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Rachel's Democracy & Health News #984
"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"
Thursday, November 6, 2008..............Printer-friendly version
Featured stories in this issue...
When we compare coal-burning technologies to the 12 principles of
green engineering and the 12 principles of green chemistry, how does
coal stack up?
In Bush's End-game, Lots of Changes on Environment
President Bush's appointees and their employees are burning the
midnight oil, producing a rash of rule changes that will speed the
destruction of the natural world.
Number of Kids on Medication Jumps Alarmingly
"Most of the increase in drugs for diabetes, attention
deficit/hyperactivity and depression was seen in girls. The gender gap
was most striking in diabetes: While the number of boys taking
medication grew by 39%, the number of girls using them climbed by
Global Warming Pollution on the Increase
The world emitted a record amount of the global-warming gas, carbon
dioxide, in 2007. And forests and oceans are not absorbing as great a
proportion of human-created CO2 as they once did. From 1955 to 2000,
the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon
dioxide, but now it's 54 percent. "This is kind of scary," said one
scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Berkeley, Calif.
Climate-warming Methane Levels Rose Fast in 2007
Levels of climate-warming methane -- a greenhouse gas 23 times as
potent as carbon dioxide -- rose abruptly in Earth's atmosphere last
year, and scientists who reported the change don't know why it
Utilities Putting New Energy into Geothermal Sources
"Geothermal energy may be the most prolific renewable fuel source
that most people have never heard of. Although the supply is virtually
limitless, the massive upfront costs required to extract it have long
rendered geothermal a novelty. But that's changing fast as this old-
line industry buzzes with activity after decades of stagnation."
Why Small Plastic Particles May Pose a Big Problem in the Oceans
Humans now produce 230 million pounds of plastics each year,
worldwide. In the ocean, as plastic items break down, the toxic
additives they contain -- including flame retardants, antimicrobials,
and plasticizers -- can be released into the ocean environment and
taken up by sea creatures.
From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #984, Nov. 6, 2008
By Peter Montague
As we search for solutions to global warming and toxic contamination,
we can compare technologies, intending to select the least harmful. In
recent years, scientists have developed two sets of criteria that we
can use to judge the "greenness" of competing technologies. The first
is called "The 12 principles of green engineering" and the second is
"The 12 principles of green chemistry."
Both sets of principles were developed by teams of technical experts
and published in peer-reviewed journals. They are now widely
understood and endorsed. Most importantly, they offer ordinary people,
as well as experts, a way to decide which technologies are worth
supporting and which ones should be phased out or never developed at
You can find both sets of principles listed at the end of this
Is Coal Green?
Don't laugh. There are major environmental groups who have received
major grants to convince the public that "clean coal" is just around
the corner and that we should be investing many billions of dollars
each year in "clean coal." These groups include the Union of Concerned
Scientists [2 Mbyte PDF], the Clean Air Task Force, and the
Natural Resources Defense Council [1 Mbyte PDF].
There are roughly 500 coal-fired power plants in the U.S., burning a
total of about 1.05 billion tons of coal each year to produce half
the nation's electricity.1 These plants emit 1.9 billion tons of
carbon dioxide (CO2) each year, which is 1/3 of the nation's annual
total CO2 emissions. Most proposals for "clean coal" focus narrowly on
this CO2 problem, intending to capture CO2 and bury it in the deep
earth, thus converting it from our problem to our children's problem.
The "other" wastes from burning coal
In addition to 1.9 billion tons of CO2 released by coal-burning power
plants each year, another 120 million tons2 of toxic wastes are
created (so-called coal ash, or coal combustion waste [ccw]). These
120 million tons of waste, produced annually, will remain toxic
forever, and they have to be put somewhere.
"Clean coal" advocates tend to give lip service to this other 120
million tons of toxic waste. Their preferred solution for these toxic
wastes is to capture them and bury them in shallow pits in the ground
called landfills or "surface impoundments." Unfortunately, all
landfills and surface impoundments eventually release their contents
into the local environment, so storing coal wastes in landfills and
surface impoundments is just another way of passing these problems
along to our children. [See "EPA says all landfills leak, even those
using best available liners," Rachel's News #37 (August 10, 1987).]
How toxic is this toxic waste? The 1.05 billion tons of coal we burn
each year contain 109 tons of mercury, 7884 tons of arsenic, 1167
tons of beryllium, 750 tons of cadmium, 8810 tons of chromium, 9339
tons of nickel, and 2587 tons of selenium.3 These are tremendous
quantities of toxic materials and they are produced each year, year
after year. Where do these toxic materials go?
As coal is prepared for burning it is crushed and washed. The coal
wash water is "disposed" of at the mine site, meaning it is dumped
into a large bathtub in the ground. Of course sooner or later it leaks
out the bottom of the bathtub, carrying with it each year an
estimated 13 tons of mercury, 3236 tons of arsenic, 189 tons of
beryllium, 251 tons of cadmium, and 2754 tons of nickel, and 1098 tons
During combustion, coal-fired power plants emit into the air each year
52 tons of mercury, 47 tons of arsenic, 8 tons of beryllium, 3 tons of
cadmium, 62 tons of chromium, 52 tons of nickel, and 184 tons of
However, as air pollution control technology improves, more of these
airborne toxicants are captured in the form of a finely divided ash.
Coal ash (also called coal combustion waste, or CCW for short)
contains large quantities of toxic metals: 44 tons of mercury, 4601
tons of arsenic, 970 tons of beryllium, 496 tons of cadmium, 6275 tons
of chromium, 6533 tons of nickel, and 1305 tons of selenium. Many of
these elements are toxic to humans and other life-forms in microgram
The ash containing these toxic metals is buried in shallow pits near
the coal plants that produced it. There, rain filters through the
toxic ash year after year, leaching out the toxic metals and moving
them downward (pulled relentlessly by gravity) into the soil and
eventually into the groundwater below.
You might ask, what's the big deal? These toxicants started out below
ground in coal and now they're ending up below ground again? So what?
You can understand the problem by thinking of a cup of coffee. If you
pour water over a few coffee beans, you don't extract much coffee. The
result looks pretty much like a cup of hot water. The good stuff
remains locked up in the beans. But if you grind up the beans into a
finely divided powder, then pour water over them, presto! You get a
rich, thick cup of coffee. What has happened is that the surface area
of the coffee beans has been enormously increased by grinding them up
-- thus exposing a much larger surface to the water, allow the good
stuff to be leached out into your cup.
Coal is the same. Coal underground is like coffee beans. Water
filtering through a solid seam of coal does not extract much of those
toxic metals. But once you mine, crush and burn the coal, turning it
into a finely divided ash (like grinding up the beans, vastly
increasing the surface area that can come into contact with water),
then filter rainwater through it year after year after year -- presto!
You get a rich, thick, toxic waste capable of poisoning your
underground water supply. Placing that finely divided waste into a
hole in the ground with a double liner beneath it -- a modern landfill
-- does not prevent, but merely delays, the release of the
toxicants, allowing the present generation of decision-makers to
pretend all is well, but saddling our children with a stupendously
large legacy of toxic materials and contaminated water.
If the total weight of coal combustion waste is 120 million tons per
year in the U.S., then each of our 500 coal-fired power plants is
producing, on average, 240,000 tons of toxic waste each year.
If a power plant runs for 40 years, it leaves behind just about 10
million tons of toxic waste (9.6 million tons to be exact). This does
not include the "overburden," as it is called -- all the dirt that
must be removed to get at the coal. (In the western states, where most
of U.S. coal is mined, as much as one ton of overburden waste is
created for every ton of coal mined. In Appalachia, where 7% of U.S.
coal is mined, 450 mountains have been destroyed by mountain-top-
removal coal mining. So far, 700 miles of streams have been filled in
(destroyed) by mountain-top-removal wastes in Appalachia.)4 Then
there is acid mine drainage that sours streams below mines for
centuries after mining stops. down. The waste produced by coal mining
is enormous and enormously destructive.
The 120 million tons of toxic waste also does not include the
pollution produced by transporting coal from mine to power plant.
About 40% of all rail freight in the U.S., by weight, is coal.5
Another serious waste problem created by coal mining is methane gas.
Methane is a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, has a warming
potential 23 times as great as CO2. Since 1750, human industrial
activities have roughly doubled the natural amount of methane in the
atmosphere, and each year for the past 15 years atmospheric methane
has been increasing about 1% per year. Ten percent of this methane is
contributed by coal mines.
So how does coal measure up against the green principles? Principle 2
of "green engineering" says, "It is better to prevent waste than to
treat or clean up waste after it is formed." And Principle 1 of "green
chemistry" says the same thing, "It is better to prevent waste than to
treat or clean up waste after it is formed." Could it be any
Given the mountains of unmanageable toxic waste produced year after
year by coal mining, transport, and combustion, we can see right away
that coal does not measure up to the standards of "green engineering"
or "green chemistry." Not even close. Even if all the carbon dioxide
from coal plants could be captured and handed off to our children to
worry about, clean coal (and "green coal") would remain nothing more
than a public relations gimmick, a fiction, a fraud, a ruse.
Coal is not green. Coal is the color of death.==========================================================
The 12 Principles of Green Engineering
[First published in Paul T. Anastas and J.B. Zimmerman, "Design
through the Twelve Principles of Green Engineering", Environmental
Science & Technology Vol. 37, No. 5 (March 1, 2003), pgs. 95A-101A.]
Principle 1: Designers need to strive to ensure that all material and
energy inputs and outputs are as inherently nonhazardous as possible.
Principle 2: It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up
waste after it is formed.
Principle 3: Separation and purification operations should be designed
to minimize energy consumption and materials use.
Principle 4: Products, processes, and systems should be designed to
maximize mass, energy, space, and time efficiency.
Principle 5: Products, processes, and systems should be "output
pulled" rather than "input pushed" through the use of energy and
Principle 6: Embedded entropy and complexity must be viewed as an
investment when making design choices on recycle, reuse, or beneficial
Principle 7: Targeted durability, not immortality, should be a design
Principle 8: Design for unnecessary capacity or capability (e.g., "one
size fits all") solutions should be considered a design flaw.
Principle 9: Material diversity in multicomponent products should be
minimized to promote disassembly and value retention.
Principle 10: Design of products, processes, and systems must include
integration and interconnectivity with available energy and materials
Principle 11: Products, processes, and systems should be designed for
performance in a commercial "afterlife".
Principle 12: Material and energy inputs should be renewable rather
The 12 Principles of Green Chemistry
[First published in Martyn Poliakoff, J. Michael Fitzpatrick, Trevor
R. Farren, and Paul T. Anastas, "Green Chemistry: Science and Politics
of Change," Science Vol. 297 (August 2, 2002), pgs. 807-810.]
1. It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after
it is formed.
2. Synthetic methods should be designed to maximize the incorporation
of all materials used in the process into the final product.
3. Wherever practicable, synthetic methodologies should be designed to
use and generate substances that possess little or no toxicity to
human health and the environment.
4. Chemical products should be designed to preserve efficacy of
function while reducing toxicity.
5. The use of auxiliary substances (e.g., solvents, separation agents,
and so forth) should be made unnecessary wherever possible and
innocuous when used.
6. Energy requirements should be recognized for their environmental
and economic impacts and should be minimized. Synthetic methods should
be conducted at ambient temperature and pressure.
7. A raw material or feedstock should be renewable rather than
depleting wherever technically and economically practicable.
8. Unnecessary derivatization (blocking group,
protection/deprotection, temporary modification of physical/chemical
processes) should be avoided whenever possible.
9. Catalytic reagents (as selective as possible) are superior to
10. Chemical products should be designed so that at the end of their
function they do not persist in the environment and break down into
innocuous degradation products.
11. Analytical methodologies need to be developed further to allow for
real-time in-process monitoring and control before the formation of
12. Substances and the form of a substance used in a chemical process
should be chosen so as to minimize the potential for chemical
accidents, including releases, explosions, and fires.
 Barbara Freese and others, Coal Power in a Warming World
(Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 2008), pg. 5.
 Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 7.
 Martha Keating and others, Laid to Waste; The Dirty Secret of
Combustion Waste from America's Power Plants (Washington, D.C.:
Citizens Coal Council, 2000), pg. 2. [1.3 Mbyte PDF]
 Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 7.
 Barbara Freese, cited above in note 1, pg. 6.
Return to Table of Contents
From: Reuters, Nov. 2, 2008
IN BUSH'S END-GAME, LOTS OF CHANGES ON ENVIRONMENT
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
[Introduction: It's hard to explain this story -- some of President
Bush's political appointees seem in a rush to wreck the natural
environment before President-elect Obama takes office. One possible
explanation can be found in a short book, "Divine Destruction" by
Stephanie Hendricks (Hoboken, N.J.: Melville House, 2005). No matter
what Mr. Bush himself may believe, many of his appointees believe that
depleting the natural environment will speed the "second coming" of
Jesus. In this "dominion theology," wrecking the environment is God's
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- As the U.S. presidential candidates sprint
toward the finish line, the Bush administration is also sprinting to
enact environmental policy changes before leaving power.
Whether it's getting wolves off the Endangered Species List, allowing
power plants to operate near national parks, loosening regulations for
factory farm waste or making it easier for mountaintop coal-mining
operations, these proposed changes have found little favor with
The one change most environmentalists want, a mandatory program to cut
climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, is not among these so-called
Bureaucratic calendars make it virtually impossible that any U.S.
across-the-board action will be taken to curb global warming in this
administration, though both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack
Obama have promised to address it if they win Tuesday's U.S.
Even some free-market organizations have joined conservation groups to
urge a moratorium on last-minute rules proposed by the Interior
Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.
"The Bush administration has had eight years in office and has issued
more regulations than any administration in history," said Eli Lehrer
of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "At this point, in the
current economic climate, it would be especially harmful to push
through ill-considered regulations in the final days of the
John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation, which joined
Lehrer's group to call for a ban on these last-minute rules, said
citizens are cut out of the process, allowing changes in U.S. law that
the public opposes, such as rolling back protections under the
Endangered Species Act.
WHAT'S THE RUSH?
The Bush team has urged that these regulations be issued no later than
Saturday, so they can be put in effect by the time President George W.
Bush leaves office on January 20.
If they are in effect then, it will be hard for the next
administration to undo them, and in any case, this may not be the top
priority for a new president, said Matt Madia of OMB Watch, which
monitors the White House Office of Management and Budget, through
which these proposed regulations must pass.
"This is typical," Madia said of the administration's welter of
eleventh-hour rules. "It's a natural reaction to knowing that you're
almost out of power."
Industry is likely to benefit if Bush's rules on the environment
become effective, Madia said.
"Whether it's the electricity industry or the mining industry or the
agriculture industry, this is going to remove government restrictions
on their activity and in turn they're going to be allowed to pollute
more and that ends up harming the public," Madia said in a telephone
What is unusual is the speedy trip some of these environmental
measures are taking through the process.
For example, one Interior Department rule that would erode protections
for endangered species in favor of mining interests drew more than
300,000 comments from the public, which officials said they planned to
review in a week, a pace that Madia called "pretty ludicrous."
Why the rush? Because rules only go into effect 30 to 60 days after
they are finalized, and if they are not in effect when the next
president takes office, that chief executive can decline to put them
into practice -- as Bush did with many rules finalized at the end of
the Clinton administration.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto denied the Bush team was cramming
these regulations through in a hasty push.
Fratto discounted reports "that we're trying to weaken regulations
that have a business interest," telling White House reporters last
week the goal was to avoid the flood of last-minute rules left over
from the Clinton team.
There is at least one Bush administration environmental proposal that
conservation groups welcome: a plan to create what would be the
world's largest marine wildlife sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean. That
could go into effect January 20.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
Return to Table of Contents
From: USA Today, Nov. 3, 2008
NUMBER OF KIDS ON MEDICATION JUMPS ALARMINGLY
By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY
The number of children who take medication for chronic diseases has
jumped dramatically, another troubling sign that many of the youngest
Americans are struggling with obesity, doctors say.
The number of children who take pills for type 2 diabetes -- the kind
that's closely linked to obesity -- more than doubled from 2002 to
2005, to a rate of six out of 10,000 children. That suggests that at
least 23,000 privately insured children in the USA are now taking
diabetes medications, according to authors of the new study in
Doctors also saw big increases in prescriptions for high cholesterol,
asthma and attention deficit and hyperactivity. There was smaller
growth for drugs for depression and high blood pressure.
"We've got a lot of sick children," says author Emily Cox, senior
director of research with Express Scripts, which administers drug
benefit programs for private insurance plans. "What we've been seeing
in adults, we're also now seeing in kids."
Type 2 diabetes was once known as adult-onset. But Cox says her
records show kids as young as 5 being treated with prescription
Cox based her study on prescription records of nearly 4 million
children a year, ages 5 to 19, covered by Express Scripts. She says
her findings may not apply to the 40% of children who are uninsured or
covered by government health plans.
Unless these children make major changes -- such as eating healthier
and exercising more -- they could be facing a lifetime of illness, Cox
"These are not antibiotics that they take for seven to 10 days," Cox
says. "These are drugs that many are taking for the rest of their
Cox couldn't explain one surprising finding: Most of the increase in
drugs for diabetes, attention deficit/hyperactivity and depression was
seen in girls. The gender gap was most striking in diabetes: While the
number of boys taking medication grew by 39%, the number of girls
using them climbed by 147%, Cox found.
Sidebar: Rising Tide Of Meds
The number of children who take medication for several chronic
diseases has increased sharply from 2002 to 2005.
Diabetes: 103% increase
Asthma: 47% increase
ADHD: 41% increase
High cholesterol: 15% increase
The number of boys taking type 2 diabetes medication grew by 39% from
2002 to 2005, while the number of girls using them climbed by 147%,
according to a new study.
Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.
Return to Table of Contents
From: The Chief Engineer, Nov. 3, 2008
GLOBAL WARMING POLLUTION ON THE INCREASE
Washington (AP) -- The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-
made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push
beyond leading scientists' projected worst-case scenario,
international researchers said.
The new numbers, called "scary" by some, were a surprise because
scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use.
Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.
That's an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from
burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel
Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.
Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing
so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those
trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted
rises in temperature and sea level.
The pollution leader was China, followed by the United States, which
past data show is the leader in emissions per person in carbon dioxide
output. And while several developed countries slightly cut their CO2
output in 2007, the United States churned out more.
Still, it was large increases in China, India and other developing
countries that spurred the growth of carbon dioxide pollution to a
record high of 9.34 billion tons of carbon. Figures released by
science agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia
show that China's added emissions accounted for more than half of the
worldwide increase. China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon
dioxide polluter in 2006.
Emissions in the United States rose nearly 2 percent in 2007, after
declining the previous year. The U.S. produced 1.75 billion tons of
Things are happening very, very fast," said Corinne Le Quere,
professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia
and the British Antarctic Survey. "It's scary."
Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of
Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the
results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the
economic downturn. That didn't happen.
"If we're going to do something (about reducing emissions), it's got
to be different than what we're doing," he said.
The emissions are based on data from oil giant BP PLC, which show that
China has become the major driver of world trends. China emitted 2
billion tons of carbon last year, up 7.5 percent from the previous
"We're shipping jobs offshore from the U.S., but we're also shipping
carbon dioxide emissions with them," Marland said. "China is making
fertilizer and cement and steel and all of those are heavy energy-
Developing countries not asked to reduce greenhouse gases by the 1997
Kyoto treaty -- and China and India are among them -- now account for
53 percent of carbon dioxide pollution. That group of nations
surpassed industrialized ones in carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, a
new analysis of older figures shows.
India is in position to beat Russia for the No. 3 carbon dioxide
polluter behind the United States, Marland said. Indonesia levels are
Denmark's emissions dropped 8 percent. The United Kingdom and Germany
reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 3 percent, while France and
Australia cut it by 2 percent.
Nature can't keep up with the carbon dioxide from man, Le Quere said.
She said from 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57
percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it's 54 percent.
What is "kind of scary" is that the worldwide emissions growth is
beyond the highest growth in fossil fuel predicted just two years ago
by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Ben Santer, an
atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
Under the panel's scenario then, temperatures would increase by
somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100.
If this trend continues for the century, "you'd have to be luckier
than hell for it just to be bad, as opposed to catastrophic," said
Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider.
Copyright 2008, Chicagoland Chief Engineer
Return to Table of Contents
From: Reuters, Oct. 29, 2008
CLIMATE-WARMING METHANE LEVELS ROSE FAST IN 2007
By Deborah Zabarenko
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Levels of climate-warming methane -- a
greenhouse gas 23 times as potent as carbon dioxide -- rose abruptly
in Earth's atmosphere last year, and scientists who reported the
change don't know why it occurred.
Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has more than doubled
in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times, but stayed largely
stable over the last decade or so before rising in 2007, researchers
said on Wednesday.
This stability led scientists to believe that the emissions of
methane, from natural sources like cows, sheep and wetlands, as well
as from human activities like coal and gas production, were balanced
by the destruction of methane in the atmosphere.
But that balance was upset starting early last year, releasing
millions of metric tonnes more methane into the air, the scientists
wrote in the Geophysical Research Letters.
"The thing that's really surprising is that it's coming after this
period of very level emissions," said Matthew Rigby of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The worry is that we just
don't understand the methane cycle very well."
Another surprise was that the rise in methane levels happened
simultaneously at all the places scientists measured around the globe,
instead of being centered near known sources of methane emissions in
the Northern Hemisphere, said Rigby, one of the study's lead authors
along with Ronald Prinn, also of MIT.
A rise in methane in the Northern Hemisphere might be due to a year-
long warm spell in Siberia, where wetlands harbor methane-producing
bacteria, the scientists said, but had no immediate answer on why
emissions also rose in the Southern Hemisphere at the same time.
There is considerably less methane than carbon dioxide in the
atmosphere. Pre-industrial concentrations of methane were about 700
parts per billion -- that is, for every billion molecules of air,
there were only 700 of methane -- but that level rose gradually to
1773 parts per billion by the late 20th century, Rigby said in a
The rise in 2007 was about 10 parts per billion over the course of a
year, a real jump for such a short period of time.
By contrast, there are about 385 parts per million of carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere. However, methane is much better at locking in the
solar radiation that heats up the planet.
Methane is destroyed by reaction with an atmospheric "cleanser" called
the hydroxyl free radical, or OH. The researchers theorized that the
rise in methane might be due in part to a decline in OH.
The researchers said it is too soon to tell whether the one-year rise
in the amount of atmospheric methane is the start of an upward trend
or a short-lived anomaly.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
Return to Table of Contents
From: Los Angeles Times, Nov. 3, 2008
UTILITIES PUTTING NEW ENERGY INTO GEOTHERMAL SOURCES
Geothermal sources draw power firms in quest for renewables.
By Marla Dickerson
Reno, Nevada -- Not far from the blinking casinos of this gambler's
paradise lies what could be called the Biggest Little Power Plant in
Tucked into a few dusty acres across from a shopping mall, it uses
steam heat from deep within the Earth's crust to generate electricity.
Known as geothermal, the energy is clean, reliable and so abundant
that this facility produces more than enough electricity to power
every home in Reno, population 221,000.
"There's no smoke. Very little noise," said Paul Thomsen, director of
policy and business management for Ormat Technologies Inc., which owns
the operation. "People don't even know it's here."
Geothermal energy may be the most prolific renewable fuel source that
most people have never heard of. Although the supply is virtually
limitless, the massive upfront costs required to extract it have long
rendered geothermal a novelty. But that's changing fast as this old-
line industry buzzes with activity after decades of stagnation.
Billionaire Warren E. Buffett has invested big. Internet giant Google
Inc. is bankrolling advanced research. Entrepreneurs are paying record
prices for drilling leases in places such as Nevada, where they're
prospecting for heat instead of metals.
"This is the new gold rush," said Mark Taylor, a geothermal analyst
with the consulting firm New Energy Finance in Washington. He credits
high fossil fuel prices and concerns about global warming with jump-
starting the U.S. industry, along with federal tax credits and state
laws mandating the wider use of renewable energy.
Global investment in geothermal was around $3 billion last year,
Taylor said. Although that's a blip compared with the estimated $116
billion funneled into wind and solar, it's still a 183% increase over
investment in 2006. In a difficult year for alternative energy
funding, the industry snagged $600 million through the first six
months of 2008, Taylor said.
A lot of that new investment is in the United States, the world's
leader in geothermal energy. More than 80% of the country's 3,000
geothermal megawatts lies in California. The Geysers, a network of 22
geothermal plants about 75 miles north of San Francisco in the
Mayacamas Mountains, is the largest geothermal complex on the planet.
Calpine Corp. owns the largest part of it.
The area around the Salton Sea in Imperial County is another hot spot.
CalEnergy Generation, a subsidiary of Buffett's Mid-American Energy
Holdings, owns and operates 10 plants there. It plans three additional
facilities in the next few years, CalEnergy President Steve Larsen
In October, the Bureau of Land Management said it planned to open more
than 190 million acres of federal land in California and 11 other
Western states for new geothermal development.
Nevada, the nation's No. 2 geothermal producer, has 45 new projects
underway, said Lisa Shevenell, director of the Great Basin Center for
Geothermal Energy at the University of Nevada in Reno. An August lease
sale of Nevada lands by the federal bureau brought in a record $28.2
"I've been at this 25 years, and I've never seen anything like it,"
said Shevenell, a research hydrologist. "Money is falling out of the
Geothermal has been harnessed for industry since at least the 1820s.
Operators tap natural reservoirs of scalding water and steam trapped
thousands of feet underground, drilling wells to bring the heat to the
surface to power turbines that feed electricity generators.
Costing about 4 to 7 cents a kilowatt-hour, Taylor said, geothermal is
competitive with wind power and significantly cheaper than solar.
Geothermal facilities occupy a fraction of the space required by wind
and solar farms. The energy is also more reliable. Plants crank
electricity around the clock, irrespective of whether the sun is
shining or the wind is blowing.
This so-called baseload generation is coveted by power companies,
which are under pressure to boost their use of green energy.
California utilities must generate 20% of their electricity from
renewable sources by 2010. Nevada utilities must hit that target by
2015. Geothermal is a cornerstone of that effort, accounting for about
two-thirds of the renewable portfolio of NV Energy, Nevada's biggest
"It's a 24/7 predictable supply," said Thomas Fair, the company's head
of renewable energy. "That means a lot to a utility."
Greenhouse gas emissions are minimal in geothermal operations, and the
size of the fuel supply defies imagination. There is 50,000 times more
heat energy contained in the first six miles of the Earth's crust than
in all the planet's oil and natural gas resources, according to the
environmental organization Earth Policy Institute.
The challenge is extracting it. Geothermal energy production requires
three things: heat from the Earth's core, fractured rock to make it
easy to get to and water to transport the heat to the surface.
Traditionally, developers have sought out pockets of hot water and
steam hidden underground. Prime areas lie along continental plate
boundaries, which is why California is such a hotbed.
Still, these reservoirs can be tricky to pinpoint. They're also
expensive to reach. A geothermal well can cost $5 million or more. The
result: The U.S. currently derives less than 0.5% of its electricity
Some say the key to harnessing this energy source on a massive scale
lies with a technology known as enhanced geothermal systems, or EGS
for short. The idea is to engineer the necessary conditions by pumping
water into the Earth's crust and fracturing the hot rocks below. Heat
from the Earth warms the water, whose resulting steam is channeled
back to the surface, powering turbines to create electricity. The
water is then pumped back underground.
Though still in its infancy, EGS has the potential to open up much of
the planet to geothermal development. Tiny plants are already online
in France and Germany. More than 30 EGS firms are engaged in
exploration and development in Australia.
Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the Mountain View, Calif.-based
search engine company, is trying to push EGS in the U.S. It recently
gave $10 million to Southern Methodist University's Geothermal Lab to
update the nation's geothermal resources map, as well as to two
California companies -- Potter Drilling and AltaRock Energy Inc. --
that are working on EGS technologies.
Google is urging the U.S. government to spend big on geothermal R&D as
part of the company's push to encourage utility-scale renewable energy
that's cheaper than coal. About half the United States' electricity is
generated by that dirty fossil fuel. China, already the world's
largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is adding coal-fired plants at a
EGS "is indeed the sleeping giant of renewable energy," Dan Reicher,
director for climate change and energy initiatives at Google.org, said
during a recent industry conference in Reno. "It's the killer ap."
Some industry veterans such as Shevenell are miffed that EGS has
grabbed the spotlight when there's plenty of energy to be extracted
quickly using conventional techniques. Still, she credits Google for
helping pump life into a dormant sector.
"This country is in an energy crisis," she said. "We need energy now,
and this is a proven way to get it."
Dickerson is a Times staff writer.
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times
Return to Table of Contents
From: Environmental Science & Technology, Nov. 5, 2008
WHY SMALL PLASTIC PARTICLES MAY POSE A BIG PROBLEM IN THE OCEANS
New evidence shows that marine animals can take up the toxic chemicals
that can become concentrated in small plastic particles.
By Kellyn Betts
Over the past few years, scientists have begun to realize that the
increasing volume of plastic materials slowly decomposing in the
world's oceans may present a long-term problem for marine food chains
already reeling from overfishing and other anthropogenic insults.
Partly as a result of a pair of influential papers published in ES&T,
scientists are now exploring the role that fragments of plastic trash
may play in transporting marine pollutants.
The first international conference about this newly emerging
"microplastics" problem was held in September and sponsored by the
U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Attendees
from six countries agreed to define microplastics as plastic pieces or
fragments smaller than 5 millimeters. Sources of microplastics include
both the small plastic particles used in products like containers for
body washes and cosmetics and the weathering of larger plastic flotsam
and jetsam, says conference organizer Joel Baker of the University of
Washington Tacoma, where the event was held.
Larger plastic debris tends mainly to float on the surface, but
microplastics also can be found in the water column and on the seabed,
says Richard Thompson, a researcher at Plymouth University (U.K) and a
coauthor of both ES&T papers. "This distribution, together with the
smaller size, means that a wider variety of organisms could be exposed
to [microplastics]," he says. Thompson has been at the forefront of
developing methods to definitively identify plastic fragments as small
as 20 micrometers.
As plastic items break down, any toxic additives they contain --
including flame retardants, antimicrobials, and plasticizers -- may be
released into the ocean environment, Thompson explains. Plastics can
act like sponges to collect hydrophobic persistent organic pollutants,
such as PCBs, adds Holly Bamford, director of NOAA's Marine Debris
Program. Microplastic particles have been shown to hold concentrations
of PCBs more than 1 million times higher than those in the surrounding
water, Baker says.
At the recent conference, Hideshige Takada of the Tokyo University of
Agriculture and Technology presented persuasive data that
microplastics can impact marine food chains; the results came from a
feeding experiment with streaked shearwaters, a common seabird in
Japan and Australia. Takada's group, which has analyzed plastic
pellets found on beaches around the world, fed chicks living in their
natural environment a diet of fish laced with PCB-laden polyethylene
resin pellets collected from Tokyo Bay. The pellet-consuming chicks
took in up to 3 times the concentrations of lighter-weight PCB
compounds, or congeners, as did chicks fed fish alone, he reported.
Takada's research buttresses laboratory data published in the ES&T
papers. The first paper (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2007, 41, 7759-7764)
used modeling experiments to show that common marine lugworms can
accumulate phenanthrene, a persistent anthropogenic compound commonly
found in the ocean, when microplastic particles saturated with a small
amount of the contaminant are added to the sediments where the worms
dwell. The second paper (Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 5026-5031)
confirmed that captive Mytilus edulis mussels fed microplastic
fragments accumulated the plastic bits in their guts. At the September
conference, Thompson and his colleagues reported that their latest
work appears to confirm that contaminants can transfer from plastics
to live lugworms.
Takada is currently investigating whether microplastics are exposing
marine animals to phenolic compounds, including nonylphenol,
octylphenol, and bisphenol A. "Ingestion of marine plastics could be a
direct and important route of phenolic chemicals to higher animals
such as seabirds," he says. Several studies suggest that
biomagnification does not play an important role in the transfer of
such endocrine-disrupting compounds to animals and birds that are
higher up in the food chain, he adds.
The world now uses 230 million pounds of plastic annually, Thompson
says, noting that much of this is "for one-trip packaging that is
thrown out within a year of production, on average." Because the
plastic that enters the ocean tends to fragment, it is likely to
remain in the environment "for hundreds, if not thousands, of years,"
Return to Table of Contents
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