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- Queensland plan to dump dredge spoil onshore ‘will not harm wetlands’
- Reserving gas for domestic users would hurt the renewable energy industry
- Canada switches on world’s first carbon capture power plant
- India will be renewables superpower, says energy minister
- Can Narendra Modi bring the solar power revolution to India?
- Despite the UN climate summit, fossil fuel firms are still in for the long term | Fiona Harvey
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Boost to carbon capture and storage technology as global partnership is formed to support energy efficiency projects
The UK will provide £60m to developing countries to build carbon capture and storage (CCS) plants under an agreement reached among energy ministers from 23 countries at a meeting in London on Thursday.
The money will go towards demonstrating the crucial but fledgling technology, which involves burying carbon emissions from fossil fuel power stations, but has yet to be used at a large power station.
The ministers also formed a partnership to foster collaboration between the public and private sectors in 16 of the world’s biggest emitting countries. It will work on improving the efficiency of electrical appliances, such as air conditioning and lighting.
But the meeting stopped well short of attempting to set a common standard for appliance efficiency among the participating countries. A US official said countries needed to set their own standards based on their national circumstances. “It is more effective to do this locally, and if we went for an international standard that would mean lengthy delays, and we need to take action urgently,” he said.
Participants hailed the meeting as a success, but green campaigners said they had hoped for more.
Steven Chu, US energy secretary, said: “Our energy challenges won’t wait, and neither can we. By working together we can seize the clean energy opportunity, saving money for consumers, promoting sustainable economic growth and protecting the planet for future generations.”
Thursday’s meeting was the third in a series initiated by the US. As a result of the collaboration among the high-emitting countries, India has become the first country to adopt comprehensive standards for LED lighting, while several European countries have joined forces to create online tools for renewable energy developers.
The discussions on CCS also showed significant progress, Joan McNaughton of the World Energy Council said. “It’s very important that countries work closely with the private sector. The private sector must deliver this technology, but can’t do so without support from governments creating the right frameworks.”
But there was little sign of the wholesale changes to energy policy urged by the International Energy Agency, which opened the conference on Wednesday with a stark warning that current energy policies were “unacceptable” and would lead us to a catastrophic 6 degrees of warming. The IEA has called for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and making coal-fired powerplants more efficient, but its research shows this is not happening.
Separate research from Bloomberg New Energy Finance showed that cutting emissions faster to prevent climate change would be cost-effective for many developed countries. The company’s latest data shows that raising the EU’s target for CO2 reduction from 20% to 30% by 2020 would result in an additional cost of €3.5bn on average per year for the EU. That would be the equivalent of 0.03-0.04% of EU GDP, or €7 to €9 per inhabitant per year.
“The cost would be no more than the equivalent of a few cups of coffee per person per year,” the researchers said.
First comprehensive investigation says potentially disastrous flaws in way government trying to revive commercial interest
Serious doubts have been raised over the prospects for carbon capture and storage in the UK in the first comprehensive investigation into the technology, just two weeks after the government launched a £1bn competition to build the first demonstration CCS plant.
The finding by the government-funded UK Energy Research Council endangers many of the government’s assumptions on tackling climate change, because ministers’ long-term plans rely heavily on making the untried technique work on a massive scale. CCS is designed to lower the carbon emissions of fossil fuel power stations.
The design of the new competition is flawed, and the UK is already falling far behind other countries such as the US in its attempts to commercialise the expensive technique, according to the lead author of the study, which took two years to compile. The technique has never been demonstrated at scale on a working power station.
Jim Watson, lead author of the report, said: “People assumed that CCS would be straightforward, but it has not been. It is a particularly challenging technology – it’s actually very, very difficult.”
The question of the future of CCS is a crucial one because all of the government’s assumptions about how the UK can meet its long term target of cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 require a massive use of CCS technology. If it cannot be made to work commercially, and at a reasonable cost, then the UK would have to spend much more on renewable energy, nuclear power and other economic transformations, and would face having to make enormous cuts in areas such as emissions from air travel.
Watson said he would give the UK “a low grade” for its efforts so far on CCS, and pointed to potentially disastrous flaws in the way the government is attempting to revive commercial interest in the technology. These rest on the long-term support for the technology, which when added to fossil fuel power stations will make them far more expensive to run.
But the government wants companies to come up with proposals for building such plants within the coming weeks and months, while there is little chance of ministers outlining their long term funding ideas – which form part of the government’s sweeping plans for electricity market reform – until next year at the earliest. This puts companies in a quandary, as they cannot put together adequate business plans without sight of ministers’ long term funding proposals.
Long delays have already plagued attempts to get CCS off the ground in the UK. The Treasury’s initial plan for companies and consortiums to compete for a £1bn funding pot for a first demonstration plant was set out more than five years ago – but late last year it collapsed when the final potential entrant withdrew. On 3 April, ministers unveiled a new competition.
“The relaunch said all the right things about what to do, but there is a big question over the finance package,” explained Watson. Offering to pay for some of the upfront costs of building such a plant – likely to cost well over £1bn – is not sufficient to attract companies, which will face the high costs of running such a plant for more than 20 years.
“When I talked to utilities, they were very sceptical – they need to make investment decisions, but all the pieces are not there,” said Watson. “I’ve been very surprised also about how little detail there has been from the government on electricity market reform. If I were a developer, I would like more information.”
Greenpeace report named Apple among worst offenders for using highly polluting coal to power their data centres
Apple disclosed sensitive information about energy demand at the data centre housing its iCloud service for the first time on Tuesday, defending its green credentials in the face of a campaign by Greenpeace.
In a report rating 14 companies leading the migration from local computers to cloud computing, Greenpeace gave failing grades to Apple, Amazon and Microsoft for their reliance on highly polluting coal to power their data centres.
But Apple said its new iCloud data centre would be the greenest ever built, and that Greenpeace had wildly over-estimated its energy demand. The new facility would use just one-fifth of the electricity estimated by Greenpeace, the company said. It would eventually draw 60% of its on-site power from renewable sources.
“Our data centre in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity,” an Apple spokeswoman said. “We believe this industry-leading project will make Maiden the greenest data centre ever built.”
Greenpeace has been engaged in a campaign to draw attention to tech companies that rely on dirty energy to power their cloud. In addition to the tech giants, it called out Twitter for expanding its data operations from Sacramento, which uses renewable energy, to coal-heavy Atlanta. Meanwhile, the campaign group gave bonus points to Yahoo and Google for pursuing renewable sources of energy for their data centres, and for pressing government on clean-energy policy.
Data centres account for a growing share of the carbon pollution associated with the IT industry. With the move to the cloud, IT companies are spending $450bn (£282bn) a year on new space for data centres. Electricity demand from data centres is expected to grow by 19% in 2012, the report said, quoting industry leaders.
Many of those computer farms – like Apple’s data centre in Maiden, North Carolina – are being powered by coal and nuclear energy. North Carolina gets roughly half of its energy from coal and the other half from nuclear power, a spokesman for the state’s main energy company, Duke Energy, said.
“The Apple cloud is heavily powered by dirty energy, particularly coal and coal that is coming from mountain-top removal in Appalachia,” said Gary Cook, who wrote the report, How Clean Is Your Cloud. “It is certainly not what you would expect from a company like Apple that challenged us to think differently. Here they bought into energy that is old industry and technology.”
The data centre in Maiden occupies 500,000 sq ft. Apple spent $1bn on the facility, and reportedly plans to spend billions more in 2012.
Cook was sceptical of Apple’s figures for energy demand. “I do feel that’s a bit of a lowball number. That would be a very empty building they are putting there in terms of power demand if it’s only 20MW. That seems disproportionally small,” he said.
Apple is also building a solar farm and a fuel cell installation for the data centre, and plans to get 60% of its on-site power from renewable sources.
Microsoft would not comment on the report.
Amazon said the report was based on inaccurate assumptions and data. “Amazon web services (AWS) believes that cloud computing is inherently more environmentally friendly than traditional computing. Instead of each company having their own data centre that serves just them, AWS makes it possible for hundreds of thousands of companies to consolidate their data centre use into a handful of data centres,” spokesman Andrew Hardener said. “The cloud enables a combined smaller carbon footprint that significantly reduces overall consumption.”
However, Twitter said it was looking into the findings. “The Greenpeace report raises important considerations around energy efficiency. We continue to strive for greater energy efficiency as we build out our infrastructure, and we look forward to sharing more on our efforts in this space in the coming months,” said spokeswoman Carolyn Penner.
The report argues that for all their focus on innovation, tech companies are profoundly conventional when it comes to making decisions about energy needs. “Most IT companies are currently choosing to buy their electricity off the rack, at the lowest possible price, with the focus on its quantity, not its quality,” it said.
That’s been good for small towns like Maiden, which has sold itself to tech companies as a “data centre corridor” by offering cheap electricity. Tech companies are also notoriously unwilling to disclose information about their electricity use, on the grounds that it could be used by business rivals, Greenpeace said.
Andrea Moffat of the Ceres green investment network argues that this may become unsustainable. Corporate clients of the data farms, such as insurance companies, increasingly are bowing to shareholders’ demands to reveal their own carbon footprint. That is bound to have a knock-on effect on the tech companies, she said.
Some companies are already moving to clean up their cloud, as Greenpeace notes in the report. Google set up its own energy division to source cleaner electricity sources, and entered into 20-year contracts to buy wind power from Iowa and Oklahoma. Facebook, which was targeted last year by the Greenpeace Unfriend Coal campaign, is building a new data centre in Sweden, its largest yet, to be powered by hydroelectricity.
Moffat called for tech companies with large data centres to set renewable-energy targets. She also called on them to lobby governments to extend tax credits for wind and solar producers.
Some companies have begun to take similar steps, such as eBay, which is not mentioned in the report. The online marketplace built its first data centre in Utah. It lobbied hard for legislation, passed last month, which for the first time enabled customers to purchase renewable power. The state otherwise gets virtually all of its electricity from coal.
“They have a lot of power in the policy field that we are not seeing them using,” Moffat said.