Bison cluster on the native grassland at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, just one example of the Nebraska wildlife in the ecosystem at the center of a major energy battle this year—the fight over the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline.
Pressure built against the project in part over concern for the unique 19,600-square-mile (51,000-square-kilometer) ecosystem in Nebraska called the Sandhills, and the Obama Administration blocked the proposed pipeline route. (See "Pictures: Animals That Blocked Keystone XL Pipeline Path.") TransCanada says it remains fully committed to the project to move crude from Canada's oil sands some 1,700 miles (2,740 kilometers) to refineries in Texas, and a decision on a revised plan is expected from Washington early in 2013.
Climate change activists are sure to continue their opposition, because of concern over carbon-intensive oil sands production. But the debate forced a rethinking of the project with renewed attention on the importance of protecting the Sandhills and the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to about two million people in Nebraska and seven other states.
On the other side of the globe, in Sabah, Malaysia, threats to the critically endangered Sumatran rhino and vibrant coral reefs derailed a planned coal-fired power plant in one of the region's top biological hot spots—an ecotourism destination to boot. While green advocates hope to see renewable energy thrive here, Sabah's short-term needs will be filled by a 300-megawatt natural gas plant, which is cleaner than the coal alternative. (See "Concern Over Rare Rhino Rouses Clean Energy Drive in Malaysia.")
Photograph by Joel Sartore
Solutions in the Developing World
A man tends solar panels in Benin, Africa, site of a project that aims to bring energy, water, and hope to villages. The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has shown how solar panels can power drip-irrigation systems that grow crops sustainably in arid regions where food shortages and malnutrition have been endemic. (See "Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa.")
It is just one of the efforts that aim to deliver clean energy to the 1.6 billion people in the world who don't have access to reliable electric power. The United Nations sought to bring attention to the problem by declaring 2012 the Year of Sustainable Energy for All.
SELF's Benin irrigation project is aided by a grant from the Great Energy Challenge, which funds other innovative energy solutions around the world, from Costa Rica to India and Washington, D.C. (See the Great Energy Challenge Grantees.)
Photograph courtesy Robert A. Freling, Solar Electric Light Fund
While many projects aim to ease traffic on city streets, others are looking below them in hopes of tapping an unusual energy source—the hot water that showers, dishwashers, laundries, and other users send down the drain each year. Some estimates suggest that the energy in America's wastewater could power 30 million U.S. homes per year—and fledgling projects in Vancouver and Chicago aim to capture that resource through heat-recovery systems. (See "Waste Wattage: Cities Aim to Flush Heat Energy Out of Sewers.")
Photograph by Kike Calvo, National Geographic
A Price for Carbon
Refineries like this one in Rodeo, California, face the prospect of paying to pollute. With an online auction in November, California launched its own cap-and-trade system with an aim of curbing carbon dioxide emissions 20 percent over the next eight years. (See "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?") Proponents hope it will serve as a model for wider action in the United States and globally.
Earlier this year, Australia launched its own modified "carbon tax." Coal-dependent Australia has one of the world's most carbon-intensive economies, but concern over climate change is high, as the nation has faced drought and wildfire and the degradation of its tourist gem, the Great Barrier Reef. (See "Coal-Fired Australia, Buffeted by Climate Change, Enacts Carbon Tax.")
The challenge is great for jurisdictions that act on their own. Some in British Columbia are now questioning its pioneering carbon tax enacted in 2008, despite popular support for the plan. (See "British Columbia Rethinks Its Pioneering Carbon Tax.") Proponents hope efforts here and elsewhere will serve as a model for the kind of wider global action that is needed.
Photograph by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Images
An Isle of Ambitious Energy Goals
Using the natural energy found in wind, a sailor slices through the sea just off the Isle of Wight. Onshore, supporters of the Ecoisland effort hope to turn the small slice of Great Britain into a utopia of renewable energy in the English Channel.
The project boasts more than 70 corporate sponsors joining forces to make the Isle of Wight self-sufficient with green energy by 2020. "It will be a living laboratory," said David Green, Ecoisland founder and chief executive officer. Green was inspired by seafarers who live on board ship and have developed ways to remain self-sufficient for weeks or months at a time.
If all goes according to plan, the island's electricity will be produced by solar, tidal, waste, geothermal, and wind energy projects. Sustainable food and water initiatives also will nourish inhabitants.