Saturday, 16 August 2008

Save the planet? Buy it

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 16/08/2008

Millionaires are purchasing entire ecosystems around the world and turning them into conservation areas. Their goal? To stop environmental catastrophe. Jonathan Franklin reports with pictures by Morten Andersen Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, has a CV that includes introducing credit cards to his country and many large-scale property developments. Now he has added what every chic millionaire needs - his own private ecosystem.
Parque Tantauco, which Piñera created in 2005, is on one of South America's largest islands, Chiloé, off the coast of Patagonia.

Sebastián Piñera and construction work in Parque Tantauco
Piñera bought the land and immediately set about protecting the offshore habitat of blue whales and the inland virgin forests.Pulling out a map of the park, Piñera explains his plan, tracing his finger over a trekking route that will be connected by rustic cabins.'We have been buying all the land around us. We started with 110,000 acres and now we have 150,000,' he says. 'I want my children and grandchildren to remember me for making one more million? No! So I now have many projects like this.'
While yachts and jets marked the status of last century's super rich, today the stylish accessory for millionaires is their very own ecosystem.
From Patagonia to Montana, hundreds of thousands of acres are being bought by wealthy businessmen and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a gift.
Johan Eliasch, chairman of Head, the ski and sporting goods manufacturer, and the grandson of a Swedish property developer, has taken his business skills and invested them in a new industry - Amazon Forest conservation.

Eliasch, who has a personal fortune estimated at £360m, has bought 400,000 acres in the Brazilian Amazon, near the river town of Manicore.
Deforestation, argues Eliasch, causes more carbon emissions annually than transportation, yet is often overlooked.
In his parcel of land, Eliasch estimates that some 80m tons of carbon are trapped in the forest - about the same amount the entire Swedish population will produce over the next 15 years at current rates (53m tons per year).
'The key to saving the Amazon and the rest of the world's great rainforests is actually very simple: just put a fair price on the role they play in providing a quarter of the world's oxygen, a fifth of fresh water and 60 per cent of its species,' declares Eliasch.
'I truly believe that with their values as a carbon store at last being recognised, we will see mass deforestation halted in five years.'
Eliasch's interest in the Amazon came about from a concern that one of the effects of global warming was its destruction of the European ski season due to the lack of a critical component - snow.
'The Swedish winters and summers hold the most enduring memories for me. Now when I am back in Stockholm in November, it is difficult to imagine being able to ski to school. I think that is a tragedy,' he remarked.
The efforts by Eliasch to protect the rainforest have hit a nerve among some people in Brazil who are suspicious of foreigners coming in with plans to invest in the Amazon.
Eliasch, who admits that shutting down sawmills and putting hundreds of workers out of a job is controversial, insists that hacking down the rainforest is a wildly inefficient use of natural resources.
'Once timber is cut, there is little that can be done with the land that is is sustainable,' argues Eliasch. 'Timber extraction provides big profits at the expense of local communities.'
'Providing communities with unfettered access to harvest a forest that is protected in perpetuity provides better and more reliable incomes.'
Still, some people remain unconvinced, and it might be years before Eliasch is able to fully utilise his business acumen within the complex world of conservation.
'There are pitfalls everywhere,' says Evan Bowen-Jones of the conservation body Fauna & Flora International. 'In some countries it is possible to buy large chunks of lands and preserve it, and in other areas it is impossible.'
Bowen-Jones cautions that entering the world of large-scale conservation requires patience, and he strongly suggests consulting experienced individuals who have already been through the process.
Working with local groups or, better yet, being invited by local environmental groups is another key to success, he says.
'With the current pace of biodiversity loss posed by climate change, we are going to have to stretch the methods available to us and that is going to bring in the wealthy individuals,' says Bowen-Jones.
'If they [wealthy donors] bring the right attitude to the table, then there is a good chance for success.'

Douglas Tompkins and his Parque Pumalin, in Chile
'It is pretty hard for a country to turn down a gift of 300,000 hectares [740,000 acres],' says Douglas Tompkins, 65, the American-born founder of Esprit and The North Face.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Tompkins amassed a multi-million dollar fortune. He lived in a huge estate in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighbourhood and had a world-renowned art collection.
Then he read a book on deep ecology, the philosophy pioneered by Norwegian Arne Naess, who calls for a radical re-evaluation of man's relationship with the planet.
Tompkins was an instant convert. He sold his estate, the art and everything else, then moved to the remote wilds of Patagonia.
Since 1992, Tompkins has spent nearly £110m buying or organising the purchase of around 25 properties covering 2.2m acres in Chile and Argentina.
Once purchased, the land is placed under strict environmental protection by its new owner. Tompkins has even coined a phrase for this movement - wildlands philanthropy.
When Tompkins met someone with the same philosophy and her own pile of money - Kristi McDivitt, the former CEO of the Patagonia Clothing company - they began to focus their business acumen on building coalitions of funders, environmentalists and governments to create national parks.
'Spend your money on land conservation,' says McDivitt. 'To restore a creek is patriotic in my mind. Restoring the land in any form is a patriotic act.'
This eco-power couple have now created two national parks - Parque Nacional Corcovado in Chile and Parque Nacional Monte León in Argentina.
Another two are being finalised, with a total area of close to two million acres. At the centre of Tompkins' conservation efforts is Chile's Parque Pumalin, a pristine wooded ecosystem that includes volcanoes, old growth forests and hidden hot springs. The park's 740,000 acres are off limits to all development except small-scale enterprises.
'I fundamentally believe in national parks,' Tompkins said. 'I don't believe in private parks. I believe that nations do best and have done best when they really value their parklands and areas that are off limits to development.'
Hansjörg Wyss, one of Europe's richest men, agrees. After amassing a fortune estimated at £4,200m from his position of CEO of Synthes - a company that produces artificial spinal discs and nails for repairing broken bones - Wyss has tackled a far larger reconstruction project: the wild areas of the American West.
Through The Wyss Foundation, he has donated millions of dollars to preserve wild lands in Utah and Montana.
As chairman of the board at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots conservation group in the American southwest, Wyss has instituted a corporate structure that includes a £3.5m cash surplus, investments in stocks and mutual funds and an £800,000 office building in Salt Lake City.
In order to save thousands of acres in the Rocky Mountains of Montana from development, Wyss bankrolled a simple solution; he offered to buy up the mineral rights from the mining companies.
Thanks to Wyss's understanding of corporate America, the Foundation had discovered a strategy for effectively paying the oil and gas companies to leave the area.
In that Montana battle, The Wyss Foundation was an early funder and longtime proponent of the 'buy 'em out' strategy.

The Goldman Sachs ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego
Even investment bankers Goldman Sachs have caught the bug. In 2003, Goldman Sachs received 670,000 acres of forests in southern Chile and Argentina as the result of a bankruptcy settlement.
'It was part of a large package of distressed debt. We started asking, what do we do with a million acres of forest at the end of the earth? We had to get out an atlas,' laughs Lawrence Linden, an advisory director to Goldman Sachs.
He continues: 'As an investment bank, we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego? So we called in The Nature Conservancy to study the land and they came back with the conclusion that it was actually a very valuable piece of land from an environmental point of view.'
Today the Goldman Sachs land is a vast tract of wilderness and is home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal that roams the forests. It also has an endowment of around £9m.
"We didn't want to be a burden for taxpayers. This is not just a question of preserving a pristine wilderness,' says Pete Rose, a Goldman Sachs spokesman. 'This is about using 21st-century science to preserve a pristine wilderness.'
Across Europe, eco-barons have also invested heavily in land conservation.
Dutch businessman Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who died in 2006, was a leading figure in the movement. From his 82,000-acre estate in Scotland - which he proudly advertised as public lands - van Vlissingen managed supermarket chains, energy companies and investment trusts. His passion was Africa's beleaguered national parks.
In barely two years, Vlissingen poured millions of dollars into the then incomplete Marakele National Park in South Africa, a job that would have taken at least 10 years without his funding. Today Marakele is part of a far bigger park system and is a healthy home to African wildlife, including elephant, white and black rhinoceros, buffalo, hyena, cheetah, wild dog, giraffe and eland.
To consolidate his philosophy, Vlissingen helped create the African Parks Foundation, an NGO that continues to reinforce the infrastructure and funding for national parks in Africa.
Before his death, van Vlissingen was widely considered the richest man in Scotland, and with tens of thousands of acres, the country's biggest landowner.
But van Vlissingen refused that title, 'You can't own a place like this. It belongs to the planet,' he once said. 'I'm only the guardian.'

Turbine plant closure hits Salmond's green dreams

Published Date: 16 August 2008
By Jenny Haworth

THE First Minister's plans for the nation to become the green capital of Europe were dealt a blow yesterday after a major wind turbine manufacturer announced plans to close its Scottish factory.
Vestas, which has its headquarters in Denmark, said it would be starting talks with its 91 employees about the future of its site in Campbeltown, Argyll, because it does not make enough money.However, insiders say the factory has been dogged by problems from the start, particularly the lengthy planning process in Scotland that has led to a lack of stability in the turbine market.Vestas made the announcement on the same day it revealed its orders for wind turbines, and its share price, had increased.The decision comes just weeks after Alex Salmond gave the go-ahead for Europe's largest wind farm to be built in Scotland, as he expressed a desire for this country to become the green capital of Europe.An industry insider said from the start the lengthy planning system brought difficulties for the factory."In 2002 there was an awful lot of confidence that the wind industry would be able to grow in Scotland quite significantly and quite quickly," he said. "That gave confidence for a lot of positive investment decisions at the time from people like Vestas. They were hoping the industry would have a regular throughput of planning decisions that would lead to orders."However, he said the reality of the Scottish planning system – which has taken up to four years to make decisions about whether to give the go-ahead to wind farms – put an end to the initial optimism.It is believed the factory has also struggled because it is not set up to build the larger turbines that are expected to be in high demand with the growth in offshore plants. It is thought Vestas was also at a disadvantage due to its remote location in Campbeltown that makes transportation of the turbine towers difficult.Hugh Scullion, regional political officer for the union Unite Scotland, said he could not believe Vestas had made this decision at a time when the renewables industry was thriving.He called for government intervention to make sure the manufacturing industry that builds turbines becomes established close to the wind farms, to make sure jobs are brought to the area.Scotland's enterprise minister, Jim Mather, said he was seeking an urgent meeting with senior management at Vestas.He added: "As a government, we are ready to do whatever we can to try and find a sustainable future for the yard."In a statement Vestas said: "Evaluations have shown that the products for which the factory was designed and streamlined do not generate satisfactory earnings."

Vestas cites huge order book in wind turbines

Bloomberg News, Reuters
Published: August 15, 2008

COPENHAGEN: Vestas of Denmark, the world's No.1 wind turbine maker, said Friday that its order backlog had ballooned, sending its shares up nearly 8 percent despite profit coming in slightly below expectations.
Vestas is riding a surge in demand for renewable energy amid soaring oil prices and increasing concerns about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
Vestas, which competes with Gamesa of Spain, India's Suzlon Energy and units of global power generation giants Siemens and General Electric, had an order backlog on June 30 of €7.2 billion, or $10.73 billion. This compared with €4.8 billion at the end of the first quarter and was 67 percent up on the figure at end-June last year.
Net income climbed to €65 million from €51 million a year earlier, the Randers, Denmark-based company said. Profit missed the €69 million median estimate of six analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News.
"I think there are some very strong growth signals in these results, stronger than I can ever remember seeing in Vestas," said a Sydbank analyst, Jacob Pedersen. "In particular I want to highlight the order book of €7.2 billion, I might have bid €5.5 billion if I had been optimistic."

Government subsidies and incentives for wind-energy generation have spurred demand for turbines and pushed prices 74 percent higher in the past three years, according to BTM Consult APS, a Danish wind power consultant.
Vestas said that it would expand production facilities in China and the U.S. to meet demand and offset the weaker dollar.
Vestas shares were 5.8 percent higher at 620 crowns, outperforming the Copenhagen top-20 OMX index, which was 0.8 percent up.
Vestas shares closed up almost 5 percent on Thursday and are up 15 percent this year.
Sales grew 3 percent to €1.1 billion in the quarter.
The company retained its full-year outlook, predicting sales of €5.7 billion.
"The continuing improvement in profitability is attributable to the higher prices which Vestas initiated in 2005 and the ongoing enhancement of operational efficiency," the company said in a statement.
Shares in Gamesa, Vestas's Spanish rival, gained in Madrid trading after the Vestas announcement.
Gamesa gained as much as 4.8 percent to €30.19, the biggest one-day gain since July 29.

Making a big splash: Hydro has the power once again

Published Date: 16 August 2008
By Jenny Haworth

AS RECENTLY as five years ago power companies would have balked at the idea of spending £20 million sprucing up ageing hydro-electric plants.
However, in a sign of the times, with soaring oil and gas prices and the attraction of clean, green energy, ScottishPower has decided this is a wise way to spend its money.The power company is to pump the cash into maintaining the dams, refurbishing the turbines and sprucing up the waterways at its three hydro-electric schemes, at Cruachan, Galloway and Lanark.The upgrading programme, which will take place over the next two years, will help keep the plants running for at least the next 25 years.Some of them were designed in the 1920s and Sandy Rae, energy management director at Scottish Power, said investing such large sums on upgrading them might, in the past, have seemed unwise.He said world energy markets just five years ago were so different it would have been an unlikely way to spend £20 million."It might have been difficult to justify the investment in them," he said."That would be a world with very low gas prices and maybe not the same focus on carbon and renewables."Certainly, the way the world looks there's a very strong future for them."The investment means the schemes at Lanark and Galloway will still be in operation when they celebrate their centenary years in 2027 and 2036. This would hardly have been expected when they were built all those decades ago. Rae explained: "We are investing this to maintain the plants, refurbish them, keep them safe and reliable and extend their life – and the environment for doing that now is very favourable."He said high oil prices, leading to high gas and coal prices, made hydro-power highly attractive."These things are leading to high power prices so the prices these generators get when they run is relatively higher than a few years ago," he said."All the benefits of the high gas and carbon prices get captured by these plants."These plants have a rosy future looking at the world as it might be in 2020."Rae continued: "Certainly in Europe we will still have a carbon trading scheme, which could be generating high carbon prices."There will be a big demand for gas in Europe, so we will have pretty high gas prices. We may even have a lack of generation, which will point towards high power prices."In that world, being a carbon-free generator, and sustainable at that, the future looks rosy."Frank Mitchell, generation director at ScottishPower, agreed hydro-electric power had many benefits over other forms of generating electricity."In a climate of global volatility in the wholesale energy markets, hydro-electric plants are proving an extremely efficient method of generating electricity as input costs are relatively low," he said. "With no signs that global markets will level off any time soon, hydro will continue to be an important aspect of our generation business, and this is reflected in our investment."Hydro is also very versatile and can be brought online quickly when required, so is an essential element in guaranteeing secure supplies of power across the entire network."Despite the age of the existing plants, ScottishPower insists they were well-enough built to survive."They were built to very high standards," said Rae. "In modern times we probably couldn't afford to spend the money on them that we had then."They would have been built with the view that we would get 50 to 60 years out of them, so the fact that they are still running might not have been expected."He said the technology had changed little since they were built."The technology around the turbines is pretty much the same. "There might be some modest efficiency gains in new turbines but there has been no significant development."Despite the strong decades ahead for the existing plants, there is little scope for new hydro-power schemes due to a lack of suitable locations.The latest large hydro-power plant to be built in Scotland is the Glendoe Hydro Scheme alongside Loch Ness, run by Scottish and Southern Energy. Building started in 2006 and it is due to come online in March 2009.It is the first large-scale conventional hydro-electric station built in Scotland for almost 50 years, and generally considered the last likely to be possible in this country."In the UK there are very few places left to do this," said Rae. "It will be more a case of maintaining the existing plants and getting the best out of them."However, he said there was scope for small schemes, maybe serving individual homes or communities. Those with a river running through their land could potentially avoid high power prices. Planning permission would also be easier to get for a smaller scheme, and it would be easier to get a grid connection.Despite advances in other areas, such as wave, wind and tidal, hydro-power still accounts for almost half of Scotland's renewable energy generation capacity.ScottishPower mainly runs its hydro-electricity when prices are highest, such as the early evening peak.The company's three schemes have a combined output of 562MW. The largest – Cruachan power station– has a capacity to power more than 225,000 homes.It opened in 1965 and consists of a machine hall hidden inside a giant cavern deep within Ben Cruachan mountain, and a reservoir at the top with a 316m-long dam. The staircase in the cable shaft has 1,420 steps, making it the tallest in Britain.To build the plant, 220,000 cubic metres of rock and soil had to be excavated and it now serves a catchment area of 23 sq km.Galloway Hydro Scheme consists of six power stations, at Glenlee, Drumjohn, Kendoon, Carsfad, Earlstoun and Tongland, which between them generate 106MW.Lanark Hydro Scheme consists of two power stations, at Bonnington and Stonebyres. It has a total output of 16MW.

Compost bug offers hope for biofuel industry

A detritus-loving bug found in garden compost heaps has been genetically 'turbo-charged' to help it break down tough plant matter at speed, a process that could be about to transform the way the world makes biofuels
James Randerson, science correspondent,
Friday August 15 2008 13:00 BST

A detritus-loving bug that can be found in nearly every garden compost heap in the land could be about to transform the way the world makes biofuels.
Initially, it is set to make bioethanol production from corn in the US more efficient, but the British company that has developed it says it can be applied much more broadly.
Unlike the yeasts traditionally used in brewing and bioethanol production it is more tolerant of tough plant matter, so raw materials such as grasses, willow, forest waste, wheat stalks and waste cardboard could all be converted into fuel.
The company, TMO Renewables, has built a trial plant near Guildford in Surrey to demonstrate the process. It is the first plant in the UK to use so-called "second generation" raw material - inputs that are not themselves foodstuffs. "It completely eliminates the debate about food versus fuel," says the company's CEO, Hamish Curran.
Curran is no hair-shirted, lentil-eating ecowarrior. He began his career in the oil and gas industry and now has a fondness for burning around the Surrey countryside in his convertible BMW. "You have to be a petrol-head to work here," he says as we drive with the wind in our hair to TMO's demonstration plant. The hot maze of hissing and clanging silver-grey pipework is sited next to the track and hangar where the TV show Top Gear is filmed. "Whilst we want to save the planet, if it's not profitable it's not going to be sustainable," says Curran.
Critics argue that the massive expansion of biofuel production in the US has displaced food crops and taken land out of food production, contributing to a massive hike in food prices worldwide. According to a World Bank report obtained by the Guardian earlier this month, the extra demand for agricultural produce and land from biofuels has pushed food prices up by 75%. The US government claims the figure is 3%.
Using woody non-food plants would get away from the displacement problem and has long been the goal of the biofuels industry. But so far the technology to do it has proved elusive. The problem is breaking down tough molecules such as cellulose into smaller sugars that can be fermented into ethanol or other fuels.
Curran has big plans. "I see the opportunity within the UK to leapfrog the first generation and go directly to the second generation, making ethanol from biomass," he said. But he knows that is not going to happen anytime soon because the infrastructure for supplying the raw materials will take years to build up.
In the meantime TMO plans to license its technology to US corn ethanol producers. "The market is gigantic because of the legislative agenda in the US," he said. The fuel ethanol industry is currently worth around $30bn (£16bn) and this year is expected to produce between 9bn and 9.5bn gallons of fuel this year.
But making corn ethanol requires a substantial input of fossil fuels, which partially cancels out its green benefits. After fermenting the corn, producers are left with a cloudy ethanol mixture. The cloudiness is a cellulose-rich waste product that needs to be settled out, dried and then disposed of. At the moment producers recover some costs by selling the waste - called distillers dried grains - as cattle feed. That typically means transporting it from a bioethanol plant in the mid-West to a farmer in Texas using huge amounts of energy.
However, by feeding it into TMO's process, Curran says a plant could make 15% more ethanol and reduce its energy consumption by 35% to 50%. He says he has already had interest from 22 US bioethanol producers in buying the technology.
TMO Renewables began by testing thousands of bacteria from compost heaps, farm silage pits, forest leaf litter - in fact, anywhere where there were rotting plants - and testing how good they were at decomposing plant matter. They eventually settled on a Geobacillus bacterium which was particularly unfussy about what it ate, and set about genetically tweaking it so it stopped converting food into other waste products. That boosted the bug's ethanol production and at the same time the team "turbo-charged" its metabolism, as Curran puts it. So rather than taking days to ferment a batch of raw material as yeast would, it can do the same job in hours.
The genetically altered bug - christened TM242 to distinguish it from Geobacillus in the wild - is still only part of the way toward the ultimate goal of munching on raw cellulose, however. The fibrous input needs first to be blown apart with high pressure steam and then treated with enzymes to partially break up the long chains that make up cellulose molecules and convert them into sugars. That means adding enzymes to the mix, but unlike other bacteria TM242 can handle longer chain sugars so the cellulose only needs to be partially broken down.
Another advantage is that because TM242 operates at 65C to 70C and generates its own heat, the hot beer that comes out of the end of the fermentation process needs less warming to distil off the ethanol, thus saving energy.
"I think they are half way there," said Edward Green of Green Biologics in Abingdon, another company that is researching the use of bacteria to create biofuels. "Whether or not that gives them something unique - probably not. There are other people out there with similar types of microbe, but TMO probably has more of an advanced position in terms of demonstration scale up."
Some environmental campaigners remain unconvinced, however. A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, which campaigns against biofuels, says that so-called second generation technologies are not the answer.
"Sustainable second generation biofuels are a PR promise, not a commercial reality – and are a distraction from real green transport solutions, like more fuel efficient cars, better public transport and safer routes for walking and cycling," she said.
"The EU must scrap its proposed biofuels targets and vote instead to double the fuel efficiency of new cars."

Airlines push for homegrown jet fuel

The Associated Press
Published: August 15, 2008

PHOENIX: With the price of oil still above $100 a barrel, everything from wood chips to chicken fat is being scrutinized as an alternative to traditional fuel. But when it comes to airplanes, finding the right mix poses a special challenge.
"When you're in an airplane, you don't want your fuel to start solidifying," said Robert Dunn, a Department of Agriculture chemical engineer who is studying biodiesel jet fuel.
The airline industry is aggressively pushing for homegrown alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel, while leaning on customers with a variety of new travel charges to help control a projected $61 billion industrywide fuel expense this year. A number of alternatives to standard jet fuel have been studied for years, though aircraft manufacturers say the challenge is to find ideas that will work now.
Jet engines can be retrofitted to run on hydrogen, for example. But hydrogen does not pack the same punch as traditional jet fuel — kerosene — and would require airlines to buy planes designed with massive tanks. That is a tough choice for cash-strapped carriers, said Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
The best bet right now for non-conventional fuel comes from South Africa, experts said. The country has powered its airline industry for a decade using a coal-based jet fuel blend developed by petrochemicals group Sasol. It's technically a "synthetic" fuel, which means it can be used without altering engines or other aircraft equipment.

A number of U.S. companies are developing a variety of similar synthetics. Airline experts say three companies in particular could provide as much as three million gallons (more than 11 million liters) a day of synthetic fuel by 2012: American Clean Coal Fuels of Portland, Oregon, Baard Energy in Vancouver, Washington, and Rentech Inc. of Los Angeles.
Though significant supplies will not be ready for several years, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) — a coalition that includes the Federal Aviation Administration, airline, manufacturing and airport associations — wants to set standards by the end of the year for a 50-percent synthetic jet fuel. CAAFI wants standards for a totally synthetic fuel ready in two years.
Executive Director Richard L. Altman said the push for new fuel standards is meant to show investors that airlines will buy synthetic fuel. Doing so will send needed dollars to energy startups that may one day replace foreign oil, Altman said.
"Nobody will invest unless the fuel is certified," he said. "So we have a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem."
With more companies investing in alternative energy, the thinking goes, the more synthetic jet fuel eventually becomes available. The more fuel available, the easier it will be for airlines to unshackle themselves from volatile petroleum markets.
Meanwhile, Boeing and Air New Zealand later this year will test a biofuel made from the oil-rich seeds of the jatropha tree, a Mexican plant that grows in warm climates. Other synthetic fuel tests will follow on Continental Airlines and Japan Airlines flights. In February, Boeing partnered with Virgin Atlantic to test a flight that included a biofuel mixture of babassu oil, which comes from a palm tree in northern Brazil, and coconut oil.
"We're looking for something that is so correct in its performance that it can be interchanged with petroleum-based kerosene," Glover said. "From a distribution standpoint, from a technical standpoint, it needs to fit without modifications or special handling."
Many biofuels may create more problems than they solve, however. Using edible feedstocks such as corn and sugar could raise the price of food. And palm trees for babassu and coconut oil could lead to clearing large chunks of rain forest.
These are some of the reasons why algae-based synthetic fuel is getting a lot of attention.
Algae is inedible, and it has a relatively high yield compared with other crops, using less land to produce the same amount of oil.
"It can be grown anywhere you can have a pool of water and expose it to sunlight," said Stanford Seto, an expert in aviation fuels who works with ASTM International, a Pennsyvania-based organization that develops standards for jet fuel.
Investors have pumped almost $84 million into companies developing algae-based fuel so far this year, up from $29 million in all of 2007, according to the Cleantech Group, an industry research firm.
Despite its promise, it will be years before algae biofuel could be sold at a price that would make sense to an airline, said Dave Jones, co-founder of LiveFuels, an algae fuel startup in San Carlos, California.
"If anyone is below $50 a gallon, I'd be stunned," he said. "We have a pretty good idea on how to grow algae. The biggest challenge is in the harvesting and how to extract it from the water."
Even if prices come down, most airlines see synthetic fuel as a chance to run a greener airline, not necessarily a cheaper one, said Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs for the Air Transport Association.
More fuel sources could temper the effect oil speculation has on gas prices, and they could give carriers fuel at a cost they can count on, she said. But "you aren't going to find a fuel that's pennies on the dollar than what we find today," she said.
For travelers, that means that fewer flight options and charges for checked bags, drinks and other items are here to stay.
"Even if we were to double the volume we were to make in biofuels every year for the next 10 years, we're still looking at maybe this will impact 15 percent of the overall fuel supply," said Brian Fan, Cleantech's senior director of research.
"Realistically, for anything to be happening at scale, enough to actually impact an airline's bottom line, we're years away," Fan said.

Toyota to Make Hybrid Engine Available on All Its Models

By MATTHEW DOLANAugust 15, 2008 4:49 p.m.

Hot off its success with its best-selling Prius sedan, Toyota Motor Co. announced Friday that it would make hybrid-engine systems available on all of its models by 2020.
The announcement came as all of the auto makers at an industry conference this week in northern Michigan maneuvered to carve out their own niches in fuel-efficient design, from expansion of the gasoline/electric hybrid technology already available in the Prius to the new plug-in hybrid vehicle known as the Volt under development by General Motor Corp.
Ford Motor Co., the Dearborn-Mich. auto maker with few of its vehicles with hybrid options, plans to double its hybrid-vehicle lineup and production next year. And Honda Motor Co. said this week at the Traverse City, Mich., conference that in 2009, it will import a new hybrid to compete directly against the new Prius in the U.S. market -- and at a lower price.
The Chevrolet Volt is still scheduled to go on sale in 2010 and its chief designer Bob Boniface gave the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefings Seminars an early look at the most recent styling changes adopted create a sleeker front end and extend its range on battery power through better aerodynamics. The Volt will be able to go at least 40 miles on its lithium-ion battery, but the vehicle will also contain a small gas tank that would recharge the battery if necessary. Consumers would be able to recharge the vehicle at home using a conventional household outlet.
The entire auto industry in the U.S. has scrambled to meet shifting consumer demand toward small, fuel-efficient cars and away from trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Even though gasoline prices have recently retreated from this year's high above $4 a gallon, most auto makers have said they consider the changes toward small cars to be more or less a permanent change in the overall mix of vehicles customers want and the companies intend to build.
Toyota and Ford, for example, have said they have not been able to build enough hybrid vehicles to meet rising consumer demand. Though most auto makers are assumed to lose money on hybrids, Toyota's Bob Carter, head of North American sales, said in an interview this week that his company makes a profit on its Prius hybrids, which recently exceeding sales of 1 million units globally.
In another sign of the shifting market demand away from trucks, Toyota confirmed this week that the Japanese auto maker abandoned its plans to resume pick-up production at its plant in Indiana this fall. Originally, the company planned to restart production of its Tundra pick-up there in November after a suspension earlier this year. Production instead will only be revived at its Texas facility this fall and the plant in Princeton, Ind. will take on production of Toyota Sequoia and Highlander, which are both SUVs.
GM to Invest in Ohio Plant, Unveil Chevy Cruze
Write to Matthew Dolan at

Suffocating dead zones spread across world's oceans

Critically low oxygen levels now pose as great a threat to life in the world's oceans as overfishing and habitat loss, say experts
David Adam, environment correspondent,
Friday August 15 2008 00:01 BST

With more than 400 oxygen-starved dead zones in global coastal waters, scientists are calling for such dead zones to be recognised as one of the world's great environmental problems
Man-made pollution is spreading a growing number of suffocating dead zones across the world's seas with disastrous consequences for marine life, scientists have warned.
The experts say the hundreds of regions of critically low oxygen now affect a combined area the size of New Zealand, and that they pose as great a threat to life in the world's oceans as overfishing and habitat loss.
The number of such seabed zones – caused when massive algal blooms feeding off pollutants such as fertiliser die and decay – has boomed in the last decade. There were some 405 recorded in coastal waters worldwide in 2007, up from 305 in 1995 and 162 in the 1980s.
Robert Diaz, an oceans expert at the US Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary, at Gloucester Point, said: "Dead zones were once rare. Now they're commonplace. There are more of them in more places."
Marine bacteria feed on the algae in the blooms after it has died and sunk to the bottom, and in doing so they use up all of the oxygen dissolved in the water. The resulting 'hypoxic' seabed zones can asphyxiate swathes of bottom dwelling organisms such as clams and worms, and disrupt fish populations.
Diaz and his colleague, Rutger Rosenberg of the department of marine ecology at the University of Gothenburg, call for more careful use of fertilisers to address the problem.
Writing in the journal Science, the researchers say the dead zones must be viewed as one of the "major global environmental problems". They say: "There is no other variable of such ecological importance to coastal marine ecosystems that has changed so drastically over such a short time."
The key solution, they say, is to "keep fertilisers on the land and out of the sea". Changes in the way fertilisers and other pollutants are managed on land have already "virtually eliminated" dead zones from the Mersey and Thames estuaries, they say.
Diaz says his concern is shared by farmers who are worried about the high cost of fertilisers. "They certainly don't want to see their dollars flowing off their fields. Scientists and farmers need to continue working together to minimise the transfer of nutrients from land to sea."
The number of dead zones reported has doubled each decade since the 1960s, but the scientists say they are often ignored until they provoke problems among populations of larger creatures such as fish or lobsters. By killing or stunting the growth of bottom-dwelling organisms, the lack of oxygen denies food to creatures higher up the food chain.
The Baltic Sea, site of the world's largest dead zone, has lost about 30% of its available food energy, which has led to a significant decline in its fisheries.
The lack of oxygen can also force fish into warmer waters closer to the surface, perhaps making them more susceptible to disease.
The size of marine dead zones often fluctuates with the seasons. A massive dead zone, some 8,000 square miles across, forms each summer in the Gulf of Mexico as floodwater flushes nitrogen-rich fertiliser into the Mississippi River.
Experts said it was slightly smaller than expected this year because Hurricane Dolly stirred up the water. Dead zones require the water to be separated into layers, with little or no mixing between.
As well as fertilisers rich in nitrates and phosphates, sewage discharges also contribute to the problem because they help the algal blooms to flourish.
Diaz and Rosenberg say: "We believe it would be unrealistic to return to pre-industrial levels of nutrient input [to oceans], but an appropriate management goal would be to reduce nutrient inputs to levels that occurred in the middle of the past century," before the rise in added nutrients began to spread dead zones globally.
Climate change could be adding to the problem. Many regions are expected to experience more severe periods of heavy rain, which could wash more nutrients from farmland into rivers.
In May, scientists reported that oxygen-depleted zones in tropical oceans are expanding. They analysed oxygen levels in samples of seawater and found the effect was largest in the central and eastern tropical Atlantic and the equatorial Pacific. The increase could push oxygen-starved zones closer to the surface and give marine life such as fish less room to live and look for food.
The scientists, led by Lothar Stramma from the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, say the change could be linked to warming seas. At 0C, a litre of seawater can hold about 10ml of dissolved oxygen; at 25C this falls to 4ml. Stramma said: "Whether or not these observed changes in oxygen can be attributed to global warming alone is still unresolved." The reduction could also be down to natural processes working on shorter timescales, he said.

Why we should turn off our electrical appliances

Richard Wray
The Guardian,
Thursday August 14 2008

British households are wasting the annual output of a large power station by failing to switch off their flatscreen televisions, set-top boxes, and internet networks when they are not being used, according to Ofcom's latest Communications Market report.
The equivalent output of the 1,500MW Didcot B power station in Oxfordshire could be saved each year if every home with a set-top box switched it off at night; that would conserve enough electricity to make 80bn cups of tea.
Consumer electronics account for about a third of home energy use, according to the Energy Saving Trust, but that use is forecast to balloon to 45% by 2020 as more people buy more gadgets.
The rise in average residential energy bills to just over £1,000 a year has made people more energy aware, but only when it comes to buying obviously power-hungry devices such as fridges and freezers, according to Ofcom.
Almost three quarters of Britons, when quizzed by the regulator, classed themselves as caring about the environment, and more than half said they had compared the green credentials of white goods before making a purchase. But only 39% of people think about the environmental impact of a new TV, DVD player or computer.
When they get it home, meanwhile, most people leave their new kit switched on all the time, unnecessarily wasting electricity.
Three quarters of people rarely switch off their set-top box, according to Ofcom, and that figure jumps to 83% for owners of a wireless home network. Plasma screens are particularly power hungry, according to the regulator, with the average set using three times the power of a normal TV when in use, and twice the power when left on standby.
The average satellite set-top box gobbles up four and a half times the power of a flatscreen LCD television in the same state. Even a Freeview box uses twice the power of a flatscreen TV when left on standby.
Almost half the country's mobile phone users, meanwhile, waste electricity by charging their handsets overnight, when in fact most models only need to be plugged in for about two hours. People aged between 16 to 24 are particularly guilty of this, with 80% doing it at least some of the time.

US drivers log 12bn fewer miles in June

McClatchy newspapers,
Thursday August 14 2008 17:05 BST

To the six leather-clad Harley riders from Montreal who pulled off the interstate to eat lunch in Chicago on Wednesday, the open road seems even more open this year.
The dining area was more than half empty, and so were many of the highways on their 1,800-mile trek to and from a motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, this year's destination on their annual visit to the US.
"There was much less traffic, much less congestion," said Nathalie Miousse, 36. "This was our first time to Sturgis, and they told us it was less crowded than in other years."
Higher prices for petrol and other necessities are forcing more Americans to downshift on their summer road trips, and everyone from filling station owners to restaurant servers is feeling the pinch.
Americans drove 12.2bn fewer miles in June compared to a year ago, the government said Wednesday, a reduction of 4.7 percent to 250.2bn, the lowest for June since 2002 and the biggest monthly drop this year.
Driving on rural interstates fell nearly 7 percent, which is "a pretty good indication that multi-state commercial traffic and regional vacation travel are down," said Doug Hecox, a spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration.
Highway officials expected metropolitan areas to show the biggest decline because people have mass transit as an option, but it came in rural areas instead.
"There may be broader economic reasons," Hecox said, including high food prices and a tough job market. "The effects of that may be digging deeper in rural areas," he said. "People in the middle of the country may just be staying home."
Rockford, Illinois-based Road Ranger USA, operator of 73 service stations in seven Midwestern states, most in rural towns and near interstates, has seen petrol sales fall 5 percent this year along interstates and urban areas and 15 percent in rural areas such as Freeport, Illinois, said Dan Arnold, the company's president.
"We're in the eye of the storm," Arnold said. "Summer travel is down a little bit, but in smaller communities it's down more significantly.
They have less disposable income, so higher fuel prices affect them disproportionately. It just comes down to having less money to spend, so you stay home"
Petrol prices aren't the only deterrent, Lisa Schweitzer, a transportation policy expert at the University of Southern California, said.
"Not only is it expensive to get anywhere, but you have to pay more for whatever you do when you get there," she said.
June was the eighth straight month of decline in driving, and 2008 is on pace to be the first year of decline since 1980. Americans also used 400 million fewer gallons of petrol in the first quarter, according to the highway administration.
Driving miles are expected to decline again when July numbers come out because that's when petrol prices peaked at more than $4 nationally. But highway officials expect motorists will get back behind the wheel eventually and the miles to start climbing again.
"That trend will resume. We just don't know when," said Hecox, but he predicted the trend of using less gas will continue because Americans will buy more efficient vehicles such as hybrids and electric vehicles.

Plug-in hybrid from GM is nearly ready for testing

By Nick Bunkley
Published: August 15, 2008

TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan: General Motors said Thursday that it had "essentially finished" designing its first plug-in hybrid car, the Chevrolet Volt, and would have production-ready prototypes within 10 days.
The automaker still has considerable work to do on the car's lithium-ion battery and other technology in the two years before the Volt is scheduled to go on sale, but completing the design is a milestone for what is arguably the most crucial car in decades for GM.
The Volt would be able to travel at least 40 miles on battery power alone, GM said. The battery is recharged by plugging a cord into a household outlet.
Bob Boniface, the director of design for the Volt, showed sketches of the car and photos of its front and rear corners at an industry conference in northern Michigan. He said GM had made the Volt more aerodynamic and attractive since displaying it as a concept car at the Detroit auto show in January 2007.
The changes, including a shorter hood and more rounded front end, have increased the car's battery range by about 6 or 7 miles, Boniface said. By year's end, GM expects to have 50 prototypes for testing.

The Detroit automakers have been criticized for making gas-thirsty vehicles, and the Volt has gained interest from consumers who see it as a way to save on gasoline.
As of Thursday afternoon, 35,750 people from all 50 states and 63 countries had signed up on an unofficial waiting list for the car at, a Web site run by a neurologist in New Jersey who is not affiliated with GM. The doctor, Lyle Dennis, started the site as a fan when GM announced the car.
GM has said it will charge $30,000 to $40,000 for the four-door Volt. Frank Weber, GM's vehicle line executive for the Volt, said that the company did not expect to make money in the near term but that the "E-flex" battery technology will ultimately allow GM to sell a profitable line of ultrafuel-efficient vehicles.
GM aims to be the first automaker to sell a plug-in hybrid, but Toyota Motor also says it plans to introduce such a vehicle in 2010.

Discredited pseudoscience or a newly useful technology?

Isomer triggering is controversial, but military researchers are quietly working to find ways of applying the technique
David Hambling
The Guardian,
Thursday August 14 2008

A novel nuclear technology is making a comeback - but why are the researchers keeping quiet about it?
There was uproar in the scientific community in 2003 when it emerged that the US military was funding research into miniature warheads based on nuclear isomers. The science behind the project was attacked and even ridiculed.
Nuclear isomers are atoms with a "metastable" nucleus. Perhaps the best analogy is to consider the nucleons as snooker balls. In a normal atom, the balls are all flat on the table. In a metastable isomer, they are piled in a pyramid, ready to collapse and release energy, given the right sort of prod.
Everyone agrees that nuclear isomers can store vast amounts of energy - less than is released in other nuclear reactions, but thousands of times more than chemical fuels. The question is whether the isomeric decay is random, or whether it can be triggered by interaction with an x-ray or other high-energy photon. Triggering could release an intense burst of gamma rays, lethal to both humans and electronic devices. The planned weapon was dubbed "the death ray bomb" and "the atomic hand grenade" (US military pioneers death ray bomb, August 2003).
Trigger happy
Triggering of the 178m2 isomer of Hafnium was reported by Carl Collins of the University of Texas in 1999. But others, notably the Argonne National Laboratory, were not able to repeat his results.
Academic opposition was intense, and a panel of scientists urged a review of the evidence "before proceeding to study applications that may not make physical sense". Unsurprisingly, the US Congress cut the project's funding.
Many still treat isomer triggering as a classic example of pseudoscience. But the phenomenon is becoming more accepted, and several military isomer projects are under way. The focus is now on a slow energy release for batteries - but not everyone has completely given up on bombs.
Youngstown State University, Ohio, recently announced funding from the Pentagon for fundamental research into the physics of nuclear isomers. This academic effort is led by James (Jeff) Carroll. He regards applications such as exotic batteries as speculative, since much more solid data is needed to prove they are feasible, but believes that any form of weapon is unlikely. "One should differentiate between an 'isomer programme' and what might be called the 'Hafnium programme', " says Carroll. "The former has added significantly to the body of science, as documented by many peer-reviewed and published results that have achieved acceptance in the nuclear physics community.
"The Hafnium program was focused, to my knowledge, on proving a specific claimed effect that has even now not been successfully observed by any independent and sceptical group. It would be a shame to throw the baby out with the bath water by equating these two overlapping, yet distinct programmes with quite different aims and outcomes."
The US army has been quietly running an isomer project for years. The researchers have published several papers about using isomers for micro-batteries and portable power generation. Rather than Hafnium, they are working with isomers of silver, lutetium and holmium.
This team also distances itself from earlier work, noting: "This approach differs dramatically from suggestions for use of isomeric materials in explosives applications".
However, the army estimates that isomer power plants will be too expensive for anything except small-scale use. Nuclear isomers have to be charged up with energy, and there is no cheap way of doing this.
In Britain, the Atomic Weapons Establishment is looking at whether an ultra-short pulse laser can trigger uranium isomers by stimulating the electron shell around the nucleus into an energetic state. The technique is called Nuclear Excitation by Electron Transition, and involves zapping a quantity of material so it becomes a plasma. "This process requires a resonance between the nuclear and atomic electron transition energies," says Peter Thomson, a scientist at the Atomic Weapons Establishment. "In principle these might be adjusted within a high-temperature plasma to bring an appropriate atomic transition into resonance with the nucleus."
Voodoo science
The AWE's emphasis is on basic research and the potential for energy storage. But Thomson does not believe that an isomer bomb can be ruled out, saying that the controversy over Collins' claims has not been fully resolved. He adds: "A secondary role of AWE is to provide independent advice to the UK government on potential threats to the security of the UK, so an understanding of the fundamentals of isomer physics is essential."
The US navy also has an isomer programme. A recent presentation lists nuclear isomers as a possible replacement for explosives in warheads. This continued belief may stem from the Triggering Isomer Proof Experiment, which was sponsored by the US Department of Defense to determine conclusively whether high-energy Hafnium isomer triggering was possible. In spite of failures to reproduce results elsewhere, there are strong hints that the results of the experiment were positive.
Meanwhile, isomer triggering is edging towards the mainstream. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was previously a stronghold of isomer scepticism. Last year, researchers announced they were working on triggering energy release from a thorium isomer. They say this would be a world first, showing continued disbelief in the earlier triggering claims.
The earlier results have been disowned by many, who refer to their work as "quantum nucleonics" rather than the sensitive "isomer triggering". Nobody wants to be accused of voodoo science, and military funding is at the whim of politicians who can be swayed by the scientific community. No wonder researchers are treading very carefully.

Jamaica to build solar energy plant, ease costs

The Associated Press
Published: August 14, 2008

KINGSTON, Jamaica: Jamaica plans to build a solar energy plant in the island's southeast to help reduce its annual US$3.7 billion energy bill.
Energy Minister Clive Mullings says the plant is one of the government's top 12 projects.
Mullings said Thursday that within three months, officials will announce cost estimates and a start date for construction.
The facility will be financed through Venezuela's Petrocaribe program, which provides poor nations with cheap oil and money for community projects.
Previous administrations have sought to reduce energy costs by installing photovoltaic street lights and promoting the use of ethanol. The government expects to mandate island-wide use of ethanol-blended fuel by April 2009.

Réunion aims for carbon neutrality

By Ed Harris Reuters
Published: August 14, 2008

SAINT-DENIS, Réunion: Ringed by volcanic rock, sandy beaches and swells of the Indian Ocean, Réunion, an overseas department of France, is hardly a major polluter.
But hit by rising fuel costs and worried about the impact of global warming, particularly on its delicate flora and fauna, the island has set itself the ambitious goal of eliminating all its greenhouse gas emissions.
By 2025, Réunion wants to use renewable energy sources to produce 100 percent of its electricity, and to power all of its transportation by 2050.
"We have water, sunshine, we even have an active volcano," Paul Verges, president of Réunion's regional council, said after the Group of 8 agreed a 50 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
"We have more energy than we need for our development."

About 36 percent of Réunion's electricity already comes from renewable energy sources, mostly hydro-energy and bagasse, a sugar cane fiber. But it wants to increase that figure by expanding its existing sources, cutting inefficiencies and exploring new technologies.
"What's possible in Réunion should also be possible in France, and should also be possible for the planet," said the French overseas territories minister, Yves Jégo.
Réunion is expanding its photovoltaic, hydro and wind energy projects to produce as much as 750 megawatts, 120 megawatts and 60 megawatts, respectively, said Jules Dieudonné, who heads a group focused on increasing the use of renewable energy.
About €115 million, or $180 million, of public money is scheduled to be spent from 2007 to 2017 to accomplish the goals, while incentives offered to private energy companies to produce more electricity from renewable sources than from fossil fuels, Dieudonné said.
Serge Borchiellini, the Réunion representative for Aerowatt, a renewable energy company said wind energy is "at about 15 megawatts, 16 megawatts."
"So there are other projects which are feasible," he said.
Biomass from sugar cane fiber and waste will also be part of Réunion's power future. Scientists, meanwhile, are testing the potential of hydrogen, geothermal energy from La Piton de la Fournaise, one of the world's most active volcanoes, and even ocean energy.
The temperature difference between sea water at the surface and at a depth of 1,000 meters, or 3,200 feet, is about 22 degrees Celsius (71 degrees Fahrenheit), Dieudonné said.
"This difference in temperature can allow us to make electric energy," he said, also citing possible kinetic energy from the ocean swell.
But as in other places around the world, the island has rapidly growing energy demands that threaten to delay the targets.
Living mostly along the coastline, Réunion's population is set to grow more than 20 percent to more than one million people by 2030 from about 800,000 now.
Réunion's average energy consumption per person is growing at 5 percent per year, according to official figures.
"The big problem in Reunion is the summer heat - everybody wants air conditioning," said Pierre-Yves Ezavin an official at Réunion's regional energy agency. He added that air conditioning accounted for about 80 percent of office electricity bills.
Réunion's traditional homes made good use of wood and plenty of windows, but low-cost housing of recent years was built with concrete using cheaper methods that trap the heat inside. "We have to take care of construction," Ezavin said.
His agency is running a public information campaign to encourage the use of green technologies like better construction methods and materials, solar water heaters - already a common sight - and bicycles. But attitudes are slow to change.
"We've heard about it," Jean-François Sery, a taxi driver, said about renewable energy. "I don't know what to think.
"It hasn't yet entered people's thinking," he said, adjusting his air conditioning while he waited in a traffic jam that snaked along the coastal road.
Accounting for 70 percent to 75 percent of Réunion's energy use, transport is the main issue for reducing its greenhouse gases.
And seeking to counter the extra 30,000 cars - about 10 percent of existing traffic - that appear on Réunion's congested roads every year, the island is set to complete the first 34-kilometer, or 21-mile, phase of an electrically powered tram-train by 2013 at a cost of €1.4 billion, Dieudonné said.
At the same time, though, Réunion is building a major road in the west in an effort to ease congestion. And with tourism a major source of jobs and income, airplanes are not part of Réunion's energy targets.
"Our ambition is not to invent a new airplane," Dieudonné said. "Our ambition is to do everything we can do in Reunion to become independent of fossil fuels."

PG&E orders photovoltaic plant

By Richard Waters in San Francisco
Published: August 14 2008 22:21

PG&E, a California power company, has placed an order for what are believed to be the world’s two biggest photovoltaic solar farms, giving a strong endorsement to a technology that few power generators have yet considered to be ready for utility-scale use.
Between them the two farms, due to come on-stream in 2010 and 2011, are planned to generate 800 megawatts at peak capacity, or more than the 750 MW of the entire photovoltaic grid capacity in the US at the end of last year.

The largest of the plants will cover nine square miles of farmland and produce 550 MW of power at its peak, making it “an order of magnitude” bigger than anything else built or in planning around the world, according to OptiSolar, the company that has been contracted to build the farm.
Photovoltaic systems, which use solar cells to turn sunlight directly into electricity, have been considered too inefficient for utility use, though advances in new materials have steadily brought down the cost per watt of power generated.
Most of the big utility solar projects have instead used concentrated solar thermal technology, which relies on large mirrors to focus the sun’s light to heat water.
The fact that power can only be generated during hours of peak daylight, making it hard to match production with demand, has also reduced its attractiveness as a source of power for electricity grids.
PG&E has already contracted for 1,700 MW of solar thermal generating capacity, while Southern California Edison recently announced an unusual plan to build 250 MW of photovoltaic capacity on its customers’ roofs. The rapid expansion of solar capacity in California reflects a state mandate for local utilities to produce 20 per cent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010.
OptiSolar and Sun Power, which is to build a separate 250 MW plant, said they were prevented by confidentiality agreements from discussing the economics of the plants, and in particular the all-important cost-per-watt of the power produced. However, the companies claimed the contracts were evidence of a leap forward in the efficiency of their technology.
“This is the first time that photovoltaic solar is becoming cost-competitive with other renewables,” a spokesman for OptiSolar said.
PG&E said the projects were dependent on the extension of the US federal tax credit for renewable energy.
Legislation to extend the existing credits, which expire at the end of this year, has so far stalled on Capitol Hill. The solar farms also need local environmental clearance.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008