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EU future climate policy
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The European Commission has outlined its plans for climate and energy policy until 2030.

The Commissioners want a binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 40% from 1990 levels.

Renewables will need to provide 27% of EU energy by 2030, but while the target will be binding at EU level there will be no mandatory targets for member states.

The policy proposals are subject to review by heads of government.

Green groups have said the new targets lack ambition and the 40% emissions cut is "dangerously low".

This wide ranging White Paper will have a significant impact on the way Europe generates its power from 2020 onwards.

The Commission wants to give clarity to investors in renewable energy while at the same time maintaining their leadership role in global climate negotiations.

A critical part of that is the headline figure on emissions cuts. The target that was set for 2020 was 20% but the EU as a group had almost reached the goal by 2012.

Some countries including the UK urged the Commission to propose a bigger target of 50% by 2030, others held out for 35%.

Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard said that, given the economic climate, the 40% target was a significant advance.

"A 40% emissions reduction is the most cost-effective target for the EU and it takes account of our global responsibility," she said.

"If all other regions were equally ambitious about tackling climate change, the world would be in significantly better shape."

Officials emphasised that the 40% target would have to be achieved "through domestic measures alone", meaning that member states couldn't offset their reductions by paying for carbon cutting in other countries.

Binding targets

The move was welcomed by investors. According to the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change, who's members manage 7.5 trillion euros, the new target was a good first step.

"A 40% emissions reduction target is the minimum necessary to keep Europe on course for a low-carbon economy as outlined in the EU's 2050 Roadmap," said chief executive Stephanie Pfeifer.

"Achieving this target is well within member state capabilities and crucial for long-term policy certainty."

Despite this, many environmental campaigners were unhappy.

Brook Riley from Friends of the Earth said the target would make the goal of avoiding dangerous climate change, defined as going above 2C, difficult to achieve.

"We say 40% is really dangerously low. This goal means there's about fifty-fifty chance of going over 2 degrees of global warming," he said.

As well as the headline cut in emissions, the other key plank of the White Paper is renewable energy.

The 2007 targets required 20% of all energy to come from solar, wind or other renewable sources.

  EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard has been criticised by green groups

Germany, which is in the middle of a huge transition to solar and wind, was keen to see these binding targets continue after 2020.

Others, including Poland, Spain and the UK, were keen on greater flexibility in the energy mix. The UK was keen to use nuclear energy as a way of meeting its own emissions reduction goal.

The result is a proposal for a binding target across the EU to provide "at least 27%" of energy from renewable sources.

"It is not just an aspirational thing, it's not just a nice intention, it is a binding target we are proposing," said Ms Hedegaard.

But crucially, there are to be no binding targets for individual member states.

Sensitive issue

The Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that shale gas was changing the energy landscape in a dramatic way.

There would be no binding EU wide regulations, he said. Instead the EU would set minimum core principles for fracking on environmental safety and health.

There would be a scoreboard for each member state to show how they were meeting the requirements.

"It's a good demonstration of the role the EU should play, setting the cross border rules for environmental health and safety but not meddling in the energy mix that is to be chosen by member states," he said.

This part of the package will have been well received in the UK and in Poland as both countries believe that shale gas will play an important part in providing energy in the future.

The White Paper also details a plan for fixing the EU emissions trading scheme. The price of a tonne of carbon has fallen dramatically in recent years as a result of an oversupply of permits on the market. The Commissioners now argue for a new system that would automatically adjust the supply.

Another element that will upset green campaigners is the proposal to drop the 6% target for greenhouse gas emissions cuts from transport fuels, from 2020.

Nusa Urbancic of campaigning group Transport & Environment believes this move will lead to the end of the Fuel Quality Directive, which she says is a major disappointment.

"The Commission is using the climate and energy package as an excuse to quietly scrap the FQD - the best EU law aimed at lowering emissions from transport fuel," she said.

"This is good news for oil companies and Alberta, with its high-carbon tar sands, but bad news for Europe in our move towards a more sustainable transport system."

All of the proposals put forward by the Commission will now be reviewed by the European Council in March. It is not expected that formal legislative proposals will be agreed before 2015.

 
Problems in the PV world
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The Chinese government is pushing for a drastic shakeout of the country's overcrowded solar cell industry, supporting only a quarter of players and practically telling the rest to get out of the business.

   The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has announced a list of 134 producers of silicon materials, solar panels and other components of photovoltaic systems as meeting certain conditions, as measured by 2012 production, capacity utilization and technical standards.

   In a sector said to have more than 500 companies, the ministry's move means that three-quarters didn't make the cut -- including the core subsidiary of Suntech Power, which went bankrupt in March, and Jiangsu Shungfeng Photovoltaic Technology, Suntech's startup rescuer.

   These firms will not be able to get credit lines from financial institutions and thus will have a tough time borrowing, according to industry insiders. They will also no longer be eligible for refunds of export tariffs, a huge blow to companies that depend on overseas business. On the home front, it will be difficult for them to participate in state-run utilities' auctions, sharply curtailing their opportunities to win orders.

   "This will help eliminate the industry's excess capacity," says Jian Xie, chief operating officer of leading cell maker JA Solar. "The list will be reviewed every six to 12 months based on business development and technology standards."

   China's photovoltaic industry has been facing stiff headwinds since 2012 amid slowing demand in Europe, the world's largest market. The country's trade friction with the U.S. and Europe is not helping, either. Even Suntech, which became the world's top solar cell producer at one point, saw its core subsidiary go under. Midsize businesses are staying afloat only because of support from local governments.

Rays of light peeking through

But the market is finally showing signs of life of late. Yingli Green Energy, the world's largest player, reported a 60% year-on-year jump in sales for the July-September quarter, while Trina Solar swung to the black on a net basis.

   The average solar module price tumbled in the April-June and July-September quarters of 2012, but the decline was milder than 1% during the same period this year, according to U.S. market research firm NPD Solarbuzz. Shakeouts in the U.S. and Europe, including ailing German firm Q-Cells, gained traction, relieving oversupply.

   Global demand rose to a record 9 million kilowatts in the July-September quarter of this year amid growth in China, Japan and the U.S. A Solarbuzz analyst sees demand jumping 30% from this year's projected level to reach 45 million kilowatts in 2014.

   In China, markets offering high margins tend to attract scores of entrants, often resulting in oversupply situations. The government has declared excess capacity in several other industries, including steel, cement and shipbuilding, and is calling for consolidation.

   But it's unusual for the government to weed out weak-performing players and hinder their continuation. The focus going forward is on whether the same scheme will be used in the steel and other sectors that are dominated by state-owned companies backed by municipal governments.

 
New algae fuel
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Drivers could soon be filling their cars with petrol created using algae thanks to a new process that converts the organisms into crude oil in less than an hour.
Engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have created a chemical process that produces useful crude oil minutes after they pour in harvested algae - a verdant green paste with the consistency of pea soup.
Now a biofuels company, Utah-based Genifuel Corp., has licensed the technology and is working with an industrial partner to build a pilot plant for mass production.
In the process, recently featured in the journal Algal Research, a slurry of wet algae is pumped into the front end of a chemical reactor.
Once the system is up and running, crude oil comes out in less than an hour, along with water and a byproduct stream of material containing phosphorus that can be recycled to grow more algae.
With additional conventional refining, the crude algae oil is converted into aviation fuel, gasoline or diesel fuel.
 
And the waste water is processed further, yielding burnable gas and substances like potassium and nitrogen, which, along with the cleansed water, can also be recycled to grow more algae.
The process creates :
 
Crude oil for fuelling vehicles
In the team's experiments, generally more than 50-70  per cent of the algae's carbon is converted to energy in crude oil
 
Clean water, which can be re-used to grow more algae.
 
Fuel gas, which can be burned to make electricity or cleaned to make natural gas for vehicle fuel in the form of compressed natural gas.
 
Nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium — the key nutrients for growing algae.
 
While algae has long been considered a potential source of biofuel, and several companies have produced algae-based fuels on a research scale, the fuel is projected to be expensive.
The PNNL technology harnesses algae's energy potential efficiently and incorporates a number of methods to reduce the cost of producing algae fuel.
'Cost is the big roadblock for algae-based fuel,' said Douglas Elliott, the laboratory fellow who led the PNNL team's research.
'We believe that the process we've created will help make algae biofuels much more economical.'
PNNL scientists and engineers simplified the production of crude oil from algae by combining several chemical steps into one continuous process.
The most important cost-saving step is that the process works with wet algae.
Most current processes require the algae to be dried - a process that takes a lot of energy and is expensive. The new process works with an algae slurry that contains as much as 80 to 90 per cent water.
'Not having to dry the algae is a big win in this process, that cuts the cost a great deal,' said Elliott.
'Then there are bonuses, like being able to extract usable gas from the water and then recycle the remaining water and nutrients to help grow more algae, which further reduces costs.'
While a few other groups have tested similar processes to create biofuel from wet algae, most of that work is done one batch at a time.
The PNNL system runs continuously, processing about 1.5 litres of algae slurry in the research reactor per hour.
While that doesn't seem like much, it is a step closer to the type of continuous system required for large-scale commercial production.
The system runs at around 350C (662F) at a pressure of around 3,000 pounds per square inch, combining processes known as hydrothermal liquefaction and catalytic hydrothermal gasification.
Elliott says such a high-pressure system is not easy or cheap to build, which is one drawback to the technology, though there are cost savings.
'It's a bit like using a pressure cooker, only the pressures and temperatures we use are much higher,' said Elliott.
'In a sense, we are duplicating the process in the Earth that converted algae into oil over the course of millions of years. We're just doing it much, much faster.'
Elliott has worked on hydrothermal technology for nearly 40 years, applying it to a variety of substances, including wood chips and other substances.
Because of the mix of earthy materials in his laboratory, and the constant chemical processing, he jokes that his laboratory sometimes smells 'like a mix of dirty socks, rotten eggs and wood smoke'.
James Oyler, president of Genifuel, said: 'It's a formidable challenge, to make a biofuel that is cost-competitive with established petroleum-based fuels.'
'This is a huge step in the right direction.'
 
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