BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Susan Watts

Archives for October 2008

Two go mad in Silicon Valley...

Susan Watts | 16:35 UK time, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Our trip to California turned out to be quite nostalgic. For me, it was a throw back to my days as a cub reporter on Computer Weekly in the late 1980s, when we still banged out our copy on typewriters. For Newsnight producer, Ming Tsang, it was a mini refresher course in the history of computing. Read his thoughts here.

We set out to make a film about the huge amount of energy used by the giant computers that drive the Internet, and our data-obsessed lives. Everything we do which requires tapping into a keyboard, uses one of these computers, called servers. They're kept in enormous climate-controlled warehouses known as data centres, or "server farms" to geeks and governments. And these are getting so big, and using so much energy, that people are starting to take note.

In fact, for every unit of energy a server uses to actually do some computing, it takes an equivalent amount of energy to cool it down again. US Government statistics show that data centres now use as much energy as the whole of the car manufacturing industry. Given that the US alone builds around 10 million cars a year, that's an awful lot of energy. And it looks even worse if you stare into the future.

The latest industry figures suggest that by 2020, the carbon emissions produced in generating energy for the Internet will be the equivalent of those produced by the airline industry. These figures assume that neither business makes much progress in cutting emissions, so we set out to ask some of the computer industry's leading players how the industry plans to use less energy, or to switch to cleaner, less polluting sources.

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Energy challenges for US

Susan Watts | 12:09 UK time, Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The 'golden driller of Tulsa' - testament to how much Oklahoma loves its oil
Synchronicity. Barack Obama arrives in his native Hawaii this week, to visit his grandmother, and Newsnight's just come back.

Earlier this month, I spent some time in two states, Hawaii and Oklahoma, talking to people there about the sort of energy future they want for their country - Oklahoma, because of its historic entanglement with oil, and Hawaii, because it's a state that has embraced renewable energy like no other. The film is on Thursday's Newsnight - but you can watch it now - with a bonus extra - below.

The idea was to forget what the think-tanks tell us about how Americans think, and to try to find out for myself if they are ready to break past links with oil, and to make any changes in the way they live as scientists telling us we all face unprecedented home-grown changes in the world's climate. It wasn't a scientific test, but in three short days (actually they felt long), I met some extraordinary people.

The trip began in Oklahoma, ranked fifth of the country's oil-producing states. The people here live and breathe oil, and have done for generations. I met Melvin Moran, the 78 year old oil man and former mayor of Seminole. This sleepy town witnessed an oil-rush in the late 1920s so profound that at the time it was producing a third of the world's oil.

Melvin told me how his father arrived in Oklahoma, aged 16, from Latvia. He slept in the truck he bought with a $1000 bank loan and built the family business first by buying scrap metal from oil contractors, then by selling oil for himself.

Melvin thinks it "silly" not to drill for oil in Alaska, because Americans use 21 million barrels of oil a day and are importing some 11 million of those. But he also sees a time when demand for energy at home and abroad is so vast that to neglect other energy sources - from nuclear to wind to solar - would be negligent too. He's a lifelong Democrat, but his biggest fear is that the politicians' promises to reform America's energy system will wither after the election.

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Finding a climate for growth

Susan Watts | 14:01 UK time, Thursday, 16 October 2008

Today, Ed Miliband - the new energy and climate change secretary - has accepted the call for an 80% cut in Britain's carbon emissions by 2050 from the Government's climate change committee.

Ok, most climate scientists may view 2050 as a pretty long way off, and argue that interim targets matter more, but most agree it's a start. The picture emerging last night from Brussels, though, will worry them.

A group of countries led by Italy and Poland has revolted on the EU climate change deal, designed to deliver 20% cuts in EU emissions on 1990 levels by 2020 (and a further 10 per cent if a global deal is struck next year). They've said they'll veto the plan unless the final text acknowledges concerns about the impact on their national economy - pointing to the global financial crisis, anxiously.

It seems a good moment to remind people of the programme in January when Newsnight asked: "should we give up on growth?" (You can watch my report below.) We picked up on a theme from economists and scientists who'd come out, and were asking in public if it's possible to tackle climate change while continuing to pursue a "go-for-growth" economic strategy.

New Scientist has taken up the thesis too, in this week's issue.

But without giving up on growth altogether, Green groups argue that even the most ambitious climate change plans can cost less than one per cent of member states' national incomes. And it seems Gordon Brown agrees. He stepped into the row yesterday saying: "This is not the time to abandon a climate change agenda which is important for the future... The climate change agenda is part of the solution for many of the problems we face as a world economy".

Of course, if we can't cut our emissions we'll have to spend more money on managing their impact on the environment - something I explored last week (watch that report here or my previous blog).

What do you think?

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All of a sudden... algae is everywhere

Susan Watts | 17:36 UK time, Thursday, 9 October 2008

There are all sorts of companies springing up offering algae as a universal cure-all, from jet fuel for aeroplanes, to a means of cleaning waste water and even as a new food source.

What's behind this growing fascination with algae is the promise of wealth, but with lower carbon emissions than traditional black gold. Oh, and algae can help fix climate change too.

If we grow fresh algae, this takes carbon in from the atmosphere, rather than releasing the carbon that is safely locked away in fossil fuels until we burn them.

Algae enthusiasts claim the production and burning of algal oil is a cycle that's close to carbon neutral, and urge the world to take algae seriously as we work out how to tackle climate change, food shortages and diminishing oil reserves.

My journey into the world of algae began with a trip to the less glamorous end of town in San Francisco. In an off-beat industrial park, housed in a former ice-cream factory, a company called Solazyme is banking its future on algae.

Formed by two college friends 5 years ago, Solazyme showed us a sealed flat-pack bag of the dried algae they believe holds the key to carbon neutral fuel. They asked us not film the sample because its colour might tell competitors the type of microalgae they're using.

They walked me round the labs where they're experimenting with algae samples from all over the world. They tweak some of these algal strains, genetically engineering them to thrive on wood. The wood takes carbon out of the air, the algae eat the carbon as they grow in fermenters, and the algal oil that results has just been certified as good enough to match conventional diesel and jet fuel.

The US military is interested and the company has raised a total of $45m in investment capital. They also claim to be talking to governments and airlines keen on algal oil.

One selling point for algal oil is that it doesn't have to be grown on land so doesn't compete for space with food production. In fact, Solazyme swears that the algae it doesn't turn into oil is good enough to eat. I tried their brownies made with algae instead of egg...and they weren't as bad as I was expected!

And there are other signs that this is moving beyond the research phase. A company called AlgaeLink is producing algae in greenhouses using CO2 emissions taken from a nearby power station. They claim to be producing 20 times more biofuel per hectare than conventional biofuel crops, and on non-agricultural land.

They also produce food for animals and fish and beauty products from the algae that isn't turned into oil. The firm has a tie-in with KLM/Air France to develop a jet fuel.

And there are other more long-standing algae advocates. Harry Hart has been writing to the BBC for a dozen years about a plan to save the world with algae that he hatched decades ago. It's all based on the incredible power of microalgae to grow fast, doubling in biomass in just a few hours with very few nutrients.

Mr Hart's utopian vision of feeding and fuelling the world on algae appears wildly ambitious at first sight. But in some ways he has been ahead of the curve that entrepreneurs like Solazyme and AlgaeLink are now riding.

We sent our intrepid camera man who proved so resilient on Newsnight's Arctic Adventure, George Pagliero, to meet Harry at his home in Bury-St-Edmunds.

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Harry is mistrustful of the traditional capitalist approach that's bringing algal oil to the market and sniggers at the idea of genetically engineering algae when they naturally do what he says we need - draw carbon out of the atmosphere. He sees this carbon as a source of wealth that could replace our oil-based economies.

Put simply, his plan is to take algae, grow them in controlled ponds in a mixture of salt and fresh water. The algae draw down huge quantities of carbon from the air as they grow and convert it to biomass - which we then either eat, or burn as fuel.

All this would take place in enclosed systems designed so that no climate-changing CO2 or methane gas escapes. He talks about building algal ponds on barren land, growing food where people are hungriest. You can have a look at his website here.

Harry was inspired decades ago when he worked as a cameraman filming the starving. He and a like-minded team have been working for years on versions of this scenario. They even persuaded a team at the agricultural research centre at Rothamsted to let a group of A'level students try out some of their ideas over the summer.

All this might sound far-fetched, but interest in algae is booming. There's even an algae trade group - the Algal Biomass Association - set up, they say, to promote commercially-viable transport and power generating algal fuels. They're holding their second annual algal biomass summit in Seattle this month if you want to know more..!

Watch Susan Watts reporting from Iceland here, on radical new approaches to reducing carbon in the atmosphere involving algae, artificial trees and lava.

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