Monday, 26 January 2009

Study pinpoints main source of Asia's brown cloud

By Henry Fountain
Published: January 25, 2009

South Asia has a cloud over its head - an unpleasant, unhealthy and climate-affecting soup of sooty haze that envelops the region, particularly in winter.
Scientists have studied what's called the "brown cloud" for years, yet there has always been uncertainty about it. How much of the soot and other carbon-containing aerosols that make up the haze comes from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, power plants and the like, and how much comes from burning wood and other biomass for cooking and agriculture?
Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University in Sweden and colleagues have now removed the cloud of uncertainty hanging over the brown cloud. Burning of biomass, they report in Science, is the greater culprit.
The researchers used carbon-14 dating of atmospheric soot sampled in early 2006 at Sinhagad in western India and Hanimaadhoo Island in the Maldives. They made use of the fact that fossil fuels are millions of years old, and thus the carbon-14, a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 5,700 years, has decayed away. On the other hand, vegetation that is burned when fields are cleared, and wood and dung that are used for cooking, contain "young" carbon, with plenty of C-14.
They found that biomass combustion produced about two-thirds of the pollution, a much larger proportion than found in earlier studies that used different methodologies.

The findings suggest that controls on agricultural burning and improvements in cookstove technology to allow for more complete combustion could make as much of a difference, if not more, in lightening the skies over South Asia as efforts to restrict cars or build cleaner-burning power plants.
The researchers also note that because soot persists in the atmosphere for a relatively short time, efforts to reduce the amount of soot may have an immediate positive impact on the regional environment.

Environmental sustainability, now at Wal-Mart

By Stephanie Rosenbloom and Michael Barbaro
Published: January 25, 2009

It was billed the Choice Meeting: a secret two-day conference in Arkansas in 2005 pairing Wal-Mart Stores, a symbol of scorched-earth global capitalism, with some of America's most influential environmentalists. And it began with a zinger.
"Tell me why I should care about an endangered mouse in Arizona?" asked H. Lee Scott Jr., the retail giant's chief executive, only partly in jest.
At the time, Wal-Mart was the target of a well-orchestrated assault focusing on its labor practices and environmental record. It was also straining to keep its legendary growth on track. Scott, hungry for ways to protect and transform his company, began to see environmental sustainability as a way to achieve two goals: improve Wal-Mart's bottom line and its reputation.
So he presented his colleagues with a radical option — the "choice" that gave the meeting its name — encouraging them to adopt a sustainability program to remake the entire company, from the materials used to build stores to the light bulbs stocked on its shelves. Although participants were conflicted, a vote on the initiative was unanimous: Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer and biggest buyer of manufactured goods, would go green.
By virtue of its herculean size, Wal-Mart eventually dragged much of corporate America along with it, leading mighty suppliers like General Electric and Procter & Gamble to transform their own business practices.

Under Scott, who is retiring this month at the age of 59, the company that democratized consumption in the United States — enabling working-class families to buy former luxuries like inexpensive flat-screen televisions, down comforters and porterhouse steaks — has begun to democratize environmental sustainability.
For decades, many consumers felt that going green was a luxury, too, reserved primarily for those with enough money — and time on their hands — to buy groceries at natural food stores and organic clothing from specialty retailers.
Today, the roughly 200 million customers who pass through Wal-Mart's doors each year buy fluorescent light bulbs that use up to 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, concentrated laundry detergent that uses 50 percent less water and prescription drugs that contain 50 percent less packaging.
"If all this sustainability stuff is just for the well-to-do, it's not going to make a difference," said Jib Ellison, the founder of Blu Skye, a sustainability consultant who has worked with Wal-Mart.
As the saying goes, Wal-Mart has also done well by doing good. Along with the McDonald's Corporation, it was one of only two companies in the Dow Jones industrial average whose share price rose last year.
When Wal-Mart first embraced green initiatives, its fortunes were sagging. After blanketing the country with its giant, all-in-one stores, it began cannibalizing its own sales. Older stores looked tattered and tired, and Wal-Mart's flirtation with higher-end merchandise, like skinny jeans with fur trim, alienated low-income shoppers who preferred unadorned basics.
By renovating thousands of its stores, ratcheting down the pace of its breakneck expansion and all but abandoning its upscale ambitions, it turned around its lagging sales. But its deft financial rejiggering still didn't burnish its reputation, which had become a business problem, too.
A confidential 2004 report, prepared by McKinsey & Company for Wal-Mart, found that 2 percent to 8 percent of Wal-Mart consumers surveyed had ceased shopping at the chain because of "negative press they have heard." Wal-Mart executives and Wall Street analysts began referring to the problem as "headline risk."
So the company, known for bitterly rebutting critics or simply ignoring them, began working closely with activists to improve its labor, health care and environmental records.
It is hard to measure the financial return of a good image. But no one at Wal-Mart talks about headline risk anymore because the headlines have become largely positive.
Profits climbed to $12.7 billion in the 2008 fiscal year, from $11.2 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, while sales jumped to $375 billion, from $312.4 billion, during the same period. The percentage of employees on Wal-Mart's health insurance plan rose to 50.2 percent, from 44 percent.
And since the Choice Meeting, sustainability efforts have saved Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars, according to people familiar with the company's environmental initiatives. Wal-Mart declined to provide exact figures about its savings.
"It wasn't a matter of telling our story better," said Scott said in recent interview. "We had to create a better story."
Wal-Mart, of course, didn't change overnight. It was pushed — or, more accurately, shoved — into wrenching reforms.
When Scott became chief executive in 2000, the company was a Wall Street darling. With nearly 4,000 stores and more than a million employees, it had edged out Goliaths like Sears and Kmart. But its size and success invited scrutiny. In 2005, two union-backed groups, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, set up shop in Washington and started a public relations assault against the company.
At one point, Wal-Mart Watch set up an automated phone system to recruit whistle-blowers to share secrets about the retailer.
In 2005, Wal-Mart Watch obtained an internal memorandum showing that 46 percent of Wal-Mart workers' children were uninsured or on Medicaid, a health care program for low-income families. The memo proposed further ways to cut employees' health and retiree benefits — at a time when the company was ringing up annual earnings of more than $11 billion.
Meanwhile, environmental groups accused Wal-Mart of being a polluter. Scott and his team hunkered down, hurling back a litany of statistics and facts in Wal-Mart's defense.
As the company's reputation unwound, so did its business. Its stock price fell roughly 20 percent between 2000 and 2005, a drop that executives and analysts attributed, in part, to investors' anxieties about Wal-Mart's image. Sales growth lagged behind that of its chief rival, Target, and Wal-Mart faced growing resistance to its expansion.
Inside Wal-Mart headquarters, in Bentonville, Arkansas, rumors swirled about Scott's future, and board members became restless. In the end, directors stood by Scott, but told him he had to overhaul Wal-Mart's image.

"What I would tell Lee is that there was a great deal of misunderstanding about the company and that we had to address it head on," said Jose Villarreal, a director from 1998 to 2006 and a partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
Scott — the son of a gas-station owner — joined Wal-Mart's trucking department in 1979 and rose to the CEO post in 2000. He acknowledged in an interview that while he was running Wal-Mart, his board "sensitized" him to critics.
He began meeting with minority groups, politicians and environmentalists. Some meetings were awkward; others were punctuated by tirades. But as it turned out, most critics did not want Wal-Mart to disappear. They wanted it to be better.
Scott used some of his opponents' ideas to make that happen, believing that sustainability could become an advantage — saving the company money, reinvigorating its culture, allowing it to sell better merchandise and attracting and retaining talent.
Engaging outside consultants and critics to help with that transformation was a huge change for the retailer, which prized its independence. To outsiders, it was a sign that Wal-Mart was adopting a new attitude.
"There was a time where people in business believed all they had to do was run their business," said David Glass, Scott's predecessor as CEO "But it doesn't work that way anymore. There is an accountability that goes way beyond that."
After the Choice Meeting, Scott went through a kind of Outward Bound phase, known within Wal-Mart as "Eat What You Cook" — a mantra that encourages executives to experience firsthand the impact of their decisions.
For Scott, that meant driving to a New Hampshire mountaintop to discuss climate change with scientists. He slept on a bunk bed in submarine-size quarters with visitors including Steven Hamburg, then an environmental studies professor at Brown University and author of a 1994 report criticizing Wal-Mart's environmental efforts.
Hamburg, now chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Scott that Wal-Mart's earlier green initiatives were just window dressing. "So he challenged me back and said, 'Well, we've taken another run at this and we'd love to have your input,' " Hamburg recalls.
Shortly after that conversation, Scott told the world that Wal-Mart was embracing sustainability. He laid out ambitious, possibly unattainable, long-term goals for the company: running its operations solely on renewable energy, creating zero waste and selling products that sustain the earth's resources and environment.
Wal-Mart's suppliers had little choice but to follow its lead.
In came the fluorescent bulbs. In 2007 alone, Wal-Mart sold more than 100 million of them. For a manufacturer, selling a bulb that lasts longer means fewer sold. But it would hurt to lose Wal-Mart as a customer. So GE and others ramped up production of fluorescent bulbs.
By selling only concentrated liquid laundry detergent, an effort it began last year, Wal-Mart says, its customers will save more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin, 125 million pounds of cardboard and 520,000 gallons of diesel fuel over three years.
"Lee pushed me," said A. G. Lafley, chief executive of Procter & Gamble, and "we totally, totally changed the way we manufacture liquid laundry detergents in the U.S. and, now, around the world."
Wal-Mart says it now saves itself $3.5 million a year just by recycling loose plastic and selling it to processors. After changing the design of its trucks and how efficiently it loads them, its fleet had a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. Amory Lovins, a MacArthur fellow and chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research organization, said Wal-Mart would save nearly $500 million a year in fuel costs by 2020.
While environmentalists give Wal-Mart kudos for the changes it has made, they say that much of what it has achieved so far amounts to collecting low-hanging fruit. The company sells tens of thousands of products, and has demanded the overhaul of only a handful, they say. "The jury's out in the long term," Hamburg says.
Wal-Mart has revised health care plans and labor practices in recent years, also important facets of its makeover.
In the last few years, it has helped its employees get access to lower-cost prescription drugs and taken steps to prevent labor abuses. For years, some store managers forced employees to work without pay, after clocking out, according to scores of lawsuits. To prevent this, Wal-Mart has programmed cash registers to shut down after an employee has exceeded a certain number of hours. It has also told managers to make sure that employees take lunch and rest breaks.
Last month, Wal-Mart settled dozens of lawsuits contending that it forced employees to work off the clock. The settlement will cost Wal-Mart at least $352 million, possibly far more, according to the company.
Still, many activists, especially in the labor world, remain deeply dissatisfied.
A major class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit is pending against the company. And labor leaders argue that Wal-Mart has simply found new ways to fatten its profits without tangibly improving the lives of its employees. It pays its workers, on average, less than $20,000 a year, and many of them pay thousands of dollars a year in medical bills.
"He had the chance to be the Henry Ford of his generation, especially in the last few years, as the stock price soared," said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, of Scott. "He could have found a way to share the wealth. Instead, he became the epitome of the greed that has brought our economy to where it is today."
Scott declined to comment. But Wal-Mart says that its average wage, $10.83 an hour for full-time workers, are competitive in the retailing industry, and that its health plans are accessible to a wider range of workers than those of some of its rivals.
Wal-Mart will need to keep building on its recent successes. While most retail chains have had double-digit declines during the current economic turndown, Wal-Mart had a 1.7 percent sales increase in December at stores open at least a year.
Yet that number was lower than analysts' expectations, leading some to predict more trouble ahead for Wal-Mart and the rest of the retail industry.
Come February, it will be the job of Michael Duke, 58, who has led Wal-Mart's international operations since 2005, to steer the company through the downturn.
As for Scott, he will serve as chairman of the executive committee of Wal-Mart's board until 2011. And he intends to increase the retailer's lobbying muscle in Washington, especially regarding health care, energy and sustainability.
"As businesses, we have a responsibility to society," he said this month, speaking to members of the National Retail Federation in his last public speech as Wal-Mart chief. "Let me be clear about this point. There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders, and helping solve bigger societal problems."

Five Severn barrage plans to be unveiled

Robin McKie
The Observer, Sunday 25 January 2009

The Severn barrage project will take a step closer to realisation tomorrow when the energy secretary, Ed Miliband, announces a shortlist of five schemes for turning the estuary's tidal power into electricity. A total of 10 projects have been studied by the Department of Energy and Climate Change and half have been rated worthy of further scrutiny.
Around 5% of Britain's electricity could be generated by tapping the energy of the tidal waters that surge up the Severn. Engineers have estimated that a barrage across it would cost up to £15bn.
Schemes include a 10-mile barrage between Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare, though this project is opposed by conservation groups, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which favour smaller, less disruptive projects. The government is committed to approving the best barrage project, or combination of projects, by 2010.

UK looks on from sidelines at green energy summit

Kate Connolly in Berlin and David Gow in Brussels
The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2009

A new international body to promote renewable energy is to be established today, in a move that its supporters insist has the potential to replace the global dominance of conventional power with wind, solar and other sustainable sources within a matter of years.
Fifty-five governments have said they will commit themselves to full membership of the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), at its founding conference in Bonn today. A total of 116 countries will take part.
The US has not joined, but is widely expected to do so under the new administration. Britain, however, has not signed up to Irena, although it is understood to be sending officials as observers.
Officials in the new Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said: "We are certainly supportive and are interested in joining but we need to make sure that what we're joining has the right focus. There needs to be more focus on the deployment of renewables rather than just talking policy and issuing papers - and there needs to be a wider membership."
The DECC is hyper-sensitive to persistent criticism that Britain is dragging its feet on renewable energy and clinging to old coal - and gas-fired - generating plants to prevent the lights going out in the middle of the next decade.
Headed by Ed Miliband, the department wants to see the US and Asian countries such as China and Japan indicate they will join too before it signs up to Irena.
Irena aims to help both developing and industrialised countries transfer to renewable energy with practical advice to those who lack the knowhow.
Its founders see it as an institutional counterbalance to the International Energy Agency which has been accused of not doing enough to promote alternative energy. Irena's initiator, Hermann Scheer, who is president of the World Council for Renewable Energy and a German MP, told the Guardian: "Irena is the single-most important step for a speedy global introduction of renewable energies. It will give an enormous push to the use of renewables around the globe."
With an initial budget of €25m (£23.8m), gathered from a means-tested membership subscription, Irena will give financial, practical and technological support to member countries such as Chad, which has a constant solar supply, but is almost wholly dependent on conventional energies such as gas and oil, to build solar power plants.
Other countries which have signed up include France, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Vietnam, Paraguay, Mali, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
The Danish climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, told the Guardian that Irena would enable the proper coordination of renewable energy usage across the world. "Renewables have been homeless in the energy family until now," she said. "We have a chance to spread their use, particularly in the developing world, to spread best practices, deliver useful statistics and calculations and share the knowhow about what pays off and what doesn't.
"There's a growing understanding that renewables are important on many levels, from energy security to growth and development.
"Even Saudi Arabia, an oil-producing country and member of Opec, has just announced it wants to have 7% of renewables by 2020."

Small steps that turn the home into a powerhouse

By Rebecca Bream
Published: January 26 2009 02:00

Over the past few years it has become fashionable to embrace the concept of microgeneration, that is, generating electricity on a small scale with the aim of using less from the national grid. A roof-mounted wind turbine, for instance, has become de rigueur for many politicians wanting to boost their green credentials.
Sceptics argue that microgeneration is merely a niche market that is unlikely to contribute much to greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Critics say the technology currently available to households is expensive and not suitable for every location: micro wind turbines can be ineffective in sheltered, urban areas while solar panels need large amounts of sunshine to be cost-effective.
But this is too pessimistic. The choice of microgeneration technologies is expanding and their cost is coming down. When combined with energy efficiency and the ability to sell excess power to the national grid, more and more households should find microgeneration worth the investment.
"Microgeneration is still in its infancy, but it is very much worthwhile," says David Gordon, chief executive of Windsave, a Scottish company that sells micro wind turbines for the home. "In the right locations, if you put a turbine on your home you can produce an average of 20 per cent of the household's power needs."
In the UK, households generating their own power with renewable technology receive government subsidies known as Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs). Mr Gordon estimates that households with a micro wind turbine would receive roughly £100 in ROCs each year, as well as saving roughly £100 on their annual electricity bill. Windsave turbines cost £1,899, £600 of which can be recouped through government grants. He argues, therefore, that an investment in a turbine would be repaid in about six years.
Interest in micro wind turbines is high in the UK, says Mr Gordon, but take-up is being held back by problems in gaining planning permission. Opponents say the turbines are noisy and an eye-sore, but new planning rules mean "the take-up of microgeneration will be vast" over the next decade, says Mr Gordon. "And with all these technologies, the larger the market is, the cheaper the technology becomes. Our aim is to get the pay-back time for our wind turbines down to five years."
The US offers attractive incentives for households that want to generate their own power, allowing the cost of microgeneration technology to be written off against income tax. Scandinavia, Italy, Germany and France are encouraging microgeneration through tariffs that guarantee households a minimum price for power they feed to the grid.
Not every location is suitable for wind power, admits Mr Gordon. "We have a strict installation regime and don't recommend turbines if the wind speed is less than 4.5 to 5 metres per second." He says that about 10 per cent of homes in the UK would benefit from the installation of a Windsave turbine, while others may be better suited to technology like solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.
Coastal locations and buildings on high ground are best suited to wind power. City centres are not ideal, but Mr Gordon says "if you put a turbine on top of a [high-rise] block of flats you get fantastic results".
An emerging technology is the fuel-cell boiler, which uses natural gas to generate power as well as heat within the home. While still reliant on fossil fuel, these boilers get much more energy out of the fuel than conventional power stations, where around two-thirds is wasted.
Peter Bance, chief executive of boiler manufacturer Ceres Power, says that his company's fuel-cell boilers are able to use 80 to 90 per cent of the energy from natural gas. The fuel cells convert gas and air into heat and power via catalysis using cutting-edge ceramic materials. Ceres says its fuel cells work at lower temperatures than previous versions - between 500°C and 600°C - allowing the boilers to be built from conventional stainless steel, which brings down the cost.
Although UK energy companies are starting to look at rolling out fuel-cell boilers as a way to meet government requirements on energy efficiency, Mr Bance says uptake is not dependent on help from the state.
"Our products make economic sense without subsidy, and they have to have mass market demand." He says "the typical householder will save £300 to £400 a year on their energy bills and the boiler will supply about 90 per cent of the home's power needs", allowing them to recoup their initial investment in less than five years.
The development of fuel-cell boilers is still at an early stage. "We are at the beginning of a new industry. We are not yet in mass production, but we are out of the lab," says Mr Bance. He is confident that, along with wind and solar power, fuel cell boilers will contribute significantly to making the energy industry cleaner and more efficient. "You could credibly see one-third of the UK's electricity supplied from people's homes."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

A smart policy

Published: January 26 2009 02:00

When President Barack Obama talks about his priorities, energy always comes high on the list, and with good reason. The plunge in oil prices may have reduced their political salience, but securing energy supplies and averting the threat of climate change are as important as ever. An idea at the heart of his programme is the creation of a "smart grid": an electricity network that uses information technology to manage flows of power. The cost of such a grid would be enormous, but it would be money well spent.
The smart grid has become today's equivalent of the "information superhighway": a piece of trendy high-tech jargon. Yet that fashionability should not be allowed to obscure its merits. One of its strongest supporters is Steven Chu, Mr Obama's energy secretary, and no one could accuse him of being a dilettante. A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he has been serving on the electricity transmission sub-committee of America's Energy Future, a research group backed by the national academies of science and engineering.
A smart grid would be a national asset comparable to the interstate highways launched by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. It would make possible a huge increase in the use of renewable energy in the US, connecting up vast wind farms in South Dakota or solar arrays in New Mexico to the centres of population on the coasts. It would enable the network to manage the intermittency that is inherent to wind and solar power, balancing supply and demand when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. It would also cut the losses caused by transmitting electricity, and make the network more resilient to equipment failure, preventing blackouts.
Supported by "smart meters" - devices in the home that monitor energy use and can send and receive information - the grid can also cut consumers' energy use. Trials in the US have suggested household electricity use can be cut by between 10 and 15 per cent. Those that generate their own power, for example with solar panels on their roofs, would also be able to sell any excess to the grid.
Mr Chu has suggested a national smart grid would cost up to $1,000bn. But with the US spending $400bn a year on electricity, a mere 10 per cent reduction in power use would cover the cost in 25 years. Rural electrification was one of the great, lasting achievements of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. It would be fitting, as well as a sound investment, if Mr Obama were to update that project for the 21st century.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Faded Green: A Car Maker's Woes

Start-Up Lured Venture Capital for Electric Vehicles, but Crisis Took Toll

In the race to get electric cars to market, the Norwegian start-up Think Global AS was one of the front-runners. It snagged big-name venture-capital backing and in 2008 manufactured about 350 of its latest model, a two-seater, plug-in city car. It planned to ramp up production to 10,000 units this year.
Then the financial crisis hit. As Think began its expansion, overall demand for cars fell, and the company wasn't able to raise the $60 million to $100 million it needed to finance the growth. The credit crunch prompted suppliers to demand faster payments. In mid-December, Think became one of the green technology world's first major casualties, filing for bankruptcy protection.
The two-seater, plug-in TH!NK city, a car with zero carbon-dioxide emissions, sold for around $30,000 in Norway. The credit crisis thwarted its manufacturer's plans to ramp up production to 10,000 units this year.
"We were so close to break-even and being cash-flow positive," said Think Chief Executive Richard Canny. "It doesn't seem right that the traditional auto companies are getting massive public money to stave off their decline, while newcomers in the electric-car space are being starved of capital."
Think's travails show how the financial crisis could delay new green technologies by starving innovative start-up companies of capital. They are also a sign of how venture capitalists, who have been pouring money into "clean technology" from wind power to biofuels, could start to see some of those bets go sour. Venture capitalists put $22.8 billion into green firms around the world in the past two years, according to market-research firm New Energy Finance in London.
A raft of upstart electric-car companies is trying to beat the established auto giants to market. The TH!NK city model, a zippy, stylish-looking minicar with zero carbon-dioxide emissions, sold for about $30,000 in Norway.
India-based REVA Electric Car Co. makes cheap minicars that aren't crash-tested, and is backed by U.S. venture firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson. Making higher-end sports cars that cost over $100,000 are Fisker Automotive Inc., backed by venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and Tesla Motors Inc., funded by PayPal founder Elon Musk.
But the start-ups might end up being crushed by the big car makers, which finally appear to be moving ahead with electric models. At the auto show in Detroit earlier this month, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC showed prototypes of electric cars. Toyota Motor Corp. and Renault SA are also investing heavily to bring out mass-market plug-in cars as early as 2011.
For some, Think's experience is a cautionary tale about automotive start-ups. "Cars are really difficult to build, the supply chain is long and complicated, and it requires tons of capital," said Christian Reitberger, a venture capital investor at Wellington Partners. "It's not an easy business for venture-capital-backed firms to succeed in." Mr. Reitberger prefers to focus his firm's green investments on companies in more proven markets such as wind and solar power.
However, the downturn could also claim victims in more established green industries. Finance for long-term, capital-heavy projects such as offshore wind farms, solar parks and waste-recycling plants was up 15% to $97 billion last year, said New Energy Finance. But activity was much slower in the second half of the year, as banks became more skittish about lending money.
Think was founded in 1991 in Norway, and in 1999 was bought by Ford, which pumped tens of millions of dollars into developing the Think electric car. But Ford temporarily abandoned electric cars in 2003 because it thought the market wasn't there, and three Norwegian entrepreneurs bought Think for $15 million. The trio, which had founded the world's biggest solar-panel wafer company, Renewable Energy Corp., redesigned the car, retooled it to run on new, more powerful batteries and put it through extensive road and safety testing.
In mid-2008, they hired as CEO Richard Canny, who spent over a decade as an executive at Ford, to help Think ramp up into full-scale production. The company was expected to break even in 2009, according to Mr. Canny.
Trouble struck last summer. As expected, the company needed to buy big stocks of parts, such as engines, batteries and plastic panels to ramp up production. To pay for these large capital outlays, Think hired bankers to raise money from venture capitalists, automotive companies and private-equity firms.
But oil prices fell from a record high around $145 a barrel last year and settled Friday at $46.47 in New York. That reduced the advantages of a tiny electric car that took eight hours to charge and had a range of just 110 miles. Few investors were willing to fund a risky venture in the depressed car industry. Think's Norwegian owners weren't willing to fork out all the money needed, either.
Usually in the auto sector, payment for parts is due 30 to 60 days after the car is built, said Mr. Canny. But one U.S.-based supplier of electronic components shortened the payment delays to 15 days from 30. A European firm that makes metal parts for the car's body asked Think to contribute €500,000 ($649,000) toward the machine tools that it would use to make the parts. Another firm that made plastic parts for the car wanted Think to pay €1.5 million upfront for raw materials.
"Basically, our suppliers couldn't get any working capital," said Mr. Canny. "So they turned to us."
Think even appealed to the Norwegian government to help with loans or bank guarantees. But the pleas were to no avail, and Think sought court protection. It sent most of its 300 employees home on temporary leave, idled its factory and suspended its contracts with suppliers.
Think is now seeking a strategic partner and more funding. Earlier this month it secured $5.7 million in interim financing from a group of lenders, which include Ener1 Group Inc., which was making the lithium-ion batteries that power Think's cars. Mr. Canny said the funds will give Think time to continue restructuring, so it can then raise permanent equity capital and eventually start volume production.
Write to Leila Abboud at

Think tank: Redesign our wind turbines

The Sunday Times
January 25, 2009
A novel invention could be more efficient than current systems

Ireland’s west coast is one of the best places in the world for harvesting renewable energy, largely because of the strong winds. It is also an ideal location for large, offshore wind turbines and wave-energy converters.
Ireland has easily enough natural power to supply its entire energy demand several times over until well past 2050. The main obstacles are how to make the systems cheap and unobtrusive, and how to keep the lights on when the wind is not blowing.
I propose a single solution — integrated compressed air renewable energy systems (Icares). The idea is that wind turbines, wave-energy converters and tidal turbines should compress air rather than generate electricity directly. When the wind is strong, some compressed air is used to drive large high-speed generators and the rest is stored in flexible containers under water. When the wind is less strong, the stored air is resurrected and used to keep the generators turning.
Bigger is better for wind turbines, but conventional designs have hit a ceiling in size. Scaling up these machines further will raise the cost per unit power. By contrast, my turbines only become practical at 200m diameter and improve steadily above that.
Being able to store energy was not important in the past because the output from power stations could be controlled. However, when more than a quarter of the total electricity supply is from intermittent renewables such as wind, there will be times when the total power being generated by the wind turbines exceeds demand across the country.
The industry has converged on a consensus that large wind turbines should be three-bladed, horizontal-axis machines on top of a tubular tower.
Fine, up to about 150m in diameter. The problem for larger turbines is that they have to turn very slowly and, in order to get all of the power out, the machinery inside has to have a much larger turning force (torque).
A 150m-diameter machine would generate up to 8 megawatts (MW) of power, enough for 17,000 homes. The torque would be equivalent to hanging 11 tonnes on the end of one of its 75m blades. By contrast, a 300m-diameter machine would generate up to 50MW of power. The torque would be equivalent to hanging 58 tonnes on the end of one of its 150m horizontal blades. Although the power increases by six, the torque increases by more than 10, and most of the cost of the larger machines depends on the torque.
My turbine is dramatically different: a horizontal-axis machine with eight blades — four long and four short. A floating framework replaces the tower, and it converts wind power internally within the blades. Think of a bicycle wheel rotating slowly, and a loose bead on each spoke. The beads represent pistons travelling back and forth inside tubes in the blades, compressing air as they do so.
The baby of the family is a 200m-diameter machine producing 18MW in a decent wind and costing less than 40% of the ¤40m you’d spend on a corresponding set of direct-generating machines. Her big sisters might easily reach 400m in diameter and could be 50% more cost-effective.
Of course, nobody would want such a monster outside their front window. The logical place for these titans is tens of miles offshore where even a structure half a kilometre high is not offensive.
Energy-storage capability comes as an added bonus. I am suggesting “energy bags” held down on the ocean floor with ballast weights about 600m below the surface. Ireland has such deep water in the Atlantic suitably close to shore.
To store 10% of our average total daily electricity generation in this way would would cost less than €300m. That would mean 1,000 bags 25m wide when full.
If you think that all of this is hot air, you would be right — in part. Air compressed to 60 times atmospheric pressure will get hot — up to 630C.
As part of a €60m research initiative, E.ON recently funded my research on this.
The time is right for Icares. Interest rates are low, a highly skilled workforce is under-utilised, all of its components can be sourced in Ireland and the UK, and energy security is more important than ever. Icares could form the basis of a substantial indigenous industry with large export potential. Best of all, there is a ready-made 100% reliable customer base for the energy — ourselves.
Seamus Garvey is professor of dynamics at the University of Nottingham. This is a synopsis of a lecture he will deliver at University College Dublin on Friday

Funding doubts for giant wind farm

By Ed Crooks and Fiona Harvey
Published: January 25 2009 23:31

The economics of the world’s biggest offshore wind-farm project are “on a knife-edge”, the chief executive of one of the companies behind it has warned, casting doubt on the UK government’s energy strategy.
Eon UK, the British arm of the German energy group, said the viability of its London Array project, a planned 1,000MW wind farm in the Thames estuary, had been called into question by the falling prices of oil, gas and carbon dioxide emissions permits.
The government will publish an environmental study on Monday on the feasibility of erecting offshore wind turbines around Britain. It concludes that there is scope for 5,000-7,000 turbines, which would equate to 25,000MW.
That ambition is likely to intensify pressure from the industry for a more generous subsidy scheme. A huge expansion of renewable energy is vital to plans for hitting EU targets for greenhouse gas emissions.
The government hopes more investors will emerge in the next month, as the Crown Estate, which owns the offshore seabed, is meeting 90 potential investors as part of the process of granting licences to build on the seabed.
Energy companies are concerned about the cost of offshore wind power – roughly twice that of onshore wind because of the difficulty of installing and maintaining turbines at sea.
Paul Golby, chief executive of Eon UK, told the Financial Times that the company was still committed to the Array, but warned: “The economics are looking pretty difficult.” His concerns are shared by other energy companies. Centrica, the owner of British Gas, estimates that each megawatt of wind power capacity costs about £3m to build: more than the equivalent cost for a nuclear power station.
The comparison is made even worse because offshore turbines might generate power for about 40 per cent of the time, whereas modern nuclear stations operate at about 90 per cent of capacity.
Sam Laidlaw, Centrica’s chief executive, said: “We are planning to invest in 1,500MW of offshore wind capacity, but it is very expensive, both in capital cost and in maintenance.”
Centrica is reviewing its offshore wind investment plans.
Energy companies hope the recession might ease the capacity shortages that have driven up costs, but suggest the government will need to improve the generosity of the Renewables Obligation, the subsidy system for renewable electricity.
Eon owns 30 per cent of the Array project. Royal Dutch Shell, the oil group, dropped out last year, to be replaced by Masdar, the Abu Dhabi renewable energy group, which owns 20 per cent. The other half is owned by Dong, the Danish energy group.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change is expected to publish on Monday its shortlist of tidal energy schemes in the Severn estuary, a project that could provide 5 per cent of UK electricity.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Ocean 'fertilisation' team ordered to halt global warming experiment

An expedition including British scientists that hoped to "fertilise" the ocean to combat global warming was last night ordered to stop because of concerns that the experiment could breach international law.

By Matthew Moore Last Updated: 7:50PM GMT 25 Jan 2009

The team planned to drop 20 tons of iron sulphate into waters around the Antarctic to stimulate the growth of plankton, which would take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Environmentalists had claimed that the experiment – aimed at creating a 186-square-mile bloom of plankton between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope so big that it will be visible from outer space – could have a devastating impact on the oceans and may even speed up global warming.
The German government last night ordered scientists on the German polar research ship RV Polarstern to halt their work in the Southern Ocean, amid concerns that it may be banned under the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity.
The ship set off earlier this month, but the scientists had held off starting the experiment pending legal and environmental reviews.
Supporters of the expedition claim that the method could one day slow global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere for centuries. The plankton fall to the bottom of the ocean when they die, taking the carbon dioxide they have absorbed with them.
Two scientists from the University of Southampton's National Oceanography Centre are on board the RV Polarstern, although the expedition is a joint Indian-German project.

Motorway lights to be switched off at night despite safety warnings

Motorway lighting is to be switched off in parts of Britain to reduce carbon emissions, despite warnings from police and scientists that the move would affect safety.

By Alastair Jamieson Last Updated: 6:11PM GMT 25 Jan 2009

The Highways Agency confirmed it would go ahead with plans to turn off lighting on some stretches of motorway between midnight and 5am, and claimed the move would also reduce light pollution of the night sky.
It said the changes would take place at "a small number of locations" around England as early as March and that it was already choosing which sites would be suitable.
The move follows that of nine councils which have already switched off some street lights or plan to do so to save money.
However the changes could have significant safety implications, according to the latest research published in the scientific journal, the Cochrane Library. It found that street lighting reduced the number of fatal crashes by 77 per cent and other collisions by between 32 and 55 per cent.
This contradicts research used by the Highways Agency which estimated that street lighting reduced the risk of crashes by only 10 per cent.
The Cochrane study will also have implications for a number of local authorities which have either started switching lights off at night or are considering doing so. They include West Sussex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Essex, Torfaen and Ceredigion.
One authority, Powys, has already decided to switch lights back on following a review of the initiative.
Lancashire County Council, which owns the M65, has proposed switching off lights at all times of day, except for those at junctions, in order to save £65,000 a year and reduce carbon emissions by 300 tonnes. The move was sharply criticised by Lancashire Police which said it would be "a retrograde step in relation to motorway safety".
A spokeswoman for he Highways Agency refused to disclose which areas were being considered or explain how the agency could fulfil its promise to carry out a risk assessment of each site within a matter of weeks.
Neil Greig, assistant director of the IAM Motoring Trust, said more research into the effects of the changes was needed and that the Highways Agency needed to be "more innovative" in its plans. "Why not use roadstuds that charge up in daylight and glow at night or generate energy through wind or solar power in more remote areas?"
He added that good white lining and top quality reflective signs would be needed in areas where lights were switched off.

Hospitals will take meat off menus in bid to cut carbon

Juliette Jowit
The Guardian, Monday 26 January 2009

Meat-free menus are to be promoted in hospitals as part of a strategy to cut global warming emissions across the National Health Service.
The plan to offer patients menus that would have no meat option is part of a strategy to be published tomorrow that will cover proposals ranging from more phone-in GP surgeries to closing outpatient departments and instead asking surgeons to visit people at their local doctor's surgery.
Some suggestions are likely to be controversial with patients' groups, especially attempts to curb meat eating and car use. Plans to reuse more equipment could raise concern about infection with superbugs such as MRSA. Dr David Pencheon, director of the NHS sustainable development unit, said the amount of NHS emissions meant it had to act to make cuts, and the changes would save money, which could be spent on better services for patients.
"This is not just about doing things more efficiently, it's about doing things differently, because efficiency is not going to get us to big cuts," said Pencheon. "What will healthcare look like in 2030-2040 in a very low carbon society? It will not look anything like it looks now."
Last year the NHS published what it believes is the biggest public sector analysis of carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas, which showed the organisation's emissions in 2004 were 18.6m tonnes and rising. This accounts for more than 3% of all emissions in England, and if the NHS was a country it would have been ranked as the 81st biggest polluter in the world that year, between Estonia and Bahrain.
One-fifth of the emissions were from transport, one-fifth from buildings, and the remainder from procurement, including drugs, medical equipment and food.
On Tuesday, Pencheon and the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, will publish the strategy - Saving Carbon, Improving Health - which will set targets to cut the organisation's carbon footprint, and proposals to meet them. It follows a government pledge last year to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.
The plans cover all aspects of patients' care, from building design to transport, waste, food, water and energy use.
Among the most talked-about is likely to be the suggestion that hospitals could cut carbon emissions from food and drink by offering fewer meat and dairy products. Last year, the United Nations climate chief, Rajendra Pachauri, provoked a global debate when he said having a meat-free day every week was the biggest single contribution people could make to curbing climate change in their personal lives, because of the chemicals sprayed on feed crops and the methane emitted by cattle and sheep. Last week, the German federal environment agency went further, advising people to eat meat only on special occasions. Pencheon said the move would cut the relatively high carbon emissions from rearing animals and poultry, and improve health. Last year the NHS served 129m main meals, costing £312m, according to Department of Health figures. "We should not expect to see meat on every menu," said Pencheon. "We'd like higher levels of fresh food, and probably higher levels of fresh fruit and veg, and more investment in a local economy."
Other proposals that will impact directly on patients include urging people to drink less bottled water, more phone-in surgeries by GPs, greater sterilisation and reuse of equipment, and encouraging patients, visitors and staff to leave their car at home.
Many ideas are already being pioneered by one or a few trusts but will be spread more widely, including automatic lights and taps, renewable energy such as biomass and wind turbines, and green travel plans - such as facilities for cycling or new bus routes and bus stations at hospitals. A blueprint for low-carbon buildings is also being considered, and longer term the NHS could develop its own energy grid supplied by renewables on its land.
Staff will also be encouraged to work from home more often, incentives could be introduced for workers to use smaller-engined cars for business mileage, departments could be given their own energy bills with the offer that employees can keep a share of cost savings they make, and hospital pharmacies could hold lower stocks and courier in specialist drugs on demand to cut waste.
The NHS will also use its massive purchasing power - £20bn a year - to persuade suppliers to cut emissions, and pharmaceutical companies will be asked to make drugs with a longer shelf-life to reduce the amount of out-of-date stocks.
Longer term, to make bigger cuts, the NHS will have to make more radical changes, in particular giving more healthcare in or closer to patients' homes, said Pencheon. One idea being examined was for surgeons to travel to GP surgeries for follow-up consultations, to reduce the need for many patients to travel to outpatients departments, said Pencheon.
"If you're going to get me radical I say the default place for health is in the home, and the person who delivers it is yourself: that's the ultimate low-carbon health service," he said.
The report will argue that reducing carbon emissions will cut bills for equipment, medicines, energy, water and waste services, and improve health - in the short-term for example by encouraging people to walk, in the long-term by helping to reduce the impacts of climate change.
"Unless we all take effective action now, millions of people around the world will suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the climate changes," it says.
"As one of the world's largest organisations, the NHS has a national and international imperative to act in order to make a real difference and to set an important example."

A hard rain

Why is the UK government undermining important EU targets on acidic emissions?

Tony Juniper, Sunday 25 January 2009 13.00 GMT

The UK government is up to its old tricks: talking good green talk at home, while at the same time trying to water down EU environmental targets. This time the issue is acidic emissions from so called large combustion plants – basically coal-fired power stations. While we hear a lot these days about carbon emissions, it is important to remember that these is not the only cause for concern when it comes to continued coal burning.
Coal-fired power stations, and the older ones in particular, release significant quantities of sulphur and nitrogen compounds. These combine in clouds with water droplets to create acid rain (or snow – or fog for that matter). Certain types of ecosystem, including different kinds of lakes, bogs and forest, accumulate this acidic pollution in ways that lead to quite major damage. When my campaigning career started in the 1980s, this was the big issue. Dead forests in central Europe, lifeless lakes in Scandinavia and diminished bird populations in Wales were among the symptoms. Major campaigns were mounted on this subject – Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others did a great job in raising awareness that in some ways parallels recent efforts on climate change. Public mobilisations and lobbying to convince politicians about the science were used to create new legal instruments – including on large combustion plants – so as to solve the problem. This started a process that continues now.
In many respects these campaigns worked. New technology was fitted to old power stations to cut the worst of the pollution, and targets were set for the phase out of the older plants. But now the UK seems to object to the timetable. This is surprising, for the direction of travel has been clear for decades, most recently in the Large Combustion Plant Directive of 2001: namely to protect nature from acid rain through the continued phase out of the most polluting power stations.
The concerns now expressed by the UK in relation to meeting a 2015 deadline for the phasing out of the most polluting power sources have less to do with the ambition of EU targets and much more with the failure of the UK government to face the many different challenges posed by our reliance on outdated coal-fired power generation technology. Since the late 1980s we have known about this, but still kept old coal technology at the heart of our power mix.
The fact is that coal is an environmentally disastrous energy source – at least with the technology being used today. This is not only from a climate change point of view, but also more immediately because of what coal does to ecosystems through acid pollution. But the UK seems hell-bent on keeping coal as a major part of the energy mix.
This has more to do with politics than technology. Various interest groups want to keep the coal fires burning. The anti-wind NIMBYS would much rather we destroy nature and undermine future security with coal than build a renewable power economy in part based on the wind. The industrial and labour interests linked with coal are far more powerful than those on the cutting edge of green energy. As ever, ministers want to protect jobs now, and worry less about new ones in the future – in clean and sustainable energy. And then there is our present culture, based on the illusion of endless cheap energy – perhaps the toughest nut of all to crack: far easier to cut bills with environmentally disastrous power sources than to change behaviour (even if it could save money, create jobs and protect peoples' interests in the future). And so it goes on.
But having been in office for nearly 12 years, surely these challenges should have been addressed by now by New Labour: for example through making the case for green jobs, public education on energy efficiency and a national programme to end fuel poverty. Unfortunately, however, because this has not be done, the familiar arguments for business-as-usual based on energy security and price challenges are once more trotted out as reasons why we must delay the inevitable. Once more, the fabric of life, the very foundation of our wellbeing – the natural environment – comes a distant second to political convenience.
On the back of the Heathrow decision, the ongoing debate about the new Kingsnorth coal station and the proposed increase in our motorway capacity, I think it is clear how deep the green agenda runs in our present government: not very.

Climate change envoy calls for state aid to create low-carbon economy

Tim Webb, Sunday 25 January 2009 14.06 GMT

Energy companies should be able to tap the billions of pounds of state funding being used to bail out the banks in order to create a post-recession low-carbon economy, says the government's climate change envoy.
Elliot Morley wants the government to back clean energy projects such as offshore wind farms that cannot get funding because of the credit crunch.
The MP and former environment minister says the financial stimulus packages being drawn up by governments around the world should not just put money into people's pockets. This risked encouraging further unsustainable consumerism and environmental damage, he warned the G20 group of leading nations.
Morley is speaking tomorrow at a summit in London on climate change organised by Global International, the international policymakers' forum of which he is ­president. He told the Guardian that many of the financial packages put forward by governments so far including Britain's were not environmentally sustainable.
"They are focusing on a quick fix. Some are designed to put money into people's pockets. I'm not criticising putting money into people's pockets. It's not a bad thing in a recession. [But the packages] could be part of a sustainable stimulus. You have to have a balanced approach."
He said that the global economic downturn and huge infusion of government money to prop up the financial system represents a "unique opportunity" to create a low-carbon economy.
But he warned that some countries – such as Italy and Poland – were already going back on their environmental pledges, blaming economic pressures. Other countries were drawing up stimulus packages that did not include any funding for clean energy infrastructure or green technologies at all.
"There is a real risk [the issue on the environment] is being pushed aside", he said. "The risk is that unless there is a real strategy to incentivise low-carbon investment within packages from the very beginning there is a danger that a lot of money will go into the economy [and] may be not be invested well."
Morley's warnings come before the G20 summit in London in April when leaders of the world's largest nations will discuss how to respond to the economic crisis.
The British government – like others around the world – is facing competing calls for assistance or bail-outs from different industries, particularly from the car industry and other manufacturers.
President Barack Obama wants to invest $150bn (£109bn) in renewable projects and clean energy technologies such as solar over the next decade, delivering millions of jobs in the process.
The German government's €50bn (£46bn) fiscal stimulus package to be finalised this month includes investment in transport, education and infrastructure projects as well as financial incentives for people who trade in gas-guzzling cars for more environmentally sound vehicles.
In the UK, Gordon Brown has promised a "new deal" to help the country out of the recession, by investing in infrastructure including clean energy projects. But little detail has followed. Of the high-flying rhetoric employed by world leaders, Morley said: "More thought should be translated into action."
The UK has signed up to very ambitious EU renewable energy targets. But the credit crunch has made it much harder for energy companies to find the billions of pounds needed to build offshore wind farms, for example. Most projects have been delayed and some are scrapped or scaled down.
Morley said energy companies should be able to tap government funds and loan guarantees to get clean energy projects off the ground.
"You have to make sure that companies investing in big schemes have access to the capital they need. In the same way that guarantees have been put in place, these need to be utilised for such things as offshore wind projects and infrastructure for low-carbon technology."

Focus on the wallflowers

By John Beddington
Published: January 26 2009 02:00

Buildings are the wallflowers of the climate change problem. While protesters storm airports and leader writers argue about nuclear power or windfarms, the places where we live, work and play are quietly responsible for more than half of all the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. To have any chance of meeting our commitment to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by the middle of the century we will need to bring this unglamorous sector into the limelight.
Much of the answer lies in low-tech, high-efficiency insulation. Although the government has imposed strict regulations on new-build, the biggest challenge will be to cut emissions from our existing, inefficient edifices. Retrofitting the UK's entire building stock will require construction skills on an unprecedented scale.
Last year, the Government Office of Science, which I head, produced a major report* showing that the need to rein in emissions from our buildings will affect businesses at every level.
The biggest changes will come in the construction industry, for which business models will need a radical overhaul. For instance, site developers generally retain an interest only during the period of construction or refurbishment and the subsequent sale, giving them no particular encouragement to ensure high energy efficiency or low carbon emissions once buildings are in use. If some of the long-term returns from improved efficiency accrued to developers, they would have an incentive to change.
The government will also need to provide new incentives, backed up with regulation. The first step should be a significant improvement in subsidies and tax rebates, followed by clear signals that the next three to five years will see new mandatory regulations. The government also needs to look at confused or contradictory rules. For instance, the difference between VAT on refurbishment and on new buildings can make it more cost-effective for developers to demolish and rebuild rather than refit.
Given the scale of the task, it will be essential to ensure building work really does provide the improvements in efficiency we need.
One way would be for the sector to develop new accreditation schemes to establish liability for poor quality work. Another would be to build incentives for innovations such as local-energy generation into building insurance.
Incentives will also need to be realigned in the rental market. Premises rented by small- and medium-sized enterprises are a particular problem because energy management is not a priority for either tenant or landlord. Here, the answer could lie in some form of "green lease" that would share the benefits of lower energy consumption.
The fact that cooling dominates over space heating in the commercial sector also needs urgent attention. Appliances and IT installations that produce less heat will be essential; but, paradoxically, improved insulation can have counter-productive effects in the commercial market by making for greater cooling requirements. Such paradoxes will demand "joined up" solutions and a culture of experimentation.
Finally, energy suppliers will also need to make significant changes to their business models. These might take the form of a changing relationship with customers, driven by new regulation. For instance, energy companies could be mandated to provide services (lighting, warmth, entertainment) rather than units of energy.
Just as important for energy companies, our current system is poorly designed to deliver low-carbon emissions. Decentralised sources of low-carbon energy such as wind, solar, biomass, local heating networks and microgeneration require significant changes to achieve their full potential. All these would be excellent ways to reduce the emissions from our nation's buildings and all run up against the undeniable fact that our electricity is metered out by a very national grid. Electricity networks may also need to be extended and reinforced to support electric vehicles or an expansion of electric (rather than gas) heating.
Above all, we need to refocus attention on the dominant role that buildings play in the UK's greenhouse emissions. Buildings and spaces are at the heart of the problem, and need to be at the heart of the solution.
Professor John Beddington is Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government.
*Powering our Lives: Sustainable Energy Management and the Built Environment:
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Carbon capture at core of plans for fossil fuels

By Rebecca Bream
Published: January 26 2009 02:00

The aim of producing clean electricity in no way lacks public support from politicians and chief executives. After years of inaction, governments around the world are signing up to ambitious targets for raising the amount of energy coming from renewable sources and cutting carbon emissions, with the aim of slowing climate change.
But the question is how many of these targets will actually be met, and whether the current economic slowdown will hamper investment in cleaner forms of electricity generation.
After all, burning coal to produce electricity - which creates more CO 2 than any other method of power generation - is still the cheapest and most reliable option for most countries.
Burning natural gas is somewhat cleaner than coal, but as reserves of gas are more thinly distributed, a worldwide "dash for gas" looks unlikely.
Although the rapid growth of emerging economies such as China and India is now slowing, these regions will still need more generation capacity in the future and are unlikely to abandon coal. If climate change is to be reduced, however, they will have to embrace the idea of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which prevents the emissions from burning fossil fuels entering the atmosphere, and also invest in truly clean forms of power, such as wind, wave and solar.
Nuclear is another form of energy promoted as "clean". But the obvious problem is the hazardous radioactive waste produced as a by-product. Although scientists have credible solutions for how this waste can be safely stored and disposed of, the cost is likely to be enormous. And deciding where to site respositories for nuclear waste is controversial.
Many politicians and energy executives say that, to make a real dent in emissions, countries will have to invest in renewables, nuclear and carbon capture and storage projects, and that they should not be seen as rival causes.
Nevertheless, at a time when funds are harder to come by, it is common to hear the nuclear and fossil fuel industries undermining renewable energy, and for environmental campaigners to oppose "low carbon" energy such as nuclear and carbon capture for fear it would jeopardise wind and wave projects.
The issue of CCS is one of the most contentious in the electricity industry. Enthusiasts argue that, if the technology is proven to work on a commercial scale, it will provide a way of halting climate change while allowing countries to keep burning fossil fuels in the medium-term. But opponents say that pinning hopes on CCS lets energy companies off when it comes to investing in renewable energy.
Mike Farley, director of technology policy liaison at Doosan Babcock, which supplies CCS technology, says more investment in renewables will require more investment in conventional plants as back-up when weather conditions reduce the output of wind and solar projects.
He argues that coal- and gas-fired plants are better-suited to this than nuclear reactors. "Nuclear doesn't flex, it stays at a constant output. When output from renewables goes up and down, nuclear can't compensate in the way that fossil fuels can."
CCS is being pursued in Europe, North America and Australia, but has yet to gain much traction in emerging markets. Last year, the European Union passed directives on CCS, providing a framework for the regulation of the fledgling industry and outlining financial incentives to encourage projects. The aim is for between 10 and 12 CCS demonstration plants across Europe.
The UK government is offering funding for the country's first CCS demonstration project, with Eon, Scottish Power and a joint venture of RWE Npower and Peel Holdings competing for the cash. The government has stipulated that it will only fund a post-combustion CCS project, as it thinks this technology will have the widest international application. But other companies that have been promoting pre-combustion CCS projects, such as Centrica, Powerfuel and ConocoPhillips, may find that they are eligible for EU funding.
Mr Farley at Doosan Babcock says a consensus is forming among UK politicians that CCS will be one of the three main technologies - along with renewables and nuclear - needed to achieve "decarbonised electricity". He says: "What is emerging is the view that more needs to be done, and sooner."
He says that a big leap forward would be for the UK government to give consent only to new fossil fuel power plants that are "carbon capture-ready" - that is, suitable to have CCS technology fitted in the future.
"We need to recognise that CCS is going to be necessary and also be realistic that lots of power plants are going to be built before they can be fitted with CCS. So a good example to set would be to mandate that all new coal or gas plants should be carbon capture-ready."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009

Obama to let states restrict emissions standards

By John M. Broder and Peter Baker
Published: January 26, 2009

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama on Monday will direct federal regulators to move swiftly to grant California and 13 other states the right to set strict automobile emissions and fuel efficiency standards, two administration officials said Sunday evening.
The directive makes good on an Obama campaign pledge and marks a sharp reversal from Bush administration policy. Granting California and the other states the right to regulate tailpipe emissions is one of the most dramatic actions Obama can take to quickly put his stamp on environmental policy.
The presidential orders will require automobile manufacturers to begin producing and selling cars and trucks that get higher mileage than the national standard, and on a faster phase-in schedule. The auto companies had lobbied hard against the regulations and challenged them in court.
Obama will use the announcement of his latest directive to bolster the impression of a sharp break from the Bush era on all fronts. It follows his decisions last week to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, tighten limits on interrogation tactics by CIA officers, order plans to withdraw combat forces from Iraq and reverse Bush's financing restrictions on groups that provide or discuss abortion overseas.
Beyond the California waiver, officials said, Obama will announce that he is moving forward with nationwide regulations requiring the automobile industry to increase fuel efficiency standards, rules that the Bush administration decided at the last minute not to issue. He will also order federal departments and agencies to find new ways to save energy and be more environmentally friendly. And he will highlight the elements in his economic plan intended to create new jobs around renewable energy.

The announcements, likely to be made in the East Room, will kick off a week of efforts to get the economy plan through Congress. The White House hopes the Senate will confirm Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary on Monday, and Obama plans to travel to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to meet with both Senate and House Republican caucuses and lobby for his stimulus package. Obama's aides expect the House to vote on its plan on Wednesday.
In a White House announcement scheduled for Monday morning, Obama will also direct federal agencies to immediately begin work on making all government buildings more energy efficient, with an eye toward saving as much as $2 billion a year and reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for the warming of the planet.
He will also direct the Department of Transportation to immediately begin drafting automobile fuel-economy regulations to comply with a law enacted in December 2007. Former President George W. Bush delayed implementation of the law and left office saying there was not sufficient time to write the rules.
But the centerpiece of Monday's East Room announcement is Obama's directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately begin work on granting the so-called California waiver, which allows the state, a longtime leader in air quality matters, to set its own standards for automobile emissions. The Bush administration denied the waiver in late 2007, saying that allowing California and the 13 other states the right to set their own pollution rules would result in an unenforceable patchwork of environmental law. The automakers had advocated such a position, saying it would require them to produce two sets of vehicles, one to meet the strict California standard and another that could be sold in the remaining states.

Obama Moves to Let States Set Own Rules on Emissions

President Barack Obama plans to call on the Environmental Protection Agency on Monday to consider allowing states including California to regulate automobile greenhouse-gas emissions, said people familiar with the administration's thinking.
The move will signal a major policy break from his predecessor on an issue that has divided key Democratic Party constituencies. Mr. Obama's announcement is almost certain to spark a war between two key Democratic constituencies: environmentalists and state officials who want power to set greenhouse-gas rules, and auto makers and unions who say such rules would exacerbate the industry's woes following the worst year of U.S. vehicle sales in more than a decade.
Mr. Obama also plans to direct the Department of Transportation to complete automobile fuel-economy standards by March so that they can take effect for the model year 2011. Mr. Bush's administration had pledged to take such a step before the end of his term but ultimately punted the issue to Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama's plans were described to The Wall Street Journal by three people familiar with the administration's thinking, including one administration official. Mr. Obama was expected to outline his plans in directives to the agencies to be released at a White House event Monday.

Mr. Obama's memorandum to the EPA wasn't expected to direct the agency to allow California to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions, but rather to undertake the legal process to reconsider a 2007 decision by the EPA's then-administrator, Stephen Johnson, to block California from implementing its state-level curbs on such emissions. A final decision by the EPA isn't expected for several months.
The directive on fuel-economy standards won't change federal policy, which already calls for tougher mileage standards. But it assures that those new standards will be in place for the 2011 model year.
Environmental advocates welcomed the planned moves. "President Obama, with these actions, will have done more for oil independence in one week than George Bush did in eight years," said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow and director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
Mr. Obama's directive to the EPA will set in motion a process that could ultimately require auto makers to produce cleaner-burning vehicles to sell in states that adopt the tougher standards. Seventeen states, including California, have already signaled that they want to adopt tougher standards, Mr. Weiss said.
The planned moves come less than a week after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger formally asked the president to let California enforce a 2002 state law that its officials estimate would require that vehicles achieve mileage equivalent to 35 miles per gallon of gasoline by 2017 -- three years earlier than a 2007 federal law would require.
Mr. Obama expressed support during his campaign for California's bid to regulate automobiles' greenhouse-gas emissions, so called because they trap the sun's heat in the earth's atmosphere, contributing to global warming. But he had not said publicly how quickly his administration intended to act on the state's request.
Under a 2007 Supreme Court decision, Mr. Obama's administration must determine whether greenhouse-gas emissions "endanger" public health or welfare, the legal trigger for regulating them under the federal Clean Air Act.
Technically, both decisions will fall to the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson.
Ms. Jackson supported an effort to adopt an emissions law modeled on California's when she headed New Jersey's environmental agency from 2006 until 2008. At a Senate hearing last week, she promised to immediately revisit the 2007 decision that blocked California from implementing its law.
A decision in favor of the request would clear the way for more than a dozen other states to enforce laws they modeled on California's. But it also would risk antagonizing the United Auto Workers, which has complained that the law unfairly discriminates against companies whose product mix is skewed toward larger and less fuel-efficient pickup trucks, sport-utility vehicles and minivans.
Write to Stephen Power at and Laura Meckler at