Saturday, 27 December 2008

Targeting the Wasteful, Activists Seek End to California's Waste Board

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has repeatedly scolded state legislators for not doing enough to resolve California's budget deficit, which now stands at nearly $15 billion and which he said could balloon to more than $40 billion over the next two years.
Yet activists say the governor and other lawmakers continue to practice patronage politics that keeps questionable spending on the books. A prime example, they say, is the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
Last month, the Republican governor appointed former state Sen. Carole Migden to a $132,000-a-year seat on the waste-management board, an obscure panel that many critics say serves chiefly as a landing spot for out-of-work politicians. Ms. Migden, a Democrat, was trounced in her bid for re-election following a series of scandals including being fined $350,000 for state campaign-finance violations.
Mr. Schwarzenegger nearly three years ago appointed his former director of scheduling, Margo Reid Brown, to the board, which she now heads.
Leaders of the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate appointed two other former state legislators to the waste board last month after they were forced out of office by term limits. The governor gets to appoint the four other members of the six-person board.
"It's become a senior-fellow program for favored legislators," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a public-advocacy group based in Santa Monica.
One main function of the waste board is to oversee California's trash disposal, including approving permits to open or expand a municipal dump. But some groups say its duties could easily be folded into the California Environmental Protection Agency.
Jon Myers, a spokesman for the waste board -- who said he would have to speak on behalf of Ms. Migden, Ms. Brown and the two other newest board appointees, former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl and former Assemblyman John Laird -- disagreed that the job is redundant. He also said the board members themselves do a lot of work.
Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for Mr. Schwarzenegger, said the governor agrees the waste board is a waste -- even though he has appointed members to allow for a quorum to conduct business. "He agrees with those who have said this board should be eliminated, and will propose this again in his January budget," Ms. Page said.
The waste board is one of dozens of boards and commissions in California that consumer advocates say should be abolished because they serve no vital purpose. There are boards for barbers, landscape architects, court reporters and auto dealers. Advocacy groups managed to get rid of one for dry cleaners, and stopped the legislature from setting up ones that would have overseen aerobics instructors and astrologers.
Most board members are paid a per diem fee that often doesn't exceed $1,000 a year, and the boards' budgets are relatively small. The waste board's budget of $200 million, for example, pales next to California's overall general-fund budget of $104.3 billion.
Critics of the boards -- mainly consumer groups and many Republican lawmakers, who say they squander tax money -- say the spending looks bad when lawmakers are taking the ax to budgets of schools, social programs and other services. They also say the boards add a layer of bureaucracy to doing business.
"The savings from abolishing a lot of these boards would be an easier entry to business and cheaper prices for goods and services," says Bob Fellmeth, director of the Center for Public Interest Law, a consumer-advocacy group based at the University of San Diego School of Law.
In 2004, Mr. Schwarzenegger recommended killing off 88 boards and commissions -- including the waste board -- after ordering a review that found most redundant with other state and local bodies or simply not needed. But he withdrew the proposal after fierce criticism from legislators and public-interest groups.
In the waste board's case, there has been widespread agreement that it should go. According to the California Performance Review the governor ordered, one of the board's chief functions -- acting as final authority on solid-waste permits -- is adequately handled through a thorough vetting by local agencies.
Some lawmakers, including several Democratic leaders, defend the board, as do groups that work to ensure public access to and oversight of government workings. The waste board's Mr. Myers said board members play a key oversight role, meet as many as four times a month and often inspect facilities whose permits they are considering.
Mr. Myers added that the board helps set the tone for what he called California's national leadership in recycling.
Write to Jim Carlton at

In technology, an effort to help the Japanese fishing industry

By Martin Fackler
Published: December 26, 2008

OTOSHIBE, Japan: The Shinei Maru No. 66 looks like the dozens of other fishing boats moored in this Japanese harbor. But its builders say it is the world's first hybrid fishing trawler. Switching between oil and electrical power for propulsion, it uses as much as one-third less fuel than conventional boats.
"It's like a Prius for the sea," said Tadatoshi Ikeuchi, 62, the boat's owner and captain.
Until very recently, commercial fishermen around the world have been laboring under the weight of high fuel prices. In Europe earlier this year, fishermen expressed their frustration by blockading ports to protest prices and taxes. In the United States, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, has called for low-interest loans to help Alaskan fishermen buy fuel-efficient engines.
Japan, meanwhile, is searching for high-technology solutions. The hybrid boat engine, which is still a prototype, is part of a multimillion-dollar government-led effort to rescue the Japanese fishing industry from energy costs, which are likely to resume their increase once the global recession ends and demand revives.
As part of the two-year-old program, the Japanese are also testing biofueled marine engines, computer-engineered propeller designs and low-energy LED lights on squid boats, which use bright lights to lure their catch.

There is a vast international market for such solutions. Many Japanese boat engines that use computers to improve fuel efficiency are already popular with American fishermen. And Yamanaka, the Tokyo-based maker of the hybrid engine for the trawler, which is called the Fish Eco, says the United States and Europe are large potential markets.
The Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry in Japan, which has led development of the new technologies, will subsidize their introduction as part of a $700 million aid package announced in July to help the fishing industry.
Modernization of this ancient profession seems the natural answer here to the commercial fishing crisis, which predates the steep rise (and recent fall) of fuel prices. Japan gave the world both sushi and the hybrid car. But fishermen say they doubt the effort will be enough to break the deep sense of malaise that has started to afflict fishing communities like this one in northern Japan.
After decades of sending its fleets to the far corners of the globe, and paying high prices for tuna and other premium fish for sashimi in global markets, Japan appears to many to be letting its fishing industry sink. The number of commercial fishermen has shrunk by 27 percent in the past decade, to 204,330 last year, hurt by declining birthrates and migration of young people to the cities, according to the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations, an industry group representing fishermen.
The federation warns that rising fuel costs could prompt an additional 25,000 to 45,000 fishermen to hang up their nets. Before the recent decline in prices, boat fuel, known as heavy fuel oil, accounted for 20 percent to 30 percent of a fisherman's total costs in Japan, almost double the proportion three years ago.
The fishermen cannot pass on the increase to consumers in the form of higher seafood prices for fear of losing sales to less expensive imports from competitors like China and Vietnam.
They also worry that higher seafood prices would only intensify the shift in Japanese consumer tastes away from a traditional seafood-centered diet - a trend known as "sakana banare," or flight from fish.
"Higher fish prices will just encourage Japanese to eat more hamburgers and fried chicken," said Nobuhiro Nagaya, a managing director at the fisheries federation.
The average Japanese eats about 94 grams, or 3.3 ounces, of fish a day.
Gloomy sentiments about the future of Japan's industry are shared by officials at the Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry.
While their multimillion-dollar projects recall the government-orchestrated technology drives of previous decades, when Japan rose to global dominance in industries like semiconductors and supercomputers, officials express far more modest expectations today in an era of tight budgets.
"Technology cannot be the only answer," said Kazuo Hiraishi, an assistant chief in the ministry's maritime technology research division. "But Japan's excellence in electronics and energy-saving should be of some help to our fishermen."
While fishermen in countries like France, Spain and Ireland have staged disruptive demonstrations, protests in Japan have been more sedate, though still large.
Last summer about 200,000 fishing boats stayed in port on a one-day strike, and thousands of fishermen gathered for a rally in Tokyo.
The government responded two weeks later with the $700 million aid package, under which it promised to pay 90 percent of fuel price increases since December, but only to fishermen who found ways to reduce their consumption. The package also contained subsidies to help fishermen buy efficient new engines, like the hybrid.
A $250,000 subsidy from the Agriculture Ministry, for example, meant that Ikeuchi, the hybrid boat's captain, paid only $650,000 for the trawler, the same price as for a conventional boat.
Ikeuchi said his fuel use had dropped to about 285 liters a day, or 75 gallons, cutting his daily bill by about $100.
The propulsion system switches between a 650-horsepower heavy oil motor, which powers the main engine, and a 150-horsepower heavy oil motor, which turns a generator that runs a smaller electric engine for use when the boat moves slowly.
When Ikeuchi showed off the boat, which he uses to hunt for scallops, Pacific cod and kelp, the only visible difference from other boats in this small, man-made harbor was its dashboard, with small touch-controlled screens - high-tech devices for a craft made mostly of traditional-looking wood and steel.
Still, many fishermen who walked over to take a peek at the boat doubted it would be enough to save their industry.

Winter cold puts a chill on green energy

By Kate Galbraith
Published: December 26, 2008

Old Man Winter, it turns out, is no friend of renewable energy.
This time of year, wind turbine blades ice up, biodiesel congeals in tanks and solar panels produce less power because there is not as much sun. And perhaps most irritating to the people who own them, the panels become covered with snow, rendering them useless even in bright winter sunshine.
So in regions where homeowners have long rolled their eyes at shoveling driveways, add another cold-weather chore: cleaning off the solar panels. "At least I can get to them with a long pole and a squeegee," said Alan Stankevitz, a homeowner in southeast Minnesota.
As concern has grown about global warming, many utilities and homeowners have been trying to shrink their emissions of carbon dioxide — their carbon footprints — by installing solar panels, wind turbines and even generators powered by tides or rivers. But for the moment, at least, the planet is still cold enough to deal nasty winter blows to some of this green machinery.
In January 2007, a bus stalled in the middle of the night on Interstate 70 in the Colorado mountains. The culprit was a 20 percent biodiesel blend that congealed in the freezing weather, according to John Jones, the transit director for the bus line, Summit Stage. (Biodiesel is a diesel substitute, typically made from vegetable oil, that is used to displace some fossil fuels.)

The passengers got out of that situation intact, but Summit Stage, which serves ski resorts, now avoids biodiesel from November to March, and uses only a 5 percent blend in the summertime, when it can still get cold in the mountains. "We can't have people sitting on buses freezing to death while we get out there trying to get them restarted," Jones said.
Winter may pose even bigger safety hazards in the vicinity of wind turbines. Some observers say the machines can hurl chunks of ice as they rotate.
"It's like you throw a plate out there and that plate breaks," said Ralph Brokaw, a cattle rancher in southeast Wyoming who has 69 wind turbines on his property. When his turbines ice up, he stays out of the way.
The wind industry admits that turbines can drop ice, like a lamppost or any tall structure. To ameliorate the hazard, some turbines are painted black to absorb sunlight and melt the ice faster. But Ron Stimmel, an expert on small wind turbines at the American Wind Energy Association, denies that the whirling blades tend to hurl icy javelins.
Large turbines turn off automatically as ice builds up, and small turbines will slow and stop because the ice prevents them from spinning — "just like a plane's wing needs to be de-iced to fly," Stimmel said.
Brokaw says that his turbines do turn off when they are too icy, but the danger sometimes comes right before the turbines shut down, after a wet, warm snow causes ice buildup.
From the standpoint of generating power, winter is actually good for wind turbines, because it is generally windier than summer. In Vermont, for example, Green Mountain Power, which operates a small wind farm in the southeastern part of the state, gets more than twice the monthly production in winter as in August.
The opposite is true, however, for solar power. Days are shorter and the sun is lower in the sky during the winter, ensuring less power production.
Even in northern California, with mild winters and little snow, solar panels can generate about half as much as in the summer, depending on how much they are tilted, according to Rob Erlichman, chief executive of Sunlight Electric, a San Francisco solar company.
Operators of the electrical grid do not worry much about the seasonal swings, because the percentage of production from renewable energy is still so low — around 1 percent of the country's power comes from wind, and less from solar panels. In addition, Americans use slightly less electricity in the winter than in the summer because air conditioners are not running. This is especially true in sunny areas, so solar panels' peak production matches the spikes in demand.
But as renewable energy becomes a bigger part of the nation's power mix, the seasonable variability could become more of a problem. Already, power developers are learning that they must make careful plans to avoid the worst impacts of ice and snow.
Trey Taylor, the president of Verdant Power, which has put small turbines in the tidal East River in New York City and plans more for the St. Lawrence River in Canada, said that ice chunks could slide over one another "like a deck of cards," pushing ice below and harming turbines. That may rule out parts of otherwise promising sites like the Yukon River in Alaska, he said.
Kevin Devlin, the vice president for operations of Iberdrola Renewables, a wind developer, said that winter was probably the hardest time of year to maintain turbines, because workers must go out in snow and ice. Occasionally, he said, the turbines will shut down or set off alarms if it is too cold, and workers must brave the elements to fix them.
For homeowners, the upkeep of their power sources can also be a bother.
Stankevitz keeps his panels tilted 40 degrees or higher, but they still become covered with snow — and experts say that if even one cell in a panel is covered, the panel will not produce power.
On the other hand, the panels can get extra power from sunlight reflected off nearby snow. And like other electronic gear, solar panels work better when cold.
Stankevitz said that on some rare winter days, when the Minnesota sky is clear, the weather is freezing and the sun is shining brightly, his panels can briefly churn out more electricity than they were designed to produce, more than on the balmiest days of summer.