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Seeing Potential
This Week in Promising Green Dreams

You don’t have to look hard to find evidence of foundering eco-friendly technologies or failed green policies, but focusing on those fiascoes can obscure some genuinely exciting developments and research areas that could be one big breakthrough away from helping us solve the problem of how to thrive sustainably on a more crowded planet. Take, for example, this story in the FT about recent advances in Scotland’s quest to harness the power of its tides:

Equitix, the infrastructure investor, plans to put more than £100m into Scottish tidal power over the next two years in partnership with Atlantis, a leading developer. The deal “secures access to a pipeline of primary investment opportunities and has tremendous growth potential in the UK,” Nick Parker, Equitix COO and founding director, said.

Enthusiasts say tidal power can be an important part of electricity generation in the UK and other countries with strong coastal currents. Generation output varies sharply with the tides, but unlike wind power it is highly predictable and variation can more easily be smoothed out by developing a variety of locations.

Tidal power is one of the least-discussed renewable energy options, but unlike its wind or solar cousins, its intermittency can be predicted. Like any new energy source, the big hurdle it has to overcome lies with its ability to provide cost-effective power at a commercial scale, and by that metric it’s not there yet—but this new investment could yield some massive dividends in the future.

Waste-to-energy plants are another power source with some impressive potential, and have the added benefit of managing great quantities of trash. The EIA reports:

At the end of 2015, the United States had 71 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants that generated electricity in 20 U.S. states, with a total generating capacity of 2.3 gigawatts. Florida contains more than one-fifth of the nation’s WTE electricity generation capacity, and in 2015, Florida’s Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility Number 2 became the first new WTE plant to come online since 1995 and the largest single WTE electricity generator in the United States.

As the EIA notes, these plants are waste managers first and power producers second, but they also represent a creative solution to two distinct problems, namely what we do with our trash and how we power our cities. Moreover, when combined with district heating they can greatly boost their efficiency.

Finally, a Cornell professor of plant and soil ecology makes the case for responsible soil management being an important tool in the climate change toolbox. He writes for the Hill:

[We can] manage soils so that a maximum amount of the carbon dioxide plants pull out of the air via photosynthesis remains on the farm as carbon-rich soil organic matter. “Carbon farming,” as it is sometimes called, is Mother Nature’s own geoengineering, relying on fundamental biological processes to capture carbon and sequester it in the soil, carbon that would otherwise be in the air as the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

One way to do this is to use carbon- and nutrient-rich organic sources of fertilizers such as manure or compost rather than synthetic chemical fertilizers. Another is to include carbon- and nutrient-rich crops like legumes (e.g., peas, beans) in rotations, and plant winter cover crops that contribute additional organic matter in the off-season. We’ve also discovered that reducing the amount of plowing and tilling of the soil (“conservation tillage”) slows the microbial breakdown of organic matter that leads to carbon dioxide emissions from soils.

It’s unlikely that any of these options will be the panacea we need, but taken together they represent something missing from the modern environmental movement: hopeful potential. Too often greens will browbeat the public with sermons about how humanity’s sins have doomed it to an apocalyptic near future, but that approach completely ignores one of our greatest skills, namely the ability to solve problems. As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, so too will our ability to rise to the environmental challenges ahead.

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  • WigWag
  • Kevin

    Research into all of these are good ideas. But let’s make sure any rollout is economically viable without massive perpetual subsidies.

  • Andrew Allison

    The first tidal power generation system was inaugurated 50 years ago, and produces electricity at lower cost than nuclear power (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rance_Tidal_Power_Station).

  • Rick Johnson

    Tidal power is a joke. Another expensive Green dream that fails to deliver.
    And, unsurprisingly, TAI falls for it.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Since “Global Warming” is BS, the only criteria for energy generation should be, “Will it be profitable”.

  • Blackbeard

    Interesting that the Palm Beach WTE facility is mentioned as I was the lead engineer on that project. Palm Beach was the first new WTE facility in the U.S. in over 20 years and in that period the total number of such facilities in the U.S. dropped from about 130 to 71. We got Palm Beach done but I don’t expect to see another such new facility in my lifetime.

    President Obama tells us that the world is about to become uninhabitable unless we switch to a carbon-free economy very quickly.

    The most reliable, scalable source of carbon-free energy is nuclear power. Nuclear power is off the table. The Greens hate nuclear power.

    Another large source of carbon-free energy is hydroelectric power. New hydroelectric is off the table and the Greens are lobbying for dam removal.

    WTE could, by some estimates, supply as much as 12% of electric power in the U.S. if we achieved the same market penetration as the best European countries. New WTE is off the table. The Greens hate WTE.

    Natural gas has half the CO2 emissions of coal and is the reason why the U.S. has declining CO2 emissions. California and New York, liberal havens both, have outlawed fracking and Hillary has promised do the same nationally when she is president.

    Are we seeing a pattern here?

  • Fat_Man

    Tidal power is nice — if you are near an ocean on a geological formation that experiences high tides. Burning trash is nice, except that the US produces ~254 million tons of trash per year, which has only a fraction of the energy content of the billion tons of coal it burns every year.

    If you want to retain your comfortable life in a technological civilization, you will continue to get most of your energy needs from fossil fuels. Only nuclear processes can replace any large portion of that fossil fuel use. All discussions of stuff like trash burning, tidal pools, wind mills, and solar panels are shiny objects designed to distract you from the real goal of the “environmentalists”, which is to destroy technology and force those who survive that catastrophe to live in pre-modern misery.

    • White Knight Leo

      The thinking – at least the thinking done by honest, non-cynical Greens – is similar to a “layered defense” approach. Any one of the ‘green’ methods is horrendously inadequate on its own, but together, they think, it can be enough (“let our powers combine!”; actually it just occurred to me that the 5 Planeteers were supposed to represent the 5 major methods of ‘green’ power in addition to the so-called 5 elements). They’re obviously wrong, but I think it IS what they believe.
      .
      The cynics, of course, are largely engaging in what’s called “luxury concerns”, and what they actually want to do is to oppose capitalism and industry but not too successfully. Just enough to milk the system, not enough to actually have an effect.
      .
      And then there’s the insane ones. They actually want to wreck the place.

  • PierrePendre

    The Cornell professor (or the quote from him) doesn’t mention the impact on crop yields of his solution which it would surely be interesting to know in light of the fact that we’re still in a struggle to adequately feed the world’s growing population.

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