essential, but it will not happen unless the rulers of those countries invest colossal sums in the development of new petroleum reserves — especially the heavy, “tough oil” variety that requires far more costly infrastructure than existing “easy oil” deposits.
In a front-page story entitled “Facing Up to the End of ‘Easy Oil,’” the Wall Street Journal noted that any hope of meeting future world oil requirements rests on a Saudi willingness to sink hundreds of billions of dollars into their remaining heavy-oil deposits. But right now, faced with a ballooning population and the prospects of an Egyptian-style youth revolt, the Saudi leadership seems intent on using its staggering wealth on employment-generating public-works programs and vast arrays of weaponry, not new tough-oil facilities; the same is largely true of the other monarchical oil states of the Persian Gulf.
Whether such efforts will prove effective is unknown. If a youthful Saudi population faced with promises of jobs and money, as well as the fierce repression of dissidence, has seemed less confrontational than their Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian counterparts, that doesn’t mean that the status quo will remain forever. “Saudi Arabia is a time bomb,”commented Jaafar Al Taie, managing director of Manaar Energy Consulting (which advises foreign oil firms operating in the region). “I don’t think that what the King is doing now is sufficient to prevent an uprising,” he added, even though the Saudi royals had just announced a $36-billion plan to raise the minimum wage, increase unemployment benefits, and build affordable housing.
At present, the world can accommodate a prolonged loss of Libyan oil. Saudi Arabia and a few other producers possess sufficient excess capacity to make up the difference. Should Saudi Arabia ever explode, however, all bets are off. “If something happens in Saudi Arabia, [oil] will go to $200 to $300 [per barrel],” said Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the kingdom’s former oil minister, on April 5th. “I don’t expect this for the time being, but who would have expected Tunisia?”
Nuclear power on the downward slope
In terms of the energy markets, the second major development of 2011 occurred on March 11th when an unexpectedly powerful earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. As a start, nature’s two-fisted attack damaged or destroyed a significant proportion of northern Japan’s energy infrastructure, including refineries, port facilities, pipelines, power plants, and transmission lines. In addition, of course, it devastated four nuclear plants at Fukushima, resulting, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the permanent loss of 6,800 megawatts of electric generating capacity.
This, in turn, has forced Japan to increase its imports of oil, coal, and natural gas, adding to the pressure on global supplies. With Fukushima and other nuclear plants off line, industry analysts calculate that Japanese oil imports could rise by as much as 238,000 barrels per day, and imports of natural gas by 1.2 billion cubic feet per day (mostly in the form of liquefied natural gas, or LNG).
This is one major short-term effect of the tsunami. What about the longer-term effects? The Japanese government now claims it is scrapping plans to build as many as 14 new nuclear reactors over the next two decades. On May 10th, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the government would have to “start from scratch” in devising a new energy policy for the country. Though he speaks of replacing the cancelled reactors with renewable energy systems like wind and solar, the sad reality is that a significant part of any future energy expansion will inevitably come from more imported oil, coal, and LNG.
The disaster at Fukushima — and ensuing revelations of design flaws and maintenance failures at the plant — has had a domino effect, causing energy officials in other countries to cancel plans to build new nuclear plants or extend the life of existing ones. The first to do so was Germany: on March 14th, Chancellor Angela Merkel closed two older plants and suspended plans to extend the life of 15 others. On May 30th, her government made the suspension permanent. In the wake of mass antinuclear rallies and an election setback, she promised to shut all existing nuclear plants by 2022, which, experts believe, will result in an increase in fossil-fuel use.
China also acted swiftly, announcing on March 16th that it would stop awarding permits for the construction of new reactors pending a review of safety procedures, though it did not rule out such investments altogether. Other countries, including India and the United States, similarly undertook reviews of reactor safety procedures, putting ambitious nuclear plans at risk. Then, on May 25th, the Swiss government announced that it would abandon plans to build three new nuclear power plants, phase out nuclear power, and close the last of its plants by 2034, joining the list of countries that appear to have abandoned nuclear power for good.
How drought strangles energy
The third major energy development of 2011, less obviously energy-connected than the other two, has been a series of persistent, often record, droughts gripping many areas of the planet. Typically, the most immediate and dramatic effect of prolonged drought is a reduction in grain production, leading to ever-higher food prices and ever more social turmoil.
Intense drought over the past year in Australia, China, Russia, and parts of the Middle East, South America, theUnited States, and most recently northern Europe has contributed to the current record-breaking price of food — and this, in turn, has been a key factor in the political unrest now sweeping North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East. But drought has an energy effect as well. It can reduce the flow of major river systems, leading to a decline in the output of hydroelectric power plants, as is now happening in several drought-stricken regions.
By far the greatest threat to electricity generation exists in China, which is suffering from one of its worst droughts ever. Rainfall levels from January to April in the drainage basin of the Yangtze, China’s longest and most economically important river, have been 40% lower than the average of the past 50 years, according to China Daily. This has resulted in a significant decline in hydropower and severe electricity shortages throughout much of central China.
The Chinese are burning more coal to generate electricity, but domestic mines no longer satisfy the country’s needs and so China has become a major coal importer. Rising demand combined with inadequate supply has led to a spike in coal prices, and with no comparable spurt in electricity rates (set by the government), many Chinese utilities are rationing power rather than buy more expensive coal and operate at a loss. In response, industries are upping their reliance on diesel-powered backup generators, which in turn increases China’s demand for imported oil, putting yet more pressure on global fuel prices.
Wrecking the planet
So now we enter June with continuing unrest in the Middle East, a grim outlook for nuclear power, and a severe electricity shortage in China (and possibly elsewhere). What else do we see on the global energy horizon?
Despite the IEA’s forecast of diminished future oil consumption, global energy demand continues to outpace increases in supply. From all indications, this imbalance will persist.
Take oil. A growing number of energy analysts now agree that the era of “easy oil” has ended and that the world must increasingly rely on hard-to-get “tough oil.” It is widely assumed, moreover, that the planet harbors a lot of this stuff — deep underground, far offshore, in problematic geological formations like Canada’s tar sands, and in the melting Arctic. However, extracting and processing tough oil will prove ever more costly and involve great human, and even greater environmental, risk. Think: BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster of April 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico.
Such is the world’s thirst for oil that a growing amount of this stuff will nonetheless be extracted, even if not, in all likelihood, at a pace and on a scale necessary to replace the disappearance of yesterday’s and today’s easy oil. Along with continued instability in the Middle East, this tough-oil landscape seems to underlie expectations that the price of oil will only rise in the coming years. In a poll of global energy company executives conducted this April by the KPMG Global Energy Institute, 64% of those surveyed predicted that crude oil prices will cross the $120 per barrel barrier before the end of 2011. Approximately one-third of them predicted that the price would go even higher, with 17% believing it would reach $131-$140 per barrel; 9%, $141-$150 per barrel; and 6%, above the $150 mark.
The price of coal, too, has soared in recent months, thanks to mounting worldwide demand as supplies of energy from nuclear power and hydroelectricity have contracted. Many countries have launched significant efforts to spur the development of renewable energy, but these are not advancing fast enough or on a large enough scale to replace older technologies quickly. The only bright spot, experts say, is the growing extraction of natural gas from shale rock in the United States through the use of hydraulic fracturing (“hydro-fracking”).
Proponents of shale gas claim it can provide a large share of America’s energy needs in the years ahead, while actually reducing harm to the environment when compared to coal and oil (as gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit of energy released); however, an expanding chorus of opponents are warning of the threat to municipal water supplies posed by the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process. These warnings have proven convincing enough to lead lawmakers in a growing number of states to begin placing restrictions on the practice, throwing into doubt the future contribution of shale gas to the nation’s energy supply. Also, on May 12th, the French National Assembly (the powerful lower house of parliament) voted 287 to 146 to ban hydro-fracking in France, becoming the first nation to do so.
The environmental problems of shale gas are hardly unique. The fact is that all of the strategies now being considered to extend the life-spans of oil, coal, and natural gas involve severe economic and environmental risks and costs — as, of course, does the very use of fossil fuels of any sort at a moment when the first IEA numbers for 2010 indicate that it was an unexpectedly record-breaking year for humanity when it came to dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
With the easily accessible mammoth oil fields of Texas, Venezuela, and the Middle East either used up or soon to be significantly depleted, the future of oil rests on third-rate stuff like tar sands, shale oil, and extra-heavy crude that require a lot of energy to extract, processes that emit added greenhouse gases, and as with those tar sands, tend to play havoc with the environment.
Shale gas is typical. Though plentiful, it can only be pried loose from underground shale formations through the use of explosives and highly pressurized water mixed with toxic chemicals. In addition, to obtain the necessary quantities of shale oil, many tens of thousands of wells will have to be sunk across the American landscape, any of one of which could prove to be an environmental disaster.
Likewise, the future of coal will rest on increasingly invasive and hazardous techniques, such as the explosive removal of mountaintops and the dispersal of excess rock and toxic wastes in the valleys below. Any increase in the use of coal will also enhance climate change, since coal emits more carbon dioxide than do oil and natural gas.
Here’s the bottom line: Any expectations that ever-increasing supplies of energy will meet demand in the coming years are destined to be disappointed. Instead, recurring shortages, rising prices, and mounting discontent are likely to be the thematic drumbeat of the globe’s energy future.
If we don’t abandon a belief that unrestricted growth is our inalienable birthright and embrace the genuine promise of renewable energy (with the necessary effort and investment that would make such a commitment meaningful), the future is likely to prove grim indeed. Then, the history of energy, as taught in some late twenty-first-century university, will be labeled: How to Wreck the Planet 101.
Rising food prices and restrictions on power and water use are likely to result from a lack of rain in the south and east of the country, experts believe
Ministers, farmers, supermarkets and utility companies will meet this week to assess a worsening dry spell in much of southern and eastern England that is threatening to become an agricultural and environmental disaster.
Britain’s second-driest spring in 100 years and the warmest since 1659 has left soil in parts of East Anglia and south-east England concrete-hard, with many rivers shrunk to trickles and crops withering at critical times in their growth.
Some eastern counties have had only 5mm of rain since the end of February, with most regions seeing no more than 60% of average rainfall in the past four months, usually one of the wettest times of the year.
“The next few weeks are critical,” said National Farmers Union water adviser Jenny Bashford. “We had some rain last week but all it did was stop the situation worsening in some places. If we get a heatwave now, and the forecast is for above average temperatures and only sporadic showers in June, we are in a different situation. The north and north-west is largely OK but there are already significant problems in the south and east.”
The meeting is at the request of the environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, who asked the Environment Agency two weeks ago to report on how a drought might affect food production and prices, water and power supplies.
Water companies, which have been upbeat so far about supplies, are likely to warn that some reservoirs in the south and east are beginning to empty but that no hosepipe bans will be needed for several months. Food prices will rise.
Farming leaders warned Spelman last week that production across much of southern Britain was likely to be down by 15% if normal rains resumed immediately and by much more if prolonged rains did not come soon. An increasing number of farmers predict that yields will be be reduced by 50% or more, warning that the impact of a continuing dry summer could last well beyond the harvest into next year.
The government’s Centre for Hydrology and Ecology reported soils in many areas were at their driest for 50 years. “The exceptional aridity of the early spring, following a relatively dry 2010, has resulted in agricultural and hydrological drought conditions affecting large parts of southern Britain,” it said.
George Dunn, a farmer near Winchester, Hampshire, said: “It’s too late now for many crops. Some farmers have destroyed their spring barley crop and replanted. We can expect the wheat harvest to be 10%-20% down and the barley to be 30% down. It will get very serious soon for livestock farmers. We’re starting to see farmers sell their cattle because they don’t have grass to feed them. The number of animals going to abattoirs is increasing. Wheat is going up but most farmers have already sold a lot of their harvest in advance for a low price.”
Fruit growers and farmers who have invested in their own reservoirs are benefiting from high prices and an early harvest, but many vegetable growers have resorted to measures usually seen only in midsummer droughts. In Cambridgeshire, farmers have started to spray crops only at night and not in windy weather.
Food prices are expected to rise and a further prolonged spell of dry weather or a heatwave could result in restrictions on water use by the public, including hosepipe and sprinkler bans. The government could declare a drought within weeks. “At this point a whole range of powers could be invoked, from allowing farmers to take more water from rivers, to water restrictions on consumers,” said Trevor Bishop, head of water resources at the Environment Agency.
He admitted ecological damage had already been done. “We are seeing a significant impact on rivers like the Tone in Somerset and Frome in Dorset which are at their lowest levels in 50 years. We are having to rescue fish and have started pumping [underground] water into rivers to increase the flows,” he said.
Concern is growing across Europe that the drought will be disastrous for economies, affecting tourism, electricity supplies and food prices. And last week brought more bad news for the agricultuaral sectors of countries such as Spain and Holland as the E.coli outbreak saw shipments of fruit and vegetables hit hard. The Dutch industry association Productschap Tuinbouw said it estimated the cost of the infection scare to farmers at 50m euros per week.
Meanwhile, with the promise of loans for French farmers, European wheat stocks are expected to hit a 30-year high, after prices rose 36% in the past two months. The spike – caused by pressure on supplies after three consecutive years of low wheat yields – will raise fears that Europe will have to lift import restrictions on GM foods. Last year, a massive drought ruined a third of Russia’s crops.