Cost of Wind Energy to Decrease

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With Deepwater Wind’s Block Island energy farm in Rhode Island completed – all five turbines of it – it’s not surprising to learn that the cost of wind power, just like that of solar, is going to decline in coming years, according to industry experts. Prachi Patel reports for Conservation Magazine:

Wind energy is soaring around the world thanks to technology advances and energy policies that have reduced its cost. And things are only going to get better with prices dropping substantially by mid-century, according to a survey of 163 of the world’s leading wind energy experts. The results, published in the journal Nature Energysuggest that the cost of electricity from wind could drop by 24–30 percent by 2030 relative to 2014 prices, and by 35–41 percent by 2050.

The key driver of this price drop? Bigger, more efficient turbines, according to the experts. Taller turbines with larger rotors make it possible for turbines to better harness stronger winds, generating more power.

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Biofuels: Worse than Petroleum-based?

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A few years ago, I wrote about two cases of industrialized biofuel production, based on corn and sugarcane in the US and Brazil, respectively. Both of these sources are first-generation biofuels, and there is no doubt that second- and third-generation sources, which often don’t require land conversion or threaten food security, are better alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. A new study funded by the American Petroleum Institute and carried out by the University of Michigan Energy Institute has created headlines declaring biofuels to be non-carbon neutral, but many find the research to be too limited. Prachi Patel reports:

Biofuels have for years divided energy experts and environmentalists. Critics say that they displace farmland and cause deforestation. Proponents argue they are a green, low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

A new analysis adds fuel to the incendiary topic. Researchers report in the journal Climatic Change that biofuels might harm the climate more than petroleum. Substituting petroleum fuels with biofuels in American vehicles has led to an increase in net carbon dioxide emissions over the eight years covered by their study, they calculate.

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Case for Human Settlement Enhancing Ecosystems



A recent scientific publication in Nature Communications enlightens us to the possibility that human settlement does not always equate to land degradation, and in some cases, improves the local ecology. Here’s the results of the study as shared in Conservation Magazine:

Researchers studied temperate rainforest on Calvert and Hecate islands, off the central coast of British Columbia, Canada. This forest is very wet, receiving an average of 4 meters of rainfall a year, and has acidic, nutrient-poor soils. The dominant tree species is western redcedar (Thuja plicata).

The coastline is also dotted with semi-permanent settlements where First Nations groups, as indigenous people are known in Canada, lived seasonally or year-round. Especially over the past 6,000 years, people intensively harvested shellfish from intertidal areas and built up large shell middens—some up to 5 meters deep—near their settlements.

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Our Attention to Plants (or Lack Thereof)


Compared to “juicy” pop culture news, nature-lovers and conservationists constantly have to fight for people’s attention on subjects like endangered animals or protected wildlife. However, the struggle for plant devotees to garner people’s interest on green eukaryotes is much more difficult, except maybe for some garden-popular flowers and vegetables, and perhaps a few trees, but otherwise plants go unnoticed.

Conservation efforts are devoted overwhelmingly to animals; compared to the hundreds of plant species easily found but mostly overlooked in our environs. There’s even a formal name for this: plant blindness. And in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne ask whether it’s inevitable: Are people hard-wired by evolution to ignore the vegetal world? Can something be done about it?

“We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet,” says Williams. “I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community.”

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Can Environmental Regulations Increase Corporate Profits?

Image credit: Royal Olive via Flickr

A thought-provoking question, the economic and political debate over regulation and efficiency is one that has plagued governments long before the US Environmental Protection Agency was created. But with the EPA’s role in regulating pollution (among other things, of course) has come the question of whether corporations can actually benefit in the long run as a result of more stringent requirements that prevent wanton waste, for instance, being put in public waters. Sarah DeWeerdt reports:

According to conventional economic wisdom, the cost of complying with environmental regulations represents a burden that eats into companies’ profits. But another view, known as the Porter hypothesis, holds that environmental regulations can spur innovation and increased efficiency, ultimately increasing profitability.

Economists have debated these ideas for the past two decades but have had little direct empirical evidence to help settle the matter. Now, researchers Dietrich Earnhart of the University of Kansas and Dylan Rassier of the U.S. Department of Commerce have provided such a real-world test with a look at the U.S. chemical manufacturing industry between 1995 and 2001.

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Getting over “Range Anxiety” and into Electric Cars


Source: Conservation Magazine

If you have ever considered buying an electric car but haven’t done so in fear of the car battery dying before getting to a charging station – which is known as “range anxiety” – fear no more. A new study shows that most American drivers do not go beyond the distance that today’s electric cars can go in a single battery charge in one day.

87 percent of the vehicles on the road could be replaced by low-cost EVs on the market today even if they were only charged overnight, say the MIT researchers who conducted the study published in Nature Energy.

If this large-scale swap were to happen, it would lead to roughly 30 percent less carbon emissions even—if the electricity were coming from carbon-emitting power plants.

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Car-sharing Greatly Reduces Carbon-Output

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I’ve never owned a car myself, because friends and family have always had one. While a student at Cornell, a couple of my friends used the Zipcar service, and that’s something I’d have used if I didn’t have the opportunity to borrow a car or share a ride with housemates for grocery shopping every other week (when I didn’t bike or bus to the store instead). But you don’t need to do any math to realize that a car-sharing service is almost certainly going to result in a reduction of carbon dioxide output, even if it’s not as environmentally friendly as biking or taking public transportation. Conservation Magazine reports on a new study quantifying the use of the Car2go service in five cities over three years:

Car-sharing is quickly gaining popularity in cities around the world. Proponents say that it’s a green way to get around town. In a report published in July, researchers calculated car-sharing’s precise impact by analyzing the car-share service car2go in five North American cities. Each car2go eliminated up to 11 privately-owned vehicles from the roads and prevented 10 to 14 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, they found.

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Cornell Research on Capturing Carbon to Generate Electricity

Architectures of metal/CO2 electrochemical cells as capture systems. (A) Secondary metal/CO2 electrochemical cell where CO2 is concentrated by recharging. (B) Primary metal/CO2 electrochemical cell where captured CO2 is concentrated or converted to Cn (n ≥ 2) valuable products. Image and caption from Science Advances, W.I. Al Sadat and L.A. Archer

Several of our contributors have a Cornell background, and this new technology that can convert carbon dioxide to electricity through a simple series of chemical reactions is the product of a couple researchers at the School of Chemistry and Biomolecular Engineers. Prachi Patel reports for Conservation Magazine:

A new technology offers a one-two punch against carbon pollution. Researchers have made an aluminum-based battery cell that captures carbon dioxide and simultaneously generates a large amount of electricity. That means a way to mitigate carbon emissions while meeting increasing demand for energy.

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Mountain Lions to Save Drivers and Deer from Collisions

Image: ©Brother Magneto/Flickr

It’s strange news, but a great sign of innovation that both helps a large keystone mammal come back from reduced population numbers and cull a troublesome species that is creating more and more road hazards every year. Brandon Keim reports for Conservation Magazine:

What’s one simple, inexpensive way to make driving safer?

Letting big predators live.

If mountain lions returned to the eastern United States, say researchers, their predatory habits would literally get white-tailed deer off the road, reducing collisions between drivers and deer by 22% over the next 30 years.

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Photosynthesis as Biofeedback for Adjusting Light Levels in Greenhouses

Photo of a small commercial indoor growing setup by CJP

We’ve recently shared interesting methods to improve the growth of plants, whether in the commercial or domestic setting. We learned that tomatoes may reduce need for pesticides, that plants can grow fairly well in artificial bubbles underwater, and now that technology might soon develop to use a metric of how much one’s plants are photosynthesizing to determine how much light they need, in an effort to cut electricity use. Catherine Elton reports for Conservation Magazine on a study published in the Journal of the American Society of Horticultural Science:

Indoor agriculture is gaining in popularity, and there are high expectations that—at a large enough scale—it could help satisfy the growing demand for food. But whether indoor farms, often called vertical farms or plant factories, make economic or environmental sense is hotly debated.

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Hydropeaking Dams = Fewer Insects

Hoover Dam, photo © US Bureau of Reclamation

Although we’ve heard of dams causing environmental and community problems before, we’ve also seen how they can be beneficial to society, and it’s clear that they’re a double-edged sword. Most recently on the topic, we learned that with proper planning and design, hydropower can be less of an enemy to conservation. Now, research highlighted in Conservation Magazine displays the possibility of helping native river-reliant insect populations by adjusting how dams “hydropeak,” or change river flow to compensate for electricity demand. Sarah DeWeerdt reports:

Scientists know that hydropower dams often decrease the abundance and diversity of aquatic insects downstream. But until now it wasn’t clear why—after all, dams cause a range of environmental stressors such as alterations in water flow, temperature, and sedimentation.

A massive new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey lays much of the blame on hydropeaking, the practice of varying river flows below a dam depending on electricity demand. Because of hydropeaking, the amount of water released from a dam can vary by as much as ten-fold throughout the day, creating an artificial intertidal zone that propagates for hundreds of kilometers downstream.

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Speedier Retrofitting of City Buildings

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Lots of energy is wasted by buildings that don’t have appropriate insulation or efficient HVAC systems. We’ve shared stories on lower-impact construction, like this recent piece on passive homes, and Conservation Magazine now has an article on a new way to decide on the city scale what buildings to retrofit – replace old types of windows, switch out light bulbs, etc. – based on research in Massachusetts. Prachi Patel reports:

In 2015, buildings of all types accounted for 40 percent of all energy consumption in the U.S. and 20 percent of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions. Retrofitting old, energy-inefficient structures with efficiency features will be key for reducing their large carbon footprint. Many cities and states offer substantial incentives to home and commercial building owners who make such upgrades.

But instead of offering incentives willy-nilly, cities could use a smarter way to get the biggest energy impact, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology say. Some buildings are bigger energy-hogs than others. MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Marta González and her colleagues have come up with a streamlined way to identify the culprits with the biggest room for improvements. Their simple model, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, could help city planners identify buildings where retrofits will have the biggest effect on a city’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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Models Show Garbage Clean-up More Effective on Shoreline Than in Gyres

Image of trash on a beach by Flickr user Gerry & Bonni

The health of oceans in the face of massive pollution has been a topic of this blog on multiple occasions, and we’re always interested in learning more about the efforts to clean up the incredible amounts of waste, especially plastic, in one of the most–if not the most–important global ecosystems. New models by researchers at Imperial College London are hypothesizing that, rather than targeting sites like the great Pacific garbage patch, trash pick-up by floating microplastic collectors should be more effective near the coasts, where the rubbish originates. Sarah DeWeerdt reports for Conservation Magazine:

Cleanup efforts for ocean plastics should be concentrated close to shore, at the source of the problem, rather than in areas of open ocean where plastic tends to accumulate, according to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Ideally, if plastic collectors were placed offshore near coastal population centers, they could remove nearly one-third of plastic in the ocean over the next 10 years.

In the study, oceanographer Erik van Sebille and undergraduate physics student Peter Sherman, both at Imperial College London, used data on ocean currents and waste management practices in different countries to simulate the entry and circulation of plastic in the oceans from 2015 to 2025.

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Pink Pigeons in Mauritius

Left, pink pigeon via Dick Daniels/ Commons; right Madagascan turtle dove via Roland zh/Wikimedia Commons.

We’ve featured pieces on another, less fortunate species of pigeon before, and it’s great to read news about a critically endangered species that has been making a comeback after conservation efforts. As the article by Jason Goldman for Conservation Magazine shows, however, there’s still a ways to go before the pink pigeon has fully recovered as a species:

The pink pigeon is the lone survivor of all the columbids – pigeons and doves – native to Mauritius. In 1990 the species was down to just nine individuals, but thanks to the work of the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, there were some 400 individuals flying the skies of the island by 2013. In the year 2000, the IUCN downgraded the species from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” They’re not out of the woods yet, but their recovery remains an impressive and rare example of good news in conservation.

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Canadian Outdoor Hockey – Threatened by Climate Change?

Photo of Cornell students playing outdoor hockey somewhere in NY, by Miles Luo

While a student at Cornell University, I played hockey out on a pond multiple times, and always had fun even on the occasions when several of us needed to use brooms or shovels as hockey sticks, and a crushed pineapple juice can as a puck. In recent years, it’s been a little tougher to find a good time to play since temperatures have fluctuated so wildly sometimes. Since my friends and I like to stay very conservative with our estimates on the ice’s thickness, an unusually warm day after a series of extremely cold — and typical Ithaca — ones can set us back a bit as we wait for a safer time to get on a pond.

So I at least partly understand the angst of all outdoor hockey-loving Canadians as described by Dave Levitan for Conservation Magazine:

Take anything from Canadians, anything at all—anything except hockey.

Few countries have such a relationship with an individual sport; cricket in India, soccer (football) in Brazil or various others, hockey in Canada. And while the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens aren’t going anywhere, the sport as it is played by millions of others in Canada is in serious danger thanks to climate change.

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Flattering Mother Nature

The Art and Design worlds are constantly giving us examples of our interpretive abilities when it comes to nature.  In fact, the very roots of Art go back to those expressions. But if “Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery” then scientists and engineers are also following the adage that “form follows function” in ways that have the potential to direct us out of some of our environmental problems.

Lindsey Doermann writes about how an elephant’s trunk, water strider’s legs, woodpecker’s beak, peacock’s feathers or a beetle’s back (to name a few) are inspirations toward conservation focused engineering.

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