July 10, 2013
Every time you switch on a light, charge your electronics or heat your home in the winter, you’re relying upon a tremendous network of energy infrastructure that literally stretches across the country: power plants, pipelines, transmission wires and storage facilities.
It can be hard to visualize all this infrastructure and understand how it makes abundant energy available throughout the country. A map, though, can be a beautiful way of seeing a bigger picture—and a new map, released yesterday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, combines a wide range of data (the locations of different types of power plants, electricity lines, natural gas pipelines, refineries, storage facilities and more) into an elegant, interactive interface that helps you understand how it all fits together. You can also zoom in on your own city or region to see the types of power plants generating electricity nearby.
The map also includes layers of real-time information on storm movement and risks, and the main intention of making all this data public is to allow utility officials and energy analysts to better understand the potential impact of storms, with hurricane season set to start. But simply playing around with the map can provide interesting insights about the state of our energy infrastructure today.
Here are a few of them, along with the percentage of U.S. electricity generation each power source currently provides:
Fossil Fuels Still Rule (Coal, 37%; Natural Gas, 30%; Petroleum, 1%)
Our capacity to generate renewable energy has certainly grown in recent years, but looking at the map (and the data), one thing is clear: coal (black), natural gas (light blue) and oil-burning (tan) power plants are still the most plentiful forms of electricity generation we have. Coal plants are especially common east of the Mississippi—a relic of the fact that most U.S. coal was once mined in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky (PDF), even though the majority now comes from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. Oil and natural gas plants, meanwhile, are distributed pretty evenly among population centers across the country, with the former slightly more common in the North and East, and the latter a bit more common across the South.
Nuclear Power Could be in Your Backyard (19%)
Although no new nuclear power reactors have been built since 1997, there are still 65 in operation nationally, and most are relatively close to large population centers. More than 16 million people live within 18 miles of one of these plants, the radius that Japanese officials evacuated after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Despite the potential danger they might pose, though, nuclear plants provide far more electricity than any other non-fossil fuel option—and as a result, they reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by our country as a whole.
Hydroelectric is Crucial (7%)
Hydropower was among the first electricity technologies to be implemented on a wide scale—a power station situated on Niagara Falls began supplying electricity way back in 1881—and it’s still way ahead of the other renewable options. Hydroelectric plants are largely clustered in three areas: New England, the Middle South (partly as a result of the Depression-era Tennessee Valley Authority Project) and the West.
Of all new electricity capacity built from 2008 to 2012, 36.5 percent came from wind, and it shows: Turbines can now be found in most regions of the country with sufficient wind speeds. They’re especially prevalent in the Midwest, where consistent and strong winds blow across the plains year-round. In total, large-scale wind projects have been built in 39 states, with many more in the works. The map above shows turbines (grey) against a background displaying real-time wind speeds, with green arrows indicating slowest winds, then orange showing middle speeds and red showing fastest.
Compared to wind, another main source of renewable energy—solar power—has grown at a considerably slower rate, mostly because it’s much more expensive. Still, though, several major projects have been built, including the Agua Caliente Solar Project in Arizona, which produces more photovoltaic energy than any other plant globally, and the Solar Energy Generating Systems in California’s Mojave Desert, which is the largest solar thermal energy project (generating electricity by harnessing solar power to produce heat) in the world.
It’s hard to truly appreciate how much natural gas pipeline has been laid in this country until you look at the map and see for yourself. To put it in perspective, there are more than 305,000 miles of pipeline nationally, as compared to about 47,000 miles of interstate highway.
When it’s discussed in the news, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is mainly discussed in the abstract, an emergency supply of oil that we can use if our supply were to be disrupted. As a result, many people imagine it as a distributed, perhaps even hypothetical entity. Not true: This supply of nearly 700 million barrels of petroleum is held in four particular storage locations in Louisiana and Texas, near many of the refineries where it’s made from crude oil.
Of course, these are far from the only insights to be gained from tinkering with the map, packed with more than 20 layers of data on everything from geothermal power to offshore oil platforms to electricity transmission lines. Play around with the map yourself, turning on and off layers of data, and drop us a comment with your most interesting insights below.
June 7, 2013
Ocean plants produce some 50% of the planet’s oxygen. Seawater absorbs a quarter of the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. Ocean currents distribute heat around the globe, regulating weather patterns and climate. And, for those who take pleasure in life’s simple rewards, a seaweed extract keeps your peanut butter and ice cream at the right consistency!
Nonetheless, those of us who can’t see the ocean from our window still feel a disconnect—because the ocean feels far away, it’s easy to forget the critical role the ocean plays in human life and to think that problems concerning the ocean will only harm those people that fish or make their living directly from the sea. But this isn’t true: the sea is far more important than that.
Every year, scientists learn more about the top threats to the ocean and what we can do to counter them. So for tomorrow’s World Oceans Day, here’s a run-down of what we’ve learned just in the past 12 months.
This year, we got the news that the apparent “slow down” in global warming may just be the ocean shouldering the load by absorbing more heat than usual. But this is no cause to celebrate: the extra heat may be out of sight, but it shouldn’t be out of mind. Ocean surface temperatures have been rising incrementally since the early 20th century, and the past three decades have been warmer than we’ve ever observed before. In fact, waters off the U.S. East Coast were hotter in 2012 than the past 150 years. This increase is already affecting wildlife. For example, fish are shifting their ranges globally to stay in the cooler water they prefer, altering ecosystems and fisheries’ harvests.
Coral reefs are highly susceptible to warming: warm water (and other environmental changes) drives away the symbiotic algae that live inside coral animals and provide them food. This process, called bleaching, can kill corals outright by causing them to starve to death, or make it more likely that they will succumb to disease. A study out this year found that even if we reduce our emissions and stop warming the planet beyond 2°C, the number considered to be safe for most ecosystems, around 70% of corals will degrade and die by 2030.
Although coral reefs can be quite resilient and can survive unimaginable disturbances, we need to get moving on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and creating protected areas where other stressors such as environmental pollutants are reduced.
More than a hit of acid
The ocean doesn’t just absorb heat from the atmosphere: it also absorbs carbon dioxide directly, which breaks down into carbonic acid and makes seawater more acidic. Since preindustrial times, the ocean has become 30% more acidic and scientists are just starting to unravel the diverse responses ecosystems and organisms have to acidification.
And it really is a variety: some organisms (the “winners”) may not be harmed by acidification at all. Sea urchin larvae, for instance, develop just fine, despite having calcium carbonate skeletons that are susceptible to dissolving. Sponges that drill into shells and corals show an ability to drill faster in acidic seawater, but to the detriment of the organisms they’re boring into.
Nonetheless, there will be plenty of losers. This year saw the first physical evidence of acidification in the wild: the shells of swimming snails called pteropods showed signs of dissolution in Antarctica. Researchers previously found that oyster larvae fail under acidic conditions, potentially explaining recent oyster hatchery collapses and smaller oysters. Acidification may also harm other fisheries.
Plastic, plastic, everywhere
Americans produced 31 million tons of plastic trash in 2010, and only eight percent of that was recycled. Where does the remaining plastic go? A lot of it ends up in the ocean.
Since last World Oceans Day, trash has reached the deep-sea and the remote Southern Ocean, two of the most pristine areas on Earth. Most of the plastic trash in the ocean is small—a few centimeters or less—and can easily be consumed by animals, with damaging consequences. Some animals get hit on two fronts: when already dangerous plastic degrades in their stomachs it leaches toxic chemicals into their systems. Laysan albatross chicks are fed the bits of plastic by their parents in lieu of their typical diet and one-third of fish in the English Channel have nibbled on plastic.
Where have all the fish gone?
A perennial problem for the ocean, overfishing has only gotten worse with the advent of highly advanced gear. Despite fishing fleets going farther and deeper, the fishing gains are not keeping up with the increased effort.
Our brains can’t keep up either: even as we catch fewer fish, we acclimate to the new normal, adjust to the shifting baseline, and forget the boon that used to be, despite the fact that our memories are long enough to realize that most of the world’s fisheries (especially the small ones that aren’t regulated) are in decline.
Thankfully, those responsible for managing our fisheries are aware of what’s at stake. New knowledge about fish populations and their role in ecosystems can lead to recovery. A report from March 2013 shows that two-thirds of U.S. fish species that are closely managed due to their earlier declines are now considered rebuilt, or on their way.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal. This post was co-authored by Emily Frost and Hannah Waters.
May 27, 2013
From 1550 to 1580, the period of cooling known as the Little Ice Age hit Ellesmere Island, in extreme northern Nunavut, Canada. As temperatures plunged, most of the island was swallowed by the advance of glaciers. The vegetation that had blanketed the terrain—mostly mosses and lichens—was buried under dozens of feet of ice.
In recent years, the reverse has happened. As a result of climate change, glaciers around the world have retreated rapidly, and Ellesmere Island has been no exception. The island’s Teardrop Glacier has retreated more than 650 feet, revealing numerous clumps of blackened, seemingly dead vegetation such as mosses and lichens that had been frozen for centuries.
But some of the vegetation was in fact far from dead. A research team from the University of Alberta led by Catherine La Farge surveyed the area revealed by the retreat of Teardrop Glacier and noticed that some of the largely blackened plants, including several mosses, had small green stems and lateral branches growing from them, indicating that they were experiencing recent growth.
The team showed that these plants, found right next to the edge of the retreating glacier, belonged to different species than those growing on the surrounding terrain, indicating they’d truly been buried until recently. Radiocarbon dating of the blackened parts of the plants confirmed that they were between 400 and 615 years old. The findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
The researchers took samples from some of the plants just next to the glacier, which they determined had been uncovered sometime in the past
few years, along with some that were still partially encased in ice. Back in the lab, they closely examined the samples and noted that new growth—green stems and shoots—was occurring on the centuries-old plants.
Additionally, they ground up 24 different samples and sprinkled them over nutrient-enriched soil. Within months, plants had sprouted in 11 different petri dishes, representing seven of the different plants sampled.
This remarkable resurrection was enabled by the fact that the plants were preserved at sub-freezing temperatures, allowing at least some of their cells to survive. Further, they all belong to a group of plants (called bryophytes) that grow clonally, so each of their cells can reproduce and then differentiate into any sort of cell that makes up the organism (a quality called totipotency). Additionally, microscopic analysis of the cells of the blackened, seemingly dead plants showed that their structural integrity had been well preserved by the ice, which in some cases left cell organelles and other tiny structures intact.
The discovery could substantially change our understanding of the way ecosystems regenerate after glacial retreat—a pretty important topic, given what’s currently happening to wide swaths of the Arctic given current melting trends. If glaciers serve as reservoirs of plant species that can potentially regenerate, it means that the ecosystems that sprout in the glaciers’ wake are more likely to be made up of these original plant types rather than the quickly-growing, newly arrived colonizing species scientists had previously assumed would dominate such environments.
Although most of the ecological news brought to us by climate change has been uniformly depressing, these newly resurrected plants, which now join a host of other life capable of regrowth after dormancy, show how incredibly durable and resilient life can be.
May 2, 2013
In the wealthy world, improving the energy system generally means increasing the central supply of reliable, inexpensive and environmentally-friendly power and distributing it through the power grid. Across most of the planet, though, simply providing new energy sources to the millions who are without electricity and depend on burning wood or kerosene for heat and light would open up new opportunities.
With that in mind, engineers and designers have recently created a range of innovative devices that can increase the supply of safe, cheap energy on a user-by-user basis, bypassing the years it takes to extend the power grid to remote places and the resources needed to increase a country’s energy production capacity. Here are a few of the most promising technologies.
1. VOTO: Millions of people around the world use charcoal and wood-fueled stoves on a daily basis. VOTO (above), developed by the company Point Source Power, converts the energy these fires release as heat into electricity, which can power a handheld light, charge a phone or even charge a spare battery. The company initially designed VOTO for backpackers and campers in wealthy countries so they can charge their devices during trips, but is also trying to find a way to make it accessible to residents of the developing world for daily use.
2.Window Socket: This is perhaps the simplest solar charger in existence: Just stick it on a sunny window for 5 to 8 hours with the built-in suction cup, and the solar panels on the back will store about 10 hours worth of electricity that can be used with any device. If there’s no window available, a user can just leave it on any sunny surface, including the ground. Once it’s fully charged, it can be removed and taken anywhere—inside a building, stored around in a bag or carried around in a vehicle. The designers, Kyuho Song and Boa Oh of Yanko Design, created it to resemble a normal wall outlet as closely as possible, so it can be used intuitively without any special instructions.
3. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove: In the past few years, a number of health researchers have come to the same conclusion: that providing a safe, energy-efficient wood-burning cookstove to millions of people in the developing world can directly improve health (by reducing smoke inhalation), aid the environment (by reducing the amount of wood needed for fuel) and alleviate poverty (by reducing the amount of time needed to devote to gather wood every day).
Many projects have pursued this goal, but Potential Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to adapting and scaling technologies to help improve lives in the developing world, is the furthest along, having distributed more than 25,000 of their Berkeley-Darfur Stoves in Darfur and Ethiopia. Their stove’s design achieves these aims with features such as a tapered wind collar, a small fire box opening, nonaligned air vents that reduce the amount of wind allowed to stoke or snuff the fire (which wastes fuel) and ridges that ensure the optimal distance between the fire and pot in terms of fuel efficiency.
4. GravityLight: Along with wood-burning stoves, the kerosene-burning lamps that provide light throughout the developing world have recently become a target for replacement for one of the same reasons: The fumes generated by burning kerosene in closed corners are a major health problem. A seemingly simple solution is GravityLight, developed by the research initiative deciwatt.org.
To power the device, a user fills an included bag with about 20 pounds of rock or dirt, attaches it to the cord hanging down from the device and lifts it upward. The potential energy stored in that lifting motion is then gradually converted to electricity by the GravityLight, which slowly lets the bag downward over the course of about 30 minutes and powers a light or other electrical device during that time. It’s currently priced at about $10, and because it requires no running costs, the development team estimates that the investment will be paid back in about 3 months, as compared to the cost of kerosene.
5. SOCCKET: Soccer—known simply as football in nearly every English-speaking country besides the U.S.—is easily the most popular sport in the world. The newest product of Uncharted Play, a for-profit social enterprise, seeks to take advantage of the millions of people already playing the sport to replace kerosene lamps with electric light generated in a much different manner. Their ball uses an internal kinetically-powered pendulum to generate and store electricity. After about 30 minutes of play, the ball stores enough energy to power an attachable LED lamp for 3 hours. Development of the product was funded via Kickstarter, and the first ones will ship in the next few weeks. A percentage of all retail sales will go to providing SOCCKETs to schools in the developing world.
April 22, 2013
Over the past few decades, researchers have developed biofuels derived from an remarkable variety of organisms—soybeans, corn, algae, rice and even fungi. Whether synthesized into ethanol or biodiesel, though, all of these fuels suffer from the same limitation: They have to be refined and blended with heavy amounts of conventional, petroleum-based fuels to run in existing engines.
Though this is far from the only current problem with biofuels, a new approach by researchers from the University of Exeter in the UK appears to solve at least this particular issue with one fell swoop. As they write today in an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team has genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to produce molecules that are interchangeable to the ones in diesel fuels already sold commercially. The products of this bacteria, if generated on a large-scale, could theoretically go directly into the millions of car and truck engines currently running on diesel worldwide—without the need to be blended with petroleum-based diesel.
The group, led by John Love, accomplished the feat by mixing and matching genes from several different bacteria species and inserting them into the E. coli used in the experiment. These genes each code for particular enzymes, so when the genes are inserted into the E. coli, the bacteria gains the ability to synthesize these enzymes. As a result, it also gains the ability to perform the same metabolic reactions that those enzymes perform in each of the donor bacteria species.
By carefully selecting and combining metabolic reactions, the researchers built an artificial chemical pathway piece-by-piece. Through this pathway, the genetically modified E. coli growing and reproducing in a petri dish filled with a high-fat broth were able to absorb fat molecules, convert them into hydrocarbons and excrete them as a waste product.
Hydrocarbons are the basis for all petroleum-based fuels, and the particular molecules they engineered the E. coli to produce are the same ones present in commercial diesel fuels. So far, they’ve only produced tiny quantities of this bacterial biodiesel, but if they were able to grow these bacteria on a massive scale and extract their hydrocarbon products, they’d have a ready-made diesel fuel. Of course, it remains to be seen whether fuel produced in this way will be able to compete in terms of cost with conventional diesel.
Additionally, energy never comes from thin air—and the energy contained within this bacterial fuel mostly originates in the broth of fatty acids that the bacteria are grown on. As a result, depending on the source of these fatty acids, this new fuel could be subject to some of the same criticisms leveled at biofuels currently in production.
For one, there’s the argument that converting food (whether corn, soybeans or other crops) into fuel causes ripple effects in global food market, increasing the volatility of food prices, as a UN study from last year found. Additionally, if the goal of developing new fuels is to fight climate change, many biofuels fall dramatically short, despite their environmentally-friendly image. Using ethanol made from corn (the most widely used biofuel in the U.S.), for example, is likely no better than burning conventional gasoline in terms of carbon emissions, and maybe actually be worse, due to all the energy that goes into growing the crop and processing it info fuel.
Whether this new bacteria-derived diesel suffers from these same problems largely depends upon what sort of fatty acid source is eventually used to grow the bacteria on a commercial scale—whether it would by synthesized from a potential food crop (say, corn or soy oil), or whether it could come from a presently-overlooked energy source. But the new approach already has one major advantage: Just the steps needed to refine other biofuels so they can be used in engines use energy and generate carbon emissions. By skipping these steps, the new bacterial biodiesel could be an energy efficient fuel choice from the start.