Nuclear Power Plant Isar II in Bavaria, Germany seen from sky. brewbooks / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
All seven of Germany’s nuclear power plants are slated to close by 2022, but questions remain about where the European country can safely bury nearly 28,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste that will stay there for the next million years, as CNN reported.
The decision to close the country’s nuclear plants came after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011. Japan is still struggling to cool and to contain the nuclear waste from the plant, which is part of the reason that Germany is wrestling with the puzzle of where to offload nearly 2,000 containers of nuclear waste, which measures about six Big Bens.
The site that Germany chooses for the nuclear waste must be completely impervious to water and safe enough not to leak in the event of an earthquake, as CNN reported.
It needs to find a repository that “offers the best possible safety and security for a period of a million years,” said Germany’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, according to CNN.
Professor Miranda Schreurs, who is part of the team searching for a storage site, called the puzzle a “wicked problem,” and added that the storage site needs to be beyond rock solid. There are remarkable technological challenges in solving the issue, such as transporting the waste, finding a way to encase it, and even letting generations far off in the future know that it is there, according to CNN.
“We need to find a way to tell them ‘curiosity is not good here,'” said Schreurs to CNN. She added that the site must be “very, very stable. It can’t have earthquakes, it can’t have any signs of water flow, it can’t be very porous rock.”
Ideally, Germany would store the waste in granite, but the country does not have rich deposits of granite, according to India-based Republic World.
However, all those problems need to be solved in tandem with a communications challenge — how Germany will convince one of its communities to bury the nuclear waste in its backyard.
The challenges for a nuclear graveyard need to be solved by the government’s deadline of 2031 when a final repository for all the nuclear waste must be chosen. The project of transporting and securing the waste will then continue for generations. The storage facility is scheduled to be sealed somewhere between 2130 and 2170, according to CNN.
The scientists and policy makers have a short window for finding an appropriate site for the waste that is sure to rankle a voting bloc somewhere within the country. Germany has vowed not to export the waste, but it faces deep skepticism and mistrust at home after an ignominious history with storage sties, according to CNN.
Salt mines in eastern Germany that were used for low- and medium-level nuclear waste are failing to reach safety standards, which raises the concern over the prospect of storing high-level waste.
For decades, residents in the northeast part of Germany have fought to keep high-level nuclear waste out of its area, going so far as to block train lines that were carrying nuclear waste to a temporary facility, as CNN reported.
“If we did not build this big, strong and long-lasting resistance, I think the salt mine would already be used,” said Kerstin Rudek, 51, who has campaigned against a permanent nuclear repository in Lower Saxony for the last 35 years, to CNN. She plans to continue her fight, adding, “they haven’t canceled out Gorleben completely, so we are very suspicious it might still be chosen.” SOURCE
Systems make use of local heating and cooling sources, from wood waste to geothermal to garbage
The sun’s heat is captured by this array of solar panels, mounted on the garages of Drake Landing Solar Community in Okotoks, Alta. The homes are connected to a district energy system that stores heat in the summer to heat the homes in the winter. (CBC)
During the cold, snowy winters in much of Canada, many of us rely on furnaces, boilers and baseboard heaters to keep our homes and offices comfortable — and hope they don’t suddenly quit during a cold snap.
But what if you didn’t need any heating equipment in your home? What if your community provided a greener, more efficient, more reliable source of heat using locally sourced energy? What if it didn’t take up space in your home or office building, you didn’t have to maintain it, and it was just about guaranteed to keep running and keep you warm through big storms and power outages?
That’s the promise of district energy systems — along with climate benefits that have earned them an endorsement from the United Nations Environment Program. World leaders meet Dec. 2-13 for the COP 25 UN climate conference in Madrid to discuss next steps in implementing the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, and district energy is one potential tool.
The idea is that instead of having an individual heating and cooling system for each building, multiple buildings are hooked up to a single, central system — similar to the idea of hooking into a municipal water service instead of each building relying on individual wells. The heating and cooling is distributed to individual buildings through pipes that typically contain heated or chilled water.
It’s not new — some district energy systems in Canada are more than 100 years old.
“Yes, there’s a real renaissance,” says Bruce Ander, president and CEO of Markham District Energy in the Great Toronto Area. A past chair of the International District Energy Association, Ander has been working in the field for 40 years.
More than half of district energy facilities inventoried in Canada in 2014 had been commissioned since 2000, and more than half of them planned expansions in the near future.
They range from a project in Vancouver that recovers heat from sewer water to provide heat and hot water to more than 30 condo buildings to one that cools Toronto office towers in summer with water from the depths of Lake Ontario. And even smaller communities are jumping on board, including the village of Teslin, Yukon, which has installed a biomass system, and the rural municipality of Ritchot, Man., which has a district geothermal system.
Vancouver’s False Creek Neighourhood Utility used waste heat from sewage to provide heat and hot water to 30 condo buildings in the neighbourhood, which was redeveloped for the 2010 Olympics. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
For example, Vancouver captures the heat from families’ hot showers, dishwasher and laundry loads in its high-density False Creek neighbourhood. The waste heat literally is heading down the drain, but can be extracted at the nearby sewage pumping plant.
“It’s a great opportunity,” says Alex Charpentier, acting manager of the False Creek Neighourhood Utility that runs the system. “In a dense urban environment, there’s not many sources of local energy.”
This is some of the distribution pipe used to carry hot water to buildings in the Charlottetown District Energy System. Such pipes are easier to install in areas that haven’t yet been developed. (PEI Energy Systems/Enwave Energy Corp.)
Charlottetown has little land for landfills and no equipment installed to prevent methane generated by rotting garbage from escaping into the atmosphere, so it burns garbage in its district energy system, says Carlyle Coutinho, president and chief operating officer for the Canadian region at Enwave Energy Corp., which runs the system.
The heat is distributed through underground pipes carrying heated water.
Meanwhile, Teslin, Yukon, is surrounded by boreal forest. Installing district energy means it can now heat buildings with locally sourced wood chips, generating jobs and keeping $300,000 a year that would have been spent on imported diesel in the local community, said project manager Blair Hogan, president and CEO of Gunta Business Consulting.
The wood comes from trees cleared for development, and more will be cleared in the future to create fire breaks to protect the community from wildfires, a risk that grows with climate change.
“In every community, there’s a unique technology for their unique situation,” Hogan said.
In addition to accessing different heating and cooling sources, district energy systems make it easy to feed in new energy sources or switch altogether. For example, a system in St. Paul, Minn., switched from fossil fuels to biomass “almost overnight” without affecting customers, Ander said: “How it’s fuelled doesn’t really matter to them.”
But it can have a huge impact on their greenhouse gas emissions.
‘Key measure’ for carbon targets
In fact,the United Nations Environment Program calls district energy a “key measure for cities/countries that aim to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy or carbon neutral targets.” Its District Energy in Cities Initiative notes that district energy can:
Reduce energy consumption and costs from heating and cooling by up to 50 per cent.
Store large amounts of energy at low cost.
Make transitions to sustainable heating and cooling sources fast and cost-effective.
It adds that such systems are increasingly low-carbon and climate resilient — that is, they can often keep running through storms and extreme weather disasters that are becoming more frequent with climate change and that often knock out the electricity needed to run many traditional heating systems.
That’s why they’re often hooked up to places like hospitals that can’t afford to lose power.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital is among buildings hooked up to the Charlottetown District Energy System. Such systems are considered more resilient and reliable in case of storms or power outages. (Tom Steepe/CBC)
Ander says Markham’s system has had more than 99.99 per cent reliability since it launched in 2000 — in 165,000 hours of continuous operation in 20 years, it’s been down just 2.5 hours.
“The buildings are much easier to operate,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about this critical equipment failing.”
He notes there are other benefits for customers:
They don’t need to pay the large up-front cost of installing equipment, such as furnaces, boilers, chillers or air conditioners. Nor do they need to maintain the equipment.
They free up space that would have been taken up by that kind of equipment.
There’s reduced noise and vibration from heating and cooling systems.
There are safety benefits to not being directly supplied with natural gas, for instance.
Markham District Energy’s Markham Centre system serves every new building that has been built in the city’s “new” downtown since 2000. It expects to ultimately heat and cool 30 million square feet of homes for 41,000 residents and 39,000 employees in commercial and institutional buildings.
For now, the system burns natural gas and uses electrically powered chillers for cooling, but its use of fossil fuels remains more efficient than if the buildings had individual heating systems. It also has started to incorporate waste heat from data centres.
Partly, that’s because building an economically viable district energy system typically requires two things that aren’t often found together:
But the biggest challenge is the upfront cost to install the infrastructure, especially since it must be done before there are any buildings with paying customers attached, Ander says, adding that it takes decades of customers paying their utility bills to recover the cost.
“So there has to be some sort of some assistance in some manner from higher levels of government,” he suggests.
Biomass boilers burn locally sourced wood chips to heat homes via a district energy system in Teslin, Yukon. One of the co-benefits is it allows money that was previously spent on imported diesel to circulate in the community and provide local jobs, proponents say. (Nelly Albérola/Radio-Canada)
Another challenge is the low price of natural gas that is the dominant heating fuel in Canada, says Lucio Mesquita, senior engineer with the Solar Thermal Renewable Heat and Power Group at Natural Resource’s Canada CanmetENERGY Research Centre.
Mesquita was part of the team that built and continues to monitor the Drake Landing Solar Community in Okotoks, Alta., which collects heat using solar panels in the summer and stores it for home heating use in the winter. In the past 13 years, more than 90 per cent of home heat — 100 per cent some years — has come from the solar collectors.
He says not enough of the discussion on reducing emissions has been about ways to decarbonize heating in Canada.
“We have the solutions. We have the technology to do the deep decarbonization,” he said. “It’s a matter of resources and the right market conditions.” SOURCE
Air industry knows it has a carbon footprint problem – so what is it doing about it?
Domestic and international aviation accounts for approximately two per cent of global CO2 emissions. (David Gray/Reuters)
Delegates from more than 200 countries will be travelling to Madrid this week to take part in COP25, the UN’s annual climate conference.
The perceived hypocrisy of so many people flying from all corners of the globe to try to tackle the climate crisis has led some to call for an air travel ban for participants.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), domestic and international aviation accounts for approximately two per cent of global CO2 emissions produced by people. It estimates international aviation alone is responsible for 1.3 per cent of global CO2 emissions.
But air travel is only growing. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts 7.8 billion passengers will be flying by 2036, a near doubling of the four billion who flew in 2017.
According to Reuters, a Swedish-born anti-flying movement — perhaps inspired by teen climate activist Greta Thunberg — is creating a whole new vocabulary, from flygskam (which translates as “flight shame”) to tågskryt (“train brag”). The agency reports the movement is spreading to other parts of Europe.
What is the aviation industry doing?
In 2009, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the industry’s trade organization, set out to make the industry more fuel efficient and reduce CO2 emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050.
The plan was built around:
The use of more fuel-efficient aircraft and sustainable low-carbon fuels.
More efficient aircraft operations — such as reducing on-board weight.
Technology and infrastructureimprovements, including modernized air traffic management systems, to allow for more direct routes.
All participating countries will be required to begin offsetting any emission growth from 2019-20 levels starting in 2021. (As a signatory of CORSIA, Canada began monitoring and verifying emissions from international flights on Jan. 1, 2019.)
The anti argument says they do nothing to actually reduce carbon emissions. The pro argument says if they weren’t tied to carbon offset projects, climate-friendly initiatives such as tree planting or wind and solar energy development would never happen.
The debate around carbon offset projects, such as wind farms, is seen as a controversial response to aviation’s contribution to climate change. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
Kathryn Ervine, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax who has researched carbon offsets, said they are simply a way for airlines and individual travellers to try to appease their guilt, and aren’t beneficial.
Her suggestion? “Go and find a worthwhile green initiative that you know is making an impact and make a financial contribution to it.”
Are individual airlines doing anything?
Many airlines encourage travellers to buy carbon offsets, fly direct (which uses less fuel) and even to pack less (lighter planes use less fuel).
British Airways recently announced plans to offset its domestic travel beginning next year, after becoming the first airline to commit to net carbon zero flying by 2050. But an investigation by BBC’s Panorama revealed the airline was also using a cost-cutting measure called fuel tankering, in which planes load up with extra fuel to avoid refuelling costs at their destination. British Airways became the first airline to commit to net carbon zero flying by 2050. (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
Panorama reported that carrying that extra fuel meant the airline generated an extra 18,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide last year. BA said it would review the practice.
Qantas followed BA’s lead on lowering emissions with a pledge to also be a net zero emitter by 2050. Australia’s national carrier has already experimented with flying a plane from Los Angeles to Melbourne using mustard seed biofuel.
“So, we know the technology’s possible,” CEO Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. He said the challenge is doing it commercially, at scale. “That’s why it’ll take some time to get there.”
Other airlines — including Air Canada — have committed to using more sustainable fuels.
An aviation carbon tax
But all of this isn’t enough for some European countries. Transportation is the only European sector currently increasing its emissions, so nine EU countries (the Netherlands, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark and Bulgaria) are calling for the creation of an aviation tax.
In a letter to the EU chief executive of climate, the countries’ finance ministers said an aviation tax where “the polluter pays a fairer price for the use of aviation transport” is necessary to combat climate change.
“Compared to most other means of transportation, aviation is not sufficiently priced,” the letter said. The European Commission has said it plans to respond by the end of December.
A ban on business class?
Jozsef Varadi, the head of Hungarian economy flyer Wizz Air, is calling for a ban on business class for flights under five hours.
It’s not an entirely new idea. The World Bank studied the environmental impact of flying first and business class versus economy in 2013, and found that the higher-paying passengers generated about three per cent more carbon emissions. Why?
First and business class seats on airplanes are bigger, fewer passengers sit in those sections and so the aircraft’s fuel is used to move fewer people.
There have been calls to reduce business and first class travel for environmental reasons. (Edgar Su/Reuters)
Indeed, according to this online carbon calculator, a round trip flight in economy class from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to London Heathrow produces 4.9 tonnes of carbon emissions. The same trip in business class produces 9.5 tonnes.
What’s the future of flying?
In a word: electric.
Companies around the world are working on building all-electric aircraft. One of them is Vancouver-based Harbour Air.
NASA is also playing a big part in that research. Its first all-electric aircraft — the X-57 Maxwell — arrived at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. in early October.
NASA has been involved in the research, development and testing of electric aviation technology for decades. Its goal is not to build the first all-electric commercial airliner — or even a prototype — but to help the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establish standards for electric flight.
“Before electric aircraft start flying everywhere, [the] FAA needs to set certification standards for certain systems,” said Matt Kamlet, senior public affairs specialist for aeronautics. “And our goal with X-57 is to help set those standards.”
That has involved years of designing and redesigning the model, as well as experimenting with different energy sources.
“We needed electric motors which take the electric power and drive the propellers,” said Sean Clarke, principal investigator for the X-57. “We needed motor inverters or controllers that take the DC power that batteries provide and turn it into a rotating power for the motor to use. And then we also needed batteries.”
So the team modified some commercial battery cells — the 18650 cell — and repackaged them with the requirements for aircraft. The whole system weighs about nearly 400 kilograms and provides about 45 minutes of travel.
Technicians work on NASA’s first all-electric plane, the X-57 Maxwell. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
Clarke said NASA will be ground testing its electric plane in the next six to eight months and doing its first crewed flight test by the end of next year. The aircraft will be far quieter than current aircraft and in flight, it would be completely carbon-free.
If you think that 45 minutes of carbon-free flight isn’t of much use, Clarke pointed out that the technology will almost certainly benefit large aircraft as well.
“Hybrid aircraft — which could use a lot of the technologies from this vehicle and even batteries to some extent — could make a lot of sense at small scales up to ranges of two or three hundred miles [320 to 480 kilometres] pretty soon.”
So, should COP25 ban delegates from flying to Madrid?
Natalie Jones, a research associate at the Centre for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, said no.
Given the conference is in Spain, you’d have delegates from European countries who could take the train, maybe delegates from some North African countries who could sail across the Mediterranean and perhaps North American representation, if their delegates could afford a two-week trip by sea across the Atlantic. That would leave those most affected by climate change on the sidelines.
“You’re missing most of Asia, probably. You’re missing most of Africa. You’re missing most of the poorest countries, the small island states in the Pacific. How are they going to send people?”
What about video conferencing? Jones said for many less-developed countries, the technology can be unreliable. Plus, so many key conversations at conferences like COP happen in hallways, in smaller rooms, even the lunch line. So being confined to one video line would be of little use.
“Arguably you’ll be locked out of kind of where the … actual power is,” she said. “And so if you’re not there, then your interests are going to get absolutely trampled on.” SOURCE
Cutting emissions relies on energy-storage technology coming of age
It sounds simple: lift heavy blocks with a crane, then capture the power generated from dropping them. This is not an experiment designed by a ten-year-old, but the premise of Energy Vault, which has raised $110m from SoftBank, a big Japanese tech investor. The idea has competition. A cluster of billionaires including Bill Gates, Jack Ma, Ray Dalio and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son are backing other schemes to capture power. A firm incubated at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, wants to store electricity in molten salt. Such plans hint at one of the power business’s hardest tasks. Generating clean power is now relatively straightforward. Storing it is far trickier.
Solar and wind last year produced 7% of the world’s electricity. By 2040, that share could grow by over five times, according to the International Energy Agency, an intergovernmental forecaster. The trouble is, a lull in the wind leaves a turbine listless. Clouds have a habit of blocking the sun. That means that solar and wind cannot, on their own, replace coal and gas plants, which produce continual power reliably.
One answer is to store power in batteries, which promise to gather clean electricity when the sun and wind produce more than is required and dispatch it later, as it is needed. In 2018 some 3.5 gigawatts of storage was installed, about twice the amount in 2017, according to Bloombergnef, an energy data firm. Total investment in storage this year may reach $5.3bn, it estimates. As this grows it could drive an extraordinary expansion (see chart). However at present only about 1% of renewable energy is complemented by storage, reckons Morgan Stanley, a bank. There are still plenty of hurdles to clear.
The most common method of storage so far has been to pump water into an elevated reservoir at times of plenty and release it when electricity is needed. This type of hydropower is not the answer to providing lots more storage. Building a new reservoir requires unusual topography and it can wreak environmental havoc.
Batteries offer an alternative and availability should improve as electric cars become ever more popular. “The whole production supply chain for lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles is gearing up,” says Andrés Gluski of aes, an electricity company, “so we’re going to piggyback on that.” As greater demand led to greater manufacturing scale, the cost of batteries dropped by 85% from 2010 to 2018, according to Bloombergnef. That makes batteries cheap enough not only to propel mass-market electric cars but for use in the power system, too.
And as electric cars become more widespread their batteries could serve as a source of mobile storage, feeding power back into the grid, if required, when the vehicles are parked and plugged in. With the right infrastructure in place, fleets of electric cars could substitute for new dedicated storage capacity.
Batteries do a variety of things. A firm called Sunrun sells residential solar panels paired with batteries, a particularly appealing proposition for Californian homeowners desperate for an alternative to fire-induced blackouts. Within the broader grid, batteries can act as a shock absorber to deal with variations in supply from one minute to the next. Other uses include shifting electricity supply from the day, when solar panels often produce a surfeit of power, to the evening, when demand rises.
The growth of storage is becoming a headache for old-fashioned power generators that rely on gas or coal. NextEra Energy Resources, which builds clean-power installations, is increasingly pairing large solar farms with batteries. aes, which has battery-storage facilities in 21 countries and territories, runs a scheme in Hawaii that combines solar with storage to meet peaks in demand. The Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean-energy research group, warns that solar and battery projects, combined with measures such as smarter appliances to control demand, may turn gas-powered plants into stranded assets.
Nevertheless, the battery industry faces several barriers to broader deployment. To start with, if a battery overheats it can catch fire, producing gases that might explode. In the past year installations in South Korea have caught fire. A fire and explosion in April damaged a storage site in Arizona run by Fluence, a joint venture between aes and Siemens, a German engineering giant. The causes are still under investigation. As the industry matures, safety measures are likely to become more rigorous.
In the meantime, the industry will have to cope with a patchwork of other rules and regulations. South Korea has offered incentives for storage, in part to create a market for its domestic battery-makers, which are among the world’s leaders. Some states in America, such as New York and New Jersey, have mandated storage to help reduce emissions. In others, America’s federal electricity regulator is trying to open markets to storage, but the details of how that will work in practice are unclear. In Britain, batteries are deemed “generation assets”, which exposes storage developers to extra fees and costs, says Michael Folsom of Watson Farley & Williams, a law firm.
Even if electricity regulations were smoothed, lithium-ion batteries would eventually reach their limits. Breakthrough Energy Ventures (bev) is a fund backed by Messrs Gates, Ma, Dalio and other billionaires to invest in transformational technologies. The cost of lithium-ion batteries is falling quickly, but to store power for days let alone weeks “lithium-ion is never going to get cheap enough”, says Eric Toone, bev’s head of science.
Alternatives include flow batteries, that use electrolytes in tanks of chemical solution, as well as mechanical means such as Energy Vault’s falling blocks. Hydrogen can also be made using clean power and turned back into electricity in gas-fired power plants or fuel cells. In the future liquefied gases might provide a solution (see article). Unlike solar panels, which have become standardised, different batteries are likely to serve different purposes on a grid. “All batteries are like humans, equally flawed in some specific way,” says Mateo Jaramillo, who led storage development at Tesla, an electric carmaker.
Mr Jaramillo now leads Form Energy, a firm that is developing an electrochemical alternative to lithium-ion batteries. Investors include bev and Eni, an large Italian oil and gas firm. Mr Jaramillo declines to predict when his work will be commercialised. But the goal is clear. “If you can develop a long-term storage solution,” he says, “that’s how you retire coal and that’s how you retire natural gas.” SOURCE
Is rainwater capture the new solar panel? How drought-stricken cities are capitalizing on a building solution so simple, it’s almost like it’s right above our heads.
Rainwater, solar panels, green roofs… oh my! Rooftop real estate has never been so hot. Credit: Johnston Architects
When urban planners consider how the daily weather figures into the pesky issues of how people live and work, they usually classify cities into one group or the other: water-rich or water-stressed. A city has either too much water or not enough.
San Antonio in southern Texas is both rich and stressed. It gets most of its water from an aquifer and actually has close to the same annual rainfall as Seattle. But the city tends to get all that rain at once: big storms make it one of the most flood-prone regions of North America. Yet they can also have long periods of drought, and have a fast-growing population with a thirst for a water-heavy lifestyle.
“San Antonio has always had to deal with both because here it is drought, flood, repeat, drought, flood, repeat,” says Rudolph Rosen, director of the Institute for Water Resources, Science and Technology at Texas A&M University, San Antonio.
It is perhaps due to this cycle that San Antonio is one of the cities at the forefront of a new water revolution taking hold in America — a revolution that is looking backward in order to move forward. At the foundation of that revolution is a simple idea: not all water needs to be treated equally. Literally.
Down the drain
One of the little-known facts of American life is that about one-third of all the water used in this country goes down the toilet. That’s right, according to the experts who keep track of such data, each of us uses 1.6 gallon of water per toilet flush, and we do that an average of 2.13 times day. That adds up to about 102 gallons of water a month for each of us to process our discharges.
That means an office building of 100 workers flushes about 10,000 gallons each month. A school with 750 students, over 75,000 gallons. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, housing about 5,000 inmates, uses 6 million gallons of water every year — enough to fill more than 9 Olympic-sized swimming pools — for the sole purpose of flushing away their processed cafeteria food and iced tea.
Yet all this water is processed and treated the same as the water we drink. It’s coming from the same stressed aquifers and retaining ponds that are sucked dry come drought season. And it’s not just toilets that are the culprits. Water for washing cars and clothes, cooling manufacturing equipment, and watering plants and crops and lawns is all put through the same energy-intensive process to bring it up to the standard we have for the water humans drink. Then we flush it right back to the facility it came from to be processed again.
That’s why in San Antonio, and increasingly across America, architects and engineers are looking to the sky for answers, by catching and processing rainwater that falls on the building to use for purposes other than human consumption.
“Sometimes, good sustainability ideas are not really that high tech,” says Allen Sikes, the design and construction manager at Silver Ventures, a real estate development company in San Antonio now experimenting with rooftop rainwater catching systems. “It is going back to the mindset of the farmer. Their thinking has always been, ‘We have this rain coming down from the sky, why don’t we grab it.’ We’re starting to think the same way.”
Silver Ventures is constructing two new office buildings near downtown San Antonio — adjoining 8- and 12-story structures. Almost 100 percent of the water needed for the buildings’ operations will be harvested by a rooftop catchment system. Funnels on the roofs will collect about 2.6 million gallons of rainwater per year, which will be piped down to an underground parking garage beneath the building. After a light treatment in storage tanks, the water will then be piped back up into the building for use.
The average one- to five-inch rainstorm in San Antonio will drop about 110,000 gallons on water on these two buildings, which are slated to be completed in March. Their collection infrastructure will be able to re-capture and use about 90,000 gallons of that water that would otherwise have been run-off.
And their timing couldn’t be better. San Antonio, generally known for its leadership in water conservation and management, already has the start of a large-scale version of rainwater capture for overall city water reuse, where captured water is transferred to some parts of the city in purple pipes that mark it as non-potable water.
But it’s not enough, and the issue of rainwater capture is more urgent than ever. Texas’s 2012 State Water Plan, a 50-year strategy for keeping Texas alive in the drought-ridden future, says the state needs to quadruple its use of reused or recycledwater, adding over 300 billion gallons to yearly supply by 2060 to stop the state from turning to dust.
In line with that, Sikes says motivations for developing rainwater capture systems in buildings — once seen as environmentally-friendly measures — are quickly turning economic: rainwater capture will help increase a building’s value by guaranteeing lower water bills over time and resources become scarcer and scarcer.
“It is fast becoming a financial decision,” Sikes says, “and while the payback can be a little longer timewise, we are finding that with water issues in almost every city making it more and more expensive, the payback is now coming faster and faster.”
Celeste Allen Novak, an architect in Ann Arbor, Michigan and co-author of Designing Rainwater Harvesting Systems: Integrating Rainwater into Building Systems agrees. “Climate change is a reason we have to rethink all of our systems, and rainwater harvesting fits in the cycle of the using what the environment gives us, instead of trying to engineer our way out of it, as we have usually done,” she says.
But Novak also points out the obvious economic benefits: water use reduction, less clean water processing needed, less underground water sewers needed for new housing and buildings, and most importantly, addressing the water shortage that is popping up more. “Sometimes important change gets moving when the financial savings are more evident, and that is happening now with the water recapture issues,” she says.
A new problem, an old solution
In a 2012 study, the National Resource Defense Council stated “solutions to one of America’s biggest urban challenges are right in front of us — in this case, literally falling from the sky.”
The solution is not anything new. Prior to the late 1800s, when most Americans lived in rural areas, farmers and ranchers harvested rainwater in a basic way to run their operations. Cisterns would catch rainwater from the roofs, small windmills would pump water from shallow aquifers for drinking water for farm animals, and small dams on tiny creeks would keep some of the rainwater from moving downstream.
But as the population moved into urban areas, the processing of water became more one-size-fits-all. The system became more focused on getting clean water to the users and moving the dirty water away. How the water was used, however, was no longer considered. Farmers knew that water used for irrigation or to fill the pig trough had a different level of cleanliness need than water that the family would drink.
Now, we’re starting to get there again. And not just in San Antonio.
In cities across the United States, investments in green infrastructure are growing and include water retrofitting. New York City has committed to spending $1.6 billion on green infrastructure in 20 years, while Philadelphia has estimated that public investment in stormwater retrofits over the next 25 years will total $1.2 billion. Smaller but still substantially green water infrastructure targets are also in place in Los Angeles; Detroit; Portland, Oregon; and Kansas City, Missouri.
The problem, however, is that few cities are setting rainwater capture standards as a requirement in new construction. Most of the city and state programs include rainwater capture as a more of a “suggestion,” with some grants and tax breaks available for those who opt in. The cities also don’t yet have a way to incentivize rainwater capture the way we’ve incentivized solar panels — by hooking them into the grid and allowing buildings to reap the financial rewards of contributing to the city’s resource needs.
And yet the benefits are enough that that large-scale developments around the America are implementing rainwater systems, showing the rest of the country the way forward.
Rain that falls atop the 1,070-ft-tall Salesforce Tower in San Francisco (opened in 2018), is collected, treated in a centralized treatment center and recirculated through a separate pipe system for non-potable uses in the building such as cooling towers, showers, sinks, toilets and urinals. The system reduces conventional water demands by saving a whopping 30,000 gallons of fresh water per day — 7.8 million gallons a year.
Manassas Park Elementary School in Virginia has 61,000 sq. ft of rooftop surface and collects 79,000 gallon of rainwater each month for the toilet flushes of 900 students.
The Western Virginia Regional Jail in Roanoke County uses about 20,000 gallons per day that is collected and stored for prison laundry use.
A seven-unit housing building in Seattle collects rainwater from the rooftops and courtyard areas and directs it into a large cistern in the underground parking garage. Overall the building uses 100,000 gallons per year less than one built up to standard code-based construction.
There are many others: the 31-story Atlantic Wharf, which markets itself as “Boston’s first green skyscraper”; Market at Colonnade, a commercial development in Raleigh, North Carolina, captures 800,000 gallons of rainwater each year; the Meier & Frank Delivery Depot in Portland, with a rainwater recycling system that captures about 193,000 gallons annually; and Burbank, California’s “Water and Power EcoCampus,” a community-owned utility site that is run 100 percent on recycled water.
These communities are showing that the water is there to be used; regardless of how much rainfall the area receives. A study by the National Climate Data Center found that Washington, D.C., has 1318 acres of residential rooftop space, 39.4 inches or rainfall each year, and about 9 billion gallons of water falling on those rooftops. Even Denver, with only 14.5 inches of rain each year, has 7252 acres of residential roof. Those Colorado roofs could collect 4.5 billion gallons of water each year.
Let them drink rainwater
With so much opportunity sitting right above out heads, it may be time for a countrywide plan for harnessing the power of our rooftops.
Greg Mella, the director of sustainable design for SmithGroup, a leading U.S. architecture, engineering and planning firm, says that “Roof real estate has never been so valuable, as solar energy and rainwater harvesting and developing a green vegetative roof are all goals. But we are struggling to balance all these needs and have the policy and programs in place to move them into reality.”
Mella helped design the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which opened in 2015. One hundred percent of the building’s water, including all potable drinking water, is provided with rainwater harvested from the roof. This water is stored in two 1,650-gallon tanks in an insulated area beneath the building. This may be the first public building with a permitted system meeting federal standards that allows harvested rainwater to be the sole water source.
“The reality is that the technology is pretty simple,” Mella says. “Cisterns and rain harvesting systems have been around for 10,000 years. Water cleaning is the same in many respects. The change that needs to be made is to have the state and local health department realize that changes in technology and engineering have come far enough for us to monitor some water treatment and use from afar.”
“But the main reason we need to pursue it is that this can help water scarcity issues in a simple way,” he continues. “Water scarcity is not going away, and figuring out ways to use the water the falls on roofs is a way to deal with that. That won’t change.” SOURCE
Not only does biochar trap carbon when it is created, it is heating homes in Sweden and feeding cows in Lincolnshire
Biochar is a form of charcoal produced when organic matter is heated at high temperatures with little or no oxygen. Photograph: Alamy
It traps carbon in the ground for centuries, boosts plant growth, provides a sustainable heat source and could even reduce methane emissions from cows. Biochar may not be a silver bullet to combating the climate emergency, but it certainly ticks a lot of boxes.
A form of charcoal created via a special chemical process, biochar is not much to look at, resembling the aftermath of a particularly good barbecue. But it is already heating homes in Stockholm, feeding cows in Lincolnshire, and nourishing trees near Loch Ness.
“When you look at the range of benefits it has, it is quite phenomenal,” says Marc Redmile-Gordon, senior scientist for soil and climate change at the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). While stressing that biochar is only part of the solution, he adds: “If we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, we’ll still have a lot of carbon dioxide removal to be doing, and this is one of the most effective ways we can achieve that.”
Following biochar’s recognition in the IPCC 2018 report, earlier this year Redmile-Gordon launched the society’s first trials to see how the material could improve plant growth. He estimates planting 10-20kg of biochar in your garden could offset the carbon from a five-mile return commute in a car for a month.
Biochar is a form of charcoal produced when organic matter – for example wood, leaves or dead plants – is heated at high temperatures with little or no oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The normal burning or decomposition of these materials would release large amounts of methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead, creating biochar traps this carbon in solid form for centuries; it becomes a carbon sink that can be buried underground.
This is nothing new – in Stockholm they have already developed technology to trap the heat generated in the process and put it to use, so now the focus is on what benefits biochar can bring once it is in the ground. Although results vary depending on the type of biochar and soil used, Redmile-Gordon says this stuff can “alleviate some of the stresses that come from climate change”.
Biochar is full of xylem vessels and capillaries – channels that “can carry nutrients, air, water and house the biology that make for a healthy soil ecosystem”, he says. This means that in waterlogged clay soil it can reduce and redistribute water content, whereas in sandy soil affected by drought it can increase water-hold potential.
While scientific research has established the benefits of biochar in theory, deploying it in a way that makes a real difference is a challenge. One of its most obvious uses is in tree planting, which is poised to become a major activity in the UK over the coming years. The Conservatives have pledged to plant 30m trees a year, the Liberal Democrats have promised 60m a year, while Labour’s manifesto pledges an ambitious tree-planting programme.
“They bandy around these big numbers, but will they actually talk about the survival rates?” asks James MacPhail, commercial director of Carbon Gold, which sells biochar products for use in soil everywhere, from people’s back gardens to Ascot racecourse.
Up to 80% of trees planted along the HS2 rail route died after last summer’s drought. For MacPhail, this suggests not enough is being done to ensure tree growth: “If you plant 1m trees, great, but if 800,000 die, was it really worth it? If you can just do one thing to guarantee the survival of a tree going in the ground then maybe trees can save the planet.”
Research suggests biochar could be just the thing. Dr Saran Sohi leads the UK Biochar Research Centre in Edinburgh which is injecting biochar made from forestry residue such as bark around tree roots as part of a tree-planting project near Loch Ness. “It really does seem to offer some quite marked benefits in terms of tree health, early stage growth and nutrient management,” says Sohi. “Turning this particular part of the tree into biochar allows the nutrients to be returned to the forest sites in the process of replanting.”
Other projects are making strides in integrating biochar into farming, too. Richard Copley is part of the Innovative Farmers network, and received funding to trial feeding biochar to some of his cows this year. As both a farmer and a tree surgeon, Copley was keen to use the waste from his tree felling in a useful way, and he noticed the positive effects of biochar on his animals immediately.
Biochar is alkaline, so it balances the highly acidic diet of cows. Evidence suggests it is beneficial for microbial activity – like putting a probiotic into your stomach, according to Copley. Trials elsewhere have suggested biochar could reduce methane emissions, something Copley hopes can be explored later, as well as trialling the material on other animals such as chicken and sheep.
Meanwhile, Donna Udall, a researcher from Coventry University, is exploring whether manure from the biochar-fed cows is more effective as a fertiliser than biochar by itself. In some instances biochar can reduce crop yield by absorbing the nutrients needed by the plants – biochar as part of manure could be the solution.
While academics and researchers are optimistic about the benefits of biochar, they are not blind to the risks either. “If we’re wrong, and we spread hundreds of thousands of tonnes of charcoal over the UK, we can’t get it back out of the ground. We’ve got to be right. The stakes are really high,” says Udall.
Sohi adds: “This makes the government a bit anxious, which is why I think starting slowly and getting comfortable with the technology first is probably a good idea.”
Not only that, but there are also practical problems with trying to acquire the vast amounts of biochar needed to make a real impact. Udall says: “In order to scale up the technology, you’d have to plant woods everywhere, and obviously you can understand the impact that would have on the land that we need to grow crops.”
Only when farmers, food producers and other industries start putting their biomass waste through a pyrolysis process as standard would there be enough biochar to roll it out on a wide scale, says Udall. But eventually biochar could be made from green waste in urban areas – everything right down to the banana skin lying on your desk, she adds.
The key is working out how the source material affects the resulting biochar after pyrolysis, something which still needs substantial investigation. But with some estimates suggesting biochar could offset 1bn tonnes of carbon a year, it’s easy to see why people are getting excited about it. SOURCE
Ahead of Madrid climate change conference António Guterres says political will missing
Striking school pupils in London. Photograph: Guy Smallman/Getty
António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, contrasted the “leadership” and “mobilisation” shown by the world’s youth on the climate emergency with the lack of action by governments, which were failing to keep up with the urgency of the problem despite increasing signs that the climate was reaching breakdown.
Before the start of a critical conference on the climate crisis on Monday, he said the world had the technical and economic means to halt climate chaos, but what was missing was political will.
“The technologies that are necessary to make this possible are already available. Signals of hope are multiplying. Public opinion is waking up everywhere. Young people are showing remarkable leadership and mobilisation. [But we need] political will to put a price on carbon, political will to stop subsidies on fossil fuels [and start] taxing pollution instead of people.”
Guterres called for further investment from rich countries and support for poor nations to make the changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the impacts of global heating. Amid rising temperatures, wildfires, heatwaves, droughts and floods, the danger signals were clear and must be acted on without further delay, he said.
“In the crucial 12 months ahead, it is essential that we secure more ambitious national commitments – particularly from the main emitters – to immediately start reducing greenhouse gas emissions at a pace consistent to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050.”
He was joined in his call by the leaders and representatives of some of the world’s poorest countries, which are suffering most from climate change.
The countries most at risk of deluge from climate chaos have issued an impassioned plea to the industrialised world ahead of crucial negotiations on the Paris agreement that start on Monday in Madrid.
“We see [these talks] as the last opportunity to take decisive action,” Janine Felson, deputy chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) told the Guardian.
“Anything short of vastly greater commitment to emission reduction, a new climate finance goal and tangible support for disaster risk reduction will signal a willingness to accept catastrophe.” MORE
The Truth Behind the Climate Pledges by Universal Ecological Fund. Full data and report here.