Greener Computing in the Cloud  

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Technology Review has an article on how "Custom datacenters can help lower energy consumption" (something that is needed given the rapid growth in power consumption by large scale hosting facilities) - Greener Computing in the Cloud.

The issue of surging worldwide IT-related energy consumption is both a bottom-line concern to the companies involved and, increasingly, an environmental worry. Energy consumption from data centers doubled between 2000 and 2005--from 0.5 percent to 1 percent of world total electricity consumption. That figure, which currently stands at around 1.5 percent, is expected to rise further. According to a study published in 2008 by the Uptime Institute, a datacenter consultancy based in Santa Fe, NM, it could quadruple by 2020. ...

Cloud-computing companies hope to offer a solution by focusing on energy efficiency within massive data centers.

Yahoo, for example, broke ground on a data center near Buffalo, NY, last month that will use as little as one-quarter the electricity of older data centers, says Scott Noteboom, senior director of data center engineering at the company. Once finished, the servers inside this data center will be more efficient from a computational standpoint--using less power when they are performing fewer computations--and the building itself will mainly exploit natural air flows to keep hot servers cool. On days above 27° C, managers will switch on air conditioning, which in this case employs evaporative cooling, that should only need to be used 212 hours per year.

Whirlpool to sell 1 million smart dryers by 2011  

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VentureBeat reports that whitegoods maker Whirlpool is getting into the "smart appliances" market - Whirlpool leaps into Smart Grid game with 1M smart dryers by 2011.

Since the move toward a cleaner, more efficient electrical grid picked up speed last year, it’s been a land grab for goliaths like General Electric, IBM, Intel and Cisco Systems. Today, there’s a new player on the field: Major appliance maker Whirlpool is promising to deliver 1 million Smart Grid-compatible clothes dryers by 2011. ...

The new dryers will be able to receive signals from home energy grids telling them whether to turn their power consumption up or down or off entirely based on what else is going on with the grid or in the building. For example, during expensive peak energy periods, it could tone down how much power it is drawing from the grid (by switching to no-heat spin cycles), or choose to dry the clothes at a different time in order to conserve energy and, more importantly, lower people’s electricity bills. Whirlpool says its smart dryers could save people $20 to $40 a year. At the same time, 1 million of them (about a quarter the number of dryers the company produces each year) could save the equivalent of the amount of power generated by 10 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants. That accounts for a chunk of greenhouse gas emissions savings as well.

The New York Times also has a story on the topic - Home Appliances Are Starting to Wise Up .
General Electric Co. has announced it will roll out by November its first commercial smart appliance, a hybrid electric heat pump water heater. The company said the pump will save consumers $250 a year in energy costs, with the opportunity to save more through automatic 85 percent reductions in peak-hour energy consumption.

Other "demand response" appliances expected to enter the market are refrigerators able to delay defrost cycles and dishwashers that delay operation until overall energy demands decline at night. Taken together, smart grid-enhanced home appliances could shave up to 7 percent off U.S. peak demand through 2019, according to a recent report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

But such reductions will require the rapid deployment of smart appliances and meters able to communicate with utilities through a mix of wireless or land-based networks. FERC estimates that there are about 8 million smart meters installed in homes today, with several million more expected after DOE releases its next round of stimulus awards.

What we are running out of is oil we can afford to burn.  

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Nice quote from Jeff Rubin - "What we are running out of is oil we can afford to burn" (via Alt Energy Stocks).

The curious tale of the Arctic Sea  

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One of the weirder tales percolating through the media in recent weeks has been the hijacking of a Russian ship in the Baltic sea (supposedly carrying a load of lumber) and its subsequent liberation out in the Atlantic ocean. The Age has an interesting look at the official story - Hijacking the Arctic Sea.

IT BEGAN as a curio item on an obscure maritime website and grew into the mystery of the season. What exactly happened to the Arctic Sea, the cargo ship allegedly seized by pirates, not off the wild coast of Somalia but in the genteel waters of the Baltic?

Two months after the ship was ''hijacked'', the answer is now clear - at least according to Russian investigators. Last week, they announced they had finished their probe into one of the biggest maritime puzzles since the Mary Celeste was found drifting and crewless in the Atlantic in 1872.

According to Moscow, the story is reassuringly simple. Eight armed ''pirates'' seized the Arctic Sea in the late evening of July 24, off the coast of Sweden. The pirates told the captain to sail for Africa. The Arctic Sea then slipped through the English Channel and ''disappeared'' on or around July 30, prompting a frantic international search.

Three weeks later, on August 17, a Russian naval frigate found and intercepted the boat about 300 miles off the Cape Verde Islands. Russian officers arrested the ''pirates'', who turned out to be a bunch of ethnic Russians from Estonia and Latvia. They also freed the Arctic Sea's 15 Russian crew members. This bold mission, the Kremlin claims, involving ships, military aircraft and other resources, was a national triumph.

There's only one problem with Moscow's version of events: it just doesn't stack up. ...

One of the explanations given for the hijacking was that the ship actually contained a consignment of missiles bound for Iran, with (depending on which version you read) the Israelis or a rival Russian military / intelligence faction deciding to intercept the load before it arrived. Dan at The Daily Reckoning reckons this is just one item - along with Netanyahu's recent impromptu trip to Russia - pointing to a possible Israeli strike on Iran (how many times have we heard that in the last 8 years), with implications for the oil price - A distinct possibility.
In the meantime, keep an eye on oil. Sometimes the oil price is driven by speculators. Sometimes it's driven by expectations for the economy. And sometimes it's driven by flat out geopolitical fear. We think now could be one of those times were geopolitics drives crude. Why?

We got a note from a commodities trader in Chicago over the weekend. Up at three a.m. as we're getting over our jet leg we read, "In the big geopolitical dance that has dominated recent headlines there remains one player that all the action seems to swirl around. That player is Iran.

"President Obama's announcement of the discovery of a second 'secret' uranium processing facility with shouting distance of the Shiite holy city of Qum has raised the stakes in what is quickly becoming a very dangerous game. If you read between the lines, nearly all of the geopolitical maneuvering over the past few months has been about the same thing.

"Obama dumps Bush's land-based missile system for a sea-based one that poses far less threat to Russia. Russia - without admitting it, of course - then becomes more accommodating to sanctions against Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu goes to Russia without telling anybody and gets caught doing it. Why?

"Certainly not to talk about the weather. We believe Netanyahu was there for a specific purpose: to warn Russia what would happen if Iran did not stop producing bomb-grade uranium. We also believe Obama's controversial move was designed to give Russia political cover to pressure Iran to do just that. Now that a second uranium-producing facility has been found, the stakes have risen again.

"If some sort of political solution to the Iran crisis is not found within the next few months, Israel will strike - with or without the 'permission' of the United States and the price of oil will react accordingly. The global slowdown is currently focusing all the attention on demand, but the biggest bullish factor out there is ultimately, supply. Remove Iranian oil from the market and the old highs of $147 per barrel could be tested quickly.

Stratfor also has some pontifications on the topic - Breaking the Iran stalemate.
Israel also understands the Russia factor. Russia is in an ongoing struggle with the United States right now in trying to get Washington to recognise Moscow’s influence in the former soviet periphery. So far, the United States hasn’t given Russia what it wants. As a result, Russia continues to flout the leverage it has with the United States over its ties to Iran. Not only can Russia completely bust apart a US- led sanctions regime, but it can also provide Iran with critical weapons systems that could seriously complicate an attack against Iran down the road. The Israelis simply are not seeing the value in delaying much longer.

Israel is therefore leaning heavily on the United States to reach some sort of compromise with Moscow to bring the Russians in line on the Iran issue. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made a statement today that may indicate that such a compromise has a chance – however slight – of happening. “I told the President of the United States that we think it necessary to help Iran make the right decision,” Medvedev said with just the right amount of ambiguity. “As for various types of sanctions, Russia’s position is very simple, and I spoke about it recently. Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, the use of sanctions is inevitable. Ultimately, this is a matter of choice, and we are prepared to continue cooperating with the US administration on issues relating to Iran’s peaceful nuclear program, as well as other matters.”

This is a notable shift in tone coming out of Moscow, but does not yet signify that a deal has been made between the Americans and the Russians that would alleviate the crisis over Iran. Our Russian sources are hinting to us that something bigger may be underway, but have also made clear that this is just the beginning of negotiations. One source in particular has indicated that thus far Washington is at least considering a Russian demand to postpone the US deployment of a Patriot air defence battery in Poland. In return, Moscow would stick to its pledge to delay delivery of the S-300 strategic air defence system to Iran. In essence, this would be a mutual commitment to postpone commitment to their strategic allies.

The question is, will that enough to satisfy Israel?

The Independent has an opinion piece pointing out that all the fuss about the Iranian nuclear program tends to ignore the other nuclear power in the midle east - Don't Israel's nuclear weapons count ?.
Leaders of the rich nations have turned their fire on Iran, quite rightly. On Friday came news that the Islamic Republic had been building a secret uranium enrichment plant near Qom. Then the junta fired test missiles, to prove that the bearded ones have really big willies. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, there are, in Iran, nuclear developments that could lead to weapons of mass destruction. It is not an immediate but a future danger, say credible intelligence experts and indeed Barack Obama himself.

Suddenly the president has got uncharacteristically belligerent, instructing Iran to open up all its nuclear facilities for inspection if it wants to avoid "a path that is going to lead us to confrontation". In May, Obama stood in Washington with the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who we were told was there to seek assurances that there would be no shift from the conventional US position of total and unconditional support for Israel's policies right or wrong, known and clandestine.

On Thursday the US, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany meet in Geneva and, by that time, Iran will be expected to submit to international scrutiny. As a supporter of the now crushed and broken reformers in Iran, I back the ultimatum to the fanatic and bellicose Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But what about that camel in the room? The one we all see but can't point out? What about the only power in the Middle East, also fanatic and aggressive, which has a vast stockpile of weapons enough to obliterate the region? Listen people, we need to talk about Israel. And soon. Like now.

Steorn again  

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Free Energy News has a report on Irish free energy company Steorn, who, undeterred by their abject failure a few years ago when trying to demonstrate their technology, are planning another demonstration of their technology this year - Steorn plans Orbo free energy demo in 2009.

The Irish company, Steorn, is gearing up for another public demonstration attempt of their revolutionary Orbo "free energy" technology -- by the end of 2009.

This past Tuesday, FreeEnergyTimes conducted an email interview with Steorn CEO, Sean McCarthy, providing an update to their progress and intentions. McCarthy said "The demonstration will involve a public display of various Orbo systems, there will be a live video-stream from the location that people can watch via our website." The primary purpose of the demonstrations will be to attract the interest of individuals and companies who want to develop Orbo-powered products.

Gearless Wind Turbines  

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Technology Review has an article on "new direct-drive turbines promise to lower the cost of offshore wind energy" - GE Grabs Gearless Wind Turbines.

With a new purchase, GE is betting on an early-stage turbine technology that could make offshore wind farms cheaper to maintain. The acquisition of ScanWind, based in Trondheim, Norway, has also secured GE a foothold in the growing offshore wind energy market. ...

In conventional wind turbines, the blades spin a shaft that is connected through a gearbox to the generator. The gearbox converts the turning speed of the blades--15 to 20 rotations per minute for a large, one-megawatt turbine--into the faster 1,800 rotations per minute that the generator needs to generate electricity. "Wind turbines are very different than any other gearbox application," says Sandy Butterfield, chief engineer of the wind program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO. "You're going from a very low speed to a high speed." Typically it's the opposite.

The multiple wheels and bearings in a wind turbine gearbox suffer tremendous stress because of wind turbulence, and a small defect in any one component can bring the turbine to a halt. This makes the gearbox the most high-maintenance part of a turbine. Gearboxes in offshore turbines, which face higher wind speeds, are even more vulnerable than those in onshore turbines. Butterfield is leading a gearbox-reliability study with turbine makers to identify design weaknesses that could be avoided.

New Study Warns of Crossing Planetary Boundaries  

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Yale "Environment 360" has an article about a report in Nature warning "The Earth has nine biophysical thresholds beyond which it cannot be pushed without disastrous consequences ... ominously, we have already moved past three of these tipping points" - Provocative New Study Warns of Crossing Planetary Boundaries.

Now, ironically, civilization has become so powerful that it can reshape the planet itself. “We have become a force to contend with at the global level,” as Johan Rockstrom of the Stockholm Resilience Center in Sweden, puts it. Humans have changed the chemistry of Earth’s oceans, lowering their pH and causing ocean acidification. We are shifting the composition of the atmosphere, raising levels of carbon dioxide higher than they’ve been in at least the past 800,000 years.

A number of scientists have warned in recent years that if we keep pushing the planet this way, we will cause sudden, irreversible damage to the systems that made human civilization possible in the first place. Typically, they’ve just focused on one of these tipping points at a time. But in today’s issue of the journal Nature, Rockstrom and 27 of his fellow environmental scientists argue that we have to conceive of many tipping points at once. They propose that humans must keep the planet in what they call a “safe operating space,” inside of which we can thrive. If we push past the boundaries of that space — by wiping out biodiversity, for example, or diverting too much of the world’s freshwater — we risk catastrophe.

Unfortunately, the authors of the Nature paper maintain, we’ve already started pushing out beyond these boundaries without knowing where they actually are. “We’re sitting on top of a mesa right now, and we’re driving around, but we don’t have our lights on and we don’t even have a map,” says Jonathan Foley, a co-author of the new study and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment. “That’s a dangerous way to move around.”

In their new study, Foley and his colleagues put down stakes to mark where they believe seven of these boundaries lie. By their estimate, we have already pushed beyond three of these boundaries, and are moving quickly toward the other four. “We’re running out of time,” says Rockstrom.

The slow death of the unified left  

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Guy Rundle at Crikey has an interesting series on the death of the political left (I imagine someone could do a similar series on the death of the right as well now) and some ruminations on how things may develop in the coming years - The slow death of the unified left.

That left split with the birth of the ‘New Left’ in the 60s, which explicitly rejected that form and those priorities — and drew instead on its own life experience, largely that of student and bohemian life, to suggest a diffused and individualistic model of organisation, and an idea of imminently utopian change (‘sous les paves, la plage’   — ‘beneath the paving stones, the beach’ – meaning, in Paris 68, that in pulling them up and chucking them at people, you were also digging down to the natural, playful world).

From that movement sprang one that would prove more durable — the green left, emphasising for the first time that the Left should not be about more, but about less: less consumption, less waste, less destruction. In the ensuing decades, the political form the Green Left has taken is parliamentary and social democratic — its program is overwhelmingly one of restraint and regulation of economic processes, rather than of a change in their character.

More importantly, the rise of the green left also put two ‘lefts’ fundamentally in opposition to each other. The old Marxist/social democratic left had been interested in increasing society’s productive base, and running it in a different way. The new green left took the old ‘new left’ critique of industrial civilisation as alienated etc and twinned it with the growing evidence of biosphere destruction by business-as-usual. However the more parliamentary the movement has become, the more it has departed from suggesting an alternative basis to life, one radically buying out of the dominance of industrial civilisation, to one regulating it.

The ‘promethean’ left and the green left clashed as early as the 1970s, in Australia with the tussle over the Green Bans movement in Sydney. The leadership of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation — Mundey, Owens and Pringle – had sparked a mass social movement which not only saved much of heritage Sydney, but extended the idea of what unions should do (as Pat Fiske’s great doco ‘Rocking the Foundations’ shows, one of the final strikes was against a Sydney Uni college, to force it to change its policy of expelling homosexuals.) The NSW BLF’s point was that workers making a qualitative assessment of what they did and didnt build was a massive political shift, and movement forward.

The NSW BLF campaign was knocked on the head by Norm Gallagher and the federal leadership, Maoist-oriented, who were partly concerned (reasonably enough it might be said) that the increasingly wild worker-student-anarchist campaign would expose the union to an attack it could not win – but also that the business of Marxists was not to be preserving the old, but creating the new, and eventually taking control of it.

Today, a lot of those Maoists and Prometheans — Chris Pearson, Keith Windschuttle, Piers Akerman — have turned up on the right rather than the left, from whence they reserve their greatest fury for the Greens. But it is effectively a restaging of an earlier intra-left dispute. (you can also see this in the substantial anti-Green campaigns by the UK Spiked group, the successors to the small-but-influential Revolutionary Communist Party.

Thus we have the strange spectacle today of a Labor ‘left’ which is really a centre-right regulatory outfit, a ‘green left’ which is really a social democratic-left regulatory outfit, and a ‘cultural left’ which has no real interest in the economic base at all. The genuine Marxist left is a small, ossified remnant, whose capacity for discipline and focused work can still generate impressive change (despite the high profile cultural leftists, 90% of the grunt for the anti-mandatory detention movement was Trots, in the end) is useful, but whose broader message sounds like something from the 3rd century church fathers.

There is, in that respect, no ‘Left’.

So why is this man smiling?

The answer is firstly that the contradictions of the global system (yes, yes, The Holy Grail) are now so obvious, apparent, and in motion that not merely the prospect but the necessity of real cultural-political change in the future is now evident – though it is harder to see from Australia than just about everywhere else.

The second is that those who look for old-style parties and lock-step organisations for signs of political life are looking in all the wrong places. Without rethinking it, they have taken up the old metaphor of the road, and the journey as the image of left political struggle, seen that we’re not very far along it, and concluded that things are dire. But society has changed so that that metaphor no longer applies, and causes you to miss what is immanent (though not imminent) in global society.

Take the contradictions first. The global financial economy is based on a model that has barely lasted a decade without shuddering in a near-collapse. It involves the western economies turning themselves over to consumption, service sales and rents (on IP mainly) as their core activities, supplied by China, India etc, who are turning themselves into giant factories to supply them.

This arrangement has allowed the global economy to cook the books on the main problem that capitalist development always faces – that of overproduction (keep wages low, and you deprive yourself of consumers. Raise wages and you lower profits). China’s enormous supply of labour has made it possible to operate as one giant factory, with the consumers elsewhere (ie in the West). How do you keep this going? You lend the West the money to consume beyond any possible return of its own withered productive base.

Whatever patches have been put on patches since September last year, one thing is obvious - the West is broke. It has been broke for five years, if not longer. Australia is an exception, due to resources, Sweden due to retaining a high-end industrial base. But the big guys — the US, the UK, continental Europe — are in deep trouble.

But so too are the developing nations, for a declining ability to sell to the West means the necessity of developing their own consumers — at which case the roaring growth rates begin to slow. This is primarily a political problem for at that point, China gets ‘stuck’. Its current social contract between city and country is that city people will get very rich, and offer country people the chance to make better money than back-breaking subsistence farming, with the prospect of intergenerational betterment. Once that slows, the

Ditto in India, which hasn’t really begun to modernise. The short expression of all this is that global capitalist development is not a replay of western capitalist development — for the simple reason that western capitalist development depended on imperialism and third world underdevelopment to keep firing. The idea that these billion+ societies are going to turn into western countries, with 1% directly involved in agriculture, is fantastical. The levels of industrial overproduction would be so monumental that we would have to find people on Jupiter to sell shit to.

Long before most people realise that things simply cannot happen that way, the gears will have crunched. What will animate the world in this century will be conflict between country and city (and country-within-the-city, ie the global slums) in a way that makes the Chinese Revolution of 1949 disclose its true character as mere curtain-raiser. Once it becomes clear to the global country that the flow of wealth has diminished to sub-trickle.

Of course this conflict intersects with another contradiction — that of biosphere impact. Quite aside from climate change, it is obvious that levels of consumption, and the management of production, is so chaotic that radical change — involving a shift in the idea of property — will become necessary. Two matters in particular cannot not have an effect — the collapse of global fish stocks, and a resultant collapse in the food chain, and global demands on ground water due to commercial agriculture, and resultant regional eco-catastrophes. Both of these conditions threaten within a generation, both are beyond our current ability, and possibly any conceivable ability, to create a techno-fix. They will become motive forces in history, because they will intersect with the above raw deal between the city and the country. It is not western Greens who will be driving this, but hundreds of millions of peasants, whose only two choices are struggle or death.

The third contradiction is in the West, and it is the deforming effects that the political-economic system has on our culture. Uniquely in history, the contemporary west has made the cultural system subject to the economy, made it its market, raw material and dumping ground. For a century or more this process was held in check by conservative institutions, and, when these collapsed, attacked by the counterculture, which provided an alternative. When that collapsed, the commodity and the commodified image moved to the centre of social life. Since the commodity is essentially nihilistic – a commodity is simply something whose value is expressed in terms of every other value – its effect, initially liberating from inherited authority (the church, etc) is ultimately nihilistic too.

Socially, the effects of this are to create increasingly atomised societies, in which it is increasingly impossible to imagine solidarity or close connection beyond the immediate family - and then to offer as a substitute either a cynical and masochistic celebration of atomisation (ie most reality TV shows) or literal-minded religiosity, essentially channelled from the middle ages, ie from the last pre-capitalist period.

Psychologically, the effects are to create increasingly ungrounded people. If the society you grow up in is atomised, then an identity never ‘sets’. The liberation that offers is the freedom to determine your own identity. What it removes is the capacity for any identity to be meaningful.

The effect is that a vague depressive sense of nothingness becomes the psychological common cold of hypermodernity. It is then addressed as a disease, and treated with medications (anti-depressants) which stimulate the brain chemicals (such as serotonin) which used to be replenished by meaningful social life. Push this sort of culture for another generation, build a world where ever larger numbers of people live in this world of shadows, and eventually that deep-seated and often unvocalised sense of deep futility will become a historical force in its own right.

Really, I think most people, reflecting on the world as it is, have some intimation of the triple crisis as I’ve sketched it out above. What does not appeal is the idea that socialism is any sort of answer – associated as it is with state-heavy systems, either torpid or lethal or both. Nor does any sort of party or organised political activity suggest itself as even comprehensible to people who live within an atomised world.

What does make radical change possible, sudden and likely however is that processes of self-management are immanent, there beneath the surface, within hypermodernity, in a way they haven’t been previously, to a sufficient degree. That’s a result of better education, intellectual labour – but also about the fact that we all spend so much time thinking about how systems work.

Imagine for example, that the next global capitalist crisis – 2010, 2017?, December? - caused the holding corporation that owned our power utilities to collapse, in a way that was beyond the government to refloat with a bailout (because the government itself was now all bailed out out). Would we simply persist in darkness? Or would, after some disruption and confusion, the engineers and managers who had been running the thing anyway, simply continue to run it. Would they and others be able to use the networks already existing to keep power supply intersected with other areas of the economy, using a mixture of money and free exchange, but without the notion that this was simply being done to return dividends to shareholders? Would they appoint an interim board of control, preserve managerial and scientific hierarchies etc.

Would it then become clear, from practice, not from theory, that a power station is a social institution, not a private one, and that a whole set of arrangements that are neither private ownership nor state control can be made in running our lives?

Masdar starts geothermal project  

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The Masdar initiative has started yet another type of renewable energy project, this time looking to harness geothermal energy in the Persian Gulf. "" reports - Masdar starts GCC's first geothermal project.

Masdar City has outlined plans to establish the Gulf’s first geothermal energy project to generate electricity and fuel the landmark project’s cooling system, according to a local newspaper.

The National daily says that Masdar-contracted engineers have set a start date of November 1 to begin drilling two four-kilometre wells. Water circulated through the wells will be heated into steam, which will turn generators and directly power air conditioning systems....

The total cost of the scheme has been estimated at US $11 billion, and Masdar has already handed out a $1.6 million drilling contract to Iceland’s Reykjavik Geothermal. Another five or six contractors are projected to be hired before the end of the year.

China’s Threat Revives Race for Rare Minerals  

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The New York Times ha a new article in the "China trying to corner rare earths" genre - China’s Threat Revives Race for Rare Minerals.

A Chinese threat to halt exports of rare minerals — vital for high-performance electric motors in wind turbines, hybrid cars and missiles — appears to have backfired.

With control of more than 99 percent of the world’s production of these minerals, China could try to use a ban to force other countries to buy the crucial motors for these high-tech end products, instead of just the minerals, directly from China. But other governments and businesses reacted quickly as word of the proposed ban spread late this summer.

The Chinese threat has touched off a frenzied international effort to develop alternative mines, much as the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo’s repeated increases in oil prices prompted a global hunt for oil reserves.

In Washington, the House and Senate amended their defense budget authorization bills to require the Defense Department to review the military’s almost complete dependence on Chinese supplies of rare-earth minerals. In Australia, the government blocked a Chinese state-owned company on Thursday from acquiring a majority stake in a large mine being developed for these minerals, also called rare earths. Meanwhile, Wall Street is financing exploration as the share prices of rare-earths mining companies soar — as much as sevenfold since March.

The Australian has opened fire on another front, this time looking at chinese efforts to secure potash supplies from Africa - Elemental Minerals follows Congo potash after DMC iron foray.
But, slowly but surely, things are starting to stir in Congo-Brazzaville. Mining hasn’t had much of a look in there because of the nation’s oil and gas riches, which account for 92 per cent of the country’s exports. ... Now comes potash. There is already one established potash project owned by Canadian company MagIndustries.

It is not surprising that Elemental Minerals (ELM) got a 125 per cent boost to its share price on Thursday, when it announced it had picked up the Sintoukoula potash project in Congo-Brazzaville. Significantly, this ground is just 50km from the country’s port for overseas shipping, Pointe Noire. There has already been work done there, and the Canadian ground to the south includes the Holle mine, which operated from 1969 until 1977, when it was flooded and closed down. That mine produced sylvite, which is potassium chloride and essential to fertilisers.

Here’s the point: if ELM’s project gets legs, then there are going to be a good many players becoming interested - especially the Chinese, who are scouring the world for sources of potash and phosphate. This is not only because of the need to maintain food production in China. What is happening now is that China is looking to Africa as a future food source.

Australian Solar sector held back by foggy energy policy  

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The Australian reports that the local solar power industry is in a state of confusion about government policy regarding the sector, with the solar thermal power plant proposed for Queensland considered unlikely to go ahead - Solar sector held back by foggy energy policy.

The government is driving the solar industry to the point of exasperation because of the lack of clarity, constant changes, and delays in its policy for supporting large-scale solar development. The industry has already urged the government to rework its Solar Flagships program, after pointing out that the $1.5 billion scheme unveiled in May was ill-conceived, unworkable and simply wasn't enough to fund the 1000MW target.

That program, proudly unveiled by Rudd, was for four large-scale solar thermal and solar PV installations located in a single project that would be the largest in the world. But as this column pointed out in July, the idea of creating four 250MW projects was strategically suspect, locating them in a single location was technically impossible, and there was simply not enough money to match the megawatts. ...

The conference was addressed by Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, who again rejected feed-in tariffs. He pointed to the experience in Germany, where he said feed-in tariffs to support rooftop solar and the like had cost the country $1bn a year for less than 1 per cent of its energy needs. But the solar industry points out that was never the point of the scheme in a country with such lousy solar conditions. Germany now possesses the intellectual property and the manufacturing and export capacity that is expected to make it one of the three dominant global players in an industry that will be worth tens of billion dollars a year. It now has 50,000 employees in the solar industry. Australia, with the best solar conditions in the world, and the home of some of its best technological developments, has little more than 1000, and no manufacturing capacity to speak of. ...

Grimes says Australia had the chance to be a global leader in roof-top and small-scale solar photovoltaics, but lost it. "We are now a consumer of those products from Germany and China. Solar thermal is our one remaining opportunity for industry leadership. It's ours to capture or lose. Let's see if we can learn from history and do better."

Population: Overconsumption is the real problem  

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The topic of population (revisited here recently with my post on Norman Borlaug) is the subject of a special in New Scientist on "The Population Delusion". One article notes that the problem isn't population growth (which has slowed dramatically, in spite of the wailing put up by population doomers), it is our consumption patterns - Population: Overconsumption is the real problem. The edition has a column for Paul and Anne Ehrlich, still concerned about populatiuon regardless - Enough of us now.

Now the demographic monster has become a hot topic again. Yet the arguments still don't fit the reality. The population "bomb" is fast being defused. Women across the poor world are having dramatically fewer babies than their mothers did - mostly out of choice, not compulsion. Half a century ago, the worldwide average for the number of children a woman had was between five and six. Now she has 2.6. In the face of such a fall it is hard to see what more "doing something" about global population might achieve.

Half the world now has a fertility rate below the replacement level, which, allowing for girls who don't make it to adulthood, is around 2.3. This includes most of Europe, east Asia, North America and the Caribbean. There are holdouts in a few Muslim countries - but not Iran, where fertility is 1.7 - and many parts of Africa. But rich or poor, socialist or capitalist, Muslim or Catholic, secular or devout, with tough government birth control policies or none, most countries tell the same story.

This hasn't yet stopped the world's population from rising. It stands at 6.8 billion, and is growing by 75 million a year. This is mostly because the huge numbers of young women born during the 20th-century's worldwide baby boom are still fertile: they may typically only have two children each, but that is still a lot of babies. Soon, however, if fertility rates continue to decline, each generation of women will be smaller than the last.

Of course fertility rates may not continue to decline, but to date the evidence of countries that have got down to the replacement level is that they don't stick there, they carry on declining. The reasons for this may have a lot to do with the changing position of women in society. Where men take a greater role in bringing up children, and the state intervenes to help working mothers, fertility rates stay quite close to replacement. Where they do not, then super-low fertility may follow; women, in effect, go on childbirth strike.

Even if the world population does stabilise soon and starts to glide downwards, that won't solve the world's environmental problems. The real issue is not overpopulation but overconsumption - mostly in rich countries that have long since given up adding substantial numbers to their population.
The key problem facing humanity... is how to bring a better quality of life for 8 billion or more people without wrecking the environment entirely in the attempt - E. O. Wilson

Take one measure: carbon dioxide emissions. Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, calculates that the world's richest half billion people - that's about 7 per cent of the global population - are responsible for 50 per cent of the world's emissions. Meanwhile, the poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent of emissions. One American or European is more often than not responsible for more emissions than an entire village of Africans.

Every time those of us in the rich world talk about too many babies in Africa or India, we are denying our own culpability. It is the world's consumption patterns we need to fix, not its reproductive habits.

Ross Gittins is also talking about population growth (in a purely Australian context) in the SMH, noting that boosting GDP via immigration driven population increases misses the point - if GDP per person isn't growing, we are making citizen's (economic) lives worse, not better - Lets think twice about growth by immigration.
Over the past seven financial years, real GDP has grown by 23 per cent, but real GDP per person has grown by less than half that. So we haven't been doing as well as the headline growth figures imply.

You have to ask yourself what's so good about rapid population growth. And it's not good enough to say it makes the economy grow faster. From a narrow materialistic point of view, immigration-fed growth in the economy is good only if it raises the real average incomes of the pre-existing population.

And it's debatable whether it does. If it doesn't, we're running a high immigration policy mainly for the benefit of the immigrants, who are able to earn more in our country than in their own. Which is jolly decent of us.

Of course, if you were a business person, you wouldn't care whether high immigration led to a rise in income per person. All you're after is a bigger market because you believe it will allow you to make bigger profits.

So business believes in growth for growth's sake. Whether that attitude is shared by our politicians and economists, I'm less sure. Sometimes I think our economists are so mesmerised by Growth that they forget to inquire further.

But the other point that tends to be overlooked is that when you use immigration to force the pace of economic growth, it comes with a lot more costs attached than usual.

As the Treasury Secretary, Ken Henry, acknowledged last week, the expected continuation of high immigration raises strong questions about ''land-use sustainability and infrastructure requirements, both economic and social''.

Even so, these costs tend to be underplayed and hidden from view, partly because they're not acknowledged in our standard measure of growth, GDP. Indeed, some costs actually show up as additions to GDP. More growth - you beauty!

GDP ignores the cost of the environmental damage done by immigration. Apart from being morally dubious, poaching skilled workers from developing countries roughly doubles their greenhouse gas emissions, in the process making it all the harder for us to achieve the necessary reduction in our emissions.

So how come all those National Party and renegade Liberal politicians busy grossly exaggerating the economic cost of the emissions trading scheme have failed to mention the additional cost arising from the 6.5 million upward revision in projected population growth?

But the extra carbon emissions are just one of the environmental costs. A total projected population increase of 13 million over the next 40 years does raise the question of whether we'll exceed our ecosystem's carrying capacity.

Is the additional land use sustainable? Here's a country that badly stuffed up its river and underground water systems, and as we speak is demonstrating a serious lack of political will to fix the problem, telling itself an extra 13 million people will be no probs.

And what about the cost of all the roads, hospitals, schools, police stations and untold other infrastructure we'll need to build to accommodate a 65 per cent increase in the population? All that spending will add to growth as measured by GDP, but that doesn't mean it won't come at considerable cost to taxpayers.

BIPV: A solar powered home, without the panels  

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The New York Times has an article on the rapidly evolving industry of BIPV (built In PV) solar panels - solar panels that are embedded into roof tiles - A solar powered home, without the panels.

Mr. Velosa said installation of built-in solar power was just starting in the United States, where the bulk of the installations were still experimental. But that will change, he said, because “we are seeing that the construction industry has realized that energy-efficient buildings are an opportunity for growth.” ...

Akhil Sivanandan, a research analyst in Madras, India, for the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, said that government subsidies would speed adoption of building-integrated photovoltaics in the United States, as they already have in Europe. “You need government incentives,” he said. “Even with drops in pricing and advances in technology, it is still too costly.”

In France, Germany and other countries, building-integrated solar markets are growing quickly because of subsidies and programs that pay homeowners for the electricity they generate and feed back to the power grid, he said. “In Europe, building-integrated photovoltaics already make up about 3 to 4 percent of the total solar market,” Mr. Sivanandan said, adding that the incentives help homeowners in repaying the systems’ costs in five to seven years.

But one other quality will be crucial to the popularity of building-integrated solar cells, Mr. Velosa said. “Aesthetics is key,” he observed. “They have to look good.”

Soon to Be Made In China: Electric Vehicle Charge Points  

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Earth2Tech has a post on the electric vehicle charging point infrastructure market, mentioning the large network being deployed by eTec in the US - Soon to Be Made In China: Electric Vehicle Charge Points.

Nearly half of the electric car charging equipment installed worldwide by 2015 will be heading to China, according to a recent report from Pike Research. Today an announcement from Scottsdale, Ariz.-based charging infrastructure company ECOtality indicates that China’s role in the electric car charging boom will encompass not only installing the equipment domestically, but also building it for international deployment. Down the road, when you pull up to a charge point, there’s a good chance it could have been made in China.

ECOtality, whose subsidiary eTec snagged a nearly $100 million federal stimulus grant last month to support what the company describes as “the largest deployment of EV chargers and vehicles ever” (12,750 charging systems in five states for 5,000 Nissan LEAF electric vehicles), says this morning that it has formed two joint ventures with China’s Shenzhen Goch Investment, or SGI, in order to manufacture, assemble and sell EV charging equipment in China.

The 15 most toxic places to live  

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From Mother Nature Network - The 15 most toxic places to live.

A Green Roofed High School  

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Green building of the week is this french high school with a dramatic green roof - Stunning Green Roofed High School by Off Architecture.

High school students in Revin, France will soon be attending classes in a stunning new terraced building covered in green roofs. Seen from above the new Lycee Jean Moulin school will simply appear as a terraced landscape, practically disappearing into the hillside. Designed by Paris-based, Off Architecture in association with Duncan Lewis Scape Architecture and Jeans Giacinto, this green roofed marvel is curvaceous and organic, blending into the countryside.

This sustainable school will be built to utilize the constraints of the slope, receding and elevating up the hillside. Each terraced level is one single floor and has high windows to capture a lot of natural daylight. Rather than remain flat, the roof undulates in gentle waves across the level for a more natural look and is covered with vegetation to blend in with the surrounding landscape.

The Era of Xtreme Energy  

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TomDispatch has another one of their regular articles from Michael Klare on resource wars, peak oil and "Life After the Age of Oil" - The Era of Xtreme Energy

Talk about roller-coaster rides: the price of a barrel of crude oil, which was still under $20 the week after September 11, 2001, made it to $147 in July 2008, just before the global economic meltdown, only to hit a low of $32.40 early this year. And yet, in recent months, hardly noticed, it's crept back above $70 -- and this with "recovery" barely on the horizon and global industrial demand still muted at best. And that's the good news.

Surely, as economic activity picks up, oil demand will rise and prices will resume their upward march. And don't be fooled by a spate of announcements, as recently in the Gulf of Mexico, of new oil discoveries, as Michael Klare, author of the invaluable book Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, indicates. If there is a surge in industrial demand globally, recent discoveries will have little impact on the growing supply of energy.

"It's still the one," energy expert Daniel Yergin says of oil in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Yergin, author of a classic history of oil, The Prize, claims that petroleum will dominate the global energy equation for decades to come. Look elsewhere and you can find sprightly scenarios for energy futures based on climate-friendly renewable energy sources. As Klare makes painfully clear, however, there's a third way -- and that is distinctly not good news. We are going to enter an age of Xtreme energy, he suggests, and the last-ditch efforts to keep our world on its normal course are likely to devastate the environment, accelerate climate change, inflict widespread pain, and create global conflict. It's not a pretty picture.

Fisker Gets Stimulus Loan To Develop Affordable Plug-In Hybrids  

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Gas 2.0 has a post on a large chunk of US economic stimulus money being granted to electric vehicle company Fisker Automotive for plug-in hybrid development - Fisker Gets a Half Billion Dollar Stimulus Loan To Develop Affordable Plug-In Hybrids.

The world may have just gotten one very big step closer to viable, affordable electric cars. Fisker Automotive and the U.S. Department of Energy have agreed to loan terms for $528.7 million to bring an affordable electric car to the mass market.

Most of the money will go towards Project NINA, which aims to bring a plug-in hybrid car to market for under $40,000 (after tax breaks). The project named after one of the three ships Christopher Coloumbus led to the New World, and will hopefully create or save 5,000 U.S. jobs. While most of the money will go towards creating an affordable family sedan, some of it will also be used to put the finishing touches on the Fisker Karma, an all-electric luxury sports car in the same vein as the Tesla Roadster.

Abengoa's PS20 solar plant opens  

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Reve has a report on the opening of Abengoa's PS20 solar plant, the largest commercial solar thermal power plant in the world - Abengoa's PS20 solar plant, the largest commercial solar tower plant in the world.

Don Juan Carlos and Doña Sofía, today presided over the inauguration of Abengoa's PS20 solar plant, the largest commercial solar tower plant in the world, located at the Solúcar Platform in Sanlúcar la Mayor, Seville.

Abengoa's PS20 solar plant, the largest commercial solar tower plant in the world
The Chairman of Abengoa, Felipe Benjumea, explained the functioning and the advantages of tower technology, a mature solution that offers the most efficient performance compared to other similar technologies, by concentrating solar radiation onto a single spot.

During his speech, Abengoa's Chairman pointed out that the plant's operations "are based on generating electricity by obtaining heat from solar radiation. More than 1,000 mirrors, each one 120 square metres in size, placed at the base of the tower, track the sun just like sunflowers".

The 20 megawatts of power produces enough clean energy to supply 10,000 homes, preventing the emission of approximately 12,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere per annum. Felipe Benjumea added that "energy in the 21st century has to be clean with no greenhouse gas emissions; competitive, internalising all costs, including from the CO2; and storable. These three conditions have all been fulfilled here and we believe that this is the real future for today, a possible future".

Oil Industry Sets a Brisk Pace of New Discoveries ?  

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There have been a few articles in the mainstream media lately expressing skepticism about a near term peaking in oil production - the New York Times (Oil Industry Sets a Brisk Pace of New Discoveries) and Scientific American (Squeezing More Oil From The Ground) being prominent amongst them.

The oil industry has been on a hot streak this year, thanks to a series of major discoveries that have rekindled a sense of excitement across the petroleum sector, despite falling prices and a tough economy.

These discoveries, spanning five continents, are the result of hefty investments that began earlier in the decade when oil prices rose, and of new technologies that allow explorers to drill at greater depths and break tougher rocks.

“That’s the wonderful thing about price signals in a free market — it puts people in a better position to take more exploration risk,” said James T. Hackett, chairman and chief executive of Anadarko Petroleum.

More than 200 discoveries have been reported so far this year in dozens of countries, including northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, Australia, Israel, Iran, Brazil, Norway, Ghana and Russia. They have been made by international giants, like Exxon Mobil, but also by industry minnows, like Tullow Oil.

These claims are being buoyed by various announcements of reasonably large oil discoveries in new offshore locations, such as BP's Tiber find in the Gulf of Mexico, Iran's 8.8 billion barrel claim in Kouzestan, the Anadarko led discovery off West Africa and news that Cairn Energy have commenced production at a 1 billion barrel field in Rajastan, India (I'm not sure what large discoveries have been made in Australia recently however - as claimed in the NYT article - there is lots of news on the natural gas and coal seam gas fronts but little about oil).

Most of the commentary ignores the fact that these discoveries are much smaller than the really large fields discovered in the mid-20th century, and that the new offshore fields are very deep in comparison to earlier offshore oil discoveries, so exploiting them will be both time-consuming and costly - so they could be considered a vindication of peak oil theories rather than a refutation of them.

The flow of news hasn't been entirely one way though, with the FT noting that even with these new discoveries, "the finds may not be enough to ward off a supply crunch as the world economy recovers" - Oil strikes not enough to quench demand and Finding new oil gets ever more expensive - and the Independent having a balanced look at the issue - The Big Question: Does BP's discovery of a giant new field prove we're not running out of oil?.
It is worth bearing in mind not only that giant fields are the lifeblood of the industry, but that the overall rate of discovery is on a downward trend. The 20 largest oil fields – out of around 70,000 around the world – account for a quarter of all production; the largest, Ghawar, discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1948, is only halfway through its 140 billion barrels. But while in the Sixties around 56 billion barrels were being discovered each year, that fell to 13 billion in the Nineties. And most new discoveries are off-shore and under deep waters (where they are much more expensive to extract).

For those worried about recent shocks in the price of oil, and the global economy's extreme over-reliance on oil, the new discoveries are welcome relief. But they cannot disguise the fact that supply is generally declining as demand is generally growing. Their effect is only to delay the inevitable.

Heading Out at Bit Tooth Blog, Kurt Cobb at Energy Bulletin and Gail at The Oil Drum also have some commentary on the NYT and Scientific American articles.

Scientific American article showing areas that have allegedly not been adequately explored for oil

The NYT hasn't become entirely skeptical about near term peak oil - the paper also has a review of Peter Maass’s new book, “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.” - The End of Oil ?.
Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, who is considered to be the father of OPEC and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy, irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix. With a few exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few, poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.

Such is the message of Peter Maass’s slender but powerfully written new book, “Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil.” Unquestionably, by fueling better and faster transportation and powering cities and factories, oil has been critical to modern economies. But oil has also made possible the most destructive wars in history, and it has left human society in a historical cul-de-sac. Despite much hue and cry today, Maass argues, we seem unable to move beyond an oil-based global economy, and we are going to hit a wall soon.

Maass, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, tends to endorse the predictions of industry skeptics like Matthew Simmons, who argues the earth is about to surpass “peak oil” supplies. Even with the recent fallback in prices, the petroleum that’s left to discover will be harder and more expensive to extract. Last year’s $147-a-barrel oil was just a “foretaste of what awaits us,” Maass writes.

Maass is less interested in crunching oil-supply numbers, however, than in exposing the cruelty and soullessness of human­kind’s lust for this “violence-­inducing intoxicant,” as he calls it. His book teaches us an old lesson anew: that the true wealth of nations is not discovered in the ground, but created by the ingenuity and sweat of citizens. It’s the same lesson the Spanish learned centuries ago when they discovered gold, the oil of their time, in the New World. They piled up bullion but squandered it on imperial fantasies and failed to build enduring prosperity, while destroying the civilizations from which they seized it.

Vinod Khosla: clean tech is all about scale  

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Grist has an update on Vinod Khosla's cleantech investment program (which he characterises as "rooting for the underdog") - For Khosla, clean tech is all about scale.

“I like to call it ‘main tech,’ not clean tech,” says Khosla, dressed in his trademark black, when I snagged some time with him at his Sand Hill Road office in the hills above Stanford University. “We’re doing bioplastics, lighting, engines, water, and air conditioning. It’s a very broad view. Almost anything that can be made renewable, sustainable, more efficient, and cheaper.”

Khosla has a reputation as a contrarian, annoying both fellow investors and environmentalists when he disses the potential of electric cars, photovoltaics and other in-vogue technologies to make a meaningful impact on climate change. While he has poured money into solar and biofuel startups and other companies developing exotic new technologies, he’s just as interested in greening old tech.

“We just hired a great guy out of Detroit to come here on an engine startup,” says Khosla. “If you can improve the efficiency of engines by 30 to 40 percent, you can cut world oil consumption by a lot. That’s exciting stuff.”

Khosla is funding at least five startups focusing on mechanical efficiency, developing everything from circuit boards to more efficiently control a car’s systems to better fuel injection systems. Another 10 companies—with names like Kaai, Ramu and Sakti3—are working on electrical efficiency. (Some are so far below the radar that they don’t maintain Web sites.)

A portion of his portfolio is devoted to what Khosla likes to call “science experiments,” or “black swan” technologies. Seventeenth century Europeans assumed that all swans were white until the discovery of black swans in Western Australia in the 18th century. In this century, former financier Nassim Nicholas Taleb developed a theory of what he called “black swan events” to describe the impact of rare, big impact, hard-to-predict historical occurrences, like the advent of the Internet or the 9/11 attacks.

For Khosla, a world-changing black swan technology would be batteries that could store massive amounts of electricity generated by solar and wind farms or cheaply power electric cars for hundreds of kilometers on a charge. (Among Khosla’s stealth startups is Sakti3, a Michigan venture whose bare-bones Web site says it is developing “advanced solid-state rechargeable lithium-ion battery technology.”)

The operational word here is cheaply. For Khosla, the bottom line on any technology is whether it can be scaled at a price where it will be adopted without subsidies in countries such as China and India. It’s there, he says, where climate change solutions must take root if there’s to be any chance of effectively fighting global warming. In other words, entrepreneurs hoping to lure Khosla money must pass the “Chindia test.”

“Where’s the growth in energy? It’s in India and China,” he says. “And guess what, they don’t have the same rules. You don’t get a hybrid car credit in any of those countries. In the end, every single technology has to compete unsubsidized in the marketplace against fossil fuels.”

Plugging Into the Sun  

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National Geographic's cover story this month (for readers outside the US) is on solar energy (particularly solar thermal power and thin film solar), noting "Sunlight bathes us in far more energy than we could ever need—if we could just catch enough" - Plugging Into the Sun. A related article is - Can Solar Save Us ? - with a photo gallery at - Solar Rays.

When Nevada Solar One came on line in 2007, it was the first large solar plant to be built in the United States in more than 17 years. During that time, solar technology blossomed elsewhere. Nevada Solar One belongs to Acciona, a Spanish company that generates electricity here and sells it to NV Energy, the regional utility. The mirrors were made in Germany.

Putting on hard hats and dark glasses, Cable and I get into his pickup and drive slowly past row after row of mirrors. Men with a water truck are hosing down some. "Any kind of dust affects them," Cable says. At the far edge of the mirror field, we stop and step out of the truck for a closer look. To show how sturdy the glass is, Cable bangs it like a drum. Above his head, at the focal point of the parabola, the pipe carrying the oil is coated with black ceramic to soak up the light, and it's encased in an airless glass cylinder for insulation. On a clear summer day with the sun directly overhead, Nevada Solar One can convert about 21 percent of the sun's rays into electricity. Gas plants are more efficient, but this fuel is free. And it doesn't emit planet-warming carbon dioxide. ...

With a new administration in Washington promising to take on global warming and loosen the grip of foreign oil, solar energy finally may be coming of age. Last year oil prices spiked to more than $140 a barrel before plunging along with the economy—a reminder of the dangers of tying the future to something as unpredictable as oil. Washington, confronting the worst recession since the 1930s, is underwriting massive projects to overhaul the country's infrastructure, including its energy supply. In his inaugural address President Barack Obama promised to "harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." His 2010 budget called for doubling the country's renewable energy capacity in three years. Wind turbines and biofuels will be important contributors. But no form of energy is more abundant than the sun.

The Age has an article commenting on the NGM piece - World wakes to new dawn for solar power.
WHEN Lindsay Tanner says greenies are ''obsessed'' with solar energy, he's right. And it's obvious why.

Clean coal is a myth. Nuclear has radioactive waste and security issues and (read Helen Caldicott) it's not as efficient as they say. It would also be impossible to commission a nuclear reactor in Australia within a decade - especially near anyone's backyard - and we haven't got a decade to lose. ...

Solar technology has been around for decades, the resource is abundant and the costs are coming down.

How abundant? This month's National Geographic cover story on solar power estimated that the amount of electricity that could be generated by solar photovoltaics (PV) and concentrating solar thermal (CSP) each year was roughly 40 times the world's present electricity use. (In round figures, 745,000 terawatt hours a year of solar power is available, and the world generated 19,000 terawatt hours in 2006, mostly from fossil fuels).

But the promise of solar has been around so long people don't believe it any more. NG's reporter quoted from a magazine article published in America in 1953, titled Why Don't We Have … Sun Power? That old piece included this: ''Every hour the sun floods the earth with a deluge of thermal energy equal to 21 billion tons of coal.''

Adelaide-based scientist Monica Oliphant is president of the International Solar Energy Society. She has been a staunch advocate for solar power since the Arab conflict and oil shock in the early 1970s, when she heard Nobel-prize winning Australian virologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet on the radio.

''I remember the day - I was in the kitchen, [he] was saying: 'If we had solar energy we wouldn't have to fight over oil.' ''

Inhabitat First Electric Vehicle Charging Corridor Installed Between SF and LA  

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Inhabitat has a post on a network of charging stations for electric vehicles in California (the recharge times seem excessive from a practicality point of view, but its a start i guess) - First Electric Vehicle Charging Corridor Installed Between SF and LA.

One of the biggest problems with electric vehicle technology is the lack of a plug-in infrastructure on our roads. But that problem is about to disappear — at least for some commuters on Highway 101 going between San Francisco and Los Angeles — thanks to a so-called “electric highway” of five recharging stations between the two cities. Four of the stations are already online, and a fifth will be up and running in Goleta by October.

The stations, owned by SolarCity, are all located at Rabobank locations, with the exception of the San Luis Obispo parking garage-base charging station. Each station features fast chargers with 240V, 70 amps, and the ability to fully juice up a Tesla Roadster in three and a half hours. The Salinas, Atascadero, and San Luis Obispo locations are all grid-powered, but the Santa Maria station is outfitted with a 30-kilowatt solar array — so commuters can be confident that their cars are powered by renewable energy.

The charging stations are only compatible with Roadsters at the moment, but SolarCity will retrofit the chargers with universal plugs once they become available in approximately six months. And while owners of the $100,000+ Roadster can certainly afford to pay for charging services, SolarCity and Rabobank are giving their electricity away for free. Of course, that could all change once the universal plug is unleashed in the coming months and the masses start swarming the stations. Because once customers have had a taste of a cross-state, zero-emissions car ride, there is no going back.

CNA Report On Energy Security  

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Energy Bulletin has an article from Rick Munroe summarising a new report from the "Center for Naval Analyses’ Military Advisory Board" in the US, looking at the country's energy security - Review of CNA Report: “Powering America’s Defense: Energy and the Risks to National Security” (May 2009).

Energy Bulletin also has a related article - Energy Security: an Annotated Military/Security Bibliography.

Powering America’s Defense comes two years after the Military Advisory Board’s landmark report, “Climate Change” (May, 2007). This review of Powering will examine the way its authors deal with the issues of peak oil, oil imports and the potential for oil supply shocks.

A. Peak Oil

With respect to peak oil, Powering refers to the 2007 GAO report, “Addressing a Peak and Decline in Oil Production” [1] and makes specific reference to the GAO’s conclusion that “the peak in production is likely to occur some time before 2040” [2].

Powering then refers to the recent World Energy Outlook (WEO, Nov. 2008) and states, “According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) most countries outside of the Middle East have already peaked, or will soon reach, the peak of their oil production” [3].

However, Powering does not include some of the most compelling information contained in the 2008 WEO:

- its acknowledgement that oilfield decline rates are much worse than was previously recognized [4],
- its warning of an oil-supply crunch by 2015 unless there is a major surge in investment [5],
- its marked shift in tone from previous WEOs [6].

The 2008 WEO states, “Production has already peaked in most non-OPEC countries and will peak in most others before 2030” [7].

When the IEA’s Fatih Birol, was questioned on this pre-2030 time-frame, he conceded, “Assuming that OPEC will invest in a timely manner, global conventional oil can still continue [to increase] but we still expect that it will come around 2020 to a plateau, which of course is not good news for global oil supply. “

Birol went on to say, “The reason we are asking for a global energy revolution is to prepare everybody for difficult days and difficult times. I think we should be very careful…” [8]

To summarize, the Chief Economist of the IEA has verbally indicated that the global peak (which the GAO thought might occur as late as 2040, and which the WEO indicated might be “before 2030” has now been brought forward to an anticipated plateau a mere decade from now. ...

It's the ecosystem, stupid  

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Ross Gittens has an article in the Age on the relationship between the economy and the environment (taking a few swipes at PM Rudd's pretend climate policy along the way), and noting glumly recent reports on our large projected population increase - It's the ecosystem, stupid.

Everyone (rightly) condemns economists for their failure to foresee and warn us about the global financial crisis, but here's a climate crisis we've seen coming for years and we can't take it seriously. Even the economists who brought us the emissions trading scheme don't adequately appreciate the problem we've got. They think all we've got to do is switch to low-carbon energy sources (ideally by finding a way to capture all the carbon emitted by burning coal) and the economy can go on growing as if nothing had happened. Being economists, they see us as all living in an economy, with this thing at the side called the environment that occasionally causes problems we need to deal with. As usual, wrong model.

In reality, the economy exists within the ecosystem, taking natural resources from that system, using them and then ejecting wastes, including sewage, garbage and all forms of pollution and greenhouse gases.

The global economy grows as the world's population grows and as people's material living standards rise. The problem is that the human population and material affluence have grown so much in the past 200 years that our economic activity is putting increasing pressure on the ecosystem that ensures our survival. On the one hand we're chewing through non-renewable resources at a rapid rate and using renewable resources faster than their ability to renew themselves. On the other, we're spewing out wastes faster than the ecosystem can absorb them.

Global warming is, of course, an example of the latter. But it's just the most acute respect in which global economic activity is undermining the healthy functioning of our ecosystem. Think of the way we're destroying the world's fish stocks, the way farming practices are causing acidification, desertification and erosion of land, the way dams and irrigation are destroying our rivers and the way human ''progress'' is destroying species.

All this is happening with only about 15 per cent of the world's population enjoying high material living standards similar to ours. Now consider what happens to the global economy's use of natural resources and generation of wastes when China and India - accounting for almost 40 per cent of the world's population - get on a path of rapid economic development to raise their citizens' standard of living to something approaching ours. Since the rich countries are reluctant to countenance a decline in living standards, to put it mildly, and the poor countries most assuredly won't abandon their quest for affluence, there's one obvious variable that could be used to limit global economic activity's deleterious impact on the ecosystem: population growth.

Limiting population growth in the developing world and allowing population to continue on its established path of decline in the developed world wouldn't be easy, but it would be easier than trying to prevent rising living standards among those already living.

Hence my dismay when Treasurer Wayne Swan's announcement last week that Australia's population in 40 years time is now expected to be 6.5 million greater than was expected just three years ago was received without the blinking of an eyelid. Ho hum, tell me something interesting.

Norman Borlaug: Saint Or Sinner ?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The father of the "green revolution" in agriculture, Norman Borlaug, recently passed away due to cancer, at the age of 95.

Borlaug didn't approve of the "green revolution" moniker, dubbing it "a miserable term" (what he would have made of "The Agrichemical Revolutionary" isn't clear) but his work has had a far-reaching impact on the course of human development.

Borlaug received both praise ("More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace", said the Nobel peace prize committee, while the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization declared him “A towering scientist” and a “great benefactor of humankind” ) from those impressed by the rise in agricultural productivity he engineered, and condemnation ("Aside from Kissinger, probably the biggest killer of all to have got the peace prize was Norman Borlaug, whose "green revolution" wheat strains led to the death of peasants by the million" is a typical example from Alexander Cockburn at Counterpunch) from those concerned by the impact of the introduction of industrial agriculture around the globe.

Borlaug's Life

Borlaug grew up on a farm in Iowa and then studied for a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics at the University of Minnesota. In 1944, Borlaug took up an agricultural research position in Mexico as part of the Rockefeller Foundation project to help farmers modernise crop production, where he developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties over a period of 16 years. The Foundation's interest may not have been entirely altruistic - the Mexican government had nationalised the country's oil supply in 1939, to the dismay of the family's "Standard Oil" company, and there were concerns that the country may align itself with Germany during the war.

Borlaug's wheat breeding program produced semi-dwarf strains as the shorter stems enabled the plant to grow larger heads of grain without collapsing - with the extra growth prompted by the application of nitrogen fertiliser. The strains developed by Borlaug were very successful - by 1963, 95% of Mexico's wheat crops were products of the program. That year, the country's wheat harvest was 6 times larger than in 1944, the year Borlaug arrived - Mexico had become self-sufficient in wheat production.

In the 1960's, Borlaug shifted to India, working on similar projects there to alleviate famine. While the situation in India and Pakistan at the time was bleak (Biologist and "Population Bomb" author Paul Ehrlich remarking "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971" and "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980"), Borlaug's programs were successful - in Pakistan, wheat yields nearly doubled, from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 7.3 million tons in 1970. In India, yields increased from 12.3 million tons in 1965 to 20.1 million tons in 1970 - by 1974, India was self-sufficient in cereal production.

Borlaug did not appear to be interested in politics - he believed that the problems of hunger and poverty could be solved by increasing crop yields, and set out to do so by applying technology to plant science. He often advocated increasing crop yields as a way of curbing deforestation - a methodology that came to be known as the "Borlaug hypothesis" (increasing the productivity of agriculture on existing farmland can help control deforestation by reducing the demand for new farmland).

Borlaug was worried about the limited availability of farmland to expand food production further to meet increasing global demand - "we will have to double the world food supply by 2050" he noted. With around 85% of future growth in food production having to come from land already in use, he recommended a multidisciplinary research approach - mainly through increasing crop immunity to large-scale diseases such as the rust fungus.

While Borlaug became ever more optimistic about further increasing crop yields, he did occasionally sound Malthusian style warnings about population growth, particularly in the 1970's - "future food-production increases will have to come from higher yields. And though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before".

Over time Borlaug became convinced that we could feed the world adequately (given projections that global population will eventually plateau at around 9.5 billion people), as long as the methods he recommended were adopted universally, stating in 2000 : "I now say that the world has the technology — either available or well advanced in the research pipeline — to feed on a sustainable basis a population of 10 billion people. The more pertinent question today is whether farmers and ranchers will be permitted to use this new technology ? While the affluent nations can certainly afford to adopt ultra low-risk positions, and pay more for food produced by the so-called 'organic' methods, the one billion chronically undernourished people of the low income, food-deficit nations cannot."

Borlaug's work earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and (amongst numerous other awards) the 1977 US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the US Congressional Gold Medal in 2006.

Criticisms of the Green Revolution

Borlaug's "green revolution" has been criticised for decades by a wide variety of different groups for all sorts of reasons - ranging from making farmers dependent on a range of industrial products to soil and aquifer depletion to creating a food production system that is dependent on a finite supply of fossil fuel based inputs. One memorable description of this combined school of thought came from Zaid Hassan, who noted "there are so many criticisms around the current global food system that for a while I started wondering if in fact it had already collapsed and I was studying a post-apocalyptic food system".

Input-intensive monoculture farming - The primary criticism of "green revolution" style industrial agriculture is that it results in farmers becoming dependent on a range of industrial inputs - farming machinery, fertiliser, pesticides, irrigation equipment, seeds and even capital (debt) to purchase these inputs - often resulting in small scale farmers being pushed off the land (particularly if they are unable to repay their debts during a bad season) and resulting in large scale agribusinesses that produce monoculture crops that are prone to pests and diseases unless large amounts of pesicide are applied. Critics from the developing world often note that the profits from this transformation seem to be reaped by multinational corporations like Monsanto, Dupont, Cargill and Archers Daniels Midland rather than the farmers growing the crops (who often saw crop prices fall as yields increased) - and that their national food security was now dependent on foreign suppliers.

Side effects of fertilisers and pesticides - The side effects of large scale fertiliser and pesticide use are also pointed to by Borlaug's critics, noting increased rates of cancer and other health problems in rural areas and damage to the ecosystems that these inputs drain into (for example, the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico).

Water and soil depletion - As a result of modern irrigation practices, aquifers in places like India (once Borlaug's greatest triumph) and the US midwest have become depleted. Soil depletion is also a problem - since the 1880s almost half of the topsoil of the Great Plains of North America has disappeared.

Genetically modified crops - The risks associated with genetically modified crops - the next frontier for increasing crop yields in the wake of the first green revolution, which Borlaug dubbed "The Gene Revolution" - remain hotly debated, with critics raising objections based on food safety issues, ecological concerns and economic concerns (centering on the application of patents and intellectual property rights to engineered seeds).

Fossil fuel dependence - The inputs for green revolution style industrial agriculture are almost entirely derived from fossil fuels. Production of nitrogen fertiliser via the Haber process (mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea) consumes between 3 and 5% of world natural gas production. Farm machinery like tractors and irrigation pumps consume fuel, and tractor tyres and plastic irrigation pipes are made from petrochemicals, as are pesticides. Writers like Richard Manning (The Oil We Eat), Dale Allen Pfeiffer (Eating Fossil Fuels) and Glenn Morton (The Connection Between Food Supply and Energy: What Is the Role of Oil Price?) have argued that the green revolution will prove unsustainable once we have passed their peak production point for fossil fuels.

Borlaug dismissed the claims of most critics. Of environmental lobbyists he said, "some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things".

Borlaug was also indignant about arguments in favour of natural fertilisers like cow manure rather than inorganic fertilisers. Using manure would require a massive expansion of the lands required for grazing the cattle, he said, and consume much of the extra grain that would be produced. He claimed that such techniques could support no more than 4 billion people worldwide, well under the current global population of almost 7 billion.

This point is still being debated, with researchers at the University of Michigan and University of California claiming that organic farming techniques can indeed feed the world. We can also increase food production by making better use of urban land (something "guerilla gardeners" are fond of - and similar ideas are being put into practice by large scale tree planting programs in India).

Even if we don't fully take the organic agriculture path, some of the objections based on fossil fuel depletion would seem to be solvable. If we shift completely to renewable energy sources for power production, we can eliminate a large proportion of our natural gas and coal usage, freeing the remaining reserves for agricultural applications and extending the lifespan of green revolution techniques far out into the future. Whether or not we choose to do so quickly enough remains to be seen.

Related Articles :

Peak Energy - The Fat Man, The Population Bomb And The Green Revolution

Grist - Thoughts on the legacy of Norman Borlaug

Wall Street Journal - Borlaug's Revolution

Reason - Billions Served

Worldchanging - Postcards from the Global Food System (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Sydney Dust Storm  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

I've never seen a dust storm in Sydney before but this morning's sunrise was amazing - Sydney turns red: dust storm blankets city.

Sydneysiders have woken to a red haze unlike anything seen before by residents or weather experts, as the sun struggles to pierce a thick blanket of dust cloaking the city this morning.

Callers flooded talkback radio, others hit social networking sites and scores of emails were received from readers as Sydney residents expressed their amazement at this morning's conditions. "It's just red, red, red as far as you can see," one caller at the Anzac Bridge told 2GB.

"The reason for the dust is we had some really strong winds in the inland areas of NSW and in South Australia for a sustained period yesterday," said Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Jane Golding. "That's lifted a whole lot of dust off the ground because it's quite dry out there, many of those areas are still drought affected."


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