Petro-Power and the Nuclear Renaissance  

Posted by Big Gav

The prescient Michael Klare has a follow up to his "Energo Fascism" article the other day at TomDispatch - this latest installment on fossil fueled totalitarianism is called "Is Big Brother in Your Energy Future ?" - one of my favourite topics here at Peak Energy (though I'd say Big Brother is alive and well and watching everything you do - at least online and out on many city streets - right now). Nuclear advocates should ponder what dependency on nuclear power will mean for civil liberties in the future...

For the last two weeks, Tomdispatch has been concentrating on the way Pentagon strategists have taken possession of our future and are writing their own dystopian science fiction scenarios about the world we are soon to enter -- and the weapons systems that are meant to go with it. Five years ago, Michael Klare, a military and energy expert, wrote a prophetic book, Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. Its title caught the embattled nature of our emerging resource future moment better than any Pentagon fantasy. His most recent book, Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum, was no less on the mark. Now, for Tomdispatch, he continues to peer ahead in the second of a two-part series on our militarized energy future.

While the Bush administration and its neocon supporters have long been offering up a vision of a vast imperial enemy-in-the-making that they call "Islamo-fascism," Klare, in part 1, discovered quite another, more realistic and chilling set of possibilities that he dubbed "Energo-fascism" -- or the militarization of the global struggle over ever-diminishing supplies of energy. There, he focused on the Pentagon's changing role in global energy politics. Now, he moves on to energy blackmail in a great-power world and the Big-Brother-style dangers of making nuclear power a major future alternative source of energy. Tom.

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Not "Islamo-fascism" but "Energo-fascism" -- the heavily militarized global struggle over diminishing supplies of energy -- will dominate world affairs (and darken the lives of ordinary citizens) in the decades to come. This is so because top government officials globally are increasingly unwilling to rely on market forces to satisfy national energy needs and are instead assuming direct responsibility for the procurement, delivery, and allocation of energy supplies. The leaders of the major powers are ever more prepared to use force when deemed necessary to overcome any resistance to their energy priorities. In the case of the United States, this has required the conversion of our armed forces into a global oil-protection service; two other significant expressions of emerging Energo-fascism are: the arrival of Russia as an "energy superpower" and the repressive implications of plans to rely on nuclear power.

Energy Haves and Have-nots

With global demand for energy constantly rising and supplies contracting (or at least failing to keep pace), the world is being ever more sharply divided into two classes of nations: the energy haves and have-nots. The haves are the nations with sufficient domestic reserves (some combination of oil, gas, coal, hydro-power, uranium, and alternative sources of energy) to satisfy their own requirements and be able to export to other countries; the have-nots lack such reserves and must make up the deficit with expensive imports or suffer the consequences.

From 1950 to 2000, when energy was plentiful and cheap, the distinction did not seem so obvious as long as the have-nots possessed other forms of power: immense wealth (like Japan); nuclear weapons (like Britain and France); or powerful friends (like the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries). Needless to say, for poor countries possessing none of these assets, being a have-not state was a burden even then, contributing mightily to the debt crisis that still afflicts many of them. Today, these other measures of power have come to seem less important and the distinction between energy haves and have-nots correspondingly more significant -- even for wealthy and powerful countries like the United States and Japan.

Surprisingly, there are very few energy haves in the world today. Most notable among these privileged few are Australia, Canada, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq (if it were ever free of conflict), and a few others. These countries are in an envious position because they do not have to pay stratospheric prices for imported oil and natural gas and their ruling elites can demand all sorts of benefits -- political, economic, diplomatic, and military -- from the foreign leaders who come calling to procure copious quantities of their energy products. Indeed, they can engage in the delicious game of playing one foreign leader against another, as Kazakhstan's President, Nursultan Nazarbayev -- a regular guest in Washington and Beijing -- has become so adept at doing.

Pushed even further, this pursuit of favors can lead to a quest for political domination -- with the sale of vital oil and natural gas supplies made contingent on the recipient's acquiescing to certain political demands set forth by the seller. No country has embraced this strategy with greater vigor or enthusiasm than Vladimir Putin's Russia.

The Rising Energy Superpower

At the end of the Cold War, it appeared as if Russia was a forlorn, wasted ex-superpower, impoverished in spirit, treasure, and influence. For years, it was treated with disdain by American officials. Its leaders were forced to swallow humiliating agreements like the expansion of NATO to Moscow's former satellites in Eastern Europe and the abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. To many in Washington, it must have seemed as if Russia was little more than a relic of history, a has-been never again slated to play a significant role in world affairs.

Today, Moscow, not Washington, seems to be enjoying the last laugh. With control over Eurasia's largest reserves of natural gas and coal as well as enormous supplies of petroleum and uranium, Russia is the new top dog -- an energy superpower rather than a military one, but a superpower nonetheless.

First, a look at the big picture. Russia is the absolute king of natural gas producers. According to BP (the former British Petroleum), it alone possesses 1.7 quadrillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves, or 27% of the total world supply. This is even more significant than it might appear because Europe and the former USSR rely on natural gas for a larger share of their total energy -- 34% -- than any other region of the world. (In North America, where oil is the dominant fuel, natural gas accounts for only 25% of the total.) Because Russia is by far the leading supplier of Eurasia's gas, it enjoys a position of supply dominance unmatched by any energy provider -- except Saudi Arabia in the petroleum field. Even in that realm, Russia is the planet's second leading producer, falling just 1.4 million barrels short of Saudi Arabia's 11.0 million barrels per day at the start of 2006. Russia also possesses the world's second largest reserves of coal (after the United States) and is a major consumer of nuclear energy, with 31 operational reactors.

Soon after assuming power as president in 1999, Vladimir Putin set out to convert this superabundance of energy -- the economic equivalent of a nuclear arsenal -- into the sort of political clout that would restore Russia's great-power status. By controlling the flow of energy to other parts of Eurasia from Russia and former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (whose energy is exported through Russian pipelines), he reasoned, he could exercise the sort of political influence enjoyed by Soviet officials during the heyday of the Cold War. To accomplish this, however, he would have to reverse the wide-ranging privatization of the oil and gas industry that occurred in the early 1990s after the breakup of the USSR and bring vital elements of Russia's privately-owned energy industry back under state control. Since there was no legitimate way to do this under Russia's post-Communist legal system, Putin and his associates turned to illegitimate and authoritarian methods to de-privatize these valuable assets. Here, we see another emerging face of Energo-fascism.

Remarkably, Putin himself had long before spelled out the rationale for concentrating control over Russia's energy resources in the state's hands. In a 1999 summary of his Ph.D. dissertation on "Mineral Raw Materials in the Strategy for Development of the Russian Economy," he asserted that the Russian state must oversee the utilization of the country's mineral raw materials -- including oil fields in private hands -- for the good of the Russian people. "The state has the right to regulate the process of the acquisition and the use of natural resources, and particularly mineral resources, independent of on whose property they are located," he wrote. "In this regard, the state acts in the interests of society as a whole." No better justification for Energo-fascism can be imagined. ...

The last face of Energo-fascism to be discussed here is the inevitable rise in state surveillance and repression attendant on an expected increase in nuclear power. As oil and natural gas become scarcer, government and industry leaders will undoubtedly push for a greater reliance on nuclear power to provide additional energy. This is a program likely to gain greater momentum from rising concerns over global warming -- largely a result of carbon-dioxide emissions created during the combustion of oil, gas, and coal. President Bush has repeatedly spoken of his desire to foster greater reliance on nuclear power and the administration-backed Energy Policy Act of 2005 already provides a variety of incentives for electrical utilities to build new reactors in the United States. Other countries including France, China, Japan, Russia, and India also plan to up their reliance on nuclear power, greatly adding to the global spread of nuclear reactors.

Many problems stand in the way of this so-called renaissance, not least the mammoth costs involved and the fact that no safe system has yet been devised for the long-term storage of nuclear wastes. Furthermore, despite many improvements in the safety of nuclear power plants, worries persist about the risk of nuclear accidents such as those that occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But this is not the place to weigh these issues. Let me instead focus on two especially worrisome aspects of the future growth of the nuclear power industry: the possible federalization of nuclear reactor placement in the U.S. and the repressive implications globally of the greater availability of nuclear materials open to diversion to terrorists, criminals, and "rogue" states.

Currently, America's municipalities, counties, and states still exercise considerable control over the issuance of permits for the construction of new nuclear power plants, giving citizens in these jurisdictions considerable opportunity to resist the placement of a reactor "in their backyard." For decades, this has been one of the leading obstacles to the construction of new reactors in the U.S., along with the costly and time-consuming legal process involved in winning over state legislatures, county boards, and environmental agencies. If this practice prevails, we are never likely to see a true "renaissance" of nuclear power here, even if a few new reactors are built in poor rural areas where citizen resistance is minimal. The only way to increase reliance on nuclear power, therefore, is to federalize the permit process by shunting local agencies aside and giving federal bureaucrats the unfettered power to issue permits for the construction of new reactors.

Unlikely, you say? Well consider this: The Energy Policy Act of 2005 established a significant precedent for the federalization of such authority by depriving state and local officials of their power to approve the placement of natural gas "regasification" plants. These are mammoth facilities used to reconvert liquified natural gas, transported by ship from foreign suppliers, into a gas that can then be delivered by pipeline to customers in the United States. Several localities on the East and West coasts had fought the construction of such plants in their harbors for fear that they might explode (not an entirely far-fetched concern) or become targets for terrorists, but they have now lost their legal power to do so. So much for local democracy.

Here's my worry: That some future administration will push through an amendment to the Energy Policy Act giving the federal government the same sort of placement authority for nuclear reactors that it now has for regasification plants. The feds then announce plans to build dozens or even hundreds of new reactors in or near places like Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and so on, claiming an urgent need for additional energy. People protest en masse. Local officials, sympathetic to the protestors, refuse to arrest them in droves. But now we're speaking of defiance of federal, not state or municipal, ordinances. Ergo, the National Guard or the regular Army is called up to quell the protests and protect the reactor sites -- Energo-fascism in action.

Finally, there's another danger in the spread of nuclear power: that it will require a systematic increase in state surveillance of everyone even remotely connected with commercial nuclear energy. After all, every uranium enrichment facility, nuclear reactor, and waste storage site -- and any of the linkages between them -- is a potential source of fissionable materials for terrorists, black-market traffickers, or rogue states like Iran and North Korea. This means, of course, that all of the personnel employed in these facilities, and all their contractors and sub-contractors (and all their families and contacts) will have to be constantly vetted for possible illicit ties and kept under strict, full-time surveillance. The more reactors there are, the more facilities and contractors who will have to be subjected to this sort of oversight -- and the more the security staff itself will have to be subjected to ever higher levels of surveillance by state security agencies. It's a formula for Big Brother on a very large scale.

And then there's the special problem of "breeder reactors." These plants produce ("breed") more fissionable material than they consume, often in the form of plutonium, which can, in turn, be burned in power reactors to generate electricity but can also be used as the fuel for atomic weapons. Although such reactors are currently banned in the United States, other countries, including Japan, are building them so as to diminish their reliance on fossil fuels and natural uranium, itself a finite resource. As the demand for nuclear energy grows, more countries (even, possibly, the USA) are bound to build breeder reactors. But this will vastly increase the global supply of bomb-grade plutonium, requiring an even greater increase in state supervision of the nuclear power industry in all its aspects.

The State's Iron Grip

All the phenomena discussed in this two-part series -- the transformation of the U.S. military into a global oil-protection service, the growth of the energy equivalent of a major-power arms race, the emergence of Russia as an energy superpower, and the need for increased surveillance over the nuclear power industry -- are expressions of a single, overarching trend: the tendency of states to extend their control over every aspect of energy production, procurement, transportation, and allocation. This, in turn, is a response to the depletion of world energy supplies and a shift in the locus of energy production from the global north to the global south -- developments that have been under way for some time, but are bound to gain greater momentum in the years ahead.

Many concerned citizens and organizations -- the Apollo Alliance, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Worldwatch Institute, to name but a few -- are trying to develop sane, democratic responses to the problems brought about by energy depletion, instability in energy-producing areas, and global warming. Most government leaders, however, appear intent on addressing these problems through increased state controls and a greater reliance on the use of military force. Unless this tendency is resisted, Energo-fascism could be our future.

Australia's ongoing bushfires (somewhat ironic in light of our above and beyond contribution to global warming on a per capita basis) have managed to knock out a chunk of Melbourne's power supplies this week, courtesy of high demand (due to the hot weather) and the interconnector to the Snowy and northern grids getting knocked out of action.
VICTORIANS could face bans on using home air-conditioners from today after a massive power supply failure yesterday left large areas of the state blacked out.

Senior state ministers met last night to consider mandatory power restrictions, as repair crews battled to get access to a key transmission line after it was knocked out by a bushfire at Tatong, near Benalla, in the state's north-east. The same bushfire had also destroyed at least seven homes by late last night, authorities confirmed, and was still burning out of control, frustrating efforts to repair the power link.

Although electricity supplies had been restored to most areas of Victoria by 9pm yesterday, power companies warned that another day of searing heat today meant they could not guarantee supplies — unless the transmission line was repaired.

A spokesman for acting Premier John Thwaites said a final decision on power restrictions would be made when the immediate supply situation became clearer today. If the bans go ahead, they would be expected to cover the use of both refrigerative and evaporative home air-conditioning units, but not electric fans or office cooling systems. Exemptions would apply to sick, elderly and pregnant people. It would be the first time Victorians have faced major power supply disruption since the crisis of early 2000, when industrial action, generator failure and high temperatures combined to trigger blackouts and restrictions.

Up to one-third of the state's power supply was cut around 4pm yesterday when smoke and ash from the fire at Tatong forced the automatic shutdown of the transmission line connecting Victoria to crucial peak power supplies from NSW.

Large areas of Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Ballarat were without power for several hours, causing chaos on roads as traffic lights went out, disrupting public transport and trapping people inside stalled lifts. The disruption to supply came at the worst possible time — on a day of record electricity demand in Victoria, with many people staying indoors and running air-conditioners as temperatures soared above 40 degrees across the state.



I quite liked this reader letter from Dan to the "Daily Reckoning" today about the power cuts (as it echoes some of my comments about the grid a couple of days ago), though its not enitrely accurate - bar WA there is a national grid - it just has a limited number of inteconnectors between each state grid - in order to make the grid more resilient we need (a) more inteconnectors, and (b) more energy storage.
If you want to shrug them off while sweating over a cold beer, you can view yesterday's blackouts as a "perfect storm" of sorts. Soaring temperatures led to a spike in demand in the afternoon hours. Then, a critical transmission between New South Wales and Victoria failed, cutting off twenty five percent of the state's power. Maria Sharapova nearly overheated and was forced to take an ice bath.

--But is this blackout (which is still affecting quite a few people as we write) a one-off confluence of high-temperatures and a freak break-down in the
transmission grid? Is it just a minor inconvenience which forces us to remember what we did with our free time before the Internet? Maybe.

-- But it also indicates the key structural vulnerability of the grid itself: the fragility of the connections. Any network without sufficient nodes is subject to breakdown. The fewer the connections, the more likely that the loss of one puts stress on those that remain, degrading the performance and the efficiency of the whole system. It's a little like having only one bridge to get across a river. No bridge, you either swim, or you stay stranded.

--More nodes and more connections means greater redundancy, which doesn't mean quite the same thing in this context as it does in the boot-making business. More on that in a moment. But back to the grid.

--Centrally generated and distributed power is the way our world is built, and when it works, you hardly ever give it a second though. The most thought we've given to it is how strange it is that the plane trees on Fitzroy Street are trimmed just so in order to make room for the power lines traveling above them. Why not bury the lines and let the trees grow to the sky? Then, at least falling branches don't plunge the city into darkness.

--But we are concerned with more than just esthetics. We are concerned with whether the grid works. The network is only as good as the reliability of the transmission system, the grid. Generally, the grid holds up. It's a spike in energy demand that strains the grid, or growth for which the grid wasn't designed.

-- In twenty years, when Melbourne has added another million people and Australia itself has a larger population with energy-intensive industrial companies, will the nation's existing grid be enough? Oh wait, there is no existing national grid, now way to ship power safely and reliably from one state to the next. At least not yet. Wouldn't it be nice to have some back up to a system not designed for the worst-case scenario?

--We are leading the witness a bit, to be honest. There isn't a locally generated, safe, power system to replace the centrally-generated grid power we (most of us) enjoy today. But there are back-up systems commercially available that give individual households and businesses another source of power should the electricity grid fail. They are becoming more popular in Europe, where dependency on ageing power grid is even more acute. Watch this space for more details.

JCWinnie at After Gutenberg has some notes on the electrical grid, in response to Anthropiks declaration that the world's largest machine is breaking down.

A recent post by Jason Godesky1 is receiving considerable attention from some of the blogs that this blog reads. “Many of the so-called ‘alternatives’ to fossil fuels” he begins his post, “rely on the electrical grid.”

In a sense, Godesky is rebutting the recent PNNL report, which indicated that off-peak production from the Grid could support 184.8 million plug-in hybrids in the United States. “This will be an impossible feat,” argues Godesky, “since the current load alone is already breaking down the world’s biggest machine under the weight of its own complexity.”

On several occasions this blog has resounded a concern that greater reliability was needed. In his post Godesky recounted the history. In 1992, the Energy Policy Act empowered FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) to separate generation from transmission and distribution. Not only did the economic rules change, but also “the wheeling of electric power across utility lines.” The complexity of such operations reveals the flaws in the weaving.

Not surprisingly, the solution Godesky offers, is one that has been oft repeated here, i.e., local distributed generation.
Our results suggest that distributed generation close to end-users may significantly increase the robustness of electric power grids. This is true in terms of decreasing spikes in operational costs due to system failure, delaying the onset of undersupply to cities, and slowing the progression of undersupply as edges are removed. While other authors have speculated that this would be the case, it has not previously been demonstrated. (Trancik, et. al, 2005)

What distributed generation can offset are failures in grid reliability like the one Godesky cites, when in August 2003, “a tree branch in Ohio caused the largest blackout in North America’s history”, or, last year, when major power outages in Europe resulted from a high voltage line across a river being switched off to allow a cruise ship to pass safely.

However, localization brings its own set of problem, which is why this blog also advocates investment in a smarter Grid, for Europe, North America and elsewhere. Of course, the adage applies, “Anybody can make a mistake, but it takes a computer to really foul things up.” So, given a whole bunch of computers managing distributed energy resources at various levels provides a grand opportunity, a.k.a., AFGO (Another Fabulous Growth Opportunity).

The answer this blog advocates is to move from allowance to partnership:
For grid reliability such new development needs to interface with existing protective overlays that minimize damage, ensuring that power can be restored rapidly when problems arise and preventing the occurrence of cascading failures. Yet what seems lacking in such initiative is sufficient incentive to the power companies to introduce the sophisticated power electronics and expert systems consequent with a premium payback system.

Possibly, such partnership in the future could represent a bicameral system, i.e., the high voltage systems are the senators and the low voltage systems are the commoners with a system of rapid negotiation to resolve policy initiatives from either side, plus oversight from the government and elected central administration with electricity and GridWise Roombas for all.

After Gutenberg points to an earlier post on the GridWise Roomba which is interesting as well.
WorldChanging has information about GridWise, an experimental project connecting 300 homes in the cities of Yakima, Washington and Gresham, Oregon to a network.

The Gridwise project is a network in more than one sense; it is distributed power with a different level of intelligence, to include:

* Real-time monitoring of consumption and pricing
* Internet-based usage controls
* Appliances* able to respond to power grid signals, which indicate problems, by temporarily reducing energy use.

In addition to implementing a smart grid, the Gridwise project will utilize a distributed generation microturbine network.
If all goes as planned, the result will be decreased demand on the utility and lower cost for the consumers. This will increase both the stability and the efficiency of the power grid.

The article did note that “researchers believe that only 30% of a power grid’s customers need to have such smart appliances to make a substantive difference in both demand and grid performance.” Gridwise is a project of US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in cooperation with Whirlpool and IBM. Success of this and other experiments could lead to greater enhancements, e.g.,

* Net metering
* Data transparency
* Fine-grain control

Eventually, it may prove more appropriate to develop such demand side management when choices need to be made between sources of power. With flexible, decentralized power generation plus real-time monitoring and pricing, not only could the power network take better advantage of photovoltaics, wind, and other renewable energy technologies that tend to be more intermittent, but also become more efficient.

Take for example, a large complex of offices, classrooms or residences that have fluctuating power demands. Further assume that, after suitable encouragement, local property management has invested in power generation with quick response and considerable reserve to offset peak load. The smart grid affords rapid negotiation with such reserves when greater demand is anticipated and the suppliers recoup their power generation investment from participation. In other words, there is a decided advantage to more players — power generators — tied into the local energy market. As Jamais Cascio notes, “we can build an energy infrastructure that’s more flexible… (and) more resilient in times of crisis.”

Technology Review has a new article on sequencing the genomes of microbial ecosystems, in the hope of biological-industrial processes, such as the production of cellulosic ethanol: "Why Termite Guts Could Bring Better Biofuels".
Scientists are sequencing the genomes of entire microbial communities in the hope of uncovering new genes and organisms that can create fuel, mine metals, or clean up superfund sites. Known as metagenomics, the field relies on studying bits of DNA from a variety of organisms that live in the same place. Thanks to ever-improving sequencing methods, the number of metagenome projects is growing, giving scientists myriad new genes to explore.

"This opens up a new way of looking at these organisms," says Jim Bristow, director of the community sequencing program at the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute, in Walnut Creek, CA. "We'll probably discover lots of fundamental processes that we previously knew nothing about."

Microorganisms make up an immensely important and often overlooked part of the environment. "They constitute the bulk of our biosphere and underpin all the nutrient cycles on our planet," says Philip Hugenholtz, leader of the microbial ecology program at the Joint Genome Institute. "But our understanding of these systems is still rudimentary." Microbiologists would like to better understand these communities, so they can co-opt useful genes or organisms, such as those that remove pollutants from soil, or better control microbial communities, such as those that live in our mouths or gut.

The standard way to identify and study the microorganisms living in a particular community is to grow them in a lab, but this is only possible with about 1 percent of microbes. However, in the past two years, faster and cheaper gene-sequencing methods have offered microbiologists a new tool with which to study the other 99 percent. Scientists can extract the DNA from, say, a drop of seawater or a sample of sludge from a sewage-treatment plant and then sequence that DNA, deriving genomic clues to all the organisms living in that environment.

Assembling the random fragments of DNA generated during sequencing can be a challenge--even impossible in some cases. Hugenholtz likens the process to trying to put together one thousand jigsaw puzzles from a single box that holds only a few pieces from each puzzle. So rather than fully assembling these genomic puzzles, scientists try to understand the individual pieces, or genes. Identifying the genes that allow the microbes in the termite gut to digest wood, for example, could lead to better biofuels. Converting cellulose in trees and grasses into the simple sugars that can be fermented into ethanol is a very energy-intensive process. "If we had better enzymatic machinery to do that, we might be better able to make sugars into ethanol," Bristow says. "Termites are the world's best bioconverters."

Researchers at the Joint Genome Institute, which sequenced some of the human genome and is now largely devoted to metagenomics, have just finished sequencing the microbial community living in the termite gut. They have already identified a number of novel cellulases--the enzymes that break down cellulose into sugar--and are now looking at the guts of other insects that digest wood, such as an anaerobic population that eats poplar chips. The end result will be "basically a giant parts list that synthetic biologists can put together to make an ideal energy-producing organism," says Hugenholtz.

Dave Roberts at Grist has a related post on "Craig Venter and his microbes".
There's an interesting story in The Atlantic about Craig Venter, the guy who successfully sequenced the human genome (using private capital). Now he's working on engineering microbes designed specifically to convert biomass directly into ethanol. He also has grander, longer-term plans to have them produce other kinds of fuels like natural gas from sewage sludge and hydrogen from sunlight.

I thought this was interesting:
... Venter believes the government needs to make a steady commitment to alternative energy. But not with props like the 51-cents-a-gallon ethanol subsidy. The government should be funding research rather than actual products, he argues, so as not to create "a false industry that collapses once the subsidies collapse." And not with the sort of large-scale, Manhattan Project-style effort that many pundits have called for. If you put everyone into a laboratory in New Mexico or Nevada and tell them to come up with a solution, Venter says, it will just be the Human Genome Project all over again: a slow-motion process waiting for the kind of private-sector kick in the pants that he provided. Instead, Venter wants to see the government fund a variety of competing companies and research projects. "I'd rather see a thousand points of light than one dull bureaucracy," he says. "We don't have to have a single industrial-complex solution to this problem."


The upcoming Cleantech forum in San Francisco in February has an interesting program summary and panels - it is encouraging to see biomimicry getting onto the agenda - when I look at the cleantech investment world I'm often reminded of Bruce Sterling's mechanists and shapers universe (back when he wrote science fiction) - one strand of humanity that follows the industrial technology path and another that follows the genetic engineering / biomimicry path.
The Cleantech ForumsTM are the world's premier cleantech investment platforms, providing unparalleled access to emerging innovation, analysis, networking, deal flow and thought-leadership for the rapidly emerging cleantech industry.

In North America, over $2.9 billion was invested in cleantech by venture capitalists representing over an 80% increase over 2005 which followed a 25% increase over 2004 according to Cleantech Venture Network® researchers.

Program Summary

In-Perspective: Capital Flow Implications for the Globalization of Cleantech
Dr. Martin Haemmig: CeTIM-Center for Technology & Innovation Management

In-Conversation: The Economic Driver of the 21st Century: Cleantech and the Nexus of Innovation, Capital & Policy
Jonathan Lash: President, WRI
Bob Epstein: Co-founder, Environmental Entrepreneurs
William Riley, Managing Director, Texas Pacific Group (invited)

Corporate Market Drivers: Innovation Roadmaps from Energy, Chemical & Agriculture Industries
Moderated by: John Denniston, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers
Confirmed: Heinz Haller, Dow Chemical; Justin Adams, BP; Ali Iz, GE
Invited: David Glassner, Natureworks

The Long View: Biomimicry; Commercializing the Next Wave of Innovation
Confirmed: Steve Jurvetson, Managing Partner, Draper, Fisher, Jurvetson; Janine Benyus, author of “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”
Moderated by: Ivor Elrifi, Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo

Quarter x Quarter: Wall Street’s Cleantech Strategies, Trends & Forecasts
Confirmed: Russ Landon, Canaccord Adams
Invited: Todd Thomson, CEO, Citigroup Private Wealth Management; J. Michael Horwitz, Pacific Growth Equities; Jeff Lipton, Managing Director of Investment Banking, Jefferies & Co.


Built Environs: Scalable Opportunities in Architecture and Creating the Green Manufactured Building Industry
Invited: David Gottfried, Founder USGBC; David Shearer, California Environmental Associations, Steve Glenn, Living Homes; David Johnson, McDonough+Partners

Looking Forward: Cleantech Opportunities for Investors and Entrepreneurs Post 2006 Elections
Invited: Mark Heesen, NVCA; Truman T. Semans, Pew Center on Global Climate Change; Christopher Flavin, Worldwatch Institute

Panels

Water: Climate Change and Innovation-Deploying Advanced Technology to Address Scarcity
The Overlooked Cleantech Opportunity: Cleaner More Efficient Hydrocarbon Fuels
Future of Transport: Scalable Transportation Technologies & the Smart Grid
Energy Storage: The Race to the Brass Ring


Reuters has an article on solar power which looks at an expensive way of powering a house using solar panels and hydrogen fuel cells.
Michael Strizki heats and cools his house year-round and runs a full range of appliances including such power-guzzlers as a hot tub and a wide-screen TV without paying a penny in utility bills. His conventional-looking family home in the pinewoods of western New Jersey is the first in the United States to show that a combination of solar and hydrogen power can generate all the electricity needed for a home.

The Hopewell Project, named for a nearby town, comes at a time of increasing concern over U.S. energy security and worries over the effects of burning fossil fuels on the climate.

"People understand that climate change is a big concern but they don't know what they can do about it," said Gian-Paolo Caminiti of Renewable Energy Associates, the commercial arm of the project. "There's a psychological dividend in doing the right thing," he said.

Strizki runs the 3,000-square-foot house with electricity generated by a 1,000-square-foot roof full of photovoltaic cells on a nearby building, an electrolyzer that uses the solar power to generate hydrogen from water, and a number of hydrogen tanks that store the gas until it is needed by the fuel cell.

In the summer, the solar panels generate 60 percent more electricity than the super-insulated house needs. The excess is stored in the form of hydrogen which is used in the winter -- when the solar panels can't meet all the domestic demand -- to make electricity in the fuel cell. Strizki also uses the hydrogen to power his fuel-cell driven car, which, like the domestic power plant, is pollution-free.

Solar power currently contributes only 0.1 percent of U.S. energy needs but the number of photovoltaic installations grew by 20 percent in 2006, and the cost of making solar panels is dropping by about 7 percent annually, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

TreeHugger reports that Phoenix Motorcars has sold out their first run of electric "sports utility trucks" (more at The Energy Blog).

Before their first all-electric sport utility trucks even exist, Phoenix Motorcars has orders for their first run of 75 vehicles. The SUTs are using a new kind of lithium ion battery that, while less power-dense than current batteries is much safer and will not explode if damaged.

The cost of the SUTs is still unknown, but is likely to be in the $40-$50,000 range. All but one of the trucks were purchased by municipalities, the other one was purchased by a 'utility.' So, alas, no private owners yes.

However, Phoenix is about to do crash testing on it's first five trucks and, after that, they'll be producing a round of 500 vehicles during 2007. When those cars start rolling off the line, it'll be time for us all to start taking out our executive wallets.


The Energy Blog also reports that Phoenix's battery supplier Altair Nanotechnologies has entered into a long term sales agreement with Phoenix and taken an equity interest in them.
Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. entered into an exclusive three year supply agreement with Phoenix Motorcars and in return has received a 16.6% ownership of Phoenix.

Altair has received a purchase order for its NanoSafe™ 35 KWh battery pack systems from California-based Phoenix Motorcars for $1,040,000 for battery pack systems scheduled for delivery in February and March 2007.

In addition, the company announced it has entered into a multi-year purchase and supply agreement with Phoenix under which Phoenix has projected orders for 2007 between $16 and $42 Million for up to five hundred battery pack systems.

In consideration for a three-year exclusivity agreement within the U.S., Altairnano received a 16.6% ownership in the company. The three-year exclusivity agreement provides Phoenix with limited, exclusive use of Altairnano’s NanoSafe battery packs in four-wheel, all-electric vehicles having a gross weight up to 6,000 pounds. Phoenix must meet minimum battery pack purchases, annually, to maintain the limited exclusivity agreement. The minimum commitment to maintain exclusivity for 2007 would provide $16 Million in battery pack sales to Altairnano. Altairnano’s NanoSafe battery packs manufactured for hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) and plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) are excluded from the exclusivity agreement.

"The market opportunity for freeway-ready, all-electric, zero-emission vehicles is growing daily," said Phoenix Motorcars CEO Daniel J. Elliott. "Having a best-in-class company such as Altair Nanotechnologies as an equity owner and as a provider of safe, powerful, fast-charging battery packs, will be a major driver for our growth," added Elliott.

Altairnano’s NanoSafe 35 KWh battery pack systems enable Phoenix SUTs to meet California’s Air Resources Board Type III Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) standards while providing power for a driving range of 135 miles and driving speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. The NanoSafe battery pack can be recharged in less than 10 minutes at fast-charge stations. ...


Altair competitor EEStor has announced that they will begin shipping ultracapacitors to ZENN Motors this year.
Finally some more news from EEStor, the incredibly secretive hypercapacitor funded by hotshot venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Our readers tell us that their patent describes barium titanate capacitors stacked in series with a very high operating voltage. Our commenters also expressed reservations about the difficulty of doing this, suggesting that "The manufacturing obstacles are significant, as are the market obstacles of getting anyone to drive around in a car with energy storage at 3500 Vdc."

Thus we are excited to find that a) they have "completed the initial milestone of certifying purification, concentration, and stability of all of its key production chemicals notably the attainment of 99.9994% purity of its barium nitrate powder.",b) that they have "been awarded a critical patent related to our technology and has 12 additional patents pending.", c) We have built a state-of-the-art facility and have exceptional personnel onboard." and most importantly, it "remains on track to begin shipping production 15 kilowatt-hour Electrical Energy Storage Units (EESU) to ZENN Motor Company in 2007 for use in their electric vehicles." - It is actually coming soon.

I had the opportunity to meet Ian Clifford, the CEO of ZENN, a couple of weeks ago, and have rarely met a more straightforward and likeable CEO. I hope to be among the first to drive home in a new EEStor powered ZENN before the year is out. Full press release after the fold.

The first EEStor, Inc. automated production line has been proven to meet the requirements for precise chemical delivery, purity control, parameter control and stability. In addition, EEStor, Inc. has completed the initial milestone of certifying purification, concentration, and stability of all of its key production chemicals notably the attainment of 99.9994% purity of its barium nitrate powder.

The independent 3rd party chemical analysis was completed by Southwest Research Institute, Inc. located in San Antonio, Texas under contract with EEStor, Inc.

With these milestones completed, EEStor, Inc. is now in the process of producing on its automated production line, composition-modified barium titanate powders and is moving toward completing its next major milestone of powder certification. ...

The Energy Blog laso has a post on a forthcoming cheap plugin hybrid electric vehicle from China.

CalCars has the full text of three stories reporting on Malcolm Bricklin, "a wild card, a high-flyer and a crash-lander," who says he is now working on prototypes for a series PHEV that could cost $25-$30K.

According to the Washington Post, Bricklin, chairman and chief executive of Visionary Vehicles, is tenacious. Bricklin brought Subaru, the gull-winged Bricklin SV-1 and Yugo automobiles to North America from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Some of his ventures, such as that with Subaru, were bona fide successes. Others, such as that with the Bricklin SV-1 and the ill-fated Yugo, were dismal failures.

According to Reuters the car would use technology similar to that proposed by GM in their Cheverlot Volt concept car, but with a smaller engine. He said a working proof of concept would be built in six months and that the cars would be in production by 2009.

USA Today quotes him as saying that he's in talks with 15 Chinese manufacturers about building the cars in China to take advantage of low wages and modern equipment. "Use the Chinese advantage to make it cheaper" he says, "instead of it being $3,000 more."

Gar Lipow at Grist has a post on thermal concentrator solar using stirling engines.
I've posted before about Stirling Energy Systems, which sells solar electricity from concentrating mirrors and heat engines for around 11 cents per kWh.

But at least one technical advocacy group -- Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) -- suggests that mass production could bring prices down to 5 cents per kWh or less (PDF), even without technical breakthroughs. The PDF linked is a summary, so I don't know how good the case is.

I will also note that this price includes enough storage to ensure 70% reliability -- which provides different economics than the 95% reliable wind grid component I mentioned previously, and different economics than wind without storage. Obviously sun and wind as grid components mix well together. The troughs -- sunless weather and windless weather -- tend to occur at different times. So do the peaks -- strong winds and blazing sun. (Yes, there are exceptions, Santa Ana winds and so on.)

Local petrol prices are starting to cause some annoyance, with falling oil prices not making their way through to the pump. Funny that.

The consumer watchdog is demanding fuel retailers lower the price of petrol at the bowser within a week, but is stopping short of pushing for government regulation of the industry, saying it would disadvantage motorists.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has given fuel retailers a week to lower petrol prices or face a public lambasting. Despite a 20-month low in crude oil prices, the cost of fuel at the pump has failed to drop, prompting ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel to lay the hard word on Australia's oil giants.

Mr Samuel said the monitoring of the nation's 3000 service stations against international benchmarks revealed a price aberration. "At the present time we're seeing a variation occur, we're seeing the Singapore price falling but the Australian retail price not falling consistently with it," Mr Samuel told the Seven Network. Prices were expected to fall in the coming week and, if they didn't, some "fairly hard" questions would be asked of the oil companies, he said.

The Sydney Morning Herald has a report quoting a Nature article on ineffective containers for nuclear waste storage. Local groups are still touting synroc - something they've been doing for over 30 years without anyone making use of it...
CERAMIC containers developed to "immobilise" highly radioactive waste may not prove durable enough to prevent the toxic material leaching into the environment, research published in Nature has found. Certain kinds of nuclear waste stay highly toxic for tens of thousands of years, and scientists have sought ways of stabilising or capturing the radioactive elements long enough to allow the waste to degrade naturally.

Researchers at Cambridge University directly measured the radiation damage from nuclear waste to the ceramic containers and found they degraded faster than had been expected. The research team, led by Dr Ian Farnan, found radioactive waste could turn zirconium silicate, which the nuclear industry had hoped could safely store radioactive waste, into a less reliable material after 1400 years instead of the desired 250,000 years.

Some governments, including Australia's, have touted nuclear energy as a partial solution to climate change, but environmentalists and some scientists have argued the radioactive waste generated by nuclear power plants creates a new set of environmental problems.

An Australian scientist said the significance of the British research was limited because it looked at only one kind of material. The senior principal research scientist at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Greg Lumpkin, said the organisation had moved beyond zircon by developing a titanium-based material called Synroc.

The Australian has a report on a radioactive canister found lying by the road in WA.

A RADIOACTIVE mining canister found after being missing for more than a month probably fell off a truck, the West Australian Health Department said today. The department's Chief Health Officer Dr Andrew Robertson said the canister was found intact with no leakage of radioactive material. "We suspect it may have come loose from one of the trucks that was carrying these sources up north, but we are still obviously investigating that at this stage," Dr Robertson said. ...

Dr Robertson said between eight and 10,000 radioactive items are transported throughout WA each year, ranging from mining canisters to medical waste. The canister has now been transported to secure storage in Perth and will be returned to Schlumberger as soon as possible, Dr Robertson said.

Grist has a post on the recent Asian energy pact signing.
Hey, It's the Thought That Counts - New energy pact signed by 16 Asian and Pacific nations lacks targets

Yesterday, the leaders of 16 Asian and Pacific nations bumped into each other on the street, chatted for a few minutes, then promised to "totally get together for lunch some time." At least, that's one interpretation of the signing of a landmark energy pact that reaches from Australia to India. While the agreement promises an increased emphasis on biofuels and energy efficiency and seeks to cut reliance on oil from the Middle East, it doesn't require compliance or, for that matter, include concrete targets. Some say concerns about the vagueness of the document -- issued just after the conclusion of a summit of Southeast Asian nations that also addressed terrorism, free trade, natural disasters, and nuclear security -- are out of place. "This is very early days in the east Asia context to be talking about targets," said New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, somewhat incoherently. Observers worried by the region's booming greenhouse-gas emissions, however, say there's simply no time to waste.

The Australian reports that Woodside is booking record profits courtesy of high oil and gas prices and is expecting large increases in production next year.

WOODSIDE Petroleum has achieved record annual revenue and production on the back of higher commodity prices and increased sales volumes. Australia's biggest independent oil and gas producer Woodside said revenue rose 38.7 per cent to $3.81 billion in 2006 due to higher commodity prices and increased sales volumes.

Woodside's annual production was a record 67.9 million barrels of oil equivalent (mmboe), up 13.8 per cent on the 2005 level primarily due to it achieving first production from its Chinguetti and Enfield oil projects. ... Woodside has forecast 2007 production to be in the order of 75 to 80 mmboe and in excess of 100 mmboe in 2008.

The Australian also reports that Shell is getting back into Australian exploration, apparently unhappy that its partial ownership in Woodside isn't enough to deter Woodside competing with them for LNG sales.
Once one of the most active of the world energy giants in seeking Australian prospects, Shell basically restricted its Australian exploration activities to Woodside Petroleum, in which it has a 34 per cent stake. ... Much of Woodside's Australian interests originally came from Shell's exploration successes. Shell estimates it holds about 20 per cent of Australia's 136 trillion cubic feet of proven gas resources. As well as the Woodside holding, it has a 16 per cent stake in the North West Shelf joint venture, 25 per cent of Gorgon, west of Barrow Island, and 26 per cent of the Greater Sunrise fields in the Timor Sea. ...

Shell Exploration & Production Asia Pacific vice-president of exploration, Wouter Hoogeveens, said the company's exploration activities off Western Australia reflected the substantial potential Shell saw in the area. "We have invested in a range of new permit areas, farm-ins and have also purchased the rights to gas in the Crux field (from Nexus). In November, we began drilling in the Browse Basin, 450km northwest of Broome." This effort is designed to find the extension of the Ichthys field, which Japanese group Inpex estimates contains 12 trillion cubic feet of gas that could result in a new LNG project by 2012.

TreeHugger reports that Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey has owned up to misunderstanding global warming (hopefully the remaining libertarian climate change deniers follow his lead and accept that while free markets are good, global warming is simply an unfortunate case of market failure and make the best of it). At least he wasn't on Exxon's payroll : "No one paid me to be wrong about global warming".

Ronald Bailey is Reason Magazine's science correspondent, adjunct scholar at CATO and CEI, and editor of the 2002 book Global Warming and Other Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare Us to Death. He's been a high profile global warming "skeptic", attacking both the science and the possibility of dealing with greenhouse gas emissions, he also testified before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on "The Impact of Science on Public Policy" and said in 2004: "Finally, in the real world, absent transformative technological breakthroughs in energy production, whatever the chances that average temperatures may one day exceed 2 degrees Celsius, there is absolutely no chance that steep emissions reductions scenarios are even remotely possible."

Well, it seems that Mr. Bailey has changed his mind and is now trying to explain his past position (we'll leave it up to you to decide if he's convincing, but he deserves credit for the detailed mea culpa) while recognizing the existence of global warming some more.

Robert F Kennedy Junior has a post on the last holdouts on global warming.
Last week I saw robins and bluebirds in upstate New York where they don't usually arrive before April. Crocuses and daffodils were in bloom everywhere. A friend ate asparagus he harvested in the normally frozen Catskills in the first week of January. Turtles in downstate New York, like bears in Scandinavia, forgot to hibernate for the first time in human history.

For those last stubborn holdouts still skeptical about the existence of global warming--e.g., CNN's chief corporate fascism advocate Glenn Beck, who broadcast another of his denial tirades last week--and to those who exalt the warmer weather as preferable to a snowy winter, consider the impacts on our fellow creatures. Last April an early spring in Wyoming's Teton Range caused horseflies to arrive early. The young Redtail hawks, who were still unfeathered, were devoured in their nests by the voracious bloodsuckers. Not a single baby Redtail survived to fledge in the Jackson Hole valley.

The macro impacts of global warming--catastrophic storms, flooded coastlines, melted icecaps, shrinking glaciers, dwindling water supplies and agricultural disruptions are finally getting some attention by America's lethargic press. But the seismic shifts in global weather patterns are already dramatically altering the local ecosystems that for eons have defined America's landscape. Nature has achieved a balance that has been relatively stable for 20,000 years. The reliable milestones of its annual rhythms--like flowers blooming and robins returning in the spring, and animals hibernating in winter--form the pulse and fabric of the passing years. They connect us to our history, give context to our communities and form the foundation of American culture, our art, literature, poetry and architecture.

The recent disruptions to animal and plant behavior are evident to anyone except for ideologically blinded right-wing flat-earthers and Exxon/Mobil's political and media toadies like Michael Crichton, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

The Australian reports that Sydney's desalination plant is likely to get the go ahead as soon as the state elections are over (I suspect more water restrictions will be announced then too).

RECYCLING Sydney's waste water and pumping it into the city's dams would use about 60per cent of the energy needed to run a desalination plant.

But the Iemma Government yesterday insisted that the network of pipes to carry recycled water about 60km uphill would be about $4 billion, significantly more than the cost of a desalination plant, which it has committed itself to build. ... The Iemma Government has vowed to build a desalination plant powered by renewable energy if dam levels fall below 30per cent. It has already called for tenders and launched a $1.4million taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to promote the technology. ...

Water Services Association chief Ross Young supported desalination as an option for all Australian coastal cities. He said the ability to further save water was limited in light of 20 per cent cuts in household consumption since 2001.

On Monday, Victorian Acting Premier John Thwaites flagged the construction of a $1 billion desalination plant on top of a $2.4billion recycling project to supply water to the power stations of the Latrobe Valley. ...

The New York Times has a report on The Warming Of Greenland.
Now, where the maps showed only ice, a band of fast-flowing seawater ran between a newly exposed shoreline and the aquamarine-blue walls of a retreating ice shelf. The water was littered with dozens of icebergs, some as large as half an acre; every hour or so, several more tons of ice fractured off the shelf with a thunderous crack and an earth-shaking rumble.

All over Greenland and the Arctic, rising temperatures are not simply melting ice; they are changing the very geography of coastlines. Nunataks - “lonely mountains” in Inuit - that were encased in the margins of Greenland’s ice sheet are being freed of their age-old bonds, exposing a new chain of islands, and a new opportunity for Arctic explorers to write their names on the landscape.

“We are already in a new era of geography,” said the Arctic explorer Will Steger. “This phenomenon - of an island all of a sudden appearing out of nowhere and the ice melting around it - is a real common phenomenon now.”


Friends of the Earth are saying that 2007 is the crunch year for climate.
THIS will be a crunch year for action on the climate crisis, a leading UK environmental lobbyist said today. Never have the opportunities been better and the danger from failure greater, Friends of the Earth chief Tony Juniper said. "There is an urgency that wasn't there before," Mr Juniper said. "The science is there, the economics is there and the politics is there ... If they don't take this opportunity then we really should start to think about the future of life on earth."

The scientists who mind the Doomsday Clock moved it forward two minutes today to five minutes to midnight, symbolising the growing risk of the annihilation of civilisation. And, for the first time, the scientists said global warming was a threat.

Early next month the International Panel on Climate Change will produce the first of four key reports this year assessing the latest scientific knowledge on global warming. This will be followed by a report in April on adaptation, one in May on mitigation and a final overview in November. A European Union-United States summit in April is expected to focus on energy security, and a Group of Eight summit in early June will highlight energy and climate.

Ecoshock News has a post on the "Top 5 "Save the Climate" Speeches of 2006".
Will it be a happy or a grim New Year?

In 2006, the Arctic melted more, rains fell heavier, fires burned bigger, the plants and animals were confused by a changing climate. This was the year polls showed the public is slowly getting the big picture. People are worried. Unlikely characters and corporations are calling themselves "green."

It was also the year of plans to avert catastrophic change.

Most of these proposals did not come from governments, who are still, with a few exceptions, in paralysis, or denial. The visionaries are self-appointed, yet generally world-watching veterans and professional communicators.

We are talking about Al Gore, the former politician; Amory Lovins, a Green gone big time; British journalist sensation George Monbiot; Pulitzer-prize winning investigator Ross Gelbspan; the official World Watcher, Lester Brown; and perhaps urban critic James Howard Kuntsler with the Peak Oil movement. Radio Ecoshock has assembled their latest speeches on how to get out of the heat, in a special section of free downloads, at www.ecoshock.org.

Dave Roberts at Grist has another update on coal - the enemy of the human race.
Let's all gather round and give Jeff Goodell a rousing huzzah for using his megaphone to spread the righteous message that (say it with me!) coal is the enemy of the human race.

Specifically, Goodell, writing in Rolling Stone, covers the electric-power industry's mad rush to build as many coal plants as possible before emissions caps render them uneconomic.

See how it's done:
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a suicidal act is one that is "dangerous to oneself or to one's interests; self-destructive or ruinous." By this standard, the coal boom that is currently sweeping America is the atmospheric equivalent of a swan dive off a very tall building. At precisely the moment that scientists have reached a consensus that we need to drastically cut climate-warming pollution, the electric-power industry is racing to build more than 150 new coal plants across the United States. Coal is by far the dirtiest fossil fuel: If the new plants are built, they will dump hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year for decades to come -- virtually guaranteeing that the U.S. will join China in leading civilization's plunge into a superheated future.

Like most stories about energy, corruption and greed, this one is centered in Texas. TXU, an electric-power company based in Dallas, has announced plans to build eleven new coal plants in Texas by 2011 -- a move that a trade publication calls "one of the most ambitious generation capacity expansions in recent power industry history." Texas already dumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other state in the nation. TXU's new fleet of coal plants would more than double the company's current pollution, spewing 78 million tons of planet-heating pollution each year -- the equivalent of 11 million SUVs.

Screw TXU, and screw coal.

For those who haven't seen it, I did a fairly extensive interview with Goodell a while back.

Venture Beat has an article on the effect of ethanol production on corn prices.
Tortilla prices are going up, causing hardship for the poor in Mexico, apparently because of all the use of ethanol in the U.S.

The U.S. is making lots of ethanol out of corn, to use as an alternative to gasoline — creating a shortage of corn for people wanting to make tortillas. Indeed, there some 100 more ethanol plants being planned, which will eat up even more corn — and this comes despite doubts about whether using corn ethanol for environmental reasons is really worth it. It has marginal benefits.

Besides, UC Berkeley’s Tad Patzek has long warned there isn’t enough land to grow all the needed corn, and that continued production could lead to grotesque and obscene environmental destruction.

At the same time, as we’ve discussed before, the infrastructure corn ethanol production creates may be helpful, because it paves the way for the efficient distribution of the different cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from waste, residue and plant parts other than the corn kernel itself — and is much more beneficial to the environment. In other words, the corn ethanol boom is a stop-gap measure which, while costly in the short-run, could lead to huge paybacks in a few years. (See the argument of Vinod Khosla here). Although, even here, Patzek appears to disagree; there’s not enough land to produce these alternative plant sources, either, he says.

Bush has called for a huge increase in ethanol production
US President George W. Bush's annual speech to Congress next week is likely to call for a huge increase in ethanol usage and tweak climate change policy while stopping short of mandatory emissions caps.

Mr Bush's annual State of the Union address is expected to touch on key energy policy points, after he made the surprise pronouncement during last year's address that the US was addicted to Middle East crude oil supplies.

A rising focus on "energy security" by both the Bush administration and Congress has added momentum to efforts to employ home-grown fuel sources like ethanol to reduce US dependency on oil imports.

Following that theme, Mr Bush is likely to call for more US use of home-grown ethanol, sources familiar with White House plans said today on condition of anonymity.

I never thought I'd see this in Murdoch's paper "The Australian" which has been a disgracefully unbalanced pro-war drum beater for years now - a column from a writer from "The American Conservative" (whose pre-election editorial a few years ago, which declared George Bush would discredit conservatism for a generation is proving remarkably accurate as everyone bails out from the sinking ship) that says the Iraq war is a fiasco and America must free itself of dependence on hydrocarbons so everyone else can be free of America.
Before his speech, Bush told Maliki that he must either play ball with the US administration or "you're out". If Maliki fails to keep his promises to Bush, plan B is to replace Maliki and his cabinet with a presumably more pliant Iraqi government.

So much for the fiction that Iraq is, as Bush repeatedly claims, a sovereign democracy.


In effect, Iraq has become an American colonial dependency. There is no end state in the foreseeable future that will permit the withdrawal of US troops. There is only the prospect of an endless, costly war in the pursuit of an objective that cannot be gained.


Or, if Bush's threats against Iran are to be taken seriously - and they should be - the prospect of a wider regional war that will turn the Islamic world decisively against the US in a true clash of civilisations.


Pandering to public fears - and again invoking the spectre of 9/11 - Bush claims that if the US leaves Iraq, terrorists will use that country as a safe haven to attack the American homeland. Here, the administration has utterly failed to understand the roots of terrorism. It is the American presence in the Middle East - a region with profound resentment towards the imperial overlordship of the Western powers - that drives terrorism, not its lack of democracy. The US indifference to attaining a just peace between Israel and Palestine (an issue that went unmentioned in Bush's speech), support for authoritarian regimes in the region (Saudi Arabia, Egypt) and the occupation of Iraq are what fuels terrorism.


If Bush is serious about reducing the terrorist threat, he should realise that US policy in the Middle East needs a drastic overhaul.


First, the US must begin to free itself from dependence on hydrocarbons (read Middle Eastern crude oil).


Second, it needs to reduce its military footprint in the region, including a phased, orderly withdrawal of troops that would result in all US forces being out of Iraq by mid-2008. The US should rely on naval and air power alone to prevent the emergence of an oil hegemon in the Persian Gulf, and it should stay out of the region's intractable internal politics.


If the US withdrawal leads to a bigger war in Iraq, Washington should let nature take its course. It is not in the US's interest to be caught in the middle of a Sunni-Shia power struggle in Iraq. In the real world - obviously a different place from that in which the administration lives - the US is not going to stay in Iraq forever and, when it leaves, a conflict may ensue in which Saudi Arabia and others aid the Sunnis as Iran is already aiding the Shi'ites. Bush is only postponing the day of reckoning, not averting it.


Unlike Bush, Americans understand that the US needs a new approach to the Middle East. A recent Pew Charitable Trust survey found that "by a 45 per cent to 32 per cent margin, more Americans believe that the best way to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks on the US is to decrease, not increase, America's military presence overseas". The same Pew survey also found that "an increasing number of Americans see non-military approaches, such as decreasing US dependence on Middle East oil and avoiding involvement with the problems of other countries", as effective strategies for reducing the terrorist threat to the US.


Similarly, polls taken immediately after Bush's speech show that, just as before it, a majority of Americans oppose his plan to escalate the Iraq war.
Perhaps the US is following the wrong policy. Instead of trying to export democracy to Iraq, the US needs to import democracy into its own foreign policy process. It remains to be seen whether Congress has the courage to compel the administration to adhere to the popular will.


But one thing is clear: if it continues on the course that Bush has charted, the US is headed for disaster in Iraq, probable war with Iran and catastrophe in the Middle East. When asked why his latest plan for victory will succeed, Bush responded: "Because it has to." That is not the way the real world works. But then, the line between a faith-based foreign policy and a delusional one is very thin.

Christopher Layne, a contributing editor of The American Conservative, is associate professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University's George Bush School of Government. He is author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Cornell University Press).

I used to see quite a few blog monitoring firms in my logs, but these have slowly disappeared over the past year (I suspect because they have deliberately become more unobtrusive, following the bad PR caused by the likes of Netvocates last year). As I've kept a loose watch on developments in that industry over the years (it can be enlightening to watch the watchers, as far as possible) this post by Buzzlogic, who seem to have some interesting tools for monitoring "blogger impact", caught my eye. From "Spocko's influence" (hopefully most of you saw Spocko's story on the internets last week and thus know what this is about).

It's no longer surprising when something in the blogosphere sparks a fire that challenges the high and mighty. The Spocko story developing in San Francisco takes this idea to extremes, involving a self-described "fifth tier blogger with just 15 readers a day" crossing swords with one of the world's largest and most powerful media companies. One might presume the former has no influence and the latter an extraordinary amount. Watching how the community has developed around this issue, one might be wrong...

The emphasis here isn't the left vs. right political discussion but rather the collision of the small and large, the intersection of on and offline influence, and how the dynamics are changing. Here's the story in a nutshell: Spocko writes about media and political issues. After having his fill of the hate speech that passes for political discourse on a local talk radio station, he posted audio files of the offending comments on his blog. And then he wrote advertisers to alert them to the diatribes one supposes they were unwittingly underwriting. He didn't challenge the talk show hosts' right to say what they were saying, only questioning whether what was being said was consistent with the advertisers' values. ...

There are arguments to be made about free speech and commerical use of public airwaves. But we're also fascinated watching how the conversation has evolved on this topic, and how a community has sprung up around the "fifth tier blogger." Hundreds of posts have been written on the issue, the story has spilled into mainstream media including the local CBS affiliate in San Francisco, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Daily News. And a YouTube video about Spocko's challenge generated more than 34,000 views. Spocko has gained a lot of attention by tilting at hate speech. A site that had almost no in linking started to get a lot and to develop a following (or at least until the ISP got nervous about Disney's attorneys). Now other voices have taken up the cause and a community has sprung up, energized by this topic.


I think one reason why I notice fewer interesting domains is the combination of customised blog monitoring platforms (being used by the professional blog watchers) along with the increasing penetration of RSS feed readers out there - I'd be interested to know how much traffic I don't see in my logs - so if you only read via RSS and never come to the actual site, I'd be interested in an email (biggav at gmail) or comment (yes - you have to leave your reader) to get a grip on what my actual readership is (I think I might have been blacklisted across some large organisations too, as there is a notable absence of some types of domains that used to be regulars lately)...


The 2 best RSS readers that I've come across are Google Reader (for browser based reading) and NetNewsWire (fat client for Macs) - though I still find myself with My Yahoo much of the time anyway, purely out of habit (and habits are a hard thing to break). The Google Reader blog had an interesting post today on developments in their world. One suggestion for the Google reader guys - how about providing a "Blogger stats" package for us Blogger users that gives a unified view of traffic across both web and RSS feeds - maybe delivered via Google Analytics ?

One of the most useful aspects of feed readers is how easy they make it to keep track of industry news. Which in my case means using Google Reader to read about... Google Reader. For example, I subscribe to the Google Blogsearch for "Google Reader" (which has a feed) so I know whenever someone writes about our product.

In the TV show 24, everything is not as it seems. Similarly, not everything that can be done with Reader is visible at first glance. I thought I'd share some gems that were unearthed with the help of the Blogsearch feed.
* Reader MiniMitch Keeler has posted a great guide of various external tools that people have written for Google Reader, including notifiers, greasemonkey scripts and more.
* For those of you with Wordpress blogs, Mike Crute has written a Wordpress plugin to add his shared items to his template.
* John Tokash is developing Reader Mini, an interface optimized for Nokia Internet Tablets.
* Lots of people have been posting their Trends statistics: Matt Cutts, Robert Scoble, O'Reilly Radar and more. Jeff Veen, who helped us out with the design, has also posted some follow-up thoughts.

The Google Reader team tries to read all the feedback that gets posted on blogs, and has also been known to reply in comments. This is a great way for us to get a feel for what's important to you, so keep writing up your thoughts and feature suggestions.

Josh Marshall has a post on the White House's War on US Attorneys. Apparently investigating some subjects is a career limiting move.

Okay, so we already know that the White House has now taken the unprecedented step of firing at least four and likely seven US Attorneys in the middle of their terms of office -- at least some of whom are in the midst of corruption investigations of Bush administration officials and key Republican lawmakers. We also know that they're taking advantage of a handy provision of the USA Patriot Act that allows the White House to replace these fired USAs with appointees who don't need to be approved by the senate.

Given that these new USAs are being plopped into offices currently investigating Republicans and other administration officials and others into states with 2008 presidential candidates, there's certainly ample opportunity for mischief. So we're looking into just how the White House is appointing.

Well, let's start with the estimable J. Timothy Griffin, US Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas since December 20th.

If you hadn't heard about Griffin's appointment, don't feel bad, the guy he replaced hadn't either. Griffin's appointment was annouced on December 15th before the then-US Attorney Bud Cummins had even been given a chance to resign. Cummins got the call on his cell phone the same day while he was out hiking with his son. Cummins, who subsequently said he got forced out for political reasons, resigned on the 20th, the same day Griffin was sworn in.

So who's Griffin and what experience does he bring to the job?

Well, top of the list seems to be his stint at the White House where he worked for Karl Rove doing opposition research on Democrats. That was until late last year. According to this Arkansas Times report, for the last ten years -- with the exception of two one year stint -- he has always worked as a Republican party opposition researcher digging up dirt on Democrats. Deputy Research Director for the RNC from 1999-2000. Research Director for the RNC from 2002-2005. Oppo Research Director for Karl Rove 2005-2006. Prior to 1999? Well, he was associate independent counsel investigating Henry Cisneros from 1995-96. After that he went to work for Dan Burton on the Hill to investigate Asian money contributions to the DNC.

Back in 2000, when he was in charge of digging up dirt on Al Gore, he apparently had a poster hanging on the wall behind his desk which read: "On my command - unleash hell on Al."

So clearly, Griffin's a pretty apolitical guy.

Now, why would Karl Rove want his top oppo researcher being the US Attorney in Arkansas for the next two years?

And is Ed Gillespie suiting up to take over the Duke Cunningham investigation in San Diego?

In yet more centralisation of power into an imperial style presidency (Putin and Bush seem to be competing to see who can be absolute dictator first in their respective realms) US state governors have lost control over their national guard forces in favour of the President. Apparantly US citizens can now be tried by military courts martial instead of normal courts as well. How does that saying go - "freedom is on the march" ? Where it marched to and what happened to it when it got there is apparently a secret...
A little-noticed change in federal law packs an important change in who is in charge the next time a state is devastated by a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.

To the dismay of the nation’s governors, the White House now will be empowered to go over a governor’s head and call up National Guard troops to aid a state in time of natural disasters or other public emergencies. Up to now, governors were the sole commanders in chief of citizen soldiers in local Guard units during emergencies within the state.

A conflict over who should control Guard units arose in the days after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. President Bush sought to federalize control of Guardsmen in Louisiana in the chaos after the hurricane, but Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) refused to relinquish command.

Over objections from all 50 governors, Congress in October tweaked the 200-year-old Insurrection Act to empower the hand of the president in future stateside emergencies. In a letter to Congress, the governors called the change "a dramatic expansion of federal authority during natural disasters that could cause confusion in the command-and-control of the National Guard and interfere with states' ability to respond to natural disasters within their borders."

The Onion has scooped the rest of the media and reported on Bush's imminent exit strategy from Iraq.

Almost a year after the cessation of major combat and a month after the nation's first free democratic elections, President Bush unveiled the coalition forces' strategy for exiting Iraq.

"I'm pleased to announce that the Department of Defense and I have formulated a plan for a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," Bush announced Monday morning. "We'll just go through Iran."

Bush said the U.S. Army, which deposed Iran's longtime enemy Saddam Hussein, should be welcomed with open arms by the Islamic-fundamentalist state. "And Iran's so nearby," Bush said. "It's only a hop, skip, and a jump to the east."

According to White House officials, coalition air units will leave forward air bases in Iraq and transport munitions to undisclosed locations in Iran. After 72 to 96 hours of aerial-bomb retreats, armored-cavalry units will retreat across the Zagros mountains in tanks, armored personnel carriers, and strike helicopters. The balance of the 120,000 troops will exit into the oil-rich borderlands around the Shatt-al-Arab region within 30 days.

Dave Roberts has a review of "Children Of Men" up at Grist.
I saw Children of Men the other night, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's easily my favorite movie of the past year.

The basic plot is: a numb and disillusioned ex-activist lives in London, 18 years after a sudden, unexplained worldwide epidemic of infertility. There are no children. The rest of the world is in chaos; the U.K. is held together by a brutal, authoritarian police state that rounds up and deports illegal immigrants. Through his still-activist ex-wife, he is given charge of a pregnant girl. He must get the girl to safety and her child into the hands of the possibly mythical Human Project.

This is dystopian realism at its gut-punching best. There's never a hint of "sci fi," just a raw, heightened version of our present world. It is resonant with philosophical and spiritual themes, but the main effect is relentless, unremitting tension. ...

And there's an urban-warfare scene toward the end that I'll put up against anything in Saving Private Ryan. You really have to see it to believe it. I'm a huge fan of Alfonso CuarĂ³n, who's part of an extraordinary young generation of skilled Latino directors, but nothing in Y Tu Mama Tambien (much less friggin' Harry Potter) could have prepared me for this.

The reason I mention it here is that it puts some flesh and feeling on the warnings of the doomers: the peak-oil doomers, climate-change doomers, nuclear-terrorism doomers, global-virus doomers, general-malaise doomers. The techno-optimist response to, say, peak oil, is hey, when oil starts to get expensive we'll respond in an orderly fashion and shift to something else, right? It's not like there'll be riots in the streets. Right? But one thing Children of Men shows to visceral effect is just how shallow civilization is. Just how quickly the veneer can be ripped away and the lawlessness and brutality let loose. They're always closer than we know.

I remember having a tiny shiver of that feeling during the "Brooks Brothers Riots" of 2000. It was slightly comical, of course, the doughy white guys in suits "rioting," but it shut down a vote recount. How far would it have escalated? How much holds the angry white men back from real mob violence? How many economic shocks or dislocations, how much constant provocation, will push them over the line? In the developed world, particularly in the U.S., we are so comfortable and insulated. Our bland, strip-malled, suburbanized landscape looks the same everywhere, and offers the illusion that history has stopped -- that time and space have collapsed into one weightless, gluttonous now. What we don't realize is that circumstances tip over into chaos all the time. Our own history is fresh with examples, and around the world it goes on as we speak. We read about wars, unrest, and famine, see the images on television, stridently debate foreign policy, but it all has a strangely disembodied feel, as though we're just manipulating symbols. "I think the images on TV should do this! No, this!"

Children of Men brings it home. These are yuppie Londoners, still herding around dazed, now at the mercy of organized street gangs and heavy-handed government agents. The infertility has never been explained. Some sort of genetic disease? Pollution? God's wrath? That rich symbolic space is left open for viewers to fill, but the wistful implication at several points is that humanity ended simply because it lost hope. As one character says early on: things went to shit well before the children stopped coming.

The story traces one man's rediscovery of hope and his fierce, almost monomaniacal efforts to hold on to it.

Though some bits of exposition are clumsily delivered and the occasional bit part goes over the top, Children of Men is the most haunting, thought-provoking, feeling-provoking movie you're likely to see this year. I can't shake it. It gets a five out of five star Gristmill rating. Check it out.

Much to my dismay I've never gotten around to reading anything by Robert Anton Wilson - judging by the obituaries he is getting from people I respect I think I'm missing out on something - check out 10 Zen Monkeys, Jeff Vail and Reason, which this story is cribbed from:
Wilson did occasionally claim to belong to the left or the right, usually when he was especially exasperated with the authoritarians on the other side of the spectrum. More often, and more accurately, he insisted his politics were "non-Euclidean." His core fan base isn't easy to categorize either: It includes hackers, futurists, science-fiction enthusiasts, Joyceans, Poundians, Forteans, Discordians, anarchists, libertarians, anarcho-libertarians, devotees of psychedelic drugs, mystics who sound like scientists, scientists who sound like mystics, people who believe in vast secret conspiracies, people who don't believe in vast secret conspiracies but have a sense of humor about them, people who aren't sure whether they believe in vast secret conspiracies, humanist psychologists, pookaphiles, and people who weren't any of the above until they randomly happened on one of his books like a glass of tomato juice spiked with some unpredictable psychedelic compound.

In Cosmic Trigger 2, Wilson wrote about meeting a musician in Berlin who had fled from East Germany. "In Leipzig, where he grew up," Wilson wrote, "there was a 'public' library that was not open to the public. (Isn't that a marvelous Marxist oxymoron?) In this library were books which the Communist leaders did not want anybody to read but which, evidently, they didn't want to burn." The young dissident explained to Wilson that he had found a way to sneak into the library and surreptitiously borrow books; he then returned them, to avoid arousing suspicion, after reading their Heretical Ideas. When he made his escape to the West, he brought only one of those forbidden books with him.
He put it on the table. It was Illuminatus. "Would you please autograph it?" he asked.

A lesser writer would have stopped the story there, but Wilson went on to add an even odder detail. When he opened the book he was confronted with the words RAJNEESH INTERNATIONAL LIBRARY. "How the hell," he wrote, "did the book get from either India or Oregon to the hands of a Communist official in East Germany, who decided to preserve it in a sealed library?"

You can invent your own account of why the Bhagwan would possess a sprawling sci-fi parody of conspiracy theories, and of how it would get from his hands to a verboten bookshelf in Leninist Leipzig before finding its way back to its source. Like most of the mysteries in Wilson's work, the answers you propose, no matter how plausible, will all sound a little ridiculous -- and a little awe-inspiring, too. Awe and absurdity all wrapped up together: that was Wilson's engaging, infectious vision of the universe.

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