Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Global Warming Good or Bad?

Forums dealing with global warming and alternate energy issues are filled with wildly differing points of view. One forum thread asked if global warming is a good or bad. That is an interesting question.

With sea level rise predicted at 0.5 cm per year in the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) fourth report, mitigation is recommended to reduce sea level rise. Mitigation of sea level rise includes, storm water runoff retention, wet lands restoration, forestry water shed expansion and water conservation.

Storm water runoff is being addressed due to pollution of estuaries in many parts of the world. Real estate developers are required to build retention ponds/lakes in many areas as a part of their projects. These ponds are often an aesthetic highlight of the developments. Some developers are including artificial wetland areas in the storm water retention plans that provide wildlife habitat and reforestation.

Wetlands restoration and protection has been embraced not only by the US government but groups like the Audubon Society and Ducks Unlimited for many years. These wetlands reduce pollution runoff, provide animal habitat and restrict construction. In addition, wetlands reduce saltwater intrusion in coastal aquifers.

Forestry watersheds are important not only for prevention of erosion, but enhance aquifer recharge and reduce flooding potential. Improved forestry methods maintain these watersheds while producing valuable natural resources. Working with the forestry industry to expand watershed acreage will reduce real estate development in privately owned timberland areas, preserving more valuable woodlands without government intervention.

Water conservation is an issue that needs to be addressed more urgently in many areas of the world. Water conservation requires improved irrigation methods and more water treatment and reuse. Water conservation also includes the first three elements; storm water runoff, wetland restoration and water shed expansion.

Carbon dioxide reduction for the purposes global warming mitigation is stimulating inspiring advances in various energy fields. Improving energy efficiency and developing alternate energy sources will reduce dependence on foreign oil and eventually reduce energy costs to consumers. If wisely selected, these technologies will stimulate economic and technology growth similar to the space program’s stimulus in the 1960‘s and 1970‘s.

Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV) whether they use hydrogen, ethanol or synthetic fuels will greatly reduce both atmospheric and noise pollution. The efficiency of the FCV is much greater than internal combustion engines with equal performance.

Aviation grade bio and/or synthetic fuels are being developed that are much less polluting than petroleum based aviation fuels. Biomass production for aviation and road bio-diesel can be expanded to impoverished areas of the world improving local quality of life. Algae for example can be grown in saltwater or polluted water. Lack of adequate clean water is often a contributing factor to the condition of poorer nations. Algae farms produce a valuable cash crop and can provide clean water through desalination plants powered by algae bio-fuels or through algae treatment of polluted water. Since animal and human waste can provide nutrients for algae farms, sanitation in many areas can be improved for economic reasons.

Assuming that socially responsible efforts are made to combat climate change, yes global warming is a good thing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Challenge of Climate Change

Addressing green house gases in the atmosphere, which is the critical manmade components that contribute to climate change, is possible. Making that reduction in green house gasses in a socially and economically sound manner is the challenge. Projects that have produced alternate fuels, with the goal of energy independence, may have contributed to overall greenhouse emissions.

For example Brazil’s ethanol program: This program is a model for many nations’ seeking solutions to global warming and foreign oil dependence. How effective is Brazil’s ethanol program in reducing that nation’s carbon footprint?

Much of Brazil’s farmland was once rainforest. Deforestation is a major contributor to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Ethanol as a fuel, produces less atmospheric carbon dioxide than gasoline, but is not carbon neutral. Considering the production energy requirements from seedling to ethanol, there is less carbon dioxide released, but still considerable amounts are released. The net result of Brazil’s ethanol program may well be highly carbon positive.

I addition to carbon dioxide, decaying plant vegetation used as green manure (a fertilizer) releases methane which is also a greenhouse gas.

So Brazil’s ethanol program at best may have reduced the rate of carbon dioxide addition to the atmosphere. Most probably, Brazil’s program increases atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at a greater rate due to deforestation.

While bio-fuels appear to have a strong role in the transition for fossil fuels to renewable fuels, the choice of biomass is critical if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are to be maintained or reduced.

Algae show much greater potential as a biomass that standard field crops. The advantages of algae are much higher energy production per pound of biomass, much less acreage required per pound of biomass and continuous harvesting of biomass. An additional advantage is that non-forested acreage unsuited to traditional farming can be used for algae production.

Common products from algae are bio-diesel, ethanol and high protein feed animal feeds. Using all of the algae for these purposes results in carbon neutrality of the crop. Other products can be made from algae that can make the crop carbon negative or sequester the carbon. Plastics, construction materials and soil enhancers (charcoals for nutrient retention) can be made from algae.

From a socially responsible position, algae farms are well suited for locations in the world where economic conditions cause great hardship. Algae farms can be located in areas of the world that experience frequent drought conditions. Saltwater which is plentiful in many of these areas can be used to grow algae and the bio-fuels from the algae can be used to power desalination plants. In politically stable, economically challenged nations, the value of the algae crop is sufficient to warrant outside investment.

The considerations that need to be made in finding real solutions to climate change and energy independence are enormous. The correct source of biomass is only one of those considerations.