Thursday, 8 January 2009

River rescue: project launched to breathe life into waterways buried under London concrete and brick

• Environment Agency plan to restore 14 channels• Stretch of 15km could take six years to uncover
Juliette Jowit
The Guardian, Thursday 8 January 2009

There is probably no time in recorded history when London's waterways were not altered by human activity: the Domesday book of 1086 records more than 6,000 mills and freshwater fisheries on the capital's rivers, streams and brooks. Burying rivers began in medieval times, as many had become dumping grounds for rubbish and sewage, causing blocked channels to flood and had generally become "an eye-sore and a nose-sore", said Nicholas Barton, author of the book London's Lost Rivers. One of the biggest tributaries of the Thames, the Fleet, was covered over during the rebuilding of the city by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire in 1666, and after the Great Stink of 1858, when London was choked by the smell of the Thames. Joseph Bazalgette's new underground sewage system incorporated several more rivers during the 19th century, including the Strand and the Tyburn. The practice spread in outer London during the 20th century as suburbs grew, first when new railways enabled workers to move out of the city and again when new homes were built after the second world war.
They are Britain's "lost rivers", which for centuries have been used as open drains, covered in concrete, hidden behind high walls and even built over. The list includes some of the most famous place names in Britain, though few people know they once referred to a waterway: the Fleet, the Strand and the Tyburn.
Now one of the biggest rescue projects of its kind is being launched today to reclaim many urban rivers, streams and brooks. Under the plan 92 projects will be announced covering 14 different waterways in London, at least seven of which have been buried by history, including the Effra, which rises in Crystal Palace and flows north to the Thames at Vauxhall, the Ravensbourne in south-east London, the Wandle in Croydon, and two tributaries of the Lee near the 2012 Olympic site in east London.
The Environment Agency, which will lead the work, hopes to uncover at least 15km (nine miles) of river in the next six years. The full list adds up to double that length, while other schemes are still being proposed. "It took 50 years to destroy a lot of the value of the rivers in London - it's going to take another 50 years to get it back," said Dave Webb, the agency's project manager.
Humans began interfering with Britain's rivers over a millennium ago with watermills and fisheries. As cities became more crowded, waterways became little better than open drains and developers gratefully covered them over for roads and buildings, a practice that spread to the suburbs through much of the 1900s.
Today the Environment Agency estimates that 70% of London's 600km river network is concreted, covered over, interrupted by weirs or otherwise modified. Some can only be glimpsed in odd places, such as a tunnel through Sloane Square tube station carrying the Westbourne, or guessed at from local road names such as Fleet Street or Spring Path.
During the 20th century huge improvements were made to water quality, but the lack of natural features to offer cover for wildlife means the rivers are often still "ecologically poor", said Webb.
At the most extreme, up to half of some rivers are now entirely buried. Many others are often hidden by high fences or are so barren of natural life that they are effectively "lost to society", said Webb. "Any connection or added value of a river has been lost ... people see a concrete channel and don't think of it as a river: they think of it as a drain, which is a way of getting rid of waste."
Restoration of London's rivers began in the mid-1980s; since then 15km have been completed. Full restoration - meaning restoration of "physical and biological processes" - of some stretches has included the recovery of the once-lost Quaggy river through Sutcliffe Park in south-east London. The park was also restored as a flood plain to protect local homes and businesses in the event of heavy rains. Other projects are defined as "rehabilitation", usually adding natural features such as gravels or reed beds into the existing modified channel.
The next phase will speed up the rate of restoration, and target tougher schemes in built-up and often socially deprived areas. Many projects will also incorporate improved flood defences to cope with climate change, habitat schemes and urban regeneration along with features to encourage local people to use parks more, including dipping ponds and education areas.
Other rivers that will benefit include the Brent near Brent Cross shopping centre in north London, the Hogsmill near Kingston, and parts of the Thames near Hampton Court.
The agency hopes it can later extend the work to urban rivers outside London, but is pessimistic that parts of the Fleet might one day be released to public view.
Costs can be as much as £500,000 a kilometer, though they are often lower, and are paid for by the agency, environment charities and private developers.
The agency believes recent restorations have attracted more visitors to riverbanks and nearby parks, as well as leading to a reduction in antisocial behaviour, the return of fish such as chub and dace, and birdlife, such as kingfishers.
Future success will be measured by the return of wildlife and visitors, said Webb, who trained as an ecologist. "With any part of a river you should have a reasonable chance of seeing a fish, maybe a kingfisher ... you should want to stop and stand and look at a river for 10 minutes," he said. "If the river is so boring that you wouldn't want to do that, then [it's] in a bad way, and unfortunately that's where we are on some rivers."

US joins rush to supply nuclear equipment to India

Largest ever US trade mission travels to Delhi and Mumbai as nuclear supply embargo on the country is lifted
Rhys Blakely in Mumbai

The United States will enter the fray against France and Russia this week in the scramble to supply nuclear power equipment worth an estimated $150 billion to India.
The US is sending what is thought to be its largest ever trade mission to Delhi and Mumbai, including representatives of 30 companies that deal with civilian nuclear projects, to pitch for contracts related to India's atomic energy industry. The move comes after India's status as a nuclear pariah, with which other nations were not allowed to trade nuclear fuel and equipment, was controversially ended last year.
The state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation of India (NPCI) is understood to have begun preliminary discussions with General Electric and Westinghouse, the US companies, over the supply of atomic hardware. Others, including Bechtel Nuclear, The Shaw Group and Babcock & Wilcox, will be in India to meet senior government officials.
In the background will be India's deepening defence ties with the US.

This week India signed a USD2.1 billion deal to buy eight long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft from Boeing, one of the companies that had lobbied hardest in Washington for India to be allowed to become part of the international nuclear club. The deal with Boeing marked India's largest ever acquisition of military equipment from the US, its former Cold War enemy.
Boeing is also vying with five other companies – including Dassault of France and Russia's Mikoyan Design Bureau to supply 126 fighter jets in a $10 billion deal to modernise India's ageing air force.
Players from the same three countries are battling to profit from India's entry into the nuclear power market. The NPCI recently held talks with AtomStroyExport, Russia's nuclear power equipment and service export monopoly, over the provision of reactors. The Indian body has also approached Areva, the French manufacturer, over the possible supply of third-generation 1,600 MW European Pressurised Reactors. Areva already has a deal in place to supply India's regional rival China to supply the same hardware.
The rush to do business with India follows the overturn of a three-decade ban on supplying the country with atomic fuel and equipment in September. The process was spearheaded by the US and handed President Bush with what may prove his most significant foreign policy victory while in office.
The ban was imposed by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a group of 45 nations that legally supply nuclear fuel and technology, which was created after India shocked the world by testing its first atomic device in 1974. The NSG had prevented Delhi from importing the nuclear material it says it needs to help to meet rocketing domestic energy demand until last September.
Analysts said that America's willingness to supply India with nuclear hardware underscored Washington's ambition to champion India as an Asian counterweight to China. India argued that access to nuclear power was essential to fuel its economic rise.
Much of India is regularly blighted by power cuts and with nuclear fuel in short supply, the country's existing nuclear power plants are estimated to be running at only about half of their capacity of about 4,000 megawatts. Deals with foreign firms are expected to double nuclear power's share in India's electricity supply to up to 7 per cent within 20 years as at least 18 new reactors are built. The US-India Business Council estimates that nuclear trade with India could be worth up to USD 150 billion over the next 30 years.
Critics condemned Mr Bush's unprecedented willingness to supply India with civilian nuclear technology despite the country's refusal to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. India tested nuclear weapons as recently as 1998 and has refused to rule out doing so again.

Lights out: The end of tungsten

Love them or loathe them, we're all going to have to start using low-energy bulbs. They're good for the planet, but not everyone is seeing the light. Kate Watson-Smyth illuminates a domestic dilemma
Wednesday, 7 January 2009

So that's it then. The end of light as we know it. Shops have stopped replenishing their stocks of traditional tungsten light bulbs, and expect to have run out by the end of the week. But to judge from the hoo-ha surrounding this announcement, you could be forgiven for thinking that Britain is about to be full of very cross people sitting in the dark.
The withdrawal of conventional bulbs is the second part of a government campaign to force people into buying low-energy fluorescent bulbs, which started with the scrapping of the 150-watt equivalent last year. The powers that be say the switch to low-energy will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by around five million tonnes a year.
Stocks of 100W and 75W bulbs will be run down now while 60W bulbs, commonly used for table and reading lamps, will be phased out this time next year. All incandescent bulbs will be banned by 2012.
So from now on, whether we like it or not, we will all have to use eco-lights. First, the good news. An energy-saving bulb uses one sixth of the electricity and lasts 12 times as long as a conventional one, which means an annual saving of around £90 over the life of the bulb, which is not to be sniffed at in the current climate.
But eco-lighting is not without its critics. Have you tried energy-efficient bulbs? Did your heart sink as you stood in a dim, dreary glow while the bulbs warm up? You're not alone. In addition, they contain mercury, which means you can no longer chuck them in the bin but have to dispose of them responsibly. And you have time for that? That's not all. Some medical charities say the subtle flicker of these bulbs can trigger migraines and epilepsy attacks, so they're lobbying the Government for an opt-out for people with health problems, to allow them to continue using the old-style bulbs.
But for every surly critic there's a passionate fan. Oliver Heath, the designer and enthusiastic promoter of all things eco, whose book Urban Eco Chic (Quadrille, £19.99) promotes green design of the kind that doesn't make the heart sink. "I've just changed all my bulbs to CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] and saved around four-fifths on my electricity bill. It really is quite staggering that so many people are still using Edison's light bulb which was invented in 1879. It's 130 years later and people are still using the same technology – that just doesn't happen in other areas of our home and lives."
But even Heath acknowledges that – while the new-style bulbs (or CFLs as he calls them) have come a long since they first arrived – many of them still don't give the quality of light we're used to. Still, he has some suggestions for those who complain about greyish glows.
"First you really need to maximise the amount of natural light coming into your home. Use reflective surfaces to bounce the light around and choose the right colour schemes to throw the light back into your space."
If the walls around the windows are painted in pale colours, the light will be drawn into the room. "CFLs do take time to reach their optimum brightness so are not ideal for use in a hallway, for example, where you may well be out of the room by the time they are fully functioning," he admits. "but they can now be dimmed and come in different shades. And the elements are often encased in rubber-coated frosted glass so they look more like the conventional tungsten bulbs. If you really don't like the look of them, then put a large shade over – perhaps made of felt or paper as the bulbs give out so little heat."
Patrick Hudgell, managing director of Lightbulbs Direct, says: "I think the unilateral ban is ridiculous. There are cases where the incandescent bulb is right for the job. What happens to the person with a beautiful 1930s Art Deco lamp? There is no energy-saving bulb for them – and that renders the lamp useless."
But they are getting better, and the usual CFLs are not the only option. Try the buyer's guide on this page – you should find it illuminating.
Stockists ; 01494 723 286 ; 020-7739 3888 ; 020-7371 5400
Lighting: Need to know
LED spotlights
LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are very energy efficient, but expensive. (The cheap ones in garden lights give off a nasty blue glow – no good for living rooms.) Lucy Martin of lighting design firm John Cullen says that one in seven will have a grey light, and that you can't tell which ones do so until you've turned them on. And each bulb costs up to £25. Yet bulbs can last for up to 100,000 hours, so in effect never need replacing. But as ambient lighting for the home, LEDs aren't there yet. Price: From £7 to £25
Halogen energy savers
These are probably the way forward for most of us. Use them to replace all those halogen spotlights in the kitchen or hall for instant light. Or put them into reading lamps. They last two-thirds of the time of compact fluorescent lamps, so are less of a bargain, but the quality of light is warmer and brighter. If you are replacing a 50W bulb, choose a 35W halogen energy saver. They are fully dimmable. Price: Around £4 each
Fluorescent tubes
There's nothing new about strip lights – but they are incredibly energy efficient, if ugly. Lucy Martin suggests fitting them along the top of kitchen cupboards, with a small facing to hide them. They will push a bright light up to the ceiling which will softly light the rest of the room. Price: From £1.50 to £6
Compact fluorescent lamps
These are the most common eco bulbs. They give out five times more light than traditional bulbs, so if you want to replace your 100W bulb, you need to buy a 20W CFL. For a 60W, buy a 12W CFL, and so on. In terms of your bank balance, they make sense – but they're detested by many. That said, quality brands (Osram, Philips and Megaman) make CFLs that reach full brightness in two to three minutes, and some can now be dimmed, too. The best advice is not to rush out and buy a houseful of CFLs, but look instead for halogen energy-savers described below. Price: Around £9 each for good-quality bulbs

Bush tries to salvage his environmental legacy

Published: January 7, 2009

Try this on a globe sometime, or Google Earth: Looking head-on at the planet, spin it until Hawaii is a little north and east of center. What you'll see - besides the barest fringes of America and Asia up there, New Guinea and New Zealand down there, and lots of island dots - is all blue.
This is the vast stage on which President George W. Bush is trying to salvage his environmental legacy.
It's strange but true. Bush, who has been monumentally indifferent to the health of continents and the atmosphere, is going down in history as a protector of the oceans.
On Tuesday, he designated three huge areas of the western Pacific as national monuments, declaring that their fish, birds, reefs and other marine life were more important than commercial fishing, drilling and mineral extraction. The protected waters encircle the Northern Mariana Islands (including the Mariana Trench, the deepest canyon on Earth) and parts of a sprawling collection of reefs and atolls known as the Line Islands.
They are a dazzling world of undersea volcanoes, pristine reefs, endangered seals, turtles and whales and intact food chains ruled by sharks.

In protecting nearly 200,000 square miles of ocean, an area far bigger than California, Bush has outdone his decision in 2006 to set aside 140,000 square miles in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
That created a single monument larger than all the country's national parks combined. If you judge the actions of presidential conservationists solely by the sheer size of planetary surface they protected during their time in office, Bush would outdo even Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
This record, though, has enormous asterisks:
- The new monuments are not nearly as big as they could have been. Bush could have set their boundaries anywhere from 3 miles from the shores of the territories they encircle to the full 200 miles under U.S. jurisdiction. He chose 50 miles, excluding huge expanses of deep ocean.
- The protections could have been more stringent. They don't rule out recreational fishing, for example, and do not include waters above the Mariana Trench.
- Big as they are, the monuments are not nearly enough to offset eight years of Bush's bad environmental policies, marked by inaction on climate change, the sacrifice of millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas exploration, and indifference bordering on hostility to endangered species and fragile ecosystems.
Given that record, why did he create these new ocean monuments over the reported objections of Vice President Dick Cheney and the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a notorious enabler of reckless overfishing by commercial fleets?
We can take him at his word that it was the right thing to do, but we have to note as well that the areas protected are staggeringly far away and not notably prized by the corporate interests whose priorities the Bush administration has for so long made its own.
There was no fight involved. All it took was Bush's signature under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows presidents to protect public lands by executive order. An environmental trophy was lying on the ground, and Bush, with just days left in his presidency, simply picked it up.
It will be up to President-elect Barack Obama to take it from here. He should expand the monuments to the 200-mile limit and give them full protection against fishing and other exploitation. His administration should also work to create and expand marine protected areas closer to our shores.
But those are just the easy lifts in a huge list of environmental tasks ahead, starting with the long-neglected fight against global warming. Melting ice caps and ocean acidification are an urgent threat to the very fish, reefs and islands that Bush lately has seen fit to protect.

Blown away

In the world's largest offshore wind farm the blades stretch as high as the London Eye, and even in a gentle wind turn at 200mph. Quite something, when you're right underneath, says Patrick Barkham
Patrick Barkham
The Guardian, Thursday 8 January 2009

It was a brilliant sunny day last summer when I first saw the world's largest offshore wind farm on the horizon. I was on the sand dunes at Holkham in north Norfolk when the sky cleared and suddenly, in the far distance, stood dozens of turbines.
This, it turned out, was a brand new wind farm, Lynn and Inner Dowsing, in the shallow waters of the Wash, just off the coast of Lincolnshire. Completed on time and on budget last year, its 54 turbines have a capacity of 194MW, enough to power 130,000 homes.
Britain is now the world's leading generator of offshore wind power, recently overtaking Denmark (other countries have greater onshore capacity). The power generated by offshore wind is still relatively modest but its potential is enormous. Turbines are quadrupling in size, vastly increasing their efficiency and the power they can harvest. And Britain is the windiest country in Europe, its west coast in particular buffeted by punchy, energy-giving winds.
A report for the government by the independent Climate Change Commission recently found that wind generation could be a "major source" of electricity and suggested it could meet as much as 30% of Britain's needs by 2020. Critics, however, have dismissed the figure as unrealistic.
While the first few wind farms were tourist attractions, since then wind power has had a rough time of it. Some people living near turbines complain about noise and sleeplessness. Many conservationists judge them eyesores on the land and a menace to local wildlife, particularly birds. I certainly felt ambivalent about the appearance of this massive wind farm on a horizon I treasured for its restful sense of unlimited space. So I took a boat trip from Grimsby with Centrica, the owners of the farm, to take a closer look.
The North Sea was a dun grey-brown and not until we were virtually on top of them did the turbines loom out of the sea. Then, in one of those miraculous climatic changes that happen at sea, the cloud disappeared: in the sunshine they shone, like spindly white flowers planted in neat rows.
It was only when the boat went directly beneath them that you could appreciate their size. Each turbine was as tall as the London Eye. You could stand inside their delicate (hollow) blades at their root. Not that you would: even in a gentle wind, with the blades turning deceptively slowly, the speed at their tip approached 200 miles an hour.
This farm cost more than £300m and was built in depths of up to 18 metres (59ft) in less than two years. Steel foundation tubes were hammered 25 metres into the chalk below the sandy seabed and the trunk of the turbine was added in two parts. The blades - in this case made in Denmark from balsa wood and fibreglass - have to be phenomenally strong: if the wind speed is 18 metres a second, 100 tonnes of air pass through the blades every second.
Offshore wind technology seems miraculous and slightly bonkers. Why put turbines in the sea? What happens if the sea level rises with climate change? The main reason to place the farms at sea is so they catch more wind. In the boat, at sea level, I couldn't feel much wind; at turbine height there is much more. Part of the attraction is also the assumption that offshore farms attract less criticism and less Nimbyism.
"I suspect people thought there would be fewer stakeholders offshore and it would be easier, but there are actually more," says Alan Thompson, head of renewables at Centrica. These include not only coastal home-owners and local councils, but fishermen, environmentalists, maritime authorities, coastguards, sailing clubs and, most problematically around East Anglia, the Ministry of Defence, which has complained that turbines interfere with air defence radar.
Fishermen made strong protests against Lynn and Inner Dowsing. On the day I visited, however, there were eight mussel boats fishing between the two groups of turbines. Research from Denmark suggests that the artificial reefs created by the farms may actually provide useful new habitat for shellfish.
Another reservation about offshore power is a claim that farms are proving much more expensive to maintain than expected. Centrica's maintenance costs are fixed for the first five years, thanks to government investment; it says it is too early to judge if maintenance costs will prove prohibitive. Maintenance is, at least, creating jobs - boats are staffed by former fishermen - and engineers are routinely sent to Lynn and Inner Dowsing from Grimsby's port.
Wind power, sceptics also claim, is intermittent and unreliable. According to Thompson, these turbines generate power 85% of the time. Each turbine produces about 40% of its potential capacity over a year, although in the windier north-west of the country this can rise to above 50%.
And sea-level rise? These turbines are designed to withstand rises of just 250mm but are predicted to have a 20-year lifespan, such is the strain of constantly moving parts in strong winds. It doesn't sound long, but power companies expect to "repower" the farms with updated turbine technology in a couple of decades. Having built foundations and laid power cables back to the land, it makes sense to keep using them.
Lynn and Inner Dowsing will not hold its world title for long because turbine capacity is increasing so quickly. While the 20 turbines at Centrica's Glens of Foudland onshore farm, which opened in 2005, each produce 1.3MW of power, its proposed second offshore Lincolnshire farm, recently given planning approval, could feature 5MW machines, with the whole plant producing 250MW in total.
The chill wind of recession, however, is slowing down the offshore revolution. Even though it now has consent for the second Lincolnshire farm, Centrica admits it is currently calculating whether it can proceed in such difficult economic conditions. Many energy companies complain that the UK's renewable energy subsidies are not generous enough: Shell, for instance, last year pulled out of the proposed London Array wind farm. The government's target is for 33GW of offshore wind by 2020; so far it has taken seven years to get consent for 3GW of offshore power.
I will look on the turbines more affectionately when I am next on Holkham beach, but our willingness to embrace wind power may still be moving too slowly to solve our looming energy crisis.

Nanofluid heat transfers to industry

Michael Pollitt
The Guardian, Thursday 8 January 2009

Are you facing some hefty fuel bills this winter? Professor Richard Williams of the University of Leeds may have a possible answer to those rising costs. But the development of his innovative nanofluid technology (Tiny tubes could bring big savings on fuel bills, 13 April 2006) for improved heat transfer is taking longer than he originally hoped.
Add carbon nanotubes (an arrangement of carbon atoms more than 50,000 times thinner than a human hair) to liquid, and they'll disperse to form a "nanofluid". Williams's interest lies in the thermal conductivity properties of this mixture: the nanotubes could make a 10% difference to the efficiency of transferring heat from the boiler to your radiators.
The nanofluids transfer heat at a higher rate than ordinary fluids (for example, water) which allows for more efficient heating or cooling while reducing energy consumption. Over the past two years, Williams has carried out more scientific research into the phenomenon. "The most significant area that we have been exploring relates to how tiny clusters of particles cause heat to be transferred more effectively compared with fully dispersed nanodispersions. Many of these effects can be explained using conventional physics but a range of variables need to be accounted for."
Although domestic central heating remains of interest, Williams has since concentrated on industry as a quicker route to market. "We have been working with various partners to evaluate industrial applications including thermal transfer for transportation and computer cooling applications," he says.
Finding exactly the right nanofluids for car engines to computers is important as, even in flowing liquids, the particles can clump together, thanks to van der Waals forces - that is, attraction between molecules. In addition, carbon nanotubes cost thousands of pounds per kilogram, although you only need a tiny percentage by volume. "We have been developing fluid formulations that perform at low and high temperatures," says Williams.
This complex area is subject to patent applications, so he won't discuss specific details of the work. However, suitable nanofluids may be made from carbon nanotubes or metal oxides along with water, glycol (antifreeze), and mineral oil with other additives.
The practicalities of scaling up from the laboratory bench to 200-litre test batches have also slowed progress. But this hasn't deterred Williams and his colleague Professor Yulong Ding from establishing a spin-out company, Dispersia.
Backed by venture capital and a regional grant, they've managed to attract development collaborations in the automotive and power electronics fields. While all this looks promising, it'll be a while before your central heating system receives that energy-efficiency boost.

Detroit auto show features track for electric cars

The Associated Press
Published: January 8, 2009

DETROIT: Organizers of Detroit's annual auto show have carved out space in the convention center basement for a 700-foot (213.36-meter)-long oval driving track to showcase zero emissions vehicles.
The track, which runs through a forest of about 100 Michigan maple, pine and birch trees and around two ponds with waterfalls, will let automakers display cutting-edge electric vehicles and other technology for more than 6,000 journalists signed up to attend the show's press days, said co-chairman Doug Fox, who runs several car dealerships in nearby Ann Arbor.
The 70,000-square-foot (21,336-meter) track and forest inside Cobo Center downtown is called the "Michigan EcoXperience." It's being funded by the state's economic development corporation as well as the North American International Auto Show, Fox said.
"It's a way for Michigan to put their best foot forward in an ecological manner and let all the manufacturers that have electric vehicles put them out here," Fox said.
All the cars on the track have to be zero emissions, he said.

Journalists attending press preview days starting Sunday will be able to drive cars on the track, but the public will only be allowed to ride with professional drivers, Fox said. There will be a 10 mph (16 kph) speed limit, and crash barriers will be installed to prevent accidents.
General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors, Tesla Motors Inc. and others will provide electric vehicles.
Space was made available when several manufacturers moved to the main floor in space vacated mainly by Nissan Motor Co. and Porsche Cars North America, which pulled out of the Detroit show.
Nissan pulled out last year because it had no new models to display. Detroit Nissan dealers organized to have a presence there, but canceled plans at the request of the company, Fox said.

Continental flight powered with biofuel takes off

The Associated Press
Published: January 7, 2009

HOUSTON: Continental Airlines on Wednesday became the first U.S. commercial carrier to conduct a demonstration flight powered in part by alternative fuels, though large-scale use of such fuel is forecast to be several years away.
The Houston-based company, the nation's fourth-largest airline, made the flight with a Boeing 737-800 that left from Bush Intercontinental Airport, its large hub. The flight took about 1 hour, 45 minutes and had no passengers.
Continental chairman and chief executive Larry Kellner said the goal was to analyze technical aspects of using biofuels, including effects on the plane's mechanical systems. In this case, the alternative fuel was derived from algae and jatropha plants and used in only one of the plane's two engines.
Kellner and others acknowledged it will likely be several years, a decade perhaps, before biofuels make up a significant percentage of the fuel used by Continental and other major carriers. At present, adequate supplies — and the facilities to make them — simply aren't available.
"The challenge will be to produce it in an efficient way in the quantities we need," Kellner said.

Airlines have been experimenting with alternative fuels as a way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and lower fuel bills, which hammered carriers in the first part of 2008 when oil prices spiked.
Last week, Air New Zealand tested a passenger jet powered partially with oil from jatropha, a bush with round, plum-like fruit that's found in parts of South America, Africa and Asia. Seeds from jatropha are crushed to produce a yellowish oil that's refined and mixed with diesel.
Continental said its flight was the first to use algae as a fuel source, and the first test involving a two-engine aircraft. One engine ran on a mixture of one-half biofuel and one-half traditional jet fuel. The other ran solely on jet fuel.
The biofuel exceeded specifications for regular jet fuel, and no modifications to the plane or its engines were needed.
Jatropha and algae are both considered sustainable, second-generation biofuels, which typically use a wider range of plants and release fewer emissions than traditional biofuels like ethanol. Other possible sources include switch grass and salt-tolerant plants called halophytes.
Wednesday's flight was a joint effort involving Continental, airplane maker Boeing Co., engine makers GE Aviation/CFM International and biofuel specialist UOP, a unit of Honeywell International Inc.
Jennifer Holmgren, general manager of renewable energy and chemicals at UOP, said one of the big obstacles facing the industry is finding enough affordable feedstock to produce the large quantities of biofuel needed.
Still, as production ramps up in the next few years, she predicts biofuel could amount to 3 percent to 5 percent of the fuel used by big airlines by 2012. By 2020, the level could grow to as much as 20 percent, she said.
For now, "the only bottleneck is not just having the facilities to produce it," Holmgren said. "There isn't enough sustainable feedstock at the right price point to able to be competitive with petroleum."

Era of cheap energy 'will never return'

By Andrew Grice, Political EditorThursday, 8 January 2009

The era of cheap energy is over and will never return as Britain pays the price of turning into a low-carbon economy, the former chairman of the Environment Agency has warned. Sir John Harman accuses politicians of failing to be honest with people about the costs of developing and delivering new forms of clean energy.
And he calls for measures to combat fuel poverty, through price controls, subsidies or higher state benefits to prevent the creation of a new class of low-carbon poor.
In a hard-hitting Fabian Society pamphlet to be published this month, Sir John accuses politicians of failing to match their rhetoric on green issues with action, saying they are "badly out of touch with the reality". In The Green Crunch, he writes: "It is extremely unlikely that we will ever get back to the retail energy prices of the past 15 years or so. Yet I do not think that this fact is being squarely presented to the electorate nor would it be an obvious vote-winner to do so.
"We need to acknowledge that there is, in a civilised society, a right to expect affordable access to warmth, light, and the other benefits which energy delivers and that this can only be protected as prices rise by intervention, either in the energy markets or through the welfare system."
He points to Gordon Brown's reluctance to bring in the green taxes he promised as Chancellor in 1997. But he argues that Labour can learn lessons from Barack Obama's victory in a "gas-addicted" United States and is the natural party to meet the environmental challenge.
Sir John, a former Labour council leader who chaired the Environment Agency for eight years until last summer, urges politicians to be more honest with people about the threat from climate change, saying that the environment should be regarded as just as important as economic and social issues. His call comes as green groups fear the environment is falling down the politicians' list of priorities because of the recession.

Boris Johnson suggests retraining unemployed as green energy experts

Unemployed people could be retrained as green energy experts under new plans announced by London Mayor Boris Johnson to make the capital greener.

By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent Last Updated: 5:47PM GMT 07 Jan 2009

The plan was unveiled in a speech to leading companies on how to make to make the city more environmentally friendly, including a drive to improve energy efficiency in buildings, cut down on gas guzzling cars and fit more energy saving lightbulbs.
But in a more innovative idea, he suggested one of the best ways to improve household efficiency was to train hundreds of unemployed people as energy efficiency advisers.
A spokesperson for the Mayor, said: "The Mayor wants to help Londoners become energy efficient and save money off their household bills. As part of this, the Mayor is interested in developing ways to train up large numbers of unemployed Londoners with the skills to retrofit the capital's homes with energy efficient measures. Plans on this are in their early stages with discussions currently being held with potential partners on how to make this happen."
The plan was welcomed by environmental groups, but they criticised the Mayor's earlier decision to drop a one-stop-shop advice service for Londoners wanting better insulation.
In a speech to members of the Green500 companies, that have pledged to cut carbon emissions and commercial property owners who have promised to improve efficiency through the Better Building Partnership, Mr Johnson said a greener London would help to cut costs in the economic downturn.
This would be done by retrofitting buildings with more energy efficient heating and lighting and switching to more electric or hybrid cars.
The mayor said: "In lean economic times, there are real financial savings to be made for businesses by becoming more energy efficient, helping them to remain competitive. This can often be done in really simple and cheap ways, and it is our job in City Hall to rally, support and publicly recognise organisations that want to do so.
"Creating a low-carbon, clean and more pleasant city that exploits new 'green' technologies is a key part of my vision to help London through the downturn. An attractive, less polluted city is a place where people will want to live, work and visit. Top-name London companies from all sectors are here today to demonstrate their commitment to cutting the capital's carbon emissions. I urge others to do the same."

Sarko's green shoots leave French auto industry in optimistic mood

David Gow Brussels, Wednesday 7 January 2009 11.39 GMT

In this unhappy, freezing new year, dominated by Gaza and Gazprom, it's hard to detect the "green shoots" of recovery and even harder to be at all optimistic about the whole of 2009. But one sickly sector of the European economy – manufacturing, and specifically the auto segment – is showing some signs of life.
The industry news from Germany and Spain remains dismal. Last month, Spanish car sales collapsed by 50% and German auto exports and overall output dropped 22%. In 2008, German exports fell 4%, production by 3%.
But, across the Rhine and over the Pyrenees, in France, sales were down last year by just 0.7%, compared with a fall of 28% in Spain and 13.3% in Italy. This column is occasionally accused of being a fanzine for Sarko, but fair dues: his planned "greening" of the auto industry may be beginning to work.
For the whole of 2008, French consumers were rewarded and/or penalised depending on which fuel-efficient or gas-guzzling model they bought. So Citroën, which saw sales of its tiny C1 jump 39% in the year, sold 6.3% more cars in December and 4.3% more in the year.
From last month, under Sarko's first economic stimulus package, worth €26bn, consumers get a €1,000 discount if they buy a (relatively) fuel-efficient new model and scrap a 10-year-old banger. Citroën, whose orders fell 20% in November, registered a 30% jump in December.
It's early days, of course, and the confidence-sapping credit crunch and threat of rising unemployment under the recession may yet be so frosty that the green shoots quickly die. But, this week, Renault's chief operating officer, Patrick Pelata, said the new Sarko scheme could help sales fall by just 5% this year compared with an anticipated 15% drop. Renault's sales fell 20% in December but orders last month were 40% higher than they would otherwise have been. The group expects the first impact of the scheme to show up in sales figures for next month and March.
These steps, scarcely trends yet, should propel the European car industry to increase its demands for extra financial aid to "green up" technology after years of campaigning to water down EU plans to cut carbon dioxide and other emissions from all new cars.
Acea, the European car industry lobby, argued in the run-up to Christmas that EU schemes for improving consumption and safety and reducing emissions would add "billions of euros of cost to the industry at a time when revenues are below break-even for most companies".
It is already pressing for Sarko's "scrap a banger" scheme to be extended EU-wide and for loans to develop greener technologies to be increased as part of a €40bn package it has tabled. Reducing emissions, it says, is expensive: adding €1,500 to the cost of each new car. "Neither the industry nor the consumer has that kind of money right now."
Meanwhile, an interesting footnote: EU citizens (apart from Britons, of course) seem to be buying more home-grown vehicles. The biggest fall in French sales last month were registered by Japanese (Toyota and Nissan), South Korean (Hyundai, down 55.6%) and German (Mercedes and BMW) manufacturers. In Germany, local brands lost 4% and foreign brands 14% last month.
Germany looks to the future
Europe's biggest economy could suffer a contraction not only this year but in 2010, according to Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the prestigious Ifo forecasting institute in Munich, who sees unemployment rising to 4m in Germany by the end of next year.
Small wonder that Angela Merkel's government in Berlin could be about to perform a U-turn and embrace, however reluctantly, tax cuts in its (up to) €50bn stimulus package likely to be adopted next week and designed to cover the next two years. But any cuts would be tiny and targeted, it became clear from a first meeting of Merkel's "grand coalition" on Monday, and may even be discarded when ministers meet again next week.
Again, the most significant elements of the package – clearly adopted because of the scale of the contraction hitting the country – will be in infrastructure projects, retraining and aid for business (such as car manufacturers still waiting for their Christmas present from Berlin). Germany will continue to invest for the long term and is quite right, too, to eschew Anglo-Saxon short-termism.
Critical comments I made last week on Peer Steinbrück, the finance minister, and his obviously myopic view of the contraction facing his country drew some very hostile ripostes from, I assume, native Germans. I was accused of being typically English (I'm Scottish, but nae bother) and, worse, of painting Berlin as being intent on domination of Europe and of being beset by Eroberungswahnsinn (a mad passion for conquest).
If they weren't so misguided they'd be insulting – especially to a lover of Germany who spent almost six years reporting from there, in German as well as English, and continues to do so both from here and on occasional visits. Suffice to say two things: a "German Europe" is a concept or fear voiced to me by Germans, not Brits; and the health of the German economy is vital not only to its people but the whole of Europe.
An old acquaintance, now an ambassador and academic, is writing a book entitled The New Face of Germany. It's about how a country emerged from self-hatred and ruin over 60 years to be the more relaxed, more confident but still self-questioning society it is today – and, above all, a rooted, sustained democracy. If Britain, particularly England, could overcome its own past with as much rigour and shed its sorry delusions on the way, it might finally become a home for genuine Europeans.

Parts of UK see 20-year lows

Steven Morris
The Guardian, Thursday 8 January 2009

Harbours froze over, balcony railings in Plymouth sheared away from a block of flats and a polar explorer arrived in London to test the ice in the fountains of Trafalgar Square as Britain endured the coldest snap for more than 20 years.
Benson in Oxfordshire survived the coldest temperatures overnight: -11.8C, the chilliest night there for 11 years. And in the fens, near Earith, Cambridgeshire people skated on frozen ponds.
Culdrose in south-west Cornwall had its second coldest night on record at -7.8C. Padstow harbour in north Cornwall froze over. In Plymouth, Devon, it fell to -7C, the coldest for 21 years.
Meanwhile, police in Devon were searching for a pensioner who claimed she had been forced to sleep in her car on Dartmoor after being evicted from her home. The woman, Robyn Field, telephoned a national radio programme.
Roads in many areas were treacherous. A man was killed when his car crashed down an embankment on the A299 near Faversham in Kent.
The polar explorer Pen Hadow, who is leading a team of scientists to test the thickness of the Arctic Ocean ice cap, was able to practise taking such measurements in Trafalgar Square.

In the midst of a cold snap - a hot weather warning

• Met Office warns elderly may need summer aid• Winter payouts to 4 million cost £120m
Patrick Wintour
The Guardian, Thursday 8 January 2009

Local people are skating and sledging on frozen ponds in the fens near Earith, Cambridgeshire. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian
As temperatures stay stubbornly well below freezing, it may feel like the last issue on anyone's mind, but the government has been warned it may need to start thinking about introducing emergency hot weather payments to help poorer households keep cool.
The Department for Work and Pensions is studying a specially commissioned report from the Met Office which concludes that the weather may become so hot that Britain's poor and elderly people may need state help to pay their summer energy bills as they reach for air conditioners to prevent themselves dying from heat exhaustion.
The Met Office said yesterday: "We may be going through probably the coldest spell since 1996, but it is probably a bigger medium-term problem that we are going to see some very hot summers, of the kind we saw in 2003 and 2006."
The report was completed last year, the Met said, and was one of a number of studies undertaken, including for energy companies, so they could prepare for high summer energy demand fuelled by air conditioners.
The Met Office has argued that summers as hot as 2003 could happen every other year by 2050, as a result of climate change.
The 2003 heatwave led to the death of 15,000 people in France and there were 2,000 heat-related deaths in the UK.
In a report released last month on behalf of the World Meteorological Organisation, the Met Office said the global mean temperature for 2008 was 14.3C, making it the 10th warmest year since measurements began in 1850. The 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1997 and global temperatures for 2000-2008 now stand almost 0.2C warmer than the average for the decade 1990-1999.
A department spokesman said last night officials were studying the report, but had no plans to introduce hot weather payments at present.
That is just as well for Whitehall budgets after Gordon Brown in the autumn trebled cold weather payments from £8.50 to £25 a week for this winter. As of Monday, nearly 4m payouts had been triggered in 76 different areas, costing the government £120m, as weather stations recorded icy conditions. The payments are triggered when the temperature slides to freezing or below for seven consecutive days.

Costly compromises of oil from sand

By Ian Austen
Published: January 7, 2009

OTTAWA: A major source of oil for the United States must now confront another problem: its carbon footprint.
Canada, in large part because of the production capacity of its oil sands, is the largest oil supplier to the United States. But environmental groups in both countries are pushing for a slowdown or even a halt to further oil sands development, which is concentrated in northern Alberta.
Not all oil is alike when it comes to environmental impact, and many environmentalists single out production from the oil sands as the epitome of "dirty oil." In a recent study, RAND Corp. estimated that oil from the oil sands generates about 10 to 30 percent more greenhouse gases than conventional crude.
That may place oil sands exports in a precarious position when Barack Obama becomes president this month and moves forward with a climate change program.
Operators of oil sands projects and Canadian governments are eager to point to its potential to reduce U.S. dependence on oil from politically unstable regions. Canadian oil sands produce about 1.2 million barrels a day, or about 9 percent of the total consumption in the United States.

Production was headed toward 3.5 million barrels a day by 2015 before the economic slowdown; with the vast reserves available, Canadian oil sands have the potential to produce the equivalent of 1.7 trillion barrels of oil.
The oil sands companies, however, have been scaling back as falling oil prices and the general market turmoil create a significant economic challenge for the projects. The entire process adds up to the world's most capital-intensive method for extracting oil. A tiny example: each of the tires on the cartoonishly oversize dump trucks used in oil sands mining costs about $60,000.
While no one is about to park their giant dump trucks, several companies in recent weeks have announced delays in future oil sands investments. In November, a consortium led by Petro-Canada said it would temporarily stop 23.8 billion Canadian dollars, or $19.5 billion, worth of expansions to its oil sands operations in Alberta.
"We're not in megaproject mode anymore," Steve Laut, the president and chief executive of Canadian Natural Resources, said to analysts after cutting his company's capital spending plans in half.
And as Washington prepares to deal with climate change, environmentalists, who generally prefer to use the deposits' traditional name of tar sands, are already pressing for restrictions on the projects.
"It's one of the most destructive projects on earth," said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "It would be strongly resisted in the United States to exempt the tar sands from any climate agreement."
Transforming the tar, more properly known as bitumen, which is mixed with sand, into petroleum is energy intensive and creates significant carbon emissions. Steam created by burning natural gas separates the semisolid bitumen. Then, more natural gas is needed to turn the bitumen into synthetic crude, which can be processed by refineries.
The development of oil sands projects has created North America's greatest boomtown in recent years, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Its outsize economic importance has prompted the Canadian government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative from Alberta, to champion the industry.
After the U.S. election in November, Harper said he would seek to devise a continental climate change pact with the Obama administration. Harper suggested that any such agreement would include an apparent escape hatch for the oil sands because, he argued, of the energy security benefits they offer the United States.
Since then, however, Harper avoided an early defeat of his government, which does not control a majority of seats in the House of Commons, by shutting Parliament. Even if the Obama administration is willing to hold talks with Canada, Harper's grip on power is uncertain.
Recent environmental assessments, including the RAND study, also do not further the cause of the oil sands industry. While climate change is the current focus, it is not the only environmental issue surrounding the projects.
Spent water used in oil sands projects is placed in lake-size tailings ponds, one of which killed about 500 migrating birds in April. Seepage from the ponds is polluting rivers in northern Canada, some scientists argue. In December, Environmental Defense, an environmental lobby group based in Toronto, estimated that about four billion liters of contaminated water leaks from the ponds each year. (The Alberta government and the oil industry dispute that finding.)
Strip mining of the oil sands, the most common method of extraction, has destroyed large swaths of boreal forest, an important habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife. In December, a study published by the Natural Resources Defense Council and two other groups found that 6 million to 166 million birds could be lost over the next 30 to 50 years because of that disruption.
Producers say they are making efforts to address environmental concerns. Laut's company, which recently completed a 110,000-barrel-a-day oil sands project, is developing systems to capture and store much of the carbon dioxide it emits. It has applied for government grants to test a system that will trap some of its carbon dioxide output by bubbling the exhaust gases from an upgrading plant through the spent water from a strip mine's steam.
Large-scale programs to capture and store carbon dioxide are not yet in place. The demonstration project of Canadian Natural Resources, for example, is not scheduled to begin until 2010.
With oil prices around $48 a barrel, profitability is fast eroding at oil sands projects and may already be vanishing at some operations. Producers have widely differing cost structures and varying definitions of profitability. But Andrew Leach, a professor of environmental economics at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, estimates that long-established plants can operate with prices as low as $30 a barrel. But he said newer operations need $60 to $70 a barrel for acceptable returns, and no one will proceed with proposed projects until prices return to the $80 to $90 range.
Exactly how Canada could participate in the shaping of an American strategy for climate change is unclear.
Harper initially dismissed concerns about climate change. After taking power in 2006, he abandoned commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions made by the previous Liberal government when it signed the Kyoto Protocol of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Instead, Harper's government has promised a 20 percent reduction in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. What is more significant, however, is that the proposal wants to use as a baseline 2006 — a year with more pollution — rather than the Kyoto standard of 1990.
In addition, the new plan requires companies, including oil sands operators, only to reduce the rate at which they emit greenhouse gases. If they achieve those efficiencies, they will still be allowed to raise their total emissions through increased production.
Even if Canadian producers dislike American climate change policies, they will be hard-pressed to sell their oil elsewhere. Canada's pipeline network takes oil sands production south and offers no routes to ports for export to other countries.
But some people are optimistic about the prospect of a two-nation climate pact.
"It would be a big mistake for Congress to impose restrictions on the oil sands," said Paul Cellucci, a former governor of Massachusetts and former U.S. ambassador to Canada who now works on energy issues for the law firm McCarter & English, in Boston. "That would not be good for the United States."

Scottish & Southern placing set to raise 470 million pounds

Published: January 7, 2009

LONDON: Scottish & Southern Energy will raise upwards of 470 million pounds from a share placing to help fund acquisitions and investment, particularly in wind farms.
SSE shares, up a fifth in value over the past four weeks, fell 8.2 percent to 1,159 pence by 10:30 a.m. British time on the news SSE will place up to 5 percent of its issued ordinary share capital, which totalled 876 million shares on December 31.
"The successful placing of shares will reinforce our balance sheet strength and enhance the range of options open to us," chief executive Ian Marchant said in a statement.
The company said in a statement that it expected the proceeds of the placing to provide an extra source of funding to help it to take advantage of investment opportunities of up to 6.7 billion pounds over five years.
It said it would assist it in buying small and medium-sized assets "which may become available from time to time."

The group said that in line with that strategy, it was finalising a couple of deals to acquire stakes in wind farm projects in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
SSE confirmed it was trading in line with management expectations and it was on track for a modest rise in adjusted pretax profit for 2008/09.
It also said it was on course to deliver a full-year dividend of at least 66 pence per share for the year to March 31, 2009, up 9.1 percent against a year earlier.
Charles Stanley analyst Tina Cook said the performance update was positive, but said the share price fall might reflect market uncertainty about the detail of the share placing.
"There may also be some question about whether they are having difficulties raising debt," she said.
Angelos Anastasiou at Pali International said SSE had not had problems accessing the debt markets, although he said the company had aggressive capital spending growth plans and the placing should underpin its position.
"While there will be a big step up in capex over the next few years, SSE's record is very strong, and the returns should rapidly accumulate as the various projects are completed," Anastasiou said.
"We also believe SSE remains very attractive to the Euro-consolidators. Overall, we still see SSE as a very good growth story, and we would look to participate in the placing."
(Reporting by Ben Deighton and Philip Waller; Editing by Matt Scuffham, Dan Lalor and Mike Nesbit)