Biofuels: could agave, hemp and saltbush be the fuels of the future?

From The Guardian, May 10, 2017 (Image: Sergio Niebla via Flickr)

Biofuels have long been touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, doing for the world’s planes, ships and automobiles what windfarms and solar panels are doing for its electricity grids. With the transport sector accounting for almost one fifth of Australia’s total carbon emissions, green biofuels could be an important ingredient of the zero emissions future envisioned by the Paris climate agreement.

On paper, biofuels seem the ideal replacement for fossil fuels, which drive global warming by spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that would otherwise be locked away in geological deposits. With biofuels, the plants and algae used to produce the raw material inhale carbon as they grow, offsetting the carbon released when they are burned.

But the past decade has seen the biofuel industry face tough economic conditions and niggling questions over its green credentials. The fledgling industry is now turning to a raft of innovative crop and processing technologies to overcome its challenges. Read more…

Cool roofs: beating the midday sun with a slap of white paint

From the Guardian, April 14, 2017 (Image: Alberto d’Argenio via Flickr)

There’s no shortage of measures that homeowners and businesses can take to lessen their environmental footprint – from better insulation and double glazing, to easing up on air-con usage and swapping in LED lights.

One part of the house that seems to be attracting more than its fair share of attention is the roof. Replacing a standard roof with a lovingly cultivated green roof of plants or adorning it with increasingly trendy solar panels can do wonders for reducing a building’s carbon footprint. Read more…

Salt, silicon or graphite: energy storage goes beyond lithium ion batteries

From The Guardian, April 6, 2017 (Image: Solar thermal plant in Spain, Beyond Zero Emissions via Flickr)

Between the political bickering following a spate of blackouts in South Australia and the billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeting that he had a fix, and then the South Australian government announcing that it will build a grid-connected battery storage facility, interest in renewable energy storage has never been higher.

While lithium ion batteries sold by Tesla and others are perhaps the most widely known storage technology, several other energy storage options are either already on the market, or are fast making their way there.

All are hoping to claim a slice of what, by all indications, will be a very large pie. Read more…

A deep dive into the genomes of penicillin fungi reveals a trove of potential drugs

From Cosmos Magazine, April 4, 2017 (Image: AJC1 via Flickr)

Penicillium AJC1

A treasure trove of medicinal compounds could still be lurking within the fungi that revolutionised modern medicine through the use of antibiotics, according to a new study published in Nature Microbiology.

Penicillin, derived from the Penicillium fungi, became the first mass-produced antibiotic in the 1940s. Antibiotics have since saved millions of lives, but their efficacy against bacterial infections is waning, due to rampant overuse leading to potentially catastrophic antimicrobial resistance. Some estimates predict 10 million human fatalities a year by 2050 due to antibiotic ineffectiveness.

Yet the answer to this nightmare scenario may well lie in re-mining the veins of the Penicillium fungi, which bio-prospectors hunting for the next pharmaceutical blockbuster have to date largely overlooked despite it also being the source of other useful drugs including cholesterol-lowering statins. Read more…

 

How an Indigenous renewable energy alliance aims to cut power costs and disadvantage

From the Guardian, March 17, 2017 (Image: Rusty Stewart via Flickr)

Like so many of the Indigenous communities dotted across the Australian continent, the remote communities in north-west New South Wales are struggling. “These are not happy places,” says the Euahlayi elder Ghillar Michael Anderson.

Many of the 300 or so residents of Anderson’s hometown of Goodooga rely on welfare, he says. Exorbitant electricity bills – up to $3,000 a quarter for some households – further exacerbate the poverty. “We’re always at the end of the power line, so the service that is there is quite extraordinary in terms of cost.”

Many other communities rely on expensive, emissions-intensive diesel-powered generators to meet their electricity demands. “It’s a real problem and we need to make sure that we fix this,” Anderson says.

To that end, Anderson and 24 other Indigenous leaders have formed the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance, which aims to tackle high power costs and entrenched disadvantage – along with climate change – by pushing for renewable energy in Indigenous communities. Read more…

While governments dither, companies step up with environmental targets

From The Guardian, March 10, 2017 (Image: reynermedia via Flickr)

Each year, Investa Office Management releases its corporate sustainability report. In 2016, it announced that electricity use was down by 43% since 2004, gas use had fallen 38% over the same time, and water use had also being curtailed.

This sounds impressive but how meaningful are those proclamations? And what difference do they make in the wider context? Now an international movement is urging businesses to take an evidence-based approach to their green strategies, by setting emissions reduction goals in line with climate science. The goal is to encourage the business sector to close the emissions gap left by shortfalls in country-level commitments to the Paris climate agreement. Read more…

Energy positive: how Denmark’s Samsø island switched to zero carbon

From The Guardian, February 24, 2017 (Image: Marcelo Medeiros via Flickr)

Anyone doubting the potential of renewable energy need look no further than the Danish island of Samsø. The 4,000-inhabitant island nestled in the Kattegat Sea has been energy-positive for the past decade, producing more energy from wind and biomass than it consumes.

Samsø’s transformation from a carbon-dependent importer of oil and coal-fuelled electricity to a paragon of renewables started in 1998. That year, the island won a competition sponsored by the Danish ministry of environment and energy that was looking for a showcase community – one that could prove the country’s freshly announced Kyoto target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 21% was, in fact, achievable.

The contest didn’t bring with it funds to bankroll the energy transition. But it did pay for the salary of one person tasked with making the island’s 10-year renewables master plan a reality.

That person was Søren Hermansen, a Samsø native vegetable farmer–turned–environmental teacher. Hermansen has wielded his pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude to great effect over the past two decades, turning his own rural community into a green powerhouse, and evangelising to communities around the world that they, too, can make the transition. Read more…