Geo-engineering

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The major cause of global warming is carbon dioxide (Santer, 1995) or CO2 for short. CO2 is a byproduct of the industrial revolution (Romm, 2010; About.com, 2006). Vehicles and coal burning power plants produce the most CO2, 1.5 and 2.5 billion tons respectively (NRDC, 2011). The fact that half of the nation’s electricity currently comes from coal, notably the dirtiest source of energy, is not controversial. While talk of “clean” coal processes circles the printed media, the truth is that the technology is not ready for prime time adoption (U.S. News, 2010).

As a typical American, I do my part to contribute to global pollution by driving a gas guzzling SUV, and demanding plenty of electricity from my regional coal-fired power plant, but I wish that greener choices for fuel and power were readily available to me. The solar industry is expanding, and offers the promise that it can compete somewhat with the fossil fuels in the power market. Costs are comparatively high however and certainly present an immediate barrier to an average consumer, in comparison to traditional petroleum-based energy that requires no up-front investment.

Managers of the Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technology Program acknowledge that the costs of solar systems are still thirty or forty percent higher than traditional sources (U.S. News, 2010). The DOE is attempting to lower prices for the adoption of renewable resources by 2015. The Obama Administration is working on several sustainable energy initiatives within the $80B stimulus plan for clean energy ventures (Mulrine, 2010) with $3.4 billion of funding slated toward the development of the Smart Grid (Kingsbury, 2010).

In the article “A Solar Grand Plan”, published by Scientific American Magazine in 2008, the authors suggested solar power could halt greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from fossil fuel and end American dependence on foreign petroleum by 2050. The plan would establish an extensive photovoltaic cell network in the Southwest which would collect solar energy during the day, store it underground, and provide power during the night. Their proposal estimated that the project would deliver almost seventy percent of the electricity needs for the entire country, but would require $420 billion in government subsidies to fund. (Giberson, 2009). Giberson verified the data and estimated the potential:

“Three square miles yields a 280 MW capacity plant. Using the 70,000 homes number, a little calculation gives a 38 percent capacity factor for the plant, so that implies the plant would produce about 932,000 MHz per year. If all of the state’s electric power needs were generated using similar technologies and assuming constant economies of scale, it would take about 236 square miles (or about 1.2 percent of the land within the state) to accommodate the necessary solar power plants.”

Former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano seems to agree; she is quoted as saying: “There is no reason that Arizona should not be the Persian Gulf of solar energy.”

Some solutions to global warming involve indirectly reducing the demand for electricity and gasoline. Energy efficient infrastructure materials reduce the reflectivity, conductivity and emissivity impacts of building materials and pavements. High surface temperatures of concrete and asphalt are major contributors to an effect known as the Urban Heat Island; a condition where the excess heat created by streets and buildings results in higher energy and water consumption.

By reducing the albedo, or reflectance coefficient of materials like shingles and asphalt that absorb a great deal of radiation from the sun, engineers can affect maximum temperatures of habitats during the day. By reducing the emissivity, or surface radiation coefficient of materials like concrete, they can affect how heat transfers at night, which in some ways is the more important factor for cooling off an entire city.

Since each higher degree of heat raises peak A/C demand by roughly three percent, reducing heat-islands reduces energy consumption requirements and minimizes impact on the microclimate. “Both albedo and emissivity have positive responses in the reduction of pavement temperatures, both maximum and minimum even though their effects on each temperature are different.” (Gui, et. al., 2007).

Even the production of traditional concrete creates GHG emissions, as well as pollution and particulates. New pervious concretes having superior thermophysical properties and paints with superior temperature gradient slopes have been proven to positively impact the Urban Heat Island Effect when used to cool roofs and pavements; they can also increase vehicle gas mileage.

As a back-up or emergency solution to the problem, some scientists including the National Academy of Sciences (NPR, 2010), are promoting increased research into geoengineering. Geoengineering, which could more accurately be termed climate engineering, can be defined as manipulating the atmosphere to fix climate change after it has happened rather than attempting to control GHG emissions prior to their production (Economist, 2010). The Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) organization contributors are one group that is supporting geoengineering research for the purpose of slowing global warming, just in case other attempts to control the atmosphere underperform.

Many people have concerns over practicality, side effects and drawbacks. Three of the popular ideas being discussed for artificially re-adjusting nature’s equilibrium are using giant mirrors in space that create a sunscreen; dumping iron biomass into the oceans to increase phytoplankton; and dusting the stratosphere with some kind of particles or chemicals to block or reflect sunlight. In his book ‘Hack the Planet’, Author Eli Kinitisch wonders how counterproductive blocking sunlight would be for solar energy systems; in essence, undermining technology that repairs the cause of the problem, which is our dependence on fossil fuels.

Will geoengineering ideas work? Most people seem to think it is much too early to tell. Yet with every positive development in the renewable energy production technologies, the global population comes closer to sustainable existence on Earth. The shift away from unsustainable energy sources will generate financial pressures. Even if western nations are able to reduce demand for petroleum, emerging markets in the eastern hemisphere may actually be offsetting the worldwide balance by increasing demand for petroleum. Money will need to be spent in the right places: renewable resources, high tech materials, smarter buildings and neighborhoods. Cooperation with other nations, like the joint agreement with China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) (Kucera, 2010) is imperative; but the US government should be communicating a clearly thought out master plan, be it carbon tax, demand side management, tree planting, or other not yet conceived solutions. (Blackwell, 2011).

Works cited:

About.com: Kyoto Protocol – Should the United States Ratify the Kyoto Protocol? Retrieved 31 Mar 2006. http://environment.about.com/od/kyotoprotocol/i/kyotoprotocol_2.htm

Blackwell, Richard. Temp green policies leave businesses in limbo. Thursday’s Globe and Mail. 23 Mar 2011. Retrieved from LinkedIn 23 Mar 2011. http://www.linkedin.com/share?viewLink=&sid=s314606587&url=http%3A%2F%2Ft.co%2FdwpT36f&urlhash=cBCh&pk=member-home&pp=13&poster=27149428&uid=5456512499782266880&trk=NUS_UNIU_SHARE-title

Calhoun, Paul. Can the USA Be Fossil Fuel Independent by 2050? EzineArticles: News and Society: Environmental. 29 Feb 2008. Retrieved 22 Apr 2010. http://ezinearticles.com/?Can-the-USA-Be-Fossil-Fuel-Independent-by-2050?&id=1017397

Economist. Lift-off. Science & technology. 04 Nov. 2010. Retrieved 26 Mar 2011.  http://www.economist.com/node/17414216

Giberson, Michael. The key to Arizona’s energy future. Knowledge Problem: Commentary on Economics, Information and Human Action. 12 Nov 2009. Retrieved 22 Apr 2010. http://knowledgeproblem.com/tag/arizona/

Gui, Jooseng; et. al. Impact of Pavement Thermophysical Properties on Surface Temperatures. Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering: ASCE. August 2007. Pg. 689.

Kingsbury, Alex. A National Power Grid That Thinks. U.S. News & World Report magazine. April 2010. Pg. 37.

Kucera, Joshua. Side by Side in Need for Green Growth: China and America try cooperation. U.S. News & World Report magazine. April 2010. Pg. 42.

McKinsey. Greenhouse Gas Emissions Executive Summary pdf. 2007. Retrieved 22 Apr 2010. https://acrobat.com/app.html#d=cfawTN4uVF0MaBn0fuwZWg

Mulrine, Anna. Stuck in the Money Pipelines. U.S. News & World Report magazine. April 2010. Pg. 30.

National Resources Defense Council. Global Warming Basics. 2011. Retrieved 23 Mar 2011. http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/f101.asp

NPR Staff. Geoengineering: ‘A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come.’ NPR News: Science. 29 May 2010. Retrieved 27 Mar 2011. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127245606

Romm, Joseph. Big Oil Keeps Blowing Smoke. U.S. News & World Report magazine. April 2010. Pg. 24.

Santer, Benjamin. Human Effects on Global Warming. US Dept of Energy Office of Science. 1995. Retrieved 23 Mar 2011. http://www.science.energy.gov/Accomplishments_Awards/Decades_Discovery/100.html

U.S. News & World Report magazine. Progress Report: The Powers That Be. April 2010. Pg. 26.

Zweibel, Ken; Mason, James and Fthenakis, Vasilis. A Grand Solar Plan. Scientific American. 16 Dec 2007. Retrieved 25 Apr 2010. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-solar-grand-plan

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