Report outlines algae biofuel sustainability issues

A raceway pond used for the cultivation of microalgae. The water is kept in constant motion with a powered paddle wheel. Photo courtesy the Wikimedia Commons.

Water availability, nutrient use seen as key challenges

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Algae-based biofuels have been touted as the next big thing in renewable energy. But based on existing technologies, production on a significant scale — for example enough to supply 5 percent of U.S. transportation fuel needs — would put unsustainable demands on energy, water, and nutrients, according to a new report from the National Research Council.

But those concerns are not a definitive barrier for future production, the report concluded, emphasizing that technical innovations could change the equation.

Biofuels derived from algae and cyanobacteria could help the U.S. meet its energy security needs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Potential advantages over biofuels made from land plants, including algae’s ability to grow on non-croplands in cultivation ponds of freshwater, salt water, or wastewater. Continue reading

Colorado: Court ruling puts uranium mining on hold

A mine in a uranium-bearing sandstone formation near Moab, Utah. PHOTO VIA WIKIPEDIA AND THE CREATIVE COMMONS.

Judge rules that Department of Energy violated environmental laws with leasing approval

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Uranium mining in southwestern Colorado is on hold following an Oct. 19 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge William Martinez.

The court ruled that the U.S. Department of Energy acted arbitrarily and capriciously” by failing to analyze site-specific impacts when it approved a leasing program on 42 square miles of federal land in Mesa, Montrose and San Miguel counties.

The Energy Department approved the leasing program under an environmental assessment, concluding with a formal “Finding of No Significant Impact.” A coalition of environmental groups challenged the approval and asked the court to order an in-depth environmental impact statement based on the potential for the mining and related activities to significantly affect the quality of the human environment. Continue reading

U.S. shale gas boom could tilt global ‘petro-power’ balance

Conservative think tank advocates for responsible development of  domestic resources, saying increased U.S. production could curb Russia’s petro-power

U.S. natural gas production could quadruple in the next 30 years.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In Colorado, the debate over natural gas production from shale formations like those in the northwestern part of the state often focuses on environmental impacts, including the growing fragmentation of wildlife habitat and concerns about air and water quality from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

But there’s also a geopolitical dimension dimension to the rising tide of U.S. gas production. By some recent estimates, shale-gas production will quadruple by 2040, to more than 40 billion cubic feet per day. And that level of production has the potential to affect Russia’s ability to wield an “energy weapon” over its European customers, according to a recent study by the Baker institute. Continue reading

Photovoltaic systems add to home resale values

A new study suggests photovoltaic systems add to the resale value of homes. PHOTO COURTESY U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY.

Berkeley Lab study quantifies economic benefits of solar installations

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Adding a photovoltaic solar system to your home is a good environmental move, and now, new research by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory suggests that those homes sell for a premium over homes without solar systems.

“We find compelling evidence that solar PV systems in California have boosted home sales prices,” said lead author Ben Hoen, a researcher at Berkeley Lab. “These average sales price premiums appear to be comparable with the average investment that homeowners have made to install PV systems in California, and of course homeowners also benefit from energy bill savings after PV system installation and prior to home sale.”

The research finds that homes with PV in California have sold for a premium, expressed in dollars per watt of installed PV, of approximately $3.90 to $6.40/watt. This corresponds to an average home sales price premium of approximately $17,000 for a relatively new 3,100 watt PV system (the average size of PV systems in the Berkeley Lab dataset), and compares to an average investment that homeowners have made to install PV systems in California of approximately $5/W over the 2001-2009 period. Continue reading

Energy: New nanotech material could boost hydrogen fuel

This schematic shows high-capacity magnesium nanocrystals encapsulated in a gas-barrier polymer matrix to create a new and revolutionary hydrogen storage composite material. IMAGE BY JEFF URBAN.

New composite solves some of the challenges of storing enough hydrogen in a small space to make it useful as fuel for vehicles

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — A new composite nanotech material may speed up the development of hydrogen-based energy by storing concentrated amounts of hydrogen and releasing it easily without the application of extreme heat.

Researchers at the  U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said their new product is a major breakthrough in materials design for hydrogen storage, batteries and fuel cells.

The material consist of nanoparticles of magnesium metal sprinkled through a polymer related to Plexiglas. This pliable nanocomposite rapidly absorbs and releases hydrogen at modest temperatures without oxidizing the metal after cycling.

One of the key applications could be to use hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles, said Jeff Urban, deputy director of the Inorganic Nanostructures Facility at the Molecular Foundry, a Department of Energy nanoscience center and national user facility located at Berkeley Lab. Continue reading

BLM extends comment period on draft solar study

Solar energy study areas in south-central Colorado.

Plan could result in streamlined approvals for industrial-scale photovoltaic installations

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —Citizens will get an extra 30 days to comment on a massive draft environmental study for development of solar power on public lands in the West. The BLM this week announced the extension after getting numerous requests for more time to scrutinize the complex document.

The draft study, a joint effort with Department of Energy, is a comprehensive environmental analysis that has identified proposed solar energy zones on public lands in six western states that are most suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy production.

The comment period will now run until April 16, 2011.  No additional public meetings will be held during the extended public comment period.

The Draft Solar PEIS assessed the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on lands managed by the BLM in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Continue reading

New research could speed biofuel production

A new genetically engineered microbe could significantly speed production of biofuel. PHOTO FROM WIKIPEDIA VIA THE CREATIVE COMMONS.

Genetically modified microbe at the heart of streamlined conversion of biomass to isobutanol

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Researchers working at the Department of Energy’s BioEnergy Science Center say they have cracked a genetic code that will help speed the production of biofuel from tough cellulose raw materials like corn stover and switchgrass by developed a strain of a cellulose-degrading microbe that can synthesize isobutanol directly from cellulose.

Up to now, production of biofuel has involved several time-consuming steps that add to the cost, including pretreatment, enzyme treatment and fermentation.

Isobutanol is a higher grade of alcohol than ethanol and could eliminate the need for dedicated infrastructure in tanks or vehicles, Liao said. Compared to ethanol, higher alcohols such as isobutanol are better candidates for gasoline replacement because they have an energy density, octane value and Reid vapor pressure – a measurement of volatility – that is much closer to gasoline, he explained. Continue reading

‘SunShot’ aims at cutting the cost of solar by 75 percent

New federal initiative to focus on improving solar technology

New initiative to boost several solar projects with $27 million.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Along with developing new renewable energy resources on public land, the Obama administration this week announced an aggressive plan to bring down the cost of solar by 75 percent in the next 10 years — to about $1 per watt — which would would make large-scale solar energy costs competitive with electricity from fossil fuel sources.

To achieve that goal, the Department of Energy will focus on four main areas:

  • Advancing technologies for the solar cells and systems that convert sunlight into energy;
  • Optimizing the performance of solar installation;
  • Improving the efficiency of the solar system manufacturing processes; and
  • Improving the efficiency for installation, design and permitting for solar energy systems. Continue reading

Energy Secretary Chu to hold online town hall meeting

Social media a key piece of government communication strategy

Offshore wind turbines near Copenhagen, Denmark. Under the Obama administration and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, the U.S. may start catching up with other countries in developing renewable energy resources. PHOTO VIA THE CREATIVE COMMONS.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — While the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may have dominated energy news for much of last summer, the Obama administration has also taken some significant steps to move the country away from its dependence on fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy future. Anyone with questions about the administration’s energy policy should tune in to the Department of Energy’s  Jan. 26 online town hall meeting.

Under Secretary Steven Chu, the Department of Energy is moving ambitiously to foster the development of offshore windpower, and the administration has also spurred the development of solar resources with streamlined permitting for large-scale projects in the West.

While environmental groups still have questions about some of the plans, the administration has no doubt advanced the renewable energy agenda more in the last two years than former President Bush did in his full eight years in office.

This week, Chu is hosting an online town hall meeting to discuss the administrations clean energy plans. The session will be live-blogged and tweeted on the web Jan. 26 at 12:45 p.m. Eastern Time (10:45 a.m. Mountain Time), with the hub at the Department of Energy website.

The DOE is already taking questions, with topics ranging from electric bicycles and LED lighting, to nuclear power, high-speed rail and energy independence. The department hopes to use social media to foster a conservation between Secretary Chu and small business owners, energy experts, homeowners and interested citizens around the country.

Energy questions can be submitted via e-mail to newmedia@hq.doe.gov and to the DOE’s Facebook page.

Questions for the town hall can also be tweeted to @ENERGY with the hashtag #Chu.

Wind turbines could benefit crops under some conditions

Charles F. Brush's 60 foot, 80,000 pound turbine that supplied 12kW of power to 350 incandescent lights, 2 arc lights, and a number of motors at his home for 20 years. It today is believed to be the first automatically operating wind turbine for electricity generation and was built in the winter of 1887 - 1888 in his back yard. Its rotor was 17 meters in diameter. The large rectangular shape to the left of the rotor is the vane, used to move the blades into the wind. The dynamo turned 50 times for every revolution of the blades and charged a dozen batteries each with 34 cells. For scale, note gardener pushing lawnmower underneath and to right of the turbine.

New research shows a cooling effect that could help prevent fungal attacks

By Summit Voice

Wind turbines in Midwestern farm fields may be doing more than churning out electricity. The giant turbine blades that generate renewable energy might also help corn and soybean crops stay cooler and dryer, help them fend off fungal infestations and improve their ability to extract growth-enhancing carbon dioxide from the air and soil.

Researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and  the University of Colorado recently said their studies show that turbines produce a measurable effect on nearby microclimates.

The slow-moving turbine blades  channel air downward, in effect bathing the crops below via the increased airflow they create.

“Our laser instrument could detect a beautiful plume of increased turbulence that persisted even a quarter-mile downwind of a turbine,” said, Julie Lundquist, an assistant professor with the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Continue reading

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