Inspired Bicycles  

Posted by Big Gav

One (off-topic) post for the cyclists out there - check out these stunts :

Obama's 100 Days  

Posted by Big Gav

John Pilger has a jaundiced look at the first 100 days of the Obama administration - Obama's 100 days - the mad men did well.

The BBC's American television soap Mad Men offers a rare glimpse of the power of corporate advertising. The promotion of smoking half a century ago by the “smart” people of Madison Avenue, who knew the truth, led to countless deaths. Advertising and its twin, public relations, became a way of deceiving dreamt up by those who had read Freud and applied mass psychology to anything from cigarettes to politics. Just as Marlboro Man was virility itself, so politicians could be branded, packaged and sold.

It is more than 100 days since Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. The “Obama brand” has been named “Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008”, easily beating Apple computers. David Fenton of describes Obama’s election campaign as “an institutionalised mass-level automated technological community organising that has never existed before and is a very, very powerful force”. Deploying the internet and a slogan plagiarised from the Latino union organiser César Chávez – “Sí, se puede!” or “Yes, we can” – the mass-level automated technological community marketed its brand to victory in a country desperate to be rid of George W Bush.

No one knew what the new brand actually stood for. So accomplished was the advertising (a record $75m was spent on television commercials alone) that many Americans actually believed Obama shared their opposition to Bush’s wars. In fact, he had repeatedly backed Bush’s warmongering and its congressional funding. Many Americans also believed he was the heir to Martin Luther King’s legacy of anti-colonialism. Yet if Obama had a theme at all, apart from the vacuous “Change you can believe in”, it was the renewal of America as a dominant, avaricious bully. “We will be the most powerful,” he often declared.

Perhaps the Obama brand’s most effective advertising was supplied free of charge by those journalists who, as courtiers of a rapacious system, promote shining knights. They depoliticised him, spinning his platitudinous speeches as “adroit literary creations, rich, like those Doric columns, with allusion...” (Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian). The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford wrote: “Many spiritually advanced people I know... identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who... can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet.”

In his first 100 days, Obama has excused torture, opposed habeas corpus and demanded more secret government. He has kept Bush’s gulag intact and at least 17,000 prisoners beyond the reach of justice. On 24 April, his lawyers won an appeal that ruled Guantanamo Bay prisoners were not “persons”, and therefore had no right not to be tortured. His national intelligence director, Admiral Dennis Blair, says he believes torture works. One of his senior US intelligence officials in Latin America is accused of covering up the torture of an American nun in Guatemala in 1989; another is a Pinochet apologist. As Daniel Ellsberg has pointed out, the US experienced a military coup under Bush, whose secretary of “defence”, Robert Gates, along with the same warmaking officials, has been retained by Obama.

All over the world, America’s violent assault on innocent people, directly or by agents, has been stepped up. During the recent massacre in Gaza, reports Seymour Hersh, “the Obama team let it be known that it would not object to the planned resupply of ‘smart bombs’ and other hi-tech ordnance that was already flowing to Israel” and being used to slaughter mostly women and children. In Pakistan, the number of civilians killed by US missiles called drones has more than doubled since Obama took office.

In Afghanistan, the US “strategy” of killing Pashtun tribespeople (the “Taliban”) has been extended by Obama to give the Pentagon time to build a series of permanent bases right across the devastated country where, says Secretary Gates, the US military will remain indefinitely. Obama’s policy, one unchanged since the Cold War, is to intimidate Russia and China, now an imperial rival. He is proceeding with Bush’s provocation of placing missiles on Russia’s western border, justifying it as a counter to Iran, which he accuses, absurdly, of posing “a real threat” to Europe and the US. On 5 April in Prague, he made a speech reported as “anti-nuclear”. It was nothing of the kind. Under the Pentagon’s Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, the US is building new “tactical” nuclear weapons designed to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.

Perhaps the biggest lie – the equivalent of smoking is good for you – is Obama’s announcement that the US is leaving Iraq, the country it has reduced to a river of blood. According to unabashed US army planners, as many as 70,000 troops will remain “for the next 15 to 20 years”. On 25 April, his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, alluded to this. It is not surprising that the polls are showing that a growing number of Americans believe they have been suckered – especially as the nation’s economy has been entrusted to the same fraudsters who destroyed it. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s principal economic adviser, is throwing $3trn at the same banks that paid him more than $8m last year, including $135,000 for one speech. Change you can believe in.

Much of the American establishment loathed Bush and Cheney for exposing, and threatening, the onward march of America’s “grand design”, as Henry Kissinger, war criminal and now Obama adviser, calls it. In advertising terms, Bush was a “brand collapse” whereas Obama, with his toothpaste advertisement smile and righteous clichés, is a godsend. At a stroke, he has seen off serious domestic dissent to war, and he brings tears to the eyes, from Washington to Whitehall.

Giving the Power Grid Some Backbone  

Posted by Big Gav in

Scientific American has an article on expanding the US power grid to enable greater utilisation of solar and wind power - Giving the Power Grid Some Backbone.

A stiff wind blows year-round in North Dakota. In Arizona the sun beats down virtually every day. The U.S. has vast quantities of renewable electricity sources waiting to be tapped in these regions, but what it does not have there are power lines—big power lines that can carry the bountiful energy to distant cities and industries where it is needed.

The same is true beyond the windswept high plains and the sun-baked Mojave Desert: renewable supply and electricity demand are seldom in the same place, and too often the transmission lines needed to connect them are missing. The disparity exists even in New England, where hundreds of miles of high-tension wires supported by thousands of steel towers run neatly through dense areas of settlement. When Gordon Van Wiele, chief executive of ISO New England—in charge of transmission in the six-state region—unfurls a map of the land there, large ovals show the location of the best wind sites: Vermont near the Quebec border and eastern Maine spilling over into New Brunswick. But sure enough, no transmission lines tran­sect them.

The U.S. has the natural resources, the technology and the capital to make a massive shift to renewable energy, a step that would lower emissions of greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollutants from coal-fired power plants while also freeing up natural gas for better uses. Missing is a high-voltage transmission backbone to make that future a reality. In some places, wind power, still in its infancy, is already running up against the grid’s limits. “Most of the potential for renewable resources tends to be in places where we don’t have robust existing transmission infrastructure,” Van Wiele says. Instead, for decades electric companies have built coal, nuclear, natural gas and oil-fired generators close to customers.

That strategy worked reasonably well until recently, when 28 state governments set “renewable portfolio standards” requiring their utilities to supply a certain portion of their electricity using renewables, such as 20 percent by 2020 or even sooner. But as Kurt E. Yeager, former president of the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., points out, such standards “aren’t worth the paper they’re written on until we have a power system, a grid, that is capable of assimilating that intermittent energy without having to build large quantities of backup power, fossil-fueled, to enable it.”

In Colorado the utility that serves most of the state, Xcel Energy, is now building a megawatt of natural gas capacity for every megawatt of wind so that it is ready to come online quickly to provide power when the wind tails off. That plan is a carbon improvement but not really a carbon solution. The U.S. needs a new transmission backbone that crisscrosses the country, knitting together many large wind farms, solar-energy fields, geothermal pools, hydroelectric generators and other alternative sources.

One utility company has already unveiled a grand plan for the U.S., and other experts are charting their own backbone schemes. But whichever one might prevail will require a lot of money and a lot of coordination across what are now independent areas of technological and political control. ...

North America is actually covered by four regional grids (three of which serve the U.S.). The largest is the Eastern Interconnection, an extensive complex of transmission lines that stretches from Halifax to New Orleans, with substations that step down the high-voltage electricity to lower levels so that it can be distributed locally along smaller wires. West of the Rockies is the Western Interconnection, from British Columbia to San Diego and a small slice of Mexico. Texas, in an echo of its history as an independent republic, comprises its own grid, now called the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. And Quebec, with its separatist undercurrent, also has its own grid. The high-voltage transmission systems in the four regions comprise about 200,000 miles of power lines, divided among a staggering 500 owners, that carry current from more than 10,000 power plants run by about 6,000 investor-owned utilities, public power systems and co-ops. ...

Post-peak mechanized agriculture: the RAMSES project  

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Ugo Bardi has a post at TOD on an experiment in creating an electric vehicle for use in agriculture - Post-peak mechanized agriculture: the RAMSES project.

About three years ago, Ugo Bardi (your author) and Toufic El Asmar (agronomist at the University of Florence, Italy) sat together and conceived the idea of a complete, renewable energy system that would provide both electric and mechanical power for agriculture. We gave it the name of "RAMSES", an acronym that stands for something like "renewable multipurpose agricultural systems for farmers". But, actually, "Ramses" is an ancient Egyptian word that means "born of the sun-god Ra" and that seemed to us an auspicious name for the idea (later on, we learned of another vehicle named "Ramses"; a modern Egyptian battle tank).

The idea of the RAMSES system is to couple a renewable energy source (in this case a photovoltaic plant) with a multipurpose, battery powered agricultural vehicle. The system also includes a stationary battery pack for energy storage. The energy produced can be used in the farm, stored in the vehicle's batteries, in the stationary batteries, or sold to the grid. The batteries of the vehicle can also be used for powering the farm if needed. It is a complete energy system that makes the farm - potentially - independent from fossil fuels.

Once we had thought of all this, we assembled a team able to build the system and we submitted the project to the European Commission which financed it under the 6th framework program. RAMSES is a multinational effort which includes four European countries (Italy, Poland, Spain and UK) and three Mediterranean ones (Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco). After almost three years of work, a complete prototype system has been assembled. ...

RAMSES doesn't claim to be the first electrical vehicle in agriculture, but it is an original idea under several respects: it has been designed from scratch as an electric vehicle, not as the retrofitting of an existing vehicle. Also, it was conceived with production in series in mind, not as destined to remain a single prototype. Finally, it is not just an electric vehicle, but a complete energy system designed for use in a world where fossil fuels are destined to become less and less abundant.

The RAMSES vehicle uses standard components which can be serviced or replaced with a minimum effort. It is powered by a 96 V, 12 kW dc brushed motor located in the center, in a position protected from damage. An auxiliary, on board 12 kW motor is used for powering external agricultural equipment and the hydraulic system. The motors are powered by 16 6V 180 Ah lead-gel batteries. The two battery packs can be connected in series at 96 volts, for street use, or in parallel, at 48 V, for the highest torque for off road use. This set of batteries is expected to be able to power the vehicle for a range of about 70-80 km on roads and for 2-4 h of work in the fields. The maximum speed on roads is around 45 km/h. The vehicle weighs 1700 kg, including the driver and has a capacity of about one ton load.

The photovoltaic plant that powers the vehicle has a maximum power of 12 kW and is based on monocrystalline, silicon panels. The stationary energy system is based a lead-acid battery pack of total storage capacity of 2000 Ah.

Trustbusting 2.0 ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Zephyr Teachout (now that's a name that makes me laugh) has a post at The Nation on using anti-trust policy as a way of building economic resilience - avoiding the creation of corporations that are "too big to fail" - Trustbusting 2.0?.

Recently, much of my thinking has involved antitrust policy. Instead of imposing after-the-fact regulations on corporations, why not pass a new antitrust policy that limits the size to which companies can grow? Current antitrust law limits a variety of anticompetitive behaviors, like price fixing, and is focused on consumer welfare and market manipulation. But antitrust could become a tool for limiting size qua size, not just size when it becomes anticompetitive. It would require a major overhaul, but in the long term a size-based antitrust policy might actually be simpler than the complicated and often unworkable measures of market share and examinations of inchoate consumer needs.

Why? Because economies of scale, which work well for creating widgets, are very dangerous when it comes to influencing political decision-making. Political power amassed by concentrated financial power leads to serious distortions in political decision-making, so that Congress can pass absurd, non-responsive legislation that gives illogical copyright extensions, dangerous environmental licenses, and tax breaks to those who least need it. Antitrust law now limits anticompetitive behavior as between companies within an industry; it could limit corporate power in the political sphere by creating a default maximum size.

Basically, we might want to use antitrust to create collective action problems for business--coordination difficulties and freerider threats--such that companies would be more likely to spend their energies on productive behavior instead of on political influence to modify the rules of the game. I recognize that this would lead to some less efficient production of goods in some areas, but that the cost of this inefficiency is worthwhile.

We enable corporate charters to make us healthier and happier. We believe that without corporate charters, and limited liability, people would not take risks and invest in inventions and infrastructures that improve our lives. There is nothing necessary or innate about the particular corporate form that is now the norm; it is only worth keeping as long as it serves our collective purposes, and we should constantly be remodeling it to ensure that it does serve those ends.

So when it turns out our creation is making us less healthy, happy, and secure, we ought consider tinkering with the shape and size. Efforts to limit corporate power over political processes via campaign finance reform have had limited successes at best (except perhaps public funding programs--but that's a different article).

The connections to the current crisis are obvious: a new antitrust policy, one that takes scale into account, would protect against any corporation becoming to big too fail. It would also protect against some of the systematic lobbying, direct and indirect, of Congress by the major companies. But it might also lead to a society where more people are closer to having a meaningful voice in the company in which they work, which itself has positive political side effects; as John Stuart Mill argued 150 years ago, it is hard work to take a cog in a machine and turn him into a citizen a few days a year, but if someone, in their personal, professional, and familial life is accustomed to making judgments and exercising power, the leap to being a collective political decisionmaker is not so great.

Antitrust is not the only solution, but its a kind of solution that I'd like to hear more about. This crisis ought to cause us to rethink the nature of the institutions we want to exist, not simply the after-the-fact behavior regulations of those institutions. (While the difference between institutional shape and regulation may sound semantic, I think its not, and in debating institutions in terms of What They Are instead of What They Can Do will lead to a productive, collective conversation about what we value, and the kind of world we want to live in.)

As Teddy Roosevelt said, "The great corporations ... are the creatures of the State." If these creatures are causing massive instability, inequality, or environmental ruin, then we ought modify them. Importantly, this is not an anti-corporate argument (to be anti-corporate actually buys into the reification of the corporation as it currently exists.) I happen to think corporations serve incredibly valuable social purposes. But those values are radically limited if we stop understanding the corporate form as deeply flexible, putty in our hands if we want it to be--a flexible tool for human, democratic, societal ends.

Powerful Polymers: Pushing Plastic Solar Cells  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Technology Review has an article on plastic solar cells with "near-perfect internal efficiency" - Pushing Plastic Solar Cells.

Plastic solar cells are lightweight, flexible, and, most important, cheap to make. But so far, these devices have been too inefficient to compete with silicon solar cells for most applications. Now researchers from a few institutions claim to have made polymer solar cells with record-breaking efficiencies. These cells still aren't good enough to compete with silicon, but polymer efficiencies have been increasing at a rate of about 1 percent a year. If they can keep this up, say researchers, plastic solar cells will be competing with silicon within a few years.

This week, in the online edition of Nature Photonics, researchers reported on polymer solar cells that convert about 6.1 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity--inching a bit closer to the 10 percent that they say will be needed to gain a significant foothold in the market. (Conventional silicon cells are about 15 percent efficient.) The new efficiency numbers "show that we're in the game," says Alan Heeger, a professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led the research. Heeger shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2000 for his role in the development of the first conducting polymers, and he's cofounder and chief scientist at Konarka, a plastic solar cell company headquartered in Lowell, MA.

The California researchers' results compare very favorably with previous published descriptions of polymer solar cells, whose efficiency has hovered around 5 percent. Konarka says that the company's cells, which use different materials than the cells made in Heeger's university lab, have recently been rated at about 6.4 percent. And a competitor in San Mateo, CA, called Solarmer Energy has made plastic cells with similar efficiencies, according to an affiliated researcher.

Plastic solar cells, no matter how well designed, have intrinsic limits dictated by the polymers that make up their active layer. The polymers made so far can only absorb relatively narrow bands of light. It's possible to boost their power-conversion efficiency by stacking films of polymers designed to pick up different bands of light; Heeger's group has, in fact, had some success with this in the past. But this approach has a major disadvantage. "Layering is self-defeating because you increase the fabrication costs," says Luping Yu, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Chicago, who is also working on solar cells.

Monsters vs. Aliens  

Posted by Big Gav in

TomDispatch has an interesing look at Somali pirates and the US military budget - Monsters vs. Aliens.

In the comic-book imagination of some of our leading pundits, the two headline threats against U.S. power are indeed on the verge of teaming up. The intelligence world is abuzz with news that radical Islamists in Somalia are financing the pirates and taking a cut of their booty. Given this "bigger picture," Fred Iklé urges us simply to "kill the pirates." Robert Kaplan waxes more hypothetical. "The big danger in our day is that piracy can potentially serve as a platform for terrorists," he writes. "Using pirate techniques, vessels can be hijacked and blown up in the middle of a crowded strait, or a cruise ship seized and the passengers of certain nationalities thrown overboard."

Chaotic conditions in Somalia and other countries, anti-state fervor, the mediating influence of Islam, the lure of big bucks: these factors are allegedly pushing the two groups of evildoers into each other's arms. "Both crimes involve bands of brigands that divorce themselves from their nation-states and form extraterritorial enclaves; both aim at civilians; both involve acts of homicide and destruction, as the United Nations Convention on the High Seas stipulates, 'for private ends,'" writes Douglas Burgess in a New York Times op-ed urging a prosecutorial coupling of terrorism and piracy.

We've been here before. Since 2001, in an effort to provide a distinguished pedigree for the Global War on Terror and prove the superiority of war over diplomacy, conservative pundits and historians have regularly tried to compare al-Qaeda to the Barbary pirates of the 1800s. They were wrong then. And with the current conflating of terrorism and piracy, it's déjà vu all over again.

Misreading Piracy

Unlike al-Qaeda, the Somali pirates have no grand desire to bring down the United States and the entire Western world. They have no intention of establishing some kind of piratical caliphate. Despite Burgess's claims, they are not bent on homicide and destruction. They simply want money.

Most of the pirates are former fisherman dislodged from their traditional source of income by much larger pirates, namely transnational fishing conglomerates. When a crippled Somali government proved incapable of securing its own coastline, those fishing companies moved in to suck up the rich catch in local waters. "To make matters worse," Katie Stuhldreher writes in The Christian Science Monitor, "there were reports that some foreign ships even dumped waste in Somali waters. That prompted local fishermen to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. The success of these early raids in the mid-1990s persuaded many young men to hang up their nets in favor of AK-47s."

Despite their different ideologies -- al-Qaeda has one, the pirates don't -- it has become increasingly popular to assert a link between radical Islam and the Somali freebooters. The militant Somali faction al-Shabab, for instance, is allegedly in cahoots with the pirates, taking a cut of their money and helping with arms smuggling in order to prepare them for their raids. The pirates "are also reportedly helping al-Shabab develop an independent maritime force so that it can smuggle foreign jihadist fighters and 'special weapons' into Somalia," former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia David Shinn has recently argued.

In fact, the Islamists in Somalia are no fans of piracy. The Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had some rough control over Somalia before Ethiopia invaded the country in 2006, took on piracy, and the number of incidents dropped. The more militant al-Shabab, which grew out of the ICU and became an insurgent force after the Ethiopian invasion, has denounced piracy as an offense to Islam.

The lumping together of Islamists and pirates obscures the only real solution to Somalia's manifold problems. Piracy is not going to end through the greater exercise of outside force, no matter what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman may think. (In a recent column lamenting the death of diplomacy in an "age of pirates," he recommended a surge in U.S. money and power to achieve success against all adversaries.) Indeed, the sniper killing of three pirates by three U.S. Navy Seals has, to date, merely spurred more ship seizures and hostage-taking.

Simply escalating militarily and "going to war" against the Somali pirates is likely to have about as much success as our last major venture against Somalia in the 1990s, which is now remembered only for the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. Rather, the United States and other countries must find a modus vivendi with the Islamists in Somali to bring the hope of political order and economic development to that benighted country. ...

The failure of the U.S. Navy to stamp out piracy has led to predictable calls for more resources. For instance, to deal with nimble, low-intensity threats like the speedy pirates, the Pentagon is looking at Littoral Combat Ships instead of another several-billion-dollar destroyer. The Navy is planning to purchase 55 of these ships, which, at $450-$600 million each, will come in at around $30 billion, a huge sum for a project plagued with costs overruns and design problems. With the ground (and air) war heating up in Afghanistan and the CIA in charge of operations in Pakistan, the Navy is understandably trying to keep up with the other services. The Navy's goal of a 313-ship force, which boosters champion regardless of cost, can only be reached by appealing to a threat comparable to terrorists on land. Why not the functional equivalent of terrorists at sea?

Pirates are the perfect threat. They've been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don't hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they're non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.

And, finally, the Pentagon is already restructuring itself to meet just such a threat. Through its "revolution in military affairs," the adoption of a doctrine of "strategic flexibility," and the cultivation of rapid-response forces, the Pentagon has been gearing up to handle the asymmetrical threats that have largely replaced the more fixed and predictable threats of the Cold War era, and even of the "rogue state" era that briefly followed. The most recent Gates military budget, with its move away from outdated Cold War weapons systems toward more limber forces, fits right in with this evolution. Canceling the F-22 stealth fighter aircraft and cutting money from the Missile Defense Agency in favor of more practical systems is certainly to be applauded. But the Pentagon isn't about to hold a going-out-of-business sale. The new Obama defense budget will actually rise about 4%.

George W. Bush's Global War on Terror, or GWOT, turned out to be a useful way for the Pentagon to get everything it wanted: an extraordinary increase in spending and capabilities after 2001. With GWOT officially retired and an unprecedented federal deficit looming, the Pentagon and the defense industries will need to trumpet new threats or else face the possibility of a massive belt-tightening that goes beyond the mere shell-gaming of resources.

The War on Terror lives on, of course, in the Obama administration's surge in Afghanistan, the CIA's campaign of drone attacks in the Pakistani borderlands, and the operations of the new Africa Command. However, the replacement phrase for GWOT, "overseas contingency operations," doesn't quite fire the imagination. It's obviously not meant to. But that's a genuine problem for the military in budgetary terms.

Enter the pirates, who from Errol Flynn to Johnny Depp have always been a big box-office draw. As the recent media hysteria over the crew of the Maersk Alabama indicates, that formula can carry over to real life. Take Johnny Depp out of the equation and pirates can simply be repositioned as bizarre, narcotics-chewing aliens.

Then it's simply a matter of the United States calling together the coalition of the willing monsters to crush those aliens before they take over our planet. And you thought "us versus them" went out with the Bush administration...

Going the Distance With UHV  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Wall Street Journal has a special segment on energy, including this article on long distance electricity transmission (using UHV rather than HVDC) - Going the Distance.

China wants to use melting snow on the Tibetan Plateau to power neon lights more than a thousand miles away in Shanghai. And to make that vision a reality, it is dusting off a 40-year-old technology for moving electricity -- ultra-high-voltage power lines.

UHV lines can not only carry more electricity than regular lines but also move it vast distances with less loss of power. That makes UHV ideal for bringing electricity from remote areas, such as hydropower projects in the foothills of the Himalayas, to China's eastern urban centers.

A number of countries gave the idea a test run decades ago, but improved technology has made it a lot more practical -- and attractive. Now China is betting that UHV can solve its massive energy dilemma. Most of the nation's resources, such as coal and hydropower, are located far from the booming cities that need electricity most. And trucking coal across the country, or building more power plants near cities, would make China's pollution even worse.

The developments are being closely watched around the world. Densely populated India and Brazil also see the technology as a way to secure future energy supplies. In the U.S. and Europe, meanwhile, utilities need to build high-voltage transmission lines to carry electricity from remote regions rich in solar and wind power.

"I would expect that the more countries use renewable energy," the more they look to UHV technology, says Daniel Assandri, senior vice president and head of the power-system division for ABB Ltd. in China and North Asia, which is working on China's UHV project.

China's proposed network will cover 56,000 miles and allow up to 6.4 gigawatts of power to be transmitted on each line -- equivalent to nearly two-thirds of the entire generating capacity of Singapore. State Grid Corp., one of two state-owned power distributors, has said it is seeking regulatory approval to spend as much as $14.6 billion over the next three to four years to roll out UHV power lines.

It's an ambitious plan, but China is in urgent need of an upgrade. According to a 2007 report by the International Energy Agency, China needs to invest $1.51 trillion in its grid through 2030 to accommodate soaring demand for power. And the potential power sources are far from the growing eastern cities where electricity is needed.

Two-thirds of China's coal deposits are concentrated in a handful of inland provinces, more than 620 miles from the manufacturing hubs of the Pearl River Delta. Government planners want power generators to build plants closer to coal supplies and then ship their electricity via the grid.

China also wants to make better use of its renewable-energy resources, particularly hydropower, but two-thirds of its dams are located in distant southwestern provinces such as Yunnan and Sichuan. Hydropower currently accounts for nearly a fifth of China's electricity generation, but much of it is used locally rather than shipped to cities because the grid is inadequate.

The quest to transmit electricity greater distances at higher voltages dates back decades. Governments and utilities began to look seriously at the problem in the aftermath of World War II as a way to meet rising energy demand, particularly in cities.

Conventional transmission lines, which use alternating current, can carry up to 500 kilovolts of energy from power plants to substations for distribution. But they're limited in how far they can transmit power, typically up to about 530 miles. And they lose a significant amount of power -- about 7% of capacity -- in transit, requiring power plants to produce more electricity than is used.

In looking for an alternative, engineers tried a couple of different paths. One was direct-current power lines, which can transmit electricity at greater distances than AC lines, with less power loss. But many utilities felt DC lines were too expensive, since they required converter stations to turn the power to AC so it could be distributed to utilities and consumers.

An electricity worker sits atop a newly constructed high-tension electricity tower located on the outskirts of Kangding in Sichuan province. The State Grid Corp. of China aims to at least triple its ultra-high voltage power transmission lines by 2012.

The other avenue of exploration was higher-voltage AC lines. They first appeared in Canada in 1965, spurring interest in the technology from Tokyo to São Paulo. Several test lines were built during the 1970s in the U.S., but the most progress was made in the Soviet Union. However, interest waned in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed and power demand in Japan stagnated.

Now improved technology has made UHV more feasible. For instance, insulators on UHV systems used to be made of porcelain. Now it's possible to use materials like silicone rubber.

China currently has only one functioning UHV line, a 1,000-kilovolt AC pilot project that represents the highest-voltage system operating commercially anywhere in the world. The line connects two big power grids: one in Shanxi province in northern China, which relies heavily on coal-powered plants, and another in the central province of Hubei, which has abundant hydropower resources, including the Three Gorges dam, the world's biggest. The line enables power to be transferred between the grids whenever there is a shortfall in supply.

More UHV AC lines are planned, but Beijing concedes the technology isn't commercially viable yet. Suppliers haven't achieved economies of scale on core equipment, and the lines aren't yet carrying enough power to show real savings over conventional systems.

As a result, State Grid and China Southern Power Grid Co., another state-owned power distributor, are pushing most aggressively into building UHV DC lines. Despite the need for converter stations, the DC approach is still cheaper for the time being; according to ABB, it's about 25% less expensive than UHV AC over 1,240 miles or more.

State Grid has awarded tenders to ABB, Siemens Ltd. and local companies to build an 800-kilovolt DC line from a hydropower station in southwestern China's Sichuan province to Shanghai. Lu Jian, head of the development and strategic-planning department at State Grid, says the company plans to have around 56,000 miles of UHV lines in operation by 2020, up from about 400 miles now.

Also in the section is an article on ocean energy in Scotland - Surf's Up.
Scotland, which boasts some of the fastest-flowing tides in the world, is placing a big bet on what many believe is the next wave of renewable energy -- marine power.

The government is encouraging companies to invest in projects designed to convert the motion of tides and waves into electricity with the aim of generating as much as one gigawatt of electricity -- enough to power roughly 940,000 homes -- from its coastal waters by 2020.

Although some experts say Scotland eventually could rely on marine power for 40% or more of its electricity needs, the technology is still in its infancy. Among the industry's biggest challenges: developing equipment that can withstand the punishing environment off the Scottish coast and reducing the cost of generation so that marine power can better compete with more established sources of energy. Making things even more difficult is the credit crisis, which has made project financing harder and more expensive to get.

Neil Kermode, managing director of the European Marine Energy Centre, a marine-energy testing site located in Orkney, Scotland, sees a parallel with the early days of the aviation industry, saying that while wave and tidal equipment is well along in terms of development, lengthy testing is required before it can be deployed on a commercial scale.

"I believe we're now where the Wright brothers were when they did the first tentative flights, but they still needed to do short hops and then longer hops before they got to master the sky," he says.

The wave- and tidal-power devices in use today are small -- most are less than one megawatt, or about a third of the size of a typical commercial-scale wind turbine -- and are deployed individually or in very small arrays. To date, only about 10 megawatts of wave and tidal power have been installed world-wide, compared with 120 gigawatts for wind power.

Nevertheless, the potential of marine energy has drawn the attention of Europe's top utilities, including Spain's Iberdrola SA, Germany's RWE AG and E.ON AG and the U.K.'s Scottish & Southern Energy PLC. They are investing in wave and tidal technologies with the aim of eventually installing arrays across the U.K. capable of generating tens of megawatts of electricity each.

Mexico Outbreak Traced to ‘Manure Lagoons’ at Pig Farm  

Posted by Big Gav in

I'm not even remotely tempted to join the great swine flu panic of 2009, but Cryptogon has some good tinfoil and a blast from the past - Mexico Outbreak Traced to ‘Manure Lagoons’ at Pig Farm.

This is an interesting story. Of course, it doesn’t mention the fact that, back in February, Panasonic knew that a pandemic flu event was going to happen.

Via: Times Online:

The first known case of swine flu emerged a fortnight earlier than previously thought in a village where residents have long complained about the smell and flies from a nearby pig farm, it emerged last night.

The Mexican Government said it initially thought that the victim, Edgar Hernandez, 4, was suffering from ordinary influenza but laboratory testing has since shown that he had contracted swine flu. The boy went on to make a full recovery, although it is thought that at least 148 others in Mexico have died from the disease, and the number is expected to rise.

News of the infected boy is expected to create controversy in Mexico because the boy lived in Veracruz state, home to thousands of farmers who claim that their land was stolen from them by the Mexican Government in 1992. The farmers, who call themselves Los 400 Pueblos – The 400 Towns – are famous for their naked marches through the streets of Mexico City.

The boy’s hometown, La Gloria, is also close to a pig farm that raises almost 1 million animals a year. The facility, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, is partly owned by Smithfield Foods, a Virginia-based US company and the world’s largest producer and processor of pork products. Residents of La Gloria have long complained about the clouds of flies that are drawn the so-called “manure lagoons” created by such mega-farms, known in the agriculture business as Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

It is now known that there was a widespread outbreak of a powerful respiratory disease in the La Gloria area earlier this month, with some of the town’s residents falling ill in February. Health workers soon intervened, sealing off the town and spraying chemicals to kill the flies that were reportedly swarming through people’s homes.

A spokeswoman for Smithfield, Keira Ullrich, said that the company had found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of swine influenza in its swine herd or its employees working at its joint ventures anywhere in Mexico. Meanwhile, Mexico’s National Organisation of Pig Production and Producers released its own statement, saying: “We deny completely that the influenza virus affecting Mexico originated in pigs because it has been scientifically demonstrated that this is not possible.”

According reports gathered on the website of James Wilson, a founding member of the Biosurveillance Indication and Warning Analysis Community (BIWAC), about 60 per cent of La Gloria’s 3,000-strong population have sought medical assistance since February.

“Residents claimed that three pediatric cases, all under two years of age, died from the outbreak,” wrote Mr Wilson. “However, officials stated that there was no direct link between the pediatric deaths and the outbreak; they said the three fatal cases were isolated and not related to each other.”

The case of the four-year-old boy was announced yesterday by Mexico’s Health Minister, Jose Angel Cordova, at a press conference that was briefly interrupted by an earthquake. “We are at the most critical moment of the epidemic. The number of cases will keep rising so we have to reinforce preventive measures,” he said, adding that in addition to the 149 deaths another 2,000 had been hospitalised with “grave pneumonia”, although at least half of that number had since made a full recovery.

Mr Cordova went on to say that there have been no new cases detected in La Gloria but epidemiologists want to take a closer look at pigs in Mexico as a potential source of the outbreak.

As the desease spread Greater Mexico City, usually a chaotic, traffic-snarled megatropolis of 22 million – where braised pork or carnitas, is prepared at taco stands on busy street corners – remained at a virtual standstill yesterday.

A majority of people are now wearing surgical masks and or plastic gloves in public. Airport terminals are deserted. Schools and government offices are closed and will remain so until at least early May – creating a childcare crisis for millions of working parents.

Many Mexicans are fearing the economic devastation caused by the health emergency as much as they are the prospect of swine flu. Adding to the misery, several countries including China have banned imports of live pigs and pork products from Mexico (and parts of the US) in spite of claims by farming trade groups that it is impossible to catch the virus from cooked meat.

Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Alex Steffen has another post at WorldChanging outlining his reasons for opposing geoengineering proposals and looking at the background of one unsavoury set of cheerleaders - Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism.

Some scientists suggest that certain massive projects -- like creating artificial volcanoes to fill the skies with soot, or seeding the oceans with mountains of iron to produce giant algal blooms -- might in the future be able put the brakes on climate change. These "geoengineering" ideas are hardly shovel-ready. The field at this point consists essentially of little more than a bunch of proposals, simulations and small-scale experiments: describing these hypothetical approaches as "back up options" crazily overstates their current state of development. Indeed, almost all of the scientists working on them believe that the best answer to our climate problem would be a quick, massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this has stopped geoengineering from becoming part of a new attempt to stall those very reductions, though. The same network of think tanks, pundits and lobbying groups that denied climate change for the last 30 years has seized on geoengineering as a chance to undermine new climate regulations and the U.N. climate negotiations to be held at the end of the year in Copenhagen. They're still using scare tactics about the economic costs of change, but now, instead of just denying the greenhouse effect, they've begun trying to convince the rest of us that hacking the planet with giant space-mirrors or artificial volcanoes is so easy that burning a lot more coal and oil really won't be a problem. ...

Turn over denialist rocks and you'll find political advocates for geoengineering a-plenty. For instance:

*The Cato Institute (denialists), whose senior fellow and director of natural resource studies, Jerry Taylor, says that if we end up forced do something about global warming, "geo-engineering is more cost-effective than emissions controls altogether."

*The Heartland Institute (denialists), whose David Schnare now advocates geoengineering as quicker and less costly to the economy than greenhouse gas reductions:
"In addition to being much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, geo-engineering has the benefit of delivering measurable results in a matter of weeks rather than the decades or centuries required for greenhouse gas reductions to take full effect."

*The Hudson Institute (denialists) advocates geoengineering as substitute for reductions:
"Successful geoengineering would permit Earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve the same retarding effect on global warming at a lower cost. The cuts in carbon use proposed by international leaders and presidential candidates would have a drastic effect on the economy, especially since substitutes for fossil fuels will be expensive and limited for a number of years."

*The Hoover Institution (denialists) is home to not only to senior fellow Thomas Gale Moore, author of "Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry About Global Warming" but also nuclear weapons engineer and original SDI "Star Wars" proponent Lowell Wood. Wood has become an outspoken geoengineering proponent and co-authored a recent WSJ op-ed in which he warns "But beware. Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels," thus revealing that the point is to be friendly to fossil fuels.

And, of course, denialists' allies in the media and the blogosphere have been quick to take up the call. Conservative columnist (and climate "contrarian") John Tierney thinks geoengineering makes superfluous emissions reductions ("a futile strategy") and wants "a geoengineering fix for global warming," to provide an alternative to the idea that "the only cure [is] to reduce CO2 emissions." Wayne Crews of the denialist site (a project of the Carbon-Lobby-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute) likes geoengineering strategies as possible "options apart from carbon constraint," while climate treaty opponent and "delayer" Roger Pielke, Jr. finds it encouraging that geoengineering's getting so much buzz.

It would be easy to go on. But the point is obvious: the Carbon Lobby, no longer able to deny the reality of climate change, is hoping to use the idea of geoengineering to undermine political progress towards reducing climate emissions through sensible, intelligent regulations and international treaties. Big Oil, Big Coal and the auto companies want you to believe that reducing emissions is too expensive to work, climate negotiations are too unrealistic to succeed, but we can keep burning fossil fuels anyways because geoengineering gives us a plan B. If you think that, you've been spun.

How to De-Spin Geoengineering

None of this is to say that megascale geoengineering should be a taboo subject. We need a smart debate here, where we explore the subject honestly and without industry spin. Here are six suggestions for returning reality to the geoengineering debate in these critical months leading up to Copenhagen:

First, Demand that bold emissions reductions be acknowledged as the only sound foundation for any climate action plan. The Carbon Lobby thrives on half-truths and obfuscation. Ethical people -- whether geoengineering proponents, opponents or doubters -- all need to be extremely clear in saying that a strong, rapid movement away from fossil fuels and toward climate neutrality is non-negotiable. Many leading thinkers on geoengineering (such as Paul Crutzen and Ken Caldeira) already make clear that immediate action on reducing greenhouse pollution (on both the national and global levels) is the first step, period. We should follow their lead.

Second, Point out that a climate-neutral world is realistic. One of the public debate's biggest failures is the extent to which we've let people be convinced that a climate-neutral planet is some distant, improbable fantasy world. It's not. We know, already, right now, how to dramatically slash emissions using currently available technologies, and make a profit. Economists (like Lord Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank) estimate that the total cost of pursuing climate neutrality could be as little as 1% of GDP (far lower than the anticipated costs of allowing climate change to worsen). But there may not even be a cost: a great many of the actions we need to take (like rebuilding our cities and using energy more efficiently) return greater economic benefits than they demand, and when something pays you money, it's not a cost, it's an investment.

Third, Be extremely clear about geoengineering's real possibilities and actual limitations. Journalists tend to sell the planetary engineering sizzle, rather than serve the heavily-caveated steak. Advocates need to continue to emphasize that geoegineering proposals are still extremely early-stage, experimental and surrounded with unknowns. (On the other side, even determined opponents of geoengineering need to acknowledge the good intent and sound reasoning of scientists who are doing their best to add new insight to an extremely important debate.)

Fourth, Get the order right: zero-out first, adapt next, engineer last.. We need to be clear that because of the experimental nature of geoengineering projects, their use should be a last resort, not a primary option. Megascale geoengineering should not yet be part of any national strategies for addressing climate change, or a part of any offset systems in carbon trading regimes. We need first to drive greenhouse gas concentrations down with proven methods, and then begin preparing to adapt to the climate change we know we've already set in motion. We should only turn to megascale geoengineering as a last resort.

Fifth, Keep a wary eye on the Arctic ocean and other tipping points. Last year, scientists conducting research in the Arctic made a startling discovery: what might perhaps be formerly-frozen methane was bubbling to the surface of the warming ocean in alarming amounts. Their work demands corroboration, but if confirmed, this should cause us all to worry. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and huge amounts of it are trapped beneath frigid waters and frozen permafrost, waiting perhaps to be released by rising temperatures.That methane could set off runaway climate change. Even if their findings are refuted, though, potential tipping points need to be watched. If we find we've blundered into rapid runaway climate change, some forms of geoengineering, however poorly understood, may quickly move from "last resort" to "needed option."

Sixth and last, Continue outing the Carbon Lobby and its cronies, and reject their intervention in the debate. Legitimate debates about the possible uses of megascale geoengineering should not include people whose institutions have been consistently and intentionally dishonest about science and science policy.

The next two decades will have an almost unparalleled importance in human history, and the decisions we make during this time could have almost unthinkable impacts for millennia. The world in which scores of future generations will live -- its climate, the plants and animals that make up its biosphere, the material possibilities of its cultures -- will to an astonishing degree be influenced by the choices we make in the next score of years.

How we interpret the possibilities of (and understand the limitations to) large-scale geoengineering projects will help shape the clarity and velocity with which we act on reducing emissions and building a new, climate-neutral economy. These questions matter too much to allow them be twisted by a bunch of shills for fossil fuel industries.

We need to reclaim the debate about our planet's future, together.

David Brin popped up in the comments making an interesting proposal:
Alex, to my mind, the issue isn't whether or not geoengineering belongs on the table. It does. Some proposals do seem intrinsically more sane while others appear outrageously lunatic. For example, if, instead of dumping iron, we simply stirred the ocean bottom in a few locations, we would imitate nature's precise method for creating vast fisheries, creating food while sucking carbon out of the air... something inherently less risky than starting up volcanoes. (I illustrate this in EARTH (1989).)

But no, the isue at hand is not the merits of any indvidual geoenginering scheme. It is instead the need to finally diagnose genuine, bona fide insanity when we see it. The climate change denier movement stands esposed for what it has always been, a frenzied quasi-religious cult, bereft of even marginal logic.

In desperate, successive phases, the members of this cult first sneeringly dismissed the notion that warming is occurring at all, as a secular trend.

Then, when forced to admit that it is so, they denied that human-generated activities could possibly affect Earth's climate.

Then, when science came in overwhelmingly against that position, their gambit was to minimize likely effects.

Then, when the US Navy announced plans to deal with an ice-free Arctic, they began promulgating the notion that it all will turn out to be beneficial(!), and/or that "anyway, it's already too late, so don't bother." Many people have unblinkingly gone from one position to the next, without even glancing in the dictionary, under "inconsitency" or "hypocrisy" or "credibility."

Now comes geoengineering, under which they admit that their earlier positions were absolutely and completely wrong in every possible way, and yet continue to insist on their right to sneer at the other side, which proved right on every single count! Such gall! Such Chutzpah!

Why are these jerks doing this? It does not really map on to "conservatism" which used to preach wisdom like "waste not" and "a penny saved" and "cleanliness is next to godliness" and which used to adore efficincy. That THIS is "conservatism would send everyone from Cotton Mather to Barry Goldwater to even Richrd Nixon spinning in their graves. (A possible new energy source?)

Is it really at the behest of a few carbon fuel moguls, the same way that shills also ranted distractions for so long, on behalf of Big Tobacco? Can it really be as simple as that?

I suspect deeper psychology is involved, e.g the trumped-up treason that is called "culture war" - whose effect has been to oversimplify all complex issues and effectively lobotomize the greatest problem-solving nation in history. The same reflex that made this same clade oppose civil rights and every other reform of the last 75 years. In the end, it has nothing to do with "left vs right". (I happen to be a big fan of Adam Smith) Rather, it is about biliously hatred of "smartypants." And anything at all proposed by wiseguys.

There is a solution. Let a consortium be formed with one aim, to collect names and public statements, with an openly stated goal:

"These people clearly have followed a pattern of obstructing humanity's efforts to come to grips, to innovate and to solve a desperate threat to our nation, world, children and planetary survival. Their eagerness to jump from one failed rationalization to another has only one common theme -- a relentless eagerness to block civilization's efforts to become more energy efficient.

"Since there are NO other commen elements to their positions, we shall operate under the assujmption that blocking energy efficiency is their central goal."

This consortium should go on to make a simple declartion:

"From this moment on, we serve notice. All evidence gathered will go toward building a case for civil lawuits, to be filed in future years, holding these people financially responsible for tort damages done to our nation, people, children, civilization and planet, by a conspiracy whose sole aim was to prevent the amelioration of a deadly threat to public health and public welfare. Based upon the utter consistency of their behavior -- similar to that of the tobacco companies, during their own denial and obstruction epoch -- we plan to reduce some of the pain and damages that this conspiracy will have caused, by seeking civil damages plus major punitive penalties.

"Individuals have perfect freedom of speech. But when lies are spread with malicious and selfish intent that results in palpable harm to others, the victims (we and our posterity) do have recourse in court. Participants in this conspiracy are served notice. They should step back and view their relentless campaign against energy efficiency in this light."

Australian Food bowl on brink of $5bn catastrophe  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Adelaide Now has an article on the sorry state of the Murray-Darling basin - Food bowl on brink of $5bn catastrophe.

THE nation's key food bowl, the Murray Darling Basin, is on the verge of economic collapse as the value of production plunges by at least $5 billion, experts say.

Drought and declining irrigation water have plunged inland Australia's heartland into crisis with the loss of at least one third of the basin's $15 billion annual income. Worse is predicted for the coming financial year if the drought continues.

The demise of the economic powerhouse has pushed towns throughout the basin, particularly along the River Murray, into a severe downturn and population decline.

An ABS report last week showed the population throughout the basin is declining, or static at best, with the District Council of Berri and Barmera suffering the largest and fastest recent drop in SA with 130 people moving out between 2007 and 2008.

Authorities warn the problem has become the biggest crisis Australian agriculture has experienced, threatening the nation's food supply.

Murray Darling Association general manager Ray Najar said the basin's plight will worsen substantially next financial year if the long-running drought continues and there is no water available for irrigation.

Mr Najar said the $5 billion loss of production is very conservative and the actual loss may be nearer to $7 billion.

Beyond Fossil Fuels: Daniel Kunz on Geothermal Energy  

Posted by Big Gav in

Scientific American has a Q&A with the president US Geothermal about the issues facing the geothermal energy sector - Beyond Fossil Fuels: Daniel Kunz on Geothermal Energy.

What technical obstacles currently most curtail the growth of geothermal energy? What are the prospects for overcoming them in the near future and the longer-term?

Currently the biggest obstacle to geothermal development is the lack of sufficient direct economic incentives for the drilling of geothermal resources. There are no significant technical obstacles that are curtailing current growth and development. Like the oil and gas industry, the geothermal industry would benefit from a strong, specific and appropriate tax incentive tied directly to expenditures made for production and injection well drilling. The prospects look good now for some stimulus of the renewable energy sector with the Obama administration's recognition of the long-term strategic imperative to develop domestic, renewable and clean energy sources to secure the future of our country.

Are there obstacles to scaling up geothermal to serve a national or global customer base?

There are significant obstacles today to scaling up geothermal to serve a global customer base because most of the current investment in geothermal is going toward localized development of shallow and known geothermal resource areas that tend to be limited in size. The reality is that geothermal development has a great potential to scale significantly based on the engineered geothermal systems (EGS) outlined in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's 2006 report on the future of geothermal energy. In EGS development there is no risk of failure for the discovery of the energy. It exists in vast quantities some seven to 10 kilometers below the surface in the heat of the Earth's volcanic system. The challenge is in developing systems that can extract that heat and transport it to the surface to make electricity.

Deep drilling already occurs in oil and gas discovery, but EGS requires special attention due to the increased size of the required well diameter. The concept requires that we construct a "teapot" at those depths by selecting the right subsurface rock conditions and then fracturing the rock in place. Once the "teapot" has been fractured so it can be used to boil water, a pair of wells will operate in unison with one well used to inject water (or even carbon dioxide) into the teapot and the second well used to allow the steam or gas to escape to the surface, where it will turn conventional turbine and generator equipment. The promise is that these systems will be very large power stations, built closer to the load centers to eliminate transmission issues, and will be a clean and renewable source of power. The concept needs a serious push by the federal government much like the big hydroelectric dams that were developed in the 1930s and later. Given the size and scale of the current economic crisis bailout being funded by the U.S. taxpayers, a modest $1 billion expenditure for an EGS demonstration site would be a very wise investment in the future of energy development.

Can the existing energy infrastructure handle growth in geothermal energy? Or does that, too, need further modification?

The advantage of the current geothermal development is that the projects start out relatively small, say 20 to 50 megawatts, and these facilities can be added to the existing transmission system without too many major issues. The medium to longer-term development of larger and more geothermal plants will require ongoing upgrades and improvements to our transmission systems so that geothermal projects can be built in more remote areas, new generation capacity can be added without overloading already loaded transmission systems and the grids can be smarter about optimizing the peaks and valleys of electricity supply and demand.

The Brazilian Bioplastics Revolution  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Knowledge@Wharton has an enthusiastic look at the bioplastic industry in Brazil - The Brazilian Bioplastics Revolution.

The production of plastics from renewable sources constitutes the next frontier in the search for ways to mitigate our dependency on oil and reduce our environmental footprint. The country at the forefront of these tantalizing developments, however, is not commonly perceived as being a technology powerhouse. Brazil is leading the way in this industry after decades of research and commitment to a technology based on sugarcane ethanol. The technology has proven to be environmentally sustainable and potentially capable of changing the way we manufacture everything, from personal care products to automobiles.

Since plastics are a fundamental material in modern life, making their production more sustainable can have an important positive impact on the environment. Annual plastics consumption worldwide has increased twentyfold since the 1950s, reaching around 150 million tons. It has been estimated that producing 1 kg of the most common plastics requires the equivalent of 2 kg of petroleum for energy and raw material, and releases approximately 6 kg of carbon dioxide. Green plastics could hold great potential for alleviating these negative impacts. As noted by officials at Braskem, the leading petrochemical and plastics producer in Latin America, the development of bioplastics will not just contribute to the prevention of global warming and the depletion of petroleum resources; its recyclable nature will also impact on waste management in urban areas and unlock the potential to revolutionize the cycle of energy production and usage in all aspects, creating a self re-enforcing cycle of producing, recycling and reusing.

Green plastics, also referred to as bioplastics, are made from 100% renewable feedstock (such as plant-based ethanol), have the same specifications of petrochemical plastics and are completely recyclable. Bioplastics do not necessarily have to be biodegradable. As Jeffrey Wooster, senior value chain manager at Dow Chemical, the largest producer of plastics in the world, observes: "It really is about carbon emissions," and plastics produced from renewable sources have a net positive carbon footprint. Compared to the production of plastics derived from petroleum, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, the production of green plastics actually absorbs CO2 during sugarcane field photosynthesis. Between 2.1 to 2.5 kg of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere for each 1 kg of green plastics manufactured.

Leading manufacturers Braskem and Dow agree that recyclable green plastics generally perform better than biodegradable alternatives in sustainability analyses. Biodegradable green plastics are less durable, cannot be easily disposed of because of the need to separate them from conventional recyclable material, and emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) when decomposing in landfills. On the other hand, green plastics effectively store the CO2 absorbed during photosynthesis for extended periods of time as it is recycled and used in different ways. At the end of their useful life, green plastics can be burned to recover their energy content.

According to officials at Braskem, the revolutionary aspect of these products is that they are renewable as opposed to biodegradable. In other words, they can be recycled without threatening the process, as would polylactic acid, for example, the most common biodegradable plastic produced from corn-based ethanol. At the end of its usable life, non-biodegradable bioplastics can be incinerated together with other urban waste to generate electricity or other types of energy. Considering the quickly dwindling sites for landfills in urban areas such as São Paulo and parts of Europe, the ability to sustainably incinerate waste and generate energy is also highly coveted.

The technology currently used in Brazil to manufacture green plastics is very efficient. Ethane, the raw material to make plastics, can be manufactured by simply removing one water molecule (H2O) from sugarcane ethanol through a dehydration process. In the end, the plastics produced have the same characteristics as conventional plastics derived from fossil feedstocks, such as naphtha or natural gas. Due to their characteristics, sugarcane ethanol-based plastics can compete favorably with conventional petroleum-based plastics and can even be sold at a premium to eco-minded consumers. Although no industry certification yet exists, carbon dating laboratories have been used to certify that the plastics produced are derived completely from renewable sources. ...

A Government still addicted to petrol  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Peak oil isn't getting much airtime in the mainstream press lately, but David Strahan has a column in The Independent - A Government still addicted to petrol.

"All targets and no trousers" seemed to be the gist of the reaction from environmentalists to last week's Budget. Greens welcomed the introduction of new, legally binding, carbon-reduction goals but attacked the lack of a clear road map showing how they could be achieved.

Some applauded policies such as the extra subsidy for offshore wind and investment in building efficiency, but attacked overall funding of £1.4bn as miserly in comparison to the enormity of the climate crisis and recent financial bailouts.

But for those who are more worried about oil depletion, the Budget was utterly hollow. The car scrappage scheme came without efficiency conditions attached, the return to inflation-plus fuel duty increases was welcome but timid compared to the escalator that was killed off by the petrol protests of 2000, and tax breaks for North Sea operators will do little to stem the decline in output. Production has halved since its peak in 1999, and is now dropping at 7 per cent a year, dragging Britain ever deeper into import dependency.

Still less will the Budget improve the global oil outlook. The International Energy Agency forecasts a "supply crunch" early in the next decade, Shell predicts a production plateau from 2015, and the head of the Libyan National Oil Company sees peak oil looming.

In contrast, the big energy announcement of the week looked far bolder. The Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband, said new coal-fired power stations would only be approved if they included a demonstration plant for carbon capture and storage (CCS) from day one, and a commitment by the energy company to retrofit the entire power station once the Environment Agency judged CCS to be technically and commercially proven. This came beside plans to fund four of the new pilot plants through a 2 per cent levy on customers' bills.

The move was welcomed by environmental groups and is an advance on the Government's previous dither in this area. But it is also a spectacular gamble and has three obvious risks.

One, pilot plants will capture only a quarter of new power station emissions .

Two, the technology may not be viable, at least not in time, posing a dilemma in the mid-2020s: whether to close the power stations or sacrifice the climate.

Three, coal may be less abundant than the Government assumes. In 2000, the global coal supply was expected to last 277 years, but by 2006 that had plunged to 140 years as consumption rose and estimates of reserves were revised downwards. One forecasting group predicts peak coal as early as 2025, Mr Miliband's deadline for retrofitting CCS.

The Government seems too timid to confront peak oil publicly, but reckless enough to gamble on potentially unabated coal emissions and the coal supply.

Why not bet on true sustainability: get serious about energy efficiency, renewables, electrification of transport and a European supergrid, and commit the sort of money they have recently been throwing at the banking industry? The stakes are even higher.

Adam Smith On Usury  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Past Peak has some interesting notes on Adam Smith, free markets and the cause of the credit crunch - Adam Smith On Usury.

Conservatives love to invoke Adam Smith — most of them, I'm guessing, without ever having read him. They've heard the phrases "invisible hand" and "division of labor" and that's about it. They imagine an Adam Smith who would endorse their idea of unrestricted and unregulated capitalism. Not so.

Yves Smith at nakedcapitalism has an excellent Adam Smith quote that is the perfect companion piece to the Infinite Debt post from last week. Old Adam nails it:
Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations, advocated usury laws (limits on interest rates) because they would promote lending to prudent borrowers and productive projects, which was better for society as a whole:
The legal rate...ought not be much above the lowest market rate. If the legal rate of interest in Great Britain, for example, was fixed so high as eight or ten per cent, the greater part of the money which was to be lent would be lent to prodigals and projectors [promoters of fraudulent schemes], who alone would be willing to give this high interest....A great part of the capital of the country would thus be kept out of the hands which were most likely to make a profitable and advantageous use of it, and thrown into those which were most likely to waste and destroy it.

When the legal rate of interest, on the contrary is fixed but a very little above the lowest market rate, sober people are universally preferred, as borrowers, to prodigals and projectors. The person who lends money gets nearly as much interest from the former as he dares to take from the latter, and his money is much safer in the hands of the one set of people than in those of the other. A great part of the capital of the country is thus thrown in the hands in which it is most likely to be employed with advantage.

Now before you say this approach discriminates against the poor, banks like ShoreBank of Chicago, and not for profit mortgage lenders extend credit to lower income individuals with loss rates in line with prime borrowers, It takes (gasp) borrower education and in person screening, something most banks eschew.

Mortgage lenders didn't pump out subprime mortgages out of the kindness of their hearts or because someone made them do it. They did it because that's where the high interest rates were. The same way that credit card companies handed out credit cards to anyone with a pulse. If you were someone who'd have a hard time paying off your balance, so much the better. That's where the high interest rates were.

And now the rest of us are left to pick up the pieces. Which is one reason why usury laws have existed for centuries — until very recently — and why we need them again.

But before we leave Adam Smith, here are some comments Noam Chomsky made in an interview:
[Adam Smith is] pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.

He did give an argument for markets, but the argument was that under conditions of perfect liberty, markets will lead to perfect equality. That’s the argument for them, because he thought that equality of condition (not just opportunity) is what you should be aiming at. It goes on and on. He gave a devastating critique of what we would call North-South policies. He was talking about England and India. He bitterly condemned the British experiments they were carrying out which were devastating India.

He also made remarks which ought to be truisms about the way states work. He pointed out that its totally senseless to talk about a nation and what we would nowadays call “national interests.” He simply observed in passing, because it’s so obvious, that in England, which is what he’s discussing — and it was the most democratic society of the day — the principal architects of policy are the “merchants and manufacturers,” and they make certain that their own interests are, in his words, “most peculiarly attended to,” no matter what the effect on others, including the people of England who, he argued, suffered from their policies. He didn’t have the data to prove it at the time, but he was probably right.

This truism was, a century later, called class analysis, but you don’t have to go to Marx to find it. It’s very explicit in Adam Smith. It’s so obvious that any ten-year-old can see it. So he didn’t make a big point of it. He just mentioned it. But that’s correct. If you read through his work, he’s intelligent. He’s a person who was from the Enlightenment. His driving motives were the assumption that people were guided by sympathy and feelings of solidarity and the need for control of their own work, much like other Enlightenment and early Romantic thinkers. He’s part of that period, the Scottish Enlightenment.

The version of him that’s given today is just ridiculous.

Energy 101: Where Does Our Power Come From ?  

Posted by Big Gav in

Inhabitat is doing a "Energy 101" series to explain why smart grids are necessary - Energy 101: Where Does Our Power Come From ?.

Today we’re excited to announce the launch of our new Energy 101 series,. in which we’ll be exploring the future-forward technologies that stand to upgrade our grids, reduce our energy footprint, and slow the speed of global warming. Unless you have been living in a cave for the past few years, you’ve probably heard terms like “energy conservation”, “off-grid energy“, and “smart grid” tossed around. But before getting into the nitty-gritty of transitioning to renewable energy, we should stop and examine where exactly our power comes from now.

Unless you derive all your power from on-site renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind turbines, chances are that you’re connected to the power grid, a vast network that delivers electricity from suppliers to consumers. Right now, most energy on the grid comes from generating plants. These plants still usually get power from traditional sources like coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric dams. But as concerns over carbon emissions, safety, and long term sustainability of these sources grow, electrical utilities have begun to switch over to renewable energy sources.

Renewable power is derived from sources that can be replenished, like the sun, wind, rain, and geothermal heat. These power sources are gaining ground quickly, with wind growing at an annual worldwide rate of 30%. New solar projects are also being announced every day–Exelon’s planned 10 megawatt plant, just unveiled this week, will be the largest solar plant in the country if completed.

There’s just one problem with these natural sources of power: they’re intermittent. Solar power (gathered from solar panels) is only produced during the day, and wind power (gathered from turbines) only works if there’s wind to go around. At low levels, these intermittent sources can be used to back up traditional sources during peak hours of energy use. But at higher levels, grid energy needs to be available; once the majority of our power comes from these sources, they need to be available at all times.

That’s where the smart grid comes in. A smart grid delivers electricity using digital technology that tracks power usage with smart meters and adjusts prices depending on the load or availability of sources like solar and wind power. Power meters currently have to manually read, but smart meters wirelessly send power use information to utilities instantly. In theory, this will make intermittent energy sources more viable — if the price of energy increases during times of low availability, consumers will be more likely to adjust energy use accordingly. Smart meters have already been installed in millions of homes in Northern California. The peak pricing program is voluntary right now, but it will become standard within five years.

American Stonehenge: Monumental Instructions for the Post-Apocalypse  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

Wired has an interesting tale about the "Georgia Guidestones", a mysterious artifact created in 1980 by an unknown group - American Stonehenge: Monumental Instructions for the Post-Apocalypse. With a bit more of an ominous spin this would have been good fodder for something like Rigorous Intuition in its heyday, with rumours that it was created by some Rosicrucian style group intent on reducing the human population and creating a New World Order. While there are some deep green groups (such as the Sea Shepherd crew) who, as the stones recommend, advocate cutting the population down to 500 million, I'm hoping that (if there really is a Rosicrucian conspiracy out there) Stewart Brand's view that 1970's style population fears were overblown (which I talk about in The Fat Man, The Population Bomb And The Green Revolution) prevails - and Brand strikes me as someone who would be a pretty good chance of being part of any reason based conspiracy if one did exist.

The strangest monument in America looms over a barren knoll in northeastern Georgia. Five massive slabs of polished granite rise out of the earth in a star pattern. The rocks are each 16 feet tall, with four of them weighing more than 20 tons apiece. Together they support a 25,000-pound capstone. Approaching the edifice, it's hard not to think immediately of England's Stonehenge or possibly the ominous monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Built in 1980, these pale gray rocks are quietly awaiting the end of the world as we know it.

Called the Georgia Guidestones, the monument is a mystery—nobody knows exactly who commissioned it or why. The only clues to its origin are on a nearby plaque on the ground—which gives the dimensions and explains a series of intricate notches and holes that correspond to the movements of the sun and stars—and the "guides" themselves, directives carved into the rocks. These instructions appear in eight languages ranging from English to Swahili and reflect a peculiar New Age ideology. Some are vaguely eugenic (guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity); others prescribe standard-issue hippie mysticism (prize truth—beauty—love—seeking harmony with the infinite).

What's most widely agreed upon—based on the evidence available—is that the Guidestones are meant to instruct the dazed survivors of some impending apocalypse as they attempt to reconstitute civilization. Not everyone is comfortable with this notion. A few days before I visited, the stones had been splattered with polyurethane and spray-painted with graffiti, including slogans like "Death to the new world order." This defacement was the first serious act of vandalism in the Guidestones' history, but it was hardly the first objection to their existence. In fact, for more than three decades this uncanny structure in the heart of the Bible Belt has been generating responses that range from enchantment to horror. Supporters (notable among them Yoko Ono) have praised the messages as a stirring call to rational thinking, akin to Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. Opponents have attacked them as the Ten Commandments of the Antichrist.

Whoever the anonymous architects of the Guidestones were, they knew what they were doing: The monument is a highly engineered structure that flawlessly tracks the sun. It also manages to engender endless fascination, thanks to a carefully orchestrated aura of mystery. And the stones have attracted plenty of devotees to defend against folks who would like them destroyed. Clearly, whoever had the monument placed here understood one thing very well: People prize what they don't understand at least as much as what they do.

The story of the Georgia Guidestones began on a Friday afternoon in June 1979, when an elegant gray-haired gentleman showed up in Elbert County, made his way to the offices of Elberton Granite Finishing, and introduced himself as Robert C. Christian. He claimed to represent "a small group of loyal Americans" who had been planning the installation of an unusually large and complex stone monument. Christian had come to Elberton—the county seat and the granite capital of the world—because he believed its quarries produced the finest stone on the planet. ...

The astrological specifications for the Guidestones were so complex that Fendley had to retain the services of an astronomer from the University of Georgia to help implement the design. The four outer stones were to be oriented based on the limits of the sun's yearly migration. The center column needed two precisely calibrated features: a hole through which the North Star would be visible at all times, and a slot that was to align with the position of the rising sun during the solstices and equinoxes. The principal component of the capstone was a 7\8-inch aperture through which a beam of sunlight would pass at noon each day, shining on the center stone to indicate the day of the year.

The main feature of the monument, though, would be the 10 dictates carved into both faces of the outer stones, in eight languages: English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindi, and Swahili. A mission statement of sorts (let these be guidestones to an age of reason) was also to be engraved on the sides of the capstone in Egyptian hieroglyphics, classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Babylonian cuneiform. The United Nations provided some of the translations (including those for the dead languages), which were stenciled onto the stones and etched with a sandblaster.

By early 1980, a bulldozer was scraping the Double 7 hilltop to bedrock, where five granite slabs serving as a foundation were laid out in a paddle-wheel design. A 100-foot-tall crane was used to lift the stones into place. Each of the outer rocks was 16 feet 4 inches high, 6 feet 6 inches wide, and 1 foot 7 inches thick. The center column was the same (except only half the width), and the capstone measured 9 feet 8 inches long, 6 feet 6 inches wide, and 1 foot 7 inches thick. Including the foundation stones, the monument's total weight was almost 240,000 pounds. Covered with sheets of black plastic in preparation for an unveiling on the vernal equinox, the Guidestones towered over the cattle that continued to graze beneath it at the approach of winter's end. ...

But many who read what was written on the stones were unsettled. Guide number one was, of course, the real stopper: maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. There were already 4.5 billion people on the planet, meaning eight out of nine had to go (today it would be closer to 12 out of 13). This instruction was echoed and expanded by tenet number two: guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity. It didn't take a great deal of imagination to draw an analogy to the practices of, among others, the Nazis. Guide number three instructed readers to unite humanity with a living new language. This sent a shiver up the spine of local ministers who knew that the Book of Revelations warned of a common tongue and a one-world government as the accomplishments of the Antichrist. Guide number four—rule passion—faith—tradition—and all things with tempered reason—was similarly threatening to Christians committed to the primacy of faith over all. The last six guides were homiletic by comparison. protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. avoid petty laws and useless officials. balance personal rights with social duties. prize truth—beauty—love—seeking harmony with the infinite. be not a cancer on the earth—leave room for nature—leave room for nature. ...

The mysterious story of R. C. Christian and the absence of information about the true meaning of the Guidestones was bound to become an irresistible draw for conspiracy theorists and "investigators" of all kinds. Not surprisingly, three decades later there is no shortage of observers rushing to fill the void with all sorts of explanations.

Among them is an activist named Mark Dice, author of a book called The Resistance Manifesto. In 2005, Dice (who was using a pseudonym of his own—"John Conner"—appropriated from the Terminator franchise's main character) began to demand that the Guidestones be "smashed into a million pieces." He claims that the monument has "a deep Satanic origin," a stance that has earned him plenty of coverage, both in print and on the Web. According to Dice, Christian was a high-ranking member of "a Luciferian secret society" at the forefront of the New World Order. "The elite are planning to develop successful life-extension technology in the next few decades that will nearly stop the aging process," Dice says, "and they fear that with the current population of Earth so high, the masses will be using resources that the elite want for themselves. The Guidestones are the New World Order's Ten Commandments. They're also a way for the elite to get a laugh at the expense of the uninformed masses, as their agenda stands as clear as day and the zombies don't even notice it." ...

Dice, of course, is far from the only person with a theory about the Guidestones. Jay Weidner, a former Seattle radio commentator turned erudite conspiracy hunter, has heavily invested time and energy into one of the most popular hypotheses. He argues that Christian and his associates were Rosicrucians, followers of the Order of the Rosy Cross, a secret society of mystics that originated in late medieval Germany and claim understanding of esoteric truths about nature, the universe, and the spiritual realm that have been concealed from ordinary people. Weidner considers the name R. C. Christian an homage to the legendary 14th-century founder of the Rosicrucians, a man first identified as Frater C.R.C. and later as Christian Rosenkreuz. Secrecy, Weidner notes, has been a hallmark of the Rosicrucians, a group that announced itself to the world in the early 17th century with a pair of anonymous manifestos that created a huge stir across Europe, despite the fact that no one was ever able to identify a single member. While the guides on the Georgia stones fly in the face of orthodox Christian eschatology, they conform quite well to the tenets of Rosicrucianism, which stress reason and endorse a harmonic relationship with nature.

Weidner also has a theory about the purpose of the Guidestones. An authority on the hermetic and alchemical traditions that spawned the Rosicrucians, he believes that for generations the group has been passing down knowledge of a solar cycle that climaxes every 13,000 years. During this culmination, outsize coronal mass ejections are supposed to devastate Earth. Meanwhile, the shadowy organization behind the Guidestones is now orchestrating a "planetary chaos," Weidner believes, that began with the recent collapse of the US financial system and will result eventually in major disruptions of oil and food supplies, mass riots, and ethnic wars worldwide, all leading up to the Big Event on December 21, 2012. "They want to get the population down," Weidner says, "and this is what they think will do it. The Guidestones are there to instruct the survivors."

Pension Funds Fret as Chevron Faces Ecuador Ruling  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The WSJ has an article on Chevron's legal woes in the wake of the environmental damage they have caused in Ecuador - Pension Funds Fret as Chevron Faces Ecuador Ruling.

Big public pension funds are raising concerns about an impending court judgment that could hold Chevron Corp. liable for billions of dollars in alleged environmental damages in the Ecuadorian jungle.

The funds, which together hold $1 billion in Chevron shares, are worried that the oil giant could face as much as $27 billion in damages in the 15-year-old class-action case, which was filed by a U.S. law firm on behalf of thousands of indigenous Ecuadorians.

The lawsuit, being tried in the Amazonian town of Lago Agrio, alleges that Texaco polluted waterways and wells across a vast area of Ecuador by dumping billions of gallons of oil waste into leaky pits during 20 years of operations there. Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001 for about $30 billion.

The potential damages in the case, which were tallied by a court-appointed expert, could dwarf the $3.5 billion Exxon Corp. had to pay for cleanup, fines and damages after the 1989 Valdez oil spill.

Chevron has said the lawsuit is baseless, and has attacked the assessment of its potential damages as flawed.

The long legal fight has spilled over into Washington. Chevron is pushing the U.S. Trade Representative's office to strip Ecuador of a range of trade preferences. It says the Ecuadorian government and state-owned oil company PetroEcuador haven't lived up to agreements indemnifying Chevron against future liabilities in the case. The USTR hasn't acted on Chevron's requests, the most recent of which came in a letter last month.

Eric Bloom, a lawyer who represents Ecuador in Washington, dismisses the Chevron petitions as "an attempt to use political muscle to shut down a legal case."

Others have urged the trade agency to stay out of the matter, including then-Sen. Barack Obama, who wrote a letter to the Bush administration in 2006 saying the Ecuadorian plaintiffs "deserve their day in court."

What Are Friends For ? A Longer Life  

Posted by Big Gav in

The New York Times has an interesting (and yes - completely off topic) article on the impact of having friends on your health - What Are Friends For? A Longer Life.

In the quest for better health, many people turn to doctors, self-help books or herbal supplements. But they overlook a powerful weapon that could help them fight illness and depression, speed recovery, slow aging and prolong life: their friends.

Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friendship and social networks in overall health. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.” ...

Bella DePaulo, a visiting psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose work focuses on single people and friendships, notes that in many studies, friendship has an even greater effect on health than a spouse or family member. In the study of nurses with breast cancer, having a spouse wasn’t associated with survival.

While many friendship studies focus on the intense relationships of women, some research shows that men can benefit, too. In a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men, attachment to a single person didn’t appear to affect the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. Only smoking was as important a risk factor as lack of social support.

Exactly why friendship has such a big effect isn’t entirely clear. While friends can run errands and pick up medicine for a sick person, the benefits go well beyond physical assistance; indeed, proximity does not seem to be a factor.

It may be that people with strong social ties also have better access to health services and care. Beyond that, however, friendship clearly has a profound psychological effect. People with strong friendships are less likely than others to get colds, perhaps because they have lower stress levels.

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

“People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Karen A. Roberto, director of the center for gerontology at Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.”


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