A grouse’s love song may be imperiled

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Greater sage grouse video

A grouse’s love song may be imperiled

Interesting facts about the greater sage grouse

According to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, greater sage grouse are up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from two to seven pounds. During breeding seasons, male sage grouse strut around on leks, their breeding grounds, and puff up big vocal sacs on their chests to sing love songs to females.

According to Gail Patricelli, a leading grouse communication expert at the University of California, Davis, the choosy females will decide based on the time the males spend on the leks, the rate at which they strut and the quality of their vocalizations. A few attractive males will mate with all the females.

Patricelli calls the greater sage grouse the peacock of North America because of the similarities between the two species’ breeding behaviors. Males in both species conduct elaborate rituals to convince females to mate with them, but they don’t help with raising the young.

Females “seem to choose males simply based on how attractive they are,” Patricelli said. “That makes us wonder why they are being so picky if they are not getting any help bringing up the young.”

Biologists also call the greater sage grouse the Dolly Parton birds because of the size of their vocal sacs.

Habitat fragmentation and destruction has resulted in significant decline in the population of the greater sage grouse over the past century. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service said that if trends continue, many local populations “may disappear in the next several decades, with the remaining fragmented population vulnerable to extinction.”

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by 2015 if the bird will be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

WASHINGTON — The Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver tar sands oil from Canada to Texas refineries is often described as environmentally controversial because of its potential to harm the Ogallala Aquifer and to create spills along the route. But environmentalists now are pointing to the pipeline’s potential to hurt the greater sage grouse, a bird that is a symbol of the Western sage brush ecosystem.

Biologists say the species, which has been a candidate for the endangered species list for two years, may see further declines in its population because of pipeline construction.

The greater sage grouse, the largest grouse in North America, is found in 11 states. South Dakota is at the edge of its distribution; monitoring by the South Dakota wildlife agency has shown the sage grouse population to be decreasing slightly in the state.

The Keystone XL pipeline’s route would go through one of the grouse’s important habitats: Butte and Harding counties in the northwestern part of South Dakota. President Barack Obama has delayed a decision on the pipeline until 2013. Experts say pipeline construction would accelerate the disappearance of local sage grouse groups and warn that the bird may eventually disappear from the area.

According to biologists, construction noises, especially road noises, would likely interrupt the birds’ traditional mating ritual. Every spring, male sage grouses return to the same breeding grounds, known as leks, and start their elaborate courting ceremonies: The males strut around and puff up big vocal sacs on their chests to sing subtle love songs to the females they are trying to woo. Some of these sites are believed to have been around for thousands of years.

University of California, Davis researcher Jessica Blickley and Associate Professor Gail Patricelli, leading experts on greater sage grouse communication behavior, found that stress levels of returning males are elevated by industrial noises such as continuous drilling and trucks.

In a three-year experiment that began in 2006, they recorded industrial noises from the Pinedale area in Wyoming and played them from speakers placed on the edge of eight leks in Fremont County, Wyoming. The number of male sage grouse gathering on leks declined up to 73 percent in the first year,Patricelli said.

“We were surprised to find that the impact of the noise happened pretty quickly,” she said.

The study also showed that loud construction noises would mask the males’ love songs, and possibly the sound of mothers communicating with their young and predators approaching, all of which may reduce the number of the grouse.

TransCanada, the Canadian company that proposed the Keystone XL project, has said it would create a three-mile buffer zone around active leks, restrict construction during certain times of the year and restore sage grouse habitats. But experts argue that the best mitigation plan for the greater sage grouse is to adjust the route again so that construction can be as far away from the birds as possible.

Pat Deibert, national sage grouse coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said it was “incredibly difficult” to restore the bird’s habitat after pipeline companies clear a piece of land for construction. The greater sage grouse is known for its picky diet — the bird feeds almost exclusively on sage brush. Deibert said various experiments have shown that it takes 30 to 50 years and lots of money to restore sage brush because of seeding problems.

South Dakota is in discussions with TransCanada to minimize the pipeline construction’s potential damage to the bird, according to John Kanta, wildlife manager at the state’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks. He said the company seemed “agreeable to do something” such as setting aside funds for the birds, though it indicated no intention of adjusting the proposed route.

Kent Jensen, a biologist at South Dakota State University, warned that the state’s sage grouse population would respond with higher mortality and lower reproductive rates if the company executes the current plan and clears a large portion of sage brush in the two counties. He said the birds would be forced to travel elsewhere in search of food and nesting ground, pitting them against other birds.

“If you displace animals from one place to another, there tends to be conflicts,” Jensen said. “From the area that is impacted, they likely could just disappear, if the impact is large enough.”

Experts say the sage grouse population in South Dakota is very important because the state doesn’t have many of the birds to begin with. A robust sage grouse population indicates that other animals in the sage brush ecosystem such as pygmy rabbits and Brewer’s sparrows are prospering as well.

“They represent many things that are going out on the landscape,” according to Tom Christiansen, grouse biologist at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “If sage grouse were to disappear, there probably would be a lot of other species and habitats that would be gone as well.”

Oil riches pose environmental risks for North Dakota

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North Dakota’s crude oil and natural gas: From the Bakken to you

Oil boom leaves a trail of wastes, officials say

Valuable energy resource up in flames in North Dakota

WILLISTON, N.D. – Fly over Williston at night and you may think you’re passing a major metropolitan area dotted with thousands of tiny lights.

But in Williston, an oil boom town in the state’s northwestern corner, the population only recently topped 16,000. Those lights don’t line the streets of a bustling city. They’re flames, the signature of new oil fields where natural gas is burned off into the atmosphere.

The process, called flaring, is the disposal method for up to 30 percent of natural gas released as a byproduct of oil fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation. Fracking technology, which uses a mix of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to open fissures in the shale, has allowed for a boom in North Dakota’s fossil fuels extraction. Without proper collection and processing infrastructure for natural gas, many companies simply burn it off.

Though widespread, flaring draws concern over environmental implications and the squandering of a viable energy resource.

(Carly Helfand/MEDILL)

But with between $3 and $4 billion currently being invested in pipelines and facilities to capture and process natural gas, officials say North Dakota should see a substantial reduction in flaring over the course of the next two years.

“While patience is a virtue, it’s been a challenge for a lot of people to see this thing through during this lag period,” said Scott Cramer, North Dakota’s public service commissioner. “But we are starting to see some relief, and I believe over the course of the next several months to a year and ultimately two years, we’ll see dramatic relief and people will feel better about it.”

Flaring incinerates more than 95 percent of the volatile emissions released through oil extraction that could react with other compounds to create ozone. The practice is preferable to venting those harmful emissions directly into the atmosphere, but the 140 billion cubic meters of flared natural gas worldwide in 2011 created 360 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to emissions from about 70 million cars, according to World Bank estimates.

Ideally, natural gas can be collected and processed to avoid any environmental exposure – with the right collection mechanisms in place. But that infrastructure can also be expensive, and the recent influx of natural gas from fracking is depressing prices across the market. Anti-flaring advocates have blamed companies for using flaring as a way to dodge costly development.

“The gas is a secondary product,” Cramer said. “It’s not what they’re drilling for, but that doesn’t diminish its value. It’s still an important commodity – it’s just a much lower-priced commodity and it’s a little more difficult to capture. Given that, we’ve seen a pretty significant lag over the last three to four years in putting in the infrastructure to capture and process and ship that gas to market, while the oil has gone fast and furious.”

But Ron Ness, president of North Dakota’s Oil and Petroleum Council, said the lag is justified, as companies have to understand the magnitude of the natural gas reserves before building pipelines and processing facilities for it.

“It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing,” he said. “You’ve got to get it so it’s sized right.”

Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, also said he doesn’t know where the rumors about flaring got started.

“You wouldn’t see this being invested [in] if it wasn’t economical for these companies,” Kringstad said.

Wet and dry gas are collected together, and once the gas reaches a processing facility, valuable liquids such as propane, butane and ethane can be stripped off and transported to market separately. There, they can fetch prices twice as high as dry gas or greater.

“Natural gas liquids more than compensate for low dry gas prices. That liquid portion is really what makes it very attractive,” Kringstad said.

Several companies will soon be capitalizing on those liquids. Leading the pack is ONEOK Inc., which expects three new processing facilities – each with a capacity of 100 million cubic feet per day – to be on-line by 2014. Overall, the pipeline authority expects to see between 1.33 and 1.35 billion cubic feet per day processed by 2014, compared with just 780 million in 2011.

Kringstad said “numerous” other private construction projects are in the works as well.

“There’s no question [the liquid quality] has made it much more economically feasible and advantageous for private investment to take place,” Cramer said.

Although gas companies will be playing catch-up to existing oil drilling projects, Darius Frick, an area operations supervisor for Whiting Petroleum Corp., said many of the natural gas plants and large gathering lines are already set and that right now it’s the smaller, lateral lines from the wells to the plants that are going in.

“From this point on, it goes quickly,” Frick said. “It’s in the very beginning stages of development when there’s just a handful of wells in a field being drilled that your gas plants aren’t in place, your pipelines aren’t in place. But once a field is drilled and they get a pretty good idea as to what’s really there, then the infrastructure starts going in. It takes time to put in miles and miles and miles of pipeline, but once we get started and it’s in, then the gas comes to the plants quickly.”

Regardless of when it happens, a reduction in flaring will be welcomed by North Dakota residents who are watching an energy resource go up in smoke. Cramer said last winter, the state was flaring enough gas every day to heat 1,200 North Dakota homes for a year.

“We’re a cold state, so when we watch it being flared, we have a bit of a moral problem with that,” he said. “We are anxious to solve those challenges as well as produce an economic opportunity for North Dakota.”

Ocean power draws current from research and investment

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Annual wave power potential in terawatt-hours/year for coastal regions

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The total available wave energy resources along the outer continental shelf (200 m depth contour), according to the Mapping and Assessment of the U.S. Ocean Wave Energy Resource, add up to around 2,500 TWhr/yr (1 terawatt = 1 trillion watts). Alaska has the most wave energy potential with over 1,500 TWhr/yr. The West Coast, with a total regional potential of 590 TWhr/yr for Washington, Oregon and California, comes in second. The U.S. uses about 4,000 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity per year.Scientists are aware that waves will always be best on the West Coast because they are created by winds that blow from west to east.

CREDIT: Lorena Villa Parkman
DATA: Mapping and Assessment of the United States Ocean Wave Energy Resource; Electric Power Research Institute

Fishermen view commercial wave energy as a threat

[vimeo 47876586 w=600&h=380]

Catching the waves – Ocean´s power

Future energy – A portfolio of every option

CORVALLIS, Ore. – No one magic solution will save the day as global energy demands double in coming decades.

The world is going to need every alternative energy available to supplement fossil fuels, a portfolio of solutions working together based on what resource you have or where you are located.

Comparing renewable energy sources is like “comparing apples and oranges,” said Belinda Batten, director of the Northwest National Marine Renewable Center, in Corvallis, Ore.

“One might have more suitability than other, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. You wouldn’t power Nebraska with wave energy, but you could produce a lot of the West Coast energy on wave power.”

Batten stressed the importance of developing this technology worldwide.

“Look at some island nations like the Philippines or Guam or states like Hawaii, they are all very excited to bring wave energy to fulfill their energy solutions.”

The current biggest challenge while developing wave power is prioritizing the research with limited funding. For instance, no one knows for certain what kind of impact the technology deployed could have on the environment when wave energy scales up.

“Our biggest challenge is optimizing which questions we are going to pursue with limited funding,” said Sarah Henkel, assistant professor at Oregon State University and researcher at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

“Questions like the acoustic effect on mammals, electromagnetic fields on species, whether devices are going to aggregate fish or if they are going to displace other organisms. You can study any level of that habitat or food web but we have to choose what to pursue.”

In the meantime, Oregon positions itself as a world pioneer in wave energy research, and this fall, in deployment of a commercial wave energy generator.

As people learn what wave energy is about, the research, testing and mass commercial development processes will mature and try to be the less impactful possible to the habitants of the area and to the environment.

“Renewable energy is obviously what the world will use to power itself for the rest of our existence,” said Jason Busch, director or the Oregon Wave Energy Trust. “We’ve been transitioning as species, for the lest several thousand years, from wood to coal to oil to petrol gas as energy resources. What comes next is renewable energy.” And Oregon is working hard to make this happen.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The power of the oceans promises a massive untapped reservoir of sustainable energy for coastal U.S. states such as Oregon – and for island nations such as the Philippines or Guam.

The first commercial test wave buoy to produce electrical power is scheduled for installation off the coast of Reedsport, Ore., this fall.

Ten will be deployed in all, creating a 1.5 megawatt wave energy hub that can power about 1,000 homes.

Utilities and researchers expect to learn a lot about what it takes to harness the waves from this phase.

Oregon State University and the University of Washington are partnering to develop wave energy through the Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center in Corvallis, Ore., to support wave energy development throughout the United States. Investigations focus on the technical, environmental and social aspects of wave energy.

Waves are among the largest marine energy resources in the ocean. The Department of Energy estimates that there is enough power in the ocean waves to provide up to 2 terawatts of electricity, doubling the world’s current generating capacity for electricity.

Waves represent a wealth of energy resources from the ocean. The World Energy Council has estimated that there is enough power in the ocean waves to more than double current global generating capacity. (Gloria Oh/MEDILL)

Two recently released assessments – Mapping and Assessment of the U.S. Ocean Wave Energy Resource and Assessment of Energy Production Potential from Tidal Streams in the U.S., demonstrate that waves off the nation’s coasts could provide 15 percent of the United States’ total energy needs by 2030.

The U.S. uses about 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. Most people pay their electric bill based on the number of kilowatt-hours of electricity they use. A kilowatt-hour provides enough power to light up 10 100-watt bulbs for an hour. A terawatt-hour measures up to 1 billion kilowatt-hours.

Wave power is widely accessible compared to other renewable sources. The Northwest National Marine Renewable Center and several other organizations in Oregon are trying to make the best use of ocean’s power.

“If you do a Google search on how much power we can get from waves, the answer will be about 10 percent of the world’s energy,” said Belinda Batten, director of NNMREC. “If you think this is just one ocean energy technology, this is somewhat significant.”

While testing and research move forward to harvest ocean waves, Oregon´s first test buoy for a wave energy plant will be anchored in Reedsport this fall.

“There are lots of reasons why Oregon is a good option for wave energy”, said Sarah Henkel, assistant professor at OSU and researcher at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, in Newport.

“The ocean here is very energetic and we have a very straight coastline with no barrier islands. Forecasting the waves is more reliable, buoys deployed 200 miles away can measure the waves that we will get to the coast 48 hours later,” she said.

Think about it. If you are a utility company trying to manage a portfolio with different alternative energy sources, having a reliable measure of the amount of energy you will be able to receive from a certain type of technology is very valuable. “The predictability and the magnitude of the waves make them a great resource from an energy perspective,” said Henkel.

On the West Coast, the summer months generate less powerful waves than during the turbulent winter. Meteorologists can gage a specific wave climate 48 hours out. That means a utility company can count on a reliable estimate of power supply.

Another reason Oregon is an ideal testing ground is that the state has unused electrical infrastructure dating back to the peak of logging industry.

“Electricity was run to the coast to support the mills shipping logs out. There aren’t that many logging operations anymore and that infrastructure is unused,” said Henkel. “There is an opportunity to take energy from the coast to send it back to the rest of the state and the West Coast, that´s attractive to developers since they can save money on initial investments.”

Waves will always be best on the West Coast, though, according to Batten. That’s wave energy 101. “They are created by winds and they blow from west to east, so that’s why. Also, waves are stronger the farther you are from the equator,” she said.

From the ocean to our homes

OSU isn’t involved in deploying the buoys this summer or in creating actual wave energy. But large-scale research to accelerate the future of wave energy is well underway.

“We don’t build buoys that collect energy, but buoys that can analyze energy collection,” Henkel said. “Buoy developers will anchor theirs to our analysis buoy and plug it in. Researchers then will analyze the quantity and quality of energy that it makes under different wave scenarios.”

Protecting the local fishing industry in Oregon is one of the priorities while assessing the potential impacts of wave energy. Gloria Oh/MEDILL

The buoys or wave energy conversion devices, once they are tested and approved by utility companies, will go into the ocean and will connect via cables beneath the ocean floor to the electrical grid to get the energy from the device to the shore. There’s talk about having power pods on the ocean floor to connect several buoys, functioning like a power strip, Henkel said.

Many kinds of devices are under development and no single technology has been proven superior to another one, according to Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center.

All of them would require cables under the ocean’s floor to transmit the power to the grid on the shore.

Currently, four main types of WEC devices generate or convert energy from waves.

•Oscillating water column: Generates power when waves push against a horizontally hinged flap or when they are funneled into a structure that causes a water column to rise and fall.
•Attenuator: This device is oriented in the direction of incoming waves that cause articulated components to bend and drive generators. Attenuators are typically moored to the ocean floor on one end.
•Overtopping: This converter has a partially submerged structure that funnels wave over the top of the structure into a reservoir. The water runs back to the sea powering a hydropower turbine.
•Point Absorbers: These devices capture energy from the “up and down” motion of the waves. They might be fully or partially submerged.

“If anybody claims that their device is better, it’s a false claim,” Batten said. “We will start testing them in the ocean in September 2012 and until you get them into the ocean you don’t know what changes they can produce.”

The project’s technology challenges are associated not only with electrical generation and output, but mechanical systems, anchoring, reliability, predictability and integration of the power into the electrical grid.

Most of the experts involved in developing wave energy in Oregon agree that development of this energy source is still very much in the early stages, with lots of unknowns.

“We still don’t know what the WEC devices do, their environmental impact,” Batten said.

Batten mentioned that one thing slowing down development now is funding. In the United Kingdom, there has been a surge of investments at a regional and national level, in comparison.

Challenges come from all sides: technical, regulatory, financial. But, in fact, the U.S. is not very far behind the rest of the world. “We are abnormally slow in general,” Henkel said. “There are testing facilities in Portugal and Scotland that have tested devices, but they are not at a scale of commercial development yet either.”

The truth is that every form of development, whether it’s a renewable energy facility, church, road or fossil fuel plant, displaces species. “They kill birds, pollutes the air, it does stuff, all forms of human development affect the environment in some way,” said Busch.

“However, with ocean energy those impacts are extremely low, and they are by far lesser than fossil fuels’ impacts. Compared to other sources of renewable energy, wave energy also has a very low impact.”

Wind energy set to blow in a gale of U.S. power

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Percent increases in states’ installed wind capacity

Cape Wind: The power of offshore wind

Harvesting U.S. wind potential

CAPE COD, Mass. — The U.S. is churning up a gale of wind energy with those turbines visible across the countryside and soon to be anchored to the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in Nantucket Sound near Cape Cod.

One area of debate surrounding offshore wind farms in the U.S. is the cost of the turbines. Offshore turbines are much bigger, sturdier and more costly than onshore models that typically carry about a $6 million price tag for a 3 megawatt unit. The 130 Cape Wind turbines have a generating capacity of 3.6 megawatts each.

“Offshore, the price is probably going to be about 50 percent greater,” said Rick Walker of the Texas Wind Energy Institute.

A more complicated installation process is one of the factors associated with this elevated cost. The turbines that will make up the Cape Wind farm will be drilled approximately 85 feet into the ocean floor, and have foundations weighing between 250 and 350 tons to keep them in place.

The lack of offshore turbine manufacturers in the U.S. also drives the cost of these projects up. Cape Wind will be importing turbines from Siemens, located in Denmark, according to Mark Rodgers, director of communications for Cape Wind.

Despite the additional costs of offshore wind farms, onshore turbine installations are increasing at a pace that places within reach the goal to draw 20 percent of America’s electricity from wind by 2030.

Since the release of the 2008 study, “20 percent Wind Energy by 2030: Increasing Wind Energy’s Contribution to U.S. Electricity Supply,” the Department of Energy has pushed for the increased implementation of wind energy across the nation.

“If we’re going to try and make 20 percent by 2030, we’re well ahead of the pace to do that,” said Don Farris, an instructor in the Wind Energy Programs at Texas Tech University, Lubbock.

It will take 100 gigawatts of power capacity nationwide for wind to meet that goal. A gigawatt is a billion watts and enough electricity to power 10 million, 100-watt light bulbs. As of January 2011, the nation was harnessing about 41 gigawatts of installed wind capacity.

At this rate, it’s very likely for the U.S. to meet, and even exceed that 20 percent goal, Farris said.

Another existing effort headed by the Department of Energy aims to generate a whopping 80 percent of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2050. At the pace wind energy is currently expanding, it could make up a large chunk of that 80 percent.

“A couple of people I know, part of the people working on that, they think wind could be almost half of that 80 percent,” said Walker. “Maybe 40 percent of our electricity supply [from renewables] could be met by wind energy by 2050.”

That’s because wind energy in the U.S. has great potential to grow. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, areas of the U.S. with a designation of three or above on the annual average wind power map are suitable for wind energy applications.

The three is close to midway on the one to seven scale of wind power density.

A good portion of the country falls into the viable category, with areas such as the Great Lakes and the Northeast coast scoring up to at least six on the seven-point scale, with winds ranging from 17.9 mph to 19.7 mph at an altitude of 164 feet.

And unlike other, more traditional sources of energy such as nuclear power plants, wind turbines are relatively low-impact.

“There are no pollutants and it produces energy with almost no side effects,” Farris said. “It does take a small amount of land to operate and…it takes up a little bit of space on the landscape, but other plants take up space on the landscape.”

And the real bonus is that wind energy doesn’t require any external fuel input to get the desired output.

“Its just a pollution-free, fuel-free way to produce energy, and it works just marvelously well,” Farris said.

But with every pro comes a con, and both Farris and Walker acknowledge the potential problems of wind turbines.

“When you hear people talk about wind, some of the most common objections are that the wind doesn’t blow all the time, so it’s somewhat intermittent,” Farris said.

But certainly turbines are most economically viable when there’s a consistent source of wind.

And while it’s technically possible to put up wind turbines wherever there’s wind, turbines need winds blowing at about 6 mph to start turning, according to Farris.

“Wind turbines are expensive,” said Farris. “If you look at the typical cost figure—the installed cost—is something like $2 million per megawatt. You have to harvest a fair amount of energy from that to make it economically pay for itself.”

Barbara Hill, former executive director of the now defunct Cape Cod organization Clean Power Now, which supported the Cape Wind Project on Nantucket Sound, agrees that offshore means a hefty investment.

“However, the winds offshore are much more robust,” Hill said. “You get essentially, more bang for your buck. The winds are more sustainable.”

Offshore winds also tend to be more robust during peak energy consumption hours—during the middle of hot, summer weekdays, according to the Deepwater Wind Energy Center’s research conducted by meteorological experts at the consulting firm AWS Truepower.

That correlation should be another addition to the list of pros for wind energy, but some people are still resistant. And that resistance could stem from perception of wind energy, Farris said.

“Perhaps to an engineer these things are a thing of beauty,” Farris said. “To someone who’s an outdoorsman, they may be pollution on an otherwise beautiful landscape. How you view wind is going to be something that depends on your background. You can’t put up wind farms in a community if the community isn’t going to accept them.”

And most community members who would be most impacted by wind turbines, especially offshore turbines, aren’t engineers or scientists, who’ve been exposed to the research that makes the case for wind energy.

“You really have to ask the question ‘What is important to you?’” said Hill. “Is your view more important than a sustainable environment? We can’t have it all. We’ve got to make some tough choices about energy.”