Cleantech Investment At Record Level  

Posted by Big Gav

Forbes reports that Cleantech investment has hit another record, as yet untouched by the economic downturn - Cleantech investment hits record $1.6B in 3Q.

A record level of venture capital is pouring into cleantech despite a global economic downtown and credit crunch that's hitting more established players in the industry. U.S. venture capital investment in cleantech climbed to a record $1.6 billion in the third quarter of 2008, a 55-percent jump from the $979.3 million spent during the third quarter of 2007, according to an Ernst & Young report released Thursday.

The firm's research, based on data from Dow Jones VentureSource, shows seven of the top 10 venture capital deals in the solar industry, which recently hit the governmental jackpot when President Bush approved an eight-year extension of investment tax credits.

Investors pumped $990 million into solar during the quarter, bringing the year's running total to $1.7 billion with three months of data left to include.

One of the quarter's top deals went to Santa Monica, Calif.-based SolarReserve Inc., which will use $140 million in second-round financing on utility-scale solar thermal power plants.

SolarReserve's plants capture the sun's thermal energy, store it in molten salt and transform the heat into steam-driven turbines that generate electricity. The company said the funding will allow it to develop more than 5,000 megawatts of plants in locations across the globe, with each ranging in size from 50 megawatts to 300 megawatts.

The alternative energy legislation, which was wrapped into the government's $700 billion financial bailout package, also gave one-year extensions for wind, geothermal, biomass and other renewable energy projects.

Investments in energy efficiency totaled $186 million during the quarter, with GridPoint Inc. leading the way. The Arlington, Va.-based company raised $120 million in fourth-round financing for its smart grid platform, which helps such customers as Duke Energy and Xcel Energy control load, store energy and integrate renewable energy sources.

Rednecks For Obama  

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A steepening slope  

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Tom Whipple's latest peak oil column looks at the impact falling energy prices have on future supply - The peak oil crisis: A steepening slope.

In thinking about who might slow their use of oil in the world these days, let's start with the oil exporting countries as this is where consumption has been growing the fastest. Most of these sell their oil products domestically at discounts, some substantial, to world prices. Their foreign exchange earnings are obviously hurting from much lower prices at the minute and they are starting to talk about slowing economic development projects, but there certainly has been no sign of lower domestic consumption for now.

Oil consumption is so ubiquitous today that, somewhere, oil is used by people in all walks of life - from multi-billionaires to those who are just getting by. As hard economic times descend, it is obvious that people at the bottom of the economic scale will stop consuming oil first. Reduced consumption then will climb right on up through the several billion of us who are at least moderate oil consumers until we get to those who are so rich there is almost no price that would force them to lower their consumption.

Where do we find lots of people who are not particularly well off, are likely to be hit hard by the coming economic problems and who use lots of oil? The answer, of course, is in North America where we consume on the order of 1,000 gallons per capita per year largely because most of the transportation is by automobile. While the rest of the world drives private cars too, they are more likely to be in economically stronger hands, get much better mileage, and are not driven very far. Thus it is not surprising that in the last 12 months of increasing economic difficulties and much higher gasoline prices, consumption of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel fell by nearly nine percent in the U.S. while consumption in the rest of the OECD countries where they consume about half the oil per capita as in the U.S., consumption was basically flat.

Another place where oil products, especially kerosene and propane, are consumed by relatively poor people is for daily cooking fuel across the underdeveloped world. While this fuel is nearly essential to sustaining life once one is trapped inside a city, in most cases, it is subsidized by the national government and is not consumed in particularly large quantities per capita. There are, of course, millions of small gasoline-powered bicycles and scooters across the world, but most are using small amounts of subsidized fuel.

The message here is that as oil prices drop, it is not at all clear that there will be large reductions in the demand for oil products - at least until the economic situation becomes far more precarious. Discretionary driving such as lengthy motorized vacations and aimless driving by teenagers seems to have declined in the U.S. in recent months. There has been some reduction in the transport of goods due to the weakening economy. We may however be deceiving ourselves that oil consumption is going to drop precipitously in the near future. Oil has become so ingrained in our lifestyles and economies that it may take months or even years of harsh economic conditions before we see significant drops in worldwide demand.

The other side of the coin is oil production. Hardly a day goes by now without a report of some major oil development project being cancelled or placed on hold due to high costs and the unavailability of capital. While these delays may have little immediate impact, a few years down the line the results will be disastrous as world oil production will be declining very rapidly.

Always keep in mind the basic proposition of peak oil that the world is still burning oil at the rate of 31 billion barrels a year. Seventy five million barrels a day are coming from currently producing fields that with each passing year will produce anywhere from 4 to 8 percent less oil. It is simple arithmetic to show that with current production declining, fewer new oil producing projects under construction, and major declines in demand a dubious proposition, shortages are in the offing. Thanks to the worsening economic situation the effects of declining oil production - much higher prices and shortages - look to be even closer and more severe than before the financial crisis emerged. Falling prices at the gas pumps are only a temporary distraction: the real troubles are getting closer all the time.

The Green-collar army  

Posted by Big Gav

The SMH has a report on the "green collar army" that is forming to advance the switch to clean energy - Green-collar army recruits for the solar boom.

LEAH CALLON-BUTLER gave up a career in fashion last year to become a solar panel saleswoman, joining a surge towards green jobs predicted by the Federal Government.

Modelling done by Treasury on the cost of climate change found there would be an explosion in "green-collar" work with the introduction of an emissions trading scheme, with renewable power industries like solar and wind expected to be 30 times their current size by the middle of the century.

Ms Callon-Butler, a sales executive with the Sydney solar hot-water company Endless Solar, intends to stick around for the expected boom. The company has installed 5000 rooftop solar hot water systems in five years, using technology developed at the University of NSW, and it is looking for more staff. ...

By 2050, Treasury predicts, renewable energy could make up as much as half the energy mix in Australia, replacing the current reliance on coal. "Renewable technologies will become increasingly competitive, and production methods will switch to less emission-intensive technologies and processes," the Treasury report said. More jobs will be created by demand for cleaner cars, and Treasury estimates one in four people will be driving a hybrid or plug-in electric car by 2050.

The Clean Energy Council said the Treasury modelling showed immediate public and private investment in renewable power would pay off.

"The smarter and more dynamic we are right now, the more options we will have in terms of deploying technologies commercially five years down the track in 2012 and 2013," said a spokesman, Matthew Warren. Unions and environment groups called on the Federal Government to pave the way for a green jobs boom.

Half a million new jobs could be created in renewable sectors of the economy by 2030, said a report yesterday by the ACTU and the Australian Conservation Foundation. The ACTU president, Sharan Burrow, said: "The report shows Australia must act swiftly to make the most of its natural advantages or our economy will be left behind. We can't afford to miss the boat."

The Nation has an article by Van Jones, who is the most prominent commentator on the 'green collar jobs" idea - Working Together for a Green New Deal.
at a certain point it occurred to me that what we need is less investment in the fight against and more energy in the fight for: for positive alternatives to violence and incarceration. It was around that time that I got involved in the environmental movement. And I came to understand that the answer to our social, economic and ecological crises can be one and the same: a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

Society faces some huge challenges. The individuals, entrepreneurs and community leaders who will step up to make the repairs and changes are going to need help. They require and deserve a world-class partner in our government. The time has come for a public-private community partnership to fix this country and put it back to work. In the framework of a Green New Deal, the government would become a powerful partner to the problem solvers of the world--and not the problem makers.

Now, we cannot achieve the goal of a Green New Deal just by wishing for it. The first step in getting the government to support an inclusive, green economy is to build a durable political coalition.

On the one hand, there are large and powerful constituencies of white, affluent, college-educated progressives active in the United States. They are passionate about the environment, fair trade, economic justice and global peace. Unfortunately, many do not yet work in concert with people of color in their own country to pursue this agenda; they champion "alternative economic development strategies" across the globe, but not across town. These people could be great allies in uplifting our inner cities if they are given encouragement and a clear opportunity to do so.

On the other hand, many groups of people of color do not want to work in coalition with majority white organizations and white leaders. Many fear betrayal; others resent chronic white arrogance. Cultural differences and power imbalances create tensions; some organizations are actually committed to a racially exclusive ideology. Even though such organizations could benefit from additional allies and outside assistance, the very folks who could most benefit from a green opportunity agenda are loath to get involved.

Taken together, this means that the various US social change movements today are still nearly as racially segregated as the rest of society. This is a moral tragedy. And it is a tremendous barrier to building sufficient power to advance a positive social change agenda for anyone and everyone. Breaking through this standoff is a critical first step toward building a New Deal coalition for the new century--which would be the only thing dynamic, diverse and powerful enough to overcome the obstacles to progress.

In the New Deal period, it was a broad electoral coalition that moved the government onto the side of ordinary people, not FDR alone. Farmers, workers, ethnic minorities, students, intellectuals, progressive bankers and forward-thinking business leaders all joined forces at the ballot box to support FDR and his Congressional backers as they worked to revive the economy.

The Dragspelhuset Accordion House  

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Green building of the week from Inhabitat is this strange looking Swedish cabin - SPOOKY ECO HOUSE: The Dragspelhuset Accordion House.

While this cabin looks spookily lizard-like, its unusual structure was created in response to Swedish environmental building regulations. The solar-powered off-grid cabin is owned and designed by Maartje Lammers and Boris Zeisser of 24H Architecture as a family summer vacation retreat in southern Sweden’s Glaskogen nature reserve. The locals of the lakeside area affectionately call the house “Dragspelhuset,” or Accordion House because a room of the house is capable of extending outwards over the nearby stream.

Queensland Cracking Down On CSG Waste Water  

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The ABC has a report on new restrictions being placed on waste water from coal seam gas operations in Queensland - Govt to crack down on mine water disposal.

The Queensland Government has announced plans to boost environmental protections and potentially help secure water supplies for communities in the Surat and Bowen basins. Deputy Premier Paul Lucas says Cabinet has endorsed a proposal to strengthen disposal requirements for water generated when mining companies extract gas from underground coal seams.

He has told Parliament the policy will discourage mining companies from using ponds for evaporation. "Ponds will only be approved if they are required as a part of a water treatment facility," Mr Lucas said. "And if they are used, ponds must be lined to prevent soil contamination from salt and minerals.

"I'm a firm believer that using modern technology such as reverse osmosis treatment plants to clean the CSG [coal seam gas] water will allow for more environmentally friendly disposal and provide a valuable new source of water."

He says unless producers are using the CSG water, they'll have to treat it to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency before disposing it or supplying it to others.

Chevron's Glimpse Of The Future: More Work, Less Oil  

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The WSJ has an article on the high cost of developing oil projects on the new frontiers like deepwater offshore Brazil - Chevron Project Offers Glimpse Of Future: More Work, Less Oil.

Chevron Corp. executive Ali Moshiri spent the past seven years scouring the globe for hard-to-get equipment, schmoozing foreign officials and taking billion-dollar risks to fast-track a new oil prospect off the coast of Brazil.

Despite the full-out effort, Mr. Moshiri concedes Chevron's $3 billion Frade (pronounced Frah-jay) project is a mediocre prospect compared with the huge pools of easy-to-get oil the company has tapped in the past. Even if it fulfills its greatest promise, the deep-water oil field will contribute only a trickle to the global river of petroleum. And Frade, whose first well is now being drilled, could still fail to deliver enough oil to make all the effort worthwhile.

But Mr. Moshiri remained dedicated to the project for a simple reason: It's about as good as it gets these days. For oil companies seeking to reverse years of falling production, the consuming and expensive birthing of Frade has become the norm.

Big Western oil companies such as Chevron once had the run of the world's biggest oil fields, known in the industry as elephants. Not anymore. Today, they are locked out of the best prospects by uncooperative governments. "If you're only going after elephants, you'll never hunt," says Mr. Moshiri, sitting in his wood-paneled office in a downtown Houston skyscraper.

What does all the effort buy? Chevron believes it can extract about 270 million barrels out of Frade over the next 18 years. The world guzzles that much every three days.

The global economic slowdown is shrinking demand for crude oil and has caused oil prices to plummet since this summer. Pressure on the global oil industry to find new sources of crude is receding, but the daily struggle of replacing production declines in aging fields is a problem that isn't going away. And cuts to capital budgets to cope with the downturn in prices could hobble the industry's ability to ramp up supply when demand returns. The result could be "a serious supply crunch" in as little as two years, says Paul Horsnell, commodities research head for Barclays Capital.

Companies in oil-rich exporting nations, of course, don't face as bad a squeeze, because they usually get first shot at fields on their home turf. Brazil, for instance, has announced a series of vast offshore discoveries this year, which the government may open to home-grown giant Petróleo Brasileiro SA or a new national oil operator. But in general, even oil superpowers such as Saudi Arabia have fewer giant fields to tap than in the past, making large increases in output costlier and tougher to achieve.

The CIA Makes a Killing - On The Stockmarket  

Posted by Big Gav

Slate has an interesting article on an unusual form of insider trading (and touches on the "warring capital groups" theory as well) - They Made a Killing (via Cryptogon).

In 1951, Jacobo Árbenz Gúzman became Guatemala’s second democratically elected president. Árbenz’s authoritarian predecessors had been very sympathetic to American business interests, particularly those of the United Fruit Co. (now Chiquita), which had bought up land titles on the cheap from Guatemala’s corrupt elite for its ever-expanding banana empire. Once in office, Presidente Árbenz sought to take it all back, nationalizing UFC’s Guatemalan assets and redistributing them to the poor.

But UFC had friends in very high places—the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, John Moor Cabot, was the brother of UFC President Thomas Cabot. The secretary of state himself, John Foster Dulles, had done legal work for UFC, and his brother Allen Dulles was director of the CIA and also on UFC’s board. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we now know that the various Cabots and Dulleses had a series of top-secret meetings in which they decided that Árbenz had to go and sponsored a coup that drove Árbenz from office in 1954.

With a U.S. puppet back in the president’s mansion, UFC’s profits were safe. But it appears the company wasn’t the only beneficiary of this Cold War cloak-and-dagger diplomacy: A recent study by economists Arindrajit Dube, Ethan Kaplan, and Suresh Naidu argues that those in on the planning process also profited handsomely. By tracking the stock prices of UFC and other politically vulnerable firms in the months leading up to CIA-staged coups in Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, and Iran, the researchers provide evidence that someone—perhaps one of the Dulleses, Cabots, or others in the know—was trading stocks based on classified information of these coups-in-the-making.

This exposé is a contribution to the rapidly expanding field of “forensic economics,” which tries to understand the who, what, and why of illicit transactions. Since these are activities that take place out of sight (at least when they’re done right), researchers are forced to look for fingerprints left in the data by smugglers, bribe-taking politicians, and other lawbreakers.

Dube, Kaplan, and Naidu examine how the stock market reacted to events that no Wall Street trader should have known about: top-secret meetings of the coup-plotting cabals at CIA headquarters and presidential approvals of CIA-organized invasions. These events would have increased the expected future profits of companies like UFC—if the CIA-led coup in Guatemala were successful, for example, UFC would get its plantations back. If stock traders were privy to the coup-planning process, we would expect them to bid up the prices of affected companies in anticipation of these higher profits. These meetings and authorizations were all highly classified, however, and since you can’t trade on information you don’t have, UFC’s stock price shouldn’t have budged until the coup actually took place and the investing world learned of the regime change.

Unless, that is, some of the Cabots, Dulleses, or other insiders were using their privileged information to profit personally from a future coup. To understand why insider trading would boost a company’s stock price, suppose that someone in on the planning—perhaps at UFC or at the State Department itself—started quietly buying up cheap UFC stock in anticipation of the price jump that would come when the coup took place (or tipped off his stock-trading cousins about the future boost to UFC so they could do the same). All of this pre-coup buying would increase demand for UFC stock, bidding up its price even before CIA operatives actually got to work overthrowing the Guatemalan government.

Such trading on inside information is illegal, and when it involves highly classified details about a future CIA coup, it verges on treason. Yet the researchers found that prices of companies affected by the CIA’s regime-toppling efforts—UFC in Guatemala, Anglo-Iranian (oil) in Iran, Anaconda (mining) in Chile, and American Sugar in Cuba—went up in the weeks and months preceding the coups. (The authors restrict their analysis to coups for which they had access to declassified planning documents and for which U.S. companies had had property nationalized by the targeted regimes.)

Furthermore, these gains were concentrated in the days following crucial government authorizations or plans for the coup (suggesting the trades weren’t simply the result of good guesswork about a coup in the making). For example, in the week that President Eisenhower gave full approval to Operation PBFortune to overthrow Árbenz, UFC’s price went up by 3.8 percent; the stock market overall was flat that week.

In all, shares of coup-affected companies went up by a total of 10 percent following top-secret authorizations, swamping the 3.5 percent gain that came immediately in the coups’ aftermaths. If information hadn’t been leaking into the stock market via insider trading, then the entire impact of the coup should have appeared only when the very public invasions took place and the investing world finally got news of the regime change. Unfortunately, there are limits to what these stock-market forensics can uncover. When the researchers contacted the Securities and Exchange Commission to find out who was trading on these days, they learned that there are limits to what the Freedom of Information Act could provide. So, we can’t pin the apparent insider trading on anyone in particular.

There’s also some evidence, albeit tentative, that the market was very good at forecasting the coups’ success and failure—a further indication that the traders driving up the price had detailed knowledge of the covert plans (and their expected outcomes). The CIA-led invasion of Cuba is referred to these days as the Bay of Pigs fiasco for a reason, and whoever was trading on insider knowledge seemed to place his bets accordingly—the pre-invasion increase in American Sugar’s stock price was much lower than the gains for companies affected by the other, successful coups in the study.

What about the forensic economics of the Bush administration? Researchers have already estimated what it’s worth for Republican-connected companies to have George W. Bush in the White House by looking at what happened to the stock prices of companies with former Republican lawmakers on their boards when Al Gore gave up his fight for the presidency on Dec. 13, 2000 (they went up; Democratically connected companies’ prices went down).

If and when the story behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq becomes public, researchers will surely also be analyzing the share prices of the many companies that profited from a U.S.-occupied Iraq. None will see greater scrutiny than oil services giant Halliburton, whose former CEO Dick Cheney left the company to become vice president in 2000 and undoubtedly took part in the invasion’s planning. (Some say he was pivotal in the decision to invade.) In the Iraq war’s aftermath, Halliburton received billions in no-bid reconstruction contracts, boosting its profits and leading to accusations of corruption.

Halliburton’s stock price jumped 7.6 percent the day the Senate authorized the use of force in Iraq, so investors clearly anticipated that war would be good for the company. Did insiders also profit from advance notice of these sweetheart deals to come? Conspiracy theorists will no doubt be interested in what happened to Halliburton stock on days when less-public meetings took place. Cheney himself certainly could not have traded on any inside information—monitoring of insider trades and stock transactions is much more sophisticated now than it was in the 1950s. But perhaps others in the V.P.’s office or at Halliburton (or their cousins, or their cousins’ cousins) might have been able to do some trading on the sly. If so, they may have left tracks in the data for researchers to follow.

Wrecked Iraq  

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TomDispatch has a post on the manouevring ("playing chicken" as Tom puts it) going on in Iraq as the US forces mandate from the UN comes to an end and the Iraqi government tries to achieve a level of sovereignty while the US military (and associated mercenary forces) try to remain far above the law. From Tom's introduction - Michael Schwartz, Iraq in Hell.

The Roman historian Tacitus famously put the following lines in the mouth of a British chieftain opposed to imperial Rome: "They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace."

Or, in the case of the Bush administration, post-surge "success." Today, however, success in Iraq seems as elusive as ever for the President. The Iraqi cabinet is now refusing, without further amendment, to pass on to Parliament the status of forces agreement for stationing U.S. troops in the country that it's taken so many months for American and Iraqi negotiators to sort out. Key objections, as Juan Cole points out at his Informed Comment blog, have come from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is [Prime Minister Nouri] al-Maliki's chief political partner, the support of which he would need to get the draft through parliament." That party, Cole adds tellingly, "is close to Tehran, which objects to the agreement." The Iranian veto? Hmmm…

Among Iraqis, according to the Dreyfuss Report, only the Kurds, whose territories house no significant U.S. forces, remain unequivocally in favor of the agreement as written. Frustrated American officials, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker ("Without legal authority to operate, we do not operate… That means no security operations, no logistics, no training, no support for Iraqis on the borders, no nothing…"), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ("Without a new legal agreement,'we basically stop doing anything' in the country…"), and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen ("We are clearly running out of time…") are huffing and puffing, and threatening -- if the agreement is not passed as is -- to blow the house down.

Without a mandate to remain, American troops won't leave, of course. At year's end, they will, so American officials insist, simply retreat to their bases and assumedly leave Maliki's government to dangle in the expected gale. Clearly, this is a game of chicken. What's less clear is who's willing to go over the cliff, or who exactly is going to put on the brakes.

In the meantime, the administration that, only four years ago, imposed conditions on Iraq at least as onerous as those nineteenth century colonial powers imposed on their colonies, can no longer get an agreement it desperately needs from its "allies" in Baghdad. Could this, then, be the $700 billion kiss-off? Stay tuned and, in the meantime, consider, as described by TomDispatch regular Michael Schwartz, what the Bush administration did to Iraq these last five years. Imagine it as a preview of the devastation the administration's domestic version of de-Baathification is now doing to the U.S. economy.

Schwartz's striking piece encapsulates a story he's been following closely for years: the everyday economic violence that invasion and occupation brought to Iraq.

The Oil Crunch  

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Jeremy Leggett's peak oil task force has gathered some interesting participants (ranging from Yahoo to Foster and Partners) and managed to get plenty of attention at their recent press conference. The Independent reports - UK companies urge steps to head off global 'oil crunch'.

The world is facing a dangerous "oil crunch" in as little as five years, and the Government needs to starting working on solutions now to avoid major economic and social problems, a cross-industry group warned yesterday.

"Peak oil" is the point at which the rate of extraction exceeds the discovery of new supplies, with considerable economic and political consequences for energy-hungry countries reliant on oil for everything from energy to pharmaceuticals to agricultural fertilisers.

Timetables vary, but the taskforce of eight companies, including Stagecoach, Virgin and Scottish & Southern Energy, is predicting the end of cheap and easy oil supplies as early as 2012. Even Royal Dutch Shell, commissioned to write a balancing view for the group's report, is forecasting a plateau ofsupply as production moves to more difficult sources such as ultra-deeplayers and tar sands.

"We are going to reach a peak in the early part of the next decade," said Will Whitehorn, the cross-industry group's chairman and president of Virgin Galactic. "If we are going to avoid a crunch we need to invest now." The groupbelieves a national energy plan should urgently implement accelerated energy conservation and more investment in renewable resources.

Jeremy Leggett, executive chairman of taskforce member Solarcentury, said: "The difference between the credit crunch and the oil crunch is that we have five years in which we could try to engineer a soft landing, by beginning the restructuring ahead of time."

The gloomy predictions are supported by the latest data from the International Energy Agency, which suggest that annual oil production worldwide is falling faster than expected.

Thoreau: Climatologist  

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The New York Times has an article on how the records kept by Thoreau are being used to measure the extent of climate change in New England - Thoreau Is Rediscovered as a Climatologist.

Henry David Thoreau endorsed civil disobedience, opposed slavery and lived for two years in a hut in the woods here, an experience he described in “Walden.” Now he turns out to have another line in his résumé: climate researcher.

He did not realize it, of course. Thoreau died in 1862, when the industrial revolution was just beginning to pump climate-changing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 1851, when he started recording when and where plants flowered in Concord, he was making notes for a book on the seasons.

Now, though, researchers at Boston University and Harvard are using those notes to discern patterns of plant abundance and decline in Concord — and by extension, New England — and to link those patterns to changing climate.

Their conclusions are clear. On average, common species are flowering seven days earlier than they did in Thoreau’s day, Richard B. Primack, a conservation biologist at Boston University, and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing, then his graduate student, reported this year in the journal Ecology. Working with Charles C. Davis, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard and two of his graduate students, they determined that 27 percent of the species documented by Thoreau have vanished from Concord and 36 percent are present in such small numbers that they probably will not survive for long.

Obama's Number One Priority - Revamping the Energy System  

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Obama seems to understand part of the nature of the energy problem (unlike the morons in the "drill, baby, drill" crowd), with a recent interview with Time touching on some of the problems with industrial agriculture - Swampland.

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.

For us to say we are just going to completely revamp how we use energy in a way that deals with climate change, deals with national security and drives our economy, that's going to be my number one priority when I get into office, assuming, obviously, that we have done enough to just stabilize the immediate economic situation.

Garbage Power  

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The Philadelphia Inquirer has an article on landfill gas power generation in New Jersey - N.J. now turning its garbage into energy.

Standing atop the 400-acre 1-E landfill, you get a panoramic view of the Meadowlands sports complex to the north and the New York City skyline to the east. You're also standing on a critical part of New Jersey's, and the nation's, energy future.

Decades worth of household trash, construction waste and assorted refuse buried in the landfill is providing electricity to thousands of homes. "It's like you're buying back your own garbage, but in a different form," said Tom Marturano, director of solid waste and natural resources for the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which owns and operates the 1-E site.

The Kearny site is among 21 landfills in New Jersey where methane gas produced by decomposing garbage is used as fuel to generate electricity, according to the state Board of Public Utilities. That is almost as many as in the state of Texas, and more than the combined number in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Nationwide, the federal Environmental Protection Agency counts 455 landfills that use their methane to generate electricity and has targeted more than 500 more as potential candidates through its Landfill Methane Outreach Program.

One of New Jersey's leading environmentalists envisions the state's landfills someday making more use of their sites by installing wind and solar power to supplement methane.

"We see landfills as potential New Age energy plants, because you can combine all three and create a steady source of power - and not everybody wants a windmill in their back yard," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club.

Marturano cautioned that adding wind farms might take a while since landfill surfaces are constantly shifting, but the Meadowlands Commission already has plans to install 20 acres of solar panels on the southern side of the 1-E landfill.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine's Energy Master Plan for the state touts landfill methane gas as one of the state's key renewable energy sources. It hopes renewable sources will combine to supply 30 percent of New Jersey's electricity consumption by 2020. According to the plan, New Jerseyans produce 6.7 pounds of trash per day, 50 percent more than the national average.

UPS' Hydraulic Hybrids  

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Gas 2.0 has a post on a UPS test of hybrid hydraulic delivery trucks - UPS is First in Delivery Industry to Test Hydraulic Hybrid Vehicles: 50% Better Fuel Economy and 40% Lower Emissions

In partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency, UPS will begin testing a small fleet of hydraulic hybrid delivery trucks in the United States. The new vehicles can achieve 50-70% better fuel economy, a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and pay for their extra expense in less than 3 years. ...

The hydraulic hybrid drivetrain eliminates the need for a conventional transmission and increases fuel economy in three ways:

1. A large amount of the energy that is otherwise wasted in braking can be recovered to pressurize the hydraulic fluid.
2. The engine operates much more efficiently — similar to a hybrid electric car, only without the bulky batteries
3. The engine can easily be shut off and instantaneously restarted during regular driving — such as when the vehicle is slowing down or stopped at a light.

UPS has been developing what it calls its “green fleet” over the last several years and currently has more than 1,600 low carbon emissions vehicles including electric, hybrid-electric, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, and propane trucks.

IEA warns on declining oilfield output  

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Reuters reports that a draft of the IEA's World Energy Outlook has been leaked, increasing their estimate of field depletion rates - Watchdog warns on declining oilfield output: report.

Output from the world's oilfields is declining faster than previously thought, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, quoting from a draft International Energy Agency report it had obtained.

The newspaper said the watchdog's annual World Energy Outlook report, which studied the biggest fields, showed that without extra investment to raise production, the natural annual rate of output decline was 9.1 percent.

The findings suggested the world would struggle to produce enough oil to make up for steep declines in existing fields, such as those in the North Sea, Russia and Alaska, and to meet long-term demand, said the Financial Times. It said the issue would become even more acute as prices fell and investment decisions were delayed.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) acts as policy adviser to 28 member countries, including the United States, Japan, Canada and leading European nations.

The IEA forecast China, India and other developing countries' demand would require investments of $360 billion each year until 2030, said the newspaper. "The future rate of decline in output from producing oilfields as they mature is the single most important determinant of the amount of new capacity that will need to be built globally to meet demand," the IEA was quoted as saying.

The watchdog said the world needed to make a "significant increase in future investments just to maintain the current level of production." The battle to replace mature oilfields' output could even offset the decline in demand growth, which had given the industry a reprieve in the past few months, it said.

The Financial Times said the IEA predicted in its report, due to be published next month, that demand would be damped, "reflecting the impact of much higher oil prices and slightly slower economic growth."

Energy (R)evolution Now  

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TreeHugger has a post on a ne wplan to shift to a fully renewable energy economy - Energy [R]evolution Now! Greenpeace Outlines Renewable Energy & Climate Change Plan.

There are no shortage of plans coming out lately that lay out the path towards a green energy future: T. Boone Pickens, Google, Al Gore and others have weighed in on the issue. Now Greenpeace is calling for an Energy (R)evolution.

Put together in collaboration with the European Renewable Energy Council , the report outlines a way in which carbon emissions will peak by 2015 and decline thereafter, with emissions being 50% below 1990 levels by 2050, thereby keeping global temperature rise below 2°C. These are the steps that would need to be taken:

The text in bold comes from Energy [R]evoltion: A Sustainable World Energy Outlook; non-bolded text are my comments.

1. Phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy

The phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies is sure to sit well with anyone with even a tinge of green in their thinking. Nuclear energy though has more supporters, but Greenpeace explains their nuclear energy position like this:

Although nuclear power produces little carbon dioxide, there are multiple threats to people and the environment from its operations. These include the risks and environmental damage from uranium mining, processing and transport, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, the unsolved problem of nuclear waste and the potential hazard of serious accident. The solution to our future energy needs lies instead in greater use of renewable energy sources for both heat and power.

2. Internalize the external (social and environmental) costs of energy production through ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading

Though we may quibble about whether cap and trade or a carbon tax would be the better thing to do—and I’ll side with Jeffrey Sachs in saying that a carbon tax is probably the better route, though the two options aren’t mutually exclusive—this is something that should be applied to far more than simply energy production. The environmental externalities of all economic activity need to be internalized if we are to get any sort of handle on the conjoined problems of energy use increasing, global warming, population growth and natural resource depletion.

3. Mandate strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles

Are the only people not advocating higher fuel efficiency standards car manufacturers themselves?

4. Establish legally binding targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation

How these would be enforced should be carefully considered—if penalties are levied that decrease the ability of a utility to invest in renewable energy, when they’ve already failed to meet targets that might be counterproductive—but this is crucial.

5. Reform the electricity markets by guaranteeing priority access to the grid for renewable power generation

Very important, but also important is ensuring that the transmission capacity exists to move electricity from areas where it is most easily generated to where it is most needed.

6. Provide defined and stable returns for investors, for example by feed-in tariff programs

I’ll go out on a limb and say that we should have a national feed-in tariff program in the United States. Forget piecemeal net metering, feed-in tariff and other programs. It’s been shown on numerous occasions that feed-in tariffs are less expensive to administer and provide greater levels of market stability than do other renewable energy promotion schemes. In Germany its been shown that an effective feed-in tariff program spurs renewable energy deployment, with the costs being minimal on the consumer (in the range of $3 more per month for an average family).

7. Implement better labeling and disclosure mechanisms to provide more environmental product information

While most of the time we think of product labeling and consumer goods, it could also be applied to energy use. How about your electric bill containing a chart that shows exactly what source was used to generate your electricity and what sort of carbon emissions that created. Something easy to read, graphic. Cigarettes have warning labels, perhaps your electricity bill should as well.

8. Increase research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency

In times of economic hardship this may be easier said than done, but it must be done nonetheless. The costs of not doing so are too high. Remember that Nicolas Stern said back in 2006 that failing to act on climate change could cause economic hardship not seen since the Great Depression, with reductions in GDP in the range of 5-20%. You think the current round of financial turmoil is bad? Just wait until unchecked climate change and peak oil come at us.

The Hunt For Kurdish Oil  

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The Times has an article on the hunt for large new oil fields in Kurdistan - Warzone where oil prospects outweigh risks.

Half way up a barren mountain in northern Iraq the earth begins to shake. Starting slowly, a deep rumble is heard, stopping suddenly with a thin hydraulic hiss. But this is no earthquake. It is part of a seismic test to search for oil in a region where crude is so prolific that it oozes from the rocks.

Andy Grosse, exploration director of Sterling Energy, the British company funding the programme, says: “There is nowhere else left like this on earth — where there is so much potential but so little exploration has been done. For an oil company, it's like being a kid in a sweet shop.”

In Baghdad, officials continue to hammer out details of a new oil law while Western oil giants bang on the door for access to vast, established fields further south. But here in Kurdistan, the scramble for Iraq's immense reserves is well under way.

Since the regional government, acting independently, awarded exploration licences to 24 smaller foreign companies last year, the remote Zagros mountains have swarmed with an international army of seismic crews, drillers, their support staff and security teams.

On Sterling's concession near the village of Sangaw, four huge vibrating trucks with 6ft wheels, each weighing 27 tons, are shooting shockwaves deep into the earth. Behind them, strung in a line for miles along the surface, thousands of small microphones pick up the response, identifying reservoirs of oil that could lie 3 or 4km underground.

Garmyan Arif, a Kurdish employee of Sterling, is one of 250 workers on the seismic programme, of which 150 are armed guards. He says with a smile: “It's amazing - we have never seen this kind of thing in Kurdistan before.”

Nobody knows how much oil is here but the potential for big discoveries is obvious, judging by an arid riverbed a few kilometres away where viscous black crude trickles from a gash in the earth.

“This is fairly high quality crude,” says Mr Grosse, a geophysicist, sniffing at it. “It's very encouraging. We know there is oil here, it's just a question of finding the trap in the subsurface where the oil is seeping out.”

Iraq has 115 billion barrels of proven reserves, behind only Saudi Arabia and Iran. Far more might lie undiscovered, much of it in Kurdistan.

“In the early days, they found so much oil further south around Basra where it could easily be exported by tanker that they didn't really bother looking up here,” said Mr Grosse. “It was remote, mountainous. There was no way to export it. Then politics came into play in the 1970s and this became a no-go zone.”

Kurdistan, a region half the size of Ireland, could easily contain 30 billion barrels — putting it on a par with the United States with 29 billion.

Back in Erbil, the capital, where hotel lobbies buzz with oil executives from Paris, London, Houston and Seoul, the sense of excitement is palpable.

There have already been big discoveries. Last year, DNO of Norway found 1.3 billion barrels near the Turkish border. Another find has been made by a Turkish company with Addax of Canada. With so much exploration going on in such a prospective area, more discoveries seem certain. In some blocks “it's a bit like shooting fish in a barrel”, Mr Grosse quips.

As with everything in Iraq, prospecting for oil is not without complications. It is not just the need for new pipelines and infrastructure, the risk that seismic testing using dynamite can detonate unexploded mines, or the need to take tortuous detours along mountain roads to avoid troublespots.

Mercedes Benz Zero Emissions Racer  

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Inhabitat has a post on an unusual carbon free racing car from Mercedes Benz - Mercedes’ Futuristic Formula Zero Sail Racer.

Recently Mercedes Benz revealed images of its stunning Formula Zero Racer, a futuristic foray into the next generation of racing. Incorporating elements from luge, yacht, and Formula One vehicles, the zero-emissions racer is propelled by a wind-catching sail in addition to electric motors that are powered by renewable resources. The concept is a tribute to a future where cars will win races based not just upon their speed, but on how energy efficient they are.

Butanol from Biomass  

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Technology Review has an article on new processes being employed to produce bio-butanol - Cheaper Butanol from Biomass.

Cobalt Biofuels, a startup based in Mountainview, CA, has developed a cheap way to make butanol from biomass. Last week, the company announced that it had raised $25 million to expand from a small laboratory-scale production to a pilot-scale plant that can produce about 35,000 gallons of fuel per year.

"Our models tell us it is a very low-cost process that can be competitive with anything on the market today," says Pamela Contag, the company's founder and CEO. The process is cheaper because it uses improved strains of bacteria to break down and ferment biomass, as well as improved equipment for managing fermentation and reducing water and energy consumption, she says.

Butanol could help increase the use of biofuels, since it doesn't have the same limitations as ethanol, the primary biofuel made in the United States. It has more energy than ethanol: a gallon of butanol contains about 90 percent as much energy as a gallon of gasoline, while ethanol only has about 70 percent as much. What's more, while ethanol requires special pipelines for shipping, butanol can be shipped in unmodified gasoline pipelines. And butanol can be blended with gasoline in higher percentages than ethanol without requiring modifications to engines.

Cobalt Biofuels joins a handful of other companies developing biobutanol. The biggest such effort comes in the form of a partnership between DuPont and BP: the companies plan to be selling commercial quantities of butanol made from sugar beets by 2010. Other companies developing biobutanol are Gevo, a startup based in Englewood, CO, that is commercializing advances from UCLA, and Tetravitae, based in Chicago, which is commercializing advances from the University of Illinois. In spite of their progress, Andy Aden, a research scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden, CO, says that no company has demonstrated yet that it can make butanol cheap enough to compete in the market.

Cobalt Biofuels uses the bacteria Clostridium to break down components of plant matter, including cellulose, hemicellulose, and starch, and produce a combination of butanol, acetone, and ethanol. That is nothing new: Clostridium naturally produces these chemicals and was employed in the early 1900s to make butanol for use in solvents and to make acetone for explosives and other products. What's new, Contag says, is that a combination of fuel prices, government biofuel mandates, and the company's new technology have made butanol competitive as a fuel.

Bioneers 2008  

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Jeremy Faludi has a good writeup of this year's Bioneers conference up at WorldChanging - Bioneers 2008 (lots of links at the original). TreeHugger has a whole series of posts on the conference.

My personal favorite part was that the day after it, the Biomimicry Institute had a post-conference, day-long session of its own where nearly a dozen scientists and entrepreneurs (most speakers were both) talked about their successes bringing bio-inspired designs into development, and the beginnings of bringing them into the real market. Below are some notes from some of the speakers that caught me from both Bioneers proper and the Biomimicry day:

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan (Onondaga / Iroquois) mentioned that when he was young, there were 2 billion people on the planet; now there are 6.7 billion. It occurred to me that if anyone doubts we can radically change our impacts on the world, that statistic alone should tell them. Everyone shies away from declaring population shrinkage a primary objective for the sustainability movement, but it needs to be. As with reducing emissions, we need to reframe it not as a stifling of humanity, but as an opportunity to make our lives better. Just as reducing carbon isn't about saying no to industry but is about making industry better at producing what it wants (products and money) with fewer costs (environmental and economic), the population problem isn't about telling people they can't have babies but is about giving people access to birth control (more sex and fewer consequences, what's not to like?) and empowering women in developing countries (through economics & education).

Janine Benyus had a slew of biomimicry examples to trot out, some of which we've talked about before but others that were new. Notable ones were Regen Energy's bee-inspired software that reduces energy use by having appliances communicate to shutoff during peak times; the US olympic swim team's "fastskin" suits that imitate shark skin for lower drag; Qualcomm imitating structural color in butterfly wings to create color at low power in its Mirasol displays and advertisements, etc. She mentioned her upcoming book, Nature's 100 Best, where she specifically looked at biomimetic solutions to the world's most pressing problems, such as energy generation, carbon fixing (i.e. using CO2 to make things like plastics [Novomer] or concrete [Calera], not just sequestering it in a hole in the ground), water efficiency and purification, etc. She estimates that there's been a 93X increase in bio-inspired patents in the past decade.

Dune Lankard, another TIME hero of the environment, talked about growing up on a reservation in Alaska, seeing species get fished out before his own eyes throughout his childhood, then founding Redzone habitat preservation group and working with a startup making hybrid engines for boats that may triple fuel economy.

David Orr talked about the IPCC & Stern Report, then described how the US spends $45 trillion a year to subsidize oil, gas, & coal. He and the Presidential Climate Action Project have developed a 100 Day Action Plan to Save the Planet, addressed to both candidates for US president (and presumably relevant worldwide) containing 300-some recommendations. It is several hundred pages long, and will not be fully released until November, but the distillation by William Becker (just about 100 pages) is already online.

Naomi Klein did not talk much about her new book "The Shock Doctrine," but rather talked about the economic crisis, why it's worth people's time to educate themselves about it, and why we should take it as an opportunity to massively restructure global financial systems. For those interested, though, the Shock Doctrine is about what she calls "Disaster Capitalism"--basically politicians acting as extortionists, saying things like "9/11 just happened, so I need sweeping unprecedented powers to make things better" or "the banks just failed, give me $700 billion or everything will collapse." Perhaps her most important point was that, as Milton Friedman said, crises are when change happens, but what gets done is whatever ideas are lying around; it's our job to keep the best ideas lying around, and keep them strong and ready for action.

Google showed how Google Earth has been used by activists to influence policymakers and the public by making impacts visible. One example painted a proposed logging site onto the map, showing it to be within a football field's width of an elementary school, and tagged photos of the area so people would see what would be gone, which ended up defeating the plan. Another showed before-and-after mountaintop removal for coal mining in Appalachia, using historical aerial photos for the "before" pictures that were seamlessly overlaid on the map; the activists also used video and text to tell geo-tagged stories about the area. Even a pre-industrial Amazon tribe learned how to use computers and the internet to put themselves on the map, showing the outside world how illegal logging was encroaching on their land.

The day of biomimicry was quite different from Bioneers--highly technical, and all about emerging technology and companies inspired by nature.

Jay Harman's PAX Scientific is the classic biomimetic invention for energy efficiency, partly because the physical forms of the impellers and fans are so beautiful, but also because they have now launched half a dozen spinoff companies commercializing various applications of the fundamental theory (PAX Streamline, PAX Water, and PAX Fan, for instance.) A long time in the making, these companies are finally beginning to see market success.

WhalePower is a small startup commercializing an invention we've mentioned before, imitating whale flippers for more efficient wind turbines. The curious thing about this company is the science is so new, no one can exactly say why the effect works, they just know that it gives significant measurable results.

Gillian Bond, professor emeritus at New Mexico Tech, talked about fixing carbon in calcium carbonates through enzyme-catalyzed processes. It was interesting to note that 1.5 x 10^17 metric tons of carbon are currently sequestered as limestone, far and away the biggest carbon sink in the world.

Novomer makes plastics out of CO2 and limonine, the spritz-juice from orange peels. Charles Hamilton, their president, said 50% of the material weight is from CO2 (though once in the polymer it is no longer CO2 but part of the hydrocarbon chain). All their products are biodegradable and use no food feedstocks, just industrial ones; however, they will not be making anything that consumers will see anytime soon (like PLA for packaging). When I asked him why not, he said it's simply a matter of economics--packaging plastics are manufactured at massive scales for very low prices, and there's simply no way they can compete in that market in the visible near-term. Instead, they are making binders & sacrificial copolymers, precursors to nylons, and other specialty materials.

John Warner, the co-father of the Green Chemistry Initiative along with Paul Anastas, described how it started, and pointed out that even today no university in the world requires any demonstration of understanding toxicology or environmental impact to get a chemistry degree. While shocking, this explains much about why industry and government run the way they do. Obviously, it needs to change. They are working with a university in India to create the first such program.

David Hammond of Go2 Water described their biomimetic wastewater treatment system that uses a fraction of the energy a normal treatment plant uses, cleans water better and does not clog with sediment, grows algae, captures methane for fuel, and works on an industrial / municipal-scale, not just individual building scale as Living Machines do. Their technology was the farthest along of any, having been in use for over thirty years.

Bob Hawkins of Eprida described their carbon-negative fuel system of gasification and biochar (similar to experiments we've described before, but further along with DOE studies and commercialization.) He described making hydrogen out of waste biomass (chicken manure, municipal wastewater, etc.), and making char similar to terra preta which not only sequesters carbon itself, but jump-starts natural soil-building (bacterial & other processes) so much that the carbon you put into the soil ends up being dwarfed by the carbon fixed by microorganisms (your carbon is less than ¼ the carbon you end up with; in fact, Amazonians who live in areas with terra preta soils dig it out and sell it to people, because they know it will grow back.) Hawkins pointed out that if we wanted to use terra preta to sequester all of humanity's excess CO2 emissions (1.9GT/yr), it would take an area about three times the size of Texas (2.2 x 10^8 ha), which I found surprisingly small. This was very encouraging.


Volvo Truck Sales Plunge 99.7% In Europe  

Posted by Big Gav

The London Evening Standard reports that the economic slowdown seems to have hit European truck slaes particularly hard - Volvo truck sales plunge 99.7%.

The depth of the recession was revealed today as truckmaker Volvo admitted demand across the Continent has crashed by 99.7% as it took orders for just 115 new lorries in the last three months.

That compares to orders totalling 41,970 in the third quarter of 2007. Global orders for Volvo slumped 55% in the last three months while Scania, of which Volvo has majority control, said its western Europe truck orders collapsed by 69%.

Volvo, which also makes trucks under the Renault and Mack brands, reported a 37% plunge in third-quarter earnings to £230m.

'The downturn in the economy has been significantly exacerbated by the global financial crisis,' the company said. 'The important European market has declined significantly while North America and Japan continue to show weak demand.'

Volvo indicated that there could be thousands of job losses. It has already said 1400 jobs are going, and yesterday revealed that 850 jobs would be axed in its division making heavy construction vehicles.

GreenFuels announce algae biofuel project  

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AP reports that Greenfuel Technologies is building an algae to biofuel plant in Spain - GreenFuel, Aurantia announce joint algae project.

Biofuels company GreenFuel Technologies said it is moving forward on a 247 acre project in Spain that will grow algae for use in fuel, as well as food and animal feed.

The company is partnering with Spain's Aurantia SA on the $92 million venture at the Holcim cement plant near Jerez, Spain, where they plan to build greenhouses producing 25,000 tons of algae biomass per year.

Aurantia said the project could be eligible for subsidies from both regional authorities and the central government, which will partially offset its development costs. "We believe algae hold great promise for Spain as they can be harvested daily, rather than seasonally, use water very efficiently and do not require arable land like other crops," Rafael Naranjo, Aurantia Group's chief executive and chairman, said in a statement.

GreenFuel Technologies Corp. said it has successfully grown a variety of naturally occurring algae strains in Jerez using Holcim flue gases. The second phase of the project began with the successful inoculation and subsequent harvests of a prototype vertical thin-film algae-solar bioreactor.

Good Vibrations: The Windbelt  

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Here's one for the alternative wind power experiments file - a report from BusinessWeek on an interesting design idea, inspired by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapse of 1940 - Humdinger's Wind Power Alternative.

As an MIT engineering undergraduate visiting the rural fishing village of Petite Anse, Haiti, in 2004, Shawn Frayne hoped to devise a way to convert abundant agricultural waste into cheap fuel. But the budding engineer soon found that the community's mainly poor residents faced an altogether more immediate need. Unconnected to the local power grid, they relied heavily on dirty kerosene lamps, which are not only costly to operate but also unhealthy and dangerous. He decided to devise an alternative—a small, safe, and renewable power generator that could be used to power LED lights and small household electronics, such as radios.

The result is the Windbelt, a miniaturized wind-harvesting power generator that has absolutely nothing in common with the traditional, towering wind turbines that dot the fields and shorelines of developed countries. The simple device was awarded $10,000 in late September as a finalist for the Curry Stone Design Award, a charitable prize that aims to boost design and innovation projects for developing countries. Frayne, now 27, also won a Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Award last fall, earning him a coveted spot on that magazine's annual list of up-and-coming scientists and engineers. Now Frayne and his five-man startup, Humdinger Wind Energy in Honolulu, Hawaii, are working on turning a promising prototype into reality.

"Wind power has pretty much looked the same for the past 80 years," says Frayne over the crackle of a Skype phone call from Xela, Guatemala, where Humdinger is working in rural locations to develop production-ready versions of the Windbelt. After his initial prototypes proved too expensive or inefficient (or both), Frayne took a different tack, eschewing a propeller-type design for an entirely different idea. About the size of a cell phone, the final Windbelt prototype employs a taut membrane that, when air passes over it, vibrates between metal coils to generate electricity. Frayne claims it is the first wind device of any size not to employ turbines.

Indeed, the roots of his innovation are unexpected: Frayne says he was inspired by studying the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington State, which dramatically collapsed in 1940 due to powerful vibrations caused by the wind. The Windbelt harnesses those same dynamics to generate power.

Varanus plant back to full production soon(ish)  

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WA News reports the Varanus Island gas plant is expected to be fully operational again in January - Varanus plant back to full production early.

The Varanus Island gas plant will be at full production earlier than scheduled, Apache Energy says.

Managing director Tim Wall told an analysts briefing in the US overnight that by the end of November the plant, which supplies about one-third of WA's domestic gas supplies, would be producing the 350 terajoules of gas a day that it did before the June 3 explosion.

Apache, the controlling partner in the plant, had earlier expected Varanus to be back at full production in December.

The plant itself will be "reinstated" in full by January.

Apache was blamed for the blast by the National Offshore Petroleum Safety Authority, which said ineffective anti-corrosion coating on a 30cm pipeline and poor inspection and monitoring all helped cause the explosion.

Coal Seam Gas Still Hot - BG Tries Again  

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In my recent post on coal seam gas (CSG) I noted that BG's bid for Origin Energy was the event that kick-started the boom in interest in Australian CSG producers.

BG's bid for Origin eventually failed (with ConocoPhilips instead buying a share of Origin's CSG assets), but they have now returned to the fray - this time with a $5 billion bid for QGC (Queensland Gas Company).

BG already owns 9 per cent of QGC (and 20 per cent of QGC's CSG reserves) and is keen to secure supplies for planned LNG export plant at Gladstone.

The Australian is speculating that the offer could "open QGC up to rival bids from other global majors, such as Shell or BP looking to enter or increase their presence in CSG".

QGC and AGL both went into a trading halt yesterday pending announcement of a material transaction.

Shareholders of Sunshine Gas and Roma Petroleum, whose shares also went into a trading halt, were advised to take no action on QGC's current separate bids for each company. Wilson HTM analyst Andrew Pedler said it was not surprising that the bigplayers were still pushing to get hold of CSG reserves amid global market turmoil and fears of recession.

"There's no other apparent major source of new gas on the east coast and domestic use alone is pointing to compound annual growth rates of between 7 and 10 per cent for coal seam gas, which is an attractive business to be exposed to," Mr Pedler said.

"Add LNG to that and you easily double the amount of gas that's required in 2014."

QGC, BG and AGL all declined to comment or confirm the deal yesterday.

In a takeover offer that is still playing out, QGC in August agreed to pay 82c a gigajoule for Sunshine Gas's proved, probable and possible, or 3P, reserves. If QGC accepted the same for its 5683 petajoules of reserves, it would value the company at $4.67 billion, or $5.10 a share.

The credit crunch and a nearly 50 per cent fall in QGC's shares since June have probably saved BG from paying close to the unprecedented prices Conoco will fork out next week for half of Origin's reserves. Conoco paid $1.88/GJ for half of Origin's 3P reserves and a 50 per cent stake in a planned LNG plant in a deal worth up to $9.6 billion.

If BG had agreed to pay that much for QGC's reserves, the deal would value the company at more than $10 billion, or more than three times QGC's market value.

The Sydney Morning Herald concentrated on what the deal meant for QGC shareholder and local power generator AGL.
The deal would involve AGL agreeing to sell its 25% stake in QGC to BG. QGC and BG are partners in a proposed $8 billion liquefied natural gas project at Gladstone.

That deal would immediately boost BG's stake in QGC from 10% to 35% and serve as a strong platform from which to launch its friendly takeover. In return, AGL would be granted the right to coal seam gas resources, possibly through a direct equity ownership in permits. AGL has been considering options for its valuable stake in QGC for months.

In August, AGL's managing director, Michael Fraser, said the holding could be leveraged in return for access to more direct control over gas resources. "In the longer term, one of our aspirations is to have our foot on our own equity gas production at the asset level, rather than through a company," Mr Fraser said.

AGL at present sells more gas through its retail business than it has in reserve, forcing it to buy additional gas from other suppliers.

Carbon trading is expected to raise the value of gas on domestic markets, as gas-fired power plants emit up to 70% less carbon than do brown coal-fired plants. But increased demand for gas around the world is increasing the value of controlling gas assets directly.

Ausra La Vista, Baby  

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Expatriate Australian solar power company Ausra was one of the companies that featured heavily in my post on concentrating solar thermal power earlier in the year.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has opened Ausra's first plant, a 5 MW plant at Kimberlina in central California (the first to open in 20 years) which will generate enough electricity during peak hours to power 3,500 homes. Ausra's next plant will be a 177 MW plant nearby in San Luis Obispo County.

The SMH quoted Schwarzenegger as saying "This next generation solar power plant is further evidence that reliable, renewable and pollution-free technology is here to stay, and it will lead to more California homes and businesses powered by sunshine. Not only will this large-scale solar facility generate power to help us meet our renewable energy goals, it will also generate new jobs as California continues to pioneer clean-tech industry".

Competitor Brightsource (backed by Google, Chevron and Goldman Sachs) is building a number of similar installations that will total of 900MW, leading the way in a real estate boom in the Mojave desert.

VentureBeat points out that not all new plants will be in the larger size ranges, noting that companies like eSolar and Sopogy are looking at (relatively) small-scale solar thermal plants to generate steam for industrial processes. VentureBeat also notes the financial situation hasn't impacted existing plans for new CSP plants.

For the moment, it doesn’t look like the credit crunch is delaying plans for larger, utility-scale deployments of 50MW and upward, at least according to what company execs have told me. Most plants haven’t yet begun construction, and can spend time locating funding sources during permitting, while others have already secured debt or equity money to build. However, an extended recession could trim the number of plants that go online over the next four to five years.

The Australian reports that Ausra is lobbying the Australian government to introduce a feed in tariff which would allow the company to compete in the local electricity market.
Ausra Australia CEO Bob Matthews said the cost of the company's technology was on par with gas-powered electricity generation in the US, where tariff incentives made renewable energy power production attractive. Mr Matthews has been lobbying government in Australia to introduce a feed-in tariff for renewable energy operators where they are given a guaranteed premium over the market rate for electricity.

"I have inquiries for projects equal to thousands of megawatts around Australia,' said Mr Matthews. "But other than the coal-fired projects and some off-grid applications I can't compete right now with black energy and there's no incentives in the system to level the playing field." While Ausra is based in the US and received first-round funding from US venture capitalists, its founder is expat solar energy pioneer David Mills. Part of the firm's $US60.6 million second-round funding package comes from local venture capitalist Starfish Ventures.

SkyFuel’s Solar Thermal Power  

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EcoGeek has a post promoting SkyFuel's view that their parabolic mirror solar thermal power technology will be cheaper than existing alternatives - SkyFuel’s Solar Thermal: Lighter, Cheaper, Better.

SkyFuel, a company which has been working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on utility-scale concentrated solar power plants, has recently come out with a new parabolic trough system. The technology itself is not new – mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto a salt solution which boils and turns a turbine. Skyfuel’s system stands out, though, because it is cheaper, lighter and easy to manufacture and install.

The parabolic mirrors themselves are made out of plastic and silver, instead of glass. The plastic is what makes the system cheaper – 25% cheaper, according to SkyFuel. They claim that they can offer electricity below 15 cents; currently the standard for solar thermal, though higher than the average cost of non-renewable electricity. And the light weight of the plastic means that the entire system can be loaded onto a single flatbed truck and shipped to its destination.

As more and more utilities try to meet their renewable portfolio standards, the demand for solar thermal is increasing. Solar thermal is a proven, and the low cost and easy installation of Skyfuel’s system only sweetens the deal. Plus, Skyfuel’s troughs can be connected to existing steam turbines – this lowers the cost even further, and allows utilities to “retrofit” old power plants.

Market Shutdown Imminent ?  

Posted by Big Gav

I'm trying to ignore the financial situation (being more interested in the future than the fallout from the foolishness of the past) but this latest prediction from Nouriel Roubini at Bloomberg caught my eye - Roubini Says `Panic' May Force Market Shutdown.

Hundreds of hedge funds will fail and policy makers may need to shut financial markets for a week or more as the crisis forces investors to dump assets, New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini said.

``We've reached a situation of sheer panic,'' Roubini, who predicted the financial crisis in 2006, told a conference of hedge-fund managers in London today. ``There will be massive dumping of assets'' and ``hundreds of hedge funds are going to go bust,'' he said.

Group of Seven policy makers have stopped short of market suspensions to stem the crisis after the U.S. pledged on Oct. 14 to invest about $125 billion in nine banks and the Federal Reserve led a global coordinated move to cut interest rates on Oct. 8. Emmanuel Roman, co-chief executive officer at GLG Partners Inc., said today that as many as 30 percent of hedge funds will close.

``Systemic risk has become bigger and bigger,'' Roubini said at the Hedge 2008 conference. ``We're seeing the beginning of a run on a big chunk of the hedge funds,'' and ``don't be surprised if policy makers need to close down markets for a week or two in coming days,'' he said.

Roubini predicted in July 2006 that the U.S. would enter an economic recession. In February this year, he forecast a ``catastrophic'' financial meltdown that central bankers would fail to prevent, leading to the bankruptcy of large banks exposed to mortgages and a ``sharp drop'' in equities.

The comments preceded the collapse of Bear Stearns & Cos. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. as well as the government seizure of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, a benchmark for American equities, has lost 37 percent this year, including its biggest daily drop in more than twenty years on Oct. 15.

Public Education  

Posted by Big Gav

Australian Government Trying To Gag Internet Filter Critics  

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The SMH reports that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy is trying to censor critics of his internet censorship plans, noting the Australian regime will be more intrusive than Iran's - Filtering out the fury: how government tried to gag web censor critics.

The Federal Government is attempting to silence critics of its controversial plan to censor the internet, which experts say will break the internet while doing little to stop people from accessing illegal material such as child pornography.

Internet providers and the government's own tests have found that presently available filters are not capable of adequately distinguishing between legal and illegal content and can degrade internet speeds by up to 86 per cent.

Documents obtained by us show the office of the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, tried to bully ISP staff into suppressing their criticisms of the plan.

Senator Conroy has since last year's election victory remained tight-lipped on the specifics of his $44.2 million policy but, grilled by a Senate Estimates committee this week, he said the Government was looking at forcing ISPs to implement a two-tiered filtering system.

The first tier, which internet users would not be able to opt out of, would block all "illegal material". Senator Conroy has previously said Australians would be able to opt out of any filters to obtain "uncensored access to the internet".

The second tier, which is optional, would filter out content deemed inappropriate for children, such as pornography.

But neither filter tier will be capable of censoring content obtained over peer-to-peer file sharing networks, which account for an estimated 60 per cent of internet traffic.

Senator Conroy said Britain, Sweden, Canada and New Zealand had all implemented similar filtering systems. However, in all cases, participation by ISPs was optional and the filtering was limited in scope to predominantly child pornography.

Colin Jacobs, chair of the online users' lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia said: "I'm not exaggerating when I say that this model involves more technical interference in the internet infrastructure than what is attempted in Iran, one of the most repressive and regressive censorship regimes in the world."

Critics of the ISP-level filtering plan say software filters installed by the user on their PC, which are already provided by the government for free at netalert.gov.au, are more than adequate.

Mark Newton, an engineer at Internode, has heavily criticised the Government and its filtering policy on the Whirlpool broadband community forum, going as far as saying it would enable child abuse.

He said the plan would inevitably result in significant false positives and degrade internet speeds tremendously. Those views were subsequently widely reported by technology media and blogs.

The (High) Rise Of Green Buildings  

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This week's green building post from Inhabitat looks at the "rise of green high rises" in the US - GREEN HOME 101: US Cities Sprout Green High-Rises.

From green cleaning products to energy-efficient appliances, Green Home 101 has delved into several different aspects of what makes a sustainable, environmentally responsible household. But what about the home itself? Look skyward in any major American city and you’re likely to see a soaring new green high-rise. With scarce land in urban areas, the cost of housing skyrocketing, and increasing demand for better communities, high-density development is experiencing a renaissance in the US. But development is not just growing up, it’s growing green. As consumers look for long-term savings and seek to live in healthier environments, more big developers have grasped onto the fact that the green in the building can lead to green in the bank. Inhabitat’s Green Home 101 takes a closer look at some of the new high-rise projects sustainable residential towers are sprouting up all over the US.

If you think you might be interested in moving into a green home with a view (if and when the market recovers and a new global economy emerges), here are some interesting modern, sustainable high-rise projects that are popping up from coast to coast.



And on a more whimsical note - The Origami-Inspired Folding Bamboo House.

Organic farming 'could feed Africa'  

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The Independent has an article on a UN report that says organic farming practices could "increase yield by 128 per cent in east Africa" - Organic farming 'could feed Africa'.

Organic farming offers Africa the best chance of breaking the cycle of poverty and malnutrition it has been locked in for decades, according to a major study from the United Nations to be presented today.

New evidence suggests that organic practices – derided by some as a Western lifestyle fad – are delivering sharp increases in yields, improvements in the soil and a boost in the income of Africa's small farmers who remain among the poorest people on earth. The head of the UN's Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, said the report "indicates that the potential contribution of organic farming to feeding the world maybe far higher than many had supposed".

The "green revolution" in agriculture in the 1960s – when the production of food caught and surpassed the needs of the global population for the first time – largely bypassed Africa. Whereas each person today has 25 per cent more food on average than they did in 1960, in Africa they have 10 per cent less.

A combination of increasing population, decreasing rainfall and soil fertility and a surge in food prices has left Africa uniquely vulnerable to famine. Climate change is expected to make a bad situation worse by increasing the frequency of droughts and floods.

It has been conventional wisdom among African governments that modern, mechanised agriculture was needed to close the gap but efforts in this direction have had little impact on food poverty and done nothing to create a sustainable approach. Now, the global food crisis has led to renewed calls for a massive modernisation of agriculture on the hungriest continent on the planet, with calls to push ahead with genetically modified crops and large industrial farms to avoid potentially disastrous starvation.

Last month the UK's former chief scientist Sir David King said anti-scientific attitudes among Western NGOs and the UN were responsible for holding back a much-needed green revolution in Africa. "The problem is that the Western world's move toward organic farming – a lifestyle choice for a community with surplus food – and against agricultural technology in general and GM in particular, has been adopted across the whole of Africa, with the exception of South Africa, with devastating consequences," he said.

The research conducted by the UN Environment Programme suggests that organic, small-scale farming can deliver the increased yields which were thought to be the preserve of industrial farming, without the environmental and social damage which that form of agriculture brings with it.

An analysis of 114 projects in 24 African countries found that yields had more than doubled where organic, or near-organic practices had been used. That increase in yield jumped to 128 per cent in east Africa.

Russia 'weighing up oil reserve'  

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Upstream Online reports that Russia is considering establishing an oil reserve that would let it exert greater influence over the oil price (the exporters version of a strategic petroleum reserve) - Russia 'weighing up oil reserve'.

Russia may create an oil reserve to influence global prices, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said as Opec secretary-general Abdullah al-Badri was due to hold a first meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev. "The Ministry of Energy is considering creating an oil production reserve, which would allow it to work more efficiently with prices on the market," Sechin told Reuters.

When asked how big the reserve should be, he said: "Enough to reach efficient pricing parameters."

Al-Badri, who came to Moscow on Tuesday, said he would meet Medvedev to discuss the exchange of market data and will not raise the issue of oil production cuts. "I will meet the president this afternoon. I will not ask Russia for a cut ... But I will ask for data on markets," al-Badri said ahead of the first ever meeting between Opec and the head of the Russian state.

Other Opec officials have called on Russia this week to join opec in cutting production. The organisation will hold an extraordinary meeting on Friday and is widely expected to reduce its deliveries to global markets.

Moscow agreed to reduce exports several times earlier this decade in tandem with Opec, but market watchers then said the pledge never materialised as private companies raised shipments instead.

Russia has long toyed with the idea of an oil reserve, which could allow it to become a swing producer. But the expensive and logistically difficult plan was never implemented as the government and private companies failed to reach a compromise. The current oil production scheme in Russia does not allow the country to change its flows significantly.

International Energy Agency (IEA) boss Nobuo Tanaka, attending the same industry conference as Badri, said he was worried by Russia's production outlook as the country heads this year for its first annual output decline in a decade.

"We see worrying signs in some producing countries, including Russia, in the ability to invest enough to meet demand," Tanaka said. "We see Russian supply growth slowing, with all projects declining in production over the next decade. Further government incentives would be welcome to increase production," he said.

Talking Heat  

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Via After Gutenberg.

Massive Oil Discovery In New Zealand ?  

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A company operating in New Zealand is touting a "12.6 billion barrel" shale oil find, leading one local operator to point out "one thing is certain: there is zero chance of there being 12 billion barrels of oil being recovered from that area" and others to note it might be a good idea to drill at least one hole in the ground before making grandiose claims - Massive oil discovery reports 'misleading'.

The Petroleum Exploration & Production Association of New Zealand (PEPANZ) says reports suggesting 12.6 billion barrels of oil could be discovered in the East Coast Basin were misleading.

“The company’s [Trans-Orient Petroleum Ltd] assessment of the prospect for oil is an estimate of potential, not a discovery of oil,” PEPANZ executive officer Pfahlert said. “It is completely hypothetical.”

Pfahlert was responding to news stories which reported Canadian oil explorer Trans-Orient Petroleum Ltd as having found at least 12.6 billion barrels of oil on the East Coast Basin.

The surveying permits held by the Canadian company identified conditions which could indicate the presence of oil, but it was not a sure thing, Pfahlert added. “There is no guarantee of the volume of oil underground. The only way of confirming there is oil is to drill. And no wells have been drilled there since 2001,” Pfahlert emphasized.

Resilience: How To Deal With A Chaotic World  

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Jamais Cascio has a post at Open the Future on how diverse, resilient systems are the best way to mitigate shocks - Resilience and the Next Disaster.

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, have friends or loved ones who do, or simply enjoy the various products and services to be found around these parts, take heed:

When the Big One hits, it won't be pretty.

The US Geological Survey has put out a set of videos showing the shaking associated with a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault. There hasn't been a big one on the Hayward Fault in over 300 years, and it's overdue for a serious seismic event. The USGS videos cover quakes measuring 6.8, 7.0, and 7.2, with epicenters ranging from Fremont in the south to the San Pablo Bay in the north.

Short version: if you live in the Berkeley hills... well, it's not pretty. No place is truly safe -- Santa Cruz seems to come out okay -- but some places are likely to be flattened, regardless of the precise epicenter. (It's worth noting that the location of the epicenter does not correlate to the worst damage -- in fact, a quake hitting at the Fremont location is actually worse for more of the East Bay than one centered in Oakland.)

So what do you do to prepare? There are numerous good sources for earthquake advice and kits, but (as is my habit) I want to look at the broader picture.

Survival in an earthquake, generally speaking, requires much of the same kind of practices as survival in a hurricane, in a terrorist attack, or any other form of shocking hit with long repercussions. It all comes down to resilience.

Here are my key elements of a diverse system -- I'll explore each in more depth in the coming days (as my schedule permits):

Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure. (Prepare for different kinds of problems -- needing to escape the house, needing to stay in the house, dealing with no water, etc.)

Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue. (Make sure you have multiple copies of critical documents and extra amounts of key medications.)

Decentralization: Again with the single point of failure problem. Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically. (Don't store your emergency supplies in one location -- spread them out.)

Collaboration: We're all in this together. (Take advantage of -- and learn to use -- collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.)

Transparency: Don't hide your systems -- transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. (Make sure key shut-off switches -- for gas, especially -- are readily identified.)

Openness: Many eyes make all bugs shallow. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws. (You're safer in an emergency when everyone is safer.)

Fail Gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that failure states don't make things worse than they are already. (Think about what'll happen when disaster strikes -- what will fall, shatter, burst into flames, and what can you do now to prevent it?)

Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they're not working the way you expect. Don't get locked in to a particular approach. (Pay attention to what's happening around you, and don't expect things to remain stable.)

Foresight: You can't predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare. (Make sure you have your emergency kit ready before the emergency hits.)

Resilience, people. That's how we deal with a chaotic world.

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