Down on the farm

20040612-CRW_0583.jpg An Italian olive grove and vineyard is on its way to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral farm (they claim). According to the BBC, the Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio estate in Umbria is converting to electric vehicles (and biofuelled mini-tractors) and has installed a “solar filling station” designed by Austrian company Cellstrom, based on an array of solar panels feeding a “flow battery” – a new battery technology that allows greatly increased energy storage.

Depending on the amount of usage, the battery centre can store solar-sourced electricity for up to three days. They are working to extend that to 10 days and more, enabling the farm to continue operating through foggy days when the sun does not shine. It means that golf carts and electric bikes will become the key means of transport for farm workers and that they can all charge up at the battery centre.

Cellstrom estimates the farm can save 4,500 litres of petrol every year and reduce CO2 emissions by 10 tons.

According to Lorenzo Fasola Bologna, Monte Vibiano’s chief executive, it will take about five years to recoup the initial investment.

Flow batteries store negative and positive electrolyte solutions (based on vanadium salts) in tanks, and pump them through a reaction cell to charge and discharge. Energy storage is therefore linked to storage tank size, not the number of cells in the system. This makes them ideal as backup storage for wind and solar energy generation, making the energy available even when the sun’s not shining or the wind’s not blowing. New Scientist has a good backgrounder here (behind a paywall, sadly), and there’s also information on the Cellstrom site. Another company in the field is VRB Power Systems of Canada, who have been working with Australian-developed technology.

Back in Umbria, the Italians are covering all their carbon-neutral bases by planting 10,000 trees to mop up any excess emissions.

By the end of next year they hope to be the first farm, anywhere, to reduce their inherent net carbon footprint to zero – ie without using off-site offsetting projects. “It will be great,” says Lorenzo, “to pass on this great, green enterprise to my children and their children.”

Chez Hot Topic we have a vineyard and an olive grove, and I’m already planting trees to offset at least some of our emissions. I wonder if there’s a flow battery in an off-grid future down on our farm?

[Title reference]

Pleasant (Silicon) Valley Sunday

flodesign.jpg I sometimes describe my self as a techno-optimist, something of an ecogeek. I like the idea that there are technologies which can help us to deal with climate change – new and interesting stuff that can make decarbonising the global economy a reality. To illustrate what I mean, there’s an excellent (and long) article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times, discussing the activities of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the powerful venture capital firm with substantial “greentech” interests. Gertner was given an inside look at some of the more visible of KPCB’s investments (FloDesign – that’s their wind turbine above, Ausra, & Bloom Energy amongst others), but I found the following section particularly interesting. Gertner interviews Al Gore, and discover’s he’s become more optimistic about our ability to deal with climate change:

“My previous optimism involved an act of will that occasionally was hard to reconcile with the worsening reality,” he told me. His optimism had recently grown considerably, partly because of the prospect of new policies on carbon emissions, and partly because of innovations he’d seen at Kleiner. Some of these were green-tech companies, Gore said, that were in “deep, deep stealth”; they were known to no one except for a few V.C.’s and the entrepreneurs themselves. I heard a similar point elsewhere. John Doerr’s speech last spring at M.I.T., for instance, was notably more upbeat than the emotional one he gave at the 2007 technology conference, where he said, “I don’t think we’re going to make it.” I recently asked Doerr how he felt now. “I’m more optimistic about the innovation that will occur,” he replied. “I’m more humbled by the scale of what has to be done. Or more sober. And I’m particularly concerned about the speed.” The green-energy technologies Kleiner was investing in, Doerr continued, “won’t impact the problem at scale in the next five years, just because they have long development times associated with them. In the 5-to-15-year period of time, I think they’ll demonstrate, and clearly point the path to, lower costs than we would have otherwise imagined possible.”

That has to be good news. Technology is not the only answer to the problem, as Lomborg might insist, but it is a key part of the response we have to make. There’s a race on – climate change against human ingenuity. We’re smart enough to win, but we’re greedy enough to make the job difficult. And we need to be lucky…

[Title reference]

Getz it on (bang a gong )

getz(notstan).jpg Hyundai has announced that it will be the first manufacturer to sell an electric car in New Zealand – a Getz modified in NZ by engineer Ross Blades. The petrol engine will be removed and replaced by an electric drive unit and battery pack. Range will be 120 km, with a quick recharge able to boost that to 200 km. Top speed is 120 kph. The first production unit has been sold and will be delivered in November, and Hyundai is planning to produce 200 cars per year. No news on price yet. [Hat tip: frog]

The range is more than enough for most of my needs, but I’d still rather have a Tesla.

[Title reference]

Hit somebody! (The hockey song)

0901hockeythumb.png Expect a renewed interest in the shape of hockey sticks, as a new paper in the Proceedings of National Academy Of Sciences (PNAS) by Michael Mann (et al) finds that the last decade was the warmest for at least 1,300 years. The BBC headlines the story “Climate “hockey stick” is revived”, which rather stretches the facts about the controversy (nicely covered in the piece). More coverage at Mongabay, which notes:

The results confirm that temperatures today in the Northern Hemisphere are higher than those of the Medieval warm period, a time when the Vikings colonized Greenland are are believed to have become the first Europeans to visit North America.

Sounds like a red rag to sceptic bulls to me. Expect much nit-picking and fulmination. The rest of us will get on with trying to sort out the problem.

Mann et al. (2008). Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. PNAS September 9, 2008 vol. 105 no. 36 (PDF available here)

Celia of the seals

sealhat.jpg It appears that my wish is someone’s command. Last month, blogging on the continuing break-up of the Wilkins ice shelf, I noted a reference to “seal hats” as data gathering devices and expressed a wish to see them. And here they are! Little devices glued to the heads of elephant seals that gather data as the seals as they go about their daily business. A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science explains:

Here, we show that southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) equipped with oceanographic sensors can measure ocean structure and water mass changes in regions and seasons rarely observed with traditional oceanographic platforms. In particular, seals provided a 30-fold increase in hydrographic profiles from the sea-ice zone, allowing the major fronts to be mapped south of 60°S and sea-ice formation rates to be inferred from changes in upper ocean salinity. […] By measuring the high-latitude ocean during winter, elephant seals fill a ‘‘blind spot’’ in our sampling coverage, enabling the establishment of a truly global ocean-observing system.

Abstract here, full paper here[PDF]. More coverage at New Scientist, e! Science News.