RE < C  

Posted by Big Gav

Ars Technica has a look at Google's new clean energy initiative - "RE < C (Renewable Energy is cheaper than coal)".

By now, everyone is familiar with Google's corporate motto, "Don't be evil." In an effort to spread that message of not-being-evil, the search engine behemoth has announced a plan to develop sources of renewable energy that will be cheaper than coal. The new initiative, RE [is less than] C, (renewable energy is cheaper than coal) will begin by focusing on solar power technology, and will also encompass geothermal energy production.

RE [is less than] C's plan, in conjunction with Google's philanthropic, is to drive the development of cheaper alternative energy through the use of grants and investments. According to Dr. Larry Brilliant, head of, the "hope is that by funding research on promising technologies, investing in promising new companies, and doing a lot of R&D ourselves, we may help spark a green electricity revolution that will deliver breakthrough technologies priced lower than coal."

The company itself is also trying hard to reduce its drain on the environment. Google is working to reduce the energy expenditure of its data centers across the world, all of which need power and cooling for the servers, and plans to be carbon neutral by the end of the current year. It has also been developing an array of solar cells to power its California headquarters, the Googleplex, and is involved in an initiative to arrive at more energy-efficient computers.

With all signs pointing to an increased scarcity of resources in an world growing ever more crowded, philanthropic efforts such as this one by Google are very much needed. Although energy produced by burning fossil fuels has a high social cost when climate change and pollution are taken into account, those costs are not borne upfront. When short-term shareholder value and the need to maximize profit remains the number one priority for corporations, those businesses have no reason to not use the cheapest energy source they can, regardless of its effect on everyone else.

Presumably, the idea behind this move is as follows: if you can't persuade people that burning coal is a bad idea ecologically, providing them with a cheaper, cleaner alternative makes it more expensive to pollute than not, and even if shareholders don't care about the trees, they'll care about the bottom line. At a time when report after report highlights the growing damage done to the planet through the use of fossil fuels, this move by Google to spur renewable energy uptake ought to be applauded.

Technology Review has an article on "Focusing Light on Silicon Beads" - noting that "placing tiny spheres of silicon in reflective trays could be the key to cheap, efficient solar cells". A "mini concentrator" approach.
A company in Japan has developed a novel way of making solar cells that cuts production costs by as much as 50 percent. The photovoltaic (PV) cells are made up of arrays of thousands of tiny silicon spheres surrounded by hexagonal reflectors.

The key advantage of the system is that it reduces the total amount of silicon required, says Mikio Murozono, president of Clean Venture 21 (CV21), based in Kyoto, Japan. "We use one-fifth of the raw silicon material compared with traditional PV cells," he says.

This can make a huge difference to the overall cost of producing solar cells, says Howard Branz, principal scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Center for Photovoltaics, in Golden, CO. "About 20 to 30 percent of the cost of a solar-cell module is in the cost of the raw silicon," he says.

CV21 started production of its cells in October; the first of its 10-kilowatt modules go on sale this month. While these modules will initially cost about the same as the traditional variety, the price is set to drop by 30 percent in 2008, as production increases in May from 1,000 cells a day to 60,000 cells a day, says Murozono. The ultimate goal is to make them 50 percent cheaper than existing cells by 2010, he says.

Spherical solar cells were originally proposed by Texas Instruments about 30 years ago, says Branz. But while they had the potential to reduce the amount of silicon used, they brought with them a host of new problems. Their curved surfaces, for example, can cause more light to be reflected, which reduces their efficiency. What's more, only half of the sphere ends up actually being exposed to light. Significant gaps also tend to form between the spheres when arranged in arrays, which can further reduce the efficiency of the solar cell.

CV21's solution was to place each of the one-millimeter-diameter silicon spheres in its own hexagonal aluminium reflector. These work like car headlights but in reverse, ensuring that any light hitting the reflector is directed toward the sphere. When this approach is used, even the underside of the sphere is utilized. The hexagonal shape of the reflectors allows them to be slotted together without dead space between them. "Effectively, these are mini-concentrators," says Branz.

Mobjectivist has a mammoth peak oil modelling post up at The Oil Drum - "Application of the Dispersive Discovery Model".
The Dispersive Discovery model shows promise at describing:

1. Oil and NG discoveries as a function of cumulative depth.
2. Oil discoveries as a function of time through a power-law growth term.
3. Together with a Log-Normal size distribution, the statistical fluctuations in discoveries. We can easily represent the closed-form solution in terms of a Monte Carlo algorithm.
4. Together with the Oil Shock Model, global crude oil production.
5. Over a wide dynamic range, the overall production shape. Look at USA production in historical terms for a good example.
6. Reserve growth of individual reservoirs.

Crikey has a report on the recently unelected Mal Brough - the ex-minister who implemented the Rodent's uranium grab in the Northern Territory. It seems he was pretty much unanimously rejected by the aboriginal voters he was "helping". Maybe they are as cynical as I am. In related news, the SMH reports that One of the "brains" behind the NT intervention has retired. Maybe he didn't have much of a future.
I never quite understood how Mal Brough managed to escape genuine mainstream media scrutiny so often during his brief but, shall we say, "exciting" time in Indigenous affairs. I always just put it down to the "conga line of suckholes" phenomena identified by Mark Latham (albeit as a "Liberal" inclination in dealings with Americans... but as we all know a trait which also besets some in the media when confronted with a "Minister").

The media liked Brough – known as "Sideshow Mal" within Indigenous affairs - because he was always prepared to "say anything, do anything" to get a headline. That makes for great copy. Unfortunately for Brough, however, the media didn’t get to decide the outcome of the contest for his parliamentary seat.

That privilege was afforded the fine residents of the federal electorate of Longman who, it turns out, decided that Mal Brough was even more odious than the "average" Queensland Coalition member... which is quite something. ...

I accept that opposition to the NT intervention did not translate to any significant swing against the Coalition at a national level. But given the huge swing against Brough personally, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his boy’s own adventure in the NT didn’t play a part, albeit a relatively small one.

Perhaps, when it came time to vote, at least some of the good people of Longman stopped to think about the NT intervention and decided that using the s-xual abuse of children for your own personal/political gain was really quite... well... disgusting. Either that or the Longman punters decided that Mal Brough was just a really sh-t local member.

As for the Aboriginal vote in the Northern Territory, well they also got to cast judgement on Brough (and Howard). And what a judgement they delivered! Conveniently, one federal seat – Lingiari – encompasses all of the 73 Aboriginal communities affected by the NT intervention.

Media have correctly noted that "Aboriginal booths" in Lingiari delivered votes to the ALP in the 90 percentile range. True enough, but once again the reporting has been sub-par. Just quoting the percentages from a few booths doesn’t come close to telling the real story.

It’s correct to say that at the Wadeye booth, for example, the ALP collected about 95 percent of the vote. But what does that actually mean in real numbers? Of the 723 people who cast a ballot, just 26 of them voted for the CLP. 26! And doubtless almost every one of those was white.

In Angkarripa, in central Australia, the CLP managed just five primary votes out of a potential 503. That’s 0.99 percent of the total vote.

But the really big story – one which went begging for the media - was from a small booth in Arnhem Land. Yirrikala is home to Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the prominent Aboriginal leader who outraged colleagues by reversing his opposition to the NT intervention on the eve of the official start to the election campaign. Brough, no doubt, thought he had an ally in Yunupingu, but the electoral returns reveal otherwise. Of the 266 votes up for grabs, the CLP secured just two of them - 0.75 percent of the primary vote.

And what of the other great story that went begging? The vote for the ALP in the booth of Hopevale – Noel Pearson’s hometown. 75%.

One of the great hypocrisies not just of media coverage of Indigenous issues, but of Australian thinking generally is our inability to apply the "good for the goose, good for the gander" principle when it comes to black issues.

For example, WorkChoices. The Australian public rejected it. No one’s debating the mandate to wind it back. Yet the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory overwhelmingly, comprehensively, spectacularly reject the NT intervention, and we’re all still arguing about whether it too should be scaled back.

The fact is, Aboriginal people still want the $1.3 billion spent in their communities, plus a lot more to make up the massive gaps in health, housing and education that have grown amid decades of appalling government neglect. They just don’t see why they have to give up their basic human rights in the process.

Aboriginal people rejected the methods of the intervention. They want consultation, not confrontation. They want assistance, not insistence. And they want to be heard. As usual, Aboriginal Territorians have spoken loud and clear at this federal election, but I fear that as usual, not enough people are listening.

Crikey also has one from Mungo MacCallum on "The dubious legacy of John Winston Howard" (sorry - I'll stop kicking the dead Rodent soon, I promise).
Howard’s other claim is that he leaves Australia a stronger, prouder and more prosperous country than he found it.

Stronger? Well, that it depends how you measure it. Howard huggers have always claimed that in international affairs, Australia now punches above its weight. What they actually mean is that Howard was duchessed by George W Bush, who found him a very amenable acolyte. The rest of the world saw us in that light. Stronger should mean more independent, and self-confident. The only bit of Australia in which those qualities are more obvious is the Australian cricket team.

Prouder, then? Certainly more arrogant, less tolerant – the pride that is counted among the seven deadly sins. But prouder of real and lasting achievement? What achievement?

And more prosperous – some people certainly are, much; and the country’s overall wealth has grown, although Howard has had very little to do with that. But we are also far, far deeper in debt, and less secure as a result. By an economist’s measure, our material wealth has grown; but if prosperity is seen as a wider indicator of quality of life, as genuine happiness, Howard failed us badly.

And if we are wealthier, at what cost? We are certainly not the people we were in 1996 when the government last changed.

For more than eleven years, John Howard led us on a voyage driven by greed and fear, into parochialism and paranoia, selfishness and racism, bigotry and corruption, and other dark places in the Australian psyche where we never should have gone. It was a mean and ugly trip, and it will take us all a long time to recover.

Ross Gittens at the SMH says the election result was "A vote for honesty and decency".
Wouldn't it be great if the defeat of the Howard Government and the election of fresh-faced Kevin Rudd proved to be a turning point, a swing back to moderation in public policy and decency in public life? I am not at all sure it will - politicians tend to ape the ethical standards of their competitors - but it sure would be nice.

The lawyer and academic Greg Craven says the Australian people are radical about only one thing: that their politicians must be moderate. The radical policy in this campaign - at least in its initial form - was Work Choices. By favouring individual contracts it shifted the balance of bargaining power heavily in favour of employers at the expense of less-skilled workers, who were able to lose penalty payments and conditions without reasonable compensation.

The belated restoration of a fairness test did much to correct this injustice, but it came too late. As Liberal insiders are admitting, Work Choices was the greatest single reason for John Howard's defeat. Inexplicably, it harmed the very working-class battlers whose support had kept him in power for so long.

Work Choices was extreme in another respect: by permitting the removal of penalty rates for overtime and work on weekends and public holidays, it advanced the seven-day working week and the demise of the weekend. Nothing could have been more calculated to damage family life and make social relations more difficult. How this would leave us better off was never explained.

I do not believe the motivation for Work Choices was to promote employment and advance economic efficiency. Rather it was to strike the final blow against the hated unions.

Howard sought to delegitimise the union movement from his first moment in office, removing unionists from government boards and declining to consult the unions about legislation that affected them. Contrast that with Rudd's concern in just his first few days to establish good relations with business.

Other things suggest this election result represented a rejection of the extreme and a search for greater balance. One is that, much to the Howard Government's astonishment, the voters were perfectly prepared to toss out a government that had presided over more than a decade of strong growth in the economy, rising wages, low inflation, moderate interest rates and low unemployment.

Perhaps reflecting their own values, the Libs assumed the goal of material comfort reigned supreme in the electorate's mind - that, when you got right down to it, nothing was more important than keeping the good times rolling. They discovered to their surprise that we do care about fairness, for others as well as ourselves; we do care about achieving a reasonable balance between work and life; and we do want our leaders to uphold reasonable standards of honesty and decency in public life.

This election revealed a desire to restore balance in another respect: the checks and balances of politics, under which many, probably most, Australians prefer their federal government not to also have control of the Upper House. Having the balance of power in the Senate held by third parties has restored its intended role as a house of review and made it a rare brake on the ever-growing power of executive government.

Over the years, a divided Senate has saved us from the worst extremes of both sides' policies. And saved the major parties from themselves. It is a safe assertion that Howard gained control of the Senate in his last term only by electoral accident. The sudden decline of the Australian Democrats caught voters off guard. What were the consequences of that miscalculation?

One was that the Senate was immediately cut back to a rubber stamp. Another was the rush of blood to Howard's head that produced Work Choices. He and his party must now privately curse the day they gained control of the Senate. It was the beginning of their end.

On the face of it, the voters' decision to install Labor federally as well as in every state and territory across the land hardly represents a vote for moderation and balance. We are now a one-party state. Not to worry. I think what we are seeing is just the first stage in an inevitable changing of the guard. Many voters are attracted to the idea of the each-way bet: governments of opposing colours at federal and state levels. Labor gained its stranglehold over state and territory governments while Howard's Liberals were entrenching themselves federally. Labor's ascension to power federally makes it only a matter of time before state Labor governments start falling - which will be no bad thing.

I believe standards of honesty and decency fell under Howard. They were hardly very high under his Labor predecessors, but they declined further under a man who, to all outward appearance, radiated respectability. He was a tricky man, leaving you with a certain impression but then later protesting that you had failed to read his lawyerly words carefully enough.

How many times were we misled? There were the non-core promises, the children overboard, the Tampa, the weapons of mass destruction and the probably illegal invasion of Iraq, the AWB scandal and the promise to keep interest rates at record lows.

Howard was never told and so was never responsible. The buck always stopped elsewhere. As to decency, we had the brutal treatment of asylum seekers, the trampling of the legal rights of David Hicks and others, the shameful treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef.

The Howard Government ruled by fear and behind-the-scenes bullying of bureaucrats, journalists, business economists and business people. It raised the abuse of incumbency to new heights, especially taxpayer-funded market research and political advertising.

In all these things, it had two standard defences: first, you may care but the electorate does not and, second, our Labor predecessors did it, too.

I would like to believe this election shows that, in the end, the electorate does care about declining standards of public morality.

As for Rudd, some friendly advice: the first time I hear "but Howard did it, too" I will take it as an admission of moral bankruptcy. It will be red rag to a bull.



* WorldChanging - Kevin Rudd, Australia's New Prime Minister
* - The Future of the Commodity Price Boom
* TreeHugger - China's Biggest Solar Geek
* Technology Review - Cleaner Nuclear Power? Congress pushes for another look at thorium fuel
* Energy Bulletin - Peak oil activists gather, plan for hard times, will lead the way
* Energy Bulletin - Where the wild things are
* POD - Peak Oil And Fertilizer: No Problem


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