Rachel's Democracy & Health News #984
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, November 6, 2008..............Printer-friendly version
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ Featured stories in this issue... Green Coal? When we compare coal-burning technologies to the 12 principles of green engineering and the 12 principles of green chemistry, how does coal stack up? In Bush's End-game, Lots of Changes on Environment President Bush's appointees and their employees are burning the midnight oil, producing a rash of rule changes that will speed the destruction of the natural world. Number of Kids on Medication Jumps Alarmingly "Most of the increase in drugs for diabetes, attention deficit/hyperactivity and depression was seen in girls. The gender gap was most striking in diabetes: While the number of boys taking medication grew by 39%, the number of girls using them climbed by 147%." Global Warming Pollution on the Increase The world emitted a record amount of the global-warming gas, carbon dioxide, in 2007. And forests and oceans are not absorbing as great a proportion of human-created CO2 as they once did. From 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it's 54 percent. "This is kind of scary," said one scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Berkeley, Calif. Climate-warming Methane Levels Rose Fast in 2007 Levels of climate-warming methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide -- rose abruptly in Earth's atmosphere last year, and scientists who reported the change don't know why it occurred. Utilities Putting New Energy into Geothermal Sources "Geothermal energy may be the most prolific renewable fuel source that most people have never heard of. Although the supply is virtually limitless, the massive upfront costs required to extract it have long rendered geothermal a novelty. But that's changing fast as this old- line industry buzzes with activity after decades of stagnation." Why Small Plastic Particles May Pose a Big Problem in the Oceans Humans now produce 230 million pounds of plastics each year, worldwide. In the ocean, as plastic items break down, the toxic additives they contain -- including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers -- can be released into the ocean environment and taken up by sea creatures. :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #984, Nov. 6, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] GREEN COAL? By Peter Montague As we search for solutions to global warming and toxic contamination, we can compare technologies, intending to select the least harmful. In recent years, scientists have developed two sets of criteria that we can use to judge the "greenness" of competing technologies. The first is called "The 12 principles of green engineering" and the second is "The 12 principles of green chemistry." Both sets of principles were developed by teams of technical experts and published in peer-reviewed journals. They are now widely understood and endorsed. Most importantly, they offer ordinary people, as well as experts, a way to decide which technologies are worth supporting and which ones should be phased out or never developed at all. You can find both sets of principles listed at the end of this article. Is Coal Green? Don't laugh. There are major environmental groups who have received major grants to convince the public that "clean coal" is just around the corner and that we should be investing many billions of dollars each year in "clean coal." These groups include the Union of Concerned Scientists [2 Mbyte PDF], the Clean Air Task Force, and the Natural Resources Defense Council [1 Mbyte PDF]. There are roughly 500 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., burning a total of about 1.05 billion tons of coal each year to produce half the nation's electricity. These plants emit 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, which is 1/3 of the nation's annual total CO2 emissions. Most proposals for "clean coal" focus narrowly on this CO2 problem, intending to capture CO2 and bury it in the deep earth, thus converting it from our problem to our children's problem. The "other" wastes from burning coal In addition to 1.9 billion tons of CO2 released by coal-burning power plants each year, another 120 million tons of toxic wastes are created (so-called coal ash, or coal combustion waste [ccw]). These 120 million tons of waste, produced annually, will remain toxic forever, and they have to be put somewhere. "Clean coal" advocates tend to give lip service to this other 120 million tons of toxic waste. Their preferred solution for these toxic wastes is to capture them and bury them in shallow pits in the ground called landfills or "surface impoundments." Unfortunately, all landfills and surface impoundments eventually release their contents into the local environment, so storing coal wastes in landfills and surface impoundments is just another way of passing these problems along to our children. [See "EPA says all landfills leak, even those using best available liners," Rachel's News #37 (August 10, 1987).] How toxic is this toxic waste? The 1.05 billion tons of coal we burn each year contain 109 tons of mercury, 7884 tons of arsenic, 1167 tons of beryllium, 750 tons of cadmium, 8810 tons of chromium, 9339 tons of nickel, and 2587 tons of selenium. These are tremendous quantities of toxic materials and they are produced each year, year after year. Where do these toxic materials go? As coal is prepared for burning it is crushed and washed. The coal wash water is "disposed" of at the mine site, meaning it is dumped into a large bathtub in the ground. Of course sooner or later it leaks out the bottom of the bathtub, carrying with it each year an estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, and 2754 tons of nickel, and 1098 tons of selenium. During combustion, coal-fired power plants emit into the air each year 52 tons of mercury, 47 tons of arsenic, 8 tons of beryllium, 3 tons of cadmium, 62 tons of chromium, 52 tons of nickel, and 184 tons of selenium. However, as air pollution control technology improves, more of these airborne toxicants are captured in the form of a finely divided ash. Coal ash (also called coal combustion waste, or CCW for short) contains large quantities of toxic metals: 44 tons of mercury, 4601 tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. Many of these elements are toxic to humans and other life-forms in microgram quantities. The ash containing these toxic metals is buried in shallow pits near the coal plants that produced it. There, rain filters through the toxic ash year after year, leaching out the toxic metals and moving them downward (pulled relentlessly by gravity) into the soil and eventually into the groundwater below. You might ask, what's the big deal? These toxicants started out below ground in coal and now they're ending up below ground again? So what? You can understand the problem by thinking of a cup of coffee. If you pour water over a few coffee beans, you don't extract much coffee. The result looks pretty much like a cup of hot water. The good stuff remains locked up in the beans. But if you grind up the beans into a finely divided powder, then pour water over them, presto! You get a rich, thick cup of coffee. What has happened is that the surface area of the coffee beans has been enormously increased by grinding them up -- thus exposing a much larger surface to the water, allow the good stuff to be leached out into your cup. Coal is the same. Coal underground is like coffee beans. Water filtering through a solid seam of coal does not extract much of those toxic metals. But once you mine, crush and burn the coal, turning it into a finely divided ash (like grinding up the beans, vastly increasing the surface area that can come into contact with water), then filter rainwater through it year after year after year -- presto! You get a rich, thick, toxic waste capable of poisoning your underground water supply. Placing that finely divided waste into a hole in the ground with a double liner beneath it -- a modern landfill -- does not prevent, but merely delays, the release of the toxicants, allowing the present generation of decision-makers to pretend all is well, but saddling our children with a stupendously large legacy of toxic materials and contaminated water. If the total weight of coal combustion waste is 120 million tons per year in the U.S., then each of our 500 coal-fired power plants is producing, on average, 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year. If a power plant runs for 40 years, it leaves behind just about 10 million tons of toxic waste (9.6 million tons to be exact). This does not include the "overburden," as it is called -- all the dirt that must be removed to get at the coal. (In the western states, where most of U.S. coal is mined, as much as one ton of overburden waste is created for every ton of coal mined. In Appalachia, where 7% of U.S. coal is mined, 450 mountains have been destroyed by mountain-top- removal coal mining. So far, 700 miles of streams have been filled in (destroyed) by mountain-top-removal wastes in Appalachia.) Then there is acid mine drainage that sours streams below mines for centuries after mining stops. down. The waste produced by coal mining is enormous and enormously destructive. The 120 million tons of toxic waste also does not include the pollution produced by transporting coal from mine to power plant. About 40% of all rail freight in the U.S., by weight, is coal. Another serious waste problem created by coal mining is methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, has a warming potential 23 times as great as CO2. Since 1750, human industrial activities have roughly doubled the natural amount of methane in the atmosphere, and each year for the past 15 years atmospheric methane has been increasing about 1% per year. Ten percent of this methane is contributed by coal mines. So how does coal measure up against the green principles? Principle 2 of "green engineering" says, "It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed." And Principle 1 of "green chemistry" says the same thing, "It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed." Could it be any clearer? Given the mountains of unmanageable toxic waste produced year after year by coal mining, transport, and combustion, we can see right away that coal does not measure up to the standards of "green engineering" or "green chemistry." Not even close. Even if all the carbon dioxide from coal plants could be captured and handed off to our children to worry about, clean coal (and "green coal") would remain nothing more than a public relations gimmick, a fiction, a fraud, a ruse. Coal is not green. Coal is the color of death. ============================================================== The 12 Principles of Green Engineering [First published in Paul T. Anastas and J.B. Zimmerman, "Design through the Twelve Principles of Green Engineering", Environmental Science & Technology Vol. 37, No. 5 (March 1, 2003), pgs. 95A-101A.] Principle 1: Designers need to strive to ensure that all material and energy inputs and outputs are as inherently nonhazardous as possible. Principle 2: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed. Principle 3: Separation and purification operations should be designed to minimize energy consumption and materials use. Principle 4: Products, processes, and systems should be designed to maximize mass, energy, space, and time efficiency. Principle 5: Products, processes, and systems should be "output pulled" rather than "input pushed" through the use of energy and materials. Principle 6: Embedded entropy and complexity must be viewed as an investment when making design choices on recycle, reuse, or beneficial disposition. Principle 7: Targeted durability, not immortality, should be a design goal. Principle 8: Design for unnecessary capacity or capability (e.g., "one size fits all") solutions should be considered a design flaw. Principle 9: Material diversity in multicomponent products should be minimized to promote disassembly and value retention. Principle 10: Design of products, processes, and systems must include integration and interconnectivity with available energy and materials flows. Principle 11: Products, processes, and systems should be designed for performance in a commercial "afterlife". Principle 12: Material and energy inputs should be renewable rather than depleting. ========================================================= The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry [First published in Martyn Poliakoff, J. Michael Fitzpatrick, Trevor R. Farren, and Paul T. Anastas, "Green Chemistry: Science and Politics of Change," Science Vol. 297 (August 2, 2002), pgs. 807-810.] 1. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed. 2. Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation of all materials used in the process into the final product. 3. Wherever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to human health and the environment. 4. Chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of function while reducing toxicity. 5. The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents, and so forth) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and innocuous when used. 6. Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental and economic impacts and should be minimized. Synthetic methods should be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure. 7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than depleting wherever technically and economically practicable. 8. Unnecessary derivatization (blocking group, protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical processes) should be avoided whenever possible. 9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to stoichiometric reagents. 10. Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their function they do not persist in the environment and break down into innocuous degradation products. 11. Analytical methodologies need to be developed further to allow for real-time in-process monitoring and control before the formation of hazardous substances. 12. Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process should be chosen so as to minimize the potential for chemical accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires. ========================================================  Barbara Freese and others, Coal Power in a Warming World (Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008), pg. 5.  Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 7.  Martha Keating and others, Laid to Waste; The Dirty Secret of Combustion Waste from America's Power Plants (Washington, D.C.: Citizens Coal Council, 2000), pg. 2. [1.3 Mbyte PDF]  Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 7.  Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 6. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Reuters, Nov. 2, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] IN BUSH'S END-GAME, LOTS OF CHANGES ON ENVIRONMENT By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent [Introduction: It's hard to explain this story -- some of President Bush's political appointees seem in a rush to wreck the natural environment before President-elect Obama takes office. One possible explanation can be found in a short book, "Divine Destruction" by Stephanie Hendricks (Hoboken, N.J.: Melville House, 2005). No matter what Mr. Bush himself may believe, many of his appointees believe that depleting the natural environment will speed the "second coming" of Jesus. In this "dominion theology," wrecking the environment is God's will. --P.M.] WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- As the U.S. presidential candidates sprint toward the finish line, the Bush administration is also sprinting to enact environmental policy changes before leaving power. Whether it's getting wolves off the Endangered Species List, allowing power plants to operate near national parks, loosening regulations for factory farm waste or making it easier for mountaintop coal-mining operations, these proposed changes have found little favor with environmental groups. The one change most environmentalists want, a mandatory program to cut climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, is not among these so-called "midnight regulations." Bureaucratic calendars make it virtually impossible that any U.S. across-the-board action will be taken to curb global warming in this administration, though both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have promised to address it if they win Tuesday's U.S. presidential election. Even some free-market organizations have joined conservation groups to urge a moratorium on last-minute rules proposed by the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. "The Bush administration has had eight years in office and has issued more regulations than any administration in history," said Eli Lehrer of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "At this point, in the current economic climate, it would be especially harmful to push through ill-considered regulations in the final days of the administration." John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation, which joined Lehrer's group to call for a ban on these last-minute rules, said citizens are cut out of the process, allowing changes in U.S. law that the public opposes, such as rolling back protections under the Endangered Species Act. WHAT'S THE RUSH? The Bush team has urged that these regulations be issued no later than Saturday, so they can be put in effect by the time President George W. Bush leaves office on January 20. If they are in effect then, it will be hard for the next administration to undo them, and in any case, this may not be the top priority for a new president, said Matt Madia of OMB Watch, which monitors the White House Office of Management and Budget, through which these proposed regulations must pass. "This is typical," Madia said of the administration's welter of eleventh-hour rules. "It's a natural reaction to knowing that you're almost out of power." Industry is likely to benefit if Bush's rules on the environment become effective, Madia said. "Whether it's the electricity industry or the mining industry or the agriculture industry, this is going to remove government restrictions on their activity and in turn they're going to be allowed to pollute more and that ends up harming the public," Madia said in a telephone interview. What is unusual is the speedy trip some of these environmental measures are taking through the process. For example, one Interior Department rule that would erode protections for endangered species in favor of mining interests drew more than 300,000 comments from the public, which officials said they planned to review in a week, a pace that Madia called "pretty ludicrous." Why the rush? Because rules only go into effect 30 to 60 days after they are finalized, and if they are not in effect when the next president takes office, that chief executive can decline to put them into practice -- as Bush did with many rules finalized at the end of the Clinton administration. White House spokesman Tony Fratto denied the Bush team was cramming these regulations through in a hasty push. Fratto discounted reports "that we're trying to weaken regulations that have a business interest," telling White House reporters last week the goal was to avoid the flood of last-minute rules left over from the Clinton team. There is at least one Bush administration environmental proposal that conservation groups welcome: a plan to create what would be the world's largest marine wildlife sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. That could go into effect January 20. (Editing by Alan Elsner) Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: USA Today, Nov. 3, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] NUMBER OF KIDS ON MEDICATION JUMPS ALARMINGLY By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY The number of children who take medication for chronic diseases has jumped dramatically, another troubling sign that many of the youngest Americans are struggling with obesity, doctors say. The number of children who take pills for type 2 diabetes -- the kind that's closely linked to obesity -- more than doubled from 2002 to 2005, to a rate of six out of 10,000 children. That suggests that at least 23,000 privately insured children in the USA are now taking diabetes medications, according to authors of the new study in Monday's Pediatrics. Doctors also saw big increases in prescriptions for high cholesterol, asthma and attention deficit and hyperactivity. There was smaller growth for drugs for depression and high blood pressure. "We've got a lot of sick children," says author Emily Cox, senior director of research with Express Scripts, which administers drug benefit programs for private insurance plans. "What we've been seeing in adults, we're also now seeing in kids." Type 2 diabetes was once known as adult-onset. But Cox says her records show kids as young as 5 being treated with prescription diabetes drugs. Cox based her study on prescription records of nearly 4 million children a year, ages 5 to 19, covered by Express Scripts. She says her findings may not apply to the 40% of children who are uninsured or covered by government health plans. Unless these children make major changes -- such as eating healthier and exercising more -- they could be facing a lifetime of illness, Cox says. "These are not antibiotics that they take for seven to 10 days," Cox says. "These are drugs that many are taking for the rest of their lives." Cox couldn't explain one surprising finding: Most of the increase in drugs for diabetes, attention deficit/hyperactivity and depression was seen in girls. The gender gap was most striking in diabetes: While the number of boys taking medication grew by 39%, the number of girls using them climbed by 147%, Cox found. ======================================================== Sidebar: Rising Tide Of Meds The number of children who take medication for several chronic diseases has increased sharply from 2002 to 2005. Diabetes: 103% increase Asthma: 47% increase ADHD: 41% increase High cholesterol: 15% increase Source: Pediatrics The number of boys taking type 2 diabetes medication grew by 39% from 2002 to 2005, while the number of girls using them climbed by 147%, according to a new study. ======================================================== Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: The Chief Engineer, Nov. 3, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] GLOBAL WARMING POLLUTION ON THE INCREASE Washington (AP) -- The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man- made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists' projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said. The new numbers, called "scary" by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007. That's an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007. Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted rises in temperature and sea level. The pollution leader was China, followed by the United States, which past data show is the leader in emissions per person in carbon dioxide output. And while several developed countries slightly cut their CO2 output in 2007, the United States churned out more. Still, it was large increases in China, India and other developing countries that spurred the growth of carbon dioxide pollution to a record high of 9.34 billion tons of carbon. Figures released by science agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia show that China's added emissions accounted for more than half of the worldwide increase. China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide polluter in 2006. Emissions in the United States rose nearly 2 percent in 2007, after declining the previous year. The U.S. produced 1.75 billion tons of carbon. Things are happening very, very fast," said Corinne Le Quere, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey. "It's scary." Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the economic downturn. That didn't happen. "If we're going to do something (about reducing emissions), it's got to be different than what we're doing," he said. The emissions are based on data from oil giant BP PLC, which show that China has become the major driver of world trends. China emitted 2 billion tons of carbon last year, up 7.5 percent from the previous year. "We're shipping jobs offshore from the U.S., but we're also shipping carbon dioxide emissions with them," Marland said. "China is making fertilizer and cement and steel and all of those are heavy energy- intensive industries." Developing countries not asked to reduce greenhouse gases by the 1997 Kyoto treaty -- and China and India are among them -- now account for 53 percent of carbon dioxide pollution. That group of nations surpassed industrialized ones in carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, a new analysis of older figures shows. India is in position to beat Russia for the No. 3 carbon dioxide polluter behind the United States, Marland said. Indonesia levels are increasing rapidly. Denmark's emissions dropped 8 percent. The United Kingdom and Germany reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 3 percent, while France and Australia cut it by 2 percent. Nature can't keep up with the carbon dioxide from man, Le Quere said. She said from 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it's 54 percent. What is "kind of scary" is that the worldwide emissions growth is beyond the highest growth in fossil fuel predicted just two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. Under the panel's scenario then, temperatures would increase by somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. If this trend continues for the century, "you'd have to be luckier than hell for it just to be bad, as opposed to catastrophic," said Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider. Copyright 2008, Chicagoland Chief Engineer Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Reuters, Oct. 29, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] CLIMATE-WARMING METHANE LEVELS ROSE FAST IN 2007 By Deborah Zabarenko WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Levels of climate-warming methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide -- rose abruptly in Earth's atmosphere last year, and scientists who reported the change don't know why it occurred. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has more than doubled in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, but stayed largely stable over the last decade or so before rising in 2007, researchers said on Wednesday. This stability led scientists to believe that the emissions of methane, from natural sources like cows, sheep and wetlands, as well as from human activities like coal and gas production, were balanced by the destruction of methane in the atmosphere. But that balance was upset starting early last year, releasing millions of metric tonnes more methane into the air, the scientists wrote in the Geophysical Research Letters. "The thing that's really surprising is that it's coming after this period of very level emissions," said Matthew Rigby of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The worry is that we just don't understand the methane cycle very well." Another surprise was that the rise in methane levels happened simultaneously at all the places scientists measured around the globe, instead of being centered near known sources of methane emissions in the Northern Hemisphere, said Rigby, one of the study's lead authors along with Ronald Prinn, also of MIT. A rise in methane in the Northern Hemisphere might be due to a year- long warm spell in Siberia, where wetlands harbor methane-producing bacteria, the scientists said, but had no immediate answer on why emissions also rose in the Southern Hemisphere at the same time. There is considerably less methane than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Pre-industrial concentrations of methane were about 700 parts per billion -- that is, for every billion molecules of air, there were only 700 of methane -- but that level rose gradually to 1773 parts per billion by the late 20th century, Rigby said in a telephone interview. The rise in 2007 was about 10 parts per billion over the course of a year, a real jump for such a short period of time. By contrast, there are about 385 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However, methane is much better at locking in the solar radiation that heats up the planet. Methane is destroyed by reaction with an atmospheric "cleanser" called the hydroxyl free radical, or OH. The researchers theorized that the rise in methane might be due in part to a decline in OH. The researchers said it is too soon to tell whether the one-year rise in the amount of atmospheric methane is the start of an upward trend or a short-lived anomaly. (Editing by Eric Walsh) Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] UTILITIES PUTTING NEW ENERGY INTO GEOTHERMAL SOURCES Geothermal sources draw power firms in quest for renewables. By Marla Dickerson Reno, Nevada -- Not far from the blinking casinos of this gambler's paradise lies what could be called the Biggest Little Power Plant in the World. Tucked into a few dusty acres across from a shopping mall, it uses steam heat from deep within the Earth's crust to generate electricity. Known as geothermal, the energy is clean, reliable and so abundant that this facility produces more than enough electricity to power every home in Reno, population 221,000. "There's no smoke. Very little noise," said Paul Thomsen, director of policy and business management for Ormat Technologies Inc., which owns the operation. "People don't even know it's here." Geothermal energy may be the most prolific renewable fuel source that most people have never heard of. Although the supply is virtually limitless, the massive upfront costs required to extract it have long rendered geothermal a novelty. But that's changing fast as this old- line industry buzzes with activity after decades of stagnation. Billionaire Warren E. Buffett has invested big. Internet giant Google Inc. is bankrolling advanced research. Entrepreneurs are paying record prices for drilling leases in places such as Nevada, where they're prospecting for heat instead of metals. "This is the new gold rush," said Mark Taylor, a geothermal analyst with the consulting firm New Energy Finance in Washington. He credits high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming with jump- starting the U.S. industry, along with federal tax credits and state laws mandating the wider use of renewable energy. Global investment in geothermal was around $3 billion last year, Taylor said. Although that's a blip compared with the estimated $116 billion funneled into wind and solar, it's still a 183% increase over investment in 2006. In a difficult year for alternative energy funding, the industry snagged $600 million through the first six months of 2008, Taylor said. A lot of that new investment is in the United States, the world's leader in geothermal energy. More than 80% of the country's 3,000 geothermal megawatts lies in California. The Geysers, a network of 22 geothermal plants about 75 miles north of San Francisco in the Mayacamas Mountains, is the largest geothermal complex on the planet. Calpine Corp. owns the largest part of it. The area around the Salton Sea in Imperial County is another hot spot. CalEnergy Generation, a subsidiary of Buffett's Mid-American Energy Holdings, owns and operates 10 plants there. It plans three additional facilities in the next few years, CalEnergy President Steve Larsen said. In October, the Bureau of Land Management said it planned to open more than 190 million acres of federal land in California and 11 other Western states for new geothermal development. Nevada, the nation's No. 2 geothermal producer, has 45 new projects underway, said Lisa Shevenell, director of the Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy at the University of Nevada in Reno. An August lease sale of Nevada lands by the federal bureau brought in a record $28.2 million. "I've been at this 25 years, and I've never seen anything like it," said Shevenell, a research hydrologist. "Money is falling out of the sky." Geothermal has been harnessed for industry since at least the 1820s. Operators tap natural reservoirs of scalding water and steam trapped thousands of feet underground, drilling wells to bring the heat to the surface to power turbines that feed electricity generators. Costing about 4 to 7 cents a kilowatt-hour, Taylor said, geothermal is competitive with wind power and significantly cheaper than solar. Geothermal facilities occupy a fraction of the space required by wind and solar farms. The energy is also more reliable. Plants crank electricity around the clock, irrespective of whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. This so-called baseload generation is coveted by power companies, which are under pressure to boost their use of green energy. California utilities must generate 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. Nevada utilities must hit that target by 2015. Geothermal is a cornerstone of that effort, accounting for about two-thirds of the renewable portfolio of NV Energy, Nevada's biggest utility. "It's a 24/7 predictable supply," said Thomas Fair, the company's head of renewable energy. "That means a lot to a utility." Greenhouse gas emissions are minimal in geothermal operations, and the size of the fuel supply defies imagination. There is 50,000 times more heat energy contained in the first six miles of the Earth's crust than in all the planet's oil and natural gas resources, according to the environmental organization Earth Policy Institute. The challenge is extracting it. Geothermal energy production requires three things: heat from the Earth's core, fractured rock to make it easy to get to and water to transport the heat to the surface. Traditionally, developers have sought out pockets of hot water and steam hidden underground. Prime areas lie along continental plate boundaries, which is why California is such a hotbed. Still, these reservoirs can be tricky to pinpoint. They're also expensive to reach. A geothermal well can cost $5 million or more. The result: The U.S. currently derives less than 0.5% of its electricity from geothermal. Some say the key to harnessing this energy source on a massive scale lies with a technology known as enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS for short. The idea is to engineer the necessary conditions by pumping water into the Earth's crust and fracturing the hot rocks below. Heat from the Earth warms the water, whose resulting steam is channeled back to the surface, powering turbines to create electricity. The water is then pumped back underground. Though still in its infancy, EGS has the potential to open up much of the planet to geothermal development. Tiny plants are already online in France and Germany. More than 30 EGS firms are engaged in exploration and development in Australia. Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the Mountain View, Calif.-based search engine company, is trying to push EGS in the U.S. It recently gave $10 million to Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Lab to update the nation's geothermal resources map, as well as to two California companies -- Potter Drilling and AltaRock Energy Inc. -- that are working on EGS technologies. Google is urging the U.S. government to spend big on geothermal R&D as part of the company's push to encourage utility-scale renewable energy that's cheaper than coal. About half the United States' electricity is generated by that dirty fossil fuel. China, already the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is adding coal-fired plants at a swift rate. EGS "is indeed the sleeping giant of renewable energy," Dan Reicher, director for climate change and energy initiatives at Google.org, said during a recent industry conference in Reno. "It's the killer ap." Some industry veterans such as Shevenell are miffed that EGS has grabbed the spotlight when there's plenty of energy to be extracted quickly using conventional techniques. Still, she credits Google for helping pump life into a dormant sector. "This country is in an energy crisis," she said. "We need energy now, and this is a proven way to get it." Dickerson is a Times staff writer. marla.d...@latimes.com Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: From: Environmental Science & Technology, Nov. 5, 2008 [Printer-friendly version] WHY SMALL PLASTIC PARTICLES MAY POSE A BIG PROBLEM IN THE OCEANS New evidence shows that marine animals can take up the toxic chemicals that can become concentrated in small plastic particles. By Kellyn Betts Over the past few years, scientists have begun to realize that the increasing volume of plastic materials slowly decomposing in the world's oceans may present a long-term problem for marine food chains already reeling from overfishing and other anthropogenic insults. Partly as a result of a pair of influential papers published in ES&T, scientists are now exploring the role that fragments of plastic trash may play in transporting marine pollutants. The first international conference about this newly emerging "microplastics" problem was held in September and sponsored by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Attendees from six countries agreed to define microplastics as plastic pieces or fragments smaller than 5 millimeters. Sources of microplastics include both the small plastic particles used in products like containers for body washes and cosmetics and the weathering of larger plastic flotsam and jetsam, says conference organizer Joel Baker of the University of Washington Tacoma, where the event was held. Larger plastic debris tends mainly to float on the surface, but microplastics also can be found in the water column and on the seabed, says Richard Thompson, a researcher at Plymouth University (U.K) and a coauthor of both ES&T papers. "This distribution, together with the smaller size, means that a wider variety of organisms could be exposed to [microplastics]," he says. Thompson has been at the forefront of developing methods to definitively identify plastic fragments as small as 20 micrometers. As plastic items break down, any toxic additives they contain -- including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers -- may be released into the ocean environment, Thompson explains. Plastics can act like sponges to collect hydrophobic persistent organic pollutants, such as PCBs, adds Holly Bamford, director of NOAA's Marine Debris Program. Microplastic particles have been shown to hold concentrations of PCBs more than 1 million times higher than those in the surrounding water, Baker says. At the recent conference, Hideshige Takada of the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology presented persuasive data that microplastics can impact marine food chains; the results came from a feeding experiment with streaked shearwaters, a common seabird in Japan and Australia. Takada's group, which has analyzed plastic pellets found on beaches around the world, fed chicks living in their natural environment a diet of fish laced with PCB-laden polyethylene resin pellets collected from Tokyo Bay. The pellet-consuming chicks took in up to 3 times the concentrations of lighter-weight PCB compounds, or congeners, as did chicks fed fish alone, he reported. Takada's research buttresses laboratory data published in the ES&T papers. The first paper (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41, 7759-7764) used modeling experiments to show that common marine lugworms can accumulate phenanthrene, a persistent anthropogenic compound commonly found in the ocean, when microplastic particles saturated with a small amount of the contaminant are added to the sediments where the worms dwell. The second paper (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 5026-5031) confirmed that captive Mytilus edulis mussels fed microplastic fragments accumulated the plastic bits in their guts. At the September conference, Thompson and his colleagues reported that their latest work appears to confirm that contaminants can transfer from plastics to live lugworms. Takada is currently investigating whether microplastics are exposing marine animals to phenolic compounds, including nonylphenol, octylphenol, and bisphenol A. "Ingestion of marine plastics could be a direct and important route of phenolic chemicals to higher animals such as seabirds," he says. Several studies suggest that biomagnification does not play an important role in the transfer of such endocrine-disrupting compounds to animals and birds that are higher up in the food chain, he adds. The world now uses 230 million pounds of plastic annually, Thompson says, noting that much of this is "for one-trip packaging that is thrown out within a year of production, on average." Because the plastic that enters the ocean tends to fragment, it is likely to remain in the environment "for hundreds, if not thousands, of years," he says. Return to Table of Contents :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at d...@rachel.org. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. 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