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How China’s electric car push is shaking up oil markets

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Hello, folks! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This is the first issue of 2019. The year ahead promises a lot of movement on the environmental front. Let’s dig in…

This week:

  • How China’s electric cars are affecting the global oil market
  • Floating solar panels combine function and flair
  • The ups and downs of coal
  • Your green resolutions for 2019

China’s electric car push is shaking up the oil industry

(Gregor Macdonald)

Gregor Macdonald, a U.S.-based journalist who has written for The Economist, Nature and the Harvard Business Review, believes 2018 was a pivotal year in the global transition to cleaner energy. Andre Mayer spoke to Macdonald about his new ebook, Oil Fall, and how changes in China are reverberating in the oil industry.

What happened in 2018 that you believe was significant for global oil consumption?

China’s vehicle market broke in the direction of electric vehicles [i.e. EV sales went up, despite a drop in overall vehicle sales] in mid-year of 2018, when I was anticipating that might not happen until mid-year 2020. And now that it has broken, it would be a waste of time for people to ponder whether or not internal combustion engines will make a growth comeback in China. The growth prospects for internal combustion engines are over in China.

Why is that significant?

China has a historical record of being able to maximize and supersize and accelerate changes in its economy and its infrastructure based on policy. The United States doesn’t have that type of ability to do that. But China does.

I use that as an example of why you should take very seriously China’s current initiative on electrical vehicle adoption, which is just insanely aggressive. It would be like taking California policy on electric vehicles and turbocharging it.

Commodity prices are very sensitive to marginal changes in growth rates. It’s very important to the oil industry, for Alberta, to have the market expect that demand be at least a little bit higher next year. That keeps the pressure on prices. I believe that when the global oil market spotted what … started to unfold in China in late summer, I believe that the global oil market had to start repricing future demand growth for oil.

The global oil industry has been living on the prospect of further Asian demand growth. And who’s at the cornerstone of that? It’s China. It’s not often that you can say that copper or gold went way up or way down based on a single factor. But I’m going to express some confidence here and say the break in the oil growth for China changed the [global] forecasts for demand growth.

Are there other indicators of a significant global move from fossil fuels?

The one other country in the world that has the ability to kick the trajectory of global energy in either one direction or the other is, of course, India.

Yes, they’ve somewhat cleaned up the coal industry, but they’ve also supported the coal industry, to the dismay of the global climate community — that’s fully acknowledged.

But India is now starting to build solar [power installations] at a very rapid rate, and has an aggressive policy goal. A beautiful example was the largest solar installation, called Kamuthi. It’s, like, 675 megawatts – that’s big, that’s huge. Kamuthi was completed within under a year. Why? Because India was able to hire 10,000 people, and they completed Kamuthi in less than a year.

The faster you get your project completed, and it starts generating useful work for you, the faster you start getting paid back.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


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Floating solar panels: Pretty to look at and so much more

(Mothership)

One of the problems in creating a large-scale solar power farm is finding a place to put all those panels. You need access to sun, which means wide open spaces are best. But land isn’t cheap, and with some small exceptions, they’re not making more of it.

One solution is to float panels on water. It’s been done in many places, including the U.K., the U.S., Brazil, Japan and Korea, and it’s scaling up in a big way.

The world’s biggest floating solar farm rests atop a Chinese lake that formed over a collapsed coal mine and is designed to generate 150 megawatts. That’s enough to power more than 20,000 North American homes. An even bigger floating solar plant is being constructed in Indonesia.

There’s lots of interest in Europe, too. The Dutch city of Rotterdam announced last week that it’s commissioning a floating solar “park” that doubles as an art installation. It will be shaped like a strip of gently rolling waves jutting into Rijnhaven, a port on the Nieuwe Maas River.

Floating solar has a few advantages:

  • No need to buy or rent land.
  • Lots of access to sunlight.
  • Automatic cleaning from the water, which prevents sun-blocking dirt buildup.
  • Increased efficiency, because of the water’s cooling effect.

Floating solar also has side-effects that are sometimes considered positive at locations such as reservoirs. The panels slow water evaporation, and by blocking sunlight from reaching the water, reduce the growth of algae.

That can also be a downside, since algae is food for aquatic creatures, and stopping its growth could starve the entire food chain. There’s not a lot of research yet on those kinds of impacts, but some scientists are studying them right now.

Because of ecosystem impacts and the fact that the water needs to be relatively calm, floating solar is best-suited for places like reservoirs behind hydroelectric or water storage dams.

Could it work in Canada?

The B.C. Sustainable Energy Association thinks so. It suggests that covering 10 per cent of the Williston Reservoir behind BC Hydro’s W.A.C. Bennett dam, for example, could generate 13,500 gigawatts a year — as much as the hydropower from the dam itself.

Emily Chung


The Big Picture: Coal consumption around the world

U.S. President Donald Trump promised the return of “beautiful, clean coal,” but in the United States, the consumption of coal — a dirty fossil fuel — is at a 40-year low, thanks to the use of cheaper energy sources. Western countries in general have seen a significant drop in coal use, but that hasn’t been the case in large developing countries like China and India.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


Your New Year’s resolutions

(Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

For many people, a new year offers an opportunity to tweak the routine — or even overhaul it entirely. Here are some of your suggestions.

R.J. Meehan wrote that in 2019, “I’m resolving to cut back on waste and misuse.”

That includes changing diet, and “consuming only what my body, at its premium weight, really needs.” It also means reducing the use of single-use plastics by “taking containers to the bulk bins, returning containers to the point of purchase wherever possible and using used bags for other purposes until they are no longer usable.”

Meehan’s aim is to help create “a ‘usable’ world, to last my grand- and great-grandchildren’s lifetime. This will give me incentive.”

Holly Brown admits she has “long been environmentally minded.” While she isn’t one to typically make New Year’s resolutions, “my growing eco anxiety is prompting me to step up my  game even further.”

She has resolved to “eliminate plastic containers whenever I can.” She plans to do so by switching from liquid soap to bar soap (“Bulk Barn sells an unwrapped variety — bonus!”), using bar shampoo and “carrying a reusable container to use for takeaway at food courts and in restaurants to take home leftovers.”

Zuzana Telepovska  wrote that she and husband will spend much of 2019 travelling, but that they will do so with the environment in mind.

That will include using reusable LifeStraw bottles for water and KeepCups “for drinks that are served on planes.”

Conscious of the carbon emissions of flying, Telepovska said, “we do not plan to take many flights,” adding that she and her husband will move around “as much as we can on land, by hitchhiking or using public transport.”


Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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