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Coal Is No Longer King in America, Says EIA Report

Energy
Coal Is No Longer King in America, Says EIA Report

Coal is no longer king in America. That's the latest findings from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), which provides independent statistics and analysis of the energy sector. Coal lost its number one spot as the nation’s top electricity source for the first time on record this April.

Coal lost its number one spot as the nation’s top electricity source for the first time on record this April.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The report found that total net generation of electricity from coal this past April fell from 109,591 to 88,835 thousand megawatt hours, dropping nearly 20 percent compared to last April. At the same time, the data shows explosive growth in solar power in the last year with a 60 percent increase.

“This major milestone shows that coal is on a steady path out, while clean energy solutions like solar and wind are increasingly [taking] over as prices keep falling," said John Coequyt, Sierra Club's director of federal and international climate campaigns.

There are no plans for new coal plants from now until April 2016. Most of the new production will be wind, solar and natural gas with plans for only one new nuclear plant. Photo credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

And it's not just for the month of April. It's part of the long term trend which is moving increasingly away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources like wind and solar. A report released earlier this week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that overall electricity consumption has slowed in the last 15 years, and the use of natural gas, wind and solar have become larger portions, while coal and nuclear have become smaller portions, of the nation's electricity generation.

Coal and nuclear have gone down, while solar, wind and natural gas have increased in recent years. Photo credit: Government Accountability Office

As aging coal-fired power plants have been retired, especially from 2009-2013, very little new coal capacity has been added, says the GAO report. The report also found that government support of renewables was definitely helping bring on new capacity.

"Various federal and state actions have contributed to increases in wind and solar power plant capacity, including financial supports and state renewable portfolio standards," says GAO. "These increases led to wind and, to a lesser extent, solar accounting for a larger share of the nation’s energy mix, increasing from just over zero percent of electricity generation in 2001 to four percent in 2013." This number does not account for distributed solar installations, most notably rooftop solar.

"Data from an industry association show that distributed solar generating capacity has increased to reach over 8,500 MW as of the end of 2014—compared to about 10,000 MW that was installed at larger solar power plants. The electricity generated at such distributed generation sites is not generally measured or managed by the system operator," says the GAO.

These two reports confirm the findings of earlier reports on the nation's and the world's energy mix. A recent report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance found that renewable energy is set to blow past fossil fuels in the next 25 years, attracting nearly two-thirds of the spending on new power plants. With rapidly decreasing costs, solar will be the top choice for consumers, particularly in developing nations. Worldwide, solar could draw $3.7 trillion of the $8 trillion invested in renewable energy, with only $4.1 billion spent on coal, natural gas and nuclear.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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