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How China’s electric car push is shaking up oil markets

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Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This is the first issue of 2019. The year ahead promises a lot of movement on the environmental front. Let’s dig in…

This week:

  • How China’s electric cars are affecting the global oil market
  • Floating solar panels combine function and flair
  • The ups and downs of coal
  • Your green resolutions for 2019

China’s electric car push is shaking up the oil industry

(Gregor Macdonald)

Gregor Macdonald, a U.S.-based journalist who has written for The Economist, Nature and the Harvard Business Review, believes 2018 was a pivotal year in the global transition to cleaner energy. Andre Mayer spoke to Macdonald about his new ebook, Oil Fall, and how changes in China are reverberating in the oil industry.

What happened in 2018 that you believe was significant for global oil consumption?

China’s vehicle market broke in the direction of electric vehicles [i.e. EV sales went up, despite a drop in overall vehicle sales] in mid-year of 2018, when I was anticipating that might not happen until mid-year 2020. And now that it has broken, it would be a waste of time for people to ponder whether or not internal combustion engines will make a growth comeback in China. The growth prospects for internal combustion engines are over in China.

Why is that significant?

China has a historical record of being able to maximize and supersize and accelerate changes in its economy and its infrastructure based on policy. The United States doesn’t have that type of ability to do that. But China does.

I use that as an example of why you should take very seriously China’s current initiative on electrical vehicle adoption, which is just insanely aggressive. It would be like taking California policy on electric vehicles and turbocharging it.

Commodity prices are very sensitive to marginal changes in growth rates. It’s very important to the oil industry, for Alberta, to have the market expect that demand be at least a little bit higher next year. That keeps the pressure on prices. I believe that when the global oil market spotted what … started to unfold in China in late summer, I believe that the global oil market had to start repricing future demand growth for oil.

The global oil industry has been living on the prospect of further Asian demand growth. And who’s at the cornerstone of that? It’s China. It’s not often that you can say that copper or gold went way up or way down based on a single factor. But I’m going to express some confidence here and say the break in the oil growth for China changed the [global] forecasts for demand growth.

Are there other indicators of a significant global move from fossil fuels?

The one other country in the world that has the ability to kick the trajectory of global energy in either one direction or the other is, of course, India.

Yes, they’ve somewhat cleaned up the coal industry, but they’ve also supported the coal industry, to the dismay of the global climate community — that’s fully acknowledged.

But India is now starting to build solar [power installations] at a very rapid rate, and has an aggressive policy goal. A beautiful example was the largest solar installation, called Kamuthi. It’s, like, 675 megawatts – that’s big, that’s huge. Kamuthi was completed within under a year. Why? Because India was able to hire 10,000 people, and they completed Kamuthi in less than a year.

The faster you get your project completed, and it starts generating useful work for you, the faster you start getting paid back.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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Floating solar panels: Pretty to look at and so much more

(Mothership)

One of the problems in creating a large-scale solar power farm is finding a place to put all those panels. You need access to sun, which means wide open spaces are best. But land isn’t cheap, and with some small exceptions, they’re not making more of it.

One solution is to float panels on water. It’s been done in many places, including the U.K., the U.S., Brazil, Japan and Korea, and it’s scaling up in a big way.

The world’s biggest floating solar farm rests atop a Chinese lake that formed over a collapsed coal mine and is designed to generate 150 megawatts. That’s enough to power more than 20,000 North American homes. An even bigger floating solar plant is being constructed in Indonesia.

There’s lots of interest in Europe, too. The Dutch city of Rotterdam announced last week that it’s commissioning a floating solar “park” that doubles as an art installation. It will be shaped like a strip of gently rolling waves jutting into Rijnhaven, a port on the Nieuwe Maas River.

Floating solar has a few advantages:

  • No need to buy or rent land.
  • Lots of access to sunlight.
  • Automatic cleaning from the water, which prevents sun-blocking dirt buildup.
  • Increased efficiency, because of the water’s cooling effect.

Floating solar also has side-effects that are sometimes considered positive at locations such as reservoirs. The panels slow water evaporation, and by blocking sunlight from reaching the water, reduce the growth of algae.

That can also be a downside, since algae is food for aquatic creatures, and stopping its growth could starve the entire food chain. There’s not a lot of research yet on those kinds of impacts, but some scientists are studying them right now.

Because of ecosystem impacts and the fact that the water needs to be relatively calm, floating solar is best-suited for places like reservoirs behind hydroelectric or water storage dams.

Could it work in Canada?

The B.C. Sustainable Energy Association thinks so. It suggests that covering 10 per cent of the Williston Reservoir behind BC Hydro’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, for example, could generate 13,500 gigawatts a year — as much as the hydropower from the dam itself.

Emily Chung


The Big Picture: Coal consumption around the world

U.S. President Donald Trump promised the return of “beautiful, clean coal,” but in the United States, the consumption of coal — a dirty fossil fuel — is at a 40-year low, thanks to the use of cheaper energy sources. Western countries in general have seen a significant drop in coal use, but that hasn’t been the case in large developing countries like China and India.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Your New Year’s resolutions

(Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

For many people, a new year offers an opportunity to tweak the routine — or even overhaul it entirely. Here are some of your suggestions.

R.J. Meehan wrote that in 2019, “I’m resolving to cut back on waste and misuse.”

That includes changing diet, and “consuming only what my body, at its premium weight, really needs.” It also means reducing the use of single-use plastics by “taking containers to the bulk bins, returning containers to the point of purchase wherever possible and using used bags for other purposes until they are no longer usable.”

Meehan’s aim is to help create “a ‘usable’ world, to last my grand- and great-grandchildren’s lifetime. This will give me incentive.”

Holly Brown admits she has “long been environmentally minded.” While she isn’t one to typically make New Year’s resolutions, “my growing eco anxiety is prompting me to step up my  game even further.”

She has resolved to “eliminate plastic containers whenever I can.” She plans to do so by switching from liquid soap to bar soap (“Bulk Barn sells an unwrapped variety — bonus!”), using bar shampoo and “carrying a reusable container to use for takeaway at food courts and in restaurants to take home leftovers.”

Zuzana Telepovska  wrote that she and husband will spend much of 2019 travelling, but that they will do so with the environment in mind.

That will include using reusable LifeStraw bottles for water and KeepCups “for drinks that are served on planes.”

Conscious of the carbon emissions of flying, Telepovska said, “we do not plan to take many flights,” adding that she and her husband will move around “as much as we can on land, by hitchhiking or using public transport.”


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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