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Green power in Asia- Part 2

By Dave Elliott

In my last post I looked at developments in China and India, where renewables have been playing key and increasing roles, with China clearly in the lead. By contrast, until recently, in Japan renewables had been given a low priority, but following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, Japan is now pushing ahead with some ambitious offshore wind projects,1.45GW in all, using floating wind turbines, and a large solar PV programme, helped by lucrative Feed In Tariff subsidies . Continue reading

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EGU 2015: were Dylan and the Beatles obsessed by the weather?

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

Bob Dylan is the pop artist most preoccupied by the weather, with one-quarter of his songs mentioning the phenomenon. That’s according to Karen Aplin from the University of Oxford, UK, who will report her findings at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna on Friday.

Weather pop runners-up were the Beatles, whose “Here comes the Sun” in April 1969 was linked to the sunniest April for many years. Aplin and UK colleagues carried out the study as a follow-up to her analysis of weather and classical music with Paul Williams from the University of Reading, UK.

A grand total of more than 900 pop singers and songwriters have issued weather-related songs. Meanwhile 30 artists have weather-related names, with sun and warmth the most popular theme (KC and the Sunshine Band, Empire of the Sun…) although cold also gets a mention via the Arctic Monkeys, Vanilla Ice and Coldplay, to name just a few.

One third of the weather references in pop were to sun and rain, often to illustrate emotions. Aplin says that this depiction is more sophisticated than that of classical orchestral music, which tends to mimic weather – frequently storms and wind – through the sounds of the music.

Whilst pop music generally alludes to specific weather events, classical composers are regularly influenced by the general climate of their home country, the researchers found.

The pop research, in which scientists from Newcastle University, the University of Southampton and the University of Manchester also participated, will appear, appropriately enough, in Weather in May.

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EGU 2015: reflecting on GPS data reveals more information

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

As well as helping millions of smartphone owners and car drivers find their way around unfamiliar territory, GPS data have become vital to environmental and Earth scientists. That includes those, like Kristine Larson of the University of Colorado, Boulder, US, who monitor small ground movements in areas prone to earthquakes. (Larson, incidentally, was also the first to show that GPS can measure seismic waves during large earthquakes.)

Around 8 years ago, Larson realised that there was more to GPS data than reached the eye, or rather than reached the antenna directly. The GPS antennas installed in field sites around the world could, as well as detecting beams straight from the satellite, also gain data from signals that bounce off the ground and reach the detector fractionally later. These reflected signals reveal information about the Earth’s surface, such as snow height, vegetation water content, moisture in the top 5 cm of soil, or sea level.

The system works like an interferometer, Larson explained at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna. Since the reflected signals take longer to reach the antenna, they’re out of phase with the beams that get there directly, which sets up an interference pattern. And because the satellites sending out the signals are moving, the interference pattern changes continually. Unsurprisingly enough, the technique is called GPS Interferometric Reflectometry. In a nutshell, the amplitude, phase and frequency of the reflected signals provide plenty of information about the ground that’s bouncing them back. Sea-level rise or the addition of snow changes the height at which the reflection takes place, altering the distance the beam travels. If there’s wet vegetation on the ground, it attenuates the signal, whilst beams will penetrate moist soil further.

The resulting measurements, which can cover roughly 1000 square metres of ground around the antenna, are valuable for climate scientists, weather forecasters, water managers, and engineers that validate satellites (SMOS). Since most GPS networks were installed with taxpayers’ money, they provide data without charge; Larson says that “essentially you have a measurement network for free”.

Larson’s pilot in the western US is using data mainly from the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory – you can see daily results for around 500 sites at http://xenon.colorado.edu/portal. The technique is applicable to any GPS network; Larson now plans to use it for monitoring worldwide.

  • The EGU has awarded Larson this year’s EGU Huygens medal in recognition of her work.
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EGU 2015: will fishermen wade in to help hydrologists?

Rolf Hut models his temperature-sensing waders in the EGU poster halls.

Rolf Hut models his temperature-sensing waders in the EGU poster halls.

by Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna

Many fly fishing enthusiasts will happily spend a couple of hundred dollars on a long-handled sensor to help them measure a river’s temperature and water depth and find the best spots to fish. But Rolf Hut of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reckoned he could do better than this. How? By modifying a piece of kit the fisherpeople already own – waders. Hut attached a simple thermocouple to the boot of a pair of waders (it’s just about visible in the photo as the thin blue wire to the right of his left foot) along with a water height sensor; the associated electronics can transmit data to a mobile phone app, potentially passing on information to hydrologists, as well as fishermen and women.

Hut reported on his proof-of-concept sensor-waders in the “Innovative techniques and unintended use of measurement equipment” session at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna.

At the time of environmentalresearchweb’s visit to the poster hall, the temperature near Hut’s boot was 23.1°C, although he said that the inside of his boot was much hotter.

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EGU 2015: Twitter reveals flood extent

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

To many people, Twitter is vital for keeping up with the news, topical opinion and cat videos. But it could also help save your life. Scientists from the Netherlands have used tweets to map the extent and depth of floodwaters, an approach that could help emergency services plan their rescue operations.

As Dirk Eilander from Deltares explained in a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, he and his team analysed tweets sent during flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, in February of this year. At the height of the floods, residents sent nearly 900 tweets a minute; many of these messages were extremely detailed, including photos, locations and water depths.

To create the maps, Eilander and colleagues mined tweets that contained the phrase “banjir”, which means flood, removed spam and retweets, and used the location and estimated water depth data in the remaining tweets. A cross-check with a digital elevation map ensured the map made sense; the team removed outliers where flood depth did not tally with the surrounding tweets and terrain.

Photos from the ground showed that the Twitter method correctly modelled flooding in 76% of districts and for 68% of photo points.

The technique can map floods in almost real-time and would work in any area with enough Twitter activity to provide the data.

As well as helping emergency services during floods, the method could also be useful after the event to calibrate hydrodynamic flood models, investigate flood prevention, and provide information to insurance companies.

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EGU 2015: Spinning straw into (biofuel) gold

by Liz Kalaugher from the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, Vienna

Alexander Jäger of the University of Applied Science Upper Austria, also speaking in the Energy and Policy session at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna this morning, detailed how some of the 800 million tonnes of straw produced worldwide each year could be used as biofuels. Currently, around two-thirds of this amount isn’t used; converting it into biofuels could cut carbon dioxide emissions from burning diesel and gasoline by 70%.

Of course, biofuels have been controversial because of their use of food crops such as corn and sugar beet. As part of Austria’s “Straw-Ethanol” project, Jäger also polled public opinion. Most respondents, from Upper Austria, were aware of both first generation (food-crop) biofuels and second generation (woody and plant waste) biofuels. Public acceptance of second-generation biofuels like straw was much higher than acceptance of first-generation biofuels.

Jäger reckons that it’s economically feasible to produce biofuel from straw and it would cost 0.6-0.7 Euros per litre. There’s a snag, however. Replacing all the world’s current gasoline and diesel use with straw biofuel would need around 600 million hectares of farmland, a big chunk of current agricultural land. And removing straw that’s normally left to rot on the ground could have detrimental effects on soil.

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EGU 2015: Desert energy – two birds from one stone

by Liz Kalaugher, Vienna

The world’s deserts are in many ways ideal for solar power; the sunshine is generally plentiful. But there’s at least one snag – dust. Installing mirrors for concentrating solar power or photovoltaic panels disturbs the desert surface and increases dust generation. Coatings of dust on photovoltaic panels can reduce their efficiency by 10-40%. As a result, operators often wash mirrors and panels regularly. This consumes a lot of water, perhaps as much as the equivalent of 100 mm of rain a year, in areas where it’s in short supply. And it’s left to flow down into the sand.

Sujith Ravi of Temple University, US, detailed in the Energy and Policy session at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna this morning how this water could be more than enough to support the growth of desert plants like agave and aloe. And that agave could be turned into a biofuel, enabling the co-location of two types of renewable energy in one place. Since it’s a low-growing plant, the agave never shades out the panels – it even prefers to grow in the shade itself – and it’s a low-maintenance, high-yield crop that could even decrease the amount of dust formation in the first place.

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Green power in Asia- Part 1

By Dave Elliott

Renewable energy is expanding even faster in the east than in the west, and in this and the next post I’ve tried to review the state of play, and the prospects for the future, in some key countries (China, India, Japan, and Korea), looking at some near 100% by 2050 scenarios. I start with China and India, both of which have large renewable energy expansion programmes, though China’s is the largest . Continue reading

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Devolving power

By Dave Elliott

‘Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future’, a report on research by the EPSRC-funded Realising Transition Pathways Research Consortium of 9 UK universities, argues that up to 50% of electricity demand in the UK could be met by distributed and low carbon sources by 2050. The report assesses the technological feasibility of a move from the current traditional business models of the ‘Big Six’ energy providers to a model where greater ownership is met by devolved governments, municipalities, co-ops and communities. And it looks in details at what types of governance, ownership and control a distributed future would need. Continue reading

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Energy storage – new views, Part 2

By Dave Elliott

In addition to its large-scale grid balancing role, which I looked at in my last post, energy storage may also play a role at the consumer level, with batteries allowing solar PV-using ‘prosumers’ to provide their own backup. Some see this as a possible new type of distributed storage capacity and also, more radically, as further challenging the market power of the big utilities (much of the 75GW of wind and PV in Germany is now owned by local consumers and energy co-ops), even to the point when grid systems are redundant. This may be overstated, but some more movement in that direction may be occurring in Germany and the US as batteries get cheaper.   Continue reading

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