Turbines and birds don't always play nice

The most recent issue of the magazine new energy contains an article describing the initial findings of a collection of studies commissioned by the German Environment Ministry on the subject of “Birds of Prey and Wind Turbines: Problem Analysis and Suggested Solutions.” I had always thought of this issue as somewhat of a sideshow, but understood that a small but vocal community took it very seriously and succeeded in keeping it in the public eye.

Although the article (and by extension, the studies) may not have completely changed my outlook, it did point out that aggregate, top-line numbers are not the best way to judge wind turbines’ effects on bird populations. The article also highlights some relatively painless measures that developers and landowners can take to help partially mitigate the situation.

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Altamont Pass, bird, bird death, eagle, Germany, hawk, raptor, renewable energy, United States, wind farm, wind power, wind turbines

By Camille Serre and Alexander Ochs

After having shed some light on French climate and energy legislation, let’s proceed with our review of European progress toward clean energy economies. Typically, the Scandinavian countries and Germany have set the example in the European renewables field. Yet lately, a Southern country—Portugal—has attracted media attention after delivering its National Renewable Energy Action Plan to the European Commission this June.

Portugal has made dramatic changes in its energy policy over the last five years under the government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates. The country’s installed renewable energy capacity more than tripled between 2004 and 2009, from 1,220 megawatts (MW) to 4,307 MW, and renewables now represent roughly 36 percent of electricity consumed. Thanks to this performance, Portugal currently ranks 4th in Europe in energy production from renewables. Socrates seems to know what he is doing, and it looks like his previous experience has paid off. Like Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, Socrates was Minister of the Environment before becoming head of his country’s government. The environment seems to be a springboard for European politicians’ careers.

In 2009, Portugal ranked 3rd in Europe in wind power capacity per capita - Flickr Creative Commons / Mafalda Moreira Santos

Of course, Portugal benefits from favorable conditions for renewables as well: a strong wind resource, great hydropower, good tidal waves potential, and a high sunshine rate. After the country removed several dams in recent years, Socrates’ government has focused instead on wind power development, under most conditions the cheapest renewable energy source after hydropower. With spectacular growth in wind energy production of over 600 percent between 2004 and 2009, Portugal now ranks 6th in Europe in total installed capacity and 3rd in capacity per capita, behind only Denmark and Spain. Some even expect Portugal to overtake its neighbor Spain in per capita wind energy production as early as this year.

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clean energy, climate, Climate Change, climate legislation, energy, Europe, feed-in tariffs, low-carbon, Portugal, renewable energy, solar power, wave power, wind turbines

Camille Serre and Alexander Ochs

In Part 1 of this blog, we described the climate and energy measures that France plans to pursue as part of its new environmental law, Grenelle 2. This set of policies suggests that France may in fact be paving the way toward a low-carbon economy. Unfortunately, the picture is tarnished by an ongoing controversy about renewable energy development in the country.

Windmills in French Brittany - Flickr Creative Commons / Nicolas Grout

Grenelle 2 certainly contains some positive measures in the renewables sector. For instance, it sets a goal that 23 percent of France’s energy use must come from a mix of renewable energy sources by 2020—most likely from hydropower (the nation’s largest renewables source so far), wind power, and biomass. The law calls for regional climate and energy mapping to assess climate-related risks within the country as well as to determine domestic energy needs, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Consequently, adaptation strategies and monitoring instruments will be developed. In addition, local and regional authorities that are responsible for 50,000 inhabitants or more, as well as companies with over 500 employees, will be required to conduct emissions assessments.

The law also promotes electricity produced by renewable sources through the enhancement of various supporting tools. France’s largest utility company, EdF, is already required to purchase electricity produced by certain renewable energy generators. Under Grenelle 2, local governments can also benefit from this purchase guarantee if they produce electricity from renewable sources. Moreover, any individual can now install photovoltaic panels at home and benefit from a “feed-in tariff” that guarantees producers of renewable energy a specified price for every megawatt-hour of power fed into the grid. To improve conditions for renewables, the electricity grid will be strengthened and enhanced in the coming years.

While all of these measures are helpful, particularly for solar technologies, Grenelle 2 imposes several barriers for the expansion of wind power, despite the creation of regional wind energy development schemes.

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climate, Climate Change, climate legislation, energy, environmental law, feed-in tariffs, France, low-carbon, renewable energy, Sarkozy, sustainable development, wind turbines

Rare earth minerals and lithium: two ingredients of a clean energy future that have gotten special treatment in the media and enviro-sphere this past month. (Not to mention the essential ingredients, oil and gas, which also received some “special treatment” from the Obama Administration.) The central question with all of these resources is: Can we import enough of them to meet our energy, energy efficiency, and transport needs? And if not – there is ample risk ahead in international competition for these resources – how can we produce more of them within our borders?

If you missed some of the buzz about rare earths and lithium or are confused about details, here’s a quick and simple run-down:

Rare Earth Elements

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Molycorp’s Rare Earth operation in Mountain Pass, California

Rare Earths are a group of 17 elements with funky names (like yttrium, gadolinium, and neodymium) and similar reactive properties that make them useful for electronics, catalytic converters, and permanent magnet generators, the latter being a key technology for efficient wind turbines. Despite their many applications, rare earths – true to their name – are rarely found in economically extractable quantities, and only a few major mining operations exist across the world.

Last month, the U.S. government made known its concern about the future of rare earth supply. The House of Representatives held a hearing on the topic and focused especially on China’s dominance of rare earth production. The Department of Energy began crafting a rare earths strategy, and Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced The Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology and Resource Transformation (RESTART) Act.  

All of these initiatives called for new and diverse supports for rare earth mining within U.S. borders. Currently, only a single U.S. company has rare earth mining and separation capabilities. Molycorp, based in Mountain Pass, California (pictured), has operated intermittently in the past decade due to environmental and regulatory problems. Thus, the U.S. joins the rest of the world in near-complete dependence on China for its rare earth supply. In 2008, China supplied 96 percent of world demand for rare earths. Australia is the only other country with potentially massive stores of rare earths, but extraction there is also underdeveloped. 

Rare earths were a buzz topic in March, as cleantech advocates woke up to the great importance of these elements, which are used in renewable energy generation and energy efficiency technologies. Apart from wind turbines, rare earth-containing products include fluorescent lamps and some batteries. Now that concern over this issue has gone public and the government has been kicked into action, rare earth elements will remain a topic of intense research and debate.  


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Lithium brine operation in Silverpeak, Nevada

Concerns over lithium supply all come back to batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are currently the most cost-effective tool for powering the massive fleet of electric cars that is supposedly on the horizon. Lithium concerns boiled to the surface recently as a slew of articles covered the massive lithium resource in Bolivia – a potential 5.4 million tons, the largest in the world and more than ten times the United States’ lithium resource. This created a buzz about Bolivia being the “Saudi Arabia” of lithium. However, Bolivia currently extracts and exports zero tons of lithium, even if the government has expressed its intention to develop a lithium industry. In a situation similar to that of rare earths, the United States has only one domestic facility that separates and produces usable lithium – the Chemetall Foote lithium brine operation (pictured).

Much like our dependence on foreign oil, the United States relies on imports to meet more than half of its lithium demand. These imports come largely from Argentina and Chile, and a small portion from China. Lithium is set to be an even hotter topic as the American-made Chevy Volt and Japanese Nissan Leaf – all-electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries – hit the road in 2010.

Despite this similarity to our oil-based relationship with Saudi Arabia, the situation differs greatly in other respects. Lithium recycling technologies are on the horizon, alternatives to lithium-ion batteries are in development, and the U.S. vehicle fleet will not be fully electric for a long time. The International Energy Agency predicts that even with climate and energy legislation in place, less than 20 percent of new U.S. vehicle sales will be electric by 2030. Finally, the company American Lithium claims it is eying other parts of the U.S. Great Basin for lithium production sites.  

Besides simply ramping up domestic lithium production, the United States might also consider boosting R&D of lithium alternatives.

bolivia, China, electric vehicles, energy security, lithium-ion batteries, neodymium, rare earth elements, wind turbines