· April 2011

April 2011

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The New York Times has an interesting piece today regarding the public backlash that has occurred as a consequence of the PSE&G installations of solar panels in residential neighborhoods.

This effort on the part of PSE&G is laudable and should continue. But such efforts would be wise to be augmented by more aesthetically considered approaches and perhaps there are ways to make the already installed panels more acceptable to the neighborhoods in which they’ve been placed. Perhaps the undersides of the panels are used in some way or are more artistically incorporated into the pole, and/or perhaps future installations can better integrate the solar panel into the light fixture itself so as to result in something that looks less like a design afterthought.

In any case, it sounds like a ripe opportunity for a design competition…

[Updated on June 4, 2015 to give a better number for solar production capacity per m2 area]

solar vs tar sandclick on the image to view larger

This graphic shows how much surface area would be required to replace all of the BTUs of energy that can be extracted annually from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada. The process of mining the bitumen-rich sand is severely and irreversibly damaging to the environment. The surface mining operations (the more economically viable method) require the removal of 20 feet of “overburden” (the industry term for the delicate ecosystem of boreal forest and muskeg) and the further removal of potentially 100 feet of subsoil, parts of which contain the tar sands.

aerial view of mineMore information about Athabasca tar sands and the environmental effects of the mining can be read here (use the zoom feature on the photos), and here, and some really amazing aerial photographs of the destruction (by Louis Helbig) can be seen here.

The amount of effort that it takes to literally scrape away 100 feet of earth over thousands of acres makes this the most ambitious earth moving project in human history. And that doesn’t even begin to take into consideration the separation of the sulfur content and other refinement processes, the management of massive fluid impoundment areas, and the logistics of shipping, piping and transportation. It makes us wonder if all of that human energy went into the production of concentrated solar power plants, how many could we bring on line in ten years?

aerial view of minePhoto on the left is undisturbed Boreal forest. The photo on the right is taken from National Geographic.

aerial view of mineThere is one thing yet missing from this comparison though. If what we are talking about here is a direct comparison between synthetic crude oil and solar generated electricity, then we need to look at one of the primary end uses of these forms of energy: transportation.

We shouldn’t really compare BTU for BTU between these two sources of transportation fuel because the end-use efficiencies differ so much. In other words, you can get a lot further on every BTU of energy in an electric car than you can on each BTU of energy in a car with an internal combustion engine. In fact, you can get four times as far! A look at the Nissan Leaf shows that is uses 0.34KWh of energy for every mile that it travels. This is equivalent to 1,160 BTUs. The average fuel economy of cars in America is 19.8 miles per gallon. Let’s be generous and use a figure of 25 miles per gallon. That is the same as saying that the car uses 0.04 gallons every mile (1/25), which is equivalent to 4,564 BTUs. So you can reduce the surface area required by 1/4 (the darker yellow on the graphic) and you will have a more accurate comparison for replacing transportation fuels.

Given that the tar sands tailings ponds (storage of toxic byproduct water) alone already cover 150 square kilometers, it makes the comparison very enlightening that with not that much more area we could accomplish the same result with no emissions and with an eternally renewable energy source. Perhaps we should start by placing solar panels over the tailing ponds?

The solar power required to replace all of the BTUs of energy contained within the tar sands is significant. There is a lot of energy buried under those forests. But just because the energy is there doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to dig it up. Especially when there are other options that are clearly available to us. They may be more challenging to accomplish and they may require public investment, but doing the right thing should make the effort worthwhile. Otherwise we have decided that it is OK to destroy tens of thousands of kilometers of forest and habitat, and at the same time add hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 into an atmosphere that is already way past its limit. It is up to us to conserve energy and to create it sustainably. We’ve designed and built more than one 100MW solar power plant before. We can do it if we have the will.


solar vs shaleclick on the image to view larger

The latest in our information graphic series is a study of how much surface area would be required to replace all of the BTUs of energy that can possibly be extracted from the Marcellus shale formation in the United States. The drilling activity has been very controversial due to the large amount of water consumed and the detrimental effects on the environment, most notably water aquifers and watersheds, created from the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) methods that are required to make Marcellus shale gas extraction a viable prospect.

aerial view of wellMore information about Marcellus shale and the environmental effects of fracking can be read here, here, and here.

A blowout two days ago at a well in Canton, Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water into a nearby stream. Events like this occur many times each year.

A map of sites with Department of Environmental Protection violations shows that safety oversights are extremely common. Even in wells that meet regulations there is often significant leeching of hydraulic fracturing fluids into the ground by nature of the process.

aerial view of well4-6 million gallons of water and 15-22 thousand gallons of chemicals (here’s a PDF list) are injected into the ground during a typical fracking treatment (the process opens up cracks in the rock formations to allow the gas to escape). About 40-50% of this fluid is pumped back to the surface, containing the original chemicals and also with heavy metals, radioactive solids, arsenic, barium, and brine that is brought up from the rock. On the surface, it is held in fluid impoundment areas and then carried to treatment facilities by truck or injected back into the earth. The fluid that is re-injected can contaminate groundwater, and if it is instead hauled off-site, wastewater treatment facilities typically are unable to remove salts and other dissolved solids in brines.

aerial view of wellOne of the reasons often used to make the case for the expanded extraction of difficult to reach natural gas deposits is that natural gas is cleaner burning than coal or petroleum. A recent study from Cornell University shows that, in fact, the extraction of gas from sources like the Marcellus shale can lead to even greater amounts of greenhouse gas emissions than normally occur from the mining and use of coal.

The graphic at the top creates a comparison between the energy (measured in BTUs) that can be extracted from the Marcellus shale formation gas deposits and how much surface area of solar installations would be required to equal the same amount of energy generation capacity.

aerial view of wellInterestingly, the area that is required to be cleared for drilling and piping operations is nearly equal to the area required for the same amount of solar energy generation capacity. We have assumed that 20 acres of land is disturbed per well. We have also assumed that each well can produce 0.005 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas over its lifetime of 35 years. This will require 10,000 wells working for 35 years to exhaust the 50 TCF of gas that it has been estimated can be extracted with present technology. 10,000 wells would produce 1.4 TCF per year (current production rate is 0.2 TCF per year), which is equivalent to 435,400,000,000 kilowatt-hours. It is this number that was used to estimate the surface area required, approximating 400 KWh per square meter per year.

Jonah field in the Rockies

Here is an interesting assessment from Business Insider of the potential exaggeration of Marcellus shale gas reserves and their potential for useful and profitable extraction. The article points the the fact that most companies can only be profitable at $7.00/MCF wellhead price. At current wellhead prices (about $4.50 per MCF) the potential net sale of all extractable gas (50 TCF) is $225 billion.

aerial view of wellBut the cost of extraction is not cheap. It can cost $6.5 million to get a well to the point of sustained production. With a lifetime production capacity of about 4,400,000 MCF, each well stands to net $20 million but that is over the entire lifetime of the well, which could be 30-40 years. The operational costs of keeping the well in production over that time eat into that $13.5 million potential profit. So, along with wellhead price, the assumptions of what the falloff rates are become key to the equation.

During the first year (immediately after hydraulic fracturing) a typical well could bring up 1,000MCF-1,500MCF per day. But the very next year, that will fall by more than half and it will fall each year over the next ten to a point at which it will be producing less than 100MCF per day, and only 50MCF after 20 years. When a well falls below 50MCF per day, it can barely offset the cost of the compression energy required to extract the gas. Re-fracking could potentially squeeze some more out, but at what cost?

Given all of the potential downside risks to this type of energy production, it just doesn’t seem to make sense, certainly in the long term. But companies often enter into such speculation bubbles because they can make money off of investors and friendly legislative policies over the course of a decade and get out before the industry collapses. In order for a market to function properly and make good macro-decisions, it needs to be aware of all of the facts: realistic proved reserves and externalized costs to infrastructure and the environment.

Complete list of sources for this graphic:


We are very pleased to announce that Zayed University has awarded Elizabeth Monoian (Principal and Co-founder of LAGI) the Provost’s Research Fellowship for her work on LAGI.

Sustainable Environment and Infrastructure is one of the strong UAE Government Strategic Directives, and Zayed University has implemented policies to incorporate that objective into University planning and decision-making, be it through curriculum, faculty research support, or through facilities maintenance and community outreach.

Last year, Zayed University launched ZEIN (Zayed Environmental Impact Network), a committee that has facilitated events and programs throughout the university to increase awareness, reduce resource demand, and increase recycling programs.

This academic calendar year, Zayed University launched RURL (Responsible Urbanism Research Lab) with Yasmine Abbas at the helm. RURL is Zayed University’s transdisciplinary research platform dedicated to advance knowledge in the field of sustainable urbanism.

Yasmine is a French DPLG architect (Paris Val-de-Marne — now Paris Val-de-Seine — 1997). At MIT and Harvard, Abbas researched how mobile individuals—neo-nomads—Re:locate, i.e. construct and reclaim a sense of belonging to places through physical, mental and digital means. Abbas has traveled extensively and worked internationally in the fields of art and architecture, consumer research and social sustainability.

Zayed University’s support of LAGI 2012 will help make possible the implementation of the next biennial international design competition.

Stay tuned to learn more about the exciting design site location for LAGI2012 (which city in the world will it be?) for next year’s competition. We’ll be making an announcement here in the coming weeks…

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