Monday, 10 November 2008

Bicycle-sharing mania takes hold in Europe

By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Published: November 9, 2008

BARCELONA: In increasingly green-conscious Europe, there are said to be only two kinds of mayors: those who have a bicycle-sharing program and those who want one.
Over the past several years, the programs have sprung up and taken off in dozens of cities, on a scale no one had thought possible and in places where bicycling had never been popular.
The sharing plans include not just Paris's Vélib', with its 20,000 bicycles, but also wildly popular programs with thousands of bicycles in major cities like Barcelona and Lyon. Programs operate in Pamplona, Spain; Rennes, France; and Düsseldorf. Even Rome, whose narrow, cobbled streets and chaotic traffic would seem unsuited to pedaling, recently started a small trial program, Roma-n-Bici, which it plans to expand soon.
For mayors looking to ease congestion and prove their environmental bona fides, bike-sharing has provided a simple solution: For the price of a bus, they get a fleet of bicycles, and they can avoid years of construction and the approvals required for a subway. For riders, joining means cut-rate transportation - as well as a chance to contribute to the planet's well-being.
The new systems are successful in part because they blanket cities with huge numbers of available bikes, but the real linchpin is technology. Aided by electronic smart cards and computerized bike stands, riders can pick up and drop off bicycles in seconds at hundreds of locations, their payments deducted from bank accounts.

"As some cities have done it, others are realizing they can do it, too," said Paul DeMaio, founder of MetroBike, a U.S.-based bike-sharing consultant that tracks programs worldwide. "There is an incredible trajectory."
The huge new European bicycle-sharing networks function less as recreation and more as low-cost, alternative public transportation. Most programs (though not Paris's and Lyon's) exclude tourists and day-trippers.
Here in Barcelona, streets during rush hour are lined with commuters and errand-goers on the bright red bicycles of Bicing, the city's 18-month-old bike-sharing program. Bicing offers 6,000 bicycles from 375 stands scattered every few blocks; all the bikes seem to be in nearly constant motion.
"I use it every day to commute - everyone uses it," said Andre Borao, 44, an entrepreneur in a gray suit with an orange tie, as he prepared to ride home for lunch. "It's convenient, and I like the perspective of moving through the streets."
The expanding program in Barcelona is typical of so-called third-generation programs that rely heavily on technology. (In its first generation, bike-sharing involved scattering old bikes around the streets of Copenhagen, where they could be used for free; second-generation programs accepted coins.)
Here, customers buy a yearly membership for about $30 and get a smart card that allows them to release a bike from a mechanized dock. The first 30 minutes are free, with a charge thereafter of 30 cents for each half-hour. Bikes must be returned within two hours, or members face smart-card deactivation, but they can be returned to any bike rack in the network.
Programs in Germany and Austria tend to work on a different system: Members receive cellphone text messages providing codes to unlock the bikes.
Cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam have long been home to devoted bicycling commuters. But the new programs have created the greatest transportation revolution in central and southern Europe, where warmer climates allow riders to move about comfortably year-round. The shared bicycles in Barcelona, Lyon and Paris are heavily used - logging about 10 rides a day, according to officials in those cities.
In North America, issues like insurance liability, a stronger car culture, longer commutes and a preference for wearing helmets have slowed adoption of bicycle-sharing programs. None of the European programs mandate helmets. Still, Washington and Montreal are experimenting with small projects, and Chicago, Boston and New York are studying options.
Perhaps the best indication that bicycle-sharing has arrived is this: Shanghai, which 10 years ago was trying to eliminate bicycles from some of its boulevards to make way for cars, last month opened a pilot bike-sharing stand.
In most European cities, advertisers have been given contracts to set up and maintain bicycle-sharing programs in exchange for the rights to sell ads on city-owned space, like bus stations.
"We provide a turn-key program," said Martina Schmidt, bike-sharing director of Clear Channel Outdoors, which now runs programs in 13 European cities and recently started its first American program, the one in Washington. "We give the city what they're looking for, and they give us space to sell."
Here in Barcelona, the Bicing program has had its glitches, reflecting, in part, its unexpected popularity.
On Barcelona's outskirts, users complain that bicycle stations (with up to 36 bikes) can run out toward the end of the morning rush hour, leaving customers temporarily stranded. Likewise, docking sites in central Barcelona are sometimes full, so riders have to search for parking. Car owners complain about the removal of parking spots to accommodate new bike lanes; the city has about 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, of lanes, a number that has rapidly expanded in the past two years.
Barcelona's central business district is in a geographic bowl compared with most residential neighborhoods, so while many people want to ride there to work, fewer want to ride a bike home. Directed by controllers at a command station, Bicing's 100 employees use trucks to rebalance the system, taking bikes to where they are needed.
City officials seem a bit overwhelmed.
"For the moment, it will not grow anymore," said Ramón Ferreiro, an official with Bicing. "We now have to consolidate and start working so that maintenance is adequate, and improve the system at all levels."
Even with the growing pains, José Monllor, a graduate student, says he now rides to class instead of driving his car. "It stays in the parking lot," he said of his car. "It's stupid to drive."
The actual impact of bike-sharing on traffic or emissions is difficult to quantify because converts include people like Monllor, who would have driven, as well as those who would have taken public transportation.
Officials in Lyon, the first city to institute a massive technology-driven bike program, estimate that bike-sharing has cut carbon dioxide emissions by up to 8,000 tons since its inception in 2005. But more than that, they say, it has changed the face of the city.
"The critical mass of bikes on the road has pacified traffic," said Gilles Vesco, deputy mayor in charge of Lyon's program. "Now, the street belongs to everybody, and needs to be better shared. It has become a more convivial public space."

Gore urges US to try for 100% renewable energy within a decade

Bobbie Johnson in San Francisco, Monday November 10 2008 00.01 GMT
The Guardian, Monday November 10 2008

Barack Obama should set drastic targets to force the US to switch to renewable energy in an effort to slow down climate change, according to the former vice president Al Gore. Gore said that one of Obama's first acts as US president should be to demand a move to 100% renewable energy within 10 years.
"We can do that," he said during the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last Friday. "The declaration from President [John F] Kennedy that we would land a man on the moon and bring him back safely was thought by many to be impossible."
During his presidential campaign, Obama promised to invest $150bn (£96bn) in renewables over 10 years as part of the plan to increase US energy security amid fear of oil shortages, while also cutting carbon emissions. Many hope to see those policies enacted with a far-reaching climate-change bill that would bring the US back into the global environment fold.
Gore's call for action, made at the summit, one of the hi-tech industry's leading events, included his view that the internet had a vital role to play in the mission for energy; but he stressed that people needed to start using the web for social good.
Gore has got close links to the industry through his work as a board member at Apple, as an adviser to Google, and as a prominent investor in a number of hi-tech companies.
Making an analogy between the march of the internet and the early development of electricity, Gore suggested the web should find a real purpose beyond making money and sharing information.
He said: "The early uses of electricity were aimed at specialised applications and gimmicks." But the web's real purpose, he suggested, was "to bring about a higher level of consciousness about our planet and the imminent danger ... we face because of the radical transformation in the relationship between human beings and the earth".
Gore's perspective and the similar views of his allies formed the biggest call at the summit for hi-tech development, saying technology should be used to tackle the problem of climate change.
At the summit, delegates heard about how a range of developments, in green technology, hi-tech monitoring systems and alternative energy sources, was now attracting growing interest from investors.

U.S. electricity project forges ahead despite Afghan terrain and Taliban

By Carlotta Gall
Published: November 9, 2008

KAJAKI DAM, Afghanistan: Five shipping containers marked with the Afghan flag, some of them still wrapped in plastic, now sit in the construction camp at Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan's biggest hydroelectric project.
They hold the United States government's largest single gift to Afghanistan of the past seven years: massive pieces of a 200-ton hydroelectric turbine that, when installed, will double the electricity supply to the towns and districts of southern Afghanistan.
The $180 million project, which includes distribution lines and substations, is intended to reach 1.8 million people and provide jobs and economic renewal to the most troubled and violent part of the country.
The governor of Helmand Province, Gulab Mangal, paid a brief visit by helicopter to the dam in his province in October to emphasize its importance. Speaking to reporters over the roar of the water, he said that even if the immediate benefits were not apparent, future generations would appreciate the assistance coming into Afghanistan. "The children of Afghanistan will not forget the work done for this power station," he said.
The Chinese-made turbine remains in its packing cases, and it will not be installed and working for perhaps a year. But its arrival in this isolated camp, deep inside Taliban territory, was one of the great feats of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan this year.

It has been a rare instance of a fulfilled promise in the effort to build up Afghanistan's infrastructure. But even with the step forward, the improvements to the dam, in an inaccessible area of northern Helmand Province, are still being held hostage by the Taliban's growing ability to mount offensives in recent years. The overall power project has been repeatedly delayed because of the difficulty of security and logistics. And the rest of the original $500 million proposal to augment the capacity of the dam itself has not been approved, cast in doubt by the Taliban's gains.
"In the case of the Kajaki Dam or others, the security situation impedes the delivery of the service," the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, said in Washington in June. "The reason that there isn't more light at night and more warmth in winter for south Afghanistan is because the Taliban has not let us do everything, work as effectively as we'd like to on the Kajaki Dam."
This has been the deadliest year for NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan since the invasion in late 2001, as Taliban insurgents have attacked persistently, in particular with ambushes and roadside bombs. The offensive has severely curtailed efforts by NATO and the Afghan government to expand their control from towns into the countryside.
As the summer fighting dragged on, it became clear that 19,000 foreign troops deployed in the southern provinces, alongside thousands more Afghan soldiers and police officers, were in a stalemate with the insurgents, as one senior NATO commander put it. It looked as if Usaid's project to develop the Kajaki Dam would be put on hold for yet another year.
Then in late August, NATO exercised some muscle. More than 4,000 British, American, Canadian, Danish, Australian and Afghan troops combined forces to cut and secure a road through 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, of hostile territory to move the equipment and turbine parts that were too heavy to be airlifted up to Kajaki.
The cargo convoy, which included 100 vehicles and carried the turbine in seven containers weighing up to 30 tons each, took five days to struggle through the mountains amid a strict news blackout. Heavy fighting took place in villages south of the dam, including aerial bombardment, but the convoy took a different route and arrived in early September without damage.
The huge operation was criticized in the British news media, which questioned the exposure of British soldiers to such high risk to save a U.S. government assistance project.
Yet for the Afghans employed here, and the frustrated residents of cities like Kandahar, who have lived with barely a few hours of electricity a day for the past seven years, NATO was belatedly meeting its commitment to bring development to southern Afghanistan.
"It is slow," said Sayed Rasoul, 52, an employee at the Kajaki power plant for 28 years and now its chief engineer. "We have a difficulty with transport."
Rasoul is now in charge of the next stage, with a U.S. engineer, George Wilder, 62, who works for the American contractors in charge of the project, the Louis Berger Group. They work and live in a small construction camp next to the dam, protected by a battalion of British and Afghan soldiers who keep the Taliban, who hold the surrounding villages, at bay. Everything the workers and soldiers need comes by helicopters that fly high over the brown, barren mountains and then spiral down over the green-blue reservoir into the camp to avoid enemy fire.
Yet Wilder, who said he was pulled out of retirement to do the job at Kajaki, vowed he would stay until the new turbine was up and running. If all goes well, that should be by next August, he said.
"Of course, security will be humongous," he said. "But we will drive on with it one way or another."
The British troops have pushed the Taliban back far enough that the rocket attacks that forced the foreign contractors to pull out in 2006 are now rare, Wilder said.
"We have good nights and bad nights," he said, saying the worst were when British troops on night patrol fired mortars from the camp to cover their movements as they pulled back from a fight. The camp itself rarely comes under fire anymore, he said. "There is no danger here," he added.
Extraordinarily, Afghan workers have kept the power station running throughout the past 30 years of war and upheaval, and even now have negotiated with the Taliban so they can travel to work from their villages.
Rasoul leads a team of 43 workers, most of whom are white-bearded older men who have been working at the dam since it was built in 1975.
The Taliban hold sway in the countryside around the dam and even charge people for electricity, so they can be persuaded to let the workers keep the power plant running, the workers said.
"We do not have a problem with anyone," Rasoul said. "We tell them we are working and producing electricity for everyone in the villages and towns."
The work in the months ahead involves repairing one of the existing American Westinghouse turbines and installing the new Chinese one. But workers also need to survey and lay new transmission lines through Taliban-controlled country to Kandahar.
Mangal said he was confident that could be done through a mixture of force and persuasion.
"Firstly, we will extend the security with the support of the brave soldiers of our national forces," he said. "But secondly, we will try to win the hearts and minds of the people and tell them how important this power station is. I am sure they will support us."

Energy island to supply green power when wind drops

Lewis Smith, Environment Reporter

A man-made island housing a hydroelectric plant and generating enough electricity to supply two million Dutch homes is planned for the North Sea by 2020.
It would act as back-up to wind farms by ensuring that electricity is still generated when the wind drops and would provide extra peak-time capacity. If successful, similar islands could be be built to supply other countries, especially those such as Britain that will increasingly come to depend on wind energy. The proposed site, called energy island, is expected to be built 15-20 miles (24-32km) off the Dutch coast, in waters about 20m (65ft) deep, and will be 3.7 miles (6km) long and up to 2.5 miles (4km) across.
Huge dykes would be constructed to hold back the sea and the centre of the island would be dug down to 40 metres (130ft) below sea level. Pipes in dykes would allow sea water to pour in, generating electricity in the same way as some dams. The water would then be pumped out. The electricity generated by the water pouring in is matched or exceeded by that needed to pump it out. The island should make a profit because it consumes electricity at a cheaper rate than it generates it.
Kema, the Dutch company behind the €3-3.5 billion (£2.5 billion) plan, is carrying out a feasibility study to pinpoint the best location. The Dutch Government is among potential investors. The project with a capacity of 1,500MW - similar to two large power plants - should help the Netherlands to reach its renewable energy target and its aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30 per cent by 2020.

Australia acts to save 'Alps' from climate change

By Kathy Marksin sydneyMonday, 10 November 2008

Australia's most spectacular mountain landscapes, home to unique native species, have been placed on the national heritage register.
The Alps of south-eastern Australia cover an area of 1.5 million hectares and encompass 11 national parks and reserves. The site is the largest and most complex to be heritage listed.
It includes the Snowy Mountains, which inspired Banjo Patterson, one of Australia's best known "bush poets", to pen his famous ballad in 1890. "The Man From Snowy River" narrates the story of stockmen chasing a valuable escaped horse, with all but the young hero eventually defeated by the rugged country.
While the area is best known for spawning the myths and traditions that helped Australians forge a national identity during the pioneer era, it is also highly significant to Aborigines. Occupying an important place in their "Dreamtime" mythology, it was a location where they gathered in summer to feast on migrating Bogong moths.
The Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, said the listing recognised the "outstanding natural, indigenous and historic values" of the Alps. He said they were "an important place of dreaming and gathering for Aboriginal people, and of recollection and discovery as former grazing land traversed by stockmen, gold prospectors, pastoralists, migrants and botanists of early settlement". With the Alps containing Australia's handful of ski resorts, not everyone welcomed their listing. Tourism operators said it would be more difficult for new developments to gain approval.
The region is home to rare flora and fauna, such as the snow gum and mountain pygmy possum, and is carpeted with wildflowers in summer.
The main threat facing it, though, is climate change. Just a week before the heritage listing was announced, the Australian Conservation Foundation named it as one of 10 national "icons" most at risk from rising global temperatures.
A temperature rise of one degree would destroy the habitat of the mountain pygmy possum, which would be likely to become extinct by 2030.

Chinese leader calls for sacrifice from rich nations on climate change

Published: November 7, 2008

BEIJING: Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said Friday that rich nations must abandon their "unsustainable lifestyle" to fight climate change and expand help to poor nations bearing the brunt of worsening droughts and rising sea levels.
Wen said at the opening of a conference that the financial crisis was no reason for rich nations to delay fighting global warming.
"As the global financial crisis spreads and worsens, and the world economy slows down apparently, the international community must not waver in its determination to tackle climate change," Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.
The two-day meeting is to push China's call for rich nations to fund a huge infusion of greenhouse gas-cutting technology for developing countries. But foreign officials at the meeting raised doubts about Beijing's proposal, which could stoke contention over who pays and how much.
China is widely believed to be the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. But Wen threw the onus back on rich nations, with their much higher emissions per person and long history of polluting the air.

"Developed countries shoulder the duty and responsibility to tackle climate change and should alter their unsustainable lifestyle," he said.
Chinese officials have said wealthy nations should divert as much as 1 percent of their economic worth to pay for clean technology transfers and help the developing world overcome damage from the rising temperatures.
This would mean $284 billion a year if members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development paid up based on the size of their economies in 2007.

Lord Turner calls for wind and nuclear power in race to cut emissions

Robin Pagnamenta

A huge increase in electricity generation is needed if the Government is to achieve its target of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, according to Gordon Brown's adviser on climate change.
Lord Turner of Ecchinswell, chairman of the Government's Committee on Climate Change, said that such drastic cuts would require the complete decarbonisation of the country's power system and the electrification of large parts of the economy that at present are reliant on other, carbon-based forms of energy.
“It's quite possible that in a decarbonised economy we could use much more electricity than we do now,” he told The Times ahead of the publication of his report on climate change, which is due on December 1. “We may want to use electricity for other purposes than currently — electric or hybrid cars or taking gas central heating out of houses and replacing it with electricity.”
His report is designed to lay out a road map for meeting the 2050 goal, including five-year “carbon budgets” for different industries, including transport, power generation and manufacturing. Lord Turner called for a huge increase in wind and nuclear power to help to cut emissions and also for the rapid development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology on a commercial scale.

“By 2030 we want to radically reduce the grams [of carbon dioxide] per kilowatt hour in the UK generating system,” he said, adding that the retirement of a string of large coal-fired plants in 2015 to meet new European Union emissions standards would present a unique opportunity to decarbonise Britain's power grid. “Over the next 15 years we need to replace these with three low-carbon technologies - nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and storage.”
Lord Turner said that the construction of new coal-fired power stations should be banned in Britain unless their carbon dioxide emissions could be captured for safe storage. That recommendation is likely to represent a blow for E.ON, the German energy company, which wants to build a coal-fired plant at Kingsnorth, Kent.
Lord Turner refused to comment directly on the Kingsnorth site and E.ON's plans, but he ruled out the possibility of allowing unabated new coal-fired power stations to be built in the UK unless they could be fitted with CCS, either before commercial use or at a later date. He added that he would make a statement on coal-fired plants in the report.
His comments contrast with the economic problems facing Britain's renewable energy industry, which is struggling to deal with the impact of the credit crunch and the collapsing price of oil on world markets.
Last week, BP said that it was pulling out of a British CCS project and was abandoning the domestic wind energy industry altogether in search of higher returns in the United States.
Other renewable energy projects are struggling under the twin burdens of high costs and a lack of finance. The weaker oil price has also undermined their economic attractiveness to lenders and investors.