The Moment of Truth

Very soon we will find out the truth. No, I’m not talking about whether John Snow comes back in season 6 of Games of Thrones or not. I’m thinking about the Paris Agreement and if it will become reality any time soon.

If you’ve not been living under a rock the last year, I don’t have to remind you the historical day of December 12th 2015. For the first time in human history, all 195 countries in the Conference of Parties (COP) adopted a globally binding climate agreement.

In the months after, I’ve heard a cacophony of opinions on the agreement. One calls the Paris climate conference one large play with a very disappointment conclusion, the other a big victory for mankind. I invite you to (re-) read my reflections on COP21 –I didn’t change my mind in the meantime.

That being said, you might be wondering if the agreement has died a silent death. Not at all. But before the Paris Agreement can kick into action, we have to get trough a whole procedure of signing and ratifying. Bear with me.



5 years after Fukushima: is nuclear dead?

photo: Energy Council

Since the nuclear accident in the Japanese Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011, nuclear power popularity has dropped around the world. In Germany, the public reaction lead to an hastened nuclear phase out.  China and India slowed down their nuclear roll-out, Switzerland suspended the licensing for three new plants. Japan itself deferred all its plants until the structure of regulations for nuclear power plants was reviewed by a government’s commission. Is nuclear power dead? And should we regret that? Read on to find out.



Students help Elon Musk’s dream become reality

If he wasn’t already, Elon Musk is rapidly becoming the rock star of all technology addicts. You might think that spending tons of his personal fortune to found electrical car company Tesla and aerospace company SpaceX would be enough, but Musk wouldn’t be Musk if he wasn’t always working on something new and exciting.

Back in 2013 he published a 57-page long white paper with the proposal of Hyperloop Alpha, a futuristic transport system that should bring people in no time from LA to San Fransisco at a speed of 700 miles per hour (more than 1100 km/h). He later admitted that it was the terrible LA traffic that brought him to think about a revolutionary new way of transportation.

The white-paper was not a business proposal, Musk rather threw the idea in the tech community in the hope someone would start doing something with it. Despite the fact that many people were quite skeptical about the idea, two start-ups have started to work on their own version of the Hyperloop.

Short of figuring out real teleportation, which would of course be awesome (someone please do this), the only option for super fast travel is to build a tube over or under the ground that contains a special environment. — Elon Musk

This is more or less the idea. The Hyperloop is a new high-speed ground transport system that consists of a tube on (earthquake resistant) pylons that connects two major cities. A pod is racing at a speed of more than 700 miles per hour through the tube, reducing the duration of a trip from for example LA to San Fransisco to just 30 minutes. In order to reach such high speeds, the tube would be at under-pressure to reduce friction with the air. The pod would be floating on an air cushion and be accelerated by magnetic induction. The whole system is supposed to be driven by solar panels on the top of the tube. Pretty neat, huh?

With a price tag of 6 billion dollars, the system would be cheaper than the high speed train that is currently being built on the track Musk had in mind in his original proposal.

Elon Musk's original Hyperloop Alpha proposal in 2013

Elon Musk’s original Hyperloop Alpha proposal in 2013 (photo: Elon Musk)

The whole idea remained a bit under the radar of the larger public, until SpaceX announced a Hyperloop pod design competition for students last summer. The reaction was huge. Within one week, no less than 700 entries were submitted and this number grew to 1 751 by the time the registration closed the 15th of September.

A few weeks ago, 123 selected teams got the chance to present their designs at Texas A&M University. The stakes were high: the best implementations won a test ride of their pod on the (still under-construction) test track near the SpaceX’s headquarters. MIT ran away with the first price, a team from TU Delft in the Netherlands were next runner-up. In total twenty-two teams are awarded a test trip next summer to try-out their design.

With this competition the Hyperloop comes a bit closer to reality. “The public wants something new,” Musk told the participants at the end of the competition. “And you’re going to give it to them.”

Will we be travelling in from Amsterdam to Paris in no time soon? Well, probably not. The competition is in the first place an opportunity for engineering students to show off what they got and stimulate the discussion on future transportation. Musk didn’t promise to invest in one of the ideas, although he hinted that it was not unlikely to happen in the future. “There are a lot of crazy ideas out there, but when ideas are associated with someone like Elon Musk it feels like, OK, this is something,” told Anshuman Kumar, leader of the Hyperloop team at Carnegie Mellon University to Bloomberg. So who knows… Elon Musk never stops surprising us. And this time he has the next generation of engineers on board!


The ABC of climate change: Brundtland report

The Brundtland report is probably the most famous document regarding sustainable development. The report, officially titled “Our Common Future”, was published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) under the lead of former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The 300-pages long report coined and defined the term sustainable development for the first time as a broad economical and ecological concept. Although it had been used before with regard to sustainable forestry and fisheries, it was not until the release of this document that economic and ecological policies were linked in an integrated framework.

By now, the document’s definition has become famous, quoted in countless studies, reports and policy documents around the world. Chances are high you have come across it yourself already.

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Personally I don’t think it’s the best definition to quote from the report, but it might have to do with the fact that it is the very first sentence of the chapter that introduces the concept of sustainable development. Less abstract is article 15 of that same chapter 2:

In essence, sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development; and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

The famous Brundtland report was published in 1987 and meant a turning point in global ecological policy-making

The famous Brundtland report was published in 1987 and meant a turning point in global ecological policy-making

By using the first definition, all too often the focus shifts to the now-future relation; we have to live and consume now such that the future generations are not compromised. It is essential though that the document also stresses that sustainability demands equity among all within one generation.

A world in which poverty and inequity are endemic will always be prone to ecological and other crises.

This is strikingly similar to what Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical Laudate Si last year. Ecological crises can simply not be seen decoupled from social and humanitarian wrongs. Everything is interconnected.

The Brundtland report laid the foundations for the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years later. It became an environmental conference of unseen scale, with more than hundred heads of state present.  The conference was a major step forward, with the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Agenda 21 and so on.

Since then, countries have been meeting yearly during climate conferences, also known as “COPs”, Conferences of the Parties. Soon those conferences turned into a diplomatic arena for developed versus developing countries. Finally, in December 2015 they reached an internationally binding agreement on how to tackle climate change.

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Morocco unleashes the force of the sun


In case you didn’t notice it yet: solar power is booming. Last week saw another milestone, with Morocco opening its Ouarzazate [wa-za-zat] concentrated solar power utility. Being the largest utility of its kind in the world, the town Ouarzazate — known from movies and TV shows like Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones— kicks off what could become a revolution in solar power. It’s the first step of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI’s dream to turn his country in a renewable energy hub.

In contrast with photovoltaic solar power technology, concentrated solar power (CSP) is less known. This is how it works. Big parabolic mirrors focus the sun’s rays onto tubes filled with a fluid that heats up and transports the heat towards a central hub where it creates steam to drive a turbine. That way the solar energy is used to generate electricity.

What is so particularly interesting about this technology is that it can be combined with temporary energy storage. During the day, part of the hot fluid is used to heat up molten salt stored in large tanks. Those stay warm hours after sunset to keep the turbine running during the evening. The technology is very promising for countries with a lot of sun hours — in fact so promising that the International Energy Agency estimates that by 2050 11% of world’s electricity will come from CSP.

The Ouazazate concentrated solar power plant is the first in Morocco's plan to build out its renewable energy supply (photo: Digitaltrends)

The Ouazazate concentrated solar power plant is the first in Morocco’s plan to build out its renewable energy supply (photo: Digitaltrends)

The first phase that opened last Thursday provides 160 MegaWatts of what will become a total 580MW by 2018 when the construction will be finished. The 35 soccer fields big plant powers 650 thousand people and avoids 240 thousand tons of CO2 emissions every year, the equivalent of 80 000 cars.

It is the proof that Morocco takes its climate pledge in Paris in December last year very seriously. By 2020 it aims to get 42% of its electricity generation from renewables, by 2030 it wants to have its CO2 emissions 32% below the business-as-usual scenario. And of course they want to make a good impression, being the host of this year’s climate summit.

The project has its price tag of course. Nearly 4 billion US dollar has been invested, half of which comes from German investment bank KfW, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank. Climate Investment Funds (CIF) calculated that for every 1 GigaWatt additional solar power installed, electricity production costs could fall by 3%. “Morocco is showing real leadership and bringing the cost of the technology down in the process.” told a manager of CIF to the Guardian. Keep up the good work Morocco!


Japan’s floating solar farms

Japan relied on nuclear energy to feed its energy hungry industry and population for many years. With 50 nuclear reactors, atomic energy provided 28% of its electricity needs. Everything changed after the Fukushima Dai-Ichi accident in the wake of the 2011 devastating earthquake and tsunami. After significant release of radioactive material in the environment and the evacuation of a zone around the power plant of 630 km², Japan’s government decided to take out all its other nuclear plants out of operation under huge public pressure.

Withdrawing one of their major energy sources meant they had to look for alternatives.  The country started to import fossil fuels on a massive scale. Nearly 90% of the electricity is now generated based on natural gas, oil and coal. Japan suddenly became the biggest importer of LNG (liquid natural gas) and second importer of coal, after China. The move undid all the greenhouse gas reduction efforts of the last decade. Recently some nuclear reactors have started up again, after safety upgrades imposed by the government. Due to the heavy public resistance, it is unlikely that Japan will turn back to nuclear power and its original emission reduction ambitions soon. Luckily, there is another option: renewables.

There is one big problem with Japan though: it is so small. Land is precious on the mountainous island, which doesn’t leave much room for large scale solar or wind projects.

Kyocera's floating solar farm will deliver electricity for around 5000 households (photo: Kyocera Corp.)

Kyocera’s floating solar farm will deliver electricity for around 5000 households (photo: Kyocera Corp.)

Electronics company Kyocera has come up with a good compromise: build floating solar farms on large water reservoirs. With 50 000 panels, their latest project on the Yamakura dam reservoir would be good for 13.7 MegaWatt  — enough to power nearly 5000 households. It’s not the first of its kind, but when finished it will be the biggest one in electricity production.

Water and electricity are not best friends, so the electrical equipment needs to be sealed carefully. On the other hand, a floating solar farm doesn’t need the heavy steel frames as on land.

cover photo by aotaro