NewEnergyNews: SOLAR BREAKTHROUGH: HOW PLANTS DO IT

NewEnergyNews

Gleanings from the web and the world, condensed for convenience, illustrated for enlightenment, arranged for impact...

The challenge: To make every day Earth Day.

YESTERDAY

  • THE STUDY: THE JOBS BONANZA IN INDIA SOLAR
  • QUICK NEWS, Sept. 30: NAT GAS, SOLAR, WIND LEAD 1H 2014 NEW BUILD; COOLER PANELS COULD HEAT UP SOLAR; OFFSHORE WIND, PROMISE AND POLITICS">
  • THE DAY BEFORE

  • THE STUDY: ADDING UP THE CLIMATE CHANGE NUMBERS
  • QUICK NEWS, Sept. 29: PRES SAYS YES TO CLIMATE ACTION, SENATE STUCK; FLAWED NEW PLAN FOR NEW ENERGY IN CALIF; SOLAR PANELS GET BETTER
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    THE DAY BEFORE THE DAY BEFORE

  • Weekend Video: Obama On Climate Change At The UN
  • Weekend Video: Jon Stewart Heats Up Over Climate Change
  • Weekend Video: Colbert Asks If “This Changes Everything”
  • THE DAY BEFORE THAT

  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-HIGH WATER RISING – EVERYWHERE
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-MOROCCO WIND BOOM COMING
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-INDIA BOOSTS ITS SOLAR BUILD
  • FRIDAY WORLD HEADLINE-ABU DHABI BUYS A PIECE OF NORWAY’S STAKE IN UK OFFSHORE WIND
  • AND THE DAY BEFORE THAT

    THINGS-TO-THINK-ABOUT THURSDAY, Sept. 25:

  • TTTA Thursday-THE PRIVATE SECTOR FACES CLIMATE CHANGE
  • TTTA Thursday-SOLAR WILL POWER SCHOOLS, EARN MONEY FOR TEACHERS
  • TTTA Thursday-A RIDE IN TOMORROW’S CAR
  • TTTA Thursday-A LOOK AT SEE-THROUGH SOLAR
  • THE LAST DAY UP HERE

  • THE STUDY: FREEING THE NATIONAL TREASURE IN U.S. NATIONAL LABS
  • QUICK NEWS, Sept. 24: ROCKEFELLERS DIVEST OIL FOR NEW ENERGY; BOLD $8BIL WIND BUILD-TRANSMIT-STORE PROJECT; CALIF TARGETS 1.5MIL 0-EMISSIONS CARS BY 2024
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    Anne B. Butterfield of Daily Camera and Huffington Post, is a biweekly contributor to NewEnergyNews

  • Another Tipping Point: US Coal Supply Decline So Real Even West Virginia Concurs (REPORT)

    November 26, 2013 (Huffington Post via NewEnergyNews)

    Everywhere we turn, environmental news is filled with horrid developments and glimpses of irreversible tipping points.

    Just a handful of examples are breathtaking: Scientists have dared to pinpoint the years at which locations around the world may reach runaway heat, and in the northern hemisphere it's well in sight for our children: 2047. Survivors of Superstorm Sandy are packing up as costs of repair and insurance go out of reach, one threat that climate science has long predicted. Or we could simply talk about the plight of bees and the potential impact on food supplies. Surprising no one who explores the Pacific Ocean, sailor Ivan MacFadyen described long a journey dubbed The Ocean is Broken, in which he saw vast expanses of trash and almost no wildlife save for a whale struggling a with giant tumor on its head, evoking the tons of radioactive water coming daily from Fukushima's lamed nuclear power center. Rampaging fishing methods and ocean acidification are now reported as causing the overpopulation of jellyfish that have jammed the intakes of nuclear plants around the world. Yet the shutting down of nuclear plants is a trifling setback compared with the doom that can result in coming days at Fukushima in the delicate job to extract bent and spent fuel rods from a ruined storage tank, a project dubbed "radioactive pick up sticks."

    With all these horrors to ponder you wouldn't expect to hear that you should also worry about the United States running out of coal. But you would be wrong, says Leslie Glustrom, founder and research director for Clean Energy Action. Her contention is that we've passed the peak in our nation's legendary supply of coal that powers over one-third of our grid capacity. This grim news is faithfully spelled out in three reports, with the complete story told in Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves (pdf). (Disclosure: I serve on CEA's board and have known the author for years.)

    Glustrom's research presents a sea change in how we should understand our energy challenges, or experience grim consequences. It's not only about toxic and heat-trapping emissions anymore; it's also about having enough energy generation to run big cities and regions that now rely on coal. Glustrom worries openly about how commerce will go on in many regions in 2025 if they don't plan their energy futures right.

    2013-11-05-FigureES4_FULL.jpgclick to enlarge

    Scrutinizing data for prices on delivered coal nationwide, Glustrom's new report establishes that coal's price has risen nearly 8 percent annually for eight years, roughly doubling, due mostly to thinner, deeper coal seams plus costlier diesel transport expenses. Higher coal prices in a time of "cheap" natural gas and affordable renewables means coal companies are lamed by low or no profits, as they hold debt levels that dwarf their market value and carry very high interest rates.

    2013-11-05-Table_ES2_FULL.jpgclick to enlarge

    2013-11-05-Figure_ES2_FULL.jpg

    One leading coal company, Patriot, filed for bankruptcy last year; many others are also struggling under bankruptcy watch and not eager to upgrade equipment for the tougher mining ahead. Add to this the bizarre event this fall of a coal lease failing to sell in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, the "Fort Knox" of the nation's coal supply, with some pundits agreeing this portends a tightening of the nation's coal supply, not to mention the array of researchers cited in the report. Indeed, at the mid point of 2013, only 488 millions tons of coal were produced in the U.S.; unless a major catch up happens by year-end, 2013 may be as low in production as 1993.

    Coal may exist in large quantities geologically, but economically, it's getting out of reach, as confirmed by US Geological Survey in studies indicating that less than 20 percent of US coal formations are economically recoverable, as explored in the CEA report. To Glustrom, that number plus others translate to 10 to 20 years more of burning coal in the US. It takes capital, accessible coal with good heat content and favorable market conditions to assure that mining companies will stay in business. She has observed a classic disconnect between camps of professionals in which geologists tend to assume money is "infinite" and financial analysts tend to assume that available coal is "infinite." Both biases are faulty and together they court disaster, and "it is only by combining thoughtful estimates of available coal and available money that our country can come to a realistic estimate of the amount of US coal that can be mined at a profit." This brings us back to her main and rather simple point: "If the companies cannot make a profit by mining coal they won't be mining for long."

    No one is more emphatic than Glustrom herself that she cannot predict the future, but she presents trend lines that are robust and confirmed assertively by the editorial board at West Virginia Gazette:

    Although Clean Energy Action is a "green" nonprofit opposed to fossil fuels, this study contains many hard economic facts. As we've said before, West Virginia's leaders should lower their protests about pollution controls, and instead launch intelligent planning for the profound shift that is occurring in the Mountain State's economy.

    The report "Warning, Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves" and its companion reports belong in the hands of energy and climate policy makers, investors, bankers, and rate payer watchdog groups, so that states can plan for, rather than react to, a future with sea change risk factors.

    [Clean Energy Action is fundraising to support the dissemination of this report through December 11. Contribute here.]

    It bears mentioning that even China is enacting a "peak coal" mentality, with Shanghai declaring that it will completely ban coal burning in 2017 with intent to close down hundreds of coal burning boilers and industrial furnaces, or shifting them to clean energy by 2015. And Citi Research, in "The Unimaginable: Peak Coal in China," took a look at all forms of energy production in China and figured that demand for coal will flatten or peak by 2020 and those "coal exporting countries that have been counting on strong future coal demand could be most at risk." Include US coal producers in that group of exporters.

    Our world is undergoing many sorts of change and upheaval. We in the industrialized world have spent about a century dismissing ocean trash, overfishing, pesticides, nuclear hazard, and oil and coal burning with a shrug of, "Hey it's fine, nature can manage it." Now we're surrounded by impacts of industrial-grade consumption, including depletion of critical resources and tipping points of many kinds. It is not enough to think of only ourselves and plan for strictly our own survival or convenience. The threat to animals everywhere, indeed to whole systems of the living, is the grief-filled backdrop of our times. It's "all hands on deck" at this point of human voyaging, and in our nation's capital, we certainly don't have that. Towns, states and regions need to plan fiercely and follow through. And a fine example is Boulder Colorado's recent victory to keep on track for clean energy by separating from its electric utility that makes 59 percent of its power from coal.

    Clean Energy Action is disseminating "Warning: Faulty Reporting of US Coal Reserves" for free to all manner of relevant professionals who should be concerned about long range trends which now include the supply risks of coal, and is supporting that outreach through a fundraising campaign.

    [Clean Energy Action is fundraising to support the dissemination of this report through December 11. Contribute here.]

    Author's note: Want to support my work? Please "fan" me at Huffpost Denver, here (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anne-butterfield). Thanks.

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    Anne's previous NewEnergyNews columns:

  • Another Tipping Point: US Coal Supply Decline So Real Even West Virginia Concurs (REPORT), November 26, 2013
  • SOLAR FOR ME BUT NOT FOR THEE ~ Xcel's Push to Undermine Rooftop Solar, September 20, 2013
  • NEW BILLS AND NEW BIRDS in Colorado's recent session, May 20, 2013
  • Lies, damned lies and politicians (October 8, 2012)
  • Colorado's Elegant Solution to Fracking (April 23, 2012)
  • Shale Gas: From Geologic Bubble to Economic Bubble (March 15, 2012)
  • Taken for granted no more (February 5, 2012)
  • The Republican clown car circus (January 6, 2012)
  • Twenty-Somethings of Colorado With Skin in the Game (November 22, 2011)
  • Occupy, Xcel, and the Mother of All Cliffs (October 31, 2011)
  • Boulder Can Own Its Power With Distributed Generation (June 7, 2011)
  • The Plunging Cost of Renewables and Boulder's Energy Future (April 19, 2011)
  • Paddling Down the River Denial (January 12, 2011)
  • The Fox (News) That Jumped the Shark (December 16, 2010)
  • Click here for an archive of Butterfield columns

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    Some details about NewEnergyNews and the man behind the curtain: Herman K. Trabish, Agua Dulce, CA., Doctor with my hands, Writer with my head, Student of New Energy and Human Experience with my heart

    email: herman@NewEnergyNews.net

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    Your intrepid reporter

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  • Wednesday, April 30, 2008

    SOLAR BREAKTHROUGH: HOW PLANTS DO IT

    Efficiently converting sunlight into energy is the dream. Plants do it at nearly 100% efficiency. Humans have figured out how to do it at anywhere from 10% to 40% (or so) efficiency (depending on how much you want to spend).

    Maybe it’s because plants don’t waste their efforts on American Idol or Britney Spears.

    No, no – plants use a network of pigment-protein complexes. Scientists want to know more about how those networks work.

    Maybe the most amazing part of plant photosynthesis is that it consumes carbon dioxide, the biggest if not the baddest of the greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions, and produces oxygen, the stuff humans need to breathe.

    For obvious reasons, most of the brilliant scientists doing deep research in the area of solar energy are trying to replicate the process. It has been slow going. A new breakthrough will allow them to see the process a little more clearly.

    For those seeking a technical understanding of the breakthrough, quotes from the researchers are below.

    Even more informative is
    Inorganic Mimics of Photosynthesis, Professor Harry Gray’s November 9, 2007, CalTech lecture, from which some of the illustrations below are borrowed.

    Schematic of sunlight photon havesting/energy transfer via pigment-protein complexes. (From Nat'l Energy Research Scientific Computing Center - click to enlarge)

    On The Energy Trail: Researchers Find New Details Following the Path of Solar Energy During Photosynthesis
    April 25, 2008 (Lawrence Berkeley National Labs via PhysOrg)

    WHO
    Graham Fleming, physical chemist, Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California at Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley researchers/co-authors: Elizabeth Read, Gabriela Schlau-Cohen, Gregory Engel, Jianzhong Wen, Robert Blankenship

    The earliest breakthru in mimicking photosynthesis: Ru-bpy. (from Prof. Gray - click to enlarge)

    WHAT
    “Visualization of Excitonic Structure in the Fenna-Matthews-Olson Photosynthetic Complex by Polarization-Dependent Two-Dimensional Electronic Spectroscopy” moves researchers a step closer to understanding why plants can do what human technology has so far failed to do – turn light into energy efficiently.

    WHEN
    2.5 to 3.5 billion years ago: Converting light into energy allowed plants to evolve. The byproduct, oxygen, allowed animal life to arise.
    1839: French Physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel first observed the photoelectric effect.
    1883: Charles Fritts made the first solar cell.
    1888: First solar cell patent. (Not Fritts)
    1901: Nikola Tesla on the case.
    1904: Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect.
    1916: Robert Millikan proves the photoelectric effect.
    1950s: Bell Labs make solar cells for space satellites.
    1954: Bell Labs makes first silicon solar cell. Early work was with selenium, germanium and dyes.
    1955: Western Electric licenses the first commercial solar cell. 2% efficiency. $1,785/watt.
    The race is on.
    Lot’s more detail at the full-length version of Wikipedia’s Timeline.

    Current inorganic photosynthesis replication is focusing on the properties of titanium oxides. (from Prof. Gray - click to enlarge)

    WHERE
    Published in Biophysical Journal

    WHY
    - Fleming and his group have used a laser-based technique (two-dimensional electronic spectroscopy) to track the flow of energy. For the first time, they’ve connected that flow to energy-transferring processes in pigment-protein complexes.
    - One of the researchers describes the breakthrough as improving “reception” of the images already being made.
    - Three laser beams in femtosecond bursts are amplified and phase-matched by a fourth (oscillator) beam.
    - In photosynthesis: Frenkel excitons (named after Russian physicist Yakov Frenkel) are released when light excites plant pigments to release chemical energy. The excitons carry energy down specific pathways in the plant to produce its activity and leave it in a new state (nourished, releasing oxygen, etc.). The new imaging breakthrough allows better visualization of this process.

    Cal Tech and MIT are working to make solar energy by mimicking photosynthesis. (from Prof. Gray - click to enlarge)

    QUOTES
    - Fleming, lead author: “To fully understand how the energy-transfer system in photosynthesis works, you can’t just study the spatial landscape of these pigment-protein complexes, you also need to study the electronic energy landscape. This has been a challenge because the electronic energy landscape is not confined to a single molecule but is spread out over an entire system of molecules…Our new 2D electronic spectroscopy technique has enabled us to move beyond the imaging of structures and to start imaging functions. This makes it possible for us to examine the crucial aspects of the energy-transfer system that enable it to work the way it does.”
    - Read, co-author: ” The optical properties of bacteriochlorophyll pigments are well understood, and the spatial arrangement of the pigments in FMO is known, but this has not been enough to understand how the protein as a whole responds to light excitation…By polarizing the laser pulses in our 2D electronic spectroscopy set-up in specific ways, we were able to visualize the direction of electronic excitation states in the FMO complex and probe the way individual states contribute to the collective behavior of the pigment-protein complex after broadband excitation.”
    - Fleming: “By providing femtosecond temporal resolution and nanometer spatial resolution, 2D electronic spectroscopy allows us to simultaneously follow the dynamics of multiple electronic states, which makes it an especially useful tool for studying photosynthetic complexes…Because the pigment molecules within protein complexes have a fixed orientation relative to each other and each absorbs light polarized along a particular molecular axis, the use of 2D electronic spectroscopy with polarized laser pulses allows us to follow the electronic couplings and interactions (between pigments and the surrounding protein) that dictate the mechanism of energy flow. This suggests the possibility of designing future experiments that use combinations of tailored polarization sequences to separate and monitor individual energy relaxation pathways.”
    - Read: “Using specialized polarization sequences that select for a particular cross-peak in a spectrum allows us to probe any one particular electronic coupling even in a system containing many interacting chromophores…The ability to probe specific interactions between electronic states more incisively should help us better understand the design principles of natural light-harvesting systems, which in turn should help in the design of artificial light-conversion devices.”

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