December 1, 2023

I.H.T. Special Report: Business of Green: A ‘Big Thumbs Up’ for Renewable Energy

Most renewable sources are abundant, practically inexhaustible and far more climate friendly than fossil fuels. Some companies making equipment to harness these energies are growing rapidly.

Last month, experts advising the United Nations said renewable sources could deliver nearly 80 percent of world’s total energy demand by the middle of the century. That report, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the most authoritative body of experts, scientists and engineers specialized in climate change — was a welcome signal for an industry that has faltered in previous decades after government subsidies dried up and lower-cost fossil fuels made their technologies uncompetitive.

The report “is a big thumbs up for an industry that’s making huge advances in lowering costs and improving efficiency,” said Maja Wessels, global head of government affairs for First Solar, one of the largest makers of solar panels. “The experts have said that reaching high renewables targets will become very achievable.”

She said that the report should serve as basis for governments and lenders like the World Bank to plan investment in energy systems and infrastructure.

Governments staking out a low-carbon future also welcomed the findings.

Charles Hendry, the British minister for energy and climate change, said the report “makes it completely clear that this is a massively growing area” that could deliver “a turnaround moment for many parts of the economy.”

Even so, some financiers and environmental groups said the report underplayed the potential for renewable energy. The panel “wasn’t aggressive enough and the data were two years old,” said Gerard Reid, an analyst at Jefferies, an investment bank. “For solar panels, and offshore wind and concentrating solar power, we can get the costs down even quicker.”

WWF, an environmental group, emphasized that it had developed plans for generating 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chairman of the climate panel that wrote the report, said the findings were realistic. “Under no circumstances can we afford to omit or neglect renewables,” Mr. Edenhofer said by telephone. “But we must remember that there is more than one way to achieve a low greenhouse gas economy.” He was referring to alternatives to renewable sources like nuclear power and technologies under development to limit the damage of fossil fuel use by capturing and storing carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere.

Some of the renewable sources with the greatest potential to deliver large amounts of energy, like certain kinds of solar power, remain expensive compared with burning fossil fuels, he said. And integrating a wide variety of renewable sources into existing power grids would be a huge technical and financial challenge, he added.

That caution was echoed by separate report released on May 24 by the International Energy Agency. While the agency found that biomass, geothermal and hydropower provide a steady stream of power and pose no greater challenge than conventional power to integrate into grids, other renewable sources — wind, solar, wave and tidal energy — fluctuate with the weather and are often in places that lack grids.

“When shares of variable renewables amount to just a few percent, a philosophy of ‘connect and manage’ will usually suffice,” said Nobua Tanaka, executive director of the I.E.A. Greater use of renewable sources means that “this will need to change,” he said.

A summary of the climate panel’s report was published on May 9, after 194 governments agreed to the text. The report was based on a comparison of 164 evaluations of the technology and provided the most comprehensive analysis to date of trends and perspectives for renewable energy. The panel was expected to publish a full report of more than 900 pages by mid-June, once scientists have completed final checks.

The report found that six sources — bioenergy, wind, solar, geothermal energy, hydropower and ocean energy — currently accounted for 13 percent of global energy supply. In one of the least optimistic outlooks for the sector examined by the panel, the world would generate 15 percent of its energy needs from those same six sources by 2050. But in one of the most optimistic projections, the world could generate 43 percent of its energy needs from those six sources by 2030 and 77 percent by 2050.

Renewable energy also would create jobs and help accelerate access to energy for 1.4 billion people without electricity.

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On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns

ON a sunny Sunday just before the vernal equinox, Rich Ciotola set out to clear a pasture strewn with fallen wood. The just-thawed field was spongy, with grass sprouting under tangled branches. Late March and early April are farm-prep time here in the Berkshires, time to gear up for the growing season. But while many farms were oiling and gassing up tractors, Mr. Ciotola was setting out to prepare a pasture using a tool so old it seems almost revolutionary: a team of oxen.

Standing just inside the paddock at Moon in the Pond Farm, where he works, he put a rope around Lucas and Larson, his pair of Brown Swiss steer. He led them to the 20-pound maple yoke he had bought secondhand from another ox farmer, hoisted it over their necks and led them trundling through the fence so they could begin hauling fallen logs.

Mr. Ciotola, 32, is one of a number of small farmers who are turning — or rather returning — to animal labor to help with farming. Before the humble ox was relegated to the role of historical re-enactor, driven by men in period garb for child-friendly festivals like pioneer days, it was a central beast of burden. After the Civil War, many farms switched from oxen to horses. Although Amish and Mennonite communities continue to use horses, by World War II most draft animals had been supplanted by machines that allowed for ever-faster production on bigger fields.

Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century’s advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.

“Ox don’t need spare parts, and they don’t run on fossil fuels,” Mr. Ciotola said.

Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.

“A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road,” Mr. Ciotola noted.

In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer.

David Fisher, whose Natural Roots Community Supported Agriculture program in Conway, Mass., sells vegetables grown exclusively with horsepower, said he is getting record numbers of applicants for his apprentice program. “There’s an incredible hunger for this kind of education,” he said.

Mr. Fisher discovered farming with horses more than a decade ago as an intern on a farm in Blue Hill, Me. It stuck.

“Using animals is just really appealing to the senses,” he said, adding that he found it philosophically appealing as well. “There’s a deep environmental crisis right now, and live power is also about creating an alternative to petroleum. Grass is a solar powered resource — and you don’t need manufacturing plants or an engineering degree to make a horse go.”

Drew Conroy, a professor of applied animal science at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, who is known in draft-power circles as “the ox guru,” notes that horses and even mules are seeing a comeback. Each animal has its niche.

“Ox are cheap and easy to train but they’re essentially bovine, which is to say, smart but slow,” he said. Horses are faster, more spirited, trickier to train and more expensive to buy and to keep. Professor Conroy notes that mules are better suited to Southern weather. “In the heat, an ox will just stop,” he said.

Even their most ardent supporters concede that draft animals are likely to remain minor features of the rural landscape. For starters, they are cost effective only on small farms. They are also time intensive, performing well only when they can be worked every day, and becoming temperamental when neglected.

On Mr. Ciotola’s first day out with his oxen, he had to struggle with the fact that the long winter had left them rusty. At one point they pulled over and came to a full stop in the bushes. He walked in front of them and tapped them gently.

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Studies Say Natural Gas Has Its Own Environmental Problems

Even as natural gas production in the United States increases and Washington gives it a warm embrace as a crucial component of America’s energy future, two coming studies try to poke holes in the clean-and-green reputation of natural gas. They suggest that the rush to develop the nation’s vast, unconventional sources of natural gas is logistically impractical and likely to do more to heat up the planet than mining and burning coal.

The problem, the studies suggest, is that planet-warming methane, the chief component of natural gas, is escaping into the atmosphere in far larger quantities than previously thought, with as much as 7.9 percent of it puffing out from shale gas wells, intentionally vented or flared, or seeping from loose pipe fittings along gas distribution lines. This offsets natural gas’s most important advantage as an energy source: it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and releases lower carbon dioxide emissions.

“The old dogma of natural gas being better than coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions gets stated over and over without qualification,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University and the lead author of one of the studies. Mr. Howarth said his analysis, which looked specifically at methane leakage rates in unconventional shale gas development, was among the first of its kind and that much more research was needed.

“I don’t think this is the end of the story,” said Mr. Howarth, who is an opponent of growing gas development in western New York. “I think this is just the beginning of the story, and before governments and the industry push ahead on gas development, at the very least we ought to do a better job of making measurements.”

The findings, which will be published this week, are certain to stir debate. For much of the last decade, the natural gas industry has carefully cultivated a green reputation, often with the help of environmental groups who embrace the resource as a clean-burning “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future. The industry argues that it has vastly reduced the amount of fugitive methane with new technologies and upgraded pipe fittings and other equipment. Mark D. Whitley, a senior vice president of engineering and technology with Range Resources, a gas drilling company with operations in several regions of the country, said that the losses suggested by Mr. Howarth’s study were simply too high.

“These are huge numbers,” he said. “That the industry would let what amounts to trillions of cubic feet of gas get away from us doesn’t make any sense. That’s not the business that we’re in.”

Natural gas is already the principal source of heat in half of American households. Advocates like the former oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens have also long sought to promote it as a substitute for coal in electricity generation or gasoline in a new generation of natural gas cars. And the development of new ways to tap reserves of natural gas means production is likely to increase sharply.

Two weeks ago, President Obama included natural gas in his vision for America. Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said that the administration’s energy priorities were not about picking one energy source over another, but about diversifying the nation’s energy mix. “This process will continue to be based on the best science available to ensure our energy sources, including our nation’s natural gas reserves, are developed safely and responsibly,” Mr. Stevens said on Friday.

The ability to pull natural gas economically from previously inaccessible formations deep underground has made huge quantities of the resource available in wide areas of the country, from Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming and Colorado.

Such unconventional gas production accounts for roughly nearly a quarter of total production in the United States, according to the latest figures from the Energy Information Administration. That is expected to reach 45 percent by 2035.

But the cleanliness of natural gas is largely based on its lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned.. It emits roughly half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal and about 30 percent that of oil.

Less clear, largely because no one has bothered to look, are the emissions over its entire production life cycle — that is, from the moment a well is plumbed to the point at which the gas is used.

Methane leaks have long been a concern because while methane dissipates in the atmosphere more quickly than carbon dioxide, it is far more efficient at trapping heat. Recent evidence has suggested that the amount of leakage has been underestimated. A report in January by the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica, for example, noted that the Environmental Protection Agency had recently doubled its estimates for the amount of methane that is vented or lost from natural gas distribution lines.

Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, a coalition of independent oil and natural gas producers, dismissed Mr. Howarth as an advocate who is opposed to hydraulic-fracturing or “fracking,” a practice associated with unconventional gas development involving the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up shale formations and release gas deposits. Mr. Howarth said his credentials as a scientist spoke for themselves.

Mr. Howarth included methane losses associated with flow-back and drill-out processes in hydraulic fracturing and other unconventional gas drilling techniques.

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