Camry Hybrid production begins in Australia  

Posted by Big Gav in , , reports that Toyota has begun production of hybrid cars in Australia - Camry Hybrid production begins in Australia.

Sparks flew this morning as Toyota Australia turned on the robots that will make the country’s first hybrid car based on a Camry.

Dignitaries on hand included Federal Industry Minister Kim Carr and Victorian premier John Brumby both of whom have invested taxpayers funds heavily in order to secure the project.

The Camry, the biggest seller in the medium-sized car category, will receive the equivalent of a heart and lung transplant to accommodate Toyota’s "Synergy Drive" hybrid drivetrain.

It allies an electric motor to a conventional internal combustion four-cylinder petrol engine with sophisticated electronics to charge its onboard battery.

The hybrid Camry, like the Toyota Prius hybrid, can operate on electric power alone, or in tandem with the petrol engine to cut fuel use and emissions.

It’s a high stakes venture to secure the future of the Altona manufacturing plant and its workers and suppliers, which has seen demand slump for its locally-made four-cylinder Camry and six-cylinder Aurion sedans.

Toyota will build a small batch of pre-production vehicles at Altona before beginning full-scale production in December. The car will go on sale in February.

Australia sweats through long, hot winter  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

AFP has a report on Australia's record warm winter - Australia sweats through long, hot winter.

Drought-hit Australia has endured an exceptionally hot winter, with abnormal temperatures shattering records that had in some places stood since World War II, official figures show.

In a special climate statement released late Wednesday, the weather bureau said maximum temperatures in August were broadly three degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the long-term average.

"August 2009 is almost certain to be Australia's warmest August on record," the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said.

Taken with above-average temperatures in June and July, the bureau said the exceptional August figures would be "sufficient to lift average winter temperatures to record or near-record levels".

The heatwave smashed records across the country, most notably in the subtropical northeast region and drought-struck areas in the country's centre.

Some coastal towns recorded their hottest day for 2009 during August, surpassing temperatures reached at the height of Australia's scorching summer months.

Records dating back to World War II toppled in the New South Wales Outback towns of Bourke and Walgett, where new August highs of 34.4 degrees Celsius exceeded benchmarks set in 1946, the bureau said. The mercury soared as high as 37 degrees at Boulia, in the Queensland Outback.

A record dry spell was also likely to be recorded there, with an average of just 1.65 millimetres (0.07 inches) of rain between July and August, the bureau warned.
According to government analysis Australia faces its driest, hottest summer in a decade this year, with an El Nino weather pattern expected to bring less rain and higher temperatures.

More at the SMH - Abnormal weather a hot August blight.
IF YOU thought it has been unseasonably warm lately, you are correct - the Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that this is almost certainly going to be the hottest August on record by a big margin.

Temperature records across NSW and Queensland were smashed by three degrees or more this week. The winter heatwave is ''highly abnormal'', according to a special climate statement released by the bureau yesterday.

Water shortage threatens two million people in southern Iraq  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The Guardian has a report on the impact of falling water levels in the Euphrates river in Iraq - Water shortage threatens two million people in southern Iraq.

A water shortage described as the most critical since the earliest days of Iraq's civilisation is threatening to leave up to 2 million people in the south of the country without electricity and almost as many without drinking water.

An already meagre supply of electricity to Iraq's fourth-largest city of Nasiriyah has fallen by 50% during the last three weeks because of the rapidly falling levels of the Euphrates river, which has only two of four power-generating turbines left working.

If, as predicted, the river falls by a further 20cm during the next fortnight, engineers say the remaining two turbines will also close down, forcing a total blackout in the city.

Down river, where the Euphrates spills out into the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the north-eastern corner of the Persian Gulf, the lack of fresh water has raised salinity levels so high that two towns, of about 3,000 people, on the northern edge of Basra have this week evacuated. "We can no longer drink this water," said one local woman from the village of al-Fal. "Our animals are all dead and many people here are diseased."

Iraqi officials have been attempting to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis for months, which, like much else in this fractured society, has many causes, both man-made and natural.

Two winters of significantly lower than normal rainfalls – half the annual average last year and one-third the year before – have followed six years of crippling instability, in which industry barely functioned and agriculture struggled to meet half of subsistence needs.

"For thousands of years Iraq's agricultural lands were rich with planted wheat, rice and barley," said Salah Aziz, director of planning in Iraq's agricultural ministry, adding that land was "100% in use".

"This year less than 50% of the land is in use and most of the yields are marginal. This year we cannot begin to cover even 40% of Iraq's fruit and vegetable demand."

During the last five chaotic years, many new dams and reservoirs have been built in Turkey, Syria and Iran, which share the Euphrates and its small tributaries. The effect has been to starve the Euphrates of its lifeblood, which throughout the ages has guaranteed bountiful water, even during drought. At the same time, irrigators have tried tilling marginal land in an attempt for quick yields and in all cases the projects have been abandoned.

Apocalypse 2012  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Playboy has an article on the ongoing fascination apocaphiles have with global collapse / transformation in 2012 - APOCALYPSE 2012.

Displayed on Pace’s dining room table is a collection of weapons: an assault rifle, a shotgun, numerous handguns, hunting knives and enough ammo to start a small war. Alongside the arms are gas masks, antiradiation pills and about $10,000 worth of gold and silver. The gold and silver will come in handy when paper money becomes worthless, which it already has, according to Pace. It’s just that people don’t know it yet. Don’t call him a survivalist, though: “To me a survivalist is some white supremacist living up in the mountains somewhere. I’m not a survivalist. I’m a preparer.”

And there’s a lot to prepare for, according to Pace, who anticipates a world in the not too distant future where "you’ll need a wheelbarrow full of dollars to buy a loaf of bread, just like in Zimbabwe.” Catastrophic climate change will have swamped the coastal cities. (“You’ll want to be at least 300 feet above sea level.”) Law and order will have broken down. (“You’ll want to stay away from the population centers to avoid the mobs.”) And food will be scarce. (“If we have a major crop failure, millions of people will starve.”) But what Pace fears most is a terrorist nuke that could destroy America’s electrical grid: “If they really wanted to disrupt America, an airburst nuke would provide an electromagnetic pulse 300 miles wide that would probably cascade the rest of the system. Without electricity we’ve really got a problem.”

Whatever happens, Pace intends to be ready. “In my opinion 2012 is the year of collapse,” he says. “The perfect storm approaching is a conglomeration of crescendos. The financial collapse, political corruption, natural disaster, terrorism and resource scarcity will culminate in wars and revolution.”

Pace is not alone. In the past few years a growing number of citizens across the globe—survivalists, conspiracy theorists, alternative religion seekers, former military officers, UFO buffs, hard-core Bible-thumpers, ordinary housewives who,post-Katrina, don’t trust the government to save their loved ones if a disaster occurs—have become fixated on December 21, 2012 as EOTWAWKI (“end of the world as we know it”). The Mayan long-count calendar supposedly predicts 2012 as the year in which a 5,000-year cycle of civilization will come to an abrupt halt. The Mayan civilization, a sophisticated culture of temples and cities that flourished in what is now Mexico, mysteriously collapsed around the ninth century. The Mayans have been a source of fascination for spiritual Western tourists since the Beats, particularly William Burroughs, who peppered his novels with references to Mayan timekeeping. The idea that Mayans predicted the world would end in 2012 has been around since at least the 1980s, when writer and 2012 guru José Argüelles popularized the concept with his book The Mayan Factor.

For any number of reasons the 2012 meme has caught on. The media, in documentaries such as’s 2012: Science or Superstition and books such as Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, have endlessly chronicled the movement and what to expect. Pinchbeck perhaps more than anyone else has become the great—and most controversial—advocate for a transformational 2012. Apocalypse fever is set to hit multiplexes with the November release of Roland Emmerich’s big-budget Hollywood dystopian disaster movie 2012, starring John Cusack and Amanda Peet.

A cottage industry of small companies that supply products to 2012ers is now thriving, offering everything from bullets to backup generators to full-size bunkers (such as a $36,000 six-person bargain-basement underground bomb shelter, complete with a nuclear, biological and chemical filtering system, which a Virginia Beach company called Hardened Structures offers to deliver and install anywhere in the U.S.). In May the Associated Press reported that suppliers of survivalist gear and military surplus stores nationwide had seen as much as a 50 percent rise in business in recent months. One survivalist told the AP that the website of his consulting business—which teaches newcomers emergency preparedness—had seen a threefold increase in traffic in the past 14 months. ...

The 2012 movement would be easy to dismiss as pseudo-mystical mumbo jumbo if it weren’t for the disturbing real-world trends that inform the less fanciful predictions of bad times ahead: catastrophic climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, financial collapse, swine flu, peak oil, peak food. This is the everyday fodder of CNN and Newsweek, not science fiction or religious fantasy. Home prices have declined almost 33 percent since their peak in 2006, and the unemployment rate in America is the worst it has been since 1983. When you add the specter of nuclear-armed religious fanatics, who wouldn’t be a bit anxious about what’s coming down the cosmic sewer pipe?

Kenaf-Reinforced Bioplastic  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Transmaterial has a post on a new type of bioplastic the incorporates kenaf fibres - Kenaf-Reinforced Bioplastic.

The current rapid depletion of petroleum resources has led to the search for renewable alternatives. One response is the development of bioplastic, made of plant-derived materials (biomass). A substitute for petroleum-based materials, biomass-based materials have distinct advantages, such as the ability to reduce the CO2 gas that causes global warming and superior degradability (biodegradability) in the soil after disposal.

Dr. Masatoshi Iji and his laboratory at NEC Corporation have developed a new composite material comprised of kenaf fiber–reinforced polylactic acid. With a 90 percent biomass content, it boasts the highest biomass-based content of any current bioplastic material used for electronic equipment. Kenaf is a plant originally grown in Africa, with one of the highest rates of CO2 absorption of any plant. (Its photosynthesis rate is 3 to 9 times higher than that of ordinary plants resins, and it is capable of absorbing approximately 1.4 tons of CO2 per ton.) It is very effective in mitigating the effects of global warming and is currently being grown on other continents for its beneficial properties.

Kenaf-Reinforced Bioplastic was recently used for the casing of a Japanese mobile phone, which was the first phone in the world with a casing made mostly of bioplastic. The casing was produced without thick pigments or additional coatings, subtly revealing the kenaf fibers.

Oil Search On The Hunt For Coal Seam Gas in Papua New Guinea  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Gas Today reports that Oil Search has begun looking for coal seam gas in PNG to supplement production from natural gas fields - Oil Search is on to find CSG in PNG.

Oil Search has been awarded seven exploration licences to investigate coal seam gas (CSG) potential in the Strickland Basin, Papua New Guinea (PNG). Oil Search has committed to spend approximately $A5.9 million over the next two years on evaluation of existing data as well as the drilling and sampling of three shallow wells.

The agreement between the PNG Government and Oil Search includes an option to extend the licences for an additional two years subject to relinquishments and an additional committed work program. Existing well data suggests the presence of thick coal layers and a large coal basin in the area of the licenses. The rank, gas content and producibility of the coals will be constrained by the proposed drilling program which is anticipated to reach a total depth of less than 900 m.

Oil Search Managing Director Peter Botten said “While substantial coal seams have been penetrated by previous petroleum wells in the Foreland area of PNG and estimated net coal thickness compares favourable to existing CSG projects globally, the potential for CSG in PNG has not been fully investigated. “Any successful discovery of CSG resources in PNG could be integrated with supply from nearby conventional gas fields, thereby reducing the risks for any development,” he said.

There is more at The Age - Oil Search eyes PNG expansion.
THE liquefied natural gas ''train gang'' rolls on after Oil Search said it hoped to add a third gas-processing train to the ExxonMobil-led Papua New Guinea LNG project.

It comes a week after Woodside's Don Voelte said work had begun on two extra LNG trains at its Pluto project off the West Australian coast, with locations for two more trains being considered. ...

Mr Botten said Oil Search had been granted seven exploration licences in PNG. If it proved to be a large gas resource, the joint venture would look to expand on the 6.3 million tonnes a year planned for the first two trains, he said. ''We have a number of our fields committed to PNG LNG, we have a number of our fields that aren't,'' he said. ''If we are successful in proving up our coal seam gas resource base, that resource base will be used to further fuel our gas expansion activities and hopefully those expansion activities will include a further train of LNG.''

Meanwhile, Mr Voelte has offered the use of a drilling rig to help stop the oil spill that began on Friday morning 250 kilometres off the West Australian coast. PTTEP Australasia, the Thai company that contracted the rig at the centre of the leak, has said it will take at least seven weeks to stop the leak. ''We have contacted the Government and have put all of Woodside's resources at their use if they want them,'' Mr Voelte said. ''We've got a rig they can take if they want a rig.''

The Queensland Business Review reports that another new power station fueled by coal seam gas has opened in Queensland - Gas power station officially firing.
Minister for Infrastructure and Planning, Stirling Hinchcliffe, yesterday officially opened the Braemar 2 power station.

The 450MW coal seam gas-fired power station, near Dalby in southern Queensland, will provide 3 percent of the combined electricity requirements of Queensland and New South Wales and produce less than half the emissions of an equivalent-sized coal-fired power station. ...

The facility consists of three 150MW open-cycle, gas-fired generation units and 110km high-pressure pipeline network. It is managed by ERM Power and supplied with coal seam gas from Arrow Energy’s nearby fields.

Arrow is currently supplying gas to the station at an annualised rate of around 5.5 petajoules (PJ). This will ramp up over the next 12 months to 15 PJ. The Tipton West Joint Venture (70 percent Arrow, 30 percent Shell) will contribute 3.5 PJ/a and the Daandine Joint Venture (70 percent Arrow, 30 percent Shell) will supply 11.5 PJ/a under a 12-year gas sales agreement.

The power station will operate initially as a peak and shoulder period generator that will aim to dispatch electricity during periods of higher electricity demand and capture the associated higher electricity prices during that time.

A 24 MW Wave Power Plant For Turkey ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

Renewable Energy World has an article on a wave power - Langlee Wave Power And Unmaksan To Build 24-MW System

Turkish energy company Unmaksan and Norwegian energy company Langlee Wave Power have signed a deal to build a 24-MW wave power system off the coast of Turkey. The exact location has not been determined.

The first phase of the project calls for a 120 KW pilot facility, which will eventually be developed into a 24-MW system comprised of 200 wave energy converters designed by Langlee.

“Unmaksan has analyzed more than 70 different wave power concepts, and we believe Langlee has the most robust technology and cost-effective solution,” Unmaksan Managing Director Serhat Kan said in a news release.

The US$169 million project will be built close to the shoreline in shallow waters near existing distribution systems, the companies said. Unmaksan will build the project and Langlee owns the licensing rights to the technology. Langlee said it expects to receive US$14.7 million in licensing fees from the project.

Earlier this year, the World Bank approved US$600 million in financing for Turkey’s Private Sector Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Project

Ford Plans Vehicles to Tap Power Grids  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

The WSJ has an article on Ford's electric car plans and their efforts to integrate with smart grids - Ford Plans Vehicles to Tap Power Grids.

Ford Motor Co. is launching an in-vehicle technology to let its customers recharge electric cars when energy rates are low.

The "smart" charging concept announced Tuesday is key for all auto makers that are pursuing electric vehicles in a variety of forms, from plug-in gas-electric hybrids to fully electric cars and trucks that use no gasoline. Most of those vehicles are still months, if not years, away from reaching showrooms.

But car companies say that in order for electrified cars to be accepted widely, the companies must steer customers away from sapping too much power from the electric grid during peak hours—which could be cost-prohibitive and threaten the grid's stability. They also want consumers to be able to charge their cars quickly and at the most efficient times.

Developing an electric vehicle was relatively easy compared with working with "our partners at energy providers," Bill Ford, the auto maker's executive chairman, said during a question-and-answer session at the company's Dearborn, Mich., test track. There are more than 3,000 utility companies, and just a handful of auto companies.

The touch-screen technology will allow the car owner to program how to recharge the vehicle, even delaying the recharge for the middle of the night or choosing to tap renewable energy generated by wind or sun. A similar system is expected to be used when General Motors Co.'s Chevy introduces its plug-in Volt car late next year, a company spokesman said.

Other car makers working on electric vehicles include Toyota Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., maker of Subarus. Nissan Motor Co. announced this year it will build 100,000 electric cars a year at its plant in Smyrna, Tenn., by 2013.

Ford plans to bring to market a pure battery electric Transit Connect commercial van next year, an all-electric Focus compact car in 2011, and a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle in 2012. ...

When plugged in, Ford's battery systems in plug-in hybrids will be able to talk to the electrical grid through "smart" meters provided by utility companies via wireless networking. The owner uses an in-dash computer to choose when the vehicle should recharge, for how long and at what utility rate.

All 21 SUVs in Ford's experimental fleet of plug-in hybrid Escapes eventually will be equipped with the vehicle-to-grid communications technology.

Tony Posawatz, vehicle line director for the Volt program, said that the kind of technology unveiled by Ford Tuesday was already demonstrated by GM in December.

Instead of relying on so-called "smart" utility meters, the Volt will be able to interact with utility companies remotely through GM's OnStar technology. "The point is some of our competitors will rely on technology that requires smart meters, which is years away," Mr. Posawatz said. "We do not."

The San Francisco Business Times has a look at Ford's comparison of its approach to that of Better Place - Ford: 5 Better Place Challenges.
While meeting with Susan Cischke, group vice president of sustainability, environment and safety engineering at Ford Motor Company, we got on the topic of Better Place.

Cischke was in town pitching the 2010 Taurus, which comes equipped with keyless entry, a key that can be programmed to block the radio until seatbelts are fastened (handy if you lend your car to your children), and the EcoBoost engine which ups the gas mileage to 28 miles per gallon on the highway and 17 in the city — important for Ford which has lagged in this area.
But the real miles per gallon improvements will come from the fleet of hybrids Ford is planning and, in 2011, Ford will roll out its first all-electric Ford Focus.

Cischke has met multiple times with Palo Alto-based Better Place Founder Shai Agassi, whose pitching a new model for electric cars whereby car owners don’t own the battery in their car. Instead, Better Place would own electric car batteries and lease them back to car owners, plus sell the electricity used to charge the battery to the customers. The model relies on hundreds of thousands of public car charging stations for in-town charging, plus battery swapping stations where customers can swap out batteries in just a few minutes when a longer battery range is required.

While Cischke said she and Ford are staying open-minded about different models, she’s skeptical about Better Place for a number of reasons.

1. Better Place is a middle man: What’s stopping PG&E Co. or Ford Motor Co. from owning car batteries or selling power to customers through their own charging stations without the help of a middle man?

2. Battery swapping stations are not realistic: Hundreds if not thousands of these would have to be built across the country before this idea could work — an expensive endeavor and the same kind of problem that derailed the advent of hydrogen as a fuel source for autos. Stocking every kind of battery for every electric vehicle will be a nightmare. And actually switching out batteries will prove difficult since every car will be designed differently and batteries weigh thousands of pounds. “My view is that until infrastructure is ready and charging stations are everywhere, a plug-in hybrid makes a lot more sense,” Cischke said.

3. Who will finance a car that has no battery? What value is a car without the battery, and what companies would be willing to finance just the body, sans battery. Cischke guesses not too many.

4. Financial support is not yet apparent here: Better Place has demoed it’s model in Denmark and Israel and where it had full support of the government – including excise taxes that support the installation of infrastructure there. But there seems little hope that the U.S. government will provide the same financial support. Even in the Bay Area where Mayors announced a plan to jointly electrify, touting Better Place as a solution, no money has changed hands.

5. Other models might prove cheaper, easier and ultimately more appealing: Ford said its looked at lots of other business models, hoping to integrate the best solutions for getting the most out of electric cars. “One thing that would change (Better Place’s) model is if quick charging technology was available,” said Cischke. That would eliminate the need for costly battery swapping stations, she said. “They (Better Place) are definitely not the only game in town,” she said.

U.S. finds water polluted near gas-drilling sites  

Posted by Big Gav in

While unconventional gas sources have enabled countires like the US to avoid the previously predicted "natural gas cliff", there are a number of downsides to the extraction of this resource, as pointed out in this article from Reuters - U.S. finds water polluted near gas-drilling sites.

U.S. government scientists have for the first time found chemical contaminants in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling operations, fueling concern that a gas-extraction technique is endangering the health of people who live close to drilling rigs.

The Environmental Protection Agency found chemicals that researchers say may cause illnesses including cancer, kidney failure, anemia and fertility problems in water from 11 of 39 wells tested around the Wyoming town of Pavillion in March and May this year.

The report issued this month did not reach a conclusion about the cause of contamination but named gas drilling as a potential source.

Gas drilling companies say the gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," is safe, but opponents contend it pollutes groundwater with dangerous substances.

Evidence of a link between gas drilling and water contamination would set back development of a clean-burning fuel promoted by the Obama administration as crucial to the future of U.S. energy production.

Some experts believe the United States holds more than 100 years worth of natural gas reserves. The new findings may raise questions about the process companies such as EnCana Corp (ECA.TO), Halliburton Co (HAL.N) and others commonly use to pump the gas from deep geological formations. Encana, Canada's biggest energy company, is drilling in Pavillion.

"There may be an indication of groundwater contamination by oil and gas activities," said the 44-page report, which received little public attention when released on Aug. 11. "Many activities in gas well drilling (and) hydraulic fracturing ... involve injecting water and other fluids into the well and have the potential to create cross-contamination of aquifers."

Overmighty finance levies a tithe on growth  

Posted by Big Gav

The FT has an interesting article pondering how large the financial sector can become before it starts to act as a brake on economic growth - Overmighty finance levies a tithe on growth.

The protracted debate over how to clean up after the financial crisis – and how to reform our accident-prone financial system to prevent another such episode – is stuck on the problem of how to regulate markets without undermining the benefits they bring.

What is sorely missing is any real discussion of what function our financial system is supposed to perform and how well it is doing that job – and, just as important, at what cost.

The crucial role of the financial system in a mostly free-enterprise economy is to allocate capital investment towards the most productive applications. The energetic growth and technological advance of the western economies suggest that our financial system has done this job pretty well over long periods. The role of start-up companies in this process – Apple, Microsoft, Google and many others – testifies to the success not just of our entrepreneurs, but our financial markets, too. The financially triggered Great Recession of 2008 blemishes this record but does not wipe it away.

Aside from the recession, it is important to ask what this once-admired mechanism costs to run. If a new fertiliser offers a farmer the prospect of a higher crop yield but its price and the cost of transporting and spreading it exceeds what the additional produce will bring at market, it is a bad deal for the farmer. A financial system, which allocates scarce investment capital, is no different.

The discussion of the costs associated with our financial system has mostly focused on the paper value of its recent mistakes and what taxpayers have had to put up to supply first aid. The estimated $4,000bn of losses in US mortgage-related securities are just the surface of the story. Beneath those losses are real economic costs due to wasted resources: mortgage mis-pricing led the US to build far too many houses. Similar pricing errors in the telecoms bubble a decade ago led to millions of miles of unused fibre-optic cable being laid.

The misused resources and the output foregone due to the recession are still part of the calculation of how (in)efficient our financial system is. What has somehow escaped attention is the cost of running the system.

One part of that cost is especially apparent just now as students return to universities. For years, much of the best young talent in the western world has gone to private financial firms. At Harvard more than a quarter of our recent graduates who have taken jobs have headed into finance. The same is true elsewhere. The extent to which employees in the US financial sector are more likely to have college educations than other workers has more than tripled over the last three decades.

At the individual level, no one can blame these graduates. But at the level of the aggregate economy, we are wasting one of our most precious resources. While some part of what they do helps to allocate our investment capital more effectively, much of their activity adds no economic value.

Perversely, the largest individual returns seem to flow to those whose job is to ensure that microscopically small deviations from observable regularities in asset price relationships persist for only one millisecond instead of three. These talented and energetic young citizens could surely be doing something more useful.

The fact that they are not is itself a waste of resources. But the reason they are not – what provides the incentive that attracts so many of our best students into finance – also bears on how well our financial system is serving our economy.

In the US, both the share of all wages and salaries paid by the financial firms and those firms’ share of all profits earned have risen sharply in recent decades. In the early 1950s, the “finance” sector (not counting insurance and real estate) accounted for 3 per cent of all US wages and salaries; in the current decade that share is 7 per cent. From the 1950s to the 1980s, the finance sector accounted for 10 per cent of all profits earned by US corporations; in the first half of this decade it reached 34 per cent.

These wages and profits – and the office rents, utility bills, advertising and travel expenses – are all parts of the cost of running the mechanism that allocates our economy’s capital. To recall, what makes a new fertiliser a good deal for the farmer is not just that it delivers greater production per acre but that the added production is sufficient to buy the fertiliser and increase the farmer’s own return.

What makes a more efficient financial system worthwhile is not just that it allows us to achieve greater production and economic growth, but that the rest of the economy benefits. The more the financial system costs to run, the higher the hurdle. Does the increased efficiency our investment allocation system delivers meet that hurdle? We simply do not know. ...

On your locobike  

Posted by Big Gav in

The ABC has a report on a transport experiment up on the NSW north coast - On your locobike!.

Two mates have found a novel way to make the most out of old rusting railway lines.

A few years ago Julio Mottola and Michael Albert hatched a plan to create a unique bike that could be ridden on rusting tracks. Enter the "locobike" - two bicycles joined together with a solid aluminium frame with four little polyurethane wheels attached. The wheels then lock the bicycles to the railway tracks and away you go.

Secret and illegal trials of the prototype, on the disused Casino to Murwillumbah rail line on the NSW north coast, were a success. After covering more than 100 kilometres in these underground trials, the duo began lobbying to make their contraption legal. Several Byron Bay locals are backing the idea and a former lawyer for Dick Smith is working pro bono to organise a petition to take to the local council.

Jewellery designer Mr Mottola, and Mr Albert, who runs a hat shop in Melbourne, spent a year getting their invention just right. "It's a very safe and simple design and it's very easy to use," Mr Mottola told ABC News Online. "It requires less muscle work than riding a bicycle on the road because the tyres sit on top of the rails so there's very little friction."

It took the pedaling pair two-and-a-half hours to locoride from Mullumbimby to Byron Bay.

The Real Cost Of Cheap Food  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Grist points to a recent article in Time on some of the shortcomings of industrial agriculture - Sustainable ag meets the MSM—and wins!

TIME Magazine‘s current cover story wants you to know that our fossil-fueled, chemically intensive industrial food system is destined to fail. Granted, the second part of that sentence isn’t news to Grist readers. But the first part of that sentence is news. Personally, I wouldn’t have expected to read the following positively Philpottian (if not Pollan-esque) prose in a national newsweekly cover story:
With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later. As the developing world grows richer, hundreds of millions of people will want to shift to the same calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans so unhealthy — demand for meat and poultry worldwide is set to rise 25% by 2015 — but the earth can no longer deliver. Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs — and bland taste. Sustainable food has an élitist reputation, but each of us depends on the soil, animals and plants — and as every farmer knows, if you don’t take care of your land, it can’t take care of you.

TIME Magazine talking about exhausted soil? Whooda thunkit? The importance of Bryan Walsh’s piece, of course, isn’t in the particulars of its insights or its prescriptions. The importance (aside from its very existence as a cover story) is in its declarative nature. For openers, Walsh offers a whirlwind tour of industrial ag practices which covers swine tail docking, sub-therapeutic antibiotic use, manure lagoons, ag subsidies, nitrogen fertilizer run-off and the Gulf of Mexico deadzone—all in the first paragraph. And better yet, Walsh doesn’t fall back on that tired journalistic trope of the “third party fact.” “Experts” don’t “claim” nor do “critics” “observe” nor even does “Michael Pollan” “relate” this or that fact of industrial ag’s excesses: they are instead plainly stated as established, if awful, truth. How refreshing.

Indeed, in these two paragraphs Walsh brings into stark relief the very issues over which Big Ag willfully and relentlessly refuses to engage. One of the more surprising aspects of the article is a total lack of any boilerplate denials from Big Ag of all responsibility for the ills of industrial food that typically get some play whenever the topic of food production gets attention from the MSM. I don’t think it’s an oversight that we didn’t hear from the National Corn Growers Association or the American Farm Bureau or Monsanto or Smithfield or any other Big Ag mouthpiece in this article—it’s likely that nothing they said was worth repeating. ...

If I have a regret about this piece, it’s in the conclusion. Walsh invokes the concepts of “conscious” eating on the one hand, versus “selective forgetting” of the consequences of our food choices on the other. Consumers must be open to change, he declares, if we’re to move toward a more sustainable system. This is no doubt true. But I would have liked a final invocation as well of industrial agriculture’s “ticking clock.” Right now, consumer choice is surely a crucial factor. But if, for example, worldwide demand for meat is in fact set to rise 25% by 2015, it seems to me that we’ll be having unpleasant “choices” thrust upon us much sooner than we may expect. And after 2015 things are only going to get worse (Peak Oil, anyone?) America’s Food Crisis and How to Fix It may have been one of the most thorough and alarmist articles on the industrial food system ever to appear in a major magazine. Sadly, it may not have been nearly alarmist enough.

Chevron building solar-steam plant  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Reuters reports that Chevron is building a solar thermal plant to provide heat for advanced oil recovery - Chevron building solar-steam plant

Chevron Corp is building a solar plant here to create the steam that boosts production at an aging California oilfield, in a pioneering project the company aims to replicate elsewhere if it works.

Chevron outlined the previously undisclosed plan at a city council meeting in Coalinga, a city halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco that started as a coal outpost, boomed with oil gushers, and is now a potential solar energy hub.

The second-largest U.S. oil company said the solar thermal plant, which will collect reflected sunlight from thousands of mirrors at a 323-foot (98-meter) tower where the water boils, will replace some steam production now powered by natural gas.

Steam is injected into wells to heat up heavier oil and thus lower its viscosity to make it easier to extract.

Solar thermal company BrightSource Energy is partnering with Chevron on the project, which will employ BrightSource's technology. A spokesman for Oakland, California-based BrightSource would not comment on the terms of that deal.

Sergio Hoyos, a business developer at Chevron Technology Ventures, said construction of the Coalinga plant would begin this year, with production slated to start by the end of 2010.

"The only problem we have is when it's cloudy," he said to a few laughs at the city council meeting on Thursday night.

Although he said solar thermal could never replace natural gas in steam production, it is an opportunity for Chevron to save energy while championing a technology pegged by some as a winner in the long run.

Just this week, German solar thermal company Solar Millennium AG and plant builder MAN Ferrostaal AG announced that they have joined forces to capture a chunk of the growing U.S. solar thermal power market.

The Coalinga plant will cover 100 acres of Chevron-owned land with more than 7,000 mirrors. Hoyos said Chevron would consider deploying the solar thermal system, which will be the first of its kind to produce steam for oil production, at larger fields if it is successful.

New Zealand Considering Importing LNG ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The NZ Herald has a report that local utility Contact Energy is looking at building an LNG import terminal to fuel its existing gas fired power stations - Contact says demand means imported gas - at a cost.

Contact Energy is preparing to import gas if needed but warns it will be the most expensive of all generation options.

Managing director David Baldwin says it is estimated imported gas used in generation would be twice as expensive as existing domestic supplies.

Without major discoveries, the company believes domestic gas available for power generation is not assured and it had already been hurt by steep price rises in the past year.

For long periods during the 12 months to June 30 the switch from cheap Maui gas to onerously contracted Maui and Pohokura gas meant Contact was left with no option but to run its gas-fired stations at a loss.

New base-load gas-fired generation remains unlikely.

"Even if you took the most conservative demand profile for gas there looks to be a need to import gas sometime in the middle of the next decade in order to meet demand," Baldwin said.

While explorers, such as Todd Energy, are confident major gas discoveries to replace the dwindling giant Maui field will be made, Contact is preparing to import gas although it is changing tack on how that would be done.

The company and Genesis Energy had planned a land-based terminal at New Plymouth but had taken the decision to write down its $2.8 million initial investment because there was a cheaper, more flexible alternative.

New technology would allow Contact to buy LNG by the boat load which can be gasified on tankers and pumped straight into its $250 million Aharoa gas storage facility.

Baldwin said a large investment in heavy LNG terminal infrastructure would effectively commit the country to importing gas for many years.

LNG import proposals are likely to be contentious because they expose New Zealand to international gas prices and would impact on electricity prices, energy security and could discourage domestic exploration.

Heritage Oil announces Iraqi developments  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

UPI has an article on oil in Iraq (well - Iraqi Kurdistan anyway) - Heritage Oil announces Iraqi developments.

The Miran West-1 oil discovery in northern Iraqi Kurdistan recorded over 3,000 barrels of oil per day from a single reservoir, Heritage Oil announced Monday.
Heritage Oil announced the completion of its first testing at the Miran West-1 discovery in Sulaimaniya province.

In June, Heritage said it had raised $216.7 million from stock sales to finance work on a pipeline to connect the Taq Taq and Miran oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The company said the Miran field in Sulaimaniya province has an expected yield passing 4 billion barrels of oil. The Taq Taq field north of Kirkuk trucks oil at a rate of 40,000 barrels per day to Turkish ports.

"We have gathered important information which will be invaluable in advancing our forward programs on this significant discovery beginning with the Miran West-2 appraisal well," said Tony Buckingham, chief executive officer at Heritage.

Heritage joined Turkey's Genel Enerji and other regional developers to tap the oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Taq Taq and Tawke fields began exports in June.

An electricity generating desalination process ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , has a post on research into using microbial fuel cells to desalinate water - Penn State discovers new electricity-generating desal process.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and China have discovered a new desalination process that has a triple cleantech benefit. The process cleans wastewater, generates electricity and can remove 90 percent of salt from brackish water or seawater.

The researchers are hoping to prove that desalination is possible without the large amounts of energy required by reverse osmosis or electrodialysis. The high energy and infrastructure cost of reverse osmosis has inhibited the adoption of desalination in the United States because municipalities have been able to easily and cheaply pump water in from surrounding rivers and regions (see Largest desalination plant in Western world gets go-ahead).

"It currently takes a lot of electricity to desalinate water,” said Penn State Professor Bruce Logan, in a news release. “Using the microbial desalination cells, we could actually desalinate water and produce electricity, while removing organic material from wastewater.”

The team modified a microbial fuel cell, which uses naturally-occurring bacteria to convert wastewater into clean water and electricity, to desalinate salty water.

Typical microbial fuel cells have two chambers, one containing wastewater or other nutrients and the other containing water, according to the news release. Bacteria in wastewater consume the organic material, producing electricity.

The researchers altered the cell, adding a third chamber between the two existing chambers and placing certain ion-specific membranes—membranes that allow positive or negative ions through, but not both—between the central chamber and the positive and negative electrodes.

The study intended to show that bacteria could produce sufficient current to do this, but it ended up taking 200 milliliters of an artificial wastewater to desalinate 3 milliliters of salty water. The process, while not yet optimized, serves as proof of concept, according to Logan.

Asia's coal seam gas projects charge ahead  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Reuters has a report on Asian efforts to expand production of coal seam gas - Asia's coal seam gas projects charge ahead, China leads.

Projects to exploit coal-bed methane (CBM), once the bane of miners, are surging in Asia, with China out front as it strives to find ways of satisfying its prodigious appetite for energy.

Industry players gathered at a conference in Singapore this week to explore opportunities in a region where CBM is in its infancy, except for Australia, whose coal seam gas industry has flourished over the past decade.

While some CBM projects in the United States have shut down, discouraged by very low gas prices, in Asia, the focus is on conversion of CBM to LNG and it will be priced using traditional Asian LNG formulas linked to oil, Tony Regan, a consultant with Tri-Zen International, said.

"Sponsors are taking a long-term view -- they expect that oil prices will continue to increase, and therefore the Australian CBM projects are still moving ahead. Most are still at the reserve development stage and are either proving up reserves or buying them," added Regan.

China, the world's second-biggest energy user after the United States, is eager to develop CBM into an alternative energy source to drive its rapid industralisation.

"Gas consumption in China is rising at a rapid rate. We see potential, explosive growth of CBM in China," said Frank C. Ingriselli, chief executive of Pacific Asia Petroleum.

The country extracted four billion cubic metres (bcm) of CBM in 2006, and is expected to pump up 10 bcm by 2010, besides further raising 300 bcm of proven CBM reserves.

Give them a bus or train every 10 minutes and they will come  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The SMH has been on something of a campaign for public transport this week. One article noted that one key to encouraging higher use of public transport is having frequent service - Give them a bus or train every 10 minutes and they will come.

THE NSW Government could do Sydney's public transport-starved residents a favour by postponing the controversial $5.3 billion underground Metro through the CBD and investing in some quick fixes, an international transport expert says.

The director of the International Union of Public Transport Australia-New Zealand, Peter Moore, said the Government should extend the heavy rail system, establish rapid transitways for buses in the outer suburbs and build light rail within a 10-kilometre radius of the city. ...

Mr Moore's view is backed by the Rapid, Active and Affordable Transport Alliance, a new network of community, environmental, public health and consumer groups, transport unions, industry associations and the City of Sydney.

An alliance spokeswoman, Gail Broadbent, said transitways – bus-only lanes that have priority at traffic lights – and light rail would eliminate the need for more expensive motorways. "A bus on a busway can carry 50 to 80 times the number of passengers than a single car and use up a lot less space than highways," she said. "It would also quickly reduce our dependence on oil."

Ms Broadbent said people already spend about $12 billion a year on imported oil and, within six years, Australia could be importing 70 per cent of its fuel.

Mr Moore said the real enemy of good public transport was not cheap petrol or freeways but timetables. "If people need to rely on a timetable for a bus or a train, if they have to wait another half an hour if they miss a service, they will abandon public transport," he said.

Give Sydneysiders a bus or a train every 10 minutes – at a minimum – and they will come, he said. ...

In Sydney suburbs such as Blacktown, there were enough passengers to justify buses running every 10 minutes, Mr Moore said. As passengers increase, the bus routes could become transitways, which overcome the second major turn-off for commuters after timetables: traffic. "If you're on a bus, stuck in traffic for 20 minutes behind a line of cars, [it won't be long] before you go back to your own car," he said.

Transitways, such as those in Brisbane, where public transport use has risen 50 per cent in five years, can be upgraded cheaply for light rail. ...

University of Technology expert Garry Glazebrook said the lessons for Sydney from other cities was that "there is now a race ... to expand modern public transport systems and to curb the private car. Those cities that fail to do this will be left behind and unprepared in the new age of peak oil and climate change," he said.

The weekend editorial declared NSW state government transport a failure, and declared that the public needs to come up with its own plan (mentioning peak oil as but one reason why this is important) - When governments fail, the public must set the agenda (along with It's time to put our transport system on track).
HIS year is the centenary of the first attempt to plan Sydney, and its transport - the 1909 royal commission which led eventually to the decision to build the Harbour Bridge and the City Circle rail line.

A hundred years later, no similar vision for Sydney transport exists. The optimism, pride and - most important of all - the administrative competence which that vision embodied have seemingly all fled from the contemporary ranks of NSW's leaders.

The consequences of a lack of vision are not trivial. There is no need to detail the impoverished mess which is public transport in Sydney, or the daily inconveniences suffered by passengers obliged to use it. With every day that Sydney wallows in its conceptual chaos, the city is less and less prepared for great challenges which are rapidly approaching. Climate change. Peak oil. The epidemic of lifestyle diseases linked to urban design. All these will fall - are now falling - more heavily on this city because it lacks the vision to plan its transport and the will to act on its plan. ...

The Rees Government has demonstrated that on transport questions it cannot plan for all citizens of the state equally. So ordinary citizens must take up the task.

That is why the Herald is instituting the inquiry Sydney needs. The inquiry will be open and public. It will be chaired by Ron Christie, whose impeccable credentials include managing the public transport effort during the Sydney Olympics - which showed the system can work if the will is there. The inquiry will approach all questions with an open mind.

It will tackle not only issues of services and infrastructure, but most importantly those of finance: the besetting problem of transport development and planning in Sydney has been the lack of a long-term funding model.

It invites submissions from the public, and from interested companies and organisations. It will hold public hearings. It will issue a preliminary report by the end of this year, and its final report by autumn next year, as set out in the advertisement on Page Eight of today's News Review section.

A companion article takes a look at inquiry chairman Ron Christie - Olympics people mover asked to do it again. The organisations web site is

ANother companion piece looks at public transport initiatives in earlier years which were never (or only partially) implemented - Blowing the whistle.

Drilling Ordeals Said to Delay Geothermal Project In California  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The New York Times has an article on slow drilling progress and fear-mongering about earthquakes that are slowing progress of a geothermal power experiment in California - Drilling Ordeals Said to Delay Geothermal Project.

The Obama administration’s first major test of geothermal energy as a significant alternative to fossil fuels has fallen seriously behind schedule, several federal scientists said this week, even as the project is under review because of the earthquakes it could generate in Northern California.

Intended to extract heat from hot bedrock, the project has been delayed because the bit on a giant rig, meant to drill more than two miles underground, has struggled to pierce surface rock formations, the scientists said.

The bit has snapped off at least once and become repeatedly fouled in a shallow formation called cap rock, and the drillers have twice been forced to pull it out and essentially start the hole over again.

Late last year, the project, undertaken by a start-up company called AltaRock Energy, received $6.25 million in financing from the Energy Department, in hopes that it would be the first of dozens of projects to produce renewable energy by fracturing rock at the bottom of a deep hole and then circulating water through the cracks to generate steam.

But last month, after an article in The New York Times raised questions on whether AltaRock had been forthcoming about earthquakes generated by a similar project in Basel, Switzerland, the Energy Department and the Bureau of Land Management informed the company that it would not be allowed to fracture rock until the department completed a new review of whether the project would be safe. The company was allowed to keep drilling, however, down toward the depth at which it would begin the fracturing.

The scientists who told of delays in the project spoke only on the condition that they not be identified, in order to preserve their access to company progress reports. The scientists said that after nearly two months of the highly expensive drilling, the rig had reached depths of less than 4,000 feet. The original schedule called for it to reach a final depth of 12,000 feet, or 2.3 miles, after no more than 50 days of drilling, according to company officials.

The problems are particularly surprising given that the drilling essentially started at 3,200 feet, at the bottom of an older hole at the site, north of San Francisco at a place called the Geysers.

The company has also raised some $30 million in venture capital. Among AltaRock’s high-profile investors are Google and the investment firms Khosla Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Advocates for the technique, known as an “enhanced geothermal system,” say it could eventually generate vast amounts of energy and reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels. But the latest delays come as AltaRock awaits word on whether the federal government will allow the fracturing of rock at all.

The fracturing would be virtually guaranteed to induce earthquakes, which the company has said would be so small as to be nearly imperceptible but which local residents and some scientists fear could be larger. The project is in one of the world’s most seismically active areas.

Although the Basel earthquakes caused only minor structural damage, they frightened many in the city and led to the shutdown of the project there. The Energy Department review, likely to be released in the next few weeks, is expected to compare the Basel and California projects and determine whether AltaRock’s effort is safe.

Oil spill threatens ocean  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Age has a report on a drilling accident off northern Australia - Oil spill threatens ocean as driller faces multimillion bill.

THE operator of an oil rig responsible for a massive oil leak off the West Australian coast will be forced to pay millions of dollars to clean up the spill, which authorities warn poses a serious threat to the environment.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority yesterday launched a major clean-up operation as oil and gas continued to seep from a 1200-metre-deep well drilled by the West Atlas - an oil rig located 690 kilometres west of Darwin, 250 kilometres off the far north Kimberley coast and 150 kilometres south-east of Ashmore Reef.

The spill, which is eight nautical miles long and 30 metres wide, began early on Friday, forcing the evacuation of 69 workers to Darwin.

The company responsible for the rig, PTTEP Australasia, said the leak had not yet been brought under control.

PTTEP director Jose Martins said the leak was mainly gas, with a much lower oil content than when the spill began, but the related fire risk meant it was impossible to get back on to the platform. ''So that option for bringing the leak under control is ruled out for now,'' he said.

He said early reports that poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas had been released were wrong. The company has called in gas and oil spill experts to help with the clean-up.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority was put in charge of the operation after the size of the spill became apparent. It warned that the remote location of the rig would make the clean-up difficult.

Germany Unveils World Class Sustainable ECO CITY  

Posted by Big Gav in

Green building of the week from Inhabitat is this development planned for the Hamburg harbour area - Germany Unveils World Class Sustainable ECO CITY.

Today Germany’s historic Hamburg-Harburg Harbor announced the development of a sustainable ECO CITY that combines industry, entertainment and pedestrian life into one super green package. Designed by international firm Tec Architecture and the global engineering company ARUP, ECO CITY is one of the only projects in the world that is seeking to achieve the highest level of environmental certification from all three major green building rating systems (LEED, BREEAM and DGNB). The project is an exceptional example of how to integrate efficient technology and building methods while fostering social interaction and community rebirth.

Through their use of environmentally-friendly materials, passive design techniques, and efficient facades the masterminds behind this project were able to reduce the community’s energy consumption by 30%. Starting with the rehabilitation of existing structures and re-purposing of used materials, the development will go through three phases of construction and ultimately stand 10 buildings strong. ECO CITY will use wind energy to generate 10% of the complex’s power (more than any other high-rise in the world), as well as solar water heating systems and solar-powered lighting technology. Most of the visible roofs will be covered in greenery to slow storm water runoff and significantly reduce the heat island effect of the development itself.

One Cubic Mile Of Oil  

Posted by Big Gav

An old one from TOD, resurrected by Idleworm.

The Electric Acid Test  

Posted by Big Gav in

Technology Review has an article on "the beginnings of a marketable electric motorcycle" on The Isle Of Man, as electric motorbike manufacturers compete in the zero-emission version of the TT bike race - The Electric Acid Test.

The Isle of Man is a small British possession in the Irish Sea. Inland, a native breed of four-horned sheep graze in verdant fields. On the coasts, castles touch the sea. The Manx have their own (albeit dead) language, their own money, their own laws, and--tellingly for this story--no national speed limit. This quirk of governance makes the place a natural host to a bloody ritual that has taken place nearly every spring for a century: the Tourist Trophy. The TT is not a motorcycle race but the motorcycle race: the first, the most famous, and by far the deadliest.

It's also a party: 40,000 bikers invade the island determined to scare the wool off the sheep while screaming through the Snaefell Mountain Course, a winding circuit of public roads cordoned off for the event. The circuit climbs from sea level to 1,380 feet, snaking for almost 38 miles through 200-some turns on country roads that cut through village, hamlet, and farm. Much of the track is hemmed in by dry-stacked fieldstone walls topped by spectators drinking their pints. There is no safe place to crash. Racers die or are maimed every year.*

As in warfare, the carnage is accompanied by technological progress. Soichiro Honda came to the race in 1959 having declared five years earlier that it was time to challenge the West. Less than a decade later, his company won the world manufacturer's title in every class: 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, 350cc, and 500cc. Not long after that, the British motorcycle industry was itself conquered, wiped out by mismanagement and superior Japanese technology. Ironically, the technical advances that made racing bikes so fast led the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM), the sport's governing body, to decertify the race in 1976, calling it too dangerous. Thus, pros no longer ride the TT. However, the race's bloody reputation makes the TT, if anything, even more prestigious than FIM-sanctioned events. To compete in it, in the words of the legendary FIM rider ­Valentino Rossi, "you need to have two great balls."

This year, the Manx government added a futuristic new event to the June race schedule. The TTXGP, for "Tourist Trophy eXtreme Grand Prix," was billed as the first zero-emissions motorcycle race. While any technology could enter, as a practical matter zero emissions means electric. Even the FIM got on board, making the TTXGP the first FIM-approved TT race in over 30 years and the first officially sanctioned electric-motorcycle race ever. "It is either going to be the most important day in the next hundred years of motorcycling or a complete debacle," said Aaron Frank, an editor for Motorcyclist magazine who traveled from Milwaukee to watch the race. "But either way, it's worth watching."

As the day arrives, everyone watching knows that the TTXGP will be slower than the "real" motorcycle race, the TT, because the TTXGP is an energy-limited race. In effect, the "gas tank" of an electric bike is minuscule, so to win the TTXGP the bikers must mind their energy consumption. In contrast, the gas bikers in the TT run with their throttles wide open. However, batteries' energy density has been improving at a rate of about 8 percent a year, which means that even without any other technological progress, electric bikes should run head to head with gas in about 20 years. The TTXGP is intended to make the future arrive sooner. The winner will not just be the fastest in an esoteric class but the front-runner in the greater challenge ahead: creating an electric bike that can compete in the $50 billion world motorcycle market. In that sense, the TTXGP is the proving ground for the next Honda.

Twenty-two electric bikes show up to compete. While many of the entries are experimental one-offs from technical universities or obsessive hobbyists, three entrants are so-called factory teams: Brammo, Mission Motors, and MotoCzysz. All of them hail from the West Coast of the United States. Brammo is in Ashland, OR, Mission Motors in San Francisco, and MotoCzysz in Portland. And all are entering the consumer market with an electric bike. Brammo is set to sell its motorcycle off the floor at Best Buy: it's a $12,000 runabout with a top speed of 55 miles per hour. For the TTXGP, Brammo has upgraded almost every component in its bike to create two 100-mile-per-hour crotch rockets, both entered in the race. The Brammo racers are fast, light, and nimble but under-spec'd compared with what Mission and MotoCzysz trailer in: full-size race bikes heavy with batteries, capable of reaching 150 miles per hour. The Mission bike will sell for $69,000; the MotoCzysz will probably sell for slightly less.

Mission and MotoCzysz are both targeting the high-end superbike market, and both promise to ship products in the next year or two, but that is where the similarities end. Mission's charismatic young CEO, Forrest North, is a computer geek who likes to speculate on the future of software design: he fantasizes about a wheelie- popping autobalancing "Segway app" for a bike's control computer. (Though he hastens to say that Mission itself is not working on such an app.) MotoCzysz founder Michael Czysz is a designer--and his bike is a looker. Exposed battery packs protrude from each side, a fresh take on the naked-sportbike style of the insanely popular Ducati Monster. The packs are modular and swappable, and the bike is "green," Czysz explains, "because it's upgradable." Even Infield Capital's David Moll, one of the investors behind Mission Motors, is impressed when he sees the battery- as-engine design. "I've got a dog in this fight, but if that doesn't excite you," he says of the MotoCzysz entry, "then there's something wrong with you."

Brammo, Mission, and MotoCzysz are directly competing for the capital that's needed, in enormous quantity, to introduce a new vehicle to the American market. Brammo has the early lead in the money race: a $10 million investment from Best Buy's venture fund and Chrysalix Energy Venture Capital, as compared with Mission's $2 million in seed capital. Bringing up the rear is MotoCzysz, a company essentially funded out of Michael Czysz's back pocket. While both Mission and Brammo hope to win the TTXGP in order to generate publicity and thus orders, MotoCzysz needs to win, or at least place, in order to woo enough capital to enter the marketplace. It's anyone's race to win, of course, but in most motor sports, the factory teams with access to deep corporate pockets are the first to cross the finish line. Behind them come the privateers--scrappy dreamers and shade-tree mechanics who are short on resources but long on heart.

So it's all the more surprising that in the week before the race, a dark horse emerges, freaking out all the factory teams. The fastest bike in the TTXGP prelims--two qualifying runs around the island--turns out to be from Team Agni, a total unknown, a mere privateer. Millions of American research-and-development dollars find themselves chasing the tail of a no-money ratbike engineered in India. ...

Woodside to triple size of Pluto  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , ,

While most of the media attention in the Australian energy sector was focussed on the big deals done by the Gorgon consortium, Woodside also got some press after announcing plans to triple the size of the Pluto LNG plant by 2014, beating both Gorgon and Chevron's proposed Wheatstone plant into production (The Australian - Woodside steps on gas to triple size of Pluto).

The two new Pluto LNG trains will boost production from the project from 4.3 million tonnes a year to 12.9 million tonnes. At this point Woodside doesn't have sufficient gas reserves to supply these, but CEO Don Voelte is claiming the gas will come from a mix of third-party gas, existing discoveries and a new 20-well Carnarvon Basin drilling program the company will start in the coming months.

Voelte is also pushing the line that gas is a "transition fuel" on the way from coal to renewables - something we are seeing a lot of lately. “LNG is going to be a great transition fuel as we all stride to get to renewable alternatives. China along with Taiwan, Korea, Japan -- all are increasing their LNG demands over the coming years.” (Bloomberg - Woodside’s World-Record LNG Targets ‘Not a Stretch’ ).

Alan Kohler at The Business Spectator has also been arguing for gas as a transition fuel, suggesting that our worst carbon emitters - Victorian power stations using brown coal - should be converted to burn gas instead (Business Spectator - Gas is the natural choice for Latrobe Valley).
The intensifying race to build mass-market electric cars means the Rudd government will have to rethink its carbon pollution reduction scheme.

All the modelling that shows electricity demand declining as the price rises due to carbon emissions trading will have to be thrown out. Power demand is going surge again, as it did with the rapid take-up of household air conditioning.

It means, in my view, that the government will have to find a way to convert Victoria’s Latrobe Valley power industry from brown coal to gas.

Tesla Motors, which is shipping more than 100 lithium-battery-powered cars a month out of its factory in California, claims to get mileage of 12.7 kilowatt hours per 100 kilometres. That means your standard 15,000 km a year per car will add 2 megawatt hours to household power consumption – a 33 per cent increase on the household average. Two cars will double most family’s power consumption.

Don’t think it won’t happen, and fast. Bruce Mountain of Carbon Market Economics says that at current prices it will cost around $300 a year to power an electric car, compared to $2,300 a year for a standard 6-cylinder petrol-driven family car. And what’s more the Tesla is supposed to go faster than a Porsche, so with the latest technology there will be no reasons not to make the switch.

Nissan has just unveiled the Leaf, Chevrolet has the Volt, Mitsubishi the MiEV and BYD Co of China is also making electric cars. In Australia, Evan Thornley has jumped out of politics into Shai Agassi’s business, Better Place, which calls itself the world’s leading electric vehicle services provider, and will be pushing hard to encourage take-up here.

Last night the German government became the latest to jump on board the electric bandwagon, announcing a plan to put a million electric cars on the road by 2020. It is planning to spend $US1 billion on battery research over the next three years so Germany doesn’t have to replace oil imports with battery imports.

While all this may be excellent news for the planet, it’s an awkward development for the Rudd government.

Australia’s greatest carbon reduction problem is that we have the world’s greatest reliance on coal-fired power generation, and in particular on brown coal – the worst possible fuel for carbon emissions.

This country’s carbon reduction challenge really boils down to this: how do we make the transition from brown coal in the Latrobe Valley to gas base-load power. ...

In the meantime the renewable energy target legislation – decoupled from the CPRS and passed by the Senate this week – is supposed to kick start the building of wind and gas turbine generators.

But this will not cut it – the RET scheme is really just another rent-seekers’ cash shower, and won’t work much anyway because most of the RET certificates will come from households buying solar hot water and heat pumps.

It’s all about how to close down the Latrobe Valley mines and replace them with gas. Even black coal generation would do.

The simplest way for Australia to meet its entire commitment to greenhouse gas reduction under any scheme that might be devised in Copenhagen would be simply to convert the Latrobe Valley generators to gas.

It would, in fact, be the most efficient thing to do in many ways, since they already have the rotors, switching, transformers, transmission lines out, access to water and plentiful labour from people who will otherwise be out of work as a result of the CPRS.

Kohler touches on the same subject in an interview with Origin Energy CEO Grant King (Business Spectator - KGB INTERROGATION: Grant King).
AK: I mean there’s another element to it which is also political, which is the regional development issues concerning the Latrobe Valley, which I presume the Victorian government is extremely worried about.

GK: But the reality is the Latrobe Valley, in our view, will be generating power in 2020. The total megawatts of output in the Latrobe Valley may be less, should be less in order to reduce carbon. Most of the power stations will still be running. Most of the people working the power stations will still be working there. The average cost of generation will go up for a coal-fired generator and as Karen says they will therefore bid a different price into the market and they will be dispatched according to their competitiveness against all other forms of generation.

AK: Well do you think they could be using gas instead of brown coal?

GK: To give you a different example, it’s just an exercise in logic. If brown coal power stations operate as they do at 0.8 emissions intensity, simply because of the lower carbon intensity of black coal. The interesting and simple puzzle is that Victoria ought to import black coal into Latrobe Valley, right, because they’ve nearly halved their carbon emissions, ok, and you’re not going to find that as a realistic option preferred because Victorians will not be overly enthused about importing New South Wales or Queensland black coal, right, but if you really just think about it as an economic and technical problem, then you would simply substitute less carbon-intensive fuels for more carbon-intensive fuels.

It’s important to remember that black coal is far less carbon-intensive than brown coal and if you substituted black for brown, you would have an enormous reduction in carbon emissions in Victoria. Now, the other way of getting there is these coal-drying projects, where the aim is to make brown coal like black coal and so it’s very important and when you go back to the compensation arguments, it’s very important to understand that what the brown coal generators own is two assets; a brown coal resource and a power station built to run on brown coal. If coal-drying works, then that reduces brown coal’s carbon. The carbon in terms of our brown coal begins to look more like black coal and there is still substantial value in the resource that’s owned by those generators and therefore why should they be compensated for it.

AK: Well, why do you think parliament is blocking the ETS and passing the RET?

GK: Look, my view – and I guess I’ll rely on you guys to understand the difference between a kind of a personal view and a logical, reasoned view, not that there’s a difference – but I think the community intuitively believes that renewable energy is good, that irrespective of carbon our fossil fuel resources are finite and therefore intuitively no matter what the cost and I’m not sure people really do understand the cost, but intuitively no matter what the cost, it is a good and worthy thing to increase our understanding, knowledge, pricing and competitiveness of renewable energy. I think that that is gaining momentum to the point where the if you like the concern particularly by business around the impact of the CPRS has brought complexity to that debate to the point that the community is less clear about the benefits of making that change and particularly when that change is expressed in the consequence or in terms of job losses which clearly quite now is a matter of great concern to the community.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that we in the gas industry see a change for our fuel type from coal to gas as job-creating, but that certainly people have been much more willing to buy the argument that the CPRS is a job destroying initiative and for those that have wanted to advance that argument I think it’s created some momentum. I mean it’s created some traction in the community. Now, I don’t know whether that is the true reason and that is my opinion, but that almost always political alignment occurs when community alignment occurs and, you know, political division exists when community division exists.

On the subject of the RET, Crikey's Bernard Keane isn't particularly impressed with how the lobbyists have been handled by the government (Crikey - Sucking the RENT out of RET).
The capacity of the Australian Parliament to bastardise good policy and turn it into a feeding trough for rentseekers and other parasites is truly remarkable.

You can’t move in this place or open a paper without the bottom-feeding filth of the political economy springing out, hands extended, threatening disaster unless they can fasten tightly onto the public teat. And it’s getting worse, as more and more sectors heed the example of lowlifes like the Minerals Council of Australia and come in for their chop.

The Coalition and the Government managed a deal yesterday on the Renewable Energy Target, or what’s left of it. Just in the nick of time before a Question Time in which the Government would assuredly have contrasted its success in facilitating the Gorgon deal with the inability of the Coalition to even agree amongst themselves on a bill they had committed to support.

In the event, Western Australian backbenchers — Mal Washer and Judi Moylan honourably excepted — found another way to ruin Malcolm Turnbull’s afternoon, but the Coalition demonstrating it is a rabble is now so common as to no longer be newsworthy.

Bear in mind that the RET is a dud idea improved only by the fact that the Government’s ETS is even worse. As Ross Garnaut noted, a renewable energy target should be wholly unnecessary and in fact counter-productive if you have a proper emissions trading scheme that will allow the market to effectively respond to the price of carbon emissions.

But now that’s the counterfactual. The Government’s ETS will be almost completely ineffectual (and may be rendered entirely ineffectual in negotiations between the Government and Opposition over the next couple of months) and that means the RET is now the only game in town in terms of driving any sort of move to a lower-carbon economy.

It already had flaws, like the bizarre solar multiplier component, in which solar panel power will generate five times more credits than it should generate, artificially bumping up the scheme.

But the RET, like the Government’s emissions trading scheme, has been further degraded by rentseekers and whingeing industries demanding a free kick. As Lenore Taylor notes this morning in a great little piece, the industries eligible for “interim assistance” under the RET bill were initially only a small number with an electricity intensity above a certain threshold of megawatt‑hours per $million revenue. That, as the Government’s own explanatory memorandum made clear, was expected to include only the aluminium smelting, silicon production and newsprint manufacturing sectors.

Well, scratch that, because under the deal with the Coalition everyone who is getting a handout of free CPRS permits will now be getting assistance under the RET bill, at the same thresholds, for the cost of Renewable Energy Certificates. And if the price of price of RECs goes above $40, there’ll be additional assistance for big electricity users for complying not just with the RET but with the current renewable energy target of 5%. At least the CPRS debacle hasn’t yet led to the softening of existing greenhouse reduction schemes.

Now, bear in mind that those big electricity users are going to enjoy a fall in the cost of wholesale electricity as a consequence of the RET, because it will bring renewable energy sources online that big users won’t have to pay for, increasing overall generation capacity. That will go straight onto the bottom line of big electricity users, at everyone else’s expense. ...

There are a number of reasons why we now have a political system apparently structured to reward the basest instincts of our business sector. The proliferation of lobbyists — frequently former politicians and staffers — is one. The rise of economics consultancies who will “model” any outcome clients want — and the unwillingness or inability of journalists to call bullshit on such modelling — is another. The finely-balanced nature of the Senate also plays a role, especially when unpredictable dropkicks like Steve Fielding hold a swing vote. But ultimately it’s because we don’t have politicians — on either side, but this is primarily a fault of the Government  — apparently capable of resisting rentseeking. At least John Howard knew a try-on when he saw one, and refused to let the GST be ruined by concessions until he absolutely had to when confronted with Meg Lees. Paul Keating sent rentseekers of any kind away with a black eye and a warning not to come back. Bob Hawke was adept at crafting outcomes that looked after those genuinely affected by reforms without undermining what he was trying to achieve.

Oh for a small part, just a lousy bloody fraction, of that sort of political courage now.

Template Upgrade  

Posted by Big Gav

After a couple of years procrastinating I've decided the time has come to weed out all the dead links from the sidebar and to move to a modern template that Blogger will let me edit (the old one had been effectively frozen since they moved to the new layout model).

It will take a while to make the new one fully functional - sorry if it looks a little ugly and has less information than before...

Vast oil and gas reserves help to warm relations with Libya  

Posted by Big Gav in

I've occasionally wondered how much oil and Libya has (see here and here) - The Times has an article considering how much oil remains undiscovered under the Saharan sands - Vast oil and gas reserves help to warm relations with Libya

At 42 billion barrels, Libya has the largest proven oil reserves of any African country — equal to about 3 per cent of the global total. Its gas reserves are some 1.5 trillion cubic metres, the fourth-largest in Africa.

But Libya remains relatively unexplored, and the potential for fresh discoveries means that the true total could be far higher. That is why Libya’s return to the international fold has triggered a scramble for drilling rights among international oil companies.

Three of Britain’s biggest — BP, Royal Dutch Shell and BG — have already signed preliminary deals to provide cash and expertise to develop Libya’s investment-starved oil and gas industry. Shell signed in 2004, only months after Libya publicly abandoned plans to develop weapons of mass destruction, and the UN Security Council voted unanimously to lift sanctions.

BP’s much bigger deal, worth an estimated $900 million, was announced in 2007 during a visit by Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, to Tripoli. The company, which withdrew from Libya in 1974 when the country nationalised its oil industry, will explore 54,000sq km — at the onshore Ghadames and offshore Sirte basins.

British companies are competing against a host of rivals including Total, of France, the American ConocoPhillips, China National Petroleum Corp and Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled producer.

The British Government also has a strong vested interest in the programme. With North Sea gas running out fast, it hopes that Libya could become an alternative to Russia as a source of supply. By 2015, Britain could be importing as much as 80 per cent of its gas needs, up from 40 per cent now.

Exploration work in Libya in the 1960s identified at least ten fields each with more than a billion barrels of oil. Modern techniques could uncover more, and vast areas of the Libyan Sahara remain unexplored. Exploration licences cover only one third of the country. A spokesman for BP said that — if its exploration programmes offshore and in the country’s west are successful — it could invest $20 billion or more over the next 20 years building refineries, pipelines, petrochemical and liquefied natural gas plants to allow exports to the UK and elsewhere.

Simplicity, Resiliency, and Artifacts  

Posted by Big Gav in

Jeff Vail has some notes on lifestyle design and resilience - Simplicity, Resiliency, and Artifacts.

I won't begin the promised "Diagonal Economy" series quite yet. The main reason is that I don't want to start down that path without putting full effort into it. So, in the interim, I've wanted to write a bit about lifestyle design and philosophy. While this may seem like a major departure from my general themes, I think it's actually complementary: by approaching our individual and community patterns as something to be consciously designed, rather than merely followed, we have the opportunity to make our lives more resilient, more energy efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and more pleasurable. That can't be all bad?

First, two blog recommendations on this topic:

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week. This has been on my sidebar for some time. Superficially, his book is about figuring out how to make quick money off the internet and then take long vacations. At its core, however, he is working to design a set of tools and principles for living that can be used to adapt to rapid change, build a more resilient lifestyle, become healthier, solve problems--a host of useful things.

Leo Babauta, and his blog Zen Habits. Leo has build a very successful career for himself by applying one simple principle: examine and simplify everything you do. Will be added to my sidebar soon (along with several other blogs I've been meaning to add for some time).

While it's relatively easy to dismiss these two as self-help gurus, I think they offer something more. More than the actual tips they offer, they serve as examples of the kind of lifestyle and process design that I think will be increasingly important (at least if individuals or communities want to succeed) in a post-peak oil, post-Nation-State, post-caretaker-economy world.

The notion that we should look at everything we do, deconstruct it, and design it to better meet our needs, is one that will become increasingly important as old assumptions no longer remain valid. A complement to this is the notion that we should simplify as much as possible. While it's not exactly sexy advice, the continuous application of these two principles will serve us well in the coming years--no matter what they hold.

Personally, my life is far from simple. I'm not sure my life is really any more complex than most people--kid(s), demanding job, interests and hobbies, etc.--but I know these principles have been useful to me. I'm healthier, fitter, better informed, more successful, and happier as a result, and I still have a long, long ways to go.

So, take a moment and check out the two links above if you're so inclined. But, if they don't immediately appeal to you, perhaps because you initially find them irrelevant to the reason you read this blog, as an exercise try to figure out how they offer tools that ARE helpful to the reasons you are reading this right now. Perhaps in future posts I'll get into the details ("diagonal lifestyle design"?), but I think readers will find these ideas readily applicable to issues of energy, geopolitics, and societal transition.

Technology: The Most Powerful Force in the World  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

Kevin Kelly is continuing to put out material for his forthcoming book on "The Technium" fairly regularly - the latest in stall looks at the power of technology - The Most Powerful Force in the World.

Even counting vast tracks of agriculture, the technium entails fewer than one percent of the atoms on the Earth's land surface. Yet the impact which this minute fraction of technological mass and energy has on the planet is in far disproportion to its size. Measured by impact per gram or calorie, there is nothing comparable to things we invent. Technology is the most powerful force in the world.

From the moment Sapiens emerged from Africa to colonize every inhabitable watershed on this planet, their inventions began to alter their environment. Sapien's hunting tools and techniques had far reaching affects: their technology enabled them to kill off key herbivores (mammoths, giant elk, etc.) whose extinctions altered the ecology of entire grassland biomes forever. Once dominant grazers were eliminated, their absence cascaded through the ecosystem, enabling the rise of new predators, new plant species, and all their competitors and allies, surfacing a modified ecosystem. Thus a few clans of people shifted the destiny of thousands of other species. When Sapiens gained control of fire, this technology further modified the natural terrain on a massive scale. Such a tiny trick — burning grasslands, controlling it with backfires, and summoning flames to cook grains — disrupted vast regions of the continents.

Later the repeated inventions and spread of agriculture around the planet affected not only the surface of the Earth, but its 100 km (60-mile) wide atmosphere as well. Farming disturbed the soil and increased CO2. Some climatologists believe that this early anthropogenic warming, starting 8,000 years ago, kept the next ice age at bay. Widespread adoption of farming disrupted a natural climate cycle which would have ordinarily refrozen the northern most portions of the planet by now. In other words, agriculture made (and still makes) the world safe for more agriculture. Like most complex technologies, agriculture — the integrated system of domesticated crops and animals, irrigation infrastructure and soil management — is self-sustaining and will alter its environment to further its own benefit.

Of course, once humans invented machines that ate concentrated old plants (coal) instead of fresh plants, the mechanical exhalations of CO2 furthered altered the balance of the atmosphere as the number of machines multiplied. The technium bloomed as machines harnessed this source of abundant energy. Petroleum eating machines not only transformed the ease, productivity, and spread of agriculture (accelerating an old trend), machines also drilled for more oil faster (a new trend), accelerating the rate of acceleration. Today the CO2 exhalation of all machines greatly exceeds the exhalation of all animals, and even approaches the volume generated by geological forces. Alan Weisman, writing in the World Without Us, suggest that the modern technium is the geological equivalent to a series of ceaseless volcanoes: "by tapping the [fuels of the] Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky, we've become a volcano that hasn't stopped erupting since the 1700s." And this impact is not only global, but extremely persistent: "Among the human-crafted artifacts that will last the longest after we're gone is our redesigned atmosphere." Climatologist Tyler Volk estimates that a natural geological cycle — with no technological mitigation — would take 100,000 years to return the agricultural and industrial induced CO2 atmosphere to pre-technium levels.

Each year the technium consumes more than 40 trillion pounds of coal, 1.6 trillion pounds of iron, 200 billion pounds of gypsum, and 1.2 trillion pounds of wheat, just four inputs among thousands of others needed to appease its appetite, and all those totals grow more than 5% per year. On average the technium must process twenty tons of atoms per year to support each man, women and child in the modern world.

The technium gains its immense power not from its scale but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention, such as the alphabet, the steam pump, or electricity, can lead to further breakthrough inventions, like books, coal mines, and telephones. These advances in turn lead to other breakthrough inventions, such as libraries, power generators, and the internet. Each step adds further powers while retaining most of the virtues of the previous inventions. Someone has an idea (a spinning wheel!) which can hop to other minds, mutate into a derivative idea (place the spinning wheel beneath a sled to make it easy to haul) which disrupts the prevailing balance, causing a shift. That shift will often suggest another idea to someone else (use a cow to pull the wheeled sled), which in turn produces yet another disturbance, another rebalancing, another shift. Once started the teetering continues for many generations. As one ideas sparks two new ones and two ideas spark four, and four eight, this chain reaction of technology reverberates through the society, always gaining in accumulating energy and ceaseless movement. Efficient machines enable industry to make even more efficient machines. Smart chips assist humans in making even smarter chips. These virtuous circles are like rubbing the genie's lamp and getting three more wishes for the last wish. Magical self-amplification is a story retold in every domain of technology.

But not all changes induced by technology are magically positive. Industrial scale slavery, like that imposed upon Africa, was enabled by sailing ships which transported captives across oceans, and encouraged by the mechanical cotton gin which could cheaply process the fibers the slaves planted and harvested. Without technology, slavery at this massive scale would have been unknown. Thousands of synthetic persistent toxins have caused mass disruptions of natural cycles in both humans and other species, a huge unwanted downside from small inventions. War is a particularly serious amplifier of the great negative powers brought by technology. Horrific weapons of destruction, capable of inflicting entirely new atrocities upon society, spring directly from the most powerful force in the world.

On the other hand, the remedies and offsets to the negative consequences also stem from this most powerful force. Local ethnic slavery was practiced by most earlier civilizations, and probably in prehistoric times as well, and still continues in sporadic remote areas; it's overall diminishment globally is due to the technological tools of communication, law, and education. Technologies of detection, and substitution, can remove the routine use of synthetic toxins. The technologies of monitoring, law, treaties, policing, courts, citizen media and economic globalism can temper, dampen, and in the long run diminish the vicious cycles of war.

All change in society can be traced back to the products of our minds. The history of civilization is an ever up-cascading sequence of social organization that we invent. Societies begin as leaderless bands of hunter-gatherers, and over generational time acquire chiefs, put down roots (literally) with farms, land and water rights adjudicated by authorities, hatch cities, and eventually become states and nations. Each step in civilization is characterized by more social organization, more different kinds connections between people (beyond family relations), more webs of interdependence, producing more of what Robert Wright, author of Non Zero, calls "non-zero-sumness," that is, self-reinforcing mutual benefit. Each emergent organization in the evolution of society serves as a platform for citizens to birth yet more new ways to organize. This self-improving recursive "3-more-wishes" loop goes round and round, amplifying its original force.

The power of cooperation is not new, but this virtuous circle is more than ordinary altruism, because participants are often not consciously cooperating, and may in fact compete, or even be parasitic. A merchant in Athens selling a barrel of raisins is not cooperating with the grower of grapes in Macedonia, or the speculator in Corinth hoarding stock, but the three form a system (an emergent market) that expands all their interests. It's a win-win condition. This kind of accumulating social organization exhibits an almost mathematical flavor that transcends neighborly kindness. Rather than happy camaraderie, this increasing structure is built on information flows that tighten both trust and rivalries into a web of interdependence. As these links increase, so does the power of amplification and acceleration.

Progress, even moral progress, is ultimately a human invention. It is a product of our wills and minds, and thus a technology. We can decide slavery is not a good idea. We can decide that evenly applied laws, rather than nepotic favoritism, is a good idea. We can outlaw certain punishments with treaties. We can encourage accountability with the invention of writing. We can consciously expand our circle of empathy. These are all inventions and as much products of our minds as light bulbs and telegraphs.

The larger point is that this cyclotron of social betterment is not propelled by ethics or religion, but by technology. Society is evolved by injecting it with incremental doses of that most powerful force in the world; each rise in social organization throughout history is driven by an insertion of a new technology. ...

Name a disruption in culture today, either positive or negative, and if you press far enough back you'll find an tangible invention that sets off the imbalance. Globalism? Cheap, ubiquitous global communications. Social Security overhang? Medical advances for increasing longevity and decreasing fertility. Obesity epidemic? Cheap monoculture food system combined with passive entertainment technology. Gay rights? Emboldened by science showing gender preferences are biological. Celebrity obsessions? Broadcast media. Militant jihadism? Islam has been around 1500 years. But an imbalance between a medically enabled population explosion without a corresponding explosion in economic or political progress disrupts the former social equilibrium.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace both realized from reading Malthus's work on population that natural selection is propelled by the difference between two growth patterns in the wild: population versus food. The greater propulsion of population growth could not be contained in the lesser geometric gains of its food production. This tension between the overwhelming multiplication of population and the slower expansion of its material container is the drive behind evolution.

The evolution of the technium likewise gains its unmatched power from the difference between two growth rates. The number of ideas and their transmission via computers, books, telephone lines, patents, and so on increases in an exponential fashion. Information is, in fact, the fastest growing thing on this planet. Information is especially conducive to amplification and compounding. As the number of facts increase, the connections between facts increases exponentially faster. Because the mathematical law of combinations, the number of links between pages explodes faster than the number of pages increases. New inventions in certain fields like communication, which are powered by increasing combinations of connections, can increase the speed of invention overall, revving the engines of creation. Everywhere we look, the technium is wired with self-amplifying loops ballooning up the scale of change. Fundamentally, discoveries in the science of how to discover, and inventions in how to invent (the genie process we call science) accelerate the rate of discovery and invention everywhere.

But our human ability to absorb or process this explosion of ideas increases only linearly at best. Despite years spent in education, or bathed in the best nutrition, our brains are not doubling in speed, memory, and insight every 18 months, as computers do. In fact, biologically speaking, our brains are remarkably similar to the brains of the first Sapiens 50,000 years ago. The smartest humans are not exponentially smarter than the average ones, and the average IQ of a human is only slowly increasing over time by the most minute amount (a few percent per decade in modern times). Even collectively, unaided human intelligence is only growing in tandem with the number of humans. The gap between the escalating growth of information generated by us and our machines, and our tiny marginal improvements in being able to understand the oceans of information and make meaning from it is the driver behind the rapid evolution of the technium.

The work of understanding all this information is migrating from humans to the technium. We can no longer keep up with our own creations, and so we are constructing an apparatus to structure what we think, in the same manner that we first used writing on paper to extend our memory. Now we are offloading other mental functions. The technium contains an elaborate knowledge processing system consisting of encyclopedias, classification indexes, cross references, search engines, footnotes, citations, hypertext, and the web. These technologies organize the output of our collective minds — both intangible ideas and tangible inventions — into a semantic structure, much like an ecosystem. This incredibly complicated mesh of connections, interdependencies, associations, and emergent structure gives the technium a "meaning" that is outside our of understanding.

It's reasonable to figure that since the technium is simply "that which the mind produces" then at its root the most powerful force in the world must not be technology but the human mind. If this were so we'd have to recalibrate the equation above to state that the origin of all change in our lives lays in the mysterious force of intelligence and consciousness hiding between our ears. (That assertion reminds me of a joke I heard from a friend who said "whenever I get the idea that human mind is the most powerful thing in world I just remember what it is that is telling me this.") But the claim that the human mind is foremost power is not valid. No matter how much we use our biological mind's awareness to reflect upon our mind's workings, this type of mental introspection and self-improvement leads to extremely limited improvement at best, and usually none at all. Contemplation (even in a zen position) to optimize our own mind just doesn't scale up. Unaided, the mind makes very little headway in amplifying itself.

However, the technium, which is a product of our brain, can alter the circuits that produced it. People who grow up immersed in the technologies of writing and reading think differently. I don't mean humans think differently while reading. Reading and writing are cognitive tools that, once acquired, change the way in which the brain memorizes facts and conceptualizes ideas, and these changes stimulate abstract thinking. When psychologists use neuroimaging technology, like MRI, to compare the brains of literates and illiterates working on a task, they find many differences in how their brains work whether or not they are reading. Researcher Alexandre Castro-Caldas discovered that processing between the hemispheres of the brain was different between those who could read and those who could not. A key part of the corpus callosum was thicker in literates, and "the occipital lobe processed information more slowly in individuals who learned to read as adults compared to those who learned at the usual age." Psychologists Ostrosky-Solis, Garcia and Perez tested literates and illiterates with a battery of cognitive tests while measuring their brain waves and concluded that "the acquisition of reading and writing skills has changed the brain organization of cognitive activity in general… not only in language but also in visual perception, logical reasoning, remembering strategies, and formal operational thinking." Literacy — a human invention — rewires the human mind.

It is not just writing. Music, another invention, also alters the brain in a sustainable way. Many studies have shown how listening to music strengthens the communication wiring between brain hemispheres. Beside fostering an expected growth in auditory regions of the brain, regularly playing musical instruments significantly strengthens the thickness of the corpus callosum fibers and activates the cerebral cortex. Our mind makes a drum and flute, and the drum and flute remakes our mind.


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