Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

Besides being two of the most frustrating things to clean off you, what do oil and sand have in common? If you guessed that they represent the $250 billion-dollar energy resource located in Alberta, Canada, you would be correct. To some people the vast quantity of oil sands represents the future of Canada’s economy. However, to a growing number of people, these sands represent another step towards global catastrophe. Fully utilizing the oil sands as a source of energy would continue to increase global greenhouse gas emissions and further delay the push to bring sustainable energy sources to the forefront.

Oil sands are a mixture of sand, water, clay, and a heavy oil called Bitumen (Figure 1). Bitumen is a very viscous liquid with the consistency of cold molasses and can be removed by pumping through the sand, heating it, or by drilling.





Figure 1: Bitumen in the ground with sand

Although there is clear evidence that the use of fossil fuels increases emissions of greenhouse gasses that play a crucial role in climate change, we are still mining and using them at increasing rates. Oil is an important aspect in the lives of so many people even on the small scale so breaking the ties with it is not easy. Many rely on the oil industry for work and it fuels the economy. So how do we separate ourselves from the oil industry without ripping off the metaphorical band aid? What about the workers who depend on oil sands to provide for their families? Do they have any other options? A group started by former oil sands workers called Iron and Earth might have the solution. This groups takes a different approach to the energy crisis. Iron and Earth’s philosophy is built on four principles: collaboration, vision, training, and advocacy. Because Iron and Earth was created by, ran, and composed of former industry workers they know what can and needs to be changed.

By collaborating and building relationships with other activist groups, unions, and politicians, Iron and Earth hopes to start the conservation conversation and bring it to as many as they can. Their vision is to bridge the gap between environmentalism and the energy sector. As former energy sector workers they feel like they have the necessary expertise to be taken seriously. One of the most interesting aspects of their mission is their program to retrain oil sands workers in different, sustainable energy fields. The “Build the Future” program identifies jobs in the sustainable fields and provides training for its members on how to transition from their previous skill set to a new one so that people can be successful in their new endeavors. The training program not only has the potential to show oil industry workers there are other alternatives, especially as the sustainable energy field grows but also get them to a place where they can be a part of it. Iron and Earth’s advocacy program does not call for a complete abandonment of fossil fuel usage for sustainable, but rather to diversify Canada’s energy portfolio so that they are not entirely dependent on one industry.

Iron and Earth make it clear that they do not want to shut down the oil sands, but they do want them to change. They want to see workers who have already been trained in some aspects of energy to get the skills that they need to build this new industry. The training program is such a versatile component of this group that can be expanded to more than just Canada’s oil sands.  Iron and Earth is a collective of Canadian citizens from all walks of life that want to see the oil sands managed more responsibly while at the same time doing all they can to push for new, sustainable ways to power the country.







Getting Rid of Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are detrimental to the environment and reducing their use is essential for a better planetary health.  The use of biofuels is a reemerging energy practice that could act as a suitable substitute for fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels currently make up sixty-five percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions while their extraction is also detrimental to the environment and has created lots of political turmoil.  There are currently some misconceptions about biofuels and poor practices that give it a stigma.  Because of subsidies and common monoculture practices crops such as corn are being harvested as a biofuel despite it being largely unsustainable.  Alternates such as algae biofuels and biomass biofuels, such as Switchgrass, are being studied and used for a variety of different purposes to replace fossil fuels.


The process of making algae into biofuels is simple and useful in more ways than just the replacement of conventional energy sources. Algae can clean wastewater while also producing biogas which is burned to produce energy in the form of electricity which is then used to provide energy to the wastewater treatment plant.  Once the algae biomass is harvested it is treated with solvents to break down the cell wall of algae and access lipids which can be converted to a liquid biofuel. Unlike corn ethanol, this process is more energy efficient making it nearly carbon neutral. Algae biofuels do not compete with land use or food security and are also a renewable source of energy that can easily substitute current fossil fuel sectors such as transportation.  Though the industry is still very small there are large steps being taken to increase the prevalence of algae biofuels in regular societal practices. A partnership between professional race car competitions and algae biofuel producers have made some events use these biofuels as the fuel source which is a large step towards normalizing the transition towards biofuels.


Source: Nate Commers, 2013

Biomass biofuels, such as Switchgrass, provide other replacements to mitigate the use of fossil fuels.  Switchgrass is a perennial grass that can be found throughout the US and can be carbon neutral when grown in a proper system.  Because it is a perennial, its roots help to sequester carbon and store it in the soil while also increasing soil health.  There are very few inputs necessary for Switchgrass to thrive because it is very efficient in its water and nutrient uses.  It also does not require much pest management, especially when grown in a polyculture and does not require fertile soil for it to thrive. This allows for it to be grown on marginal lands which could increase carbon sequestration while also providing an economic boost to farmers.  Many biomass biofuels are most efficiently used through combustion but the process is carbon neutral because it is releasing carbon that was already in the atmosphere while also storing some in the soil.  This can be used for heating, replacing common fuels such as natural gas, and can also be converted to electricity.


Source: Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, 2016

The future of biomass has lots of potential both in Vermont and throughout the United States.  Though there are setbacks, such as not being a highly established commodity or being less economically viable than traditional fossil fuels, there are far more benefits.  The 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan set out to increase the number of biofuels in the energy budget of the state to replace fossil fuels.  There are many different types of biofuels that are far more sustainable than fossil fuels and they can be used in their own energy niches.  It’s not a one size fits all solution but shifting the energy sector to more sustainable practices will have effects that are essential if we are to slow the effects of climate change.



Bioenergy Biomass to Biofuels (pp.73-87). Elsevier Inc.

Biofuels: Pros and Cons. (2012, May 05). Retrieved November 29, 2017, from http://www.solarfeeds.com/biofuels-pros-and-cons/

(2016). 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan. Retrieved November 9, 2017, fromhttp://publicservice.vermont.gov/sites/dps/files/documents/Pubs_Plans_Reports/State_Plans/Comp_Energy_Plan/2015/2016CEP_ES_Final.pdf

International Motor Sports Association (2014). IMSA Green alternative fuels lauded by DOE,

EPA. IMSA. Retrieved 27 November, 2017, from

Manninen, K., Huttunen, S., Seppala, J., Laitinen, J., Spilling K. (2016). Resource

recycling with algal cultivation: environmental and social perspectives. Journal of cleaner production, 134, 495-505. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2015.10.097


November 29, 2017, from https://energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/biomass-feedstocks

The Prospect of Negative Emissions Technologies

Negative emissions technologies (NETs) are methods for removing COfrom the atmosphere using either natural or man-made processes. NETs have come into the spotlight in recent years due to their beneficial impact on IPCC models. For example, models that include rapid development of NETs forecast net negative emissions by the end of the century.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 9.11.07 PM.png

Median forecast of 18 scenarios produced by 6 different IPCC models.

The prospect of negative emissions is exciting because it represents a strategy for effectively reversing the principal driving force of climate change, atmospheric CO. Besides being a handy trick for climate modelers trying to keep their model outputs below 2°C, these technologies represent a creative, potentially viable solution to the complex problem that is climate change. NETs exist in a variety of forms. In the broadest sense, reforestation is a NET as it results in the removal of COfrom the atmosphere. While reforestation is clearly an essential component of any climate change mitigation portfolio, some of the more ambitious NETs that people are currently working on are much more exciting.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 7.37.16 PM

Six different NETs that are currently being investigated. 

Bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) is a strategy to produce negative CO2 emissions by farming fast-growing grasses and trees that can soak up large amounts of carbon, burning them for energy, capturing the CO2 produced, and pumping it underground. This strategy is unique because it effectively creates a renewable carbon sink. By farming fast growing crops like poplar trees and switchgrass, we can remove COfrom the atmosphere while simultaneously producing a renewable source of energy. These crops can then be burned at biomass plants equipped with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, which compress and liquefy the CObefore pumping it deep underground, back to where it originally came from.

The main goal of this project is to achieve net negative CO2 emissions by the end of the century. If this technology were successfully implemented, it would theoretically give us more time to reign in our emissions as a significant chunk of them could be offset by “negative emissions”. If proven effective, this technology could have a direct impact on the level of global warming that we see in the coming decades—which would be a huge victory for the planet.

Obviously this idea is very ambitious and has yet to be proven on a grand scale but I believe that solving a problem as large and complicated as climate change requires new ways of thinking. BECCS specifically, and NETs in general are creative solutions to a complex global problem. The technology behind BECCS is also not as far-fetched as it may seem. Both bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration are currently operating around the world, at least to some extent. Plenty of power plants are currently burning biomass, including the McNeil Plant right here in Burlington, and a Norwegian oil company has been sequestering CO2 underground for over 20 years. Although these two technologies have yet to be paired on any meaningful scale, there is no reason to believe that they won’t in the future—especially as the cost of CCS drops. Reducing our CO2 emissions is still the best thing we can do in the meantime, but if NETs rise to prominence, we may soon be able to reverse them.


  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/02/vast-bioenergy-plantations-could-stave-climate-change-and-radically-reshape-planet
  2. https://qz.com/1100221/the-worlds-first-negative-emissions-plant-has-opened-in-iceland-turning-carbon-dioxide-into-stone/
  3. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21731397-stopping-flow-carbon-dioxide-atmosphere-not-enough-it-has-be-sucked-out

Common Interest in Keeping the Great Lakes Great


If you have never had a chance to stand on the shores of one of the Great Lakes and stare out at the vast expanse of freshwater, you really should. What is there to say other than the Great Lakes are, well, great! People expect oceans to be huge, but lakes? Being near one of these massive lakes makes you feel like there will always be water to drink, a place to swim, and fish to catch. Sadly, this may not be the case if these beloved freshwater ecosystems continue to be exploited by human activity. Already they are being degraded by invasive species, nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, toxic chemical pollution, waste from cities, and the impacts of climate change.1

The Great Lakes is an all-encompassing name for the five freshwater lakes that border the U.S and Canada. Sometimes called inland seas, lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario cover more than 94,000 square miles and contain an estimated 6 quadrillion gallons of water. That’s about one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water supply. The lakes and their connecting channels form the largest freshwater system on earth and 48 million people in the U.S. and Canada rely on the Great Lakes for fresh drinking water.2 Not only do these lakes provide fresh water, they also provide recreational benefits, job opportunities, renewable energy alternatives such as hydropower, and more. As such, these lakes are of paramount importance both ecologically and economically to United States and Canadian citizens, as well as the 35,000 plant and animal species that also rely on a healthy lake ecosystems for their own survival.2 In a time marked by freshwater shortages globally and in the United States, steps must be taken to ensure that the overall health and wellbeing of the Great Lakes is maintained so that they may be able to sustain our generation, and generations to follow.

If the idea of having clean water to drink isn’t enough to convince you that we need healthy lakes, let’s talk about how they give us money. The Great Lakes support our economy insofar that they help stimulate more than 1.5 million jobs in manufacturing (66%); tourism and recreation (14%); shipping (8%); agriculture (8%); science and engineering (2%); utilities (1%); and mining (1%). Overall Great Lakes-linked jobs generate about $62 billion in wages annually3 and, “provides the backbone for a $5 trillion regional economy that would be one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country”.2 Given these overwhelming statistics, it seems obvious that we simply cannot afford to let them fall into disrepair. Why then are they continuing to be degraded? Some speculate that it is because multiple government and tribal jurisdictions govern them, which inhibits collective decision-making. Others think that the degradation is due to a disconnect between people who make decisions about the lakes and people who have to live with the consequences of those decisions. The Environmental Protection Agency has funded several cleanup and restoration programs and formed partnerships with Canada to make lake restoration efforts a priority.1 Will those efforts be enough to maintain the integrity of the Great Lakes long-term? A group called Great Lakes Commons doesn’t think so. But they have a different idea about how to save them.


The Great Lakes Commons is a grassroots organization made up of an eclectic network of people, organizations, and institutions that care about the long-term, sustainable health of the Great Lakes. The group believes that the reason the Great Lakes are struggling is because mainstream society considers water to be simply a commodity instead of an essential life force. Their mission it to move away from the current narrative of, “water as a resource that needs to be managed” towards a new narrative of, “we are responsible for the water”4. The health of water is inherently intertwined with human and ecological health. As such, the Great Lakes must be protected because any damage to the water causes direct harm to the people and communities we care about.

In order to fully understand the mission of the Great Lakes Commons, one must understand what is meant by the word “commons”. In 1833 William Foster Lloyd wrote about the devastating effects of unregulated grazing on common land. The idea went mainstream in 1968 though when Garrett Hardin wrote an essay called, “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he described the tendency of common resource systems to collapse when individual users act in their own best interest instead of the interest of all users collectively. The Great Lakes Commons wants to, “establish the Great Lakes as a living, thriving commons of shared and sacred waters by awakening and restoring our relationship with the water; activating a spirit of responsibility and belonging in the bioregion; and establishing stewardship and governance that enables communities to protect the waters forever”3. Anyone is welcome to join regardless of his or her profession, religion, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The only thing that matters is that everyone in the group is allied under the belief that the Great Lakes deserve a vibrant future and are willing to do something about it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 6.53.09 PM


  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, December 07). Restoring the Great Lakes: Environmental Issues. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/restoring-great-lakes
  1. Great Lakes Commission (n.d.). About the Lakes. Retrieved from https://www.glc.org/lakes/
  1. Erickson, J. (2011, February 24). Study: More than 1.5 million jobs, $62 billion in wages directly tied to Great Lakes. Retrieved from http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/8280-study-more-than-15-million-jobs-62-billion-in-wages-directly-tied-to-great-lakes
  1. Great Lakes Commons (n.d.). Who We Are. Retrieved from https://www.greatlakescommons.org/who-we-are/

Photo Sources

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/30/travel/lake-michigan-tour.html
  2. https://www.greatlakescommons.org/charter-declaration/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1niSvcbRtWY

A step forward in political agreement to mitigate climate change

Do you know what is a refrigerant? If no, basically it’s a chemical compound that because of its properties has been widely used for example, in air conditioners, refrigerators, foams, etc. CFCs are very famous refrigerants that were addressed by the Montreal Protocol in 1987, they were replaced by the “less harmful” (at least for the ozone layer) HFCs. However, have you heard about United Nations Conference in Rwanda 2016? If not, it might be interesting and a little surprising that it purpose is to reduce in 0.5°C the global warming effect during this century. It may not sound like it is much, but in fact it is, if we compare with the objective of reaching a temperature increase limit of 2°C proposed by the IPCC.

How are they going to do that? I have already said that HFCs were a replacement to keep safe the ozone layer, but in recent years we discovered that they are a major threat that contributes to global warming because of its GWP, which is between 1,000 to 9,000 (some sources even suggest a higher limit at 10,000) times stronger than CO2. Well, not exactly discovered, but we notice that is an issue because of some facts as: leaks in cooling systems that are used all over the world, growing demand of development countries for air condition systems (that in near future will be more necessary due to climate change) and because of it low cost of production, that makes it the most convenient to use by companies.  Currently, it represents the 8% of global warming impact.

HFC consumption

Figure 1. Rise in the consumption of HFCs as a replacement of CFCs, globally.

In summary, we solve the ozone layer problem to create a new, but the good and optimistic part is that nowadays there is a stronger environmental consciousness, just realizing that representatives of 170 countries (there are 194 countries in all the world) meet to solve a problem based on scientific data is a huge commitment of a human common agreement. The results, banning its use as follows:

“starting with high-income countries in 2019, then some low-income countries in 2024 and others in 2028” (DRAWDOWN, 2017)

And that is not all, there are other agreements, The European Union has established regulations to reduce leaks and big companies as Coca-Cola (a major user of refrigerants) is shifting to better alternatives.

HFC sector

Figure 2: Global HFCs consumption by sector, 2012

Furthermore, the cost of transition of technology have to be taken in account, and more good news because there is a fund (by donors and philanthropies) that is willing to help with around 53 million dollars to cover those costs.

This is a proof of that we have developed as a society, because we are now able to fight against environmental problem with a global perspective, we are not just looking for individual interest, but for common benefit.  Of course we still have challenges, as to make those new replacements safe for humans and with no unintended effects. Also, we have achieved a convergence between proposals and actions. In our case as college students, this impels us to promote this type of change and to contribute in future studies to find better methods of energy efficiency. It means for society in general that we can continue to develop economically, and respecting the environment when we are able to reach agreements to preserve the future of our planet.

Plumer, B (2016). The biggest climate change story in the world this week is quietly playing out in Rwanda. Available athttps://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2016/10/12/13250202/hfcs-air-conditioning-montreal-protocol

Drawdown (2017). Materials refrigerant management. Link available at: http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/materials/refrigerant-management

Zhao, L., W. Zeng, and Z. Yuan. “Reduction of Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Room Air-Conditioner Refrigerants: A Life Cycle Carbon Footprint Analysis.” Journal of Cleaner Production, 100 (2015): 262–268.


The Role of Macroalgae in Marine Carbon Sequestration and the Future of Seaweed Farming

seaweed_farm_zanzibarThe role of marine vegetation as a sink for atmospheric carbon has been well recognized. Angiosperm-based habitats, such as mangrove forests, intertidal salt marshes, and coastal meadows are recognized as extremely important carbon reservoirs; it is estimated marine primary producers contribute to over half of the worlds carbon fixation and account for as much as 71% of all carbon storage (6, 5). However, marine macroalgae have been largely excluded from discussions of marine carbon sinks, and only recently have they been recognized for their carbon sequestration potential (6). Recently, Scientists from The University of Technology, Sydney and Deak University used thermal analysis to demonstrate that the structure and cell walls of seaweed make it extremely stable and thus prove its potential as a marine carbon sink (11). They reported, “Until now, seaweeds have been thought to break down rapidly and therefore not be significant contributors to long-term carbon sequestration; however, what we have shown is that not all seaweeds are equal and some show great potential for long-term sequestration” (10).

As a result of these and other recent findings, the topic of seaweed farming has gained immense traction within the environmental field as an extremely beneficial potential for climate change mitigation. Seaweed farming is currently a global multi-billion dollar industry, with more than 25 million metric tonnes farmed annually, mostly in the developing world (1). However, research is just beginning to recognize the great environmental benefits of seaweed aquaculture, and there is now a growing trend of seaweed farming in the U.S as a sustainable agricultural initiative. In 2017, acclaimed scientist and author Tim Flannery published Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument For How To Feed, Power, and Clean Up the World, which argues that the successful production of seaweed can help solve many major issues facing the globe, such as climate change, food production, and toxic pollution (4). It’s interest comes from the fact that Seaweed plays a huge role in carbon sequestration, has a low/positive ecological footprint, and grows extremely quickly. In this post, I outline the potential of macroalgae in climate change mitigation, outline some of the other environmental, social, and economic benefits of seaweed farming, and address some of the concerns of the growing industry.

Macroalgae and Climate Change Mitigation

Macroalgae and seaweed farming have the potential to contribute greatly to climate change mitigation in two ways: (a) as a “blue carbon” sink and (b) by reducing dependency on fossil fuels. Macroalgae sequester atmospheric CO2 through primary production near the ocean’s surfaces and then deposit that carbon in their sediments on the ocean floor (2). Additionally, many people are currently discussing the possibility of using seaweed as a biofuel. This could potentially reduce fossil fuel dependency by providing a sustainable source of biofuels (1). This would also take pressure off of terrestrial sources of biofuels, such as canola from palm and bioethanol from sugarcane and corn, which are having severe ecological and social costs (1).

In a comprehensive study in the Journal of European Federation of Chemical Engineering, it is estimated that if 9% of the world’s ocean surface was used for seaweed farming, it could produce 12 gigatonnes of biofuel, and remove 53 billion tonnes of CO2 per year from the atmosphere. (3)

Additional Benefits of Seaweed Farming

  • Improves local ecosystem health
    • Reduces the effects of ocean acidification and de-oxygenation (6)  
    • Increases ocean primary productivity and biodiversity (6)
    • Provides important habitat for fish and shellfish
  • Seaweed used as livestock feed reduces methane release from cows by up to 20%-90%. (4).
  • Grows 30 to 60 times the rate of land-based plants (12)  
  • Has diversified economic market potential:
    • Human consumption, livestock consumption, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, biofuels and more.
  • Has reduced overfishing and dependency on fisheries in coastal nations in developing nations (1)
  • In many areas, women are the primary farmers of seaweed, which has given economic independence and opportunity to women (1)

Concerns of a Growing Industry

  • Limited availability of suitable areas and competition (3)
  • The need for engineering systems capable of coping with rough ocean conditions (3)
  • Unregulated seaweed farming has the potential to lead to reduction of genetic diversity of native seaweed stocks and harm local environments as a result of unfavorable practices such as mono-cropping and the illegal use of algicides/pesticides (1)
  • Most of the current seaweed aquaculture industry is taking place in developing nations, which often have little/no regulations which could lead to exploitation of both people and environments (1)


Macroalgae is an important contributor to “blue carbon”, and today seaweed farming is seen as an extremely feasible tool for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Since the 1950’s, seaweed farming has increased exponentially, primarily because of market opportunities, and the seaweed aquaculture industry is already delivering some of the many benefits listed above. However, we have identified possible limitations and concerns regarding the fast-growing industry. What does the future look like for seaweed farming, and can we successfully utilize this natural resource to help sequester anthropogenic carbon emissions, reduce ocean acidification, clean up local ocean ecosystems, provide important ocean habitats, and provide a livelihood to many coastal communities?


  1. Braun, David Maxwell. 2016. Booming Seaweed Farming Exposes Producers and Environment to Risks, Experts Warn. National Geographic Changing Planet.Web. Retrieved from https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2016/09/03/booming-seaweed-farming-exposes-producers-and-environment-to-risks-experts-warn/
  2. Chung, I.K., Beardall, J., Mehta, S. et al. J Appl Phycol (2011) 23: 877. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10811-010-9604-9
  3. De Ramon N’Yeurt, Antoine & P. Chynoweth, David & Capron, Mark & Stewart, Jim & A. Hasan, Mohammed. (2012). Negative Carbon Via Ocean Afforestation. Process Safety and Environmental Protection. 90. 467-474. 10.1016/j.psep.2012.10.008.
  4. Battaglia, Michael. 2016. Seaweed could hold the key to cutting methane emissions from cow burps. The Conversation. Web. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/seaweed-could-hold-the-key-to-cutting-methane-emissions- rom-cow-burps-66498.
  5. Duarte Carlos M., Wu Jiaping, Xiao Xi, Bruhn Annette, Krause-Jensen Dorte. 2017. Can  Seaweed Farming Play a Role in Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation? Frontiers in Marine Science, Vol. 4.  10.3389/fmars.2017.00100 Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2017.00100/full
  6. Duarte, C. M., Middelburg, J. & Caraco, N. 2005. Major role of marine vegetation on the oceanic carbon cycle. Biogeosciences 2, 1–8.
  7. Flannery, Tim. 2017. How farming giant seaweed can feed fish and fix the climate. The Conversation. Web.
  8. Mosbergen, Dominique. 2016. Seaweed Not Green Enough, UN Researchers Warn. Huffington Post. Web.
  9. Trevathan-Tackett, S. M., Kelleway, J., Macreadie, P. I., Beardall, J., Ralph, P. and Bellgrove, A. (2015), Comparison of marine macrophytes for their contributions to blue carbon sequestration. Ecology, 96: 3043–3057. doi:10.1890/15-0149.1
  10. University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). 2015. Study Backs Seaweed’s Carbon Capturing Potential. PhysOrg. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-05-seaweed-carbon-capturing-potential.html
  11. Climate Council. 2016. How seaweed can kelp us tackle climate change. Web. Retrieved from https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/seaweed-climate-change.

Vermont Is Still In

Something I often consider; how I can take intentional steps to reduce my contributions to climate change. As I was turning the heat up in my apartment I realized that I was increasing my demand for natural gas. Most apartments in Burlington do not have the option of anything else aside, natural gas or electric heat. The choice of heat is up to the landlords, not the tenants. This thought concerned me. How can we change the way the apartments, the city, the state to have it be convenient and affordable to utilize a heat source that has less contribution to the green house gases. What is my state doing to mitigate climate change? This is Vermont the land of the tree hugging, dirt worshiping, groovin’ hippies, right? Don’t worry, there are plans in action!

While “he who shall not be named” in the white house decided to remove The United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, Vermont says that we are still in. In 2017 Governor Phil Scott signed the Vermont Climate Action Commission (VCAC.) The major issues for concern here are: more efficient buildings, clean energy, low-carbon travel options, composting and recycling and finally observing what the future may look like. With these goals Vermont can also offer its residence more jobs. Overall the VCAC states that Vermont hopes to reach a 40% reduction in green house gas emissions by 2030, and 80%-90% by 2050, compared to emissions in 1990.

In efforts to make the stride towards clean energy the renewable energy standard in the VCAC requires “Vermont electric distribution utilities to meet a defined percentage of their retail electric sales from any source of renewable energy. Under tire 1 this defined percentage is 55% in 2017, and it to increase by 4% each year after, eventually reaching 75% in 2032.” This is sounds like a huge jump but, many of Vermont’s DUs had already made efforts to provide more clean energy.

In 2014 Burlington Electric made Burlington the first city to make the switch to provide 100 % renewable energy. This energy comes from hydro dams, wood, solar and various other mixed renewable systems. 2015energypurchasesbysource

Chart one: A physical representation of the renewable energy sources that Burlington Electric utilizes in 2015. The top three sources McNeil provides fuel from wood, Next Era provides energy from a small hydro dam, Sheffield contributes energy from wind.

In 2015 Green Mountain power made Rutland Vermont the city with the most solar per captia in New England. In 2016 this solar field (along with its battery storage) saved a total of $200,000 for customers in just one hour during peak demands.Stafford-Solar

Picture one: Stafford Hill Solar Farm on top of Rutland’s old landfill.

To address the problem I brought up above to replace fossil fuel heat Vermont is working to replace old broilers and furnaces in old buildings & make the switch to wood or electric heat. Research has led engineers to promote cold-climate heat pumps, which gather heat from ambient air to warm your home or move warm air outside to keep it cool. With these changes to reduce the amount of heat a Vermont residence requires for the winter season state officials hope to make living in Vermont more affordable.


Picture two: How the heat pump is able to warm the air from outside into your home.

Vermont had many ways of encouraging its residence to become involved in the goals of the VCAC. Green mountain power and Suncommon provide energy audits and plans for home owners to solarize their homes. Suncommon provides a payment plan that is similar to paying an electric bill, just with an end date. Efficiency Vermont provides many handy how to videos that any home owner can watch and understand to make their home lose less heat. The state also provides a weatherization program for those who are financially eligible. Programs like these and many others have allowed Vermont, as a whole, to keep moving forward to reduce green house gas emissions, while providing jobs and lower the cost of living. Look forward to the state’s compost hauling services coming soon!















Is France paving the way to a cleaner future?

The French Ministry of Environment has funded Colas to build a 1km trial Solar Road (Dockrill, 2016). This government backed initiative for renewable energy generation consists of 2,880 photovoltaic panels (Dockrill, 2016), it is projected to produce 280 Megawatt hour of energy annually (Dockrill, 2016)). That’s enough to power a town of 5,000 people! Whilst this small project cost US$5.2 million, and is roughly 13 times more expensive than rooftop panels (Sorrel, 2017), it provides a source of clean, renewable energy. Colas are working to reduce the costs in order for solar roads to be rolled out over 1 million km of French roads within the next four years (Dockrill, 2016).

So, many people are skeptical about the effectiveness of the “Wattway” as the solar panels lie flat on the floor, and will have cars on them throughout most of the day. However, it is estimated that even busy roads can “see” the sky 70-90% of the time (BBC, 2017). So, if France were to pave just ¼ of their roads as solar roads, they would become energy independent (Sorrel, 2017), and for a country that currently gets ¾ of their energy from nuclear power, that is pretty great!

The panels are stuck on top of the current road surface, therefore reducing production costs, and although the lifespan of the road is currently unknown, the panels will not peel off the road due to expansion or contraction caused by heat, therefore reducing the frequency of which they will need to be replaced. The solar panels are made out of an extremely durable material, coated in a resin containing crushed glass and 5 sheets of silicon (Willsher, 2016) this makes them strong enough to withstand the weight of heavy traffic, including HGVs, potentially reducing the upkeep costs compared to current roads.

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 17.00.00

(Sorrel, 2017)

This trial project is happening in Normandy, an area in the North of France that only receives 44 days of strong sunshine a year (Willisher, 2016). This makes it a great test site for solar roads, as there are many regions across France who receive significantly more sunny days per year. Therefore, if this project works in this small, relatively cloudy region, it will be highly effective when rolled out across greater areas of the country.

So whilst the Wattway project may cost four to six times as much as covering the area in conventional, tilted solar panels, it will drastically reduce the country’s use of fossil fuels, and will reduce the extent to which farmland will need to be covered. It also provides a neat solution to supply isolated, or off grid areas with clean and reliable energy (Wattway, 2017).

The Wattway project is the first of its kind in the world, and it a great step forward in using current resources to reduce the use of fossil fuels, (whilst expensive), in a way that does not require a large land mass, and is sustainable into the future. It provides an aesthetically pleasing method of energy production, and hence will not encounter ‘not in my backyard’ resistance. If it is successful, it could pave the way for a fossil fuel free future in more places than just France.


BBC, (2017). Could ‘solar roads’ help generate electricity? Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/av/technology-40805733/could-solar-roads-help-generate-electricity (Last Accessed: 12/2/18).

Dockrill, P. (2016). The World’s First Solar Road Has Opened in France. Available at: https://www.sciencealert.com/the-world-s-first-solar-road-has-opened-in-france (Last Accessed: 12/2/18).

Sorrel, C. (2017). France Opens the World’s First Solar Road. Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3066838/france-opens-the-worlds-first-solar-road (Last Accessed: 12/2/18)

Wattway, (2017). Paving the way to tomorrow’s energy. Available at: http://www.wattwaybycolas.com/en/ (Last Accessed: 12/2/18).

Willisher, K. (2016). World’s first solar panel road opens in Normandy village. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/dec/22/solar-panel-road-tourouvre-au-perche-normandy (Last Accessed: 12/2/18).

Carbon Farming Solutions: A look at California’s new policy incentives

Can local movements grow global solutions?

The international community has focused concerted efforts to negotiate consensus on reducing global greenhouse gas emissions through the Paris climate agreement in recent years.  This tremendously optimistic undertaking has been paralleled by growing conversations among farming communities, researchers and agricultural networks about the potential for agriculture to draw down atmospheric carbon.  While the Paris agreement is focused on emission reductions to address climate change, this “carbon farming solution” promises to sequester atmospheric carbon and store it in the soil. Last year the state of California piloted an ambitious new program to incentivize carbon farming practices on farms.

The Promise

The idea is to take advantage of carbon cycling by plants in agriculture and ensure that more carbon ends up in the soil than is released (1).  Plants use sunlight and water to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and organic carbon compounds.  These plant-based carbon compounds feed the soil food web and become a diversity of things that constitute what’s called soil organic matter (decaying plant parts, enzymes, bacteria, fungi, mites and other soil fauna).

Advocates of carbon farming emphasize that agricultural soils can be a significant sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide if managed properly (2).  Some agricultural management practices, like incorporating cover crops, are proven to increase soil organic matter.  Other practices, such as tillage, are widely accepted as destroying soil organic matter, much of which is released as greenhouse gasses.  Many of the practices that promise to capture carbon have other benefits to farm productivity and society, including increased yields, increased water holding capacity, reduced erosion, and increased pest defenses.

Farmer perspectives: co-benefits

It’s not just more carbon in the soil that California farmer John Wick (3) is motivated by, but additional benefits of holding more water moisture in his soils.  This is especially important in the face of California’s chronic drought patterns. Wick also recognizes that more moisture holding capacity in soil could help draw down atmospheric water vapor, which is a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right.

The potential for agriculture to capture atmospheric CO2 while increasing productivity is not a new tune, but it’s one that’s catching on in a big way right now. Books and workshops on the topic are popping up in every kind of farmer network, under titles such as “regenerative agriculture”, “carbon farming”, “climate change mitigation”, “carbon sequestration” and more (4).   The catchy part of this story is the invitation to re-envision human activity on the planet as beneficial. Regenerative, carbon sequestering agriculture in theory reduces greenhouse gas emissions, grows food better and supports agricultural economies all at once. Doesn’t that sound great?

Benefits of carbon farming asserted by the California Healthy Soils Initiative:

soil benefits

Sourced from https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/healthysoils/HSInitiative.html


Many strategies that are advocated as effective in capturing carbon are contested in the body of scientific studies that have been evaluating them (5). Well-known conservation practices, such as no-till and cover cropping, are included in the advocated practices for carbon farming.  While there is consensus on the short-term gains these practices offer to top soils, there is conflicting information about their impact on soil carbon at greater depths.  As well, the long-term improvements of cover cropping and no till are easily undone and released by one tilling event.

On the other end of the spectrum of practices lie innovative agroforestry systems which take long-term monitoring to confirm and are challenging to replicate.  Despite the challenges, “scientists have estimated the potential of agroforestry systems to increase soil carbon to be approximately 95 times greater than the conservation practices of no-till, cover crops and crop rotations” (6).

For many farmers these promising strategies are so knowledge intensive, that they feel unrealistic to production-based farmers who grow substantial amounts of food.  Many practices require investments that are also cost prohibitive to farms that are barely making ends meets.  The major challenge for this opportunity is not that its unrealistic for agriculture to transition towards valuing sequestering carbon.  The challenge is more that the transition to carbon farming is slow to catch on, and there is a sense of urgency to addressing climate change.

California leadership

California leads the country in agricultural production and last year made a big move to lead the nation in pushing for carbon farming solutions that support farms too.  In 2016, the California legislature passed two bills which established the Healthy Soils Program.  The program “provides financial assistance for incentivizing and demonstrating the implementation of conservation agricultural management practices that sequester carbon, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases and improve soil health” (7).  Drawing together collaboration from state and municipal agencies, the initiative put out a bold agenda for action based on the multiple benefits of increasing soil carbon.  And through strategic funding the program is making big waves in the farming community.

Primary Actions of the California Healthy Soils Initiative:soil actions

Adapted from https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/healthysoils/HSInitiative.html

In the last year, the program funded 22 demonstration projects administered by research and municipal bodies, and 64 cost-share grants to help farmers implement practices that reduce CO2 emissions.  In fact, each project has an estimated emissions reduction in tonnes of CO2 per year.  One can actually do the math on how much CO2 is being captured due to this program. Carbon trading schemes are likely cheering about this.  This information is based on models called “COMET-planner” and “Compost-Planner” (8), which trace their origins to development at Colorado State University.

The state also has an aggressive climate change strategy (9), which feels like a satisfying flip of the bird to Trump and his decision to pull from the Paris agreement.  If they reach their goal, by 2030, California will have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions to 40% less than 1990 levels.

Climate Optimism

Does California’s commitment to soil carbon, farm resilience and climate mitigation pave the way for other states in the US?  With federal policy on climate change in a Trump Era free fall, its hopeful to see that local and state level initiatives can lead the way in taking responsibility for action.  And in this case, the Healthy Soil funding incentives created significant amount of management changes on farms that both prove farmers are willing to change if they have the financial capability, and that it’s possible to accelerate the adoption of mitigation practices.

Whats missing?

The state has created a standardized soil carbon testing procedure due to this program, but there is still a need for more science to confirm and quantify the carbon dioxide offset of many potential carbon farming practices, and how weather and site conditions interact with carbon cycling.  It’s also important to note that the program is only focused on carbon dioxide.  Nitrous oxide and methane are stronger greenhouse gasses, and agricultural management practices makes significant contributions to these emissions.  The California Healthy Soils initiative is certainly a piece of climate optimism, but in the long-term, it should include accounting of these gasses too.  I’m hopeful about the growth of this initiative and those that follow in other states.


  1. http://kisstheground.com/thesoilstory/
  2. http://carbonfarmingsolution.com/excerpt
  3. https://craftsmanship.net/the-carbon-gatherer/
  4. https://modernfarmer.com/2016/03/carbon-farming/
  5. http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrea-basche/soils-to-reverse-climate-change-what-do-we-know-about-carbon-farming-practices
  6. http://blog.ucsusa.org/andrea-basche/soils-to-reverse-climate-change-carbon-farming-and-the-untapped-potential-in-ecological-approaches
  7. https://www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/healthysoils/
  8. https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/capandtrade/auctionproceeds/cdfahsfinalqm16-17.pdf
  9. http://www.climatechange.ca.gov/

Tax My Carbon?

[Posted for Katey]

We already know that there is a cost from carbon. Carbon emissions are known to have an impact on the planet. These gases that arise from human activity become trapped within the atmosphere and create an increase in the planet’s temperature resulting is the greenhouse gas effect. These effects have been linked to numerous adverse events from climate change that are placing an increasing economic burden on society due to the cost of their management. Currently, none of these factors are incorporated into our management of economies. It has become a topic of debate as to whether measures should be taken to account for this economic burden through policy.

Energy Independent Vermont; a coalition of environmental organizations that include VPIRG, 350 Vermont, the GUND Institute, and VNRC is a part of a growing movement “dedicated to a simple goal: address the problem of climate change by putting a price on pollution here in Vermont” (1). The methodology behind it includes an energy independence fund, which would offer Vermonters financial incentives to reduce fossil fuel use and save on energy costs. It would cut taxes for all Vermonters in categories such as sales, income and employment, and assign taxes to measures of pollution. In this way, it penalizes polluters who overuse fossil fuels, promotes the introduction of renewables and encourages better use of tax revenues for social improvements such as education. This is the video that they have on their website: https://youtu.be/aQF8aRasZUE

The concrete form of this tax is included in the Essex Plan (an Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy Exchange Plan). This is a plan designed to assist a strategy to reduce Vermont’s emissions as “it proposes a partnership between state government and Vermont’s regulated electric utilities whereby all of the proceeds of a gradually rising fee on carbon pollution are returned to Vermonters and Vermont businesses on a monthly basis in the form of lower effective electric rates” (2). The proposal suggests at pricing $5/ton of CO2 each fiscal year from 2021-2026 until reaching $40/ton in 2027. The $40/ton is recommended as the cap because it is roughly the “Social Cost of Carbon” estimated during the Obama Administration by the EPA, and is the same cap for other states in the region such as MA, RI, CT that are looking at carbon pricing policies, and the Essex Plan is even more conservative than plans suggested by the Reagan and Bush administration (2).

The idea for this plan is to make this tax revenue neutral for the community. To do this, carbon pollution fees are assessed yearly by Vermont’s Auditor of Accounts and refunded to electric ratepayers. The objective of this is to reduce energy spending as Vermont produces less than the energy it consumes and depends on power from other parts of New England and Canada (3). Overall, the state of Vermont plans to achieve 90% of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. Efforts to help attain this goal include improving the transportation, thermal, and electrical sectors (4). Therefore, to help contribute to the growing energy job sector within Vermont and reduce carbon emissions, the Essex Plan helps to transition to addressing these issues by promoting efficient, lower-cost and lower carbon technologies.

Bill S.284 is based on the Essex Plan and was introduced by State Senators Chris Pearson and Alison Clarkson to the Senate Committee and on Natural Resources and Energy on January 3, 2018. Bill H.791 was also recently introduced to the Vermont House on January 31, 2018 by Representative Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (5). It is currently being assessed by the House Committee on Energy and Technology and there are over 20 sponsors that support this bill. Yet, support lacks from Washington DC as well as Governor Phil Scott who has publicly announced that he will not support any form of a carbon pollution tax (6).

Is this something to support though? It is difficult to believe that increasing the price of any energy source that Vermonters rely on could benefit the lower economic class, as Vermont is a very rural and cold state that relies on heating including gas to power these technologies. Maintaining a policy that allows the use of fossil fuels is economically sound in the short term based on cost of goods. However, why maintain an energy usage habit in the long term that further damages the environment and creates a greater economic cost? At the end of the day, citizens pay the government taxes to take care of damages from the effects of climate change such as natural disasters; therefore, there is an indirect “tax” that citizens are already paying. The challenge becomes in maintaining an energy policy that will ultimately reduce the emission of carbon and mitigate the long term effects of climate change. The key aspect of the Essex Plan is to transfer revenues from the carbon tax back to the consumer in an effort to make the policy change cost neutral. Consequently, this approach incentivizes for a long term policy change with long term economic benefit without transferring the burden to the consumer.

A lot of work is being done within the state of Vermont to impose this tax. Since 2008, British Columbia has had a carbon pollution tax and in 2018 Canada is planning to set a national minimum carbon price (7). This further provides an example as to how a carbon pollution tax has worked and how it can further lead from a province/state policy to a national policy.

  1. https://www.energyindependentvt.org/
  2. https://www.seventhgeneration.com/sites/default/files/the_essex_plan_for_ean_-_final_-_11.06.171.pdf_copy.pdf
  3. https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=VT
  4. https://www.dropbox.com/s/73vk90zmwjerb4y/EAN%202050%20Energy%20Analysis%2C%2Final%20Report%2C%20Dec%202013.pdf
  5. https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2018/H.791
  6. https://vtdigger.org/2017/09/25/carbon-tax-number-one-climate-hearing/amp/
  7. https://www.carbontax.org/where-carbon-is-taxed/british-columbia/