Google's search for smart power  

Posted by Big Gav in

The Business Spectator has a look at some of Google's initiatives to transform the way we produce energy - Google's search for smart power.

Most people expect there to be a transformation of the energy industry, but what if it turns out to be a total revolution?

Most talk focuses on a possible move to distributed rather than centralised power supplies, the introduction of smart grids and the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy supplies such as wind, solar, marine and geothermal.

In other words, the structure of the industry pretty much remains the same, except for a few whiz-bang technologies that make it greener, more efficient and more available.

But what if it went further than that, and the whole industry was turned upside down? Two developments in the past few days in the US give a hint of what is being envisaged and what might be possible – the entry of Google into the energy utility business and the much-hyped release of the stand-alone fuel cell, the Bloom Box

TreeHugger also has a post on Google's interest in the energy market - Government Clears the Way for Google to Play in Energy Markets.
Google is now officially in the energy business after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission yesterday cleared the way by granted a subsidiary of the search giant the authority to sell electricity on wholesale markets. The move paves the way for Google to operate as a sort of energy broker--buying power from providers and the selling it just like utilities do. Many are left to wonder now just how serious Google is about getting deep into the energy business. ...

FERC's order grants Google Energy the rights "for the sale of energy, capacity, and ancillary services at market-based rates" but it also says that it cannot "own or control any generation or transmission" facilities.

Google is not alone as a non-utility or power producing company that deals in energy. Safeway and the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Inc. also do, but they don't use the massive amount of power that Google does nor do they market energy solutions like Smart meters as Google does.

Google appears to be serious about both cleaning up its own footprint and helping the nation clean up its massive pollution problem. In 2007, Google introduced its own plan to fight climate change and convert the nation to renewable energy. it called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and for half of vehicles to be plug in hybrids.

Is homemade bioplastic viable fodder for 3D printers ?  

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Make has an article on experiments in using bioplastic in distributed manufacturing devices - Is homemade bioplastic viable fodder for 3D printers?.

We recently posted a video showing how to make "bioplastic" -- an easily manageable substance made with vinegar, glycerine, starch, and water. Even better, it's biodegradable.

This recipe has created a modest amount of buzz. MAKE reader Matt Daughtrey has been playing around with the stuff and Joris of the Shapeways Blog recently posted a how-to.

The big question is, can this be a DIY source of plastic for 3D printers? With ABS plastic sold at the MakerBot store for fifty bucks a reel, the prospect of creating your own has got to tempt home fabbers. According to Joris, the bioplastic made with this technique doesn't look too promising ...

Middle East & Africa Iraq, Iran and the politics of oil  

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The Economist has an article on plans to expand oil production in Iraq - Iraq, Iran and the politics of oil.

Iraq is now trying to recover its glory, with plans to quadruple production or more. This could transform the global oil industry; it also threatens two other founding members of OPEC. Saudi Arabia might have to share its leadership of the organisation and Iran faces an even greater setback. Close relations with China, based on Beijing’s thirst for oil, have helped Iran to avoid isolation over its nuclear programme. But Chinese oil companies are now turning their attention to Iraq, with American backing.

Yet Iraq will have to pull off an unprecedented feat. In the history of the modern oil industry, no country has increased output with the speed the Iraqis envisage. Over the next seven years Iraq intends to go from producing 2.5m barrels per day to 12m b/d, a target that exceeds Saudi Arabia’s current output by more than 30%. To this end, Iraq has signed ten deals with most of the world’s top oil companies. Some got down to work this month.

The expansion plan was drawn up by Hussein al-Shahristani, the oil minister. He snared an initial deal with BP last summer, ensuring that its chief competitors, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil, would follow suit. At the same time he made deals with Lukoil of Russia and China National Petroleum Corporation, giving him additional leverage. The clever dishing out of contracts was matched by ruthless pricing. The minister insisted that companies take less than $2 per barrel, leaving most of the gain, perhaps as much as 95%, to the Iraqi state. The minister’s hard bargaining headed off antipathy from nationalistic Iraqis. Desperate for money to build schools and hospitals, many welcomed the deals made with the hated foreign oil majors, whose predecessors once dominated Iraq.

Mr Shahristani is hoping for easy re-election in national polls on March 7th. But progress will be slower than he has led voters to believe. Even an advanced nation would struggle to add enough wells and pipelines to handle the equivalent of the total Saudi output. In decrepit Iraq, achieving Mr Shahristani’s plans is especially ambitious. Oil companies will need to build paved roads from scratch and they will have to bring in all their own equipment.

Such logistical delays will be compounded by manpower shortages. The industry does not have enough qualified specialists. Furthermore, the government needs to connect new oilfields with export facilities. That means laying hundreds of miles of pipelines and building countless pumping stations. For the time being, most Iraqi oil leaves the country via a single terminal near Umm Qasr in the northern Arabian Gulf. It is old and American experts have warned that it could run into problems. Foster Wheeler, an oil-services company, is building three extra pipelines and four new offshore moorings for tankers close to Basra, but that is still inadequate. There is talk of upgrading an existing pipeline to Turkey, but negotiations have yet to start. A pipeline to Syria has been closed for years and renovating it has been hampered by political squabbles.

At least the political obstacles to increasing production are less daunting than the technical ones. Admittedly Iraq is still plagued by an insurgency, there is no oil law, making the current government the sole guarantor of deals with foreign companies, and there is a dispute about the ownership of the oil in the Kurdish region in the north of the country, especially around the city of Kirkuk. But worries that an oil boom could spark a fight for control are overdone. Years of sectarian warfare have given Iraqis enough of a hangover to make them at least try to share revenues, as the 2010 national budget shows. After much debate and many delays, parliament agreed on January 26th that oil-producing provinces will receive an additional $1 per extracted barrel from the central government, which controls the industry. To compensate resource-poor provinces, a special subsidy was created for border regions. In addition, religious centres will get $20 per visa or visiting pilgrim.

Tidal energy study launched for South Cumbria  

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The BBC has a report on yet another tidal power study in the UK - Tidal energy scheme is launched in South Cumbria.

A study to find ways of generating green energy using tidal power has been launched in Cumbria.

Experts think the Duddon Estuary near Barrow can generate enough energy to power 200,000 homes in South Cumbria.

The study will look at how best to harness the tidal power including building a large barrage across the mouth of the river.

It has been backed with grants from the Carbon Challenge Fund and Britain's Energy West Cumbria (BEWC).

BEWC said previous studies suggested that if a new scheme were built in the area, a new road would be constructed, cutting 17 miles off the current journey between Barrow and Millom.

Programme director Stuart Cowperthwaite said: "It is an ideal time to revisit and update the potential for tidal energy generation across the Duddon Estuary."

BEWC have commissioned consultants to undertake a feasibility study to identify the best options for any development because of the recent revival of interest in renewable energy schemes such as tidal barrages.

The launch of the Duddon Estuary feasibility study comes weeks after the publication of the Solway Firth Energy Feasibility Study which identified options for four tidal barrages, two lagoons and three tidal reefs.

Environmental Advocates Are Cooling on Obama  

Posted by Big Gav

The NYT reports that environmentalists are slowly giving up on Obama as he inexplicably hands over vast swathes of taxpayer money to the moribiund nuclear power industry and professes belief in (non-existant) clean coal - Environmental Advocates Are Cooling on Obama.

There has been no more reliable cheerleader for President Obama’s energy and climate change policies than Daniel J. Weiss of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

But Mr. Obama’s recent enthusiasm for nuclear power, including his budget proposal to triple federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors to $54 billion, was too much for Mr. Weiss.

The president’s embrace of nuclear power was disappointing, and the wrong way to go about winning Republican votes, he said, adding that Mr. Obama should not be endorsing such a costly and potentially catastrophic energy alternative “as bait just to get talks started with pro-nuke senators.”

The early optimism of environmental advocates that the policies of former President George W. Bush would be quickly swept away and replaced by a bright green future under Mr. Obama is for many environmentalists giving way to resignation, and in some cases, anger.

Mr. Obama moved quickly in his first months in office, producing a landmark deal on automobile emissions, an Environmental Protection Agency finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, a virtual moratorium on oil drilling on public lands and House passage of a cap-and-trade bill.

Since then, in part because of the intense focus on the health care debate last year, action on environmental issues has slowed. The Senate has not yet begun debate on a comprehensive global warming bill, the Interior Department is writing new rules to open some public lands and waters to oil drilling and the E.P.A. is moving cautiously to apply the endangerment finding.

Environmental advocates largely remained silent late last year as Mr. Obama all but abandoned his quest for sweeping climate change legislation and began to reach out to Republicans to enact less ambitious clean energy measures.

But the grumbling of the greens has grown louder in recent weeks as Mr. Obama has embraced nuclear power, offshore oil drilling and “clean coal” as keystones of his energy policy. And some environmentalists have expressed concern that the president may be sacrificing too much to placate Republicans and the well-financed energy lobbies.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, whose political arm endorsed Mr. Obama’s candidacy for president, said that Mr. Obama’s recent policy emphasis amounted to “unilateral disarmament.”

“We were hopeful last year; he was saying all the right things,” Mr. Pica said. “But now he has become a full-blown nuclear power proponent, a startling change over the last few months.”

Smarter Grids, Appliances, and Consumers  

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Lester Brown has a post on smart grids at TreeHugger - Smarter Grids, Appliances, and Consumers.

More and more utilities are beginning to realize that building large power plants just to handle peak daily and seasonal demand is a very costly way of managing an electricity system. Existing electricity grids are typically a patchwork of local grids that are simultaneously inefficient, wasteful, and dysfunctional in that they often are unable, for example, to move electricity surpluses to areas of shortages. The U.S. electricity grid today resembles the roads and highways of the mid-twentieth century before the interstate highway system was built. What is needed today is the electricity equivalent of the interstate highway system.

The inability to move low-cost electricity to consumers because of congestion on transmission lines brings with it costs similar to those associated with traffic congestion. The lack of transmission capacity in the eastern United States is estimated to cost consumers $16 billion a year in this region alone.

In the United States, a strong national grid would permit power to be moved continuously from surplus to deficit regions, thus reducing the total generating capacity needed. Most important, the new grid would link regions rich in wind, solar, and geothermal energy with consumption centers. A national grid, drawing on a full range of renewable energy sources, would itself be a stabilizing factor.

Establishing strong national grids that can move electricity as needed and that link new energy sources with consumers is only half the battle, however. The grids and appliances need to become "smarter" as well. In the simplest terms, a smart grid is one that takes advantage of advances in information technology, integrating this technology into the electrical generating, delivery, and user system, enabling utilities to communicate directly with customers and, if the latter agree, with their household appliances.

Smart grid technologies can reduce power disruption and fluctuation that cost the U.S. economy close to $100 billion a year, according to the Electric Power Research Institute. In an excellent 2009 Center for American Progress study, Wired for Progress 2.0: Building a National Clean-Energy Smart Grid, Bracken Hendricks notes the vast potential for raising grid efficiency with several information technologies: "A case in point would be encouraging the widespread use of synchrophasors to monitor voltage and current in real time over the grid network. It has been estimated that better use of this sort of real-time information across the entire electrical grid could allow at least a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency in the United States." This and many other examples give us a sense of the potential for increasing grid efficiency.

A smart grid not only moves electricity more efficiently in geographic terms; it also enables electricity use to be shifted over time--for example, from periods of peak demand to those of off-peak demand. Achieving this goal means working with consumers who have "smart meters" to see exactly how much electricity is being used at any particular time. This facilitates two-way communication between utility and consumer so they can cooperate in reducing peak demand in a way that is advantageous to both. And it allows the use of two-way metering so that customers who have a rooftop solar electric panel or their own windmill can sell surplus electricity back to the utility.

Mythological thinking, the de-industrialisation of the West and the New World Order  

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Australian climate change minister Penny Wong recently made a speech to a conference on "Coasts and Climate Change" (see Wong: Climate sceptics are all red herrings and quackery for the full text) where she made some remarks about climate skeptics and their frequent theorising that climate scientists are "part of a vast conspiracy to de-industrialise the Western world" - which is often just one facet of conspiracy theories involving the "New World Order".

While the climate scientists are no doubt innocent of these charges (and most likely correct when they point to global warming being a serious and growing problem) the idea that the West is being deindustrialised may not be as wacky as it appears at first glance, so I might spend some time exploring a few problematic trends affecting the western world in general and the United States in particular.

Given recent allegations you might be excused for thinking that climate change science has been completely discredited.

Remember the people who have been barrackers for policy failure at home and abroad are the same people who have been peddling misinformation and misleading information about the science of climate change.

There is, in fact, a certain similarity between debates about the impact carbon pollution is having on our planet, and earlier debates about the impact cigarette smoke has on our health.

It's not hard to imagine these barrackers for failure as the characters in the sequel to 'Thank you for smoking', which will be called: 'Thank you for polluting.'

Given how confused debates on the science have become, I think it is important to get some facts on the table.

And I don't just mean facts like that 2009 was the second hottest year on record in Australia and the fifth hottest globally, and that 2009 finished the hottest decade in recorded history.

I refer more to the series of breathless, scandalised claims implying that we have all been hoodwinked by climate scientists, who have manipulated evidence and published bare-faced lies as part of a vast conspiracy to de-industrialise the Western world.

Those hoodwinked would have to include the Pentagon and Margaret Thatcher.

Michael Lind recently had an interesting column in Salon (Mythological politics), exploring the beliefs of the populist right, in particular its recent manifestation via the "tea party" movement in the US (occasionally referred to as the "tea baggers" by their detractors), noting that they are ideological descendants of liberty loving Britons of the 17th century.
American political culture was British before it was American. During the English civil war of the 17th century, two themes crystallized — and have influenced American public discourse to this day. One was the idea of the Ancient Constitution. The other was the idea of the True Religion.

Many British opponents of the Stuart monarchs claimed that they were defending an ancient, unwritten English constitution against corruption in the service of tyranny. Sometimes this ancient constitution was identified with the laws of the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred, and contrasted with the "Norman yoke" imposed on freedom-loving English people by William the Conqueror and his despotic successors after the Norman invasion of Britain in 1066. As history, this was nonsense, but as political mythology this narrative had enormous appeal. History was viewed as a gradual decline into tyranny, a long fall following a golden age of English liberty in the distant past.

This myth of primordial English liberty rhymed neatly with radical Protestantism. According to dissenting Protestants, the true church was the earliest church. Christianity had been corrupted over time, and Reformation required a restoration of the early, pure practices and beliefs of the apostles.

Put the myths of the ancient constitution and the early church together, and you have a view of history as decline from an original state of perfection, in politics and also in religion. Innovation is equated with tyranny in politics and heresy in religion. Virtue consists of defending what is left of the old, more perfect system and, if possible, restoring the original government or church. Progress is redefined as regress — movement away from the wicked present toward the pure and uncorrupted past. ...

This is the key to understanding the otherwise inexplicable accusations by the populist right that Barack Obama is a socialist or fascist or whatever, as well as fantasies about a global secular humanist conspiracy. We are dealing with a mythological mentality, based on simple and powerful archetypes. Contemporary figures and current events are plugged into a framework that never changes. "King Charles (or King George) is threatening the rights of Englishmen" becomes "Barack Obama is promoting socialism" — or fascism, or monarchism, or daylight saving time.

As in other cases of mythological politics, like messianic Marxism, this kind of thinking is resistant to argument. If you disagree, then that simply proves that you are part of the conspiracy. Inconvenient facts can be explained away by the true believers. It's hard to come up with arguments that would persuade people who think that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are totalitarians to change their mind.

While the narrative expounded by the populists is frequently based on myth rather than reality, their charge that the west is being deindustrialised is partially true (as a result of globalisation) and the people who support these groups are mostly the people directly impacted by this.

As an aside, a lot of conspiracy theorists - from both the right and the left - often quote influential Canadian Maurice Strong (viewed as a prototypical member of the "New World Order" in tinfoil circles) as saying "Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring this about?", though apparently this was a fictional scenario being described rather than an actual plan he wanted implemented.

Stuart Staniford has an interesting post (Chinese Labor Costs, Tea Partiers as True Believers) exploring the impact of low cost Chinese manufacturing on workers in the US and how this is likely to create the conditions necessary for mass movements (of the right or left, but given the current state of the US left these are much more likely to form on the right) as large numbers of workers find themselves in long term unemployment, with few prospects.
Tuesday evening, I was reading Don Peck's generally excellent cover piece, How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America in the March Atlantic. The piece lays out the social damage caused by extended unemployment. ... The entire thing is very well worth reading. I have intimate personal acquaintance with this issue - my Dad had an extended period of unemployment that began during the economic backwash from the 1973 oil shock, and I still bear a few psychic scars from that episode.

I was musing on this piece, and couldn't help thinking of the statistics in Chinese steel production I examined a few days ago. In particular, Peck's piece gives the example of "Errol", a young unemployed machinist ... US steel production has roughly halved since 2006, and so jobs for folks like Errol working with that steel are naturally going to be very hard to find. ...

Alright, so the federal government could continue to run a big deficit, fix a bunch of old infrastructure in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere) and Errol might find a job in that effort for a while. But clearly, the US, with its strong political resistance to paying taxes, can only increase it's national debt up to a certain point, and so after a few years such a government program would have to cease (if indeed it were politically feasible even to start it). So that gets Errol to, say, his mid thirties as a much more experienced and capable machinist. Then what is he to do?

It seems to me that Errol has a much deeper problem: what is it that some US company can employ Errol to make that cannot be made much cheaper in China? And do not the data on Chinese steel production (above) and Chinese transportation and housing, make it clear that the Chinese have every intention of building industrial production capacity that completely dwarfs that of the US?

In search of data on comparative labor costs, I discovered the the US Bureau of Labor Statistics sent a couple of experienced labor statisticians to China to sort out the data situation there. The latest summary of their work is here, and the key graph is this one:



While Chinese wages are increasing, they clearly have an incredibly long way to go before they reach anything like Western levels. The current average for manufacturing wages in China is less than $1/hour. ...

But, and perhaps more importantly, I want to address a reaction I suspect many readers might have - "Oh, we've been dealing with Asian competition for decades now, yeah it's not good, yeah unemployment in Michigan is bad, but the sky hasn't fallen."

Indeed, this is true. However, I suggest that the problem with China is an order of magnitude larger than the earlier problem with Japan and Korea. Firstly, those countries have population of about 130 million (Japan) and 50 million (Korea). China has a population of 1.3 billion - ten times larger than Japan - and is determinedly trying to bring them all into the twentieth century. Secondly, as the labor cost graph higher up shows, Japanese manufacturing wages, for example, are about 80% of those in the US, while Chinese manufacturing wages are about 3%. It's going to take a very long while, or an unthinkably large correction in exchange rates, for Chinese wages to get anywhere close to those in the US.

You can see the effects of this in the data for US manufacturing employment. It peaked in 1980 and then gradually descended to the 2000 recession. But since then, as Chinese exports have ramped up, it's gone into a much more serious decline. It goes off a cliff in each recession, and it doesn't recover at all in between - in fact it continues to decline, only more slowly.

If we continue with our existing policies, it's very hard to see how this is going to change in the next decade or so (absent some internal collapse in China). As the Chinese figure out how to make cars, computers, furniture, etc, etc, to western quality standards, the entire industrial production capacity of the United States is going to get hollowed out. Manufacturing employment in the United States would appear to be headed towards zero, give or take some noise.

Let's not put too fine a point on this: guys like Errol are fucked.

In fact, the entire working class of the United States is fucked. Without manufacturing jobs, they are reduced to the small number of jobs installing and fixing the stuff that comes from China, and then low paying unskilled retail and service jobs. With large numbers of chronically unemployed, the folks who are employed will have no leverage whatsoever on pay and conditions. ...

It appears to me that the Tea Party movement, as disorganized and incoherent as it may currently be, places us on notice that conditions in the United States are now such as to support the beginnings of mass movements of the kind Hoffer is talking about. Such movements are not known for having good ideas for how to run society (note the failures and crimes of both Communism and Nazism when put into practice). In particular, they don't need to have ideas that make sense to the elite of the current society (such as abolishing the Federal Reserve). They just need to have ideas good enough to appeal to the unbearably disappointed and frustrated, the failed and the failing, and credibly promise to solve their emotional problems and give meaning to their lives.

It appears to me that with a working class that is now fundamentally and massively uncompetitive with China, a country with four times the population and wages a tiny fraction of ours, the United States is ripe for a lot more of this kind of thing. What ails us is not just the aftermath of a financial crisis, to be solved with a stimulus. Instead, if present trends continue, we face a national crisis of the first order which will play out over decades. What should our entire working class do now that will give their lives meaning? No quick fix is apparent.

While its arguable that lower wages will mean all manufacturing shifts to China (Germany and Japan have had some success at retaining manufacturing industries in spite of high local wages by concentrating on high quality products, for example), given present trends it does seem that the manufacturing base for the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries, along with much of western Europe, is in long term decline.

The US has had some success in shifting to a services and intellectual property based economy, however financial services have proved to be a not entirely reliable pillar of the economy and intellectual property is hard to protect and extract revenue from offshore (as Cory Doctorow noted in an interesting speech a few years ago).

As Stuart points out, the working class in these countries have little to gain from globalisation - while it may eventually result in a higher standard of living for everyone, it will take decades before labour costs equalise globally and the "rising tide raises all boats" effect could kick in. In the meantime elites seem to be prospering from the trend, so there will likely be a continuing increase in inequality and the resentment this causes.

We've seen populist movements have some limited political success in the past as a result of this. For example, the One Nation party which arose in Australia in the 1990's following the liberalisation of the economy by the Hawke and Keating governments - interestingly there has been some speculation ex-One Nation leader Pauline Hanson will become involved with the BNP in the UK (a right wing group that has shown an interest in using peak oil as a campaigning tool) now she has decided to leave Australia.

The US seems to be most at risk of seeing a revival of a populist mass movement (there seems less chance of a sudden revival of socialism there as a result of rising levels of joblessness, given the political left remains largely moribund outside of Latin America), with the last decade seeing revenge fantasies like the "Left Behind" series being lapped up by those in the working class who are being left behind and the tea partier / bagger movement being the latest sign that populism is on the rise.

Unemployment caused by globalisation and cheap Chinese labour is one reason, but there are a number of others :

1. The US is slowly losing the geopolitical dominance it has enjoyed since the end of the second world war. As George Kennan famously put it half a century ago:
We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. The greatest of the Asiatic peoples-the Chinese and the Indians-have not yet even made a beginning at the solution of the basic demographic problem involved in the relationship between their food supply and their birth rate. Until they find some solution to this problem, further hunger, distress, and violence are inevitable. All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

2. This geopolitical dominance had enabled the US to exert a large degree of control over much of the world's oil supply (viewing the middle east as ‘the most strategically important area of the world’ and ‘…one of the greatest material prizes in world history’) and to become by far the largest consumer of it.



3. US control of oil is steadily slipping. While the Iraq war was viewed by many as a grab for the country's oil reserves, control has remained elusive, with the Iraqi government handing over rights to exploit a lot of large fields to oil companies from other countries (with the Asia Times putting it like this - "After at least US$2 trillion spent by Washington and arguably more than a million dead Iraqis, it has come to this: a pipe dream definitely buried this past weekend in Baghdad with round two of bids to exploit a number of vast and immensely profitable oil fields.")

4. As US economic pre-eminence fades, US consumers are going to find that they no longer get to consume the lions share of the oil that is being produced and their per capita consumption will steadily decline towards the global mean (meaning a huge shift in relative consumption in the graph shown earlier).

5. As oil becomes harder to extract and we reach a peak of production, consumers will be competing for supplies that are static or falling in volume and there is further pressure for average per capita oil consumption to shrink.

6. As the global population continues to rise towards the 9 billion mark there is again further pressure for average per capita oil consumption to shrink.

7. The US has a large population of war veterans who are likely traumatised by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and facing a weak economy and poor employment prospects when they return home (especially those who are less skilled).

The combination of these factors means the average US consumer is going to find maintaining the lifestyle they are used to (particularly regarding effectively unlimited use of motor vehicle based transportation) impossible over the next decade or two, unless there is a large and sudden shift to electric transport and clean energy sources.

The stress that this transition will cause seems likely to amplify the appeal of populist politicians offering "simple" solutions (involving further military adventures abroad or draconian policies at home).

What can be done about this (to ensure a prosperous and peaceful future for all) remains an unanswered question, but Jeremy Rifkin has some interesting ideas in a recent article in New Scientist ("The third industrial revolution "), involving the "democratisation of energy".
What is the premise of The Empathic Civilization?

My sense is that we're nearing an endgame for the modern age. I think we had two singular events in the last 18 months that signal the end. First, in July 2008 the price of oil hit $147/barrel. Food riots broke out in 30 countries, the price of basic items shot up and purchasing power plummeted. That was the earthquake; the market crash 60 days later was the aftershock. It signaled the beginning of the endgame of a great industrial era based on fossil fuels. The second event, in December 2009, was the breakdown in Copenhagen, when world leaders tried to deal with our entropy problem and failed.

That's the context of the book. Why couldn't our world leaders anticipate or respond to the global meltdown of the industrial revolution? And why can't they deal with climate change when scientists have been telling us that it may be the greatest threat our species has ever faced? ...

In the book you argue that we can break the paradox by shifting from geopolitical consciousness to biosphere consciousness.

We need to implement reglobalization from the bottom-up in order to achieve a more sustainable global economy. Geopolitics is an extension of the Enlightenment view of human nature, the idea that we pursue our utilitarian pleasures and individual self-interests. In geopolitics, the nation-state becomes a macro view of that. Nations deal with nations by being rational, detached and calculating, pursuing self-interests, excercising power and acquiring more capital and wealth. That's why Copenhagen failed. The world leaders weren't thinking biosphere, they were thinking geopolitics. Everyone was looking out for their nation's self-interest.

What we need to do is attempt biosphere politics. Governing units are going to change--I think there's going to be a shift toward continentalization. The EU is a first attempt at organizing a new frame of reference across continents, but it's a transitional governing form. The Asian Union, African Union and South American Union are in their early stages. ...

What will the Third Industrial Revolution look like? When will it happen?

I think we're on the verge. I had the privilege to help design the European Union's Third Industrial Revolution economic stability game plan, which was endorsed by the European Parliament in 2007. What we noticed is that in the last 10 or 15 years we've had a very powerful communication revolution with the internet, and the key word is that it's distributed. What's beginning to happen now is that the distributed ICT [information and communication technologies] revolution is beginning to converge with a new energy regime: distributed renewable energy. When they do converge, it's likely to change consciousness once again.

Distributed ICT will organize distributed energies. Renewables like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass are found in some proportion everywhere, in people's backyards. As people begin to harvest these renewable energies they can share electricity peer-to-peer across an internet-like smart energy grid that extends across nations and even continents. We see buildings as the new power plants. Buildings are the number one source of C02 emmissions, but they might also be the solution if they can harness renewables to produce their own energy on site. People will also need new energy storage technologies like hydrogen. The EU has committed 8 billion Euros to hydrogen storage technologies. Those technologies will give us dependable distributed energy.

I founded the Third Industrial Revolution Global CEO Business Roundtable, which is comprised of 100 leading companies from renewable energy to utilities to architectural firms. We're starting to lay out plans. ...

You said that people hear "empathy" and think "socialism". How does capitalism survive an empathic society?

Market capitalism will be transformed into "distributed capitalism". Just as the internet led to the democratization of information, the Third Industrial Revolution will lead to the democratization of energy. The required changes to infrastructure are going to create massive amounts of jobs and a whole new economy. But when you have peer-to-peer sharing of energy across an intelligent grid system, you no longer have the top-down, centralized economic system. Distributed energy requires distributed capitalism, and that relies on the opposite view of human nature than that of market capitalism. But the politics isn't right or left--its centralized, top-down versus collaborative commons. You don't hear people say, I'm going onto a social networking space because I'm a socialist--it's just a different frame of reference.

I'll close with a quote from Bucky Fuller, who foresaw many of these problems a long time ago and advocated a revolutionary approach to solving them. I should have the (long delayed) next installment of my series on Bucky ready in the near future.
We are in for the greatest revolution in history. If it's to pull the top down and it's bloody, all lose. If it is a design science revolution to elevate the bottom and all others as well to unprecedentedly new heights, all will live to dare spontaneously to speak and live and love the truth, strange though it often may seem.

Israel to build CSP plant  

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REW has a report on Israel's plans to build a solar thermal power plant in the Negev desert - Israel to Set Up Feed-in Tariff, European Bank to Invest €100M in Israeli CSP Plant.

Israel's Minister of National Infrastructure (MNI) has authorized the ministry's new policy that will set up a feed-in tariff for residential and industrial solar photovoltaic installations of up to 50 kilowatts (kW) in size. This is part of a policy memorandum that will integrate Renewable energy into Israel's energy production.

A feed-in-tariff will be set by the Israeli Public Utilities Authority, and energy companies are holding hands, hoping the process will be quick. It has been published in the past that the tariff prior to hearings will be 1.61 NIS (€0.31).

According to the authorized quotas, in the periphery of Israel (including the Arava and Negev regions) industrial installations up to 50 kW, installations of residential arrays (up to 4 kW) will be uncapped until December 2014.

A special 30-megawatt (MW) quota has been reserves for public buildings roofs, with an emphasis on educational institutions. Industrial installations (15-50 kW) that are not to be installed in the periphery or on public buildings roofs are capped to 50 MW.

At the Eilat-Eilot International Renewable Energy Conference being held in Israel this week, Dr. Uzi Landau, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructures, announced that the European Investment Bank will double its initial €50 Million investment in the Ashalim Renewable Energy Power Plant to €100 Million.

The Ashalim plant is slated to be built in Israel’s Western Negev desert over the next few years and will consist of 2 solar thermal power stations, each with a capacity of about 120 MW, with a maximum installed capacity of about 250 MW. The estimated cost of the project is US $750 million.

The project will also include a photovoltaic power plant with an approximate installed capacity of 15 MW with a provision to expand it by a further 15 MW to bring it up to a possible 30 MW PV power plant.

The Ashalim project will go to tender at the end of April 2010 and will be up and running by the end of 2014.

Calfinder reports that Israel's neighbours are also looking to build more clean energy capacity - Arab Nations Want a Piece of the Green Energy Pie, Too.
A wonderfully detailed article published recently by Emirates Business 24/7 outlines renewable energy developments in the Arab world. Among them are a variety of incentive and investment plans, many of which are unprecedented even at the global level. Here are some highlights:

* United Arab Emirates (UAE). Abu Dhabi, largest of the seven member states in the UAE, has unfolded one of the most aggressive clean energy programs in the world. More than $30 billion will be invested to build Masdar City, a 100% renewable-powered (primarily solar), sustainable, zero-waste city just southeast of the main city of Abu Dhabi. Masdar City will be planned and built by state-owned Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, whose first 10-megawatt solar PV plant went online last spring and is just the first of many solar projects in development.

* Saudi Arabia. The world’s leading oil exporter is looking to diversify its energy portfolio with some preliminary investments in solar power. Saudi Aramco, the largest oil company in the world (and state-owned), partnered with a Japanese firm last year to build a pilot 10-MW solar power plant set to turn on next year. A 20-MW plant is set for construction at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

* Egypt is planning to develop enough renewable power to provide 20 percent of its total power generation by 2020.

* Morocco announced a $9 billion program to install 2 gigawatts of renewable power by 2020, equaling 14 percent of the North African country’s energy capacity.

* Tunisia will soon put into action the Tunisian Solar Plan, which will see 40 solar projects built by 2016 through public and private investments. The plan calls for more than $2 billion in funding for the projects, which, once finished, will account for 22 percent of Tunisia’s total energy consumption.

* The Mediterranean Solar Plan (MSP) was launched in 2008 by member states in the Union for the Mediterranean. The plan aggressively incentivizes solar power projects with the goal of installing a whopping 20 GW of solar power by 2020, some of which will be consumed domestically and the rest exported to Europe by way of undersea cables. Member states estimated a total capital investment between 38 and 36 billion euros.

* The World Bank is also getting in on the action among Middle East and North Africa (MENA) states. The Bank recently announced plans to back $5.5 billion worth of solar projects in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan. 11 projects are subject to funding under the plan, which would add approximately 1 gigawatt of solar power to global renewable energy capacity.

BusinessGreen reports that Egypt is looking to build wind capacity as well as solar - Masdar to back 200MW Egyptian wind farm project.
Masdar is expected to sign a deal later today with the Egyptian government that will see the Abu Dhabi-state owned investment group begin work on plans for one of Africa's largest wind farms.

Reuters reported yesterday that the company has agreed to back plans for a 200MW wind farm to be located near Suez on Egypt's east coast.

"We will sign an agreement tomorrow to establish the first joint Emirati and Egyptian venture," Aktham Aboul Ela, a senior official at the Egyptian Electricity and Energy Ministry, told the news agency.

The Egyptian government has set a target to generate 20 per cent of the country's electricity from renewable sources by 2020, with over half expected to come from wind power – around 7GW in total.

When completed, the new wind farm will increase Egypt's installed wind energy capacity by around 50 per cent from the 430MW that is currently installed.

Egypt is a significant oil and gas producer, but is seen as having huge potential as a provider of wind energy as a result of strong and consistent wind speeds averaging over 9m per second and a stable electricity grid infrastructure.

eSolar & Ferrostaal To Provide Turnkey Solar Thermal Plants  

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REW reports that solar thermal power company eSolar are looking to sell turnkey CSP systems in partnership with Ferrostaal in the EMEA region - eSolar & Ferrostaal To Provide Turnkey Solar Thermal Plants.

eSolar and Ferrostaal AG have agreed to form a partnership that will deploy turnkey solar power plants in Spain, the United Arab Emirates and South Africa.

Under the agreement, eSolar will provide solar field and receiver technology, while Ferrostaal will provide the power block as well as manage the overall realization as general contractor, including financing activities.

“This partnership with Ferrostaal is a real coup for eSolar,” said John Van Scoter, CEO of eSolar. “Ferrostaal’s extensive construction capacity and expertise – particularly in the concentrated solar thermal field – together with eSolar’s award-winning technology, offers us the opportunity to rapidly construct solar power projects across the globe in coming years.”

eSolar unveiled Sierra SunTower, a 5 MW commercial-scale solar power plant, in the summer of 2009. Located in Lancaster, California, Sierra SunTower is the only power tower facility currently operating in North America. eSolar has continued the momentum of its international development with three licensing partnerships across three continents, including China.

The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough ?  

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CBS's "Sixty Minutes" program has a look at cogeneration / fuel cell company Bloom Energy this weekend - The Bloom Box: An Energy Breakthrough?.

For the past year and a half, several large California corporations have been secretly using the “Bloom Box,” a potentially revolutionary fuel-cell system. Confirming this for the first time, several of the companies report this system is a more efficient, clean, and cost effective way to get electricity than off the power grid. Lesley Stahl and 60 MINUTES cameras get the first look inside the secretive California company, just days before the Bloom Energy official launch, scheduled for this Wednesday (24). Stahl’s report will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES, Sunday Feb. 21 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.

John Donahoe, CEO of E-bay, confirms Bloom Boxes were installed at his corporate campus nine months ago. The company says the boxes already saved them over $100,000 in electricity bills. “It’s been very successful thus far. [The Bloom Boxes] have done what they said they would do,” says Donahoe. The five boxes are able to produce five times as much electricity as the 3,248 solar panels that E-bay installed on its campus roofs, says the CEO. “The footprint for Bloom is much more efficient,” he tells Stahl. Google, FedEx, Staples and Wal-Mart are among the first 20clients Bloom is confirming.

Stahl is the first journalist to be allowed into the Bloom Energy lab and factory where they currently make one box a day. The boxes create electricity by a chemical process that utilizes oxygen and fuel, but involves no combustion. Bloom’s founder and CEO, K.R. Sridhar, insists all the materials in the box are cheap and available in abundance. Bloom says each large Box – which can power about 100 homes – currently sells for $700-800,000. They hope within five to 10 years to roll out a smaller home version for about $3,000 a unit.

Bloom Energy was the first clean energy start-up Kleiner-Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, invested in. They currently invest in about 50 clean tech companies. Sridhar confirms the company has received over $400 million, making it one of the most expensive startups in history. The majority of that comes from Kleiner Perkins. John Doerr, the Kleiner Perkins partner who invested in Bloom, has high hopes. “The Bloom Box is intended to replace the [electric power] grid for its customer,” says Doerr. He thinks existing utility companies should not be threatened or have a problem with Bloom Energy. “The utility companies will see this as a solution. All they need to do is buy Bloom Boxes, put them in the substation for the neighborhood and sell that electricity,” he says.

But there is another hurdle says Michael Kanellos, editor in chief of the Web site GreenTech Media. Even if Sridhar can mass produce his boxes and sell them cheaply enough, “The problem is then G.E. and Siemens and other conglomerates that can probably do the same thing. They have fuel cell patents,” he tells Stahl.

Norway Plans 10 MW Wind Turbines  

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The Independent has an article on Norwegian plans to set a new record for wind turbine size - Norway plans the world's most powerful wind turbine.

Norway plans to build the world's most powerful wind turbine, hoping the new technology will increase the profitability of costly offhsore wind farms, partners behind the project said Friday.

With a rotor diametre of 145 metres (475 feet), the 10-megawatt protype will be roughly three times more powerful than ordinary wind turbines currently in place, Enova, a public agency owned by Norway's petroleum and oil industry ministry, said.

The world's largest wind turbine, 162.5 metres (533 feet) tall, will be built by Norwegian company Sway with the objective of developing a technology that will result in higher energy generation for offshore wind power.

It will first be tested on land in Oeygarden, southwestern Norway, for two years.

The gain in power over current turbines will be obtained partly by reducing the weight and the number of moving parts in the turbine.

According to the NTB news agency, the prototype will cost 400 million kroner to build and could supply power to 2,000 homes.

"We are aiming to install it in 2011," Enova's head of new technology Kjell Olav Skoelsvik told AFP.

Innovation ≠ technology: Why Bill Gates is wrong  

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Dave Roberts at Grist has a bone to pick with some of Bill Gates' recent pronouncements about clean energy (which are by and large still laudable in my opinion) - Innovation ≠ technology: Why Bill Gates is wrong.

Gates has burst on to the energy scene with some rather ill-considered thinking. To get a flavor, see his blog post, “Why We Need Innovation, Not Just Insulation.” The idea is that “conservation and behavior change” might get the world to its 2020 or 2030 targets, but to get to 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050 we’ll need fundamental technological innovation. Ergo: we should pay more attention to, and devote more money to, basic science and R&D.

Now: it’s incontestably true that the U.S. investment in R&D is lower than it should be. We should increase funding in the search for game-changing technology that can help us generate and use energy more sustainably. Indeed, we should increase funding in lots of things! Therein lies the rub.

There are two problems with Gates’ dichotomy between innovation and insulation. The first is the more obvious but the second is more meaningful. (Also, see Joe Romm and Sean Casten for further Gates critiques.)

1. Insofar as there’s a distinction between developing new technology that helps generate more/cleaner/cheaper energy and using energy more wisely, we obviously need to do both. Just as efficiency alone will never get us to our goals, neither will new generation. ...

Getting maximum energy services out of each electron will be an overriding human imperative in the 21st century, and it will require every bit as much ingenuity and imagination as the pursuit of new generation technology. It’s not a zero sum game; there is no reasonable sense in which concern for efficiency is eclipsing concern for innovation. We absolutely have to do both, and no country on earth is doing either at the scale that will ultimately be required.

2. Innovation ≠ technology.

The deeper and more pernicious problem with Gates’ framing is the implication that technology is where we innovate; in all other areas of life, we just ... manage. This taps into some deep archetypes that are worth digging up.

In modern industrial society we’ve come to see progress as effectively synonymous with technology. When it comes to energy, when someone says “invest in new technology or,” the or is usually followed some version of restricting, curtailing, or sacrificing. Technology is the opposite of constraint. Proponents of the technology-centric policy perspective cast themselves as forward-looking optimists—in contrast, implicitly or explicitly, to the dour doom-and-gloomers who want you to shiver in the dark. They find easy favor because in America optimism is technology, and vice versa.

I’ve come to think that this conflation of progress/innovation and technology—specifically energy-generation technology—is one of the principal barriers to a bright green future. To illustrate the point, consider a book I recently reviewed, Reinventing the Automobile, by two engineers from from GM’s advanced auto division and the head of MIT’s Smart Cities program. Among other things, it describes the sustainable city of the future in considerable detail. Here is an extremely condensed sketch of that city:

Everything is linked up in a smart, integrated communications, power, and transportation network. The city “knows” which roads are congested and which parking spots are free. It can communicate to individuals what combination of walking, transit, and individual vehicles will get them where they’re going fastest. Vehicles are small, electric, modular, and—via sensors, GPS, and broadband wireless—intelligent, so they can pilot and park themselves. They can be charged by parking-integrated stations or even electromagnetic coils embedded in curbs, and since they’re interchangeable and easily customizable, they can be public goods (like today’s car-sharing services), easily swapped out and thus continuously in use. The city uses the vehicles’ batteries as distributed energy storage, along with other storage options including pumped hydro integrated into the sewer system. Rooftops, parking lots, and other marginal lands are covered with solar panels; small-scale wind turbines are perched on bridges and towers; cogeneration systems are attached to every industrial facility. Through smart design and sensing, every building and neighborhood maximizes efficiency. The city senses power demand, knows where power is being produced and stored, and continuously balances supply and demand.

Cool, right?! At first blush it sounds like a Jetsons techno-fantasy. Here’s the thing, though: according to the authors, who should know, most of the necessary technology either exists or is in development. None of it relies on any major breakthroughs. By a wide margin, the biggest barriers to creating such bright green cities are social. To pick just a handful:

* Building a city that behaves like an integrated organism means developing a holistic, long-term plan that will coordinate multiple agencies and levels of government. Big, long-term thinking is not exactly an American strong suit these days. Also—and this is a underappreciated problem—cities are cripplingly dependent on the financial largesse of state and federal authorities. They have very little autonomy to borrow money and invest in their own futures.

* There are all kinds of collective action and first-mover problems: Who puts the charging stations in if there aren’t electric cars on the road yet, and vice versa? Who pays for a smart grid before distributed generation is in place, and vice versa? How can public infrastructure and private market development be coordinated? ...

One could go on. The point is that the way we live together now, the way we govern ourselves, the way we arrange our physical spaces and our commerce, the way we do economics and measure prosperity—all these have to be changed in creative ways if we want to achieve the goal of sustainable prosperity. All these changes require ... wait for it ... innovation. Innovations in the way we think, interact, and structure our lives require just as much imagination, intelligence, persistence, and funding as innovations in technology.

An Energy Positive Office for Austria  

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Green building of the week is his energy positive Austrian office building - Coop Himmelb(l)au Unveils Energy Positive Office for Austria.

Coop Himmelb(l)au will be awarded the Sustainability Award at this year’s MIPIM Architectural Review Future Projects Awards for their design of the Town Town Office Tower in Erdberg, Austria. This spikey, stacked, crystalline building certainly creates an interesting composition, but it’s Coop Himmelb(l)au’s implementation of an ultra-efficient building system that caught our eye above all else. Upon completion the building is expected to generate more energy than it consumes, reducing carbon emissions by as much as 1,100,000 kg each year.

The city is choking thanks to our idea of transport nirvana  

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Ross Gittens has an article in the SMH about the recent Christie report on Sydney's public transport - The city is choking thanks to our idea of transport nirvana .

Building roads and neglecting public transport turns population increase into urban sprawl, with widely dispersed residences and jobs. This encourages more car use and, indeed, locks many parts of Sydney into dependence on cars.

Neglect of public transport causes a movement away from it, which is then reinforced by deteriorating service frequencies, service quality, travel times and even the cancellation of off-peak services. So we've had both pull factors (we prefer our cars) and push factors (reduced quality and availability) worsening public transport and compounding our problems.

The report says that ''even if it were assumed that private vehicle travel will continue to be as viable and affordable as today … adding to or extending Sydney's radial freeway and toll-road system would be an expensive way of providing at best very short-term and geographically limited improvements''.

And, of course, we can't assume car travel will stay viable and affordable. Our heavy dependence on car travel is unsustainable. Curbs on greenhouse gas emissions will force up its price, as will the growing shortage of world oil reserves.

Add the projected growth in Sydney's population - a 40 per cent increase to 6 million in the next 30 years - much of which will be accommodated by higher-density living, add the much higher proportion of elderly people, and you see why we need to switch to a different tram, as other big cities that have pursued road-based solutions are doing.

That still leaves a role for cars, of course. As the report says, not all of Sydney is dense, nor should it be. ''In lower-density suburbs, for trips not going into urban centres, the private car is likely to remain a dominant mode of travel,'' it says.

The challenges we face in getting our transport arrangements back on track are considerable and costly. We need catch-up measures to correct the under-investment in public transport infrastructure for the present population, as well as measures to accommodate future population growth.

We need extensions of the public transport system into outer areas as well as significant enhancement of the system in inner areas. This will leave little room for the building of further freeways or tollways.

We need more investment in all modes of public transport - rail, light rail, buses, ferries and even, well down the track, metros - but according to a carefully considered, long-term plan establishing a clear order of priority.

We need less rivalry and more co-operation and co-ordination between the modes so that an ill-fitting collection of systems becomes a single, seamless one. It's not possible for all journeys to be completed without the need to change within a mode or between modes. This requires integrated timetables, accurate and timely provision of information about disruptions and, above all, an integrated fare and ticketing system.

All of this will cost and there's no one to pay for it but us. There'll be carrots (more and better quality train and bus travel) and sticks (rising levels of road congestion for those who persist with cars).

But here's the good news: both the public's submissions to the inquiry and the inquiry's opinion polling show most Sydneysiders have got the message. Now all that remains is for light to dawn in the minds of our politicians.

Dry cold  

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The Economist has a look at developments in the atmosphere, noting "a drying out of the stratosphere may help explain recent temperature trends at the Earth’s surface" - Dry cold.

THE stratosphere—specifically, the lower stratosphere—has, it seems, been drying out. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, and the cooling effect on the Earth’s climate due to this desiccation may account for a fair bit of the slowdown in the rise of global temperatures seen over the past ten years. These are the somewhat surprising conclusions of a paper by Susan Solomon of America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and her colleagues, which was published online by Science on January 28th. Whether the trend will continue, stop or reverse itself, though, is at present unknown.

The stratosphere sits on top of the troposphere, the lowest, densest layer of the atmosphere. The boundary between the two, the tropopause, is about 18km above your head, if you are in the tropics, and a few kilometres lower if you are at higher latitudes (or up a mountain). The tropopause separates a rowdy below from a sedate above. In the troposphere, the air at higher altitudes is in general cooler than the air below it, an unstable situation in which warm and often moist air below is endlessly buoying up into cooler air above. The resultant commotion creates clouds, storms and much of the rest of the world’s weather. In the stratosphere, the air gets warmer at higher altitudes, which provides stability.
Shutterstock

The stratosphere—which extends up to about 55km, where the mesosphere begins—is made even less weather-prone by the absence of water vapour, and thus of the clouds and precipitation to which it leads. This is because the top of the troposphere is normally very cold, causing ascending water vapour to freeze into ice crystals that drift and fall, rather than continuing up into the stratosphere.

A little water manages to get past this cold trap. But as Dr Solomon and her colleagues note, satellite measurements show that rather less has been doing so over the past ten years than was the case previously. Plugging the changes in water vapour into a climate model that looks at the way different substances absorb and emit infrared radiation, they conclude that between 2000 and 2009 a drop in stratospheric water vapour of less than one part per million slowed the rate of warming at the Earth’s surface by about 25%.

Such a small change in stratospheric water vapour can have such a large effect precisely because the stratosphere is already dry. It is the relative change in the amount of a greenhouse gas, not its absolute level, which determines how much warming it can produce, and this change was about 10% of the total.

By comparison with the greenhouse effect caused by increases in carbon dioxide, the stratospheric drying is hardly massive. Dr Solomon and her colleagues peg the 2000-2009 cooling effect at about a third of the opposite effect they would expect from the carbon dioxide added over the same decade, and only a bit more than a twentieth of the warming expected from the rise in carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution. But it is surprising, nonetheless.

The Economist also has a riff on Bruce Sterling's "Involuntary Parks" concept - Conflict conservation: Biodiversity down the barrel of a gun. Somewhat unsettlingly they are also echoing some of his recent comments about environmental problems and depopulation.
THERE was a time when conservation meant keeping people away from nature. America’s system of national parks, a model for similar set-ups around the world, was based on the idea of limiting human presence to passing visits, rather than permanent habitation.

In recent years this way of doing things has come under suspicion. To fence off large areas of parkland is often impractical and can also be immoral—in that it leads to local people being booted out. These days, the consensus among conservationists is to try to manage nature with humans in situ. But there are still “involuntary parks”, to borrow a phrase from the writer and futurist Bruce Sterling, that serve to illustrate just how spectacularly well nature can do when humans are removed from the equation.
AFP

Some such “parks” are accidents of settlement, or its absence. Nature is preserved in those rare places that people just have not got round to overrunning—for example the Foja Mountains in western New Guinea, an area of rainforest that teems with an astonishingly rich variety of plants and animals. Others are accidents of conflict: places from which people have fled and where the fauna and flora have thrived as a result.

The demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is a good example. Over the past six decades this narrow and dangerous strip of land running 248km (155 miles) across the Korean peninsula has become a de facto nature reserve. As agriculture and industrialisation have moved ahead elsewhere, the thousand-square-kilometre DMZ, uninhabited and heavily mined, has been a refuge for two endangered birds: the white-naped and the red-crowned crane. It also contains Asiatic black bears, egrets and, according to some, an extremely rare subspecies of the Siberian tiger. The biggest threat to all this biodiversity is probably peace. There are already calls for the DMZ to be turned into a park in the event of reunification. ...

A little to the west of the Chagos, the Scotsman recently reported, the sea off Kenya’s northern coast currently has a profusion of fish because Somali pirates are keeping out all the big foreign fishing boats. Since the collapse of Somalia’s government in 1991, this part of the world has reportedly been plagued by illegal fishing. Now, goes the story, such boats are too afraid to enter the area because of the pirates.

The illegal dumping in the region of barrels of radioactive waste from European hospitals and factories, which has also been reported, has probably been similarly deterred, if it was taking place. This, though, is unlikely to bother the fish either way. Perhaps the most famous of the Earth’s involuntary parks is the evacuated area around Chernobyl, in Ukraine, where the burgeoning wildlife has been little affected by the risks of radiation.

Military conflict and the preparations that surround it are not, in themselves, good for the environment: far from it. Animals big enough to be eaten, or with body parts that can be sold for a profit, are well advised to stay out of war zones. It is depopulation that matters. Armed conflict and its knock-on effects simply happen to be one of the few forces on the planet that can cause quick and thorough depopulation. These areas struggle to survive when peace arrives. The nasty truth is that the likelihood of random and violent death is the cheapest form of conservation yet invented.

New Nuclear Power Costs Too High ?  

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FuturePundit has a post on a recent report from Citibank (pdf) on the economics of nuclear power - New Nuclear Power Costs Too High?.

A November 2009 report by Citibank about nuclear power costs and viability of new nuclear plants in the UK and Europe provides useful information to those (such as myself) interested in the economics of nuclear power. The Citi report claims most of the time new nuclear power would cost more than the the wholesale price of electricity in Britain. See the graph on page 10 (PDF).
Power Price: Nuclear power stations have very high fixed costs and relatively low variable costs. Their cash flows and profitability are therefore particularly sensitive to the price that they sell their power. As we show later, even at the low end of the build cost estimates, we calculate that a new nuclear station will require €65/MWh (£58.5/MWh) in real terms year in/year out to hit its breakeven hurdle rate. As we show in Figure 5, the UK has only seen prices at that level on a sustained basis for 20 months of the last 115 months. It was a sudden drop in power prices that drove British Energy to the brink of bankruptcy in 2003. No nuclear power station has ever been built to our knowledge where the developer takes the power price risk.

I've come across reports claiming that nuclear power can't compete in Europe without a carbon tax of at least 40 Euro per metric tonne.

The report points to cost and schedule overruns in recent nuclear plant projects and argues that new nuclear plants have considerable construction cost risks. These risks raise the cost of capital (the market wants higher interest rates on bonds) and therefore raise total costs.
Both Westinghouse and Areva claim to be able to construct a new third generation plant (AP-1000 and EPR, respectively) in 3 years from first pouring of concrete. However, evidence to date suggests this is not necessarily the case, as Olkiluoto and Flamanville projects have both suffered delays, while the first AP-1000 unit under construction, in SanMen China, is running significantly over its $1,000/KW construction cost target and is expected to be over $3,500/KW target on current estimates.

The SanMen delay tells us that the Olkiluoto and Flamanville are not outliers.

Note the wide range of cost estimates. This is an indication of uncertainty and uncertainly means risk and higher capital costs.
Georgia Power stated in mid 2008 that two 1100MW reactors would cost up to $14 billion, depending on financing terms. This gives significantly high cost assumptions of $6,360 per kilowatt.

In November 2008, Tennessee Valley Authority updated its estimates for Bellefonte units 3 & 4 relating to two AP1000 reactors of 2234MW combined. It said that overnight capital cost estimates ranged from $2,516 to $4,649/kW for a combined construction cost of $5.6 to $10.4 billion.

Bill Gates: Zero Emissions Is The Priority  

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Alex at WorldChanging has a post on fellow Seattle-ite Bill Gates' recent speech at TED - Bill Gates: the Most Important Climate Speech of the Year.

On Friday, the world's most successful businessperson and most powerful philanthropist did something outstandingly bold, that went almost unremarked: Bill Gates announced that his top priority is getting the world to zero climate emissions.

Now, I'm not a member of the Cult of Bill myself (I'm typing this on a MacBook), but you don't have to believe that Gates has superhuman powers of prediction to know that his predictions have enormous power. People who will never listen to Al Gore, much to less someone like me, hang on Gates' every utterance.

And Friday, Gates predicted extraordinary climate action: zero. Not small steps, not incremental progress, not doing less bad: zero. In fact, he stood in front of a slide with nothing but the planet Earth and the number zero. That moment was the most important thing that has happened at TED.

What, exactly, did he say, and why is it so important?

Gates spoke about his commitment to using his massive philanthropic resources (the Gates Foundation is the world's largest) to make life better for people through public health and poverty alleviation ("vaccines and seeds" as he put it). Then he said something he's never said before: that is it because he's committed to improving life for the world's vulnerable people that he now believes that climate change is the most important challenge on the planet.

Even more importantly, he acknowledged the only sensible goal, when it comes to climate emissions, is to eliminate them: we should be aiming for a civilization that produces no net emissions, and we should be aiming to live in that civilization here in the developed world by 2050.

Obviously, that's a big goal. Because he is the world's biggest geek, to explain how he plans to achieve that goal, Gates put up a slide with a formula (which we can call the Gates Climate Equation):



CO2 = P x S x E x C

Meaning this: the climate emissions of human civilization are the result of four driving forces:

* Population: the total number of people on the planet (which is still increasing because we are not yet at peak population).

* Services: the things that provide prosperity (and because billions of people are still rising out of poverty and because no global system will work unless it's fair, we can expect a massively increased demand for the services that provide prosperity).

* Energy: the amount of energy it takes to produce and provide the goods and services that our peaking population uses as it grows more prosperous (what some might call the energy intensity of goods and services). Gates believes it's likely cutting two-thirds of our energy waste is about as good as we can do.

* Carbon: the amount of climate emissions generated in order to produce the energy it takes to fuel prosperity.

Those four, he says, essentially define our emissions (more on that later). In order to reach zero emissions, then, at least one of these values has to fall to zero. But which one? He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.

Algae to solve the Pentagon's jet fuel problem ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Guardian has a report on efforts by the US military to promote the development of algae based fuel (and some very optimistic timeframes being claimed for production) - Algae to solve the Pentagon's jet fuel problem.

The brains trust of the Pentagon says it is just months away from producing a jet fuel from algae for the same cost as its fossil-fuel equivalent.

The claim, which comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) that helped to develop the internet and satellite navigation systems, has taken industry insiders by surprise. A cheap, low-carbon fuel would not only help the US military, the nation's single largest consumer of energy, to wean itself off its oil addiction, but would also hold the promise of low-carbon driving and flying for all.

Darpa's research projects have already extracted oil from algal ponds at a cost of $2 per gallon. It is now on track to begin large-scale refining of that oil into jet fuel, at a cost of less than $3 a gallon, according to Barbara McQuiston, special assistant for energy at Darpa. That could turn a promising technology into a ­market-ready one. Researchers have cracked the problem of turning pond scum and seaweed into fuel, but finding a cost-effective method of mass production could be a game-changer. "Everyone is well aware that a lot of things were started in the military," McQuiston said.

The work is part of a broader Pentagon effort to reduce the military's thirst for oil, which runs at between 60 and 75 million barrels of oil a year. Much of that is used to keep the US Air Force in flight. Commercial airlines – such as Continental and Virgin Atlantic – have also been looking at the viability of an algae-based jet fuel, as has the Chinese government.

"Darpa has achieved the base goal to date," she said. "Oil from algae is projected at $2 per gallon, headed towards $1 per gallon."

McQuiston said a larger-scale refining operation, producing 50 million gallons a year, would come on line in 2011 and she was hopeful the costs would drop still further – ensuring that the algae-based fuel would be competitive with fossil fuels. She said the projects, run by private firms SAIC and General Atomics, expected to yield 1,000 gallons of oil per acre from the algal farm.

Hubless Bicycle Powered by Simple Driveshaft  

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Gizmodo has a post on an interesting new bike design - Hubless Zigzain Bicycle Concept Powered by Simple Driveshaft.

Electric cars: put a battery in your roof  

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AFP has an article on some nanotechnology research in the UK which may lead to lighter batteries - Electric cars: put a battery in your roof.

A nanoscale material developed in Britain could one day yield wafer-thin cellphones and light-weight, long-range electric cars powered by the roof, boot and doors, researchers have reported.

For now, the new technology -- a patented mix of carbon fibre and polymer resin that can charge and release electricity just like a regular battery -- has not gone beyond a successful laboratory experiment.

But if scaled-up, it could hold several advantages over existing energy sources for hybrid and electric cars, according to the scientists at Imperial College London who developed it.

Lithium-ion batteries used in the current generation of plug-in vehicles are not only heavy, which adds to energy consumption, but also depend on dwindling supplies of the metal lithium, whose prices have risen steadily.

The new material -- while expensive to make -- is entirely synthetic, which means production would not be limited by availability of natural resources.

Another plus: conventional batteries need chemical reactions to generate juice, a process which causes them to degrade over time and gradually lose the capacity to hold a charge.

The carbon-polymer composite does not depend on chemistry, which not only means a longer life but a quicker charge as well.

Because the material is composed of elements measured in billionths of a metre, "you don't compromise the mechanical properties of the fibers," explained Emile Greenhalgh, an engineer at Imperial College and one of the inventors.

As hard a steel, it could in theory double as the body of the vehicle, cutting the weight by up to a third.

The Tesla Roadster, a luxury electric car made in the United States, for example, weighs about 1,200 kilos (2,650 pounds), more than a third of which is accounted for by batteries, which turn the scales at a hefty 450 kilos (990 pounds). The vehicle has a range of about 300 kilometers (185 miles) before a recharge is needed.

"With our material, we would ultimately lose that 450 kilos (990 pounds)," Greenhalgh said in an interview. "That car would be faster and travel further."

America's deadly robots rewrite the rules  

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Paul McGeough has an interesting article in the SMH about developments in the war in Afghanistan - America's deadly robots rewrite the rules .

The kohl-eyed Hakimullah Mehsud probably is dead. He was the target for a missile fired last month from an unmanned aircraft hovering over the Afghan-Pakistani border - but launched by an operator in the US.

Mehsud was the ruthless mastermind of multiple suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan. He was part of a suicide mission on December 30 at Khost, just across the border in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA agents who were working on the covert operation that now appears to have ended Mehsud's brief and brutal leadership of the Taliban in Pakistan.

In the artistry of war, the insertion of a Jordanian double-agent who detonated his explosive vest inside this super-sensitive CIA bunker was flawless. But, in their payback, the enraged Americans confirmed the breadth of a new horizon in modern warfare - launching 15 clinical drone attacks in which more than 100 people died along the border, as Washington's electronic eyes and guns sought out Mehsud and his Taliban and al-Qaeda allies.

War does not get more radical than this - technically, politically and, perhaps, ethically.

Consider: for the first time ever, a civilian intelligence agency is manipulating robots from halfway around the world in a program of extrajudicial executions in a country with which Washington is not at war.

Consider, too: the drone wars were initiated under the presidency of George Bush. But it is the Democrat Barack Obama who has given them flight and stumped up sufficient funding to spark serious debate on the end of the ''Top Gun'' era of the fighter-pilot.

And there is this: despite decades of American disquiet about assassinations abroad and a shrill Republican critique of him as a security wuss, the professorial Obama is the new killer on the block, authorising more drone attacks in the first year of his term in office than Bush did in his entire presidency.

At the White House these days they hold their breath, praying for a turnaround in the war in Afghanistan to vindicate Obama's gamble in dispatching 50,000 more young Americans to a conflict some deem unwinnable.

Mythological politics  

Posted by Big Gav

Michael Lind has a column at Salon on the tea bagger movement, offering an insight into the "key to understanding the populist right's accusations that Obama is a socialist" - Mythological politics. They should probably just go and talk to a real socialist if they want to be disabused of that notion...

Anglo-American Protestants viewed Catholicism as the chief enemy of the "true religion" of Protestant Christianity well into the 20th century, and some still do. But in the mythology of the reactionary right, the United Nations has long since replaced the Vatican as the center of global conspiracies, and the alleged Catholic threat to Protestantism has been replaced by the alleged "secular humanist" threat to the "Judeo-Christian tradition."

This is the key to understanding the otherwise inexplicable accusations by the populist right that Barack Obama is a socialist or fascist or whatever, as well as fantasies about a global secular humanist conspiracy. We are dealing with a mythological mentality, based on simple and powerful archetypes. Contemporary figures and current events are plugged into a framework that never changes. "King Charles (or King George) is threatening the rights of Englishmen" becomes "Barack Obama is promoting socialism" — or fascism, or monarchism, or daylight saving time.

As in other cases of mythological politics, like messianic Marxism, this kind of thinking is resistant to argument. If you disagree, then that simply proves that you are part of the conspiracy. Inconvenient facts can be explained away by the true believers. It's hard to come up with arguments that would persuade people who think that Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are totalitarians to change their mind.

Saudi Arabia preparing for oil demand to peak  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

AP reports that the Saudis are concerned about a peaking of demand (which may just be a roundabout way of saying peak oil) and are looking to diversify their economy - Saudi Arabia preparing for oil demand to peak.

A top Saudi energy official expressed serious concern Monday that world oil demand could peak in the next decade and said his country was preparing for that eventuality by diversifying its economic base.

Mohammed al-Sabban, lead climate talks negotiator, said the country with the world's largest proven reserves of conventional crude is working to become the top exporter of energy, including alternative forms such as solar power.

Saudi Arabia was among the most vocal opponents of proposals during the climate change talks in Copenhagen. And al-Sabban criticized what he described as efforts by developed nations to adopt policies biased against oil producers through the imposition of taxes on refined petroleum products while offering huge subsidies for coal — a key industry for the United States.

Al-Sabban said the potential that world oil demand had peaked, or would peak soon, was an "alarm that we need to take more seriously" as Saudi charts a course for greater economic diversification.

"We cannot stay put and say 'well, this is something that will happen anyway," al-Sabban said at the Jeddah Economic Forum. The "world cannot wait for us before we are forced to adapt to the reality of lower and lower oil revenues," he added later.

Some experts have argued that demand for oil, the chief export for Saudi Arabia and the vast majority of other Gulf Arab nations, has already peaked. Others say consumption will plateau soon, particularly in developed nations that are pushing for greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

Zero emissions possible for Australia - at $40bn a year  

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The Age has an article on Beyond Zero Emissions' launch of their "T10" campaign to switch Australia to 100% renewable power in a decade - Zero emissions possible - at $40bn a year.

AUSTRALIA could move to 100 per cent renewable energy within a decade if it spent heavily on cutting-edge solar thermal and wind technology, according to an analysis released as part of a community bid to redirect the flailing climate policy debate.

The shift would require the annual investment of up to $40 billion - roughly 3.5 per cent of national GDP - with the largest chunk going towards solar thermal power plants that used molten-salt heat storage to allow power generation to continue without sunlight.

The plan by advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions was outlined at the launch of the Transition Decade, or T10, a grassroots campaign hoping to garner support for dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Pitched as a response to the failure to introduce national and state policies to substantially reduce emissions, T10 won support yesterday from the City of Melbourne, the Australian Greens and Victorian Governor David de Kretser.

Launching the campaign, Professor de Kretser said Australia had a responsibility to act.

''If every person in the world generated greenhouse gas emissions per person equivalent to those of each Australian today, the levels would quickly exceed those predicted to cause very dangerous global warming,'' he told more than 1000 people at the Melbourne Town Hall. ''The consequences for planet Earth … would be disastrous.''

Under the Beyond Zero Emissions model, concentrated solar thermal plants at 12 sites across the country would meet 60 per cent of national energy demands. They would be supplemented by wind and photovoltaic solar panels, with existing hydroelectricity and biomass from burning crop remains as back-up.

Beyond Zero Emissions spokesman Mark Ogge said developments overseas had shown the claims that renewable energy could not provide baseload power had no basis.

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