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Noel Laporte

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What form of renewable energy has or will have the lowest impact on biodiversity?

Climate change, air pollution, rising sea levels and species extinction can all be attributed to the increasing usage of non-renewable energy in the world today. Non-renewable energy reserves are diminishing and finite with an ever-increasing demand from countries around the world. Coal, natural gas and oil all have detrimental effects on the environment. These effects are both local and global, harming species throughout the world. As we consider different renewable forms of energy, can we rank their potential impacts on biodiversity?

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    Apr 23 2013: Concentrating solar thermal plants could fulfill a significant chunk of our more immediate energy demands while other technologies progress. Most people associate solar with photovoltaic solar cells, but PV technology isn’t quite there yet and it’s incredibly expensive. Solar thermal systems on the other hand are much less expensive, more efficient, and because of their heat storage capabilities, are able to operate when there is no daylight.

    Land and water are required for CSP systems and both of these can impact biodiversity, however, unlike PV cells, hazardous and rare materials aren’t required for their manufacture. CSPs can be built in areas of lower diversity such as abandoned mining lands and transportation and transmission corridors. Different types of thermal technologies require different amounts of water for cooling but decreased water consumption is generally paired with decreases in efficiency. Furthermore, places that are best suited for solar technology are generally drier. The world’s largest CSP is gearing up to come online and is located in the Mojave Desert. But this region’s water supply is insecure as Lake Mead dwindles.

    The carbon footprint for the entire life cycle of solar technologies, including manufacture, materials transport, maintenance, etc., is also far less when compared with that of natural gas and coal.

    (1) http://www.technologyreview.com/news/512551/brightsource-pushes-ahead-on-another-massive-solar-thermal-plant/
    (2) http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/environmental-impacts-solar-power.html
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      Apr 23 2013: Hi Chelsea! I am again returning to Stewart Brand's point here that solar power takes up about 50 square miles per GW. He quotes Saul Griffith that it would it take an area roughly the size of the United States to get 13 clean terawatts of energy from wind, solar and biofuels combined. Given what we have learned about extinction risks due to habitat loss, what do you think the tradeoffs of CSP systems versus nuclear energy? Do CSP systems take up less habitat than solar panels?

      http://www.ted.com/talks/debate_does_the_world_need_nuclear_energy.html
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        Apr 23 2013: Unfortunately, solar thermal takes up about twice as much land area as photovoltaics. It isn't ideal, but its a start and I think multiple approaches will have to be taken towards offsetting our reliance on fossil fuels. The plants can be set up on less desirable (already destroyed) land tracts as well.

        Regarding nuclear, the waste is a serious concern. More disasters like Fukushima will undoubtedly occur because human negligence isn't going away any time soon. If we attempt to rely more heavily on nuclear during our transition away from oil, I don't see industry giving up on the plants they will have already built to switch to the greener technologies, it would affect their bottom lines .. we'll be up to our ears in radioactive waste.
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      Apr 23 2013: I think an alternative to large solar thermal plants, which take up a significant amount of space, would be this new idea of "Artificial leafs". The idea is to literally preform photosynthesis. The artificial leaf is a small catalyst-coated wafer of silicon, this small wafer is dropped into a bucked of water which starts the reaction. The catalysts break down water into hydrogen and oxygen, and the bubbles are used to produce energy in fuel cells. One quart of water provides 100 watts of electricity for 24 hours a day. This process is unlike solar panels because it can run at night, by storing the hydrogen and oxygen. This of course has a few flaws but has a great start on using a resource that if used will provide a clean and manageable waste.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-s_c6HjDwM
      http://eandt.theiet.org/news/2013/apr/artificial-leaf.cfm
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        Apr 23 2013: This is amazing. Are there any peer-reviewed journal articles describing this technology?

        I just logged in a second time to read the IET article but it is blocking me out now. Any idea why it is closed? I really want to learn more about this concept.
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        Apr 23 2013: I really am fascinated by this approach for a clean and new renewable energy source. I'm a firm believer in using the natural world as a stepping stone for technological innovation and design. Nature has been evolving the most efficient ways to perform a myriad of tasks since technically the birth of our earth. By trying to create a renewable energy system off of models such as photosynthesis we could step towards true clean renewable energy. I hope we can use models right in front of us such as plants to push towards a more natural source of renewable energy.
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      Apr 24 2013: It seems solar has been mentioned many time after this post on the above portion of the thread. From Chelsea's technology review article I was able to find another project dubbed Palen that is in the final steps of approval and is hoped to be built within the next year or two. http://www.brightsourceenergy.com/palen. While this article does not go into the specifics about impacts on the environment, the fact sheet mentions a variety of technological innovations, two of which are very interesting and would decrease environmental impacts of the technology. One, is that it uses 95% less water (supposedly) than the other Mojave plant by cooling it with air in a closed loop steam system that also recycles water. Second, it uses land efficiently by implementing taller towers on pilons which preserve plant life below by not using traditional grading techniques that require removal of plants. I think some of these improvement go to show that the energy technology with the best and most efficient implementation innovation with be the quickest to become more widespread. Many of these innovations are hard to predict.
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    Apr 24 2013: I also agree with the idea of nuclear power as the next major source of energy. The terra power nuclear reactor as pointed out by noel above seems to be a promising idea. They propose a new type of reactor called the "travelling wave reactor". What i like the most about the idea is the emphasis put on the reactors impact to the environment. The website claims that 50 times more energy will be produced compared to the light water reactors of today. What i find interesting and do not quite understand is that they say that they will be using depleted uranium for power. Does anyone have a good explanation of how this could possibly be done? Probably the greatest concern for any nuclear reactor is the safety associated with it. The travelling wave reactor has incorporated safety ideas and protocols into their design that have accounted for all previous nuclear reactor accidents. What do people think about terra power? do you think it has some sort of viable future?
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      Apr 24 2013: I had never heard of terra power. I looked it up and it said that is uses a closed fuel system and is very efficient. It seems like it could be useful for a while but in the long run don't we want to stay away from depending on fuel?
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      Apr 24 2013: I think the TWR model is a great idea! There is much concern about the build-up of depleted uranium from nuclear power plants and its potential effect on the environment as well as humans. The TWR provides a way for the DU to be put to use. I found a great simplified description on how the TWR utilizes this depleted uranium. "Think of it as a very slow burning bullet. At one end of the fuel assembly is the primer, in this case a small amount of enriched U-235. Packed like gunpowder in the rest of the 'cartridge' is depleted uranium. The primer ignites the DU immediately around it and this sets off a chain reaction that propagates forward through the fuel at a rate that would take anywhere from months to decades, possibly as much as a century." There have been estimates that suggest that there is enough depleted uranium stored around the planet to provide electric power for everyone for the next millennium! The downside of this model is that it still does produce a fair bit of waste, but its about 10% less than that produced by LWRs today. Also, the waste from the enriched U-235 primer for the reactor can theoretically be used up again in the reactor without any processing!
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    Apr 24 2013: I am currently taking a course on the Hanford nuclear site, and have become very skeptical on our future with nuclear energy. Nuclear sites around the world, including Hanford, have proven that nuclear energy waste is difficult to manage and contain, often times leaking from their storage units after several decades. However, some microbiologists are looking at specific microbes (specifically Shewanella sp.) that can digest toxic metals and convert them into non-toxic ones. A friend of mine at Whitman College is currently taking a class from Sara Belchik who is doing research on specific strains of Shewanella that were isolated near Hanford and have the ability to reduce iron oxides and uranium. If the world can advance technology to prevent major accidents like the nuclear meltdown in Japan, and if we can learn more about microbes to potentially assist in breaking down the waste we produce, I believe nuclear power will provide the most energy without taking up a lot of habitat area and affecting biodiversity. These are most likely long-term goals, so in the meantime I would look to advances in solar energy to make a push in the renewable energy market.

    Links:
    http://aem.asm.org/content/77/15/5521.full
    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/29915669/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/microbes-digest-detoxify-dangerous-metals/#
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      Apr 24 2013: I really like this approach. Although waste leakage is a serious problem being able to identify microbes able to reduce this waste is paramount. There is this really good short video on Thorium reactors as an alternative to Nuclear fission.

      LFTRs in 5 minutes - Thorium Reactors
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uK367T7h6ZY
  • Apr 24 2013: Now that the 'war' on renewables is over the two I am intrigued with the most are solar and magnetic. Solar due to the fact that technology is rapidly improving and getting stronger as apparent with the developers at Goal Zero. The other is not always thought of as alternative energy, however, after riding a magnetic train at 160mph and not one gas emission or vibration while running. Check out what Magna Drive in Seattle is doing to reduce our needs for oil consumption by using magnets in couplings in manufacturing plants.
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    Apr 23 2013: With any form of renewable energy, we must take into consideration the environmental costs associated with producing/storing this energy. What I mean is, in order to produce things like wind turbines they need to be manufactured in a factory out of metal and fiberglass and the machines needed to make these products require a lot of energy. So even if the product itselff (i.e. wind turbines) reduces carbon emissions, the manufacturing process is quite energy expensive.

    Let me give an example: the Prius (or any other electric car).
    The concept of this car is wonderful; battery power replaces gasoline and even a self-recharging mechanism built into the braking system. Great gas mileage, low emissions. Sounds like a win-win right? Well, when we break down the manufacturing that went into this car we find it is not nearly as environmentally friendly as we like to think. First off, each Prius battery contains 32 pounds of nickel, and annually Toyota produces 1,000 tons of nickel. This nickel is first mined in Canada (where the surround area has been declared an environmental disaster site), then shipped to Europe, then to China and finally Japan during the refining process. The cars are manufactured in Japan and shipped by tanker to the US. This entire process uses vast quantities of fossil fuels and steel and plastics. Finally, that high tech battery cannot be recycled easily and biodegrades in landfills into extremely toxic chemicals. So, even though the car itself might reduce emissions, the process it takes to obtain the car is not at all ecofriendly and probably offsets any benefits it produces.

    In a perfect world, all these processes would run on sustainable energy. I do not think it is likely that we will be able to have sustainable energy without using lots of fossil fuels to help provide energy that energy in some way, but maybe others have different views?
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    Apr 23 2013: Hydropower, often associated with dams, is another common source of "green energy" with effects on biodiversity that are often overlooked. The construction of dams often includes the straightening of the river channel to optimize the amount of energy harnessed by the dam, which reduces and eliminates smaller streams that provide necessary food and water sources to many organisms. Also, the implementation of dams usually results in flooding of the river's natural floodplain; this can cause local ecosystem changes as historically "drier" lands are replaced with wetlands. Dams affect many species both within and outside the river. Many species of fish, aquatic invertebrates, and microorganisms that live in the river are threatened due to the reduction of essential habitat. Other species that depend on the river ecosystem would also be negatively affected due to the possible reduction in food and water sources. The flooding caused by the implementation of dams, as well, displaces many animal and plant species.

    One positive note with hydropower that is not true for other sources of clean energy (i.e. nuclear, wave energy, biofuels) is the fact that dams can be deconstructed and natural ecosystems can rebuild themselves over time through secondary succession. There is currently no known way to properly dispose of the wastes from nuclear fusion, energy harvested from waves could cause huge changes to relatively unknown ocean ecosystems, and biofuels involve the massive transition of natural ecosystems into monocultures.

    Dams rely on natural physical processes, mainly magnetic and gravitational forces, to harness energy. The link below from the U.S.G.S describes how dams convert energy from rivers into usable electrical power.

    Although the use of dams as an energy source is not a biologically sound method of obtaining energy in the long term, I think it could be a good source of energy until we can develop new energy sources.

    http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/hyhowworks.html
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      Apr 23 2013: Hydro-power definitely has both pros and cons. Its a successful way to farm consistent energy from the environment but this farming only as a contributes a small percentage of energy to our grid. Habitat destruction by either flooding plains or trapping of water in one location may seriously impact biological ecosystems. Although this may be a good source for some renewable energy it does not seem to be promising for a primary renewable energy source.
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      Apr 24 2013: I think with this, though, it is important to take into consideration the major issues that dams have already caused in terms of biodiversity. Especially in the Pacific Northwest of the US with the Bonneville dam, there has been some serious damage to salmon populations, as the dams impede the natural migration patterns of salmon up the Columbia river. While fish ladders do help to minimize this issue, there is no substitute for the fish's natural migration patterns. The drastic changes to the river downstream of the dams also have huge repercussions on wildlife. Lower water levels through off plant growth regions and that can have serious effects on the diversity within an area.

      Yes, hydro-power causes far less pollution, generally causing some sedimentary disruption within the water supply and causing essentially zero atmospheric contamination, there are some serious drawbacks to damming up rivers.
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    Apr 22 2013: I think that nuclear power is a very viable option for minimizing the effect, of energy production, on biodiversity worldwide. In comparison, to standard sources of energy, nuclear energy produce, "...wastes (that) comprise less than 1% of total industrial toxic wastes." (*)

    A recent study into the effect of renewable energy has revealed that nuclear power comes in third behind wind and hydroelectric power (**); in terms of its effect on climate change. Climate change being one of the most significant impacts on biodiversity. Although nuclear power does produce significant physical waste, it does not pose any threats to bird populations (as do wind turbines) nor does it threaten local fish and aquatic wildlife (as do dams producing hydroelectric power). In conclusion, in terms of threat to ecosystems worldwide I believe nuclear power to be the ultimate choice if our goal is to conserve global biodiversity.

    I think that physical waste is the biggest threat to biological diversity and by reducing waste we can seriously diminish the human effect on ecosystems across the globe. Although, nuclear power instills fear in many people, it is actually one of the safest forms of energy; if safety regulations worldwide are sufficiently increased we can avoid incidents such as those experienced in Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    Sources:
    (*) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Nuclear-Fuel-Cycle/Nuclear-Wastes/Radioactive-Waste-Management/#.UXWlhqLrywI
    (**) Moomaw, W., P. Burgherr, G. Heath, M. Lenzen, J. Nyboer, A. Verbruggen, 2011: Annex II: Methodology. In IPCC: Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (ref. page 10)
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      Apr 22 2013: Hi Ben! I thought you might be interested in Nuclear Fusion ala Taylor Wilson http://www.ted.com/talks/taylor_wilson_yup_i_built_a_nuclear_fusion_reactor.html. Not a lot of detail here on the feasibility of using this to supply the world's energy needs.

      Check out this debate between Stewart Brand (we discussed his de-extinction ideas) and Mark Jacobson http://www.ted.com/talks/debate_does_the_world_need_nuclear_energy.html.
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        Apr 23 2013: fusion is not viable in the foreseeable future. in fact, it is not sure that it will ever be viable. in particular, the method wilson talks about is known to be unfeasible for energy production. the concept is well known for a long time, and you can actually buy commercial grade devices any time. it is used in laboratories all around the globe as a neutron source. some research has been conducted to make it into a power plant, but they were abandoned very early due to unresolvable practical problems.
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      Apr 23 2013: One of the biggest issues is the storing of nuclear waste. Currently the Hanford Nuclear Site, which was used for weapons production during WWII, is begining to leak into the groundwater and then into the Columbia River due to inefficient and containment facilities that were only meant to funtion for 10 to 20 years. This is a huge threat to the organisms and the people who depend on the river for food and fresh water to irrigate millions of acres of agriculture. There is also the issue of the environmental degradation due to mining for uranium. The refining, enrichment, and production process produces radioactive isotopes that profoundly affect the entire ecosystem in which it is done.

      We need to think even cleaner, i think.
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        Apr 23 2013: I agree with Paige. Nuclear power may help reduce CO2 emissions but we need to come up with an energy source that does not have the potential to cause problems in the future. Having nuclear waste leaking into environments and ecosystems can cause serious problems.
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          Apr 23 2013: I agree that we need cleaner energy sources than even nuclear, but i agree with Ben's original comment that nuclear seems to currently be by far our best option for power in the short term. As others have mentioned in this conversation, solar, biofuel, and wind power require huge tracts of land to get even a reasonable yield, and the processes involved in the production of turbines and the like are far from green. Additionally, utilizing waves (or wind, or even sunlight) as an energy source could very likely have unforseen consequences, as we do not know if/to what extent utilizing these resources could affect ocean or air currents or other large-scale systems.
          Also, on the topic of hydroelectric power utilization, dams are obviously a massively disruptive barrier to any ecosystem, potentially harming biodiversity, but I really like Krista's earlier point that they could have some of the absolute lowest long-term costs. I hadn't before considered the fact that damage caused from dams can be naturally recovered without too much trouble once the dam is gone, and that is an important positive factor.

          I reiterate, I certainly don't think nuclear fission is the end-all power source, but right now, trying to fix all these myriad anthropogenic problems with our planet while attempting to provide energy to humanity, it's triage, and decisions need to be made. The extraction and refining of nuclear fuels will likely continue to be an issue, but with waste, I feel like we should start using the moon- there's no biodiversity up there to mess up. Now, this almost sounds like a silly idea, but i feel like it's a good one- I assume the reason it's not done right now must be the prohibitive cost, but ideally, with technological advances, we should be able to put as much potentially biologically harmful waste up there as we want, in a cost-effective way.


          The moon: earth's wastebasket. . . . someday?
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          Apr 23 2013: Hi Ben! I can think of a number of reasons why it would be risky to put nuclear waste on the moon. What would happen to nuclear waste if something went wrong during transit between the Earth and the moon?
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        Mario R

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        Apr 23 2013: What happens when we colonize the moon too? We don't want to have to wade through nuclear waste. I think that in order to start working towards a long term solution, we have to change our current habits. For example, start turning off lights around the house that aren't being used! Try to take half the duration of shower each morning, or even better, shower every other day! Bundle in layers instead of turning on the heat. If we start reducing our usage of energy, the demand for energy won't be as great! I think that if we do start limiting our energy usage, we can reliably rely upon other methods of sustainable energy.

        Also, another suggestion could be to replace lamps around the house with the stylish gravity powered lamp (not yet available retail)!

        http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2250424/The-GRAVITY-powered-lamp-bring-1-5billion-people-darkness.html
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          Apr 23 2013: I like your suggestion to shower every other day, not only will it save energy in heating the water but it will be better for us in the long run. It's been scientifically proven that showering removes all the good bacteria from your skin and makes it so you get sick easy. That's why I never shower anymore, at my age I can't afford to get sick and miss times with my grand kids. :-)

          -Todd C.
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          Apr 23 2013: Hey Mario, really good point about changing our habits. The core issue here isn't what technology we use, its the fact that we consume too much! People look at improved and new technology as our answer, but I think we need to take a step back and reexamine our lifestyles. We don't need as much energy as we currently use.
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          Apr 23 2013: If we colonize the moon we could just go to the part with no nuclear waste... Not only do we not need the whole surface of the moon, the technology to completely colonize (as in, there's so many people there that we're actually running into a problem with nuclear waste being around) a lifeless sphere where half of it stays dark all the time is thousands of years away.

          Transporting nuclear waste ever, in any capacity, is risky, i just think getting it out of the biosphere is the best thing to do. We're just as likely to screw up sequestering it somewhere on earth as we are to screw up transporting it to the moon, by my reckoning. Additionally, once it's on the moon we're home free, there's no life up there, and it's not going to spread since there's no wind or air on the moon. I feel like transporting risk and cost are the only downsides here, both of which continue to shrink as technology improves.


          This is far from an ideal solution, but i feel like it's good for our situation now. More research into better, safer power sources is important. We need to step up our moon game though.
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          Apr 23 2013: Individual action is not enough. We still have industry, we have wars, we have an expanding economy, and we have humanity. Turning off lights, taking half showers may be great for your pocket-book, but it makes a marginal impact on the amount of emissions from a coal-fire electric plant.

          The question we must ask ourselves is not what can we do around the house, but what can we do together to change our energy consumption habits. Individual effort is great, however, mass collective action is crucial if we want a sustainable, carbon-neutral future
        • Apr 24 2013: I've got to agree with the past comments in this string. I think that although solar, wind, wave, and nuclear are all technologies we have now, it's obvious from the TEDtalks and ongoing debates that current technology isn't exactly feasible yet to maintain (or increase) biodiversity AND continue to fuel our habits. I believe that by enacting small changes, such as the aforementioned energy friendly appliance standards, tighter CO2 emission regulation, tax credits, and other options that nearly every person could partake in is the way to go to begin to decrease CO2 emissions. This will not only decrease the amount of energy consumed per person, but allowing people to be included in on this movement may increase the interest in investing and exploring new technologies. I also agree that individual change isn't going to create a radical energy revolution (because not everyone is going to be willing to give up certain energy benefits), so what about recent proposals for energy could bring about these new technologies?

          In Amory Lovins' TEDtalk called "The End of Oil", he proposes solving the United States' energy problem by "re-inventing fire". What he means by this is getting rid of those energy technologies that have negative side effects, such as CO2 emissions by coal and fossil fuel burning (for electricity and vehicles), in exchange for a combination of already invented "green" tech. Although this is not an immediate fix-all for maintaining biodiversity, and that surely was not the purpose of his presentation, he stresses that by breaking the new contributors for electricity and transportation into the subgroups of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro power it will allow for the speed in which new technologies are introduced to increase.

          Amory Lovins' TEDtalk: http://www.ted.com/playlists/58/the_end_of_oil.html
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          Apr 24 2013: The immediate future needs the continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas while moving away from oil and coal). While the continued use of fossil fuels further exacerbates problems such as global warming, the danger of slowing down economic growth is too great. In the west, we have the luxury of being concerned about the environment due to the security we enjoy. However, as soon as a crisis arises, the argument always seems to come down to "jobs versus the environment". Extreme solutions that limit the growth our system is based upon have the potential for backlash in creating resentment towards clean energy and creating movements against it.

          The environmental Kuznets curve predicts that as an economy becomes more developed, it will initially cause more damage to its environment and then, after a turning point, begin to do less. Currently, most developing countries are on the upward portion of the curve while western countries (with the "luxury of caring") are on the downward side. Allowing for continued growth in the developing world (while policing the externalization of western nation's pollution) is a key to protecting future biodiversity. (It sounds like a catch-22, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot prevent the developing world from developing so we should allow it to develop as smoothly as possible).

          http://isecoeco.org/pdf/stern.pdf
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        Apr 23 2013: I agree. From what I've read so far there is a lot of support for nuclear energy, but as you mentioned, the reason why nuclear energy isn't super popular is because... well it's nuclear and the wastes it generates. The most popular method to dispose of nuclear waste is burying it in the ground essentially which is just all sorts of problems.

        However, I remember a few years ago there was this giant idea about sending waste into the far reaches of space. What's your thoughts on that? I understand that space travel right now is expensive to the point where it's not cost efficient, but what about in the future when space travel is cheaper?

        "There are three good reasons to send nuclear waste into space. First, it is safe. Second, space disposal is better than the alternative, underground burial. Third, it may finally open the door to widespread utilization of space. " (http://www.thespacereview.com/article/437/1)

        Just to play devil advocate, if you think about it. Space is literally endless which can mean an endless amount of area to dispose of waste. Naturally as long as it's far enough away from out planet. At the same time... we have nuclear waste floating around in space.
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          Apr 23 2013: I like this idea but I feel like once we're at that tech level we should use lifeless planets or moons for disposal, to know where potentially harmful substances are, and just because generally anything could happen if you fling stuff out into space- we could anger our alien overlords, or accidentally destroy a pristine new earth-like planet, or who knows. Space is the place.
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          Mario R

          • +1
          Apr 23 2013: I am inclined to disagree with sending nuclear waste into space. As you said Ben, it is possible that our alien overlords would be angered to the point of invasion, however I think this is a temporary solution to an ongoing problem. Sending nuclear matter into space is expanding the problem. There are too many uncontrolled variables, such as nuclear matter ending up on earth like planets as you have mentioned. In that scenario, we have had an impact not only on the species on our own planet, but species on other planets as well. Or what if the nuclear matter were to react to the composition elements of other stars? Would that in turn be the end of a different solar system?
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          Apr 24 2013: There is actually already a problem with man made debris pollution in space knocking satellites out of orbit, outlined in this article http://www.economist.com/node/16843825 so I'm not sure that sending any more waste, whether it is nuclear or not, is a good idea until we can figure out how to make sure satellites are secure.
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        Apr 23 2013: no, it is not a huge threat. it is a very minor, almost insignificant threat. fukushima dumped quite a lot of radioactive waste into the ocean, and the wildlife is totally unaffected. chernobyl dumped a ginormous amount of radioactivity on the surrounding forests, killing all animals for a decade, but now the biosystem is "back on line". and these are tragedies of grand scale. a small leakage has virtually no effect on the environment.
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        Apr 23 2013: I believe that Nuclear waste can and should only being stored until we figure out ways to break it down and possibly even use it as a secondary energy source. It's unrealistic to think that we can store mass volumes of substances this dangerous with any potentials contamination or environmental damage. Renewable energy services need to take into account safe and effective waste disposal services.
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          Apr 23 2013: it might sound unrealistic, but we already do that for decades now. as technology progresses, such a task gets easier and easier.
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      Apr 23 2013: I would agree with many of the comments here that propose nuclear power as our next major source of energy. The main issue is that we cannot let nuclear become our LAST energy source. Nuclear power plants provide a huge amount of energy once they are constructed, and they are being built all across the world. In South East Asia there is underway what has been called a "nuclear renaissance," as developing nations turn to nuclear power to attain energy security and enable economic development. However, the issues of uranium mining and waste disposal can't be ignored. Nuclear can provide a stepping stone, an intermediate energy strategy that we can make use of while more renewable technologies are developed and implemented. What is most important is that our CURRENT sources of energy (i.e. coal, oil, and natural gas) be set aside as soon as possible.
      Nuclear power definitely has a public image problem in the wake of Fukushima though; it won't be easy to convince some people that building more nuclear plants is a step in the right direction. Part of the issue comes down to a kind of psychological issue called the availability heuristic. Risks are perceived as greater when a specific or dramatic example comes to mind more easily. This is why people don't fear car accidents as much as they do plane crashes. Car accidents happen so frequently, they aren't sensational. They don't have a lot of salience (unless you've experienced one personally), and so not much emotional significance is attached to them. How does this fit in with nuclear? Imagine the reaction of Japan's government and public to the Fukushima disaster; an entire nation turns against nuclear overnight. Meanwhile in China, thousands of miners die every year extracting coal. The very coal that Japan will need to import to make up for shutting down nuclear plants! Nuclear power has enormous potential, as long as we design them safely and figure out a viable solution for disposing of waste.
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        Apr 23 2013: this stepping stone can last hundreds of years. i don't think that we need to solve 2200's problems now. just imagine if people of 1800 would have been assigned the task to come up with solutions to today's problems.
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        Apr 23 2013: Alex this is definitely a promising idea, one current initiative is the development of using the U-238 instead of the current U-239. Unlike light-water reactors (LWRs), TWRs (Traveling wave reactors) use only a small amount (~10%) of enriched uranium-235 or other fissile fuel to initiate the nuclear reaction. The remainder of the fuel consists of natural or depleted uranium-238, the current waste of today's nuclear reactors. This fourth generation nuclear reactor could convert all current nuclear waste into fuel and is currently being developed by a team lead by Bill Gates called, "Terra power".

        http://www.terrapower.com/
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          Apr 23 2013: That is fantastic! I wonder what the downsides are, or what issues would prevent these reactors from being implemented on a large enough scale?
          Nuclear power in general offers an advantage over many other alternative energy sources in that it is easily scalable. Nuclear power plants could provide power to very large areas, without too much additional infrastructure being developed, and they aren't site-specific like wind turbines, dams, solar panels, etc. I suppose there are some sites you want to avoid... like tsunami prone areas.
  • Apr 24 2013: I feel as if the question at hand is not if there is a new form of renewable energy, because we have so many options already presented. It seems that we have an abundance of creativity and ideas within the topic of renewable energy, now the main task is to implement these ideas. Looking at the Amory Lovins conversation and many of the comments on this particular conversation the answer seems like it is right in front of us but just out of reach...
    Ultimately what needs to happen is not just some magical new form of renewable to cure all of our problems, but we must take it on ourselves to control, limit the amount of energy being used now. As well to make sure any forms of new, renewable energy does not effect our environment our the species diversity that would not have been "naturally" effected anyways.
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    Apr 24 2013: While solar, wind, and tidal energy are extremely efficient, they're not as dependable as immediately obtainable sources of energy. While fossil fuels are a current primary source of energy, I believe hydrogen can be a valid future source. I talked about this in my 2nd convo-starter in my discussion of hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe, consisting of 75% of all mass. A hydrogen fuel cell runs on isolated hydrogen, kept on a metal substance to prevent it from escaping, and combines it with atmospheric oxygen to form water and electrical energy. Because no CO2 is produced, I assume this will not have a negative environmental impact on biodiversity and atmospheric CO2 levels. While this isn't the most rapid chemical reaction, there are significant catalysts (platinum in particular) that can work to help the reaction along. This brings me to why these fuel cells may not be realistic yet. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive, modern car manufacturers spend roughly 1 million to create a functioning car. Additionally, these fuel cells are very delicate, and only work under optimal conditions (temperature, pressure, etc). The last issue is that hydrogen isn't easy to isolate, and readily escapes; so collecting and containing hydrogen requires more advances in technology. Despite all this, I think hydrogen fueled cells have a potential future in our growing economy, not just in cars but for many other products.
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      Apr 24 2013: I also like the idea of using something so abundant as hydrogen to meet our energy demands. Currently it needs much research and development however, deems promising in the future. I personally believe that we should go nuclear, Thorium in particular, until a more efficient means of utilizing hydrogen as a primary energy source becomes a reality. Switching away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible will help curb global climate increase, saving as many species and biomes as possible. The biggest issue currently is transitioning out of fossil fuels... a relationship our current lifestyles cannot live without. Only through a successful transition between primary energy sources will we even begin to curb the damage we have inflicted.
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    Apr 24 2013: I believe that solar, wind, and tidal energy are the most logical options for energy sources because they produce little to no pollution, contributing almost nothing to atmospheric carbon. While each of these options has their own drawbacks, they are far less drastic than the drawbacks of non-renewable resources, such as fossil fuels. If we, as a human race, switch from using fossil fuels to these forms of renewable energy, we will reduce our contribution to atmospheric CO2 while maintaining the lifestyle that we have become to accustomed to (cars, electronic devices, etc.). However, will the switch have a positive or negative effect on the biodiversity of ecosystems? In the long run, I believe that the outcome will be positive. To prove my point I am going to focus on wave/tidal energies. Many people are concerned that the placement of turbines in marine ecosystems (used to generate energy by rotating with tidal patterns) will significantly influence local marine organisms, not only by killing individual fish and reducing populations, but also by taking up space and damaging natural habitats. While these are very important factors to consider, I feel that the ultimate energy outcome of the turbines will suffice for the loss of these organisms. With the reduction in atmospheric CO2, ocean acidification will decrease, and many marine environments will be much healthier. On top of this, many marine organisms are sessile (immobile) and only require a hard substrate on which to grow. Placing turbines or other structures related to tidal energy will allow more substrate for these animals to grow on, increasing biodiversity in those locations. As you can see, there are pros and cons to all forms of energy, so we must choose which source to rely on based on how strong the positive and negative influences are.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2664.2009.01697.x/abstract
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    Apr 24 2013: Global warming, species loss and habitat loss have all resulted largely in part of human behavior. With all of our efforts to redo the damage we've created in some regions and populations I worry that within new pursuits of alternatives we will lend up doing harm for our future generation's environment. There are pro's and con's to almost every form of energy so as we inspect new forms of energy we need to consider what will do the least harm today, tomorrow, and in the future. Like anything it will be hard to "rank" the potential impact of these fuels on biodiversity if we don't understand the full spectrum of how they affect human health, microbial, land, and marine biodiversity and of course the environment. One interesting prospect is the use of a fungus called Ascocoryne sacroid that has shown to convert cellulose into potential biofuels. It has about 80 clusters of genes that can work on the cellulose of many different plants (since they have cellulose :)) to make potential energy. This fungus isn't alone, Gliocladium roseum, is a fungi that grows in South America that can produce hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon derivatives. Essentially, it can produce " myco-diesel." These species can be added to a mixture of bio-waste such a plant waste from a farmland to breakdown the cellulose so that no additionally enzymes needed to be added. Is this a better option? I am not sure but its a start in the right direction.
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    Apr 24 2013: While renewable forms of energy are being speculated to hopefully replace oil, it looks like it may take a while to strategize how we'll use it. However, I really liked the links you provided for this topic, because I wasn't too knowledgeable on the topic, so this was really helpful, I specially liked Lovin's 40 year plan because he showed some pretty good points on how renewable energy could benefit us, environmentally and budget wise, and it seems like it would be the least harmful to biodiversity. While I felt like the presentation was way too simplistic, it didn't look like a bad plan. So depending on what people want to prioritize, I think we can rank renewable forms of energy based on how they would impact biodiversity.
  • Apr 24 2013: When looking at renewable forms of energy we have to realize that they're all going to have some negative effects. With Solar energy, manufacturing plants are producing extremely toxic silicon tetrachloride which makes the soil too acidic for plants, causes severe irritation to living tissues, and is highly toxic when ingested or inhaled. With wind you have habitat destruction from setting them up. They also kill lots of birds. Bio-fuels still have carbon emissions and they destroy habitats to create agricultural areas to grow bio-fields. Tidal generators initially destroy habitats. Each one will have some kind negative effect and so, what it really comes down to is what things are we willing to sacrifice or give up. Different people are going to rank certain things more important than others. Some people want to save the birds, others the fish etc. So yes, we can try to rank renewable forms of energy and their potential impacts but who gets to ultimately decide what is most important and most reasonable to sacrifice?
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    Apr 24 2013: I don't believe there is a "silver bullet" for the problem of renewable/nonrenewable resources. My grandmother always said, "Moderation, moderation, moderation!" In order to reduce the amount of petroleum being drilled out of the Earth there will need to be a dramatic shift in how the masses think. And not all renewable energy sources are created equal. While solar could do really well in certain parts of the world it could fail in others. Same with geothermal, which is probably the most undervalued renewable resource we have. In Iceland almost 90% of their heat and hot water demand is supplied by geothermal heating. Here in Oregon, Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls is run on geothermal power. I think that cutting out all oil will be nearly impossible, but changing our usage to include renewables is the way to go. If solar panels work in your area, build in solar, if wind turbines work better, put up some turbines. Maybe some farmers could lease out the land they are now being paid to grow corn on and grow energy with turbines and solar panels. This will not happen though until people start to realize how dependent we are on oil, and that they will need to change their daily habits to accommodate renewable resources.
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      Apr 24 2013: This is definitely a smart direction to head towards. Harvesting energy based on abundance and ease of access makes the most sense.
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      Apr 24 2013: That's why corn price went up! Many countries depend on corn to feed people due to its decent price. However, using corn for biofuel, massive demands, raises its price which result in hunger in many countries. It is ridiculous!
    • Apr 24 2013: geothermal can be made 100% underground and have 0 impact. Only reason it emits co2 is because we do not use a closed loop system. Geothermal is by far the best answer and if used properly could be used to improve nature not impact it ... the only question is what are we willing to pay for the right answer.. or how hard are we willing to work at it.. the reality is our children will pay either way it's weather they pay in hard work or a degraded environment period
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      Apr 24 2013: You brought up a good point about using the energy sources that are the most abundant in your area. There are renewable forms of energy all around us but we tend to use the more known and established energy sources like coal, gasoline, and other non-renewable hydrocarbons. By using the energy sources that are nearest to large populations the energy spent on transporting the established energy sources can be cut down dramatically. If we can use varying amounts of local renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal the environmental impact of transporting energy can be nearly cut out.
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    Apr 24 2013: I think this is a issue that many people focus on and try to find some alternative energy, especially clean energy. When thinking about the energy with lowest impact on biodiversity, I think is solar power and wind power. Firstly, they are clean. Compared with oil and coal, the solar and wind do not produce carbon dioxide and gas pollutants. Secondly, they are kind of infinite. From Rob's talk, we know that oil cannot support us for a long time. And water is also deficient, but solar and wind are easy to get.
    However, when I studied conservation biology, I knew that wind power blades can cause the birds death. So it also influences biodiversity, but compared with other forms of energy, it is a little.
    Here are links related to solar energy and wind energy
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDZzAIcCQLQ
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llIbjC49Fjs
  • Apr 24 2013: I've glimpsed through the discussion, and I'm surprised no one has brought up geo-exchange. It is different from the geothermal mentioned a few times in this feed, as it's not a means of generating electricity, rather a way to heat and cool buildings. It uses the constant temperature of the earth beneath the frost line as a source/sink for temperature regulation. A variation of the technology uses water as the source/sink. The new heat exchangers can now keep a building at room temperature without any other energy source besides the electricity to run the pumps and thermostat. They have even progressed to using heat collected from buildings in the summer to heat water. It has more potential to lower co2 levels than wind and solar, and can be more universally installed. With the new advances in drilling geo-exchange systems can be installed under existing parking lots and with a smaller surface area. There may be some set-backs (initial cost, sometimes increases property "footprint," difficult to install in urban areas), but no energy source will be perfect.
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      Apr 24 2013: Wow, I have never heard of this kind of heating/cooling technology before. It sounds pretty brilliant. And considering impact on Earth and biodiversity it is very appealing. I think that one of the big environmental draws of these systems is that they not only harness renewable energy, but they do it without taking up lots of land area like solar or wind energy systems. Right now in the U.S. the carbon emission load from heating, cooling and hot water use is huge! These three things account for about 40% of carbon emissions from the U.S., and that is even comparable to vehicle emissions(*). Considering how many people there are on the planet and the growing percentage of us that live in cities, moving away from oil, propane and natural gas to heat and cool buildings is a necessary step towards, well, any kind of future.

      This energy system is certainly not perfect, as you mentioned. Units weigh several tons and are not cheap. But the technology will inevitably improve and the system will become more streamlined and accessible. A geo-exchange system, coupled with solar power could be an excellent home energy setup. It will be interesting to see how the geo-exchange system evolves and whether or not it will gain popularity as the world makes its (hopefully quick) shift to alternative energy.

      (*) http://www.geoexchange.org/
      .
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    Apr 24 2013: This is something that I've always thought a lot about. Before everyone begins going all crazy on renewable energy sources, we need to make sure we understand how that source, or the process of creating that source, affects the environment, more specifically biodiversity. I think the most important thing to think about when creating this new energy source and how it will affect biodiversity, is to keep it simple. FInd an energy source that is simple, has little if any type of emission, and if it does have some sort of byproduct, make sure we know how to handle that byproduct in a way that it doesn't harm the environment or the creatures in the environment. Also, we need to be thinking about multiple sources, not just one that's going to fix everything, because we won't find it..

    Going away from crude oil, I think solar power, nuclear power, hydropower, and hydrogen power are a good start. Yes nuclear power and hydropower effect the environment in many negative ways and aren't renewable (expect hydropower which I think is), but these energy sources are important when supplying energy for large scale purposes like huge cities, and I believe we know enough about them to make these sources more efficient and so that their emissions and byproducts don't harm the environment or biodiversity. We are a long ways from hydrogen power and even though it's been a popular energy source since the 80's and no one has really figured out how to upscale this form of energy, I think it's the future for cars and other forms of transpiration.

    Check out this fun video from the 80's about hydrogen power!

    http://youtu.be/74zKtxNWc0I

    Even though finding an alternate energy source is important to biodiversity, I think the most important thing when it comes to human energy use and the environment is understanding that we use way to much energy. We as a species need to downsize our energy use first and foremost. That is the first step and hardest step we need to take!
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      Apr 24 2013: I think it's a good point that, with the point we're at in society, we really just need to have a greater understanding of our impact on the environment with our energy consumption on a societal level. I have a hard time seeing the human race making a global effort to downsize energy consumption, though I agree that that would be an amazing and important step for us to take. It's just that the global industrialization the capitalistic societies of most countries don't really lend themselves to movements like that, as sad as that is.

      I do like the idea of nuclear power and hydropower as alternatives for larger societies that wouldn't efficiently run off of wind and solar power, however I do think the two do have some serious cons that may be hard to get over. I feel that it would be extremely difficult to figure out a method to harness hydropower without damming rivers, and there is no way to 'minimize' the effects of damming a river that I can think of, but I could be wrong. It may just be a price that we're going to have to pay, though, because really, anything is better than our current situation.
    • Apr 24 2013: I think you bring up a good point by saying that we should be searching for multiple sources and not one source that would fix everything. Solar, wind or tidal energy aren't sufficient to supply large cities. However, these sources can be efficient in supplying smaller populations.
      Although tidal and wind power effects marine and bird populations, I believe their overall effect on these populations is not nearly as detrimental as the effect of releasing large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
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    Apr 24 2013: After reading through all of these posts and doing some research on my own I agree that wind, wave, and solar power will be great resources for generating energy in the near future. While they all have their drawbacks I feel that they are still significantly better options than continuing to exploit the coal, oil, and natural gas reserves that are so detrimental to our planet. Also, as I ponder the effect that these energy sources have on biodiversity I still see them as far less harmful than our current energy sources.

    For example, while wind turbines are responsible for the deaths of a significant number of birds, I find this as far less detrimental to biodiversity than say… the hundreds of acres that are occupied by the tailings ponds created from mining oil sands in Alberta Canada. These ponds are full of the toxic waste generated in the mining process and have not only killed thousands of migrating birds that have been unfortunate enough to use them as a place to land but are also leaching into the surrounding ecosystems affecting not only the plant and animal species but also the humans that use these ecosystems for subsistence.

    So, the questions that are always lingering in my mind are weather or not we should rely on a new energy source appearing to save the world from the dangerous path it is going down? If considering the conservation of biodiversity as a main interest than reducing the world’s reliance on these fuels should be our main goal. When looking at some of the major fuel consuming industries, for example agriculture, it seems to me that we would all benefit, along with biodiversity, from moving away from our reliance on fossil fuels. Our cash crop and export heavy agricultural system directly lowers biodiversity by planting monocultures that reduce the health of the soil and require extensive amounts of harmful inputs such as herbicides and pesticides.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/garth_lenz_images_of_beauty_and_devastation.html
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      Apr 24 2013: I completely agree and our current methods of harvesting oil are increasingly expensive. Unfortunately, many don't want to believe that we need to transition from oil. When will we finally stop and realize we are just beating a dead horse!!
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    Apr 24 2013: All forms of energy are bound to impact biodiversity in some way or form when we consider how much energy we would need from them. Solar power requires rare minerals which must be mined out of the Earth which leads to environmental degradation and species loss. Hydro-electric power often floods terrestrial habitats that house specific species as well as creating troubles for aquatic ones. Nuclear energy is clean in its production but the potential harm done by the waste could be disastrous for biodiversity. Biofuels create a monoculture, leads to a great loss of species.
    One of the renewable energies with the least impact on biodiversity animals and plant life in general is geothermal power. It may not be the most assessable renewable resource, but if we are looking at energy sources through a biodiversity lens, then it is one of the best. I think we need to seriously consider this as an alternative when considering preserving life other than our own.
    • Apr 24 2013: though current method of 2 straws in ground fracking the gap in the middle just seems dumb.. saw video explanation of it once and the presenter said something like " and as we run more 300+ degree hot water at extreme pressure through the 300+ degree rocks we find that the flow rate increases ! " and i couldn't help but lol thinking has this idiot scientist never seen cold water running through cold rock increasing the flow rate.. it's called the Grand Canyon.. and now there making these under extreme heat and pressure 1 mile underground .. ya awesome idea.. LOL and now there doing this with oil and gas ya no need for government regulation there lmao so dumb
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    Apr 23 2013: The type of renewable energy source that is most sustainable and minimizes any impact on biodiversity depends on the type of fossil fuel it will be replacing, and the characteristics of the area implementing the renewable energy source. A certain renewable fuel will do better in one area of the world rather than in another.

    These limitations are prominent in all renewable fuel sources. Let’s say we wanted to switch to cellulosic ethanol completely in the transportation sector so we can minimize the amount of emissions from vehicles. How much farmland would be needed? If all of the U.S. ran on biofuels like ethanol, we would need 415 million acres of corn to achieve this. However, we only have 406 million acres of usable farmland in the U.S., which is used for other agricultural purposes besides corn. If we were to expand farming, we would intensify environmental consequences. More importantly, blend wall is another problem. Automobiles today can only run on a mixture of 10% ethanol.

    Wind is another renewable energy source for electricity. Spinning fan blades powered by the wind can generate electricity for us. These turbines are cost effective, avoid greenhouse gases, and have a very clear potential for growth. One downfall is intermittency; it may be windy on certain days, and hardly windy on other days. It may be windier in a certain region, like the path of a jet stream, rather than in a rocky, mountainous area. This poses a very serious problem for electric companies since there is no way to store electricity. There might be blackouts on a city that relies on wind, especially at peak-load times.

    Knowing some of the small problems with our sustainable system, renewable energy may progress too slowly to minimize global warming. The question we must ask ourselves is not what renewable energy is best, but which one functions well in certain geographic regions.
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      Apr 23 2013: Another issue with bioethanol is that alot of times the CO2 produced when manufacturing it nullifies any benefit to the reduction of CO2 from our cars. Also the loss of habitat due to this high demand of usable farmland would be of even greater cost to biodiversity.
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      Apr 23 2013: I think in the short term the notion of this idea is good. Farmland doesn't necessarily need to be used to produce cellulosic ethanol because it is made from lignocellulose, which is found in nearly every natural, free-growing plant without agricultural effort. These plants can be acquired from a wide variety of ways that don't involve farming. However, I do not know the effectiveness of these other acquisition methods or the amount of land involved. These plants also need to go through extensive processing steps which require a variety of chemicals. Every energy production method has some form of a trade off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol
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    Apr 23 2013: I like the idea of geothermal energy because it releases far less carbon dioxide then burning fossil fuels and very little nitrous oxide and sulfur gas are given off. It can be constantly produced and can cut energy bills by 30-40%. The biggest down fall and ultimate demise of this type of energy is how much it costs to put geothermal energy plants in place. Of the figures I saw it costs roughly 1-4 million to drill well and in-home geothermal energy pump system are roughly $30,000. This is really expensive and our infrastructure here in the U.S. I don't believe has a good amount of access to drilling sites. Not to mention what kind of side effects drilling may have on biodiversity.
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    Apr 23 2013: I would like to think combination of solar and wind. Solar panels have less biodiversity impacts because they are usually used on the roof or in the urban areas. Solar energy can be used as small on-site renewable energy or can also be used as enormous as solar thermal. Like the Parabolic trough design in a solar energy site. Wind turbines, as we all know, have some controversial issues with birds and raptors conservationists. However, I had a biology conservation class and had a guest lecture and he talked about how they are doing a study of birds species that are affected by wind farms. They are studying the species nesting behaviors and flying/ soaring distance from ground. If all the ecologists and conservation biologists dedicate to research and help analyze the site before the wind farm gets built, it will have less impact on birds and raptors.

    However, I think a big land area like United States doesn't need to worry about land usage for energy generation. Small island countries, such as Taiwan, Japan, Philippines are not so lucky about renewable energy because they don't have enough land to build efficient wind farms or big solar energy sites to generate energy. Most of the energy still comes from coal and nuclear energy.

    To respond to Bill Gates: Innovating to Zero talk, I would think we should do it both ways. It means we are all responsible for reducing energy usage and never give up on innovating new technologies that will help us generate enough energy but have less biodiversity impacts. This being said, I would argue for more dense urban areas and less spread out suburban. Dense urban areas with solar roof and green roof combined.
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      Apr 23 2013: I agree with you that solar and wind generated energy is very green. Now, we have another technology, ocean current energy, that uses water current to produce energy that might be used in a small island countries.(you can check this web site: http://www.boem.gov/Renewable-Energy-Program/Renewable-Energy-Guide/Ocean-Current-Energy.aspx) I am from Maui, HI, and Hawaii is a good place to test those new green energies because of its unique environment, sunny, windy, and big waves. Despite these efforts, the electricity company on Maui, MECO, does not want to offer energy which is generated from the sun, wind, and water current because if they do, they need to lower the price, less profit! They are well aware of its safety, cost, and effects, so sad.
      However, as you mentioned, the effects on birds, building an wind farm is not a good idea as well as using water current energy due to the effects on marine species. There are several different types of turbines used in ocean current energy which might alter the environment in the ocean due to its sound and altering water current. Although those alterations might be not a big problem for fish, the impact of those alterations on microbes might be extreme. Thus, although the renewable energies might help climate change, biodiversity can be altered.
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      Apr 23 2013: you have to consider the manufacturing process too. once a solar panel is ready, it indeed poses no threat. but solar panels don't grow on trees.
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        Apr 23 2013: Yes, I agreed with you. Like every other renewable energy we need to put manufacturing process into account. Nuclear energy, wind turbines manufacture and any other elements. Everything need to be transported anyway. Wind turbines have huge issues on transportation to the sites because they are really enormous but I feel solar panels/ cells are easy to transfer and install. They are expensive and to produce, those cells are not "green" either. However, once they are installed and combined with other green roofs in a dense urban areas. I think this can be a promise of on-site energy generation.
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        Apr 24 2013: Good point! also turbines.
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    Apr 23 2013: When I first started thinking about this question, solar power immediately provided one of the most attractive possibilities as a biologically low impact alternative energy source. In my thinking, the best case scenario for solar would be found not in large plants which require dedicated plots of land, but rather in an army of individual panels put in place within and throughout cities. This best case solar scenario would be fantastic as it would conceivably cause no further ecological impact in terms of land and water use than the cities themselves do already. But, as Chelsea pointed out the solar panels required for this project are currently expensive and inefficient so this idea is not really a doable one at this point in time.
    That said, I did some more research and discovered an even more promising dream technology: flying windmills. Basically what this would entail is the construction of huge kites with propeller blades which are tethered to the ground, flown up a few miles into the air at which point their propellers switch from being active to passive at which point their free spinning blades would generate electricity and transfer it down their tether and into the electrical grid. Sitting a few miles up where the air currents are quite strong, the blades would be able to generate up to 250 times the power of an identical turbine near the ground according to calculations done by Cristina Archer and Mark Jacobson of Stanford University (1). Of course this project is far from perfect and really just a dream at this point, but advancements are being made. At least one company, Makani Power, is running with the idea, and has so far created a few small scale gliders which do in fact generate power using this approach (2). So maybe not so crazy after all?
    1. http://discovermagazine.com/2008/oct/24-high-flying-windmills-blow-away-their-ground-based-cousins#.UXYC-7XFWSo

    2.http://www.technologyreview.com/news/426484/flying-windmills/page/2/
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      Apr 23 2013: How do you think flying windmills would impact bird populations and bird diversity?
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        Apr 23 2013: I can't think of it as being that big of a problem since the windmills would be at such high elevations. Also since birds nest on the ground the only way I can see them affecting the birds is through disruption of migration patterns. I see it as relatively analogous to airplanes, which birds have little trouble avoiding by and large. Though these windmills could conceivably be more densely concentrated in an area and larger in size overall, I'm not sure that they would trouble birds much.
        The largest effect I can see them having is through disruption of insects which have been shown to fly above even airliner traffic (1).

        1. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2011/06/01/128389587/look-up-the-billion-bug-highway-you-cant-see
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          Apr 23 2013: I agree with Erik. I would imagine a fast moving and extremely strong jet turbine would be much more harmful to bird populations and diversity than windmills. Although there might be some negative impact on windmills to avian diversity I imagine slow big moving blades must less impacting. I'm curious to how different the impacts of dams and wind mills are to the injury or death of animals getting in contact with them.
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      Apr 23 2013: I don't know much about bird flight and how aircraft and other airborne technology impacts birds. Upon a quick search I found these. Thoughts?

      http://nanopatentsandinnovations.blogspot.com/2011/02/super-birds-fly-higher-than-commercial.html

      http://www.nature.com/news/the-trouble-with-turbines-an-ill-wind-1.10849
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      Apr 23 2013: A paper by Barclay et al (Canadian Journal of Zoology, 2007) estimates about 6,000 annual deaths for birds and about the same for bats due to wind turbines in North America. Although these fatalities are due to turbines, not these flying windmills, I imagine they could have a similar impact. Birds and bats cand and do fly miles above the ground, so I don't think the high elevation of these flying windmills would help much in reducing deaths. Birds cannot see the rotating blades of wind turbines since they are spinning so quickly, and therefore birds can not simple migrate around these windmills (I think they more comparable in structure to wind turbines than huge obvious ariplanes.) Another problem I see with these flying windmills is disruption with aircrafts themselves.
      I think this idea is very unique (cool find!), but tests would have to be done to minimize the impact on flying organisms.
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        Apr 23 2013: Anna and Jessica,
        You both make good points about the dangers to birds from this technology. Some in depth studies would definitely have to be done to address that issue and try and find sites of the least impact. One suggestion mentioned in one of the articles I posted suggested basing the windmills at sea where I'm sure some spots could be found with lower biological impact than over land.
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          Apr 24 2013: I agree with your idea that wind energy is very clean and cost-effective. In order to minimize the bird deaths caused by wind development, some researchers find that a “bird risk assessment map” is a “must have” tool for wind development. This kind of map indicates both concentrated migratory pathways and habitat locations for each major bird species. For each location, there are numerous background information, such as habitat land use, land ownerships and conservation issues. Important sites and pathways are colored according to their importance to birds, and scientists identify over 2000 key sites that birds may be vulnerable from wind development. This map can provide some bird-smart energy sources and avoid wind development in high-impact and high-priority bird areas. As American Bird Conservatory (ABC) states, “this map offers a way to prevent millions of bird deaths from wind power, while at the same time providing ample opportunity for the prudent development of this potentially bird-smart energy source”. I think this method can be a good starting point for any consideration for newly wind energy construct. You can check out the “Wind Development Bird Risk Map” here,

          http://www.abcbirds.org/extra/windmap.html
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    Apr 23 2013: What about Geothermal energy? These power plants convert hydrothermal fluids to electricity. They use extremely hot water around 149 degrees C, that is pumped under high pressure to the generation equipment at the surface.The water is then vaporized and the vapor in turn drives turbines to generate electricity. Geothermal energy is efficient and environmentally friendly, but only meets 1% of the United States power needs.

    http://www.geo-energy.org/
    http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/renewable-energy/how-geothermal-energy-works.html
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      Apr 23 2013: Geothermal has a lot of benefits, as you mentioned (it's sustainable and generally considered eco-friendly), but there are drawbacks as well. Some concerns include the release of greenhouse gases or water toxins and triggering earthquakes. With respect to biodiversity, there are also concerns around habitat destruction. Unfortunately, some of the potentially best places to procure power from geothermal plants are also places with high aesthetic value and biodiversity (*). On the other hand, a geothermal plant is generally estimated to use between 1-8 acres of land per megawatt, compared to 5-10 or 19 acres for nuclear and coal plants respectively. There are also measures in place to protect biodiversity during the development of geothermal power plants, such as conducting environmental impact assessments while siting, minimizing openings, directional drilling that allows compact work areas and redirecting emissions during well testing (**).

      * http://www.helium.com/items/1915429-environmental-impact-of-geothermal-energy
      ** Mutia, Thecla. BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION AND GEOTHERMAL DEVELOPMENT. Rep. Nakuru, Kenya: Geothermal Development, 2010.
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    Apr 24 2013: This has been such a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion. Thanks to all who have participated!
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    Apr 24 2013: It seems like a lot of people believe that nuclear power is the best next step for our major energy source. I think that the risks involved with it are too great to ignore and out weigh the benefits it would provide. There are just so many factors that we must take into account before making a decision on the best form of renewable energy. I have always been in favor for solar panels or solar energy. I did some research a couple years back to learn more about the negative sides to solar panels, and there are some. The materials that are used to make them are not cheap and some of the heavy metals and byproducts are dangerous to health of people and the environment. I remember reading about one type of solar panel that was made in China. One of the byproducts was able to be recycled but it would have to be heated to something like 2800 degrees F, which is expensive to do. So instead the waste was just dumped in outside a small village somewhere in China and the effects of this waste was that the soil became unable to sustain life. So nothing can grow in the area for years and years to come.

    I think that with some research and regulations on solar energy, it could develop into a very dependable and efficient energy source with a very low impact on our environment and biodiversity. There are definitely some improvements needed from what types of solar energy that are around today. Also, thought needs to be put into what happens to them, whether they are panels or some other form of solar energy capturing design, once they are no longer efficient and need to be replaced. Can they be recycled efficiently and cheaply with little to no harmful byproducts? I think that solar should be our next step in renewable energy and our focus and research should be towards that.
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      Apr 24 2013: That's a good point Breena.. even if an certain technology seemed like a good choice in theory, its a very different situation when we try to actually put it in practice! Theoretically the byproduct of that solar panel could be disposed of safely, but prohibitive costs change everything. We always need to keep in mind that whatever alternative energy sources we choose to exploit must be economically feasible, even for developing nations that may not have the resources or money to properly implement the necessary infrastructure or dispose of the waste. In the next few decades we will witness a substantial increase in energy consumption in parts of the world that have been historically underdeveloped, such as South East Asia. Many of these nations are currently dependent on coal, and have begun to turn toward nuclear as their economic development and population growth raise demands for electricity. If we want to truly move towards a more sustainable future, we'll need to place as much emphasis on economic realities as we do technological possibilities.
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    Apr 24 2013: It's interesting how we think so much about all these different possible replacements for our energy consumption. However, we don't all look at how likely they really are or how we would be able to use them without the negative effects from these new bio fuels. Some of these ideas are really inventive, but if we continue to use energy like we do now, then these fuels can't help us at this point. We need to find other strategies than just the science to create them. Without a plan of action for how to be the most renewable with our new products I don't think we can succeed. A new plan where people and business are taught how to easily follow these methods because it will help maintain a healthy relationship between them and their use of the planet's resources. The environment could feel a much smaller impact from our actions if we can lower our negative waste. This would keep us from affecting the environment around us and help let nature run its course appropriately, but much more plan and preparation i feel is necessary in order to keep us from just jumping on the next miracle energy solution.
  • Apr 24 2013: I agree with Ana about the negative side effects of many renewables. And nuclear, despite many of the arguable benefits and supposed new safety protocols, has too much of a social backlash to be viable any time soon. I still hold high hopes for biofuels as the next stage of energy. The problem is that it runs on the assumption that it is renewable because the plants grown to produce biofuels will capture the CO2. Yet, the CO2 output does not match the capability of plants to capture it, even if you use a process such as vertical farming. What would be more promising is perhaps finding a more industrial way to use CO2, instead of relying on plants. For instance, CO2 is extremely important in the production of wine and other foods/beverages. It could be possible for us to engineer and devise a way in which a "closed" loop system exists where we grow grapes for wine, use plant waste from gardening as biofuels, and then input the released CO2 into the wine production system. (or something along those lines) I know there are many examples of linking the front end of the biofuel system (i.e. - coffee waste for energy, beer brewing waste for energy) but not on the latter end (CO2 emissions and heat need to be used as a resource). it is a lofty dream, but one that I personally believe is achievable.
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    Apr 24 2013: Tidal and volcanic hot springs.
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    Apr 24 2013: Biofuels as one kind of renewable energies, has been talked a lot by scientists. Biofuels include a wide range of fuels which are derived from biomass. The term covers solid biomass, liquid fuels and various bio-gases. Bioethanol is an alcohol made by fermenting the sugar components of plant materials and it is made mostly from sugar and starch crops. It is real good way to produce energy. However, because it should use many plants, it may cause loss of biodiversity