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Recent News on Energy and the Environment 02.11.08

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Posted by: Karl Ramjohn

Some recent articles featured on the Energy Environment News Portal, on current and emerging issues related to energy and the environment

Solar Thermal Power May Make Sun Powered Grid a Reality

Chinese Oil Giant Accused of Human Rights Abuses in Burma

Parabolic Mirror Paraboloid Concave Solar Concentrator

Bjork: Iceland must use crisis to return to green roots

Climate Change, Sustainable Development of Caribbean Sea

Middle East: The Next Renewable Energy Frontier?


Biomass Energy – Sustainable Solution to Livestock Wastes?

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Submitted by: Karl Ramjohn

Livestock production is an important food supply and economic activity, the primary goal of which is to supply high-quality protein (meat, eggs, dairy products, etc) for the needs of human populations. The animals serve as concentrated sources of typically dispersed nutrients. Subsidiary products may include leather, fertilizers, inputs to animal feeds, and energy sources (biofuels). The challenge of sustainable livestock production systems is to promote food security in a manner which is economically viable and socially acceptable without causing land degradation or irreversibly affecting ecological resilience. As such, sustainability must promote a favourable cost – benefit ratio, and as far as possible avoid reducing the set of options available to future generations. This has very significant social considerations, as seemingly obvious solutions may be difficult to implement, as they may be biologically but not economically sustainable.

The recycling of materials, and thus minimizing the generation of wastes is a basic process which must be implemented to meet the demands of sustainability in developed and developing countries alike. Systems which utilize energy produced from biomass are examples of energy-recycling systems. All biomass originates through carbon dioxide fixation by photosynthesis. Consequently, biomass utilization may be regarded as a critical component of the global carbon cycle of the biosphere.

Most biomass cannot be directly utilized, and must undergo some sort of transformation before being converted to fuel. Biological processes for the conversion of biomass to fuels include ethanol fermentation by yeast or bacteria, and methane production by microbial consortia under anaerobic conditions. Unlike ethanol fermentation, anaerobic digestion for methane production utilizes organic materials containing carbohydrates, lipids and proteins. Waste materials from livestock production are applicable to anaerobic digestion, with the added advantage of reducing environmental impacts, such as unpleasant odours and water pollution.

Methane fermentation is therefore a versatile biotechnology, which can convert almost all types of polymeric materials to methane and carbon dioxide under anaerobic conditions. It converts the waste products of livestock systems into useful products of commercial value, while reducing the environmental costs associated with other methods of livestock waste disposal. As such, it offers an effective means of pollution reduction, superior to that achieved by conventional aerobic processes. It is also an efficient method of converting unused biomass resources (crop residues, forestry, industrial/municipal and livestock wastes) into biofuels and fertilizers.

The digested slurry (by-product of methane production) retains the nitrogen and other mineral nutrients which are lost when biomass wastes are directly burned, while reducing BOD/COD. Methane is a principal constituent of natural gas, and extraction of this resource from livestock waste is a small-scale but useful method of supplementing extraction from geologic deposits. It also mitigates the problems associated with slow decomposition on the land surface, in the context of the large “greenhouse effect” of methane – up to 25 times that of carbon dioxide. The pathogens are also destroyed, reducing the health effects of the digested biomass, which also does not attract flies or rodents.

Biomass conversion is economically feasible within the constraints of scale and location. The main problems associated with biomass digestors is the relatively high price of implementation, the fact that the technology is still somewhat experimental, and the high standard of management and maintenance required.

Overriding issues in the future of biological energy systems are the overall efficiency of converting biomass to fuels, the economics of such processes, their environmental impacts, their competitiveness with thermochemical processes for biomass, and their compatibility with evolving economic and political structures.


“Spatial Footprint” Challenges of Solar Energy Use

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Submitted by: Karl Ramjohn

Solar energy can be utilized in either passive or active systems. Passive systems do not contain any internal energy sources, and can be used for direct heating (e.g. solar dryers, water heaters, etc.) or day-time lighting (e.g. “green” office buildings). Photovoltaic devices are an example of active systems based on semiconductor technology, often using silicon (an indirect semiconductor).

The advantages of using solar radiation are well established and often cited – such as their ability (with proper design) to lower energy costs, reduce emissions and other environmental pollution, thereby initiating the process of competitively replacing hydrocarbon use, and thus contributing to sustainable development.

Solar energy approaches are also frequently suggested as a sustainable solution in less-developed countries in the tropical environment, on the assumption of having less seasonal variation in day-length and more hours of direct sunlight each day (i.e., usually a higher intensity and longer duration of incident solar radiation each day). The fuel medium (solar radiation) is also an “open-access” resource (no direct user cost). The overall decline in the operational costs seen over the past 35+ years is also typically acknowledged.

However, one major challenge remains with regard to conversion to solar energy use – their spatial footprint (land use requirement) in the event that larger scale utilization is proven feasible. In particular, for the use of flat-plate collectors or PV systems in tropical environments, this becomes an issue.

The primary reason is that to optimize the use of solar radiation, the panels (or plates) need to be sloped so as to correspond to the latitude of the specific area of the Earth, hence taking up more horizontal space in the tropics. If we take the example of an island in the middle-tropics such Trinidad & Tobago, implementation will require the slope of the panels to be 10 degrees (corresponding to latitude) for the same technology that may be placed at an angle of 40 degrees in countries within temperate regions. The implication is that the area set aside for power generation (or other solar energy use) will no longer be available for other land uses (such as agriculture) and this may be a significant limiting factor, especially in the case of small-island developing states. After all, any large-scale conversion will require much more than a rooftop, and island geography often restricts the feasibility of wind energy.

Some recent discussions aimed at solving or mitigating these potential challenges to sustainable energy:;id=8635831