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Jul 25 2015

Rare Earth: The Unsustainable Future of Renewable Energy

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In my first post, I discussed the future of lithium and it’s role as a catalyst towards the changing global power dynamic surrounding renewable energy. In this post, I hope to continue this trend in discussing the role of rare earth metals in the renewable energy industry and how they may serve as a limiting factor in our quest towards a fully sustainable future.

Rare Earth Elements: What Are They?

Rare earth elements are a crucial component of many green technologies, from the drivetrains of electric vehicles and hybrids to the non-abrasive gearboxes in modern wind turbines. Rare earth elements are actually a group of seventeen elements, numbers 57-71 on the periodic table, that have a set of unique magnetic, electric, and optical properties (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). Contrary to popular belief, as well as their namesake, rare earth elements actually aren’t all that rare. These elements are only called rare because they are found in scattered deposits around the planet, as opposed to the vast, concentrated reserves of other metals and fuels such as oil and natural gas (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). In total, there is an estimated 110 million metric tons of rare earth reserves in the world (Namibia Rare Earths 2015). Of the world’s rare earth deposits 55 million metric tons or exactly half of the world’s resources are located in China (Business Insider 2011). Russia and the former soviet states comes in second with 19 percent of the world’s rare earth supply, followed closely by the United States with 17 percent (Business Insider). Other than these three regions, however, the remainder of the world’s rare earths are scattered in countries such as India, Australia, South Africa, and Brazil (Business Insider 2011).

Environmental and Health Hazards of Mining Rare Earths

Although they contain half of the world’s rare earth reserves, China still controls a disproportionately large share of the global rare earth trade. The reason for this is lax environmental regulation on the part of the Chinese government (Ives 2013). China can produce rare earth minerals three times cheaper than its international competitors due to nearly non-existent environmental standards related to waste disposal from mining rare earths (Ives 2013). This economic profit, however, is not without environmental consequence: according to China’s State Council, half a century of rare earth mining has led to “damaged surface vegetation, soil erosion, pollution, acidification, and reduced food output” (Ives 2013). The Council also reported that wastewater from the plants, which is stored in large, stagnant ponds contained a “high concentration of radioactive residues” (Ives 2013). At China’s largest rare earths mining project, Bayan- Obo, there is an eleven square kilometer waste pond filled with toxic sludge that contains elevated levels of thorium, a known carcinogen (Ives 2013). These environmental and health hazards are not limited to China. The Lynas corporation is an Australian mining and refining company specializing in rare earths and in 2013 they opened a processing facility on Malaysia’s east coast only twelve miles from Kuantan, a city with a population of 600,000 (Ives 2013). The plant is receiving strong opposition from many grassroots organizations who claim that the facility is contributing to a various environmental and health problems in the region. A recent study by the Institute for Applied Ecology found that the plant was disposing of wastewater through an open channel rather than a closed pipeline (Ives 2013). In addition, the Institute found that the company refused to disclose the chemical mixture used in refining the rare earths and that the temporary waste storage facility built by the company would cause radioactive leakage “under normal operating conditions” (Ives 2013). The grassroots organizers also point to the case of an $100 million cleanup of a Mitsubishi Chemical plant that closed in 1992 after it was discovered that thorium contamination from the plant’s refining of rare earths lead to increased leukemia and pancreatic cancer rates in the inhabitants of nearby villages (Ives 2013). The opposition also claims this is just another example of a developed, western corporation passing the environmental bill off to a developing nation while their executives make a hefty profit with little to no ecological impact. On the other hand, Lynas, says that they plan to dilute any thorium produced by mixing it with lime until it is below accepted international concentrations for radioactive materials (Ives 2013). The problem, however, is that rare earth projects are often independently audited, which means that regulators are often in the pockets of the company via bribes or the government via a pink slip if they don’t pass companies who break environmental regulations (Ives 2013). As of 2015, the Lynas plant remains fully operational but as several cases wind their way through the Malaysian courts, the future is far from certain.


“High Demand for Rare Earths.” Market Demand for Rare Earths: Namibia Rare Earths Inc. Namibia Rare Earths, n.d. Web. 22 July 2015.

Verrastro, Frank A. “The Geopolitics of Energy.” The Geopolitics of Energy. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Oct. 2010. Web. 22 July 2015.

Ives, Mike. “Boom in Mining Rare Earths Poses Mounting Toxic Risks.” Yale Environment 360. Yale University, 28 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 July 2015.

Jones, Nicola. “A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies.”Yale Environment 360. Yale University, 18 Nov. 2013. Web. 22 July 2015.


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Jul 25 2015

Lithium: Changing Global Power

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Lithium: Fuel of the Future

From Tesla Roadsters to iPhones, laptops to golf carts lithium-ion batteries are an essential component of 21st century society. Current estimates project that by 2020, there will be over 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads, spurred by the rapidly decreasing costs of lithium-ion batteries which are becoming 6- 9 % cheaper with every doubling of production (Hunt 2015). Lithium-ion batteries are over three times more efficient and half the weight of lead- acid cell batteries (Fletcher 21). This makes them the ideal power source in hybrid and electric cars due to this reduced weight. Out of all the elements on the periodic table, lithium is far and away the most efficient for electrochemical storage. Lithium is incredibly light at 6.941 atomic mass units (amu) whereas lead is over thirty times heavier at 207.2 amu (Fletcher 20). Lithium is also incredibly willing to shed its outermost valence electron which contributes to its conductivity and ultimately allows it to pack so much power in such a small package (Fletcher 20).
Who (Literally) Holds the Power?

Most of the world’s most easily accessible lithium can be found in the region known as the Lithium Triangle- the area where the borders of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia meet (Fletcher 177). This area is dotted with salt flats, whose briny pools hold massive quantities of easily accessible lithium (Fletcher 176). The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is home to the largest lithium resources in the world, over 8.9 million metric tons (Fletcher 176).When considering the world’s supply of lithium, there are two ways of measuring the mineral: one is the amount of lithium reserves, which is the amount of mineral sources that can be legally and economically extracted today, and the other second is identified resources, which is simply known mineral deposits (Fletcher 217). In terms of reserves, Chile is dominant with around 7.5 million metric tons of lithium that could be accessed and mined today (Fletcher 217). China comes in second at 3.5 million metric tons followed by Argentina with 830,000 metric tons (Fletcher 217). The United States, on the other hand, is pretty far down the list with only 38,000 metric tons of reserves (Fletcher 217). The measures of identified resources, however, tell a much different story. Chile and China remain leaders, clocking in at second and third respectively, however, the overall global leader in identified resources is Bolivia with 9 million metric tons of lithium (Fletcher 217). Even more surprising, however, is that the United States, a developed country that had minimal reserves of lithium, is fourth in world with 4 million metric tons in identified resources (Fletcher 217). This is because in the United States, most of the lithium is located underground, which is much more expensive to extract than lithium carbonate located in salt pools on the surface. Meanwhile, in Bolivia there are different reasons for why an abundance of easily accessible lithium resources has not resulted in economic prosperity for the country. For one, Bolivia’s nationalized mining companies are too poor to build the infrastructure necessary for any kind of large scale mining operation and although there are many projects in the pipeline, none have come to fruition thus far (Fletcher 190). Bolivia’s government is also extremely wary of foreign exploitation, so they have banned all foreign mining operations in the Salar de Uyuni (Fletcher 190). Bolivians point to the fate of sub-Saharan African nations such as Nigeria that allowed foreign companies to come in and extract their natural resources, leaving behind environmental destruction while lining their own pockets (Fletcher 190). If Bolivia, can find the capital necessary to finance large scale mining operations in the Salar de Uyuni, they would be thrust immediately into the driver’s seat of the international lithium trade.
The New Lithium Economy

Lithium, however, could provide a significant counterweight to the current western dominated alliance of power, a leftover relic brought about by the Bretton Woods Institutions post World War II. As lithium-ion batteries become cheaper and more desirable, and as fossil fuels become more and more depleted, countries such as Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, and China will become the largest stakeholders in the new lithium driven economy (Hunt 2015). These countries, by controlling a precious resource, could form an alliance, not unlike OPEC, and dominate the global lithium trade, leaving countries with significantly less resources, such as the United States, sitting on the fence (Hunt 2015). Lithium could be the catalyst these countries need, much like oil was for the Middle East, to catapult Bolivia and Chile into the global market and solidify China’s rise as the dominant global superpower.


Fletcher, Seth. Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. Print.

Hunt, Tam. “The Geopolitics of Lithium Production.” Green Tech Grid. Green Tech Media, 30 June 2015. Web. 24 July 2015.

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Jul 26 2014

Desalination in Dare County – More on the Water-Energy Nexus

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In the past forty years, the Dare County has seen tremendous growth. From 1970 to 1980, the permanent population growth rate was 6.7 percent and approximately 5.5 percent in the following decade (Dare County, 2011.) Moreover, the profuse influx of tourist during peak summer months draws the total population to exceed 268,000 people (Dare County, 2011.)  Fluxes in seasonal population coupled with a constant growth rate of permanent residency has lead to drastic increases in fresh water demand since the incorporation of a county wide water management body in 1962 (Hardee, 1989.) Moreover, limited supply of fresh surface water and aquifer resources caused the county to explore brackish water sources to be used in desalination.  In 1988, Dare County opened its first reverse osmosis desalination plant in Kill Devil Hills. I had the opportunity to visit the plant, known as the North Reverse Osmosis Facility (NRO), and speak with Ken Flatt, the director of the Dare County Water Department. Through this experience, I was able to better understand how Dare County continues to evolve their water resource management strategy with attention to energy efficiency.

Please note that all data concerning water and energy efficiency were given by Ken Flatt unless otherwise noted

Energy Basics 

Although the NRO is powered by fossil fuels via grid connection, many of its internal technologies are among the most efficient processes available to desalination facilities. The plant operates with five purification devices, each containing approximately twenty reverse osmosis membranes. Each device is powered by a generator that contains a variable frequency drive. A variable frequency drive makes the generator more efficient by converting AC to DC in two stages. During the second stage, DC is inverted back to AC which allows the generator to regulate frequency and thus speed of the current, allowing the device to increase or decrease the speed based on purification needs (Youtube, 2014.) The membranes have a recover rate of 75 percent, meaning for every one gallon of raw water input that passes through the system, ¾ of a gallon of fresh water is produced. Moreover, each set of membranes contains an energy recovery device to help reduce grid electricity needs for purification. The energy recovery devices utilize the brine (waste water) produced after the raw water passes through the first set of membranes to subsequently power a turbine that boosts pressure in the next membrane chamber (Figure 1.) This is an important facet of energy efficiency when considering that each purification device has a total of 430 square feet of membranes and operate using a pressure between 260-280 pounds per square inch (Figure 2.) At first I was surprised to quantify the operating pressure with such a large unit, but after seeing how thick each membrane was I realized that this is indeed energy efficient (Figure 3.)

Figure 1: Energy Recover Device, the turbine is featured in the bottom right

Figure 1: Energy Recover Device, the turbine is featured in the bottom right


Figure 2: Membrane Devices

Figure 2: Membrane Devices

Figure 3: A view of the membrane where filtered water passes through the tube in the middle

Figure 3: A view of the membrane where filtered water passes through the tube in the middle

Since the facility’s first operations in 1989, the market for reverse osmosis membranes has become increasingly more competitive. Consequently, desalination in the Outer Banks has become just as cost efficient as treating the county’s only fresh water aquifer. Furthermore, in the case of decreased water quality, the facility can easily switch out membranes without taking a huge economic toll on operations. The plant draws its water from the Yorktown aquifer, a brackish aquifer that gains salinity content from deep fossil saltwater. The aquifer has naturally large reservoirs of arsenic, which calls for a minimally energy intensive post-desalination treatment process (Vengosh, 2011.) The treated water is passed through vats filled with iron silt that absorb the arsenic. This process adds very little to the energy needs of the facility Lastly, the brine is either discharged into the Atlantic or into the Croatan Sound. The discharge process has negligible environmental impact, as concluded by Duke researchers. This substantially cuts down on the plants energy consumption as it minimizes the need for long distance pipelines or storage facilities.

Political Obstacles for Improving Energy Efficiency

When asked about areas in which the facility can improve in areas of energy efficiency, Mr. Flatt responded by explaining the political hindrances that prevent more cost and energy efficient water management strategies. Rooted in historical economic policies, the towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills resolved to separately deliver their residences with clean, fresh drinking water. As funding difficulties prevented the municipalities from sticking to their goal, Dare County became the primary governmental unit for regulating and treating drinking water (Hardee, 1989.) This interlocal agreement remains today with both Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills buying the water from the county and distributing to residences with separate resources. Mr. Flatt explained that Dare County pumps water from their ground storage units to each municipality’s ground storage units where they bring the water to elevated storage (Figure 5.) Logically, treated drinking water is usually treated and then pumped to elevated storage before direct distribution. Mr. Flatt admits this increases water costs, but claims that “consolidation is unfriendly word around here” seeing that both towns collect revenue from water distribution.

A view of the elevated storage for Nags Head (left) and Kill Devil Hills (right) from Highway 158. The two storage facilities are so close to one another they separated by only a strip mall.

A view of the elevated storage for Nags Head (left) and Kill Devil Hills (right) from Highway 158. The two storage facilities are so close to one another they separated by only a strip mall.


Desalination in Dare County presents overall net benefits to citizens through striving to keep the most up to date and energy efficient technologies.  Although some obstacles to greater efficiency are beyond technical solutions, desalination is the most logical avenue for producing fresh water along the northern outer banks.


Special thanks to Ken Flatt and the Dare County North Reverse Osmosis Facility


Works Cited

Dare County (2011). Existing and Emerging Conditions.

Hardee, J.E. (1989).  Dare Beaches Water Supply: Fresh Pond to Reverse Osmosis.

YouTube. (2014). What is a VFD (Variable Frequency Device/Inverter)?.

Vengosh, A. (2011). Rising Salinity in N.C. Coastal Aquifer Traced to Fossil Seawater.

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Jul 25 2014

Blue Carbon – Economic Impacts from Environmental Degredation

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This section will address the methods by which carbon deposits are stressed to emission, along with the ways in which these coastal ecosystems vary. For reference, it should be stated that the brunt of the disturbances is felt by the top one meter of sediment, and therefore the following regards near-surface carbon.

Seagrass ecosystem degradation often results from a decline in water quality that occurs because of over-exposure to nutrients and organic sediments released by various organisms, and less frequently results from the anthropogenic activities of trawling, dredging, and dropping anchors within these networks. The aforementioned disturbances lead to the release of carbon deposits from the underlying sediments to the surrounding water network or atmosphere (Orth RJ, 2006). Tidal marshes suffer from conversion to arable land usable for agricultural practices, thus heavily effecting underlying sediments because of extensive oxidation that occurs as a result of diking and draining efforts that disturb these ecosystems (Barbier EB, 2011). Finally, mangroves owe their decline to the common transformation of these networks into aquacultures. This causes the near-surface range to be almost entirely disturbed as a result of digging activities, which in turn leads to further oxidation of exposed sediments. The detrimental effects of maintaining these aquacultures can become even longer lasting if not maintained properly, as over-harvest and expansion practices can increase the extent of erosion and subsequently increase exposure of underlying sediments to oxidative environments (Kristensen E, 2008).


Seagrass Beds

Of the three types of vegetated coastal ecosystems, it was observed that mangroves contribute the largest portion of carbon dioxide release, as they possess the greatest withheld carbon stock per-hectare and are thus responsible for about half of these emissions. Coming in second for global blue carbon emission totals, seagrasses contain the least amount of carbon per-hectare, yet contribute the next largest amount due to their greater global presence in terms of area covered. Tidal marshes then contribute the least to these CO2 emission totals because they occupy the smallest global area, even though they possess a mid to upper carbon stock (Simon Thrush, 2012).


Tidal Marsh

The “social cost of carbon”, or SCC, as defined by the U.S. government, places the global economic expense at $41 per ton for each subsequent unit of carbon dioxide added to the atmospheric carbon pool (according to the value of the U.S. dollar in 2007) (United States Government, 2010). At this rate, the study by Simon Thrush et al places the estimated global cost resulting from degradation of vegetated coastal ecosystems at a range of $6.1 to $42 billion per annum, which relies on conservative measures (United States Government, 2010). Taken on any side of this range, this figure displays that there is a high economic stake to maintain the underlying sediments in these coastal regions, proving that conservation and monitoring of habitat conversion and land-use of these ecosystems is of greater economic benefit (and of greater ‘scientific importance’) than restoration attempts that are being conducted currently, which generally are not capable of sequestering as much carbon and preventing cycling into the atmosphere.






  • Barbier EB, Hacker SD, Kennedy C, Koch EW, Stier AC, et al. (2011) The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecological Monographs 81: 169–193.
  • Kristensen E, Bouillon S, Dittmar T, Marchand C (2008) Organic carbon dynamics in mangrove ecosystems. Aquatic Botany 89: 201–219.
  • Orth RJ, Carruthers TJB, Dennison WC, Duarte CM, Fourqurean JW, et al. (2006) A global crisis for seagrass ecosystems. Bioscience 56: 987–996.
  • Simon Thrush, et al. “Estimating Global “Blue Carbon” Emissions From Conversion And Degradation Of Vegetated Coastal Ecosystems.” Plos ONE 7.9 (2012): 1-7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 July 2013.
  • United States Government (USG) (2010) Technical Support Document: Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order 12866. United States Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: http://www.epa. gov/otaq/climate/regulations/scc-tsd.pdf.

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Jul 24 2014

Salinity Gradient Technologies, a Technology with Natural Influences

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The production of energy from the creation of an ion gradient is a method which is far from new or original—this process is the foundation of energy generation in cellular respiration and photosynthesis. Humans, however, did not conceive the idea to generate electricity from the creation of an ion gradient until the 1970s and this technique was not pursued until recently. The production of electricity from salinity gradients is based on the natural tendency for freshwater to mix with saltwater. This technique relies on the use of a semi-permeable membrane and water’s osmotic properties. Currently, two methods of membrane technology are being pursued—pressure retarded osmosis (PRO) and reverse electrodialysis (RED).

Pressure retarded osmosis relies on the diffusion of freshwater across a semi-permeable membrane to a chamber containing seawater cause an increase in the water volume inside the seawater chamber and, consequently, pressurizing the water (IEA, 2009). The pressurized water then turns a turbine which generates electricity. The products of PRO are electricity and brackish water resulting from the mixing of freshwater and saltwater (IEA 2009).

Visual of a PRO system

Visual of a PRO system

Reverse elctrodialysis is also a membrane-based electricity generation method but it relies on electrochemical reactions instead of osmotic pressure. This method utilizes a series of stacked membranes. Half of the membranes are permeable to sodium ion and half are permeable to chloride ions. Freshwater and saltwater flow alternately between each pair of membranes. The controlled diffusion of sodium and chloride ions in the water causes oxidation and reduction reactions at the iron ends of the device—otherwise known as the anode and cathode. The reverse elctrodialysis technique has been tested only at relatively minute scales with capacities around 100mW (IEA, 2009).

Visual of a RED system

Visual of a RED System

One limiting factor of osmotic electricity production is that it is an entirely location-specific technology. Because this method relies on the mixing of freshwater and saltwater, osmotic power plants must be placed where a river meets saltwater. Other limiting factors of osmotic electricity production exist in the water properties. The salinity, volume, and turbidity of the water influence the effectiveness of electricity production. The higher the salinity gradient, the greater the pressure, and greater pressure leads to a higher rate of electricity generation. Similarly, a greater volume of water will yield more electricity. A major concern of salinity gradient device installments is the accumulation of biofouling. The accumulation of organisms on the water collection pipes would reduce the pressure of the collected water and hence reduce the amount of electricity produced. Therefore, the devices would need to be regularly cleaned and maintained in order to maintain optimal efficiency. Fortunately, the two major components necessary for osmotic power generators, the membrane and pressure exchanger, are fairly commercialized (Sandvik & Skihagen, 2008). Thus, this technology has the potential for widespread installation in the near future.

Norway PRO Installation

Norway PRO Installation

A PRO project exists in Norway and has a capacity of 4kW. This project was installed primarily as a test project and for experimental research on the PRO technology (OES-IA, 2009). One of the main objectives of this installation is to improve the efficiency of the PRO technology. As previously mentioned, RED technology has been tested at small scales. One of these small-scale installations exists in the Netherlands and its main purpose is to study the environmental impacts and improve the existing technology (OES-IA, 2009). Currently, salinity gradient electricity generation is expensive due to installation and operation costs. Moreover, the capacity is extremely low in comparison to other coastal and offshore energy devices and their installation prices. As investment in renewable energy increases, however, the price of salinity gradient energy technologies will likely decrease as the efficiency and capacity increase.



  • IEA, 2009. Ocean Energy: Global Technology Development Status. International Energy Agency Implementing Agreement on Ocean Energy Systems Annex I: Review, Exchange and Dissemination of Information on Ocean Energy Systems. IEA-OES document No.: T0104 available at:
  • OES-IA, 2009. International Energy Agency Implementing Agreement on Ocean Energy Systems Annual Report 2009. OES-IA document A09. Available at:
  • Sanvik, S.O., Skihagen, S.E., (2008). Status of technologies for harnessing Salinity Power and the current Osmotic Power activities. Article to the 2008 annual report of the International Energy Agency Implementing Agreement on Ocean Energy Systems Annex I: Review, Exchange and Dissemination of Information on Ocean Energy Systems. Available at:


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Jul 24 2014

Italian Energy Reforms

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The Italy National Renewable Energy Plan was commissioned in April of 2009, as part of an update to the European Union’s directive in 2001. The 2001 directive produced a set of national targets from individual member states. Italy was supposed to have 25 percent of its power generated from renewable resources by 2010 but, falling short of that, the country’s target was substantially reduced to 17 percent by the year 2020 (Renewable Energy, EC).


Image of Italian minister of economic development, Flavio Zanon, the day of his conference.
Reforms have been recently made to Italy’s renewable energy incentives. The minister of economic development, Flavio Zanon, has announced that there will be an altered cap on renewable incentives. The change aims to change solar energy incentives spending at 9 billion euros annually for a 20 year period, as opposed to the previous 18 year period. Essentially, this creates a 3 billion euro savings which will assist households and businesses with electricity bills (Woods, 2013). However, the change has been criticized by many analysts, who state that this will scare off investors and trigger costly legal actions (Jewkes, 2014). Solar technology in Italy took off at the end of 2010 when production subsidies skyrocketed, increasing from 750 million euros to 6.7 billion euros in 2013. Over the last 5 years, investments of roughly 50 billion euros have been made in solar energy and, as a result, solar energy capacity has increased significantly. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Remzi has been criticized for his government’s changes, stating that the subsidy cuts were not planned properly and have the potential to affect long-term investment in renewable resources (Jewkes, 2014).

solar farm

A 1 megawatt solar farm in Italy
Similar trends in cutting funding for projects has been seen in Spain, Greece, and Bulgaria. Some analysts state that energy companies should have seen this coming; it is an ongoing trend in Europe that countries invest too heavily in renewable energy and then are forced to cut the budget for one reason or another. In 2013, Spain had a comparable change in renewable tariffs that triggered a wave of multi-billion euro lawsuits, ultimately giving compensation to energy companies based on the fact that they were misled by the government (Jewkes, 2014).
Due to economic factors within the country, Italy has to balance the pros and cons of investment in renewable energy at this time. While immediate cuts to subsidies may improve the economy in the short-run, it will eventually come back to hurt the country if energy investors are unwilling to continue on with their projects.



Renewable Energy. European Commission. <>

Jewkes, Stephen. Italy’s planned solar subsidy cuts risk scaring off investors. June 23, 2014. <>

Woods, Lucy. Update: Italy reforms renewable energy incentives. September 2, 2013. <>

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Jul 24 2014

Blue Carbon – Understanding the Decline

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Based upon the present data, it appears that the most immediate effect of vegetated coastal region degradation will be an increase of GHG emissions, as projections hold that these rates of release could be up to 50 times that of carbon sequestration, given the ecosystems were still intact (McLeod E, 2011). Luckily, the mechanism by which blue carbon acts to seize emissions is readily understood through scientific explanation.


Ocean’s Involvement in the Carbon Cycle










In these vegetated coastal regions, there exists an underlying layer of sediments that is organic-rich and therefore capable of withholding carbon, due to a relatively low presence of oxygen and other inhibitory compounds that relate to decomposition at depth below the surface. Although terrestrial ecosystems have also been observed to perform the same mechanism, it is notable that the efficiency and capacity of these ‘blue carbon’ sequestration sources is much greater, and thus stocks of stored carbon are much more abundant in the marine environments. When habitat conversion and land-use of these ecosystems occurs, the carbon residing in these deep sediment sinks becomes exposed to oxygen or is destabilized through another chemical reaction, and following microbial actions act to release the stored greenhouse gases to the above aquatic environment or atmosphere (Kristensen E, 2008). This process does not have a limiting factor. This means that the rate and amount of carbon released into the environment, generally occurring in the form of CO­2 or CH4 among other carbon species, is dependent upon the nature of land use and the type of underlying sediment.

Recent experiments have allowed for the production of data sets and figures that display the rate of carbon sequestration by the vegetation and top one meter of sediment in these areas. This is a major development because it reveals the emission rates for this so called ‘near-surface carbon’, which is the portion of the sediment that is most vulnerable to the subsequent effects of ecosystem alteration. In one study conducted by Simon Thrush et al, it was found that near-surface blue carbon became oxidized after disturbance and was then converted into the chemical species of CO2, as well as into bicarbonate and carbonate ions, which equate to an increase of the active carbon dioxide occurrence in the ocean-atmosphere system (Simon Thrush, 2012). As this system relies on an equilibrium of partial pressure produced by differential levels of CO2 existing between the atmosphere and oceans, the amount of carbon dioxide persisting in the atmosphere can be altered either through direct circulation between the two, or by the declining ability of the oceans to sequester carbon.

The study by Simon Thrush, et al. presents some of the most current estimations and projections resulting from habitat conversion and land-use of coastal vegetated ecosystems, but these are still conservative figures. This means that they remove uncertain variables from their calculations such as: deep sediment release, high-end area estimations, further speculative assumptions as to the ability of converted regions to retain at least 75% of near-surface carbon, and ambiguous measures of the effects of ecosystem distortions in producing new sediments that could further efforts of carbon sequestration. Given the above parameters, this study attributes an amount of 0.15 to 1.02 billion tons of carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere from blue carbon sinks each year, with the mean value lying at 0.45 billion tons.



  • McLeod E, Chmura GL, Bouillon S, Salm R, Bjork M, et al. (2011) A blueprint for blue carbon: toward an improved understanding of the role of vegetated coastal habitats in sequestering CO2. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 9: 552–560.
  • Kristensen E, Bouillon S, Dittmar T, Marchand C (2008) Organic carbon dynamics in mangrove ecosystems. Aquatic Botany 89: 201–219.
  • Simon Thrush, et al. “Estimating Global “Blue Carbon” Emissions From Conversion And Degradation Of Vegetated Coastal Ecosystems.” Plos ONE 7.9 (2012): 1-7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 July 2013.

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Jul 24 2014

Assessing Environmental Impacts with Marine Organism Tracking

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Undoubtedly, the development and installation of offshore energy devices comes with environmental impacts. Out of the many areas of impact, the area which receives perhaps the most attention is the impact on marine organisms—specifically pelagic predators. An interest in pelagic predators such as whales, marlins, tuna, sharks, and seals has led to a respectable amount of research and observation of these organisms. One program aimed at studying these organisms’ behavior is Global Tagging of Pelagic Predators (GTOPP). The aim of this program is “tounderstand the factors that influence animal behavior in the blue ocean and to build the tools required for protecting their future” (TOPP). As of now 120 white sharks, 27 salmon sharks, and five mako sharks are carrying acoustic tags and relaying information about their location and depth to researches of the TOPP program. Tracking devices are extremely useful in relation to offshore renewable energy technologies as they can assess in carrying out environmental impact assessments. Before a developing company may install its device it must obtain a permit and in order to obtain this permit, it must prove that the device will not significantly impact marine populations. Part of the difficulty in conducting these studies stems from the lack of knowledge pertaining to marine organisms and their behavioral patters which currently exists. In order to observe how ocean energy technologies impact marine species, we first need to understand how these species act in the absence of anthropogenic factors.

An example of a tracking device used by the TOPP program

An example of a tracking device used by the TOPP program

In cooperation with the GTOPP program, which Stanford coordinates in part, Stanford marine biologists and engineers launched an aquatic robot named Carey. This robot is a modified Wave Glider, a robot originally designed by Liquid Robotics to make collect data on ocean conditions (LRI 2012). For example Liquid Robotics just signed an agreement with NOAA in which the Wave Glider robots will be used to improve weather forecast techniques, specifically the forecasting of extreme weather events. Stanford describes the design as a “surfing robot” as it rides waves and currents around designated areas of the ocean (Carey 2012). With the specific receiver outfitting on the Carey Wave Rider, Stanford marine biologists plan to study the behavior of marine animals in ways in which they could not previously. Currently, researchers rely on buoys attached to the seafloor with mooring lines receive transmission signals from a tagged animal when it is with in 2,000 feet (Carey 2012). These new surfing robot receivers will be able to travel and survey designated areas in order to track animals with tracking devices and gain a fuller understanding on migratory and behavioral patterns.

Dual views of the Wave Glider

Dual views of the Wave Glider×154.jpg

This new technology would prove extremely beneficial in studying the environmental impacts of offshore energy devices. Another problem in determining the how human activities influence the behavior of animals is the absence of a reliable technique of observing these animals. With the Carey Wave Glider offshore energy companies could not only make observations prior to device installation, but they could also make assessments during and after the operation of these devices.



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Jul 24 2014

Australia’s Uncertain Future

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The Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme in Australia was designed to ensure that 20 percent of the country’s electricity come from renewable resources by 2020. Since 2011 the scheme has operated in two parts: the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) and the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET) (Renewable Energy Target, Australian Government). The LRET is meant to create an incentive for energy companies via making certificates for every megawatt-hour produced by an accredited power station. These certificates can then be sold to electricity retailers who must surrender them annually in order to show their compliance with the RET’s protocol (Renewable Energy Target, Australian Government). Essentially, this makes the electricity companies in Australia fulfill the role of middle-man in order to meet the national quota for renewable energy.
The SRES creates an incentive for households and small businesses to install renewable energy systems, again, in exchange for certificates that can be sold to electricity companies. In practice, most installation companies usually offer a payment for the right to create their own certificate in order to simplify the process (Renewable Energy Target, Australian Government).
The energy developer, Pacific Hydro, has reportedly withdrawn millions of dollars worth of investment in Australia due to uncertainty over the country’s plan to have 20 percent renewable resource generation by 2020. A review by the federal government of Australia is underway, but Pacific Hydro says the review is taking too long (Gibson, 2014). Many leaders in Australia have said that this review is unnecessary and has only served to cause hesitancy in potential energy companies like Pacific Hydro. The executive manager of Pacific Hydro recently made a statement saying that no one want to invest in a climate where renewable energy targets are being debated and banks are unwilling to finance these energy projects (Gibson, 2014).
During this review period there is virtually no investment in renewable energy at this time. If the Australian government decides to reduce their RET policy or scrap it completely, foreign investors will likely be out of the picture for the foreseeable future (White, 2014). Many advocates of the renewable energy sector feel that the entire purpose of the the review in order to reduce the target goal or get rid of it completely (White, 2014). Either way, Australia’s hesitancy to engage in the renewable energy market at this time will hinder them significantly into the future. These companies only want to invest in areas where renewable energy progression is a certainty and not up for debate.
Gibson, Sallese. Industry uncertainty puts renewable energy projects at risk. July 21, 2014. <>

White, Andrew. Green energy warns against RET flip-flop. July 9, 2014. <>

The Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme. Australian Government, Department of the Environment. <>

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Jul 22 2014

NY Energy Proposal

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New York’s Goal of 30% by 2015

Back in September 2004 the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) created a renewable portfolio standard (RPS). Essentially, it was designed to set goals for future renewable energy use within the state. Implementation rules were issued in April 2005. Initially the goal was to have a renewable energy target of 25% for state electricity consumption. The PSC later, in January 2010, decided to increase this to 30% by 2015. Of this 30%, 20.7% was planned to be produced from the existing renewable energy resources throughout the state. An additional one percent was expected to be derived from voluntary green power sales by 2015; that is, basically, when renewable facilities designate a certain portion of their output to be sold on the green-power market (DSIRE, 2014).

The remainder of the 30% goal is supposed to be derived from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). NYSERDA is responsible for the state’s future renewable energy sources and is among 24 other state organizations and the District of Columbia to implement portfolio based policies with binding goals. One of the main goals of these policies is to help the renewable energy industry in the U.S. develop a stronger infrastructure. In an ideal world, RPS implementations would not be permanent, but merely a jumping off point in which more companies join the market and help the increase the economic efficiency and sustainability of projects. Realistically, this is not likely to happen for several decades. As it stands, NYSERDA is required to contract for 10.4 million megawatt hours, annually by 2015 (


Hydroelectric power represents the vast majority of renewable energy production in NY, and accounts for about 19 percent of all electricity in the state. Wind power is the closest behind at roughly 2 percent, and is considered to hold the greatest future potential. Governor Andrew Cuomo has pushed for renewable projects throughout the state and has grown solar energy within the state by 300 Megawatts. One of the biggest potential projects for the state is called the Long Island Offshore Wind Farm, which would initially generate 350 megawatts of power, with the possibility of expanding to 700 megawatts (LINYCOWP).

Long_Island_Offshore_Wind_P           first-offshore-wind-turbine-us

A 350 megawatt facility would be able to generate around 1.2 million megawatt hour a year, or enough o power 112,000 homes in the New York City area. The turbines would be located 14 miles south of Long Island and would be 5 megawatts each, with blade span diameters of 110 meters (LINYCOWP) Currently, the permitting process is projected to be completed no earlier than 2017. Initial assessment of costs showed that construction would require $415 million for the 350 megawatt facility and an additional $406 million needed were it to expand to 700 megawatts (Joint Con Edison – LIPA Feasibility Assessment). There have been several demonstrations throughout New York City that have been in support of the Long Island Wind Turbine project and, with the support of its city, New York may have a chance at creating a new trend in renewable energy.


DSIRE, March 10, 2014 <>


Long Island New York City Offshore Wind Project. <>

Joint Con Edison – LIPA. Feasibility Agreement. <>


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