Toyota's bioplastic car  

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The Age reports that "In little more than a decade, you could be driving a Toyota made from seaweed" - with the seaweed being the source material for the car's bioplastic exterior - Toyota's seaweed car makes a splash.

oyota's engineers are trying to plot a course for the post-oil age, and plastics for structures and trim made from plants could be used to make cars of the future, says the manager of Toyota's Australian styling studio, Paul Beranger.

For now, Mr Beranger and his designers have focused on localising the look of the much-heralded petrol-electric hybrid Camry, which will be displayed in "concept" form at Friday's motor show opening in Melbourne.

The "concept" version to be shown features show-car bling - such as fancy blue headlights, a pearlescent paint job and a nature-inspired randomly patterned grille - to dress up what is otherwise a fairly standard-looking Camry.

The hybrid Camry, approved for local production from early next year with federal and state government grants totalling $50million, has not been without its controversy. In effect, taxpayers are helping to fund the hybrid Camry twice: once to be built, and again when bought by government fleets.

Wired has more - Toyota Wants to Build Car From Seaweed.
Toyota is looking to a greener future — literally — with dreams of an ultralight, superefficient plug-in hybrid with a bioplastic body made of seaweed that could be in showrooms within 15 years.

The kelp car would build upon the already hypergreen 1/X plug-in hybrid concept, which weighs 926 pounds, by replacing its carbon-fiber body with plastic derived from seaweed. As wild as it might sound, bioplastics are becoming increasingly common and Toyota thinks it's only a matter of time before automakers use them to build cars.

"We used lightweight carbon-fiber reinforced plastic throughout the body and frame for its superior collision safety," project manager Tetsuya Kaida said of the 1/X, which is pronounced "one-xth." "But that material is made from oil. In the future, I'm sure we will have access to new and better materials, such as those made from plants, something natural, maybe something like paper. In fact, I want to create such a vehicle from seaweed because Japan is surrounded by the sea."

A kelp car is not as far-fetched as it might sound. Bioplastics are being used for everything from gift cards to cellphone cases. Demand for the stuff is expected to hit 50 billion pounds annually within five years, a figure that would account for 10 percent of the world market for plastic, according to USA Today. A company called NatureWorks claims the production of its bioplastic Inego produces 60 percent less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based plastic and requires 30 percent less energy. And Oakridge National Laboratory has explored the possibility of producing carbon fiber from wood pulp.

Toyota is laying out its green vision of the future ahead of the Melbourne Motor Show, where it will highlight three sweet hybrids — the next-gen Prius, a cool Camry concept designed in Australia and the 1/X, so named because its carbon footprint is a fraction of that of other cars.

"The 1/X concept is a vehicle that completely redefines what it means to be environmentally considerate," David Buttner, senior executive director of sales and marketing, said in a statement. "The name says it all: a car that weighs a fraction of the others in its class today and uses a fraction of the fuel."

The 1/X has been kicking around the show circuit for more than a year, and the photo is from its North American debut at the 2008 Chicago auto show. It features a tiny 500cc engine and weighs about one-third as much as the Prius while offering about as much interior space. It's got a flex-fuel engine and electric motor powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Climate change lays waste to Spain's glaciers  

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The Guardian has a report on Spain's disappearing glaciers - Climate change lays waste to Spain's glaciers.

The Pyrenees mountains have lost almost 90% of their glacier ice over the past century, according to scientists who warn that global warning means they will disappear completely within a few decades.

While glaciers covered 3,300 hectares of land on the mountain range that divides Spain and France at the turn of the last century, only 390 hectares remain, according to Spain's environment ministry.

The most southerly glaciers in Europe are losing the battle against warming and look set to be among the first to disappear from the continent over the coming decades. Their loss will have a severe impact on summer water supplies in the foothills and southern plains south of the Pyrenees.

"This century could see (perhaps within a few decades) the total, or almost total, disappearance of the last reserves of ice in the Spanish Pyrenees and, as a result, a major change in the current nature of upper reaches of the mountains," the authors of the report on Spain's glaciers said.

Scientists have ruled out the idea that the progressive deterioration of glaciers around the globe are part of normal, long-term fluctuations in their size. Europe's glaciers are thought to have lost a quarter of their mass in the last 8 years.

Prof Wilfried Haeberli, director of the World Glacier Monitoring Service, said that the rate of glacier loss is particularly quick. "Small glaciers disappear faster so the relative loss is much larger." "They are the best indicators of climate change," he said . "I would even say these figures (for Spain) are optimistic. If the loss of ice goes on at the speed of the past 10 years they may disappear within ten to 20 years."

Scientists warn of potentially dramatic effects to agriculture as glaciers that feed rivers disappear, taking away a major source of summer water. ...

The World Glacier Monitoring Service last year reported that glaciers around the planet were melting at a rate unseen for 5,000 years. "It has become obvious that the ongoing trend of worldwide and fast, if not accelerating, glacier shrinkage … is of a non-cyclic nature," the service's report for the decade up to 2005 said.

The rate of melting more than doubled over that period when compared to the previous decade. Changes were "without precedent in history" and would produce "dramatic scenarios", including the complete loss of glaciers in some mountains systems, according to the report.

Wave Energy to Bring Power and Jobs to San Francisco  

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CleanTechnica has a post from San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom on the city's proposal to build a wave power plant offshore - Wave Energy to Bring Power and Jobs to San Francisco.

Today, San Francisco took a meaningful step toward turning the promise of renewable ocean energy into reality. We submitted a preliminary permit application to the federal government to develop a wave power project off our coast that we believe can generate between 10 to 30 megawatts of energy, with potential of up to 100 megawatts. When this project is fully operational, upwards of 100 jobs could be created in San Francisco.

Ocean power is a true “game changer” in the area of renewable energy. When wave and tidal power technologies reach commercial scale, they are expected to be able to provide thousands of megawatts of power to our coastal communities, dramatically green our energy portfolios and create thousands of new American jobs. In San Francisco, we’ve been doing our part to spur these technologies by aggressively advancing tidal and wave power pilot projects. We are 100% committed to this challenge.

Wave power is not a new concept. In 1887, San Francisco Mayor Adolph Sutro recognized the power of San Francisco’s waves and built a wave catch-basin to harness the ocean’s power. Over the next century wave power development took a backseat to our dependence on oil, with oil platforms built along our coasts to feed our oil addiction.

However more recently, an explosion of research and development of wave power technologies has occurred. The first commercial units are scheduled to go online in Portugal this year (2 MW from three 750 KW Pelamis units). In the U.S. there are a number of studies, but no commercial operations; San Francisco is hoping to change that.

The proposal submitted by the City to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), grows out of a recent wave power study the City completed, with generous support from the Sidney Frank Foundation and others.

The study confirms that wave power is a promising resource off Ocean Beach in San Francisco. Our project aims to demonstrate the feasibility of generating electric power from waves about eight miles off the west coast of San Francisco. The next step in our project will be to select technologies and undertake environmental studies to ensure minimal impact on marine animals, fishing, shipping and recreational uses.

There are over 50 different types of wave devices currently under development, ranging from “pitching” devices (Pelamis), “overtopping” devices (Wave Dragon), oscillating water columns (OceanLinx) and “heaving” devices (Aquabuoy). Some of these devices are based on “biomimicry” principles, which imitate natural designs and processes (bioWave, WaveRoller). Others can even provide both wave power and desalination (CETO). Wave technology is still new, but the possibilities of clean, green energy produced by the ocean is very real, if we invest in the technology. We will look at all of these and others technologies to find what will work best for us in San Francisco’s waters.

As our leaders in Washington examine ways to ramp up the amount of renewable energy produced in the US over the next three years, in San Francisco we hope to demonstrate that the ocean has the potential to provide power for millions of Americans.

German Solar Highway Nears Completion  

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Renewable Energy World has a post on a German solar highway project that is almost finished - 2.8-MW A3 Highway Solar System Nears Completion.

Evergreen Solar Inc. announced that the first phase of construction of an installation placing more than 16,000 solar panels on the roof of the tunnel of Germany's A3 highway using Evergreen Solar panels is nearing completion. When finished, the 2.8-megawatt solar installation will be one of Germany's largest and first to be located on a public highway.

The installation, located near Aschaffenburg, Germany, occupies 2.7 kilometers of the A3 tunnel roof. German-based solar installer Ralos is overseeing the construction and Goldbach-Hoesbach, which purchased the land from the German government, will oversee the projects interconnectivity to the power grid. The €11 million investment in the project is expected to be paid back through cost savings over 16 years.

Bulgaria's nuclear dilemma  

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The BBC has an article on Bulgaria's nuclear waste problem - Bulgaria's nuclear dilemma.

Kiril Nikolov smiles a big, nuclear smile. "Year by year, we are getting rid of more spent nuclear fuel than we produce," he explains, "so our stores are going down."

One can only share his happiness. Who would actually want to be sitting on tonnes and tonnes of a material so radioactive, it will remain dangerous for at least 300,000 years?

I am sitting with Mr Nikolov in his fern-fringed office, as snow blanks out reactor after reactor in the winter wonderland outside.

There are actually six reactors at Kozloduy - four "small ones", which once produced 440 megawatts each, but were closed down as a condition of Bulgaria joining the European Union. And two "big ones" the 1,000 megawatt reactors which are still pouring power into Bulgaria's grid, keeping the lights on in the dark months.

Mr Nikolov is deputy director of the plant.

Bulgaria is almost the only eastern European country still sending spent nuclear fuel back to Russia for reprocessing. The Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks stopped in the 1990s, as the Russians increased the price for accepting it, and as Ukraine increased the transit fees.

But just as the other East Europeans were abandoning the Russian dump option, the Bulgarians signed a new deal with Moscow. They had to. The ponds next to the reactors, where the spent fuel canisters were transferred, were nearly full. So was the tall grey warehouse near Reactor Two.

Kozloduy managers argued at the time, that unless spent fuel shipments to Russia resumed soon, Kozloduy would have to shut down. It was choking on its own waste. ...

Back upstairs in his dry, civilised office, Kiril Nikolov concedes that Bulgaria will eventually have to take its own nuclear waste back from Russia.

The waste left over when the spent pellets of enriched uranium are extracted from their stainless steel and concrete casing at the Mayak Reprocessing Plant at Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains. This is the main reason why the other East European countries no longer want to do business with Russia. They do not want to re-import their own dangerous waste.

"Aren't you worried by that thought?" I ask Mr Nikolov. "Absolutely not... the Russians have to give us 10 years warning before they do so," he explains. "And that will give us time to prepare."

I wheel out my last question. "Isn't it irresponsible to proceed with nuclear energy, if you don't have a safe solution for the waste?" And he wheels out his answer. "Only nuclear power can provide the sheer amount of energy which mankind needs."

We shake hands warmly. But I wheel away through the snowy wastes of the Bulgarian Arctic, deeply unconvinced.

6.4 Gigawatts of Offshore Wind Farms Slated for Scotland  

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TreeHugger has a post on the large volume of offshore wind power projects planned for Scotland - 6.4 Gigawatts of Offshore Wind Farms Slated for Scotland.

A couple months back it was announced that the UK's Crown Estate would be helping out with financing pre-construction costs for offshore wind farms . Now comes word that The Crown Estate—which owns development rights in UK waters out to 200 miles—has offered exclusive agreements to nine companies for the development of offshore wind farms in Scottish waters totaling more than 6 GW of power. There are 10 plans on the table under these agreements:

The largest is the Argyll Array at 1,500 MW, to be developed by Scottish Power Renewables.

Airtricity Holdings has a sites amounting to 2,678 MW (Kintyre, 378 MW; Islay, 680 MW; Beatrice 920 MW; Bell Rock 700 MW).

Inch Cape will see 905 MW of wind power developed by NPower Renewables.

Fred Olsen Renewables will develop 415 MW at the Forth Array.

Mainstream Renewable Power, 360 MW at Neart na Gaoithe; E.ON , 300 MW in Solway Firth; and Dong Wind (UK), 280 MW in Wigtown Bay.

The total capacity of all these plans, assuming all are completed of course, is 6,438 MW.

Niall Ferguson: There Will Be Blood  

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The Globe and Mail has an interview with author (of The Ascent of Money and The House Of Rothschild) Niall Ferguson on the global recession - There Will Be Blood.

Harvard author and financial crisis guru Niall Ferguson has landed with a thud in Ottawa, spreading messages that could make even the most confident policy makers squirm.

The global crisis is far from over, has only just begun, and Canada is no exception, Mr. Ferguson said in an interview before delivering a presentation to public-policy think tank, Canada 2020.

Policy makers and forecasters who see a recovery next year are probably lying to boost public confidence, he said. And the crisis will eventually provoke political conflict, albeit not on the scale of a world war, but violent all the same.

“There will be blood.”

The Buy America penchant pushed by the U.S. Congress in passing the recent stimulus bill was only the tip of the iceberg.

Abu Dhabi buying Nova Chemicals at bargain-basement prices on Monday is a sign of things to come, with financial power quickly being transferred over to the world's creditors – namely sovereign wealth funds – and away from the world's debtors.

And much of today's mess is the fault of central bankers who targeted consumer-price inflation but purposefully turned a blind eye to asset inflation.

The Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, and author of The Ascent of Money, A Financial History of the World, sat down with The Globe and Mail's economics reporter, Heather Scoffield.

Heather Scoffield: Canadian leaders frequently argue that Canada is in better financial shape than elsewhere in the world, and therefore should fare better during this crisis. Do you agree?

Niall Ferguson: Canada is [considered] a winner because its banks are less leveraged, bank regulation here has been tighter, because its housing market hasn't been in a bubble quite the same way. It's tempting to conclude from that ... that Canada will be less hard hit in the crisis than the United States. But that is unfortunately wrong. Because this is a very unfair crisis. The epicentre is the United States, but the rest of the world, and particularly America's trading partners, will get hit harder than the U.S.”

“It suggests virtue is its own reward. You don't get any reward beyond the self-satisfaction of having been virtuous. This is a crisis of globalization. Therefore, the more an economy depends on the global system, the harder it hurts. Canada is not finding the worst. Asian economies are going to be really slammed this year. But it's an unfair world. The U.S. won't be as badly affected as most countries.”

Heather Scoffield: Is the U.S. able to escape with less pain because it has more resources to throw at its problems?

Niall Ferguson: “Partly because they can throw so much at it, and they can do it at a lower cost than anybody else, because the U.S. retains the safe-haven status, which makes the world so unfair. Here is the world's biggest economy, which gave us subprime mortgages, rampant securitization, the collateralized debt obligation, Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch. It is, in a sense, the fons et origo of this crisis. And yet, because it retains safe-haven status, in a global crisis, investors want to increase their exposure to the U.S. Hence, the dollar rally. Hence 10-year Treasuries down below 3 per cent yields. It's almost paradoxical that an American crisis ... reinforces the status of the United States as a safe haven.”

Heather Scoffield: Surely that safe-haven status would be revoked if China loses faith in the U.S. ability to finance its debt?

Niall Ferguson: As you know, Chimerica – the fusion of China and America – is one of my big ideas. It's really the key to how the global financial system works, and has been now for about a decade. At the end of The Ascent of Money, I speculate about whether or not that relationship will survive. If it breaks down, then all bets are off, for the U.S. and indeed for Asia. I think that's really the key point. Both sides stand to lose from a breakdown of Chimerica, which is why both sides are affirming a commitment to it.”

“It's very interesting that the Chinese in the last week were saying such soothing things around the [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton visit. This was only days after Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner used the dreaded ‘m' word – currency manipulation.

Heather Scoffield: Why would the U.S. administration poke a stick in China's eye like that?

Niall Ferguson: “You obviously have to recognize that Democrats have been more hawkish on China for some time, than the Republicans ... But I think Tim Geithner is smart enough to know that this is a very dangerous game to play and I would be very surprised if you heard that word again pass his lips.”

Heather Scoffield: Did the Clinton visit improve the China-U.S. relationship?

Niall Ferguson: It looks like it....The line is very clear from China. They've consistently made their position clear. They want the status quo. They do not want this thing to break down. They were kind of appalled when Geithner said the ‘m' word. And they took full advantage of Hillary Clinton's visit to smooth ruffled feathers and restate their commitment. It's a very good bilateral relation. That bilateral will is important here. The Chinese believe in Chimerica maybe even more than Americans do. ...

Australian Internet Censorship Plan Hits Roadblock  

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The SMH reports that independent Senator Nick Xenophon is going to scuttle the government's mandatory internet censorship plan - Web censorship plan heads towards a dead end. Please re-elect him South Australians.

The Government's plan to introduce mandatory internet censorship has effectively been scuttled, following an independent senator's decision to join the Greens and Opposition in blocking any legislation required to get the scheme started.

The Opposition's communications spokesman Nick Minchin has this week obtained independent legal advice saying that if the Government is to pursue a mandatory filtering regime "legislation of some sort will almost certainly be required".

Senator Nick Xenophon previously indicated he may support a filter that blocks online gambling websites but in a phone interview today he withdrew all support, saying "the more evidence that's come out, the more questions there are on this".

The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, has consistently ignored advice from a host of technical experts saying the filters would slow the internet, block legitimate sites, be easily bypassed and fall short of capturing all of the nasty content available online.

Despite this, he is pushing ahead with trials of the scheme using six ISPs - Primus, Tech 2U, Webshield, OMNIconnect, Netforce and Highway 1.

But even the trials have been heavily discredited, with experts saying the lack of involvement from the three largest ISPs, Telstra, Optus and iiNet, means the trials will not provide much useful data on the effects of internet filtering in the real-world.

Senator Conroy originally pitched the filters as a way to block child porn but - as ISPs, technical experts and many web users feared - the targets have been broadened significantly since then.

ACMA's secret blacklist, which will form the basis of the mandatory censorship regime, contains 1370 sites, only 674 of which relate to depictions of children under 18. A significant portion - 506 sites - would be classified R18+ and X18+, which is legal to view but would be blocked for everyone under the proposal.

This week Senator Conroy said there was "a very strong case for blocking" other legal content that has been "refused classification". According to the classification code, this includes sites depicting drug use, crime, sex, cruelty, violence or "revolting and abhorrent phenomena" that "offend against the standards of morality".

And last month, ACMA added an anti-abortion website to its blacklist because it showed photographs of what appears to be aborted foetuses. The Government has said it was considering expanding the blacklist to 10,000 sites and beyond. ...

The policy has attracted opposition from online consumers, lobby groups, ISPs, network administrators, some children's welfare groups, the Opposition, the Greens, NSW Young Labor and even the conservative Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, who famously tried to censor the chef Gordon Ramsay's swearing on television.

This week, a national telephone poll of 1100 people, conducted by Galaxy and commissioned by online activist group GetUp, found that only 5 per cent of Australians want ISPs to be responsible for protecting children online and only 4 per cent want Government to have this responsibility.

A recent survey by Netspace of 10,000 of the ISP's customers found 61 per cent strongly opposed mandatory internet filtering with only 6.3 per cent strongly agreeing with the policy.

An expert report, handed to the Government last February but kept secret until December after it was uncovered by the Herald, concluded the proposed scheme was fundamentally flawed.

Even Labor has previously opposed ISP-level internet filtering when the Howard Government raised it as a method for protecting kids online.

Floating offshore wind power in Portugal  

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The Green Wombat has a report on a new floating offshore wind power plant planned for Portugal - Portugal floats offshore wind farm plan.

Portugal has become a prime spot for wave energy farms, given the coastal conditions and the government’s support for renewable energy projects. Now Portuguese energy powerhouse Energias de Portugal has signed an agreement with Seattle’s Principle Power for a deep-water floating wind farm.

It’s the second floating wind farm for Principle Power, which last October inked a contract to construct a 150-megawatt turbine power plant off the Oregon coast. The Oregon plan calls for 30 floating platforms that will each sport a five-megawatt wind turbine - which is about twice the size of the biggest land-based turbines in commercial operation. (General Electric (GE) makes a 3.6-megawatt turbine designed for offshore and Clipper Windpower is developing a ten-megawatt prototype.)

Details of the deal with Portugal’s EDP, however, are next to non-existent. Principle Power president Jon Bonanno told Green Wombat that the size of the Portuguese wind farm, the type of turbine it will use, its cost and build date are confidential. “What I can say is that the phased build out will result in a utility scale project, within a reasonable time frame for a plant of its size and nature,” Bonanno wrote in an e-mail.

Japanese Exports Plummet 45.7%  

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Bloomberg has a report on the stunning collapse of Japan's export industries, leaving the country with a rare trade deficit (and Australian exporters without much cause for optimism) - Japan Exports Plummet 45.7%, Deficit Widens to Record.

Japan’s exports plunged 45.7 percent in January from a year earlier, resulting in a record trade deficit, as recessions in the U.S. and Europe smothered demand for the country’s cars and electronics.

The shortfall widened to 952.6 billion yen ($9.9 billion), the biggest since 1980, the earliest year for which there is comparable data, the Finance Ministry said today in Tokyo. The drop in shipments abroad eclipsed a record 35 percent decline set the previous month.

Exports to the U.S. tumbled an unprecedented 52.9 percent from a year earlier, and shipments to Asia and Europe also posted the largest-ever declines as the global recession deepened. The collapse is likely to force Japanese companies to keep firing workers and closing factories, worsening an economy that shrank the most in 34 years last quarter.

Sun Shining Brightly In Masdar And California  

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Technology Review has a long report on the Masdar sustainable city project (primarily using solar power) explaining why the rest of the world should care about this "green metropolis" and the inovations it will be acting as a testbed for - A Zero-Emissions City in the Desert.

The first hints of the project are visible. A white wall stretches through the desert, like a chalk line on a dusty playing field. A bus with darkened windows stirs a low cloud, ferrying workers past a cluster of steel cranes, two portable drilling rigs, and a stand of concrete columns sprouting rust-colored rebar. A tall wire fence guards rows of solar panels mounted on concrete pads.

The construction is the start of a vast experiment, an attempt to create the world's first car-free, zero-carbon-dioxide-emissions, zero-waste city. Due to be completed in 2016, the city is the centerpiece of the Masdar Initiative, a $15 billion investment by the government of Abu Dhabi, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. The new development, being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city, will run almost entirely on energy from the sun and will use just 20 percent as much power as a conventional city of similar size. Garbage will be sorted and recycled or used for compost; sewage will be processed into fuel. Concrete columns will lift the city seven meters off the ground, creating space underneath for a network of automated electric transports that will replace cars. Planners predict that the development will attract 1,500 clean-tech businesses, ranging from large international corporations to startups, and--eventually--some 50,000 residents.

The city will be an oasis of renewable energy in a country of five million, made rich by oil, that consumes the most natural resources per capita in the world. Seen one way, it's just the latest ostentatious project in a country that's been defined by them. Indeed, the UAE is already home to the world's tallest building and an enormous indoor ski facility that features a 200-meter-long black-diamond slope. Real-estate developers have dredged coral and sand from the sea floor, piling it up in the Persian Gulf to create islands in the shape of palm trees and a map of the world.

Yet many experts are optimistic that the city can become a test bed for new approaches to the engineering and architectural problems involved in creating environmentally sustainable cities. Although architects have already designed and builders constructed many small zero-emissions residences and commercial buildings, projects involving large, multi-use commercial buildings have fallen short of expectations, using too much energy or failing to generate enough. Part of the problem is the growing complexity that comes with scale, says J. Michael McQuade, senior vice president of science and technology at United Technologies in Hartford, CT; today's design software hasn't been able to handle it. But Masdar City, itself developed with the help of extensive modeling, will be wired from the beginning to collect data that could prove valuable for developing better models. That information could make future zero-emissions cities cheaper and easier to build.

And the development is meant to make money, not just introduce new technology. "We want Masdar City to be profitable, not just a sunk cost," said Khaled Awad, the project's director of property development, at a huge real-estate exhibition in Dubai last fall. "If it is not profitable as a real-estate development, it is not sustainable." Yet if it is, it may be replicable.

"If environmental engineers, by gaining experience from building this wild city, become much more productive at building the next city, this starts to move from being science fiction to something Houston would adopt," says Matthew Kahn, a professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, a sustainable-design company based in Berkeley, CA, agrees. "I see Masdar on the one hand as a playground for the rich," he says, "and on the other hand as an R&D opportunity to deploy and test out technology that, if things go well, will show up in other cities."

Of course, much of what's learned from Masdar won't apply outside the incredibly hot and sunny coast of the Persian Gulf. A site in Germany, which wouldn't get as much sunlight, couldn't rely as heavily on solar energy. A site in San Francisco might not need air conditioning, making information about advanced cooling systems less relevant. But if the project reaches its environmental goals, it will at the very least show that such cities can be built. "People say, 'Gee, that would be great. That would be a good idea, but obviously it's not possible,'" Friend says. "Once you can point at something, it takes away a lot of those arguments."

The Masdar Initiative is part of an ambitious plan to transform a resource-based economy--the third-largest exporter of oil in the world--into one based on knowledge and expertise. The name Masdar comes from the Arabic word for "source," and the plan is to make Abu Dhabi the Silicon Valley of alternative energy: a source of talent, patents, and startups in the very industry that could one day challenge the supremacy of oil. It's a daunting challenge to say the least, especially for a region that, according to Awad, "hasn't been known for innovation for a thousand years."

Tech Review also reports that "after months of gloom, the U.S. stimulus package could kick-start some solar power projects" - Solar Firms Pray for a Stimulus Bump.
The solar industry, overcast in recent months by the credit crunch and the wider economic downturn, is hoping for a few rays of sunshine after the passage of the U.S. stimulus package last week.

The months since October have been challenging for the industry, and recent news has reinforced a sense of gloom.

Yesterday, First Solar, a leading maker of solar-power modules, reduced its revenue projections for 2009 to around $1.8 billion, a drop of about $300 million. It also said that it would start to invest in some of its customers' projects, perceived as a move to keep those projects going. In January, Ausra, a California company that had plans to build several large-scale solar-power plants, announced that it would scale back to become primarily a reseller of solar equipment, and that it would also lay off 11 percent of its staff. Earlier in the same month, OptiSolar, a startup that makes thin-film solar technology and had plans for a photovoltaic power plant, said that it would have to lay off half of its staff, citing difficulties getting funding for the project.

Even before the turn of the year, many projects had run into problems. Back in October 2008, BP Solar scrapped plans for a $97 million expansion of a major solar plant in Frederick, MD. Around the same time, Evergreen Solar, a company that manufactures photovoltaic modules and solar cells, delayed an $800 million plant in China.

"The market had pressed 'pause,'" says Ethan Zindler, head of North American Research at U.K.-based analyst firm New Energy Finance.

The market capitalization of the solar industry has dropped from $200 billion at the start of 2008 to just $60 billion now, says Michael Rogol, managing director of PHOTON Consulting, a solar-industry research firm based in Boston. Rogol estimates that, out of around 700 solar-power firms that his company monitors, 200 are facing serious cash-flow problems, while another 140 may run into problems. He believes that "a thinning of the herd" is already happening.

But the passage of the U.S. economic stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) has provided a ray of hope for a beleaguered industry.

One provision, in particular, gives solar companies cause for optimism. It changes the rules on how investment tax credits are awarded, allowing companies that are building power plants to take 30 percent of the cost as a tax break in a project's first year. This could prove vital because, in the last quarter of 2008, 10 out of 14 tax-equity providers stopped doing business in the solar market.

Earlier in February, Southern California Edison said that it will purchase 1.3 gigawatts of power from BrightSource. The company will not finish its permitting phase until later this year, and therefore will not need project financing for months to come. The company is also one of 16 that have been approved for loan guarantees from the Department of Energy--a process that has been accelerated by the stimulus plan. A BrightSource spokesman says that it is not yet clear what the terms of these loans will be, and thus whether the company will take the money, but such guarantees will clearly help make project financing available for renewable-energy firms. ...

Another factor that, ironically, could help kick-start some solar projects is the plummeting cost of solar equipment caused by the downturn. The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that the price of solar panels has dropped 25 percent from last summer, and that it may fall another 10 percent by this summer. Some industry observers expect that prices could fall by as much as 50 percent from last year.

Alain Harrus, a partner at Crosslink Capital, a venture-capital firm that has funded First Solar, among other renewable-energy firms, argues that these price drops could have "a huge impact on total cost of capital to start a project."

Fortune's Green Wombat has more on Californian utilities and their efforts to restart solar power plant construction - PG&E chief: We’ll be solar’s ‘green knight’.
With the financial crisis dimming solar’s prospects to become a significant source of renewable energy, utility giant PG&E on Tuesday said it will spend $1.4 billion over five years to install 250 megawatts’ worth of photovoltaic panels in California while contracting with private developers for another 250 megawatts. PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee said the utility is also prepared to be a “green knight,” rescuing distressed big centralized solar power plant projects by providing financing so they can get built.

“We have contracted for 24% of our energy to be renewable and we’re concerned whether our [developers] will have access to capital,” Darbee said at PG&E’s San Francisco headquarters during a press conference. “We think financing for these projects may be in jeopardy. PG&E is well-positioned with its $35 billion balance sheet to step up and help.”

PG&E’s (PCG) move to take a direct role in obtaining the renewable energy it needs to comply with California’s global warming laws could be big business for solar module panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA), Suntech (STP) and First Solar (FSLR). The action was prompted in part by a change in the tax laws that lets utilities claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects.

Fong Wan, PG&E’s vice president for energy procurement, said most of the 500 megawatts of solar panels will be installed on the ground in arrays of between one and 20 megawatts at utility substations or on other PG&E-owned property. (The utility is one of California’s largest landowners.) A small portion may be installed on rooftops, he said.

PG&E said the solar initiative will generate enough electricity to power 150,000 homes and will provide 1.3% of the utility’s electricity supply.

“There’s no or little need for new transmission and these projects can plug directly into the grid,” said Darbee. “Given our size and our credit ratings and our strength, we can move forward where smaller developers may not be able to do so.”

The California Public Utilities Commission must approve PG&E’s solar initiative, which Wan estimated would add about 32 cents to the average monthly utility bill. An $875 million program unveiled by Southern California Edison (EIX) last year to install 250 megawatts of utility-owned rooftop solar panels has run into opposition from solar companies that argue it is anti-competitive and from consumer advocates who contend the price is too high. The state’s third big utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), has also proposed a rooftop solar program.

Emission impossible: the sad truth  

Posted by Big Gav

Ross Gittins in the SMH has an article on the sad truth about trying to reduce your personal carbon emissions - Emission impossible: the sad truth.

Permit me to ask you a personal question (as long as you don't ask it back of me): how are you going reducing your carbon footprint?

There's a host of things you could be doing, from turning off lights and appliances on standby and installing compact fluorescent bulbs, to taking shorter showers, using air-conditioners less or turning thermostats up a little in summer and down a little in winter.

If you want to get more committed you can install ceiling insulation, a solar hot water system or solar panels. This can be expensive, but the Government may* give you subsidies to encourage you in your good works (*conditions apply).

Then there's your consumption of fossil fuel for transport. Short of buying a Prius, you can buy any car that's more fuel efficient, use more public transport, ride a bike to work or even walk to the shops.

I suspect many people are trying to be more carbon aware and do the right thing. And many of those who haven't done much know they should be trying harder. (If you must know, I've bought a much smaller car, am doing better with lights and appliances and walk to work more often. But my use of an air-conditioner is less than exemplary.)

And remember, every little bit we do to reduce our personal consumption of electricity and petrol helps save the planet from global warming.

Or does it? I thought I knew a fair bit about Kevin Rudd's proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme, but I've been surprised and disappointed to discover it's impervious to voluntary efforts to reduce our emissions.

As Dr Richard Dennis, executive director of the Australia Institute, has been tirelessly explaining, nothing we choose to do for moral reasons will do anything to reduce the nation's total emissions of greenhouse gases.

That's because the nation's total emissions will be controlled by an annually reducing cap, designed to reduce our emissions by 2020 to between 5 per cent and 15 per cent (it's yet to be decided) less than our emissions in 2000.

And because, left to their own devices, our emissions would continue growing quite strongly, the cap serves not only as an upper limit on our total emissions but also as a lower limit. It's both a ceiling and a floor.

So when you and I voluntarily cut back our emissions we don't reduce the nation's total emissions, we just make more room for other, industrial polluters - say, the aluminium, steel or cement industries - to increase their emissions.

If you didn't know that, you could be forgiven. It seems you have a lot of mates. In a poll of 1000 people conducted for the Australia Institute, respondents were asked what effect it would have on Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions "if every household in Australia reduced their electricity use in the future". About 8 per cent weren't sure, but 78 per cent said our total emissions would go down. Only 13 per cent got the right answer, that total emissions would stay the same.

That's a seriously misinformed electorate - which is why I'm writing this piece. It gives me no joy to further complicate the life of an embattled Government that, in its own heavily compromised way, is trying to do something concrete to reduce climate change.

The pollies shouldn't be under any doubt that people want to be able to do their bit. More than 87 per cent of respondents agree that "households and individuals should be able to contribute to reducing Australia's greenhouse gas emissions". Unfortunately, the Government hasn't only failed to ensure people understand the workings of the scheme it's seeking to introduce, it hasn't resisted the temptation to actively mislead people.

In spruiking the part of his $42 billion stimulus package offering subsidies for ceiling insulation and solar hot water systems, Kevin Rudd claimed that this "energy-efficient homes initiative" could, once fully implemented, "result in reductions of greenhouse gas emissions by 49.9 million tonnes by 2020, or the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road".

As understanding has dawned about this hidden flaw in the trading scheme, the Minister for Climate Change, Penny Wong, has been quite tricky in her seeming rebuttal. There had been "misunderstanding" of the impact voluntary action by households can have under a cap-and-trade abatement scheme, she wrote in a newspaper article on Monday.

"Some argue that household action simply frees up carbon pollution permits for others to use," she said.

"In fact, individual and community action to be more energy efficient not only saves them money, it will contribute directly to Australia meeting our emissions reductions targets.

"Strong household action also helps make it easier for governments to set even more ambitious targets in the future."

That statement comes under the heading of literally true, but calculated to mislead. It's true that if you reduce your consumption of petrol or electricity you'll save yourself money.

It's true only in an arithmetic sense that anything we do "contributes directly" to Australia meeting its emissions target. Everything contributes to the bottom line of the sum. But, because the bottom line is controlled under the scheme, any helpful contribution we might make just leaves more scope for others to make unhelpful contributions.

Harnessing the Tides: Marine Power Update 2009  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Renewable Energy World has an article on the state of play in the ocean energy market - Harnessing the Tides: Marine Power Update 2009

One hundred and forty-one years ago, the relentless sea off Scotland's coast inspired the following observation from native son and author George MacDonald.

"I climbed the heights above the village, and looked abroad over the Atlantic. What a waste of aimless tossing to and fro! Gray mist above, full of falling rain; gray, wrathful waters underneath, foaming and bursting as billow broke upon billow…they burst on the rocks at the end of it, and rushed in shattered spouts and clouds of spray far into the air over their heads. "Will the time ever come," I thought, when man shall be able to store up even this force for his own ends? Who can tell?"

Today, we can certainly say, "Yes, the time will come." The only question remaining is how long it will be before humankind routinely and widely uses electricity generated from the kinetic power of ocean tides, currents and waves.

If one defines "commercial ocean energy" as several tens of megawatts, the world cannot yet boast a commercial ocean energy installation. Indeed, only two installations of either wave, tidal or in-stream current devices are grid-connected and can generate over 1 megawatt (MW) of power. One is Pelamis Wave Power's 2.25-MW Aguçadoura project off of Portugal's northern coast and the other is Bristol-based Marine Current Turbines' (MCT) SeaGen, a US $20-million commercial-scale tidal-energy project under development in Northern Ireland's turbulent Strangford Narrows. In December, SeaGen boasted the first tidal turbine to hit a capacity of 1.2 MW.

(The biggest exception to commercial ocean energy production is the world's longest running tidal power plant, the 240-MW La Rance, in France. But the plant's barrage technology, which traps water behind a dam and releases it at low tide, has fallen out of favor due to its perceived higher environmental impact than underwater turbines. Nova Scotia has also been operating a 20-MW barrage Tidal Generating Station in the tidal-rich Bay of Fundy since 1984.)

The rest of the world's wave, tidal and current installations, some of which have been in the water as far back as the 1990s, are experimental and prototype units ranging in size from 35 kilowatts (kW) to 400 kW. Because these units operate only intermittently and are not typically connected to any grid, it is not possible to determine their total power generation.

Many of these units are prototype demonstration units for the much bigger installations that are under development and that will begin to realize significant exploitation of the world's ocean energy resource. For example, Ocean Power Technologies Inc. will use the 150-kW PowerBuoy it has been testing since the mid-90s as the "workhorse" for the 270-MW, four-site wave energy plant off California and Oregon coasts that it has partnered with Lockheed Martin to develop, says CEO George Taylor.

And Inverness, Scotland-based WaveGen expects to use 40 units of the 100-kw turbine it just installed off the Island of Islay for a 4-MW farm off of Scotland's Isle of Lewis. Meanwhile, Pelamis says if its 750-kw "sea snake" devices, which were installed last year, make it through the winter, it will put 37 more of them in the water, generating 30 MW.

All of the wave, tidal, ocean and river current power around North America that can be practically extracted could together provide 10% of today's electrical consumption in the U.S., says Roger Bedard, ocean energy leader at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) in Palo Alto, CA. He adds that the total water resource could, it is sometimes said, possibly power the world twice over, but a lot of it is out of reach. "Hudson's Bay, off the Arctic Circle, has HUGE tidal power, but it is thousands of miles from where anyone lives. We have HUGE wave resources off Aleutian Islands, but the same problem," he says.

What will be the "magic" year for large-scale ocean energy deployment? Most developers indicate 2011-2012. Trey Taylor, co-founder and president of Verdant Power, which is moving into the commercial development phase of its 7-year-old Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy project, says the firm aims to have "at least 35 MW" in the water by the end of 2011.

REW also has a report on a new deal signed in the UK to develop large scale ocean energy projects - Aquamarine To Develop 1 GW of Ocean Energy.
Aquamarine Power has signed a Development Agreement with Airtricity, the renewable energy development division of Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE), aimed at developing sites capable of hosting 1,000 megawatts (MW) of various types of marine energy by 2020.

Under the agreement, the two companies will enter into a 50:50 joint venture to develop wave and tidal energy sites in the UK and Republic of Ireland. Work on the development of the first two sites has already started, with plans to roll out further sites over the next three years.

Australian Opposition Promoting Biochar  

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The SMH has a report on Malcolm Turnbull's proposals to make use of biochar to mitigate carbon emissions - Coalition pins its great green hope on carbon trio.

THE COALITION'S "green carbon initiative" is a three-pronged policy that aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making buildings more energy efficient, having faith in clean coal and burying greenhouse pollution with a process known as biochar.

Geosequestration - the burying of greenhouse pollution underground or beneath the ocean floor - remains the great technological hope for solving climate change even though its adoption does not appear to be any time soon.

Biochar, about which researchers are optimistic, is a new hope in climate science. Biochar refers to small pellets of charcoal produced when plant waste, such as wood chips, are heated in a process called pyrolysis.

When added to the soil, the pellets help boost fertility, retain moisture better, and efficiently store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists believe biochar is stable enough to hold gases for at least 100 years, a finding that has been eagerly seized on by politicians desperate to find a technology that will mop up greenhouse gas emissions.

The Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, argues that Australia's large land mass could be its greenhouse saviour, citing research that finds a small increase in the amount of carbon stored in soil could absorb all of the nation's annual emissions.

Research projects, including one by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, are encouraging, but scientists are concerned that the technique has not yet been properly investigated.

Dr Evelyn Krull, of CSIRO Land and Water, says one of the main areas that needs further study is how different types of soil react to the addition of biochar. "From a scientist's point of view I would be hesitant to say let's apply it to all soils, because we haven't done proper studies on it," she said.

"There's no doubt [biochar] will have multiple benefits but we would like to make sure that we have advised the public best about what is safe."

A Shining Solar Skyscraper for Shenzen  

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Green building of the week from Inhabitat is this tower planned for China Insurance Group - A Shining Solar Skyscraper for Shenzen.

Austrian architecture firm Coop Himmelb(l)au recently won first prize in a competition to design a shimmering skyscraper that will house the new headquarters of the China Insurance Group. The 49 story tower will rise over the central business district of Shenzhen, a thriving economic center on China’s southern shore. The flowing outer skin of the building will be lined with photovoltaic cells and will feature mechanisms to increase wind resistance, shade the interiors from sunlight, provide natural ventilation, and display multimedia banners. ... The passively designed outer skin of the structure will help regulate inside climate and be powered in part by solar and wind energy.

Cheap Hydrogen from Scraps  

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Technology Review has an article on producing hydrogen without using platinum or other rare metals - Cheap Hydrogen from Scraps.

It sounds almost too good to be true: add a few bugs to food scraps and waste water to generate clean hydrogen fuel. But over the past few years, researchers have been gradually working toward this promising scheme for producing hydrogen.

Now, with the help of an unassuming stainless-steel brush, microbial electrolysis cells (MECs) have taken another step forward. The steel brush can be used to replace the expensive platinum normally employed in the electrolysis cell's cathode, slashing costs by more than 80 percent.

Hydrogen is an appealing, environmentally friendly fuel because burning it creates only water as a waste product. MECs harness the electrons produced by certain bacteria as those bacteria feed on biodegradable material. The bacteria sit on an electrode--the anode--as they metabolize organic matter in an oxygen-devoid chamber. Not being able to react with oxygen, the electrons travel from the anode to the counter-electrode--the cathode--where they combine with protons to form hydrogen.

In late 2007, a team led by Bruce Logan, Kappe professor of environmental engineering at Pennsylvania State University, showed that they could improve the efficiency of this process: by adding a small jolt of electricity (0.25 volts) at the cathode. Until now, however, the researchers have relied on a platinum catalyst on the cathode to make the process fast enough.

"The need to use a precious metal catalyst had been holding back further development of the technique, but now we have found a way to do it without platinum," says Logan.

Slumping Japanese Consumption  

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The NYT has an interesting article on the impact of Japan's "lost decade" (or two) on consumerism in Japan - When Consumers Cut Back: An Object Lesson From Japan.

As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.

The economic malaise that plagued Japan from the 1990s until the early 2000s brought stunted wages and depressed stock prices, turning free-spending consumers into misers and making them dead weight on Japan’s economy.

Today, years after the recovery, even well-off Japanese households use old bath water to do laundry, a popular way to save on utility bills. Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak. And the nation is losing interest in cars; sales have fallen by half since 1990.

The Takigasaki family in the Tokyo suburb of Nakano goes further to save a yen or two. Although the family has a comfortable nest egg, Hiroko Takigasaki carefully rations her vegetables. When she goes through too many in a given week, she reverts to her cost-saving standby: cabbage stew. “You can make almost anything with some cabbage, and perhaps some potato,” says Mrs. Takigasaki, 49, who works part time at a home for people with disabilities.

Her husband has a well-paying job with the electronics giant Fujitsu, but “I don’t know when the ax will drop,” she says. “Really, we need to save much, much more.”

Japan eventually pulled itself out of the Lost Decade of the 1990s, thanks in part to a boom in exports to the United States and China. But even as the economy expanded, shell-shocked consumers refused to spend. Between 2001 and 2007, per-capita consumer spending rose only 0.2 percent.

Now, as exports dry up amid a worldwide collapse in demand, Japan’s economy is in free-fall because it cannot rely on domestic consumption to pick up the slack. In the last three months of 2008, Japan’s economy shrank at an annualized rate of 12.7 percent, the sharpest decline since the oil shocks of the 1970s.

“Japan is so dependent on exports that when overseas markets slow down, Japan’s economy teeters on collapse,” said Hideo Kumano, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “On the surface, Japan looked like it had recovered from its Lost Decade of the 1990s. But Japan in fact entered a second Lost Decade — that of lost consumption.”

The Japanese have had some good reasons to scale back spending. Perhaps most important, the average worker’s paycheck has shrunk in recent years, even after companies rebounded and bolstered their profits.

That discrepancy is the result of aggressive cost-cutting on the part of Japanese exporters like Toyota and Sony. They, like American companies now, have sought to fend off cutthroat competition from companies in emerging economies like South Korea and Taiwan, where labor costs are low.

To better compete, companies slashed jobs and wages, replacing much of their work force with temporary workers who had no job security and fewer benefits. Nontraditional workers now make up more than a third of Japan’s labor force.

Younger people are feeling the brunt of that shift. Some 48 percent of workers age 24 or younger are temps. These workers, who came of age during a tough job market, tend to shun conspicuous consumption.

They tend to be uninterested in cars; a survey last year by the business daily Nikkei found that only 25 percent of Japanese men in their 20s wanted a car, down from 48 percent in 2000, contributing to the slump in sales.

Woodside Proceeding With Pluto Development  

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Alan Kohler at the ABC has an interview with Woodside's CEO about the Pluto LNG project - Don Voelte on Inside Business.

ALAN KOHLER, PRESENTER: Despite talk of debt markets being in lockdown, Woodside Petroleum this week confidently said it would be borrowing billions of dollars to finish one of the biggest, most ambitious Capex budgets ever seen on Australia. No equity issue for Woodside apparently. To deliver the $12 billion Pluto LNG project of the WA coast the company will be cutting costs, selling assets and talking to Banks.

The company also turned in a solid set of results with its full year profit up 73 per cent to $1.8 billion. I spoke to Woodside boss Don Volte.

Well Don Volte perhaps we can start with just clarifying how much do you have to left to spend developing the Pluto field in Western Australia?

DON VOLTE, WOODSIDE PETROLEUM CEO: Our major portion of the big spend will be in 2009. In 2010 we go into a commission mode but the major portion of construction will be finished by that time. All the components have been purchased at this point and all the major contracts in place. So getting through 2009 is the main funding hurdle.

ALAN KOHLER: So what's the total you have to spend this year? Is it $7.5 billion, something like that?

DON VOLTE: It comes down to $7.2 billion I believe is the actual number that was committed to. We've, with the A dollar exchange, in other words with the A dollar weakness versus the US the budget actually increased a bit and then we brought that back down through funding reductions and deferrals. So we have about a $7 billion spend this year, yes.

ALAN KOHLER: And you reckon you've got a one to $1.7 billion gap at this stage.

DON VOLTE: At this stage...

ALAN KOHLER: And that includes selling what you call non core assets and reducing costs by 500 million?

DON VOLTE: Yeah, we've committed to the cost reductions, we have more to come there. We have not committed to any sale of any asset. What we said was we may test the market place. So we believe that we have alternatives...

ALAN KOHLER: The market place is not very good.

DON VOLTE: Well I don't know about that. You take a look at the coal seam methane sales recently and gas is valuable in that respect.

ALAN KOHLER: They all went crazy.

DON VOLTE: I don't think I'll make too many comments about that. The market place is what the market place is and people felt they were worth that and more than one company put those big dollars up.

ALAN KOHLER: So do you cross your heart and hope to die no capital raising this year, no equity raising share issue?

DON VOLTE: It's not the intention to do a capital raise this year. What we're doing is basically trying to fill the gap funding until we get Pluto on stream first thing in 2011. At that point with those contracts we believe that the spending crisis, as you might call it, is over. It's our full intent to reach the debt markets and fill the gap that way.

Commuters Surge Onto Sydney Public Transport  

Posted by Big Gav

The SMH reports that congestion charges, the economic downturn, the lingering memory of last year's high oil prices and environmental concerns are driving Sydney commuters onto public transport - 22 million more trips on public transport.

A GROWING number of Sydney commuters are abandoning their cars in favour of trains and buses as economic and environmental concerns bite, with experts predicting the start of a fundamental, long-term shift in travel behaviour.

Sydneysiders undertook about 22 million more train and bus journeys last year than the year before, and tens of thousands of people have abandoned the two main roads into the city this year.

As petrol prices soared and some commuters paid more than $10 each way in tolls, CityRail experienced a 5.7 per cent increase in patronage - about 17 million individual journeys - from December 2007 to December 2008.

There were also 5.6 million more trips on State Transit buses - up 3 per cent - despite the fact that many services, particularly those in the inner city and eastern suburbs, are already packed to capacity.

Public transport use is expected to swell further with the long-delayed opening of the Epping to Chatswood rail link tomorrow. ...

Nationwide research commissioned by Victorian transport authority Metlink shows a growing number of people switched from using cars to public transport last year, due in part to high petrol prices. Among the Sydneysiders surveyed, 62 per cent said they were substituting car use with train, bus, or ferry travel

Is Heat Surge Ruining the Amish ‘Brand’?  

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PSFK has a post on the use of the Amish image in marketing - Is Heat Surge Ruining the Amish ‘Brand’?.

For those seeking simplicity in a world of ever-increasing technological and societal complexity, what better role model is there than the Amish? In his blog, Kevin Kelly offers a fascinating article about these pioneers of DIY culture. He explains that the Amish are master tinkerers and far from being unanimously opposed to technology; that technological adoption—like using electricity, GMO corn, etc.—is commonplace. Depending on one’s parish, the Amish have different policies regarding technological adaptation. What he says is a big difference between us and them (assuming you’re not Amish), is, “In contemporary [Western] society our default is set to say ‘yes’ to new things, and in Old Order Amish societies the default is set to ‘no.’ When new things come around, the Amish automatically start by refusing them.” Only after the refusal do they assess something’s merits.

Society’s idealization of this simpler, sensible way of life is evidenced by the ubiquitous multi-page spread for Heat Surge’s Roll-n-Glow Electric Fireplace with Amish mantle. In the faux-editorial ads, sturdy Amish men and young (seemingly photoshopped-in) Amish women build mantles for fireplaces already aglow with raging fires. How do they do that?

Both the New York Times and Treehugger reveal the secret of these “miracle heaters”: they are the combination of a standard Chinese space heater and distinctly not-Amish marketing. Among the $400 space heater’s merits is the “certification of Underwriters Laboratories coveted UL listing.” But doesn’t every other space heater in Home Depot have that too? As for marketing, Heat Surge’s VP told the Times, “It became clear through test marketing the American population is infatuated with—and understands the quality of—an Amish product.”

Looking at Kelly’s article, it’s clear the Amish have much to teach us about sensible technological adoption. But might the Amish be compromising their ‘brand’ by affixing themselves to this type of bald gimmickry? Perhaps they should consider another modern-day addition to their way of life - a brand consultant.

Zbigniew Brzezinski warns of class warfare and riots  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

I have some fond memories of Zbigniew Brzezinski's "head in the bed" speech to the US Senate a few years ago, warning the neocons not to attack Iran. Zbig (who was the one who lured the Soviets into Afghanistan, amongst other things) has been on MSNBC lately to warn US elites that they'd best chip in some of their own money to keep the economy afloat, otherwise things might get nasty - Zbigniew Brzezinski warns of class warfare and riots.

OE SCARBOROUGH: You also talked about the possibility of class conflict.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I was worrying about it because we’re going to have millions and millions of unemployed, people really facing dire straits. And we’re going to be having that for some period of time before things hopefully improve. And at the same time there is public awareness of this extraordinary wealth that was transferred to a few individuals at levels without historical precedent in America . . . And you sort of say to yourself: what’s going to happen in this society when these people are without jobs, when their families hurt, when they lose their homes, and so forth?

We have the government trying to repair: repair the banking system, to bail the housing out. But what about the rich guys? Where is it? [What are they] doing?

It sort of struck me, that in 1907, when we had a massive banking crisis, when banks were beginning to collapse, there were going to be riots in the streets. Some financiers, led by J.P. Morgan, got together. He locked them in his library at one point. He wouldn’t let them out until 4:45 AM, until they all kicked in and gave some money to stabilize the banks: there was no Federal Reserve at the time.

Where is the monied class today? Why aren’t they doing something: the people who made billions, millions. I’m sort of thinking of Paulson, of Rubin. Why don’t they get together, and why don’t they organize a National Solidarity Fund in which they call on all of those who made these extraordinary amounts of money to kick some back in to [a] National Solidarity Fund? ...

BRZEZINSKI: And if we don’t get some sort of voluntary National Solidarity Fund, at some point there’ll be such political pressure that Congress will start getting in the act, there’s going to be growing conflict between the classes and if people are unemployed and really hurting, hell, there could be even riots.

Arctic Sea Ice Underestimated Due to Faulty Sensor  

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TreeHugger has cleared up the "what is going on with arctic sea ice" mystery from last year - apparently a faulty sensor was causing the anomalous data - Arctic Sea Ice Underestimated Due to Faulty Sensor.

Surging over at DIGG right now, a story via Bloomberg with the hed Arctic Sea Ice Underestimated Due to Faulty Sensor. Put simply, there's more sea ice than we thought so: 1) green thinkers can breathe a sigh of relief that perhaps global warming feedback loops are not as bad as we thought, and 2) anthropogenic climate change deniers can raise a playground cry of "nah-nah-nanna," which loosely translates to "human-caused climate change is a ruse, punks."
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- A glitch in satellite sensors caused scientists to underestimate the extent of Arctic sea ice by 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles), a California- size area, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center said.

Friedman On Obama's Stimulus Package  

Posted by Big Gav

Tom Friedman has a post n the NYT noting that the stimulus package has kept the solar thermal and wind power industries alive in the US - and that more money should be heading towards new industries instead of keeping the zombies of the past on life support - Start Up the Risk-Takers.

G.M. has become a giant wealth- destruction machine — possibly the biggest in history — and it is time that it and Chrysler were put into bankruptcy so they can truly start over under new management with new labor agreements and new visions. When it comes to helping companies, precious public money should focus on start-ups, not bailouts.

You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners — university endowments and pension funds — are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors’ upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.

If we are going to be spending billions of taxpayer dollars, it can’t only be on office-decorating bankers, over-leveraged home speculators and auto executives who year after year spent more energy resisting changes and lobbying Washington than leading change and beating Toyota.

I’ve been traveling all across the country on a book tour, and every evening I return to my hotel with my pockets full of business cards from inventors in clean energy. Our country is still bursting with innovators looking for capital. So, let’s make sure all the losers clamoring for help don’t drown out the potential winners who could lift us out of this. Some of our best companies, such as Intel, were started in recessions, when necessity makes innovators even more inventive and risk-takers even more daring.

Yes, we have to shore up the banking system, which underpins everything; and finding a fair way to prevent hardworking people, who played by the rules, from losing their homes to foreclosure is both right and essential for stability.

But beyond that, let’s think, talk and plan in more aspirational ways. We’re down, but we’re not out. As we invest taxpayer money, let’s do it with an eye to starting a new generation of biotech, info-tech, nanotech and clean-tech companies, with real innovators, real 21st-century jobs and potentially real profits for taxpayers. Our motto should be, “Start-ups, not bailouts: nurture the next Google, don’t nurse the old G.M.’s.”

To be fair, the stimulus package that the Obama team and the Democrats in Congress recently passed — with virtually no Republican help — goes some way toward doing just that. Hat’s off for that. Now let’s do more.

The renewable-energy business — wind, solar and solar thermal — was almost dead in this country. Most new projects stopped last fall because they depended for their financing on selling their renewable energy tax credits to Wall Street firms. As those Wall Street firms went bust or suffered steep losses, they had no need for tax credits because they had no profits to offset. The stimulus package created a mechanism for renewable energy innovators to bypass Wall Street and monetize their tax credits directly through the U.S. Treasury, for any project that starts between now and the end of 2010.

The wind and solar industries in America “were dead in the fourth quarter,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert. Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.

“All of these projects will now go ahead,” said Woolard. “You are talking about thousands of jobs ... We really got something right in this legislation.”

These jobs will be in engineering, constructing and operating huge solar systems and wind farms and manufacturing new photovoltaics. Together they will drive innovation in all these areas — and move wind and solar technology down the cost-volume learning curve so they can compete against fossil fuels and become export industries at the “ChinIndia price,” that is the price at which they can scale in China and India.

That is how taxpayer money should be used to stimulate: limited financing, for a limited time, targeted on an industry bristling with new technology start-ups that, with a little push from Uncle Sam, won’t just survive this crisis but help us thrive when it is over. We need, and the world needs, an America that is thriving not just surviving.

Recycling In The Dumps  

Posted by Big Gav in

The SMH reports that the recycling industry is wondering what to do with excess material now demand from China has dried up - What a waste - Recycling in the dumps.

AUSTRALIA'S recycling effort is on the brink of collapse, as ripples from the global financial crisis start lapping against kerbside rubbish collection.

Householders who sort bottles and newspapers into coloured bins may not know the waste is likely to go into fast growing stockpiles because prices for used plastic, cardboard, paper and many scrap metals have fallen by up to 75 per cent since October.

This has made it cheaper in some regions to send sorted rubbish to landfill rather than recycling stations, industry sources have told the Herald.

Councils are calling for an overhaul of the recycling system and federal regulations that would ease the load by forcing companies to use less packaging.

"This crisis has highlighted the weakness in the system, with communities already carrying the burden of recycling costs," said the president of the NSW Local Government Association, Genia McCaffery.

China's thirst for recyclable waste, which has helped sustain the industry for years, has dried up. But the chairman of an environment organisation in Sydney, Do Something, said Australia needed to wean itself off dependence on China.

"To do that, we need to boost our local recycling markets as much as possible," said Jon Dee. "It's vital that householders and businesses continue to recycle their waste. From a climate change point of view, we can't afford to start sending recyclable waste to landfill."

Golar In CSG LNG Deal  

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The Australian reports that Golar has signed a deal to buy gas from the first of the 5 coal seam gas LNG plants planned for Gladstone - Gas deal for Golar as Shell loses out

NORWEGIAN LNG shipper Golar has signed the first offtake agreement for liquefied natural gas produced from coal seam gas. Golar agreed to take a 40 per cent stake in LNG Ltd's $US500million ($779million) Gladstone LNG plant and buy all its product.

As revealed in The Australian in December, Golar has edged out energy giant Shell, which had been widely expected to take LNG produced from the plant after last year buying into Arrow Energy's CSG reserves. Arrow has a non-binding agreement to supply LNG Ltd's plant and the option to take a 20per cent stake.

LNG and Golar are planning the first and smallest of five CSG-to-LNG plants at Gladstone and plan to be in production in late 2012, back from an earlier target of 2011.

Big Brother Is Reading Your Thoughts (well, maybe one day)  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Technology Review has an article on advances in reading short term memories in the human brain using fMRI - Reading Thoughts with Brain Imaging.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) looks more and more like a window into the mind. In a study published online today in Nature, researchers at Vanderbilt University report that from fMRI data alone, they could distinguish which of two images subjects were holding in their memory--even several seconds after the images were removed. The study also pinpointed, for the first time, where in the brain visual working memory is maintained.

Visual working memory allows us to briefly store and act upon specific details from images that we've seen: what color they are, how they're oriented, and how frequently they appear. But how and where these details are stored has remained a mystery. Early visual areas, which are the first to receive and process visual information, don't seem to stay active long enough to do the job. And higher visual areas don't have the machinery to retain such fine-grained details.

"It's been elusive," says John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, in Berlin. "This is a truly brilliant study that now convincingly demonstrates that the information about fine-grained contents of visual experience is held online in the early visual cortex across memory periods."

In the study, subjects were briefly shown two subsequent images of a grating, each image oriented at a different angle. They were then given a cue telling them which one to remember. To ensure that the memory was maintained, subjects were shown a third grating several seconds later and prompted to indicate how it was rotated compared with the remembered one. Throughout the whole process, an fMRI scanner monitored activity in four different early visual areas of the brain.

By analyzing the activity in those areas during the 11-second remembering period, the experimenters were able to determine, with more than 80 percent accuracy, which grating orientation the subject had in mind. To do so, they used a sophisticated analytical tool called a pattern classifier, calibrated for each individual subject by a number of training trials. Rather than simply measuring the overall level of activity, the pattern classifier could probe for patterns in how that activity was distributed across the brain.

This approach turned out to be crucial. Previous studies had unsuccessfully tried to predict subjects' memories by looking at overall brain activity in the early visual areas--an approach that was similarly unsuccessful here. In roughly half of the subjects, overall activity returned to baseline levels soon after the images were removed from view, and in all subjects activity was drastically reduced, making it impossible to decode which image the subject was remembering. But by teasing out specific activity patterns, the pattern classifier was able to reveal the previously hidden information encoded in those areas.

On The Road  

Posted by Big Gav

I'll be offline for the next couple of days - back Monday.

Have a good weekend...

The Canadian Oil Boom  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Next month's edition of National Geographic has an article on the tar sands of Canada - The Canadian Oil Boom. How long the boom lasts if the current downturn continues is questionable of course. In the same issue is an article on Energy Conservation.

In Boucher's memory, though, the change begins that day in 1963, on the long trail his grandfather used to set his traps, near a place called Mildred Lake. Generations of his ancestors had worked that trapline. "These trails had been here thousands of years," Boucher said one day last summer, sitting in his spacious and tasteful corner office in Fort McKay. His golf putter stood in one corner; Mozart played softly on the stereo. "And that day, all of a sudden, we came upon this clearing. A huge clearing. There had been no notice. In the 1970s they went in and tore down my grandfather's cabin—with no notice or discussion." That was Boucher's first encounter with the oil sands industry. It's an industry that has utterly transformed this part of northeastern Alberta in just the past few years, with astonishing speed. Boucher is surrounded by it now and immersed in it himself.

Where the trapline and the cabin once were, and the forest, there is now a large open-pit mine. Here Syncrude, Canada's largest oil producer, digs bitumen-laced sand from the ground with electric shovels five stories high, then washes the bitumen off the sand with hot water and sometimes caustic soda. Next to the mine, flames flare from the stacks of an "upgrader," which cracks the tarry bitumen and converts it into Syncrude Sweet Blend, a synthetic crude that travels down a pipeline to refineries in Edmon­ton, Alberta; Ontario, and the United States. Mildred Lake, meanwhile, is now dwarfed by its neighbor, the Mildred Lake Settling Basin, a four-square-mile lake of toxic mine tailings. The sand dike that contains it is by volume one of the largest dams in the world.

Nor is Syncrude alone. Within a 20-mile radius of Boucher's office are a total of six mines that produce nearly three-quarters of a million barrels of synthetic crude oil a day; and more are in the pipeline. Wherever the bitumen layer lies too deep to be strip-mined, the industry melts it "in situ" with copious amounts of steam, so that it can be pumped to the surface. The industry has spent more than $50 billion on construction during the past decade, including some $20 billion in 2008 alone. Before the collapse in oil prices last fall, it was forecasting another $100 billion over the next few years and a doubling of production by 2015, with most of that oil flowing through new pipelines to the U.S. The economic crisis has put many expansion projects on hold, but it has not diminished the long-term prospects for the oil sands. In mid-November, the International Energy Agency released a report forecasting $120-a-barrel oil in 2030—a price that would more than justify the effort it takes to get oil from oil sands.

Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles. Last April some 500 migrating ducks mistook one of those ponds, at a newer Syncrude mine north of Fort McKay, for a hospitable stopover, landed on its oily surface, and died. The incident stirred international attention—Greenpeace broke into the Syncrude facility and hoisted a banner of a skull over the pipe discharging tailings, along with a sign that read "World's Dirtiest Oil: Stop the Tar Sands."

Alternative Energy Still Facing Headwinds  

Posted by Big Gav

The Washington Post has an article on forces encouraging and opposing renewable energy in the US - Alternative Energy Still Facing Headwinds. I like that Obama is still using his "end the tyranny of oil in our time" line.

The late afternoon light is shining golden on the high chaparral as Donna Tisdale stands near a faded 1800s ranch house, scans the unblemished surrounding hills and sees trouble on the horizon.

"The ridge right there will have turbines on it," she says, squinting west into the setting sun. Turning north and east, where a pristine ridgeline meets the sky, she points out the route of a $1.9 billion electricity transmission line whose 150-foot towers will march 123 miles from the Imperial Valley to energy-thirsty San Diego.

"No matter which way you look, you won't be able to get away from it," laments Tisdale, a rancher and political activist in McCain Valley who is trying to block the power line. "I hate when outsiders come in and take what they can and then leave."

The three-year fight over the Sunrise Powerlink, which is designed to carry solar, wind and geothermal energy, typifies the serious challenges facing President Obama and many of the nation's governors as they tout the power of renewable energy to put people to work and rescue the planet from the effects of climate change.

The nation's richest resources of renewable fuel -- primarily wind and solar -- lie in distant deserts, vast plains, and remote valleys and hilltops like this one, far from the populous cities where energy is most needed. Thousands of miles of new power lines will be required to bring renewable energy to cities and suburbs, a vast undertaking that will cost untold billions of dollars in public and private money and will require compromise by dueling interest groups and people such as Tisdale.

Obama, who made the country's energy future a central part of his campaign pitch, is now staking political capital on his vision. With the nation enduring its deepest economic crisis in decades, he told Energy Department employees earlier this month that energy provisions, including funding in the stimulus bill, would "begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time."

"After decades of dragging our feet," Obama said, the "plan will finally spark the creation of a clean energy industry that will create hundreds of thousands of jobs over the next few years, manufacturing wind turbines and solar cells, for example."

Obama said U.S. renewable fuel capacity will double in "the next few years." Noting that the electrical grid has changed little since the era of black-and-white TV, he promised a "better, smarter" network that will "ship wind and solar power from one end of this country to the other."

Yet the $2 billion in the stimulus package devoted to transmission lines is a tiny part of what's needed. "I see it as seed money," said Jon Wellinghoff, acting chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "We need $100 billion to $200 billion worth of investment, and I believe we'll see that money coming from the private sector," he said, though current credit conditions make that difficult.

Green Wheels  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

MSNBC has an article on an electric bike conversion that is based in the bike's wheel assembly - Green wheel turns pedal bike into electric hog.

The next time you change a bike tire, think about upgrading your power as well. Scientists at MIT are testing a new power generation, storage and propulsion system known as the GreenWheel that will turn any pedal bicycle into an electric hog.

"Just take the wheel off, put a GreenWheel equipped wheel on in its place, plug it in and it should work just fine," said Ryan Chin, one of the GreenWheel designers. "The whole thing has been designed so all the parts except the throttle are enclosed in the wheel."

From the outside, the GreenWheel has the radius of a small dinner plate and is about 2 inches thick. Inside the aluminum frame sits the three major GreenWheel components: an electric generator, batteries and an electric motor.

For now, installing GreenWheel on your own does require a moderate level of technical knowledge or a trip to a bike shop. The GreenWheel can be installed on any bike frame or wheel size, but the original spokes have to be replaced with shorter spokes. Michael Chia-Liang Lin, a master's student at MIT developing the GreenWheel, called his parents in Taiwan, who own a bike shop, to figure out how to respoke the wheel.

Under its current configuration, a bike powered solely by a single GreenWheel (front, rear or both wheel can be equipped with a GreenWheel) has an estimated range of 25 miles. Pedaling the bike doubles the range under electric power, provided the rider isn't traveling at the nearly top speed of 30 miles an hour. The bike can be charged by pedaling or by plugging it into the electric grid.

A GreenWheel equipped bike is a smooth ride, as Discovery News found out during a recent afternoon test ride around MIT's campus. Turning the handle mounted throttle, like any motorcycle, just a few small degrees produces a noticeable increase in power and a light electric hum. The handle-mounted throttle is connected wirelessly to the electric motor in the wheel.

The GreenWheel is also durable. The team estimates its range at 40,000 miles, or about eight years work of travel at an estimated 20 miles per business day.

"You'll have to replace the bike before you replace the batteries," Lin told Discovery News.

The future is Amish ?  

Posted by Big Gav in

Energy Bulletin's Bart Anderson has an interview in, of all places, a French cyberpunk journal - The future is Amish, not Mad Max: interview with Bart Anderson of EB.

Laurent Courau: Your site puts forward the concept of "peak oil." Could you begin by reviewing this essential point for the readers of La Spirale?

Bart Anderson: There is a limited amount of petroleum in the earth. After the easy deposits have been exploited, we go after deposits that are more difficult and expensive to develop (e.g. tar sands, deepwater and arctic oil). At a certain point - peak oil - the amount of oil produced reaches a maximum. Afterwards, less and less oil is produced.

In this way oil production follows a more-or-less bell-shaped curve, Hubbert's Curve. The curve takes its name from the Shell Oil geoscientist, M. King Hubbert, who presented the idea in 1956 and predicted the peaking of U.S. oil production, which occurred in 1970.

There's no serious argument against the general idea. The debate is about when the peak will be reached and how steeply production will fall. Much discussion is devoted to the consequences of peak oil - economic, political and environmental.

There was a resurgence of interest in Hubbert's ideas during the oil crises of the 1970s, but that died down as oil dropped in price. Peak oil started to arouse interest again in the early 2000s, due to work by Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes and other scientists. Oil companies generally opposed the idea of peak oil in the past, but now seem to have overtly or tacitly accepted the idea.

Less well known than peak oil, is the fact that Hubbert's analysis applies to other resources. We will be facing not just peak oil, but peak coal, peak natural gas and peak phosphorus.


Q: The oil companies have discovered fewer and fewer petroleum deposits since the middle of the 60s, while the demand continues to grow. Does this mean that we've passed the peak of production and that we've been on a critical slope for several decades ?

Are you asking whether the falling rate of oil discoveries since the 60s means that we have already reached peak oil? That would be one of the signs that peak oil is to come, but it doesn't mean that peak oil is already here. Peak oil production occurs several decades after the peak of oil discoveries since it takes years to develop the deposits and bring them to full production. (I may have misunderstood the question.)

Current projections of peak oil range from 2005 to about 2025. People in the peak oil community generally believe the peak will come sooner rather than later. Oil industry estimates are typically farther in the future.

We are all now learning just how closely oil production is related to economic conditions. Due to the recession, demand for oil is down, price is down and production is down. Of course, this has the effect of pushing peak oil into the future.

Many of us are not so concerned about the exact date of peak oil, since we will only know for sure years after it has happened ("in the rear view mirror"). No matter what the date, we need to start preparing for the transition now. ...

Is America ready to give up coal ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Dave Roberts has a good post at Grist on an NYT article on the coal industry - Is America ready to quit the enemy of the human race?.

"Is America Ready to Quit Coal?"

So asks a must-read story by Melanie Warner in the Sunday New York Times.

And so, slowly, fitfully, that possibility -- the possibility not just of cleaning up coal or using less coal but eliminating coal -- creeps its way into the American public consciousness.

The headline isn't the only thing worth celebrating. I would quibble with some details, but overall this piece comes closer than anything I've ever seen in the national media to getting the big story right.

It starts off by describing what too few people understand: coal is in a perilous position. Already building new coal plants is extremely expensive; any new regulations -- on CO2, MTR mining, coal ash, you name it -- could put new plants permanently off the table.

But the more interesting parts, to me, are those that describe the barriers in the way of quitting coal. Here are the big three, in order of importance:

The fear that that there's no alternative.

"[W]hether renewables can keep the lights on and our iPods charged remains an open question."

Loss aversion is, in your author's humble opinion, at the core of the coal fight. If the American people can be convinced an alternative is possible, they will not accept dirty, unhealthy energy, any more than they accept tainted water or cars without seat belts. But the fear of letting go of the devil they know, the fear of jumping into the unknown, is incredibly potent.

"Charging iPods" trivializes it; electricity provides basic sustenance, shelter, and comfort for families. For children. This is primal lizard-brain stuff. You do not mess with it lightly. Those looking to dethrone coal in the public imagination would do well to focus most of their firepower not on coal itself but on establishing the credibility and reliability of the renewables/efficiency alternative. It can't be cutting edge and whizbang forever. It's got to be safe for soccer moms in suburban Atlanta.

The fear of rising prices.
"The costs for those customers in the heartland who get more of their electricity from coal, not only residential but commercial customers, could be significantly higher, at a time when we can least afford it," says Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute, which represents electric utilities. "So we want to make sure that a climate change program is properly designed."

That last sentence should make you shudder. "Properly designed" in this context means weak, with real cuts delayed for years and utilities the recipients of massive profit windfalls. There's got to be pushback on this point, and not just rhetorical -- there's got to be a credible policy response. There's got to be a way to either keep electrical bills down through efficiency or compensate people for the increase in bills without delaying or weakening carbon cuts. Democrats absolutely cannot wander into this battle without a serious response to this objection, which will be front and center in the national policy debate.

Utility inertia
Even if they want to, it's going to be hard for utilities to wean themselves off huge coal plants, which are much simpler to plan and build than a collage of smaller alternative energy projects that cannot be counted on for continuous power.

"Utilities like to plan their world around big traditional power plants," said Mr. Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Only when they are forced are they willing to rethink that business model."

That's putting it mildly. It's hard to overstate how sclerotic the electricity utility business has become over the last five or six decades. They would desperately love to simply slip "clean coal" plants in where dirty coal plants used to go and call it good. That's what they know. To really get them to abandon the huge-central-power-plant model and start thinking about hundreds of small-scale power generators, power storage mechanisms, and efficiency programs -- enough to fill the hole big coal plants leave behind -- is going to take some browbeating, some regulatory reforms, some legal challenges, and the occasional boot on the ass.

The shift away from coal is only partly about technical feasibility; it's also about deeply ingrained economic and cultural habits and ways of thinking. In many ways that stuff is harder to change than technology.

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