FEATURE - Sweet dreams are made of geoengineering

LONDON Thu Sep 3, 2009 8:59am IST

Sheep graze during the annual shepherd festival on the Gemmi pass between the Bernese Oberland and the Valais in this July 30, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

Sheep graze during the annual shepherd festival on the Gemmi pass between the Bernese Oberland and the Valais in this July 30, 2006 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Pascal Lauener

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LONDON (Reuters) - Farming plankton, sending solar panels into orbit, remodelling hydrogen -- for the latest wave of entrepreneurs suggesting easier ways out of climate change, it's all in a day's pitching.

Beyond grabbing headlines, such notions are attracting serious scientific attention and venture funding from investors who at least until the collapse of Lehman Brothers lent credibility to high-risk investment propositions.

Some plans seek radical alternatives to fossil fuels. Other businesses are dreaming of geoengineering -- planning to tweak the earth's climate by removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) or reflecting sunlight into space.

Among new energy fixes presented to Reuters in recent days is U.S.-based BlackLight Power.

The company says it may have tapped the energy that cosmologists have struggled to explain, called dark matter, which fills the universe. The concept involves shifting electrons in hydrogen molecules -- obtained cheaply from water -- into a lower orbit, releasing energy in the process.

"It represents a boundless form of new primary energy," Randell Mills, founder and chief executive, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"I think it's going to replace all forms of fuel in the world."

Britain's top science academy, the Royal Society, this week urged more funds be channelled into research on geoengineering, but for some climate commentators the unproven, technical solutions smack of society's craving for pain-free get-outs.

They note politicians may prefer to feed that habit rather than face tough choices in redressing global warming.

Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr says geoengineering projects will be seized upon by polluters as a quick fix, and the former climate change adviser to oil firm BP said they are simplistic.

"People are being naive ... looking for a technological fix," said Chris Mottershead, who is now head of research and innovation at King's College London.

"Anything of the necessary scale will have its own unintended consequences, even if they are not recognised at the moment."

He pointed out that the age of nuclear energy -- a radical carbon-free energy concept that humanity has tried and tested -- is still waiting to be reborn, mainly because of political and social concerns.

Sponsors of the radical route argue its offerings may serve as a Plan B if politicians fail, a "lifeboat" just in case climate change reaches a point of no return for Earth.

"You do everything in your possible power to make sure you never ever have to use the lifeboat but the emergency equipment has to be there," said Alan Knight, who heads a $25 million contest for a radical solution on behalf of UK-based Virgin.

"At the moment we don't have a lifeboat," he told Reuters. The Virgin award focuses exclusively on carbon removal.

ZAP

Since 1991, BlackLight's founder says his company has raised $60 million from private investors who have included -- on a personal basis -- the former chairman of Morgan Stanley, Dick Fisher, and the bank's now retired head of energy. Mills says his goal is to produce a 250 kilowatt prototype by end-2010.

The estimated capital cost of the energy at $500/KW would be less than coal power, one of the cheapest forms of energy now. Several utilities have bought licences, in case it works.

Last month New Jersey-based Rowan University engineers said the BlackLight process in the lab had produced heat some 1.6-6.5 times beyond levels that can be easily explained.

"It does portend some type of novel energy source," said Peter Jansson, associate engineering professor at Rowan.

In another energy fix, California-based Solaren wants to launch solar panels into orbit to send back radio waves which can generate electricity back on Earth -- and benefit from the sun shining 24 hours a day in space.

"It's not like a laser or a bug zapper or anything like that," said Founder and Chief Executive Gary Spirnak. "I think this could be like any other large power source, 20-25 percent of the world's electricity, 30 or 40 years out."

Solaren aims to produce electricity from a 200 megawatt prototype by 2016 at a cost of several billions of dollars per plant: "It's a little expensive for a 200 megawatt plant. We'll do a bit better than break even."

Spirnak said his company has raised "the equivalent of $20-30 million from financial groups and private investors", and signed a power-purchase agreement with Californian utility PG&E, whose Web site shows a request for approval for power generated in this way from California's Public Utilities Commission.

"The bottom line is, it's safe," said Spirnak. "If you're out in the sun for a few minutes at noon time you'd receive at least five times the intensity as you would at the very peak of our pilot beam."

CARBON

In case the world can't contain its carbon emissions, among geoengineering fixes Dan Whaley, founder and chief executive of California-based Climos, hopes tiny plankton that live on the ocean surface can be used to absorb CO2 as they grow.

"These are not silver bullet solutions, but things that might take the edge off," he told Reuters. "What is the risk of doing nothing? We think it's so extraordinary it's apocalyptic. These geoengineering projects, the research into this, is an exercise to reduce future risk."

Global plankton deployment across 40 percent of the world's oceans for 50-100 years could remove 1-8 billion tonnes of CO2 per year from the air, he said. That compares with annual manmade emissions now of about 32 billion tonnes.

Whaley, who says he has raised $3.5 million from investors, plans to roll out the scheme over five or 10 years on a very small scale, "to increase our ability to model the environment".

But he acknowledges a risk. Experts have pointed out that the plankton that die will sink several km to the ocean's depths, a rotting mass that may create oxygen-starved, dead zones on the floor of the oceans -- a toxic prospect.

RADICAL GRAZING

Finally from Australia comes a far simpler, self-funded idea. Thoroughly down-to-earth, it nonetheless illustrates the social and political hurdles ahead.

Soil Carbon is a company urging changes in farm livestock management, to rotate grazing across wider tracts of shared land rather than cooping animals in a handful of fields.

The idea is focused on seasonally dry areas, to imitate the grazing of wild herbivores such as wildebeest in Africa.

By grazing cattle intensively but briefly in fields or paddocks rotated across a larger area, the grass would be fertilised with dung and grow back after grazing and trampling.

"I reckon you could have billions of tonnes (of CO2) pulled out of the atmosphere really quickly," said founder Tony Lovell. Grass absorbs CO2 as it grows and deposits it in the soil.

Seasonally dry pastures account for 40 percent of the Earth's land area, or 5 billion hectares, and only remnants are managed in balance at present, he said.

But to bring his idea about would involve acquiring degraded land or changing the practices of generations of farmers, for example to mix their herds -- which may not come easily.

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