Q&A with Bill Gates  

Posted by Big Gav

Technology Review has an interview with Bill Gates, touching frequently on energy. While I disagree with some of his points, he's got a good handle on the "carbon tax" issue at least - Q&A: Bill Gates.

Let's talk about policy, then. The prospects for a strong climate bill in the U.S. Congress now look dim. And so do the chances for any binding international treaty. But almost everyone agrees that there needs to be a price on carbon--whether a Pigovian tax [a kind of tax levied on a market activity that generates negative externalities, named after the British economist Arthur Pigou] or a cap-and-trade system. Without a price, there's going be very little incentive to do the kinds of research, or create the kinds of technologies, or build out the kind of infrastructure, that we need.

No, that's not right. It's ideal to have a carbon tax, not just a price on carbon, which is this fuzzy term that includes cap-and-trade.

Well, ideally, you'd do a Pigovian tax--

No, not a Pigovian tax. A Pigovian tax is where you pay for the damage. Here, you're not paying for the damage--you can't pay for the damage. You're using the tax to create a mode shift to a different form of energy generation. You are not paying an amount that allows somebody to suck the CO2 out of the air. Let's just take the electric sector. If you imposed a 2 percent tax, you'd get the money for the R&D. And then you just take all the carbon-emitting plants, you look at their lifetime, and you say on a certain date this one has to be shut down, and when a new one is put in place, it has to be low-CO2-emitting.

That's a regulatory approach, and it's very clear. Remember what this is all about. This is about somebody who buys power plants, and who really buys power plants? Utility commissions really buy power plants. The utilities are really just middlemen who are given permission to actually do these projects. But the decision to get great recovery against rate payers, that's made by utility commissions. These are the people. And a federal law saying you can't buy plants that emit CO2 can force the hand of those utility commissions. This is all about plants, and the framework that exists for the 40 years that an energy plant exists. So when anybody that says that we need a carbon tax, if you really want to affect the behavior of the people that buy those plants, you've got to have certainty from years 10 to 50.

A tax and strong regulatory control are the only way to achieve--

No, no, you can do it. You have to do it with something that you believe will stay in place. If you said to a utility company executive, which is more likely to stay in place: a cap-and-trade thing, whose price will vary all over the map, that will have some international things that will be shown to be a waste of money? A regulatory thing about plant replacement over the next 50 years? Or something that's trying to work through price? Which looks more black and white to somebody deciding to build power plants? The price will have variability: all these schemes do, because they have escape clauses, and they give away free permits to the politically advantaged and create new requirements for governmental revenue. So I'm perfectly happy with the carbon tax. We should have a carbon tax. It has the advantage that it also immediately sends a signal for efficiency. What we owe the developing world is this: we're willing to pay high prices for energy plants above coal and drive prices down the curve so by the time they need to buy them, they don't have to pay the high price. What it costs to have them overpay for electricity is measured in lives. We need to invent electricity technologies that they'll be able to buy at super-good prices. There are some technologies that could get there. We need to pursue them all.

That sounds very rational, pragmatically feasible, and humane. It also sounds politically unlikely.

Which is more likely: a carbon tax with all sorts of markets and options and uncertainties about prices, and traders in the middle, and confusion about who initially gets the most advantage? Or a regulatory thing that says you mark every coal plant in the country with when it has to be retired, and a 2 percent tax to fund the R&D so that utilities know they can buy a plant that's emitting hardly any CO2? Because the innovators are designing things for the power-plant buyers 10 years from now, who are looking at the regulatory and tax environment for the next 40 years. So I don't know if anything will happen. I hope something does, but to be frank, there's so much money cycling in and out of Washington that a bunch of it goes to fairly inefficient things. I mean, just look at the House bill in terms of the various groups that got free carbon credits. Raising energy prices by 2 percent and sending it to R&D activities seems easier in a weak economy than raising them 20 percent and cycling it through Washington. Now, 0 percent is the easiest option of them all, but unfortunately that doesn't get us the solution to this problem, which is a long-term problem.

Q&A with AGL's Michael Fraser  

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The Climate Spectator (GP) has an interview with AGL CEO Michael Fraser (MF) looking at their interest in renewables, amongst other things - Q&A: Michael Fraser.

GP: Ok. You said today that you might not need to build out any more, to give the go ahead to any more wind farms for 12 to 18 months, because you’ve met your RET obligations. That might change, though, if you buy some of the Energy Australia assets, mightn’t it? You might have to accelerate that development pipeline

MF: Well, I think that’s really where people were heading. Obviously if you buy any of the retail businesses in NSW, you’re going to inherit an obligation to surrender additional RECs. Whether you need to build more wind farms to satisfy that, or not, will depend on the particular position of that retailer and how much they’ve forward contracted.

GP: Ok. How have your wind assets actually performed this year? Did you get enough wind and did the wind blow at the right time?

MF: The long and the short of that is absolutely yes. We generated 780,000 megawatt hours and it was up pretty substantially on the prior year. And the capacity factors, the Hallett wind farms were sitting up around the 40 per cent mark, which really is world class. It’s just interesting to note that's equivalent to taking around 160,000 cars off the road, what we generated out of our wind farms this year.

GP: And your hydro assets? How are they performing? And do you have enough water for them?

MF: Yeah. Well, that’s part of the good news that we’re letting people know about today; that the last time the Dartmouth hydro plant ran was back in late 2007. It’s a dam of last resort for irrigation purposes and with the drought it was run down and hasn’t been able to operate. But we’ve got it back up to the water levels that are necessary and it ran the other week. We’ve run it up to around a 100MW. Also, at Eildon we’ve had, you know, the good rainfall and the snow that’s there at the moment, that’s led to an increase in capacity at Eildon for us as well for the summer that’s ahead. The hydro scheme is basically drought proof because it collects all the snow melt from Falls Creek, so it fills three times a year and that’s more of the same for it.

GP: What about solar? You have a shortlisted application in the Solar Flagships Program. What role do you see solar playing in the Australian energy industry?

MF: Well, first of all, of the technologies that we see out there in distributed generation, obviously it’s got a lot of potential to come down the cost curve and certainly from the people that we’re talking to, over the next couple of years we expect to see continued reductions in the cost to manufacture, and see improvements in the efficiency of solar. So, I think there’s a lot of potential that’s sitting there. I think the other really interesting thing about solar is the... almost the love affair, I guess you’d describe it, that the general public has with solar. And we’ve seen that with the uptake of solar as a result of the policies that the government put in place. So, people are wanting to do the right thing and I think that community attitude, as much as anything else, is going to drive the future development of the solar market.

GP: You’re particularly interested in solar PV, I understand – large-scale solar PV. What is the potential there, and what about the cost outlook?

MF: Well, when we look out two to three years from where we are today, we see some fairly significant reductions in the cost of large-scale solar PV and improvements in the efficiency of the technology. That having been said, there’s still a way to go for large-scale solar and certainly small-scale solar, to compete with wind. As a large-scale technology, wind is well down the cost curve. I think one of the other interesting issues about large-scale solar is the quantum of land, quite frankly, that is required to be taken up. I think that’s an issue that people will need to focus on, as opposed to wind farms, that you really don’t sterilise the farms. Once you’ve got your wind farms up and running, people run their sheep and run their cattle. It’s not an issue.

GP: Lend Lease announced their solar plans just a few weeks ago and said that they’ll be joining with a large electricity retailer. That wouldn’t happen to be you, would it?

MF: I think that would happen to be us, yes.

GP: And what are your expectations of that joint venture?

MF: Well, we’ve combined with them. We’ve obviously got the relationship with our customers. We’re a natural channel to market and we’ve teamed up with Lend Lease and First Solar, who we think have the best quality product out there to supply, to back to our… into our customer base. Lend Lease will do the installation. First Solar are supplying the product. And we’ll manage the customer interface.

GP: The electric vehicles; you’ve got an interesting joint venture with Better Place. How’s that progressing?

MF: Well, I think the primary focus, and if it goes ahead, is likely to be in the ACT market. So that gets interesting for us from a number of points of view, because obviously we have our interest in the ACTEW AGL joint venture there, as well as the overarching relationship between ourselves and Better Place. That’s progressing well, but at the end of the day it’s a matter for Better Place as to when they press the 'go' button on that and if and when they do, we’re ready to supply the renewable energy.

Riding the lightning: Hygroelectricity  

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Kevin Bullis at Technology Review has a look at research into extracting electricity from clouds - Generating Power from Electricity in the Air.

Lightning is a powerful manifestation of the electrical charge that can accumulate in the atmosphere. New research, presented at the ACS meeting in Boston on Wednesday, suggests that it might be possible to harness that electrical charge.

Fernando Galembeck, of the University of Campinas in Brazil, has shown that water vapor in humid air can accumulate charge and transfer it to materials it comes in contact with. He says it might be possible to design collectors that exploit this behavior to generate electricity. The technology, which he calls "hygroelectricity" could provide an alternative to solar power in places without much sunlight but with a lot of humidity. It could also be used to prevent lightning strikes, he says, by draining electrical charge out of the air. He notes, however, that the research is very early stage and that such technology could be a long time coming.

First gas rig headed for NSW coast  

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The SMH reports that we may soon see drilling for gas off the coast of greater Sydney - First gas rig headed for NSW coast.

A PERTH company has announced it is set to become the first to do an underwater exploratory drill for gas in the Sydney basin off the NSW coast. Advent Energy plans to start drilling into the seabed in federal government-controlled waters 55 kilometres east of Newcastle in mid-October, according to its executive director, David Breeze. ...

However, Mr Breeze said that the site off Forresters Beach was one of four which it was considering in the area and it has now moved its focus over the horizon to the New Seaclem-1 site, which is not visible from the shore.

The company intends to tow the Ocean Patriot rig from Victoria so it can test the New Seaclem-1 site for the presence of gas 826 metres below the sea floor, Mr Breeze said. This would take about 20 days, during which sensors on the drill would send information to a computer aboard the rig and then the hole would be plugged, he said. ''You put cement casing into it and you seal it off and have a three foot [0.9 metre] cement plug just under the sea floor,'' he said.

If the exploratory drill is successful, extracting the gas would entail putting a platform out of sight on the sea floor and burying a pipe which would convey it into the existing Newcastle-Sydney gas pipeline ashore, he said.

The offshore Sydney basin covering 8200 square kilometres could possibly contain almost as much gas as the massive Bass Strait fields, but it has not been explored more extensively because it was so close to a plentiful supply of coal, he said.

A Sign of the Times  

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Technology Review has a look back at a peak oil article from the 1970's - Sign of the Times.

It was with something like an apology that Earl Cook, a geologist and executive secretary of the division of earth sciences at the National Research Council, began his December 1972 article for Technology Review on the energy issues that he felt people would face in the next millennium. Geologists tend to take the long view of our existence on this planet, but Cook worried that his readers would fail to see the relevance of his points.
It may seem only a pleasant intellectual excursion without practical significance to attempt to look either back or ahead on a scale of centuries at man's use of energy resources. Given the exigencies of public decision-making, this venture may be just an intellectual excursion and nothing more. But bear with me ...

He needn't have worried: the following year brought the OPEC embargo, which revealed how utterly dependent we were on access to cheap energy. But of course, the oil shortage caused by the embargo was due to political conflicts, not geology. What motivated Cook was an idea that was then somewhat novel: that we were fast approaching the limit of the fossil fuels we could extract from the earth.
Throughout most of his history as an identifiable species, man relied on renewable energy resources for food, heat, protection from other animals, and to power boats, drive mills, lift water, and pull plows. Only about 150 years ago did he start, on a significant scale, to switch over from wood and wind, from animals and falling water, to heat and power derived from the nonrenewable resources which we call the fossil fuels. In a brief span of little more than a century, industrial-technological man has become utterly dependent on nonrenewable energy resources. Moreover, he has allowed his and the whole world population to expand enormously on the basis of a rate of energy supply that cannot possibly be maintained ... .

Cook was careful not to get ahead of himself, since he knew that his readers would have seen no evidence of this imminent crisis as yet. He also acknowledged that we could defer a crisis by finding ways to get more energy out of the ground or by developing technology, like cars with improved gas mileage, to make better use of it. But he insisted that none of those solutions would be permanent. "We are dependent on nonrenewable resources which have finite quantity limits," he wrote. In other words, one way or another, we were going to run out.

The big question then and now is: how much time do we have? Cook felt fairly certain that "world crude will not be available beyond about 2025." It turns out not to be as dire as he thought. Oil companies have pushed back the day of reckoning by drilling in remote places (the oil that poured into the Gulf of Mexico from a well nearly a mile below the surface offers testimony of the lengths, or depths, to which we've gone). The International Energy Agency now predicts that we won't reach peak petroleum production until at least 2020, and that we may then see a production plateau or slow decline rather than a calamitous plunge.

Cook argued that even if we could buy ourselves a few more decades or even a century, a crisis was inevitable--one that would threaten the lives of billions around the world. Although people today tend to think mainly of how a declining oil supply would affect the economy, Cook was more concerned that without abundant fossil fuel or a renewable replacement for it, the global population would be unsustainable.

Asia powers into renewable energy  

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Giles Parkinson at The Climate Spectator has a look at the Asian push into the renewable energy sector - Asia powers on.

One of the principal justifications for inaction on climate change and the go-slow on the transformation to low-emission technologies in developed nations such as the US, Canada and Australia, is that the major Asian economies are not doing their fair share.

If that is true, someone forget to tell Asia’s leading industrialists.

Over the past few weeks there have been numerous examples of the sort of transformation that has been taking place across north Asia – from Honda’s massive commitment to electric vehicles (now that the previous CEO who “didn’t like batteries” is gone), to Panasonic’s $10 billion buyout of Sanyo Electronics to consolidate its green technology investments. The heads of both Honda and Panasonic have said the transformation of their companies was a matter of survival – they would be soon out of business if they didn’t keep up with their rivals.

Last week, the South Korean shipping giant Daewoo Shipping announced that it aimed to source one third of its revenue from the wind energy industry by 2020 – just like that. That equates to $US7.5 billion from next to nothing ($US25 million) right now. It’s the equivalent of building an industrial giant nearly twice the size of Foster’s from scratch, and in just 10 years.

“It’s a very ambitious target and it won’t be easy,” chief strategy officer Koh Young Youl told Bloomberg. “Still, the market potential for wind power is very big, partly because there’s a lot of interest in going offshore as the space on land runs out.”

Daewoo plans to leverage its knowledge of the shipping industry to build, operate and service offshore wind installations, and is targeting Europe and the US too. The world’s largest ship-builder, Hyundai Heavy Industries, is also making major investments in wind and solar technologies.

But perhaps the trend towards clean energy and low-emission technologies is best summed up by the listed Chinese energy company China Longyuan Power Group, one of the “big five” energy producers in China that was the first to push into renewable energy in a major way.

The company still produces some 60 per cent of its energy from coal trading and coal-fired energy production, but that will quickly diminish as China Longyuan adds a further 2GW of wind power a year over the next three years, part of a staggering pipeline of 50GW (more than the nameplate capacity of Australia’s grid) of wind resources, including offshore installations.

Earlier this month it released its annual earnings, showing that wind accounts for 76 per cent of EBITDA, as wind energy attracts a 34 per cent higher tariff to coal-fired energy in China’s grid, and capital expenditure for its wind business outstrips that of coal by a factor of 50:1. The total capex budget for 2010 is $US2.9 billion (financing isn’t a problem in China and China Longyuan has borrowing costs in the range of 3.7-5.4 per cent).

The company also noted that the costs of wind turbines had fallen 10 per cent in the last year alone. China Longyuan is also pursuing developments in solar, geothermal and biomass energy solutions.

1,000-Megawatt Plant in Calif. Marks New Milestone in Solar Expansion  

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The New York Times has a report on the largest of the solar thermal power plants proposed for California - 1,000-Megawatt Plant in Calif. Marks New Milestone in Solar Expansion.

Federal regulators are nearing final approval of what would be the largest solar power plant in the world, a milestone that sets a new standard for the industry and marks a major advancement in the Obama administration's efforts to expand renewable energy production nationwide.

The Bureau of Land Management has issued a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Blythe Solar Power Project in southeast California. When fully operational, the solar thermal power plant would have the capacity to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power roughly 800,000 homes.

The final EIS, which is considered the last federal regulatory hurdle before a record of decision authorizing construction, is open for public comment through Sept. 18. The California Energy Commission, which must also render a decision on the Blythe plant, formally recommended this month that the project be approved.

"We're already beginning work on the record of decision, on compliance monitoring plans, on getting all the paperwork together for the rentals and reclamation, and our hope is to package it all together for one big signing" as early as October, said Holly Roberts, associate field manager for BLM's Palm Springs-South Coast Field Office in Palm Springs, Calif.

Solar Millennium LLC, the Oakland, Calif.-based project developer, said it will take at least six years to complete all four phases of the $6 billion project, which will be located on 7,025 acres of BLM land in Riverside County, about eight miles west of the city of Blythe.

When completed, the Blythe plant would nearly double the current 585 megawatts of installed commercial-scale solar generation nationwide and would have a capacity to generate nearly three times the electricity produced at the country's largest solar facility -- the nine-unit, 354-megawatt Solar Energy Generating Systems plant in Kramer Junction, Calif., according to statistics provided by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Cougar Energy to meet with Qld govt over UCG contamination  

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The SMH has a brief report on more obstacles for the underground coal gasification industry in Queensland - Cougar to meet with Qld govt.

Executives from embattled gas explorer Cougar Energy will meet with Queensland government officials this week to discuss getting their project back on track. The Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) has declined to accept an environmental report that Cougar provided on August 16.

Cougar Energy was forced to shut down its pilot underground coal gasificiation plant in July after the state government learned traces of the toxic chemicals benzene and toluene had been found in groundwater at the site and a neighbouring property. The department has yet to advise the ASX-listed company of what further regulatory action it wants Cougar to take.

Cougar managing director Dr Len Walker said the company planned to respond to any request for further information "as quickly as possible". "Cougar Energy remains committed to recommencing operations at its Kingaroy project in Queensland and will continue to work with DERM to demonstrate that the company's underground coal gasification activities have not and will not harm the environment," Dr Walker said in a statement.

Norway hydro can aid Europe move to renewables: IEA  

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Reuters has a report on interest in using Norwegian hydro power for energy storage as part of a north sea supergrid - Norway hydro can aid Europe move to renewables: IEA

The International Energy Agency said Norwegian hydropower could provide the reliable base Europe needs to invest in solar, wind and other renewable energy forms and urged Norway to expand cable links to other countries.

"Norway can help Europe introduce more volatile renewable energy sources into the market by providing a sustainable backup," said Nobuo Tanaka, the agency's executive director, in an interview on Friday at a renewable energy conference. "To have more renewables, we need more interconnectivity." he said.

In particular, Tanaka threw his weight behind a proposal to lay two sea cables between Norway and the UK, which would let the UK draw on Norwegian hydropower when British windmills go still.

Norway's glacier lakes and roaring rivers already provide electricity for almost every household in the country as well as power companies in other Nordic countries and the Netherlands. When hydro capacity is low, Norway imports power from those same countries.

Christian Rynning-Toennesen, the chief executive officer of Statkraft, a state-owned company that operates more than 100 hydropower plants in Norway, called for the country to become the "battery of Europe."

Tanaka said he approved of the image. "Connecting Norwegian hydropower to the bigger European market would be far better than relying on gas for the same purpose," said Tanaka, whose Paris-based agency advises 28 member countries on energy issues.

Norway's minister of petroleum and energy, Terje Riis-Johansen, said he and the UK's minister of energy, Charles Hendry, agreed earlier this week to support an ongoing feasibility study of connecting the two countries by cable. "There is big interest in the UK in building cables from Norway," he told Reuters. "But we are having similar discussions with Germany and other countries. I think Norway's future in Europe is to be a peak producer that always has power stored. If we do that right, it can neutralize the bad aspect of big windmill projects, which is that their production is inconsistent."

The feasibility study of a 700-km dual-cable link between southwestern Norway and eastern England is to be completed within a few months, said Stewart Larque, a spokesman for the UK National Grid. ... The country is nearing completion of a subsea power link to the Netherlands and considering a second one to France. But Larque said the lure of carbon-free power from Norway is great.

The Statkraft CEO said the cost of a cable link, which is not known, would probably be born by its beneficiaries at both ends. "For the British it would cost a lot less than building new power plants as a back-up for wind," said Rynning-Toennesen.

Straight from Germany, the Best Bike Shop EVER!  

Posted by Big Gav

TreeHugger has some pics of a cool looking bike shop in Germany - Straight from Germany, the Best Bike Shop EVER!.

Will wind farms pick up the tab for new nuclear in the UK ?  

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Business Green reports that British "Wind farm developers fear National Grid proposals designed to accommodate nuclear power plants will lead to a huge increase in backup costs" - Will wind farms pick up the tab for new nuclear?

Wind farm operators could see their overheads increase by millions of pounds a year as a direct result of plans to upgrade and reinforce the grid to cope with a new fleet of nuclear reactors.

A number of renewable energy developers are angry at National Grid's decision to retain the current charging regime it operates for providing backup power, despite the fact costs are expected to soar when new nuclear power plants come online towards the end of the decade.

National Grid released a consultation document in June detailing how the proposed development of six nuclear power stations would require the grid operator to increase the amount of backup power, known as "spinning reserve", that it has available to call on in the event of a large power plant failing, from 1,320MW to 1,800MW.

The company estimated that as a result, the annual cost of providing so-called Large Loss Response will rise from £160m a year to £319m.

The consultation looked at a number of approaches to charging energy firms to cover the increased cost, but in a letter to Ofgem National Grid commercial director for transmission Alison Kay said the company had decided to retain the current regime, whereby generators are charged an equal amount per megawatt they provide to the grid.

Wind farm operators are known to be furious at the decision, which they claim will see them face an unfair doubling in charges from National Grid, despite the fact the company concluded in its consultation that generators with less than 350MW of capacity, including all operational wind farms in the UK, "pose no additional loss risk to the system".

In contrast, nuclear developers, who argued that targeting the increased charges at larger power plants would jeopardise plans for a new fleet of reactors, are delighted at a decision that will see the increased cost of backup spread right across the energy industry.

Australia Left standing by China's bullet trains  

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The SMH has an article on China's high speed rail revolution and the country's role in building trains for Sydney's aging local rail network - Left standing by China's bullet trains.

Three years ago China had planned to lay 13,000 kilometres of high-speed railway by 2020, which would be more than the rest of the world combined.

Then the global financial crisis intruded and Beijing brought that 2020 deadline forward by eight years, while redefining ''high speed'' to mostly mean faster than 350 km/h, rather than 250.

China's bullet train project is as ambitious and potentially nation-changing as the 19th century railways that opened up the US. Already it has created millions of jobs, pushing up wages for the country's long-struggling workers, and sucked in tens of millions of tonnes of Australian iron ore to produce the high-tensile steel for tunnels, bridges and track.

One of the 42 new lines, on which construction began in 2008, will begin zipping passengers over 1300 kilometres and across 244 highly-engineered bridges between Beijing and Shanghai in just four hours from next year. Another is already taking passengers 114kilometres from Beijing to Tianjin in less than 30 minutes.

The World Bank describes China's leap as "the biggest single planned program of passenger rail investment there has ever been in one country". And, unlike in many countries, it says fast rail in China has been well-planned and makes economic sense. Last month the country's long distance trains carried 160 million passengers, 18 million more than the previous July.

China's provincial backwater cities are being dragged into the world economy. Rail space is opening up for freight, taking the burden off the roads and, with any luck, reducing the regularity of events like the four-week old, 100kilometre traffic jam of coal trucks that is now stuck north-west of Beijing.

Lu Xiwei, the general manager of China Railway Vehicles Co, is working around the clock to put rolling stock on all that new track.

"I never have even one day's rest a year," says Mr Lu at his sprawling factory headquarters in Changchun, yet another booming city of 5 million people in the country's far north. "In 365 days I can guarantee I work 364."

Australia entering a new political dimension ?  

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Guy Rundle at Crikey has a few wrods about the negotiations around the formation of a new Australian government, amidst howling from the media establishment about the disruption to their beloved 2 party system - We're entering a new dimension here, people .

The 2010 election result has offered that rarest and most blessed of things, a rupture and a discontinuity in the process. It's one that makes it impossible to sell the line that the parliamentary electoral system we are ruled by has some deep-seated pole of wisdom that somehow expresses rather than imposes a political form. What the result is making clear to people is the inherent arbitrariness of the system, its closed nature, and the way in which that is obscured when a party is elected with an unchallengeable majority.

The difficulty for the business as usual crowd, is that they spend so much time celebrating the virtues of the single member electorate system, that when it throws up a number of actual single members, they can't damn it out of hand.

And when such members begin to suggest that the process by which they were chosen could be reflexively acted on by both MPs and the public, the business-as-usual crowd panic about stability. Weird, isn't it? Post-election Iraq has been without a government for several months, with no working coalition in sight, and this is an example of democracy at work. Australia has a few days or weeks with no majority party but a process of rational and open negotiation, and it's a disaster.

What has happened in Australia, in little more than the wink of an eye, is that the political question has been pushed into an entirely new dimension. Ever since the 1970s the economic question has lain moribund as a major political division, no matter what lip service is paid to the gulf separating etc etc, and the occasional flashpoint such as WorkChoices.

The political question who leads, how and through what institutions has barely been regarded as political at all, or cynically manipulated, as in Howard's handling of the Republic debate.

The virtual stasis of both these questions is one reason why so much political energy flows into cultural questions and why culture wars become the dominant mode of struggle.

Once an interruption such as the 2010 election makes it impossible for that stasis to be maintained, the energy flows back into the political question, and real change can be imagined by all except those whose job depends on nothing changing ever, ie the mainstream commentariat.

Once that happens, the left/right divisions based overwhelmingly on the economic (and social-cultural) question cease to be of primary importance, and there is the possibility of new processes, and new flows which make provisional blocs in different ways. It's the most imaginative solutions that become the most possible.

Thus, why should we not consider Rob Oakeshott's idea of a multi-party cabinet? Why is Dennis Shanalamadingdong's idea of a whole new election the 'sensible' idea, while Oakeshott's idea that the people who actually have been elected form a government seen as the whacky one? The Constitution recognises parliament, the GG as head-of-state, and her/his appointed ministers as government. It has nothing to say about prime ministers or parties.

So Shanahan's suggestion is that the system has failed because it worked.

What's happened in this election is that the process of parliamentary electoral politics which is minimally democratic and the party-based politics of interests, which isn't democratic in the slightest, have come into contradiction, in a situation where the system usually silently serves the interests. The profound cynicism and mild fear of the commentariat have caused them to back the interests against the system.

The process has left many people high and dry, desperate to catch up. Thus Paul Kelly, who disguises his cynical anti-democratic power elitism by sporadic attacks on cultural elites, is desperate for a cozy party system that can be nagged to impose a yet more neoliberal agenda, against the oft-expressed wishes of the mass of the Australian people.

The fetishisation of 'stability', as if the country was Bosnia-Herzegovina one heartbeat away from a shooting war, is a con. If we are so pusillanimous as to entirely subordinate our political process to the flickering of the global markets, then we may as well let Goldman Sachs choose the government.

Stability is the very achievement that allows a country the luxury of uncertainty, when isolated outbreaks of actual public will throw up an ensemble capable of creating a new situation. I'm under no illusion that the rural independents are about to put the whole constitution and political apparatus into play. But they don't need to.

The mere process over the last three days has done more to make visible the invisible structures of power, and their potential (if not straightforward) transformability, than a hundred civics lessons. Other gains, such as an increased role for private members bills, would serve to bang the wedge a little further into the old tree dead.

Stability is not the issue, nor is it the danger. The danger is a politics so deadened that only the most demented and monomaniacal, the Feeneys, Shortens, and Bitars, can stand it, and everyone else retires to their private lives. The more the commentariat shriek in fear, the more interesting the ride.

The independents and minor parties should push this process until the rivets are popping.

What does the hung parliament mean for climate policy ?  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

In the continuing uncertainty about who the new Australian government will be, I quite enjoyed this interview on Lateline with Rob Oakeshott - one of the 3 independent rural populists who seem likely to decide who gets to govern.

While Bob Windsor seems to just be a saner and nicer version of your typical National Party MP (albeit one with a seething hatred of Barnaby Joyce) and Bob Katter looks as mad as a hatter, Oakeshott seemed to be a pretty nice guy - and far more moderate on social issues than you'd expect from a country MP, saying he wanted both a carbon price and better treatment for refugees, amongst other things.

He named two major influences during the interview - the first was the last minister in Australia to be found guilty of heresy, the other South African activist Steve Biko. Clearly rural politics have changed over the years !

The Climate Spectator has a trio of article looking at the election result and the impact on climate policy. The first, from Giles Parkinson : Farm Force.

Australia may have a New Zealand-style emissions trading scheme – centred around agriculture – quicker than anyone might have expected before the election.

It is just one of the fascinating scenarios being painted by observers and analysts as the trio of country, or “populist agrarian”, independents prepare to begin negotiations with the mainstream political parties.

The very idea of an ETS, in any form, seemed inconceivable last Friday. But one focused on agriculture, and possibly the energy industry, could be a deal-maker, along with the broadband network.

The great irony of this would be that agriculture was excluded from the ill-fated CPRS because the leading farming bodies couldn’t get their mind around the matter.

But what has made a change entirely conceivable is the huge popularity of the recently introduced ETS among the farming community in New Zealand, and a wholesale change of attitude in the US.

This has been accompanied by a growing appreciation in Australia – including among the three independents in question – that a carbon trading scheme could provide enormous opportunities for farmers.

For the past several weeks, New Zealand government ministers and bureaucrats have barely missed an opportunity to trumpet the positive reception to that country’s ETS. The decline in forestry plantings has been dramatically reversed, and farmers are finding new and profitable uses for marginal lands, particularly those that have steep, erosion-prone and largely unproductive land.

Bloomberg reported late last week that New Zealand’s sheep farmers are flocking to a government carbon trading program because some of them are finding that it pays more to plant trees than sell wool and mutton.

“The New Zealand experience shows that bringing in an ETS could be very positive,” says Anthony Hobley, the head of climate change practice at legal firm Norton Rose. Hobley says that, while the US legislation didn’t get up, the idea of an ETS was receiving positive support from the agricultural community because of the way that it was designed.

One of the three country independents, Rob Oakeshott, made it clear yesterday that re-engaging the mainstream parties on the subject of an ETS would be one of his biggest priorities. The other two are likely to be sympathetic if it can be skewed in favour of their rural constituencies.

“The independents, on balance, seem to support action on climate change,” Deutsche Bank analyst Tim Jordan wrote in a report on Monday. He says an ETS could be accelerated, particularly under a minority Labor government. ...

An agricultural-based scheme would be relatively simple – at least compared to Labor's CPRS – and simplicity and clarity is key if a carbon price is to successfully introduced.

To make any sense at all, any ETS would need to include at least an energy-based carbon price, as either a tax or a market-based scheme. But that should not be too controversial, because it is now well accepted that the tens of billions of investment so desperately needed in the sector cannot be made without it.

In the energy industry, no one pretends that a carbon price of some sort will not emerge at some point: better for all to deal with it now.

The Greens, however, will be in a position from next July to demand less indulgence towards the heavy emitters than was offered in the CPRS, and might be convinced to allow a staged introduction – with mechanisms to bring in a softer tax-based scheme in other sectors over time – if that was the case. That is the sort of hybrid scheme that was entertained by US Congress before it was all put in the too-hard basket so close to the mid-term elections.

The influence of the country politicians, and their ability to guide the debate towards the substantive issues, rather than rhetoric, could provide a surprising and unique opportunity to develop good policy. That is the attraction of an influential third force.

The next : Whn push comes to shove.
If Labor ends up in coalition this time – which I think is most likely because otherwise the Senate becomes very difficult – the path is clear. Their best hope to turn things around will be to work with the independents and the Greens to fashion a sensible climate strategy.

The independents will most likely ensure this strategy is reasonably centrist and good for regional Australia, with renewables and agriculture being key focus areas. The Greens will ensure that the policy cuts CO2 emissions by 2020, a key result missing from the CPRS.

It is very hard to imagine Labor wanting to go the next election looking so incredibly lame on this issue again, especially given all the indications are the issue will build globally in this time frame.

If the Liberals end up in government, they are going to have a difficult time in the Senate, even if they can hold the lower house together. Accordingly, fashioning stronger climate action could become critical strategy to get the Greens on side on other issues. We might even see a Really Small New Tax! I look forward to the spin on that one.

Either way, the result should be very interesting. Who would have thought an election fought on climate change between Tweedle Don’t Now and Tweedle Don’t Ever would actually result in us doing something soon. A week is indeed a long time in politics.

And finally : Sowing seeds of change.
Given the results of this weekend's federal election, it is now likely that the whole of the Australian economy is going to suffer the same indecision and paralysis that members of the renewable energy community have been suffering for the last three years.

If anyone thinks that a hung parliament is going to be beneficial to Australia, they should think again. The clean energy industry has been crippled by indecision. With a selection of independents controlling the lower house and the Greens in control in the upper house, one can only suspect that this indecision is going to last considerably longer.

If Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard are to seriously consider forming a stable government they need to reach agreement with the Greens on a responsible policy to tackle climate change. It's already looking like support will come from Oakeshott, Bandt and the Greens. (Malcom Turnbull might even cross the floor to get the job done).

The type of policy could simply be a circular carbon tax with border controls (a tariff on carbon-intensive imports). I'm sure anything with border controls would excite Bob Katter, and a circular tax – where the revenue raised is returned to individuals – could not be classified as a 'great big tax' by Mr Abbott.

The independents should also be attracted by a leader that undertakes the necessary action to commence dealing with climate change in a way that benefits the farming sector.

Scotland bids to host world's first floating windfarm  

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The Guardian has a report on floating offshore wind power developments in Scotland - Scotland bids to host world's first floating windfarm.

The Scottish government yesterday revealed it is in talks with Norwegian energy giant Statoil about hosting the world's first floating windfarm at two potential sites off the Scottish coast.

Statoil is currently testing a prototype version of its Hywind floating turbine 10km offshore at Karm√ły in Norway and, after a successful wave of tests, is now assessing potential sites for a full-scale floating windfarm.

The company is planning to deploy between three and five floating wind turbines to demonstrate the commercial viability of the technology and senior executives at the firm met yesterday with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to discuss the viability of two prospective sites – one off the coast of Lewis and one off Aberdeenshire.

The talks are at a fairly advanced stage with Scottish Development International and Marine Scotland having already worked with Statoil to undertake feasibility studies at the proposed sites.

Speaking following the meeting in Norway, Salmond said that the talks had been "very positive", adding that the project had the potential to revolutionise the offshore energy industry.

"The Hywind II windfarm project would see a Scotland-Norway collaboration push the boundaries of deepwater offshore wind beyond the 100m mark and open up vast areas of the world's oceans to the development of wind energy for the first time," he said.

Ford Turning To Solar Power  

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Energy Matters reports that ford is looking to solar power for its new electric vehicle factory - Ford Turning To Solar Power.

Ford Motor Co. has announced it will build a solar farm to generate electricity at its hybrid electric vehicle factory in Michigan. Another smaller solar power station will power lighting at the assembly plant.

The site will add renewable solar energy to standard grid power at the plant, which will build Ford’s new Focus electric car and other future models of clean energy hybrids. A second 750 kilowatt facility will provide two million watt-hours of battery storage from the new station’s 500 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system.

The company expects that the switch to solar power will save the company USD$160,000 per year in energy costs.

Ford will partner with Detroit Edison and Xtreme Power to install the multi-million dollar plant.

Part of the plan is the construction of a number of new electric filling stations to power electric trucks used to transport parts, and to demonstrate smart-grid technology.

The solar power station will cost almost USD$6,000,000 to build. Ford will invest only a small part of the funds, with the majority of money coming from public coffers and the Detroit Edison's SolarCurrents program. Work is expected to begin later this year.

BHP's bid for potash fertile ground for China ?  

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John Garnaut at the SMH has a report on maneuvering around BHP's bid for Canadian potash producer Potash Corp (an interesting reverse play considering recent Canadian bids for Australian wheat farms) - Fertile ground for China.

If the Chinese were to outbid BHP Billiton for Potash Corp, Chinalco, Sinosteel or Minmetals might seem logical starters, but they don't have the inside running.

SPARE a thought for BHP Billiton's few remaining senior Shanghai executives who this week have to knock on those big Beijing ministry doors and pass on the message from Marius Kloppers that his domination of the world's fertiliser supply will be good for China.

Food is right up there next to steel when it comes to China's national insecurities. That's why China today still has a "red line" to demarcate a minimum area of arable land to preserve the nation's food self-sufficiency. That finite land will require ever-growing mountains of fertiliser to keep up with China's ever-growing appetite for grain-fed meat, and that probably means ever-growing imports of potash.

CBD Energy to build $300 million solar plant in Thailand  

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The Climate Spectator reports an Australian company has won a contract to build a 100 MW solar PV power plant in Thailand - CBD to build $300 million solar plant in Thailand.

Australian renewable energy company CBD Energy has secured its largest ever renewable energy contract, a $300 million project to build a 99MW solar photovoltaic power plant in Thailand.

The plant will rank among one of the largest in the world when it is completed. CBD, through its, eco-Kinetics subsidiary, intends to begin construction of the 8MW first stage of the project in Chonburi province, completing stage one early next year.

The contract to build, supply and operate the plant has been struck with a range of prominent private business group in Thailand, and includes a power purchase agreement with Thailand’s electricity authority, Provincial Electricity Authority of Thailand.

The Thai government announced its intention to source 20 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020, a similar target to Australia’s, and has a range of tax and investment incentives to attract investment in its renewable energy sector.

Food fight: Do locavores really need math lessons ?  

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Grist has a series of responses to the recent op-ed in the NYT about locavores, looking at factors other than economics based on the current oil price - Food fight: Do locavores really need math lessons?.

As it happens, I was already doing some food calculations the day Budiansky's piece ran -- but not of the sort he discussed.

My numbers included the following: As of Friday, 450 million eggs originating from two Iowa egg operations -- both of which buy feed and chicks from the same company -- had been recalled from stores in 14 states for salmonella contamination. These days, record-breaking food recalls are happening with disturbing frequency. We won't soon forget the 2009 peanut recall that affected nearly 4,000 products; the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, the largest of its kind in history and which included beef distributed through the National School Lunch Program; or the 2006 recall of E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach that sickened hundreds in 26 states.

There's a common theme underlying all of these food disasters. Each case involved one company processing or selling an ungodly amount of product to retailers and consumers across the country. This phenomenon is called "concentration," or the control of a market by a small number of companies. And it's come to our food system at a pace rivaling the takeover of our airwaves by reality TV shows.

The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.

I live in the Bay Area, where our year-round growing season and ample supply of farmers markets make it relatively easy for me to access food grown by much smaller, local farmers. I suppose that makes me a locavore. But when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don't, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies' hands have salmonella all over them, well -- look out, world.

The two companies involved in last week's egg recall were relatively small as far as these things go, controlling only about 1 percent of the U.S. egg supply. In contrast, virtually our entire meat supply is controlled by four -- soon to be three -- companies: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and the Brazilian powerhouse JBS, which is vying for a Smithfield takeover. (Grist's Tom Philpott does the meat math here.) Cargill and two other companies process more than 70 percent of U.S. soybeans, which are in turn fed to livestock and added to processed food products as soy lecithin and other ingredients. And most of our corn -- a staple in livestock feed and present in virtually all processed food -- is grown from seed developed by one of two companies.

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we're eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that's what we'll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here's my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.

Here in California, where most of the nation's retail spinach and lettuce is grown, Fresh Express bagged salad mixes could be considered local, using the metrics laid down by Budiansky. But if I have a choice, I won't buy their products. With one other company, they control some 80 percent of the market for bagged greens. In the last three months, their products have been recalled on three separate occasions for listeria, salmonella, and E. coli contamination. According to FDA data crunched by the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, nearly 99 percent of all food-safety outbreaks related to leafy greens have come from bagged products like the ones Fresh Express produces: greens that are washed in massive vats with tons of other greens, put in sealed plastic bags, and transported over long distances to supermarkets around the country.

Luckily, I have other choices, so the phrase "vote with your fork" actually applies to me. Elsewhere, consumers are not so lucky. That's why, as locavores work to re-democratize, diversify, and decentralize the food system, exercising actual democracy -- getting involved in the policies that shape our food system -- becomes so important. We can't buy our way out of the problem if we don't have any choice about what we buy.

Australian Election results In Hung Parliament  

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I found myself quite pleased with the hung parliament that resulted from the Australian election over the weekend. The Greens have the balance of power in the Senate (a good thing) and whichever party forms government will have to do so with the support of a bunch of rural populist independents and/or The Greens first lower house member Adam Bandt and (possibly) disgruntled ex-intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie, who quit the ONA over the Iraq war.

Crikey's Guy Rundle had some notes on the possibility for some change to emerge as a result of the election result - You call this democracy? It’s time to start again.

Is it possible that any such result on Saturday will not be treated with the equanimity of earlier times? After all, from 1966 to 1996 we had a political culture that was bipartisan on a general notion of liberal progressivism. Whatever the differences, we were moving forward as a pluralist, liberal democratic society with a progressively more tolerant and humane public sphere.

Howard’s victory coincided with, and was in part a product of, the destruction of such a polity by the rapid advance of globalised capitalism. As social connection and solidarity was clobbered and fractured at the base economic level, conservatives presented a counterfeit social unity, based on formulaic patriotism and an unending series of enemies: the ‘politically correct’, the ‘elites’, and of course Muslims.

Thus a lot of the divisions between the party’s social bases are entirely imaginary — based around phantom fears of people in boats, the ‘fragility’ of Western civilisation, the godlessness of the elites, etc. But they are nevertheless more deeply felt as divisions of identity than were the real class divisions of an earlier era.

So, how will Labor’s core supporters, both working-class and ‘cultural producer’ class, feel if Tony Abbott has a free-ish hand (subject to Senate composition) to impose his vision on an Australian people, when he’d been rejected by a clear majority of them? And how will the Coalition base feel if they’re being ruled by an atheist, childless, shacked-up, etc w-w-w-woman, when a majority of Australians chose the most personally conservative prime ministerial candidate in our recent history?

I’m sure that collectively the power elite across the major parties, the media, and monopoly capital, would do their best to dampen down any public protest against a result that reveals the Australian system as a process of turn-taking by two major parties that are quasi-state apparatuses, maintained by compulsory voting, exhaustive preferences and public electoral funding matched to voting numbers.

But a ‘thwarted-majority’ vote would give Australians its best opportunity for years to outflank them, and start a genuine popular movement that puts the structure and content of the Australian political system on the table.

Such a movement could found itself on the cornerstone of the government’s lack of legitimacy. Instead of campaigning on a specific programme of change, it could campaign on the proposal for a process of public conversations similar to the 1890s movement that led to federation, and the particular constitutional form it took.

Such conventions — the genuine form of public debate for which Rudd and Gillard’s 2020s and ‘citizens assemblies’ are the elite counterfeit — could take in everything from the future of the federal system to voting systems in both houses, compulsory voting, different public funding models or none at all, separation of the executive from the legislative (and a consequent republic), media funding to ensure a pluralism of information sources, and a redrafting of the constitution.

The important point about such a campaign would be to emphasise the process of re-opening the Australian political system to conscious and reflective reconstruction, not to specify any specific formulation for change. That would create the opportunity to build a larger movement bridging people on left and right who believe the whole system to be desperately in need of change even if they worked in separate groups.

It’s vital to pop this pathetic Australian self-delusion that we are somehow good at democracy now, because we were at the forefront of it once. We’ve traded on that complacency for so long that it has become a fatal barrier to seeing the truth: the lower-house triple lock (compulsion, preferences, public funding), state powers and oligopolistic media power gives us one of the least effective manifestations of actually existing democracy in the West.

If you doubt this, imagine it elsewhere. Imagine, say, in the 1970s, a canny East European country had decided to channel dissident demands by creating a two-party state, instead of one. Thus, the Communist Party would be opposed by the Workers Party, both sharing the same economic philosophy, with some variations of emphasis and technique, the same foreign policy, and entertaining some differences on cultural policies, etc. Voting was compulsory, only those parties appear on the ballot, and each party then receives an allocation of funds for maintaining itself based on what split of the vote it got every three years. The media consists of a state broadcaster, and two quasi-state combines, whose minor differences mirror those of the official parties.

Yes, it is not the same as our system. But nor is it that different either in terms of outcome, and in terms of its ability to legitimate itself. “Look,” the oligarchs would say, “we combine political contestation with stability. We simply require that citizens fulfil their obligations and vote for one of the two parties, whose ongoing popularity surely suggests that they be supported by the public.”

Should the opportunity to throw this system, East Germany of the Pacific, into question at this poll maybe, just maybe, the mass of largely directionless left-liberals, Monthlyites, blogging libertarian hobbyists, ARM refugees, nu-skool ex-Eurocommunist social democrats, rural populists and the like will bestir themselves to a concerted politics that has a chance of real change.

For anyone interested in an Australia that is not only less undemocratic, but where energy flows between the political and social realm more effectively, there is now no other recourse, but to a civic politics focused on the system itself, rather than expressed through the parties (aside from the Greens, which remain the only genuine political movement standing).

But I can’t see this happening without some critical event that throws the legitimacy of the system into question for many people as a top-down movement. Like the ARM, it wouldn’t work. Nor could it be based merely within left-liberalism. It would have to make a genuine common cause with sections of the right, or simply with angry mass groups who see themselves as battlers, ordinary Aussies, blahblahblah, who (quite accurately) feel they are in no meaningful sense enfranchised.

As has become clear to most people in this dog of an election, the problem now lies not with the policies and intent of either party, but with the deep structural problems that disconnect social energy from political process and thus transform that energy into cynical anti-politics. The best result will be no clear result, and the possibility for new directions that may create.

Dick Smith's Wilberforce Award - Endless Growth is Not Sustainable  

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Phil Hart at TOD ANZ has a post on Dick Smith's efforts to promote discussion of sustainable population levels - Dick Smith's Wilberforce Award - Endless Growth is Not Sustainable.

Dick Smith is a famous Australian, an entrepreneur, aviator and well regarded 'good guy' who was honoured with the 'Australian of the Year' award in 1986. Until recently, he was not prominent in the environmental movement or the sustainability debate. But over the last year he appears to have had an 'epiphany' and is now running a crusade on 'the population debate' and slowly (not too fast to scare anyone) linking the dots with the consumption and availability of fossil fuels. He has vigorously pushed the population debate in Australia over the last six months, under the banner of "Dick Smith's Population Puzzle". His new documentary is available to watch online for another week.

Now, he has launched the 'Wilberforce Award', a prize for a young person under 30 anywhere in the world who gets publicity and raises awareness of the fact (old news to many here) that 'endless growth is not sustainable'. The prize.. ONE MILLION (Australian) DOLLARS.

Xtreme Power Joins the Transmission Hub Project  

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Earth2Tech has an update on efforts to connect the major regional electricity grids in the US - Xtreme Power Joins the Transmission Hub Project.

The startups that have teamed up to build a transmission hub to connect the U.S.’s three major grids in the east, west and Texas are adding another startup player for energy storage. This afternoon, Tres Amigas, the Santa Fe, N.M-based company behind the transmission project, announced that they have partnered with Xtreme Power, a startup which provides groups of batteries for energy storage for the power grid. In June, Tres Amigas also signed on startup Viridity Energy, which makes software that dynamically manages loads on the grid in terms of energy pricing, renewable energy generation and energy storage.

Tres Amigas’ plan is to build a so-called “SuperStation” — the mother of all substations — that would use superconducting cables from American Superconductor Corp. that can carry 5,000 MW of electricity, are super-chilled to minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and can boost the lines’ carrying capacity. The substation itself would act as a hub and balancing authority, and would convert the alternating current (AC) from the three grids into direct current (DC) and then back to AC in order to move the electricity back out onto the three grids in an efficient and reliable way.

Xtreme Power’s batteries would provide storage for the SuperStation to help balance the flow of electricity, and importantly, to enable the addition of more clean power, which is variable, depending on the wind and sunlight, which aren’t always available. Xtreme Power’s batteries would store and release power in response to fluctuations in demand and supply at the hub.

Six-year-old Xtreme Power is building this type of storage system for other clean power projects, including a 10-megawatt storage system meant to back up a 30-megawatt wind farm planned for the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The developer of the wind project, First Wind, recently received a $117 million Department of Energy loan guarantee for the project, and Xtreme Power said it will be managing not only its battery, but the entire wind farm’s output via its own smart grid network. Xtreme has also tested a 1.5-megawatt battery system at another 30-megawatt wind project on the island of Maui.

For its batteries, Xtreme uses a PowerCell battery chemistry that it calls a “chemical capacitor,” which it says can beat lithium-ion batteries in terms of energy storage, efficiency, cycle life and cost. CEO Carlos Coe told us back in March that Xtreme’s PowerCell battery tech acts more like capacitors: charging and discharging at high speeds, while at the same time, maintaining the qualities that make batteries better than capacitors for long-term energy storage.

Peak oil alarm revealed by secret official talks  

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The Observer has another Lionel Badal inspired story about peak oil - Peak oil alarm revealed by secret official talks.

Speculation that government ministers are far more concerned about a future supply crunch than they have admitted has been fuelled by the revelation that they are canvassing views from industry and the scientific community about "peak oil".

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is also refusing to hand over policy documents about "peak oil" – the point at which oil production reaches its maximum and then declines – under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, despite releasing others in which it admits "secrecy around the topic is probably not good".

Experts say they have received a letter from David Mackay, chief scientific adviser to the DECC, asking for information and advice on peak oil amid a growing campaign from industrialists such as Sir Richard Branson for the government to put contingency plans in place to deal with any future crisis.

A spokeswoman for the department insisted the request from Mackay was "routine" and said there was no change of policy other than to keep the issue under review. The peak oil argument was effectively dismissed as alarmist by former energy minister Malcolm Wicks in a report to government last summer, while oil companies such as BP, which have major influence in Whitehall, take a similar line.

But documents obtained under the FoI Act seen by the Observer show that a "peak oil workshop" brought together staff from the DECC, the Bank of England and Ministry of Defence among others to discuss the issue.

A ministry note of that summit warned that "[Government] public lines on peak oil are 'not quite right'. They need to take account of climate change and put more emphasis on reducing demand and also the fact that peak oil may increase volatility in the market."

Those comments were written 12 months ago, but a letter in response to the FoI request written by DECC officials and dated 31 July 2010 says it can only release some information on what is currently under policy discussion because they are "ongoing" and "high profile" in nature.

The letter adds: "We recognise the public interest arguments in favour of disclosing this information. In particular we recognise that greater transparency makes government more open and accountable and could help provide an insight into peak oil.

"However any public interest in the disclosure of such information must be balanced with the need to ensure that ministers and advisers can discuss policy in a manner which allows for frank exchanges of views and opinions about important and sensitive issues."

Yet the note of the workshop distributed last year talks about secrecy around the topic being "probably not good", although it also suggests officials stick to the line that the "International Energy Agency is an authoritative source in this field" and stresses how the IEA believes there is sufficient reserves to meet demand till 2030 as long as investment in new reserves is maintained.

But the Paris-based organisation has come under increasing scrutiny from a growing group of critics who believe the IEA's optimism is misplaced. Last year the Guardian revealed that the IEA was also riven with dissent over the issue with senior staff members privately telling newspaper they thought the official numbers on future global oil supply were over-optimistic.

Math Lessons for Locavores  

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The NYT has an interesting op-ed on being careful about deciding how sustainable the production of your food is (closer isn't always better) - Math Lessons for Locavores.

IT’S 42 steps from my back door to the garden that keeps my family supplied nine months of the year with a modest cornucopia of lettuce, beets, spinach, beans, tomatoes, basil, corn, squash, brussels sprouts, the occasional celeriac and, once when I was feeling particularly energetic, a couple of small but undeniable artichokes. You’ll get no argument from me about the pleasures and advantages to the palate and the spirit of eating what’s local, fresh and in season.

But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas. Arbitrary rules, without any real scientific basis, are repeated as gospel by “locavores,” celebrity chefs and mainstream environmental organizations. Words like “sustainability” and “food-miles” are thrown around without any clear understanding of the larger picture of energy and land use.

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

The statistics brandished by local-food advocates to support such doctrinaire assertions are always selective, usually misleading and often bogus. This is particularly the case with respect to the energy costs of transporting food. One popular and oft-repeated statistic is that it takes 36 (sometimes it’s 97) calories of fossil fuel energy to bring one calorie of iceberg lettuce from California to the East Coast. That’s an apples and oranges (or maybe apples and rocks) comparison to begin with, because you can’t eat petroleum or burn iceberg lettuce.

It is also an almost complete misrepresentation of reality, as those numbers reflect the entire energy cost of producing lettuce from seed to dinner table, not just transportation. Studies have shown that whether it’s grown in California or Maine, or whether it’s organic or conventional, about 5,000 calories of energy go into one pound of lettuce. Given how efficient trains and tractor-trailers are, shipping a head of lettuce across the country actually adds next to nothing to the total energy bill.

It takes about a tablespoon of diesel fuel to move one pound of freight 3,000 miles by rail; that works out to about 100 calories of energy. If it goes by truck, it’s about 300 calories, still a negligible amount in the overall picture. (For those checking the calculations at home, these are “large calories,” or kilocalories, the units used for food value.) Overall, transportation accounts for about 14 percent of the total energy consumed by the American food system.

Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent.

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

Agriculture, on the other hand, accounts for just 2 percent of our nation’s energy usage; that energy is mainly devoted to running farm machinery and manufacturing fertilizer. In return for that quite modest energy investment, we have fed hundreds of millions of people, liberated tens of millions from backbreaking manual labor and spared hundreds of millions of acres for nature preserves, forests and parks that otherwise would have come under the plow.

Don’t forget the astonishing fact that the total land area of American farms remains almost unchanged from a century ago, at a little under a billion acres, even though those farms now feed three times as many Americans and export more than 10 times as much as they did in 1910.

The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies — and then pay the relatively tiny energy cost to get them to market, as we do with every other commodity in the economy. Sometimes that means growing vegetables in your backyard. Sometimes that means buying vegetables grown in California or Costa Rica.

Eating locally grown produce is a fine thing in many ways. But it is not an end in itself, nor is it a virtue in itself. The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

WikiLeaks founder under pressure  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The SMH has a report on what seems to be efforts to discredit Wikileaks spokesman Julian Assange - WikiLeaks founder not suspected of rape: prosecutors .

Swedish prosecutors said yesterday that the founder of controversial whistleblower website WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, was not suspected of rape in Sweden and was no longer wanted for questioning.

"Chief prosecutor Eva Finne has come to the decision that Julian Assange is not suspected of rape," said a statement on the prosecution service's website.

Assange was "no longer wanted," the statement said, adding that Finne would make no other comments.

The prosecution service referred a telephone inquiry from AFP to the website.

A prosecution service spokesperson, Karin Rosander, said earlier that "Julian Assange is wanted for two different issues, one of them is that he's suspected of rape in Sweden."

"The charges are without basis and their issue at this moment is deeply disturbing," said a Twitter message attributed to Assange, whose website is in a stand-off with the Pentagon over secret military documents on Afghanistan.

Prosecutor Maria Haljebo Kjellstrand told the TT news agency that the rape was allegedly committed at Enkoping, near Stockholm, and an assault on another woman in the capital.

A colleague of the 39-year-old Australian, Kristinn Hrafnsson, told AFP: "Julian denies these allegations and says they are false."

Hrafnsson, who spoke to AFP from Iceland, said Assange knew nothing of the charges until he read about them in the Swedish daily Expressen, which broke the story.

"There are powerful organisations who want to do harm to WikiLeaks," Hrafnson said, adding that Assange was still in Sweden and would "go to the police very quickly."

In another statement carried on the website of the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, Assange was quoted as asking why the accusations had surfaced now.

"It's an interesting question," he added.

Last week Assange announced at a press conference in Stockholm that the whistleblower website was set to publish a final batch of 15,000 secret documents on the war in Afghanistan in "a couple of weeks."

The former computer hacker insisted WikiLeaks "will not be threatened by the Pentagon or any other group."

Crikey has more - Australia can’t plug WikiLeaks saga.
Blonde Swedish bombshell double agents, international espionage, shadowy government forces and computer hackers on the run from the military. It sounds like something from the Cold War but it is just an average day in the life of WikiLeaks.org, the whistle-blower website where anyone can anonymously share confidential government and corporate documents.

And bizarrely, Australia is shaping up as a key player in the saga, with explosive new allegations over the weekend that an Australian intelligence figure warned WikiLeaks about an impending character assassination campaign.

The latest chapter began last Friday. While Australia on the weekend was focused internally on counting votes, news broke worldwide that Swedish authorities had issued a warrant for the arrest of Australian-born WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange on a charge of rape involving two women in Sweden. However, less then 24 hours later the authorities withdrew the charge, announcing there was no evidence that Assange had been involved in a rape crime, but was still under investigation for molestation, a lesser charger.

A complaint has now been filed to the Swedish Ombudsmen of Justice by a Swedian watchdog group against the prosecutor who made the original charge. WikiLeaks itself played a straight bat when the warrant was issued, announcing it would cooperate with any investigation, that it supported Assange, and that the site would continue operations as normally.

This all came less than two weeks after another bizarre moment when some media outlets ran a Daily Beast story by Phillip Shernon, quoting anonymous sources in the US government “as pressing Britain, Germany, Australia, and other allied Western governments to consider opening criminal investigations of WikiLeaks”. This unsourced and nebulous news story was strange in the vague threatening nature of the story, which implied WikiLeaks was operating illegally without actually specifying which laws it had broken or naming a government official.

Australia’s intelligence community is about to be embroiled up to its poisoned-tipped umbrella in the WikiLeaks story, with reliable global news gathering service Al Jazeera reporting explosively that Assange “had been forewarned by Australian intelligence on August 11 to expect a campaign against him”. Australia, despite the best efforts of the government to ignore WikiLeaks, is slowly being enmeshed in the process. WikiLeaks is partly founded by Australians. Australian-born Julian Assange is the current spokesperson for the group. The postal address for WikiLeaks is the Mathematics department at the University of Melbourne. And the appearance of Australian troops in the most recent leaked batch of records from WikiLeaks, first reported here in Crikey earlier this month, has caused the government to launch an extraordinary care taker period investigation.

So what is this all pointing to? Are we seeing the beginnings of a counter intelligence operation by the US army against whistle-blower organisation WikiLeaks?

In 2008, the US Army’s Counterintelligence Center, part of the American Department of Defense Intelligence Analysis Program, prepared a top secret report on WikiLeaks. It concluded that despite the “diverse views … among private persons, legal experts, advocates for open government and accountability, law enforcement, and government officials” that the site was possibly “constitutionally protected free speech, supports open society and open government initiatives, and serves the greater public good” it likely constituted a “threat to the US Army”. It was a threat, the authors wrote, because the site “could be used to post fabricated information; to post misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda; or to conduct perception management”. All fair criticisms, and ones which WikiLeaks itself publicly grapples with each time it releases a document.

Interestingly, the army was not concerned with WikiLeaks as much as it was concerned with the people WikiLeaks enabled, from moles within the Department of Defence to foreign terrorist groups. Indeed, the report noted that so far WikiLeaks had mostly caused problems for “oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East”.

The report concluded that the “most important center of gravity” for web sites such as WikiLeaks was “trust”. Destroy people’s trust in WikiLeaks and not only would people no longer send documents to WikiLeaks, the report noted, but it would “deter others from taking similar actions”. Certainly, threats of legal action and withdrawn accusations of rape fit the bill and since mud sticks, they do not even need to be successful prosecuted.

Artificial meat? Food for thought by 2050  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Guardian has a look at the need to produce artificial meat as the world's population heads over 9 billion people - Artificial meat? Food for thought by 2050.

Artificial meat grown in vats may be needed if the 9 billion people expected to be alive in 2050 are to be adequately fed without destroying the earth, some of the world's leading scientists report today.

But a major academic assessment of future global food supplies, led by John Beddington, the UK government chief scientist, suggests that even with new technologies such as genetic modification and nanotechnology, hundreds of millions of people may still go hungry owing to a combination of climate change, water shortages and increasing food consumption.

In a set of 21 papers published by the Royal Society, the scientists from many disciplines and countries say that little more land is available for food production, but add that the challenge of increasing global food supplies by as much as 70% in the next 40 years is not insurmountable.

Although more than one in seven people do not have enough protein and energy in their diet today, many of the papers are optimistic.

A team of scientists at Rothamsted, the UK's largest agricultural research centre, suggests that extra carbon dioxide in the air from global warming, along with better fertilisers and chemicals to protect arable crops, could hugely increase yields and reduce water consumption.

"Plant breeders will probably be able to increase yields considerably in the CO2 enriched environments of the future … There is a large gap between achievable yields and those delivered ... but if this is closed then there is good prospect that crop production will increase by about 50% or more by 2050 without extra land", says the paper by Dr Keith Jaggard et al.

Several studies suggest farmers will be up against environmental limits by 2050, as industry and consumers compete for water. One group of US scientists suggests that feeding the 3 billion extra people could require twice as much water by then. This, says Professor Kenneth Strzepek of the University of Colorado, could mean an 18% reduction in worldwide water availability for food growing by 2050.

"The combined effect of these increasing demands can be dramatic in key hotspots [like] northern Africa, India, China and parts of Europe and the western US," he says.

Many low-tech ways are considered to effectively increase yields, such as reducing the 30-40% food waste that occurs both in rich and poor countries. If developing countries had better storage facilities and supermarkets and consumers in rich countries bought only what they needed, there would be far more food available.

But novel ways to increase food production will also be needed, say the scientists. Conventional animal breeding should be able to meet much of the anticipated doubling of demand for dairy and meat products in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, but this may not be enough.

Instead, says Dr Philip Thornton, a scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, two "wild cards" could transform global meat and milk production. "One is artificial meat, which is made in a giant vat, and the other is nanotechnology, which is expected to become more important as a vehicle for delivering medication to livestock."

Rwanda harnesses volcanic gases from depths of Lake Kivu  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The Guardian has an article on extracting methane from central africa's great lakes to use in power generation - Rwanda harnesses volcanic gases from depths of Lake Kivu.

It's dusk on Lake Kivu and the fishermen sing while paddling out in their catamarans, three canoes secured together with long wooden poles. As the twin volcanoes on the far shore disappear into the darkness the men spark kerosene lamps to attract the sambaza sardines into their nets. Across the vast lake their lanterns offer the only tiny sequins of light.

At least that is how it used to be. Now, near the northern shore, the bright fluorescent bulbs illuminating a tall barge can be seen from miles away. It is the start of a project that could light up the whole of Rwanda for decades, while also reducing the risk of disaster for the two million people living alongside this rare "exploding lake".

In a world first, the barge is extracting gases that are trapped deep in Lake Kivu's waters like the fizz in a champagne bottle. Methane, the main constituent of natural gas used for household cooking and heating, is then separated out and piped back to the rugged shore where it fires three large generators.

The state-owned Kibuye Power plant is already producing 3.6MW of electricity, more than 4% of the country's entire supply. But the success of the pilot project, and the huge unmet demand for power in Rwanda — only one in 14 homes have access to electricity — has encouraged local and foreign investors to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to new methane plants along the lakeshore.

Within two years, the government hopes to be getting a third of its power from Lake Kivu, and eventually aims to produce so much energy from methane to be able to export it to neighbouring countries.

Scientists map out Australian wave energy hotspots  

Posted by Big Gav in , , ,

The ABC has a report on the potential of wave power in Australia, noting "Australian scientists have mapped out the best places across the nation's southern coast for generating wave energy, all the way from Geraldton in Western Australia to King Island in Tasmania" - Scientists map out wave energy hotspots.

A new CSIRO energy atlas shows that if just 10 per cent of the energy generated from waves was harnessed it would meet half of the nation's current electricity consumption. Australia's southern coastline has been identified by the World Energy Council as one of the world's best sites for generating wave energy.

The Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research's Dr Mark Hemer says even the small fraction of energy harnessed from Australia's coast will be enough to meet future government targets. "If we look at the sustained energy resource along the southern coastline - and we're looking between Geraldton in West Australia and southern tip of Tasmania - that has a sustained wave energy resource of about... five times larger than Australia's present day electricity consumption," he said. "It's a small fraction... we figure out that if we could harness just 10 per cent of the wave energy along a 1,000km strip of the southern coast, then that would be enough to meet the Australian Government's renewable energy targets of 20 per cent renewable energy before 2020."

Dr Hemer says wave energy is not a quick fix and it is still a decade or two away from being a real force as an alternative energy. "Wave energy really is a baby at the moment - there's currently only about four megawatts of wave energy generating capacity installed globally," he said. "If you compare that to wind energy, there's about 200,000 megawatts of installed capacity, or 50,000 times more, so wave energy is a long way behind on the cost learning curve."

The Race For Smart Grids  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The Guardian has a European view of progress in developing smart grids - The Race For Smart Grids.

The electricity market is in the throes of change due to significant regulatory, societal and environmental developments, as well as technological progress. The guiding principle for this will be the transformation of traditional passive electricity networks into smart grids – and Europe needs to act fast or it will be overtaken by the US.

Every millionth of a second, the electricity grid has to balance out production and consumption. Now with the increasing share of renewable energies in the energy mix, changes in consumption patterns, a likely increase in consumption and the difficulty in constructing power lines, intelligent grid management has become a necessity.

Intelligent grids function bidirectionally, unlike the present unidirectional systems, and would cater to the growing demand on the part of users to become "consumers" in managing energy more efficiently and reducing CO2 emissions.

Moreover, flow management is vital for integrating scattered and decentralised renewable energy (wind and solar) production to the grid. With smart grids, electricity would no longer flow from large central plants to passive consumers, but in directions adapted to the more complex flows of the future.

Smart grids are digital. Computers speed the exchange of information, and gather a greater amount of data and act on it, to improve grid management and customer service. More accurate network management is vital for handling the rising, but unpredictable, proportion of renewable energy. Computing systems will have to be adapted to the increase in amount of data gathered, and define protocols to allow numerous plants and equipment to communicate.

The first step to an intelligent distribution network is usually the installation of smart electricity meters. In 2003, the Swedish government made smart metering obligatory. By July 2009, approximately 6m were installed, providing households with better control of their consumption and accurate monthly billing.

A study by Capgemini in the 15 EU countries showed that if smart meters were installed on a voluntary basis they would save some 200 terawatt hours per month by 2020 – the residential consumption of Spain and Germany – and approximately 100m tons of CO2 emissions.

However, the conditions for deploying smart grids have yet to be met. First, political courage is required to impose the inevitable increase in electricity prices to cover return on investment. Next, further research is needed, for instance in electricity storage and the technological and economic innovations necessary to minimise load. Lastly, standardised communications protocols are vital upstream and downstream for exchanging data between types of equipment on the network – for instance, enabling end-users' domestic appliances to communicate. The only possible scale for such action, especially for standardisation, would be at EU level. European countries must share financial and technological resources and work with regulators. The EU has mobilised considerable sums of money to this end but funds are managed in different EU programmes and on different national scales.


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