Tag Archives: natural gas

Satellite images detect massive gas leaks around the world

Researchers have used satellite data to map massive leaks of the potent greenhouse gas methane, discovering that about a tenth of the emissions come from a group of ultra-emitter sites located in the US, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to climate change and that governments have agreed to significantly reduce by 2030 at the recent climate summit. Tackling these ultra-emitters could be a good start.

Image credit: Flickr / Ken Lund.

Methane leaks had been detected previously by satellites on an individual level, but not much was known about their extent globally. Now, a group of researchers have run through an algorithm a set of images captured by an instrument on a satellite, automatically detecting the largest methane leaks from oil and gas facilities globally. 

The European Space Agency launched three years ago the TROPOspheric Monitoring Instrument (TROPOMI), which can measure methane every day in any 12-square-mile block. Using the instrument, the researchers counted over 1,800 large methane leaks globally during 2019 and 2020, usually releasing several tons of methane every hour. 

“To our knowledge, this is the first worldwide study to estimate the amount of methane released into the atmosphere by maintenance operations and accidental releases,” Thomas Lauvaux, lead researcher, said in a statement. “Ultra-emitters explain in part the under-estimation in oil and gas reported emissions by countries.”

Lavaux and the team of researchers focused on the six top oil and gas producing countries, where methane leaks are frequent. The found that in total, these underreported releases contribute to about 10% of all methane emissions from these country’s fossil fuel operations. It’s a very large amount for a limited number of methane leak events. 

Methane emitters across the world. Image credits: Thomas Lavaux.

Turkmenistan was the leading ultra-emitter, releasing over a million tons of methane in 2019 and 2020. Russia came second, just under a million tons, followed by the US, Iran, Algeria and Kazakhstan. The researchers believe that the US count is lower because the Permian basin, a big oil and gas region, was excluding because of monitoring difficulties.

Based on their findings, the researchers went and asked gas companies about this, trying to get to the source of the leaks. While some were accidents, others were deliberate, as gas companies vent gas from pipelines before doing repairs. This could be avoided, the team explained, as there’s equipment that allows gas to be removed and captured before repairs. 

Tackling methane emissions

For decades, the main focus to tackle climate change has been emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by human activities. CO2 is the main driver of global warming, so this is reasonable. But there are other greenhouse gases out there that we should be concerned about, including methane, which is 80 times more potent than CO2 but far more short-lived. 

The study highlighted the high-methane areas. Image credits: Thomas Lavaux.

Methane is the main component of natural gas and is also part of many ecosystems. It can be released into the atmosphere in many ways, such as rotting vegetation and cows’ digestion — fossil fuel is also one of the main sources of methane emissions. While it’s not a new problem, what has changed in recent years is the amount of methane being released – described recently by climate experts as insanely high. 

Lavaux and the team of researchers argued that the ultra-emitting countries are releasing so much methane that it could be sold, making it a cost-effective solution. For the worst six countries, tackling the leaks would cost up to $300 less per ton than it would cost to reduce methane from fossil fuels in those countries. Russia would save six billion, for example.

In terms of environmental savings, the researchers estimate that putting an end to the methane leaks would prevent between 0.005 degrees Celsius and 0.002 degrees Celsius of warming. It may not sound like a lot, but it actually is. That is the equivalent of removing all the emissions from Australia since 2005 or the emissions from 20 million cars.

The study was published in the journal Science. 

Power companies are hindering the transition to renewable energy

Power utilities are lagging behind, and even hindering, the global transition to renewable energy, according to the University of Oxford. The findings show that only 10% of the companies are prioritizing clean power investment over the expansion of fossil fuel energy.

Credit Beyond Coal. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The study looked at over 3,000 electric companies identified as regulated utilities (including those owned by national or local governments), investor-owned, and cooperative utilities, existing at some point between 2001 and 2018, with gas- and/or coal-based generation assets in their portfolio.

Galina Alova, who led the study, retrieved historical releases of a global asset-level dataset, which she argued offers a unique opportunity to capture changes of plant ownership over time. Alova used a bottom-up approach, looking at portfolio developments of the utilities that directly own the power-generation assets.

“If you look at all utilities, and what’s the dominant behavior, it is that they’re not doing much in fossil fuels and renewables,” Alova told the BBC.

“So they might be doing something with other fuels like hydropower or nuclear, but they’re not transitioning to renewables nor growing the fossil fuel capacity.”

Limits to renewables

Renewable energy has gained a big share of the market worldwide this year. For example, 40% of the electricity in the UK came from solar and wind last year. But many clean energy installations were built by independent producers. Large scale utility companies have so far been much slower to become greener.

The study found that only one in ten companies expanded their renewable-based power generation more quickly than their gas or coal-fired capacity. Of this small proportion that spent more on renewables, many continued to invest in fossil fuels, although at a lower rate.

Most of the companies prioritizing renewable energy were clustered in Europe. Many of the industry’s biggest players are investing in low-carbon energy and green technologies to replace their aging fossil fuel power plants. Meanwhile, those favoring growth in gas-fired plants were clustered in the US and Russia.

This might in part be attributed to relatively higher carbon prices in Europe and by policies in support of renewable energy in some European countries, improving the cost competitiveness of low-carbon technologies, Alova argued.

Only 2% of the companies studied were actively growing more pollutant coal-fired power capacity ahead of renewables or gas, the study showed. This cluster is dominated by Chinese utilities, which alone contributed more than 60% of coal-focused companies, followed by India and Vietnam.

“This study shows that overall the sector is making the transition to clean energy slowly or not at all,” Alova told The Guardian. “Utilities’ continued investment in fossil fuels leaves them at risk of stranded assets, where power plants will need to be retired early, and undermines global efforts to tackle climate change.”

Alova found that utilities dominate global fossil-fuel-based electricity generation, holding over 70% of operating coal and gas capacity in 2018. Most of these assets are far from their retirement age, with a third being added in the last ten years. Unless closed early, thus incurring financial losses, these power plants are here to stay for decades.

Alova said inertia within the electricity industry is a leading cause of the slow transition to renewable energy. Their investment is usually more complex than what is reported in the news, she said, adding renewables and natural gas usually “go hand in hand”. That parallel investment in gas is what dilutes the shift to renewables, Alova concluded.

The study was published in Nature Energy.

Caught red-handed: emissions from ammonia fertilizer plants were 100 times higher than the industry’s self-reported estimate

Methane emissions are massively underreported by the industry, a new study using Google Street View cars found. Even the EPA estimate, which is much more realistic, is still three times lower than what researchers found.

“We took one small industry that most people have never heard of and found that its methane emissions were three times higher than the EPA assumed was emitted by all industrial production in the United States,” said John Albertson, co-author and professor of civil and environmental engineering. “It shows us that there’s a huge gap between a priori estimates and real-world measurements.”

The methane hotspots of continental USA. Image credits: NASA/JPL.

Although the world has made some progress in reducing our consumption of coal, the use of natural gas has grown in recent years, particularly due to increased shale gas extraction and a general perception that gas isn’t as dirty as coal.

There is some truth to that idea. In a new, efficient power plant, natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) when compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant. It’s still bad, just not as bad as coal. But if emissions are overlooked at any point in the extraction, processing, and distribution process, it could drastically change the math. A new study seems to indicate that just that — except it’s not about CO2, but methane.

While CO2 can affect the atmosphere for centuries or even millennia, methane only persists for about 12 years. However, it’s still an important consideration when it comes to climate change, particularly in the more immediate future. CO2 is usually painted as the bad boy when it comes to global warming, but as a greenhouse gas, methane is 30 times more powerful than CO2.

The globally averaged concentration of methane in Earth’s atmosphere has increased by about 150 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and while most of the attention is aimed at carbon dioxide, methane is also closely monitored. Though, it might not be monitored closely enough.

For this study, a Google Street View vehicle equipped with a high-precision methane sensor traveled public roads near six representative fertilizer plants in the US to quantify “fugitive methane emissions” — inadvertent losses of gas to the atmosphere. These fugitive emissions can happen due to leaks and incomplete chemical reactions during the fertilizer production process. As soon as researchers found a plume of high values, they would drive dozens of laps around it with the car, to take detailed measurements.

The team found that, on average, 0.34% of the gas used in the plants is emitted to the atmosphere. If the figure is a representative average, then the entire industry would have total annual methane emissions of 28 tons — 100 times higher than the industry’s self-reported estimate. Even the EPA’s estimate (8 tons) is much too conservative.

The fact that methane emissions are so heavily underestimated is concerning and calls for further investigation, the researchers conclude.

Beijing shuts down its last coal power plant, replaces with natural gas

On Saturday, Beijing officially closed its last big coal-fired power station. The move has been welcomed by environmental groups and furthers the country’s progress towards the emission reduction targets agreed in Paris. 

It's the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

It’s the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

Back in 2013, Beijing officials promised that the city’s four coal-fired thermal power stations would be closed by this year — and on Saturday, they’ve honored that pledge. The closure of Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant has been hailed in Chinese state media as Beijing is now the first city in the country with a coal-free electricity and heating supply. The city’s mayor, Cai Qi, said that “[r]eplacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company’s transformation.”

There’s no ‘coal’ in ‘energy’

The coal-fired generator won’t be scrapped right away but kept as a back-up in case things go south while the replacement power plant, this time burning natural gas, comes into operation. The three other coal plants have already been replaced with natural gas systems.

Huaneng said that by shutting down the generator, they’re cutting coal consumption by 1.6 million tonnes a year. So the closure is a big step towards China’s commitment to reduce coal use by 11.8 million tonnes by the end of 2017 compared to 2012. With this latest contribution, the country is some 70% of the way towards achieving that goal.

There’s an extra benefit for Beijing locals, who have had to put up with some downright terrifying levels of smog and air pollution. While natural gas plants are far from ideal, since they still produce nitrogen oxide which affects air quality, they’re way better than what coal spews out. Greenpeace China’s air pollution spokesman Liansai Dong has applauded the move away from coal, saying that the closure of the plant was just one in a series of steps Beijing has taken to combat air pollution and declaring central Beijing as a “zero coal zone.” But he also warned that there is still much to do in China.

“Beijing alone cannot fully solve its air pollution problem. Surrounding provinces like Hebei should develop more renewable energy and accelerate on phasing out coal power and other coal boilers […] If we want to solve the problem of climate change and air pollution, of which coal and fossil fuels are the cause, we should transfer to renewable energy,” he said.

“China has made some progress and we hope China can keep up this ambitious pace.”

Dong said “quite a lot” of renewable energy was being developed across China, which can boast the most solar and wind capacity installed over the last year. This is in line with China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s pledge to lower coal’s share in the energy market to 58% by 2020, while raising non-fossil to 15% or more and natural gas to 10%.

The next problem, he says, is distribution and “how to integrate clean and green energy into the energy system”.


Abandoned wells can be ‘super-emitters’ of greenhouse gas

Princeton University researchers have uncovered a previously unknown and potentially substantial source of methane emissions: abandoned oil and gas wells. After analyzing wells from Pennsylvania, they found that a worrying amount of them leaked significant quantities of the greenhouse gas.

Alana Miller (left), a Princeton senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering, and Mary Kang, then a doctoral researcher in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton, conduct research that found abandoned oil and gas wells emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. (Photo courtesy of Robert Jackson, Stanford University)

A previous Stanford study estimated about 3 million abandoned wells in the United States alone, so if these wells are indeed leaking big quantities of methane, then there’s serious reason to worry about this. For this study Princeton researchers chose very diverse wells,from fields in Pennsylvania but these measurements need to also be taken in other states with a long history of oil and gas development such as California and Texas.

“The research indicates that this is a source of methane that should not be ignored,” said Michael Celia, the Theodore Shelton Pitney Professor of Environmental Studies and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton. “We need to determine how significant it is on a wider basis.”

Pound for pound, methane (CH4) is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it is emitted in much lower quantities; still, it’s considered to be the second most important contributor to the greenhouse effect. Methane is produced naturally through decomposition but also by humans, most notably through the oil and gas industry. While oil and gas companies have worked to reduce emissions for their newer wells, very little attention has been paid to older wells and in most parts of the world (US included), they have been virtually ignored. Many wells that date back to the 19th century and early 20th century are abandoned and not recorded anywhere officially.

Mary Kang, a former doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering at Princeton was studying carbon sequestration through burial. She found that quite often, the carbon manages to escape underground storage, and this led her to wonder if something similar is happening with old wells. But she first ran into a big problem.

“I was looking for data, but it didn’t exist,” said Kang, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.

In a new paper, Mary worked with colleagues to get new data and fill in the gaps. Initially, she focused on 19 wells in Pennsylvania. While all the wells had some level of methane emission, about 15 percent emitted much more than the others – over a thousand times more. Denise Mauzerall, a Princeton professor and a member of the research team said it was critical to understand what makes these wells different from the others.

A well pipe emerges from the ground in the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. Researchers covered pipes from 19 wells with instruments to measuring gases emitted by the well. (Photo courtesy of Mary Kang, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering)

This makes a lot of sense, because unfortunately, putting a plug on every single abandoned well is not realilstic. But putting a plug on these high emitters is much more doable.

“The fact that most of the methane is coming out of a small number of wells should make it easier to address if we can identify the high-emitting wells,” said Mauzerall, who has a joint appointment as a professor of civil and environmental engineering and as a professor of public and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School.

Judging by their sample size, they extrapolated the results to see how much of the total human-emitted greenhouse gases come from abandoned wells. The result was shocking: 10%. Of course, the sample size is very small and the results are still preliminary, but the figure is shocking – it’s as big as current oil and gas production; and unlike active oil and gas wells, which will emit for 10-15-20 years, abandoned wells will emit for centuries to come.

“This may be a significant source,” Mauzerall said. “There is no single silver bullet but if it turns out that we can cap or capture the methane coming off these really big emitters, that would make a substantial difference.”

Journal Reference: Mary Kanga, Cynthia M. Kannoa, Matthew C. Reida, Xin Zhangb, Denise L. Mauzeralla, Michael A. Celiaa, Yuheng Chenc and Tullis C. Onstottc. Direct measurements of methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.


Natural gas is not a clean energy bridge, further studies find

A trio of newly published studies showed once again that natural gas is not a clean energy bridge – the studies highlighting the various problems associated with natural gas.

Natural gas will not dawn a cleaner day in terms of energy. Image via Ohio Citizen.

Firstly, it was shown that emissions databases underestimate the methane released from fossil-fuel extraction in the U.S. Southwest.

“A global gas boom is not a replacement for energy and climate policies,” write Steven J. Davis and Christine Shearer of the University of California, Irvine, in commentary accompanying one paper.

The team, which was lead by Eric A. Kort of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor used satellite observations to map how that actual methane emissions in that region are about 2 to 3.5 times more than estimated. The results show that we need to reconsider natural gas as a clean substitute for coal and as a bridge towards sustainable development.

[Journal Reference: Eric A. Kort et al. Four corners: The largest US methane anomaly viewed from space. DOI: 10.1002/2014GL061503]

In a separate study, researchers led by Haewon C. McJeon of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory looked at the effects of low-cost, abundant natural gas in an integrated global energy. In other words, he analyzed what would happen to the global energy market if abundant and cheap gas would be available – something which is quite possible in the near future.

What he found is that as natural gas becomes cheaper it will replace coal and fuel less emissions, but it might also stunt emerging renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

[Journal Reference: Haewon McJeon et al. Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas. Nature (2014) doi:10.1038/nature13837]

In the third study, a team led by Thomas Gibon and Edgar G. Hertwich at the Norwegian University of Science & Technology conducted global, long-term life-cycle assessments of low-carbon systems (photovoltaic and solar thermal, wind, and hydropower for instance) and showed that implementing such systems at a large scale would not only double the double the world’s electricity supply by 2050, but it will also stabilize or even decrease greenhouse gas emissions. They showed that unlike natural gas, renewable energy can lead to a sustainable future.

[Journal Reference: Edgar G. Hertwich et al. Integrated life-cycle assessment of electricity-supply scenarios confirms global environmental benefit of low-carbon technologies. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1312753111]

To sum it up, the scientific evidence is starting to add up and show that natural gas, while cleaner than coal, is not a solution. It may act like a temporary buffer, like a band-aid you put to stop the bleeding, but it won’t cure the injury. We need to find other, better ways of providing energy for the growing population.


Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won't be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Natural gas does little to curb emissions and mitigate climate change

Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won't be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Coal fired power plant in Germany. US policymakers are considering substituting coal for natural gas by 2030 to tackle the warming of the planet. A new study concludes this won’t be the case. Photo: Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Given the shale boom, the United States has now become the world’s leading natural gas producer. Because it only releases 50% as much emissions for the same equivalent amount of energy produced by oil or coal, many have herald it as a cleaner source of fossil energy, whose widespread introduction might help mitigate global warming. A new study found that in the long run, natural gas does little to curb emissions since it would boost consumption (high supply means it will be cheaper) and displace renewable energy.

Natural gas: a poor strategy for mitigating global warming

natural_Gas curb

Photo: Near Zero

Researchers at the UC Irvine, Stanford Univ. and the nonprofit organization Near Zero estimated the natural gas supply curves for the next 40 years, then modeled the the effect of varying natural gas supplies on the U.S. electricity mix, as well as the resulting greenhouse gas emissions under four scenarios: no policy, a moderate carbon tax, a stringent cap on emissions, and a requirement of 50% renewable electricity by 2050.

[ALSO READ] Shale gas isn’t a ‘clean bridge fuel’, study finds

Most of the energy in the US comes coal-fired plants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently proposed a plan to substitute coal with natural gas to lower carbon emissions by 2030.

“In our results, abundant natural gas does not significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions. This is true even if no methane leaks during production and shipping,” says lead author Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in Earth system science at UC Irvine.

The study also took into account that 1.5 percent of the gas would be lost during production and transport of the fuel, yet even if there were no methane leaks, as opposed to reality, the overall climate benefits of gas are likely to be small since it would discourage renewable energy projects. The only scenario examined in the study, which favored renewable energy under all conditions, was the 50 percent renewable energy mandate by 2050.


Image: Christine Shearer, UC Irvine

All in all, the researchers who described their findings in the journal Environmental Research Letters state that relying on natural gas is a poor strategy for cleaning the environment with risks of backfiring.

“Cutting greenhouse gas emissions by burning natural gas is like dieting by eating reduced-fat cookies. It may be better than eating full-fat cookies, but if you really want to lose weight, you probably need to avoid cookies altogether,” Steven Davis, assistant professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, said.



High level of arsenic contamination found in groundwater near fracking sites


Photo: Peak Oil

Researchers at University of Texas at Arlington conducted tests on more than 100 water wells in Texas and found 30% of these contained ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic, enough to be considered carcinogenic and seriously threatening human health. These contaminated wells were found in the vicinity of known fracking sites and prior to drilling these were found to be free of arsenic or at least far from the concentrations we’re seeing now. There is an ongoing debate whether or not fracking can contaminate potable water sources and this latest research suggests that indeed this can happen, albeit the evidence is indirect. The findings appeared in the journal Environmental Science and Technology [cite]10.1021/es4011724[/cite].

Drinking water arsenic poisoning linked to fracking

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a now a popular drilling method which involves injecting a liquid mixture of sand, water and other chemicals (some of which are carcinogenic, while others are classified – we know very little about their toxicity other than what drilling companies tell us: that they’re totally safe) at very high pressure with the aim of cracking or ‘fracturing’ the rock deposits miles under the surface to make it easier to extract natural gas or oil.

[ALSO SEE] Pro-fracking newspaper ad banned

The team comprised of 11 biochemists found twenty-nine groundwater wells within 1.8 miles of active natural gas drilling whose water contained unusually high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic which past a certain concentration can be extremely dangerous. Indeed, the water from the wells contained arsenic well past the the limit considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

[RELATED] Frack now, ask questions later: bio impact of fracking still largely unknown

University of Texas researchers compared their results with previous water tests conducted before the fracking boom which started some 10 years ago and concluded that ‘alarming’ amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals have leached in the groundwater.

“This is indirect evidence that drilling does affect the water,” researcher Zacariah Hildenbrand said.

The researchers are careful not to suggest that drilling companies use arsenic into their fracking liquid mix or there’s a direct injection of the heavy metal in water wells. One theory of how the water might have become contaminated is that fracking-induced vibrations shook the rusty water pipes. Rust can contain arsenic, the researchers said.

This hypothesis, however, sounds implausible to industry leaders.

“If they’re talking about drills shaking [rust] free, that’s a little farfetched,” said Alex Mills, president of Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “I’ve never heard or even came close to hearing that hydraulic fracturing is so vicious, so earth-shattering to shake loose rust from water wells.”

This statement is ludicrous by itself. Someone should tell Mr. Mills that hydraulic fracturing can indeed induce massive vibrations. Heck, it’s been linked (not yet strictly proven) with hundreds of man-made earthquakes already, most notably in places like Oklahoma where prior to the massive introduction of fracking has rarely seen earthquakes, historically.


A mockup of the fuel cell prepped for released by Redox Power Systems.

New affordable fuel cells might spark microgrid revolution – a new age of energy independency

A mockup of the fuel cell prepped for released by Redox Power Systems.

A mockup of the fuel cell prepped for released by Redox Power Systems.

There’s been a lot of praise and finger pointing alike around the hydrogen economy, and whether or not fuel cells can be scaled to reasonable levels i.e. becoming actually useful. There are a lot of problems with fuel cells in terms of their economy. Fuel cells are some of the most efficient energy converters current technology has fostered so far, it’s also 100% clean if renewable hydrogen is used. It’s goddamn expensive, though, mostly because the extensive use of platinum that goes into the catalysts and top things over their life cycle isn’t that great.

Things might pick up for fuel cells though. For one, although the most popular choice right now, you don’t necessarily have to use hydrogen and you don’t necessarily have to use noble meals as catalysts. A group of  researchers at University of Maryland Energy Research Center  founded a company called Redox Power Systems, LLC under the flag of which they released one of the most exciting energy products I’ve seen in quite some time. A four inch black box–the size of a large washer or dryer capable of generating 25Kw of power. To be more precise, it’s a solid-oxide fuel cell that runs on methane, which right now is widely available and cheap,  that differs a lot from its conventional counter-parts. For one, it’s fantastically efficient and it’s developers claim it’s projected to produce electricity for $1 per watt, down from $8 in today’s commercial versions.

Above: "The Cube": Redox's 25kW PowerSERG system contains 32 solid oxide fuel cell stacks, which can be individually replaced. Although Redox is currently designing stationary generators, the technology could also be adapted for use in vehicles. Below: Materials Science & Engineering and Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering professor Eric Washsman opening The Cube to check its fuel cell stacks.

Above: “The Cube”: Redox’s 25kW PowerSERG system contains 32 solid oxide fuel cell stacks, which can be individually replaced. Although Redox is currently designing stationary generators, the technology could also be adapted for use in vehicles. Below: Materials Science & Engineering and Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering professor Eric Washsman opening The Cube to check its fuel cell stacks.

That’s a lot cheaper than using diesel for instance in an internal combustion engine and a lot cleaner. Basically, anywhere cheap natural gas is readily available these things could work. Each cube is capable of supply 25kw or enough to power a strip mall.  The cell is made out of 32 stacks,  can operate at 650 °C, down from 900 °C in existing products, reducing thermal stresses and insulation needs. Of course, smaller models should become available for home users.

In other words, what up and coming technology like the Redox box spell is energy independence. Today’s electric grid is technology outdated and under far too much stress. Decentralized electricity is viable solution to ease this stress away, but diesel generator energy is much more expensive than the grid. Microgrids fueled by such fuel cells are a different story, however.  According to the company the first products should be shipping in 2014. Exciting times ahead.


Transit buses fueled by natural gas more viable than diesel or electric

Researchers at Purdue University found that a local bus system running on natural gas is more economically feasible and less harmful to the environment than the currently employed diesel model. The team lead by  Purdue University energy economist Wally Tyner also concluded that natural gas is a better fit than electric-hybrid.

compressed_natural_gas_busThe analysis was  was specific to the Greater Lafayette Public Transportation Corp., also known as CityBus, which operates 72 buses and cares for 30,000 riders daily. The team prompts, however, that their findings can be extended across all bus systems across the country.

The company already runs a couple of diesel-electric hybrid buses which have a higher fuel economy than a standard diesel bus but considerably higher capital expense in the form of higher bus costs. While operation costs can make diesel-hybrid buses feasible in the long run, high capital costs makes the initial investment difficult to make.

“Because of the lower fuel price and pollution reduction, the CNG bus is considered to have good potential as an alternative vehicle used in the public fleet in the United States,” Tyner writes

Purdue researchers found that over the course of 15 years, even with the $2 million expense of building a natural-gas fueling station, the natural-gas system would cost $48 million over the span of the project, compared with $54 million for the diesel-electric and $48.5 million for the diesel-only, according to the report. The analysis takes into account fluctuations in diesel and natural gas prices, operation costs and maintenance.

“Moreover, from the environmental perspective, the implementation of compressed natural gas (CNG) buses in the fleet would also produce less emission and provide benefit to the environment of the local society,” the report says.

The  natural-gas option has a 65 percent to 100 percent chance of being lower cost than the diesel option, considering fuel price forecasts. Natural gas has become ever cheaper in recent years mainly due to massive shale gas exploitation. Shale gas production is expected to increase until 2035.

Full report can be viewed here.

New study links high levels arsenic and other contaminants to hydraulic fracking sites

A new study of 100 private water wells in and near the Barnett Shale showed elevated links of contaminants such as arsenic and selenium to fracking sites used for shale gas; the study, which was conducted by UT Arlington associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry Kevin Schug was published in Environmental Science & Technology.

Arsenic map in groundwater in the US.

Arsenic map in groundwater in the US. Via USGS.

The research focused on water samples, and conducted a thorough analysis to identify any potential contaminants. They found several heavy metals (most notably arsenic, barium, selenium and strontium) in the samples; many of them are naturally present in deep lying waters, but the levels were very high – disturbances from natural gas extraction being the likely cause.

“This study alone can’t conclusively identify the exact causes of elevated levels of contaminants in areas near natural gas drilling, but it does provide a powerful argument for continued research,” said Brian Fontenot, a UT Arlington graduate with a doctorate in quantitative biology and lead author on the new paper.

This is a surprisingly unstudied area, mostly because of the secrecy surrounding the fluids injected in the fracking process; the oil companies aren’t exactly known for their transparency either. However, even if slow, things are finally starting to clear out.


“We expect this to be the first of multiple projects that will ultimately help the scientific community, the natural gas industry, and most importantly, the public, understand the effects of natural gas drilling on water quality.”

Researchers didn’t pinpoint a single cause, but rather identify several possibilities, either separated, or working together: “industrial accidents such as faulty gas well casings; mechanical vibrations from natural gas drilling activity disturbing particles in neglected water well equipment; or the lowering of water tables through drought or the removal of water used for the hydraulic fracturing process“. Either one of these scenarios could release the dangerous substances in the ground water.

The highest levels of contaminants were found within 3 km of fracking sites, and in several cases, the levels were significantly above the levels currently considered safe by Environmental Protection Agency. For example, 29 wells that were within the study’s active natural gas drilling area exceeded the EPA’s Maximum Contaminant Limit of 10 micrograms per liter for arsenic – a point at which it poses health risks.

“Natural gas drilling is one of the most talked about issues in North Texas and throughout the country. This study was an opportunity for us to use our knowledge of chemistry and statistical analysis to put people’s concerns to the test and find out whether they would be backed by scientific data,” said Schug, who is also the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the UT Arlington College of Science.

Via University of Texas Arlington

Shale gas isn’t a ‘clean bridge fuel’, study finds

There has been a lot of fuss lately about shale gas, which has become increasingly important in the past decade, particularly due to hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), a modern technique used to extract it from the underground. Many have proposed natural shale gas as a supposedly clean bridge fuel, fit to address climate change and also industrial energetic requirements; as usually, only the latter is truly regarded.

Recent research, published by Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University casts the shadow of a doubt on this idea, due to methane leakage and the controversy over hydraulic fracking that enabled this boom of shale gas in the first place.

Natural gas is often used for generating electricity and heating and it can also be used for transportation, when compressed (CNG) or liquified (LNG). Many claim natural gas to be clean, but that’s only when we compare it to coal. Natural gas is essentially the same as methane, chemically speaking; methane is a much, much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, as is explained here. During hydraulic fracturing, a large quantity of methane is leaked into the atmosphere; basically, this process requires pumping water laced with various chemicals underground to fracture the rocks, causing chemical reactions which lead to the release of methane in the atmosphere. That methane is supposed to be captured and used on the market, but studies have shown the situation is not quite so rosy. Also, many blame hydraulic fracture for polluting groundwater, as some people have reported a mixture of water, shale and natural gas flowing through their sinks. Companies however claim these are only isolated cases, but the debate is still going.

Robert W. Howarth, Cornell University, said:

“We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. We stand by the conclusion of our 2011 research: ‘The large [greenhouse gas] footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.'”

The problem is that in the process of hydraulic fracking, methane escapes into the atmosphere way before it can be trapped; furthermore, natural gas pipelines are sometimes leaky, due to their old age and structure. In some cases, the infrastructure is 80-100 years old. But wait, there’s more! These pipes are made from steel, and steel rusts, causing a lot of problems for the local environment and communities.

Following calculations in this line, Howarth’s team calculated that the natural gas industry accounts for 39 percent of the U.S. total methane emissions. Still, they suggest that these problems can be fixed, by adding more thorough regulations regarding capturing methane gas leakage and repairing the ageing infrastructure. However, we are left with this question, which is cleverly addressed in the paper:

“Should society invest massive capital in such improvements for a bridge fuel that is to be used for only 20 to 30 years, or would the capital be better spent on constructing a smart electric grid and other technologies that move towards a truly green energy future?”


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