Waste to Watts

Teesside Waste to Energy Power Station at Have...

Teesside Waste to Energy Power Station at Haverton Hill near Billingham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the UK there have been regular plans to build waste incinerators which have always failed because locals near where they were planned always made the same arguments “what if they burn something hazardous”  “the smell will be unbearable” and so on.  Often it seems to be just a case of “not in my back yard” a phrase that afflicts so many development plans in our country.  Though in the past many incinerators in this country haven’t had the best record for cleanliness.

Such plants were generally only for waste disposal but in northern mainland Europe they think differently about their waste.

As Gizmodo reports Norway’s capital, Oslo, has a waste problem – they don’t have enough.  Half of the city’s population is powered and warmed by rubbish.  In the area there are 400 waste-to-energy plants converting household waste, industrial scrap and even medical waste into power.  Northern Europe produces about 150 millions tonnes of burnable waste to feed plants that were built to take 700 million tonnes and now they’re looking to import waste from other countries – the UK for example exports about 1,000 tonnes annually.

The plants operate in a similar way to fossil fuel power stations: burning fuel to heat water into steam to drive turbines and they’re between 14 to 28 percent electrically efficient but they also use the waste gasses to heat water and then condense the fumes to produce biogas used in metro busses.  What remains is ash and some remaining gas, contaminants and toxins tend to be destroyed in the process.

The system clearly works yet were still cramming more and more waste into landfills.  Our local councils’ recycling schemes help with reducing the level of dumped waste but actually using the waste as a resource instead of something to be buried, out of sight, out of mind until the area is eventually redeveloped into a combined recreation area/ticking time bomb of methane-fuelled fury would be even better.  There are waste-to-energy plants in this country, such as the one pictured above, but really we need to get behind this concept on a wider scale.

But again we come up against the nimbys who want power plants to be out of sight, out of mind too, preferably large, fossil fuelled, pollution spewing and far, far away, in someone else’s back yard.  The thing is that many smaller plants, although costly in setup, could eventually reap benefits for us all – cheaper electricity, cheaper heating and less trash heaps.

We’re demanding more and more power but we’re not willing to pay the price financially or in terms of our urban landscape.  Designers can make even the most industrial of buildings look attractive so the argument against the plants comes back to the idea that “they’re burning dirty waste near my home” – but as the Oslo example shows that argument is becoming, well, rubbish.

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Dark Skies & Night Lights

Milky Way

Milky Way (Photo credit: TierraLady)

The only time I’ve ever seen a truly dark sky was while staying in a cabin near Hartsop in the Lake District, once my eyes had adjusted I could clearly see the misty band of stars we call the Milky Way, the Via Lactea, home.

I know in this country the weather has a lot to do with this but light pollution from streetlights, security lights and so on also makes a huge and surprising difference, even a town over the horizon can still cast a glow where you are.  Many people ask why it matters, it’s only astronomers and misty-eyed romantics that want to gaze at these distant pinpricks of light.  You may as well ask why people want to look at flowers – some study them, some find them beautiful.  Seeing the light of the galaxy from somewhere away from streetlights can give you a feeling of awe, of being a tiny speck in a unimaginably vast universe.  That sight inspired astronomers and philosophers for centuries to seek the answers to what was out there, where we are and along the way they created instruments and developed sciences to discover and explain what they saw that have benefits beyond their original purpose for example the glasses I wear are possible because of lens grinding techniques developed for telescopes.

The modern world is lit up so much that out planet looks like some kind of cosmic glitterball and most of the light that is emitted upwards is wasted.  Well, except for landing lights at airports, we need them.  It is worth fitting newer shaded lights and more efficient bulbs and even new lighting technologies to both save money and let people look at the night skies.  Flagstaff, Arizona is the worlds first International Dark Sky City and hopefully more towns and cities will follow their example.

[International Dark Sky Organization]

Eco Cow – Ruminent of The Future!

Cattle on the alp

Cattle on the alp (Photo credit: Darkroom Daze)

Methane emissions from cows (burping rather than farting, apparently) are a serious problem, contributing to climate change due to the huge numbers being bred for our insatiable appetite for a good steak and milk.  Now though researchers in Brisbane, Australia are investigating breeding low-methane livestock and modifying feeding regimes to keep the emissions low.

They will be monitoring gas build up using a small submarine like sensor with wings that keep it in the cows rumen – the chamber in the stomach where gas production is greatest.  Using infra-red sensors they can assess the conditions that create the most gas and adjust feeding accordingly.

Good news for those of us who enjoy a good sirloin.

[Gizmodo UK]

Unpredictability on Trial

L'Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment's office...

L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy. A goverment’s office disrupted by the 2009 earthquake ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_L’Aquila_earthquake ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This week six scientists and an ex-official were convicted of manslaughter in Italy because, it was said, they had given misleading and falsely reassuring advice to government officials.  Following a tremor in the L’Aquila area in 2009 scientists told officials that a further quake was not impossible but not likely.  In this region people would usually stay outside following a smaller quake but taking the advice as meaning they were safe many went home and when a larger quake occurred many were tragically killed.

Scientists have been trying to find some pattern, some definite precursor effect that will indicate an imminent earthquake for decades but aside from the theory that earthquakes can process along fault lines as movement during one can move the geological stress further along the ability to say when one will occur still eludes them – therefore the best they can say is that one may occur.

The Fortean literature is full of stories of Earthlights – small balls of glowing plasma – floating over fault lines and animals leaving the immediate area in the hours before quakes but again these effects haven’t been documented or proven.

If the authorities had said “there is a possibility that this smaller quake could lead to a massively destructive one” and evacuated every time there was a quake in a seizmologically active area it would cause chaos and cost a fortune, and how long do you tell people to stay away?  A follow-up quake could happen the day everyone returns.

The L’Aquila verdict will have an effect on science, as many are already saying; the journal Nature called the verdict “perverse and the sentence ludicrous” and called for protests, and the head of Italy’s disaster body has resigned stating that the commission could not work under such pressure in the future.  It will make scientists more weary about telling anyone about their discoveries, or offering any advice at all just in case one time something goes wrong.

[BBC News Magazine, BBC News, BBC News]