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Sustainable Energy, the Next Threat to Forests

Sustainable Energy, the Next Threat to Forests

THE PROBLEM

According to Nasa Earth Observatory, “The single biggest direct cause of tropical deforestation is conversion to cropland and pasture, mostly for subsistence, which is growing crops or raising livestock to meet daily needs.” It is estimated that the entire landmass of South America will be required to feed 80% of the world’s population by 2050.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) projects agrees that biomass is being lost through the “conversion of forests for other land uses, including pulp, palm, and soy plantations, pastures, settlements, roads and infrastructure.”

The largest threat is agriculture, and many countries have turned to growing high value crops, optimizing the space for the highest capital yield. This monoculture economy depletes the land, and is often accompanied by other devastating practices, such as slash and burn agriculture, where the most economical way to clear forest or the remains of a prior harvest are to set fire to the land. Coastal towns on the west coast of Malaysia are often engulfed in smoke that drifts over the ocean from neighboring Indonesia, who turns to this practice, and relies largely a palm oil economy. In the Philippines, entire islands have been converted to tobacco farms; in Sri Lanka, tea plantations; Guatemala and Belize point to each other as burning down forests that encroach on the Mayan Biosphere; the list goes on.

 

BEYOND AGRICULTURE

Food is certainly the leading cause of deforestation, and land clearing for both lumber and agriculture have left many countries depleted in the past century. Germany is said to have lost over 60% of its forests to development, and this risk continues to plagues developing countries.

Beyond agriculture, forests are threatening by the need to provide homes and greater infrastructure as populations move to urban areas. The need to provide power increases as the world continues to become more digital, and as technologies become more widely adopted, largely due to progress against poverty and economic disparity. More vehicles, more digital and connected devices (IoT of everything), and the things many of us take for granted, such as air conditioning.

Energy demand will triple in the same time that the world’s population will increase by just 40% (2050). Efficiencies in our technologies are reducing the amount of energy required to drive them, while other technologies – machine learning, data (or cryptocurrency) mining, autonomous machines, … – are requiring greater input of energy.

 

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY SOLUTIONS

By 2050, the Unites States hopes to be deriving 80% of its energy needs from renewable sources Рwind, water, thermal, solar. There are other countries that have already made those leaps in sustainable energy.

Earlier this year, the China Merchants Energy Group completed the first part of an ongoing project intended to provide clean, renewable energy to the region. It’s cute, and a step in the direction being advocated. Covering 250 acres of land, we fear that this approach shows the potential of being as great a threat to land preservation as agriculture and other forms of development.

The biggest issue is scalability. As demand increases, it cannot be that the amount of land required should also increase.

 

BEST PRACTICE IN RENEWABLE ENERGY

There have been many successes in utilizing renewable energy sources, and the attempt above should not be judged too harshly. This is an industry that has been limited, until quite recently, by high cost, and a lack of applied innovations beyond architectural ones (also not to be taken lightly). What we are facing now is an era of practical thinking and application, and some countries are almost there.

Population, access, and economic readiness are among the factors that play into becoming energy independent, and there is no simple formula. The question is not when we will get there, but more how we will get there, and scalability is key.

An Alternative

Methods have been proposed that would address this threat, such as MIT’s concept of vertical (3D) solar grids, posted in 2012. There are inherent challenges to this approach, including considerations for shadow casting as well as considerable structural and maintenance costs, but this approach also provides other opportunities, such as dual-sourcing energy from a single structure: such as coupling wind turbines to solar towers. Additionally, tunneling down allows this towner to also access hydrothermal sources below.

The most creative application (again, not a new concept, but now an applied one), is Tesla’s solar tiles, allowing any house to absorb energy requirements for the building. This may work for single-family homes, but lacks scalability in residential towers; not scalable for cities.

Some companies have proposed solar walls on the side of buildings, and there are varying methods of application, such as the 28th Street Apartments in South Los Angeles or the SwissTech Convention Center, which provide hope that hybrid methods will allow residential towers to capture energy requirements through windows, walls, and other methods.


The possibilities for solutions and innovations in this sector are great, but the right decisions need to be made now to prevent financial waste, and more importantly, the destruction of valuable land, and the loss of other biodiversity that would go along with it. These innovative approaches are available today, and securing a better future means ensuring that these technologies are being applies now.

 

Multimodal Approach

Energy initiatives are being applied with better insight, experience, and continued innovation. The right approach in large scale renewable energy projects must go beyond the management or execution of an installation, but ensure that forward looking factors are taken into consideration. Data analysis and predictive modeling allow for scalability, as well as scoping, allowing the project’s reach and impact to go beyond itself.

  • Reduction of risk – this includes distributing projects across different renewable sources, considerations for environmental changes and cycles, as well as other factors that may cause a reduction or need to increase output;
  • Lower footprint – ensuring that we don’t simply take advantage of cleared space, understanding that land surface is limited, as well as ensuring that the infrastructure we place can be removed just as simply as it is installed;
  • Engineered Symbiosis – utilizing the effects of installing renewable energy architecture and infrastructure to discover opportunities created by the construction itself, such as increase of shaded areas.

 

PARTNER WITH RETHINK Innovation Management

Renewable energy is not only the power source of the future, but allows for discovered opportunities. We bring new ideas to the project, ensuring considerations go beyond the project, considering future impacts, as well as potential. From project concept, through management, RETHINK partners in collaboration with industry, experts, and policy makers, to promote a better future.

James Watson