Cost of Wind Energy to Decrease

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With Deepwater Wind’s Block Island energy farm in Rhode Island completed – all five turbines of it – it’s not surprising to learn that the cost of wind power, just like that of solar, is going to decline in coming years, according to industry experts. Prachi Patel reports for Conservation Magazine:

Wind energy is soaring around the world thanks to technology advances and energy policies that have reduced its cost. And things are only going to get better with prices dropping substantially by mid-century, according to a survey of 163 of the world’s leading wind energy experts. The results, published in the journal Nature Energysuggest that the cost of electricity from wind could drop by 24–30 percent by 2030 relative to 2014 prices, and by 35–41 percent by 2050.

The key driver of this price drop? Bigger, more efficient turbines, according to the experts. Taller turbines with larger rotors make it possible for turbines to better harness stronger winds, generating more power.

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Save Energy to Save Land

Aerial view of the Elk River Wind Project near the small town of Beaumont, in the southern Flint Hills region of Kansas. This 150 MW wind farm came on-line in December 2005. The one hundred 1.5 MW wind turbines are located several miles South of Beaumont. © Jim Richardson via Cool Green Science

Aerial view of the Elk River Wind Project near the small town of Beaumont, in the southern Flint Hills region of Kansas. This 150 MW wind farm came on-line in December 2005. The one hundred 1.5 MW wind turbines are located several miles South of Beaumont. © Jim Richardson via Cool Green Science

As the human population around the world grows, demand for food and energy will increase. Land conversion will become more and more rampant as countries grow crowded for space – any unprotected forests are sure to be felled to make way for people, and if not people, then their cows/crops, and if not that, then their fossil fuel wells. That’s a pretty dire picture, but there are always measures that can be taken to try limiting the development of land for new energy production, in an effort to slow the loss of nature and habitat for wildlife. A new article in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE claims that demand for energy will be the largest driver of land conversion, at least in the US.

The main solutions that the researchers offer to mitigate “energy sprawl” are “Improved siting, energy conservation, and more end-use energy production like rooftop solar.” according to lead author Anne Trainor. That way, energy production will have a lower carbon footprint and less impact on natural areas as well. My main takeaway from Trainor’s thoughts on her paper, which Cara Byington covered for Cool Green Science, is that, “If you’re saving energy, you’re saving land.”  Continue reading

Spotting and Tracking Mammals at Chan Chich

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen anything as exciting as a jaguar recently, but morning walks at the Lodge have been fruitful nonetheless. Mostly I look for birds, but any mammal spotted is one worth seeing – even a squirrel, given that the most common species here is one only found in Central America. I’m most used to the Eastern Gray Squirrel of the United States, as well as the smaller Variegated Squirrel of Costa Rica’s Central Valley and the cute Red-tailed Squirrel in the volcano regions. Here at Chan Chich, the Deppe’s Squirrel is a dark brown with frosted gray on the tail, and it is much more timid than the acclimatized suburban rodents of the East Coast in the US.

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Can Beetles Stop the Hemlock Woody Adelgid?

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Headlines from news sources responding to a pair of scientific articles from 2013 that highlighted the importance of scale in assessing the effect of invasive species. Photo by Diana Lutz.

Five years ago this month, I wrote in a post titled Preventing Invasive Fire that, “Absolute regulation of invasive species is not possible. We cannot search every inch of soil that enters a country for microorganisms, dormant insect eggs, or plant seeds. But controls must be imposed, and more severe ones than currently in place. The intensely focused damage (biodiversity loss) that a male and female zebra mussel, emerald ash borer beetle, Asian carp, or fire ant can have on a vulnerable ecosystem is much greater than the thinned-out costs of higher taxes or more stringent customs inspections.”

The following year, I discussed the merits of Integrated Pest Management in helping eradicate or at least control pests, which are sometimes introduced from other countries. Reading today about a plan in North Carolina to use beetles as a predator of the hemlock woody adelgid, an aphid-like invasive species from east Asia, I am reminded of those two posts from the past, inspired by Cornell courses in environmental governance and entomology.

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Biofuels: Worse than Petroleum-based?

Image via

Image via

A few years ago, I wrote about two cases of industrialized biofuel production, based on corn and sugarcane in the US and Brazil, respectively. Both of these sources are first-generation biofuels, and there is no doubt that second- and third-generation sources, which often don’t require land conversion or threaten food security, are better alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. A new study funded by the American Petroleum Institute and carried out by the University of Michigan Energy Institute has created headlines declaring biofuels to be non-carbon neutral, but many find the research to be too limited. Prachi Patel reports:

Biofuels have for years divided energy experts and environmentalists. Critics say that they displace farmland and cause deforestation. Proponents argue they are a green, low-carbon alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

A new analysis adds fuel to the incendiary topic. Researchers report in the journal Climatic Change that biofuels might harm the climate more than petroleum. Substituting petroleum fuels with biofuels in American vehicles has led to an increase in net carbon dioxide emissions over the eight years covered by their study, they calculate.

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Cornell University Campus Pursues Geothermal Heating

© Cornell Marketing Group

© Cornell Marketing Group

In 2009, Cornell faculty, staff, and students came together to create a Climate Action Plan that made a goal of making the Ithaca campus carbon neutral by 2035. Since then, gross emissions have already been reduced by about 30% through several measures, such as installing solar farms and ceasing the use of an old coal-powered energy plant. Now, a new initiative to keep the campus warm in winter with a geothermal project called Earth Source Heat might help reduce emissions by another 38%. Syl Kacapyr reports for the Cornell Chronicle:

Cornell is pursuing a project that has the potential to eliminate an estimated 82,000 metric tons of carbon from its annual footprint and establish one of the country’s most advanced geothermal systems to heat the 745-acre Ithaca campus – an effort that could demonstrate a new scalable model for using this sustainable energy source throughout the U.S. and almost anywhere in the world.

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An Object Lesson on Tote Bags

We discovered the “essay and book series about the hidden lives of ordinary things” called Object Lessons through The Atlantic a few months ago, when we shared an article on real cheese. Today, I learned an unsettling – and to borrow from Al Gore – inconvenient truth about tote bags. Pretty much any time I go grocery shopping I use a couple reusable totes, unless I need some plastic shopping bags to replenish my trash-can liner supply, so what the folks at Object Lessons have to say about the issue is very informative about how we need to change the way we look at certain everyday objects:

For at least a few decades, Americans have been drilled in the superiority of tote bags. Reusable bags are good, we’re told, because they’re friendly for the environment. Disposable bags, on the other hand, are dangerous. Municipalities across the country have moved to restrict the consumption of plastic shopping bags to avoid waste. Many businesses have stopped offering plastic sacks, or provide them for a modest but punitive price. Bag-recycling programs have been introduced nationwide.

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Wildlife Crime Challenge Winners Announced



Back in July we shared a story on turtle egg poaching that was part of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, created by USAID with the support of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Geographic Society, and TRAFFIC. The company with the fake turtle egg idea from that article was one of the sixteen winners of the competition, but a grand prize was announced for the four “most creative and impactful” ideas offered out of those winners. The four grand prize winners were announced this weekend at the  World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Honolulu, Hawaii. Christine Dell’Amore reports:

Every year about 10 million aquarium fish pass through United States ports, many on their way to new homes as family pets. But first, federal inspectors must leaf through mountains of paperwork on the animals, which are shipped from more than 40 countries around the world. “Until recently, the [inspectors] didn’t even have wireless access in the warehouses,” says Michael Tlusty, director of ocean sustainability and science at the New England Aquarium. Continue reading

FDA Bans 19 Chemicals in So-called Antibacterial Soap

Image via The Telegraph

In my family we practically never used antibacterial hand-wash, because it wasn’t proven that they perform any better than normal soap – it was convenient sometimes to have a quick gel to clean up on the go without water, but antibacterial consumer products in the household were pretty much nonexistent. As it turns out, chemicals like triclosan, while still not proven with certainty to act negatively on human health, can persist in the natural environment for decades, including in water and soil. And that never seems like a good thing, especially when such compounds might be strengthening bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics. Monique Brouillette reports on the new US Food and Drug Administration’s ruling:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its decision Friday on banning 19 active ingredients in antibacterial soaps. The ruling, 40 years in the making, caps a decades-long debate over whether these germ-busting chemicals are safe and offer any advantage over ordinary soap. The ban includes the most widely used antiseptic in hand soaps, triclosan—after a large number of studies have fallen short of manufacturers’ claims about its health benefits.

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VLMPAs Face Risks of Becoming Paper Parks

Image © CNN

President Obama at Midway Atoll. Image © CNN

Two definitions are needed here at the outset: VLMPAs are “very large marine protection areas” and “paper parks” is a phrase used by conservationists and researchers to convey the idea of parks designated by governments only on paper – that is, they don’t get appropriate funding or management to create actual conservation within park limits. Most paper parks are found in developing nations where politicians may have good intentions in setting aside land to protect, but then don’t have enough resources to enforce the rules adequately, or in worse-case scenarios turn a blind eye to extraction if it favors them. Last week I discussed a possible race for bigger parks, and both examples happened to be marine in nature. Two researchers have commented in the academic journal Marine Policy to warn against creating ever-larger marine parks in remote areas that might be hard to monitor, unless there’s commitment for real enforcement. John Vidal reports:

“It is not enough to simply cover the remotest parts of our oceans in notional ‘protection’ – we need to focus on seas closer to shore, where most of the fishing and drilling actually happens,” said Peter Jones, a marine researcher at University College London.

Co-author Elizabeth de Santo, an assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, added that the push for quantity over quality threatens to undermine sustainability.

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Some Ants Fight Fungus with Fungus

Leaf-cutter ants carrying leafy loot back to their underground colony in Carara National Park, Costa Rica

I’ve covered some ants in the past, discussing their fungal friends that provide them food, as well as their foes that turn them into zombies. A recent article by a team of researchers that included members of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has found that most species of leaf-cutter ants have a practice that helps defend their young against parasitic fungi: wrapping them in the same fungi that they use to digest the leaves they bring underground!

Sarah Puschmann reports:

In the dark recesses of an underground fungus garden, a Panamanian leaf-cutting ant plucks a tuft of mycelia, the wispy part of the basidiomycete fungus these ants grow and eat, and carries it to a nearby ant pupa. The ant licks the pupa’s body before patting the fungus into place, continuing until it appears, when viewed under a powerful microscope, as though the pupa is webbed in short strands of spaghetti.

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Anthropocene Closer to Becoming Officially Declared

One candidate to be considered as evidence of the Anthropocene is plastic pollution. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

We’ve covered the science and evidence behind the idea of our new geological epoch – one influenced by human activity – several times over the years, quoting various sources like The New Yorker, the New York Times, and The Economist.  Now, the Working Group on the Anthropocene has presented their official recommendation to the International Geological Congress that the Anthropocene be declared a new epoch starting around 1950, based on world-wide evidence such as radioactive elements from nuclear bomb explosions, plastic pollution, and even domesticated chicken bones. Damian Carrington reports:

The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

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Seaweed Farming to Start in Costa Rica

Red (despite the color) seaweed in spaghetti style. Photo © Ricardo Radulovich, UCR professor

A little less than a year ago, I read a very interesting article in The New Yorker about growing seaweed in Long Island Sound, off the shore of Connecticut, that held inspiring information on the environmental effects of farming the marine macroalgae: it absorbs excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and carbon dioxide from the ocean, all of which otherwise negatively affect the ecosystem’s health. Seaweed also can be a solid source of protein, vitamin B12, Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and fiber. So growing it is good for the oceans as well as our bodies.

Today, I was reminded about Dana Goodyear’s piece from last November as I read a headline on the University of Costa Rica’s webpage announcing that researchers from their School of Agricultural Engineering and Biosystems, after years of trial studies, will be promoting the growth of seaweed farming off of both coasts of Costa Rica, where they hope it will become a significant food source for the country. Continue reading