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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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Chill out: Wolves take snow days too, says study

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When snow falls, wolves chill out, according to a recent study from the University of Alberta.

Over two winters, researchers looked at the movements of grey wolves near Fort McMurray, Alta. in conjunction with data on snowfall in the area.

“We found that on the night that it was snowing, wolves rested more than they travelled, and when they travelled, they travelled slower than on other days when there wasn’t any snowfall,” Amanda Droghini, a former master’s student with the biology department. 

The researchers also found that within a day of the snowfall, the wolves returned to their normal movement behaviours. They don’t know exactly why the wolves changed their movements, but they have some theories.

“We think that it might be something about actively falling snow,” said Droghini.

Snow, like rain, clears the air of scent molecules, she said. Wolves rely heavily on their sense of smell to hunt, especially at night. Most of the wolves studied do their hunting after dark.

Another possible explanation, said Droghini, is that the wolves’ prey move less in falling snow.

“We unfortunately don’t have the data to test this,” she said, but if other animals are hunkered down, waiting for the snow to stop, there is no incentive for the wolves to go out hunting.

In their study, researchers used cameras and data transmitted from collars on 17 wolves. (Submitted by Amanda Droghini)

The researchers used data from remote cameras that monitored snowfalls, and collars on 17 wolves. These wolves were also part of a separate study that looked at the movement of wolves and moose near Fort McMurray.

It’s hard to say right now how climate change might affect the behaviour of wolves in snow, said Droghini.

Information about snow conditions is scarce, particularly in the North where there aren’t many weather stations.

Droghini said more freeze and thaw cycles could make movement difficult for animals in winter.

Rain after snow can create an icy crust over the snowpack, and this kind of snow is the most challenging for animals to walk through, she said.

“It costs them a lot of energy.”

The concern, said Droghini, is that it might be more difficult for animals to maintain the energy levels they need for the reproductive season.



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Trump says U.S. will develop space-based missile defence

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Moving to protect the U.S. from advanced missile threats from China and Russia, President Donald Trump on Thursday laid out plans for a new array of space-based sensors and other high-tech systems designed to more quickly detect and defeat attacks.

Trump, in a speech at the Pentagon, declared that space is the new warfighting domain. And he vowed that the U.S. will develop an unrivaled missile defence system to protect against advanced hypersonic and cruise missile threats from competitors and adversaries.

“Our goal is simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” Trump said. “In a time of rapidly evolving threats, we must be certain that our defensive capabilities are unrivaled and unmatched anywhere in the world.”

Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea in his roughly 20-minute speech. But the Pentagon’s new strategy makes clear that its plan for a more aggressive space-based missile defence system is aimed at protecting against existing threats from North Korea and Iran and countering advanced weapon systems being developed by Russia and China.

The new review is the first since 2010, and it concludes that to adequately protect America, the Pentagon must expand defence technologies in space and use those systems to more quickly detect, track and ultimately defeat incoming missiles.

Acting Defence Secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, said the new hypersonic missiles being developed by nations such as Russia and China are harder to see, harder to track and harder to defeat.

To address that, the U.S. is looking at putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles when they are launched. The U.S. sees space as a critical area for advanced, next-generation capabilities to stay ahead of the threats.

The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the U.S. can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.

20 times faster than sound

Russia and China have made clear their efforts to develop the high-tech programs.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons he claims can’t be intercepted. One is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which could fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound and make sharp manoeuvres to avoid being detected by missile defence systems.

Missile defence officials on Thursday declined to provide any budget estimates or timelines for the programs.

Michael Griffin, the defence undersecretary for research and engineering, told Pentagon reporters that developing a new layered network of sensors in space is key to being able to detect a fast-moving hypersonic missile in its early, more vulnerable stages.

The Pentagon, he said, will study the issue to determine how many would be needed, and at what orbit they would fly. He said the program is affordable and some funding for that would be in the budget that will be proposed for 2020. The system could be operational in the late 2020s.

Officials said the study on space-based interceptors could begin in the coming months. But, recognizing the potential concerns surrounding any perceived weaponization of space, officials emphasized that no testing is mandated, and no final decisions have been made.

The Trump administration is considering ways to expand U.S. homeland and overseas defences against potential missile attacks, possibly adding a layer of satellites in space to detect and track hostile targets. (Mark Wright/Missile Defense Agency via Associated Press)

‘Ineffective, costly, and dangerous’

Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, immediately raised concerns, calling the plan a bad Star Wars sequel.

“While it is true that the missile threat environment America now faces is different, the answer is not to build a wall in space,” Markey said. Adding that Trump’s “misguided rush to weaponize space would be as ineffective, costly, and dangerous as it was more than three decades ago when it was soundly rejected.”

During his Pentagon appearance, Trump also pressed his case to build a wall on the southern border and expressed his condolences on the deaths of four Americans in Syria on Wednesday.

Any expansion of the scope and cost of missile defences would compete with other defence priorities, including the billions of extra dollars the Trump administration has committed to spending on a new generation of nuclear weapons. An expansion also would have important implications for American diplomacy, given long-standing Russian hostility to even the most rudimentary U.S. missile defences and China’s worry that longer-range U.S. missile defences in Asia could undermine Chinese national security.

While the U.S. continues to pursue peace with North Korea, Pyongyang has made threats of nuclear missile attacks against the U.S. and its allies in the past and has worked to improve its ballistic missile technology. It is still considered a serious threat to America. Iran, meanwhile, has continued to develop more sophisticated ballistic missiles, increasing their numbers and their capabilities.



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Zimbabwe in ‘total internet shutdown’ amid violent crackdown

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Zimbabwe on Friday went into “total internet shutdown,” a media group said, after a days-long violent crackdown on people protesting a dramatic fuel price increase.

Badly injured people streamed into a hospital in the capital after alleged assaults by security forces.

“Our country is going through one of the most trying periods in its history,” the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a sweeping statement lamenting the government’s “intolerant handling of dissent” and its failure to halt economic collapse.

Media group MISA-Zimbabwe shared a text message from the country’s largest telecom company, Econet, calling the government’s internet order “beyond our reasonable control.” The High Court will hear a challenge to the shutdown on Monday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said.

A prominent pastor and activist who faces a possible 20 years in prison on a subversion charge arrived at court, one of more than 600 people arrested this week. Evan Mawarire has called it “heartbreaking” to see the new government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa acting like that of former leader Robert Mugabe.

‘It’s a shame what’s happening’

Mawarire is accused of inciting civil disobedience online. “It’s a shame what’s happening,” the pastor said. A magistrate said there was reasonable suspicion he had committed an offence and set a Jan. 31 hearing, while Mawarire remains in detention until his lawyer on Monday can seek bail.

International calls for restraint by Zimbabwe’s security forces are growing, while Mnangagwa prepares to plead for more investment at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He announced the fuel price increase on the eve of his overseas trip, leaving hardline former military commander and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga as acting president.

Zimbabwe cleric and activist Evan Mawarire speaks to the media as he arrives at court Thursday, accused of inciting violence through social media. (Jekesai Nijikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

Gasoline in the economically shattered country is now the world’s most expensive. Zimbabweans heeded a nationwide stay-at-home call earlier this week in protest. Rights groups and others have accused security forces of targeting activists and labour leaders in response, with the United States expressing alarm.

The UN human rights office on Friday urged Zimbabwe to stop the crackdown, noting reports of intimidating door-to-door searches by security forces.

68 cases of gunshot wounds

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has said it had treated 68 cases of gunshot wounds and 100-plus other cases of “assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, baton sticks” and more.

Injured people streamed into a private hospital in the capital, Harare, on Thursday. Some had broken legs. A nurse attended to a man with a broken spine.

Albert Taurai told The Associated Press he had ventured out to look for bread when plainclothes officers wearing masks beat him up, accusing him of barricading roads.

Keith Frymore, a 21-year-old security guard, had a torn lip. He told the AP a group of uniformed soldiers attacked him at work.

Shops running out of bread

“I need $70 to get help here. I don’t have that kind of money,” he said.

Other hungry Harare residents who ventured out seeking food have reported being tear-gassed by police. Soldiers were still controlling long fuel lines in the capital on Friday, and many wary residents stayed at home.

A man stands in a shop after failing to find bread in Harare on Friday. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced when Mnangagwa succeeded Mugabe, who was forced out in late 2017, thinking the new president would deliver on his refrain that the country “is open for business.” But frustration has risen over the lack of improvement in the collapsed economy, which doesn’t even have a currency of its own.

The internet shutdown cuts off crucial access to the mobile money that Zimbabwe’s government uses to pay teachers and other public workers. Some said they can no longer afford fares for public transport, and some shops have run out of basics such as bread.

Demonstrations are ‘terrorism,’ government says

Death tolls in this week’s unrest have varied. Eight people were killed when police and military fired on crowds, Amnesty International said. Zimbabwe’s government said three people were killed, including a policeman stoned to death by an angry crowd.

The demonstrations amount to “terrorism,” Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said, blaming the opposition. State Security Minister Owen Ncube thanked security forces for “standing firm.”

President Emmerson Mnangagwa replaced Robert Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe for decades. (Natalia Fedosenko/TASS News Agency/Associated Press)

But among those arrested are several ruling ZANU-PF party community leaders as well as a soldier and a police officer.

The U.K.’s minister for Africa, Harriett Baldwin, has summoned Zimbabwe’s ambassador to discuss “disturbing reports of use of live ammunition, intimidation and excessive force” against protesters.

The European Union, in a statement late Thursday, noted the “disproportionate use of force by security personnel” and urged that internet service be restored.

Canada updated its travel advisory for the country on Thursday, warning access to food and fuel is limited, and an increased police presence should be expected in all major urban centres.



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